LDS retrenchment and why Ezra Taft Benson wanted to be George Wallace’s VP pick

(To see Cal Grondahl’s cartoon that goes with this blog, click here.) In Matthew Bowman’s book “The Mormon People: The Making of an American Faith,” the Mormon business/educational strategy of correlation is explained. The business advantages of correlation are offset by an educational culture that stays, by design, into narrow theological positions that are not open to debate. In Bowman’s book, he also spends some time on the LDS retrenchment movement among its hierarchy, a conservative movement to interpret doctrine strictly according to Scriptures and revelation received through modern LDS prophets and apostles.

In what serves as a definition of retrenchment, Bowman recounts a message conservative LDS Apostle Bruce R. McConkie sent to an LDS academic (Eugene England). “God has given us apostles and prophets. … It is my province to teach to the church what the doctrine is. It is your province to repeat what I say or remain silent.”

Retrenchment, with its emphasis on simplistic answers to questions that could be debated thoroughly, fit well with correlation, a concept that by its nature was hampered by multiple alternatives. Retrenchment, which flourished through the last half of the 20th century, was a wish to return to the theological days of Brigham Young, a strong leader who brooked little dissent.

According to Bowman, the father of retrenchment was the late LDS apostle and president Joseph Fielding Smith. Fielding Smith was an opponent of colleagues in the LDS ecclesiatical hierarchy, such as B.H. Roberts, who in an attempt to explain evolution, “posited that generations of human, or human-like, beings had lived and died long before God sent Adam and Eve to earth,” writes Bowman, who adds that “… Fielding Smith, convinced that Roberts was promulgating false doctrine and suspicious that he was secretely promoting evolution, accused Roberts in a public lecture of desiring ‘to square the teachings in the Bible with the teachings of modern science and philosophy …” An offended Roberts, as well as apostle James Talmadge, complained to LDS Church President Heber J. Grant.

Grant wanted no part of the debate and advised the principals to drop the dispute. As Bowman notes, though, Grant’s reluctance to take a side essentially turned the LDS Church into an institution where, “No longer would church authorities debate matters of doctrine in public.” Because the world was slowly moving toward an era of post World War II Cold War conservatism, it’s not surprising that the conservatism that Fielding Smith favored became the ideology most popular among the LDS leadership.

Under Fielding Smith, his son-in-law, apostle Bruce R. McConkie, apostle and future prophet Ezra Taft Benson, current apostle Boyd K. Packer, and other leaders such as BYU President Ernest Wilkinson, Mormon theology was “characterized by an exclusive focus on the canon of Mormon scripture. They sought to grant it as much authority as possible and to take its claims as literally as possible,” writes Bowman. The new retrenchment conservatism of 1960s Mormonism echoed Fielding Smith’s disdain for Roberts’ pre-Adamic ideas. In his iconic book, “Mormon Doctrine,” McConkie describes the theory as “satanic.”

One aspect of retrenchment was a belief in dispensationalism. As Bowman writes, “Dispensationalists believe that because of human wickedness, the world was doomed to decay and degeneration before Christ’s return to save it; for them, the Bible taught of war, famine, conspiracy and disease.”

As early as 1946, Fielding Smith had written “Signs of the Times,” a dispensationalist tome that provided a pessimistic blueprint of the future. The Cold War, anti-communism, the counterculture movement, all served to fuel retrenchment efforts in the LDS hierarchy. W. Cleon Skousen, police chief, BYU professor, dispensationalist and anti-communist, became a best-selling LDS author. (Recently his books, long consigned to basements and Deseret Industry shelves, have regained popularity with the rise of Glenn Beck, a modern-day LDS dispensationalist).

As Bowman points out, the popular LDS musical play, “Saturday’s Warrior,” is a creation of retrenchment and dispensationalism. In the play, former pre-mortal spirits sent to earth are pressured by wicked earthly peers to be “cool.” In one now-dated scene, a Mormon is taunted because his parents’ are expecting an eighth child. Bowman points out that one of the play’s songs, “Zero Population,” is sung by “his villainous teenage friends (who) impropably praise birth control.”

Ezra Taft Benson was a major player in the retrenchment movement for a couple of generations. An impressive leader who was tapped by President Dwight D. Eisenhower to be secretary of agriculture, Benson later exemplified the LDS Church’s opposition to communism, atheism and liberal initiatives to expand government. As Bowman writes, “To some Mormons, communism appeared to violate the principle of free agency, human beings’ right to choose their own destinies that derived from their divine heritage.”

David O. McKay, for example, LDS leader during retrenchment, was a strong opponent of communism. McKay was willing to incorporate that activism into major areas of the church he led, such as the McCarthy-ite investigation of professors at BYU, who were suspected of weak loyalties to the Gospel and patriotism

However, Benson took the LDS hierarchy’s opposition to communism to extreme levels. Had it not been for the wisdom of President McKay, Benson might have caused the LDS Church embarrassment that it would still be dealing with today. For example, Benson became a disciple of the conspiratorial anti-communist group the John Birch Society, an organization which had already been politically excommunicated from the Republican Party. As Bowman relates, Benson was so impressed with John Birch Society founder Robert Welch — a man who accused his former boss Eisenhower of being a communist — that he lobbied McKay to allow Welch to speak at the church’s semi-annual general conference and lobbied to have the LDS leadership endorse the Birchers. Fortunately, McKay resisted those efforts.

As Bowman relates, McKay also nixed Benson’s desire to be the vice presidential nominee of segregationalist third-party candidate George Wallace in 1968. It’s likely that the LDS Church would still be dealing with such an ignoble action today had not the wise McKay told Benson no.

Nevertheless, retrenchment did lead the LDS hierarchy into politically based decisions that extend from the 1970s (opposition to the ERA), the 1980s (opposition to the MX missile system construction in Utah), the 1990s (the excommunication of several LDS dissident academics) and even a few years ago, with its stance against gay marriage in California.

Retrenchment, however, is an ailing, perhaps dying ideology among Mormons. While there are still factions, usually older Mormons, who adhere to the rigidness of a Fielding Smith, Benson, Skousen and McConkie, most Mormons today have moved toward the liberal ideas of Roberts once denounced. In 2010, Deseret Book announced it would no longer print “Mormon Doctrine.” Harsh statements on homosexuality in General Conference by Packer were toned down for revised official publication.

History often repeats itself; it appears Mormonism’s leaders have tired of retrenchment. However, the impact of retrenchment should not be downplayed. It’s worth noting that at the end of the LDS era of theological debate, 1935, only 36 percent of BYU students believed that “creation did not involve evolution.” As Bowman notes, by 1973, “81 percent (of students) felt that way.”

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22 Responses to LDS retrenchment and why Ezra Taft Benson wanted to be George Wallace’s VP pick

  1. Myth Buster says:

    Both men were active Freemasons, It makes sense.

  2. D. Michael Martindale says:

    Quite a few men were mentioned. Which “both men”?

    And what on earth does Freemasonry have to do with any of this?

  3. Pingback: 10 September 2012 | MormonVoices

  4. dkm1469 says:

    ” David O. McKay, for example, LDS leader during retrenchment, was a strong opponent of communism.”

    I really think ‘being an opponent of communism’ was pretty much de rigueur at that time. Fairly big BFO. (blinding flash of the obvious)

    • Doug Gibson says:

      Poor choice of words. I should have added that he was a strong oppnent of communism who was willing to incorporate that activism into major areas of the church he led, such as the McCarthy-ite investigation of professors at BYU who were suspected of weak loyalties to the Gospel and patriotism. I will now add that to the blog. Thanks

      • Myth Buster says:

        Joe McCarthy was the hero, investigating Communist infiltration of the US; Alger Hiss, a Communist Traitor for example, was the United Nations founder. It came to be called the “Red Scare” by 33 degree Mason Sen John Stennis whose namesake aircraft carrier just cut its leave short to head for Iran and Operation Austerity Challenge.
        J Robert Oppenheimer another example who stole Manhattan Project secrets and gave them to Joseph Stalin.
        The Dulles brothers are also examples of Traitors; JFK saw this and died for exposing what he called “Repugnant Secret Societies”; no better example than the Mormon Church, an offshoot of Freemason Ritual.
        Time to Wake Up

        • Steve says:

          That tinfoil hat looks a bit tight. You might want to try taking it off for a while.

        • Mike H. says:

          Sorry, Myth Buster, but J. Robert Oppenheimer transferred no atomic secrets. When the KGB declassified files on this, it reaffirmed that the Julius Rosenberg, Klaus Fuchs, & the Greenglasses were the real atomic spies. Skousen had quite a grudge against Oppenheimer, but it wasn’t Oppenheimer to blame. Check out “Dark Sun”, by Richard Rhodes, a fascinating book about the nuclear arms race from pre WWII to the Cuban Missile Crisis.

          • Howard Ratcliffe says:

            “I have become Death, the destroyer of worlds” J Robert Oppenheimer on witnessing the Trinity detonation; quoted from the Bhagavad Gita as attributed to Shiva the Destroyer whose statue adorns the entrance to CERN where the God Particle was announced on July 4, 2012. The bible refers to Death as the Pale Horse.
            Of course you can believe anything you like I suppose, Oppenheimer and Stalin were quite close you know

  5. Myth Buster says:

    The John Birch Society began life as the Belmont Brotherhood; Mitt lived in Belmont Mass and became Ward Bishop and Stake President there. This man has been groomed for over 40 years to be “The One, Mighty and Strong”. Richard Nixon appointed his father George to his cabinet and remarked “If the Nazi’s had won the War, you could thank George for it”
    Aiding the Nazis was done by Prescott Bush which is why George Bush Sr and Jr support Mitt; George like Joseph Goebbels learned Propaganda or PR as it is called from Edward Bernays.
    There are 313 Exclamation Marks ! used in the Authorized Bible; it is no coincidence Mitt was born in Detroit Area Code 313. Nor is it coincidence Engine #119 joined the Continental Railroad at Promontory; Iran and Iraq are in Area Code 119.
    It may be wise to peek up from the Book of Mormon once in awhile to check out the storm clouds of WWIII looming

    • Neal Cassidy says:

      The Boston Strangler killed several women in the Belmont area of Massachusetts. Did the Freemasons have any thing to do with the killings? And just what was Mitt Romneys secret connection to the killings? By the way how much more evil is a 33rd degree Freemason than a mere 32rd degree Freemason? Is the evil only increased by one for each degree of masonary or does a mason become more evil by a higher percentage for each degree he attains?

  6. Scott says:

    There are 146 words in your posting, and there were 146 freckles on Osama bin Laden’s ass. What are you hiding?!?

  7. AREEE says:

    Very interesting. Thank you. And I love MythBuster’s analysis, but he failed to mention that there are (I think) three initials in Mitt’s full name, which proves that it will be during his administration that WWIII will start.

  8. Rameumptom says:

    Doug, nice post regarding Matthew’s book. As for Mythbuster, he’s clearly quoting the John Birch Society’s garbage.

    Mormons are not involved in any major evil conspiracy. They just have had a period of retrenchment, where some leaders sought to sterilize our history and beliefs against what they felt were dangers in the world.

    Today, I hope we change from retrenchment to innoculation. I would hope we innoculate our LDS youth and adults regarding the issues of evolution, science, politics, etc. The LDS Church essentially has very little core doctrine. All the rest should be open for LDS to research, consider, and prayerfully ponder. Believing or not believing in evolution should have little to do with whether a person believes in scripture or Jesus Christ.

    • Zack Tacorin says:

      I think I understand wanting to move away from retrenchment, but why would you advocate moving toward inoculation? Wouldn’t it be better to make a change to critical thinking and analysis? And by “critical” I’m referring to the definition “exercising or involving careful judgment or judicious evaluation” (Merriam Webster).


  9. Greg says:

    The MX decision was by President Kimball, who was persuaded not by the conservative retrenchers but by the likes of Ed Firmage. The decision did not go down well with the conservatives who support the military industrial complex.

    • Doug says:

      Greg, I agree that Firmage was opposed and persuasive, but there was a brand of conservatism, more popular in the past, that would be opposed to a missile construction site in Utah. That factor was more in tune with the Benson, McConkie wing of conservatism than the peace movement opposition.

  10. Mike H. says:

    This piece also fails to mention the denouncement of the John Birch Society in a First Presidency Letter, signed by David O. McKay & his Councilors. Rumor has it that “American Opinion” was going to feature McKay before this Letter. Also, there were a few members in the 1960′s who feared that Hugh B. Brown was going to lead the Church into Socialism, which also didn’t happen.

    Also, the above mentioned book, “Dark Sun”, mentioned that Curtis LeMay, who was George Wallace’s VP pick, nearly led the US into war in the Cuban Missile Crisis, by advocating bombing Cuba, but was unaware that Tactical nuclear weapons were already in operation in Cuba. JFK was also unaware of the active nuclear weapons there, but was concerned that the Soviets would take West Berlin.

    This is an era that needed revisiting by Historians. A number of far right assumptions have fallen through with more evidence.

  11. Dave Thomas says:

    When the USAF sent me to Utah back in the sixties, I was astounded to find that Ezra Taft Benson was so highly respected. In Minnesota, where I grew up, he was despised. I never knew what his religion was back then, but I did know that the farmers burned him in effigy at an event called Plowville.

  12. Alan says:

    Ah, the John Birch Society! When I was a Weber High senior in 1964, our Current Events textbooks were Bircher publications. I wonder how many of today’s Tea Party Fans are from a similar public propaganda mill?
    Or how many, like me, distrust any extreme rightists today?

    • E B says:

      The Tea Partiers are poorly understood through standard media. They’re misrepresented every bit as much as Mitt Romney (in comparison with personal accounts of him) or other prominent GOP leaders. The Tea Party is not full of extremists, unless you count a wish for a fiscally responsible government an extreme position.

  13. E B says:

    Interesting article. I think part of what you’re getting at is that the distinction between three separate, but related, entities of the gospel, the LDS Church, and Mormon culture. The gospel of Jesus Christ is eternal truth, and it never changes. The Church teaches the gospel, but may change policies and programs over time to best meet that objective. The culture doesn’t always have to do much with either the gospel or the Church. That’s where the retrechment comes in, at least in my thinking. And judgement and exclusivity, as opposed to the gospel-centered Christ-like love we aim for as His disciples.

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