Elder Statesman


Elder Statesman: A Biography of J. Reuben Clark

Life is never quite what is portrayed in inspirational books about famous people’s experiences. One aspect that is rarely told about President Clark’s life is his near-embrace of atheism in the 1920s. This period of his intellectual development is interesting and informative and ultimately as inspirational as Clark’s conclusion that belief may be irrational but is essential. If nothing else, one admires the future church leader’s rigor and honesty in exploring the fringes of faith. One also admires his biographer for the even-handed, frank treatment of the subject. Clark’s commitment to a successful career similarly came at a sacrifice in other areas of his life. He chose work over family whenever the option presented itself.

Two issues that stand at the forefront of Clark’s headstrong manner are his views on pacifism and race. Both were significant to his overall world view and have much to say about the complexity of the issues and about the fallibility of human judgment.

For most of his life, Clark was a military enthusiast. He served as the assistant Judge Advocate General during World War I and earned the Distinguished Service Medal. But he changed his mind and thereafter became known as fiercely anti-war. When the United States bombed Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Clark accused his nation of barbarism and said that it had forfeited its right ever again to speak with moral authority in the world. That he also distrusted American propaganda and was sympathetic to National Socialism may come as a surprise to some readers.

Similarly, readers may shudder to learn of Clark’s views on race. He was partly responsible for the LDS Hospital’s segregation of the blood of “whites” and “Negroes,” his logic being that since anyone with as little as “one drop” of African blood was ineligible for LDS priesthood ordination, a transfusion from a black donor to a white recipient would render the latter incapable of exercising priesthood authority. Such a racist view—in part a reflection of the time—is tempered by the disclosure that Clark was one of the first among the church leadership to advocate steps toward giving blacks the priesthood.

Other ideological quandaries and soul-searching on Clark’s part could be enumerated, but suffice it to say that anyone who picks up this volume will live Reuben’s life with him. One may not ultimately understand why Clark said or did what he did in every instance, but there is a palpable sense of a life lived—with all the quirks and ironies that real lives are made of. Elder Statesman speaks to larger issues, but the spotlight remains on the man himself; readers are left to draw their own conclusions about whether Clark was a hero or villain in any given circumstance.

April, 2002

SKU: 1-56085-155-4 Categories: , , Tags: , , Author: D. Michael QuinnProduct ID: 1322



J. Reuben Clark was all of these prior to his call to the LDS First Presidency. As a counselor to three church presidents—Heber J. Grant, George Albert Smith, and David O. McKay—he served longer than any other member of this high church council.

Already controversial before he assumed his church duties, his blunt, independent style created even more ripples at LDS headquarters. Still, his impact, intellectually and administratively, was immense. His most important legacy may well be the professionalization of church government; where apostles previously met and decided issues based mostly on their collective years of experience, Clark drew from his secular training to introduce outside research, position papers, and extended discussion, all of which, for better or for worse, added to the administrative bureaucracy.

In this impressive study of the “elder statesman,” as reporters labeled Clark, D. Michael Quinn considers what it meant for a Latter-day Saint to attain such national and international stature, although Quinn never loses sight of Reuben’s very human qualities either. This fresh, intimate approach presents Clark on his own terms and draws readers into Clark’s world in the context of the larger society of his time and place.

D. Michael Quinn (Ph.D., history, Yale University) is an Affiliated Scholar at the University of Southern California’s Center for Feminist Research. He has been a full-time researcher and writer, a professor of history at Brigham Young University, and a visiting professor of history (2002-03) at Yale. His accolades include Best Book awards from the American Historical Association and the Mormon History Association.

His major works include Early Mormonism and the Magic World View, Elder Statesman: A Biography of J. Reuben Clark, the two-volume Mormon Hierarchy series (Origins of Power, Extensions of Power), and Same-Sex Dynamics among Nineteenth-Century Americans: A Mormon Example. He is the editor of The New Mormon History: Revisionist Essays on the Past and a contributor to American National Biography; Encyclopedia of New York State; Fundamentalisms and Society: Reclaiming the Sciences, the Family, and Education; the New Encyclopedia of the American West; Under an Open Sky: Rethinking America’s Western Past; and others.

He has also received honors—fellowships and grants—from the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, the American Council of Learned Societies, the Henry E. Huntington Library, Indiana-Purdue University, and the National Endowment for the Humanities. In addition, he has been a keynote speaker at the Center for the Study of Religion and American Culture, the Chicago Humanities Symposium, Claremont Graduate University, University of Paris (France), Washington State Historical Society, and elsewhere, and a consultant for television documentaries carried by the Arts and Entertainment Channel, the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, the History Channel, and the Public Broadcasting Service (PBS).

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3 reviews for Elder Statesman

  1. Library Bookwatch

    Elder Statesman: A Biography of J. Reuben Clark by D. Michael Quinn is a thorough, solid, detailed, and exhaustively comprehensive portrayal of Mormon church leader J. Reuben Clark. Amazingly informative and candid, Elder Statesman is an outstanding biography that ranges from Clark’s brush with atheism (one which he resolved by deciding that belief may be irrational yet is essential) to his view of African-Americans (he was once responsible for segregating blood donations by color), yet he was also one of the first of the Mormon hierarchy to advocate priesthood for African-Americans among the Latter-day Saints. Elder Statesman is a most revealing and fascinating biographical study and highly recommended reading for those with an interest in Mormon studies.

  2. Jeff Needle, Association for Mormon Letters

    Elder Statesman is a massive and impressive work. Quinn spares no effort in researching and developing his themes. Happily, he was given access to boxes of personal correspondence and unpublished writings, giving him a private insight into Clark that would not be possible through his public persona. And, as mentioned several times, there is an unmistakable admiration for the man that marks the book as a whole. I struggled with this. How can Quinn, whose world-view is nearly diametrically opposed to Clark’s, stand back and appreciate the man himself? I decided that Quinn’s view was not so much pure admiration, but rather celebration–a celebration of the life of a deeply conflicted, seriously flawed man who sidestepped his shortcomings and accomplished great things. Clark somehow found a way to accommodate his provincial, often racist, views with his wider desire for the welfare and happiness of society. Such contentious views are difficult to hold in tandem. Clark somehow found a way.

    I highly recommend this book to every serious scholar of Mormon history. Clark’s life covers a pivotal period in the development of the church, and Quinn’s book offers a panoramic view of the world as it encircled the life of J. Reuben Clark.

  3. Brian Q. Cannon, Utah Historical Quarterly

    In 1983 D. Michael Quinn’s J. Reuben Clark: The Church Years was published by Brigham Young University Press. Now Signature Books has published a more detailed account of Clark’s life, nearly twice as long, by the same author. Like its predecessor, this book emphasizes the final twenty-nine years of Clark’s life when he served as counselor in the First Presidency of the Church of Jesus Christ of latter-day Saints. The new book maintains the same chapter sequence as the earlier volume. The text and notes have been updated, however, to reflect additional research by Quinn and more recent work by other scholars. Moreover, portions of Quinn’s original manuscript that were altered or deleted prior to publication in 1983 have been restored. As Quinn notes in the preface, the recent volume “fully examines” controversial facets of Clark’s experience that the previous volume merely “introduced” (ix).

    The biography emphasizes the secular dimensions of Clark’s church service including his administrative style, interaction with other members of the church hierarchy, and role in shaping church policies ranging from the Welfare Plan to finances. His political views and public stances on issues including Communism, the New Deal, and pacifism are treated thoroughly as are his racial attitudes and artistic tastes. In the process Quinn enables the reader to sense Clark’s moral complexity and internal contradictions. For instance, Clark fervently denounced Communism but rejected Cold War anti-Communist defensive strategies including formation of NATO, development of the hydrogen bomb, and proposals to establish a peacetime draft.

    Despite Clark’s stature as a religious leader, the book focuses relatively little upon his spirituality. Quinn shows that Clark routinely worked on Sundays, held few church callings, and led what Clark once called “more or less my own spiritual life” prior to a spiritual rebirth that apparently occurred in 1923, but the author does little to illuminate the wellsprings of that awakening (17). Quinn notes Clark’s emphasis upon Christology in his sermons but does not evaluate his major work on the topic, Our Lord of the Gospels. As an indicator of the book’s emphasis, the index identifies over three dozen of the book’s references to Clark’s spirituality, but it lists far more references to Clark’s comments on matters such as Communism, war, and racism.

    Quinn’s account sparkles with fascinating anecdotes and quotations culled from sources in the LDS church archives which are regrettably no longer generally available to researchers. These sources include the journals and/or correspondence of church leaders such as Heber J. Grant, George Albert Smith, David O. McKay, Joseph Fielding Smith, Harold B. Lee, Spencer W. Kimball, Marion G. Romney, and Stephen L. Richards.

    Quinn’s creativity, sense of irony, and vivid prose make this book fascinating to read. The book’s copious endnotes invite readers to scrutinize the underpinnings of Quinn’s conclusions. Readers will find instances where evidence from one year is introduced to illuminate events in a different year; for example, in a discussion of Heber J. Grant’s attitudes toward the New Deal in 1934 at the time of his counselor Anthony W. Ivins’s death, Quinn quotes an entry from Grant’s 1940 diary.

    In other places quoted words or phrases appear in misleading contexts. For instance, Francis Gibbons’s faith-promoting biography of David O. McKay is cited to show that McKay wanted “to be recognized, lauded, and lionized”—a distortion of Gibbons’s argument (263).

    Hints of innuendo—some of them more subtle than others—keep the reading lively. For instance, immediately after discussing a sixty-two-page critique of the United Nations penned by Clark in 1945, Quinn indicates that “BYU eventually printed the full text” without any discussion of the nature of the publication or the circumstances surrounding it (312). After quoting a letter from Clark to a non-Mormon to the effect that some Americans had been “blinded” by pro-United Nations rhetoric, Quinn quips, “By extension, he regarded LDS presidents Smith and McKay as ‘blinded’” (313).

    Unlike official histories, this work reveals and emphasizes considerable conflict within the church’s presiding bodies, most notably Clark’s relationship with David O. McKay. Indeed, its illumination of such conflicts is one of the book’s key historical contributions. Yet Quinn also gives credence to consensus-based accounts, noting the “deep respect and affection which they [Clark and McKay] expressed publicly and privately” (162).

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