The Published Writings of Young Gordon B. Hinckley

Matthew Porter Wilcox, “The Published Writings of Young Gordon B. Hinckley,” in BYU Religious Education 2010 Student Symposium (Provo, UT: Religious Studies Center, Brigham Young University, 2010), 35–48.

The Published Writings of Young Gordon B. Hinckley

Matthew Porter Wilcox

Sixty years after serving as a missionary in England, Gordon Bitner Hinckley returned to London for the rededication of the Hyde Park Chapel. Where he once stood as a missionary, he now stood as the President of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. He stated, “Everything good that’s happened to me, in all the years that have since passed, I can trace back to my experience here as a missionary.”[1] One of those things that came as a result of faithful missionary service is his distinguished career producing media for Church use. This paper will examine the articles Elder Hinckley published while serving in Great Britain and will show that the rich English literary and historical climate furthered his academic training, that the equally rich LDS missionary heritage there served to solidify his dedication to the gospel, and that the experience he had in writing for the purpose of building the kingdom ultimately directed the path he would pursue following his release.

All the articles cited in this paper were published in the Millennial Star, a periodical which began in 1840, when the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles was sent to England. The purpose of this periodical was, according to Parley P. Pratt, who was the Apostle in charge of the project, to be a “luminary . . . [to] be a means in the hand of God in breaking the slumber and silence of midnight darkness . . . and of kindling a spark of light in the hearts of thousands.”[2] Nearly a century later, the Star was still in publication. The mission library contained, when Elder Hinckley was there, all ninety-six volumes of the Star bound and easily accessible. Access to these volumes allowed him to glean wisdom from “the pens of Parley P. Pratt and his illustrious brother, Orson, of Wilford Woodruff, . . . George Q. Cannon, Daniel H. Wells, Charles W. Penrose, B.H. Roberts, Joseph F. Smith, Orson F. Whitney” and many others.[3] Each one, he writes, has “been powerful in the defense of truth through these pages.”[4] These men had a profound impact on him and his zeal for defending the gospel. Perusing their works helped ignite Elder Hinckley’s enthusiasm for the gospel, especially in print. He ultimately published twenty-five articles by the end of his mission. While it was by no means uncommon for missionaries to publish articles in the Star, Elder Hinckley’s contributions give a sample of his first attempts at building the kingdom of God through the media.

While great missionaries of the past fueled his desire to write, perhaps the greatest influences on Elder Hinckley’s style are the great literary minds that he was exposed to at home and during his studies at college. He expounds upon their import in his December 1934 essay entitled “Good Books,” an essay devoted solely to the importance of good literature and the love of reading: “From the reading of ‘good books,’ there comes a richness of life that can be obtained in no other way. It is not enough to read newspapers. Nor will the reading of cheap fashion and fiction, so colorfully displayed on news-stands, contribute much. But to become acquainted with real nobility as it walks the pages of history and science and literature is to strengthen character and develop life in its finer meanings.”[5]

Elder Hinckley consistently drew upon the wisdom of the ages in his own writing. For example, in “Highlights in Local Leadership” he quotes from Hamlet in order to express how the Lord had shaped a local leader’s life for gospel service: “Shakespeare has remarked, ‘There is a divinity that shapes our ends, rough-hew them how we will.’”[6] In another article he uses the more contemporary “In Flander’s Fields” by John McCrae to inspire the youth to carry on the legacy left them by their faithful forebears:

Take up our quarrel with the foe:

To you from failing hands we throw

The torch, be yours to hold it high.

If ye break faith with us who die,

We shall not sleep, though poppies grow

In Flander’s Field.[7]

It was not just Elder Hinckley’s background in literature and training in writing that enabled him to take something simple and write about it in a way that made it sublime, it was the added experience of being in places which had inspired other great authors. Such was the case with his first published piece, “A Missionary Holiday,” that appeared in the Millennial Star less than a month after his arrival in England. The content is basic: a report on the activities of a group of missionaries on the Fourth of July. But his style portrays a deeper current of thought and a skill with words unmatched in similar articles written by his contemporaries. The activity that day, for most of the missionaries in attendance, was merely a recreational experience, a day of “baseball—friends—memories and fun.”[8] But to Elder Hinckley, it was more because the location of the activity was the same place that inspired Wordsworth to write: “‘The world is too much with us; late and soon, Getting and spending, we lay waste our powers’: Thus mused William Wordsworth as he silently looked across the placid waters of Windermere and Grasmere, a hurrying world rushing by behind his back.” Elder Hinckley’s abilities lay not only in quoting great authors of days past but in masterfully connecting the subtle sentiments of Wordsworth to the activities of his day. Elder Hinckley observed that “several ‘Mormon’ missionaries caught that same inspiration on the shores of the Windermere while awaiting the dawn of a glorious Fourth of July.”[9]

While great literature and writers influenced his style, certain family members influenced the purpose and content of his writing while he was in England. The following oft-told story represents a change in the way he served as a missionary, but also signals a change in his writing while serving in Great Britain:

I was not well when I arrived. Those first few weeks, because of illness and the opposition which we felt, I was discouraged. I wrote a letter home to my good father and said that I felt I was wasting my time and his money. He was my father and my stake president, and he was a wise and inspired man. He wrote a very short letter to me which said, “Dear Gordon, I have your recent letter. I have only one suggestion: forget yourself and go to work.” . . .

With my father’s letter in hand, I went into our bedroom in the house at 15 Wadham Road, where we lived, and got on my knees and made a pledge with the Lord. I covenanted that I would try to forget myself and lose myself in His service.

That July day in 1933 was my day of decision. A new light came into my life and a new joy into my heart. The fog of England seemed to lift, and I saw the sunlight. I had a rich and wonderful mission experience, for which I shall ever be grateful.[10]

His writing was one of many things affected by this experience. Several aspects of his description of that day draw striking parallels to two articles published after his “day of decision” in July of 1933. The first parallel corresponds to Elder Hinckley’s comment that he was “wasting [his] time and his father’s money.” He states in his article “Discover Yourself,” published less than two months after that fateful day, that “there is no tragedy in all the ages like the everyday tragedy of men who fall short of their possibilities.”[11] He goes on to write that each individual’s responsibility is “to so live that he can stand on the summit of his life and look and back upon a trail of accomplishment and not a slough of wasted energies.”[12]

The second parallel refers to the counsel to “forget yourself and go to work.” By all accounts Elder Hinckley did go to work and by mission’s end was able “to look back upon a trail of accomplishment.” The “forget yourself” part may not have been so easy. “My greatest obstacle,” he observed in a 1934 article, “is this vain ego that is constantly trying to get itself out in the show-window.”[13] While Elder Hinckley was undoubtedly neither brash nor a braggart, he felt that his motives in missionary work must be done with an eye single to the glory of God. He continues: “My personal plan is directed toward one effort, and it is a terrific task to make the first surrender. . . . My plan is to . . . [surrender] my will to His, to make my life a God-guided life. I am going to school myself in listening to the Lord. . . . In this way alone can my light, which is the light of my Church, be made to shine as a beckoning beacon, a tangible evidence of the good that can come out of Mormonism.”[14]

His final lines in “Discover Yourself” may be giving voice to his personal choice to forget himself, to forget his own fame and popularity and interests and to go to work for the Lord, giving the glory to him: “Very few at most, and perhaps none of us will ever carve immortal names in the roll call of the great of the earth.”[15] Instead of working for recognition, he learned to work for the satisfaction of a job well done, deflecting any praise to others, and especially acknowledging the hand of the Almighty. Years later, his biographer commented on the difficulty of writing a book on the life of a man who said, after reading a preliminary manuscript: “‘I am sick, sick, sick of reading about Gordon Hinckley. There is just too much about Gordon Hinckley in this manuscript. . . . Adulation is poison,’ he said emphasizing each word. ‘Adulation has ruined many a good man and woman.’”[16] Sixty years after the fact, the lesson taught by his father to forget himself was still etched on his heart.

Finally, there appears to be one final parallel: Elder Hinckley further realized that attaining one’s potential does not happen alone. President Hinckley remembers his father as a “wise and inspired man.” His article contains a possible tribute to the simple yet penetrating counsel from his father, which had such a profound effect on him: “Every one has at one time in his life had contact with some rich, noble character whom he quietly envied. Perhaps . . . it was the peace of white-haired age, mellow in the refinement of a well-spent life.”[17] Elder Hinckley’s conviction to forget himself and go to work extended to his efforts in writing. His articles from this point forward seem to be increasingly aimed at spreading the gospel, defending the faith, and building the Church.

It is arguable, therefore, that Elder Hinckley’s call to the European Mission Office after only eight months in the mission field was due in large part to his ability to write convincingly, especially because Elder Joseph F. Merrill’s specific assignment for Elder Hinckley was as “director of Publicity.”[18] The Church had a bad image in the eyes of many, and Elder Hinckley would play a large part in changing that image for the better. This bad image stemmed from the Church’s practices of emigration and plural marriage. Although the British Saints were a great strength to the Church in the United States, the practice of gathering to Utah left the Church in England spread thin at times. This was not so much a problem during the decades of the 1840s and 1850s where membership peaked at over 30,000, but due to fewer convert baptisms and continuing emigration, membership had dropped to 5,423 by 1874.[19] As a direct result, the majority of the Church in England during Elder Hinckley’s mission was made up of small, struggling branches, and full-time missionaries were often used to supplement the leadership. In the words of Elder Merrill: “In one respect the work in Europe is progressing, but in another respect, I am sorry to say, we are losing. . . . We are trying to build all our branches into stable and permanent units of the Church and to introduce local government in all these missions as rapidly as the saints will assume it.”[20] Because of emigration, the Church in England had never really grown out of what James Moss termed the first of three stages for development: “‘The first stage of growth is essentially one of laying the foundations of the Church.’ Most converts are drawn from the lower socio-economic classes. Leadership is typically provided by missionaries from abroad. The relatively small congregations meet in rented halls, often in undesirable neighborhoods. At worst, the Saints are persecuted; at best, they are either ignored or regarded as belonging to a strong religious sect.”[21] With so many British Saints leaving, and so many American missionaries filling leadership positions, many in England “were largely uninterested in and even prejudiced against what they considered to be an upstart American religion.”[22]

Adding to the “problem” of emigration was the way in which the Church was perceived in terms of plural marriage. Matilda Graham Cory, alias Winifred Graham, was one of the most outspoken and well-known critics of the Church at the time. As a novelist, she wrote several fictional books promulgating the ideas of Mormon kidnappings and secret marriages. In 1922, persecution against the Church reached a crescendo, due in part to a motion picture based on a novel by Graham. Trapped by the Mormons tells how a “Mormon missionary exerts an obvious hypnotic force upon a beautiful, helpless maiden; camera close-ups repeatedly showed the missionary’s eyes in a powerful, transfixing stare.”[23]

Elder Hinckley’s first assignments in the Mission Office involved doing what he could to reverse that image. On April 5, 1934, a month after receiving his call to the mission office, a new type of article appeared in the Millennial Star entitled “Highlights in Local Leadership,” in which Elder Hinckley would highlight local leaders’ lives and accomplishments in professional and ecclesiastical circles, as well as painting the members of the Church in all of his articles as patriotic and loyal to the crown.[24] Over the next several months, he would write seven such articles in an attempt overthrow the notion of the Church as solely an American institution, and to help members and those of other faiths to understand that while the headquarters may reside in Utah, the Church in Great Britain was British.

He further tried to build the image of the Church by showing that while Great Britain had a long and distinguished secular history, there was a British LDS heritage worth being proud of. Moss states that a key aspect of this second phase of Church growth is “local Saints begin to . . . look to local role models.”[25] Elder Hinckley’s article “During the Reign of the King” briefly chronicles the persecutions suffered by the Saints since 1910 in Great Britain, but its focus is on “a group of illustrious men—God fearing men—who have stood at the head of the work of this mission.”[26] He goes on to share a brief biography of each of the mission presidents, many of whom were either born in England or had served there earlier in their lives, and the manner in which they moved the work forward. “A Challenge to the Youth of Britain” goes even further in trying to help the local saints to look to local role models. Elder Hinckley emphasizes the point that the Church in England has a “heritage for which we should be grateful. More than 125,000 Britishers have gone into the waters of baptism. . . . From their ranks have come many stalwarts, many brave men and women who have contributed a large share to make this work glorious in all the earth.”[27] He highlights the lives of three British-born General Authorities: Charles W. Penrose, B. H. Roberts, and Charles A. Callis and challenges the youth of the Church to “work day and night, if need be, to become a Penrose, a Callis, or a Roberts. May we grasp the torch.”[28]

Several other articles are devoted to leaders in the Church born and raised in Great Britain and the way in which they have built the kingdom of God. While Elder Hinckley does devote one article to the pioneers who crossed the plains in the United States, the saints in the story are British converts making their way to Utah.[29] Perhaps his enthusiasm in carrying on the heritage left to him can best be seen in the finishing lines of “During the Reign of the King.” Elder Hinckley records that “In June of this Jubilee year the youth of the Church will gather at Kidderminster. They will bow their heads in gratitude for the heritage of the past, for the achievements of the last quarter of a century. And a great group of young voices will ring out to the skies of the England—Carry On! Carry On! Carry On!”[30]

While Elder Merrill was pleased with Elder Hinckley’s skill in writing, he felt that although the Millennial Star had been a powerful tool in years past in spreading and defending the gospel, its effectiveness had waned. This was due in part to almost constant persecutions in the previous years, as mentioned earlier. Why, then, were not all the articles written by Elder Hinckley, other skilled members, and even Elder Merrill himself, effective in rebutting such false claims?

Persecutions were only part of the problem; the other half of the equation had to do with how slanted claims were spread. A staff writer for the East Ham Echo stated concerning the Latter-day Saints: “Probably no section of the human race is more unfairly criticized, more libeled and slandered. . . . Sensational fiction and crude films have created among the uninformed in England, many queer impressions.”[31] Media other than print, such as radio and film (like Trapped by the Mormons) were spreading falsehoods faster and farther than the LDS missionaries and the Millennial Star could spread the truth.

The beginning of the solution to an effective way of changing the attitudes of the general populace toward the Church in Great Britain and Europe at large seems to have stemmed from Elder Merrill’s frequent visits to a place called Kingsway Hall. There, he attended lectures on interesting places and cultures such as Jerusalem, Siam, and Cambodia; such lectures were accompanied by colored photographs, and were apparently impressive enough to warrant a mention in the few lines he penned each day in his journal.[32] It seems reasonable that if people were curious enough about Jerusalem to pay money during the depression to learn about it, they would be willing to learn about a place like Salt Lake City for free, which in turn might generate interest in, or at least understanding and acceptance for Latter-day Saints. A filmstrip was just the type of resource that was missing, but such a project had to be approved and produced by a committee in Salt Lake. Its members, however, were so occupied in other endeavors at the time that the “committee met, so far as we know but once—in April 1934.”[33] Thus, the wheels of this filmstrip project quickly ground to a halt.

Elders Merrill and Hinckley did not sit idly, however, and wait for things to work themselves out. They found a way to test the potential of filmstrips through the use of a journal called the Monthly Pictorial. Its distinguishing feature was large vivid photographs that complemented the text of each article. Elder Merrill put Elder Hinckley on the job; his article, entitled “Early History of the Latter-day Saints” was published in the February 1935 edition of the London Monthly Pictorial. Its success would not only change the course of missionary work in Europe, it would drastically affect Elder Hinckley’s future and the course the Church as a whole would follow in regards to media in the years to come.

The text of the article relays extremely basic information about the origins of the Church, but with Elder Hinckley’s characteristic eloquence: “Standing on the steep slopes of the Wasatch mountains, a range of the Rockies, one sees in the springtime a veritable garden, a modern American city, with the great Salt Lake set like a pearl in the western horizon.”[34] What is different about this article are the pictures adjacent to Elder Hinckley’s superb writing. While the text only takes up about four pages of print, the number of pages containing pictures is double that, including photos of the tabernacle, the statue of Joseph Smith on Temple Square, the This is the Place monument, the Hill Cumorah monument, and the Salt Lake Temple. The article ran in the February 1935 issue of the London Monthly Pictorial and was so popular that many of the Saints were not able to obtain copies. Subsequently, the Star ran a reprint in April of the same year, and reported that the “the article typifies the better feeling and understanding that the Press is manifesting toward the Church in Britain.”[35]

Impressed by the positive response to the publication, Elder Merrill asked Elder Hinckley to start working on other filmstrips that could be sent to and approved by the committee in Salt Lake. Thus they would not be so bogged down in conceptualizing it themselves. Elder Hinckley continued to publish regular articles in the Star, but his new priority was the production of films and lectures for the purpose of generating interest in the Church. These projects would culminate in an assignment to return home to Salt Lake in Elder Merrill’s place and meet with the First Presidency to discuss the importance of producing such filmstrips quickly. This assignment would ultimately lead to a job for Elder Hinckley at Church Headquarters. From the young missionary whose experience in writing for the Church began with a few simple yet eloquent lines about “A Missionary Holiday” would pass nearly all the media produced in the Church.

The things Elder Hinckley experienced and their reflection in the articles he published while on his mission were pivotal; they reflected shifts in the way he thought and acted through his time in England. Writing as a missionary just three months in the field, Elder Hinckley wrote a passage that would ring true in his own life: “Maybe none of us will achieve outside the narrow pale of our immediate surroundings. But this much is certain: happy will be the man or woman who has tapped some hidden resource and given it voice. To such a character will come the sweet satisfying feeling of strengthening powers, of having done something that has made life a little nobler.”[36] Not only did much good come to President Hinckley in his missionary service because he gave voice to his talent, but life has been made a “little nobler” for the Church as a whole.

Notes



[1] Gordon B. Hinckley, Fireside Rededication of Hyde Park Chapel, London England, August 27, 1995, in “Inspirational Thoughts,” Ensign, August 1997, 3.

[2] Parley P. Pratt, Millennial Star 1, no. 1 (1840): 2.

[3] Gordon B. Hinckley, “In the Rays of Light and Truth,” Millennial Star 97, no. 21: 330.

[4] Hinckley, “In the Rays of Light and Truth,” 330.

[5]Gordon B. Hinckley, “Good Books,” Millennial Star 95, no. 50 (1933): 829.

[6] Gordon B. Hinckley, “Highlights in Local Leadership: Andre K. Anastasiou,” Millennial Star, 96, no. 14 (1934): 218.

[7] Gordon B. Hinckley, “Challenge to the Youth of Britain,” Millennial Star 97, no. 26 (1935): 402.

[8] Gordon B. Hinckley, “A Missionary Holiday,” Millennial Star 95, no. 29 (1933): 494.

[9] Hinckley, “A Missionary Holiday,” 494–5.

[10] Gordon B. Hinckley, “Taking the Gospel to Britain: A Declaration of Vision, Faith, Courage, and Truth,” Ensign, July 1987, 7.

[11] Gordon B. Hinckley, “Discover Yourself,” Millennial Star 95, no. 36 (1933): 606.

[12] Hinckley, “Discover Yourself,” 606.

[13] Gordon B. Hinckley, “My Personal Plan,” Millennial Star 96, no. 38 (1934): 602.

[14] Hinckley, “My Personal Plan,” 602.

[15] Hinckley, “Discover Yourself,” 607.

[16] Sheri L. Dew, Go Forward with Faith: The Biography of Gordon B. Hinckley (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1996), ix.

[17] Hinckley, “Discover Yourself,” 606.

[18] “From the Mission Field,” Millennial Star 97, no. 27 (1935): 430.

[19] Bruce Van Orden, “The Decline in Convert Baptisms and Member Emigration from the British Mission after 1870,” BYU Studies 27, no. 1 (1987): 97–98.

[20] Joseph F. Merrill, Letter to Olonzo B. Merrill, June 20, 1934, L. Tom Perry Special Collections, Harold B. Lee Library, Brigham Young University, Joseph F. Merrill Collection, box 22, folder 1.

[21] Richard O. Cowan, “The Church Comes of Age in Britain,” in Regional Studies in Latter-day Saint History, British Isles, ed. by Donald Q. Cannon (Provo, UT: Brigham Young University Department of Church History and Doctrine, 1990), 193.

[22] Dew, Go Forward with Faith, 63–64.

[23] Gary L. Bunker, Davis Bitton, “Mesmerism and Mormonism,” BYU Studies 15, no. 7 (1974–75): 155–56; see also Richard Alan Nelson, “A History of Latter-day Saint Screen Portrayals in the Anti-Mormon Film Era, 1905–1936” (master’s thesis, Brigham Young University April 1975). Nelson argues that though the LDS community has categorized Trapped by the Mormons as purely anti-Mormon, the filmmakers were likely capitalizing on a topic that was widely discussed to make money, not to spread hatred of the Mormons. Joseph F. Merrill, in a letter addressed to Charles W. Irvings dated April 18, 1935, concerning Kauffman’s history of the Church states: “This book was obviously written from an insufficient knowledge of the facts that it attempts to present. It is too bad. We think it likely that the writers wanted to be as fair as they could. But they certainly wanted to write a book that would sell. And Therefore as Mr. C Harecourt Robertson, a London writer, found out a year ago, in order to sell it was necessary to paint a picture that satisfied more or less the popular conception of the wickedness of the Mormons” (L. Tom Perry Special Collections, Joseph F. Merrill Collection, box 20, folder 1).

[24] This is especially true in “During the Reign of the King.”

[25] Cowan, “The Church Comes of Age,” 194.

[26] Gordon B. Hinckley, “During the Reign of the King,” Millennial Star 97, no. 18 (1935): 276.

[27] Gordon B. Hinckley, “Challenge to the Youth of Britain,” Millennial Star 97, no. 26 (1935): 402.

[28] Hinckley, “Challenge to the Youth of Britain,” 412.

[29] Gordon B. Hinckley, “A Bend in the Route,” Millennial Star 97, no. 27 (1935): 420–21. His other articles were on British Saints as role models were more contemporary, covering the previous quarter of a century.

[30] Hinckley, “During the Reign of the King,” 285.

[31] Richard L. Evans, A Century of “Mormonism” in Great Britain (Salt Lake City: Publishers Press, 1937): 212.

[32] Joseph F. Merrill, Journal, L. Tom Perry Special Collections, Joseph F. Merrill Collection, box 1, folder 2.

[33] Merrill, to Gordon B. Hinckley, October 3, 1935.

[34] Gordon B. Hinckley, “Early History of the Latter-day Saints,” Millennial Star 97, no. 14 (1935): 210.

[35] Hinckley, “Early History of the Latter-day Saints,” 221.

[36] Hinckley, “Discover Yourself,” 607.