Hugh B. Brown, a high-ranking member of the Mormon hierarchy for 22 years up to his death in 1975, says in just-published memoirs that many church decisions called “revelations” were actually decisions first “thrashed out” thoroughly by the top authorities.
Those decisions “are no less revelatory, but it is simplistic to think that it comes as a bolt out of the blue,” said the memoirs’ editor, Edwin B. Firmage, a grandson of Brown and a law professor at the University of Utah.
Because the Mormon Church hierarchy presents a unified front after its pronouncements, any prior divisions or debates usually appear only much later in biographies and memoirs.
The Brown memoirs, for example, provide an authoritative glimpse into an aborted attempt to lift the ban on blacks in the priesthood nearly a decade before that change was announced as a revelation in 1978. According to the book, Brown came close in the late 1960s to winning approval for such a change among his colleagues in the church’s First Presidency and the Council of the Twelve.
Retiring Aging Leaders
Brown also had proposed about that time that aging leaders like himself be retired to emeritus status rather than hold lifetime offices. But when that policy was instituted, also in 1978, it was applied only to the church posts below the Council of the Twelve Apostles, a body whose senior members traditionally move up to the post of president and prophet.
Brown, who was 92 when he died, was named to the Council of the Twelve in 1953 by President David O. McKay. He later became a part of the First Presidency--a counselor to McKay--from 1961 to January, 1970, when McKay died at age 96.
The decision-making procedure, Brown explained, generally worked like this:
"(An idea) is submitted to the First Presidency and Twelve, thrashed out, discussed and rediscussed until it seems right. Then, kneeling together in a circle in the temple, they seek divine guidance and the president says, ‘I feel to say this is the will of the Lord.’ That becomes a revelation. It is usually not thought necessary to publish or proclaim it as such, but this is the way it happens.”
Few Aware of It
Most Mormons are unaware of such a complex procedure, said Mormon historian Michael Quinn in an interview. Or, if they are aware of it, they are uncomfortable with the notion in light of the appearance of unanimity and divine inspiration when decisions are announced.
“There can be intense disagreements,” said Quinn, who formerly taught at Brigham Young University and is currently on a fellowship at the Huntington Library in San Marino.
“For people who study organizational behavior, this is nothing new, but for Mormons the idea of coalitions of power is an uncomfortable one,” Quinn said. Quinn wrote a biography of J. Reuben Clark, who along with Brown was a counselor to McKay.
In an afterword to “The Memoirs of Hugh B. Brown,” published by Signature Books in Salt Lake City, Firmage detailed Brown’s effort to admit black members to the priesthood--a level of church service important for dedicated young male Mormons. Brown “never believed this policy had the slightest doctrinal justification,” Firmage said.
As described by Firmage, it was a battle of wills between Brown, a part of the three-man First Presidency, and Harold B. Lee, who “was the dominant senior voice” on the Council of the Twelve and who felt the ban was doctrinally based.
Brown was then the senior adviser to the ailing President McKay. Lee was dominant on the council because of the advanced age of Chairman Joseph Fielding Smith, who at age 93 would succeed McKay as head of the church. (Upon Smith’s death in 1972, Lee became church president but he died the next year and was succeeded by Spencer W. Kimball.)
Brown got a proposal to permit full priesthood for blacks approved by the council, but it was during Lee’s absence. When Lee came back, he opposed the proposal and persuaded other council members to back his own statement reaffirming the ban as doctrine.
Brown “managed to add language to Elder Lee’s statement endorsing full civil rights for all citizens, but (Brown) still resisted signing the statement,” Firmage said.
Brown, in his 80s, was suffering from late stages of Parkinson’s disease and was ill at the time with Asian flu. Under “tremendous pressure” from Lee to sign, Brown finally relented. Firmage said his grandfather told him that story just before he signed the document.
Asked for comment on the account, Don LeFevre, press relations manager for church headquarters, said: “I’m sure there was much discussion over the years among the authorities of the church. But the Lord is not concerned with pressures at all.
“When the change in status of blacks eventually did come it was a result of divine revelation to the prophet, Spencer Kimball, who had over an extended time petitioned the Lord in prayer.”
Brown also said in his memoirs that when a new apostle was named to the Council of the Twelve the typical procedure was for the church president to ask members of the council to submit names for his consideration, but that the decision rested with the president.
LeFevre said that presidents of the church “have always been entitled to solicit suggestions from colleagues and generally do. The main point is that the final decision of whose name to provide to the Lord for divine confirmation is the prophet’s and his alone.”
Brown recounted a sharp disagreement over whether a missionary in training, who Brown believed had repented of an unnamed sin, should be allowed to go overseas. The situation was discussed “very forcibly” at one meeting of the First Presidency and the Twelve, at which McKay was absent. The decision was left up to McKay. Brown said the missionary was allowed to go and did well, but “some of the Twelve failed to forgive him.”
Maintaining that the “genius of Mormonism is cooperative action,” Brown endorsed the notion for the highest level. “I believe that the First Presidency should not make major decisions without submitting them to and being approved by the majority of the Twelve. I have seen this tested a number of times and am convinced that it is the best policy.”
In the 1950s and ‘60s, Brown was known by Mormons mainly as a lifelong Democrat within a predominantly conservative Republican hierarchy. He had sought to soften the church’s restrictions on birth control and divorce, and--in his 1969-70 dictating sessions with Firmage--complained that the church hierarchy appeared to favor Republican political views.
“I think there has been and is now too much of a tendency to cater to the wishes and decisions of one party as against the other. This must be changed,” Brown said.
“The degree of one’s aversion to communism, for example, may not always be measured by the noise he or she makes in going about and calling everyone a communist who disagrees with his or her personal political bias.”
Brown’s memoirs leave no doubt that he cherished his faith. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has a “practical view of religion: that religion should help us here and now.”
As a well-traveled Mormon, he would meet people who would ask chiding questions about how many wives he had (in reference to church-sanctioned polygamy in the 19th Century). But Brown said: “As Mormons, we should do with religion as we do with music, not defend it but simply render it. It needs no defense. The living of religion is, after all, the greatest sermon. . . .”