‘Swearing Elders’ Left Legacy of Lively Debate Among Mormon Intellectuals


The Salt Lake Tribune


Will Bagley, History Matters

Published: 12/01/2002 Edition: Final Section: Utah Page: B2

The last three surviving “Swearing Elders”—Everett Cooley, William Mulder and Brigham Madsen—met recently to reminisce about the adventures of this remarkable group of Mormons.

What came to be known as the Mormon Seminar was one of many “study groups” formed after World War II to encourage thoughtful Latter-day Saints to explore their unique culture. It began when University of Utah graduate student Herbert Larson suggested philosophy professor Sterling McMurrin should offer a course on Mormon theology.

“Now, Herb, you guys are big boys now, and you don’t need to have a class in Mormon theology,” McMurrin said. “You should have known all there is to know about Mormon theology by the time you graduated from high school.”

Instead McMurrin suggested an open forum to “have a go-around” with experts on Mormon subjects.

Bill Mulder, now a professor emeritus, attended the first meeting in the old library (now the Museum of Natural History), along with Lowell Bennion, T. Edgar Lyon, Obert C. Tanner, McMurrin and an impressive collection of the best minds of 20th-century Mormonism. About half the men worked for the LDS Church’s education system and the rest were professors at the U.

At the first meeting, McMurrin said he could see “the sheep and the goats separating right there at the table.” Subsequent meetings attracted few sheep, and after surveying the billy goats at the second meeting, visiting professor Lowry Nelson said: “Well, this looks like a bunch of swearing elders.”

These “Swearing Elders” seldom swore, and Brigham Madsen recalled that some members were actually high priests, not elders. “The tone of the meetings was earnest and open, not satiric or disrespectful.”

The forum held discussions with writers of books on Mormonism and history, sociology, folklore and literature, including Juanita Brooks, Bernard DeVoto, Whitney Cross, Wallace Stegner and Thomas F. O’ Dea, a Roman Catholic whose book The Mormons was long the standard work on the subject.

Even Apostle Adam Bennion and Book of Mormon defender Hugh Nibley addressed the seminar.

Brigham Madsen was a BYU professor at the time and, with several colleagues, he enjoyed the rough and tumble of free and open discussions. “We came from BYU because there was no academic freedom,” Madsen remembered. “Never has been.”

The seminar attracted a remarkable group of men (students were excluded, and although women addressed the group, no one ever thought to include them as members), including future LDS Church historian Leonard Arrington, artist and Salt Lake Tribune columnist Charles Dibble, and Russ Mortensen, director of the state historical society and later historian of the National Park Service.

Occasional discussions of sensitive topics offended a few Mormon authorities, especially Apostle Joseph Fielding Smith, who disliked the lack of support he found among Mormon intellectuals for his books claiming the earth was only 14,000 years old.

One particularly angry official reportedly told his daughter there was an “anti-Christ in Salt Lake City” who had a “blood cult” dedicated to the destruction of the LDS Church. The target of this whispering campaign was Sterling McMurrin, author of The Philosophical Foundations of Mormon Theology, a work that brought serious and respectful scholarly attention to the subject.

Some church officials longed to excommunicate McMurrin, but his friend, Prophet David O. McKay, enjoyed McMurrin’s curiosity.

After a spectacular debate over the age of the earth between explosives expert Melvin Cook and philosophy professor Jennings Olson in 1954, interest in the seminar waned and the Swearing Elders passed into history. But the legacy of these “academic eggheads” (as Elder Richard Poll remembered them) lives on.

Historian Will Bagley is a disciple of the surviving Swearing Elders.