J. Golden Folk Hero

11.14.07 | | 8 comments

J. Golden was talking with one of the Quorum members one time, and the “brother” said to him, “Brother Kimball, I don’t see how you can swear so much, Why I’d rather commit adultery than swear so much.” J. Golden answered, “Wouldn’t we all brother? Wouldn’t we all?”

J. Golden Kimball was riding on a stagecoach somewhere in Missouri. A group of men were riding along with him, and they began to complain about the Mormons. One man said he hated the Mormons with a passion, thus he was going to Texas to get away from them. Another man said he was going to Kentucky to get away from the Mormons. And finally, a third man said he was going to Boston to get away from all the “blank” Mormons. J. Golden Kimball then said, “You can all just go to hell because there won’t be any Mormons there.”

They tell one about his [J. Golden Kimball] being brought on to the carpet because his family was going astray, not doing just what they ought to do. And they told him a church official ought to have a more exemplary family. He sat and listened, and the he said, “Well, I guess according to your idea of an exemplary family, I don’t think that God Almighty made such a hell of a success.”

There was a time when I had my doubts about the existence of J. Golden Kimball. I wanted him to be real. But I was afraid he was only the creation of slightly uncouth (though thoroughly orthodox) family and friends. It turns out that J. Golden Kimball was a real person. He was a Mormon insider. (He was one of Heber C. Kimball’s 65 children, and he was a member of the presidency of the First Quorum of the Seventy). He was an outsider. (He was raised poor, and he worked as a cowboy in remote Rich County, Utah). Most of all, he was recognizably human: his family relationships were strained at times, his children embarrassed him publicly, and he got himself in trouble for cussing and not keeping the word of wisdom after it came to be taught as a commandment.

Eric A. Eliason’s extended introduction to The J. Golden Kimball Stories (an “as-complete-as-possible” compilation recently published by the University of Illinois Press) distinguishes between the man of history and the man of folklore. In other words, I have learned that my fears were justified: the character I wanted to be real is a creation of folk imagination. Eliason compares Uncle Golden to other performer heroes of western American folklore: Jim Bridger and Joe Hill. Eliason contrasts Uncle Golden with the trickster character in many folklore traditions. Most interestingly, Eliason draws a comparison between Uncle Golden and Nasraddin Hodja, a Turkish Muslim imam (circa 13th Century). Apparently Hodja stories—which address questions of faith with considerable wit—are still told throughout Central Asia.

Eliason also argues that the “Uncle Golden” of folklore says something about the people who keep the tradition alive. For the most part, that means Mormons who like to tell a good Uncle Golden story. In this light, it is interesting to note that Uncle Golden is: (1) An Authority (Mormons defer to their leaders. Uncle Golden stories seem safe because they come from up the chain of command); (2) Persecution Sensitive (Mormons have been persecuted. Mormons remain the victims of occasional bigotry. And being keenly aware of these facts—perhaps even oversensitive to them—is a defining Mormon characteristic); (3) Slightly Edgy, but Mostly Safe (some mild cussing and coffee sipping goes a long way in the Uncle Golden story cycle; there is no doubt that Uncle Golden is a defender of the faith through and through); (4) Cautiously Introspective (Uncle Golden is self-deprecating and an enemy to pretension and stuffiness even when it comes to fellow general authorities—but always gently so); and (5) A Human Pressure Valve (the humanity shows through with Uncle Golden—he helps Mormons laugh off tensions they feel from inside and out as they strive to live their religion).

One of the Brethren said to J. Golden Kimball, “When you die there will never be another like you in the church.” Uncle Golden replied, “Yes and I am sure this is a great comfort to you.”

It is sad but true. There never will be another J. Golden Kimball. But not that sad. Uncle Golden lives on. Many of his stories still circulate as good and valuable narrative currency. Even new Uncle Golden stories sometimes come into circulation. Please feel free to post your favorite Uncle Golden story below!

The J. Golden Kimball Stories, edited by Eric A. Eliason, is available now. I dare you to quote from this volume liberally in your next talk, lesson, and/or testimony. I know I will!

8 comments: “J. Golden Folk Hero

  1. Mark IV

    “He was one of Heber J. Grant’s 65 children…”

    I’m pretty sure you meant Heber C. Kimball, right? [Yikes. Yes! I changed it. Thanks, SPB]

    A wonderful review, S.P. Did it include my favorite story, the one about when he was sent to evaluate a piece of farmland and found it lacking in water?

  2. Andrew Hall

    I highly reccommend the one-man show “J. Golden”, written by James Arrington. Arrington has Golden retell his own stories, comment on their truthfullness, and comment on his own reputation. It is a great show.
    There is a DVD version available at:
    http://www.ldsvideo.com/index.asp?PageAction=VIEWPROD&ProdID=559

    This version stars Dalin Christensen, and I know Marvin Payne often does his own version.
    I also remember hearing a tape of James Arrington talking about creating the show and telling more stories.

  3. William Morris

    Thanks for this write-up, Shawn. And especially for mentioning Hodja. My grandparents has a couple of Hodja books, and I used to love to read them every time we would visit them. The comparison to J. Golden Kimball would never have occurred to me.

    I’ll be honest — I don’t recall hearing any J. Golden stories growing up. It may have been that I was a generation pasts the heyday of the stories. Or it may be because my childhood was spent in southern Utah. I remember hearing Jacob Hamblin stories, though.

  4. Jamal

    I believe Hodja is one manifestation of a broader phenomenon. In the Arab world “Juha” (or Guha in Egypt) is the character and his stories in multiple forms remain alive and well. I have a whole stack of little Arabic Goha books I read to my daughter. I wouldn’t have thought of the J. Golden link either, but really when one thinks about it the way you point out I can see it. Most societies seem to have some way of expressing these ideas.

  5. annegbq

    I’m copying it off to take to my VT ladies along with a conference talk.

  6. RDFREL

    I was always a fan of a joke told by J. Reuben Clark Jr.
    “What do you get when you cross J. Golden Kimball and Spencer W. Kimball? Do it Dammit!”

  7. Kagiso Leshona

    The first time I heard the name J. Golden Kimball was 5 years ago as a missionary when I said “damn it” to my comp, and he said I reminded him of “the swearing apostle”. In my part of the world the word Dammit is not a swear word. I read everything I could get my hands on regarding J Golden Kimball including some sermons he gave.

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