In General Conference, if a general authority quotes another work so extensively that it makes up the majority of his discourse, you might assume that the quotation comes from the scriptures or another important LDS work. And if something like that happened in a sacrament meeting talk, in many wards the member who gave the talk would be admonished to stick to the scriptures and teachings of the prophets and apostles.
But in April 1914, Elder Heber J. Grant, a 31-year veteran among the apostles, read about 1/2 of his talk from a book by David Starr Jordan.
He wasn’t the first to cite Jordan. Elder David O. McKay had quoted Jordan the previous year. Nor was he the last. Jordan was cited at least once a decade until the 1980s by at least 7 other general authorities.
David Starr Jordan was the chancellor of Stanford University and had just stepped down after serving as the first president of that University for 22 years. Prior to that he had served for seven years as the president of Indiana University, where he had been the youngest university president in the nation. Trained as an ichthyologist, Jordan wrote several textbooks before moving on to writing in other fields, including advice or self-help books and the promotion of peace.
On January 30th, 1898 he gave a speech for the 45th anniversary of the Young Men’s Christian Association of San Francisco. This address, entitled The Strength of Being Clean, was then printed and became a rather popular advice booklet. I read the 1900 edition last night (its only 45 pages – you can read my goodreads review here) and I think that it doesn’t sound too different from many college graduation speeches given to day, except longer and with stronger opinions.
In 1914, Elder Grant began his reading of excerpts from the book this way:
David Starr Jordan’s writings and confirming value of the Word of Wisdom
by Heber J. Grant
Some of the remarks made today have called to my mind a subject upon which I had no intention of speaking. I hold in my hand a little book written by David Starr Jordan, “The Strength of Being Clean.” The retail price, I believe, is thirty-five cents, but if you purchase the book, one hundred copies at a time you can get it for twenty-five cents. I have given away at least a couple of hundred copies.
I have been much pleased with the book, “The Strength of Being Clean.” I understand that President Joseph F. Smith says it is one of the strongest ever written by a non-member of the Church in vindication of the Word of Wisdom. Mr. Jordan was for years the President of the Leland-Stanford, Jr., University of California. The Latter-day Saints should be grateful to this great educator, one of the greatest in our country, for writing a book which confirms the teachings of Joseph Smith, the Prophet; an “ignoramus” in the estimation of many people.
Mr. Jordan says:
“It is vulgar to like poor music, to read weak books, to feed on sensational newspapers, to trust to patent medicines, to find amusement in trashy novels, to enjoy vulgar theaters, to find pleasure in cheap jokes, to tolerate coarseness and looseness in any of its myriad forms.* * *
It is the hope of civilization that our republic may outgrow the toleration of vulgarity, but that is still a long way in the future.* * *
“A form of vulgarity is profanity. This is the sign of a dull, coarse, unrefined nature. * * *
After reading the entire work, I was surprised at how much of it confirms ideas that are prevalent in Mormonism today and confirm my own views, although sometimes I think he is a bit harsh.
But in this case I’m not completely sure that I agree with his statement. Like a lot of the disagreements I have with the mormon market today, the problem isn’t so much with the general idea (at least not as I interpret him), but with how it is said and described. Describing works of art or works in print as “poor,” “weak,” “sensational,” “trashy,” “cheap,” and “vulgar” is at the least subjective. And when you consider the history of the word “vulgar” it might be seen as a difference in class because “vulgar” historically means “common” or “ordinary.” [This view is especially salient given Jordan's later involvement in the eugenics movement.]
Still, I think the subjectivity here is intended to address quality and offensiveness, not class. The definition of “vulgar” Jordan is using is what might apply to profanity and pornography instead of commonplace or ordinary.
But even with that definition, I’m not sure that I can agree with Jordan. Does he mean works that are themselves of low quality (whatever that means) or offensive? Or does he mean works that simply portray things that are offensive, but that happen in real life? Is the issue works that are by nature bad or evil, or those that merely portray evil? And, is there a place for works that are meant to offend? Or must all works be inoffensive?
In this talk Grant uses Jordan’s booklet, in addition to the statements above, primarily as a statement not about what is vulgar, but about the word of wisdom. And every other quotation from The Strength of Being Clean in General Conference talks (except one by David O. McKay in 1955 which cites the same passage Grant read above) is in reference to its statements about tobacco, alcohol and drug use.
If nothing else, the use of Jordan’s booklet demonstrates the influence it has had on general authorities over many years. Like James Allen’s As a Man Thinketh, Jordan’s work has probably had a significant impact on Mormon thinking in the 20th century.