Life of Heber C. Kimball ("Forgotten Classics" edition)
Orson F. Whitney
Blair Dee Hodges
Reviewed by Blair Dee Hodges for the Association for Mormon Letters
Grandin Press has republished Orson F. Whitney's century-old biography
Life of Heber C. Kimball i> as part of its "Forgotten Classics"
series. In the first section of this review I look at the biography
as a product of its time with a few words about Whitney's style and
stories. The second section takes a closer look at the Grandin Press
I. Style and Substance
Biography (at least in the western world) has its origins in the
educational or inspirational stories told of remarkable men. From Moses
to Jesus, Socrates to Alexander the Great, Sir Walter Raleigh to Samuel
Johnson, biographies have been written to entertain, as well as to
promote moral and political agendas.
Historian Hermione Lee suggests two contrasting metaphors for biography:
the autopsy and the portrait. The former, a "forensic examination of the
dead body," can be lauded as scientific, detached, and meticulous or
decried as invasive, gruesome and uncaring. The latter suggests empathy,
warmth, and attention to detail but can be criticized for overlooking
unpleasantries or relying too much on conjecture or artifice. Lee notes
that while these metaphors might blend into each other, both remind us
that biographies shape the ways posterity remembers the subject.
Concern for the memory of posterity was paramount in Orson F. Whitney's
portrait-like biography of his grandfather, Mormon apostle Heber C.
Kimball. "In presenting this work to the public," Whitney prefaced,
"I not only fulfill the desires of my own heart and those of my
kindred... but likewise, I am persuaded, the wish of our departed
ancestor" whose unseen presence "hovered near" him while writing (xv).
Whitney was commissioned to complete Heber's "sacred legacy" at an 1887
Kimball family reunion. His self-disclosed methodology situates the
volume comfortably with other Victorian biographies popular from the
1830s into the 1890s and later:
"This book is written from the standpoint of a Latter-day Saint. It
makes no apology for the honest expression of views, which, however
false or fanatical they may seem to others, are in the opinion of the
author only such as ought to be entertained by every sincere believer
and defender of the faith. It is issued with the humble and earnest hope
that it may go forth as a messenger of Truth... The life of a man like
Heber C. Kimball, with its lessons of faith and humility, of virtue,
courage and devotion, cannot fail, if prayerfully read, to do something
in this direction" (xvii).
Many Victorian biographies were written by a descendant or disciple of
the subject — Whitney was both. It was common for such biographies to
accentuate the positive, downplay or avoid the negative, while
presenting the subject as an exemplar to descendants and other readers.
“Relatives are the biographer’s natural enemies,” notes a recent
historian, especially if they control the source material from which the
biography is crafted. Whitney made liberal use of excerpts from
Kimball's own journals and personal letters between Kimball, his wives
and children. In Whitney's case, he is his own worst enemy if we
anachronistically apply contemporary standards of historiological
methods to his attempt.
Elements of Victorian biographies, including Whitney's, hearken straight
out of the hagiographical "saints' Lives" genre of late antiquity to the
middle ages (from the Greek "agios," holy, and "graphia," writing). Such
accounts contained lessons of exceptional godliness and purity in a
standard pattern outlined by Hermione Lee: early signs of spirituality,
a conversion, examples of sayings, miracles, and acts, culminating in a
farewell address, a holy death or martyrdom. Each of these
characteristics is found in Whitney's account as he details Heber's
early life, conversion to Mormonism, travels with Zion's camp,
missionary activity, call to the apostleship, assistance in directing
the colonization of Utah under Brigham Young, and his deathbed
exhortations to friends and family. Like other Victorian biographies,
Whitney's was written with a loving heart. He had lessons to teach, as
his discussion of the craft of "Home Literature" made clear.
Whitney published "Home Literature" — an article encouraging fellow
Mormons to aspire higher in their writing — in 1888, the same year his
biography of Kimball was published. While it doesn't specifically
mention the biography, the article gives insight into Whitney's overall
literary approach and intentions: "It is impossible to compute in
figures, or express in words," he declared, "the blessings that books
and book-makers have been to humanity." He cited Thomas Carlyle, who
himself had written on the subject of biography, regarding the role of a
writer: "The writer of a book, is not he a preacher, preaching not to
this parish or that, on this day or that, but to all men, in all times
and places?" This helps to account for Whitney's not-infrequent
didactic asides, extolling various Mormon tenets or Kimball virtues.
Whitney was a preacher:
"Are we not too prone to heed the tale-bearer, the secret enemy, who,
striking unawares with 'the shaft that flies in darkness,' perchance
seeks to build up his own, upon the ruins of his brother's
"For know, O reader — if thou art a stranger to this truth — that Satan is
well-satisfied with their condition who 'only believe' in Jesus, if they
are not 'born of the water' according to His righteous example and holy
"In Heber, his character, manner and methods — we say it reverently — there
was much of the Christ; the might of the lion, with the meekness of the
As is still the case with many popular Mormon historical accounts
(especially those employed in Church Sunday school lessons), history is
full of lessons for the present. But Whitney was not lacking in emotions
other than the pietistic. Some anecdotes from Kimball's journals depict
Kimball's wry humor, as when he described an overnight stay in "an
unfinished storehouse" owned by the wealthy father of one Brother
Fordham: "he owned many storehouses and buildings, but never invited
[the moneyless missionaries] into his house to sleep or eat, though he
did invite us to assist him two days in raising a building, as a
compensation for lying on his storehouse floor" (92). Elsewhere,
Whitney's own sarcasm and even anger are on display when reflecting on
the Mormons who were driven from Missouri in 1838. Whitney records that
the The Missouri legislature appropriated the sum of $2,000 "to be
distributed among the people of Daviess and Caldwell Counties, the
Mormons not excepted" and exclaims:
"Oh lavish generosity! Two thousand dollars for a city sacked and
pillaged, fields and farms laid waste, and homes given to the
flames... Oh world-wide philanthropy! Magnanimity unparalleled!" (198).
Whitney includes plenty of anecdotes and observations which may surprise
contemporary members of the Church. In chapter two Whitney discusses
Heber's involvement in Freemasonry. From Heber's journal Whitney copies:
"I have been as true as an angel from the heavens to the covenants I
made in the lodge at Victor... I wish that all men were Masons and would
live up to their profession" (9-10). Heber noted that Hyrum and Joseph
Smith were Masons, "yet they were massacred through the instrumentality
of some of the leading men of that fraternity, and not one soul of them
has ever stepped forth to administer help... although bound under the
strongest obligations to be true and faithful to each other" (9-10).
"Yes, Masons, it is said, were even among the mob that murdered Joseph
and Hyrum in Carthage jail. Joseph, leaping the fatal window, gave the
masonic signal of distress. The answer was the roar of his murderer's
muskets and the deadly balls that pierced his heart" (10). Perhaps
seeking to buoy up fellow Mormons under pressure for their peculiar
practice of polygamy, Whitney invokes the martyrdom of Joseph Smith to
remind them of the price paid for their faith, and the cosmic battle
waged behind it all:
"Without doubt, the revelation of the great principle of plural marriage
was a prime cause of the troubles which now arose, culminating in the
Prophet's martyrdom and the exodus of the Church into the wilderness.
True, the old causes remained, sectarian hatred and political
jealousies, and these were the immediate reasons for such results. But
back of all was the eternal warfare of truth and error, battling each
for the world's supremacy, and the mailed hand of Omnipotence pushing
the chosen people along the thorn-strewn, blood-sprinkled path of a
glorious destiny" (280).
As the practice of polygamy dwindled, reference to its practice and its
connection to Joseph Smith's death dwindled in popular Church accounts.
Polygamy is not explored in depth in Whitney's account, but he describes
Heber as "a husband of many wives and the head of a multitudinous
posterity." Perhaps resulting from his personal connections with family
members he provides a paragraph-long bibliographic blurb of each wife
and a list of their children, including Christeen Golden and her
colorful son Jonathan Golden Kimball (361-368). The Grandin edition is
missing material from the first edition, including information about
some of Heber's children (like Jeremiah, who "was accidentally killed by
falling from a railway train" on the way to the mission field or Hyrum
H. who "fulfilled an honorable mission to the Southern States"). Some
of the information about various wives has also been edited. In the
first edition Frances Swan is described as "one of Heber's wives who
left him, was the mother of one child, a daughter named for
herself," but in the second edition (and thus Grandin's), Frances
Swan "was of striking appearance, tall, slender and with dark
complexion. She never lived in Zion, but visited the entire family here.
She had one daughter, named Frances" (367).
Whitney wasn't entirely archaic in his construction of the historical
narrative. A notable Mormon twist on contextualization is his employment
of certain "Elias" figures, Elias having "the mission of preparation,
the lesser part before the greater" (120). Sidney Rigdon and Alexander
Campbell are noted as some of the American "orators and divines" who
prepared the way for Joseph Smith. Whitney also credits the temperance
movement in England as preparing the soil for Mormon elders who arrived
to preach the Word of Wisdom in halls like the "Cock Pit," ready-made
for their purposes with temperance enthusiasts willing to listen
The biography is filled with other items which contemporary members of
the Church may find surprising, including apostles smoking the peace
pipe (329), ship races on the high seas (96), battles with demonic
spirits (251), relic-like canes made of wood from the coffin of Joseph
Smith, and plenty of miraculous healings and prophecies to boot.
II. Grandin Press Edition: Problems and Possibilities
Two official (that is, family-directed) publications of Whitney's Life
of Heber C. Kimball have been published, the first in 1888 and the
second in 1945. Eborn books published a hardcover reprint of the first
edition in 2007 and Grandin Press released this paperback edition in
2010. Unlike Eborn's edition, Grandin Press's does not contain an added
index, a fairly minimal but useful tool which might have helped justify
the printing of a new edition.
Grandin's typography seems faithful to the second edition. To be
nit-picky, I only noticed five new typos, and the italics were not
always consistent between editions. The Grandin edition lacks the book's
original publication information, chapter synopses, and the book's
subtitle and epigraph — a quote by Ralph Waldo Emerson. Missing also are
the chapter overviews in the first edition's table of contents. Each
chapter is broken into subsections with short titles, which provide nice
resting spots between changes in the subject, but these were not in the
first edition. I imagine they were introduced in the second. Grandin
also omitted the portraits of Heber and Vilate Kimball. At least one
other image is not included: a drawing of "Vauxhall Chapel, 1875."
Thus, William Barton's reminiscence seems odd: "I was fortunate in
securing a photograph of this chapel, but had no idea at the time that
it would ever be used to illustrate a history of the founder of the
British mission" (373).
As far as improved readability, Grandin Press introduced indentations to
offset quoted sources from Whitney's own text. They also added citations
in parenthesis when Whitney quotes a scripture. Footnotes, represented
by asterisks in the original edition, have been turned into numbered
endnotes, although chapter 34's single footnote is missing (209, 448).
I enjoyed reading Life of Heber C. Kimball, but perhaps my biggest
complaint is a personal one. The changes, errors, and differences I've
noted in this review appear silently in Grandin's edition, and it's
likely I didn't notice them all. With the reissuing of a book I
typically expect some contemporary analysis, a new preface, a contextual
essay, an index, or references to updated scholarship. Whitney's
inaccurate depiction of Heber being the instigator of the first Relief
Society gatherings in Nauvoo could stand a corrective footnote, for
instance (283). While reading a paperback copy is preferable (in my
view) to .pdf or website version, other people may prefer those free
avenues, which are even more accessible on improving e-reader
technology. Why not add something new to the book to help justify the
republication or to help guide the reader through outdated or surprising
material? A full-out critical edition may be unnecessary, but perhaps a
few instructive footnotes or contextual essays would be enough. The
crafting of biography is an exploration of identity and community, the
interior and the public. How does Whitney's approach to Kimball help us
better understand Mormon identity and worldview? This is just one
interesting question an essay could pose. I'm happy to see these old
books back in print, I just hoped for a bit more.
1. Although their edition does not specify, Grandin Press evidently
reprinted Life of Heber C. Kimball, 2nd ed. (Salt Lake City: Stevens &
Wallace, 1945). The Grandin edition silently dropped the subtitle, "An
Apostle, the Father and Founder of the British Mission," also part of
the first edition (Salt Lake City: Kimball Family, Juvenile Instructor
Office, 1888). The back cover of the Grandin edition notes two other
Whitney volumes, Saturday Night Thoughts and Classic Works of Orson
F. Whitney. Their online catalog includes Classic Works volumes for
Parley P. Pratt and Orson Pratt, but the third Whitney book they offer
is Elias — An Epic of the Ages. For some reason Elias and Life are both
numbered "2" in the Whitney group. See
2. Hermione Lee, Biography: A Very Short Introduction (New York:
Oxford University Press, 2009), 1-3.
3. Whitney understood his own work as portraiture, although he felt he
could keep the brush in Heber's hand by including generous excerpts from
Heber's own journals: "I have deemed it best to thus project upon the
reader's mental vision, by means of the most superior process, the
portrait of the man and his mission as painted by himself" (xviii).
4. Lee, Ibid., 58.
5. See pp. 131, 162, 204, 240 for examples. Whitney does not track
provenance or provide documentation notation of these sources, nor does
Grandin Press. Such details would be especially useful in a re-issued
version of the biography.
6.Janet Malcom, cited in Jill Lepore, “Historians Who Love Too Much:
Reflections on Microhistory and Biography,” Journal of American History,
vol. 88, no. 1 (June 2001): 136.
7. Lee, Ibid., 24-25. A comparison of earlier hagiographies and
Whitney's biography would make an interesting contextual essay for this
volume, but Grandin republishes the "Forgotten Classics" collection
without additional information, as discussed later in this review.
8. See Orson F. Whitney, "Home Literature," Contributor 9 (June 1888):
9. Orson F. Whitney, Life of Heber C. Kimball, An Apostle, the Father
and Founder of the British Mission 1st ed. (Salt Lake City: Kimball
Family, Juvenile Instructor Office, 1888), 434.
10. Ibid., 435.
11. Ibid., image on 139.