Saturday Night Thoughts ("Forgotten Classics" edition)
Blair Dee Hodges
Reviewed by Blair Dee Hodges for the Association for Mormon Letters
An estimated 3% of the world's population fell victim to the 1918 flu
pandemic. Mormons didn't escape unscathed, and as a precautionary
measure the Church suspended church services and other public
gatherings, including the Church's April 1919 General Conference. The
Deseret Evening News sought "to fill in some degree a spiritual void"
left by this lapse of meetings by publishing a series of articles by
apostle Orson F. Whitney (vii). After receiving acclaim and
encouragement from George Brimhall (president of BYU), Heber J. Grant
(LDS Church president), Reed Smoot (Utah senator) and "other prominent
people," Whitney decided to publish his weekly essays in book form.
Saturday Night Thoughts is thus an interesting if often-overlooked
overview of Mormon doctrine as promulgated by an apostle and published
"under the sanction of the General Authorities of the Church" in 1921
(viii). Ever dispensationally minded, Whitney uses the essays to
depict a grand sweep across the history of time, from Adam to the
Millennial reign of Jesus Christ, interspersing discussions of prophets,
Christ, war, priesthood, life after death, and other topics. "Saturday,
in Christian lands," he explains, "is a day set apart for housecleaning,
a time for 'putting things to rights,' in preparation for the Sabbath."
These regular Saturdays are symbolic of a "greater Saturday" which
precedes the Sabbath millennial reign of Christ: "The World's Saturday
Night must necessarily precede the World's Sunday Morning" (3). As
various signs of the times came to pass, Whitney hoped to encourage
holiness in preparation: "Housecleaning is in progress, and Saturday's
work must be done and out of the way, before the Lord of the Sabbath
Whitney and Seeking Respectability
Writing in the midst of Enlightenment-tinged critiques of religion,
Whitney was acutely aware of criticisms leveled against the educational
attainments of his fellow Latter-day Saints, “a people who are popularly
supposed to be enemies of education, despisers of learning, haters of
books and schools, and of everything, in fact, that is pure, ennobling
and refined.” He made a point to use his literary talents to overturn
such views, to make Latter-day Saints appear more respectable in the
eyes of skeptics. His efforts to this end are traceable throughout
Saturday Night Thoughts. For instance, his second essay responds to "a
learned gentleman" whose lecture tour passed through Utah, inviting
people to come out of their "'haunted houses' and build for their souls
'more stately mansions,' rounded upon the rock of reason and scientific
truth" (7). Prevalent proneness to discredit the "supernatural" and deny
modern prophets led Whitney to differentiate between false and true
prophets. He encouraged readers to use "a simple and sure test of
prophecy" by examining a prophet's claims and seeing whether they "come
to pass" (10) in order to avoid gullibility.
Whitney was unimpressed by academic approaches to his own religion:
"Strange it is that men and women, intelligent, educated, and profound,
do not see in this great religious phenomenon something more than a
topic to be treated lightly, or in a spirit of harshness and
intolerance. Giants in intellect as to other themes, when they deal with
the doctrines, aims and attitude of the Latter-day Saints, they seem
suddenly changed into dwarfs, mere children" (53). It would be
impossible, Whitney believed, to respond to all accusations and
complaints. Instead, publishing "some of the more temperate judgments"
would stand as a witness that Mormons could be taken more seriously.
Whitney included I. Woodbridge Riley, "a student of psychology and an
applicant for a doctor's degree at Yale University." But rather than
vilifying Riley, Whitney expressed his pleasure with Riley's attempt at
a detached approach to the controversial Mormon prophet. Riley's thesis
paper, highly influential to Fawn Brodie's later treatment in No Man
Knows My History, examined Joseph Smith as the sufferer of epileptic
fits. Whitney appreciated Riley's "distinct departure" from the "charge
of conscious duplicity" on Smith's part common to earlier criticisms,
but he objected that such a "magnificent church organization" and
Smith's "sublime doctrines, replete with poetry and philosophy, couched
in logical and majestic phrasing" could not have sprung "from the
diseased brain of a fourteen-year-old boy who had fallen in an epileptic
The Gospel's Accessories
Other examples of Whitney's accommodation of religion to scientific and
technological advances could be given, but perhaps the most obvious
way he sought to bring respectability to his fellow Mormons was through
the use of non-Mormon sources. "Truth, whether uttered by ancient sage
or by modern seer, is worthy of all acceptance" (213). Whitney includes
multiple extended justifications for his appeal to non-Mormon thinkers.
His arguments are a welcome contrast to the typical discussions of the
"Great Apostasy" and the "Dark Ages" said to precede the restoration of
the gospel in 1830. Article 13 describes various gospel dispensations
noting that the gospel "is not of any one time nor of any once
place" (73). Before quoting the Book of Mormon's claim that "the Lord
doth grant unto all nations, of their own nation and tongue, to teach
his word, yea, in wisdom, all that he seeth fit that they should
have" (Alma 29:8), Whitney places "all that is precious and exalting"
within the sphere of Mormonism:
"There is but one Savior, and but one Plan of Salvation; yet that Savior
has many servants, saviors in a subordinate sense/ and His saving plan
encompasses many truths, apportioned to the several branches of the
human family, in measure large or small, according to their capacity to
receive, and their ability to wisely use the knowledge meted out to
Article 34 explains that while there "is only one way into the kingdom
of heaven" there are "many ways into the human heart," and the Church,
in promulgating truth, "has legitimate use for every avenue to that
heart. Poetry, music, art in general, as well as science and
philosophy--all these can be utilized as auxiliaries in the carrying on
of the Lord's manifold work" (209).
Whitney makes use of such auxiliaries. His first article kicks things
off by invoking Plato, Emerson and Joseph Smith (3). Elsewhere we run
into Alexander Pope (17), Austin Farrar (250), Thomas Carlyle (221),
Charles Dickens (275), William Shakespeare (245), Dante (253) and
multiple other writers. Herbert Spencer and John Fiske are quoted to
support Joseph Smith's view of the eternal duration of matter (66) and
Cunningham Geike, a forgotten Scottish clergyman, is cited to explain
Elijah's importance in the biblical text. "Does it sound as if
'Mormonism' takes no cognizance of what is going on in the outside
world?" Whitney asks (75).
A perhaps related effort to seek respect from other faiths is Whitney's
attempts at respect towards other religious beliefs. Rather than mocking
a God "without body, parts, or passions," a repeated criticism
propounded by earlier LDS writers like Orson and Parley Pratt, Whitney
seeks common ground by comparing that creedal deity to the Mormon
understanding of "the Divine personality" of God, which emanates
throughout all of creation (17-18). He still invites others to
acknowledge the corporeal Father and Son of Mormonism (18) but
recognizes that "honest idolatry is infinitely preferable to dishonest
worship," including that of some Mormons (228).
The "Approaching Mormon Doctrine" statement from LDS Public Affairs
notes that "some doctrines are more important than others and might be
considered core doctrines. For example, the precise location of the
Garden of Eden is far less important than doctrine about Jesus Christ
and His atoning sacrifice." Whitney's book is interesting for a
contemporary Mormon to read in order to get a feel for some of the
shifting emphases in popular Mormon discourse. Current Mormons may not
be familiar with the "believing blood" motif, which accounts for the
type of person who will listen to the gospel message and join the church
as opposed to those who do not feel so inclined (113). While focusing on
all of North and South America as comprising Zion, Whitney is still
quite specific about naming "Jackson County, Missouri" as the specific
place for the city of Zion (140). He also includes multiple references
to Mother in Heaven (18, 63, 206, 243, etc.). Whitney's "threefold
mission of the gospel of Jesus Christ," to "redeem, save, and glorify,"
is an interesting forerunner to today's fourfold mission (63).
Whitney himself accounted for changes in practice and doctrinal emphasis
in Article 29 on "Church Government" (175): "The Church changes in
appearance as it grows," he reasoned, "and despite not changing its
"character or principles" there would be "an evolution, a great and
mighty development" as evidenced by the differences in the Church of
Whitney's day compared to that of Joseph Smith's (176-177).
Of course, there is plenty of material in Whitney's articles which
current Church members will find very familiar (including several
anecdotes reused by LeGrand Richards in his book A Marvelous Work and a
Wonder, see pp. 54, 275 for two examples). Whitney has a way of
approaching familiar LDS topics from a different perspective, however,
which make for a fruitful reading ("Article 33: Meaning and Mode of
Baptism" is one example, 201-208).
Whitney is particularly interested in the Mormon concept of the human
spirit as a counterpart to the physical body. Using the Mormon teaching
that only the body and spirit united eternally can receive a fulness of
glory, Whitney justifies the LDS practice of baptisms in behalf of the
dead. The body and spirit are joined for the duration of one's mortal
life. In baptism, Whitney advances, the body is represented by the water
and the spirit is represented by receiving the gift of the Holy Ghost.
Neither the body alone, nor the spirit alone, can be baptized; they must
be baptized together. "A person can believe and repent in the spirit
world," Whitney explains, "but cannot be baptized there. This makes
necessary baptism by proxy" (203-204).
Another creative conjecture Whitney includes is his familiar description
of "spirit memories." "Why are we drawn toward certain persons, and they
toward us, independently of any known previous acquaintance?" (237).
Meeting familiar faces, hearing familiar streams of music, and
recognizing gospel truths each evince memories from the premortal state,
a view which President Joseph F. Smith "heartily endorsed" years
previous in a letter Whitney includes in his article (238-239).
Whitney's forty articles of Saturday Night Thoughts certainly make for
some interesting Sunday afternoon reading.
Grandin Press edition
As with the two previous volumes in the Orson F. Whitney collection of
the "Forgotten Classics" series, this reprinted edition does not
contain any additional contextual explanations, essays, footnotes,
indexes, or other added material. A few errors from the first edition
are repeated in this edition, but the editor(s) have realigned quoted
material to better offset it from Whitney's own prose (see for example
74, 84, 124). Saturday Night Thoughts is in the public domain and
available in free .pdf form
(http://www.archive.org/details/saturdaynighttho00whit). Versions of out
of print books like this are quite accessible for users of e-readers,
which ought to be an incentive for the series editors to add something
extra to their reprinted editions to help justify the purchase, be it a
new introductory essay by a noted scholar, an index, or something else.
At the same time, as I prefer to read printed books. this edition is an
inexpensive alternative to printing my own copy or straining my eyes on
my pc's screen. I appreciate Grandin Press being able to resurrect the
book at a low cost, making it available in paperback, but would have
also enjoyed additional material to help situate the book within its
time and within contemporary Mormonism.
1. Jeffery K. Taubenberger and David M. Morens, "1918 Influenza: the
Mother of All Pandemics," Centers for Disease Control and Prevention,
2. Does Whitney's book qualify to be viewed as "official doctrine"? The
recent statement from LDS Public Affairs ("Approaching Mormon Doctrine,"
towards no, although it would be interesting to explore the question of
how it was viewed then, having been originally published in "the Church
organ" and "under the sanction of the General Authorities" (vii-viii).
Grandin's edition notes that it "is not an official publication" of the
Church and its views "are the responsibility of the authors, and do not
necessarily represent the position of the Church or of Grandin Press,
3. Orson F. Whitney, “Home Literature,” first delivered as a speech by
Bishop Orson F. Whitney, at the Y.M.M.I.A. Conference, June 3, 1888.
4. Whitney quotes Deuteronomy 18:22, a passage which has alternately
been used to discredit Joseph Smith. Unlike the other two Grandin Press
editions, scripture references are not added into the main body of the
text but remain in the footnotes. Grandin Press has silently converted
chapter footnotes into book endnotes.
5. For example, Article 35 tackles the question of modern miracles.
Whitney exults in "marvelous manifestations of scientific power" which
would have "been deemed visionary and impossible in former ages," but
cautions readers against "rushing to the opposite extreme [of] that
ultrapractical spirit which fain would make all things commonplace, not
only in manifestation, but in origin" (218-19).
6. Whitney alternately refers to him as Geikie and Geike. The latter is
correct (164, 209, 278). Grandin Press's edition silently repeats the
same error. Perhaps this is one of the errors which a new edition could
point out to readers in an introductory essay or new footnote. Whitney
quotes from Geike's popular low church work, Hours With the Bible:
Scriptures in Light of Modern Discovery and Knowledge (New York: John
B. Alden Publisher, 1888). Elsewhere Whitney is critical of biblical
"higher criticism" which is "a disposition...to do away with everything
savoring of the supernatural" in the Bible (219).
7. LDS Public Affairs,"Approaching Mormon Doctrine," 4 May 2007,
8. See my reviews of Whitney's Elias--an Epic of the Ages and Life of
Heber C. Kimball, the other two Whitney books in the "Forgotten
Classics" series. See http://grandinpress.com/forgotten-classics.html.