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32

The Religious Crisis of Today

Mutual Improvement Association June Conference

Assembly Hall, Temple Square, Salt Lake City, Utah

June 9, 1934


Elsie Talmage Brandley

Elsie Talmage Brandley. Circa 1930. The final editor of the Young Woman’s Journal, Brandley was a popular writer and speaker as a member of the Young Ladies’ Mutual Improvement Association general board, on which she served from 1924 until her untimely death in 1935. (Church History Library, Salt Lake City.)

Elsie Talmage Brandley (1896–1935) had a facility for self-expression cultivated by her heritage. Her mother, May Booth Talmage, raised seven children, served on the Young Ladies’ Mutual Improvement Association (YLMIA) general board for thirty-eight years, edited the Young Woman’s Journal for nineteen months, and was a leader in Utah’s suffrage movement.1 James E. Talmage, her father, was a geologist, university president, prolific author of theological works, and member of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles.2 As a very young child, Brandley sneaked into her father’s study after bedtime and overturned an ink bottle so that it spilled down her nightgown. When her mother saw her, she asked, “Don’t you think you should be spanked?” Elsie replied, “I’d rather be loved.”3

Brandley’s relationship with ink proved enduring. As a student at Brigham Young University, she was student body vice president and associate editor of the White and Blue, a student periodical.4 In 1923, six years after her graduation and marriage to Harold Brandley, she became associate editor of the Young Woman’s Journal.5 The mother of seven daughters, she darned stockings in between writing paragraphs or reading over proofs for the magazine.6 She was general editor in 1929 when the magazine was combined with the Improvement Era, a periodical that aimed to serve both male and female readers. With the end of the Young Woman’s Journal, Brandley immediately became associate editor of the Improvement Era, and she served in that position until her death in 1935.7

Brandley’s service on the YLMIA general board spanned eleven years during the presidencies of Mattie Horne Tingey and Ruth May Fox.8 She joined the board in 1924 and, in addition to working on the magazines, helped to write manuals, plays, songs, programs, and other material.9 She was also a popular public speaker.10 E. E. Ericksen, with whom she collaborated on MIA committees, said that her idea of saving souls was to help all of their abilities—cultural, moral, and spiritual. “The human personality was sacred to her, and its development the great spiritual objective,” he said.11 She also championed young people in asking and finding answers to their own questions. “You are the ones whose responsibility it is to insure the faith and unwavering trust in the gospel which is your heritage,” she wrote.12

Many felt the world to be in moral, political, and economic crisis during the 1930s, in part because of post–World War I disillusionment and the Great Depression. Young people in particular were considered to be in crisis. With the onset of the Great Depression, high school dropout rates increased substantially, youth unemployment rose sharply, and by 1932, two hundred thousand young people had left their desperate home situations to wander the country.13 Leaders of Latter-day Saint youth discussed such religious and moral crises at their general board meetings. For example, a few weeks before this conference, President Ruth May Fox exhorted the board members to pray constantly: “We are living in critical times and everything that can be shaken will be shaken.”14 Speakers at this conference were optimistic about ways the church fortified members to withstand such challenges.15

In the 1930s, the YLMIA and the Young Men’s Mutual Improvement Association (YMMIA) worked closely through joint conferences, meetings, committees, and coordinated programs (including contests and dances).16 Both organizations were in the midst of a shift from a focus on recreation and social service education for young people to an increased emphasis on Jesus Christ and gospel teachings.17 The YLMIA also adopted a new name in 1934, becoming the Young Women’s Mutual Improvement Association (YWMIA) because women was seen as a more dignified descriptor than ladies.18 Brandley delivered the following discourse in the Assembly Hall on Temple Square after the MIA had conducted an “Attitudes of Youth” survey where two groups of young men and young women made presentations before MIA board members about their challenges.19 Four board members—Brandley, Joseph Fielding Smith, Oscar A. Kirkham, and Melvin J. Ballard—responded to issues raised by these young people at the first general session of the June MIA conference.20 The session was extremely popular, and the Improvement Era published the talks.21 The talks by Brandley and Ballard were also reprinted in the Millennial Star.22

This is a gathering of the leaders of youth—Latter-day Saint youth—and in the presence of you who give so generously of yourselves I stand in sincere tribute.23 Yours is the gift of which the poet might have been speaking when he said, “Who gives himself with his gift feeds three—himself, his hungering neighbor, and me.”24

I am glad and thankful to be living today and in my own particular generation—the middle generation of three now working in MIA—for we have an older, more experienced one to lead us with their wisdom and a younger one to fire us with enthusiasm and energy.25 We have both of these to help in guiding us past our own individual problems into the almost frightening ones of a new day. To deny the fact that we are facing a new day is to close our eyes to the world about us; to prove ourselves blind and deaf to sights and sounds so significant that an intelligent mind not only must admit them but must integrate them into the shifting, colorful pattern which is life just ahead. With the passing of every generation emphases shift, certain problems give way to others, answers change with the changing times. In view of the amazing progress and drastic change of the past century it is easy to see something of the reasons why problems have become more acute and less easily soluble by old methods of discipline and pronouncement.

In the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, change has kept pace with that outside the church, and rightly so, for Mormonism is based on a foundation of modern revelation and therefore has greater right to change, under authoritative direction, than have many other existing organizations.26 Changes have come and will continue to come in traditions, observances, methods. The Lord, we are told in the first section of the Doctrine and Covenants, spake to his servants after the manner of their language, that they might come to understanding.27 Is it irreverent or sacrilegious to conclude that with deeper understanding language might become increasingly explicit or profound?

Of some things we are sure; to certain rooted principles we cling. As Latter-day Saints we accept the divinity of Jesus of Nazareth; we believe implicitly in the restored gospel as given through the Prophet Joseph Smith; we regard the General Authorities of the church as being divinely commissioned to speak in the name of God and bear testimony to the Godship of Christ; we accept the standard works of the church as authoritative utterances given for the spiritual guidance of man upon the earth.

A party of geologists, crossing a loose shale deposit on a steep incline, realized that the shale was slipping. Most of the party reached the opposite side of the hill in safety, but one, bringing up the rear, saw that the sliding rock was carrying him in its glacier-like grip toward a declivity which might mean death. Looking ahead, he saw in his path a trunk of an old tree and recognized there a chance of safety. Reaching the stump, grasping it and clinging grimly, he was able to hold on while the entire deposit of loose shale passed. His knowledge of the stability of a tree to remain firmly rooted in spite of shifting surface rock gave him assurance; he could face apparent disaster clinging to that which was thus rooted. To the fundamental roots of church belief we cling; to them we anchor our faith; in them we believe. Differences which may arise between groups and individuals are not based upon these roots. Outside of this, which is basic, opinions may diverge. As leaders, let us examine possible evidences of differences and reasons for them, if they exist, and try to glimpse a possible solution.

Consider again the many new ways of life which are today presenting themselves for understanding and incorporation into a new system—politics, economics, technology, science, education, social welfare, recreation—innumerable others.28 Any occasional misunderstanding between youth and maturity might be one chiefly of orientation—of finding orbits in the new system. Maturity goes hand in hand with youth in meeting most of the changes in fields of invention, of discovery, of scientific advancement, of recreation and vocational training, and of many new applications of accepted religious truth. If they part at a gate through which youth demands the right to pass and at which maturity hesitates, is it not, perhaps, because youth ever was curious and daring and inquiring, while age, having made its own ventures, longs for security?

Parents and leaders provide and administer education, and education teaches youth to explore, to experiment, to try new ways and find new paths. Is it consistent to resent what is found in these educational journeys? Do we strive to discover how far we leaders and parents might be lagging behind youth, instead of trying to measure how far they are getting away from us?

In the religious situation confronting us today the world finds old conditions inadequate. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is having no more and perhaps much less difficulty in making religious adjustment than are others, but it is no longer possible for the church to remain apart from the world. In their reading, their studies, their observations, and their contacts, youth makes discoveries which to them seem new. When such discoveries appear to threaten time-honored religious traditions of their elders, concern inevitably is aroused.

The situation is not new in this age or in this church; people ever have held dear their religious beliefs and practices, major and minor, and have resented innovations which have endangered them. Five centuries ago Columbus was refused help in his attempt to prove the earth round because the Bible had spoken of the four corners of the earth and a sphere could not have four corners.29 Five years ago a woman insisted upon her daughter refusing an anesthetic in childbirth on the grounds that the Bible had said that a woman should bring forth her children in sorrow and suffering.30

We must not, now and in the latter days and especially in the church of Jesus Christ, make the word of God grounds for unnecessary misunderstanding. Quoting from the statement of a late member of the Quorum of Twelve Apostles:

“Let us not try to wrest the scriptures in an attempt to explain away what we cannot explain. The opening chapters of Genesis and scriptures related thereto were never intended as a textbook of geology, archaeology, earth-science, or man-science; Holy Scripture will endure, while the conceptions of men change with new discoveries. We do not show reverence for the scriptures when we misapply them through faulty interpretation.”31

According to my belief, to know the fundamental truths of the gospel is to leave one free to go far and wide, anchored by that knowledge, in search of all else that earth and sea and skies have to teach. Instead of making religious truths a bone of contention and source of differences, should we not, as leaders and individuals, try to make them a means of bringing order and harmony out of apparent confusion?

One of the influences bringing about a new day, an influence vital in its importance, is that of reading, but one of today’s shale deposits is uncritical reading. Study of the printed page must be analytical, or it becomes either meaningless or too powerful—both dangerous conditions. I quote at random a line or two from various sources to remind you of what youth reads day by day—week by week—and ask: Could we have lived on such a diet of reading matter before our own ideas were defined clearly and established firmly, and remained uninfluenced? Must we not admit that forces surrounding youth today are more potent in encouraging them to question than were forces yesterday?

Robert Morse Lovett, in Current History for January 1934, describing the Fair at Chicago,32 says:

Evidences were abundant of the achievements of science—telephone, radio, television, airplane—but where was the evidence of the larger life of mankind, or promise of it? Disappointment was especially acute when people went to the halls of Social Science and Religion. The exhibits in the last two suggested a troubled doubt as to the meaning, reality, and future of progress toward a larger life. … Throughout the fair, comments on every hand were heard to the effect that modern improvements had mechanized life but had failed to enrich values of living.33

Albert Edward Bailey in the Christian Century for January 24, 1934, presents an imaginary dialogue between the architect of a new church and a dreamer who has ideas of what a church should be. The dreamer says:

“See if you cannot find somewhere in the structure places for meditation—I see them as pathways to God. Take, for example, the pathways of service … with statuettes illustrating the parable of the Good Samaritan; wall frescoes showing Lincoln emancipating the slaves; the first use of anesthesia; Howard and prison reform; a Carnegie library; Jane Addams and Hull House. …” The architect replies, “This dream of yours means scrapping many of the old ideas and practices; I doubt you’ll ever get the church as a whole to accept them,” and the dreamer answers, “Well, aren’t we in the midst of a social revolution of first magnitude? Why shouldn’t the church do a little revolutionizing … if it would … bring the kingdom of God a little nearer?”34

Glenn Frank, in “The Will to Doubt,” says:

The will to believe has given us our great saints; the will to doubt has given us our great scientists. The goal of the intelligent man is a character in which the will to believe of the saint and the will to doubt of the scientist meet and mingle. Neither alone makes a whole man. A merely blind faith gives us a soft saint; a merely blind doubt gives us a hard scientist. Humanity owes much to the saint and much to the scientist, but humanity would fare badly if the world were peopled solely by saints with a blind faith or by scientists with a blind doubt. Modern science is modest. It suspends judgment when it does not know. In all other fields—religion, politics, and so on—we must learn to do likewise. We must act in the light of the best we know at any given moment, but we must be willing to hold our beliefs open to revision in the light of new facts. Thus can we combine saint and scientist.35

With thinkers such as these urging youth to question, why should they not? Mature leadership cannot afford to remain apart, aloof, waiting at a gate for youth to return from their explorations. We, the leadership of the MIA, must go with them and learn what they learn and see what they see. A young man of MIA prominence, asking his father a question, received answer: “I never want to hear you speak of such things again in my presence.” This man refused to pass through the gate of inquiry with his son, and his power of leading the boy was lost. Leaders in MIA must not lose their contacts through such an attitude! Youth must ask in order to find answers; youth must analyze and harmonize. Their very eagerness to do so is indicative of their interest; indifferent passiveness would be death, but this intensity is life. Youth must be converted personally; only on the strength of a converted youth can this church realize its high and glorious destiny.36

On the other hand, youth must admit the fact that it accepts much without criticism and doubt: fruit is eaten without knowing botany; stars are loved in ignorance of astronomy; telegrams are sent with no knowledge of the Morse code; love and friendship, home and books and nature become dear and of great value with little attempt to explain technical reasons. Let us not encourage youth to segregate religion as the only phase of life upon which to concentrate doubtful inquiry; let us help them to see that they accept certain conditions with no stronger proof of their doing so than that they provide joy and hope and faith and courage; can they not accept religion, up to a certain point, with the same composure?

Quoting again from The Earth and Man, let us realize that:

It is natural for the young and immature mind to think that what to it is new must of necessity be new to the world. Comparatively inexperienced students are discovering from time to time apparent discrepancies between the faith of their fathers and the development of modern thought, and these they are apt to magnify and exaggerate, when as a matter of fact their great-grandfathers met the same seeming difficulties and yet survived. Believe not those who assert that the gospel of Jesus Christ is in any way opposed to progress or inconsistent with advancement.37

Leaders of youth in the MIA—what can we do? Certain it is we cannot dismiss the individual problems of boys and girls simply because their great-grandfathers had similar problems; we must regard every young person who has a question as we would an investigator and give each the same prayerful consideration. The way of youth may not be our way; their language may seem frank and strange and irreverent to us; but to them we, perhaps, appear strange too. We might regard youth and maturity as travelers, bound for an oriental port. Youth may travel east, into the rising sun; age may go west, toward the evening shadows; but at their common destination they will meet and realize that both were headed straight in their course of travel; but there will always be between them the difference of experience along the way.38 Has not the cumulative power of Mormonism in a century been sufficient to form a cement, joining all truths and desire for truth into a oneness—a unified search in which all members, regardless of age, can set forth together? Is there a place—a legitimate and reverent place—for inquiry in the building of a testimony? We answer—we must answer—yes, and say that the basis of doubt and inquiry has been the genius of the church, the power through which members have fought their way into it.

James E. Talmage, asked how he received his testimony, replied: “Though I seem to have been born with a testimony, yet in my early adolescence I was led to question whether that testimony was really my own or derived from my parents. I set about investigating the claims of the church, seeking a way out if its claims should prove to me unsound. After months of such inquiry … I was convinced of its truth once for all, and this knowledge is so fully an integral part of me that without it I would not be myself.”39

Another conversion is described as follows:

At first he was prejudiced against the doctrines, but as the elder continued to preach … it produced an extraordinary effect upon the mind of Daniel Spencer. For two weeks he closed his establishment and refused to do business with anyone; he shut himself up to study, and there alone with his God he weighed in the balance of his clear head and conscientious heart the message he had found. … One day … he exclaimed, bursting into a flood of tears: “The thing is true, and as an honest man I must embrace it, but it will cost me all I have on earth.” He saw that in the eyes of his friends and townspeople he must fall from the social pinnacle on which he stood to that of a despised people, but he stepped off like a man.40

These, which have been the experiences of many born in the church and out, explain the marvel which is the power of the gospel. With a membership largely constituted of those who have joined the church after searching investigation—who have questioned the beliefs of their fathers—we cannot say, consistently, that youth has no right to question religion as any other human concern and evaluate it in terms of individual worth.

I wish I might be given inspiration to suggest to you leaders potent means of reaching and holding all the young people of the church; I shall leave what I hope might be one helpful thought, and it is this:

Listen to what they have to say; open your hearts and minds to their problems. Never bid them be silent, but inspire them to cry out to you the innermost questions of their souls. Forget your own convictions in listening to them; remember your convictions only when you come to make reply.

One woman has said: “The rapid social reorganization of the time has made flexibility necessary, and only those who are alert and vital, who are curious about life, elastic enough to assimilate new ways of thinking and living, can adjust themselves to altered circumstances and face the future without fear.”41

Youth and age both can and will and do accept the rooted principles of the gospel—the fundamentals. As a church, I repeat, we accept the divinity of Christ, the restoration through Joseph Smith, and the authority of God held by those commissioned today to speak in his name. This is the anchor to which we must—and do—and will hold.42 Securely anchored thus we may look into every new theory, every new belief, every new thought, and accept what is of value to us. As leaders, what can we do, I ask again; and again give answer: Listen to youth and learn from them; talk to youth and teach them! Lose no opportunity to light from your fire of belief the fuse which will ignite in them a spark of testimony—that electric force which will generate in them energy to work for the church; heat to warm them to the gospel; light to illumine their way toward a realization of that highest conception of intelligence as the glory of God. May God grant us the reward of seeing the crisis of religion today turned toward the great and glorious possibilities which are inseparably bound up in these latter days with our great and glorious church—the Church of Jesus Christ!43