(by Dennis B. Horne)
In 1910, Elder Orson F. Whitney met Mary Laura Hickman, sister of Josiah E. Hickman, who lived in Benjamin (Utah County), Utah. This was a fateful meeting that grew into a non-physical, platonic friendship for a decade. Orson and Laura spent many an hour together reading poetry. He fell in love with her but she rebuffed his hopes. As her brother Josiah put it in his diary, “He thinks the world of Laura”—which was an expression that in that day usually meant being in love. But Laura had no interest in courtship and marriage (and she never did marry anyone). If Elder Whitney had married her (ostensibly as a plural wife), he would have been excommunicated, so it is advantageous that she wasn’t interested.
Laura was a member of a prominent latter-day saint family that was well-educated for that generation. And this is the plot and the rub: She herself had gone east to obtain more education than was available to her at home and had returned deeply disturbed in her mind about science and religion. Atheism, skepticism, and doubt had conquered her for a time, but she had survived and returned to the faith of her family and fathers; the Restored Church of Jesus Christ.
Elder Whitney wrote a book-length poem-romance novel about her experiences and his helping her regain her testimony and faith—but without mentioning her by name. We only know Laura to be the “heroine,” in the book, because her brother Josiah Hickman mentioned it. In his diary he wrote, “He [Elder Whitney] is . . . starting a novel based up[on] his experience here . . . Outside of his Elias it is the best and lengthiest poem he has written. . . . The poem is based upon Laura’s life, etc.”
The Preface states: “The heroine [Laura] is a Western girl, born and reared in the region of the Rocky Mountains, beautiful and accomplished, but tinged with atheism, imbibed at the college where she completed her education. The hero is a New Englander, a Harvard graduate, who, from an independent attitude toward creeds and churches, is won to the religion of Jesus Christ, and endeavors to convert the lady of his love. His vocation, like hers, is that of teacher. The New England youth and the fictitious narrator of the story were college chums, and it is through the latter that the former, while on a visit to the West, becomes acquainted with the young woman whom he recognizes as his fate. The mutual relations of the pair, with the pros and cons of the great problem dividing them—the problem of atheism versus religion—form the backbone of the narrative.”
In the book, or novel, in poetic form and verse, Elder Whitney rebukes and refutes the false vagaries and theories of science, such as higher criticism, evolution, and how these cause doubt or worse in unsuspecting students.
A short sample from the book follows:
Her allegiance was to Science.
So she deemed ; but doubt misled her —
Doubt, whose other name is darkness.
Learning's false impersonator;
Theory for fact enthroning.
Miracle as myth rejecting,
Christ, as God, repudiating.
And its own existence doubting;
Unknown god of pseudo-science,
As the true God masquerading.
This she bowed to, this she worshipt,
Deifying human wisdom
At the shrine of demonstration. . . .
"What of Darwin and the dreamers
Whom you reverence profoundly
For their whole and half revealings
In the mystic realms of research?
Accoucheurs of infant knowledge,
Embryotic truths and errors,
Hooks whereon their rash disciples,
Eager to o'erleap conclusion
And surpass bewildered sages.
Hang conjecture and surmising—
Semi-facts—and name them “science”.
Shorter, shallower minds misleading.
"What of Evolution's findings?
Had it ne'er a fancy cherished.
It had ne'er a fact uncovered.
"Every art and every science,
Was it not some dreamer's 'notion
Ere some later dreamer's magic
Woke it into life and action.
Fancy into fact transmuting
In 1918, when Elder Whitney’s book was published by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, with President Joseph F. Smith as copyright holder, the hope and purpose of the volume was to fortify and strengthen the youth of Zion; to keep them from falling victim to the vain philosophies of the world—evolution being one of the false and foolish philosophies that causes doubt and diminishes faith.
Elder Whitney experienced a dream or vision relating to his book and its influence in assisting the youth of the Church:
Last night (July 1 or early this morning July 2) I had a rather remarkable dream. I thought I was climbing a hill or mountain slope, and ahead of me was some superior Being acting as my guide and encouraging my ascent. Over my right shoulder and extending back was a strong cable, which I grasped with both hands. Behind me the cable—which was not of rope or anything rough, but rather of silk or flax, soft to the touch—parted into innumerable ribbons, each one attached to an individual, and by this means I was drawing a great multitude up the mountain. I was quite happy in my task, and seemed to have a giant’s strength; I pulled with ease, and at times ran rejoicing, in my strength. Presently I looked back to see who the people were that I was helping on and up, and all at once it flashed across my mind that they were the Mutual Improvement workers or young men and young women of the Church. I awoke feeling happy that I was helpful, or had been, or would be, in so good a cause. The interpretation suggested to my mind was that the cable symbolized my lately published poem, Love and the Light: An Idyl of the Westland, written purposely to strengthen the faith of the young people and draw them nearer to the truth.
Others of the Brethren agreed with him. In his diary he wrote: “Today, at the quarterly meetings of the Twelve, while addressing the Brethren, I related the dream, but not the interpretation, when President Heber J. Grant said, ‘It means your book.’ Thus confirming my own thought in relation to it.” Would that Elder Whitney’s book could again be read anew by today’s youth attending BYU.