Tuesday, August 31, 2021

Elder Orson F. Whitney’s Special Witness of Jesus Christ

 [Readers desiring to obtain their own hardback copies of volume one of I Know He Lives: How 13 Special Witnesses Came to Know Jesus Christ can find copies on sale here  Softbound copies can be purchased here, on sale. An ebook (Kindle) edition is available on Amazon here, for cheap. The Amazon page also includes the Introduction and first chapter of volume one for free.]

(by Dennis B. Horne)

“I thought I was in the garden of Gethsemane.

I saw the Savior and his Apostles, Peter, James and John.”

            One of the most talented and able men to become an Apostle in the early decades of the 20th Century was Orson F. Whitney, a remarkable man seldom remembered today.[i] The life-path he walked before becoming a member of the Council of the Twelve may also be one of the most unique of this dispensation: filled with private unorthodox loyalties, ideas, and actions to the point of obstinate heresy, while also simultaneously serving commendably as the most prominent and visible bishop in the Church, and then reforming and developing into a mighty apostle and special witness of Jesus Christ.


Struggling to find his place in life

            As a youth Orson found enjoyment in music, recitation, debate, and especially drama, finding some minor success in Salt Lake theaters as an actor. Yet for a time he struggled to understand his place in life and in his religion. When young Orson (called “Ort” by friends and family) decided to follow acting as a profession and travel east to seek his fortune, he found his way hedged up so that he could not obtain the needed financial resources to go. Though reluctant, his mother tried to help him: “She finally said that, if she could sell a piece of land she had, she would give me enough money to take me away. But this she was unable to do. Everything seemed to be in the way of her disposing of that land. I began to feel discouraged. It was now the fall of 1876, and at the October Conference I was called on a mission to the [Eastern] States. I had no sooner signified my intention of going and fulfilling it, than plunk! came $150 into my hands, from the sale of my mother’s property. This was to me another evidence of God’s overruling providence. I had faith enough, even then, to recognize in it His all but visible hand.”


Receives a dream-vision of the Savior

            Orson left that November and spent most of his time in Pennsylvania and Ohio, enjoying many faith-promoting experiences that strengthened his conviction that God was helping him in his work. Having recognized such, however, his mission had a slow start as he initially found himself distracted from his main duty of preaching the gospel. The consequence of the unenthusiastic beginning to his mission became the experience that qualified him to be a special witness of Jesus Christ for the rest of his life. He explained:


I now wrote my first newspaper letter, descriptive of sights and scenes in and about Washington, and sent it to the Salt Lake Herald, over the nom de plume of “Iago,” my old soubriquet in the Wasatch Literary Association. I previously dispatched a note to Byron Groo, editor of that paper, asking if he would publish my correspondence, so little confidence had I that it was worth printing. I was proud to receive an affirmative reply, thanking me for the proposition, which to me was not only complimentary but encouraging. My first “Iago” letter was written March 14, 1877, and I kept up my Herald correspondence at intervals until I returned home. The letters were popular, and my success surprised no one more than myself. I began to cherish dreams of literary life. In fact I was becoming more interested in this than in my missionary labors. One night, or rather early in the morning I dreamed as follows.

            I thought I was in the garden of Gethsemane. I saw the Savior and his Apostles, Peter, James and John, enter from the direction to my right, and, leaving them there in a group, praying, He passed to the other side and also knelt down. He seemed to be in great mental distress and his face, which was turned towards me, was streaming with tears. He prayed to the Father: “Let this cup pass from me; nevertheless, Thy will, and not mine, be done.” Finishing He arose and crossing to where his Apostles were, shook them—for they had fallen asleep—and rousing them up, reproved them for neglecting to watch and pray. He then returned to his former place and kneeling down prayed again. Unseen of them I watched their movements from behind a tree. My heart was so full of sympathy for Jesus and his sorrow that I wept in unison with him and my whole soul as if melted, went out to him. Pretty soon He arose and beckoning his companions to him, seemed about to take his departure. The whole circumstance of the dream then changed, though the scene remained the same. The only difference was in time; instead of before the crucifixion, it was after, and the Son of God, having made the sacrifice required, was about to go to the Father, taking the three disciples with Him. I could stand it no longer, and rushing out from my concealment fell down at his feet, clasped him about the knees, and begged Him to take me with him also. He gazed upon me with inexpressible tenderness, then stooped and lifted me up into his arms and embraced me with all the affection of a father or an elder brother. I could feel the beating of his heart and the warmth of his bosom against mine. With a voice full of sweetness and compassion and slowly swaying his head in denial, he said: “No, my son; your work is not finished yet. These have done their work and they can go with me, but you must stay and finish yours.” These words uttered in all kindness only made me more anxious to go, though I did not repeat my request, but clinging to him besought him further: “Well, promise me that I will come to you hereafter.” Again he shook his head and sadly and sweetly said: “That will depend entirely on yourself.” I awoke with a sob, and it was morning.

            I was profoundly impressed and related the dream to Brother Musser. He told me it was from the Lord. Of this I had no doubt, for the lesson it taught was full of wisdom and warning, and it was stamped upon my mind eternally. I could not forget it, and hope I shall always profit by its instruction.


            Young Elder Whitney described this sublime “dream-vision” experience in his diary; then again (as quoted above) in an unpublished autobiography, and yet again in his published autobiography near the end of his life. He also related the account in an occasional church meeting and one or two of those found its way into print. Pondering on the message of the dream he wrote: “I saw the moral clearly. I had never thought of being an Apostle, nor of holding any other office in the Church, and it did not occur to me even then. Yet I knew that those sleeping Apostles meant me. I was asleep at my post—as any man is who, having been divinely appointed to do one thing, does another.” Orson had grasped the meaning of the dream-vision as it related to the distractions of his first mission, but not as it related to major events that would influence him powerfully at other times in his life.


Called as a Bishop

            On his return, Whitney was called to the church position in which he would serve for most of the next three decades:


On the fourteenth of July, 1878, the Bishopric of the 18th Ward was reorganized, owing to the resignation of Bishop Young, and I was chosen to succeed him in that office. I was ordained a High Priest and set apart by President Daniel H. Wells. Apostles George Q. Cannon, Brigham Young, Pres. Angus M. Cannon and other Elders were present. It was in President Young’s school house, then used as a meeting house by the 18th Ward. I was thunderstruck when I heard my name called. I had jokingly said to an acquaintance while on my way to meeting, in reply to an invitation to step into his room: ‘I must go to meeting; they are going to put me in Bishop tonight.” But I did not dream that I was predicting a fact. I was so young, having just turned 23, and being unmarried, I had not the remotest idea of the choice falling upon me.


            That same year Bishop Whitney went to work for the Deseret News, the Church-owned newspaper, an employer he would work for on and off for a number of years. In 1879 he courted and married Zina Smoot.


Adventures on Mission to London and Liverpool

            In 1881, while still retaining his standing and position as a ward bishop, Ort was again sent on a mission, this time to Liverpool, England, to become “subeditor” of the European paper for church members, the Latter-day Saints’ Millennial Star. It was on his arrival in Liverpool at the mission headquarters that life changed profoundly for Orson, in relation to his spiritual stability, when he met one Charles W. Stayner. Stayner, the outgoing subeditor of the Millennial Star, privately fancied himself a prophet and he possessed a number of personally written revelations to bolster his claims. Perhaps his main doctrinal deviation from gospel truths was his belief in reincarnation, a (false) doctrine that Stayner quietly and privately promoted among his fellow missionaries in England, until he had gathered a small group of believers from among the elders. Orson himself was hesitant at first but was soon persuaded.

            Elder Whitney spent some months doing regular proselyting missionary work in London, England, before taking on his literary duties. While in London he became deeply infatuated with a young English girl named Bertha or “Dolly” Atkinson. His hopes of securing her as a plural wife were dashed when her mother, who loved Elder Whitney dearly, refused to let them associate together alone. Orson made one or two other attempts at obtaining a plural wife while on his mission, but with no success. Eventually he began his duties as subeditor of the Millennial Star under mission president and apostle Albert Carrington. Stayner had left for Utah, but his influence remained in the mission as a number of the elders became enamored of his reincarnation doctrines.

Other problems in the mission were less evident: Elder Albert Carrington was committing adultery with female office staff members and rumors of compromising situations began to spread. Between the failed attempts at obtaining a plural wife, the gloomy atmosphere of the mission office where President Carrington was being immoral, the spreading of Stayner’s reincarnation doctrines, and word from home of the death of Orson’s new baby—although he had many marvelous and faith-promoting experiences and baptisms—overall his mission experience proved to be a great trial for him.

When a new European mission president, Elder John Henry Smith, arrived to take over for Carrington, things improved somewhat, but the death of his child depressed Elder Whitney enough that he soon decided to return home. Elder Smith brought word that Charles W. Stayner had been brought before a formal disciplinary council in the Salt Lake Stake for promoting and circulating his doctrines and revelations, and had been told to denounce and recall it all or be excommunicated. Stayner agreed, but then went underground and became secretive. Elder Whitney also publicly disavowed believing in Stayner, but privately continued. Whitney’s mission also had the effect of magnifying his talents as an orator and writer, skills at which he eventually became almost the most accomplished in the Church.


Charles W. Stayner, reincarnation, and the prayer group

            On arriving home in Salt Lake, the first thing Bishop Whitney did, along with renewing his responsibilities as a ward bishop, was to renew his friendship with Stayner and his brother Arthur. They created a secret prayer group, presided over by Charles, and made up of mostly former missionaries from London, along with some new recruits. This “theosophy” group met often for nearly twenty years. At these meetings they would discuss reincarnation, pray for revelations, and strategize plans for how Stayner could one day become president of the Church. They used code-names for each other that were based on who they believed they had been in past dispensations. Many of them felt they had once been prominent Old Testament or Book of Mormon prophets and they referred to each other by these names. Evidence suggests Bishop Whitney came to believe he had once been the brother of Jared, a great Book of Mormon prophet. Eventually their secret prayer group, including husbands and wives, grew to some twenty to thirty members. Ort also took (an approved) plural wife before the 1890 Manifesto: Mary (or May) Wells, a daughter of Daniel H. Wells that Orson had socialized with in his youth.

            With the growth in membership in their secret group, rumors began to circulate and word reached the ears of the First Presidency that Bishop Whitney was fraternizing with the Stayner brothers and being indoctrinated by them. Thereafter, members of the First Presidency began occasionally preaching against reincarnation or multiple probationary experiences in stake conferences in an effort to curtail the spread of false doctrines. They hoped Bishop Whitney would take their counsel. Instead, Orson became obsessed with reincarnation and stubbornly refused to repent of his belief in it, becoming almost defiant. His diary contains a few emphatic expressions wherein he chaffed at the public denunciations (although Whitney’s name was not mentioned). For example, on one occasion he wrote: “This evening I heard that Pres. Woodruff, in a meeting at Manti, a few days ago, publicly declared that the doctrine of reincarnation, that is, one spirit having several bodies, to be false; that he was Wilford Woodruff and no one else, etc. All right, Bro. Woodruff, if you really said it, it is something you must account for between you and the Lord. I believe it to be a true doctrine, and have for the last seven years.”

            Whitney’s unyielding attitude on this doctrine, his loyalty to Charles Stayner, and his membership in the secret prayer (or theosophy) group brought consequences. Being such a prominent bishop, author, and speaker had caused Whitney’s fame to spread throughout the Church, but his private activities posed unavoidable hindrances. The fact is that Elder Whitney’s name was under consideration by the First Presidency and the Twelve for possible selection for the apostleship, but their questions about his doctrinal stability were manifest. Elder Heber J. Grant described the deliberations of the Twelve about Bishop Whitney in his diary:


This afternoon attended a meeting of the apostles. . . . After . . . Prayer . . . there was a long chat as to the parties that the brethren would like to fill the three places in the Quorum of the Apostles. President Wilford Woodruff said that he would like all of the brethren to hand him a list of the names that they would like for the vacancies. The matter had been talked of at the last meeting and some of the brethren had handed him a list. I was away and had had no knowledge on the matter and had therefore not handed the list of those that I would like to the President. I said that the first man of all those that I knew that I would like to see a member of the Quorum was Orson F. Whitney if it was thought that he was sound in his doctrine and if there were no fears as to his keeping the Word of Wisdom, but on account of my having doubts in these regards I did not care to name him; at the same time if the word of the Lord came through the President that he was the man I should be very glad to accept him. I handed in the names of Anthon H. Lund, Abraham H. Cannon, and Richard W. Young. These three I could endorse without the least reserve. . . . There were remarks made by a number of the brethren as to their knowledge of some of the ideas of Bro. Whitney. I am sure that he would have been the first choice of every man in the Apostles if there were not doubts as to how he kept the Words of Wisdom and as to the position that he took on a number of different doctrines. John W. Taylor said that he had been to his band of horses to get a team and he picked out the two horses that he liked the best but he found that one of them had something the matter with its gamble joint and he therefore was under the necessity of taking another horse that did not please him so well. He said that in as much as there were men that we could select for Apostles that there was no questions in our minds as to their fitness that he did not think that we should think of taking a person that we were in the least doubt about. He said that his first choice was brother Whitney but he felt that he would prefer to take some one that he did not need to ask any questions about. He had turned his defective horse out for a year and hoped that he would be all right in that time, and in that case he could have the team he wanted. He felt that we had better wait awhile before selecting brother Whitney.[2]


            Thus, three other apostles were chosen in 1889 and in other succeeding years as Whitney’s doctrinal defiance disallowed his selection.


Friendship with Elder Lorenzo Snow

Bishop Whitney had been cultivating a warm and close friendship with Elder Lorenzo Snow for some years, having met him while at the Utah State Penitentiary where Elder Snow was serving a sentence for plural marriage-related offenses. They began having private doctrinal conversations, with Elder Snow manifesting a willingness to discuss many ideas with his young protégé that were not settled church doctrine but were possibilities or interesting but speculative. Elder Snow hired Whitney to write a sequel or addendum about his life to his sister Eliza R. Snow’s book about him, Biography and Family Record of Lorenzo Snow, which Orson did. They titled it Later Leaves in the Life of Lorenzo Snow and Orson found that working on it gave him opportunity to privately visit further with President Snow.[3]

Orson summarized one of their conversations, which suggested that Orson was under siege with some of the leading Brethren for his private doctrinal beliefs:


At Brigham City on my last visit, Apostle Snow told me that Pres. Woodruff thought as much of me today as he ever did, and that all prejudice occasioned by Bro. [Francis M.] Lyman’s talk had passed away. I asked him if I had done anything to cause him to lose confidence in me. “No, indeed, my dear brother,” said Lorenzo. “I regard it as a great blessing that the Lord has thrown us together. I have defended you to the Brethren repeatedly when these things have come up, and told them that I knew your views and your spirit, and that no man could lay his finger on a line of false doctrine that you had ever written or spoken, and that there was no cause to condemn you whatever. But you must be wise and not express your opinion, even in private, etc. I asked him if he remembered the blessing he gave me a year ago. “Yes,” said he, “I remember it, and I may yet have it in my power to help fulfill my prediction.”


            President Snow’s blessing given the year before had hinted at an eventual call to the Apostleship for Whitney, as did this hint that if he became Church President himself he may yet have the power to fulfill his own prediction. Orson had always been very careful to remain doctrinally sound and orthodox in his public speaking and writing, keeping his reincarnation ideas to himself and the prayer group. This course often saved him from much worse consequences stemming from his private notions. Exactly how much President Snow knew of how enmeshed Orson had become with reincarnation and the Stayners is hard to gauge. It is highly unlikely that President Snow yet knew that he himself had become part of the prayer group’s plans to have Stayner called to the Apostleship.

            Meanwhile, the secret prayer group, which practiced a “Mormonized” form of “Theosophy” (meaning they attempted to learn the mysteries of the gospel and the universe by getting revelations through drastically extended fasting and prayer) continued unabated. Orson went so far as to begin giving half of his hard-earned income to Charles Stayner, even selling his home and giving half of the profits to Stayner, whom he referred to as “Elias” or “E” in his diary. Ort had left the Deseret News and worked in other capacities, such as writing books, as a professor at Utah State University in Logan, and then as an Assistant Church Historian.


False doctrine discarded

            The years passed; Orson fought with rumors about his involvement in the theosophy group, and the group’s plans ripened. They waited for a chance for Orson, who was designated as Stayner’s “forerunner” to be able to open the way for Stayner to be called as an apostle, from which position he hoped to eventually become the President of the Church. In April of 1898 Bishop Whitney made his first move:


            From 5:45 pm to 6:45 pm this evening I had a very interesting interview with President Joseph F. Smith, in much of which Apostle Heber J. Grant and A. O. Woodruff took part. I was asked about my connection with Bro. C[harles]. W. Stayner and if I sympathized with his views; those formerly held by him at Liverpool, and which he was strongly suspected of having revived.

            This gave me an opportunity of refuting the falsehoods put in circulation by W. J. Beatie and others (who told the Sears family, my relatives) that Bro. Stayner, myself and others were founding a new Church, had an oath-bound organization, a regalia, etc. I told the brethren that these were outrageous falsehoods, that Bro. Stayner was one of the most loyal men I knew, that we were Latter-day Saints firm in the faith, and that the Church of God was the only Church we wanted anything to do with.

            I did admit, however, to having had faith in Reincarnation, or Rehabitment of Spirits, though I had never sought to spread it, but had said, in private, that I could believe it if the Church Authorities sanctioned it (Connie Thatcher incident) because there were evidences enough in the Church books to justify such a belief. “It is thought,” remarked Bro. Grant, “that you and the brethren associated with you, claim to have received advanced truth and we are behind the times.”

            “I never heard such a remark,” I replied. “If I or anyone else taught any doctrine, true or false without authority, it would be premature, we would be ahead of the times, not you behind them.”

            President Smith finally said, “Well, if there is anything in our books that justifies a belief in Reincarnation I would like to know it; for to me it seems opposed to the fundamental principles of Mormonism.” I answered that I would take great pleasure in citing him to those passages in the books that contain the doctrine, and he invited me to do so. This was a great point gained, as [line missing] to listen to a statement of that kind.

            The brethren were all very kind, manifesting the deepest interest in my welfare, anxious that I should not “get off” etc.

            President Smith told me that Heber Grant thought as much of me as one man could of another, and assured me of his own warm personal friendship and brotherly love. He said it was President George Q. Cannon and Apostle F. M. Lyman, who most frequently brought this matter up about myself and Bro. Stayner, which did not surprise me. . . .

            President Smith said that personally he hadn’t the shadow of a doubt as to my integrity and devotion to the Gospel.


            Ort had not been as forthcoming during this visit as he might have been; instead, he used the occasion to set the stage for an opportunity to persuade President Joseph F. Smith to accept reincarnation as doctrine. He had minimized the extent of his involvement in the rumored matters and said nothing of the plans of the group for Charles Stayner to become the prophet of the Church. But now the long-awaited opportunity seemed to have arrived and he took as much advantage of it as he could, writing a letter and doctrinal statement about reincarnation to President Joseph F. Smith.

            Having done that, he next approached President Lorenzo Snow, whom he believed to be the Old Testament prophet Ezekiel reincarnated:


Conversed with President Lorenzo Snow, at the Salt Lake Temple, on the subject of the letter and statement to President Smith, a copy of which I left with him (L[orenzo]. S[now].) for perusal a few days ago. He said he had read it, but wanted to read it again. The first part was perfectly clear to him; He fully believed that Christ had two bodies; but what was the need of Elijah having more than one? We talked the matter over. I told him about himself and Ezekiel the Prophet, and bore testimony to the worth and wisdom of [Charles Stayner]. He said my letter breathed a good spirit and he did not believe that I could be led astray by man, or that I would believe a doctrine without good reasons. He thought “Bro. Joseph” [Joseph F. Smith] would have something to study over in the Statement, for there were things in it that could not be contradicted. He talked also of obedience to counsel, in which I acquiesced, and said I had no thought, neither had Bro. Stayner, other than to honor the Priesthood. I had not sought to spread this doctrine, and had made the Statement only at President Smith’s request. He said he wanted to study the Statement, so that if the subject came before the council of the Twelve and the Presidency he would be prepared to speak a word for me, etc.


            President Snow, who had in former years discussed many deep and speculative doctrines with Bishop Whitney, was open-minded almost to a fault with his young protégé. Also, the very fact that President Snow had to defend Orson to the other Brethren was not a good sign.[4]

            Not long afterward, Elder Heber J. Grant, still feeling concern for his friend, tried to counsel him to be more cautious. Ort was not very receptive: “Had a conversation with H. J. Grant on the subject of the Stayners, McCune, the Statement, etc. He told me he loved me, but did not like some of my associates, and urged me not to injure my reputation by associating with certain persons. I answered that I could not go back on a friend because others were down on him, but thanked him for the good feeling he had for me.”

            One senses that the general authorities were vexed with what to do about Bishop Whitney. In him they had an asset of tremendous worth to the Church; one who wielded influence almost equal to their own; one who publicly taught sound doctrine and righteous living in a powerful and persuasive manner—but at the same time was beset by rumors that bordered on scandal—because of private and secret activities that he stubbornly refused to cease. Instead, Ort was pushing them boldly before the Brethren; putting his plans into operation to try to get Stayner called as an Apostle while a vacancy in the Quorum existed and his friend President Snow, who had just become the President of the Church, had the final say in who would be called.

As September passed into early October, Bishop Orson F. Whitney arranged three private meetings with President Lorenzo Snow in order to advance Charles W. Stayner’s name as an apostle. But, as Orson wrote, President Snow would have none of it—“He was kind as usual, but has no faith in [Stayner].”


A probationary period of reformation and repentance

            Stymied in his efforts, Orson was deflated, and as the months passed, he would become devastated, depressed, and miserable. The grandiose plan had not worked; President Snow had not accepted Whitney’s “testimony” that Stayner was a prophet; Ort had been the forerunner of nothing for the plans of the secret prayer group. Two days later, Orson noted, “Elder Rudger Clawson was chosen to fill the vacancy in the Twelve.”  During President Snow’s later years, his two closest and most loved younger friends and protégés were Orson Whitney and Rudger Clawson. Among other reasons, it may be that because of Whitney’s imprudent strategy to push Stayner’s name as the new Apostle at this critical time, he himself was also passed over. President Snow looked to Rudger Clawson instead. Orson heard nothing more of the letter and statement, at least that is known, at that time, but brought up the subject himself later.

            Late 1899 and 1900 included heart-rending episodes that changed Orson Whitney’s life, and consequently altered his thinking. His friends Arthur and Charles Stayner died unexpectedly within four months of each other, and his wife Zina passed away some five months later. With their deaths, Orson was forced to reconsider his heretical doctrinal beliefs. The secret prayer group meetings disbanded and his familial arrangements were permanently altered. He found himself humbled as he had never been, facing the possibilities of a future different than he had anticipated. Such changes, however, repositioned and reoriented him so that he could fulfill patriarchal predictions of a great work and mortal destiny. In his diary, he recorded:


            I also wrote this day the following letter:

Salt Lake City, Sunday July 1st, 1900

President Joseph F. Smith:

            Dear Brother Joseph:

            This is my birthday (I am forty-five years old); and I wish to signify it by turning over a new leaf in the book of my life. I have pondered and prayed much over the matter of the written statement that I made to you in May 1898, the subject of which need not now be mentioned. That statement I wish to withdraw. I have banished the subject [of reincarnation] from my mind. I no longer believe as I did, and I wish that nothing shall remain to perpetuate the matter either in my own memory or others. While I do not admit that my faith in the Gospel and my loyalty to the Priesthood have ever wavered—for I know that they have not—I do acknowledge that I have been mistaken, honestly mistaken in certain things, and I desire to rectify that mistake. Will you help me?

            Believing you to be my friend, and one of my best friends I have on earth, I feel that you will do for me all that one dear brother would and should do for another.          

            Yours Sincerely,

            O. F. Whitney


            Sending the letter to President Smith turned out to be one of the most important and life-altering steps Whitney would ever take—not because the letter itself had any great effect on President Smith, but because it signified Whitney’s personal reformation. A few weeks later, he sought out President Smith to get feedback regarding his letter of contrition:


            Today I met Pres. Joseph F. Smith as he was driving away from the President’s Office. He leaves for Mexico tonight. He apologized for not having answered my letter of July 1st regarding the written statement of May 1898. He said he felt well about it and glad to have me take that ground, and said he had read the statement [promoting reincarnation] as well as the letter [withdrawing the statement] to Pres. Cannon. When I asked him what Pres. Cannon thought he replied “I wish you would have a talk with him about it.” I asked if my sincerity was doubted by Pres. Cannon. “No; only he seems to think it will be difficult for you to overcome your impressions in relation to these things.” I answered: “I think it will be difficult for Bro. Cannon to overcome his feelings about me.” He half smiled and I added “This is my position. I have come to the conclusion that it was impossible for me to be right and all the Brethren (the Authorities) wrong upon any point, and this is the ground I surrender upon. If this doesn’t satisfy Bro. Cannon I cannot help it; that’s the best I can do.” He gave me “Goodbye and God bless you,” and we parted. He said he had not seen Pres. Snow as he was sick.


            So ended Orson F. Whitney’s nineteen-year obsession with reincarnation, theosophy, and the Stayners. So also began a six year period of reformation, repentance, and building trust with others, especially the brethren. Since he worked in the Historian’s Office as an Assistant, he began ghost-writing correspondence for the Church Historian and for the First Presidency. In that position, he was nearby to be watched and his exceptional literary talents could be used in behalf of the Church.


Called to the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles

Developments began (in 1906) as the first session of conference concluded: “First day of the 76th Annual Conference of the Church. I attended and sat in the auditorium of the Tabernacle. President Joseph F. Smith was the first speaker, and made some very interesting and significant remarks. . . .  I went home to lunch and was taking a bath when a phone message from the President’s Office summoned me to meet with Bro. Francis M. Lyman, the President of the Twelve Apostles. I went down to the President’s Office, on my way to the Tabernacle, and had a private interview with President Lyman and Apostle John Henry Smith in the rear office. I was asked about my health, my faith and feelings, and answered the questions satisfactorily, I suppose, and was then told that I might be wanted tomorrow.”

            It is significant that President Lyman and Elder Smith interviewed Bishop Whitney prior to his new calling. These two apostles likely had more knowledge of his past history with reincarnation than others of the senior Brethren. April 7 proved to be the most dramatic and eventful day of Whitney’s life:


            Attended the morning Conference Meeting; after which, met by appointment at the Historian’s Office, with President F. M. Lyman and Apostles John Henry Smith and George A. Smith (his son). Elders George F. Richards, of Tooele, and David O. McKay, of Ogden, were also there (in President Lund’s room). We were told by President Lyman that we three—Elders Richards, McKay and myself—had been chosen to fill three vacancies in the Quorum of the Twelve; the vacancy caused by Brother M. W. Merrill’s death, and two others, caused by the resignations of Apostles John W. Taylor and Matthias F. Cowley, who had not been associated with the Council of the Twelve since last October. Judge of my astonishment! He went on to tell us what would be required of us; asked for and received from each of us our views and feelings; and then enjoined us to strict secrecy regarding the whole matter, until it should be made public in a proper way. I attended the afternoon meeting of Conference, also the Religion Class meeting just after.


            Then came his sustaining: “I attended Conference all day, sitting in the Bishop’s Stand. Just before the close of the afternoon meeting, I was called and sustained as a member of the Council of the Twelve Apostles. . . . In the evening a party of friends called in to congratulate me, and spent the evening. My phone was kept busy with calls of congratulation. My ward people are both glad and sad; and so am I for obvious reasons.”  Whitney was emotional and euphoric, yet also overcome with the feelings of inadequacy common to all called to high Church position:


            A day of days to me. I attended the Special Priesthood Meeting at 10 am in the Assembly Hall, and at 2 pm a meeting in the Salt Lake Temple (First Presidency’s Room) where, at about 2:25, I was ordained to the Apostleship and placed in the Quorum of the Twelve, under the hands of President Joseph F. Smith (who was mouth [voice]) and the following named brethren: Presidents John R. Winder, Anthon H. Lund, Francis M. Lyman, Apostles John Henry Smith, Rudger Clawson, Hyrum M. Smith, George A[lbert]. Smith, Charles W. Penrose, Patriarch John Smith, Elders Seymore B. Young, Brigham H. Roberts, George Reynolds, J. Golden Kimball, Rullon S. Wells, and Joseph W. McMurrin, of the First Council of the Seventies.

            A copy of my ordination blessing, reported by Secretary George F. Gibbs, will be found elsewhere in this journal. The same brethren laid hands upon Elder George F. Richards, and he was ordained, (before me) an Apostle, in like manner by President Joseph F. Smith. After me, Elder David O. McKay was ordained an Apostle by President Smith, and Elder Charles H. Hart, as one of the First Council of Seventies; also by President Smith. In this last ordination Bros. Richards, McKay and myself took part, by President Smith’s invitation.

            In the Priesthood Meeting at the Assembly Hall we three—the new Apostles—were in order introduced to the meeting, and each spoke briefly, accepting the call to the Apostleship. Bro. Richards succeeds the late Apostle M. W. Merrill, I am put in the place of John W. Taylor, resigned; and Bro. McKay in place of Matthias F. Cowley, resigned.

            At 4 pm the First Presidency, the Apostles and their wives were entertained at dinner by President and Sister John R. Winder at their home. . . . After dinner a most enjoyable time was spent until 11 pm. The Presidents and all the Apostles (present) spoke. Among the good things said of me were from President Joseph F. Smith, who assured me and all present that the Lord accepted of me; that past clouds were all dispelled, and I was wanted in the position to which I had been called. (He had told the Priesthood Meeting that I was one of the staunchest and most faithful men in the Church, and had rendered the cause valiant service as poet, orator and historian, as well as Bishop.) He said at President Winder’s, that he had for years wanted me in the Quorum of the Twelve, that in my veins ran the blood of Apostle Heber C. Kimball, etc., and at the Temple he referred to my relations with the Prophet Joseph, through my mother’s sealing to him in wedlock and said that I represented the Prophet by virtue of that relation, as an Apostle.

            President Winder said it was as clear to him that we three had been chosen by the Spirit as light was distinct from darkness. Bro. John Henry Smith said it had been a dream of his life that I would be called to the Apostleship. Many other kind things were said. Bro. Penrose said the Saints would rejoice over the call of us brethren to these positions.

            Nineteen years ago this summer Apostle John W. Taylor predicted that I would be an Apostle. We were traveling together south and were on the train about opposite Murray. I little dreamed, nor did he, that I would succeed him in the Quorum. He was always very good to me.


            President Anthon H. Lund, of the First Presidency, who participated in the ordination, recorded his own impressions: “I had felt very sad about the resignation of Bros. Matthias Cowley and John W. Taylor, but while Pres. Smith ordained the brethren I felt it was the Lord’s will and this feeling was so sanctifying that I was melted to tears.”

            As time passed and Elder Whitney became familiar with the duties of the apostleship, he summed them up:


During most of the time since my ordination, my duties have consisted of weekly visits to the Stakes, with occasional tours of missions, and such other service as the presiding authorities have required of me. Once a week, at a regular council meeting, the Apostles report their labors to the First Presidency and to one another, and join in prayer and the transaction of important Church business. There we receive our appointments from the President of the Twelve, sanctioned by the First Presidency, with general directions to govern us in the discharge of our sacred duties. On certain days we set apart and instruct missionaries, and on any and every day do whatever needs doing for the good of the Cause. Every three months the Twelve, or as many of them as can assemble, come together in a quarterly meeting, and every six months they convene in joint session with the First Council of the Seventy and such of the mission presidents as are able to attend; the latter reporting conditions and prospects in their fields of labor and receiving such advice and instruction as the Apostles see fit to impart.


Struggles with ending plural marriage and platonic girlfriends

            Elder Whitney’s life now became that of the busy apostle, but that did not stop him from entering into some new intrigues. One of them was his friendship with various women. One was named Georgiana (last name unknown; a very brief but unsuccessful courtship) and another was Mary Laura Hickman, the single sister of his good friend Josiah E. Hickman. This (emotional but not physical—Laura was not interested in marriage) romance started some four years after his call to the Quorum of the Twelve and lasted for around eleven years. He often visited Laura’s home in Utah County and they read poetry together. It is not known if his wife May knew about Laura. Elder Whitney had long believed deeply in plural marriage and although he had sustained the first manifesto of 1890 and the second of 1904, his heart was not in full accord with them.

As a member of the Twelve he was tasked with investigating new unauthorized post-second manifesto plural marriages. He sat on disciplinary councils, made up of the Quorum of the Twelve, held for those who disobeyed and married plural wives. Such duties were unpleasant to him. He found himself living in something of a hypocritical situation, sometimes leaving council meetings where a “new” polygamist was being tried for his membership, and then going directly to Laura Hickman’s home to visit with her and read poetry together. Although they were able to keep their platonic relationship fairly secret, he did occasionally have to deal with rumors arising from their association. It is not known how much or whether the other apostles knew anything about Laura. Speaking of these matters, his friend Josiah Hickman wrote in his diary:


Apostle Whitney came Sunday and stayed with me until Wednesday evening. We had an excellent time together. He read most of his [epic poem] Elias: An Epic of the Ages, to me. He is reviewing it and improving it for republication. It is truly a masterpiece of art. I feel it stands with Milton‘s Paradise Lost. He read to me part of three days. The rest of the time we discussed various subjects. He is a very intellectual man. He is truly a poet, orator, and prophet.

            He told me of his visit to Mother‘s home [in Benjamin, Utah]. He was there four days. He has written a very humorous poem of his visit there. He thinks the world of Laura. I find he has much the same opinion of our [Church’s] situation [that abandoning plural marriage was wrong] as I have. . . . Though he acquiesces in the policies of the Twelve, yet he is not heart and soul with them. He feels that we are cowardly and are on the run; that when the scare [threats of persecutorial legislation] of Washington [D.C.] begins, we begin to buckle rather than do our duty and fear God only. He does not believe those who have gone into that principle of late [since 1904] are committing adultery. He says that they [the Twelve] are not cutting brethren off [excommunicating] for entering it [instead disfellowshipping them], but in one or two cases they did [excommunicate] because (as in Higgins’ case) they would not answer their questions. He has some very advanced ideas on religious subjects. They are really embodied in his [poem] Elias.


            Orson chafed under such circumstances, but was wise enough to never marry a new post-Manifesto plural wife himself, even though he had opportunities to do so.


His last years serving as a Special Witness

            Years passed with Orson serving as an apostle and special witness. From 1921 to 1922 he served as the European Mission President, but had to return home early because of severe health problems that resulted in an even more severe nervous breakdown. It took him a few years after his arrival home in Salt Lake City to recover completely, but eventually he returned to his old masterful self. He then finished out his apostolic ministry without further distraction and in great power and authority.

            In reflecting on Whitney’s beloved dream-vision of the Savior in the garden of Gethsemane, and how he believed Jesus’ message to him was that the sleeping apostles meant him (Orson), as he had been distracted during his early missionary work writing correspondence for newspapers; it seems apparent that there could be a much broader interpretation attached. That those sleeping apostles also referred to Orson later in his life when he was obsessively distracted by the Stayner brothers, theosophy, and reincarnation, instead of putting his full energies into his family and his bishopric. If he had done so, it seems possible that he would have been called into the Council of the Twelve in 1889 instead of 1906, some seventeen years sooner. As it was, even with all the trials and problems scattered throughout his life, Elder Orson F. Whitney was still able to use his voice and pen in marvelously influential ways to defend the truth of the gospel and bear his special witness that Jesus was the Christ.


[1] Quotations and most all other information contained in this chapter are taken from Dennis B. Horne, The Life of Orson F. Whitney: Poet, Historian, Apostle (Springville, Utah: Cedar Fort Inc., 2014). Those interested in further information about Elder Whitney may consult that volume.

[2] Heber J. Grant diary, September 26, 1889.

[3] The author used portions of Elder Whitney’s manuscript, with hundreds of pages of additional material, and produced Dennis B. Horne, Latter Leaves in the Life of Lorenzo Snow (Springville, Utah: Cedar Fort Inc., 2012). This is the definitive biography of President Lorenzo Snow; see BYU Studies Quarterly 53:2 (2014), 180-83.

[4] Yet President Snow also saw the exceptional talent within his fine friend, to the point that he even brought it up in a meeting of the First Presidency and the Twelve: “He referred to the abilities that Orson F. Whitney had been blessed with. Said that he thought his talents were worth more than the wealth of the world” (Heber J. Grant diary, April 9, 1890).


  1. "He [Lorenzo Snow] fully believed that Christ had two bodies;"

    Excuse me. Where does it say in scriptures or revelation from God to a prophet that Jesus has(d) two bodies? I'd like to see that for myself.

  2. Interesting article about someone whose name I have heard, but of whom I knew nothing.