Editor's note: This is # 14 in a series of posts by Dennis Horne about collectible books. The introduction is here.
As quoted from Elder Petersen’s biography:
From the time Mark went to work at the Deseret News, his typing speed had been legendary. Although he never adjusted to an electric machine, he typed faster than most secretaries and literally destroyed a typewriter every two or three years. When his family sweetly asked why he purchased each new typewriter, knowing very well how he could beat a machine to death, he replied with equal candor that he guessed it just wore out. Whether working on a speaking assignment or a pageant, writing editorials, or preparing a new book, Mark rolled the paper into his typewriter with a flourish began attacking the keys. Someone said that he had his own type system. This was not so. He painstakingly taught himself to type by touch. Emma used to say that he typed as fast as she drove.
When he began a book, Mark usually went through ten or twelve sheets of paper before he composed an introduction that pleased him. As he typed and it became apparent that a new start was necessary, he pulled the paper from the roller, scrunched it into a ball, and threw it on the floor. The number of papers discarded across the carpet allowed anyone who dared approach at this critical time to see his approximate rate of progress on the book.
When his secretary, Dorene, first worked on a manuscript for him, she was surprised that after the book was finished and a large quantity of the paper he had purchased remained, he asked her to put this paper with the regular church supplies to help ‘pay for the wear and tear on the typewriter.’…
When Mark’s book Isaiah for Today appeared, he was sure that it would do well for two reasons: the general fascination of most Latter-day Saints for Isaiah and his prophecies and the fact that the book’s profits went to the missionary fund. He told [his daughter] that if she wanted to write a best seller, she should donate the royalties to the missionaries, just as her mother had done. Emma Marr had been a prolific writer, the author of several books for youth. After her death, as Mark received royalty checks for her books, he sent them to the Church missionary fund according to her wishes. He was pleased to note that her publications made more money than his even though she was no longer alive….
Mark continued to write almost to the day he died, and several of his books were published posthumously. These volumes, including two on the Book of Mormon and one on the teachings of Paul, were written despite great physical discomfort….
Why does any author write forty-three books? What drew Mark to his typewriter night after night and on his Mondays off? Each of his books was a statement of his beliefs, an answer to questions from within the Church, a need seen. He was embarrassed at the number of volumes. When with a family member he walked from his office across South Temple to Deseret Book to see how his latest writing fared, he was horrified at the long row of his works on the shelf. He always said, ‘No one has that much to say. I definitely will not write another book.’ This phase usually lasted a month at most, then either a question arising in a conference or something in his constant reading triggered an idea, and once again the sound of his typewriter echoed in the back of the house. Sheepishly he would produce a first chapter or an outline and ask for an evaluation of his latest idea. The crumpled balls of discarded paper rolled across the carpet, the keys clattered, and he was on his way. Only his death could still his pen. (Peggy Petersen Barton, Mark E. Petersen: A biography, 109-14)
Elder Petersen, an Apostle from 1944 to 1984, came from a newspaper background with experience as a reporter, writer, and editor. He had worked his way from the bottom to the top at the LDS Church-owned Deseret News.
This career positioned him under the watchful eye of President Heber J. Grant, who critiqued the stories and editorials written by Mark and his staff: “As a former newspaper publisher, he [Pres. Grant] was well qualified to evaluate, and some of his evaluations were painful for Mark. President Grant read the paper the moment it hit the streets, Then, if he found an article to which he objected, he would pick up the phone and say, ‘Mark, get over here.’ Mark never asked who was calling or where ‘here’ was. He just headed for 47 East South Temple. President Grant, with the paper spread before him on his desk, always circled the offending story, and he emphasized his words by tapping a long forefinger on the circle as he spoke. He could be scathing in his criticism—and often was. But when the bluster had passed, he was immediately remorseful and hoped he had not injured Mark’s feelings. He would call to Joseph Anderson, his secretary and right-hand man, ‘Joseph, can’t we find a book for Mark Petersen?’ Joseph usually had a book at the ready, and President Grant would inscribe the volume with a flourish of his pen. Smiling wryly, Mark often complained that this was the way he acquired his extensive library” (81).
In 1944 Mark had a powerful dream in which he was given to know he would be called into the Twelve to take the place of Elder Richard R. Lyman, who was excommunicated for adultery (85-86). After becoming an apostle, Mark continued to work at the Deseret News for a time. It was also at about this time that he hired young Bruce McConkie as a reporter and editorial writer. Bruce McConkie would later face criticism from Elder Petersen over his book Mormon Doctrine.
Elder Petersen’s first publications were compilations of Deseret News editorials he had written. Of this, his daughter and biographer wrote: “His first book was Your Faith and You, a collection of Church editorials, which was published in October 1953. Shortly after, he was called into President Clark’s office, congratulated on breaking into print, and reminded that he had already been paid for the editorials. The royalties should go to the Deseret News. The great love and respect Mark felt for President Clark compelled him to accept this suggestion, and he willingly donated his royalties to the paper. Six additional volumes of editorials were subsequently published over the years, with over 52,000 copies sold” (107).
Elder Petersen’s books are not considered strong works of scholarship. Those who have read in them, especially the so-called “Old Testament prophets” volumes, see them as fine reviews of their subjects, well tied to the scriptural accounts, but not opening many new insights or expanding scriptural knowledge. His works were from the pen of a former newspaperman, directed at the member masses, and were not meant as great scholarly contributions. Still, Elder Petersen definitely considered himself well-versed in gospel principles and doctrinal knowledge—an important point.
His biographer wrote the following instructive summary of Elder Petersen’s thinking: “If he felt something was right, he did not hesitate to try to accomplish the means to make the changes necessary. Now he seemed to appoint himself a doctrinal watchdog, and if anything was printed that he knew was incorrect, he wrote to the people involved. When he read an article in the Ensign that presented a false teaching as to how the Bible passages quoted in the Book of Mormon came about, he sent off a five-page letter to the magazine advisors listing the reasons that the disputed theory should be discarded….
“If Mark was aware that any of the General Authorities or Regional Representatives might be preaching doctrine not in harmony with Church teachings, he never hesitated to point out the error in their thinking. How he wished that everyone would stay close to the Prophet! Only through the President of the Church could new doctrine be introduced” (167).
Before examining further Elder Petersen’s efforts as a doctrinal watchdog, it would be well to review some comments he made during a speech given to Church Educational System instructors in 1954:
Now I would like to come to the matter of guidance through the General Authorities. That is a much disputed subject among some of the Latter-day Saints, and I am going to talk to you very frankly about it….
I would like you to know that the General Authorities are entitled to the exercise of free agency, just as much as anybody else. I would like you to know that they are entitled to the guidance of the light of Christ just like anybody else, and that they are entitled to the whisperings of the Spirit as a result of their having received the gift of the Holy Ghost, just like other members of the Church. And I would like you to know that because the General Authorities have their agency, if anyone of them so desired they could exercise that agency to violate all the rules of the Church. Some of them have in the past, especially in early days.
Now, before I go on I want you to know that I sustain the Brethren with all my heart and soul. I know they are prophets, seers, and revelators; I know it as I know I live. I’d like you to know that when I went into the Council of the Twelve, I went in as a very obscure person. But having been a newspaperman for many years, I had learned to be somewhat observant and I watched the Brethren very carefully. It was marvelous to me to see how they did their work and how these men, fifteen of them sitting in a council—all of them endowed with bright minds, all of them endowed with free agency, all of them laboring under the Spirit of God, all of them from different walks of life with different backgrounds, different types of experience, different points of view on so many things—it was marvelous to me to see how a subject presented to them came under discussion and how the Spirit worked and how complete unanimity came out of the discussion. It was an education such as I never dreamed I would get. It was marvelous. I have sat with them for ten years, and I have seen them work. I’ve knelt with them as they have prayed; I have felt their humble spirit. I have traveled with them miles and miles. I have labored with them in conferences. They are men of God---marvelous men, inspired men—men who receive now the revelations of Almighty God. The Church today is guided by revelation just as it was in the days of the Prophet Joseph Smith. That is my testimony to you.
I love those men. Not one of them has an “axe to grind”—not one. Each is as humble as can be. Each is just as teachable as can be, from the President on down through the group. My, they are humble, lovely, teachable men, righteous, merciful, great men—great men of God. They are prophets. I love them. I wanted to say that before I go on with this discussion.
But as I say, we all have our free agency. God doesn’t rob anyone of that. And sometimes even a General Authority has used his agency in a wrong direction. … (“Revelation,” address to religious educators, 24 August 1954; cited in Charge to Religious Educators, 2nd ed. 136-37.)
With that understanding in mind, which is how I feel about the Brethren myself (including Elder Petersen), as well as an understanding of Elder Petersen’s perspective as a doctrinal watchdog, we can reach a fuller understanding of his role as probably the foremost book censor/banner among the church authorities of his time. One can arguably question whether even his daughter-biographer knew the extent of his involvement with LDS authors as a doctrinal watchdog (and his role in banning their books) as the full extent is not shared therein.
Keeping in mind that this is a very sensitive subject to those involved, from available evidence and interviews, it can be reasonably determined that the following authors experienced some kind of intervention from Elder Petersen regarding the books they wrote: Hyrum Andrus, Cleon Skousen, Duane Crowther, John L. Lund, Bruce R. McConkie, and Leonard Arrington. Evidence also indicates that Elder Petersen was usually not the sole agent involved; other Quorum members (Elders Harold B. Lee, Ezra Taft Benson, Boyd K. Packer, Gordon B. Hinckley, etc.), and sometimes the full Quorum of the Twelve or First Presidency, acted at times. But Elder Petersen was the moving force behind most of the more well-known and prominent modern instances of Mormon book banning.
If Elder Petersen had a specific assignment from the brethren in this matter, it is not known. One source indicated that he had an assignment to work with people struggling with involvement with apostate groups and persons, and perhaps he felt this extended to a special commission to stop the publication of works he considered unreliable or doctrinally unsound.
From hindsight, it may be that Elder Petersen was acting wisely in curbing some of the above mentioned authors; with others, he might well have been more judicious. Most of their published works sold very well and increased their visibility, thereby attracting notice or investigation from the Brethren. (See page numbers as indicated in parenthesize in Peggy Petersen Barton, Mark E. Petersen: A Biography.)