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David O. McKay Diaries – “Sterling M. McMurrin”

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Sun., 30 Mar., 1958:

March 30, 1958


      Salt Lake City



Office of the Dean April 8, 1958

President David O. McKay

1037 East South Temple

Salt Lake City, Utah

Dear President McKay:

Please let me express to you again my deep appreciation for your recent gracious reception of Dr. Radhakrishnan, the Vice President of India, at the Tabernacle.  It was characteristic of you that you would disregard your own welfare in your hospitality to him at a time when you were in ill health.

Your meeting with Dr. Radhakrishnan under the impressive circumstances of the occasion was an inspiring and, I believe, historic event.  It was for me a deeply moving experience, certainly one of the most profound moments of my life.  The Choir was magnificent, and the comments made by you and Dr. Radhakrishnan were brilliant and inspiring expressions of the genuine commitment of both of you to the highest moral and spiritual idealism.

Dr. Radhakrishnan was deeply impressed by what he saw and learned of our people, by Salt Lake City, and especially by you.  It was a matter of personal pride to me when he referred to you later as ‘a very great man,’ and after his departure from the City wrote back to President Olpin that he recognized you as ‘a great soul.’  I was pleased also that Llewelyn was able to meet with Dr. Radhakrishnan and have a brief conversation with him.

I am sure that this meeting of a great spiritual leader of the western world with the foremost living representative of oriental culture will bring much good to the world in the form of those imponderable values upon which so much depends.  All of us are grateful to you for making it possible.

I join the countless others who are praying that you will continue to enjoy the health and strength that you so richly deserve and so greatly need in the pursuit of your tasks of leadership.

Very sincerely,

(signed) Sterling McMurrin

Sterling M. McMurrin, Dean


(Original letter is in letter scrap book)”

Fri., 18 Mar. 1960:

“11:30 to 1 p.m.

Dictation to Clare.  Also had her read to me a report of Sterling McMurrin’s talk to the Salt Lake Branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, at a meeting held at the Trinity A.M.E. Church, 241 E. 6th South, March 7, 1960.  This talk was under consideration at the First Presidency’s meeting this morning.”

Wed., 1 Feb. 1961:


Sent a letter of congratulation to Dr. Sterling M. McMurrin, Vice President of the University of Utah, upon his appointment by President John F. Kennedy as United States Commissioner of Education, Washington, D.C.”

Negroes — Dr. Sterling M. McMurrin’s (U of U Professor) Published Statement Criticising the Church for Its “Anti-Negro discrimination”, and also “Undemocratic Hierarchal Structure of the Church”.

President Dyer read to me a statement which was published in the Salt Lake Tribune on Saturday, June 22, 1968, giving an account of remarks made by Dr. Sterling M. McMurrin, Professor of Philosophy and Dean of the Graduate School of the University of of Utah, in a speech given before the Salt Lake Branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and the Utah Citizens Organization for Civil Rights.

Dr. McMurrin called attention to the illogical, impractical, and foolish stand of the Church concerning the Negro and stated that the Church had reversed its policy in not allowing its members to have freedom of thought, etc.

Some of the Brethren are very upset over Dr. McMurrin’s attitude toward the Church, and feel that he should be tried for his membership. He was under question several years ago when he openly made the statement to President Joseph Fielding Smith that he did not believe in the vision of the Prophet Joseph Smith, and made other remarks indicating his disbelief in the Church. However, President Dyer said that Dr. McMurrin has already “cut himself off from the Church”, and now that the Church is under such criticism regarding its stand on the Negroes holding the Priesthood, it would be unwise at this time for the Church to take steps to excommunicate Dr. McMurrin. Although I was disturbed over Dr. McMurrin’s statements and attitude, I made no commitment concerning this matter. 

(See following newspaper article containing Dr. McMurrin’s statements) 

(See Diary of July 16 for Discussion by First Presidency)

“(Salt Lake Tribune, 22 Jun., 1968)


A former United States commissioner of education said Friday night he “personally deplore(s) the position of the Church (of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints) in both these matters:

“First, the policy and practice of the church in denying full fellowship to its Negro members, and, second, the failure of the church to engage responsibly in the move toward full civil rights for Negroes.

Dr. Sterling M. McMurrin, professor of philosophy and dean of the Graduate School at the University of Utah, made the remarks in a speech at Holiday Inn, 230 W. 6th South. He addressed a banquet  sponsored by the Salt Lake Branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and the Utah Citizens Organization for Civil Rights.

‘Moral Deficiency’

His topic was “Negroes Among the Mormons.”

“For any church to deny full religious fellowship to an individual on grounds related essentially to his race or color is an almost unbelievable moral deficiency that deserves the most rigorous condemnation,” said Dr. McMurrin, who interjected that he is a member of the LDS Church.

He continued: “For a church that less than a century ago was aggressively committed to the achievement of social justice to have receded so far from the frontiers of social morality, while at the same time its political power and influence have materially increased, is nothing less than a major tragedy.

“The denial of full fellowship to Negroes is essentially the practice of withholding the priesthood from them and excluding them from the essential rites of the temple ritual . . . For a Negro to be denied these means that although he can be a member of the church, he cannot be a full-fledged Mormon.

“Many Mormons, including some among the leadership of the church, speculate rather freely in justification of the established policy of such anti-Negro discrimination. Sometimes, for instance it is held that the Negroes are descended from Cain and their dark skin is a curse, or an evidence of a curse, placed upon them by God because of Cain’s sin . . .

Speculative Notion

“The idea… is usually combined with another speculative notion, which sometimes stands alone, which relates to the Mormon belief in the existence of all individvals prior to this life. The Negroes, according to this view, were guilty of being something less than valiant in the pre-existence and this justifies their present status in the church. Some go so far as to hold that the present and past social and economic predicament of the Negroes is a just reward or punishment for their pre-earth sins.”

Dr. McMurrin said he found it “difficult to understand how people who are otherwise typically intelligent and moral can believe and defend such crude immoral nonsense, but it is nothing new for religion to be a perpetrator of both non-sense and immorality.”

No Corner on Either

“The Mormons have no corner on either of these—and, as a Mormon, I am pleased to say that these ideas and the various popular combinations of them have no official status in Mormon Church doctrine,” he said.

The former commissioner also hit upon:

—”The undemocratic hierarchical church with its seniority pattern or leadership, which developed especially after the Mormons came west and which makes it exceedingly difficult for ideals and attitudes that are shaped from common experience to find their way into concrete policies and actions having official standing.

—”The failure of the church in recent decades to preserve and cultivate the climate and techniques of serious self-criticism which it once had. Although there is far more freedom of thought and expression in the church than many suppose, except in rare local instances, there is no genuine invitation to thoughtful criticism of the church’s policies and practices. Loyalty to the church is judged too much in terms of acquiescence and obedience — not enough in terms of genuine commitment to its highest good.””

Tues., 16 Jul., 1968:

“Held a meeting of the First Presidency shortly after 9 o’clock this morning.

Some of the items discussed:

Sterling McMurrin Case 

The discussion concerning the Negro led to the statements of Sterling McMurrin, Professor at the University of Utah, a member of the Church, which were recently published in the Salt Lake Tribune reporting a speech that Brother McMurrin had given to the N. A. A. C. P. wherein McMurrin had belittled and berated the Church for its stand in refusing to give to the Negro members of the Church their full rights in receiving the Priesthood. McMurrin also referred to the acquiescent following of the Priesthood and leadership of the Church; of the hierarchy of the Church not giving sufficient freedom of thought and action in speaking out upon such matters as were mentioned in his talk to the colored people.

President Dyer expressed his feelings regarding the Negro situation as it applies to the Church. He referred to a letter he had received from a man in Idaho concerning the giving of the Priesthood to the “Black Man”. In answering the letter, President Dyer took the liberty of pointing out four things pertaining to the Lord’s way of disciplining the various races of people and stated that it was not only the “Black Man” who was in the process of discipline, but in fact all of mankind, referring specifically to the Jew, the Lamanite, and also some 300,000 white men who hold membership in the Church who have not yet received the Priesthood simply because it is not time for them to receive it due to their own unwillingness to abide by the commandments of the Lord. He mentioned that according to those who attempt to stir up feelings against the Church for not giving the Priesthood to the Negro, they would have us ordain every man in the Church who becomes a member to the Melchizedek Priesthood regardless of his worthiness or understanding of its principles. It is the same principle that must be applied to the “Black Man” in the receiving of the Priesthood. President Dyer said he received a very satisfactory answer from this man who, no doubt, was a “Black Man”, stating that the answers were completely satisfactory to him.

President Smith spoke up and reported his experience with McMurrin years ago wherein he had openly admitted to him that he did not believe in the divinity of the First Vision of the Prophet Joseph Smith. President Smith indicated that this man should be excommunicated from the Church.

President Dyer ventured the thought that if this were done it could

do the Church more harm than good, and perhaps in the eyes of the Lord, Sterling McMurrin has already been excommunicated from the Church on the records which are without question of greater potency than those which we keep among men where our methods are less complete and effective. He said he felt that we should state the truth as the Church believes it, and this would underrate and place at naught the statements that McMurrin has made; because he has made mistakes in his remarks to this people, both scripturally, morally, and factually.

I stated that I think we should be careful as to how we handle this McMurrin case and the Negro question.