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Rambling Thoughts on Church HistoryFun Stuff Happens
by James B. Allen
In the preface to their delightful book Best Loved Humor of the LDS People (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1999), Jay A. Parry, Jack M. Lyon, and Linda Ririe Gundry wrote the following:
“One must have a sense of humor to be an optimist in times like these,” Hugh B. Brown once said. “And you young women will need a sense of humor if you marry these young men and try to live with them. Golden Kimball once said in a conference, ‘The Lord Himself must like a joke or he wouldn't have made some of you people.’ But your good humor must be real, not simulated. Let your smiles come from the heart and they will become contagious. You may see men on the street any day whose laugh is only a frozen grin with nothing in it but teeth. Men without humor tend to forget their source, lose sight of their goal, and with no lubrication in their mental crankshafts, they must drop out of the race. Lincoln said, ‘Good humor is the oxygen of the soul.’ And someone paraphrased, ‘The surly bird catches the germ.’” (The Abundant Life [Salt Lake City: Bookcraft, 1965], 50)
Everybody loves a good joke. Whether we're giving a talk in sacrament meeting, teaching a Sunday School lesson, or presenting a family home evening message, we instinctively turn to humor to bridge the gap between speaker and listeners. Humor lets us see life's bright side, gives us new perspective, and allows us to laugh at our own foibles.
While rambling around in Church history one will inevitably run across numerous humorous incidents and stories – not just jokes, but real life experiences that had a touch—often more than a touch—of humor. Here are a few of them.
PARLEY P. PRATT AND THE BULL DOG
While Parley P. Pratt was on a mission to Missouri in 1830 he was arrested on trumped-up charges, tried, and sentenced either to go to prison or pay a fine. He decided to do neither. Here is what happened, as he told it in his autobiography:
I was soon ordered to prison, or to pay a sum of money which I had not in the world. It was now a late hour, and I was still retained in court, tantalized, abused and urged to settle the matter, to all of which I made no reply for some time. This greatly exhausted their patience. It was near midnight. I now called on brother Petersen to sing a hymn in the court. We sung, “O how happy are they.” This exasperated them still more, and they pressed us greatly to settle the business, by paying the money.
I then observed as follows: “May it please the court, I have one proposal to make for a final settlement of the things that seem to trouble you. It is this: if the witnesses who have given testimony in the case will repent of their false swearing, and the magistrate of his unjust and wicked judgment and of his persecution, blackguardism and abuse, and all kneel down together, we will pray for you, that God might forgive you in these matters.”
“My big bull dog pray for me,” says that Judge.
“The devil help us,” exclaimed another.
They now urged me for some time to pay the money; but got no further answer.
The court adjourned, and I was conducted to a public house over the way, and locked in till morning; the prison being some miles distant.
In the morning the officer appeared and took me to breakfast; this over, we sat waiting in the inn for all things to be ready to conduct me to prison. In the meantime my fellow travellers came past on their journey, and called to see me. I told them in an undertone to pursue their journey and leave me to manage my own affairs, promising to overtake them soon. They did so.
After sitting awhile by the fire in charge of the officer, I requested to step out. I walked out into the public square accompanied by him. Said I, “Mr. Peabody, are you good at a race?” “No,” said he, “but my big bull dog is, and he has been trained to assist me in my office these several years; he will take any man down at my bidding.” “Well, Mr. Peabody, you compelled me to go a mile, I have gone with you two miles. You have given me an opportunity to preach, sing, and have also entertained me with lodging and breakfast. I must now go on my journey; if you are good at a race you can accompany me. I thank you for all your kindness—good day, sir.”
I then started on my journey, while he stood amazed and not able to step one foot before the other. Seeing this, I halted, turned to him and again invited him to a race. He still stood amazed. I then renewed my exertions, and soon increased my speed to something like that of a deer. He did not awake from his astonishment sufficiently to start in pursuit till I had gained, perhaps, two hundred yards. I had already leaped a fence, and was making my way through a field to the forest on the right of the road. He now came hallooing after me, and shouting to his dog to seize me. The dog, being one of the largest I ever saw, came close on my footsteps with all his fury; the officer behind still in pursuit, clapping his hands and hallooing, “stu-boy, stu-boy—take him—watch—lay hold of him, I say—down with him,” and pointing his finger in the direction I was running. The dog was fast overtaking me, and in the act of leaping upon me, when, quick as lightning, the thought struck me, to assist the officer, in sending the dog with all fury to the forest a little distance before me. I pointed my finger in that direction, clapped my hands, and shouted in imitation of the officer. The dog hastened past me with redoubled speed towards the forest; being urged by the officer and myself, and both of us running in the same direction.
Gaining the forest, I soon lost sight of the officer and dog, and have not seen them since. (Parley P. Pratt, Autobiography of Parley P. Pratt [Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1961], 49-51.)
HOW TO STUDY LAW
Joseph Smith had a sense of humor, part of which is suggested in an entry in his History for May 18, 1843:
About noon, I lay down on the writing table, with my head on a pile of law books, saying, “Write and tell the world I acknowledge myself a great lawyer; I am going to study law, and this is the way I study it;” and then fell asleep.
A BIT OF BRIGHAM
Brigham Young had as good a sense of humor as anyone, often reflected in his sermons and letters, as well as in the memories of people who knew him. Sometimes his humor consisted of caustic words about people he disliked, but at other times he was simply having a bit of light-hearted fun in connection with his sometimes tedious duties. Here is one illustration, as told by Leonard Arrington.
Elizabeth Green was an early convert to the LDS Church. However, in 1851 she wrote to President Brigham Young requesting her membership be cancelled because she had become a “spiritualist.”
Brigham's reply was classic:
“Madam: I have this day examined the records of baptisms for the remission of sins in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, and not being able to find the name of 'Elizabeth Green' recorded therein I was saved from the necessity of erasing your name therefrom. You may therefore consider that your sins have not been remitted you and you may consequently enjoy the benefits therefrom.” (Quoted in Leonard J. Arrington, Brigham Young: American Moses (New York: Alfred Knopf, 1985), 199)
Mark Twain (Samuel Clements) made fun of everyone and everything, including Brigham Young and the Mormons. As a humorist it was his business to make people laugh. His book Roughing It (published in 1872) told of his adventures in the so-called “Wild West,” 1861-62. When his brother Orion Clements was appointed Secretary of Nevada Territory, Twain joined him on his way west. They spent two days in Salt Lake City. Twain was more than a little put off by the way Brigham Young treated him, though Brigham was probably just being jovial and light-hearted. This is from Chapter XIII of Roughing It:
The second day, we made the acquaintance of Mr. Street (since deceased) and put on white shirts and went and paid a state visit to the king. He seemed a quiet, kindly, easy-mannered, dignified, self-possessed old gentleman of fifty-five or sixty, and had a gentle craft in his eye that probably belonged there. He was very simply dressed and was just taking off a straw hat as we entered. He talked about Utah, and the Indians, and Nevada, and general American matters and questions, with our secretary and certain government officials who came with us. But he never paid any attention to me, notwithstanding I made several attempts to “draw him out” on federal politics and his high handed attitude toward Congress. I thought some of the things I said were rather fine. But he merely looked around at me, at distant intervals, something as I have seen a benignant old cat look around to see which kitten was meddling with her tail.
By and by I subsided into an indignant silence, and so sat until the end, hot and flushed, and execrating him in my heart for an ignorant savage. But he was calm. His conversation with those gentlemen flowed on as sweetly and peacefully and musically as any summer brook. When the audience was ended and we were retiring from the presence, he put his hand on my head, beamed down on me in an admiring way and said to my brother:
“Ah--your child, I presume? Boy, or girl?”
MARK TWAIN’S REVENGE
I don’t know which got under Mark Twain’ skin the most: Brigham’s referring to him as a child or indicating he could be either a boy or girl. Or maybe he just took it in stride and reported the story only because he knew it would make his readers laugh. At any rate, in the next chapter of Roughing It he commented on other things, including Mormon women, in a way that Brigham might not have found very funny. But his comment on women is cleverly written, and just what the American public would love in that day and age:
Our stay in Salt Lake City amounted to only two days, and therefore we had no time to make the customary inquisition into the workings of polygamy and get up the usual statistics and deductions preparatory to calling the attention of the nation at large once more to the matter.
I had the will to do it. With the gushing self-sufficiency of youth I was feverish to plunge in headlong and achieve a great reform here--until I saw the Mormon women. Then I was touched. My heart was wiser than my head. It warmed toward these poor, ungainly and pathetically “homely” creatures, and as I turned to hide the generous moisture in my eyes, I said, “No--the man that marries one of them has done an act of Christian charity which entitles him to the kindly applause of mankind, not their harsh censure--and the man that marries sixty of them has done a deed of open-handed generosity so sublime that the nations should stand uncovered in his presence and worship in silence.
HERE’S TO OUR ENEMIES
Whether justified or not, most Mormons detested Martin Van Buren who, as President of the United States, refused to support the Saints in their request for federal financial aid in recompense for the property lost in Missouri. On July 24, 1849, the Saints in Utah celebrated the first arrival of the pioneers a year earlier. Jedediah M. Grant gave one of the various toasts, a very pithy one, as recorded in the journal of Lorenzo Brown:
To Martin Van Buren and all mobocrats: May they be winked at by blind men, kicked across lots by cripples, nibbled to death by ducks, and carried to hell through the keyhole by bumblebees. (Quoted in Davis Bitton, Wit and Whimsey in Mormon History [Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1974], 54.)
ST. GEORGE AND THE DRAGON
In1861, after the outbreak of the Civil War, Church leaders called 309 families to move to the area now called St. George, Utah, and establish the Cotton Mission. The effort to grow cotton was part of the hope for self-sufficiency in Utah. This hot, desert-like area was not exactly inviting, but the pioneers, many of whom were from the American south and knew how to grow cotton, exercised their faith and works, grew cotton, and established a permanent community. In 1862, Charles L. Walker and his bride of one year were called, with several other families, to join the Cotton Mission at St. George. His first impression of St. George was that it was a “barren place . . . very windy, dusty, blowing nearly all the time.” Amid all the difficulties of eking out a living, he joined a literary club, began writing, and eventually became the poet laureate of Utah’s Dixie. A bit of the harshness of pioneer life in St. George was captured in his cleverly-written song “St. George and the Dragon.” It was first published in his own small local paper, The Veprecula. The song quickly caught on and has become a favorite piece of folk music. Note, especially the third stanza.
ST. GEORGE AND THE DRAGON
Oh, what an awful place this was
When first the Mormons found it.
They said no white man here could live
And Indians prowled around it.
They said the land it was no good.
And the water was no gooder,
And the bare idea of living here,
Was enough to make men shudder.
Mesquite, soap-root, prickly-pears and briars.
St. George ere long will be a place
That everyone admires.
Now green lucerne in verdant spots
Bedecks our thriving city,
Whilst vines and fruit trees grace our lots,
With flowers sweet and pretty.
Where once the grass in single blades
Grew a mile apart in distance.
And it kept the crickets on the go,
To pick up their subsistence.
The sun it is so scorching hot,
It makes the water sizz, Sir.
The reason that it is so hot,
Is just because it is, Sir.
The wind like fury here doth blow,
That when we plant or sow, Sir,
We place one foot upon the seed,
And hold it till it grows, Sir.
(Reprinted from Utah Historical Quarterly 28 [July 1961], 222.)
WHO’S IN CHARGE HERE?
As a teacher, one of my favorite stories concerns Karl G. Maeser, a German immigrant who became Principal of Brigham Young Academy (predecessor to Brigham Young University) in 1876. His duties as president did not release him from teaching, and he was an effective and inspiring teacher. Among his students were such notables as Reed Smoot, George Sutherland, William H. King, Alice Louise Reynolds, William Spry, Bryant S. Hinckley, James E. Talmage, George Albert Smith and J. Golden Kimball. (I leave it to you to Google those whose names you do not already know.) As Alma Burton tells one story about him:
He endeared his pupils to him by his ready wit and his ability to meet situations that called for quick thinking. According to his daughter, Eva, he had a motto: “Never take a joke, always get it back, and never let it hurt you.” One morning he was detained from getting to devotional services on time. A group of his students brought in a jackass and tied it up in front of the assembly where the Principal always stood and conducted the exercises. When Brother Maeser arrived he walked up to the donkey and addressing the congregation said: “Dat is right, dat is right, when I cannot be present at our meetings appoint one of your number to preside.” (Alma P. Burton, “Karl G. Maeser: Mormon Educator [Master’s thesis, Brigham Young University, 1950], 94.)
WE CAN’T IGNORE J. GOLDEN KIMBALL!
Whenever we mention Mormon humor most of us (at least those of us of the older generation) immediately think of J. Golden Kimball. Elder Kimball served as one of the seven presidents of the Seventy from 1892 to 1938. He became a folk legend for his humor, his trickery, and his sometimes salty language. This was picked up from his days as a mule driver and, later, a rancher in Rich County. A common cliché in the West was “You can’t be a mule driver if you can’t swear!” He was also full of practical wisdom, often expressed in humor or seen in the stories about him. Many of the stories we hear are probably mythical, but there are many that really happened. What follows are a few of them.
He was sometimes a little self-depreciating, as the following story told by Austin Fife suggests:
His nephew once asked him, “Uncle Golden, people laugh every time you begin a sermon. Do you intend to be funny?” “No, I don’t. I don’t expect it at all. But they laugh at me anyway. I don’t know why. I say what others say. Now take Apostle Ballard [Melvin J. Ballard]. He can get up and say, ‘Brethren and sisters, I haven’t prepared a sermon today. What I’m going to say the Lord alone knows.’ And then he’ll preach ’em a fine sermon. I get up and say the same thing: ‘Brethren and sisters, God only knows what I’m going to tell you.’ And they all laugh!” (Austin Fife, Saints of Sage and Saddle [Indianapolis: Indiana University Press, 1956], 312.
Elder Kimball was known for sometimes swearing in his talks, but, legendary and otherwise inspirational as he was, he seemed to be unable to quit, as the following story suggests:
In an outlying ward a young man, known in the small community to be profane in his language, applied to his bishop for a recommend to go to the temple to be married. But the bishop, concerned about the man’s worthiness to go the Lord’s house because of his swearing, asked if he would quite swearing. The man said he was afraid he couldn’t, he’d used the language so long. So the bishop told him to go to President Grant and ask him if he could go to the temple. In Salt Lake City the man went to the Church offices. President Grant’s secretary, after consulting the President, told the man to go to Brother Kimball’s office and he would handle the case. Alerted to the problem, J. Golden Kimball invited the man into his office and before the man presented the problem said, “Well, young man, so you have a problem with swearing! But you can quit. Hell, I did.” (Thomas S. Cheney, The Golden Legacy: A folk History of J. Golden Kimball (Provo: BYU Press,1973), 100-101.
J. Golden the humorous problem solver is illustrated by the following story:
In a stake in Idaho the spirit of criticism and apostasy threatened to destroy the church. J. Golden Kimball took a quartette and went there to hold some meetings and get the people on the right track, the seventies in particular. Attracted by his style of preaching, they came from far and near. He began the meeting by dividing the quartette, having two members on the one side of the house sing “Come, Come Saints,” while on the opposite side the other two sang “O Ye Mountains High.”
Immediately he followed with these and other remarks: “How do you like that singing? Sounds like hell, doesn’t it?
“Now you people up here are working like that. Part are pulling one way and part another. You have forgotten the Lord and how be blessed you. When you settled here, there were little drizzling streams coming out of these canyons, hardly enough water to give a canary bird a drink. The Lord has increased the streams and multiplied your crops until you have prospered and become independent. Now you have forgotten him. And there is contention among you, and you are pulling about the way that first song went. And if you continue you will not prosper. God will not give you a damn thing.”
The leader of the apostate gang, who was at the meeting, must have felt these remarks were aimed directly at him, for every time the speaker made a new point he would sink deeper into his seat. The next day he remarked to a group of his followers in dissent, “What Golden Kimball he say ain’t true. No, it ain’t true. But I’m damned scart it is true.” (Cheney, The Kimball Legend, 79-80.)
J. Golden the trickster is illustrated by one of the most famous stories about him. It took place at a time when, once a year, General Authorities attending stake conferences read the interminable list of all the general and stake officers of the Church, including the auxiliaries.
Once this irksome task fell to Kimball’s lot. ‘It has been proposed,” he said, “that we sustain Brother Heber J. Grant as prophet, seer, and revelator of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. All in favor make it manifest by the raising of the right hand; opposed, if nay, by the same sign. . . . It has been proposed that we sustain Brother Anthony W. Ivins, as. . . .” On and on it went, monotonous and tiresome like the ticking of a clock. J. Golden looked up from his list and noticed that his audience was nodding, on the very verge of sleep. In the same monotonous tone he continued: “It has been proposed that Mount Nebo be moved from its present site in Juab County and be placed on the Utah-Idaho border. All in favor make it manifest by raising the right hand; opposed by the same sign.” Guffaws from the few who were still awake revived the congregation and the ritual was completed in due course. (Cheney, The Kimball Legend, 80-81.)
THE PROBLEM WITH TRANSLATION IS. . . .
Frederick W. Babel’s book, On Wings of Faith, tells the heartwarming story of LDS relief efforts in Europe after World War II. At one point in the story he recalled an interesting experience in Germany, in the days before the war:
In commenting upon this matter, I could not help recalling a particular job of translating I once did for Elder Richard R. Lyman when he was serving as European Mission President before the war. I was serving as his translator in Leipzig, Germany, in the spring of 1937. It was a cold day and he began by saying, “Many are cold, but few are frozen,” a take-off on the scripture “Many are called, but few are chosen.” This usually resulted in a hearty laugh from American audiences.
Realizing that this joke could not be translated into German and still come out funny, I said to the saints in German: “President Lyman has told you a joke that is funny in English. He expects all of you to laugh.” They did so. At this, President Lyman put his arm around my shoulder and said, “You’re the best translator I’ve ever had!” (Frederick W. Babel, On Wings of Faith [Salt Lake City: Bookcraft, 1972]. 174.)
I don’t know if the following story is true, so you may want to just consider it apocryphal. But whether true or not, it’s fun, some form of it is part of Mormon missionary folklore, and something like it could well have happened.
Back in the days before missionaries went to the Language Training Mission they had to learn the language on the job, and it usually took them quite a while to carry on a gospel conversation in the native tongue of whatever country they were sent to. The story is told of a pair of missionaries who were called upon to bless a sister who was ill. The seasoned senior companion, thinking it would be good for the “greenie” to pronounce the blessing (supposedly he had been tutored in various prayers and ordinances) anointed the sister then called on his companion to seal the anointing and give her a blessing. When the two left the house the senior companion burst out laughing. “What’s the matter?” the new elder asked. His older companion put a comforting hand on his shoulder and confided: “You didn’t bless her, you ordained her an elder!” (Presumably the woman did not understand the elder as he struggled with her language. Presumably, also, in this case the Lord accepted the good intent as valid.)
FUN THINGS HAPPEN IN CHURCH
In November 1929 the Improvement Era published an article by Bryant S. Hinckley (father of Gordon B. Hinckley), who, at that time, was President of the Liberty Stake. Here are two of the stories he told:
Most Latter-day Saint bishops are obliged to make a living in addition to carrying the responsibilities of their ecclesiastical office, and one smiles and forgives the bishop who, announcing the hymn in a religious gathering, said, “We will now sing from page three dollars and fifty cents.”
A girl in the Primary wrote the following composition on monkeys:
“A monkey is an animal that wears a red cap and has a long tail. Monkeys have four feet; cows also have four feet, one on each corner. The other day me and my sister were going through a pasture and one of the cows ran after us and helped us over the fence—that was the other cow's husband.”
A few weeks ago my bishop was the first speaker in Sacrament meeting. He began his talk by telling one of the funny things that happened in his family. It went something like this:
When his oldest son (now on a mission) was four years old the family spent an evening at Chuck E. Cheese’s. The food, he said, was questionable, and there was a lot of noise—so much so that it gave him a headache. But the four-year-old loved it (which illustrates beautifully a difference between generations). The following Sunday the family was getting ready for Church, but the four-year-old said he did not want to go. “Why not?” the father asked. The boy said he wanted to go to that other church. “What other church?” “The Church of Chucky Jesus!”
BREAK FORTH INTO JOY, SING TOGETHER (Isaiah 52:9)
In 1972 the annual meeting of the Mormon History Association (MHA) was held in Independence, Missouri, the headquarters of the Reorganized Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints (now known as the Community of Christ). Members of MHA included anyone interested in Mormon history, so in attendance were members of both the LDS and RLDS churches, as well some who were members of neither. At an evening banquet an address was given by the RLDS Church Historian, Richard P. Howard. He talked about the development of hymns in both traditions. At one point he noted that there were several hymns that the two churches had in common. One was “Redeemer of Israel.” He then suggested that we all sing it—the whole group singing the first verse, the RLDS group singing the second verse, and then the “Utah Mormons” singing verse 3. So we began.
First verse, by the whole group:
Redeemer of Israel,
Our only delight
On whom for a blessing we call. . . .
Then the second verse, sung by the RLDS group:
We know he is coming
To gather his sheep
And lead them to Zion in love. . . .
Then the Utah Mormons began to sing the third verse:
How long we have wandered
As strangers in sin,
And cried in the desert for thee. . . .
We hardly got started before we realized that we had been “had.” Everyone in the room burst out in laughter, and that ended the singing. And now, every time we sing that song in church I am reminded of that delightful practical joke played on the “Brighamites” by a “Josephite.”
NEED YOUR HOME TEACHING DONE?
And then, of course, the rise of technology has led to all kinds of humorous internet satire and spoofs, such as the Zion Home Teaching Service:
Zion Home Teaching Service
We care when you don’t have time to.
Home teaching getting you down? Can’t get that annoying Priesthood Leader off your back? Home Teaching interfering with your TV and Golf? We can help! At Zion’s Home Teaching Service we’ll do your Home Teaching for you. For a small monetary fee we will send one of our trained representatives to the homes of your families.
Basic Visit. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . $10
Basic Visit plus Spiritual Message . . . . . . . . $15
Birthday and anniversary cards in addition
to the Basic Visit and Spiritual Message. . . . . . $20
PLEASE NOTE: Because of heavy volume, an extra $15 will be added for the last day of the month.
The web site goes on to offer all kinds of additional services (for appropriate fees, of course), such as meeting attendance, (the best value is 3-hour Sunday Block--$50), preparing talks and lessons (all talks are guaranteed to last 15 minutes, with $1 added for each additional minute), and food for all ward occasions.… Author unknown http://mormonsite.wordpress.com/ (Note: If you go to this website and see the name Allen, it is not me.)
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