Orson F. Whitney: Apostle, Writer, Advocate for Heavenly Mother (Pt 1)

by Martin Pulido

The “A Mother Here Art and Poetry Contest” is looking for 2-dimensional visual arts pieces and poems that portray Heavenly Mother. The contest will accept entries up until March 4, 2014, and $2200 in prizes will be awarded when the best entries are announced on May 11, 2014. For more details, visit www.amotherhere.com. The contest is being sponsored by Exponent II, Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought, Sunstone, Peculiar Pages, LDS WAVE, and Segullah.

As part of the A Mother Here Art and Poetry Contest, I have been giving attention to historical figures who wrote about or visually portrayed Heavenly Mother. In this multi-part series, I will highlight the work of Mormon apostle and poet Orson F. Whitney. While Whitney only mentions Heavenly Mother in two of his literary works, the apostle was an adamant advocate of Heavenly Mother throughout his public life. In fact, there has been no general authority before or since Whitney who has spoken or written on more occasions about Heavenly Mother than he. In the first post, I will sketch a quick biography of Whitney, the second will focus on his writings discussing Heavenly Mother, and a third will offer a hymn in honor of his work.

His Life. Apostle Orson F. Whitney (1855 – 1931) was something of an oddity to the Mormon community. In an era where male church leadership and membership largely consisted of self-made craftsmen and pioneers, Whitney was not a frontiersman. His bread was not earned through the labor of his hands, besides a short stint as a railroad worker at the age of 13. He had no taste for it. He was among a new generation of latter-day saints who knew not the Prophet, nor the eastern states from which the Saints came: he was a child of Deseret. Whitney lusted for culture largely absent in his surroundings. He longed to be an actor, a musician, and later on a writer, poet, and scholar. He wasn’t going to merely consume culture, he was going to create it.

As a youth, spirituality and religion mattered little to him. He was baptized at 11, and held no priesthood office at all until being ordained an elder at 18. At age 21 he was called to serve a mission, a calling he accepted despite his lack of preparation and the way it intervened with his theatrical aspirations. He admitted to being initially a lackluster missionary, more interested in newspaper correspondence than the labors of ministry. It was an intense religious experience where he witnessed the Savior’s suffering in Gethsemane, and spoke with the resurrected Christ in a dream, that proved the catalyst for his change in attitude. Whitney blossomed into a successful missionary when sent to work alone in Ohio, where his talents as a writer and orator were markably enhanced.


Upon returning from his mission, he found a job at the Deseret News. Many of his acquaintances doubted he would remain committed to gospel principles, but he proved them wrong. To his great surprise during a church meeting, he was called and sustained to be a bishop of the Salt Lake Eighteenth ward. The surprise wasn’t just because he was young and no one had informed him of the calling; Whitney wasn’t married, so being called to be a Bishop wasn’t supposed to be possible. While he resolved that problem the following year in 1879, marrying Zina Beal Smoot, Whitney didn’t serve for long before being called to work for the editorial department of the Millennial Star in London. While away from from his wife, his second child was born and died. He returned to his duties in 1884 — both familial and pastoral as bishop — and left the Deseret News to work as a treasurer in the local government.

From there on out, his career oscillated between political and academic positions, while trying to find time for his families (Whitney practiced polygamy, marrying May Wells) and his congregation, and his desire to publish. He managed to write some successful biographical, historical (such as his History of Utah), and literary (poetry) works, of which his epic Elias is perhaps the most recognized today. Whitney was caught up in the issues of his day that affected his community. During the heat of the crusade against polygamy, Whitney was the Mormon appointed to hold LDS services at the penitentiary, visiting and preaching to the Mormon apostles and members of the First Presidency. Few know this, but Whitney was actually the person selected to read aloud the manifesto written by Wilford Woodruff officially ending the practice of polygamy in the LDS church. After the end of the practice, Whitney sought for the protection of aged polygamists from persecution. He took a leading part in the great woman suffrage debate, his speeches published in pamphlets, and he successfully worked to secure women’s right to vote, arguing against opponents such as prominent LDS intellectual B. H. Roberts. Women had always voted in the church, Whitney observed, so why shouldn’t they be able to vote in their nation?

At the turn of the century, Whitney served in the Church Historian’s office, before being called to be an Apostle by President Joseph F. Smith. The Quorum of the Twelve had recently had three vacancies, due to two apostles resigning over a dispute regarding the manifesto forbidding plural marriage and the death of another. His oratory and writing skills were put to good use, as he preached across the stakes of Zion, published pastoral articles in church periodicals, and delivered spiritual lectures broadcast over the KSL radio station.

In the next post, I will explore some of Whitney’s writings regarding Heavenly Mother.


Caroline is a PhD student in Women's Studies in Religion and mother of three.

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