At the height of the Cold War in the late 1970s, when the United States and Russia were amassing their nuclear arsenals, Congress and the military were pressuring top officials in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints to endorse deploying MX missiles in Utah’s West Desert.
Though a large national and regional coalition of peacemakers was protesting the move, one man was able to get the Utah-based faith to oppose it — Ed Firmage.
Firmage, who died in Salt Lake City on Oct. 3 at 85, had strong connections to the church hierarchy.
His grandfather, Hugh B. Brown, had been in the governing First Presidency, and young Firmage had become well known to Latter-day Saint leadership all his life.
Over several years, Firmage huddled dozens of times with then-President Spencer W. Kimball and other top church leaders to lobby against the missile project, said Firmage’s son, Ed Firmage Jr. “Dad always came with reams of papers, which included quotes from other church leaders, about being pacifists.”
In one early-morning meeting, Firmage Jr. recalled, the aging Kimball turned to his dad and said, “Eddy, you have to understand we are all nearly blind. I want you to take as long as you need to tell us what we need to know.”
Obviously, the young lawyer was successful.
In 1981, the church came out strongly against the proposed missile project. Once it did, Utah politicians lined up against it. too.
“Our fathers came to this Western area to establish a base from which to carry the gospel of peace to the peoples of the Earth,” the First Presidency wrote. “It is ironic, and a denial of the very essence of that gospel, that in this same general area there should be constructed a mammoth weapons system potentially capable of destroying much of civilization.”
Firmage then had the Latter-day Saint statement hand-delivered to President Ronald Reagan, the son said, by his friend and fellow church member Richard Wirthlin, a presidential adviser.
Ultimately, the United States abandoned the project.
"I don’t think the combined efforts of others would have had any effect without the church’s stance [for which] Dad was single-handedly responsible, " Firmage Jr. said. “It was his greatest achievement.”
Randy Dryer, a Salt Lake City attorney and one of Firmage’s students, agrees with that assessment.
“Ed provided a great service to the people of Utah with his opposition to the MX missile,” said Dryer, a member of The Salt Lake Tribune’s nonprofit board of directors. He was “dogged” in his peace efforts during “a time when the fear of Russia was at a height and it was difficult to be against anything that was seen as supportive of national security.”
This was hardly Firmage’s only foray into activism.
The Provo-born Latter-day Saint never knew a Black person until he went to the University of Chicago Law School, Firmage Jr. said, and lived on the city’s South Side, where most residents were African American.
This was the 1960s and the law student threw himself into the civil rights movement. Two years after earning his law degree in 1963, Firmage got tapped to be a White House fellow, working with Vice President Hubert Humphrey as “point man” on race, the son said. The senior Firmage worked with Roy Wilkins of the NAACP.
“It was defining work for Dad,” said Firmage Jr., who works as an outdoor photographer and teaches part time at a Salt Lake City charter school.
After his D.C. stint, Firmage returned to the Beehive State to teach constitutional and international law at the University of Utah, where he remained for four decades until retirement in 2005.
He was very close to Brown, his maternal grandfather, who was a liberal Democrat. When the boy asked his granddad why he was in that particular party, Firmage recalled that Brown replied: “Eddie, I think the Democratic Party is more sensitive to the poor.”
As a top church leader, Brown opposed the faith’s priesthood and temple ban on Blacks, speaking ardently against it.
The grandson arranged secret meetings for the Mormon official with several prominent Black activists, and together “they plotted a rollout strategy,” Firmage Jr. said, in the event that the church discontinued its policy.
But that historic move didn’t come until 1978, some 2½ years after Brown’s death.
That same year, Firmage ran for Congress in Utah — and lost.
At that time, the Democratic Party in Utah was not very well financed, so Firmage and his then-wife, Gloria, had to do a lot of fundraising of their own.
“He invited me to a cupcake sale,” said Ted Wilson, former Salt Lake City mayor, “and there they were — a guy with his vision of government and the future selling cupcakes to get there.”
But Firmage was “persistent and thoughtful,” Wilson said. “He was a wonderful Democrat, an original thinker and one of the people I looked up to.”
Dryer, too, admired Firmage, especially as a law professor.
“He was very intimidating, an intellectual giant,” he said. “Ed guided lots of students to think critically, to understand what it meant to be a good lawyer, and to work within the system even if you’re in a minority position.”
There were, of course, always other causes for Firmage to pursue.
He worked on refugee rights, particularly for Tibetans, and formed a close connection with the Dalai Lama in Dharamsala, India. He spoke out on behalf of LGBTQ rights, opposing East High’s 1990s decision to ban all clubs rather than allow a gay-straight alliance. He wrote to newspapers about climate change and politics. He championed women’s equality.
In his heart, though, the son said Firmage was a spiritual seeker who explored various paths to an inner life.
He remained a Latter-day Saint of record until the day he died, but the activist drew on several other faith traditions — including Catholic, Episcopal and Buddhist — to add layers to his Mormonism.
“There was a mystic dimension that people would not normally see in Dad,” Firmage Jr. said. “He tried to incorporate some of this wherever he could in his teaching, including being notorious for teaching courses like ‘Dante and the Law.’”
During his work against the MX and on other peace issues, Firmage was profoundly influenced by his association with Franciscan nuns who built their protests on scripture and faith.
“I had great respect for Ed’s activism and spirituality,” said
Dee Rowland, retired director of the Salt Lake City Catholic Diocese’s Peace and Justice Commission. “He did not not just speak out but acted on his beliefs.”
And, she added, “always peacefully.”