Robert Kirby: 1920 — when worldly concerns met spiritual counsel in LDS General Conference

Robert Kirby

A century ago, on Oct. 8, 1920, thousands of Latter-day Saints packed Temple Square to get the latest word from church leaders.

Just like today, worldly matters then competed with spiritual counsel for the attention of those lending their ears in the Tabernacle.

For example, the headline of the Deseret News that particular day was, “Ninety-first Semi-Annual Conference Opens,” followed by the equally eye-catching: “Salt Laker Found With Throat Cut.”

No doubt people were relieved that it wasn’t Charles W. Nibley, the church’s presiding bishop and general manager of the Utah-Idaho Sugar Co., who was in the news for being threatened with death by persons unknown unless he paid a $10,000 ransom.

Note: Since Nibley lived another 11 years before dying of pneumonia, it can be argued that the blackmailers were either incompetent or not serious in the first place. Also, the dead man was found in the restroom on a train in Montana.

President Heber J. Grant opened the conference at 10 a.m. He praised a wealthy couple for bequeathing their mansion to the church. He encouraged members not to leave all their substance to posterity, but rather give a portion of it to the church.

This advice came a short time before Rudger Clawson told rank-and-file Latter-day Saints to get out — and stay out — of debt. The apostle didn’t mention requiring all of one’s inheritance to accomplish this.

Grant then spoke about forgiveness, recalling when he was the youngest member of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles and had for several years opposed the rebaptism of a man who had committed adultery. The Lord had changed his heart and caused him to relent.

He would need the experience. Sitting nearby, was apostle Richard R. Lyman, who in a few years would be caught “fooling around” with a woman not his wife.

Grant was the president in 1943, when two apostles and Salt Lake City police officers forcibly entered a modest apartment on Capitol Hill and found Lyman in bed with the woman. He was promptly excommunicated.

It would take Lyman 11 years to regain admission. He died in 1963 but never returned to the quorum.

Clawson emphasized one of the great evils assailing the church in 1920 — cigarettes. He quoted the great inventor Thomas A. Edison.

“The injurious agent in cigarettes comes principally from the burning paper wrapper. … It has a violent action on the nerve centers, producing degeneration of the cells of the brain which is quite rapid among boys.”

Since chewing tobacco, pipes and cigars didn’t require burning paper, presumably they weren’t as dangerous and were therefore — for a time at least — still tolerated.

It should be noted that Edison was prominent in the headlines of the day for getting something else wrong. He was working on a device he was sure would allow the living to communicate with the dead. Since such a machine would have negated a need for a living prophet, it’s probably why Clawson didn’t mention it.

Times have changed. Just imagine the shock in 1920 if members had been told that the day was coming when we would be able to stay home in our pajamas and still see as well as hear every word spoken in conference.

Robert Kirby is The Salt Lake Tribune’s humor columnist. Follow Kirby on Facebook.