Golden

Why are we Mormons so damn intrigued by J. Golden Kimball? We love to tell stories about our famous “swearing apostle” (who was actually a Seventy, not an apostle). Publishers have printed volumes of stories and vignettes about the man, and some fraction of the stories are probably even true. Elder Kimball is credited with lines like:

-“Some people say a person receives a position in this church through revelation, and others say they get it through inspiration, but I say they get it through relation. If I hadn’t been related to Heber C. Kimball I wouldn’t have been a damn thing in this church”;
-[after asking bretheren in a stake conference to stand up if they had never tried alcohol or tobacco] “Well, brethren, you don’t know what the hell you’ve missed.”;
-[at a funeral] “Bishop, just who the hell is dead here anyway?”;
-“I love all of the brethren, but I love some a hell of a lot more than I do others.”;
-“I understand you brethren can’t go on missions because you swear too much. You can overcome it. Hell, I did.”;
-and, of course, “They can’t excommunicate me; I repent too damned fast”;

So what is the allure of J. Golden Kimball? I’m not entirely sure myself, but here are a few thoughts.

First, J. Golden Kimball seems genuine. Members sometimes learn of church leaders with hidden sins — bishops or stake presidents who are busted for child abuse or pornography, for example. It is easy to suspect the worst about church members and leaders, imagining that their closets are full of skeletons, while they show up regularly and smile at sacrament meeting. In contrast, Golden’s public persona was one of transparency. His comments convey a sense of salt-of-the-earth genuineness — “I won’t lie to you or B.S. you; I’ll say things like they are, and I won’t hide my own faults.”

Second, an imperfect church leader allows members to be more comfortable with our own imperfections. Nephi is an awfully hard ideal to try to match; Golden is an easier standard. It is reassuring to note that even church leaders have their faults.

Third, Golden was funny. If he were simply profane, no one would bother to remember him. But he used profanity to be funny, and everyone remembers a funny line.

There are doubtless other reasons for Golden’s resonance with Mormon everymen and -women as well. Which of these reasons, if any, for Golden’s popularity — or which other potential reasons that I’ve missed — might be applicable today? Are we happy to leave Golden in the colorful past, as we tune in to very profanity-free general conference sessions? Would we be better or worse if current leaders let out a few damns every now and then?

Personally, I think I prefer things the way they are now. But then again, what the hell do I know anyway?

26 comments for “Golden

  1. Nate Oman
    October 27, 2005 at 6:45 am

    My grandmother gave me a printed collection of all of his “Tabranacle sermons.” They is surprisingly little profanity in them (although the stenographer and the publisher no doubt cleaned them up). It was a little disappointing. On the other hand, as sermons they are really wonderful — funny, punchy, practical, and full of lots of good exhortation. They ramble at times. You can tell there was no teleprompter.

  2. October 27, 2005 at 8:57 am

    Part of the appeal is the slighly wicked pleasure of having a perfectly justifiable excuse to use a little profanity. After all, it can’t be wrong to say it–it’s a quote from a General Authority!

  3. Mark IV
    October 27, 2005 at 9:06 am

    It wasn’t the profanity so much as the novelty, and his eye for irony. He said things that nobody else would say, and he said them in ways that people would remember. If we focus very much on his very mild profanity, we are missing the man.

  4. David Allred
    October 27, 2005 at 10:39 am

    Bert Wilson has written a great article on J. Golden (published in a national folklore journal) exploring his position as a Mormon trickster figure–an (often) legendary figure who transgresses cultural norms and who is, at times, even foolish, yet who ultimately maintains cultural order. (Bert’s article even goes further in the analysis of course).

    But this provides another answer to Kaimi’s question about J. Golden’s popularity: many cultures have trickster figures. Coyote or Nanabozho in some Native American traditions are two examples, and Brer Rabbit in African American traditions is yet another. I even heard a lecture once on a trickster figure in Serbian epic poetry. So Mormons’ J. Golden Kimball stories are also evidence that Mormons are simply human (once again, I think of Bert Wilson’s work).

  5. Jed
    October 27, 2005 at 10:41 am

    Kimball is the Trickster, a character everyone loves when no one measures up perfectly. Every family, town, and religion has people like him.

  6. Jed
    October 27, 2005 at 10:43 am

    Hi, David. You read my mind. That makes you a trickster, too.

  7. Tim Bauer
    October 27, 2005 at 10:44 am

    First of all, let me say that I’ve never posted, just ‘lurked’ for the last few months enjoying many of the posts here. But I couldn’t resist the opportunity to weigh in on this one because it brought a smile to my face this morning.

    When I first started coming to church as an investigator, I was intimidated by the apparent perfection by the members. Granted, everyone puts on their ‘sunday best’ at church (not just talking about suits), but to me, it appeared as if I was drenched with iniquity and I felt dirty. Everyone was so kind in that ward, my first ward, but I still felt as if I could never measure up to that bar.

    When I heard about J. Golden, about 6 months after joining the Church, his appeal was immediate for me. Here was a man just like I was: He loved the Lord but he was different than everyone else, his imperfections were very visible and that appealed to me. Although at this point, I was cleansed from the waters of baptism and the gift of the Holy Ghost, sometimes I just felt different for my checkered past. When I read his talks, it is apparent that he couldn’t leave the cowboy days fully behind, only retaining some minorly offensive habits, but he sustained the brethren, served the Lord, and tried to build the Kingdom of God.

    I wouldn’t go so far as to say J. Golden was my “friend” in the gospel that President Hinckley has said every new convert needs, but I will say he sure was a great fellowshipper.

  8. David Allred
    October 27, 2005 at 10:45 am

    Are you calling me a fool–or one who maintains cultural cohesion?

    Good to run into you in the Bloggernacle, Jed.

  9. October 27, 2005 at 10:48 am

    He’s funny. He makes us laugh. Apparantly he was a quirky figure, even physically, which adds to the humor. (There’s the story where he walked in ZCMI, all 6 foot something and weighing less than 200 pounds and said to the clerk, “I’d like to see a suit that fits me, please.” The clerk looks at his lanky frame and says, “Hell, so would I!” I don’t know if that story is really true, but it’s a good one!”) He had a high sqeaky voice, like Marvin the Martian, and like his coffee. He sparred with Heber J. Grant more than once, and yet truly seemed to love and serve the Lord. Of course we all love him. Anything for a little entertainment in General Conference.

  10. October 27, 2005 at 10:49 am

    FYI–

    J. Golden Kimball was also *gasp* a DEMOCRAT!

  11. Julie in Austin
    October 27, 2005 at 11:16 am

    Tim Bauer–

    Thanks for your comment. Fabulous stuff.

    Jonathan Stone–Spot on. I once used an anecdote from Hugh B. Brown in a SS lesson and introduced it by saying, “Now, this contains some profanity, but since I’m quoting a member of the 1P, it must be OK.” It was delicious.

  12. Seth Rogers
    October 27, 2005 at 11:19 am

    I think he appeals to the snark within all of us.

  13. Jeremy
    October 27, 2005 at 11:32 am

    I think Tim (and others) have articulated the appeal to those of us who find the airbrushed “posed by models” pics in the Ensign so depressing (and foreign). J. Golden helped to differentiate “cosmetic morality” from actual morality; some of us have a hard enough time trying to maintain the latter that we don’t have much energy left for the former.

  14. Wilfried
    October 27, 2005 at 11:52 am

    Tim: “I wouldn’t go so far as to say J. Golden was my “friend” in the gospel that President Hinckley has said every new convert needs, but I will say he sure was a great fellowshipper.”

    Very well put! I think we would keep more converts active with a Golden as fellowshipper. Sometimes a little relativization and the acceptance of our imperfections may help at crucial moments.

  15. Wade Poulson
    October 27, 2005 at 12:43 pm

    Great post Kaimi.

    Yet, I think the current “mormon” perceptions of Nephi and others are not as accurate as the scriptures themselves would portray. Sure, there are many examples of Nephi’s flawless obedience, but what of his insights in 2 Nephi ch. 4: “O wretched man that I am! Yea, my heart sorroweth because of my flesh; my soul grieveth because of mine iniquities.” And what of the Brother of Jared’s prayer: “O Lord, do not be angry with thy servant because of his weakness before thee; for we know that thou art holy and dwellest in the heavens, and that we are unworthy before thee; because of the fall our natures have become evil continually….”, and don’t forget Alma the prodigal? I think it may be slightly disingenuous to actually believe that “Nephi is an awfully hard ideal to try to match.” If so, why have any ideals at all? I think many of us, including myself, often discount the role of grace and place too much emphasis on merit – however critically important merit is. I think facade should only extend so far, but do believe it plays an important role!

  16. JrL
    October 27, 2005 at 1:05 pm

    I’ve always wondered which of the J Golden stories are true. I recall hearing that when Thomas Cheney published “Golden Legacy: A Folk History of J. Golden Kimball,” some complained that not everything in the book was true — not understanding what a “folk history” is.

  17. October 27, 2005 at 1:47 pm

    Nice post.

  18. Don
    October 27, 2005 at 2:38 pm

    My father has two sides, the one before he became active again in the church and the one after he became active. He brought one thing with him thru to his active side and that was his damns, and hells…he reminds me of J. Golden and maybe that’s why I love them both.

  19. BAC
    October 27, 2005 at 3:53 pm

    JGK appeals to me because he appears to be one of the few leaders who has remained ‘touchable’ as they have ‘climbed the ranks.’ It seems that most church leaders, and sometimes understandably so, become cleansed of their earlier life as a human and become, dare I say, no fun – immediately upon being called as a Bishop, Stake President, etc.

    I remember my Sunday School teacher once brought in a TV and cable hook up and we watched a Suns playoff game. He rationalized it by saying that Danny Ainge (then with the Suns) was a Mormon and the outcome of the game could affect his pay, and therefore affect his tithing. Quite a stretch, but it was ‘fun’. Upon being called as a Bishop in the ward he forgot all about this incident.

  20. October 27, 2005 at 4:11 pm

    Another way of looking at J. Golden Kimball: perhaps his edgy humor was a continuation of a tradition started by Joseph Smith himself, who sometimes apologized for his playful nature. Having a sense of humor doesn’t fit the stereotype people have of prophets or General Authorities, but it does endear them to the membership.

  21. Brent
    October 27, 2005 at 8:48 pm

    “Why are we Mormons so damn intrigued by J. Golden Kimball?”

    So he let in a hell or a damn every once in a while. *Yawn* No disrespect, Elder Kimball, but you’re not that intriguing. Comical, yes…intriguing, no.

    And I would have said “damned intrigued”. The end.

  22. Mike
    October 28, 2005 at 3:49 pm

    I trace my Priesthood lineage through J. Golden Kimball. He was a good friend of my great-grand father and was asked to ordain my grandfather an Elder before he departed on a mission to the Southern States almost 100 years ago. (Actually my grandmother didn’t much care for JGK and said he was a disgrace).

    Many of the insights above are right on the mark according to my family lore. Some additional insight. JGK and Heber J. Grant were close childhood friends. Both of their father’s were in the First Presidency of Brigham Young. They worked and played together as children and wrote to each other as young missionaries. As adults they continued to play off each other. J. Golden preached to the back row and Heber preached to the front row. HJG was strict and JGK was a trickster. When you realize this it adds another level of humor to the stories about their apparent conflict. They actually liked each other and preferred the company of each other to most everyone else. Heber getting on J.Golden for his coffee and his swearing. J.Golden getting on Heber for being too strict and stuffy.

    The church of that time had to move beyond the pioneer era and the era of post manifesto polygamy into a time of more sophistication. Even moreso than today the bar was being lifted. Acceptable behavior had to be more than what passed for normal down on the farm. We idolize the pioneers and they were heroic in many ways but they had their faults and many changes were needed. Word of Wisdon comes to mind, along with many other examples. Some of the Saints made these adjustments easily and others with difficulty. JGK was there for the later group and it was important that they be brought along as well. He also acted as a balance to overzeal and excesses.

    If you really think about some of his stories, they are both funny in a superficial way but they have another level where they are quite profound. For example; “They’ll never cut me off, I repent too damn fast.” Funny but so true. We need to repent quickly when we are wrong. JKG was rather intelligent in his eccentric way.

    Another of my favorite stories. Heber had a nice singing voice and could sing from memory every song in the hymn book. Often he punctuated his sermons with a song. Heber pointed out that as a child he couldn’t recognize one note from another and his talent was due to hard work more than a gift from God. J. Golden got up once after this sermon and while waving a dollar bill around in the air said: “I bet that young Heber could have recognized one note from another if they’d of been bank notes.” Which was a direct slam on HJG business abilities and the church’s movement towards a corporate culture. Funny but a profound description of a trade-off our church has made and it is still with us today which is why we think it is funny.

    As far as those who want to be so historically accurate and want to document exactly when and where he said what: J.Golden was once asked if most of the stories about him were true and whether he really had said all those things. He replied: “No , I didn’t say half of the things attributed to me, but I wished to hell I had.”

    We need another J. Golden Kimball today. At least I do.

  23. October 28, 2005 at 9:07 pm

    I has not heard of him before a few years ago and I can say why I like him from what I heard.

    He seems honest about himself. While most other members try to fit in and become part of the crowd and act like the perfect sinless member Golden didn’t He was honest about his failings and humanity. I think if more GA’s let out a curse here and there the term “Suffed shirt” may not be synonomous with SLC.

  24. Kevin Ashworth
    October 29, 2005 at 1:15 am

    Confused by some quotation marks in the initial post. Are you saying that he said “B.S.” or that he said “bullshit”? Or that he simply had a certain attitude that you express in a made-up sentence with the euphemistic initialism? I suspect it’s the latter and that your quote marks are out of place.

    I’ve always heard just damns and hells attributed to this man. But a ‘shit’ or two would make a nice addition to the lore.

  25. October 29, 2005 at 2:12 pm

    I would not want to hear current GA’s having a “J. Golden Kimball moment” in terms of curse words.

    What would have a better effect, along a similar line, is to not wear white shirts and ties in inappropriate situations, like visiting disaster areas in the immediate aftermath.

    Seeing photos of church leaders (whether GA’s or not) wearing white shirts and ties in Indonesia shortly after the tsunami seemed very out of place. As it did in some photos of the GA’s visiting Katrina refugees and survivors.

    There are times when seeing a white shirt and tie is reassuring. But in dire circumstances, or their immediate aftermath, where people have escaped with nothing but the clothes they were wearing, it seems to put a distance between those wearing the shirt/tie and those who have nothing.

  26. Kaimi Wenger
    November 14, 2005 at 11:32 pm

    Another reason to have more J Golden Kimball moments:

    http://www.ksl.com/?nid=148&sid=128255

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