My Grandfather, The Mormon Apostle

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This is not the place for a discourse on the Mormon theology, but briefly and to oversimplify, the Mormons believe that a very intense and charismatic young man named Joseph Smith discovered the true church when the Angel Moroni led him to a set of golden tablets on a hill near Manchester, New York, in the 1820s. Over the course of a few years, using magical glass stones, Smith translated the “reformed Egyptian” script on the plates, and he published his translations as the Book of Mormon in 1830. That same year he organized the Church of Latter-day Saints, which, among other things, proclaimed that Jesus would return to St. Joseph’s County, Missouri, to establish the millennium and that the Latter-day Saints would be the only followers he would acknowledge to have practiced the true faith.

Smith is believed to have pursued polygamy in the early years of the church, having had, he said, revelations in 1831 and 1843 that God intended him and all true Mormons to have more than one wife. But polygamy was not made official doctrine until 1852, after Smith had been murdered in Carthage, Illinois, and Brigham Young had led the Mormons across the plains to the promised land in Utah. A Mormon properly married would, after he had crossed the vale of death, preside forever at the head of his “celestial kingdom,” made up of his wives (preferably at least three) and all his children by all his wives.

It was an attractive doctrine not only for men but for women, of whom there were always many on the frontier. Having their own children and a shared husband was obviously better than no husband at all. And large families meant more men to build the new kingdom on earth and more women to help perpetuate the true religion and build celestial kingdoms in the hereafter.

One of the first things I learned in pursuit of our grandfather was that his father—our great-grandfather, about whom I had known virtually nothing—was a truly dashing character. He, in my opinion, was the proper protagonist for the historical novel.

Hiram Bradley Clawson and his widowed mother had joined the Mormons in Nauvoo, Illinois, in 1841. H.B., as he was known, was fifteen and precocious, with a flair for dramatics. Encouraged by Joseph Smith, he became active in the theater, performing with, among others, Brigham Young. In 1847, when he was twenty-one, H.B. drove his mother and sisters across the plains in the second wave of Mormons to reach the Salt Lake Valley. Young, who had led the first wave, immediately put him to work, and ultimately H.B. became the manager of all Young’s personal affairs, which was no small job. Young’s household, with his twenty-seven wives, would eventually number seventy people. During the period when Utah was at war with the federal government, H.B. was also Young’s bodyguard, and he carried a derringer, which eventually was passed on to Rudger Clawson and is now one of my cherished possessions.

 

One of the most long-standing of American traditions is to marry the boss’s daughter. H.B. married two of them—Alice and Emily Young. His first wife, Ellen, recorded the arrival of Alice in a letter to a friend: “Just ten days ago, Hiram brought home a new wife, no more or less than Miss Alice Young, the governor’s daughter...you know a new wife is a new thing and I know it is impossible for him to feel any different towards her just at present....I think perhaps Margaret feels worse than I do, for she was the last, and I suppose thought he would never get another.”

Our papers do not show precisely how the former Margaret Gay Judd, the “mother of drama” in Utah and our great-grandmother, felt about her husband’s bringing home the governor’s daughter, but we decided she was not too keen about it. It is known that in most, if not all, Mormon households, the arrival of a new wife was a time of tension and discord. And when H.B. brought Alice Young home, Margaret was four months pregnant with Rudger.

H.B. had met and courted Margaret during the period when he and John T. Caine brought theater to the Salt Lake Valley. Their efforts culminated in the building of the Salt Lake Theater in 1862. Rudger’s account of his father and mother’s courtship provides us with one of our first glimpses of Rudger’s charm and wit: “He wooed her not before the curtain on the mimic stage but behind the scenes and won her—won her over and above and in spite of the impetuous attentions of other loves. On the stage the love scenes were simply make-believe. Off the stage his lovemaking was in dead earnest and had he been less insistent, less determined, less attentive, less romantic in his courtship, he would have lost the prize, and in the last analysis where would I have been?”

Rudger, born in 1857, grew up in a family that eventually included four wives and forty-four children, although there were only about half that number around during his childhood. And he became a young man with a firm belief in the Book of Mormon. “By careful study of that glorious book,” he wrote in his memoirs, “well defined ideas of right and wrong were firmly fixed in my youthful mind.”