My Grandfather, The Mormon Apostle

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Grandfather was sentenced to four years in prison—three and a half for polygamy and six months for unlawful cohabitation. Lydia wept in the arms of Rudger’s father; the courtroom was silent, and Rudger was as unruffled as rock when he returned to his seat after hearing his sentence.

If I was impressed by Rudger’s courage during the trial, I was even more impressed by his strength and stoicism during his imprisonment. Four years is a long time, and he had some unpleasant moments, both in solitary confinement and when he was thrown in with the prison “toughs,” in addition to being denied a normal life with his family.

The prison was located near Parley’s Canyon, on the outskirts of Salt Lake City in what is today Sugar House Park. Rudger entered his confinement with a flourish that should endear him to anyone with a literary bent. After his first week in prison, he returned briefly to Salt Lake City to hear his appeal on bail (it was denied again), and when a reporter from the Salt Lake City Herald asked him how he spent his time in prison, he replied: “Mostly by reading. I started Milton’s Paradise Lost just before I went in and I am now concluding it. The surroundings out there make it somewhat applicable, I can assure you.”

The first two years were especially hard, but gradually Rudger emerged as a tower of strength, the leader of the prison’s rapidly increasing Mormon population. He taught the inmates bookkeeping, became tutor of the warden’s children, and was occasionally able to see Lydia, sometimes even in private, enabling them to conceive a second child.

Meanwhile, Florence delivered an ultimatum: that he renounce polygamy and choose either her or Lydia as his only wife. When he refused, Florence divorced him—in a civil court, which had no legality in his eyes. Florence remained the first wife in his celestial kingdom.

Despite their physical separation, Lydia and Rudger grew closer. During periods when Lydia’s visits were denied or the two were not permitted to be alone together, Rudger wrote her revealing and charming love letters, which were folded into tight little wads and smuggled out in clothing that needed washing or mending. One example: “I looked upon thee Thursday afternoon in that neat white dress and stylish hat and loved thee....Was I content to sit as I did and simply converse with you about the common topics of the day? No, a thousand times no. Do I not read your heart rightly when I say that a woman is by no means satisfied with a love that is tame and insipid, a love that manifests itself in polite and studied gestures, a lover that lacks feeling and spirit?”

And then came the most charming touch of all. After several paragraphs describing in detail what he would do when they were next alone, he added a postscript: “On the second day after I return home, just after dinner, place this letter in my hand....Do this and you will have no occasion to regret it.” After Lydia died, her children found her strongbox, which she had kept in her bedroom all her life. In it they found photographs of her babies who had died young and Rudger’s love letters from prison, still wadded up as when they had been smuggled out.

Rudger’s term in prison played almost as important a part in his emergence in the church as did his fateful mission to the South and his staunch defense of his faith at his trial. Many prominent Mormons, including his father, went to prison to serve their six months for cohabitation while Rudger was there, and they all went home impressed by his leadership, strength, and dedication to the faith.

One prisoner who was especially impressed was the seventy-two-year-old Lorenzo Snow, who had been a Mormon apostle for thirty-six years when he arrived in prison. Snow was one of the most imposing apostles in the hierarchy: a tall man with wavy white hair, a long white beard, and wide-open, intense eyes. He was famous for having put into words Joseph Smith’s concept of a living God: “As man is, God once was; and as God is, man may become.”

Apostle Snow knew he was on the way to becoming a god, and he must have thought Clawson was too, for by the time Snow left prison, Rudger Clawson was his protégé. A few months later, after a little more than three years in prison, Rudger received a pardon from President Cleveland. His plan, as he noted in a diary he kept (seventeen years of which were among those papers in the closet), was to settle down in Salt Lake City and “engage in some business pursuit and move along in life pretty much as before.”

His son said, “He does not see time as most men see it; he...actually lives in Eternity.”

But his mentor, Apostle Snow, had other plans. One night in 1888 he told Rudger he wanted him to leave immediately for Brigham City, Utah, north of Salt Lake City; the Twelve Apostles had appointed Rudger president of the Box Elder Stake. It was an important (nonpaying) job in the church, and Rudger felt he was not qualified. But he decided “the Lord was abundantly able to qualify me,” and he knew the Lord would “provide for me.”