- Historic Sites
My Grandfather, The Mormon Apostle
Discovering a giant in the family
February 1990 | Volume 41, Issue 1
But his three years in England were hardly a vacation. A measure of the British attitude toward Mormons then can be seen in the popularity at the time of Arthur Conan Doyle’s A Study in Scarlet, which centered on two Mormons who would do anything—including murder—to steal another man’s bride, all of which had the approval of Doyle’s fictional Brigham Young. The British were convinced that Mormons were kidnapping innocent young British girls and shipping them back to their Utah harems. Home Secretary Winston Churchill was being besieged to do something, and the papers in our bedroom closet contained considerable correspondence between Grandfather and Churchill concerning the “Mormon question” as well as dozens of letters between Rudger and various British editors and articles he wrote for the mission paper, the Millennial Star.
It was obviously a difficult time for Rudger. Mission headquarters at Durham House in Liverpool, where the family lived, was often stoned, as were Mormon meetings in various English towns. At a gathering in Sunderland, the word spread that the mob knew that the Mormon leader from Liverpool would be the one in the black silk top hat, and one Mormon offered to exchange hats so Rudger would not be identified. “Let every man wear his own hat, I’ll wear mine,” said Grandfather. Not exactly Henry V’s speech on St. Crispin’s Day, but words that will live in the Clawson-Hoopes history book. The silk top hat, incidentally, survived three years of stoning in England and is today, along with the derringer, in my possession.
Rudger’s European mission was also marked by personal stress. He wanted Pearl to come, but they decided against it because of his fear that the secret marriage would be discovered—a very serious consideration in that his primary challenge in England was to convince the British that the Mormon Church no longer sanctioned or practiced polygamy. Rudger’s mother and father both died while he was in England, and about halfway through his three-year stint, Lydia and the family returned to Utah, in part, I suspect, out of concern for the children’s safety.
After Lydia returned home, Pearl decided to go to England, apparently not to perpetuate their marriage but to annul it. She was a handsome woman in her thirties and had begun to realize that being secretly married to a Mormon apostle was not an easy life. Men were attracted to her, and she did not know what to tell them. She was in turmoil, and as near as we can tell, she broke off the marriage on her brief trip to England in 1912; seven years later she married Joseph Nelson (after President Heber J. Grant assured Mr. Nelson that the church had canceled Rudger and Pearl’s seal for time and eternity). Pearl Nelson settled down to a normal life and eventually became the biographer of David K. Udall.
Rudger Clawson returned from Europe in 1913, and although he lived another thirty years—twenty-two of them as president of the Twelve Apostles (to which position he was appointed in 1921)—it is apparent that even he considered the rest of his life an epilogue. We certainly did. Rudger had stopped writing about church affairs in his diary in 1905, and although our mother ended up with the diaries and other important personal letters and papers, the official papers of his presidency went into the church archives, to which even approved scholars have limited access.
As our research progressed, it became increasingly obvious why Mother had wanted to write “that novel.” Grandfather had indeed led a life of which romantic historical novels might be made. But more important, he was the quintessential Mormon. He not only lived through but played a significant part in the transition of the Mormon Church from a unique nineteenth-century frontier community to an equally unique twentieth-century corporate entity. And he was of the stuff that apostles and saints are made of. “He lives and reacts to men and events as if he had lived forever and will live forever,” his son Sam (who made a little history himself as part of the legal team that put Al Capone behind bars) said. “He does not see time as most men see it; he sees it as Eternity. He does not live in time as it is measured by all of our various inventions and mechanical formulas. Father actually lives in Eternity.”
Although my years of research did not bring me back to the church in search of immortality, I did feel satisfaction in having contributed to Rudger Clawson’s immortality. He may or may not have found his celestial kingdom in the hereafter—and we all hope avidly that he did—but a biography is a form of immortality too. It is a good feeling to have helped Grandfather cement that immortality, whether or not it is the only kind he can know.
But then that possibility would not have existed for Grandfather. As Sam concluded, “Religion to him is a living, eternal thing and he, as an integral part of it, will live eternally.”