WHITNEY, Orson Ferguson

WHITNEY, Orson Ferguson

By John Nicholson
From Whitney’s History of Utah, Vol. 4
Orson F. Whitney (1855-1931)

BISHOP ORSON F. WHITNEY, author of WHITNEY’S HISTORY OF UTAH. was born at Salt Lake City, Sunday, July 1st, 1855. His father, Horace K. Whitney, was a pioneer of 1847, and the eldest son of Newel K. Whitney, who died Presiding Bishop of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. His mother, Helen Mar Kimball Whitney, was the eldest daughter of Heber C. Kimball, one of the original Twelve Apostles of the Church, and at the time of his death a member of the First Presidency. Orson was named for his uncle, Orson K. Whitney, another pioneer, and for his father’s friend, General James Ferguson.

From the first he gave evidence of unusual mental power, particularly in the line of memory. This is shown by his distinct recollection of incidents connected with his early childhood, even as far back as “the move,” just before Johnston’s army passed through Salt Lake City. The boy was not then three years old. He still retains this precious gift, which in him is almost phenomenal. It is comparatively easy for him to recall, after the lapse of many years, details and even the language of anything he has heard or read that interested him.

Reared in the parental faith, he was educated in the common schools of his native town and in the University of Deseret. He began with the first reader, and when asked by his teacher where he had learned his letters, naively replied,

“I never did learn ’em—I always knew ’em;”

It being his supposition that nothing could be “learned” out of school. One of his juvenile feats was to glance hastily at a paragraph in his book, and then, looking away, repeat the lines, word for word, to the amazement of his fellow pupils. According to one of his teachers, he always showed power of concentration, remaining absorbed in study while his mates were playing, whispering and laughing on either side of him.

At the age of thirteen his scholastic training was interrupted by his first departure from home, when he was employed by his uncle, David P. Kimball, a sub-contractor on the Union Pacific railroad, in eastern Utah. For two months he carried drinking water for the graders, and for another month drove team. Of slender build, though healthy and active, to manage the pair of blind mules entrusted to his care, and fill and empty the scraper to which they were attached, required all the patience and physical strength that he could muster. Driving team was not his forte, but the work paid well, and he liked it for its novelty.

Another suspension of his school career—including baseball and other field sports of which he was fond—came with his employment as an expressman for Z. C. M. I., and subsequently as clerk in a music store. The latter position gave him opportunities for the cultivation of his musical talent. He learned flute and guitar without a teacher; was a good singer and an expert whistler. By this time also he had become quite an elocutionist. He had been known as the best declaimer in the University.

His final year at that institution was 1873-4. He was pronounced by his teacher. Dr. Park, a perfect grammarian, and though in rhetoric self-taught, be had read much, and in various lines leading up to literature was well advanced. He was the main founder of the Wasatch Literary Association, of which he was the first president. He was also connected with the University debating societies. Strange to say, however, in view of his subsequent course, he took little interest in writing at that time, though a few crude articles from his pen found their way into print; and no interest at all in oratory, except to admire it in others.

He could not speak five minutes extemporaneously, and was regarded as anything but fluent or skillful in debate. What was still more surprising, he hated poetry—or rather the doggerel verse that sometimes passes for poetry—and though spiritually inclined, had little love for religious discipline.

With decided leanings to music and the drama,he was bent upon the stage as a profession, and in everything that tended to qualify him as an actor—voice-training, gesture, fencing, etc., he took delight and advanced himself by study and practice to a marked degree of efficiency.

An amateur “barn-stormer” from childhood, he was seventeen when he made his debut upon the boards of the Salt Lake Theatre, taking the leading part in a play written by one of his youthful associates. So distinct was the hit he made that the manager, Mr. James Harris, tendered him a permanent place in the Theatre stock company. Out of regard for his parents, who discouraged his dramatic aspirations, he declined this tempting offer, and for a time held his pet ambition in abeyance.

Upon leaving school he taught music for awhile, and spent one winter as a mercantile clerk in Bingham Canyon. He was on the point of leaving for the East, to begin a theatrical career, when turned from his purpose by a call to the mission field. This was in October, 1876, and Mr. Whitney was then in his twenty-second year.

During his mission of seventeen months, mostly spent in the States of Pennsylvania and Ohio, and including a visit to the City of Washington, he had continuous practice in speaking and writing, and made remarkable progress. He also became zealous in religion. Indeed his whole life and character underwent a great change.

His most noteworthy productions while away, were a series of descriptive letters to the Salt Lake “Herald,” over the nom de plume of “Ingo,” and several of the pieces now comprised in his volume of poems. He also corresponded with the “ and vigorously defended his faith in communications to eastern papers. He was encouraged to write by the direct personal advice of President Brigham Young, who recognized his ability in this direction and urged him to cultivate his gift for the benefit of his people. The President wrote to him repeatedly while he was in Ohio, but died before the young missionary returned to Utah.

Among the historic scenes visited by him was Kirtland, his father’s birthplace, where his non-Mormon relatives received him with much kindness. In other places lie met the usual opposition. It was his missionary experience that developed him as a poet. He now loved poetry as much as he had formerly disliked it. He had begun rhyming at eighteen, but his first published verses were written at Plymouth, Pennsylvania, in December, 1876. He was a self-taught rhymer, as his early pieces showed, but he read the master poets, and they moulded his style. He returned home in April, 1878.

Immediately lie was offered the position of city editor on the Salt Lake “Herald,” but declined it, as it involved night work and Sabbath labor. Some weeks later he became connected with the “Deseret News,” first as clerk and collector, and then as city editor, succeeding the present writer, who had been called on a mission to Europe.

In July of the same year. Mr. Whitney was made Bishop of the Eighteenth Ward, Salt Lake City. the successor of Lorenzo D. Young in that office. An Elder since the spring of 1873, and a Seventy since the fall of 1876, he was ordained a High Priest and set apart to the Bishopric by Daniel H. Wells, Sunday, July 14, 1878. Robert Patrick and William B. Barton were chosen his counselors. Under this administration, which still continues, the Eighteenth Ward has prospered, until today it is one of the most populous and most progressive wards in the Church.

In December, 1879, Mr. Whitney married. In February, 1880, he was elected to the city council—his first civic office. In April of that year he helped to organize the Home Dramatic Clnb, of which he was the president, and with which he sustained leading parts in various plays, mostly at the Salt Lake Theatre.  The now famous Maude Adams, then a child actress, appeared with him and his associates in one of these performances.

Though humorous and fond of fun, it was in sternly heroic parts that he excelled, and he was a favorite with the theatre-going public; the realism of his acting being intensified by a resonant voice and a natural, dignified bearing. His reputation as an orator also grew. For the proposed opening of Liberty Park, July 4, 1881, he was appointed orator of the day, but the celebration was abandoned owing to the assassination of President Garfield.

In the fall of the same year Bishop Whitney went on a mission to Europe. Leaving home, wife and child, he sailed from New York to Liverpool, landing at that port on the 10th of November. For several months he was a Traveling Elder in London, over which conference he subsequently presided, and for about a year was associate editor of the Millennial Star at Liverpool, during which time he continued his ministerial labors and contributed to various papers and magazines.

While in England he heard Gladstone speak in the House of Commons, and witnessed performances by Henry Irving, Sarah Bernhardt and other famous artists. He visited various parts of England, Scotland and Wales, spent a week in Paris, and returned home in July, 1883.

Given his formal position on the “News,” he remained with that paper for about a year, when he was tendered the office of city treasurer, made vacant by the death of Paul A. Schettler. Having served out this appointment, he was placed upon the People’s ticket and elected to the same position, which he held by successive elections until 1890, when he declined renomination. During about the same period that he was city treasurer, he was Chancellor of the University of Deseret, elected by the legislature. He succeeded Hon. George Q. Cannon, and was himself succeeded by Judge Robert Harkness, in that position. Meanwhile, in 1888, he had his first legislative experience, as chief clerk of the House of Representatives.

His European mission had further developed him as a speaker and a writer, and his tongue and pen were now much in demand. He was kept busy, in the intervals of other engagements, preaching, lecturing, writing and performing other public duties. He was the first Elder appointed to hold Sabbath services at the Penitentiary during the anti-polygamy crusade.

It was about this time that the town of Whitney, in southern Idaho, was named after him. He was one of the three framers of the “Declaration of Grievances and Protest,” and the reader of that document at the great Tabernacle mass meeting in May, 1885.

A year later he delivered the address of welcome to Governor Caleb W. West, on his arrival at Salt Lake City. At the General Conference in October, 1890, he was called to read President Woodruff’s to the congregation.

The fall of 1888 witnessed the publication of the Bishop’s first book, “Life of Heber C. Kimball.” The next year his poetic volume appeared. He also prepared about this time “Later Leaves from the Life of Lorenzo Snow,” a biography remaining in manuscript. He is likewise the author of many poems that have not yet been compiled.

It was in May, 1890, that Bishop Whitney began his History of Utah. He was the choice, for this work, of the most prominent men and women in the community, whose testimonials accompanied the prospectus; and was employed by a publishing company organized by Dr. John O. Williams, an experienced book man from the East, who was the main owner of the enterprise. The Bishop’s duties were purely literary; at no time did he have anything to do with the business management. Dr. Williams and his associates, before coming to Utah, had assisted in the canvass for Hall’s History of Colorado, and had also been engaged with Hubert Howe Bancroft, the Pacific States historian.

Mr. Williams was the bearer of high credentials. In Utah certain agents of his, guilty of irregularities in taking orders, were promptly reprimanded by him and discharged. So much prejudice arose, however, that he finally felt compelled to retire. In 1891 he sold the main history business to George Q. Cannon and Sons, publishers, whose purchase rescued the enterprise from impending disaster. Mr. Whitney continued to be employed by Cannon and Sons, as he had been employed in the first instance by Dr. Williams, to write the History. The supplemental canvass for books and portraits was retained by the original owners. who refused to sell that part of their interest, and for alleged unfair practices by some of their representatives, the publishers and even the author have been persistently and wrongfully blamed.

After the issuance of the first two volumes, in 1892-3, work upon the History was suspended, owing to financial reverses, the author finding employment elsewhere.  He continued to serve the public gratuitously in various ways. At a Unitarian conference held in the Jewish Synagogue at Salt Lake City in 1892, at which ministers of various denominations were invited to speak, he represented his Church, by appointment of the First Presidency. His address was pronounced by the Rabbi the most impressive one delivered on the occasion. He was also prominent at peace and charity meetings and other gatherings of a public character.

In the fall of 1894 Mr. Whitney engaged in his first political campaign. Up to this time he had never made a political speech, nor had he united with either of the new organizations which had superseded the People’s and the Liberal parties. His predilections were for Democracy. Never an office-seeker, and shunning rather than courting public life, at the solicitation of Democratic leaders, he became a candidate for the Constitutional Convention, and was elected by the largest majority cast in his precinct. The part played by him in the convention—notably in the great woman’s suffrage debate—is well known. He served upon various important committees, and was one of the special committee that revised the constitution prior to its transmission to Washington.

In January, 1896, Bishop Whitney accepted a professor’s chair in the Brigham Young College at Logan, and for the next eighteen months was a resident of that town, and an instructor in Theology and English at the institution named. His speeches in the Constitutional Convention, advocating equal suffrage, had been widely published, and upon his arrival at Logan he was given an ovation by members of the, Utah Woman’s Suffrage Association.

While teaching in the College he lectured in various places, including the Logan Temple. In June, 1896, on Bunker Hill anniversary, he was the guest of honor at a banquet given by the Sons of the American Revolution, at Salt Lake City; his speech on “The Genius of Americanism,” creating a profound impression. He also addressed the University Club repeatedly. While yet in Logan, he gave final preparation to the third volume of his History.

Resigning his professorship, he returned in July, 1897, to his native city, parting regretfully from his fellow professors and the students of the College, who highly esteemed him and his efficient service in that institution. Upon leaving for the north lie had been honored with a gold watch presentation by the people of the Eighteenth Ward, who now gladly welcomed him home, after his temporary leave of absence.

In the Bishop Whitney played a prominent part, beginning with the reading, for President Woodruff, who was too feeble to speak, of the dedicatory prayer at the unveiling of the pioneer monument. He compiled for the Jubilee Commission the “Book of the Pioneers” for the State archives, and contributed to the literature of the period a poem, “The Lily and the Bee,” an allegory of the founding of Utah.

His “Ode to the Pioneers,” adapted from one of his earlier poems, and set to music by Professor Evan Stephens, was sung with thrilling effect by the Tabernacle choir during the five days’ celebration.

The third volume of WHITNEY’S HISTORY OF UTAH made its appearance i January, 1898. In the fall of that year the author found himself again in politics. He was elected a State Senator, and sat as such during the sessions of 1899 and 1901. He figured conspicuously iu both, and during the latter delivered, by request, before the joint assembly, a memorial address on the lite and character of Dr. John R. Park, late Superintendent of Public Instruction, paying an eloquent tribute to the memory of his old University teacher. At the close of the session lie took a trip to California, his first absence from the State since his return from Europe, barring three short visits,—to Mexico in 1888, to the World’s Fair in 1893, and to Idaho and Oregon with the Legislature in 1901.

His trip to Chicago, via Independence, Missouri, was with President Woodruff and party, and as a guest of the Tabernacle choir, whose spokesman he was at the great exposition in the presentation of a cane to Director-General Davis. He also spoke for the Utah legislative party in Boise, at a ball given in their honor at the Sanitarium. While in California he paid a last visit to President George Q. Cannon, who was dying at Monterey.

In May, 1900. the Bishop lost by death his first wife, Mrs. Zina Smoot Whitney, daughter of the late President A. O. Smoot of Utah Stake. She was the mother of nine children, eight of whom are living. His present wife, who is the mother of two, and plays a mother’s part to all, is Mrs. May Wells Whitney, daughter of the late General Daniel H. Wells.

Since the opening of 1899 Bishop Whitney has been connected with the Church Historian’s Office, and is now a regular assistant to President Anthon H. Lund, the Church Historian. For several years he has presided over the State Historical Society. Under contract with the compiling department of the Scientific American, New York City, he recently prepared the article on Utah for the Encyclopedia Americana.

Some of his most notable lectures are “What is Education,” “Oratory, Poesy and Prophecy,” “Born Again,” “Dispersion and Gathering of Israel,” “A Talk on Napoleon” and “The Poet Tennyson.” His impressive memorial address on President McKinley, and his anniversary addresses on the Prophet Joseph Smith and President Brigham Young are well remembered, as are his able baccalaureate sermons and commencement orations in the University of Utah. Agricultural College, Brigham Young Academy and Latter-day Saints University. His Tabernacle and Chapel discourses are too numerous to mention.

The Bishop’s latest literary work, aside from the completion of his HISTORY, is his masterly epic poemElias,” begun in the summer of 1900, and now being published by the Knickerbocker Press of New York City. An elegant autograph edition deluxe, limited to one hundred and fifty copies, has been subscribed for by leading citizens, Mormons and non-Mormons, in and out of Utah, and other less costly editions will follow.

The manuscript of the poem was read to select gatherings in Salt Lake, Logan and Provo, and everywhere evoked enthusiastic praise. To show their appreciation of the author’s splendid achievement, a committee of prominent citizens, namely, Governor Heber M. Wells, President Anthon H. Lund, Ex-Congressman George Sutherland, Mr. H. I.. A. Culmer and Major Richard W. Young, voluntarily took charge of the publication.

It will be seen that Bishop Whitney, in the course of his life, has passed through a great variety of experiences, and in most of them has shown adaptability and skill. While far from impractical, as his clear views of life and duty and his ability to counsel indicate, he probably would not have flourished as merchant, farmer or financier. Nevertheless, he is ingenious and resourceful, and invariably rises to the occasion. His ability in those lines requiring the exercise of broad intelligence and forceful characteristics is strikingly pronounced, and his versatility is equal to his ability. As an exponent of the drama he excelled. As a journalist he showed much capacity, yet his preference was always for the more thoughtful lines of literature. He has demonstrated excellent fitness for public office, and the same can be said of his ministrations as a church official.

He is in the front rank of Utah’s orators, and in the exercise of the forensic gift is clear, forcible, dignified and convincing, to a degree reached by few. His funeral sermons are noted for their earnest eloquence and power to console. In literature he shines conspicuously, but all his previous efforts are eclipsed by his latest production,Elias, an Epic of the Ages.” It is lofty, massive, grand, exhibiting fertility of thought, expansive research and wonderful constructive ability. The great theme that it embodies—Eternal Truth–has probably never before been treated so comprehensively in a poetic way.

Along with his devotion to literature, he retains his early affection for music and the drama, and makes it a point to see and hear the most gifted artists, as also the best preachers and lecturers. He reads only the choicest books, his favorite authors, outside the prophets and the poets, being Emerson and Carlyle. He composes much in the open air, seeking solitude for that purpose; and toils early and late, if necessary, in order to finish or forward any work begun. He is persistent and likes to complete whatever he undertakes.

In disposition the Bishop is generally serious, and would be melancholy but for a natural mirthfulness, coupled with strong spiritual qualities, which have held in check and enabled him to conquer the tendency to despond. Genial and unruffled as a rule, if imposed upon, he knows it, and the offender also is apt to find it out. At the same time he is patient, peaceable, and would rather suffer wrong than do wrong. He leans to lenity, is conscientious, magnanimous, and loves to be just, even to an enemy. It is not difficult for him to return good for evil, and he readily sympathises with the weak and unfortunate. While fond of comfort, he cares nothing for wealth, and is of that class who lay all upon the altar for a conviction.

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