10 Questions with Louis Midgley

Sponsored by BYU Studies—Retired BYU professor Louis Midgley reflects on his life and the history of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in the 20th century.

Who is Louis Midgley?

Louis Midgley: Let me start by explaining that I’m nearly 90 years old. I don’t feel a day over 83. I am in good health—though I am a bit wobbly.

I was born in Salt Lake City and I was bored with school until I reached the University of Utah in 1948. Serious students often had been in World War II. I encountered several who had an influence on me. One of them was Neal A. Maxwell. I also discovered my distant cousin, Truman Madsen, as well as others intent on being both informed and faithful Latter-day Saints. This was helpful in my becoming both a serious student and a faithful Saint. 

How did your father influence you?

Louis Midgley: My father, Rushby C. Midgley, made his living as an engineer, but he loved poetry. When he was young, he read and even memorized some of William Shakespeare’s writings. On his deathbed, nurses would come in, and he would say, “Shakespeare wrote 154 Sonnets. Pick a number.” They would, and then he would quote it to them with passion. He was that kind of man.

When we returned from Sunday meetings in old Parley’s Ward, my father wanted to know what I had learned in Sacrament meeting, Sunday School or Priesthood meeting. He wanted to know whether I believed what I had heard and why. He urged me to be skeptical about what I had heard. He insisted that one must study, pray and search the scriptures. One must own their faith. Those very frequent wonderful conversations later served me well right on through graduate school and to the present day.

Who most influenced you in college?

Louis Midgley: I have two degrees from in political science from the University of Utah. The chairman of the department was G. Homer Durham, who was later Dean of the Graduate School at the University of Utah, President of Arizona State University, and later a Seventy (and Church Historian). He had a powerful influence.

I was also influenced by Francis D. Wormuth, who was not a Latter-day Saint, and a skeptic who did not mock faithful Latter-day Saints. He introduced me to Hugh Nibley, for whom he had a very high regard. I also paid some attention to those who I would later call “Cultural Mormons.” I must explain that I fashioned the terms, “cultural Mormonism” and “cultural Mormon.”

It happened this way. I found that one of the labels for liberal Protestantism, especially in Germany after WW II was kulturprotestismus. Right then, I had the proper descriptive label for Sterling McMurrin, Heber Snell, Obert C. Tanner and other so-called “Swearing Elders.” I was also, of course, influenced by student friends–Bob Mukai, John Knight, Don Lind (who became an astronaut), and many others.

How were you drafted into military service?

Louis Midgley: When I finished my bachelor’s degree, I was draft-eligible, and ready (if not exactly anxious) to serve. I waited and nothing came, so I went to the draft board and asked when I was going to be drafted. They searched their files and found my folder in a “dead file.”

If I hadn’t asked them to check on my status, I wouldn’t have been drafted. 

What was it like to be a Latter-day Saint soldier?

Louis Midgley: I was soon drafted and sent to Fort Ord (1817-1991), which was spread along the Monterey Bay in California. This was the largest training and replacement center for the United States Army. We were then sent to Clerk Typist School, which was a delight. There we competed to be at the top of the weekly tests. 

When we finished Clerk Typist School, Latter-day Saints were given the choice of where being sent to either Japan/Korea, or Germany. With John Knight (my childhood friend who endured the brutal first eight weeks of Basic Training with me), I picked Germany. After a few days in January at Camp Kilmer in northern New Jersey, we boarded a troop ship for Bremerhaven, Germany. We were immediately loaded on a train that ended up at a base in Saarbrucken, in southwestern Germany.

Once again we were met Latter-day Saints who again gave us a choice of where we would like to be assigned. John and I selected the 8th Transportation Group (Movement Control), and we were billeted at Thomkins Barracks, which was just outside of Swetzingen, the Spargal (white Asparagus) center of Germany, and whose headquarters was in a building in a railroad yard in Rhineau south of Mannheim, and hence Heidelberg on the Necker River.

I was assigned to the Management, Budget and Fiscal Section. I was immediately ordered to produce a Missions and Functions Manual for this outfit that operated, among other things, the Berlin Air Lift that broke the Soviet effort to starve the Germans in the Allied portion of Berlin. I soon discovered that those in this headquarters only shuffled papers. They could not help.

So I made everything up and put it in a 50-age paper. Soon we had an outside inspection. Those testy officers were handed my report. They glanced at it and ooed and awed—and then threw it in a big garbage can at the door as they departed. These kinds of things  taught me much about bureaucracies and also armies when not at war, as well as several other things.

When I knew that I would be stationed in Germany, my future wife and I made plans to be sealed in the Temple in Zollikofen, Switzerland, immediately after it was dedicated. I had, of course, to get permission from the Army.

We were the first couple sealed in Europe in this dispensation. We were married in Bern in the morning, and then in the afternoon Elder Spencer Kimball was pleased to have the Midgleys watch the first Endowment session, which was in German, and then he performed the sealing.

After two weeks having a look around portions of Switzerland and Italy, we arrived back Germany to soon find that I had been transferred to the Headquarters Area Command Dental Corp, in Heidelberg. We then lived in Mannheim, and I was a courier for this dental unit, whose commanding officer, LeGrand Nielson, was a Latter-day Saint, who managed to scoop up a host of Latter-day Saints who had initially been assigned to other duties in that area.

There were few if any Latter-day Saint who had been drafted and sent to Germany who did not end up with desk jobs or in the Dental Corp.

Tell us about your association with Matthew Cowley and New Zealand.

Louis Midgley: From the moment I knew there was such a thing as a mission, I started planning to serve in New Zealand. I grew up hearing stories about New Zealand Saints—especially the Maori Saints. My brother served his mission in New Zealand under my uncle, Charles Woods, and then Matthew Cowley, who was a close friend of my father.

The fact is that everyone who ever met the one the Maori know as Matt or Tumuaki (leader) considered him a dear friend. 

The day of my “missionary farewell” (which was 25 June 1950–the very day the Korean war began), Elder Cowley and I were the speakers. Later, since I would arrive in Wellington, which was then eight hours by train from the mission headquarters in Auckland, Elder Cowley ordered me, before I reported to the Mission President, to stop at Palmerston North, which is an hour north of Wellington by train. 

I was to visit Adelaide Poanunga, who had lived with my family for six months when I was eight. I asked for her address. Elder Cowley said: “You won’t need her address. When you get off the train, go to the first cabby and say, ‘Take me to Addy’s. They will all know her.’”

And I did—and they did.

What Elder Cowley wanted to know is whether Adelaide still bet on horse races. It turned out that she now owned ponies and raced them. My father passed on the results of my visit to Elder Cowley, who was pleased.

I got to New Zealand on the SS Sanoma, a freighter that was loaded with huge amounts of alcohol and other war gear that was unloaded in Honolulu. After that, we stopped in American Samoa (where two missionaries had been assigned), before two of us went on to Wellington. I loved that month-long journey. Among other things, I read the Book of Mormon very carefully.

When I returned from my mission, Elder Cowley had the two of us be the speakers at the final session of the Stake Conference in Bountiful. That’s just the way it was back then.

What did Matthew Cowley mean to you?

Louis Midgley: I have a very high regard for Matthew Cowley. I remember him coming to our home and telling me that if I payed close attention to the faithful Maori Saints, they would teach me many things about the gospel—including by their example how we all ought to behave now in order to get to a future where we all need to end up.

He was right. My first missionary endeavors in New Zealand changed my life for the better. After I retired from teaching at BYU, my affection for Maori things has deepened. My wife and I served a glorious mission in 1999-2000. We Directed the Lorne Street Institute which is close to Auckland University and next to the Auckland University of Technology. I have published nine essays setting out and defending what I call the Maori Latter-day Saint historical narrative. I now know that this is at least part of what Elder Cowley had in mind in his admonitions to me.

How do you feel about the Book of Mormon?

Louis Midgley: On my first mission, I was determined to set out the significance of the Book of Mormon (and also the reasons why I believe it is an authentic history) and the Word of God (its message is genuinely life-giving). I also introduced the Maori to Hugh Nibley, who was then opening the understanding of Latter-day Saints to the wonders to be found in the Book of Mormon. We have actually tended to ignore the Book of Mormon and focus, instead, on other things.

However, in the ignorance of my youth, it also turned out that my own initial way of reading the Book of Mormon was clumsy proof-texting. It was the older Maori Saints who gently but firmly teased me out of this. They saw the Book of Mormon as a very complex, subtle, and carefully written text full of stories—and full of life and light.

For perhaps six weeks, prior to the death of my wife on 3 February 2014,  I sat in my favorite chair each day for two hours and read the same passages about what we would call the Atonement of Jesus Christ in the Book of Mormon.

My wife asked me why I did this. I explained that I wanted to get those wonderful messages inside me, and thereby make them the way I see the world. Infrequent casual reading cannot accomplish this.

The chair in which Louis Midgley studied the atonement of Jesus Christ.
Louis Midgley’s favorite chair at his Utah home. Credit: Kurt Manwaring

How were seer stones once used in Maori culture?

Louis Midgley: When Latter-day Saint missionaries began contacting Maori in the late 1880s, they immediately found different groups who had been prepared for them and their message by nine different Matakite (which means “seer” in the Maori language).

(The Maori word poropite is merely a lone word–that is, the English word “prophet” spelled in the Maori alphabet.) And what do seers sometimes have? In the Book of Mormon they have two seer stones known as Interpreters, which made it possible for the seer to understand an unknown language. Maori seers also had two seer stones. And seer stones also played an important role in their esoteric teachings.)

Tell us a little bit about Dan Peterson.

Louis Midgley: Dan’s mission was in Switzerland. He claims that he never converted anyone, except himself, of course. However, he baptized his own father the day he was set apart as a missionary. In 1999-2000, my wife and I twice escorted Dan around New Zealand. He got to know some of the Saints.

Church Public Affairs in Australia has often called upon Dan. When he was in New Zealand, he lectured in Stake Centers to many thousands, most all of whom were Saints. I know of one fellow who insisted on being baptized immediately after hearing Dan speak on the Book of Mormon. 

What is one of your favorite Hugh Nibley stories

Louis Midgley: When Hugh Nibley was a missionary in Germany before WW II, a local branch took up a collection for someone who really needed a suit. Hugh chipped in with some money. He did not realize that he was the one for whom they were raising money—it was his suit that was in rags.

What do you remember about the dedication of the temple in Zollikofen, which is very near Bern Switzerland?

Louis Midgley: I bought a little Ford Taunus (G73A) in Germany for $300. Nine months later I sold it for $200. It was manufactured between 1939 and 1942. I had to almost pedal that thing to get over hills. In nine months I put, if I remember correctly, well over five thousand miles on that thing. With my childhood friend John Knight, I drove that thing to Bern, Switzerland, for the dedication of the Temple in Zollikofen.

After the dedication I drove to Zurich, met my wife-to-be at the airport, and we drove back Bern, where I had booked two rooms for the first night in the Hotel Bären, which is an upscale hotel at the center of Bern. They asked me, why I wanted two rooms. I explained that my wife-to-be would be in one room and I would be in the other, since we the next morning we would have a civil marriage in Bern in the Morning, and then we would be sealed in the Temple in Zollikofen in the afternoon. “So the next night,” I explained, “we will need only one room.” They were very open to my explanation.

When we returned after the civil marriage, they had made a fancy lunch for us. I had paid for full board, with ordinary but still excellent meals. But they provided their very best. Everyone in that hotel very gracious. We returned late after being sealed, but the staff was ready with a fancy supper. 

The people in Bern welcomed those who came for the dedication, including especially the Tabernacle Choir. The day after we were sealed, we packed up and had look at the Swiss Alps and portions of northern Italy, before going back Swetzingen, where I rented a room for us in a German home.

We eventually drove that thing as far north as Sweden, and often back to Switzerland, the Netherlands, France. We even escorted it to England, including especially London. Can anyone imagine trying to drive in London now? 

How did Henry Eyring influence your graduate studies?

Louis Midgley: Almost the first thing that happened to me at Brown University was an invitation by my department chairman for my wife and me to accompany him to meet Robert Bruce Lindsay (1900-1985), the very distinguished dean of the graduate school. When I was introduced to him, I explained that I had studied at  University of Utah. He then wanted to know if I was a Latter-day Saint, and if I was, had I served as a missionary.

I responded in the affirmative, and explained that I had served as a missionary in New Zealand, and among the Maori. This pleased him. Professor Lindsay then asked me if I knew Henry Eyring (1901-1981). (He was referring to President Henry B. Eyring’s very famous father.) I explained that I did not know him directly, but I had heard him lecture, and that he was a very able person.

He then indicated that Henry Eyring was the best scientist he knew—and the greatest human being—as well as an exemplary Christian. Professor Lindsay then said that Henry Eyring would have won a Nobel Prize except for religious bigotry. He then asked me to promise him that I would strive to be as good in what I was striving to be, as had Henry Eyring. 

That unexpected conversation made a big difference in how I was received by the Political Science Department. The faculty members soon wanted to know about my mission in New Zealand. I am not bashful about talking about such things. Soon I was called into the Department Chair’s office. He indicated that the he and his colleagues had proposed to the Dean of the Graduate School that they cancel part of the course work in either sociology or anthropology normally required to a PhD because of my missionary experience in New Zealand. The Dean of the Graduate School had agreed that.

Why did you write your dissertation on Paul Tillich?

Louis Midgley: I selected Paul Tillich (1886-1965) for two reasons. First, he was heavily involved in speculation about what can be called political matters, being a leader in the religious socialist movement. He also wrote a book critical of National Socialism, and was first German university professor fired by Adoph Hitler.

Second, since his “theology” is radically different from my own faith, I wanted to figure out how and why they differed. I also want to know if my own faith could stand up to his theology.

It has.

Did you ever meet Paul Tillich? 

Louis Midgley: I was never introduced to Tillich, then a very famous German-American Protestant theologian. However, I got to know him rather well. When I was writing my dissertation, for a year I was able to attend his lectures in two courses at Harvard University three days each. No one was permitted to ask a question during his lectures. So I stood at door next to the side door entrance to what was then the large lecture room in Emerson Hall, where Tillich lectured.

And prior to his lecture I would hand him a very carefully written question. He always read my questions at the very beginning of his lecture. I wanted to see if I had gotten his arguments properly sorted, and if he had an answer to my objections to his systematic theology.  

Tillich also gave me written permission to go through his own files and then make copies of his unpublished manuscripts and lecture notes. It turned out that I had to convince his secretary why I wanted to make these copies. This was a bit of a challenge. Be that as it may, I had access to his lecture notes and unpublished manuscripts. This is a long way of saying that I was never formally introduced to him.

What is theology?

Louis Midgley: The Greek word for our English word “theology” was first used by Plato to describe the stories told by poets in a well-ordered city–that is, stories that would charm people into behaving properly. He saw stories about the Gods and divine retribution as Noble Lies, since they tended to put fear of punishments for wrongdoing into the hearts of juveniles and less-than-wise adults. That is, almost everyone.

With this in mind, it is also proper to note that the word “theology” doesn’t appear in our scriptures. Along with Hugh Nibley, I detest it, since theology is a merely human concoction and hence not what God has revealed to humans.

Instead, theology is what humans have to say about divine things, much of which is at least bunk.

Despite much mushy talk about “Mormon theology” (either dogmatic or more or less systematic), the Saints actually live by the stories found in our scriptures, which are then confirmed by their own encounters with the divine. No one has become a truly faithful disciple of Jesus Christ by reading creeds or confessions, or proofs, or schemes fashioned by theologians. This is even true of those determined to set out dogmatic or fashion presumably systematic theologies. 

Tell us about the unique way you completed the oral defense for your PhD.

Louis Midgley: On the day that my PhD oral examination was scheduled to take place, I had agreed to give at noon a lecture about the Church of Jesus Christ and the faith of Latter-day Saints to a luncheon held by the untenured faculty at Brown University.

They had nice sit-down lunch. I had a few bites, and then gave a lecture for at least 30 minutes, after which I answered really hostile questions. The four Professors on my doctoral committee stood at the back with quite a few other tenured faculty who wanted to hear what I had to say.

After those anxious to pound home their objections set out as questions had finished, my committee, who waited for this event to end, then said to me something like “You were confident and you dealt with hostile questions well. We’ve made up our minds. We will now go through the formalities of holding the oral examination.” So for about half an hour we bantered back and forth things that were of interest to us. 

What are today’s greatest spiritual dangers?

Louis Midgley: You don’t have to drive very far to find the nearest serious soul-destroying sin. Instead we now have porn and a host of other sins right at our fingertips. We also have temptation to get quick answers from the God, Google. Most every advance in technology is morally ambiguous. The Saints must learn how to control technology it or it will control us.

And this seems to me why some young and old people leave the Church. They come to think of the Church of Jesus Christ not as a community of Saints, but as a building you go to on Sunday, often to be bored. They find that there is nothing new and exciting in the lessons. They don’t long to renew their covenants. There are, of course, advantages to technology because we can go higher and faster, but we can also use them to fashion stronger chains with which to bind ourselves. 

My father liked to lecture me: “When you are listening to somebody trying to teach you, imagine yourself trying to teach them something. What will you say? Will you know what you’re talking about? Will you have any real conviction? Will you tell dumb stories or unknowingly get things wrong? Will you get off on some crackpot tangent? Or will you be willing to tolerate the quirkiness of others since you have to hope they will tolerate you?”

Tell us about your relationship with Hugh Nibley

Louis Midgley: The moment I knew there was a Hugh Nibley, I was delighted with his academic work. I immediately began collecting the documents that made The Collected Works of Hugh Nibley possible. Hugh was willing to give me the only copy of some of his best lectures and essays. Then he would want to give them to someone else who was interested.

I never once gave something back to him. Instead, I always made a copy but retained the original.

This explains why first volume of the massive two volume collection of 46 essays honoring Hugh Nibley begins with a more than seventy page carefully  annotated bibliography of his essays and books that I fashioned.

Louis Midgley holds a book in his Utah study.
Louis Midgley gathered the writings that eventually formed ‘The Collected Works of Hugh Nibley.’ Credit: Kurt Manwaring

Tell us about Hugh Nibley’s last book.

Louis Midgley: Michael Rhodes did a fine job finishing his last book. Given the fact that Nibley wrote everything that eventually went into that book at least four or five (or even six) times. One reason being that he was never satisfied with what he written. Michael had to make a host of choices. 

Phyllis Nibley, his wife, told me, “He isn’t going to finish it because he thinks when he finishes it, he’s dead.” 

What do you remember about Hugh Nibley’s last weeks?

Louis Midgley: Phyllis called me and urged me to visit her husband. I did. And we talked. Hugh was in a hospital bed. He could hardly speak. He’d mumble and we’d talk back and forth. We talked a bit about New Zealand and the Maori. Since he had heard that I had been to Normandy, he wanted to know if I had visited what is called Exit Five, on Utah Beach, and what I thought of the whole miserable mess. 

Then he finally said, “You people treat me like I’m dead. I haven’t seen the latest issue of the FARMS Review.” And at that moment there was a knock at the door—it was the postman with the most recent copy.

Hugh said:  “Damn, I’ve made an ass out of myself again.”

Soon, two Relief Society sisters knocked on the door. They had brought him dinner. They rushed over and hugged him and kissed him. And he just wept. When they left, Phyllis asked me, “Did you notice that?”

I said, “Yes, I did.”

“Have you ever seen my husband show emotion?”

I answered, “No, never.”

Phyllis said that “he couldn’t” show emotion. But when he was reduced to lying there, hardly able to talk, he would say to me, “Phyllis, I have been kept after school by the Lord so I could learn a lesson that I needed to learn before I pass away.”

I found this very interesting. I saw my dear friend in a different light. What seemed like self-depreciation was his sense of inadequacy, despite—or because of the fact—that he was extraordinarily bright, learned a dozen languages, and so forth. But he couldn’t learn how to use a computer. I realize that things that are very easy when one is young are much more difficult as we near the end.

One thing that is always possible—because the Lord is always kind, loving and merciful—is repentance. For more than a decade, I have read Moroni 4 and 5 with those who are the voice for those truly wonderful prayers that make it possible to renew our covenants with God.

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3 Replies to “10 Questions with Louis Midgley”

  1. One of my favorite people on Planet Earth. I first encountered him when, as a student at BYU prior to my mission, I sat in the Wilkinson Center ballroom as he debated Cleon Skousen. I could never have imagined then that he would become a colleague and, far more importantly, a cherished friend.

  2. Lou Midgley is a gem. I will always treasure the enjoyable conversations we’ve shared over the years. His answers to these questions reveal the true Lou Midgley, but he is best known as a fearless critic of critics of the Church, both without and within. Sometimes I read things written by BYU professors and I don’t know whose side they’re on. You always know which side Lou Midgley is on.

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