Sunday, October 07, 2012

Legacy of a progressive General Authority

Excerpts of Mormon leadership bids farewell to peacemaking progressive by Peggy Fletcher Stack, Salt Lake Tribune
Jensen emerged as a public face of Mormonism to outsiders. He spoke eloquently and personally about his faith and the church's challenges in the 2007 PBS documentary "The Mormons." He urged Utah legislators to be compassionate in their approach to immigration. He became LDS leadership's most visible Democrat and helped heal wounds over the 2008 Proposition 8 ballot fight as well as the 1857 Mountain Meadows Massacre. And, in perhaps his most significant achievement, he oversaw the greatest transformation in the church's historical department since the 1970s and reached out to scholars to make the faith's vast historical holdings widely available.

"He stood up for the things he felt strongly about, and they weren't always popular," says daughter Emily Jensen Snow. "I am proud that he was willing to take on topics that no one else wanted to tackle and say what needed to be said."

On Saturday, during the LDS Church's 182nd Semiannual General Conference, Jensen, having turned 70 in May, [was] among those named an emeritus general authority.

"If you're honest and if you're really a true seeker ... it tends to bring one to a deeper seeking, and I hope that's what my doubts have done," he says in the [PBS documentary] film. "They've caused me, I think, to study and to ponder and to compare and, in the long run, to become even more convinced that the way I've chosen."

Back in Utah, Jensen joined the church's Special Affairs Committee, which governed public relations. In 1998, then-President Gordon B. Hinckley asked Jensen to talk publicly about being Mormon and a Democrat to help dispel the myth that a faithful member couldn't be both.

He willingly agreed.

"There have been some awfully good men and women who have, I think, been both and are both today," Jensen told The Salt Lake Tribune in a far-ranging interview. "So I think it would be a very healthy thing for the church — particularly the Utah church — if that notion could be obliterated."

A young Ben McAdams, a Mormon who is Democratic state senator now running for Salt Lake County mayor, remembers Jensen's interview vividly. He was interning in Washington, D.C., with the U.'s Hinckley Institute of Politics.

"I was so happy he was willing to stand up for his political beliefs," McAdams explains, "and say it wasn't a conflict."

In fact, it's not a conflict for most of the Jensen clan. Although his wife tilts Republican or independent, all of his kids lean left.

Stephen West, another Mormon Democrat whose service as a Seventy overlapped with Jensen's for six years, also appreciated Jensen going public with his politics.

"It was heartening to me and I think to others," West says. "We didn't talk about politics often — we [Democratic general authorities] are not a very large group — but it's nice to have someone else who feels the same way."

West has "great admiration and respect for Elder Jensen and the dignified way he has quietly held fast to his political beliefs without publicly espousing them," he says. "I think this is a good reminder of the church's attitude against taking political positions as a church and as a church leader but encouraging church members to individually support those candidates and ideas in which they personally believe."

In Whitney's three- to four-hour interview with Jensen, the LDS authority discussed his own faith, his views of difficult historical moments for his church and current controversies.

Whitney was stunned, for instance, when he candidly acknowledged that what Mormonism asks of its gay members — to remain celibate — goes beyond what it expects of others.

"A single woman, a single man who is heterosexual in their thinking always has the hope, always has the expectation that tomorrow they're going to meet someone and fall in love and that it can be sanctioned by the church," Jensen says in the film. "But a gay person who truly is committed to that way of life in his heart and mind doesn't have that hope. And to live life without hope on such a core issue, I think, is a very difficult thing."

It would not be the last time Jensen would express such anguish and empathy.

Healing balm • In 2010, Jensen was the visiting LDS general authority to Mormon congregations in Oakland, Calif., which had been sharply divided over the Utah-based church's support of California's Proposition 8. He agreed to attend a special meeting, where gay members and their loved ones shared their stories of pain. After one particularly harrowing account, many in the room, including Jensen, wept, recounts Mormon author Carol Lynn Pearson.

The speaker said he felt the church owed him an apology.

Jensen arose and, through his tears, assured the group he had heard their pleas and, "to the full extent of my capacity, I say that I am sorry."

Marriage as only between a man and a woman was a "bedrock of our doctrine and would not change," Jensen told the group that day. "However, I want you to know that as a result of being with you this morning, my aversion to homophobia has grown. I know that many very good people have been deeply hurt."

Opening a historical window • In 2005, Jensen got yet another call from Hinckley, who asked the Seventy to become the church historian and recorder.

"What do you want me to do as historian?" an astonished Jensen asked the man considered a "prophet, seer and revelator" by faithful Mormons.

Hinckley replied, according to Jensen, "Read your scriptures and do you duty."

What about the recorder job?

"I haven't given that a bit of thought," Hinckley said. "But you should."

So, once again, Jensen threw himself into the task.

Not trained as a historian, he assembled a team of Mormon scholars and writers as advisers. He was the first LDS general authority to attend the annual Mormon History Association meeting — not to speak, but, in Jensenesque-style, to listen.

"I sensed a man who really was devoted to the enterprise of history," says Ron Walker, one of the professional historians to work with Jensen. "He never attempted to censor, yet he was so willing to be helpful and make resources of the church available. One of his great virtues was the ability to bring out the best in everyone. That's a rare quality."

The mild-mannered Jensen helped transform the faith's approach to its history. He put thousands of its documents online, oversaw the groundbreaking, multivolume "Joseph Smith Papers Project," reorganized the staff and moved into a new state-of-the-art building.

"I know of numerous times that he quietly met with folks who were outside the circle of orthodoxy or who had been estranged from the LDS Church," Barney writes in an email. "He was always a voice of understanding and grace."

Those skills were on display in Jensen's work with Mountain Meadows Massacre descendant groups.

In the spring of 2008, Jensen traveled to Arkansas to meet with Harley and Diann Fancher, who together had many ancestors killed on Sept. 11, 1857, when a Mormon militia attacked a wagon train passing through southern Utah.

The Fanchers were heading up the Mountain Meadows Monument Foundation, pushing to make the area a national historic landmark. It was an effort they had worked on for years, but Jensen pushed it through, bringing all parties to the table.

Jensen and his associates went to the Fanchers' home, then visited other descendant families. During the ride, Jensen and Diann Fancher sat in the back of the truck, sharing Bible verses. Later, the Fanchers visited Jensen's Huntsville farm and went to LDS services with the family.

"The relationship really bloomed," Harley Fancher says in a phone interview from Arkansas.

When the two parted, Jensen asked, "Friends forever?"

Fancher replied, "Yes, sir."

Jensen's accomplishments in overseeing the LDS History Department

• Construction of the new Church History Library in downtown Salt Lake City.

• Release of an online catalog to the church's historical collections.

• Mass digitization of the church's historical collections.

• Development of a digital records management system.

• Release of multiple volumes of the groundbreaking "Joseph Smith Papers."

• Strengthening of ties with others in the historical community.