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Monday, April 8, 2013

How to Be A Modern Mormon Man ... A Century Ago

by Scott Hales (bio)

Being a modern Mormon man is tough—even with blogs like this to help you do it right. Imagine what it must have been like for our manly Mormon forbears a century ago, those grim-faced dirt farmers who spent half their time irrigating fields and the other half attending meetings without air-conditioning and smart phones. Where did they get the know-how to be the best kind of Mormon men?

The Improvement Era and General Conference, of course!

In fact, for a while, the Improvement Era ran a series of talks for young men on how to be the kind of guy that would attract a nice Mormon girl. Take this snippet of advice from a 1903 issue:

Some young men greatly impair their opportunities in matrimony by being gad-flies of instability. What a woman admires in a man is manliness. When he is a certain given quantity and that quantity is good character, he immediately commands respect. Sensible girls don't marry men they cannot respect. Women have much keener insight into human nature than men, as a rule. And when these gad-fly-men pay them their passing attentions, women permit it and invariably put the right estimate on those attentions. Such men are constantly used by women, for really most women have a use for men in some way or other. But when those men who have been used by women as social caddies feel that it is time to be serious, their troubles begin. They find they have made themselves altogether too cheap, and it is pretty hard to find a purchaser. This is the retribution of flirting. No woman, and by no means a flirt, cares for a fickle man. The true woman wants a true lover, and one that will remain so through all their married life.

The message is clear: if you want to be a real man—the kind of man that doesn't get "constantly used by women"—don't be a Mormon gad-fly! It will only make things worse when you try to get serious! A true woman wants a true lover! Be the true lover!

In 1904, one of the talks to young men was written by a few young women with strong opinions on what a real Mormon man should be. Here is what they said:

The physical must stand first. Without a good body, all the powers and faculties will be blighted. As well might we expect to obtain luscious, beautiful fruit from a tree whose roots were poorly developed, or a rich harvest from an impoverished soil, as to anticipate rare intellectual and spiritual results from a diseased body. The ideal young man, then, must be strong in body, and as near as possible physically perfect.
To have a splendid physique, embraces many virtues. It is brought about by right living, for one thing. The ideal must have trained his appetite so that it is perfectly under his control; so that it will not crave food or drink that destroys or emaciates the body, or wrecks the nerves. That means that he must eat and drink in conformity with the wise counsels of the Lord, who has given us splendid pointers in modern revelation touching our mode of life, in this respect.

Ouch! As a guy who did not have a "splendid physique" as a teenager, I fear I would not have fared too well in 1904. But I should say, as a testimonial, that my wife and I have nevertheless obtained "luscious beautiful fruit" despite the "impoverished soil" that is my less-than-splendid physique. (As long as my kids can be considered "luscious beautiful fruit," at least.)

Here's some more from the young women:

He flies into no rage, no matter what the provocation; is temperate in language, thoughtful of the weak, always upright and sympathetic, and uses his strength to help the weary and sustain the less fortunate. He is pure as the mountain winds, and uses the vigor and vitality of his noble manhood to useful ends, for the good of the race. He abstains from the vices and follies of young men who have no regard for the fountains of strength and life, but indulge in every whim of wickedness that unrestrained passions suggest. He respects his fellows, and considers sacred as his own body, those of his associates of the opposite sex. He realizes that he was not made for himself alone, but for society, for mankind, and for God.”

Mountain winds? Most young Mormon men I know are more adept at breaking wind than exemplifying its more mountainous varieties. But we'll let this one pass, so to speak, for its praise of those who respect their fellows and worship the bodies of their "associates of the opposite sex." (That is what it says, right?)

I should note, before moving on, that for these young women, the ideal Mormon man was apparently a Democrat with refined tastes in art and literature—something Utah has always produced in abundance:

Among the most important requirements of my ideal young man is this, that he must be a broad-minded Latter-day Saint, possessing a testimony founded upon reasons which he can intelligently state, having a proper training in the principles of the gospel, being conversant with the virtues in the life of Christ, and a seeker after them. He must not be a narrow theorist, but a liberal man of practice, who not only sympathizes with the unfortunate but helps them in their afflictions, and who keeps himself pure and unspotted from the sins of the world. He must be trained in the theory, and proficient in the practice, of forgiveness, love, mercy, charity—a true lover of the human race, full of faith and cheer and hope. His spiritual nature must be fully developed, so that in the contemplation of spiritual things he may take pleasure that never cloys. He is in no sense gross or material. He enjoys poetry, art, nature; and from and through these, beholds God in all the universe.

Finally, let's take a look at David O. McKay's thoughts on Mormon manhood when he was a young apostle. Here are his words from a 1908 conference talk:

The man who is true to his manhood will not lie against the truth. We are told that we can crucify the Lord afresh. If that be true, we can betray the Lord afresh. There is that within every man which is divine, a divinity within every man's soul. It can not die. God renews it, inspires it, works to keep it alive. The man who will be true to the divine within, is true to his Lord, and is true to his fellowmen. The man who betrays that, the man who is untrue to that which he knows to be right, is wavering, is weakening. God pity him; he may go so far that he will step out of the light, out of that divine presence, and woe be unto him when he does; God help him.
When he was going to his death, [Joseph Smith] declared to all the world: "I have a conscience void of offense toward God and all men." Why? Because he had been true to it; he was a man possessing divine manhood, for true manhood is divine; oh, it is glorious. It was that spirit that prompted our leader [President Joseph F. Smith] to say to the world: "I will be true to those who have trusted me; I can not do otherwise." That is the manhood the Latter-day Saint should possess, in defending the truth. That is the manhood that we all need when we go out into our wards and stakes, to inspire young men with that same truth; it is that we need in combating all kinds of error--not only the saloon, not only the tobacco habit, but another condition that is here in our midst, which is just as fatal as the saloon, which is just as poisonous, aye, more poisonous than the tobacco, bad as it is. I refer to the vile literature that is being circulated among the young.

Now, I assume here that he’s referring to pornography when he talks about "vile literature" and not any of the stuff I've promoted in other posts. I mean, I know some of the books on this list are a bit "questionable" … but "vile"? That's for you to decide, I guess.

Anyway, here's one last insight from Elder McKay—from 1913!—exactly one hundred years ago:

What does it mean to obey God's word? to refrain from indulgence in narcotics, and alcoholic beverages? It means stronger manhood; it means brighter intellects; it means stronger and more perfect physical organism; it means better and truer husbands, more devoted and affectionate fathers: it means parenthood that will transmit to children clean habits, and power in the will to resist temptations of appetite and greater temptations of passion that may come to them; it means happy homes, contented wives. well dressed and better educated children; it means a safe and sound citizenship which goes for the building of a safe and sound nation: it means salvation for the individual in the kingdom of God. A little thing? On the other hand, what does indulgence mean? Weakened manhood, a weakened will, a physical organism that will transmit weakness to unborn generations; it means the cutting off of life by slow suicide; it means the derangement of mental faculties; it means the breaking up of homes, it means broken hearted wives, destitute children, a weakened society and an underminded Republic-that is what it means. Recent investigations by scientists confirm these statements.

Beside the fact that I had no idea that Elder McKay knew the word "narcotics," nothing about this counsel caught me off guard. Except for the part about being guilty of "transmit[ting] weakness to unborn generations"? Who wants to be guilty of that? Not me. I took a big enough risk trying to get by with a less-than-splendid physique.

So there it is, men: old school Mormon manhood. While the century has changed, the message has not: Keep the commandments. In this there is safety. In this there is Mormon manhood.

And hit the gym, for crying out loud. And quit being such a gad-fly.

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