Celebrating Samuel W. Taylor, a Peculiar Person

Celebrating Samuel W. Taylor, a Peculiar Person September 21, 2015

Sam Taylor
Wikimedia Commons/Eric Ward

Samuel W. Taylor was born, as we all were at one time or another, on February 5, 1907. But make no mistake, he was no ordinary chum. As it just so happens, Samuel had six mothers. That is to say, his father had six wives. Also, his father was at one time, an apostle of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

I say at one time because two years before Samuel’s birth, his father resigned as member of The Quorum of the Twelve over the issue of plural marriage. In short, he was still living it, even though the brethren had officially denounced it. In 1911, when Samuel was 4, his father was excommunicated from the LDS church for similar reasons.

Oh, also, John W. Taylor was the son of John Taylor, the third president of the LDS Church.

So as you can see, Samuel grew up in rather unique circumstances. Granddad was a prophet, dad was an excommunicated ex-apostle. Mom was plural, and he had 35 siblings.

But, interestingly enough, Samuel grew up in the tradition of the mainstream LDS church. He even attended BYU.

But this is not where the peculiarities end. In fact, it’s kind of where they begin. Taylor was an avid writer, and according to an old friend of his, Jean R. Paulson, Samuel made a name for himself at The Y. He wrote for the student paper, where he was “known for his quick wit.” He was a funny guy with an infectious laugh who refused to take the world too seriously. He eventually dropped out of college, allegedly because he kept upsetting the administration with his writings.

After trudging through life’s trials (namely, the Great Depression and a stint as an officer in the Air Force during World War II), Samuel eventually made a name for himself as a writer. Professionally, that is. He wrote numerous works of all different stripes. Fiction, non-fiction, criticism, humor, Mormon history, you name it.

Among his rather fun bibliography lies a curious story called “A Situation of Gravity.” This silly tale about a chemistry professor who invents a substance that absorbs energy and forcefully repels things was adapted in 1961 into a Disney movie called The Absent-Minded Professor.  Thirty years later, Disney remade that movie, this time starring Robin Williams. They called it Flubber.

That’s right folks, the movie Flubber can trace its line of authority directly to the Prophet Joseph Smith.  

But that’s not the only thing Samuel wrote that was of consequence. He also authored the story “Heaven Knows Why,” which according to Wikipedia has been called the single best piece of LDS humor ever produced (I haven’t read it yet).

At least eight films floating around out there are based on his writings (most of which were produced in the 1950s and 60s), and he also penned a fabulous essay on the need for Mormons to take literature more seriously.

Published in Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought, hisessaytitled “Peculiar People, Positive Thinkers,” argued that “the story of the Mormon people is a veritable bonanza of rich literary and dramatic material which only we are equipped to mine properly.”

“What I know about my people,” he continued in the essay, “is not what our parvenus want published about them.”

From that essay you can really get the sense that Samuel had a strong rebellious streak. He frequently published in Dialogue and Sunstone, and his tone was often one of discontent with his less-than-amusing brothers and sisters in the gospel. He was also an avid coffee drinker.

Another area where his edgier side manifested was in his writings on Church history. Don’t forget that this was the son of a man who was excommunicated for doing what his grandfather is now fondly remembered for. Namely: Practicing polygamy despite the protests of pretty much everyone. Samuel didn’t quite know what to make of the mainstream institutional church — the one that lionized his grandfather and vilified his father — and that struggle shows in his historical writings.

His Book The Kingdom or Nothing, a biography of his grandfather, is a fun read for this very reason. He takes direct swipes at Mormon historians for “sweeping plural marriage under the historical rug” in his footnotes, and provides some entertaining and insightful commentary on the scandal concerning his grandfather’s “alleged revelation” on the preservation of polygamy.

Despite his apparent mainstream persuasion in the Mormon Church, The Kingdom or Nothing has the forceful sting of fundamentalist thought. At the conclusion of the book’s introduction, Taylor argued that his grandfather was “quite literally the last pioneer.”

“Taylor’s death,” he argued, “marked the end of the original concept of Mormonism.”

Samuel died of heart failure in 1997. He left behind a whole swath of interesting things to read. For that I think we all owe him a big debt.

Here’s to a peculiar person, Samuel W. Taylor.

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