Editor’s note: This was adapted from the author’s new book, The J. Golden Kimball Stories.
J. Golden Kimball was examining a hat in the ZCMI [department store]. When a clerk approached him he asked the price.
The clerk replied, “Ten Dollars,” whereupon Brother Kimball started to look inside the hat, pulling back the band. The clerk, confused by his close inspection, inquired, “What are you looking for?”
Without looking up, Brother Kimball responded, “Holes.”
“Holes?” questioned the now utterly confused clerk.
“Yes,” said Kimball, “for the ears of the jackass who would pay ten dollars for this hat.”
As recorded by a Brigham Young University folklore student from a Mormon rancher in Coalville, Utah, 1977
The Golden Legacy
The above story is just one of hundreds attributed to Mormondom’s most popular folk hero – J. Golden Kimball. With his gaunt figure, magpie voice, and fiery vigor, Elder Kimball embodied the down-to-earth humor he so often provided his people.
Loved by all Latter-day Saints, even religiously uninterested “jack-Mormon” farmers and wayward youth emptied fields and pool halls to gather around the radio to hear his sermons broadcast from Temple Square during the semiannual General Conferences of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. As he toured the Mormon settlements of the West, “Uncle Golden” – as folks of no particular relation to him often called him – charmed congregations with frank talk and refreshing quips occasionally peppered with his famous salty language.
J. Golden’s probing insight into the human condition as well as his love of God and fellow human beings were rarely obscured by any overzealous attention to decorum. This earned him a much-revered place in the collective memory of Mormons.
On J. Golden’s eightieth birthday, apostle John Henry Evans may have been the first – but was certainly not the last – to call Elder Kimball “our Mark Twain and Will Rogers.” 1 More than sixty years after Elder Kimball’s death, a lively oral narrative cycle of legends, jokes, and folktales continues to be told about the man – perpetuating this beloved preacher’s place in the memory of contemporary Latter-day Saints.
To understand these stories, it helps to know a little more of the life of the man. This article explores the relationship between his life history and some of the familiar stories told about him.
It is often difficult, if not impossible, to determine how closely any given J. Golden Kimball story a person might tell resembles things J. Golden actually said or did. However, many still-told stories closely resemble the sorts of things one can readily imagine J. Golden doing once one becomes familiar with his character. So for this “folk history” of J. Golden Kimball I draw from both historical documents and oral narrative sources transcribed in folklore archives.
J. Golden’s Early Years
Jonathan Golden Kimball was born in Salt Lake City on 26 June 1853 to Christeen Golden and Heber C. Kimball as one of the first of a new generation of Mormons to be born in the Utah Territory after the great trek west from Nauvoo, Illinois. 2 J. Golden’s father, along with Brigham Young, was one of only two of the original apostles of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints to never waver from total loyalty to Joseph Smith, a fact surely impressed upon young Golden as he was growing up.
After Joseph Smith’s martyrdom, Brigham Young selected the little-educated and unpolished, but energetic and emotive, Heber C. Kimball to be his first councilor in the First Presidency. J. Golden was one of sixty-five children born to this prominent man who, with forty-three wives, may have been the most married Mormon in history. 3
According to tradition, J. Golden would say, “he was the son of Heber C. Kimball – one of seventeen – and not a bastard among them.” 4
When J. Golden’s father died, he was only fifteen and the oldest of his mother’s three children. To earn money for the family, he left home to take up work as a mule driver. His mother took in boarders and sewed for ZCMI – Zion’s Cooperative Mercantile Institution, a legacy of Brigham Young’s United Order and the nation’s first department store. 5 However, these efforts did not prevent the family from falling on hard times. 6
J. Golden blamed the mule skinner’s work environment for his cussing habit. He claimed mules just won’t move if you speak to them in ordinary English. They understand only the most powerfully colorful language. “I assure you my cussing now is only the pitiful remnant of a far larger vocabulary,” goes one version of the justification Elder Kimball is said to have used later in life.
In 1876, J. Golden and his brother Elias began ranching in Rich County, Utah. Perhaps while ranching, if not before, J. Golden began another of his infamous bad habits, drinking coffee, the cowboy ambrosia. Later in his life, stories like the following began to circulate:
When Heber J. Grant called for the Church to live the Word of Wisdom more faithfully, J. Golden’s wife would no longer allow him to fix his coffee at home. J. Golden would sneak to downtown Salt Lake to a couple of different restaurants and have a cup of coffee. One time while he was sitting in a back booth near the restrooms, a lady spied him and confronted him saying, “Is that you Elder Kimball drinking coffee?” J. Golden replied, “Ma’am, you are the third person today who has mistaken me for that old s. o. b!” 7
A Religious Calling
During the winters, J. Golden helped cut timber used to build the Logan Temple. In the timber industry, he eventually rose to superintendent of a sawmill. During the summer of 1881, J. Golden experienced a pivotal moment that would eventually veer him away from a life of manual labor and neglect of religion.
The German-born Mormon convert educator Karl G. Maeser came to Rich County to speak of the importance of learning and faith. Maeser’s speech electrified J. Golden. Experiencing a spiritual and intellectual awakening, he left to attend Maeser’s Brigham Young Academy (later Brigham Young University) in Provo, Utah.
In 1883, a religious calling interrupted his education. Despite being somewhat older than usual and fully engaged in his schooling, he set off to be a missionary for two years in the Southern States Mission.
It was only 18 years after the end of the Civil War, and the American South was a harsh place for Mormon missionaries. Beatings, tarring and feathering, and even murder were very real threats for what many southerners saw as meddlesome outsiders. 8 The Ku Klux Klan disrupted meetings, and shot down Mormon missionaries and their converts. 9 Several of J. Golden Kimball’s fellow missionaries lost their lives for their cause at the hands of lynch mobs.
His frustrating experiences in the South are reflected in such still-told legends as the following:
J. Golden Kimball was riding on a stagecoach somewhere in Missouri. A group of men were riding along with him, and they began to complain about the Mormons. Apparently, they didn’t realize a Mormon was among them. One man said he hated the Mormons with a passion, thus he was going to Texas to get away from them. Another man said he was going to Kentucky to get away from the Mormons. And finally, a third man said he was going to Boston to get away from all the “blankety-blank” Mormons. J Golden Kimball then said, “Why don’t you all just go to Hell because there won’t be any Mormons there.” 10
J. Golden himself told stories about the sometimes-harrowing nature of his missionary service. On one occasion, he and his companion retreated to what they thought was a private outdoor spot to practice their preaching and praying skills away from prying eyes. J. Golden felt his awkward, untrained companion could use a lesson or two.
Closing their eyes, with their hands in the air – a customary prayer position in the past that preceded the contemporary Mormon practice of folding one’s arms – J. Golden’s companion gave a long, loud, and enthusiastic prayer, making for a strange sight in the middle of the woods.
J. Golden Kimball remembered: “I thought he would never get through; and when he said Amen, we looked back, and there were four men standing behind us with guns on their shoulders. I said to my companion, “That is another lesson, from this time on in the South; I shall pray with one eye open.” 11
On another occasion he made the following quip to the assembled Saints in the Salt Lake Tabernacle: “I know what it is like to smell powder, and am glad of it, and I thank the Lord I did not run. I guess I would have done so, but I had no place to go.” 12
Compounded to his troubles with persecution, Elder Kimball was – on one occasion at least – laid low by jaundice and malaria. 13 After the Klan murdered LDS missionaries and church members during a Kane Creek, Tennessee worship service, Elder Kimball took to sleeping with a barricaded door and a loaded pistol. Deathly ill and even more frighteningly emaciated-looking than usual, he gave this up after a few days saying, “Well, by heck, if anyone can come here and look at me and then make an attack on me, I’ll let him do it.” That night he took down the barricade and put the pistol in a trunk under some books. 14
Despite his illness and the threats Mormons faced in the South, J. Golden was a successful missionary. He was so successful that in 1892, the Church called him again to serve, this time as president of the Southern States Mission. While still serving as mission president, he was called to be one of the Seven Presidents of the First Council of the Seventy.
Viewing himself as too unpolished and not somber enough for such a life, he marveled all his days about what seemed to him to be an unlikely career path. Thomas Cheney records that J. Golden said of the inscrutability of his calling’s wisdom: “A lot of people in the Church believe that men are called to leadership in the Church by revelation and some do not. But I’ll tell you, when the Lord calls an old mule skinner like me to be a General Authority, there’s got to be revelation.” 15
Family and Financial Struggles
Between his two missions, J. Golden briefly returned to ranching in the Bear Lake Valley, where he married Jennie Knowlton in 1887. Together they raised three boys and three girls. His meager personal income and many days traveling on church business proved to be a difficult challenge for their marriage.
Financial misfortune caused further struggles for the Kimballs. J. Golden entered the 1890s a successful rancher, but left the century broke and on Church assistance. As was the case with many Americans, the financial Panic of 1893 and the five-year depression that ensued, hit him hard. 16
Church finances – still reeling from the federal government’s devastating campaign against polygamy in the 1880s – were only worsened by the nation’s general economic downturn. J. Golden suffered further burns in bad business deals, which he came to see as having exploited his trusting nature. Again, life may have influenced art in the financial motifs in stories such as the following:
One time J. Golden Kimball was discussing the United Order in a sermon. He said, “Brothers and Sisters, I believe in the United Order! I will throw all my debts in with you any time!” 17
Or consider the following story related by his nephew Spencer W. Kimball:
I want to mention a story I have told about Uncle Golden. You have heard about my Uncle J. Golden Kimball, who was a rather interesting person. I don’t think it is true, but it was told of him that his creditors kept coming and bothering him all the time and they wanted payments on their accounts. And he began to get a little tired of it, and he said, “Now listen here fellows. You know the way I handle my accounts. I take all of the bills at the end of the month and I put them in the wastebasket. Then I stir them around and if I see one that looks good and if I can I’ll pay it. But,” he said, “if you don’t quit bothering me I won’t even put yours in the wastebasket.” 18
Issues of debt and money management frequently appeared in his sermons as well. He once jokingly explained how he could stay out of debt through his unique method of trying to borrow money: “[The banker] said, ‘How do you expect me to take your endorsement?’ I replied, ‘On my looks and general character. That is all I have got.’ And he turned me down; and I have been tickled to death ever since. That is how to stay out of debt.” 19
In stressing the importance of investing in one’s eternal life, he once compared salvation’s security to the risks that can accompany temporal financial investments. He explained that only one of his many attempts at investing had been successful, but as for the rest, “all I ever got out of it was experience; the other fellow got my money.” 20
However, family difficulties exceeded even his financial problems. For a man so enthusiastic about a faith that placed such a strong emphasis on family togetherness, it must have been particularly painful to see only two of his six children remain actively involved with Mormonism. These sad events are alluded to in stories told about him:
[Some members began chastising J. Golden Kimball] because his family was going astray, not doing just what they ought to do. And they told him a Church official ought to have a more exemplary family. He sat and listened, and then he said, “Well, I guess according to your idea of an exemplary family, it seems God Almighty hasn’t been such a hell of a success either!” 21
Those who experience deep personal pain and embarrassment over family and financial tragedies know that successes in other areas can seem as much like cruel irony as balancing compensation. J. Golden Kimball was probably no different in this respect. While he enjoyed public speaking, cheering hearts, and making people laugh, being the most popular celebrity in Mormodom may not have done much to counterweigh his family troubles.
Had J. Golden’s success as an entertainer come in a secular rather than sacred arena, his remuneration for his efforts may have been much more lucrative and more pleasing to his wife. It is almost clich to notice that personal misfortune often forms the backdrop for comic genius, but J. Golden Kimball’s life is evidence of this frequently noted connection.
J. Golden and The Bretheren
J. Golden undoubtably found some solace in his Church service and his close friendships among the Bretheren. Elder Kimball’s relationship with fellow Seventy’s President Brigham H. Roberts is particularly noteworthy. 22 If J. Golden Kimball is remembered as the great humorist among General Authorities, B. H. Roberts’ stature is equal as one of the great thinkers and theologians of twentieth century Mormonism. 23 The two Seventies formed their friendship in the American South, when J. Golden served as an assistant to B. H. Roberts, who served as president of the Southern States Mission. 24
The younger Elder Kimball accompanied President Roberts when the senior missionary disguised himself as a farm hand so he could recover the bodies of murdered missionaries from an area hot with anti-Mormonism. 25 J. Golden served as B. H. Robert’s lifelong confidant as the latter struggled deeply and painfully with debilitating diabetes and depression for which he went to Los Angeles for treatment in 1906. 26 Elder Roberts would have known that in J. Golden he had a friend who understood the depths of personal pain.
J. Golden himself publicly described their friendship as “akin to that of David and Jonathan.” 27 It endured despite differences of age, temperament, and personality.
Despite general good feelings and much mutual admiration, Elder Kimball’s uniqueness among Church leaders probably lead to some tensions with his generally more sober and dignified Brethren.
One time President Francis M. Lyman complained to J. Golden that he upset the General Authorities too much. Golden Answered: “Well, you see, Brother Lyman, you talk and send them to sleep, and I have to talk and wake them up!” 28
According to one of the most frequently told stories, President Grant passes J. Golden a written note reminding him not to swear just as Elder Kimball is about to speak at General Conference. J. Golden looks at the notes and exclaims into the microphone, “Hell Heber! I can’t read this damn thing!” This story was even funnier back when members remembered that one of Heber J. Grant’s favorite sermons was on how with diligent self-improvement he was able to improve his notoriously bad handwriting.
Despite occasional concerns, his loyalty not only to B. H. Roberts and President Grant, but to all the men his people sustained as prophets, seers, and revelators, as well as to all the Mormon people down to the lowliest one was deep and fierce:
I sustain and uphold with all my heart and soul president Heber J. Grant as Prophet of God. It was only two months ago that a young lawyer – I suppose he considered himself one of the brilliant young lawyers – undertook to criticize severely the President of the Church. I was somewhat disturbed. I said, “I am going to take out my watch and give you five minutes to name a better man.” I haven’t heard from him yet. 29
A Life of Stalwart Service
Statements like these should give pause to those who would make J. Golden Kimball into some sort of hero for dissent from Mormon orthodoxy. There is no hint in the humor surrounding J. Golden Kimball of the condescending sort that sometimes accompanies doubting about, or anger toward, religion.
J. Golden Kimball served for forty-six years as a General Authority, giving thousands of sermons and visiting just about every Latter-day Saint settlement in the Intermountain West. J. Golden lived in a time of rapid technological change, which he witnessed as her traveled visiting far-flung members of the Church.
This event took place at the church owned woolen mills that Brother Kimball had been instructed to visit, representing the First Presidency of the Church. Part of his gentleman’s attire was a long frock coat which he always wore.
As he was walking along discussing plant operations with his guide, his coat was accidentally caught on one of the machines, which began to pull him around so fast that he had to run as it pulled him around in circles. After being drug around for about twelve revolutions he was thrown to the floor.
The young man that was showing him around the mill came running over and said, “Brother Kimball, speak to me! Speak to me!” He looked at him and looked him straight in the eye, “I don’t know why the hell I should, I passed you twelve times just now, and not once, did you speak to me!” 30
To the end of his days, despite severe life trials and failing health, his faith gave him comfort and direction that he attempted to impart to others. On 2 September 1938, the elderly J. Golden Kimball was riding in the back seat of a car fifty miles east of Reno, Nevada, when it suddenly veered out of control and crashed into an embankment, throwing him a considerable distance off the road. The great Mormon humorist and defender of the faith was dead.
Presaging his continuing life in the memory of his people, more mourners came to his funeral in the Salt Lake City tabernacle than to any other funeral of a Mormon leader since Brigham Young.
But the story doesn’t end here. Apparently the following exchange took place at the Pearly Gates:
When he died J. Golden was greeted by Heaven’s master receptionist, Saint
Peter: “Well, Brother Golden, at last we got you here!”
“Yeah, but by hell, you had to kill me to do it!” 31
He lives in our stories as well. Today, nearly seventy years after his death, Elder Kimball and his stories continue to inspire and entertain us with wit and wisdom that are timeless.
1. Claude Richards, J. Golden Kimball: The Story of a Unique Personality. Salt Lake City: Deseret News Press, 1966 (originally published 1934) , 123.
2. In presenting this biographical sketch I am indebted to James N. Kimball, “J. Golden Kimball: Private Life of a Public Figure.” Journal of Mormon History 24:2 (Fall 1998): 55-84, and to Allan Kent Powell, “J. Golden Kimball.” In Utah History Encyclopedia, edited by Allan Kent Powell. Salt Lake City: University of Utah Press, 1994, 302.
3. Stanley B. Kimball, Heber C. Kimball: Mormon Patriarch and Pioneer. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1981 , 229.
4. Collected by Rebecca Kent in 1998. William A. Wilson Folklore Archive, Special Collections, Harold B. Lee Library, Brigham Young University, WAWFA: FA1, project #1642.
5. Leonard J. Arrington, Feramorz Y Fox, and Dean L. May. Building the City of God: Community and Cooperation Among the Mormons. Salt Lake City: Deseret Book Company, 1976 , 91-110.
6. J. Golden Kimball, Conference Reports. Salt Lake City: The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, 1880-present , October 1931, 57.
7. Program administrator, male, Orem, Utah, 2000. Email in author’s possession.
8. Eric A. Eliason, “Mormons,” The Encyclopedia of Civil Rights in America, edited by Shelley Fisher Fishkin and David Bradley. New York: Salem Press, 1997: 612-16.
9. B. H. Roberts, The Autobiography of B. H. Roberts. Salt Lake City: Signature Books, 1990 (originally published 1933): 139.
10. Student, male, Provo, Utah, 1990. Collected by Kevin Michael Ross in 1990. WAWFA: FA5, 22.214.171.124.1
11. J. Golden Kimball, Conference Reports, October 1925, 158. An oral folk historical version of these events is perpetuated in “Missionary Prayers” in Chapter 7.
12. J. Golden Kimball, Conference Reports, October 1917, 133.
13. Roberts, Autobiography, 138.
14. Ibid., 160.
15. Thomas E. Cheney, The Golden Legacy: A Folk History of J. Golden Kimball. Santa Barbara and Salt Lake City: Peregrine Smith, Inc., 1974, 100.
16. On the economic hard times of 1890s America, see Douglas Steeples and David O. Whitten. Democracy in Desperation: The Depression of 1893. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1998.
17. Male, Los Angeles, California, 1947. Told by W. Tenney Cannon. Austin and Alta Fife, Utah State University, Fife Mormon Collection I: 636.
18. Spencer W. Kimball, Conference Reports, April 1975, 168 .
19. J. Golden Kimball, Conference Reports, October 1921, 85.
20. J. Golden Kimball, Conference Reports, October 1918, 31.
21. Male, Washington, Utah, 1947. Told by Andrew Sproul. Austin and Alta Fife, Fife Mormon Collection I: 633.
22. J. Golden Kimball is the most-mentioned person in B. H. Roberts’ autobiography. Roberts, Autobiography, 261.
23. David Bitton, “Brigham Henry Roberts,” In Utah History Encyclopedia at http://www.media.utah.edu/UHE/r/ROBERTS%2CBRIGHAM.html.
24. Roberts, Autobiography, 138, 142-45, 152-54, 160-63.
25. Ibid., 145.
26. Ibid., xv. Richard S. van Wagoner, and Steven C. Walker. A Book of Mormons. Salt Lake City: Signature Books, 1982: 246; Truman Madsen, Defender of the Faith: The B. H. Roberts Story. Salt Lake City: Bookcraft, 1980: 379.
27. J. Golden Kimball, Conference Reports, October 1933, 42-44.
28. Internet post, 1998. Kent S. Larsen II, email to author, 10 August 1998.
29. J. Golden Kimball, Conference Reports, April 1930, 61.
30. Librarian, female, Logan, Utah, 1964. Collected by Jo Dee Madsen in 1964. WAWFA: FA5, 126.96.36.199.1