Jonathan Golden Kimball
Jonathan Golden Kimball
Muleskinner, Missionary, Beloved Church Leader

Jonathan Golden Kimball, BYA Class of 1881
J. Golden Kimball

Brigham Young Academy
High School Class of 1881


BY Academy High School Class of 1881. Jonathan G. Kimball. A Commercial Program student, he received a Certificate in Bookkeeping & Commercial Arithmetic. [Source: The Territorial Enquirer, June 22, 1881, Provo, Utah.]
J. Golden Kimball was born in Salt Lake City, Utah, on June 9, 1853. He grew up in an unusually beautiful Utah home -- one of the many residences of his father's, Heber Chase Kimball -- that was erected in 1848-49.

His father, born in 1801 in Vermont, was a giant of physical strength. Heber C. Kimball became a member of the Quorum of Twelve Apostles of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints on February 14, 1835. He was appointed head of the first LDS mission to England in 1837; returned to England in 1840; and recruited the Mormon Battalion on the banks of the Missouri River in 1846.

Heber C. Kimball arrived in Utah on July 24, 1847. When the First Presidency of the Church was reorganized, he was named the first counselor to Brigham Young.

J. Golden's mother was Christeen Golden Kimball, born in 1824. She was the only member of her side of the family that joined the LDS Church. She married Heber C. Kimball in the Nauvoo Temple in Illinois, his tenth wife. Tall and stately, she came to Utah, sewed in the Z.C.M.I. store, and took in boarders to make ends meet. She had three children: J. Golden, Elias S., and Mary Margaret.

Jonathan Golden Kimball was carefully trained by his father, living in close proximity to him and under his very watchful care. He had the unusual experience in his early years of accompanying his father, along with President Brigham Young's large entourage, when they visited various settlements of the Saints.

Each wife in the Kimball family had to help rear her own family, and therefore the family was largely self supporting. Supplies from Heber C. Kimball's garden and orchard were distributed as equally as possible. This garden was surrounded by a six-foot-eight-inch wall, but it proved to be no barrier to the Kimball boys. One of the big brothers could hoist a lighter and smaller boy over the wall to secure any extra carrots, turnips, or fruit needed, pulling boy and supplies back over by rope. J. Golden said he learned to "shinny" any tree, pole or wall. "Any wall became an invitation to me."

His father built the first school in the Mountain West and all children who cared to come were welcome. Reading and writing were stressed, and J. Golden learned to read early in life, especially the scriptures. He received a good education in various Salt Lake City schools up to 1868, including classes at the Morgan Commercial College. A life scholarship was paid for him to attend the University of Deseret in 1867, but the term was set upon his father's life, not his own, and his father's death a year later terminated its value.

His 67-year-old father died on June 22, 1868, as a delayed result of a buggy accident in Provo at night in the spring of 1868. J. Golden Kimball was only 15 years old at the time.

Fatherless, the large Kimball family fell on hard economic times. Being the eldest child of his mother's family and feeling the need to provide income for his family, against his mother's wishes, the gangly teenager early secured a team of government freighter mules and set out to haul for the railroads, getting good pay. Most of the hauling for the railroads, however, terminated soon after the celebrated joining of the Union and Central Pacific railroads in 1869. J. Golden continued to drive wagon teams engaged in such tasks as hauling wood from the canyons, ore from the mines, etc. In short, he became a "muleskinner". He contracted jobs until he was 20, and was known for his honesty, punctuality and fairness. He also earned money by digging cellars, and was often up at 4:00 am to start his work.


A muleskinner and his mules, 1880s

Notwithstanding every effort made by his mother to encourage him to secure more elevating employment, he continued in the same vocation.

With almost no resources, his mother went out the second time as a pioneer, and in 1875, relocated her family in Meadowville, Rich County, Utah. Just four miles from Bear Lake near the Idaho border, J. Golden and Elias bought property from Isaac and Solomon Kimball, two of the eleven sons of Heber C. Kimball living in that territory.

They signed a note for $1,000, purchasing four hundred acres of farm and meadow land, and in that cold, northern clime established a ranch and farm. For fifteen years they followed the horse and cattle business. They were relatively successful and accumulated considerable means.

In addition to farming, the boys cut and hauled logs to help build the Logan Temple. The temperature was often 40 degrees below zero in Logan Canyon, where J. Golden said, "It was nine months winter and three months fall." The family lived in a log cabin measuring 16 by 20 feet.

J. Golden Kimball and his brother Elias S. continued as partners in business their entire lives. J. Golden recalled that from the time of his father's death and up to the fall of 1878, he was under no restraint of any kind, but was as free as the birds that fly in the air -- no man's hand was stretched out to guide him in the footsteps of his father or in the footsteps of any other man.

The direction of his life changed, however, when the principal of Brigham Young Academy, Professor Karl G. Maeser, accompanied by Elder John W. Taylor, ventured to visit the isolated little settlement of Meadowville, made up largely of eleven of Heber C. Kimball's sons and their families.

This distinguished educator called the local people together in a log school house, and for an hour and a half bore his testimony to them of God, and also spoke to them about the Brigham Young Academy in Provo.

Those who heard Principal Maeser's speech said that the Spirit of God awakened and aroused J. Golden Kimball and his brother Elias, and for the first time they realized there was something else to be accomplished in life besides looking after cattle and horses.

According to their account of things, they repented of their weaknesses, reformed, and decided to attend Brigham Young Academy.

To raise money for school, the two boys sold washing machines for miles around. They paid cash for fifty machines to an agent who was never seen or heard of again -- nor were the machines. This setback made them more determined than ever.

On a bitter cold night they threw their small packets of personal effects into the wagon bed of a friend, hugged their hopeful mother and sister, and left to go to Provo, 200 miles away. On the way they stopped over in Evanston, Wyoming, almost frozen, then continued forward, taking three days to reach Provo.

Their mother soon moved to Provo to board her two sons and five other young men. The boys hauled vegetables to Coalville, and coal on the return trip.

After great sacrifices and the overcoming of serious difficulties, two happy years went by all too quickly for J. Golden.

In June of 1881, The Territorial Enquirer newspaper of Provo reported that Jonathan G. Kimball and Elias S. Kimball, Commercial students, both received Bookkeeping & Commercial Arithmetic certificates, the equivalent of a high school diploma.

J. Golden left school to return to the Bear River Valley ranch, but Elias remained on at BYA for a total of three years.

During those years in Provo the Kimball boys were guided and tutored by Principal Karl G. Maeser and his associate teachers. The boys often said that it was during their Academy years that they gained a testimony that God lives, and they were loyal and true to the Brigham Young Academy from that time on.

Two years after leaving the Academy, J. Golden Kimball was called by Church President John Taylor, during conference on April 6, 1883, to fill a mission to the Southern States.

Eight days after receiving his call he was set apart by Brother Moses Thatcher. Together with twenty-four Elders he landed in Chattanooga, Tennessee, and was appointed by President Brigham H. Roberts to labor in Virginia, where he joined his companion as a traveling Elder and labored absolutely without purse or scrip.

After laboring one year he was appointed to act as Secretary of the Southern States Mission at Chattanooga under the direction of President Roberts.

He was very familiar with the details of the martyrdom of Elders Gibbs and Berry, as well as with the mobbing, shooting at and whipping of "Mormon" Elders during the year 1884.

During the last year of his mission his health and constitution were broken; he was troubled with malaria, which continued to afflict him for many years. In the spring of 1885 he received an honorable release, and returned to Utah via New Jersey, where he preached, and visited his mother's relatives.

Upon his return, he continued in the ranch business, and was ordained a Seventy by President C. D. Fjelsted on July 21, 1886. On his return to Bear Lake he served as a home missionary in that Stake. He was also appointed to preside over an Elders' quorum, after which he was chosen and set apart as Superintendent of the Young Men's Mutual Improvement Associations (YMMIA) of the Bear Lake Stake, and visited the associations regularly until he moved to Logan City.

J. Golden Kimball married but once, to Jeanette (Jennie) Jane Smith Knowlton on September 22, 1887 in Logan, Utah. Jennie was born on February 12, 1866 in Skull Valley, Davis County, Utah. Her parents were John Quincy Knowlton and Ellen Smith Knowlton.

J. Golden and Jennie had six children: Jonathan "Jack" Kimball; Quince "Jane" Kimball; Elizabeth Kimball; Gladys Kimball; Richard Kimball; and Max Kimball.

J. Golden Kimball, together with Newel Kimball and Elias Kimball, entered into the farm implement business under the name of "Kimball Brothers", establishing places of business at Logan, Utah and Montpelier, Idaho. They signed promissory notes for over thirty thousand dollars. They labored hard for four years, and completely lost their investment, but saved their good name and paid their debts.

They decided to exchange their Bear River Valley ranch for Cache Valley property, and used the proceeds from the sale of their cattle and horses to invest in real estate. There was a real estate boom underway, and they were not yet convinced of the danger of speculation. They bought almost every property that was for sale.

They finished their careers as business men by investing in a company that had purchased 119,000 acres of land in Canada. What they failed to lose, they said, their friends helped them out of, and they were delivered from the awful fate of becoming rich men. After hard experience, they endorsed the financial principle, "Don't go in debt."

On August 1, 1891, President Wilford Woodruff once again called J. Golden Kimball to serve in the Southern States Mission, this time to succeed Elder William Spry as the mission president.

Notwithstanding the fact that his health was seriously impaired, and he was in severe financial straits, he believed it when the Prophet of the Lord promised him he should regain his health and be blessed of the Lord, which he testified was literally fulfilled.

J. Golden Kimball labored three years as president of the Southern States Mission, and was succeeded by his brother, Elias S. Kimball.

On the return trip from this mission, he obtained 1,500 names of members of the Golden family. Later, Elias, J. Golden and their mother did the temple work for all of them.

In his talks J. Golden Kimball seldom referred to his mission experiences, but the testimonies of many converts included stories about how he was frequently persecuted, and also reported many conversions, and miraculous healings among the faithful.

On April 6, 1892, J. Golden Kimball was named a member of the First Council of the Seventy while still serving as president of the Southern States Mission. He was ordained by Apostle Francis M. Lyman two days later. He was now a General Authority of the Church.

In 1895 he and his family moved back to Salt Lake City.

In 1896 he was called to be one of the aides on the General Board of the Young Men's Mutual Improvement Association. He took an active part in filling appointments, as directed by the General Board, in nearly every Stake in Zion. He visited the Young Men's conferences, Young Men's and Young Ladies' conjoint conferences, and many of their conventions.

He frequently gave advice to the young people of the Church, including: "Don't ever start swearing; it is a nasty habit and can get you into a lot of trouble. I guess I ought to know. There is only one occasion when a man should swear to keep his temper and that's when you're driving mules."

J. Golden Kimball, 1897, Illustration
Drawing, April 6, 1897
Salt Lake Tribune

His rapid-fire speeches were often so entertaining and thought-provoking that it was difficult for his listeners to take notes.

He was a featured speaker at the Brigham Young Academy Commencement in May of 1899. In the evening an Alumni Banquet was held at the Hotel Roberts in Provo with about two hundred people attending. Four alumni spoke about different periods of time in the life of the Academy. The four speakers were Mrs. Hannah Stubbs Jones, Newton Noyes, George H. Brimhall, and Elder J. Golden Kimball.

According to a reporter, J. Golden Kimball's highly anticipated talk covered the period from 1877 to 1884, during which he was a student at the institution from September of 1878 to June of 1881. His talk was delivered in a reminiscent strain. Kimball mentioned that he was one of those who had graduated from the Academy, but who had forgotten to get his parchment.

He stated that his time at the Academy was the turning point in his life, because there he had learned that the Gospel was true.

He closed his speech with the prophecy that the Brigham Young Academy would go on prospering, and among its alumni would be many spiritual leaders, as well as congressmen and other high civil officers. [Source: Deseret Evening News, May 27, 1899.]

From 1900 to 1922, J. Golden Kimball served as one of the First Presidents and Secretary of the First Council of Seventies.

In January of 1901, J. Golden Kimball was appointed by President Lorenzo Snow and given the assignment, in company with his wife and Elder Heber J. Grant and family, to visit the California Mission. The object of the call was that he might become acquainted with that field of missionary labor.

He met frequently with the Elders and Saints and listened to the "Mormon" Elders preach on the street corners. Elder Kimball was deeply impressed with the West Coast and its people, and came to believe a Stake of Zion would soon be established in the State of California.

It was as a General Authority that J. Golden Kimball became best known to the saints. The language he had picked up during his wild years as a drover and cattleman occasionally spilled out, to the embarrassment of some and the amusement of many.

Many a "hell" and "damn" came from his lips during the numerous Stake Conferences at which he was called upon to speak, and even occasionally were heard from the pulpit at General Conference in Salt Lake City. But while some may have felt him crude, no one ever doubted that Elder Kimball could drive home a point with the best of them.

After a long and colorful career as a General Authority, he rose to become the Seventh (senior) President of the Seventy.

When he died at age 85, thousands paid him tribute. He was killed in an auto accident near Reno, Nevada, on September 2, 1938, leaving only pleasant memories of a man who was fearlessly honest and who despised hypocrisy. He will long be remembered with love and affection. His wife, Jennie, died two years later, on August 25, 1940 in Salt Lake City, Utah. They were buried together in Salt Lake City, Utah.

The Deseret News was the official newspaper of the LDS Church, and its bitter rival was The Salt Lake Tribune. The Tribune often wrote bitterly about the Church and its leaders. However, on the occasion of Elder Kimball's death, it published the following editorial:
"The Church, of which he was an honored member and high official, may never have another like him. He was frank, outspoken, and fearless in his utterances. His discourses scintillated with original observations which occasionally disturbed some of his hearers, but never failed to convey his honest thoughts. Rich and risible are the stories told of his apt retorts and pointed remarks. His genial, wholesome nature will be remembered long, and his quaint sayings repeated, after many solemn visages and doleful homilies are forgotten.

"There was but one J. Golden Kimball. He was respected, beloved, and enjoyed by all with whom he made contact. His passing is a distinct loss to his circle, his Church, his community, and his commonwealth."
It is rare indeed to be spoken well of by your enemies, and also rare to be beloved and remembered by generations you never saw during your lifetime. J. Golden Kimball continues today to be one of the most beloved and best remembered General Authorities in the history of the Church.


The following selection was adapted from the book, The J. Golden Kimball Stories by Eric A. Eliason. Eliason teaches folklore at Brigham Young University and is a Utah National Guard Special Forces chaplain. He lives with his wife and four children in Springville, Utah.

Special thanks to Eric A. Eliason and Meridian Magazine.

© 2007 Meridian Magazine.




J. Golden Kimball

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 soon left to attend Maeser's Brigham Young Academy (later Brigham Young University) in Provo, Utah.

In 1883, two years after finishing up at the Academy and while taking care of the family's Bear River Valley ranch, a religious calling came to him. 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 with 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 Mormondom 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 cliché 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 Brethren

J. Golden undoubtedly found some solace in his Church service and his close friendships among the Brethren. 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 Heber J. 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


Jonathan Golden Kimball, 1853-1938

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 he 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 who 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 September 2, 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, seventy years after his death, Elder Kimball and his stories continue to inspire and entertain us with wit and wisdom that are timeless.

~ ~ Eric A. Eliason


Golden Foot Notes

J. Golden Kimball Footnotes:


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, 4.11.2.42.1

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, 4.11.2.10.1

31. Civil servant, male, Up Hatherley, England, 1998. John Gardner, email to author, 8 December 1998.


Mule team in a golden sunset

J. Golden Kimball gave himself a good deal of trouble during his long life, and was sorry about it. He also gave the Mormon Church a good deal of trouble, and was even more sorry about that... He regretted his breaks instantly and wholeheartedly, and though the Church never did more than admonish him and bar him periodically from the tabernacle platform, he grieved over it...

They called him the Will Rogers of the Church. That was a mistake. He should never have been compared with anyone, because J. Golden was an original... But like all originals, he defies description. He was himself, no less, no more, and nobody knew it more than he."

~~William Stegner, writing in Mormon Country



J. Golden Kimball Quotation Sampler:


-- "Cut me off from the church? They can't do that! I repent too damn fast."

-- "I may not walk the straight and the narrow, but I sure in hell try to cross it as often as I can!"

-- "There are not enough general authorities to do all the thinking for the membership of the church."

-- "I love all of the brethren, but I love some a hell of a lot more than I do others."

-- "I don't know how the people of St. George can stand the heat, the Indians, the snakes and the flooding Virgin River. If I had a house in St. George and a house in Hell, I'd rent out the one in St. George and move straight to Hell."

-- "This city (Brigham City) looks like hell. You need to clean things up, mow the grass, paint your houses and barns. And you sisters, you could stand a little paint yourselves."

-- "Young men, always marry a woman from Sanpete County. No matter what hard times you experience together, she has seen worse."

-- "I understand you brethren can't go on missions because you swear too much. You can overcome it. Hell, I did!"

-- "I mix the wheat with the chaff and it's up to you to take your choice. In my talks you will find foolishness, maybe some wisdom, and, I hope, a lot of truth."


A Personal Note
My mother is Velma Andersen Christensen, and she is 95 years old. While visiting her in Toquerville, Utah in August of 2008, I mentioned the name "J. Golden Kimball" and she responded instantly with the following story:

Her parents, Otto Anderson and Vera Christensen Anderson of Venice, Utah, had two daughters and six sons.

They were living in Elsinore, Utah when their second son, Kendon Anderson, was a newborn baby -- that would have been autumn of 1922 -- and he became quite ill. Vera could not find any food that he could keep down.

J. Golden Kimball was visiting for a local Stake Conference. Vera requested a special blessing for her newborn son, and Elder Kimball agreed to give him one.

In the humble, fervent blessing, Elder Kimball assured Vera that she would be able to find food that her son could digest, that he would thrive, and furthermore, promised her that she would have more sons in the future.

Vera went to a nearby mercantile store and explained her problem to the storekeeper. He noted that they had just received a new brand of baby food, and suggested that she try it on her son. She bought some, Kendon was able to eat it, and he grew to full adulthood. In fact, he is still living today in Salem, Utah.

Vera and Otto had four more sons after Uncle Ken, and they always remembered and treasured these blessings that the Lord promised them, through Elder J. Golden Kimball.

~~ Larry Christensen, BYH Class of 1966



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