Of Trials and Friendships: Correspondence between George H. Brimhall and Orson F. Whitney

 Orson F. Whitney (1855-1931)

Brigham Young University is fortunate enough to have a collection of papers related to Orson F. Whitney,* a member of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles from 1906 to 1931. While reviewing this collection I discovered an interesting personal exchange between Orson F. Whitney and his friend George H. Brimhall, who was president of Brigham Young University from 1904 to 1921. Whitney was suffering from some severe health problems, so on January 15, 1924, Brimhall, who also experienced health problems of his own (including what we now know as depression), wrote him a letter of consolation, friendly support, and comfort. In the letter Brimhall writes:

I can appreciate in part the fight you have had to make, for I have been on that front where the struggle was extended into years of, seemingly at times, single-handed combat, so far as human help was concerned. Many a sunset brought from me the inward exclamation, “Thank God I’m one day nearer to the end”, the place where the road would turn.

He then goes on to share a special dream he had while struggling with these feelings of loneliness and depression in the hope that it will provide some comfort and help for Whitney:

And then I dreamed, or rather, God gave me comfort and courage thru a dream: I found myself on the western slope of Mount Timpanogos making my way thru deep snow toward the top. The wind blew my hat off and whipped my coat to shreds. So steep and slippery became the slope that I could not stand but crawled, clinging to the ice. I wore out my gloves, my finger nails and the flesh from off my finger tips. My shoes were full of holes and my overalls and trousers were frazzled half way to my knees. I dared not look back but did look upward and forward. I reached the top of one ice-slide to find myself facing another. My heart sank and but for the memory of what I had done I should have despaired. I resolved to climb on, to do my best, and leave the rest with the Lord, and then in my dream I was caught by some power invisible, except to the feelings, and literally lifted over the top to fields of flowers, forests of pine, and running brooks, and what was most wholly unexpected, a group of my brethren engaged in some constructive work.

I awoke and resolved anew to fulfill the prediction of Apostle Owen Woodruff that I should get well and be of service when most men said, “He is done for.” I said to myself, climb on for the Lord will lift you over when the crisis comes.”

Brimhall expresses his belief in science and faith and signs his letter with the closing statement that Whitney’s friendship, “is very dear to me, your life has enlarged mine from many angles, and my admiration of your courage is inexpressible.”

Portrait of George H. Brimhall (1852-1932), “Education in Zion” exhibit, BYU

Whitney’s response was just as comforting. He expressed gratitude for his friend’s words by saying “nothing that I have ever received in the form of a letter has touched me more deeply than your kind and sympathetic epistle . . . as I perused it, I thanked our Heavenly Father that I had such a friend. . . I thanked him . . . for the comforting and encouraging words which I doubt not he inspired you to pen.” He then says that he remembered “the ordeal” that Brimhall passed through when he felt “perhaps in your loneliness and weak condition, that your old-time friends had forgotten you; that you were fit for only the ‘scrap-heap’; and, but for the inspired promise of a friend you might have given up and sided with those already surrendered to death, supposing your days of usefulness to be over. I remember too, how sorrowful I felt that you had broken down under the heavy strain that was upon you.” The rest of Whitney’s letter reciprocates Brimhall’s by expressing his gratitude for Brimhall’s friendship and telling Brimhall exactly what he admires about his character. Whitney tells Brimhall that he “always looked at you as one of our greatest teachers, not only for your power of intellect, but for your strength of character, and the bigness of your soul. . .You and few like you remain, and we need you, Brother George, and I am thankful that you are still with us.”

I found this exchange inspiring and uplifting. I deeply admire the friendship and love exhibited in these letters between two old friends. What insights and lessons can we glean from these letters? For me, these letters show that the experiences we have during some of our worst trials can be, under the appropriate circumstances, shared with others to hopefully lighten their burdens and provide comfort or help. Once we’ve been able to heal from our wounds, we can use our experiences to help others heal, especially those closest to us. Even in our darkest moments we are not alone because we have our Heavenly Father who watches over and guides us (even if we don’t see him) in ways that are individual to each person. We also have our friends who love us, care for us, and make us better people. Not only can we rely on the strength of our friends, but we can also share strength by being a good friend. I think that if trials force us to experience human pain then friendships allow us to experience human joys (although friendships are not without their own peculiar set of difficulties). Interestingly, both are also a way of connecting with the divine. Trials can bring us closer to God by teaching us to rely on his love and guidance (as shown through Brimhall’s dream). Friendships can help us to become like God by developing in us Godlike qualities of love, empathy, service, and compassion, which we can then use to help each other (as Brimhall and Whitney did in their letters). For me these letters give an example of the deep bonds created through friendship, bonds that may last beyond death and extend into eternity.

Those are just my impressions from this correspondence. What do you think? There are plenty of gems like this to be discovered deep in the caverns of L. Tom Perry Special Collections. Why not come to the first floor of the library and discover them for yourself?

*These letters are from the Orson F. Whitney papers collection located in Perry Special Collections, MSS 15 (Box 1, folder 6)

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