Orson F. Whitney was a member of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. The son of Horace Whitney, original typesetter for the Deseret News, and Helena Mar Kimball, Orson F. Whitney was a writer, state senator, church historian and apostle throughout his life.
According to biographical information provided by Brigham Young University’s library, Whitney originally dreamed of being an actor. He studied elocution, acting and fencing to prepare for his dream, but his life went down a different path when he was called on a church mission to the Eastern States in 1876.
Whitney’s mother, Helena Mar Kimball, sold her land to pay for her son’s mission. He recorded his missionary experiences, not only from his first mission but also from his subsequent missions, in a column in the Salt Lake Herald.
For the Deseret Evening News, he wrote a column called “Saturday Night Thoughts.” In the foreword of what became his book, it stated that the paper said his articles “were designed to fill in some degree a spiritual void and meet a special need of those who were in the habit of attending Sunday services, but were denied that privilege by the prevalence of the influenza epidemic.”
This weekly column is one of Whitney’s most praised works, earning him attention from apostles. The columns were eventually reprinted as a book due to the wishes of several general authorities, according to the foreword of the book “Saturday Night Thoughts.”
In these columns, Whitney wrote about his musings on Latter-day Saint related issues. He would cite prophets, apostles and scripture alongside famous poets and authors like Ralph Waldo Emerson, Leo Tolstoy and Johann Wolfgang Goethe.
Whitney also gave explanations of how early church history events happened, often quoting from early newspaper articles.
In one of his articles about promptings from the Holy Spirit, Whitney wrote, “The Shepherd’s Voice.—When it comes to the Gospel, I feel more positive. Why did the Savior say: ‘My sheep know my voice?’ Can a sheep know the voice of its shepherd, if it has never heard that voice before? They who love Truth, and to whom it appeals most powerfully, were they not its best friends in a previous state of existence? I think so. I believe that we knew the Gospel before we came here, and it is this knowledge, this acquaintance, that gives to it a familiar sound.”
In addition to “Saturday Night Thoughts,” Whitney’s poetry was quite famous. He wrote the lyrics to several Latter-day Saint hymns, including “Savior, Redeemer of My Soul.”
According to Hymnary, Whitney wrote other poems that became the lyrics to hymns. He penned the words to “The wintry day descending to its close” and “Joseph, the Prophet, martyred saint and seer.”
One of Whitney’s larger works was a history of Utah called “History of Utah.” Published by George Q. Cannon, the preface of this book stated that it took 14 years to write, from start to publication date. This historical work focuses on Latter-day Saints’ history in Utah and describes the development of the church, as well as the infrastructure of Utah.
He also wrote biographies, including one about the life of Heber C. Kimball and later, Lorenzo Snow. Lorenzo Snow’s biography was published posthumously. Eventually, Whitney was called as an apostle in 1906, but he didn’t stop writing.
He published “Love and the Light: An Idyll of the Westland” in 1918. This didactic epic is considered an important work for understanding the West.
In some ways, Whitney is considered the father of Latter-day Saint literature. He once said about Latter-day Saints, “We will yet have Miltons and Shakespeares of our own.” His work has inspired and continues to inspire many Latter-day Saint authors.