The Passing of Alma Don Sorensen


I learned today that Alma Don Sorensen passed away yesterday, 27 January 2021. Don, in my estimation, was the foremost CoJC political philosopher of his generation. Ironically, most of his best writings were never published. But those of us who were privileged to read his writings were deeply influenced by them. SquareTwo managed to publish one of his very best: you can find it here. We also published a chapter from the book he co-wrote, Women and Eternity, Women of Zion (a chapter that he penned): you can find it here. That book would not exist except for Don's encouragement that it was possible to find not only good news, but the best of news for women in the Restored Gospel of Jesus Christ.

But Don was more than a political philosopher to me; he was a father figure in my life. I first met him when he was my professor in a political philosophy class when I was an undergrad at BYU in the 1970s. He was unlike any other professor I had ever met: he didn't use any notes, but he could lay out an intricate argument with extensive support over the course of the lecture period that was invariably both mind-stretching and soul-stretching. I wrote some of my very best undergrad essays for him; essays I worked very hard on (In contrast to most other essays I wrote as an undergrad).

But it was when I returned to BYU as an assistant professor in the late 1980s that I really got to know Don. I had read his entry on 'equality' in the first Encyclopedia of Mormonism, and was intrigued--what were the ramifications for women of what he wrote? And thus began an intense and years-long discussion between us, that culminated in Women in Eternity, Women of Zion, which was published in 2004 because of a generous donation by another former student of Don's. (Many of Don's former students stayed in touch with him as devoted friends years after graduation.)

I will never forget some of the special moments we had working on that book. I remember sitting at my kitchen table, on the phone with Don, wrestling with the issue of polygamy and how that possibly could square with women's equality. I remember being very frustrated, and Don said, "let's go back and read D&C 132 together." So he started reading over the phone, offering exegesis along the way, and when he got to the verses likening the commandment to Abraham to practice polygamy with the commandment to Abraham to sacrifice his son Isaac, Don said something to the effect of, "What happens when we take the Lord at His word, and view polygamy as an Abrahamic sacrifice?" I swear to you that when he said that, the clouds literally parted and the sun shone like a beacon onto my laptop where I was busily typing away as he spoke and my soul felt just like that sunshine. I knew Don was inspired of the Lord to take that direction. (Something not quite as dramatic, but still moving happened when Don asked me, "Don't you think God created Eve second to show that it was not Adam's stewardship to open the door to mortality, and that Adam would have to wait for Eve to arrive?" The genesis of "The Two Trees" came at that moment.)

I also remember the long talks we had in my office in the Kennedy Center as we were writing the book. I'd be typing his latest prose (Don was unable to use a keyboard, so he hand-wrote everything and someone would have to transcribe what he had written), and Don would be telling me stories of his youth in Cache Valley. He was deeply shaped by the life of his father, who died when he (the father) was only 53 in the line of duty as a law enforcement officer. Once I asked him how he had come to his views about the equality of women, having grown up in rural Utah in 1940s. And he told me a story I've never forgotten about how he and his brother were cruel to a single mother who lived near them, and played terrible pranks on her and even called her names. Apparently his father took him and his brother into the barn and "whupped" them, and told them they were never to treat a daughter of God that way ever again, and if they did, he'd "whup" them again. Don said that when his father said that, he could feel that Heavenly Father was speaking through his earthly father, and he caught a glimpse of how God feels about His daughters. From that day forth, he mended his ways, and became a true believer in the equality of women and men before God.

Perhaps, though, the moment that means the most to me is one I will not provide details about. When my daughter died suddenly at the age of 18, I was inconsolable. To be honest, I was inconsolable and out of my mind with grief for three and a half years. But I was able to hang on because a few weeks after she died, Don came to my little office in the basement of the Kennedy Center, and during our talk, he asked me one question. One simple, little question, but it was enough to give me a sturdy hope in Christ. I will never forget that kindness he showed me; a kindness that allowed me to keep on living when I wanted nothing more than to follow my daughter.

My own father disappeared when I was 15, but I felt that God gave me two surrogate fathers to help me along my rocky way: Ray Hillam and Don Sorensen. Their photos grace my office, and though they are now both beyond the veil, I am grateful beyond measure that they were willing to be there for me when my need was immense.

Our faith community lost a great man and a strong voice for truth and right yesterday. Our loss is Heaven's gain, but I feel that loss keenly.