Sunday, August 16, 2009

A Tribute To Max Nolan (reposted).

This was originally posted previously on my now deleted blog, "Spotlight On Mormonism", where it was titled "Get the Monkey of Mormonism off Your Back".

A Tribute To Max Nolan

No one in the world of apologetics or contra-Mormonism will know who Max Nolan is. Well, possibly only a handful of apologists and those associated with The Mormon History Association in the early 1980s will remember him. Max, a convert to the Church in 1977, was a philosopher and writer from Perth, Western Australia. He became fascinated with Joseph Smith after reading Fawn Brodie's biography of the Prophet, No Man Knows My History, and decided that this story was worth following up. After reading more about the enigmatic Mormon prophet and having the missionary discussions, Max decided that Mormonism was his future spiritual path. His adventures would lead him to presentations at the Mormon History Association, an article on "Joseph Smith and Mysticism" (JMA, Vol. 10, 1983), in reply to Paul Edwards' claim that Joseph Smith was a mystic, and also a contribution to Dialogue (“Materialism and the Mormon Faith.” Dialogue 22 (4) Winter 1989: 62-75.) in 1989 (he always proudly noted that this article was footnote number one in D. Michael Quinn's The Mormon Hierarchy: Origins of Power).

Max once met Sterling Mc Murrin while on one of his visits to America, and in recounting this to me, he said Mc Murrin was a "real gentleman and charmer". Max, a believer at the time, said Mc Murrin became very fond of him, and once mentioned in an article about "Max Nolan, a promising Mormon philosopher from Australia". Max had a BA (Hons.) in philosophy, and taught summer school classes in philosophy at the University of Western Australia. But his relatively modest degree said nothing about his vast knowledge of philosophy, and his numerous writings on various philosophers, most of which were not published but used as material for his philosophy classes. He was especially intrigued with Krishnamurti and the Austrian philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein, of whom he wrote endless essays and analyses. A curiosity is that Wittgenstein actually only had one book published, was a bachelor like Max, and both died of prostate cancer at the same age.

I first came in contact with Max through Robert Smith of FARMS, in 1985. At the time I was heavily involved with FARMS, and Robert decided it would be a good idea for me to contact my fellow contryman Max. Thus began between us a 15 year correspondence that would amount to over two thousand of pages of discussions on Mormonism, philosophy, life, and our eventual first meeting in Sydney in 1987. Max too was a real gentleman, who always wore a suit and tie, and possessed impeccable manners and courtesy. After this meeting we would meet several more times over the years when he visited our family and he grew very attached to my children, never having had any of his own. He never missed a birthday, and always sent presents to the children. On one visit, the morning he was leaving to return to WA, I watched him bid goodbye to the children before they left for school. Hugs and kisses. When they left I saw Max sitting in a chair on the front lawn, weeping. It would be a couple of years, at least, before he would see them again.

(Max at Albany, Western Australia, August 1994)

Originally Max and I had planned to co-write a book, or books, commenting on the Journal of Discourses, but this fizzled out as our mutual criticisms of the Church increased. I was the first to go, leaving in 1987. Max remained active, then semi-active, but in 1993, after the excommunications of the September Six, Max decided he no longer wanted anything to do with such an oppressive Church. Any Church which would excommunicate its best and most criticial thinkers, according to Max, was not worth being a member of. He never returned to activity, and his growing disbelief in Mormonism led to his eventual disillusionment with Mormonism. He was, however, never angry about this. He just stopped writing on Mormonism and devoted all of his writing time to philosophy, and teaching his summer classes at the university, and occasionally returning to Sydney, where he lived for quite some time, to visit some of his "old haunts" as he phrased it. During all of his visits he stayed with us. Because of my occasional returns to the Church during the '90s, a slight tension developed between us on one occasion. On his last visit around 1998 we visited a local library which had just had the Internet put on, and Max showed me an ex-Mormon site which at first fascinated me. It was called Recovery From Mormonism. Max showed me all the exit stories, and I noted this, that I would read these when I eventually went on the Net. During one of our more intense moments, Max became frustrated at my continual defensiveness and clinging to Mormonism, and he told me quietly, "you need to get the monkey of Mormonism off your back". I knew he was right, about that, and about my see-sawing in and out of the Church, but that eventual final parting with the Church would not occur until some months after Max died.

In early 2000 we learned that Max was ill, very ill, but he told no one that he had prostate cancer, except a close circle of friends, which didn't include me or my family. I believe he never told us because he didn't want us or the children to worry too much. In September of that year my wife and I split up. Before that time Max became aware of our problems, and hoped we could resolve them for the sake of the children. I don't think he ever learned of our final separation, and just as well he was spared watching the family and children he loved subjected to such devastation. It would have totally broken his heart. For the next few months I heard nothing from Max, and I was too emotionally involved with the separation, fighting legal battles with corrupt and greedy lawyers, and trying to keep my life and sanity together, to write him.

In early January 2001, I received a letter from Max's brother in Melbourne, telling me that Max had died of prostate cancer on December 14. He worked up to the last moment, until he collapsed while going to work one day, went into coma and never came out of it. His last letter to my son Joshua, a favourite of his, was also included in Max's brother's letter. It was half finished, and I could only imagine that his emotional and physical pain was too much to finish it. Because of Max, we have the only video of our family, when he offered to pay for a camera hire to take the video on one of his occasional visits. I could only imagine, that in his last months, he must have played that video over and over.

Had Max lived to own his first computer (he only had access to work computers) I feel certain of two things. He would have read all the exit stories posted on RFM, and possibly posted his own. The other thing I feel certain of is that Max would never have posted on the RFM forum. I think he would have been disgusted at the angry attacks on the Church. Though a critic in his last years, he never felt the need to lash out publicly. Of course any potential anger would have been tamed by the fact that he was a convert late in life, and hadn't missed anything. His intellectual vigour was simply transferred to Mormonism, and he was as fascinated by Mormon culture and philosophy as much as he initially was with the spiritual aspects. I was really the only one privy to Max's discontent, but even in private conversations and correspondence he was never vitriolic. He sometimes expressed a calm disdain for "the bureaucracy", noting that on one occasion as the ward clerk he was privy to conversations about members' weaknesses and was often amazed at the "sledgehammer" approach to transgressions he thought were minor. The leadership obsession with others' personal lives bothered him, where priesthood executive meetings turned into "bagfests" about other members. I understand from fellow workers, commenting after his death, that Max had "a wicked sense of humour". I never saw the "wicked" part, but he had a delightful sense of humour and could give blase recitals of experiences that would leave anyone in a fit of laughter.

A well-tempered and tolerant man he became very indifferent to the Church, because of what he perceived as intolerance to "intellectuals" in the Church. He was the quiet rebel, always willing to shake hands and be kind to Mormons, and never utter a word of criticism in their presence, but his private thoughts were different.


  1. What a precious story! I'm so glad I read it. You and Max were lucky to have one another as friends.

    You are a gifted writer, Ray.

    Kimberly Ann

  2. Thanks Kim. Glad you liked it. I'm pleased to say that as a result of this story I was contacted by Stan Larson, curator of the Manuscripts Division at the University of Utah, who asked me to begin collating Max's correspondence to initiate "The Max Nolan Collection" to be housed at the UofU.

  3. Ray, that's fantastic news! What a great tribute to your friend.

  4. Kim, Max was the most unassuming person you could ever meet. He liked to do a lot of walking (never drove a car), and once complained to me that his shoes had worn out from walking. So I gave him a pair of new but strong steel-capped work shoes I had but never used. He was over the moon. Years down the track he told me he still had them and was “getting a lot of miles” out of them. The amount of time he spent in thought and writing, I am sure, is something he never dreamed would end up like this, and that there would be a “Max Nolan Collection” at the University of Utah. He would be out of his mind at that thought. I’m really glad now that Stan contacted me, because I had no idea what would become of this, and whether it would all go to the dump, eventually. I’ll never forget, as his “apprentice” and “student” of Mormon history beginning in 1985, as a veritable “ignoramus” compared to the knowledge he had, he later told me years down the track, after some serious rectification of my ignorance, “the student has now become the teacher”. That was the greatest compliment he ever gave me.

    Thanks for your interest, Kim.