Edited by George D. Smith
On Being a Mormon Historian (and Its Aftermath)
D. Michael Quinn1
[p.69]Latter-day Saints have been trained as historians at universities outside of Utah for more than half a century and have been publishing Mormon history during that entire period.2 Only recently have some church authorities and others publicly criticized the motivations and publications of Mormon historians. In part, this is a reaction to the increasingly high profile of scholarly and interpretive Mormon history since 1965.
At a time of phenomenal increases in the numbers of new converts to the LDS church in the United States and throughout the world, there has been a growing crescendo of interest in researching, writing, and learning about the history of Mormonism. However, this historical inquiry has been particularly evident on the part of Latter-day Saints with generations of experience in the church.
Among the most significant examples of this trend are the organization of the institutionally independent Mormon History Association in 1965 which has held annual conferences for the presentation of scholarly papers and whose membership has grown from a few dozen to more than a thousand. Then came the establishment of Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought in 1966 with an emphasis on interpretive Mormon history.3 Brigham Young University Studies began devoting whole issues to LDS church history from 1969 on.
Crucial to this flowering of Mormon history in the late 1960s and early 1970s was the gradual opening of Mormon church archives. [p.70]Apostle and official church historian Joseph Fielding Smith began this process during the late 1960s. His successor as church historian, Elder Howard W. Hunter, accelerated that openness in 1970-71, during which time both non-Mormon and Mormon researchers had unrestricted access to such previously unavailable sources as First Presidency files, diaries of general church authorities, presiding quorum minutes, excommunication files, general and local financial records, and ordinance record books. Then came the First Presidency’s unprecedented appointment in January 1972 of a professional Mormon historian, Leonard J. Arrington, to the position of official LDS church historian.4 (Similar developments occurred within the Reorganized Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints during the tenure of RLDS church historian Richard P. Howard since 1966.5)
For the next eight years, under the official auspices of LDS church headquarters, the professionally trained church historian, assistant historians, and their university-trained staff published scholarly and interpretive books and articles about Mormon history. In addition, independent researchers at LDS archives wrote prolifically. This resulted in two exclusively historical periodicals: the primarily LDS Journal of Mormon History in 1974 and the primarily RLDS John Whitmer Historical Association Journal in 1981.
In addition, the college student-oriented magazine Sunstone (established in 1975) featured interpretative Mormon history. Then in 1979 the Sunstone Foundation began holding in Salt Lake City annual symposia which included scholarly papers on Mormon history. In 1980 the B. H. Roberts Society was founded in Salt Lake City for monthly or quarterly presentations of “timely issues in Mormonism.” By then more than ten thousand Latter-day Saints had direct exposure to a newly interpretative and rigorous Mormon history through these various academic journals, magazines, conferences, and symposia.
This explosion of professional, interpretive, and footnoted approaches to Mormon history has had even wider impact. This “New Mormon History” has reached beyond the community of Mormon scholars and history buffs. It has extended to the general membership of the LDS church through faculty members at Brigham Young University, Ricks College, and in church seminaries and institutes, as well as through scholarly-historical publications by Deseret Book [p.71]Company, the Church News, and the Ensign and New Era magazines and their international counterparts.6
Preoccupied with trying to assimilate hundreds of thousands of new converts annually into the LDS church’s present theological, social, and administrative identity, some general authorities have viewed with misgiving this burgeoning exploration of Mormonism’s fluid past. The concern of these leaders has not been assuaged by the fact that contemporary with the proliferation of Mormon historians and histories there has been a shift in anti-Mormon propaganda. A new generation of anti-Mormon writers has turned from doctrinal diatribe to the polemical use of elements from the Mormon past to discredit the LDS church today.7
In reaction to this confluence of developments, Elders Ezra Taft Benson and Boyd K. Packer of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles specifically identified Latter-day Saint historians as a source of difficulty. Elder Benson gave two talks about this subject in 1976, one of which stated: “This humanistic emphasis on history is not confined only to secular history; there have been and continue to be attempts made to bring this philosophy into our own Church history. Again the emphasis is to underplay revelation and God’s intervention in significant events, and to inordinately humanize the prophets of God so that their human frailties become more evident than their spiritual qualities.”8
Five years later, Elder Packer expanded on this point of view in a message delivered to Church Education System faculty but directed to LDS historians.9 As part of his indictment against Mormons who write scholarly, interpretive history, Elder Packer told his 1981 audience: “Unfortunately, many of the things they tell one another are not uplifting, go far beyond the audience they may have intended, and destroy faith. . . . One who chooses to follow the tenets of his profession, regardless of how they may injure the Church or destroy the faith of those not ready for ‘advanced history’ is himself in spiritual jeopardy.”10
In addition to these jaundiced views, Louis C. Midgley, a political scientist at Brigham Young University, spearheaded an academic assault against recent scholarship in Mormon history. Midgley concluded a 1981 presentation on Mormon historians with the following statement: “It is depressing to see some historians now struggling to get on the stage to act out the role of the mature, honest [p.72]historian committed to something called ‘objective history,’ and, at the same time, the role of faithful Saint. The discordance between those roles has produced more than a little bad faith (that is, self-deception) and even, perhaps, some blatant hypocrisy; it has also produced some pretentious[,] bad history.”11 As one of the historians Midgley describes, I would like to explore what he and others have questioned: the motivations, rationale, intentions, and conduct of Latter-day Saints who profess to write “fair and objective” Mormon history.12
I do not claim to speak for anyone aside from the one Mormon historian I know best, although I believe his particular pilgrimage parallels in some ways that of other LDS historians he knows. His biography may be of little interest to anyone but himself, but elements of his background are important for understanding his activity of a Mormon historian, his motives, and his reactions to criticisms of Mormon historians.
To begin with, he was born with a split-identity: seventh generation Latter-day Saint on his mother’s side but of Roman Catholic, Mexican origin on his father’s side. Since his earliest childhood, self-identity was not the most important emphasis of his life, but rather an intense personal relationship with God.
As long as he can remember, he knew God as personage and immediate influence, and on occasion heard God’s voice. Long before he had ever heard much about the Holy Ghost, this young man seemed to have constant experience with a presence from God in comfort and revelation “like a fire burning” within him. As an adolescent he was surprised to discover scriptural descriptions of others’ experiences with the Holy Ghost that he had thought were God’s special gifts to him alone. Although he had always known God as Father, Christ as Savior, and Holy Ghost as Comforter and Revelator, at the age of eleven the young man realized that he had been a member of the LDS church for three years without specifically asking God about its validity. Therefore, he sought and received knowledge through the spirit that the Book of Mormon was the word of God, that the LDS church was true and necessary, and that its president was indeed a prophet of God.
Although his relationship with God and the spirit was the primary dimension and sufficient epistemology of his life, the young man felt impressed that it was necessary to explore the temporal [p.73]manifestations of God’s dealings with his people and prophets, as well as their conduct. By age fifteen he had read the standard works of the church (except for half of the Old Testament), and at seventeen he was reading the History of the Church and Journal of Discourses. To the occasional discomfort of his LDS seminary teachers, he subjected any religious proposition to rigid analysis, particularly with reference to the complete scriptural context as he could identify it.
By age eighteen, he had completed several historical projects. He had prepared his own card index of the Old Testament and other standard works. He had also written independent studies of misconduct among Roman Catholic popes from Marcellinus to Leo XII and of unfaithfulness in LDS general authorities from Sidney Rigdon to Richard R. Lyman. In addition, he had compared all proper names in the Book of Mormon with the Bible and had made a line-by-line comparison of the 1830 Book of Mormon with later editions. “I will not accept any criticism of the Church on face value,” this eighteen-year-old wrote in his journal, “but, instead, search and study (and if need be, pray) to find the truth.”13
During these adolescent years, the young man often went on extended fasts. By this religious regimen, he sought to draw close to the comfort, strength, and guidance of God’s spirit as he confronted the difficulties of maturation. At the same time, he needed this spiritual support as he submerged himself in the intricacies of scriptural study and the polemics of anti-Mormon literature.
A few months before his nineteenth birthday, the young man wrote: “At present my evaluation of what I am going to have to do to be spiritually educated in the Gospel is to become extremely well acquainted with the Standard Works, Journal of Discourses, Times and Seasons, History of the Church, and the discourses and writings of the Prophets. It is a monumental task at this alone, which requires more than a cursory reading or even a single, very detailed reading of these materials. I can now see clearly, for really the first time, that such a task will take a lifetime to encounter, and longer to master.”14 Over the next decade, a series of unforseen circumstances (which he now regards as divine intervention) caused him to abandon his life’s ambition to be a physician and in turn to abandon his second-best decision to complete a doctorate in literature.
Instead, after much prayer and soul-searching, he decided to turn his intense avocation of scriptural and church history research [p.74]into a life’s work. He began graduate study in history and later played a minor role in the development of Mormon history writing following Leonard J. Arrington’s appointment as official LDS church historian in 1972. This young historian spent a decade probing thousands of manuscript diaries and records of church history that he never dreamed he would see. He completed a score of publications in LDS history, several of which have been described as “controversial” by some people.15 He has always researched and written about church history with a continual prayer for the Lord to guide him in knowing what to do and how to express things in such a way that they might be beneficial to the understanding of the Latter-day Saints.
He would have been satisfied to have remained indefinitely on Leonard Arrington’s staff, but he quit his position to begin Ph.D. study at Yale University. He did this because he felt impressed that it was the Lord’s will for him to do so. In order to attend Yale, he uprooted his family shortly after purchasing their first home, and he borrowed thousands of dollars to complete the doctorate.
Nevertheless, he found himself ready to abandon his Ph.D. in the middle of writing a dissertation about the “Mormon Hierarchy.”16 He worried that this study involved too many controversies about the church and its general authorities. He asked the Lord to tell him if he should stop writing about the “sensitive” information he had found during his research. He told the Lord that he would stop and even destroy his research if that was the Lord’s will. He was in earnest and desired to listen to God’s will, not his own nor any one else’s.
This faltering young historian obtained a spiritual witness that it was right to complete his dissertation, despite the so-called “controversies” and “sensitive” areas of church history with which it dealt. He then asked for courage and strength to face criticism and consequences which might result from those who were hostile to the kinds of things he was researching and writing. He continued to “pray into print” everything he published.
It is from this background that he approaches criticisms concerning the writing of Mormon history by Latter-day Saints. I will proceed from smaller issues to more important ones concerning sacred history, secular history, pluralistic history, monistic history, and what I call “accommodation history.”
In 1976, Elder Ezra Taft Benson objected to Mormon [p.75]historians’ use of scholarly “expressions and terminology” in describing developments or characteristics of Mormon history. Among the terms he said “offend the Brethren and the Church members” were “alleged,” “experimental systems,” “communal life,” “communitarianism,” and “Christian primitivism.”17 He preferred that Mormon historians use traditional Mormon terms and phrases even when Latter-day Saint historians are writing for scholarly, non-Mormon publications.
One approach in responding to this criticism is to observe that many of the terms and phrases Mormons use have specialized meanings unrecognizable to outsiders.18 This either requires cumbersome explanations of what is essentially Mormon jargon or substitution of words and phrases familiar to the rest of the English-speaking world. Historians usually adopt some combination of these two alternatives, just as do LDS missionaries who encounter blank stares as they casually use familiar Mormon terms in explaining the church to non-Mormons. There is no justification for regarding this necessity as subversive when Mormon scholars do it.
Several of Elder Benson’s examples of offensive expressions were virtually the same as phrases used in earlier, official church publications. “Christian primitivism” is simply another form of “the primitive church” which appears in Joseph Smith’s Sixth Article of Faith. In 1930, the First Presidency approved, copyrighted, and published A Comprehensive History of the Church, which described the United Orders of Utah as having a “communistic character” and the first high school LDS seminary as being “in the nature of an experiment.”19 It will be an awkward situation, indeed, if historians are expected to shun not only secular terminology in Mormon history but also terms which had approval of the First Presidency in former times.
Related to this question is Elder Packer’s advice to historians not to publish or refer to sensitive or controversial items merely because they have already been published before.20 The criticism regarding terminology is a minor issue compared to this second concern. Some church leaders in recent years have criticized Mormon historians for republishing in part or whole out-of-print church publications such as the 1830 Book of Mormon, the Journal of Discourses (edited and published for thirty-two years under the auspices of the First Presidency), and statements from former church pp.76]magazines published for children, youth, and the general membership.21 It is an odd situation when historians are criticized for reprinting what previous general authorities regarded not only as faith-promoting but as appropriate for Mormon youth and new converts.
Elder Packer specifically warns against using “the unworthy, the unsavory, or the sensational” from the Mormon past, merely because it has been previously published. He also berates historians for their “exaggerated loyalty to the theory that everything must be told.”22 This raises the question of personal honesty and professional integrity. If I were to write about any subject unrelated to religion, and I purposely failed to make reference to pertinent information of which I had knowledge, I would be justifiably criticized for dishonesty.23
What is true outside of religion is equally true in writing religious history. That is the reason First Presidency counselor J. Reuben Clark, Jr., criticized church historian B. H. Roberts and the seven-volume History of the Church. President Clark told a meeting of the First Presidency and Quorum of the Twelve Apostles in April 1943: “The Documentary History of the Church unfortunately as printed does not contain all of the documentary history as it was written. Brother Roberts made some changes in it. We do not know always what the changes were or what they are, so that, as an absolute historical source, the printed Documentary History is not one that we can invariably rely upon. . . . Brother Roberts’ work is the work of an advocate and not of a judge, and you cannot always rely on what Brother Roberts says. Frequently he started out apparently to establish a certain thesis and he took his facts to support his thesis, and if some facts got in the way it was too bad, and they were omitted.”24 President Clark’s evaluation of the History of the Church was harsher than recent historical analysis of this official LDS publication.25
It does disservice to the church for LDS historians to render themselves subject to the criticism that they have ignored readily available and previously published materials. If such material is sensitive, controversial, unworthy, unsavory, or sensational, then it is a matter of the author’s judgment of its importance whether the item should be quoted, paraphrased, or only referred to in a note. It is careless, if not dishonest, to write as if such evidence did not exist.
In connection with counsel to avoid reference to previously published sensitivities, Elder Benson warned historians against envi[p.77]ronmental explanations of the background of revelations and developments in LDS history. He gave as examples the discussion by historians of the American temperance movement of the 1830s as part of the circumstances out of which Joseph Smith obtained the Word of Wisdom revelation on health. He also referred to historians who explain the revelation on the three degrees of postmortal glory in terms of contemporary questions by philosophers about the afterlife.26
Any historian writing about a non-religious subject would be considered inept at best and dishonest at worst if he or she described someone’s innovation or contribution without discussing the significance of previously existing, similar contributions and ideas.27 Any LDS historian is vulnerable if he or she discusses the revelation to Joseph Smith about abstinence from tobacco, strong drink, and hot drinks but fails to note that during the 1830s religious and social reformers were involved nationally in urging abstinence from these identical things. In such a case, any reader has cause to criticize the historian’s accuracy, to question his or her motives, and to doubt any affirmation the historian might give to the revelation’s truth.
It is obvious that Elder Benson opposed the idea that Joseph Smith invented something he called revelation that was a product of his own mind and of his culture and environment. As both a believing Latter-day Saint and historian, I also oppose such conclusions. One can acknowledge the influence of environment and contemporary circumstance and still affirm the actuality of divine revelation. In Mormon doctrine, revelation comes because of specific questions that individuals or prophets ask God, and those questions usually arise in the minds of prophets because of conditions they observe or experience.
Without environmental influence or surrounding significant circumstances, there would be no revelations from God to the prophets. And the changing circumstances and environment of the world are the very reasons Latter-day Saints affirm that there must be living prophets to respond with the word of the Lord to the new circumstances. If we write Mormon history as though its developments occurred without reference to surrounding circumstances, we undermine the claims for the restoration of living prophets. This is one of many areas in Mormon history where an alleged defense is actually a disservice to the Saints.
[p.78]In a more precise discussion of the concern about environmental explanations, Elder Packer warned Mormon historians: “There is no such thing as an accurate, objective history of the Church without consideration of the spiritual powers that attend this work . . . without consideration of spiritual guidance, of discernment, and of revelation. That is not scholarship.”28
I agree fully with this observation, but in reference to LDS historians, Elder Packer has created an enemy that does not exist. It is impossible for even an atheist to write about Joseph Smith or any of his successors without acknowledging that they claim to be prophets of God, that they make pronouncements in the name of God, and that they proclaim specific documents to be divine instructions given by revelation. True, a writer can express a tone of ridicule or affirmation, hostility or sympathy, detachment or advocacy when writing about such prophetic claims, but no reputable historian (least of all a believing Latter-day Saint) excludes consideration of the spiritual dimension in writing about people like Joseph Smith. Influenced by psychological, social, economic, and other theoretical disciplines, historians may give alternate explanations for Joseph Smith and other prophets, but they must also acknowledge the prophetic claims of these men.29
Louis Midgley’s central criticism of Mormon historians is that their writings about Joseph Smith do not positively affirm to the world their personal testimonies that he was God’s prophet. Elder Benson apparently indicated this same expectation when he said, “We would hope that if you feel you must write for the scholarly journals, you always defend the faith.”30 But why is it necessary for LDS historians to do more than writers of sacred history did when they simply stated that Moses and others had said, “Hear ye the word of the Lord?” In fact, Elder Packer himself once counseled an LDS seminary teacher to use the words “The Latter-day Saints believe” and “they claim” in his Ph.D. dissertation rather than to portray the spiritual experiences as facts.31 Most LDS historians simply report that Joseph Smith said he saw God and Jesus Christ, and that he announced numerous communications as direct revelations from God. Occasionally a Mormon historian writing to a general audience (primarily non-Mormon) may also suggest alternate explanations for prophetic claims without stating the historian’s own beliefs about what is inevitably a question of personal faith.
[p.79]Skeptics are often unmoved by the most ardent personal testimonies, and earnest inquirers have occasionally been converted to the church after learning about it from anti-Mormon publications. It is inconceivable to me that any Latter-day Saint with a personal testimony would begin to lose that faith simply because he or she read a publication by a Mormon historian who reported the revelations of Joseph Smith without including the historian’s personal testimony of the truth of those revelations. That kind of scholarly detachment does not threaten testimony and is not subversive to the church.
Central to the above criticisms of Mormon historians and their writings is the assertion that they have adopted the assumptions of secular scholarship and abandoned the verities of the spirit. Elder Benson speaks “of this trend, which seems to be an effort to reinterpret the history of the Church so that it is more rationally appealing to the world.” Elder Packer warns against the tendency for Mormon academics “to begin to judge the Church, its doctrines, organization, and leadership, present and past, by the principles of their own profession.” Midgley writes that “it is now possible to find historians functioning within the Church defending the proposition that the Restored Gospel must be studied and evaluated entirely with what they choose to call the ‘naturalistic assumptions’ of certain wholly secularized professional historians.”32 In other words, they accuse Mormon historians of writing to accommodate non-Mormon assumptions. This involves distinctions between monistic history and pluralistic history.
As used here, monistic history refers to the willingness of historians to consider only one explanation for historical developments, and pluralistic history refers to the willingness of historians to consider more than one explanation. The former is closed and the latter open. Elders Benson and Packer and Professor Midgley ask that interpreters of Mormon history be “open” to the spiritual dimension of revelation, but in reality this call for “openness” is not a plea for pluralism. They ask that any interpreter simply change the monistic category of Joseph Smith as fraud, or religious genius, or personality disorder, for the equally monistic interpretation that Joseph Smith was a divine prophet. If asked to give a categorical definition of Joseph Smith, I (and most other LDS historians) would say that he was a divinely called prophet of God. However, in all honesty, we [p.80]must also acknowledge the existence of other reasonable, honest, and conscientious interpretations.
Moreover, the requirement for a monistic interpretation of Mormon history does not stop with categories of definition but extends to process. For example, Elder Packer demands that Mormon historians demonstrate and affirm that “the hand of the Lord [has been] in every hour and every moment of the Church from its beginning till now.”33 This requires a single, monistic explanation for every event in the Mormon past, but there are compelling reasons why Mormons should consider alternative explanations as well.
Personally, I am not willing to simply say that “the hand of the Lord” is sufficient explanation for all events and developments in the Mormon past. In fact, there is scriptural precedent for considering pluralistic explanations for even the most crucial events in Mormon history. For example, one of the most important developments in the sacred history of the Book of Mormon was the destruction of the Nephite people, yet the prophet-writers of that history suggested several different causes: adultery (Jac. 3:3-7, 10), fornication (He. 8:26), the Gadianton band of robbers (He. 2:13), secret combinations in general (Eth. 8:21), unrighteous lawyers and judges (Al. 10:27), or pride (Moro. 8:27).
If we were to adopt secular terms to describe these Book of Mormon explanations by prophet-historians, we could substitute moral disintegration, social disorganization, political discontinuity, and socio-economic disparity. Which of the various explanations within the Book of Mormon is the “true” or “real” reason for the decline of the Nephite civilization? I do not know, and apparently the historian-prophets who wrote the record did not know, either. But they felt an obligation to examine the evidence, reflect on it, and offer the best explanation or interpretation they could.
In like manner, Mormon historians may share the conviction that the “hand of the Lord” operates throughout history and that “His purposes fail not.” However, they also have an obligation to examine the evidence, reflect on it, and offer the best interpretations they can for what has occurred in the Mormon past. The human record is characterized by complexity, both among Book of Mormon peoples and Latter-day Saints. There is nothing subversive about interpreting these developments from different points of view, even from perspectives of secular disciplines.
[p.81]A more serious problem of Mormon history is involved in the implications of the demand that historians demonstrate that “the hand of the Lord [has been] in every hour and every moment of the church from its beginning till now.” Every Mormon historian agrees that “we must never forget that ours is a prophetic history.”34 However, there are problems in asserting or implying that the prophetic history of Mormonism requires “the hand of the Lord” in every decision, statement, and action of the prophets. This comprises a larger question than the historical exploration of environmental backgrounds of decisions and revelations, or the application of secular understanding to explain specific events in religious history. Central to the apparent demands of Elders Benson and Packer is the view that official acts and pronouncements of the prophets are always the express will of God. This is the Mormon equivalent of the Roman Catholic doctrine of papal infallibility.
The Catholic dogma of infallibility is not that the pope is incapable of human weaknesses but that his statements and decisions are infallible in matters of faith and morals. Not until 1870 did Roman Catholicism officially adopt this doctrine. The Mormon church would have to dispense with some of its fundamental theology in order to adopt a similar position of prophetic infallibility.
The LDS doctrine of free agency is central to the Mormon view of existence in time and eternity. Mormon theology is incompatible with the view that Latter-day Saints are free to make mistakes in what they say and do until they become prophets. If a prophet is incapable of personal opinion, human limitation, and error in his decisions and statements, then that prophet has no free agency and no personal responsibility. If an LDS prophet is incapable of making mistakes in his prophetic calling, then he is the only Latter-day Saint who is excused from “rendering an accounting of his stewardship unto God.” That is the requirement of the Mormon doctrine that each individual is absolutely responsible for his or her own actions and for the callings given to him or her by God.
The apostle Paul wrote authoritatively to the Saints but noted that “I speak this by permission, and not of commandment.” Although the Book of Mormon was written, preserved, and translated by prophets of God, the title page declares, “And now, if there are faults they are the mistakes of men.” A Book of Mormon prophet expressed his “opinion” about doctrines only partially revealed to [p.82]him. Joseph Smith specifically denied that everything a prophet said was the word of the Lord and affirmed, “A prophet was a prophet only when he was acting as such.” When J. Reuben Clark announced a decision of the First Presidency to a general conference in 1940, he observed, “We are not infallible in our judgment, and we err, but our constant prayer is that the Lord will guide us in our decisions, and we are trying so to live that our minds will be open to His inspiration.” To LDS seminary and institute teachers in 1954, he also declared that “even the President of the Church has not always spoken under the direction of the Holy Ghost.”35
Mormon historians would be false to their understanding of LDS doctrine, the sacred history of the scriptures, the realities of human conduct, and the documentary evidence of Mormonism if they sought to defend the proposition that LDS prophets are infallible in their decisions and statements. Moreover, it would be hardly less false to allow readers of Mormon history to draw the implicit conclusion that LDS prophets were infallible, because Mormon historians presented church history as though every decision and statement came as the result of direct revelation.
Mormon historians have both a religious and professional obligation not to conceal the ambivalence, debate, give-and-take, uncertainty, and simple pragmatism that often attend decisions of the prophet and First Presidency. The historian has an equal obligation not to conceal the limitations, errors, and negative consequences of some significant statements of the prophet and First Presidency. In like manner, Mormon historians would be equally false if they failed to report the inspiration, visions, revelations, and solemn testimonies that have also attended prophetic decisions and statements throughout Mormon history.
A few observers have been more specific in their criticism of Mormon historians who portray the human frailties of LDS leaders. Elder Benson noted that Mormon historians tend “to inordinately humanize the prophets of God so that their human frailties become more evident than their spiritual qualities.” Elder Packer made the following comments about a Mormon historian’s talk: “What that historian did with the reputation of the President of the Church was not worth doing. He seemed determined to convince everyone that the prophet was a man. We knew that already. All of the prophets and all of the Apostles have been men. It would have been much more [p.83]worthwhile for him to have convinced us that the man was a prophet; a fact quite as true as the fact that he was a man. He has taken something away from the memory of a prophet. He has destroyed faith.”36 This is, in part, related to the infallibility question.
Elder Packer rightly observes that omitting the spiritual, revelatory dimension from the life of a church leader is a virtual denial of the existence of the spiritual and revelatory. However, it is equally true that omitting reference to human weaknesses, faults, and limitations from the life of a prophet is also a virtual denial of the existence of human weaknesses and fallibility. Both approaches are distortions. Must church history portray LDS leaders as infallible, both as leaders and as men? This is not the sacred history we know.
Sacred history (which is contained in the Bible, Book of Mormon, Doctrine and Covenants, and Pearl of Great Price) is an absolute refutation of the kind of history Elders Benson and Packer seem to be advocating. Sacred history presents prophets and apostles as the most human of men who have been called by God to prophetic responsibility. Sacred history portrays spiritual dimensions and achievements of God’s leaders as facts, but it also matter-of-factly demonstrates the weaknesses of God’s leaders. Examples are scriptural accounts of Abraham’s abandonment of his wife Hagar and son Ishmael, Noah’s drunkenness, Lot’s incest, Moses’ arrogance, Jonah’s vacillation, Peter’s impetuosity and cowardice, Peter and Paul’s mutual criticism, Lehi’s doubt, Alma the Elder’s whoredoms, Alma the Younger’s apostasy, and the progression of Corianton from adulterous missionary through repentance to one of the three presiding high priests of the church among the Nephites. Moreover, the Doctrine and Covenants contains frequent condemnations of Joseph Smith by the Lord. Sacred history affirms the reality of divine revelation and inspiration but also demonstrates that God’s leaders often disagree and do not follow divine revelations consistently. An example is Peter’s continued shunning of Gentiles despite his revelation at Joppa, for which Paul publicly condemned him.
According to the standards of history required by those who have criticized Mormon historians, writers of scriptural history are suspect at best and faith-destroying at worst. To use Elder Packer’s words, “Instead of going up to where [God’s leaders] were, he devised a way of collecting mistakes and weaknesses and limitations to compare with his own. In that sense he has attempted to bring an [p.84]historical figure down to his level and in that way feel close to him and perhaps to justify his own weaknesses.”37 In fact, the scriptures do exactly what Elder Packer condemns.
Sacred history presents God’s leaders as understandable human beings with whom the reader can identify because of their weaknesses at the same time the reader reveres the prophetic mantle. This enriches the lives of readers by encouraging them to identify and empathize with fallible, human prophets. Sacred history does not discourage readers by presenting prophets as otherworldly personages for whom the reader can feel only awe and adoration.
A young contemporary of Joseph Smith expressed the importance of identifying with fallible prophets in this way. “I saw Joseph Smith the Prophet do things which I did not approve of; and yet,” he said, “I thanked God that he would put upon a man who had these imperfections the power and authority which he placed upon him . . . for I knew I myself had weaknesses and I thought there was a chance for me.” This young man, Lorenzo Snow, eventually became an apostle and president of the LDS church.38 The biography of Spencer W. Kimball, by his son and grandson, is virtually sacred history in its presentation of a loveable human prophet of God.39 On the other hand, a Mormon history of benignly angelic church leaders apparently advocated by Elders Benson and Packer would border on idolatry.
Mormon historians have been accused of writing church history to accommodate non-Mormon scholarship, but Elder Packer advocates another type of accommodation history. He assaults the philosophy and conduct of Mormon historians because their objective church history “may unwittingly be giving ‘equal time’ to the adversary,” and because such history “may be read by those not mature enough for ‘advanced history’ and a testimony in seedling stage may be crushed.”40 In regard to this latter point, he takes historians to task for being “so willing to ignore the necessity for teaching fundamentals” before presenting advanced information, and observes that “teaching some things that are true prematurely or at the wrong time, can invite sorrow and heartbreak instead of the joy intended to accompany learning.”41
But Elder Packer does not advocate the gradual exposure of Mormons to historical truth. He excluded that possibility by warning historians against publishing objective history even in professional [p.85]journals that “go far beyond the audience that they have intended, and destroy faith.” He also assails Mormon historians who “want to tell everything whether it is worthy or faith promoting or not.”42 Elder Packer is not advocating Paul’s dictum of milk before meat (1 Cor. 3:3; Heb. 5:12), but he demands that Mormon historians provide only a church history diet of milk to Latter-day Saints of whatever experience.
No historian I know of is insensitive to prerequisites. We give presentations differently to high school students than to graduate students. We write about the same topic more complexly for professional journals than for church magazines. I am personally aware of the need to reassure church members by cushioning evidence that is controversial. Half my own family are Catholics, several are recent Mormon converts, and others are inactive. Nevertheless, a diet of milk alone will stunt the growth of, if not kill, any child. That is true in nutrition and in religion.
Aside from calling for the kind of church history which would not surprise or offend even the newest convert, Elder Packer urges that historians write church history from a siege mentality to deny any information that anti-Mormons could possibly use to criticize the church. By this standard, most of the Old Testament, the gospel of John, many of Paul’s epistles, and the Book of Revelation would never have been approved for inclusion in the Bible.
In fact, even at its most embattled, sacred history of the early Christian church was candid about problems at church headquarters. At the very time the Romans were persecuting and martyring early Christians, New Testament writers included discussion of Peter’s weaknesses, of disagreements between apostles, and of apostolic condemnations of whole communities of Christians.
In the mid-nineteenth century, Brigham Young and other LDS leaders published sermons which spoke openly about Joseph Smith’s weaknesses at the same time they testified of his prophetic calling. For example, Brigham Young publicly stated that Joseph Smith “had all the weaknesses a man could have when the vision was not upon him.”43 This at a time when Mormons were persecuted and assailed in the public press. Why does the well-established and generally respected LDS church today need a protective, paranoid approach to its history that the embattled early Mormons did not manifest?
[p.86]Mormon historians are told to write church history as elementarily as possible and as defensively as possible. This is accommodation history for the weakest of the weak Latter-day Saints, for the vilest of the vile anti-Mormons, and for the most impressionable of the world’s sycophants.
The sacred history of the scriptures stands in stark contrast to the historical standards of Elders Benson and Packer. It is presented for the instruction and enlightenment of the Saints, with the affirmation that the weaker Saints can become strong by knowing difficult truths about the church, that enemies of God’s truth will distort to their own destruction anyway, and that the praise of the world is seductive.
The latter point was of special concern to J. Reuben Clark. He told priesthood leaders in the 1950s that there “is a startling parallel” between second-century Christianity and second-century Mormonism. He also noted that in the early church the Saints “were extremely anxious for two things: First, to be well thought of by the pagans. Their ears itched for praise. Do any of you brethren know anything about such a tendency as that?”44
Sacred history is not timid, defensive, or public-relations oriented. Mormon historians are better to use it as their guide rather than the accommodation history that has characterized twentieth-century Mormonism and which some general authorities want to perpetuate indefinitely.
The accommodation history practiced by some LDS writers is intended to protect the Saints but actually disillusions them and makes them vulnerable. Elder Benson, reporting with irritation the fact that LDS seminary and institute teachers sometimes ask him, “When and where can we begin to tell them our real story?” observed, “Inferred in that question is the accusation that the Church has not been telling the truth.”45 The reality is that there have been occasions when LDS church leaders, teachers, and writers have not told the truth they knew about difficulties of the Mormon past but have offered to the Saints a mixture of platitudes, half-truths, omissions, and plausible denials.
We are told that distorting LDS history can be justified because “we are at war with the adversary” and must also protect any Latter-day Saint whose “testimony [is] in seedling stage.”46 But such a public-relations defense may actually be a Maginot Line of sandy [p.87]fortifications which “the enemy” can easily breach and which has been built up by digging lethal pits into which the Saints will stumble. So-called “faith-promoting” church history which conceals controversies and difficulties of the Mormon past may actually undermine the faith of Latter-day Saints who eventually learn about the problems from other sources.
One of the most obvious demonstrations of that fact is the continued spread of unauthorized polygamy among Latter-day Saints during the last seventy-five years, despite efforts of church leaders to stop it. Essential to this church campaign is the official historical argument that there were no plural marriages authorized by the church or First Presidency after the 1890 Manifesto. This official position adds that whatever plural marriages occurred between 1890 and the so-called “Second Manifesto” of April 1904 were the sole responsibility of two renegade apostles, John W. Taylor and Matthias F. Cowley.47
As a lifelong opponent of post-1890 polygamy, J. Reuben Clark knew otherwise. He spearheaded the administrative suppression of polygamist Fundamentalists from the time he entered the First Presidency in 1933, but he ruefully noted in 1945 “that one of the reasons why the so-called ‘Fundamentalists’ had made such inroads among our young people was because we had failed to teach them the truth.”48 The truth was that more than 250 plural marriages occurred from 1890 to 1904 in Mexico, Canada, and the United States by authorization of the First Presidency and by action or assent of all but one or two members of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles. The official denial of that fact in LDS church statements and histories has actually given credibility to Fundamentalists in their promotion of new plural marriages after 1904 in defiance of First Presidency authority.49
Despite his recognition of the problem, President Clark himself was trapped within an administrative policy of historical defensiveness which he did not create and which he decided not to resist. The continued battle of church authorities against present-day polygamy might have been more successful had they encouraged a full disclosure of authorized post-Manifesto polygamy that would enable a contrast to be made with the unauthorized polygamy that has continued to the present. This would have reflected LDS president John Taylor’s philosophy: “Some people will say ‘Oh, don’t talk about it.’ I [p.88]think a full, free talk is frequently of great use; we want nothing secret nor underhanded, and for one I want no association with things that cannot be talked about and will not bear investigation.”50
As a Mormon historian, I desire to use the skills of scholarship in research and documentation, to emulate examples of sacred history in approach and philosophy, and to help Saints understand the vitality of Mormonism from a position of knowledgeable strength. In warning Mormon historians against objective history and against telling too much truth about the Mormon past, Elder Packer says, “Do not spread disease germs!”51
I see Elder Packer’s symbolism in another way. It is apostates and anti-Mormons who seek to infect the Saints with “disease germs” of doubt, disloyalty, disaffection, and rebellion. These Typhoid Marys of spiritual contagion obtain the materials of their assaults primarily from the readily available documents and publications created by former LDS leaders and members themselves.
To continue Elder Packer’s symbolism, believing Mormon historians like myself seek to write candid church history in a context of perspective in order to inoculate the Saints against historical “disease germs” that apostates and anti-Mormons thrust upon them. The criticism we have received in our efforts would be similar to leaders of eighteenth-century towns trying to combat smallpox contagion by locking up Dr. Edward Jenner who tried to inoculate the people and by killing the cows he wanted to use for his vaccine.52
The central argument of enemies of the LDS church is historical, and if we seek to build the Kingdom of God by ignoring or denying problem areas of our past, we are leaving the Saints unprotected. As one who has received death threats from anti-Mormons because they perceive me as an enemy historian, it is discouraging to be regarded as subversive by those I sustain as prophets, seers, and revelators.
Historians did not create problem areas of the Mormon past, but most of us cannot agree to conceal them, either. We are trying to respond to those problem areas of Mormon experience. Attacking the messenger does not alter the reality of the message.
Dedicated and believing Mormon historians seek to build the Kingdom of God and to strengthen the Saints by “speaking the truth in love,” as Paul counseled (Eph. 4:15). For this Mormon historian, the words of a familiar church hymn express his hope:
[p.89]O Thou Rock of our Salvation,
Jesus, Savior of the world,
In our poor and lowly station
We thy banner have unfurled.
Gather round the standard bearer;
Gather round in strength of youth.
Every day the prospect’s fairer
While we’re battling for the truth.
Aftermath. About forty people attended the Phi Alpha Theta meeting where I gave the above remarks as a talk at Brigham Young University on 4 November 1981. I expected some local discussion but was surprised by the publicity this essay received.
As word of my presentation spread, academics and non-academics, active and inactive Mormons, and even non-Mormons advised me not to publish it. They were concerned about personal consequences. At that time, others in the same groups encouraged its publication, and Sunstone was preparing to print it with my permission. On 18 November 1981, the Seventh East Press, then BYU’s unofficial student newspaper, ran a front-page story about the talk.
This publicity resulted in meetings with my college dean and with a member of the First Presidency. I met first with Martin B. Hickman in the dean’s office of the College of Family, Home, and Social Sciences, and later with President Gordon B. Hinckley in his home on Sunday, 22 November. Neither Dean Hickman nor President Hinckley gave direct instructions, but both advised against publication of “On Being a Mormon Historian.” A few days later, I asked Sunstone‘s editors not to print the already-typeset essay. In the meantime Elder Packer’s address against Mormon historians had been scheduled for publication in the February 1982 issue of the Ensign magazine, but at the last minute the First Presidency ordered the Ensign to remove his talk from the issue.
However, tape recordings and transcriptions of my talk circulated, and Jerald and Sandra Tanner, prominent critics of the Mormon church, published it without my permission. Then Newsweek’s issue of 15 February 1982 ran a story (“Apostles vs. Historians”) about the talks by Elder Packer and me. A few days later, a general authority invited me to his office. He warned me that he [p.90]found Elder Packer to be easily offended and vindictive years afterward.
In May, my stake presidency informed me that five former bishops had recommended me to be the ward’s new bishop but that Apostle Mark E. Petersen had blocked the appointment. He asked the stake presidency, “Why is Michael Quinn in league with anti-Mormons,” apparently referring to the unauthorized publication of my essay by the Tanners.
Elder Petersen arranged for the stake presidency to bring me to the Church Administration Building at 47 East South Temple to meet with Apostles Petersen, Benson, and Packer. The second counselor in the stake presidency accompanied me. The apostles were careful not to ask me a single direct question. In order of seniority (Apostle Benson first, me last), each of us expressed his own views of the Newsweek article, the “problems” of writing Mormon history, and the effects of all this on the faith of LDS members. The meeting was congenial and supportive.
President Hinckley telephoned in June 1982 to say that he was sympathetic about a request I had written to obtain access to documents in the First Presidency’s vault but that my request could not be granted. Since I now knew all I ever would about post-Manifesto polygamy, I told him I would go ahead and publish the most detailed and supportive study I could of the topic. President Hinckley said the decision was up to me, that he had done what he could to help.
A few weeks later, Apostle Packer told one of my students that my biography of J. Reuben Clark, then in manuscript, “will never see the light of day because it dirties the memory of a good man.” Brigham Young University Press published it thanks to the intervention of two senior apostles, Howard W. Hunter and Thomas S. Monson, who both carefully read the manuscript and made limited (and reasonable) suggestions for revision. I was in Europe when J. Reuben Clark: The Church Years went on sale in March 1983.
I was still abroad in April when Elder Petersen directed a brief inquisition against contributors to Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought and Sunstone. This did not involve me, and I only learned about it when someone sent me the newspaper stories about it. When President Hinckley learned about this inquisition, he ordered the apostles to stop it.53
[p.91]Following my return to Salt Lake City that summer, I met with apostles Hunter and Monson. They each indicated support for the kind of honesty involved in my biography of President Clark. Apostle Hunter said, “While we made suggestions for revision in your manuscript, we told the men at BYU that these were simply suggestions. We could not expect you to make changes in your biography which were incompatible with your standards as a historian.”54 Almost a year after its publication, Elder Monson intervened directly to spur the Church News to review the book. The previous silence had apparently resulted from the editor’s knowledge of Elder Packer’s dislike for the book.
In May 1984 my college dean told me he had been instructed by “higher authority” to ask me not to publish a paper I had just presented to the Mormon History Association. It was a historical survey of the public activity of general authorities in business corporations. The dean apologized for having to make this request. I agreed not to publish my presentation and told no one about the incident.
In 1985, after Dialogue published my article “LDS Church Authority and New Plural Marriages, 1890-1904,” three apostles gave orders for my stake president to confiscate my temple recommend. Six years earlier, I had formally notified the First Presidency and the Managing Director of the church historical department about my research on post-Manifesto polygamy and my intention to publish it.55 Now I was told that three apostles believed I was guilty of “speaking evil of the Lord’s anointed.” The stake president was also instructed “to take further action” against me if this did not “remedy the situation” of my writing controversial Mormon history.
James M. Paramore, the area president who relayed these orders, instructed my stake presidency to tell me that this was a local decision and reflected their own judgment of the state of my church membership. My stake president replied that he was not going to tell me something which was untrue. Unlike the area president, my stake president and one of his counselors had read the Dialogue article. They saw nothing in it to justify what they were being required to do.
I told my stake president that I would not tell colleagues or friends about this because I did not want to be the center of more publicity. However, I told the stake president that this was an obvious effort to intimidate me from doing history that might “offend the Brethren” (to use Ezra Taft Benson’s phrase).56 The stake president [p.92]also saw this as a back-door effort to have me fired from BYU. He told me to tell BYU officials that I had a temple recommend and not to volunteer that it was in his desk drawer. He continued to sustain me in my stake calling and said he would not take the “further action” of disfellowshipping or excommunicating me for continuing to do Mormon history. He said he would not presume to instruct me how to do my job as a historian. (Ironically, for decades my stake president had been a close friend and protege of Elder Packer.)
At various stake and regional meetings, Apostle Packer began publicly referring to “a BYU historian who is writing about polygamy to embarrass the Church.” At firesides in Utah and California, a member of BYU’s religious education department referred to me as “the anti-Christ of BYU.” Church leaders today seem to regard my post-Manifesto polygamy article (and much of the New Mormon History) as “speaking evil of the Lord’s anointed” because they themselves regard certain acts and words of those earlier church leaders as embarrassing, if not actually wrong. I do not regard it as disloyal to conscientiously recreate the words, acts, and circumstances of earlier prophets and apostles.
In the spring of 1986, graduating history majors at BYU voted me “outstanding professor.” That fall BYU’s administration had my name dropped from a list of participants in an upcoming celebration of Mormonism in Britain. Then, for the second year in a row, BYU’s administration denied my application for “Professional Development Leave.” This time the college dean invited me to his office to explain why. He said the apostles on the executive committee of the Board of Trustees had prepared a list of faculty members and research topics which BYU administrators were forbidden to support. “I have always hoped that one day BYU will become a real university,” the dean said, “but this makes me feel that day will never arrive.”
By January 1987 pressures on me increased. BYU’s administration required the history department and Charles Redd Center for the American West to withdraw funds they had promised me to give a paper on general American religion at the University of Paris. It did not matter that the advanced text of the paper, entitled “Religion, Rationalism, and Folk Practices in America to the mid-19th Century,” made no reference to Mormonism. I paid my own way to France to represent BYU.
[p.93]Despite all that had happened, until January 1987 I could not yet believe that my life’s hopes were at an end. A new department chair let me know that my situation would improve only if I stopped doing research which implied Mormon studies. As an American social historian, I had many non-religious subjects of interest. Abandoning Mormon history may have been safe in the climate of repression but it was unacceptable to me, especially as an option of duress. “Publish or perish” is the experience of scholars at most universities, but for this Mormon historian it was “publish and perish” at BYU.
After publication of my Early Mormonism and the Magic World View in mid-1987, two members of BYU’s history department circulated the rumor that my stake high council was excommunicating me for apostasy. The rumor was completely false, but more important, I had thought these rumor-mongers were my colleagues and friends. When a student asked the dean of religious education if BYU was going to fire me, he replied that the Board of Trustees had decided against it. “Like stirring up a turd on the ground,” he told the student, “firing Mike Quinn would only make a greater stink.” At this point I began applying for research fellowships that would allow me to leave BYU.
No one ever gave me an ultimatum or threatened to fire me from Brigham Young University. However, university administrators and I were both on the losing side of a war of attrition mandated by the general authorities. In separate interviews, my college dean and department chair each asked what I saw as my future at BYU. I said it did not look very bright. The dean then asked how I was coping with the pressures against me. “Not very well,” was all I could say. He commented he would understand if I chose to go somewhere else.
On 20 January 1988, I wrote a letter of resignation, effective at the end of the current school semester. “Aside from areas regarded as non-controversial by BYU’s Board of Trustees and those responsive to such anticipated or actual views,” I explained, “the situation seems to be that academic freedom merely survives at BYU without fundamental support by the institution, exists against tremendous pressure, and is nurtured only through the dedication of individual administrators and faculty members.” At the time of my resignation, I had tenure (“continuing status”), was full-professor of history, and was director of the history department’s graduate program. My letter [p.94]of resignation represented my formal acknowledgement of failure—personal and institutional.
The resignation stunned my colleagues. The chair of the history department immediately called a special meeting for me to explain the decision to the faculty. For the first time, I began telling others of the various incidents of intimidation from 1982 to 1987. I declined to follow the recommendation of some BYU faculty members that I file a formal complaint against BYU’s accreditation. Also, at my request, a newspaper reporter stopped preparing a story about the intimidation which had led to my resignation. Several faculty members in various departments criticized my decision to resign and not to openly resist the attrition of my academic freedom. “Now they’ve tasted blood,” one professor said, “and you’re leaving the rest of us here to face the consequences. Self-censorship will increase.”
Because I did not give my students any of the background which led to my resignation, some took the news very hard. A married returned-missionary had enrolled in his second course with me. He began crying as he spoke of his plans to take every class I taught. In leaving, I limited public statements to a farewell essay for BYU’s students I had taught and loved for twelve school years: “A Marketplace of Ideas, a House of Faith, and a Prison of Conformity.”57 This was as close as I came to making a fight on my own behalf. I had just held on—until walking away was the only solution I could live with.
Three months after my departure, it angered me to learn that BYU had fired a Hebrew professor for his private views on the historicity of the Book of Mormon. Although I personally regard the Book of Mormon as ancient history and sacred text, I told an inquiring newspaper reporter: “BYU officials have said that Harvard should aspire to become the BYU of the East. That’s like saying the Mayo Clinic should aspire to be Auschwitz. BYU is an Auschwitz of the mind.”58
When BYU’s associate academic vice-president asked me if that was an accurate quote, I confirmed that it was. “Academic freedom exists at BYU only for what is considered non-controversial by the university’s Board of Trustees and administrators,” I wrote. “By those definitions, academic freedom has always existed at Soviet universities (even during the Stalin era).”59
The extinction of free thought is more accurately a goal of some general authorities, some BYU administrators, and even some [p.95]faculty members. By contrast, many BYU faculty are dedicated to the unfettered life of mind for themselves and students. If BYU were a real university, there would be no element of risk or courage in promoting a marketplace of ideas there. I admire those who remain at BYU to continue a quiet struggle for genuine academic freedom.60
It is also my conviction that God desires everyone to enjoy freedom of inquiry and expression without fear, obstruction, or intimidation. I find it one of the fundamental ironies of modern Mormonism that the same general authorities who praise free agency, also do their best to limit free agency’s prerequisites—access to information, uninhibited inquiry, and freedom of expression.61
I again addressed this issue in 1991 after a rarely used joint declaration by the First Presidency and Quorum of the Twelve Apostles condemned the annual Sunstone Symposium.62 Those who questioned this statement were being summarily dropped from church positions, and both church and BYU administrative pressure was directed against a junior professor of anthropology at BYU who had given a symposium paper. I observed in a newspaper story: “Consistently, from the beginning, the [LDS] church leadership has always been uncomfortable with open forums that have been organized by the rank and file.” However, I added, “in the 19th century, the leadership recognized the existence of a loyal opposition and the 20th does not.”63
During the following months, many contributors to Sunstone and Dialogue told me of being asked to meet with a bishop or stake president who presented marked copies of their published articles and symposium talks. In each case, the local leader said it was his own idea to meet with the individuals, to express concern about his or her participation in these intellectual forums, and to recommend an end to activity which “offends the Brethren” or “disturbs the faithful.” One stake president even asked the person to consider voluntarily withdrawing from the church. The uncomfortable demeanor of the inquiring local leaders, the photocopies of articles with underlined passages, the awkward assurances of this investigation’s local origin—all were familiar to me. In October 1991, I tried to put this in historical perspective as part of a panel discussion, “Let the Consequences Follow: Telling the Truth About Our History.”64
Since leaving BYU and Utah, I have been an independent [p.96]free-lance writer. I still do Mormon history. People of various persuasions seem eager for it.
D. MICHAEL QUINN was professor of history at Brigham Young University in Provo, Utah, until 1988. Since then he has held research fellowships from the Huntington Library, the National Endowment for the Humanities, the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, and Indiana University-Purdue University at Indianapolis. His recent publications are The New Mormon History: Revisionist Essays on the Past; “Religion in the American West,” in Under an Open Sky: Rethinking America’s Western Past; “Mormon Women Have Had the Priesthood since 1843,” in Women and Authority: Re-emerging Mormon Feminism; and “Plural Marriage and Mormon Fundamentalism,” in Fundamentalisms and Society: Reclaiming the Sciences, Education, and the Family. “On Being a Mormon Historian (and Its Aftermath)” is published here for the first time with the author’s permission.
1. As a Brigham Young University history professor, I delivered this essay as an address at the 4 November 1981 meeting of Phi Alpha Theta (the student history association). The organization’s student president had asked me to help history majors understand my perspective on Mormon history in view of a recent address by LDS apostle Boyd K. Packer. After a decade, Sunstone magazine (which had first right of refusal for this essay) consented to publication of this essay by Signature Books. This first authorized publication of “On Being a Mormon Historian” has added some clarifications to the early text, updated the notes, and made some corrections of style and punctuation.
2. Leonard J. Arrington, “Scholarly Studies of Mormonism in the Twentieth Century,” Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought 1 (Spring 1966): 15-32; David J. Whittaker, “Historians and the Mormon Experience: A Sesquicentennial Perspective,” A Sesquicentennial Look at Church History (Provo, UT: Religious Instruction, Brigham Young University, 1980), 293-327; Davis Bitton and Leonard J. Arrington, Mormons and Their Historians (Salt Lake City: University of Utah Press, 1988), 87-107, 126-69; Henry Warner Bowden, “From the Age of Science to an Age of Uncertainty: History and Mormon Studies in the Twentieth Century,” Journal of Mormon History 15 (1989): 105-20.
3. Leonard J. Arrington, “Reflections on the Founding of the Mormon History Association, 1965-1983,” Journal of Mormon History 10 (1983): 91-103; Maureen Ursenbach Beecher, “Entre Nous: An Intimate History of MHA,” Journal of Mormon History 12 (1985): 43-52; Davis Bitton, “Taking Stock: The Mormon History Association after Twenty-five Years,” Journal of Mormon History 17 (1991): 1-27; B. J. Fogg, “My Weekend with the Mormon History Association,” Sunstone 15 (Sept. 1991): 64-65; David J. Cherrington, “Societies and Organizations,” in Daniel H. Ludlow, ed., Encyclopedia of Mormonism: The History, Scripture, Doctrine, and Procedures of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, 4 vols. (New York: Macmillan Publishing Co., 1992), 3:1388.
4. Leonard J. Arrington, “Historian as Entrepreneur: A Personal Essay,” Brigham Young University Studies 17 (Winter 1977): 193-209; Arrington, “The Writing of Latter-day Saint History: Problems, Accomplishments and Admonitions,” Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought 14 (Fall 1981): 119-29; Davis Bitton, “Ten Years in Camelot: A Personal Memoir,” Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought 16 (Autumn 1983): 9-35; Howard C. [p.97]Searle, “Historians, Church,” in Ludlow, Encyclopedia of Mormonism, 2:591.
5. For the perspective of RLDS authors on this same transition in their institutional and interpretative history, see Richard P. Howard, Restoration Scriptures: A Study of Their Textual Development (Independence, MO: Herald House, 1969); Richard P. Howard, “Latter Day Saint Scriptures and the Doctrine of Propositional Revelation,” and Paul M. Edwards, “Why Am I Afraid to Tell You Who I Am?” in Courage: A Journal of History, Thought and Action 1 (June 1971): 209-25, 241-46; Richard P. Howard, “The Effect of Time and Changing Conditions on Our Knowledge of History,” Saints’ Herald 120 (June 1973): 54; Paul M. Edwards, “The Irony of Mormon History,” Utah Historical Quarterly 41 (Autumn 1973): 393-409; Robert B. Flanders, “Some Reflections on the New Mormon History,” Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought 9 (Spring 1974): 34-41; Richard P. Howard, “The Historical Method as the Key to Understanding Our Heritage,” Saints’ Herald 121 (Nov. 1974): 53; Paul M. Edwards, “The Secular Smiths,” Journal of Mormon History 4 (1977): 3-17; F. Henry Edwards, “Engagement with Church History,” John Whitmer Historical Association Journal 1 (1981): 30-33; Richard P. Howard, “Adjusting Theological Perspectives to Historical Reality,” Saints’ Herald 129 (Sept. 1982): 28; C. Robert Mesle, “History, Faith, and Myth,” Sunstone 7 (Nov.-Dec. 1982): 10-13; Richard P. Howard, “Themes in Latter Day Saint History,” John Whitmer Historical Association Journal 2 (1982): 23-29; Richard P. Howard, “The Changing RLDS Response to Mormon Polygamy: A Preliminary Analysis,” John Whitmer Historical Association Journal 3 (1983): 14-28; Richard P. Howard, “The Problem of History and Revelation,” Saints’ Herald 131 (Oct. 1984): 24; Paul M. Edwards, “Our Own Story,” Sunstone 10 (Jan.-Feb. 1985): 40-41; Alma R. Blair, “RLDS Views of Polygamy: Some Historiographical Notes,” John Whitmer Historical Association Journal 5 (1985): 16-28; Paul M. Edwards, “The New Mormon History,” Saints’ Herald 133 (Nov. 1986): 12-14, 20; W. Grant McMurray, “‘As Historians and Not as Partisans': The Writing of Official History in the RLDS Church,” and Roger D. Launius, “A New Historiographical Frontier: The Reorganization in the Twentieth Century,” John Whitmer Historical Association Journal 6 (1986): 43-52, 53-63; Don H. Compier, “History and the Problem of Evil: Reflections on the Philosophical and Theological Implications of the ‘New Mormon History,'” and Flanders, “Review,” John Whitmer Historical Association Journal 8 (1988): 45-53, 91-93; Roger D. Launius, “Whither Reorganization Historiography?”; Paul M. Edwards, “A Time and a Season: History as History,” John Whitmer Historical Association Journal 10 (1990): 24-50, 85-90; and Paul M. Edwards, “A Community of Heart,” Journal of Mormon History 17 (1991): 28-34.
6. The best evidence and catalog of this outpouring is the annual “Mormon Bibliography” which Brigham Young University Studies began publishing in 1961. The New Mormon History has similarly influenced RLDS [p.98]church membership through the official Herald Publishing House, the Saints’ Herald, and instruction at the church’s Lamoni College and Temple School.
7. Bitton, “Ten Years in Camelot,” 17, makes a similar observation. The most well-known example is Jerald and Sandra Tanner’s Mormonism: Shadow or Reality? which is approaching its 30th year of publication in various reprints and editions. For an evaluation of their work, see Lawrence Foster, “Career Apostates: Reflections on the Works of Jerald and Sandra Tanner,” Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought 17 (Summer 1984): 35-60. Less well-known but academically more influential were scholarly publications by the Reverend Wesley P. Walters such as “New Light on Mormon Origins from Palmyra (N.Y.) Revival,” Bulletin of the Evangelical Theological Society 10 (Fall 1967): 227-44, reprinted in Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought 4 (Spring 1969): 60-81; Walters, “Joseph Smith’s Bainbridge, N.Y., Court Trials,” Westminster Theological Journal 36 (Winter 1976): 123-55; and Walters, “From Occult to Cult with Joseph Smith, Jr.,” The Journal of Pastoral Practice 1 (Summer 1977): 121-37.
8. Ezra Taft Benson, “God’s Hand in Our Nation’s History,” in 1976 Devotional Speeches of the Year (Provo, UT: Brigham Young University Press, 1977), 310, 313; also Sheri L. Dew, Ezra Taft Benson: A Biography (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book Company, 1987), 454-55.
9. Boyd K. Packer, “The Mantle is Far, Far Greater than the Intellect,” presented 22 Aug. 1981 to seminary, institute, and Brigham Young University religion instructors, and published in Brigham Young University Studies 21 (Summer 1981): 259-78. This talk was also immediately published as a pamphlet by the Church Educational System. Similar, but less developed, views subsequently appeared in the following general authority talks: Gordon B. Hinckley, “Stop Looking for Storms and Enjoy the Sunlight,” Church News, 3 July 1983, 10-11; Hinckley, “Be Not Deceived,” Ensign 13 (Nov. 1983): 46; Packer, “Dedication of Museum of Church History and Art,” Ensign 14 (May 1984): 104; Hinckley, “Keep the Faith,” Ensign 15 (Sept. 1985): 3-6; Hinckley, Remarks at Priesthood Session in October 1985 Conference Report, 63-69; and Russell M. Nelson, “Truth—and More,” Ensign 16 (Jan. 1986): 69-73.
11. Louis C. Midgley, “A Critique of Mormon Historians: The Question of Faith and History,” mimeographed draft, 30 Sept. 1981, 54-55. For similar criticisms, see Joe J. Christensen, “The Value of Church History and Historians: Some Personal Impressions,” Proceedings of the Church Education System Church Historian Symposium (Provo, UT: Brigham Young University Press, 1977), pp. 12-17; Neal W. Kramer, “Looking for God in History,” Sunstone 8 (Jan.-Mar. 1983): 15-17; David E. Bohn, “No Higher Ground: Objective History Is an Illusive Chimera,” Sunstone 8 (May-June 1983): 26-32; Scott C. Dunn, “So Dangerous It Couldn’t Be Talked About,” Sunstone 8 [p.99](Nov.-Dec. 1983): 47-48; David Earl Bohn, “The Burden of Proof,” Sunstone 10 (June 1985): 2-3; Midgley, “Church Espouses Agency, Critics Accuse Authorities of Seeking Blind Obedience,” BYU Daily Universe, 10 Dec. 1985, 18; Robert L. Millet, “How Should Our Story Be Told?” and Midgley, “Faith and History,” in Robert Millet, ed., “To Be Learned Is Good, If . . . (Salt Lake City: Bookcraft, 1987), 1-8, 219-26; Keith W. Perkins, “Why Are We Here in New England?: A Personal View of Church History,” in Donald Q. Cannon, ed., Regional Studies in Latter-day Saint History (Provo, UT: Brigham Young University, 1987); M. Gerald Bradford, “The Case for the New Mormon History: Thomas G. Alexander and His Critics,” Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought 21 (Winter 1988): 143-150; Midgley, “Which Middle Ground?” Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought 22 (Summer 1989): 6-8; Arthur H. King and C. Terry Warner, “Talent and the Individual’s Tradition: History as Art, and Art as Moral Response,” and Midgley, “The Challenge of Historical Consciousness: Mormon History and the Encounter with Secular Modernity,” in John M. Lundquist and Stephen D. Ricks, eds., By Study and Also By Faith: Essays in Honor of Hugh Nibley on the Occasion of His Eightieth Birthday, 27 March 1990, 2 vols. (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1990), 2:484-501, 502-51; David Earl Bohn, “Our Own Agenda: A Critique of the Methodology of the New Mormon History,” Sunstone 14 (June 1990): 45-49; Gary F. Novak, “Naturalistic Assumptions and the Book of Mormon,” Brigham Young University Studies 30 (Summer 1990): 23-40; Louis C. Midgley, “The Myth of Objectivity: Some Lessons for Latter-day Saints,” Sunstone 14 (Aug. 1990): 54-46 [54-56?]; Louis Midgley, “Revisionist Pride,” Sunstone 15 (Oct. 1991): 4-5.
12. For other (sometimes academic, sometimes personal) statements by historians of Mormon background concerning the writing of Mormon history, see notes 4 and 5 above, and also Leonard J. Arrington, “Preface,” Great Basin Kingdom: An Economic History of the Latter-day Saints, 1830-1900 (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1958), esp. viii-ix; Marvin S. Hill, “The Historiography of Mormonism,” Church History 28 (Dec. 1959): 418-26; Klaus J.Hansen, “Reflections on the Writing of Mormon History,” Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought 1 (Spring 1966): 158-60;Richard L. Bushman, “Taking Mormonism Seriously,” Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought 1 (Summer 1966): 81-84; Bushman, “The Future of Mormon History,” Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought (Autumn 1966): 23-26; Arrington, “The Search for Truth and Meaning in Mormon History,” Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought 3 (Summer 1968): 56-66; Bushman, “Faithful History,” Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought 4 (Winter 1969): 11-25; Fawn M. Brodie, Can We Manipulate the Past? (Salt Lake City: Center for the Study of the American West, University of Utah, 1970); Richard D. Poll, “God and Man in History,” Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought 7 (Spring 1972): 101-09; Hill, “Brodie Revisited: A Reappraisal,” Dialogue: A [p.100]Journal of Mormon Thought 7 (Winter 1972): 85; Hill, “Secular or Sectarian History? A Critique of No Man Knows My History,” Church History 43 (Mar. 1974): 78-96; William Mulder, “Fatherly Advice,” Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought 9 (Winter 1974): 77-80; “History Is Then and Now: A Conversation with Leonard J. Arrington, Church Historian,” Ensign 5 (July 1975): 8-13; Mulder, “The Mormon Angle of Historical Vision: Some Maverick Reflections,” and Marvin S. Hill, “The ‘Prophet Puzzle’ Assembled: Or, How to Treat Our Historical Diplopia toward Joseph Smith,: Journal of Mormon History 3 (1976): 13-22, 101-05; Poll, “Nauvoo and the New Mormon History: A Bibliographical Survey,” Journal of Mormon History 5 (1978): 105-123; James B. Allen, “Line Upon Line,” Ensign 9 (July 1979): 32-39; Charles S. Peterson, “Mormon History: Some Problems and Prospects,” Encyclia: Journal of the Utah Academy of Sciences, Arts and Letters 56 (1979): 114-26; “Mormon History: A Dialogue with Jan Shipps, Richard Bushman, and Leonard Arrington,” Century 2 [BYU] 4 (Spring-Summer 1980): 27-39; Richard Sherlock, “The Gospel beyond Time: Thoughts on the Relation of Faith and Historical Knowledge,” Sunstone 5, (July-Aug. 1980): 20-23; James L. Clayton, “History and Theology: The Mormon Connections: A Response,” Sunstone 5 (Nov.-Dec. 1980): 51-53; Roger Elvin Borg, “Theological Marionettes': Historicism in Mormon History,” Thetean: A Student Journal of History (Provo, UT: Beta Iota Chapter of Phi Alpha Theta, Brigham Young University, 1981): 5-20; Arrington, “The Writing of Latter-day Saint History: Problems, Accomplishments, and Admonitions,” Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought 14 (Fall 1981): 119-29; Davis Bitton, “Mormon Biography,” Biography: An Interdisciplinary Quarterly 4 (Winter 1981): 1-16; Clayton, “Does History Undermine Faith?” Sunstone 7 (Mar.-Apr. 1982): 33-40; Ronald K. Esplin, “How Then Should We Write History? Another View,” Sunstone 7 (Mar.-Apr. 1982): 41-45; Jay Fox, “Clio and Calliope: Writing Imaginative Histories of the Pacific,” Proceedings of the Mormon Pacific Historical Society, Third Annual Conference, April 10, 1982, 12-19; Ronald W. Walker, “The Nature and Craft of Mormon Biography,” Brigham Young University Studies 22 (Spring 1982); 179-92; Bitton, “Like the Tigers of Old Time,” Sunstone 7 (Sept.-Oct. 1982): 44-48; Melvin T. Smith, “Faithful History: Hazards and Limitations,” Journal of Mormon History 9 (1982): 61-69; Arrington, “Personal Reflections on Mormon History,” Sunstone 8 (July – Aug. 1983): 41-45; Smith, Faithful History/Secular Faith,” Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought 16 (Winter 1983): 65-71; Thomas G. Alexander, “Toward the New Mormon History: An Examination of the Literature on the Latter-day Saints in the Far West,” in Michael P. Malone, ed., Historians and the American West (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1983), 344-68; Smith, “Faithful History/Secular Religion,” John Whitmer Historical Association Journal 3 (1983): 51-58; Hill, “Richard L. Bushman: Scholar and Apologist,” Journal of Mormon History 11 [p.101](1984): 125-33; Lavina Fielding Anderson, “The Assimilation of Mormon History: Modern Mormon Historical Novels,” Mormon Letters Annual, 1983 (Salt Lake City: Association for Mormon Letters, 1984), 1-9; Arrington, “Why I Am a Believer,” and Walker, “A Way Station,” Sunstone 10 (Apr. 1985): 36-38, 58-59; Grant Underwood, “Re-visioning Mormon History,” Pacific Historical Review 55 (Aug. 1986): 403-26; Alexander, “No Way to Build Bridges,” Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought 22 (Spring 1989): 5; Hill, “The New Mormon History Reassessed in Light of Recent Books on Joseph Smith and Mormon Origins,” Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought 21 (Autumn 1988): 115-27; Poll, History and Faith: Reflections of a Mormon Historian (Salt Lake City: Signature Books, 1989); Hansen, “Arrington’s Historians,” Sunstone 13 (Aug. 1989: 41-43; “Coming to Terms with Mormon History: An Interview with Leonard Arrington,” Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought 22 (Winter 1989): 39-54; Hill, “Afterword,” Brigham Young University Studies 30 (Fall1990): 117-24; David B. Honey and Daniel C. Peterson, “Advocacy and Inquiry in Mormon Historiography,” Brigham Young University Studies 31 (Spring 1991): 139-79; Gary James Bergera, “The New Mormon Anti-Intellectualism,” Sunstone 15 (June 1991): 53-55; D. Michael Quinn, “Editor’s Introduction,” The New Mormon History: Revisionist Essays on the Mormon Past (Salt Lake City: Signature Books, 1991); Malcolm R. Thorp, “Some Reflections on New Mormon History and the Possibilities of a ‘New’ Traditional History,” Sunstone 15 (Nov. 1991): 39-46; Douglas F. Tobler and S. George Ellsworth, “History: Significance to Latter-day Saints,” in Ludlow, Encyclopedia of Mormonism, 3:595-98.
13. Dennis Michael Quinn journal, 2 Aug. 1962. Compare Jeffrey R. Holland, “An Analysis of Selected Changes in Major Editions of the Book of Mormon, 1830-1920,” M.A. thesis, Brigham Young University, 1966; Dean C. Jessee, “The Original Book of Mormon Manuscript,” Brigham Young University Studies 10 (Spring 1970): 259-78; Janet Jenson, “Variations Between Copies of the First Edition of the Book of Mormon,” Brigham Young University Studies 13 (Winter 1973): 214-22; Stan Larson, “Textual Variants in the Book of Mormon Manuscripts,” Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought 10 (Autumn 1977): 8-30; Stan Larson, “Conjectural Emendation and the Text of the Book of Mormon,” Brigham Young University Studies 18 (Summer 1978): 563-69. The most detailed presentation of all changes in the Book of Mormon’s published 1830 text is the non-scholarly study by Jerald and Sandra Tanner, 3,913 Changes in the Book of Mormon (Salt Lake City: Modern Microfilm Co., ).
15. Since delivering this essay in 1981 I have published two books. For reviews of J. Reuben Clark: The Church Years (Provo, UT: Brigham Young [p.102]University Press, 1983), see Deseret News, 1 May 1983, E6; Salt Lake Tribune, 15 May 1983, E2; BYU Today, Dec. 1983, 39; Utah Historical Quarterly 52 (Winter 1984): 94-95; Sunstone Review, Jan. 1984, 13; Deseret News “Church News”, 4 Mar. 1984, 14; Western Historical Quarterly 15 (July 1984): 350; Journal of American History 71 (Dec. 1984): 665-66; American Historical Review 90 (Dec. 1985): 1293-94; Journal of Mormon History 12 (1985): 129-33. For reviews of Early Mormonism and the Magic World View (Salt Lake City: Signature Books, 1987), see Logan Herald Journal, 27 Sept. 1987, 9-10; Deseret News, 4 Oct. 1987, E4; The (San Bernardino) Sun, 10 Oct. 1987, D4; Rocky Mountain News, 17 Oct. 1987, 106; BYU Daily Universe, 22 Oct. 1987, 7; Utah Holiday, Jan. 1988, 26-28; Sunstone 12 (Jan. 1988): 36-40; Journal of the West 27 (Apr. 1988): 106; Saints’ Herald 135 (Apr. 1988): 14; Utah Historical Quarterly 56 (Spring 1988): 199-200; Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought 21 (Summer 1988): 157-59; Brigham Young University Studies 27 (Fall 1987): 87-121; C. Wilford Griggs, “The New Testament of Faith,” 3-4, in New Testament Symposium Speeches, 1988 (Salt Lake City: Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, 1988); The John Whitmer Historical Association Journal 8 (1988): 85-87; Pacific Northwest Quarterly 79 (Apr. 1988): 80; Small Press Review 5 (Apr. 1988): 67; Contemporary Sociology 17 (Sept. 1988): 682; Christian Century 106 (25 Jan. 1989): 84-85; New Mexico Historical Quarterly 64 (Apr. 1989): 242-43; Western Historical Quarterly 20 (Aug. 1989): 342-43; Pacific Historical Review 58 (Aug. 1989): 379-80; Critical Review of Books in Religion: 1989, 336-38; Church History 59 (Mar. 1990): 110-12; and Brigham Young University Studies 31 (Spring 1991): 161-62.
17. Ezra Taft Benson, The Gospel Teacher and His Message (Salt Lake City: Church Educational System, 1976), 11-12. “Communitarianism” also appears in the transcript copy of the talk, page 8, Special Collections, Harold B. Lee Library, Brigham Young University, Provo, Utah. Specifically, Elder Benson objected to classifying Joseph Smith “among so-called ‘primitivists,'” but his objections were to James B. Allen and Glen M. Leonard, The Story of the Latter-day Saints (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book Co., 1976), 12-14, 45, which used the terms “Christian Primitivists” and “Christian Primitivism.” See also Bitton, “Ten Years in Camelot,” 17.
18. The newly published Encyclopedia of Mormonism 4:1764-73 provides a glossary of 275 Mormon terms and phrases. However, the glossary and entire encyclopedia make no reference to such official terms (puzzling to non-Mormons) as “endowment company,” “mission field,” “sacrament gem,” “scripture chase,” or “second anointing.” For the little-known (but important) latter ordinance, see David John Buerger, “The ‘Fulness of the Priesthood': The Second Anointing in Latter-day Saint Theology and Practice,” Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought 16 (Spring 1983): 10-46. The [p.103]Encyclopedia of Mormonism also makes no reference to historically significant slang terms like “Jack-Mormon,” “golden contact,” and colloquialisms like “stake house” or “going through the temple.” However, the Encyclopedia‘s essay by Robert W. Blair, “Vocabulary, LDS” (4:1537-38), provides a summary of differences.
21. An example is Joseph Fielding Smith’s letter to me, dated 9 Aug. 1962, in which he enclosed a form letter decrying Wilford Wood’s reprinting of the 1830 edition of the Book of Mormon. Elder Mark E. Petersen frequently complained about the reprinting of Journal of Discourses and wanted Mormons to neither read from it nor purchase the volumes. An example is Elder Petersen’s letter to Ernest Cook, 30 Nov. 1976, in response to Cook’s of 22 Nov. which referred to such remarks. Some authorities objected to my 1978 article in Brigham Young University Studies which quoted the Improvement Era‘s description of the use of “signs and tokens” in the temple’s “holy order of prayer.” Also, the pre-publication review committee for J. Reuben Clark asked me not to quote from Clark’s “Home, and the Building of Home Life,” Relief Society Magazine 39 (Dec. 1952): 793-94. In addition, staff members of the LDS church magazines informed me of repeated instances from the mid-1970s on in which the church’s Correlation Committee required the deletion of “non-faith-promoting” quotes from such former church publications as Juvenile Instructor and Young Woman’s Journal.
22. Packer, “The Mantle,” 272, 263. When Elder Packer interviewed me as a prospective member of Brigham Young University’s faculty in 1976, he explained: “I have a hard time with historians because they idolize the truth. The truth is not uplifting; it destroys. I could tell most of the secretaries in the church office building that they are ugly and fat. That would be the truth, but it would hurt and destroy them. Historians should tell only that part of the truth that is inspiring and uplifting.”
23. Elder Dallin H. Oaks has identified the tension between the approach of traditional Mormon historians and that of New Mormon Historians: “Balance is telling both sides. This is not the mission of official Church literature or avowedly anti-Mormon literature. Neither has any responsibility to present both sides. But when supposedly objective news media or periodicals run a feature or an article on the Church or its doctrines, it ought to be balanced. So should a book length history or biography. Readers of supposedly objective authors and publishers have a right to expect balance in writing about the Church or its doctrines” (“Reading Church History,” an address delivered at the Church Educational System’s Symposium on the Doctrine [p.104]and Covenants, Brigham Young University, Provo, Utah, 18 Aug. 1985, emphasis added). By contrast, New Mormon Historians such as I believe that “official Church literature” is not exempt from the requirement to tell “both sides” and to be balanced.
25. Dean C. Jessee, “The Writing of Joseph Smith’s History,” Brigham Young University Studies 11 (Summer 1971): 439-473; Jessee, “The Reliability of Joseph Smith’s History,” Journal of Mormon History 3 (1976): 23-46; Howard C. Searle, “Early Mormon Historiography: Writing the History of the Mormons, 1830-1858,” Ph.d. diss., University of California at Los Angeles, 1979; Jessee, “Authorship of the History of Joseph Smith: A Review Essay,” Brigham Young University Studies 21 (Winter 1981): 101-22; Jessee, “Return to Carthage: Writing the History of Joseph Smith’s Martyrdom,” Journal of Mormon History 8 (1981): 3-19; Jessee, Has Mormon History Been Deliberately Falsified? (Sandy, UT: Mormon Miscellaneous, 1982); Van Hale, “Writing Religious History: Comparing the History of the Church with the Synoptic Gospels,” in Maurice L. Draper and Debra Combs, eds., Restorations Studies III (Independence, MO: Herald Publishing House, 1986), 133-38; Dean C. Jessee, “Priceless Words and Fallible Memories: Joseph Smith as Seen in the Effort to Preserve His Discourses,” and Howard C. Searle, “Willard Richards as Historian,” Brigham Young University Studies 31 (Spring 1991): 19-40, 54-60. Jessee, Searle, and Hale all emphasize the conscientious efforts of early church historians to reconstruct sermons and accounts from sketchy originals.
However, these authors have generally ignored the more essential problems in the seven-volume History of the Church. First, it deleted significant entries in “The History of Joseph Smith,” as originally published by Times and Seasons, Deseret Evening News, and the Millennial Star. Jerald and Sandra Tanner have produced the only extensive comparison of those published versions in their Changes in Joseph Smith’s History (Salt Lake City: Modern Microfilm, ).
Second (and more important), the History of the Church deleted evidence, introduced anachronisms, even reversed meanings in manuscript minutes and other documents which were detailed and explicit in their original form. In 1835 the Doctrine and Covenants began a policy of retroactive editing by reversing previous meanings, adding concepts and whole paragraphs to the texts of previously published revelations. The official alteration of pre-1835 revelations is the more fundamental context for the later pattern of editing in the History of the Church. For an analysis of changes in revelatory texts, see Melvin Joseph Peterson, “A Study of the Nature and Significance of the [p.105]Changes in the Revelations as Found in a Comparison of the Book of Commandments and Subsequent Editions of the Doctrine and Covenants,” M.A. thesis, Brigham Young University, 1955; Richard P. Howard, Restoration Scriptures: A Study of Their Textual Development (Independence, MO: Herald House, 1969), 196-263; Robert J. Woodford, “The Historical Development of the Doctrine and Covenants,” 3 vols., Ph.D. diss., Brigham Young University, 1974; and Woodford, “The Story of the Doctrine and Covenants,” Ensign 14 (Dec. 1984): 32-39.
26. Benson, The Gospel Teacher, 11. His specific target was Allen and Leonard, Story of the Latter-day Saints, 69, 95. On the Word of Wisdom, see also Leonard J. Arrington, “An Economic Interpretation of the Word of Wisdom,” Brigham Young University Studies 1 (Winter 1959): 37-49; Lester E. Bush, Jr., “The Word of Wisdom in Early Nineteenth-Century Perspective,” and Thomas G. Alexander, “The Word of Wisdom: From Principle to Requirement,” Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought 14 (Fall 1981): 47-65, 78-88. On the similarities between Joseph Smith’s teachings about “Three Degrees of Glory” and the available teachings of Emanuel Swedenborg and Thomas Dick, see also Mary Ann Meyers, “Death in Swedenborgian and Mormon Eschatology,” Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought 14 (Spring 1981): 58-64; Quinn, Early Mormonism and the Magic World View, 174-75; and Rick Grunder, Mormon Parallels: A Preliminary Bibliography of Material Offered For Sale, 1981-1987 (Ithaca, NY: Rick Grunder Books, 1987), 30, 32, 58-61, 150.
27. In the 1830s Joseph Smith was acquainted with the Eleusinian Mysteries and the teachings of both Emanuel Swedenborg and Thomas Dick. See Latter Day Saints’ Messenger and Advocate 3 (Nov. 1836): 422-23, and 3 (June 1837): 526; William E. Hunter, Edward Hunter: Faithful Steward (Salt Lake City: Mrs. William E. Hunter, 1970), 51.
29. See, for example, Jan Shipps, “The Prophet Puzzle: Suggestions Leading Toward a More Comprehensive Interpretation of Joseph Smith,” Journal of Mormon History 1 (1974): 3-20; T. L. Brink, “Joseph Smith: The Verdict of Depth Psychology,” Journal of Mormon History 3 (1976): 73-83; Klaus J. Hansen, Mormonism and the American Experience (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1981), 18-24; C. Jess Groesbeck, “The Smiths and Their Dreams and Visions: A Psycho-historical Study of the First Mormon Family,” Sunstone 12 (Mar. 1988): 22-29.
35. 1 Cor. 7:6; Book of Mormon, title page; Al. 40:20; History of the Church 5:265; April 1940 Conference Report, 14; Church News, 31 July 1954, 8. I tried to present a balanced view in my “Decision-Making and Tension in the Mormon Hierarchy,” Sunstone Symposium, Salt Lake City, 8 Aug. 1991, summarized in “Periodic Dissent at Top Big Part of LDS History,” Salt Lake Tribune, 9 Aug. 1991, B-2.
38. George Q. Cannon journal, 7 Jan. 1898, in Stanley B. Kimball, Heber C. Kimball: Mormon Patriarch and Pioneer (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1981), xvn1; also similar statement of Lorenzo Snow in Abraham H. Cannon journal, 29 Jan. 1891, Western Americana, Marriott Library, University of Utah, Salt Lake City.
David B. Honey and Daniel C. Peterson, “Advocacy and Inquiry in Mormon Historiography,” Brigham Young University Studies 31 (Spring 1991): 153, defend Mormon historians of faith-promoting motivation who “leave out less-than-desirable episodes, tell only one side of the story, or are incomplete in their treatment.” In support of that, on page 176, note 76, they argue “that ‘suppression of evidence’ is in fact an essential step in the application of a ‘viable tradition’ of interpretation, not, we may add, merely an editorial right to be exercised.” They cite Peter Novick, That Noble Dream: The “Objectivity Question” and the American Historical Profession (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1988), 527, in support of this. Novick himself quotes without comment or evaluation, an extended argument in favor of the suppression of evidence.
Withholding or suppressing evidence does not refer to omitting evidence that is unimportant or irrelevant to one’s subject, as Honey and Peterson [p.107]indicate. Worse yet, Novick, Honey, and Peterson seem to actually endorse the view that one can withhold evidence from the reader that contradicts a writer’s theory or contradicts evidence the writer does present. Since our views of “withholding evidence” are indebted to legal concepts, it is well to remember that the legal process requires the “suppression” of irrelevant evidence. History itself exists as the exclusion of everything unnecessary to tell the story or examine the subject as defined by the historian.
On the other hand, the legal process prohibits the suppression of “material evidence,” in other words evidence which directly bears on the case at hand. Contrary to Honey and Peterson (p. 153), writers are certainly “dishonest or bad historians” if they fail to acknowledge the existence of even one piece of evidence they know challenges or contradicts the rest of their evidence. If this omission of relevant evidence is inadvertent, the author is careless (as I have been on occasion). If the omission is an intentional effort to conceal or avoid presenting the reader with evidence that contradicts the preferred view of the writer, that is fraud whether by a scholar or non-scholar, historian or other specialist. If authors write in scholarly style, they are equally dishonest in failing to acknowledge any significant work whose interpretations differ from their own.
Dishonest apologists typically insist on those standards for everyone but themselves and in every subject matter aside from their protected one. Honest apologists avoid suppressing material evidence, even as they seek to downplay the significance of this controversial information. Traditional Mormon history has had (and continues to have) both honest apologists and dishonest apologists. Many “New Mormon Historians” are also honest apologists for what they see as essential truths of Mormon theology and the basic goodness of the Mormon experience. These New Mormon Historian apologists often seek to downplay the significance, or “put into context,” any evidence they find which may discomfort believing Mormons. Traditional Mormon apologists discuss such “sensitive evidence” only when this evidence is so well known that ignoring it is almost impossible. In my view, I have always written as a New Mormon Historian and as an honest apologist for the Mormon faith and experience.
47. Examples are Roberts, A Comprehensive History of the Church 6:399-400; Joseph Fielding Smith, Essentials in Church History 24th ed. (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1971), 512-13; J. Max Anderson, The Polygamy Story: Fiction and Fact (Salt Lake City: Publishers Press, 1979), viii. See also Allen and Leonard, The Story of the Latter-day Saints, 443-44; and Leonard J. Arrington and Davis Bitton, The Mormon Experience: A History of the Latter-day Saints (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1979), 245-46. In the LDS church’s new Encyclopedia of Mormonism, Harvard S. Heath’s “Smoot Hearings” (3:1363) [p.108]focuses on Taylor and Cowley, who were not the only apostles accurately implicated by the hearings. In contrast, Paul H. Peterson’s “Manifesto of 1890″ (2:853) gives a brief but accurate statement about the continuation of new plural marriages.
49. Kenneth L. Cannon II, “Beyond the Manifesto: Polygamous Cohabitation among LDS General Authorities after 1890,” Utah Historical Quarterly 46 (Winter 1978): 24-36; Victor W. Jorgensen and B. Carmon Hardy, “The Taylor-Cowley Affair and the Watershed of Mormon History,” Utah Historical Quarterly 48 (Winter 1980): 4-36; Cannon, “After the Manifesto: Mormon Polygamy, 1890-1906,” Sunstone 8 (Jan.-Apr. 1983): 27-35; D. Michael Quinn, “LDS Church Authority and New Plural Marriages, 1890-1904,” Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought 18 (Spring 1985): 9-105; Jessie L. Embry, Mormon Polygamous Families: Life in the Principle (Salt Lake City: University of Utah Press, 1987); Fred C. Collier and Knut Knutson, eds., The Trials of Apostle John W. Taylor and Matthias F. Cowley (Salt Lake City: Collier’s Publishing Co., 1987); Jessie L. Embry, “Two Legal Wives: Mormon Polygamy in Canada, the United States, and Mexico,” and B. Carmon Hardy, “Mormon Polygamy in Mexico and Canada: A Legal and Historiographical Review,” in Brigham Y. Card et al., eds., The Mormon Presence in Canada (Edmonton: University of Alberta Press, 1990).
On Mormon fundamentalism, see Dean C. Jessee, “A Comparative Study and Evaluation of the Latter-day Saint and ‘Fundamentalist’ Views Pertaining to the Practice of Plural Marriage,” M.A. thesis, Brigham Young University, 1959; Lyle O. Wright, “Origins and Development of the Church of the Firstborn of the Fullness of Times,” M.S., Brigham Young University, 1963; Jerold A. Hilton, “Polygamy in Utah and Surrounding Area Since the Manifesto of 1890,” M.A. thesis, Brigham Young University, 1965; Robert G. Dyer, “The Evolution of Social and Judicial Attitudes toward Polygamy,” Utah State Bar Journal 5 (Spring 1977): 35-45; Verlan M. LeBaron, The LeBaron Story (Lubbock, TX: Keels & Co., 1981); Dorothy Allred Solomon, In My Father’s House (New York: Franklin Watts, 1984); Penelope W. Salzman, “Potter v. Murray City: Another Interpretation of Polygamy and the First Amendment,” Utah Law Review (1986): 345-71; Richard S. Van Wagoner, Mormon Polygamy: A History (Salt Lake City: Signature Books, 1986), 190-222; Kahile Mehr, “The Trial of the French Mission,” Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought 21 (Autumn 1988): 27-45; Ogden Kraut, The Fundamentalist Mormon (Salt Lake City: Pioneer Press, 1989); Martha S. Bradley, “Changed Faces: The Official LDS Position on Polygamy, 1890-1990,” Sunstone 14 (Feb. 1990): 26-33; Ken Driggs, “After the Manifesto: Modern Polygamy and Fundamentalist Mormons,” Journal of Church and State 32 (Spring 1990): 367-89; E. Jay Bell, “‘Living the Principle': Then and Now,” Sunstone 14 (Aug. 1990): 62; Martha S. Bradley, [p.109]”The Women of Fundamentalis: Short Creek, 1953,” and Ken Driggs, “Fundamentalist Attitudes toward the Church: The Sermons of Leroy S. Johnson,” Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought 23 (Summer 1990): 15-57, 38-60; Ken Driggs, “Twentieth-Century Polygamy and Fundamentalist Mormons in Southern Utah,” Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought 24 (Winter 1991): 44-58; Dirk Johnson, “Polygamists Emerge from Secrecy, Seeking Not Just Peace but Respect,” New York Times, 9 Apr. 1991, A-22; Ken Driggs, “Utah Supreme Court Decides Polygamist Adoption Case,” Sunstone 15 (Sept. 1991): 67-68; Ken Driggs, “Who Shall Raise the Children?: Vera Black and the Rights of Polygamous Utah Parents,” Utah Historical Quarterly 60 (Winter 1992): 27-46; D. Michael Quinn, “Plural Marriage and Mormon Fundamentalism,” in Martin E. Marty and R. Scott Appleby, eds., Fundamentalisms and Society: Reclaiming the Sciences, the Family, and Education (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1992); Martha Sonntag Bradley, “Joseph W. Musser: Dissenter or Fearless Crusader of Truth?” in Roger D. Launius and Linda Thatcher, eds., Differing Visions: Biographical Essays on Mormon Dissenters (Evanston: University of Illinois Press, forthcoming).
52. For the successful effort (led by Elders Benson and Packer) to close the LDS church archives to open research, see Lyn Ostler, “Access to Church Archives: Penetrating the Silence,” Sunstone Review, Sept. 1983, 7; Davis Bitton, “Ten Years in Camelot”; Robert Gottlieb and Peter Wiley, America’s Saints: The Rise of Mormon Power (New York: G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 1984), 240-41; Jan Shipps, Mormonism: The Story of a New Religious Tradition (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1985), 107; Richard D. Ouelette, “Reading Sealed Books at the Archives,” Sunstone 11 (Sept. 1987): 40-44; and Richard E. Turley, Jr., “Confidential Records,” and Searle, “Historians, Church,” in Ludlow, Encyclopedia of Mormonism 1:310, 2:591-92. In June 1986 the staff of the church historical department announced it was necessary to sign a form which Elder Packer declared gave the right of pre-publication censorship for any archival research completed before signing the form. I and several others refused to sign the form and have not returned to do research at LDS church archives since 1986.
53. “LDS Church Threatens Writers,” Salt Lake Tribune, 23 May 1983, A-10; Dawn Tracy, “LDS Leaders Challenge Y Professors’ Faith,” Provo Herald, 25 May 1983, 3; “Mormon Brethren Silencing Scholars?” Salt Lake Tribune, 26 May 1983, B-4; Utah Holiday 12 (Aug. 1983): 77; Gottlieb and Wiley, America’s Saints, 81-82.
54. Later during this private meeting in his office, Elder Hunter commented on relationships within the Twelve. While discussing his pro-Arab philosophy in connection with the BYU Jerusalem Center, he noted [p.110]that he usually acquiesced to the Twelve’s unnamed “zealots.” He preferred to avoid conflict—even with junior apostles who promoted views contrary to his own. Elder Hunter was not anti-Jewish but described fellow apostles who were so pro-Jewish that they overlooked sensitivities and needs of Arabs, both Christian and Muslim. Elder Hunter dedicated the BYU Jerusalem Center on 16 May 1989.
55. In a 1979 letter to G. Homer Durham, managing director of the church historical department, I summarized my findings concerning post-1890 plural marriages. In the twelve-page letter and in a conversation with Elder Durham a few days later, I expressed my intention to publish this information. I also described my research about post-Manifesto polygamy in letters to the First Presidency in 1979 and 1980, and in detail to Gordon B. Hinckley in 1981. Elder Durham authorized me to examine many restricted documents during the six years after I informed him. In fact, just days before his death in January 1985 he authorized me to examine First Presidency materials for the upcoming Dialogue article.
58. “Ex-BYU Professor Claims Beliefs Led to Dismissal,” Salt Lake Tribune, 30 July 1988, B-1. For Jeffrey Holland’s comparison of Harvard with BYU, see Gary James Bergera and Ronald Priddis, Brigham Young University: A House of Faith (Salt Lake City: Signature Books, 1985), 341.
60. For a recent discussion of this topic, see “Academic Freedom Still Questioned on BYU Campus,” Daily Universe, 20 Nov. 1991, 1, 10; “Professors’ Freedom Questioned,” Daily Universe, 21 Nov. 1991, 1, 8; “Combine Secular With Spiritual, Hafen Says,” Daily Universe, 22 Nov. 1991, 1, 10.
61. See also Mark S. Gustavson, “Truth as Meaning: Faithful History and the Interests of the Mormon Church,” Sunstone 14 (June 1990): 52; J. Frederic Voros, Jr., “Freedom of Speech in the Household of Faith,” Sunstone 15 (Oct. 1991): 16-22.
62. Deseret News, 23 Aug. 1991, B-1; “LDS Church Decries Sunstone Sessions, Calls Content Insensitive, Offensive,” Salt Lake Tribune, 24 Aug. 1991; “Church Issues Statement on ‘Symposia,'” Sunstone 15 (Oct. 1991): 58-59.
63. “LDS Church Turns Up Heat In Feud With Intellectuals,” Salt Lake Tribune, 5 Oct. 1991, A-6. Ironically, the church’s new Encyclopedia of Mormonism gives a positive description of Dialogue, Sunstone, the Sunstone symposia, the B. H. Roberts Society, and other independent forums. Cherrington, “Societies and Organizations” (in Ludlow, Encyclopedia of Mormonism 3:1389), concludes that these [p.111]”unofficial organizations and their publications may serve at least six important functions for Church members and/or for the Church.” One of the six is that they “provide an opportunity to learn and distribute new insights regarding theology, the scriptures, ancient cultures, historical events, and current practices. Dedicated members wanting to combine their religious beliefs with their professional training have made significant scholarly contributions, and unofficial journals provide outlets for publishing them.”
64. This presentation at a meeting of the B. H. Roberts Society on 17 October 1991 was summarized in “Panel Confronts Role of LDS Intellectuals,” Salt Lake Tribune, 19 Oct. 1991, A-10. The first of these papers to have been printed is David C. Knowlton, “Of Things in the Heavens, On the Earth, and In the Church,” Sunstone 15 (Oct. 1991): 12-15. An earlier discussion is Davis Bitton, “Anti-Intellectualism in Mormon History,” and James B. Allen, “Thoughts on Anti-Intellectualism: A Response,” Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought 1 (Autumn 1966): 111-33, 134-40; also see Poll, History and Faith; Bergera and Priddis, Brigham Young University; and Bitton and Arrington, Mormons and Their Historians.