Leonard Arrington was the first — and probably the last — historian to occupy the position of Church Historian in the LDS Church. That tells you something about how the LDS Church views its history: as a resource to be used selectively to promote the interests of the Church, not as a body of documents, facts, and events to be honestly presented and evaluated for good or ill using the tools of the modern historian, with confidence that truth will stand on its own. LDS leaders have faith in God and in their authority to speak and act in His name, but they do not really have faith in a candid presentation of LDS history. All this and more emerges from a reading of Gregory A. Prince’s most recent book, Leonard Arrington and the Writing of Mormon History (Univ. of Utah Press, 2016).
The book is, in part, a biography of Leonard Arrington, a historian who worked professionally at Utah State University, then served as Church Historian from 1972 to 1982. He authored several books on LDS history, including The Mormon Experience (Alfred A. Knopf, 1979) and Brigham Young: American Moses (Alfred A. Knopf, 1985). He was one of the founders of the Mormon Historical Association and its first president. He mentored a whole generation of LDS historians. He had confidence that the honest and professional telling of LDS history was compatible with membership in and support of the LDS Church. I was more interested in Arrington’s professional life than his larger personal life, so I started about eight chapters into the book. Along with Arrington’s autobiographical Adventures of a Church Historian (Univ. of Illinois Press, 1998), Prince’s biography tells the story of Arrington’s professional adventure as an LDS historian and, as stated in the subtitle, what that tells us about the making of Mormon history.
I’m just going to select a few quotations from the book to throw some light on that primary topic, then close with an observation or two from the perspective of 2018.
Before Arrington. There was a Church Historian’s Office, but it didn’t do much. So Arrington had a lot of work to do when he took office in 1972.
Joseph Fielding Smith … had become church historian in 1921 and remained in that office until [David O.] McKay’s death [in 1970]. After publishing Essentials in Church History in 1922, Smith viewed the primary mission of the office as acquisition, with little emphasis on cataloguing and even less on writing new history. Employees consisted largely of family and friends …. [N]one of these staff members had professional training in the field. Much of the collection had never been catalogued. (p. 79-80.)
Some LDS leaders supported Arrington’s project. Spencer Kimball supported Arrington, but was never that interested in history. Howard W. Hunter, an apostle who served as Church Historian for the two years between Joseph Fielding Smith’s relinquishment of the office in 1970 and Arrington’s appointment in 1972, supported Arrington’s approach. “Hunter was a strong supporter of the kind of history that Leonard and his colleagues produced …” (p. 155). Surprisingly, Bruce R. McConkie supported the independence of the history office as against supervision and a veto by the correlation department (p. 296). But Ezra Taft Benson and Mark E. Peterson, two senior apostles, were strongly opposed to the kind of professional history Arrington and the historians he brought into the Historical Department were starting to produce. They eventually scuttled Arrington’s grand vision for official LDS history and had the department’s remaining staff transferred (exiled?) to BYU in 1982. Surprisingly, that might have been the right thing to do (see below).
The shifting names and organizational status of the church historian and the department can get a little confusing. Here is a short explanation from Wikipedia: “In 1972, the Church Historian’s Office was renamed to become the Historical Department. In 2000, this department was merged with the Family History Department to become the Family and Church History Department. On March 12, 2008, the Church Historian separated again from the Family History Department to become the Church History Department.”
What went wrong. The first publication from Arrington’s new deparment was Dean Jesse’s Letters of Brigham Young to His Sons (Deseret Book, 1974). It prompted a long letter from Elder Boyd K. Packer to the First Presidency, objecting to some content in the letters, in particular that one of Brigham Young’s sons had become addicted to morphine while being treated by a doctor; a suggestion from Brigham Young to one of his sons that he refrain from using tobacco while serving as a missionary, along with an acknowledgment by Brigham that at one time chewed tobacco; and references in the book to disputes over the estate of Brigham Young. (p. 259-60.)
Then there was the story of The Story of the Latter-day Saints (Deseret Book, 1976). This was the one-volume history of the Church that was supposed to replace Essentials in Church History, which was “outdated and unreflective of current scholarship” (p. 276). It is a very good book, written by two very accomplished LDS historians, Glen Leonard and James Allen, who were both at that time working for the Historical Department. It prompted “a backlash that was swift and overwhelming” (p. 279) from Elders Benson and Peterson. They didn’t actually read the book, but apparently received summaries from subordinates that highlighted controversial passages from the book. Objections to the book included general disagreements (it was too secular; it didn’t bring God into the picture strongly enough) as well as particulars (it suggested the Zion’s Camp expedition was a failure; it cited articles from Dialogue and Brodie’s No Man Knows My History; it was not sufficiently anti-evolution when discussing the 1911 evolution controversy at BYU; and so forth). There’s actually a Wikipedia page devoted to the book and the resulting controversy. The book was popular with LDS readers and sold out its initial printing of 35,000, but “Benson and his allies succeeded in delaying a second printing until 1986”
The derailed Sesquicentennial History project. The centerpiece of Arrington’s plan at the Historical Department was a 16-volume history of the LDS Church, loosely targeted for publication around 1980, the sesquicentennial anniversary of the founding of the Church in 1830. A full listing of the projected volumes is given at pages 170-71. Increasing difficulties between Arrington and his department, on the one hand, and some senior LDS leaders, on the other, eventually cancelled the project, but not until several contracts had been signed with individual authors and a lot of work done on the projected books by those authors. Many of those books were eventually published independently by the authors, including Richard Bushman’s Joseph Smith and the Beginnings of Mormonism (Univ. of Illinois Press, 1984) and Thomas Alexander’s Mormonism in Transition (Univ. of Illinois Press, 1986).
Legacy. There’s a lot more to the story than I can capture in a few paragraphs. The achievements of Arrington during his ten-year tenure propelled official LDS history forward into its present productive position. But it was a “two steps forward, one step back” process. The publications under Arrington and opening up the archives during his tenure was two steps forward. Cancelling the 16-volume history and exiling the department to BYU was one step back. The collaboration with LDS historians to publish Massacre at Mountain Meadows by Walker, Turley, and Leonard in 2008 and the continuing work of the Joseph Smith Papers Project are the two steps forward in the 21st century.
A related issue is the role that the Church should take in the process. I have come around to thinking that the Arrington attempt to publish substantive professional history in the form of individually authored books and articles, published by the Church or though Deseret Book, was the wrong approach. It is better that the Church maintain the archives, give scholars access, and publish documentary volumes like the JSPP rather than analytical history. Let scholars both LDS and non-LDS publish the books and articles under their own name. That actually works better for everyone and for the Church as an institution.
I’ll end with a final nod to Leonard Arrington, who was not only a fine historian (originally trained as an economist) but also magnified his influence by frequently assisting and encouraging fellow scholars and younger graduate students. He then devoted the prime of his career to serving as Church Historian, which was a busy and productive but often frustrating and, in the end, a seemingly unappreciated endeavor. It is only in the 21st century that the work of Arrington within the Church really bore its fruit. In my opinion and taking the long view, he did more to strengthen the Church than any of the apostles who opposed his work ever did. He deserves a lot more gratitude than he ever got from the Church or its leaders.