I recently ordered a copy of Gregory Prince’s biography of Church historian and founder of the Church History Library, Leonard Arrington. If you aren’t familiar with Arrington, here’s a brief blurb from Wikipedia:
Leonard James Arrington (July 2, 1917 – February 11, 1999) was an American author, academic and the founder of the Mormon History Association. He is known as the “Dean of Mormon History”[1] and “the Father of Mormon History”[2] because of his many influential contributions to the field. He was the first Church Historian for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (LDS Church) from 1972 to 1982, and was director of the Joseph Fielding Smith Institute for Church History from 1982 until 1986.

From a diary entry dated August 17, 1992, Arrington expressed his frustration with several organizational aspects of the church. He titled this entry “Things I don’t like about the church.” This was his list:

1. The imposition of one pattern for everybody rather than suggesting two or three patterns and letting local wards or stakes or districts follow the one most convenient for them. Examples, the three hour meeting schedule on Sundays.

This is an interesting one. I know there are some areas where a two-hour block is done for local reasons, and in other cases where the institutional church has done it as a pilot program. His suggestion is akin to states rights over national–a preference for local governance over institutional decision-making. I’m not sure who out there is clamoring to keep church at three hours (except the love of status quo).

2. Appointing the highest tithe payers to positions of leadership rather than the most capable or worthy. In choosing stake leaders, the General Authority comes with a list of the 15 or 20 highest tithe payers and starts down the list to choose a stake president and high council.

This is an interesting one. It’s not inconsistent with everything I’ve ever heard before, but I have never heard the angle about being the highest tithe payers. I can’t imagine it would be too difficult to rise to the top of that bucket merely by consistently paying a full tithe, but I’m not sure. It is a bit unsavory if there is preference given to higher earners.

3. The maintenance of a disloyalty file on liberals, including articles they’ve written with questionable statements, newspaper clippings. These are used against the person without him or her knowing what is in the file and having a chance to deny or explain it. The supposition is that liberals are out to destroy or embarrass the church, a supposition entirely false.

This one is pretty terrible, and given the timing of when he wrote it, it’s particularly disturbing. Mere weeks later saw the infamous excommunications known as the September Six. This appears to still be done.

4. The insistence on unanimity among the Twelve, which means that the most obstinate member, the one holding out against the rest, wins.

I have blogged about this before, the fact that in group dynamics, when unanimity is required, the inflexible person carries the day; rigidity is rewarded.

5. The insistence on choosing a new president from the senior member of the Twelve. This means we’ll always have a president far beyond his energetic, creative period of life. We should retire persons from the Twelve at age 75 and never choose anyone over that age to be president of the Church.

Interesting that he wrote this when he was 75. I have often thought we should do 72.

6. The First Presidency and Twelve should call a person in to talk with him/her before putting that person on the blacklist, not to be cited, his/her books not to be sold in Church bookstores, not to be allowed to speak in Church, etc.

I believe he’s talking about Mormon authors and other Mormon speakers and writers rather than those undergoing church discipline. And I would agree that this is reasonable and would probably result in fewer allies being made into enemies.

7. The Church should allow historians to present “human” material in biographies of presidents and General Authorities.

This is clearly a theme for his life’s work. As a historian, he was aware of the warts and all versions of the lives of Mormon figures, but he often felt constrained by the quorum of the Twelve not to share information they felt was embarrassing or unflattering. This has clearly backfired all over the place now that Google exists.

8. We should allow women to be associates to the Twelve and sit in on their meetings. The Relief Society president should sit in on bishopric meetings. Mothers should be allowed to stand in the circle to bless their babies, confirm newly baptized persons as members of the Church, just as they now can open and close meetings with prayer.

There are now women in the Ward Council meetings which many wards favor over male-only meetings for decision-making. I’m not aware of women being included in meetings with the Twelve, however, and female input is an obvious blind spot for this group. Women are only for the first time being invited into councils at the highest levels in the church, but to do so they had to add “and Family” to the names of these groups as if that’s the only way women can be invited to contribute, a very limited perspective. The church’s prohibition on women holding their babies during a baby blessing is very hurtful and has been rigidly enforced in the handbook despite how nasty and exclusionary it feels to women who just gave birth. Arrington’s suggestions go beyond what many women have even asked for themselves. I also note that in all his writing, he uses gender neutral pronouns–even when he’s talking about strictly male positions! He’s very inclusive.

9. The manuals used in adult Sunday School, Priesthood, and Relief Society classes are absolutely hopeless. Using the same gospel doctrine manual every fourth year; the same with Priesthood manuals. Hopeless. Why can’t they assign a skilled and experienced writer to do a new manual every year?

I can’t say these have gotten better since he wrote this in 1992. The manuals need a serious overhaul. Hopefully, E. Uchtdorf will make headway on these with the right talent being appointed to rewrite them.

There were a few other choice quotes from Arrington’s biography in this same section. He talked about temple attendance in a letter to his children:

I have not yet come to feel the necessity of frequent attendance at the temple. I think I get as much inspiration watching birds, or looking at the mountains and the wilderness, as participating in the rituals there.

I have to agree with him there. He also wrote the following to his children, a few months before his death in 1999:

There are LDS families in which loyalty to Mormon doctrines, practices, and leaders is so strong that the children feel they have to conform in order to assure the love of their parents. The parents love the church more than their children. Children sense that the parents would choose the church over their children if there was that choice. Young people are sometimes brought up to idealize church leaders, both past and present. But no human being is perfectly benevolent and wise. Leaders have their own life stories, complete with biases, fears, and needs as well as unique strengths and gifts. They can seek for the Spirit–for the Light–but they are still human.

Clearly someone who saw the very human side of church leaders could easily see that too much fealty to humans was unwise and would have some unforeseen negative outcomes. I’ve only just scratched the surface of the book, but so far, I can tell Leonard Arrington and I are kindred spirits.

  • What do you think of his nine points? Are some more relevant than others?
  • Do any of them surprise you? Are there some you dislike?
  • Have you ever made your own similar list? What’s on it?