I was recently at a church social function, sitting with a group of sisters who were making chit-chat, and one sister made a comment that took me off guard. She said, anticipating universal agreement from the group, that “some people (presumably none of us present) acted like the church has been deliberately hiding its history.” I nearly laughed out loud and said, “Well, they think that because the church clearly has hidden information over the years. There are lots of things that aren’t openly taught or talked about that are historical thorny issues.” Another sister who was a former seminary teacher pointed out that polygamy was glossed over in the teaching materials, but she taught it anyway so they wouldn’t be taken off guard when they found out Joseph Smith had dozens of wives. As it turned out, this sister was pretty much alone in her assertion that the church has always been super transparent about history. We all chimed in with counter examples.
We talked at length about how older generations often kept things secret–skeletons in family closets–that you can’t do in today’s internet age. Several of us shared family stories that older generations had deemed needed to be kept secret: children from adulterous affairs, prior marriages, abuse. Several talked about how surprised they were to discover things like relatives who went to the temple but also drank alcohol. Even the entire #metoo movement is a byproduct of things being hidden and silenced that people didn’t want to deal with. People knew; people just didn’t want to deal with it. It was easier to ignore it, to push it aside, to silence victims, to avoid unpleasant discussions and actions.
I was reading yesterday in Greg Prince’s Arrington biography about church history under the five decades of Joseph Fielding Smith’s leadership that preceded Leonard Arrington’s stint, and it’s exactly what I was saying in this conversation with these sisters: closed documents, lack of scholarship (assignments based on cronyism, not on actual research skills), labeling anything that attempted to be impartial as “anti,” preventing access to church materials except through personal connections, reviewing notes taken by researchers to prevent unflattering facts from coming to light.
When Fawn Brodie’s biography of Joseph Smith No Man Knows My History was published, a review in the Deseret News at the time called it a composite of all the anti-Mormon books that had come before, implying that if it had been researched in the church’s archives which she didn’t have access to use, it would have been a different book. Arrington disagreed on two counts: 1) that the restricted access was a bigger issue in the early 1950s, after Brodie’s book was published, because of an influx of BYU grad students trying to gain access and overwhelming the department, and 2) the book’s contents could have been written using materials in the church’s collection as her book was based in the same historical evidence in the Church’s collection (even if it was also extant in anti-Mormon literature). From the Arrington biography:
There is no question that the archival staff during those years was generally unfriendly to scholars. Though unstated, the real problem appeared to be that the staff, including Church Historian Joseph Fielding Smith, felt that the history that emerged from the archives should continue to be written the way it had been written for decades: uncritical and celebratory of the triumphs of an exceptional, God-favored people. Anything short of that–including scholarly history that attempted to be data-driven and unbiased–was viewed as aiding the enemy.
Arrington’s own book Great Basin Kingdom was just such an unbiased attempt, and it was in fact labelled as “anti-Mormon” by the Church History library as Arrington found out years later when he was named the Church Historian.
“Why would it have been classified as anti-Mormon?” I asked.
“Well,” one person replied, “it was a scholarly book, which meant it wasn’t designed to be faith-promoting; and if it wasn’t for the Church, then, by classification, it had to be against. Moreover, it didn’t go through a Church reading committee, which meant it wasn’t approved.”
Despite this classification, President Harold B. Lee had called the book a monument to LDS history, the finest thing on LDS history since B.H. Roberts’ Comprehensive History. Arrington’s philosophy in writing history was:
You work from documents and let the chips fall where they may. You’re not defending, you’re not promoting, you’re not attacking.
As a testament to how unbiased the book was, a BYU professor assigned his class to read it for the semester, and at the end, asked students whether the author was Mormon or not. The class was evenly divided on whether they thought the author was a member of the Church or not.
Under Joseph Fielding Smith, the focus was on amassing materials, not on studying them. The department was staffed with non-scholars and loyalists, including relatives of Smith, but not individuals with the kind of background to comb through the archives like a historian might.
Since the primary mission of the archives had been to collect material, rather than to study it, it was not surprising to Leonard that he “discovered many things which they did not know existed and which I did not call to their attention.”
Arrington’s book (Great Basin Kingdom) reviewed the economic history of Salt Lake City, including oversight by church leaders in all city planning, colonizing and financial matters. What he found in his research was that the missteps that occurred were almost always a byproduct of the decision to defer to church leaders who lacked experience or knowledge in an area of policy-making rather than consulting experts.
Brigham Young and his appointed lay leaders were outstanding colonizers, and there can be no doubt that they were dedicated to the Kingdom, but the more the specialists depended on them for leadership, the more the specialized industries were apt to suffer from inexpert direction.
Rather than learning from these mistakes that had resulted in repeated failures with sugar cultivation and iron ore mining, a pattern of doubling down and blaming the victim was established.
The church hierarchy responded to the failures–and to the consequent privations caused by them–by blaming the people rather than the flawed economic system that the leaders themselves had established: “the failure of the people to do what they had been commanded; namely, cease to patronize the [non-Mormon] merchants and establish home industries.”
Members were excommunicated for disagreeing with economic policy which was declared to be a matter of dogma. One might as well expect ‘to differ honestly with the Almighty!’ was a charge laid at the feet of William Godbe who was excommunicated in 1869 for attempting to persuade church leaders that developing trade and cooperating with non-Mormon interests was the way of the economic future for the state. Nevertheless, the choice to refuse to adapt to a changing economy led to an interesting outcome. By 1900, although the state was still overwhelmingly a Mormon majority, 90 percent of the state’s millionaires were non-Mormons whose hands weren’t tied by church direction.
This pattern is interesting in that it’s similar to the pattern of what happened in the Church History department at that time. Those in charge didn’t have expertise in history or research, but they restricted access to the materials they had amassed even while not comprehending what they had. If something unflattering comes out, circle the wagons and blame others, or blame the members for not having enough faith. These tactics might have worked for the man in the gray flannel suit, but they are long past their effective date in the internet age.
What was fascinating is that Arrington, who fought so hard to create an open environment in the Church History department, hid the fact that his wife Grace had been previously married. Their adult children accidentally discovered the fact while doing family research (their mother had a different last name on one of the records than her married and maiden names), they confronted their parents about this hidden history. Grace said she never could get “permission” to tell them about her abusive first husband, and Leonard simply didn’t respond to their questions, walking out of the room. For whatever reason, he didn’t want this information to be acknowledged. His son Carl who only found out about his mother’s first marriage when he turned 21 years old, was very surprised, but became more sanguine about it upon reflection:
“The secrets within the family were just so bizarre,” he mused. His immediate reaction was “Wow! You’re a historian, and this doesn’t come out?” His second, more reflective reaction was, “I think that was a part of Dad. He was a keeper of secrets. He was a keeper of the Church’s secrets, and he was a keeper of the family’s secrets.”
Maybe that’s why it’s called the Silent Generation. They’ve seen a lot, and they don’t care to talk about it, particularly avoiding emotionally charged topics.
Today’s generations do not understand this mindset. Personally, I don’t understand it. But I know it’s how older generations viewed (and view) things. You didn’t talk about things that were “disloyal” to the group or didn’t portray the in-group well, whether that was family, country or church. It’s behind the claim that sharing a “warts and all” history is unpatriotic somehow, that portraying Thomas Jefferson as someone who fathered children with his slave, or that Christopher Columbus committed genocide, or that George Washington owned 300 human beings are things we shouldn’t say because it’s disloyal.
Before I got married, I mentioned to my mom that I had tried on some wedding suits and that one of them made my butt look fat. My mom was alarmed that I said this in front of my fiance. I pointed out that it wasn’t like I was going to be in a position to hide it if my butt looked fat. The idea that we can hide things others can see plain as day doesn’t make a whole lot of sense to me. Playing CYA doesn’t work. Your butt is invariably more visible to others even than to yourself.
We are in an open era, the day of Wikileaks and the information superhighway. It’s not possible to hide these things anymore, nor do we value that type of secrecy. The secret things will be made known.
Luke 8:17 “For nothing is hidden that will not become evident, nor anything secret that will not be known and come to light.”Luke 12:2-3 “But there is nothing covered up that will not be revealed, and hidden that will not be known. Accordingly, whatever you have said in the dark will be heard in the light, and what you have whispered in the inner rooms will be proclaimed upon the housetops.
But it’s still our legacy, it’s been in charge of our information for a long time, and it’s hard to challenge deeply held assumptions and values of a prior generation.