Last year, Signature Books published a three-volume edition of Leonard Arrington’s journals. Arrington was the LDS Church Historian from 1972 to 1982, the only professionally trained historian to ever hold that post. Shortly thereafter, the Salt Lake Tribune posted an article reviewing the books, with the lengthy headline New collection of Leonard Arrington’s vast journals shows battles the Mormon historian had with LDS leaders over telling the truth about the church’s past. This is a chapter of LDS history that every informed Latter-day Saint ought to be familiar with, as it paved the way for the new and improved Church History Department, which has sponsored projects like the Joseph Smith Papers Project; Saints, the new four-volume history of the Church; and the excellent Revelations in Context essays.

Other books have used the Arrington diaries as source material. There is Arrington’s own autobiography, Adventures of a Church Historian (U. of Illinois Press, 1998; see a nice review of the book here). More recently, Gregory Prince used the diaries to write Leonard Arrington and the Writing of Mormon History (U. of Utah Press, 2016; read an earlier blog post on the book here).

There is way too much material to cover in a blog post, but I’ll just use a couple of quotes from the diaries, as quoted in the SL Trib article, to give an overview. My comments in italics following the quotes.

  • “One or two members” of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles indicated the apostles had “perused [the book] ‘The Story of the Latter-day Saints’ and did not like it,” Arrington recorded Aug. 18, 1976. They criticized it for “the absence of inspiration — descriptions of occurrences in church history without attributing their cause to God or to his direction and inspiration.” [Despite opposition from some LDS leaders, The Story of the Latter-day Saints, written by historians Glen Leonard and James Allen who worked under Arrington at the Church History Department, remains the best one-volume history of the LDS Church and is still available at Deseret Book.]
  • On Sept. 22, 1976, Arrington wrote that “Elders Benson and [Mark E. Petersen] … want glorious stories of the Restoration [of the gospel], unsullied by discussion of practical problems and controversial evidence. They want prophets without warts, revelation direct from high in pure vessels. The want faith-promoting stories and moral homilies. They feel strongly and will oppose all our books, written as we understand history.” [The leadership won the battle with Arrington and managed to scuttle his planned 16-volume sesquicentennial history of the Church. This also more or less ended serious historical scholarship within the Church for a generation, until Marlin K. Jensen, a Seventy, was appointed Church Historian in 2005.]

With the benefit of hindsight, what can we say about the Arrington era? Where does that leave us now, in 2019? First, it was probably a good thing that the Church got out of sponsoring Mormon history in book form by historians as Arrington was doing. That sort of independent scholarship by professional historians and other scholars has more credibility if not sponsored and supervised by LDS officials. The revamped Church Historical Department is much better off doing projects like the Joseph Smith Papers Project.

Second, while Arrington lost the battle he fought as Church Historian, in the long run he and his historical colleagues won the war. The LDS leadership of our day no longer views the publishing of serious historical scholarship about the Church by LDS historians and scholars as a form of apostasy. The revamped Church Historical Department is doing great work. Better late than never.

Third, the ongoing publication of Saints, the four-volume official history of the Church (published by the Church, without named authors, and available free online at LDS.org) promises to spur deeper discussion of LDS history by the general membership, particularly the next time the LDS Sunday School curriculum covers LDS history. This seems like a good thing.

What do you think? I’m particularly interested in comments from readers who have read Arrington’s autobiography or Prince’s book about the Arrington years, and feedback from readers who have read the Saints volume (which I have not managed to get to yet).