One of the most influential intellectuals and historians in the Community of Christ (formerly RLDS Church), Dr. Paul M. Edwards, died last Thursday.
A prolific author and well-known educator, he was among the group of then-RLDS academics (including Richard Howard, Alma Blair, and Bill Russell among others) who, along with numerous LDS counterparts, helped found what came to be known as the New Mormon History. That, in turn, led to the creation of the Mormon History Association and its RLDS counterpart, the John Whitmer Historical Association. While proponents of those movements view it as opening doors to new light and truth within the broad latter-day saint movement, others saw it as a Pandora’s box.
Paul Edwards earned a doctorate in philosophy from St. Andrew’s University in Scotland. He went on to serve as professor and dean in universities, most prominently at the RLDS-affiliated Graceland College (now university). He later served as the first president of the church’s Temple School program, then as head of a new Master of Arts in Religion graduate program at Park University, which eventually became part of Community of Christ Seminary, a division at Graceland’s Independence, Missouri, campus.
The son of another influential church leader, F. Henry Edwards, a longtime RLDS apostle and counselor in the First Presidency, Paul was a grandson of RLDS President Fred M. Smith, great-grandson of Joseph Smith III, and great great grandson of Joseph Smith Jr. That family history led some church members to consider he should be in line for the Presidency after his cousin Wallace B. Smith retired instead of W. Grant McMurray. Others, however, believed that with Paul’s brilliant mind and academic approach, it was perhaps not a good fit for him personally or for the institution.
His influence on the Community of Christ was considerable and long-lasting. Generations of students at Graceland University, as well as church leaders and members, can look to him as an example of intellectual searching for religious understanding, tolerance, and truth.
Photo credit: Barbara Mesle
- How do you view the influence of the New Mormon History?
- What memories do you have of Paul Edwards?
We can thank the historians for the cordial relations today between the LDS and Community of Christ.
Anyone who contributed to the New Mormon History deserves our admiration and respect. I know there were several CoC (RLDS at the time) scholars who were part of that story.
Growing up, my family regularly included “church history sites” in our summer road trips, so I was familiar with the (then) Reorganized Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints. We’d have fhe lessons on events related to location along the Mormon trail. They’d note which church (LDS or RLDS) owned particular sites.
But your commentary has really added dimension to my understanding, and especially my appreciation of the church that was a counterpart to my religious tradition.
I had no prior knowledge of Paul M Edwards, but am grateful to him as one of the historians that contributed to the body of Mormon history knowledge.
I am struck by his willingness to be open, accepting Mormon history as it was, his own family’s place in it, and the cooperation created between these two branches.
Good quote you included from him, “If we seek to respond to God, we must be an open-ended society. Revelation cannot exist in a closed society. We must seriously question the validity of our past interpretations and responses – we must doubt in order to wonder – so that new revealings of Christ’s Love can be meaningful.”
Many of the RLDS folks from my childhood would not have agreed with Paul’s statement that “we must doubt in order to wonder,” although it’s far more widespread in today’s Community of Christ. I think this relates to the CofC’s preference for and comfort with asking questions rather than insisting that only answers matter.
Paul held my feet to the fire while I was at Graceland (1964-68): intellectual laziness not tolerated, hone the questions until you’re pulled deeper into the mystery, face nothingness head on to discover meaning. Say hello to Fred, Paul. And thanks for your words at our wedding: Susi & I hung in, 55 years & counting.
It was a great privilege to have known Paul many years. When I was president-elect of the John Whitmer Historical Association (JWHA) in 2001, I asked Paul if he would present a paper about his father’s pacifism and graciously complied with my request. I am so glad I went to JWHA’s 50th anniversary meeting in Independence last month and had the chance to chat with Paul one more time.