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?