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Guest Post: A “Sea Change” in Mormon Historical Studies

By: William P. MacKinnon - June 30, 2011

William P. MacKinnon – immediate past president of the Mormon History Association, leading authority on the history of the Utah War, and contributor of several previous guest posts to Keepa – was asked recently for his opinion of the current state of Mormon history, access to records of the institutional church, partisanship of younger historians, and other matters affecting Mormon historical studies. This query was prompted by Richard L. Bushman’s statement at the recent symposium celebrating his 80th birthday (reported by Ben Park in “The Age of Cultural Power” at Juvenile Instructor) that we are living in “a golden era of Mormon history.” Parts of Bill’s essay were quoted by Peggy Fletcher Stack in her recent article reviewing 30 years of development in Mormon historical studies.

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As a former human resources vice president of the old General Motors Corporation (1980s) and the newest past president of the Mormon History Association (2010-2011), I’ve learned that it’s extremely difficult, if not risky, to make sweeping generalizations about the behavior of large, people-intensive organizations. This applies both in terms of them as institutions and with respect to how their members function as individuals. As the old saying goes, the devil is in the details. One has to look below surface generalizations to piece together a reasonably accurate picture of what is really happening over time. With that caveat in mind, I’ll try to answer your several interrelated questions as briefly as I can.

I think that Richard Bushman is quite right in the sense that there has been a relatively recent blossoming of interest and academic “respectability” in Mormon studies (including history) in the United States abetted by a mushrooming in the quantity and quality of younger scholars (many LDS) engaged in pursuing the subject, often at places outside the Wasatch Front. Endowed chairs in Mormon studies have been established in the past ten years at such wildly different schools as Claremont Graduate University in California (held by Bushman) and at Utah State University in Logan (held by Philip Barlow). More recently and emblematically, at the University of Utah there’s a thrust now actively under way — led by Professor Bob Goldberg, his sympatico university president, and others — to establish a Mormon history program there, a university whose faculty in the past has not always been viewed as especially friendly to this field.

When I look at my own schools, Yale and Harvard, and even at that bastion of Roman Catholicism, Notre Dame, I see in the East and Midwest a distinct growth in the number of conferences, faculty appointments, and Ph.D. dissertations focused on Mormon history. Some of this is not new (when I was a student at the Harvard Business School in the early 1960s, one of the lions of the faculty was George Albert Smith, son of the church president), but much is.

And the quality of the young women and men pursuing the study of Mormon history as graduate students and recently-appointed assistant professors is unbelievably high. One sees this high-quality renewal in several of the more highly visible history faculty appointments that have recently gone to Latter-day Saints. And so Richard Bushman vacates the Hunter Chair at Claremont this summer to return to Manhattan and is succeeded by a far younger Patrick Q. Mason, who took his doctorate at Notre Dame and subsequently taught for several years in Egypt. (His latest award-winning book is about violence encountered by Latter-day Saints in the American South during the late 19th century.) Pretty eclectic! A few years ago the late Dean May’s successor in teaching the history of the West, Utah, and Mormonism at the University of Utah was W. Paul Reeve, one of the most effective young history teachers I know and a man whose background is not only rooted in southern Utah (Hurricane) but on the faculty of an LDS-oriented university in southern Virginia after he took his doctorate at the U. The Church History Department’s newly appointed Director of Publications, Matthew J. Grow (a Parley P. Pratt descendant), comes to that important role from the faculty of the University of Southern Indiana to which he had been appointed following a doctorate at the University of Notre Dame and receipt of other degrees from BYU.

In many ways, this blossoming in the sustained interest in Mormon history and the caliber of those Latter-day Saints and non-Mormons pursuing it is akin to what has happened with the broader field of Western history. In 1962, when a small band of academic historians and talented buffs met in Santa Fe to form what became the Western History Association, the field was barely “respectable” in the eyes of many academics. Among those who played a formative role in Santa Fe was Howard R. Lamar, then a young assistant professor at Yale whose frontier history course I had taken four years earlier when it was dubbed with some disrespect “Cowboys and Indians.” In later decades Professor Lamar rose to become president of not only the Western History Association but of Yale University.

I see a similar rise and recognition for the field of Mormon history and its practitioners. A month ago the Mormon History Association held its 46th annual conference in St. George. More than 750 people attended. This huge level of attendance was equivalent to more than half of MHA’s membership. I know of no professional historical association in the country with that degree of interest and vitality.

By the way, the plenary and other speakers at MHA-St. George included not only such LDS General Authorities as Church Historian Marlin K. Jensen and Bruce C. Hafen, now President of the St. George Temple, but such brilliant younger historians as Paul Reeve and Professor Susan Rugh of BYU’s faculty, who spoke about the history of Utah as a vacation destination. The conference’s prestigious Tanner Lecture was delivered by George A. Miles, curator of the Yale Collection of Western Americana at Beinecke Library. Most of the MHA members attending the conference, many of them bright, energetic graduate students, were probably Latter-day Saints, but surely not all were. For example the officer presiding over that conference was a Presbyterian, the blessing for the presidential banquet was delivered by a Roman Catholic (Franciscan) priest who is a long-standing MHA member, and the slate of new Board members elected at the conference included non-Mormons as well as Latter-day Saints. More to come!

You’ve asked, in effect, whether these younger scholars are pursuing and writing the history of Mormonism with a more open mind and more balanced judgments than in the past. Here too I would say “yes,” although this is one of the tougher issues to explore with brevity. The fact that the late historian Juanita Brooks, author of the first comprehensive account of the 1857 Mountain Meadows massacre, and the late Church Historian Leonard J. Arrington, were virtually lionized at MHA’s St. George conference after rough treatment by others in earlier decades, speaks volumes to this issue. Based on my own 50+ years of research activity, I would say that the younger scholars and teachers pursuing Mormon history today are, by and large, very apt to let the chips fall where they may in dealing with sensitive, nuanced subjects.

During the latter decades of the 20th century and thereafter, there have been many courageous historians willing to make tough judgment calls under difficult circumstances who have been Latter-day Saints — Brooks, Arrington, Richard and Claudia Bushman, the late Brig Madsen, the late Dick Poll, Jim Allen, Glen Leonard, Everett L. Cooley, Ben Bennion, Lavina Fielding Anderson, Tom Alexander, Bill Hartley, Dick Bennett, Linda King Newell, and Ron Walker come readily to mind — just as there are today young historians whose approach is primarily a matter of faith-promoting judgments more than completeness.

On the whole, if I had to generalize, I’d hold to the view that the younger generation of scholars is quite open and probably more balanced than in the past, but I do so while advocating due recognition of the enormously valuable contributions made under more difficult circumstances by the older generation of people I’ve just named. If Matt Grow has just given us a biography of Thomas L. Kane that includes some of Kane’s warts, decades ago Ron Walker gave us an account of the Godbeites’ dealings with Brigham Young that let sensitive chips fall where they should have. If Brigham Young was the Lion of the Lord, these Utah historians, who took their doctorates in the 1950s/60s, have been, at some personal cost, the lions guarding the waterhole of truth. I have every reason to believe that their successors in the 21st century are living up to that example.

Where does the LDS Church as an institution fit into all this? In brief, I would have to say that there has been a palpable sea change in openness and user-friendliness and that has been to the benefit of younger historians and a few of us who are not so sprightly. When I began my research into the Utah War of 1857-1858 in 1958, the word in New Haven, Connecticut among we undergraduates was that one shouldn’t even try to gain access to Church sources in Salt Lake City. I note that Norman F, Furniss’s ground-breaking narrative history of that conflict (The Mormon Conflict, 1850-1859) was published in 1960 based almost solely on published and federal archival sources. The successor to Furniss’s study, the one published several months ago by David L. Bigler and Will Bagley (The Mormon Rebellion: America’s First Civil War, 1857-1858), was, unlike Furniss’s, based extensively on Church-held documents, notwithstanding Bagley’s occasional grumbling about access.

In my own case, over the past ten years I’ve never been denied access to a requested document at the Church History Department except when it bore on matters of religious rites or the priest-penitent relationship, restrictions that I think are reasonable.

To what do I attribute this sea change? I think the leadership and sensitivities of the late President Gordon B. Hinckley were without doubt a positive factor. Flowing from and supporting this change in tone/institutional behavior has been the crucial appointment of Elder Marlin K. Jensen as Church Historian and Recorder and Richard E. (Rick) Turley Jr. as his deputy. The impact of these leaders and the supporting presence in recent years of such archivist/curator historians as Michael Landon, Ronald O. Barney, Richard L. Jensen, Ronald G. Watt, Randy Dixon, and Bill Slaughter have been enormously favorable.

Given this welcome change, the thing that I hear historians worry about is the crucial one of continuity, the question of whether such change has been truly institutionalized or is a matter subject to a potential U-turn with a future change in senior Church leadership of a different perspective. That’s an imponderable and an important one, especially given the unfortunate example of several critical incidents in Leonard Arrington’s experiences over the decades. Personally, I’m an optimist. But I think that we should keep in mind the old story about Thomas Jefferson’s response when asked by a woman just outside the conference room what type of government was emerging from the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia. To her Jefferson allegedly said: “We have given you a Republic, if you can keep it.”

Several Church leaders have spoken with eloquence about the importance of a vigilant guardian described as The Watchman on the Tower. I am hopefully anticipating the continuation on duty of another figure — one I’ll dub The True Professional in the History Department.



7 Comments »

  1. This is great, Bill; thanks for your reflections. It is indeed a great age to be doing Mormon history, thanks in large part to the shoulders we are now standing upon.

    Comment by Ben Park — June 30, 2011 @ 11:31 am

  2. Great line: “the lions guarding the waterhole of truth”

    Comment by middle-aged Mormon Man — June 30, 2011 @ 11:33 am

  3. Great thoughts. Certainly we do seem to have recovered from the reactionary pullback following Leonard Arrington’s tenure as Church Historian, and I would believe that several recent events have probably positively reinforced the new openness at the Church History Library and the Church hierarchy in general. First, the Joseph Smith Papers project has been well received and recognized as a major scholarly achievement. Second, the net result of publishing Walker, Turley, and Leonard’s Massacre at Mountain Meadows, while painful in some aspects, has been a positive and perhaps cathartic experience for the Church and its members. Providing access to the CHL catalog online is also a sign of a growing confidence in the new openness, I believe.

    The Church as both purveyor and protector of its message will always be watchful. However, the sense of being a persecuted minority, reinforced through the Church’s first century of existence, is waning, it would appear.

    Comment by kevinf — June 30, 2011 @ 11:43 am

  4. This is wonderful. I loved reading your personal assessment. Thanks.

    Comment by David Y. — June 30, 2011 @ 3:14 pm

  5. This is wonderful, thank you.

    Comment by SmallAxe — July 1, 2011 @ 8:18 am

  6. Thanks for this, Bill.

    Comment by Christopher — July 1, 2011 @ 9:48 am

  7. Once again I find I missed a real gem because I don’t stay current enough with important reading during the gardening season. In my defense in south eastern Idaho the growing season is so short everything has to be crammed into 115 days.

    But I was lucky enough to hear Bill speak at both the MHA and the Utah Historical Society this year – so count myself very lucky.

    Comment by Diane Peel — October 31, 2011 @ 7:09 pm

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