Keepapitchinin, the Mormon History blog » Gary James Bergera, “Transgression in the LDS Community, Part 1” JMH, Summer 2011

Gary James Bergera, “Transgression in the LDS Community, Part 1” JMH, Summer 2011

By: Ardis E. Parshall - September 14, 2011

The most recent issue of the Journal of Mormon History has been out for several weeks now, and as much as the Bloggernacle has buzzed with interest in Sam Brown’s and J. Stapley’s pieces on LDS adoption theology, another article is drawing even greater attention in hallway conversations and over lunch tables and in email exchanges. The piece that is the focus of all this discussion is Gary James Bergera’s “Transgression in the LDS Community: The Cases of Albert Carrington, Richard R. Lyman, and Joseph F. Smith.” Part 1, the case study of Albert Carrington, appears in this issue, with articles on the other two cases scheduled for fall 2011 and winter 2012 issues of the Journal of Mormon History.

Part 1 begins with a very brief overview of excommunication in Latter-day Saint practice, followed by a brief biography of Albert Carrington, a 19th century member of the Quorum of the Twelve, then a detailed report of the investigation, hearing, and excommunication for adultery, and Carrington’s appeal for mercy and the Quorum’s consideration of that appeal. The narrative is straightforward, explicit, and painful, and I recommend it for reading of almost all serious students of Mormon history, although it will greatly disturb some readers and probably shouldn’t be left on the coffee table for casual perusal by children … although if your children are precocious enough to dip casually into JMH, you probably already have a practice of discussing adult topics with them.

Rather than reviewing the content of the article – just read it, already – this post is about the “buzz” I have heard and taken part in over the past several weeks. I don’t remember ever hearing anything like the discussion that is being focused on this article.

First, Gary was kind enough to list my name among his acknowledgments. My participation was limited to tabulating the numbers, dates and causes for historical excommunications that appear in an introductory table to the article. Otherwise, I had no involvement in preparing this article, nor any awareness that it was in the works – my remarks here are not colored by any personal stake, other than that I greatly admire just about everything Gary has ever published. He is thorough, balanced, fair, and – as I keep saying in just about every conversation I’ve ever had concerning his work – he has a knack for walking right up to the very edge of the precipice where I think if he says One. More. Word. I’m going to be offended … and every time, without fail, he stops just in time, says exactly the right word, and diffuses my concern. (Also, Gary left a comment at Keepa yesterday, his first participation here. This post was already in the works, he had no input into it, and he is unaware that I am about to post it.)

What people are saying, and my response:

It’s so graphic! He didn’t need to be so explicit in describing the acts for which Carrington was tried!

In my opinion, yes, he did. Carrington had a highly idiosyncratic definition of “adultery.” That an intelligent man, a churchman, a native speaker of the English language, could so distort the meaning of the word is so unexpected and, frankly, so unbelievable that had this account not been as graphic as it was, I would not have understood the seriousness of Carrington’s misbehavior. The explicitness of the quoted testimony is absolutely necessary to understanding his transgression and to trusting that the members of his Quorum were neither overreacting nor misjudging.

But don’t you think the author was deliberately being provocative / sensational / lurid?

No, I don’t. The detail is presented in the recorded language of those who heard the testimony first-hand. None of it comes from the author – there is no editorializing or finger-pointing or dwelling on any detail for the sake of drawing additional attention to it. Also, some details of Carrington’s behavior are known but not reported in the JMH article – had Gary been going for sensation, he certainly would not have omitted those details. He told us what we needed to know in order to understand, then stopped.

I also trust Gary as an author. As often as I’ve met him and as long as I’ve known him, he is the one person in my acquaintance whom I am unable to peg with regard to his personal religious beliefs or attitudes toward the Church. I may be wrong in my evaluations sometimes, but I have no trouble making those evaluations. Gary, however, keeps his personal feelings personal. I trust him where topics like this are concerned, in part because he has never ground any axes publicly.

But this is about a General Authority. This is disrespectful.

It’s true that there would probably be little justification for the article had it been the story of some ward clerk in Parowan or some inactive elder in Cache County. At no point, though, did my highly sensitive he’s-telling-this-just-to-embarrass-the-Church alarms go off. I don’t believe for a moment that discrediting Church leaders played any role in the author’s thoughts. To the contrary, I find it reassuring, as a believing Church member, to know that the same laws apply to the mighty as well as to the small, that there was no cover-up, no looking the other way, no attempt by 19th century Church leaders to excuse or overlook the serious transgressions of an apostle, even for the sake of supposedly protecting the reputation and influence of the Church.

But sex is different.

Different from what? From the violence that we have finally begun to study with open eyes and candid pens? Different from trying to understand the genesis of the handcart deaths? of affinity fraud? of personal, racial, and legal injustices? The details are different, but the seriousness is no less. If we can tackle the others, we can tackle this one too.

We should leave topics like this to Dialogue or to Sunstone.

No, we shouldn’t. With apologies to the current editors of both Dialogue and Sunstone, both magazines have a long history of being “out there” with regard to sensitive matters and how they’re handled in print. Both journals have a track record of publishing personal essays which are far less subject to the rules of scholarship and evidence than those governing JMH. Frankly, I don’t have the same trust in either journal as I do in JMH. It’s too much ever to hope that these topics will be fully covered by any Church-vetted source; the next best thing, for a reader like me, is to have them covered in JMH. As much as I’ve privately fumed over what I consider unfair treatment in some JMH articles of the past few years, I still have confidence in JMH’s review and editorial processes, and in their commitment to scholarship over “giving a voice” to every point of view, no matter how subjective or extreme, that demands a platform.

What would you say if, hypothetically, a donor were so upset about an article like this that he cancelled his commitment for a many-thousands-of-dollars contribution to MHA and to the Journal?

I’d be very sorry, both for the donor and for MHA. I would hope that any donor who had sufficient confidence in MHA before publication of this issue to promise a significant donation would maintain his trust in the same editorial standards he trusted last year. But if he felt strongly enough that this article was inappropriate, I acknowledge his right to pull his donation.

I hope, however, that MHA and JMH would not be swayed by the loss of funds, and would not allow individual contributors to micromanage the publication of scholarship. At some points in our history, donors would no doubt have withdrawn support from any journal that considered publishing the truth about Mountain Meadows and about other painful topics. I hope MHA would maintain its commitment to scholarship and find a way to do without the donation, rather than letting deep pockets rather than MHA’s elected officials or professional scholars control or stifle scholarship.

What about the author’s sources?

In my opinion, this concern is the only one with any potential legitimacy. As anyone might understand with a little reflection, the major sources for an article like this one would have to be either the official records of Carrington’s disciplinary hearings, or the private writings of high Church officials who took part – neither of which type of records is generally available at the Church History Library. They fall under the “confidential” rubric of the policy to restrict “private, confidential, and sacred” records of the Church.

I’ve heard this concern expressed two ways: First, “Now everybody is going to think they can waltz into the Church History Library and expect to see everything, no matter how private, confidential, or sacred it is.” That’s easily handled. Some inexperienced people have always made that assumption. The Church has easily deflected requests for restricted records for many years – nothing has changed in that regard since the publication of this article.

The related criticism is, “With official records restricted, the author relied on handwritten or hand-typed transcriptions of records made by researchers” like Michael D. Quinn, Scott Kenney, and others, made many years ago when some now-restricted records were open for study. These private transcriptions are now part of the papers donated by these scholars to institutions, or they have otherwise been made available by their owners. Such transcriptions cannot be as satisfactory as the original records – how accurate are they? how can we rely on a long-ago researcher’s understanding of the records when we cannot go to the same records today to verify his understanding? But in the absence of the official records, they are the best sources a historian has available in this generation. If current critics can successfully challenge the accuracy of specific transcriptions, that’s part of the scholarly process; if the official records are one day made available and this study can be corrected or expanded, that’s also part of the scholarly process. For today, though, historians have to use the best records available in 2011. Dismissing a study out of hand because potentially better sources exist but are unavailable is not part of the scholarly process.

Some of the speculation I’ve heard — all of it private and unofficial and twice or thrice removed from anyone who has any authority — has been unpleasant, defensive, even vaguely threatening, concerning Gary’s scholarship, or the latitude granted to JMH’s editor and board, or even  the  current research climate at the Church History Library. I’m nobody important in the chain of those who set policy; I understand that. But I’m a consumer and appreciater of well-researched and well-written history, and this history was researched, written, and published for people exactly like me.

This study is original, it’s authentic, and it’s significant. We don’t need to be afraid of it, and we don’t need to hide from it, and we don’t need to be punitive about it. Really.



  1. Readers who have questions about some of the sources I cite in the Carrington article may be interested in the following, which will appear as a letter to the editor in the Fall 2011 issue of the Journal of Mormon History:

    A few readers of the three-part series of articles on “Transgression in the LDS Community: The Cases of Albert Carrington, Richard R. Lyman, and Joseph F. Smith” appearing in the Journal have asked about the locations of some of the original documents I occasionally cite in copy-form. The locations of the copies I reference in the footnotes are where I and others working for the Smith-Pettit Foundation personally located them. They include handwritten notes made by other researchers but since shared with me.

    When beginning research on this topic in the early 2000s, I was advised by an employee of what was then LDS Church Archives not to mention the location (i.e., Church Archives) of the originals of access-restricted manuscripts, including the originals of copies I had consulted in other, non-Church Archives collections. Since these articles have begun to appear, I have been informed that the LDS Church History Library (previously Church Archives) now encourages the disclosure of the location of the originals of the access-restricted manuscripts it possesses, and I am more than happy to oblige.

    These items, cited in all three articles, include: the originals of letters to and from the various apostles and other interested LDS Church members regarding Albert Carrington (which I identified as copies courtesy of Steven H. Heath, the D. Michael Quinn Papers at Yale University, or the Smith-Pettit Foundation); the originals of the diaries of Frank Evans, Heber J. Grant, Spencer W. Kimball, Francis M. Lyman, Henry D. Moyle, Franklin D. Richards, George F. Richards, Stephen L Richards, Joseph Fielding Smith, and Brigham Young Jr. (and which I again identified as courtesy of the Quinn Papers); the originals of the mintues of the Quorum of Twelve Apostles and the Salt Lake Stake High Council (Quinn Papers); the original of “Record of Excommunicated Members, Book A” (Quinn Papers); the originals of Richard R. Lyman, letters to and from various persons, usually LDS Church officials (Quinn Papers, except Lyman to Melvin A. Lyman), regarding Lyman; the original of Ruth Smith, Letter to David O. McKay regarding Joseph F. Smith (Quinn Papers); the original of Spencer W. Kimball et al., Letter to Joseph Fielding Smith regarding Richard R. Lyman (Quinn Papers); and the original of Teton, Idaho, Stake High Council Record (Quinn Papers). The originals of Journal History of the Church and the Church Census records may be found at the LDS Church History Library, as well.

    Comment by Gary Bergera — September 14, 2011 @ 9:35 am

  2. Thank you, Ardis. You nailed it on every point. I hope everyone on this blog takes a few moments to read your post. This is the kind of honesty, openness, and sensitivity that ought to govern the work of every Mormon historian–whatever the topic. You’ve done a fantastic job of defending the guiding principles of Mormon historical scholarship.

    Comment by Noel Carmack — September 14, 2011 @ 9:54 am

  3. “To the contrary, I find it reassuring, as a believing Church member, to know that the same laws apply to the mighty as well as to the small”

    Hear, hear.

    Comment by David Y. — September 14, 2011 @ 10:13 am

  4. Ardis and Gary,

    Thank you, both of you, thank you. You are two of my great heroes. I admire both of you for your professionialism, your courtesy (to me specifically and to all of us who love good LDS history), your scholarship (which is top notch), and your writing skills.

    Gary, thank you for the article in JMH and for your response, I look forward to the next two parts. I have been recommending this article to my people. For what it’s worth about half the reason I’m “re-upping” with MHA next year is to finish your series. Also thank you for your Temple books and “Conflict in the Quorum.” They are prizes in my collection.

    Ardis, here in Idaho I have only heard of the buzz through a few emails. I knew, and was dismayed, by the idea that people were trying to discredit Gary. I was already writing a letter to MHA in his support (for what good a letter from me would do), now I will redouble my efforts. I agree 100% with your assessment, this is a mature, but superb article by a fine scholar.

    Comment by andrew h — September 14, 2011 @ 11:18 am

  5. I agree with Noel that this should be the kind of honesty, openness, and sensitivity that should govern all historical scholarship.

    Likewise, I have always been amazed at James Bergera’s absolutely amazing capability to “take us to the edge” and then stop, leaving us in the exact place that thoughtful historical writing should. Fully-active Latter Day Saints and even those who vilify the faith can both benefit from such historical perspective.

    Of course, in my own highly esteemed opinion of myself, I feel that such complete openness should only be published after a great period of time has passed. Courington’s incidents are perfect for this personal test I give such informative articles. All associated with the events of the time have long since passed, and therefore we can judge them only from a historical perspective instead of an often times much harsher “personal perspective” which we use for those who are still living.

    Thank you for this post. It was wonderful.

    Comment by Stan W — September 14, 2011 @ 11:44 am

  6. Fascinating. What I know of first two cases (Carrington and Lyman) I could summarize in a single paragraph. But I’ve never even heard of the third case… unless it’s referring to the patriarch of the 1930s, instead of the father-son Church presidents of the same name. (Ugh, the extended Smith family needs to be more original with their names!)

    Do you interpret the change in policy at the CHL to mean that they’re more open to honest inquiry, or something else?

    Comment by The Other Clark — September 14, 2011 @ 12:11 pm

  7. Gary can of course respond if he wishes, but in case it’s a sensitive point (I only know hallway gossip, not what might have been said directly to Gary) I want to emphasize that the only change in policy is the CHL’s willingness to acknowledge that it holds the originals of certain restricted materials. Gary’s citations of anything that could be considered controversial are to sources outside of the CHL — it isn’t as though the policy on access to restricted materials was lifted in his case.

    I take it as another sign of Gary’s good will and intention to cooperate with the Church that he was willing to mention the CHL’s ownership of those materials, or not, according to the preferences of the CHL.

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — September 14, 2011 @ 12:33 pm

  8. There you go again Ardis, telling me that I need to rearrange my already busy schedule to read even more material relevant to contemporary Mormon scholarship. A great defense of Gary’s work. I too have enjoyed virtually everything he’s published (that I’ve actually read). Looking forward to the forthcoming JMH articles.

    Comment by Tyler Andersen — September 14, 2011 @ 1:08 pm

  9. Other Clark (can I call you the “OC”?)

    He is indeed speaking of the Church Patriarch from the 1930’s. The official reason given back then for his “Release” was that he “Resigned” over health concerns. The real reason was that he had a homosexual experience with a U of U student.

    Comment by andrew h — September 14, 2011 @ 1:24 pm

  10. Ardis, you have done a magnificent job on this post. I agree with all that you have said. I too have heard buzz about Gary’s series and felt I needed to write a Letter to the Editor of JMH in support of their decision to publish. I’ve just heard that my letter won’t come out until the Spring issue, and thus thought it might be useful to copy it here:

    Letter to the Editor:
    I commend the Journal of Mormon History for publishing Gary Bergera’s article, “Transgression in the LDS Community: The Cases of Albert Carrington, Richard R. Lyman, and Joseph F. Smith, Part 1” (37 [Summer 2011]: 119–61). It demonstrates that the Journal of Mormon History is willing to break new ground. Writings that treat only the faithful side of leaders and leave out their human failings are bad history.

    The article’s thorough research and respectful tone make it a valued contribution to Mormon studies. It not only adds to the body of knowledge about Carrington, but also gives insight into the other apostles as they struggled to deal with his transgressions. These insights and how Bergera has presented them are genuine contributions that can stand as models for other biographical work.
    The article does not focus solely on the mistakes of one apostle but shows how the Quorum of the Twelve dealt (still deals?) with disciplinary matters, a process probably unknown to most readers. It is particularly interesting to see that, in the end, the other apostles came to understand the overriding importance of mercy. Surprisingly none of them mentioned “Let him who is without sin cast the first stone” (paraphrase of John 8:7). Nevertheless, Church members can be proud that their leaders did indeed come down on the side of compassion. I look forward to the next two parts.

    Comment by Polly Aird — September 14, 2011 @ 1:48 pm

  11. Noel said it much better than I could, “you nailed this on every point” Ardis. Your bringing this into the public light is very important. Wonderful job.

    I think JMH editorial board and Martha Taysom (JMH editor) both deserve a great deal of praise for their outstanding publication. We are all indebted because of their hard work with the top quality articles published every three months.

    Thank you.

    Comment by Joe Geisner — September 14, 2011 @ 2:23 pm

  12. Ardis (and to those lending supportive comments) thanks for the perspective you’ve provided regarding the mature handling of troubling history.

    Let me add my “Amen!”

    Comment by Clair Barrus — September 14, 2011 @ 3:52 pm

  13. An update to #10 above. Lavina Fielding Anderson just wrote to say my letter will actually make the winter issue. Nice!

    Comment by Polly Aird — September 14, 2011 @ 4:49 pm

  14. Thank you Gary and Ardis!

    Comment by Morris Thurston — September 14, 2011 @ 5:12 pm

  15. This issue arrived just as I had finished reading articles in the Deseret News and SL Tribune published at the time of Carrington’s excommunication. Gary’s excellent article gave me a deeper insight and understanding of that difficult era. Thank you Gary and also Ardis for your contributions. I thought the article was tasteful. I’m looking forward to reading parts 2 and 3.

    Comment by Susan W H — September 14, 2011 @ 5:21 pm

  16. I meant to respond earlier but things on campus held up my whole day.

    You’ll have to imagine a whole slew of smilies and animated .gifs I wish I could post in my burst of admiration for both Ardis and Gary. Well done.

    Walking right up to the edge of the precipice is a high bar indeed.

    Comment by Mina — September 14, 2011 @ 6:11 pm

  17. As much as I’ve privately fumed over what I consider unfair treatment in some JMH articles of the past few years, I still have confidence in JMH’s review and editorial processes, and in their commitment to scholarship over “giving a voice” to every point of view, no matter how subjective or extreme, that demands a platform.

    Uh, I feel compelled to point out that giving a voice to every point of view describes neither my editorial policy nor that of any other editor of Dialogue that I know of. I don’t mind that you prefer JMH, but would appreciate a less distorted description.

    I’m sure plenty of the folks whose voices I have politely declined would be happy to complain about it to you 🙂


    Comment by Kristine — September 14, 2011 @ 7:13 pm

  18. read this post yesterday, but didn’t have time to comment.

    I haven’t read the original article about which this post is written, but would like to do so. However just wanted to voice my complete agreement with your post, Ardis. I really don’t understand why they don’t just throw open the doors of the CHL, even the ‘Restricted Collection’ and say ‘There you go. No more accusations of things to hide. Go for it’. Simply because what is in there can’t be nearly as bad as what people imagine is in there.

    Still, at least it’s existence is now acknowledged.

    I think your last paragraph sums up my feelings on this precisely and concisely.

    Comment by Anne (UK) — September 15, 2011 @ 7:36 am

  19. Thanks for your support, but I can’t go quite that far, Anne. Any organization has a need to keep some things private. The restricted materials at the CHL aren’t nearly as extensive as people imagine.

    The “sacred” classification, for instance, covers documents related to the temple rites (not just the wording itself, but what people may have written about it and their temple experiences) — you’d support preserving a restriction on that, wouldn’t you? Even though the wording is available on the internet, provided by people who have broken their temple covenants, there’s no legitimate reason to expect the Church to participate in that.

    Other restrictions include communications between members and leaders that fall under the “priest-penitent” description — although I don’t necessarily support maintaining that confidentiality for eternity — much of the material on the Carrington matter falls into this category, and personally I think enough time has passed that the benefits of understanding our history outweigh the right to privacy of people who have been gone for a century — but most people would probably agree that such communications involving living people are not the business of the public.

    The Church protects its financial records, and minutes of administrative meetings, and similar matters. Knowing a little about your inclinations, I suspect this is a category that you think should go away, and that all such records should be freely available. I disagree. I don’t need or want or have the right to know your personal affairs, the balance of your bank account or what went into your decision to do X instead of Y, and I believe the Church has the same need for privacy in order to function effectively.

    But beyond these narrow classifications, pretty much everything is available (with the caveat that there are apparently tons of papers that haven’t been sorted or catalogued yet, and it’s reasonable to allow the owner of such papers to get a handle on them before turning them loose for the public to rummage through). Until I see a lot more people in the CHL every day, using the vast collections that *are* available, I have little sympathy with the insistence that some people need to see even more.

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — September 15, 2011 @ 8:24 am

  20. Interesting point, and I am short on time before visitors descend, but will try my best to reply.

    1-‘Sacred’ stuff: fair enough.

    2-‘Priest penitent’, as you describe: probably an age embargo, maybe 110 years as in temple work. That gives enough time for wounds to heal and enough distance for researchers to find items of interest on a scholarly -not prurient- level.

    3- financial and administrative; well, you guessed we would disagree a little here. I have no interest in seeing your bank account, not least because I don’t pay a regular amount into it monthly, and extra as requested by leaders.(Although if I had the means, I would, believe me!) In the UK, Churches have to publish their financial accounts for public consumption anyway, so that’s not such a biggy, except the accounts show that most of our money is sent to Church HQ, and it would be nice to see where it goes, if only to show the nay-sayers. Administrative records: maybe the same 100 year embargo? Can’t see any problems with that.

    4- I have no idea how much use is made of the digitised records….obviously easier for those outwith SLC to access than a trip to the library. Hopefully website hits on digitised records will show that people are interested n reading of the history.

    need to dash, visitors coming and I need to tidy up!!

    Comment by Anne (UK) — September 15, 2011 @ 12:09 pm

  21. I’m a day late, as work got in the way of my blog reading again this week. I did read the article, and while surprised at the frankness, I also felt that it was important scholarship. I did raise an eyebrow at the “copies” of other researchers notes, but understand why this was required, and the importance of keeping some of the restrictions in place for some items. I’ve been impressed with the wide range of articles recently in the JMH, and thought Gary’s article was very well done. Also, Ardis, very thoughtful explanation and response to the buzz that I had not heard here in the hinterlands.

    I will also add that my personal experience in requesting access to restricted materials at the CHL was approved in just a couple of days, once I had stated my research interest. Unfortunately, I haven’t been back down to SLC yet to take advantage, but my sense is that the CHL tries to be as fair as possible in how it handles access. My personal hope is that such a straightforward and honest effort as Gary’s article should help, rather than hinder, more openness and access to restricted materials under the appropriate circumstances. If nothing else, the personal reactions of the other members of the 12 involved in the process should validate the need for excommunication, and the absurdity of the extreme and dangerous view of morality held by Carrington

    Comment by kevinf — September 15, 2011 @ 12:22 pm

  22. I’ve resisted subscribing to JMH for years. Why should I, when I’m still so far behind on my Dialogue reading? But I think you just convinced me to subscribe, Ardis.

    Comment by Aaron B — September 15, 2011 @ 2:33 pm

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