If you haven’t read David Haglund’s extremely well-written profile of D. Michael Quinn, you should do so now. It is sympathetic, responsible, and has the pitch-perfect prose we have come to expect from anyone with the last name Haglund. While there are some details, inclusions, and information that could certainly be debated, on the whole I think the piece very informative and a must-read. It also prompted some ideas and questions worth exploring.
I’d like to expand on an important point David made on page 6 of the column:
Which has also, it seems, made Michael Quinn’s singular focus on the unspoken parts of the Mormon past less relevant to younger historians, who operate with more freedom and less pressure—and who draw far more interest than their predecessors from the wider world, which has suddenly become fascinated by Mormonism. The field has grown and appears to have moved on, even though the research that Quinn did, and the fights that he picked, were crucial to what has come in his wake.
This is what stood out to me the most as I read the piece: how different today’s Mormon culture is from 1993. Since David’s column was primarily a narrative of a fascinating story and person, it wasn’t able to dig deeper into this point, but to me it was one of the most important lessons of Quinn’s tale. (Indeed, Haglund avoids the silly pitfall of mistaking the “crossroads” of the past as remaining the crossroads of today.) I think there are two issues here when relating this event to the present: first, the impact and difference in the historical community; second, the relevance in Mormon culture at large.
As someone who likes to dabble in Mormon history, it’s amazing to compare the difference of climate between 1993 and the present. Whereas the fraught culture of the 80s and 90s forced historians to be careful of what they discussed, and some faced disciplinary actions for their publications, these issues rarely even come up today. The column discusses the problems Quinn faced when he wrote on post-manifesto polygamy, but now the Church’s own website admits that plural marriages occurred after the Manifesto; indeed many of the things Quinn drew ire for are now commonplace in LDS historical circles. It likely took these debates and agressive historians, of course, to break a hole in the previous boundaries, and for that scholars of today’s generation not only stand on prior historians’ shoulders for scholarship but also cultural openness. Places like the Mormon Historical Association are no longer viewed as hostile events–at one point, BYU religion professors and Church employees were forbidden to attend–but are occasions where the Church Historian can attend and participate (and be greeted as a rock star), and the Church’s Historical Department can help sponsor. I’ve written on several topics that could have been termed “controversial”–the development of Mormon theology, patriarchal blessings, the succession crisis–but never once have I felt that what I have done has put my Church status in jeopardy in fact, I have an increasingly fantastic relationship with those one would I think I should fear.
Second, the piece made me wonder about the role and threat of excommunication in Church culture. The heavy-handed caricature of Church governance during the period of crisis–most famous for declaring gays, feminists, and intellectuals as enemies to the Church, and climaxing with the September Six disciplinary actions–is now more of a ghost than a reality. Haglund brings up a specific recent event, but acknowledges that it is apples and oranges. The truth is, we haven’t had a high-profile excommunication of a scholar of Quinn’s caliber for a long, long time. There are, of course, many reasons for this (the Church is more PR savvy, the internet has made it impossible to silence specific individuals, etc.), but the result is a culture that is much more open to intellectual engagement. So Quinn’s tale, in the end, is thankfully more of a touchstone of a particular age and a fascinating moment in our history than an omen for today’s climate.
It turns out two decades can make a large difference.
Also, I would be amiss to not point out the true tragedy of the column, which BCC founder Steve Evans and I discussed at length, and which demonstrates the problems with moral agency, the perils of poor choices and great power, and the most embarrassing point of our culture’s history: that is, the column reminded us that the Mario Brothers movie existed.