Reading Dialogue

I served my mission from 1977 to 1979 (in that most exotic of lands, Colorado), and I did not yet know Dialogue existed. But my mission was the beginning of my education in Mormonism. Each apartment had huge stacks of old, dusty copies of the Ensign, which most elders ignored, but I would systematically go through them and read the meaty stuff in the back issues. (There actually was some fairly meaty stuff back in those days, believe it or not.) Then I got turned on to Nibley, and from there I found scholarship (and the study of languages in general), and I was hooked. Most missionaries just stop studying when they come home, but I never stopped.

Winter semester of 1980 I was back at BYU, and it was then that I first encountered Dialogue. I had gained an interest in Book of Abraham studies, and one day I was walking through the BYU Bookstore when I noticed a magazine with an orange-colored cover featuring a representation of the Church Historian’s drawing of Facsimile 2. [This was the issue with Ed Ashment’s analysis of the facsimiles in it, and I purchased a copy: my very first purchase of one of the independent journals.] It was something called “Sunstone,” which I had never heard of before. And as I continued to peruse the display, I found something else, called “Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought.” So I discovered Sunstone and Dialogue simultaneously. I browsed through these issues and was intrigued. It’s hard to believe now the prominence given those journals on the large wall display. Today if you want to find Dialogue in the BYU Bookstore, you have to know in advance just where to look or you’ll never see it. There will be a couple of issues located on the bottom right shelf of the General Religion aisle (as you face west).

Some time later I was in Grandpa’s Books on Seventh East and I found a used copy of the Summer 1968 issue largely devoted to translations of the Book of Breathings. I wanted to buy it, but when I checked the price it was $8.00! As a very poor college student I thought that was a scandal, and my effort to negotiate the price with “Grandpa” was in vain, so I went to the library and just copied the articles I wanted. I did it on legal size paper and put them in a spiral binder with construction paper covers; I still have this in the hutch in my pantry.

Although I started reading Dialogue as a BYU undergrad, my exposure to the journal really began in earnest when I started law school at the University of Illinois. Our student ward met in the institute building, and the institute library had a substantial collection of both Dialogue and Sunstone (this was before subscriptions to those journals became verboten for institutes to carry). So I was able to read a lot of back issues that way. Then I discovered the complete collection of Dialogue deep in the bowles of the graduate library. I was used to the bright, cheery atmosphere of the BYU library, with lots of seating, but this was a much more gothic experience, a surprisingly dark, cavernous collection, with nothing but concrete floor in the aisle to sit on. I spent a lot of time sitting on the floor on one of the lower levels of the library skimming and reading Dialogue from the very beginning (this habit of reading the entire run of a journal is something I picked up from Nibley, and it’s a great practice; I recommend it.)

It wouldn’t be until I graduated and got my first real job (in Chicago) in 1985 that I would actually purchase my own subscription. (I started at $35,000, which seemed like all the money in the world at the time.) And I’ve subscribed and read the journal ever since.

I think it is safe to say that I would have lost my faith a long time ago but for Dialogue and the other independent journals. I was bright enough to see contradictions and perplexing detail where most of my Church friends saw nothing but sunniness and fluffy kittens. And if I had had to face these travails alone, I’m sure I would have reached the conclusion that the Church was full of it a long time ago. But I wasn’t alone; a lot of people had thought of and wrestled with these issues long before they had occurred to me. And I didn’t need pat answers; just knowing that there were smart Mormons who cared and were engaged enought to think and talk about these things was all that I really needed.

And so I raise a glass to you, Dialogue, and toast your long history and wish you well for the future. Just knowing that there are so many people so passionate about the study of Mormonism makes it all incredibly fun and interesting to me.


  1. Hear hear. I grew up in the midwest, during the “verboten” days. Needless to say, my exposure to Dialouge and Sunstone were nil. Luckily, my family had started a nice collection of FARMS books in my late teen years. Those books, along with unapproved FARMS books smuggled to me on my mission piqued my interest in certain things. Upon returning home from my mission and looking for audio to keep me company on long runs or rides, I stumbled on to the Sunstone podcasts. Ever since I’ve been catching up with past issues and their huge audio library. It’s a little different than dusting off hidden back issues, but enlightening none the less.

  2. Thank you, Kevin. We should have had you speak at our 40th anniversary party!
    No, you are certainly not alone. We hear many similar stories. Had I not found Dialogue in a dusty corner of Widener Library while I was investigating the Church, I probably would not have joined. And Dialogue and Sunstone have made it much easier to stay.

  3. Our student ward met in the institute building, and the institute library had a substantial collection of both Dialogue and Sunstone (this was before subscriptions to those journals became verboten for institutes to carry)

    They’re still there Kevin :)

  4. Antonio Parr says:

    2 things:

    1. Your reference to your mission in Colorado recalls for me a tape that ran through my mission of some earnest elders singing “The Colorado Denver mission, I’ve learned to call my home . . . ” The song was catchy enough that it still runs through my head from time to time, all of these years later. Any insight on the source of this tape?

    2. I discovered Dialogue around the time of my mission. A family in the Ward had a missionary farewell, and had copies in their house. I opened; I read; I was captivated. I have been a reader ever since. Although I do not always agree with everything that I read in Dialogue, I feel that I am almost always challenged to be as honest and searching in my walk of faith as the majority of the contributers who grace its pages.

  5. Kevin,

    My first introduction to Dialogue and Sunstone was on my mission actually. I just happened to be serving my mission about 2 years ago in Armand Mauss’ ward. Well, one day I tracted into a person who questioned me about the history of the priesthood restriction and I didn’t know much about it. Well, I went to my WML and asked him for more information and he said, “You know, there is this guy in the ward named Brother Mauss and he is something of an expert in that area.” So I went to this mysterious “Brother Mauss” and asked him about it. Well it was an interesting conversation to say the least, and he ended up giving me an old copy (or part of a copy) of an issue of Dialogue with one of his articles and also another one by Lester Bush.

    As a poor college student subscribing to a journal isn’t really opportune. I usually just use the Sunstone and Dialogue issues that are online, but reading on a computer screen over an extended period of time gives me a headache. I would really like to read back issues though. Is there a student discount for either of these journals by any chance, or is there a way to get them in a format that is easy to print? Sometimes I just want one of two articles from an issue but the way that they are displayed online (at least for Dialogue) makes them inconvenient to print. Maybe I am just missing something though.

    Anyway, sorry this was so long. Best wishes.


  6. I found Dialogue and Sunstone in the BYU Bookstore too, right about the same time as you! Did you happen to see me, sitting (yes, sitting) in the aisle, reading the mags? (In those days, lucky me, they did not enclose them in shrink wrap.) And Grandpa’s Bookstore!! Oh yes, those were the days.

  7. TYD, check the website for all the options. Students do get a price break on a subscription. Articles are $10, but some whole back issues are available for that. It just depends on how many extras were printed in that run and how many are left in the market. Of course it’s all on the DVD; ask Lori which of the various ways to access back issues is the best way to print. Lori also knows just what back issues are available. Call Lori Levinson, our delightful business manager, at 801-274-8210. (She’s skiing today, but she’ll get back to you soon.)

  8. Antonio:

    Elders Holgate and Grayson. A great duo that I heard even in my mission in (kinda) far away Orange County California. I changed the lyrics (only slightly) of their song to fit my mission, California Anaheim. their song was about Colorado, Denver and went something like this:

    Purple Mountains and dark fertile soil,
    Blossom splendored trees,
    With sickles we do toil.
    In our lives we have loved
    This land we’ve trod,
    For this is where we’ve come
    To better know our God.

    In the Colorado Denver Mission,
    I’ve come to make my home.
    What once was new and different
    Has now become my very own.

    Colorado, I love you
    In the days when the sun sets
    In scarlet and haze
    And the night’s starry skies
    And the dew drops in morning light.

    Sorry I can’t help you with the tune. Maybe Kevin can find it and put up an old recording.

  9. I didn’t need pat answers; just knowing that there were smart Mormons who cared and were engaged enought to think and talk about these things was all that I really needed.

    Amen Kevin. Except that, for me, you’re part of the “smart Mormons” I’ve come to rely so much on.

  10. MCQ,

    I served in Anaheim; how long ago were you there?


    Thanks for the information.

  11. I agree, Kevin, these journals serve a wonderful purpose. I love leafing through the old copies and am delighted what Levi has done with Dialogue. BYU Studies also had some great material intermittently back in the same period and continue to offer some important articles.

    i think i met the journals in college when i was trying to decide whether to do a religion phd. though the 90s were a difficult period for everybody, i’m delighted to have these journals in my life.

  12. Kevin Barney says:

    I just remembered another way that I had some access to Dialogue at BYU. I worked as S. Kent Brown’s teaching assistant for almost two years, and at the time he was one of the heads of the BYU Religious Study Center, and so he had one of the nicer offices in the old Joseph Smith building. As his TA I had a key to his office, and his wall was lined with really cool books. One entire shelf carried back issues of Dialogue. I could go there any time he wasn’t using the office and read his books. It was really cool being an undergrad and basically having access to my own office in the JSB! (As a classics major, I also had access to the always locked Ancient Studies Reading Room on the fourth floor of the Lee Library, which has since been moved and renamed in honor of Nibley.)

  13. Kevin Barney says:

    Oh, and another cool thing about Dialogue is you can actually publish your own stuff there! You don’t have to be a tenured academic at a university or anything like that. Lots of folks in the Nacle could publish there if they only tried.

    I’ve published three articles in Dialogue over the years. The first one was basically making the case that the JST is not a pure textual restoration the way most ordinary members think of it. (When an edited version of this article was republished in the Signature volume The Word of God, it caused me no end of grief; a lot of folks thought it was anti-Mormon.)

    Second was an analysis of Joseph’s emendation of the Hebrew text of Genesis 1:1 from the King Follett Discourse.

    And third was a survey of the Documentary Hypothesis from a Mormon perspective.

    I have a fourth article in the pipeline now, on Mother in Heaven, that should appear in one of Levi’s last issues.

    There are a lot of talented young thinkers and writers in the Nacle; I hope some of you will consider submitting some manuscripts for consideration for publication. I’m sure Kristine would appreciate the support.

  14. Yellow Dart:

    83-85. Presidents Grant and Van Alfen. You?

  15. zionssuburb says:


    Though I grew up in a home where my father was a subscriber to both Sunstone and Dialogue, I didn’t read much of them until after my mission (89-91) and having my own subscriptions. On my mission I used to find the old copies of the Improvement Era’s where I would look for articles by Nibley, Sperry, etc… It was the last part of my mission that I got interested in Mormon Studies, when I returned home from my mission, again I was grateful for my father’s collection, I still haven’t returned some of his magazines and books to this day.

  16. I was bright enough to see contradictions and perplexing detail where most of my Church friends saw nothing but sunniness and fluffy kittens.

    Certainly brightness factors in, but I think it’s more than that. There are plenty of “bright” people in the church who don’t see contradictions because they are not sufficiently engaged in their own faith. Or perhaps they are sufficiently engaged for their own spiritual needs. We can’t really make a judgment call their. Some people crave more information, some people don’t.

  17. I cannot believe I just confused “there” with “their”. Oh the shame! Please note that I used both words correctly earlier in my comment. :)

  18. MCQ,

    I got home a little less than a year and a half ago… :)

  19. Kevin Barney says:

    SAP, you’re right, by “brightness” I was just using a quick shorthand. Perhaps “intellectually curious” would be more accurate.

  20. Nice work Kevin…..

  21. #16 – and some people don’t see contradictions because they don’t see them as “contradictions” – just interesting and differing perspectives. Sometimes it’s all semantics; sometimes there is a recognition of the same things but a difference in reaction and classification. That’s why I try not to denigrate anyone else’s perspective – since I can never be 100% certain their perspective isn’t, in fact, more clear than my own. Some things about which I care greatly and someone else doesn’t might not be things about which it is best to care; other things might be – for me but not them.

    Those of us who believe in nuance need to recognize that such an outlook needs to allow for the possibility that our “nuance” is just the darkness of our particular looking glass. To say that anyone who is “engaged sufficiently” in my faith will see as I see is a stance I am unwilling to take.

  22. My history with Dialogue is less enthusiastic, but I have enjoyed morsels from the table they set.

  23. Yellow Dart: Welcome home youngster. Email me sometime and tell me what areas you served in.

    markcquinn at comcast dot net

  24. I, too, was introduced to Dialogue on my mission (Southern Germany, ’74 to ’76). Having joined the Church when I was 14, I had no inkling of what my mission would be like and after being introduced to Dialogue by an American member serving in the U.S. Army in my first city, wrote the following in a letter published by Dialogue:

    ……I want you to know that Dialogue has helped me understand many things, including the mission field. Those of us who have been introduced to Dialogue wish to thank you for the help that you have given us in understanding, realizing and comprehending that which we have to do……

    Though I have not been a faithful reader of Dialogue since returning home (I, too went to law school with the support of my wife and 18 month old daughter and our budget didn’t have room for a subscription), my words uttered some 34 years ago are just as true, if not truer, today for me…

    And for that, Dialogue, I will always be thankful.

  25. Armand Mauss says:

    RE: No. 5 from The Yellow Dart :
    I remember our one or two encounters over the race issue while you were serving your mission in my Irvine Fourth Ward. I don’t recall whether our ward yielded you any baptisms, but I’m pleased to see that at least I contributed to your own “conversion” to Dialogue and similar literature. I am pleased to see also that you are following up your mission experience with a lifetime of scholarship. Your interest in the ANE is fascinating but intimidating. You seem to have some interests in common with Ronan Head. Have you been in touch with him yet?
    God bless you, brother. Keep up the great work.

    — Armand Mauss

  26. Brother Mauss,

    Good to hear from you again! I am in fact pursuing studies related to Hebrew Bible and ANE studies at a university on the east coast right now. I have talked with Ronan once or twice (I am debating whether or not to pursue graduate work in Egyptology, Assyriology, or Hebrew Bible right now).

    I’m surprised you still remember me and could tell who I was from my rather vague comments. We did, in fact, have several baptisms in I4–the members there were wonderful. I often wish I could go back and see everyone again.

    Anyway, it was good to hear from you, and I appreciate your help.

    Best wishes,


  27. I was not introduced to Dialogue until after I returned from my mission, and never really read anything in it until two years or so after that, once I had begun to independently search out new sources of thought about Mormonism (those outside the institutional church setting). My first reaction to it, in those recently-returned-missionary days, was typical of those whose contact and familiarity with the journal is minimal- I would not have anything to do with it, but was moreover repulsed and strongly opposed to it. In a particularly vehement reaction, my wife recalls me saying that if I ever became a bishop, I would not give temple recommends to those who read Dialogue. I am happy to report that I am not that silly and naive person anymore. I don’t remember that particular comment, but my subconscious is probably trying to forget it.

    Once I actually read something in it though, I was hooked. My student budget likewise does not permit me to indulge in a subscription, but for the next couple of months I will enjoy the fact that Duke’s Divinity Library keeps a current subscription and has all the back issues in the basement.

    I always find it interesting with the subject of Dialogue/Sunstone comes up, that several people always pipe up to defend the role of these independent publications in helping them retain their faith and activity in the Church. I have yet to hear a single person say that they read something in Dialogue or Sunstone and it caused them to go inactive.

  28. Aaron Brown says:

    “And I didn’t need pat answers; just knowing that there were smart Mormons who cared and were engaged enought to think and talk about these things was all that I really needed.”

    So true. Of course, pat answers would be great too, provided they are plausible, as they often aren’t. But you’re right that the very existence of the dialogue is what matters most. The seeming correlation between strong testimony and ignorance (or at least a lack of inquisitiveness, or even hostility to inquiry) among the membership is what can be most disheartening to those toying with the idea of leaving and writing off the Church as being “full of it.” That serious and critical conversations among like-minded souls can happen in the Church is what so many need to know exists. Much more important than “the answers.”

    Aaron B

  29. Some Guy says:

    I was introduced to Dialogue in my early teens. My dad would talk about his intellectual cousin. When explaining if his cousin was active, my dad would say,”well, he reads Sunstone/Dialogue.” My mom would suggest putting his name on the prayer rolls and just being patient. Ha ha, those were the days.

    The message to me growing up was clear: Sunstone/Dialogue were for marginal, wavering members. For a doubtful teenager, it didn’t do my heart good to hear that those who doubt are marginal and may be discussed with some scorn by their iron-rod-holding relatives.

    Fortunately, things have changed. Both of my parents devoured Rough Stone Rolling and see that even the Lord’s true church may have a few things that are tough to explain.

    In the past 2 or three years I’ve started to feel that I can be a doubting intellectual (still the “i-word” among some of my family) and be part of the Mormon church. And I’m grateful to Dialogue/Sunstone for playing a big part in that. I’m also happy to finally have enough money to subscribe without having to eat ramen noodles/malt-o-meal, every meal, for six weeks straight.

  30. Kristine says:

    Wow–I feel incredibly lucky! I grew up in a home where Dialogue was just one of many sources to which one turned with curiosity about Mormonism. I thought everyone had a bookshelf full of Dialogue and BYU Studies and JMH. In fact, reading Dialogue was part of the standard progression of things at our house–first the Book of Mormon, then all the standard works, then _The Mormon Experience_, then some Hugh Nibley (at least _Approach to the Book of Mormon_ and _Nibley on the Timely and the Timeless_) and Truman Madsen, then C.S. Lewis and then your own subscription to Dialogue if you couldn’t keep your sticky fingers off of Dad’s. I had no idea until I got to college that some people were nervous about Dialogue, and by then I already knew there was nothing to be afraid of.

  31. Gavin Guillaume says:

    I was introduced to Dialogue when dating my wife, whose parents apparently had a minor role in the creation of Dialogue.

    I’ve enjoyed it, but I take it with a grain of salt, like I do pretty much anything.

  32. I grew up the only nonmember in my school in Utah. At age 14 I found out I was moving to Alabama at the end of my 8th grade year. Never was a poor Lutheran boy invited to so many “activities” in a single 12 month period. Along the way missionaries knocked on my door though and I was baptized.

    Soon I moved to the deep south and became the only member in my school. Drastic reality check to say the least. My first day of high school I was told I was going to hell because I was a Mormon, and church-going stopped.

    Had it not been for publications such as Dialogue, Sunstion, or even the JMH I would have eventually converted “back to Christianity”, became “born again”, and forever criticized “the Mormons” for their ways.

    These publications are a blessing from on high for teaching us countless lessons. I look forward to raising my posterity in a home that houses these publications and the Truths that they so abundantly teach.

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