Reflections on the D. Michael Quinn Article

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.


  1. It’s not a part of my normal routine to check Slate’s website, but I did this morning for whatever reason and was surprised to see the Haglund/Quinn article. I’ve only had time to read it half way through and already find it quite compelling and important.

  2. If you will pardon the link, this reminded me of a recent post I had read. It shows this, at the very least.

  3. Quinn is my hero. Thanks for the link.

  4. thanks for the thoughts, Ben, I scarely columns but this got me locked-on. My prayer is for Quinn to find time to come back to the fold (or community, if you may).

  5. I also found the article to be very well done. Additional insight can be found in Slate’s podcast interview with David Haglund:

    On a personal level, this article lead me to read for the first time Quinn’s 1981 discourse on a historian’s place in the church. I was blown away at how well Quinn put into words the very same feelings I have been struggling with. Thank you Brother Quinn.

  6. I liked the article. But I was confused about how excommunication is done. It sounded like it was left up to the ward/stake. That seems open to abuse.

  7. When I was an undergrad at BYU a professor I became fairly close with who’s absolutely not a conservative or traditional Mormon once said in so many words that Quinn knows as much about LDS history as anyone but is overall a poor historian because he could never contextualize his findings or relate them to anything outside of his narrow interests in church history. That, said my professor, accounted as much as anything for his never having gotten a job after he was dismissed from BYU. Having never read Quinn’s longer works and not being a historian, I don’t know if that’s a fair criticism or academic gossip, but I’m curious if anyone who knows more than I has heard anything similar.

  8. Kristen, it is done at the local level, but you can appeal higher up if you think that you were treated unfairly.

  9. Thanks. Not that I am in danger of such a thing, it’s just the article brought the question up in my mind. I’ve always felt that the Church had treated historians unfairly. I remember someone wrote a book about the Mountain Meadows Massacre and was treated roughly. Of course, the Catholics are guilty of this too and we’re much younger.

  10. “many words that Quinn knows as much about LDS history as anyone but is overall a poor historian because he could never contextualize his findings or relate them to anything outside of his narrow interests in church history.”

    This is really a poor excuse. I don’t know Quinn personally but it’s quite possible (for example) to have someone who wouldn’t fit into a standard history faculty slot because they can’t also teach history of the Italian Renaissance or general American History or whatever other classes a department needs to meet its teaching requirements and balance its teaching load.

    But criminy, for someone of the stature of Quinn who has done the level of research he has, you could find him some kind of crappy research fellowship or a position in a research library, or SOMETHING.

    We have really turned our back on him, and it’s to our shame.

  11. “This friend, Quinn says, told him that the men on the council disagreed about whether Quinn was an apostate, and that President Hanks finally declared that Boyd K. Packer was pressing him to take action, and they needed to do something.”

    I enjoyed the article you referred to, even though much of it is previously on record, but the above quote in it is questionable. It concerns a friend appearing at Br. Quinn’s discipline hearing and presenting information to the council. Having served on a stake high council for 7 years, I know it is highly, highly unlikely that this friend would have witnessed any disagreement or heard President Hanks declare anything concerning President Packer. People who come to speak either on behalf of, or against, Church action wait in a lobby area until they are called into the council chambers. They make their presentation, field questions from the stake presidency and high council, are thanked for coming, and are escorted out. Discussion NEVER takes place while visitors are there and participants are told that they cannot speak with anyone, even their spouses, about what goes on in the chambers or they risk having themselves brought before a council!

    Does this mean that is entirely impossible that the guest could have received the information later by a participant? No, but I don’t see that happening nor do I envision any stake president declaring on record – and discipline council minutes are recorded – that Elder Packer bullied him into his decision.

  12. According to the comments appearing under the Slate article, all Mormons are blithering idiots, morons, fools, and so forth. It may be academic to discuss academics, historical or otherwise.

  13. Totally agree #11. If you’ve read Early Mormonism And The Magic World View, you understand Quinn’s jaw-dropping powers of research, scholarship and interpretation. I don’t believe he has an equal in the church, and his “shunning”, if you will, is ignorant, wrong, tragic and unnecessary. Like to see this somehow reversed and corrected.

  14. Kristen Crippen, I’m guessing you’re referring to Juanita Brooks, who wrote a beautifully researched book about her ancestor, John D. Lee. She was treated roughly, but she held on. There’s a fine book about her by Levi Peterson. (Hope I’m remembering everything correctly. My memory is starting to become scattered.)

  15. Casey in #8 — That view of Mike’s work was fairly widespread, and may explain why he had no luck
    getting an academic appointment outside of Utah even after he became a celebrity martyr. Indeed, I
    heard Mike himself respond to it at a meeting (can’t remember now if it was Sunstone, MHA or
    elsewhere) by basically arguing that he was a “researcher” rather than an academic historian. In other
    words, his approach was to find all of the data and put it out there and let others analyze its validity
    and contextual importance. That said, it really is instead a criticism of modern academia that some
    professional role could not be found for such a brilliant and dogged researcher as suggested in #11.
    Another aspect of the change in environment between now and then is that today a person in Mike’s
    position probably could find such a position because of the growing interest in Mormon Studies. Mormon
    history just wasn’t of much interest in the larger academic community back then.

  16. Re: Quinn as academic.
    At one time, I was wholly enamored with non-correlated mormon history, especially the “controversial” stuff. I had read people like Juanita Brooks, and had heard a lot of good things about Quinn from other armchair historians. So I picked up one of his books.

    I was a graduate student working on my thesis at the time, and used to tracking down primary sources for better context around the claims in scholarly work. I looked up one of his sources (because it seemed to me to be out of character for the person quoted) and found that he had mischaracterized the statement in his book. I was taken a little aback, since such practices wouldn’t hardly make it past my thesis committee, much less a peer review. Giving him the benefit of the doubt, I thought “surely this is the only one like this.” So I decided to pick out 3 more references at random through the book, look up the source material and see if he was accurately characterizing the material. I thought that a random sampling would be indicative of how careful/thoughtful/honest he was as a scholar. Sadly, he failed 2 out of the 3 random references I picked. I returned the book. Since then, I have just written him off as a scholar. “Yellow journalist” maybe, but not scholar. He’s like the Malcolm Gladwell of mormon history: purveyor of cherry-picked, massaged “facts” to advance a juicy thesis. To see so many people fall over him and his super-insightful, truth-to-power, “exposé” writings is baffling to me.

    You shouldn’t reward people tenured “jobs for life” because you like the rabble that they like to rouse.

  17. wreddyornot says:

    At least Quinn uses his name on what he has published and doesn’t make ugly charges on a blog and hide behind a N. Also he backs up what he says with references, which N should have done here and could have done if his/her assertions were true. But N didn’t.

  18. Thanks for the discussion, all. I was very careful, though, in avoiding the controversial topic of Quinn’s academic chops, and I would appreciate if everyone else did, too.

  19. Stephen Smoot says:

    I first read Early Mormonism and the Magic World View when I was in high school. At the time, I was highly impressed with what he produced.

    Then I encountered these two reviews by William Hamblin and John Gee:

    Well, let’s just say my enthusiasm for Quinn has died down a bit. His methodology, upon further reflection, seems something like Nibelyesque parallelomania on steroids. So I’ve come to be very careful with using Quinn.

    Still, I thought the Slate article was good, well written, and, overall, fair.

  20. I herein repeat my request to avoid discussions of Quinn’s scholarly credentials, and hereby threaten moderation to those who do not heed my counsel. Those are important discussions, sure, but for another time and another place.

  21. I guess I don’t get your request, Ben. I won’t comment on Quinn’s scholarly chops because I have never evaluated them, but isn’t the entire conclusion of the profile that an otherwise gifted, important scholar has been denied a place in the academy because of small-minded mainstream Mormon retribution? If Quinn is a tendentious researcher rather than a serious scholar, his failure to get an academic appointment isn’t the product of irrelevant and tragic retribution, but because he didn’t independently deserve one. It’s just impossible to place Quinn and his legacy into context without objectively assessing claims that he isn’t a serious academic.

  22. “Nibelyesque” is my new Challenge Word, and will continue to be so until I am able to use it in “normal” conversation. Wish me luck!

  23. Quinn, Hanks Fielding Anderson and to a lesser extent, Compton are the martyrs for the cause. Only their public execution, if you will, could bring the issue to the light. Quinn, I suspect, will go down as the greatest LDS historian/researcher because he removed the obstacles and brought the field into the light. The only other who can stand beside him is Juanita Brooks, her scholarship beside the point.

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