MHA at 50


The Mormon History Association was founded at a meeting in San Francisco in 1965. For those of you with math skillz, that means that this year (2015) is the 50-year anniversary of the MHA. And to celebrate, Vol. 41 No. 1 (2015) of the Journal of Mormon History is a special issue in honor of the anniversary, guest edited by Spencer Fluhman and Doug Alder. My intention here is to give a brief synopsis of this special issue and then to offer some reflections of my own experience with MHA.

Synopsis of the Special Issue of the Journal:

  • Laurel Thatcher Ulrich (current MHA President) offers a personal essay on her own interaction with Mormon history. She frames her story as the flip side of Jan Shipps being an “inside-outsider.” In Laurel’s case, she was an “outside-insider,” because although she was Mormon for most of her career as an historian she did not do much with Mormon history, only coming to that topic in a significant way in recent years.
  • Richard Bennett looks back at the early days of writing Mormon history and how things have changed over time.
  • Bill Russell gives a deeply personal reflection on his experience with MHA, characterizing it in his title as “Friends on a Shared Journey.” He recalls how the great warmth of Leonard Arrington was what made it possible for the RLDS historians to feel comfortable joining the group. I loved his personal stories of experiences from conferences past.
  • James Allen talks about the experience and aftermath of writing The Story of the Latter-day Saints. There was a copy of this book on top of the refrigerator in my missionary apartment in early 1978, and I found it and read it at that time. I learned a lot from that reading, and was chagrined when the book ran into official resistance, which he recounts in some detail here.
  • Richard Bushman talks about his project dealing with various aspects of the Gold Plates. When I first learned of his interest in this topic it didn’t compute for me; I was curious what his angle was. As he makes clear here, he is not concerned about the evidentiary tradition, but rather how people have reacted to the story of the plates after Moroni took them back.
  • Kathleen Flake writes on the development of early Mormon marriage rites, from 1831 to 1853, using three marriage ceremonies during that time span as a framework.
  • Tom Alexander writes about the tremendous environmental difficulties the Saints encountered in their early years in the Great Basin.
  • Rick Turley writes on the globalization and localization of church history (a topic I’ve seen him present on at an MHA conference).
  • Max Mueller talks about history lessons from the intersection of race and the Church. He frames this with a conversation he had on an airplane  with a very young missionary who was on his way to Africa, but who obviously had not been given any preparation for this topic as part of his MTC training.
  • Jared Farmer talks about the impact of the Mormons being somewhat ghettoized in “the west” on history writing concerning them.
  • David Howlett writes on the problem young scholars have trying to get actual academic jobs. I have many friends who are in this boat, and the situation breaks my heart.
  • Matt Grow surveys new directions that authors might take in writing biographies of Mormon figures. (Includes a nice shout out to Ardis and Keepa as being on the cutting edge of 20th century biography.)
  • Matt Bowman (the guy who used to bogart all the grad student writing awards at MHA) examines what we might learn from looking at LDS history through a Catholic lens rather than a Protestant one.
  • Patrick Mason talks about the interaction of historians with stakeholders, an issue Mormon historians have to worry about much more than those who study some obscure topic that no one in the real world actually cares about.

My Own Reflections:

I think I joined MHA in about the year 1995 or so. I was my stake’s designated institute teacher (in the sense of adult continuing education), and since I would occasionally be teaching courses in Church history I thought I had best start subscribing to and reading the JMH, and one subscribes to the journal by becoming a member of the organization. And I found the Journal helpful for my purposes. But it never occurred to me to try to attend an actual conference. For some reason I had it in my head that the conference was strictly for professional historians and academics, and that a mere lay person such as myself had no business going there.

In 2003 the conference was in Kirtland, and I live in the Chicago area, so I thought that would be a fun road trip, and I admit by this time I was kind of curious about what goes on at those shindigs. So I resolved to take a crack at actually attending. When I got to the hotel, they didn’t have my room; it turns out they had mistakenly given it to Ron Barney (a friend, but no relation). This turned out to be a good thing for me, because the hotel upgraded me to a big, fancy suite. And Jan Shipps’ room was right across the hall from mine. I admit at that first conference I was a bit of a fanboy, overwhelmed by all of the people I had been reading all those years being all together in one place. And lo and behold, everyone was very nice and very approachable, and conversations came easily. And the sessions were all fantastic. (I in particular remember one about how the RLDS Church gained clean title to the temple by adverse possession. Being a lawyer, I’m interested in that kind of thing.)

They put together an MHA choir, and I had always wanted to sing from the choir seats in the temple, so I participated. There were about 90 of us in the choir, and we got to sing the same songs as were performed during the original temple dedication. It was a powerful meeting, one I will never forget.

What I learned from that experience is that I was more than welcome at MHA. I’m not an historian, but I am interested, and a stakeholder to use Patrick’s terminology. I loved the experience, and have tried to go back every year. (I’ve only missed two since that time: SLC due to a kidney stone, and Layton due to a conflicting trip to Europe.)

This year the conference will be in Provo. For those of you who have toyed with the idea of going but have never pulled the trigger, I encourge you to give it a try. It’s not only educational, it’s tremendous fun.


  1. A Happy Hubby says:

    Thanks for giving a glimpse at this organization. It would be fun to attend one.

  2. J. Stapley says:

    Thanks for the write-up, Kevin! I’m very excited for the conference this year. It is going to be amazing. Hopefully the details will be public soon.

  3. That sounds like quite a line-up of authors. Thanks for this. I’m guessing that a locale like Provo will be good for conference numbers. Keep up the good work, all.

  4. Kevin Barney says:

    Yes, Hunter, the attendance numbers are always bigger when the location is in Utah. My understanding is that they try to alternate years between locations in the heart of Mormon country and those further afield.