Matthew Grow is director of publications for the Church History Department. In 2015, he and Ronald Walker co-edited The Prophet and the Reformer: The Letters of Brigham Young and Thomas L. Kane. We’re grateful for his thoughts.
The outlines of Ron Walker’s career are quickly sketched. A seminary teacher who joined Leonard Arrington’s group of historians at the History Division of the LDS Church in the 1970s, Ron joined the faculty at Brigham Young University in 1980 with many others from the History Division. He spent the rest of his career at BYU as a pillar in the “New Mormon History,” becoming known as a meticulous researcher, engaging writer, and deep thinker. Besides academic excellence, Ron was renowned for his kindness, openness, candor, and generosity.
Working with Ron was my first break into the field of Mormon history. Many others can say the same. In 1999, as an undergraduate at BYU, I managed to get hired as a research assistant at the Joseph Fielding Smith Institute. My first assignment was to help Ron. I remember meeting with him in his office in the basement of the Knight Mangum Building and being immediately impressed by Ron’s wide-ranging and restless mind. His mind was always churning—thinking of how to both improve and finish existing projects but also dreaming up new projects and new possibilities. He was always juggling several articles and books. Ron was an exceptionally generous mentor. I felt that he had an interest in the research that I was conducting for him, but that he also had a genuine interest in my development as a scholar and as a person.
In my estimation, Ron was the best stylist in the field of Mormon history over the past generation. He wrote beautiful prose. He particularly excelled at the writing of articles. Ron knew how to set the stage, how to draw the reader in, how to tell an engaging story, how to delve into personalities, how to point to broader significance. Art, he insisted, was part of the historian’s craft. Ron had a deep understanding of and appreciation for the humanity of his subjects—elites and commoners, dissidents and the faithful. His biographical articles of Heber J. Grant and Brigham Young display his ability to go into their minds, to understand their personalities, and to place them in their context.
But Ron, of course, didn’t just write articles. He wrote books. Important Books. His Wayward Saints, a group biography of the Godbeites that explores the complicated issue of boundary maintenance and religious dissent, is a classic, one of the most elegantly written books on Mormon history. Massacre at Mountain Meadows is another classic; written with Rick Turley and Glen Leonard, the volume eloquently takes on Mormonism’s darkest moment with candor, nuance, and depth. It doesn’t flinch from the horror even as it humanizes all involved, perpetrators and victims. Massacre demonstrates another foundation of Ron’s career—only the truth was good enough for the church that he loved. These two books will be required reading in the field for decades to come, but he cowrote or coedited other significant books as well, including on everyday pioneer life, the writing of Mormon history, and Mormon bibliography.
Ron’s work on Mormon historiography and bibliography demonstrates how he cared about the larger field of Mormon history. His concern with the field was also evidenced by his active participation in the Mormon History Association, his mentoring of myself and many others, and his collaborative impulse. Most of his books and many of his articles were written with others. My casual observation is that the field of Mormon history is unusually collaborative, with an unusually high number of cowritten books and articles. That, I think, is at least partly because of the example of Ron and others.
Several years ago, Ron and I decided to embark on a documentary collection of the letters between Brigham Young and Thomas Kane—in our view, one of the most important sets of correspondence in Mormon history. Ron, of course, had tremendous insight into Brigham Young and voluminous research files, the fruits of a lifetime of research in the primary sources. I had my own files on Thomas Kane that supplemented Ron’s on Brigham. Ron was diagnosed with cancer not long after we began the project. Cancer slowed him down but never drowned out his desire to write history or his ability to deliver a keen insight or turn a beautiful phrase. When he passed a draft to me, Ron inevitably apologized. “It’s just a quick and dirty draft,” he would say. “Maybe you can make something of it.” If only my drafts could sing like Ron’s! I continued to learn from Ron’s prose, from his demanding analysis of primary sources, and from his search for appropriate context.
Ron is a terrific scholar but an even better person. I will miss you, Ron. I hope you’ll continue to write and maybe leave an unfinished project or two of celestial history so we can collaborate again.