At the recent MHA Conference at Snowbird, Utah, I spent some time between sessions browsing the books in the sponsor rooms. I had flown to Utah for the conference and so had precious little space for books. One I knew I was going to purchase so I could start reading it there at the conference and on the flight home was Gregory A. Prince, Leonard Arrington and the Writing of Mormon History. I just finished the book moments ago.
(I should be clear that this is not really a review of the book, but more of a personal reflection upon reading it. I will say here that I loved the book, even if the story it told sometimes made my blood boil within me. For what it’s worth, I highly recommend it. But while I consider myself a stakeholder in Mormon history, I do not consider myself an actual historian. I will leave it to my friends with historian chops to provide actual reviews.)
If you’re not familiar with who Leonard was, I will quickly tell you he was raised as part of a large, Mormon, farm family in Idaho (where he raised chickens), he went to college at the University of Idaho (living very frugally, doing stuff like only washing his socks once a week), went to grad school at Chapel Hill, got married, went to Europe during WWII, finished his doctorate after the war, spent many years as an Economics professor at USU, and most famously became the Church Historian for the decade ending in 1982, passing away in 1999.
As I read the book, I had a kind of weird experience. I knew that I had never met Leonard in the sense of shaking his hand. But I imagined that I had been in his presence, presumably at a conference. It was such a strong impression, I almost would have sworn to it. But upon reflection, I think it’s highly doubtful. My first MHA conference was in Kirtland in 2003, but Leonard had died four years earlier than that. I guess I’ve read so much of his work (though not Great Basin Kingdom–hangs head in shame) that my brain convinced myself that I had actually been in his physical presence at some point.
(I know some people are annoyed by the topical as opposed to chronological arrangement of the material in the book, but I was fine with the topical approach. I got used to it when I read the McKay book, and the topics are still arranged in a general chronological way such that the book flowed just fine as far as I was concerned.)
So anyway, I wanted to share a couple of thoughts I had while reading the book. First was whether the Church should even be in the business of writing history. The leading brethren of the time were used to air brushed, apologetic historical treatments, and some of them were very resistant to the more professional history that Leonard and his group in the History Division produced. In particular Elders Benson, Petersen and Packer proved his nemeses. (I found it very interesting that President Lee and Elder McConkie actually emerge as some of the more reasonable voices in the top leadership.) Eventually there was an effort to shut the History Division down, but instead, President Hinckley and Elder Durham engineered a move down to BYU as the Joseph Fielding Smith Institute of Church History.
Leonard was very unhappy about this; he wanted to stay in Salt Lake where the documents were. But the decision was made, and so the remnants of the History Division went to Provo as the new Institute.
I realize that reactions of the staff at the time were colored by the way they had been treated (hint: not professionally). But it seems to me that President Hinckley was trying to do a good thing for Leonard and his team. While they were part of the Church apparatus, they were going to be subject to the constant push back of the Apostles who didn’t understand or appreciate professional history. But by moving the group to a university environment, they would have much more freedom (imagine BYU having more academic freedom than another institution, which gives you a sense of how confining trying to do professional history as direct Church employees must have been). Even Leonard saw some of the advantages of the move (such as no longer needing to punch time cards(!)). But still, Leonard didn’t seem to ever really embrace it.
When I read that part of the story, it actually called to my mind the FARMS experience, first for being absorbed into BYU in the 90s (at the request of President Hinckley, in what turned out to be a bad idea, but saying no to President Hinckley wasn’t really much of a live option) and second for being basically dissolved and reverting to independent organizations (such as the Interpreter Foundation and Book of Mormon Central). There is in my view value to what FARMS did (I myself was a contributor over the years)–but did it really need to be produced in a university environment, which was set up more for scholarship than for scholarly apologetics? I don’t think so. In hindsight it was probably a mistake to get absorbed into the Y in the first place, and the enterprise is probably better off now that it once again has its independence and freedom.
Similarly, the kind of work Leonard and his team was doing arguably was more appropriate for a university setting than as an official church function. The sensitivity of various church leaders meant that there would be a constant pressure to pull punches, to leave negative stuff out. Further, Leonard’s name was required to be on everything, which meant that the young scholars in the Division were not getting the credit they deserved for their own work. That dynamic did not apply to the Institute at BYU.
Of course, what gives me pause about this argument is that these days high quality history work is indeed being done under direct church auspices, in particular as part of the JSP Project. So maybe Church sponsored history is a good thing after all. In any event, operating in the seventies it simply was not in the cards at that time.
Another thought I had while reading the book was about the Church’s problematic leadership structure. Leonard opined that it is a problem to have the prophet always be near the end of his life, after his years of youthful vigor, and that there should be a mandatory retirement age of, say, 75. He also objected to the idea that there has to be unanimity among the 15 men in the 1P and Q12. I have long thought the same thing. The principal of unity may sound good in the abstract, but in realty it’s a terrible organizational practice, because it means any crazy cakes Apostle can dig in his heels and win. There is a reason you don’t see corporations organized this way. It’s the opposite of nimble, it makes it almost impossible to accomplish anything worthwhile, and it leads to a moribund conservatism. I was very interested to see that Leonard had thoughts very similar to mine about how the organizational structure of the top two quorums is broken. And Leonard paid the price for that; Elder Packer was a junior Apostle at the time, but because he was willing to violate protocol (ignoring the two Apostle advisors of the History Division) he was able to cause all sorts of havoc for the historians.
Of course, actually reforming the workings of the top quorums of the Church is a pipe dream, so for the foreseeable future we’re stuck with this top leadership method that is subject to abuse by a committed and motivated Apostle.
Anyway, those were some of the big picture thoughts I had while reading the book.What were your reactions?