The New Arrington Bio


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?





  1. He went to the University of Idaho. Not Idaho State Univ.

  2. Thanks for this, Kevin. (Wow, that was a quick read!) I’m intrigued at Ardis’ comment over at Times and Seasons that she has some sympathy for the Church leaders who had to work with Arrington.

    She says: “A lot of the criticism from Church leaders recorded by Arrington was their frustration over their needs and requests not being met, which is clear in the journals with their embedded memos and correspondence and reports, even while Arrington himself seems oblivious to that frustration or misinterprets it as opposition to the kind of history he wanted to write as an independent scholar.” Did you see any of that in the book? Or is Prince fairly one-dimensional in his portrayal?

  3. Arrington, it seems, was a bit naive in believing that the church would give him a long leash to engage in genuine scholarly, historical research since he was fully cognizant of the institution’s preference for homiletic, dumb-downed versions of its past and its antipathy towards publications such as Dialogue and Sunstone. If you aren’t willing to dance to the tune of your paymaster, you need to move on.

    And while Arrington was a pathfinder who inspired many of today’s LDS scholars and historians, we should not forget that it was the advent of the Internet, more than any other single event, that resulted in the church’s loss of control of its narrative, forcing it to engage with issues it had assiduously avoided for decades.

  4. Kevin Barney says:

    Thanks, Chris, I’ve corrected the post. It was interesting to me that back then the nascent Institute program actually let students live in the building, an approach that was short-lived but which kept the cost of living down enough for Leonard to make it work.

  5. Kevin Barney says:

    Hunter and FarSide, great comments. Greg’s sympathies are obviously with Leonard, but he does indeed convey some of what you are saying. Many times he highlights Leonard’s lack of administrative experience (by his own choice; as an academic he always avoided that aspect of things in favor of research and writing) and relative naivete in dealing with the church hierarchy. Given some of the personalities in the Quorum at the time, maybe it wouldn’t have made a huge difference. On the other hand, it is instructive to see what the history division has been able to accomplish in recent history, such as the Massacre book, with personnel who were more politically adept. And yes, Farside, Greg does indeed make your point about the impact of the internet.

  6. FarSide says:

    Kevin, thanks for your insights on Prince’s work. I frequently attend the study groups he graciously hosts in his home, and I thoroughly enjoyed his McKay book. I, for one, like his “organize by topic” approach. For me, a book about the “Life AND Times of Mr. X” is usually more interesting than a conventional biography.

    A month ago, I made the mistake of telling my children that I want the Arrington book for Father’s Day, so I have to wait until tomorrow to start reading it. Of course, if they forgot to get it for me, I’ll have to wait until Monday to buy a copy for myself, and I’ll also lose valuable reading time because I will first need to re-write my will so as to disinherit my kids.

  7. Great thoughts, Kevin. May all readers be as generous and insightful as you …

  8. FarSide says:

    Kevin, one more question.

    Based on other works I have read, it seems that Arrington was not particularly adept at, or interested in, forging ties with likeminded members of Twelve—building the alliances within the organization that are necessary if you want to get anything done. But I’m curious as to wether Prince addresses the following “what if”: Would things have turned out differently for Arrington and the Church History Department if he had taken an incremental approach, if had gradually introduced elements of scholarship and debate into the stuff he was producing instead of turning the spigot on full blast with projects like a multi-volume history of the church? For want of a better comparison, Abraham Lincoln knew he couldn’t get the country, at the start of his presidency, to embrace abolition, but he was able to gradually steer them in that direction. As Brother Bismarck once observed: “Politics is the art of the possible, the attainable — the art of the next best.” That principle is just as true inside the Lord’s church as everywhere else.

  9. Kevin Barney says:

    I don’t recall discussion of a hypothetical incremental approach, but there is a lot of discussion of Leonard’s failure to reach out to sympathetic apostles. The example that sticks out in my mind is N. Eldon Tanner telling Leonard his door was always open to him, yet Leonard never took advantage of that genuine offer.

  10. Please forgive this plug but I thought some you living in the Southern California region would appreciate this:

    DATE: June 24 (Fullerton) and June 25 (La Canada – Flintridge).

    TIME: 7:30 p.m.

    We are thrilled to have as our May 2016 Miller Eccles speaker, Gregory A. Prince, who will be speaking on his forthcoming book, Leonard Arrington and the Writing of Mormon History, published by the University of Utah Press, to be released May 30, 2016. Dr. Prince earned doctorate degrees in dentistry and pathology from UCLA. A prodigious student of Mormon history, he is also a prolific author of numerous articles and books on Mormon topics.

    THE TOPIC: Leonard Arrington is considered by many the foremost twentieth-century historian of Mormonism. But Arrington’s career was not without controversy. A new in-depth look at this respected historian and gives readers insight into the workings of the LDS Church in the late twentieth century. In 1972, Arrington was asked to serve as the official church historian, thereby becoming the first—and thus far the only—professional historian to hold that title. While the output of and from that division moved Mormon studies to a new level, the shift of historiography from faith promotion to scholarly research and professional analysis was unacceptable to some powerful senior apostles. In 1980 the History Division was disassembled and moved to Brigham Young University, where Arrington’s broad influence on Mormon history remained strong. This biography is the first to draw upon the remarkable Arrington diaries (over 20,000 pages) and it is supplemented by Prince’s interviews of more than 100 people who knew or worked with Arrington. The book provides background to continuing LDS struggles with member scholars, while illuminating the life of one dedicated historian.

    THE SPEAKER: Greg Prince was born and raised in Los Angeles. He served a mission to Brazil and then attended UCLA for six years, earning doctorate degrees in dentistry and pathology. He moved to Maryland in 1975 to work at the National Institutes of Health, and over a four-decade career in biomedical research, co-founded a company that pioneered the prevention of RSV pneumonia in high-risk infants. He has published more than 150 scientific papers, and, importantly for us, also published several books on Mormon history, including the remarkable David O. McKay and the Rise of Modern Mormonism, which won the Mormon History Association’s Best Biography award in 2006.

    Dr. Prince is often quoted in national news articles and has appeared on numerous radio programs and podcasts in which he has addressed issues involving current topics in the Mormon world.

    Dr. Prince is currently serving as the Interfaith Liaison in the Washington, DC Stake. He and his wife, JaLynn Rasmussen Prince, are the parents of three children, the youngest of whom (Madison) is autistic. JaLynn and Greg now spend their time heading the Madison House Autism Foundation (, through which they hope to address national issues facing autistic adults and their families.
    For directions please see:

  11. Kevin Barney says:

    Six, the plug is perfectly on topic for this post, thanks for sharing. Greg did one of these at Writ and Vision the night before MHA started in earnest, and I would have loved to go but I had a family commitment that evening.

  12. Kevin Barney says:

    Ben Park did a post at JI on interesting tidbits he learned reading the book. It didn’t occur to me to keep a running list of such things as I read. But one nugget that stood out to me was that Leonard and his wife received the 2A. Not something one often learns from a biography!

  13. Thanks, Kevin. I really enjoyed the biography and think it’s an important read. I did a brief response to the book at MHA last weekend and posted my remarks here:

    The point that I’d emphasize with the book is that it, for the most part, perpetuate’s Arrington own message, framing, and narrative. One of the most revealing anecdotes of Arrington is when he was pleased that readers of GREAT BASIN KINGDOM couldn’t tell whether Arrington was a Mormon or not–he considered that the best compliment he could receive. His “detached” approach was central to his sense of self and accomplishment. Thus, in an important way, the dismantling a camelot due to their “naturalistic” tendencies was the biggest validation he could receive. That is, the “innocent martyr” is partly Arrington’s own creation, and I think when we merely extend that narrative rather than analyze it, we are leaving something out.

    I just don’t buy that Arrington was as naive as he (and Prince) let on. Rather than a naive casualty of Church politics, I think he actively played a political game. And until we recognize that fact we are merely prolonging the cultural war rather than dissecting it.

  14. Kevin Barney says:

    Thanks for pointing us to your interesting remarks, Ben.

  15. Kevin, what is the 2A? I couldn’t tell from reading Ben P’s remarks. Thanks!

  16. Kevin Barney says:

    It’s my shorthand for the second anointing.

  17. From my reading of the diaries, I don’t think Arrington saw “detachment” as his goal as a practicing historian. He was a very active, faithful Church member who believed history could reflect as awareness of both the spiritual and the secular. I don’t know either that Arrington saw himself as an “innocent martyr.” I think he was frustrated with the “unwritten” order of the bureaucracy as well as with his own inability to navigate more successfully than he did the various ins and outs of the hierarchy. I agree that Arrington was probably not naive (at least, as I understand the term). At the same time, I don’t know that he saw himself as playing a political game. I think he was genuinely attempting to carry out the assignment that the First Presidency gave him when he accepted the appointment to serve as Church Historian and was dismayed and confused to find that others in the hierarchy worked in various ways and for various reasons to subvert that assignment. I agree with Ben P that the Arrington years were complex and complicated.

  18. Thanks for your thoughts, Gary. I’m very much looking forward to the diaries this fall.

    And I hope my small critiques of Prince’s biography doesn’t make it seem I don’t like the book. Everyone should get a copy! It’s a fun and important read.

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