“Confessions of a Mormon Historian” The diaries of Leonard J. Arrington. A Review.

Confessions of a Mormon Historian: The Diaries of Leonard J. Arrington, 1971-1997. Salt Lake City: Signature Books, April 30, 2018. $150.00. 2,600 pages in three volumes.

Gary James Bergera, ed.

Foreword by Susan Arrington Madsen. A (delightful) introductory essay by Rebecca Foster Bartholomew on some of Arrington’s ancestors and his life to ca. 1971.

Each volume contains a chronology by Joseph Geisner and Lavina Fielding Anderson in the front matter. Editor Bergera provides helpful short biographical notes on persons who appear in the diaries along with citations for work LJA mentions and other brief but important bits of context, along with generally unobtrusive expansions of the text when LJA is terse with names, places, etc.

Volume 1: Church Historian, 1971-1975 876 pages (including an appendix listing LDS historians and some associates for the years 1830-1985) + front matter.
Volume 2: Centrifugal Forces, 1975-1980 922 pages.
Volume 3: Exile, 1980-1997 803 pages (includes an index for all volumes) with an Afterword by Thomas G. Alexander and an Arrington bibliography by Jeffery O. Johnson.

Signature Books very kindly gave me a look at their forthcoming publication of Leonard J. Arrington’s (LJA) diaries covering the period of his appointment as LDS Church Historian to two years before his death in 1999. The recent Arrington biography by Gregory A. Prince quoted liberally from LJA’s diaries, housed at the Merrill-Cazier Library at Utah State University in Logan, Utah.[1]

Leonard J. Arrington (1917-1999) has been called “the dean of Mormon history.” Born in Twin Falls, Idaho, LJA studied economics at the University of Idaho and then at the University of North Carolina (Chapel Hill). After an interleaving of World War II service, marriage, and graduate school, LJA joined the faculty of Utah State University (then Utah State Agricultural College), Logan, Utah. A tireless researcher he had gravitated to the economic history of the western United States including Mormon economies and personalities. His scholarly work led to an unprecedented appointment as LDS Church Historian in 1972.

The massive documentary treasure of LJA’s diaries provides remarkable dimension to a period of Mormon history far less studied than, for example, the classical early years (1830-1844). LJA himself brought focus to the Utah Mormon region in his formative and influential dissertation later published in 1958 by Harvard University Press [Great Basin Kingdom: An Economic History of the Latter-day Saints, 1830-1900] but the last decades of the twentieth century have received comparatively little attention–some exceptions include J. B. Haws’s Mormon Image in the American Mind and Matthew Bowman’s The Mormon People among others. LJA’s diaries provide insights into Church workings of the 1970s simply unavailable anywhere else.

LJA was one (always intentionally benign) focus of continuing cracks in the traditional historical facade of Western and Mormon history. His 1959 BYU Studies article on the Word of Wisdom (1:57) in its inaugural issue brought about a cessation of journal’s publication! LJA’s subsequent Intermountain West historical work became a major force in opening archives of all sorts to research.

The first entries of LJA’s extensive diary, begun with the encouragement of LDS missionary son Carl in late 1971 show a kind of relief at the prospect of “getting it off his chest” with the opportunity to dictate to shorthand-skilled assistant Christine Croft (1:71).

Naturally, of particular interest to historians of Mormonism will be LJA’s entries for the years he served as official Church Historian, the puzzling non-release-release from the position mid-stream and the discomfort of dealing with mixed signals over his work in the History Division of the new Church Historical Department. Much of that has been thoroughly mapped out in the Prince biography. But having LJA’s diary in full for the period is of inestimable use for understanding the struggle within church ranks on how to share its archival collections with the world of disengaged professional historians. At bottom was the bogeyman of anti-Mormon literature and just how important was that fear for the faith of church members in the modern scheme of things. LJA’s interior years at headquarters may have ended in personal disappointment but the budding student and colleague pool he helped foster would lead to new efforts at internal church-sponsored academic history with the Joseph Smith Papers Project, forthcoming work on Brigham Young, and a current flowering of LDS women’s history as well as a Church Historian’s Press at work on a multitude of projects.

LJA narrates moments of deep contemplation: “As a result of yesterday’s meeting with the First Presidency I have been thinking and praying about my calling as Church Historian. This was also prompted by the necessity of writing an article appraising President Joseph Fielding Smith as a historian [appeared in Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought 7, no.1: 23-26]. On the one hand, I am the Church Historian and must seek to build testimonies, spread the word, build the Kingdom. On the other hand, I am called to be a historian, which means that I must earn the respect of professional historians—what I write must be craftsmanlike, credible, and of good quality. This means that I stand on two legs—the leg of faith and the leg of reason.” (1:233)

Occasionally LJA records incidents with wry humor: “We received today the 656-page ribbon copy [original typed copy] of the manuscript by Ken and Audrey Godfrey entitled Mormon History: A Woman’s Perspective. We were amused by the title page which lists that title by Ken Godfrey and Audrey Godfrey [the publication title was quite different and included Jill Mulvay Deer as co-author]. Davis Bitton said that reminded him of the phrase on the dust jacket or introduction of Rodney Turner’s book Woman and the Priesthood which says, ‘This is a history of woman from the time of Adam to the present.'[2] Jill [Mulvay Deer] said it reminded her of a letter from Jedediah M. Grant which said with respect to a certain piece of anti-Mormon legislation that, ‘The women of Utah are opposed to this bill down to the last man.'” (1:746)

LJA’s account of the Equal Rights Amendment campaigns (for and against) and particularly Sonia Johnson during the ERA years is fascinating. LJA’s connections to church leadership and others reveal interesting political movements by church leaders at the time. (e.g., 2:872, 879)

When LJA heard of the death of History Department observer Elder Delbert L. Stapley his summary of the apostle’s interactions, personality and gifts serves as an example of LJA’s generally balanced view of people. (2:604-5).

LJA’s humorous and candid account of the so-called “Swearing Elders” is too brief but nevertheless fine reading. (2:602)

The many (then and subsequently) well-known personalities LJA encounters, evaluates, tutors or simply mentions are too numerous to enumerate here but the diaries provide wonderful insight into LJA’s expressed thinking and images of others. Some of these might be embarrassing to their subjects but most are simply benign ruminations. All are great fun. LJA’s report of his dinner and speaking at Salt Lake’s “Alta Club” is revealing of his personal feelings about the Utah “gentile upper crust” and his reflections on audience influence. (3:411-12)

There are a thousand other things I’d like to show you including his family trials, his regard for fellow workers at the History Division, and his experiences during his many journeys. But you’re just going to have to read it. LJA was at the same time complex and simple, full of penetrating insight, and sometimes what seems like strangely obtuse stubbornness. As far as his historical attitude on Mormonism, his vision of his position, and his historical methodology, it would be difficult to find a better measure than a comparison between his own magnificent award-winning biography of Brigham Young (Brigham Young: American Moses) and another equally magnificent award-winning bio, John G. Turner’s (Brigham Young: Pioneer Prophet) and I’ll simply leave it at that. Leonard James Arrington. An altogether fine human being, warmly subversive scholar, and faithful Latter-day Saint.

Confessions of a Mormon Historian: The Diaries of Leonard J. Arrington, 1971-1997

Highly recommended.

[1] LJA’s papers occupy a large portion of the research-friendly special collections archive of the M-C library.

[2] See Claudia L. Bushman, “Women: One Man’s Opinion,”.


  1. John Dinger says:

    Thank you for the review. I am already trying to figure out how to tackle this. Do I read it in order? Do I jump to the Mark Hoffman era? Do I jump to September 1993? This will be one amazing volume and I can’t wait.

  2. It’s a challenging project, John. I believe just going straight through has many advantages.

  3. Terry H. says:

    My vote, FWIW is straight through.

  4. Terry H. says:

    PS: Can’t wait.

  5. Kevin Barney says:

    Thanks for the great preview!

  6. Kristin Brown says:

    Many of us lived through this part of history. I highly respect Leonard Arrington and what he lived through as Church Historian during those dark years. As I look back I feel it an honor my husband and I were able to be in attendance to here him speak. Can’t wait to read the book! A great review.

  7. Thanks for this useful review, Bill.

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