Review: Confessions of a Mormon Historian: The Diaries of Leonard J. Arrington

Be ye therefore wise as serpents, and harmless doves. Matthew 10:16

I didn’t know Leonard Arrington. I never met him. I have met several of the people who worked with him in the 1970s, 80s, and 90s. And among them is one who I consider the dearest of friends. We have had Leonard’s Adventures of a Church Historian, a chatty memoir, and Lavina Fielding Anderson’s biography of the historian years (1972-1982), Doves and Serpents. The latter, Lavina explains in the front-matter, was derived largely from Arrington’s copious journal.

Colophon from Doves and Serpents.

Most recently Greg Prince has used Leonard’s journals, now housed at the Merrill-Cazier Special Collections of the USU Library, for his biographic treatment (see here and here). The binders and loose sheets have rested there for some time, available to the scholar and curious. Now Gary Bergera has meticulously edited the entries from 1971 to 1997 and combined them with a generous introduction (comprising the contributions of several scholars), and has published them in three volumes (shipping the beginning of May).

Gary James Bergera, ed., Confessions of a Mormon Historian: The Diaries of Leonard J. Arrington, 1971-1997, 3 vols. (Salt Lake City: Signature Books, 2018). ISBN 978-1-56085-246-9, $150.

Yes, these journals are important. As Bill has described, this is a key resource for understanding the last quarter of the twentieth-century church and its historiography. This is a valuable accessible source for bits and pieces ranging from issues as large as the ERA, or as narrow as a quick conversation on never-realized ecclesiastical possibilities. The discussions of the temple and priesthood restrictions pose particularly interesting material for theological as well as historical analyses. And without question it is a necessary document for the construction of the history of our histories.

One of the fascinating things that Arrington’s journals document is the rising of historiographical consciousness. With countless subjects we see the scholars whose publications we have all read (and some whose work just didn’t apparently make the cut) just begin. It is remarkable to see the Church Historian fascinated, for example, by elements of church liturgy of which he was unaware, and which many of us have simply taken for granted in our work. This should give us all an opportunity to empathize with not only previous scholars, but anyone who is coming to topics for the first time.

And yes, the story begins within the Priesthood Correlation movement—the wildly successful institutional reform that concentrated ecclesiastical and liturgical authority with the priesthood bureaucracy of the church. The ecclesiastical functionaries were learning the same things as the historians. Enough time has passed, I think, for scholars to more easily manage empathy towards the non-historians as well. There was, what appears to me, jealousies between the historians and ecclesiastic authorities. The historians were jealous of the freedom and interpretive authority, and the authorities were jealous of the knowledge and explanatory power. In Leonard’s journals, some will find their preconceptions validated. Elder Packer sometimes appears almost as a caricature (and consequently I am natively cautious of his portrayal). But Elder McConkie will likely defy expectation. Preconceptions are precarious things. I’ve often thought of the last half of the twentieth century as Mormonism’s Modernist Crisis. We are now working through our Vatican II. As with our Roman Catholic friends, in many ways the scholars were vindicated, but perhaps not in the ways they would have preferred.

I’ve read tens of thousands of Mormon documents. Journals, letters, sermons, minutes. I try to be consciously empathetic as I read. With Arrington’s journals, more than any other document I have read, I found myself somewhat uncomfortable, likely because empathy with the historical collapsed with my personal—there are many entries that mentioned my friend. This individual comes off consistently well, likely a testament to their grace. Still, even though these journals were created expressly as an historical record, it felt odd reading descriptions of which the person was unaware at the time. I also thought of church leaders, particularly the oldest with the longest memories. I wondered what feelings my writing might elicit in someone who remembers one or more of my subjects as not only historical actors, but also as friends. Regardless of pendulums and how they swing, history is made of real people. Leonard is certainly one of our most important.

Comments

  1. John Mansfield says:

    Our current and evolving concepts of privacy may cause a lot of trouble for future historians. For example, a niece is currently a missionary in a European nation. She is forbidden from including pictures or even names of people in her e-mails to us unless she is granted the subjects’ explicit permission. Or consider those articles in the church magazines profiling the saints in some country or city. The people interviewed in articles from the 1970s were very identifiable; those in current articles don’t have last names. I feel like we’ve gone too far with this respect for privacy, but it does sometimes leave me wondering when our desire to understand the past shades into indecent voyeurism, insisting on uncovering matters the subjects would have preferred had died with them. Once I was visiting with a friend from my mother’s generation, and as we were talking, I remembered that the small town she was from was also the hometown of a church leader her same age. I asked her about this. She answered that yes, they grew up together, with a smile and finality that communicated that no, she wasn’t going to share any juicy stories with me.

  2. J. Stapley says:

    It is a difficult situation for future historians, John. Not only conceptions of privacy, but also digital (and explicitly temporary) communication media, and lax record keeping. I think it will take historically conscious individuals maintaining collections like Arrington’s that help penetrate the fog.

  3. I look forward, in the near future, to reading something along the lines of “The Collected Emails of …”
    And, yes, it was a very weird experience to read entries dealing not only with people one knows but also, and most weirdly, entries mentioning oneself.

  4. “The historians were jealous of the freedom and interpretive authority, and the authorities were jealous of the knowledge and explanatory power.”

    I think you hit the nail on the head.

  5. 2500 pages. There’s a lot of potential for mining some real nuggets there. Not too many people probably keep that extensive of a personal record any more. And I have also wondered at the consequences of both digital media and a lack of concern about keeping minutes in our church meetings and councils. Instead, we seem to emphasize completion, checking another item off the list, and not so much how that was accomplished.

  6. Priesthood Correlation movement—the wildly successful institutional reform

    Highly depends on your definition of successful.

  7. “I’ve often thought of the last half of the twentieth century as Mormonism’s Modernist Crisis. We are now working through our Vatican II.”

    Maybe. I look forward to the day we actually have something like Vatican II and have to work through the issues of the modernist crisis (e.g. exegesis of scripture, evolution, etc.) I don’t think we’re anywhere near that yet. Four years on, and Julie’s observations still hold.

    http://www.timesandseasons.org/harchive/2014/10/the-next-generations-faith-crisis/

  8. J. Stapley says:

    Ben, yeah, a lot longer and more complicated to sure.

  9. Makes you wonder with our records we leave behind, even in so much more abundance than our forebearers, how little of a glimpse it really gives to our true selves and everything involved in our real lives.

    Makes you realize how disconnected we are from history.

  10. J. Stapley says:

    Definately a dark glass, jpv.

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  12. I think I may have an old copy or original of “A Heavenly Manifestation” By Heber Q. Hales. I need someone that can help me with this. It was in an old house purchased buy a friend. All belonging vane with the house. It was tucked away in a box with other other documents and photos. I seen a post you had written and that is why I am contacting you.