Ronald Davis Bitton, 1930-2007 (Updated)

“He had dedicated his life – his time, his energy, his talents – to the greatest cause of all, the work of God on earth.”

The evaluation with which Davis Bitton closed his award-winning biography of George Q. Cannon tells us what Davis considered to be the highest and best use of a lifetime, and it serves equally well as Davis’s own epitaph.

Davis was born in Blackfoot, Idaho, on 22 February 1930. He passed away this morning in Salt Lake City, at home, where he wanted to be, in the presence of his family.

He served a mission to France where his mission leaders, recognizing great talent and previous experience, encouraged him to study piano as much as to proselyte. He served in the Army during the Korean War. His formal education included an undergraduate degree from BYU (1956), and master’s (1958) and doctoral (1961) degrees from Princeton, but like most major scholars, his real education came from a lifetime of study, thought, writing, and teaching.

Most of us know Davis best from his work in Mormon Studies. He was a charter member of the Mormon History Association, and when a photograph of the attendants at the organizational meeting was passed around at an MHA dinner a year or two ago, Davis’s face was the most recognizable to the rest of us. He served as an assistant to church historian Leonard Arrington in the “Camelot” days of the 1970s – every Mormon historian or family historian with Mormon roots must have thanked him at one time or another, if only in private thought, for his extraordinary Guide to Mormon Diaries and Autobiographies, among other incredibly useful reference works. Lists of his works are easily available; chances are that you will recognize a favorite essay in The Ritualization of Mormon History or Saints Without Halos.

Others among us know him as a teacher, from his work at the University of Texas at Austin, the University of California at Santa Barbara, and especially at the University of Utah. He recently taught two semesters at BYU-Hawaii – Davis and JoAn had gone there planning to stay only one semester, but the university asked him to organize and teach his thoughts on a new aspect of his medieval history specialty, so they cheerfully rearranged their lives to take advantage of one more formal teaching opportunity.

T&S readers may also know Davis from his occasional essays at Meridian magazine.

Some of us have had the extraordinary good fortune to know Davis in person. From the day I moved into his ward in Salt Lake’s Avenues, Davis and JoAn have treated me like a friend and a professional colleague, even though Davis really had no reason then to know who I was. They have invited me into their home repeatedly, kept me advised of their family news, and called to check on me when they missed me. On more than one memorable Sunday, Davis sat down at his piano to play for me, with the specific intent of giving me a gift. It was always appreciated. Davis has been my Sunday School teacher, he has offered career and fatherly advice, and he and JoAn have both done me the honor of hiring me to research for them – as if there was anything I could do that Davis himself was incapable of!

I visited Davis in the hospital a few days before he was stable enough to come home, borne into his room by grandsons who carried him like a hero on his shield. He was alert and interested in everything I could tell him, and, as always, he and JoAn made room for a visitor while still barely taking their eyes off each other. I’m not sure which of them adored the other more; they are the best matched couple I have ever known.

This announcement is scattered and omits too much, and doesn’t at all serve as the tribute I would like to write for this grand gentleman, disciple of Christ, and fine scholar. Rather than waiting until I can do better, though, I thought Davis’s many other admirers and students would want to hear of his passing.

Keep JoAn in your prayers.


This is the obituary running in the Salt Lake papers:

R. Davis Bitton 1930 ~ 2007 I, Ronald Davis Bitton, have moved on to the next stage of existence. As you read this, I am having a ball rejoining my parents and grandparents, uncles, aunts, cousins, and dear friends and associates I knew on earth. I am wide awake, no longer struggling with the narcolepsy that handicapped but did not defeat me, and cheerfully taking in the new state of affairs and accepting the callings that will occupy me there. It has been an abundant life. Growing up in Blackfoot, Idaho, where I was born on 22 February 1930, and on a farm in nearby Groveland, I never felt one moment of familial insecurity. My parents, Ronald Wayne and Lola Davis Bitton, loved me and did everything they could to see that I had opportunities, including piano lessons from age six. I learned to work in the house, in the yard, on the farm, and in local retail stores. I learned to write as a reporter for the Daily Bulletin. I remember enjoying a trip to the San Francisco world’s fair, fishing and hunting trips, scouting camps, and community concerts. I had great friends and was elected to several student offices. I learned to compete in softball and basketball. I joined a crack high school debating team. As a student at Brigham Young University, missionary in France, enlisted man in the U.S. Army, and graduate student at Princeton University, I felt myself growing in understanding. I went on to be a professor of history at the University of Texas at Austin, the University of California at Santa Barbara, and for 29 years the University of Utah, enjoying many congenial students and colleagues. I have presented papers at scholarly conventions and published articles and books. I have loved good food, good books, the out of doors, music, art, the dappled things. A nurturing home throughout my life has been the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Bishops, stake presidents, teachers, mission presidents, and general authorities I have known have been people I could admire and follow. My own opportunities to serve have been numerous, starting at a very young age and including elders quorum president, counselor in a bishopric, member of the stake high council, and gospel doctrine teacher for many years. From 1972 to 1982 I served as assistant church historian. I have loved the hymns, the scriptures, the temple. I am grateful for Aunt Vilate Thiele, my mother’s sister, a steady friend; my other uncles and aunts on both sides; my brother John Boyd Bitton; my sisters Marilyn Bitton Lambson and Elaine Bitton Benson; wonderful nephews and nieces; children Ronald Bitton, Kelly Bitton Burdge, Timothy Bitton, Jill Cochran, Stephanie Ross, Debbie Callahan, Larry Morris, Judy Nauta, Earl Morris, Delbert Morris; their spouses; and 56 grandchildren and great-grandchildren, all of whom are to me a delight. Having learned the value of loyalty, I appreciated the affection and interest of my family as well as cherished friends. No one has been more important to me than my dear wife and companion JoAn, a woman loved by all who knew her. She rallied to my side, stood by me through thick and thin, grew with me, laughed with me, made good things happen, and, marvel of marvels, agreed to be my companion through time and all eternity. I have not lived a perfect life, but I have tried. And I know in whom I have trusted. Funeral services will be held Tuesday, April 17th, 1:00 PM at the Salt Lake Ensign Stake Center, 135 ‘A’ Street. Friends may call Monday evening from 6:00 to 8:00 at Larkin Mortuary, 260 East South Temple; and Tuesday from 12:00 to 12:45 at the Stake Center. Interment at the Salt Lake City Cemetery. Online condolences at

28 comments for “Ronald Davis Bitton, 1930-2007 (Updated)

  1. Davis Bitton was a very good man, a gentleman and a friend. I am sad to hear of his passing. Thanks you for writing this remembrance.

  2. Thanks, Ardis, for this sad news and your tribute. _The Mormon Experience_ was my first Mormon studies text, and still a favorite. We are so lucky to have had Bitton’s work and the example of his life.

  3. Thanks for the post, Ardis. I had great respect for Davis and was grateful to have shared edifying conversations with him. He was a wonderful person in so many respects.

  4. Ardis,
    Thanks for sharing this unwelcome news. The historical community has lost a great man.
    God bless to JoAn and the family.

  5. Ardis, thank you for this lovely personal tribute.

    I didn’t know Davis well; just well enough to exchange pleasantries at MHA, where I would inevitably see him, and sometimes would end up in the same tour group. I of course have read a lot of his Mormon history work.

    On one occasion, he paid me a very nice compliment; he had read something I had written (I forget what), and told me in his own folksy way how nice it was to read someone who had a sense in his head, or some such expression.

    When I think of Davis, the words that immediately spring to mind are “gracious” and “gentle.”

    He will be missed.

  6. I would also like to than you Ardis for posting this memorial. Like many others, I benefited from Davis’s encouragement and generous notice when I was in the earliest stages of my academic career. I’m sure that he and Leonard Arrington are going to be busy again.

  7. Ardis, thanks for this remembrance of a wonderful man. My condolences to his family, and to you, their particular friend.

  8. I first crossed paths with Davis at the “U” in an honors class on comparative religions. It was the highlight of my entire time at the university. (I can’t even remember most of the other classes and happenings, but I still have and treasure the papers I wrote for Davis’ class and his feedback.) Later I met JoAn in the Church History Dept. Both of them have been so kind and helpful and encouraging over the years.

    It will seem odd not to run into him again at the museum, but my good wishes for his next adventure go with him. And may the peace of the gospel and the love of friends be with JoAn.

  9. Davis was the epitome of the phrase “a gentleman and a scholar”. He and JoAn befriended me as a visitor from Australia in the mid-80s while I was researching at the Church Archives, welcomed me to their home on several occasions, hosted a farewell dinner for me when I left, and generally acted like surrogate parents. I appreciated Davis’s encouragement, wisdom and knowledge, all of which he was generous in sharing. If I ever get back for another MHA conference, it won’t be quite the same knowing Davis won’t be there. God bless JoAn at this difficult time. And thanks, Ardis, for your lovely tribute.

  10. Thanks Ardis for your thoughtful remarks. The biography of George Q Cannon is one of my favorites, and I have tried to defend this fine book on many occasions. He\’ll be missed but remembered for his wonderful contributions.

    Phil Bradford

  11. Oh, I’m very sad to hear this.

    I remember being at his home in Salt Lake years ago. It was an older home that fascinated me. I was very young, but seem to remember my mother saying that they (he and his first wife, Peggy?) had renovated it.

    Davis has been a friend of my parents since I was a baby. My parents, Davis and his wife, John Sorenson and his wife–just a whole big bunch of LDS people down in those parts–started a study group (really a book club) in Southern California. (My dad got his PhD at UCSB.) They had a few deaths and a few divorces, but most of then eventually migrated to Utah, and the study group has been intact for over 40 years. The study group provided some of my favorite childhood memories with their combination of scholarship and silliness. The white elephant party they had every Christmas could not be outdone.

    When I began writing for Meridian a number of years ago, Davis dropped me a few kind, encouraging emails. He was always very friendly. The last time I saw him in person, I believe, was at my mother’s funeral.

    Thanks for indulging my walk down memory lane. I have always admired Davis and though highly of him. My father lost a dear friend today.

  12. Thanks for posting this, Ardis. I feel immensely lucky to have known Davis for the last two years of his life and to not only have enjoyed his Gospel Doctrine lessons but the embrace of his exceptional kindness and good humor.

    I found proof of his gentlemanly humility the first time I met him, the day after we moved in. We attended a ward social (knowing nobody) and the RS president introduced me to him as a “fellow writer.” I asked what he wrote and he said, “this and that,” then asked me to detail my dissertation. Thinking he might just dabble with prose, I gave him a very non-academic summary. After he asked me a couple of probing and well-informed questions I asked him again what he’d written, and he told me. Only then did I figure out that “Davis” was “Davis Bitton.” I felt like a fool, but he just chuckled.

    I will miss him a lot. I imagine he’s up in heaven having a spirited discussion with Gene England, who he said he really looked forward to seeing again.

  13. Thanks for the post.

    Davis was here at BYU-Hawaii last year and had an office just two doors away. Though he was with the history department, his office was in our religion department. Davis was just plain enjoyable to be around — truly unassuming. He and JoAn were a quite a spirited couple and so clearly in love.

    One of my favorite memories is the discussion he lead about his article on the relation of faith, testimony and church history :
    I miss the opportunity to walk ten steps and ask him such and such about church history, or hear his comments on the latest books (the Mckay and Kimball books had just been out).

    He’s missed by all here, and it must be doubly so for those who’ve known him for a lifetime.

  14. I should have included this in my last post, but here is a link to an address Davis gave here at BYU-Hawaii “Adventures of a Diary Hunter” You’ll have to scroll down just a little, but there is audio and printed versions. I include this link because I’m not certain if this was ever given in another forum or not.

  15. Thanks for this. Davis emailed me a lot in these last few years since meeting me at FAIR, and was ALWAYS encouraging me to keep researching, writing, and blogging. He was very helpful in getting me sources, and was always saying the Mormon church needed more informed folks, and he apparently thought I was one of those. I shied away from it for a bit, but with his constant and pleasant nagging, began producing my blog, and then got into podcasting. I shall miss my old friend.


  16. I am sad to hear of of Davis Bitton’s passing. I never met him or heard him speak, but the things of his that I have read have always struck me as sincere, thoughtful, and well-intentioned. No matter what he wrote about, he always seemed to say something that would lift my spirit. If only I could have 10% of that ability, I would be a better person.

    Thank you, Ardis, for your thoughtful post.

  17. I did not know Davis Bitton, but I did receive an email from him complimenting me on “Weepin’ Mary,” which was sung at Eugene England’s funeral. We have had parallel lives, in some ways, since my sister knew him well, and interacted with him on many occasions.

  18. We have lost the very best–whether in the Mormon history context or just in the quality of human beings in the world. Davis and I were good friends. He stayed at my home in California when he was single and we drove to Utah together, talking of anything and everything. Soon after, I was single, and we both wound up marrying again to wonderful women. JoAn has been a wonderful companion for Davis, and Elizabeth and I have treasured their friendship. I will miss him dearly, but look forward to a time when we will yet be together. Our most sincere condolences to JoAn.
    Gary and Elizabeth Smith

  19. I will miss Davis. One of the things that I always enjoyed in visiting with Davis was his historical breath. He brougth the study of a thousand years of Western Civilization to his study of Mormon history. He also loved the arts and spoke intellegently and insightfully about them. Among Mormon historians, he has always been one of my favorites as a scholar and a person. If one were to be marooned on a desert island, it would be delightful to have Davis and JoAn as fellow castaways.

  20. I am so grateful and touched to hear these thoughtful comments about my wonderful grandfather, Davis. As most of you know, he was a completely humble man with no pretenses. It has been a blessing after his passing to learn even more about the many people he quietly influenced, served, and loved, just as he did for me. He was dedicated to each and every member of his family and made sure we all individually felt valued and special for our very diverse talents and personalities. What a privilege to have had him in my life. I grow continually impresssed with him every day and look forward to being with him again. Thanks again for sharing your memories.

  21. As an undergraduate I decided to do a comparative study of the Jehovahs Witnesses\’s and the Mormons. I read the Mormon Experience and became hooked on Mormonism. Although I have never found faith in the LDS Church I have always been impressed by Davis Bitton\’s work. I had the pleasure of meeting Leonard Arrington just before he died. An awesome man. I also had the pleasure of meeting Davis Bitton and his wife when I was last in Utah. I had lunch with them both. Its a nice memory.

    Being a non believer in Mormonism I do so hope they got it right.

    Anthony Aduhene
    Nottingham, England

  22. I know that I am terribly late with this posting, but for some reason Davis Bitton has been on my mind lately. With a quick online search I found this posting and sadly learned of his passing. As a Southern Baptist, I came to the Church archives in SLC 20 or so years ago to do research on the Mormon experience in the southern states in the 19th century. During the course of my work I soon made friends with both Davis and JoAn, both of whom were unfailingly kind and supportive of my work. We ate out on more than one occasion and they invited me to their home where I had the pleasure of hearing Davis play the piano, and we shared memories of one of our favorities, Frankie Carl. Sweet memories.

    With his passing, the LDS Church has lost one of its finest scholars, but I am sure his work will be continued by many of those who had the good fortune to have studied and worked with him.

    Davis, thank you for your hospitality and support and JoAn, my thoughts and prayers are with you. May you feel each day the touch of God\’s healing hand.

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