This is not a book review. This is my personal reaction to the book. And, in short, it depressed me. (This doesn’t mean I didn’t love the book and wasn’t fascinated by it; I did and I was. You should definitely read it.)
Where to start? The obvious thing to do here is to compare this book to Prince’s book about President David O. McKay–a book which I loved, which fascinated me, and which did not depress me. The books are quite similar in that, in each, Prince has two unicorns: first, he’s doing late twentieth-century Mormon history (think about it: most Mormon history is nineteenth) and, second, he has unprecedented access to records of the inner workings of high church leadership—the kind of thing that you just don’t normally see.
So why my different reactions? I think it boils down to this: both books show high-ranking church leaders with their halos knocked off. However, when you read the McKay book, you tend to adopt the perspective of President McKay. And if I were McKay, I’d want the Quorum of the Twelve to disagree with each other. I’d want to be hearing a variety of opinions; I wouldn’t want to be surrounded by yes-men. And I’d understand that, the fallen world being what it is, those clashing opinions would not always be expressed with perfect charity and would not always translate into perfect behavior. So you read the McKay book, you see his underlings behaving badly and you think, well, not what I’m used to seeing from the Quorum of the Twelve, but, yeah, I get it. That’s the cost of doing business. It’s understandable.
On the other hand, you read the Arrington book from the perspective of Arrington. And here’s what happens to Arrington: he gets permission from the First Presidency to do something as Church Historian. He does it. People (probably CES people) complain to a member of the Twelve. That member of the Twelve raises the complaint and Arrington gets reigned in. It’s, to put it simply, infuriating. And that’s before the substance of the complaint is considered. This isn’t about the history of secret polyandry being taught to the Sunbeams; it’s about mentioning that one of Brigham Young’s sons was addicted to morphine or telling the story of the seagulls without explicitly mentioning that it was the Lord who sent the gulls. And we’re not talking about just operating from ignorance of the actual history; we’re talking about a deliberate, intentional, articulated worldview that nothing—nothing—potentially damaging to the church (in any way, no matter how small) should ever be published by the church. Given where we are now, with the lds.org essays and the Joseph Smith Papers and all of our dirty laundry aired in seminary, it is so very, very hard to see a few members of the Twelve manage to squash Arrington’s work time and time again. When we talk about best practices in historiography, it’s easy to tune out and think that this is just some nerdy turf war with stakes no higher than whether to use endnotes or footnotes. But, a generation later, when it is apparent how whitewashing our history maimed a generation of Saints, it’s just painful and depressing to read the details.
I’ve had to re-calibrate my view of what went down. My take before reading this book had been, “Yes, there was the rare statement suggesting that some church leaders wanted to cover up the warts, but in general they were just making decisions out of their own ignorance of what really had happened in our history. We should be sympathetic to those who were, as it were, led astray by the false traditions of their fathers.” Well, no. That actually isn’t what the record shows. What it shows is a thorough-going belief on the part of a very small number of very highly-ranked people that nothing that wasn’t intensely faith-promoting should ever come out of the church archives, let alone get into curriculum or other official writings.
And the same attitude was there regarding women’s issues. I thought that they didn’t know what they didn’t know and I wasn’t going to hold them any more culpable for ignoring the history than I hold my grandparents’ generation for smoking–because they simply didn’t know any better. Well, again, I’ve had to re-calibrate; here’s an incident related by Arrington in 1976 regarding the aftermath of Carol Lynn Pearson’s script for a movie about the First Vision:
After they had completed the movie they screened it to a group of people among whom were three apostles, one of whom said, “I think it was wrong to give equal attention in the movie to Joseph Sr. and Lucy Mack Smith—to give as much attention as you do to Lucy Mack. After all, Joseph Sr. was the father, the patriarch, the head of the family, and you should concentrate on him. He was the priesthood holder in the family. You shouldn’t give so much attention to women since they do not hold the priesthood.”
And here’s Prince’s wry follow-up remark: “It seems to have been irrelevant that, during Joseph Jr.’s childhood and youth, Joseph Sr. was a Universalist who refused to participate in organized religion, held no priesthood at all, and, in fact, pressured Lucy to stop attending meetings” (pages 234-5). But even aside from that, just ponder this sentence for a minute: “You shouldn’t give so much attention to women since they do not hold the priesthood.” All of a sudden, the status quo in the church doesn’t look like the sad result of the accidental confluences of history and ignorance; it looks like an intentional policy. No wonder I’m depressed.
Nonetheless, I see two reasons to be optimistic: first, things really have changed. A lot. And quickly. I don’t have to tell you how much they’ve changed in terms of how the church presents its history. And most of that change happened within a decade. We should be really, really optimistic and hopeful that things can in fact improve and will improve and we might even be stunned by their speed. One revealing passage in the book consists of a list written to Arrington by Alice Colton Smith, a member of the General Relief Society board, consisting of rights and privileges which the women of the church had recently lost. She ended her list by hopelessly requesting “just one example of some action in recent years which has raised the position of women in the Church” (page 238). Oh, Sister Smith, how I wish I could share with you the running list I keep of changes which have raised the position of women in the church in the last decade. You’d be so happy. Again: things really can change, and quickly. We can be hopeful that, as President Uchtdorf taught, the Restoration really is still ongoing.
Second, I think being aware of the poor policies advocated by high-ranking church leaders can be not just depressing but also helpful: it is the surest guard against idolizing them and treating them as infallible. It is, to be sure, hard to read about some of their opinions and actions in this book, but it is a different sort of inoculation: not the kind we usually talk about—where learning about their foibles now prevents you from being blindsided by them later—but rather the kind where learning about their propensity for error forever prevents you from confusing them with the only perfect person who ever lived. I suppose that is worth being depressed for.
Review copy provided by publisher.
Oh, it sounds SO good. Even if it is in part depressing, if it offers the depth of insight found in the McKay book it will be such a good read! It seems we need to offer such kudos to Leonard for hanging in there like he did and not losing the faith. I think I would have been screeching expletives and publicly complaining if I had been treated like he was.
Thank you for your perspectives. It will give me thoughts to dialogue with it as I read it myself. But I have to say that the thing that probably most discouraged me in the essay was the comment “People (probably CES people). . . .”
Is this a connection to CES implied by Prince–and is it a grounded one? There are times (and seasons) when it seems like the writers and commenters on this blog (and some others of a similar nature) use the term “CES people” the way Trump uses the term “Mexicans.” It’s not very nuanced, and certainly doesn’t feel very charitable. (“Charitable Comments Welcome” is the title above this box)
I am trying to say this charitably–even though it probably sounds defensive–because I appreciate this blog (including you Julie, specifically), and have gained great insights from it, and yes, it has helped in teaching my CES classes and in training other teachers. But comments like these cause me to want to discount the rest of what is said — sort of loses my trust.
Arrington seems to have been practically innocent of any “naturalizing” intention with respect to the essentials of LDS history. But this was not the case for much of the New Mormon History movement that appropriated his reputation. Or for Prince? This must be kept in mind in evaluating the stances of Church authorities. “The most famous single thing that Arrington wrote is that “the details of Mormon history can be studied in human or naturalistic terms–indeed, must be so studied–and without thus rejecting the divinity of the Church’s origin and work.”30 In a note in this essay, he claimed that an unnamed reader of his paper31 has asked whether it is “really possible to humanize all phases of Mormon history without destroying church doctrines regarding historical events?” He then granted that this “is a subject which warrants a full essay.” … [But Midgley later discovered that these werer not in fact LA’s own words.] What I have found is that Arrington seems to have wanted to find a way of including, where appropriate, the miraculous and prophetic, but without giving the gentiles and the disaffected reasons for mocking. This desire on his part was not something sinister, even though it may have been a naive hope. So we can, or at least I have, learned something from the Arrington Papers. ” http://www.fairmormon.org/perspectives/fair-conferences/2001-fair-conference/2001-naturalistic-terms-some-reflections-on-a-motto-and-type-of-historical-explanation
I won’t have access to this book for some time – would it be possible (or would it be plagiarism?) to publish Sister Alice Smith’s letter? I am intensely curious.
I was very interested to read Arrington’s “wish list” for the church that was published recently in the Salt Lake Tribune. Very… revealing.
Todd, (p252): “[Elder] Packer maintained close ties to his former coworkers in the CES–ties that likely included back-channel communications. Jeff Johnson, one of the church archive’s early employees, saw CES teachers as a major source of complaints about the workings of the History Division.” And then he quotes Johnson to that effect. He then explains that how this would play out is that a student would read something Arrington had written, go to a CES person and ask about it, and then the CES person would contact the “head office” and ask “How do I answer this?” This would make the office angry at Arrington.
Thank you, Julie. That helps understand the comment. (And I am aware that past experiences —
like this one you cite — inform some of the dismissive statements that I run into regarding CES. Including some really snarky ones this week that made me a little more sensitive than normal.)
I’m glad that this kind of a thing and the culture at the “head office” has a much different feel currently.
I think there is a knee jerk reaction to CES due mainly to experiences in the 80’s and 90’s at BYU. I hear things have changed a great deal. If so that’s great. But there are reasons why many (including “conservatives” like myself) had a dim view of CES at BYU for a long time.
That said I think the knee jerk reaction against a pedagogy that tried to just be positive and upbeat is also a bit misplaced. Even though I disagreed with that view there were pretty compelling reasons why some held those views. The presentation of the debate in unnuanced ways makes things appear clear than it was at the time.
Of course Prince has his own agenda in the telling of the story, and it is impossible to know what evidence to the contrary of the story he wanted to tell what left out.
Julie. I just spent a half hour with Greg on the air (like we did with you). In the next few days, I’ll try to post a link to the recording or will send it to the U of U. I don’t know who Anonymous is, but Greg’s “agenda” is fairly innocuous. He describes this as being a difference of philosophy. Frankly, I think the difference in your feelings about the two books is that in the case of McKay, most of the action happened while he was fully active and participatory in what was going on. As he faded due to poor health, things got a little more out-of-control. Now, McKay wasn’t what you call a strong administrator as it was, so even when he was on his game, things were a little wild (like the baseball baptisms, the deficit spending, etc.). Unfortunately for Leonard, he had the complete backing of President Lee, who’s attitude was get everything out and Lee wasn’t a President who deferred much to the 12. He died shortly after Leonard took over and even though most of Leonard’s time as Historian was when Kimball was active, President Kimball didn’t give the history department the same kind of emphasis and attention (he was more missionary oriented). In addition, Kimball was a softer administrator than Lee, although not quite as “all-over-the-map” as McKay. As President Kimball got weaker, President Hinckley did what he could, but as we’ve seen time and again, the 12 gets stronger when the President is weaker (just as is happening now).
When I asked Greg what surprised him most about Arrington, he didn’t even hesitate. He was surprised by how horribly naïve Leonard was at the “office politics”. I thought the chapter about what went wrong was spot on. Much of what we have now is still a direct result of what Leonard started (particularly since the historians running it now grew up under Arrington). In addition, even Packer eventually got on board, seeing that transparency was necessary in today’s world. Greg said that his opposition to the history was “softer” than that of Benson and Petersen, who generally didn’t read or get the full context of what was being put out. Note in the book that Leonard himself wishes he’d taken advantage of the “open door” given to him by President Tanner. He also thought that some kind of newsletter to the 12 would have been a good idea. Note that the Apostles were had problems didn’t go through the Apostles who were in charge. Frankly, if Leonard had been better at these things, it might have turned out differently. Perhaps not, since the senior apostles were from a far different age and they believed that history should serve the faith, not provide an objective picture of what happened (to the degree that’s possible). That’s certainly the lesson learned by the Historical department today. All of it is fully blessed by the 12 and FP. And, it goes without saying, its been unanimous (even with Elder Packer).
Example A of your comment is Arrington’s work on the 1978 Revelation. His report in his Autobiography was great and Greg’s chapter is even more thorough. It definitely includes the “miraculous and prophetic” without giving a reason for mocking.
From my June 2, 2016 program. excerpt.
More than ten years ago, Greg Prince wrote a book about LDS Church President David O. McKay. That book, David O. McKay and the Rise of Modern Mormonism is one of the best biographies of a 20th century LDS leader. We had Greg on the Open Mike program and he gave some other presentations on the book here in St. George while he was visiting his brother. Now, Greg has finished his next project, which is one I’ve been looking forward to for years. Its called Leonard Arrington and the Writing of Mormon History. Its also published by the University of Utah and the book is out just in time for the MHA meetings next week. We’ll work to have Greg on to talk about this one in the next few weeks.
Leonard Arrington was the first professionally credentialed person to be named Church Historian. Until that time, it was usually one of the 12 Apostles or another one of the general Church leadership who held that post. For a little over a decade, Arrington worked to bring more of the Church’s history to the public and do it in a way that followed his university training. Just as Prince’s McKay book used access to diaries from McKay’s secretary that no one else had access to, the Arrington book uses Arrington’s 20,000 page diaries that have only recently been opened to the public. Almost three fourths of the book deals with Arrington’s position, which had its ups and downs (to put it politely). While Arrington and others ultimately felt that they had failed, one only has to look at the recent projects of the Joseph Smith Papers, the Mountain Meadows Massacre and many other things the Church has done in the last decade to realize that they were laying a foundation upon which great things were built.
I really enjoyed this book. Like the best biographies, it portrays its subject (and those he dealt with) displaying their good traits and very human flaws. Frankly, I appreciate more honesty in books like this. It inspires me to overcome my own weaknesses because everyone, no matter how highly placed in the world, has them. Just as with the McKay book, Leonard Arrington and the Writing of Mormon History is a triumph. It will make a great gift for Father’s Day.
Biggest complaints weren’t from CES people, but from the Apostles themselves in my opinion. Remember, the CES is what produced the first Masonry talk and CES people were producing the 16 volume history that was later cut. In talking to Greg, he felt it really was their worldview and philosophy. Remember JFS Jr. was Church historian for 50 years. During that time, anything that wasn’t 100% faith-promoting in the library had a little “a” written on its spine to indicate “Anti”. Add to that the strong aversion to words taken out of context like “humanistic” and “communal” and it was just a red flag to the bulls.
One other thing the book mentions is that the new “young guns” with academic training who came in were not as sensitive to the people on site as they probably should have been. I don’t think it was an intentional animus, but the insensitivity to those who were there (in some cases as part of their receipt of welfare) created “enemies” who were only too happy to report things to the senior apostles that they believed were wrong. I think the worst offenders weren’t CES, but were employees.
I tire of the over simplistic hagiography of Arrington and demonizing of Pres. Packer or Pres. Benson. I listened to the Podcast. Don’t we deserve better history than the tired rehashing squabbles of the 70s and 80s? These battles are so small time and it seems like people just want to make red meat for a small fraction of Mormonism. Right now I think the best writing on Mormonism is by non-Mormons and Mormons that are not stuck in the same over worn ruts.
RL, I can’t speak to the podcast since I haven’t listened to it, but the book does not come across as hagiography of Arrington. There is much criticism of how he handled the whole Church History situation as well as criticism of his written work and criticism of his handling of his family life. Similarly, there is a reasonably sympathetic a portrait of the “no warts” school of thinking (namely, that before Arrington’s time, all writing on Mormonism was either faith-promoting or anti, so if you aren’t writing faith-promoting history, then . . .).
Further, given that people are still processing the fall out from the history wars (namely, people having crises of faith when they discover that the history of the church is not quite how they were taught it in church up until the changes of the last 3 years), I would neither call these “squabbles” nor “small time.” As I said in the original post, this book moved the needle for me in how I think about how we taught history before 2013ish and since I frequently write and speak on this topic, the book matters to me.
I picked up my copy here at the MHA conference and have started reading it. I’m quite enjoying it so far. Thanks for the perspective, Julie.
Julie, I share your perspective regarding the “church history” issue and I believe that books such as these provide valuable insight and are much needed correctives. If nothing else, they serve to remind us of the truth embodied in Justice Brandeis’ words: “Sunlight is said to be the best of disinfectants; electric light the most efficient policeman.”
We deceive ourselves when we dismiss these unpleasant episodes as things of the past that cannot repeat themselves because our church leaders today are far more enlightened. There is little basis in fact or history for arriving at such a conclusion, especially when we remember that it was the Internet, not some celestial epiphany, that compelled the church to change course.
Thanks for your post. Trenchant, as always.
Slight threadjack here . . . as of this writing, the book is available only in a hardcover edition. Has anyone heard whether Dr. Prince intends to publish a Kindle edition? I’d sure prefer to read it on a Kindle, but if that’s not a near-term possibility I’ll break down and order the hardcover.
Problems with CES are not merely in the past, but still very real today.
I tangled with my local CES supervisor and local leadership just recently over my teaching. They wanted the focus to be narrowly doctrinal, avoid difficult subjects, etc. One was unaware of Elder Ballard’s talk, and the other thought it didn’t really apply. When the local supervisor came to my class to model teaching, he taught pretty much straight out of the manual, with one exception. Where the manual used tentative language about what *might* be *one* interpretation (given by Joseph Fielding Smith), the supervisor used definite and absolutist language, extremely presentist, “the manual says what President Joseph Fielding Smith taught, that here (can’t remember which Old Testament prophet) is prophesying of our day…”
The two men I worked with seemed completely unaware of any problems with this approach, and my concerns were categorized as “academic” and thus largely dismissed, at least at first. (I eventually made some headway with one.)
Now, I have known some great CES teachers and excellent volunteers. #NotAllCES But we can’t pretend this is all in the past, and change isn’t trickling down as fast as it needs to.
Interesting piece. My reaction to your reaction as I feel I have a fairly similar one when comparing the David O.McKay era with the Pre-Hinkley era:
For me it comes down to whether one wants an institution with a more pluralistic (and transparent) leadership culture in the church versus a more autocratic (and opaque) one. McKay for all his faults fostered not only rigorous discourse among leaders but allowed that discourse to be relatively open to the membership. Now this has both advantages and disadvantages but in the end for me it is both 1) more robust and healthy and 2) more honest then how the institution developed subsequently especially under President Benson and Elder Packer. Sure there strong correlation and “alignment” leadership definitely had the advantage of presenting a more unified front but it has been shown in the long run, I think to be less robust, foster some serious unhealthy leadership habits and in the end is simply less honest. It presents a false picture of both decision-making and unity that can seriously undermine the credibility of the institution in the longer run. It is definitely a path that is more convenient for those with the greater power in the leadership, but the path of least resistance carries its own risks. Might be at least part of what is causing your (and my) feeling of disappointment as the history of this era comes more fully in view? Your thoughts?
In this framing, I would disagree completely with RL and others who want to call this “squabbles” or “minor”. For me personally this is the whole enchilada. Do I feel that I can trust the leadership of the church as moral leaders who regardless of their imperfections and faults can lead us in a more Christ-like direction and who try and hold the institution to acceptable standards. Honesty and transparency, for me (and I think many of my generation and younger) are top priorities when we decide which organizations and institutions with which to identify. I don’t expect perfection, but I do expect accountability and trustworthiness. When reading the history of what happened with people like Arrington, I see an organization that is deeply struggling to live up to its basic moral commitments and with no system of accountability or checks or balances. These institutional habits tend to be hard to break and while we have made some great steps on the history front I am less optimistic than Julie that in my life time the church will be able to meet some basic standards I consider necessary for moral leadership. I think the cultural, organizational and institutional dysfunctions are just to deep. I still hope I am wrong and more than happy to revisit my relationship with the church if the situation changes sufficiently. But I refuse to spend three hours of my life or my children’s life subjecting myself to the curriculum and culture of leadership worship, inequality between the sexes and passive aggressive hostility LBGT members and others. Maybe I am a “taffy pull, patty cake” Mormon. I find the decision excruciating but for me and my family necessary. I respect and appreciate those who have come to different conclusions.
So yeah, I think “squabble” drastically underplays what has been at stake here for many of us.
Julie, Ben Park gave some excellent comments in his response to Prince’s presentation at MHA, which I hope he will post. In particular, he mentioned mentioned that when we see an account take the form of an innocent if inept naif encountering a black (or charcoal gray) hat villain, then what we are seeing is somebody’s self-image. That is very much the narrative in Arrington’s autobiography, and to the extent that Prince’s biography reproduces it, then he is reflecting Arrington’s self-story — not surprising, given the huge quantity of personal writing Arrington left behind and its inevitable centrality in Prince’s research. There’s nothing wrong with Prince amplifying Arrington’s self-story — that’s at least one important part of a biographer’s job, and it is immensely illuminating in understanding not only the man himself, but the self-image of the movement and disciples he gathered. But what it’s not particularly suited to do is objectively represent the reality of the antagonists in the narrative.
By the way, what is the podcast with the Prince interview? Can anybody provide a link?
I think BYU is doing considerably better now, especially after the old guard (Bott, McConkie, etc.) retired. I don’t have a whole lot of experience with CES outside of BYU, but about ten years ago I attended a CES class at the institute of a very prestigious university. (For the record, I was there for work and was not a student there). The teacher was a professional CES man. We were discussing Noah’s flood, and a student who held a position of some authority and respect in the ward asked him about the concept of a “localized” flood, as proposed many decades ago by a general authority. The teacher waved the question away and was not willing to discuss the possibility.
Many of these students were the brightest students the church has. The fact that the church sent a CES teacher like this to the institute at this university demonstrates, to me at least, that CES continues to struggle.
rah, that’s an interesting insight and question re opaque versus transparent leadership. I’ll need to think about that more. However, the question might be moot at this point, since the Internet makes any hint of disagreement public, and so you can try to be as opaque as you want, but we’re all still going to hear about, e.g., whether the women’s session is part of GC, whether the church will stay in scouts, whether women have the priesthood or some other authority–to name just a few areas of apparent GA disagreement that have recently gone public.
As for your final paragraph, I’m still processing the value of transparency. Like every other parent in the country, I am not completely transparent with my kids and I believe I am acting in their benefit. Like every other person on earth, I am not completely transparent with what I put online, but I believe that I have a right to privacy. Am I just trying to protect my own reputation? Sometimes. I may post later on this issue if I can get my thoughts together because I think there is more to life than transparency . . . but I still want it in my church, so . . .
Rosalynde, re your #16, I hope you saw my comment #10, but I’ll understand if you didn’t, because these nested comments are confusing. At any rate, I haven’t read Arrington’s bio, but I felt that Prince did about as much as you could expect someone to do in sympathetically portraying the “no warts” school of history, as well as showing Arrington’s own shortcomings professionally, academically, and personally.
Update: apparently I did read Arrington’s autobio; it’s on my shelf. I guess I forgot.
Different Anon (19), I’m cataloguing the use of Joseph Fielding Smith and Bruce R. McConkie quotes in current CES manuals. I’m interested to tie experiences to specific texts. Are you able to point me to the specific JFS quote relevant yout anecdote?
I’m trying to keep my public comments vague. If you’re posting with a real email address, I’ll get it from Times&Seasons admins and send you some details. What are you collecting for?
Rosalynde (22), link here: http://radiowest.kuer.org/post/leonard-arrington-and-mormon-history. Well worth the time.
And a link to Ben’s comments which RW mentions above: https://professorpark.wordpress.com/2016/06/13/coming-to-terms-with-arringtons-legacy-my-remarks-at-mha2016/
I’d love for Ben to expand on how/where he thinks Prince was too hagiographic. I was surprised in the opposite direction–maybe because given the unalloyed win for LA’s view for how to do history as the official policy of the institutional church, I thought the presentation of any sympathy whatsoever for the “no warts” school was pretty generous.
This highlights the dangers of trusting so called leaders too much. One needs to at least trust but rigorously verify anything and everything these people say.
Julie, I take it that Ben is not saying the biography is hagiography, but that it reproduces Arrington’s self-image without much critical acknowledgement of that fact. There’s an important difference there.
Thanks for the comments, Julie — my copy of the book should arrive shortly. The most relevant comment you made is that “whitewashing our history maimed a generation of Saints” — something Arrington tried but failed to correct by upgrading the presentation of LDS history, which should have resulted in upgraded Church materials. The Gospel Topics essays and recent new editions of curriculum materials for seminary and institute (and eventually the general membership) are what should have happened in the 1980s. The upcoming 4-volume history of the Church that will come out in three or four years will hopefully be another tardy step in the right direction.
There are other costs to the whitewashing besides a few thousand departed members. Official history (history published by the LDS Church) has lost much of its credibility. Those who naively recite official history as actual history (like CES) have likewise lost credibility. Correlation’s stranglehold on LDS curriculum materials is another bottleneck that needs to be overcome. There is a lot of work still to be done to repair the damage.
I think Rosalynde reads Ben correctly, and that Ben points to a valid criticism. Maybe it will be clearer when the journals are published later this year, depending on the selections of the editor. My take after having read the unedited journals is sympathy for the Church leaders who had to work with Arrington. He was a great man, a great historian, but he seemed never to have grasped the reality that he was not and independent scholar, working on his own projects at his own pace, with his institution patron having no right to input beyond providing him with the resources he demanded. I don’t mean that he should have compromised his ethical or scholarly standards, or have told soft lies instead of hard truths. I mean that he was appointed to serve the needs of his patron, the Church, and that if the patron asked for a history aimed at the general Church population in scope and tone, replacing that patron request with a 16-volume scholarly history that would have met with limited interest within the Church population as a whole was not an acceptable substitution no matter how brilliant that scholarly history might have been. 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. Prince adopts much of Arrington’s own interpretation as if Arrington were an unbiased, omniscient narrator.
For what it may be worth, here’s my take-away from having worked on the Arrington diaries:
I tend to see Arrington as more “innocent” than “naive.” He expected that having the official backing of the First Presidency for his agenda (which the Presidency approved), the rest of the Church hierarchy would fall in line to support it. This turned out not to be the case. For their own compelling reasons, certain members of the hierarchy not only questioned Arrington’s approach but worked actively and publicly to undermine it, which they saw as both a challenge to the faith of Church members and as a refutation of the previously received “official” version of Church history. Arrington could never understand why those members of the hierarchy and others who had concerns didn’t first extend to him the courtesy of a private meeting to express those concerns. Especially painful to him were the actions of some members of the Church Historical Department (not the Church History Division) who periodically undertook end-runs around their own immediate supervisors to secretly report on the History Division’s activities. Arrington may not have understood how the Church bureaucracy functioned, in all its occasional byzantine glory, but it’s difficult for me to understand how anyone else in his position could have responded differently.
Arrington’s diaries definitely present Arrington’s own point of view. I write in the editor’s preface to the diaries: “As with all autobiographical texts, Arrington’s diary is a construction of self. In Arrington’s case, the author’s self-awareness may be more intentional than in many other such efforts. Arrington appreciated the historical and political value of maintaining a diary and addressed readers accordingly. That said, Arrington as a diarist typically writes more as a historian seeking balance and understanding than as, say, an attorney arguing a client’s case regardless of the merits of the opponent’s allegations. While Arrington is certain to record his version of events, he does not shy away from offering judgments of others as well as of himself. In fact, Arrington’s occasional self-criticism serves as a tonic to help render more balanced and nuanced the reader’s own judgments of Arrington especially. Arrington may be his own most articulate defender, but he is also his own most knowledgeable critic. His sometimes clinical self-awareness endows his diary with a heightened degree of honesty.”
It would be a mistake to heroize Arrington. I suspect he would be the first to shun such a label. At the same time, I believe that it would not be an exaggeration to suggest that the strides towards openness and accessibility made in recent years by the LDS Church History Library owe much to the groundwork laid in the 1970s by Arrington and the members of his Church History Division.
This is a hobbyist-historian’s review of another historian’s analysis of yet another historian’s life. The word “meta” comes to mind.
Dave (or others) – Do you have a link or any additional information on the new 4-volume history of the church? Your comment was the first I had heard of it. Thanks!
I’m coming to this rather late, Julie. Thanks for your reactions. I plan to write a bit more at some point on this topic, but I mostly want to emphasize that Arrington, like any good scholar, is crafting a particular narrative not only through his words and through his actions. The “innocent martyr” label is one he sculpted himself–indeed, the fall of Camelot did as much to cement his legacy among historians as anything else–and we should keep that in mind. I’m not saying he was wrong in his actions any way, or that those who censored him were right, but that scholars should be careful that we are not merely extending Arrington’s own story rather than analyzing it.
Again, I plan to write another post at a later time. Right now I need to make the most of my time in the archives…
Not being aware of “office politics” is a huge problem for someone in what is effectively partially a management position. A lot of things that some might blame on foes might well be a problem of just not knowing how to adjudicate between differences of opinion nor communicate well with people who don’t understand you. Those are important skills. Someone with those skills may well have had a very different experience.
Do you think that the frustration on Arrington’s part and that of the opposing figures in the Church hierarchy are mostly due to a conflict on how much truthful or how much scholarly written the resulting work should be? – In other words was a white-washed scholarly volume more appreciated than a truthful folksy tale or vice-versa?
Well, I have to read the Arrington book. But every culture runs into the natural tensions between honest introspection versus dogmatic reflection/reaction. History has repeatedly shown that to the dogmatic, the line between honesty and heresy can be very thin. Mormon culture is not the exception to this rule. It is the rule, and the latest HCO debacle certainly shows that.
Are the “Brethren” susceptible to dogmatism? Ahh, yes, as many of them define it. It is a mark of a healthy culture to be able to confront and critique dogmatism, even at the highest levels. History also shows that this is very hard to do.
Thanks for your kind response. In thinking about institutional leadership choices transparency/opacity isn’t, of course, a binary choice but more of a continuous one. I would tend to think of things as “more/less opaque/transparent” then one or the other. Clearly, almost no organization strives for perfect transparency. The church and its leaders have every right to not say have all their internal deliberations live streamed :) On a continuum I think we have to say our church even when compared to other churches is currently on the high end of opacity. Particularly relevant to this discussion the church has even gone so far as to extend this opacity to future historical work by demanding its top leaders no longer keep journals. So we won’t even benefit the way we have in the past from say David O McKay’s journals, much of the JS papers etc. That to me along with the church’s incredibly opaque financial system are to me the most striking examples of the organizations choices along this continuum. I continue to believe that in the long run such extreme opacity breeds dysfunction, weakness and creates more problems than it solves. I hope that maybe the transparency bug in the history department might spread more broadly. I think we would be a stronger people and church for it. But these clearly aren’t my choices to make :)
I would disagree with your assertion that the internet makes “any hint of disagreement public”. I think the church is incredibly good at shielding even very close church watchers from much of internal disagreement and deliberations of the organization. We only see hints of things spilling out and must speculate on most of it. Some very, very connected people see more but it is hard to disentangle hearsay from such leaks. I think the internet has mostly increased speculation order of magnitude more it has increased available information on the discussions going on at the COB or among the Brethren.
rah. Not sure they’re demanding they no longer keep journals as much as the Church completely controls the copyright of their papers (even pre-calling) AND that of their wives. This is a direct result of LA’s diaries. My neighbor was just released as an Area Seventy. At the time of the calling, he and his wife were required to sign over the copyrights to their papers.
“the church has even gone so far as to extend this opacity to future historical work by demanding its top leaders no longer keep journals.” Yes, source?
This article mentions the copyright issue.
Why top Mormon leaders’ private writings may never become public
Ah. I was aware of that, which seems to me entirely different than the “no journal writing allowed” assertion above.
I think the ‘no journals’ admonition was reported by Hans Mattsson, former Swedish Area Authority.
I think the “no journal writing allowed” claim is a misunderstanding of the request early in the 20th century that senior church officials no longer record the details of certain councils — say, their own version of minutes of Council of Twelve meetings — in their personal journals. That limited request has morphed in the minds of the less informed to mean no senior leader should keep any sort of journal — and that is patently not the reality.
Dave (31) – I’m really interested in learning more about this new 4-volume history of the church. Any more details you can provide? Google isn’t giving me anything.