Telling the stories of the Church’s history

A review of Leonard Arrington and the Writing of Mormon History, by Gregory A. Prince

Telling the history of a church can be tricky. Which elements arose from the culture of the time? Which manifest the direct intervention of the divine? Is that even a sensible distinction? On the one hand, some Church leaders have historically seen the principal role of religious history as being to show “the hand of the Lord in every hour and every moment of the Church from its beginning till now” [1]. With this as one’s end, the appropriate means may be a partial telling of history: “Some things that are true are not very useful” [2]. On the other hand, some fear that this will leave believers vulnerable when uncomfortable truths come out: “I worry about the young Latter-day Saints who learn only about the saintly Joseph and are shocked to discover his failings. The problem is that they may lose faith in the entire teaching system that brought them along. If their teachers covered up Joseph Smith’s flaws, what else are they hiding?” [3] As Laurel Thatcher Ulrich put it succinctly, “History is dangerous.”

No character in Mormon history is perhaps better placed to illustrate this lesson than Leonard Arrington. In 1972, Arrington became the first — and to date, the only — professional historian to serve as Church Historian of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. (To be fair, Arrington’s PhD was in economics, but his professional career began with economic history and transitioned to broader history.) Arrington believed that it was possible for official Church historians to write objective, narrative history. To that point in history, official Church history had mostly been documentary rather than narrative. But with his appointment, he was almost immediately thrust into the midst of strong, conflicting views from various leaders of the Church on the role of history and the Church. His efforts to lead the writing of Mormon history from within — and the ultimate demise of his initiative — tell us much about the dynamics between faith and documented fact.

As with his last book — David O. McKay and the Rise of Modern Mormonism — Prince relies principally on journals and interviews, in this case a collection of one hundred interviews with those who knew Arrington best. Prince is ultimately a storyteller, taking to heart the counsel to “tell a fascinating story of a fascinating people.” He masterfully weaves these first-person accounts — from Arrington and his associates — into a narrative about history and the Church. But in the context of that meta-story, Prince recounts a host of smaller stories. He recounts the founding of the journal Dialogue, the Mark Hoffman forgeries, and the reconciliation of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints with the Community of Christ (formerly the Reorganized Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints) in some respects, all drawing heavily on the words of those who were there. He tells personal stories of concentration, such when Arrington would get “to the point that he was ready to write the article, he would go down into that office and stay there for 72 hours. His wife would bring him food. He would not take telephone calls, he would somehow not be on campus for three days; and he’d come out with a draft.” And he tells sacred stories, such as that of a celestial visitation during the 1978 revelation on the priesthood that I’ve never seen documented elsewhere (including in Edward Kimball’s wonderful biography of his father’s presidency).

Because this is Leonard Arrington’s story, keep in mind that the pictures we see of other characters — including General Authorities of the Church — are partial. For example, Bruce R. McConkie, who comes off looking not so well in the David O. McKay book, is a neutral (or even mildly supportive) figure in this one. The main opponents to Arrington’s brand of history — Ezra Taft Benson, Boyd K. Packer, and Mark E. Peterson — are only pictured here as they interact with Arrington and the topic of LDS history, so it would be unfair to judge them as a whole based on this limited view. (Other, more junior apostles at the time, were supportive, including David B. Haight and Howard W. Hunter.) It reminds me of a story in the book: Arrington is on a flight, reading a book “with many of the same themes as the Book of Mormon but published seven years earlier.” As Arrington reads the book, he “would come across something that he thought was interesting, [and] he would mention it” to his seatmate, a devout member of the Church. At some point, Arrington realized that his casual mentions were causing his seatmate to have a faith crisis. “This reaction ‘astounded Leonard…whose statement was, ‘It was just a book!'” This, too, is just a book, and while the picture it paints is rich, each of the individuals here — besides perhaps Arrington himself — has much more to them.

I found the book fascinating. It helped me continue to reconcile my faith with my intellect. And it’s just full of great stories. To close, let me share two passages. The first was written by Arrington and rang particularly true for me:

Our testimonies tell us that the Lord is in this work, and for this we see abundant supporting evidence. But our historical training warns us that the accurate perception of spiritual phenomena is elusive — not subject to unquestionable verification…. Our faith tells us that there is moral meaning and spiritual significance in historical events. But we cannot be completely confident that any particular judgment or meaning or significance is unambiguously clear. If God’s will cannot be wholly divorced from the actual course of history, neither can it be positive identified with it. Although we see evidence that God’s love and power have frequently broken in upon the ordinary course of human affairs, our caution in declaring this is reinforced by our justifiable disapproval of chroniclers who take the easy way out and use divine miracles as a short-circuit of a causal explanation that is obviously, or at least defensibly, naturalistic. We must not use history as a storehouse from which deceptively simple moral lessons may be drawn at random.

And the second — a line from Prince — tempers Arrington’s own views with a respect for those of others: “Without defiance or sneering at those who clung — whether in faith or in fright — to the most rigid orthodoxy, Leonard stood apart, weighing, measuring, rejoicing in the fruits of his study and his openness to inspiration from many sources.” I admire both Arrington’s intellectual approach and his respect towards those who personally adopt a different approach to their faith.

Miscellaneous notes:
  • As an academic researcher myself, I was inspired by Arrington’s productivity as a scholar and his encouragement of other scholars. “Get it done and get it out” was the philosophy, as evidenced by 259 “articles in professional publications and chapters in books” as well as 35 books and many other publications, as characterized here. Leonard also encouraged a wide range of authors: “Part of the way Leonard encouraged his peers was to read what they were publishing and then write appreciative letters to them. ‘Leonard was good at reading every journal that came, the day it came,’ recalled Glen Leonard…. Then, also often the same day, Leonard would write ‘letters to each author to congratulate him for what he did.'”
  • The similarly structured titles David O. McKay and the Rise of Modern Mormonism and Leonard Arrington and the Writing of Mormon History remind me of the titles of Francis Gibbons’ biographies of the prophets, which were all structured [Name of prophet: Descriptive epithet], Prophet of God. I’m sure Prince would welcome suggestions for future biography titles: [Individual] and the [Something] Mormon [Something].

Other reviews and reactions:
  • Dennis Clark, Association of Mormon Letters: “Even with such minor flaws, this is a marvelous portrait of the man and his milieu.”
  • Julie Smith, Times & Seasons [Not a review, but a reaction]: “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.)”
  • Matt B., The Juvenile Instructor: “Leonard Arrington and the Writing of Mormon History can thus be read both as a work of scholarship and as a work of advocacy; Prince desires both to outline the historical argument…and to make a case for a certain type of Mormonism.”
  • Meg Stout, The Millennial Star: “At the end of days, I expect we will find that both the New Mormon History and the Old Guard LDS leaders erred in not having adequately understood the history they each felt they were protecting. In the mean time, I am sure that Greg Prince’s biography of Leonard Arrington will be fascinating to students of human nature.”
  • Kevin Barney, By Common Consent: “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.”
  • Kristine Q. Baker, The Washington Book Review: “This well-researched and well written book should be a required reading for both students and experts of Mormonism.”

[1] Boyd K. Packer, “The Mantle Is Far, Far Greater Than the Intellect,” 1981.
[2] Ibid.
[3] Richard Lyman Bushman, On the Road with Joseph Smith: An Author’s Diary, 2007.
All other quotes are from the Arrington biography.

7 comments for “Telling the stories of the Church’s history

  1. Nice review, David. I might summarize the tension Arrington experienced as follows: Historians view LDS history as a specialized field of history. LDS leaders view LDS history as a specialized field of apologetics. Result: LDS historians now have more credibility than LDS leaders.

    I have, however, come around to seeing the failure of the Arrington project (of writing and publishing LDS historical books from within) as not such a bad thing. Better that historians employed by the Church focus on documentary projects like the JS Papers Project and the Revelations in Context material posted to support this year’s Sunday School curriculum, leaving the publishing of historical books for the LDS reader to those working outside the formal boundaries of the LDS Church.

  2. Nice review. Davis Bitton framed it this way.
    “What’s potentially damaging or challenging to faith depends entirely, I think, on one’s expectations, and not necessarily history. Any kind of experience can be shattering to faith if the expectation is such that one is not prepared for the experience…. the problem is the incongruity between the expectation and the reality.”

  3. Thanks for posting the link to the Bitton article. I read it for the first time and appreciated it immensely !!

  4. Ben, a problem arises when the institution portrays its history and the evolution of its doctrines in a way that creates expectations that are unrealistic and then reverses course once it loses control of its narrative because other voices reveal inconvenient truths about the institution’s past. I agree that you will never be disillusioned if you are never “illusioned” in the first place. What is truly damaging to faith, however, is discovering that the institution in which you placed your trust has told you something less than the truth.

  5. FarSide, I think the problem there is expectations people have of the institution. Many don’t tend to see it as an infirmary run by the infirmed. So they create unrealistic expectations for how revelation works and how teaching works. As Ben said it’s those expectations that are the problem.

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