In Memoriam: Ronald W. Walker, 1939-2016

By May 9, 2016

WalkerWord is beginning to spread that Ronald Walker, long time practitioner of Mormon history, passed away early this morning after a long struggle with cancer. Walker was immensely influential not only within the historical community, but also with many of us here at Juvenile Instructor on a personal level. We will have a post with individual tributes soon, where it will be clear that his personal relationships far outweighed even his academic work, but right now I want to give a brief overview of his scholarly accomplishments.

Originally from Montana and California, Walker received degrees from BYU, Stanford, and the University of Utah. At first part of the CES as an institute teacher and curriculum writer, Walker joined Leonard Arrington’s “camelot” in 1976. (Walker later helped fashion Arrington’s legacy through projects like co-editing his reflections.) When the history division was dissolved and moved to BYU in 1980, he became a professor of history and part of the newly-founded Joseph Fielding Smith Institute for Church History, and later became involved with the Charles Redd Center for Western Studies as well. He was exceptionally prolific during this period with articles, edited collections, and frequent involvement with BYU Studies. Walker retired from BYU in 2006 to be a full-time independent historian with a laundry list of projects to complete. 

Few scholars have ever been as prolific and accomplished. He wrote his dissertation on the Godbeite Protest during the 1860s and 1870s, which decades later became his book Wayward Saints: The Godbeites and Brigham Young (University of Illinois Press, 1998). Originally a study of Brigham Young and the limits of dissent in territorial Utah, Walker was pulled into these intellectual circles as a way to explore social, cultural, economic, and even theological issues . How far could a dissenter go without drawing serious repercussions? There had been a notion that Brigham Young ruled the territory with an iron fist, and Wayward Saints was an attempt to nuance that picture, as well as demonstrate the vibrant life found on the margins of society. But more, as outlined in a new introduction written for a reprinted 1998 edition of the book, Walker finished the book in the 1990s as a way to come to terms with his friends who were being excommunicated from the Church for intellectual and social reasons, including his good friend Michael Quinn. How does a religious organization maintain boundaries while still allowing diversity of opinions? How do these borders shift based on personalities, anxieties, and cultural transformations? Wayward Saints, then, is as much a sociological study as a historical one, and it asks broad questions regarding belonging, disregarding, and dissent, and does so in thoughtful, sophisticated, and even artistic ways. I still maintain it is the most under-appreciated book in Mormon history.

Between writing his dissertation on the Godbeites in the 1970s and the actual publication of the book in the 1990s, Walker took serious the call to do more 20th century history, and set out to write a biography of one of its most important, and still under-studied, figures: Heber J. Grant. A number of important essays trickled out (see here, here, and here), and though a book filled with these articles later appeared, his interests were soon diverted elsewhere. The Hoffman forgeries of the 1980s, before they were known as forgeries, forced many LDS historians, especially those at BYU’s Smith institute, to go “all in” to decipher the magic culture of early Mormonism. Walker ended up writing two of the more important articles on the topic (see here and here), and their insight remained relevant even after the documents proved false and the controversy faded away. His focus then remained in the nineteenth century for good now, though now in the form of Mormon/native interactions. His address as the Mormon History Association’s president in 1992, for instance, was on “Seeking the ‘Remnant’: The Native American during the Joseph Smith Period” (see here), though he also famously paid attention to the Utah period (see here and here, for example).

More than just his own historical work, though, Walker was just as devoted to Mormon historiography. Along with David Whittaker and James Allen, his Mormon History (University of Illinois Press, 2001) was an exhaustive overview of the entire field, and accompanied by a massive bibliography. (That bibliography, still immensely helpful, is digitized and updated at mormonhistory.byu.edu.) He also wrote perceptive essays on the historical craft, like his reflections on the art of biography (see here). And he paid attention to the non-elites, as seen through his co-edited Nearly Everything Imaginable book, which looked at the varieties Mormon pioneer life. He excelled at the art of the historical article, and won MHA’s best article award numerous times. (Including three times in a row.) For instance, I think his “Grant’s Watershed: Succession in the Presidency, 1887-1889” is a masterpiece and crucial reading for anyone interested in ecclesiastical development. Not only did he cover important topics, but he was concerned with how to both engage and present their conclusions.

But Walker will most likely be remembered for his work on Massacre at Mountain Meadows (Oxford University Press, 2007). He originally set out to write an exhaustive biography of Brigham Young, but was recruited instead to co-author the Church’s authoritative account of its most tragic episode. Though the book took an army to produce, Walker’s fingerprints were all over it. The careful attention to social dynamics, the consideration of the viewpoints of everyone involved, and especially the consideration of moral and ethical dilemmas related to the event–these were Walker’s expertise, and they were most likely his important contributions. The book was a watershed in the LDS Church’s historical conscience in a way that epitomized Walker’s careful, sophisticated, unflinching, and sober look at the tradition’s past. And he paid the price: he later said he received nightmares as a result of the topic matter. His work left a long shadow on Mormonism’s internal historical narratives.

Mountain Meadows was never meant to be his last, or even his most important, work. Even after his diagnosis a couple of years after the project’s completion, Walker remained feverish with his work on other topics, most especially Brigham Young. He co-edited a volume of Brigham Young-Thomas Kane letters with Matthew Grow. He began work on a Utah War volume, which at least resulted in a number of brilliant articles (see here and here, for just two examples). His work on territorial Utah’s interactions with the federal government was aimed to show that the conflict was rooted in naive yet understandable misunderstandings that were promulgated, social contexts that were entrenched, and political views that were intransigent. There were no evil villains nor spotless heroes. History was messy, and he wanted the Utah War’s example to prove that.

More, he believed people were messy, and he was dedicated to demonstrate that fundamental message through a sympathetic, exhaustive, yet responsible look at Brigham Young’s personal and private lives. Indeed, his entire career was, in a way, meant to climax with the Young biography that was never completed. Most of his work–on leadership culture, native relations, political conflict, authority and dissent, pioneer life–were concentric circles zeroing in on the life of Mormonism’s most contentious figure. We, as a history community, have been robbed of a critically-acclaimed play’s final act, when all the sophisticated themes were to finally weave together.

But there is still enough in the corpus to leave a lasting and significant image. Ronald Walker was perhaps Mormon history’s best writer, likely one of its most significant thinkers, and certainly one of its most prolific producers. His example and legacy will forever bless the field, just as his personal influence will bless its practitioners. He was a master of the Mormon historical craft.

Article filed under Announcements and Events Historiography


Comments

  1. Thanks, Ben. This overview of his many accomplishments is helping me deal with some of the shock of his passing.

    Comment by David G. — May 9, 2016 @ 10:33 am

  2. Thanks, Ben, for this. Ron was a generous mentor–to Saint and Gentile alike. He will be dearly missed.

    Comment by Max Mueller — May 9, 2016 @ 10:39 am

  3. I’d second that view about Wayward Saints being underappreciated. It’s great history but also make you think about contemporary issues.

    Comment by Clark — May 9, 2016 @ 10:45 am

  4. When The Joseph Fielding Smith Institute invited me to be it first scholar in residence, all my Mormon hosts were nothing less than Saintly in their sympathy for the tragedy that had befallen my wife back in Massachusetts, but I was especially grateful to Ron for facilitating my research under a series of handicaps. When I last spoke to him after one of those interminable MHA conference Saturdays, he could hardly stand, but was fully there–scholar, gentleman, and friend to the end.

    Comment by Mario S. De Pillis, Sr. — May 9, 2016 @ 11:00 am

  5. Very sad news.

    I agree with Ben that Wayward Saints is an outstanding book. It is based on meticulous research, and its prose is clear and eloquent.

    Comment by John Turner — May 9, 2016 @ 11:45 am

  6. Thank you for making this so quickly available, Ben. An overview as tribute. I love Ron Walker. He has blessed my life.

    Comment by BHodges — May 9, 2016 @ 11:56 am

  7. Thanks, Ben for these very timely comments about an untimely and lamentable passing. My first exposure to Ron was listening to him speak about the Godbeites at MHA-Ogden in 1999. My immediate reaction was that this was a different kind if historian and one of the most eloquent I had yet encountered. Over the past several years Ron and I exchanged episodic emails and phone chats during which he described the rigors of the various experimental medical treatments he was enduring at Stanford and U. of Utah. How he survived such agony and continued to research/write throughout it was a real eye-opener for me. It was why I was determined to review his and Matt Grow’s “The Prophet and the Reformer” just as soon as it came out in “Journal of Mormon History.” R.I.P., Ron.

    Comment by Bill MacKinnon — May 9, 2016 @ 12:18 pm

  8. Sad news. Although I only talked to Ron a couple of times, I feel a personal loss. I frequently refer to Wayward Saints and it is one of my favorite books.

    Thanks for the overview, Ben.

    Comment by Susan W H — May 9, 2016 @ 12:36 pm

  9. Thanks, Ben. My research in many ways started with Ron’s bio of Rachel Ivins Grant (Heber’s mother) since that was about all I could find on Mormonism in New Jersey. Ron was gracious then and I was privileged to be able to work on putting together Ron’s articles on Grant for the book that BYU Studies put out. Things came full circle for me when I wrote my article on Quaker Mormons that I published in Max Weber Studies; again, Ron was very gracious. I didn’t know him as well as many here but I would simply add to the many who’ve said that he was a true gentlemen scholar.

    Comment by Steve Fleming — May 9, 2016 @ 1:11 pm

  10. Always a gentleman, Ron was kind and respectful to all, particularly to newcomers at MHA meetings. We’ll miss his incisive and insightful wit.

    Comment by Devan Jensen — May 9, 2016 @ 2:20 pm

  11. […] academic career and contributions to Mormon history, see Benjamin E. Park’s excellent summary in The Juvenile […]

    Pingback by Ronald W. Walker (1939-2016): A gifted and gracious historian — May 9, 2016 @ 5:08 pm

  12. Ron Walker and I were colleagues for many years at BYU. As associate editor for BYU Studies I worked closely with Ron on many of his articles. I edited for him materials that were not published in BYU Studies.
    Ron was a beautiful writer and a beautiful man. What an example to us all. I shall miss him very much
    Linda Hunter Adams

    Comment by Linda Hunter Adams — May 9, 2016 @ 9:02 pm

  13. Ron was a veracious scholar and a kind soul. I’m glad to have known him and to have worked with him. He will be greatly missed; but his influence will reverberate for generations.

    Comment by Brent Metcalfe — May 10, 2016 @ 1:02 am

  14. Dear Ron was a the HIgh Councilman over the Salt Lake Stake Singles program. He and Lani became my friends and later he became my bother-in-law.

    I appreciated his kind words and straight forward approach to life.
    He was always interested in how I was doing and how the family was doing.

    I will miss him for a time. Until we meet again at Jesus’ feet.
    Blessings to all the family.
    Denise R. Midgley

    Comment by Denise Midgley — May 10, 2016 @ 8:31 am

  15. Thanks, Ben. A wonderful tribute to a great historian and an exemplary man.

    Comment by rkt — May 10, 2016 @ 9:56 am

  16. Ron was one of my favorite professors, and good advisor, a superb scholar (his article on Ensign Peak is still one of my favorites), and, as so many have noted, a kind-hearted gentleman.

    Comment by Mark Ashurst-McGee — May 10, 2016 @ 10:37 am

  17. (Ron did not co-author Men with a Mission)

    Comment by Mark Ashurst-McGee — May 10, 2016 @ 10:37 am

  18. Oops! Thanks for the catch, Mark–that’s what I get for rushing through this post.

    Comment by Ben P — May 10, 2016 @ 11:49 am

  19. As a former editor at BYU Studies, I worked with Ron on three of his books and several of his paper presentations and articles. I always looked forward to his projects. And I sincerely appreciated his warmth and gentleness. He will be missed.

    Comment by Heather Seferovich — May 11, 2016 @ 10:35 am

  20. I am shocked by the news of Ron’s passing. I was his TA one semester for Utah History. He invited the whole class to come up to his home in SLC for one evening. That was around the same time he discovered a major termite infestation in his home. He took it all in stride.

    I also worked for Ron as his research assistant for a short time. I chased down some material for him during the early part of the Mountain Meadows project. I admired him as a scholar and found him to be a kind and gentle soul. Clearly, I am not the only person who encountered RWW and came away with that impression. He will be greatly missed.

    Dale Topham

    Comment by Dale Topham — May 13, 2016 @ 7:14 pm


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