Word 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.