Community of Christ Historians (Part One)

By May 8, 2009

Historian of religions Jonathan Z. Smith once quipped that ?a comparison is a disciplined exaggeration in the service of knowledge? (Jonathan Z. Smith, Drudgery Divine: On the Comparison of Early Christianities and the Religions of Late Antiquity, p. 52). With this caveat in mind for what the comparative enterprise entails, at the invitation of the JI permabloggers, I?ve constructed a short typological overview of Community of Christ historians currently in the field. My schema is a bit artificial (there aren?t that many historians to classify in the first place), but I?ve done so simply to serve ?a useful end.? This short essay looks at four categories of CofC historians and highlights one or two representatives from each type: the priests (historians who work for the church), the Isaiahs (the faithful iconoclasts), the Jonahs (the disillusioned historians), and the Pauls (the converts). This schema does not divide historians into any historical school of thought; it is more about the relationship that these historians hold to the Community of Christ as a faith community. I argue that , at least in the Community of Christ, the historian’s position on the imaginary ecclesiastical and professional fields of play shape their topics, production, and overall tone. Part one today takes on two of these categories?the ?priests? and the ?Jonahs? of the tradition.

The Priests: The Keepers of the Tradition

Historians working for the Community of Christ have always had institutional and structural constraints that have limited how and what they say about history (as all historians do). Even with some practical “pastoral” constraints, the leadership of the Community of Christ has been relatively supportive of the intellectual inquiry done by its employees, even if conservative members have been hostile towards their work. Dick Howard became church historian in 1965, around the same time as the late LDS church historian Leonard Arrington. Trained in a master?s program at UC Berkley, Howard completed graduate work at St. Paul School of Theology, a Methodist seminary in Kansas City. Taking source criticism from Biblical studies, he applied such methods to his 1969 work, Restoration Scriptures: A Study in Their Textual Development. This was a truly ground-breaking work as it showed development in canonical Latter Day Saint texts over time and tried to help members grapple with what this meant for people embracing them as Scripture. This work won MHA?s best book award. Howard also wrote a 1991 two-volume official church history for the Community of Christ that synthesized much of the New Mormon history in a pastoral way for average members. Mark Scherer became the CofC historian in 1995 and will be publishing a new church history titled Journey of a People: The Era of Restoration, 1820-1844. I?ve not read it yet, but it appears to be a synthesis of the New Mormon history of the last generation. Interestingly, Herald House, the official CofC press, will not be issuing it. The Community of Christ Seminary Press in cooperation with John Whitmer Books will be publishing it. Why? I think CofC leaders are nervous to put their official imprint on a work that will see the Book of Mormon as a 19th century text along with open admissions about Joseph Smith and polygamy. To deflect the potential fall-out over the volume, CofC Prophet Steve Veazey issued a statement on the uses of history. In an April 5 address to the church, Veazey emphasized, among other things, that our history is not simply bound to its first 14 years. Veazey?s statement on church history is an interesting read in itself. Personally, I found the statement an exciting affirmation of my work as a historian in the movement. Other significant current institutional historians include Ron Romig (archivist for the CofC, incoming MHA president, and expert on the early Missouri period), Lachlan Mackay (director of historic sites and early period specialist), and Barbara Walden (director of Kirtland Temple and specialist on material history and museum studies).

The Isaiahs: Prophets as Faithful Iconoclasts

A few historians have used their scholarship to critique the movement yet have remained within its institutional bounds their entire lives. The best representative of this type of historian is Bill Russell, former professor of history and American government at Graceland University (the CofC liberal arts college). Russell has used his scholarship to advocate for the rights of minority groups (advocating for tolerance of fundamentalists in his articles on schismatic RLDS groups and acceptance of homosexual CofC members, most recently published as Homosexual Saints: The Community of Christ Experience ). In each case, he has pushed people in directions that made everyone (the conservatives, the centrists, and the liberals) feel a bit uncomfortable. Russell has never been part of the hierarchy, but his intellectual presence has affected generations of CofC college students.

So?if you were to construct a typology for LDS historians working in the field, what schema would you construct? Questions about CofC folks are welcome, too.

Article filed under Miscellaneous


  1. A few years ago, I passed through Kirtland in late December and Bro. MacKay was the only one working (having given that holiday period off to his other guides), so we got our Temple tour from him. It was excellent, and I will be sorry to return and get a tour next time from a humble worker bee.
    Last year I was at a women’s retreat that Barbara Walden spoke at. As both of them spoke, I realized how much more they knew about my Church than I (or any of the guides at our historical sites, I would guess) know about theirs. I can’t really comment on their scholarship, but they sure were interesting folks–love to have them over for dinner!

    Comment by ESO — May 8, 2009 @ 5:55 pm

  2. I love this typology David–it’s original and creative. I think that an LDS typology would be similar. The old liahona/iron-rod dichotomy has seen better days, and your take on it allows for greater variation. One thing that has to be acknowledged, or at least nodded to, in an undertaking such as this, is that individuals migrate in and out of categories over time. Nice work and plenty to think about. Thanks.

    Comment by SC Taysom — May 8, 2009 @ 6:13 pm

  3. Wonderful stuff, David. I echo SC in saying that there is plenty to think about here.

    Comment by Ben — May 8, 2009 @ 7:11 pm

  4. Wonderful comments David. A little over a year ago, at Restoration Conference, I wrote this in my journal about our dinner together:

    “At the dinner break I was invited by John Hamer to have dinner with John, Mike Karpowicz, David Howlett, Matt Frizzel and Jan Shipps. We went to a restaurant that is owned by a member of the Community of Christ. It was excellent and the food was not to bad either. David and Matt are both PhD. Candidates in theology and history and members of the Community of Christ. Matt is the Community of Christ’s “Mission Center President” (“Stake President” in LDS lingo) for Chicago. David grew up in a more conservative branch of the Restoration Movement and is an expert in that area. Our discussion was open and informative. We talked a bit about the early history of the Kirtland temple and the solemn assembly procedure. I was amazed at the knowledge at the table and the openness of the discussion, David laid out the events and I brought up the amount of wine that was used to help with the visions and manifestations. No one seemed surprised by my comments or offended.”

    My experience with Ron, Mark and Lachlan have all been equally spiritual and invigorating.

    Comment by Joe Geisner — May 8, 2009 @ 7:59 pm

  5. What interesting remarks, David.

    By the way, I really appreciated your contribution to the recent symposium. Thank you so much for the transportation you provided to our guest. I would love to have been a fly on the wall of your car when you took him to the airport.

    Comment by Margie Miller — May 8, 2009 @ 8:51 pm

  6. How about these:


    or (just for fun):

    and Deuteronomists


    Comment by J. Stapley — May 8, 2009 @ 10:41 pm

  7. #1–ESO–The guides at Kirtland are really good. Barb, the site director, gives a wonderful tour, too. One of my friends from when I was intern at Kirtland, David Bolton, is working there this spring and summer again (volunteering, bless his soul). His dad is a CofC apostle, and David gives a wonderful tour in his beguiling British accent. The guides do learn a lot about LDS folks in the course of working at the site, and it is an education for everyone. One advantage that CofC site workers generally have over LDS site guides is longevity–they are there on the ground far longer and this allows for a greater depth of knowledge about the other.

    Comment by David Howlett — May 9, 2009 @ 3:21 pm

  8. SC, Margie, Ben, and Joe–Great to hear from you on here! The typology could need some nuancing. For instance, I really did not know where to place myself (I guess I would sort of be in the convert category since I really grew up outside the CofC in the Restoration Branches movement). SC–I like your observation that people can move in and out of these categories at different points in their lives. People like Roger Launius, for instance, were once “priests” but have moved on to being “Jonahs” of sorts.

    Comment by David Howlett — May 9, 2009 @ 3:25 pm

  9. J Stapley–I like! The Documentary Hypothesis of Mormon historiography!

    Comment by David Howlett — May 9, 2009 @ 3:26 pm

  10. I like this schema, David. I think it provides a basic framework within which to categorize historians according to their relationship with the institutional church.

    I had a question about general trends in CofC historiography. How have CofC dealt with the tendency among Utah historians and mainstream American religious scholars to employ what could be called a Young-centric narrative that effectively marginalizes and obscures the experiences of other Restoration groups? Do CofC historians generally ignore the Young-centrism and just write CofC history, or have there been attempts to de-stablize the dominant narrative? I’m thinking of Robin Scott Jensen’s efforts to redefine the meaning and significance of both “Mormons” and “Mormonism” and shift the narrative away from Utah or at least try to broaden the framework to include Strangites and other groups.

    Comment by David G. — May 9, 2009 @ 3:52 pm

  11. Hi David,

    It’s hard to generalize with so few historians, but I’ll take a stab. I think there are three strategies. The first, as you suggested, historians may just ignore the Young-centric story, and just write the history of the movement. Generally, though, this can only work for an RLDS audience. Whenever someone tries to write for a larger audience, he or she has to address how RLDS and LDS mutually shape each other. This may reinforce the hegemonic LDS narrative, but it also tries to see how influences go back and forth even when there is an imbalance in a power relationship (and there generally always an imbalance in RLDS/LDS relations). An author, like Roger Launius, can focus on primarily an RLDS topic (such as Joseph Smith III) but must also situate him in relation to his LDS cousins. And, honestly, with JSIII’s story, talking about his life without talking about the LDS in Utah would be a little limiting, if not crazy.

    Third, people, like John Hamer, Steve Shields, Bill Russell, and Jason Smith have really tried to place what became minority groups at the center of important events and stories. Jason Smith, for instance, works on the Church of Christ (Temple Lot), and, in his upcoming MHA paper, will be showing how their apologetic strategies borrow (or at least correspond) to counter-cult arguments aimed at LDS. This complicates our notion of LDS/countercult interactions with third parties mediating some of the materials and even generating some of the arguments.

    At the moment, in my own writing, I am thinking about what happens when the normally minority-status RLDS are the major agents in shaping what happens at a Mormon pilgrimage site, such as Kirtland Temple. “One person’s periphery is another’s center” is a truism from anthropologist James Cliford. Similarly, a peripheral agent in one interaction may be a gatekeeper in another. That is definitely the case with the shifting RLDS/LDS interactions at Kirtland over time.

    Comment by David Howlett — May 9, 2009 @ 4:48 pm

  12. Howlett: You better be careful–informed and insightful comments like these may lead us to force more participation from you on the site 😉

    Comment by Ben — May 9, 2009 @ 6:11 pm

  13. And just for the record David Howlett is one of the nicest people around.

    Comment by SC Taysom — May 9, 2009 @ 8:01 pm


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