I do not remember the first article I read authored by Milton Backman, Jr. It was almost certainly something he published in the Ensign during the 1970s or 1980s. As a 19-year-old missionary with a previously-untapped love for reading, learning, and history, those old Ensigns that occupied so much of the shelf space of ward libraries were treasure troves of information to me. Much to the annoyance of at least a few of my companions, I would eagerly request that we stay a bit longer at the church building after playing basketball on P-day so that I could flip through a dozen or so issues and photocopy each article dealing with church history, doctrine, or scripture. I don’t know if it was the first, but I do remember reading Backman’s 1989 essay, “Preparing the Way: The Rise of Religious Freedom in New England.” In addition to shattering some myths I had imbibed at some earlier point in my life (i.e. “Although many who sought religious liberty had immigrated to those colonies, the Pilgrims and Puritans did not, generally speaking, believe in extending religious freedom to others.”), Backman’s essay tied Mormonism into a larger narrative of American religious history in a way that I had not previously encountered. I was hooked.
At some later point, while visiting the local Deseret Industries after a P-day trip to the Mesa Temple, I stumbled upon a book with a name I recognized: Backman. I picked it up, and sure enough, it was the same guy. I bought American Religions and the Rise of Mormonism for a dollar (maybe less. That DI always had incredible deals on old books.), and began reading that night and continued each subsequent night until I’d finished it. The book was something of a revelation to me: It connected the birth and early development of Mormonism not only to American religious history but Christian history more broadly. The book still sits on my bookshelf today, having made each of the several moves with me since.
Following the conclusion of my missionary service, I resumed my studies at Brigham Young University, where I switched my major from political science to history and took every course I could on Mormon history, Christianity, and religion in American history. In 2007, I began work on a master’s degree at BYU, and once again found myself reading Milton Backman’s work. His books on Joseph Smith’s first vision and early Mormonism in Ohio were crucial background reading and provoked many foundational questions as I began work on my MA thesis. Indeed, it was the chronological framing of his The Heavens Resound: A History of the Latter-day Saints in Ohio, 1830-1838 that convinced me of the value and importance of studying Mormonism prior to the several significant theological changes that occurred in Nauvoo prior to Joseph Smith’s death. I recently re-read that book while penning a short encyclopedia entry on the Kirtland Temple, and was surprised at how well it holds up (the book was first published in 1983, the same year I was born).
To my knowledge, I never met Milton Backman, Jr. He retired from BYU in 1991, a decade before I arrived on campus. It’s entirely possible that we crossed paths at some point in the last decade (maybe at an MHA meeting?), but if so, I regretfully do not remember. But because of our shared research interests, and because of the foundational role his own work played in sparking my early interest in Mormon history, I have always felt an intellectual connection with him. He and I approached the same material from different methodological points of view and used it toward different ends, but we were both interested in the very same sources and subjects.
It was with sadness and an unexpected sense of loss, then, that I stumbled upon his obituary this morning. As I read, I learned more about the man behind the books that left a lasting influence on me over the last 15 years. Among other things, I was struck to discover that Backman received a PhD in 1959 from the University of Pennsylvania, the same university where I am currently a fellow.
Rest in peace, Dr. Backman. And thank you.