Intellectuals in Mormon History

By September 22, 2008

Almost fifty years ago, Leonard J. Arrington sent out a questionnaire to fifty prominent Mormons asking who they thought were the “five most eminent intellectuals in Mormon history.” Stan Larson then repeated the survey in 1993 when he asked the same question to 152 “intellectual” Mormons, of which 94 responded.

The question was intentionally vague in order to allow many different interpetations. The “intellectual” could be a current historian working on a Mormon topic, any Latter-day Saint from any period of this dispensation who stood out as a genius, or anyone who is a genius in their own field and just so happen to be Mormon. The only rules was the person had to be a Mormon and the respondant was not allowed to vote for themselves. The following are the top twelve from the two surveys:

1969                                              1993

1. B.H. Roberts                                B.H. Roberts

2. Orson Pratt                                 Orson Pratt

3. Joseph Smith, Jr.                        Sterling M. McMurrin

4. Sterling M. McMurrin                Leonard J. Arrington

5. James E. Talmage                       Joseph Smith, Jr.

6. John A. Widtsoe                          James E. Talmage

7. Lowell L. Bennion                       Hugh W. Nibley

8. Hugh W. Nibley                          John A. Widtsoe

9. Parley P. Pratt                           Lowell L. Bennion

10. E. E. Ericksen                            Parley P. Pratt

11. William H. Chamberlin             Henry Eyring

12. J. Reuben Clark, Jr.                 Eliza R. Snow

Also, here are the full results from the 1993 survey:

B.H. Roberts (73)

Orson Pratt (52)

Sterling M. McMurrin (41)

Leonard J. Arrington (31)

Joseph Smith, Jr. (31)

James E. Talmage (30)

Hugh W. Nibley (25)

John A. Widtsoe (19)

Lowell L. Bennion (16)

Parley P. Pratt (13)

Henry Eyring (11)

Eliza R. Snow (8)

Richard Bushman (7)

Juanita Brooks (6)

E. E. Ericksen (5)

Thomas G. Alexander (4)

Fawn M. Brodie (excommunicated) (4)

J. Reuben Clark, Jr. (4)

Eugene England (4)

Dallin H. Oaks (4)

D. Michael Quinn (excommunicated) (4)

Brigham Young (4)

Obert C. Tanner (3)

Edward W. Tullidge (excommunicated) (3)

Laurel Thatcher Ulruch (3)

Discussion on this post can go two different directions. First, what are your reactions to this survey? Perhaps the most obvious thing to me is how B. H. Roberts is almost unanimously viewed as Mormonism’s “intellectual.” And second, who do you think would make the top five today? I have a hunch someone like Bushman might get a few more votes while someone like McMurrin might get a few less, but that is just me.

What think ye?


Stan Larson, “Intellectuals in Mormon History: an Update,” Dialogue 26, no. 3 (Fall 1993): 187-189.

Article filed under Categories of Periodization: Modern Mormonism Current Events Methodology, Academic Issues State of the Discipline


  1. I could see Bushman, Givens and Holland making a modern list. (maybe not the top 5 but making the list.) I could see Terry Warner, Blake Ostler, and Kevin Barney being considered as well, among the living people who are moving things along, but lower probability as they are not as big of names.

    I would have to admit that for me Widtsoe, Talmage and Roberts come easily to mind as the Mormon intellectual trifecta, so I’m not surprised. I am pleased to see 3 women on the list. I’d put Julie Smith and Ardis Parshall on my own list if I could.

    Comment by Matt W. — September 22, 2008 @ 10:47 pm

  2. My votes would go to Joseph Smith, B.H. Roberts, James E. Talmadge, John A. Widtsoe and either Richard L. Bushman or Laurel Thatcher Ulrich (although Matt W.’s idea is unaccountably attractive. 🙂 ) Dallin H. Oaks would definitely find a place in my next 5.

    I don’t think McMurrin would get any votes today except among an old and fading generation, because his contributions were a side stream, out of the main channel; they haven’t developed into anything in modern Mormon thought and he is forgotten except by his old champions. Let a few more years pass, and I think Mike Quinn will be in the same position. To me, a lasting Mormon intellectual contribution requires that later-comers continue the development of one’s ideas, and the mavericks (no matter how many ardent fans they win in their lifetimes) don’t last, because those who build on those ideas are even farther outside the center of Mormon thought.

    Although if crazy man Ned Tullidge could still garner 3 votes in 1993, there’s hope for any of us to be remembered.

    Comment by Ardis Parshall — September 22, 2008 @ 11:04 pm

  3. I should apologize for not having a cool table to present the names. Apparently I’m not as technologically advanced as Chris :).

    Comment by Ben — September 23, 2008 @ 12:37 am

  4. Boy those are intriguing questions.

    Certainly B. H. Roberts is a good solid pick, I think David O. McKay and Gordon B. Hinckley should get a nod for being leaders who intelligently pushed the church in directions which could be called modernizing. I was also consider Russell Nelson if we are talking as someone of note in his field.

    I might also suggest Katherine Flake, Sarah Barringer-Gordon and Jessie Embry for their contributions on the Polygamy question.

    Comment by Jon W — September 23, 2008 @ 12:45 am

  5. Sad But I don’t see Truman G. Madsen even on the list

    Comment by Jim B — September 23, 2008 @ 1:40 am

  6. Our best-known academics are probably Laurel Thatcher Ulrich and Clay Christensen, who are both incredibly bright and exemplary. We have a handful of young tenured literary critics (George Handley, Mark Burns, Andrew Brown), and we have some important senior medical academics.

    Sarah BG, while she studies Mormons, is not Mormon.

    Comment by smb — September 23, 2008 @ 3:37 am

  7. I think that an agreed-upon definition for the term “intellectual” is essential for any coherent discussion. I don’t have one.

    Comment by SC Taysom — September 23, 2008 @ 7:15 am

  8. I agree with SC: I would need to see a definition of “intellectual.” Academic doesn’t necessary equal intellectual. A “modernizer” is also not necessarily an intellectual.

    Comment by Researcher — September 23, 2008 @ 8:43 am

  9. Steve brings up the crucial point, imo. This goes back to the “influence” question and how we define it. Some thinkers have more influence on rank and file folks, while other intellectuals have a greater impact on “thinking” Mormons. For example, no one mentions ETB, but I would argue that there’s a large group of right-wing Mormons in the intermountain West that continue to see Benson and his writings as the best thought to come out of the church.

    Comment by David G. — September 23, 2008 @ 9:12 am

  10. Where the heck is Armand Mauss?

    Comment by BHodges — September 23, 2008 @ 9:30 am

  11. I think Mormons are so closely tied to their history that BH Roberts (an historian as well as a theologian) just tops the cake. Of course that is why the survey was vague in its instructions. It reveals to mindset of the subject. I don’t know all the names on here. I guess this is a primer to go out and find out who all these people are. But the names I do recognise are either historians or General Authorities. The one exception I recognise is Eugene England who I think was an professor of (Literature?). Someone help me.

    Comment by BruceC — September 23, 2008 @ 9:41 am

  12. What? No Bruce R. McKonkie? 🙂 What does that tell us?

    Comment by BruceC — September 23, 2008 @ 9:43 am

  13. To add to SC and Davids thoughts, I would also add that the way that individuals define the idea of the “intellectual” powerfully demonstrates the ways that Mormons value intellectuals. There is at the same time within the larger body of Mormons a great respect for learning and an anti-intellectual fervor. If I remember right, this is one of Givens’s paradoxes. The way that we, as members of academia, define intellectuals demonstrates the position of power that we occupy in society, if not the church. The same could be theorized about any individual’s or group’s conceptions of the “intellectual.”

    Comment by Joel — September 23, 2008 @ 10:16 am

  14. Of course B.H. Roberts made theological contributions, as well as historical, although I think BruceC is right in general that more people are familiar with B.H. Roberts because our history matters to us, or at least is more easily grasped by non-academics (a pretty or dramatic story from history is going to have a wider audience than Henry Eyring’s science or Orson Pratt’s celestial mathematics).

    Is E.E. Ericksen Einar Ericksen? And if so, what were the voters in 1969 thinking?

    Comment by Ardis Parshall — September 23, 2008 @ 10:19 am

  15. Joel, I found myself unsure how to respond last week while sitting in Institute when the teacher went off on “those that refer to themselves as intellectuals” in the Church. He didn’t spend too much time on “warning” the class against these intellectuals that “think themselves out of the church,” but it still proved to be an uncomfortable moment.

    Comment by David G. — September 23, 2008 @ 10:26 am

  16. David G, SCT, and Joel: I had the same desire to want to define what “intellectual” meant. However, I wanted to keep the question as Arrington and Larson did in their original surveys, with its accompanying ambiguity. I guess making it so vague allows the question to mean whatever the respondent wants it to mean. But, as you all rightly point out, this causes problems when desiring to do any comparison.

    Comment by Ben — September 23, 2008 @ 10:31 am

  17. Another thing I hope would be changed if this survey were to be updated, besides a more specific definition of “intellectual,” is accommodating intellectuals from wider Mormon movements. Stan Larson specifically mentioned that no surveys were sent out to “RLDS” (this was before the name change) intellectuals. I’m sure figures like Robert Flanders or Wallace B. Smith deserve to be included in a list of influential “Mormon” thinkers.

    Or maybe I am just a little too geared up for JWHA’s conference this weekend.

    Comment by Ben — September 23, 2008 @ 10:38 am

  18. If “eminent” is really as subjective as it sounds (i.e. who are my favorite intellectuals?) then here’s my top five:

    Joseph Smith
    Hugh Nibley
    Gene England
    Brigham Young
    Richard Bushman

    If what we’re talking about is most influential, then here are my top ten:

    B. H. Roberts
    Joseph Smith
    Orson Pratt
    J. E. Talmage
    Hugh Nibley
    Fawn Brodie
    Brigham Young
    Parley Pratt
    Jack Welch
    Richard Bushman

    Comment by Brad Kramer — September 23, 2008 @ 10:41 am

  19. I’d be surprised if Ephraim Edward Ericksen received any votes today.

    Comment by Justin — September 23, 2008 @ 10:42 am

  20. I don’t quite understand the parameters of the question and the definitions that we are using of “Mormon,” “history,” and “intellectual,” but Wayne Booth, though deceased, is famous enough to appear on the GRE subject test in literature.

    Comment by Natalie — September 23, 2008 @ 1:08 pm

  21. Response to Brad:

    If we’re including Joseph Smith in the category of intellectual and talking about most influential, don’t we have to place him at the top of the list, no offense to B.H. Roberts?

    Comment by John Turner — September 23, 2008 @ 2:08 pm

  22. How about in the political/influential arena? Dallin Oaks, George Romney, W. Marriott, and others could easily fit in, as well with most Mormons.
    The reality is, more Mormons know Marie Osmond than B.H. Roberts!
    So, it also is important to define who is responding and definitions of influence and intellect, as being smart in history (Brooks) is very different from politics (Harry Reid) or ancient history (Nibley)

    Comment by Gerald Smith — September 23, 2008 @ 2:50 pm

  23. #21: Also, how does an “ignorant farm boy”, make it to lists of “intellectuals”? This says nothing about how I feel about the “smartness” of Joseph Smith.. it only speaks to the use of the term “intellectual”, and how it is used.

    Comment by Bob — September 23, 2008 @ 2:53 pm

  24. JT,
    I stand by the claim, and came very close to placing Orson Pratt ahead of Smith as well. Their readings of Joseph — his story and his teachings — have dominated our sense of what it means to be Mormon, I think, even more so than Joseph himself has. There’s a chicken and egg thing involved, since Joseph put in place many of the structures and institutions that enabled subsequent readings and re-readings of his work to predominate, but make no mistake: he is by far our most correlated prophet.

    Comment by Brad Kramer — September 23, 2008 @ 4:35 pm

  25. he is by far our most correlated prophet

    Even more than Brigham Young? 😉

    Comment by Ben — September 23, 2008 @ 4:51 pm

  26. #24: ” ..our most correlated prophet.” I don’t know what that means?

    Comment by Bob — September 23, 2008 @ 8:15 pm

  27. Point taken, Brad.

    For anyone, how would you rank Mormon intellectuals on their ability to reach a non-Mormon intellectual audience? I can’t think of anyone who exceeds Bushman’s ability to do that today. Terryl Givens is working on it, I think.

    Comment by John Turner — September 23, 2008 @ 8:35 pm

  28. I relish most the words of Eugene England and Lowell Bennion, though maybe more for inspiration than information. I think one of the great travesties in life is that Fielding Smith and McConkie are translated into other languages while England and Bennion (so far as I know – I could be wrong) are not. The international church takes on the character of the former pair when the precepts and aesthetics of the latter are needed.

    The Toscanos’ book (Strangers in Paradox) is provocative and intelligent, though, like McMurrin, loses points for not being theological rather than historical.

    Flake is brrrrrrilliant.

    What about LDS scholars in fields of other scholarship? Richard Haglund the physicist, Eyring the chemist, Whipple the botanist (and former companheiro)…

    Comment by MTN — September 23, 2008 @ 9:08 pm

  29. O.C. Tanner?!?

    Comment by Nate Oman — September 23, 2008 @ 9:22 pm

  30. Maybe we need to define the difference, if any, between a “Mormon intellectual” and a “Mormon academic.” It’s not a flippant question.

    I would offer the suggestion that LDS academics, since they are professionals in their fields, have some obligations to larger questions beyond just Mormonism and to the ongoing development of their respective fields (medicine, law, literature, history, etc). There may be less pressure in that sense for LDS intellectuals who don’t work in academic settings, but who, say, are avid bloggers or are published in Mormon journals and so whose ideas become important within Mormonism itself.

    Comment by tona — September 23, 2008 @ 9:31 pm

  31. ok – now I see that I’m not the first one to call for some definitions in this beauty contest, but still, no one’s taken up the gauntlet yet.

    Comment by tona — September 23, 2008 @ 9:33 pm

  32. Re: #6

    Hmm well there you go I thought SBG was Mormon. Correction noted.

    Another name of someone whom my Professor mentioned was Klaus Hanson but I am not sure he is mainstream enough.

    Comment by Jon W — September 24, 2008 @ 12:20 am

  33. sorry Hansen that should read.

    Comment by Jon W — September 24, 2008 @ 12:22 am

  34. #30: There is no calling in Mormonism for “Intellectual”. Thinking within the Church should be done by the GAs… old school.
    They should not outsource to LDS academics, BYU, or others to speak or think for them.

    Comment by Bob — September 24, 2008 @ 9:09 am

  35. Bob, I’m struggling to understand what you meant in your last comment. My most hopeful conclusion is that you were being sarcastic; surely you weren’t really proposing that GAs should be doing the only thinking within the Church.

    Could you explain what you meant?

    Comment by Ben — September 24, 2008 @ 11:58 am

  36. #35:I have nothing against “Intellectuals”, thinkers, bloggers, or book writers. But, it use to be, the only accepted “Intellectuals” for defining Mormonism were GAs ( Joseph Smith, Orson Pratt, Roberts, Talmage, McConkie, Joesph F. Smith, Benson, etc.
    Now, we don’t even know who is making the latest changes in the Book of Mormom(?)

    Comment by Bob — September 24, 2008 @ 12:33 pm

  37. Bob, actually, I think that the most prominent thinkers simply happened to be GA’s. They’ve never done their thinking in isolation from the greater culture, inside or outside the Church.

    Comment by Nitsav — September 24, 2008 @ 12:42 pm

  38. The LDS Church simply has a much larger and well-developed “brain trust” now.

    Comment by Nitsav — September 24, 2008 @ 12:55 pm

  39. Bob, regarding who made the most recent changes in the Book of Mormon … it is my understanding that the changes were initiated and approved by the Church’s Scripture Committee, which three apostles sit on.

    Comment by Christopher — September 24, 2008 @ 1:09 pm

  40. Sadly, I often look outside the Church mainstream writers for intellectual stimulation, which I then translate into my personal religious development. I know some look upon this as anathema, but I see it as proving all things and holding fast to that which is good.

    Still, books by Talmage, the Pratt’s, Nibley, Roberts, Gileadi and others – as well as history books by Bachman, Alexander, Bushman, and Flinders – have played an important role in my thinking.

    Comment by larryco_ — September 24, 2008 @ 3:12 pm

  41. I recall an essay (no citation, sorry) about how there is no Mormon theology. Theology is by definition how people think about God. In Mormonism, God tells us what the truth is. So in the presence of revelation, there is no room for theology. And when intellectuals stray outside that they are shunned, for lack of a better word.

    What does that leave us? History mostly, with some sociology, economics, perhaps nutrition, maybe even political theory. Very little else defines us as different from the rest of American culture. Admittedly we are expanding outside North America. But where we are different from the local culture is again mostly in history.

    Comment by BruceC — September 24, 2008 @ 3:46 pm

  42. Bruce, I don’t believe your definition of theology holds up in practice within our culture.

    Comment by Kent (MC) — September 24, 2008 @ 5:33 pm

  43. Klaus Hansen is an intelligent historian. He wrote a couple of well-received books and made clear arguments about the substance of Mormonism that were intelligible to outsiders. He sort of faded out after his Mormonism and the American Experience, though, which is a shame. He recently retired from his Canadian university (I forget which one).

    Tona, that proposal would limit options to historians, theologians, clergy, and critical theorists, wouldn’t it? That seems like an unnecessarily short list of areas of specialty to me.

    Comment by smb — September 24, 2008 @ 9:48 pm

  44. I would guess (?), Vardis Fisher’ is the most forgotten Mormon/Atheist intellectual. Maybe a little quirky, but on my list of ‘Mormon’ intellectuals.

    Comment by Bob — September 25, 2008 @ 12:24 am

  45. Hansen taught at Queen’s University in Kingston, Ontario

    Comment by SC Taysom — September 25, 2008 @ 7:33 am

  46. Klaus Hansen’s book Quest for Empire is one of my favorites. Apparently he’s doing an updated edition, though I’ve been told not to hold my breath. Anyone know what’s up?

    Comment by Randy B. — September 25, 2008 @ 10:18 am

  47. I will add to MY list: Bernard DeVoto and Wallace Stegner.1) They were raised in Mormon homes. 2) They wrote on Mormon stuff. 3)They were friends/students of Vardis Fisher.4) Intellectuals.

    Comment by Bob — September 25, 2008 @ 1:23 pm

  48. I think it might be useful, if this survey is ever repeated, to have two categories: The top 10 GA Intellectuals, and the Top 10 Non-GAs. That could be interesting.

    Comment by Bret — September 25, 2008 @ 1:39 pm

  49. Kent(MC) (#42) You are probably correct. We still do all the functions other religions call theology. We even call it theology ourselves.

    But when we spend decades developing a theology of why we deny blacks the priesthood, it gets wiped out in one letter from the prophet. No detailed explanation, no justifications. Call it what you will, but is not theology. Revelation trumps theology.

    Now the idea that Jesus=Jehovah? That was more like theology.

    Comment by BruceC — September 25, 2008 @ 4:28 pm

  50. I am equally uncomfortable with two attitudes that represent the almost opposite ends of the spectrum:

    For one, there are those “intellectuals” who think sophomoric irreverence qualifies for intellectual. Sometimes they are members who have already decided to leave the Church and are looking for anything to justify it.

    Then there are the “righteous” people, who don’t like you to talk about anything they don’t consider worthy; and they talk scornfully about intellectuals making it sound like it’s the same as outright apostasy.

    I don’t consider myself a scholar at all, but I have much respect for people like Richard Bushman, who have taken on stuff that will not be agreed upon in the foreseeable future (like Rough Stone Rolling). “It is good to be learned, if they hearken unto the counsels of the Lord.”

    Comment by Velska — September 26, 2008 @ 10:07 am

  51. Neal A Maxwell?

    Comment by Humbly — September 26, 2008 @ 8:36 pm

  52. Humbly, I thought the same thing…..Maxwell should be in top 20.

    Comment by PJD — September 27, 2008 @ 8:17 am

  53. Stegner was raised in Utah, but not in a Mormon home. He was a Presbyterian.

    Comment by Kristine — September 30, 2008 @ 10:31 am

  54. #53: It is my understanding he was raised in Utah because his mother was Mormon and she had Mormon family there. He was an Eagle Scout in a Mormon Ward, he played basketball in the Mormon Leagues. Maybe better said, he raised himself as a Social Mormon.
    Sunstone had a great article on him at the time of his death.

    Comment by Bob — September 30, 2008 @ 12:25 pm


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