Reflections on William Russell’s “RLDS/LDS: Friends on a Shared Journey”

By March 25, 2015

JMH50See the first two articles in JI’s Roundable on #JMH50:

William Russell’s reflections on his experiences with the Mormon History Association (MHA) reveal the ecumenical gains achieved by Restorationist historians over the past fifty years. In his article, Russell recounts delivering his first paper at MHA, board meeting politics, and presidential addresses that ruffled feathers. Above all, he affectionately maps out how RLDS, LDS, and non-Mormon scholars forged friendships and established the academic foundations of the Mormon History Association.

His experiences will be familiar to all those that have participated in the Mormon History Association in any capacity. Indeed, the reason I loved the essay so much is that it felt like someone was recounting a family reunion. He recalls car rides to MHA, memorable papers, and interactions with historians of Mormonism in the homes of friends, archivists, and conference meetings. Anyone who has known or worked with Lavina Fielding Anderson will appreciate Russell’s story of her love and outreach (does anyone else love receiving e-mails from Lavina with “affectionately” as the farewell?). Russell’s memories of interactions with Davis Bitton and Leonard Arrington evoke similar warmth. The MHA’s bringing together of members from all branches of Joseph Smith’s religious tree and other religious traditions is rightly celebrated.

Two aspects of Russell’s essay are worth expounding upon individually. First, he recounts the appearance of tea and coffee at MHA meetings (and an “insensitive” lack of other beverages at a John Whitmer Conference). The willingness of Latter-day Saints historians to provide tea and coffee to imbibers of “hot drinks” signaled a sort of détente; a willingness to build bridges rather than fuss over whose beliefs are the most “correct.” Unfortunately, Leonard Arrington’s Coke drinking was criticized by some Latter-day Saints, but he continued to sip in a show of solidarity with his RLDS “cousins.” Russell also recounts the social events hosted in Jan Shipps’ hotel room after conference sessions had concluded for the day. Scholars of all religious backgrounds would come to events at “Jan’s Smoker”–such informal gatherings broke down invisible barriers of religious and academic difference. The intimate setting of a small conference like MHA allows for the building of fast friendships over meals, convention center hallways, and on pre- and post-conference tours.

William Russell’s insights are poignant at the crossroads that the MHA now finds itself approaching. Historians of Mormonism have learned to speak with one another, build friendships, and provide a top-notch arena for the maturation of Mormon history. Members of the MHA will continue to produce and publish a prodigious volume of articles and books for a wide variety of audiences. Many projects that began aspresentations at MHA have later received awards from the Association in later years. As David Howlett points out in his essay in the 50th Anniversary Issue of the Journal of Mormon History, Mormon history is as popular now as it has ever been in the academy (alongside Howlett’s vital reflections on the job market). MHA was both a catalyst and is a primary benefactor of academia’s fascination with Mormonism in the last 50 years; there is no reason that it should not be for the next 50 years.

To do so, the Mormon History Association will need to embrace a different kind of member in modern iterations of “Jan’s Smoker.” MHA would benefit from a wider range of voices, and the association may need to directly reach out to and embrace non-LDS scholars, women, and people of color (in addition to embracing those who do not specialize in the study of Mormonism). The MHA’s conferences and journal will need to accept and publish more articles on race, gender, and sexuality beyond plural marriage or risk losing participants, supporters, and authors. Otherwise, those who write about these aspects of Mormonism will continue to seek out other venues for publication and the Association and Journal of Mormon History will be diminished. MHA’s first 50 years brought historians of the LDS, RLDS, and other Restorationist sects together and the willingness to build bridges has resulted in three generations of academic excellence. I am fully confident that members of the MHA will build upon the many strengths of the first 50 years of its existence to include a broader participation of those who write, research, and care about Mormon history.  This includes seeking out and embracing members of the groups I listed above. This will require patience, understanding, and financial backing to accomplish. In short, as historians of Mormonism work to achieve this goal, they will become part of a larger family of American religious historians. A greater interest in Mormon history in the academy and in classrooms will be the result and the MHA will gain new voices, perspectives, information, and recognition.

As members of MHA are willing to show (with their financial support! And research!) that their work is valuable to both the Mormon history community as well as the broader academy, the MHA will become more than a niche academic organization. Indeed, in such a scenario the MHA emerge as a prototype for similar organizations to pattern themselves after academic and ecumenical, cutting-edge, and above all, useful to those inside and outside of the Mormon faith community and the Academy.

Article filed under Book and Journal Reviews Reflective Posts Responses


  1. I too loved Bill’s essay and could very much relate to it. The ecumenism fostered by MHA has, I believe, been a very positive influence on me and my own attitudes towards my restorationist cousins.

    Comment by Kevin Barney — March 25, 2015 @ 5:47 am

  2. Bill Russell is one of the pillars of the Mormon history community.

    Comment by Gary Bergera — March 25, 2015 @ 9:46 am

  3. Great reflections, Joey.

    Comment by Ben P — March 25, 2015 @ 1:05 pm

  4. Thanks for this, Joey. Good stuff.

    Comment by Christopher — March 26, 2015 @ 7:52 am

  5. Thanks, Joey.

    Comment by David G. — March 26, 2015 @ 12:42 pm

  6. […] Ulrich?s Personal Essay David Howlett on his own article on jobs and publishing in Mormon Studies J. Stuart on William Russell?s ?Shared RLDS/LDS Journey? Brett D. on Jared Farmer?s ?Crossroads of […]

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