Review: Bergera, ed., CONFESSIONS OF A MORMON HISTORIAN: THE DIARIES OF LEONARD J. ARRINGTON (Signature Books, 2018)

By May 21, 2018

Leonard Arrington loved people. “From as early as I can remember, I had a positive attitude toward people,” he wrote several years into his retirement. (3:645) Elsewhere he mused that had he not ended up a historian, “I would have been drawn into politics and would have done well, I think.” (3:133) Arrington was a handshaker and a backslapper, a gossip and a bearer of Christmas gifts. He was an extrovert, an inveterate socializer (out of the house four or five nights a week, some weeks, driven forward by a positive starvation for conversation that seems to have exhausted his wife Grace at times), and a manager loved by his subordinates for his care and supportiveness, if not his bureaucratic acumen.

Arrington’s delight in and longing for community was not simply a matter of temperament. It was a matter of theology. It was his Mormonism. That is not, of course, normally the theme his story is given. The diaries certainly document the better-known story; the fascinating account of Arrington’s service in what is variously called the Church Historian’s Office or Church History Division of the church’s Historical Department (a larger bureaucratic umbrella that also included the church’s archives and the department operating the church’s historic sites). Arrington’s appointment, initiated by First Presidency member N. Eldon Tanner with the support of church presidents Joseph Fielding Smith and Harold B. Lee and Spencer W. Kimball, came with a new mandate. Arrington and his staff were to research and publish material on the history of the Latter-day Saints. As his ten years in the job went on, the jovial Arrington was baffled when he found his work increasingly criticized, his office monitored, his subordinates questioned and their publications scrutinized for reasons he could never quite understand.

This is not to say he could not explain the fears of his adversaries well enough; he could, and often laid them out in the diaries. Some of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, particularly Ezra Taft Benson and Mark E. Petersen (as well as a few other figures who appear far more fleetingly, like Benson’s secretary William Nelson and the archivist Thomas Truitt, the latter one of the few people on earth whom Arrington seems to have genuinely disliked) felt that the matter-of-fact historical work Arrington’s office churned out did not do enough to promote faith. Instead they feared its frankness about (to take one example which particularly seems to have offended Petersen) Brigham Young’s tobacco use or the resemblance between Joseph Smith’s law of consecration and other antebellum economic experiments would confuse Latter-day Saints accustomed to heroic leaders inspired by God alone. A good example is the conflict engendered upon the publication of The Story of the Latter-day Saints, a fine single volume history of Mormonism Arrington’s staffers James Allen and Glen Leonard produced. The book was intended for LDS readers but attracted respectful attention outside the church. Arrington was quite fond of the book, and Spencer Kimball, president of the church at the time, praised it repeatedly. Arrington, characteristically, was blindsided when he was summoned to a meeting with Kimball, Benson, Petersen and others to discuss the latter two’s criticisms of the book: that it did not ascribe enough events in church history to divine providence, that it contextualized church history in the social currents of the time, and so on. (2:238) Though Arrington felt the meeting went well, afterward rumors spread throughout the church bureaucracy that Petersen and Benson were seeking to marginalize the book. Arrington later mourned that he should have been more attuned to potential criticism from apostles suspicious of academics and done more to head off their complaints. (3:450)

Arrington could explain these reasons. But they never quite made sense to him. Instead he repeatedly asserted his belief that, as he put it, “I stand on two legs—the leg of faith and the leg of reason.” (1:233) Arrington believed strongly that both legs were necessary; that they shared the weight of the religious life, and that to lose either would leave him crippled. This image is fascinating because it’s clear that Arrington is well aware that many people—indeed, that modernity itself—had cultivated the sense that reason and revelation are different things, and yet he is determined to show that the two can and must be reconciled. This is Protestant liberalism 101, and Arrington knew it. He was quite conscious of his own intellectual genealogy and the diary often elaborates upon it. Arrington was the product of his schooling in the 1920s and 1930s, an era in which American higher education was dominated by liberal Protestantism, and academic work by progressive philosophy. Arrington—like other Mormons, as Thomas Simpson’s American Universities and the Birth of Modern Mormonism (University of North Carolina Press, 2016) has documented—drank deep of all these things.

So, in his diary Arrington praises George S. Tanner, from whom Arrington took classes in the Church-sponsored Institute program. Tanner held a divinity degree from the University of Chicago, which was the center of liberal Protestant education in the United States in the early twentieth century. There he studied with Edgar Goodspeed, one of the leading exponents of Biblical higher criticism in the United States, and wrote a thesis embedding Mormonism in the historical currents of nineteenth century American religion. Arrington names Tanner one of the two or three most influential teachers of his life, particularly thinking Tanner for teaching Arrington how to read scripture as what Arrington called “myth,” a characteristically liberal Protestant term ascendant in early twentieth century Biblical studies. Arrington (and liberal Protestant scholars) insisted the word is not a pejorative whose primary meaning was “not factual.” Rather, myth was, as Arrington puts it, an “epic that explains matters which are otherwise unexplainable . . . We have a Christian epic which is ‘true,’ beautiful, praiseworthy, important to believe and accept. In that same sense we have a Mormon epic.” (3:188; 2:459; 3:294, etc)

Likewise, occasionally throughout the diary Arrington makes lists of books that deeply marked him. The only title which appears every time is Reason in Religion, the third of five volumes in the philosopher George Santayana’s The Life of Reason. (for instance, 3:294, 2:389; 3:188) Santayana is an idiosyncratic figure, a Spaniard and a lapsed Catholic who spent most of his life in the United States, but he shared with the Catholic modernists and liberal Protestants of his time a certain set of convictions about religion: first, that it is a historical phenomenon, which is to say that its manifestation in any given time or place is the product of historical circumstances. Second, and therefore, the most important religious manifestations are for the individual spiritual and personal and for society ethical and moral. Religion, for Santayana, is the proximate manifestation of eternal truth.

Arringon, who believed this, was something of a Mormon liberal Protestant. This was not atypical at the time; the ranks of church intellectuals in the early twentieth century were stocked with these sort, from Sterling McMurrin to Heber Snell, though their numbers in church leadership were much narrower (not even B.H. Roberts or John Widtsoe really fit the bill). Liberal Protestants tended to downplay the importance of strict orthodoxy, of ritual, and of salvation in the afterlife. Instead, as Arrington said, he learned from Santayana and Tanner to be a “Christian first and Mormon second” (1:459)—and by Christian he means a person committed to basic kindness and good behavior, without much consideration for precision of doctrine, or much concern for truth claims, or much investment in its salvific message. This is a classically liberal Protestant way of approaching religion, and that it undoubtedly appeals to many people today shows simply how thoroughly that form of the faith has won over American culture, despite widespread fears of the Religious Right.

At the same time, though, Arrington was also deeply Mormon. Alongside Tanner and Santayana, he also frequently cites Lowry Nelson’s sociological classic The Mormon Village. It’s the influence of this book, in congruence with his liberal Protestant sentiments, that makes me wonder if Arrington himself would want to interpret his story as one of intellectual combat. If he learned from the former authors the importance of myth and ethics, he learned from the latter the importance of community. Arrington claimed he read Lowry in college, roughly the same years he encountered Reason in Religion, and it marked how he thought about what it meant to be a Mormon. “I did not grow up in a Mormon village, but at the same time grew up in a loyal Mormon family,” he wrote wistfully. (1:838) He learned from Nelson two things: first, that Mormonism could be studied academically, but secondly, that the Mormons’ most admirable traits were their communal commitments, loyalty, and simple neighborliness.

To frame Arrington’s story as simply one of combat between free inquiry and repressive hierarchy would, then, be simple. It is true that Arrington was staunchly committed to historical accuracy and to exhaustive documentation; indeed his faith in these things was such that he repeatedly uses the word “truth” to describe what he sought to document. (1:242, 286, etc) He was trained, of course, as an economic historian, one comfortable with the empiricism popular in the quantitative history of his time, and historians trained in the midst of the cultural turn of the past few decades would be less likely to use that language—we are too conditioned today to be wary of perspective and the limitations imposed by the fact that the sources we have about the past are always fragmentary. The sources from which we try to assemble the story of Nauvoo polygamy, for instance, are a wildly uneven amalgam of affidavits left years or decades later, allusive letters, fragmentary diaries, hostile exposes, faithful apology—it is difficult for any historian to assert certainty about much surrounding the whole affair.

Knowing this, Arrington would likely be pleased with the editorial job done on his diaries. He clearly wanted them widely read. He frequently seeks to explain things potential readers might not understand and his accounts of his work for the Church are punctuated with entries reminiscing about his youth, education, and past, sometimes given titles to help guide the reader. The team at Signature Books has taken to heart Arrington’s evident desire and sought to fashion the diaries into a documentary source Arrington could be proud of. They have given us an exhaustive and thorough index, a useful timeline of national and local events, an excellent short biography of Arrington, many photographs, and essays by some of those close to him, as well as Gary James Bergera’s meticulous footnotes identifying persons and events and offering clarification and description. This apparatus occasionally presses interpretation upon the raw material of the diary itself—for instance, Howard W. Hunter is identified as “an attorney [who] valued evidence based history” in a photo caption (3:700)—and certain events in the timeline and footnotes seem selected to advance a story of ideological conflict. Overall, however, Signature is to be praised for their work here.

Arrington’s Mormonism in the 1970s was a religion of study groups. Arrington exhaustively documents his appearances in an endless stream of living rooms and meeting houses, sometimes as a presenter but often simply as a participant. The Skidmore group in Logan, the Cannon-Hinckley group in Salt Lake City, the Campbell group in Provo, the Rogers group in South Salt Lake, the Curtis group near the University of Utah, the Tipton group in Springville, the Wiscombe group and Cooley group and Young group in Salt Lake, the Vance group in Federal Heights near the Salt Lake City cemetery. And that is only in his first year and a half in the job. Of the last Arrington recalled “In contrast with most study groups that I have met with, this one was very serious, sober, and searching. There were no small jokes, no bantering, no relaxed enjoyment.” (1:185) He seemed disappointed. Many of these groups were attended by high-ranking Mormon leaders; the Cannon-Hinckley group often saw General Authorities visiting or presenting, and Arrington meticulously noted who showed up where. There are at least two stories here. One is about the intellectual trajectory of twentieth century Mormonism, and how vibrant its communities were in the early era of correlation; at the same time the official discourse of the church was increasingly standardized and simplified under the direction of the various bureaucracies the correlation movement created, an unofficial intellectual world remained dynamic with the tacit approval of church leadership.  The other story is how small the world of the 1970s Mormon elite really was. There was hardly a discussion group without a Seventy or apostle’s son or former president of the church’s daughter in attendance. And though he often expresses his fondness for the first story, it’s the world of the second that Arrington particularly valued.

When Arrington met with the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles in February 1972 to offer plans for the reinvigorated church historian’s office he proposed to lead, he observed that several apostles raised questions that in retrospect seem foreboding: Boyd K. Packer and Ezra Taft Benson worried about who Arrington might appoint to various positions and the number of new jobs necessary for Arrington’s ambitious plans; Mark E. Petersen expressed concern about making all the material in church archives readily available. (1:111) And yet Arrington records with a sense of “awe and reverence” the “privilege” of meeting with the Quorum, and gives detail of the remarkable scene of himself sitting outside the meeting room of the Twelve in the Salt Lake temple, listening to the apostles sing “Nearer My God to Thee,” guided by Delbert Stapley’s resonant bass, and Ezra Taft Benson pray for “spiritual understanding and obedience” before being ushered into their presence. After several of them asked Arrington questions, Packer made a motion to accept his proposal, and the new historian remembered that “good feeling had prevailed throughout.” (1:114) The story is striking, but Arrington’s interpretation of it even more telling.

In 1982 the apostle Gordon B. Hinckley orchestrated Arrington’s removal to Brigham Young University. The historian and his closest associates were dispatched to the new Joseph Fielding Smith Institute, where they would continue to write history. Arrington believed Hinckley did this with one eye on the growing power of Arrington’s adversaries in the church hierarchy. (3:496) A few years later he listed those accomplishments he was proudest of from his tenure in the Church Historians’ Office in a meeting at the Institute. He listed the publications his office produced, the documents they made available, and the research they made possible. But items near the beginning and ending of Arrington’s list are telling. The first was that when Maureen Ursenbach Beecher, a historian and editor on his staff, had a child, church employment policy mandated she be fired. Arrington went to war for her. He lobbied the Quorum of the Twelve and effected a change in church policy which allowed her to keep her job. Arrington said the change not only “permitted us to employ Carol [Cornwall Madsen, another historian] but think of the many others.” (3:448)

Arrington’s relationship with Mormon women’s history is telling. He was sometimes tone deaf. He could occasionally speak as though women’s history was something that (mostly) women would write and that (mainly) women would read. But he also had close relationships with many women advocating for greater visibility and authority in the church and spoke up for them—defending Lavina Fielding Anderson after she lost her job at the church magazine Ensign, for instance. (3:196) In his office, women were primarily support staff and most historians were male, but he also noted in his diary that he was annoyed no women sat on the stand during the church’s General Conference. (2:848) He was an advocate for women writing history and for the writing of women’s history and was touched when Claudia Bushman edited a historical volume called Mormon Sisters and dedicated it to Arrington, with the epigraph “He takes us seriously.” (3:463) He frequently recorded conversations with women friends dissatisfied with the Mormon patriarchy—women like Jan Tyler, Lavina Anderson, Carol Lynn Pearson, Ida Smith, and others, though he often recorded their opinions without passing any judgment of his own, a habit which makes his participation in such conversations feel rather anthropological. He roused himself most often when the problems—as with Anderson and Beecher—touched the community he built and treasured.

Among the last items on Arrington’s list, was, he said, “I am proud that we have, in effect, created a community of LDS historians.” (3:450) He reached out to what was then called the RLDS church. He founded the Western History Association and the Mormon History Association and helped to found Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought. He was a mentor and an advocate, but in so doing he was, as he understood it, a Mormon. His sense of religion as a ground for fellowship and sociability, rather than as a source of doctrine or ritual, guided him as he sought to do the public work of Mormon history. It also made it difficult for him to grapple with leaders like Benson and Petersen who understood Mormonism in different ways and with different priorities.

 

Article filed under Miscellaneous


  1. I love the nuance of Arrington, here, and the diaries seem like a great way to understand Mormonism forty years ago. Thanks, Matt!

    Comment by Jeff T — May 21, 2018 @ 10:01 am

  2. Thanks for this, Matt. From the first time I’ve read *Adventures of a Church Historian* I’ve wondered how Arrington could be so oblivious to church politics. This has helped me make sense of his frustration with navigating the church bureaucracy but also raises new questions about how the LDS Church’s globalization is still embroiled in questions of history.

    Comment by J Stuart — May 21, 2018 @ 10:01 am

  3. Thanks, Matt. Interesting view into the life and diaries of a fascinating man who was probably thirty years before his time.

    Comment by Wally — May 21, 2018 @ 10:58 am

  4. Thanks for this excellent review, Matt.

    Comment by Kevin Barney — May 21, 2018 @ 2:47 pm

  5. Thanks for this great review. Three cheers for Mormon liberal Protestants!

    Comment by Jason K. — May 21, 2018 @ 6:47 pm

  6. Thanks, Matt. While I may quibble over some minor details (for example, I believe the caption to Howard W. Hunter’s photograph is, in fact, factually accurate), I much appreciate the attention to Arrington as Arrington. For what it’s worth, given the “baggage” we all bring to our reading, it won’t surprise me that every reader’s experience of Arrington and his diaries will probably be different.

    Comment by Gary Bergera — May 22, 2018 @ 10:34 am

  7. Brilliant, as always. Thanks, Matt.

    Comment by LisaT — May 22, 2018 @ 10:48 am

  8. Thanks folks – and especially to Gary for chiming in!

    As to the Hunter caption, I agree that it’s factually accurate; of course, though, the facts one chooses to present cannot help but offer interpretation.

    Comment by matt b — May 22, 2018 @ 4:16 pm


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