Two Thoughts on Leonard Arrington and the Writing of Mormon History (Utah, 2016)

By July 8, 2016

Gregory A. Prince, Leonard Arrington and the Writing of Mormon History (Salt Lake City: University of Utah Press, 2016), and
David O. McKay and the Rise of Modern Mormonism (Salt Lake City: University of Utah Press, 2005), with William Robert Wright.


Leonard Arrington and the Writing of Mormon History is perhaps most usefully read in tandem with Prince?s earlier book published with the University of Utah Press, David O. McKay and the Rise of Modern Mormonism (with William Robert Wright; 2005). The covers of the two books resemble each other; their size, in both height and width as well as thickness, are all designed to present them as visual twins. I think we might be able to read them as an intellectual pair as well.

First, one might take them as two more entries in a common historiographical narrative: the Weberian institutionalization of Mormon charisma. Thomas Alexander?s Mormonism in Transition: A History of the Latter-day Saints, 1890-1930 (Illinois, 1984) is the quintessential entry in this particular historiographical canon, but one might pick up Prince?s two books (or D. Michael Quinn?s biography of J. Reuben Clark) roughly where Alexander leaves off. Prince?s story in both works is about how the Mormon wrestle with the issues of the postwar era (globalization; race; the rise of intellectual modernity) gave birth to the present day Mormon bureaucracy. Prince tends to be more suspicious of this process than is Alexander, though this may reflect his subjects as much as his personal inclinations.

Nonetheless, read this way the books are quite valuable. Prince patiently dissects the establishment of a variety of contemporary Mormon institutions. The McKay book surveys a range of efforts to modernize Mormonism, from the Mormon media apparatus to the church?s building program, and it offers easily one of the best single chapter discussions of the rise of Mormon correlation in existence. The Arrington book, on the other hand, offers a deep dive into the travails of a single such institution, the Historical Department of the Church (until Arrington?s appointment the ?Church Historian?s Office”) where Arrington served as the only PhD to ever hold the office of Church Historian. He served from 1972 to 1982, and was more or less forced from the job to a post at Brigham Young University by apostles unhappy with the adherence to professional, rather than devotional, language in the work his office produced. Both stories help us grapple with the questions surrounding Mormonism?s engagement with modernity: how Mormons came to grips with an American public sphere that increasingly spoke the language of expertise rather than the language of religion, an American culture that increasingly valued religious pluralism, and a society increasingly bureaucratized and organized.

Another way to read these books is as an intervention into the ongoing debate into what Mormonism should be: that is, less descriptive than normative, or perhaps aspirational. Prince finds both his protagonists appealing, for similar reasons. He admires McKay?s generous instincts and gentle broadmindedness, and his Arrington exhibits many of the same qualities, as well as an earned confidence in the compatibility of faith and academic scholarship. He finds them congenial, both as individuals and as images for what Mormons might be like (though he is historian enough to avoid making either seem flawless). Prince depicts both men as essentially warm humanists ill-suited for combat by memo in the trenches of Church administration. Their flaws are similar; neither man especially enjoyed or was good at confrontation. McKay, Prince writes, ?in private . . . made statements that were not always consistent, sometimes leading to major conflicts and misunderstandings.? (292) McKay for instance sometimes reined the vocal, and increasingly political, anti-communist apostle Ezra Taft Benson, and sometimes did not, depending on who the last person in his office was. Similarly, according to Prince Arrington seemed to believe that good work would win out on its own merits; he ?moved boldly to implement an entirely new approach to the writing of church history without laying the groundwork that would first build trust from and consensus within the Twelve.? (362) Arrington had early support from powerful members of the Church?s leadership, including church presidents Harold B. Lee and Spencer W. Kimball, as well as N. Eldon Tanner of the First Presidency. He seems to have believed this would insulate him from any critics, and thus failed to cultivate relationships with, or mount defenses against, certain members of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles who were suspicious of his work from the start.

Both men as Prince depicts them are sympathetic to liberal Protestant ways of thinking about religion: essentially ecumenical, friendly toward academic scholarship, and driven by ethics rather than by dogma.These ideas are present obliquely in the McKay book, in Prince?s devotion of an entire setpiece to McKay?s reception of a blessing from the Episcopal bishop Arthur Moulton, as well as Prince?s approving recapitulation of McKay?s various minor heresies, infractions so trivial that only the most officious Mormons would find them offensive (which is, of course, the point). McKay enjoyed rum cake and Coke; he defended various heterodox Mormons from their antagonists, and so on.

In the Arrington book these ideas are more prominent, in part because Arrington himself was more conscious of them than McKay seems to have been, and in part because Prince?s authorial presence is sharper in this book, his shadow behind the curtain more visible, than in his McKay biography. In college Arrington encountered the work of the George Santayana, a self-described ?aesthetic Catholic? who did not believe in God and yet advocated for religion?s value as a cultural and ethical system. In Arrington?s words, Santayana ?helped me to understand that it isn?t important whether certain religious or theological affirmations are truths in a literal sense, or whether they are true in a symbolic or poetic sense.? Prince follows this up with the observation that these are ?concepts that continue to escape many of his faith tradition.? (110) Yet they made it possible for Arrington to reconcile religion and science and to understand that religious authority must give way before professional scholarship. Such editorial asides are common in this book, and they?re both interesting and worthwhile, I think, because they signal to us precisely what Prince is doing.

Leonard Arrington and the Writing of Mormon History can thus be read both as a work of scholarship and as a work of advocacy; Prince desires both to outline the historical argument I?ve discussed above and to make a case for a certain type of Mormonism. His heavy reliance on interviews, I suspect, presses this book slightly more than the McKay book toward the second goal, because he relies on voices that advocate for Arrington?s point of view and finds it congenial to his own. It?s these ends that make Prince?s work both deeply historical but also, in his way, deeply Mormon.

Article filed under Miscellaneous


  1. Nice work Matt. Expresses my thoughts about the books but in a far more incisive and concise way than I could do it.

    Comment by WVS — July 9, 2016 @ 8:35 pm

  2. Good work. MB.

    Comment by JJohnson — July 10, 2016 @ 12:01 am

  3. What are your thoughts about the contributions to the study of modern Mormonism of the CD-ROM material that accompanies Edward L Kimball’s biography of his father, Lengthen Your Stride? I know that the material on the CD differs substantially from the printed version of the book, particularly with respect to the revelation on Priesthood. To avoid the possibility that it might be completely overlooked, BYU Studies published that portion of the CD material as a separate article. I personally found Kimball’s recounting of the historical contexts and personalities that were involved in the 1978 revelation very fascinating.

    Comment by ricke — July 12, 2016 @ 7:46 pm

  4. Thanks folks.

    Ricke: though I’m not sure how that relates to this review, I agree that Kimball’s work is useful.

    Comment by matt b — July 13, 2016 @ 12:06 pm

  5. It’s a side note to be sure. It came to mind because you mentioned the books by Quinn, Alexander, and these two by Prince. I wondered if you left Kimball’s book off your short list because you didn’t see the value in it, or for some other reason. Sorry.

    Comment by ricke — July 13, 2016 @ 2:21 pm


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