Coming to Terms with Arrington’s Legacy: My Remarks at #MHA2016

[This weekend I had the privilege of responding to a paper by Gregory Prince titled “Leonard Arrington and the History Division: Lessons to be Learned.” Greg’s paper was drawn from his brand-new biography of Arrington, which I’ve already highlighted here. Below is my response. Note that this isn’t necessarily a review of the book, as I’m primarily responding to themes raised in Greg’s MHA paper. At some point I’ll have a more traditional review of the excellent volume.]

 First, a confession: I am one of those that Greg Prince characterized as only knowing Leonard Arrington “by reputation.” Indeed, I was not born until after the demise of “Camelot,” and I did not even start my undergraduate education until about a decade after his death. But the fact that Arrington’s legacy hovers over my current scholarship and his image is seared into my conception of the current field attests to his lasting legacy and importance. Coming to grips with Arrington and his tenure as the LDS Church’s official historian seems to be a rite of passage for young Mormon scholars. For me, it was the Christmas break in 2012 that I felt I had to measure Arrington’s contributions, and I devoted myself for two weeks to read Great Basin Kingdom, Brigham Young: American Moses, Adventures of a Church Historian, as well as the private biography by Lavina Fielding Anderson and the public biography by Gary Topping. And I eagerly devoured this new biography by Prince within a couple sittings, which I found both engaging and eye-opening. We as a community are fortunate that Arrington has received the same Princely treatment as David O. McKay.

 We are used to understanding Arrington as a historian and as a—if not the—founding father of New Mormon History, as someone who helped frame how we study historical actors. But perhaps the time has come to consider him as a historical actor himself. Now, it might be difficult for some of us in this room, including myself, to admit that Arrington was a man of his time and had serious flaws or impressions left by his surrounding culture, but Prince’s paper, and the book from which it is drawn, should knock us out of that misbegotten assumption. Arrington was more than just a chronicler of the Mormon past, but he was a flashpoint of the Mormon contemporary, and through his eyes we can see the evolution of a transitional religious culture. Just as he did with McKay, Prince aims to show a much larger Mormon story than merely the life of one of its central figures; indeed, I found some of the more interesting chapters in the book to be those that focused on how the Church dealt with race, gender, and intellectual issues during the 1970s and 1980s. Even more interesting, in my opinion, were the sections on Arrington’s own theological struggles, either over evolution and science (which were saved through the exposure to BH Roberts) or the Book of Mormon and historicity (which were saved through John Sorenson’s limited geography model). It turns out that Arrington’s diaries are not only chock-full of Church Office Building gossip, but also the poignant rumination of a believer working out his own issues. Once his diaries are published this fall, I look forward to scholars dissecting these intellectual battles in the quest to trace the developing modern Mormon mind.

 There are two particular contexts invoked in Prince’s paper that I’d like to highlight: the intellectual circle of the Mormon history community that Arrington helped foster, and the ecclesiastical leadership community against which Arrington often grated. 

 First, the MHA community. Prince mentions Arrington’s devotion to welcoming non-experts into MHA’s ranks, a tradition that has carried on until today. One of the things I found most interesting in the biography is that Arrington was himself, in a way, an outsider to the history profession: he was trained in economics, hired as an economics instructor, and never taught a history class until he was hired at BYU as part of his Church Historian position. Perhaps this is why he was so open to those who didn’t necessarily have a PhD in history. And perhaps it was because of his own ecumenical background—including marrying someone who wouldn’t become a Mormon until years later—that led him to be so welcoming to those outside of the LDS faith. But regardless of what led Arrington to mold MHA into his own image, it is important to ask a nagging question: why did these relationships require forging in the first place?

 The Mormon History Association is quite unique among scholarly societies in terms of the type of cultural role it plays, as well as the types of participants it draws. For one, this is one of the few scholarly conferences where people actually attend the sessions—a testament to the importance of content as well as camaraderie. But the blend of academic, amateur, and armchair, all coming from divergent backgrounds and often asking very different questions and always approaching from disparate perspectives—the only field that comes close to matching it is Civil War Studies. So what does it mean that this type of historical community is tethered to the study of the Mormon past? I think Arrington’s tale tells us a lot about the need for alternate spaces, the yearning for high-minded ecumenicism, and the yearning for academic credibility. Arrington’s own life seems to highlight this pivot: sprinkled throughout the biography are references to these huge history gatherings that drew from Salt Lake City’s intelligentsia, and the demise of those groups was concomitant with the rise of other organizations, namely MHA and Sunstone.

 So much for the intellectual community. The second context I’d like to focus on—the ecclesiastical context—is very much a continuation of Prince’s previous work on David O McKay, where he charted the rise of LDS bureaucracy. In short, Prince demonstrates the power that the Quorum of the Twelve continues to wield in today’s Church. Briefly mentioned in this paper today, though more extensively documented in the book, Prince casts Arrington as being naive concerning the machinations of apostles who disapproved of the Church History Division’s work. When the Church President is either incapacitated or unwilling to make the defense of Leonard’s staff a priority, it allowed others to wrest control and cause alarm. Arrington’s tale offers a peek behind the curtain of how the LDS leadership structure can operate, a lesson that should add context for more recent decisions announced by that body last fall. 

 But. In reading through this tale of ecclesiastical developments during the 1970s and 1980s, we must remember we are not necessarily seeing these actions through Arrington’s eyes but rather his pen. That is, Arrington crafted the narrative of his day just as much as he did those of the past. While Prince is to be commended for pointing out Arrington’s role in Camelot’s demise, it should be noted that those flaws often take the form of naive optimism or innocent miscalculation. The Arrington we meet in Prince’s biography is largely the same image crafted within Arrington’s own diaries: the idealist dreamer who becomes a martyr. Now I’m sure those who knew him will be quick to say that that indeed was the Leonard they knew, but such a framing of “naive good” on the one hand and “conniving bad” on the other threatens to perpetuate the Mormon cultural wars traced in the book rather than offer a detached analysis. (I think the treatment of G. Homer Durham is perhaps the biggest example of this dynamic.) To be sure, I’m not offering an apologetic defense of those who worked to censor Arrington’s work, but I am saying the cultural battle over the meaning of providentialist history is a much broader religious context that can be quickly forgotten in our local tale of Church Office Building battles.

 The final anecdote with which Prince concludes today is tragically ironic in highlighting this tension. Former Sunstone editor Elbert Peck describes a particular young scholar named Bryan Waterman, who, at a Mormon History Association meeting perhaps not too different from the one we’re attending today, looked up at Arrington and, with tears in his eyes, regarded him as a modern-day George Washington. This is the symbol many of us would like to picture when conceiving the transfer of scholarly generations, yet it is not as rosy as originally depicted. Waterman did indeed evolve into a stalwart scholar: he received a doctorate from Boston University, became a professor at the world-leading New York University, and published a stream of scholarship that advanced him to the head of the field of early American literature. Yet he also left both the Mormon and Mormon history communities. Joanna Brooks recently recollected to me a scene from a decade ago when Bryan gave her a box of his remaining Mormon history books, a moment that served a final symbolic severance. To continue the “Utah War” metaphor Prince invoked today, there were definite casualties of the Mormon history battles, and we are still missing a “lost generation” of scholars who came of age during the late 1980s and early 1990s who decided this field, on either sides of the divide, would not be receptive to the plow. That’s a context that deserves dissection from both angles.

 I think it’s safe to say that most people in this room are prone to sympathize with Arrington. Perhaps even defend him—most likely to irrational lengths. Good! Allow me to join you! But eventually we will need to take an even-handed approach, more than we have thus far been capable, to understand the cultural evolutions that Arrington both influenced and was influenced by. The growth of New Mormon History did not merely provide the scholarly standards upon which we now build, but it served as a social flashpoint for understanding the birth of Modern Mormonism, where key questions of contemporary faith, devotion, and intellectualism were wrestled with in crucial ways. More than just reverencing figures like Arrington, we must also contextualize them, much as the New Mormon History expects of our analyses of prominent LDS authorities: take them off of their pedestals, dissect their meanings, and display their lessons. The task of the historical anatomist is not for the feint of heart, but that’s part of what makes it necessary and rewarding. That seems to be the standard left for us to reach for today, a standard that we can only hope encourages us to make the sort of responsible strides Arrington himself exemplified.


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