D. Michael Quinn, Mormon Capitalism, and New Mormon History

Few figures have been as paramount to the cultural history of Mormon scholarship as D. Michael Quinn. To some, he is an icon who fought for a more professional history and honest approach to the past; to others, he is a critic who fudges facts in order to present a polemical front. To everyone, his monumental texts are a must-read for those who wish to understand both Mormonism’s past as well as the politics of producing Mormonism’s past in the present. Though circumstances have left the community devoid of Quinn’s work for much of the past two decades, the publication of his long-anticipated The Mormon Hierarchy: Wealth and Corporate Power (Signature Books), the third volume in a series that dates back to the 1990s, gives occasion to reassess his immense contribution. It also provides a chance to engage the historiographical movement he represented.

Quinn was a researcher for Leonard Arrington’s “Camelot” division during the 1970s, during which time he also received a PhD in history from Yale and began teaching at Brigham Young University. He then proceeded to publish an extraordinary stream of significant articles on a wide range of topics, notably prayer circles, the succession crisis, and, most controversially, post-manifesto polygamous unions. Due to increasing pressure both inside and outside BYU, he resigned his position in 1988, the year after he published his first major book, Early Mormonism and the Magic Worldview.

Now liberated as an independent historian, Quinn unleashed a publishing streak rarely rivaled in the field. Over about a decade, he produced, with Signature Books, two substantial volumes in the Mormon Hierarchy series, a revised and enlarged version of Early Mormonism and the Magic Worldview, as well as a biography of twentieth century Mormon leader J. Reuben Clark (an expanded and revised version of a smaller book he wrote a decade earlier). He also published his first (and thus far, only) book with a university press, Same-Sex Dynamics Among Nineteenth-Century Americans: A Mormon Example (University of Illinois Press). These remain significant volumes within the world of Mormon history.

What made this productivity even more noteworthy was it took place amidst growing cultural controversy. Due to a confluence of events, Quinn was among the “September Six” who were excommunicated in 1993. As a result, Quinn was now a cultural icon, frequently speaking about and writing on his journey from BYU professor to infamous dissident. Stories were written about how Mormon money prevented him from gaining new academic appointments. (Though the parochial nature of his work likely also played a role.) The momentum could only last so long, however, as his publications tailed off after the Clark volume in 2002. Interest has been piqued once again in recent years, with a notable essay in Slate (see also my reflections here), as well as the MHA awarding him the prestigious Arrington Award (fore lifetime accomplishments) in 2016.

And now we finally have the third volume for his Mormon Hierarchy series, titled Wealth and Corporate Power. The book is made up of three essays and twenty-one appendixes, and it tells the story of how the LDS Church transformed from an institution struggling for cash to a global conglomerate with billions of dollars in revenue. Chapters deal with such things as the wealth and finances of Church leaders—allowances for leaders were not standardized until the 1960s, and many were involved in other corporations until that time—as well as the numerous (and often staggering) church-funded organizations that dotted first Utah and then, later, the broader nation and world.

Quinn’s traditional strengths are on full display in the volume. His familiarity with a host of archival sources—many of which later became restricted—is unmatched, and I learned a lot of new things I hadn’t considered before. As with the other volumes in the Mormon Hierarchy series, Quinn is able to offer an unprecedented look into the dynamics, personalities, and conditions of LDS leadership. In an era dedicated to transparency, and increasingly obsessed with the use and abuse of money, the details provided in this book are crucial.

But Quinn’s work also reveals the marks of his own era. The primary goal is often to present undigested information rather than craft a persuasive narrative, argument, or interpretation. Perhaps even more than the series’ other volumes, this work bounces between decades and even generations, often within the span of a few pages. (See, for example, his discussion on how Mormons used the term “business” on pages 50-51, or footnote 12 for chapter 2 which is a long—and tangential—discussion of alcohol.) Some of the chapters end abruptly, even without a conclusion. Once dissected, it is clear Wealth and Corporate Power is mostly dedicated to presenting as much raw material as possible: in a 600 page book, once you exclude the endnotes and (extensive) appendixes, there are only 110 pages of actual analysis. To an extent, this book should be categorized as an annotated bibliography.

This approach is reflective of its historiographic origins. And as with many texts in New Mormon history, details often take precedent over context: Quinn is reticent to cite the broader American environment in which these activities take place. Readers hardly ever get a sense of whether what is going on within Mormonism is reflective of or divergent from America writ large.

Which is a shame, because to paraphrase the wise Mugatu, the study of business and religion is so hot right now. There has been a litany of recent books, included an essay collection that reflects the vibrancy of the field. The new wave of Mormon Studies, built on the shoulders of New Mormon History, is dedicated to demonstrating how Mormonism can shed light on these broader cultural trends. There is still a lot of work to do when it comes to the LDS Church and twentieth-century corporate culture. Future historians will have to take the material provided by Quinn in the quest to tell the larger story.

So, in a way, Quinn’s work is simultaneously reflective of where the Mormon history field has been as well as where it is yet to go. Yet even while his books, including Wealth and Corporate Power, are ill-fit for the historical field today, the fact that they remain important for historians demonstrates his prolonged significance. That academics still engage his work, despite its dated methods and lack of conclusions, is a major accomplishment in its own right. The Mormon Hierarchy series might not make it on any syllabus, but its volumes will likely be found on the bookshelves closest to the historian’s desk.

They certainly are on mine.

[BTW: you can listen to a good interview between Quinn and RadioWest here.]

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