The Significance of Leonard Arrington’s Diaries

The legacy of Leonard Arrington is familiar to anyone who studies Mormon history. Author of the classic monograph Great Basin Kingdom, Arrington was the known as the founder of the New Mormon History movement as well as the first academic to be appointed the official historian for the LDS Church. His decade-long tenure in the Church Office Building, affectionally heralded as “Camelot” in Mormon history circles, was known for its attempts at archival access and prodigious publishing. He is also known as a martyr figure due to a series of clashes with ecclesiastical leaders that led to his quiet dismissal and reassignment to BYU. There are few more significant figures in the development of academic Mormon history than this short and jovial professor born in Twin Falls, Idaho.

Arrington’s legacy received a boost a couple years ago when the University of Utah Press published Greg Prince’s exhaustive biography of the historian. (I offered some insights from the book here, and wrote a quasi-review here.) But this month Signature books published a three-volume edition of Arrington’s voluminous diaries, edited by Gary Bergera. The entire thing adds up to nearly 3,000 printed pages. Arrington commenced his diaries right before his call as Church Historian–that decision is one that should be celebrated by Mormon historians everywhere–and the records remained in-depth and detailed until the end of his tenure of the 1970s. After that, weekly letters through the rest of his life provided useful, if infrequent, additions.

First, a few thoughts on the presentation and publication of the diaries, before I get to the diaries’ contents itself.

Gary Bergera is a minimalist editor, in that his footnotes are rare and brief. He usually provides a one- or two-sentence background for individuals upon their first mention, and only offers contextual analysis in the most rare occasions. The longest footnotes are those that contain excerpts from official memos, also found in the Arrington Papers at Utah State University but not reproduced in these volumes. Though I usually prefer documentary histories to provide more analytical context–documents don’t interpret themselves–I concluded that Bergera’s approach was the best for this particular project: Arrington, obviously a historian himself, made sure his entries contained as much information as required to make sense of each episode; and further, the sheer length and word count for these volumes would have made it impossible to contain much of an editorial hand unless it were to become truly massive. Given these circumstances, then, I think Bergera strikes the right balance in presentation.

I also want to give a shout-out to Ardis Parshall who, as Bergera notes in the introduction, provided the first transcription of the entirety of these documents.

Now for the diaries.

Let me offer a spoiler here at the start: they’re phenomenal. But I’m sure you want more details than that.

To me, the most boring way to approach these diaries is to find insights into the scholars-vs-apostles culture war. Sure, that’s there—and what blew me away was how early the conflict started—and Arrington certainly frames things, especially in the late-70s, in that fashion. Those who wish to perpetuate this conflict and argue that the LDS leadership stifled critical inquiry will certainly gain more ammunition.

But we expected that. What I didn’t expect was the depth of cultural insight into LDS leadership and elite culture during the 1970s. Arrington was a sponge for gossip, news, and conversations, often dictating long entries that summarized lunch conversations and department meetings. He noted that there were regulations for who received the biggest desks, who had access to the nicest chairs, and what positions were allowed full-time assistants.

There’s another set of diaries that I found quite similar to Arrington’s. I’m currently working on a book project that digs into Nauvoo. Though there are lots and lots of sources that are crucial to understanding the period, William Clayton’s diaries—records that have their own controversial history—are one of the most significant. And as I’ve been simultaneously working through Clayton’s and Arrington’s diaries, I found them quite similar: both record lots of stories and insights overheard from church leaders above them, both were magnets for gossip, and both were unfiltered in their record-keeping. (Thankfully, Arrington’s diaries doesn’t contain awkward stories of polygamy—at least not involving him, anyway; there’s plenty of angst concerning the growing fundamentalist population in Utah.)

So here’s the comparison: as it is impossible to understand 1840s Mormonism without William Clayton’s diaries, it is impossible to understand 1970s Mormonism without Arrington’s.

I’ll provide just two examples, one in which Arrington shares a story passed on to him—there are a lot of stories like this—and one where Arrington was the first-hand recipient.

The first story concerns Joseph Fielding Smith. In the weeks following his death in 1972, Arrington captured a number of stories about the elderly prophet. What follows is just one of them, from 1:193-194. (Excuse the length; I promise it’s worth it.)

When Ed Lyon was a regular in the Institute of Religion at the University of Utah, a young fellow came in to see him about a private matter. He was tall, blond, and blue eyed and everybody recognized him as a son of prominent converts from Holland. He apparently came to see Brother Lyon on this matter because Brother Lyon had been president of the Dutch mission and had a special interest in immigrants from Holland. Brother Lyon knew that this was the youngest son of the immigrants and that his older brothers had been very active in the Church. One was a Stake President, another was a High Councilor, another in a Bishopric.

The boy explained to Brother Lyon that he had just discovered as the result of some genealogical research that one of his ancestors was a Negro. His great-grandfather had apparently gone to the West Indies and married a native woman who was half Negro and half Indian so that he was either one-64th or one-128th Negro. The boy was about to be married, and he wanted Brother Lyon to tell him whether he should tell the girl and the bishop, since almost certainly he would not be allowed to go to the Temple to be married. Brother Lyon told the boy, “Let me think about it a little.” he explained that Brother Spencer W. Kimball was coming to give a talk to Institute leaders on the Negro issue. “I’ll ask him what he thinks,” he said. When Brother Lyon went to Brother Kimball, Brother Kimball said, “I prefer not to say one thing about it. I think you should talk to Brother Joseph Fielding Smith.” Joseph Fielding met with the same group of Institute leaders to respond to their questions about doctrine, so Brother Lyon got the microphone and asked Brother Joseph Fielding Smith to respond to the question. He mentioned the details except the name and asked Joseph Fielding for his opinion as to whether the boy should tell the girl and the Bishop. Brother Joseph Fielding gave an immediate and stern response, saying “He is part Negro. Of course, he should tell the girl; of course, he should tell the Bishop; of course, he should not be married in the Temple. Our doctrine is very clear on that.”

When they were singing the final song, Brother Joseph F. motioned to Brother Lyon to come up. Brother Lyon walked up to him and Joseph Fielding whispered to him, “I have been thinking about that problem you raised. I have some thinking of all of the complications in the lives of that young brother’s family – the Stake . H, the High Councilor, the member of the Bishopric, and so on. All of these have been married in the Temple and have participated in Church ordinances. This would ruin their lives. I think it best, Brother Lyon, if you advise the young Brother to keep this matter to himself. He should not tell his fiancee nor his Bishop. This is something between him and the Lord, and if the Lord ratifies the sealing in the Temple, who are we to question it?”

In a year where scholars are reassessing the origins and endings of Mormonism’s racial restriction, anecdotes like this are crucial.

The second anecdote comes from Arrington’s first encounter with Gordon B. Hinckley. Though this meeting comes in early 1973, Hinckley wouldn’t become a key player in Arrington’s story until several years later. But this moment, on page 1:430, was instructive:

Elder Hinckley has large, clear blue eyes that are penetrating. They seem to stare at one – almost disapprovingly; strong, searching, inquisitorial, judgmental. Occasionally a twinkle and smile and joke. He was pleasant, if not charming; more formal and businesslike than relaxed and playful. He was always in command; we were invited to give comments, but after a discussion, he always summed up and gave the policy decision and the manner of implementing the policy without asking whether we approved. This [These] were off-the-cuff but carefully worded statements as if dictated to a secretary – some of them were dictated letters. From my point of view, he was always “right.” And I liked the efficiency with which he conducted the business.

As for history, my judgment is that he is more interesting in telling it like it has been told traditionally than as it may have been in fact. On a plaque to be erected at Garden Grove, he suggested for one side the famous quote of Eliza r. Snow about the nine babies born the first night out of Nauvoo. Ed Lyon pointed out that this cannot be verified; in fact, it is almost certainly wrong. She was not there; she reported it from hearsay; and the other evidence suggests this was not the case. Why would the Church encourage women who were in advanced stages of pregnancy to leave Nauvoo that February 6, 1846 when they were not compelled to leave at that time? No doubt the nine babies are those reported by patty Sessions – nine she had delivered over many days of the move – and that later in the year. Brother Hinckley wanted to accept the Eliza Snow quote. I spoke up to verify Brother Lyon’s conclusion about it. Brother Hinckley, all in good humor, said, just as you are skeptical of the authenticity of the Eliza R. Snow statement, I also am skeptical of the doubts expressed about it – and I am skeptical on the Lord’s side! Anyway, I think we raised enough questions that the quote will not be used. We must look for another.

Here we see the seeds of what Hinckley would later become: the driving force of Church leadership, a charismatic figure who can win over many sides, and someone who, though he doesn’t completely share the academic worldview, is pragmatic in his operation. It was Hinckley who was able to find a way to preserve, though in limited form, Arrington’s department when other apostles were ready to kick him to the curb. And it is insights like this that will be crucial to dissecting the actions of one of modern Mormonism’s most crucial actors.

In his excellent review of these diaries, Matt Bowman focused on how they reveal two crucial stories: Arrington as a modern liberal Protestant, and the prevalence of study groups in 1970s Salt Lake City as an arena in which Mormonism’s modern/elite culture played out. I add my “amen” to those observations. But we should also take note of the window Arrington provides into 1970s Mormon ecclesiastical culture, even if that window has a definite hue. These diaries grant incisive and fascinating insights into a moment when Mormonism was becoming modern—indeed, it’s the very decade the Church moved into its “modern” Church Office Building—and Arrington’s record will be significant for recording more things than mere battles between historians and priests.


4 Comments Add yours

  1. Tom Simpson says:

    Amazing — thanks so much for reviewing this essential work, Ben!


  2. Matt Harris says:

    Ben: I have a massive file in which apostles overlooked persons with “negro ancestry” and ordained them anyway. I’m pleased that Arrington captured Joseph Fielding Smith’s perspective here. A good story!


  3. haven’t read it all yet, but I know its going to be good, thanks. Read Arrington’s Great Basin Kingdom and American Moses when I was studying history at BYU-Idaho.


  4. its interesting how the advice changed when Prophet knew more about his family situation.


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