The Church Should Stay Out of the History BusinessBy: Mormon Heretic
More than almost any other religion, Mormonism delves into its history. We draw upon our history to teach lessons. Yet sometimes, the Church doesn’t like to emphasize certain parts of history. In the 1970s and 80s, New Mormon History started to make headway, and the Church hired a professional historian, Dr. Leonard Arrington to be the official Church Historian. But the experiment didn’t last for very many years; Arrington was unceremoniously dumped, and the position lay vacant until it was resurrected recently under the leadership of Seventy Marlin Jensen.
Richard Bushman was interviewed by John Dehlin back in 2007. Bushman advocated the position that Church history should be left to the professionals, and the Church should avoid entanglements with history.
John Dehlin, “Did you know Leonard Arrington, Lowell Bennion, and T. Edgar Lyon? Can you talk a little bit about about (1) what you felt or experienced during what many call the Camelot years of church history, (2) how you got hooked up to help Leonard Arrington to work on the sesquicentennial series that he was hoping to write, and then (3) and (4) how you felt when that got cancelled and how you felt about the way that that era sort of concluded?”
Bushman, “Well, I didn’t know T. Edgar Lyon very well. I knew his son very well, he was a bishop in the same building where I was. We both had a young singles ward in Cambridge. I knew Lowell Bennion only late in life. I didn’t come up to that university of Utah pattern, but Leonard I knew pretty well. My first job was at BYU, and when I arrived, somehow he had gotten wind of it and knew I was a Ph.D. in history from Harvard, and he wrote me a personal letter welcoming me to the state and the historical profession.
I realized that this is a person that takes responsibility for the whole direction of Mormon historiography, and that really was his style. He was sort of the grandfather and dean of the whole operation, not just at USU, not just at the church, but everywhere. Then I worked with him closely thereafter when my wife got started working with the Boston women on the pink issue of Dialogue, and founding Exponent II, he got wind of it and sent those women a small grant, 1000 bucks or so to help put out Mormon Sisters. It was just a gesture those housewives needed. They didn’t know if they could do it. They were just amateurs. Of course among them was Laurel Ulrich, a very skilled amateur, but they were not historians, and he knew that a little something would sort of confirm their hopes for this book, so I just felt like he was an encompassing figure of great personal magnitude. I really loved him. I would say he was one of the men I really loved during my life.”
JD, “What year was it that he gave this grant to your wife and other women who were writing for Dialogue.”
Bushman, “Ah, you’ve got me, but it would be somewhere in the 70s.”
JD, “Somewhere in the 70s. So he was a church employee…”
Bushman, “By that time he was at the Church Office Building.”
JD, “So here was head of the Church History Department providing a grant for an upcoming Dialogue edition. Is that right?”
Bushman, “It was really to produce the set of essays that became Mormon Sisters, which is a book of essays on 19th century Mormon women, still in print”
Bushman, “And then about that time, he asked me to write the first volume of the 16, projected 16 volume history of the church. The interesting thing was years before that time, I had written him a letter telling him I thought now is the time to repeat B.H. Robert’s work of 1930, the centennial history of the church. He took up that idea and really ran with it, asked me to do the first volume which I was quite willing to do. He asked/actually approached me about coming west and my scholarship on the American Revolution at that time was bogged down, and I very seriously considered for a time moving west, but I figured I just couldn’t get out of the conundrums that were paralyzing me in some of my other work, but I did write that history.
The interesting thing is the first volume, which was Milt Bachman’s The Heavans Resound, had gone through the committees, been read by everybody who had to read it, and they were rolling along, then came along my volume, the beginnings of Mormonism, and after it was cleared by Leonard and all of his group, then it went up to some unknown group of General Authorities to read, never got a word back concerning it, but one day Leonard and I, I happened to be in Salt Lake, we were called in I think it was Lowell Durham. I think he was the head of the Deseret Book then, and the news was delivered that they were cancelling the series. They had given big advances to all of the authors, so they were into it financially in a big way, but they cancelled the series.
Leonard was dumbfounded and horrified and it was really a terrible blow to him. I actually didn’t mind it because I felt this series was not going to work. The problem is that it comes out as an official church history. Then they have to read everything and they have to take responsibility for everything that’s written, and they would be constantly trying to censor what I’ve said. They couldn’t just let me write whatever I wanted, because who knows what I or someone else would write, so I felt like all things considered, it was better for the authors to work independently, but Leonard didn’t see it that way. He was really set back a long way.”
JD, “And just to, a lot of our listeners will have no idea what we are talking about. So basically the idea was 150 years of church history, do a book for every 10 years or so, and have sort of the scholar for that time period write that part of the book. Is that right?”
Bushman, “Well close to that. It wasn’t every decade. It was, there would be a book on the western migration. There would be a book on the church in Europe and a book on the church in the South Pacific, and a book on New York and one on Kirtland, and one on Missouri, and one on Nauvoo, so you just divvied it up in fairly conventional way, the way we think of church history. Tom Alexander’s Mormonism in Transition was one of the books, 1890-1920.”
JD, “One of my professors at BYU Lamond Tullis had been asked to do the Latin America book, right?”
JD, “So what you’re sort of saying is that the church shouldn’t get into the history business?”
Bushman, “Well I, yea, I think they get into all sorts of conflicts because they’re endorsing. I think that they themselves, I’m basing this on conversations with individual General Authorities, wish that there was some middle tier where church historians could write their work, take chances, explore this or that and the church wouldn’t be held responsible for it. But it’s very hard to get that distance, if you’re at Deseret Book, there are just going to be loads of Mormons that say if it’s at Deseret Book, it must be the Church’s view. Even BYU has a certain imprimatur to it. So it’s a bit of a problem in the church.”
JD, “Because as I understand it, they started by saying we’re getting our clock cleaned by secular historians, we have to get in the game here and that was the intellectual impetus to calling Leonard Arrington to be Church Historian, right?”
Bushman, “That’s right, that’s right.”
JD, “But you’re saying, and it sounds like the lesson learned from that whole era was, that the church needs to stay out of the Church history business and leave it to the historians?”
Bushman, “Yeah, I think you could say that is the lesson learned. Whether it can be learned permanently is another question.” [JD chuckles, Bushman continues] “Because there’s always a great desire to create a history that will really speak for the Church, because we value our history. It’s part of our doctrine almost. So the problem is, can you write a history that will have any validity to a general audience that also tells the church story straight? So we’re trying again with Mountain Meadows. We’re trying again with the Joseph Smith Papers, and…”
JD, “So there’s a bit of a pendulum going on.”
Bushman, “Yeah, I think that’s right, that you go to a certain point, then you realize you’ve gone too far, and it swings back, there we go.”
JD, “So how did you feel about the way Leonard Arrington’s time concluded, and I’ve read Adventures by a Church Historian, and it paints this picture, this really sad picture at the end that even though he was called as Church Historian in General Conference, when they released him, they released him quietly, and that now somewhere in church headquarters there’s a mural of every church historian, but his mural isn’t there. And it just gives you the sense that here’s this wonderful man that I love through text, you love through personal experience that just wasn’t treated in a loving way, in a way that things were ended. I know that that’s an oversimplified view. When I want talk to Hugh Midgeley, he basically claims that Lavina Fielding Anderson wrote Leonard Arrington’s autobiography and that wasn’t what Leonard Arrington would have wanted us to believe at all. Can you help fill in the pieces there for someone like me who’s feeling sad for the way that ended?”
Bushman, “I don’t think I can fill in any pieces. I wasn’t close enough to know what was going on. My view comes almost directly out of Leonard’s autobiographical writings. I know it was a terrible disappointment to him, and I suppose it could have been handled more gracefully and I feel very sad that he was wounded by the whole experience. But in long run I don’t think it’s going to detract from his actual achievement, because a lot of fabulous work came out of that period and out of his own mind, so I see that as kind of receding as a significant event.”
JD, “Some would look at the anti-Mormonism, especially on the internet that exists today, and say that they have Leonard Arrington to thank for it, because he was given access to Church Archives, all these cans of worms got opened up, and that has become the fodder for—you know Michael Quinn came out of that and a lot of the writings, probably Grant Palmer’s entire book came, a big chunk of that out of what was unleashed out of that ten years. What if someone were to say that that whole era was just one big mistake, the Church will be forever damaged by all the stuff that came out of that period? I’m sorry if it sounds dramatic, but I sometimes wonder that.”
Bushman, “I think that until you get down to the bedrock of the source material and what’s there, you never are safe. You’ve got to base everything you write based on what’s there in the sources, and insofar as we have created a picture of Joseph Smith that wasn’t based on the sources, doesn’t take those things into effect, we are in a very precarious position. I mean you yourself have gone through this disillusionment, and it comes from suddenly it’s all there.
So yeah it’s painful, and there are people who think we are giving comfort to the enemy by turning out all this stuff, but we’ll never be secure until we can go out and talk about the sources and what’s really in the historical record alongside all the critics of the Church.”
What do you think of Bushman’s position. Should the Church get out of the history business and leave it to historians?