Just curious: I know you love books. But which do you love best?
Book-books? The kind with the spine that breaks if you keep your place by resting it upside down? The kind where you get to turn the pages?
Or e-books? The kind where you can read in bed without your flashlight? The kind where you can take whole libraries on your trip without exceeding your baggage weight?
Or are you a half-and-half book lover?
I think I’m at half-and-half.
But this week, I really wished my big new book with its clean cover and its crisp pages had been an e-book. It’s summer. I’m always leaving town and I could do without the extra poundage. But the author hasn’t seen fit to offer a Kindle version.
So I hauled it around anyway, carefully keeping it away from ketchup, syrup, my grilled-cheesy fingers. This was too good of a read to wait around for its Kindle-ness.
It’s Leonard Arrington and the Writing of Mormon History by Gregory A. Prince.
Arrington was the official Church Historian in the 1970s, completely changing how history got written.
Arrington was professionally trained, dedicated to scholastic standards.
Up until his time, Mormon history was a homegrown affair, a tale “where the Saints always prevailed because of their righteousness, and the enemies of the church ultimately failed because of their iniquity—thereby ‘proving’ Mormonism to the One and Only True Church.”
Nobody nudges history away from faith-defending to nuanced without encountering big-time resistance. But if you’re always the hero and never merely human, reasonable people can toss your book aside and say, “Yeah, but what about . . .?”
This is why we have standards. They demand that you write what’s true, insofar as you can determine it. And you dig for truth by reading people’s diaries and letters, by conducting interviews, by hunting up old newspapers, etc.
I once worked in a Special Collections library at Southern Methodist University. My daily duties took me through the archive room where Sarah, a grad student, labored day after day, sorting through boxes containing the saved papers of Earle Cabell, a former mayor of Dallas. Sarah cataloged every item in those boxes — meeting minutes, newspaper clippings, photos, even receipts. And it’s all still there, waiting for anybody who wants to write anything about Earle Cabell, or Dallas in the 1960s, or whatever.
Rooms like these are the mines from which masterful books emerge like diamonds — polished, mounted and boxed in velvet.
You can bet that Arrington knew a thing or two about archives. His first major troll through such records produced Great Basin Kingdom, in which Arrington, whose degree was actually in economics, examined the business side of the early pioneer years. What was life like? asked the historian. What worked? What didn’t?
Being an honest scholar, Arrington examined the Saints’ attempts at self-sufficiency. While they managed to grow crops and build buildings, they lacked important items like sugar and steel, which they attempted to produce themselves.
“Had failure been restricted to a single enterprise, one might have written it off to bad luck. The failure of multiple, strategic industries, however, called for a more fundamental explanation, and Leonard supplied it forthrightly:
“’That in each case the church eventually assumed responsibility and control was due partly to the lack of private capital, and partly to the belief that all institutions in Mormondom ought to be under the influence of the Priesthood. While this assured a concentration of efforts in building the Kingdom, it also involved the danger of tying the hands of the “experts” who were engaged in the active management of these enterprises. Brigham Young and his appointed lay leaders were outstanding colonizers, and there can be no doubt that they were dedicated to the Kingdom, but the more the specialists depended on them for leadership, the more the specialized industries were apt to suffer from inexpert direction.’”
Calling Arrington as Church Historian meant that Mormon History would henceforth sound like this.
Three of the twelve apostles didn’t like the new tone.
Author Prince, also aiming for honest, data-driven scholarship, places these hold-out apostles in context. They came from an earlier generation, one that grew up when some of the original pioneers were still alive, still telling their persecution stories. “To
[them], religion was still an us-versus-them contest, a theological war — and in warfare one does not concede anything to the enemy. For them history served but one purpose and that was to win the war, both by glorifying one’s own side and by demonizing the other.”
Other apostles felt that Leonard’s brand of history and scholarship “would help Mormon students as they meet the challenges of university life, and . . . demonstrate that one need not relinquish faith in order to be intellectually respectable nor relinquish their intelligence to be faithful.”
Another hallmark of Leonard’s administration was an opening of the archives. Before his day, access to the archives was tightly controlled, lest any negative information get out. Leonard asked for and received almost complete access to all records. This boon of information jump-started the careers of a host of young scholars.
You can imagine the cold sweats of our image-polishers at the idea of an open archive. I don’t think I’m ruining the book by telling you that Leonard’s era of academic freedom didn’t last. I knew the outcome of the story, but still enjoyed very twist and turn.
The driving question of Prince’s book is: Who controls information? Is it right to hide it away? To pretend that embarrassing events never happened?
In my view, open archives were a blessing because, what we didn’t know then but can’t help knowing now is that the Internet would come along. In the Internet age, nobody can hide anything.
Leonard became a hero and mentor to aspiring Mormon historians. When two young men wanted to start the independent journal, Dialogue, they invited Leonard to sit on the board. A BYU colleague advised Leonard to take the position. “[I]f people like you don’t counsel with them, they may depend on persons who are less committed to the Church.”
Arrington’s triumphs and travails while leading four floors of the Church Office Building through the growing pains of modernity make for fascinating yet maddening reading. You might ask: Is it OK to look full-on at the very human side of our church leaders?
It depends on whether your brand of history is:
— We Are the Heroes? or
— We Are Inescapably Human, Trying Our Best and Curious About What Really Happened?
Would that I had packed myself flavorsome lunches like this one — Taco Turkey Wraps and Salsa Potato Salad — back in my library-employee days. You really want something to look forward to after a morning of filing catalog cards and editing the boss’s wordy papers.
I would have shared with Arrington, had he stopped in. Endowed with the personal library of a Western Americana buff, we owned an impressive collection of Mormon treasures.
Oh, well. Lost opportunities.