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History of the Mormon History Association
Below are three essays that give perspective on the founding and early development of MHA.
1. Leonard J. Arrington, "Reflections on the Founding and Purpose of the Mormon History Association, 1965-1983" Journal of Mormon History 10 (1983): 91-103.
2. Maureen Ursenbach Beecher, "Entre Nous: An Intimate History of MHA" Journal of Mormon History 12 (1985): 43-52.
3. Leonard J. Arrington, Adventures of a Church Historian (Urbana, Illinois: University of Illinois Press, 1998), 58-61.
By Leonard J. Arrington, 1982
Journal of Mormon History, 10 (1983): 91-103.
"Reflections on the
Founding and Purpose of the Mormon History Association, 1965-1983"
Leonard J. Arrington was sustained as Church Historian at the LDS General Conference, in April 1972. Since his release in October 1980 he has been director of the Joseph Fielding Smith Institute for Church History at Brigham Young University and holds the Lemuel Redd Chair in Western History at BYU. He was founding president of the Mormon History Association.
During the years after World War II, partly because of the assistance given returning veterans by the G. I. Bill of Rights (Public Law 346), graduate research in the field of Mormon history began to flower. Whereas only a handful of historians had written doctored dissertations on topics connected with Mormon history before 1946, several dozen were completed in the late 1940s and early 1950s—twenty in the 1950s alone. A sizable group of scholars spent their summers working in the Church Archives in Salt Lake City and became intimately acquainted with each other and with each other's projects. We shared research finding. Perhaps more importantly, we shared strategems by which we could overcome the reluctance of A. William Lund, watchdog of the Archives, to allow us access to the rich materials housed there.
In the years that followed the granting of our degrees, as we prepared books and articles for publication, we continued to visit the Archives to fill in gaps in our research. We also kept in touch with each other by attending historical conventions, often staying up half the night in someone’s room discussing facts and interpretations of the Latter-day Saint past. Virtually all of us were practicing, believing members of the church, and we shared also our experiences in our various wards and branches. We hunted up persons we had not met who had written on the Mormons; and we speculated about the trends in church politics. We also made it a point to become acquainted with professional his-[p.92]torians who were members of the Reorganized Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints and spent some evening discussing our common heritage with them. Some of us talked about the founding of a journal of Mormon history, even toying with possible names for the journal, such as Latter-day Saint Quarterly, LDS Historical Review, or Journal of Mormon History. These discussions were temporarily ended by the founding of BYU Studies in 1959. Although the first editors of Studies were anxious to run sound historical essays, we were taken aback when an interpretive article by one of us was published in the first issue, creating such an opposition on the part of one zealous general authority that the journal was suspended for a year.
Through these activities a community of LDS historians was developed. Our interrelationships at annual meetings of the American Historical Association, Organization of American Historians, and Pacific Coast Branch of the American Historical Association, were strengthened with the formation of the Western History Association in 1963. They were buttressed by meetings in Utah of the Utah State Historical Society, Utah Conference on Higher Education, and Utah Academy of Sciences, Arts, and Letters. On our various campuses there were also smaller study groups of historians and social scientists engage in Mormon studies. At Utah State University where I was teaching, for example, George Ellsworth, Eugene Campbell, Wendell Rich, and myself met once a month with our spouses to read and critique papers we had prepared on aspects of LDS history. We also shared with graduate students the excitement of seminars conducted by George Ellsworth on the sources and literature of Mormon history.
The dullest meetings Utah educators had to attend were the annual September sessions of the Utah Conference on Higher Education. At these sessions administrators from Brigham Young University, the University of Utah, Utah State University, and the various junior colleges in the state harangued us on administrative problems and policies. In anticipation of the conference to be held on September 9, 1965, at Logan, Utah, a group of us decided to hold our own “rump session” to discuss the formation of a Mormon History Association. Professors Ellsworth, Campbell, Rich, and myself arranged the meeting, to be held in the Hatch Room of the Merrill Library at Utah State University. We had strong letters of support from Davis Bitton and John Sorenson, both then at Santa Barbara, California. We also had verbal support from several scholars around the nation, as well as from many at BYU and elsewhere in Utah. In anticipation of such a meeting some of us had acquired information about the American Catholic Society which might be helpful. The following agenda was provided those expected to be in attendance:
AGENDA FOR A “RUMP” SESSION OF MORMON HISTORIANS
Hatch Room, USU Library
September 9, 1965 – 1:30-5:30 P.M.
1. Should we organize formally? If so, what is an appropriate name? Organization of Mormon Historians? Mormon Historical Association? LDS History Association? Or what? [p. 93]
2. Do we need a constitution? If so, maybe one of you would write a draft of one. At least, we ought to have a chairman or president or secretary who can serve as a focus for communications. Nominations for such a person or persons are now open!
3. Would it be desirable to publish a newsletter each quarter? If so, how to finance it? Assess each person $1 a year? There is good precedent for this in some of the professional organizations.
4. What stand should we take with respect to the new proposed journal Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought? Should we support it, at least temporarily, or make plans to sponsor our own journal?
5. What kind of arrangements should we make for meeting with other Mormon historians at the time of the American Historical Association meetings in San Francisco December 28-30? Someone should reserve a place and time for meeting and arrange for a program.
Any other business that any member would like to propose?
As the result of the meeting, the following letter went out to a wide circle of historians and social scientists interested in Mormon history.
UTAH STATE UNIVERSITY
September 15, 1965
Letter No. 1
In line with the suggestions of many persons, a group of Mormon historians met in the Hatch Room of the Utah State University Library the afternoon of September 9, 1965, to discuss the desirability or forming a Mormon history association. Fourteen persons were in attendance, and they included historians from Brigham Young University, Utah State University, and the L. D. S. Institute of Religion in Logan. The following actions were agreed upon.
(1) To arrange to go to the annual meetings of the American Historical Association in San Francisco December 28-30 as a group. Professor Thomas Alexander of Brigham Young University will attempt to arrange a time and place for Mormon historians to meet at the time of that convention, Professor Richard Bushman of Brigham Young University, with the assistance of James Allen, agreed to arrange for a program. Professor Stanford Cazier of Utah State University will attempt to coordinate the transportation so that all of us can obtain group air rates from Salt Lake to San Francisco for ourselves and wives.
(2) To suggest to the Mormon historians gathered there the formation of an organization. The group was evenly divided between two names: Mormon History Association and Association for Mormon History.
(3) Professor Eugene Campbell of Brigham Young University accepted the assignment of preparing the draft of a constitution and by-laws to present to the assembled Mormon historians in San Francisco.
(4) Professor Leonard Arrington agreed to serve as a focus for inter-communication and to send out a newsletter to prospective members. If all of you will send a paragraph mentioning the research interests which you have and research projects on which you are currently working that have any connection with Mormon history, these will be included in the newsletter. For the purposes of supporting financially the preparation and mailing of the newsletter, each prospective member is asked to send $1.00 to me. [p. 94]
(5) We discussed at some length the problems connected with organizing the group. We agreed that it ought to be intended primarily for professionally trained historians interested in Mormon history. We assumed that most of the members would be Mormons, but there might be others who would want to participate. We also assumed that there would be Mormon members whose primary field of interest is something other than Mormon history, but who would want to belong because of professional kinship. We mentioned the following possible objectives:
a. To sponsor a session at the annual meetings of the Pacific Coast Branch, Organization of American Historians, and American Historical Association. While these would be partly social, we thought it would be useful to have two or three papers on subjects connected with Mormon history.
b. To encourage publication on Mormon history topics. After considerable discussion we agreed to recommend that Mormon historians support the new journal of Mormon thought, Dialogue – at least, for the time being. We are hopeful that we might induce the editors of Dialogue to publish frequent articles on Mormon history subjects and/or to devote at least one annual issue to Mormon history. We think Mormon historians will be among the most frequent contributors, as well as enthusiastic supporters, of Dialogue.
(6) After this discussion the group listened to an interesting paper by Jim Allen on "The Historical Significance of Joseph Smith's First Vision."
Leonard J. Arrington
Within the next few weeks I received letters from many persons - perhaps thirty-five or forty. Most of them enclosed $1.00. This enabled me to send out the following Letter No. 2 on November 10, 1965.
MORMON HISTORY ASSOCIATION
Letter No. 2 November 10, 1965
1. For those of you who just joined our mailing list, it is proposed that as many of us as can – our wives, friends, and others interested – meet for two or more hours at San Francisco in December in connection with the annual meetings of the American Historical Association. Tom Alexander has arranged for us to meet from 7:30 to 10:00 P.M. on Tuesday, December 28, in the Monterey Room of the Sir Francis Drake Hotel, corner of Taylor and Center, San Francisco. There should be no convention conflicts. The room seats in excess of 60 persons, and should therefore hold all those interested. Jim Allen and Richard Bushman have arranged it program as follows:
Conducting: Leonard Arrington
Discussion of purposes and procedures: 10 minutes
Discussion of proposed name and constitution: Eugene E. Campbell 20 minutes
Election of officers for the coming year: 15 minutes
Discussion of projects and programs for the Association: Richard Bushman: 30 minutes
Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought –Its possible relationship to the Association: G. Wesley Johnson – 30 minutes
Panel and discussion – “The Writing of Mormon History: Prospects and New Approaches.” Truman Madsen, Ralph Hansen, Alfred Bush – 30 minutes
2. Many of you responded to our first letter by sending $1.00 to provide money for stamps and paper, and secretarial help in connection with getting started. To this date, I have received $30.00. Of course, this will be considered your dues for the first year. [p. 95] Most of you also appended a note giving enthusiastic support to the idea of forming the Association. Several of you added names to our list of those interested. (The list now has 80 names.) Several of you made extended comments about purposes and procedures. (This is a very exciting thing. both intellectually and emotionally, to be in touch with all these kindred spirits.) On one point, may I respond that the original list was only a beginning, and was drawn up by thinking of those who would be most likely to attend the San Francisco meeting of AHA. No attempt was made to exclude Reorganized historians, non-Mormons, lapsed Mormons, persons who are not professional historians, or anyone else.
3. I have omitted mentioning "the doings" of some of the members in this letter because of the bulk of organizational items which must be included.
Leonard J. Arrington
The organizational meeting was held in San Francisco in connection with the annual meeting of the American Historical Association (their first meeting in the American West), in the Monterey room of the Sir Francis Drake Hotel. Minutes of this founding meeting were as follows:
MINUTES OF THE FORMATIVE MEETING OF THE
MORMON HISTORY ASSOCIATION
San Francisco, California, December 28, 1965
This meeting was held in connection with the annual meeting of the American Historical Association. Leonard J. Arrington conducted, and fifty-two persons were in attendance. Among those present were representatives of the Church Historian’s Office, major western universities, L.D.S. Institutes of Religion, the Idaho Historical Society, and the Reorganized Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints. At least one prominent non-Mormon historian was present.
I. Meeting: commenced at 7:30 P.M.
II. Invocation by Earl E. Olson.
III. Introductory comments by
Leonard J. Arrington included the following:
A. Welcome and personal introductions of all present. Each person was asked to introduce himself and indicate his interest in the Association.
B. Dr. Arrington discussed the background of the organization, indicating that for some years various people interested in Mormon history had been talking about some kind of formal organization. Last fall in Logan, Utah, a group of historians got together during the Utah Conference on Higher Education and made definite plans which resulted in this meeting. Dr. Arrington was assigned to write the newsletter and do the necessary mailing; Eugene Campbell was assigned to write a proposed constitution; Thomas G. Alexander made arrangements for the meeting place; and Richard Bushman and James B. Allen arranged the program.
C. Dr. Arrington reported that only yesterday he had met with the board of the Pacific Coast Branch of the American Historical Society. The Pacific Coast Branch agreed to allow the Mormon History Association to become affiliated with this organization and to be included in the program of its annual meetings. The only stipulation was that the Mormon History Association remain a professional organization interested primarily in scholarly research and writing. Dr. Arrington was charged personally with keeping the Pacific Coast Branch assured that this was the case. The next meeting of the Pacific Coast Branch will be held on August 30, 31, and September 1, 1966, in Portland, Oregon. This will be our first annual meeting, and we will work to make it most rewarding. Chairman of the session will be Dr. James Clayton and arrangements are under the [p. 96] direction of Davis Bitton. A question was raised concerning the reason for having our organization meet at the same time as the Pacific Coast Branch – why not in connection with some other meeting? It was explained by Dr. Arrington that the location of most of the members of the association made it most convenient for the largest number to attend this meeting. It is planned, however, to also have meetings in connection with other associations, but this one will be the official annual meeting.
D. It was announced that three annual awards of $25.00 each will be announced in the next meeting in August. These will go to the author of the best book on Mormon history published in the preceding twelve months; the author of the best article on Mormon history published in the preceding twelve months; and the author of the best thesis or dissertation on Mormon history approved during the preceding twelve months. Awards in all three categories will not necessarily be made every year. For the present, judges will consist of the officers of the Association. Nominations for the awards to be given in August 1966 are welcome.
E. LeRoy Hafen raised a question concerning membership in the Association –is it restricted to Mormons? Dr. Arrington explained that the original thought was that it should include all persons who are interested in Mormon history, regardless of their church affiliation. It should also include professional historians who may not be doing actual research and writing in Mormon history, but who have a kinship of interest. It was seemingly the consensus of the group that there should be no restriction of this nature on membership.
IV. Eugene E. Campbell discussed the proposed constitution, and general discussion from the floor was held on each item. A modified version of the constitution was adopted, and accompanies these minutes. One of the most serious items raised concerned the term of office of the officers. It was suggested that a two-year term would be more meaningful than a one-year term. Dr. Campbell explained that those involved in writing the constitution agreed with this, but felt that it should not actually be written in, in case the people constituting the nominating committee saw the necessity of changing an unsatisfactory officer. It was assumed, however, that the nominating committee would work this out and would probably re-nominate the president and other officers for a second term. It was felt best, however, not to make a constitutional fiat in this respect. The group accepted this explanation. In connection with Article IV of the constitution, dues were raised from $1.00 to $2.00, and all present members were asked to pay their additional $1.00 as soon as possible.
V. Eugene Campbell, as chairman of the nominating committee, nominated the following people as officers of the Association:
President: Leonard J. Arrington, Utah State University
1st Vice President: Eugene E. Campbell, Brigham Young University
2nd Vice President: James L. Clayton, University of Utah
Secretary/Treasurer: Dello G. Dayton, Weber State College
Council Members: Alfred Bush, Princeton University
Robert Flanders, Graceland College
Davis Bitton, University of California at Santa Barbara
Merle Wells, Idaho State Historical Society
Dr. Campbell explained that these nominations generally reflected the names which had been mentioned most frequently on the ballots that had come in. Nominations from the floor were called for. There being no further nominations, these officers were installed by acclamation.
VI. Richard Bushman discussed the general topic: “Projects and Programs.”
A. He indicated that his discussion was only to present ideas of what we might be doing, in addition to our regular meetings and research, but certainly not in-[p. 97]tended to commit the Association to any of these programs, or to call for immediate action on them.
B. Since Truman G. Madsen, who is director of the Institute of Mormon Studies at B.Y.U., could not attend because of illness, Dr. Bushman gave a brief report on some of the things the Institute might do, and which this Association might be interested in. He explained that the Institute was still involved primarily with doing special research projects of interest to church leaders. Some of these projects, however, would involve some historical research, and money may be available to scholars who are interested in working on such projects.
C. Dr. Bushman suggested that we should be looking forward to the possibility of preparing for a new comprehensive history of the church which could be published in connection with the 1980 sesquicentennial. The administration of B.Y.U. and the Institute of Mormon Studies are interested, and some money is available for appropriate projects. Several things might possibly be done in cooperation with the Institute.
D. It would be important to collect ideas on areas which need to be worked on – a broad survey which would include not only new ideas, but a way of collecting all the materials already being worked on. It would hopefully include a broad listing from many universities, libraries, etc. The Institute of Mormon Studies would volunteer to collect materials, and to dispense one-page summaries of items submitted. The Mormon History Association could contribute by collecting problems, materials, etc.
E. In discussion from the floor, objection was raised to the possibility of an official connection between this Association and the Institute of Mormon Studies. It was generally felt that this Association should stand alone, not being dependent upon any other group for its projects or its activities. Dr. Bushman explained that he did not intend to suggest an official connection, and agreed with the general feeling. He was merely presenting ideas about what needed to be accomplished
VII. Wesley Johnson, one of the managing editors of Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought, reported on the plans for this new publication, the first issue of which will appear in early 1966.
A. He indicated that it will include articles, a book review section (including essay reviews), and bibliographical essays.
B. The present thought is to put out three regular issues each year, plus a special issue on a particular topic or theme. He made an informal proposal that the Mormon History Association take over the third issue as the first of these special theme issues. Leonard Arrington was appointed guest editor for such an issue.
C. He expressed his hope that Dialogue would stand for the spirit of free but responsible inquiry. They have had a wide response from people in all parts of the country with a wide variety of backgrounds.
D. He indicated that Dialogue wanted to stimulate good writing as well as responsible scholarship. The editors invite all interested to submit good articles, and to help obtain good articles from others. Perhaps a series of annual prizes can eventually be awarded by Dialogue.
E. In response to a question about the relationship of the non-Mormon to Dialogue, he indicated that it was intended that basic control of the publication remain with church members. Articles, however, were solicited from all sources, regardless of church affiliation, and there would be absolutely no discrimination on the basis of church membership. The only basis for selection would be good scholarship, good writing, and appropriateness of material.
F. When Dr. Johnson finished, Dr. Arrington asked that all members submit to him ideas for articles to be included in the third issue which, it was generally assumed, the Mormon History Association would take over. He asked that mem-[p. 98]bers submit articles by June 1, 1966 and that we also inform others who have good material of this deadline, encouraging them to submit their work.
VIII. A panel discussion was held on the general topic of ideas for new approaches to Mormon history. Participants on the panel were Ralph Hansen of Stanford University and Klaus Hansen of Utah State University. James B. Allen was moderator.
A. Ralph Hansen emphasized the need for more research in primary sources. He suggested the possibility of a more concerted effort to collect more manuscripts and place them in depositories where they would be readily available for research. He decried the fact that so many valuable manuscripts were still highly restricted in their use, and suggested that the best insight into Mormon history can be obtained only when they are available.
B. Klaus Hansen suggested that many non-Mormons are now taking Mormon history very seriously and that Mormons ought therefore to take themselves a little less seriously. By this he implied that Mormons ought not to write their history with the idea of regulating the future, as some have done. An important function of the historian is that of critic. We need to clarify our criticism, and evaluate the past critically, but we should not see ourselves in the role of priest and prophet. That is, we should not assume that our history gives us all the answers. We need to explode a few myths, but we do not need to try to create a new society. We should take ourselves a little tongue-in-cheek, but we ought to consider ourselves as the memory, not the prophets of the future.
C. A brief discussion ensued.
IX. The meeting adjourned at 10:20 p.m.
James B. Allen
Secretary Pro tem
The following constitution was adopted.
MORMON HISTORY ASSOCIATION: CONSTITUTION
Article I—In order to foster scholarly research and publication in the field of Mormon history, and to promote fellowship and communication among scholars interested in Mormon history, an international organization is hereby formed with the name: “Mormon History Association.”
Article II—The officers of the Mormon History Association shall be as follows:
1st Vice President
2nd Vice President
Council – 3 year term – East: To arrange meetings in connection with the American Historical Association.
Council – 2 year term – Midwest: To arrange meetings in connection with the Organization of American Historians.
Council – 1 year term – Far West: To arrange meetings in connection with the Pacific Coast Branch, American Historical Association.
Council – 1 year term – Far West: To arrange meetings in connection with the Western History Association.
Council – 1 year term: Immediate Past President
Article III – The officers shall be nominated by an official nominating committee consisting of the president and any two of the council members. Nominations shall be listed in the newsletters preceding the annual meeting of the Association. Suggestions for nominations may be submitted to the nominating committee by any member, and [p. 99] additional nominations may be made from the floor at the elections to be held at the annual meeting. The term of office of the president, vice presidents, secretary-treasurer, and past presidents shall be one year. The term of office of each council member, beginning with those elected in 1966 shall be three years. All of the officers shall comprise the Executive Council of the Association.
Article IV – Annual dues of two dollars shall be assessed all members. Such dues must be paid within a month after the annual meeting in order for a member to remain in good standing for the ensuing year.
Article V – The annual meeting shall be scheduled in conjunction with the annual convention of the Pacific Coast Branch of the American Historical Association. Other meetings shall be promoted by the officers in conjunction with the annual conventions of the American Historical Association, the Organization of American Historians, the Western History Association, and at the call of officers or at the request of members.
Article VI – Membership in the Association shall consist of charter members who have paid dues before February 1, 1966, and others who indicate their desire to join by the payment of annual dues.
Article VII – Amendments to this constitution may be proposed from the floor at the annual meeting or by petition signed by five members and forwarded to the president. Voting on proposed amendments shall be by secret ballot sent to each member. The proposed amendment shall become part of the constitution when a majority of the members who submit their ballots before the established deadline shall vote in the affirmative.
Subsequent correspondence invited the submission of articles to be published in the MHA issue of Dialogue; informed members of planned get-togethers at meetings of the Organization of American Historians, Western History Association, American Historical Association, and Pacific Coast Branch: and announced that eighty charter members had paid their dues by February 1, 1966, of which two were Reorganized Church historians and three were non-Mormons (Merle Wells, Jan Shipps, P. A. M. Taylor). The memberships included a liberal sprinkling of professors outside of Utah, LDS Institute instructors, and persons not affiliated with academic or archival institutions (e.g., Juanita Brooks, David L. Wilkinson,Ward Forman). Suggestive of the important role women would play in the organization, there were five women charter members of Mormon History Association. The roster of members included persons living in all sections of the United States and at least two in foreign Countries. Some were professors or students specializing in Western American history. Others were in ancient, medieval, modern European, Latin American, and American history. Some were in such other fields as literature, economics, sociology, and anthropology. Others were "amateurs" who wished to deepen their understanding of Mormon history and to support the various undertakings of the Association.
In the three years that followed, 1966-1969, MHA held its annual meeting in August in association with conventions of the Pacific Coast Branch. In 1970 the official meeting was in Los Angeles during the April meetings of the Organization of American Historians. In 1971 the business meeting was held in October in Santa Fe, in connection with the convention of the Western History Association. During these years meetings were also held in association with the Organization of American Historians in April, Pacific Coast Branch in August, [p. 100] Western History Association in October, and American Historical Association in December.
Finally, in 1972, the officers decided to hold three-day conventions in the spring in chosen settings separate from other historical groups. The flowering of scholarship was such that there was a need for dozens of persons to present papers, and also for the hundreds of interested nonprofessional historians to hear the papers. This move also coincided with the creation of the LDS Historical Department and the appointment of a group of professional historians to do sponsored research, writing, and publication in the field of Mormon history.
Since 1972 the custom has been for MHA to hold meetings one year in historic Mormon settings (Palmyra, Kirtland, Nauvoo, Independence, and Winter Quarters) and the next year in the Far West (Logan, SL George, Rexburg, Ogden, Provo, Salt Lake City). Officers have conscientiously sent out newsletters, arranged programs, and conducted other business appropriate for the Association. In 1974 the organization, with almost one thousand members, felt itself strong enough to begin the annual publication of the Journal of Mormon History. In addition to MHA business and announcements, the Journal has contained papers presented in the annual meeting and other submitted articles.
If one of the purposes of MHA was to stimulate research and the exchange of ideas among historians, the organization has been remarkably successful. The number of papers presented at our meetings now runs into the hundreds, and the vast majority of these have been published in refereed journals. In addition to its third issue sponsored by the Association in 1966, Dialogue has also published other issues specializing in historical topics. For its part, BYU Studies has carried a section in each issue entitled "The Historian's Corner," which carries short articles, notes, and documents of interest to historians. Each summer a special issue is devoted to articles on some historical theme. The number who attend the annual conventions now averages in excess of five hundred persons.
Some reflections on the functioning of MHA in encouraging
sound scholarship seem to be warranted. All who profess to be Mormon historians
suffer from a certain amount of tension because of a dual loyalty. On the one
hand, virtually all of us are loyal, believing, practicing Latter-day Saints.
We love the Church and want to render service on behalf of it, On the other
hand, we are seekers and writers of historical truth, and are therefore loyal
to the best ideals of our profession. We would be ashamed if we, consciously or
unconsciously, distorted events as they actually happened to fit the demands of
denominational or political prejudice. No one would suggest that our members from
BYU or Graceland, or LDS Institutes or seminaries, or the Church Historical
Department, or those who write for the Ensign
or Saints' Herald, are
any more orthodox or loyal than our members at non-Church universities, or who write for Dialogue, Sunstone, Exponent II; or Courage. Clearly, all of us have our place; all can honestly search for truth and make important contributions to our common culture. We all believe in vigorous, open-minded, and creative historical thinking and writing.
[p. 101] This tension between our historical training and our religious commitments manifests itself in several ways. Our testimonies tell us that God intervenes in history, and we see abundant evidence of this both in our personal lives and in our historical research. But our historical training tells us to be skeptical; we may be imagining this, or our religious beliefs may he intruding beyond their proper limits. We see evidence that God's love and power have frequently broken in upon the ordinary course of human affairs in a direct and self-evident way. But our caution in declaring this is reinforced by our justifiable dis-approval of chroniclers who take the easy way out and use divine miracles as a short circuit of a causal explanation that is obviously, or at least defensibly, naturalistic.
The professional in us fights against religious naivete believing too much. The religionist in us fights against secular naivete believing too little. And if this internal warfare weren't enough, we have a similar two-front war externally against non-Mormons who think we LDS historians believe too much, and against super-Mormons who think we believe not enough. There is no alternative to this encounter with the four kinds. If we are to succeed as Mormon historians, we must have deep within us a faith, counted to us as righteousness I trust, that a person may be a converted Latter-day Saint and a competent and honest historian. That others support us in this calling, even while criticizing some products of our labors, is suggested by the remark of President Kimball to me before: his recent illness, "Our history is our history, Brother Arrington, and we don't need to tamper with it or be ashamed of it." A similar statement was made to me before his death by his predecessor. President Harold B. Lee. "The best defense of the church," he said (in a statement similar to the one made earlier by Pope John XXIII), "is the true and impartial account of our history."
Let me suggest four principles to help guide us in our struggles to "do the right thing" in writing the history of our people. First, we should rise as far as humanly possible above all parochialism of time and place that might narrow or distort our historical vision. We must judge the people we write about by their own standards rather than by those of our own day.
Second, granted the inevitability of having to make judgments of men, women, organizations, policy-decisions, and programs, we should obtain and weigh all the relevant data before judgment is inferred. Those of us who have been in the field for many years recognize that the result of a long and honest attempt to get at all the historical evidence about any disputed event or personality is an overwhelming sense of the complexity and relativity of the issues. In trying to be fair, we tend to show mercy. To take a concrete case, any historian who writes about the Prophet Joseph Smith is sooner or later forced to take up an attitude toward him. Our ideal must be to see him as nearly as possible as the Lord saw him, in his weaknesses and his strengths, his compromises and his triumphs, his creative decisions and his forced compliances with circumstances beyond his control. In the resulting judgment justice is tempered with mercy.
Third, we should be realistic. We must deal with the competition of individuals and groups for wealth and power, the game of power politics, the cruel-[p. 102]ties which poverty forces on people, and the awful destruction of earthquakes and wars. At the same time, however, we see instances of unexpected and unexplainable triumphs in human nature Although we must be realistic, our realism must be balanced by a certain wonder and appreciation of the potentials of goodness and greatness in human beings.
Fourth, we must be relativists; that is, understand that all policies and procedures, standards and expectations, arc subject to change. But while man is immersed in history, he may also, with God's help, transcend history. In giving economic, political, and intellectual factors their due, we must also give faith and religion their due.
In a way, we LDS historians have certain advantages in writing the history of our people. We have an obligation to apply in our professional work the doctrine of consecration and stewardship. The work of historical inquiry is a way of sanctifying ourselves—a way of exercising our stewardship. This means that we have an added incentive to be diligent, hardworking, and honest, even when honesty (i.e., fidelity to the documents] forces us to speak contrary to the usual ideas on the subject. Historical research conducted with the usual rigor is for us not only a professional requisite but a spiritual adventure as well. Research into the history of the church is not only a vocation, but capable of becoming a religious experience.
If we members of MHA do our work properly, we will come to
be associated in the minds of our nonmember colleagues with a certain attitude
reward history, with the quality of our concern about it, with the sense of
reverence and responsibility with which we approach our assignments. To say this
another way, our self-image and our public image will be influenced by the quality
of our individual religious faith and life. There will be a certain reverence
and respect for the documents we work with, a certain feeling for human tragedy
and triumph in history. We will try to understand before we condemn, and if we condemn we will do it with the sense that we, too, being human, are
involved in any judgment we may make of others. We will not use history as a storehouse
from which deceptively simple moral lessons may be drawn at random. We will not
know it all, and will submit our analyses as tentative and
subject to refinement We will neither sell our fellow human being short, nor overrate them. Behind the personal decisions and the vast impersonal forces of history we will also see divine purposes at work. We will look for the working of God both in the whirlwinds and in the still small voices.
One of the things that excites me about our work is the way
in which it enables us to have an encounter with our fellow Saints of former
years. LDS history is more than the establishment of certain objective facts -
dates, places, numbers, and names. It is a history of Saints, in their mutual
their conflicts and contacts, in their social intercourse and in their solitude and estrangement, in their high aspirations and in their errors and corruptions. In fulfilling our obligations as scholars we must be responsible to the whole amplitude of human concerns -- to human life in all its rich variety and diversity, in all its misery and grandeur, in all its ambiguity and contradictions.
I trust that we will all, as members of MHA, resolve that our histories will he marked by thorough research, superior writing, and the display of the true [p. 103] spirit of Latter-day Saintism, and that our history will give us and our readers new understandings of Mormon experiences in the past and present.
I will shortly he
turning over my file of MHA early documents to the MHA official
archives at the Utah State Historical Society. The documents included here, together with
documents supporting all the historical statements will be found there.
With respect to my reflections in the last half of the article, I have profited from reading the following: C. T. McIntire, ed. God, History, and Historians: An Anthology of Modern Christian Views of History (New York: Oxford University Press, 1977); Frank E. Manuel, Freedom From History and Other Untimely Essays (New York: New York University Press, 1971); Christopher Dawson, Progress and Religion: An Historical Enquiry (New York: Sheed and Ward, 1929), and The Historical Reality of Christian Culture (New York: Scribner’s Sons, Publishers, 1950); E. Harris Harbison, Christianity and History (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1956); Page Smith, The Historian and History (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1954); Arnold Toynbee, An Historian’s Approach to Religion (New York: Oxford University Press, 1956); Robert N. Bellah, Beyond Belief: Essays on Religion in a Post-Traditional World (New York: Harper & Row, 1976); and George Santayana, The Life of Reason: Reason in Religion (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, Publishers, 1936).
Latter-day Saint essays, which deal with these problems include: Richard L. Bushman, "Faithful History," Dialogue 4 (Winter 1969): 11-25; Leonard Arrington, "The Search for Truth and Meaning in Mormon History,” Dialogue 3 (Summer 1968): 56--66; Richard D. Poll, "God and Man in History," Dialogue 7 (Spring 1972): 101-109; Robert B. Flanders, "Some Reflections on the New Mormon History,” Dialogue 9 (Spring 1974): 34-11; Rodman W. Paul, "The Mormons as a Theme in Western Historical Writing," Journal of American History 54 (December 1967): 511-523; Louis C. Midgley, "A Critique of Mormon Historians: The Questions of Faith and History," typescript, paper delivered at the Western History Association, San Antonio, Texas. October 15, 1981; Philip L. Barlow, "Since Brodie: The Writing of the Mormon Past, 1945-1981," 1981, typescript, copy provided the writer by the author; Davis Bitton, "Ten Years in Church History: A Personal Memoir," typescript, 1982, copy provided the writer by the author, Thomas G. Alexander, "Toward the New Mormon History: An Examination of the Literature on the Latter-day Saints in the Far West," in Michael P. Malone, ed. Historians and the American West (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1983), 344-368; James B. Allen and Glen M. Leonard, The Story of the Latter-day Saints (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book Company 1976); Leonard Arrington and Davis Bitton, The Mormon Experience (New York: Alfred Knopf, Inc., 1979); Boyd K. Packer, "The Mantle is Far, Far Greater Than the Intellect," BYU Studies 2l (Summer 1981): 259-278; LeAnn Cragun, "Mormons and History: In Control of the Past" (Ph.D. diss., University of Hawaii, 1981); and Clara Viator Dobay, "Essays in Mormon Historiography" (Ph.D. diss., University of Houston, 1980).
Maureen Ursenbach Beecher, 1985
Journal of Mormon History 12 (1985): 43-52.
Entre Nous: An Intimate History of MHA
Maureen Ursenbach Beecher is a senior research historian at the Joseph Fielding Smith Institute for Church History and Associate Professor of English at Brigham Young University. This paper was delivered as her presidential address honoring the twentieth anniversary of the Mormon History Association, May 5, 1985, in Independence, Missouri. [Footnotes in the published article are represented in brackets in this transcript at the place they appeared in the original publication.]
I have spent the past few months “where angels fear to tread,” researching through documents and interviews of the Mormon History Association. That a student of comparative literature should deign to write history is foolish enough, but that she should choose to write a history of a group of historians, using as sources their own descriptions of their activities, and then deliver her findings to those same historians as audience - that is the ultimate idiocy. The only justification I can claim is the meaning that the exercise has had for me; on some very basic levels it has been a venture into a past I shared, a past I acknowledge as intensely mine. So now I offer, in acknowledgement of this, its twentieth year, an intimate history of the Mormon History Association.
For the purposes of this work, I have set aside my conviction that the historical past begins where my memory stops and have replaced the search for any sense of historical absolute with the more literary value of tenuous subjectivity. The usual sources for historical research, the dusty documents neatly flied in gray fiberdex boxes, were in this case those already collected at the archives of the Utah State Historical Society and some few still in the hands of their originators. They tell as much of the MHA story as is revealed in newsletters, convention programs, and correspondence files. But there is missing in those sources an essential element the je ne sais qua that makes this organization different from all other organizations. So in search for that essence, and with the incomparable assistance of Gordon Irving, I have interviewed, in greater or lesser length, as many of the past presidents of the association as possible, considering my time and that of secretaries and staff. The documents thus created, and others yet to be added, will in the long run prove the most significant contribution of this presentation.
The group I have chosen to focus on, the past presidents, is simply a handy collection of those MHA members who represent the geographical spread. The nominating committees of MHA have consciously chosen presidents from a variety of places and institutions; people who have come from various specialties western history, European history, economics, religious studies, philosophy, even law; and people who have represented in some way the various "constituencies" of which we are so aware. More than that, they have demonstrated, at least at some point in their careers, commitment to the Mormon History Association. The past presidents are simply a handy group; another eighteen people similarly selected would have served almost as well.
Those informal chats, which had they been conducted by a more qualified practitioner would be termed oral histories, have in themselves been an education in historical humility. Lawrence Durrell, English novelist, demonstrated in fiction a principle I have found deeply imbedded in these accounts of events viewed simultaneously by different observers, His Alexandria Quartet (1957-60) related a series of happenings through the accounts of four of the participants in the events, each telling creating its own novel. The varied tellings, independently convincing but mutually contradictory, finally wove together in the final resolving novel to suggest not only that truth is a matter of point of view, but also that that is truth which most contradicts itself. So it is with these accounts of shared real-life events and explanations of their causes and effects. The difference is that where the literary genius can weave his own story, make his own determinations, the historian must re-create the reality from external evidence, not all of which are available. Just as well, I suppose. No one can legitimately alter a novelist's "truth"; a historian's truths are always subject to revision.
In my re-creation here, then, of some of the
events of our shared history, I will surely present events not exactly as they
are remembered, even by those
individuals whose accounts I have as sources. Be humble, historians, and remember
that we all commit the same offense upon our sources, alive or dead, and that
"the truth" is not singular and simple, but multifaceted and complex.
The lesson of literature is to glory in that rich texture as we identify its
Leonard Arrington told the basic story of the beginning of the Mormon History Association in his account published in our 1983 Journal of Mormon History. [Leonard J. Arrington, “Reflections on the Founding and Purpose of the Mormon History Association,” Journal of Mormon History 10 (1983): 91-103.] His account is of the Mormon History Association as an organization. My interest here is in the MHA in the lives of its members, in those interrelationships it has fostered that in turn have enhanced the MHA and had impact on the field of Mormon historical scholarship. If these observations partake of the nature of celebration, so be it. “Ourselves we sing” is a mode made comfortable by writers contemporary with our Mormon beginnings.
“The old boys’ club” is a sometimes pejorative term
for what I see more positively as the network on which MHA is built. The
linking of scholar to scholar is the lively force behind its generation and
development, and the most satisfying aspect of its being. There is no surprise to the revelation that
the building of that network is Leonard Arrington's work, but how deliberately and
with what energy and persistence he built is not so well known. Almost
without exception every president has been brought to the organization by some
connection with Leonard. His files would provide a "how-to" for the academic entrepreneur: letters congratulating a scholar on a publication; letters inviting a colleague to present a paper; letters noting a professor's anticipated presence in Logan, accompanied by an invitation to dinner and an evening's talk (in this light, let us herewith pay tribute to Grace's culinary skill and southern hospitality, and acknowledge her co-parenthood, with Leonard, of MHA, a role now assumed by Harriet). Such letters preceded by several years the auspicious one inviting his correspondents to attend a 1965 meeting to begin the organization itself.
The Logan connection, then, was Leonard. All the signs were propitious. As he observed in his own account, there was flourishing a rebirth, since the war, of scholarship on Mormon history. Serious historians were meeting during summers in the Historian's Office of the Salt Lake church—and, presumably, also in Independence at the RLDS archives—where, overcoming official tightfistedness with documents, they were sharing both materials and strategems for obtaining materials. [Paul Edwards notes the strangeness of the sharing of materials: “I was raised in graduate school to understand that you didn’t say what you were doing, because someone would steal it. And you certainly didn’t share sources.” The MHA people, he noted, “were passing information back and forth, Xeroxing their own work and sending it to you—unbelievable, just marvelous.” Paul Edwards Oral History, interviewed by Maureen Ursenbach Beecher, 1983, typescript, p. 21.] Dissertations were coming at the rate of two or three a year (in 1952 there were five), Mormon history was no longer polemic; it was academic. Not that everyone recognized this: an LDS educator challenged Jim Allen's use of Great Basin Kingdom in a syllabus, accounting the work to be anti-Mormon. Wendell Rich, in Jim's account, "just jumped in dramatically. I've never seen Wendell quite so excited about defending somebody." Several scholars had anticipated the need for publication outlets, and BYU Studies had begun publication in 1959. [Arrington, however, relates the near doom of that publication when one piece in the mode of the current scholarship caused offense and the journal was suspended for a year. Arrington, “Reflections,” p. 92] Even as MHA was aborning, it was being twinned by Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought, in what was to prove it most beneficial symbiosis.
In Logan the field was white, ready for harvest. There George Ellsworth was becoming the resident expert on historical scholarship. The young Turk of his Utah State University department, he was seldom privileged to teach in the area of his first Jove, the history of Greece and Rome, and so had created seminars on historical method. And, as Jan Shipps later discovered when she attended USU, the only materials out of which to learn proper research there were Mormon. George taught his seminars, and Leonard, already a faculty member in economics sat at his feet.
The "underground church," as Leonard calls it, flourishes wherever the organized church exists. Study groups, collections of like-minded Saints in need of a closer brotherhood based on special interests or attitudes, gather to share and compare. In that pattern, Leonard and Grace, George and Maria, together with Eugene Campbell a