Leonard Arrington: A View of Our Recent Past

ArringtonGreg Prince’s landmark biography of Leonard Arrington will be available at the end of May. Leonard Arrington and The Writing of Mormon History is the first biography to draw on Arrington’s 20,000 pages of journals. Of particular interest is Arrington’s time as Church Historian, from 1972 to 1980. Tonight I had the privilege of attending a presentation where Greg talked about his new book.

1972 ushered in a time of significant restructuring in LDS Church leadership. The Prophet and First Presidency had previously led the Church as a nearly flat organization, with little intentional coordination between individual fiefdoms. The apostles, for example, were merely charged to bear witness to the world, which largely consisted of presiding at Stake Conferences.

President Harold B. Lee wished to see more coordination (or correlation) between the different instructional aspects of Church hierarchy. At the same time, the Church had requested a study of the organization, asking how its management structure could be updated to reflect best practices. One of the notable recommendations was a true historians department, one that was not merely an adjunct responsibility of an ecclesiastical leader with no formal history training.

President Lee decided to heed the recommendation, and selected noted historian Leonard Arrington as the first “real” historian for the Church. The grand experiment would fail in less than 10 years.

Economist Turned Historian

Leonard Arrington, ironically, wasn’t formally trained as a historian. His original passion was economics, born of his Army service during World War II and prior college study. But his master thesis regarding Mormon economics was dry reading, until fellow scholar George Ellsworth suggested Leonard transform his thesis into a story about the people of Mormonism. Great Basin Kingdom: An Economic History of the Latter-day Saints, 1830-1900 was published in 1958 by Harvard University Press. A historian was born.

George Ellsworth came to despise Arrington, who was a prolific writer and less careful, historically, than Ellsworth. Arrington, on the other hand, reflects no sign of this, indicating that the animosity was one-sided.

New Mormon History

Arrington had grown up in Idaho, but an Idaho where Mormons were a minority. Throughout the rest of his life, he was often on the outside looking in. When it came to history, this informed Arrington’s approach. Where other disciplines tended to be insular, Arrington invited all to participate in the telling of Mormon History. He completed the bridge between LDS and RLDS scholars. In 1965 Arrington helped establish the Mormon History Association, where the only qualification for participation was a passion for Mormon History.

When Arrington was elevated to the position of Church Historian, the open approach to history was exciting and thrilling to those who benefitted from Arrington’s kind and welcoming sponsorship. As long as Harold B. Lee remained the prophet, Arrington had top cover and could proceed as he wished.

But Lee died suddenly in December 1973. Arrington made the mistake of having ignored the Twelve Apostles. The new President, Spencer W. Kimball, was supportive, but not nearly as passionate about the historian initiative as Harold B. Lee had been. As President Kimball’s health declined, the leading apostles strove to regain control over the historian’s office. In 1982 Arrington inquired what his standing was. He was informed he was no longer the Church historian, and the release was retroactive to 1980.


The scholarship that had begun under Arrington’s benevolent stewardship continued to bear fruit. One of the most notable efforts was Mormon Enigma, a biography of Emma Hale Smith written by Dr. Val Avery and Linda King Newell. While the academic world lauded the book, the Mormon hierarchy balked. Avery and Newell were barred from discussing their book in Church venues.

The fruit continued into the 1990s, Now President Ezra Taft Benson led the Church. President Benson had been one of the apostles who had chafed at having a “civilian” Church Historian when Presidents Lee and Kimball were in charge. Despite concern that Ezra Taft Benson might implement as President the preferences he had clearly demonstrated as an Apostle, he did not significantly interfere with the historians. But like President Kimball, he too succumbed to ill health in the early 1990s.

Michael Quinn and Lavina Fielding Anderson represented some of the brightest stars who had achieved professional prominence under Arrington. In 1993 they were among the September Six, scholars who were excommunicated or disfellowshipped, apparently because of their writings.

[I remember the issue of Dialogue in which these scholars published prior to being excommunicated. My fiance had given it to me, asking me to read the articles. As I read the articles, I became quite concerned. If my fiance had given me this issue to persuade me, I decided I would have to break off my engagement. When I handed back the issue, I told him the articles had disturbed me deeply. My fiance said, “Me too.” I was so mad at him for letting me think he was a proponent!]

[I have close friends who had learned to disbelieve in God under the guidance of the New Mormon Historians. As additional scholars were disfellowshipped or excommunicated, these friends resigned their membership in the Church.]

As additional scholars were punished, Leonard Arrington came to believe that he, too, would be excommunicated for writing his biography. Leonard felt his personal papers would prove too sensitive, and asked that his papers be sealed for at least 25 years after his death.

Death and Aftermath

In 1999 Leonard Arrington knew he was near death. His children pled with him to reduce the moratorium on his papers. Finally agreeing, he reduced the moratorium on his papers to only 10 years. Most of Leonard Arrington’s papers were bequeathed to Utah State University upon his death, though the Church obtained several materials directly from the family immediately after Leonard’s death and obtained control of certain other materials that were clearly produced under privileged relationship with the Church (e.g., history of temple worship)

When the moratorium was lifted, the Church attempted to gain control of the collection. Failing that, the Church requested that portions of the record relating to living leaders be redacted. These requests were refused.


Arrington was given full reign when the prior histories had been carefully crafted to be faith promoting. The change was too abrupt for many leaders. And much of the original historical information had never been shared with Joseph F. Smith, Church President and father of Joseph Fielding Smith, the pre-eminent Church Historian prior to Arrington.

Mormon History in the 1800s was carefully controlled. We see this in the way that Zina D. Huntington refused to let even her own children know of their father’s excommunication.

Arrington was the sweetest of men, but he was not a careful historian, nor did he have the political savvy to overcome the hostility the old guard Apostles would have felt for any Church historian they perceived as honoring “academic rigor” over the welfare of the Church.

New Mormon History and LDS Church leadership failed to maintain dialogue. Each felt the other was abusing their position. I could wish that the LDS Church leadership had been more familiar with the detailed history. I could wish that those engaged in New Mormon History had actually dug deep enough to find the honorable Joseph beneath the filthy lies told by Dr. John C. Bennett.

At the end of days, I expect we will find that both the New Mormon History and the Old Guard LDS leaders erred in not having adequately understood the history they each felt they were protecting.

In the mean time, I am sure that Greg Prince’s biography of Leonard Arrington will be fascinating to students of human nature.

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About Meg Stout

Meg Stout has been an active member of the Church of Jesus Christ (of Latter-day Saints) for decades. She lives in the DC area with her husband, Bryan, and several daughters. She is an engineer by vocation and a writer by avocation. Meg is the author of Reluctant Polygamist, laying out the possibility that Joseph taught the acceptability of plural marriage but that Emma was right to assert she had been Joseph's only true wife.

25 thoughts on “Leonard Arrington: A View of Our Recent Past

  1. Meg:
    This is a tangent, but one that came sharply to mind when I read your post: Epistemic humility is a great thing, isn’t it? We most need to know and consider what we do not know and have not considered, and that is one of the benefits of time, of reading widely, of being creative. It is particularly hard to imagine the past, and doing so well requires…well, epistemic humility.
    One of the strongest take-aways I got (this is personal, not Brian’s fault) from Nauvoo Polygamy was “why would God do this to a good person like Joseph Smith?” It made me worry a lot, not about the prophetic status of Joseph, but about the dangerousness of God. He has got to be a pretty worrisome dude (Dude, sorry) to have gotten Joseph involved in something so messy and so unnecessary. Or so it struck me.
    Since then, with a little airing out I have decided I don’t know everything, that God seems trustworthy to me. And that Joseph probably had a good reason to do what ever it was that he did. I appreciate you for providing me some better reasons. It has begun to seem to me that what is missing from the Nauvoo Polygamy story is a motivation, and something very much like what you describe was very likely going on there.
    So last night I happened to be reading D&C 132. I had not noticed (or had not been tuned in to notice) how directly the Lord confronts this issue. There is much more talk about those “who say they are pure but are not” in there than I had been conscious of.
    Someone should do a good reading of D&C 132. There is more to polygamy than raising up seed (though that is in there, too). There is something about rescuing the Church in its infancy. I would not have gotten that if not for you my friend….
    Thanks Meg.

  2. Meg, I am sure there is some scholarly value to Greg Prince’s book on Arrington, just as there was scholarly value to his book on David O. McKay. Having said that, I don’t share Prince’s worldview, which is a manichean one with the supposed forces of Good (Church leaders who are supposedly “progressive”) fighting against the forces of Bad (Church leaders who are supposedly “regressive”). This manichean view filled his book on Pres McKay, and it sounds like it fills his book on Arrington. History is much more complex than that, and Prince’s constant attempt to turn certain church leaders into dunces and hold up others as heroes is simplistic and has no value in the real world.

    Prince is a prominent and constant critic of the Church’s position on homosexuality, and he has created a strange interpretation of why the Church does what it does that has absolutely nothing to do with actual facts.

    You can read Prince’s position here:


    Meridian Magazine ran a good rebuttal of Prince’s ridiculous assertions here:


    For those who don’t want to read the attached pieces, let me summarize in my own words: Prince makes up a world where Good people are trying to change the Bad church, which has a non-progressive view on homosexuality. The Meridian piece points out that the true reason for the Church’s position is, err, exactly what it says it is instead of the invented world of Greg Prince.

    So given Greg Prince’s propensity to live in a fantasy world when it comes to his interpretation of Church actions, I am not inclined to read his book on Arrington, although I will admit that there may be some scholarly and historical value in such a book.

  3. Greg Prince (like all of us) is a work in progress.

    Since I have been personally impacted by the struggle over Church history, I found it very useful to understand what had occurred. I hope I’ve given a sufficient summary for those who might wish to be informed yet won’t choose to purchase Greg’s book.

  4. Meg, agreed that Greg Prince like all of us is a work in progress. I have nothing personal against the man, and I am sure that he is a nice guy in person and is loved by his Heavenly Father, as we all are. However, he also puts forward a set of ideas and claims about the Church that are simply not true. He does not appear to me to take seriously the idea that prophets should be listened to and followed. He appears to me, based on his writings, to believe that he should be able to lecture the prophets on areas where he feels he is more enlightened. I disagree with these ideas and claims, and I think people who read his book should know these things about the man.

  5. When it comes to Greg’s view on homosexuality, I think he falls into the mindset of many moderns, who see adult sexuality as something that is open to the preferences of the adult.

    Lucinda Hancock sent me a link today that I think is germane:

    Making babies for Sale

    We live in a world that cares so much about self fulfillment and having one’s own way that we ignore the impact on children.

    That said, I don’t agree that the way forward is to shun those who have a different ideology. If we shun them, how can we remain in a dialogue that might help them see our point?

    I love the Edwin Markham poem:

    They drew a line that shut me out,
    Heretic, rebel, a thing to flout!
    But love and I had the wit to win
    We drew a circle and brought them in.

  6. Meg, yes, shunning is not a good idea. I’m not sure if anybody ever on M* has called for shunning anybody, but if they have, I agree it is not a good idea.

  7. I realize I was projecting some of the history of Church History onto this comment thread.

    WRT the kind of things written in Dialogue and Sunstone, I heard one Apostle’s child say their father considered certain writings as akin to porn, with respect to the corrosive influence the writings could have on the initially believing heart.

    As an author that some wish to avoid (e.g., the 1-star Amazon review of my book), I am aware of how it feels to have someone say “Don’t read what so-and-so writes.”

  8. As I said in my comment, there are reasons to read his books. I find it important to know where the writer is coming from before reading, however. If you’re going to read a Tom Clancy novel, you’re going to get a lot of military minutia and lots of rah-rah stuff. If you’re going to read JRR Tolkien you are going to get lots of hobbits, wizards, dwarves, etc. If you’re going to read Greg Prince you’re going to get a manichean view of the world with Bad, regressive Church leaders and Good, progressive people trying to change the Bad, regressive Church. That is not the kind of book I am interested in, personally.

  9. In testimony meeting on Sunday a young man gave his account of meeting with a member of the general authorities when he made application to become a faculty member at BYU. Of his six children one has a heart anomaly which required surgery and the another, yet unborn, will be operated on as soon as he is born for a completely different heart problem. As he met with his designated General authority, the interviewer asked him about the health of his children. His questions were pointed enough that the young scholar assumed he was some kind of doctor. Later he read up on Elder Renlund and realized that he was a noted cardiologist with deep experience in the very kinds of problems their family had encountered.
    Since the early days of the Church those who have participated in the leadership have been gifted man. Contemporary meetings of the Council of the 12 brings together an amazing range of talent and intellect. Yet ultimately their recourse is to the prophetic rather than their various fields of expertise. Elder Renlund, for example, did not discuss remedies or treatments. He asked if he could put the name of the child on the Prophet’s prayer roll. I find it both amusing and distressing that so many dismiss these men when it comes to their leadership of the Church. Those who know me, know that I am not easily awed, But I am amazed by the talent the Lord has assembled to his cause both in modern and ancient times. Leadership in the church is not a democratic process easily swayed by the opinions of the intelligentsia. To which I say quite literally ‘thank heavens’.

  10. “Leadership in the church is not… easily swayed by the opinions of the intelligentsia.”

    True. Yet even the intelligent are children of God, despite the simplistic assumption on the part of some that they can be discarded. Or so I seem to recall you telling me, Pat, of the time in your youth when you overheard the mothers of your peers asserting that you would leave the Church, since you were “smart.”

    I am glad that you have turned your great skill towards finding the glorious and honorable in the Church and its policies, rather than falling into the typical pattern of criticizing all change and all lack of change.

  11. Sometimes I think the Lord says something like: “You want the truth? You can’t handle the truth.”

    “He who sins against the greater light, is under the greater condemnation.”

    The “public gospel” (ie, the part that is public) is adapted to the “weakest of saints.”

    You want more than that? “And by the power of the Holy Ghost ye may know the truth of all things.” Those parts of the gospel which aren’t public, are taught by the Holy Ghost, via scripture study, prayer, meditation, temple worship, etc. And some are so non-public, that they are “unlawful to utter.”

  12. I deliberately used the word ‘intelligentsia’ instead of ‘the intelligent’. I love dealing with intelligent people, particularly intelligent people who are wise enough to know how much they have yet to learn. But it can be corrosive to the soul to expose oneself constantly to those who are derisive or cynical about the things one holds sacred. Some of these cynics cannot leave any article about the Church alone. They fill message boards and blogs with derisive insinuations or outright insults. Most of the intelligent people I know also believe in miracles and prophets. I do not intend to discard those who use acid and dismissal as a weapon, just try to avoid the heated fray.

  13. Geoff,
    I agree with what I think your intent is–that it is valuable to understand a person’s perspective so that you can better judge nuances and interpretations they make with data or lack thereof. But, I don’t think Greg Prince’s perspective on other issues that are less than fully supportive of the brethren warrants dismissing his biography of Arrington outright. This ad hominem approach seems unfair. I think those who are inclined to read the thorough writing of Prince should be able to determine where the truth is without being misled by biases or perspectives in the writing different from their own. The attitude to avoid all uncomfortable history is what Arrington was working to overcome and why we are now having to play catch-up with the lds.org essays.

  14. KarlS, excellent use of the phrase “ad hominem,” which is often misused. 🙂

    I understand your point. Please note that in each case I said the following:

    “That is not the kind of book I am interested in, personally.”


    “I am not inclined to read his book on Arrington.”

    I never said you or anybody else shouldn’t read his book on Arrington (although I did point it is important to know where Greg Prince is coming from).

  15. Often scholarship is highly affected by ones political biases (broadly speaking). While I’m a “let the chips fall where they may so long as you engage the facts well” kind of guy, it’s also undeniable the picture we make from facts tends to be biased by our presuppositions. I think that was undoubtedly the cast in the 80’s and early 90’s.

  16. Geoff, I think it is difficult for an LDS historian NOT to have a progressive agenda when invited to chronicle an apologetic organisation. If an institution’s self-understanding is almost entirely apologetic, anyone trained in non-apologetic methods, such as modern historians, will come to loggerheads with the apologetic forces within that organisation and find themselves stuck in the manichean duality you mention.

    This is particularly acute when the historian is an active LDS member who wants to help. “Wanting to help” is by definition an apologetic stance, yet being “historical” and being “helpful” are sometimes two different things, like Elder Packer said: “not everything that is true is useful.” So to reconcile this, a “helpful” historian has to find a way to defend his “hurtful” history. The only way to do this is by seeing oneself as a progressive “doctor” for the church, giving the patient news he doesn’t want to hear but needs to hear in his expert opinion.

    This is of course a presumptive and condescending stance, and a dangerous one at that, when one is face to face with the Kingdom of God.

  17. Hi Nate,

    I think one issue is that the “steady the Arc” approach presumes the Church needs an external entity watching over God’s Church.

    Convolve this with a simplified hagiography and a complex past, it is tempting to think the Arc has to be steadied.

    But last I checked, God was omnipotent and omniscient. So I am content to work with Him, rather than to presume that His mortal instruments are fatally flawed.

  18. Yes Meg, I think it comes down to steadying the ark. Yet its hard to know what is “steadying” and what is simply being “anxiously engaged.” Maybe “steadying” is when we overstep our authority when trying to help. So if Arrington or Prince go against the authority of the brethren, they are steadying. But the problem is that both Arrington and Prince have advocates and detractors WITHIN the authority. So they are in a tough position. John Dehlin claimed to have “an apostle” that was on his side, and that might have been somewhat true, and perhaps it even justified some of his work, but at a certain point, the authority of the church clearly turned against his work, and by not backing down, he showed that he was steadying the ark.

    But as a historian Meg, do you ever feel tempted to steady the arc? Some might say you’ve done that too by diving into the explosive and complicated subject of polygamy and coming out with a remarkably steady and cohesive narrative.

  19. Someone needs to steady my spelling…

    So for me, I only went down the path I did because God told me to go there. Like other tales of someone following a prompting and finding great treasure, I found something I never anticipated.

    It’s Gods ark, and He can do as He wills with what He inspired me to find. I always stand by to be corrected by Him and His.

  20. The omni-presence of the Internet/WWW has brought about a new day of openness. God’s side uses it for information. Satan’s side uses it for disinformation, lies, twisted truth, and truth taken out of context.

    While the Brethren, or the Lord, may have decided that the general membership and potential investigators were not ready for a “warts and all history” up until a certain point in time, Elder Ballard has finally made it official that “gone are the days when…”

    And of course, from the LDS Blogosphere, that looks like it’s at least 12 years or more “late to the party”. So, were faithful bloggers and online apologists “steadying the ark” or were we merely following Paul’s advice by giving a “faithful answer” to the critics’ challenges in the same realm where the challenges were being made (online)?

    Think of all the resources that have been assembled in those intervening years. The authors, online apologists and faithful bloggers have been trail-blazers, preparing information for those who now feel comfortable seeking academic/scholarly/historical answers to the critics because the Brethren have now “blessed” apologetics and the study of more detailed history.

    I personally know one person who was not even ready for “Rough Stone Rolling” and thought Bushman was an apostate. (Bushman was even called to be a temple president at some point after publication, right?) That person said he was going to report me to the stake pres for saying something out of that book. (Well, that guy was a little weird to start with.)

    There are proper ways of getting feedback up the chain of command to the Brethren. Sometimes it just takes a while.

    And it takes a while for the church to build up new programs and responses, and how to diseminate the “official” (ie, provided by the church, not individuals) responses to members and critics alike. The “essays” are a mere drop in the bucket, or baby-steps. I expect much more will be done and published.

    I think the new rule, or model is: “If it’s out there on the web, it’s fair game to discuss.”

  21. bookslinger,

    I don’t believe that Bushman has served as a temple president. I do know that he has served as a stake patriarch. So for those who like their authors to have a little hierarchal prestige, I suppose that helps. But I have also run across some individuals who thought that Bushman has one foot off the path. I’ve never believed that for a minute.

    For me, “Rough Stone Rolling” was heaven-sent. It opened the door to thoughtful inquiry by active Latter-day Saints.

  22. I have read books by Juanita Brooks, Richard Bushman, Greogory Prince, Fawn Brodie, and other authors. The comment made previously in quoting from the Book of Mormon Moroni 10 : 4-5 has continued to be a guide in what ever I read and my testimony is strengthened: ” And when ye shall receive these things, I would exhort you that ye would ask God the Eternal Father, in the name of Christ, if these things are not true and if ye shall ask with a sincere heart and with real intent having faith in Christ, he will manifest the truth of it unto you by the Power of the Holy Ghost. And by the power of the Holy Ghost ye may know the truth of all things.”

    Thank you Meg and others whose words fit the above test of truth for me.

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