Adventures of a Church Historian
Leonard J. Arrington
R. W. Rasband
University of Illinois Press (Chicago and Urbana), August 1998. Hardcover:
Suggested retail price: $29.95 (US)
In Robert Graves' great historical novel, I, Claudius, the futureRoman emperor and aspiring young historian Claudius meets two olderhistorians in a library. Livy advocates writing history as a saga thatexpresses spiritual truths; Pollio says that facts are the most importantelements in telling the story. Claudius comes to see that both views mustbe reconciled, and as he ascends to the throne he cleverly and quietlywrites the true history of the empire while recording his owntranscendental experiences along the way. The poignancy of Claudius'quest is mirrored in Leonard Arrington's fine new memoir, Adventures of aChurch Historian.
Arrington is one of the most distinguished historians the LDS church hasproduced, along with Richard Bushman and Laurel Thatcher Ulrich. He haslived a full life, which he describes in his book; growing up poor inIdaho; high academic honors in college and graduate school; service in theU.S. Army during World War II in Italy and North Africa as an economistand administrator; author of many exceptional books and articles on Mormonhistory; and becoming the first non-general authority church historian in1972.
The most important aspect of this book is the spirit it radiates. Thefaithfulness, charity, warmth, and humor in it are very moving. Arringtonsays that his approach to writing history has always been to join reasonand faith in a large context and common sense and testimony. Candor andhonesty are vital; we need only believe things that are true. Touchingly,Arrington writs for the first time of the revelatory spiritual experienceshad had in his career: "a feeling of ecstasy suddenly came over me -- anexhilaration that transported me to a higher level of consciousness" (page28). He felt that the Lord had given him a special errand in chroniclingLDS history. These divine encounters helped sustain him throughout thedifficulties he would meet in carring out his errand.
This relatively short book is full to bursting with Arrington'sfascinating stories stories. The chapter about African-Americansreceiving the priesthood in 1978 alone is worth the price of the book. Herelates his first intimidating interview with President Joseph FieldingSmith and his subsequent discovery of that man's puckish sense of humor. He describes his graduate school time in North Carolina and the influenceon him of the southern school of agrarian thought (otherwise known as "thefugitives") -- Robert Penn Warren, Allen Tate, and others. "They championeda revival of moral values and religious faith .& .& . an authentic Americanconservatism." (page 25; this is an interesting intellectual confessionfrom a man who in the past has been carelessly labeled as a "liberal".) He recounts his church service at Utah State University and the comingtogether in the 60's of a "fraternity" of Mormon history scholars. Hisaccount of the founding of the LDS Historical Department is a rare andadmirable glimpse into church leadership decision-making.
Arrington assembled a talented team of scholars and proceeded toprofessionalize the archives and write history. Their accomplishments inthe decade of "Camelot" (their nickname for Arrington's time in office) were abundant. The best known fruits of their efforts are: "The Story ofthe Latter-day Saints" by James Allen and Glen Leonard, a very influentialbook in the 70's: Arrington and Davis Bitton's "The Mormon Experience",still the best one volume work about the church in general; andArrington's masterful biography of Brigham Young. However, the churchhistorian began to get opposition to his program. Even though he wassupported by Presidents Harold B. Lee and Spencer W. Kimball, and EldersN. Eldon Tanner, Howard W. Hunter Alvin Dyer, Joseph Anderson (and mostsurprisingly and gratifyingly, Bruce R. McConkie) and others, the churchleadership was a collective enterprise in which the determined oppositionof one, two, or three apostles could carry a great deal of weight. Thisis what happened when some conservative general authorities attackedArrington and company's interpretations of the past. They wanted, wroteArrington in his journal, a church historian "who (1) has written littlehistory; (2) saturates history with scriptural allusions and references; and (3) obstinately refuses to mention controversial episodes" (page 156). Arrington is forthright in naming the names of his adversaries. There wasalso an element of bureaucratic turf battle in the controversy, Arringtonwrites. The Correlation committee was determined to bring the writing ofchurch history under their control. Eventually that committee blacklistedall History Division works from church manuals and publications (alongwith the writings of Eugene England and Lowell Bennion.) The HistoryDivision was eventually reduced in numbers by attrition and moved awayfrom church headquarters to BYU. Through all this Arrington kept hisintegrity and remained a humble servant of God. He considers the story ofthe History Division as akin to that of Zion's Camp; perhaps initiallyperceived as ending in failure, but with real potential for great thingsin later years.
While remaining a faithful latter-day Saint, Arrington retains anadmirable independence of mind and spirit. I think he identifies with the19th century Salt Lake bishop Edwin Woolley (an ancestor of Spencer W. Kimball and a man about whom Arrington has extensively written.) Once,after a disagreement, Brigham Young told Woolley "Well, I suppose you aregoing to go off and apostatize." Woolley replied, "No, I wont. If thiswere your church I might, but it's just as much mine as yours."
In my opinion, this is the best Mormon book of the year; an instantclassic. It is a gripping and riveting read, in an odd sort of way for achurch memoir. It was Arrington and associates (along with Samuel W. Taylor) who helped light the fire of my testimony when I was just a kid,and for that I will be eternally grateful. There seems to be a cease-firein the "history wars" on the publication of this book; a littlesurprisingly, it is available at Deseret Book. This has to be becauseeveryone finally recognizes both what a good old man Arrington is and thetruly wonderful nature of his contribution.
R.W. Rasband Heber City, UT firstname.lastname@example.org
© 1998 R. W. Rasband < email@example.com >