Book Notes: Conversations with Mormon Historians

06.25.2015 | The Maxwell Institute

Some people geek out about history so much that they end up studying the history of history—who are the historians who write history? what methods and assumptions do they use? what motivates them? how have people’s understanding of historical situations changed over time? Given that the LDS Church places so much importance on its own past, it’s no surprise that Mormon historiography—the study of how Mormonism has been studied, written, and read about—has been the focus of a number of articles and books over the past several decades. ((The best book on the subject to date is Mormon History, by Ronald W. Walker, David B. Whittaker, James B. Allen.)) Conversations With Mormon Historians is an engaging collection of interviews with sixteen distinguished LDS historians (three women, thirteen men) reflecting on memories of childhood, military service, missionary work, academic training, research, the nature of writing history, and other matters.

From Oliver Cowdery and John Whitmer in the 1830s to Leonard Arrington in the 1970s to Marlin K. Jensen and Steven E. Snow most recently, the office of Church Historian and Recorder has overseen the recording and transmission of the Church’s official history. Countless historians have worked under (sometimes around) these leaders—from the self-trained to the university educated—who’ve contributed a great deal to our historical knowledge. Alexander Baugh and Reid L. Neilson have been well-situated to observe how the Mormon story has been told within the church over the years, Baugh as a professor of Church History and Doctrine at BYU and Neilson as a current Assistant Church Historian and Recorder. They oversaw and collected these interviews which took place between 2001 and 2012 in order to preserve more history of Mormon history. ((None of the interviews are new to the book; each has been previously published in the journal Mormon Historical Studies. One interview (Robert J. Matthews) was published in BYU’s Religious Educator.)) The interview subjects were born between 1925 and 1942, coming of age after the Great Depression and during world wars just as Mormon history began to professionalize.

The quality of each interview tends to hinge on the skills of the interviewer—typically a younger colleague working in the field of history—as much as on the insights of the interview subject. Jed Woodworth’s interview with Richard Bushman is particularly engaging as it skips across topics like Joseph Smith’s character and changing place in history, Bushman’s methods of research and writing, and the importance of creating scholarship that makes an impact beyond the institutional church.

The level of candor found in Conversations is especially interesting. Interview subjects reminisce about frustrating negotiations between historians and the church’s Correlation committee, occasions when BYU made it difficult for historians to work or present their ideas, and the sometimes-testy politics of working in the Church archives during and after the 1970s when Leonard Arrington led the charge to professionalize church history. Stanley B. Kimball remains true to his (stereotypical) heritage as a grandson of J. Golden Kimball when he describes the difference between today’s Visitor Center-like Nauvoo versus the city of the 1840s (“And I know, for hell’s sakes, that they had outhouses and dung piles in the streets,” p. 327). More seriously, consider Laurel Thatcher Ulrich’s words:

To care enough about the Church to want to see it better, to cherish the past without denying the future, to love and respect the Brethren while recognizing their limitations, to be willing to speak when nobody is listening—all of these require faith” (557).

As that excerpt suggests, Conversations has a strong devotional undercurrent as interview subjects discuss how they negotiate spiritual, academic, and professional dynamics. “The trouble with wishing to write history as a Mormon,” offers Richard Bushman, “is that you cannot improve as a historian without improving as a [person]” (xiv). Throughout the collection the paradoxical characteristics of confidence and humility, candid honesty tempered by affection, are exhibited by interview subjects and enjoined upon a rising generation of historians.

Conversations matters because the history of history can’t be written apart from the history of historians.

Alexander L. Baugh, Reid L. Neilson, eds., Conversations With Mormon Historians (Provo, Religious Studies Center/Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 2015).