Adventures of a Church Historian

Once upon a time, a short generation ago, President Nathan Eldon Tanner, counselor under David O. McKay, then President of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, invited Professor Leonard J. Arrington to serve as the first professional academic in the position of Church historian. President Tanner felt that it was past time and in line with the revealed will of God to tell anew and with professionalism the history of the Restoration. With that heady commission began an eight-year odyssey for this Idaho farm boy with a “will-to-truth” to rediscover and open a treasured archive, to analyze the sources, and to rewrite Mormon history both for Latter-day Saint readers as well as for those not of the faith. Unfortunately, what started out positively ended in a measure of conflict and misunderstanding. Years after the fact and while he was declining in health, Leonard Arrington wrote a reminiscence of his years in “Camelot” (to borrow Davis Bitton’s phrase). This little book (249 pages) lies somewhere between confession and criticism, between frustration and fulfillment—a captivatingly forthright attempt to explain Arrington’s experiences as Church historian. Seldom has anyone given such an intimate snapshot of the inner workings of Church administration at the highest levels.

Without pretending to be a complete autobiography, the book cuts to the quick in short order. Arrington tells very little about his childhood and early education, stopping only long enough to credit George Tanner at the University of Idaho Institute of Religion and Richard T. Ely—”that grand old man of economics”—at the University of North Carolina for emphasizing the compatibility of the sacred and the secular, the revealed and the researched. In the writing and subsequent publication of his dissertation into the classic work of mormon economic history—Great Basin Kingdom An Economic History of the Latter-day Saints, 1830–1900—Arrington had to learn how to write solid, reputable Mormon history without “cheerleading” the Mormon faith.

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