In this Mormon moment, LDS Church history blooms

Openness will add to "cultural power" of the church, historian says.
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On this date 167 years ago, an angry mob shot and killed LDS Church founder Joseph Smith in an Illinois jail. Believers and skeptics have been telling and retelling the story of Smith and the movement he launched ever since.

Historians' task now has grown more urgent, more complicated and more visible in the 21st century as two Mormon candidates vie for the U.S. presidency and a Tony-winning Broadway musical spells out the tale in broad, satirical strokes. The Utah-based church works strenuously to correct misperceptions even as pro- and anti-Mormon websites duke it out on the Internet.

Fortunately, says premier LDS historian Richard Bushman, the field of Mormon history is flowering as never before.

"We are living in the golden age of Mormon history," Bushman, a Harvard-educated scholar who has taught at Columbia, Boston University and Claremont Graduate University, argued in a speech this month at a symposium honoring his 80th birthday. "History has brought into existence a realm of independent inquiry where scholarship is no longer judged by its partisan conclusions but by its accuracy and insight."

Bushman, addressing nearly 200 attendees meeting at the Springville Museum of Art, was delighted to note that The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints co-sponsored the event with independent researchers.

He praised the work of current LDS Church historian and general authority Marlin Jensen, and his colleague, Richard Turley, for opening the archives and the conversation with researchers of all backgrounds and beliefs.

Recently, the church has begun publishing Smith's writings in the multivolume Joseph Smith Papers Project, given free rein to Turley and two co-authors to write honestly about the Mountain Meadows Massacre and has put a catalog of thousands of documents online.

"They proceed on the conviction," Bushman says, "that the church and its history can flourish in the realm of free, open and independent inquiry."

That approach has been deeply satisfying to historians such as Bushman, a Mormon and author of Rough Stone Rolling, the prize-winning biography of Smith.

"We want to know Joseph Smith as he really was in the historical record and not as idealized in our imagination," he says. "We do not need to conceal our history. We believe it will be more convincing and more engaging and more true if we tell it as it is."

That sounds like a 30-year-old echo.

A utopian vision? • In the 1970s, Leonard Arrington, a pre-eminent Mormon scholar, became the first professional to have the official title of church historian.

For Arrington, a lifelong Mormon, it came at another defining moment for the LDS Church, which was transforming from a smaller, insulated faith to an ever-growing international presence.

Arrington gave researchers unfettered access to the church's vast collection of primary source materials, some of which had never been seen before. He influenced an entire generation of Mormon historians, eager to produce credible, thoughtful accounts of their church. His 10 years at the helm of a movement known as the "New Mormon History" were often compared with the mythical Camelot. Good history, his supporters said, would resolve conflicting accounts of the church's past and offer a positive, full-blooded portrait of its people.

But some LDS leaders feared Arrington and his colleagues were undermining faith. They moved his team to Brigham Young University, restricted access to church documents and unceremoniously "released" him from his post as church historian.

Arrington's era was a "glorious time but doomed to fade as Arthur's Camelot did," Bushman says. "Leonard laid the foundation for all history writing since, and I think he would be immensely pleased with what is happening now. But history writing in our times is built on a much steadier foundation than his Camelot, with much better prospects for continuance."

Arrington was an intellectual pioneer who was "stepping out and doing things that had never been done before," says religious scholar Jan Shipps, a non-Mormon who has made Mormonism her life's study. "He stood his ground and continued to at least critique what was being written until the day he died in 1999."

Rather than a golden era, says Shipps, who lives in Bloomington, Ind., today's pursuit of LDS Church history is "the second act of a continuing drama."

This is, indeed, an exciting time for LDS history, says Jill Mulvay Derr, a historian whom Arrington hired decades ago and who works on the church's women's collections.

She moved with the Arrington group to BYU, where she became part of the Joseph Fielding Smith Institute for Church History and now works out of the new Church History Library.

"I continue to be amazed at the richness in Mormon history," she says. "There are so many layers to discover. We keep drilling down into the details, and it's those details where the particular becomes so universal. It is endlessly fascinating."

She, too, sees a continuum between Arrington's era and this one through the efforts of historians such as Turley.

"He has consistently worked to build and expand that foundation of trust with church authorities and scholars," Derr says. "The kind of success we see now didn't just happen. It's been building over many years."

Derr enjoys the lively exchanges within and outside of her department, she says. "There are so many voices and authors, rather than just one authoritative voice."

Such a multifaceted approach, she says, benefits the church and its interactions with the wider world.

William MacKinnon, a California-based scholar who is not LDS but has worked extensively on Mormon history, has seen a "sea change" in attitudes among younger Mormon scholars and by LDS Church leaders.

MacKinnon points to the fact that 750 people — not all church members — attended last month's meeting of the Mormon History Association in St. George.

"This huge level of attendance was equivalent to more than half of MHA's membership," MacKinnon writes in an email. "I know of no professional historical association in the country with that degree of interest and vitality."

The group, which he heads, spoke with reverence of Juanita Brooks, a Mormon scholar who faced stiff opposition to her historical research in the 1960s, MacKinnon says.

"The younger scholars and teachers pursuing Mormon history today are, by and large, very apt to let the chips fall where they may in dealing with sensitive, nuanced subjects."

In the past decade, MacĀ­Kinnon, who has been writing since 1958 about the Utah War of 1857-1858, has not been denied access to any of the church's documents he sought, "except when it bore on matters of religious rites or the priest-penitent relationship, restrictions that I think are reasonable."

To what does he attribute this openness? The "leadership and sensitivities of the late [LDS Church] President Gordon B. Hinckley were without doubt," he says, "a positive factor."

Into the future • Bushman sees Mormonism entering an era of "cultural power." He points to schools nationwide — from Utah State University and Southern California's Claremont Graduate University to Berkeley's Graduate Theological Union and the University of Virginia — that have established Mormon studies courses. LDS themes seem to be increasingly playing out in artistic endeavors from Tony Kushner's "Angels in America" to "The Book of Mormon" musical and beyond.

"Whether Mormonism is admired or despised, it is acknowledged," he says. "It is a mythic presence in the national imagination."

Finally, Bushman is encouraged that the conversation about the LDS movement is no longer simply the subject of a pro or con debate.

Younger LDS scholars have moved beyond amassing "scientific evidence" to prove that "Mormonism is true," he says. "Now the aim is to find the truth of Mormonism, its depth, its scope, its usefulness."

They believe that it "will flourish best if its true nature is uncovered and investigated, not if it is proven perfect and infallible."

It is not clear, he says, if the broader Mormon community will embrace or reject the frank scholarship this group will produce.

As always, though, Bushman remains optimistic.