History Is Then—and Now: A Conversation with Leonard J. Arrington, Church Historian

Leonard J. Arrington


In 1972, the First Presidency and the Council of the Twelve approved the creation of the Church Historical Department consisting of three divisions: the library, which maintains the collection of books and periodicals published by and about the Church; the archives, which acquire and house manuscripts; and the Church historian’s office, which is responsible for research and publishing.

Elder Alvin R. Dyer, Assistant to the Council of the Twelve, was named managing director of the Historical Department in 1972, with President Spencer W. Kimball and Elder Howard W. Hunter of the Council of the Twelve as original advisers. Elder Joseph Anderson, Assistant to the Council of the Twelve, now serves as managing director; Earl E. Olson is assistant managing director; Donald T. Schmidt is Church librarian-archivist; Sister Florence Jacobsen is Church curator; and Leonard J. Arrington is Church Historian. The present advisers are Elder Delbert L. Stapley and Elder Howard W. Hunter.

Brother Arrington is the first Church Historian in more than a century who is not a General Authority. The last Church Historian who was not a General Authority was James Sloan, who was appointed in 1841. Without pretending to “fill the shoes of my predecessors,” Brother Arrington takes seriously his responsibility to apply professional standards to one of the most exciting departments in the Church. Trained as an economic historian and author of Great Basin Kingdom, an economic history of the Latter-day Saints, he and his wife, Grace, live in Parley’s First Ward, Salt Lake City.

Brother Arrington still says “Missoura” in honor of his North Carolina origins, manages a productive department of 14 fulltime professionals with the daily delight of a child discovering Christmas, and shares a philosophy of history that combines the best of a professional’s search for historical truth with a deeply religious commitment to its value.

Ensign: I suppose the first question we’d better ask is what exactly is “Church history”?

Brother Arrington: Church history consists of the lives of people as well as the life of the institution—the Church. It includes aspects of the family, the individual’s life, his religion, and the history of a region and a nation. It’s also an aspect of divine history, since it records the Lord’s dealings with his children in the latter days. In addition to being a record of the events, it’s also an interpretation of their significance.

Ensign: It sounds as if there’s a close connection between history and theology, then.

Brother Arrington: That’s right. Part of our religion is that records must be kept. Furthermore, we know that what each individual does is significant to the Lord in the cosmic scheme of things. Obviously, the recording and the study and interpretation of history are important as we try to understand our theology.

Ensign: What’s the difference, then, between the way a historian would look at the First Vision, for example, and the way a theologian would?

Brother Arrington: I think the historian would avoid editorializing about the event. He would try to describe exactly what happened and the significance of this event in the life of Joseph Smith and those around him. The theologian would draw from it certain teachings about the nature of the Godhead and the nature of religious experience. Of course, both of them are vitally interested in exactly what happened. Historians seek to help people understand the past dealings of the Lord with his people without deliberately trying to get them to consent to a particular doctrine.

Ensign: As people study Church history, are there some areas that seem to cause theological problems for them?

Brother Arrington: There are some questions that come up quite often. As I speak at firesides and seminars, the number one question is nearly always polygamy: What was it like? When did it start? How many were involved? Then they also want to know how the Saints responded over the years to the Word of Wisdom. They want to know if records in the Church Archives are available for the use of scholars and students in preparing papers, and nearly always someone wants to know if the Church would be interested in their grandfather’s diary, even though he wasn’t a General Authority or even a bishop. Other questions involve the history of the black man and the Church, and how accurate the translation of the Book of Abraham is. Young people also want to know why we don’t write more Church history aimed at teenagers.

Ensign: Is that part of your plans?

Brother Arrington: It’s true that we don’t have much for teenagers. We usually talk about Church leaders after they become prophets and leaders, but I think it’s important to show them as young people with the problems that young people have. It brings us all closer to the realities of our history. Our series of biographies will include the early stages of some of these leaders’ lives. For instance, Joseph F. Smith was called on a mission to Hawaii when he was 15 and he stayed there for five years. We have much of his correspondence during that time, and now that we’re close to finishing cataloging his papers, we’re thinking about using some of that material.

Ensign: The biography series is one of the major projects you’re working on?

Brother Arrington: Yes, but it’s only one of many. The Brethren have authorized several important projects, and the biggest one is preparing a multivolume history of the Church. We’re thinking of about 16 volumes, and are aiming for 1980, the 150-year anniversary of the Church. The first volume will be the history of what happened in New York, closely related to Joseph Smith, of course, but we’re also planning separate volumes for the Church in different regions—one on the Church in Latin America, another on the Church in Europe and Africa, another on the Church in Asia and the Pacific.

Ensign: What do you want to accomplish with these histories?

Brother Arrington: We want them to be more than histories of the Church. We want them to be histories of Latter-day Saints, so the research includes all the diaries and available correspondence of people who were connected with these events. We’ve made some exciting discoveries. When we were doing research on Liberty Jail, we discovered a diary kept by Hyrum Smith in his own hand. It’s never been published. We didn’t even know it existed. It contains this early patriarch’s stout testimony and much that would interest Latter-day Saints.

Ensign: Who is writing these histories?

Brother Arrington: Sixteen different Latter-day Saint historians—professors at Brigham Young University and other universities, institute teachers and directors, and the two Assistant Church Historians, James B. Allen and Davis Bitton. Before the end of 1975, we hope to make available a one-volume history that would be of interest to members and general readers, and possibly another one-volume history for university classroom use among nonmembers.

Ensign: Do people ever ask why you’re rewriting our early history?

Brother Arrington: Yes, often. But one of the things they don’t realize is that we have three times as much material available now as B. H. Roberts had when he wrote his Comprehensive History of the Church. We wouldn’t pretend to match his brilliant insights and writing, but we can cover history more fully today because of the wealth of manuscript material. It’s even more true where Joseph Smith’s History of the Church of Jesus Christ is concerned.

Ensign: Has the philosophy of writing history changed since then as well?

Brother Arrington: To some extent, yes. Elder Roberts was particularly interested in the conflict between the Church and the national government because he wrote in the aftermath of the trials that resulted when Reed Smoot was challenged for his seat in the United States Senate. Now, half a century later, that conflict doesn’t have the same importance. We’re interested in the aspects of ordinary life—the social and cultural aspects—that he didn’t focus on to any great extent.

Ensign: What biographies do you have planned?

Brother Arrington: We badly need authoritative biographies of Joseph Smith and Brigham Young, and many other leaders. We’re working on one about Eliza R. Snow and hope to ultimately produce a number of biographies of Latter-day Saint men and women.

Ensign: What do you hope to accomplish in these biographies that current biographies have not done?

Brother Arrington: Many of the biographies about Church leaders that are currently available—in most public libraries, for instance—are written by nonmembers who have attempted to sensationalize certain aspects of their lives or doctrines. Some of our fine Latter-day Saint authors have not based their works on thorough research, or they wrote before some important material was available. Others have focused on certain aspects—spiritual experiences—rather than balancing it with the biographical facts of their life and thought.

Ensign: Why aren’t more Church books available in public libraries? Most of the collections seem to be anti-Mormon.

Brother Arrington: I’ve found a tremendous interest in the United States in Latter-day Saints, and I am sure that libraries will acquire books by our own scholars if they know about them. Books that are written exclusively for Mormons usually don’t get reviewed in library and professional journals, so libraries don’t order them. As we publish sound historical works over the years and as they are reviewed by professional historians, libraries will gradually build up good Latter-day Saint collections, and anti-Mormon books will be recognized for what they are: mistaken hostile propaganda and unsound history.

Ensign: What happens if some of the research shows aspects of Mormon life that might not fit our image of the ideal pioneer ancestor?

Brother Arrington: This happens, of course. These people weren’t perfect. Some descendants of an early bishop, for instance, might not want it mentioned that he occasionally served coffee or performed acts for which he was later sorry. On the other hand, if we tend to make them out as perfect, not only would we falsify the truth, but the readers wouldn’t be able to identify with the fact that the ancestor achieved in spite of problems, not in the absence of problems.

We consult with members of the family, with friends, with professional historians, both members and nonmembers, and with appropriate Church officials. We also pray for good judgment, wisdom, and proper direction and try to be prayerful in carrying out all of our assignments and callings.

Ensign: We usually think of omitting negative incidents. Are there other things that you’re careful about publishing?

Brother Arrington: Some spiritual experiences are so intimate and so personal that we feel they shouldn’t be published and we’ve sometimes omitted those.

Ensign: Does anyone screen your work?

Brother Arrington: Yes, we have a screening committee composed of myself, the two assistant Church Historians, and our editor, Maureen Ursenbach Beecher. Each person reads each item proposed for publication. In addition to our own prayerful consideration of each manuscript, we consult on problem areas with our associate managing director, Elder Joseph Anderson, and our two advisers from the Council of the Twelve, Elder Delbert L. Stapley and Elder Howard W. Hunter.

Ensign: What other projects are you working on besides the histories and biographies?

Brother Arrington: We’re just beginning to write the history of some Latter-day Saint communities here in the West—Utah, Idaho, Arizona, California, and Nevada. We hope to have some examples by December 1975 of those. Our U.S. Bicentennial contribution (1976) is a book on Latter-day Saints and their Revolutionary War ancestors. Brigham Young and Joseph Smith, of course, had ancestors who fought in that war, as did many of our more recent leaders. We’re also very enthusiastic about our Mormon Heritage Series, one or two volumes per year that will provide interesting and valuable information for Latter-day Saints. Dean Jessee’s book on Brigham Young’s letters to his sons was the first of this series, published last fall in cooperation with Deseret Book Company. It has been enthusiastically received, both by devout members of the Church and by the general public.

Ensign: What are some other projects planned for this series?

Brother Arrington: We’ve planned a volume on the writings of Latter-day Saint women, the writings of the Prophet Joseph Smith, the writings and sermons of Heber C. Kimball, documents about our expansion overseas, and many journals and diaries. Very little of this material has been published before.

Ensign: Sounds great! Are all of these projects that your staff is doing?

Brother Arrington: Not exclusively. The research work is done in the Church archives, since that’s where the material is, but many writers and scholars work with us.

Ensign: It fills an obvious need that we’ve had for a long time. Are there other neglected areas that you’re working on?

Brother Arrington: Our projects fill two of the major lacks in Latter-day Saint historiography—biographies of leaders and women, and an emphasis on social and cultural conditions to balance political or ecclesiastical histories.

Another real need is material about the Church in this century. We’ve had a longer history in this century than we had in the last century, but many histories hit 1900 and then taper off sharply. Half of our 16-volume history will deal with the Church in this century—books that will treat in some depth the histories of the welfare program, the building program, the Genealogical Society, missionary work, and so on.

Then, too, another of our major projects is collecting oral histories. Since the summer of 1972 when we started this project, we’ve talked to more than 600 persons for more than 1200 tape hours. As rapidly as our budget permits, these tapes will be transcribed, checked, and bound for the use of researchers in our archives.

Ensign: Your regional volumes will help a lot in understanding the international Church. Do other projects deal with it specifically?

Brother Arrington: That’s another real gap in our historiography. We’ve made a special effort to get oral interviews with leaders and administrators in other countries and have quite a good collection from Scandinavia, Mexico, South America, the Pacific Islands, and Japan. We hope to go to other parts of the world.

We need histories of the Saints in all of these areas. Saints have been in the Pacific Islands since the 1840s, in Canada since the 1830s. Most of our histories have been “headquarter histories,” focused on Kirtland, Nauvoo, Missouri, and what was happening here in the West.

Ensign: You’ve mentioned the archives several times. Is the material there available to the public?

Brother Arrington: Yes. In fact, another of our major projects is making available to Latter-day Saint scholars typed copies of many original manuscripts and providing guides to material in the archives. The letterbooks of Brigham Young, for instance, are being transcribed, and that’s a major project, since these take up about 16 feet of shelf space. We’ve published many registers—one of the most recent being a register of James H. Moyle’s papers—he was the father of President Henry D. Moyle, and former assistant secretary of the United States Treasury. We are also preparing registers of emigrant companies, and of various topics of interest such as lists of archival material related to the history of Nevada.

A related project is our availability as consultants to individuals who are writing family histories, or histories of their wards and stakes. Lots of them are being written now under the Heritage Arts program; we’re delighted to let people know what resources are available here for their research.

Ensign: Is there any way that Church members can help the archives?

Brother Arrington: We’re very aggressive in collecting minute books, records, diaries, and such. A few months ago a garbage collector from a southern Utah ward found an old ward record book in the dump, retrieved it, and brought it in when he came to Salt Lake City. I’m sure the angels in heaven rejoiced at his thoughtfulness. Certainly the archivist did.

Ensign: Are you interested in collecting artifacts?

Brother Arrington: Our specialty is mainly manuscripts, photographs, and printed materials. But Sister Florence Jacobsen, our Church curator, collects memorabilia, paintings, artifacts, sculpture, furniture, and many kinds of things. In fact, each stake is now supposed to have called an assistant stake clerk to be Heritage Arts correspondent.

Ensign: What are some of your most precious holdings?

Brother Arrington: In our vault, the most treasured single document is several score pages of the original draft of the Book of Mormon as Joseph Smith dictated it to Emma Smith, Oliver Cowdery, Peter Whitmer, and others. We also have some of Joseph Smith’s Egyptian papyri, a diary kept by the Prophet in his own hand in 1832, a history that he wrote in 1832 (neither of which has yet been published in full), a number of revelations as dictated by the Prophet, many of which are now in the Doctrine and Covenants, and the papers and letterbooks of each Church president. We also have a phonograph recording of Wilford Woodruff bearing his testimony in 1897. And of course we have a number of first editions of such books as the Book of Mormon, the Doctrine and Covenants, and other Church books.

Ensign: Does your study of Church history give you any special perspective on the various contemporary issues that create tensions for members of the Church?

Brother Arrington: Yes, it’s extremely helpful. We believe very strongly that the more people know about the gospel, the stronger their testimony will be. My study of Church history makes me feel very confident about the Church, its history, and its future. Our leaders are showing great wisdom in handling and solving organizational problems and in the delicate social and moral issues of our age. It’s not always easy and matters do not always go as some would like, but the leadership seems sure and competently surmounts each problem as it arises. Moreover, the Lord will not allow the Church to fail or its leaders to take us astray. Many of the things that perturb some in relation to the Church will be seen in the perspective of historians to be handled with remarkable restraint, wisdom, and forthrightness.

Ensign: Confidence in the future, then, is one of the results for you of your involvement in Church history. Are there other reasons why we should understand Church history?

Brother Arrington: Yes! Understanding Church history helps us understand the importance of what we’re doing by explaining something about the purposes of the Lord at each stage of history. It makes it easier to understand the importance of what we’re doing today. Each decade, each month, and each day is important in building the kingdom, and you get a perspective of that in viewing the months and years already past.

Each day we are confronted with the sensual images of the material side of life. Church history helps us see a more important side, a spiritual side, the eternal values of what goes on in our hearts and minds. It helps us maintain a sense of identity with our roots, with those whose ideas, policies, and suggestions are incorporated in our daily lives. History helps us develop loyalty to our traditional values and institutions, to our families, our leaders, our policies and programs. No individual is complete without history. No family is. And neither is the Church.

[photos] Photography by Royce Bair

[photo] Leonard J. Arrington

[photo] Full-time historian doing research.

[photo] Reading section of the Church Historical Library.

[photo] These wax cylinders were used to record the testimony of President Wilford Woodruff.

[photo] Letter of President Joseph F. Smith, written while he was on his first mission to Hawaii.

[photo] Diary of Hyrum Smith, kept while he was in Liberty Jail.