Wednesday’s Book Review: “Mormons and their Historians”

2738079Mormons and their Historians. By Davis Bitton and Leonard J. Arrington. Salt Lake City: University of Utah Press, 1988.

Although this book is rather long in the tooth, and both authors have passed on, it is still a fine short and breezy discussion of the historians who have dominated the writing of Mormon history from the 1840s to the 1980s. It is relatively short and succinct with chapters on Willard Richards, Orson Whitney, Edward Tullidge, Andrew Jenson, Joseph F. Smith, B.H. Roberts, and others.

The purpose of this work was, at least in part, to create legitimacy for the “New Mormon History” that emerged in the 1960s and was championed by the authors in official roles in the Latter-day Saint church. Leonard J. Arrington became LDS church historian in 1972 and served for a decade. He modernized the archives, opened collections, and sponsored soul-searching histories that tackled many difficult historical questions for the faithful. Davis Bitton was his strong associate in this process. Both received censure for some of their activities from self-proclaimed protectors of the faith.

The more open approach was officially attacked by Apostle Boyd K. Packer in 1981 when he invoked an espousal of the progress of the dominant line of Mormonism as a religion as the primary purpose of historical investigation, telling church educators that “Your objective should be that they will see the hand of the Lord in every hour and every moment of the Church from its beginning till now.”

In reality, no LDS historian has ever done this, and Bitton and Arrington make that clear in this work. But they were faithful Mormons nonetheless, seeking to help all understand their past “warts and all.” The so-called “New Mormon Historians” were pretty much like those who went before them, at least in terms of their objectives.

This is an easily read and understood book. Surveying it remains a profitable use of time nearly thirty years after it was first published.

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