Thursday, September 23, 2010

Father of Mormon history

The diaries of the late Leonard J Arrington, known as the ‘Father of Mormon History’, are to be formally opened today when two of his children deliver an annual lecture on Mormon history in Logan, Cache County, Utah. The diary reveals in gritty detail, they say, not just his own ‘adventures’ as a historian for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, but the history of many Cache Valley characters. It does not, though, by newspaper accounts dwell on his disappointment when the church decided to close down his era of open and academic research into its history.

The third of eleven children, Arrington was born in Twin Falls, Idaho, in 1917 to parents who were Latter-day Saints and farmers. He studied agricultural science and then agricultural economics at Idaho University, before moving to postgraduate work at the University of North Carolina. In 1942, he married Grace Fort; and during the Second World War, between 1943 and 1946, he served for the US army in North Africa and Italy. He completed a doctorate in economics from the University of North Carolina in 1952, which subsequently led to the publication of his Great Basin Kingdom: An Economic History of the Latter-day Saints, 1830-1900. For nearly 30 years, until 1972, he was professor at Utah State University in Logan, and then he was appointed Lemuel H Redd Jr Professor of Western American History at Brigham Young University until 1987, when he retired.

In addition to his university academic career, Arrington was keen on historical associations. He helped establish the Mormon History Association in 1965, serving as its first president. In 1972, he was appointed official Church Historian of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. During his time in this position he opened up the archives, and sponsored the writing of histories in an academic style. Some considered this an idealistic approach, and in 1982 his open era was brought to an end when the church transferred the history division he had created to Brigham Young University. Arrington also launched the Western Historical Quarterly; and he served for short terms as presidents of the Western History Association, the Agricultural History Society, and the Pacific Coast Branch of the American Historical Association. He was made a Fellow of the Society of American Historians in 1986.

After Grace died, he remarried to Harriet Horne in 1983. He published a number of books in his life - including The Mormon Experience: a history of the Latter-Day Saints; Brigham Young: American Moses; Adventures of a Church Historian; and History of Idaho - as well as several collections of lectures. He died in early 1999, and in 2002 was posthumously awarded the first annual Lifetime Achievement Award by the John Whitmer Historical Association. Further biographical information is available from Utah State University’s website or Wikipedia.

Today, at the Logan Tabernacle, two of Arrington’s children are delivering the annual Arrington Mormon History Lecture. This will mark the formal opening of an archive at Utah State University - closed for 10 years after his death - with Arrington’s voluminous diaries. Publicity for the lecture says: ‘The diary reveals in gritty detail not just his adventures as a church historian, but the history of many Cache Valley characters. It also provides a treasure-trove of information on his personal trials, triumphs, and disappointments, along with his joys as a friend, father, and scholar. This presentation provides a sampler of stories, hidden deeds, private opinions about public controversies, and insights into a man who was hailed variously as a genius, a dangerous menace, a valiant friend, and a wise father.’

According to The Salt Lake Tribune, Arrington was ‘Mormonism’s most influential historian of the late 20th century’, and his diary ‘reveals a life imbued with the sense that he was chosen by heaven to help the LDS Church and its people truthfully tell the Mormon story’. However, the diary ‘is not a juicy trove of gossip’ the paper adds, nor does it dwell on the writer’s disappointment with his treatment by the church. Rather, historian Ronald W Walker says, the diary is ‘an annal of the intellectual life. . . [and] an extremely important historical document in terms of life, letters and thought in the 20th century.’

Here is one extract from Arrington’s diary, thanks to the The Salt Lake Tribune article: ‘Our great experiment in church-sponsored history has proven to be, if not a failure, at least not an unqualified success. . . One aspect that will be personally galling to me will be the gibes of my non-Mormon and anti-Mormon friends: ‘I told you so!’ ’

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