45 years ago - Nov 27, 1974-Wednesday

[Leonard Arrington]

Yesterday afternoon from 2 p.m. to 3:45 p.m. the executives of the Historical Department met with our advisors from the Twelve. There were present Elders Hunter and McConkie, Elder Anderson, and Earl, Don, and I. Under the heading of new business Elder Hunter read the attached letter from Elder [Boyd K.] Packer to the First Presidency. [[Packer's letter to the First Presidency read, in part: "I have come to believe that it is the tendency for most members of the Church who spend a great deal of time in academic research, to begin to judge the Church, its doctrine, organization, and history, by the principles of their own profession. Oft times this is done unwittingly, and some of it perhaps is wholesome. However, it is an easy thing for a man with extensive academic training to consider the Church with the principles he has been taught in his professional training as his measuring standard. "In my mind it ought to be the other way around. A member of the Church ought always, particularly if he is pursuing extended academic studies, to judge the professions of man against the revealed word of the Lord. "What concerns me about the Historian's Office is that, unless I am mistaken, the di- rection they are taking is to judge what should be good for the Church and for the operation of the Historical Department against the rules set down for historians. "We have evidently authorized a series of publications in order to make available to all members of the Church much information that is in the Archives and in the Historical Depart- ment. This, I think is a very commendable project. I do feel however, and feel very deeply, that some tempering of the purely historical approach needs to be effected. Otherwise these publi- cations will be of interest to other historians and perhaps serve them well, but at once may have a negative affect upon many. Particularly can they affect our youngsters who will not view the publications with the same academic detachment that a trained historian is taught to develop. I have seen how such published information has disturbed young students in the Church." Packer referenced Dean Jessee's compilation of Brigham Young letters to his sons, citing portions dealing with the Young's estate, Young's use of tobacco, one son's drug addiction, problems of missionaries serving under another son, Young's divorce, and references to Young simply as "Brigham." "[If ] I am not mistaken," Packer continued, "and I think that I am not, if the things I have mentioned go unnoticed, it will be an invitation to put in print many other things from the Historian's Office. Such information will do precious little good and may do a great disservice to individuals both past and present. "I mentioned that I have raised this subject before. Each time the Historical Office has been discussed in our meetings, I have expressed my concern. I think that very often I do not do very well in speaking in council meetings and perhaps my shortcomings there do injury to the very position I am trying to endorse. I make these comments without intending to be critical of any individual. I think our brethren in the Historical Department are wonderful men. Nor would I mind if you were to show them this letter, for they know that I regard them very highly. It is the principle that concerns me. ... "If we determine that we should continue to publish information such as this, that itself will be an interesting bit of history. For the brethren who have preceded us were very careful to do just the opposite." Letter, Oct. 24, 1974, copy in diary at Nov. 27, 1974.]]

This had been read at the meeting of the Quorum of the Twelve on November 14, and had led to a rather full discussion of the work and programs of the Historical Department. Elder McConkie was not present at that meeting, and Elder Hunter had not been presented with an advance copy of the letter, and was not able to furnish answers to some of the questions raised. So his attitude was to "cool it," to postpone any kind of recommendation or action. He said he told Elder Packer that the letter should have been directed to him or to me, rather than to the First Presidency, and give us a chance to consider it and make whatever response we thought it required. Other members of the Twelve seemed to agree with this. Some of the specific points brought out in that discussion in the Twelve were: There was some criticism of the continued heavy involvement of Historical Department personnel in Dialogue. Witness the Maureen Ursenbach [Beecher] and Davis Bitton interviews with Juanita Brooks and the Davis Bitton collaboration in the article on phrenology. I pointed out that Davis Bitton and Maureen Ursenbach's interview with Juanita had been conceived many months ago, even before their employment with the Historical Department, that Dialogue was behind in its publication, that they had talked with me about whether to go ahead with it or withdraw it, and I had told them to go ahead with it. Both Brother Hunter and Brother McConkie said they agreed with this advice; that it would have been more damaging to have asked them to withdraw a piece than to have allowed it to be printed. There was a general feeling that we should be less involved in Dialogue, to avoid any impression that the Historical Department was placing a stamp of approval on Dialogue, and to avoid a tendency for us to dignify the magazine by contributing regularly toward it. After the meeting, I asked Maureen to withdraw, for the time being anyway, her article on Eliza [R. Snow] which she had submitted a week ago. She agreed to write a letter to Bob Rees to this effect immediately. Brother Hunter said they had discussed "Claudia Bushman's Women's Lib magazine, Exponent II." No further remarks on this. Earl asked whether the last paragraph of Elder Packer's letter meant a recommendation that we should channel all of our material through the Correlation Committee, or did it mean there should be a reappraisal of the programs in general. Elder Hunter said he thinks Elder Packer would like to see both. That is, he is very fearful of the sesquicentennial history project, and would like to see it discontinued. Also that he couldn't see why everybody else had to go through Correlation, but we didn't. Both Brother Hunter and Brother McConkie reacted negatively to both these suggestions. Elder McConkie declared, with strong emphasis, "We have to write history. We cannot avoid the responsibility. And as long as we have to do it, we have to get competent professional people. We cannot expect it to be done by an 8th grade Sunday School teacher or someone not trained." Elder McConkie said all General Authorities had been sent copies of the recent issue of Dialogue, and he had read Davis Bitton and Maureen Ursenbach's interview with Juanita Brooks and the Bob Flanders article on the new history. He said he could see nothing wrong with the former, and he was very interested in the latter. He mentioned that Flanders had mentioned my book, Great Basin Kingdom, as an example of the new history. And he assumed this was an attempt to improve upon books like Essentials of Church History by Joseph Fielding Smith, which give more or less a one-sided view of our history. He assumes this means that in writing our history, Flanders would recommend giving the side of the Missourians and the Illinoisans, as well as that of the Church. He commented on this without any pejorative connotations. In discussing Arrington and his work as an example of the new history he was not necessarily saying it was bad or the wrong thing. I made no comment myself except to say I also had read the article. On the matter of having our material go through correlation, Elder McConkie also reacted strongly. He said they were given their assignment to read manuscripts for manuals-for presentation in Sunday School and Priesthood classes. To be sure that the doctrine was right. Here, he said, we have something different. If one of our books was to be used as a manual then presumably they would go over it, and eliminate this and that and change [it], but for the uses we had in mind, he thought they had to be read and approved by people who knew history. He did not think the Brethren would approve asking Correlation to do something they were not prepared by training or knowledge to do. Elder Hunter echoed this sentiment. Elder Hunter asked us to consider the letter and its implications, not to be too fast about responding. And let our recommendations and reactions come back through proper channels-through Elder Anderson and through the advisors. They set the next meeting for December 17 at 2 p.m. in Elder Hunter's office. He said he did not favor us taking any drastic action. I said the letter was thoughtful and expressed some concerns that we ourselves had expressed, and that I did not feel that the letter was unwelcome. Elder Anderson said that some of the criticism went too far. The use of first names, like Joseph and Brigham, had been traditional in the Church, and he could see nothing wrong with that. And as for the statement about Brigham Young advising his son not to smoke while on his mission, he thought that wasn't bad-thought Brigham Young's phrasing was rather good, and the effect of his advice to his sons was positive and good and would have the same effect on young men reading it today.

I pointed out the letter we had from one of the Twelve [Apostles], who I didn't identify, congratulating us and Jack Adamson on the introduction to the Brigham Young book. Elder Hunter said he looked forward to getting the minutes of the meeting of the Twelve to see how the secretary summed it up.

In essence we have a vote of confidence from Elders Hunter, McConkie, and Anderson, and they see the letter as posing no threat to us or our program. They will carry to the Twelve in their meeting today some responses expressed in the meeting yesterday, and point out that we are taking the letter under advisement. My own reaction is:

1. Keep down our involvement with Dialogue, Exponent II, and Sunstone; the less visibility with these periodicals the better.

2. Increase our visibility with church periodicals and BYU Studies.

3. Keep a steady flow of positive articles to balance the controversial ones.

4. Keep reassuring people about the screening done by our present screening committee.

5. To say absolutely nothing, by hint or otherwise, about the letter or the discussion to anybody but Davis, Jim, and Maureen, and to caution them to say absolutely nothing about it to anyone.

6. To carry on as usual except for the points above.

[Confessions of a Mormon historian : the diaries of Leonard J. Arrington, 1971-1997, Gary James Bergera, editor, Signature Books, 2018]

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