13 Surprising Facts from Greg Prince’s Biography of Leonard Arrington

Today marks the official release date of Greg Prince’s long-awaited Leonard Arrington and the Writing of Mormon History (University of Utah Press). I’ve been privileged to look over an advanced copy since I’m responding to a paper based on the book at Mormon History Association, and I had a hard time putting it down. For those interested in the development of New Mormon History, the LDS Church’s tango with history during the 1970s and 1980s, and the institutional dynamics of the Mormon hierarchy, this is a must-read. I’ll share a more thorough review of the book, and perhaps some poignant excerpts and issues, after MHA, but in the meantime here are a baker’s dozen worth of details that should whet your appetite.

  1. To give you a perspective of the different era in which Arrington was born, his family traveled via a horse and buggy when he was a kid. (105)
  2. Arrington’s life was, in a way, bookended with blessings from Mormon women: shortly after being born gravely ill he was blessed by his mother, Edna, and her friend, Hanna Bowen (10, 222); and when he was to have bypass surgery much later in life he once again received a blessing that was given by his second wife, Harriet, co-worker and friend Maureen Beecher, as well as Michael and Jan Quinn. (446) These experiences might have made him especially open to scholarship on the ritual practices of Mormon women.
  3. While an undergraduate student Arrington was part of the largest college cooperative experiment during the Great Depression, which likely influenced his later scholarly focuses. (15-16)
  4. When he tried to enlist during World War II he was deemed too short for the Navy and medically unfit (due to his asthma) for the Air Force. He was eventually drafted by the Army. (39)
  5. While overseas during the war Arrington had the pleasure to meet the Pope. (45)
  6. Though he came to be known as a historian, he received his PhD in economics, was hired as an economics professor at Utah State, and never even taught a history class before his appointment as Church Historian in 1972. This experience made him sympathetic to the many non-specialists who engage in the field of Mormon history.
  7. Arrington had an article in the first issue of BYU Studies on the economic origins of Word of Wisdom governance, and its content proved so controversial that the journal avoided historical topics for a number of issues afterward. This lack of an outlet for Mormon historians led to the creation of Dialogue and, later, Journal of Mormon HistoryBYU Studies, of course, later returned to the historical sphere. (137)
  8. Arrington was tapped to be assigned mission president to the Church’s Italy Mission in 1967 before being vetoed by Elder Ezra Taft Benson. (148)
  9. Arrington had been in talks with the LDS Church and BYU for a joint appointment for a few years before being called as Church Historian. He originally expected to become an assistant historian, but a new organizational program that swept over the church in 1971 encouraged Church leadership to divest divisional responsibility off of general authorities and onto specialists. So Arrington’s appointment as Church Historian was just one of many bureaucratic changes that took place in the early 1970s.
  10. During the 1960s Arrington and his colleague, George Ellsworth, applied to the National Historic Publications Commission for funding to do the Brigham Young Papers Project. The NHPC readily agreed and pledged $40,000. The Church, though, declined. A decade later, Arrington tried to resurrect the Young project, only this time as a 7-volume biography. The Church declined again. However, they agreed to support him in a one-volume biography, which became Brigham Young: American Moses (Knopf), a team-oriented project that only took seven months to draft. (185, 398-400)
  11. Prior to the 1970s it was Church policy to terminate a woman’s employment once she had a child. However, Maureen Beecher, an employee in the history division, with Arrington’s support, fought for her continued employment after she became pregnant. They succeeded in not only obtaining an exemption for Beecher, but also a reversal of the entire policy. (240-244)
  12. Once when teaching a course on Mormon history at BYU, Arrington discovered there were at least two students who were assigned by LDS leadership to “observe” his teachings and report back. (386)
  13. Prince’s biography is just the newest item in a string of Arrington coverage. Arrington originally planned for an autobiography in 1975 when he hired Rebecca Cornwall to ghost-write it, and then in 1982 when he hired Lavina Fielding Anderston to ghost-write another that covered his Church Historian years. Both resulted in biographies that were privately published. (437-439) Arrington eventually authored his own biography, Adventures of a Church Historian, that was published by the University of Illinois in 1998. Arrington sincerely feared his memoirs would lead to his excommunication, yet the final product was quite kind and pulled many punches.

These are just a few of the fascinating details in the book. I strongly recommend it.

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