The Legacies of Juanita Brooks

BrooksRecently, the University of Utah Press published Craig S. Smith’s edited collection of Juanita Brooks’s letters. Brooks is known as one of the founders of academic Mormon history, and was part of a generation of historians like Fawn Brodie and Dale Morgan, as well as literary authors like Maurine Whipple and Virginia Sorensen, that set the stage for New Mormon History. She is perhaps most recognized for her monumental book, The Mountain Meadows Massacre, first published by Stanford University Press in 1950 and then released in multiple editions since then. It remains one of the most influential books today, and is rightfully understood as a watershed in Mormonism’s historical conscience.

(Side note: it’s wonderful to see how Dixie State University has embraced her legacy, given she spent many years teaching there. They already run the Juanita Brooks Lecture Series. However, if you know some obscenely rich donor with an interest in the region’s past, you should talk them into endowing the Juanita Brooks Chair for Mormon/Utah History at the university.)

Luckily for us, other than a great historian, Brooks was a fabulous letter writer, and she treated her correspondence as a journal. This new collection demonstrates her wit, humor, brilliance, and earnestness. And while I could highlight several important themes from the volume, I’d like to highlight three significant legacies.

First, given the importance of her opus, The Mountain Meadows Massacre, these letters provide background to the book, including Brooks’s research, writing, publication, and aftermath. I especially loved seeing Brooks tease out particular theories or evidence in her frequent letters to Dale Morgan, as her quest to uncover the actual sequence of events became an obsession.[1] A frequent refrain in her correspondence, especially in letters to church leaders, was one of justification: there was bound to be a critical history of Mountain Meadows written at some point, so it might as well be from someone from within the faith. She used that defense in her pleas to access restricted materials, to little avail. She also meticulously details the pained effort of landing a publisher—including the need to provide $3,000 up-front to Stanford University Press, a bizarro reverse-advance—as well as the brief flirtation with a Hollywood company to produce a movie.

Brooks PortraitI was sometimes surprised to have a number of Brooks-related myths busted by Brooks’s own words. Most had to do with how the Church responded to her work. Like many, I was familiar with how she would keep an ironing board out while she wrote, so she could act as if she were housekeeping if any neighbors visited. I had also heard about how her book was condemned by LDS authorities, and how she was alienated from local congregations. The reality was a bit more nuanced: Brooks kept the ironing board out not because she feared she would be shamed, but because she just wanted to ease discussion with fellow sister saints; and the primary reaction from the church to the book’s publication was mostly silence. In general, at both the local and institutional level, she was more likely to confront disinterest than hostility.

The second legacy that stood out to me was documentary editing. “I’m on the scent of other manuscripts for you to copy,” she once wrote to Morgan. We live in a golden age of documentary histories within Mormon studies, with the Joseph Smith Papers as the most obvious example, and the field has always been ripe with primary source publishing. Juanita Brooks was definitely at the forefront of that: even before publishing Mountain Meadows Massacre, she was collecting sources for archives and, later in life, producing significant volumes of John D Lee and Hosea Stout papers. “I am interested in the preservation of history,” she explained, “for I have seen how easily originals are lost or misplaced or just disappear.” It seems fitting, then, that we see Brooks not only as a founder of New Mormon History, but a forerunner for documentary editing.

The final legacy concerns Juanita Brooks’s personal faith. I was struck by how frequently and fervently she spoke of her love of the church and devotion to what she believed to be its core principles.[2] She was also willing and able to speak out against fellow congregants who she felt besmirched its mission. Indeed, she often stakes out space as a moderate in faith matters, both pushing against Dale Morgan and Fawn Brodie for dismissing Joseph Smith’s revelations—she referred to the “great divide” between her and those who did not believe in divine intervention—but also chastising Hugh Nibley for fraudulent apologetics.[3] In many ways, I found Brooks’s letters quite similar to Leonard Arrington’s journals: both reveal intellectually inclined, yet institutionally committed, Mormons struggling to reconcile their faith with modernity. It is in this nexus that historians will find the origins of the modern Mormon mind.

There are plenty of other themes in the book that I could highlight. Brooks’s consistent defense of John D. Lee, for instance, surprised me. (“John D. Lee was more a victim of circumstance than any many I know,” she once concluded.) And it paid off: it was the Lee family that provided the necessary funds for Stanford University Press to publish Mountain Meadows Massacre. Further, there is plenty of juicy gossip regarding the Utah literature scene, as Brooks continually drags Maurine Whipple in her letters. But perhaps I’ll save those for another day.

If you’re interested in the development of the modern Mormon historical conscious, the origins of New Mormon History, or even the intellectual dilemmas of modern Mormonism in the wake of World War II, this is a fabulous collection.


[1] When I say “frequent,” I mean it: she wrote fifty-five letters to him between 1941 and 1943 alone. One of my favorite openings in one of these notes: “Let’s sit us down for a little visit, shall we?”

[2] At one point, when defending her activism within the church, she explains that “the best way to turn a herd of cattle is not to ride directly counter to them, but to travel with them and turn them gradually.”

[3] My favorite burn: after quoting Nibley’s claim that “the gospel as the Mormons know it sprang full grown from the words of Joseph Smith,” and had “never been worked over or touched up in any way,” she responded, “What a delight that should be to the Fundamentalists!”