A review of Joseph W. Geisner, ed., Writing Mormon History: Historians and Their Books (Salt Lake City: Signature Books, 2020).
Writing Mormon History, edited by Joseph W. Geisner, is a collection of essays by prominent historians of Mormonism about the process of writing some of the field’s most important books. Some of the authors focus on personal narrative, some on writing and research process, and some on the most interesting and important findings from their books. In all cases, I felt that I really got to know the authors—even the ones I’ve never actually met in real life. I was particularly struck by how avocational Mormon history is. It seems that most of us are working on our books as side projects, often on shoestring budgets, frequently with no credentials or acquiring credentials along the way.
Several authors encountered difficulty accessing documents necessary to their research. D. Michael Quinn’s chapter, in particular, reveals that the “Camelot” era of “openness” under Leonard Arrington as Church historian wasn’t actually that open at all. Quinn worked closely with Arrington and saw firsthand how the Church historians systematically censored themselves for fear of a crackdown by Church leaders. Arrington strongly encouraged Quinn to censor his work and resented when Quinn resisted (244).
Several authors also encountered bad-faith resistance to their work from the institutional Church. In addition to the well-known story of Quinn’s excommunication as one of the “September Six,” we also read that a Church representative lied to get access to documents used by Will Bagley (52), and that “unnamed church officials” asked BYU’s Mary Jane Woodger to write a faith-promoting biography of David O. McKay that could be published prior to Greg Prince’s (234-35). For Daniel P. Stone, a member of the Church of Jesus Christ (Bickertonite), a request not to publish pending apostolic review came from the apostles of that Church (367-78).
Particularly heartbreaking was the story of Valeen Tippetts Avery and Linda King Newell, whose work on an Emma Smith biography challenged both their marriages and their Church memberships. Val’s husband was jealous of the project’s success and received secret instructions from a Church leader to control his wife, which he attempted to do. Val eventually left both the Church and the marriage (179-80). Linda’s husband had to overcome some resentment about her becoming a “professional woman,” but ultimately he was more supportive than Val’s husband, and their marriage survived (182). Their Church participation didn’t. Church leaders acted in bad faith and sent “an unmistakable message: to protect the church’s authority and its official interpretation of Joseph Smith, Val and I were expendable” (200). Most of her family quit attending, and book sales boomed due to the publicity generated by the Church’s suppression efforts (205-206).
And then there were those moments that all of us historians live for: the breath-taking moments of discovery, as when Greg Price lifted a blanket off a pallet of books and found dozens of David O. McKay diaries, or when Mike Quinn found a bunch of uncataloged boxes in a dusty corner of the Church archives, or when Daniel Stone discovered the original records of the Bickertonite church in a private archive in Albuquerque, New Mexico. Those of us who love historical research live for these moments, and I felt a deep kinship with these authors as they described their awe.
Writing Mormon history emerges, by the end of this volume, as an extremely difficult but ultimately rewarding process. The LDS authors describe having their faith challenged and in some cases destroyed, and conservative LDS readers should beware: they may experience similar disillusionment as they read this book. Yet these authors have also arrived at profound insights, about life as well as history and writing books. Linda King Newell quotes a sign she saw on Alma Blair’s office wall that sums it up well: “The truth shall make you free, but first it hurts like heck” (178).