This is not a book review. This is my personal reaction to the book. And, in short, it depressed me. (This doesn’t mean I didn’t love the book and wasn’t fascinated by it; I did and I was. You should definitely read it.)
Where to start? The obvious thing to do here is to compare this book to Prince’s book about President David O. McKay–a book which I loved, which fascinated me, and which did not depress me. The books are quite similar in that, in each, Prince has two unicorns: first, he’s doing late twentieth-century Mormon history (think about it: most Mormon history is nineteenth) and, second, he has unprecedented access to records of the inner workings of high church leadership—the kind of thing that you just don’t normally see.
So why my different reactions? I think it boils down to this: both books show high-ranking church leaders with their halos knocked off. However, when you read the McKay book, you tend to adopt the perspective of President McKay. And if I were McKay, I’d want the Quorum of the Twelve to disagree with each other. I’d want to be hearing a variety of opinions; I wouldn’t want to be surrounded by yes-men. And I’d understand that, the fallen world being what it is, those clashing opinions would not always be expressed with perfect charity and would not always translate into perfect behavior. So you read the McKay book, you see his underlings behaving badly and you think, well, not what I’m used to seeing from the Quorum of the Twelve, but, yeah, I get it. That’s the cost of doing business. It’s understandable.
On the other hand, you read the Arrington book from the perspective of Arrington. And here’s what happens to Arrington: he gets permission from the First Presidency to do something as Church Historian. He does it. People (probably CES people) complain to a member of the Twelve. That member of the Twelve raises the complaint and Arrington gets reigned in. It’s, to put it simply, infuriating. And that’s before the substance of the complaint is considered. This isn’t about the history of secret polyandry being taught to the Sunbeams; it’s about mentioning that one of Brigham Young’s sons was addicted to morphine or telling the story of the seagulls without explicitly mentioning that it was the Lord who sent the gulls. And we’re not talking about just operating from ignorance of the actual history; we’re talking about a deliberate, intentional, articulated worldview that nothing—nothing—potentially damaging to the church (in any way, no matter how small) should ever be published by the church. Given where we are now, with the lds.org essays and the Joseph Smith Papers and all of our dirty laundry aired in seminary, it is so very, very hard to see a few members of the Twelve manage to squash Arrington’s work time and time again. When we talk about best practices in historiography, it’s easy to tune out and think that this is just some nerdy turf war with stakes no higher than whether to use endnotes or footnotes. But, a generation later, when it is apparent how whitewashing our history maimed a generation of Saints, it’s just painful and depressing to read the details.
I’ve had to re-calibrate my view of what went down. My take before reading this book had been, “Yes, there was the rare statement suggesting that some church leaders wanted to cover up the warts, but in general they were just making decisions out of their own ignorance of what really had happened in our history. We should be sympathetic to those who were, as it were, led astray by the false traditions of their fathers.” Well, no. That actually isn’t what the record shows. What it shows is a thorough-going belief on the part of a very small number of very highly-ranked people that nothing that wasn’t intensely faith-promoting should ever come out of the church archives, let alone get into curriculum or other official writings.
And the same attitude was there regarding women’s issues. I thought that they didn’t know what they didn’t know and I wasn’t going to hold them any more culpable for ignoring the history than I hold my grandparents’ generation for smoking–because they simply didn’t know any better. Well, again, I’ve had to re-calibrate; here’s an incident related by Arrington in 1976 regarding the aftermath of Carol Lynn Pearson’s script for a movie about the First Vision:
After they had completed the movie they screened it to a group of people among whom were three apostles, one of whom said, “I think it was wrong to give equal attention in the movie to Joseph Sr. and Lucy Mack Smith—to give as much attention as you do to Lucy Mack. After all, Joseph Sr. was the father, the patriarch, the head of the family, and you should concentrate on him. He was the priesthood holder in the family. You shouldn’t give so much attention to women since they do not hold the priesthood.”
And here’s Prince’s wry follow-up remark: “It seems to have been irrelevant that, during Joseph Jr.’s childhood and youth, Joseph Sr. was a Universalist who refused to participate in organized religion, held no priesthood at all, and, in fact, pressured Lucy to stop attending meetings” (pages 234-5). But even aside from that, just ponder this sentence for a minute: “You shouldn’t give so much attention to women since they do not hold the priesthood.” All of a sudden, the status quo in the church doesn’t look like the sad result of the accidental confluences of history and ignorance; it looks like an intentional policy. No wonder I’m depressed.
Nonetheless, I see two reasons to be optimistic: first, things really have changed. A lot. And quickly. I don’t have to tell you how much they’ve changed in terms of how the church presents its history. And most of that change happened within a decade. We should be really, really optimistic and hopeful that things can in fact improve and will improve and we might even be stunned by their speed. One revealing passage in the book consists of a list written to Arrington by Alice Colton Smith, a member of the General Relief Society board, consisting of rights and privileges which the women of the church had recently lost. She ended her list by hopelessly requesting “just one example of some action in recent years which has raised the position of women in the Church” (page 238). Oh, Sister Smith, how I wish I could share with you the running list I keep of changes which have raised the position of women in the church in the last decade. You’d be so happy. Again: things really can change, and quickly. We can be hopeful that, as President Uchtdorf taught, the Restoration really is still ongoing.
Second, I think being aware of the poor policies advocated by high-ranking church leaders can be not just depressing but also helpful: it is the surest guard against idolizing them and treating them as infallible. It is, to be sure, hard to read about some of their opinions and actions in this book, but it is a different sort of inoculation: not the kind we usually talk about—where learning about their foibles now prevents you from being blindsided by them later—but rather the kind where learning about their propensity for error forever prevents you from confusing them with the only perfect person who ever lived. I suppose that is worth being depressed for.
Review copy provided by publisher.