30 years ago today - Jun 11, 1989-Sunday

[Leonard Arrington]
Statement on the Brigham Young Biography Based on a Review of My Diary, 1972-1985: In 1972, shortly after I became Church Historian, my staff and I, particularly James Allen and Davis Bitton, Assistant Church Historians, recommended to the First Presidency of the Church, among other things, the preparation of a good biography of President Brigham Young. This seemed to be particularly needed after we had discovered many boxes of Brigham Young material that were in the basement of the Church Administration Building, still unopened, uncatalogued, and previously unknown to LDS historians. The First Presidency counselled us to catalog the material and then return for further discussion. Because of other assignments and the large mass of Brigham Young-period manuscripts to be examined, we did not complete the cataloguing, even in a preliminary way, until 1977, the one hundredth anniversary of Brigham Young's death. We then studied the materials for two years, trying to decide whether we should simply edit the papers, or at the rate of, say, one volume per year, write a multi-volume biography, and, if the latter, who should write it. We finally went to President [Spencer W.] Kimball the spring of 1979 and proposed a seven-volume biography, each volume to be written by a separate historian, and each to focus on one aspect of President Young's life-one each on Brigham Young as a colonizer, family man, businessman, Church president, governor, formulator of Indian policy, and contributor to Mormon doctrine and practice. President Kimball listened to us carefully, thought for a moment, then finally shook his head and said, "I would like to see a really good, one-volume biography of Brigham Young before I die." So that settled that; we put on the shelf our plans for an edition of his papers and/or volumes of his many roles. These plans are still on the shelf.

"Here are the names of three people that we suggest as possible biographers for the one volume," we volunteered. President Kimball replied, "I don't want to see the list. I want you to do it," pointing his finger toward me. ...

President Kimball recommended finding a national publisher, wanted the biography written in a manner that would make it imperative for libraries to place it on their shelves and specifically instructed me not to send it to Correlation"They don't know history the way you do." He advised me to consult with a variety of historians, both members and nonmembers. As for Mormon historians, he emphasized that I should consult not only with traditional historians but also with what he called "Dialogue-type historians" in order to get "liberal" as well as "conservative" points of view. He wanted the biography to be honest, objective, many-sided, and to make good use of the information in the previously unexamined manuscripts we had uncovered.

... I borrowed some money and at my own expense hired four persons part-time, to help go through the mass of formerly unexplored material. The research assistants and I still had full access to the resources in the Church Archives because President Kimball had approved the project. ... Alfred Knopf agreed to publish the book, which finally appeared in 1985 under the title Brigham Young: American Moses. The book received good national reviews, was adopted by the History Book Club, and was nominated by the National Book Critics Circle as biography of the year. ... I was especially glad when Sister [Camilla] Kimball told me that President Kimball was pleased by the book and by its national reception. He had to be especially pleased that the book was placed in several thousand regional and local libraries. The book sold well, both in hardback and paperback. I must emphasize that President Kimball always encouraged me in my work as Church Historian. He often put his arm around me, told me not to be discouraged by occasional criticisms, and was unfailingly friendly, supportive, and helpful. ... I occasionally heard rumors that one or two of the Brethren were less than enthusiastic about some of the things the Historical Department historians were publishing, but President Kimball went out of his way to reassure me. "Our work," he said, "must have national as well as Church-wide credibility, especially among informed people. We had to write history 'the right way.'" I interpreted our move to BYU as a way to preserve our scholarly integrity. As several persons told us, the Church didn't want to be in the position of "approving" or "disapproving" what we wrote. Under university administration, we could continue our scholarly work in an atmosphere of academic freedom. We did so, and I feel sure that we did our research and writing in a responsible manner, both as to the scholarship and as to the probity.

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

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