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Gentle Mormon historian wasn’t full of himself

U. professor’s work was careful like his speaking

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Davis Bitton wrote the definitive biography of counselor George Q. Cannon.

Davis Bitton wrote the definitive biography of counselor George Q. Cannon.

Chuck Wing, Deseret Morning News

Davis Bitton passed away recently after a distinguished, even elegant, career as a historian/professor. He was 77. He grew up in Blackfoot, Idaho, but his super brain decreed that he should be educated at Princeton — where he came away with both a master's and a doctorate.

But for an erudite man, he was very gentle.

Shortly after he joined the University of Utah history faculty, I was assigned to be his graduate research assistant. I think I was the first one he ever had because he wasn't quite sure what to do with me — so he just sent me to pick up his cleaning and do other mundane chores.

I was impressed that he was not, unlike so many other professors, full of himself. He was soft-spoken, commented in a group only when he had something important to say — and he taught his classes the same way.

He gave me one piece of advice that was very strong, especially for him — he said, "Don't ever write Mormon history. It will be controversial, and Mormon history is so little regarded nationally that you'll never get a job."

Well, I knew that he already wrote Mormon history — even though he was trained as a European historian and wrote books in that specialty — so I asked him about it.

"I write Mormon history with my left hand," he said.

He meant that he would always keep that part of his scholarship low key. He wrote several path-breaking articles on Mormon history for Dialogue: Journal of Mormon Thought — I especially loved "Anti-intellectualism in Mormon History."

His writing was like his speaking — carefully crafted, never verbose. Like Elmore Leonard, the talented crime novelist, he always left out anything the reader might skip over. Although he continued to teach European history until he retired, he steadily accelerated his contributions to Mormon history.

His best friend was Leonard J. Arrington, the first LDS Church historian to be an academic — a USU professor in Economics and History — whose contributions to Mormon history are legion.

Together, Bitton and Arrington wrote "The Mormon Experience," a highly literary historical work intended to assist the non-Mormon in understanding Mormonism. It was published by a highly respected publishing house — Alfred Knopf in New York. Arrington wrote the first legitimate biography — probably the definitive biography — of Brigham Young, "American Moses," also published by Knopf.

More recently, Bitton wrote the definitive biography of George Q. Cannon, one of Brigham's counselors — and one of early Mormonism's most important characters. Bitton was active in the meetings of the Mormon History Association, an organization he helped found in the '60s, often delivering scholarly papers and acting as a perceptive critic for others.

Bitton spent a decade as an assistant LDS Church historian to Arrington — what he called in a later article in Dialogue — "Ten Years of Camelot," "a brief period of excitement and optimism."

Even though a projected 16-volume history of the LDS Church was killed, Bitton and his associates turned out numerous articles that changed the face of Mormon history.

I wonder what else Bitton did with his left hand? Few people knew of his excellence as a classical pianist — he seemed always to do everything with just the right touch.

E-mail: dennis@desnews.com