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New generation of historians presenting a better view of Mormonism to the world, speaker says

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J.B. Haws, BYU professor, speaks to a session of the Mormon History Association Conference at the Utah Valley Convention Center in Provo, Utah, June 6, 2015.

J.B. Haws, BYU professor, speaks to a session of the Mormon History Association Conference at the Utah Valley Convention Center in Provo, Utah, June 6, 2015.

R. Scott Lloyd

PROVO – Thirty years after Mark Hofmann rocked the Mormon history world with his forgeries and subsequent murders, a current generation of historians is presenting to the outside world a more appealing view of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, according to a scholar J. B. Haws, who spoke Saturday at the 50th annual conference of the Mormon History Association convening at the Utah Valley Convention Center.

Predictably, the association this year is fondly remembering founder Leonard J. Arrington, whose 10-year stint (1972-82) as LDS Church historian is wistfully remembered by some as “Camelot” because they view it as a time of openness and idealism not equaled before or since in the study of Mormon history.

“However, my sense of it is that this current era — this current moment — is something rather different than that Camelot era,” said Haws, a professor of church history and doctrine at Brigham Young University. “It feels less experimental and more mainstream, even as it is as bold and daring — in terms of historical output and publishing — as anything that came out of the 1970s.”

At the tail end of the Arrington period, journalists and other outside observers had noticed a tension “between professional historians and some in the church’s hierarchy over how much humanness should come through in the biographies of prophets,” Haws explained.

“But it was an external controversy more than this internal, philosophical tension that really brought the complex interplay of faith and history in Mormonism into national consciousness,” he said.

From 1980-85, Hofmann pedaled forged documents challenging the church’s traditional narrative about its origins. Ultimately, two people died in bombings perpetrated by Hofmann in a desperate attempt to keep his forgery scheme from unraveling.

“The lasting mid-1980s media impression was that the LDS Church, secretive and shadowy, guarded its archives with deadly seriousness — and because of this, Mormonism looked different in the public’s eyes,” Haws said.

This was reflected, he said, in the contrast between two polls: one in 1977 poll that found 54 percent of Americans saw Mormons favorably and one taken in 1991 that gave only a 27 percent favorable rating.

“The downturn was dramatic, the result of a difficult decade for Mormonism’s public image,” Haws said. “While the change reflected, of course, a complex combination of factors, the real catalyst seemed to be this Mormon history controversy.”

He said when Gordon B. Hinckley became church president he sent “clear signals about a new attitude of openness in the church’s hierarchy with a landmark interview with Mike Wallace on '60 Minutes' that aired in the spring of 1996. Plus, in 1997, national and international press attention zeroed in on Salt Lake City — and Mormon history — because of the sesquicentennial reenactment of the Mormons’ cross-country pioneer migration. The church opened its doors and records to scores of visiting journalists.”

About this time, Richard Bushman, professor of history at Columbia University was undertaking his landmark biography of Joseph Smith, the Mormon prophet, “Rough Stone Rolling,” and he convened the first of what would be an annual summer seminar at BYU for graduate students. The immediate purpose was to help him mine archival material for the book. It proved less than helpful for this purpose.

“But it is a tribute to Richard Bushman’s prescience that he realized the summer seminar offered other outcomes: a network of young scholars, a chance to introduce students to leading practitioners, and perhaps most important, a venue to explore questions of faith and scholarship,” Haws said.

The seminar “has become something of a rite of passage and an academic touchstone for a rising generation of historians,” he said.

For his paper, Haws conducted oral history interviews with past participants.

He said alumni from the seminar have become many of the leading voices on Mormonism in academia. He cited as examples Kathleen Flake, newly appointed to the Mormon Studies chair at the University of Virginia; Patrick Mason, Howard W. Hunter chair of Mormon studies at Claremont Graduate University in California; and David Holland, now at Harvard Divinity School.

“This seminar and its participants are making a significant mark on the way Mormonism is being presented in this new century, not only because of positions in classrooms across the country, but also through their rapidly proliferating publications,” Haws said.

“And the recent presidential-campaign-sized ‘Mormon Moment’ demonstrated that already several of the alumni have become the go-to Mormon voices and experts for the nation’s journalists.” He cited Flake, Mason, Matthew Bowman and Spencer Fluhman “to name a few.

He quoted Bushman as saying their prominence as media sources has come because “they are fearless … they feel perfectly confident in speaking about Mormon topics in a scholarly venue. They know the voice; they know the kind of learning they need in order to speak authoritatively.”

Haws said historians who have studied with Bushman now help fill the church’s History Department, including recently appointed Assistant Church Historian and Recorder Reid Neilson; Matthew Grow, director of publications overseeing the monumental Joseph Smith Papers project, and staff members Mark Ashurst-McGee, Jed Woodworth and Steven Harper.

“Beginning in December 2013,” Haws pointed out, “the LDS Church History Department staff oversaw the publication of a series of essays that take on some of the contested issues in the church’s past. It is difficult to overstate the significance of these essays, published as they are with official church endorsement on its website — and will, starting this fall, become required reading for all of the church’s college-age institute students.”

Other factors that should be acknowledged in the dawning of a new age of openness in church history, Haws said, are Assistant Church Historian Richard E. Turley’s book “Victims,” that gave the church’s perspective on the Hofmann episode, the book on the Mountain Meadows Massacre that Turley co-wrote with Ron Walker and Glen Leonard, the influence of the Joseph Smith Papers project; “and, of course, the way the Internet has changed the world.”

But timing is everything, Haws noted.

“Richard Bushman and the colleagues that joined him in leading the seminars — like Claudia Bushman and Terryl Givens — shaped a generation of scholars just at the time that their church was ready for their services. And this generation of scholars, with their publications and their positions in the classrooms across the country, nudged their church community to think in new ways and provided tools for doing so.”