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A historian of Utah, Latter-day Saints and the American West who knows his roots

W. Paul Reeve, author of “Religion of a Different Color: Race and the Struggle for Whiteness,” poses for a portrait on the University of Utah campus in Salt Lake City on Thursday, Dec. 5, 2019.
W. Paul Reeve, author of “Religion of a Different Color: Race and the Mormon Struggle for Whiteness,” poses for a portrait on the University of Utah campus in Salt Lake City on Thursday, Dec. 5, 2019.
Colter Peterson, Deseret News

SALT LAKE CITY — When he was writing his dissertation for his doctorate in history, Paul Reeve sat down with a faculty member to go over his first draft. This was the conversation:

Faculty member: “This sentence sounds like a hick from Hurricane wrote it.”

Reeve: “But I am a hick from Hurricane.”

Faculty member: “Well, you better not write like one.”

Reeve laughs at the memory, partly because he can afford to — he got his doctorate. And partly because, ever the historian, he’s a stickler for accuracy.

“I’m still a hick from Hurricane,” he says, pronouncing it “her-ih-cunn,” as the natives do in southern Utah. And if you want further proof, you could call his mother, Ruth, who still owns the family farm on the Arizona Strip Paul and his brother James grew up on, and who continues to live in Hurricane.

We’re all a product of our past, and that goes double for a University of Utah professor whose specialty is Utah history, Mormon history (he’s the Simmons Chair of Mormon Studies at the university), and the history of the American West.

W. Paul Reeve is the last person who’s about to forget where he came from.

If the name rings a bell, it’s because increasingly over the past decade Paul Reeve has become something of a celebrity historian — Utah’s version of David McCullough or Douglas Brinkley or Doris Kearns Goodwin. The kind of person whose cell number CNN, The Washington Post, the BBC, The New York Times, et al., keeps on file for when they want a comment and context on happenings related to Utah in general and, in particular, to The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. He is not a spokesperson for the church and comments from his academic, historian’s perspective.

When Mitt Romney was running for president, when the church published its essay on polygamy, when the LeBarons were gunned down in northern Mexico, when the Boy Scouts and the church parted ways, when questions about the church’s LGBTQ policy arise, and on and on — Paul Reeve is one of the experts they call.

It’s not hard to see why. He is a willing, pleasant and affable source, coming off as nonthreatening as he is knowledgeable; imagine Tom Hanks playing a college history professor.

Reeve is a believing, practicing Latter-day Saint, the faith he professes as strong today as a knowledgeable historian as when he was a 19-year-old missionary in Toronto and knew so much less.

“The more I learn the more I get invested in faith and less in dogma or certitude,” he says. “Ultimately my profession and my faith come together in the divinity of Jesus Christ. For me, he is the definitive historian.”

Reeve doesn’t hide his Church of Jesus Christ affiliation when journalists call. “If they ask me if I’m a member I say yes,” he says. But he also makes it clear his commentary and opinions are his and his alone. No one is scripting his message. He is not beholden to anyone or anything. “Journalists want an independent voice,” he says. “I am an independent voice.”

Straddling the academic-faith divide “Is not an easy line to walk,” Reeve admits. “But I simply try to be as open and honest as possible. My faith demands of me to be honest in all my dealings and my profession demands of me to be honest in all my dealings. That means if there are difficult parts of the Latter-day Saint past, if mistakes have been made, my philosophy is to be open and honest about it.”

Reeve’s penchant for honesty came to the fore six years ago when he was one of the outside scholars The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints turned to for scholarship in preparing its essay on race and the priesthood.

The essay, which can be found on churchofJesusChrist.org, reflects many of the concepts found in his book, “Religion of a Different Color: Race and the Mormon Struggle for Whiteness.”

The book, published by Oxford University Press, earned praise in academic circles, hitting the triple crown by being named best book of the year by the Mormon History Association, the John Whitmer Historical Association and the Utah State Historical Society. It has been added to the curriculums for religious studies classes at the likes of Princeton, Stanford and George Mason University.

The history Reeve unfolds in “Religion of a Different Color” casts an unstinting glare on the church and its racial policy from 1852 to 1978.

It’s not the most flattering chapter of Latter-day Saint history, but it is history nonetheless, and Reeve credits the church for its transparency.

“I’ve certainly heard people suggest that what I’m doing today may have gotten me the boot in the past,” he says. “I don’t know if that’s true, but I’m doing it now and I’m grateful for the context I have to do my scholarship in. I do think it’s changed, and I give a lot of credit to Elder Marlin Jensen and Elder Steven Snow, (former) church historians who I think did an enormous amount to open up the archives and create a more welcoming atmosphere for scholars like me.”

* * *

Reeve was always curious. Growing up on the farm in southern Utah, he wanted to know as much as he could about as much as possible.

“I was the nerdy one, the bookworm, always asking the deep questions. I’m not sure I was always choosing to study history, but by the time I was in high school it was a subject I didn’t need to spend a lot of time in. It came easy to me. And I really enjoyed the way it helped me to figure out how we got to where we are.”

His social studies teacher at Hurricane High, J. Wayne Edwards — LaVell Edwards’ brother — was the first to inspire him to become a historian.

“I remember him pulling me aside and saying to me, ‘You should really think about going into social studies, you’re good at this.’ I just kind of blew it off at the time. When you’re a teenager in high school you’re not thinking, ‘How in the world would I ever make a living going into social studies?’”

His father, Leo, did not graduate from college because he couldn’t get away from the farm. Determined that wouldn’t happen to his kids, every year he’d give Paul and his brother each a steer to raise and sell at the county fair. All the money went into a college and mission fund. That fund paid for Paul’s mission to Toronto and carried him all the way to the last semester of his senior year at BYU before he needed to find work as a clerk at 7-Eleven. BYU then awarded him a scholarship and a teaching assistantship to work on his master’s.

He’d started out at BYU as an accounting major, then switched to computer science. In both cases, “I thought, ‘I can’t imagine spending my life doing this.’ Nothing against accounting and computer science, it just wasn’t my thing.”

Then he remembered what Mr. Edwards had said about social studies and switched his major. “Once I got into the history classes, I thought, ‘OK, I’m actually doing something I enjoy.’ I didn’t have a sense of what I was going to do with it but I knew I’d found my place.”

After BYU he landed a teaching position at Salt Lake Community College. He was living the bachelor life until one night he boarded a shuttle bus headed to long-term parking at the Salt Lake airport and got into a conversation with the woman sitting next to him. That’s how he met his wife, Beth.

Reeve left his teaching post at SLCC when he was accepted into the doctoral program at the University of Utah. There he came under the influence and tutelage of professor Dean May, the university’s noted authority on church and Utah history. Years earlier, May had written about three frontier communities in the West, a topic he turned into an acclaimed book that was published by the prestigious Cambridge University Press. For his doctoral dissertation, Reeve stepped into his mentor’s footsteps and chose to write about three groups of people who settled the West: Mormon pioneers, miners and Paiute Indians.

As it turned out, Reeve was Dean May’s last doctoral student to graduate before May died unexpectedly of a heart attack in 2003. He was only 65. By that point, Reeve was teaching in the history department at Southern Virginia University and turning his dissertation into a book published by the University of Illinois Press: “Making Space on the Western Frontier: Mormons, Miners, and Southern Paiutes.”

The University of Utah conducted a nationwide search for May’s replacement, including Reeve on the list of candidates. The search ended when they realized they basically had May’s clone right in front of them, and that he was now a published author. In 2005, at the age of 37, Paul Reeve returned to the University of Utah for his “dream job.”

Reeve teaches all of May’s old subjects — history of the American West and Utah history — and when the university added a religious studies major, he wrote the syllabus for what has become his signature course: Mormonism and the American Experience. That’s the class that has paved the way for much of his groundbreaking research.

Reeve’s popularity as a teacher has seen him win the Utah Council for the Social Studies’ University Teacher of the Year Award, in addition to being honored with the University of Utah’s Early Career Teaching Award. But his penchant for a warts-and-all presentation of Mormon history isn’t popular with everyone.

“I have a folder in my email called hate mail,” he confesses. “More often than not it’s members of my own faith challenging me and questioning my devotion.”

On the other side of the coin, there are those who question his scholarship because of his faith.

“The academics might say, ‘Well, you’re a member of that faith, you can’t be objective about it’; and then members of that faith might say, ‘You sold your soul to the devil, you’ve gone the academic approach and abandoned any notion of the divine.’ I guess it says you must be doing something OK if you get challenged from both ends.”

For Reeve, the parts of Latter-day Saint history others find unsettling, he finds reassuring.

“That’s where my historical profession helps,” he says. “My training has taught me that history is messy, the past is messy. When I cross into LDS history I don’t all of a sudden expect everything to be tidy and neat, even though that’s sometimes how the narrative is constructed. I expect it to be messy, so when I find messiness it makes it real, it makes it believable. it makes those in the past real to me. It brings them down from the pedestal where they feel out of reach and turns them into people with whom I can identify and find commonalities.”

Do some of the things he uncovers in the past jar him? Absolutely, he says. “I obviously have emotional reactions to things that I find.”

His research into the history of church members and race has caused him to start, with the University of Utah’s backing, a website, CenturyOfBlackMormons.org, that is dedicated to putting faces and names to those people of black-African descent who belonged to the faith between 1830 and 1930.

“The Latter-day Saint story isn’t complete until all its members are included,” he says. “These are people who were erased from our pioneer past. If it is uncomfortable to talk about their presence in the story before 1978 (when the ban on Blacks holding the priesthood and attending the temple was lifted) because it implicates us in racism, well, so be it. We need to address the racism, we need to come to terms with it.”

Rectifying that, if only by a little, Reeve sees as progress.

“The past for me serves as a moral compass of sorts, as a guide to the future,” he says. “I believe history can make us better people. If we’ll let it, it can be a catalyst for greater good.”