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Faith of an Historian

My early memories are of a home where answers were clear-cut. My dad was an adamant critic of FDR and he saw most other things just as firmly. Nonetheless, he seemed to have no reservation about my attending the University of Utah. In fact, there was no question about it.

Perhaps one reason was Henry Eyring. When I was a deacon, the famous scientist spoke in our stake conference as a member of the Deseret Sunday School Union Board. Dad and I sat together, listening. Brother Eyring said that we believed in truth—and truth was to be found widely. “If you want to be an anthropologist, become the best you can be. If you want to be an astronomer, do not hesitate to pursue the subject to the limit. But do not set the gospel aside in your pursuit of truth. Live it every day and attend church regularly and pray daily as you pursue truth in the gospel and in secular settings.” I was excited to my limit. That was what I wanted to do.

Another influence was J. Hazel Whitcomb. She was my high school history teacher. She had us read competing textbooks, and we discovered that they didn’t always agree. We also prepared research papers where we had to propose ideas, not just recite others’ findings. Then there was Valois Zarr’s debate class, where we learned to argue both sides of a question and took the state championship while doing it.

So I registered for summer quarter at the University of Utah right after graduation from high school. My four professors that quarter were Drs. G. Homer Durham, Sterling McMurrin, Emil Lucki, and Lowell Bennion. In my ten years of higher education following that first quarter, I never had a greater cast, despite being at a university in another state and one in Europe.

Toward the end of that summer quarter in G. Homer Durham’s class on American Political Government, we reached the topic of Franklin Delano Roosevelt. Professor Durham built a case both for and against the New Deal. I listened patiently, taking detailed notes and expecting a conclusion where we would settle on Dad’s side. That never happened. He left that to us. I was stunned. He had become an icon for me during that quarter but he was not to be an icon like my father. I couldn’t imagine that he might choose either side. For me there was only one side where truth resided.

That was the beginning of a whole new life—one that would lead away from dogma and toward suspended judgment.

The experience with Sterling McMurrin was more predictable but equally unsettling. His course was the “Philosophy of Religion.” I took it because I was brash. I felt I could safely encounter the most distinguished secular Mormon without being unsettled in my faith. And I wasn’t unsettled. McMurrin didn’t intend to unsettle me. What happened was that I became sympathetic to his views without abandoning mine—more suspended judgment.

Then there was Emil Lucki. He was a Jesuit-trained medievalist and a practicing Catholic. Catholicism was a long way from where I wanted to be but Lucki embodied top level scholarship, not a crusader but insightful. I came to revere him and he took an interest in me.

Finally, there was Lowell Bennion. He was the Director of the LDS Institute of Religion at the “U.” Ironically, he and Sterling McMurrin were close friends despite their conflicting views. In all the many hours I spent in his classes over six years, I do not recall him advocating the things I expected of him. He was known as a Mormon who was critical of the church policy of withholding the priesthood from Blacks. But he never said a word about it in or outside class. No dogma, no crusade. Instead he involved us in service projects for widows and immigrants and those who were ill and, yes, some of them were black. In religion classes he had us consider Jesus. What would Jesus have us do?

As a graduate student I took a seminar from him called, “Your Religious Question.” He had us prepare a question on paper with many dimensions of its implications. He went over it with us individually. Then he sat in the back of the room as we conducted the seminar after giving our colleagues our paper. I chose to discuss “The conflict between the sacred and the secular.” When I wrote that question, I thought it was original. Yet Dr. Bennion reminded me that it was the center of intellectual life in the Middle Ages.

I adopted Lowell Bennion as my mentor. That he did graduate work in Germany impressed me and I chose to do the same.

When Elaine and I became engaged to be married, my father had just died and was not available to give us a marriage interview. I asked Dr. Bennion to counsel with us. We went, anticipating some advice about sexual relations. Instead he talked about careers. He said, “Doug, you will soon be looking for an academic teaching position. Don’t take a job at Dixie College, for example, with the intent of moving on to Cedar City and then to Utah State. Instead, look seriously at that first place. Do you have what they need? Could you be fulfilled by staying there for decades?” I realized he was lifting my view from “get-aheadism” to service. Ethical professional-ism was the right goal. At that interview I asked Dr. Bennion to be a witness at our marriage, in place of my father. He kindly obliged. Imagine how many students he had and how many of them asked him for such favors.

More changes came as I moved out of state to doctoral graduate training. One of my professors was a committed socialist. He was the top scholar dealing with socialism in Belgium. That was not where I felt comfortable, but he took an interest in me. He helped me learn to write and invited Elaine and me to their home for a European dinner. We were required to do a significant research paper for his class.

Because of his specialty, I chose to write about socialism, not in Belgium but in Austria, because I knew a lot about that country where I had served an LDS mission. I knew he could open some doors for me and he did. I knew he would be a great guide. It ended up that my paper led to a dissertation on that topic. He sent me to the Hoover Institution at Stanford University and to the University of California at Berkeley to meet colleagues of his and they led me to excellent sources. That research had me examining the clash between Socialists and Catholics in the 1920s in my beloved Austria. Again I was examining doctrines well beyond my comfort zone. With his and my German History professor’s help I was able to win a Fulbright Fellowship to go to the University of Vienna and do my dissertation research on the site where it happened.

There were other professors at the University of Oregon who influenced me. In a European History seminar one day, Dr. Pierson looked at me and questioned me: “Douglas, do you think you could ever be a Socialist?” It took me five seconds to respond, “No, that’s not me.” Nonetheless, that did not mean that I could not be objective about understanding socialism. Another professor, Quirinas Breen, was a Calvinist. In his year-long Medieval History class there were four Mormons, four Lutherans, three Catholics and four United Brethren and about fifteen of no religious commitment. That year for us was a spiritual feast as well as a rigorous experience writing three research papers.

In the first quarter I chose to write on the Cathedral school at Chartres. I discovered that the best book on the subject was in French. I told him about it and he said that I should learn French well enough to read the book and he would give me an incomplete until I did. That was my motivation to pass the French test.

Once I won that Fulbright Fellowship, Elaine and I and our three year-old son, Scott, moved to Vienna and lived most frugally. I was a committed Latter-day Saint, attending and serving in the church there, and at the same time delving into the historical documents about the Socialist and Catholic political parties right after World War I. I knew that my biases had me feel critical about both views so I labored to be objective. I came to be respectful of Otto Bauer, the brilliant head of the Austrian Social Democratic Party, as a well as being objective about his opponent, Ignaz Seipel, a masterful Catholic priest and head of the Catholic party. I worked every day at being objective as I read the documents in the archives and even interviewed colleagues of these two learned but dogmatic opponents.

I shall never forget the experience I had defending that dissertation before my doctoral committee at the University of Oregon. As I entered the room they were laughing. I was taken aback. Upon my inquiry about their reaction, they said they were laughing at my bias. I stopped them short and explained that, yes, I was not a committed Socialist nor a devoted Catholic. I had worked hard to be objective. Their reply was: “Oh no. You achieved that well, but you were so pained to see the Nazis destroy both parties and end democracy in Austria in the early 1930s.” I was shocked, realizing that my objectivity did not include being neutral about the Nazis. Try as I might I could not find virtue in Adolf Hitler and his destruction of democracy. I felt fine about that limit to objectivity—and so did the committee.

When I began teaching European History at Utah State University and publishing my research, I was finally in the setting for which I had so long prepared. It was the fulfillment of nearly two decades of desire to become a scholar/teacher. Now, however, I was no longer a student, but there were students looking at me as I had looked at G. Homer Durham. That transition was humbling. Almost unknowingly, I took his stance—arguing objectively on both sides. One example was most memorable. I taught a seminar in the Honors Program about Utopias. I had each student choose a utopian society and do a research paper and present copies to the other students to read and then we would discuss it. We considered the Shakers, the Oneida Community, the Hutterites, Sir Thomas More, Plato, Fourier, St. Simon, Robert Owen, Cabet, and others. Many utopian experiments were quite socialistic. I worried that people in the community might become alarmed, but they didn’t. Hopefully both the students and the community respected the possibility of objectivity.

During my first year as a faculty member at USU, I came to know Leonard Arrington. He reawakened my interest in Mormon history. My master’s thesis dealt with the immigration of German-speaking Latter-day Saints to Utah from 1850 to 1950. It took me to the LDS Church Archives where the documents were available.

Prior to that I had a good dose of Utah history as an employee at the University of Utah Library. I shelved books in the Utah Room where Dr. John A. Widtsoe’s personal library was housed. It had a few thousand books, many of which were of an anti-Mormon viewpoint. I became aware that Mormon history was steeped in controversy. While there I also read some recent books of a more balanced view, such as Juanita Brooks’ Mountain Meadows Massacre.

At Utah State, Professor Arrington and Professor S. George Ellsworth helped me realize that something was changing in Mormon history. Leonard’s book, Great Basin Kingdom, was published by Harvard University Press and Juanita Brooks’ famous book came out through Stanford University Press. I knew enough about university presses to understand that they would not publish “defenders of the faith” kinds of writing nor would they accept diatribe attacks such as I found in Dr. Widtsoe’s collection of nineteenth century books. The presses were secular. They wanted history that was objective, based on factual documents, not dogma. For many decades Mormon history writing had been mainly partisan.

Stimulated by Juanita Brooks and promoted by Leonard Arrington, a new approach emerged. It came to be called “New Mormon History.” It aimed at being genuinely objective and acceptable as such to the scholarly community. Though it had some critics, it has proven to be successful and prolific. This development fit right into my evolution, beginning with G. Homer Durham. I have associated closely with the scores of scholars who write this kind of Mormon history, even serving one year as President of the Mormon History Association.

At the end of my first academic teaching year I was completely surprised to be called to serve as Bishop of the USU 2nd Ward (single students). I was thirty-two years old, barely a decade older than the ward members. Elaine held the hand of our five-year-old son, Scott, at the meetings in the LDS Institute of Religion on Sundays. A year later she brought our baby daughter, Elise, with her. I mention this bishopric experience because it was a spiritual high, spending about thirty hours a week counseling students who came to their bishop for guidance. They pulled me into a much greater understanding of the Gospel.

This bishopric was the fulfillment of my years as a youth and high school student. I had marvelous friends through those formative years. They made righteous decisions and kept me on that path. I had powerful seminary teachers and that same level of spiritual virtue carried on to college. When the Korean War came along the Church found it necessary to stop calling full-time missionaries. That was a shock to me because I assumed that I would soon be called.

Our cohort of friends had to figure out what we would do instead of being called on full-time missions. Some volunteered for the military service rather than be drafted. A few of my friends and I decided to go to the temple as though we were going on missions. For me that was a highlight I still revere.

Then a savvy stake president called many of us on a stake mission. I had a great companion, John Harmer, and we took it seriously. Two years later we did in fact get to go on full-time missions. I am still closely connected to the Saints in Austria where I served.

Amazingly, one of the most powerful spiritual experiences I had was serving on active duty in the U. S. Army following the mission. There I saw the dramatic contrast in the lives of those who lived virtuously and those who did not.

That topic of virtue is one of deep meaning to me, having experienced that virtue in high school and college, in the mission field and in the army. I encountered it among my students at USU and especially in the two singles wards where I served as bishop. My marriage to Elaine Reiser is my greatest treasure of virtue. Living in preparation for that marriage and in loyalty to it is sacred. This is where my faith has multiplied—in experiencing the beauty and power of gospel living in the lives hundreds of people I know well. Every day as a professor and bishop and temple sealer, I feel the spiritual radiance of those who live their sacred covenants.

This has little to do with scholarship or objectivity but I know personally that one who works in secular ways can be spiritually attuned also. It goes back to what Henry Eyring said sixty-five years ago. We believe in truth and must pursue it wherever it can be found. But we do not set the Gospel aside during that pursuit. We live by faith and commitment. We dedicate ourselves to the Lord. We experience tensions but we pray. We set virtue as a vibrant standard and keep ourselves open to the Lord’s spirit.

I remember a moment in my early teen years. I read that Hugh B. Brown wanted a witness that the Gospel is true. He prayed and received an answer. As a thirteen-year-old I also wanted such an affirmation. I wanted to be like my Dad—absolutely firm, no doubting. I prayed and did not receive such an epiphany.

I am so blessed.

Instead it has been my path to live by faith. I have been privileged to be able to venture into secular searching but also to experience the Gospel spiritually all the way because of obedience, teachers, friends, callings, and especially my great companion and family. Suspended judgment and spiritual commitment have worked for me. Thanks, Dr. Eyring.

Oh that cunning plan of the evil one!
Oh the vainness, and the frailties,
and the foolishness of men!
When they are learned they think they are wise,
and they hearken not unto the counsel of God,
for they set it aside, supposing they know of themselves,
Wherefore their wisdom is foolishness.
And it profiteth them not. And they shall perish.

But to be learned is good if they hearken
Unto the counsels of God. (2 Nephi 9:28-29)


Douglas D. Alder earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees in history, political science, and German from the University of Utah, 1957-59. He was awarded a doctorate in modern European history at the University of Oregon (1966), following a Fulbright grant that allowed him to pursue research at the University of Vienna for his dissertation on the First Austrian Republic (1919-1932). He was appointed Assistant Professor of History at Utah State University in 1963, where he taught German history and modern European history and, in 1974, was appointed director of the Honors Program. He published articles on Austrian history and on social science education, and edited Cache Valley: Essays on Her Past and People (1976).

In 1986, he was appointed President of Dixie College, in St. George, Utah. He returned to teaching history in 1993, this time at Dixie College, and continued until 1998, when he was called to be a counselor in the presidency of the St. George Temple for three years. Afterwards, he resumed his teaching, now as an adjunct history professor at Dixie College. In 1996, he and Karl Brooks wrote A History of Washington County: From Isolation to Destination (which was reissued in a second edition in 2007). In 2010, he published A Century of Dixie State College of Utah, for the college’s centennial. Professor Alder has also published numerous Mormon-related articles, reviews, and essays, as well as fiction including the novel Sons of Bear Lake (2002). He and Richard Schmutz have completed a manuscript about the history of the St. George Temple.

Dr. Alder has been active in the Mormon History Association (serving as president, 1977-1978), the Utah Historical Society, the Utah Humanities Council, the Utah Arts Council, the Grafton Restoration Association, Historic St. George LIVE, and the Washington County Historical Association.

Posted November 2010