Home / Testimonies / Leonard J. Arrington

“Whether one is a Roman Catholic, Buddhist, Muslim, Jew, or Mormon, there are many challenges in writing religious history. On the one hand the historian must convey the facts of history in an honest and straightforward manner. The historian must strive against the conscious or unconscious distortion of events to fit the demands of current fashions; he or she must renounce wishful thinking. On the other hand, many religious historians wish also to bear testimony of the reality of spiritual experience. . . .

“Speaking for myself and, I think, for most of the historians who have worked with me, some tension between our professional training and our religious commitments seems inevitable. Our testimonies tell us that the Lord is in this work, and for this we see abundant supporting evidence. But our historical training warns us that the accurate perception of spiritual phenomena is elusive—not subject to unquestionable verification. We are tempted to wonder if our religious beliefs are intruding beyond their proper limits. Our faith tells us that there is moral meaning and spiritual significance in historical events. But we cannot be completely confident that any particular judgment or meaning or significance is unambiguously clear. If God’s will cannot be wholly divorced from the actual course of history, neither can it be positively identified with it. Although we see evidence that God’s love and power have frequently broken in upon the ordinary course of human affairs, our caution in declaring this is reinforced by our justifiable disapproval of chroniclers who take the easy way out and use divine miracles as a short-circuit of a causal explanation that is obviously, or at least defensibly, naturalistic. We must not use history as a storehouse from which deceptively simple moral lessons may be drawn at random. . . .

“I firmly believe that a person may be a converted Latter-day Saint and a competent and honest historian of the religion. That others support us in this calling, even while criticizing some products of our labors, is suggested by the remark of [eleventh president of the Church] Harold B. Lee to me before his sudden death [in 1973]. ‘Our history is our history, Brother Arrington, and we don’t need to tamper with it or be ashamed of it.’ Paraphrasing a remark of Pope John XXIII, [the late member of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles] Bruce McConkie said to our executives: ‘The best defense of the church is the true and impartial account of our history.’

“I have tried in this memoir to bear witness to the loyalty of my colleagues and associates to the Latter-day Saint ideals of professional competence, sincere truth-seeking, and unquestioned integrity, trusthworthiness, and dedication. Our historical scholarship was accompanied by firm convictions of the truth of Mormonism. If we did not measure up, we can at least say that we sincerely tried.

“May Latter-day Saint historians lengthen their stride as they strive to develop capacities that will enable them to write histories worthy of the marvelous work and the wonder that is their heritage.”

[Adventures of a Church Historian (Urbana and Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 1998), 236-237.]

“My own impression is that an intensive study of church history, while it will dispel certain myths or half-myths sometimes perpetuated in Sunday school (and other) classes, builds faith rather than weakens it.”

[“The Search for Truth and Meaning in Mormon History,” Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought 3/2 (Summer 1968): 61; reprinted in D. Michael Quinn, ed., New Mormon History: Revisionist Essays on the Past (Salt Lake City: Signature Books, 1992), 6.]

“My long interest in Mormon history (I’ve been working in it for 33 years) has only served to build my testimony of the gospel and I find the same thing happening to other Latter-day Saint historians as well.”

[“An Interview with Leonard Arrington and Davis Bitton,” Sunstone 4 (July-August 1979): 41.]

“Having given my professional life to the serious study of Latter-day Saint history—having examined even the most intimate documents of the Church—I am even more persuaded today than previously that a knowledge of our past offers persuasive proof that our people have been engaged, all along, in the work of the Lord.”

[“Learning about Ourselves through Church History,” Ensign 9 (September 1979): 6.]

“[As Church Historian] I was able to examine over a period of several years the most intimate records of the Church—records that are replete with faith-promoting incidents that served to strengthen my belief in the divinity of the latter-day work. Particularly meaningful to me was my private knowledge of the divine circumstances that led up to the announcement by the First Presidency that the priesthood might be conferred on all worthy males without regard to race or color. Although now released from the position of Church Historian, I am still devoted to carrying out responsibilities which I trust continue to help build the Kingdom of God on earth. Many satisfying spiritual experiences, as well as my continued study of the Saints and their leaders throughout our history, have intellectually and emotionally validated my decision to serve the faith that I committed myself to many years ago, and that I believe to be based on true principles.”

[“Why I Am a Believer,” in A Thoughtful Faith: Essays on Belief by Mormon Scholars, ed. Philip L. Barlow (Centerville, UT: Canon Press, 1986), 233.]

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Leonard J. Arrington (d. 1999) served as the Church Historian of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints from 1972 to 1982, and was widely respected as “the dean of Mormon history” and “the father of Mormon History” owing to his numerous influential contributions to the field.

A native of Twin Falls, Idaho, he graduated Phi Beta Kappa from the University of Idaho in agricultural economics. Following service in North Africa and Italy during the Second World War, he completed a doctorate in economics at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

From 1946 until his appointment as Church Historian in 1972, he taught at Utah State University. When he assumed his new post, he also became Lemuel H. Redd Jr. Professor of Western American History at Brigham Young University, from which he retired in 1987. Over his career, he was a fellow at the Huntington Library, in San Marino, California, during 1956-1957; a Fulbright professor of American economics at the University of Genoa, in Italy, from 1958-1959; and a visiting professor of history at the University of California at Los Angeles, from 1966-1967.

In 1977, Professor Arrington received an honorary doctorate of humane letters from his alma mater, the University of Idaho, and in 1982 Utah State University awarded him an honorary doctorate of humanities. In 2005, Utah State University created the Leonard J. Arrington Chair in Mormon History and Culture, which was sponsored by more than 45 donors. The university also hosts the Leonard J. Arrington Mormon History Lecture Series, for which Arrington himself gave the inaugural lecture in 1996.

Dr. Arrington helped to establish the Mormon History Association in 1965 and served as its first president from 1966–1967. He also created the Western Historical Quarterly and served as president of the Western History Association (1968–1969), the Agricultural History Society (1969–70), and the Pacific Coast Branch of the American Historical Association (1981–1982).

In 1958, Harvard University Press published his path-breaking book Great Basin Kingdom: An Economic History of the Latter-day Saints, 1830-1900, which is regarded by many as marking the birth of “the new Mormon history.”

He followed Great Basin Kingdom with a steady stream of articles and books, including David Eccles: Pioneer Western Industrialist (Logan: Utah State University, 1975); with Dean May and Feramorz Y. Fox, Building the City of God: Community and Cooperation Among the Mormons (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1976), which won the Best Book Award from the Mormon History Association; with Davis Bitton, The Mormon Experience: A History of the Latter-day Saints (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1979), which won the Best Book Award from the Mormon History Association; with Davis Bitton, Saints without Halos: The Human Side of Mormon History (Salt Lake City: Signature Books, 1981); Brigham Young: American Moses (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1985), which won both the Best Book Award from the Mormon History Association and the Evans Biography Award from Utah State University; with Davis Bitton, Mormons and Their Historians (Salt Lake City: University of Utah Press, 1988); History of Idaho, 2 vols. (Moscow: University of Idaho Press, 1994); and Adventures of a Church Historian (Urbana and Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 1998), which won a special citation from the Mormon History Association.

For his publications on American history he was awarded the Western History Association Prize in 1984 and was made a Fellow of the Society of American Historians in 1986. After his death in 1999, the Mormon History Association created the annual Leonard J. Arrington Award in order to honor distinguished and meritorious service to the study of Mormon history. In 2002, he was posthumously awarded the first annual Lifetime Achievement Award by the John Whitmer Historical Association.

Posted July 2011