The Case of the Mormon Historian
What happened when Michael Quinn challenged the history of the church he loved.
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Michael Quinn at 17.
In 1961, when Michael Quinn was a devout Mormon of 17, his best friend’s girlfriend gave him a copy of Family Kingdom, a biography of the one-time apostle John W. Taylor. The book, published a decade before, was written by Taylor’s son Samuel, best known today, perhaps, for writing the short story that became The Absent-Minded Professor. The seventh son of Taylor’s third wife, Samuel sympathetically portrays his notorious father, who continued to marry multiple wives well after the LDS church officially renounced polygamy in 1890. Taylor fled to Canada during the congressional hearings for Reed Smoot, a fellow—but monogamous—apostle, who had been elected to the U.S. Senate. He was excommunicated in 1911. The book opened Quinn’s teenage eyes to dissent within the highest echelons of LDS leadership, and to the apostles’ debate—and apparent dissembling—about “plural marriage” after 1890.
Quinn was already on the alert for such wrinkles in the church’s history. Just prior to reading Family Kingdom he’d seen an anti-Mormon pamphlet called The Book of Mormon Examined, which highlighted hundreds of changes Joseph Smith made to the Mormon scripture in its first few printings. “This is all lies!” he told the friend who showed it to him. Still, he sought out the scripture’s first edition himself, and did his own comparison. He decided that only 16 of the changes were significant. Soon after, he happened to attend, with some friends, a meeting of the Reorganized Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, a splinter sect that believes Joseph Smith’s son, not Brigham Young, was Smith’s rightful successor as prophet. A member of that sect told Quinn about a since renounced bit of theology once preached by Brigham Young, referred to as the “Adam-God doctrine.” Young’s notion, roughly speaking, was that God and Adam are one and the same. This new knowledge sent Quinn to the Journal of Discourses, a 26-volume collection of Mormon sermons. These three shocks to Quinn’s testimony—about the Book of Mormon, polygamy, and LDS theology—spurred a pursuit to unearth and understand those parts of his religion’s past that complicated the simpler story of the faith he had learned as a child.
Quinn studied English literature in college—he attended BYU—but during his three-year stint in the military he decided to become a historian, and make what had become a consuming pastime into his profession. At first, his timing appeared serendipitous: In 1972, while he was completing a master’s in history at the University of Utah, an academic named Leonard Arrington was appointed church historian. He was the first academic to occupy the post, previously held only by high-ranking LDS leaders, and his appointment signaled a broader effort to reorganize the historian’s office along professional lines. The LDS archives became more open to scholars than ever before, and Arrington oversaw research and writing by fellow academics and graduate students—including Quinn, then 28, whom he hired as an assistant. For the next year and a half, Quinn spent hours every week in the archives, taking detailed notes on diaries that belonged to 19th-century Mormon leaders, among other documents. Every morning he worked there “was Christmas morning,” Quinn says. In Mormon history circles, this period is often called “the Camelot years.”
After those 18 months, Quinn left for Yale to do a Ph.D. and finished it in just three years. He was 32; he and his wife, Jan, were expecting their fourth child. BYU and Utah State both wanted to hire him. The latter, a smaller school, offered less money, but BYU had its own drawbacks: It was and is a conservative place, politically as well as religiously. During Quinn’s college years, BYU’s president, Ernest Wilkinson, organized a student “spy ring” intended to catch out professors with communist leanings. Wilkinson was reprimanded, though, and in 1970 he was replaced by Dallin H. Oaks, a law professor at the University of Chicago who had clerked for Chief Justice Earl Warren at the U.S. Supreme Court. The intellectual climate had improved under Oaks, people said. During the hiring process, a college dean offered to “protect” him, Quinn says, “from those people”—the LDS leaders—“up in Salt Lake.”
Before he could be hired, though, he had to visit LDS headquarters at 47 East South Temple in downtown Salt Lake and sit for an interview with one of “those people”—specifically, a “general authority,” one of the 100 or so men who run the church. These men are often referred to by Mormon faithful as “the Brethren.” Unlike local lay leaders, who hold secular day jobs and perform their ecclesiastical duties on a voluntary basis, they are full-time employees who oversee the global operations of the church. They don’t acquire these positions by filling out an application and sending in a résumé. They are called to them by the men at the very top of the hierarchy. Devout Mormons consider these callings divinely inspired. While such a calling does not officially confer infallibility on the man who receives it—and the general authorities are all male—publicly criticizing the men in these positions is strongly discouraged. At its worst, such talk is sometimes called “speaking evil of the Lord’s anointed.”
Screenshot via Youtube.
The general authority assigned to interview Quinn in the spring of 1976 was Boyd K. Packer. Born in 1924 in Brigham City, Utah, the 10th of 11 children, Packer worked for years as a teacher and administrator in the Church Educational System. In the late ’60s, he was called to preside over the church’s missionary efforts in New England, and moved with his family to Cambridge, Mass. In an April 1968 talk about military service, he described the “restless, unchallenged young people” who are “repudiating their citizenship responsibilities” by avoiding and protesting the draft. Two years later, he was called as an apostle. With his background in education, he became interested in how the church taught its own past, and decided he did not like what was going on at the church historian’s office. He was troubled by “the openness with which materials were being made available to certain individuals other than those authorized,” according to Lucile C. Tate’s admiring 1995 biography, Boyd K. Packer: Watchman on the Tower. In 1975, partly at Packer’s urging, Leonard Arrington’s role at the church historian’s office was greatly diminished.
When interviewing Quinn in ’76, Packer said, “I have a hard time with historians, because they idolize the truth. The truth is not uplifting.” That’s according to Quinn—my request to speak with Packer, whose health has badly deteriorated in recent years, was declined. But Packer certainly said similar things before larger audiences. In 1981, he gave an address to church educators called “The Mantle Is Far, Far Greater Than the Intellect,” which was organized around four “cautions.” The second of them is this: “There is a temptation for the writer or teacher of church history to want to tell everything, whether it is worthy or faith-promoting or not. Some things that are true are not very useful.” It’s not clear whether Packer read Quinn’s work before interviewing him, but if he did, it probably would have struck him as less than useful. In his Yale dissertation, Quinn examined the “highest leadership” of the LDS church “as a social elite,” focusing on the extensive family ties within the hierarchy, the considerable wealth of Mormon authorities, and their long-standing involvement in politics. He had also just published an article titled “The Mormon Succession Crisis of 1844,” which detailed the confusion about who should succeed Joseph Smith after his assassination. Quinn showed that Brigham Young had a legitimate claim to the calling, though he was not the only one who did.
Packer approved Quinn’s hiring, but he may have come to regret it five years later. In 1981, Quinn was asked by the college’s chapter of Phi Alpha Theta, a national honor society for history students, to respond to “The Mantle Is Far, Far Greater Than the Intellect.” He did not pull his punches. He compared Packer’s treatment of Church leaders to “the Roman Catholic doctrine of papal infallibility,” which is anathema to Mormons. The Bible and the Book of Mormon, which depict flawed, human prophets, are, Quinn said, “an absolute refutation of the kind of history” Packer advocated. He also criticized Ezra Taft Benson, then a senior apostle, who had made comments similar to Packer’s. A history full “of benignly angelic church leaders apparently advocated by Elders Benson and Packer would,” he said, “border on idolatry.”
That last comment became the caption for a Newsweek photo three months later, when the magazine’s religion reporter, Kenneth L. Woodward, wrote a 1,000-word story about Quinn’s talk and the controversy it prompted. Few people had attended the talk itself, but an independent BYU newspaper ran a story about it, and copies of Quinn’s remarks, titled “On Being a Mormon Historian,” began to circulate. They were eventually published, without Quinn’s permission, by two prominent anti-Mormon activists, Jerald and Sandra Tanner. Woodward’s piece, headlined “Apostles vs. Historians,” called Quinn’s talk “a stirring defense of intellectual integrity” that “had put Benson and Packer on the defensive.” It was illustrated with a large photograph of Quinn up top, and a considerably smaller one of Packer.