The Complicated Life of a Mormon Intellectual

Religion, spirituality, and sacrilege.
Nov. 1 2012 4:15 AM

The Case of the Mormon Historian

What happened when Michael Quinn challenged the history of the church he loved.

(Continued from Page 6)

When he had recovered enough to write, Quinn finished the sequel to The Mormon Hierarchy and revised Early Mormonism and the Magic Worldview. Despite his productivity, though, he’s never broken back into academia. In 2004, after a series of fellowships and visiting appointments, he was the only finalist for a tenured position at the University of Utah. But multiple faculty members argued that, in the words of one professor, “Mike was not the right person to head up any kind of Mormon history or Mormon studies program given the fact he’s very publicly excommunicated. There would be quite a number of people in the Mormon community who would look unfavorably on that.” Later that year, Quinn was recommended for a one-year appointment at Arizona State. His hiring was vetoed by the ASU administration, and many observers believe the administration caved to pressure from Ira Fulton, a Mormon donor who between 2003 and 2006 gave at least $155 million to the school. Fulton has called Quinn “a nothing person.”

Mike Quinn in his Rancho Cucamonga home.
Mike Quinn in his Rancho Cucamonga home.

Daryl Peveto/Luceo Images for Slate. © 2012

With no regular income to speak of, Quinn moved into his mother’s condo in Rancho Cucamonga, Calif. He slept on her futon and had no Internet access or health insurance. When his mother died in 2007, she left him the condo. He turned 65 two years later, making him eligible for Social Security and Medicare. He has continued to publish articles about Mormon history and to participate in the Sunstone Symposium. This year he completed the third and final volume in his trilogy on the Mormon hierarchy, which examines the church’s business and financial activities from 1830 to 2010. It will be published next year. Quinn is no longer actively seeking an academic job. He hopes that eventually he’ll manage to sell the condo and will get enough money for it that he could move back to New Orleans and live there for the last couple decades, God willing, of his life. He loves cities, and when he lived in New Orleans in the early ’90s, he made friends in bars and in an informal group of gay professionals who gathered once a month. He does not have friends in Rancho Cucamonga.

Just before his excommunication, in the spring of 1993, Quinn bore his testimony at the singles ward he was attending each week in Westwood, near UCLA. Mormons devote one sacrament meeting each month to personal testimonies, and Quinn was sure this would be his last opportunity to offer his in church. He got up in front of the congregation and declared his belief in the Mormon gospel, in Joseph Smith’s status as a prophet of God, and in the Book of Mormon as divine scripture. He then expressed his gratitude to the church for providing, throughout his life, a vehicle for service. The Mormon church, he said, drew him out of his largely monastic life and compelled him to help the men and women he saw every Sunday. He acknowledged to me that, of course, it is possible to find outlets for service outside of Mormonism. He has occasionally attended other churches. But nothing else has driven him to contribute to the lives of others the way the faith in which he was born and raised once did.