Sponsored by BYU Studies—I recently had the privilege to interview Barbara Jones Brown. She is the new Executive Director of the Mormon History Association.
Kurt Manwaring: Welcome! Could you tell us a little bit about yourself?
Barbara Jones Brown: From the time I was a kid I always knew I wanted to be a writer, so I majored in Journalism and minored English at BYU and then became a professional writer and editor.
Unfortunately, the way history was taught when I was in college made me think it was just about memorizing dates and names of rulers, military leaders, and wars—things unrelatable to my own lived experience.
It wasn’t until my dad started dragging me to Mormon History Association conferences in my 20s, and when I started doing archival fact-checking as an Ensign editor, that I began to realize that history is about human story—all human story—and thus is actually fascinating.
Kurt Manwaring: Why did you choose the University of Utah for your M.A.? Which of your professors shaped your approach to history in a way that still influences you today?
Barbara Jones Brown: I went to the University of Utah for graduate school because I was living in Salt Lake City, where my husband and I were both working and raising our young children. So that’s what was available to me.
I wanted to study something other than the Mountain Meadows Massacre, so I studied “race” in American History and wrote my master’s thesis on Japanese American Internment Policy. I was fortunate to have Bob Goldberg as my advisor, who was very rigorous in teaching me how to be a good historian, but also very encouraging. He is a good friend to this day.
I was also fortunate to have Paul Reeve, Wesley Sasaki-Uemura, and Greg Thompson serve on my committee—all outstanding examples of great historians.
Kurt Manwaring: You have an undergraduate degree in Journalism and a graduate degree in History. How does your journalism expertise enable you to produce better history writings? How can it get in the way of academic writing?
Barbara Jones Brown:I don’t think journalistic writing gets in the way of historical research and writing in any way—in fact, quite the opposite. When I started my master’s program in history, I was surprised at how well my journalistic background had prepared me to become a historian.
Good journalists understand the importance of thorough research, asking probing questions, checking and double-checking sources, solid documentation, seeking balance, including a variety of viewpoints on any topic, and so on—all ideals that good historians strive for in their work.
Kurt Manwaring: What have you learned about historiography and writing from Richard E. Turley Jr.?
Barbara Jones Brown: Rick Turley has been one of the greatest mentors of my life. So much of who I am as a historian and writer I attribute to him. Not only has he opened professional doors to me—doors that unfortunately are all-too-often closed to women—he has always candidly told me when my work is good, when it is not, and how I can improve.
Rick also studied English as an undergrad and has years of experience as an editor as well as a historian. I have benefited from this experience under his tutelage as we have worked together on Mountain Meadows for thirteen years now.
Kurt Manwaring: How does your understanding of the massacre differ now from before you began your research?
Barbara Jones Brown: When Rick hired me in 2005 to be the content editor of Massacre at Mountain Meadows, I had the same questions in my mind that most people seem to have when they approach the massacre—How could men be induced to participate in such unspeakable violence? Did Brigham Young order it?
I determined to search for answers as I had the opportunity to immerse myself in the primary sources. After years of work on the subject, and even more so now that I’ve researched and written about events that happened after the massacre, I feel like I have a comprehension of what happened and why. I hope I’m able to convey these findings and interpretations effectively in volume two of Massacre at Mountain Meadows.
Kurt Manwaring: What made you decide to apply for the position of MHA Executive Director?
Barbara Jones Brown: I was working in a position I loved, as historical director of Better Days 2020, and so wasn’t looking for a new position. But I had a few MHA friends repeatedly urge me to apply when MHA’s Executive Director position came open. Like my dad did, for decades I have loved MHA, its members, and its mission to promote scholarly, independent research of the Mormon past.
I have found enduring friendships and mentors through MHA, including my greatest female mentor, Laurel Thatcher Ulrich, whom I earlier served with on MHA’s board of directors. The opportunity to continue to serve as Executive Director alongside such friends and mentors was enticing, so eventually I decided to throw in my hat and see what happened.
Kurt Manwaring: How do you feel about your decision to accept the position?
Barbara Jones Brown: It was a difficult decision to make because I was also very committed to Better Days 2020 and its mission to popularize Utah’s forgotten suffrage and women’s rights movement. But now that I’ve been with MHA for a few months, I know I made the right decision. I feel like I can have more influence for good with MHA than anywhere else right now.
I’ve been fortunate to have some amazing mentors in my life, and now I feel it is my time to give back by doing all I can to nurture the historic community, particularly younger scholars. And I honestly believe that my replacement at Better Days 2020, MHA member and PhD candidate Katherine Kitterman, is doing a better job than I did in that position. So I feel it’s been a win-win situation, and I hope MHA members will feel the same way as I put my all into serving them and the organization.
Kurt Manwaring: How does MHA meet its financial needs? Do you anticipate fundraising will play a role during your tenure?
Barbara Jones Brown: MHA is a non-profit, independent, scholarly organization, so we rely on the participation of each member–both financially and through volunteering—as well as on the larger financial contributions of individuals and institutions who are in the position to do so.
Fundraising will be an essential part of my tenure as I seek to build an endowment that will ensure MHA and its programs survive long after I am gone. This is an important part of the legacy I hope to leave with MHA.
Kurt Manwaring: Describe the ideal state of MHA.
Barbara Jones Brown: My dream for MHA is to make it welcoming and accessible to all those who choose to participate, regardless of their background and beliefs, regardless of their financial means, regardless of where they live in the world. I know that many of my fellow MHA members share these goals. Figuring out how to achieve them will be my driving desire as I work alongside MHA’s board and members.
Kurt Manwaring: Should people be afraid of history when it can occasionally reveal truths that deviate from long held beliefs?
Barbara Jones Brown: You can’t be afraid of truth. It can be difficult to learn about many aspects of the past—whether it be the history of one’s country, one’s family, or one’s religious tradition.
But I have learned that as I accept and own all aspects of the history that makes me who I am, I am a better person.
I am more compassionate towards and interested in the welfare others, especially those who are different from me. It is easier to say I’m sorry to those who have been wronged by my ancestors or by my people—and indeed I’ve had some of my sweetest experiences in life through doing so. I am more forgiving and tolerant.
As I’ve seen these qualities develop in me because of my study of history, I feel only gratitude. I am no longer afraid of learning anything new in history, whatever it might be. I embrace it.