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Leonard Arrington: Diaries of a Latter-day Saint Historian

“Although he subsequently never enjoyed what might be termed a special or privileged friendship with any general authority, he felt he had the support of N. Eldon Tanner, Howard W. Hunter, Alvin R. Dyer, Spencer W. Kimball, Bruce R. McConkie, and Joseph Anderson.”

Leonard J. Arrington is often known as the “Father of Latter-day Saint” history. In this interview, Gary J. Bergera discusses Leonard Arrington’s journals, including the historian’s encounters with Latter-day Saint leaders like Bruce R. McConkie and Ezra Taft Benson.

Who is Gary Bergera and how did he begin working with the diaries of Leonard Arrington?

I was born and raised in Provo, Utah; served an LDS mission to southern France in the mid-1970s; graduated twice from BYU (psychology, public administration); worked for six years at the Missionary Training Center; worked for fifteen years at Signature Books; and since 2000, have been the managing director of the Smith-Pettit Foundation, Salt Lake City.

Discussions with the Arrington family, as represented by Susan Arrington Madsen, the youngest child and only daughter of Leonard and Grace Arrington, regarding the publication of the diaries began in late 2011. These followed an initial outreach by longtime Arrington family friend, Lance Owens. I think the principle goal of these discussions was to gain a better understanding of each party’s hopes and expectations.

A formal contract between the Smith-Pettit Foundation, where I am employed as managing director, and the Arrington family trust was signed on January 10, 2012. At that point, work on preparing the diaries for publication began in earnest.


Who was Leonard Arrington?

Leonard Arrington (1917-99) was an academically trained economist, who served as the official historian of the LDS Church during the 1970s. He was specifically charged with supervising a small corps of trained historians to raise the bar of historical writing for the Church.


What was the “Arrington Spring”?

The “Arrington Spring” popularly refers to the period of time during the 1970s when Arrington and his colleagues were at their most prolific in terms of their historical publications. More broadly, it refers to the period when the writing of Church history began to reflect an increasing emphasis on balance, transparency, and interdisciplinary approaches to the study of the past.


Did Leonard Arrington have friendships with any of the General Authorities?

Arrington had limited exposure to the LDS Church’s general authorities prior to his appointment as Church Historian in early 1972. Although he subsequently never enjoyed what might be termed a special or privileged friendship with any general authority, he felt he had the support of N. Eldon Tanner, Howard W. Hunter, Alvin R. Dyer, Spencer W. Kimball, Bruce R. McConkie, and Joseph Anderson.

Those principal general authorities who did not share Arrington’s academic-oriented approach to the past were Ezra Taft Benson, Mark E. Petersen, and Boyd K. Packer. Each believed that Arrington’s approach tended to favor the secular over the spiritual. As with many other historians of religion, Arrington believed strongly that the best defense of the Church was honest history.


What percentage of the Leonard J. Arrington diaries are devoted to which topics?

I’ve never thought of the diaries this way. So my response is only a guess. I’d say something like (assuming a margin of error of at least 10 percent):

  • Work = 60%
  • Family = 20%
  • Personal Musings, etc. = 20%

Leonard Arrington’s approach to his personal history

You may also be interested in the following additional background. Though he kept diaries before his appointment as Church Historian, not until that time did Arrington approach the task of documenting his life with the focus and self-awareness that characterized the undertaking thereafter.

The beginnings of Leonard Arrington’s journals

Sometime between 1972 and February 1974, Arrington began to assemble in letter-size loose-leaf binders a series of scrapbooks he labeled “Diary.” These scrapbooks included, among other items, copies of diary entries he had recorded previously. Arrington’s decisions about what to include indicate those materials he believed to be most important in chronicling his life. After 1981, Arrington abandoned the scrapbooks but continued to keep a diary as loose letter-size sheets. The entries were recorded as frequently or not as Arrington decided.

Leonard Arrington’s papers were acquired by the library at Utah State University in stages, beginning in 1982 and continuing until after Arrington’s death in early 1999. As is common practice, the library’s Special Collections staff disassembled the twenty-four scrapbooks covering the period from birth through 1981 and placed the pages in archival folders and boxes. These diaries today comprise Collection 1 of the Arrington Historical Archives, Series 10, Boxes 21-35. Boxes 36-52 contain the remainder of Arrington’s diary from 1982 on.

More consistent Leonard Arrington journal entries

On January 7, 1959, Leonard Arrington began to maintain with greater regularity a diary (usually typed). From 1959 to November 1971, Arrington’s diary reads mostly like an appointment calendar, with the occasional brief annotation or note to self.

However, when it became clear in late 1971 that Arrington’s career might take a significant turn, he decided, prompted by son Carl, to document more fully major events in his life.

Greater variety

Thereafter, through December 1981, Leonard Arrington’s diary contains, in addition to Arrington’s typed entries, an even greater variety of autobiographical materials, including, but not limited to:

  • Copies of letters to and from Arrington
  • Minutes of meetings of LDS Church Historical Department executives and managers
  • Internal reports usually generated by the Historical Department
  • Brief excerpts from the diaries of some colleagues
  • Copies of speeches
  • Clippings from newspaper and magazine articles
  • Obituaries
  • The printed programs of history conferences and similar meetings
  • Local and regional LDS Church bulletins and announcements
  • Public statements and press releases
  • Theater programs (plays, musicals, operas, ballets, etc.)
  • Trip and vacation itineraries
  • Airplane tickets
  • Hotel and restaurant bills
  • Restaurant menus
  • Greeting cards
  • Christmas cards
  • Birthday cards
  • Miscellaneous memoranda
  • Scraps of printed and other material Arrington believed to be important.

Leonard Arrington’s shift in how he maintained his diary beginning in late 1981/early 1982 seems to have been prompted by the gradual redefinition (beginning in 1977-78) of his job from Church Historian to Director of the Church History Division and his division’s subsequent relocation (finalized in August 1982) from the Church Historical Department in Salt Lake City to the newly created Joseph Fielding Smith Institute for Church History at Brigham Young University in Provo, Utah.

Evidently, Arrington came to view his formal diary entries as of decreasing importance given his move away from Church headquarters, his diminishing involvement in the daily grind of professional history-making, and the approach of his retirement in 1987.

Fewer Leonard Arrington journal entries

As he grew older, and especially in retirement, Leonard Arrington recorded fewer and shorter diary entries. He continued to insert other material in his diary, but it appears that health, energy, and interest lagged. Also, since he no longer enjoyed secretarial support, what diary entries he did compose, he typically typed himself rather than dictated.

Leonary Arrington’s final diary entry (January 10, 1997)

What seems to be the last formal diary-type entry is dated January 10, 1997, a little more than two years before Arrington’s death. To an extent before 1997, but especially after, Arrington’s regular letters to his children functioned increasingly as the primary chronological narrative of his life–though the focus of the letters was more personal than professional.

Gary Bergera lectures at Benchmark Books about “Confessions of a Mormon Historian: The Diaries of Leonard J. Arrington, 1971–1999.”

How did Leonard Arrington arrange for his diaries to be preserved?

Arrington appreciated the value of his diaries as primary source documents for narrating the intellectual history of the LDS Church during the last third of the twentieth century. He wanted them available to the public and made certain that they would be.

As with the diaries Claire Middlemiss maintained for David O. McKay, Arrington included in his diaries a spectrum of other kinds of complimentary materials.

Though in Arrington’s case, this included a much broader range of materials than Middlemiss included. Middlemiss was considerably more picky about what she incorporated into President David O. McKay’s diary.


Are there any scholars planning papers or books based upon the Leonard J. Arrington diaries?

I haven’t heard of anyone who’s currently using the diaries as source materials for their own publications. It will be interesting to see how the diaries are used in the future.


What is an example from the Leonard J. Arrington diaries that took an especially long time to fact check?

I hope you won’t mind if I deflect a little on this question. Because of the length of the project, and my own less-then-razor-sharp memory, I can’t think of a particular subject that took an especially long time to annotate or fact check.

Though I do recall it taking much longer than I thought it should to try to identify some of the people named in the diaries, especially some of the ones still living.


What are a couple Leonard Arrington journals entries that are meaningful to Gary Bergera?

I know I’m biased, but there are so many gems, it’s difficult, if not impossible, to identify the best. That said, here’s one that I think encapsulates the difficulties Arrington found himself facing, his frustrations with his own inability as how best to respond, and his temperament in such situations:

Leonard Arrington records five comments about working for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints

December 12, 1976:

My experience in working for the Church for, now, almost five years suggests several comments.

First, I find the Church, in most instances, to be a beneficent employer. That is, the Church will be compassionate with an employee in a manner that a private employer would not be. It will work with a homosexual, with a cripple, with a retardee, with a person in bad health, with a person undergoing mental health problems. It will try to salvage a life, a situation, a deteriorating health or social or family relationship.

Second, the Church, being led primarily by older people, will attempt to get by as cheaply as possible, will pay less than competitive businesses pay, will grant smaller increases than private businesses will grant, will resist upgrading salary scales, will feel that the Church should pay less than competitive salaries. The Church will lag behind other businesses and institutions in introducing improvements in its salary scales, will make changes reluctantly and grudgingly.

Third, in positions like mine which are ‘sensitive’ the security is less than in a university, in the Federal government, in private business. One feels more insecure because he is subject to arbitrary action by any member of the Quorum of the Twelve, and he sees every week examples of such arbitrary action.

Fourth, there are administrative problems in dealing with the hierarchy. Some of these are the product of the particular personalities. Our own experience is somewhat as follows. We want to determine a matter of policy. We take it to Elder [Joseph] Anderson [the managing director of the Church Historical Department]. Elder Anderson does not make a decision–almost never does he make a decision. He recommends we take that question to the Advisors to the Twelve. The Advisors almost never make a decision; they recommend we take it to the First Presidency. We do not receive answers on many of the questions we take to the First Presidency: The First Presidency wants to discuss it with the Twelve. It never gets on the agenda of the Twelve, or if it does make the agenda, they do not get to it. Or if they get to it someone asks a question about it which our Advisors can’t answer, so it is referred to them to get the answer. They subsequently ask us the question, we provide an answer, they go back with it to the Twelve. By that time, the Twelve have another question. We have had several of our proposals follow precisely this route, with no decision in a year or even two. This has happened on our proposal for a six-volume biography of Brigham Young, on our proposal to do a study of the operation of plural marriage, and on other matters of this type. This could be solved very easily if the Twelve would have one of us outside their Council room during the discussion, prepared to give an answer to any questions that might be asked.

Fifth, we have observed instances in which a member of the Twelve ‘sounded off’ about our work without really knowing what we were trying to do or why, and without consulting us, our advisors, or our managing director, and without giving them or us a chance to answer the charges. We also have experienced only one instance (S. Dilworth Young’s letter on the [Edwin] Woolley biography) in which we have been praised or appreciation expressed for any of our books, articles, or any other accomplishment. It is normal for an employee to expect occasional expressions of appreciation for his work, and we try to do this for our own employees. But with all the books we have published, and articles, we have never had written or oral communications from Elder Anderson, our Advisors, members of the Quorum of the Twelve, or the First Presidency about them. As if each is fearful of putting something in writing which would later embarrass him. One almost feels that the bureaucracy and the hierarchy fail to use the Gospel in their dealing with their own appointees and, instead, rely on legalistic pronouncements and coercive administrative power. I have never seen a group of people so afraid to do something, so fearful of doing wrong, so terrorized by the possibility of vindictiveness. And this is a Church!”

Leonard Arrington’s first kiss

The second excerpt, below, treats readers to Arrington’s frankness and willingness to broach some of the more intimate aspects of his own life.

May 13, 1976:

I recall the first time I ever kissed a girl and this was a kind of fluke. It was when I was home one summer from the University and a woman in the neighborhood decided to put on a neighborhood play. I was invited to take part in the play as leading man, and my opposite was Verna Beus, an LDS girl who lived in our neighborhood, I think a year younger than me.

As a part of the play I had to kiss the heroine. I worried about this for several weeks and finally had a date with her and tried out a kiss. I had a few additional dates, but the play fell through and it was all for naught.

It is unbelievable for me to look back and realize what a bashful farm boy I was. Certainly it was not because I lacked sexual urges and feelings. I certainly had these and had a considerable curiosity about sex, but those were the days when there was not much that could be read and people did not talk much about it.

I remember trying to find books in the library that might say something about the subject and did not find much beyond the traditional ‘birds and the bees’ pamphlets which were written for junior high school students.

How are readers not warmed by Arrington’s disarming humanity?


What would Leonard Arrington think of the Joseph Smith Papers?

I think he would see this as a vindication of his and his colleagues’ approach to Church history. Leonard Arrington passed away before the first volumes of the Joseph Smith Papers series began appearing. But, based on his support of Dean Jessee’s earlier editions of Smith’s papers, I think it’s safe to say that Arrington would’ve been elated to see the publication of a scholarly edition of the papers of the founder of the LDS Church published under the official imprimatur of the Church.


What event would Gary Bergera most want to witness from the lives of Leonard Arrington, B. H. Roberts, and Everett Ruess?

I assume you ask about all three because, in addition to editing the Arrington diaries, I also edited for publication the autobiography of B. H. Roberts as well as some of the correspondence and writings of Everett Ruess.

(For those who may not know, Roberts served as an early twentieth-century LDS Church general authority and was a historian of the LDS Church; and Ruess, who was not LDS, was a young adventurer/artist/poet who disappeared mysteriously southeast of Escalante, Utah, in late 1934, a few months shy of his twenty-first birthday.)

I can’t say there are events in the lives of each man that I’d like to witness. But I would love to ask them each a few questions.

Leonard Arrington

To Arrington: How did you really feel about the redefining of your job from Church Historian to Director of the History Division and about the relocation of the History Division from LDS headquarters in Salt Lake City to the campus of Brigham Young University?

B. H. Roberts

To Roberts: What details can you provide about your post-Manfesto plural marriage?

Everett Ruess

And to Ruess: What happened to you after you left Escalante, Utah, and started to trek down the Hole in the Rock trail to the Colorado River in November 1934? How did you die?


What is one of Gary Bergera’s takeaways from working on the Leonard Arrington diaries?

I believe that Arrington’s diary, as with all autobiographical texts, is a construction of self. In Arrington’s case, the author’s self-awareness may be more intentional than in many other such efforts. Arrington appreciated the historical and political value of maintaining a diary and addressed readers accordingly.

That said, Arrington as a diarist typically writes more as a historian seeking balance and understanding than as, say, an attorney arguing a client’s case regardless of the merits of the opponent’s allegations. While Arrington is certain to record his version of events, he does not shy away from offering judgments of others as well as of himself. In fact, Arrington’s occasional self-criticism serves as a tonic to help render more nuanced the reader’s own judgments of Arrington especially.

Arrington may be his own most articulate defender, but he is also his own most knowledgeable critic. His sometimes clinical self-awareness endows his diary with a heightened degree of honesty.

It may be tempting to view Arrington as something of a jovial good-old-boy, an Idaho-born chicken rancher whose interests did not extend much beyond the soil and livestock of the American west. It was a persona Arrington himself cultivated. Yet, in many ways, nothing could be farther from the truth.

Arrington was, in every sense of the term, an intellectuel engagé, more so than he often let on. He was a voracious, catholic reader whose interests ran the gamut. He enjoyed art and the theater in almost all forms, appreciated music (especially Italian opera), kept abreast of current national and world affairs, was intensely curious and broad-minded. His religious, political, and social beliefs veered usually, but not always, towards the mainstream and, occasionally, liberal. His belief in the fundamental truth claims of his church–as he understood and interpreted them–was unwavering. He was suspicious of dogmatism and authoritarianism. He avoided making judgments, but also held some strong opinions. He both celebrated and was leery of modernity. He was an incurable workaholic, could be optimistic to a fault, and non-confrontational to his own detriment.

His diaries reveal a man committed to, victimized by, yet in important ways transcendent of his time and culture.

Further reading

Leonard Arrington resources

By Kurt Manwaring

Writer. History nerd. Latter-day Saint.

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