Latter-day Saints have a passion for their history. Whether discussing Joseph Smith and Brigham Young or 20th century leaders, the culture has a strong affinity for the past—both its facts and mysteries. In this interview, author Joseph Geisner takes readers behind the scenes of his new book, Writing Mormon History: Historians and Their Books (Signature Books, 2020).
Tell us a little bit about yourself and how you fell in love with history.
While on my mission I was able to buy books for a steep discount from Seventy Book Stores. Each stake had one of these, usually in a home of a ward Seventy. I read as much as I could during our hour study time in the morning. Then home I really dug into Dialogue and Sunstone and then started buying the New Mormon History with my pennies I saved.
What is your relationship with faith?
I believe that being kind to people is healthy for all of us. This includes people who have different ideas of religion, god, and the afterlife. I work hard to respect these beliefs or faith. I have a healthy respect for my growing up in Mormonism and appreciate those who guided me and helped me within the walls of Mormonism.
What is the backstory for Writing Mormon History?
When Signature Books broached the idea of compiling an anthology, I proposed assembling a collection of essays by eminent historians—women and men whose writings had so impacted my life—telling their own stories about writing their books. When Signature gave me the go-ahead, I reached out to writers whom I had met over the years and, in many cases, had developed friendships with.
How were contributors selected for Writing Mormon History and what direction were they given?
I am serious, they are friends and people who I have enjoyed my interaction with for years and years. For example, I met Mike Quinn in 1981 at BYU. I asked two things of the authors. One that they write about the book(s) they have written. Second they tell it in their own voice. Very little editing was done on the chapters, it was important for us to let their voice be front and center to the reader.
What common themes do you notice in the stories of the contributors?
The commitment of the authors to their subject stands out. Many authors sacrificed a great deal for their books. Todd Compton sleeping on a friend’s couch so he could get to the Huntington for research is one example. Two authors were single mothers who had to make a living and support their family. Many of the authors had a difficult time getting access to documents.
What was the one document Brian Hales wasn’t granted access to during his polygamy research?
Brian Hales had unprecedented openness from the Church Archive/Church History Library. In fact, Brian was given access to records that previous researchers had never even heard of, let alone turned down to look at and/or research. The one exception was William Clayton’s Nauvoo Diary. It was located in the First Presidency vault at the time.
Brian isn’t alone in not getting access. Everyone I know would love to look at the holograph, including me!
What two great challenges faced Will Bagley as he researched Blood of the Prophets?
Will always talks about the vast array of documents and records. With having all this material, you have another problem, who is giving the best account of what happened. The reality is, if they participated or had connections to those who participated, they were lying for the most part, particularly about themselves.
How did the Quorum of the Twelve of William Bickerton’s Church of Jesus Christ respond to Daniel Stone’s desire to cover a critical 22-year period in his church’s history?
The Twelve wanted to read Daniel Stone’s manuscript and then offer critiques. They also wanted Daniel to censor his writing on a twenty-two year feud that had existed in the Church’s hierarchy between Bickerton and Cadman. Daniel responded with a very thoughtful letter explaining why it was impossible to accommodate their requests and why providing this history was helpful and healing for the Church as a whole.
How did a BYU Education Week talk inspire Linda King Newell to write her biography of Emma Smith?
Linda saw and heard Jaynann Payne do a one person show of Eliza Snow at BYU. The show was basically how Eliza did everything that was good and worthy and Emma Smith followed another path that was not so worthy and good.
This caused Linda to question this portrayal of Emma Smith and seek a good biography to balance the portrayal of Smith. There was none, just a pamphlet claiming Smith had a breakdown and a book that was a work of fiction. Linda felt the need to change this omission.
What are a couple of your favorite stories from the book?
Every chapter is a new adventure, so saying just two is not an easy question.
Many people have told me that Vickie Cleverly Speeks’s chapter resonates with them. I would have to say she does this with me. Her description of the lunch in Nauvoo with her new found friends at JWHA. These are some of my favorite times, breaking bread and talking history. I believe this is called nirvana.
The other is Mike Quinn finding all the manuscripts in the basement of the Church Administration Building. Arrington told Mike this was one of three events that were the most important in Mormon History in the Twentieth Century. The funny part, I can’t find any entries in Arrington’s diary about this event. Also, many people who worked under Joseph Fielding Smith knew about these manuscripts, but Mike and then Arrington got the ball rolling for them to become accessible and then used.