SALT LAKE CITY — Barbara Jones Brown has a well-earned reputation as a gifted historian and writer, but her relationship with history had a rough beginning. In college, she was turned off by the way professors taught history and found it entirely unrelatable.
All of that changed when she began to attend Mormon History Association conferences with her father.
“My dad started dragging me to Mormon History Association conferences in my 20s,” Brown wrote in an email interview.
“I began to realize that history is about human story — all human story — and thus is actually fascinating,” she added.
Tanner Humanities Center director and Pulitzer nominee Bob Goldberg describes the association as a rare place for both historians and non-historians to learn about the past.
“The MHA is one of the few historical organizations that enables novices, buffs and nonprofessionals to join with professional historians as seekers of the past,” said Goldberg.
“You can feel the energy of engagement and zest for history at these meetings,” he added.
Brown found a kindred spirit in Goldberg when she studied history at the University of Utah under his tutelage.
“I was fortunate to have Bob Goldberg as my adviser,” she said. “[He] was very rigorous in teaching me how to be a good historian, but also very encouraging.”
Goldberg came away similarly impressed with Brown.
“Barbara is not someone who can be overlooked,” Goldberg said in an email interview. “She is a diligent researcher, passionate about history, and has a sense of people that gives her creative insight into why men and women act as they do.”
The insatiable desire to understand why people act as they do served Brown well when she began working on a manuscript with Rick Turley, then Assistant Church Historian.
“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,” said Brown.
“I determined to search for answers,” she continued.
Her efforts did not go unnoticed. “She is an academically trained historian, an excellent researcher, and superb writer,” said Turley in an email interview.
Turley is especially impressed with the writing Brown is currently doing as they work on a sequel to “Massacre.” “But all of her writing is interesting,” he said.
Her way with words is due in part to a degree in journalism from Brigham Young University.
Brown sees the ability to speak to the masses as an asset to the history profession. “I don’t think journalistic writing gets in the way of historical research and writing in any way,” she said. “In fact, quite the opposite.”
From conducting thorough research to double-checking sources to including a variety of viewpoints, the training Brown received as a journalist complements the work she does as a historian.
Part of her historical work has included a position as historical director of Better Days 2020 — an organization that aims to raise awareness of women’s history in Utah. While preparing for the 100th anniversary of the 19th Amendment — giving women the right to vote — in 2020, Brown discovered an unexpected opportunity.
“I was working in a position I loved,” she said. “But I had a few MHA friends repeatedly urge me to apply when MHA’s executive director position came open.”
She ultimately applied and was selected as the new executive director in May.
Former MHA President Laurel Thatcher Ulrich believes the organization is in good hands. “Barbara is an energetic and imaginative leader who has a strong background in public relations, is an excellent writer, an indefatigable networker and a skilled researcher,” said Ulrich. “She understands history, and she gets things done!”
Among the many things Brown hopes to accomplish during her tenure is to increase the reach of the organization.
“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,” said Brown.
While making the association even more accessible is a noble goal, it does not come without a cost. The natural ebb and flow between resources and demands can make any goals focused on the present potential future liabilities for the nonprofit organization.
Brown has a plan for this as well.
“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,” she said.
“Figuring out how to achieve (these goals) will be my driving desire,” she added.
Those interested in the association may subscribe to the Journal of Mormon History and see mormonhistoryassociation.org for more information.
This article originally appeared in print via the Deseret News and online via the The Church News.