20th Century Latter-day Saint History

Is D. Michael Quinn a Reliable Scholar?

No serious student of Latter-day Saint history can avoid Michael Quinn altogether—nor should they.

D. Michael Quinn played a key role in the foundation of “New Mormon History.” He was entrenched in the church archives during the “Camelot” years, taught at BYU, and published many ideas that represent positions held by the church today. Quinn was also part of the September Six, (in association with his 1993 excommunication), wrote about controversial issues, and provoked many love-hate relationships with his voluminous footnotes. In this interview, Patrick Mason explains some of Quinn’s contributions to Latter-day Saint history.

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Who was D. Michael Quinn?

D. Michael (“Mike”) Quinn was one of the most important historians in what we call the “New Mormon History.” Beginning in the 1960s, a new generation of professionally trained historians enjoyed greater access to church archives, which allowed them to discover new documents and write about new topics. It was a renaissance in our understanding of the Mormon past; some people called it “Camelot.”

Quinn worked for several years in the Historical Department of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints under Leonard Arrington, the Church Historian who presided over much of this new era.

A picture of Leonard Arrington, the Latter-day Saint historian.
Mike Quinn worked under Leonard Arrington in the church archives during the “Camelot” years. Photo credit: Gary Bergera.

Quinn’s enormous talent was immediately apparent, and he quickly became a rising star. He eventually went to Yale to earn his PhD focusing on American history more broadly and Mormon history specifically.

He published numerous books and articles that have had an enormous impact on our understanding of Mormon history, though many of the topics he wrote on—and interpretations that he made—were controversial.

D. Michael Quinn was excommunicated by the church in 1993, later publicly revealed that he was homosexual, and spent the rest of his life outside the church.

What kind of access did he have to the Church’s historical archives early in his career?

Along with the other employees working under Leonard Arrington, D. Michael Quinn enjoyed unprecedented access to the archives. This was the first time that there was a substantial staff of academically trained historians and archivists working in the office. There were literally just piles of documents that no one had looked at since they had been stashed away.

It’s not necessarily that the church was hiding the documents—they were just storing them, often without inventorying them. (This is not unique—I’ve seen this kind of thing especially in other small, private repositories that don’t have the resources or expertise to properly archive all the materials they collect over the years.)

Quinn didn’t have access to everything, but he and his associates had access to treasure troves of information that hadn’t seen the light of day in decades. Some of those sources are restricted and currently unavailable to researchers.

Barbara Jones Brown and Michael Quinn’s children talk about Quinn’s memoir, A Chosen Path, at a Benchmark Books event in 2024.

What are some of the topics D. Michael Quinn wrote about?

He wrote on so many topics that it would be impossible to list them all here. But some of the major themes he covered include:

  • Folk magic and early Mormonism
  • Dynamics of power and authority among church leaders
  • Sexuality among 19th-century Mormons
  • Continuance of plural marriage after Wilford Woodruff’s 1890 Manifesto (usually known as “post-Manifesto polygamy”)

Did Michael Quinn intentionally research topics that he knew would create controversy?

This is a tricky question. Did Michael Quinn know that the topics he chose to publish books and articles about were often controversial? Yes, absolutely. Did he research them because they were controversial? Some people would say yes, that he chose to be a provocateur.

I think the answer is more nuanced than that.

He believed that light is a disinfectant.

Throughout his life, even after his excommunication, Quinn had a deep faith that Mormonism was true. Following the 13th Article of Faith, he believed in pursuing truth, wherever it led him. He felt compelled to follow the documents where they led him.

I would suggest that it’s precisely because of Quinn’s strong faith in Mormonism that he personally felt that researching these topics would not ultimately undermine the church’s core truth claims. Essentially, he believed that light is a disinfectant. Especially early on, he may also have had a bit of naivete about the church’s willingness to embrace all of these new ideas.

How were his writings on “Early Mormonism and the Magic Worldview” received?

Some of the new documents that were (re)discovered beginning in the 1960s showed that Joseph Smith’s family was involved in what historians often call “folk magic”—essentially, a set of beliefs and practices (rather common at the time, especially among non-elites) that the earth was alive, that there were buried treasures in the earth, and that guardian spirits watched over those treasures.

Historians are human.

Joseph Smith never denied that in his youth he had spent time as a “money digger” and that he had used seer stones to look for lost objects. (He met his wife Emma on an otherwise unsuccessful expedition searching for treasure.)

A number of prominent historians of early America began writing on these themes especially in the 1980s, and Michael Quinn was at the forefront of situating how Mormonism fit into the “folk magic” scene.

His book, Early Mormonism and the Magic Worldview, rankled a lot of people, because it introduced things like magic daggers and amulets alongside the traditional narrative of angels and gold plates.

Complicating all of this were the Mark Hofmann forgeries, which capitalized on this new scholarship in suggesting alternative (“magical” and non-Christian) origins for Mormonism.

Not all of Quinn’s specific claims hold up, but the general argument that Joseph Smith and many of his contemporaries held a “magic worldview” alongside a Christian worldview is now the consensus view among historians.

The Church has come around to this conclusion, featuring it in its Gospel Topics essays and the first volume of Saints. The main debate now is to what extent the “magic worldview” continued to influence Joseph’s thinking after 1830.

Was he a Latter-day Saint?

Yes, Michael Quinn was a Latter-day Saint, through and through. Although his church membership was stripped in 1993 when he was excommunicated, he considered himself a “DNA Mormon” until the day he died.

What was his attitude toward the church after his excommunication?

It was complicated. Mike Quinn had significant conflicts with church leaders both leading up to and because of his excommunication in 1993. He was sometimes sharply critical of church leaders and practices, past and present. But he believed deeply in the core truth claims of Mormonism, and always maintained an affection for the church, its leaders, and its people.

A lot of people were surprised with how generally favorable his last book, on church finances, was toward the church.

How can people assess religious affiliation and attitudes to determine whether to trust a source?

Ideally a historian’s personal religious beliefs should have nothing to do with their trustworthiness as a scholar. We call history a “discipline” for a reason—over the space of many years of intensive training, historians learn to “discipline” our research and writing in ways that allow our judgments to not be limited or defined by our personal opinions and biases.

Of course, historians are human. History is an interpretive art—there is no such thing as purely objective history. All of this is to say that you can’t immediately judge that a book or article about Mormon history is trustworthy just because it’s written by a church-going Latter-day Saint, or that it’s untrustworthy just because it’s written by a non-Latter-day Saint (or, in Quinn’s case, someone who has been excommunicated by the church).

There are books about Mormon history written by believing Latter-day Saints that should be tossed in the trash (IMHO), and other books by non-believers that rank among some of the most astute, generous, and insightful interpretations of Mormonism.

The old adage “don’t judge a book by its cover” can be extended to mean “don’t judge the content of a book by where someone does or doesn’t go to church.”

What is the fuss about Michael Quinn’s footnotes?

Quinn was an obsessive footnoter. In some of his books, the notes are longer than the main text. While this generally is not accepted as best practice within the discipline, the breadth and depth of research that is communicated through Quinn’s notes is incredible. I have personally benefited on several projects from following his notes and citations.

That said, on multiple occasions when I have followed his notes, I came up with very different conclusions than he did—sometimes antithetically different. Part of this can be chalked up to the reality that different historians will interpret different sources differently—that’s what makes history fun.

Quinn made mistakes, just like we all do. But that doesn’t mean we should throw the baby out with the bathwater.

Precisely because he was so compulsive about his footnotes, it’s possible for you as a reader to follow and replicate his work and then make your own judgments about whether you think he was reading and interpreting the sources correctly. In this respect, Quinn’s notes are sometimes more valuable to researchers than are his interpretations.

What do you see as D. Michael’s Quinn’s greatest strengths and weaknesses as a historian?

I don’t think anyone would disagree that some of Michael Quinn’s work has held up better than others. In that respect Quinn isn’t much different than most people in most professions—Michael Jordan had bad games in a Hall of Fame career.

Quinn’s greatest strength was his indefatigable passion for research. He was an absolute fiend in the archive. His command of the sources is almost unparalleled in the field of Mormon history. He probably forgot more Mormon history than most people will ever know (though I’m not sure that he forgot much).

In terms of his weaknesses, even though he was trained broadly in American history at Yale, Quinn’s interpretations were sometimes overly narrow. Sources don’t speak for themselves—they always exist in a broader context. Quinn’s best work came when he was thinking about those contexts—including alternative explanations and interpretations.

His work was weaker when he doggedly and narrowly pursued an argument without full consideration of the wider culture. His work on “same-sex dynamics” among 19th-century Mormons is a case in point. Although he was a pioneer in studying masculinity and sexuality before it became popular to do so, sometimes what he wanted or hoped to see in the sources overpowered a nuanced, culturally contextual, and theoretically informed reading of the sources. He could also be tendentious.

In my opinion, the revised edition of Early Mormonism and the Magic Worldview is weaker than the first because it is full of often petty arguments with his critics. In this case, the revisions brought more heat than light to the subject.

How did he influence approaches to church history?

Many—certainly not all—of the arguments that D. Michael Quinn was so controversial for making in the 1980s and 1990s (some of which contributed to his excommunication) have now become fully accepted, even by the institutional church.

For instance, the church’s Gospel Topics essay on post-Manifesto polygamy basically reaches the same conclusions, often using the same evidence, that Quinn did.

It’s not at all controversial anymore to talk about Joseph Smith’s early associations with folk magic.

Quinn’s article on Latter-day Saint participation in the Spanish-American War, while not one of his more famous pieces, had an enormous influence on me as I was doing my own research on Mormonism, war, and peace.

Even on topics where his specific arguments haven’t been widely accepted—for instance, on same-sex dynamics, women and the priesthood, and the authoritarian streak in church leadership—he helped shape the conversation in part by unearthing sources that other scholars could go back and reinterpret for themselves.

For devout Latter-day Saints who are afraid of picking up Quinn’s books just because he was excommunicated I would remind them of D&C 91, where Joseph Smith asked the Lord whether he should read the Apocrypha (books that are included in Catholic and Jewish Bibles but typically not in Protestant Bibles like the King James Version).

The Lord answered:

There are many things contained therein that are true, and it is mostly translated correctly; There are many things contained therein that are not true, which are interpolations by the hands of men. . . . Therefore, whoso readeth it, let him understand, for the Spirit manifesteth truth; And whoso is enlightened by the Spirit shall obtain benefit therefrom.

Doctrine and Covenants 91:1–2, 4–5

To avoid Michael Quinn’s writings is to miss out on a lot of truth about Mormon history. No serious student of Mormon history can avoid Michael Quinn altogether—nor should they. His influence is inescapable, and he still has a lot to teach us.

That said, for many Latter-day Saint historians, Michael Quinn serves as a cautionary tale. Some avoid researching and writing about certain controversial topics for fear of being excommunicated. Quinn’s story is part of a long, complex interaction between the church and its intellectuals. For some people Michael Quinn is a hero, for others he is more of a villain.

The truth is probably somewhere in between: Michael Quinn was a gifted historian who did the very best he could to make sense of a very complicated thing we call Mormon history.

About the interview participant

Patrick Mason is the Leonard J. Arrington Chair of Mormon History at Utah State University. He was also the Howard W. Hunter Chair in Mormon Studies at Claremont University. Mason holds a PhD in history from the University of Notre Dame, and frequently speaks in the media about Latter-day Saint history and theology. He is the author of several books and articles, including Planted: Belief and Belonging in an Age of Doubt, Mormonism and Violence, and Proclaim Peace: The Restoration’s Answer to an Age of Conflict.

Further reading

Learn more about Latter-day Saint history and intellectualism in these articles:

Michael Quinn resources

  • On Being a Mormon Historian (BYU)
  • Chosen Path: A Memoir (Signature Books)
  • The September Six and the Lost Generation of Mormon Studies (Dialogue)
  • The Life and Legacy of Michael Quinn (Radio West)
  • D. Michael Quinn, Latter-day Saint Historian, Dies at 77 (Deseret News)

By Kurt Manwaring

Writer. History nerd. Latter-day Saint.

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