My view: Who are Mormon intellectuals? Top ten list only a beginning

By Matthew Bowman

Published: Sunday, June 19 2011 12:00 a.m. MDT

The Deseret News recently reprinted Leonard Arrington's ranking of the men he dubbed the ten "most eminent intellectuals in Mormon history."

He composed this list (upon consultation with fifty "prominent Mormons") in 1969, and it shows: the grainy photographs of the often bespectacled and serious men that decorate the list, sad to say, do little to reverse the fusty and dull stereotypes that hang upon the word "intellectual."

All the honored are male. Nearly all were born in the nineteenth century. All (save Joseph Smith and Parley Pratt) did most of their important work in Utah. Only three names on the list were alive when Arrington composed it, and none were younger than 55. Considering that Mormonism itself was not quite 140 years old in 1969, it might seem Arrington was something of a pessimist about prospects of Mormon intellectual life.

But this is the sort of inevitable and rather banal criticism that plagues all such lists; it's also the sort of discussion which they may be designed to foster. I will not venture to propose a complete alternative and updated list, but I do want to propose that such a revision might give us a more accurate picture of the diversity of Mormon thought.

Arrington's list is heavily weighted toward academics and toward the so-called golden age of Mormon thought — the thirty or forty years following the admission of Utah to the Union. Of the list, James Talmage, B.H. Roberts, John Widstoe and E.E. Ericksen were all then at the peak of their powers, and all save Roberts had postgraduate degrees.

For many contemporary Mormon intellectuals, these men represent the pinnacle of Mormon intellectual achievement. And this judgment is deserved; the first three men in particular, all general authorities of the Church, formulated many of the ways of thinking about Mormonism, the world and humanity that most Latter-day Saints take for granted today.

They were optimistic about human potential, interested in the ways Western philosophy, science and theology could enrich their faith and sure that Mormonism embraced all knowledge, from wherever it might come. All deserve a high place on Arrington's poll, and it is no wonder why many later Mormon intellectuals take these men as models of inquiry, curiosity and confidence in the powers of the mind.

But the emergence of another strand of Mormonism in the mid-twentieth century directs our attention to several later contemporaries of these men who may have proven even more influential within the LDS community. In the 1920s and 1930s, the apostle Joseph Fielding Smith viewed the intellectual traditions that Roberts, Widstoe and Talmage explored with suspicion, instead focusing strictly on the boundaries of Latter-day Saint scripture, which he read with a bent toward literalism and inerrancy.

Smith and his son in law, the apostle Bruce R. McConkie, long outlived these earlier thinkers, and their voluminous writings drew two generations of Mormons toward conservative ideas that are still frequently referenced within the curriculum of the Church's seminaries and institutes. They surely deserve a place on an updated list.

Similarly, a number of Mormon women likely also deserve consideration. Though many, like Smith and McConkie, were not academics, some like Juanita Brooks and Fawn Brodie — excommunicated for her controversial biography of Joseph Smith but nonetheless widely read by scholars — made important contributions to Mormon scholarship.

But more influential within Mormonism were women whose intellectual contributions shaped the daily lives of the Saints. Emmeline B. Wells, a publisher and activist, melded the women's suffrage movement with Mormon theology and formulated intellectual defenses of polygamy; some of Eliza R. Snow's acclaimed poetry became LDS hymnody and did as much as any other writings of early Saints to form Mormon theology.

A final point: thus far, I've assumed Arrington's list is intended to document Mormons whose intellectual life directly bore upon their faith. Mormonism dominated the intellectual life of every man on this list, and that of nearly all the other figures I've discussed.

This may represent a tactical choice, but it may also illustrate the adolescence of a still young faith. Since the 1960s, Mormons like Richard Bushman, Clayton Christensen and Henry Eyring have become recognized intellectual leaders in fields quite apart from their religion — and Mormonism benefits when they turn that expertise back upon their faith.

In the future, then, ten will likely be too short a list.

Matthew Bowman is the associate editor of "Dialogue: a journal of Mormon thought" and recently received a PhD in American religious history from Georgetown University.

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