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Mormon History Association stays close to roots

Published: Wednesday, June 5 2013 5:00 a.m. MDT

Rock Mill, owned by apostle Frank D. Richards. The structure was a water-powered pioneer grist mill, located in Farmington, Utah.

Provided by the Mormon History Association

For the past 48 years, the Mormon History Association has opened its doors to welcome historians and enthusiasts alike. All are welcome as long as they hold one thing in common: An interest in Mormon history.

Mormon history lovers will gather for the 48th annual MHA conference June 6-9 in Layton, Utah.

Though the group today can boast of a membership of approximately 1,100, with members from Hong Kong to St. George, the Salt Lake-based Mormon History Association came from humble beginnings.

Its roots spring from September 1965 and 14 men who shared an interest in the history of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Among them was Leonard J. Arrington, who according to MHA executive director Ron Barney is considered to be the father of the association.

"In an intellectual way, Leonard set a new tone for Mormon history. He created a social dimension by bringing people together," Barney said. "No one has been able to do what Leonard did as far as nurturing new scholars and patting old scholars on the back."

After the selection of the name the Mormon History Association, chosen from options including Organization of Mormon Historians and LDS History Association, Eugene Campbell, MHA co-founder and Brigham Young University professor, drafted a constitution for the organization.

The early founders arranged a gathering place in connection with the annual meeting for the Pacific Coast branch of the American Historical Association held in San Francisco. Many of the original members of the MHA had been attending other historical meetings of national associations and were eager to create meetings specific to their discipline of Mormon history.

On Dec. 28, 1965, 80 people sat in the Monterey Room in the San Francisco Sir Francis Drake Hotel for the first official meeting of the MHA. At this inaugural meeting, Arrington was elected as the first president.

During the meeting, newly appointed officers laid the groundwork for the association. Among the business for organizing the MHA was an aim to include all prospective members — not just historians or professors.

"A major goal of the association, agreed upon by all, was to include Reorganized LDS members, non-Mormons, lapsed Mormons, and persons who were not professional historians," Arrington wrote in a 1998 article, "History of the Mormon History Association," available online at www.mormonhistoryassociation.org.

This was unique because the majority of other historical associations are exclusive, said current MHA president Glen Leonard. Still today, non-professionals are invited, included and encouraged to participate in the MHA.

"That was the idea," Leonard said. "To have folks there who were not professors but who were readers of history."

Leonard said that through the years, many authors of Mormon history have not been trained professionally as historians.

"They are people who have a daily job. They become experts on (the history) because they dig and research," he said. "That distinguishes the organization and is a by-product of the initial interest to reach out to other faiths or branches of Mormonism."

Membership of the first organization included 80 charter members, including five women, from all across the United States and at least two additional countries, according to the MHA website.

Though they represented different backgrounds, these professors, LDS institute instructors and even those unaffiliated with the LDS Church who made up the early membership, gathered together from a common drive: "to deepen their understanding of Mormon history and to support the various undertakings of the association," according to the MHA website.

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