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.

And numbers continued to grow. Once the MHA hit a membership of more than 300, discussions and plans proceeded to make the historical association an independent one. The first six conferences of the MHA were in conjunction with the Pacific Coast branch of the American History Association.

In 1971, the MHA reached the golden number and held the first conference separate from other historical associations in Provo.

"Currently, attendance at the annual meeting is anywhere from 350 to 750 people," Leonard said.

Just three years after becoming an independent historical association, the MHA reached total membership of almost 1,000 in 1974.

This same year, the first annual publication, the Journal of Mormon History, was printed.

The journal, said Leonard, consists of articles, book reviews and occasional letters to the editor. A large majority of each publication is selected from papers presented at MHA conferences.

"One of the most important things that any culture has is a body of literature that provokes identity and continuity," Barney said. "The journal of the Mormon History Association provides both of those things for Mormon history."

Recently, the Journal of Mormon History was invited to join Jstor, the premiere digital repository for academic periodicals in the world, Barney said.

"Anyone in a university setting can go to Jstor and find the best thinking, the best research and the best publication in a particular aspect of (Mormon) studies," Barney said.

But despite changes that come with the advancement of the age, the MHA has stayed true to its roots.

"We still do what they did originally," Leonard said.

As an essential part of its purpose, the mission statement of the MHA has remained strong. Today, the nonprofit organization continues to be "dedicated to the study and understanding of all aspects of Mormon history," according to the website.

While break-offs of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, such as the Community of Christ, are part of the history of the LDS Church, Leonard said that for the most part, these denominations have their own historical organizations.

However, some of their congregations are active members in the MHA and participate in MHA conferences.

Leonard said that many conferences feature presentations from the Community of Christ or other break-offs of the LDS Church.

"Several (members of the Community of Christ) will propose a session or two at our conference about their church," Leonard said. "We include them as well among our officers and board members."

It's research, conferences and publications such as the Journal of Mormon History that help recognize the vision of early founders like Arrington.

The upcoming conference will feature presentations of more than 120 papers of historical nature, ranging in content from Mormonism in the progressive era to missionary methodology.

This year's theme is "The Crowded Landscapes of the Mormon West(s): Agency and Action from the Wasatch Front to the Pacific Rim."

A plenary session will include a presentation from geographers discussing Mormonism and its expansion into the Pacific and Asia regions.

The MHA accepts submissions on a variety of topics but seeks to select papers that will be presented that have a tie-in with the conference theme.

One of the highlights of the conference is the Obert C. Tanner Lecture, which was partially funded by a grant from the Tanner family in 1987 and highlights scholarly learning — in this specific setting — of religious history.

Leigh Eric Schmidt, an Edward Mallinckrodt University professor at Washington University in St. Louis, will present this conference's Tanner Lecture on June 8 at 10 a.m.

Leonard said Schmidt has done research on the spirituality movement in America and will present findings that have not yet been published. Schmidt will present his findings in a session titled, "Mormons, Freethinkers and the Limits of Toleration."

Because the majority of the membership is LDS, Leonard said the conference is held in Utah every other year to accommodate members.

"It's costly for people to come," he said.

And while most members reside in Utah, southern Idaho and northern Arizona, the MHA has held conferences internationally in England, Denmark and Canada.

Leadership for the association is served in a three-way split between past president, president and president-elect, each of whom serves for a one-year term.

The president-elect is charged with the task of planning the conference for the coming year. The current president oversees his plans for the conference during his term.

Emmilie Buchanan is an intern for the Deseret News with Mormon Times. She recently graduated from Brigham Young University-Idaho. Email: ebuchanan@deseretnews.com Twitter: emmiliebuchanan

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