SALT LAKE CITY — The influence of four of the leading Mormon intellectuals of the 20th century continues to reverberate today, albeit in different ways, a panel of their biographers said Thursday night during a discussion at the University of Utah.
The impact of Leonard Arrington, Hugh Nibley, Sterling McMurrin and Lowell Bennion was a focus of a panel discussion titled "Mormonism’s Intellectual Legacy," the first of a series of four scheduled this semester at the University of Utah. The series is part of the Marlin K. Jensen Scholar in Residence program.
This semester's scholar-in-residence is a Utah Valley University professor, Brian Birch, and the panel discussions are part of his course, "The Intellectual Life of Mormonism." The course explores the development of Mormon intellectual life and its current state.
"Leonard Arrington's great impact was his mentorship," said Gregory Prince, author of the new biography, "Leonard Arrington and the Writing of Mormon History."
Arrington was the official LDS Church Historian from 1972 to 1982, when he was removed and the church history department was dismembered and moved to BYU. Prince said Arrington was naïve to think all that was needed in the department was to do good history. Instead, he should have seen the need to weave spiritual aspects of church history into the department's work.
"It's not an impossible chore," Prince said. "You don't sacrifice intellectual credibility by allowing the spiritual component to be woven in."
Again, a major, ongoing Arrington contribution was his inclusive mentoring.
"The high-water mark of his scholarship was his doctoral dissertation, which he turned into the book 'Great Basin Kingdom.' But he mentored countless people at every level of the history profession. The atmosphere of inclusiveness at the LDS Church History Department today goes in a straight line back to him."
McMurrin didn't mentor hundreds or even dozens of people they way Arrington did, said L. Jackson Newell, co-author of "Matters of Conscience: Conversations with Sterling McMurrin" and professor emeritus of Educational Leadership & Policy and dean of liberal education at the University of Utah.
McMurrin was a liberal Mormon and a U. philosophy professor who served as the U.S. Commissioner of Education during the Kennedy Administration. He rejected many of the doctrines of Mormonism but always said he loved The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Newell said.
"He was somewhat aloof. He was not easy to warm up to for those who didn't know him," said Newell, who along with Prince said they found McMurrin to be constantly humerous.
Newell continued: "But he inspired a huge number of people. There are so many people inspired by his integrity, to be as true to their beliefs and to speak as kindly as possibly. He had a broader influence than Arrington, but not as deep on particular individuals."
Nibley's impact was felt throughout the church, said Boyd Peterson, author of "Hugh Nibley: A Consecrated Life," editor of "Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought" and program coordinator for Mormon Studies at UVU.
Nibley saw himself as a defender of the faith. His was fluent in numerous languages, including ancient ones, and he published broadly and deeply in that pursuit on subjects from history to archeology.
"In a lot of ways, Nibley inspired hundreds of students with his erudite approach to issues," Peterson added. "The church was changed by his approach to the Book of Mormon and ancient scripture, but his most lasting influence might be on social issues. He was an outspoken critic of conservative politics and of the Vietnam War."
Bennion was a true mentor, said Mary Bradford, author of "Lowell Bennion: Teacher, Counselor, Humanitarian" and a former editor of "Dialogue," which is celebrating its 50th anniversary this weekend.
Bennion founded the LDS Institute of Religion at the U. and was wildly popular. He was trusted by senior church leaders, but his liberal social views eventually ran afoul of some conservatives within the church and he was dismissed, Bradford said. He became a professor at the U. and then led the Lowell Bennion Community Service Council, helping to develop several inner-city programs like the Salt Lake Food Bank. He was known for teaching his students to think critically but faithfully.
"Lowell influenced me on just about everything," she said. "Whenever I hear someone lost their faith in the church, I think: 'They didn't have Bennion. If they'd just had him, they'd be OK. He taught us to think about things. I was able to use everything he taught me to deal with every difficult thing in my life.
"He did that for hundreds and thousands of students."
Birch's class during his semester at the U. is designed to advance Mormon Studies at the school, he said.
Three panels remain — “Writing Women’s History in Mormonism: Old Challenges, New Prospects” on Oct. 27; "Race and Gender in Mormon Studies: Contemporary Perspectives" on Nov. 17; and "The LDS Church and the Academic Study of Mormonism: Institutional Dynamics" on Dec. 8.