While teaching religion at Trinity University in San Antonio, Douglas Brackenridge become interested in how a "mainstream group" like Presbyterians would react to being considered a "fringe group" in Mormon-dominated Utah. A thoughtful, careful scholar, he came to Salt Lake City in 1990 to study the relationship between Presbyterians and Mormons.
During his research, he became aware of the major role of Westminster College as a Presbyterian institution, so he talked with then President Charles Dick about doing some Westminster research.Dick offered him a free dorm room while he did his scholarly work. When he realized a Westminster history had never been written, he decided he would like to do it.
Brackenridge and Dick "struck a deal." They agreed that the book ought to be finished in 2000, when Westminster would celebrate its 125th anniversary, but the historian would be allowed to make his own interpretation.
Brackenridge says he spent multiple weeks reading LDS ward and stake records, trying to find out what Mormons thought of Pres-by-ter-ians.
"I picked up a lot of interesting stuff," he says, "because the records in the early days were more narrative in style than Presbyterian records. Presbyterian records say `such and such action was taken, So-and-So moved and seconded it,' but Mormon records say `Brother So-and-So said this, Sister So-and-So said that, and the bishop added some comments.' "
In these records he found tension between the two religious groups, but he also found interaction and acceptance. Often, Presbyterian leaders spoke critically of Mormons when they were in New York raising funds but were much kinder when they were back in Salt Lake City.
"They believed they were a beacon of light to the Latter-day Saints, whom they believed were not Christians. Early on, they thought they could do large-scale conversions, but that stopped by the end of the 19th century. Presbyterian headquarters in New York pretty much gave up on anti-Mormonism. They realized Mormons were here to stay."
Brackenridge is convinced that Mormons are indeed Christians. "When Presbyterians ask me if Mormons are Christians, I say, `Well, the Bible I have says "Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ, and you will be saved." It doesn't say anything about the exact nature of God. Paul says, `If you confess with your lips that Jesus is the Lord, and if you believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you shall be saved.' I say, `It seems to me that's what Latter-day Saints believe.' "
Currently, Brackenridge is a member of a "Mormon Task Force" organized by the Presbyterian Church to help Presbyterians understand Latter-day Saints.
Brackenridge is pleased that Westminster officials have let his interpretation stand. "My approach is quite Presbyterian. It doesn't do Westminster any good today to have it identified as being Presbyterian, because it hasn't been since 1983. But one of the deans said to me, `Maybe I would have written it differently, but it is OUR history. It's who we are.' "
Brackenridge thinks it is important for people to appreciate their roots. "This school survived because the early leaders hung on in tough times. They had the personal relationships with their students that I think is a strength of this school."
Brackenridge is pleased that he has had the experience of learning more about Westminster College as well as the LDS Church.
"I have a Ph.D. in ecclesiastical history, but much of my education was anti-Mormon. If we discussed Mormons it was in a course called `sects and cults.' I've discovered that Mormons are much more pluralistic than outsiders think."
Brackenridge still hopes to see his larger project published as a book - a full-length study of the relationship between Presbyterians and Mormons.