The good Lord never made a more charming or lovable man than the late Utah historian Leonard Arrington, whose papers currently are the object of a tug of war between Utah State University and The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. It was impossible to talk to this humble but charismatic dynamo without falling under his spell. Born in 1917, Arrington grew up on a chicken farm near Twin Falls, Idaho.
Throughout his distinguished career, he somehow always maintained the innocence of a farm boy. He wasn't trained in history but received a doctorate in economics from the University of North Carolina. After serving as a private in World War II, he became an economics professor at Utah State University. Arrington established a record of accomplishment and service matched by few.
He served as president of the Mormon History Association and the Western History Association. He received the David O. McKay Humanities Award from Brigham Young University and the Governor's Award in the Humanities. During a career that spanned half a century, Arrington mentored hundreds of students. There is hardly a historian working on Mormon studies, including this one, who doesn't owe him a great debt. In 1972, LDS President Spencer Kimball appointed Arrington as the first professional church historian to run the LDS Historical Department and redeem its dismal reputation.
After his family, Arrington had two great loves: history and the LDS Church, But when it came to loyalties, he put his faith ahead of history. "Leonard was always talking about 'the line' and how far we could push it," one of his prot?s recalled. The "line" was how much raw history Mormon authorities would accept, but as historian Brigham Madsen observed: "The line is the truth."
Arrington's biography of Brigham Young, American Moses, reveals that faithful Mormon historians tell the truth but not always the whole truth. His work painted a wonderful and comforting portrait of a complex man, but the wealth of troubling information about Young and his policies contained in church records mostly was ignored. Ironically, Arrington's religious loyalties led him to sequester documents himself, and it is a safe bet that the papers he donated to USU, beginning in 1995, contain nothing he believed would destroy anyone's faith.
In 1998, lawyers managing the church's history department laid out the limits of what is now available in official Mormon archives, restricting anything "sacred, private and confessional." The rub, of course, was how Clintonesque the lawyers were in defining "sacred, private and confessional." The list of items they want yanked from Arrington's papers includes published documents anyone can see. Still, it's hard to imagine any explosive revelations.
Arrington eventually was replaced with purveyors of "faith-promoting" history and shipped to Brigham Young University, considered a Devil's Island for a historian. Arrington bore these slings and arrows with remarkable good will and dignity. He was confident that despite its colorful history, his religion had nothing to fear but much to learn from its past. The church's lawyers apparently don't share his confidence and are trying to suppress items from the papers Arrington bequeathed to USU and the people of Utah.
Leonard Arrington gave Will Bagley access to his papers at the LDS Historical Department in February 1991 to research Mormon frontiersman Abner Blackburn. Arrington died in 1999