Dreams and Puzzles and Power

During the night I kept waking up to a puzzle that I then set about to solve. The problem was clear. The solutions were there, I knew they were, but they kept slipping away.

I have been reading Greg Prince’s new biography of Leonard Arrington, for 10 years the official historian for the Mormon church, beginning in 1972. The details of Arrington’s struggles with three apostles who opposed the writing of objective history and who, in the end, shut down the history department, have been working in me. Prince also details subsequent events in which the attack on history continued through witchhunts and then excommunications in 1993. Ezra Benson, Mark Petersen, and Boyd Packer were the main adversaries, and obedient functionaries in the bureaucracy their servants.


In 1984 Arrington sent his finished biography of Brigham to Knopf. Prince reports that he had originally written this dedication for the book: “To Elder Rameumptum J. Moriancumr who, by his stupid regulations and irritating bureaucratic pronouncements, has helped me understand Brigham Young’s impatience with self-important people of his own day, thus provoking some of the colorful language which I am delighted to reproduce in this biography.”

That’s funny; but the systematic undermining of Arrington’s history department wasn’t. Prince repeatedly points out Arrington’s naiveté concerning the politics of the situation. Benson, Petersen, and Packer were powerful in ways he didn’t understand.

Like Arrington, I had no clue that the men I described in an essay published in Sunstone while I was a professor at Brigham Young University had been consolidating their anti-intellectual power for two decades before I took them on. I wrote, among other things, that recent speeches by Dallin Oaks, Neil Maxwell, and Boyd Packer were making distinctions between faith and reason that were damaging our efforts to wed the two at BYU. My essay was called “One Lord, One Faith, Two Universities,” and here is what I wrote about Boyd Packer:

Two influential talks in the last decade by Elder Boyd Packer, another board member, have likewise served to divide the spirit and the mind and to denigrate reason. . . . “Now listen carefully! It is crucial that you understand what I tell you now.  There is danger! Church-sponsored universities are an endangered species-nearly extinct now.” The talk quotes a passage from the recent debate on the secularization of church-sponsored colleges that asserts that “the schools that lost, or are losing, their sense of religious purpose, sincerely sought nothing more than a greater measure of ‘excellence.’ . . .  The language of academic excellence is powerfully seductive.” The talk further asserts that BYU can only be kept “in faith with the founders” if the prerogatives of this unique board of trustees are neither diluted nor ignored….  Theirs, and theirs alone, is the right to establish policies and set standards under which administrators, faculties, and students are to function-standards of both conduct and of excellence. . . .  History confirms that the university environment always favors reason, and the workings of the spirit are made to feel uncomfortable.  I know of no examples to the contrary.”

            Why the defensiveness? Why the distrust? Why the need to assert exclusive control? Why the absolute division between the faithful board of trustees and the unfaithful university-the very university that is and can be an “example to the contrary”?

I find a clue in attitudes expressed in an earlier talk by Elder Packer. “It is an easy thing,” he states, “for a man with extensive academic training to measure the Church using the principles he has been taught in his professional training as his standard.  In my mind it ought to be the other way around.  A member of the Church ought always, particularly if he is pursuing extensive academic studies, to judge the professions of man against the revealed word of the Lord.” And why shouldn’t academics “measure the Church using academic principles”? Because, the talk asserts, academics will vitiate religion and true religious scholarship whenever possible.  The talk gives as an example a friend, a CES employee who went East to do a doctorate in counseling and guidance.  He chose as his dissertation topic, “The Ward Bishop as Counselor.” He was forced by his professors to delete references to power of discernment and revelation.  If he would do so, he was promised, he would become “an authority in the field, his dissertation would be published and his reputation established.” In the end he both compromised and didn’t compromise, and the dissertation became neither the inspired document it might have nor the academic success promised by his professors.  The writer, the talk reports, returned to the modest income and to the relative obscurity of the CE System. “He summed up his experience this way: ‘The mantle is far, far greater than the intellect.'”

            The audience was to conclude from this that professors don’t understand things of the spirit, that academics are forced to produce spiritually sterile work, and that truly wise men and women will retreat from academia.  The example was so foreign to my experience that I went looking for the dissertation mentioned in the talk.  It turned out to be typical of so many dissertations written for weak departments. “The purpose of this study,” the author wrote, “is to measure the counseling attitudes of bishops and seminary instructors of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, and to compare their counseling attitudes with various measures of activity in their wards and class rooms.” The startling conclusions were that “There is a relationship between counseling attitudes of bishops and their effectiveness as bishops….  Also the amount of training received in counseling is positively related to counseling attitudes.”

            This example is bogus.  The dissertation is clearly a weak piece of work done for a weak department.  To use it as the key example in a talk pitting academia against spirituality is unfair.  Contrast the anti-intellectual spirit of that example with this passage from Joseph Smith’s letter to Isaac Galland, 22 March 1839: “the first and fundamental principle of our holy religion is, that we believe that we have a right to embrace all, and every item of truth, without limitation or without being circumscribed or prohibited by the creeds or superstitious notions of men, or by the dominations of one another, when that truth is clearly demonstrated to our minds, and we have the highest degree of evidence of the same.”

            Academia, at its worst, is indeed sterile, mind-numbing, and spiritually destructive.  So is religion at its worst.  We don’t choose to be academics or practitioners of a faith because of how bad they can be, but rather because of the power they give us to live good and productive lives.

It has been 16 years since I formally resigned from the church that reentered my dreams and half-dreams last night. Prince’s book on Arrington and especially his analysis of his political naiveté brought into focus my own remarkable naiveté. I was arguing the facts and interpretations of facts with no regard for politics, with no understanding of the structures of power. And I’m glad that was the case. In my half-waking states I almost worked the whole thing out. The fact that I was trying to solve the puzzle indicates that I haven’t yet done so, at least subconsciously.

My book Immortal for Quite Some Time, which will appear in October with the University of Utah Press, which also published the Arrington book, reflects 25 years of work on this same puzzle. It includes a 1993 written exchange I had with Boyd Packer about the Sunstone essay and also a round-house curse he proclaimed on the writer of a subsequent essay (my only work published anonymously—I wasn’t totally naive), a thundering denunciation given in the church’s general conference.

“We have learned by sad experience that it is the nature and disposition of all men, as soon as they get a little authority, as they suppose, they will immediately begin to exercise unrighteous dominion.” Joseph Smith

And that, folks, is my sermon for this Sunday morning. Hope I sleep better tonight.

About Scott Abbott

I received my Ph.D. in German Literature from Princeton University in 1979. Then I taught at Vanderbilt University, BYU, and Utah Valley State College. At Utah Valley University, I directed the Program in Integrated Studies for its initial 13 years and was also Chair of the Department of Humanities and Philosophy for three years. My publications include a book on Freemasonry and the German Novel, two co-authored books with Zarko Radakovic (REPETITIONS and VAMPIRES & A REASONABLE DICTIONARY, published in Serbo-Croatian in Belgrade and in English with Punctum Books), a book with Sam Rushforth (WILD RIDES AND WILDFLOWERS, Torrey House Press), a "fraternal meditation" called IMMORTAL FOR QUITE SOME TIME (University of Utah Press), and translations of three books by Austrian author Peter Handke, of an exhibition catalogue called "The German Army and Genocide," and, with Dan Fairbanks, of Gregor Mendel's important paper on hybridity in peas. More famously, my children are in the process of creating good lives for themselves: as a model and dance/yoga studio manager, as a teacher of Chinese language, as an ecologist and science writer, as a jazz musician, as a parole officer, as a contractor, as a seasonal worker (Alaska and Park City, Utah), and as parents. I share my life with UVU historian Lyn Bennett, with whom I have written a cultural history of barbed wire -- THE PERFECT FENCE (Texas A&M University Press). Some publications at http://works.bepress.com/scott_abbott/
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3 Responses to Dreams and Puzzles and Power

  1. wickenden says:

    you’re such a damned tease.


  2. stirlingadams says:

    Scott, I remember reading and immensely enjoying your Sunstone article when it came out. I enjoyed this post too. Thanks, I’m looking forward to your book.


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