Salt Lake City, Nov. 12, 2001-- James Bennett received an unexpected gift while serving an LDS mission to Scotland in 1988--a copy of the missionary diaries of his great-grandfather, David O. McKay.

The 19-year-old was aware that McKay, president of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints from 1950 to 1971, was one of the most popular Mormon leaders ever, renowned for his open mind and gentle, benevolent manner.

What Bennett learned from the diaries, though, was that during McKay's mission to Scotland nearly 100 years earlier, the teen-who-would-be-prophet hated "tracting"--knocking on strangers' doors--and was often cold, discouraged and homesick.

"I thought I was nowhere near where he was spiritually," says Bennett, now artistic director at Tuacahn School for the Performing Arts in St. George. "Reading that he started out as a missionary with all the same frustrations I had was reassuring to me.

"If you only read about people being perfect, it makes you feel hopeless."

Today, McKay's diaries are in the University of Utah's Special Collection, where anyone can peruse them.

But such openness makes some Mormon leaders, members and even historians nervous. They want to shield the faithful from the foibles of the past, keeping leaders safely on their pedestals. To do otherwise, they say, destroys faith.

The LDS Church's guarded stance toward its own history is a hot topic among historians and even rank-and-file members who are keeping a close eye on the tug of war between the church and Utah State University over materials donated to the school by the late Mormon historian Leonard J. Arrington.

Arrington's huge collection includes copies of documents owned by the church. The church also says it rightfully owns the copies, especially of church leaders' papers and minutes of meetings.

But USU officials argue Arrington clearly believed those documents should be more freely available, which is why he deposited his copies in the school's archives.

As a newly formed committee from USU and the church wrangles over the Arrington collection, many observers wonder where other Mormon historical gold mines might be found and what nuggets of insight they hold, bringing unprecedented attention to material typically considered rather mundane.

The church's own archives, housed in three floors of its downtown Salt Lake City headquarters, contain the world's largest collection of Mormon documents and include thousands of boxes, microfilms, books and letters from the church's beginning in 1830 to the present.

Early members were enjoined to keep journals and most complied. Many believed they were telling the story of God's handiwork in their lives and left out few details.

In the past two decades, however, access to documents at the LDS Church archives has fluctuated.

When Arrington was the church's official historian in the 1970s, the archives were almost completely open to researchers and historians.

That changed after Arrington and his team of historians were moved to church-owned Brigham Young University in Provo. Almost immediately, materials involving the faith's general authorities were sealed from view, even to family members and descendants.

For example, many of Brigham Young's letters and journals, including copies, still are unavailable to the public, says Ron Esplin, director of BYU's Joseph Fielding Smith Institute.

"[The church] is still trying to determine how much to open up and to whom and how often," says Esplin, who believes that those decisions are made on practical grounds, such as protecting the privacy of individuals.

Other researchers find it hard to understand the basis for denying access to the materials.

It is based on "capricious policies, whimsically applied and silently changed," says researcher Lavina Fielding Anderson, who has edited several books and written many articles on Mormon history.

The LDS Church declined to explain its access policies. But Richard E. Turley Jr., managing director of the historical department, wrote in an essay that "the majority of the thousands of collections in the Historical Department are open and available to the public."

Records of church disciplinary proceedings and journals of church officials who record confidential information are among the restricted papers, Turley wrote.

Fearing that no one will be able to read their relatives' journals or correspondence, many faithful Mormons are choosing not to leave those documents to the church, says historian Michael Quinn, an adjunct professor at the University of Southern California.

Instead, they are entrusting their treasures to such repositories as the University of California at Berkeley, Yale University, Princeton University, one of Utah's public universities or Utah State Archives, where they will be public. Quinn himself gave scores of research notes, including thousands of transcripts of Mormon documents, to Yale University.

Stan Larson, curator of the manuscript division of special collections at the University of Utah's Marriott Library, says a good portion of the U.'s holdings deal with Mormons, Utah and the West.

Among the U.'s 1,940 different collections, a few hundred relate to Mormon history alone. There are about six original collections of LDS leaders' papers, including early 20th-century Apostle Rudger Clawson, early Mormon feminist Bathsheba Smith, an original letter written by church founder Joseph Smith and an original diary of Brigham Young's. A collection from John Taylor, a former church president, consists of typescripts of materials at the LDS Church Archives.

But the most important Mormon manuscript collection at the U. is the David O. McKay papers.

The first part is made up of diaries and correspondence donated by McKay's granddaughters, Joyce Bennett and Midene Anderson, and includes a journal written during his mission to Scotland in 1897- 1899, a 1921 journal and personal letters, most dating from before his presidency.

McKay's son, David Lawrence McKay, inherited the materials and used them to write a memoir, My Father: David O. McKay. While working on the book, he wanted to consult some documents he previously had given to the LDS Church. His request was "brusquely declined," says researcher Anderson, who helped with the biography.

McKay decided he wanted his father's papers to go to the U., and his daughters followed those wishes, Anderson says. The church was allowed to make microfilm copies.

Last year, the U. received more McKay materials, this time from the family of his longtime secretary, Clare Middlemiss. Included were copies of his office diaries, scrapbooks of photos and news clippings as well as correspondence Middlemiss had in her possession and is "probably three times the size of the earlier McKay collection," the Larsens say.

The U. has other potentially controversial Mormon papers, including those of Apostle Hugh B. Brown, who belonged to the church's highest quorums from 1958 to his death in 1975. That was a period when Mormon leaders considered issues such as civil rights, the church's ban on blacks holding the priesthood (lifted in 1978), the theory of evol- ution and the right-wing politics of the John Birch Society.

Brown bequeathed diaries, correspondence, speeches and hours of taped interviews to his grandson, Edwin Firmage of Salt Lake City, who in turn gave them to the U.

"I never saw anything in there that couldn't be explained by the fact that Mormon leaders are human beings with failings," says Firmage, a U. law professor. "As long as we don't get backed into an infallibility corner, there is nothing to fear from this information."

Edward Kimball understands Mormon leaders' reluctance to publicize personal shortcomings.

"I don't suppose anybody likes to have their failings pointed out," says Kimball, who co-wrote a biography of his father, church President Spencer W. Kimball, while the leader was alive.

The elder Kimball was uncomfortable about revealing one son's inactivity in the church. "He felt like a failure as a father," his son says. "But I told him, 'You can't tell an honest story without that part of it' and he agreed."

Now Kimball is using his father's personal journal to write a second volume. When he finishes, he expects to return the journals to church archives as his father instructed him.

"But Dad understood that they would give us a copy," he says. "I wouldn't relinquish them without being assured they would keep that promise."

more from beliefnet and our partners
Close Ad