I just completed Adventures of a Church Historian, Leonard Arrington's professional memoir that focuses on his tenure as LDS Church Historian from 1972 to 1982. He speaks frankly about both the challenges and the accomplishments of the History Division of the LDS Historical Department during the period when he was directly involved with it. The book is highly recommended for anyone with an interest in LDS history, both to get an informed account of the "official" LDS position vis-a-vis the writing of history by trained LDS historians and to get a sense of how much Arrington and his co-workers managed to accomplish.
A Productive Historian
Arrington was an amazingly productive historian. I first encountered him by reading the first third of Great Basin Kingdom, not a particularly lively narrative for the general reader and an unfortunate selection for my first Arrington book. But two of his later books are on anyone's top ten list for LDS history. The Mormon Experience (co-authored with Davis Bitton) is a one-volume history of the LDS Church written for a non-LDS audience, including other historians. It filled the need for an "objective" treatment of LDS history that was both accurate and professional. Brigham Young: American Moses did the same for Brigham Young, with Arrington able to take full advantage of his access to the huge assembly of documents available in the LDS archives in writing this definitive Brigham biography.
But these classics are only the tip of the iceberg. Arrington was remarkably productive, authoring or co-authoring dozens of books and hundreds of articles in a broad array of journals. Like Nibley, Arrington consciously directed much of his work to the general LDS audience through his many appearances and presentations, as well as articles published in the Ensign , the Church News, and Dialogue. In addition, he had a knack for administration and management that enabled him to sponsor and mentor dozens of young LDS scholars as research assistants at the History Division or on one of his own research projects. He had a green thumb for historians.
Finally, he was the moving force behind the ambitious sesquicentennial history project, which originally aimed to produce 16 independent volumes covering major periods and topics in LDS history. LDS leaders later withdrew official support from the project, but many of the individual authors nevertheless completed their work and published them independently. Among these were Bushman's Joseph Smith and the Beginnings of Mormonism and Alexander's Mormonism in Transition. It wouldn't be unfair to see Rough Stone Rolling, an update and extension of Bushman's earlier book, as the final result of his involvement with the sesquicentennial project. In a way, Arrington's efforts are still bearing fruit.
The Adventure Part
The "adventure" in the title refers in a rather playful manner to the perils of practicing history in the shadow of the Church Office Building. Two themes emerge from Arrington's honest account of his activities as Church Historian and his interaction with LDS leaders. First, the First Presidency was quite supportive of his activities and program: opening up the archives to scholars doing research, publishing books and articles making the content of some of those documents available to the LDS public, and bringing "officially published" LDS history up to professional standards. N. Eldon Tanner, Spencer W. Kimball, and Howard W. Hunter were all very supportive of Arrington's goals.
On the other hand, there were some LDS leaders among the Quorum of the Twelve who viewed the whole project with suspicion rather than support. It seems to be the case that some rank-and-file Mormons can't handle an adult dose of LDS history. Those leaders who opposed the Arrington project seemed to feel the proper response to the LDS sensitivity to forthright history was to perpetuate "traditional history" of the sort typified by Essentials in Church History. Those who supported the project seemed to feel that the history could stand on its own if accurately and fairly presented by faithful scholars of the type assembled by Arrington. That debate continues to this day, but a fair summary might be that the traditionalists (led by Elders Ezra Taft Benson and Mark E. Peterson) won the battle but the progressives won the war. Surprisingly, Bruce R. McConkie (who at one point was one of two designated Apostles supervising the Historical Department) made no serious objections and seemed to fall into the progressive camp.
What makes me think the war was won? First, the contrast between the official response to the first one-volume LDS history that came out of the Arrington project, The Story of the Latter-day Saints, and the second one-volume history, Arrington's own Mormon Experience. The first, published in 1976, generated serious opposition from some senior LDS leaders that led to the reorganization of the Church Historian's office and much tighter control by designated members of the Twelve. This included paring down the budget and professional staff and, eventually, transferring the remnant of the professional staff, including Arrington, to BYU. In this sense, the traditionalists won the battle.
But several years later, when The Mormon Experience and American Moses were published, there was little opposition. The books were well received by scholars and general readers, and LDS leaders were very complimentary (to the extent any comments were given). I think that, in the intervening decade, the PR benefits to having faithful LDS scholars like Arrington and Bushman deal with the full range of problematic LDS historical issues, rather than critics like Brodie, finally became apparent to the majority of senior LDS leaders. I view the September Six events of 1993-94 in sort of a "two steps forward, one step back" sense, as having been the final nail in the coffin of the shoot the messenger approach. The bad PR cloud from that unfortunate episode still lingers, but I think the war is over and (to oversimplify) the historians won.