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Mormon Enigmas: Linda Newell and Valeen Avery

John Larson of Mormon Expression did a book review of Mormon Enigma by Linda Newell and Valeen Avery.  I’m not going to quote the whole podcast, but John gives a very interesting introduction to the book.  In light of my recent post Latter-day Dissent, I thought I would continue the theme of how the church deals with intellectuals.

This book was published in the fall of 1984.  There sort of a back story to it. Both of the women who wrote the book were faithful, active members.  One has passed away; the other is still alive today.  They both still remain active members of the church.  There was sort of a controversy around the book.  A priesthood circular went all, I think all through Utah telling all priesthood leaders that they were not allowed to have either woman speak about the book in any setting.

At the time, during the 1980’s there was the “Know Your Religion” series, and it was really common to have firesides about people who knew something about something or the other.  They got stopped immediately.  The two women actually requested and were granted a meeting with the top brass; they met with [Dallin] Oaks and [Neal A.] Maxwell [both were apostles].  This would be around the early summer of 1985.

The meeting went back and forth.  What was really confusing to the authors is that they remained members in good standing, although there were rumors going around that they would be excommunicated or whatever, but they were never told anything.  That went out into that sort of secret circular letter and they only knew about it because they had friends who were stake presidents who shared it with them.  When they met with the Brethren, they said ‘what’s going on?’

Oaks said something very informative.  I pulled this out of Dialogue magazine.  “If Mormon Enigma reveals any information that is detrimental to the reputation of Joseph Smith then it is necessary to try to”–I can’t read my own writing–to try to, I think “stop it’s influence and that of its authors.”  They basically said, it doesn’t matter if what you are saying is true or not, if you’re going to say something that’s outside the normal line, we don’t want you talking about it.

Of course the authors were blacklisted.  You can read about the blacklisting in Arrington’s book, Adventures of a Church Historian.  He talks about it quite extensively.  The church maintains a blacklist of all the books and authors that are not allowed to be quoted.  This effectively ruined the two women’s careers for speaking or engaging with the active Latter-day Saints, although you can still buy this book through Deseret Book.  It remains sort of an enigma itself, so I guess that’s fitting for the book.

That’s the background of the book.  Zilpha’s wagging something in my face.  What’s this?

Oh yeah, the book won several awards.  In 1984 it won an award from the Mormon History Association for best book.  It also won an award from BYU, which sort of put the church in a bind because they had recognized it as a great book and then they were stopping it at the same time.

This sort of action really bothers me.  As I mentioned in my previous post, I would like to start writing Mormon history articles and/or books.  I’m looking to write good, honest history.  This blacklisting just seems a bit sneaky and dishonest to me.  I don’t think the rumors about these 2 women’s reputation is fair or Christlike.  It’s as if the church is saying in a Jack Nicholson voice, “You can’t handle the truth.”

Why can’t we be honest with our history?  Is it really a good idea to suppress unflattering information?  None of us are perfect.  Joseph and Emma weren’t either.  Is it really good to believe in whitewashed myths about them?  Can’t truth be inspiring as well?

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10 comments on “Mormon Enigmas: Linda Newell and Valeen Avery

  1. Hey MH. I’m starting to see why you have a valid concern. It’s dawned on me that I’m not worried because my research easily fits into the “FARMS” model anyway. I don’t study the messy 19th century history of the church, I study the BoM from the standpoint of ancient history. So my conclusions have a fairly “apologetic” ring to them, even if that is not my goal. So I’m completely honest in my study of history, but I don’t face the kind of challenges that accompany other fields and the ones that you face. So I’m afraid I can’t help a great deal. If my opinion matters I don’t think you are a “middle way” or “NOM”. You seem like you have a testimony of the basic truth claims of Mormonism but you aren’t afraid to ask the sticky historical questions. I certainly don’t feel as though my testimony is in danger if I visit this site.

    I look forward to seeing you at the MHA conference.

  2. Morgan, I have always enjoyed your blog and appreciate the comments. Some call me a UBM (Unorthodox Believing Mormon) or TBMH (True Believing Mormon Heretic.) I think both fit me pretty well. Yes I am a believer, and don’t claim NOM at all. Perhaps Middle Way could describe me, but I think the term “moderate” describes me religiously as well as politically.

    Glad to hear you’re going to MHA. It will be nice to get together!

  3. We can’t even be honest about the news. Back in the early 70s when the church tore down the Coalville Tabernacle in the dead of night, the Deseret News was prohibited from publishing a story about it. Thousands of copies of the paper that had already run off the presses were destroyed. The church then sent over a statement that the paper was to run in lieu of a news story. But the church’s action made the News look stupid, since every other outlet in SLC, including, I think, KSL, ran a story on the destruction of the tabernacle.

  4. I’ve read parts of the Mormon Enigma book and, while I disagree with the approach taken with the authors, the damned book didn’t even have footnotes! I don’t trust historians who don’t clearly reveal their sources, and this book used a number of questionable ones. Not saying it’s a bad book, just sayin’.

    PR is a dirty game, yet every large organization ignores it at their peril. Can an organization maintain a hierarchical, centralized model of control and still carry the Gospel to all nations, kindreds, tongues and peoples? I find it interesting that Jesus taught us how to be as individuals, but left no plans to spread the Gospel to tens of billions of God’s children. It strikes me that Christ’s long term vision was not centralization and hierarchy, but that is what we as his followers make due with until we’re on the other side.

  5. “They both still remain active members of the church.”

    Really? I thought Linda Newell had her name removed. Looking for my source though.

  6. I’ve never heard that. It seems to me she still publishes and is a member in good standing.

  7. It was this book that really got me interested in 19th century Mormon history. I have the second edition (first paper edition), which has extensive endnotes (at the back of the book). Valeen Avery died in April of 2006. Neither author received any LDS Church discipline and Linda Newall is still active in Mormon history research. While it is true that the authors were prohibited from speaking at LDS events when the book was first published, that “black listing” was removed after about a year. If you go to the comments on the listing of this book at Amazon.com, you’ll find a comment by Linda Newall that clears up some of the questions posed here.

  8. […] Mormon Enigmas:  Emma Hales Smith and Polygamy, An Update.”  Since I had just blogged about 2 other Mormon Enigmas, I knew I couldn’t miss this presentation.  Hales has documented many of the wives of Joseph […]

  9. […] Enigmas:  Emma Hales Smith and Polygamy, An Update.”  Since I had just blogged about 2 other Mormon Enigmas, I knew I couldn’t miss this presentation.  Hales has documented many of the wives of Joseph […]

  10. […] Enigmas:  Emma Hales Smith and Polygamy, An Update.”  Since I had just blogged about 2 other Mormon Enigmas, I knew I couldn’t miss this presentation.  Hales has documented many of the wives of […]

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