[LDS-Bookshelf] Quinn's Swan Song


From: wlbagley <wlbagley@xmission.com>
Subject: [LDS-Bookshelf] Quinn's Swan Song
Date: Sun, 20 Dec 1998 12:51:28 -0700 (MST)


Friday night I attended Michael Quinn's signing of the revised edition of
Early Mormonism and the Magic World View at Kent Walgren's delightful
Scallywags shop. I arrived an hour early (I'd lost my invite) and Kent
wondered how the event would be attended in light of the holiday
competition. Only about 25 people showed up (and as far as I could tell,
no other Shelfers), which was unfortunate since this was a thoroughly
remarkable event.

Quinn spoke briefly about his calling and experiences as a historian, and
then read passages from the book. With the publication of his fourth
major work in four years, he considers his work in Mormon history
essentially complete and leaves in January for Mexico--tho he did indicate
he has no idea if he'll actually be able to turn over a new leaf and leave
the life he has led for 30 years behind. While I hope the lure of research
and the excitement of the hunt draws him back, I won't begrudge him the
much-deserved rest and would understand if he finds new worlds, completely
unrelated to MoHist, to explore.

What follows is my interpretation of what Quinn said and may not match how
the best Mormon historian of my generation sees his own work, but I hope
it's close.

He began by describing how what began as a hobby became his
profession--"an interesting ride."  Quinn considers himself a
"conservative revisionist," one who reexamines religious history within
the context of faith, as opposed to "secular revisionists" who adopt a
naturalistic approach. This is an important insight into his work, for
while radical revisionists (like you-know-who) consider the truth claims
of religion beyond historical proof, Quinn sees his work as an explanation
of how a religion with as problematic a history as Mormonism can--and
is--revealed truth. He honestly admits that he's an apologist--and he
draws a distinction between his position and that of polemicists best
typified by FARMS fanatics. (The new intro quite wonderfully skewers the
FARMSboys by quoting their thoroughly strange justifications of their
despicable tactics: yet another clumsy attempt to justify an ideology
based on "the end justifies the means.") Ironically, both FARMS and Quinn
are engaged in the same cause: supporting Mormon claims.  Quinn simply
does it within the standards of scholarship--and brilliantly.  He quotes
editor D.  C. Peterson as wondering if FARMS' new masters will accommodate
their "polemical edge." [Intro, x] Let's hope not, for as Quinn notes,
polemics "is a dishonorable vocation." [xi]

(Anyone want to take a bet that FARMS will trim its sails or [more likely]
so profoundly embarrass the church that it will be dumped from its current
association with BYU?) 

Although I've expressed my desire for an "amphibian-free" edition of
EM&TMWV, Quinn explained why he considers salamanders as relevant to early
LDS history. I don't buy this tenuous connection completely, but his
complex argument reveals an interesting fact: Quinn is simply trying to
explain the evidence connected to LDS origins, honestly and completely. He
also described how his personal odyssey led him to investigate magic.
While visiting the Church Patriarch to see a Hyrum Smith diary, he saw one
of HS's magic parchments (see figs. 49-81; I think it's in there
someplace). He thought, "There's no way [based on his then-understanding
of Mormonism] I'm ever going to understand this." A less valiant historian
would have simply moved on, but Quinn began the work that led to this
book. 

Quinn answered questions for more than an hour, and the discussion ranged
from phrenology, OS Card, independent scholarship, losing his job,
unearthing Alvin, to his legacy and much more. I was especially interested
in his evaluation of NMKMH as an "ideological assault on Joseph Smith." He
named Hill's book as the best JS bio and referred to Bushman's "sort-of" 
bio. I argued that Bushman presented such an unbalanced set of evidence as
to be dishonest, but Quinn argued that as a historian RB had the right to
select only the evidence that supported his "faith-affirming" 
interpretation. 

Personally, I learned much about how differently Quinn and those of my ilk
differ in our approach to our craft. But fundamentally, we perhaps agree
on the most important aspects of our calling: openness to new evidence,
thoroughness, and above all, honesty. I've already expressed my opinions
about some of Quinn's technical failings, but I'm in solid agreement with
what Kent said in his intro: "I believe Michael Quinn is the most
important Mormon historian of the last 50 years."

Will Bagley



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