Lavina Fielding Anderson (1944-2022)
October 31, 2023
We note the passing of Lavina Fielding Anderson a former contributor and copyeditor of Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought . Read some of her work on her author page. We are featuring scholars and friends impacted by Lavina’s work in the coming days.
Also Peggy Fletcher Stack wrote a beautiful review of her life here.
Levi S. Peterson, past editor
I am happy to pay tribute to Lavina Fielding Anderson, who was my first introduction to a truly liberal Mormon—that rare breed of Latter-day Saints who believe that a fervent testimony and an objective study of their church’s past and present can be reconciled.
I am a liberal Mormon too, but of a different sort. I often attend church, but I haven’t been blessed with the gift of faith. At heart, I am a social Mormon. Furthermore, to a considerable extent, I have participated in Mormon life by writing fiction about Mormons. It was Lavina, I want to emphasize, who first made me realize that I could increase my feeling of attachment to Mormons by writing about them in fiction.
I first met Lavina in person in June of 1978. Earlier that year, my unpublished collection of stories The Confessions of Augustine had been awarded the first prize of $1000 in a contest sponsored by the Utah State Division of Fine Arts. Lavina, at that time an associate editor of The Ensign, asked me to let her read the collection. Soon she arranged to have me read from a work in progress to a small group at her home on a Saturday evening. I read a chapter which, vastly revised, would appear later in The Backslider. The small audience listened with rapt attention. In retrospect, it is hard to overestimate the importance of their pleasure as an influence upon my later writing. Although I didn’t realize it at the moment, they strongly reinforced my impulse to write with a tough realism about Mormons in sin and turmoil. Furthermore, for the first time in many years, I had begun to feel like an insider among the Mormons. Over the subsequent years, Lavina’s continued friendship reinforced that sense of community in me—and in Althea, my gentile wife, who was often with me at liberal Mormon gatherings.
At Christmas for many years, Althea and I looked forward to Paul’s beautiful sketches of their house and lot on Roberta Street in Salt Lake City.
Lavina was instrumental in the publication of The Backslider. Asked by Signature Books to evaluate my manuscript, she gave it a hearty endorsement, for which I was grateful.
Lavina had a widely acknowledged reputation as an editor, working as a text and copy editor for many enterprises, including Dialogue during my five-year stint as that journal’s editor during the first decade of the present century. Among the other benefits of her work for Dialogue at this time was her insistence that I submit the material for the entire issue to her fully ready for her as our copy editor, an insistence which meant that, over the five-year period, all twenty issues were in the mail on schedule. Moreover, as the essays in her recently published collection of essays, Mercy without End, show, she was an admirable stylist in her own right.
As I read the account of her excommunication in an early chapter of Mercy without End, I was renewed in my admiration for Lavina for having undertaken the role of co-chair of the Mormon Alliance. I have accessed the article for which Lavina was excommunicated in a digital copy of the issue of Dialogue published in the spring of 1993. Lavina and her co-chair Janice Allred announced the creation and purpose of the Mormon Alliance in a letter to the editor of the journal, inviting persons suffering from spiritual abuse to contact them. An article of some 57 pages in that issue lists important developments related to spiritual abuse dating from January 14, 2 1972, to January 2, 1993. Lavina concludes her article by announcing seven actions that should be taken by way of remediation, beginning with, “First, we must speak up.” Speaking up is, of course, what Lavina was doing by publishing her article in Dialogue. Undoubtedly, she accepted the likelihood of excommunication. That doesn’t mean it didn’t hurt when it came, and it went on hurting year after year despite her regular attendance at church in her ward each Sunday.
A final indignity was imposed upon Lavina recently when, after her current bishop and stake president recommended her reinstatement, the powers in the Church office building denied the request. Hopefully, when those who denied it have died, Lavina will be posthumously reinstated to her full blessings just as John D. Lee, famous for his participation in the Mountain Meadows Massacre, was posthumously reinstated to his blessings under the administration of President McKay in 1961. It would seem a person of Lavina’s gentle and productive nature is doubly worthy of reinstatement.
Gary James Bergera, past managing director of Signature Books and of the Smith-Pettit Foundation
Only now do I realize that, second to my mother, Lavina Fielding Anderson was the most important woman in my life. Her friendship, support, and love were unconditional and boundless. Her example showed me what was possible, not just in writing and scholarship, but in how to navigate a life of intellectual honesty and fearlessness.
I must’ve met Lavina earlier, but I first got to know her when she asked me to join her all-volunteer editorial staff in helping to edit Dialogue beginning in about 1983. I had recently graduated from BYU with a master’s degree in Public Administration; had published articles in the Utah Historical Quarterly and in Dialogue; had been involved with the Seventh East Press; and had started to work, with Ron, on a history of BYU. Lavina was an incredibly patient, supportive mentor. Her occasional staff meetings and one-on-one training sessions were master classes in the delicate, dangerous art of editing. As she approached each manuscript, Lavina functioned as the author’s best friend and confidante. Her only interest was helping the author to produce the best work possible. Not every author agreed, but every manuscript was better thanks to Lavina’s skillful intervention.
Beginning at Dialogue and extending off and on through the next four decades—primarily at Signature, where Lavina served on the board of editors, board of directors, and editorial advisory committee—I was privileged to work closely with her. Lavina was a strong, articulate, and sometimes fierce voice for a variety of points of view. In my experience, I never once heard Lavina recommend against acceptance of a manuscript merely because she disagreed with the author’s stance. Never. What mattered to her was the author’s use and interpretation of sources, the author’s quality of writing, the author’s clarity in presenting their arguments. While I know some reviewers rely on these considerations as smokescreens in order to dismiss works they disagree with on religious/ideological grounds, Lavina never did. In her embrace of Mormon studies, Lavina’s focus was scholarship, not apology.
The LDS Church’s disciplining of Lavina in 1993 brought me as close to severing my own relationship to the church as anything ever has. In fact, I sometimes wonder if the only thing holding me back was cowardice. And while I’m certain I would not have responded as she did to the church’s mistreatment of her, I remain in bewildered awe of Lavina’s continuing commitment thereafter to the religious ideals she was raised on and especially of her own powerful spiritual experiences. I know that Lavina loved books. I can’t help wondering if British novelist and critic Virginia Wolfe best expressed, at least in part, Lavina’s own hopes for her future. Writing in 1926, in an essay entitled “How Should One Read a Book?”, Wolfe speculated about the destiny awaiting some of us at heaven’s gate: “I have sometimes dreamt, at least,” she concluded, “that when the Day of Judgment dawns and the great conquerors and lawyers and statesmen come to receive their rewards—their crowns, their laurels, their names carved indelibly upon imperishable marble—the Almighty will turn to Peter and will say, not without a certain envy when he sees us coming with our books under our arms, ‘Look, these need no reward. We have nothing to give them here. They have loved reading.’”
Kristine Haglund, Former Editor of Dialogue
Every year at Thanksgiving, I make everyone sit through my reading of this passage from John Donne’s Sermon at St. Paul’s on Christmas Eve, 1624.
God made sun and moon to distinguish seasons, and day and night, and we cannot have the fruits of the earth but in their seasons; but God hath made no decree to distinguish the seasons of his mercies. In paradise the fruits were ripe the first minute, and in heaven it is alwaies Autumn; his mercies are ever in their maturity. We ask panem quotidianum, our daily bread, and God never sayes you should have come yesterday, he never sayes you must againe tomorrow, but today if you will heare his voice, today he will heare you.
If some king of the earth have so large an extent of dominion in North and South as that he hath Winter and Summer together in his Dominions, so large an extent East and West as that he hath day and night together in his Dominions, much more hath God mercy and judgement together: he brought light out of darknesse, not out of a lesser light; he can bring thy Summer out of Winter though thou have no Spring. Though in the wayes of fortune or understanding or conscience thou have been benighted till now wintred and frozen, clouded and eclypsed, damped and benumbed, smothered and stupified till now, now God comes to thee not as in the dawning of the day, not as in the bud of the Spring, but as the sun at noon to illustrate all shadowes, as the sheaves in harvest to fill all penuries. All occasions invite his mercies, and all times are his seasons.
Some years I make it through this entire passage without tears (my children make bets about which sentence my voice will break in). This year I may have o have someone else read it, because this sermon and so many other collections of words that have defined and nourished and inspired me for my entire life came to me through Lavina Fielding Anderson. It will tell you most of what you need to know about Lavina that this was the passage she chose to read at a gathering after her excommunication. She thanked the friends who had been kind in the difficult preceding weeks, attentively enumerating and describing their gifts and their service to her, and then she bore testimony of God’s love and goodness, and read this gorgeous passage about God’s mercy. And nothing else–no recriminations, no list of her grievances, no calls for repentance. Only graciousness and mercy. (Although I did wonder–because I am not as kind as Lavina–if there was a little private joke in the choice of this passage that has so many descriptions of being benighted–“wintred and frozen, clouded and eclypsed, damped and benumbed, smothered and stupified.”)*
Besides stealing the Donne quote every Thanksgiving, I’ve turned to that essay so many times when anger–especially anger at Church leaders or members or policies–has threatened to engulf me.
In 1993, when Lavina and the rest of the “September Six” were summoned to disciplinary proceedings, I was in graduate school. I had just had the worst experience of my life with Church leaders and I was angry. I was also devastated–my whole life I had been a good Mormon girl, obedient and people-pleasing to a fault, eager for the praise of my parents, my Young Women’s leaders, my bishops. Their disappointment when I came home early from my mission felt crushing to me. Lavina’s example just then, and for all the decades that followed, of loving the Church and doing what was right despite official sanction, cultivating a spiritual life that included a community of faith but was ultimately defined by a personal relationship with divinity, showed me how to become “an adult of God” (in her memorable phrase). Learning to love the Church and its members for what they are, and forgiving them for what they are not–in the hope of forgiveness and grace for our own faults–is the work of a lifetime, and Lavina’s life was a vivid pattern.
I never thought I would actually know Lavina. But when I became editor of Dialogue, she graciously agreed to stay on as “copy editor.” She was, of course, far more than a copy editor–though she made every issue’s copy perfect. Besides carrying the entire Chicago Manual of Style around in her head, she had an unerring sense of style. She saved me (and many authors) from embarrassing errors. She knew everything, and was astonishingly gifted at making you think that of course you knew it, too, and had just momentarily forgotten. There must be hundreds and hundreds of Dialogue and JMH articles that are better for having her red ink generously spilled on them. More importantly, there must be hundreds and hundreds of people who are better for having her encouragement and wisdom generously bestowed on them. I’m also confident that we will never know much of the good that she did–her gifts were given quietly, behind the scenes, in hours of diligent labor in the little office on Roberta St. I trust that the angels have been “silent notes taking,” and will let her own works praise her in the gates. (And won’t Lavina be surprised when she discovers that the angels don’t take notes in WordPerfect anymore?!)
I hope that she saw the light of God’s love and mercy bursting into that office just before dawn, “as the sun at noon to illustrate all shadowes.” May it shine on her forever.
*My asides are not nearly as witty as Lavina’s, but I am trying to honor her mastery of the parenthetical joke.
Gregory Prince, author
Remembering Lavina Fielding Anderson
The searing image in my mind is not of Lavina, but rather of her absence. Barred from attending the temple marriage of her only child, Christian, because of her excommunication years earlier, she waited outside the temple while the marriage ceremony proceeded. I was not present, but it was reported to me that the sealing room was filled to overflowing. The officiator, trying to be helpful, motioned for someone to occupy a vacant chair next to Christian’s father, Paul. “No,” said Christian, “that is my mother’s chair, and it will remain vacant.” And it did.
Lavina was endowed with intense intellectual curiosity. I don’t use “blessed” or “cursed,” because either could be applicable to anyone when the subject of curiosity is religion, and particularly a religious tradition that holds itself above all others. Lavina’s curiosity was a blessing to all who sought and seek understanding within the Latter-day Saint tradition, but it also was a curse when turned against her by church leaders whose openness to possibilities—and, perhaps, whose own intellectual tools—were not equal to hers.
My first awareness of Lavina came while I was working as a volunteer for Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought when it was located in Virginia. In mid-1981, Mary Bradford, the editor, gave me the distressing news that Lavina, who had been on the editorial staff of The Ensign, had been fired. Nearly thirty years later, when I interviewed Lavina and Paul for my biography of Leonard Arrington, Lavina gave me the story behind the story:
“Hartman Rector had given a conference talk in which he gave a whole list of plagues of the Last Days that included homosexuality and something else that didn’t belong in the same paragraph. He had submitted a talk on one topic, and he ended up giving a talk on another subject. Peggy Fletcher, who was doing Sunstone at the time, was doing a little article and asked me if I had a copy of the first talk that had been submitted. I can’t remember if I told her that there had been a switch, or if she got that from somebody else. We did have it; we had all of the versions of the conference talks sitting in this great big set of pigeonholes. We’d get the versions from Correlation, we’d get them from the author, we’d get them from the First Presidency’s office, and then we’d sit there with three copies and follow along as they gave it, and note the changes that they made orally so they could get the issue of the Ensign out as quickly as possible after conference, because it was the very next month’s issue.
I walked over to the pigeonhole and pulled out the bottom copy of Hartman Rector’s talk, put it in an envelope, and sent it down to Randy Dixon, who was in the Historical Department and who was on the Sunstone staff as a hobby. Jay Todd [managing editor] felt ‘inspired’ to open the mail as it was sitting in the bucket to go down to the mailroom. I’m not sure of the exact offense, because employees didn’t have access to the Employees’ Handbook, but apparently what I had done was make confidential material available to somebody who was not authorized to receive it. So Jay hauled me up to Verl Scott’s office, the business manager, and he fired me.”
While the personnel action appears to have been an overreaction to an innocent act, it was consistent with a larger drama that was playing out simultaneously. Acting within a power vacuum caused by the long-term incapacitation of church president Spencer Kimball, several apostles, most notably Ezra Taft Benson (president of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles and next in line for the presidency) and Mark Petersen (next-senior apostle), were well advanced in their successful efforts to dismantle the History Division at church headquarters, release Leonard Arrington as Church Historian, and restore the writing of church history to the ecclesiastical arm of the church, where it had resided until Arrington was called to his position in 1972. Less than two years later, Petersen went after several historians who were not church employees. These activities set the stage for an even darker chapter of Lavina’s life a decade later.
The September Six and the Struggle for the Soul of Mormonism describes in detail the six targets of the 1993 disciplinary actions. I add a few observations from my contemporaneous diary entries and emails that focus on Lavina.
In the Sunstone Symposium in August 1992, Lavina gave a paper detailing instances where the church had acted against the intellectual community. (The paper was prelude to the article in Dialogue the following year that was the proximate cause of her excommunication.) At the end of the paper, Gene England stood up and accused the “Committee for the Strengthening of the Membership” of keeping secret files on suspect Church members, and thus of causing great damage to the Church. This was picked up by the Church, which confirmed and defended its practice. I called Elbert Peck, later the editor of Sunstone, and asked if he thought Lavina would continue to speak out. He said he had spoken to her about this subject. “She replied that during the International Women’s Year she had prayed to know if she should become involved, and received the reply, ‘No, this is not your cause.’ Later, she prayed similarly concerning the Equal Rights Amendment. Again, her answer was, ‘No, this is not your cause.’ Now, she has prayed about the current conflict between the Church and the intellectual community. This time, she told Elbert, the answer was, ‘Yes, this is your cause.’”
Several weeks after her 1993 excommunication, I called to see how she was doing. “She said that she feels very calm and satisfied with her course. She has asked herself periodically over the past two years if this course was appropriate, or if it merely represented pride on her part. Each time, she has become convinced that it is not a matter of pride.”
Lavina appealed her excommunication to the First Presidency, but her appeal was rejected. In 2014, two decades after the excommunication, she sent me an email describing a recent meeting with her stake president that gave her (and Paul) hope:
“I’m cautiously optimistic this morning but not at all anxious. President Banks immediately said that he knew a little about my situation because he reads the Salt Lake Tribune (wahoo!) but wanted to visit with me and Paul before he does the necessary homework of looking at the DC [Disciplinary Council] minutes. I told him that I didn’t want to ‘sneak’ back into the Church — which he paraphrased as ‘you don’t want your membership restored by figuring out what to say that you think I want to hear’ – and Paul and I both filled him in on the history of 1993 as background, even while we both said it was ‘ancient history.’ We didn’t need to process it but he needed to know it. I also told him that my current beliefs included Mother in Heaven[,] gay marriage, and ordination for women. He didn’t argue with any of those beliefs and we had what I considered a reasonable analysis of content vs. tone and the need to be able to raise questions in a way that they can be heard.
So the plan is that he’ll ‘do his homework,’ I’ll supply him with any documents he requests including right up to the present, and we’ll continue to move forward as we both feel okay about it.
I did ask him if he had ‘received counsel’ about my situation (that was my second sentence after commenting on the fact that the last time I’d been in that office had been 21 years ago this month) and he immediately said no, that two or three years ago he’d received a very short letter from a Seventy saying that ‘we’ were concerned that leaders were keeping in touch with people in my situation — information only, not suggesting any course of action. It wasn’t Marlin [Jensen]. That was my third question.
Paul gave the opening prayer, I gave the closing prayer, addressing it, as usual, to ‘Dear Heavenly Father and Mother.’ He gave me a hug in addition to shaking hands.
It was nice, Greg. Even if it doesn’t go any further — and it hasn’t with any stake president or bishop — both Paul and I felt that we had been listened to by somebody who wasn’t scared of us.”
Lavina’s appeal was denied. Five years later, months after Paul died of cardiac arrest, the bishop of her ward approached her about the possibility of rebaptism. She cooperated in the new appeal, but it, too, was denied. At that point she abandoned further attempts at reinstatement. Nonetheless, she continued to attend church for the rest of her life.
On the list of reasons why Lavina will long be remembered within Mormondom, her excommunication likely will be at the top. But it was far down the lists of her genuine accomplishments, many of which remain largely unknown, for Lavina never tooted her own horn. Others will speak to some of those accomplishments in their eulogies; I will mention those wherein she and I interacted directly.
At the top of my list is her chosen profession of editor. After being fired from The Ensign, she started her own, one-person editing company, eLavina, and it carried her through the rest of her life.
Power from on High: The Development of Mormon Priesthood
I had no ambition to become a writer. Indeed, English and history were my least favorite subjects in high school and college. An unseen hand nudged me, and after eight years of research and writing, I published my first book. While Lavina was not the editor, she was one of two readers asked to recommend if it merited publication. She gave it thumbs-up. Later, she told me she had hoped the brief chapter on women and priesthood—the book dealt only with priesthood during Joseph Smith’s lifetime—would go farther than it did, but she understood my insistence, as a scientist, to “follow the data,” and not wander into speculative territory.
David O. McKay and the Rise of Modern Mormonism
Power from on High was a labor of love that arose from four years in the trenches as an Elders Quorum president. I had no idea it would not be my last book. As detailed in my second book, several planets aligned to result in a ten-year dive into the life of David O. McKay. Having worked with Lavina on the priesthood book, I consulted with her on the biography. Its foundation was his 40,000-page diary that was compiled by his long-time (35 years) secretary, Clare Middlemiss. However, I had a potential resource that was not possible with the priesthood book: the reminiscences of those who had known McKay. By the time I began writing the biography, Bob Wright (Clare’s nephew and the co-author) and I had recorded and transcribed over 200 oral histories of the McKay era. Several of those interviews happened because Lavina made them happen.
One of the most helpful of the interviewees was Alan Blodgett. At the time of McKay’s presidency, Alan was working in the church’s Financial Department. Later, he became the church’s Chief Financial Officer. In September 1999, four years into the project, Lavina reached out to Alan. In his first email to me, he wrote, “Lavina mentioned you would be contacting me. Yes, I will be happy to help to the extent I can. Because of a bad experience in the past, I normally like for an exchange to be in writing so there is a record of what is said.” We corresponded for several months, over one hundred pages in all, compiling a record second only to that of Paul Dunn (with whom I recorded 60 hours of conversation) in importance to the biography. Alan was particularly helpful in steering me away from an erroneous conclusion reached by other historians that the church was “near bankruptcy” in the early 1960s. “In the early 1960s, the liquidity of the church was depleted as a result of the extensive building program. By 1969, however, the building program had been cut back, and rather large surpluses were accumulating each year. Initially, the money was mostly kept invested in bank CD’s or government securities. It was WFE [William F. Edwards, the church’s chief financial officer] who helped us structure a plan whereby, the church began placing money with professional money managers to be invested in stock and bond portfolios.”
Although spending his career in the church’s Financial Department, Alan never betrayed a financial confidence. But even more valuable to the outcome of the biography was his careful reading of every chapter before it went to the publisher. He made sure both the content and the tone were right. (After the biography was published, he told me he wished it had been available a decade or more sooner, as there were former employees of the Building Department who unjustly lost their jobs, and who would have benefitted greatly by reading the rest of the story.) I owe it to Lavina that I ever made contact with Alan.
A second interviewee I never would have reached without Lavina’s intervention was Florence Jacobsen, longtime president of the Young Women’s Mutual Improvement Association. The same day Lavina suggested I interview Florence, she called her. Because it was Lavina who made the call, Florence and her husband Ted, who were in their late 90s, immediately welcomed me to their apartment adjacent to Temple Square. Florence showed me a set of six glossy workbooks designed and printed while she was president, one for each year of the Young Women’s program. They were very impressive, but they never saw the light of day. Completed at the time of President McKay’s death, they were viewed by Harold B. Lee as “not invented here,” and he ordered the entire printing of tens of thousands of copies shredded. What she showed me may have been the only copies remaining.
The third interview Lavina arranged was with an architect, Richard Jackson, whose name I had never heard. She felt, correctly, that the church’s building program was a crucial part of the McKay era, and thus arranged for me to interview Jackson, who had worked for a couple of years in the Building Department. He gave me solid material about the building program and accompanied me to a photocopying store to copy nearly 200 draft pages of a book he was writing on the church’s building program. Towards the end of the interview, he injected a zinger that still has me reeling:
“I remember one day that President McKay came into the office. We could see that he was very much distressed. He said, ‘I’ve had it! I’m not going to do it again!’ Somebody said, ‘What?’ He said, ‘Well, I’m badgered constantly about giving the priesthood to the Negro. I’ve inquired of the Lord repeatedly. The last time I did it was late last night. I was told, with no discussion, not to bring the subject up with the Lord again; that the time will come, but it will not be my time, and to leave the subject alone.’ We were all, of course, a little numb-struck. I don’t think it has ever been written that that happened. I’ve never told anybody about that. I can still see him coming in with a bit of a distraught appearance, which was unusual for President McKay. He always appeared as if he had everything under control.”
In the course of my research, I identified five occasions on which McKay talked privately about approaching “the source” about the priesthood policy, only one of which had ever been recorded. Jackson’s was the last in the chronology, and arguably the most important. And all because of Lavina.
To my delight and, at times, dismay, the University of Utah Press, which agreed to publish the biography, commissioned Lavina to be the book’s copy editor. A seemingly endless chain of emails flowed back and forth as she demanded my attention to the smallest details. Having been engaged in the project for nearly a decade, the last thing I wanted to do was to keep revisiting the manuscript to document details like the pagination of a newspaper article printed a half-century earlier. But she kept insisting, and, with some reluctance and a lot of self-restraint, I quietly obeyed the master copy editor. Her unseen hand still hovers over each page of the book, and its enduring appeal is, in no small measure, due to that hand.
Lavina made two comments that I thought particularly choice. One was regarding chapter 4, “Blacks, Civil Rights, and the Priesthood”:
“Reading this chapter made me sad and ashamed that the Church collectively and as individual members, did not seem to recognize and do the right thing, though occasionally recognizing the issue as one of fairness and making what accommodations they could. McKay was certainly wrong when he said we wouldn’t be condemned for what we didn’t say. But the chapter also contains its own corrective toward any temptation in the direction of moral superiority.”
The other relayed the reaction of Irene Bates, a British convert, upon reading the book:
“I sent Irene and Bill a copy, and Irene had the whole thing read within about a week of when it arrived. She wrote me such a long, touching message about how it brought her simultaneous joy at the memories of how the Church used to be and sorrow at what it has become. Well, there’s a club with a distinct membership on THAT perception!”
Leonard Arrington and the Writing of Mormon History
Several months after the McKay biography was published, I gave a talk on it in Logan. Afterwards, a woman approached me and introduced herself as Susan Arrington Madsen. She said she and her two brothers had read the biography and liked it—enough so that they would like me to write their father’s biography. That began another decade of hard labor that resulted in the publication of Leonard Arrington and the Writing of Mormon History. This time, Lavina played two roles: source and editor.
Lavina was well acquainted with Leonard and his franchise, from having worked in the same building and from having been involved in the publication in The Ensign of articles flowing from the History Division that he directed. Moreover, Leonard had given her husband Paul an internship that helped launch his career.
When Lavina was fired from The Ensign, Leonard took her under his wing by asking her to help him write an autobiography. “Doves and Serpents: The Activities of Leonard Arrington as Church Historian, 1972-1982,” duplicated privately by the family but never published, was most helpful to me because it contained excerpts from other sources that would not otherwise have been available to me.
But Lavina was also a source in her own right. In 2008, she and Paul invited me to their home for dinner and a recorded interview. Her comments reflected introspection at a level I rarely saw in my interviews.
“I know that [Leonard] had his down moments, but he kept those to himself. I sometimes wish that he hadn’t, because it meant that he was isolated during some of the hardest parts of his life. He was a superb human being. In every way he was a wonderful human being and I just didn’t see any way to improve on him, except maybe that he pulled a few punches in his Brigham Young biography. And he was so willing to include everybody. In the Church Office Building, access was power and information was power, which was why rumors just swirled constantly, because you could never find out anything for sure. Leonard would share everything. You could walk in off the street and he would pull out a file and say, ‘Oh, you’re interested in this?’ pull a file out of his filing cabinet and hand it to you. He empowered people. People didn’t use that language at the time, but that’s what he did, almost instinctively. He called himself an entrepreneur. He created Mormon historians by sharing his information with them, by pushing them into projects that they didn’t know they were interested in, by facilitating the research. He had his secretaries type up journals that somebody thought someday they might want to look at, and made them available to people. He volunteered to coauthor things with young scholars so that they would get themselves published. I don’t know if he sat down and ever worked out a master plan for how to do it. I think it was instinctive to him because he was that kind of person. How could you not want to be around that, and how could you not want to be that kind of person?”
At other times, her comments were unfiltered—and delicious—reporting without editorializing. Of Carmon Hardy, whose interest was focused on Mormon polygamy, she said,
“He talks about going to the library to do his research when he was doing his dissertation, and how Brother Lund would go through his note cards at the end of the day and crumple up and throw away the things that he didn’t approve of. I always thought that was a myth.
I remember hearing Leonard tell that he had permission to look in the stacks for some things. So, he would find what he wanted, and then stand there at the shelf and scribble down note cards while he was out of sight of Lund, and then hide the note cards in his pocket so they would not be part of what he showed at the end of the day. That was when he was doing research on Great Basin Kingdom.”
Generally protective of Leonard, Lavina nonetheless was open to rethinking. One of the themes that emerged from my research was his political naïveté, which in part resulted from his consistently dodging administrative positions while on the faculty of Utah State University. Following a discussion, she wrote,
“I’ve been thinking more what you said about Leonard’s naïveté — his inability to foresee and/or prevent what would happen to his Mormon history program. I’d phrase it in even stronger (though perhaps not as plausible) terms. Leonard was essentially a good person, good to the core. I don’t think he understood evil. I know you probably can’t write a biography in terms of good and evil, and those categories may reflect my own naïveté, but I do think that, on at least some issues, Truth with a capital T was at stake and that was where Leonard stood.”
Since Lavina was copy editor, we had another seemingly endless string of email exchanges about changes that were grueling for me to make, but that ended up in a much more readable and durable biography. As we approached the conclusion of the editing process, she sent a message that, once again, teemed with wisdom and introspection:
“Greg, I’ve had a wonderful time reading through the draft of the LJA biography. I knew I would like it, but I wasn’t prepared for what an emotional experience it would be — the exuberance and optimism that characterized the discovery and rediscovery of Mormon history and the backlash of fear and punitiveness that accompanied that discovery. Walking back into that world dominated by Mark E. Petersen, Ezra Taft Benson, Bruce R. McConkie, and Boyd K. Packer was a dark experience that made the story of Leonard himself all the more sparkling.…
It’s a real contribution to analyze the ‘what went wrong’ and to do so in such objective terms. I especially admire that achievement since I have no trouble at all making it personal and demonizing those who wanted to control and suppress Leonard. I couldn’t be the voice of fairness that you are. It was especially astute, I think, for you to see Leonard’s concentration on teaching and writing as having the upside of shielding him from time-consuming university administration posts but having the downside of leaving him without the skills to negotiate a bureaucracy. Spelling out the power game in rational, secular terms leaves the spiritual question privileged and protected—which is where it belongs, in my humble opinion.”
Rarely had Lavina inserted herself into the story of Leonard, but late in the editing process she sent me a poignant, autobiographical gem that spoke to her condition and to Leonard’s personal loyalty. She asked that I insert it in my chapter on the September Six:
“I thought my experience might fit well right after Marti’s. Here it is:
Someone who was excommunicated as part of the September Six in 1993 was Lavina Fielding Anderson. Leonard and Harriet immediately sent her a living plant, sparkling with silk flowers. ‘The plant’s still alive,’ says Anderson. ‘The flowers are still beautiful.’ But what puts a lump in her throat to this day is that fact that Leonard invited her and her husband to the History Division’s Christmas party at his home and asked her to give the opening prayer and blessing on the food. ‘Since that’s one of things specifically forbidden by excommunication,’ she explains, ‘he could not have said in stronger terms that I had a valued, even a cherished, place in his world.’”
When she had put her final touches on the manuscript, she sent a brief note that was all the payback I needed for a decade of hard work: “I think Leonard would be really happy with this biography, Greg. I think he would say that it represents him fairly, both his moments of success and joy and the moments of pain and rejection. Obviously, it’s not the last word — we don’t have that kind of perspective yet — but as the latest word, it’s a peach. Well done!”
Finally, at the invitation of the press, she wrote a blurb for the dustjacket: “This biography breaks your heart a little, stiffens your spine a lot, and makes you fall in love with a man who may be his generation’s best human being.”
Paul Dunn and the Biography That Wasn’t
One of the early interviewees for the McKay biography was Paul Dunn, who was called as a General Authority (First Council of Seventy) in 1964 and served until 1989, when he was placed on emeritus status. Largely because of allegations of embellishing stories from the pulpit, Lavina and many other church members minimized his contributions to the church. However, from a few minutes into our first interview, Paul and I realized we were on the same wavelength, and after two years of occasional interviews about President McKay (I lived in Maryland and would call on Paul when I was in town), he asked that I be his biographer.
When I first mentioned this to Lavina, she was skeptical, even dismissive. Her tone changed when I sent her a 200-page compilation from our interviews. A couple of days after she received the manuscript, she wrote, “This manuscript is a feast of fat things! I can feel my reserve thawing.” Several weeks later, having read the entire compilation, she admitted an about-face, and did so with graciousness and nuance:
“This really is an extraordinary set of interviews, and I wanted more on every single topic.… It was as refreshing as rain on dry sand.
There was such extraordinary warmth in what he said and how he said it. His respect for people as individuals, not just as integers in a program, his obvious pleasure in interacting with them just leaped off the page. I especially liked his interpretation of the ‘sure testimony’ blessing that President McKay had given him. I didn’t even realize, when I read it the first time, what extraordinary information it communicated about him, because he made it a little hyperbolic in describing his fatigue, because he was so focused on this gift that he’s been given with which to serve others.
It’s also really stunning to me that the only thing he says that can even remotely be interpreted as angry was focused on that rule-centered Pharisee in the temple who was the Shoe Police. And it had nothing to do with him personally or his office but rather concern about what kind of a blight it might cast on the wedding day of the young people he was with.…
I came away from this reading with such respect for Paul’s thoughtfulness. He was articulate and thorough and specific about every topic that came up. He hadn’t gone through life with blinders on. And coupled with his unswerving focus on people—there’s a radiant sense of love, not sticky sentimentality or a generalized benevolence but an actual, tangible love. I can’t help thinking that, in some respects, you and the relationship you developed with him were a concentration of that thoughtfulness and that love that might, if he had been active in his calling, [have] been diffused over a broad geographical area and among many people. The essential qualities of the man were distilled, in some important ways, by that isolation.”
Regarding Paul’s embellishment of baseball and war stories, Lavina later sent me a note that graciously reflected her changed thinking on the topic, particularly when it comes at the pulpit:
“I came across the quotation below which I thought might have some relevance to your Paul H. Dunn project. Writer Tim O’Brien offers a distinction between ‘happening truth’ and ‘story truth.’:
‘Happening truth tells exactly how it happened. Story truth may include embellishment in order to make a point or create an atmosphere. Story truth may jiggle dates and put the left foot before the right. Story truth may create a whole ribbon of story, even though incidents may have occurred separate from one another.’”
Although Paul hoped to live to see his biography published, he died in January 1998, just as I was wrapping up the research phase. A short time later, the church began to put pressure on his wife to abort the biography. And so, Lavina and I were denied a third editorial experience together.
In commenting on the church’s prior policy on Blacks and priesthood, five years before California’s Proposition 8 publicly branded the church as homophobic in the eyes of many citizens, Lavina signaled an understanding of LGBTQ issues that did not surprise me: “[The chapter] makes me wonder how future generations will judge the Church’s similar foot dragging where women and homosexuals are concerned, the terrible moral blind spots we currently have.”
More than a decade later, LGBTQ and the church became the subject of my fourth book—the only one that never had Lavina’s personal touch. When I told her of the project, she was effusive in her enthusiasm: “Absolutely LOVE your new project. You are definitely the right person to balance the ‘official line’ against the national reaction, the state reaction, the apostle-versus-apostle reaction and — most intriguing of all — the heart-versus-soul reaction of individual apostles.”
A year later, following the disastrous announcement known to many simply as “The Policy,” which essentially declared open season on same-sex couples in the church as well as their children, and the follow-up announcement by senior apostle (and eventual church president) Russell Nelson that the policy carried the weight of revelation, Lavina vented to me in the strongest language I ever heard from her:
“It’s taken me a couple of days (and the conversation with you yesterday) to help me focus on why Nelson was so disturbing. Anger at slamming gays and especially their children again is predictable. So is the sadness. So is the disgust at the scare tactics. But what was new in the emotional mix was something, for want of a better word, that I’m calling fear. What Nelson did, claiming to speak in the Lord’s name, was blasphemy — genuine wrath-of-God-summoning blasphemy.”
And she wasn’t through with the subject. Two days later, she followed up by sending me an account from Ed Firmage, a grandson of Hugh Brown, who in the 1960s served in the First Presidency with David O. McKay:
“Ed called me up a couple of nights ago to read me his letter and got launched on his classic stories. One I hadn’t heard before was, when he was a bishop, he got a call from a General Authority (wouldn’t tell me his name) ordering him to excommunicate two gays in his ward. They were both celibate and Ed refused because “they haven’t done anything.” It escalated until the GA yelled, “I’m ORDERING you to excommunicate them!” and Ed’s response, at equal volume, was, “You sonofabitch, you come down here and release me and then go to hell where you belong” and hung up on him. Ed was released shortly thereafter. Oh, for a few hundred bishops like him!”
Integrity and passion were two of Lavina’s strongest suits, and two of many reasons I adored her and will miss her greatly. But underneath all her many qualities was a genuine and deep religiosity that made her excommunication all the more stinging to her. In January 2002, we spoke by phone.
“[Lavina] said she returned last night from Nauvoo, where she went through the new temple that will be dedicated later this month. Her voice broke when she said that she had taken the temple apron of her son and embroidered it while in sight of the temple. Once the temple is dedicated, she will not be allowed in, as her excommunication has never been reversed. I told her that if it were up to me, I would have her at the head of the line once the temple is dedicated. She, of all the people who were excommunicated during the purge of intellectuals, deserves to be included rather than excluded.”
The last time we spoke, her health was deteriorating rapidly. I told her I wanted to convene a roundtable of thoughtful church members in Salt Lake City to discuss the ongoing hemorrhage of youth from the church, and asked if she would participate. Her response said much between the lines:
“Greg, I’ve been practicing saying no to everything that isn’t Lucy-related, so I wouldn’t put such a roundtable on my to-do list. (There are also a few health issues that are slowing me down.) Furthermore, between the pandemic and an uninterrupted summer in the canyon, I strongly feel that I’m finished with the Church. If you’re feeling a moral imperative, I think it means that you are being called to the work, and I cheer you on.”
Lavina’s last writing project was a biography of Lucy Mack Smith, mother of Joseph Smith the Prophet. Sensing she would not live to complete it, she made arrangements with Signature Books to finish and publish the biography. I see poignant symmetry in the two women, who both spent their later years in exile from the church of their younger years while never abandoning their core faith.