Linda King Newell (1941-2023)
February 13, 2023
We are saddened at the passing of Linda King Newell, a former editor of Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought. She was a powerful voice and contributed so much to Mormon scholarship and letters. Read some of her work on her author page and learn about her time as editor in these episodes of the Dialogue Heritage podcast: Heritage #4 & Heritage #5.
Love and condolences to her friends and family.
We are featuring scholars and friends impacted by Linda’s work in the coming days.
Find the funeral and zoom information here.
Also the NY Times did a lovely review of her life here.
When, how, and why exactly did Mormon women become “timid” in the administration of our faith? How exactly were we to square the marvelous varieties of soulfullness—the “brisk earthiness,” “redoubtable” confidence, and “matter of factness” we recognized amongst ourselves –with the quiescent LDS womanhood idolized in late 1970s Church public relations campaigns and long-skirted statues on temple lawns? We could just blame “the patriarchy.” But that would have perpetuated further erasure of the women we came from, the women we carried inside us. The more courageous, essential question was how did we let this happen? When did we start asking for so much permission? What is it we worship when we perform timidity as piety? And how did Mormon women lose, within just a few decades, powerfully self-determining practices of female spiritual sovereignty as unique and original to American Christianity as Mormonism itself?
Those were the questions Linda King Newell taught us to ask in her incomparable 1981 essay “A Gift Given, A Gift Taken,” which I consider in its astute archival investigation of the microdynamics of gendered power in late nineteenth and early twentieth century Mormonism to be not only the most important essay in the history of Mormon feminism but in Mormon studies more generally for what it gives us by way of methdology: Linda King Newell taught us that the greatest lessons of our Mormon past and present were in the frustrations and contradictions, the sublimations, betrayals, and silences, that constituted our belongingness as a Mormon people.
She realized this vision most fully in Mormon Enigma, of course, giving us the defining portrait of Emma Smith in all her frustrations and contradictions, her sublimations, betrayals, and silences. It was a book I thought I could not bear to read for many years. I finally did at a feminist writers colony in Puget Sound where I stayed for two weeks in the early 2010s while finishing the manuscript of The Book of Mormon Girl. Night after night, I sat in front of the woodstove in my little shelter under the old growth forest, and I steadily turned the pages. As I did, I realized that far from being something unbearable or embarassing, Emma’s humanity spoke powerfully to my own. She was a woman who loved a man and a movement that also betrayed and confounded her. I was a woman who loved a religion that could be sublime, tender, bruising, and cruel all at once. Linda King Newell honored the capacity in all of us to be contradictions, even engimas, and to study our lives with the rigor that feminist consciousness—not to mention wholeness–demands.
Joanna Brooks, Ph.D.
Associate Vice President for Faculty Advancement and Student Success
For over half a century, Linda King Newell was a courageous, gifted voice in the Latter-day Saint community. Her powerful award-winning and culture-challenging biography, Mormon Enigma: Emma Hale Smith (co-authored with Valeen Tippets Avery), demonstrated the importance of seeking and telling truth even if others find it uncomfortable and inconvenient. The book opened the way for feminist visions and perspectives of Mormon history that have proven not simply important but essential to the full telling of the Latter-day Saint story.
Working in partnership with her husband, Jack, Linda guided Dialogue during a critical period and co-led an innovative educational program at Deep Springs College. Her other ground-breaking work is seen in the completion of her forty-year vision of creating Zion Canyon Mesa, a retreat for writers and artists that, among other aims, highlights the traditions of Indigenous peoples. Linda also served as President of the Mormon History Association and was a founding member of the Gun Violence Protection Coalition of Utah.
As an artist, scholar, mother, grandmother, wife, and dear friend to many, as well as a model of engaged and inspired feminist scholarship and leadership, Linda’s mind and soul reveled in the richness of modern Mormon culture and its intersection with the seminal social issues of her generation.
We feel the abiding love of her continuing presence.
Bob & Gloria Rees
|Linda and her husband, Jack, came as a package. At a time when feminism was making a cautious comeback among Mormon women, Linda and Jack were exemplars of an egalitarian marriage in which the relationship was worked out within a traditional model. Jack was employed full-time in an academic career at the University of Utah where he largely invented his exciting and thought-provoking job as dean of liberal education, while Linda was the gracious and hospitable faculty wife who welcomed students and, as a hostess, oversaw every detail. In turn, as Linda plunged into what amounted to a full-time career as an independent historian and leader in Mormonism’s new feminism, Jack was the hospitable and facilitating host. And both of them coparented their four lively and independent children.
As an example, driving almost across country for a family vacation, Linda saw that they would be within a few hours’ drive of a site important to Emma Hale Smith. But they were on a tight deadline. They figured it out: The youngsters could sleep in the car, Jack could drive, and Linda would keep him awake. They made the trip, saw the site, and reached their vacation destination safely.
Another remarkable example of their shared friendships was a study group which they were invited to join as representatives of the “younger generation.” Among older-generation members were Sterling and Natalie McMurren and Lowell and Merle Bennion. Jack’s candid conversations with Sterling became prize-winning history, and Mary L. Bradford, Lowell’s biographer, was Jack and Linda’s predecessor at Dialogue.
I worked with Linda and Jack while they edited Dialogue and later with Jack while he edited The Review of Higher Education — and with both of them as they saw that the story of Deep Springs College was told. They improved every community they touched. When Mormon feminists planned a memorial event in Nauvoo in 1981, Linda volunteered to plan meals and do the shopping. Women drove in from all over Utah, New England, California, and Texas, and took home spin-off events. Salt Lake City’s “Pilgrimage” and New England’s “Exponent II Retreat” are two of them that are continuing to this day.
As coeditors of Dialogue, Linda and Jack consulted on policy, problems, and proposals by night, stretching out their busy days by 11:00 p.m. walks, even on the frostiest winter nights. Then Linda, as office manager by day, welcomed visitors, encouraged authors, and became a reasoned and eloquent response to media requests. A bitter-sweet story, but one that Linda told with a gallant flourish, was receiving a call from her bishop.
“Okay, Linda,” he said. “What’s the calling?”
Confused, Linda, who already had a ward calling, asked, “What are you talking about?”
“Which general board? Relief Society? Young Women?”
Under prodding, he explained, “Someone called from Church headquarters and wanted to know your status. I could hear a desk drawer open and shut and papers rustling. I’ll be really sorry to lose you in the ward, but I praised you with every adjective I could think of.” The voice on the other end, however, was calling from the Strengthening Church Members Committee, the committee assigned to keep secret files on Church members considered “dangerous.”
The rest, as they say, is history. Except, of course, it’s always more than history. Despite her grief at being treated like an enemy to the Church, Linda explained to everyone who called — and they were many — that she and Val had always spoken about Emma only in venues where listeners could ask questions — in classes, firesides, and professional conferences. She and Jack worked to meet with representatives of the decision-makers, only to realize that even apostles had not read the biography and had no interest in doing so. She negotiated through her bishop and stake president to have the ban lifted after ten months, in time for a Mormon History Association event where her news turned down the heat. It was an act of dignified graciousness that she modeled for an institution that needed it. Despite the institution’s fearfulness, Emma is discussed twice as often in general conference (1.0 times per conference session now vs .5 before 1984), and the odds of a reference being negative are six times lower now than before 1984. (See chart below.) It’s just one of the many lasting legacies of Linda King Newell.
Lavina Fielding Anderson
Linda King Newell, a former editor of Dialogue, passed on February 12, 2023. Linda was a Renaissance woman who transformed the study of Latter-day Saint history. She and her husband, L. Jackson Newell, edited Dialogue from 1982-1987 during intense and controversial times. Their joint venture as editors brought the journal to Salt Lake City. Linda and Jack and the team they assembled accepted the challenge of editing Dialogue within blocks of the headquarters of the church whose history, culture, and theology, the Journal studied.
Linda’s preparation for such a task was like that of her predecessor, Mary Bradford. They loved the concept of Mormon studies even though they were not trained in the academic disciplines. Mary and Linda surrounded themselves with numerous talented volunteers who sustained Dialogue without a university base. A native of Fillmore, Utah, Linda studied art and education at the College of Southern Utah and then transferred to Utah State University as an art education major. During summers she was employed at various National Parks and met Jack while they both spent a summer at the North rim of the Grand Canyon. An Ohioan in love with nature, Jack had studied at Deep Springs College in California and in his native Ohio. Jack soon joined the LDS church and after marrying in June 1963, Jack and Linda began the educational journey that eventually brought themto Dialogue. While Jack studied and taught, Linda gave birth to and nurtured their four children.
Wherever they lived, Linda made many friends and began reading and studying Mormon history. During a time when their husbands were completing their education at Duke, Linda met Valeen Avery. Like Jack, Chuck Avery was a convert, and the two men were natural questioners who saw the church through eyes with a wider lens. As the couples continued to read and study, Linda and Val focused on a need for a biography of Emma Hale Smith, Joseph Smith’s wife. The much-maligned Emma was criticized in Mormon history because she stayed in the Midwest and helped establish the Reorganized Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints rather than follow the larger body of members to the Rocky Mountains. Linda and Val understood her decision and wanted to know more about Emma. This nearly decade-long project which required deep research in primary sources, launched the authors into the world of Mormon Studies.
Through papers and conferences, Linda and Val became known within a growing scholarly community. Scholars came together to create the Mormon History Association, Dialogue, The Journal of Mormon History, Sunstone, and the John Whitmer Historical Association. There were now many outlets for publication and opportunities to test ideas and historical conclusions that often challenged
long-held interpretations. Consequently, when the Newell’s began to edit Dialogue, Linda was the known scholar and Jack was the great and thorough reader with the eyes and mind of a keen questioning observer. Lavina Fielding Anderson joined the team as their manuscript editor. The journal quickly demonstrated the fact that relocation to Salt Lake City did not hamper Dialogue’s commitment to inform and educate.
The period from 1982-1987 saw many scholars, not all LDS, studying every aspect of Mormon theology, history, and practice. Dialogue had explored the issues of race during the 1970’s and now found itself evaluating manuscripts on every imaginable topic. Simultaneously, some members of the LDS hierarchy had determined that the journals and professional associations posed a threat to the minds of their followers. Leonard Arrington’s time as Church Historian had resulted in numerous historians employed within the division of Church History. The Division had sponsored the publication of eighteen volumes to celebrate the Sesquicentennial (150 years) since the founding of the church. This project was abandoned even though many of the manuscripts had been completed. Arrington and his associates were reassigned as the Joseph Fielding Smith Institute of History at Brigham Young University. At the same time, church members employed by the LDS church were advised not to publish in the journals, nor
attend and participate at the conferences to hear or present papers.
Amid this atmosphere, Linda and Jack and their board decided to continue to publish articles of significance that shed light on practices, policies, and history that made contributions to understanding the church. The journal published articles on post-Manifesto polygamy, second anointings in the temple, questioning geographical evidence for the Book of Mormon, and the origin of temple ceremonies. The fiction and poetry acceptances were expanded, and the personal essay section continued. Under their editorship, books were published that consisted of some of the best of Dialogue. Neither White nor Black, Personal Voices, and Sisters in Spirit are three examples, although the latter consists of some original essays. Finally, the Newells utilized topical concepts to have entire issues devoted to feminism, the environment and other themes. They refused to alter their process even if the microscope on their efforts became magnified.
When the biography of Emma Smith: Mormon Enigma, appeared in 1984, Dialogue became identified with an effort by certain church authorities to keep Linda and Valeen Avery from speaking at church sponsored events. When the book was awarded Best Biography at both the MHA and John Whitmer Association, it meant that scholars of both churches appreciated the work. Perhaps when it was awarded the coveted Evans Biography Award was when
some church leaders decided the book was injurious. BYU transferred the administration of the Evans Award, with the Evans family’s encouragement, to Utah State University. The banning of their speaking impacted Linda much more than Val because Val lived in Arizona. Linda found herself in the limelight as she courageously and continually challenged the ban and sought audiences with her critics. It took her nearly a year to have the ban privately lifted. One of Linda and Jack’s major contributions by being in the Salt Lake media so much, was that it established Dialogue’s independence in the public view. Although under scrutiny and at times, attack, the journal flourished.
When they left the editorship, Linda continued to be active and engaged in Mormon history and Utah culture. She served as President of the Mormon History Association, the John Whitmer Historical Association, and on the Utah Humanities Council Board. Later she became the development officer for the UHC. In that position she became involved with the Mesa Project, a writer and artist retreat, in Springdale, Utah. She authored one of the volumes on Utah’s Counties for the Utah Centennial Celebration and co-authored two others. In 1995 Linda and Jack joined forces and went to Deep Springs College in California where Jack served as President for nine years. During those years, Linda worked tirelessly as Special Projects and Events Coordinator on the physical restoration of
the isolated campus and buildings. Her efforts to restore valuable paintings ignited her artistic background and she returned to painting. Linda’s beautiful renditions of the high desert valley, the lonesome trees and cacti, and the rolling hills adorn the homes of many grateful individuals.
However, if you asked Linda to describe her legacy, she would point to her four children. They grew up in a home dedicated to service and sacrifice with a commitment to education. All of them became teachers and educators. Linda’s powerful influence is felt through her written words, her paintings, her courage, and most importantly, her family. What she accomplished for the landscape of Mormon culture is a given—historical truth and honesty are essential to retain the dignity and validity of institutions.
Ross and Kay Peterson