Matt Harris, an active, believing Latter-day Saint historian, was asked by John Dehlin about access to contemporary material in Mormon Stories interview #1350, October 5, 2020, at 47:43. Interjections (non-lexical conversational sounds) and some other minor missteps have been removed from the transcript.
[Dehlin] Really quickly, this is kind of a tiny bit of a tangent, but since we just recently talked about his journals and your access to it in the archives, I remember a conversation once with Ted Lyon who was the interpreter for Jeffery R. Holland while Holland lived in Chile for 3 years, and Ted Lyon was a professor of mine at BYU and he was the son of T. Edgar Lyon, a really important figure in the history of the church, he was buddies with Lowell Bennion, and
[Harris] I worked in his papers, Edgar Lyon. The Edgar Lyon Papers.
[Dehlin] T. Edgar Lyon?
[Dehlin] Okay awesome. So, Ted Lyon, his son, T. Edgar’s son, told me that at some point the Church told Apostles that they are no longer allowed to keep journals, and I’ve had some people push back and tell me that I’m full of crap there, so I guess it’s a two part question, and I don’t want to get derailed, so we can just touch this briefly. Can you just tell listeners who are not LDS, why in the world is the Church not giving you access to Elder Benson’s full journal—not just up until a certain point—and then do you think I’m crazy or that I have bad information or Ted Lyon was lying to me or misinformed when he told me that the Church has informed current apostles no longer to keep journals?
[Harris] I’ve heard that too, that they don’t keep current journals, because they’ve been burned by these journals getting out in the open after their loved ones have died. A couple of quick stories with this, John:
[Harris] When George Albert Smith passed away of course in the 40s his children had sold their father’s papers to the University of Utah. The key word is sold—they didn’t give them, they sold them. And when Apostle Packer, Boyd K. Packer learned about this, he said something like “they sold their souls for a mess of pottage.” And he was upset, Elder Packer was upset that the Smith children didn’t donate their father’s papers–this was a church president, mind you, in the 1940s–they didn’t give the papers to the Church archivist, and so they sold them to the University of Utah with the stipulation that they would be open to scholars like me and others, and so they didn’t like that. David O. McKay, his papers—you mentioned Greg Prince a minute ago wrote a great biography on David O. McKay—much of that work was based upon papers that David O. McKay’s secretary, Clare Middlemiss, had kept over a period of several years, and these papers had, after President McKay died in 1970, Middlemiss took dozens and dozens of these volumes of these journals that she had kept and transcribed—there are phone conversations in there; it’s really great stuff if you’re a scholar—and they were in her basement for a number of years and as Greg Prince has talked about that he got ahold of these materials and was able to construct his book along those lines. So, really what it is, is, the Church doesn’t want the papers of contemporary Apostles to be available to scholars. I mean, I don’t know how else to say it.
[Harris] They have been enormously transparent in recent years when they published the Joseph Smith Papers, which they are still doing, which is a wonderful work of scholarship it’s an an incredible, intensive undertaking that the archivists have been doing in Salt Lake, they’ve done really great work. Anyway, when they decided to publish the Joseph Smith Papers which is going to be 24 volumes when it’s all said and done, and also when they allowed people to see the Brigham Young Papers. A scholar named John Turner who has written a biography of Brigham Young. That was their way of saying we want to be transparent with these 19th century Church leaders. However, they don’t feel that way about contemporary Church leaders, and maybe it’s because we’re too close in the moment to their ministry, I don’t know, but probably 50, 60, 70, 80 years from now maybe Joseph Fielding Smith’s papers or Spencer Kimball’s papers or the full collection of Ezra Taft Benson’s papers will be available. But right now that’s not the case.
[Harris] Benson, they wanted to keep his papers quiet or unavailable, because we’re getting into controversial things when we talk agbout his government service and when we talk about his role in the Birch Society and I know we’ll talk about that in a minute. He’s extremely controversial and polarizing and we’ll see that in his journals, and before he’s called into the 12 in 1943 up until I guess 1953, that 10 year period, I mean there’s really nothing controversial, it’s really a series of touching moments about his life, his family, and his mission to war-torn Europe; he’s got some incredibly moving passages in there about walking the streets of Europe and he sees these people who are emaciated, some of whom are Latter-day Saints, they haven’t eat in days. There’s just carnage everywhere, he goes to Warsaw where he sees these crematoriums where Jews have been slaughtered. I mean, he writes his wife, and this is in his journal, he says, I’m going to paraphrase, it’s in the book the exact quote, but he says, he said, if I wasn’t here I couldn’t believe that this is happening, I just couldn’t believe it, but I’m here and I see it and it’s so profoundly moving and the suffering that these people are going through. So you see it, all of these, in Mormon language, faith promoting things in his journal before 1953, and then after 1953 I’m going to conjecture you’ll probably start to see more controversial things with his views and some of his government policies and most especially in his association with the John Birch society and the polarization that occurs in high church leadership.
[Dehlin] Love it, thank you so much, and I guess, you know some will try and push back and say corporations don’t always make available their private records, and then I’m thinking about the FBI and the CIA—there’s that freedom of information act—but it’s very common for the federal government to sort of put a seal on government records for a certain number of decades, and then you know to make things available decades later. Maybe the church is kind of modeling its archives on that?
[Harris] Well, no, I think, let’s so, so what happens is, a couple of thoughts. Let me share a quick story and then a thought. A story is that Marion Hanks, Elder Hanks, was a member of the 1st Quorum of the Seventy, … Marion D. Hanks is in the 1st Quorum of the seventy which is the 3rd highest governing body. And his son told me that in the early 90s that the Church had called and said that they want all of the Apostles and General Authorities to give their diaries to the Church. And so this is from Elder Hanks’s son, who is a wonderful guy. He said, there are two General Authorities who didn’t want to donate their diaries: one was my father, Marion Hanks, because Elder Hanks was just one of those independent kind of guys, I’m not gonna do it, just because you ask I’m not gonna do it, Why? because it’s my diary, and the second one was Pual Dunn and the story of course goes, why did you resist Elder Dunn? You don’t even keep a diary; I just resist on principle. He just wasn’t interested in passing on his diary even if he had one. But Elder Hanks did have one, and his diary is now in the Church archives. And I have sections of his diary which his son shared with me.
[Harris] But anyway, and the other thing that I’ll share is, and I’ve heard this from a couple of people, that at the highest eschelons of leadership when they are called into the Twelve they sign some documentation where they do they will turn their papers over to the Church when the apostle dies. And when their father or grandfather dies—cause it’s usually the kids that inherit all this stuff. When people donate, when General Authorities donate, their papers they generally put stipulations, like Spencer W. Kimball’s papers were supposed to be open to research—that was the stipulation that his son Ed, the custodian of these papers, when his father died in 1985, Ed Kimball inherited the papers and he made it very clear to the archivist that they are supposed to be open to research, and if you need to redact some sensitive things from his diaries whether it’s temple or finances or something of the sort, but they need to be open. Henry Moyle’s papers that were donated in 1979, they were supposed to be open by 1984.
[Dehlin] But they are not, you’re saying they are not.
[Harris] Unfortunately they are not. Probably they are not because they just don’t want their contemporaries, they are too close to their ministries, and I don’t think it has, I’ve heard the corporate line too, “corporations don’t make their papers available.” It’s not a matter of whether they have the authority to not make it available it’s a matter of “should they?” And obviously as a historian I think they should because I think that transparency is important. I say that minus some of the spiritual things. You know, if you’re getting into sacred temple rituals, I don’t think that should be open; people have a right to believe in sacred ordinances and rituals and not have them written about and talked about. But a lot of this stuff that I’ve seen—I’ve been privileged to see lots of restricted material, I should say this—and that’s a different conversation for maybe another day, but I’ve seen lots of restricted diaries and journals. And I can’t help but ask myself “why is this restricted?” There’s nothing that’s embarassing—sometimes it’s even faith promoting. And I think that some of it is just they have so much material, they don’t even know what they have. But some of it would be sacred as the Church would say, or sensitive, or if you’re dealing with a Church court or an excommunication, that’s a real thing. And I’ve had access to Spencer Kimball’s papers. Ed Kimball, the late Ed Kimball, facilitated my access into his father’s papers in the Church History Library, and I went through his journals unredacted, and I saw all kinds of things. And some of these people that I’ll write about in my research, both in this Benson book and maybe in my next book project which is on blacks and Mormons. Some of these people might still be alive, and I just have a policy when I write about, I don’t mention their names. So if somebody writes a letter to President Kimball that I want to quote in my book, I’ll just write you know “Stake President in Florida to Presiden Kimball.” I don’t need to mention their name, it’s not important to mention their name, maybe their title. So there are privacy issues that I think that are real. I’ve heard that from the Church before, “we’re concerned about privacy issues”, but it’s hard to make that claim, though, when you’re talking about a letter from 1939 and some adult was writing and—cause they’re dead—they’re not alive to experience these privacy invasions, if you will, but certainly with President Kimball when people were writing him when he was Church President, these folks are still alive, at least some of them, so I think there’s a need to be circumspect and sensitive with those kinds of things.