The other day I was thinking about how rewarding it has been working on this book. Then Tom at Signature Books interruped my daydreaming when he called to ask if I would put my thoughts about the project onto paper. To be honest, the first thought I had was that I was elated to be done! That may be something only someone who has done research like this can understand, but suffice it to say that since this is the last of three volumes in a series—and the end of a long and grueling endeavor— I’m happy to be moving on to something new. On the other hand, I felt a deep connection to the temple all the while and will miss researching in an area I haven’t entirely satisfied my curiosity about.
Because the research that Gary Bergera and I did (Gary was coeditor of the first two volumes) was into extant primary documentation, it has been particularly interesting to see what official sources have said about the temple—how general authorities themselves have interpreted the temple’s meaning. These are not secondary sources— not commentaries or exposés. These are the internally generated documents that discuss policies and give interpretations, where even the difference between the concerns of the general membership versus the sometimes different concerns on the part of general authorities is interesting.
In one sense, I found the third volume to be the most meaningful because it covers the changes in ceremonies and policies that occurred during my own lifetime. By the way, Gary Bergera let me go it alone with this volume because he was in the middle of another project. No, there wasn’t a falling out between us. In fact, he continued to help enormously with research suggestions and in offering encouragement and editorial ideas.
Probably these volumes will be used by scholars for years to come because they fill a vacuum in the historical record, the result of some queasiness on the part of historians to venture into an area of sensitivity. Of course, there will be people who are uncomfortable with this book because they’re not sure where to draw the line about what can be said publicly about the temple. Hopefully this book will be acceptable to everyone and will reach not only scholars but general readers whose temple experience might be enriched by knowing more about the history and meaning of the ceremonies.
I should probably mention something about where I decided to draw the line on what to include and what to leave out of this volume, which I did in consultation with the editor and others at Signature Books. Church members are asked not to talk outside the temple about the signs, tokens, and penalties that were historically associated with the ceremonies. Taking my cue from general authorities who have spoken about these things in public, though without specifics, I felt it was appropriate to acknowledge them as part of the endowment ceremony but not to elaborate on them. That being the case, I ended up cutting about fifteen words from the documents—not much from a book that is nearly 600 pages long. It turns out that the portions of the ceremony people are asked not to talk about don’t usually show up in the documents.
Signature asked me to tell more generally about my passion for Mormon history. It began in 1982 when I read B. H. Roberts’s multivolume Comprehensive History of the Church. That endeavor soon brought me in touch with the LDS scholarly community, which I found to be a fascinating subculture and initially somewhat intimidating. The contributions by scholars in various disciplines were so vast that I could not read enough. However, over time, especially after my 1994 move from Longview, Washington, to Salt Lake City, I became involved in producing my own small contributions to LDS history. This happened entirely by accident at first. When I took a class at the University of Utah taught by Davis Bitton, as a class assignment I researched the history of the quarterly journal Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought, submitting to the professor a 50-page paper on the topic. Gary Bergera was the managing editor of the journal at the time, and after reading a copy of my paper he asked me to expand it for publication. Originally envisioned as one article, over time it grew into four lengthy installments published between 1999 and 2008, with two more installments still in the works.
Feeling confident in the wake of that experiment, I decided to begin another project around 1990: a biography of LDS apostle and historian Willard Richards. In the summer of 1995, I entered LDS archives to begin research on that project, and I have been working on it in my spare time ever since. I seem to have trouble focusing on one project at a time because the Dialogue history, three volumes on temple worship, a completed manuscript on the School of the Prophets (as yet unpublished), and a book on Emmett Till (mentioned below) have kept me from completing the Richards volume, which I am nevertheless determined to finish. I retain the passion and commitment to see it through, and all I need is time. Even so, I suppose there is an advantage to being able to think through the issues over the space of years and not rushing to conclusions about what the evidence means.
That could also be said about a project that captured my heart in 1994 when I was a history student at the university. One day I checked out of the library the PBS series, Eyes on the Prize, released in 1987 about the Civil Rights Movement. The first episode had a fifteen minute segment on the murder of a fourteen-year-old African American youth, Emmett Till, who was visiting the South from Chicago in August 1955. While in the Mississippi Delta, he spoke flirtatiously to a white woman, and three days later her husband and half-brother kidnapped him from his uncle’s home and brutally murdered him. When his body was found floating in the Tallahatchie River, it was beyond recognition. His mother insisted on an open-casket funeral so everyone could see the ugly effects of racism. A photo of his battered face made the murder an international story, as did the acquittal of his accused killers a few weeks later. In 1996 I began what became a six-year friendship with Till’s mother (ending only with her death in January 2003) and in 2004 started a website (emmetttillmurder.com) to aid teachers and others interested in the case. I also began my own research into the subject and became intent on writing an accurate and comprehensive narrative of the story. My research took me to Mississippi and Chicago ten times. I have also been asked to speak on the topic in California, Missouri, Texas, and the Washington, D.C., area. Now I am on track to finish a book on Till in mid-2011, then it’s back to Willard Richards!
My three children, Amanda, Tyler, and Jordan, have lived with these projects for years and now seem to know them as well as I do. All of these undertakings—the history of Dialogue, the documentary history of LDS temples, the School of the Prophets, Willard Richards, and Emmett Till—will hopefully be the beginning of a lifetime of research and writing, both on Mormonism and American social history. Little did I realize in 1982, during my study of B. H. Roberts’s monumental work, that my own passions, up to that point hidden deep inside of me, were about to be unleashed. I’m looking forward to conversations with scholars and general readers about the temple in the near future and, for the long term, the journey of further discovery that lies ahead.
February 3, 2011
Salt Lake City, Utah