USU to celebrate late LDS Church historian’s birth with conference

One hundred years after the birth of renowned LDS Church historian and Utah State University professor Leonard Arrington, the university is holding a two-day conference to honor the late scholar.

The Leonard J. Arrington Centennial Conference will take place all day July 12 and 13 in the L. Tom Perry Community Pavillion, located on the top floor of Jon M. Huntsman Hall, the new business school building next to the George S. Eccles tower.

The idea for the conference came together through discussions between several people who knew Arrington, including Ross Peterson, a former history professor at USU.

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“We were talking about some professors we knew and said, ‘You know, this year is the 100th anniversary of Leonard Arrington’s birth,’” Peterson said. “‘Even though he’s been passed away for 18 years, because of his influence on so many different areas, we ought to do something in his name.’ This is what I came up with.”

Arrington was a professor of economics at USU from 1946 to 1972 and LDS Church historian from 1972 to 1982. He was the author of several books and started a local lecture series in his name that still goes on today. His papers are housed in USU Special Collections and Archives. He died in 1999.

A Wikipedia article describes Arrington as the “dean of Mormon history.” He is often remembered for opening up the LDS Church’s archives to scholarly research, a decision that was later reversed.

Phil Barlow, a USU history professor and the Leonard J. Arrington Chair of Mormon History and Culture, praised Peterson and others for organizing the conference.

“A century is a nice, friendly round number to remind ourselves of the his importance and take stock of it,” Barlow said, referring to Arrington. “This will be part celebration, rather than some years ago, a critical thinking about the implications of what may be his most important book.”

Barlow was referring to an earlier conference examing Arrington’s “The Great Basin Kingdom — an Economic History of the Latter-Day Saints, 1830-1900.”

The conference will begin at 8:30 a.m. on July 12 with an introduction from Doug Anderson, dean of the Jon M. Huntsman School of Business and former student of Arrington’s

Anderson’s remarks will be followed by five panel discussions, each dissecting a different aspect of Arrington’s life, career and legacy.

The first day of the conference will conclude with a keynote address from Laurel Thatcher Ulrich, a professor at Harvard University, at 7 p.m. on the top floor of Huntsman Hall.

The second and final day of the Arrington conference, July 13, will begin at 9 a.m. and include two panel discussions — one on Arrington’s work with and impact on the LDS Church and another on the “centers of study” he influenced the creation of. Since Arrington’s death, his life and work has spawned numerous endowed chairs at several institutions, including USU.

Peterson said the panel discussion format of the conference reflects the idea that he did not want the event to come off as an “academic meeting.”

“I wanted it to be informal and relaxed — he (Arrington) was a very informal, relaxed guy,” Peterson said. “I wanted it to be something where people felt free to come tell a story, give an example and not think everything had to be footnoted.”

The conference is free and open to the public, so it’s Peterson’s hope that all sorts of people — not just scholars — will attend.

“Hopefully, people will come out of it with a sense that they can contribute to a writing of history within this community, realize everybody’s story is worth something,” he said.