Four decades of independent Mormon thought

Salt Lake Tribune/September 8, 2006
By Gary James Bergera

In 1965, a small group of young, intellectually oriented Latter-day Saints living in and around Stanford, Calif., decided to venture where more timid angels had feared to tread.

Convinced that many Mormons were eager to engage in a lively public discussion of their faith, they christened their new forum Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought. Today, 40 years later, Dialogue stands as the pre-eminent outlet for groundbreaking, thought-provoking LDS-oriented articles, personal essays, fiction, poetry and art.

In the journal's first issue (Spring 1966), co-editor Eugene England explained the need for Dialogue: "My faith as a Mormon encourages by specific doctrines my feeling that each man is eternally unique and god-like in potential, that each man deserves a hearing and that we have something important to learn from each man if we can hear him - if he can speak and we can listen well. Dialogue is possible to those who can. Such a dialogue will not solve all of our intellectual and spiritual problems - and it will not save us - but it can bring us joy and new visions and help us toward that dialogue with our deepest selves and with our God which can save us."

Joining Dialogue's found- ers was a loosely knit but unified board of editors composed of some of the church's brightest young minds, including University of Chicago law professor and future LDS apostle Dallin H. Oaks.

Their vision reflected the optimism of LDS officials such as Hugh B. Brown, a member of the church's governing First Presidency, who encouraged Brigham Young University students in 1969: "We are not so much concerned with whether your thoughts are orthodox or heterodox as we are that you shall have thoughts" (LDS Church News, May 24, 1969).

Less than 20 years later, these same sentiments were echoed by another First Presidency counselor, Gordon B. Hinckley: "Fundamental to our theology is belief in individual freedom of inquiry, thought, and expression. Constructive discussion is a privilege of every Latter-day Saint" (Ensign, Sept. 1985).

Since 1966, Dialogue has weathered a variety of ups and downs while still managing to publish an impressive array of insightful, provocative essays. These include future LDS Church Historian Leonard Arrington's "The Search for Truth and Meaning in Mormon History," David Buerger's study of Mormon temple rituals, Lester Bush's "Mormonism's Negro Doctrine," Duane Jeffery's "Seers, Savants and Evolution: The Uncomfortable Interface," Richard Poll's "What the Church Means to People Like Me," Michael Quinn's treatment of LDS plural marriage after 1890, George D. Smith's "Nauvoo Roots of Mormon Polygamy," and Richard Van Wagoner's "The 1844 Transfiguration of Brigham Young."

These, and many other articles, broke new ground and continue to influence the ways LDS history and doctrine are taught and studied.

Guiding Dialogue are its past and present editors (aided by staff too numerous to mention by name): Eugene England and G. Wesley Johnson, Robert A. Rees, Mary Lythgoe Bradford, Linda King Newell and L. Jackson Newell, F. Ross Peterson and Mary Kay Peterson, Martha Sonntag Bradley and Allen D. Roberts, Neal Chandler and Rebecca Worthen Chandler, Karen Marguerite Moloney and Levi S. Peterson.

Their contributions to the LDS Church, largely unheralded, are a permanent reminder of the value to any organization of independent thought and freedom of expression. Thanks to Dialogue, and other such independent forums, the intellectual and spiritual life of the LDS Church in the 21st century is as vibrant as it is rich.

Gary James Bergera is managing director of the Smith-Pettit Foundation in Salt Lake City and a past managing editor of Dialogue.

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