Mormon mavericks mark milestone
As a fresh-faced Mormon missionary in 1962, Ross Peterson had to inform an African-American Air Force sergeant that neither he nor his son could ever be ordained priests in the LDS Church they had just joined. At the time, blacks were banned from the church's all-male priesthood.
It was an agonizing moment for Peterson, whose deepest sympathies lay with the burgeoning civil rights movement.
Six years after that night, Peterson discussed his dismay and growing frustration over his church's priesthood ban with then-Idaho Sen. Frank Church who offered this advice: "You won't change it if you leave it. . . . Live your lives in such a way as to be examples for equality, but never shirk from action."
Such dual loyalty to the LDS Church and to honest scholarship was what spawned Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought 40 years ago, said Peterson, a former editor, at a Salt Lake City dinner commemorating its anniversary. And that is as true today as it was then.
In the past four decades, Dialogue has had nine editorial teams, which have included almost as many women as men. It has published scores of significant articles, including groundbreaking work on blacks and the priesthood. It dedicated an entire issue to women's stories, history and concerns, explored the church's positions on evolution and looked candidly at Mormon scriptures and history. It set the standard for all future independent Mormon publications.
Contributors would eventually include Dallin Oaks, then a law professor at the University of Chicago (now an LDS apostle); Chase Peterson, future president of the University of Utah; and Richard Bushman, emeritus professor of history at Columbia University.
"Dialogue has been, over the last 40 years, a great gift to the [LDS] Church," wrote Frances Menlove, one of the founders, in a recent issue. "Dialogue has helped the church avoid the sin of self-idolization, the temptation of certitude . . . [It] and a variety of other unofficial publications are indispensable to the church's sacred mission."
A heady time: Mormon students at Stanford University launched Dialogue in 1966 amid the era's optimism and idealism. G. Wesley Johnson was writing his doctoral dissertation on modern European history, Eugene England was pursuing a doctorate in English and Menlove was completing her doctorate in psychology. Johnson, who had been the editor of Harvard Lampoon during his undergraduate years, and England, a charismatic teacher and leader among young Latter-day Saints who died in 2001, became co-editors. They enlisted the help of other Mormon students at prestigious colleges across the country.
The group modeled its new publication after The Paris Review, maintaining a rigorous review policy to ensure quality. Though copies were sent to LDS general authorities, the project had no official connection to the church.
"This was the 1960s, civil disobedience was beginning and every person who was the maverick was in the spotlight," Johnson, who lives in Provo, said this week. "We were invited to be on TV and we declined. Our goal was not to reform or criticize the church. We were all active Mormons. We just wanted to provide a Mormon perspective on the issues of the day."
The New York Times and Time magazine heralded Dialogue's launch. Time said the journal was "the first unabashedly highbrow publication in Mormon history."
The first issue included two pieces by non-Mormon scholars, an essay by University of Utah political scientist J.D. Williams, who reported that the Mormon hierarchy nearly endorsed the John Birch Society, and an exploration of a civil-rights project in Tennessee.
"Cautious as such criticism is," the Time piece said, "it represents something so unusual in Mormonism that one church leader has ominously declared: Dialogue can't help but hurt the church."
Through the years, some critics agreed.
From 1993 to 1998, for example, Dialogue took up some particularly sensitive topics, including what it deemed to be cases of "ecclesiastical abuse" in which church leaders treated members in a harsh, unfair way. It also used Mormon artist Trevor Southey's nudes on several covers.
"We weren't really intending to be controversial," said Allen Roberts, co-editor during those years with Martha Sonntag Bradley. "We just wanted to deal with important subjects in a reasonable way."
The graying of Dialogue: The need for continued comment and action is just as urgent today as it was 40 years ago, Peterson said at the anniversary dinner Sept. 22.
The journal's approach to the priesthood issue set an important precedent.
Dialogue published a number of articles, examining the ban's history as well as personal perspectives on its painful consequences and critiques of the policy.
Finally, on June 9, 1978, LDS President Spencer W. Kimball announced that The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints was opening its priesthood to "all worthy male members . . . without regard for race or color."
"Those brief, magnificent and long-awaited words cut, like a blowtorch, the theological chain that choked the moral soul of the church," said Peterson, now president of Deep Springs College in California. "The organization could now move into a new era of fulfillment of inclusive Christianity."
No one will ever fully know what prompted Kimball to seek divine confirmation for the change, he said, but surely Dialogue "played a role in creating an awareness of the problems, inconsistencies and blatant discriminatory policy evolving toward a doctrine."
Since then, the journal has continued to probe important topics in a timely and even-handed way.
For years, Dialogue focused attention on Mormon history, racism and feminism, among other issues. It is now also looking at such contemporary topics as the church's international growth, homosexuality and fundamentalism.
Its readers are just as educated (fewer than 8 percent without college degrees) and active in the church as ever (67 percent say they go to church weekly), but their numbers are dwindling.
At the anniversary dinner, the gray-haired attendees far outnumbered young participants.
Current editor Levi Peterson, a retired Weber State University English professor, is well aware of the problem. He and the editorial board are doing everything they can to attract younger writers and readers. To that end, Dialogue has formed a partnership with a blog, http://www.bycommonconsent.com. Its editors and writers regularly post articles and their thoughts about contemporary issues on the site, which draws thousands of readers and dozens of comments.
"Mormon blogs are where young people have gone," Peterson said from his home in Washington. "It's where they get their intellectual stimulation."
Unlike their predecessors at Dialogue, these bloggers reject terms such as "liberal" and "feminist," he said. But the nature of their discussions is inescapably "liberalizing."
And that has been Dialogue's goal from the beginning - to open minds, debate, discussion and, ultimately, help build a more thoughtful Mormon faith.
"A man need not relinquish his faith to be intellectually respectable," England told Time in 1966, "nor his intellect to be faithful."