D. Michael Quinn was once among Mormonism’s most celebrated historians, lauded for his memory, work ethic and charisma — even prompting predictions that he would become the official historian for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints or one of the faith’s governing apostles.
Quinn, who was discovered dead Wednesday of unspecified causes at his home in Rancho Cucamonga, Calif., saw no conflict between the church’s history and his faith.
Still, his compulsion to understand every detail of the Latter-day Saint past, starting in his teen years in the 1960s, put him on a collision course with his church. It would culminate in September 1993, when the Yale-trained scholar was drummed out of the Utah-based church for apostasy based on his historical writings about women and the priesthood, along with polygamy.
That same month, four other writers and feminists were excommunicated and one was disfellowshipped, a less-severe punishment. Together, they became known as the “September Six.”
The 77-year-old Quinn became the first of them to die and arguably the most tragic. He published critical contradictions in church history, but the historian was no critic.
He appeared to have the most literal faith of the group (believing in angelic visits, miracles, divine intervention, gold plates, Christ in America), the greatest church ambition and an impressive scholarly pedigree.
Yet Quinn did not have an appointment or steady income for more than two decades, and, though he considered himself a believing Mormon until his death, he had no community of faith.
“He may know more about the Mormon past than anybody alive,” Jan Shipps, a Methodist and a preeminent scholar of Mormon history, said in 2013. “He could have had a successful career at Brigham Young University if he had been willing to give up his research in LDS Church history and just teach.”
Patrick Mason, head of Mormon history and culture at Utah State University, echoed that sentiment Thursday.
“I’m not sure any person, other than maybe Leonard Arrington, will take more knowledge of Mormon history to the grave than did Michael Quinn today,” Mason tweeted. “In addition to his prodigious scholarship, he was genuinely kind and generous to all of us in the field. He’ll be sorely missed.”
For many, the independent historian “personified the new Mormon history,” said Gary James Bergera, company director of Signature Books, which published much of Quinn’s work. “He was thorough, probing, insightful. He believed fervently that historical truth and religious faith are not enemies, but are partners.”
Quinn’s study of the late apostle J. Reuben Clark, Bergera said, “may be the finest biography ever written by a Mormon about a Mormon.”
His death, Bergera said, “is a great loss.”
Raised in a Mormon cocoon
The only child of his Mexican Catholic father and his Anglo-Swiss, sixth-generation Mormon mother, he was reared by his mom in the Los Angeles area after the couple divorced when Quinn was 5. Mormonism was his cocoon.
He dazzled fellow believers with his tales of being cured of polio after a priesthood blessing and being spared from a deadly drop off a ledge by a voice, saying “stop,” which he interpreted as the Holy Spirit.
When the young Quinn began to experience stirrings of attraction for other boys at age 12, he did what he knew best: Read everything on the topic.
Under “perversion” in the library card catalog, it read “see homosexuality.”
So Quinn decided to confide in no one but God.
“I knew it wasn’t what God wanted for me,” he said, “so I decided to live a straight life.”
At 19, Quinn left for his two-year church mission, serving in Britain under President Marion D. Hanks, who later became an LDS general authority and a lifelong mentor to Quinn.
“He was a spiritually gifted friend,” Richard Lambert, who was a fellow missionary in England, wrote Thursday in an email. “He was known [in the mission] as one who was able to help others in the understanding of scripture. ...He had heard the audible voice of the Lord as a child protecting him from danger and believed in and exercised the gifts of the spirit.”
In 1969, Quinn earned a degree in English at church-owned BYU. He met and married his wife, Jan, and fathered four children — three of whom are living. The couple later would divorce amicably after Quinn came out as gay.
The historian was always on hand for holidays and family traditions, said his son Moshe Quinn, the youngest, said Thursday. “My dad was part of every Christmas. He was a great listener and always present for me.”
His father was “one of the greatest sources of unconditional love and support,” said the son, an art teacher in San Francisco. “He didn’t raise me but was very much around, always available for moments when I reached out to him.”
Mary Quinn, the eldest child, who now lives in Bountiful, recalled that her dad read “The Hobbit” aloud to the kids — twice.
She and her dad shared a love of “quality ice cream,” she said. “I remember many happy trips to Snelgrove during my childhood.”
The family also had a love of movies and movie theaters, Mary Quinn said. “We would sometimes plot out a way to view four movies in a single day, though not all in the same theater. … Usually with a great meal in the mix.”
The second child, Utahn Lisa Quinn Harrison, recalled her dad as a man of his word.
“If he said he would be somewhere at a particular time, he would be there,” Harrison said. “He always kept his promises.”
The father also was a stickler for honesty.
“I remember him saying if we lied to him, our punishment would be worse than if we told the truth,” she said. “He was always teaching me that honesty and integrity were so important.”
Harrison didn’t realize how well known her dad was until she was in her 20s, and friends her age would tell her how his work had changed their lives.
“He wasn’t seeking fame or fortune; he just always followed his heart,” she said. “I felt honored to be related to him.”
A passion for the past
Throughout his life, Quinn was obsessed with church history and confident in his ability to ferret out truth, no matter where the quest might lead him.
In 1975, he wrote his dissertation for Yale about the dynamics of power among the Mormon hierarchy. He then took a job at BYU, where he got into an intellectual wrangle with then-apostle Boyd K. Packer about the role of history in the faith.
Quinn and others were trying to humanize, not lionize, early Latter-day Saints and provide context for the religion’s troubling episodes. They hoped to legitimize the field to other scholars.
For Quinn, the tipping point was his exhaustive 1985 article in Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought, documenting post-Manifesto polygamy and how church leaders tried to cover it up.
Three years after the Dialogue article, BYU administrators were making his academic life tough, denying him sabbaticals and research time. The message seemed clear: Stop your work on Mormon history or lose your job.
In response, he resigned.
But he continued to believe he had a dual mission and so maintained a rigorous research schedule.
He wrote several books, including a second volume on LDS hierarchy, one on Mormonism and the “magic worldview,” and a look at same-sex dynamics in church history.
In the past five years, Quinn completed an exploration of LDS Church finances from its humble beginnings to its current global empire.
He found himself defending the church and its approach to economics.
“It is an American success story without parallel,” the longtime historian told The Salt Lake Tribune in 2017. “No institution, no church, no business, no nonprofit organization in America has had this kind of history…[It is] an enormously faith-promoting story.”
If everyday Mormons could grasp “the larger picture,” he said, they would “breathe a sigh of relief and see the church is not a profit-making business.”
Ironically, many of today’s Mormon historians have again delved into the church’s controversial past — this time with the faith’s blessing — to counter critics who take to the Internet to expose early LDS authorities’ foibles. Post-Manifesto polygamy has even been discussed in a church-sponsored essay.
For his part, Quinn did not regret the path he took.
“I don’t believe that the ‘Holy Spirit of Promise’ ratified my excommunication, but I do believe it ratified all the other ordinances I received,” he told The Tribune in 2013. “The Spirit is still part of my life.”