Jana Riess: Why did BYU ‘erase’ a prominent historian — and why isn’t it saying why?

The scrubbing of historian Benjamin Park’s involvement from the Maxwell Institute’s website reflects poorly on the school, particularly since he says he hasn’t been told why it happened.

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Statue of Brigham Young on the BYU campus in Provo, Friday, Dec. 7, 2018. The school's Maxwell Institute recently removed the writings of a prominent historian.

I’ll never forget when I learned I had been “blocklisted” at Brigham Young University.

(”Blocklist” is preferred as a racially neutral alternative to “blacklist.”)

This was years ago, after I had published the comedic memoir “Flunking Sainthood: A Year of Breaking the Sabbath, Forgetting to Pray, and Still Loving My Neighbor.” The book was, unexpectedly, a modest hit, and I did a lot of bookstore appearances and signings to promote it. One of those was tentatively scheduled to be held at the BYU Bookstore — the usual friendly meet-and-greet, where an author reads a couple of excerpts from the book and then spends an hour or so signing copies for customers.

This time, though, I found out a week before my trip to Utah that the store had canceled on me, to the embarrassment and regret of the kind employee who tried to explain.

“Unfortunately, we did not receive approval to host a signing,” the bookseller wrote. “...I am very sorry for the delay in getting this information to you. Much of the process is out of our control.”

It ended up being fine; a friend and I rescheduled the signing at the last minute for another location in Provo. But the whole experience was unsettling, especially because BYU never provided a reason for the cancellation.

“They don’t give reasons and are not receptive to us asking,” the bookseller responded when I asked. “We’ve tried. It is a very strange period right now. One that we hope will resolve itself soon.”

I think we all hoped the “strange period” of blocklisting at BYU would indeed be of short duration and would “resolve itself soon.” But given recent news about historian Benjamin Park’s erasure from BYU’s Maxwell Institute for Religious Scholarship, it seems the strangeness is alive and well.

In 2018, Park was a summer fellow at the institute, researching and writing his excellent book “Kingdom of Nauvoo: The Rise and Fall of a Religious Empire on the American Frontier.” The institute gave him funding and a home for the summer, interviewed him for its podcast and trumpeted his involvement on its homepage. The participation of a Cambridge-educated, nationally recognized historian of early America was a feather in the institute’s cap.

(Photo by Mike Hoogterp) Benjamin Park | assistant professor of history at Sam Houston State University, and the author of "Kingdom of Nauvoo: The Rise and Fall of a Religious Empire on the American Frontier."

Until last week, when the news broke that all record of Park’s fellowship and involvement with the Maxwell Institute had been systematically erased from its website. On Twitter, @TheGrandScoobah shared screenshots of what the site had looked like in 2018, when Park was a fellow, and what it looks like now.

Desaparecido. But why?

Was this because Park objected to a speech two weeks ago by Latter-day Saint apostle Jeffrey R. Holland, taking to Twitter to point out the ways the talk was harmful to the LGBTQ community (and to academic freedom)?

Or was it his recent piece in The Washington Post, in which he noted the deep fissures that now exist between leaders of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints who have actively endorsed mask-wearing and vaccination against the COVID-19 pandemic and some U.S. members who have followed the anti-mask trajectory of right-wing politicians and pundits rather than the counsel of their prophet?

Or was it something else? We don’t know, because no one from the church or the university has yet seen fit to explain to Park what he did that triggered his erasure.

“They’re not very transparent when they make those decisions,” Park said in a Zoom interview. “And so I have as much information about why or who ordered the removal as anyone else who saw that Twitter thread.”

The action feels vaguely Orwellian, leaning into the “1984” idea that “the past (is) alterable.” In the novel, when the government suddenly changes tack and declares its enemy is Eastasia, the citizens fall all over themselves not only to change their allegiances in the present but to manipulate history so it looks like Eastasia has always been their enemy instead of the ally it had been formerly. To accomplish this, the ironically named “Ministry of Truth” has to alter several years’ worth of newspapers, films, books and propaganda so they all parrot the current party line. No explanation is ever given for this sudden shift. It simply is.

Let me be clear that the Maxwell Institute and any other academic institution or foundation has the right to give funding to any scholar it pleases. It also has the right to distance itself from a scholar whose work or public persona it now deems to be outside the organization’s mission. Maybe an institution will make a statement about why it is distancing itself or add an explanatory note to a person’s faculty page or at the very least explain to the scholar in question what he or she did to trigger discipline.

But skullduggery is not the way to do it. I’m not aware of other scholarly institutions that attempt to make the rest of us believe scholars whose work no longer fits their mission had never participated in those institutions in the first place. I’ve not seen an academic institution simply try to erase a historian from history.

In my own situation, I learned the blocklisting I experienced at the BYU bookstore extended to a ban on me speaking on campus at all unless it was for a private, unpublicized event (I’ve since done a few of those) or as a guest speaker in a class.

I don’t know if that ban is still in place, and to this day no one has ever formally told me how or why it came to exist. It simply is.