Though Lavina Fielding Anderson can aptly be described as an intellectual giant in the field of Mormon studies, a brave activist, and a moral force for her critiques of ecclesiastical abuse in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, she also was deeply devout and never relinquished her Latter-day Saint beliefs or practices.
Anderson was, historian Ben Park wrote on Facebook, a “titan of modern Mormonism,” whose “fingerprints can be found on so much of modern Mormon studies, even if it was often thankless and invisible labor.”
She died early Sunday of respiratory failure secondary to pulmonary hypertension, son Christian Anderson said. She was 79.
Memorial service is set
A memorial service for Lavina Fielding Anderson will be held at 10 a.m. on Friday, Nov. 10, at the McKinley Latter-day Saint Ward, 1883 S. West Temple, in Salt Lake City.
The lively writer and editor was among the “September Six” scholars and activists disciplined by the Utah-based faith for “apostasy.” Five, including Anderson, were excommunicated. She is the second of that group to die after historian D. Michael Quinn, who died in 2021 at age 77.
Yet even after her censure — and after top church leaders rejected her 2019 appeal for rebaptism — Anderson rarely missed a Sunday service at her Latter-day Saint congregation, Salt Lake City’s Whittier Ward.
“I admired the fact that Lavina stayed true to her faith, committed to anything and everything she was allowed to do. She played the piano in Relief Society as long as her health allowed,” said fellow ward member and friend Diana Miller. “She knew more about the church and the gospel than anyone I have ever known and was one of its greatest, strongest ladies.”
A life of church service
Having spent her childhood in Shelley, Idaho, Anderson ventured to Provo for college, earning bachelor’s (1968) and master’s (1971) degrees from church-owned Brigham Young University.
She served in the faith’s French East Mission from 1965 to 1967. About six years later, she was hired as an associate editor at the church’s Ensign magazine and worked there until 1981.
Park remains “moved, haunted? by the essay Anderson wrote 10 years after the September Six.”
The piece, titled “A Decade on the Thin Edge,” represented “Lavina at her best: forthright in her message, sympathetic to her interlocutors, and stubborn in claiming her space as a Mormon,” Park wrote. “She wrote of embroidering her son’s temple apron, knowing full well she’d have to wait in the lobby during his sealing. She likened her position to being a coin on its side, a balancing act reflecting how she’s not allowed to be ‘in,’ but refusing to be ‘out,’ too.”
“Mormonism is my world,” she wrote. “It’s my language, my people, my music, my history, even my leaders.”
A quiet influence in Mormon studies
After leaving the church magazine, Anderson launched her own editing business and quickly became the go-to editor for Mormon publications.
In subsequent years, the prodigious editor amassed an impressive array of clients and publications. She was on the Editorial Advisory Committee of Signature Books; co-editor of the Case Reports of the Mormon Alliance and the Association for Mormon Letters Annual; and a copy editor for the Journal of Mormon History; Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought; and The Review of Higher Education.
She was the co-editor of “Lucy’s Book: A Critical Edition of Lucy Mack Smith’s Family Memoir,” which explored the writings of the mother of church founder Joseph Smith.
“Lavina’s example of gracious devotion and her refusal to allow bitterness to canker her soul were an enduring example that helped me navigate my own questions and frustrations as I tried to grow into ‘an adult of God’ (in her memorable phrase),” Kristine Haglund wrote in an email. “When I became editor of Dialogue, she sent me an email that is holy writ to me — an extraordinarily generous assessment of my gifts and an assurance of my place in the community of faithful scholars. She signed it, as she signed every subsequent email to me (and countless others, I’m sure), ‘Affectionately, Lavina.’”
Her affection “was true and deep and it radiated even to people whom she didn’t know, whose writing she improved with care and love,” Haglund wrote, while also bringing her “encyclopedic knowledge and rare insight.”
All in the family
Anderson married Latter-day Saint art historian Paul Anderson on June 13, 1977, and together they reared Christian, their only child, who was born in March 1980.
“As a mother, Lavina was relentlessly focused on personal growth,” Christian recalled in an email. “This took the form of teaching me to read before kindergarten, assigning me hours of extra homework during summer break and other vacations, and sending me to magnet programs for K-12 even if they were in dangerous schools.”
All this was to give her son “maximum options on who I wanted to be,” Christian said. “She truly wanted me to be interested and interesting far more than she wanted me to be practical. She also wanted me to have wide experiences, and then talk about them critically with her.”
It might surprise some friends to know that his mother was “the most orthodox of people in her own beliefs (literalist about gold plates and Book of Mormon history),” Christian said, “but respected my differences.”
When Christian wrote his mom “about his struggles on his mission, she overnighted a care package, a long letter, and called the mission president to get permission to call me all on the same day,” the son said fondly. “She wrote to me every day of my mission, including a poem a day from Norton [an anthology]; forbidden but soul-sustaining.”
Unlike nearly any other parent in conflict with the church, Christian said, his mother “never worried about what the effect on me would be.”
Although as a teen he “sometimes resented her status as a figurehead and the chilling effect on my orthodox friends and own relationship with the institution,” he wrote, he also had a lot of “pride in her independence and wanted to live up to her example of moral courage.”
Paul Anderson died March 23, 2018, after going with Lavina to Provo, where she was awarded a lifetime achievement award by the Association of Mormon Letters.
Former Salt Lake Tribune columnist Robert Kirby also got an award that night but had been taking pain pills for a knee injury. Lavina insisted her son drive the columnist home while she and her husband followed.
“Paul, who already wasn’t feeling well at the time, died later that evening of a heart attack,” Kirby wrote in a later column. “Lavina had spent some of the last hours with her husband making sure an incorrigible lout got home safely.”
Excommunicated? Kirby asked. “Give me a break. That’s the kind of person I fully expect will make it to heaven.”