Laura Harris Hales, who turned her own quest for enlightenment on thorny issues faced by her church, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, into books and a podcast said to have been downloaded millions of times, died April 13 at her home in Kaysville. She was 54.
Her husband, Brian, said the cause was pancreatic cancer.
The Haleses maintained a website, Joseph Smith’s Polygamy, devoted to examining that contentious aspect of the history of the church and its 19th-century founder. In 2015, they co-wrote a book on the subject, “Joseph Smith’s Polygamy: Toward a Better Understanding.” In 2016, Hales compiled and edited “A Reason for Faith: Navigating LDS History and Doctrine,” a book of essays by church scholars whose chapters include “Race, the Priesthood and Temples,” “Joseph Smith’s Practice of Plural Marriage” and “Homosexuality and the Gospel.”
But Hales found an even bigger audience when, in 2017, she created the podcast “Latter-day Saint Perspectives,” which she recorded, edited and hosted. In 130 episodes, before she closed it out last year, the podcast brought on experts to talk about aspects of church history and doctrine.
Some of the episodes were light, such as one on Smith’s dog. But most took a serious look at topics that might be confusing or troubling to church members. “Homosexuality and the Gospel,” “The LDS Church and the Sugar Industry” and “A Global History of Blacks and Mormonism” were among the episode titles.
The church has long been criticized by outsiders and former members for aspects of its history, doctrine and culture. But Hales, a lifelong church member, approached the subjects from “a faithful but not necessarily devotional perspective,” as she put it in the podcast’s final episode, in May.
The approach apparently struck a chord. Her husband said that when she last checked the numbers, in 2020, the podcast had been downloaded 2.6 million times. He said she had built the podcast “from the ground up,” mastering the necessary technology, including editing out extraneous material to make the shows crisp.
“She told me her goal was to have ‘more ideas per minute than any other podcast’ in that genre,” he said by email.
Hales taught college classes and spoke at historical conferences, but she was self-deprecating about her podcasting skills.
“I have been the most unlikely of podcast hosts,” she said in that final episode. “Not only do I suffer from more social anxiety than average, but also my vocal talents are limited.”
“As a writer and podcaster, Laura Hales had the rare combination of being smart and personable, intellectual and approachable,” Patrick Mason, who holds the Leonard J. Arrington chair of Mormon history and culture at Utah State University and has written extensively on the church, said by email. “She demonstrated how to do deep dives into fraught subjects while remaining personally loyal to the church.
“Insatiably curious and a lifelong learner, she excelled at translating complicated issues for broad audiences.”
Laura Elizabeth Harris was born into a Latter-day Saint family Aug. 12, 1967, in Madison, Wisconsin. Her father, Alfred, was an agricultural engineer, and her mother, Margaret (Lewis) Harris, was a teacher.
The family lived in Wisconsin, Minnesota and Michigan while Laura was growing up. In 1988, she graduated from Brigham Young University with a bachelor’s degree in international relations. That same year, she married Brian Dursteler; the couple had five children before divorcing in 2005.
Hales earned two master’s degrees, in professional writing at New England College in New Hampshire in 2013 and in North American history at Arizona State University 2020. She and Brian Hales, who had already written several books on polygamy (a practice the mainstream church has not endorsed for more than a century), married in 2013.
She said the idea for her podcast arose in 2016 when a church member in Sweden, where she and her husband were presenting at a conference, complained to her that books on the church were hard to get hold of in that country, and that the only podcasts available were either antagonistic or overly devotional. “There is no middle ground,” the man told her, so she set about trying to provide one.
Hales took up many topics in her writing and on her podcast, but she dealt with polygamy so often that in 2015 she wrote an essay called “Why I Write About Polygamy” for The Millennial Star, a blog maintained by church members. In the essay, she mentioned that she and her husband had given a number of presentations on the subject.
“The most unanticipated question I have fielded in these forums is why I feel a need to defend polygamy,” she wrote. “Perhaps it is because I don’t see my work as a defense of polygamy so much as an effort to help more people better understand the history of polygamy.”
In an interview last year with From the Desk, a website devoted to church matters, Hales talked about her interest in learning more about the women of the plural-wives era.
“There is a need for a broader discussion of 19th-century Latter-day Saint women who cry out for identities beyond a wife number or an age,” she said. “Filtering their lives only through their relationships to their husbands does little to resolve the silences of women’s history.”
In addition to her husband, Hales is survived by her mother; her brothers, Jon, Kendall, Dave, Rob and Brian Harris; her sisters, Meg Butler and Shauna Mitchell; her children from her first marriage, Greg Dursteler, Amy Le, Sarah Hatch, Ethan Dursteler and Kevin Dursteler; and eight grandchildren.
Brian Hales said his wife, drawing on his research, wrote all the biographies of Smith’s wives that are on their website.
“Even though she wrote and presented a great deal on the subject of polygamy,” he said, “I don’t think she ever was comfortable with the idea (or practice) and never defended it or any of the teachings associated with it.”