His Scholarship and Faith
Davis Bitton: His Scholarship and Faith*
James B. Allen
I feel honored to be asked to say a few words at the funeral
of a dear friend and deeply honored colleague. JoAn asked me to say something,
in particular, about Davis’s scholarly work. I am happy to do this, though
I can hardly do it justice in these short few minutes; but I would also like
to put it in a broader context, particularly the spiritual context that was
so important to Davis himself.
I will never forget the morning of May 10, 1972, when Davis and I were each
interviewed by Elder Alvin R. Dyer and received our official callings to be
Assistant Church Historians, under the leadership of Leonard Arrington. After
the interviews the three of us, along with Dean Jessee, met in Leonard’s office.
There Leonard offered a remarkable prayer of thanksgiving for the confidence
that had been placed in us, asking for the blessing of the Lord in fulfilling
the responsibilities we had been given. We all felt a wonderful exhilaration,
and Davis later wrote of that prayer: “My sense of privacy and aversion
to postured piety are sufficient that I will not include in this account [a
history of the 10 years in the historian’s office] the many examples of answers
to prayer. But perhaps it would be appropriate to share the tender experience,
after Jim’s and my appointments had been approved, of kneeling with Leonard
in a prayer of gratitude. We were historians, to be sure, but we were also
committed church members and saw the development as a wonderful opportunity
to combine the two.”1 And that was Davis—a fine scholar and just as fine a Saint.
It was in this spiritual context that I began to become more intimately acquainted
with Davis, whom I had known for several years and whose quick mind and remarkable
scholarship I had long admired. But in this capacity I became much more fully
aware of Davis’s true qualities—the things that made him both a remarkable
historian and an exemplary Latter-day Saint.
Over the years Davis authored or coauthored and edited over 20 books and
around 100 articles—mostly related to LDS history but also on modern
European history—and delivered scores of papers at scholarly conventions.
In reviewing Davis’s first book, The French Nobility in Crisis, 1560-1640,
Julian Dent wrote in the Renaissance Quarterly
that “this subject was long overdue for discussion by someone with Mr.
Bitton’s clarity of mind and powers of organization.”2 Those two expressions, “clarity
of mind” and “powers of organization,” only begin to characterize
the qualities that made Davis the remarkable person he was. Another reviewer
referred to Davis’s conclusions in the book as “wise and temperate”3—two more descriptions of what
those who knew him best saw in him.
There is no time here to review his many publications, but let me simply
note a few of his qualities that I admired most and that characterized him
as both a scholar and a Latter-day Saint. As a scholar he knew how to get
to the true essence of an issue quickly and clearly, as seen in the penetrating
interpretive analysis he always incorporated into his writing. He was a wonderful
critic. (I know, because he critiqued my work often.) He could review a colleague’s
article, or critique it in a conference, without rancor. He had great insight
into both the strengths and weaknesses of what he was reviewing and had a
way of making the point clearly and effectively but without a belittling attitude.
He was a marvelous wordsmith, able to write not only with insight but with
a flair that almost automatically created interest. A statement in this morning’s
issue of Meridian magazine (the popular LDS online magazine to which Davis often contributed)
reflects this trait: “Each article came in as a gem that needed no polishing,
a precious stone that reflected light. He sought to give a gift to our readers
of their history, and he managed to intrigue us all with sweet surprises from
our past and analysis we could count on.”4
He was thorough as an investigator and he held high the standard of truth.
He would not compromise his scholarship by hiding or ignoring important evidence,
even if it seemed to contradict his own perspective. But he also always said
that whatever he found in history could not affect his commitment to the greater
truths of the gospel. History was not the gospel. In 2004 he presented a paper
at a conference of FAIR (Foundation for Apologetic Information and Research)
with the provocative title “I Don’t Have a Testimony of the History of
the Church.” Explaining, he said,
In making this declaration, I have no need to deny that our church history
is peopled with many inspiring individuals. What they preached and taught
can be studied. In the course of enhancing my historical understanding I often
find reinforcement for my faith. But I uncouple the two—testimony and
history. I leave ample room for human perversity. I am not wed to any single,
simple version of the past. I leave room for new information and new interpretations.
My testimony is not dependent on scholars. My testimony in the eternal gospel
does not hang in the balance.5
He was a master at finding interesting and important topics to study and
write about. Even if others, at first sight, did not recognize the importance
of a topic, reading what Davis wrote changed their view. Davis did more than
just report facts. He could always find meaning in what he was writing about,
making his books and articles not only informative factually but also responsibly
interpretive, helping the reader see real value in the story he was telling.
He published in the well-known scholarly journals, but he was also happy
to publish in more limited LDS-oriented outlets such the FARMS Review and
the more popular online faith-oriented Meridian
magazine, as well as the FAIR Web site. His wonderful interpretive ability
can by illustrated in his own words by a few of the things he said in some
of his publications.
He ended his marvelous little book on the images of Joseph Smith with a commentary
on the nature of belief. He recognized that, simply as a historian
(that is, with all the trappings of scholarship and the need for irrefutable
evidence), he could hardly prove that Joseph Smith was truly a prophet. But,
in the end, he delivered powerful interpretations of the words of Joseph Smith,
then added some of his own:
When Joseph Smith said, “No man knows my history
. . . . ,” he was admitting that he had no way of
providing such irresistible evidence in his favor that all must accept it.
“Just wait and see,” he was saying. “You will know later who
I am.” . . . .
In essence, the Prophet says, God knows I am his
prophet and some day you too will know. In the meantime, if you will sincerely
pray to God, if you will put the teachings into your heart and life, confirmation
is available. . . .
Back in the
days before the corruption of our language, before the flattening of our reality
into a stark, naturalist, horizontal plane, there used to be a name for the
leap, the signing onto something magnificently demanding and all-encompassing,
the living out of something as if it were true, the growing conviction of
the reality of things hoped for, things unseen. It used to be called faith.6
As a scholar Davis was curious about many things: his work delved into the
gamut of historical studies and demonstrated a remarkably wide interest as
well as knowledge. He wrote intellectual history and once published a remarkable
article on anti-intellectualism in Mormon history. He also published a marvelous
article titled “The Ritualization of Mormon History” in which he
dealt with all the ways other than reading historical books and articles that Mormons learn, or don’t learn,
He often wrote on unique topics that few people would have the interest or
imagination to tackle, but that in his hands became important insights into
the past. In a coauthored article on the little-known topic of phrenology
among the Mormons, he described how the craze that captured many members of
the church in the nineteenth century appeared to be supported by scientific
evidence and saw a kind of revival early in the twentieth century, but was
never supported by church leaders. The last paragraph illustrates the kind
of positive assessment and important interpretation that characterized much
of Davis’s writing: “The refusal of Mormon leaders to subscribe to causes
and movements such as phrenology could have its disadvantages at times, for
they could seem to be unreceptive to the science and progressive causes of
their day. But in the final analysis such a reserved attitude prevented the
Mormon religion from becoming too closely linked with fads and contemporary
enthusiasms and was a source of strength.”8
Davis wrote biography. His work on a top church leader (George Q. Cannon)
as well his book on an ordinary Saint (a biography of John Pack, which I have
often held up as a model of how to write Mormon biography) are fine examples
of thorough scholarship and integrity. He was concerned about making sources
available to others. His Guide to Mormon Diaries and Autobiographies,
published in 1977, provided a remarkably valuable guide to 2,894 unpublished
sources available for research in various libraries. He liked political history,
as exemplified in his first published article on Mormon history, a 1957 article
on the struggle over seating B. H. Roberts in Congress. He delved into pioneer
history, literary history, social history, women’s history, natural history,
and many other specialized topics.
In 1979 he and Leonard Arrington coauthored The Mormon Experience,
a book written especially for non-Mormons. Published by Knopf, a major New
York publisher, it dealt topically with a variety of subjects in LDS history.
He wrote numerous insightful book reviews, including some very important ones
dealing with anti-Mormon works. He even published a little book called Wit
and Whimsy in Mormon History. It was filled with wonderfully humorous quotations
and stories from General Authorities and other early Latter-day Saints, as
well as curious situations that may not have seemed funny then but that provoke
a smile today. Realizing that a few things in the book might raise the eyebrows
of a few modern Saints, he wrote in his introduction:
But is it not disrespectful to find amusement in the sayings and activities
of previous generations when they did not intend them to be funny? Well, there
were some people even then who were amused by the same things that tickle
our fancy. Besides, it seems safe to say that there is plenty about our modern
life that our ancestors would find amusing. They would laugh at us, if they
had the chance, in the spirit of a loving parent chuckling at the foibles
of his children. In the same spirit, mingling affection and bemusement, we
are entitled to enjoy the past.9
Time permitting, we could go on and on about the scholarship of Davis Bitton.
But the important thing here is that, as much as anything, Davis was as fine
an example as could be found of someone who took seriously President Spencer
W. Kimball’s charge to LDS scholars that they must exemplify both impeccable
scholarship and unmistakable faith:
Your double heritage and dual concerns with the secular and the spiritual
require you to be “bilingual.” As LDS scholars you must speak with
authority and excellence to your professional colleagues in the language of
scholarship, and you must also be literate in the language of spiritual things.10
Davis did just that. He was a man of both scholarship and faith. As a result,
I am confident that he was always comforted by what he read in the book of
Alma about what happens at the time of death. Said Alma to his son Corianton:
Now, concerning the state of the soul between death
and the resurrection—Behold, it has been made known unto me by an angel,
that the spirits of all men, as soon as they are departed from this mortal
body, yea the spirits of all men, whether they be good or evil, are taken
home to that God who gave them life.
And then it shall
come to pass that the spirits of those who are righteous are received into
a state of happiness, which is called paradise, a state of rest, a state of
peace, where they shall rest from all their troubles and from all care and
sorrow. (Alma 40:11-12)
And I have a testimony that, with respect to Davis, we can accurately paraphrase
Alma this way: “Behold . . . as soon as Davis departed from the mortal
body . . . he was received into a state of happiness, which is called paradise,
a state of rest, a state of peace, where he is resting from all his troubles
and from all care and sorrow.” In fact, Davis anticipated this on paper—you
read it in his obituary where he said: “As you read this, I am having
a ball rejoining my parents and grandparents, uncles, aunts, cousins, and
dear friends and associates I knew on earth. I am wide awake, no longer struggling
with the narcolepsy that handicapped but did not defeat me, and cheerfully
taking in the new state of affairs and accepting the callings that will occupy
All who knew him knew that he had a deep and abiding testimony of the gospel
and of the atonement of Jesus Christ. I share that testimony.
* This is a slightly expanded version of a talk given
at the funeral of Davis Bitton, 17 April 2007, Salt Lake City, Utah.
1. Davis Bitton, “Ten Years in Camelot: A Personal Memoir,” Dialogue
16/3 (1983): 11.
2. Julian Dent,
review of The French Nobility in Crisis, 1560-1640, by Davis Bitton, Renaissance Quarterly 24/2 (1971): 244.
3. Raymond F. Kierstead,
review of The French Nobility in Crisis, 1560-1640, by Davis Bitton, Journal of Social History 5/3 (1972): 406.
4. Maurine and
Scot Proctor, “We Will Remember Our Friend, Davis Bitton,” Meridian, 17 April 2007; available online at www.ldsmag.com/historybits/070417friend.html
(accessed 7 May 2007).
5. This article
is reproduced in connection with the Meridian article cited above. It may also be found on the FAIR Web site, at www.fairlds.org/FAIR_Conferences/2004_I_Dont_Have_a_Testimony_of_the_History_of_the_Church.html
(accessed 9 May 2007) or in the FARMS Review 16/2 (2004): 337-54.
6. Davis Bitton,
Images of the Prophet Joseph Smith
(Salt Lake City: Aspen Books, 1996), 169-70.
7. “The Ritualization
of Mormon History” was first published in Utah Historical Quarterly
43/1 (1975): 67-85. It later appeared, in revised form, in Davis Bitton,
The Ritualization of Mormon History and Other Essays
(Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1994), 171-87.
8. Davis Bitton and Gary L. Bunker,
“Phrenology among the Mormons,” Dialogue 9/1 (1974): 58.
9. Davis Bitton, Wit and Whimsy
in Mormon History (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1974), ix.
10. Spencer W. Kimball, “Second
Century Address,” BYU Studies
16/4 (1976): 446.