The LDS intellectual community will celebrate 40 years of independent scholarly publication tonight as some 300 supporters gather at the Grand America Hotel to laud Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought. In the process, they hope to shatter some lingering perceptions about the publication among conservative Latter-day Saints.
Co-founded at Stanford University by G. Wesley Johnson and the late Eugene England after preliminary discussions in 1965, the publication has grown to both a hard-copy and an online presence, including a free public archive in the University of Utah's J. Willard Marriott Library digital collection dialoguejournal.com/search/.
Johnson said Dialogue has become a well-respected source of information about issues affecting The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in the scholarly world and is often referenced in other peer-reviewed journals both nationally and abroad. "It's a reliable source they can quote, and I think that's an accomplishment." I think we're definitely pioneers in independent publication" within the LDS community.
Before Dialogue was published, the only other reliable source for timely information about the faith was the church's own "Improvement Era," which contained little regarding wider social issues or problems in LDS society. "Given the context of the times, (such discussion) was becoming increasingly important, as the Civil Rights movement, the Vietnam War and feminism were all percolating," he said.
People of other faiths were producing independent journals to mull those issues, and Johnson saw no reason that Latter-day Saints shouldn't be doing the same.
Yet the founders and their supporters including Richard Bushman, Stan Cazier, Dallin Oaks, Chase Peterson, Cherry Silver and Laurel Ulrich had to fight the widespread belief at the time that such an enterprise would be "anti-Mormon" because it wasn't published or sanctioned by the church. "We said that's a fallacy."
"The first couple of years were pretty rocky," said Johnson, as many were suspicious of their activities. "Almost everyone on staff was a returned missionary. These were people who loved the church but felt it could be well-served" through an independent publication.
In fact, the founders and the majority of those who have since edited Dialogue or served as board members have been active Latter-day Saints, most of them studying at prestigious graduate schools. England was particularly interested in theology, and Johnson was a historian looking at how LDS society was changing over time. They incorporated both into the new journal, and over time it grew to include poetry and artwork produced by Latter-day Saints.
Concerned that some might form negative impressions without actually seeing their product, the two sent copies of the first several issues to all the LDS general authorities at the time. "We talked to several who cautioned us that it might be delicate, and others who suggested it might be useful. We never received, at any time, an order that we cease and desist. We had counsel but we never had anyone threaten us." It was a bold enough move at the time that both Time magazine and The New York Times did stories about the venture. "The publicity did help us but we never sought it out. They came to us." The journal was founded on a classic academic, peer-review format because "we wanted it in all the libraries across the country," and many subscribed early on including some of the nation's most prestigious university libraries.
Molly Bennion, former board president and board member, said the journal has always been committed to "the search for truth ... very wide-ranging in the nature of what we are willing to publish as long as it is responsible."
As a convert to the church, she found it on the shelves of the Harvard Library and "it was one of the reasons I joined. I believed if there were people like me who wanted to search responsibly for truth anywhere, it could be a comfortable place for me." She's been involved ever since, "and my church leaders have always known that. There were some who looked askance, but many more who have been supportive of what I'm doing some of them subscribers." Bennion routinely offers copies to those who are skeptical, and most often they return to tell her how much they like it. She sees the journal's influence growing among scholars, outside the faith in particular, now that they can find it online. While there are 1,800 to 2,000 active subscribers to the print edition, she hopes to see it become more widely distributed."I think the Internet will be the key. There are young scholars out there, and we knew we had to get online for them to see us, and it's happening."