Mormon mavericks mark milestone
By Peggy Fletcher Stack
The Salt Lake Tribune
Salt Lake Tribune
As a fresh-faced Mormon missionary in 1962, Ross Peterson had to
inform an African-American Air Force sergeant that neither he nor his
son could ever be ordained priests in the LDS Church they had just
joined. At the time, blacks were banned from the church's all-male
It was an agonizing moment for Peterson, whose deepest sympathies
lay with the burgeoning civil rights movement.
Six years after that night, Peterson discussed his dismay and
growing frustration over his church's priesthood ban with then-Idaho
Sen. Frank Church who offered this advice: "You won't change it if you
leave it. . . . Live your lives in such a way as to be examples for
equality, but never shirk from action."
Such dual loyalty to the LDS Church and to honest scholarship was
what spawned Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought 40 years ago, said
Peterson, a former editor, at a Salt Lake City dinner commemorating
its anniversary. And that is as true today as it was then.
In the past four decades, Dialogue has had nine editorial teams,
which have included almost as many women as men. It has published
scores of significant articles, including groundbreaking work on
blacks and the priesthood. It dedicated an entire issue to women's
stories, history and concerns, explored the church's positions on
evolution and looked candidly at Mormon scriptures and history. It set
the standard for all future independent Mormon publications.
Contributors would eventually include Dallin Oaks, then a law
professor at the University of Chicago (now an LDS apostle); Chase
Peterson, future president of the University of Utah; and Richard
Bushman, emeritus professor of history at Columbia University.
"Dialogue has been, over the last 40 years, a great gift to the
[LDS] Church," wrote Frances Menlove, one of the founders, in a recent
issue. "Dialogue has helped the church avoid the sin of
self-idolization, the temptation of certitude . . . [It] and a variety
of other unofficial publications are indispensable to the church's
A heady time: Mormon students at Stanford University launched
Dialogue in 1966 amid the era's optimism and idealism. G. Wesley
Johnson was writing his doctoral dissertation on modern European
history, Eugene England was pursuing a doctorate in English and
Menlove was completing her doctorate in psychology. Johnson, who had
been the editor of Harvard Lampoon during his undergraduate years, and
England, a charismatic teacher and leader among young Latter-day
Saints who died in 2001, became co-editors. They enlisted the help of
other Mormon students at prestigious colleges across the country.
The group modeled its new publication after The Paris Review,
maintaining a rigorous review policy to ensure quality. Though copies
were sent to LDS general authorities, the project had no official
connection to the church.
"This was the 1960s, civil disobedience was beginning and every
person who was the maverick was in the spotlight," Johnson, who lives
in Provo, said this week. "We were invited to be on TV and we
declined. Our goal was not to reform or criticize the church. We were
all active Mormons. We just wanted to provide a Mormon perspective on
the issues of the day."
The New York Times and Time magazine heralded Dialogue's launch.
Time said the journal was "the first unabashedly highbrow publication
in Mormon history."
The first issue included two pieces by non-Mormon scholars, an
essay by University of Utah political scientist J.D. Williams, who
reported that the Mormon hierarchy nearly endorsed the John Birch
Society, and an exploration of a civil-rights project in Tennessee.
"Cautious as such criticism is," the Time piece said, "it
represents something so unusual in Mormonism that one church leader
has ominously declared: Dialogue can't help but hurt the church."
Through the years, some critics agreed.
From 1993 to 1998, for example, Dialogue took up some particularly
sensitive topics, including what it deemed to be cases of
"ecclesiastical abuse" in which church leaders treated members in a
harsh, unfair way. It also used Mormon artist Trevor Southey's nudes
on several covers.
"We weren't really intending to be controversial," said Allen
Roberts, co-editor during those years with Martha Sonntag Bradley. "We
just wanted to deal with important subjects in a reasonable way."
The graying of Dialogue: The need for continued comment and action
is just as urgent today as it was 40 years ago, Peterson said at the
anniversary dinner Sept. 22.
The journal's approach to the priesthood issue set an important
Dialogue published a number of articles, examining the ban's
history as well as personal perspectives on its painful consequences
and critiques of the policy.
Finally, on June 9, 1978, LDS President Spencer W. Kimball
announced that The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints was
opening its priesthood to "all worthy male members . . . without
regard for race or color."
"Those brief, magnificent and long-awaited words cut, like a
blowtorch, the theological chain that choked the moral soul of the
church," said Peterson, now president of Deep Springs College in
California. "The organization could now move into a new era of
fulfillment of inclusive Christianity."
No one will ever fully know what prompted Kimball to seek divine
confirmation for the change, he said, but surely Dialogue "played a
role in creating an awareness of the problems, inconsistencies and
blatant discriminatory policy evolving toward a doctrine."
Since then, the journal has continued to probe important topics in
a timely and even-handed way.
For years, Dialogue focused attention on Mormon history, racism and
feminism, among other issues. It is now also looking at such
contemporary topics as the church's international growth,
homosexuality and fundamentalism.
Its readers are just as educated (fewer than 8 percent without
college degrees) and active in the church as ever (67 percent say they
go to church weekly), but their numbers are dwindling.
At the anniversary dinner, the gray-haired attendees far
outnumbered young participants.
Current editor Levi Peterson, a retired Weber State University
English professor, is well aware of the problem. He and the editorial
board are doing everything they can to attract younger writers and
readers. To that end, Dialogue has formed a partnership with a blog,
http://www.bycommonconsent.com. Its editors and writers regularly post
articles and their thoughts about contemporary issues on the site,
which draws thousands of readers and dozens of comments.
"Mormon blogs are where young people have gone," Peterson said from
his home in Washington. "It's where they get their intellectual
Unlike their predecessors at Dialogue, these bloggers reject terms
such as "liberal" and "feminist," he said. But the nature of their
discussions is inescapably "liberalizing."
And that has been Dialogue's goal from the beginning - to open
minds, debate, discussion and, ultimately, help build a more
thoughtful Mormon faith.
"A man need not relinquish his faith to be intellectually
respectable," England told Time in 1966, "nor his intellect to be
* PEGGY FLETCHER STACK can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org or
801-257-8725. To comment on this story, write