Remembering D. Michael Quinn
My obituary for Yale Alumni Magazine on behalf of a giant in the field of Mormon history
Salt Lake Tribune file photo.
Obituary originally published for Yale Alumni Magazine:
Dennis Michael Quinn was an American historian specializing in Mormonism, widely recognized as one of the most influential scholars in the field.
Born in Pasadena on March 26, 1944, to a Mexican immigrant father and a mother who could trace her heritage back to the early years of Mormonism, Quinn was raised in Glendale, California. He earned his BA in English and philosophy at Brigham Young University in 1968, spending September 1963 to September 1965 as a missionary in England. After graduating, Quinn volunteered for three years during the Vietnam War, working with Military Intelligence from 1968 to 1971.
While tempted to study English, history proved to be his true calling. Following his service, Quinn completed his MA in history at the University of Utah (1973). Then, he achieved his PhD in history at Yale University (1976), completing a dissertation, “The Mormon Hierarchy, 1832–1932: An American Elite.” Following his graduation, Quinn joined the history faculty of Brigham Young University, serving from 1976 to 1988 and earning the rank of full professor.
Throughout his life, he researched and published on a wide array of topics on Mormonism, including the faith's early involvement in American magical traditions, the theocratic “Council of Fifty” organized near the end of Joseph Smith's life, the quiet practice of plural marriage by some Latter-day Saints following the official manifesto announcing its cessation, homosexuality and same-sex relations among Mormons, and the accumulation of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints’ formidable financial holdings. His body of work included J. Reuben Clark, The Church Years (1983), Early Mormonism and the Magic World View (1987, revised 2008), The Mormon Hierarchy: Origins of Power(1994), Same-Sex Dynamics Among Nineteenth-Century Americans: A Mormon Example(1996), The Mormon Hierarchy: Extensions of Power (1997), Elder Statesman: A Biography of J. Reuben Clark (2002), and The Mormon Hierarchy: Wealth & Corporate Power (2007).
He won the Mormon History Association's best book award twice (1984 and 1988), the John Whitmer Association Best Book Award (1988), and the American Historical Association’s Herbert Feis Award for the best book by an independent scholar (1997). As well as books, Quinn produced numerous journal articles for publications such as the American Historical Review, Journal of Mormon History, Utah Historical Quarterly, and Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought. He was awarded the annual Best Article award three times by the Mormon History Association and twice by the John Whitmer Association.
Despite being widely recognized as a leading voice in the historical study of Mormonism, much of Quinn’s career was full of controversy. From his earliest days at BYU, Quinn was criticized for his secular methodology and had the sincerity of his religiosity questioned by Church leaders and other faculty members. The subjects of his scholarly pursuits were another source of contention, as Quinn was drawn to researching areas that made many members of the LDS Church uncomfortable. In 1993, Quinn and five other notable intellectuals and feminists in the faith were publicly subjected to trials concerning their membership in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. All but one were excommunicated as a result, in an episode referred to as the “September Six.”
Quinn's personal life was also the source of pain. Though married and raising four children, Quinn had spent much of his life as a closeted gay man. According to Quinn, he was aware of his homosexuality since he was twelve but suppressed it. He met his future spouse, Janice Latham, while they were students at BYU and they were wed on June 20, 1967. Quinn described the marriage as loving but unhappy. The couple would divorce in 1985 and Quinn came out as gay in 1996.
Despite numerous attempts to secure full-time employment in the academy, Quinn spent his post-BYU years as an independent historian. Quinn received visiting appointments, including the Huntington Library, the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, Indiana University–Purdue University, The National Endowment for the Humanities, Claremont Graduate University, and the Beinecke Library at Yale University.
Widely recognized as one of the most influential figures in Mormon studies, Quinn received numerous awards honoring his service to Mormon history. He received a Service Award from One Institute and Archives through the University of Southern California in 2001. He was named a Distinguished Historian by the Organization of American Historians in 2004. In recognition of his service to the field of Mormon Studies, the Mormon Historical Association awarded him its highest honor, Leonard J. Arrington Award, in 2016. In 2018, he was awarded the Albert Nelson Marquis Lifetime Achievement Award. But Quinn’s most cherished award was when he was named Outstanding Teacher by BYU's graduating history majors in 1986.
Despite his excommunication, Quinn remained a devoted (albeit critical and even skeptical) believer in the Mormon tradition. In an interview with the Yale Alumni Magazine, Quinn stated: “I am quite orthodox in the nineteenth-century Mormon sense about Mormon faith planks. But in terms of twenty-first-century Mormonism, I am very radical. I don't believe Mormonism has all truth, that it's the one and only true church. I accept truth from whatever sources it comes, whether Darwin or Marx or whatever direction I find truth. That includes religion, whether it's Muhammad or Buddha.”
Quinn was discovered dead Wednesday at his home in Rancho Cucamonga, California, on April 21, 2021. He was 77 years old. He is survived by his children Mary, Lisa, and Harrison. His son Adam passed away in 1996.
At the news of his death, Mormon scholars have shared fond memories and high compliments to his life, work, and legacy. Mormon historian Patrick Q. Mason said of Quinn that “I'm not sure any person, other than maybe Leonard Arrington, will take more knowledge of Mormon history to the grave than did Michael Quinn today.” John G. Turner, author of Brigham Young: Pioneer Prophet, remembered him as a “gentle giant” and noted that while “not everyone accepted his conclusions, all scholars of Mormonism are in debt to his capricious mind and diligent research.” Benjamin E. Park, the author of Kingdom of Nauvoo, commented that “D. Michael Quinn was a historian's historian, an archive in himself who was at the center of the modern LDS story of faith and intellect. He will be missed.” Cristina Rosetti, who is currently working on a biography of Mormon fundamentalist leader Joseph W. Musser, remarked that Quinn “will be remembered as one of the greatest historians in the field of American Religious History, as well as one of the kindest and most generous scholars. He taught us to believe in the magic of the past, and in the magic of our own curiosities.”
Quinn’s research notes and personal papers are stored at the Beinecke Library at Yale University.