By Scott Kenney
I WAS RAISED in a faithful LDS home on Salt Lake City’s east side—a sixth generation Mormon on both sides, including Utah pioneer and polygamist ancestors.
My father’s folks were farmers and cattle ranchers living in and around Cedar City, so I had little contact with them. But I did know they were staunch Republicans and straight-arrow Latter-day Saints.
My mother’s family, on the other hand, lived in Salt Lake and were liberal Democrats. Grandfather E. E. Ericksen earned a PhD in philosophy and economics at the University of Chicago and began his academic career as principal of the Church’s Murdock Academy in Beaver, Utah in 1912. In 1915 he was hired as a professor of philosophy at the University of Utah and in 1918 completed his dissertation, “The Psychological and Ethical Aspects of Mormon Group Life.” It was published in 1922, the same year he was called to the board of the Young Men’s Mutual Improvement Association. He served on the board for sixteen years; Grandmother Edna Clark Ericksen served on the Primary board for nearly twenty.
Which helps explain why I have never regarded philosophy and critical thinking as incompatible with Church service.
In the mid-sixties, I served a two-year mission to New England, Assistant to the Twelve Boyd K. Packer presiding. For the last thirteen months of my mission, I consulted with him daily, first as mission secretary, then as public relations director, and finally as assistant to the president.
Returning to the University of Utah, I attended Reed Durham’s advanced classes in Church history at the Institute of Religion. An enthusiastic, charismatic teacher with a delightful sense of humor, Durham discussed such subjects as First Vision variants, the social context of the Word of Wisdom, and higher criticism of the Old Testament. Coming from a place of faith in the gospel and in the Church, he inoculated me against the disillusionment experienced by many in recent years.
In 1972 I completed a master’s degree in musicology and decided I wanted to be an Institute teacher like Reed Durham. Eager to broaden my exposure to religious studies, I enrolled at the Graduate Theological Union (GTU) in Berkeley, immersing myself in the writings of church fathers, scholastics, reformers, and above all, American theologians of the eighteenth, nineteenth, and early twentieth centuries.
The mid-seventies were an exciting time to be alive. Technically, the sixties were over, but their spirit lived on until the resignation of Richard Nixon (1974) and the fall of Saigon (1975). During my years in Berkeley, students rallied against the war, sexism, and racism; against “authorities,” “the establishment,” and corporate America. The counterculture of “drugs, sex, and rock and roll” scared the dickens out of parents—and with good reason, for a genuine cultural revolution was under way.
Mormons were generally aghast, but I think younger Mormons sensed the changes were not all bad. A new generation had an opportunity to re-think old assumptions and make their own mark on the Church.
During summer break in 1973, I returned home and visited the student branch I had attended during my years at the University of Utah. Peggy Fletcher (Stack) was teaching the Gospel Doctrine class—not from the manual, as I recall. We began corresponding in the spring, and in the summer of 1974, I returned to her class. Also attending, to my surprise, was Keith Norman, a fellow New England missionary. Then to my great surprise, I learned that he was attending Harvard Divinity School. I had thought I was the only Mormon in a theological school. Now there were two of us!
We were having the times of our lives, but Keith had little time to compare notes that day, so we agreed to write and share our experiences with each other and like-minded friends. In late August I wrote him,
I have been thinking of the best way to set up a communications network. This may sound far-fetched to you, but here’s my idea: a collaborative publication to come out at least four times a year . . . with a rather unstructured (at least to begin with) format consisting primarily of short articles on any Mormon-related subject . . . Special editions of longer papers could be printed and distributed as finances allow and scholarship warrants.
I envisioned an experimental journal by and for graduate students and young professionals who were too intimidated by Dialogue’s high academic and literary standards to venture into that arena, but nevertheless had exciting experiences to share. It was incredibly naïve, and completely unworkable.
Nevertheless, in early September, Peggy and I met with five friends and acquaintances to discuss the idea. Everyone was interested, but none of us had published, we had no business experience (and arguably no common sense), and we had no money.
For Christmas of 1973 Susan Hobson (Kenney) had given me a hand-made Mormon history calendar featuring photos from the Church Archives. We thought there might be commercial value in a Mormon history calendar. Mormons love their history and we would have a large, untapped market. It could bring in money and build the Sunstone Foundation’s brand as well.
On the other hand, it was late in the season and we couldn’t produce a 1974 calendar until late December. We would have to rely on an untested network of friends and families. It was a high-stakes gamble.
Berkeley friends loaned us enough to print 2,000 copies. When fall term ended, I returned home to organize a sales force with Susan and Peggy in Salt Lake. At BYU, Peggy and I met Kris Cassity, a bright, affable undergraduate who spread the word and garnered effective support from his peers.
Maria Humphrey (Sanchez) headed up the Berkeley contingent, and as soon as the calendar came off the press, she drove them through a blinding snowstorm to Salt Lake, arriving a few days before Christmas.
I set up a table in front of Albertson’s at Foothill Village. It was freezing cold, but one woman took particular interest. She left and in a few minutes came back with her husband, Eugene England, co-founder of Dialogue and one of my personal heroes. That Sunday he spoke encouragingly to Sunstone Foundation supporters at my parents’ home, giving us a big morale boost.
Sales went surprisingly well. By May 1975 we had disposed of over 1,500 calendars and had $1,786. We had been collecting mailing lists from various sources, but it was Dialogue’s 5,000-name list and later, Exponent II’s, that gave us a start. Peggy and I typed the names and addresses onto labels and took batches of the prospectus to the post office every few days. In the end, we earned enough $10 subscriptions ($7 for students) to cover the first issue and a few hundred dollars for marketing.
In the summer of 1974, I met Maureen Ursenbach (Beecher), an editor at the Church Historical Department, who introduced me to Jill Mulvay (Derr) and a few days later, to Church Historian Leonard Arrington and other members of the department. Jill and Maureen would write articles on women in Church history, and Assistant Church Historian Davis Bitton would produce the light-hearted “‘These Licentious Days’: Dancing Among the Mormons” for the fifth issue.
Meanwhile, in the fall of 1974, Elizabeth Shaw (Smith), joined the team. Liz was working for Hewlett Packard in Palo Alto when she, Sandy Balliff, and their friends sold scores of calendars in Palo Alto in the winter of 1974–1975. She was the Foundation’s executive secretary for seven of the first eight issues and was the issue editor of the fifth issue. A book editor at BYU Press from 1975–77, she joined the Ensign staff in 1978. The Ensign asked her to resign from Sunstoneat that time.
In January 1975, Peggy Fletcher (Stack) began her work in art and religion at GTU and for the next twelve years she and Sunstone would become virtually synonymous. Without her writing, editing, and social skills—and above all her irrepressible enthusiasm—the Sunstone Foundation could never have been born. Peggy edited the second issue and became co-publisher/editor with Allen Roberts in 1978.
For content, we relied more on the young State Historical Architect, Allen Roberts, than any other. His article on Mormon stained glass windows with photos by Duane Powell gave the first issue a stunning cover and full-color interior images. In 1976–1978 we published four more Roberts articles on pioneer architects and their works, one by Bill Slaughter and Randall Dixon on pioneer photographers, and two photo essays.
Orson Scott Card, a BYU Studies book editor, followed Liz Shaw to the Ensign. In the spring of 1975 they joined Sunstone’s first board of directors. Scott secured Robert Elliott’s soul-searching play, Fires of the Mind, for the first issue and wrote theater reviews and humor for five of the first eleven issues. We published Card’s musical Father, Mother, Mother, and Mom in the sixth issue of Sunstone magazine.
In the spring of 1975, I completed my GTU coursework and returned to Salt Lake to prepare for my comprehensive exams and dissertation (never written). I had been a research assistant for Truman Madsen the previous summer, and in 1975 Leonard Arrington offered me a summer fellowship in the Church Historical Department. It was a dream come true. I became fast friends with another fellow, David Whittaker, and his wife, Linda. And I enjoyed frequent interactions with Leonard, Ron Esplin, Maureen, and Ron Walker, all friends highly valued.
The first issue of Sunstone was released in November 1975. With a stunning cover shot of the 17th Ward’s stained glass window of the First Vision, and full color views from three other chapels. We felt that this first issue set a high standard for subsequent issues.
I had always conceived of Sunstone as a collaborative effort, and for the first eleven issues we muddled through on that basis. I was the editor of the first issue, Peggy the second, Kris Cassity the third, Norman Mecham the fourth, Liz Shaw the fifth, and so on, but in reality we all worked together.
In the spring of 1976, I rejoined the Utah Symphony, but since the season did not begin until September, I took advantage of an opportunity to tour Italy with a student orchestra from North Carolina. When I returned in August, with Liz’s third issue almost ready for press and several articles lined up for the fourth, I officially resigned from the Sunstone Foundation.
Unfortunately, by October it was obvious that the reorganization wasn’t working. I loaned the organization $500 and returned to Sunstone as publisher. Liz Shaw had prepared a wonderful fifth issue (my personal favorite) featuring eighteen paintings by contemporary Mormon artists in full color plus photos of sculptures by five others. It was published in the spring of 1977.
Scott Card persuaded us to change the format from a quarterly journal to a magazine beginning with the summer issue. It was more consistent with the content we were generating and gave Sunstone a distinctive look and feel. Though his name does not appear on the masthead, Scott was the editor of this first magazine-style issue.
With each issue, we were falling further behind in our schedule, the renewal rate was not keeping up with expenses, Scott and Liz had to resign, and I was burning out. So when Kevin Barnhurst offered to fold his New Messenger & Advocate into Sunstone, we readily agreed. He had a small readership, but he had developed news and current events columns that seemed to be a good fit with the magazine format. Kevin edited the November–December 1977 and January–February 1978 issues, but, partly due to inadequate funding, they lacked the luster of previous issues; and most of the articles—Peggy’s interview with her uncle Robert Bennett, a Nixon operative, excepted—were not of the caliber Sunstone readers had come to expect.
We began to recover with the March–April 1978 issue thanks to D. Michael Quinn’s article on the distinctive qualities of Kirtland, and Karl C. Sandberg’s extended poem about the demise of early Mormon settlements. We also began regular columns for news and current events.
With the May–June issue, featuring Jane Dillenberger’s “Mormonism and American Religious Art” in full color, Peggy’s report on BYU’s first Religious Studies Symposium, and my essay on LDS students in divinity schools, we got back in the swing of things.
In late May, Susan gave birth to our first child, Meghan, and we needed more time together. Susan had begun teaching music education at BYU (a thirty-seven year career). In addition to my symphony job, I had signed on as an independent contractor with the Church’s scripture translation department. And sensing that the “Camelot” days of the Church Historical Department were numbered, I felt duty-bound to research as much and as fast as I could.
So the July–August 1978 issue was my last. It included Janet Brigham’s timely article on the revelation lifting the ban on ordaining black males to the priesthood; my “E. E. Ericksen: Loyal Heretic;” news, updates, and liberation theology; Allen Roberts’ article on the Spring City endowment house; Scott Card’s “On Art, Morals, and Morality” and a review under his pseudonym of Bliss and Gump.
For an all-volunteer, often transient staff constantly struggling for content and funding, Sunstone had come a long way. I was burned out and had to get away.
Faced with its imminent demise, Peggy Fletcher and Allen Roberts stepped up and took responsibility for the foundation. They breathed new life into the magazine and launched the annual Sunstone Symposium, which heightened public awareness, helped bring in articles, and, above all, created and sustained a community of open-minded, forward-looking Mormons for two generations.
I left the symphony in 1980 and worked briefly for the Church’s scripture translation department before founding Signature Books with George D. Smith in 1981. Of the eleven members of the combined board of directors and editors, seven had been Sunstone staff members and/or authors: Lavina Fielding Anderson, Maureen Ursenbach Beecher, Davis Bitton, Orson Scott Card, D. Michael Quinn, Allen Roberts, and Richard S. Van Wagoner. With others, I transcribed the nine-volume Wilford Woodruff Journal.
In 1985, I changed careers to become sculptor Dennis Smith’s agent and business manager. In 1992 I switched again, becoming a technical writer/editor for WordPerfect and other software companies.
In 1991, the Smith-Pettit Foundation approached me about writing the second of a three-volume biography of Joseph Smith for Signature Books, focusing on the Ohio/Missouri years. I felt unqualified but was honored to be invited to join Richard S. Van Wagoner (the New England/New York years), and Martha Sonntag Bradley (the Nauvoo years), and could not resist the opportunity.
However, working in a stressful software development environment, I made little progress until retiring in 2005. For the next four years, I worked full-time on the project but was unable to produce a draft that entirely satisfied my expectations. Smith-Pettit subsequently engaged Devery S. Anderson to help with revisions and turn it into a publishable manuscript, scheduled for completion in the near future.
Estrangement and Reconciliation
For fifteen of the eighteen years since my mission, I was a Gospel Doctrine or elders quorum teacher. Then in 1985, I found I had nothing left to give and stopped attending church.
In May 1993 I wrote a few friends, mostly from Sunstone’s past, opining that we should leave the Church alone and take responsibility for our own spirituality. We began meeting once a month for dinner and conversation (and continue to do so to this day). Then, in September, five intellectuals were excommunicated and one disfellowshipped—all but one were Sunstone participants. Paradoxically, just when I was ready to leave the Church to its own devices, I was pulled back in to protest the suppression of intellectual inquiry and personal experience. I was particularly offended by the excommunications of Lavina Fielding Anderson and D. Michael Quinn. An extra twist was that it had been my mission president who orchestrated the whole matter though he refused to take responsibility for it.
Rethinking my relationship to the Church, I faced up to the fact that I had long ago given up on the Church’s fundamental truth claims, but until now had had no reason to resign. Susan and I had two vulnerable teenage girls and we lived in Utah Valley. What would be the impact on them if I formally withdrew? If I remained, what would be the impact when they realized I had not been true to my convictions?
Twenty years later, if I had to do it all over again, I would not resign. It was a selfish act, not worth the pain I inflicted on my father and my children. (Though disappointed, Susan understood.) A year ago I began to attend meetings with her again. I mind my manners and no longer feel a need to “correct” or “enlighten” the Sunday School teacher (well, most of the time). I enjoy the company of ward members and it seems to be mutual. I am at home.
For my personal pleasure, I have turned to gardening flowers—a restorative occupation I highly recommend. Last year I distributed over two hundred bouquets to ward members and others. This year I am on track for three to four hundred. I also volunteer at a nearby elementary school for two days a week and love every moment of it. With a loving wife, two daughters, and three grandchildren, mine is a truly blessed life.