Among Mormon History nerds, “Camelot” refers to the period of time in the 1970s and early 1980s when Leonard Arrington served as Church Historian. It is traditional to look back on it as a Golden Age that was tragically lost. To be sure, Arrington’s tenure as Church Historian was a heady period of open access to sources, institutional support for Mormon historians, and daring young-turk researchers producing thrilling task papers on subjects like “Andrew Kimball and the Indian Territory Mission” and “The Mutual Improvement Association : a preliminary history, 1900-1950.” The end of Camelot, according to the traditional story of events, was the beginning of the dark ages in Mormon studies. Arrington and his knights of the round table were sent packing to the Joseph Fielding Smith Institute at BYU, and access to the archives was severely cut back.
There is some real truth to the traditional story of “Camelot” and its fall had a certain tragic element. I wish that researchers had more access to materials in the Church Archives. (Although truth be known, there is much more access today than many a pessimistic dabbler in Mormon history assumes.) Still, at the end of the day, I think that killing off Camelot was a good idea. The problem comes precisely because with the increasing sophistication of the work of Arrington and others, the Church qua Church would have been required to take positions on particular issues of scholarly interpretation. Yet it seems to me that this is precisely what we don’t want. I really don’t want an official Church interpretation of Mountain Meadows, or — on a more pedestrian level — the relative merits of economic or ideological explanations for the failure of this or that 19th century Mormon communitarian endeavor. To be sure, one can work for the Church without producing history that is in some sense “official.” And it is nice that the Church puts resources behind the study of Mormon history — like building the new Church History Library or supporting the perennially delayed Joseph Smith Papers Project. I am not against involving the Church institutionally at some level in Mormon studies. On the other hand, the idea that the best and the brightest Mormon historians ought to be having their arguments within the confines of the Church Office Building strikes me as a bad idea.