Davis Bitton: Gentle Mormon historian wasn't full of himself

Historians in the News

Davis Bitton passed away recently after a distinguished, even elegant, career as a historian/professor. He was 77. He grew up in Blackfoot, Idaho, but his super brain decreed that he should be educated at Princeton — where he came away with both a master's and a doctorate.

But for an erudite man, he was very gentle.

Shortly after he joined the University of Utah history faculty, I was assigned to be his graduate research assistant. I think I was the first one he ever had because he wasn't quite sure what to do with me — so he just sent me to pick up his cleaning and do other mundane chores.

I was impressed that he was not, unlike so many other professors, full of himself. He was soft-spoken, commented in a group only when he had something important to say — and he taught his classes the same way.

He gave me one piece of advice that was very strong, especially for him — he said, "Don't ever write Mormon history. It will be controversial, and Mormon history is so little regarded nationally that you'll never get a job."

Well, I knew that he already wrote Mormon history — even though he was trained as a European historian and wrote books in that specialty — so I asked him about it.

"I write Mormon history with my left hand," he said.

He meant that he would always keep that part of his scholarship low key. He wrote several path-breaking articles on Mormon history for Dialogue: Journal of Mormon Thought — I especially loved "Anti-intellectualism in Mormon History."

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