Four Amazing Years

By Susan Staker

Susan-StakerI first met Peggy Fletcher (Stack) when we were both working in the Church Historian’s office in the late 70s, but soon I was casting about for a part-time job, preferably one where I could continue to write/edit and pursue my growing interest in Mormon studies. I had two small children at the time and didn’t want a full-time job. By wondrous luck I ended up landing at the Sunstone Foundation as their first “employee” (in early 1979). Peggy was co-editor with Allen Roberts working out of Allen’s architecture office in west Capitol Hill though we soon moved to Hotel Newhouse and then to the Bennett Glass and Paint Building.

I more or less took over the everyday work of editing while Peggy spent her time networking—to find articles to publish and to find money. She was always at the Bennett building. We used to laugh that she lived on diet Dr. Pepper (the old blue can). I was a co-lover of the stuff but my consumption paled next to hers.

Peggy was fearless in pursuing the lofty goals she set for herself and the magazine. She raised the prestige of the magazine when she landed Thomas Alexander’s fine essay “The Reconstruction of Mormon Doctrine.” It’s one of the classics in Mormon history and had a profound impact on my own view of Mormon history and faith.

One day, Peggy gave a twenty-plus-page paper to me to edit; it was from George Smith, who was a prospective donor as well as a writer. When I was finished, the paper was well under ten pages (I was already honing skills that won me the nickname Susan Scissorhands). Both of us were concerned about how George might respond to the edit, not wanting to alienate him. But finally Peggy said that we should just give him the edit. I admired her for that decision. And I admired George for his response—he loved the edit. That was the beginning of a long personal and professional relationship with him (when I left Sunstone I went to work for Signature Books).

Peggy also secured funds for a fiction contest, which brought in many fine submissions. One of my favorite winners was a story by Phyllis Barber about a ward organist. We pursued poets, personal essayists, and cartoonists. I still have an autographed original of a Calvin Grondahl cartoon on my office wall.

We also began to pursue news stories more aggressively. Lorie Winder (Stromberg) and Peggy heard through the grapevine that the Church had received and was holding back an early document that seemed to ordain Joseph Smith III to be Joseph Smith Jr.’s successor. We had a lot of back and forth at the office before we decided to write about the document, a controversial decision at the time, and one that apparently raised Sunstone on the Church’s radar.

When the next symposium came around we began hearing about folks getting pressure to back away from Sunstone. Peggy addressed this by simply calling a very high-ranking general authority on the phone. (She had a lot of connections.) She told him about Sunstone, about our love for the Church, our good intentions, and our desire to help Mormons remain within the community of faith. We all felt very excited about that conversation.

But troubling events continued to happen. In 1981 Boyd K. Packer gave a now infamous speech called “The Mantle is Far, Far Greater than the Intellect” where he insisted that the Church’s history should always be presented through a faithful lens.

“So much of what excited me about coming to Utah, and in a very real sense consecrating my talents along with my husband to the Church, was seeing what was happening in the History Division,” I wrote in my journal soon after the speech.

The openness. It was beautiful and it means so much to me. And to see it all be squished. Where is the place for me? Sometimes I feel that so strongly I just want to run. Brother Hinckley in his talk to the women’s conference the week before conference talked about criticism of the brethren. He made it very clear that the brethren do not need any criticism whatsoever. I just don’t believe anyone can work creatively without feedback and criticism. I just can’t make sense of a world view which expresses itself that way.

The controversy finally landed on Sunstone’s doorstep when D. Michael Quinn gave a speech at BYU in response to Packer’s sermon. Peggy and I attended the speech and Michael told us we could publish it if we wanted to. According to my journal:

He told something about his own background, why he had become a historian—which was for very personal and religious reasons. In a sense he feels very strongly that he has a calling to that profession and has always been very prayerful about what he should do, offering God to stop at any critical juncture where he has become involved in controversial areas but always getting what he felt was a spiritual confirmation to go on.

He then, in a very point blank, overt, no holds barred manner began to refute Benson and Packer and Midgley point by point. [. . .] He gave a very eloquent defense of the kind of honest, straight-forward history which he has written. [. . .] He was very emotional by the time he finished the speech and couldn’t read the last few lines, which were quotations from the song “O Thou Rock of Our Salvation.” In fact, he had to ask me to read the last few lines because he couldn’t finish.

We immediately started agonizing over whether we should publish the speech. What would happen? People in the historian’s office and at BYU were concerned about the fallout and Peggy had a line of people offering advice about the speech for weeks. Peggy reached out to that same high-ranking GA again. We talked again and again to Quinn. In the end, we didn’t publish the speech. I continued at Sunstone for the next year but left to attend graduate school. Looking back, the trauma around that speech was a catalyst in the journey that eventually led me to distance myself from the Church.

Peggy was then and still is a friend, a generous mentor, and an inspiration to me in many ways. I made lifelong friends in the Sunstone trenches. I became the person I am partially because of those four amazing years.