My Sunstone Experience

Allen D. Roberts

Whenever anyone hears that I was once involved with the Sunstone Foundation, they usually ask one or both of these questions: “What did you do for Sunstone?” and “What did Sunstone do for (or to) you?” One question that I have often asked myself is, “What impact has Sunstone had on the Church, its leaders, members, and the larger world?” I’ll use the bulk of this essay to answer the first two questions, and then I’ll muse a bit on the third.

Preparing to Embrace Sunstone

My early life prepared me well for the moment I learned about and immediately embraced Sunstone. I was born and mostly raised in Milwaukee where stake missionaries found my Utah-born, history-loving father, reactivated him and then converted my Sicilian, Catholic-raised mother. Thus, from age six I attended and enjoyed religious activities in the Milwaukee Ward, held in its beautiful 1933-built, Elizabethan Revival-styled meetinghouse.

During all four years of high school (two years in California and two in Wisconsin), I was part of the four-person varsity debate team, an experience that instilled in me an interest in applying sound evidence, logic, and clear communication toward the pursuit of truth. The high point of my senior year was a state debate tournament where my partner and I beat the number-one team in Wisconsin.

During the same four years, I eagerly attended early morning seminary, and at age seventeen won a church history and gospel knowledge contest, competing against both the Aaronic and Melchizedek priesthood holders in the Milwaukee Stake. That same year, at the request of Presiding Bishop John H. Vandenberg, I gave a speech to 3,500 young men in the BYU Smith Fieldhouse as part of the LDS Explorer Conference. I loved my religion and wove it into all my life’s experiences.

I prepared to serve a mission by reading all the church books I could find. I read the Book of Mormon three times, and memorized all six of the missionary “discussions” and associated scriptures before entering the mission field. After serving a successful mission in southern California and Arizona from 1967–1969, I obtained an art degree from BYU with the help of a Marion D. Hanks Scholarship and then moved to the University of Utah to study architecture and philosophy.

While at BYU, and following the unfathomable (to me) demolition of the architecturally superlative Coalville Tabernacle, I joined Cornerstone, a small group of Mormon preservationists, among them Paul and Sharon Swenson, Maureen and Dale Ursenbach, Paul and Lavina Anderson, and Bevin Chipman. This was my first introduction to the world of Mormon historians and intellectuals. I liked these people and I liked the way our conversations led me into deeper levels of thinking. I yearned for more.

After marrying and moving to the historic Capitol Hill neighborhood in Salt Lake City, I was called to serve in two bishoprics and then in the Salt Lake Stake high council. I was still in my late-twenties, and to say that I was an orthodox believer would be an understatement. My strong belief, combined with my intellectual inquisitiveness, fueled my interest in Mormon history, theology, politics, architecture, and culture. This led to my attending the annual conferences of the Mormon History Association starting in 1974, and in the same year, joining the staff of the Utah State Historical Society as its architectural historian and historical architect. Through these associations, I became acquainted with Utah’s Mormon historians and its leading secular historians and authors. While being immersed in this increasingly stimulating milieu, I was introduced to Sunstone.

Sunstone's first office was in a back room at Allen Roberts' architectural offices located at 244 West 300 North in Salt Lake City.
Sunstone’s first office was in a back room at Allen Roberts’ architectural offices located at 244 West 300 North in Salt Lake City.
Period One:
Joining Up, Board Service, and My Early Writing

I think of my time with Sunstone as having occurred in three periods. The first started in late 1974 or early 1975 when Peggy Fletcher (Stack) came to the State Historical Society, then housed in the historic Kearns Mansion (now the Governor’s Mansion), searching for photos for the group’s Mormon history calendar. She told me about the Sunstone Foundation as I assisted her and I was immediately fascinated by the idea. Probably after a bit of persuasion on Peggy’s part (she was very good at it), I offered to help. A little later that day, Peggy curled up on a cushioned window-seat in the top-floor ballroom of the mansion and fell asleep. “What kind of people are these?” I thought.

Joining Sunstone was a natural response for me. I was attracted partly to the concept itself, but also to Scott and Peggy’s personalities. I admired Scott’s scholarly, intellectual approach to understanding Mormonism and Peggy’s networking acumen, ecumenical outreach, and inexhaustible energy (despite subsisting almost entirely on diet Dr. Pepper). The fact that they had been students at Graduate Theological Union (GTU) impressed me even more and soon I became a member of Sunstone’s board of directors, participating in meetings with an exciting group of enthusiastic, like-minded new friends.

The people I remember best from this early core group are Liz Shaw, Chris Cassity, Orson Scott Card, and Jill Mulvay. We had in common a spiritual hunger and a desire for greater and more meaningful participation in our religion and its culture. I thought of Sunstone magazine as an enhancement or enrichment of religious life rather than as a vehicle for influence or reform. I think we saw it as a forum where younger writers and researchers especially could publish their work on a wide variety of subjects. But it didn’t take long to attract serious works from well-established academics and independent scholars, including many of the top names in Mormon history, arts, social sciences, fiction, and poetry. Many of our authors were employed by BYU and the Church Education System, including seminary and institute teachers and members of the Church History Department staff. Among our eventual subscribers were general authorities of the Church.

Excited at the possibility of starting a new Mormon studies and culture magazine, I began to recruit friends and family to the effort, including my former BYU roommate Craig Call (who became the foundation’s first business manager), my brother Jayare and his wife Donna (early staff members), ward friends Vince Iturbe and Sharon Merriam, and later Warren Archer, who became our graphic designer.

Most of us involved in Sunstone were eager to have the magazine publish our own writings; I suspect it was the first place some of us were published. I had only recently begun researching and writing, initially focusing on historic Mormon architecture. After the Coalville Tabernacle’s demolition had motivated me to pursue a career in architecture, I spent my free time from 1971–74 driving to literally every city, town, and village in Utah, researching, photographing, and writing histories of all the historic Mormon buildings I could find. After seeing me in the Church and state archives several times, Church Historian Leonard Arrington arranged for me to receive a scholarship to print my limited-edition publication: “A Survey of Mormon Architecture in Utah: 1847–1930.” It was followed by my first article, “Religious Architecture of the LDS Church: Influences and Changes since 1847,” published in the Summer 1975 volume of the Utah Historical Quarterly. Unknowingly, I was being primed for Sunstone.

Sunstone’s first issue featured my article “Art Glass Windows in Mormon Architecture” on the cover. In the second and third issues we published my two-part piece “Utah’s Unknown Pioneer Architects: Their Lives and Works.” To give you a sense of Sunstone’s enduring impact on my life, thirty-eight years later I still find myself building on these articles as I write my current book, Brigham’s Architects: Utah’s Pioneer Architect-builders and their Works, 1847–1877.

We used a 6-by-9-inch, journal-sized format for the first four issues and the graphic design was of high quality. The contents included everything from articles and essays to short stories, poems, reviews, art pieces, letters to the editor, and even plays. I don’t recall us ever getting together to create a vision or mission statement, although Scott’s inaugural editorial served that purpose well. I think that everyone had his or her own idea of what Sunstonecould and should become. I saw it as a needed, independent vehicle for providing a fresh religious perspective on scholarship, art, culture, and social commentary.

Sunstone was searching for an identity, trying to find its literary and artistic soul. It was a set of ideas in search of a tangible form. Some observers thought of Sunstone as a “junior Dialogue” though I never did. One outsider’s perception that struck me as being entirely wrong was that Sunstone, being unauthorized by Church correlation, might have some hidden, possibly subversive, or even anti-Mormon objective. We had no such agenda. We didn’t want to promote any particular viewpoint or advocate for reform. Rather, our goal was to provide an open forum in which ideas stood or fell on their own merit. My own articles were benign in content (unless advocating for the preservation of LDS architecture could be construed as criticism).

The fact is that we were all very spiritual individuals: we likely took our beliefs and practices more seriously than the average twenty-something Mormon and we wanted to make contributions that were more specific than standard church activities could usually accommodate. We believed our endeavors were totally in harmony with scriptural directives to study, learn, and seek wisdom out of the best books. During my second Sunstone period, I thought of the magazine as potentially evolving into something like Commonweal, the independent, progressive, Catholic opinion periodical that had become an important influence on its faith tradition since it began in 1924.

During the early years, Sunstone went through many changes in leadership, engaging in musical chairs even at the highest level. The low point in its evolution may have been in 1977 when it merged briefly with The New Messenger & Advocate, Kevin Barnhurst’s nascent LDS periodical that had published only two issues. The third issue was a joint venture with Sunstone, a meager 34-page effort, but published in the larger magazine format that persists to this day.

For five and a half years, Sunstone and the Sunstone Review were produced on the second floor of the Bennett Glass and Paint building.
For five and a half years, Sunstone and the Sunstone Review were produced on the second floor of the Bennett Glass and Paint building.
Period Two:
The Magazine, Cartoon Books,
and Sunstone Symposium

My second period with Sunstone began on a Saturday morning as Peggy and I sat on the lawn in front of Scott’s grandparent’s house west of the President’s Circle at the University of Utah. We had just finished a board meeting where Scott had announced that he could no longer lead the foundation, that he was reluctantly stepping down as its publisher, and that our promising enterprise must come to an end.   I was not aware then of Scott’s heroic struggles to keep the magazine alive, so while sympathetic, I was deeply disappointed at this development. As I said, Peggy and I were lingering on the lawn afterward wondering if anything could be done to save the magazine. Though we didn’t come up with any concrete plans, we determined that between the two of us we could keep the magazine going. The 3:6 issue of September–October 1978 was the first to list Peggy and me as co-publishers/editors.

Though I was eager to edit manuscript content, I took as my primary role the establishment of Sunstone on more solid financial footing. This entailed increasing the subscription base, getting bookstores to sell the magazine, obtaining paid advertising (rarely done), and securing donations from supporters. We met with enough success in these areas to sustain the publication.

A related effort was improving the quality of Sunstone’s content and publishing on a regular schedule. Peggy, associate editor Susan Oman (Staker), and I, together with our section editors, worked hard to secure worthy manuscripts. Peggy was especially gifted at persuading many authors and would-be authors to write new material for Sunstone. On a personal level, I enjoyed and benefitted from the long discussions we as a staff had about LDS theology and history. These conversations caused me to think more deeply about important ideas that I had thought I already understood. At the same time, I was taking classes from Sterling McMurrin and others in the philosophy department at the University of Utah. I lived for these heady, mind-expanding experiences and they led me to do more individual research, analysis, writing, and article publishing—all activities I continue to pursue to this day.

I also enjoyed working with authors on refining their manuscripts. One author I especially enjoyed working with was Tom Alexander as we prepared his insightful, ground-breaking “The Reconstruction of Mormon Doctrine: From Joseph Smith to Progressive Theology.” I also continued to do original research and writing, publishing “House on the Block” in 1977, “The Other Endowment House” in 1978 (in an issue with the stunning cover photo of black hands ordaining a blonde boy, a photo used by the Church with our permission), and, in 1979, “Where Are the All-Seeing Eyes: The Rise and Decline of Early Mormon Symbolism.” I was gratified when this last effort received a “Best Article Award” from the Mormon History Association and was reprinted in Sunstone’s 10th Anniversary Issue in 1985.

Among the many valuable articles Sunstone published during this period were “Knowing, Doing, and Being: Vital Dimensions of the Mormon Experience” by Arthur Bassett, “Time and Omniscience in Mormon Theology” by Kent Robson; and Ed Ashment’s pieces on the Book of Mormon and Pearl of Great Price.

While preparing issues for volume 4 in 1979, I invited my friend Warren Archer to become Sunstone’s graphic designer, replacing Randall Smith who had done a fine job. Warren continued in this role for several years with the exception of a several-month sabbatical he spent in Russia. For these mid-1980 issues, I did the graphic design, using Warren’s home studio on Capitol Hill. It was a new experience for me but my art background came in handy and I enjoyed the challenge.

One fond, if slightly embarrassing, memory I have from these times was an engaging conversation we had with Lavina Fielding Anderson in the old Jewish synagogue. It was our habit to meet and gather ideas from helpful new people every week and we had invited Lavina to lunch. However, when the check came, we discovered that neither Peggy nor I had brought any money with us, so Lavina ended up paying for the meal. On another occasion, Peggy and I had an encouraging meeting with President of the Seventy Marion D. Hanks in the historic Church Administration Building. Elder Hanks delighted us by promising that we could publish one of his talks in Sunstone (sadly, we never received it). He looked at the masthead of the magazine and, to our surprise, recognized some our staff members and authors. Then he browsed through the cartoons in Calvin Grondahl’s Freeway to Perfection, Sunstone’s first book (one of our really good ideas). He laughed at some of them and then smiled and said, “You know, some of the brethren might not find these as funny as I do.”

We knew what he meant. When I tried to get Deseret Book to carry Freeway, they initially accepted with enthusiasm but then called back a few days later to decline, saying their review committee had found the content too objectionable. But the books sold extremely well and a couple of months later I received another call from Deseret Book sheepishly announcing that they had changed their minds. They ended up purchasing several boxes and in time sold more copies through its many stores than all the other LDS bookstores combined. Cartoons about Mormonism (especially those by Grondahl and Pat Bagley) have become a part of Sunstone’s enduring legacy.


However, our most far-reaching accomplishment was the creation of the Sunstone Symposium. My first recollection of planning it with Peggy was a discussion we had after work in the lobby of my firm’s architectural office where Sunstone occupied a small space. We sat on blue studio chairs and talked about how great it would be to organize a symposium in which papers on a variety of religious subjects would be presented and discussed. Peggy stepped up and became the lead organizer, for which she deserves immense credit. The first Sunstone Symposium was held in the Art and Architecture Auditorium at the University of Utah. Although marred slightly by a speaker who went far overtime, throwing us off schedule, it was an exciting, even electric event, with close to 400 people participating.

Like the magazine and the cartoon books, the Symposium was an idea whose time had come and it was heartily embraced by the Mormon intellectual community.

The Symposium flourishes still. For over 35 years it has been held in major cities nationwide and is considered to be one of the largest and most impactful religious symposiums in the country, often drawing up to 1,200 attendees at the Salt Lake City venue. An immediate beneficial outcome of the Symposium was the annual generation of new, often well-polished manuscripts for the magazine. This impact was quickly felt in the important double-issue, 4:5 & 6 (November–December 1979), containing Edward Ashment’s analytical, revisionist piece, “The Book of Abraham Facsimiles: A Reappraisal,” and High Nibley’s response. The articles were significant as they shed new light on Joseph Smith’s scripture-producing process.

The staff members I best remember working with during this period were John Sillito, Randy Dixon, Dennis Clark, Vince Iturbe, Jan Eyring, Gordon Bowen, Dave Racker, Jim Cartwright, Lorie Winder, Mark Thomas, Ron Bitton, and Susan Oman (Staker), many of whom remain my friends to this day.

Allen Roberts wrote his introductory notes for the first Sunstone Symposium on the back of this program.
Allen Roberts wrote his introductory notes for the first Sunstone Symposium on the back of this program.
Period Three:
My Sun Sets but Sunstone Continues

Near the beginning of 1980, I decided to take a leave of absence from my architectural practice and work for the Sunstone Foundation full time, joining Peggy, Susan, Lori Winder and others in our sun-lit, west-facing office at the top of the Newhouse Hotel. While I enjoyed this time and the multitude of tasks I was performing, it became clear to me by September that I could not continue to do this and adequately support my growing family. I understood Scott’s decision two years earlier as I sadly left the foundation and my role as co-publisher/editor. I disappeared from the masthead in the 5:5, September–October issue. The difference between 1978 and 1980 was that the magazine, now with help from the Symposium, was in a healthier position and well enough established to continue under Peggy’s committed and experienced leadership.

Because I still cared for it deeply, I tried to stay involved with Sunstone as a sort of volunteer consultant. I wasn’t in favor of Peggy’s plan to publish the Sunstone Review, which I saw as a distraction from the magazine (difficult enough to sustain on its own), so eventually my participation faded away. Happily, the organization continued on without me, bringing in vital new helpers such as Elbert Peck and Daniel Rector—without missing a step it seemed.

In the three-plus decades since my time at Sunstone, my main involvement has been as a presenter, respondent, or session host during the Symposium. Someone, perhaps Lavina Fielding Anderson, once calculated that I have been involved in 35 of these presentations. Some of my papers have since been published in Dialogue and elsewhere. I remain proud of the Symposium and its many contributions to Mormon and American religious life.

Although my views of the Church and religion have matured since my time at Sunstone, that period was formative for me in many positive ways. Upon leaving Sunstone in 1980, I began a twelve-year period of service on the editorial board of Signature Books, extending a relationship with Scott Kenney (its managing editor) and continuing a connection with George Smith, Lavina, and others I had met through Sunstone. Two years after leaving Sunstone, I became an editorial associate on the Jack and Linda Newell-led Dialogue team. I thoroughly enjoyed my 1982–87 stint with this group. I also began working with Lavina and her team as an editorial associate for the Journal of Mormon History.

In 1985 the late Linda Sillitoe and I took on a contract with Signature to write Salamander: The Story of the Mormon Forgery Murders, published in 1988. I did so in part to discover why my friend Steve Christensen, one of Sunstone’s first donors and the founder of its library, had been murdered by document forger Mark Hofmann. The book became the number-one best seller in the Intermountain region and a Pulitzer Prize nominee. In 1993 I joined with many of the Sunstone crowd in attending the vigils at the “courts” of the excommunicated September Six. That same year I became one of the co-founders of the Mormon Alliance, Olive Branch, and Sunday Gathering, each a short-lived reaction to the Church’s purging of Mormon intellectuals. My City Weekly article, “A Church Divided,” exploring the issues behind the rift between the hierarchy and intellectual community, received the Society of Professional Journalism’s “Best Article of the Year Award” in 1993.

It was also in 1993 that I organized a team, including co-publisher/editor Martha Sonntag Bradley and managing editor Gary Bergera, to run Dialogue through the year 1999. Afterward, I led the search that selected the new editorial team, and then stayed on the board of directors through 2002, leaving it at about the same time friend and fellow board member Gene England passed away.

For the first time in twenty-eight years, I was no longer directly involved with Sunstone, Dialogue, Signature Books, the Journal of Mormon History, or any of the other Mormon studies organizations. Around 1995, I joined and (for the next sixteen years) participated in the wide-ranging monthly discussions of the (Scott and Susan) Kenney Group. I continue to present papers occasionally but I have turned my attention to historical and architectural research and book writing. Becoming the president of my 70-member architectural firm and maintaining an active design and restoration practice has also taken much of my time during the past decades.

I have served on the board of directors for more than thirty professional organizations and non-profit foundations of various kinds. It seems I have never gotten over the notion, learned in part from my LDS background, that I should try to do some good in the world, improve and beautify it, and make it a better place in which to live. I credit Sunstone with being an important training ground for me in that regard.

It has been interesting to watch the lives and journeys of others who were part of the early Sunstone group. Each person is different, but I believe all are still searching, questing, and contributing in useful ways. We’re older now, and hopefully satisfied that what we started and nurtured continues to survive and flourish.

As for Sunstone’s impact on the Church and world, I’ve heard some say that it has damaged testimonies and may have led people away from the Church. But I know many others who say that it has helped them stay in the Church and gain a broader understanding and keener appreciation of it. I have heard stories about how certain articles in Sunstone and Dialogue have helped influence not only Church members but also its leaders in making positive decisions. Non-Mormon religionists have generally praised the publication. My own view is that each person, as a thinking free agent, is individually responsible for his or her own beliefs and how to deal with them throughout life.

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