Ron Romig: Scholarship Catalyst, Scholar, and Missionary

Ron RomigThe Acknowledgments section of my very first essay in Mormon history begins:

Ronald E. Romig of the Community of Christ Archives suggested this project to me when we met on April 6, 2003. From that moment to the present, his assistance in moving the project forward has been invaluable.[1]

My indebtedness to Ron is hardly unique. In a quick perusal of acknowledgments sections of books and journals in my own library, Ron’s name shows up more than a dozen times. These works individually acknowledge Ron’s contribution to their creation, but they barely scratch the surface of the overall contribution Ron has made to Mormon studies in general, both as a scholar himself, and (even more importantly) as a catalyst for scholarship.

It is this overall contribution that we need to acknowledge today, because after more than twenty years of work in the Community of Christ Archives, Ron will be taking early retirement at the end of next month — a casualty of steep budget cuts the church has been forced to make due to the current economic recession.

For those of you who don’t know Ron or haven’t had the pleasure of being helped by him, I’d like to briefly list a few of his accomplishments before telling my own Ron Romig story.

A prolific scholar in his own right, Ron has published multiple articles in all the Mormon studies journals, large and small: Dialogue, the Journal of Mormon History, Sunstone, the John Whitmer Historical Association Journal, Restoration Studies, Mormon Historic Studies, Saints Heritage, and the like. He’s also the editor of a growing series of brief documentary histories that attempt to put primary sources in the hands of the general reader: Emma’s Nauvoo, Emma’s Family, Lucy’s Nauvoo, and Alexander: Joseph & Emma’s Far West Son (forthcoming). Through the Mormon Missouri Frontier Foundation, he’s produced a number of booklets on the Missouri Mormon experience and he’s probably the foremost expert on early Jackson and Clay County periods. His full-length biography of Book of Mormon witness and dissenter John Whitmer, the first Mormon church historian, is in the final stages of editing.

His work in the archives itself — acquiring, preserving, cataloging, digitizing, and making artifacts and texts available — has been of incalculable direct aid to scholars, as the many acknowledgments I mentioned at the outset of this post testify. Beyond this, Ron’s support of independent scholarly institutions has been unceasing. Ron is the current president of the Mormon History Association (MHA), a rare and high honor in our field. Simultaneously, he is vice president of the Missouri Mormon Frontier Foundation, which places markers and monuments at historic sites. In addition, he’s a past president of the John Whitmer Historical Association, and a regular attendee and presenter at Sunstone Symposia.

For myself, I can’t acknowledge enough the influence Ron has had on my own path. As I mentioned above, I met Ron at the Community of Christ Temple in Independence, Missouri, on April 6, 2003. At the time, my only work in the field of church history was a volume of my own family history. I had read a lot and I knew Ron by name and reputation, but I’d never met him or any of the other authors whose books and articles I’d read. I went to Ron hoping to track down information on the location of my great great great great grandparents’ farm near Far West, in Caldwell County, Missouri. Ron was immediately able to identify the location for me — in fact, he had co-edited an index to the land records for Caldwell County.

After I showed Ron my family history volume, he strongly encouraged me in my research. He also urged me (more than once) to attend the MHA conference that was to be held the following month in Kirtland (just a few hours’ drive from my house in Ann Arbor) and the JWHA conference later that fall in Missouri. I wasn’t particularly interested. I’d attended several conferences on medieval history (my field of graduate study), but I never felt like I’d gotten much from them. Ultimately, I did decide to drive down to Kirtland the Saturday after MHA started.

My expectations were low, but I was absolutely blown away by the welcome and the experience of that first MHA. After a whirlwind day of meeting, visiting, and sharing stories and research, I decided I would have to go back to Missouri that fall and attend the JWHA conference that Ron had similarly praised. Surprisingly, given my heightened expectations, my first JWHA was even more incredible than MHA had been. I felt like I met and had deep discussions with everyone whose book I’d read. At the end of the conference, Jan Shipps (then incoming president of JWHA), invited me to serve on her program committee, and Marty Bradley (then president of MHA) invited me to present at her conference. What I’d truly found was an incredible fellowship among the Mormon historians’ community.

Before I met Ron I hadn’t imagined that I would have any meaningful involvement with the Mormon historians’ community, with JWHA, or with the Community of Christ. Those connections, however, have subsequently become core components of my life. Which brings me to one last role that Ron has been playing all of these years, that of missionary.

I don’t here intend to second guess Community of Christ leaders, who were faced with terrible choices. I’m quite sure that every person they had to let go could not be spared. But in looking for places to cut, I wonder if they might not have underestimated the pivotal role Ron has played as a missionary — not just for church history, but also for his church. He is certainly the missionary that connected me both to church history and to the Community of Christ.

I’ve often teased Ron that if he labored all his days and only ended up with me from his mission work, “how great his joy would be with me in the kingdom of heaven.” But the truth is that with all the great work he’s done, we would never be alone.

* * *
Additional Notes: The AP has picked up Ron’s story. Also, as Jared T points out on JI, a number of scholars have begun a letter writing campaign to encourage Community of Christ leaders to reconsider their decision. If you feel inspired to do the same, Jared has instructions in his post.

This essay appears here as a cross-post. It originally appeared on ByCommonConsent.

____________________
[1] This essay originally appeared in a 2004 booklet entitled, Northeast of Eden: A Historical Atlas of Missouri’s Mormon County. It was published in Mormon Historical Studies 9, no. 1 (Spring 2008): 15-38, as “Mapping Mormon Settlement in Caldwell County, Missouri.”

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36 comments on “Ron Romig: Scholarship Catalyst, Scholar, and Missionary

  1. I don’t know,…that’s sounds an awful lot like second guessing the leadership. ;)

  2. graham48 says:

    A double loss–Ron, as a catalyst and a sounding-board, a scholar and a personal inspiration; and the position of Archivist. I am saddened at the thought that Ron will not be there when I next visit the Library-Archives (it’s a nearly 7,000 mile journey, so I can’t drop in as often as I’d like); I am worried for Ron himself; and then there’s the sickening recognition that we have been given a glimpse of how little we (as a church) value our past. That one scares me.

  3. Bryan Monte says:

    I am saddened to hear of Ron Romig’s termination/forced redundancy. Ron is a truly gifted and dedicated archivist. He has tirelessly assisted me with locating books, reports and documents in the Community of Christ archives related to my research on Harvest Hills, a CofC intentional community founded in 1970. In fact many of Ron’s choices of research documents have been no less than “inspired” such as when he brought them by my table last summer on a trolley before I had even requested them! In addition, Ron has chaired two of my presentations at the Sunstone Conference in Salt Lake. I always found his comments to be insightful and constructive and they reflect his great love of church history. I will truly miss Ron at the CofC archives and I hope that the Community of Christ reconsiders keeping him in his present position.

  4. I think Mark Scherer’s role will be expanded to fill the position of archivist.

    • Bryan Monte says:

      I think it’s a bit much to ask the church historian to also be the church archivist. From what I witnessed during my time doing research at the CofC archives, Mark Scherer will be much too busy to do any research or write or comment on church history if he’s always answering the phone and digging up records for people as Ron Romig currently does. There is a reason why the church needs both an archivist and a historian. The former takes care of the documents and makes sure that people can access them and the latter has to handle external (media) contacts and interpret what church history means. I think it’s a very bad idea trying to combine both roles. I’m afraid Mark will be overworked and won’t have time to write.

  5. Barb Walden says:

    One of the most memorable education programs I have attended was Ron Romig’s program “Ice Cream with the Archivist.” It doesn’t get any better than an evening filled with ice cream and history. Ron’s vast knowledge of history, passion towards preservation, and ability to mentor scores of students as they stumbled into the archives will be missed. I especially appreciate his gentle demeanor and endless patience with researchers, curators, and historians (including myself) seeking last minute favors. Simply stated, Ron Romig is a portrait of what every institution hopes for in an archivist.

  6. Matt Bolton says:

    Ron is a long-time friend of the family, a wonderfully gentle spirit and a careful and detailed scholar. Church headquarters will be losing an incredible resource and a a pastoral presence to the community of CofC scholars.

    While I was doing the research for my book on Charles Neff, I would carpool with Ron to and from HQ. I always looked forward to our conversations, in which we would process what I had discovered, my emerging thoughts and possible directions to follow. He was incredibly resourceful, always had suggestions of people to interview and texts to digest. I also appreciate that in his gentle way, he was not afraid to challenge my assumptions and/or sloppy thinking.

    Thank you John for this wonderful tribute to a great man. I hope Ron continues to produce more of his fine books and papers over the years to come.

  7. Bryan Monte says:

    Dear Beware the Chicken,

    I had hoped for a more serious reply to my comment about Ron’s termination/redundancy. It doesn’t help me understand people’s thinking at HQ in Independence if you say that Mark “won’t feel lonely as an overworked World Church employee”. I am shocked that the world church employees are overworked and concerned about what this will mean for the church’s future. I would hope that this forum would initiate some dialogue on how this problem (Ron’s termination/Mark having to wear two hats) could be solved.

    • Sorry to dash your hopes. Unemployment is soaring to almost 10% in the US – in some areas it’s worse. The Church is administered by people who are not trained administrators for the most part and have established a human resource structure where the best and the brightest are punished by heaping more and more work upon them and those who are not so diligent/eductated/competent are rewarded by being given less responsibilities while being compensated on the same seniority grid.

      Many have lost their jobs over the past couple of rotations of cuts and I feel bad for all of them as I do for everyone of the millions of people unemployed in the US. Oh that we could get so fired up and serious about the many other injustices levied by the Church.

  8. Don Allan says:

    How is it possible that any institution could even conceive of requesting the early retirement of someone with the impressive personal and professional qualifications of a Ron Romig? If anything, Community of Christ should be leaving no rock unturned to find a way to keep this national treasure of an archivist at World Headquarters for as long as possible.

    Ron is a sensitive, sophisticated and devout Latter Day Saint with: (1) an encyclopedic knowledge of Restoration history; (2) a deep respect for and understanding of the diversity within Latter Day Saintism; and (3) a proven ability to build bridges of understanding between and among history-conscious members of the variegated factions within the Restoration Movement.

    How can the Church allow someone like Ron to leave now, right when President Veazey has only recently challenged the Church (as described by Apostle Linda Booth) “to put our early history into informed perspective, including being open to new information and insights” (June 2009 Herald, “Interview with Stephen M. Veazey: Facing Our Challenges”)? Who better than Archivist/Historian Ron Romig to assist the Church in responding to President Veazey’s momentous challenge?

    • FireTag says:

      I do not know Ron. I have family who do, and echo every compliment given him in this thread and more. They were absolutely stunned that his position was among those lost.

      I DO know others who are undergoing early retirement who have far less opportunity to find new employment outside the church than does Ron. And I know of people who depend on the ministry those people provided for a lot more than research assistance.

      We have now had to cut staff positions by a cumulative total of about 30% over the last 4 years — both in a time of boom and a time of bust. And it isn’t even clear that the institution has greater claim on our resources than other institutions, both affiliated and unaffiliated with the CofChrist, also pursuing the same mission we’ve endorsed as our own.

      This is when commitment to peace and justice are no longer academic exercises, but involve choosing who bears pain.

      • Bryan Monte says:

        Dear FireTag,

        Maybe if the church stopped spending money on restaurant dinners, “apostle mobiles”, and paying people’s salaries who are independently wealthy, then it might have some money left over to keep an accomplished archivist and author and devoted church member on its payroll. I disagree with you that at 60 Ron has a better chance of getting another job than some other people who are being let go. Ron may have a sterling reputation, but in this economy, it may be a long time before he finds another job, so what is he going to live on in the meantime?

        On a more practical note, maybe one way out of this funding problem is to have people pay to use the CofC archives. I pay yearly memberships fees of between $50 to $100 to use other research libraries and archives. Why should the CofC Archives be any different? I’m curious. Is there an organization like “Friends of the Community of Christ Library and Archives”? If the church wants to survive financially it has to more aggressive and creative about looking for new sources of funding. The answer to this budget crisis is not through firing people who have made substantial, outstanding contributions both within and without the church, but controlling unnecessary costs internally and asking members to contribute more for specific projects.

  9. FireTag says:

    Bryan:

    Some of the people I particularly have in mind ARE also in their 60’s.

    Generally, I am entirely comfortable with the idea of user fees staffing positions for specialized services. I am entirely comfortable with having people interested in church history endowing a chair at Graceland or BYU or anywhere else for 6 years or so — if that’s where they believe their personal resources are best used. 1000 or 2000 people each year at $100 per head might do the job, depending on how the church allocates its overhead to accounting centers and how much upkeep is required for the archives themselves. Perhaps you can make a better estimate than I can, since mine is based on industry practices for similar professional positions.

    But IMO, you need to consider several things: (1) the idea that the financial crisis for the church is short term is bogus. Baptisms in North America reached their peak in the 1950s and have declined steadily ever since until they are only about 20% of their peak values. The membership of the church is aging in the West and is past its peak earning years. Our mission may be to the poor and the marginalized, but we aren’t going to raise a whole lot of money there. The “sustainable budget level” for the church is sustainable only so long as America remains a rich country and we become increasingly dominated by rich members. There is little in our theology to suggest that is going to happen, and a lot to suggest that might not be a good thing for us to seek.

    (2) The average member in the US is not a professional, and hence lives on less money than the average church appointee, who IS a professional. It takes a lot of “commoners” to support an elite. That’s why they’re called “common”. The fact that the average professional church employee earns less than the average professional outside the church is a valid measure of their personal sacrifice, but does not mean that those with even less have more to give.

    (3) The church cut dozens of positions. Among the membership of the church there are ALWAYS thousands of unemployed, and we are not supposed to limit our ministry to the church, but to expand it to a world which our theology describes as “suffering”.

  10. The church is supported by 18,000 70, 80, and 90 year old members. The young people are not great contributors.

    • Bryan Monte says:

      Dear Margie,

      Wow. I had no idea the 70, 80 and 90 year olds were carrying the financial burden. I imagine what happened to the 30, 40 and 50 year olds were college loans (my college is now 15 times as expensive as when I attended in the 1980s), college tuition for their own children, divorce (for about half) and job loss (which is what this thread was orignally about). Do you have any ideas about how to make up the difference, how to get the 30, 40 and 50 year olds to contribute more? If not financially, couldn’t they do something like volunteer their time at the Temple, historic sites or reunion grounds? What do you think?

  11. Rich Brown says:

    Bryan:

    It’s a gross generalization, of course, but “older folks” tend to give to organizations with the understanding their financial contributions will be spent wisely. Younger folks (for the sake of argument, let’s say those under age 40) want to know exactly how their contributions will be spent. This may help explain why targeted campaigns in the church recently (Chattanooga community center, Russia/Ukraine youth groups, and Roofs Over Africa) exceeded their goals while at the same time World Mission tithes have fallen short.
    I don’t know if this is a specific trust issue in the church or just a generational characteristic (for example, because my parents and grandparents lived through the Great Depression of the 1930s they carried that experience with them for the rest of their lives; it’s part of my inherited memory, but it is totally foreign for my two twenty-something kids).
    By the way, now that I am no longer Herald editor (like Ron Romig, I was unexpectedly drafted into early retirement) I consider myself as having a bit more freedom to comment in places such as this.

  12. Volunteering is fine but it doesn’t pay salaries and other expenses. Many young people also have a lot of credit card debt.

  13. I’m one of the 70+ year old members who contribute regularly. We will not be around forever. My 50+ year old daughter does not contribute at all. She too has school debt having just received her diploma two years ago and built a new home this year after living 32 years in a double wide mobile home.

    The younger generation had better start finding the money to contribute or when we are gone the church will be gone as well. Not because of any failure to address the issues but because there is no financial support to keep it going.

    By the way, Rich, who is the new editor at Herald House? Or are they going to eliminate the Herald as well?

  14. Good to hear from you Rich and sorry for your lot. Your efforts will be missed.

    As for younger givers, I think there is some truth to what everyone says, however, I think the bigger issue is just the basic lack of discipline, specifically fiscal discipline attributable to younger folks. The uninsured are also more likely to be young (but they will have their cell phones and cable tv). The recent economic issues have starting people saving again, but the younger generation (ie. MY generation) contributed to record low savings rates prior to that (but they still had their Netflix account and bought a Starbucks everyday).

    Sure, if you can grab them for a one-time gift, as Rich says, they may pony up – but the general discipline to make regular payments to anything for which they do not see an immediate personal gain (tithing, insurance, savings, etc.) it isn’t done.

  15. Sadly, and judging from the experience of my own children, and grandchildren I have to agree with you, Chick. They all have their cell phones and $3,000 flat screen TV’s. Yet, they cannot “afford” to support the church.

  16. Rich Brown says:

    Margie:

    The Herald editor position was eliminated. From now on a small team of IHQ staffers with other Communications responsibilities will put together the magazine each month under the general supervision of Linda Booth, who is IHQ director of communications in addition to her responsibilities in the Council of Twelve Apostles.

  17. Rich,

    Personally, I think that is a mistake. I seriously doubt that any “conflicting” opinion letters to the editor will be printed now. And that was proven to be unhealthy during the editorship of Joseph Smith III.

  18. FireTag says:

    Anybody notice that we’ll find new WAYS to get the mission done (like this!) if that’s what it takes as the infrastructure we’re used to using goes away.

    The gospel outlives institutions.

  19. But we’re limited to those that read these posts.

    • FireTag says:

      Margie:

      But we aren’t limited to THIS either. In the last 48 hours, CofChrist people in my immediate circle have: arranged for a dozen piano recitals at a Methodist nursing home; recruited performers for a CD being produced for wounded soldiers; counseled a potentially suicidal teenager over the phone and got that youngster to acknowledge needing help and take the first steps to seeing a professional counselor; helped two adults dealing with personal crises, etc.

      Christ will redeem the world and bring peace and justice. All we need to do sometimes is get out of the way.

  20. Doug Gregory says:

    This is not a generation that places much stock into institutions, so my guess is that all kinds of institutions are – or soon will be – in financial trouble. Causes – good. Institituions – bad.

  21. I hate to do so…but I have to agree with you.

  22. Oh I agree. We have people from our congregation that work with Hospice, the Red Cross disaster team, Salvation Army, our congregation donates to FAST (to pay utilities for the poor and rent) and Genesis (that does the same thing in a different community). One person belongs to PINCH, (People For Institutional and Communal Harmony, that promotes community between the races), and I belong to two ministerial alliances, one I am secretary/treasurer for and one I am Past President of. We worked together with all our churches for flood relief last year when our two communities had a major flood. Also, we do the Christmas Child shoebox project, buy school supplies for needy children, provide food backpacks for children who will not otherwise eat over the weekend. We have folks on the Senior Citizen Board, one on a Free Clinic board and two who are actively involved with the VFW. Local congregations are able to function well on their own…we get very little assistance from headquarters.

  23. That’s how we’re doing it now.. it works!

  24. From Pam on the church’s board:

    For those who have been concerned re: Ron Romig’s future:

    We are pleased to announce Ron Romig as the new Historic Sites Specialist in Kirtland, Ohio. Ron comes to this position with a deep passion for the history and heritage of the Kirtland Temple. Ron is a part of the Heritage Team, led by Lach Mackay.

    We thank Barb Walden for her many years of dedicated service and ministry she shared as Site Specialist in Kirtland. We wish Barb and her husband, Jody, safe travels in their move to Kentucky – may they be blessed.

    As Ron assumes his new responsibilities, he and Anne will move to Kirtland at the end of this month. We wish them well in their new home, and look forward to their ministries in Kirtland.

  25. FireTag says:

    Was Barb’s return to Kentucky planned? I at least hope it will free her up to do more posts on this site.

    • Barb Walden says:

      Isn’t this exciting news! I may be out of a job, but who better to be replaced with?
      My husband, Jody, recently accepted an administrative position at the Kentucky Historical Society. It’s an incredible job opportunity. As a result, I will have the privilege of training Ron and handing over the “keys” at the end of the month. It’s a time of both excitement for the site and the unlimited opportunities for Ron, as well as personal reflection in looking back over the past seven years. Not to worry FireTag – I will have plenty of extra time on my hands to post come September!

  26. DKL says:

    Great post, John. I don’t have the personal history with Ron that you do, but I’ve always admired him and found him to be personable, patient, and engaging. I’m glad to hear that he’s going to be taking over at Kirtland.

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