Publication Date

April 15, 2019

Perspectives Section

In Memoriam


Public History

G. Wesley JohnsonG. Wesley Johnson passed away on November 16, 2018, at the age of 86. A historian whose scholarly research and writing focused on topics ranging from the Mormon religion to Senegalese politics, he was probably best known in the wider profession as a founder and leader in the field of public history.

Educated in the Phoenix, Arizona, public schools, Johnson began his undergraduate work at Brigham Young University but soon transferred to Harvard University. There he was influenced particularly by Ernest R. May, a strong advocate for the application of historical research and scholarship to public policy issues. Johnson’s Harvard career was interrupted, though, by a family responsibility in the form of two and a half years as a Mormon missionary in France and Belgium—an experience that he later characterized as broadening his academic interests, providing invaluable language skills, and offering experience in organizing and proselytizing. After returning to Harvard and completing his undergraduate work, Johnson responded once again to family expectations and entered Stanford Law School. Historical studies continued to beckon, however, and eventually he followed his own strong inclinations and entered the graduate program in history at Columbia University, where he received both his MA and his PhD.

Wes Johnson’s first academic appointment was at Stanford University, where he began what turned out to be a lifelong study of Francophone Africa, on which he published several monographs over the years. It was also at Stanford that he began to pursue the academic study of the Mormon religion, joining several other young historians to establish Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought, a journal that recently celebrated its 50th anniversary. Later, in his final academic home at Brigham Young, he was one of the leaders in establishing the Mormon Outmigration Leadership History Project.

When Johnson left Stanford to join the history department at the University of California, Santa Barbara, it turned out to be a move that brought him into a close working relationship with Robert Kelley, a well-known scholar of political and intellectual history who early in his career had been a US Air Force historian and had continued over several decades to serve as a historical consultant and expert witness. Although Johnson always credited Kelley with coining the phrase “public history” to describe the new graduate program they launched together at UCSB, it was he who publicized their efforts to the larger academic community, traveled widely in the United States and abroad to countless meetings of historical organizations, and garnered outside support from private and public foundations that substantially aided in the launching of both a new scholarly journal, The Public Historian, and the National Council on Public History. A key figure in organizing the NCPH, he served as its chair for several years.

A historian of Africa who studied French colonialism, Johnson was by nature inclined to discover and encourage public history practices outside North America, and in 1981, he secured a grant from the Rockefeller Foundation to do just that, subsequently visiting several British universities as well as others in France, Germany, and Italy. On that same trip, he met with representatives of the British Social Science Research Council, an encounter that led ultimately to their joining with Erasmus University in Rotterdam to sponsor the first public history conference in Europe, held in 1982. During those years, he also visited and presented public history in Ivory Coast and Nigeria as well as at a meeting in Paris, at the French Institute for Contemporary History, focused on African colonial history, and in several other countries in Europe, where one British historian described his efforts as “preaching the public history gospel.”

Wes Johnson is survived by his wife, Marian, also a historian and his partner for many years in the consulting historical research firm of Ashby & Johnson, and three children, including historian Benjamin Johnson of Utah Valley University.

Arnita Jones
American Historical Association, emerita

Thomas Cauvin
Colorado State University

Serge Noiret
European University Institute

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