The upcoming four-volume official history of the Church, titled Saints, now has its own site and subdomain at LDS.org. There are three topic buttons on the landing page: (1) Topics, with links to short essays on topics such as revivals, Christian churches in Joseph Smith’s day, and Joseph Smith’s leg surgery, which everyone seems to think is a really important part of the story. (2) The Purpose of Saints, linking to a short article in the Feb. 2018 Ensign by Elder Snow, a Seventy serving as Church Historian, introducing the series and encouraging members of the Church to actually read it. The last sentence in the article states, “Additional in-depth material on selected topics will be published online to support each volume.” (3) Videos, with a bunch of short LDS history videos.
The site includes a link to the first chapter of the first volume, so you can go read it for yourself right now. It is posted online and also included in the February 2018 Ensign, so you won’t be the only one reading it. This isn’t like the roll out of the Gospel Topics Essays, which were quietly inserted in the large topics section at LDS.org and are still not given a lot of attention by senior leaders (many local leaders and members are not even aware of them). This new series is, in effect, the long-awaited LDS leadership response to the History Division’s publication back in 1976 of The Story of the Latter-day Saints. That volume was written by James B. Allen and Glen M. Leonard, two LDS historians working under the direction of the Church Historian Leonard Arrington, the first actual historian to hold that office. However — and let’s be candid about this — the volume was simply too honest about LDS history and too direct in its presentation and too willing to provide full historical context to LDS events to suit the tastes of some senior apostles at the time. The book was never adopted by the Church as a replacement for Essentials in Church History, Joseph Fielding Smith’s one-volume LDS history that was, by the 1970s, rather dated both in terms of content and approach. To me, it looks like Saints is what Elder Benson wanted to see in 1976, but with lots more footnotes.
So I’m going to read the first chapter now. [Ten minutes later …] Well, it’s a big improvement over Our Heritage, which was the only book cited in the LDS Sunday School manual for Church History. Saints , at least in the first chapter, includes lots of footnotes to sources from the Joseph Smith Papers Project. It is careful to include the vignettes most Mormons have heard in Sunday School (the leg operation, the mean teamster driving Lucy and her children to Palmyra, poking fun at Protestant preachers and ministers) but is somewhat restrained in the retellings. The footnotes suggest reliance primarily on Lucy Mack Smith’s late memoir of those early days and Joseph Smith’s late 1838 account of his early experience in New York.
There are no footnotes to Rough Stone Rolling or other publications by LDS historians — as if the field of LDS history does not exist and the unnamed authors of this chapter are starting from scratch. It looks like they’ll take anything written by Lucy or Joseph at face value, so it’s not clear that historians are actually running the project (historians evaluate sources, they don’t just take them at face value, and they deem contemporary sources more reliable than late sources). And the rather convoluted history of Lucy Mack Smith’s history merits some comment, particularly if the authors are going to rely on it as one of their main sources for the narrative. I’m guessing we will get additional commentary on the writing of the volumes, the sources used, and the books and articles not cited (and not consulted?) as things move forward and additional chapters are released.