Next Tuesday, on September 4th, the first volume of a new official history of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints will be released. Unlike the quiet publication of the Gospel Topics essays, the Church has invested in a major publicity effort for Saints: The Story of the Church of Jesus Christ in the Latter Days, Volume 1: The Standard of Truth 1815-1846, advertising to its members in church magazines and LDS media outlets. The first volume is being published in 14 languages[1], has its own website, and will be the subject of a worldwide young adult Face to Face event.

Background on Saints

This new four-volume comprehensive church history series was first announced last year by Elder Steven E. Snow, Church Historian and Recorder, at the Mormon History Association conference. As the Church News reported, “Elder Snow said the volumes will be ‘transparent, honest, and faithful,’ with controversial aspects of Church history covered in the context of the entire story.” Written at a 9th or 10th grade reading level, the narrative history would be accessible to the every day member. “We believe this will be valuable to Church members to greatly enhance their knowledge of Church history in an interesting way. In my view, this will have an impact on members of the Church for generations to come.”

The project is a natural outgrowth of the world-class research and publications by the Church History Department over the last couple decades. The department has worked hard to publish primary source documents, both in hard-copy and digital form. Projects such as the Joseph Smith Papers, Council of Fifty Minutes, The First Fifty Years of Relief Society, and journals of early church leaders like George Q. Cannon and Wilford Woodruff have yielded new insights into the Church’s history. Information from the Joseph Smith Papers, for example, led to “adjustments” in headings for 78 sections in the 2013 edition of the Doctrine and Covenants.

Besides these more academic endeavors, the department has worked to use their historical materials for more devotional purposes. Their 2013 Revelations in Context, a collection of narratives designed to provide background to D&C sections, was intended for use by regular members as a “study resource” to supplement the adult Sunday School curriculum. In a slightly different vein, the department published At the Pulpit, a collection of sermons by female leaders from the earliest days of the Church to the present. Throughout 2018, selections from this collection have been published alongside teachings of modern-day leaders in the Ensign.

Saints is not the first time Church historians have produced a comprehensive church history for regular members. Single-volume compilations include Our Heritage: A Brief History of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (1996), used in the Sunday School curriculum, and The Story of the Latter-day Saints (1976), deemed too controversial by some church leaders to pass muster as an official church publication. Multi-volume attempts are much more rare, the most recent of which was B. H. Roberts’ 6-volume Comprehensive History of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (1930).

“A different kind of history”

So what makes this new series “a different kind of history”? First, it benefits from the extensive research of the last few decades. More primary source records are accessible than ever before, correcting and clarifying previous misconceptions. (Or, at least, better illuminating what has better support and what doesn’t. History isn’t exactly clear-cut.) In the first seven chapters of Volume 1 released in church magazines (also in the Gospel Library app and on the Saints website) we see extensive footnotes linking to digital images of handwritten primary source documents. Footnotes also link to special topic sections on the Saints website that go more in depth, like explaining possible problems with contradictory personal accounts (for example, see the topic of Martin Harris meeting with Charles Anthon). Of course, Gospel Topics essays on subjects considered troublesome or controversial are also noted and linked.

Saints - First Vision Section
Screenshot of Chapter 2 talking about Joseph Smith recording the account of the First Vision at various times over the years. Note the resources in the footnotes section on the right.

Second, what makes this history different is the writing style. It’s much more engaging than typical church manuals or textbooks. There are smaller paragraphs, less focus on dates and names, and bite-size chapters. Even someone as disinterested in history as my husband could survive a few pages of this before his eyes glazed over. Elder Snow said the goal was a 9th-10th grade reading level, and advertisements suggest the targeted audience is youth and young adults. The managing historian on the project, Steve Harper, explained on a recent podcast that a team of creative writers were brought in to ensure the story would be exciting, in addition to being historically accurate. (Which is good, because the readers attention will need to be held for a long time. According to the product description on Amazon, this book clocks in at over a 1,000 pages. Update 9/4/18: the physical book is not nearly as long as the Amazon description, but the weight and almost 2-inch thickness could still be intimidating. There are over a hundred pages of endnotes, and the main story is still 586 pages long.)

Creating this series was incredibly challenging. To satisfy intellectual honesty, historians are compelled to point out ambiguity and nuance, primarily accomplished in this volume via the footnotes and special topics sections. To keep readers engaged, narratives had to remain simple and direct. However, inoculation against less faith-promoting narratives (a major goal of modern church education) required controversial and possibly faith-challenging details to be included and resolved as quickly as possible in the main body, not just hidden in footnotes. It remains to be seen how well this balance is maintained through the entirety of the volume (I’ve only seen the first seven chapters).

Publicity campaign

To me, the most exciting element of this new series is the publicity campaign. The Church honestly and truly WANTS members to know about Saints.

Let’s back up to when the Gospel Topics essays came out. The first two essays were released in November 2013. Do you know when the first Newsroom statement I can find talking about those essays was released? November 2014. Yep, A YEAR LATER. The first time church leaders kind of informed local leaders of the existence of the essays was in September 2014 via memorandum, but they didn’t even mention the essays specifically (just the Gospel Topics section). The Salt Lake Tribune reported at the time,

For about a year, the LDS Church has been posting on its website carefully worded, scholarly essays about touchy topics from the faith’s history and theology….

The articles simply appeared on the church’s site under the heading “Gospel Topics,” with no news releases and no fanfare. Many of them were reported in The Salt Lake Tribune and other news outlets, but they were not read over the pulpit in Mormon congregations, nor mentioned in the faith’s semiannual General Conferences.

Now the Utah-based Church of Jesus Christ of Later-day Saints is at least making its male leaders aware of the essays.

A memo dated Sept. 9 from the church’s “Priesthood Department” to “General Authorities; Area Seventies; Stake, Mission, and District Presidents; Bishops and Branch Presidents” explains the purpose of — and audience for — the controversial articles.

“The purpose of the Gospel Topics section is to provide accurate and transparent information on church history and doctrine within the framework of faith,” the memo said. “When church members have questions regarding [LDS] history and doctrine, possibly arising when detractors spread misinformation and doubt, you may want to direct their attention to these resources.”

Okay, now let’s look at just SOME of the publicity for the new Saints series:

Church History - Facebook Screenshot
Current Facebook page for the Church History Department. They are REALLY excited about Saints.

Will young adults bite?

Research by Jana Reiss shows that one of the top reasons Millennials leave the Church is a “trust gap.” They do “not trust the church leadership to tell the truth surrounding controversial or historical issues.” More transparency and honesty is becoming not just desirable, but critical. At a 2017 Face to Face event, Elder Ballard pleaded with young single adults, “We’re as transparent as we know how to be in telling the truth.”

A complicating factor is that ecclesiastical leaders often aren’t equipped to deal with challenging historical issues. In spite of recent efforts like the Gospel Topics essays, Elder Ballard encouraged students at a BYU devotional last year to turn elsewhere for Church history questions.

I worry sometimes that members expect too much from Church leaders and teachers—­expecting them to be experts in subjects well beyond their duties and responsibilities. The Lord called the apostles and prophets to invite ­others to come unto Christ—not to obtain advanced degrees in ancient history, biblical studies, and other fields that may be useful in answering all the questions we may have about scriptures, history, and the Church. Our primary duty is to build up the Church, teach the doctrine of Christ, and help those in need of help….

If you have a question that requires an expert, please take the time to find a thoughtful and qualified expert to help you. There are many on this campus and elsewhere who have the degrees and expertise to respond and give some insight to most of these types of questions.

Which brings us to the upcoming young adult Face to Face event with Elder Quentin L. Cook on September 9th. Based in Nauvoo, Illinois, the event is all about Church history, and the program will include actual Church history experts. Historians Kate Holbrook and Matt Grow are scheduled to speak alongside Elder Cook and will presumably assist in addressing user-submitted questions. Maybe this could work.[2]

Questions:

  • Have you seen any of the publicity for this new Church history series, Saints?
  • Have you read any of the first seven chapters that are publicly available? If so, what did you think?
  • Do you think youth and young adults will read this new Church history? Do you think the book will have any long term effects?

[1] At the Church’s online store, you can pre-order a hard copy of the book in Cebuano, Chinese, English, French, German, Italian, Japanese, Korean, Portuguese, Russian, Samoan, Spanish, Tagalog, and Tongan. According to a Mormon Channel podcast on the series, those languages reach approximately 98% of Church members. The first seven chapters have been published in the Liahona magazine, making them available in 47 languages.

[2] Meetings where general authorities speak alongside Church historians to address controversial Church history issues are not unheard of in recent years, typically in response to group or personal disaffection. Two that Bloggernacle readers might remember are a 2010 fireside in Sweden (usually mentioned in association with the “Swedish Rescue”) and a 2015 area business weekend meeting in Boise (the “Boise Rescue”). I suspect the upcoming Face to Face event is meant to be more preventive than reparative, though.

Lead image from LDS Media Library.