George Orwell to rockers Rage Against the Machine have commented on the power of history and the wars over its interpretation. As a professor of history I constantly try to give my students the power to see the difference between a solid narrative and one that is manipulated. Saints: The Standard of Truth (1815-1846) is the first volume of a much needed update to previous attempts at church history and does a magnificent job of juggling many hard tasks.
The book starts with the eruption of a volcano in Indonesia which affected the weather of the indigent Smith family and necessitated their move to upstate New York. In 500 plus pages anchored by first person narratives and stirring vignettes that often focus on concern for loved ones, the book moves through the most tempestuous and still contentious years of church history. The first hurdle overcome is that the book discusses complex issues such as 19th century American folk religion, seer stones, census data, danites, plural marriage and legal proceedings, and keeps the prose at an accessible level. The ease of reading I would compare to Harry Potter which is a good thing. I’ve read many volumes that have too many ten dollars words in a one dollar sentence that bogs down the text.
The flow is helped immensely by interesting vignettes. From Thomas Marsh obtaining sample pages of the Book of Mormon from the printer, the introduction of the Book of Mormon to Brigham Young’s family and the reaction of the Hales to their son in law’s money digging, the historians and writers picked evocative examples that contextualize the historical events and often controversial issues being discussed. But the text isn’t mind reading or offering faith promoting rumors because these narratives and vignettes are well grounded in extensive primary and solid secondary sources.
The account of the first vision provides an excellent example of this. This is a story that (members formerly known as) Mormons could quote from Joseph Smith history even decades after they completed their missions. But in this volume the account draws on sources ranging from an interview with Smith done by the Pittsburgh Weekly Gazette, an Orson Hyde tract written in German, an Orson Pratt tract, and the journal of Levi Richards on top of copies of primary sources in the Joseph Smith papers (chapter 2 foot notes 2,4,8,9,11.) I read each footnote and their sourcing is incredible and impeccable and there are reproductions of them in the Joseph Smith Papers and online. The extensive research results in a narrative that provides little known details, such as Joseph praying at the location where he left an axe in a tree stump. It also weaves in answers to repeated criticisms such as different first vision accounts, divining rods and peep stones. Again, it does all of this in a concise, readable, and engrossing manner. (Please note, before September 4th I’m limited in discussing material in the book that is already made available. As a result I’m only using examples from the first few chapters.)
This volume shows the power of history in using an intimate knowledge of primary sources, and judicious use of secondary sources like Richard Bushman’s Rough Stone Rolling. The limits of the discipline and often fragmentary sources can be frustrating. This volume does an excellent job at looking back, lightening a window into the past, and providing a solid example for future volumes of church history and how members can talk about it today. It addresses often repeated criticisms. But they talk about it in matter of fact language and in the middle of excellent contextualization which will make the sensationalist presentism of critics seem even weaker. It also looks to the future, by addressing supposedly controversial issues in a matter of fact way in the middle of their historical context; it will strengthen member’s faith and provide room for them to address tougher issues the church faces today.
The truth claims of the church remain a matter for thoughtful reflection and prayer. Critics will still find room to offer cynical rebuttals, though the excellent research and availability of sources will leave many of them impotent. Many members of the church correctly feel they don’t need a testimony of history, just a testimony of the church. Just like members of the church feel the need for geographic and cultural commentary on the New Testament, the history of the early church matters and interested readers will find this illuminating and a masterful, must read history that represents the best the discipline has to offer in pursuit of knowledge.
Sounds like a published work worth getting.
morgan2205, am I right that the firs seven chapters are already available at LDS.org or in the Ensign, but the full printed Volume 1 is not available until September 4? Will it be on sale at Amazon, at Deseret Book, or only through Church Distribution like LDS curriculum manuals?
I truly hope this History set will get widespread usage. The inclusion of potentially negative details/events will be doubly beneficial. Members unfamiliar with them will no longer be blind-sided when they surface; and opponents can no longer use them as secret weapons.
Yes, the first 7 chapters are currently available in the Gospel Library app. I have downloaded them myself and read just a few pages. I have been told that the book will be available at Church Distribution for just $5. (I haven’t been able to verify that.) I suppose Deseret Book will try to sell if for more.
Dave B, it looks like hard copies will be available from distribution and Deseret Book for $5.75. Electronic versions will be available from multiple outlets. From an advertisement: “The paperback book will be available at Deseret Book, store.lds.org, and digitally at saints.lds.org, the Gospel Library app, Barnes & Noble, Amazon, Google, iTunes, Kobo, and Audible.”
Deseret Book has the hard copy listed at the same price as distribution ($5.75) on this page where you can preorder: https://deseretbook.com/p/148688?variant_id=169309-paperback
Five bucks? Alright I take back my comment on the other discussion Mary Ann started that I wasn’t very interested.
Like- that is about 20 minutes worth of work in California at minimum wage, .
Will it sell out quickly?
It would be awesome to see that much demand, but I have a hard time seeing a Church history book sell out quickly when it’s available for free on lds.org and in the Gospel Library app.
I could see hard copies becoming scarce at Christmas time, though. It’s a pretty cheap gift to give to family members.
News of this volume seems promising but I fear it may be like the apology from a cheating husband who, after decades of deceiving his wife, comes home and tries to confess to truths that the wife has known or suspected for some time. Such an apology may do little to mend the relationship between husband and wife, but hopefully it will help the father’s relationship with his kids.
The church had served me and my older children correlated crap for decades. It may be hard for me to ever fully trust it again, but perhaps my youngest child, who is currently 8, may have better feelings towards the institution (though even that’s unlikely as long as POX is on the books).
FYI, the first volume of Saints is available for free on Kindle. Available September 4 (you can preorder it now and it will magically appear on your Kindle device September 4).
Since my comment over on MaryAnn’s post, Saints is now up on AmazonUK (for Kindle) , available from 4 Sept, in both English and Japanese. Well, hallelujah! My husband will be able to read it in both languages (assuming his Kindle can cope with both). There is a charge however, £1.50 for English and £1.53 for Japanese.
So weird. When I wrote my post, Amazon was still charging $1.99 for the Kindle version, and I could’ve sworn Barnes & Noble was also charging a small amount for their Nook version. Both are free now.
Well, nothing’s really free. It’s bought and paid for with your tithing dollars. But it’s nice they are putting money into the curriculum, into getting better history into the hands of the membership, as opposed to buying yet another ranch in Florida or yet another chunk of stocks for their portfolio. It’s a generation too late, but better late than never.
Years ago I had a lot of letter exchanges with Wesley P Walters over the first vision and related matters. He was annoyed when Backman brought out his book on the FV that his work was not even mentioned. We have the exchange between Bushman and Walters in Dialogue, Spring 1969. In the stake where I resided there was an American couple who I asked if they had heard any opinions from the LDS leadership as to the work of Dialogue. They responded that they were not happy with the response by a Mormon historian (Bushman) to a Presbyterian (Walters) work. It is interesting that in Rough Stone Rolling Bushman does not include the Dialogue exchange in his bibliography in Rough Stone Rolling. Walters originally had a shorter version published as a pamphlet as he was tired of “waiting for the entire BYU history department to respond to his paper”. Bushman does make an interesting admission in a footnote in Rough Stone Rolling as to the timing of the joining of the family to the Presbyterian Church. He argues that circumstantial evidence suggests it could have been as a result of a revival in 1823-24 not 1920. See page 570 fn. 30. in Rough Stone Rolling.
Jonathan Stapley wrote the following, and said it was ok to copy..paste.
2 hrs ·
I’ve been an interested observer of the *Saints* project since its inception and have read through a large portion of volume 1. Here is my hot take (I’ll probably write up a review soon): The greatest value of this project is as it seeps into church curriculum. It isn’t a replacement for serious scholarship. While it has clearly passed through correlation, it is an expansion of the narrative and critical apparatus that could hardly have been imagined in previous decades. Things that are important: The inclusion of voices of all sorts of women and men is particularly valuable. The frank discussion of previously sensitive items (e.g., seer stones and polygamy). The supplemental information is more reliable than the narrative (albeit still glossy). For example the essay on sources is great but will largely fly over the heads of nearly every reader. Later interpretive features often dominate contextual readings.
*Saints* is not a replacement for scholarship. You still need to read, for example, Richard or Laurel’s work, if you want to approach what is going on. But it is only an extremely small fraction of the population that was ever going to be engaged in that anyway. The idea that the general membership will have a measure of fluency of the material in *Saints* is a really, really, big deal. So an unalloyed congratulations to the authors and editors and a celebration for the release (volume one is currently available on the gospel library app, and the Saints website).
I still have to make it through the book for the first time. Why am I reviewing it before I finish reading? I was very interested when I started, but as soon as they began to quote the main actors involved in the story… statements like … ““Mr. Pratt,” he said, “if you have any principles to advance of any kind, I should wish you, if you can, to sustain them by that record.” The sentence is in quotes, which means that he actually said those words. Unless someone was in the room with John Taylor and Parley Pratt writing down their words, there is no way of knowing what they actually said to one another. The idea may be true and the outcome may have come about, but putting the dialogue in quotes turns this ‘history’ into a novel, something more interesting to read. But suggesting they actually spoke those exact words was the back-breaker for me. As soon as I saw this liberty being taken with the ‘script’ I wondered how many other liberties were being taken with the history. And I lost interest in continuing on. I have read of those who are quoting statements being made against the church also and after reading them, they were far off base too.
The people , places and events were presented well and it would have been interesting to finish reading. But it came across as a novel being written by an expert author of fiction and not of history.