It’s been about 100 years since the LDS Church published a history of the Church. Richard Turley thought it was about time to update it and pitched the idea to the brethren. Volumes 1 and 2 have been released so far, with two more volumes to be published over the next few years. Barbara Jones Brown talked to Rick about his role in getting these important volumes published.
Richard: I thought what we really needed was for members of the Church generally, to have a heightened understanding of Church History, to make all ships rise, if you will. So, what I ultimately proposed to our team was that we create a series of volumes that would fit the intersection of three circles that formed a Venn diagram. I drew a circle on the board. I put an H in it. I said, “First of all, these books have to be absolutely accurate historically.” We gathered together a group of historians to help us form the content of the books. Then I drew another circle, and I wrote an L in it. I said, “We want these, also, to be literarily interesting. We want them to engage people from a literary standpoint. We want people to want to read them.” What I said, joking about the fact that you know, many historians write things that are read by only a small audience. What I said to the team was, “We’re going to do something extraordinary. We’re going to write a history that people are actually going to want to read.”
Richard: Everybody laughed at that, because it’s a story that sometimes we write just to our peers. Then I drew a third circle, and I put a big A in it. I said, “The A stands for audience. We want to aim what we’re writing to a ninth-grade reading level, so that it will fit with members of the Church around the world in various cultures.” Then, in addition to all that, we talked about the need for it to be a global history, not just a history of the Church in Utah, but a history of the Church around the world. So that became the basic vision for the Saints volume. My hat is off to all the members of the team, I should say, teams, who helped to bring this about. I was talking to, after I’d gone to the Public Affairs Department, I was talking to a member of the team and I said to him, “How many people ultimately do you think were involved in the production of the first volume of Saints?” He said, “Well, if you take the various teams that wrote, and edited and consulted and translated and reviewed, we’re probably up over 900 people who contributed to that first volume.” So Church history, particularly during the 30 years that I had the privilege of being there was a team sport. I was just grateful to be a member of the team.
The Church History Library is one of the most state-of-the-art libraries in the world. Historian Richard Turley shepherded the construction of the new building, where they moved the treasures of the Church. Barbara Jones Brown interviewed Rick last summer.
Richard: When I got to the Church History Department in 1986, it was located in the east wing of the Church Office Building, four floors. Those four floors were filling up very quickly. A lot of the materials that were gathered in there were gathered from various areas around the world. Yet, there was more material coming in. In fact, at one point, we did a little statistical analysis of how much material we had brought in over the previous five years, and we concluded that if you laid the material flat, so pieces of paper, not end to end, but flat on top of each other, the total amount of material we had brought in during the previous five-year period would have towered above the 28 story Church Office Building. So it very quickly became apparent to us that the facilities we had were inadequate. But even more importantly, the more I looked at the facilities, the more worried I grew. At the time, not now, they’ve been retrofitted since the Church History Library was opened and the materials were moved out of them. They’ve been retrofitted to have fire suppression equipment and to be in better controlled than they were, but at the time that I was there in the beginning, there was very little by way of fire suppression.
Richard: Also, even though while I was there, we put film on the windows to try to decrease the amount of ultraviolet light damage on the spines and box ends, there was still damage from light. So, we took all of that information, and we went upline and we proposed the construction of a new library. It took, essentially, 11 years to get the approvals and ultimately, four years to build the new Church History Library, which is state of the art. It’s a wonderful facility, the best facility we’ve ever had for the historical materials. It’s a great office space for those who work there, as well as a spectacular place for researchers who come to Salt Lake City, in addition to those who will do research online.
What are your thoughts about the Saints volumes released so far? Is one better than the other?
Have you been to the new Church History Library? Are you happy with the online access?
Here’s my simple perspective on The Saints: it is much more interesting than previous official works to the extent that uncomfortable topics are mentioned such as polygamy. I’ll give credit where credit is due.
But just like the Gospel Topic Essays, the purpose in including these uncomfortable topics seems to be to simply inoculate the reader, not truly educate.
I highly recommend that you read the critique of The Saints Volume 1 found on LDS Discussions as you read V 1. But caution: LDS Discussions is not for the TBM.
Rick, I tried to give the first Saints volume a shot, but I found that Rough Stone Rolling was an easier and better resource for getting a sense of what was actually going on at any given period during the early decades of the Church’s founding (and I’m sure Dan Vogel fans will suggest I get on the Joseph Smith: The Making of a Prophet train). I found the various faith-promoting anecdotes about various persons’ experiences to be a distraction from the narrative more than anything (and I get that may result in me “missing the forest for the trees”). I also discovered that, absent the more controversial topics, I don’t find Church history nearly as fascinating. If the race-based priesthood and temple ban, folk magic elements, and polygamy had never occurred weren’t a part of the history, I honestly don’t think I would spend much time at all reading about it (and I enjoy studying history in general). Not sure what that says about me, but I’m sure it’s nothing good.
Sometimes I read “Saints” and sometimes listen to it while doing chores or cooking. They are certainly readable and flow well. I really have enjoyed them.
I do get frustrated that they sacrifice facts (truth?) to support a “faithful narrative” at times. There are several instances when a fact is stated and then a consequence or purpose is inferred when in truth, the proximate cause was something less savory. For example, Joseph was tarred and feathered because people were angry about something W.W. Phelps published (even though JS asked him not to). Yes, the publication occurred, but JS was attacked by family members of a woman that had been “approached” inappropriately by JS. The statement that there were members of the “mob” in attendance at a sermon the next day was true – because the wronged woman was a member as were her family members that objected to the behavior.
Every life has warts and bumps. It’s not necessarily all part of God’s plan for our life. Saints can’t seem to get away from trying to weave in purpose, meaning, and consequences that really don’t line up with historical facts. They occasionally indulge in pure speculation.
On the plus side, there are plenty of footnotes and footnotes to the footnotes that can get you to source material that can provide perspective to the sugar-coated narrative.