There is a lot of discussion by disaffected, former, or faith-transitioning Latter-day Saints on social media about the presumably deceptive practices that the LDS Church has historically been engaged in to intentionally cover up the unsavory parts of its past that don’t jibe well with the overly-simplistic narrative taught in Sunday School, Primary, Seminary, and Institute.
While I think that the LDS Church should be held accountable to presenting a responsible history, I wince at the assertion that its treatment of its past has been intentionally deceptive, or that the LDS Church has engaged in outright lies.
I am offering here a few historical observations suggesting that the issues are more nuanced than simple deception. I am also drawing on Lindsay Hansen Park’s brilliant “History” vs. “Heritage” vs. “Propaganda” model that she discussed in a recent Mormon Matters podcast episode.
For the sake of simplicity, I am setting Joseph Smith’s History of the Church (also called Documentary History) as the marker for the first attempt at a “comprehensive” history of Mormonism. History of the Church was not penned by Joseph Smith; rather, he commissioned somewhere around twenty writers to ghost write, including familiar names like Oliver Cowdery, Sydney Rigdon, Orson Hyde, W. W. Phelps, Willard Richards, and William Clayton. Although many of the histories were commissioned as early as 1839, the bulk of them were not written until after Joseph Smith’s death. Some of these histories were serially published in the Times & Seasons, but they were not officially collected until B. H. Roberts edited and compiled them into the seven-volume History of the Church, published in 1902. Although the assembled histories offer crucial insights into the events and development of the church, they were unquestionably written in didactic prose—their primary purpose was to prove the Restoration true and Joseph Smith to be God’s prophet. Roberts, skilled as he may have been, followed the didactic style by further downplaying potentially embarrassing details as well as liberally incorporating his own bias. Nonetheless, History of the Church remained the most comprehensive collection for several decades following, and is still quite popular today.
Shortly after the publication of History of the Church, Roberts set about on an ambitious project to author an updated history. Where the former seven volumes conclude in 1848, Roberts’s A Comprehensive History of the Church brought church history into the 20th Century. Roberts initially began publishing articles serially in the Americana magazine (the official magazine of the American Historical Society) between 1909-1915. After his final article was published, the First Presidency wanted to publish the entire collection in six volumes, but this did not materialize. It wasn’t until 1928 that Roberts began to update his work for volume publication in 1930. While Roberts still wrote from the position of devotion, the work was considerably more historically sound than his previous efforts. Roberts consciously set about to critically examine some of the common myths and folklores that had been present in History of the Church, and wrote fairly candidly about controversial topics as seer stones and polygamy. Still, his interpretations were carefully guarded.
The most influential work to emerge from the early 20th Century was Joseph Fielding Smith’s Essentials in Church History, published as a single volume in 1922 (in between Roberts’ multi-volume projects). 1922 is an important year as this is during the Church’s early efforts to publish correlated Sunday School materials that began to standardize and clarify what church leaders considered to be official history. Smith, acting as Church Historian and Recorder at the time, also served on the General Board of the Young Men’s Mutual Improvement Association and, until 1918, was the General Superintendent of the Sunday School program. Essentials in Church History became the de facto primer on church history for the following half century. This is important to understand because the majority of the church’s leadership since were weaned on Joseph Fielding Smith’s volume. The 600-page monograph is, perhaps needless to say, primarily a devotional writing scant in critical examination and devoid of anything scandalous in nature. It is true that Joseph Fielding Smith’s history was a setback in historical publishing when compared to the more candid, though still devotional, work of Roberts; it is also true that Smith’s volume did more to shape future generations of church members and leaders than any other historical publication. But before we throw Joseph Fielding Smith into the lion’s den, I think it is important to consider that more than defending the legacy of the church, Joseph Fielding Smith was protecting the legacy of his family. His was a personal and vested interest in a way that Roberts’s was not. Perhaps rather than intending to be deceitful, he was sincerely telling the truth as he saw it—from the perspective of a Smith, the grandson of Hyrum and the great nephew of the prophet Joseph. To say that he was too close to the history is, perhaps, an understatement. While I cut Fielding Smith a little slack for this, I do so while recognizing that the current mess we are in when it comes to the church’s dealing of its history, in large measure, stems from Joseph Fielding Smith’s time as Church Historian. His was a “heritage” account that became the official history that generations of Latter-day Saints have fondly held to.
Following Joseph Fielding Smith’s death in 1972, Howard W. Hunter, who became the Church Historian in 1970, renamed the Church Historian’s Office as the Historical Department. He appointed Leonard Arrington, the first professional historian to serve as Church Historian and commissioned an updated single-volume history to replace Essentials of Church History, with the intent of bringing the history up to date. Published in 1976 and authored by credentialed historians, James B. Allen (Assistant Church Historian at the time) and Glen M. Leonard, The Story of the Latter-day Saints focused on the popular field of social history, attempting to place Mormonism into its historical environment, and it took a decidedly dispassionate tone while representing a faithful Latter-day Saint perspective. The single-volume history was an initial success, selling 10,000 copies in its first month and selling out of its original printing of 35,000 within three years. However, not all were pleased with the more scholarly and less devotional approach. Apostles Ezra Taft Benson and Mark E. Peterson both expressed concerns that the volume was damaging to faith. Still, the volume was supported by Howard W. Hunter and then-president Spencer W. Kimball.
While The Story of the Latter-day Saints was underway, Hunter also charged Arrington with producing the largest and most ambitious updated history of the church to date. With plans to publish for the church’s sesquicentennial celebration in 1980, Arrington announced that the Historical Department had “contracts with 16 persons, each of whom is writing one volume of the [sixteen-volume] set” (Salt Lake Tribune, 26 Apr 1975). Among these authors are noted historians such as Richard Bushman and Thomas Alexander. The project fell apart largely, it is suspected, because of the frankness of presentation by professional historians, which caused no small amount of uneasiness among more conservative church leaders like Ezra Taft Benson and Boyd K. Packer.
Many of the volumes that were completed for the sixteen-volume sesquicentennial history did end up seeing print through a variety of publishers. Although I do not have a complete list of what has been published, here are the volumes that I have personally collected in my library:
Richard L. Bushman, Joseph Smith and the Beginnings of Mormonism; Milton V. Backman, The Heavens Resound: A History of the Latter-Day Saints in Ohio, 1830-1838; Glen M. Leonard, Nauvoo: A Place of Peace, A People of Promise; Eugene E. Campbell, Establishing Zion: The Mormon Church in the American West, 1847-69; R. Lanier Britsch, From the East: The History of the Latter-Day Saints in Asia, 1851-1996; Thomas G. Alexander, Mormonism in Transition, A History of the Latter-day Saints, 1890-1930.
(If any readers are familiar with other titles that were published, please post them in the comments below.)
In 1981, Elder Packer delivered an address at BYU to CES religious educators where he infamously said:
There is a temptation for the writer or the teacher of Church history to want to tell everything, whether it is worthy or faith promoting or not.
Some things that are true are not very useful.
Historians seem to take great pride in publishing something new, particularly if it illustrates a weakness or mistake of a prominent historical figure. . . . It matters very much not only what we are told but when we are told it. Be careful that you build faith rather than destroy it.
That historian or scholar who delights in pointing out the weaknesses and frailties of present or past leaders destroys faith. A destroyer of faith—particularly one within the Church, and more particularly one who is employed specifically to build faith—places himself in great spiritual jeopardy.
In the Church we are not neutral. We are one-sided. There is a war going on, and we are engaged in it. It is a war between good and evil, and we are belligerents defending the good. We are therefore obliged to give preference to and protect all that is represented in the gospel of Jesus Christ, and we have made covenants to do it.
In 1982, the History Division was dissolved and all of the staff historians, including Arrington, were relocated to BYU campus under the newly-created Joseph Fielding Smith Institute of Church History. Arrington was quietly released as Church Historian and named as director of the new department at BYU, while G. Homer Durham, a member of the First Quorum of the Seventy and former professor of political science at University of Utah, was installed as the Historical Department’s Managing Director. Arrington continued to manage the Smith Institute until his retirement in 1986. Just prior to his death in 1999, he published a telling memoir titled, Adventures of a Church Historian. From 1997-2005, there was effectively no Church Historian. The Historical Department was instead governed by a board of Executive Directors, which included well-known general authorities like D. Todd Christofferson and Marlin K. Jensen. Finally, in 2005, the Church History Department was reopened under the direction of Marlin K. Jensen. Spurred on by the Joseph Smith Papers Project, the publications division of the Church History Department became re-invigorated with initiatives beginning with the 2008 publication of Massacre at Mountain Meadows by Ronald W. Walker, Richard E. Turley, and Glen M. Leonard. To date, this is the most candid look at the history of a troubling event approved by the church; and it was a sign of things to come from the Church History Department (See Gospel Topics Essays), including a forthcoming four-volume history of the church currently underway by the Church History Department that will bring the history up to the 21st Century. While we will have to wait and see how responsibly they represent the past, I remain cautiously optimistic.
So, what happened? Simply put, the non-professional historians won the narrative contest. The didactic approach to telling history remained favorable to the academically-grounded attempt at objectivity and socially-contextualized history. People don’t like “messy,” and that includes our church leaders who were all raised on the same Seminary and Institute curriculum that promoted the Essentials in Church History approach. Borrowing from Lindsay Hansen Park, as a religion we remained more enamored by our “heritage” than our “history.” Perhaps nothing underscores this better than Our Heritage: A Brief History of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, which was distributed by the church in 1996 to its adult Sunday School classes—a 150-page throwback to Essentials in Church History.
Then the Internet happened.
While the church is, without question, paying the price for promoting an overly-simplified “heritage” approach to history, I don’t think the motive was based in intentional deception; rather, I think the disinclinations towards academic approaches to history were based in sincere love for the church and a desire to protect it. Many, including President Packer, felt that advertising our flaws was tantamount to handing our critics information on a silver platter that they could manipulate against us. I believe that the leaders of the church who were reticent towards candid historical examination were not so because they had some sense that the church was built on lies, but instead because they sincerely believed it to be true; and that they distrusted the historian’s craft that tended to remove the spiritual aspects of the faith that were (and still are) viewed as vital to building and maintaining a testimony. I have no doubt that, in their eyes, they were not suppressors of truth as much as they were being the dutiful watchmen along the tower.
We are paying the price for willful ignorance. We are paying the price for placing “heritage” above “history.” It’s a shame that Arrington and his crew were disbanded and that the church followed the “Camelot Era” with twenty years of “dark ages” that even included a witch hunt of sorts (September Six). It’s a shame, and people are hurting now because of this attitude—people who have invested themselves deeply into the narratives that they’ve been taught since childhood; narratives which were only re-affirmed on church missions, and in Institutes and church-affiliated schools. Their pain and feeling of betrayal is legitimate. But does it serve any good to continue the “We’ve been lied to!” mantra without trying to understand how we got to where we are today?
While I understand that I cannot solve feelings of betrayal, I tend to think that past church leaders believed that they were being honest and responsible about the history of the church, but that they were insulated and got much of it wrong. I prefer to look at the present age as growing pains for the church—both its leaders and its members—as this relatively young religion has entered into an unprecedented age of information availability and is rediscovering its own history.