On September 4, 2018, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints released a new history: Saints, volume 1. (The whole history is planned to be 4 volumes in all.) The printed it in paper and electronically, and they even added it to the Gospel Library app that’s freely available on almost all electronic devices. You can read the entirety online, as well.
I started reading it when it was published, and I’ve been plugging away at it since then, only recently finishing it. Reading through it prompted a number of thoughts, and I wanted to try and get those down in one form or another. This post may get a bit rambly. Apologies in advance.
First, I have to say I wish the Church would use this text as the basis for its Sunday School lessons for a year. I know that would be a big departure from the tried and true method of “one book of scripture per year” approach that’s been used since I can remember, but I feel having the entire church body study this history together would do a lot of good. Why?
For one thing, it would address a problem that’s becoming more and more pervasive. Opponents to the church love to play gotcha with church members, looking for items in the church’s history that aren’t regularly highlighted, and then trotting those items out, telling members, “See? The church is hiding this from you!” This would include things including seer stones, multiple accounts of the First Vision, Joseph Smith’s plural wives, freemasonry, and more.
And in many ways, the detractors have a point. These elements are not highlighted in church lessons or church talks. They have been addressed now and then over the years, but it isn’t surprising that many or most church members haven’t heard of them.
When members finally do encounter them, they turn to the most logical resource to find out more: Google. And (speaking as a trained librarian), Google can really do nothing but let them down. Its algorithms focus on site popularity and search engine optimization. It doesn’t discern between “accurate” and “inaccurate”. What’s worse, the church detractors argue “You can’t listen to what the Church has said about it. They’re just going to lie to you.” And so questioners wander off into the only other sites that pop up when you Google Latter-day Saint history: sites largely created by people seeking to tear the church down.
It would make so much more sense to have church members go through those tough topics together and discuss them as a group. Pull the bandaid off once and for all, and bring it all out into the open. I’ve never been one to shy away from the more sensitive topics, confident that truth is truth, and I’ve always come through each challenge stronger than before it. Of course, it also helps that I’ve never been one to believe our leaders our infallible. I think we generally fumble along as best we can, and that applied to the early days just as it applies to today.
Another problem with the church’s approach of publishing these things online and in apps is that it’s too easy for them to be ignored. For example, the church published its Gospel Topics essays, including an important one on racism in the church. It has this important quote:
Today, the Church disavows the theories advanced in the past that black skin is a sign of divine disfavor or curse, or that it reflects unrighteous actions in a premortal life; that mixed-race marriages are a sin; or that blacks or people of any other race or ethnicity are inferior in any way to anyone else. Church leaders today unequivocally condemn all racism, past and present, in any form.
But despite this publication, I still occasionally hear of members who cling to past explanations for the priesthood ban, and who refuse to believe anything that goes against those beliefs. When pointed to the online articles, the articles are dismissed because they’re “hidden away online somewhere.”
It’s time to stop hiding. And while publishing those essays and this history are laudable, it’ll take more to get membership as a whole to actually pay attention. And I don’t believe this history works as a “read this if you encounter questions” fix. If members are upset about what they’ve heard about Joseph Smith, they’re not going to turn to a 500+ page book. They’re going to Google. But if they read the book first, the end result might be quite different.
Don’t get me wrong. Saints doesn’t paint church history in an always favorable light. It doesn’t shy away from problematic areas, and that’s one of the reasons I liked it. Of course, detractors will no doubt continue to claim that it’s making things too tidy, but I think it’s done an admirable job of trying to piece history together into a narrative you can make some sense out of. Better yet, it provides references and footnotes for everything. (Yay!)
The Church has had detractors since it began, and many were willing to write just about anything to discredit the religion. Simply citing something because it’s contemporary to the church history doesn’t give it any more likelihood of being true compared to something else written at the same time. The fact that Saints includes both the good and the bad makes its account that much more believable.
Really, my sole complaint was that the writing itself was overly simplistic, but I’m sure that was done on purpose. The church wants this account to be easily understood by everyone at all levels, and so they made it very approachable. Sometimes that means it comes across a bit like an “easy reader,” but it doesn’t discount the facts laid out in it at all.
What did I think, after reading the book as a whole? I came away with a new appreciation for just how difficult those early years of the church were. How much struggling there was to find their way. There seems to be a tendency in many religious people to assume people who lived in an earlier era had more access to God, whether through angels or revelation or through direct appearances by a Supreme Being. And while there is some record of that in the early church, for the vast majority of it, they’re getting by the same way we get by today: by making decisions that seem good at the time, but prove to be far more problematic.
It was a reminder to me that it’s a mistake to assume earlier members had it easier. That somehow revelation was more direct back then. Instead, they tried multiple solutions to different problems. Some went well, some were disastrous. Members were flawed. They caused almost as many problems for themselves as others did.
Kind of like today.
Overall, I found it illuminating and well executed. There were even some things that I hadn’t encountered before, and the narrative is well pieced together. I strongly recommend members and non-members alike to read it if they’d like a fuller view of the history of the church. 8/10