One of the tactics that critics have used recently to try to destroy faith is to describe a lesser known event in church history in a way that is intended to shock the reader. By sensationalizing and removing it from its context, and often even misrepresenting what actually happened, the victim is left feeling betrayed by the Church, thinking they have been lied to or that the Church has been hiding or whitewashing its history. Sadly, much of this history has been available (though perhaps not readily accessible), but not emphasized in the curriculum that is taught, requiring independent study, which has not been happening as much in recent generations.
The Church has recognized this problem and is producing a solution. The first volume of a projected four-volume series has now been published in 14 languages and is available in paperback and e-book, as well as online text and audiobook formats. It is written in an easy to understand style, which although entirely factual, draws you in like a novel. This was done intentionally by having literary writers on the project, not just historians. For those who want more information, there are extensive footnotes that point you to online resources, including both in-depth essays and videos, as well as original documents from the Joseph Smith Papers.
The book begins with a message from the First Presidency and a preface explaining the purpose of the series. The body of the book continues, contained in four parts, which are broken up by historic periods. There are also maps, but no other illustrations beyond the small ornaments at the head of each chapter. The back of the book has Notes, a Note on Sources, Sources Cited, Acknowledgements, and a fairly good 15-page Index.
The first volume covers the period preceding the First Vision up to two years after the death of Joseph Smith, when the Saints were able to receive the endowment in the Nauvoo Temple. It covers nearly every criticism and puts them in their proper context, where they can be more easily understood. It concentrates on telling stories of the actual men and women involved, rather than just the institutional church, as previous official histories produced by the Church have done. The result is a detailed history of the Church that includes the sensitive issues while building faith, which already has some critics worried that their work will become irrelevant.
An example is the story of how the Word of Wisdom was received:
While the School of the Prophets was in session, Emma watched the students arrive and make their way up the stairs to the small, tightly packed room where they met. Some men came to the school freshly washed and neatly dressed out of respect for the sacred nature of the school. Some also skipped breakfast so they could come to the meeting fasting.
After class got out and the men left for the day, Emma and some young women hired to help would clean the schoolroom. Since the men smoked pipes and chewed tobacco during the lessons, the room was hazy and the floorboards were covered in tobacco spit when they left. Emma would scrub with all her might, but tobacco stains remained on the floor.
She complained to Joseph about the mess. Joseph did not normally use tobacco, but he did not mind if the other men did. Emma’s complaints, however, caused him to question if tobacco use was right in God’s eyes.
Emma was not alone in her concerns. Reformers in the United States and other countries throughout the world thought smoking and chewing tobacco, as well as drinking alcohol, were filthy habits. But some doctors believed tobacco could cure a host of ailments. Similar claims were made about drinking alcohol and hot drinks like coffee and tea, which people drank liberally.
When Joseph took the matter to the Lord, he received a revelation—a “word of wisdom for the benefit of the Saints in these last days.” In it, the Lord cautioned His people against consuming alcohol, declaring that distilled liquor was for washing their bodies while wine was for occasions like the sacrament. He also warned them against tobacco and hot drinks.
The Lord emphasized a healthy diet, encouraging the Saints to eat grains, herbs, and fruits and to consume meat sparingly. He promised blessings of health, knowledge, and strength to those who chose to obey.
The revelation had been declared not as a commandment but as a caution. Many people would find it hard to give up using these powerful substances, and Joseph did not insist on strict conformity. He continued to drink alcohol occasionally, and he and Emma sometimes drank coffee and tea.
Still, after Joseph read the words to the School of the Prophets, the men in the room tossed their pipes and plugs of chewing tobacco into the fire to show their willingness to obey the Lord’s counsel. (Pages 167-168.)
Some of the other topics addressed include the multiple accounts of the First Vision, the use of seer stones for finding buried treasure as well as translating the Book of Mormon, tensions in Missouri, the Kirtland Safety Society, plural marriage (beginning with Fanny Alger and including polyandry), Freemasonry, the Nauvoo Expositor, and Joseph’s possession and use of a gun in Carthage Jail.
I only have a couple minor criticisms of the book. The style is actually a little too simple for my tastes (it reminds me of a bit of the “For Beginning Readers” graphic novel-style books that the Church came out with when I was a kid). But this is unavoidable because they want these books to be read and understood by every member of the Church, no matter their education level, including Primary kids. And I did eventually get used to it. The associated essays that are linked to in the footnotes are more academic. And the placement of the footnotes is my other criticism—I really prefer them to be at the bottom of the page, rather than all together as a set of notes at the back of the book (of course, the online version has very nice clickable links all over).
I really like what has been done with this book. The Church has really done about all they can to make its history accessible for anyone that will put in the effort to read it, or even just to listen to it. They have made it affordable for every LDS home to have a copy. They are also making a great effort to ensure that everyone is aware of it, such as publishing it serially in the Ensign, creating a podcast discussing it, and even holding a “Face to Face” event for Young Adults. And they have truly accomplished their goal of making it an informative, captivating, and faith-building read.