Well, it is great to be here with you. Not only are there a lot of Matts on the program at Fair
this year. We have many more Matts to offer at the Church History Department. We joke about this frequently, that maybe we have kind of an affirmative action program for Matts.
It’s good to be here. I’m going to talk to you today about a project that I’ve had the pleasure to be involved in over the past few years at the Church History Department. Most members of the Church History Department work here in this building that you see. It’s the Church History Library. If you haven’t had the opportunity to go to the Church History Library, I suggest you take that opportunity the next time you’re in Salt Lake City. It’s west of the Conference Center. Of course it’s an archive and a library and has a reading room and all of the kinds of things you might expect of such an institution. But we also have some display cases that are available to you, so that you can go see some of the treasures that are a part of the Church’s collection. Those collections are housed in this facility. If you look at it you can see all the offices of course wrapped around the front. But if you look at the top you can see on the roof that light-colored bump. That’s the vault that’s in the back of the building. It’s the large multi-storied vault, and it contains the Church’s historical collections. Since most of you will probably not ever have the opportunity to go into that vault and see what it looks like, I brought a picture of my team and me in the vault, just to give you a sense of what it looks like. It’s actually much more boring than that. Here’s an actual picture from the inside of that vault, and it just is full of rich historical treasures and documents and that’s one of the pleasures that we have as members of the department, is to be able to work with those collections to try to write and produce histories, both for scholarly audiences, such as the Joseph Smith Papers, and for member audiences, such as the Saints series of books of which we released the first volume last year.
I want to talk just for a few minutes about Saints. You’ll hear about this project from others or have already heard about this project from others at the conference. But my topic relates to it in a very direct way. The Saints volumes are as you know are our latest attempt as a Church to produce a history, to fulfill the scriptural mandate to keep a history. How many of you have read some of those volumes? So a good number of you have read parts of those. You know that these volumes, which are the heart of the Saints project, are written in a narrative style. This was done with the intent of hopefully reaching a much broader audience than we might otherwise have reached if we had taken a different approach to writing this history. They’re very readable and engaging and fun to get into.
But we also knew that as we published this history, in addition to making it very readable and checking off a number of different boxes and objectives for this history, that among those was an obligation to be as complete as we can to allow those who want a deeper dive to learn more about history than what is in the narrative that’s presented in the books themselves, that we would give them recourse to more resources.
And so, what I hope to do is help you understand the Saints project, not as just what’s between the covers of those four books, but it has been a much larger effort that really spiders out to connect with a lot of the things that you see pictured here, including our catalog, the efforts that have been made to digitize the materials in our collection, make them available to you, to publish the Joseph Smith Papers, to publish these other materials. We have videos that we have produced in conjunction with Saints that tell some of the key stories and answer some of the questions that are raised in the text of the books. We have a podcast. We’ve published a series of global histories, short histories about the Church and the establishment of the Church in eventually over one hundred countries when the series is complete.
A lot of these efforts, including the global histories and including the Topics that I’ll talk about with you today and the videos, were produced as a part of the Saints project and can be understood properly as part of Saints.
We deliver most of these resources via the Gospel Library app. It would not be inappropriate if you haven’t looked at the Church History section of the Gospel Library app for you to take your phone out and pull up the Gospel Library app and go to the Church History section just to take a quick look. I’ve got it here on the screen for those of you who want to just follow along up here. But you can see in the top left corner Saints Volume 1 and then Volume 2. Right next to those you will see the Church History Topics that I’m going to talk a little about today, and a whole host of other resources. You can see the global histories there. I hope you’re all downloading all of these as I’m listing them off: the Gospel Topics essays, The First Fifty Years of Relief Society, and so forth.
These Topics are an effort that we have made to do some of the things that we really know are important to do, that we know as historians we need to do in any history project that we are going to undertake, because of the decisions we made about how to approach writing the narrative volumes we couldn’t do in the volumes themselves. And so, in conjunction with the publication of each volume, a number of Topics will be published to this resource, and taken as a whole, they at the end of the day provide almost a nice alphabetical listing and encyclopedia of different historical topics that you can access in the app as well as the way that they’re connected to Saints, which I’ll show you in just a minute.
Each one of these Topics addresses some issue or question or the life of a person or a place. As I mentioned, they are connected to the footnotes of Saints. So as you encounter one of these issues or questions in the narrative, as the narrative raises a question, we’ve hopefully done a good job of providing in the footnotes a reference to one of the Topics that can help answer that question.
Many of the Topics are illustrated with photos, so if there is a character in the books that you really enjoy reading about and you would like to know the rest of the story and see a photo, connect with this person visually, you can see their photos. Many of them have videos that either tell stories in a documentary film-making style or address questions or attempt to provide answers to historical questions that you might have. And all of the Topics contain additional readings and resources that you can use. We recommend a lot of Church resources that have been published. Many of them might be things that we’ve published as a department and are some of the things that you saw there in the Gospel Library app. And others might be references to scholarship on this particular historical point.
What is the point?
So why publish all of these Topics? These are questions that people often have. Did they introduce any new information? For the most part, the Topics represent a brief synthesis of a vast historical literature that already exists, so in that sense, not doing any particularly new work. But there are instances that I’ll show you where they do introduce some original research. But as we developed our plans for Saints and the Church History Topics we identified several jobs that these Topics needed to do. Some of them relate, as I’ve said, specifically to the way that they dovetail with and supplement the Saints books.
But as I looked at that list of jobs that we’ve always used as we’ve developed the Topics, in preparation for my presentation, it occurred to me that in some ways this list of jobs amounted to kind of a statement of philosophy, a philosophy of public history, at least as it pertains to the Church, writing the history of the Church for members of the Church. And so I wanted to talk about what some of these jobs are with you that we identified as we scoped this project, and then with each one articulate an underlying belief that explains why we felt it was important to write something along these lines, and then give you a few examples from the Topics themselves.
One of the objectives of these Topics is to build on our efforts that we have been making for some time now in the Church History Department to be more transparent about the history of the Church. This of course is following in the example of the Joseph Smith Papers. It’s an extension, this project is in many respects, of the Gospel Topics Essays project that we were engaged in several years ago.
When we worked on the Gospel Topics Essays that we were given somewhat limited charter to address some specific topics and in the Church History Topics themselves, we’ve taken the opportunity to expand on that list and to write on a much wider array of historical questions. These tend to be briefer than the Essays, but do some similar work along these lines. Examples of this might be Topics that relate to plural marriage, rather controversial aspects of Church history.
One of the things that we try to do with the Topics is to supply historical context. We are mindful that the past is a foreign country, that they do things differently there. And we remember that all of us are prone to view the past through a presentist lens. Presentism of course is the tendency to interpret the past in terms of modern cultural values. Historian Lynn Hunt said that,
Presentism, at its worst, encourages . . . moral complacency and self-congratulation. Interpreting the past in terms of present concerns usually leads us to find ourselves morally superior. . . . Our forbears constantly fail to measure up to our present-day standards.
The underlying belief that animates our efforts here to provide context is that by giving context we’re able to prevent this kind of thinking. That’s not to say that we cannot or should not reject aspects of past cultures as we encounter them and discover them, but we owe it to historical actors to attempt to understand their actions in terms of their time and place.
So a couple of examples of this in the Topics. I’ll reference Topics, some of which have been published and some of which are forthcoming with Volume 2. With Volume 2 of Saints we produced a Topic that deals with the question of Indian slavery and indentured servitude in Utah. For many years before the pioneers arrived in Salt Lake Valley in 1847, American Indians in the region had trafficked women and children that they captured from rival groups. White American and European traders also acquired and sold American Indian captives as slaves or indentured servants, building a slave trade in the West. Within weeks of entering the valley the Saints encountered Indian tribes who had captured children from other bands, and some Saints bought Indian children from these slave traders, in some instances after seeing the traders kill or torture those the Latter-day Saints did not purchase. In March of 1852 the legislature in Utah Territory passed an act for the relief of Indian slaves, a law that regulated the acquisition and care of Indian children. These children could be indentured as household servants for up to 20 years under this law. But those who acquired servants were required to process an indenture agreement with county officials to clothe the children in a comfortable and becoming manner and to provide them with education.
This is a challenging and a difficult thing for us to think about. One of the questions a lot of times that comes up when you encounter this is, why did they not just adopt the children? Why make them indentured servants? In an effort to provide a little bit of context that helps us understand the situation that the Latter-day Saints were in in that moment, we’ve written this:
Adoption was a relatively new type of family relationship in 19th century America. The first adoption statute was passed in Massachusetts in 1851. Until 1884 there was no legal provision for adopting children in Utah Territory. Prior to these laws, indenture and apprenticeship were common ways for children of working class poor or disrupted families to gain the benefits of living in a middle-class home, including education and vocational training, and many scholars view adoption laws as an outgrowth of the practice of indenture.
So we felt like this historical context is helpful to a reader in understanding this somewhat troubling fact that they encounter as they study Church history.
Another example would relate to Martin Harris. He comes under attack frequently for some of the ways that he chose to describe his encounter with the Book of Mormon plates, referring to that experience as having seen the plates through spiritual eyes in some instances. We’ve attempted to help understand Martin Harris’s point of view and his use of that language in this way:
Many Christians in Harris’s day believed that it was dangerous or impossible to witness the divine with the physical senses. This belief was rooted in stories from the Bible. For example, in the Old Testament Israelites who peered in the Ark of the Covenant without proper authorization were destroyed. God’s presence was typically hidden behind a veil, or a cloud of smoke, to shield the eyes of those who were not spiritually prepared. And one of Joseph Smith’s early revelations affirms similarly that humans cannot see God with their natural eyes without being consumed. They could however witness His glory with spiritual eyes if they were changed or quickened by the Spirit of God. It’s clear that Martin Harris considered his witness experience with the plates as just such an encounter with the divine. Conscious of the stern warnings of scripture, he often spoke of the inadequacy that he felt at the time he witnessed the plates. Over the years he employed a variety of phrases to describe his extraordinary encounter, and when pressed by various interviews to clarify whether he actually saw the plates, he spoke both of seeing them with a spiritual eye, emphasizing the unusual and sacred quality of the experience, and also with his physical senses. “As sure as you are standing there and see me,” he insisted on one occasion, “just as sure did I see the angel with the golden plates in his hand.”
And we know that David Whitmer similarly described both the spiritual and physical dimensions of the Witnesses’ experience when he said, “Of course we were in the Spirit when we had the view, for no man can behold the face of an angel except in a spiritual view,” he explained, adding, “But we were in the body also, and everything was as natural to us as it is at any time.”
So those are some examples of how context can help us avoid presentism and make better sense of some of the unusual things that we encounter.
Tell the Rest of the Story
So the next one we call “tell the rest of the story.” The origin of that is just the fact that as those of you who read Saints know, we have point-of-view characters, and we come, and we’re with those point-of-view characters for a short period of time, and then we move on to other point-of-view characters who witnessed other events. Frequently as we tested the volumes with readers, we had people asking questions about what ever happened to these people. And so they fell in love with Amanda Barnes Smith, for example, when we told her story about Haun’s Mill, and wanted to know the rest of the story. And so many of the Topics are an attempt to fulfill this need. But the statement of belief or philosophy behind this is that learning to see the world through another person’s eyes and to understand their choices as they understood them in the moment promotes charity, promotes patience. It allows others the dignity they deserve as God’s children.
A couple of examples that I thought of along these lines include our forthcoming Topic on Brigham Young. Sometimes Brigham Young’s reputation suffers due to his record on race or the violent incidents that occurred during his administration. But in assessing Brigham Young, these issues alone provide a skewed portrait. They need to be considered along with many other factors, including the clarity of his vision around the building of a Zion society in which the poor are cared for and the tenacity and creativity with which he pursued this vision, the tenderness with which he treated his family, his honesty about his own weaknesses, and his persistence in trying to overcome them. Brigham Young was a complex figure by any measure.
Another example would be our Topic on Fanny Algier Custer. Fanny is often objectified in a sense. She is used as a stick that defenders and critics of Joseph Smith alike use in their debates to kind of beat each other up. It’s one thing to try to make sense of the sources about her marriage to Joseph Smith in Kirtland. It’s a different thing to sit down, we found, and to write a biographical sketch of Fanny. We wanted to show her as a complete person, to allow her to have a complex personhood. She had a life after her time in Kirtland that was full, and it deserves to be part of the story that we tell about her. I just wanted to give you a quick glimpse of some of the things we learned as we studied Fanny’s life, things that many of you may not have known. Some of this was new, original research that arose out of our effort to write these Topics.
She was born in 1816 to Samuel and Clarissa Algier. She joined the Church with her family in the early 1830s and worked in Joseph Smith’s household in Kirtland, Ohio. Of course several Latter-day Saints who lived in Kirtland in the 1830s later reported that Fanny Algier married Joseph Smith, becoming his first plural wife. The marriage was evidently of short duration.
She left Ohio with her parents in 1836 for Missouri, apparently staying at a tavern along the National Road, one of the most widely traveled roads in the country. This tavern was owned by the family of Solomon Custer. It was in Dublin, Indiana. Within a few months Fanny married Solomon, and she remained in Dublin for the rest of her life, when her parents continued on to Far West, Missouri, and later Nauvoo, and then finally Utah and St. George. Fanny’s family followed the main body of the Saints from Missouri to Illinois and ultimately to southern Utah, and when Fanny’s father, a patriarch, passed away in the 1870s, his obituary celebrated his family’s faithfulness.
Fanny and Solomon Custer had nine children, only two of whom survived Fanny. The Custers maintained a grocery store in Dublin, Indiana. They invested in a sawmill in nearby Louisville. The family moved to Louisville briefly during a time of financial difficulty, and Solomon attempted to sell the sawmill, but ultimately declared bankruptcy. Fanny and Solomon then moved back to Dublin, where they remained until Solomon’s death in 1885.
The two of them attended the local Universalist Church that Solomon’s father had helped establish, and during Fanny’s later years she became interested in spiritualism. A lot of people across a wide spectrum of Christian denominations became interested in this phenomenon, this movement of spiritualism that in its most recognizable form involves spirit mediums that claim to receive communications from departed spirits. This is a little newspaper article that was published about the time of her death, and it alerts us to the fact that Fanny herself was not only interested in spiritualism, but was a spirit medium, and that she received communications, several of which were on record, and we were able to even find one of these communications, which was a revision of a Calvinist hymn that made it feel a lot more Universalist.
So after Solomon’s death, Fanny moved to Indianapolis to live with her son Lafayette, and then she died in 1889 and was buried in Dublin next to Solomon in a plot of ground that he had cleared as a child. So this is Fanny Algier Custer. She lived a long life, and she is a complex person. I’ll leave it to another place, another time, for somebody to address the interesting questions that this history raises about Fanny’s relationship to the Church and her interest in the Latter-day Saint movement as a young woman. But we felt like it was important to provide and do our best to provide a record that tells the complete story, instead of focusing so incessantly on one controversial moment.
Show Change over Time
The next one would be we want to show change over time, and we have a lot of Topics that do this. You’ll see some of these, or many of them tend to be Topics about different organizations within the Church, whether it’s the Relief Society, or it’s the Young Women’s organizations, or others, where we are able to trace institutional history and show how the Church’s institutions and policies have evolved over time.
But the thing that animates us here is that we believe that understanding how revelation comes line upon line is important, and it helps us to sustain Church leaders with patience, and it brings enduring principles into relief. Revelation almost always comes in response to questions that are brought forward by the cultural milieu in which the prophets lived. On this revelatory dynamism is one of the striking features of the restored Church, and if we really believe that God’s hand has helped direct the history of the Church through revelation, then in one sense we can read the Church’s vast historical record as one way that God communicates His will. Examining changes in Church history helps us put enduring principles in relief against a backdrop of almost constant flux in terms of organizational change.
One example of this might be just the way we’re able in the Topics to trace . . . So there’s a series of Topics, one on consecration and stewardship, one on tithing, one on cooperatives, one on united orders, and one on the Church security plan. We’ll continue to carry that forward in later volumes, but one of the things that we can see here is various attempts by the Latter-day Saints to implement principles that remain constant, that endure, but take on different institutional incarnations over time.
Another example of this would be our Topic on the restoration of the Melchizedek Priesthood. We do have one narrative of that event, if we want to call it an event, that says that Peter, James, and John came, and the Melchizedek Priesthood was restored. What the Topic does for us is show that restoration of priesthood as a process that took years, even decades, and maybe even longer. Some of the things that it notes include the fact that early on Joseph Smith and Oliver Cowdery understood this restoration not in terms of Melchizedek Priesthood, but in terms of what the Baptist told them when he appeared to restore authority to baptize, which is that they now had the power to baptize, but that the power of laying on of hands for the Gift of the Holy Ghost should be conferred hereafter. And so this becomes to be understood as a greater authority. So there is a lesser and a greater authority, rather than Melchizedek Priesthood. And during the first few years that the Church was organized, they didn’t use the terms Aaronic Priesthood or Melchizedek Priesthood to describe the authority they received. Their understanding of priesthood developed over time and with the aid of continued revelation. I won’t take too much more time on this.
The offices were in constant flux as well. There were more keys, more ordinances that were revealed as time went by, and near the end of his life, Joseph Smith spoke with exultation of the Lord’s blessings in restoring the fullness of the priesthood. He described this restoration not as a single event, but rather a series of episodes spanning his ministry. He noted that the priesthood had been restored line upon line, precept upon precept, here a little, there a little. He recounted the miraculous appearance of diverse angels, each restoring their dispensation, their rites, their keys, their honors, their majesty and glory In the power of their priesthood.
So I’m not going to go through very many more. I’ve got one more I’d like to conclude with. Some of the others things that we do with the Topics are to clarify or update well-known stories based on more recent research to interrogate sources more closely, in particular the sources that we use in Saints. We try to be as careful as we can to help readers understand the strengths and weaknesses of the sources that we use in Saints. But that’s not something we can do in the narrative of the books. We do that in the Topics. We try to encourage further reading by pointing you to additional resources.
This last one I wanted to just touch on briefly. We want to provoke pondering, because we believe that we don’t have to treat historical issues or difficult questions like sideshows that we need to hurry past to get on with other matters. We do this frequently when we teach. But sometimes looking at these difficult and challenging events more squarely has some benefits and can teach us. I wanted to show a very brief video clip. It’s just about two minutes long – a video that will be imbedded in the Topic on the Mountain Meadows Massacre, to help you see why we think this is possible and how we might do it.
This isn’t a subject that we often talk about in Sunday School, and yet this video, I think, does a successful job of juxtaposing the handcart rescue of 1856 and the Mountain Meadows Massacre in 1857, and in so doing brings to the surface some important lessons that we can learn. I’ll just show you the end of this clip.
So what do we do with circumstances that are like this? I think the best and really the only way that we can deal with circumstances like this is to look at them in their entirety and look at them honestly and then see what we can learn from them both individually and as a community.
And what lesson do you think we should learn from this?
On the individual level, I think how we react to others, how we consider them in our minds is extremely important. If we choose to act in a Christ-like manner and reach out to people, even in a spirit of self-sacrifice, that creates an upward spiral that eventually takes us to where we are not only benefiting others, but we ourselves are being strengthened in the process.
If we go the opposite direction and spiral downward by beginning to treat people with suspicion, beginning to treat them as though they are the other, then that suspicion eventually leads to a confirmation of suspicion and becomes a self-reinforcing prophecy. And then once you begin to see another person as an enemy, you begin to treat them as an enemy, and the result ultimately is that you end up in conflict, in the case of the Mountain Meadows Massacre, in a horrible conflict that led to complete destruction of people who never should have been hurt.
So what should we learn about this as a group, as Latter-day Saints in general?
One thing I think we can learn is the importance of councils. When it came to rescuing the handcart pioneers, people got together; they counseled together on the best way to send supplies and people out there to help them. In the case of the Mountain Meadows Massacre, each time a council met and considered the details and included the collective wisdom of the group, the decision that was made was generally good. When people then left those councils and tried to operate independently or in small groups that didn’t like the consensus of the council, then the circumstances tended to get worse.
So we can celebrate their handcart rescue and learn valuable lessons from it. But we should also remember the Mountain Meadows Massacre so we learn important lessons from that as well.
Exactly. The Massacre has things to teach us about the past, and I also think that just as we grieve for Latter-day Saints of the past who were killed through persecution, I think we likewise need to grieve for those who died senselessly in the Mountain Meadows Massacre. We need to remember them. We need to honor them.
So this is an example again of not making a side show and dismissing too quickly something that we’re uncomfortable with, but taking a moment to address it squarely and think about the implications of that event or series of events for our faith, for our understanding of who we are and where we are.
Just in conclusion, there are 115 Topics that were published with Volume 1. There will be 68 more published with Volume 2, and others that will be released in conjunction with the third and fourth volumes. You can see here on the screen a sampling of some of what is available, but there are many more, and we just hope that this is a helpful resource to you as you read Saints and go through your own process of discovery about Church history and also as you talk to others who encounter questions or struggle that this will be a resource that you have recourse to.
1. So here’s a good one. Do Church leaders control what you bring into transparency, as Leonard Arrington alluded to?
Absolutely, in a sense. We are publishing for the Church, and all the work that we do is correlated. What I would say, though, in response to that question is that I’ve been unceasingly impressed and in some ways pleasantly surprised as somebody who has come to the department in recent years, at the willingness of Church leaders to allow us to address various topics. I think in some respects the record of what we have been able to publish speaks for itself in that regard. We have a lot of support in this work. Elder Snow, who is becoming emeritus this month has been a phenomenal support and an advocate, and just as we have been able to do with the Joseph Smith Papers, with the Gospel Topics Essays and Church History Topics and other efforts, there is widespread support and an understanding of the Topics, a willingness to have us move ahead and be transparent on almost every topic that we have approached them on.
2. Are there any topics that you have not been given permission to work on?
I can’t think of any that we have said we need to talk about this and gone and asked and told no way.
3. How much of the archives have been read/looked at since the Church has become more transparent?
Looked at and read by whom? The collection is enormous, and there are archivists who have very good understanding of an intellectual control over portions of it, but working within their field of specialty. I wouldn’t know how to answer that in a quantitative way, but we have very extensive access to the materials in the work that we do, and the Church is doing a lot to open up those archives. So if someone from our digital preservation team were here they could speak to this in more specifics, but we are digitizing millions of images every year, and that collection is becoming more and more accessible to you as time goes by.
4. I have one here that will maybe let me answer a broader question. There is a question about how/whether the essay on the Book of Abraham in Church History Topics disagrees with the Gospel Topics Essay.
What I would say is that in each instance when we publish a Church History Topic on one of those topics that is already been addressed in the Gospel Topics Essay, we simply excerpt a short portion of the Gospel Topics Essay and then refer to that essay. So there should be no disagreement.
[This transcript has been lightly edited for clarity and readability.]