New Directions in Church History

So read the title of concurrent session 5E of the 2007 Mormon History Association Conference. Earlier, Elder Jensen, the Church Historian, spoke to a packed ballroom over lunch. One of his main topics was the movement in the Family and Church History Department of the Church. This movement was highlighted in the session 5E and portends to be one of the greatest changes in Department’s lifetime.

Elder Jensen shared the new Mission Statement of the History Department, and Steven Olson, the first presenter of 5E did the same. According to a recent conversation with the Dept., this mission statement isn’t ready for public distribution (I would have taken better notes had I known that was the case at the time), but it was remarkable for its outward facing stance. The History Dept., has been the place for people who like to read obscure journals reproduced in poorly lit microfilm readers. Going forward, the History Dept. is going to be the friend of the common member and actively contribute to the goal of helping God’s children make and keep sacred covenants.

Brent Thompson described the new Church History Library, that is currently under construction. The Session ended with Rebecca Olpin whose talk was entitled, “Defining the Church History Audience.” Rebecca described a survey that was administered to American and Canadian Latter-day Saints. Some results:

31% – Church history is relevant in my life.

42% – I learned much of my understanding of Church History from Work and the Glory.

91% – Watch TV or Movies.

53% – visited historic sites of which 93% had been to a visitor center and 80% been to a pageant.

66% – had written family history, and 83 had read it.

33% – had attended institute classes.

She also included some other findings that the Deseret News and Justin discussed. Notably, the respondents expressed the desire to have authoritative (read Church produced) answers to difficult questions and frank discussions of challenging Church history. After presenting the survey results, Rebecca indicated that the History Dept. was committed to meeting the needs of the Saints and that future surveys are being prepared for the worldwide church.

The general message was the History Dept. is going to focus primarily on the average member, by creating content that is accessible via the web or through other media. Olsen said that more people visit in one day than visit the archives all year. Obviously, such talk made all the historians, those people that are the few who actually visit the archives, very nervous. Many of the people balked at becoming a low priority. The presenters unanimously asserted that historians will have the same access as they do today. When asked if the History archives would be digitized and made available online like all the Family History archives (currently estimated to finish in the next 30 years) the panelists said that the Family History Materials have the priority. There is the potential, however, that the Archives, one day, will be virtual. If the access was comparable to today, I probably would never leave my computer…oh, wait…

In the question and answer portion of the session, I asked how the Correlation Department felt about the survey results and the History Departments commitment to meet the needs of the Saints. Rebecca replied that of course all that they produce would be correlated. When I talked to her after the session, she indicated that it was her job to communicate the member’s perspective to the Church and I think she is doing a great job. We’ll see how the Church reacts, though I am not sure that is doing much to answer the tough questions, so they may need to keep trying.

Mormonism is rooted in relatively well documented history. The recognition that History can help in the overall mission of the Church is an important one. Though this new mission will present endless hours of debate within and without the Church bureaucracy, the potential for dynamism is wonderful. My biggest concerns lay in the de-professionalization of the Archives themselves and with the potential for pseudo-historical schlock.


  1. J., this is a pretty good summary. I wish I could be more optimistic, but I’m having my doubts about JosephSmith dot net. It appears to be very incomplete. A search of the historic sites page in Missouri doesn’t mention Independence, Haun’s Mill, or Adam-Ondi-Ahman. And a site search for the word “polygamy” returned a big goose egg. Not good.

    On the other hand, while it would be tempting to scoff at the 42% of LDS who get their history from The Work and the Glory, I think it is actually a good thing. The popularity of the series indicates that there are thousands of people who are interested in their history.

  2. If the History Department can’t provide “authoritative answers” to historical issues and questions … well, maybe they should consider a new name for the department. Yeah, that’s probably unfair, but “correlated history” has the same ring as “regulated free speech.” The terms really don’t go together very well. The initial media reports of the survey were interesting, but your comments are less encouraging.

  3. I’m having my doubts about JosephSmith dot net. It appears to be very incomplete.

    Incomplete or inaccurate? On the page for translation, there are 5 images and a video propagating the false notion of Joseph translating the plates like a book. Three of the readings listed do not mention seer stones, but rather claim that the method is unknown. While it does list Dean C. Jesse’s Joseph Knight Recollection, the link provided does not work.

  4. Ugly Mahana says:

    Why should the Historical Department be responsible for providing “authoritative answers”? Wouldn’t this just invest the Church in single historical theories to the exclusion of other possibilities? And, wouldn’t this be precisely the type of speculation that breeds accusations of cover-up?

    I think the History Department does well to present facts, but few conclusions. The Church is in the inspired truth business, not the teasing out historical nuances business.

  5. Nick Literski says:

    If the Historical Department’s mission is “to help members make and keep sacred covenants,” don’t plan on open access. Inevitably, certain leaders will determine that “some things that are true are not very useful.” In the name of “helping member make and keep sacred covenants,” much that is considered faith-challenging is likely to be restricted. It’s a sick perspective, but it’s all too real.

  6. Steve Evans says:

    Nick, it’s not a sick perspective. Obviously you do not consider anything in the LDS church to be sacred and so feel the urge/compulsion to shout everything from the rooftops; but for those who still consider themselves members of the Church there are a number of topics that need to be explored respectfully and with the recognition that some sacred things are not meant for the world.

    If you feel the need to mock the Church’s aim of helping members make and keep sacred covenants, feel free to go elsewhere.

  7. Thanks, J., for the interesting post.

    The History Dept., has been the place for people who like to read obscure journals reproduced in poorly lit microfilm readers.

    I hope the History Department maintains a special division to serve that same constituency. Once one experiences the power and capacity of the microfilm reader, one won’t be tempted to look elsewhere (plus, the eyestrain makes it difficult). I speak from personal experience.

    Olsen said that more people visit in one day than visit the archives all year….I am not sure that is doing much to answer the tough questions, so they may need to keep trying.

    As I’ve said in the past, I would like to see more substantive content on the website. Quotes, virtual tours, and photographs are interesting, but it would be nice to see more original source materials–papers, letters, journals, etc.

  8. I’m very much looking forward to the new Libary. Thompson walked through some of the building plans and there is plenty of space for microfilm readers. I agree with you, Justin, that could serve a great research purpose…imagine if they put up the Joseph Smith Papers there.

    As to what is accessible, the potential digitization portends some good things. Like the Selected Collections DVD, in the digital format they can black out a few lines that would otherwise restrict an entire collection. Hopefully we will have more of that going forward.

  9. Steve Evans-

    I completely disagree! I felt the same way Nick did when I read the mission statement, and I am an active member of the church.

    Why is it unreasonable to think that with a mission statement “to help members make and keep sacred covenants,” crucial historical context may be lost?

    And what’s up with asking people to go elsewhere if they don’t agree with you?

  10. Steve Evans says:

    adcama, get used to it.

  11. Good come back, bro….

  12. Nick Literski says:

    Steve, you’ve completely mischaracterized what I said. Yes, it’s true that I am a former member of the LDS church. It’s also true that I do, in fact, respect those things which church members hold sacred (as I do regarding the sacred things of other faith traditions, for that matter).

    You might be surprised to know, Steve, that even now, I refuse to discuss those things which I promised not to discuss about the temple ordinances. You might be surprised to know that I am offended, and tend to say so, when others mock the LDS priesthood garment. I’m not talking about “sacred things” here. I completely understand that some things in the LDS Historical Department archives should remain confidential. That is the case with most organizational archives, in fact.

    What I referred to, was a tendency of “certain leaders,” (i.e. not “all leaders”) to be very uncomfortable with historical disclosure. In the mind of some, anything that could remotely challenge the faith of members should be hidden away and/or silenced. That is, as I said, a “sick” perspective. It operates from fear, not faith.

    I would certainly challenge you to show anyplace that I have mocked the LDS church’s goal of helping its members make and keep sacred covenants. I haven’t done so. I have only expressed my own discomfort and distrust toward those who try to carry out that goal through less than honorable means.

  13. Nick Literski says:

    Did I read you right? Participants in this blog are supposed to “get used to” you telling anyone you disagree with to “go elsewhere?” Surely that’s not really how you feel. You’ve always seemed much more honorable than that.

  14. Steve Evans says:

    Then here’s a better one: calling the Historical Department’s mission a “sick perspective” is something I find lamentable and unacceptable. It might fly in some forums, but it’s the type of criticizing of the Church that is unhelpful and unwelcome here.

  15. Steve Evans says:

    Nick, thanks for your #12. It clears things up for me and I apologize for the vitriol. You were right as to how I was reading your comment, and I’m glad to see we agree.

    In terms of telling people to get lost, etc., that’s a more tricky one. Of course I don’t really feel that way, but it’s a pretty hard-and-fast BCC rule that certain levels of antagonism against the Church just won’t be tolerated here. I don’t think your comment crossed that line, in light of your explanation.

  16. Nick Literski says:

    Steve #14:
    Ouch. My intention wasn’t to call the Historical Department’s mission a “sick perspective.” I was applying that phrase to those individuals who think that carrying out the mission means hiding things and suppressing history in the name of “protecting faith.” Even so, I can see there was room to express myself more delicately. Sorry if I offended.

    Steve #15:
    Thanks. :-)

  17. Speaking of digitalizing historical sources, you might be interested in taking a look at The Constitutional Sources Project.

  18. So what is so restricted in the Archives / HD that “everybody” wants their hands on or is deemed worth restricting?

  19. Melanie, There are general categories of “restricted” materials:

    -General Level minutes and many GA Diaries (though there are many diaries that are not restricted).

    -Temple Related Materials.

    -Materials that treat confidential confessions and church discipline.

  20. Random Guy says:

    Should the Church make all its historic materials avaliable? Or should it withold records that don’t “actively contribute to the goal of helping God’s children (especially common members) make and keep sacred covenants.” That’s what we’re all wondering.

    Let’s be honest. Not everything in the historical record is faith promoting. When I first learned about Joseph’s peepstone, I felt almost physically sick. A few years ago when I stumbled upon an internet ad for Masonic ceremonial clothing (after I saw “National Treasure”), I experienced a day or so of psychological vertigo.

    There are probably a number of disconcerting items sitting in the Church’s archives–otherwise, why limit access to them?

  21. Kristine says:

    Random Guy–do you think it’s somehow more faith-promoting to be given only parts of the story, and then discover the less savory parts from other sources? I’d much rather feel like the Church was being honest. It’s a little bit like in a family–often keeping the secrets ends up being far more painful than the original wound.

  22. Guy, I think you highlight something that is important. There is something of a disconnect between the standard devotional narratives and accurate historical narratives. I think that this is one of the great things about books like Rough Stone Rolling, i.e., they make available to the Saints (and non-members) a wealth of historical fact and context. Consequently, those items that might make one person troubled are ultimately Faith affirming, when appreciated in the entire narrative scope.

    I honestly don’t think that there are any unknown issues that have been hid for the last 170 years. Most of the big ticket items have already been unvailed. What the restricted materials might be able to do is, perhaps, add to the story.

  23. Random Guy says:

    (#20 answers 21 & 22)

    I was mostly sharing an emotional reaction. I’m not arguing that the documents should be released, or not.

    I’m not sure its established that you could learn “the less savory parts from other sources.” The archives may contain information that is unavailable from any other source. We don’t know.

    I don’t understand the Church’s motivation in blocking access to materials, in the face of withering criticism, if the materials aren’t damaging. Why do you think the Church continues to block access?

  24. Random Guy, during the Arington years, there was a remarkable openess in the archives…and some abuses. Some authorities reacted harshly to this. I understand why they have made the policy that they have, even if I think that it is too strict. I do agree, however, that not all materials should be available to researchers. The Church is obviously very protective of the temple. The church has a policy of protecting confessional materials (how would you like it if something you confessed to the bishop were made public?), which is understandable. The General level minutes are the more difficult, though, to ensure honesty and freedom in council meetings, this is probably not a bad idea. I think that a reasonable time limit (75-100 years) would satisfy most concerns. However, as Elder Christofferson explained in the interviewed linked on the sidebar:

    There are, as with any institution, confidential records that are not public. We store minutes of meetings with church officers and so on. Those are private matters, as they would be with a company’s board of directors, and we store those in our archive here. And we have the vaults in Little Cottonwood Canyon which we use for genealogical information and that kind of confidential church records just for preservation.

  25. As for records of disciplinary councils, I remember Elder Oaks saying something about how the dead have rights, and one of them is that their sins (as recorded in church records) will not be brought to light by later generations.
    I also understand that records of tithing and other donations are not made available.
    I think it should be obvious why temple records are not made available.

  26. Random Guy says:


    That’s a good answer to my question. Thank you.

    Question 1:
    From your answer, may I infer that access to materials such as diaries is unrestricted? (since they aren’t church minutes, temple records, or records of transgressions.)

    Question 2:
    I wasn’t aware that bishops kept a record of people’s transgressions. Do you know if that is still the case?

  27. Q1 – Many Diaries are available (see the Selected Collections DVD); however, many Church leaders wrote about restricted things in their diaries. Non-GA materials are, I think, universally un-restricted.

    Q2 – I don’t think they ever did, but you can imagine how sensitive that might be. I have read many, many diary entries of GA’s that have discussed transgressions and confessions.

  28. Random Guy says:

    Thank you kindly for taking the time, J. Stapley.

  29. NoCoolName Tom says:

    During the Arington years, there was a remarkable openess in the archives…and some abuses.

    I don’t know much about the Arington years (it was before I was born, actually), but I find it interesting that I’ve not been told about any actual abuses of the department’s openness during this time. I’ve always heard that certain general authorities didn’t like the “warts and all” history coming out of the department (the “New” Mormon History stuff). Of course, most of the accounts I’ve read were by Dr. Quinn and others who enjoyed that time, so I guess they might not focus so heavily on any problems they might have caused. What sort of abuses occurred, if it’s not improprietous to know?

    (Is impromprietous a word?)

  30. There were not a few purloined copies of microfilm. I think Buerger was the source of much consternation, among others.

  31. NoCoolName Tom says:

    Hmm… Interesting. In any case, I’m all for openness, but it would reflect much better on the Church to have it come voluntarily rather than sneakily by historians.

    Oh, I meant to write “Mr. Quinn.” Don’t think he has a doctorate… Could be wrong.

  32. Mr. Quinn does have a doctorate from Yale University.

  33. NoCoolName Tom says:


  34. We should say Mr. Quinn.

    “Dr. Quinn” has kind of a medicine woman feeling to it.

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