Spiritual History

General Relief Society President recently said at Women’s Conference in regards to the upcoming manual on the history of the Relief Society,  “There are some things that have come out in that preparation that have delineated some themes for learning. It’s not so important to have a linear history in the Church, but it is important to know our spiritual heritage and history, what themes emerge in that spiritual heritage, and what the Lord wants us to accomplish.”

Is it possible to have a grasp on spiritual history without the context of linear history?


  1. NO. Context is important.

  2. How is spiritual the opposite of linear?

    I think it is completely possible to have a very limited idea of linear history and get the spiritual history. That isn’t the same thing as not being familiar with the contextual history.

  3. I can’t help but read this as they found things in the history that they didn’t like, so decided they they are going to instead reinterpret the history as they see fit.

    Is that too cynical?

  4. Chris Gordon says:

    Giving the benefit of the doubt (but without knowing the full context of the quote-ha!), I’d say the point in the statement was the emphasis is not on giving a complete chronology or spending equal text time and space on every year, but to divide the book according to spiritual themes and use the context and chronology to support it.

    Giving the supreme benefit of the doubt, it’s something akin to the difference between a text on “The History of Slavery in the United States,” and “The History of the United States.”

    But to answer the question, no. But it is more useful as a teaching tool to provide the linear history around themes as opposed to having, “Next week’s lesson will be April 1874 to April 1879.”

  5. Michael says:

    This seems to be the trend these days. For example, with all these Presidents of the Church manuals – the tendency is to make a list of the same themes that get covered over and over, then comb through the collected talks and writings of that figure and cobble them together into a lesson.

    A particular prophet may have had an significant theme in his ministry, but if it isn’t in the standard “Read your scriptures, pay your tithing, Joseph Smith” list, it might not be reflected at all. After all, many prophets had a great deal to say about birth control, but modern manuals never mention the topic. Yes, it’s still cultural to have large families, but I haven’t been chewed out for having just one kid since I left Utah.

  6. Matt W. says:

    One of my favorite history Books is “David O. McKay and the Rise of Modern Mormonism”. It chose to go with “themes” over “linear history” and was the better for it.

  7. SilverRain,
    I’m guessing she meant a series of spiritual happenings as opposed to the scope of what was going on in the Church at the time.

    This could be disappointing if we don’t see what triggered spiritual moments in the lives of the sister of RS. And I can’t see how to address why the RS ceased to exist for a decade without addressing polygamy being a major factor.

    I’m cautious but hopeful.

    Chris Gordon,
    Yes, going by dates to label lessons wouldn’t work so well. You make a good analogy with US history, but I’d argue the Church was so much smaller than the country, and Mormons lived communal and connected in such a way that the history of the Church can’t be separated out quite as easily as a close up on slavery can, at least not so early in our history.

    I have no problem with spiritual themes, but then it shouldn’t be called history. I also think the reason we have seminary lessons with some history, putting the scriptures in context, is because we don’t really get the scriptures without context. Context is everything.

  8. Matt W,
    How so?

  9. Matt W. says:

    mmiles- the McKay bio had chapters on blacks and the priesthood, whether McKay had personally seen Jesus Christ, Communism, the Mormon Doctrine issue, the ERA, Sterling McMurrin, etc. It allowed me focus on how McKay dealt with a single issue throughout his life rather than have to wade through the whole of his life to discover it. I think it gave the book more room to breath deeply on specific topics, as opposed to being a shallow survey of all things.

  10. What Matt W is referring to is that each section of that book takes a particular theme and uses McKay’s ministry as a vehicle to explore the thread. So it goes through his history several times throughout the book, although often in particular portions that skip sections/events of his life that are unrelated to the thread at hand. It’s always linear within each chapter, but not so for the book as a whole. While McKay remains central to the structure, he is sometimes rendered as peripheral to the events described. But each chapter also references the others in a pleasing way. It’s a biography mixed with an examination of the period.

    It is quite a good read. The chapter on Ezra Taft Benson’s relationship w/ McKay & use of the Church for political lobbying is a quite the live wire.

  11. Expecting a church manual to be a no-holds-barred, scholarly, and intensive course in history seems a bit ridiculous. It seems the church is more concerned with strengthening the cohesion of the society than exposing troublesome history. What would the church stand to gain from that?

    Now, whether that’s a right or wrong approach is open for discussion, but it seems absurd to hold some expectation for the church to not</em. seek it's own self-interest. It seems we're a bit too quick to call an obvious move a conspiracy.

  12. Also; I really need to read this David O. McKay book! Thanks for the heads up guys!

  13. I’d like to understand better what she means by those types of history.

  14. Researcher says:

    What J. said. Is this a quote from Julie Beck? From Women’s Conference at BYU? Is it a published talk? Does she mention her definitions of linear history, spiritual history, spiritual heritage?

    Hard to say too much about your question otherwise without knowing her definitions.

  15. Researcher, here’s a link — http://lds.org/church/news/sister-julie-b-beck-shares-lessons-from-relief-society-history?lang=eng . It’s a summary rather than a transcript.

  16. kevinf says:

    I’ve reread the quote a few times now, and my interpretation is that the RS history will focus on spiritual themes and their application for the RS membership of today, and uses history as a subtext for expressing those themes. If that is correct, I expect very little reference to polygamy; or to one of J’s favorite topic, women and healing rituals; but a lot of attention to topics like charity, education, home making (but by some other name), personal revelation, sacrifice, etc. Which is not to say it won’t be good, but I don’t expect as comprehensive a treatment as Prince’s David O. McKay biography.

    Am I correct in assuming that this is a future lesson manual for the RS sisters? And that when that happens, the PH and RS lessons won’t be correlated together? Or could we hope that the PH would also get to use a manual on the history of the RS as a lesson manual? That would be cool.

  17. mmiles says:

    So what I’m gathering from this discussion is we can’t figure out what Sister Beck is saying because it lacks context. Interesting.

  18. A lot of people do their scripture reading thematically. It’s not a bad way to go. Others want every detail of geography and history, which adds new layers of knowledge but can get distracting (and, in BOM “geography” a little contrived). The point is to get something from scriptures or lessons which resonates in our own lives. Anyone interested in Church history has shelves of books to choose from. Of course there is a protective note in anything CES. If people want inoculation, they come to BCC! (And actually, BCC and other blogs comprise a FINE community for discussion of uncorrelated themes and history.)

  19. mmiles says:

    I can see the advantage of thematic scripture study, but if you don’t know at least a little about Ancient Israel of the Greek philosophers at the time of Christ, you’re going to miss a lot.

    I think if we try and apply the scriptures in our lives only, then we tend to look for things that aren’t there, or misunderstand what the text is saying. Why read the scriptures if we are just going to adapt it to our lives, going into it with a the attitude of prooftexting? Why then are the scriptures more holy then any other great work of literature that we can glean a message from and apply to our lives?

    I’m not saying we need linear history for the sake of inoculation, but for the sake of context, so we understand when a woman through faith heals her husband by the laying on of hands, it was normal, not unique. That puts her faith in context. It’s not really fair to speak of Emma and Joseph’s marriage (like the last manual did) as if it was conflict free. It would be a richer lesson if we knew of their struggles and the love that remained despite them. Did Emmaline B Wells talk spiritually about the power of women? Then it would good to know about her fight for suffrage. If we talk about women being midwives and caring for one another, then it would be good to know it was a calling they were set apart in, underscoring the signficance of the body within our faith.

  20. Margaret Young says:

    I think you make excellent points, m. I would love it if you wrote the manuals. I could probably even get in to RS that way. (I do struggle a bit.)

  21. mmiles says:

    I’m not sure what the history is for. Thanks for your comment.

    You are kind.

  22. I was trying to read a history book going back to ancient times that was brief to get a time line of events straight in my head. It just never works. I am more of a story person or a abstract thinker. Yes, I think it is good to have some history but you don’t always have to have all of the events surrounding something. It may be possible to have a Spiritual History void of any event history. However, I do find that learning about history does make it much richer to study the Gospel.

  23. DavidH says:

    I agree with Michael. I am not sure this is a proper term, but I think what we may see is selected portions of history as “proof text”, just as the Presidents manuals were constructed. Sorry to sound cynical. I suppose Margaret is right, if a person wants real history, correlation is not the place to find it.

  24. DavidH says:

    I agree with Michael. I am not sure this is a proper term, but I think what we may see is selected portions of history as “proof text”, just as the Presidents manuals were constructed. Sorry to sound cynical. I suppose Margaret is right, if a person wants real history, correlation is not the place to find it.

  25. Indiana says:

    I haven’t read through all the comments as I’m on my way out the door, but just to throw in my $0.02: speaking as a historian you really need at least a rudimentary grasp on the chronology of events to grasp any themes. Not to mention that it’s easier to see what context influenced the development of certain themes, spiritual or otherwise, throughout history if you understand and are conversant with the chronology. I know I had this problem with some of the more disjointed Church History lessons in seminary – both when I was learning it and when I was teaching it.

    Chronology supplies context, otherwise it’s just a lesson on concepts, not history.

  26. “Spiritual history” is a near-nonsense term. Church history is interesting/weird, and important to boot. All the more if you actually believe it! I think the authorities fear that actual knowledge will “shake your faith,” which reeks of sketchiness to me. If a belief cannot withstand scrutiny, it’s not worth holding, folks.

    The most interesting Mormons I know are the ones who have a very, very solid knowledge of Mormon history, and simply don’t seem that “shocked and appalled” about Mountain Meadows or Joseph Smith’s wives, etc. Obviously institutions change: the same could be said for the USA. But if someone wants to resign over historical issues, is that not legitimate?

  27. britt k says:

    I can see obvious value in spiritual history…what I see as the testimony of the saints, their spiritual experiences and their sermons.

    I agree you’d need atleast a little context to make it more meaningful.

    I worry about thematic history because it encourages the simplifying of history to fit a nice neet little theme, as if there is only one lesson to be learned from Haun’s mill (follow your leaders and you’ll NEVER be shot…duh).

    I’d rather have a bunch of real actual stories straight from journals, than someone’s watered down textbook version of an event—oh looky it even has a moral.

    I see a spiritual history as possibly including the lesson learned by the actual person involved (not the assumed one and only approved lesson learned-but what they learned).

  28. #7 mmiles—She didn’t say it wasn’t at all important to learn linear history, just that it wasn’t as important as the what the thematic spiritual history can teach us about the Lord’s will concerning us. Because of this, I would wager that your guess as to her meaning reflects your biases more than what she actually meant. Sister Beck doesn’t strike me as a person who shies away from reality.

  29. I think that the Bloggernacle and associated regions do not constitute the audience for this history, whatever it turns out to be. I think it is a hopeless expectation for anybody of any stripe to turn out a history that would satisfy the wide range of commenters in this thread. I think the Bloggernacle wants some fusion of Janice Allred and Laurel Thatcher Ulrich, and it ain’t going to happen, sisters — and even if it did, the Bloggernacle would find some other reason to despise it. I think that the publication will be picked to pieces, shredded, spat upon, wadded up, and thrown back as toxic waste.

    I think that it will succeed marvelously with what I imagine is its intended audience: Women who have no awareness of institutional history beyond whatever boring pageantry they’re exposed to on March 17, who don’t need academic history, and who do need to realize that Relief Society is more than a room to sit in on Sunday morning. Some in that audience will realize a greater vision of the potential of Mormon women, and it will change their lives and their service.

    If bloggers don’t like what they get, if they think they know better, write something else.

  30. Ardis,
    I am not trying to pick apart something I haven’t even seen. I am wondering though what you think. In your opinion (manuals aside) is it possible to have a grasp on spiritual history without the context of linear history?

  31. The gospel is taught as fiction in series of metaphorical paradigm stair steps. The Garden of Eden who knows? There was no global flood. Where is the archeological evidence for the BoM and what do we make of the opposing DNA evidence? Teaching by fact is lacking because it is uni-dimensional it is simply a list of facts. Teaching by fiction can be deep rich and multidimensional such as a parable. Context is a useful tool it helps us understand the author’s intent and helps construct a lineal history but of what? Fiction.

    Beyond this I agree with SilverRain and Matt W.

  32. Mark Brown says:


    I guess I’m not convinced that a linear history is necessary. The JSPP is the best and most ambitious project we have ever undertaken and it is presented topic by topic instead of in chronological order. Of course, I guess you could make the argument that anybody who is interested in the JSPP already has sufficient understanding of underlying context that a linear history is not necessary.

  33. Kristine says:

    I think Ardis is right about the audience, and about the fact that the introduction of any historical context for Relief Society will be helpful. (But Ardis, a combination of Janice Allred and LTU would be so combustible they wouldn’t even be able to box and ship enough copies for bloggernacle harpies to shred ;))

    My only real worry is that they will depict a retroactively correlated organization–that the autonomy and initiative of the early RS will be downplayed in favor of emphasizing direction given by the hierarchy. That’s a serious distortion that would be all too easy to introduce, I think.

  34. mmiles, I’m sorry. I confess my comment was provoked more by a few comments than by your OP. Your questions are legitimate.

    I do think that any real grasp on history, as contrasted to anecdote, needs a linear framework. That means something more than a brief timeline, but doesn’t necessarily have to be as extensive as we usually find in a survey of, say, American history, or even the seminary church history curriculum. I don’t know that there won’t be an adequate context or framework in the proposed publication, because, frankly, it’s hard to form any real idea of what to expect based on the little that has been said so far. I expect it will be short, maybe along the lines of the Truth Restored text used in Sunday School to accompany the D&C lessons, but probably not more extensive than that (a guess based mostly on the way Sister Beck referred to “a publication” rather than “a book,” and also based on how unlikely I think it is that many of the women I know personally would read much more than that. If that.)

    But I also guess that what she means by “spiritual history” is an emphasis on the guiding spirit behind RS activities of the past — we trained nurses and built hospitals because of our mandate to bless the sick; we built granaries and saved wheat because feeding the hungry is one of our missions, etc. That’s a far cry from what I gather some here mean by “spiritual history” (i.e., the expectation that only enough history will be included to illustrate a typical boring Sunday lesson on generic “service” or “families” or whatever). I do think it will be history, genuine history, rather than a concept manual, although I also expect the history to be short and to focus on earlier manifestations of the principles we still teach in association with RS (long on caring for the needy, and a total emphasis on exercising leadership within the family rather than on engaging the world through its organizations).

    All pure guesswork, though.

  35. I also confess that I tried mightily to find out who was working on this history, so that if at all possible I could volunteer some previously unused stories to illustrate the topics they almost have to have included. I couldn’t find one single person who admitted to being on the writing committee or a research lackey, or doing anything in connection with it. I don’t know whether it involved real historians, or missionaries, or general board members, or who. Maybe they were under vows of silence, or maybe I was being shut out for whatever reason, but oh, how I did want to be involved with a project like this!

  36. Ardis,
    Thanks for your thoughtful answer.

    I guess hate the notion that bloggers so entirely different than other members of their respective wards, that we can’t have good discussions in RS and GD using good resources.

  37. There are no better resources than the scriptures, and yet how often can you tell that nobody in your class has bothered to re-read the assigned scriptures in order to have a good discussion, or even one that’s on-topic? I hate it, too, but I think it’s likely to be even worse with a publication that isn’t even scriptural.

  38. Ardis,

    I like your conjecture of what the history would be, and I’ll admit to being influenced (biased) by my reaction to some of the Presidents of the Church series manuals. Some of those are better than others, and the quality of the lessons as written vary widely as well within those volumes. I suspect that we tend to remember the worst examples first, rather than the best (at least, I think that is what I do), and we may often be influenced as well by how the particular lesson is actually presented by the teacher we heard. I try and read the PH/RS lesson manuals each week before church, to help with discussion and also to have some time to think about the topics and scriptures. I’ve both been disappointed when the instructor doesn’t present or focus on what I think the lesson should, and also surprised at times when they have gotten insights into the material that I have not. Expectations are troublesome things when we don’t actually know what the finished product will be, and we are doing a disservice when we take a pessimistic view without any firsthand knowledge.

    Context is important, but even a brief summary of historical events in Relief Society may provide some context for some of the sisters (and hopefully brethren) who have never known any of this. I for one am regrettably ignorant of much of this history myself, so I do look forward to it.

  39. I have no reason to know who is involved in writing this publication, but I know in the past a sister in my ward was involved in lesson manual development the teachings of the prophets series. I know because though she is a humble smart lady she said so. I was serving in a presidecy and we were also instructed that she was not to be issued callings during this time, as per instruction from the stake that had received instruction from the higher ups. She was not just any lady she was professionally qualified to be involved in such a venture but it was not her day job.

  40. She also told the story of having to advocate for inclusion of some material that showed we as a church didn’t always do it the way we do it now in regard to who we are sealed to, aka our own ancestors.

  41. Ardis, if your stories in regard to Relief Society history don’t find a home in official church publications I hope you will publish them in some form.

  42. The last issue of the Ensign VT message referenced readers to history pages later by Janiece Johnson. Good move in my book.

  43. At least as to the John Taylor manual, according to Daymon’s dissertation, there was no one on the committee with any training (even amateur) in history. Given that, I am not sure why we should expect historians to be involved in this venture either. As I understand it through the grapevine, there has been a sort of intentional or unintentional wall between church employed historians and much of correlated church writing. Perhaps through the hard work of Elder Jensen and others, the wall may be coming down, and some additional level of professionalism (and concern for historical accuracy) injected into our curriculum. In the meantime, there are people, some of whom I know personally (at least two couples/families to whom I am related), find themselves astonished and feeling betrayed when they learn that real history does not necessarily track the official curriculuum. Would it harm the Church to have a more honest and open presentation of history? I guess that is a question for another day.

  44. Ardis,

    Who have you asked about this project? If I had to guess, I would think that Heidi Swinton would know who is doing it or possible even be involved.

  45. I don’t know Heidi Swinton in a way that would let me pick up the phone and call her, but when I asked others I do know in that world, I also asked them to put out feelers for me beyond my own circle. I got nowhere.

  46. I think it would be bad if we knew who wrote the manuals–and which lessons were by whom.

  47. Wants a historian's history says:

    The actual quote was

    “There are some things that have come out in that preparation that have delineated some themes for learning, stories. It’s not so important to have a linear, historian’s history in the Church, but it is important to know our spiritual heritage and responsibility and what are the themes emerge in that spiritual heritage, and what the Lord wants us to accomplish.”

  48. Wants a historian's history says:

    Oh, stupid end italicize refused to work correctly after “historian’s”, if possible, can someone fix that?

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