New “Official” Church History Volumes Forthcoming

Ten years ago, I posted one of my very first pieces at T&S, “Missing Essentials,” noting the decline of familiarity with LDS history by the average member of the Church and suggesting this was due, in part, to the lack of a replacement volume for Essentials in Church History. In the intervening ten years, the problem has deepened. What was once simple historical ignorance has become, for some Latter-day Saints, a faith crisis, as they encounter online accounts of troubling LDS historical events. Local leaders are generally no more conversant in the details of LDS history than the membership and don’t have much to offer troubled members who share their concerns. The Gospel Topics essays are one response to this challenging development. Now we have official word that book-length treatments of LDS history will soon be published by the Church, finally filling the role once occupied by Essentials.

As reported by the Deseret News, Elder Steven Snow addressed the Mormon Historical Association last week and announced a four-volume history, to be titled Saints. While Elder Snow likened the new series to the massive B. H. Roberts history published almost a hundred years ago, I think it is better seen as a replacement for Essentials. The article notes: “Written at a 9- or 10-grade reading level, the volumes will be published in all 13 languages in which Church-published content is available on the internet.” So this is a publication intended to be read by the full membership of the Church, not just scholars and history types and not just English speakers. These volumes are intended to reach a much wider LDS audience than the volumes of the Joseph Smith Papers Project, for example.

Furthermore, pricing of the hard-copy volumes and free access to online versions will facilitate wide distribution. As quoted in the article, Elder Snow states, “They will be published in an inexpensive paperback format, as we are desirous that as many Church members as possible read them.” Finally, the article states that “Elder Snow said the volumes will be ‘transparent, honest and faithful,’ with controversial aspects of Church history covered in the context of the entire story.” So this is going to be a really big deal when the first volume comes out next year.

One the one hand, I think this should have happened ten or twenty years ago. On the other hand, better late than never.

Here is a final word by Elder Snow, as reported in the article:

“The history will not be a reference work, but a narrative based on well-researched facts,” he said. “We believe this will be valuable to church members to greatly enhance their knowledge of church history in an interesting way. In my view this will have an impact on members of the church for generations to come.”

39 comments for “New “Official” Church History Volumes Forthcoming

  1. U240
    June 8, 2017 at 2:03 pm

    Another interesting description given by Elder Snow was “[i]t will be written in a style similar to James Michener or David McCullough.” How would this be? I’m a big Michener fan.

  2. Anonymous
    June 8, 2017 at 3:18 pm

    I foresee the “Saints” 4 Volume set becoming a best seller! Revelation from Heavenly Father is nothing to be embarrassed about no matter what form it takes. We are a church built on survival. Just look at its fruits shared with the world today. Every journey has bumps in the road cause by humanity trying to translate the best way to move forward. THIS move is now the best way for me personally. I am a recent convert to the Church because of the trials and errors of the Prophet Joseph Smith. Yes, Heavenly Father does work in mysterious ways!

  3. June 8, 2017 at 3:46 pm

    The four volumes will be based on the temples, Kirtland/Nauvoo era, Utah era, Outside Utah era, and Worldwide era. I’ve no idea what time periods those entail, but 200 years is a lot to stuff into 4 volumes. I hope despite the eras that it’s not Utah centric, giving some detail on what happened around the world when people didn’t just move to America.

  4. June 8, 2017 at 3:57 pm

    Frank, I think they are using a temple theme to impose periods on the four volumes. I like ending the first volume with the dedication of the Nauvoo temple rather than the death of Joseph Smith. Ending the third volume with the dedication of the Swiss temple and highlighting worldwide temples in the fourth volume should help move the focus away from Utah out into the wider world. At least that’s a possibility — we’ll have to wait for the volumes or for more informed commentary to get better info.

  5. adano
    June 8, 2017 at 4:26 pm

    So, will this be the curriculum for third hour meetings? That would give it much wider exposure.

  6. Clark Goble
    June 8, 2017 at 5:16 pm

    Rumor is that they’re moving from test in various Stakes to getting rid of a fixed manual for PH/RS. It’s supposed to be more like the ward council meetings where PH/RS are combined and a series of topics picked by the Bishop or Stake President are addressed. How true that is I don’t know, but apparently one Orem stake was one of the test areas by the church for the new program and it was very successful.

    The goal was supposedly to allow more customization to the local needs of the ward/stake and to address particular problems. I’ve noticed that in our stake at least they’ve had teacher in-service meetings every month or two where a member of the stake brings in teachers and discuss solving teaching problems. So it might be dealing with small classes, kids with special needs, dealing with sunbeams who aren’t interested, and so forth. Sounds like this is sort of a combination of that with ward council. From what I heard the Orem area went over some of the recent essays at lds.org.

  7. Anonymous
    June 8, 2017 at 10:34 pm

    I am anxious to see the new church history volumes; although, it seems odd to me the works were written as historical novels. On one hand it should make them highly accessible, but on the other I’m afraid it won’t read like good history. (I am hoping they don’t read like the Gerald Lund series–personal preference.) I am also VERY disappointed references will not be included. Most of what I learn about any subject I have ever pursued comes from starting with a good written work and then using the references to go to the sourced, often root knowledge.

  8. BigSky
    June 8, 2017 at 10:35 pm

    Not sure why my handle wasn’t included with my comments above.

  9. Jeff Walsh
    June 9, 2017 at 1:37 am

    Narrative without references sounds to me like opinion. Who’s opinion’s are we expected to accept as the truth?

  10. Hedgehog
    June 9, 2017 at 2:12 am

    From the Deseret News report:
    “Endnotes and references, especially in the online version, will take interested readers to additional information, videos, articles, etc., in which they may have additional interest, Elder Snow said.”

    So whilst it won’t be a reference work, apparently there will be some sort of references??? Do they mean at the end of the volume or chapter but without those little reference markers in the text? I’d certainly like to see references.

  11. June 9, 2017 at 2:48 am

    Maybe it would look like the God Who Weeps? I enjoyed that book and if memory serves the Givens did not provide citations in the chapters because they didn’t want to break the narrative flow. (However, there were references at the end of the chapter and it wasn’t too difficult to match the substance with the reference at the end.)

  12. Northern Virginia
    June 9, 2017 at 8:02 am

    BigSky, can you elaborate on “historical novels?” I know nothing about this, but when you say that, I’m imagining “The Work and the Glory.” Or did you mean novel-like in the narration?

  13. Wally
    June 9, 2017 at 10:59 am

    Clark, my stake is the Orem stake doing the pilot program on the new third-hour curriculum for MP/RS. I attended the training meeting with reps from the Church to kick this off. The need for something new is obvious, since we’ve run out of dead prophets, and the quote books we’ve been using for lesson manuals never really worked very well. The pilot program began on June 4, so there’s no track record yet.

    The new program is structured as follows:
    1st Sunday: EQs, HP groups, and RS will meet separately as large “councils” (this is an unavoidable in today’s Church), where they are supposed to discuss needs of the ward and how to address them through action (actually living the gospel instead of just talking about it). Our high priests group meeting was pretty good. We identified several courses of action that would improve people’s lives and the ward overall. Now we’ll see how the follow-through is. Our RS president kind of misunderstood the intent of the 1st Sunday meeting, so their discussion wasn’t quite what the Church had in mind. That will likely be corrected over time.

    2nd and 3rd Sundays: Lessons taught by regular instructors with curriculum coming the most recent general conference, but chosen by EQ and RS presidents and HP group leaders. There can be some discussion in ward council to coordinate some, but this is supposed to come from the leaders of these classes and quorums. It is NOT to come from bishops or stake presidents.

    4th Sunday: This is the one where I see some problems maybe. To start, every 4th Sunday is supposed to be a lesson about Sabbath Day observance, until the “Brethren” see fit to change the topic. I am concerned that after a month or two, this may get prescriptive, because, well, where else do you go once you’ve covered the basic principles. This is, of course, the big focus lately. I’ve heard rumor that this topic will change every six months, but we’ll see.

    5th Sunday: As it is now.

  14. Wally
    June 9, 2017 at 11:00 am

    The previous comment apparently maxed out the space available, so here’s the rest:

    Our pilot runs from the first Sunday in June through the end of August. There are, I believe, 12 stakes doing the pilot. We are supposed to provide feedback so that they can fine-tune this program before it is rolled out in January for the whole Church. Maybe I’ll give an update after a couple of months. Obviously, the 1st Sunday format will work better for some stakes (and quorums and classes) than others, depending on lots of factors, including who the leader is. But hey, it’s worth a try. I wondered where the Church would go after we finished the GBH quote book. Well, this is it.

    I’m not sure if the instructions for this pilot are available for all Church members, but at least for our stake a document appears at the bottom of the Gospel Library app. Check it out to see if it’s there for everybody.

  15. Clark Goble
    June 9, 2017 at 11:30 am

    Wally, over at the Mormon Dialog forum someone said that sunday school was also changed in at least one of the stakes in Orem testing things. There the lessons were taken from a different one of the new essays at lds.org that are so controversial including mother in heaven and polygamy. Were they doing that in your stake too? I’ve not heard if that is just for that stake or also planned for a general rollout if the tests are successful.

  16. Northern Virginia
    June 9, 2017 at 12:57 pm

    Wally, thanks very much for the update. It’s surprising that the Fourth Sunday would repeatedly be about a single topic, especially one with so little meat to it. I’m also less than enthused about poorly prepared instructors simply having the class members take turns reading conference talks.

    While it would be (and has been) a blog post unto itself, I personally feel that curated lessons ala Gospel Doctrine aren’t a bad thing, especially when you have a weak instructor so long as there is no mandate to stick to it when you have a strong instructor (to make clear, I’m not talking about giving the green light to start preaching pet theories and doctrines specifically decried by Church leaders). Our fourth Sunday instructor is a wonderful man, but he struggles mightily with using conference talks to instruct, and I can’t help thinking it would be easier if he had a lesson manual to aid him.

  17. Matt
    June 9, 2017 at 12:59 pm

    In regard to the question of whether there will be references: Elder Snow stated at the Mormon History Association event that there will be endnotes (meaning there will be markers in the text pointing to the end of the book for the sources). The on-line version will include links to some of the primary sources used. In addition, he said there would be additional discussion of sources and topics in on-line essays. So, while not a reference book, it will definitely contain references. And the idea is good narration of actual history, not fictional narration.

  18. Mary
    June 9, 2017 at 2:09 pm

    For the pilot program, are men and women still separated during the third hour on all Sundays, except 5th Sundays? Did the church reps give a reason for this setup and structure other than that the old curriculum had come to an end chronologically? Is there any flexibility with 2nd and 3rd Sunday topics coming from the most recent general conference? Are the presidents of each organization responsible for reporting what was discussed on the 1st Sunday to the bishopric during ward council meetings?

  19. June 9, 2017 at 2:13 pm

    Thanks for the comments, everyone.

    A charitable reading of the “like Michener and McCullough” comment is that the format will be a readable narrative directed to a popular audience without much academic jargon and without too many footnotes or references. This could describe well done or poorly done historical narrative, but nothing in the chosen format compromises the project.

    A less charitable reading of the article suggests the leadership distrusts a more academic approach to the narrative (with lots of footnotes and sources, and technical terms where appropriate) as somehow detracting from the narrative, either by confusing some readers or even allowing curious readers to consult actual sources that might or might not be accurately quoting or representing the original source. The way LDS curriculum manuals selectively or misleadingly quote even friendly LDS sources does raise the issue. Honestly, I never trust an LDS manual’s representation of a cited quotation without checking the quotation. Just not much credibility there.

    For me, given that these publications are coming out of the Church Historical Department rather than Curriculum, I’m willing to grant them the benefit of the doubt as to the rationale for the chosen format and their use of sources, until proven otherwise.

  20. Clark Goble
    June 9, 2017 at 3:26 pm

    Virginia, my understanding is it’s supposed to be more like ward council where the Bishop assigns someone to teach that particular lesson rather than just the dedicated teacher teaching whatever that week. I could be wrong on that but hopefully they’d have someone qualified to teach the particular issue at hand.

    Edit: to clarify — not like ward council in that Wally says the Bishops and SP don’t pick but like it in that it’s not a regular teacher. I couldn’t tell from Wally’s comments if that was the case or not. That’s what I’ve heard elsewhere though.

  21. Clark Goble
    June 9, 2017 at 3:29 pm

    Dave, it sounds like it’s going to make liberal use of the Joseph Smith Papers and will have very competent historians writing it. However it’s supposed to also be approachable for the typical member. Think Arrington’s The Mormon Experience but more so.

    That’s going to be a very challenging project since people who are great historians aren’t necessarily going to be skilled writing to a 10th grade level. That’s a skill in and of itself.

  22. Chet
    June 9, 2017 at 5:04 pm

    We might as well combine EQ and HP for 3rd hour since the young bucks are all teaching Primary and YM on a two-deep basis – ask your local EQP about this.

  23. Clark Goble
    June 9, 2017 at 5:18 pm

    Yup. Pretty rare there’s more than 5-6 people in EQ typically although we’ve had gusts of 10-11 before they all get callings. Throw in the guys usually watching the kids to give their wives a break and there’s not a lot there. I always take care of sick kids when I can too. I assume that’s typical of EQ across the church.

  24. Jeff Walsh
    June 9, 2017 at 5:55 pm

    The reason for asking about whether references are to be included is that I fear that we may be going away from what some call the “sanitised” version and be obligated to have the so called “New Mormon History” which seeks to disclose parts of our history which the “Hierarchy” have been covering up. Are we to be asked to accept “true” history revealed in notebooks, diaries and books written by apostates and excommunicated members of the Church. Is “true” history portrayed in Hurlbut’s affidavits recorded in Eber D Howe’s book “Mormonism Unveiled* by such people as Methodist Minister Willard Chase? If we are to be presented with such we need to be shown where this “history” cones from, and by who.

  25. Clark Goble
    June 9, 2017 at 6:00 pm

    I think we’re well past the New Mormon History era. Typically most things will be established by multiple sources and I’d imagine there would be references to secondary literature as well as primary sources. However you do raise and interesting question about sources. Given that so much is covered in a single volume though, I doubt there will be quite the detail where these things will come up. I have to imagine that in such cases where history depends upon antagonistic accounts that it’d be simpler to simply reference secondary literature.

    I’d also say I wouldn’t call what the church did covering up so much as simply not engaging with such controversial items. While I think it would have been healthier to engage them head on, there certainly are counter arguments. I don’t think it’s quite as obvious there was only one conclusion the way some think. There are various tradeoffs in what they do. Focusing on the core of the gospel actually should be our focus.

  26. BigSky
    June 9, 2017 at 9:44 pm

    @Northern Virginia: I think you could consider War and Peace to be a historical novel. Gerald Lund’s popular series written for a Mormon audience The Work and the Glory is probably more novel than historical novel. I suppose we see more examples of this in film. Movies like Lincoln might be an example.

    I am hopeful there will be endnotes and not just recommended readings. Personally, I think it is important for the church to produce its own history in a way that facilitates members learning from root sources and enables members to evaluate for themselves the quality of the history. I’ll choose to be optimistic and look forward to their release.

  27. Tobia
    June 10, 2017 at 7:28 am

    I’m glad to hear that a new church history is on the way.

    I’d also like to see the new essays put into the curriculum for either Sunday School or the third hour.

    But speaking of the third hour and coming back to the rumoured new schedules, the thought of discussing “how to keep the Sabbath Day holy” (or any other topic) every fourth Sunday just makes my heart sink. I’m currently the teacher for the fourth Sunday in Relief Society, and I just don’t think I could discuss the same thing over and over again — not as a student and certainly not as a teacher.

    Please tell us more about the pilot program and how it’s going in your stake, Wally — perhaps in a different post?

  28. June 10, 2017 at 12:10 pm

    My Elders Quorum has been using the first Sunday to go through the lds.org essays in alphabetical order.

  29. Northern Virginia
    June 11, 2017 at 1:33 pm

    BigSky, I’m sorry I wasn’t clearer. Did you mean that “Saints” originally started out as a novel? Interesting origin story if so.

  30. Clark Goble
    June 11, 2017 at 10:05 pm

    There was a novel, Saints, by Orson Scott Card which was a kind of fictionalized account of someone like Eliza R. Snow merged with a few other figures. But without speaking for Big Sky, I suspect he just meant that novels can sometimes distort things more than actual histories do. The Lund books being a good example (or so I am told — I’ve not actually read them).

  31. BigSky
    June 11, 2017 at 11:12 pm

    Northern Virginia, I’m simply saying the central characters in The Work and the Glory, the Steeds, never existed, and events in those volumes are based on actual events and characters mixed with fictionalized events and characters. In that way, while inspiring and meaningful to some, the perspective through which the story is told is not history. (Clark, I think Saints by Orson Scott Card is a good example of this too.) I’m not saying these aren’t good books and not worth reading. I am trying to tease out the distinction between history and historical fiction. I think the distinction is an important one to contrast.

    Elder Snow mentioned it would be written in a style similar to James Michener or David McCullough. Michener was a Pulitzer Prize winning novelist. His booked were marked by deep research, but contained fictional characters, locations and events mixed with historical ones to draw out what he considered to be the story of his focus–but Michener was a novelist, not a historian. Snow also emphasizes the voluminous work the history department is doing, suggesting the scholarship underpinning the books will be rigorous. It’s hard to know how the books will read and how the history scholarship will inform the narrative.

    I’m anxious to read the books when they are released and am hopeful they will be based on outstanding historical scholarship. I do think it is unfortunate it is not a referenced history, however.

  32. Jeff Walsh
    June 12, 2017 at 3:19 am

    Big Sky, I too am disappointed that no references be used. Surely we should be able to determine what is being portrayed as true history, not someone’s opinion of what is true. Whenever we stray from our early history as portrayed by the Lord’s anointed and scripture and quote from diaries and reminiscences many years after the events, even material from anti-Mormon sources as portrayed for instance in Elder Snow’s September 2015 Ensign article “Joseph in Harmony”. We really do need to know what is supposed to be the authentic History of our Lord’s Church, and how can we determine this if we do not know the sources.

  33. Northern Virginia
    June 12, 2017 at 6:46 am

    BigSky and Clark, thanks for the clarification. I really hope they don’t try to carve up the history to fit a convenient, novel-like narrative, even it does contain more warts than in past attempts at writing our history.

  34. Clark Goble
    June 12, 2017 at 11:12 am

    My guess is that it’s much more about readability. From a basic practical stance people tend to get intimidated by books with lots of end notes. However the Church also knows if the history is too bad that people won’t trust it. Also if I heard things correctly they are going to put extensive end notes on the internet. So I suspect they’re simply trying to get people to read the book.

  35. Jeff Walsh
    June 12, 2017 at 12:39 pm

    Clark I could do without the endnotes as long as we have the sources; of where the history is coming from and who is giving it..

  36. fbisti
    June 14, 2017 at 12:46 pm

    “Elder Snow said the volumes will be ‘transparent, honest and faithful'”

    I remain to be convinced. For a good exposition of the problem, read “Leonard Arrington and the Writing of Mormon History” by Greg Prince. Leonard Arrington (never actually the “Church Historian” but filled the role–the only objective and professional historian ever to hold that role) got permission from the prophet at the time to produce an extensive history of the church, using professional historians and researchers. After a few years (and before it was finished) it was quashed by Packer and McConkie because the little that they read was not “faithful” history. We have lived so many years with the cursory, faithful, carefully curated history of the church that anything truly approaching objectivity will be refreshing. However, “honest AND faithful” is somewhat of an oxymoron.

    IMO

  37. Clark Goble
    June 14, 2017 at 12:51 pm

    I don’t think honest and faithful need be an oxymoron. Indeed I’d argue that apologetic writing is a great example of that. People might disagree with the particular theories of individual papers as well as dislike the polemical nature of many articles. Yet I think they show that one can honestly engage with the evidence.

    It’s interesting that while Packer was an opponent of dealing with all the history, apparently towards the end of his life he changed his view and was pushing to make all the information available. (Going here by a recent post at BCC)

  38. June 15, 2017 at 10:10 am

    As someone with an academic background in history, “written at a 9- or 10-grade reading level” is a frightening thought, especially if that estimate is calibrated to the modern American 9th-grader. However, as long as sources are there to check for those of us with an interest in doing so (and by “there,” I mean actual footnotes, not just a vague bibliography), I’m good. I share Dave’s lack of trust in the Church’s use of citations, based on past experience.

    If there were at least some reference to the issues that have been present in LDS history since the beginning, that have been amply answered decades ago, but that now seem to have been “newly discovered” by an Internet generation which never became acquainted with the public library system, it would help. In other words, if we begin to try to inoculate . . . more information is rarely a bad thing.

    Covering the entire history of the Church in four volumes is going to be a difficult task in any case. I look forward to seeing this material, and even more forward to no longer using the Dead Prophets Society in priesthood/RS. It’s been a long, dreary decade.

  39. Jeff Walsh
    June 16, 2017 at 3:51 am

    Fifty two years ago I was blessed to receive a spiritual witness telling me that the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints is the Kingdom of God on the earth today, and that the Prophets who have been called and anointed by the Lord have led this Church under the direction of our Lord Jesus Christ As each succeeding Prophet has held this Office from President David O McKay to our present Prophet Thomas S Monson, I have been given a profound witness that they also are being so directed. So I would ask why do we need to have a further 4 volume set of Church History written by “New Mormon Historians”. If this “new history” is to include conclusions arrived at by raking through the archives of the Church by excommunicated men such as D Michael Quinn, and the Signature Book group of “historians”, then I think we need to be informed of the sources.

    As far as the last paragraph of the last contributor is concerned I would ask the question, How long does a prophet have to be dead before he is counted as a false prophet? I personally have enjoyed the past 15 years worth of Teachings from the Prophets. Are not these men the ones who we covenant to accept as “true messengers” sent from God to lead us into truth and salvation?

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