10 Questions Interview with Matt Grow

We’re happy to present Kurt Manwaring’s interview with Matt Grow, the editor of the Church’s new Saints volume. There’s a ton of positive response to this new official history of the Church. It appears to have hit the sweet spot of accuracy yet readability for typical members. I’m pretty impressed with it, although I’ve not yet had time to read much. I can’t wait to see the next few volumes.

The full interview is available at the link. Here are a few excerpts. I hope you read the full interview though.

There are at least six key differences between Saints and these previous histories. First, Saints is a narrative history. The goal is to tell a completely accurate historical story using the tools of literature so that it’s accessible to a very wide audience.

Second, Saints deals more forthrightly with potentially controversial issues (seer stones, plural marriage, etc.), presenting them within the larger narrative of the Restoration and the Church’s history.

Third, we have a lot more information now than was available to Joseph’s scribes or to B. H. Roberts, a result of decades of research in Latter-day Saint history and of recent projects such as the Joseph Smith Papers.

Fourth, Saints is a multi-layered history, consisting not only of the core narrative but also “Church History Topics” (found on-line and in the Gospel Library app) that explore roughly 120 more issues in greater depth. The Topics in turn point to other relevant resources for those wanting a deeper dive. And the online versions of Saints also links from the endnotes to hundreds of primary sources, found in digital format on the Church History Library catalog and elsewhere.

Fifth, the Church has globalized in dramatic ways since 1930. Often, past Church histories have focused largely on the Joseph Smith era, with some coverage of pioneer Utah. Saints has one volume on the Joseph Smith era, one on the pioneer Utah era, and two volumes that will tell the story of the globalization of the Church in the 20th century. It is also a global history in that it is available in 14 languages.

Finally, much more than the other multi-volume histories, Saints includes the voices and experiences of women.

To me the most fascinating aspect of the history is it’s narrative sometimes lyrical style. It really reads much like a novel making it much more accessible to regular people turned off by academic histories. Grow’s comments on including not only historians in the production but creative writers highlights this.

Our team includes both historians and creative writers. While the historians sometimes write draft material, most of the writing itself is left to creative writers. We’ve been fortunate to hire excellent writers, including Scott Hales (who is the “story editor” for the series), James Goldberg (creative nonfiction), David Neilsen (a poet), Melissa Leilani Larson (a playwright), Elizabeth Maki (background in journalism), and Angela Hallstrom (a novelist).

It’s hard not to see this as a huge success. I confess I was a bit dubious about how it would turn out when I heard the Church was doing this. Kudos to the team that put this together. They really seem to have done an amazing job. I’m sure over time people will find parts they quibble with – things they think should have been dealt with in more detail or small mistakes. But that’s true of most works. Most importantly I think by engaging the history in a warts and all approach yet in a faithful manner should prevent those claiming the Church was hiding information from them. This really is an outstanding achievement.

18 comments for “10 Questions Interview with Matt Grow

  1. If the book “Saints” is anything like the “Saints” branded videos on the “LDS Church History” youtube channel, then that would have be a hard pass. (EXAMPLES: Book of Abraham Translation: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=X59FfSh1rzs or Mormon Polygamy Q and A: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fCvS2EmnpU8)

    When The Church History Department starts with the conclusion, replaces key (and easy to find) contextual facts with carefully told, intricate interpretations-as-context, and disproving straw man arguments it is not engaged in history and nuance. It is propaganda and gaslighting.

    This book series will be faith-promoting and groundbreaking to the believing ignorant and insulting to everyone else. For shame.

  2. So you seem to admit that you’ve not read it and then judge it? Does that seem terribly fair?

  3. Just commenting on the videos being used to promote the book. I’ll suspend judgement of, and read the book if you think the videos are incongruent with what they are trying to achieve with the books. I’ll even return and report.

  4. I have read several chapters in the book. It’s awful. This is not history, it’s hagiography at best. It is childish and sappy faith-promoting revisionist rubbish. Where would you like to start? It calculatingly misrepresents, flatly lying, over and over and over again. First vision accounts, seer stone and treasure digging, banking scandal, polygamy and fanny alger, priesthood restoration, translation, witnesses, JST, etc. It overtly lies about each and every thing. Sure, it brings up some lesser-known things, in a wholly dishonest way.

    It’s Leonard Arrington all over again, except worse this time around. This time there is no excuse for hiding information, it is a premeditated act! Prediction: Saints will end up being a huge blunder that does incredible damage to the church long-term. Anybody who reads Saints, and then goes and reads any actual history book, is going to see the stark difference and the pattern of deception will be clear. The church has also set itself up for an epic rebuttal. I predict in the near future someone will release a response to Saints, a meat-filled book that goes through the same narrative but tells the true story and points out all the stuff that Saints intentionally left out of this sunbeam book.

    One thing I found interesting, too, is how instead of the church distancing itself from polygamy and D&C 132, it does the opposite and goes all in an reaffirms this doctrine. Bad move. Whether it’s a year or twenty years from now, a day is coming when polygamy will be legalized in the United States. Marriage is moving in a libertarian direction. When that day comes, the church is going to find itself backed in a corner, with its current anti-polygamy culture being pitted against its pro-polygamy doctrine and history. If smart, the church should be putting itself in a position where it could receive revelation that amends or omits D&C 132, instead it will be forced into the awkward position of having to reinstate it. The books presents polygamy in a way that almost seems designed to mentally prepare people for that day as well. Polygamy is back in style in Saints!

  5. I also think this is a major achievement. There are some aspects I quibble with (just like everyone else), but overall I applaud the work. It would not be difficult for someone to create an alternate book to cast everything in a more negative light, but that doesn’t thwart the inoculative power. The exposure to the various topics, even with bias, is what counts. Much of the betrayal my generation feels is because we got blindsided with things we had NEVER encountered before, even with four years of seminary and college-level religion classes. Getting hit with different interpretations doesn’t have the emotional impact that getting hit with a bunch of new information gives. You don’t get over that feeling of betrayal easily. Church history isn’t the biggest reason why people are leaving, so I don’t know if this will really stop the hemorrhaging as much as people hope, but this is a historical turning point in Church education (for youth and adults) and will have major impact in decades to come.

  6. Inoculation is not a righteous goal, it’s a malicious one. Truth should be the goal, not more advanced lies. Choosing the right, and letting the consequences follow. I thought the suggestion of changing the name of church to Ziontology was an amusing joke, but this book Saints makes that suggestion seem like less of a joke. Saints is to history what Dianetics is to science.

  7. Peter, I think you’ve made your position clear. Not having done more than skim parts I can’t really speak to much so you have me at a disadvantage. You must have read very fast since the book just came out. As for inoculation, it’s all about truth. So let’s cut the snark unless you have something new to add.

  8. After reading the first 7 chapters in the Ensign and the related references where the “history” comes from I would ask a series of questions:-

    1, Are we now being asked to accept that the affidavits given by Willard Chase and other residents of Palmyra and collected by the apostate Philastus Hurlbut, (who was paid by a group of Methodist ministers calculated to rubbish the Smith family) are now to be believed ? It is from Chase’s affidavit we first hear about the seer stone and the hat!!!

    2. I ask the same question of Eber D Howe’s book “Mormonism Unveiled” which is used and quoted as source materials in the “topics”, Elder Snow’s “Joseph Smith in Harmony” in the Sept 2015 Ensign, Richard Turley’s “Joseph the Seer” article in the Oct 2015 Ensign ?

    3. Are we being asked to accept that the “history” discussed in books by D Michael Quinn, Fawn Brodie, Sandra and Jerald Tanner, George D Smith and a host of authors from the Signature Book team tells the “true history”

    4. Again are we being asked to accept that Joseph Smith and his father had the reputation by 1825 of being treasure seers, using a stone to locate gold or other valuable objects. When in fact Joseph tells us in scripture that the one and only time that he practiced digging was for Josiah Stoal and said (in October 1825) “Hence arose the very prevalent story of having been a money-digger.

    5. Why was it that following the “discovery” of the letters from Joseph Smith to Josiah Stoal , and the one from Martin Harris to W W Phelps, a reevaluation of Mormon History of the early life of the Prophet Joseph Smith was quickly formulated by a host of historians trying to place Joseph in the environment of the culture of treasure-digging. Why did they not then retract their papers when the whole saga of Mark Hoffman’s forgeries came to light? I believe the whole treasure digging and looking into a stone in the hat was based on these forgeries but then not accepted but perpetuated by these historians. I am afraid that this borders on speaking “Ill of the Lord’s annointed”.

    6. I was informed by a Church Historian that the people closest to events were the ones who’s testimonies could be relied on to be the truth. So why are we asked to believe that Joseph Smith used his stone in his hat to translate the Book of Mormon. From the Joseph Smith Papers Project, Introduction to Documents Volume 1 July 1828- June 1831 we have a discussion from historians about the translation of the Book of Mormon which relate how Joseph Smith did this, this information came from reminiscent accounts which mention the stone in the hat story. Whereas Oliver Cowdery pointedly refuted other explanations or the production of the Book of Mormon, he said ” I wrote with my own pen the intire Book of Mormon (save a few pages) as it fell from his lips of the Prophet, as he translated it by the gift and power of God. By means of the Urim and Thummim, or as it is called by the book holy Interpreters. I beheld with my own eyes and handles with my hands the gold plates from which it was translated. I also beheld the interpreters. This book is true, Sidney Rigdon did not write it, Mr Spaulding did not write it, I wrote it myself as it fell from the lips of the prophet. (Miller journal 21 Oct 1848)”

    As you can see I have great reservations of the “New Mormon History” if this is an example of what we are being asked to accept as being the true history especially as some of it is based on anti-Mormon sources.

  9. Jeffrey, historians regularly use opponents attacks. How they are used will vary, but often they’re important. Unfortunately in a work like this you won’t get the arguments so it’s hard to evaluate them. I’m not sure it’s fair to make a sweeping judgment that utilizing non-faithful works makes this problematic. If anything, I think they’re bending over backwards to make a faithful account that engages the more scholarly history. If you just assume everyone pro-Joseph is right and everyone anti-Joseph is wrong then that’s just bad history.

    If anything I suspect the main flaw in the work is how some things are not engaged with. From faithful friends who’ve finished the book it sounds like the treatment of William Law in particular is quite unfair and the book gives a more one sided account of the events leading to the martyrdom. It also sounds like the work doesn’t grapple with some things like Joseph’s marriage to Fanny Algers well. It’s an improvement that she gets dealt with at all, but for those of us pushing an inoculation model, there probably are lost opportunities here.

    Of course I’m not expecting this to be an academic historical work. It’s clearly a faithful account that avoids some controversies. Those more critical of such works may dismiss it as hagiography – as some of the comments here have done. I’m not sure that’s fair since it sounds like it really does engage with controversial issues such as polygamy. We’ll see in the next volume how it engages the issue of race. The main criticism I’ve heard that does sound very problematic is not really portraying Joseph’s character well. Again since I’ve not read it I can’t comment on that. However from other who have it sounds like some of Joseph’s character flaws don’t really appear. Contrast this with say Truman G. Madsen’s very popular Joseph Smith audio lectures where you really do get a feel for Joseph as a more fully fleshed out and fallible figure.

  10. Clark, I fail to see the logic in your statement that using anti-Mormon sources is not problematic in what is surely meant to be a true history of our Church. How can you say that using the affidavits collected by Philastus Hurlbut is a faithful representation of Joseph Smith’s family. How on earth can you imply that to not use these sources would be bad history?

    The only accounts of Joseph’s activity as a treasure digger; apart from the time spent working for Josiah Stoal come from excommunicated members or from very critical avowed enemies of the truth. I am reading the book and find that most of the content follows the established history we already are familiar with. The problems I am having is when we have historians trying to portray Joseph as a *fully fledged out” and fallible figure.

    I am not saying that Joseph in his youth did not have his faults, indeed in his canonised history he freely admits his faults. However to say that these youthful follies included pretending to dupe people into thinking that he could detect buried treasure and lost objects and leading a band of treasure diggers for a number of years is good and true history is a travesty. The God that I worship would not allow his called and chosen leader to commit such sin. The intent of the Palmyra affidavits was calculated to show that he could not be a fit person to be visited by and called of God. Of course in his youth he was a weak vessel just like other young prophets which God called in their youth but to assume that this weakness continued throughout his life and time as the mouthpiece of the Lord is, as I said, verging on “evil speaking of the Lord’s anointed”. I will be interested to read how our historians explain Celestial Plural Marriage which Joseph was commanded to introduce among faithful members of the Church, and as you say how the Priesthood ban is explained. Scripture portrays Joseph Smith as one of the greatest prophets that has ever lived, why are we seemingly so eager to portray him as a flawed and fallible.

    One of the first words that Moroni said to Joseph was that his name would be have for good and evil among all nations, I am afraid there does seem to be some who seem eager to point out his faults rather than on the good that he accomplished.

    I will continue to read the book and comment further if I believe this is necessary.

  11. Jeffrey: welcome to the main problem with the church and its history of sugar-coating its history. The church tried for years to promote a history that just wasn’t entirely so and sometimes outright false. For example, Joseph Smith and his father really engaged in treasure seeking but never found anything and the same seer stone JS Jr used on his failed treasure expeditions was used to supposedly translate the book of mormon. The statements JS Jr makes in his pogp history about treasure seeking are simply misleading.

  12. Jeffrey:

    You ought to come out of your cocoon. The truth really does set one free. Find out what the entire story is, not just the fantasy the church puts out, and then decide for yourself what you will do with it. Some have left over the real story but some have stayed. Nevertheless, you will be better for not hiding in adolescence, refusing to consider alternatives to the spoon fed reality the church promotes.

  13. Jeffrey, the problem of bias is real and no one would say anti-Mormons weren’t biased. But then pro-Mormon sources are biased too. So how to deal with that element of bias is non-trivial. Your solution of just privileging the accounts that were biased towards your position seems inherently problematic if the claim is those will be more accurate. But more to the point, even antagonists might inadvertently convey useful information. This is history 101. If anything, I suspect the complaint against the book will be that it’s too biased towards positive accounts. I’ve read that with respect to the martyrdom and how William Law is portrayed for instance.

    Again I’m limited here since I’ve not read the book. Further it’s just not intended to be an academic history. Rather I suspect it’ll be biased towards a pro-Mormon perspective. There’s nothing wrong with that of course. But it’s probably a first step towards learning the history and not the final step.

  14. Polyglot. In 1965 after investigating the Church and reading the Book of Mormon I received a divine witness that Joseph Smith was called of God to open the last dispensation of the Gospel of Jesus Christ. I also received the witness promised by Moroni after reading the Book of Mormon of it truthfulness. This witness as remained with me and has been strengthened many times over the last 53 years. In all that time I have studied the lives of Joseph Smith, and Brigham Young, as well as attending the Temple and doing my own Family History and helping others with theirs.

    A few years ago whilst serving as High Priest group leader in the York 2 ward in the York England Stake, 4 of my HP group and their families decided to leave the Church. They were friends of mine and I asked them why after being members for many years they had made this decision. One of them told me that they had began looking into anti-Mormon web sites and became convinced that the Church had been covering up some of its history.

    I felt it was my responsibility to look into the web sites they told me about to try and understand what had convinced them that the Church was not true. At first I was surprised at some of the “evidences” which were given proving, as they claimed, that Joseph Smith and his family were guilty of most crimes under the sun including trying to convince people that he had been visited by God and had been given means to translate the Mormon Gold Bible as they called it. Some of the things that they were quoting did sound damning until I began to prayerfully look into the sources of their claims and find who were saying these things . I then began to see the adversaries hand in all this.

    At the time we were studying President George Albert Smith’s Teachings of the Presidents of the Church book. In chapter 18 President Smith warned against stepping over the line between the Lord’s territory and the devils territory. He warned that if we did this we would lose the Spirit and the ability to discern between what is true and what is false.
    These sites were quoting from diaries, books, and memoirs of disaffected members, including affidavits collected by Philastus Hurlbut a disgraced and excommunicated member who had a bitter hatred of Joseph. These statements were later printed in Eber D Howe’s book Mormonism Unveiled which is “credited” as being the first anti-Mormon book to be printed. He himself hated the fact that his wife and niece had joined the Church against his wishes.

    So Polyglot as you can see I have studied both sides of the argument and prefer to stay in my cocoon and enjoy the Spirit of the Lord which teaches all truth rather than step over into the devil’s territory which you ask me to join. I hope that someday you decide to return and once more have membership in the Kingdom of God on the earth.

  15. Clark, Please read the above reply to Polyglot as this will explain my take on things. Of course I am biased, my witness makes me so. As President Ezra Taft Benson memorably said “The war is Heaven is still raging on earth today”. We all need to choose who’s side we are on. I believe that the sifting out process is taking place which will separate the wheat from the tares. The Saviour said that those who are not with me are against me. Lets stay in the Lord’s territory. Do we have to appease the enemy?

    By the way I am 2/3 of the way through the book and I am OK with it although it almost reads like “The Work and the Glory”

    As far as my “position” as you call it is concerned. I would prefer it to be like the Documentary History of the Church. Rather than the narrative version we are being given. Why do we need to have references to the antagonist side anyway, are you saying that their contribution is adding to the true history?. I would remind you that in the vaults of the Church, which D Michael Quinn claims to have trawled through when he was employed by Leonard Harrington as a research assistant, not only contains the faithful history as recorded by the Prophets. D&C 123 asks the Church to collect all the adverse history including all the atrocities perpetrated against the Saints, do we have to assume that the diaries and books written by apostates have to be included even though some of them claim that Joseph Smith was a fallen prophet?

  16. Clark, I have finished reading the book, on the whole after reading past the stone in the hat and treasure digging episode it was OK. I would have preferred to have the revelations copied in as in the DHC, and the questions Joseph asked which brought on the answers.

    I am puzzled by your reference to William Law being unfairly treated. After all he left the Church and started his own. Then conspired against Joseph which eventually led to the martyrdom.!!! How is his treatment unfair?

    Could you explain what your inoculation model is all about?

  17. The inoculation model is the idea that some people leave the Church because they encounter facts they’d never heard about. This is more common in the Mormon corridor of Utah/Idaho where people often aren’t challenged about their religion. Where I grew up on the east coast most members had faced regular anti-Mormon materials and thus were already familiar with a lot of the controversial issues even if perhaps they didn’t know the details. In Utah in particular where people can be Mormon just because everyone else is, when they encounter information about seer stones, polygamy, polyandry, racism, etc. it can be quite shocking to them. The argument is that many of these people are just ill prepared and it’s the shock rather the content that drives them away. The theory is that by preempting the attacks by giving at least the awareness of these issues that you’ll provide time for people to deal with a faith crisis better or potentially even avoid it.

    This history book is one example of the embrace of that model as are the gospel topics that have been oft mentioned. The expectation is that the lesson manuals are also being significantly changed to embrace more of the inoculation model.

    For William Law, the controversy is over why he left the Church, particularly over the issue of polygamy and possibly polyandry. Also while the destruction of the paper he started was typically mentioned in most accounts, the contents of the paper tend to not get mentioned. (I don’t know if they’re mentioned in this history)

    Part of the problem, as I’m sure you’ll bring up, is that some of the claims about this are late and from antagonistic sources. (Ann Eliza Young who divorced Brigham Young and published a sensationalist “expose” of Mormonism called Wife #19) A fairly balanced treatment of Law can be found in BYU Studies. It’s not the most up to date history of Law but has the benefit of being linkable. FAIR has up a discussion of the Ann Eliza source.

    I’m certainly not suggesting Saints should get into the minutiae here let alone the debates among scholars over antagonistic claims. However even ignoring the more controversial claims it seems fair to say Law was deeply troubled by polygamy and the items in the Nauvoo Expositor for the most part really were teachings that Joseph was teaching to his inner circle. While from our perspective Law was fighting against the truth, it’s worth considering it from his perspective.

    Not having read Saints yet I can’t speak to how Law is portrayed in it. I do know many people have complained about it.

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