About a week ago, the first volume of the new official history of the Church was published. I finished reading through it this weekend, and I have to say that it is fantastic. The style of prose reads like a novel (many creative authors were employed as the writers or consultants for the book), but it is very much rooted in some of our best understandings of the events and people who lived in the early period of the Church. The combination of the two results in a very readable, but accurate history.
The time frame that this volume covers is the early 1800s through 1846—the year the Latter-day Saints left Nauvoo to move west. There are a lot of controversial issues related to that period, but the book tackled most of them head on. Polygamy (including Joseph Smith’s relationship with Fanny Alger and a small amount about polyandry), seer stones, treasure seeking, Book of Mormon translation, Latter-day Saint pillaging and fighting during the Missouri Mormon War, Danites, the Council of Fifty, Joseph Smith defending himself with a gun in Carthage Jail, and teachings of theosis and a Mother in Heaven are all addressed. Joseph Smith’s character was shown in a more three-dimensional way than most official Church representations of him—his temper and his sense of humor are both shown, as are some of his struggles and missteps. Yet, the history is not one that focuses entirely on the men who led the Church. The lives and experiences of many Latter-day Saints are mentioned, including many women and some black Saints. As part of an effort to be more inclusive of worldwide growth, Adison Pratt’s mission to the South Pacific is discussed, as is the mission of Orson Hyde to mainland Europe and the Ottoman Empire. The book will be a great resource for Latter-day Saints to study their history and gain a better understanding of their history. Copious references and endnotes provide a launching point for further learning by those who are interested.
As is the case with any historical work covering an era that I am familiar with, there are things that I would have handled differently. For example, I would have loved to have more of Joseph Smith’s sermons to quoted verbatim within the book, and I wish more of the struggles that the apostles’ wives went through during their husbands’ Nauvoo-era mission to Great Britain would have been shown. To me, stating that the Smith family brewed and sold root beer when they lived in Palmyra could easily be misinterpreted, since it was likely a mildly alcoholic beer brewed using sassafras roots rather than the sugary, carbonated soft drink most Latter-day Saints are familiar with today. The nature of the Book of Abraham translation was not really dealt with, other than a passing telling of the traditional narrative about the book’s origin. That issue, the historicity of the Book of Mormon, and the young age of some of the plural wives in Nauvoo (as well as a full discussion about polyandry) are the big controversies that I can think of that the book does not really grapple with. Still, those are relatively small complaints compared to the number of good things that the history does. I also admit that some of these criticisms are also based merely my own personal preferences. I really enjoyed the book, plan to use it often, and to read it again. I also look forward to future volumes that will be released. Saints volume 1 is a success in my eyes, and I do not hesitate to recommend reading it.