My first foray into Mormon history was a complete and abysmal failure. I think I’ve destroyed all evidence of that paper because I would probably be fired for my complete stupidity. The school project was to prepare an annotated bibliography on a topic that could become a senior thesis. It sounded fairly easy and because I liked Mormon history and lived within a stone’s throw of a major Mormon site, I chose a Mormon topic. I was working at the time in interlibrary loan so I assumed that on the odd chance my school didn’t have anything, I could find other schools nearby with good sources. At the end of the project, I was under the impression that no one was doing Mormon history because of the difficulty in finding the dozen books and two dozen articles I needed. I’ve learned a lot about doing Mormon history since then and have come to see first-hand the vast amount of work being done on the topic. But, I also learned a valuable lesson. It isn’t as easy to get into history as we sometimes think it is. It’s especially difficult to work on a topic that doesn’t receive a lot of attention on the national stage. (Just try explaining Mormon history to your professor specializing in 17th century German legal history. It isn’t even relevant.)
I often run into people who express an interest in learning more about Mormon history but don’t quite know where to get started or how to know who they can trust. To that end, I’ve developed a few tips that I pass on to others interested in the field. These are usually amateur historians or students wanting to work in Church history. I would be interested to hear your perspectives on my suggestions or to hear what suggestions you usually give to people.
The best thing you can do to study Mormon history is simply to start. Ask a question. Pick a topic you are interested in and see what you can find out about it. Look up the BYU library catalog as well as the online versions of BYU Studies and the Journal of Mormon History to see what has been published already. As you pick a topic and start reading, allow plenty of time for analyzing and pondering what you are reading. Good understanding takes time.
Learn your sources. Different publishers print different types of books and it is important to understand those differences. Don’t be looking at Signature Books if you really want the type of information available in Institute Manuals. I tell people to first check the notes and bibliography and acknowledgements. If the author primarily thanks the staff at small town state community college library for their research assistance, odds are they haven’t gone as deep into the sources as would be necessary. If the bibliography is heavily slanted towards one type of source, it may not be the best either. Good scholarly books will have a mix of primary and secondary sources, as well as a mix of items within those sources. A book with only anti-Mormon newspaper articles or Mormon newspaper articles when discussing why the Latter-day Saints left Missouri? Probably not a good idea.
Be cautious of stories you’ve heard but can’t fix a reference to or that seem really outlandish. Some of the really outlandish stories actually are true, however most of them started as truth but have picked up so much drama along the way they should be Hollywood movies. If you can’t remember what General Authority said it, please don’t ask me if it’s true.
All of this may be fairly obvious to those engaged in the study of Mormon history academically or professionally. But, there is a constant force of Latter-day Saints around the world who want to understand Mormon history more personally. One of my goals is to take the work we do as professionals and make it accessible to those who do it on their own. Mormon history is a rich and exciting topic and worthy of understanding. And, because Mormon history is tied closely to Mormon doctrine, understanding one can lead to greater application of the other.