Previous #JMH50 posts:
Liz M. on Laurel Thatcher Ulrich’s Personal Essay
David Howlett on his own article on jobs and publishing in Mormon Studies
J. Stuart on William Russell’s “Shared RLDS/LDS Journey”
Brett D. on Jared Farmer’s “Crossroads of the West”
Ryan T. on Matthew Bowman’s “Toward a Catholic History of Mormonism”
This post continues our series on the Mormon History Association’s 50th anniversary issue of the Journal of Mormon History, considering the important insider account provided by LDS Church assistant Church historian and recorder, Richard E. Turley, Jr., titled “Collecting, Preserving, and Sharing the Global History of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.” Turley, who is a prolific author and co-author, notably of the Church History Library-sponsored Women of Faith in the Latter Days series and the award-winning OUP book on the Mountain Meadows massacre, has directed the LDS Church’s Historical Department beginning in 1986. He oversaw the Church History department’s consolidation with the Family History department between 2000-2008 and most recently the Church History Department’s transition into its elegant and archivally sound new building in 2009.
In this essay, Turley takes readers behind the scenes at the Historian’s Office to describe its ongoing cultural and paradigm shift decentralizing church historical collection throughout the world. Though he attributes little of this great shift to his own values, decisions or leadership, it is apparent that his personal involvement was critical to this transition and his firsthand perspective is a valuable primary source in itself.
Throughout much of the Church’s history, historian’s office staff traveled around the world collecting artifacts and memories to be deposited centrally in Salt Lake. Although these search-and-retrieval missions were largely suspended between World War II and the 1970s, it goes without saying that these staff members were white men whose work operated under patriarchal and often patronizing assumptions of white superiority and utilizing what Turley calls a “model with colonial roots” (131) – i.e. their collecting expeditions shared much in common with cultural plundering by eager Anglo-European archaeologists and anthropologists of the same era, and would later raise many of the same issues as controversies over cultural patrimony and deaccession in the museum world more generally (135).
According to Turley’s account, the church’s historical office became increasingly uncomfortable with this model, although primarily for pragmatic reasons, i.e. because the historical wing of the Church Office Building was running out of physical space — a problem even building the new Church History Library could not resolve. The historical department also discontinued ward & branch minutes and local histories during the 1970s and 1980s out of space concerns, though they have since resumed collecting them. The 21st century advent of digitization has helped relieve potential stress on the church’s brick-and-mortar (and granite) vaults and stacks, but it also permitted Turley’s department to rethink its collecting and archival practices — in essence, to decouple historical collection from central archiving. Mirroring the Church’s regionalization under Area Presidencies, thus leveraging its existing less-centralized administrative structure, church history work is now likewise regionalized and its material results are no longer universally brought back to Salt Lake for permanent storage. Turley’s article doesn’t make clear where all these regional historical physical collections are housed, but he does emphasize that the advent of digital media has eased the burden of storing and sharing unique and potentially culturally sensitive artifacts. He also points out that crowdsourcing, e.g. FamilySearch indexing initiatives, have distributed some of the work of preparing records for use to an eager computer-connected public. This is a welcome and substantial redirection of church resources around the globe, to the point where Turley claims “we have finally reached a point at which Church history is truly functioning in a decentralized way on a global level” (137).
One irony here is that the new policy of decentralization, at least in this essay’s retelling, was still drafted, envisioned, approved, and then implemented centrally and top-down from Salt Lake headquarters. In other words, it doesn’t seem to have arisen from grassroots efforts around the globe or to take its cues from the cultural specificities of its global regions. And it is still largely male-dominated; while Turley notes that some of the 220 Church history advisers are “couples” (138), women figure faintly in this account, if at all. It makes me wonder about the extent to which global Mormon women’s involvement in the church gets captured in offical ward and stake histories and whether women’s voices are being documented in ways that will serve present and future historians interested in the full spectrum of Mormon experiences, especially far from the centers of power. I know this is something Turley himself cares about; it would have been nice to mention any efforts along those lines in this essay.
This paradigm shift – and its concomitant increase in trust and respect for globally dispersed (read: non-white, non-English-speaking) local historical initiatives – is far from completed, so Turley’s essay provides a snapshot of a department, and a church, amid deep transformation in the current decade. The Saturday afternoon session General Conference talk yesterday by Kenyan-born Joseph Sitati, back to back with Neil L. Andersen’s jubilant address celebrating strong international members and church growth in three places where new LDS temples were announced (Ivory Coast, Haiti, and Thailand) both suggest to me some of the dimensions of this change, not just in church history work but in church membership and culture. A shift towards the global south has been long underway; therefore the expansive and well-resourced efforts of the church’s historical department to keep up with, chart, and preserve these changes as they happen is commendable and forward-thinking. When the JMH revisits these issues in another 50 years, I predict this article will have been prescient indeed.