Today Matt B. and I attended a release even for Saints, the new narrative history of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. From the Church’s website, Saints is designed to share the stories of “women and men who dedicated their lives to establishing the LDS Church across the globe.” In due course, that means that readers will learn about landmark events in Mormon history, including those that don’t fit into traditional narratives of LDS Church history. The first volume covers 1815-1846, highlighting the global phenomena that led to Joseph Smith’s family moving to New York and closing with the Saints’ exodus from Illinois to the American West. To read more about the press conference, please see this Twitter thread (and follow us on Twitter). I’ve written some preliminary thoughts on Saints with quotations from LDS Church leaders and Church History Department leaders throughout.
Several things stand out to me about Saints. First, re-centering the narrative of the history of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints highlights its recent commitments to highlighting the role of women in the creation and growth of Mormonism. Second, these volumes are meant to be read, but I’m not sure what that means for being taught. Third, a willingness to present a broader view of LDS Church history than in any other church-sanctioned publication that has come before.
Ann Braude’s true and oft-quoted phrase that American religious history is women’s history is evident throughout Saints. Indeed, much of the narrative is adapted from Lucky Mack Smith’s history of her family and her early Mormonism.* Women’s participation, including Emma Hale Smith, Lucy Mack Smith, and many other lesser-known women in Mormon history are highlighted and extolled as virtuous. This move deserves recognition. The first book published by the LDS Church that I read on Mormon history only mentioned Emma Smith, Eliza R. Snow, and Bathsheba W. Smith. Placing women in the center of the narrative will give Mormon historians (and Latter-day Saints) new ways of telling stories. In fact, I believe that presenting a variety of people that represent various modes of Mormonism is one of Saints’ most interesting aspects. As the managing director of the Church History Department Reid Neilson said, “this is a social history. We wanted to tell an incuslive story that was more inclusive of women, non-American voices, and class backgrounds.” I recently taught Mormon history to more than 100 students, the vast majority of whom were intimately aware of LDS history. These students struggled to name 5 women in the history of the LDS Church, and the vast majority of them came from the nineteenth century. While it remains to be seen whether or not future volumes center women to the same degree, I’m encouraged that those who read Saints as a faith-building text or those that read it to gain a sense of Mormon intellectual history will be introduced to many women and men whose stories that the LDS Church has not placed at its forefront. Authority flows down a traceable line in the LDS Church, but there are a variety of experiences in Mormonism that should be discussed and praised.
The volume is highly readable, with rising and falling action, character development, clever turns of phrase, and a certain-novelesque quality to the prose. Although the author’s names are lamentably absent from the text, writers like Lisa Olsen Tait, Scott Hales, and roughly ten other people wrote the text (they are listed as writers and editors but it is not mentioned who wrote which section). As Robin Jensen’s dissertation will show, many of the LDS Church’s archivists and writers performed the invisible labor of production. With that in mind, I wonder how much the books will seep into instruction in Mormon Sunday schools and auxiliary meetings. They’re excellent references but it remains to be seen if they will take the place of B.H. Roberts’ History of the Church. After all, the Joseph Smith Papers Project is still lightly cited in academic work, much less devotional settings (they are cited throughout Saints). Old sources die hard. So do approaches to teaching Mormon history, particularly in devotional settings, where manuals and repetition take the place of nuanced explorations of Mormon teachings, history, and theology.
I asked Elder Steven Snow about this and he forthrightly told me that they weren’t sure how it would be used by LDS teachers, but was confident that good teachers would use it productively. Lisa Olsen Tait, one of the authors of the text, told me that she thought results would be “highly variable,” but that ideally teachers of all ages would find it useful. The production team thought “generationally” about the text, wanting it to be accessible and usable to all, not just youth and young adults. Steven Harper, new editor of BYU Studies and one of the architects of Saints explained that in the information age that the Church must teach and present information in a way that reaches the people that need it most. Indeed, Elder Quentin L. Cook opined that Saints’ success will “allow for the rising generation to put things in context like they have not been able to before.” In the social media age, perhaps “they haven’t given as much really good, honest, truthful information that…was easily understood in context.” Elder Dale G. Renlund added, “when the Church hasn’t spoken transparently and openly, it leaves a void, and others fill that void.” Indeed, he said, Saints will answer many questions about Church history. “It puts it in the right context…and will actually build faith and strengthen faith without dodging a thing.” The term “rising generation” was used often, meaning those aged 18-30. I wonder if the term “rising generation” might also be applied to the first and second generations of Mormons across the globe. Along those lines, they announced that the text will be translated into 10 languages; I look forward to hearing how the book is used outside of the United States and Canada.
I wonder if Saints will function in Mormon intellectual history to the degree that Preach My Gospel does now: landmark texts that are largely ignored by those that haven’t used them already. On the same topic, it seems likely to me that, like Preach My Gospel, the LDS Church won’t be able to assess whether it was effective for several decades. Students taught from Saints will in turn use it to teach others, but it will take a long time for Gospel Doctrine and Sunday School teachers to adapt it as their go-to text for lesson preparation.
Third, while perusing Saints, I couldn’t help but think of Kathleen Flake’s argument that part of Mormonism’s acceptance by Protestants was a willingness to re-center their religious memory of religious persecution rather than political persecution. Flake’s use of Ricouer and other memory studies theorists is a powerful reminder that memories are made and constructed. In the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, where manuals and other teaching materials are created and endorsed by Church leadership, narratives can be made to fit particular historical moments.** The creation and release of Saints, which does not shy away from what Mike Quinn calls “early Mormonism’s magic world view,” polygamy, and other polarizing topics, signals the LDS Church’s willingness to lean into its history. Of course, many of the references invite charitable understandings, asking for a generosity on the part of readers. I think they’re likely to receive that generosity from faithful Mormons. Re-centering the Mormon narrative to include more women, people of different races, ethnicities, and class backgrounds should help readers understand the many ways that people became and stayed Mormon. This broader narrative allows for a variety of perspectives and also takes topics that the LDS Church has deemed worthy of further contextualization into its standard narrative. Those that read Saints in seminary, institute, or on their own will encounter seer stones, plural marriage, violence, and other topics. Inserting/re-inserting these and other topics into the narrative seems to be a way to absorb some of the shock young readers may experience at hearing about things not present in the modern LDS Church.
As someone that has taught Mormon history to Latter-day Saint college students, I welcome the addition of a text that should replace The Work and the Glory as representative of Mormon history. I applaud the inclusion of more than a hundred pages of footnotes to primary and secondary sources. I look forward to a thirty-year retrospective in future, looking at the ways that Saints has or hasn’t shaped the ways that Latter-day Saints understand and teach their history.
*There is an excellent essay in the supplemental information for Saints that shows why Lucy Mack Smith’s narrative is not wholly reliable and includes “flaws, exaggerations, and biases.” I would have liked to have seen this in the text, but this forthright assessment is important.
** Paul Reeve does this admirably in chapter 6 of Religion of a Different Color, too.