About a year ago, I was talking with a friend about the state of Mormon history. He mentioned that he felt that one of the problems with Mormon history was that so many historians emphasized nineteenth century Mormonism, with a particular emphasis upon the Joseph Smith years. He then told me that he thought that the future of Mormon history would be in the field of twentieth century Mormon history.
In theory I agree with my friend’s assessment of the situation. It is clear that the number works on Joseph Smith, Brigham Young, and the early years of the Church far outweigh the number of books on twentieth century Church leaders and history. Although books like Alexander’s Mormonism in Transition, Prince’s biography on David O. McKay, and Kimball’s biography on the Spencer W. Kimball Presidency years do much to enhance our understanding of twentieth century Mormon history, they are too few and far between. As a simple matter of historiography, the niche in Mormon history appears to be firmly settled in the twentieth century. However, I’m not that this is a practical possibility, at least for the present.
There are several reasons for my pessimistic outlook.
First, without access to the journals and papers of important leaders like Heber J. Grant and Spencer W. Kimball, as well as the minutes of some of the organizations, our understanding of Church history during these years will remain quite limited. As a matter of personal opinion, I understand and agree with the restrictions imposed on many of these items. I’m not one to argue that the Church Archives is involved in some sort of conspiracy against historians. On the contrary, I have found the archivists and librarians to be most helpful, securing access for me wherever possible. I merely suggest my hope that in the coming years, some of the restrictions will lessen on important sources, at least those which are over 70 years old.
Second, it seems that within the Church we often have an easier time dealing with human imperfections that are further removed from our own time. The closer we get to the present, the more nervous we seem to become. I think that this is particularly true in light of the changes that Mormonism underwent around the turn-of-the-century. Peculiarities in nineteenth century Mormonism can be easily brushed aside with the thought, “Look how much further advanced we are than them.” But if we are to benefit from our history, we must be willing to see the imperfections and mistakes in which we may personally have played a role.
Finally, while I would not say that this is an appropriate reason for many aspects of the history, some parts of twentieth century Mormonism are simply still too recent to adequately assess. However, I believe we must take a page from our own past when it comes to recent events. Joseph Smith did not feel that 1832 or 1838 were too recent to record his recollections of and thoughts about the significance of key events in his life. B.H. Roberts did not believe that the 1910s were too recent to write an interpretive history of Mormonism, even up to his present.
I have discovered a good example of the dangers of waiting to record our history as I have researched the Church’s Religion Class program, which was an auxiliary program from 1890 to 1930. Materials on this program are scarce, and recollections by those who were students in it are even harder to find. Tragically, most of those who were beneficiaries of the classes have long since died, with the only remaining participants being in their 90s. Those who might have been a rich source of knowledge about this program have taken their experiences and recollections with them and are no longer able to share them with us.
While there are reasons to be pessimistic about the possibilities of twentieth century Mormonism, I believe that we must make an effort to expand the history of Mormonism beyond just Joseph and Brigham. It is a niche that needs to be filled and we as a Church have a mandate to fill it. As far as I know, the commandment given to John Whitmer never read “It is expedient in me that my servant John should write and keep a regular history until the twentieth century.” (D&C 47:1).