Why I Like Mormon History

By February 4, 2010

Sometimes I get bogged down in the details of my job and forget just how much I enjoy what I do. I?ve developed a list to remind myself why I got into this field just in case the tedium of it starts getting to me. Some of these are kind of silly, but others can have a profound impact.

  1. Old stuff. This is probably a prerequisite for anyone getting involved in history. There is something about the past that intrigues me. Put a stack of 1910 magazines in front of me and I?ll be entertained for hours. Let me walk along Hadrian?s Wall and I may pass out from the excitement of the place.
  2. Fieldtrips. The kind of Mormon history I do for a living requires me to visit the places of Mormonism. I get to wander through fields looking at archaeological remains and crawl around basements of historic structures. Word to the wise: try not to be in the bell tower of the St. George, Utah tabernacle on the hour. That bell is loud.
  3. The power of place. No photograph, movie, or topographic map can substitute for standing at the edge of the Grand Canyon. Much of Mormon history can be tied to specific locations. While I can sit at my desk for hours researching the details of history, it changes when I go to the place. My understanding of the Mormon trek to Utah changed one day while walking next to trail ruts on a lonely hill in Wyoming. My personal connection to Church history powerfully shifted one night while sitting on the front steps of the John Johnson home.
  4. The transformative power of the Mormon past. Understanding any part of the past can change how we view our present. But for me, one of the most powerful stories of the past is found in the emergence of the Mormon identity. The work I do allows me to take the incredible work done by Mormon scholars and translate it into something easily understood and applied by members of the Church. When our history becomes understandable, it becomes personal.
  5. Access to really cool stuff. Since starting church employment, I?ve personally held the printer?s manuscript of the Book of Mormon, the original Book of Commandments and Revelations, an 1841 British Edition of the Book of Mormon, Gladys Knight?s Grammy Award, Ezra Taft Benson?s Book of Mormon, canes made out of Joseph Smith?s coffin, 1960s Mormon board games, resin grapes, Jacob Hamblin?s saddle, and the list goes on and on. And what other job in the world allows you to have a debate over how President Hinckley tied his neckties? That kind of detail is very important when you are putting his suit on exhibit.
  6. Access to very knowledgeable people. If you have a question about early Salt Lake City, Mormon/Indian relations in early Utah, Brigham Young?s favorite foods, Joseph Smith?s legal abilities, the history of quill pens, how to paint pine to look like marble, or how to preserve Grandma?s wedding dress there is someone in the Church History Department who can answer. If you need to identify an image of an unlabeled Mormon building, the age and type of a piece of furniture, a seemingly indistinguishable hunk of metal, or the age of a photograph based on clothing styles, there is someone in the Church History Department who can answer. If you want to discuss the importance of photography in the historical experience, interpretative techniques in historic structures, methods to keep people from touching stuff at museums, the balance between preservation and access, the role of Zion in the Mormon experience, the power of myth in Mormon memory, or even just brainstorm important themes from the Nauvoo period, just come to lunch. Something is bound to come up. Or we?ll talk about books and good movies. The breadth and professionalism of my colleagues is amazing and it is a true joy to work with them.
  7. Correlation. Everything I produce goes through the correlation process. In my experience, I?ve come to see correlation as a really good editor. It has stopped me from printing some odd things and allowed me to rewrite good ideas so they actually say what I think they say. Yes, it can be a slow process, but the end product is so much better. Every historic site has some controversy associated with it. What correlation asks me to do is deal with those controversies fairly and to be absolutely impeccable in my wording and sources. The stories that actually matter get through the process. I?ve dealt with apostasy of early church members, polygamy, the Dixie Wine Mission, and the Mountain Meadows Massacre and several other issues in correlation approved, missionary used historic site guides. The process is difficult but I?m personally glad it is there.
  8. Work that has an impact. There is immense satisfaction in seeing a completed exhibit that you helped create. It becomes even more satisfying when someone says ?I learned something today.?

What is on your list? Why do you do Mormon history?

Article filed under Miscellaneous


  1. I totally understand the power of #1-4. Those are the things that really drive me to keep at this. As an amateur I don’t experience #5-7 very much. Though the bloggenacle does give me access to some great experts I otherwise would not likely meet. Every once in a while I get to do something very similar to #8.

    Comment by Bruce Crow — February 4, 2010 @ 10:58 am

  2. I really relate to 1 and 4. I love old stuff. It is fascinating to step back into the past and get a feel of the similarities and differences. I see the past of Mormonism has an impact on the present. The more I learn about the past the more I see the effects. You have an awesome job.

    Comment by Todd Decker — February 4, 2010 @ 12:26 pm

  3. I enjoyed this, Emily, because I could have written most of it from my own experience. Intoxicating stuff, isn’t it?

    My one quibble is that #5 and #6 don’t belong here — they need a title of “Why I Like Working for the Church History Department.” When you’re only a patron who doesn’t have access to archivists any more, but is limited to sweet but clueless missionaries for “help,” that specialized knowledge is utterly unavailable. (Am I bitter? yup.)

    But politics aside, I love your essay. You really capture the fun of doing Mormon history.

    Comment by Ardis Parshall — February 4, 2010 @ 12:28 pm

  4. Great list.

    I, myself, am in it for the money.

    Comment by Edje Jeter — February 4, 2010 @ 12:45 pm

  5. I think there is a wonderful ability for denominational history to contextual the existence of the practitioner. They find a place beyond the now. It becomes not just history, but “my history.” I think the potential is there outside of denominational history for the same, but it is sometimes more difficult to integrate for some, I think. I doubt I would be interested in doing Religious History if I didn’t feel some of that belonging.

    Emily, unless you plan on fleshing it out at a later point, I’m quite interested in your experiences with your #7. What are the specific strengths of the process? Are there any weaknesses? Can you provide an example of how you negotiated the process?

    Comment by J. Stapley — February 4, 2010 @ 1:19 pm

  6. Emmily, I really appreciate this. While I especially relate to your items 1 – 4, there is also what Stapley refers to in his comment, a personal connection. In my case, I have been fortunate to have family members in my ancestry who were involved in some pretty interesting things in church history, but this has come to me mostly in my late 40’s and now into my 50’s. I’m also learning of some secular angles to my family history I want to explore as well.

    I’m happy for so many of you that are younger students and “early adopters”. I could now kick myself for opportunities lost because I didn’t know much of the history, and especially my ancestors parts in it. I am most unhappy that when my wife and I first got married, we didn’t ask my dear, blind, 80 year old great aunt who still was sharp as a tack about my great grandparents and their time in Arizona. I also know now that I missed opportunities with my own Mom and Dad, even though I did get quite a few stories and other stuff from them.

    I also have gotten to know quite a few knowledgeable people, though, including Ardis Parshall and J. Stapley in real life, and email and bloggernacle acquaintances with some other really knowledgeable and passionate people. I really hope when retirement rolls around, if I ever can really afford it, for my wife and I to do a mission together, and would love to work either at the CHL or at a historic site. However, that is still many years away.

    Comment by kevinf — February 4, 2010 @ 1:40 pm

  7. Arrrgh, “Emily”, not “Emmily”. Spelling is important in history, too.

    Comment by kevinf — February 4, 2010 @ 1:41 pm

  8. Great post, Emily!

    Edje, LOL!

    Along with J, hoping to hear more about interactions there, idiosyncrasies, etc.

    Comment by Jared T — February 4, 2010 @ 1:41 pm

  9. Ardis, I’m with you on the loss of access to archivists. While the new church history library has opened access to me, it’s restricted access in some ways for patrons. I wish there was a better way to balance that out. As you well know, senior staff are like a walking catalog. You can throw out a photograph collection number and they’ll nod their heads knowingly and tell you what is in folder 23 and the entire provenance.

    Bruce, sadly, a lot of the great treasures of Church History are only available to a limited number of people. Many church members will never visit the Sacred Grove. Some scholars have to do research without access to the best sources because they live too far away to access them. A big idea now in archives and museums is digitization. While it gets the information out there, it can’t replicate the experience of handling the real thing. Any suggestions on how to get the real thing more into the hands of people who would like to see it?

    Comment by Emily — February 4, 2010 @ 2:16 pm

  10. I figured there would be some additional questions about correlation. I can tell you my experience and remember that this statement hasn’t been correlated. 🙂

    After several rounds of peer review, department review, editing review, and intellectual property review, a project goes to correlation. Basically, they get a cover letter and however many copies of the project they want. After a few weeks, I get a document back with all of the comments of all of the reviewers. While the whole thing is anonymous, I can usually figure out reviewers research backgrounds and interests based on the comments they make. Comments range from “on page 34, paragraph 2, line 3, please change ‘the’ to ‘thee'” to “please delete all references to the Dixie Wine Mission.” I then go comment by comment either making the requested change or justifying why an idea should be discussed (all tied to the ideas of accuracy, relevance, and appropriateness.) I’ll then work with a member of the correlation staff to iron out any additional potential issues. If we can reach consensus on everything, the project gets the stamp of approval and off it goes to print.

    J., let me give you one example. The St. George Tabernacle has a fairly well known faith promoting story connected to its construction. Parts of it have bene repeated in general conference. In doing research for the new site guide, we found it difficult to support the details of the story with early historical sources so we left most of the details out. The guide went to correlation and came back with the comment to please include the details as found in a general conference talk. Feeling that the potential inaccuracies could be a distraction to the story, I argued for keeping that part of the guide as it was written. So, along with my review, I sent a copy of the research report about the story back to correlation. After a brief discussion about careful wording, that part of the guide passed the review process. It really came down to extremely careful documentation and precise wording.

    Comment by Emily — February 4, 2010 @ 2:31 pm

  11. Emily,

    What area do you work in with the Church History Department? I am working on the George Q. Cannon Papers with Jeff Cannon right now.

    Comment by Tod Robbins — February 4, 2010 @ 2:57 pm

  12. That is a very interesting perspective, Emily. Sounds similar to standard corporate editorial control. The Dixie Wine, comment intruiged me. Did the content remain? Have you ever felt that the process didn’t work? I understand if you are not able to discuss particulars, being currently employed.

    Comment by J. Stapley — February 4, 2010 @ 2:58 pm

  13. First things first…why is Gladys Knight’s Grammy in the archives?

    Comment by Bret — February 4, 2010 @ 2:59 pm

  14. Emily, I appreciate the way that you talk about LDS history – you can tell how much passion you have for it. And I agree with how you’ve discussed the Church History Department; just being there these last few months, I have had a great number of amazing opportunities, and I really enjoy learning from and interacting with the great minds that are there.

    Thanks for sharing these great thoughts!

    Comment by Ardis S. — February 4, 2010 @ 3:54 pm

  15. RE: #10, The Dixie Wine Mission

    My late grandfather, James Jourdan Mason, worked as a telegrapher for the Southern Pacific Railroad. He was assigned to several different locations on the SP system during his career with the railroad. At some point he was in the St. George area and evidently was able to purchase a cask of Dixie wine*, which was originally made for use in the Sacrament. I joined the Church in 1965 and when the subject of my conversion and membership came up he made the comment, “Well, Mike, I don’t know too much about the Mormons, but I’ll tell you this, you haven’t been drunk until you’ve been drunk on Dixie wine!” Being a southern Methodist and a railroad man, he had no hesitation in testing what the Saints could do with the fruit of the vine.

    *Sometime early in the twentieth century, the Brethren in Salt Lake decided that the time had come to discontinue the use of sacramental wine “of our own make” and all reserves of the wine were to be disposed of with all dispatch. Evidently, there were storehouses full of it. Despite the fact that these were below ground level, Dixie’s heat had a profound impact on fermentation. The same effect of which my grandfather spoke so admiringly, might have had a similar, although somewhat muted, impact on the Saints while in their meetings.

    Comment by Velikye Kniaz — February 4, 2010 @ 8:20 pm

  16. That is a fun anecdote Velikye. Unfortunatley, the alcohol content of a wine has nothing to do with the temperature at which it is stored. It only depends on the original concentration of sugar in the fruit. I doubt the fruit was particularly high quality due to the climate. According to Alexander wine was no longer used in weekly meetings of the First Presidency and Twelve in 1906. It is my understanding that local meetings had generally stopped some time earlier.

    I’d be interested in some verification of these stores of Dixie Wine.

    Comment by J. Stapley — February 4, 2010 @ 8:46 pm

  17. Dixie Wine is a great story and a good example of how working with artifacts and sites can be incredibly complex. There are only a few items in the Brigham Young Winter Home that provenance can trace back to the Young family or Brigham in particular. In general, you want to highlight those items on a tour. However, the guides at the Winter Home were ignoring a couple of things because they were unsure of how to deal with the attached issues, including Dixie Wine. Rather than removing the artifacts, I wrote a brief paragraph titled “Why Did Brigham Young Own Wine Decanters?” In just a few sentences, I (hopefully) gave enough information to the guides so they could point out the artifacts and answer visitor questions. It got through correlation relatively unscathed. If I had been dealing only with documentary evidence, Dixie Wine probably wouldn’t have come up. Artifacts, structures, and landscapes also tell stories and those stories can at times be harder to ignore.

    And J., there have been times I’ve wanted to pull my hair out while in the midst of the process, but I’ve always been pleased with the final result.

    Comment by Emily — February 4, 2010 @ 10:02 pm

  18. #11 – Tod, I’m in historic sites, just down the hall from the Joseph Smith papers. Stop on by and say hello!

    Comment by Emily — February 4, 2010 @ 10:03 pm

  19. #13 – Bret, Gladys Knight’s Grammy was part of a recent exhibit at the Church History Museum titled Something Extraordinary celebrating the contributions of women to the Church and greater world.

    Comment by Emily — February 4, 2010 @ 10:07 pm

  20. And the resin grapes?

    Comment by S. Baker — February 4, 2010 @ 11:55 pm

  21. S. Baker,
    My mother had a set of resin grapes from a Relief Society craft project years ago. It was apparently a widely used project and the source of a few great but unverifiable stories. Not sure if she still has the grapes.

    Comment by Bruce Crow — February 5, 2010 @ 12:36 am

  22. Oh my, yes (hardly an expression I ever use, but we ARE talking about sacred artifacts here): When I was a teen, Relief-Society-project resin grapes were as expected a symbol on every Mormon coffee (oops) table as the Standard Works. Or so it seemed to me at the time.

    Comment by Rick Grunder — February 5, 2010 @ 12:52 am

  23. Emily,
    I get a thrill out of handling the real thing. But even when I visit an Archive I rarely get to touch the original. Although once when I was looking at folders with copies of the John H Gibbs papers at BYU, I discovered that the finding aid did not match what was in the various folders. Can you imagine my thrill when the archivist’s answer was to bring out the originals and let me search through all the folders for the document I wanted. Wow!

    Digitation is a reasonable substitute. My variety of research thrives on resources like the Mormon Missionary Diaries, and other searchable, scanned images. So more of the same would be great. Can you say Southern States Mission Manuscript History?

    Sites, however, you can’t move? I can’t make it to the Sacred Grove more than once or twice in my life. But there are places of significance near my home that few people know about. Within a 2-3 hours drive are places of local importance. Did you know there is an LDS church in Grundy County Tennessee from 1909 where Easter Morning sunrise services are held each year. Or a gravestone commemorating two young men who died defending missionaries from a mob. Every local has sites like these that may allow more of us to experience the sacred without having to travel 2,000 miles.

    Comment by Bruce Crow — February 5, 2010 @ 1:15 am

  24. Gee, thanks for explaining the benefits of correlation. Imagine how much comments by faceless, anonymous, faithful reviewers would have improved or at least vastly reduced the volume of my work, or changed my horrible handcart history into a Happy Handcart history. Come to think of it, I wouldn’t have to worry about my research and writing bothering people–because there wouldn’t be anything to bother people!

    Comment by Will Bagley — February 5, 2010 @ 8:41 pm

  25. Check your blood sugar, Will. You’re incoherent.

    Comment by Ardis Parshall — February 5, 2010 @ 9:39 pm


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