I just finished the first volume of a new history of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints called Saints. In many ways it is remarkable.
Reality and Folklore
One of the very significant problems with prior historical accounts in church literature and manuals is that they have been excessively “curated” in order to serve a devotional purpose. Many church members who read Saints will be disappointed that the polished idealism of their favorite stories is gone. Yet, the realistic (and often corrected) details should make the stories more approachable.
From the Audience: “What??”
What I am intending to say is that romanticized stories can become folklore and thus lose their application to our own lives. Stories of faith lose their value for our personal journey if the doubt and choice is removed. Saints brings back the reality to church history.
Any history must be selective and thus reveals the emphases of the historians. Yet, like scientific studies, histories are expected to be repeatable. By that I mean that a reader could reasonably reach the same conclusion or construct the same narrative from the sources used by the author.
While written in a readable narrative style, Saints is replete with citations, documenting the quoted dialog and events. The online version links the footnotes to actual sources or full citations for those that want to dig deeper.
From the Audience: “Yes, but what about polygamy?”
It’s in there, as are the challenges with the Kirtland Safety Society, Danites, retaliatory attacks on Missourians, destruction of the Nauvoo Expositor press, and the succession crisis.
Those looking for dirt must recognize that Saints is a fast-moving, broad history and does not delve into individual subjects. Nevertheless, the challenges with Joseph Smith’s polygamy, beginning with Fanny Alger, are shown to play a prominent role in the internal turmoil of the early LDS church and were a major factor for inciting persecution.
Saints does a reasonable job of giving a non-judgemental, observers perspective that shows the messiness, confusion, conflict, faith, success, failures, and challenges that early members and leaders encountered. Those that left the church during this time are shown to have ample foundation for their decision. Those that remained with the body of the church are not lauded.
In other words, Saints allows for individuals to chose their own path for their own reasons and does not condemn them for doing so. May we all have the freedom and courage to do so and the love to allow others the same.