Mormon church publishes its first official history in nearly a century, and the result is an easy-to-read volume that tackles some hard facts

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Matthew J. Grow, director of publications for the LDS Church History Department, speaks at a news conference regarding the LDS Church publishing the first volume of new history, Saints: The Story of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in the Latter Days. Tuesday Sept. 4, 2018.

Few, if any, books about the beginning of Mormonism start with an Indonesian volcano.

But that’s exactly where the Utah-based faith’s new four-volume history, “Saints: The Story of the Church of Jesus Christ in the Latter Days,” opens its exploration of the church’s first three decades.

You see, the 1815 volcano’s effects “rippled across the globe,” according to the book’s first chapter, disrupting predictable weather patterns and causing drought even in faraway Vermont, a fact that propelled the family of Mormon founder Joseph Smith to pick up stakes and move to a more fertile land in upstate New York — where The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints would be born.

It also caused a flurry of concern among America’s clergy, who used the moment to sound warnings about “how [Christians] could be saved from the coming destruction.”

The volcano anecdote showcases the approach in “Saints” — an easy-to-follow narrative, with a breezy style that integrates details from the familiar Latter-day Saint story (it repeatedly uses first names such as Joseph, Emma and Brigham rather than last names, which gives it an intimate, personal feel) within a larger context, including Mormonism’s more controversial elements.

Seer stones, treasure seeking, polygamy, race relations. They’re all there, though often simplified and condensed, and come on the heels of a series of official church essays that tackle the thornier parts of Mormon history, doctrine and theology.

The project, which was unveiled Tuesday in a news conference at the Church History Library in downtown Salt Lake City, is the first official history since former LDS general authority B.H. Roberts put together his six-volume chronicle in the early 20th century.

The first volume of “Saints,” which carries the subtitle “The Standard of Truth" and is available in print and online, was penned by a team of six writers, edited by at least that many, reviewed by several historians for accuracy, and approved by Latter-day Saint leaders at the highest levels.

“In writing ‘Saints,’ we have tried to follow the counsel of President Brigham Young, given to the church historians in 1861,” church Historian Steven E. Snow, a general authority Seventy, said Tuesday, quoting the faith’s second president. “‘Write in a narrative style. And write only about one-tenth as much.’”

Every detail and every line of dialogue, Snow said, “is supported by historical references.”

On top of that, the whole was approved all the way up to the highest church authorities.

“The final product has been reviewed by many individuals, including experts in church history employed by the church, as well as at various universities,” Latter-day Saint apostle Quentin L. Cook said at the news conference, “representatives from the general auxiliary presidents, the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles and the First Presidency.”

The book’s primary audience is church members, particularly young ones who might be less familiar with the twists and turns of nearly two centuries since Smith’s mystical experience of seeing God and Jesus in a grove of trees.

It’s not just millennial Mormons who might find this new record appealing.

The book “has transported and inspired me,” apostle Dale G. Renlund said Tuesday, “as I read accounts of individuals who do and who don't figure prominently in church history.”

It is, he said, “accessible, accurate and compelling.”

Views from insiders & outsiders

Benjamin Park, who teaches history at Sam Houston State University in Texas, notes that in “Saints” the “words are short, sentences are crisp, and paragraphs, sections and chapters condensed.”

The result, the Mormon historian said, is that it “reads like a novel, which will make it far more accessible to average readers than dry academic monographs.”

Park found the nuanced descriptions of the Smith family’s relations “quite moving.”

The authors “detailed how important [brother] Alvin Smith was to Joseph Smith’s early religious activities, as well as how Joseph Smith Sr. was, at various points, supportive, disappointed and encouraging,” he said. “I believe the prose really captured the intimate dynamics of the family.”

The downside of such an approach, Park said, is that the text may not be as “meaty” as some would like.

For example, the book devotes only a couple of paragraphs to Smith’s 1826 trial in Pennsylvania for allegedly defrauding an old man with his treasure-seeking claims, the historian said. It offers a “succinct judgment and then moves on. The reader would have to read the exterior essay on the topic to learn that the trial’s verdict is far more fuzzy than the narrative lets on.”

Again, that could be more about audience than scholarship.

“Saints” is not for scholars or even sophisticated Mormons, said Patrick Mason, chair of Mormon studies at Claremont Graduate University. “This is for the person who has never picked up a book of church history or a volume of the Joseph Smith Papers Project — and is never going to.”

It’s for members whose only exposure to Latter-day Saint history is the fictionalized series “The Work and the Glory,” he said, “or for new members who live in Brazil or Ghana.”

It’s an internal document “for the faithful,” Mason said, “like a Sunday school.”

That does not mean it is unimportant.

For the Utah-based faith to put so many resources into the writing and editing of these volumes, Mason said, shows that church leaders believe “our history matters — and we want to put the history of Saints in the hands of the Saints.”

What about women?

Women at the table

As far as Lisa Olsen Tait knows, “Saints” marks the first time women have been involved in writing an official Latter-day Saint church history.

“There were always women who worked in the historian's office — kind of behind the scenes — but not in terms of doing the nitty-gritty work of writing the stories,” said Tait, a historian and writer in the church’s history department who helped edit the volume. “I think it's really important.”

Having women on the team provides a “broader perspective … more voices involved,” she said. It also means “more women in the story…[and] a real difference in the tone, the quality, the flavor, the inclusiveness — just all around.”

Plus, Tait said, “some of our best sources are from women. Diaries, letters, autobiographies. Many of these women stayed with the church, came West, lived long lives and left behind great records.”

Utah writer Linda Hoffman Kimball celebrates the book's inclusion of women.

"We welcome Jane Manning [a black convert] into the household of the Saints. We see [Joseph’s mother] Lucy Mack Smith’s chutzpah in saying to the man who failed to deliver her family and their meager belongings to their destination, 'I have no use for you. I shall take charge of the team myself!’” Kimball wrote in an email. "We see Mary Whitmer meeting a gray-haired man who said his name was Moroni, who showed her the plates [from which Smith said he translated the faith’s signature scripture, the Book of Mormon] he carried in his knapsack, making her another witness to the gold plates.”

No topic, however, probably generates as much interest as the early Mormon practice of polygamy, especially during Joseph Smith’s years.

“One of the most helpful ways to view it is from the perspective of the participants,” she said. “And so by having the women's stories in the book, then we get a firsthand view of that experience from them.”

A poignant example is the description of two sisters, Emily and Eliza Partridge, who were first “sealed” (or married) secretly to the church founder, and then sealed again in the presence of Smith’s wife, Emma.

The book may describe the arc of Mormon history, Mason said, but it doesn’t tell readers what to think about it.

“You are left to your own devices to figure out what is going on with Joseph Smith and polygamy,” he said. “The next step is to figure out what that means theologically. What does it mean, for example, that the prophet of the restoration married 14-year-olds and other people’s wives?”

Even with all those women’s voices, Mason said, “Saints” makes it clear that “Joseph Smith is the prophet of the restoration, and God is active in human affairs … the God-and-Joseph show.”

The project’s goal was to “fortify the faith of the Saints,” he said, “while at the same time paying attention to hard things.”

This new series may have “sugarcoated Mormon history,” he said, “but it is still some powerful medicine.”