In the past seven years, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has tackled some of the faith’s most controversial aspects of its history — polygamy, scriptural translation using a “seer stone,” a divine mother, the all-male priesthood, and, of course, race.
The Utah-based faith engaged scores of professional historians to tell the story in an evenhanded but positive way, hoping to add context, clarity and transparency for believers and critics alike.
At the center of the effort stood Steven E. Snow, a genial St. George attorney turned Latter-day Saint general authority, who served as the church’s official “historian and recorder” from August 2012 until Aug. 1, 2019. He will be named an emeritus general authority at the church’s October General Conference.
He’s no historian, the modest Snow quickly asserted on The Salt Lake Tribune’s latest “Mormon Land” podcast, nor an innovator.
“I owe a great debt to Elder [Marlin] Jensen, [his predecessor], because he was a visionary,” Snow said. “Many of these projects that I worked on were envisioned by him and his folks, and I was able to take them through and finish them. … We just stand on the shoulders of giants … and Elder Jensen was quite a giant.”
Indeed, it was Jensen, the church’s official historian from 2005 to 2012, who initiated many of the groundbreaking projects. But Snow, like Jensen, had the same instincts about the need for openness.
“We had an affinity for each other from the first time we met in St. George over 25 years ago,” Jensen wrote in an email. “Part of the good chemistry might be due to the fact that we both loved church history, were Democrats, served German-speaking missions and played the cornet as young men.”
Snow is a “true Christian gentleman,” he said, “with a rare blend of wit, wisdom and modesty.”
Jensen said he “intentionally stayed completely out of Snow’s melon patch over the last seven years,” but has been “thrilled by all he has accomplished and the good-hearted way he has gone about his work.”
The charismatic Jensen points to a couple of his successor’s accomplishments:
• The completion of the Priesthood Restoration Site, a church history attraction in Pennsylvania, is “significant.”
• The writing of “Saints,” the first new official church history in nearly a century, is “monumental.”
“To assist with the publication of a series of four volumes that candidly and openly tells the church’s story with the benefit of all the current research and available documents,” Jensen said, “and to navigate all the review and approval processes and to then have it all translated into [multiple] languages so that it can reach more than 90 percent of the members of the church worldwide — that is the work of a lifetime.”
Some of Snow’s success, Jensen said, can be credited to a laid-back management style that made him “beloved among the employees of the church history department and within the church history community,” Jensen said, as well as earning “the trust of the senior leaders of the church.”
No easy feat, but Snow has “excellent judgment,” Jensen said, “and can be both diplomatic and firm in advancing the initiatives he feels strongly about.”
Those qualities were essential as the affable attorney helped unfurl for the public the church’s first-ever nuanced essays on prickly historical issues and thorny theological topics.
Context amid controversies
In the “old days,” Snow said, “those that were critical of the church usually had to have some resources to put together a printed book or a pamphlet or do a movie.”
In today’s digital world, a sensational allegation or harsh assessment is only a click away.
The “brethren,” or top Latter-day Saint officials, felt members needed “a safe place to go to learn about some of these chapters or incidents in our history that had caused some questions or concerns.”
So Snow’s department recruited the best scholars, mostly from those outside church employ, and asked them to draft essays on the issues.
Those were then reviewed and revised by staff in the faith’s history department, always “carefully checking back with the author to make sure we weren’t doing anything that was not right,” he said. “And then those drafts were sent to the Quorum of the Twelve [Apostles] and First Presidency [the faith’s top ruling bodies] for final review and approval.”
Race and revelation
Among the essays that generated the most attention, pushback and confusion was “Race and the Priesthood,” which was published in December 2013.
“It obviously was written very, very carefully,” Snow said, because “it goes to the heart of some issues in the church.”
The essay points out that Brigham Young was a man of his era, when “racial discrimination was widespread in the North as well as the South, and many states implemented laws banning interracial marriage.”
Young announced a ban preventing black men from holding the faith’s priesthood and black women from entering its temples.
Some said the essay appeared to show that the ban — which ended in 1978 — stemmed more from earthly racism than heavenly revelation, though the article stopped well short of that kind of assertion.
“We kind of tried to balance on a knife's edge,” Snow said. “Some felt we threw Brigham Young under the bus and others say [we] weren’t hard enough on Brigham.”
Church historic sites
When Snow took over the department, the church’s historic sites, spread out across the country, fell under the faith’s missionary department, to use as proselytizing tools.
In recent years, however, it became clear that “99.9% of attendees were members,” Snow said, so the missionary department ceded supervision for the sites to the history department.
“We were thrilled,” Snow said. “We feel like sometimes the experience has been compromised by too much emphasis on proselytizing. And so we’d like to just help these families bring their kids to these sites and let them experience all the wonderful things that happened there.”
An ecclesiastical position
The calling of the “church historian and recorder” is specified in Latter-day Saint scripture, and it is a position that Jensen and Snow considered a sacred task.
“The fact that three church historians in a row are lawyers,” Jensen quipped, alluding to the fact that Snow’s named successor, LeGrand R. Curtis, is also an attorney, “shows that finding facts and drawing conclusions are common activities of historians and lawyers — so maybe a law degree is a pretty good qualification.”
Benjamin Park, a Latter-day Saint historian at Sam Houston State University in Huntsville, Texas, believes the church has been extraordinarily lucky with the past two church historians.
Their role is one of “trust and translation,” said Park, author of the forthcoming book, “Kingdom of Nauvoo: The Rise and Fall of a Religious Empire on the American Frontier.”
They need to hire professional historians and trust them, while at the same time translating their work into “language and principles that church leaders will recognize.”
Snow has been a “caring defender and advocate,” Park said. “He trusted those people in charge of various departments and went to bat for things he needed to when they were under siege.”
In the past seven years, the church history department hired “more people with Ph.D.s in top fields — maybe two dozen — related to American religion than any other institution in the country.”
For his part, Park said, “I can’t think of anywhere else that could boast that.”
But the Texas scholar believes Snow might be too quick to shrug off his own contributions.
Under his leadership, the church has launched a global history initiative, “broadening the focus to be more inclusive of the type of people we study — not just leaders but common members, and not just Utah, but global believers, and not just 19th, but also the 20th century.”
Paying it forward
What Latter-day Saints saw under Snow, said historian Matthew Bowman, “was greater openness, a willingness to engage forthrightly with multiple narratives of the Mormon past.”
Jensen “prepared the ground,” Bowman wrote in an email. “Under Snow, these ideas became public and the official rhetorical line of the church.”
His gift was “in seeing how these academic conversations about history are relevant to the church as a whole,” added Bowman, head of Mormon studies at Southern California’s Claremont Graduate University, “and finding ways to make them accessible.”
Kathleen Flake, professor of Mormon studies at the University of Virginia, echoes that sentiment.
Snow will be remembered for “integrating the contributions and changes of a remarkable time in church history.”
He succeeded in normalizing the “extraordinary and the new,” while “institutionalizing the vision so it didn’t look like a revision.”
That, she said, “is a great accomplishment.”
Empathy and the environment
Snow approached the past with a deep well of feeling for the pains and sorrows of Mormon forefathers and mothers. He brings a similar compassion to the present.
In November 2015, the Utah-based faith implemented an LGBTQ policy deeming same-sex member couples “apostates” and barring children from baptism. It caused much despair, division and disaffection within the church. In April, Latter-day Saint leaders rescinded it.
“I was very disappointed [when the policy came out],” Snow said. “It didn’t seem well thought out. ... It was hard for me. ... I’m very, very glad they’ve reversed it.”
He also packs a passion for the environment. As he moves back to his home in St. George, Snow, who turns 70 in November, plans to return to the Grand Canyon Trust board.
“I plan to be involved in public service. And I'm sure I'll be active in my ward,” he said, and hang out with his grandchildren.
What about running for office? Snow laughed and offered a one-word response.