As the managing historian of “Saints,” an official history of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Jed Woodworth was desperate. He and his team of writers and historians had agreed — the third volume in the series would not be complete without the story of a German member who had been alive between 1920 and 1955.
“Why Germany? Because of its two World Wars, national socialism and Hitler,” he said. “We wanted to have a character grapple with that.”
Germany also represented an international stronghold for the faith at the time with a “very robust LDS community,” Woodworth added. However, countless hours rifling through all the usual places had left him empty-handed.
Unsure where else to look, he drove to Brigham Young University in Provo one Saturday and began poking around a shelf of Mormon biographies. It was there he stumbled upon the story of a woman named Helga Meyer (born Helga Meiszus), a third-generation Latter-day Saint born in 1920 in East Prussia.
“Within maybe 30 minutes, I knew she was the one,” Woodworth said, citing one story in which Meyer uses her membership in the church’s youth programs to avoid becoming a member of the Hitler Youth.
Better yet, the woman who had recorded Meyer’s story was still living in Salt Lake City.
”One day after work, I went and knocked on her door and explained what I was doing and that I had some questions,” he said. The woman’s response stunned him.
Meyer, she explained, also was alive and living just around the corner. “Why don’t you ask Helga yourself?” she suggested.
At 96 years old, Meyer remained sharp enough to recount the missing details from the memoir — and more.
“I liken it,” Woodworth said, “to manna out of heaven.”
The church goes global
Due out April 22, “Saints: The Story of the Church of Jesus Christ in the Latter Days, Volume 3, Boldly, Nobly, and Independent 1893-1955″ is the third installment in a four-volume official history of the Utah-based faith. Deeply researched and heavily reviewed, including by the church’s top brass, the 700-page tome stretches from the aftermath of the Salt Lake Temple opening in 1893 to the dedication of Switzerland’s Bern Temple, the first constructed outside of North America, in 1955.
What sets this book apart from its predecessors is its “global scope,” said Scott Hales, a writer who worked on the project. Besides Germany, the text hops from New Zealand to South Africa to Brazil and beyond capturing the experiences of an increasingly diverse membership.
Among these international characters is Claudia dos Santos, a Brazilian man who converted to the faith in 1943 only to be called as president of a branch, or small congregation, a few months later.
The team discovered him through a collection of microfilm reels, but the account was “very short,” Woodworth said. “We needed more details.”
He tracked down a grandson of dos Santos who happened to be living in Salt Lake City to see if he knew any more about his grandfather’s experience.
“So again, I find an address and go knock on the door” only to discover that, like Meyer, not only is dos Santos still alive — then 102 years old — but also living nearby.
“Claudio allowed me to interview him and fill out the story,” Woodworth said. A year later, dos Santos died.
A church in transition
Even more than an unfolding of the faith gaining traction abroad, “Saints, Volume 3″ is a story of leaders and individuals redefining how church functions in people’s lives during a time of great change, said Lisa Olsen Tait, another historian who worked on the book.
“Things are changing so rapidly — the material conditions of life as well as people’s frameworks and mental horizons,” she said. “This book is a lot about how we make those transitions” and how “people find spiritual meaning in this modern world.”
Debates roil within top church leadership over evolution, new youth organizations based on the latest research emerge, and all the while the church continues to expand across the Earth — bringing new perspectives and voices.
In many ways, Tait said, the book is about “transitions” with echoes to experiences facing many Latter-day Saints today — be it a global pandemic in the form of the 1918 Spanish flu, economic uncertainty brought on by the Great Depression, or war.
“There’s so much in this book,” she said, “that resonates with where we’re at right now.”
How did the first two books perform?
Woodworth never imagined when he took up the role of managing historian — a position he inherited the day the first volume hit the shelves — the kind of reach the project would have.
“We didn’t really know how many readers we would have until we released that first book,” he said, “and it turned out to be a phenomenon.”
To date, the first two volumes have sold a combined 1 million print copies, simultaneously amassing 1.25 million digital readers and more than 500,000 listeners.
For her part, Tait expects no less of the newest installment. “I really do think,” she said, “readers will find the stories very, very compelling.”
The book will be available Friday in print, online and in the church’s Gospel Library app. It will also be available as an audiobook in English, Spanish and Portuguese in the Gospel Library app.
The digital version will be available in 15 languages — including Cebuano, Chinese, Russian, Korean and more — with print editions in these languages to follow in subsequent months.