Ardis E. Parshall: Honest history, LDS and otherwise, can be revealing, surprising and healing

What can we learn from a lonely Black Latter-day Saint trying to reach Zion and a church magazine photo of a bare-breasted woman?

I love history — Mormon history in particular, and Utah and American history, history of the arts, archaeology, genealogy, you name it. If it happened in the past and it contributed to making the world we know today, I want to know it and share it, the good, bad, inspiring or ugly.

This fascination with the past is, I am told, an abnormal and unusual thing.

I’m convinced that’s because we do it wrong, either requiring memorization of boring and easily forgotten trivia, or, in the public forum, substituting polemics for discussion, drawing on faulty history to support biased views on all sides.

But if we really knew history — knew the people on a personal level, knew the events as if we had been there, focused on fairness and not exaggeration to score points — social life in Utah could be far better. Honest history can be healing.

No doubt most Salt Lake Tribune readers are aware of the Latter-day Saint history of racial exclusion from the faith’s priesthood and temples. We know that racism persists in Utah, with social exclusion, bullying, use of racist slurs and costumes. Some blame that persistence on Mormon history; Latter-day Saints declare that all ended in 1978.

What if both sides knew about Jane Hunter?

Jane Hunter was baptized as a Latter-day-Saint in London in 1852 and, by 1854, wanted to emigrate to Utah to live among her fellow believers. She was esteemed a future asset to Utah, and the church agreed to pay her transportation costs through the Perpetual Emigrating Fund.

But when Hunter stood with other Saints on the deck of the ship preparing to leave Liverpool, the vessel’s officers told her that she could not sail with the rest. Mormon emigration entered the U.S. in 1854 through New Orleans, and the officers knew that Hunter, a Black woman, would be seized into slavery the moment she arrived (and also that they would be arrested for violating U.S. law).

So Hunter was put back on the dock, to make her way alone to the New World on a ship headed to Canada — without friends or family, without the company of other Latter-day Saints or the leadership of a returning missionary who knew how ships and trains and wagon companies worked. She would have to support herself en route with no church assistance and find her own way West. So far as research has yet determined, Hunter never was able to rejoin the Saints.

If, as a Latter-day Saint, you knew that your faithful sister was threatened with enslavement and that this is the family history of most of the African Americans you know, would you brush off racism and perpetuate it? If, as a non-Mormon, you knew that numerous Black Latter-day Saints now being discovered through historical research held firmly to their faith despite past restrictions, could you be respectful of those Latter-day Saints’ personal sacrifice and commitment and help to end racism in Utah today?

Another story: Latter-day Saints often are mocked for their teachings on modesty, especially when it goes so far that the church recently covered the cleavage of a Renaissance Madonna before displaying that painting on the faith’s website. How would attitudes among both Latter-day Saints and nonmembers be affected if we really knew Mormon history and that the church had once published a photo — a photo, not a painting — of a bare-breasted young woman in its official Sunday school magazines? Or that the Tabernacle Choir had once furnished music for a movie that some condemned because the full form of an actress was displayed backlit against a window, clad only in a diaphanous gown?

That movie, “Corianton,” which tells the story of the Prophet Alma’s sometimes-wayward son from the faith’s Book of Mormon, was no more unsavory than the photo in the church magazine (Juvenile Instructor, Aug. 1, 1906) and if you’re brave enough you can attend a screening of the restored film at Brigham Young University’s Varsity Theater on Friday, Jan. 27, at 7 p.m. You might even hear me there, praising Lester and Byron Park, makers of the movie, for so many aspects of their artistic vision, and their descendants for allowing the film to be restored and shown.

Ardis E. Parshall is an independent research historian who can be found on social media as @Keepapitchinin and at Keepapitchinin.org. She occasionally takes breaks from transcribing historical documents to promote the aims of the Mormon History Association’s Ardis E. Parshall Public History Award.