Why Study History?
September 1978

“Why Study History?” Ensign, Sept. 1978, 59

Why Study History?

Before we examine the question “Why study history?” we should ask what is meant by “history” and how that answer relates to Church history, a subject closely related to the Doctrine and Covenants.

Many years ago one of America’s distinguished historians, Professor James T. Shotwell of Columbia University, reminded us that history is at least two things: (1) a record of events and (2) the events themselves.

The “events themselves,” which took place in the past, whether yesterday or 5,000 years ago, are beyond exact recall with our present facilities. We cannot re-experience an event. Thus, we are left with records of events, all of which are interpretations of events. (Even television involves a human judgment on where to point the camera.) Furthermore, despite the contributions of archaeology, linguistics, and the natural and social sciences, most history is a form of literature. Naturally, the most reliable records come from qualified participants in the events or from analysts with access to all the records, but their re-creation of the event for us will always be shaped by their own perspective.

Some records of “the events themselves” are more accurate than others. For example, it is possible to ascertain that on 2 July 1776, a resolution was adopted by the Second Continental Congress in Philadelphia, declaring that certain former British colonies in North America should be free and independent states. But everything John Adams, Benjamin Franklin, and Thomas Jefferson actually felt or did on that day is impossible to recapture.

We do have valuable documentary evidence, such as John Adams’s letters to his wife Abigail, which record many of his feelings. Yet, we should appreciate the fact that even these famous letters are the recorded expression of the hopes, anxieties, dreams, and reckonings which Adams felt that day in Philadelphia.

But these inevitable limitations should not make us feel that studying history is a waste of time. “Those who do not remember the past,” said George Santayana, “are compelled to live it.” (International Dictionary of Thoughts, Chicago: J. G. Ferguson Publishing Company, 1969, p. 543.) Moreover, if history is neglected, they will wallow in ignorance, lacking any appreciation for what they are themselves and the conditions under which they live.

What are, then, some of the most useful documentary records? Clearly, the Lord feels that personal histories and family chronicles are important since he commanded Adam to keep “a book of remembrance.” (Moses 6:5.)

Also, on April 6, 1830, the very day the Church was organized, the Lord commanded, “Behold, there shall be a record kept among you.” (D&C 21:1.) Recorders are appointed for each temple. Our stake clerks, ward clerks, and government offices record such vital events as marriages, births, christenings, and deaths. Modern governments, especially during and since the nineteenth century, have established both archives and records offices. Even in ancient Rome, the Pontifex Maximus recorded his interpretations of the year’s events on wooden tablets preserved in the Forum.

However, such documents usually need to be supplemented by personal and family history. For example, my own birth certificate in Iron County, Utah, was filed according to law by the attending physician before I was blessed. Years later, when I secured a copy of my birth certificate, I found it was for an “unnamed male child” born on my birthday, to my parents! So, today, attached to that official, original record, is a notarized affidavit certifying that George Homer Durham is the “unnamed child” born to my parents.

Even Church records are not infallible. The certificate of my blessing in Parowan Ward gives my mother’s name incorrectly. But the fact of my birth and naming remain, and are recorded.

But even if the official records are accurate, they are always incomplete. A marriage certificate records the names of the parties, the officiator, the witnesses, the place, and the date of the marriage. But it doesn’t tell how the bride, groom, family, and friends felt, or what they experienced. And everyone participating will naturally have had a different experience.

If some of these distinctions are understood, we are in a better position to understand and evaluate history. As literature it represents the work of those who record events, just as the television news reflects the experience of the camera crew, the scriptwriter, and the newscasters.

When we record events, therefore, we need to take extreme care, whether our medium is personal journals, reporting, literature, or another form.

The authors of “books” usually write to interpret events, rather than record them. Naturally they face even larger difficulties, since interpretations range from a straight-forward documentary analysis to pure fiction based on presumed facts. Thus every personal history, letter, journal, or inscription carries its own special value and the reader may add his own interpretations. John Adams’s opinion of what happened in Philadelphia 2 July 1776 or Wilford Woodruff’s views recorded in his journal are ways of understanding both the events they recorded and the recorders themselves.

It has been said that any history reflects the age in which it is written and the background of the person who writes. One of my history professors at the University of Utah many years ago, Andrew Love Neff, often told his classes: “What we see depends upon where we stand.” And what we write—in our personal, family, national, and Church histories—is a reflection of this principle.

Thus, a very wide range of approaches to history is possible. Though historians may be trained in similar methods, the literary styles and interpretations of even the most famous vary. Herodotus (fifth century B.C.) is often called the father of history because of the high-quality account he bequeathed us of the conflicts between the Greeks and Persians. Polybius (205–125 B.C.), in his extensive The Histories, carefully recorded events and circumstances as he understood them in the Greco-Roman world. Yet because of his literary style, Polybius has not had the general impact that others have who wrote with a more engaging style.

Historians are continually sifting all evidence available to them, revising each other’s work. Hecataeus of Miletus (sixth to fifth century B.C.) took a strongly individual perspective: “I write as I deem true, for the traditions of the Greeks seem to me manifold and laughable.”

All of these approaches have some benefit. They all give us knowledge. Individuals’ jottings, notes, and even small inscriptions come to have enormous value. From them we gain:

(1) a record of events;

(2) an appreciation of how things might have been and how they came to be;

(3) what might have been if certain conditions or circumstances could have been altered (“O that we had repented. …” 3 Ne. 8:24);

(4) what changes have occurred as man’s free agency leads him to do good or evil.

Always the thoughtful mind discerns the need for revelation and divine guidance. All that we see about us in science, technology, architecture, agriculture—civlization in general—can be truly said to be the fruit of history in the broadest sense. Where revelation and divine guidance have been absent, or ignored, we see the stark contrasts in history.

The study of Church history bears the same fruits, but is even more intensely valuable because of its relationship to the Doctrine and Covenants. We might compare each individual section in the Doctrine and Covenants to a deep pool in the continuous river of Church history. In these pools, the current slows and we get a sense of timeless truth; and in the depths of these pools are the eternal treasures of the Lord to which we are brought by the events in Church history.

These modern scriptures, like our ancient ones, therefore represent one of the most significant forms of our history. They record the highest standards of value: love, intelligence, justice, mercy, forgiveness. They record the consequences of rejecting, forsaking, or ignoring these standards. God’s dealings with his children under varieties of circumstances are depicted. They record how men have dealt one with another, what they have achieved, where they have failed, and what they have built—character, families, cities, or poetry.

These qualities characterize all scriptures. They are all significant history. They recognize the holiness of God, central guiding principles, and an overruling Providence—standards to which creative intelligence can rally, overall love and concern toward which men can aspire. The dark deeds and tragic events which are recorded also teach lessons.

Notable scholars of the world’s events, however, have not usually shared this concept of history. Leopold Von Ranke (1795–1886), for example, made strenuous efforts at strict “scientific,” descriptive history writing. Yet, aided by all the developing arts and sciences, secular history has not yet arrived at what Professor Shotwell called the “constructive principle which could take the place of the Providence they rejected.”1

Giovanni Battista Vico (1668–1744) was another who asked, Why is there no science of human history?2 Must it remain a literary art? Some have tried to answer by substituting an economic interpretation for “the constructive principle in the place of … Providence.” Karl Marx (1818–1883) and H. T. Buckle (1821–1862), in his History of Civilization in England (1857), both used this method, though not in the same way. Arnold J. Toynbee (1889–1975) characterized Marxian communism as a chapter torn from the pages of Christianity, inverted, and misread.3

Thomas Carlyle (1795–1881) attempted to explain history in terms of heroic individuals. G. F. W. Hegel (1770–1831) proposed a system of generalizations in which he said Judaism typified duty; Confucianism typified order; Islam, justice; Buddhism, patience; Christianity, love. He then glorified the national state as the “march of God,” or reason, in the world.

None of these explanations is satisfactory, however. All fall short of the basic explanations given in the scriptures and summarized in our first two Articles of Faith: (1) belief in the Father, in his Son, and in the Holy Ghost, and (2) belief in the agency of man.

Recognizing the scriptures, then, as one of the great historical documents, rich in variety and insight, we should remember these things:

1. The existing sixty-six books of the Holy Bible have been subjected to probably more scholarly criticism, reexamination, documentary research, evaluation, sifting, and study than any existing literature, historical or otherwise. There are great differences between the simplicity of Mark, the majestic quality of Matthew, the warmth and literary power of Luke and the Acts, the reflective universalism of John, and Genesis. Leviticus, the prophets, Psalms, and Proverbs, all have their proper vitality. And the epistles of Peter, the chief apostle of his time—what glorious testimonies are contained therein! Listen to his words as they have come down to us over the centuries:

“For we have not followed cunningly devised fables, when we made known to you the power and coming of our Lord Jesus Christ, but were eyewitnesses of his majesty.” (2 Pet. 1:16; italics added.)

Some try to discredit these accounts by saying, “There are no existing contemporary manuscripts of inscriptions of these events, whether of Joseph who was sold into Egypt, or of the life of Jesus Christ.” Yet these same questioners rejoice in the writings of Aristotle (384–322 B.C.) and extol his Politics and Ethics, despite the fact that most of the sources on which our translations of Aristotle depend are manuscripts written in the twelfth century A.D.—or even later. Fragments of these manuscripts came from the Greek-Byzantine world, across North Africa with Islamic scholars, into Spain—where the Moors tolerated Jewish scholars—and thus through the back doors of the Mediterranean world. Thus were the “works” of Aristotle transmitted to modern times.

On the other hand, the Biblical manuscripts now in the British Museum have been subjected to extensive textual and “higher” criticism. Our present Bible is based on fairly complete sources, closer to the originals than the Aristotelian works. These Bible manuscripts date from the fourth century A.D. They in turn rest on sources since lost. Thus, one may read the Bible “as far as it is translated correctly” with great confidence and appreciation.

2. Our modern Latter-day Saint scriptures have documentary basis much closer in time to us. True, the plates from which the prophet Joseph Smith translated the Book of Mormon were returned to Moroni and are not to be found in any museum. However, metal plates bearing significant inscriptions and other external evidences of the Book of Mormon have been found in various parts of the world.

The missionary edition of the Bible used by Latter-day Saint missionaries in the English-speaking world contains important helps to scriptural study. These helps have been compiled from a number and variety of historical documents. Maps are included, since geography underlies history in an intimate way. Also included is the magnificent Bible dictionary, compiled from the best available biblical scholarship. The reader can easily locate in the dictionary any unfamiliar name or a place he finds as he reads the Bible. With the maps and the dictionary, his appreciation and understanding of these great scriptural records will be magnified.

The study of history enhances our understanding and appreciation of the revelations in the Pearl of Great Price. Original manuscripts and other source materials exist and a close examination of them gives us insight into the methods of translation and of receiving inspiration.

Our documentary sources on the Doctrine and Covenants, however, are richer than those for any of our other scriptures. In the Church archives are some of those fragile yet enduring sheets of paper on which appear our earliest known versions of the revelations received by Joseph Smith. The journals and diaries of early members of the Church refer to the times and places—and their feelings—as they heard these revelations given and discussed for the first time. And the prophet Joseph Smith’s own journal, the basis of the multivolume History of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, marshals the historical evidence that frames the timeless truths of the revelations.

Why then read history? To know! To understand! To appreciate! To live more usefully and wisely! “A man is saved no faster than he gets knowledge,” said Joseph Smith. (Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith, sel. Joseph Fielding Smith, Salt Lake City: Deseret Book Co., 1976, p. 217.) A knowledge of history is like understanding minutes of the “previous meetings.”

That which is sound, good, durable, and understandable endures. The scriptures stand as monuments of durability. We in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints are blessed with a rich history, recorded both in the scriptures and Church records and by our historians who have interpreted those records over the years. Let us use those scriptures and those histories wisely, well, and always with understanding.


  1. “History,” Encyclopedia Brittanica, 11th ed., vols. 13–14, p. 532.

  2. Encyclopedia Brittanica, p. 532. This article in the famous eleventh edition contains an excellent exposition of the subject from the time of antiquity.

  3. See D. C. Somervell, A Study of History, vols. 1–4 (abridgement), New York: Oxford University Press, 1947, pp. 203–205, 446–47, 399–400; vols. 7–10 (1957), pp. 148, 184, 216, 315, 339–40.

Illustrated by Ronald Stucki