Learning about Ourselves through Church History
September 1979

“Learning about Ourselves through Church History,” Ensign, Sept. 1979, 6

Learning about Ourselves through Church History

As with the majority of the readers of the Ensign, I do not have a long family heritage of Church membership. My own parents were converts to the Church, and my eight brothers and sisters and I grew up in an isolated area where there were few Latter-day Saints.

Then, on a Christmas Day in 1933, a neighbor sister (two miles away!) brought me a copy of Joseph Smith, an American Prophet by John Henry Evans. I read it eagerly, gave a 2 1/2-minute talk about it in our little Sunday School, and from that moment was a dedicated reader of Church history.

Several years later, as a graduate student at the University of North Carolina, I discovered the intellectually fascinating studies of Mormon culture that were being made by Latter-day Saint scholars at Brigham Young University and at other universities where LDS teachers were employed. The study of history and social science that resulted confirmed my impressions from reading Joseph Smith, an American Prophet: this was the Lord’s Church; an understanding of its history helped to support that view; and those who have given serious study to our history are among the most valiant and insistent builders of our Lord’s kingdom.

Having given my professional life to the serious study of Latter-day Saint history—having examined even the most intimate documents of the Church—I am even more persuaded today than previously that a knowledge of our past offers persuasive proof that our people have been engaged, all along, in the work of the Lord.

The Lord has commanded us to keep our history. On 6 April 1830, the very day the Church was organized in this dispensation, the Lord commanded the Prophet Joseph Smith to arrange for the keeping of a record of the Church’s history (D&C 21:1). Oliver Cowdery was appointed to do this, and thus served as the first Church Historian and Recorder. Other revelations attest to the Lord’s insistence that the documents of the Church be preserved and that histories be written. With the encouragement of the prophets, the Church has endeavored to follow these commandments. From Oliver Cowdery’s first history, later published in the Latter-day Saints Messenger and Advocate, to the most recent works of General Authorities, the History Division of the Church Historical Department, and others, Latter-day Saint historians have prepared and published histories of events and personalities important to the Church in each stage of its development.

The formalized research and writing done by Latter-day Saint historians offers to the general public information that creates interest in the Church and helps foster a positive image. This research also provides schools and colleges, both in and out of the Church, with information relating to the history of the Saints that hopefully will result in a favorable treatment of the Church in textbooks, encyclopedias, magazines, and television shows. Members of the Church are given accounts of their past that lead to a great appreciation of their heritage, and Church leaders facing important decisions are given information on the historical context of the development of Church institutions and practices.

As with other institutions—governments and businesses—the Church looks best when it is viewed from the perspective of full information—when its processes and actions are understood and considered. Fortunately, in line with the Lord’s instructions, our leaders have preserved much documentation essential to this understanding. From that information we learn that the Saints of God are not those who have achieved perfection, but those who have placed themselves on the strait and narrow way and are, with varying degrees of success, working their way upward. This is the picture of his people that God has vouchsafed to us in the sacred records, and the historians exercise their faith and prayerful judgment in telling of the real struggles and fascinating experiences of the Saints past and present.

Let me suggest six lessons our historians have learned from the comprehensive study of our history.

Lesson one. A study of Church history can help us understand the scriptures. Our revelations, doctrines, and practices are tied to specific historical events. The observer can see the hand of God; he will also see the hand of man, for our past is the result of both God and man. History gives us a deeper understanding of the relationship of the human and the divine—how God works through men and what he expects of them.

An example is Hyrum Smith’s explanation for the failure of his program for migrating a body of Saints from Kirtland to Missouri in 1838. He said he had made plans “according to his own judgment without reference to the testimony of the Spirit of God” and that the “Saints had to act oftentimes upon their own responsibility without any reference to the testimony of the Spirit of God in relation to temporal affairs” (History of the Church, 3:94). Church history familiarizes us with God’s manner of allowing us to develop, make mistakes, and make improvements. Nevertheless, our history has taught me that we should not be too confident in stating what the Lord will or will not do to fulfill his purposes. Saints at different times have thought and said that the Lord would never do this or that, but in his wisdom he has done what was necessary to preserve his Church and assure its progress in the earth.

Lesson two. A study of history can help us understand that each of us must magnify his or her calling, for many of the significant administrative steps in the Church have come as the result of valiancy at the local level. On more than one occasion, local innovations and suggestions have been brought to the attention of Church leaders, who then felt inspired to use them as the basis for Churchwide programs. Positive achievement has taken place when Church members did not wait to be “command[ed] in all things,” but did “many things of their own free will” (D&C 58:26–29). Much of what we now have in several Churchwide programs had roots in the initiative of individual Church members: priesthood welfare programs, Sunday School, Primary, Young Women’s program, Relief Society, holding of fast day on Sunday, and many others.

Lesson three. Historical works, particularly personal and family histories and biographies and autobiographies, can help us build stronger families. A careful study of Church history is not only a study of the Church as an institution. It is also a study of the people who have built it up. Or, to be more precise, it is a study of the basic building blocks of the Church—our families. The linkage of families to each other is a factor of history as well as of genealogy. For example, the early persecutions of the Saints bonded family members together; such bonds became a powerful factor in their survival, despite intense struggle and hardship. The perpetuation of families, of family characteristics, of family strengths is highly evident in our culture. I once did a biography of Edwin D. Woolley, a long-time bishop of the Salt Lake Thirteenth Ward and maternal grandfather of President Spencer W. Kimball. Bishop Woolley left a strong Church family, and I discovered some of the strength of character of the grandfather manifested in the personality of President Kimball.

General histories usually contain very little about families—about women and children. But a study of the letters, diaries, autobiographies, and other contemporary accounts shows how earlier members built strong families; or, if they failed to do so, what went wrong. We can learn techniques we can then transfer to our own lives; and we can grow in an understanding of the humanness as well as the greatness of those who lived before us. Like Alex Haley, we can feel a sense of pride and personal fulfillment in knowing our own roots—not only biological roots, but social and spiritual roots as well.

Most important of all, since our families have the potential of being eternal units, we should know the history of our people because if we are valiant the persons of our past are going to be with us in our future.

Lesson four. We also learn from history not to judge persons and events too quickly. A careful student of our history once complained to me that there were a number of mistakes in our history. “Many of our enterprises,” she said, “were unsuccessful; many of our plans went awry.” And it is true. The free agency of others often interfered. The full objective was not always realized. Witness the attempt to practice the law of consecration and order of stewardships in Jackson County, Missouri; the effort to make Nauvoo the permanent “queen of the Mississippi”; the attempt to manufacture beet sugar in Utah in the early 1850s; and some aspects of the handcart scheme of 1856. But surely the Lord does not expect all of our endeavors to be successful. The bitter sometimes comes with the sweet; there is opposition in all things; we are here to be tested.

An insight into this concern was given by Elder Erastus Snow, of the Council of the Twelve, in a letter he sent to the Deseret News on 25 December 1852. Elder Snow had been sent, with fellow apostle Franklin D. Richards, to southern Utah to report on the progress of the Iron Mission, near Cedar City. The missionaries were still hopeful of success, he reported, but something more important than the smelting of iron was being accomplished. “We found a Scotch party, a Welsh party, an English party, and an American party,” he wrote, “and we turned Iron Masters and undertook to put all these parties through the furnace, and run out a party of Saints for building up the Kingdom of God.”

Perfecting the character of the people was the greatest concern, he was saying. The Great Basin, as Brigham Young once said, was “a good place to make Saints” (Journal of Discourses, 4:32). More important than their industries and other enterprises was learning to live together in unity and love. Failure in one goal can at times be a condition of success in another. We do not always recognize that in failing to achieve everything we strive for, we may be preparing ourselves for other goals far more important. Surely the Lord does not think that men will succeed in everything they undertake to do. History helps us look at the total picture of things; then we see that the Lord, as a wise father, is supervising our efforts to prove ourselves valiant servants in our Father’s kingdom. The purpose of many Church programs is simply to perfect the Saints. Or, to use Brigham Young’s phrase, to “turn the Saints into vessels of honor.” (Journal of Discourses, 4:23).

Lesson five. History demonstrates that people, all people, are fallible. There is no one without weakness, no one except the Savior who can claim perfection. In studying our ancestors, therefore, we cannot in honesty ignore the fact that they had weaknesses. This is not a “negative” or discouraging message; quite the contrary. For history also demonstrates that people can change and improve and that even imperfect people can accomplish much good. As we are made aware of some of our ancestors’ faults, we may acquire more confidence that our own shortcomings will not necessarily be a hindrance to achievement. A knowledge of the struggles of our ancestors to overcome their weaknesses gives us confidence and courage in our own struggles.

Lesson six. Finally, our study suggests that the personal judgment of the historian inevitably plays a role in the selection, organization, and interpretation of the material contained in his book or article. And because each historian sees things a little differently, the Church has rightly never regarded any historical publication as the “last word” on any episode, topic, or period of time. Even when historians are prayerful and conscientious, as our Church historians try to be, they must stand personally behind what they write. They must never give the impression that their own work presents the official view of the Church.

Several years ago President J. Reuben Clark, Jr., initiated the practice of putting in the preface of his writings a disclaimer: “For this book, I alone am responsible; it is not a Church publication.” That was true of all his works, even though they were printed by a Church-owned printing press and distributed by a Church-owned bookstore. The same point should be made of all our histories. Our historians seek to be as accurate as possible, but they must be held individually responsible for them; the Church, very wisely, does not publish “official” histories which are to be accepted as true on the same basis as revelation and scripture.

The Historical Department of the Church is engaged in an important and never-ending task—helping members and nonmembers alike appreciate the past and understand the present. The study of history can give greater meaning and purpose to our lives, both individually and collectively. It can help us formulate proper attitudes. It can save our children from hang-ups and misunderstandings. Indeed, if we tell our history in the context of faith, anti-Church sensationalists will find it difficult to advance so-called “facts” in a context that is faith-destroying. The gospel is the progressive revelation of truth, and we have nothing to fear from this process, whether it relates to historical effort or doctrinal truth.

Despite his awareness of growth and maturity, both individual and collective, the sincere student of Church history comes away with a testimony that is unshakable, and his increased knowledge helps him to stand up to hostile challenges. He cannot but be impressed with the honest concern of authorities at every stage of our history, with the measures that have been taken to bring the gospel message to the world, and with the efforts made to teach the gospel to the membership of the Church and to increase their ability and willingness to build the kingdom of God on earth.

  • Leonard J. Arrington, director of the History Division, Church Historical Department, lives in Parleys First Ward, Salt Lake City.

Photography Eldon K. Linschoten