Mormons Meet on History

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“Mormons Meet on History,” Ensign, July 1980, 79–80

Mormons Meet on History

In a scholarly celebration of the Sesquicentennial, the Mormon History Association held its fifteenth annual meeting in Canandaigua, New York, in May, focusing on the New York origins of the Church.

The sessions began with an excited buzz over the discovery of the Anthon Transcript, announced only three days before in Salt Lake City. Danel Bachman, LDS Institute of Religion instructor in Logan, Utah, reviewed the finding of the transcript (Ensign, June 1980, p. 74) and then compared the characters on the transcript itself with the two other known copies of the characters, the Whitmer manuscript in the RLDS archives, and a Book of Mormon poster (see his article, p. 69).

The next two days were crammed with twenty-nine concurrent sessions and five plenary sessions in addition to the presidential address, given by Jan Shipps of Indiana-Purdue University in Bloomington.

Leonard J. Arrington, director of the LDS History Division, focused in some detail on the little group of Saints from Colesville, New York, who attended the founding of the Church in Peter Whitmer’s farmhouse, then moved en masse to Ohio and on to Missouri, and finally were absorbed into the larger community life in Nauvoo. But New York beginnings, despite their briefness, were “the building blocks” of the next 150 years. They included important revelations, the Book of Mormon, the organization of the Church, the beginning of missionary work, and a commitment to cooperation and mutual service.

Richard G. Oman of the LDS Arts and Sites Division gave a slide-lecture on the paintings and stained-glass windows of the First Vision showing how the idea has been depicted over the years. He had found seventy separate pieces of art in chapels, temples, tabernacles, and mission homes that featured Joseph Smith, usually in connection with a vision, 75 percent of which had been made in the last thirty years.

Joseph Smith and crossing the plains are the “two great traditions” in Latter-day Saint visual art; and he hypothesized that the mission of Joseph Smith would become even more important as the Church becomes more international.

Another presentation on the First Vision was that of James B. Allen of BYU’s History Department. Members of the Church now see it as “the most central event” of the restoration of the gospel, but he reviewed how missionaries used the Book of Mormon much more than the First Vision to prove Joseph Smith’s prophetic mission and that the First Vision did not receive strong emphasis until the 1880s when “George Q. Cannon set the tone for the next hundred years” by suggesting it be taught to children. Dr. Allen concluded his presentation with a list of thirty-four statements by various General Authorities from the nineteenth and twentieth Centuries about what the First Vision proves, including: the Father has a body of flesh and bones, he is approachable, and he answers prayers; Jesus is a being similar to the Father; and revelation is continuous.

A highlight of the conference was lectures by two scholars who had received grants from the O. C. Tanner Foundation to “take a fresh look” at Mormonism’s New York beginnings from their own perspective as nonmembers.

Timothy L. Smith of Johns Hopkins University found that the Book of Mormon strongly reinforced biblical teachings at a time when skepticism about the scriptures was rampant. “I just learned last night how to pronounce Nephi,” he quipped, and listed some of the Book of Mormon’s contributions. Its Christianity was grounded on both the Old and the New Testament, and its blend of Hebraic and Christian teachings “linked prophecy to history, memory to hope.” It also “reinforced the ecumenical movement” in a “country rushing toward racism” by affirming that both Jews and Indians were of the chosen people. The Book of Mormon also issued a “call to ethical righteousness,” according to Dr. Smith, helped “revitalize the expectation of pentecostal experiences” by promising the gifts of the spirit.

A particularly distinctive feature, he said, was that the Latter-day Saint insistence on literalism actually produced “a freedom,” because the scriptures, taken literally, promised continuing revelation.

Similarly, Gordon S. Wood of Brown University found that the Book of Mormon “cut through controversies and brought the Bible up to date.” He noted that the Restoration occurred at “the fight moment.” American society was still disorganized and unintegrated from the Revolution but was beginning to “reconstitute” its authoritarian structure.

Paul L. Anderson of the Church Arts and Sites Division traced the interest in Church historic sites. Sites became important after many of the participants in those events had died. The first site acquired by the Church was Carthage Jail, purchased in November 1903, followed by the birthplace of the Prophet in time for the centennial of his birth in 1905. The trip President Joseph F. Smith and his party of thirty took to dedicate it was the “first official pilgrimage,” with evening songs and prayers and a general testimony meeting at one point.

The first shrines to the trail west did not come until 1936 when President Heber J. Grant dedicated a monument at the Winter Quarters cemetery and stopped near Independence Rock to mark the trail. Brother Anderson noted that most historic sites show a compromise between the sometimes conflicting goals of restoration, attracting the interest of nonmembers, and providing inspiration to the members—who usually outnumber nonmember visitors to these sites.

Ned C. Hill, Finance Department, Indiana University at Bloomington, looked at the statistics of “150 years of growth.” One of the best modern estimates for 1846, when no formal membership census had been taken, finds approximately 30,000 members. Today, with a growth rate of 3.2 percent, the Church is growing much faster than the population of the United States, which has a growth rate of approximately 1.2 percent. In 1979, the Church was the fifth largest church in the United States. About 40 percent of that growth is from children born to Latter-day Saint parents; 60 percent is converts. If rates of growth remain constant, areas with a 3 percent growth rate will double their Church populations in twenty years. If the general Latter-day Saint growth rate is about 20 percent (in South America it ranges from 39.6 percent to 19.5 percent in some countries), the number of Latter-day Saints will double in eight years.

We “know more of what Joseph smith did than how he felt,” said Dr. Kenneth W. Godfrey of the LDS Church Educational System as he analyzed Joseph Smith as a son, a husband, and a father in an “attempt to probe his feelings.” He used an analysis of three New England patterns of child-rearing to give insight into the Prophet’s leadership methods. Brother Godfrey also examined Lucy Mack and Joseph Smith, Sr.’s, marriage to see the kind of home Joseph Smith had grown up in, then discussed his own relationships with Emma, his children, and his brothers. The prophet’s relationships were characterized by “unusual love and loyalty,” he concluded.

Other presentations ranged widely, including literature, anthropology, sociology, and theology as well as history. The organization, now numbering over a thousand members, plans to hold its next meeting in Rexburg, Idaho, May 1–3, 1981, with its 1982 meeting scheduled for Council Bluffs-Omaha.