4 Truths I’ve Learned from Studying Joseph Smith as a Church Historian
February 2020

Digital Only: Young Adults and the Ongoing Restoration

4 Truths I’ve Learned from Studying Joseph Smith as a Church Historian

Young adults don’t have to be afraid of Church history. In fact, you should seek it out.

depiction of Joseph Smith and others at organization of the restored Church

When I was little, I loved listening to the stories my mom would tell me about Joseph Smith and the history of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. I grew up in western Oregon, USA, an area surrounded by nut orchards and agriculture. With crickets chirping softly in the background, our family would gather on our back porch in the summertime and listen to my mom tell these stories.

Maybe it was because I was also young, but I was particularly intrigued by stories from the Prophet Joseph Smith’s youth, like the leg operation he underwent to remove a bone infection when he was only seven years old. Or when the Smith family moved to New York when young Joseph was still using crutches three years later. I learned so much about Joseph Smith that I knew some historical facts better than even my Sunday School and Primary teachers!

Understanding Gospel Principles through History

As I continued my education, I started to seriously study American and Church history. I learned a lot about the culture in which Joseph Smith lived and the context in which the Church was founded. This information enhanced the meaning of the stories I learned when I was young. My education helped me see that studying the history of the restored gospel can lead to a deeper understanding of important gospel principles. I learned that this process should be embraced rather than feared.

In July 2018, I was able to pair my passion for Church history with my historical training when I joined the Joseph Smith Papers Project in the Church History Department as a volume editor. In my position, I verify transcripts of historical documents and provide readers with information to better understand the text.

In other words: it’s my job to think about the life of Joseph Smith every day.

Studying History with an Eye of Faith

The Joseph Smith who I’m most familiar with as a historian is a unique and complex American figure who sought to create a Zion community in what was once the western frontier of the United States. There are some aspects of Joseph Smith’s life that historians don’t have a lot of insight on because he did not make a record of his experiences or discourses.

But regardless of what we do or don’t know, faith must play a role in examining history as a Latter-day Saint. Believing in God and in the principle of continuing revelation—that God will not cease to speak to and direct His children—remains the foundation of my faith and keeps me grounded in the gospel that I love so much.

My in-depth, daily experiences with studying the life of Joseph Smith and Church history in general have taught me several things:

  1. The Prophet Joseph Smith was called by God. He truly became an instrument in the hands of the Lord to restore His gospel to the earth again. And it’s up to us to keep that Restoration going.

  2. God uses imperfect vehicles—like Joseph Smith—to accomplish great work. Each of us will fall short, and the truth of the matter is that we are not alone; even prophets use the Atonement of Jesus Christ to repent, just as we do.

  3. Our Heavenly Father is aware of each of us personally—with all of our accompanying struggles and questions. The doctrine that God restored through Joseph Smith teaches us that each person who has ever been born has immense individual worth and endless eternal potential to become like their Heavenly Parents.

  4. Personal growth and revelation can unfold over the course of a lifetime. Joseph Smith likely understood his First Vision better as he grew older because of the revelatory experiences he had throughout the remainder of his life. Similarly, we can look at the experiences we have in our lives knowing that we can continue to seek revelation as we build on the truth we have learned.

As young adults, finding answers to questions about Church history can seem daunting sometimes, but it’s a process worth doing. Your faith will be strengthened as you learn the stories of those who have helped the Church grow throughout the world. I know mine has.