Studying Church history can be both inspirational and fascinating. Many of the Saints who came before us documented amazing experiences that for us, as young adults working in the Church History Department, have helped grow our own faith in the Savior and His restored gospel.
It is incredible to see the many miracles that the Lord has wrought through His stalwart leaders in the process of restoring the gospel and spreading it throughout the world. It can also be challenging when you learn about actions, statements, or philosophies of past Church leaders that prompt questions.
As we’ve spent time working on Church history projects like Saints: The Story of the Church of Jesus Christ in the Latter Days and the Joseph Smith Papers Project, we’ve learned to navigate hard topics with scholarship, faith, and open minds. Here are a few things we would suggest keeping in mind to help you build faith as you address your concerns.
As members of Christ’s Church, we believe that prophets and apostles are called of God and are His mouthpieces on the earth. We also believe that God works through imperfect people and that He allows each of us, including Church leaders, to learn and grow, “line upon line, precept upon precept” (2 Nephi 28:30).
Elder Dieter F. Uchtdorf of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles explained: “I suppose the Church would be perfect only if it were run by perfect beings. God is perfect, and His doctrine is pure. But He works through us—His imperfect children—and imperfect people make mistakes.”1
But we recognize that these leaders were called by God and were divinely guided as they performed His work on the earth. We can pray for spiritual confirmation of these facts, just as we pray for confirmation of scripture and gospel doctrines and principles.
Judging someone in the past based on the knowledge we have in the present isn’t fair to them and doesn’t give us an accurate picture. This is especially true when we don’t understand the historical and cultural context of their decisions. Societies change over time, and looking back with our current knowledge and understanding can lead us to make inaccurate assumptions about the past. We have to be humble enough to see that our initial view of the past may not always be right.
Sometimes we come across facts about Church leaders that make us uncomfortable or cause us to question our beliefs. If we quit studying when something makes us uneasy, we can be left with many questions and no answers. But tackling tough topics using reliable sources and seeking for revelation can actually help us develop deeper, more refined faith.
As you delve deeper into Church history, keep an open mind, and don’t limit yourself to voices that only confirm the negative things you’ve heard. There are plenty of good resources that can help you find new perspectives or have healthy discussions around the parts of Church history that you find troubling. Don’t be afraid to confront hard issues, but also, don’t dismiss the faith-affirming parts. Examining Church history, warts and all, can help us develop faith, but if we focus solely on the warts, we won’t get the whole picture.
The fact is, it takes time and willingness to research new perspectives, fact-check statements, absorb new information, and adjust your viewpoint. Our colleague in the Church History Department put it beautifully when he said: “It requires humility to admit we do not know everything, to wait patiently for more answers, and to continue learning. When new sources are discovered that provide new insight into things we thought we knew, it requires humility to revise our understanding.”2
Be patient as you work through something that challenges your thinking. You don’t have to work through it all at once. And when the sometimes problematic human aspects of Church history weigh you down and make you feel confused, you can always bring your study back to the gospel basics that bring you peace. Regularly reading the scriptures and praying for the guidance of the Holy Ghost can lighten your spirits and help direct you to the things you need to learn, when you need to learn them. And we speak from experience when we say that sometimes we just don’t have all the historical records or knowledge to fully understand some concepts, and that’s OK. We do have access to a full knowledge of the restored gospel of Christ. We second the testimony of Elder Neil L. Andersen of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles that “faith never demands an answer to every question but seeks the assurance and courage to move forward, sometimes acknowledging, ‘I don’t know everything, but I do know enough to continue on the path of discipleship.’”3
Ultimately, a testimony is not derived from learning about Church history; a testimony comes from exercising faith in Christ. After studying the history of the Church and its leaders, you have to decide how what you’ve learned will affect your faith in Christ and His gospel.
The gospel of Jesus Christ is unchanging, but the Church is a living entity, and the Lord directs changes in His own time and way—just look at how many policies have changed in the past few years! And it has changed even more in the past 200 years. Growth occurs when new information is brought to light, further revelation is sought, or circumstances change and we adjust.
We might not have all the answers to every historical question, but we can always remember that our foundation is our testimony of our Heavenly Father and Savior. We know that Jesus Christ is at the head of His Church. He will continue directing the changes and improvements through His prophets until He comes again to lead personally. Until then, it is reassuring to know that He is aware of us and directs His prophets to adapt and create divine resources to fit our ever-changing needs over time, and that we can sustain and trust them to lead us back to God’s presence.