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May 23, 2012
Rambling Thoughts on Church History
"Why Do You Read That Stuff?"
by James B. Allen

I enjoy the people I play golf with, and I think they enjoy me. While on the fairways we talk mostly about golf, but if not that we talk about politics or family or church, and sometimes we even tell a few good jokes.

But one day recently I began to talk about my work with history and historians and was suddenly taken aback when my partner asked, "Why do you read all that stuff anyway? What good does it do?" I don't remember exactly what I said but, in my dismay that anyone would ask such a question, I stumbled around for a minute or so with such things as "just plain interest," "understanding the present," "developing historically informed opinions," and "the value of knowing how our nation, and the Church, got to where they are."

But I should not have been shocked for, sadly, over the years I have discovered that, like most Americans, not a lot of Latter-day Saints read much history. They are usually delighted when they hear an LDS scholar or teacher present a fireside on some aspect of Church history -- especially the so-called "faith-promoting" history. But reading history books, even Church history, does not seem to be among their priorities.

I think I know why, though I won't go into that right now. Rather, I just want to urge anyone who happens to be reading this to consider picking up some good book (or, if not a book, an article) on Church history and devouring it. (No, don't eat it -- just read it, enjoy it, and learn from it!)

Why? Well, "just interest" can be one good reason, but there are others. For one thing, I am convinced that once you immerse yourself in the study of history -- even one good book -- you will find your personal life enriched in several ways. Not only will you find good history really interesting, but you will also find that your understanding of the past and of how and why various things developed and/or changed over the years will help you better understand the Church itself.

All this can inevitably lead to more interesting conversation and, in my estimation, a more fulfilling life.

An old but true cliché says that "variety is the spice of life," suggesting the importance of new experiences and new ideas to help us along the road to eternal progression. We believe in vicarious work for the dead, but through the study of history the dead can vicariously provide fascinating new experiences for us. Did you ever think of that?

I am also convinced that the more history we read, the better we understand the Church. History teaches us not only when, how, and why it all began, but also how things change, and how the Church got to be where it is today. As Latter-day Saints this should be important to us, especially in this time of renewed challenges to testimony and increasing attacks on our history from unfriendly sources.

It is too easy to be caught "off guard," not knowing how to deal with some of the historical facts propounded by critics. And yes, many of the things they use to embarrass us are facts, but they are not often presented by the naysayers in their real historical context.

Of course, it might be "safe" just to close our eyes and pay no attention to the naysayers, but what if a child, other family member, or friend does pay attention, and questions you about it? You won't find simple, one-phrase answers in the history books, but you will broaden your understanding of what really happened, see it in historical context, and be able to deal with many questions as an informed person.

Finally, by reading history we are actually fulfilling a commandment. As the Lord instructed Joseph Smith, he was not only to translate the scriptures but also "obtain a knowledge of history, and of countries, and of kingdoms, of laws of God and man, and all this for the salvation of Zion" (D&C 93:53). If that was so important to the Prophet, why not to us?

So how do you find the "best" history to read? In some future notes in my "Rambling Thoughts on Church History" I will suggest a few things of special interest. But for now, here are just a few guidelines:

  1. Although some very good articles have been published in Church magazines, you also need to go beyond these sources, for their focus is usually quite limited.
  2. Read books and articles by respected historical authorities. They don't need a doctorate to be good scholars and writers. They only have to have a good grasp of their sources and write with the idea of telling a truly accurate story.
  3. In general, try to avoid pejorative history -- that is, history that is written either for the express purpose of disparaging or belittling the Church or for the express purpose of disparaging or belittling the naysayers. There can be be some "good stuff" there, and at a later date I will point to some of the best replies to those who belittle the Church through its history, but pejorative history is usually very narrow in its focus.
  4. Don't be afraid to read non-Mormon scholars. The really good ones are not out to damage the Church, and many have written some excellent, well-balanced histories. At first you may feel uncomfortable with the fact that the narrative style is different from what you often read in Church publications, and you will certainly not see them bearing testimony of the gospel. However, in general you will see some very honest and commendable efforts to understand LDS history.
  5. Begin with some good biographies, for they are not only some of the most interesting reading but also the most revealing of how the Church affected individuals in the course of its history. You might begin with some recent biographies of Church presidents, such as To the Rescue: The Biography of Thomas S. Monson, by Heidi S. Swinton, or Spencer W. Kimball, by Edward L. Kimball and Andrew E. Kimball, Jr., followed by Lengthen Your Stride: The Presidency of Spencer W. Kimball, by Edward L. Kimball.
  6. Expect to be surprised, and even have some of your pre-conceptions about history changed. That's part of what make's history fun!

Finally, remember that history is not, by nature, "true," nor is it "everything that has happened in the past." By that I simply mean that no one has access to all that happened in the past, for not everything that ever happened was observed, and not everything that was observed was remembered, and not everything that was remembered was recorded, and not everything that was recorded has survived, and not everything that has survived has come to the historians' attention, and not everything that has come to the historian's attention is credible (i.e., even those who recorded what they saw had their biases) and not everything that is credible has been grasped or fully understood by historians, and not everything that has been grasped can be fully expounded.

What we have in the history books, then, is, at best, only the expounded part of the understood part of the discovered part of the recorded part of the remembered part of the observed part of what happened in the past (paraphrasing Louis Gottshalk in his Understanding History).

The historian is required to take this very incomplete record and present it as his or her best explanation, or interpretation, of what he or she has found in the records. History, including Church history, then becomes an interpretation of the past, but never a truly full account. But we are always discovering new documents that shed new light on the past, which will inevitably bring new understanding and new interpretation. That's another thing that makes it so much fun!

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