Owning our history: How “Saints” reduces historical doublethink

I am shamelessly proud of my Church and the great strides they have made in the publishing of Saints: The Standard of Truth. This is fantastic history and beautiful prose. I have always been an avid reader, my early encounters with Church history weren’t positive: I remember reading excerpts from Our Heritage in Sunday School and finding it absolutely dry. Perhaps I have matured since then, and I do feel more invested in my Church and its history now. But I think part of that is finding Church history books not published by Deseret Book. My first Church history book that became a favorite was Greg Prince’s David O. McKay and the Rise of Modern Mormonism, because it first time that I felt you could tell Church history and talk about Church leaders without pretending everything was perfect all the time. I also enjoyed finding alternate interpretations of Church history, such as Denver Snuffer’s Preserving the Restoration, and recent publications like Joseph Smith’s Polygamy and Joseph Smith’s Seer Stones This book is a fantastic addition to the genre of Latter-Day Saint history, and bravely confronts difficult topics while maintaining a narrative structure in which belief in the divinity of Joseph’s calling as prophet.
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Church leaders are using the word “immunize” to describe their hopes of this book: that it will immunize them from doubts and anything “anti-Mormon” in nature. I think the wording is appropriate; but I think any scenario where a form of censorship is present will harbor ill feelings. Leftists on campus are finding this out now: when you make no room for conservative viewpoints on campus, and students encounter facts from alt-right sources, they can start to embrace extremist viewpoints, because they feel that the liberal elites have lied to them. We need to have open discussion about these topics. We shouldn’t be ashamed to discuss them, and we shouldn’t have to feel we are being untrue to our faith if we bring them up. Let’s talk about Joseph Smith’s polygamy. Let’s talk about seer stones. I’m very excited in this new era where members and youth will be much more familiar with Church history, and hopefully have a complete mental structure of Church history rather than a string of “faith-strengthening” stories cherry-picked from the past.

Here are a few things that I learned, or at least became much more clear as I read “Saints”:

Joseph Smith wasn’t perfect

You hear this all the time. We acknowledge it, but when we are confronted with his humanity upfront, sometimes it can be a bit hard to take. Joseph was rough around the edges. He didn’t “look” or act like a prophet at times. I didn’t know that he got into a fist-fight with his brother and fellow apostle in a quorum meeting. He held grudges, and often alienated people both in and outside the Church. Thomas Marsh found out that he was a bit authoritarian at times, often acting without consulting other. Marsh felt hurt that Joseph would take unilateral action in organizing missionary work with England, when he had clearly delegated that to himself. And heck– Joseph went and instituted polygamy without telling his two counselors in the First Presidency! That doesn’t sound like a good way of building trust.

Critics of the Church have always been around

We often characterize these doubters and takers of offense as traitors, enemies, and antagonists. But I think these characters had legitimate concerns about Joseph’s leadership. I sympathized with all of them, and we need to see how real their concerns are, because we are likely to encounter similar concerns with present-day leaders as well. I think there are plenty of examples of those who struggled and remained faithful: Parley P. Pratt for example. He got absolutely screwed over by Joseph and Sidney when the Kirtland Safety Society went under. He even voiced some criticisms. But, with some help from fellow saints, he was humble enough to accept a prophet with flaws.

Other critics I had less sympathy for. John Bennett told women that Joseph gave him permission to sleep with them outside of the marriage covenant. He tricked many. When he was excommunicated, he was the one who really sparked off the rumors and sharp criticisms around polygamy. William Law too was an adulterer who couldn’t take the consequences of his actions and turned on the prophet.

Emma is back again

In most Church literature, you hear about Emma briefly in the happy early days of the Restoration, but she fades out in the Nauvoo years when polygamy was introduced, because she doesn’t always play the role of demure, supportive wife. She REALLY struggled with Joseph’s polygamy, and they show it really well here. You feel for her. I am so glad to see her character, and her centrality in the restoration, portrayed so well.

We were kind of jerks in Missouri

The only two things a lot of Mormons know about Missouri is that we’re supposed to build a temple there some day, and Governor Boggs is a horrible bigot who issued the extermination order. This is true. But you find out that there was bad blood on both sides. Mormons often didn’t play good neighbors. Remember when the saints got kicked out of Jackson County? That really got rolling right after William Phelps published an inflammatory speech by Sidney Rigdon saying, “If you fight with us, we’ll fight back. We’re willing to shed blood to protect our rights.” Perhaps that’s an OK sentiment. But it isn’t going to calm things. When some neighboring Missourians burned down the house of a saint, the Mormons retaliated by burning down an entire village. The Saints had a secret group called the Danites who swore to fight off the enemies of the Church with violence. Perhaps we often didn’t take the first punch. But we certainly were willing to play 19th century identity politics, take things personally, and get our hands dirty.

While a lot of it isn’t new persay, this is the first time I feel like I have a complete picture of the Restoration complete in my head. I’ve read specialty books on Mormon history, like Joseph Smith’s use of seer stones, or the revelations surrounding polygamy, but this is the first time I feel comfortable with the overarching narrative of not only the life of Joseph Smith, but the lives of everyday saints as well. And it feels so good– to not feel like I have to be ashamed of inconvenient truths surrounding Joseph Smith. You don’t have to feel like some hater out there is going to spring a truth on you that could potentially crash your testimony. I hope this builds self- confidence in Mormons (my bad, members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints), and I hope it starts of spark to help us re-appreciate the Restoration.

P.S. Check out some of my irreverent tweets while I was reading here:

 

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