Book review: “Saints Volume 3: Boldly, Nobly, and Independent”

Boldly, Nobly, and Independent is the third volume of Saints, the Church’s new official narrative account of its history. You can read my review of Saints 1 and 2 here and here. The book begins with Evan Stephens and the Mormon Tabernacle Choir at the World Fair in 1893. It ends in 1955 with Henry and Inge Burkhardt being sealed in the newly built Bern Switzerland temple, heading home to East Germany and unsure whether they will ever be able to attend the temple again. The interim 62 years of the volume covers such a fascinating swath of Church history: Utah statehood, the tapering off of polygamy, the Progressive era, the Great Depression, and two World Wars. More than once, I have wanted to know– what was the Church doing then? And there were very little materials that I knew about that could answer that question. We know the events of the Restoration. And we know what the Church looks like today. But what happened in the middle? This account shows a Church in transition, but it also shows many models of faith that don’t often look like what we have come to expect.

I have had the fortune to read a few accounts from the events covered in this book. Kathleen Flake’s Politics of Religious Identity: The Seating of Senator Reed Smoot, Mormon Apostle (reviewed here). The book examines the tensions between the Church and the United States as we transitioned away from polygamy. Many of the same events are covered here, including (what I had never heard before, and I doubt many Church members do) Church President Joseph F. Smiths’ subpoena and testimony before Congress. On the other end, I read David O. McKay and the Rise of Modern Mormonism by Gregory Prince. The book ends during President McKay’s tenure, so it bridges some of the events of Saints, including the effort to build temples abroad and issues surrounding the priesthood ban.

Just like the previous volumes, the book follows a wide array of characters, jumping from one narrative arc to another. I love this structure. Some of my favorite characters this time around were

  • Elder John Widtsoe, the chemist-turned apostle. I think my favorite part of his story is his book Joseph Smith as Scientist: *John explained how passages from the Book of Abraham accommodated scientific views that the earth was much older than the six thousand years some biblical scholars estimated. In another article, he identified parallels between aspects of the controversial theory of evolution and the doctrine of eternal progression.
  • Helmuth Huebener, the young German who was sentenced to death during the Nazi regime for opposing the party.
  • President Heber J. Grant who had many feelings of inadequacy living up to the legacy of his predecessor Joseph F. Smith.
  • President George Albert Smith who…

The book also covers what I will call the backstories of Church leaders familiar to me and closer to the present. For example,

  • Harold B. Lee was a bishop who developed a robust welfare program within his ward that he later scaled up for the entire Church.
  • Ezra Taft Benson was responsible for delivering aid to the Saint in post-World War II Europe.
  • Gordon B. Hinckley led the efforts to make the endowment ceremony more accessible by making it into a film– and the first round even included clips from Disney’s Fantasia to illustrate the Creation.

The book highlights that the Church was a very different institution than it is today. There were much more progressive elements in the Church that ring true to me, in a Church that too often feels like the only way to be faithful is to be a Republican. Some of the takes I really appreciated:

  • Orson Whitney declared it was woman’s destiny to participate in government… I regard it as one of the great levers by which the Almighty is lifting up this fallen world, lifting it nearer to the throne of its Creator.
  • President Joseph F. Smith adopted individual sacrament cups in the wake of the Influenza epidemic, as germ theory became better understood.
  • Clarissa Williams and Amy Lyman of the Relief Society spearheaded efforts surrounding poverty, women’s health, and social work within the Church.
  • B. H. Roberts wrote a book harmonizing aspects of the gospel with science, but wasn’t able to publish it because Joseph Fielding Smith believed that literally no life existed on earth before Adam and Eve.
  • Elder Brigham Young Junior strongly opposed the Spanish American War, stating the conflict was “a chasm that had been dug by uninspired men.”

Much of this book deals with the image of the Church, as it sought to enter mainstream culture. For example, when Elder Young voiced his opposition to the Spanish-American War, President Woodruff censured him: The Church had only recently mended its relationship with the United States, and President Woodruff did not want prominent Church leaders appearing disloyal to the nation. “Such remarks were very unwise and ought not to have been made. We are now a part of the nation, and we are under obligation to do our share with the rest of the citizens of the government.” This move away from strong moral stands in the public sphere– or should I say limited to “religious” issues– left me sad, as this is one of the main things that have changed between the Church and today. We are much less bold in changing the world for good. Bold takes like doing away with prisons and penitentiaries, or living in a society with “no poor among them”– we no longer see those as meant to be applied literally or fully.

A great read, and so glad to have these gaps of Church history filled in.

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