By Peggy Fletcher Stack
Salt Lake Tribune
Article Last Updated:07/20/2007
You won't see many people in Tuesday's Pioneer Day parade dressed up
as one of Brigham Young's polygamous wives or floats touting the
Mormon theocrat's view on cooperative economics.
Like all such pageantry, the annual celebration tends to feature
an idealized, heroic view of the Mormon pioneers' arrival in Utah on
July 24, 1847, and that's the way much of the faith's history has been
Now a new survey reveals many Mormons want accounts of their
history "to be inspiring, but not sanitized," says Rebecca Olpin,
director of audience needs for the LDS Family and Church History
Department. "They want it to be frank and honest, They are looking for
the whole story, accounts of real people, and a wider scope of history
than early 19th century pioneers."
It's not a trivial conclusion.
Mormons believe God commanded them to keep a record of their lives
and actions beginning with the church's founding in 1830 and
continuing to the present. To them, history is a kind of theology and
writing it, a sacred responsibility.
That perspective long has put LDS historians and their scholarship
at the center of controversy, as they tried to balance accounts of the
miraculous with knowledge of human fallibility and flaws. The conflict
came to a head in the late 1970s, when the late Leonard J. Arrington
was the church's official historian. He assembled a crack team of
scholars who together produced two single-volume histories of the
church, 18 books, about 100 articles for professional periodicals and
more than 250 articles for church magazines. They were at the vortex
of a movement, known as the New Mormon History, that combined respect
for the LDS faith tradition with academic rigor.
Unfortunately, LDS leaders were unnerved by Arrington's approach.
They dismantled his team, restricted access to documents and
unceremoniously "released" him from his position as church historian.
Two decades, more sophistication among members and an online
revolution later, a renewed sense of balance seems to be reflected in
the recent survey.
Olpin's department was looking to determine what kind of
historical approach and products Mormons wanted. So they queried 2,000
LDS Church members who were engaged in genealogy online. Respondents
were active in the LDS Church, interested in family history and
The survey revealed that Mormons get a lot of their information
about church history from historical novels such as The Work and the
Glory or at church-sponsored historic sites such as Palmyra, N.Y.;
Nauvoo, Ill.; and Kirtland, Ohio.
They'd like to see more official histories tackle the tough topics.
"I wish there were an easily accessible and authoritative source
that would separate fact from speculation on true but troubling events
in [LDS] Church history," wrote one respondent.
Respondents also said they wanted to see official history expand
beyond the church's first decades to include family histories from
more recent converts, pioneering Mormons in other countries and varied
cultural traditions. They want to understand the lives and challenges
of ordinary believers, not just celebrity Saints.
And they said they wanted it all to be easily available online,
which neatly coincides with the LDS historical department's goal to
open its holdings to the public.
Some historians worry that Olpin's department is focusing too much
on the needs of church members and might exclude professional
historians, non-Mormons and critics.
When Olpin reported the survey to the Mormon History Association
in May, Jonathan Stapley says "there was palpable fear that historians
would lose access and not be a priority of the department."
Others worried, he says, that the church "could not be a credible
source for tough historical issues when there hasn't been a good track
For his part, though, Stapley has had only a positive experience
researching the history of women's healing practices at the LDS
archives. He has a digital copy of a once-restricted collection that
has been invaluable in his work.
Though minutes of church meetings, disciplinary hearings, temple
discussions and some diaries will remain off-limits, historical
department researchers, staff and volunteers have digitized many
microfilmed documents, including many pioneer family histories, and
"Digitization really is going to be a liberator," says Stapley, an
independent Mormon researcher in Seattle. "Entire collections have
been restricted because of a single paragraph. Now the church can
excise that and make the rest available."
Four years ago, the church posted a searchable database of 250
pioneer companies. It included about 37,000 individuals but had no
full text tied to the sources. Now, the database has 335 companies,
with 43,779 individuals, and 8,590 sources of which 3,022 have full
text accounts tied to them, says Christine Cox, the library's director
of customer services.
Cox has seen a similar increase in the number of phone, e-mail and
walk-in queries to the LDS historical library from 11, 698 questions
in 2004 to 21,393 in 2006.
The church is also engaged in gathering and publishing all
archival materials dealing with the life, mission, teachings and
legacy of Joseph Smith, Mormonism's founding prophet. The massive
project includes about 5,000 documents and involves more than three
dozen researchers, writers, editors, and volunteers.
This unprecedented compilation is expected to produce 25 to 30
volumes, including journals, correspondence, discourses and written
histories, as well as legal and business documents, Elder Marlin K.
Jensen, church historian and recorder told The Salt Lake Tribune in
The Joseph Smith Papers Project "is the most important church
history project of this generation," Jensen said at the time.
"It is a fulfillment of our mission," Olpin said, "to help God's
children make and keep sacred covenants by remembering the great
things of God."
-- Peggy Fletcher Stack