George Orwell to rockers Rage Against the Machine have commented on the power of history and the wars over its interpretation. As a professor of history I constantly try to give my students the power to see the difference between a solid narrative and one that is manipulated. Saints: The Standard of Truth (1815-1846) is the first volume of a much needed update to previous attempts at church history and does a magnificent job of juggling many hard tasks.
The book starts with the eruption of a volcano in Indonesia which affected the weather of the indigent Smith family and necessitated their move to upstate New York. In 500 plus pages anchored by first person narratives and stirring vignettes that often focus on concern for loved ones, the book moves through the most tempestuous and still contentious years of church history. The first hurdle overcome is that the book discusses complex issues such as 19th century American folk religion, seer stones, census data, danites, plural marriage and legal proceedings, and keeps the prose at an accessible level. The ease of reading I would compare to Harry Potter which is a good thing. I’ve read many volumes that have too many ten dollars words in a one dollar sentence that bogs down the text.
The flow is helped immensely by interesting vignettes. From Thomas Marsh obtaining sample pages of the Book of Mormon from the printer, the introduction of the Book of Mormon to Brigham Young’s family and the reaction of the Hales to their son in law’s money digging, the historians and writers picked evocative examples that contextualize the historical events and often controversial issues being discussed. But the text isn’t mind reading or offering faith promoting rumors because these narratives and vignettes are well grounded in extensive primary and solid secondary sources.
The account of the first vision provides an excellent example of this. This is a story that (members formerly known as) Mormons could quote from Joseph Smith history even decades after they completed their missions. But in this volume the account draws on sources ranging from an interview with Smith done by the Pittsburgh Weekly Gazette, an Orson Hyde tract written in German, an Orson Pratt tract, and the journal of Levi Richards on top of copies of primary sources in the Joseph Smith papers (chapter 2 foot notes 2,4,8,9,11.) I read each footnote and their sourcing is incredible and impeccable and there are reproductions of them in the Joseph Smith Papers and online. The extensive research results in a narrative that provides little known details, such as Joseph praying at the location where he left an axe in a tree stump. It also weaves in answers to repeated criticisms such as different first vision accounts, divining rods and peep stones. Again, it does all of this in a concise, readable, and engrossing manner. (Please note, before September 4th I’m limited in discussing material in the book that is already made available. As a result I’m only using examples from the first few chapters.)
This volume shows the power of history in using an intimate knowledge of primary sources, and judicious use of secondary sources like Richard Bushman’s Rough Stone Rolling. The limits of the discipline and often fragmentary sources can be frustrating. This volume does an excellent job at looking back, lightening a window into the past, and providing a solid example for future volumes of church history and how members can talk about it today. It addresses often repeated criticisms. But they talk about it in matter of fact language and in the middle of excellent contextualization which will make the sensationalist presentism of critics seem even weaker. It also looks to the future, by addressing supposedly controversial issues in a matter of fact way in the middle of their historical context; it will strengthen member’s faith and provide room for them to address tougher issues the church faces today.
The truth claims of the church remain a matter for thoughtful reflection and prayer. Critics will still find room to offer cynical rebuttals, though the excellent research and availability of sources will leave many of them impotent. Many members of the church correctly feel they don’t need a testimony of history, just a testimony of the church. Just like members of the church feel the need for geographic and cultural commentary on the New Testament, the history of the early church matters and interested readers will find this illuminating and a masterful, must read history that represents the best the discipline has to offer in pursuit of knowledge.