Thoughts about Mormon history
Editor’s note: I wrote this post several years ago, when Mormon history issues were being discussed in traditional and social media channels quite a bit. Since the topic has been kicked up again as of late, with a recent New York Times article about people who struggle with facets of the history of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (such as polygamy), I thought I’d repost my thoughts here (with minor edits to make the post more current].
The history of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is a topic on which there is obviously a range of opinions. It’s one I have mulled over for years. Years ago, I decided to turn to the Book of Mormon to see if I could find some insight on this topic. It was a simple search — I just read scriptures that mentioned “history.” I was surprised to find only six occurrences of the word. Interestingly, all of them are found within the first three books. I studied those six verses in addition to other related verses, and discovered what I think is a powerful scriptural model for teaching our history.
Early on in the Book of Mormon, Nephi tells us that what we are reading is not all he has written.
And now, as I have spoken concerning these plates, behold they are not the plates upon which I make a full account of the history of my people…. (1 Nephi 9:2).
… a more history part are written upon mine other plates (2 Nephi 4:14).
Nephi also lets us know why it is that he had two different records.
AND it came to pass that the Lord commanded me, wherefore I did make plates of ore that I might engraven upon them the record of my people. And upon the plates which I made I did engraven the record of my father, and also our journeyings in the wilderness, and the prophecies of my father; and also many of mine own prophecies have I engraven upon them.
And I knew not at the time when I made them that I should be commanded of the Lord to make these plates [the small plates]; wherefore, the record of my father, and the genealogy of his fathers, and the more part of all our proceedings in the wilderness are engraven upon those first plates of which I have spoken; wherefore, the things which transpired before I made these plates are, of a truth, more particularly made mention upon the first plates.
And after I had made these plates by way of commandment, I, Nephi, received a commandment that the ministry and the prophecies, the more plain and precious parts of them, should be written upon these plates; and that the things which were written should be kept for the instruction of my people, who should possess the land, and also for other wise purposes, which purposes are known unto the Lord (1 Nephi 19:2-3; see also 1 Nephi 9:3; 2 Nephi 5:29-33).
[Nephi gave] a commandment that I should write upon these plates a few of the things which I considered to be most precious; that I should not touch, save it were lightly, concerning the history of this people which are called the people of Nephi.
For he said that the history of his people should be engraven upon his other plates, and that I should preserve these plates and hand them down unto my seed, from generation to generation (Jacob 1:2-3).
Nephi and Jacob explain more about their focused writing in several other places. Following are some examples, with emphasis added:
And it mattereth not to me that I am particular to give a full account of all the things of my father, for they cannot be written upon these plates, for I desire the room that I may write of the things of God. For the fulness of mine intent is that I may persuade men to come unto the God of Abraham, and the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob, and be saved. Wherefore, the things which are pleasing unto the world I do not write, but the things which are pleasing unto God and unto those who are not of the world. Wherefore, I shall give commandment unto my seed, that they shall not occupy these plates with things which are not of worth unto the children of men (1 Nephi 6:6).
And upon these I write the things of my soul, and many of the scriptureswhich are engraven upon the plates of brass. For my soul delighteth in the scriptures, and my heart pondereth them, and writeth them for the learning and the profit of my children.
Behold, my soul delighteth in the things of the Lord; and my heart pondereth continually upon the things which I have seen and heard (2 Nephi 4:15-16).
For because of faith and great anxiety, it truly had been made manifest unto us concerning our people, what things should happen unto them. And we also had many revelations, and the spirit of much prophecy; wherefore, we knew of Christ and his kingdom, which should come. Wherefore we labored diligently among our people, that we might persuade them to come unto Christ, and partake of the goodness of God, that they might enter into his rest…. (Jacob 1:5-7)
…[B]ehold, I proceed according to that which I have spoken; and this I do that the more sacred things may be kept for the knowledge of my people. Nevertheless, I do not write anything upon plates save it be that I think it be sacred. And now, if I do err, even did they err of old; not that I would excuse myself because of other men, but because of the weakness which is in me, according to the flesh, I would excuse myself. (1 Nephi 19:5-6)
For we labor diligently to write, to persuade our children, and also our brethren, to believe in Christ, and to be reconciled to God; for we know that it is by grace that we are saved, after all we can do….
And we talk of Christ, we rejoice in Christ, we preach of Christ, we prophesy of Christ, and we write according to our prophecies, that our children may know to what source they may look for a remission of their sins (2 Nephi 25:23, 26).
We all know that history is not unimportant to the Lord. We see in scriptures quoted above that He commanded Nephi to make the first set of plates which had more information – more history – including wars and genealogies as well as prophecies. We know we are each encouraged to keep personal histories, and to seek to know information about our ancestors. We are also encouraged to learn “things which have been.” In a very real sense, much of what we discuss at church is dependent on the study of history at some level (Christ’s life, death, and resurrection; the life of ancient prophets; the apostasy; the First Vision…the list could go on).
That said, in reading these scriptures, it appears to me that not all information is of equal value to the Lord. Otherwise, He wouldn’t have given Nephi such specific instructions about limiting the amount of historical information that didn’t have spiritual value in the plates that would be handed down from generation to generation. Scriptures indicate that there are things which “matter…not, for God knoweth all these things.” In a sense, Nephi has shown an effective method for dealing with history. In obedience to the Lord, he focused on the most precious, saving truths, knowing that by so doing he was helping the Lord and His purposes.
It seems to me that, while some may find a more detailed study of Church history interesting, it’s not a necessity. I tend to favor Nephi’s approach, which does not ignore that there is more historical information out there, but does not choose to focus on all aspects of our history. It seems to me that our worship, church classes, and ministering to one another touches only lightly on those things that aren’t of spiritual import. Our main mission as members of the Church is to focus most attention on the Church’s divinely ordained mission to bring souls to Christ and to preach the gospel to all the world.
But note something that Nephi says: “And if my people desire to know the more particular part of the history of my people they must search mine other plates” (2 Nephi 5:33). Even though I find it interesting that we still don’t have his “other plates” (another resource) to search, I think his words could apply to us today. And I think we can find that the Church does provide access to some other resources.
For example, for those who want to know more of the history of the Church than what can be found in Church classes, missionary discussions, or the Gospel Library at lds.org [or Mormon.org — this post was written before Mormon.org had been created], there are various resources that can help one read more about LDS Church history. [This list has been edited slightly from the original to reflect some of the changes that have occurred since this post was written…but I am sure there are more resources out there that I have neglected to mention for want of getting this post up. If you would like to add to this list of resources, leave a comment below and we’ll consider it for publication in this post.]
-The Church has a website on Joseph Smith which includes links to various resources about the prophet.
-Seven volumes of History of the Church
– A BYU Studies page that is part of a frequently asked questions site about the Church.
– The Neal A. Maxwell Institute for Religious Scholarship (formerly FARMS) and FAIR [and the FAIR Wiki], which, although not Church-sponsored per se, provide access to members’ exploration of various topics in a more extensive way than will be found at church.
– I have also appreciated the fact that our leaders have participated in various interviews [ e.g., the PBS interviews were recent when I wrote this piece]. The Church has a Newsroom that has up-to-date information on topics of interest in the press, including Church history.
I think Nephi’s inspired method of handling history is a good and wise one. I’m intrigued by how many times he repeated his purposes and focus in his writing. I can’t help but wonder if perhaps this was included in his small plates so we might learn a little from his example. We don’t need to know all of the detailed history of Nephi and his people to know that he was a prophet who taught (and teaches us) truth. Likewise, we don’t need to know all the details of our latter-day history to know that The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is the Lord’s restored church on the earth that has consistently been led by prophets of God, beginning with Joseph Smith and continuing to the present day with President Gordon B. Hinckley. We don’t need to know all the particulars of our history to enjoy the blessings of the sacred teachings and ordinances of the Church and to know of their truth and reality. These teachings and ordinances can enable us to “come unto Christ, and partake of the goodness of God, that [we] might enter into his rest” (Jacob 1:7). I don’t fault those who want to know more about history, but I would hope that they would not lose faith in or focus on the plain and precious truths of the gospel that have power to save, heal, and change our hearts and lives.