Saints without halos

mormon historyIn a country where the only Mormon story reporters can conceive of involves Mitt Romney, Salt Lake Tribune religion reporter Peggy Fletcher Stack is a treat. It seems as if she's one of the only reporters who doesn't view Mormons as a monolithic group. This weekend she has a story on Mormons' views about their own history. A few months ago, Mormon historian Richard Bushman spoke with religion reporters at a Pew Forum. It was a fascinating discussion that we've already covered. One of my favorite excerpts was when he described how Mormons view some of their own history:

On the radical versus conservative question, Mormons actually love their radical roots. It's like all these neo-cons that once were Marxist. (Laughter.) I think there is a feeling that somehow religion was more intense then. We were willing to give all, consecrate all of our property to the church. We were willing to give up respectability by practicing plural marriage. The plural marriage is sort of covered up by the church because it's a public relations disaster, but in terms of Mormons themselves, they're willing to honor those people as having done a lot.

So it’s sort of our glorious flaming youth when we did many daring things.

I thought of that when reading Fletcher Stack's story. Bushman's comments are good to keep in mind when writing about Mormon history. Whether or not it's fair, certain historical incidents in the church have given it a reputation for not being forthright about its history or reputation. But there's also a strong current of documentation in each Mormon family -- not to mention the passion for genealogical research:

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 is 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.

Fletcher Stack explains some of the back and forth about history writing, focusing on Leonard Arrington. The official church historian in the late 1970s unnerved LDS leaders for his approach, she writes.

The church surveyed 2,000 members who are active Mormons interested in genealogy. Many receive their history from novels or church-sponsored historic sites.

"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.

Fletcher Stack notes that some worry the church's approach doesn't help professional historians, non-Mormons and critics. And secrecy is still an issue, she says:

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 personal journals.

"Digitization really is going to be a liberator," says [Jonathan] 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."

It does seem that the church is opening up a bit about its sometimes controversial past, and Fletcher Stack shows how this is being driven more by the membership than outside criticism. And we can be sure she'll stay on the story.

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