Saints, Volume 1: A Review

About a week ago, the first volume of the new official history of the Church was published. I finished reading through it this weekend, and I have to say that it is fantastic. The style of prose reads like a novel (many creative authors were employed as the writers or consultants for the book), but it is very much rooted in some of our best understandings of the events and people who lived in the early period of the Church. The combination of the two results in a very readable, but accurate history.

The time frame that this volume covers is the early 1800s through 1846—the year the Latter-day Saints left Nauvoo to move west. There are a lot of controversial issues related to that period, but the book tackled most of them head on. Polygamy (including Joseph Smith’s relationship with Fanny Alger and a small amount about polyandry), seer stones, treasure seeking, Book of Mormon translation, Latter-day Saint pillaging and fighting during the Missouri Mormon War, Danites, the Council of Fifty, Joseph Smith defending himself with a gun in Carthage Jail, and teachings of theosis and a Mother in Heaven are all addressed. Joseph Smith’s character was shown in a more three-dimensional way than most official Church representations of him—his temper and his sense of humor are both shown, as are some of his struggles and missteps. Yet, the history is not one that focuses entirely on the men who led the Church. The lives and experiences of many Latter-day Saints are mentioned, including many women and some black Saints. As part of an effort to be more inclusive of worldwide growth, Adison Pratt’s mission to the South Pacific is discussed, as is the mission of Orson Hyde to mainland Europe and the Ottoman Empire. The book will be a great resource for Latter-day Saints to study their history and gain a better understanding of their history. Copious references and endnotes provide a launching point for further learning by those who are interested.

As is the case with any historical work covering an era that I am familiar with, there are things that I would have handled differently. For example, I would have loved to have more of Joseph Smith’s sermons to quoted verbatim within the book, and I wish more of the struggles that the apostles’ wives went through during their husbands’ Nauvoo-era mission to Great Britain would have been shown. To me, stating that the Smith family brewed and sold root beer when they lived in Palmyra could easily be misinterpreted, since it was likely a mildly alcoholic beer brewed using sassafras roots rather than the sugary, carbonated soft drink most Latter-day Saints are familiar with today. The nature of the Book of Abraham translation was not really dealt with, other than a passing telling of the traditional narrative about the book’s origin. That issue, the historicity of the Book of Mormon, and the young age of some of the plural wives in Nauvoo (as well as a full discussion about polyandry) are the big controversies that I can think of that the book does not really grapple with. Still, those are relatively small complaints compared to the number of good things that the history does. I also admit that some of these criticisms are also based merely my own personal preferences. I really enjoyed the book, plan to use it often, and to read it again. I also look forward to future volumes that will be released. Saints volume 1 is a success in my eyes, and I do not hesitate to recommend reading it.

10 comments for “Saints, Volume 1: A Review

  1. Thanks Chad. I’m really intrigued by how much Joseph’s character is shown. You suggest it comes out including his temper but others seemed to suggest the opposite. I’m hoping to read it soon so I can’t say too much. I’m curious as to how others see that personality coming out.

  2. You don’t see his full temper shown, but you catch glimpses of it with the Sylvester Smith argument over the dog in Zion’s camp and the fight with William Smith. They also mention him being irritable during 1835 in passing. It is more than is usually shown in Church publications, though not as much as, say Bushman’s biography, which is why people could feel like it’s still not entirely open about it. They also go to great lengths to put it in a way that his reaction is justified and relatable, which mutes it a bit.

  3. They also don’t show his humor consistently either, but I appreciated what they did show. It’s mostly when he brings home the urim and thummim initially and plays a prank on his family. They don’t mention him cracking jokes in his sermons or teasing people in witty ways. I guess what I’m saying is that when I wrote that he’s shown in a more three dimensional light than usual, I’m stating that relative to Church publications in the past, where he’s practically perfect in every way, and not to scholarly publications that are not published by the Church.

  4. As for the controversial topics, have you looked through the companion material, Church History Topics? Those articles go into a bit more detail on some of these issues, although certainly not a deep, scholarly dive. I haven’t seen the printed version of Saints yet, and I’m still reading through the main material, but I’m curious if those articles are included in an appendix to the actual book.

  5. I really enjoyed the face to face as well, particularly the parts on how to weigh historical sources and polygamy. They had some good perspectives.
    I just glanced through the topics essays, and there is a good one on the Book of Abraham (essentially the same as the gospel topics essay). For polyandry, you have to follow a few links for further reading to find the gospel topics essay that addresses the issue, but it does exist.

  6. Dsc: the Topics are not included in the printed volume, since they run about the same length as the book. References to relevant topics are included in footnotes.

  7. I found the book to be a refreshing update to Church History. I had been hoping for something that was going to be very scholarly and detailed, but I came to enjoy a book that will be as easily read by a Senior Primary child as it will be read by the adults.
    It takes a huge step in recording the history of a number of the women, which helps to put much more of a human face on the topic. I did not realize that Mother Whitmer was shown the plates BEFORE the Three Witnesses, which makes her the first of the witnesses.
    I finally learned who and what the Council of Fifty was, and I appreciated that polygamy was openly reported as much as it is in this volume. I appreciate that it detailed the Brethren’s horrified reaction and the hard time they had grappling with this principle, because church members need to know that it was as hard for a righteous man to accept this principle as it was for a righteous woman.
    On a much darker note, I think it is the first church publication that acknowledges, ever so delicately and tactfully, the sexual violence in the battle for Far West — I think including just the tiny little bit that they did in this narrative was a huge step, and we can gain a greater appreciation for the faith of the women who survived it and “carried on.” As the husband of an abuse recovery therapist, I appreciate the faith and strength of these women.
    I also appreciated the attempt to show Joseph Smith and others as “regular human beings.” They were human beings with human traits and personalities. It also showed how they grew and developed into the roles God had given them. There was a good balance in this.
    I was disappointed in how little Orson Pratt’s mission to the Holy Land to dedicate it for the returning of the Jews was mentioned, but the footnotes are aplenty to point someone like me to further reading. And that’s the point of this book: to give an excellent overview while supplying links to resources to learn more. When I read this the second time, I’m going to be clicking on a LOT of the footnotes for deeper study.
    Over all, I think they did a very good job, and I am eager for the next volume.

  8. This is an outstanding effort on the part of the Church. It is written at about an 8th grade level which helps just about every member to read it. It is also readily translatable. Simplifying complex patterns of history into such a document is no easy feat.

    Why do so many of you want it to read like a biography?

  9. I am a member who (thanks to some graduate school experiences) has been struggling for years but I am just now starting to feel that my testimony is building back up and reaching a point that I need it to be at. As part of this I have been starting to read a lot more church apologetic work and I want to get more into some church history. Before this week my plan was to finish some of the other books I have and then get Bushmans rough stone roiling but now that this is out, should I read Saints Vol.1 first? Which would you suggest.

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