The second volume of the Church’s official history, Saints: No Unhallowed Hand, 1846-1893 was released this Wednesday. I just finished blitzing through the book and wanted to share my thoughts on the volume. These official histories walk a tightrope, balancing a lot of goals at one time. This volume, for example, covers approximately 50 years of well-documented history in less than 700 pages in ways that are open, accurate, and truthful while remaining faith promoting and doing so in an engaging and readable manner. That’s a tall order to achieve all those requirements at one time. Having finished reading it, however, I can say that I am pleased overall with the end results and enjoyed reading the book.
Volume 2 of the series covers the years 1846-1893. This is the time period when Latter-day Saints left the Midwestern United States en masse and settled the arid region of the Great Basin. Missionaries went abroad throughout the world and converts worked to immigrate to Utah to join their fellow Saints, make the desert blossom as a rose, and build temples. Along the way, the difficult issue of plural marriage challenged the faithful, both because it was difficult to embrace the principle and because of stringent opposition from the federal government of the United States of America. The book explores these narratives through the eyes of individuals who lived at those times, with individuals like Louisa Barnes Pratt, George Q. Cannon, Jane Manning James, Susa Young Gates, Joseph F. Smith, and Jonathan Napela forming the core cast. While the book reads like a fictional work, “lines of dialogue and other quotations come directly from historical sources,” and the authors note that “utmost care has been taken to ensure its accuracy.”
One thing this volume of history does well—more so than most major histories about the Church—is to bring up the diversity that existed in the Church. Missionary efforts and the development of the Church in Hawaii is an important part of the book, and it also covers Latter-day Saint missions in Scandinavia, South Africa, Tahiti, Samoa and New Zealand. It highlights the contributions of African American Latter-day Saints, especially Jane Manning James. Church members’ relationships with Native Americans in the Great Basin, good and bad, are discussed with more candor than I’ve seen in prior histories released by the Church. Women’s voices have a strong presence in the volume, with many of the main characters being women, teachings of female Church leaders being included, quotations of Eliza R. Snow’s poetry at the beginning of the four sections of the book, and discussion of polygamy from the wives’ points of view. Saints felt inclusive and well-rounded in its presentation of Church history.
The book is meant to read like a work of fiction, and the approach works well overall. I felt particularly immersed in the lives of Louisa Pratt, George Cannon, and Susa Gates and felt like I got to know them as people rather than historical objects. The book was engaging and kept my interest throughout. At the same time, it jumped from topic to topic as it cut from one person’s life to another and often broke chapters in the middle of subject as a cliffhanger. The approach worked well for maintaining interest, forcing me to pay closer attention and remember prior events. At times, though, I found myself trying to remember which Joseph we were talking about or which narrative was associated with the viewpoint character last time we met her or him. There were also some transitions that felt a little jarring, such as the sudden leap from the founding of the Women’s Exponent to the Bear River Massacre with only a quick “meanwhile, in Northern Utah…” between the two subjects. The amount of immersion in the narrative also made the Mountain Meadows Massacre even more disturbing and gut-wrenching than it already was to me. I suspect that feeling that way during the massacre section, however, is a testament to how well the narrative writing worked as much as it is to how atrocious the event was.
The history in the book seemed legitimate to me. From what I’ve read and seen in the past, the way things were presented seemed like valid interpretations of the historical record. There was a bit of covering the “church history greatest hits” like the story of writing “Come, Come Ye Saints,” Heber C. Kimball’s prophesy about goods selling cheap in Salt Lake City, seagulls and crickets, Brigham Young’s sermon on rescuing the handcarts, Joseph F. Smith affirming that he was “a Mormon, out and out” at gunpoint (sorry President Nelson—he failed at saying he was a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints), etc. It also introduces several lesser-known and infrequently discussed topics from our history, such as women giving blessings, the Council of Fifty, adoption sealings, racism and slavery among the Saints, the priesthood and temple ban, polygamy, and blood atonement. I’m proud to report that Brigham Young even gets a swear word in at one point. People are generally treated in even-handed and fair ways, as we get to see their good side or an explanation of where they are coming from when they opposed the Church (though apostates and some of the more avidly opposed federal appointees generally get shorter shrift). The book also took the opportunity to address some of the difficulties of life, such as abusive marriages and divorce (Susa Young Gates) and facing doubts in the face of scientific information (John A. Widtsoe). It is a good book that helps Latter-day Saints learn more of their history in a way that is favorable to the Church.
That being said, the history still feels a bit sanitized. Church leaders have disagreements, but they work things out amicably every time. Ongoing or rougher disagreements like those that occurred between Orson Pratt and Brigham Young over theology or Brigham Young’s outrage over Parley Pratt and John Tayler performing sealings in Winter Quarters are avoided. Some difficult or strange topics like the Adam-God doctrine, the full extent of Church leader’s evasion tactics during the Raid, marriages with Native Americans, or murders committed during (and probably because of) the Mormon Reformation are also skirted. Church leaders repeatedly insist that they are fallible in the book, but usually in a context that is meant to defend them over minor mistakes or false accusations. My impression was that faults and mistakes weren’t really shown for major Church leaders–Brigham Young, for example, is a towering prophetic figure in the book and where he does falls short, it’s usually blamed on people feeding him misinformation or a simple lack of information. I understand why many of these things were left out (part of that balancing act I mentioned up front), but it left me feeling like there were a few gaps in the information presented.
There were, of course, things that I might have thought worth including that were not included. The antics of the Nauvoo Legion as they delayed the U.S. Army during the Utah War is something dear to my heart that only had a brief mention in one paragraph. I love the words of Church leaders and theology, so would have appreciated a short summary of some of Brigham Young’s theology that has relevance for us today (i.e., some of his teachings about the Fall) or of what Parley Pratt actually said in A Voice of Warning. As a fan of B. H. Roberts, I would have favored the Cane Creek Massacre over the shooting of Joseph Standing when discussing persecution in the southern United States. As far as choices made that I might have avoided, I didn’t feel that it was appropriate to include a mocking editorial about the Reorganized Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints as a way to introduce the Godbeites or “New Movement,” since it can be taken to belittle the Community of Christ. I also don’t understand why Heber J. Grant organizing a dance was deemed an important subject for inclusion (beyond making Church leaders feel more like human beings, I suppose). Such things are personal tastes, of course, so take them with a grain of salt.
All nitpicking aside, Saints: No Unhallowed Hand, 1846-1893 is a fantastic read. The book accomplishes the balancing act of being a faithful, accurate history that people will read and listen to. I am excited to have it as a resource to reference at Church, both for Church history lessons, sacrament meeting talks, and other discussions. I walked away from it feeling inspired and I gained a deeper appreciation for the sacrifices and devotion of my spiritual ancestors. I am satisfied with this book.
Salt Lake Tribune article discussing the book
Thank you for this review. I believe overall this book was a missed opportunity, again.
Because the conclusions drive the narrative, the writing about individuals and historic events comes off as carefully manipulated—like I’m being BS’d.
This leaves the door open for the church to still be accused of hagiography and being dishonest about its history.
Thank Jacob. I think I was feeling the same thing a bit when I talked about the sanitation. I feel like one of the most telling places where that occurred was when they talked about Orson Pratt publicly introducing polygamy and they brought up Jacob 2 with a strong emphasis on the current belief that God only commands people to practice plural marriage sometimes. I’m pretty sure, however, that Orson Pratt didn’t reference Jacob 2 and that Church leaders at his time believed it was an eternal principle. I need to double check that, but it felt like it was more a statement of the Church’s current stance on the issue than what Elder Pratt actually said.
That being said, I still feel like they did a lot of good things with it and they took a lot of opportunities that would have likely been missed if they had tried this project even 20 years ago.
Thanks for the review. These histories are much better than what the church has put out in the past, but I though it would still be a bit sanitized as you say. The emphasis on fallibility is meant to enforce belief that church leaders are preferable to any other leaders on earth. It is only because emphasizing them as near infallibles is not believable and easily disproved.
Thanks, Chad, for this insightful and fair-minded review. And I have to say that I’m amazed that you could read 700 pp. in less than a week. It would take me a couple of months.
Just the name of the book is a bit off-putting to me. Doesn’t the title itself suggest a history of perfection?
Saints aren’t perfect people, at least not as followers of the restored gospel understand the term. And by calling this series “Saints” it signals that the books are mostly about the people in the Church, not the Church itself. Otherwise we’d have yet another “History of the Church” for the title or some variation thereof.
SCH– all four titles of the books in the series are phrases from a section of Joseph Smith’s Wentworth Letter that has come to be known as “The Standard of Truth.” The titles of the first two are in ALL CAPS. Somewhere, I’ve seen the names of volumes 3 & 4, but Google can’t seem to find them any more.
“The STANDARD OF TRUTH has been erected; NO UNHALLOWED HAND can stop the work from progressing; persecutions may rage, mobs may combine, armies may assemble, calumny may defame, but the truth of God will go forth boldly, nobly, and independent, till it has penetrated every continent, visited every clime, swept every country, and sounded in every ear; till the purposes of God shall be accomplished, and the Great Jehovah shall say the work is done.”
Other Clark: your response is informative, at least for me. I didn’t know the source of the phrase. But it doesn’t change my concern. The title of the book raises, for me, the concern that this could be another inspirational but unbalanced view of our history.
Building on Other Clark’s comment, I think they’re trying to take a part of Joseph Smith’s statement that relates to the contents of the book. In this case, “NO UNHALLOWED HAND can stop the work from progressing” seems to be more of a comment on the Church surviving the attacks it endured for practicing polygamy, theocracy, etc. in the mid- to late-1800s than anything else. That bring said, I can see where your concern comes from, SCH.
I will say that while these histories have inspirational elements, they are more balanced than most official histories the Church has published in the past (with the possible exceptions of the two single-volume histories published in the Arrington era). Here’s a Salt Lake Tribune article that details some of the ways that’s true for this volume: https://www.sltrib.com/religion/2020/02/12/racism-polygamy-colonizer/, for anyone who is interested.
I’m glad to hear about the new history and I look forward to reading it
Thanks for the review, Chad. I read volume 1 in a single week and have been eagerly awaiting volume 2 in its entirety, and am a little off-put that my current schedule hasn’t allow me to read it just yet. Not that $2 is a big cost, but I find it curious that the church is charging for this Kindle ebook (vol 1 was free), or that the paperback costs $20 on Amazon. Anyone heard why that might be?
I’m not sure why that would be. That seems strange. The physical copies that the Church is selling through its outlets are less than $7 (https://store.churchofjesuschrist.org/usa/en/saintsvolume2) and it is free (with audiobook capabilities) via the Gospel Library app.
For Chad Nielsen:
Thanks for providing the link to the SLT review. Have enjoyed your comment thread in this posting. I question, however, your statement, “…while these histories have inspirational elements, they are more balanced than ….”
This phrase implies to me an assertion that histories with inspirational elements are unbalanced, and should be viewed with suspicion. Am I over-reacting and nit -picking your words? I believe that history can be both inspirational AND balanced, and that warts-and-all history provides a stronger foundation for belief.
I will gladly concede that the Church and its defenders have only reluctantly started to come to grips with difficult questions in Church history.
That’s a good point to bring up Taiwan Missionary. I could have phrased it better than I did, and I appreciate you pointing that out. I agree with your statement that history can be presented in ways that are both inspirational and balanced.
I guess where I was coming from in my previous comment is that inspirational histories do tend towards being hagiographies rather than balanced, well rounded portrayals of people. It can be a hard balance to walk in writing history with a devotional side, but I felt like they did a good job overall in this book.
Chad Nielsen: Agreed. Thanks for clarification!
Chad, thanks for this review! I just finished John Turner’s Brigham Young biography, which was an interesting experience: it depicts Brigham Young’s many flaws pretty bluntly–his racism, his theocratic and authoritarian impulses, etc. But I didn’t leave feeling like he wasn’t a Prophet, and I actually felt like it was pretty faith-inspiring, BECAUSE it wasn’t hagiographic–God uses really imperfect people for his purposes, which aren’t my ways, but his. Saints, based on your review, seems to be a different beast: inspiring in a different way. Not sure how to articulate the difference–I need to read it–but I suspect that it services a different purpose.
I almost wish, though, the Church provided multiple histories. Saints (for the average reader) and a more detailed, academic history–where they could spend more time on building the fuller portraits. But maybe that’s better left to the institutional historians? I dunno. I’m just grateful to have Saints AND the other histories.
Thanks Bryan. I really enjoyed John Turner’s Brigham Young biography as well, but, as you say, it is a very different experience from Saints. Much more raw or rough and tumble than the type of experience you get out of Saints.
I can see the Church taking the route of publishing academic histories eventually. The Joseph Smith Papers project and other publications of the Church Historian’s Press have mostly focused on primary documents so far, but they may eventually get into some more interpretive histories once they wrap up the big Papers project. Unless, of course, they decide to publish a Brigham Young Papers Project, which would take decades to get through. The difficulty with academic histories from the Church Historian’s Press, however, would be suspicion of interference from the Church’s leaders or correlation department. The Church History department learned from the Arrington era that everyone needs to be on board with what they are working on to keep things going, but that opens up a lot of doors for compromise (or at least distrust due to concerns about compromise) with the desires of Church leaders. Whatever the case, I am grateful for the greater openness and the efforts the Church Historian’s Press is making to have so many primary documents available at low cost and that the Church is putting out official histories that make things more accessible for Church members around the world.