Saints 3: Thoughts from Scott Hales and Jed Woodworth

I hope by now it’s apparent that I am a fan of the Saints history series and that I’ve been really looking forward to Volume 3, which comes out on the 22nd.  I will say, it’s fantastic, but you’ll get to read more of my thoughts next week.  Today, however, Kurt Manwaring published an interview with Scott Hales (General Editor and lead writer) and Jed Woodworth (General Editor and lead historian) that discusses the volume.  What follows here is a co-post to the interview.

In Volume 3, we’re entering an era in the volume where the Church begins to become the modern Church as we know it, and with the growth that comes during that era, it becomes more difficult to capture all the different threads of the Church’s worldwide history.  Hales and Woodworth discussed some of how they deal with that growing complexity in a way that doesn’t bloat down the narrative:

Scott Hales: When we’re considering a story for Saints, we look for three things. First, we’re looking for interesting stories—stories that will engage readers. Second, we’re looking for sacred stories—stories that show people making and keeping covenants with God. Third, we’re looking for stories that show change in the Church over time.

We look for stories that help us advance the narrative and show how the Church changes and evolves under the Lord’s direction.

Since we know we can’t make Saints a comprehensive history of the Church, our aim is to make it a representative history—something that captures the essence of the story of the restoration.

Before beginning each volume, we create a list of key events that represent important developments in the history of the Church. We then look for people—characters—who can help us show how those events unfolded.

Jed Woodworth: Scott speaks of writing a representative history. This means representing a range of Latter-day Saint experience. We try and find stories that cover all segments of the lifespan: children, youth, the aged, unsung Saints, accomplished Saints, and so on. We “play the hits,” as it were, telling beloved stories in a fresh way, but we also try and find stories no one has ever heard before. We are not always able to find the character we are hoping to find, and when that happens, our prayers become unusually fervent. The manna from heaven eventually comes.

Jed Woodworth also explained their approach to the international Church: “Space considerations made it impossible for us to survey the beginnings of the Church in every country. Several representative beginnings, however, are told in Saints, Volume 3: Argentina, Brazil, Guatemala, and Japan.”  It’s a nice balance of addressing the key events and people while introducing lesser-known ones from around the world.

One of the most key individuals in the Church’s history of the era covered in Volume 3 was President Joseph F. Smith.  When asked for three words to describe President Smith, Jed Woodworth described his as a forward thinker, that personal revelation was important to him, and that he was a reformer.  Scott Hales described him as transitional, courageous, and visionary.  He was a figure who bridged both the past and present, since he was “the last Church president to know the Prophet Joseph Smith personally, and he did much to preserve his legacy for coming generations.”  At the same time, “leading during a time of rapid change, President Smith understood that the Church had to adjust.”

One of the greatest difficulties that the Church faced during Joseph F. Smith’s presidency was the Reed Smoot Trials.  Woodworth and Hale discussed some of how they had to approach this pivotal event in our history:

Jed Woodworth: Reed Smoot was a Latter-day Saint apostle who was elected Senator from Utah in 1903. At this time, Protestantism dominated most power levers of society, and many believed God favored the United States so long as it remained Protestant in religious composition. Catholicism, Mormonism, and eastern religions had no meaningful place in this conception, destined to wither on the vine.

Smoot’s election raised an immediate outcry among Protestant evangelicals in Salt Lake City and, later, around the country. For four years, his right to sit in the U.S. Senate hung in the balance as a Senate subcommittee generated thousands of pages of testimony about Latter-day Saint belief and practice.

Today, we would say a person’s private religious belief should have no bearing on their fitness to serve. But Smoot’s membership in the Quorum of the Twelve raised a specter for Protestants: Could Smoot be trusted to cast votes according to his conscience? Or would he secretly be taking directions from Salt Lake City? …

In the end, the Senate voted to confirm Smoot, and he went on to enjoy a long and illustrious political career. Smoot became the poster child for the worldly-wise Latter-day Saint. …

Scott Hales: Let me add that the Smoot hearings posed a significant challenge to SaintsTranscripts of the Smoot hearings are now available digitally, so anyone who wants can look them up and read them in their entirety.

The challenge is getting through them all. They consist of thousands of pages of legal testimony and deposition—some more interesting and dramatic than others. So how do you distill it down to a single chapter? It’s impossible.

Our narrative focuses on Joseph F. Smith’s testimony at the hearings, and we’ve done our best to capture the immense pressure he was under at the time.

As we show in the book, he was criticized—by people in and out of the Church—for some of what he said at hearings. But he showed immense courage under fire and had the confidence he needed to weather the storm that followed.

It’s an important section of the book in understanding why some things, such as the Second Manifesto that ended plural marriage in the Church, were done by President Smith.

Another area that is of interest to myself (as a biological engineer) is how the concept of evolution is approached by the Church.  Scott Hales described one of the controversies that allowed them to tackle that issue in Volume 3:

One of the purposes of Saints is to show how the Church and its members respond to and interact with the broader world. And few ideas shook the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries more than Charles Darwin’s notions of natural selection and biological evolution.

The Saints were divided on the matter, just as others were at the time. Both Joseph Fielding Smith and B. H. Roberts had a great love of the scriptures, but they differed over how one should read scripture in light of Darwin and his like-minded contemporaries.

When B. H. Roberts wrote The Truth, the Way, the Life, a long theological work that made space for the possibilities of “pre-Adamites,” or humanoid life before Adam and Eve, Joseph Fielding Smith, a biblical literalist, objected.

The disagreement ultimately made its way to the First Presidency, and Heber J. Grant and his counselors wisely decided to take a neutral position on the issue, affirming their faith in scripture while also acknowledging that they were not scientists and did not care to rule on something that was, by their own admission, outside their purview as ecclesiastical leaders.

Stories like this remind us that faithful Church members, like Elder Roberts and Elder Smith, sometimes disagree—and that’s OK. Really, disagreements only become harmful when we let them divide us. We need to find ways to respect differences of conviction while also acknowledging and affirming common ground.

They emulated President Grant’s approach of remaining relatively neutral in the volume, and presenting some thoughts on the subject while respecting how both sides of this particular disagreement believed.

There’s a lot more in the interview (and even more in the book), so I recommend going over to From the Desk to read more about important people and events that Saints, Volume 3 will discuss.