Changing the Narrative of the LDS Church: 35 Years Later

A Mormon historian recently said that we as Mormons need to "reconstruct the narrative" of the LDS
Richard Bushman
Church, because what we've been telling is somewhat of a sanitized version.  A believing member of the Church, Richard Bushman welcomes the healthy reconstruction that has been officially sanctioned by LDS Church leadership in recent years.

Interestingly, another Mormon historian, nearly 35 years ago, attempted to do the same thing but was shut down when he suggested that the narrative needed to be reconstructed--to be told more accurately and openly.  Here is that story.
Prominent LDS historian Richard L Bushman recently said:
"We must be willing to modify the account according to newly authenticated facts. If we don’t we will weaken our position.
Unfortunately, not everyone can adjust to this new material. Many think they were deceived and the church was lying. That is NOT a FAIR judgment... The whole church...has had to adjust to the findings of our historians. [But] nothing in the new material overturns the basic thrust of the story.
I still believe in gold plates. I don’t think Joseph Smith could have dictated the Book of Mormon text without inspiration. I think he was sincere in saying he saw God. The glimpse Joseph Smith gives us of divine interest in humankind is still a source of hope in an unbelieving world."
The LDS Church has, with the publication of "LDS Topics" essays--such as the ones talking about seer stones, polygamy, the Book of Abraham, etc.--done a much better job of that recently.

But, interestingly enough, an attempt to help the Church be more open about its history was shut down by the general LDS Church leadership in the early 1970's.

In March 1972, then-Church-Historian Leonard Arrington met with some assistants to the LDS Quorum of 12 Apostles to propose a new organization called "Friends of [Mormon] Church History".  In a meeting a few months later, the idea was accepted by the LDS First Presidency and Quorum of the 12, so the first meeting was scheduled.  Not long before the first meeting was to be convened, some concern was expressed in an meeting of the 1st Presidency and Quorum of 12 that the "Friends" organization could become a means to attack the Church or tell less savory aspects of Church history.

On the very day of the inaugural meeting, a member of the Quorum of the Twelve called Dr. Arrington and suggested that the meeting be cancelled. With some trepidation, because it was the very day of the meeting--and between 400 and 500 historians (almost all very friendly with--and most of them members of--the Church) ended up attending--the first meeting was allowed to convene, but no additional meetings were allowed to take place.

Interestingly, the brother of Apostle Bruce R McConkie reported that when Bruce heard about it, he thought it was a good idea, but that Boyd K Packer, a year or two McConkie's senior in the quorum of the 12, "cringed" at the idea, and because of that, McConkie cooled to the idea as well.

As one can imagine, Dr. Arrington was quite frustrated at the turn of events. He probably could have done a better job, though, at assuaging the personalities that were involved. Instead, it seems from my reading, that Arrington might have made matters worse with his somewhat public frustration over how it played out.

(For more information on this story, see Leonard Arrington and the Writing of Mormon History, by Gregory A Prince, pp. 201-207)

* * * * *

It seems unfortunate that Leonard Arrington, after that first meeting of the Friends of Mormon Church History, was not allowed to continue the openness of inviting friends of LDS Church history to request access to the history archives of the Church, so that a more detailed and accurate history of the Church could have begun to be told at that time. On the other hand, maybe there was a good reason for that at the time; I don't know.

At any rate, that healthy turn of events is happening now.  Life is what it is, and rather than spending most of our time lamenting the fact that Mormon history is late in being told, let us be glad--Mormon and non-Mormon alike--that the more authentic version of LDS Church history is now coming to light.  An open discussion will, in my mind, be a healthy and productive development for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and for the world.


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