New church history book ‘Saints’ isn’t a novel but reads like one

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“Saints: The Standard of Truth” was released to the public Sept. 4 in print, eBook and for free online in 14 languages. It’s the first in a four-volume collection titled “Saints: The Story of the Church of Jesus Christ in the Latter Days.” The four volumes will tell the church’s story from Joseph Smith to present day. (Mormon Newsroom)

Read or listen to a Portuguese translation

Patrick Mason was reading “Saints: The Standard of Truth” on a plane when he became emotional over it.

Mason, the Howard W. Hunter Mormon Studies chair at Claremont Graduate University, was given an advance copy of the new church history book in preparation for a review panel at the 53rd annual Mormon History Association Conference. It was while reading passages addressing violence in early church history that he “got a little bit weepy.”

“Thinking about the suffering that these early Saints endured and their courage in the face of real suffering … was actually quite moving to me,” he said.

Violence in early church history isn’t the only thing “Saints” doesn’t shy away from; Mason said the book also addresses polygamy, the translation process of the Book of Mormon and “a lot of tough issues” in a straightforward way, all while avoiding the sometimes dry writing style of some church histories. Rather, Mason said the book uses storytelling techniques such as compelling characters and a narrative arc “to make it read more like a novel than a history book.”

“This is going to be a breath of fresh air,” Mason said.

Despite reading like a story, however, “Saints” is no historical fiction novel; rather, it’s the first official church history published since 1930, according to Church Public Affairs. It’s also the first in a four-volume collection titled “Saints: The Story of the Church of Jesus Christ in the Latter Days,” according to a press release from Mormon Newsroom.

“Saints” was released to the public on Sept. 4 in print, eBook and for free online in 14 languages, according to Church Public Affairs. The four volumes will tell the church’s story from Joseph Smith to present day, with the first volume beginning at Joseph Smith’s childhood in 1815 and covering through Nauvoo, Illinois, in 1846.

The first eight chapters have already been published in 47 languages in the Ensign and Liahona magazines and online during the months leading up to the book’s release.

“This isn’t written for me, per se, (for) other historians,” Mason said. “This is written for the membership of the church.”

In addition, Elder Quentin L. Cook of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles hosted a Face to Face event on Sept. 9 at the Nauvoo Illinois temple, according to Mormon Newsroom. Elder Cook invited young adults to read some of “Saints” before the event.

The Face to Face was broadcast around the world and focused largely on church history and “Saints.” Church historians Kate Holbrook and Matt Grow helped Elder Cook answer questions about topics like accounts of the First Vision, the translation of the Book of Mormon and polygamy.

Telling the story

Steven Harper, a faculty member of the BYU Department of Church History and Doctrinesaid the “Saints” project began in 2008, when Elder Marlin K. Jensen, a member of the First Quorum of the Seventy and the church historian and recorder, called 10–15 people of various backgrounds to serve on a committee for six months. The committee, which Harper was called to, was tasked with making a proposal to the First Presidency for the best way to update B.H. Roberts’ “Comprehensive History of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints” which was released in 1930.

Following the committee’s release, Harper said he was asked to refine the proposal and create an outline, which the First Presidency accepted in 2010. He was later invited by the managing director of the Church History Department to become the managing historian of the project. He has held this position for the last six years, as well as being one of three general editors for “Saints.”

Harper was involved in writing the first draft of “Saints,” which was written like a traditional history. He said the historians had the right vision for the project, but not the skills to make it “sing,” which is why they brought in creative writers for the second draft, including playwright Melissa Leilani Larson, novelist Angela Hallstrom and scholar Scott Hales, who has written a historical dissertation titled “The Role of the Novel in Post-Utopian Mormonism.”

Because passages of the text were re-written dozens or even hundreds of times by multiple people, Harper said there’s no way to measure who wrote what. However, Chris Crowe, a young adult writer and a BYU English professor who was an advance reader for “Saints,” said despite how many people worked on the book, it has a good flow.

“I think it really was an effort … to make it have a sense of unity,” he said.

In addition, Harper said they couldn’t bring just anyone onto the project; the creative writers had to understand that “Saints” is a history, not a historical fiction.

Harper particularly emphasized this is what sets “Saints” apart from works of historical fiction like “The Work and the Glory series by Gerald N. Lund; though historical fiction does work entertaining and even spiritually edifying, “Saints” is not the same genre ― “not even close,” Harper said.

“‘Saints’ is history, and just because this is narrative history doesn’t mean it’s historical fiction,” he said.

Mason agreed with Harper, adding how he thinks people who liked “The Work and the Glory” will like “Saints” as well, but “Saints” is even more useful because it’s actual history.

He also spoke with authors of the text who said they were careful about not having any character say something that wasn’t actually documented.

“So they try to load it with emotion and make it conversational, but they really strictly adhere to the historical record,” he said.

Harper said B.H. Roberts was a “terrifically balanced” historian, but most readers today aren’t interested in his 1930 comprehensive history because it was written for a 19th-century audience.

He said when church members don’t know their history, they’re not Latter-day Saints in one respect because church members depend much more on their own stories than other Christian traditions, which typically depend on creed.

For example, if a church member wanted an authority on baptism, they might refer to the story found in Joseph Smith — History 1:68-72, where Joseph Smith and Oliver Cowdery received the Aaronic Priesthood and the authority to baptize.

“So we tell history as our way of grounding our truth claims,” he said.

Reaching worldwide

Mason said he’ll point church members to this new history “in every case” because it will be gripping, as opposed to other histories that contain only concrete information and analysis and may be overwhelming to many church members.

“(‘Saints’) is really a kind of one-stop shop to come get acquainted in a kind of deep and intimate way with the personalities and the events and the history of the early Restoration without sort of blending through all of the academic scholarship,” he said.

In addition, Mason said the 586-page length of the print copy is “deceptive,” due both to a large font size and line spacing, and due to the reading level, which he said is accessible to any high school student.

He also encouraged youth and young adults to not be intimidated by the size of “Saints,” particularly because they’ve likely read big books such as “Harry Potter” before.

“Saints” is also created for a worldwide audience. Crowe said he was told the writers were trying to strike about an eighth-grade reading level, which means the book will be an easy read for good readers while remaining accessible to readers in countries with developing literacy.

Harper said the book is “intensely readable” and will have an “exponentially larger readership than any church history we’ve ever had before”; however, he also recognized there’s a demographic of church members who will never pick it up, and he said how much the book holds readers’ attention is up to them.

‘A sound history’

Mason and Crowe both think “Saints” was written in response to criticism that the church has been too optimistic in how it presents its history.

“I think the goal was, ‘We should tell our story,'” Crowe said. “We shouldn’t act like something didn’t happen when it did. We should be the one to tell it.”

Mason said the book is “part of a larger trend of greater transparency” that’s particularly coming out of the Church History Department. He also said the book doesn’t draw conclusions like an academic history; rather, the narrative history leaves readers to draw their own conclusions.

Harper agreed the book was written as a response to criticisms, and said its publication is also part of a long process that began when Joseph Smith was instructed to keep a record, as told in Doctrine and Covenants 21:1.

“And from then on, imperfectly, struggling, but with amazing success, Latter-day Saints have kept records,” he said. “This is the next installment in a long tradition for a history-keeping and a history-dependent people.”

He also emphasized it’s accurate to view “Saints” both as a response to present pressures and priorities and as the latest installment in the church telling its story.

Another goal of “Saints” is acknowledging uncomfortable things in the church’s past, Crowe said.

For example, Crowe said the book doesn’t sugarcoat Joseph and Emma Smith’s marriage, and it acknowledges Joseph Smith’s multiple wives. It also addresses the Danites — a paramilitary group who aimed to protect the community from enemies of the church —  and Joseph Smith ordaining a black man to the Melchizedek Priesthood prior to black men being banned from holding the priesthood. He added the sources in “Saints” aren’t always from church members or church history, but sometimes come from enemies of the church.

Harper said the church’s explanations of controversial topics, often found online in gospel topic essays, have been woven into “Saints.” Although the book is not overtly exposition, it helps place difficult topics in a historical context.

“Readers who may not read the gospel topics essays who read ‘Saints’ will have some understanding of the issues,” he said.

And when readers want further explanation on a subject, there are hundreds and hundreds of supplemental essays “just a click away” on the electronic version. Supplemental materials are also available on the “Saints” website.

Mason said though the book shows the church is firmly committed to the occurrences of the early Restoration, it also doesn’t hide from difficult issues. He also said readers will find it refreshing that the book can both build their testimony and discuss hard topics.

“You can hold both of these messages in your head at the same time,” Mason said, “both that the Restoration is real and that it’s faith-promoting, and that these were human beings who made mistakes and were liable to error along the way.”

Harper said “Saints” has historical integrity, though it’s difficult to give a black-and-white answer when asked if it’s an honest history. This is because history always comes from someone’s point of view. For example, Joseph Smith would probably say “Saints” is honest, but an enemy of the church — who throws out eyewitness accounts of miracles as evidence — wouldn’t agree.

However, “By all of the rules of the historical method that I learned in graduate school, this is a sound history,” he said.

Mason said the book is a fair and accurate representation of church history, but it’s not the only one out there. He also said there will always be people who think “Saints” goes too far in addressing controversial issues, but he thinks some of the book’s criticism will come from people who think it’s too honest. 

However, “I think when you have critics on both sides, that means you might be doing something right,” he said. “I think they’ve really done a pretty remarkable job of finding that middle path.”

The English-language paperback is available for $5.75 at store.lds.org, Church Distribution Centers and other retail outlets, according to Church Public Affairs. E-book and audiobook versions are available on Amazon Kindle, Apple iBook, Kobo and Audible. Print editions in Cebuano, Chinese, French, German, Italian, Japanese, Korean, Portuguese, Russian, Samoan, Spanish, Tagalog and Tongan will be available later this year.

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