‘Saints’ editor discusses new history of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints

Sponsored by BYU Studies—The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is publishing a new official history in four volumes. The first volume, “Saints: The Standard of Truth: 1815-1846” is being released today.

Matt Grow, Director of the Church’s Publications Division and volume editor for “Saints” joins FromtheDesk.org for an exclusive interview. 

Would you provide a brief introduction of “Saints” and your responsibilities for the volume?

Saints is a four-volume history of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. The first volume, which begins with Joseph Smith as a boy and ends with the Saints receiving their endowments in the Nauvoo Temple in early 1846, was just released. The other three volumes will follow over the next several years. You can buy it at store.lds.org (for less than $6) or at Distribution Centers, or read it online at saints.lds.org or on the Gospel Library App.

I am the director of publications in the Church History Department, meaning that I have been extensively involved in supervising the researching, writing, editing, and publishing of Saints over the past several years. I am one of the general editors of the project. Along with others, I help with story selection and work to ensure the historical accuracy and literary quality of the series.

Matthew J. Grow is Director of the Publications Division of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Photo provided by Matt Grow.[/captio
There have been two previous histories written about the Church. Why is now the time for the history to written again, and in what ways is it specifically written for our time?

Yes, this is the third multi-volume history of the Church prepared by the Church. The first was begun by Joseph Smith and we know it as History of the Church. The second was written by B. H. Roberts for the Church’s centennial in 1930 and was published as A Comprehensive History of the Church. Both of these histories are crucial for our current understanding of Church history.

There are at least six key differences between Saints and these previous histories. First, Saints is a narrative history. The goal is to tell a completely accurate historical story using the tools of literature so that it’s accessible to a very wide audience.

Second, Saints deals more forthrightly with potentially controversial issues (seer stones, plural marriage, etc.), presenting them within the larger narrative of the Restoration and the Church’s history.

Third, we have a lot more information now than was available to Joseph’s scribes or to B. H. Roberts, a result of decades of research in Latter-day Saint history and of recent projects such as the Joseph Smith Papers.

Fourth, Saints is a multi-layered history, consisting not only of the core narrative but also “Church History Topics” (found on-line and in the Gospel Library app) that explore roughly 120 more issues in greater depth. The Topics in turn point to other relevant resources for those wanting a deeper dive. And the online versions of Saints also links from the endnotes to hundreds of primary sources, found in digital format on the Church History Library catalog and elsewhere.

Fifth, the Church has globalized in dramatic ways since 1930. Often, past Church histories have focused largely on the Joseph Smith era, with some coverage of pioneer Utah. Saints has one volume on the Joseph Smith era, one on the pioneer Utah era, and two volumes that will tell the story of the globalization of the Church in the 20th century. It is also a global history in that it is available in 14 languages.

Finally, much more than the other multi-volume histories, Saints includes the voices and experiences of women.

How can a greater understanding of the past strengthen our faith?

Knowing our shared history as Latter-day Saints can fortify our faith in several ways. It helps us identify with and be strengthened by faithful women and men of the past who have sought to follow God and have experienced the same types of struggles that we experience and who nevertheless moved forward with faith. These stories also provide examples of the various and intricate ways in which God has interacted with His people in the past. Finally, they help provide context to potentially controversial issues.

For my thoughts on how to approach study of the past, see my response to questions on another book:

10 questions with Matthew J. Grow and R. Eric Smith

The physical design of this book is fascinating. What decisions went into creating a thick book with a large font and plenty of white space? Is there a conscious design to make it easy and pleasant to read?

Absolutely. Each aspect of Saints—the text itself, of course, but also the cover and interior of the book—were designed to make reading the book very readable. We wanted the page to not seem overwhelming to readers but to feel open and inviting—and most important, we want readers to feel like they just have to turn the page to find out what happens next.

The inclusion of maps inside the front cover and interspersed throughout the book seem patterned after the style of a fantasy novel. Are these examples of your commitment to make the book widely accessible?

Yes! I hope that readers will not only notice the maps but also the illustrations at the beginning of each chapter. As with the cover and interior design, these elements are designed to make the book feel accessible and pleasant to read. Through the narrative itself and design elements like the maps and illustrations, we wanted to signal that this was a book to be enjoyed, not just something to be read by class assignment.

Would you provide a brief description of main contributor duties (e.g., general editors, writers, historical review editors, editors, and research specialists)?

Many people have contributed to Saints over the past several years. For a few members of the team, this has meant working full-time on Saints for several years. For others, this has meant working on it part-time, amidst other duties, or full-time for a shorter period of time.

General editors are ultimately responsible for the end product: the literary quality, historical accuracy, administration of the project, awareness, etc.

Writers are those who have contributed to drafts of the scenes and stories.

Historical review editors closely read each scene several times to ensure accuracy and faithfulness to the primary sources and the larger historical context.

Editors are responsible for helping with large-scale revisions and polishing the text, as well as source checking to ensure that we got the facts and sources right.

Research specialists provided research support in the original sources and assisted in source checking.

How did you set about finding writers to create a narrative style? What kind of feedback was given to writers as the drafts progressed (e.g., were recommendations ever made to spruce up a dry recounting or tone down an overly flowery description)?

Our team includes both historians and creative writers. While the historians sometimes write draft material, most of the writing itself is left to creative writers. We’ve been fortunate to hire excellent writers, including Scott Hales (who is the “story editor” for the series), James Goldberg (creative nonfiction), David Neilsen (a poet), Melissa Leilani Larson (a playwright), Elizabeth Maki (background in journalism), and Angela Hallstrom (a novelist).

These books are extensively reviewed by our internal team of historians, by outside historians and writers, by Church leaders, and by Church members across the globe. We’ve received every type of feedback imaginable! And the books are much better because of this feedback.

How are women represented in this volume compared to the original histories—and how does the representation compare with available source material?

We made great efforts to include the experiences, voices, and perspectives of women. We have a great wealth of primary source material for Latter-day Saint women’s history. Nevertheless, as is true of most history, we have more sources that contain men’s experiences and voices than we do for women’s (a fact that is reflected to some degree in the book itself).

Would you share one or two stories from Saints you enjoy that are likely new to most readers?

How about three?

I really enjoy the story of Addison and Louisa Pratt (which will also continue into Volume 2). Addison was an early missionary in the Pacific while Louisa remained in Nauvoo and began the trek west. You’ll learn about both of their experiences—and the experiences of early converts on the island of Tubuai such as Nabota and Telii. There are members of the Church today on Tubuai who can trace their heritage to these converts who joined the Church before the Saints arrived in the Salt Lake Valley. See scenes in chapters 41-46.

Many Saints will have heard the story of Elijah Able but won’t know anything about his courageous missionary journeys. See chapter 27.

And, if I can throw in one more, I really like the story of Lucy Morley. As a 15-year-old, she told Oliver Cowdery, Parley Pratt, and the other Lamanite missionaries to visit her parents after her employer threw them out of her house. Soon, her parents, Isaac and Lucy Morley, were baptized along with many others in the Kirtland area. See chapter 10.

Did you have any experiences in which you felt the hand of the Lord guide you while preparing this volume?

Yes. We have talked about how we want to make Saints a “small plates” history.

The Book of Mormon record keepers kept large plates to record the political and military history. And they kept small plates to write the sacred history.

Working on Saints has been a sacred experience. Speaking for our team, I can say that we have felt led to find the right stories to share with the Latter-day Saints at this point in our history.

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