By academic training, and personal inclination, I am an historian. Growing up, my favorite book was H. G. Wells’s The Time Machine. At university, I got my bachelor of arts in history. By nature (or by second nature) I think along historical lines. That is why I am so excited that this year the Mormon Church is studying the life and teachings of its founding prophet Joseph Smith.
If someone were to ask what my philosophy of history is, I would refer them to one of my favorite passages in The Lord of the Rings. It is a discussion between Sam and Frodo as they inch-by-inch make their way to Mount Doom to destroy the ring.
Feeling a bit frustrated with all the work, and Gollum’s trickiness, they start to think back on the old legends they heard while growing up. Then Sam—the embodiment of rustic wisdom and common sense—asks the crucial question:
“’I wonder what sort of a tale we’ve fallen into?’”
“‘I wonder,’ said Frodo. ‘But I don’t know. And that’s the way of a real tale. Take any one that you’re fond of. You may know, or guess, what kind of a tale it is, happy-ending or sad-ending, but the people in it don’t know. And you don’t want them to.’”
“‘No, sir, of course not. [Sam replied, and then referring to the legends in The Silmarillion, he said,] Beren now, he never thought he was going to get that Silmaril from the Iron Crown in Thangorodrim, and yet he did, and that was a worse place and a blacker danger than ours. But that’s a long tale, of course, and goes on past the happiness and into grief and beyond it—and the Silmaril went on and came to Earendil. And why, sir, I never thought of that before! We’ve got—you’ve got some of the light of it in that star-glass that the Lady gave you! Why, to think of it, we’re in the same tale still! It’s going on. Don’t the great tales never end?’” (The Two Towers, Book IV, Chapter 8)
We are in the same story. The great tales never end. So when people ask me about church history, I echo Sam’s comment to Frodo: “Church history is what is going on right now. We are in the same tale.” That is my first key of Mormon history.
Along these lines, Edward Hallett Carr, in his book What Is History?, says:
“Learning from history is never simply a one-way process. To learn about the present in the light of the past means also to learn about the past in the light of the present. The function of history is to promote a profounder understanding of both the past and the present through the interrelation between them.” (86)
That is exactly how I feel about church history. I am in the same story as Joseph Smith and Brigham Young. I need to feel that Joseph Smith and I are actually neighbors and involved in the same work. It motivates me to do better.
And like Sam we have artifacts form the Mormon Church’s past that we still use today. We have the Bible, the Book of Mormon, the priesthood, the temples—all with us today, just as Sam and Frodo had the vial of light from the Silmarils
I also see a second key in church history. Joseph Smith said that the fundamental principle of Mormonism was the Atonement of Jesus Christ.
“The fundamental principles of our religion are the testimony of the Apostles and Prophets, concerning Jesus Christ, that He died, was buried, and rose again the third day, and ascended into heaven; and all other things which pertain to our religion are only appendages to it.” (“Chapter 3: Jesus Christ, the Divine Redeemer of the World,” Teachings of Presidents of the Church: Joseph Smith, (2007),45–56.)
I think this runs counter to a lot of people’s thinking. When most people study the history of Mormonism, they tend to look at the locals on the frontier of America—Kirtland, Ohio, Jackson County, Missouri, or Salt Lake City. Sometimes they focus on the personalities—Brigham Young, Eliza R. Snow, and Joseph Smith himself. There is also a third way of looking at Mormonism: Richard Bushman’s new book Rough Stone Rolling is “a cultural biography of Mormonism’s founder,” and focuses on Smith’s environment. But, as I see it, the one thing that all of these approaches miss is that great central event—the Atonement of Jesus Christ.
“[Christ’s] atonement is the most transcendent event that ever has or ever will occur from Creation’s dawn through all the ages of a never-ending eternity.” (Bruce R. McConkie, “The Purifying Power of Gethsemane,” Ensign, May 1985, 9)
For me, that is the second key that unlocks Mormon history: in addition to being about our connection to the past, church history is also about Jesus Christ’s sacrifice. When we put the two together, we have a better view of things. It is like the difference between looking through a telescope and a pair of binoculars. With the latter, you have a greater sense of depth-perception. The same applies with these two historical keys.
Having these two keys—seeing Church History as an extension of the present (“being in the same story”) and looking for the Atonement behind everything—helps me better understand the life and mission of Joseph Smith. His life was a labor of love to bring people to Jesus Christ. And that labor of love continues today in the church he founded.
In understanding Joseph Smith, I can understand the present, and also understand myself.