Departing Church Historian Shares History, Purpose of the Calling

  By R. Scott Lloyd, Church News staff writer

  • 2 July 2012

Elder Marlin K. Jensen speaks at the Church History Museum on the role of the Church Historian and the accomplishments of the Church Historian’s Office while he has occupied the position.

“I think our history is very faith-promoting and very optimistic, a very wonderful thing to study and to draw from and to be a part of.” —Elder Marlin K. Jensen of the Seventy, Church Historian and Recorder

When Elder Marlin K. Jensen of the Seventy was called as Church Historian and Recorder in 2005, he filled a position that stemmed from the earliest days of the Church but had been vacant since 1997 and essentially inactive since 1989.

Now, with his release pending in October, when he will become an emeritus General Authority, Elder Jensen looks back on a remarkable string of accomplishments by the Church History Department during his seven-year tenure. He detailed some of them in a June 21 address at the Church History Museum.

Before doing so, however, he traced the history of the Church Historian position itself, noting that the first person called to that office was Oliver Cowdery, replaced after about a year by John Whitmer.

After a period of turbulence in the Church, Willard Richards was called in 1842 in Nauvoo, Illinois, to be Church Historian. When the Saints were driven from that city, he saw to it that the Church’s historical records were brought to the new settlement in the Salt Lake Valley.

Apostle George A. Smith, a man with a keen memory, served thereafter, helping to finish the history of Joseph Smith (who was his cousin) and begin the history of Brigham Young.

Albert Carrington and Orson Pratt were his successors, followed by Wilford Woodruff, whose meticulous journals have been an invaluable resource in Church history.

He was succeeded by Franklin D. Richards and Anthony H. Lund.

Joseph Fielding Smith served from 1921 until he became Church President in 1970. He appointed then-Elder Howard W. Hunter to the office, who served for two years, followed by Leonard Arrington, an economist from Utah State University. Elder G. Homer Durham of the Seventy then served, followed by Elder Dean L. Larsen, who was released in 1997.

After Elder Jensen’s release in October, his successor will be Elder Steven E. Snow of the Seventy.

Elder Jensen said that when President Gordon B. Hinckley called him to the position of historian and recorder in 2005, he asked the Church President what his expectations of Elder Jensen were. The reply: “Read the scriptures and do your duty.” Asked about the recorder component of the office, President Hinckley said, “I haven’t given that a bit of thought. But you’d better.”

He followed President Hinckley’s counsel, and the accomplishments of the Church History Department that he detailed in his presentation are the results.

Among the milestones Elder Jensen cited are these:

In 2008 the Church History and Family History Departments were separated, having been combined eight years earlier. This freed up department head Richard E. Turley Jr. from many of his administrative duties, allowing him to be appointed as Assistant Church Historian, his principal duties being writing and supervising the writing of Church history.

A new Church History Library was dedicated in 2009, a 250,000-square-foot, (23,200 square meter) state-of-the-art facility. In its prior location in the Church Office Building, the library was receiving about 500 visitors a month; the new facility has seen more than a 10-fold increase in attendance.

Four years ago, the department undertook a study based on scripture to pinpoint its purpose. This statement was distilled from that study: The purpose of the Church History Department is to help God’s children make and keep sacred covenants by keeping and sharing a record of His Church and its people, ensuring remembrance of God’s hand in the lives of His children, and witnessing to and defending the truths of the Restoration of the gospel of Jesus Christ.

Elder Jensen said, “Four years ago … it wasn’t as apparent to us that this witnessing and defending function would be as critical as it has become in this Internet age, because of erroneous and negative and often anti-Mormon information that’s being published on various sites of the world of the Internet.”

The department, therefore, can help “to give to people a reason for the hope that is in them,” he remarked.

From the purpose statement, the core work of the department was identified as collecting, preserving, and sharing the Church’s history.

The department has decentralized Church history in international areas.

“We’ve begun, in a modest way, to collect Church histories all across the world now,” Elder Jensen said.

For example, mission presidents and Area Presidents, upon leaving office, are now interviewed for the purpose of recording the history they have witnessed while in office.

 “In years to come, this globalization of Church history will stand out as one of the significant accomplishments in this period of time,” he added.

The department has revitalized the Church’s records management program. Every Church department now has a records coordinator and a records management plan. The Church is also vigorously pursuing a solution to its digital records preservation needs.

The Joseph Smith Papers Project was given a much-needed boost, with the transfer to Church headquarters several years ago of some 25 scholars from the Joseph Fielding Smith Institute for Church History at BYU. The project has now published 5 volumes with about 18 more anticipated in the next decade or so. The published volumes are augmented by a website that ultimately may be even more valuable than the printed material.

The publication of a book by Brother Turley, Ronald W. Walker, and Glen M. Leonard, Massacre at Mountain Meadows, has helped heal an acrimonious relationship with descendants of the survivors of that event. “I don’t think that could have happened without this very straightforward, no-holds-barred book we were permitted to write,” Elder Jensen said.

Progress has been made in establishing the office of Church Historian and Recorder as an official and authoritative voice for the Church in matters of Church history.

The department has helped build good relationships and heal a past breach across the Mormon history community among historians who write from different points of view but now have mutual respect for one another.

Elder Jensen emphasized that the department does its work under the auspices of the First Presidency and Quorum of the Twelve Apostles and expressed his personal gratitude to the department’s advisers. He also expressed appreciation to the devoted and talented staff members of the Church History Department.

“I think our history is very faith-promoting and very optimistic,” he concluded, “a very wonderful thing to study and to draw from and to be a part of.”