The Historical Department of the Church has a new excitement about it. Since its reorganization early this year under the direction of the General Authorities, it has taken on new personnel and rearranged its existing structure to meet the responsibilities assigned by the leaders of the Church.
A church history division has been incorporated into the department, with a staff of professionally experienced historians devoting their time to researching and writing the history of the Church. Under the leadership of Leonard J. Arrington, widely known and respected for his writings in the history of the American West, scholars will collect, compile, interpret, and publish the events of past and present that are the makings of the Mormon story.
One of the newly appointed researchers, James B. Allen of the Brigham Young University History Department, has suggested that in some instances we have built unreal images of what actually were real people with exciting and warm human qualities. A truer picture of the past, an “unexpurgated inspirational history” and the intimate images of the early Church it would provide, could make the men and events of the past an aid to our appreciation of the present.
Another new assistant Church historian is Davis Bitton, professor of history at the University of Utah, who for the past two years has been preparing an ambitious guide to Mormon diaries. The increased use of such material by historians, he claims, will give us increased respect for the sacrifices and achievements of our ancestors, enabling us to see them as human beings and to get closer to life as it was actually lived.
The staff of the history division will prepare for publication materials for several ambitious projects, including a multi-volume comprehensive history of the Church, which, though it begins with the Church’s inception, will emphasize events of the twentieth century, a period many historians have previously neglected.
Histories of particular programs and episodes will also be published, as well as precious diaries and letters of the Presidents of the Church, long known only to the few scholars who sought them out in the archives. The writings of Joseph Smith in his own hand, the letters of Brigham Young to his children, and President Young’s gubernatorial papers, all of concern to scholars and lay readers alike, will be compiled, edited, and printed.
Once collected, the records of the Mormon past are arranged, classified, and indexed to make them available to members of the Church and others interested in LDS history. In 1960 the Historical Department, then under the direction of President Joseph Fielding Smith, adopted a new system of cataloging printed materials, and more recently the department has instituted an efficient method of organizing and classifying manuscript materials—papers, diaries, minute books, financial records, and other handwritten documents.
The archives’ collection of photographs forms part of the historically significant holdings of the Church. Early in Utah history, men such as Charles W. Carter, Charles R. Savage, and Edward Martin—though the latter was more famous as the leader of the handcart company—took photographs of people and places significant to an understanding of the past. In the Church-owned Carter collection, for example, are about 1,000 glass negatives recording Utah scenes and citizens from 1860 to 1890. The George Edward Anderson collection of 20,000 photographs, preserved now on microfilm, records Utah communities from Provo south around the turn of this century.
Significant to experts in old photographic methods, as well as to historians concerned with the subjects of the pictures, are the daguerreotypes, ambrotypes, tintypes, glass plates, engravings, and engraver’s plates in the collection. One old stereoscope (among others) is labeled “back of Brigham Young’s head.”
The archives are probably the most efficient and logical repository for historically valuable records, not only of the organizations of the Church, but also of members of the Church. Families and individuals holding precious old letters and diaries of significant people, places, and events and files of Church-connected organizations have long been encouraged to deposit them with the Historical Department, where they are preserved and either made available to the public or restricted in their use, as the donor requests. Copies, either positive or microfilm, are returned to the donor for his continued use in whatever scholarly pursuit concerns him. And the original is always available in a known place.
The newly enlarged library division takes the aims of history to the most useful conclusion. Under the direction of Donald T. Schmidt, this facility will include a reference library of literature of interest to students of Mormon history. A media library is also to be an important part of the division, and the now existing model meetinghouse library will be incorporated in the program. This latter, now housed in the Church Office Building, shows in detail the library that should be part of every LDS meetinghouse—books, pictures, films, and audiovisual equipment.
The Lord has stated, “Behold, there shall be a record kept among you. …” (D&C 21:1.) To keep that record in its entirety, accurately and securely, is the mission of the Historical Department.
Other writings will include histories of the various Church programs, such as the welfare program, activities of the old folks’ committee, and the work of the educational system in Latin America; biographies, narrative histories, and interpretations.
The writing of accurate and meaningful history depends on the availability of documents from the past, the far past, or the recent past, and proceeds on the assumption that every scrap of evidence is important. It is the responsibility of the archives division to collect, preserve, and make available to scholars the records or history of the past.
Under the direction of Earl E. Olson, Church archivist, the archives staff processes and protects the historic treasures of the Church: the papers of the prophets, minutes of meetings, and broadsides on which were printed revelations that later became the Doctrine and Covenants. In the archives are copies of every early edition of the Book of Mormon, significant to scholars because of the typographical variations found in them; there are at least forty-one variants in the 1830 edition, for instance.
The diaries of Joseph Smith, correspondence to him and his “letter-books,” copies of letters he wrote, the letters of Brigham Young and the replies he received—these give pictures of the times and the men who made the history.
The largest collection of papers of the prophets is that of President Joseph F. Smith, collected and preserved by President Joseph Fielding Smith, his son, then acting as his secretary.
Other valued collections of the archives are those donated by families who have recognized the importance of proper care in the preservation of their progenitors’ papers. A recent gift was the papers of David D. Ruse, a Kanab, Utah, river guide in the beginning of the twentieth century. His letters from people who hired him as guide (among them, novelist Zane Grey) and his correspondence recounting their experiences recreate a picture of the past unavailable in more formal or official accounts. Another such collection is the papers of Stephen Post, which deal with Sidney Rigdon in the period from 1850 to 1870.
These collections are being preserved as units in the archives, a practice that is standard for the classification of such manuscript collections. Thus the historian can view the development of a man’s thought, or of an organization’s growth, and understand how ideas are formed, developed, and brought into action.
Another rich source of history is in the personal recollections of those people who made history and saw it made. A program of tape recording of stories and reminiscences enriches and adds detail to written records.