Saints, Volume 3: A Review

Saints: The Story of the Church of Jesus Christ in the Latter Days, Volume 3: Boldy, Nobly, and Independent, 1893-1955 is a fantastic addition to the Church’s official histories.  Picking up after the ending of the previous volume at the dedication of the Salt Lake City Temple, this volume begins with the Chicago World’s Fair in 1893 and wraps up with the dedication of the Bern, Switzerland Temple in 1955.  It covers a time of growth and transition for the Church and discusses shifts and decisions at Church headquarters in Utah that are significant in shaping the institution today; expansion in Europe, Central America, South America, and Asia; the development of the welfare programs of the Church during the Great Depression; and the experiences of Church members in the two world wars.  I thoroughly enjoyed reading this volume and look forward to its general release tomorrow, April 22.

The writing style of the book is very readable, continuing the approach of being written in the style of a novel with focus characters throughout.  In the early parts of the book, Susa Gates continues to be a central character, along with her daughter Leah Dunford and son-in-law John Widtsoe.  Along with these people, other individuals from Church History are used as the ensemble of characters for the book, such as B. H. Roberts, Heber J. Grant, Hirini Whaanga, and others.  As time passes, the narrative shifts its focus onto other individuals, including lesser-known Latter-day Saints like Paul Bang in Cincinnati, Ohio; Helga Meiszus in Germany; Evelyn Hodges in Utah; the Cziep family in Austria; and Chiye Terazawa in Hawaii.  A few well-known Latter-day Saints like Neal Maxwell and Gordon Hinckley also are given moments to shine later in the book.  This provides the opportunity to view the history of the Church through a variety of perspectives throughout–Euro-American, Japanese-American, German, Maori, male and female, Mexican, etc.  Using a format where actual quotes from historical documents are placed in the text also allows key quotations from significant sermons and documents to be embedded in the text, something that I have greatly appreciated in both this volume and the previous one.  The volume provides a good balance of “greatest hits” in stories from the era and introduction of lesser-known narratives and voices in an accessible way.

One concern I had going in was that as the Church continues to expand, there becomes more and more threads to follow, leading to less focus in the narrative.  Overall, they managed to still pull it off very well.  The first part of the book focuses on changes at Church headquarters in Utah (and the United States of America more broadly), featuring events like the change in the focus on sealings to ancestors rather than Church leaders in 1894, the 1896 political manifesto, B. H. Roberts’s political controversies, and the Reed Smoot Hearings.  While these types of events in Utah continue to hold an important place, Europe really takes center stage after the turn of the Twentieth Century.  This makes sense, since the Church began to focus on growth and development there rather than emigration to Utah and because of the massive world wars that shaped the 20th Century.  (Along those lines, the section about World War II was, for me, the most dramatic, powerful, and engaging section of the entire series so far.)  Hawaii also gets a decent amount of attention, with a particular focus on missionary work among the individuals of Japanese extraction who lived there.

Outside of these, the volume does what seemed more like brief check-ins with the Church elsewhere.  For example it hits key moments as the Church established a presence in Argentina and Brazil, covers the three most crucial events in the Church’s history in Mexico during the time period discussed in this volume (the Mexican Revolution, with the evacuation of Saints from the northern colonies and the martyrdom of Rafael Monroy and Vicente Morales; the beginning of the schismatic group known as the Third Convention; and the reunification of the Third Convention with the Church), the beginnings of the Church in Guatemala, and the Church’s ongoing presence in South Africa.  These aren’t as sustained as the narratives of the Church elsewhere, representing some of the compromises that had to be made to accommodate a huge breadth of materials that can be included in a discussion of the Church during the era that is covered.  Some events, such as the Reed Smoot Hearings, also didn’t have as much depth of coverage as I expected going in.  That being said, I felt like what they did cover and how they covered it was sufficient while maintaining a pretty good flow overall.

As with any era of the Church’s history, there are thorny issues that needed to be discussed, and the book did touch on many of these that the Church faced around the turn of the twentieth century. I mentioned a list of these in a previous post, so will use that list here as a reference point:

  1. Withdrawal from Political Involvement—This is covered in a decent amount of depth in the 1890s.
  2. Post-Manifesto Polygamy—This is openly talked about as part of the context of the Reed Smoot Hearings and the Second Manifesto.  There is virtually no discussion about splinter groups that formed as a result of the manifestos (the Fundamentalist Mormon groups), which I found surprising, given previous discussion about other significant branches of Mormonism like the Reorganized Church of Jesus Christ (now Community of Christ) and the Church of Zion (Godbeites).
  3. Reid Smoot Hearings—These were introduced and discussed, even giving a good explanation of Joseph F. Smith’s statement that he never had received any revelations. I would say that they got through the most important aspects of this pivotal event.
  4. Evolution and Higher Criticism Controversies—The effort was made to remain neutral on the Church’s stance on evolution.  The “Origin of Man” is discussed and quoted, but so is the updated (and less anti-evolution) version issued in 1925 in response to the Scopes Trial.  The disagreement between B. H. Roberts and Joseph Fielding Smith over evolution was discussed in depth, with thoughts from John A. Widtsoe being shared and the conclusion issued by the First Presidency in 1933 that we don’t have a stance on that subject was quoted.  Probably in an effort to maintain neutrality, I don’t believe that the suppression of teachers who taught evolution and higher criticism at BYU during the early 20th century was discussed.  To be honest, I was very happy with how evolution was handled here.
  5. Studies of the Book of Mormon—Elder B. H. Roberts’s Studies of the Book of Mormon in the 1920s was not even mentioned in Saints 3.  Not terribly surprising, given how much other material had to be covered and the fact that it’s more of a narrative history than a literary history of the Church, etc.
  6. Mormon History Developments—Again, the focus of the book was on narratives from the lives of Saints, so historiography was not mentioned.
  7. Race—The priesthood and temple ban for individuals of Black African ancestry was discussed multiple times throughout the book, giving examples of faithful Black saints who were pained by the restriction and, at times, exclusion from branches of the Church because of their race, but who remained faithful to the Church (both in the United States and South Africa).  David O. McKay’s adjustment of the policy to allow men in South Africa to be ordained unless proven to have black ancestry (rather than having to prove that they didn’t have black ancestry before ordination, as had been the case before) was also discussed.  Race and cultural representation in leadership as an issue involved in the creation of the Third Convention in Mexico is mentioned and the viewpoint character is portrayed as thinking that they were right in their desire for indigenous leadership, but were not approaching the issue through the proper channels.  George Albert Smith is portrayed as a champion of some marginalized groups, including Native Americans, though the lives of those Native Americans aren’t discussed and the Indian Placement Program that resulted from President Smith’s advocacy wasn’t mentioned at all (either for good or for bad).
  8. Anti-Communist Focus—This is briefly mentioned and contextualized when discussing David O. McKay as president of the Church, but it was mostly in passing.  The lives and hardships of Latter-day Saints in Czechoslovakia and Eastern Germany under communist rule are featured, though, which was very interesting to see.

I loved this volume of Saints.  If I had my way, every member of the Church would familiarize themselves with this series.  They provide important historical information that illuminates why the Church is the way it is today, but (more importantly) they also provide spiritual nourishment.  I found that my belief in God and His influence in guiding people through the Holy Spirit was strengthened, as was my love of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, by reading Saints: The Story of the Church of Jesus Christ in the Latter Days, Volume 3: Boldy, Nobly, and Independent, 1893-1955.  I wholeheartedly recommend it.

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