How the Book of Mormon Came Forth

POSTED BY: Devan Jensen

05/15/15


Mike MacKaCoverFromDarknessUntoLightFINALCOVERy and Gerrit Dirkmaat, authors of From Darkness unto Light, were recently interviewed by Doug Wright for Everyday Lives, Everyday Values, which airs 11 to 11:30 am Sunday, May 17, 2015. They fielded questions about the translation of the Book of Mormon. The book offers its readers a step-by-step narrative of how the Book of Mormon came forth between 1827 and 1830. They highlighted the personal experiences of Joseph Smith, his scribes, and those who witnessed the process to develop the dynamic religious experience that they participated in. The authors explained that the book was both rigorously academic and accessible to readers interested in this important gospel topic.


Valiance in the Classroom

POSTED BY: Devan Jensen

03/24/15


EdwardAGeary

Professor Edward A. Geary

Valiance in the Classroom

By Charles Swift
Associate Professor of Ancient Scripture, BYU

It was fall semester 1977 at Brigham Young University, and it was the beginning of my sophomore year in college. I had attended another university my freshman year and had been baptized into The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints on Christmas Day 1976 in between my freshman semesters.

But now I was at BYU, excited to be sitting in my honors English class. Professor Edward A. Geary was our professor. I was new to BYU, new to Mormonism, and new to being in situations in which everyone in the room was a member of my new church. I was enthusiastic, to be sure, but also somewhat naive. Revelation not only ran the Church, I’d been taught, but it ran throughout it as well. I believed that if a Mormon said something, then that something had to be true.

I can’t remember what we were discussing in class that particular morning. Professor Geary was an excellent teacher, one who had a mild manner about him but who could also draw engaging discussion from his students. Though I don’t remember the discussion, I do remember the comment that a young man made, confidently and without a shadow of tentativeness: “Well, we all know that if a person is born outside the Church, then that person wasn’t valiant in the premortal existence.”

Silence.

I’m certain the silence was for only a few seconds, but it felt like a day to me. It was as though slow motion had flooded the classroom. I looked around at my fellow students, many of them nodding in agreement as though they’d never heard anything quite as true as what that young man had just said. It was immediately clear to me that what my classmate had said was not open for debate, not burdened by one syllable of incorrectness. He spoke what must have been revealed truth.

The silence was long enough for me to think about myself, the new BYU student. The new convert. I remember thinking, “Well, I wasn’t born in the Church, so obviously I wasn’t valiant in the premortal existence. What was wrong with me? Am I still not valiant?” After another second, “Well, I guess I can live with that. I wasn’t valiant before I came to earth. There’s nothing I can do about it now. Maybe I can do something right in this life despite how I used to be.”

Then Professor Geary spoke in a casual, fatherly voice: “Oh really? I thought the reason we were born in the Church isn’t because we were more valiant, but because the Lord knew we wouldn’t be courageous enough to join it in this life.”

I felt like clapping, but I’d learned by then that we do not clap much in my new church. Instead, I just smiled. Maybe there was hope for me after all.

It wasn’t long before I came to understand that while the student spoke in earnest and the professor with his tongue firmly in his cheek, neither was speaking doctrine. I learned to learn for myself and not rely solely on what others might claim to be true.

Though the topic of the discussion that day has long since left me, one aspect of that experience in my English classroom remains with me still. After all these years, I am still grateful for a professor who was not willing to just nod along with everyone else. For a professor who, unknowingly, gave hope to a young convert.



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Reid L. Neilson Appointed Assistant Church Historian and Recorder
By Alexander L. Baugh
Professor of Church History and Doctrine, BYU

On January 23, 2015, the Church announced the appointment of Reid L. Neilson as an Assistant Church Historian and Recorder. With this appointment, Reid joins Richard S. Turley Jr., in that position.

For the past five years, Reid has served as the managing director of the Church History Department. In this capacity he has overseen the staff and operations of the Church History Library, the Church History Museum, and Granite Mountain Records Vault.

Reid is no stranger to BYU Religious Education. After receiving his PhD in religious studies from the University of North Carolina–Chapel Hill in 2006, he joined the faculty in the Department of Church History and Doctrine at BYU, where he quickly distinguished himself as a superb teacher, researcher, and scholar. During his relatively short time at BYU (2006–9), he received university’s prestigious Young Scholar Award.

In addition to publishing some thirty articles and book chapters, Reid has authored, edited, or coedited over twenty books with a number of leading university academic publishers, including Oxford, Columbia, Oklahoma, Illinois, Brigham Young University, and the University of Utah presses. In addition, the administrators, editors, and staff of the BYU Religious Studies Center are particularly pleased to note that several of his titles have been published by the RSC: Exploring Book of Mormon Lands: The 1923 Latin American Travel Writings of Mormon Historian Andrew Jenson, coedited by Justin R. Bray (2014); Go Ye into All the World: The Growth and Development of Mormon Missionary Work, coedited with Fred E. Woods (2012, including an MHA-awardwinning essay by Ron Bartholomew); Tales from the World Tour: The 1895–1897 Travel Writings of Mormon Historian Andrew Jenson, coedited by Riley M. Moffat (2012); Global Mormonism in the Twenty-First Century (2008); and Regional Studies in Latter-day Saint Church History: The Pacific Isles, coedited by Steven C. Harper, Mary Jane Woodger, and Craig K. Manscill (2008). Three additional book titles are forthcoming: Rediscovering the Historical Sites of the Restoration: The 1888 Travel Writings of Mormon Historian Andrew Jenson and Edward Stevenson, with Justin R. Bray, and Alan Johnson; Autobiography of Andrew Jenson, Mormon Historian, revised and enhanced edition; and Conversations with Mormon Historians, coedited by Alexander L. Baugh.

On behalf of the RSC, we express our appreciation to Reid for the significant contributions he has made to Religious Studies Center and anticipate working together with him and his colleagues in the Church History Department in promoting and producing the finest scholarship in Mormon studies.

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A Look at Moral Agency

POSTED BY: Devan Jensen

02/18/15


A Look at Moral Agency

Charles Swift

Associate Professor of Ancient Scripture, BYU

When I begin the discussion in my Book of Mormon classes about agency as found in 2 Nephi 2, I often begin by setting up a scenario. I go into more detail in class, but basically I ask the students to imagine someone being locked in a box, unable to move. I then take a vote, telling them they can vote for one of three propositions: (1) the person has no agency, (2) the person has limited agency, or (3) the person has complete agency.

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Many of my students will vote that the person in the hypothetical situation has no agency, but the majority vote that the person has limited agency. Only a few will vote that the person has complete agency. We always have an interesting class discussion after the vote, exploring the ramifications and real-world implications of each option. If someone can take away our agency, for example, does that mean the plan of salvation will be thwarted for us? Isn’t agency necessary?

After this introductory discussion, I put two definitions on the board. First, agency is the ability to make moral choices—choices between good and evil. Second, freedom is the ability to act on our choices. The person in the box has very limited freedom, but he or she still has agency. The person in the box cannot act by standing up or eating lunch or leaving the box; his or her freedom is severely limited. But the person can still choose between good and evil: to love the captors or to hate them; to humbly seek God’s help or to rebelliously curse God for the current circumstances.

As Elder Oaks explained:

First, because free agency is a God-given precondition to the purpose of mortal life, no person or organization can take away our free agency in mortality.

Second, what can be taken away or reduced by the conditions of mortality is our freedom, the power to act upon our choices. Free agency is absolute, but in the circumstances of mortality freedom is always qualified.

Freedom may be qualified or taken away (1) by physical laws, including the physical limitations with which we are born, (2) by our own action, and (3) by the action of others, including governments. . . .

A loss of freedom reduces the extent to which we can act upon our choices, but it does not deprive us of our God-given free agency.
(Dallin H. Oaks, “Free Agency and Freedom,” fireside address at BYU, October 11, 1987)

Elder Oaks used the term “free agency” because that was the phrase commonly used at the time. Now, we often use the term “moral agency” to emphasize that we are talking about making moral choices: choices between good and evil.

There are many choices I cannot make in this life for one reason or another. I cannot choose
to fly, for example, nor can I choose to be a professional basketball player. But these choices are not moral choices. Not being able to make these choices does not limit my agency. Even though some of my choices are limited, and even though there are choices I cannot act on because of limits to my freedom, I still have my moral agency.

I can exercise my moral agency and make the most important choices that have to do with either following Heavenly Father or not following him. As Nephi explained, people can “choose liberty and eternal life, through the great Mediator of all men, or . . . choose captivity and death, according to the captivity and power of the devil” (2 Nephi 2:27).


Selma

POSTED BY: Devan Jensen

02/04/15


Kent P. Jackson
Professor of Ancient Scripture, BYU

The current motion picture Selma has rekindled interest in the American civil rights movement. For many who see the movie, the setting is a distant time and place experienced only in film and in history books. But there are still millions alive who remember well the dramatic events surrounding Brown v. Board of Education, the Montgomery bus boycott, the Freedom Riders, violence in Selma and Birmingham, the March on Washington, and the passage of the Civil Rights and Voting Rights Acts.

I was alive for all of these, though I witnessed them when I was young and from far away. There were only white people where I lived in suburban Salt Lake City. It was easy for me as a teenager to express shock at the behavior of some Southern whites. But because my life was so different from theirs, I never had to ask myself soul-searching questions about whether I too had racist feelings. I had never met anyone who wasn’t white, so it was easy for me to feel smug about my lack of prejudice.

I had just turned fourteen in August 1963 when the March on Washington took place in which Martin Luther King gave his “I Have a Dream” speech. I remember the news broadcasts showing the convergence of thousands of people to Washington to demonstrate for economic and social justice. I remember thinking, in my adolescent wisdom, “They don’t need to do all this. All Americans have the right to vote, to live where they want, to get an education, and to succeed. This is America!”

I didn’t know then that millions of Americans were being systematically denied the right to vote, that millions of Americans were denied economic opportunity, the right to live where they wanted, the right to a quality education, and the right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness—all because of the color of their skin. Because these circumstances were so far removed from my own comfortable life, it was easy for me, and for most other white Americans, to blissfully let others worry about what was going on elsewhere.

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AP. Alabama state troopers swing nightsticks to break up a civil rights voting march in Selma, Ala., March 7, 1965. As several hundred marchers crossed the Edmund Pettus Bridge to begin a protest march to Montgomery, state troopers assaulted the crowd with clubs and whips.

 

We lost our innocence, and much of our naïveté, early in 1965 when state troopers gassed and brutally beat a peaceful column of people walking across a bridge in Selma, Alabama. Because the event was filmed and broadcast all over the world, people like me could no longer hide from reality by not wanting to believe that institutionalized injustice existed on a grand scale in the United States of America. The events at Selma, followed by similar televised events in the coming years, forced us all to look into the mirror in ways we hadn’t needed to before. Hopefully we are still doing that, though the task of providing equal opportunities for all is far from accomplished.

Even good and well-meaning people don’t always live up to their own ideals. But we Latter-day Saints know what kind of people we should be. The standard for our interaction with others has been revealed in the scriptures, and it is embodied in statements like these: “God is no respecter of persons” (Acts 10:34). He “hath made of one blood all nations of men” (Acts 17:26). He “is mindful of every people, . . . and his bowels of mercy are over all the earth” (Alma 26:37). “The Lord esteemeth all flesh in one” (1 Nephi 17:35). “He inviteth them all to come unto him and partake of his goodness; and he denieth none that come unto him, black and white, bond and free, male and female; . . . and all are alike unto God” (2 Nephi 26:33).

Martin Luther King said that there was “nothing more majestic and sublime” than to be willing to suffer for a righteous cause. I sincerely honor and thank those brave pioneers of the civil rights movement who suffered and sacrificed so much so the eyes of a nation could be opened.


Attention, Nauvoo Historians!

POSTED BY: Devan Jensen

01/29/15


FINAL FRONT COVER w Depth

Nauvoo historians and family history enthusiasts will love this guide to historical sources for Nauvoo and Hancock County, Illinois! It includes descriptions of original records, primary and secondary sources, computer databases, finding aids, guides, websites, indexes, manuscript collections, newspapers, oral histories, historical and genealogical periodicals, library collections, and much more. It also includes an extensive bibliography of genealogical, local history, and historical resources. This research guide will benefit archivists, genealogists, family historians, historians, reference librarians, and others who study Illinois genealogy and local history and Latter-day Saint history. To order, click here.

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The Power of the Word

POSTED BY: Devan Jensen

01/21/15


Charles Swift

Associate Professor of Ancient Scripture, BYU

heart-ripple

Several years ago, I developed an Honors Program course that I titled “The Book of Mormon as Sacred Literature.” I valued and enjoyed teaching students in that course for many reasons, but certainly one of them was the reward I felt in helping them to discover the importance of seeing the literary qualities of that book in particular, and of the scriptures in general.

Many students came to the Book of Mormon without considering that it had any literary qualities at all, let alone enough to spend an entire semester discussing. Others, however, might admit that there was a literary quality to the book but that such a thing was far down the list of what was important. They could see stories in the book, naturally, and some even found poetry, but the literary aspects of the Book of Mormon were of little concern. If there were any literary components to the book to speak of, they were at best the icing on the cake.

Because I’m the one who created the course, it’s no surprise that I viewed the role of the literary elements of the book quite differently. I would explain to my students that, while there may be moments when the literary parts of speech could be viewed as mere icing, there were many more in which they proved to be intricately tied to the meaning and purpose of the text. I didn’t claim that every page of the book was literary in nature, but there were enough of those pages to make seeing the literary aspects of the book a most worthwhile exercise. In fact, such literary forces in the book could not be removed from the book without doing serious damage to its meaning and its ability to convey that meaning.

One class day each semester I would invite my students to have a particular experience with the text in order to understand the importance of literature in the Book of Mormon. We’d read this verse in class:

Behold, he changed their hearts; yea, he awakened them out of a deep sleep, and they awoke unto God. Behold, they were in the midst of darkness; nevertheless, their souls were illuminated by the light of the everlasting word; yea, they were encircled about by the bands of death, and the chains of hell, and an everlasting destruction did await them. (Alma 5:7)

After we read it together, I then assigned them to rewrite that verse, being careful to convey the same meaning while also stripping of it any literary language. I’d give them several minutes to write their version on a piece of paper, and then I’d collect them and read several of them to the class. The class would quickly discover three important facts.

First, almost no one succeeded in not using any literary language. Often the student writer would not recognize that a phrase was indeed metaphorical (e.g., “changed their hearts”). Sometimes the student would replace what he or she saw as a literary word with a different word—but one that was equally literary in nature. They found it extremely difficult to write without using literary devices.

Second, the students realized that what they wrote was not nearly as beautiful or powerful or memorable as the original. I could have given them a week to rewrite that one verse, but they could never have matched it if they had to avoid allowing any literariness to seep in. (Of course, there was the other realization: writing scripture without the mantle of a prophet resulted in little worth cherishing compared to actual scripture.)

Third, and arguably most important for my purposes on that class day, the students came to understand that the literary quality of that verse helped to convey meaning that could not be conveyed without such language. The various metaphors and symbols were helping the students understand doctrine and spiritual truths that could not be accessed through non-literary language. In other words, sometimes the literary devices were an essential ingredient of the cake.

I am the first to admit that the scriptures stand apart from all other writing in their power and importance. They are sacred, holy words unlike any other texts. However, they are not completely unlike other writings of great literature. Understanding their literary nature can help us readers more fully recognize and appreciate the power the scriptures possess as inspired writings.



Stanley A. Johnson

Professor of Ancient Scripture, BYU

Nearly twenty years ago Gerald N. Lund, one of our zone administrators, taught us about the importance of background and contextual information when teaching the scriptures. We should know for example, that the word Exodus means “going out,” which helps us to understand the history of Moses and the Israelites leaving Egypt for the promised land. Then he stated that this information is “wonderful but not sufficient.” We then must draw out principles in the story that will help us to understand why this event is important. In Alma 36:2, Alma exhorts his son, Helaman, to remember the captivity and bondage of their fathers, and how Moses and the Israelites were delivered from their captivity. Understanding the background and story line helps us to understand that the Lord will also help His people today to be delivered from bondage and captivity as we put our trust in him. These principles are wonderful to understand but, this is not sufficient in our scriptural search.

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The final level of scriptural understanding, according to Brother Lund, was application. Using this Exodus model as an example (which some scholars call the Exodus Pattern), let us make some applications, which Nephi would call likening the scriptures unto us (see 1 Nephi 19:23). The following chart may be helpful in visualizing this pattern. We could diagram the 420-year period of captivity as follows, using three key words from Alma 36:2:

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In other words, the Israelites were in captivity in Egypt, in bondage to Pharaoh, and Jehovah delivered them. Now for the application:

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In other words, we are in captivity to sin, in bondage to Satan and we can be delivered through the Atonement of Jesus Christ—to carry this Exodus Pattern further, let’s look at the following:

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In other words, God delivered the Israelites from the Egyptians by parting the water (baptism) and sending a pillar of fire (Holy Ghost). He also fed them with manna (he’s the Bread of Life) and the Rock that brought forth water (he is the Living Water—both could remind us of the sacrament!), and then Joshua took the Israelites across the River Jordan into the promised land. Of course, the name Joshua is the Hebrew equivalent to the name Jesus in Greek. It really is Jesus Christ that takes us into the promised land, or enables us to gain eternal life. We are helped along the way through the ordinances of baptism by water and the Holy Spirit, and we are reminded of those sacred covenants by partaking of the sacramental bread and water. We really do come to understand the full impact of these stories and others found in the scriptures as they are taught in the historical context from which they evolve. Knowing the background helps us to understand the principles more clearly, and then their application can come alive, and we see more within these teachings than we could have otherwise.


The World Is Changed

POSTED BY: admin

12/11/14


Charles Swift

Associate Professor of Ancient Scripture, BYU

As I’ve reflected on what I’d like to write for my post this month of Christmas, I keep coming back to the words of one of my favorite writers, Leslie Norris. Leslie was from Wales and an accomplished teacher and poet. It was BYU’s great fortune to have him come and teach among us for a number of years. Though he was not LDS, he seemed to feel at home here and those of us who knew him certainly felt our home a better place because of him. I did not know Leslie well; I’d only spoken with him a few times. One time stands out, though, when he took the time to speak with me at length about his childhood as we talked in the hall in the English Department. Such a kind man, one who always seemed to have time for you. When he passed away in 2006, what was our great loss at the university was without a doubt Heaven’s gain.

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Leslie Norris of BYU’s English Department

May the Lord’s choicest blessings be with you at this Christmas time and always. And may this poem by Leslie Norris remind us of the true cause of our celebration this time of year.

Camels of the Kings

The Camels, the Kings’ Camels, Haie-aie!

Saddles of polished leather, stained red and purple,

Pommels inlaid with ivory and beaten gold,

Bridles of silk embroidery, worked with flowers.

The Camels, the Kings’ Camels!

 

We are groomed with silver combs,

We are washed with perfumes.

The grain of richest Africa is fed to us,

Our dishes are silver.

Like cloth-of-gold glisten our sleek pelts.

Of all camels, we alone carry the Kings!

Do you wonder that we are proud?

That our hooded eyes are contemptuous?

 

As we sail past the tented villages

They beat their copper gongs after us.

The windswifts, the desert racers, see them!

Faster than gazelles, faster than hounds,

Haie-aie! The Camels, the Kings’ Camels!

The sand drifts in puffs behind us,

The glinting quartz, the fine, hard grit.

Do you wonder that we look down our noses?

Do you wonder we flare our superior nostrils?

 

All night we have run under the moon,

Without effort, breathing lightly,

Smooth as a breeze over the desert floor,

One white star our compass.

We have come to no palace, no place

Of towers and minarets and the calling of servants,

But a poor stable in a poor town.

So why are we bending our crested necks?

Why are our heads bowed

And our eyes closed meekly?

Why are we outside this hovel,

Humbly and awkwardly kneeling?

How is it that we know the world is changed?

 

—Leslie Norris

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Alexander L. Baugh

Professor of Church History and Doctrine, BYU

I was a late bloomer when it came to my pursuit of the study of history, and more particularly Mormon history. History was one of my least favorite classes in high school. It might have had something to do with my teachers, but nonetheless, I didn’t have much of an appetite for the subject at the time. However, while serving on my LDS mission in Virginia I began to feel the nudges that put me on the path toward the historical profession. During my mission I took the opportunity on preparation day to go to some of the historic places in or near Virginia—Revolutionary and Civil War battlefields, museums, the White House of the Confederacy, Monticello, and Kitty Hawk, to name a few. I learned a great deal and found myself wanting to know more. However, even after my mission, I was not yet converted to the study of history, although one of the first classes that I took at Utah State University after returning home was a Civil War class taught by Clyde Milner, a Yale graduate. Yet I remained content just to dabble in history from time to time while pursuing a degree in marriage and family studies.

I was well on my way toward completing my BS degree when I took a class at the LDS institute building from Kenneth W. Godfrey, Religion 341 (LDS Church History, 1805–1844). Godfrey had a definite flair for teaching the subject and he was well read. To supplement the class, he provided the students with a bibliography containing a number of historical articles published in BYU Studies, the Ensign, Journal of Mormon History, and the Improvement Era, which students could read before each class period. I soon found myself reading all of the articles he recommended on the reading list, and I even outlined the information that I learned. Godfrey’s class got me more and more excited about history in general, but more particularly early Mormon history. I subsequently enrolled in Religion 342 (LDS Church History, 1844–1877), followed by Religion 343 (LDS Church History, 1877–present). However, by the time I had finished taking these courses, I was well on my way toward completing my marriage and family degree; otherwise I might have switched my undergraduate major to history. Instead, I decided to remain in the field of family studies.

I graduated from Utah State in 1981 and moved on to teach in the LDS seminary program. While teaching at Viewmont Seminary in Bountiful, Utah, I learned that the BYU History Department was beginning an MA program in Western American history and I decided to look into the program. I met with Dr. James B. Allen, the department chair and the former assistant Church historian to Leonard Arrington. Professor Allen was reluctant to let me in the program, considering I was a non-history major had taken only a couple of undergraduate history courses. He informed me that before I could be admitted to the MA program I would be required to take several undergraduate classes, after which I would be evaluated. For the next year and a half, I took a number of courses, all with the hope that my performance would lead to my acceptance into the graduate history program. Things eventually worked out, and I was admitted. However, it was still four more years before I got my MA—two years to do the course work, and two years to write the thesis.

After defending my thesis I asked my thesis chair, Dr. Fred R. Gowans, if he felt that I had what it would take to get a PhD. He gave me some wonderful encouragement, and a year later I was admitted into BYU’s doctoral program in American history. It was a rough road, one much harder than I anticipated, but nine years later, at the age of thirty-nine, I received my doctorate. However, through my entire educational training, I felt that I was being led by a very kind and loving Heavenly Father and his Son, who made it all possible. I firmly believe that those who keep the commandments and strive to follow Christ’s example will receive the inspiration necessary to enable them to make the correct decisions that will help them be successful in the path of life that they pursue. President Ezra Taft Benson has written: “Men and women who turn their lives over to God will discover that He can make a lot more of their lives than they can. He will deepen their joys, expand their vision, quicken their mind, strengthen their muscles, lift their spirits, multiply their blessings, increase their opportunities, comfort their souls, raise up friends, and pour out peace” (“Jesus Christ–Gifts and Expectations,” Ensign,  December 1988, 4). Recognizing the power that is in Christ, the Apostle Paul taught the Philippians, “I can do all things through Christ who strengtheneth me” (Philippians 4:13).

I believe that Joseph Smith was called by God to bring about a restoration of the fullness of the gospel of Jesus Christ, so for me, the study of Mormon history has been a deeply moving spiritual experience. Furthermore, I consider the history that I teach, research, and write about to be a sacred trust, and in my pursuit of historical truth I have attempted to interpret the history of Mormonism “by study and also by faith” (D&C 88:118) through what could simply be called “Restoration eyes.” And while I believe that non-believing historians have made wonderful contributions in the field of Mormon history, I am of the opinion that the best scholarship in Mormon history has been, and will continue to be produced by believing Latter-day Saint historians and writers—those on the “inside”—who understand the spiritual dimensions and workings of the Church and its leaders and members who possess the gift of the Holy Ghost, which enables them to tap into the higher source of knowledge and truth, the truth that God possesses.

Some time ago, I was discussing with one of my colleagues in Religious Education about the incredible amount of historical scholarship and literature that has been produced about the Latter-day Saints. To this he said something quite profound. “Yes, much has been done,” he remarked. “And yet, with all that has been done, what has been written is only a prelude. There is so much more to do.” Truly there is “much more to do,” much more to research, much more to write about. And the best in Mormon history is yet to be written. And I believe it will be written by scholars who see through the lens of faith the ever-unfolding history of the Latter-day Saints.

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