Guest blog by Reid L. Neilson, assistant professor of Church history and doctrine at BYU.
Pioneer Day typically invokes images of handcarts and wagons on the westward trail to Utah. Such a myopic view of our Church’s history, however, obscures the pioneering efforts of Latter-day Saints around the world. Thankfully, historian Andrew Jenson did all he could to expand the historical awareness of Church members—something we all should remember during this holiday time.
While working for the Church’s Historical Department in Salt Lake City, Jenson was sent by the First Presidency to tour the Church’s mission field outside North America. The intrepid Dane departed from Salt Lake City on May 11, 1895, and did not return to the City of the Saints until June 4, 1897. Over the course of his twenty-five-month solo circumnavigation of the world, Jenson passed through the following islands, nations, and lands (in chronological order): the Hawaiian Islands, Fiji, Tonga, Samoa, New Zealand, Cook Islands, Society Islands, Tuamotu Islands, Australia, Ceylon, Egypt, Syria, Palestine, Italy, France, Denmark, Norway, Sweden, Prussia, Hannover, Saxony, Bavaria, Switzerland, the Netherlands, England, Wales, Ireland, and Scotland. He traveled 53,820 miles by a variety of steamships and small boats on water; his land conveyances included railroads, carriages, jinrikishas, horses, donkeys, and camels. Jenson became the first Latter-day Saint to visit all the existing non–North American LDS missions after the Mormon evangelization of the Pacific Basin frontier commencing in the 1840s.
Jenson preached the importance of record keeping in his many sermons and general conference addresses. “If it had not been for the writers . . . who belonged to the original Church, what would the doings of Christ mean to us?” Jenson challenged the Latter-day Saints on one occasion. “And if somebody had not recorded them and other beautiful sayings of Christ and his apostles, what would we have known of the ministry of Christ and of his apostles? We would merely have had some vague ideas handed down by tradition that would lead astray more than lead aright.” In other words, if not for the writers and historians of past dispensations, there would be no sacred history in the form of Hebrew and Christian scripture. The same would hold true in this dispensation, he often taught, if church members failed to keep contemporary ecclesiastical and personal histories. This spiritual sense of destiny, coupled with an unmatched work ethic and passion for history, shaped Jenson’s life and work. One merely needs to search the Church History Library catalog for works by Jenson to get a glimpse of his labors.
I have argued elsewhere that global LDS history is Church history. Latter-day Saints need to realize that much of our most interesting history has occurred abroad. We must remember that the “restoration” of the gospel occurs every time a new country is dedicated by apostolic authority for proselyting. In other words, the original New York restoration of 1830 was in many ways replicated in Great Britain in 1837, Japan in 1901, Brazil in 1935, Ghana in 1970, Russia in 1989, and Mongolia in 1992. Mormon historians need to refocus their scholarly gaze from Palmyra, Kirtland, Nauvoo, and Salt Lake City to Tokyo, Santiago, Warsaw, Johannesburg, and Nairobi. These international cities and their histories will become increasingly important to our sacred history. These non–North American stories need to be told with greater frequency and with better skill. In this sense Jenson was a man ahead of his times. In the final years of the nineteenth century, the yeoman workhorse of the Church Historian’s Office had the foresight and willingness to dedicate two years of his life to documenting the global Church and its membership. As Louis Reinwand points out, “Jenson played a vital role in keeping alive the ideal of a universal Church. He was the first to insist that Mormon history include Germans, Britons, Scandinavians, Tongans, Tahitians, and other national and cultural groups, and that Latter-day Saint history should be written in various languages for the benefit of those to whom English was not the native tongue” (“Andrew Jenson, Latter-day Saint Historian,” BYU Studies 14, no. 1 [Autumn 1973]: 44).