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.