A Birthday Commemoration Grows into the Church History Symposium

Carmen Cole

Carmen Cole is senior graphic designer at the BYU Religious Studies Center.

It started with a birthday commemoration for Oliver Cowdery. Even before that, a commemoration for Joseph Smith.

Alex Baugh, professor of Church history and doctrine, decided to guide a tour to the Sacred Grove in western New York on December 23, 2005, to commemorate Joseph’s 200th birthday. While in New York, Alex reflected on Joseph Smith and the contributions of the many faithful Saints who helped restore what is now The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

Alex had extra time on his hands, and Oliver Cowdery, second elder in the Church, came to mind.

“Let’s go see Oliver Cowdery’s birthplace. I think I can find it,” he said. And so they went. “It was snowy, overcast, and it was a New England winter day, and we got there and I found it, and the Church actually had a marker there. While I was reading the marker, it said, ‘He was born in Rutland County, Vermont, in 1806.’ And I’m thinking, ‘We’ve had all this hoopla about Joseph Smith in 2005; we need to honor Oliver Cowdery next year on his 200th birthday.’”

Alex came back from his trip and approached Paul Peterson, who was the department chair of Church history and doctrine at BYU to see about holding a symposium on Oliver Cowdery in less than a year for his 200th birthday in 2006.

After some initial hesitancy by administration, the first Church History Symposium, on Oliver Cowdery, was hosted on November 10, 2006. As part of the agreement, a book of presentations from the symposium was also published in 2009: Days Never to Be Forgotten: Oliver Cowdery.

During this process, Alex suggested hosting a Church history symposium every year, and the idea was approved. Conferences followed on Wilford Woodruff (2007), John Taylor (2008), preserving Latter-day Saint history (2009), the history of Church organization and administration (2010), the growth and development of missionary work (2011), Joseph F. Smith (2012), Joseph Smith’s study of the ancient world (2013), and the global reach of the worldwide Church (2014).

Alex had several additional key history members he wanted to highlight in Church history conferences, but Professor Kent Jackson, RSC associate director at the time, suggested it would be better to have more thematic topics instead of featuring only individuals.

In 2012 the Church History Department in Salt Lake City began teaming up with BYU and the RSC to host the symposium. Reid Neilson was the managing director of the Church History Department at that time, so he was the contact person, and he loved the idea.

Following the 2014 symposium, the Religious Education administration decided to make the Church History Symposium a biennial event to allow more time to plan and prepare between conferences.

The 2016 symposium featured Latter-day Saint women’s history, the 2018 event took up the intersection of business and religion, and in 2020 the theme was “Visions and Visionaries” for the 200th anniversary of Joseph Smith’s First Vision.

Behind the Scenes

Brent Nordgren, operations and production manager for the Religious Studies Center, served as a member of the Church History Symposium committees from 2007 to 2020. He recalled that after the first Church History Symposium, “Kent Jackson asked me to help out because the RSC was already doing of most of the planning and facilitating for the event. Faculty members recruited the lecturers and served as chairs or cochairs. They also became the editors of the volume published by the Religious Studies Center.”

Brent’s secondary role has been to advertise and market the symposium. With all the details involved in that, he was surprised to discover how much he liked it. “I actually enjoy putting events together,” he said. “ It was fun to organize everything.” From the experience, Brent has especially appreciated all the people he met, including General Authorities and some of the foremost Church historians.

Alex remembers the 2020 symposium as especially memorable because of the Covid-19 pandemic. “It was the most interesting one because the conference was scheduled the very week when everything was shut down—which we didn’t know beforehand. President Dallin H. Oaks agreed to speak at that, and things were starting to shut down the first week or two of March and—no kidding—we were worried that they were going to shut us down because everything was closing out, but that was the last event that was held” before everything went remote. As the symposium was ending, President Oaks, the keynote speaker, finished speaking and “they gave us about ten minutes to get out,” Alex remembers.

Devan Jensen, executive editor at the Religious Studies Center, has helped with the symposium in a similar capacity since 2020. “I was a member of our talented symposium team,” he said. “I helped solicit presentations and papers, publicize the event, and represent the RSC’s publishing interests. As a committee, we created a call for proposals, vetted those proposals, offered feedback, and facilitated the presentations. Our greatest challenge was hosting a conference during the pandemic. We created two live-streaming teams: one at BYU and one at Temple Square. We are now in the process of reviewing and selecting papers for a volume of the proceedings of the symposium.”

Alex has been grateful for the symposiums and the opportunities to team up with the Church History Department. “It was really something. I felt good about how all of the things have gone,” he says. “Nothing’s been entirely smooth, but I’ve liked the arrangement of every other year and that we have cooperation with the Church History Department and how we’ve involved them, and while we’ve kind of been the main driver in the past, at the same time, I think we see it as an equal partnership.” He adds that the Church History Department has “some wonderful people with expertise in some areas that we don’t have in Religious Education.” Such cross-fertilization proved crucial for the volume on the economic aspects of the Church.

Moving Forward

The theme of the 2022 Church History Symposium was “Latter-day Saints and Religious Liberty: Historical and Global Perspectives.”

“Religious liberty is a theme of great importance to people throughout the world and Latter-day Saints in particular,” Devan explains. “According to our eleventh article of faith, ‘we claim the privilege of worshiping Almighty God according to the dictates of our own conscience’ and want to preserve that liberty for all people. Professor Robert Smith proposed the conference theme, which we received enthusiastically. Promoting religious freedom goes hand in hand with promoting civil liberties for all nations. We all benefit from a global ecology of protection of our civil rights.”

Robert Smith and Robert Freeman—the two Bobs, as they are affectionately known by the committee members—served as cochairs for the 2022 symposium. Both are faculty in Religious Education, and both are juris doctors. Bob Freeman, professor of Church history and doctrine, agrees with the importance of this year’s theme. “This is one of the more distinctive themes that we’ve had. The dominant aspect of this symposium was how the subject of religious liberty fit into the Restoration. Well, that’s really intriguing and, I think, an almost instantly engaging subject.”

“For me personally, the global piece of this is remarkably important,” he explains. “Recently I have been having experiences in the ‘global Church,’ if you will. For example, I’ve been in London and Rome, and I am also learning of the beginnings of the Church in Austria. I’m realizing that in order for the Church to have the privilege to have a presence—to have a standing, to have the possibility of a proselytizing experience with missionaries—there was a need to secure religious liberty.”

“What we enjoy today as the worldwide Church comes in consequence of expanding religious liberty along the way. Defending religious liberty has been consequential for our church and for other faiths as well. To explore these ideas so symposium participants tied into that was a great dividend of the symposium.”

The 2022 symposium took place on March 10 (on BYU campus) and 11 (in Salt Lake City). Keynote speakers included Sarah Barringer Gordon, University of Pennsylvania professor of constitutional law and history, and Elder Gerrit W. Gong of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles. Professor Gordon argued that since key aspects of American religious liberty have played out in courtrooms, law should be integrated into the many disciplines impinging on religious studies. If not, “the picture of religious liberty in America is flatter, narrower, and, yes, less interesting than the reality.” She noted how the “religious half” of the term religious liberty is “too often assumed but not explored.” Elder Gong, who gave the concluding keynote address, emphasized that religious liberty is deeply rooted in our history and global experience as a church. It is also interwoven into our doctrine (such as in Doctrine and Covenants 98, 101, 109, and 134) and is “fundamental to God’s plan.” With the exception of the 2022 symposium (its proceedings are forthcoming), all past presentations are available online at https://rsc.byu.edu/conferences.

The next Church History Symposium is scheduled for March 2024. The call for symposium papers will be announced a few months beforehand on rsc.byu.edu. The printed volume for this year’s conference, Latter-day Saints and Religious Liberty: Historical and Global Perspectives, will be available for purchase in early 2023. Video recordings of the presentations are available now at rsc.byu.edu/conferences.