Saints: Internalizing the Restoration

Steven C. Harper and Scott C. Esplin


Esplin: How did the Saints project come about?

Harper: I remember that you and I were invited to serve on a committee. We were told by Elder Marlin K. Jensen, then the Church Historian and Recorder, and Richard Turley, who was serving as Assistant Church Historian and Recorder, that the First Presidency had invited them to propose a plan for updating B. H. Roberts’s Comprehensive History of the Church. There were a bunch of us on that committee. I don’t remember exactly how many, maybe twenty?

Esplin: Yes, probably fifteen to twenty. People from BYU, others from the Church History Department. There were also some from Seminaries and Institutes and others from Correlation. Those from BYU included you and Spencer Fluhman, who is now at the Maxwell Institute, Reid Neilson, and myself. Originally Craig Manscill was there, but then he had a teaching assignment at the Jerusalem Center.

Harper: I remember being both thrilled about it and having some trepidation about whether it could be done in the information age. Is this a possibility? Can we do it right? Pretty early on in that process, the whole committee was tasked with an idea. And the four of us (you, me, Reid, and Spencer) happened to be at department meetings together at the Hinckley Building on campus at BYU and spent some time afterwards there together just thinking about what would it look like, what would be the scope, theme, how it would work. And to me, that was a real revelatory meeting. There was inspiration flowing, and it didn’t come from any one person. It was just a wonderful, synergistic process of everybody knowing something that needed to be thought of or included. The plan that came out of that was to do a four-volume representative history.

We would not try to cover everything in the volumes but to make it the story of Latter-day Saints making and keeping covenants, striving for exaltation. Therefore, the way to structure the volumes was a temple trajectory. Volume 1 would end in 1846 when thousands of individuals were endowed and sealed in the Nauvoo Temple. Volume 2 would end when they started to do ordinance work in the Salt Lake Temple after dedicating it in 1893. Volume 3 included the Swiss Temple in the mid-1950s. The series becomes increasingly global with every volume. Now, with the fourth volume it’s not going to end in just one temple like the others. There are too many temples spread all over the world.

Esplin: Which is a nice problem to have! That’s fabulous. What themes did you choose to emphasize, and what is being done to include the stories of lay members, women and men, worldwide?

Harper: I remember one day, a couple years into the project, we were starting to think very hard about what to call it. At that point it was already clear to us that Mosiah 3:19 was the map for the story. Everybody in this story is on a quest. They start as natural men and women, enemies to God ever since the Fall. In any good story, the protagonist has to change over time, has to have a pretty big change over time. What better change than from a fallen mortal to a Saint, having yielded to the Holy Spirit, becoming a Saint through the Atonement of Christ? So King Benjamin gave us our story arc, and as we thought about what to call it, Saints was the right word. It was very clear that the word Saints would capture the theme. Becoming Saints is the story. Everybody in this story, starting with Joseph Smith, is a fallen person who wants desperately to become a Saint through the Atonement of Jesus Christ. And that’s the common thing that unites all the characters. Once that theme became clear, we started looking for characters who could personify that because we couldn’t possibly tell the comprehensive history. We can’t tell everybody’s story, so we are telling stories of a few Saints who represent all.

From the beginning, we wanted to be very mindful of the great commission to take the gospel to every nation, kindred, tongue, and people. That is the story in some important ways. So it has to include representatives of nations, kindreds, tongues, and peoples. For this reason, you’re thinking not just of the story of headquarters, which is important, but the story on the farthest frontier of the Church. I was particularly interested in the relationship of those members who were sometimes called from center to periphery. I wanted readers to meet prophets long before they become prophets, a long time before they have any idea that they are going to be prophets, when they just want to love God and be saved. I wanted readers to watch prophets grow into prophets. At the same time, I wanted readers to meet women and men they’d never heard of before and realize that they too received revelation.

We have a wonderful history of the gifts of the Spirit and revelation being bestowed upon the Saints generally, and the books show that as well. Readers find Amanda Barnes Smith in the direst possible circumstance receiving revelation about how to minister to her family. And that is one example of hundreds. Joseph Smith grows into a capital “S” Seer, a capital “P” Prophet. A lot of other people in the story are prophets, seers, revelators, and there’s a wonderful relationship between them. The A story, you might say, is that Joseph Smith restores the broken covenant that leads to exaltation. And then the B story, you might say, is that many men and women believe his revelations and get their own confirming revelations, and they sustain him as a result.

Esplin: What were some of the most exciting things for you to tell?

Harper: You know that I love the First Vision. That’s where it all began. It’s not just that it was such a great revelation, but it turned the Apostasy on its head. The First Vision is so wonderful because a dominant teaching in Joseph Smith’s world was Calvinism, what the Presbyterians were teaching, which means he was being taught that he was a totally depraved person, that there is no divine nature, nor is there what Latter-day Saints would call agency. In his 1832 account of his vision, he said that he has become convicted of his sins; he felt to mourn for his sins and the sins of the world. He was coming of age as a teenager, and he realized that he was fallen. And the theology that he was getting quite a bit of was telling him, “That’s it for you. You are fallen. You’re very likely going to be damned for all eternity, and you deserve to be.” And that is a discouraging doctrine about God.

He was worried very much about that. And the reason I love the First Vision is because it evidences to us so beautifully that God loves teenagers—he even loves sinful teenagers! Joseph was not guilty of great or malignant sins, but sins that worried him enough to seek and receive evidence of God’s love for him and Christ’s redeeming grace. And so that is the catalyst of the whole story.

That’s where the restored gospel begins—with the correct understanding of the nature of God. I love that the story begins with the First Vision. And in many ways that charts where we go. We believe in revelation all that God revealed, does now, or will yet. It becomes a story of revelation, revelation to unexpected kinds of people, like teenage Joseph Smith, his mother, a schoolteacher from Vermont and a farmer from Palmyra.

Esplin: What were some of the most difficult stories to tell? What were some of the most challenging topics?

Harper: The Missouri persecutions. Those events were emotionally disturbing, and I’ve been through that stuff, as you have, over and over. I was surprised at how visceral it was to tell the story of Amanda Barnes Smith. For maybe the first time in my life, I realized that’s a really ugly story that is emotionally painful for people to process. She is the main character through that, and I don’t know if anybody’s ever suffered more, had a worse experience than she did in 1838.

Esplin: I recently read the volume to my children, and they’re young. The two that were old enough to understand it were eleven and nine, and it was hard. It was hard to tell those stories, and they reacted emotionally. But at the end, they loved the volume. We finished the entire book, and their first question was, “Dad, when’s the next volume coming out? Do we have to stop here? When can we keep going?”

Harper: I’m so thrilled. I came to the project fully buying into the idea that Rick Turley, who really is the major visionary of the whole thing, was articulating—that this has to be a narrative. Later on, Dave Nielsen, one of the great writers on the project, showed us a quote that he found in Wilford Woodruff’s journal where President Young told the Church historians in the 1860s, “Write in a narrative style, and write only about one tenth as much.”[1] So we were convinced we were doing what the prophet wanted, at least in the narrative style, if not in writing only a tenth as much. And of course, when you write a narrative, the story should feel like a roller coaster ride, not a flat style—not the way I write history books. I was completely converted to the idea, but I didn’t have the tools to enact it. I didn’t know exactly what it would mean. But as we learned more and got the right people in place who did know and understand how to write a narrative, it became very clear that Church history maps onto a narrative arc really well.

Esplin: Talk to readers of the Review magazine about the organization of the project and your role. You left BYU Religious Education for a period of time to head this project up.

Harper: As we noted, on that first committee there was a contingent of faculty members from Religious Education, and then four of us who were on it sort of served as a subcommittee and proposed the four-volume idea, which the larger committee adopted and sent to the First Presidency. That became the vision for the project, the backbone for the project. So, after being released from that committee, I was invited to start outlining a couple of the volumes along with several other people. The idea all along was that no one person would ever be the project. It would always be a collaborative effort. It would always involve a lot of different people, there were some fears, including my fears, that it could sound like it was written by a committee. That fear has not materialized. The inspired nature of the narrative idea has become very clear to me over time.

The revelation required to get this done always was collaborative. It came as a result of counsel. The title for the books came that way. The main ideas for the books came that way. Many of the stories and strategies have come not to one person sitting alone but to a group of people who were prayerfully counseling together about it.

Reid Neilson left Religious Education to become managing director of the Church History Department in Salt Lake, so one of the four of us who was in that committee led the whole project. He invited me to come work on it. I worked with a small team, about five to seven people, including historians who wrote early drafts, and we spread them around the department and had people read them. The feedback was that the idea was good, but it sounded like historians were trying to do a narrative and not succeeding. Then the problem was, who do we find, who do we get? And as you might guess, the people who were needed were ready, right on time. We asked around who would be the right people, and Scott Hales was clearly the one to become what we called the literary editor. It was his job to be the voice of the volumes, to give Saints consistency, and to structure the volumes—to be the architect. And he and some other very talented people are the main reason why it’s such a good read.

Esplin: So this team produced a project, and then you have subsequently been able to come back to BYU?

Harper: Yes. Volume 1 is out, and I had a heavier role in volumes 1 and 2 than volume 3. I had some responsibility for volume 4. Jed Woodworth was working on other assignments at the Church History Library when we began, but when he finished those, thankfully, he was assigned to Saints. I think he is the most knowledgeable historian of Latter-day Saints on the planet, and the scope of his knowledge is extraordinary. It was a great opportunity for me to bow and gladly have him assume those responsibilities. He now is doing the job I was doing, and I’m doing a little bit of what he was doing before, which is the historical review: reading drafts, helping ensure historical accuracy and integrity.

Esplin: One thing I’m excited about in the project is not merely the volumes themselves, but the additional resources provided for readers. Talk to us about those resources and the ways they are structured so they don’t interrupt the flow of the narrative.

Harper: When you write a narrative, you cannot stop the action and dissertate on some obscure topic or else you slam the brakes on readers. Rick Turley asked us to imagine we were watching an engrossing movie, and then they stop the movie, turn on the lights, and someone comes out on the stage and says, “Now I’m going to tell you what this movie is about!” You just can’t do it. And yet there are places in Church history where many people want and need context, more information. So how do you serve the readers who just want to read the great story and internalize it and simultaneously serve the readers who say, “Well, how do they know that? Tell me more about that.” The answer to that is, the footnotes are rich. And many of them have links, and in the digital versions readers can click on a link and go to a topical essay. For volume 1, there were well over one hundred of these topics. Some of them are videos; some of them are textual, with a lot of graphics. There’s a lot of rich information. People who want it can find it pretty quickly and easily. Within a few clicks they can be at the raw source material for most of the book.

Esplin: This, then, is one way that the book is different from other earlier histories. Are there any other things that come to your mind? Anything else that stands out to you as making this history significantly different from other histories of the Church?

Harper: I have here on my shelf Joseph Smith’s manuscript history. I have B. H. Roberts’s Comprehensive History. I almost never pull those volumes off the shelf. And neither does anybody else anymore, right? They’re on my parents’ shelves at home. They’re great! They’re wonderfully rich resources. But they don’t help the present generation internalize the past very well. We need a past that speaks to the present. In some ways, that’s what memory is. Memory is making a useful version of the past for the present. I believe it’s for this reason that the Lord said to keep the history continually, and you’ve got to do it for the rising generations (see Doctrine and Covenants 47:3; 69:8). And we knew that the rising generations are not reading the old histories. I don’t blame them. And we knew that we needed to follow the Lord’s commandment in some way that would respond to his children who are in those rising generations. We had to have a narrative that’s fast paced, that’s reliable and accurate and true—they want to be able to trust it. If we could give them that kind of a history, they would devour it, and the evidence is that they are devouring. More than eighty million chapters have been opened or listened to or read online.

Esplin: And that’s not counting everyone who is reading it in print.

Harper: Exactly. Three hundred forty thousand print copies have been sold.

Esplin: And it’s starting to roll out in other languages?

Harper: Yes, fourteen languages total, soon. Several of those are already out and the others will be, which will reach more than 95 percent of Latter-day Saints across the globe. So that signals that the Lord loves his children.

Esplin: By way of conclusion, maybe what have you learned in all of this, and what do you hope readers learn from Saints? What do you hope they get from it?

Harper: What I hope is that it will do what the Book of Mormon calls enlarging “the memory of this people” (Alma 37:8). I lost my memory in 1994 for a few weeks. It was the strangest experience of my life. I was in Nauvoo with my wife on a semester travel study. I woke up one day and didn’t know who I was, where I was, anything. I woke up in the University of Iowa Hospital. I had no idea how I got there, when I got there. And I now know that I had been there for over two weeks. My wife was there. I knew that I knew her, but I had no idea. I couldn’t tell you her name. I didn’t know we were expecting a baby. It is the strangest experience to have your memory gone! If you don’t have a memory, in some ways you don’t exist. You don’t really exist!

So think of how often the scriptures talk about remembering. If we don’t remember the Restoration, then in some ways there may as well not have been a Restoration, as far as we’re concerned. So we have to find effective ways to help Latter-day Saints internalize and remember that there was a First Vision, that the priesthood was restored, that the Book of Mormon was translated by the power of God, that Zion was revealed and striven for and suffered for and sacrificed for, and that Saints have come before us who were natural men and women and yet longed more than anything to become Saints through the Atonement of Christ. That’s our inheritance. That’s our heritage. If we don’t have it in our minds and in our hearts, it would be tragic. We would lose the Restoration. So that’s what I hope, that Saints will internalize the Restoration from reading these books.

Esplin: Thank you, Steve. Thank you for your work, and thank you for your willingness to share your talents and gifts with the members of the Church.


[1] Brigham Young, in Wilford Woodruff, Journal, 20 october 1861, Church History Library, Salt Lake City.