The Hiding of Church History

11.10.2017 (Updated 2.25.2018)

It is always difficult to say when someone is being dishonest. It implies knowledge of someone’s intentions or their inner heart. Never mistake for malice what can be explained by incompetence. Inaccurately recounting history is not enough to conclude negative intent. After all, church leaders are not professional historians, nor should we expect them to be. Furthermore, any human organization will require degrees of transparency and varying narratives. Yet, because of our Church’s high moral code, the level of transparency and honesty should rise above other institutions.

However, in the church’s experiences with teaching, learning, and confronting our history, there have been occasions when a leader actively took steps to quash and cover up our historical record in order to maintain a status quo narrative. This essay outlines a few of these.

  • Joseph Fielding Smith and the 1832 first vision account.

Stan Larson published an article in Dialogue in 2014 outlining the history of the 1832 First Vision account.[1] This is the earliest written record of Joseph Smith’s encounter of the grove. It contradicts many of the details found in the canonized 1838 account: only one being (“The Lord”), only in search of personal redemption, and no discussion of seeking for the true Church. It is less dramatic than latter renditions.

Larson convincingly argues that Joseph Fielding Smith, the Church Historian for fifty years, ripped the account from Joseph Smith’s journal, kept it hidden for some time, and then returned it taping it back in sometime later. This contributed to why 1) historians were unaware for decades of this account of the vision, and 2) members largely continue to be unaware of the details of the multiple versions.

  • Bruce R. McConkie and Adam-God

Elder McConkie publicly claimed that he did not “ever know” the Adam-God doctrine “to be taught in the Church”, and that it was a false belief promoted by polygamist fundamentalists.

In private, however, he acknowledged, “Yes, President Young did teach that Adam was the father of our spirits, and all the related things that the cultists ascribe to him.” Continuing in the private correspondence, he said, “I think you can give me credit for having a knowledge of the quotations from Brigham Young relative to Adam, and of knowing what he taught under the subject that has become known as the Adam God Theory.”

Partly why members are unaware of Brigham’s teachings can be explained by a choice by apostle Elder Widstoe. He deleted certain Adam-God phrases when compiling The Discourses of BY in 1925. It was from this book, rather than the Journal of Discourses, that the 1997 priesthood/relief society manual, Teachings of the Presidents of the Church, took the quote. See here for more details.

In a letter to the editor of Dialogue, Boyd Kirkland wrote,

“I wrote a letter to President Spencer W. Kimball in the summer of 1980, asking why he, as well as Mark E. Petersen, Bruce R. McConkie, and other general authorities, had been so vocally denouncing the Adam-God doctrine, while at the same time denying that Brigham Young had been the source of the idea, when there was an abundance of good evidence to the contrary. [For example, President Kimball said in the 1976 general conference, “We warn you against the dissemination of doctrine which are not according to the scriptures and which are alleged to have been taught by some of the General Authorities of past generations.  Such, for instance, is the Adam-God theory.”]

I pointed out that this approach created a double dilemma for church members aware of the facts: first, how a prophet (Brigham) could claim as revelation and promote to the church an idea deemed by later leaders to be a dangerous heresy: and, second, why later church leaders would dishonestly deny the true source of the “heresy,” claiming it originated with “enemies of the church.”

“I indicated in [a letter to the First Presidency] letter, that I felt this dilemma was simply the result of a misunderstanding or lack of information on the part of the brethren. Latter, I met with an informal committee answering to Mark E. Petersen, which had been set up to help members confronted with issues raised by fundamentalist Mormons (the Adam-God doctrine being one of the chief of these). The net result of my meetings with these people began to make me realize that Brother Petersen wasn’t acting out of ignorance of the facts regarding the Adam-God problem, and neither was Bro. McConkie.

“I still wondered about the extent of President Kimball’s knowledge of the subject, however. I suspected that my letter had never reached him. In February 1981, I met with Michael Watson, the secretary to the First Presidency. He was surprisingly candid with me, revealing that my letter had been forwarded to Mark E. Petersen. Brother Watson showed me a memo written by Brother Petersen to the First Presidency with his recommendations as to how to respond to me. He informed them that the issues I had raised were real, that Brigham Young had indeed taught these things, but that they could not acknowledge this lest I would “trap them” into saying this therefore meant Brigham was a false prophet. He therefore recommended that I be given a very circuitous response, evading the issue, which he volunteered to write. I asked Brother Watson, as well as members of the committee I had previously met with, how this approach would help people like myself who knew better? Wasn’t there concern that some might be dismayed and disillusioned by their church leaders’ lack of candor? Their response was very similar to President Hinckley’s statement mentioned earlier about losing a few through excommunication: they said, in essence, “If a few people lose their testimonies over this, so be it; it’s better than letting the true facts be known, and dealing with the probable wider negative consequences to the mission of the church.”

(Dialogue, Vol. 31, No. 3, Fall, 1998)
  • Lucy Mack Smith’s Biographical Sketches of Joseph Smith

Brigham Young “ordered the Saints to deliver up their copies to be destroyed.”[2] “We do not with such a book to be lying on our shelves to be taken up in after years, and read by our children as true history…. It is transmitting lies to posterity… and we know that the curse of God will rest upon every one… who keeps these books for his children to learn and believe in lies.”[3]

Lucy Mack Smith

The repudiation of Lucy Mack Smith’s book was published in the eleventh volume of the Journal of Discourses. He publicly reviled the text and excoriated Orson Pratt for his connection with the book, which he considered to be riddled with factual and doctrinal errors. Referring to a portion of the book that had been read to the congregation, Young had exclaimed, according to the shorthand notes:

“This article been read to congregation so very tedious that I expect they will forget all about it. This is the result of false doctrine. Read over pages of these books and a person will forget all they ever did know, all they had desired to know with regard to the true religion that has been revealed from heaven.

We have said all we can say in favor of Brother Orson Pratt. Had this transpired in the days of Joseph, he would have been cut off from the church.”[4]

This demonstrates that Young was willing to trample the Prophet Joseph’s Mother’s version of events if it contradicted his own, and especially if it threatened the status quo of the institution.  To help us understand why, it is important to note that during Brigham Young’s tenure, the primary threat to his claim of being the legitimate successor of Joseph was Lucy Mack’s family. Emma never recognized Brigham as the prophetic heir. William Smith had made claims, as patriarch of the church. Emma’s son, Joseph Smith III, reorganized the church. At the time of the publication of Lucy’s book, Joseph III and his brothers were in Utah proselytizing the reorganized cause. Lucy’s biography was more sympathetic to the Smith version, than Brigham would have liked.[5]

  • Deleting References to Polygamy

Charles W. Penrose, Apostle and Counselor to two Presidents of the Church, admitted that after Joseph Smith’s death, certain facts related to plural marriage were purposely withheld from church publications “for prudential reasons.” (Solemn Covenant, p. 367)

Although dishonesty about contemporary polygamy is not the same as covering up history, Elder Penrose modified documents intended for preserving history; documents which are by commandment of the Lord. (See D&C 21:1; 47:3; 72:6; 85:1; 127:9) In particular, D&C 128:8 says whatsoever you record on earth shall be recorded in heaven, and whatsoever you do not record on earth shall not be recorded in heaven; for out of the books shall your dead be judged.

  • Brigham Young altering Church History

Van Wagoner argues that during the succession crisis and in the following decades, “The Twelve’s nineteenth-century propaganda mill was so adroit that few outside Brigham Young’s inner circle were aware of the behind-the scenes alterations seamlessly stitched into church history. Charles Wesley Wandell, an assistant church historian who later left the church, was aghast at these emendations. Commenting on the many changes made in the historical work as it was being serialized, Wandell noted in his diary:”

I notice the interpolations because having been employed in the Historian’s office at Nauvoo by Doctor Richards, and employed, too, in 1845, in compiling this very autobiography, I know that after Joseph’s death his memoir was “doctored” to suit the new order of things, and this, too, by the direct order of Brigham Young to Doctor Richards and systematically by Richards.

Inez Smith, “Biography of Charles Wesley Wandell,” J of His 3 (Jan. 1910): 455-63.
  • Heber J. Grant and the History of the Church[6]

Church president Heber J. Grant required B. H. Roberts to censor some documents in the seventh volume of the History of the Church. Elder Roberts was furious. “I desire, however, to take this occasion of disclaiming any responsibility for the mutilating of that very important part of President Young’s Manuscript,” Roberts replied to President Grant in August 1932, “and also to say, that while you had the physical power of eliminating that passage from the History, I do not believe you had any moral right to do so.”

  • Fawn Brodie’s No Man Knows My History: A Biography of Joseph Smith, the Mormon Prophet.

Although he refused to read her book, J. Reuben Clark asked the Deseret News to publish his long review of No Man Knows My History. The church also asked a young Hugh Nibley to write a rebuttal.  His pamphlet No Ma’am, That’s Not History was an acerbic ad hominem attack, not addressing Brodie’s historical claims directly. Nibley had later expressed his regret for writing it. Eventually, Brodie was excommunicated for her work.  Her reputation as a perceptive historian was later vindicated when she was the first to seriously explore and popularized the notion of Thomas Jefferson’s fathering Sally Heming’s six children.

  • Thomas Cheney’s Golden Legacy

In 1972, the biography of J. Golden Kimball ran into an ecclesiastical snag. Church headquarters instructed Brigham Young University Press to shred the entire press run of Cheney’s book due to its inclusion of some of J. Golden Kimball’s vulgarism.

  • Allen and Leonard’s Story of the Latter-day Saints

Apostle Ezra Taft Benson took direct action against Mormon historians. He tried to get Deseret Book Company to destroy the unsold press run of the 1976 book. Financial considerations prohibited a repetition of the Golden Legacy shredding and the large first edition sold out within a few months. Elders Benson and Petersen addressed their complaints to the First Presidency. President Kimball acquiesced to Ezra Taft Benson’s and Mark E. Petersen’s strongly negative views about the publication, a book that President Kimball himself liked.[7]


Elder Benson successfully had Deseret Book refuse to reprint the book for a decade (despite steady popular demand). His concerns focused on their use of words like “communitarian” and “experimental” to describe Church programs, and on their discussion of the American environment which preceded various revelations.

Elder Benson’s activities in 1976 signaled the turning point in the process by which Church historian Leonard J. Arrington was gradually cut adrift from the office of Church Historian. The Story of the Latter-day Saints had been written by the officially sustained Assistant Church Historian and another member of Arrington’s staff.

  • Elder Benson’s Fight Against Historical Scholarship

Elder Benson publicly warned about Mormon historians who “inordinately humanize the prophets of God so that their human frailties become more evident than their spiritual qualities.” In separate addresses Elder Ezra Taft Benson defines “historical realism” as “slander and defamation.” He instructed CES personnel: “If you feel you must write for the scholarly journals, you always defend the faith. Avoid expressions and terminology which offend the Brethren and Church members.” He also warns them not to buy the books or subscribe to the periodicals of “known apostates, or other liberal sources” or have such works on office or personal bookshelves.[8]

Some General Authorities, including Elders Benson and Petersen, assigned others to read publications about the Church and mark for them passages that they considered questionable.[9]

Elders Benson, Petersen, and Packer were the primary spokesmen for the view that it was not right for church-paid historians to write in a way that they felt inordinately humanized the prophets and underplayed revelation and God’s intervention in human affairs. For example, Benson noted: “Members of our staff have carefully read . . . and in accordance with your request, these are our impressions.” They were very disappointed with lack of spirituality, reliance on sources like Dialogue, portrayal of Joseph Smith as affected by the political, economic, and religious environments in which he lived, not taking the conservative side on issues like evolution, and calling the “black issue” a matter of “policy” (paraphrase of several pages).[10]

Elder Benson condemned Juanita Brooks’ 1950 Mountain Meadow Massacre, warning BYU students of writings “which would tarnish our own Church history and its leaders” denouncing “one writer” who accused Brigham Young “of being ‘an accessory after the fact’ to the infamous Mountain Meadows Massacre incident.”  History and the Church have vindicated Brooks’ original claim.

  • Hiding the Smith’s Treasure Digging and Defaming Anti-Mormons

In 1974, Reed  Durham,  director of  the  LDS  Institute  of  Religion  at  the  University  of  Utah,  presented  a presidential  address  at  the  annual  conference  of  the  Mormon  History Association (MHA)  in  Nauvoo,  Illinois. Durham explored Joseph Smith’s links with Masonry and his  possession of a magical Jupiter talisman. The negative repercussions following Durham’s appeal for an open discussion of the  influence of folk  magic and Masonry on Mormonism led to his public apology and reaffirmation of faith. This indicates that we could have begun to learn of the implication Mormonism’s folk magic origins decades before we are beginning to do so, now.  [Source]

In the September 1979 Ensign, Dean Jessee discussed Joseph’s treasure digging as a malicious anti-mormon lie. He quotes two early critics.

The first, Abner Cole, explained the Book of Mormon as a deception growing out of the family’s use of “peep stones” to dig for hidden treasure guarded by evil spirits. And that the Smiths participated in money digging ventures. Jesse further calls what Cole described as treasure digging, “irreligious”.

Second, Eber D. Howe’s book, Mormonism Unvailed contains affidavits from Joseph’s neighbors in New York and Pennsylvania, as well as Emma’s father, and witness to the translation process, Isaac Hale. They portrayed Joseph Smith as “lazy, intemperate,” “entirely destitute of moral character and addicted to vicious habits,” including the deceptive practice of digging for hidden treasure.

Finally, the Ensign article argues “that the charges of laziness and occupational money-digging were contradicted by the labors and activities of the family.”

In 1987, Elder Oaks offers a direct question, but does not give a direct answer.

What of the allegations of Joseph Smith’s involvement in folk magic?

Some sources close to Joseph Smith claim that in his youth, during his spiritual immaturity prior to his being entrusted with the Book of Mormon plates, he sometimes used a stone in seeking for treasure. Whether this is so or not, we need to remember that no prophet is free from human frailties, especially before he is called to devote his life to the Lord’s work. Line upon line, young Joseph Smith expanded his faith and understanding and his spiritual gifts matured until he stood with power and stature as the Prophet of the Restoration.

Today, the Church has admitted to the use of peep stones and divining rods by Joseph and his family. See the Church’s 2014 essay on translation, and the October 2015 Ensign article on the peep stone. (These articles do, however, avoid using the word “treasure seeking.”) Although some of the affidavits were clearly exaggerated, they did contain enough truth that we should not have dismissed them all together or call their entire production anti-mormon lies.

  • Censorship of Dialogue and Sunstone.

In May 1983, newspapers reported that Apostle Mark E. Petersen had instructed stake presidents to question historians and others who had contributed to Dialogue and Sunstone. When President Hinckley learned about this inquisition, he ordered the apostles to stop it.[11]

Historian D. Michael Quinn relates, “During the following months, many contributors to Sunstone and Dialogue told me of being asked to meet with a bishop or stake president who presented marked copies of their published articles and symposium talks. In each case, the local leader said it was his own idea to meet with the individuals, to express concern about his or her participation in these intellectual forums, and to recommend an end to activity which “offends the Brethren” or “disturbs the faithful.” One stake president even asked the person to consider voluntarily withdrawing from the church. The uncomfortable demeanor of the inquiring local leaders, the photocopies of articles with underlined passages, the awkward assurances of this investigation’s local origin—all were familiar to me. In October 1991, I tried to put this in historical perspective as part of a panel discussion, ‘Let the Consequences Follow: Telling the Truth About Our History.’”[12]

Dialogue Journal of Mormon Thought

It should also be noted that the 1992 Encyclopedia of Mormonism gave a positive description of Dialogue, Sunstone, the Sunstone symposia, the B. H. Roberts Society, and other independent forums. “Unofficial organizations and their publications may serve at least six important functions for Church members and/or for the Church.” One of the six is that they “provide an opportunity to learn and distribute new insights regarding theology, the scriptures, ancient cultures, historical events, and current practices. Dedicated members wanting to combine their religious beliefs with their professional training have made significant scholarly contributions, and unofficial journals provide outlets for publishing them.”

Armand Mauss records a few instances in his autobiography.  He relates that during 1983 MHA conference scholars reported being “called in” by their bishop’s or stake presidents to be told that their published work was a matter of concern to “the brethren.”

Upon returning, Mauss was asked to meet with his stake president. “He proceeded to tell me that he had received a personal phone call from Elder Mark E. Peterson, of the quorum of the Twelve, who wanted him to tell me that ‘the brethren are concerned about your association with apostate publications.'”

In 1991, a later stake president, Roy Mosman, called Mauss. When President Mosman discussed Mauss with his counselors he was “fuming smoke from every orifice.” The actual meeting was somewhat tense, but turned out well enough.

A decade later, in 2002, Armand Mauss was again summoned by his stake president. The area president had directed him to discuss Mauss’s comments at a Sunstone Symposium in regards to the damage still being done from the residue of racist folklore in the church. The stake president merely agreed with Mauss’s quoted comment. Furthermore, the president was surprised to learn of the existence of the Strengthen Membership Committee. Finally, he was unfamiliar with Dialogue, Sunstone, MHA, etc.

Even since the turn of the millennium, Mauss records that in 2005, “I received firsthand information from two outstanding scholars whose recruitment you the BYU faculty had been cleared by all levels of the administration, only to be overturned at the level of the trustees because these scholars had published articles in Dialogue.”

(Pg. 175-76, 79, and 242 footnote 51 of Shifting Boarders and Tattered Passports.)

There clearly were a variety of voices and opinions during the 1980’s and 90’s on the appropriateness of scholarly venues, such as, Dialogue and Sunstone.  The excommunications on September Six indicate that the voices against them were clearly louder.

  • D. Michael Quinn

“In 1985, after Dialogue published my article “LDS Church Authority and New Plural Marriages, 1890-1904,” three apostles gave orders for my stake president to confiscate my temple recommend. Six years earlier, I had formally notified the First Presidency and the Managing Director of the church historical department about my research on post-Manifesto polygamy and my intention to publish it. Now I was told that three apostles believed I was guilty of “speaking evil of the Lord’s anointed.” The stake president was also instructed “to take further action” against me if this did not “remedy the situation” of my writing controversial Mormon history.

James M. Paramore, the area president who relayed these orders, instructed my stake presidency to tell me that this was a local decision and reflected their own judgment of the state of my church membership. My stake president replied that he was not going to tell me something which was untrue. Unlike the area president, my stake president and one of his counselors had read the Dialogue article. They saw nothing in it to justify what they were being required to do.”

  • Elder Packer’s preference for the faith promoting over truth.

After the publication of Dean C. Jessee’s Letters of Brigham Young to His Sons, Elder Packer wrote a letter to the first presidency objecting to the inclusion of Young’s tobacco use and the fact that his descendants were unhappy with the way Young’s will was carried out. Elder Packer believed that the History Division’s work ought to be sent through the Correlation Program.

(Topping, Gary (2008). Leonard J. Arrington: A Historian’s Life. Norman, Oklahoma: The Arthur C. Clark Company; University of Oklahoma.)

Elder Packer gave a landmark talk in 1981. In it, he excoriated objective history using bellicose language. He claimed that there is no neutral ground. “There is a temptation for the writer or the teacher of Church history to want to tell everything, whether it is worthy or faith promoting or not. Some things that are true are not very useful.”

Packer questioned the faith, motives, and prospects for salvation of Mormon historians who produced overly objective, impartial, honest, and neutral history. He said, “Those of you who are employed by the Church have a special responsibility to build faith, not destroy it … Those who have carefully purged their work of any religious faith in the name of academic freedom or so-called honesty ought not expect to be accommodated in their researches or to be paid by the Church to do it.”

Further evidence of strains in the Mormon community surfaced in 1983 when BYU officials banned circulation of an independent student newspaper, Seventh East Press. Its 11 January issue had carried an interview conducted in 1981 with Mormon educator Sterling M. McMurrin in which he criticized efforts of officials to control the writing of LDS history as “reprehensible and odious.” In McMurrin’s opinion, suppression of honest research had created a climate within his community more detrimental to intellectual inquiry than he had ever before experienced. Expressing personal reservations regarding the emphasis placed in his church on its origins, McMurrin regretted efforts to indoctrinate members in a manipulated version of Mormon history. He believed it would be wiser for LDS officials to detach their religion from such close association with its controversial past.

(Later reprinted in Blake Ostler, “An Interview with Sterling McMurrin/’ Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought (Spring 1984): 18-43.)

  • Linda King Newell’s and Valeen Tippetts Avery’s Mormon Enigma: Emma Hale Smith

In June of 1984, Church headquarters instructed bishops in Utah, Idaho, and Arizona not to allow discussion in Relief Society or other Church meetings of the book.  The two authors were also blacklisted from giving firesides or talks.  Elder Oaks specifically condemned the work.

mormon enigma

He told the authors, “My duty as a member of the Council of the Twelve is to protect what is most unique about the LDS church, namely the authority of priesthood, testimony regarding the restoration of the gospel, and the divine mission of the Savior. Everything may be sacrificed in order to maintain the integrity of those essential facts. Thus, if Mormon Enigma reveals information that is detrimental to the reputation of Joseph Smith, then it is necessary to try to limit its influence and that of its authors.”[13]  As of 2002, the book was still banned from being cited in any official LDS publication.[14]

Much like Brigham Young condemning the work of Lucy Mack Smith, Elder Oaks preferences institutional preservation over truth, discovery, and growth.

  • Censoring and Closing Church Archives

Leonard Arrington, later the Church historian stated in 1966,

“It is unfortunate for the cause of Mormon history that the Church Historian’s Library, which is in the possession of virtually all of the diaries of leading Mormons, has not seen fit to publish these diaries or to permit qualified historians to use them without restriction.” (Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought, Spring 1966, p. 26)

In February 1982, Don Schmidt announces to the Archives Search Room staff that nobody will see any papers of former apostles until further notice. Although this policy is later modified, rules governing access continue to bob and weave over the next ten years. [15]

In June 1986 the staff of the church historical department announced it was necessary to sign a form which Elder Packer declared gave the right of pre-publication censorship for any archival research completed before signing the form. Several scholars refused to sign the form and have not returned to do research at LDS church archives since 1986.

For the successful effort (led by Elders Benson and Packer) to close the LDS church archives to open research, see Lyn Ostler, “Access to Church Archives: Penetrating the Silence,” Sunstone Review, Sept. 1983, 7; Davis Bitton, “Ten Years in Camelot”; Robert Gottlieb and Peter Wiley, America’s Saints: The Rise of Mormon Power (New York: G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 1984), 240-41; Jan Shipps, Mormonism: The Story of a New Religious Tradition (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1985), 107; Richard D. Ouelette, “Reading Sealed Books at the Archives,” Sunstone 11 (Sept. 1987): 40-44; and Richard E. Turley, Jr., “Confidential Records,” and Searle, “Historians, Church,” in Ludlow, Encyclopedia of Mormonism 1:310, 2:591-92.

  • Censoring of Study Groups

Lavina Fielding Anderson documents and publishes in Dialogue in 1992, 64 pages of “ecclesiastical abuse” against the Mormon intellectual community.  Some of the instances involve local leaders confiscating temple recommends for holding study groups. (pg. 34).

Lavina is later excommunicated for publishing the paper.

Armand Mauss also records “monitoring” of the study group he founded in the Pullman, WA area.  Although never officially condemned, he reported negative rumors and some mild harassment.

  • Lack of Censorship for Paul H. Dunn

Elder Paul Dunn was given emeritus status on September 1989 due to “age and health” reasons.  In 1991, The Arizona Republic publishes a long article based on Lynn Packer’s research documenting Dunn’s extensive and elaborate fabrications and personal aggrandizement of his war and baseball stories. Lynn Packer’s teaching contract is not renewed at BYU, and he is fired from KSL. Two weeks later, Elder Dunn publishes an apology letter in the Church News admitting to lying. In 1992, Lynn Packer further publishes, in Utah Holiday Magazine, Dunn’s activities in financial fraud. In Packer’s 2015 memoir, he documents how the Church discouraged any investigation into Dunn and also the Church’s knowledge of Dunn’s fables being the motivating cause for his emeritus status.

  • Sisters in Spirit edited by Maureen Beecher and Lavina Fielding Anderson

In the April 1992, general conference, Apostle Dallin H. Oaks also spoke at length against some historical interpretations of Joseph Smith’s words to the Relief Society in 1842. Those views were prominent in Sisters in Spirit, the 1992 University of Illinois publication by LDS women historians.

Oaks defended the status quo understanding. He stated, “The Relief Society’s promised blessings were dependent upon its leaders and members functioning within the limits the Lord had set. … The Relief Society and the auxiliaries organized later have always functioned and have thrived under the direction of the presiding authorities of the priesthood. … It was not to be an independent organization. It was an integral part of the Church, not a separate church for women.”

Here Elder Oaks is changing history; a history he witnessed. The relief society was largely an independent organization since its inception and on, until correlation started, under Harold B. Lee, in the 1960’s. They raised their own funds, had their own assets, and created their own curriculum.  Emma used the Relief Society to investigate polygamy, contrary to her husband’s wishes. Because of Relief Society’s affiliation with Emma, Brigham abolished the organization after Joseph’s death. After a few years in Utah, the organization started again from the grass roots, at the ward levels. Some time passed. Not until 1866, 22 years after the disbandment, did Brigham call Eliza R. Snow to be the second Relief Society General President.

Although the auxiliaries were part of the general church structure, they usually started at the member-level and grew from there.  It was not until the mid-twentieth century when these organization and auxiliaries started to come under the management of the Quorum of the Twelve. Elder Oaks statement that the Relief Society “always functions…under the direction…of the priesthood” is revisionist history.

  • Mark Hoffman Document Cover-Up

On 11 January, 1983, “acting for the church”, President Gordon B. Hinckley bought a rare letter from Mark Hoffman, the forger, with a $15,000 check. It was an 1825 “money-digging” letter from Joseph Smith to Josiah Stowell. At the time of purchase, the Church made no announcement of its discovery. Two years later in 1985, Mark Hoffman, through some third parties, informed the Los Angeles Times about the content and current ownership of the letter.  The Times contacted the Church to confirm the information and seek a comment.  Public Communications director Jerry Cahill denied the letter was in the Church’s archives or in the First Presidency’s vault. The LA Times said it was going to print their article on the morrow. The Church scrambled to get knowledge if it published through the Church News beforehand. (April 28, 1985). It acknowledged that the letter existed, but that the Church had not purchased it, but that it was a private acquisition by President Hinckley. On April 29, 1985, the Salt Lake Tribune ran a story by staff reporter Dawn Tracy entitled “’Smith’ Letter Seems to Have Disappeared from View,” in which both the allegations and Cahill’s denial were reiterated. “The church doesn’t have the letter,” said Mr. Cahill. “It’s not in the church archives or the First Presidency’s vault.”

Less than a week later, a letter from Cahill appeared in the Deseret News. He apologized for his erroneous denial, and said that on May 3 Gordon B. Hinckley informed him the Church did indeed have the letter, and it might one day be released for study. The letter was subsequently printed in the May 12 Church News. [Source]

In 1987, Elder Oaks addressed the charge that the church routinely covers up documents. He does not address any of the contraversies before 1986. Once Hoffman’s trial began, the church had to refrain from commenting, in order to not unduly influence the trial. As for the Josiah Stowel letter, he simply mentions that it was published before the murders as evidence for their transparency, without discussing the events that lead to it’s initial publication.

He did give a fascinating justification for withholding documents from the public. “Are documents ever acquired by the Church and then closed to the public? Of course. This is true of most large archives. The Church Historical Department restricts access to certain materials.”

He then gives a number of reasons including this last one.

“The contents are private. The laws and ethics of privacy forbid custodians from revealing information that may invade the privacy of living individuals.

“In addition, our belief in life after death causes us to extend this principle to respect the privacy of persons who have left mortality but live beyond the veil. Descendants who expect future reunions with deceased ancestors have a continuing interest in their ancestors’ privacy and good name.”

Hence, the church may hide historical records if they might contain anything negative that may change a previous leader’s “good name”. Elder Oaks postmortal extension lays a veil over transparent history.

  • Dallin H. Oaks and the Nauvoo Expositor

In the 1996 General Conference, Elder Oaks said, “The event that focused anti-Mormon hostilities and led directly to the Martyrdom was the action of Mayor Joseph Smith and the city council in closing a newly established opposition newspaper in Nauvoo. Mormon historians—including Elder B. H. Roberts—had conceded that this action was illegal, but as a young law professor pursuing original research, I was pleased to find a legal basis for this action in the Illinois law of 1844. The amendment to the United States Constitution that extended the guarantee of freedom of the press to protect against the actions of city and state governments was not adopted until 1868, and it was not enforced as a matter of federal law until 1931. (See Dallin H. Oaks, “The Suppression of the Nauvoo Expositor,” Utah Law Review 9 [1965]:862.)”

Elder Oaks cites his original, peer reviewed research from 1965.  After examining what his research claims, his recounting of it in general conference becomes misleading.  Rather than finding a “legal basis”, he finds Joseph destruction of the press unlawful.

From pg. 891, “These cases make clear that there was no legal justification in 1844 for the destruction of the Expositor press as a nuisance. It’s libelous, provocative, and perhaps obscene output may well have been a public nuisance, but the evil article was not the press itself but the way in which it was being used. Consequently, those who caused or accomplished its destruction were liable for money damages in an action of trespass.”

On page 903:”That its consequences were disastrous to the Mormon leaders and that alternative means might better have been employed cannot be doubted. Nevertheless, the common assumption of historians that the action taken by the city council to suppress the paper as a nuisance was entirely illegal is not well founded. Aside from damages for unnecessary destruction of the press, for which the Nauvoo authorities were unquestionably liable, there remaining actions of the council, including its interpretation of the constitutional guarantee of a free press, can be supported by reference to the law of their day.”

In summary, Oaks concludes in 1965 that the destruction of the press was illegal, but there was legality in “suppressing the paper”. In conference Elder Oaks chooses to word the legal act “closing a newly established opposition newspaper.” The conference talk makes no mention of any illegal activity occurring, nor does it mention the absence of due process, and it even implies that all was in their rights, at the time.

  • Deleting Joseph’s Beer

Joseph Smith’s journal records on the 1 of June 1844, “Met George J. Adams, and paid him $50. Then went to John P. Greene’s, and paid him and another brother $200. Drank a glass of beer at Moessers. Called at William Clayton’s, while Dr. Richards and O.P. Rockwell called at the Doctor’s new house.”

When published in the 1902 History of the Church, it reads, “Met George J. Adams, and paid him $50. Then went to John P. Greene’s, and paid him and another brother $200. Called at William Clayton’s, while Dr. Richards and Orrin P. Rockwell called at the doctor’s new house.”

  • Deleting Brigham’s Wives

The manual Teachings of the President’s of the Church: Brigham Young makes zero mention of President Young’s plural wives.  The biographical timeline mentions his first wife, Miriam Works, recording their marriage date.  After Miriam’s death, the manual gives the date Brigham married his second monogamous wife, Mary Ann Angel.  However, there is zero mention of any subsequent marriages.  The words polygamy, plural marriage, celestial marriage, make no appearance in the entirety of the manual.

Chapter 23, entitled Understanding the New and Everlasting Covenant of Marriage, completely erased any connection between the New Covenant and Plural Marriage.  A distinction Brigham would never have made.  The two concepts were one and the same.  The chapter even brackets out the word “wives,” twice replacing it with “[wife]”.

  • Deleting President Snow’s Qualifier

President Lorenzo Snow emphasized the law of tithing throughout his tenure.  In the 1899 General Conference he said, “I plead with you in the name of the Lord, and I pray that every man, woman and child who has means shall pay one tenth of their income as a tithing.”  This teaching is contrary to our hard-lined commandment practiced today.  So when the 2011 Teachings of the President’s manual came out, Chapter 12 quoted President Snow saying, “I plead with you in the name of the Lord, and I pray that every man, woman and child … shall pay one tenth of their income as a tithing.”

  • Ignoring Our Racist History

Elder Alexander Morrison of the seventy wrote in the September 2000 Ensign, “How grateful I am that The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has from its beginnings stood strongly against racism in any of its malignant manifestations.” This statement could not be further from the truth.  See here, for some examples. Perhaps Elder Morrison was unaware of our Church’s history with those of African descent? Unfortunately, he was intimately aware. In 1987, he gave a General Conference address titled, The Dawning of a New Day in Africa. He followed in 1990, with the book The Dawning of a Brighter Day: The Church in Black Africa, which outlines the history, sensitives, and political reality of missionary work on the continent. It is certain that he was aware of our Church’s racist teachings. If it wasn’t a desire to cover up our past, than it follows that Elder Morrison did not view those previous teachings as racist.

  • Elder Boyd K. Packer Directed Leadership to Not Keep a Diary

Area authority Elder Hans Mattsson, said in his 2013 Mormon Stories interview, that Elder Packer directed the General Authorities of the Church to not keep a diary. Elder Mattsson said, “When we’re trained, they tell us that so many journals from the early times of the Church put the Church in a bad position. And the leaders tried to explain why they wrote the way they did, and it’s not doctrine, but still is in the journals. So, one of the highest leaders in the Church said: I threw all my journals away, and I will never write a journal.

This was also confirmed by Church Historian, and member of the First Quorum of the Seventy, Steven Snow. In a 2019 Gospel Tangents interview, he was asked about official instructions to General Authorities to not keep a journal. He cited President Packer as the source. Today, the Authorities are encouraged to keep a journal, but those journals are now the legal property of the Church.


Why does this still matter, today?  The Church’s transparency and quality is at the highest professional level with the publications of the Joseph Smith Papers project.  Furthermore, the recent essays placed on are the first admission by the Church of a number of historical facts (Joseph’s extensive polygamy; translating the Book of Mormon with a stone in a hat, etc.)  Is the period of historical covering up behind us and have we entered a new day of embracing our history, warts and all?

No.  Not yet.  Outside of the essays, there are no Church publications that discuss these issues.  Although the excommunication of scholars has slowed down (now, the excommunications are more for activists). There are no resources in the Sunday School, institute, or seminary manuals.  If our classrooms are going to teach accurate history, they will require accurate history in the lesson materials.  Additionally, a few teachers who have used other materials continue to receive censure.

  • Kirk Caudle

A BYU-I religion professor, Kirk Caudle, was fired in 2014 for teaching our history. In particular, his mentioning Fanny Alger and the historicity of Brigham Young’s transformation during the succession crisis lead to discipline from a Stake President.  All of this also happened during the summer when many internet-active members were contacted for church discipline (Dehlin, Kelley, others).  The action taken against Caudle’s admitted to everything being historically accurate.  He was also told not to use any materials that are not in the standard institute manuals and  Specifically saying that students should not be seeing the primary documents, but should be seeing what the leadership has said about the primary documents.

  • Brian Dawson

In 2015, the Salt Lake Tribune reported on Brian Dawson, a youth Sunday School teacher.  His students wanted to know why the priesthood and temple ban against blacks was instituted.  He turned to the church’s groundbreaking 2013 essay “Race and the Priesthood” initiating a discussion.  This didn’t please his local lay leaders, who removed him from his teaching assignment.

Asking his bishop why, Dawson asked, “If the Spirit guides me in a way that involves these multitude of documents, who am I to resist the enticing of the Spirit?”  His bishop responded, “The spirit is telling me to tell you not to use those documents.”  Even though they were published by the Church.

  • The Strengthening Church Members Committee

A secret committee reviews scholarship, blogs, and newspaper clippings that discuss the church in a negative light. The excerpted material would then be called to the attention of the appropriate area president, who would contact the stake president, with instructions to summon the author for an interview.

(See D. Michael Quinn, The Mormon Hierarchy: Extensions of Power pgs. 311-13)

Former BYU professor David Knowlton, in a television interview that aired August 16, 1992, (KXVS, Channel 4) in Salt Lake, said, “I’m ashamed, frankly, of a church that doesn’t want to tell the truth. I’m ashamed of institutional lying.” His comments stemmed from the church’s denial, then admission that a committee existed within the church that keeps files on the activities on its members.

(Anderson, Vol. 26 No. 1 Spring 1993, Dialogue, pp. 46‐47. See also the Wikipedia article for further discussion)

There still is a tendency to lie about the committee. Michael Purdy, a Church spokesman, initially denied the existence of it, until further pressed. In the same documentary, Elder Holland was reticent to discuss the committee.

As a current example, in 2015 one couple began blogging critiquing D&C 132. After only 60 or so hits, they were contacted by their stake president to discuss disciplinary measures. The stake president was informed by the area authority.

  • Stan Larsen Denied Access to a Historical Journal

In doing the research for his 2014 Dialogue article exploring the history of the 1832 record of the First Vision, Stan Larson needed access to the Joseph Fielding Smith diary for dating purposes.

He writes in footnote eight, “The exact time that the 1832 account was put into the Joseph Fielding Smith office safe and the date that he showed the history to Levi Edgar Young would probably be found in the Joseph Fielding Smith Collection, catalogued as Ms 4250 at the Church History Library Archives. On December 11, 2012 the writer sent to Richard E. Turley a written request for permission to read the diaries (either photocopies or microfilm) of Joseph Fielding Smith from 1930 to 1954, but this request was denied.”

  • Elder Ballard Denying Any Historical Hiding

In the 2017 Face-to-Face, Elder Ballard responded to a question about “hiding the fact” about multiple first vision accounts.  He cites Dr. James B. Allen’s 1970 New Improvement article which discusses this, as an example of transparency.  Yet, it is important to note that this article is not in our gospel library app.  It is not found anywhere on  Nor does BYU’s website have a readable online copy.  A non-searchable copy was placed on, by the Church.  The only text version is found on a critical website.

Since then, there have been two Ensign articles that discuss it (1985, 1996).  President Hinckley mentions it in passing saying “So What?” at the 1993 General Conference. The college-level institute manual on Church History makes no mention of multiple versions, only citing the canonized version, even though Joseph’s 1832 journal is cited in other parts of the First Vision chapter (pg. 33-34).  There are no mentions in other manuals. The paucity is so great that Steven Harper’s 2011 FairMormon Conference address observed, that “they are little known by most Latter-day Saints.”

Elder Ballard concluded his point saying, “It’s this idea that the Church is hiding something, which we would have to say as two apostles that have covered the world and know the history of the Church and know the integrity of the First Presidency and the Quorum of the Twelve from the beginning of time–there has been no attempt on the part, in any way, of the Church leaders trying to hide anything from anybody.

This clashes with what we have discussed, so far: the negative pressure against historians and their works, the general suspicion of historical scholarship, and most blatantly, the closing of our historical archives.  LDS Church Historian, Elder Steven E. Snow said, “I think in the past there was a tendency to keep a lot of the records closed or at least not give access to information.  But the world has changed in the last generation-with the access to information on the Internet, we can’t continue that pattern; I think we need to continue to be more open.”

In Closing

Take this 2009 revolutionary statement from the church history department.

“The new Church History Library is the substance behind the growing emphasis of transparency in the Church’s interaction with the public. This facility opens the door for researchers and historians of all kinds to flesh out the stories of Mormon heritage that pass through the imagination of Latter-day Saints from generation to generation. The Church cannot undertake this project on its own. It requires a groundswell of countless individuals—from within and without the Church—operating on their own personal inspiration. The story of the Church will inevitably be told as historians of good faith are given access to the library’s records and archives. . . . It is in the interests of the Church to play a constructive role in advancing the cathartic powers of honest and accurate history. In doing so, the Church strives to be relevant to contemporary audiences that operate under changing cultural assumptions and expectations. A careful, yet bold presentation of Church history, which delves into the contextual subtleties and nuances characteristic of serious historical writing, has become increasingly important.

If a religion cannot explain its history, it cannot explain itself.”


[1] The publication is still behind Dialogue’s paywall, but there is an annotated version floating around online. Also see Corbin Volluz’s podcast discussing it.

[2] Lavina Fielding Anderson (ed.), Lucy’s Book: A Critical Edition of Lucy Mack Smith’s Family Memoir on Signature Books website

[3] James R. Clark, ed., Messages of the First Presidency of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, 1833-1964, 6 volumes. [Salt Lake City: Bookcraft, 1965-75], 2:229-31.)


See also Brigham Young, speech, Salt Lake City, October 9, 1865, Papers of George D.Watt, CHL, transcribed from shorthand by LaJean Purcell Carruth.

[5] Irene M. Bates and E. Gary Smith, Lost Legacy, the Mormon Office of Presiding Patriarch [Urbana and Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 1996], 131).

[6] Much of the material for bullet points 4, 5, 6, 9, 10, and 12 come from D. Michael Quinn (1992) “150 Years of Truth and Consequences About Mormon History.” Sunstone.

[7] Arrington, Adventures of a Church Historian, 150 — as referenced in Lengthen Your Stride: The Presidency of Spencer W. Kimball (Working Draft)

[8] Anderson, Lavina Fielding, “The LDS Intellectual Community and Church Leadership: A Contemporary Chronology,” Dialogue, Vol.26, No.1

[9] Leonard J. Arrington, Adventures of a Church Historian (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1998), 101, 143, 145, 147; Ezra Taft Benson to First Presidency, memo, “New History, The Story of the Latter-day Saints,” August 26, 1976: “Members of our staff have carefully read . . .” — as referenced in Lengthen Your Stride: The Presidency of Spencer W. Kimball (Working Draft)

[10] Stephen Benson, “Ezra Taft Benson: A Grandson’s Remembrance,” Sunstone 17, no. 3 (December 1994): 31–32; Ezra Taft Benson to First Presidency

[11] “LDS Church Threatens Writers,” Salt Lake Tribune, 23 May 1983, A-10; Dawn Tracy, “LDS Leaders Challenge Y Professors’ Faith,” Provo Herald, 25 May 1983, 3; “Mormon Brethren Silencing Scholars?” Salt Lake Tribune, 26 May 1983, B-4; Utah Holiday 12 (Aug. 1983): 77; Gottlieb and Wiley, America’s Saints, 81-82.

[12] This presentation at a meeting of the B. H. Roberts Society on 17 October 1991 was summarized in “Panel Confronts Role of LDS Intellectuals,” Salt Lake Tribune, 19 Oct. 1991, A-10. The first of these papers to have been printed is David C. Knowlton, “Of Things in the Heavens, On the Earth, and In the Church,” Sunstone 15 (Oct. 1991): 12-15. An earlier discussion is Davis Bitton, “Anti-Intellectualism in Mormon History,” and James B. Allen, “Thoughts on Anti-Intellectualism: A Response,” Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought 1 (Autumn 1966): 111-33, 134-40; also see Poll, History and Faith; Bergera and Priddis, Brigham Young University; and Bitton and Arrington, Mormons and Their Historians.

[13] This quote comes from Newell’s “The Biography of Emma Hale Smith,” 1992 Pacific Northwest Sunstone Symposium, audiotape #J976

Inside the Mind of Joseph Smith: Pschobiography and the Book of Mormon, Introduction, page xliii, footnote 28

[14] Anderson, Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon History, “A History of Dialogue, Part Three, Summer 2002, vol 35, no 2, p. 47

[15] Anderson, Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon History, “A History of Dialogue, Part Three, Summer 2002, vol 35, no 2, p. 47

[16] See “‘A Record Kept:’ Constructing Collective Memory,” Newsroom Commentary, LDS Newsroom, June 11, 2009, A year later, McKay Coppins, a Mormon Times columnist, responded to reading Bushman’s Rough Stone Rolling with a strong plea against censorship in Mormon history. “McKay Coppins: The Case against Mormon Censorship,” Mormon Times, September 24, 2010,

[Source1] Mormon  critics  Jerald  and  Sandra  Tanner  discuss  Durham’s  speech  in  their  1980 The  Changing  World  of Mormonism  (Chicago:  Moody  Press,  1980), 88-91.  For  reaction  to  his address,  see  Patricia  Lyn  Scott,  James  E.  Crooks,  and  Sharon  G.  Pugsley,  ‘”A  Kinship  of Interest’:  The  Mormon  History  Association’s  Membership,”  Journal  of Mormon  History  18 (Spring  1992):  156n.


Sunstone. June 1985. News and Reviews.

Click to access 050-36-41.pdf

Sillitoe, Linda (1986) The Mormon Docuemts’ Day in Court. Sunstone.

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