Saints: The Standard of Truth by Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
I enjoyed volume one of the church's new history narrative, Saints, that came out this week. I had already read the first 7 chapters in beta and was excited to read the rest. It was very readable and I think it will help inform members about church history. This book really puts things in a easy-to-read format. Since it's written in chronological order it really helps give perspective to the people and events of the restoration. While it does attempt to tackle some of the more troublesome parts of church history it still wasn't quite as comprehensive as I thought it was going to be.
However, I do think Saints is a good beginning resource and is free on the gospel library app under church history. You can also use the church history tab to access articles about people, places and events that are mentioned in the book. I really hope people will use these well researched and insightful writings to enrich their understanding, sacrament meeting talks and lessons. I also hope it will be a good jumping off point for people to expand into other more detailed books on a variety of subjects that this history addresses.
First some things I liked:
I love how the authors took people's journals, letters and remembrances and used them to create a really novel-like retelling of church history. I'm happy that this account included a lot more detail about women, people of color, and other minorities who helped build the kingdom. I loved reading quotes from these groups and hearing their perspective about what was happening at the time. It also included the perspectives of many people who opposed the church and showed that they weren't just one-dimensional villains. Many times the greatest antagonists of the church were actually disaffected members. This narrative does a better job of showing how complex and multi-sided this history really is.
I was so relieved to see a much fairer version of Emma portrayed in this book than has been communicated in past histories (due in large part to Brigham Young's dislike of Emma). I liked that the writing was less formal, using just her first name when referring to her. This history helps put us in her shoes and head and see what a hard, and at times impossible, road she endured.
I loved that they included so much from Phebe Woodruff too. She is one of my favorite founding saints and thanks to her and her husband's journal keeping we get such a clear picture of who they were. Another recent book I read that drew from her story was "A House Full of Females" by Laurel Thatcher Ulrich. Also a great read!
We got to know all of the members of the Smith family better and got a few new insights into Joseph Smith's upbringing and the timeline of his revelations. I think this helps us understand Joseph's ideas about heaven and family a little better also. The book also included some intro discussion about the many different first vision accounts and also his teachings on Heavenly Mother.
In regard to Joseph, I think this book did a good job of using some of the stories everyone knows and mixing in some less talked about facts like that Joseph drank throughout his lifetime, he used seer stones, that the endowment borrows heavily from masonic rituals, that he and many of the saints believed the end of the world was imminent, and that he practiced secret polygamy. While it was great to see these each mentioned and discussed it still didn't really get too deep into any of them. For a more in depth look at the life of Joseph Smith I really loved Rough Stone Rolling by Richard Bushman.
Now for some things I was a little disappointed with:
I was sad to see that while they did discuss polygamy a little more in-depth than usual, they still didn't show the whole picture. In fact there were several parts that really confused the issue if you weren't already familiar with the history. While I know it isn't feasible to include every one of Joseph Smith's plural marriages in this type of book I do think they could have at least shown a better variety of who he married. While it mentioned that some of his marriages were problematic (such as marrying wives of other members in good standing) they don't elaborate on any of these. Instead they focus in on some of the more palatable relationships. I would have really liked them to tackle some of the more problematic stories like Marinda Hyde (Orson Hyde's wife) and Zina Huntington Jacobs (whose husband was on a mission) at the time. Or Helen Mar Kimball who was only 14. I would also have appreciated some discussion about some of the wording used in Joseph's proposals to some of the women including promises of exaltation if they married him and threats of damnation for their whole family if they didn't go through with it. I was glad to see they discussed Fanny Alger partially.
The book also discusses Emma's dislike of the principle and the relief society's efforts to stop plural marriage. The book seemed to imply that it was John Bennett's infidelities that made Emma hyper vigilant about stopping rumors and making sure women weren't being taken advantage of. While that was certainly a factor, the rumors she was primarily concerned with stopping were those claiming Joseph was practicing plural marriage. "Rumors" which coincidentally were true. It also never mentioned that her presidency and much of the relief society at the time were plural wives of Joseph Smith. Emma sends Sarah Cleveland, Eliza Snow, Elizabeth Durfee and others to stop the rumors but since they are all married to Joseph behind Emma's back the issue is that much stickier. However, I do believe the book did do a good job depicting Hyrum Smith's response to plural marriage, as well as Oliver Cowdery and Emma's dissapproval. For a more in-depth look at Joseph Smith and plural marriage I would suggest "In Sacred Loneliness" by Todd Compton. It's a fantastic look at each of the women who married Joseph Smith.
I was also hoping for a little clearer picture of the first Relief Society Meetings beyond just the plural marriage scandals. Although it does mention that Joseph organized the relief society to be patterned after priesthood and that he turned the key to the women it didn't talk at all about female blessing meetings. Women gave and were encourage to give healing blessings to one another and did so regularly during the first meetings of their organization. The history did talk about how women administered ordinances in the temple but not about the washing and anointing ordinance that was done outside of the temple before child birth. Of course that might still get a mention in volume 2 as they cross the plains and make it to Utah.
Overall, it was a very good picture of the first era of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day saints. I hope that people will read it and research each part further as well. Like I said before, this is really just an introduction. I am very grateful to the large number of historians, writers and editors who worked on this history. I am so excited that the church is putting a spotlight on church history and helping us to begin our journeys to being more well informed saints. I'm excited to see what happens in volume 2!
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