Maxwell Institute Podcast #143: Saints in a Modernizing World, with Lisa Olsen Tait and Scott Hales
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“This Church will stand, because it is upon a firm basis. … The Lord has shown it to us by the revealing principle of the Holy Spirit of light.”
Lorenzo Snow, April 1900
That quotes embodies much of what is going on in the third volume of SAINTS, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints’ ongoing history being produced by the Church Historical Department. In it, we find Latter-day Saint Christians confronting new information, ideas, and grappling with changes required of the Saints as they entered the twentieth century and globalized throughout the early twentieth century. We learn about the end of sanctioned plural marriages and how African American converts lived with racism in their local congregations. We’ll also learn about how Saints around the world embraced the challenges brought on by Revolution, Depression and world wars, and came out as stronger Saints with vibrant testimonies of the restored gospel. In today’s episode, we speak with two of the writers and editors of the Saints project, Lisa Olsen Tait and Scott Hales, about how and why the Saints project as created, resources available to deepen Latter-day Saints’ understandings of the past through approved resources, and much, much more.
Welcome to the Maxwell Institute Podcast. I’m Joseph Stewart. In April 1900, President Lorenzo Snow said this church will stand because it is built upon a firm basis. “The Lord has shown it to us by the revealing principle of the Holy Spirit of Light.” That quote embodies much of what is going on in the third volume of Saints. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints’ ongoing history project being produced by the Church Historical Department. In its pages we find Latter-Day Saint Christians confronting new information, ideas, and grappling with a modernizing and industrializing world. As the church enters the 20th century and globalizes throughout the first half of the 20th century. We’ll also learn about how saints around the world embrace the challenges brought on by revolution, depression, and world wars and came out as stronger saints with vibrant testimonies of the restored gospel. In today’s episode, we speak with two of the writers and editors of the Saints project, Lisa Olsen Tait, and Scott Hales about how and why the saints project was created, resources available to deepen Latter-Day Saint understanding of the past through approved resources, and much, much more. Before we begin, can you please make plans to tell friends about the podcast however you can, wherever you can? In doing so, you help fulfill the Maxwell Institute’s mission to inspire and fortify Latter-Day Saints in their testimonies of the restored gospel of Jesus Christ and engage the world of religious ideas. Now without any further ado, here are Dr. Tait and Dr. Hales.
Joseph Stuart: Lisa Tait and Scott Hales. Welcome to the Maxwell Institute Podcast.
Dr. Scott Hales: Thanks.
Dr. Lisa Olsen Tait: Thanks, Joseph.
Joseph Stuart: It is a pleasure to have you two here today, because you were general editors and writers on the Saints project and the third volume was just released. It’s available in the Gospel Library app, and is also available wherever Latter-Day Saints books are sold. And Lisa, I wanted to start with a question: what’s the purpose of the Saints project? Why would the church invest time and resources into creating an institutional history of the church?
Dr. Lisa Olsen Tait: Well, there are a lot of ways that we can answer that question. But just by way of a little bit of background on the project. The last time the church published an official multi-volume history was in 1930. It was B.H. Roberts’s Comprehensive History of the Church. That was over 90 years ago and a lot has happened since then. It’s actually been a couple of decades in the making. But seriously, about 2010, the project was approved and commissioned by the First Presidency to write a new multi-volume official history of the church that would update the story for the 21st century, for the global church, or what we call the rising generation, it was to be written in a way that would appeal to audiences across the world and of different ages and reading levels. This new history draws on the best scholarship that’s available. And as we all know, historical scholarship on church history has just come light years in the last generation. So we have the best scholarship that underpins the project, then we also have literary writing. It was meant to read like a novel, and to tell the story from the perspective of the saints, not just to be a top down institutional history, but to really get into the experiences of members of the church over time. Scott, what else would you say?
Dr. Scott Hales: I think it’s important to remember that when B.H. Roberts published his history of the church, he called it the comprehensive history. And we are under no delusion that we can write a comprehensive history of the church at this time, because the church is simply too big. And it’s too diverse really, to be able to write anything that comes close to comprehensive. So what we’re trying to do is write a representative history of the church where we tell stories that draw from the diversity of the church and draw from the range of experience that Latter-Day Saints experience today and have experienced in the past. So one of the things that sets this history apart is that it is really an effort to diversify our understanding of the church. This is no longer just the history about Joseph Smith and Brigham Young. But it’s also a history of people like Joseph William Billy Johnson, who was really instrumental in getting the church started in Ghana. That’s a volume four story. I apologize. It’s on my mind right now. But yeah, it’s an effort to diversify our story. It’s an effort to decentralize our story. As Lisa said, we want to tell a story of the saints, we want to tell the story of the people of the church as much as those who have led it.
Joseph Stuart: As I was reading Saints and thinking about the project, a quote from then President Uchtdorf came to my mind. He said in General Conference, “Some struggle with unanswered questions about things that have been done or said in the past. We openly acknowledged that in nearly 200 years of church history, along with an uninterrupted line of inspired honorable and divine events. There have been some things said and done that could cause people to question.” Are these people who may have these questions? Were they on your mind? As you all were writing and editing this volume?
Dr. Scott Hales: Of course, they were on our mind. I think one of the things that we want to do with this history is reacquaint saints with the past, with our past. And some of that, some of our past as President Uchtdorf’s quote suggests, has been pretty difficult. And it’s not a story that we’ve always told, as members of the church or wanted to talk about. And we see Saints as an opportunity to open up discussions about these issues. So we are thinking about those who struggle. We’re thinking about those who question. We’re thinking about the questions that they’re asking. So it’s very important to us that we address these issues in an honest way, but also in a way that is accessible to people. As scholars, it’s sometimes easy for us to compartmentalize these questions and say, well, let’s just look at them from a historical perspective, or a social perspective or whatnot, and understand them that way. But many people, many of our readers don’t address questions that way, they address it in a very personal way, a very emotional way. Because these are questions of faith, which is a very personal and emotional thing. So we try to tell stories that illuminate why the saints did what they did. We try to find ways to address principles and language that is easy to understand. And I think another thing that we do, and maybe please could talk more about this, is we provide supplemental materials to help those who have additional questions. If these questions aren’t answered in the narrative, then they can seek out these additional materials for answers.
Dr. Lisa Olsen Tait: Yeah, at the same time, we absolutely are aware of what the issues and questions are that we want to address in telling the history of the church. And that very much plays into how we think about outlining and planning the volumes and what we do. At the same time, the books are not just written to be a defensive explanation of problems in church history. Like the primary focus is to write a powerful story, and to introduce people to amazing characters, people who lived the history of the church. So it is definitely a consideration to deal transparently with issues in church history. But it’s not the only consideration. Now, that having been said, as Scott mentioned, we have gone to great lengths to provide many layers to this project. And so there are resources for people to dive as deeply as they want to, into many, many topics, people, events, issues in church history. So if you’re reading the book electronically, for example, in the Gospel Library app or online, you’ll see that the footnotes are hyperlinked, and you can actually click on the footnotes. And many times with just a couple of clicks, you’ll be looking at the original source that that scene or that story came from. So you can go and look for yourself and see the letters, the minutes, the documents that we used. Then we’ve also provided, and this is in the Gospel Library app as well, a whole section called Church History Topics. And there are well over 100, we may be getting close to 200 short articles there about people, places, events, and issues in church history. Because when we’re telling the story in the narrative, we can’t just stop and say, oh, by the way, we know that some people wonder about this whole question of women laying on hands to bless the sick. Let us give you a whole history of that right here in the middle of a story that just doesn’t work for the way that we operate.
Joseph Stuart: I think that it also discounts those who don’t necessarily want to know more about it. Meaning that the church doesn’t necessarily want to be saying, you should be concerned about this. And rather, but saying if you are if you want to learn more, there are resources available from the Church for you to learn about it.
Dr. Lisa Olsen Tait: Yes, absolutely. So those articles are available. There are some videos as well, that people can watch the answer questions or tell stories from Saints. We also have the Saints podcast that goes kind of chapter by chapter through the book and gives additional background and talks about some of the issues. So people can take a really deep dive into this project. But if you just want to pick up the book and read the book, please do. That’s exactly what it’s written for. And there’s nothing wrong with that either.
Joseph Stuart: I really loved reading the third volume of the opening section that it opens right after the dedication of the Salt Lake City temple at the Chicago World’s Fair. And this is one of those events in American history and in some ways world history that marks this way of religion interacting with the world. There’s a World Congress of Religions, but Latter-Day Saints aren’t invited and are in fact not permitted to attend the Congress. Why start with this story?
Dr. Scott Hales: One of the things that drew us to the world’s fairs first of all, it’s the World’s Fair, this was a big deal. Everybody, it seemed, late 19th century Americans in 1893 attended this. It was a big deal. And the saints recognized it as a big deal. And they saw it as an opportunity to share their message with the world. What we see in Volume II is a group of people who flee to the intermountain west, to escape the world. In many ways, they’re waiting for the world to end. They’re gathering people to them to the safety of Zion, you know, in preparation for these calamities that are going to befall. By the beginning of Volume III, we don’t see that mindset anymore, as much. What we see is a desire to move out, to not necessarily move out physically or geographically, but we see saints who want to reach out and connect with the wider world for a variety of reasons. And the fair represents an opportunity to do that. So we see, for example, the Tabernacle Choir traveling to Chicago to participate in a singing competition. And one of the reasons why they want to do that is because church leaders see the choir as a great missionary tool, much as they see it today. The members of the Relief Society going to the fair in order to share more about what it means to be a Latter-Day Saint woman.
Dr. Lisa Olsen Tait: Actually, when we say that Latter-Day Saints are permitted to participate in that Congress of Religions, that’s true, but that’s also a male perspective. Because meanwhile, the women are having this congress of women’s groups and women’s work. And Latter-Day Saint women are very much a part of that. Latter-Day Saint women had been building bridges with women in national women’s groups and the National Women’s Movement for many years at this point in the suffrage movement, and so forth. And so women were able to go and build bridges and represent the church in a way that men were not quite, you know, allowed to do at this point. So it was a really significant opportunity for Latter-Day Saint women to represent themselves and to represent the church.
Dr. Scott Hales: You know, I think one of the great things that happens at the end of the first chapter is, Wilford Woodruff invites the world to come to Utah and see what good we have to offer. You know, we’re no longer saying, come to Utah, you know, to save yourself from these calamities, you’re saying come to Utah and see what good things we have to offer.
Joseph Stuart: Yeah, I really appreciated that as well. And a topic that I was also glad to see because it’s something that in teaching BYU religion classes, and just in conversations with Latter-Day Saints in my ward, a lot of folks have questions about plural marriages that took place after Wilford Woodruff’s Manifesto in 1890, which has been canonized as Official Declaration One in the Doctrine and Covenants. So for those who don’t have a background, or may not have heard of these marriages, or sealings after the Manifesto, what should folks know, as they’re going into the book, also recognizing that they can follow the links in the electronic version, as you two have mentioned as well?
Dr. Lisa Olsen Tait: You know, in Volume I, we told the story of the beginning of plural marriage and how difficult and really messy it was. In Volume III, we tell the story of the end of plural marriage. And in many ways, it’s kind of a parallel process. It took a few years to establish it. There was a lot of uncertainty. It was a new thing. Likewise, after 50 plus years of practicing plural marriage, when the saints go about discontinuing it, it’s a messy process. It raises a lot of questions and uncertainty. And so it’s best to think about plural marriage in terms of a phase-in and a phase-out process, rather than a beginning and an end as if there’s a clean break in either direction. The thing about the manifesto that President Wilford Woodruff issued in 1890, and we talk about that in Volume II. If you’ve read that official declaration, the phrasing of it is really interesting. You know, it’s presented as a public announcement, as a statement. And President Woodruff says that he is going to submit to the laws against polygamy and use his influence with the saints to get them to do the same thing. Now at the time, it was understood, at least on some level, that that meant okay, we’re giving up plural marriage. But the full implications of what that meant were not immediately clear. And there was a lot of questions. There was a lot of uncertainty. What did this mean? Does this mean that we are giving up plural marriage all together permanently? Is it just a temporary suspension, something that we still believe in and we think we’ll be able to do again at some point? What does it mean for existing plural families? What are they supposed to do? And there was this line upon line process, which is how revelation comes and how both church leaders and individual saints work out questions in their own lives, about what did this mean and what was it going to look like, moving forward. And so that’s where we’re at the beginning of the book is that the manifesto has been given, some of those questions are very urgent, but they haven’t all been worked out yet. And so in the early chapters of the book, we’re going to see continuing wrestling with the questions surrounding the manifesto and the future of plural marriage.
Dr. Scott Hales: When looking at post-manifesto plural marriages, I think what’s important to remember is that you know, the Lord very rarely gives the saints a roadmap. And this is something that we see beginning in Volume I where the Lord reveals, and then it’s up to the saints to figure out how to carry out those revelations, those commandments. And so we see time and time again, throughout the series of Saints, maybe we could put it this way: we see the saints winging it doing their best to figure out how to navigate this. And so we see in the decade after, a little more than a decade after the manifesto, the saints just trying to figure this out trying to try and to draw up the roadmap. It becomes thorny, it becomes a thorny issue when people outside of the church began to realize that what they thought had happened in 1890, with the manifesto was not really the reality in the church, that there were still plural families cohabitating, that there were still thorough marriages being contracted in places like Canada and Mexico, amongst even members of the Quorum of the 12. And so a lot of questions arose over the practice. And there was quite a bit of scandal at the time. And we see this coming out in B.H. Roberts’ efforts to be seated in the United States House of Representatives. We see it happen again, when Reed Smoot attempts to take his seat in the Senate. Time and time again, people are asking the church questions about plural marriage, asking is this something that you still practice? Are you not being completely forthright with us? Are you not being completely honest? They’re questioning the church’s integrity and this begins to bear heavily on church leaders, especially Joseph F. Smith, which ultimately leads him to issue what’s called the Second Manifesto. So in 1904 he issued the second manifesto, basically saying we need to end this practice. From that point on, what we see is the church having a zero tolerance policy for plural marriage, where if you are or if you are practicing this principle, then you are excommunicated. So it’s really from this moment that the church really begins to distance itself from plural marriage.
Dr. Lisa Olsen Tait: It’s important to understand that there was 14 years between President Woodruff’s manifesto and the Second Manifesto. And a lot happened during that period. And over time, church leaders and members had different understanding about what was happening with plural marriage and what might be possible or not possible. They even maybe changed their minds over time. I mean, it was not a straight line. And people will ask, was the manifesto intended to put a stop to all plural marriage in any form? And the answer to that depends on whose expectations you’re talking about. Because when President Woodruff issued the manifesto, I don’t think it was totally clear to him what it meant. Other than that, he knew that he had to act to preserve the church’s control over the temples. And if that meant that we’re going to give up plural marriage, then that was the next step as far as he could see it. But there was still a lot to be worked out. And shortly after the manifesto was issued, in meetings with local church leaders, President Woodruff tells them, I did not promise anyone that you would abandon your families, you can’t do that. That’s not something that you can do with any honor or integrity. And that was what the church leaders believed and thought, at the same time, there were many in the government and in the anti-polygamy crusades, who thought that there should be a strict interpretation of the manifesto. And that meant all plural marriages stop right now. And if that means that wives and children are cut off and left to fend for themselves, well, that’s what they get for being part of this abomination in the first place. And so publicly, it put church leaders in this impossible position where if they said things like don’t abandon your families, we’re not sure what it means, you know, if they said anything, other than public statements totally distancing themselves from plural marriage, then they were liable to be treated as if they were being dishonest as if they were not acting in good faith. But then when they say what they have to say in public, then church members aren’t really sure what that means. And there had been a long decade or more of conflict with the government over plural marriage to where it was understood that this was God’s law. It was higher than man’s law, whatever we have to do to preserve it is okay. There was a tradition of not being honest about plural relationships and so forth. I think we have to approach this period with empathy for what an impossible situation church leaders and church members were in. And within that context, there are still many people who believe that plural marriage is an essential principle of the gospel. They’ve defended it, they’ve lived it, they’ve gone to jail for it for decades now. And so there is this pressure, there are some who are still saying, well, but couldn’t I marry a plural wife? Wouldn’t there be a circumstance where it would be okay? And so under those circumstances, yes, there are some new plural marriages that occur in that period between the first and second manifestos. We don’t know how many sealing records from this period did not distinguish between monogamous and plural marriages. And so it’s an enormous prospect to even try to figure out how you would tell how many plural marriages there were. The records that are available suggest that it wasn’t really very many, especially in proportion to how many monogamous marriages there were at the time. Research has shown that plural marriage was kind of on the decline anyway, by the time the manifesto was issued. So plural marriage is definitely being phased out. But I think it took that Second Manifesto by President Smith to say, we’re done. No more new ones, no exceptional circumstances. If you enter into plural marriage, you’re subject to church discipline. We are done with plural marriage. It took that step to really put the clamp down in the process.
Joseph Stuart: So, in addition to looking at the United States as you said, Scott, you can’t have a comprehensive history because not only is the church so big, but the church is flourishing and locations outside the United States. The church isn’t nearly as centralized as it was at one point. And one of the folks that you all introduce, is Jesusita de Monroy. Can you tell us about her experiences in the Mexican Revolution?
Dr. Scott Hales: Sure. When we as a church tell the story of the Monroy family we usually focus on Jesusita’s son, Raphael. And he is today known as one of the early martyrs of the church in Mexico. So during the Mexican Revolution, and this is a story that we’ve told his church many, many times, he and another church member were apprehended by a revolutionary group who suspected that he might be part of a rival faction. And so when you look at the story, in the past we’ve kind of told her that he was targeted, mainly because he was a Latter-Day Saint. And that’s, that’s partially true. What we tell in this volume is that Raphael was a relatively successful man. He was a relatively wealthy man in a city called San Marcos. And he had attracted the ire of some of his neighbors just because he was a bit of an outsider as well, religiously. He had left the tradition of his youth, the Catholic Church, and had joined the Latter-Day Saints. His entire family had done so. They were religious outsiders and they became something of a magnet for other Latter-Day Saints who came to San Marcos, especially during the upheaval of the war. So he was targeted a bit as an outsider. And another aspect here, another thing to consider is that, as a member of the church, he was also affiliated with a religious group that was known to have ties with the United States. And so this was a time when any sort of foreign interference was looked upon suspiciously. And so he was apprehended and he and another member of the church were ultimately executed. And we tell the story, his sisters were also apprehended. They fortunately, were not executed. But really Jesusita, was left really to cope with this loss in this tragedy. And I think one of the things that her story teaches us is how to have faith in the face of adversity. For a while she contemplates leaving San Marcos. She contemplates moving to the United States, maybe to Texas, maybe to someplace else like Arizona with a higher population of church members. But she ultimately decides to stay in Mexico. And one of the things that she says and a letter to the mission president at the time, she says, “Our sorrows have been grievous.” Here she is reflecting on her experience with her son. She says, “Our sorrows have been grievous, but our faith is strong and we will never forsake this religion.” And I think what’s wonderful to consider is that and the church today there are many, many descendants of the Monroe family. And Jesusita is the matriarch of this family. She is a true pioneer in that sense of this multigenerational Latter-Day Saint family in Mexico.
Joseph Stuart: I love that you’re using her as the idea of a matriarch rather than as a patriarch, or a male leader of the family. Does it stick out to you that she was a woman of faith whose faithfulness has helped bring many people into the church or to stay in the church?
Dr. Scott Hales: Well, that’s one of the things that we try to do with Saints is we try to defamiliarize our readers with church history. And one of the ways that we do that is by focusing on people like Jesusita. You know, like I said, we usually talk about her son, Raphael, you know? We tell the story of the male member of the church and not the female member of the church. And one of the things that we —one effort that we make in this project is to see if there are other ways to tell familiar stories. We do tell part of the story from Rafael’s point of view. But we also tell it from the point of view of his sisters, we tell it from the point of view of his mother, because these are stories that we have not typically told in the past. And they’ve got a point of view that’s just as interesting and just as valid and important as Rafael’s.
Joseph Stuart: Another great story that and that I have a personal connection to, is the story of Len and Mary Hope. Who were they? And how do they factor into the story of Saints that’s told between 1893 and 1955?
Dr. Scott Hales: Sure. So Len and Mary Hope were an African American couple who joined the church in the 1920s, in Alabama. And a few years after they joined the church, they were part of the Great Migration, where many African Americans in the South moved to the North hoping to find better economic opportunities, but also maybe a more inclusive climate in places where they may not experience the same types of racial discrimination that they experienced in the South. For the Hopes when they from Alabama to Cincinnati, Ohio and northern city, but a city that is right on the traditional border of North and South. And so they were able to find greater economic opportunities. But unfortunately, Cincinnati was a very segregated city at the time, or at least parts of the city were very segregated. And so they continued to experience discrimination. And sadly, one of the stories that we tell in the book is that they experienced this at church. Shortly after they arrived, they began attending meetings with the Cincinnati branch. And they had hoped that they would be able to attend side by side with their white brothers and sisters. But shortly after attending for the first time, the branch president came and asked them not to attend because there were certain members of the branch who felt uncomfortable with the idea of attending an integrated congregation. And there were a number of reasons why this came about. Some members of the Cincinnati branch were from the South, and they had had racial prejudice that they brought with them to worship. But we can’t lay all the blame on that. There were also members, longtime members of the branch, who were worried about how it would look if their branch was suddenly integrated. One of the things that we found in Cincinnati is that there were many different denominations. But oftentimes there was a white congregation. And the black congregation. It was a very segregated place religiously, as well as socially. Church members, branch members worried that they would not have the respect of their neighbors if they worshiped with the Hope’s. And so what happened was the Hope’s return to their home, but every month, they began to hold what we might call a fast and testimony meeting at the beginning of every month and they invited whichever saints wanted to worship with them to come to their house and they would build a testimony meeting and then afterwards, Mary Hope would provide a lunch or a dinner for them. And many members, if not most, if not all of the leadership of the Cincinnati branch would come regularly to these meetings and times bringing their families. And these meetings continued through the 1920s, 1930s, 40s, up until the 1950s when the Hope’s family moved to Utah.
Dr. Lisa Olsen Tait: Yeah, the story of the Hope’s is a really sobering story. It’s a lovely story in many ways. And it helps us to register in Volume III of Saints, it’s one of the ways in Volume III of Saints that we register the racial climate in the United States and even beyond during this era. People tend to think of the Civil Rights era as being maybe starting in the 1950s if they’re aware, but generally in the 1960s. But there’s a reason that the Civil Rights Movement was necessary. We want to kind of show what the climate was, what the status was, of racial issues in the United States and in the world during this period. As Scott has said, there’s a lot of prejudice, there’s a lot of segregation. This is a period of just terrible treatment of people of color in the United States. And so we see a little bit of that through the Hope family story. Early in the book, we do bring the story of Jane Manning James to a close. Her story along with the Hope’s story and then also the story of William Paul Daniels in South Africa, show us that not just the racial climate in general, but how that plays out in the church with the priesthood, and temple restriction policy that’s in place during this era. And so, there’s more going on with these stories than just the face value of the people’s stories themselves, which is the primary thing and is an important thing. But this is an example of how in Saints, we try to register the larger contexts and set up the larger issues in society and in the church through the particular stories that we tell.
Dr. Scott Hales: One of the great joys of this project is being able to meet historical figures and get to know their story, and in some cases, recover their stories. And when our managing historian, Jed Woodworth and I, were working on the story of the Hope’s, we had very little at first to work with. We had some records, you know, we had a first person account of Len Hope’s life, something that he had given an oral history he had given. We even were able to meet some people who as children had known the Hope’s and had attended these fast and testimony meetings at the Hope’s home. So we had some things, but we really wanted to find out more about them. And we were able to learn more about them mainly by contacting the descendants of missionaries who had visited the Hope’s, and had written about the Hope’s and had taken pictures of the Hope’s. And we were able in some way to reconstruct their lives through these journals and through these various accounts, these various scraps of information that we had about the Hope’s existence, their lives. And always, always, always, we wanted more. And as a writer on this project, I always want to be able to have as much information as possible to tell the best possible story. And as someone who was from Cincinnati and who loves Cincinnati, it’s a place I call my home, I wanted to understand the story better. And I wanted to understand, for example, how did the Hope’s feel about these meetings? What was their experience like every week to invite these members into their homes? I wanted to know about how did the members truly feel about the Hope’s? Were they visiting them every month as a matter of duty? Did they love the Hope’s? Did they feel guilty about what happened? What were these relationships like? And we found very, very little information, very little insight into that. But what we do know is that for more than 20 years these meetings happened, that the saints gathered together in this tiny home, shared food together, shared testimonies, shared in the spirit. And you know, this is a difficult story. But stories like this matter, we need to have stories like this, we need to share stories like this, because I think they challenge us as a church. They challenge us to be more inclusive. They challenge us to be more welcoming to those who are different from us who may look or think differently than us. We need these stories to become better Latter-Day Saints.
Joseph Stuart: I think that this is how we see the Spirit of Elijah manifesting as well. It’s not all preparing names for the temple and worshiping in the temple, which of course are very important, but it’s also learning our history and learning from our history. Now, another societal concern that comes up in Saints is the Great Depression. And we can think of it really as a global depression. It didn’t just affect the United States. And Evelyn Hodges was a Latter-Day Saint living in Utah. And she was concerned about poverty, hunger, and inequality in this time period. What does her story reveal about the church and what it was trying to do in this time period?
Dr. Lisa Olsen Tait: Yeah, I love the character of Evelyn Hodges. She was a young woman who had just graduated from the Agricultural College, what’s now Utah State University. She was from Logan where that college is, and she had studied social work. And this was a new field in the early 20th century. We show in some earlier chapters before we pick up Evelyn’s story we show Amy Brown Lyman, who becomes one of the general leaders in the Relief Society, and how she had brought an interest and a growing expertise in social work to the Relief Society and through the Relief Society to the church as a whole. As there’s a social services department organized within the Relief Society and that is the forerunner of what we have today as LDS Family Services and you know, many other social work functions within the church. And so Evelyn, after she graduates, she comes to Salt Lake City to work with Amy as a social worker in the Relief Society. She works at first as a volunteer because there aren’t any paid positions available, but it’s what she really wants to do. And eventually, she’s able to get a full time job. And it’s just as the depression is hitting. And so we show in her story how at first, she’s helping people who are elderly, who are sick, who are disabled, who have needs, kind of in those categories. And then it becomes just this flood of people who want to work who can’t find jobs, able bodied people who have traditionally provided for their families, and the despair and the hopelessness and the frustration. And the widespread suffering that that brings in. Utah was really hit hard by the depression. I don’t know if people fully realize that, but it was one of the harder hit states in the country, and had a very high number of people who were needing help and needing relief. And we show through Evelyn’s story, just how overwhelming this need was. Now what her story does, and we show how she tries to help people and we show how she reflects on the depression as an opportunity for people to develop more compassion and, and more understanding of their fellow man and her story that helps us to set up the church’s efforts to provide relief that ultimately kind of come to fruition in the church security plan, which becomes known as the Welfare Program. In trying to marshal the resources of the church, both the human resources, the material resources, and fill in the gaps and provide help and assistance for people work as well as commodities in a time of really, really desperate need.
Joseph Stuart: I love and learning more about the church security plan how the church is marshaling all of its resources, as you mentioned, both human and material, to put people to work, to give people the dignity of providing for their families, of having food to eat, a place to stay, and a sense of community with that. And I also love in calling McDaniel sister saints, which she gave an interview on in this podcast when Blair was host, talking about how Latter-Day Saints took help from their church, but also from federal and state governments when it was offered. And I think something that comes out in the narrative is that Latter-Day Saints are not only looking to their own for help, but they’re also more comfortable acting in the world and taking what the world has to offer them and using it for their benefit.
Dr. Lisa Olsen Tait: Very much the model that Amy Brown Lime and Evelyn Hodges worked under was of a partnership between the church and the community resources. Church leaders came to be concerned about the extent of federal assistance and to feel that the church had a responsibility to provide for its members and to help meet members’ needs in the Lord’s way as the revelations outlined in the Doctrine and Covenants. But the reality was that this crisis went beyond the capacity of any single entity to address. And so the Welfare Program was important. And it was really important for what it put in place. And, you know, if we think about the extensive operation that the church’s welfare program has become like, these are the roots of that. But in the face of the Great Depression, there was just more need than any one entity could ever hope to address.
Joseph Stuart: And that continues to be true through World War II and into the post-World War II life, especially in Europe. And I think that many listeners to this podcast will be familiar with Elder Ezra Taft Benson’s trip or mission really, for lack of a better term, to war-torn Europe, to seeing the devastation that the war had left on Europe in 1946. But what was it like for Latter-Day Saints on the ground living in these nations that were trying to rebuild, but that also may be now living under new political regimes, including communism?
Dr. Scott Hales: One of the things that we tried to do with Saints as you know, we structure these books in a way that encourages readers to read, right? These books are designed to be page turners in many ways. And they’re divided into four sections. Each book, each volume, is divided into four sections. In the second section of every volume you see the church in a very happy place. You see the church growing, establishing branches or wards or stakes as the case may be. You see lots of exciting growth, lots of exciting opportunities for the church. In Volume II for example, you see branches growing up all throughout Europe and the eastern United States. This is an exciting time. And then part three rolls along. And that’s where everything just gets blown to pieces.
Joseph Stuart: This is how narrative works. If it’s one straightforward narrative, you want to have a sort of rising and falling intonation in order to keep readers engaged.
Dr. Scott Hales: Exactly. So you have this really high point right in the middle of the book where the Church celebrates its centennial. And very soon after that, you begin to see all of this, all these advancements that that occurred in the second part are compromised, are challenged, are threatened in third part of the book as the as the Great Depression rolls around, and especially as world war two takes place, and we see this especially in Europe. In Europe in part two, we introduce the Tilsit branch in East Russia to her character name Helga, later Helga Meyer. And Helga is a little girl at the time. And by the end of the third part of the book, she has grown up, he has been married, she has lost her husband, she has lost several family members to the war. And we just see complete devastation on the ground in Helga’s life and in the life of other European saints. Many of the branches that we mentioned in the second part of the book, do not exist any longer or are severely compromised, because leaders have been lost to the war. And so what we see is just complete and utter devastation, and how do you pick up the pieces when you’re faced with that? This goes back to my comment about the roadmap. Many people don’t expect to face a global crisis in their life. I mean, we’ve experienced this recently, nobody expected to have to go through the global pandemic. It just happened. And we had to figure out how do we cope with this? And it was very similar to what the saints and people in general experienced during World War II. How do you cope with this devastation? How do you cope with a World War? And what we see are various things happening? So we see in the United States, for example, George Albert Smith, leading efforts to bring relief to the saints in Europe and saints in Japan or people in Europe and people in Japan. See the Relief Society mobilizing under El Spafford, the president at the time, bringing aid, shipping aid to people throughout the world. We see local saints like Helga Meyer, who was serving a mission in Berlin at the end of the war, working to gather saints together, find places for them to live, find things for them to eat, while she herself is trying to survive while she herself is trying to find family members, find out what happened to them. And so we see saints striving to pick up the pieces and the thing that ties all these together as a shared faith. One of the quotes I love in the book comes at the end of part three. And I really see it as really the theme that ties so many stories together in this volume. It comes from a quote from Heber J. Grant, one of his last talks given as president of the church. And he’s here speaking in April 1945, at General Conference shortly before he passes away. And he says, “Into many of our homes, sorrow has come. May we be strengthened with the understanding that being blessed does not mean that we shall always be spared all the disappointments and difficulties of life. The Lord will hear and answer our prayers we offer to him and give us the things we pray for. If it is for our best good. He never will and never has forsaken those who serve Him with full purpose of heart. But we must always be prepared to say, Father, thy will be done.” What I love about that quote is Heber J. Grant has been very real with the saints, bad things happen to righteous people. We don’t know why. We know that the Lord has promised certain things to the righteous, but we don’t know when those blessings are going to come. Sometimes all we can do is say Lord like will be done. And we see that happening time and time again with the saints in this volume, where they are faced with these difficulties. These challenges, these tragedies, and they say, “Lord, thy will be done.” And then they do what they can to help one another, to help their fellow brothers and sisters. One thing that I like about how the volume is structured is earlier in the volume before we get to World War II, in parts two and three of the book, we show people like John and Leah Widtsoe making an effort to ensure that the branches that are established in Europe are not led by missionaries, which had hitherto been kind of the tradition, but by local members. And so what we see in the story of the Widtsoes is an effort to ensure that these branches are more autonomous. So what’s interesting to see is how, you know, when the war comes along, the saints are equipped to handle the pressures that come with the war. These branches don’t disintegrate once the missionaries leave. They have in many cases saints who have been members of the church all their lives, who have experienced running branches, who have experienced doing missionary work, mobilizing release societies, mobilizing aid, and they are equipped to keep the church functioning despite everything that’s happening around them. And we see this happen, especially once the Iron Curtain goes up. And we have church members behind the Iron Curtain whose ability to worship comes greatly restricted. And in a sense, you get we begin to see bare-bones Mormonism, if I can say that. Where some programs of the church are no longer intact, sometimes all they’re able to do is sing and pray together, have a talk or two, pass the sacrament not much else. But they’re able to continue. These branches are able to continue because the members have the experience and they have the faith to keep them going.
Joseph Stuart: Now you two, and your fellow editors and writers have spent as much time as anyone in the past few years with church history, especially looking at the lives of average Latter-Day Saints on the ground. So has participating in the Saints project, has it deepened your faith? In what ways do you see the world differently, because you’ve participated in this project?
Dr. Lisa Olsen Tait: Yeah, and I just have to say, people are gonna love the stories from World War II. It’s such a powerful section of the book, the characters that we meet, they’re so memorable, and it’s terrible. But it’s also really beautiful. The stories of faith and hope that are able to come out of the ashes of these terrible, terrible experiences. I think the really powerful thing about Saints is that it’s about the human experience. History cannot prove or disprove anything when it comes to faith. But what history does is show people’s faith in action. And because of the way we tell the stories through individuals’ point of view, we get to share in their experience, we get to share in their perspective, we get to share in their faith, and see how it played out in their lives and see how they recognize the hand of the Lord in their experiences. And for me, that’s the most faith affirming thing we can do. We don’t need a narrator who steps in and tells you what to think about everything and who interprets and hits you over the head with how the Lord did this, and that and the faith of everybody. That’s there in the narrative. We gain it through experience, just like we do in our own lives. We gain faith through our own experiences. And so for me, that’s the power of these books. That’s the power of this history is experience.
Dr. Scott Hales: I think, for me, working on this project has made me a more charitable person. Sometimes we get asked, well, how do you deal with difficult questions, or especially difficult episodes in church history? Episodes where you’re like, why in the world did so and so do this? Or why did so and so say this? And for me, the way I answer that question is well, we try to write about them with charity. We try to do our best to see them, as God sees them. We try to acknowledge that while what they did or what they said was wrong or was ill timed or inappropriate, we try to keep in mind that these are human beings just like us. These are people trying to navigate mortality the best they can. These are people who are in many ways, burdened by their times. And you know, we need to be able to view them with charity. We need to be able to look at ourselves with charity. And we need to be able to look at those around us, our peers with charity and understand that we are all trying to do our best. Especially here in the church, we’re all trying our best to return to our Heavenly Father. And this is not an easy place to be. And I think as I study church history, the more I appreciate and value the human experience, the more I value what the gospel offers us in terms of how to navigate this experience. And nobody is able to do that perfectly. But I think as we look on the past and the present, with charity, the more able we are to understand one another and ourselves.
Joseph Stuart: In the 88th section of the Doctrine and Covenants, the Lord implores us to learn out of the best books. In following that we asked each of our guests to recommend three books to us. So could each of you recommend three books to our audience?
Dr. Lisa Olsen Tait: Okay, so first I would recommend Carol Cornwell Madsen’s biography of Emeline Wells. It’s subtitled An Intimate History. Carol studied Emmeline for many decades. Emeline was a very important leader of Latter-Day Saint women. We have her as a character in both volumes two and three. And she was just the leader of Latter-Day Saint women for a very long time. And then kind of picking up where Emeline leaves off, I would recommend the biography of Amy Brown Lyman by David Hall. It’s called A Faded Legacy. There is some overlap between the two. But this story really brings us into the modern world in the modern era, just like volume three does and introduces us to Amy, who is one of the most important Latter-Day Saint women that most people don’t know or don’t know very much about. And then third, in the spirit of diving deeper into Saints volume three, one of the favorite characters in the book that everyone will just love is Helga Meyer, who Scott mentioned earlier. And her kind of autobiography memoir, has recently been reissued by Kofford Books. It’s called Under a Leafless Tree. And she is just a marvelous person that people would love to get to know better. So if you’re interested in her story in the book, then you might check out her memoir as well.
Dr. Scott Hales: I knew Lisa was going to recommend Under a Leafless Tree so I did not add it, but it was on my list and I was like, yeah Lisa’s going to pick that one. It is a fantastic book. The three books that I’ve selected, the first one is a book called Story Craft by Jack Hart. This is a book that was published in 2011. And it is, in my opinion, the best how-to book on writing narrative nonfiction. One of the great insights that he has is that you know, when it comes to telling a good story when it comes to writing narrative, don’t worry so much about writing well. What you really need to pay attention to first is structure, story structure. And so whenever we as a team have any sort of storytelling questions or whenever we want to give any sort of storytelling training to the historians, whenever the writers want to train the historians on how to write narrative, we turn to Jack Hart. It’s just a fantastic book on writing nonfiction narrative. The second book I want to recommend is a book called Piney Ridge Cottage by Nephi Anderson. This was published in 1912. It is a woefully under-appreciated example of early Latter-Day Saint regionalism. My background is in Latter-Day Saint literature. And this is one of my favorite, favorite, favorite Mormon novels. And it dovetails very nicely with volume three. Being published in 1912, it’s about really this era of church history. And it captures a lot of the shifting terrain that we see happening in volume three, the centuries turning, it shares many of the same themes and concerns. You know, we see changing perceptions of Latter-Day Saints, we see the decline of rural Utah, we see the rise of the urban Latter-Day Saint, the end of plural marriage and the Pioneer era. There’s this great, great plural marriage subplot and the book that’s just delightful. And then just really changing notions of Latter-Day Saints identity. It’s a fantastic, underappreciated novel by Nephi Anderson. And then finally, I’m going to talk about a more recent book. This is a book of poetry, called Homespun and Angel Feathers by Darlene Young. One thing that I’ve learned on the Saints project is that we as Latter-Day Saints have a strong tradition, a strong poetic tradition, many fantastic poets. Seems everybody in the 19th century wrote poetry in the church. And that tradition carries on today. I think Darlene is probably one of the best poets writing today. And what really stands out about her work is that she has, you know, is her attention to the ordinary, everyday Latter-Day Saint experience. And I think no one, no poet, Latter-Day Saint poet captures better that that paradox between the sacred and mundane, that represents kind of how we see the world. So I would recommend that book, Homespun and Angel Feathers.
Joseph Stuart: Lisa Tate, Scott Hales, thanks for coming by the Maxwell Institute Podcast.
The views expressed here and in Maxwell Institute publications are those of the individual authors and do not necessarily represent the views of the Maxwell Institute, Brigham Young University, or The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
“Seek ye diligently and teach one another words of wisdom; yea, seek ye out of the best books words of wisdom; seek learning, even by study and also by faith.” (D&C 88:118)