If you want to know about Mormon seer stones, secret polygamous wives, divine visions, personal revelations, bank failures and baptisms, callings and excommunications, jail terms and healing miracles, debates over prophetic succession and disagreements about the nature of Zion — they’re all there, in documents, journals, correspondence and histories published by the LDS Church itself.
Materials from the first decades of Mormonism in the early 1800s through the end of the 19th century have been scrutinized, analyzed and criticized from every possible angle and in public.
The modern church? Not so much.
How, for example, did the new policy dubbing LDS same-sex couples “apostates” and barring their children from religious rites come to be? Did it originate with the apostles, the governing First Presidency or President Thomas S. Monson himself? Did it go through typical channels? Were all the higher-ups in agreement?
The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints declined to provide specifics, which means members and researchers may never know the full story.
That’s because the only people who can say what transpired in such cases are Mormon prophets, apostles and other top leaders, and their journals — as well as the minutes of their meetings — are off-limits to researchers, or at least severely restricted.
This protocol remains in place even as LDS leaders are opening up about the faith’s founder through the landmark Joseph Smith Papers Project and boosting transparency with essays on Mormon history and theology.
In the 1980s, assistant church historian Richard E. Turley explains, the Utah-based faith began requiring all Mormon general authorities to sign an agreement, pledging that any “work product” — including their “journals, speeches, photographs and other records of enduring value” — belongs to the church’s history department “for long-term preservation.”
The Church History Library, he says, “seeks to make as much information as it can publicly available from these records within legal, ethical, and religious boundaries and practical resource constraints.”
The agreement is fairly common among large organizations and research libraries, Turley says, but Mormonism has unique concerns, namely, “to protect church members in their confidential communications and discussions, and to preserve the sanctity of ceremonies and blessings.”
Though routine, the rule already has had a profound impact on the potential to write a rich and honest account of 20th- and 21st-century Mormonism — a time when the LDS Church was emerging from polygamy, when it struggled with what it wanted to be amid debates about principles and programs, when it faced questions about evolution, communism and ecumenism, when it finally jettisoned its racist past, when it confronted feminism and when its understanding of gay rights morphed.
In a nutshell, this journals policy gives the institutional church, particularly employees in the history department, the final say in what portions of an apostle’s dairies, if any, are available to researchers, going back to the early days of the 20th century.
“I view this as counterproductive to the church,” says writer Greg Prince, who co-wrote “David O. McKay and the Rise of Modern Mormonism,” a groundbreaking volume on the life and administration of the faith’s ninth president.
Given the sacred mandate for all Mormons to keep journals and their immense value, he says, it makes no sense to block access to them or to hand over control of personal accounts to others.
The policy could have a self-censoring effect on apostles, for instance, robbing their retellings of any frankness, raw details or negative emotions. It could yield sanitized versions of touchy topics. Or worse, it could prompt some Mormon leaders to forgo recording their remembrances at all.
The absence of such chronicles, Prince says, has three potential losses:
• It deprives the individual of the kind of introspection that can come from writing a daily diary.
• It denies immediate and extended families of LDS leaders the most intimate record of the ministry that became the focal point of their loved ones’ lives.
• It means that when future accounts of Mormonism are written, they will lack the voices of some of the most important figures of that time.
“If the inside voices are absent, the outside voices will predominate,” Prince says, “and a balanced story of the church and its leaders will be only an illusory wish.”
Lucky exceptions • In the past few decades, the journals of a couple of Mormon prophets landed in family and university hands.
Both offered invaluable firsthand looks at the personalities, perspectives and proclivities of Spencer W. Kimball and, as mentioned, David O. McKay, as well as significant glimpses of the church they led and the colleagues with whom they served.
Kimball, who led the faith from 1973 to 1985, kept detailed personal journals for decades, beginning before and kept throughout his time as an apostle and church president. Mormonism’s 12th prophet entrusted his words to his family, particularly son Edward Kimball, to write a frank, two-part biography.
His father believed in telling history “as is, without emphasizing the negative, or betraying things of a confessional nature,” Edward Kimball says now. “He thought journals were important.”
Though Kimball was careful about naming members he was counseling or who faced church discipline, the journals are “surprisingly open about his life,” says grandson Jordan Kimball, “candidly discussing his health problems and struggle with his eldest son distancing himself from church activity; and he revealed personal discouragements along with personal spiritual experiences.”
Kimball’s papers and interviews with his son also provide insight into the leader’s wrestling spiritually, intellectually and emotionally with the church’s ban on black men and boys being ordained to the all-male priesthood and black women being denied access to the faith’s temples.
If it hadn’t been for his grandfather’s willingness to be open about his experiences, putting so much of himself into his journals and trusting his son to tell his life story, Jordan Kimball wonders if Mormons would know, even now, about how he arrived at the momentous 1978 announcement, ending the prohibition.
McKay’s papers ended up at his alma mater, the University of Utah, where Prince and other researchers could freely explore his presidency from 1951 to 1970.
Possibly for the first time, members could see the beatific McKay wrangle with a dogmatic apostle, Bruce R. McConkie, over what constitutes Mormon doctrine. They could listen in, so to speak, as apostles debated the involvement of a prophet-to-be, Ezra Taft Benson, with the right-wing John Birch Society. They could view what happened with church finances and an overzealous effort to pump up baptism statistics.
None of that would have been possible, Prince believes, if McKay’s observations had remained “locked in the archives.”
Inside and out • Patrick Mason, who directs the Mormon studies program at Claremont Graduate University in Southern California, has been laboring on a biography of Benson, who became LDS Church president in 1985. He currently is in conversations with the faith’s history department about access to Benson materials.
Mason does not object to the church’s desire to limit access to the private words of apostles and prophets.
“Religious groups should be able to draw a line around what is most sacred to them,” says Mason, author of the just-published “Planted: Belief and Belonging in an Age of Doubt, “as long as those acts are not criminal or abusive.”
Still, he says, “Latter-day Saints have long believed that God is acting in history through them and their leaders, which brings a sacred quality to their private diaries and other documents.”
If God can be found in the details, as Mormons believe, Mason says, that “imbues even meeting minutes with sacred significance. So if the church believes that apostles and prophets are called by God, and that God works through them, then the church should be confident that their private documents will reflect that.”
Current Mormon officials may be concerned that apostle diaries reveal embarrassing opinions or actions, he says, but “the church simply has to develop greater maturity.”
Such transparency might even lift the faithful.
“Coming to grips with the human (and ultimately humane) foibles of its leaders, including bad ideas and prejudices,” Mason says, “could ultimately do more to advance the church’s testimony of the redemption of all humanity and history by and through Jesus Christ.”
The other aspect members might be missing is how diverse the leadership is.
“Too much of Mormon history has been written, by both insiders and outsiders, as a monolith that, in fact, never existed,” he says. “Contestation and conflict have always been at the heart of Mormon history, internally as well as externally.”
Without documentation, however, few people in the 15 million-member global faith fully grasp this.
Inside the structure • Ardis Parshall, a former church history department employee, has spent many years poring over documents at the Church History Library.
“They told me to write history that had never been told, but sometimes they wouldn’t let me read papers that would reveal that untold history,” quips Parshall, now an independent researcher. “I said they were like Pharaoh telling me to make bricks without giving me straw, but that didn’t help.”
If you’re “very lucky and people are in a good mood and there hasn’t been any recent embarrassment, historians can ask library personnel to check [Quorum of the Twelve Apostles] minutes for a particular day to confirm a fact or the wording of a quotation found elsewhere,” Parshall says, “but that is extremely rare.”
The department is in “a crackdown phase right now,” she says, “so I doubt anyone could get even that much cooperation for the time being.”
Still, there are other ways to pan for nuggets of modern Mormonism.
Good researchers usually can find sources beyond journals, Parshall says, such as “notes by other people whom apostles talked to, or the copies of apostolic correspondence … or reading between the lines of LDS General Conference talks.”
Mormon scholar Matthew Bowman, who teaches history at Henderson State University in Arkansas, worries that the restrictions could prompt critics — and even believers — to imagine a more sinister process than the records would show.
To Bowman, who wrote “The Mormon People: The Making of an American Faith,” the actual story is likely more faith-promoting than they presume.
Closing off journals and minutes is a natural progression as the church’s bureaucracy has expanded, especially in the late 1900s.
“With more and more formal committees and procedures in place, it is possible to close a lot more things,” Bowman says. “That is simply the default policy, rather than any conscious attempt to hide things.”
It’s just “easier and safer,” he argues, “to say no than yes.”
Bowman, who writes extensively about the Mormon “correlation” effort in the mid-20th century to standardize church policies and practices, had no access to the diaries of the 11th church president, Harold B. Lee — a big loss since it was Lee’s pet project.
But the Mormon writer was allowed to read minutes of the “all-church coordinating council,” which gave him a boatload of valuable information about the program.
The system is “a lot more patchy than the policy may imply,” Bowman says. “You can get some items from collections that are closed and can be blocked from documents in collections that are open.”
Bowman is “a little more optimistic” than he was previously, he says. “As time passes, there seems to be more willingness to open things up. Seeing early 20th-century materials soon may be possible.”
One of the concerns is the privacy of living persons. “It isn’t just embarrassing things about the church or about church leaders that make them squeamish,” Parshall says. “Those papers have a lot of awful information about ordinary church members.”
Hundreds of thousands of pages fill the faith’s vast historical holdings, and if even one such letter exists in a collection, or one page in a much larger diary, she says, “the church can’t give access until the collection has been reviewed and the relatively small part of restricted content isolated.”
It is an enormous task, yet she remains hopeful.
“When I first got access to the Brigham Young correspondence in 2000 before it was opened to the public, I had to report to an archivist what I transcribed, and who I sold it to, and what the client’s project was, and I was forbidden to sell my transcriptions in bulk,” Parshall says. “Now anybody in the world can go to the library website and download images of the same correspondence, and nobody cares. That’s unimaginable progress in just 15 years.”
The historian, at work on a history of the LDS Church told through the lives of women, believes transparency is “continuing, even accelerating, and it’s too soon to say we won’t be able to write the history of the modern church in our lifetime.”
Apostolic records are not likely to open this year or even in the next 50 years, she says, “but it isn’t one of those things — like peace on Earth or my getting married — that will have to wait for the Millennium.”
Until then, researchers might explore the perspectives of Mormon women. The church may have fewer of those journals, but they are all open.