Active Latter-day Saints want their church to provide a "frank and honest" presentation of church history, unvarnished by attempts to sugar-coat the past in order to make it more palatable.

That's one finding to come from a new e-mail survey done by the family and church history department of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. The survey targeted members who use the church's resources to do family history and sought to determine how they engage with the faith's past.

Church history representative Rebecca Olpin told participants at the annual Mormon History Association meetings on Saturday that Latter-day Saints surveyed "want to be leveled with" when the church presents information about its past.

"They want not just accounts of famous people, but of real people, people like them in history that grappled with challenges and trials and consequences. They want the real thing, with real-life consequences that happened to others to help them in their own lives."

When questioned about what officials with the church's correlation department — which edits all church materials — think about those findings, Olpin said the request for honesty "is part of what members are asking for. We have a responsibility to share that in a way that correlation will agree with, so we understand that we have limits.

"We also understand there is much we can share and better ways to do it within the context of what occurred."

Steve Olsen, associate managing director of family and church history, addressed questions by several who were concerned that the department's new "purpose statement" — which is in part "to help God's children make and keep sacred covenants" — may exclude them from access to documents.

He said the new focus on active church members doesn't mean researchers will be excluded, but that helping non-scholar Latter-day Saints understand their history will be the department's primary mission.

He pointed to the exhaustive research LDS historians have done on the Mountain Meadows Massacre as evidence that the church isn't trying to hide its past, saying research materials gathered by the authors will be made available to scholars.

But he cautioned that like other archives, "there are some restrictions on privacy and intellectual property" as well as on "sacred, private and institutional materials. That's something we just won't budge on, and those things will never be made public," he said.

Olpin said the survey also showed that respondents:

• Want to get their information about history from the church but "don't want to hear it in Sunday School. They want Sunday activities to be devotional and inspirational."

• Are eager to learn church history via the Internet, documentary-type films, restored LDS historical sites and books. She said nearly half of those surveyed had visited at least one LDS historical site. Nine in 10 said they watch church-produced films as a regular family activity.

• Get much of their information about the church's past from historical fiction. When asked to respond to the statement, "I learned much of what I know about church history from 'The Work and the Glory,"' (a fictional series of books and films about an early Latter-day Saint family and their trials) Olpin said almost half of the respondents answered "yes."

"We feel very much the weight of helping our members enjoy and love our rich history," Olpin said. "We have a scriptural and institutional mandate to serve our members." As a result, officials will add a new "customer service" focus to the church history department.

"We need to provide the context for our members to enrich and strengthen their faith and enhance their doctrinal understanding."


E-mail: carrie@desnews.com