SACRAMENTO, Calif.—Teaching college students about the history of the LDS Church in Utah has its own set of challenges, whether instructors are Latter-day Saints or not, because most students believe they already know the subject and understand it well.

Kathleen Flake, a Vanderbilt University associate professor of American religious history, told members of the Mormon History Association on Friday that educators at universities in Utah and Idaho teaching about the church's history have to deal with "religious history, church history and religious education."

In doing so, it's difficult to avoid crossing the boundary lines between them, she said. Religious history is taught by comparing faith traditions and understanding both similarities and differences, and determining their relationship to the state.

Church history is "denominational, descriptive and oriented to corporate goals such as identity construction and maintenance. Church historians will talk about it in terms of maintenance of the faith," she said.

Religious education involves the direction of belief or religious formation regarding the faith itself.

"Conflicts arise within these three types of teaching," she said, noting presentations by John C. Thomas of BYU-Idaho and Steven C. Harper of BYU about teaching facets of LDS history present such conflicts.

"They're trained in (religious history), have a personal interest in (church history) and are hired to do teach (religious education)."

Thomas told of directing his students to examine historical accounts of the Sweetwater River crossing experience near Martin's Cove, Wyo., when rescuers were sent from Salt Lake City to find handcart pioneers caught in early winter storms in 1856. One account by Solomon Kimball, brother of one of the rescuers, was published in 1914 in a church magazine and is well-known to Latter-day Saints.

Chad Orton of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints history department wrote an expanded and somewhat less romanticized version of the events in BYU Studies in 2006, noting there were more than three rescuers, none were exactly 18, they carried only a portion of the handcart pioneers across the river and — contrary to Kimball's account — most did not die in a way that can be attributed to their exposure that day.

Kimball's account also said for their heroism Brigham Young made a public promise of eternal life to the three rescuers — an assertion that Orton's account challenges.

Thomas said in comparing the accounts, his students wrestled with questions like, "If something is flawed but seems to do good, what does that mean?"

Discussion included whether they "felt the spirit more" with the less accurate version of events. One student said he didn't need a "Hollywood version of the truth" to learn from what happened.

Harper teaches a history course at BYU on the life of Joseph Smith, and directs students to analyze a raw historical document. In reading a Mark Hoffman forgery of a supposed early LDS document known as the "Salamander Letter" to his students, he challenges them to examine the integrity of historical records.

"It's the first experience for many students in understanding how history can be dangerous or a weapon of a hidden agenda. They learn quickly we're dependent on documents and that the record is wildly uneven, that not all documents are created equal."

He said the ultimate outcome he tries to teach them is "history is messier than we would assume. I ask them to let go of the grand narrative most brought to class" with them.

Students choose a historical LDS document produced before 1844 and spend the semester in a documentary editing project that forces them to examine the source of what they have believed about aspects of church history.

In that way, Harper said, he is "hoping to serve as a midwife for the ... necessary losses regarding unfounded assumptions about Joseph Smith and why what they knew is not grounded in the historical record."

In that way, students "learn the difference between folk memory and documented history, as well as interpretation vs. documented history," he said. "They feel empowered by an increased consciousness of what they know and how they know it," especially after learning there are several accounts of Joseph Smith's First Vision.

Students learn that "records don't prove historicity ... that we recognize transcendent questions can't be answered by documents."

Mark Miller, a self-identified non-Mormon who teaches Mormon history at Southern Utah University, said he lost sleep over his new job in 2006 because he knew most of his students would know a lot about the subject before they entered his classroom.

Several specific discussion points concerned him, including the origin of Native Americans, early LDS history and conflict with non-Mormons, tensions between Mormons and gentiles over creation of the state of Deseret, the Mountain Meadows Massacre and modern conflicts with the church.

On some topics he posed multiple theories and generated student discussion, he said. Conflict is "a major theme of my lectures," he said, noting Brigham Young's creation of the state of Deseret and the goals of early LDS hierarchy included a quest for independence from the United States.

"The key to this was their belief that millennium was imminent." He said many historians believe Brigham Young had more power than any other government leader to that time in U.S. history.

Modern questions include the role of polygamy in the early LDS Church and its role today within the FLDS community. The key to teaching a mostly-Mormon audience is "cultural sensitivity," he said, urging debate and discussion from various perspectives to allow students the chance to see their own assumptions in a different light.