NAUVOO, Illinois — Standing at the foot of the Nauvoo Illinois Temple and with the Mississippi River in full view, a senior leader of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints answered significant — and sometimes controversial — questions of church history Sunday evening.
Elder Quentin L. Cook of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles assured young adults that the church is not hiding aspects of its 188-year-old history.
Joined by church historians Kate Holbrook and Matt Grow in a worldwide “Face to Face” broadcast, Elder Cook spoke about polygamy, the methods Joseph Smith used to translate the Book of Mormon, and the differing accounts of Joseph Smith’s first vision of God the Father and Jesus Christ.
“Church history can be a significant source of faith,” Elder Cook said. But for some, church history “has been misunderstood or overlooked” or “crowded out by larger concerns of the world.”
Some people “have even purposely misrepresented stories of the past to sow doubt,” he said.
“In learning more, we will bind our hearts together with saints of yesterday and today. We will find examples of imperfect people who went forward with faith and allowed God to work through them to accomplish his work.”
Broadcast worldwide from the temple grounds at sundown, the “Face to Face” event was specifically for those ages 18 to 30 and was held to “inform and answer questions with an emphasis on church history.” The broadcast followed the Tuesday release of the church’s new narrative history, “Saints: The Story of the Church of Jesus Christ in the Latter Days.”
Church leaders chose the location for the broadcast — just over the hill from the final resting place of Joseph Smith, his wife, Emma, and his brother Hyrum — “because Nauvoo and this temple were so pivotal to the history of the church,” said Elder Cook.
He praised the generation of the young adults, which has produced 600,000 full-time missionaries. “That is over 40 percent of all the missionaries that have ever served in this dispensation,” he said.
In preparation for the event, the church received thousands of questions from young adults across the globe. “We will answer as many as we can to give our perspective on the history of the church,” said Elder Cook.
Hosts Spencer Heslop, 24, and Maile Mayer, 18, began the event with "a tough question." Some young adults feel the church has been hiding information about historic events, Heslop said, asking, “why isn’t the church more open about some of the controversial things?”
In response, Holbrook spoke about learning about polygamy as a young girl, but not learning of the existence of seer stones until she was an adult.
“The church did not hide information from me, but the historical information was not emphasized to me,” she said. In Sunday school and seminary she learned “the main work of the church” — to repent, to bring her life in harmony with the gospel of Jesus Christ, and how to establish a relationship with God. “These are the things in my life that I hold most dear.”
She acknowledged it is painful for a person to learn of an aspect of church history they thought they should have known, but did not.
The Church History Department is not trying to hide or censor history, but instead trying to make church history “accessible, available and understandable,” said Grow.
“The history of the church can withstand scrutiny,” he added. “We don’t need to be afraid of it. It is inspiring. Sometimes we will have questions. But there are good answers.”
Speaking of polygamy, Holbrook said monogamy is God’s standard for marriage and that plural marriage is an exception that occurs only when God commands it, as explained in the Book of Mormon, Jacob 2. She said Joseph Smith was reluctant to practice plural marriage, but eventually instituted it because he wanted to obey God’s commandment to him.
While scholars do not know the exact number who practiced plural marriage, those who did were in the minority, she said.
Grow said one purpose of polygamy was to raise up “seed or a righteous posterity.” The extensive family history records of the church reveal that “20 percent of living church members descend from those who practiced plural marriage,” he said. “We know that throughout time those families have been a strength to the church.”
Elder Cook said it is clear there was a lot of sacrifice — as well as love — in those marriages and they taught their children to sacrifice. Those children took the gospel of Jesus Christ across the world through missionary work, he said.
“In the senior councils of the church there is a feeling that polygamy as it was practiced served its purpose and we should honor those saints, but that purpose has been accomplished.”
There are still unanswered questions, he said. Elder Cook testified that “we have a loving Heavenly Father who has a perfect plan, that his plan is one of happiness, that we have a Savior who did everything for us. We can trust in them.”
Grow compared the differing version of Joseph Smith's first vision to a story one might tell of meeting his or her spouse. A person might emphasize different details of the account in the journal entry the day it took place, than he or she does in wedding video, or in a letter written to a 12-year-old daughter, or in a recount told at a 50th wedding anniversary party. So it is with the First Vision accounts, he said.
Holding and drawing from a first edition copy of the Book of Mormon, Holbrook said that Joseph Smith simply said he translated the Book of Mormon by the gift and power of God. “His translation experiences were sacred and very personal and he just didn’t give us much detail,” she said.
She said historians do know dictated pages of the Book of Mormon look fluid and clean, where a page from Joseph’s personal journal is full of crossed out words and incomplete sentences. Holbrook said Emma Smith said Joseph would sit down and begin translation without asking for a reminder about where he had left off.
“It took three months to translate the Book of Mormon,” she said. “It took eight months to print it. It took six years to write ‘Saints,’ volume one, although that involved a really long approval process.”
Elder Cook encouraged young adults to seek out and study credible sources of church history — including “Saints,” released in 14 languages and already downloaded more than 250,000 times.
Elder Cook said in the 22-plus years he has been a General Authority, the desire of church leaders “is to be as transparent as possible in terms of church history and doctrine.”
The entire Face to Face broadcast can be viewed on LDS.org.