How to Study Church History When It May Be Difficult

How to Study Church History When It May Be Difficult

A study of the history of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints can be inspiring and faith-fulfilling. To have living witnesses of the Restoration of the Gospel of Jesus Christ is truly priceless. However, studying our history also requires us to face decisions, practices, and attitudes that are at odds with our moral and cultural systems today. It’s important to acknowledge that addressing these issues, which include race issues, polygamy, and the character of past members, is in fact difficult for some and can cause pain, doubt, and distress.

How can we study Church history if we’re worried it will hurt us or our testimonies? Here are a few things you can do to better prepare spiritually and mentally as you dive into Church history topics.

Seek Information from Reliable Resources

In early 2021, the Church added a section to the official handbook entitled “Seeking Information from Reliable Resources.” It reads:

In today’s world, information is easy to access and share. This can be a great blessing for those seeking to be educated and informed. However, many sources of information are unreliable and do not edify. Some sources seek to promote anger, contention, fear, or baseless conspiracy theories. Therefore, it is important that Church members be wise as they seek truth. 

Members of the Church should seek out and share only credible, reliable, and factual sources of information. They should avoid sources that are speculative or founded on rumor. The guidance of the Holy Ghost, along with careful study, can help members discern between truth and error. In matters of doctrine and Church policy, the authoritative sources are the scriptures, the teachings of the living prophets, and the General Handbook.

When it comes to the study of our history, we should take a closer look at all of our resources, especially if they’re online and from organizations or persons not associated with the Church. Throughout the years, the Church has worked hard to become more transparent about historical topics. Here are a few resources that can be a great starting point:

Watch This Devotional on Church History

In the summer of 2018, Elder Quentin L. Cook joined with Church historians Kate Holbrook and Matt Grow to answer questions about Church history. While this devotional was aimed at young adults, it is a great resource for hearing leaders of the Church directly answer hard questions. Questions answered include:

  • Why isn’t the church more open about the controversial things that happened at the start of the Church?
  • Is there a way to search Church history to find answers to our questions?
  • Why was polygamy necessary? What answers do we have for questions about polygamy?
  • Why are the accounts of Joseph Smith’s First Visions different?

Study the Context of the Times

Author L.P. Hartley once wrote, “The past is a foreign country; they do things differently there.”

It is important to look at situations in Church history through the proper context. We gain a better understanding of why someone did what they did when we know about the times they lived in and what their society was like. If you’d like to better understand an event in Church history, look at the broader history of the time. Study the culture, the events, and the norms for the people in that time. Putting events into a more clear historical context will help us better come to terms with the actions and attitudes of Church members.

Extend Grace to Those You Study About

It is easy to distance ourselves and turn real people into characters in a story. As we study Church history, we should strive to extend grace to the imperfections of those we learn about. In the future, others may look back at what we did and how we lived our lives and cast judgment on us. Try to imagine how you would like someone to study your life. This doesn’t mean we dismiss our questions or stop looking for answers. It means we try to allow the Atonement of Jesus Christ to apply to people who are no longer here to tell us their story themselves.

Be Willing to Write a New History

Following Jesus Christ is all about change. We change how we see ourselves and others. We change how we treat others. We live our lives according to principles we believe will make us better disciples. We change our relationship with God, growing ever closer. If there is a point in Church history that is particularly hard to accept or understand, make concrete goals on how you continue to better our Church community through your actions and advocacy. It is ok to set the past aside for a time if it makes you anxious, even if we’re studying it in Church. Find those who inspire you and learn how you can follow their example today.

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