SANDY, Utah — Is LDS Church history reliable when that history is produced by the church itself?
Church historians today employ rigorous standards, a longtime member of
the Church History Department said Thursday during a presentation at
the Foundation for Apologetic Information and Research conference.
Ronald O. Barney is a volume editor for the Joseph Smith Papers Project
and executive producer of the KJZZ television series about the project.
"I know something about the rigor that has been applied to ensure that
these volumes will stand for a long time and have a long shelf life,"
Barney said. "I don't believe we have to make any apologies to
anybody." Dozens of outside reviewers have scrutinized it to ensure dependability, he added.
The annual conference continues Aug. 7 at the South Towne Exposition
Center in Sandy. FAIR is an independent group that defends the church against
attacks on its faith, doctrine and history.
Barney, who has spent 32 years on the staff of the LDS Church History
Department, said that any history about the church, regardless of who
produces it, should be scrutinized."We can't be lazy about this," he
said. "This religion is too important, and it is very defendable."
He acknowledged a sentiment of years past that the church has not been forthright in publishing its history.
He said things changed in 1972, when the Church Historian's Office
became the Church Historical Department. At that time, a cadre of
professional archivists "served as the platform to create an
environment whereby the church could not only produce an excellent
history, but could ensure that it was dependable," he said.
A milestone occurred in 1984, he said, when staff member Dean C. Jessee
published "The Personal Writings of Joseph Smith." Jessee followed that
up in 1989 with publication of the first volume of an intended
multi-volume work on the papers of Joseph Smith.
The project stalled, then was jump-started at the end of the 1990s by
what has become the Joseph Smith Papers Project. Barney said it has had
as many as 59 people at a time working on it. The first of an
anticipated 30 volumes was published last fall, and the second is due
out in September.
Barney spoke of a lesser-known project he called "one of the most
significant things the church has done in its history." The effort
included publication of 31 selected collections from the church's
historical archives made available on 74 DVDs, including the entirety
of the Joseph Smith collection and 1,000-plus volumes of the Journal
History of the Church. Some 450,000 scanned images from the archives
are included in the published discs, all in high resolution and, in many
cases, easier to use than the originals.
"It's completely accessible and purchasable by anyone," he said of the set.
Barney said the current lesson manual on the teachings of Joseph Smith,
used by adults in the church in priesthood quorums and Relief Society
meetings, was prepared from a database furnished by the Church History
Department that grew out of the Joseph Smith Papers Project. That
database assigned a ranking to recorded statements of Joseph Smith
according to their reliability.
"We passed that electronic database on to the writing committee, and
they produced what I think is a manual that has great power," Barney
said, "something that it would be foolish to ignore if one wants to get
to morsels of Joseph Smith's teachings."
He said that after 32 years, there is not much he hears about Joseph
Smith that surprises him anymore. "I feel more strongly about Joseph
Smith and the truthfulness of this religion today than I ever have in
my life. We do not have to cut corners."