SALT LAKE CITY — During the sweltering summer of 1829, the angel Moroni appeared to Mary Whitmer and showed her gold plates containing an ancient record, making her a de facto witness to the Book of Mormon.
That lesser-known story is included in an official church history for the first time, the engaging first volume of a new official history of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. "Saints: The Standard of Truth, 1815-1846," went on sale Tuesday and is available free online.
The book is deliberately full of stories about women's contributions and directly addresses challenging portions of church history, said church leaders and historians. The goal was to create an accurate but arresting and relevant narrative history that would appeal to readers, especially young adults, who can learn from the achievements, failures, questions and struggles of Joseph Smith and hundreds of other early church members.
"It's a page-turner," Elder Quentin L. Cook, a member of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles and an advisor to the Church History Department, said at a news conference on Tuesday.
"'Saints' is accessible, accurate and compelling," said Elder Dale G. Renlund, also of the Twelve and a church history advisor.
"I think it's a pretty remarkable achievement on several fronts," said Patrick Mason, the Howard W. Hunter Chair of Mormon Studies at Claremont Graduate University, in a telephone interview. "It reads more like a novel than a history book. So on the one hand, it's accessible, but on the other hand, it deals with tough issues in church history. It's another example of the church and the Church History Department talking about tough issues."
The "Saints" project, which will grow to four volumes, is the first multi-volume, official church history published since 1930. Tuesday's news conference introducing the book at the Church History Library came five days before Elder Cook will talk about it and field church history questions from young adults in a worldwide Face to Face devotional on Sunday at 6 p.m. MDT.
The first sign of the book's storytelling begins with the opening of Chapter One, which shows a volcano exploding in Indonesia in 1815 and describes the worldwide effect, including how it shaped the circumstances of the family of young Joseph Smith.
The boy's stops and starts between age 14 and the First Vision and age 24 when the church is formally organized may feel familiar to many young men and women and young adults, as he experiences tremendous highs and gut-wrenching lows — including a direct rebuke from God.
"We were very aware in writing the book that we were writing about young people," said Lisa Olsen Tait, a historian and writer in the Church History Department. "This church was founded and built by very young people. I'm glad that comes through in the narrative. We felt it was important to show that in all its messiness and beauty."
The book purposefully portrays Joseph Smith and others in 3-D to help people relate to them, said Matt Grow, director of publications for the LDS Church History Department. Showing people grow and mature through trials is another goal of what will be a four-volume series.
"That's why we want to focus on characters who recur," Grow said. "We want these characters who can be in multiple scenes so you can see that growth over time, individual growth and growth in the church. We really hope this can be inspiring, that people can identify with these characters. You never know who's going to identify with what character, so we want to have a broad range of experience, people who struggle with family issues, people who struggle in their faith, people who struggle with depression, the whole gamut of issues that we face as humans. The Latter-day Saints in the past faced the same issues, and we should be able to identify with them and find some strength in their stories."
Elder Renlund said Joseph Smith is presented as "a regular human being with the challenges he would have faced at that time and going through those things. That genuine completeness of his character we believe is very helpful."
Volume One tackles subjects in church history that church leaders have more fully addressed in recent years with the release of gospel topics essays written by historians.
Elder Steven E. Snow, a General Authority Seventy and the Church Historian and Recorder, said he'd wait six-and-a-half years for the first book to hit the shelves. One reason was to see it build on the Gospel Topics essays about 11 complex topics in church history. The essays were first published on lds.org by the First Presidency from November 2013 to October 2015.
Snow said "Saints" covers a period in church history that has generated questions that caused some people to question the church or leave it altogether, questions addressed in the essays.
"We've tried to include these issues in the story in very transparent and open ways," Elder Snow said. "When you read about them in the context of the whole story they seem understandable."
Topics covered in the essays that appear in the narrative history of "Saints" include the multiple versions of the First Vision, Joseph Smith's use of a seer stone in a hat as he translated the Book of Mormon, the introduction of plural marriage and Latter-day Saint violence in Missouri.
"We tell the story of the interaction of Joseph and Emma and the difficulty as plural marriage began and how they worked through those issues together and how hard that was in the early days," Elder Snow said. "We're pretty open about Emma's reactions. Sometimes she was warm to it. Other times she was ice cold to the idea of plural marriage. We try to tell that story in an accurate way that I think people can identify with."
Mason, the Claremont historian, said the book handles the topics very directly. In fact, he said any criticism of the first volume is likely to come from people who think it included too much.
"Nobody's going to be able to accuse them of hiding it on the website like some did with the Gospel Topics essays," he said. "They've priced it so it's accessible, they've published the first seven chapters in the Ensign and it's free on the website."
For Snow, the history is well-rounded.
"I think it's a hopeful story, even though it's full of tragedy and difficulties and loss, but it's also full of triumph and joy. It's like life."
Mary Whitmer was toiling to fill the needs of her husband, eight children and three visitors that hot summer of 1829 — Joseph Smith, who was in the middle of translating the Book of Mormon in her home, his wife Emma and his scribe, Oliver Cowdery — when a visitor appeared.
"You have been very faithful and diligent in your labors," Moroni told her. "It is proper, therefore, that you should receive a witness that your faith may be strengthened."
The story will be a surprise to many church members, Tait said, but it's place in the book is important.
"This makes it part of the narrative part of the church's story about itself, and that's significant," she said.
Church leaders said women's contributions and experiences were important.
"You can't tell the story of this church," Elder Renlund said, "without talking about the women of the church, who have been among the most faithful and consistent to the converts to the Restored Gospel that this dispensation has ever seen."
"I'm very pleased that so many women's voices are being heard," Elder Cook added.
It was no accident.
"We set out very deliberately to make sure a lot of women were represented," Tait said, "that women's voices were present, that women's experiences were present, that women's perspective was part of the story. It's very exciting. I think and I hope it will mean a lot to young women and women throughout the church to see the experiences of our fellow female Saints."
This is the third time the church is publishing a multi-volume church history. The first, The History of the Church by Joseph Smith, was published beginning in the 1840s. The second, the Comprehensive History of the Church by B.H. Roberts, was published in 1930.
"Saints" is available as a paperback book for $5.75 through Deseret Book and at store.lds.org. The entire text also can be found free online at saints.lds.org and in the church history section of the Gospel Library app. The book will be published in 14 languages by year's end and is now available as an audio book in English, Spanish and Portuguese.
Elder Cook said three more volumes in the "Saints" project are planned — "No Unhallowed Hand," about the church's pioneer era, "Boldly, Nobly, and Independent," about the first half of the 20th century, and "Sounded in Every Ear," about the global growth of the church to the present. The books all will have a portrait of a temple on the cover. The final book will have three different covers, one portraying a temple in South America, another in Africa and the final in Asia.
Grow said readers who want to dig deeper than the narrative can read the endnotes in the back of the book or find them online and follow hyperlinks to the digitized original sources. He said the church is publishing 116 church history topics referred to in the endnotes covering themes, people, places, events and recommendations for further reading.
That will be enough to provide new information even for students of church history.
"I learned things reading the book," Mason said. "There were little nuggets, there were stories and vignettes I didn't know."