Elder LeGrand R. Curtis Jr. was more than thrilled when he received the dream assignment to serve as church historian and recorder for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in 2019.
“I thought I had died and gone to heaven,” he said with a wide grin. “I love church history. I’ve always loved church history.”
Elder Curtis, who was sustained as a General Authority Seventy in 2011, came to the Church History Department as the assistant executive director under his predecessor, Elder Steven E. Snow, in 2018. Preparations were underway at that time to release the first volume of “Saints” and the Joseph Smith Papers project was progressing toward its 10th anniversary. There were other important projects happening, he said.
“There were some really interesting things going on in church history,” Elder Curtis said. “I was pleased with the opportunity to come and serve here.”
That opportunity will soon draw to a close.
Elder Curtis said he will be released as General Authority Seventy and granted emeritus status at the church’s October general conference. Elder Kyle S. McKay, a General Authority Seventy, will be named the new church historian and recorder.
Elder Curtis said the experience has been “even better than he expected.” He will miss his association with the “devoted, remarkable collection of scholars,” as well as his involvement with those at church historic sites, the Church History Museum, the Church History Library, the archives, the publications division and other church employees, missionaries and volunteers around the world.
“There is so much more to be learned, so much to be edified by, as you study the history of this of this great church,” Elder Curtis said. “When I was set apart by President Russell M. Nelson, he said ‘the history of this church is precious,’ that I was to encourage those with whom I work to couch their thinking and writing in terms of the ‘sacred nature of church history.’ ... There is just such a sacredness, and being given the charge to capture the history, to collect it, to preserve it, to share it, this is a terrific work that I’ve been blessed to be able to do the last few years.”
As he prepares for his departure, Elder Curtis provided eight highlights from his time as church historian and recorder. The list includes his involvement in key church history publications, projects at church history sites and the preservation of essential records.
1. Publishing ‘Saints’ Vol. 2 and 3
“We just have a marvelous team that worked hard to tell the story of the church in a narrative style,” he said. “It has exceeded our expectations and gotten into the fabric of what it means to be a Latter-day Saint.”
The second volume is interesting because it addresses some difficult issues, including plural marriage, as well as the expansion of missionary work and thousands of pioneers crossing the plains to establish new lives in Utah.
“That volume, I think, did a lot to help show this story of devoted Latter-day Saints following a prophet,” he said.
Volume 3 features accounts from from faithful Latter-day Saints during the Great Depression, the world wars and other challenging times.
“I think my favorite part are these stories of good, faithful Saints around the world under extremely adverse conditions,” he said. “I love the fact that these stories are now accessible to members, and we didn’t write them without really good documentation.”
2. The Joseph Smith Papers
Another highlight for Elder Curtis was the release of the original manuscript of the Book of Mormon as part of the Joseph Smith Papers project, along with other recent volumes.
Each Joseph Smith Papers volume is written primarily for an academic audience, but the original manuscript of the Book of Mormon can also be inspiring for ordinary Latter-day Saints to see, the church historian and recorder said.
“We’ve had some particularly significant volumes released during the last three years. One of them is the original manuscript of the Book of Mormon,” Elder Curtis said. “That is such a wonderful thing to have — every scrap that we have on one page with the translation of it on the facing page, so you can look at the very first time words like ‘I will go and do as the Lord commands’ were ever written in the English language.”
The Church Historian’s Press has published 24 volumes of the Joseph Smith Papers with two more to go. The last one will be published on June 27, 2023, marking the anniversary of the martyrdom of church’s first president and prophet, Elder Curtis said.
“We’ve been blessed by the generosity of the church and the Larry and Gail Miller family to be able to publish these volumes,” he said. ‘It shows openness and transparency that we’re making available things about Joseph Smith. It also shows that we’re serious about scholarship.”
3. Dedication of historic Temple District of Nauvoo
In May 2021, Elder Quentin L. Cook of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles dedicated the historic Temple District of Nauvoo, Illinois, which includes the restoration and reconstruction of early Latter-day Saint homes, a pavilion, exhibits and a revitalized grove of trees.
Elder Curtis was there.
“That was one of the highlights, personally, and a real step forward in terms of additional historic facilities we have in Nauvoo,” he said. “I love the fact that they are connected to the Nauvoo temple, both geographically because they are on the hill leading up to the temple, and from a subject matter point of view.”
4. Completion of digitization of microfilm records
Another notable milestone for Elder Curtis was witnessing the completion of a monumental microfilm digitization initiative to scan more than 2.4 million rolls of family history records and make them available to the public.
“That project has been going a long time,” he said. “The church first started microfilming records in 1938. In 1998, we started scanning and digitizing those with the Family History Department, 24 years from start to finish. ... I can really only claim that we finished it. Most of the work was done before I got here. But credit to all the employees, missionaries, volunteers that have worked on this project for all those year to get it done.”
5. Church history conversations
A few years ago, the Church History Department began participating in what Elder Curtis called “Church History Conversations.”
This involves historians from the Church History Department responding to invitations to meet with groups and address questions or concerns about church history.
“I find church history to be a great source of inspiration. My testimony is deepened and strengthened by getting to spend my time in the documents of the church and going to the sacred places,” he said. “We have wanted to share that more broadly, particularly because there are some people who leave the church and blame church history. My feeling is as we get to experience more about the Restoration and the gospel rolling forth, there is much to strengthen our testimonies of the Restoration.”
Elder Curtis continued: “People still need to make their own journey and find their own way to the truth, but we found that very helpful in an atmosphere of testimony and devotion to be open and answer the questions. The more you know of church history, the deeper your faith is going to be, and the more it will make sense.”
6. Beehive House and Joseph F. Smith’s room
In September 2021, a team from the Church History Department and others remodeled two rooms in the Beehive House on Temple Square — the bedroom and office of President Joseph F. Smith — to reflect what the rooms might have looked like when he received the vision of the redemption of the dead on Oct. 3, 1918, which is now recorded in Doctrine and Covenants section 138.
“That has been just a sweet experience to be able to go over there, and for visitors to be able to go in and hear the story, that this is the space where this vision occurred, similar to Kirtland, Ohio, the Sacred Grove or other places where sacred events have happened,” Elder Curtis said. “Only this is is right here in Salt Lake City.”
7. Rehabilitating the Hill Cumorah historic site
With the end of the Hill Cumorah Pageant, the church announced plans to engage in a long-term project to both rehabilitate and preserve the sacred historic site where Joseph Smith met annually for four years with the angel Moroni and received the gold plates for the translation of the Book of Mormon.
“Once the First Presidency decided it wasn’t going to be a stage anymore, we suggested to them ‘Why don’t we try to turn it back into what it would have been like when Joseph Smith met with Moroni on the Hill Cumorah?’” Elder Curtis said.
“The effort is to return it to look more like would it would have been like in the 1820s. If we’re not going to have the pageant, then let’s have it be sacred space akin to the Sacred Grove where people can go climb the hillside and think about the events that happened there.”
8. Exhibits at the Church History Museum
Other highlights for Elder Curtis involved a trio of recent exhibits at the Church History Museum.
- Latter-day Saint women and “Sisters for Suffrage: How Utah Women Won the Vote.”
- International Art Competition, with the theme, “All are alike unto God.”
- Children’s exhibit, “Temples to Dot the Earth.”
Elder Curtis summarized his list of highlights by humbly acknowledging his predecessors.
“Now frankly, the main thing I’ve done is just carried on wonderful things that Elder Snow and Elder (Marlin K.) Jensen had going before. I didn’t come up with the ‘Saints’ project or the Joseph Smith Papers, nor the microfilm project. These are all long-term kinds of things,” he said. “But these have been some exciting moments during the time that I’ve been blessed to be here.”