Open the Books

As most of my readers know, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints recently put out a series of essays discussing controversial or difficult historical or doctrinal issues.

Church Provides Context for Recent Media Coverage on Gospel Topics Pages

I have written previously that I found the essays less than “accurate and transparent,” as Jeffrey Holland insisted they are, “within the framework of faith.” Several faithful Latter-day Saints (and even a few non-LDS) I know have responded by saying that it isn’t the church’s responsibility to teach an exhaustive history and deep study of doctrinal matters, so it’s too much to ask for accuracy and transparency.

For a lot critics, the LDS church will never do enough until they air all their dirty laundry and explain it. And in my view, whoever wrote the essays felt they had given as much information as they could to maintain that framework of faith.

Initially, I thought it was pretty obvious the church has been teaching history and doctrine for 185 years, so it isn’t out of bounds to ask that what they teach be accurate and complete. When you’re not completely open, it looks like you’re hiding something, and that never ends well. After all, it was the desire for secrecy and control of the message that led to the Hofmann bombings in the 1980s. But then I recognized that the church focuses on gospel principles and behaviors that are intended to lead people to Christ, so why get sidetracked wading through the depths of these things?

I think I finally have a solution. Open all the church historical archives to researchers in the way that libraries have long opened their “special collections” to academics and others, so long as those accessing the documents and books respect the terms of use (not removing things, wearing gloves where appropriate, and so on) and that confidential information about living people is not compromised. Maybe it really isn’t the church’s responsibility to dig through the records and try to approach “the whole truth,” whatever that might mean. Let someone else do it.

But, you might say, wouldn’t that just open the church to attacks from secular and religious critics? Yes, it would, obviously, but then it’s not as if the church hasn’t been attacked by groups using information that is already in the public domain. Maybe I’m being naive, but I can’t imagine there’s all that much information in the archives that is any more embarrassing than that which is already known publicly. By opening the archives–even the First Presidency’s alleged “vault”–any sensationalistic attacks would be tempered by accurate information and context from academic authors and faithful church members.

In short, it makes sense for the church to focus on its core mission of inviting all to come unto Christ and leave the blips and flecks of history to the historians. Surely, something would arise on occasion that the church would feel it needed to respond to, just as it has with the recent essays, but historical and doctrinal oddities would be kept in proper perspective. I suspect most members would take any “shocking” revelations in stride, as they have other issues. No longer could any church members say that the church had “lied” to them or hidden things, and critics could no longer accuse the church of covering things up. (For the record, I am pretty sure I have never said the church has lied or covered anything up. If I ever did say something like that, it was probably in a moment of frustration.)

I’m a realist and don’t expect the church to do anything like this. Most image-conscious organizations feel the need to control the message, so they guard “proprietary” information carefully. But the church might follow the example of Tesla Motors, which last year released its electric motor and battery storage patents to the public in hopes of furthering the adoption of its technologies by other people, even competitors. Tesla is betting that whatever damage competitors might do with this information is outweighed by the good of putting the information out in the light of day.

It’s a nice thought, anyway.

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4 Responses to Open the Books

  1. I’m curious now. Who does have access to the LDS church’s archives?

    • runtu says:

      I don’t know the specifics. I do know that after Leonard Arrington was shipped out to BYU, the church made it a lot more difficult to access material in the archives.

  2. Is any Church going to do this? Catholics, Orthodox, etc…? If the answer is no, why are you asking?

  3. anon nona says:

    In the past when the church allowed access to the archives the church later found that the person wanting access lied about why they wanted access and lied about what they were doing. Fawn Bodie being a prime example. And the information was twisted and used against the church by some. The Tanners even deceptively joined the RLDS (now Community of Christ) to gain access to all the RLDS records. Not the last time they were deceptive. Even people of other religions who are enemies of the church broke laws and lied and used deception to get records to use the information to attack the church.

    Just saying……..

    And every different religious church I attended never taught that religion’s or church’s history…..ever. Nor did they even teach about the history of Christianity. Most congregants I knew did not know their church broke away from the Catholic church and had other splits. Seriously.

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