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What’s Wrong with Mormon History? I’ll Tell You What’s Wrong …

By: Ardis E. Parshall - March 27, 2009

This is a friendly little article written by one of my favorite people, Assistant Church Historian Andrew Jenson, while he was serving as a missionary in Scandinavia. We owe him so much in regard to the preservation of 19th and early 20th century Latter-day Saint history.

It should be a delightful little thing to read – a heart-warming topic, a toast to good feelings, a sweet photograph that rises far above the stiff, posed group shots that constitute most of our missionary photographic record of 1910.

So why does it irritate me so badly, to the point where I want to throw the volume of the Improvement Era in which it appears through the nearest plate glass window?

Hospitality to Missionaries

By Andrew Jenson, President of the Scandinavian Mission

The Scandinavian people, from times immemorial, have sustained a very high reputation for hospitality to strangers, a trait of character undoubtedly inherited from their Israelitish forefathers; for it is a well established fact that the inhabitants of the land of Canaan were especially hospitable to the strangers within their gates in ancient days. The elders who labored in the Scandinavian mission at an early day could travel almost without purse or scrip (like the disciples of Christ in Palestine), among the peasantry of the country. This has been modified somewhat of late years, owing, perhaps, to the fact that so many American, English and German tourists have traveled so extensively in these lands, and spoiled the people in these respects by their extreme liberality in offering payment for every service. Especially is this true on the western coast of Norway.

And yet, our elders are even now treated with much kindness and hospitality. The accompanying picture shows a group of elders (six in number) being entertained by a family of Saints in Aalborg, Denmark. At the head of the table sit the host and hostess. Standing by them is their pretty little daughter who is waiting at the table. The three brethren at the left are Elders James A. Johnsen, Isaac A. Jensen and Andrew Jenson. On the opposite side of the table are Elders Hans Mikkelsen, Charles H. Sorensen and James Jensen. The host, Brother Madsen, is a new convert, who for years before he joined the Church was kind and hospitable to the missionaries. When elders are far away from their wives, children, fathers, mothers, brothers and sisters, and other true and devoted friends, in the dear land of the West where the Saints of God dwell, they fully appreciate any kindness and hospitality extended to them. For, as a rule, their friends are few, and their enemies many.

In many places in these northern countries we have a class of middle-aged and elderly sisters whom we affectionately call “missionary mothers.” They exercise good will and charity towards the missionary, assist him in many little ways, thus making it easier for him to stand the temporary loss of friends at home. the elder therefore feels from the bottom of his heart to say, “God bless our missionary mothers.”

Notice all the names in the article? Good historian and documentarian that he is, Pres. Jenson even gives us the middle initials of his missionaries. We should be able to identify them easily enough, regardless of the similarity of their Scandinavian names to so many other church members.

But what is missing?

It’s the names of the members of the host family. The article is about the local people who treat our elders so well, and yet those local people are not even dignified with the recording of their names. Oh, well, yes, their surname is “Madsen” which is a start, and despite the hundreds of Madsens who might have been church members in Denmark during this generation, I do have the clue that Brother Madsen was a recent convert in 1910, so perhaps I could pick him out of the membership records by looking for a baptismal date in 1909 or 1910. But why isn’t he named in full? Why aren’t his wife and their “pretty little daughter” mentioned by name?

This is not an isolated incident. In fact, it’s the rule – the unwritten order of things? – in church writings for the first 150 years of our existence as a people: The only ones who really matter, evidently, are those who are sent from headquarters as church leaders or missionaries. Local members, regardless of their contribution, regardless of the purpose for the writing, are seldom named, except in lists of ordinances. Over and over and over in our manuscript materials, the history is written as though the Church exists only when and where elders from Zion are present: When the missionaries are pulled out of an area because of war (or for even more mundane reasons, such as the reorganization of a mission to focus on urban rather than rural tracting), history is written as though the Church closed down in that area at that point, and nothing more is recorded/searched for/published until missionaries are again sent into the area.

What of the branches established and left behind? What of the members who carried on and who were faithful without the assistance of “elders from Zion”? What of the local members who welcomed and served and doted on the missionaries when they were there?

Thankfully, the last generation of historians is as interested in social matters as in organizational history, and we’re seeing more and more attempts to understand and preserve the stories of Latter-day Saints who hadn’t yet – if ever – “come to Zion.”

I’ll get back to you when I uncover the names of Brother and Sister Madsen and their pretty little daughter. Because now it has become a point of honor. They need to be known, and remembered.

End of rant.

For now.



25 Comments »

  1. This is one of the things we love about you and Keepa, Ardis.

    Comment by Martin Willey — March 27, 2009 @ 11:38 am

  2. well aep
    good for you and best of luck
    much of our local history has been lost

    Comment by tjk — March 27, 2009 @ 11:51 am

  3. Amen.

    Comment by J. Stapley — March 27, 2009 @ 12:41 pm

  4. I thought you might say something about the Israelitish forefathers of the Scandinavians, but good call.

    Comment by Norbert — March 27, 2009 @ 12:56 pm

  5. I’m running into the same thing in journals by other missionaries. Lots of detail about the missionaries, far less about the people. But to be fair, I’m finding even less written by the people. Of the principle families involved in the Cane Creek Massacre: the Conder’s, Talley’s, DePriest’s, Lancaster’s, and Garrett’s just to name few, I have found only one or two individuals wrote anything about it. Most of the writing was done by missionaries.

    I guess the missionaries were writing what they did because they felt the significance of their mission. The rest is every day life. And when we are living everyday life we tend to dismiss its importance to history. How many missionaries wrote while they were on their mission but never wrote before and didn’t write afterwards?

    My mother would say (usually while she was sorting through photos of a dead relative) it is the responsibilty of the picture taker to label the photos and to throw away bad ones. I could see here wanting to throw something through the nearest plate glass window too.

    Comment by Bruce Crow — March 27, 2009 @ 1:07 pm

  6. The daughter is cute though, I must say. There is something wonderful about old photographs.

    Comment by Jacob J — March 27, 2009 @ 1:32 pm

  7. Great post, Ardis. This is part of what Mark Brown, Ed Jeter, and I are trying to get at in our MHA session this year–trying to recover the life stories of those we’ve called “the un-gathered.” This post reassures me that we invited the right person to comment on our papers. :)

    Comment by Christopher — March 27, 2009 @ 1:44 pm

  8. Amen, Ardis. That is more than just a shame, since it represents a real opportunity for us to have tied the hearts of the children to their ancestors by name.

    You might appreciate an experience I had years ago in the Columbus, OH temple baptismal font. I hope I never forget it.

    I was performing the baptisms. For years, I have tried to treat those ordinances with the same attitude as live ordinances – memorizing the name of each person, bowing my head and closing my eyes, stating the prayer at the same pace and with the same feeling as I would if baptizing one of my own kids, lowering the proxy into the water carefully, etc.

    As I looked at the name being displayed, it was (“daughter”, followed by the last name). As I baptized the young lady and verbalized the name as we had it, a thought entered my mind almost as if it was a spoken message:

    “Now she will be known.”

    I’ve thought before about the Church being brought out of obscurity and darkness, but I had never considered that phrase previously as it relates to the work we do for the dead. What I love most about what you do here on this blog is tied directly to that experience – that, in a very real and TANGIBLE way, you bring wonderful people out of obscurity and darkness and light their lives for us in a way that actualizes that message:

    “Now they will be known.”

    Comment by Ray — March 27, 2009 @ 2:12 pm

  9. Next time I feed the missionaries at my home, I’m going to say, “dudes, you’d better remember me”.

    Comment by kevinf — March 27, 2009 @ 4:27 pm

  10. I just skimmed through this half asleep tonight and somehow missed the fact that the host couple were not named. I did catch the part of the unnamed pretty little daughter waiting on the table. I wonder what Andrew Jenson would have written if it was a plain little daughter who waited on the table.

    I too appreciate Ardis for bringing people out of obscurity with her stories.

    Comment by Maurine — March 27, 2009 @ 9:22 pm

  11. This motivated me to take a look at my own mission journal. It gave me a few thoughts. First among them being what a brat I was. All too often, I used my journal to vent negative emotions. I’m not all that sure that I would want a historian to look at it.

    The observation that I made is that I rarely wrote down the full names of members or investigators with the exception of local missionaries and the one American that I taught while there. However, full names or at least first and last names of my companions are all there. Even the one that I wanted the earth to open up and swallow. I suspect that is because, like a lot of people, I remembered them in concentric circles of influence. Companions, other missionaries, and mission officers were the most important people in my life at the time. Investigators and members were in the next circle. In Thailand, where I served, members often go by just their first names partly because, so I was told, family names in that country are a fairly recent invention.(1932) So sometimes, if I did not know them really well, I didn’t even know their last names. Although I did record the full name of the member that died in Saudi Arabia that I help get to his funeral and gravesite.

    I think that may be just the nature of journals. People are writing about their lives and only tangentially the lives of others.

    Comment by James — March 27, 2009 @ 11:46 pm

  12. Interesting.

    I wonder, though, having had a dad serve as a mission president, if some of his point of view was coming from his stewardship that was specifically over the missionaries. Not that a mission president doesn’t and shouldn’t try to know members’ names, too – but it’s not the same as having pictures on your wall and personal interviews regularly and prayers that include missionaries by name as they come and go in transfers, callings, etc. The relationship and focus was with and on the missionaries, simply by definition of his calling.

    I know that doesn’t make YOUR job any easier, but I’m just trying to put myself in his shoes for a minute.

    I love how you want to dig for details that many of us would miss, though. Let us know if and when you find out more. These members’ lives should be celebrated, and certainly they are in heaven! But bless you for wanting to celebrate them here and now. :)

    This also makes me think about Pres. Monson and how it seems he does a lot to recognize some saints by name. I recently watched his new biography video, and he talked, for example, about the East German saints and their sacrifices before the Wall came down.

    Comment by m&m — March 28, 2009 @ 12:05 am

  13. You’re right, that is saddening.

    Comment by Michelle Glauser — March 28, 2009 @ 12:29 am

  14. Yes, it’s too bad that the account doesn’t give more context and background of the hosts. However, these missionaries of whom you speak are on missions, as missionaries, doing missionary work. They were not set apart to go do a social history of the area (and in some ways encouraged to change social traditions).

    I saw this phenomenon when I did some digging into the mission records of my father’s mission (Southern Brazil Mission, 1962-64). Besides the official records and minutes, there’s an official mission history written in 1967 (by none other than a young Elder Gregory Prince). In the parts I read, it contains a lot of detail of the history of the mission, but not a lot of information about the locals, the culture, the Brazilian traditions, etc. (Full disclosure: I have not read the whole document, so I could be full of HBO on this). What I read was well-written and a really great resource, but it doesn’t seem to be a history of Brazil. It’s a concise history of the Southern Brazil mission.

    I’m not applauding the failure to document and flesh out the locals and their area. I am, however, saying it’s not a big surprise given a missionary’s commission.

    Comment by Hunter — March 28, 2009 @ 12:01 pm

  15. Thanks for your contributions, everybody. I’m sure you’re right about why most of us choose to record or omit the details of our stories. I’m just frustrated that the things *I* want to know are so often omitted by writers of the past — even historians like Andrew Jenson.

    19th century advice on journal keeping often included the suggestion to record the weather, and you see that done in diary after diary. But today, it’s an unusual reader who cares whether March 28, 1908 was fair or cloudy (admittedly, some specialists may care very, very much). It makes me wonder what historians of 2108 are going to think about materials recorded today — what omissions will make them pull their hair out? what will they smile at as being “quaint” but which we consider so essential?

    Is someone someday going to discover Keepa and think it’s a simply wonderful record of what we thought about the past? or will that reader produce his own rant because we never mention the OBVIOUSLY essential details he needs to know (weather? our carbon footprints? what we think about Paraguay because, unknown to us, someone is being born there today who will change the course of history?)

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — March 28, 2009 @ 12:24 pm

  16. Ardis, you are making me think about what kinds of details would be good to include in my journal. I think there’s probably another element of what happened — did these people really think people would REALLY read what they wrote? I end up feeling that is so remote, but your post makes me think more carefully about considering that people actually MIGHT read what I write, and it’s worth considering what might be of value.

    Soooo, now my request that that you do a follow-up post outlining an historian’s view of important things to consider including in a personal history. If you haven’t already, of course. :)

    Pretty please?

    Comment by m&m — March 29, 2009 @ 12:42 am

  17. My great grandfather wrote in meticulous detail in his journals. For 40 years he recorded when he got up, when he lit the fire in the stove, what he had for breakfast, when he left the house for work. As my brother started transcribing it, it became a source of amusement to read through the items we were sure had no real value. In the end I probably have not read it mostly because there is too much to sort through to find the stuff I want to know. But it was important to him. Important enough to record it for 40 years.

    Will historians 100 years from now find his detail a refreshing change from the whining I used to put in my journals?

    Comment by Bruce Crow — March 30, 2009 @ 10:36 am

  18. Without a little context or meaning, I find some of these trivial facts included in journals to be tedious distractions. For example, I was reading my uncle’s autobiography over the weekend, and in one passage from the late 1970s, after a wonderful discussion about his children, my uncles says: “The New York Yankees won the World Series.” So? If he had included some more context as to why that fact was important, fine. But if I had wanted to know who won the World Series that year, I could easily find it elsewhere. Instead, it was a distraction to the stuff that preceded it.

    That sounds harsh, and I didn’t mean it to be.

    Comment by Hunter — March 30, 2009 @ 10:56 am

  19. I like m&m’s idea for suggestions on what might be valuable to include in a journal, especially in light of the examples given by Bruce and Hunter.

    The most tedious journal I ever had to transcribe for a client was one in which the daily entry pretty much amounted to how many adobes he had made that day. Not of much interest to me, but I suppose even that kind of diary could be valuable to someone studying labor or economics or material culture or something along those lines.

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — March 30, 2009 @ 11:15 am

  20. Oh, and back in the ’60s when my mother was publishing a ward newspaper, a labor missionary’s mother loaned Mom the journal entries sent home by the missionary so that Mom could write articles about the missionary’s life and labors. She really struggled, because many of his entries were limited to noting that “I got up this morning and drank my lemon juice and water.” Every morning. Lemon juice and water. And apparently nothing much else happened all day long.

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — March 30, 2009 @ 11:16 am

  21. “And apparently nothing much else happened all day long.”

    That’s why it’s important to abridge and record “the good parts version”. Goldman was right to edit good old S. Morgenstern’s record, as this sounds like the summary at the end of his immortal, one-page Chapter 4:

    “What with one thing and another, three years passed.”

    Comment by Ray — March 30, 2009 @ 11:43 am

  22. This happened here in New York City also. The Eastern States Mission closed in 1857 and only reopened in 1893, and from most accounts, you would think that nothing Mormon happened here for nearly 40 years.

    Except, of course, that something like 50,000 LDS immigrants passed through New York City on their way to Utah, some staying two and three years to earn the rest of their passage. A New York Times article from 1867 claims that there was a congregation of 300 in Manhattan, and another congregation in Brooklyn and that some local members were talking about building a “Temple” in New York. But with no missionaries here, there isn’t any branch listed for that time in official Church records.

    Who were the local members here then? I wish I knew. The Times article doesn’t mention names, and the only sources I have that mention anything are the occasional immigrant diary or autobiography that mentions living in New York City for a time.

    Finding the information about members then is frustrating and nearly impossible.

    Comment by Kent Larsen — March 30, 2009 @ 8:15 pm

  23. I had the hardest time finding out details of my great-great grandfather in Wales until I stumbled across the digitized journal of a missionary who kept a detailed account of his interactions with the family, including documenting exact names, comments about their talents and propensities, etc. Thanks to Elder John Thomas and to the Thomas family for preserving and digitizing his journal!

    Comment by Jacob F — March 31, 2009 @ 12:41 pm

  24. It’s not clear to me. Are you made at Andrew Jensen for writing the article without the names, or are you mad at the person who took the photograph for failing to record the names?

    I’m guessing Andrew Jensen was not alive when the photo was taken. If the names were not recorded, how would Andrew Jensen know the names?

    Comment by It's Not Me — April 1, 2009 @ 6:46 am

  25. Andrew Jenson both wrote the story and appears in the photograph.

    I’m not mad at him or anybody else, really, just frustrated that some key information — key, in my opinion, from the vantage point of 2009 — was omitted, and it’s ironic that a fine historian is the one who omitted it.

    I’ve enjoyed all the comments on this thread, thanks. As several of you have pointed out, there is adequate explanation for why diarists and journalists of the past haven’t included all the details I crave, and I recognize that I will no doubt be judged guilty a century from now of the same failure to include details that are key from the perspective of 2109.

    This post really wasn’t meant to condemn anybody, least of all Andrew Jenson who did so very, very much to preserve our records. Written Mormon history would today be a much different, and impoverished, shadow of what we do have, had it not been for his untiring and world-wide efforts.

    Rather, I really only intended to drag you into my world, where the answers to questions always seem to be almost but not quite within our grasp. My “thing” is to tell the stories of Saints most of us have never heard of before. One of the reasons why we have never heard of them before is, as in this Danish example, nobody at the time thought it significant to record the details.

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — April 1, 2009 @ 7:23 am

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