So said the Lord through the Prophet Joseph Smith on the day the Church was organized. We have been a record-keeping people ever since, to a phenomenal degree – not that we have notes on everything to the level of detail we might sometimes want, but the records available for searching, whether held by the Church Archives or deposited in other repositories (university libraries, state archives, historical societies, Daughters of Utah Pioneers, the archives of other Restoration churches, etc.), or remaining in private hands provides such an abundance of ever-accumulating material that we may never fully assimilate all there is to understand.
For the past two weeks, and continuing on into May and June, the holdings of the Church Library and its Archives are being carted – by dolly, by library cart, by fork lift – from their old location in one wing of the Church Office Building through underground corridors and tunnels to their new home in the just-completed Church History Library just east of the Conference Center and just north of the Relief Society Building. The new building has been specially built as an archives building, balancing the competing interests of state-of-the-art technology to preserve and protect this wondrous but fragile heritage, with the need for access by students, scholars, and the interested public.
One part of the enormous collection which the staff has spent the past months tagging and boxing and shrink-wrapping on pallets to prepare for this move, is the set of books known as “locality records” – minute books, reports, and other records from every branch, ward, stake, district, mission – and whatever other words can be used for a unit – in the Church, dating back to the mid-19th century. These are mostly handwritten minutes, recorded in usually hard-bound notes and ledgers of every possible size, from tiny pocket memorandum books to huge membership ledgers that require a six-foot-long table to support them when they are opened.
In these books are recorded the institutional life and much of the personal history of our people from the time a branch began down to our own era. It’s often where the best untold stories lie.
Depending on the time and place, these locality records include membership records, indications of tithing paid and courts held (although both such types of records have generally been pulled into a separate collection, large pockets of such notes remain buried in ward minutes here and there), and – best of all, for me, and the point of this post – the minutes of all kinds of meetings, held by the ward, the priesthood quorums, and the various auxiliaries.
Church minutes of the 19th and early 20th century are the mother lode of local and family history. Not only do they record the dates of meetings and the general outline of songs, prayers and talks, they very often record summaries of talks and testimonies, detailed notes of assignments and presentations, and records of dues paid and donations received. If you have Mormon ancestors, or are researching the life of almost any figure from Mormon history, these are the records to search: In them I have read humble testimonies given by women who otherwise leave no personal trace on church records; angry encounters between brothers or ward members competing for control that would leave any of our Bloggernacle snark far in the dust, records of the donation of eggs to a temple fund and carpet rags to a project to relieve the poor, the titles of poems recited by ancestors at ward fund raisers, the titles of books borrowed from ward libraries, assignments given to individuals for talks or welfare work or roles in ward dramatic presentations, along with reports of the fulfillment (or non-) of those assignments.
To illustrate, here is an image from the minutes kept in 1888 by the Huntsville (Utah) Ward’s Second Quorum of Deacons. It’s a typical minute book, and you see a typical spread here – handwritten but generally legible (if the reproduction were large enough), densely written from margin to margin. If you spend a few moments getting used to the handwriting, you’ll soon begin to pick out words and names. In some cases, the name is a very familiar one: David O. McKay.
The future Church president appears in the minutes here as a 15-year-old deacon (and in the accompanying picture as a 16-year-old), the second counselor to his quorum’s newly sustained president. Can you pick out the entry on 6 December 1888 (top of the lefthand page) where the young second counselor tells his brethren that he “felt his inability to fill his position when he could see others that were more capable to occupy it than himself”? Nevertheless, you see that he “felt to press on with the help of the Lord.” Reading through the rest of the minutes, you’ll see Deacon McKay’s name pop up repeatedly – giving a talk about the Bible, giving a talk about Joseph Smith.
In later pages, you would find entries recording that he gave a short sketch of his own life, that he spoke about the Book of Mormon (with a record of the actual scriptural stories he chose to illustrate his talk). He conducts meetings. He admonishes the boys that if they did not attend their quorum meetings with the desire to learn, they would get no benefit from their attendance. He keeps the minutes, he takes the roll, he teaches classes.
No one knew, when these minute were recorded, the position that David O. McKay would eventually hold, although it seems obvious even then that he was destined for some kind of leadership role. These are precisely the same kinds of notes that appear in the minute books for every active church member of the past – some took part more than others, some attended more often than others, some clerks and secretaries were more diligent than others, but if you’re interested in the life of a Mormon of the past, the minute books are a source of personal glimpses like no other. Even if your great-uncle wrote what everyone considers as the definitive family history, chances are he did not go through these minute books, so there is still much for you to uncover yourself.
If you visit the Archives to do research for an historical project or family history, leave plenty of time for the minute books. The professional staff can help you identify which wards your family lived in, which will narrow down the search considerably, but because these books are not indexed and requite that you skim page by page looking for the names that interest you, it can be a slow process. Rewarding when you find your grandfather playing the role of a pirate in an MIA play, or your grandmother reporting on her Relief Society assignment, but slow.
It seems to me today a long time from now until June 22 when the new Archives will open. I almost obsessively imagine the records being packed, transported, and unpacked, ready for use again. Truly, the Church Archives, the best kept secret in the Church, are also the Church’s crown jewels.