Why top Mormon leaders’ private writings may never become public

The Salt Lake Tribune/January 9, 2016

By Peggy Fletcher Stack

If you want to know about Mormon seer stones, secret polygamous wives, divine visions, personal revelations, bank failures and baptisms, callings and excommunications, jail terms and healing miracles, debates over prophetic succession and disagreements about the nature of Zion — they're all there, in documents, journals, correspondence and histories published by the LDS Church itself.

Materials from the first decades of Mormonism in the early 1800s through the end of the 19th century have been scrutinized, analyzed and criticized from every possible angle and in public.

The modern church? Not so much.

How, for example, did the new policy dubbing LDS same-sex couples "apostates" and barring their children from religious rites come to be? Did it originate with the apostles, the governing First Presidency or President Thomas S. Monson himself? Did it go through typical channels? Were all the higher-ups in agreement?

The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints declined to provide specifics, which means members and researchers may never know the full story.

That's because the only people who can say what transpired in such cases are Mormon prophets, apostles and other top leaders, and their journals — as well as the minutes of their meetings — are off-limits to researchers, or at least severely restricted.

This protocol remains in place even as LDS leaders are opening up about the faith's founder through the landmark Joseph Smith Papers Project and boosting transparency with essays on Mormon history and theology.

In the 1980s, assistant church historian Richard E. Turley explains, the Utah-based faith began requiring all Mormon general authorities to sign an agreement, pledging that any "work product" — including their "journals, speeches, photographs and other records of enduring value" — belongs to the church's history department "for long-term preservation."

The Church History Library, he says, "seeks to make as much information as it can publicly available from these records within legal, ethical, and religious boundaries and practical resource constraints."

The agreement is fairly common among large organizations and research libraries, Turley says, but Mormonism has unique concerns, namely, "to protect church members in their confidential communications and discussions, and to preserve the sanctity of ceremonies and blessings."

Though routine, the rule already has had a profound impact on the potential to write a rich and honest account of 20th- and 21st-century Mormonism — a time when the LDS Church was emerging from polygamy, when it struggled with what it wanted to be amid debates about principles and programs, when it faced questions about evolution, communism and ecumenism, when it finally jettisoned its racist past, when it confronted feminism and when its understanding of gay rights morphed.

In a nutshell, this journals policy gives the institutional church, particularly employees in the history department, the final say in what portions of an apostle's dairies, if any, are available to researchers, going back to the early days of the 20th century.

"I view this as counterproductive to the church," says writer Greg Prince, who co-wrote "David O. McKay and the Rise of Modern Mormonism," a groundbreaking volume on the life and administration of the faith's ninth president.

Given the sacred mandate for all Mormons to keep journals and their immense value, he says, it makes no sense to block access to them or to hand over control of personal accounts to others.

The policy could have a self-censoring effect on apostles, for instance, robbing their retellings of any frankness, raw details or negative emotions. It could yield sanitized versions of touchy topics. Or worse, it could prompt some Mormon leaders to forgo recording their remembrances at all.

The absence of such chronicles, Prince says, has three potential losses:

• It deprives the individual of the kind of introspection that can come from writing a daily diary.

• It denies immediate and extended families of LDS leaders the most intimate record of the ministry that became the focal point of their loved ones' lives.

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