“A Record Kept”: Constructing Collective Memory

From the earliest moments of the Church’s founding, Latter-day Saints have kept a record of their history. The principle behind this practice stems from a scriptural mandate: “There shall be a record kept among you” (D&C 21:1), intended for the “good of the church” and “the rising generations” (D&C 69:8). Maintaining a perspective on the past, while fixing an eye toward the future, is nothing new in religious history. Accounts of God’s intervention in the affairs of mankind have been promulgated by prophets and sages since the beginning of time. These records have provided a framework of meaning that continues to shape human conceptions of morality, identity and progress.

Consistent with this long tradition of sacred record keeping, the Church has devoted substantial resources to construct a new library. This building, which, in the words of Church Historian* Marlin K. Jensen, “will rival the great libraries of the world with its facilities and collections,” is more than a physical repository of information. It is, at its heart, a vast spiritual undertaking aimed at expanding the collective memory of a people. And yet, without the laborious process of preserving tangible records, the spiritual act of remembering is diminished. Memory, both collective and personal, is a fragile thing.

The Mormon worldview compels a historical consciousness. Upon joining the Church, each member becomes a participant in the great unfolding of God’s redemptive plan. Since the beginning, individuals and societies have sought their place within the larger network of human relations and tried to make sense of divine interventions. From age to age, they advance God’s purposes by building on the accumulated wisdom of the past and avoiding the perils of disintegration. Whether learning the lessons of civilizational decline described in the Book of Mormon or following the counsel of modern leaders to write personal histories for posterity, the connection between history and religion is essential for Latter-day Saints.

An active engagement in the historical process eliminates barriers imposed by time and space and enables Latter-day Saints to situate themselves within the grand sweep of history. The Mormon historical consciousness impels one to step outside the comfortable confines of the present, develop empathy to understand the past and, in turn, lay the spiritual groundwork for future generations. A collective memory preserves the shared experiences and common language of meaning that binds a people together. To preserve history is to shape identity.

The new Church History Library is the substance behind the growing emphasis of transparency in the Church’s interaction with the public. This facility opens the door for researchers and historians of all kinds to flesh out the stories of Mormon heritage that pass through the imagination of Latter-day Saints from generation to generation. The Church cannot undertake this project on its own. It requires a groundswell of countless individuals — from within and without the Church — operating on their own personal inspiration. The story of the Church will inevitably be told as historians of good faith are given access to the library’s records and archives.

It is in the interests of the Church to play a constructive role in advancing the cathartic powers of honest and accurate history. In doing so, the Church strives to be relevant to contemporary audiences that operate under changing cultural assumptions and expectations. A careful, yet bold presentation of Church history, which delves into the contextual subtleties and nuances characteristic of serious historical writing, has become increasingly important. If a religion cannot explain its history, it cannot explain itself.

*Marlin K. Jensen concluded his assignment as Church Historian and member of the Seventy on 6 October 2012

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