Reflections of a Mormon HistorianHistory and Faith
Reflections of a Mormon Historian
Richard D. Poll

on the cover:
“Institutions and movements, like the people who comprise them, have a capacity for selectively embellishing, revising, and forgetting aspects of their experience: The myths and half-truths which result are understandable but vulnerable and potentially injurious. However, the exploration of the closets of the historic past, like the investigation of other fields of knowledge, … presents no unmanageable threat to those who agree with former University of Utah sciences dean Henry Eyring when he says, ‘In this Church you have only to believe the truth. Find out what the truth is.’”

For more than forty years, Richrd D. Poll has been an articulate, thoughtful historian whose writings on the Mormon past and present have touched the lives of thousands of readers. In this collection, Poll brings together ten of his most insightful personal essays, some of which are published here for the first time. He wonders if historians and scholars should give their readers all of the “facts” or only some? Are some “truths” better left unsaid? Or is suppression in the long run more harmful? Where does one draw the line between openness and privacy? How should one deal with discrepancies regarding the way history has been recorded? Poll’s honest, refreshing voice may be more relevant and needed today than ever before.

about the author: Richard D. Poll is professor emeritus of history at Western Illinois University, where he was also Vice-President of Administration. Previously he taught American and Mormon history for over twenty years at Brigham Young University. Dr. Poll is co-author, with Eugene E. Campbell, of Hugh B. Brown: His Life and Thought; co-editor, with Thomas G. Alexander, Eugene E. Campbell, and David E. Miller, of Utah’s History; and author of Howard J. Stoddard: Founder, Michigan National Bank. Now retired, he lives in Provo, Utah, with his wife, Gene.

title page:
History and Faith
Reflections of a Mormon Historian
Richard D. Poll
Signature Books
Salt Lake City / 1989

copyright page:

for Gene
© 1989 by Signature Books. All rights reserved
Signature Books is a registered trademark of Signature Books, Inc.
Printed in the United States of America
Cover design: Easton Design
Interior design: Connie Disney
Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data
Poll, Richard Douglas, 1918-
History and faith “ reflections of a Mormon historian / Richard D. Poll
p. cm.

1. Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints–Historiography.
2. Mormon Church–Historiography. 3. Poll, Richard Douglas, 1918–

I. Title.
BX8611.P64 1989 289.3’09–dc19 88-30198
ISBN 0-941214-75-3

Cover photo: Mrs. Albert Manwaring and children, Springville, Utah, 1903; by George Edward Anderson, courtesy of Rell G. Francis

Introduction [see below]
01 – What the Church Means to People Like Me
02 – Liahona and Iron Rod Revisited
03 – God and Man in History
04 – The Happy Valley Syndrome
05 – Of Ignorance and Action 
06 – Myths, Documents, and History
07 – Our Changing Church
08 – Confronting the Skeletons
09 – God’s Human Spokesmen
10 – The Challenge of Living with Change


[p.vii] The following essays are not technical, scholarly pieces, offering newly discovered information about Mormon history or doctrine. They are interpretative and reflective products of a lifetime of active membership in and studying and teaching about the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. The moral values they emphasize are tolerance, consistency, and commitment. The conviction they share—that the pursuit of knowledge, including historical knowledge, is virtuous (D&C 130:18-19; 131:6; 88:78-79, 118)—was best epitomized a half-century ago by a dear friend and mentor: “I believe that the gateway to heaven is strait and narrow; I also believe that it is high enough for me to take my head in with me.”

The ten selections included here are all derived from public addresses. With the exception of the first, a sacrament meeting sermon, they were given in secular settings to predominantly Mormon audiences. In preparing them for publication, pertinent subsequent events have been taken into account and editorial changes have been made to give each present-day relevance. Several favorite ideas were used in more than one of the lectures, and it has not always been feasible to excise the repetitions. Nor has editing eliminated all stylistic evidence that these pieces were originally designed for a listening rather than a reading audience. The usual textual observations about bibliography have generally been deleted, and no attempt has been made to provide full documentation. The authors to whom I am primarily indebted are acknowledged at appropriate places.

Three of the essays that follow have been previously published, sometimes in a slightly different form. “What the Church Means to People Like Me,” a talk given in the Palo Alto Ward in August 1967, first appeared in Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought 2 (Winter 1967): 107-17. Because of the apparent usefulness of the Liahona-Iron [p.viii] Rod symbolism it introduced, it was subsequently printed in the RLDS Saints’ Herald 115 (15 Oct. 1968): 15-16; Sunstone 5 (July-Aug. 1980): 15-20; in Philip L. Barlow, ed., A Thoughtful Faith (Centerville, UT: Canon Press, 1986), 1-15; and in Mary L. Bradford, ed., Personal Voices: A Celebration of Dialogue (Salt Lake City: Signature Books, 1987), 49-62.

“Liahona and Iron Rod Revisited” was presented at the September 1982 meeting of the John Whitmer Historical Association in Independence, Missouri, and was published in Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought 16 (Summer 1983): 69-78.

“God and Man in History,” my presidential address to the Mormon History Association annual meeting in Los Angeles in April 1970, appeared in Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought 7 (Spring 1972): 101-109.

None of the other seven addresses has been published in its entirety before, although major elements were incorporated in presentations to Sunstone symposia in Salt Lake City and Washington, D.C., and appeared in “The Swearing Elders: Some Reflections,” Sunstone 10 (1986), 9: 14-17; and in “Dealing With Dissonance: Myths, Documents and Faith,” Sunstone 12 (May 1988): 17-21.

“The Happy Valley Syndrome” was given at Brigham Young University, 19 November 1969, as part of the “Mormonism Meets the Issues” series, sponsored by the Academics Office of the Associated Students of BYU. It had some special interest for both speaker and audience because I would soon be leaving BYU, having accepted appointment as Vice-President for Administration at Western Illinois University.

“Of Ignorance and Action” was delivered at the Brigham Young University College of Social Sciences convocation, 21 August 1969. The selection of the topic was prompted by the anti-war and anti-Communist movements then rampant.

The next four essays are derived from a series of six lectures presented under the title, “Our Changing Past: Reflections of a Mormon Historian,” at Brigham Young University in October and November 1984. The series was sponsored by the Faculty Academy, a joint enterprise of the colleges of biological and agricultural sciences, family and social sciences, and physical and mathematical sciences. In the order of their presentation, the original titles were: “Our History: Myths and Documents”; “Our Church: Continuity and Change”; “Our Heroes: Thomas L. Kane as Case Study”; “Our Secrets: [p.ix] Confronting the Skeletons”; “Our State: Utah and the Mormons”; and “Our Prophets: God’s Human Spokesmen.”

The third and fifth of these lectures have been previously published as “Quixotic Mediator: Thomas L. Kane and the Utah War” (Ogden, UT: Weber State College, 1985) and “Utah and the Mormons: A Symbiotic Relationship,” in Davis Bitton and Maureen Ursenbach Beecher, eds., New Views of Mormon History: Essays in Honor of Leonard J. Arrington (Salt Lake City: University of Utah Press, 1987), 323-41. They are not included in this collection because they are more representative of the historian’s craft than of the implications and problems of studying and writing Mormon history.

Elements from the first and sixth lectures, the conclusions from all six, and material from other personal essays and addresses are incorporated in the final essay of this collection, “The Challenge of Living With Change,” which was written specially for this volume.

I am grateful to all who reacted to the addresses when they were given, including the critics who moved me to reexamine both my facts and my faith. I acknowledge particularly the thoughtful suggestions of my brother Carl, with whom I have enjoyed an ongoing dialogue although we have lived miles apart since I first came to Brigham Young University in 1948. My daughters and sons-in-law have patiently listened and perceptively probed, and my wife, Gene, has been a source of strength since we met under a Miami moon forty-five years ago.

Thanks also to Signature Books for offering these essays to a wider audience and for making helpful editorial suggestions. The final responsibility for what follows is, of course, mine. The factual information is believed to be accurate; the interpretations, evaluations, and conclusions are for the reader to judge. I hope that those who choose to delve and ponder will be entertained, informed, perplexed, amused, bemused, stimulated, disillusioned, excited, aggravated, motivated, and inspired by what they find here.[p.1]