Saturday, June 29, 2019

Romanticized Notions

One morning in the spring of 2005, when I was a senior editor at the Ensign, the new managing director of the Church’s Curriculum Department called an emergency meeting for the editorial staffs of the magazines. He had learned, he said, that in August President Hinckley was going to challenge the members of the Church to read the Book of Mormon before the end of the year. This was a big deal, he said, and we needed to discuss a strategy for supporting this initiative. What could we do with the magazines’ content to complement President Hinckley’s challenge? This initiated a brainstorming session, with all sorts of ideas being put forward. After maybe fifteen minutes, Don, the managing editor of the Ensign, spoke up. “David,” he said, “we probably ought to slow down for a minute. President Hinckley doesn’t know about this yet.”
David was new to the department, so he can be forgiven for not understanding how First Presidency Messages were created. At that time—and it had been this way since the Ensign was first published in 1971—the managing editor of the Ensign created First Presidency Messages, usually by recycling old material from talks and articles by members of the First Presidency. He would then submit these for approval or alteration. Sometimes with President Hinckley, because he was so vigorous and was speaking frequently in various locations around the world, some of his messages were simply compilations of quotes from his various speeches. But for this particular message, the Book of Mormon challenge, the text was recycled from a talk President Hinckley had given in October 1979 as a member of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles.
In that talk, Elder Hinckley challenged members of the Church to read the entire Book of Mormon in the 183 days between the date of his talk and April 6, 1980, the sesquicentennial of the organization of the Church. But because he was merely a member of the Quorum of the Twelve and not the prophet, I don’t think this challenge gained much traction among Church members. I was a recently returned missionary in 1979 and paid close attention to general conference, but I don’t recall any sort of widespread excitement to follow Elder Hinckley’s proposal. In 2005, however, he was the prophet, so this challenge became a BIG DEAL.
I never asked Don how he came up with the idea. I suppose he was just looking through old Hinckley talks and came across this one. He probably thought it would fly, and so he changed the dates (read the book between August and the end of the year rather than between October and April) and also changed the number of chapters that members would have to read each day (one and a half chapters instead of just over one per day). Don then submitted this proposed message to the First Presidency, and obviously President Hinckley thought it was a grand idea. After all, it had been his own idea some twenty-six years earlier. But this time, people would pay attention. And the rest is history.
My point here, though, is that most members of the Church are like our new managing director. They don’t understand things like this. They don’t understand how the Church works in so many ways, and so they have some very unrealistic notions about things like revelation and inspiration. Sometimes it’s a lot more prosaic than we imagine it to be.
In our next issue of BYU Studies Quarterly, we will be publishing an article about the history of name changes for the Church over its relatively short lifespan. There are some surprises here for most Latter-day Saints. One is that the name we now use (more than ever since President Nelson’s renewed emphasis), the one “revealed” in D&C 115, was actually in use before the revelation was given. In other words, it didn’t come out of the blue as a new and novel name. There’s a significant backstory here that I don’t want to give away, so I’d invite you to read the article when it is published in late August or early September.
But a good deal of our history is like this. When you know the details, you realize how romanticized the version is that most members of the Church believe. I guess there’s no getting around this. But so it goes. Whenever I run into these romanticized notions, I can’t help but hear the echo of Don’s voice in my head: “President Hinckley doesn’t know about this yet.”


  1. Joshua PiersantiJune 30, 2019 at 8:42 AM

    Thank you, this is very enlightening!

    You say that church members "don’t understand things like this" and "they have some very unrealistic notions about things like revelation and inspiration." Where do these "unrealistic notions" come from?

  2. Thanks so much for sharing.

  3. Hi Joshua. You wouldn't happen to be related to my friend and publisher Steve Piersanti, would you? I think the unrealistic notions come from the distance that we inevitably experience because of the size of the Church. My grandfather told of being in a stake presidency in North Ogden. They needed to build a new meetinghouse, so they called President McKay. He told them to pick out a couple of good properties and let him know when they had found them. When they had located two feasible spots, they called him. He drove out himself to look at them. He liked them both, so he told them to buy both properties. This sort of interaction is unthinkable in today's impersonal church. We tend to view these men from a distance and put them on a pedestal. We assume they are inspired about everything. We don't understand very well the human input that happens all the time in even major decisions.