Title: What You Don’t Know About the 100 Most Important Events in Church History
Authors: Casey Paul Griffiths, Susan Easton Black, Mary Jane Woodger
Publisher: Deseret Book
Year Published: 2017
Number of Pages: 336
Reviewed by Trevor Holyoak for the Association for Mormon Letters
I really don’t like the title of this book. It is the sort of title that is often referred to as “clickbait,” to get people to read an online article. It is also an insult to the reader’s intelligence for an author to assume what they don’t know. The preface indicates that the authors are at least somewhat aware of this, and begins almost with an apology, admitting that “such lists present an excuse for sensationalized writing and shallow analysis.”
However, it goes on to explain that the book was inspired by another book called “The 100 Most Important Events in Christian History,” and that such lists “can impel a person to think critically about events, stories, and people.” Casey Griffiths decided to create a list for the history of the Latter-day Saints, enlisting the help of Mary Jane Woodger and Susan Easton Black. They also received assistance from their colleagues at BYU and used resources such as the Joseph Smith Papers.
The book is a large format paperback, printed on fairly cheap-feeling paper. There are small photographs accompanying each of the 100 short (mostly 2 to 3 pages) chapters, but they are all black and white and sadly most are not very high quality, possibly due to the paper used. This might have made a good coffee table book in a different format, but I suppose it’s more likely to be read in this form.
The book lists the events in chronological order. Many should be quite well known, in which case they have tried to include lesser known information. For instance, for the First Vision (event number 1), they include details from multiple accounts from Joseph Smith and his contemporaries, concluding by noting that “the details are less significant than the central message of the reality of God the Father and his Son Jesus Christ and of the Savior’s infinite atonement. President Henry B. Eyring said that the First Vision ‘represents that moment when Joseph learned there was a way for the power of the Atonement of Jesus Christ to be unlocked fully. Because of what Joseph saw and what began at this moment, the Savior was able, through this great and valiant servant and through others that He sent, to restore power and privilege. That power and privilege allows us, and all who will live, to have the benefits of Jesus Christ’s Atonement work in our lives’” (page 3).
There are many lesser known events and details in the book that tend to be used elsewhere by critics of the church to try to trip people up by presenting them in the worst possible light. Here, I was glad to see that they are explained in their proper context, in a manner that will help the reader to understand them and, in many cases, actually strengthen their faith. Some of these include the translation of the Book of Mormon by use of a seer stone in a hat, the gradual enforcement of the Word of Wisdom (including the difficulty some early leaders had in keeping it), the failure of the Kirtland Safety Society, the Mountain Meadows Massacre, and some details of the initiation, practice, and cessation of plural marriage (although Joseph Smith’s practice of it unfortunately was essentially ignored).
One thing in the book that I have wondered about but don’t remember seeing anywhere else is whether Martin Harris actually ended up having to sell his farm to pay for the first printing of the Book of Mormon. All I knew was that he had put it up as collateral. It turns out that he did lose it, selling it for 20 dollars an acre to a family that had come from England with $3,000 worth of gold.
Another topic I found interesting was the Mormon Reformation. Jedediah M. Grant, a member of the First Presidency, became known as “Mormon Thunder” for his zealous speeches inviting the recently arrived Saints in Utah to repent. In 1856-1857, a series of 27 questions were asked, which I’ve sometimes seen referred to online without context as Home Teaching questions. These questions range from “Have you committed murder, by shedding innocent blood, or consenting thereto?” to “Have you branded an animal that you did not know to be your own?” (photo on page 141). It was during this time that Brigham Young and other leaders were given to using harsh language which led to the rumors of so-called blood atonement. This led to a later declaration from the First Presidency and Quorum of the Twelve saying, “This Church views the shedding of human blood with the utmost abhorrence… We denounce as entirely untrue the allegation which has been made that our church favors or believes in the killing of persons who leave the church or apostatize from its doctrines” (page 142). Jedediah M. Grant literally worked himself to death calling people to repentance, dying in 1856.
I was pleased to see in the chapter on Lorenzo Snow’s revelation on tithing that it was more historically accurate than the movie the church made in the 1960s called “The Windows of Heaven.” The movie depicts a drought in St. George in 1899, and the inhabitants are promised by the prophet, Lorenzo Snow, that if they pay their tithing, rain will come. Although there was a drought, and Lorenzo Snow went on a tour of settlements in southern Utah preaching tithing due to the Church’s indebtedness at the time, there is no record of him promising them rain. That detail, which is the premise of the movie, turned out to be fabricated by his son some 30 years after the events occurred. The chapter talks about the financial crisis, the trip to St. George where the revelation about tithing was received (that part did happen), and the consequent preaching from settlement to settlement about tithing.
Having a daughter currently serving a mission, I was interested in the chapters about the first sister missionaries and the recent lowering of ages of missionaries. “In 1898 Amanda Inez Knight and Lucy Jane (Jennie) Brimhall were called as the first full-time proselyting female missionaries. One reason for this dramatic break from the past was that these women could provide an opposite view of the stereotype of Latter-day Saint women in the postpolygamy era” (page 190). One story told is that these two women were tracting, and ran across a woman who said: “You don’t know as much about them as I do, or you would not carry their trash around.” Inez responded saying they had lived among Mormons in Utah all their life. “She then asked if I knew Mary —. I answered no. ‘Well then you’re a liar; you either did not come from Utah, or else you know her, because Mormon Elders took her out six years ago.’ She followed me to each gate through the street, to inform them at each house who I was. Girl-like, I went home and cried” (page 191).
The previously noted lowering of ages for missionary service was event number 100, occurring in 2013. This had the effect of increasing the number of missionaries serving from 58,500 to 80,333 within a year, including 11,000 more sister missionaries. “Yong-in Shin, president of the Korea Daejeon Mission, said that the additional sisters in his mission reported more baptisms than the elders. He explained the reason: ‘Korean women usually do not want male strangers, some barely past adolescence, visiting them when they are alone, but two cheerful young American women are another story’” (page 308).
In spite of the title, I found this book to be a very enjoyable read. Since there were only a few pages for each chapter, there wasn’t the space to go very deeply into any of the events, but it makes a good introduction to a study of church history. The interested reader will be able to find other good books (the Books Cited list is nearly eight pages long) that go into much more detail for many of the events. And, as previously mentioned, this is a good place to learn about some of the events in church history that are sometimes stumbling blocks.