Resources for Tough Questions about Church History

Keith Erekson

Helpful resources and strategies for responding to difficult Church history questions.

Some Church history topics can be difficult to understand and explain. The difficulty comes in part because our history blends human activities with holy actions; for example, it includes the visits of heavenly messengers, the translation of ancient records, the teachings of early Church leaders about plural marriage or race, and other issues that raise questions. Many people, both in and out of the Church, are asking these questions in good faith, and they deserve the best possible answers.

The Church has published numerous resources for answering questions about Church history with accurate information and relevant context. These resources appear in multiple locations under various headings. This guide is designed to help locate the best sources for specific needs. All the resources identified here are on the Church’s website and in the Gospel Library app,1 and most of them are available in at least 10 languages.2

As we strive to help friends and family with tough questions, we should first and foremost listen carefully and express love and validation.3 Listening helps to identify exactly what a friend needs. At that point, we may need to draw on some published resources to help. We should also rely on the guidance of the Holy Ghost and actively seek the peace that comes from the Lord, the Prince of Peace. Lastly, we should always remember that the past was different from today and that we don’t know everything about it.4

Saints: The Story of the Church of Jesus Christ in the Latter Days

This projected four-volume set tells the international history of the Church from its founding to the 21st century. Saints also features the stories of individual Latter-day Saints who made covenants with God and strove to keep them. Along the way, the volumes also discuss tough topics from Church history in historical context. Topics are highlighted in the main narrative, and additional sources and links are available in the endnotes.

For example, volume 1 includes accounts of the First Vision, the translation of the Book of Mormon and the book of Abraham, and Joseph Smith’s teachings about women and about our mother in heaven. It also describes the introduction of plural marriage, with stories about Joseph Smith’s marriages to six women (Emma Hale, Fanny Alger, Louisa Beaman, Mary Lightner, and Emily and Eliza Partridge).5 Volume 2 addresses the origins of past priesthood and temple restrictions, the Mountain Meadows Massacre, and the public practice (and subsequent ending) of plural marriage in Utah.6 An accompanying podcast provides additional context and commentary from Church leaders and scholars.

Gospel Topics Essays

This series of essays provides answers to common questions about Church history, with extensive documentation. The essays were drafted by scholars, approved by the First Presidency and Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, and published between 2013 and 2015.

Individual essays address the accounts of the First Vision; the translation of the Book of Mormon and the translation of the book of Abraham from papyrus scrolls; DNA studies of native peoples and the Book of Mormon; the beginnings, practice, and ending of plural marriage; the origins and end of priesthood and temple restrictions; the Mountain Meadows Massacre; teachings about women, mother in heaven, and becoming like God; and the Church’s relationship with Christianity.

Church History Topics

In connection with the multivolume history Saints, scholars in the Church History Department have written nearly 200 short essays to provide additional information and context about people, events, and places from Church history. These include explanations of Joseph Smith’s participation in treasure seeking, Bible translation, Masonry, and the destruction of a newspaper in Nauvoo; divining rods and seer stones; critics of the Book of Mormon; forged brass plates from Kinderhook, Illinois; the Danites; Brigham Young’s succession as Church President; Indian slavery among the pioneers; antipolygamy actions by the United States government; early experiences with dissenters and other Latter Day Saint movements; and changes in Word of Wisdom practices.

Gospel Topics

While “Gospel Topics” sounds similar to “Gospel Topics essays,” the two have different origins and are in different locations. The Gospel Topics series consists of hundreds of short pieces describing the Church’s doctrines, principles, and practices. The entries began as part of the reference book True to the Faith (published in 2004) and were later moved online, where they have been expanded and updated. They also include links to the longer Gospel Topics essays.

Among the many short entries are summaries about Book of Mormon geography, Church finances and commercial activities, diversity, LGBTQ issues, same-sex marriage, and helps for answering gospel questions.

Answers to Church History Questions

This series of short videos presents conversations with historians on many of the subjects mentioned above, including translations, plural marriage, pioneers, violence, and the Word of Wisdom.

Revelations in Context

This volume of essays about revelations in the Doctrine and Covenants describes the background of the revelations and identifies connections between them. Among the essays are contextual explanations about seer stones and divining rods; Joseph Smith’s prophecies about war, Zion, and financing temporal affairs; how plural marriage began and ended; the end of priesthood and temple restrictions; and changes in Word of Wisdom practices.

Joseph Smith Papers

The Joseph Smith Papers project seeks to assemble all known Joseph Smith documents, including revelations, translations, histories, and personal records. These materials—which will ultimately be published in more than two dozen printed volumes—are freely available on the project website. The website features a Reference drop-down menu with links to all known accounts of the First Vision, records describing the gold plates and the Book of Mormon translation, documents about the restoration of the priesthood, and materials used in the translation of the book of Abraham. A glossary on the site includes historical meanings of words and links to documents that use them, including translate, seer stone (with photos), laying on of hands, the people (quorum) who first received the endowment, and Danites. The Joseph Smith Papers hosts a podcast on the First Vision that includes an episode about Joseph Smith’s accounts of the vision, as well as a podcast on the priesthood restoration that includes a discussion of race and the priesthood.

Ask Us

The Church History Library serves as the official repository for the Church’s most important historical records. The library hosts an online catalog where millions of records are available digitally. Our archivists, librarians, and historians have published research guides to help with researching numerous topics from Church history. Visitors may submit a question by clicking “Ask Us” in the library’s catalog and website.