New Assistant Church Historian and Recorder joins long line of predecessors

Credit: R. Scott Lloyd
Credit: R. Scott Lloyd
Credit: R. Scott Lloyd

A glance around the office of Reid L. Neilson, the newest Assistant Church Historian and Recorder, reveals a clear theme.

An immense world map dominates one wall, with color-coded pins denoting the places he has visited and the locations of temples, missionary training centers and area presidency headquarters in the Church.

Elsewhere in the office, a visitor notes five world globes, models of a ship and a passenger jet, a telescope and a stand containing world atlases.

“Transportation,” Brother Neilson says, giving a one-word summary of the visual ambiance. “It’s going places; it’s doing things.”

His love for world travel, people, cultures and history — especially Mormon history — was instilled in him by his grandmother, Montrue Larkin, a St. George, Utah, native who was a widow for much of her later life and used her free time to explore far-flung locales.

“So now, I look at the map, and it reminds me of what a big world it is and how little we know and that we’ve got to get out beyond ourselves,” said Brother Neilson who has had opportunity to travel extensively, including when he served as a missionary in Japan.

It is an attitude that is consistent with his new appointment. The Assistant Church Historian and Recorder, as the name denotes, is to aid the Church Historian and Recorder, which is an office that has its roots in scripture.

Brother Neilson cited Doctrine and Covenants 69:7, which instructs John Whitmer, who held that office in 1831, when the revelation was given, to “travel many times from place to place, and from church to church, that he may the more easily obtain knowledge.”

“There’s a reason, I think, why the Lord wants us to get out and see the world,” Brother Neilson commented, “and that is to obtain knowledge.”

Appointed Jan. 22, he is the 17th man in this gospel dispensation to have held the position of Assistant Church Historian, and one of two who hold it currently, the other being Richard E. Turley Jr., who has had the position since 2008.

Together, they assist Elder Steven E. Snow of the Seventy, the current Church Historian and Recorder.

“Over the past five years Reid Neilson has helped lead our Church History Department to new heights,” Elder Snow said, noting Brother Neilson’s leadership as managing director of the department, a role he still occupies concurrently with his new appointment. “I am very pleased that the First Presidency and the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles have recognized his major contributions as a disciple-scholar to Mormon studies through this appointment. He is one of the most prolific publishers of Church history content around. His passion for the Restoration is inspiring.”

Brother Neilson credits his mother, Katherine, with instilling within him that love of the Restoration and its history, noting that she would read stories to him from the history of the Church and from the scriptures when he was young.

From his father, Ralph, he gained a love for business, real estate and organizational leadership.

“I like to think I’m bilingual in both business and history,” he said, reflecting on his upbringing.

A native of Orange County, California, Brother Neilson is married to the former Shelly Anderson of Logan, Utah, whom he met three weeks before entering a doctoral program at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. He had received bachelor’s and master’s degrees at Brigham Young University and would eventually complete the Harvard Business School’s General Management Program.

The Neilson’s have four children ranging in age from 1 through 10. They love to come to his office and see his model railroad train that runs on a continuous shelf around the perimeter of the room, another element of the transportation theme.

He had settled into a career at BYU teaching Church history and doctrine, thinking that would be his life’s work. But after about three years, Elder Marlin K. Jensen of the Seventy, who was then Church Historian and Recorder, called him and asked if he would come be managing director of the Church History Department.

“It changed my life,” he said. “I got to serve with him for a couple of years and then Elder Snow for the past three years. I have loved working with these men. I’m honored to be serving now with Elder Snow and to be working alongside Brother Turley.”

Both current Assistant Church Historians stand on the shoulders of luminaries who have filled that position dating back to Wilford Woodruff, who served in it from 1856 to 1883. They include such men as Andrew Jenson, B. H. Roberts, Orson Whitney, Joseph Fielding Smith and Junius F. Wells. On past occasions, the position has been filled by more than one man at a time, as it is now. (See graphic illustration accompanying the online version of this article.)

Brother Neilson, who has published two dozen books on Church history subjects, including one on the Church’s involvement in the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair (a model antique Ferris wheel in his office is a reminder of that) said there has never been a better time to be on the ground working with Church history.

“This year will be one of the most exciting,” he said. “We’re going to reopen the Church History Museum with a completely new exhibit about the Joseph Smith era; we’re going to reopen the Granite Mountain Record Vault, which is undergoing a major renovation. We’re publishing two volumes of the Joseph Smith Papers this year. And we’re opening the Priesthood Restoration Site in Harmony, Pennsylvania, the last major historic site we’re going to do in North America.”

Asked if the addition of another Assistant Church Historian represents an expansion of the department, he said he sees it as placing a greater emphasis on thinking long-term about the history of the Church and preserving an institutional memory for that history.

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