Called as Church Historian and Recorder in April 2005, Elder Marlin K. Jensen of the Seventy told the closing-session audience at the Church History Symposium that he feels no obligation more keenly than to "infuse Church members with a sense of the practical spiritual benefit and the eternal importance — not to mention the joy — of acquiring a knowledge of Church history."
"For this reason I have titled my remarks today, 'Making a Case for Church History,' " he said. "Part of the appeal of such a title surely comes from my legal training. But more importantly, it seems in keeping with the Lord's way of encouraging His children to do the things they ought to do."
The strongest case he can make for it, he said, is that the Lord places great value upon it. "I have always found appealing the simple thought that what the Lord and His inspired leaders regard as important, we ought to regard as important — else what's a prophet for?"
Elder Jensen cited several latter-day revelations to show that God regards it important to have "a record kept," including Sections 21, 47, 69 and 85 of the Doctrine and Covenants.
"The Prophet Joseph Smith took these directions from the Lord very seriously," Elder Jensen noted. He observed that the translation of the Book of Mormon would have educated Joseph for the task in many ways, because record keeping is an unmistakable theme of the book.
Still, it wouldn't have been easy for the young prophet, who was neither a writer nor a historian by training and inclination, Elder Jensen said. "Joseph's frustrated exclamation concerning record keeping contained in an 1832 letter to William W. Phelps speaks volumes: 'Oh, Lord God,' he wrote, 'deliver us in due time from the little narrow prison, almost as it were total darkness, of paper, pen and ink, and a crooked, broken, scattered and imperfect language.' "
Yet in spite of his limitations, "a steady stream of revelations, translations, letters, journals, discourses, and histories emerged under his hand or at his direction," the Church Historian mused. "He truly is the father of Latter-day Saint history."
"In this connection it is appropriate to note that currently about 25 historians and editors in the Church History Department are toiling five days a week as participants in The Joseph Smith Papers project," he said. "Their stated objective — to be accomplished over about a 20-year period — is 'to publish every extant document written by [Joseph] Smith or by his scribes in his behalf, as well as other records that were created under his direction or that reflect his personal instruction or involvement' (Journals, Vol 1, p. xv). Think of it: It will take 25 scholars working five days a week to get their arms around the documentary output of a busy and often distracted Church president who was neither trained for nor inclined to record keeping and whose productive years totaled at most about 16! Can there be any doubt that the power of the Lord rested upon Joseph Smith throughout his earthly ministry?"
Speaking of the new Church History Library to be dedicated June 20 of this year, Elder Jensen said that it will become "the Mecca of Church history to which all interested people from all corners of the world will come."
He added, "I invite every member of the Church to make the acquisition of Church history a lifelong pursuit."
Elder Jensen said a knowledge of Church history provides a godly perspective. He cited Doctrine and Covenants passages stating that God is simultaneously aware of all things past, present and future.
"In our quest to become like God, knowing of 'things as they are, and as they were, and as they are to come' provides us with a view of life that is God-like," he said. "This is of crucial importance."
Speaking in particular of the sermon in Alma 5, he noted the frequent use of the word remember in the scriptures, particularly the Book of Mormon. He pointed out that in the sermon, Alma ties the concept of remembering the past to perspectives of the present and the future.
"The importance of the eternal perspective taught by Alma is reflected in the ceremonies of the Church's temples as well," he remarked.
Elder Jensen spoke of the power of historical narrative or stories in influencing men and women toward faith and righteousness.
Examples abound from scriptures and LDS history, he said, but added that some come from the lives of ordinary Church members.
As an example he quoted an excerpt from the personal history of Thomas Briggs, a 19th-century British convert to the Church who lost virtually all his material possessions in a fire at his farm in Salt Lake City.
When a neighbor brought him the bad news as he was returning home with a load of wood, he told the neighbor, "Last fall I came to Utah with nothing, and I had nothing now, and that I always dedicated everything to the Lord and if He thought fit to make a burnt offering of it, well and good."
In the personal history, Briggs wrote, "I comforted my wife the best I could. Then I went to work with a stronger will than ever. I asked my Heavenly Father to give me strength of body, and prayed that He would help me through as He had many times before."
Elder Jensen commented, "A story like this provides inspiration and balm for every man's soul."
The Church historian concluded by sharing a personal experience involving Church history. His voice reflecting the emotional impact the experience had upon him, he told of being in Palmyra, N.Y., and visiting the Sacred Grove in 2007 with his wife, Kathy.
"As we sat together on that little bench, in that sacred setting, my heart filled with love and appreciation for my wife and for the Restoration of the gospel that gives such purpose and meaning to our relationship and to our efforts to preside over a wonderful and ever-growing family," he said. "In the spirit of that moment I turned to Kathy and did something I have not done enough during our marriage: I bore my testimony just to her. I told her I really knew that somewhere near where we were then sitting, Joseph Smith had seen God and Christ and had been called as a prophet to restore the only true Church."
He said that when He finished, his wife bore her testimony to him.
"It was one of the finest moments of our married life and the most persuasive experience I might share about the Spirit emanating from the stories, people and places of Church history," he said.