If Steven C. Harper could give one thing to all Latter-day Saints it would be to enable them to think like historians.
"What I mean is, to be able to think carefully about the past and about historical documents and records, to not make assumptions, and not to confuse interpretations for the evidence itself," said Brother Harper, BYU professor of Church history and doctrine, in his presentation Aug. 14 at BYU's Campus Education Week.
Brother Harper recalled a formative experience from his youth that helped set the stage for what came later when he became a historian specializing in the study of Church history, particularly as an editor in the Joseph Smith Papers Project undertaken by the Church History Department.
At age 14, he said, he was sitting at the breakfast table and looked at the current copy of the Church News dated May 12, 1985. An article in that issue told of a newly found document, a letter purportedly written by Joseph Smith to Josiah Stowell in 1825.
That and other letters, printed in full and authenticated by experts, disturbed Brother Harper because they seemed to put Joseph Smith in an unfavorable light as a purveyor of folk magic.
"This was a world I had never learned about as a 14-year-old," he said. "I wondered why no one had taught me that in Church."
He asked his father about it.
"He said, 'I don't know; I don't understand it. I know the Book of Mormon is true.' Then he told me how he knows. He explained to me what you can know and how you can know it. He showed me that you could be firm in the faith without knowing everything. I really liked that he didn't pretend to know things that he didn't know but rested on what he did know."
The experience, Brother Harper said, became for him an anchor and a bedrock to keep him on a firm foundation until the day came when he would better understand the documents before him.
That day came some five months later when those and other documents were found to be forgeries after the man who produced them murdered two people in an effort to cover up his crimes.
"I thank my Heavenly Father for that breakfast meeting I had with my father," Brother Harper reflected. "What an interesting seed was planted that day."
He feels frustrated when he hears of Church members who allow disturbing or controversial aspects of Church history to shake their faith.
"I certainly don't fault them for wanting to know more, but they go about it in a backwards way, maybe because they don't know any other way," he said. Searching the Internet on topics of Church history "will give you a wide variety of stuff, most of which is nonsense, most of which is garbage," he added. "And if you don't have the skills for discerning garbage from stuff that's not garbage, it can be very difficult and in fact, for some, it can be very devastating."