‘History is about people’: What YSAs learned about Church history at Utah Area YSA conference

How the Gather Together Conference of the Utah Area YSA Conference taught Saints a thing or two about history

In addition to the live concerts, speed dating and ancient Tabernacle tours at the Together in Christ Utah Area YSA Conference, many Latter-day Saints took the opportunity to look backward and strengthen their knowledge in the history of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

Chloe Myres, a young single adult from Holladay, Utah, said Saints can trust in the Lord to overcome questions about the past, “focusing on things that are really important ... with eyes of faith. ... Even if we don’t quite understand everything in the past, we can have faith in what we do, even in the uncertainty.”

Some participants in the conference — held at the Salt Palace Convention Center in Salt Lake City on Saturday, Aug. 19 — visited classes on various events in the restored Church, like the First Vision. Others seized the opportunity to ask questions at one of several Church history Q&As. Following are summaries of some Church history events held at the conference.

A man and woman standing next to a projection screen and talking to a group of young single adults.
Emily Deason and Matt Godfrey answer questions about Church History in a class at the Together in Christ Utah Area YSA Conference at the Salt Palace Convention Center in Salt Lake City on Saturday, Aug. 19, 2023. | Joel Randall, Church News

Better understanding Church history

In a Church history question-and-answer session, Emily Deason and Matt Godfrey answered concerns from audience members about the history of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and shared ways to better understand the past.

Many people think about history as “this objective collection of facts,” said Godfrey, a general editor of the Joseph Smith Papers. “And that’s not really what history is, because history is about people. Historians are people who write history. We all have biases, ... so much of what is history is the way that a historian is interpreting surviving sources that we have.”

He said that he wishes there were more documents that outlasted the test of time, but because many of them didn’t, “there are some things that we just don’t have the documents and resources to be able to answer.”

Godfrey and Deason both warned against “presentism,” or looking down on people in the past based on the current culture instead of the culture that they were in at the time.

“People in the past live in a different time and in a different country and speak a different language,” said Deason, a Church history consultant at the Church History Library. “... We have to break that down and come out of that comfort we have in what you know to be true and comfortable with and realize that may not have been the case for them.”

The duo answered questions about the early history of the Church and the Prophet Joseph Smith’s involvement in it, such as why there are multiple accounts of the First Vision.

“Memories mean different things to us at different periods in our life,” said Godfrey, “and the way that we talk about spiritual experiences, too, changes depending on who we’re talking to.” An account of how he got his testimony, for instance, would sound different to his elders quorum than it would to a Primary class.

Godfrey said, “I’m really grateful that we have these four different accounts, because when you put them together, I think you get a much more well-rounded view of what was on Joseph’s mind when he went into the Sacred Grove,” such as how he was seeking personal salvation, not just an answer of which church was true.

Attendees at the Gather Together Conference, riding up and down escalators.
Attendees file in at the Gather Together Conference, part of the Utah Area YSA Conference, at the Salt Palace Convention Center in Salt Lake City on Saturday, Aug. 19, 2023. | Megan Nielsen, Deseret News

Saints Unscripted Podcast: When facing questions

In a live recording of a Saints Unscripted Podcast episode, when asked how studying Church history has strengthened her faith in Jesus Christ, Sister J. Anette Dennis, first counselor in the Relief Society general presidency, responded, “I love studying Church history. But one of the things that has helped me to have a stronger testimony is that Christ is so involved in this work — this is His work.”

“Because He can work through very imperfect people,” she continued, noting how grateful she was that God is willing to work with those that are imperfect because she herself has so many imperfections.

“If He’s there, there’s always hope,” Sister Dennis concluded.

President Mark L. Pace, Sunday School general president, added his thoughts by beginning with a scripture from Doctrine and Covenants 88:118. “It says to seek out of ‘the best books.’ … For me, that is very inspiring — seek out of the best books, not the worst. Seek out the best sources you can find.”

He also advised attendees to consider what they feel through the Spirit. “The Lord is reaching out to us, and He wants to see that the fact that we have questions is great.” 

“Sometimes we read things, and they cause doubt,” noted President Susan H. Porter, Primary general president. “We feel upset, we feel darkness, we feel confusion. That is a clear indication that the Spirit has left. It’s not an indication that the gospel is not true or that Joseph Smith is not a Prophet. ‘That which is of God [bringeth] light’ (Doctrine and Covenants 50:24),” she said. 

“So when we’re doing that study, and we’re feeling fear and confusion and darkness, that is a clear indication that our study has not brought us closer to God but has brought us confusion and darkness.”

Sister Dennis talked about how she doesn’t have all her questions answered, “but my faith is anchored in Him,” she said. “Faith is a choice. If you are walking by faith, you aren’t going to have hard evidence.”

She then invited the audience to “choose to believe” that God loves them and has a plan for them.

A portrait painting of the Prophet Joseph Smith.
Several classes at the Together in Christ Utah Area YSA Conference talked about what young adults can learn from the Prophet Joseph Smith. | Provided by The Joseph Smith Papers/Church History Library

Joseph as a friend

If good friends lead each other to God, how has the Prophet Joseph Smith led others to God? Anthony R. Sweat, a professor of Church history and doctrine at BYU, asked the room so overflowing with attendees that some were even sitting on the floor.

Sweat stated that Joseph would not have been a good friend if he did not lead others to God.

He went through 10 ways that Joseph Smith showed others how to be a good friend. Some of those ways included loyalty, forgiveness and sacrifice.

“People love to talk about the fallibility of prophets,” Sweat commented. However, “where prophets are infallible is in their witness of Jesus Christ.” And that is what is most important. 

Related Story
Seeking truth and developing unshakable faith

Sweat explained to the audience that Joseph Smith revealed the character of God to the world on a broader scale than was understood at the time. He also restored the everlasting covenant and taught that people have eternal value. 

“What knowledge would you be devoid of if you did not have the knowledge that you have that Joseph gave?” was a question posed to the audience. 

Sweat says that he shudders to think what that would be like for him.

He also talked about the idea that people don’t need to believe that Joseph was a perfect person in order to be a true Prophet: “That’s a false premise,” said Sweat. He invited the audience to consider, when hearing negative things about Joseph Smith, to ask themselves: “Is the premise you set up true?”

If the premise is that, in order for someone to be a Prophet of God, he has to be perfect, then your premise is wrong, Sweat noted.

“In spite of my imperfections, does the Lord work with me?” he asked. The answer is “yes,” because “the gospel isn’t about perfect people,” he stated.

“The gospel is a celebration of God extending His grace to work with imperfect people.” And that includes prophets.

Sweat then shared a quote by the Prophet Joseph, who said, “I never told you I was perfect; but there is no error in the revelations which I have taught.”

One attendee, Adelaide Cook, shared after the class that “the idea of having Joseph Smith be your friend is one that’s new to me; but it’s also so appealing because I can think of Joseph Smith as somebody that I can forgive, somebody that’s not on a pedestal, that’s not unreachable.”

A man speaking from a pulpit to many young single adults.
Steve Harper talks about the First Vision in a class at the Together in Christ Utah Area YSA Conference at the Salt Palace Convention Center in Salt Lake City on Saturday, Aug. 19, 2023. | Joel Randall, Church News

Lessons from the First Vision

Steve Harper, a professor of Church history and doctrine at Brigham Young University, gave a class titled “Hear Him: How Anxious Joseph Smith Found Jesus Christ and How You Can Too.” He explained the process that the Prophet of the Restoration followed to receive the First Vision and how today’s young adults can also find strength in their Savior.

“He could find no church built on the gospel of Jesus Christ that redeemed people from their sins,” said Harper. “So, he cried out to the Lord for mercy. ... He recognized that he needed knowledge and power from God. Learning how to get it became his highest priority.”

After reading James 1:5, that “If any of you lack wisdom, let him ask of God,” Joseph was determined to actively seek wisdom. Harper said, “He was not passive. ... He was going to act on the revelation he received.”

His response to the First Vision was to trust in the redeeming power of Christ and choose hope over despair. “I promise it will work for you,” said Harper. “... Your Redeemer and mine is not asking for perfection; He is asking for authenticity. If we give Him our heart and a willing mind, He will make us perfect.”

A projection screen with two equations: “I = 0” and “I + Jesus Christ = infinity.”
Steve Harper shares two equations — “I = 0” and “I + Jesus Christ = infinity.” — at the Together in Christ Utah Area YSA Conference on Saturday, Aug. 19, 2023. | Joel Randall, Church News

Harper shared two equations to his young adult audience. The first is “I = 0,” a scriptural offering from Moses, who said, “I know that man is nothing” (Moses 1:10). The second equation is “I + Jesus Christ = infinity.”

“You plus Jesus Christ equals infinite grace, infinite power to repent, infinite forgiveness, infinite opportunities to be redeemed, rescued and healed and helped and loved and saved,” said Harper. “You and I cannot exhaust the Son of God’s infinity of fullness. There is enough for all of us to have all of Him. ... But here’s the thing: That plus sign is up to you.”

Young adults sitting in a dark room and listening.
Young single adults listen at the Together in Christ Utah YSA Conference at the Salt Palace Convention Center in Salt Lake City on Saturday, Aug. 19, 2023. | Spenser Heaps, Deseret News
Related Stories
Seeking truth and developing unshakable faith
Here’s what Church leaders and others taught during ‘Christ Daily’ talks at young single adult conference
Subscribe for free and get daily or weekly updates straight to your inbox
The three things you need to know everyday
Highlights from the last week to keep you informed