Episode 43: Church History Library Director Keith A. Erekson on dispelling latter-day myths and rumors

Members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints treasure the history and legacy of the pioneering Saints who went before them. As Church members study the stories of the past, they learn lessons and gain greater inspiration for their daily lives.

Church History Library Director Keith A. Erekson says it is important that complete and accurate recounts of history are shared; when rumor and myth mix with reality it can damage a member’s understanding or personal testimony of the restored gospel of Jesus Christ. He joins this episode of the Church News podcast to give tips on using critical thinking skills to study the past and dispel latter-day myths and rumors. He also showcases the digital and physical resources of the Church History Library. 

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Transcription:

Sarah Jane Weaver: I’m Sarah Jane Weaver, editor of the Church News. Welcome to the Church News podcast. We are taking you on a journey of connection as we discuss news and events of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints with leaders, members and others on the Church News team. We end each Church News podcast by giving our guests the last word and the opportunity to answer the very important question, “What do you know now?” We hope each of you will also be able to answer the same question and say, “I have just been listening to the Church News podcast and this is what I know now.” 

It seems like during the summer, members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints often turn their focus to early Church members and the stories of pioneers that inspire us today. We often learn so much from the past. Still, much of what we learn from the past comes through incomplete pieces of history. As we study history, we must remember that what we are seeing and reading does not represent the entirety of the past, and the stories that strengthen us are most effective when they are complete and accurate. 

On this episode of the Church News podcast, we are joined by Church History Library Director Keith A. Erekson to discuss the importance of Church history to Latter-day Saints. Under his leadership, the Church History Library and its historians, archivists and librarians have worked to learn and tell better stories. Brother Erekson will discuss Latter-day Saint myths and rumors and how to think critically about the information that swirls around us, especially when it comes to us as part of the history of the Church. Brother Erekson is an award-winning author, teacher, public historian, and has worked for the Church History Department of the Church since 2014. Before leading the Church History Library, he was a tenured associate professor of history at the University of Texas at El Paso, where he also served as executive director of the university centennial celebration and founding director of the school’s center for history teaching and learning. Brother Erekson, welcome to the Church News podcast. 

Keith A. Erekson: Thank you. It’s so good to be here. 

Sarah Jane Weaver: Well, I’m so grateful that you would join us, especially as we’re coming out of July, where we have all been turning our focus to our pioneer ancestors and to our history. Why is it important that we look back and study the past?

2:41  

Keith A. Erekson: You know, I think there are a lot of reasons why it’s important, but maybe the most tangible one is that the present that we live in was built in the past, and so all of the things that we deal with — the current challenges, the current infrastructure, our societies, they’ve all been built in the past. They all have a history, and it influences everything we do each day.

Sarah Jane Weaver: And certainly we can draw lessons from the past that are relevant for us today.

3:10  

Keith A. Erekson: That’s very true, and the process of drawing lessons is really something that we do in our own mind. You know, a lesson isn’t a thing like a rock that’s just sitting on the ground, and we go pick it up and say, “Oh, how fascinating.” We have to think about things. We have to learn about the past. We think about it, we think about our own situation, we make these connections, and then that’s when it emerges: “Ah, here’s a lesson. Here’s something that helps me now that comes from back then.”

Sarah Jane Weaver: Well, and certainly context is so important. You know, I never studied the 1917-1918 flu pandemic until the current pandemic. It seemed to have more relevance to my life now as I was facing something similar.

3:57  

Keith A. Erekson: You’re right, and that’s a great example of how the present influences the way we think about the past, and a lot of times people get uncomfortable with that. They say, “Well, shouldn’t we just study the past as it was?” But the reality is, our present situation prompts new questions where it makes us wonder new things — how did they survive their pandemic? Maybe that helps with mine. And so, yeah, it’s a constant dialogue between the past and the present as we try and make sense of what’s going on around us.

Sarah Jane Weaver: Well, from the earliest days that I had the opportunity to interact with you, you have been promoting this idea that we should be telling accurate and better stories. Why is it so important that our history and the retelling of history be accurate?

4:45  

Keith A. Erekson: Well, I think there are several levels where accuracy matters. At the most basic level, we want to get the story right and we want to be true to the people who lived it. It was their experience, so we don’t want to distort their experience or turn it into something that it wasn’t.

A woman marches with the Sons of Utah Pioneers in the Days of ’47 Parade in Salt Lake City on Friday, July 23, 2021.
A woman marches with the Sons of Utah Pioneers in the Days of ’47 Parade in Salt Lake City on Friday, July 23, 2021. Credit: Kristin Murphy, Deseret News

But I think for Latter-day Saints in particular, history is so much a part of our worship in our devotions. We sing hymns about the history of the Church, we study the history of the Church, texts from our history have become part of our scripture, and so we’re using these texts and using our history as ways to learn about God. And so, in that context, having an accurate understanding of history and God’s dealings with people helps us have an accurate understanding of God.

Sarah Jane Weaver: Well, it is true that our scriptures, including the Book of Mormon, are actually history books.

5:42  

Keith A. Erekson: They are. They’re full of stories. They’re full of what historians today call primary sources or texts. There are letters in the scriptures, there are sermons in the scriptures, all these kinds of records that have been carried down to us for our edification.

Sarah Jane Weaver: And tell us what happens when we promote stories that aren’t true or that aren’t entirely true.

6:07  

Keith A. Erekson: A couple of things happen when we tell those kinds of stories, and some of the most damaging results are for the hearers. If we continually tell stories that are partially true or left out significant detail, or left out whole groups of people entirely — the challenge is when lots of things are left out, people fail to see themselves in history. They fail to see the connections, and they fail to see — for example, if we’re trying to learn how God blesses people, how God protects people, how God watches over people, but you never see anyone in the story that looks like you, then you start to wonder: “Well, does God protect me? I see God protects those other people in the story. But what about people like me?” 

I think it also can be harmful if people then later learn: “Oh, there are parts of the story that they left out. Well, why did they do that?” Sometimes it can lead to feeling betrayed, or even singled out: “Well, why would they leave out my kind of people if my people were in the story?” And by my kind of people, we can mean all kinds of things. This could be from the nation that you live. Many stories from Church history leave out women — half of the Church’s population, or more, and so we have to be better at telling the complete and accurate stories.

Sarah Jane Weaver: Well, and I would imagine that when we promote stories that aren’t true, or that even include some myths in them, that we set a standard that may be too high for any of us today to ever reach.

7:48  

Keith A. Erekson: Yeah, that’s a good point. If you leave out every flaw that anybody had and they only emerge as a perfect being, then yeah, that’s not inspiring. That’s discouraging, because I could never be like that.

Sarah Jane Weaver: Well, and I think we’re hearing more from a lot of Church members who are troubled by history. What is your message to them?

8:11  

Keith A. Erekson: I think that’s true, and I think it’s important to first of all, acknowledge that anytime someone is struggling with a question about history or any other practice in the Church that their feelings are really important and really significant. And so, we need to pay attention to our thoughts, to our feelings, and if something is unsettling, then we need to address it. 

Now, I think there are lots of tools that we use, and I think we often do a good job of invoking the tools from a church context. So we’ll think about prayer, we’ll think about scripture study, and those are important things to do. I also think that there are thinking skills or habits that we can use. So, a lot of times information gets distorted — not for a reason of testimony or faith — but it gets distorted because someone didn’t do their homework and use all of the sources that are available. They get distorted because something has been exaggerated. So, in these cases, we can use clear thinking skills of asking for evidence and making sure that there aren’t exaggerations, and those can become ways that we can address the challenges that we find in history.

Sarah Jane Weaver: Well, the Church has worked really hard in recent years, to make sure that all of the historical documents were there so people can get a complete picture of history. Why is it important that we have things like the Joseph Smith Papers, that the average Church member has access to the Church History Library?

Original Book of Commandments and Revelations is shown against backdrop of first two published Joseph Smith Papers volumes and a triple combination.
Original Book of Commandments and Revelations is shown against backdrop of first two published Joseph Smith Papers volumes and a triple combination. Credit: Jason Olson, Deseret News

9:53  

Keith A. Erekson: Well, in the study of history, all that we have to go on are the records. The past is gone. The people who lived there are dead. We can’t go back and ask a follow up question of Joseph Smith about what he really meant in a letter or a sermon. And in that way, history is different than other disciplines. A scientist can conduct an experiment, write out the procedures, and then another scientist can replicate it. But in history, it’s gone, so the records are the most important thing. 

And so, for decades, the Church has collected records, and in the last 15 or 20 years, there has been a huge investment in making these records available, both in terms of human hours to prepare them, but also the digital infrastructure to make them available electronically online. And so, it’s just really important to be able to see the records from Joseph Smith or the early Relief Society or early pioneer journals. These all become ways that we get a better understanding of God’s dealings in the latter days.

Sarah Jane Weaver: And this summer, you’ve authored a new book that was published by Deseret Book titled “Real Vs. Rumor: How to Dispel Latter-Day Myths.” Can you talk to us about the evolution of why you wrote that book and what you were hoping to help people come to know?

11:16  

Keith A. Erekson: I think at the simplest I was just hoping to help people think about history. Again, because we do it so much as Latter-day Saints — in our church service, in teaching lessons, in speaking in church and teaching and family home evening, we’re constantly engaging with history and the texts from our past, and I wanted to help people do that the best way possible. 

The Church History Library.
The Church History Library. Credit: The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints

And so, probably the long version of the story is that I, as a historian and as a teacher, I’ve talked about these ideas for many, many years in many settings, but then coming to work for the Church History Library, it just started to become clear how much we could benefit by telling good stories about Church history and by paying attention to records, and by asking for evidence, and by making sure not to exaggerate things beyond what really happened. And so all of that kind of came together, and the chance to share these ideas.

Sarah Jane Weaver: Help us understand this by painting a picture for us of an example of something that is real, or something that we may have heard all of our lives that’s actually rumor.

12:26  

Keith A. Erekson: Well, I think it’s important to think about how they often are mixed. So it’s not always easy to say, “This is 100% false or 100% accurate.” They’re usually mingled together. And so oftentimes, we’re kind of picking the pieces apart, that here’s part of the story that holds up and we have sources for this, and here’s a part of the story that doesn’t. 

This copy of the Book of Mormon was donated to the Church in 1989 with forged annotations purportedly made by Elvis Presley.
This copy of the Book of Mormon was donated to the Church in 1989 with forged annotations purportedly made by Elvis Presley. Credit: Keith A. Erekson

And so, for example, a few years ago, I had the opportunity to investigate a copy of the Book of Mormon that was believed to have handwriting in it made by Elvis Presley. So, at the end of the analysis, it was found that it wasn’t his handwriting, that it was forged, but parts of that were accurate: It really was a Book of Mormon published in 1974 with a blue cover, and so if you were to do tests on the paper, or the binding, or the ink, it would show up that it actually was a copy of the Book of Mormon from the 1970s. And so, that’s an example of how sometimes you take something that’s real — a book — and then you can add something that’s fake to it — handwritten annotations, and annotations are things about how he allegedly believed the book, or he wished his family could read it. There was his signature in the front — the signature turned out to be the easiest one, because there are a lot of authentic signatures around and this one just didn’t look like it at all. 

But yeah, that has grown into a story that many people tell about Elvis about the Book of Mormon, but I think one of the reasons these stories survive, is because they end up meaning more than just the actual artifact. So, the artifact was a book with handwriting, but people would tell the story, and they would draw lessons from it, something about Elvis reading the book and thinking that it was valuable, and therefore, that legitimizes our faith, that our faith is valuable, and our ideas aren’t weird, that there is a place for us in America or American culture or as part of the modern times. And so, a lot of times people cling to the artifact, because they really, really want the story to be true that’s built on top of the artifact.

Sarah Jane Weaver: Well, and some of it may be that we’re so committed to our faith that we have such strong testimonies of the Church and the history and prominent Church leaders that we want others to believe that too. Is that correct?

15:10  

Keith A. Erekson: Yeah, I think so. There’s always a missionary impulse that we think people can like us, people can learn about us, we can share what we know. It’s good for people to not make fun of us or we don’t have to be embarrassed. I think all of those are impulses that we have as we tell stories about our past.

Sarah Jane Weaver: Well, you know, I have a boss at the Deseret News. He is Deseret News editor Doug Wilks. He talks a lot about truth, and he really works with reporters at the Deseret News to make sure that all of the articles that are published under that brand are filled with truth, and so it’s not just what somebody said, but what they meant. And it’s kind of hard to get at that in history, because we can’t ask the follow-up question. So what do we do?

15:59  

Keith A. Erekson: It really is hard. And sometimes when people ask me, “Is there truth in History?” I’m reminded of Section 93 of the Doctrine and Covenants, which explains that truth is a knowledge of things that were, things as they are and things as they are to come. And so, sometimes I’ll just joke: “It’s impossible for any of us to get there, because I don’t know what’s to come, I’m trying to make sense of what’s going on in the present, and failing, and the past is gone.” 

But we have to do our best, and the Lord knows that that’s what we deal with. We live in a world where, Paul describes it, that we see through a glass darkly, and the Lord knows we need to learn a little bit, line upon line ,precept upon precept, He’ll reveal more. So I think, for me, truth is less of something I put in my hand and hand it to you and say, “Here’s the truth; I’ve got it.” It’s more of a process. It’s more of a way of being. It’s kind of a way of thinking: “Am I pulling in all of the evidence that I can find? Am I connecting it to everything that I know about the present? Am I staying humble for what may come in the future that may change what I put everything together the best that I know how, and then something may come in the future that changes it? Am I humble enough to accept that too?” I think all of that is part of us seeking after truth.

Sarah Jane Weaver: Well, I’m so glad that we can have this conversation about truth, because in the United States, as well as other nations of the world, we’ve just entered this worldwide pandemic, and it’s also been a very divisive time. Certainly in the United States, we went through a very, very critical political season last year, in which there was a lot of information that swirled about on the internet, and I’m not sure people knew where to find accurate information and how to identify that it was accurate once they did find it. Do you have any advice for all of us as we deal with things like conspiracy theories and misinformation and where to actually go to for information from good sources?

18:16  

Keith A. Erekson: Yeah, we could probably spend a long time talking about this, because it’s so important. And you’re right, it’s everywhere. It’s in politics, it’s in health care, it’s on our phone, it’s on the television, it’s everywhere we turn, there is misinformation. And I think a good starting point is to recognize that the information that comes at us is incomplete, and because it’s incomplete, it’s often being used to push one kind of an agenda or one kind of an interpretation of the events. 

Maybe I can share a couple of parables that I think one of them doesn’t apply anymore, and one of them does, but it might help frame where we are in the world. I think in the Information Age, where there’s just all kinds of information coming at us all day long, there’s a parable in the New Testament that we used to use when people talk about the truth, and that was the man seeking for the pearl. He searches all over, and he finally finds this “pearl of great price” and gives up everything for that, and we named one of the standard works after this parable. 

In the Information Age, I don’t know that that model is the one that works anymore, because there’s so much information, and so I’m wondering if there’s another parable in the New Testament. The one where there’s a fisherman who lowers the nets, pulls them up, and they’re filled with all kinds of stuff. And then the fisherman goes to the shore, sits down and sorts them out: “What do I keep, what do I not keep?” 

And I think it’s those sets of skills in the 21st century that we want to be thinking about. What kind of skills will help me evaluate: “This is the information I should keep, this information I shouldn’t.” Because sometimes one media source will give us both the information that we should keep and information that we shouldn’t, and so we have to become more sophisticated to be able to search and sort and sift and pull the things. Sometimes that information is coming from your own grandmother, and so, you have to figure out: “How do I sort all of this out?” And so it’s those kinds of thinking skills that I think we need in the 21st century.

Sarah Jane Weaver: Great, and how do people know how to know what is a good source? What is the key to say, “I’m going to keep this”?

20:50  

Hands of sister missionaries holding cellphones.
Hands of sister missionaries holding cellphones. Credit: The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Daints

Keith A. Erekson: Well, I think there are a handful of criteria that I use. One of them is accuracy. You want to look for information that is accurate, and that test for accuracy in history, but also in other kinds of information, is a word that we call “corroboration.” So, can we find another source that shares the same information? That increases the likelihood. If two people were in a room, and they heard Joseph Smith give a sermon and they both recorded similarly, that increases our confidence that we’ve got an accurate account of what Joseph said. So, I think accuracy is an important criteria. 

Another one that we’ve touched on with the Elvis Presley example would be authenticity. Is it actually the thing that it purports to be? And so, in history, authenticity means it was actually created by that person at the time it was created, and we know where it’s been, and so we can say, “This is an authentic source of information.” 

And I think a third criteria would be reliability, and this one grows out of the first two, because for some kinds of information, there is only one source, and so you can’t corroborate it, and so you have to make judgments about it being reliable. So one way you do that is you look at all of the things that you can judge, and you can say, “OK, this person or this source has told me 10 things. Nine of them I can test or corroborate and nine of them hold up. The chances are that the 10th one is also going to be sound.” But if I’m going through, and I’ve got 10 things from this source, and the first three are just not accurate at all, then you know, “OK, I’m already in trouble here, because this isn’t a reliable source; they’re telling me stuff that doesn’t hold up.” 

I think the fourth criteria would be fairness. You talked about this a little bit earlier about knowing what people mean. I think there are ways that people can take information and take it out of context and present it in a way that’s not fair to the way it was originally used.

I think the last criteria for me would be comprehensive search. So if somebody just said, “Hey, I Googled something, and I found the first hit, and here’s what you need to do for this latest health issue.” That’s going to be less persuasive than somebody who has studied comprehensively every major medical study on that issue in the last 40 years and synthesized that. And so now we have a comprehensive view, rather than just one piece of information that I found in a whole pile.

Sarah Jane Weaver: That is so very helpful. Thank you for that really effective list. Now your job as director of the Church History Library, tell us how Latter-day Saints can access the Church History Library and what you hope that they’ll do when they go there?

23:57  

Keith A. Erekson: Well, I’ll say there are probably two strategies that we have. One is the kind of direct access, and so that is the library has built an online catalog. It’s catalog.churchofjesus christ.org and anybody can go there and enter terms in the search bar and pull up records. There are more than 20 million assets that are digitized there — I say assets because some are documents and photographs, but others are audio recordings and video recordings, but the 20 million assets that are digitized and available online. And so, that’s where you could go if you just want to go straight to a source. 

The first volume in the new history of the Church series is titled "The Standard of Truth."
The first volume in the new history of the Church series is titled “The Standard of Truth.”

The second strategy that we’ve been using is to make those sources part of other creations, and so the narrative history “Saints” is probably the best example. If you read along in the narrative, you can read the stories and know more about people, and then if you look in the endnotes, and if you do this in electronic version, it’s the best way to do it. You click on the endnote, it will bring up the citation, and for everything in the library’s collection that we hold the copyright to — because we won’t put things online that we don’t own the rights to — but things for the 19th century that are in public domain, they’ve been scanned, they’ve been posted online and there’s a hyperlink right from the sources, and so you can get to the sources from the stories that you’re reading in “Saints.”

Sarah Jane Weaver: Fantastic. Now, you also have some artifacts at the library. Can people see those?

25:37  

Keith A. Erekson: We do. People often ask me, “Where are your real treasures?” And they don’t believe me when I tell them, “They’re actually right on display, right here in the public.” There is a display in the library, and so any day that we’re open, anybody can walk in and see. 

And so we have there, for example, a page from the original manuscript of the Book of Mormon. So this is Joseph Smith dictating the translation to the scribe, the scribe writing it, that piece of paper is on display. We have the first edition of the scriptures. We currently have several of the accounts of the First Vision, we have the one in Joseph Smith’s handwriting from an early history, we have the one in his journal, we have a couple of pamphlets by people who knew Joseph and published them in his lifetime. I think another one of my favorites in there is the small sketch that President Hinckley made of small temples after he was visiting Saints in northern Mexico, and he just felt impressed to take temples to the people and do it in a smaller way. He sketched that out, and then he gave it to the Church History Department and said, “Don’t lose this.” And so far, we haven’t. Two decades later, and that’s on display for people to see as well. 

A crowd gathers outside the Monticello Utah Temple on July 26, 1998, the morning of the temple's dedication. The temple is the first of the smaller temples announced by President Gordon B. Hinckley.
A crowd gathers outside the Monticello Utah Temple on July 26, 1998, the morning of the temple’s dedication. The temple is the first of the smaller temples announced by President Gordon B. Hinckley. Credit: Ravell Call, Deseret News

Sarah Jane Weaver: Great. Well, we’re running out of time, but I want — we’ve talked so much about looking back, and now I want to look forward. What advice do you have for people looking into the future as they look forward? What are the lessons of the past that can help them make a better tomorrow?

27:18  

Keith A. Erekson: Wow, that’s a really profound question. I always joke that historians have a hard enough time understanding the past, we can’t even think about the future. But I think one of the lessons for me, in studying Church history at least, is that we can see, and it’s one of the best ways to see how God deals with His children. One of the things Joseph Smith taught was that God is unrevealed, and we can’t know God unless He reveals Himself to us. But I see in our history, one of the ways that He reveals his dealings, and so we see the way He’s merciful with people, we see the way that He watches over and protects and helps people. I see ancient prophecies about the latter days being perilous times, being times when people’s hearts will fail them, being times when people will call good evil and evil good. Well, as I start to see those prophecies be fulfilled in the latter days, and looking forward, it helps me to think, “OK, the same prophets that have taught these times would come have also taught us strategies for being watchful, for praying always, lest we enter into temptation.” And so I think that seeing the way God dealt with people in the past is a really good guide to wonder, “What’s He going to do if something happens tomorrow, or the next day or in my future?”

Sarah Jane Weaver: We have a tradition at the Church News podcast. We always give our guests the last word, and we ask them to answer the same question, and the question is, “What do you know now?” And so I’m hoping today, you can close and share your testimony of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints with us, and then tell us what you know now after studying history, and specifically Church history for so much of your career.

29:20  

Keith A. Erekson: Well, I think I’d like to answer this question by saying that now, after studying so much history, I know less, and I know more. I think I know less because one of the things that happens as you study history, is you realize how much we don’t know, how many lives passed on without leaving a record, how many things are unknown; but for me, that causes a sense of humility. We talked earlier about some of the divisiveness which I think comes, sometimes, from being so certain that we’re absolutely right. For me, the study of history makes me less certain that I know everything, and more aware of important scriptures where prophets like Nephi and Alma just say right out, “I don’t know. I don’t know the meaning of all things. I know God loves His children. I know He has all power, but I don’t know everything.” 

And so, I think studying history has helped me to know less, and to be aware that I don’t know everything, but I also think it’s helped me know more in the sense of trying to be aware of the times when God is active and visible in people’s lives at an individual level and in the kind of larger church history stories that we tell. And sometimes I think we go around talking about God, we’ll say something like, “Well, it couldn’t have been a coincidence that something happened,” we kind of wink and say that. I think we should be more assertive. Rather than saying, “I don’t think it’s a coincidence,” I think we should positively say: “That was God. He was leading me through His Spirit. He was blessing me with a tender mercy. He was watching over me, He gave me my agency, He helped things to happen.” And so, I think the study of history has helped me to see more of the times where God is dealing mercifully and benevolently with each of us.

31:37

Sarah Jane Weaver: You have been listening to the Church News podcast. I’m your host, Church News Editor Sarah Jane Weaver. I hope you have learned something today about The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints by peering with me through the Church News window. Please remember to subscribe to this podcast. And if you enjoyed the messages we shared today, please make sure you share the podcast with others. Thanks to our guests, to my producer, KellieAnn Halvorsen, and others who make this podcast possible. Join us every week for a new episode. Find us on your favorite podcasting channel or with other news and updates about the Church on thechurchnews.com