Episode 120: Church History Department’s Matt Heiss on collecting, preserving and sharing records
At the end of a long career to acquire, manage and train others to collect Church history, Matt Heiss talks about the blessings of record keeping
Episode 120: Church History Department’s Matt Heiss on collecting, preserving and sharing records
At the end of a long career to acquire, manage and train others to collect Church history, Matt Heiss talks about the blessings of record keeping
In Doctrine and Covenants 21:1, the Lord commanded the Prophet Joseph Smith that the Church’s records and history should be kept “continually.” While the prospect of recording and preserving those records can seem daunting, the Lord has promised that the keeping of records would be “for the good of the Church, and for the rising generations.”
Matt Heiss is the manager for the Global Support and Training Division of the Church History Library in the Church’s seven areas in Europe and Africa. He is the guest on this episode of the Church News podcast. Since 1987, Heiss has worked with the Church History Department of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints to acquire, manage and train others on collecting Church history.
He discusses the importance of Church history, the potential of recording keeping and what he knows now after decades of working for the Church.
Matt Heiss: There’s power in record keeping. But I think that my perspective of records and their importance, especially within the context of Church History, has changed from one of a historical resource to a potential source where the Spirit can be made manifest. And, ultimately, I think that’s what record keeping in the Church should point us to — the Savior Jesus Christ. That He is in the details. To me that is part of an unfolding miracle.
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.
The Lord commanded Joseph Smith that the Church’s records and history should be kept continually. While the prospect of recording and preserving those records can seem daunting, the Lord promised that the continual keeping of records would be for the good of the Church and the good of the rising generation. Matt Heiss, who will retire in March as a member of the Global Support and Training Division of the Church History Library, joins this episode of the Church News podcast.
Since 1987, Matt has worked with the Church History Department of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints to acquire, manage and train others on collecting Church History. Today, we are happy to have a discussion with Matt about the importance of Church History, the potential of record keeping and, of course, what he knows now, after decades of serving the Church History Department. Matt, welcome to the Church News podcast.
Matt Heiss: Thank you for having me.
Sarah Jane Weaver: I’m hoping we can just start and have you tell us just a little bit about what your job entails. You know, we hear things and terms like, “Global Support and Training Division of the Church History Library.” What is that?
Matt Heiss: So right now, we have divided the world into four quarters and there are four global managers that manage those. So I’m responsible for Church History operations in Europe, Africa and the Middle East. That’s my little quarter of the world. And what Church History operations means is that we seek to collect, preserve and share records that document the beginnings of the Church, that witness to the Lord’s dealings with His children, that document the progression of the Church — how it evolves, how it changes over time, how it adapts to different cultures and settings.
Sarah Jane Weaver: And I think that for most of us, Church History is most meaningful when we can trace it to our own family tree. You have to have some personal experiences with your own family history that has intersected with some of the work that you have done.
Matt Heiss: Yeah, you know what, let me tell you a story that actually became a very powerful, tender mercy in my life, in the life of my family. So, my grandparents joined the Church before World War I in Germany and Austria. And then they emigrated, met each other in Chicago, got married, had my father, who had me. And we were very close, I was very close, to my grandparents and they love to tell stories about “the old country,” right? “In the old country, we did this and that.” And they would often talk about, my grandmother, would often talk about how her mother joined the Church. And the story was that she had to be baptized at midnight, because they were afraid that the police would come and arrest them and deport the missionaries. So I grew up with that as a child.
And then years later, I’m working in the Church History Department and I’m thinking about that story. And I said, “What if I look and see what records we have about my great-grandmother being baptized?” So I found her baptismal record. And I thought, “That’s really cool.” So I made a copy of it, kept it for a couple years. And I don’t know what prompted me, but what happened is, I pulled it out one day and it listed the two missionaries — the one who had baptized her and the one who had confirmed her. And I thought, “What if those missionaries kept a journal or a diary and I could go to that record and find an account of what happened that night and see if she really was baptized at midnight.” And I thought, “What a long shot. I mean, thousands of missionaries have served in Germany. What would be the chances of one of those two missionaries having his journal in the Church archives?”
I plugged in the first name to the Church catalog. No hit. Couldn’t find it. We didn’t have his journal. I plugged in the second name and lo and behold, we had his missionary journal. So, I immediately called it down. We had the hardcopy, not just a microfilm or a digitized version. Called it down. Opened it up to the day. And there it was: he had written down that he had baptized my great-grandmother at midnight and he got home at one o’clock. So the story was true. But what’s really cool about that is, I thought, “Well, who brought that in? I’m the guy who collects for Europe, you know, and I didn’t do this.”
So I looked at the little cataloging note. And I saw that one of my co-workers had found that journal on eBay. He paid a couple of bucks for it, bought it, brought it in, gave it to another co-worker who cataloged it. But there it was years later when I needed to find it. So of course, I copied the pages, you know, typed it up, send it out to my family. And that was the tender mercy that came from my own family history being recorded in a missionary journal — now in the Church archives. I mean, to me, that’s like a tender mercy.
Sarah Jane Weaver: I love that story, because in the almost 30 years now that I have worked for the Church News, I see and hear and have written stories about how different things come to the Church, how the paths that people take, or that printed materials take that find the person that needs them at the time they need them. Whether that is you learning about your own family’s history, or someone finding something that leads to their conversion. And that just does seem to be the miracle of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. It is that there are so many little miracles that take part of this work every day. One of the things we love to do is document the histories of individual countries. Certainly, you’ve seen a lot of those. Is there one that stands out to you that is remarkable?
Matt Heiss: You know, there’s a lot, all right? I mean, here’s what’s pretty cool. Years ago, I went into the country of Moldova, just this little former Soviet Republic between Russia and Romania. And I got there when the first four young elders were still on the ground. The work had just opened up. There were like 40 or 50 members and my companion and I interviewed half of them. So we got half of those members. I mean, that was pretty cool. Same thing happened when I went to Malawi, which is in southern Africa. The first missionary couple was still there on the ground and we did the same kind of work. We went out to this remote village where this guy had found a copy of the Book of Mormon or “Jesus the Christ” and had converted the village and there we were on the cutting edge of history.
So in some ways that was like a historian’s dream come true to be there at the very beginning. I was supposed to go to The Gambia last June. Elder [D. Todd] Christofferson [of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles] had just [offered a prayer on the land and the people of Gambia] in February of last year . A branch was going to form on the Sunday that I was supposed to be there. I was in Ivory Coast doing some work and then I was going to go over to The Gambia and I got COVID in Ivory Coast. So I had to cancel my trip to The Gambia. I’m sitting there in a hotel quarantined for a week before I could get home. It was just awful. But again, it’s this notion of being on the cutting edge.
But in terms of moving, and something that has always moved me, and it’s probably because of my family connection, is that in 1991, a year and a half after the Berlin Wall came down, I was able to go into the former German Democratic Republic, or East Germany. I spent several weeks there interviewing people that had lived behind the Wall, who had associated with [President] Thomas S. Monson when he was ministering to the Saints there, who kept the faith despite having the secret police, you know, bug their apartments, and bug their telephones, open their mail — who had waited forever for a temple until 1985 when the Freiburg Temple was dedicated. And just, personally, and I think because I speak German and I have that connection to Dresden, that’s where my grandmother was baptize, so my roots go back there, to me, that is just one of the things that stands out in my mind, from a personal level and from historical level.
You know, I got to go into the secret police archives and I got reams of paper, photocopies of the way that they used to spy on every single branch of the Church in the former German Democratic Republic. Just what people were able to endure and, and keep the faith in spite of opposition. To me, that was amazing.
Sarah Jane Weaver: Well, that’s really beautiful. You know, I studied journalism at Brigham Young University. In my senior seminar, while just completing my studies in journalism, I had a professor who, for our final exam for our senior seminar at the end of our journalism training, asked us to go to the scriptures and write a new story about the resurrection of the Savior, based on the accounts found in the New Testament. And that experience changed so many things for me. It not only brought the scriptures to life for me, because I could start to see them as if they were primary sources as they were happening right then. But it also changed the way I viewed what I do for the Church News. Because suddenly, I was seeing myself as recording something that was right on the front lines of the restoration unfolding. Now you get to do that, too. It’s a rare and really sacred privilege. How do you feel about that responsibility?
Matt Heiss: The responsibility is daunting, because I often think if I don’t do it, who’s going to do it and what if it gets left undone?
Sarah Jane Weaver: Or what have you do it just a little wrong?
Matt Heiss: Yeah, yeah, yeah
Sarah Jane Weaver: You have to be so accurate.
Matt Heiss: You do and you don’t always get second chances. I mean, when I’m on the road, doing an interview, if something goes haywire, I’ve lost it. So it’s certainly a challenge. There’s a little bit of an adrenaline rush. But for me, it’s motivating, because I think I’m making a difference. I think I’m collecting something that’s unique. That’s going to bless somebody. Not just a scholar who’s going to write the history of the Church in whatever nation, but really somebody who’s looking for something that will bolster faith, something that will witness to the hand of the Lord moving in history — whether it’s something huge, like the Berlin Wall coming down, or something in an individual’s life. I don’t know that it matters that much.
It’s really just this notion of seeing the hand of the Lord move in history. President Eyring talked about that in October 2007. That was a landmark talk for me. I remember it, you know, I talk to people, “Hey, you remember President Eyring’s talk?” It’s like, “What?” But in October 2007, in general conference, he gave a talk called, “Oh Remember, Remember” and in some ways that became sort of the constitution, at least in my mind, for the work that we do, you know, write it down, capture it, preserve it. Why? Because it testifies.
Sarah Jane Weaver: Yeah, I’ll tell you, I’ve had a lot of sleepless nights since that talk, because I don’t keep a journal the way I should. And I think, “Oh, I want my posterity to know that I had great faith.” And so, you know, at the Church News we have part of our mission is to connect people. We want to connect people to the Church and to its leaders and to one another. And I love that history also connects us to those who went before us so we can learn things that were important to them. Now, you have an interesting story about the first missionary called from Yugoslavia.
Matt Heiss: I do. Back in the good old days, when the Church History Department was in the Church Office Building. I used to have to do a shift in what we called “The Reading Room,” where patrons would come in who wanted to do research and we’d help them find the records that they needed.
And so one afternoon, I was sitting at the desk. And in came this woman whose name is Radmila Ranović. And she was looking for information about the Church and Yugoslavia. And I had just barely gotten the assignment to document Church History in Europe and Africa. So I’ve started as a cataloger. And she comes in about 1988. And she says, “Um, I’m looking for something about Yugoslavian.” And of course, she had an accent. And I said, “Well, who are you and, you know, what, what is it you’re looking for?” She told me a little bit about her story. And I recognized immediately that she played a key role as one of the earliest converts to the Church in Yugoslavia. So we’re talking about, you know, [Josip Broz] Tito is still in charge of the government. This is still a sort of a socialist, communist state. And here, she was baptized in Yugoslavia. And then she said, “Oh, and I’ve served the mission too.” And I’m thinking, “What?” So this is the first missionary and it’s a sister missionary. So I kind of jumped on that and said, “You know, Rodmila, how would you feel if I was to record an interview with you about your experiences?” And she said yes.
So I think I did two, two or three sessions with her, which was absolutely amazing. She knew and worked with Krešimir Ćosić who was the BYU basketball star that came here, didn’t know why it was here. Hugh Nibley and Truman Madsen kind of brought him into the Church. Hugh Nibley baptized him. So this little, short scholar, this giant, basketball player, he’s baptized in the tabernacle. She had worked with Ćosić and she could tell stories about that. And she could talk about how hard it was to not have, you know, regular missionaries, to not have the fullness of the Church there in Yugoslavia.
So I jumped on it. And she was one of the first people that I’d ever interviewed in my career. And I think that two lessons is, number one, her story was awesome, you know. She played a critical part in Yugoslavia. But more than that, I think that the Lord put her in my way to say, “Look, here’s what you need to do. You need to interview this woman. You need to capture her story” And there are still living pioneers. You know, it’s not just 1847 and people crossing the plains. It’s, it’s, it’s Yugoslavia, it’s, it’s Senegal, it’s, you know, Kenya, it’s Russia.
Sarah Jane Weaver: Well, and so much has not only happened in the world in the time that you’ve been there, but since you started your job in 1987 technology has changed in the Church History Department, itself. Can you highlight some of the changes you’ve seen in the way history is recorded, and the way the Church does that, since your career started?
Matt Heiss: Yeah, let me tell you two stories. The first one is, when I first started traveling, I would take a big studio quality cassette recorder, a big mic, about the size of this thing, a whole brick of batteries, probably 15 to 20 pounds of these D batteries and then 60 to 100 cassette tapes. And when I would go into places in Eastern Europe or Africa, I knew that it would be very difficult to find those things so I had to kind of pack everything I needed.
And I remember going into Russia the first time, and my Russian was not very good. It still isn’t. But I’d recorded interviews in Kyiv, Ukraine, and then up in Moscow, and I was at the airport heading out. And the border guards stopped me and said, “What’s in your suitcase? Would you open up your suitcase?” So I did. And here’s 100 cassettes, and my recorder and my big giant mic, and they’re going, “What have you been doing here in Russia,” you know. “We need to listen to these. You can’t come in here and, and just record this and take it back to America.” And I was panicking and I was praying that I would get through this. And they’re talking to me in Russian and I’m going, “I barely understand what’s being said.” They let me through. My prayers were answered. I had been interviewing just the early converts to the Church. You know what brought them to the Church, capturing their testimonies. It was nothing controversial. It’s just basic Church History. But that freaked me out. That’s back then. Today, well, for example, in November, I was in South Africa, Kenya and Tanzania. I had a small little digital recorder that had a 16 gig memory card and it had a jump drive. I could record 100 hours of interviews on this little recorder that I could put in my pocket, two double A batteries. I was good to go for three weeks. It was awesome. It was awesome. That’s one example of the way technology has changed my career.
The other one is: a year and a half ago, I got the email address of one of the first members of the Church in a country called Guinea-Bissau, which is a small little country in West Africa. And I think they still speak Portuguese, I think Portuguese is the colonial language. And this woman had, her name was Margarita. She joined the Church in Portugal, went up to England, she had really good English, she went back to Guinea-Bissau. And she started telling family and friends and pretty soon she’s got a small little Sunday School going. And I thought, “How am I going to get an interview with this woman?” You know, probably one of the first members of the Church and Guinea-Bissau. To make it a little bit more difficult, she got a job with UN security forces and had been posted to Northern Mali. And I thought, “Oh, this is going to be impossible.”
I emailed her and said, “Hey, any opportunity to meet over a video conference?” And she said, “Of course.” I interviewed her in Northern Mali, using Zoom, capturing her story about how she found the Church and what she did to establish the Church in Guinea-Bissau, a nation that very few people have heard of, but a pioneer. And here she is in Mali. I mean, that’s just, for an old guy like me, it just blows my mind that I’m living in future land, recording the history of the Church.
Sarah Jane Weaver: Well, you know, I have experienced the same thing in my career, I was recently at the dedication of the Puerto Rico Temple, the newest temple of the Church. And we used recording devices that are about the size of a quarter. They just stick right on the person with a magnet and it’s hours and hours of recording time, as opposed to the early days where you’d have cassette tapes, if you recorded it at all. In my early career, we would travel with the camera and film, and the most, you could pack with six or seven rolls of film. So for the whole trip, you could take just over 200 pictures. And in Puerto Rico, we took thousands and thousands of images to get ones that were just right. So technology has absolutely blessed this work. It’s also probably made it a little more overwhelming, because of the volume of things.
Matt Heiss: I’ll take the volume over the 20 pounds of batteries. And the fact that I can take my smartphone and just do an impromptu interview with a guy right at some historic site, you know, and we’re videoing that. That is awesome.
Sarah Jane Weaver: And you know, one of the things that is probably hard for both of us in our work is language barriers. You speak a little Russian and German and can do interviews in English. But so much of what you’ve recorded would have to have been recorded with the help of a translator.
Matt Heiss: Yeah, like I did my first interviews back in November when I was in this rural area in Kenya. So you have to rely on somebody who’s going to translate for you, You gotta be quick on the draw with follow up questions when you don’t get everything in the back translation and rely on the Spirit. My translator in Kenya, when we pulled up to the gate of the chapel. I mean, here we are — dirt roads, there was a dead hyena on the road as we were turning off, baboons all over. It was awesome. And she came running out to the van. And she said, “Who are you?” And I thought, “Well, who are you?” And so I told her and her English was pretty good. And she said, “I heard about you guys and there’s some old members of the Church here waiting for you. They don’t speak English.” And I thought, “What am I going to do?” And I said, “Well, would you translate for me?” And she did.
And with some of these old members, we just had them bear their testimonies, you know, I could feel the sweetness of their spirit and I wasn’t concerned about the language. One of these days when somebody wants to document the history in Chulu, Kenya, that Chulu, Hills area in Kenya, they’ll have those testimonies of these people who have been Latter-day Saints in a remote area for 30, 40 years. That’s pretty cool.
Sarah Jane Weaver: Wow, that’s just beautiful. Now, as the Church has become more global, there has to have been a need, right, for decentralization of Church History.
Matt Heiss: The decentralization of the work of Church History is probably one of the most significant and, I would say, inspired events that I have been privileged to be a part of. And one of the crucial events, actually, goes back to the year 2001. I was in Mongolia with one of my co-workers. Nobody from Church History had ever been to Mongolia and the Church was relatively new. I mean, it wasn’t brand new, but it was new enough. And we were there in Ulaanbaatar. And we were introduced to a young man who had just returned from his mission. He had served up in Russia. And his name was Adebola Nam Hai. And he would help us. He’d do some translating for us and he traveled with us and he had a great spirit. We interviewed him. And he was just an amazing young man. He was single at that time, just returned from his mission.
And at night, my co-worker, his name is Michael Landon, we were sitting there, we were in the same apartment that the missionaries had secured for us. And we’re sitting there wondering, you know, “What if a native Mongolian were to be doing these interviews? What if we could hire this young man, you know, pay him two bucks an hour, which would have been amazing wages back then. And he could do these interviews, he could go to all 10 branches. And if he did 10 interviews in 10 branches, we’d have 100 pioneer interviews in the language, not with some, you know, North American, not understanding half of anything that’s being said, and having to work through a translator.”
So we started to formulate that plan. And we did the math and we figured the money that we spent on round trip plane tickets and food and lodging could have supported this guy for a year to go around to those scattered branches in Mongolia and do that work. We brought the idea home, started toying with it and it wasn’t right. But the seed was planted. And the seed was this, that local Church members who understand their culture, their language and the context in which members live, can do a better job at recording history than I, as an outsider, can do recording that same history.
So, in 2009, the Church History Department, our managing director, a man named Steven Olson, said that it was time for our department to take the show on the road, to decentralize. We were a headquarter-centric department. In other words, I’d go out and spend as much time as I could in the field, I’d bring all my work back, we’d process it and then I go back out into the field. We had no permanent presence and we really had people who only spoke language they learned as missionaries. So we didn’t have any Mongolian, we didn’t have any Russian, Polish, anything like that. So in this effort to decentralize, the model was that we wanted to have local members in the area offices.
So we kind of use the Church’s area offices as a place where we could set up a little office and have people called to serve in a Church History capacity. A lot of those first offices were manned by couple missionaries. For example, the first couple missionary I ever worked with, Elder and Sister Herman, who live up in Centerville, they were stationed in Frankfort. I had a missionary couple in Johannesburg, South Africa. Those were my first two missionary couples, but their job was to reach out and to find local members who would accept a call to serve in a Church History capacity. And then those local members would be trained on how to record oral history, on how to appraise and acquire records, on how to document Church History sites. And that’s how we started.
And I’ll tell you what, yesterday I had a video conference with my Europe team. And two of the people that I initially trained way back in 2010, are still serving as Church History specialists in Europe — one man in Germany and a couple up in Finland. And it’s just amazing to see that. And that, in my mind, has revolutionized the work that we’re doing in Church History. We’re now a global department. We’ve got these Church History specialists all over the globe. We have, now, full time employees. I’ve got three that work on my team, one in Ivory Coast, one in South Africa, and one in Frankfurt, Germany, and they have their field staff of some couple missionaries, but mostly it’s local members, documenting their own history. To me, that is part of an unfolding miracle.
Sarah Jane Weaver: You know, as the Church has moved out of obscurity and become more prominent, there has to have been many more people who were interested in the history of the Church and what they could learn about the history of the Church. And there also had to be a shift in how we share our history. You know, I think of the Joseph Smith Papers Projects and how that has moved history to a place where it’s open and accessible and transparent. Can you talk about how the Church History Department has moved out of obscurity with the Church?
Matt Heiss: Yeah, also one of my favorite topics. I’m going to set it up by talking about two things that existed when I started in January of ‘87. In January of ‘87, Mark Hofmann, the forger who had duped the Church, blown himself up right behind where the Conference Center now is, but really started planting seeds of doubt with “the Salamander letter” and the Joseph Smith III blessing and all those things that he did. We weren’t in obscurity, but we were kind of in a bad light. It’s kind of like, “Oh, you know, here’s the Church History Department. He got some of his documents from the Church archives,” or, you know, people, it was a hard time for the Church archives. Also back in 1987, our department was located in the east wing of the Church office building.
Sarah Jane Weaver: I remember that
Matt Heiss: So it wasn’t very prominent. So fast forward a couple of years. And what happens? In 2009, the Church History library on the corner of North Temple and Main Street was dedicated by [Church President] Thomas S. Monson. Here we are now, with this beautiful building, state-of-the-art, preservation facilities, office space, etc. We’re now a very prominent part of the downtown Church campus. So we’re no longer tucked away in the east wing of the Church Office Building. We’re now smack dab in the middle of, of everything. And it’s kind of symbolic the way that we’re placed.
Think about this, you have four corners. On the one corner is the Conference Center, OK? To me that represents the words of the living prophets, seers and revelators that they record at general conference. Kitty corner from that is the Church Office Building. So the, the seat of Church administration and government where all the temporal affairs and, and other things happen. Across the street is the Church History Library, where we preserve the history, and then kitty corner from us is the Salt Lake Temple, where we experience and receive the ordinances of exaltation. So we’ve got this really cool geographical symbolism going on there.
For me, that is, the sacred geography, is the way we’re placed. And so I think that’s one thing that has really helped our department come out of obscurity is to be so prominently stationed in that amazing Church History Library.
I think the second thing that has really helped our department come out of obscurity is, well, you mentioned the Joseph Smith Papers. That’s obviously a big thing. And in the scholarly world, it’s huge. The quality of scholarship and publication that goes into those books is, is absolutely amazing. But I want to highlight “Saints,” the four volume history of the Church, that is not shying away from some of the more difficult topics. And I think that’s another way that our department is sort of leaving the shadows. We’re never in the shadows, OK, the brethren have always given us really good support, but we’re becoming more noticeable to more members of the Church. And in languages now, not every language, unfortunately. But, you know, we reach a wide audience with the translations that have been done. So I think “Saints” is another tangible evidence of how the Church History Department is moving out of obscurity.
Sarah Jane Weaver: Well I also want to talk about some of the personal and professional highlights of your career, as far as the people you’ve met, or the places you visited or the events you’ve witnessed. Can you share some of those highlights with us?
Matt Heiss: I’ll tell you what, sometimes I need to pinch myself as I walk away from an appointment or an interview. And I think, “Holy cow, I just got to sit at this person’s feet and collect his journal or record her history or whatever.” Let me give you an example. Just last week, I was up in Kaysville. And I met with a man named Isaac Ferguson. Brother Ferguson in 1985, following the two special fasts for Ethiopia, was given the charge to spend those $11 million in a charitable way to help the people in, in that famine-stricken part of Africa. That was part of the springboard that led to the development of Latter-day Saint charities and Brother Ferguson was the first director of, of the Church’s humanitarian efforts.
Now the Church had been doing humanitarian work for years you think of after World War II. We send in all that aid to the European Saints and Ezra Taft Benson was there and on the ground and, and even before then we had helped Armenians that were facing starvation and the Church had been doing it, but never in a sort of a systematic, organized way. It was always kind of a reaction to some world disaster. But now, Brother Ferguson was developing a systematic way to bless the lives of people. I had interviewed Ike Ferguson over the years, because I think humanitarian work in the Church is one of the great chapters of Church History that has yet to be really written.
He helped me with a paper that I was presenting in England last year. And he said, “Matt, you know, I’ve got a lot of stories.” So I went up and did an extensive interview. And I’d be there in his office, and I’d look down on his bookshelf, and here, he had all these binders. And I said, “Ike, what are these things?” And he said, “Well, that’s my journal and my trip reports and correspondence.” And I thought, “Holy cow, this is like the golden plates of Latter-day Saint charities.” So I said, “What are you going to do with all this stuff?” And he said, “Well, I’m not sure.” And I said, “Well, how about placing it in the Church archives?”
So last week, I went to his house with a couple of my co-workers. We loaded up to big boxes. And now in my office, I’ve got Isaac Ferguson’s papers on what it was like to begin humanitarian work in the Church. If I pop open one of the folders, here it is February of 1990. And he’s meeting with the Europe area presidency and they are strategizing how they can get the first four missionary couples into Romania to help in those orphanages where the orphans were just kind of, you know, swaddled and bound and neglected, to help in a bunch of other areas. And I had interviewed those first missionaries that went in and they led the way for the proselytizing missionaries to go into Romania.
And here I’m looking at the record of Ike Ferguson talking to President Hans B. Rinker about “What are we going to do? How can we get people into Romania?” I mean, I’m holding the golden plates of Latter-day Saint charities. So that’s Isaac Ferguson.
I got to meet an interview Beverly Campbell, and I don’t know if that name means anything to you. But Beverly Campbell,founded, or organized, the Church’s Office of International Affairs in Washington, D.C. We hadn’t had a permanent presence in D.C. until she put together the office. And her responsibility was to take the Church out of obscurity by making connections to ambassadors, politicians, journalists, other people who needed accurate information and who needed the Church. Whether it was humanitarian missionaries going into Romania, or whether it was proselytizing missionaries going into, you know, who knows where, or the Tabernacle Choir going into the Soviet Union, not Russia, the Soviet Union. They went in June of 1991. They went to Leningrad. It’s before the Soviet Union ceased to exist. And Beverly Campbell helped to make that happen.
She performed an incredible service in preparing the way for prophets, seers and revelators to open the doors to nations. And my focus was always on Central and Eastern Europe. But she did it in Africa. She did it in Asia. And I got to interview her once in Salt Lake, once in Virginia, in her home. And I remember, I was so intimidated, because I mean, she hobnobbed with ambassadors, with prophets, with national leaders. And I’m just this kid with a tape recorder. And she made me feel like a million bucks by giving me hours of her time. She had a big plate of treats on the side, which I didn’t touch until I was done interviewing her. And she was just so gracious. And then years later, she would call me up and say, “Hey, Matt, could you come over? I need help with this. I need help with that.” It was just awesome to associate with this woman who I think helped change Church History. She was never out in front of the brethren and she wasn’t telling them what to do. But she was supporting them in a way that was absolutely unique and necessary for that period of time.
Sarah Jane Weaver: Well, I think one of the events that all of our listeners will be keenly aware of that can help us understand how you catalog Church History, is the evacuation of missionaries around the world during the COVID-19 pandemic. And you know, we, we had missionaries crisscrossing the globe in just a couple of weeks. And not just a few, you know, we did a podcast with Elder Dieter F. Uchtdorf, at the time, and said, it’s more than 30,000 missionaries crisscrossing the globe, all returning to their home countries as borders started to close.
Matt Heiss: Yeah. What a sad chapter, but what an amazing event to document. And I think there’s a lot of silver linings that go with COVID. So I’m not just going to put COVID in the trash. So here’s a little bit of the background. In February of 2020. I was in West Africa. I was in Mali, actually, recording interviews, again with the two groups of Latter-day Saints that have just started the Church there. And we started hearing about what was going on in China. That was February. In March, I was supposed to go to England to present a paper and I was really psyched about getting into the UK and doing some work and giving the paper and that’s when the borders came shut, started to close down.
I had missionary couples in Europe and Africa that were part of the evacuation. And one of the things that had happened is that we knew that this was a unique moment in Church History, in world history and in Church History. And so a lot of us in the Church History Department were asked to record interviews with people in the missionary department people in Church travel, Mission presidents that let their missionaries go, missionaries that that were evacuated, missionaries that stayed in the field and the the impact that it had on members of the Church, not just the missionaries. But, “What was it like to have home church, in Ghana, in Spain, and all these other places?” And it was a pretty cool project.
I remember, um, I can’t remember the people that I interviewed, it might have been some people in Church travel, but they were working 24/7. And miracles were happening, seats on planes were made available, planes were made available, charter planes were made available to get missionaries back home. And the director for temporal affairs, the DTA in South Africa, actually would spend the night at the area office just to be there on site, so that as things were progressing and developing, he didn’t have to come in from home or be a phone call away. He was right there.
One of my missionary couples knew him, that’s the couple that was serving in Johannesburg, Elder and Sister Irving. And they recorded an interview with him about the many days that he slept at the office just to be there. So the story is about the commitment of Church employees to ensure the safety of missionaries who needed to come home. And there were some missionaries who got stuck. Some missionaries served 30, 35 months, because they couldn’t get home.
So it’s it’s, it’s the caring nature of the Church leaders. It’s the innovation. You know, I think President Uchtdorf talked about a, did he call it a “divine restart” or something like that, that COVID gave us an opportunity to kind of examine some things, how we do missionary work, what home-centered Church-supported church service really looks like. And I’ll tell you what, a lot of the members of the Church that I interviewed, even recently in Africa, hearken back to President Nelson implementing that before COVID. And saying, “You know what the Lord prepared us with ‘Come Follow Me,’ with home-centered Church-supported worship service.” That’s awesome.
Sarah Jane Weaver: You know, we had Elder Brent H. Nielsen come on the Church News podcast and talk about the miracles that happened in the years before COVID that allowed missionaries to have digital devices during the pandemic. And so I always love to think about and document and ponder the miracles and the faith of our members and our leaders. What advice do you have for people who are trying to do that for their families? What do you have to tell anyone who is trying to make their own family history?
Matt Heiss: First of all, I’d say do it before it’s too late. One of the great things I did, and I have the advantage of being a Church employee, so that’s a little bit of resource, but I interviewed my two German grandparents and I got their stories and I could tie it into the context. So I wasn’t cheating and, you know, doing personal history on Church time. Both of their interviews are in the archives. But it was a great opportunity for me to sit down and capture their stories. Recording devices are so inexpensive. Memory cost next to nothing. We can preserve audio and video. I say just do it. Prepare to do it.
You know, I never go into an interview without an outline and without doing my homework. So it always helps to, you know, if you’re going to interview mom, or dad, or grandma or grandpa, make a timeline, you know. Make sure you got some of the great stories listed. Have a basic interview. You can go online and just find, you know, “How do I interview somebody?” Or “How do I find a good outline?” But really, I think it’s just doing it. And I’ll tell you what, if there’s pictures, make sure people identify them. Because guess what, in a generation, nobody’s going to know who’s standing next to the Christmas tree, right?
Sarah Jane Weaver: Yeah, I’ll tell you, it’s hard for me to admit this as a mother of three daughters. But there are times when I even look back at baby pictures and think, “Now which one is this?” And it’s because you think that you’ll always remember. You think that that moment was so clear and then it does sometimes shift in your memory. And you have to pause a little and say, “Oh, that was daughter number three.”
Matt Heiss: And you know what I would also say, I think that the capturing of Church History is, or should be, a spiritual endeavor. Now, I don’t think when you sit down with Grandma and Grandpa, you should have an opening prayer and that kind of thing. But I certainly have a prayer in my heart. And I take that approach. And when I start talking to people, and we get a little bit beyond just the surface stuff. There is a spirit that comes into that setting that triggers memory, that helps me to think of the next question to ask, or the next thing to say that’s going to move the conversation along. So I would just encourage people to take a spiritual perspective of the whole work of gathering history, and the spirit will be present.
Sarah Jane Weaver: I’m glad you talked about that, because we have a tradition at the Church News podcast where we ask people to answer the same question, and then to share their testimonies that they have learned along the journey of whatever it is we’re talking about. And so as we conclude, today, I’m hoping that you can do that, and answer the question, “What do you know now after documenting Church History and how has that blessed your life and strengthened your testimony of the gospel of Jesus Christ?”
Matt Heiss: So when I was in grad school, I would look at an archives in a document as a historical source that I was going to put in some kind of scholarly paper. And I don’t know that I was a great scholar, so how about a grad students paper. But I think that my perspective of records and their importance, especially within the context of Church History, has changed from one of a historical resource, to a potential source where the Spirit can be made manifest as somebody interacts with that document. And I’ve seen that.
I had my own experience with that, when I found that missionary journal that documented my great grandmother’s baptism. I’ve seen it happen, where I’ve helped other people, patrons who have come into the Church History library. We open it up, and here’s, you know, Grandpa, passing the sacrament for the first time, or something like that. And the Spirit just comes into that. And it’s unleashed, because a clerk was doing his job and he wrote down who was passing the sacrament that Sunday, or what baby was being blessed.
I remember once, somebody had a brother who had gone inactive in the Church. And he gave a talk in a secret meeting in St. George, Utah. And the guy says, “Can we find a record of that talk, he was the youth speaker,” or something like that. So it’s like, “Oh, my gosh, this is a needle in a haystack.” So we pulled out the volume, we could thumb through it. And the clerk not only wrote down so and so gave this talk, but a little paragraph of what the guy said, and what his brother’s reading that he could see that his brother had a testimony when he was a young teenager giving that talk and sacrament meeting. And it was a pretty moving experience for him to, to reconnect with his brother in a spiritual way that hadn’t been that way for a long time. And I couldn’t even remember the person’s name right now, if I had to try to find that person I couldn’t do it. But there’s power in record keeping.
And there’s the scripture in Alma, chapter 37, verses eight and nine. Now what’s cool about Alma 37, is this is Alma talking to Helaman. And what’s he doing? He’s giving Helaman the records of the Church, the golden plates, or whatever manuscripts they’ve got at that time. And he’s teaching his son about the importance of records and record keeping. And this is what he says, “It has hitherto been wisdom in God that these things should be preserved. For behold, they have enlarged the memory of this people. They brought them to the knowledge of the Lord their God, and to rejoice in Jesus Christ, their Redeemer.”
And ultimately, I think that’s what record-keeping in the Church should point us to, the Savior, Jesus Christ, helping us recognize and see His hand His influence in our lives, that He is in the details. And He’s not just blessing President Nelson in the Quorum of the Twelve and all those people. He’s blessing the rural converts and Chulu, Kenya, and the Russian and Ukrainian Saints that are doing their best to stay on the covenant path. And He manifests Himself in their lives. And if we write down how that happens, it reinforces the memory in our own lives and President Eyring talked about this.
He said, “You know what? As I’m writing in my journal, the Holy Ghost can teach me things and show me things that I didn’t see during the day that are important to record.” That’s a part of record-keeping. And then those who come after us, our family, our posterity, other members of the Church, whoever, non Latter-day Saints, will benefit from the power that is in those records that we keep, and that we preserve, and that we share.
Just last year, my stake president asked me to give a stake fireside and I lead off with what I hoped was a little bit of humor. And I told a true story. Early in my career, like 1987, I told somebody that I was working in the, at that time was the historical department, now it’s the Church History Department. And he goes, “Oh, I hope your testimony is strong enough to withstand what’s in that department.” And I’m thinking, “What?” Had no idea what he was talking about, actually, that’s how naive I was. And then I started looking at the Hoffman stuff. And I kind of thought, “Oh, yeah, people can kind of use history to detract faith to diminish faith to cause doubt.”
But my experience over these 36 years has been the opposite. And it’s not always just sugar and spice and happily ever after. Sometimes bad things happen to good people. Sometimes prayers are answered in ways that you don’t expect or maybe that we, as humans, don’t want, or they seem to go unanswered, but still heard. And my experience is watching this from kind of a global perspective, big world events, like COVID, or the Berlin Wall coming down, or wars and rumors of wars, members having to endure that kind of thing, to what happens in the lives of individual Latter-day Saints who are brought to the Church who are blessed, because of their obedience, who get access to the temples. And now it’s so much easier with like, 300 around the planet. But what that tells me is that God is in the details, and that He loves His children. And that He blesses them in the ways that they need.
And that when we record that, that we can help the rising generation, look beyond the distractions and get to the real heart and soul of why we’re here. And that is to find the Savior, and to find our own divinity. And to magnify that through the gospel. That’s what I’ve learned. And that strengthens me and I’m grateful for it. What a blessing it has been for me to work in this kind of an environment where I get to experience that. So for me, Church History has strengthened my testimony and I’m so grateful for that. And I say this in the name of Jesus Christ, amen.
Sarah Jane Weaver: Amen.
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, 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