Is “faithful history” required to be accurate? Is it better if there is an effort to improve the facts by adding details drawn from the writer’s imagination? Is it our responsibility to be faithful to the truth or to promote faith? Because a “faithful history” could be either of those.
As an example, the sacrifices of those who built the Kirtland Temple were a living testimony of their conversion to the restored Gospel. They literally suffered to build the Temple. They endured poverty to make it possible for the building to be completed. Some went without food, because they were not always paid for their labors. Their heroism is beyond question.
For some reason, however, we aren’t willing to retell their great sacrifices without fanciful embellishment. We insist on improving the story by adding a fake overlay about the women donating their best china to be ground up and put into the exterior plaster. LDS Church History researcher, employed by the Church History Department, Mark Staker researched the topic and found the story of the women donating china originated in the 1930’s. The story was such good fodder for “faith promotion” that it soon found its way into official versions of Kirtland history.
There was china ground up into the exterior plaster, but it came from a community dump where such things were discarded. Kirtland, like all other communities, had a broken china dump from which the children retrieved scraps to use in the building process.
When the truth of the sacrifices are then overlain with a fictional story about the best china sacrifices/donations, we run the risk of having our members find out about the exaggeration later. Then upon learning this “faithful history” is nothing more than “faith promoting fiction” we risk having them disbelieve everything about the church’s history. What is true and what is exaggeration? What is left of the stories we retell? If we’ll add this fake account of the sacrifices, does that mean there really weren’t sacrifices made?
We invite the crisis of faith when we turn from “faithful retelling” and offer “faith promoting fiction” as our Sunday School fare. We could get away with that once. We can’t now.
Similarly, a recently converted Willard Richards visited Kirtland after the Temple had been built. He observed this about the city: “Sectarians build their own houses first, then, if ever, a house for their Gods. The Latter Day Saints first build the Lord a house & now he is giving them an opportunity to build their own dwellings.” (Willard Richards letter to his sister Jan. 30, 1837.) This was the example in Kirtland. It was not repeated in Nauvoo, where the brick mansions we have restored today bear testimony to the priority change from Kirtland to Nauvoo. In Nauvoo the brick mansions were all built and completed before the Temple was completed. Indeed, there were no more mansions being built (because the city was then abandoned) while the Temple was being completed. The Nauvoo Temple attic was used from November 1845-February 1846 by Brigham Young and the Twelve to perform ordinances in the incomplete Temple. The first wave of refugees left in February, the day following the last endowment rites performed in the unfinished structure. The Temple was not considered complete enough to dedicate until April of 1846, but even then was not finished. A year following the dedication a Palmyra newspaper editor visited the building in 1847 and remarked on its incomplete condition. He speculated about how grand it might have been had it ever been completed.
We have a tendency to “know” what we want to have other people believe or conclude. Then we adapt our story to support our conclusion. That is not history. It is an approach that invites us to tell faith promoting but unfaithful history. We ought to confine ourselves to a faithful retelling. No matter how poorly that reflects on our history, it reflects credit upon us.