While reading about historical figures, do we ever perceive them as perhaps larger than life? For many Latter-day Saints, it might be hard to humanize Church historical figures or recognize their “human moments.”
Scott Hales, lead writer of Saints, the new multivolume history of the Church, explained on this week’s All In podcast how his study of Church history has humanized the people we read about in Church history, especially Joseph Smith. As Hales “spent time” with Joseph Smith through study, Hale began to see the many sides of Joseph Smith and began to admire him even more. He believes a study of the Church’s history can do the same for anyone.
“I think that my love for him and my respect for him grows, the more I learn about him. And you know, it is true that he had his flaws. But like I said, take the time to get to know Joseph Smith, and you will learn to love him and learn to admire and respect him for the great things that he's done for all of us. I mean, everything in my life that is good, everything that makes me happy today is because of the Restoration, which came through him,” Hales said.
The following excerpt has been edited for clarity.
Morgan Jones: How did working on this project—or how has working on this project humanize the people that you've read about? You mentioned Joseph Smith. How has it humanized those people and also, how have you gained additional respect for these characters that we know about from Church history?
Scott Hales: Nothing humanizes a person more than their journal, especially if it's a really detailed or what we might say really juicy journal writer or their letters. Moments when they're writing just for themselves or to a close friend, right? And so I think one of the things that has humanized these people, for me, and I hope for others, are these kinds of documents, these really personal letters or these journals. We've tried to use them as much as possible in the Saints books. There's a part in Saints: Volume Two that I love—Martha Ann Smith, who was Joseph F. Smith's younger sister, was writing to him when he was on his mission in Hawaii. This is when they're both teenagers. And Martha Ann is very, very candid in her letters, she's very lively. And what's funny is so she's writing this letter and she confides to her brother, she says, confides in her brother. She says, "I've met this boy, I've fallen in love with him, but don't tell anyone. Please, please, please don't tell anyone." And something like that is a really human moment for me. You know, it's a little sister confiding in her older brother about this boy she's fallen in love with. And it's moments like that, to me, just make things come alive. Or I think about somebody like Brigham Young, who I think has taken a lot of flack in recent years for some of his views, which were deeply rooted in the very problematic views of the 19th century. And so he's taken a lot of flack. But one of the things that I really came to appreciate about him as I read his letters and read more about him is his determination, his willingness to fight for Zion, and to sacrifice for Zion. And to do all he could to establish Zion. And the thing that really humanized him for me was to learn that that first vanguard company west, we all know that Brigham Young got sick as he was traveling to Salt Lake Valley, and had to, you know, was in Wilford Woodruff's carriage when he was wheeled into the Salt Lake Valley and he could barely stand up. We all know that story, but what we don't know, and this is what really impressed me about him, is as soon as they got to the Salt Lake Valley, they waited a short period. And then immediately he and others returned and made the journey back again in the same season. And this is while he was still sick, and by the time he reached Winter Quarters, he was emaciated, he was still very unwell. But he had made that trip because he knew that the Saints needed at home, they needed a gathering place. And he was willing to waste away for Zion in some ways, to consecrate his body to that endeavor. And that, just as soon as I learned that about him, my respect for him skyrocketed and he became a very real person to me. And it was just amazing what he did.
Morgan Jones: You mentioned Joseph Smith earlier and the chance that you've had to spend time with him. And I love the way that you put that because I think that that is the beauty of writing about someone. I've had a chance to write a couple of stories about people that have passed, not from history, but just in recent years have passed. And then I would write about them after. And I always felt like I had gotten the chance to get to know them. What were the biggest things that surprised you as you spent time with Joseph Smith?
Scott Hales: On this project, I'm not sure that he surprised me very often because as I mentioned earlier, I kind of grew up with a deep fascination for Joseph Smith. And I don't know why that is, but I always connected with him. Even when I was really young, I just, I remember when I was 14, I was in the school library and I saw a copy of Fawn Brodie's No Man Knows My History, which was this really controversial biography written about Joseph Smith in the 1940s. Which, as I read it, I realized that what I was learning in this book about Joseph Smith was very different from what I had learned in Church. There were details. And I didn't realize that, I didn't understand at the time that there were issues with Fawn Brodie's interpretation of Joseph Smith. There were problems with her approach to the history. But it was at that moment I realized that there are different ways to interpret historical sources and different ways to interpret Joseph Smith. There are ways to negatively interpret him. And for me at 14 that was a crisis. Like I remember hiding the book in my bedroom because I was afraid my parents were going to find out that I was reading it. But again, I still felt drawn to him and I wanted to know more about him. I wanted to understand him. Because I realized that he was someone who could be and should be understood. And so I took the time to get to know Joseph Smith and as I got older, I continued to study. When the Joseph Smith Papers came out, I think I was one of the few people just, you know, just devouring those volumes, who wasn't necessarily a historian. So I wasn't necessarily surprised by anything as I was writing Volume One, but one of the things that did strike me was how loved he was by the Saints. And how much what we know about him comes through them. I mean, Joseph Smith struggled to write. And he had a hard time writing and getting his thoughts down on paper. And so he often had scribes, you know, do that for him. And so we don't have a whole lot by him by his own hand. But what we do have is a wealth of information from other people who knew him closely, and so I just enjoyed reading, for example, Wilford Woodruff's descriptions of him and the accounts of his work in Wilford Woodruff's journal or reading reminiscent accounts of Joseph Smith interacting with the Saints.
. . .
Morgan Jones: And I know that you haven't met Joseph Smith entirely, but having spent all this time with him, do you feel like you admire him even more?
Scott Hales: Oh, yeah, yeah. The more I learn about him, just, the more respect I have for him. And this really came home to me when I turned 38. Like when I, actually, this is, again, reveals something very dorky about me but like I kind of calculated ahead of time... But, like I calculated when I would be the exact age Joseph Smith was when he died. And it really hit home to me when that occurred, how much he was able to accomplish in such a short amount of time.
I mean, 38-years-old is not very old. But in that time, as we learn in the Doctrine and Covenants, he, you know, translated the Book of Mormon. He revealed, I mean, he was the Lord's Prophet of the Restoration. He revealed God's word to us, and had, you know, those words have changed the lives of millions, millions of people. He founded a city, he founded a people really. I mean, we're talking today because Joseph Smith had his First Vision, and he did as the Lord instructed him. And so I think that my love for him and my respect for him grows, the more I learn about him. And you know, it is true that he had his flaws. But like I said, take the time to get to know Joseph Smith, and you will learn to love him and learn to admire and respect him for the great things that he's done for all of us. I mean, everything in my life that is good, everything that makes me happy today is because of the Restoration, which came through him.