The Theology of Memory:
Mormon Historical Consciousness

The Theology of Memory: Mormon Historical Consciousness

Steven L. Olsen

The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints was formally organized
in upstate New York on April 6, 1830. On that day, the founding prophet, Joseph
Smith, received a revelation that inaugurated the church’s ambitious enterprise
to preserve records of enduring historical value. Simply and without equivocation,
this revelation addressed the youthful religious leader, “Behold, there
shall be a record kept among you; and in it thou shalt be called a seer, a
translator, a prophet, an apostle of Jesus Christ, an elder of the church”
(Doctrine and Covenants 21:1). This and subsequent revelations clarified the
types of records the church was to preserve and for what purposes.

A later revelation appointed John Whitmer, who had been one of the
eight special witnesses to the Book of Mormon, to be the second church historian
and recorder (D&C 47:1-3). Eight months after receiving this divine
calling, Whitmer was given his principal charge: “Let my servant John
Whitmer travel many times from place to place, and from church to church,
that he may the more easily obtain knowledge–preaching and expounding,
writing, copying, selecting, and obtaining all things which shall be for the
good of the church, and for the rising generations that shall grow up on the
land of Zion,” meaning wherever the church was formally organized (D&C

A survey of Latter-day Saint scriptures suggests four primary purposes
for keeping and using historical records: (1) to testify to the truth of the
restoration of the gospel as effected by Joseph Smith and subsequent church
leaders, (2) to help preserve the revealed order of the church, (3) to formally
remember the great things that God has done for his children, and (4) to extend
the blessings of salvation to all of God’s children. While the church allows
its historical records to be used for academic, pragmatic, personal, and other
comparable purposes, the central justification for its extensive historical
enterprise is spiritual.

The office of church historian and recorder was one of the first
offices to be formally defined in the newly restored church. The office has
remained a key position in the church’s administrative hierarchy until the
present. Nearly all church historians have been General Authorities, members
of governing ecclesiastical councils in the church. As the church has grown,
so have the responsibilities of this office. Eventually the staff of the church
historian’s office was organized into an administrative department at church
headquarters. The Family and Church History Department currently has several
hundred full- and part-time employees and a few thousand additional full-
and part-time volunteers. They are involved in a variety of professional services,
including acquisitions, collections management, research and exhibition, preservation,
product development, and patron service.

The Family and Church History Department consists of several complementary
institutions. These include the Church History Library and Archives, currently
located in the four floors of the east wing of the Church Office Building;
the Museum of Church History and Art and the Family History Library, located
on the block just west of Temple Square; the Granite Mountain Records Vault,
located in Little Cottonwood Canyon in south Salt Lake Valley; some 4,200
family history centers located nearly everywhere the church is formally organized;
approximately four dozen architecturally distinctive historic landmarks that
serve as operating temples, tabernacles, and meetinghouses, located mostly
in North America; two dozen restored historic sites and site complexes that
document church origins in the United States; and hundreds of historic markers
throughout North America and elsewhere. Except for the Granite Mountain Records
Vault, which is closed to the public, these various facilities accommodate
several million visitors and patrons annually. In addition, the Family and
Church History Department constitutes a major private repository of historical
materials. Permanent collections include nearly 300,000 publications (e.g.,
books, pamphlets, magazines, newspapers, maps), 30,000 audiovisual materials
(e.g., films, videos, audiotapes), 3.5 million manuscripts (e.g., letters,
diaries, official church records), more than 100,000 historic photographs
in all media, 5,000 oral histories, more than 60,000 artifacts, 7,500 works
of art in all media, 2.5 million rolls of microfilm, and 670,000 microfiche.
These numbers are exclusive of historical collections at the 4,200 family
history centers.

It is not a trivial question to consider of what necessity such an
ambitious historical enterprise is to the church. Why should a vibrant and
deep-seated historical consciousness be so essential to Latter-day Saints?
From the perspective of my formal training in cultural anthropology and my
quarter-century career working in the Family and Church History Department,
may I speculate on this seeming necessity? I suggest two key reasons why the
church’s historical enterprise is central to Mormon religious identity.

1. The nature of Latter-day Saint theology. The belief systems of many
Christian denominations are expressed
in formal terms, that is, as logical deductions from metaphysical or supernatural
premises that are organized more or less in a systematic manner. By contrast,
the core religious beliefs of Latter-day Saints derive largely from spiritual
experiences and are expressed in narrative terms. That is, Latter-day Saint
theology is more experiential than propositional. For example, the church’s
standard works–consisting of the Bible, Book of Mormon, Doctrine and
Covenants, and Pearl of Great Price–are structured largely as historical
narratives, or they have clear and direct reference to historical events and
contexts. In addition, personal testimonies of individual Latter-day Saints
are often expressed as spiritual experiences or events, and moral, ethical,
and doctrinal principles are often taught by actual or metaphorical examples.
This experiential basis of Latter-day Saint doctrine has more than heuristic
or pedagogical value. Rather, it seems to partake of the very essence of Latter-day
Saint identity.

This is not to say, as some have suggested, that Mormonism is fundamentally
anti-intellectual and has not produced profound religious thinkers. Nor does
this point of view necessarily engender pessimism about the future of Latter-day
Saint thought, as has been expressed by such notables as Thomas O’Dea and
Mark Leone.1 However, this perspective does acknowledge
that Latter-day Saint truth claims result more from spiritual experiences
than from logical inferences, reasoned abstractions, or other formal philosophical
or rational processes. Such confirming experiences for Latter-day Saints occur
in real time and real space, with real people, often in response to real circumstances,
which have the effect of influencing all dimensions of a person’s consciousness
(see D&C 8:2).

For Latter-day Saints, the process of getting to know God–the
ultimate goal of theology and the essence of the concept of eternal life (see
John 17:3)–is similar to that of getting to know an earthly loved one:
a process contingent upon a lifetime of experiences that are motivated by
devotion, tempered by service, and refined by reflection. While much about
intimate human relations can be abstracted into thought or speech, these abstractions
can neither perfectly and totally comprehend nor substitute for the complexities
or the rewards of personal experiences and interpersonal relationships. In
short, the theological process in Mormonism is at least as relational as it
is rational.

From this perspective, religious beliefs cannot be separated from
genuine experiences, and genuine experiences are rarely devoid of spiritual
significance. The traditional dichotomy between history and doctrine is ultimately
an artificial and unsatisfactory construct in Latter-day Saint thought. The
eminent historian of religion Martin Marty addressed this point when he traced
its ultimate truth claims to two experiences: Joseph Smith’s first vision
and the coming forth of the Book of Mormon. Said he:

If the beginning of the promenade of Mormon history, the First Vision and the
Book of Mormon, can survive the [historiographical] crisis, then the rest
of the promenade follows and nothing that happens in it can really detract
from the miracle of the whole. If the first steps do not survive, there can
be only antiquarian, not fateful or faith-full interest in the rest of the

For Latter-day Saints, the occurrence of the first vision is both
chronologically and logically prior to any particular doctrinal significance
that is ascribed to this event.

Leone correctly observes that Mormon thought has a great deal of
flexibility, but he incorrectly concludes that it is therefore a “do-it-yourself”
theology.3 Its rigor, which escaped Leone’s
notice, is in its experiential foundations. Latter-day Saints can have personal
beliefs that vary quite widely about particular points of doctrine, as long
as they hold fast to the experiential foundations of the faith.

Hence, a keen historical consciousness is essential to a proper appreciation
of the faith’s moral, ethical, theological, and metaphysical beliefs. Such
tangible, empirical, and intimate dimensions of faith are essential for a
religion that claims that God is a distinct physical being, that mankind are
his spiritual offspring, that spirits consist of a rarefied matter, that individual
human consciousness existed long before birth and will continue forever after
death, that the true history of the earth is the unfolding of God’s plan of
salvation, and that earth will eventually become a heaven for those worthy
to live with their loved ones in the literal presence of God. The ambitious
historical enterprise of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints can
be best appreciated within this context of an experiential theology.

2. The nature of Latter-day Saint covenants. For Latter-day Saints,
covenants are the foundation of eternal relationships
with God and with beloved family members. Covenants are established by means
of sacred rituals that are performed by authorized priesthood officials. Covenants
have associated with them specific codes of conduct. Those who live faithful
to their covenants are promised blessings that approximate the glorious conditions
of heaven. Those who willfully reject their covenants, once made, are threatened
with dire spiritual consequences.

The covenant I wish to address on this occasion is that of formally
becoming a member of the church. The rituals of baptism and confirmation symbolize
the spiritual rebirth of individuals and their purification from sin as they
take upon them the name of Jesus Christ and promise to remember him and keep
his commandments. In turn, baptismal candidates receive the promise of the
continuing influence of the Holy Spirit.

The details of this covenant are expressed not so much in the contents
of baptism and confirmation per se, but in the weekly renewal of this covenant
in another ritual called the sacrament, or communion as it is generally known
in Christianity. The sacrament is the centerpiece of the Sunday worship services
of the Latter-day Saints. In it the emblems of the atoning sacrifice of Jesus
Christ are blessed and distributed to the faithful. The prayers that consecrate
the emblems of the sacrament are two of only three fixed prayers in Latter-day
Saint public worship. The other is that of baptism. Reinforcing the crucial
nature of their wording, the sacramental prayers are specifically defined
in two separate scriptures, once in the Book of Mormon and another time in
the Doctrine and Covenants (Moroni 4:3; 5:2; D&C 20:77, 79). In both sacramental
prayers, the covenantal obligations of the faithful are summarized in the
verbs witness and remember. As an essential tenet of church
membership, Latter-day Saints are expected to remember and to witness to certain
essential truths.

The spiritual imperative for Latter-day Saints to remember is not
confined to the sacramental prayers. In the Book of Mormon, for example, the
verb remember and its various cognates appear
more than two hundred times, making remembering one of the most frequently
repeated messages in this “keystone” of Latter-day Saint faith.
Furthermore, in most instances, the message to remember appears as a spiritual
imperative, as in the plea “remember, and perish not” (Mosiah 4:30).

Similarly, the importance of witnessing finds numerous applications
in the standard works. Most often, witnesses are selected people who, because of their unique
relationship to a gospel truth, can testify to the world of its eternal veracity.
But the law of witnesses is not restricted to the oral or written testimony
of holy men and women. Latter-day Saint scriptures are replete with examples
of places or things that serve as physical, tangible
witnesses of spiritual experiences or other divine realities. Finally, historical
events often serve as witnesses of
sacred truths, as in the following example from a revelation that is generally
considered a kind of constitution for the church.

Section 20 of the Doctrine and Covenants defines basic organizational
structures, operational processes, and spiritual principles for the church.
In the formal introduction to this revelation, Jesus Christ accepts the church
and Joseph Smith as its leader. The revelation then makes reference to two
key historical events–the first vision and the emergence of the Book
of Mormon–that prepared Joseph Smith to assume his duties as prophet
(D&C 20:5-12). The introduction concludes in terms reminiscent of
other church covenants: “Therefore, having so great witnesses, by them
shall the world be judged, even as many as shall hereafter come to a knowledge
of this work. And those who receive it in faith, and work righteousness, shall
receive a crown of eternal life; but those who harden their hearts in unbelief,
and reject it, it shall turn to their own condemnation” (vv. 13-15).
This passage suggests that the founding of the church was signaled by certain
historical events that serve collectively as a witness to the world of the
central message of this religion, namely that the fulness of the gospel of
Jesus Christ is once again upon the earth and that the church serves as a
means by which all people can avail themselves of its blessings. Historic
sites, historical collections, museum exhibitions, and other historical resources
and products of the church serve as a witness in all three senses–human,
material, and experiential–and preserve an institutional memory of those
things that are central to the church’s spiritual mission.

I conclude with some reflections on the role of memory in defining
the historical beginning and central truth claims of the church, namely, Joseph
Smith’s first vision. These reflections address the theology of memory on
two levels: the individual memory of Joseph Smith regarding this defining
event in his life and the symbolic significance of this event in defining
the religious identity of the Latter-day Saints.

Joseph Smith’s first vision occurred in a grove of trees on the family
farm in Manchester Township, New York, in the early spring of 1820. Four separate
firsthand accounts of this experience were written or dictated by the Prophet
between 1832 and 1843, and several other secondhand accounts exist, written
by Joseph’s contemporaries and based on his oral testimony. These various
accounts are remarkably similar, given the differences in time, place, and
context in which they were given. These accounts also differ from one another
in significant ways. I wish to compare briefly two of the firsthand accounts,
the first one in 1832 and the one he wrote six years later, which is the only
account of this experience accepted as scripture by the Latter-day Saints.

Contemporary learning theory acknowledges that what and how we learn
from life’s experiences depend upon several factors, including our personal,
social, physical, and temporal contexts. That is, learning is not an abstract
intellectual activity. It is a complex process by which our consciousness–including
our memory, our character, and our worldview–is constructed. Personal
expectations and backgrounds, social relationships, environmental conditions,
and subsequent experiences all play important roles in defining how we remember
and interpret our experiences.

What does this have to do with Joseph Smith’s first vision? In 1832,
when Joseph wrote his first known account, he seems to have been concerned
primarily with personal redemption, because the message from the heavenly
messenger to him at that time was that his sins had been forgiven him. Furthermore,
much of the literary structure of this initial account is reminiscent of conversion
narratives of many other New Englanders who were influenced by the religious
fervor of the “Burned Over District.”4

By the time that he dictated what became the official account of
the first vision some six years later, Joseph Smith had received most of the
major revelations that would eventually be published in his lifetime. These
greatly expanded his understanding of his own prophetic mission, the divine
destiny of the church he had founded, the plan of salvation, and the nature
of God. As a result, he had come to understand the first vision within this
more expansive religious context. Hence the 1838 account not only emphasizes
Joseph’s personal struggle for his soul but also becomes an authoritative
narrative of the historical beginnings, the doctrinal foundations, and, at
a symbolic level, the spiritual destiny of the church. So what is the point?
Additional experiences and more mature reflections after 1832 helped Joseph
Smith to remember details and express the meaning of the 1820 vision in more
profound terms in 1838 than he could have possibly done in 1820 or even 1832.

The first vision also operates within the collective memory of the
Latter-day Saints. On this grander stage, the first vision is no longer purely
a historical event or an isolated spiritual experience. It has become a spiritual
archetype, or model for the identity and behavior of a body of believers that
transcends time, space, and cultural boundaries. This sacred story provides
a spiritual paradigm for individual conversion, resistance to temptation,
persistence in prayer, study of the scriptures, and similar processes that
govern the religious lives of Latter-day Saints. The archetypal significance
of the first vision was not immediately apparent for the Latter-day Saints.
However, once it was canonized in 1880 as a portion of the Pearl of Great
Price, it received the authoritative status to become, eventually, a foundational
sacred story for the Latter-day Saints.

In conclusion, I would like to address the process by which memories
seem to be made and refined within these spiritual contexts, at both the individual
and collective levels.5 Memories are generated from a person’s
experiencing some kind of event. That event becomes a meaningful experience
as it is interpreted within the individual’s consciousness. The interpretation
of experience is based on four distinct but interrelated contexts. The personal
context of interpretation reflects the particular background, interests, and
expectations of the individual. In a word, the personal context for learning
recognizes that the old adage “seeing is believing” is equally valid
in the reverse, “believing is seeing.” There is at least a dynamic
interplay between perception and conception in the process of interpreting
experiences. The social context of the making of meaning considers the influence
of a person’s interpersonal relationships. Family, friends, colleagues, and
other associates all influence how a person interprets life’s experiences.
The physical setting is a third dimension of the learning process: What else
was going on at the time of the initial experience? Were there distractions?
How familiar were the surroundings? The more unfamiliar or novel elements
of the setting will likely be those that are the least memorable, at least
initially and without some kind of subsequent reinforcement. Finally, the
temporal context of our memory acknowledges that the meaning of experiences
is transformed, refined, erased, or, in some cases, re-created by subsequent
experiences and reflections. The meaning of a profound or life-changing experience
is rarely if ever fully comprehended at once.

From this perspective, it is not surprising that the memory of spiritual
experiences is complex, elusive, even ineffable. Nevertheless, for the Latter-day
Saints, the spiritual experiences that define their individual and collective
lives are hardly ever exclusively intrapersonal. Hence, church members are
counseled to share them with one another, where appropriate, in oral and written
forms–in testimony meetings, in gospel discussions, in journals and
family histories, and so on. And the church devotes considerable resources
to preserve in perpetuity the memories of those actual, real-life experiences
in written, material, electronic, and other media “for the good of the
church, and for the rising generations” (D&C 69:8).


1. Thomas F. O’Dea, The Mormons (Chicago:
University of Chicago Press, 1957), 224-42; Mark P. Leone, Roots of Modern Mormonism (Cambridge,
MA: Harvard University Press, 1979), 167-93.

2. Martin E. Marty, “Two Integrities: An Address to the Crisis in
Mormon Historiography,” Journal of Mormon History 10 (1983): 9.

3. Leone, Roots of Modern Mormonism, 7.

4. Neal E. Lambert and Richard H. Cracroft, “Literary Form and Historical Understanding:
Joseph Smith’s First Vision,” Journal of Mormon History 7 (1980): 31-42.

5. John H. Falk and Lynn D. Dierking, Learning from
Museums: Visitor Experiences and the Making of Meaning
Creek, CA: AltaMira Press, 2000).