Church News - The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints

'Historian by yearning' collects, preserves

Elder Marlin K. Jensen is historian/recorder
Published: Saturday, May 28, 2005

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He characterizes himself as "a lawyer and a farmer by trade," but Elder Marlin K. Jensen of the Seventy also lays claim to being "a historian by yearning."

Photo by Jason Olson/Deseret Morning News
Elder Marlin K. Jensen, left, greets Elder Russell M. Nelson and Elder D. Todd Christofferson at commemoration in January of 110th anniversary of Family History Department.

"I've always loved the history of the Church; my wife has gotten after me for years for all the books I've bought," reflected Elder Jensen in a recent Church News interview, having been sustained in April at general conference as the Church Historian/Recorder. He is the first person to hold that office since Elder Dean L. Larsen of the Seventy, who was sustained in April 1985 and formally released in October 1997, though the Family and Church History Department (formerly the Church Historical Department and, before that, the Church Historian's Office) has long and continuously had an integral role in the administrative functions of the Church.

A reverence for the function to which he has been appointed helps qualify Elder Jensen for the work. He sees something sublime, even doctrinal, in what it entails.

"Someone has said the Book of Mormon mentions remembering over 200 times in the various cognate forms of that word," he noted. Alma 5, comprising the powerful sermon that the Nephite high priest Alma delivered to his people, poses some 40 questions, he said, "but the first question is, 'Have you sufficiently retained in remembrance the captivity of your fathers?' So there must be something doctrinally sound about knowing our past."

And though, in informal conversation, Church members are prone to drop the "recorder" designation from the term Church Historian/Recorder, Elder Jensen sees it as essential. In early Church history, he said, "it was a little unclear. There were recorders, and there were historians, and there were historian/recorders. And it finally got clarified about the time that Willard Richards was made historian and recorder before the saints fled Nauvoo."

Studying the revelations and the history of the office, Elder Jensen has determined that "essentially the historian has been responsible for the collection, preservation and, to some extent, the publishing of the history of the Church. The recorder function, as near as I can tell, had to do originally with things like the membership records of the Church." Keeping a registry of certificates of authority issued to priesthood bearers, recording and preserving patriarchal blessings, recording current events in the Church and the keeping of minutes of important meetings were also functions of the recorder, he said.

Over time, some of those functions, such as membership records, have become the province of the Presiding Bishopric's Office, but Elder Jensen said there is still much responsibility for the Church Recorder. For example, about 70 percent of Church records originate electronically, and one of his current initiatives is the development of a system to preserve those, first at Church headquarters and later to be expanded to the worldwide Church.

"It also relates very strongly to the temple," he said, "Though each temple has its own recorder, eventually the records come to the Family and Church History Department. So, in a sense, we are the end repository for all of the temple ordinances of the Church."

He added, "Of all the records, that would certainly be the most precious, the record of our ordinances in the temple." In that regard, he cited Doctrine and Covenants 124:8, which teaches of the sealing power and explains that the dead shall be judged according to their own works out of the books that are kept on earth.

Elder Jensen acknowledged that that is a sobering concept. "Ultimately, the best recorders, according to our song at least, may be the 'angels above us' who 'are silent notes taking' (see Hymns. No. 237). But it does demonstrate just how important an accurate and complete and reliable record is. It shows at the grass-roots level of the Church the significance, for instance, of the calling of a clerk in assembling the membership records, the ordinance data, the historical events."

Noting that verse 24 of that section refers to presenting to the Lord a book containing the records of the dead "which shall be worthy of all acceptation," he said such a book might well be a comprehensive collection of records of both family and Church history. "It's very difficult to do Church history without doing family history, and vice versa," he said. "Anytime you get involved, at least as a Latter-day Saint, with family history, you update the Church history as well."

Regarding Church history, he said there are some exciting things happening, and that may be why the Brethren have again chosen to fill the office of Church Historian/Recorder.

One of those events is the recently announced construction of a new Church library. He sees the Church's collection of archival records as being unsurpassed among the religions of the world, a fulfillment of the directive given by the Lord on the day the Church was organized that a record be kept (see Doctrine and Covenants 21:1). The new facility will enable the Church to do much more physically to safeguard the Church's treasure-trove of primary records.

Another benefit he anticipates from the new library is that it will make the Church's extensive collections more readily available to the public. "We hope we will learn how to share our history better, even internationally," he said. "The Internet will allow us to do a lot of that." For example, he said, in this bicentennial year of the birth of the Prophet Joseph Smith, the Church will soon launch a Web site, translated into a number of languages, focusing on Joseph Smith.

In addition, he added, "we're working on what I think will be the single most significant historical project of our generation: the Joseph Smith papers. With the help of scholars at the Joseph Fielding Smith Institute for Church History and our own staff here, we have under way a project that will collect all of the papers of Joseph Smith's lifetime: his journals, his diaries, his correspondence, articles, notices, everything of a written nature that he generated."

The result of the 10-to-15-year project, he said, will be a work of up to 35 volumes that will enhance the collective scholarship about the Prophet in that no credible historian will be able "to write about early Church history or Joseph Smith without showing a mastery of this material."

The new Church Historian/Recorder approaches his calling with the same fervency that has marked his lifelong interest in Church history. "It would be a fond hope of my heart that people would increase in their interest, in their hunger to know more about the history of the Church," he said.

E-mail to: rscott@desnews.com