Strangers and Pilgrims

Season 1 – Death of the Prophet Joseph Smith

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Context in LDS Church History Stories

In his 1954 essay "The Writer and the Audience," Saul Bellow says that the writer wants the audience to, "assume what he and his. . .characters assume."

He goes on to explain that this must be done so that, "When a character is wounded the reader [feels] pain," and so that, "when a character makes a promise the reader [feels] the underlying obligation."

I think this is just a nice way of saying that a writer has to give his readers context -- because without context you can't fully understand character actions and their emotional effects. Especially important is context for historical stories.

Most stories told about the founding of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints take place between 1820 and 1850 in America -- almost 200 years ago.  In order for people to fully understand a story, they have to fully understand the time and place in which it is set.  A lot of the anecdotes or facts shared in church history stories to provide context are the same ones told over and over again.  I don't know if this is due to laziness, or due to the fact that the stories have had 200 to find their most efficient way to be told -- and have reached the point of being canonized themselves.

Often, I find the context provided in these stories not interesting because a) I have already been explained this context 100 times in other church history stories, and b) the context is not told narratively.

The first bit of context that gets used constantly, and of which I often get tired, is the context given to Joseph Smth's first vision.

And, don't get me wrong.  It's good context.  It's important context.  It should be told in advance of telling the story of Joseph Smith's first vision.  In fact, Joseph Smith himself establishes this context being used narratively in 1838, when he sets the scene up the story of his first vision with the context itself.  He says:

Some time in the second year after our removal to Manchester, there was in the place where we lived an unusual excitement on the subject of religion. It commenced with the Methodists, but soon became general among all the sects in that region of country. Indeed, the whole district of country seemed affected by it, and great multitudes united themselves to the different religious parties, which created no small stir and division amongst the people, some crying, “Lo, here!” and others, “Lo, there!” Some were contending for the Methodist faith, some for the Presbyterian, and some for the Baptist.

This feeling of religious interest in Joseph's area help explains why a 15 year old boy would go to the woods to pray about what church he should join.  It helps explain the persecution that would follow him when he claims to have received a revelation from God on the question in which God the Father and his Son, Jesus Christ, appeared to him.

But, are there other ways to set context without just repeating what Joseph said about it already?  And, about which everyone else has quoted him saying it?  Or, do we just use that bit of context because it's the context Joseph used and it's good enough for us?

Another important aspect of context, I believe, in Church History Stories is setting doctrinal context.

For example, in Season 1 Episode 3 of the podcast, we talk a lot about Joseph being charged with treason.  Understanding these charges against Joseph, I believe, requires understanding the Kingdom of Daniel -- why it was considered treasonous by government and officials, and a righteous goal by church members.

Understanding the motivations for Joseph establishing the Kingdom of Daniel better help us understand how much it must have hurt him -- or not hurt him -- when he was thrown in jail for it.