Comprehensive History of the Church
Author: Alder, Douglas D.
Intended as a centennial history of the LDS Church (1830-1930), Elder B. H. Roberts's six-volume Comprehensive History of the Church stands as a high point in the publication of Church history to that time. Most earlier works were either attacks upon or defenses of the Church. Although Roberts's study was a kind of defense, he set a more even tone, a degree of uncommon objectivity.
Like several historians preceding him (Bancroft, Whitney, Tullidge), Roberts set out to produce a multivolume work. Originally a periodical series prepared for the Americana magazine, Roberts's articles appeared in forty-two-page installments between July 1909 and July 1915 (CHC 1:v-vi). As the centennial year of 1930 approached, Elder George Albert Smith suggested that Roberts bring his work up to date and that the Church publish it for the centennial.
Published in handsome bindings with numerous illustrations, the work was impressive. But to the reader of today its importance lies beyond its format. Roberts was pointing the way to a new approach; he wanted Church history to avoid apology and undiscriminating defense of the faith. For example, he was skeptical of including any myths parading as history: "I find my own heart strengthened in the truth by getting rid of the untruth, the spectacular, the bizarre, as soon as I learn that it is based on worthless testimony" (Madsen, p. 363). He treated the difficulties of the Saints in Missouri objectively, assigning some elements of blame to both sides.
Roberts was willing to deal with sensitive topics. His analysis of the Mountain Meadows Massacre was fairly exacting. He was also willing to press his editors to get what he felt was fairness; he insisted on including Joseph Smith's king follett discourse despite urgings to the contrary by some members. In some ways Roberts's Comprehensive History was an act of courage; certainly it was his magnum opus.
Though not trained as a historian, Roberts was well known as an orator and as a theologian. He read widely and was a vibrant politician, a noted missionary, and a popular Church leader. His theological writings continue to attract attention. All of this energy, even charisma, flows into his writing, producing rhapsodic prose that sometimes overshoots the mark. He wrote in the Romantic style, accepting Prescott and Parkman as his models.
The Comprehensive History is the high-water mark of studies produced before academic scholars undertook the writing of Church history after 1950. Roberts shows a faithfulness to documentary sources and rules of evidence. The six-volume set is a worthy monument to the Church's first century and still attracts serious attention.
Bitton, Davis. "B. H. Roberts as Historian." Dialogue 4 (Winter 1968):25-44.
Bitton, Davis, and Leonard Arrington. Mormons and Their Historians, pp. 69-86. Salt Lake City, 1988.
Madsen, Truman G. Defender of the Faith: The B.H. Roberts Story, pp. 357-66. Salt Lake City, 1980.
DOUGLAS D. ALDER