Becoming Scripturally Literate
How writing Wikipedia pages on church history fizzled my religious anger.
In some ways, my ego wants to believe that God put me in the position of Wikipedian-in-Residence at the BYU library to make neutral, verifiable information about church history accessible, in a way that no other church publication is able to duplicate. Can you imagine if the difficult topics essays were crowdsourced? In a time where the authors of many church publications are still unknown, my entire Wikipedia edit history is open for anyone to view. My own job is an argument against the idea that the church is still hiding things. At the same time, I know that I’m not that important. Someone else could do my job, and that’s a good thing, because it means there is less pressure for me to do it all. God didn’t call me to this job to save my fellow Extremely Online Mormons. He called me to it to grow my testimony in (maybe) the only way my stiff-necked self would grow: through painstaking research.
My experience with researching church history topics has changed the way that I approach scripture. I used to read my scriptures daily and not worry too much if I didn’t understand something. I read through the Bible and Book of Mormon this way during high school. I felt a smug superiority to adult members who confessed that they had never read the Old Testament. But I was worse than them. I went through the motions to say that I had read it, but I had no particular understanding of the scriptures. Reading a chapter a day, I wasn’t able to trace the narrative themes or even the basic plot of many scripture stories. As I got older, reading the scriptures this way frustrated me, because I realized that I didn’t understand them and I didn’t know where to go for help. With the Come Follow Me curriculum focusing on the Doctrine and Covenants last year, I realized that my knowledge of church history and its cultural contexts were helping me to understand what was going on in a way I hadn’t experienced before. As a Sunday School teacher, I had the excuse to dive deeper into the history and commentary on the Doctrine and Covenants. It has been so much work, and it has also been so rewarding. I feel like I’m finally able to understand the scriptures a little and not just guess at what they mean. Unfortunately, I haven’t always had the knowledge and confidence to find answers to my questions on my own.
As a teenager, I was the kind of idealist who kept hoping and believing that surely someone would have the answers. I believed that my teachers and church leaders could answer all of my theological questions, ranging from the meaning of certain words in scripture to “if God knows what we’re going to do, how do we have free agency?” On a visit to Utah with my family, I hoped that the teachers in the “heartland” would be able to explain why it was okay for the Nephites to use subterfuge in war. I frequently interrupted lessons in my BYU singles ward to focus on the questions I had – questions that ranged from vital to trivial. Here is a sample:
Why did God “favor” some of His children? If God cannot be in the presence of sin, how will he judge us at the last day? Are we only avoiding sin because we fear its punishment? Who tempted Satan? In taking the sacrament, we acknowledge that we are sinners, but sinning is also the reason we stop taking the sacrament? If unquenched appetites lead to sin, does that mean we need to feed them a little? Why did God bother to have prophets tell the people to repent if He knew they weren’t going to repent in the first place?
The bishop in my student ward took me aside and asked me to stop asking so many questions because it was challenging other people’s testimonies. I felt incredulous and hurt. Wasn’t the purpose of discussions and lessons in church to further my personal spiritual development? How was that supposed to happen if I didn’t aggressively express my questions and doubts? It felt like no one else had any questions or even a desire to start a discussion. Were they reading the same scriptures I was?
Sometime in my early twenties, I realized that I had unrealistic expectations of my Sunday school teachers and bishoprics. I stopped expecting them to be able to answer my persistent questions. I spent a decade in primary. I read on the Mormon Feminist Housewives Facebook group about women who lost their testimonies over polygamy and the way the church presented history. I shelved a LOT of questions. Maybe shelf is the wrong metaphor. It’s more like I threw my questions into a dark room and closed the door, only opening it to throw in more questions.
I had a baby and dutifully took care of her, but I was a little bored. When I got the Wikipedia job at the BYU library back in 2016, I didn’t know what I was supposed to do. Similar initiatives were trying to fill “knowledge gaps” on Wikipedia. The first page I created was for Lucinda Lee Dalton, a frequent contributor to the Women’s Exponent. She wrote things like “let the wife be her own judge concerning her own fitness and readiness to undertake the duties of motherhood” and “man cannot hope to ascend the kingly throne of excellence while his inseparable companion remains outside the gate in bonds.” The fact that her proto-feminist opinion columns were published in a semi-official church publication was a revelation to me. It made me curious about what else I didn’t know about church history.
Most of the pages I created or worked on had some connection to the BYU library’s collections. Our extensive stacks on Mormon history made almost any page on Mormon history fair game. Throughout my formal academic career, I had always been looking for sources to support an argument or idea I had formed before, or in the initial stages of, my research. With Wikipedia’s rules against original research, I had to start research the other way around. You know, just reading and summarizing everything about the topic neutrally, with attention to the source’s reliability and bias. I finally had the time and training to open the door to my room full of questions and bring some of them into the light. And, through editing Wikipedia, I was able to make that research incredibly accessible to other people with the same questions and fully sourced with in-line citations.
My faith began to change. I went to a book reading where Steve Peck said that he did not believe in the scriptures literally. I felt like I, too, had the freedom to believe the same thing, and I realized that it made it so I didn’t have to worry about a LOT of arguments about the Book of Mormon’s (or the Bible’s) historicity, which allowed me to focus on the spiritual messages in the scriptures, which I believe are more important. I learned that some of the issues I had shelved were not that big a deal to me under the cold light of research, and with the view that the “literalness” of the scripture’s translation was not as important to me as its message. So the book of Abraham wasn’t a direct translation of scraps of the same papyri we’ve found? I can live with that. On the other hand, I also learned historical information that enraged me. Yes, Brigham Young signed an extermination order against the Timpanogos indians. Yes, Utah’s blood banks were racially segregated into the 1970s. Yes, Leonard Arrington was not even thanked for his service in General Conference when he was released. Yes, Lucinda Dalton’s petition to be unsealed from her husband was rescinded posthumously, against her wishes.
I felt upset, but my intensive study and Wikipedia’s policy of neutrality forced me to put aside my anger and confusion on religious topics. As Stirling McMurring stated in his interview with Seventh East Press, “There is nothing new about churches perverting history. This has been done ever since we have had churches.” Putting aside those feelings of anger helped me to feel love and admiration for people in church history–something I haven’t been able to do very easily, because of worrying about what I didn’t know. Once I knew some of the things I didn’t like about Wilford Woodruff – how he favored some of his children, how he performed baptisms for the dead for some “founding fathers” who had already had proxy baptisms done for them – I felt free to like other parts of him.
I like how Woodruff didn’t seem like he was worried about the appearance of “the world” pushing him around. The government was definitely pushing him around, that much was obvious. They disenfranchised polygamists and seized church property, which the church subsequently paid them rent for. When they threatened to seize the temples, Woodruff issued the 1890 manifesto that ended new polygamous marriages. Temples were more important than polygamy. I love how he received the revelation that children should be sealed to their parents, even if they were non-members. And in turn, learning about how this core doctrine was taught so late helped me understand why the law of adoption was so popular in the early church.
Back in 2019, I started reading a book called Historical Theology: An Introduction to the History of Christian Thought on the recommendation of some of my fellow ARCH-HIVE friends. I felt a profound connection to early Christians who had had their own theological questions, some of which were the same questions I’ve been asking since I was a teenager. I know now that I’m not “that one weirdo who isn’t faithful enough to just forget her questions.” I am an active learner who has finally found my academic forebearers. I have the privilege of having friends and books who can tell me about the possible folk-origins of the story of Lot and his daughters, who can calmly explain what the Kinderhook plates are, and who can empathize with my theological questions about the nature of God. I am not alone in responding with incredulity, anger, wonder, and love to the things I learn in my research. And I feel blessed to be able to share some of these deep dives on Wikipedia pages through my role as Wikipedian-in-Residence at the BYU library.
About the Author
Rachel Helps is the Wikipedian-in-Residence at the BYU Library. She is also an indie game developer and has written for the games Our Personal Space and Space to Grow. She has written a short Mormon feminist horror game and is currently working on a workplace drama set in a near-future digital archive.