Once upon a time, there was a book called Essentials in Church History. It was first published in 1922 and authored by Joseph Fielding Smith, who was made Assistant Church Historian in 1906 and an Apostle in 1910 (then President of the LDS Church from 1970 to 1972). For many years, this book (in one of its many successive editions) was part of every ward library and was found in most LDS homes. It was sort of expected that Mormons would read the book and know their history. It may have been faith-promoting history, but at least it spent 500 pages telling the story.
For example, there was a full chapter devoted to the Mountain Meadows Massacre. Contrast that with the recent discussion in a T&S post about how many active Latter-day Saints seem to be entirely unaware of Mountain Meadows. It appears that the recent PBS documentary "The Mormons" was the first exposure to that event for many Mormons. But don't blame Helen Whitney. And don't blame Joseph Fielding Smith. I won't fill in that blank, but I think it's clear that the Church needs to fill the gap created by the fading of Essentials with an updated one-volume history of the Church.
The Our Heritage booklet used in LDS Sunday School classes is not the solution. In fact, it's part of the problem, omitting, for example, any mention of Mountain Meadows (which I'm just using as an illustration). But there are two full pages (out of 146) on Haun's Mill. The primary themes of the booklet are persecution, perseverance, and proselyting. There is no author listed (the book is published by the Church), but my copy does state: "English approval: 5/95." I'm not sure the booklet is an advertisement for the virtues of "approval."
Perhaps I am overstating the problem. On the other hand, a PBS documentary really shouldn't throw people (meaning active Mormon people) into confusion. Maybe one of the new bright lights in the History Division (or whatever it is called these days) has a plan. But you don't plan a response until you recognize there's a problem. Maybe The Story of the Latter-day Saints can be dusted off and sent into the breach. But it was published in 1976 and last revised in 1992, fifteen years ago. It may have missed its chance to garner the sort of implicit endorsement that (for example) Rough Stone Rolling seems to be getting. And without some sort of endorsement, no book can fill the role of Essentials.
I've heard that LDS PR people hand out copies of Mormonism For Dummies to reporters who need a short course in Mormonism. There are several chapters in that book on LDS history. I wonder if they could shrink it to curriculum booklet size?
Originally posted with comments at Times and Seasons.