Summarizing the Church: Then and Now

David Howlett, Barb Walden, and I have spent a lot of time in the past few months getting a new, 72-page, full-color illustrated history of the church ready in time for World Conference. (I’ve previously blogged about it and shared pictures of some of the mockups here.) I have the first printer’s proof in my hands now and I have to say I couldn’t be more pleased with the results. We’ll share more details about it soon, but it does look like we’ve finished in time to have plenty of copies at World Conference and Restoration Studies. (If you haven’t registered for Restoration Studies, do so right away, it looks like it’s going to be a great program!)

As we were working on the new book, Ron Romig sent me a beautiful 14-page brochure, printed c. 1956, that summarizes the church at that time. As might be expected, there are some differences between the way the story was told then and the way we have just now told the story again.

“THIS IS OUR CHURCH” is actually a very well-designed, attractive brochure. It’s printed in two colors, black and a mustard-gold accent on white paper. The cover, which prints the title in mustard overlaying a picture of the Stone Church in Independence, is the main place the design breaks down — the title isn’t really legible against the photograph. The interior design is clean and modern with professional type and great use of white space and proportion. The overall effect is to send the message that the Reorganized Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints of 1950s was a successful, modern institution.

The interior front cover uses the famous portrait of Joseph Smith Jr. (Note the mustard caption placed to the left of the image, which contributes to the modern, professional design.)

Although the brochure is about the church in general, the first section is devoted to the church’s history. Five of the brochure’s fourteen total pages are devoted to the section “HOW WE BEGAN.” Almost the entire history section is devoted to the Joseph Smith Jr. story. The story from 1844–1860 gets half a page and all we get from 1860–1956 is this:

Following a period of consideration, “young Joseph,” accepted the leadership in 1860—as prophetically foretold. Since that time, the Reorganization has grown steadily. Today, over one hundred years since the death of its founder, Joseph Smith, the church membership totals over 150,000.

That’s it. For more, the brochure recommends Inez Smith Davis’s book and the official volumes of RLDS History.

The next 4-page section is entitled “MEN OF OUR CHURCH,” which accurately labels the all-male leadership of the era. Although the many headshots of general officers has been a common trope in both the RLDS and LDS traditions, the design here is again nice. The square of each picture is the same proportion as the brochure itself. The first page reverses the mustard and the white to emphasize the importance of the First Presidency and the Presiding Bishopric.

The apostolic headshots are likewise arrayed in the same proportions.

The final 4-page section is devoted to “POINTS OF INTEREST,” which are: Kirtland Temple, the Nauvoo historic sites, Herald House, Graceland College, the San (Independence Sanitarium and Hospital), the Social Service Center, and Stone Church in Independence.

Finally, the interior back cover is a picture of a globe labeled “OUR CHURCH GROWS” with pins stuck in it to indicate RLDS branches around the world. Unfortunately the globe emphasizes Latin America (which had no RLDS presence at the time), while the main areas of church growth outside North America — Europe, the South Pacific, and Australia/New Zealand — are all not pictured. (For our illustrated history, I also created a map for the spread that talks about overseas growth but I used a more appropriate projection.)

Overall there is a bunch of overlap between the brochure and our book. We have pictures of church leaders (including the portrait of Joseph Smith Jr.) and we picture the historic sites, Herald House, Graceland, the San, the Auditorium, and Stone Church. We do not emphasize the growth narrative. Because the church hasn’t been growing for the past few decades, the story of growth for growth’s sake isn’t really one of the church’s contemporary values.

Because our book is specifically a history, we are more focused on history than this much briefer brochure. But even in the space available, the amount of space we give to each period of history is wildly different. The brochure gives about 31% of its length to the 1820–44 period and 66% to the church of the 1950s, leaving only 3% of its space to talk about the church between 1844 and the 1950s. By contrast in our book, Joseph Smith Jr. appears on page 4 and is dead by page 13 (about 14% of the book, not counting backmatter). We then give 36 pages to the history from 1844 to the 1950s (51% of the book), with the remaining 22 pages (31%) devoted to recent developments and the contemporary church.

Of course, this comparison doesn’t necessarily have any broader implications because I’m dealing with a sample size of two, but I do believe that there’s more interest now in telling the story not just of where we started and where we are, but how we got from there to here. At least that’s the part of the story that I find especially fascinating.

Bookmark Summarizing Community of Christ: Then and Now

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