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Mormon Scholars Testify: Kenneth W. Godfrey

TitleMormon Scholars Testify: Kenneth W. Godfrey
Publication TypeWeb Article
Year of Publication2011
AuthorsGodfrey, Kenneth W.
Access Date26 March 2018
Last Update DateJuly 2011
PublisherMormon Scholars Testify
KeywordsDoctrine; Early Church History; Education; Scripture Study; Testimony

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Kenneth W. Godfrey

The appeal of Latter-day Saint history and doctrine seems to have embraced me the day I was born. The teachings of my mother and father, as well as those of my Primary instructors, were never (well, almost never) boring, and time spent receiving instruction in church remains among my most pleasant childhood memories. Following the example of the men and women most respected in the small Cornish, Utah, ward of my youth, I learned to think about, probe, ask questions, and evaluate both the scriptures and the content of course manuals. Ward members were not afraid to direct inquiries to apostles regarding lessons whose content did not seem satisfactory or accurate. On one memorable occasion my Sunday School teacher developed a sacrament meeting sermon in response to a question I had asked in class. My question, “How did God become God?”, he said, would require a week of study as well as more than a few prayers. In his sermon delivered that winter night long ago, he discussed Joseph Smith’s King Follett Address, the concept that there could never be a father without a father (infinite regress), as well as Orson Pratt’s contrary view that all matter had intelligence and at some point in time the most intelligent bits of matter self combined and this combination resulted in God becoming God. Even though I did not understand all that my teacher said, the fact that an ex-bishop and former member of the stake presidency would so seriously considered the query of a fourteen-year-old farm boy impacted my life. The way he responded to my question reinforced my growing belief that somehow questions are an essential component in the quest for truth. Nor was lost his reference to the role prayer played in preparing his sermon.

My parents believed that the church was so true it would survive intact all investigation and scrutiny. While in the Sacred Grove in 1930 in the company of B. H. Roberts and a hundred other missionaries, my father’s testimony of the reality of Joseph Smith’s first vision was secured. Early in his mission an almost audible voice told Dad that the church was true, and while walking where Joseph Smith walked, he was reassured that the prophet had told the truth about the visitation of the Father and the Son. His and Mother’s faith, and the way they reacted to my questioning nature without a fear or a flinch, left me comforted that God expected only that I embrace truth.

I was not unaware that there were members of the Cornish Ward who not only knew but entertained in their homes Juanita Brooks, Virginia Sorensen, Leonard Arrington, Joel Ricks, George Ellsworth, and Thomas C. Romney, all historians and writers of some repute. Virginia Hanson, a ward member who served as the county librarian, in a winter sacrament meeting talk, reviewed Vardis Fisher’s new book Children of God, which portrayed Joseph Smith not always at his best. That she was unafraid to publicly discuss such a book for some strange reason only encouraged my own faith in the Prophet. The members of the ward of my youth, many of whom were college graduates, would never, I believed, deliberately conceal troublesome historical events.

Thus, when I left Cornish I already knew something, though not very much, about the Mountain Meadows Massacre, plural marriage, blood atonement, the First Vision, and the martyrdom. I knew, too, that those who claimed both membership and belief in the church did not always keep all the commandments. Though hurt when I observed some of the ward’s high priests drinking beer as they celebrated the town’s baseball team winning the county championship, I remained convinced that many church members, including my father and my Sunday School teacher whose faith assured me, would not have engaged in beer drinking no matter how momentous the occasion. But even if they had, I believed that they could not use church teachings to justify violating the Word of Wisdom.

As I left home to study political science and history at Utah State University I brought with me a quest for knowledge that was anchored in study and also in faith. In my first institute class, Eugene Campbell, an historian who earned a PhD at the University of Southern California, taught me how the New Testament came to be in a way that seemed to lace the human with the divine. I became convinced that one cannot winnow all humanism from that which is considered most sacred and holy.

While serving a mission in the Southern States I encountered enough anti-Mormon literature and questions relating to Latter-day Saint history that I could not answer to fire a desire to learn all I could regarding the Mormon past. Returning home, I read Carter E. Grant’s new book The Kingdom of God Restored and found it more interesting than a novel. I read, too, Fawn Brodie’s No Man Knows My History and Hugh Nibley’s No Ma’am, That’s Not History, as well as Joseph Fielding Smith’s Essentials in Church History, Juanita Brooks’s Mountain Meadows Massacre, and William E. Berrett’s The Restored Church.

Working in the Church Educational System I encountered men who had spent their academic lives engaged in gospel and church history study and found their faith securely anchored in the restored gospel. While attending the University of Southern California, the associate dean of the College of Public Administration hired me to read the Journal of Discourses and ferret out all that church leaders had said about government and politics. I read, too, journal articles that related to Mormon history, as well as the anti-Mormon books of John C. Bennett and Jerald and Sandra Tanner. With my interest in Latter-day Saint history intact, I returned to Utah and enrolled in a PhD program in the history of religion. Gustive O. Larson, Milton V. Backman, Russell Rich, Thomas G. Alexander, James R. Clark, LeRoy Hafen, and Louis C. Midgley assigned reading based on the primary documents that reflected the Mormon past. I was taught to evaluate sources, critically read those sources, and teach balanced if not objective history. One year of my life was spent in the Church archives and in libraries in Illinois reading letters, affidavits, pamphlets, newspaper articles, diaries, journals, and rare books whose content had relevance to Latter-day Saint history.

After completing my PhD, I taught church history for more than thirty-years. My classes covered the Mormon past from the beginning to the present. I also offered an advanced class titled somewhat presumptuously “Answers to Difficult Issues in Latter-day Saint History,” as well as one titled “Joseph Smith’s Life and Thought.” Preparing for these classes required that I read both pro- and anti-Mormon sources. As a member of the Mormon History Association I served as that group’s Secretary-Treasurer and, in 1984, as its president. Being around the best historians of Mormonism impacted my life, and I, along with many of them, attempted to read every book written about Joseph Smith and the history of the church he founded as well as journal articles focused on Mormonism.

Believing that writing clarifies thought, I published a significant number of articles and books or chapters in books. In my articles I focused on “Crime and Punishment in Nauvoo,” “Joseph Smith and Masonry,” “The Rise and Fall of Moses Thatcher,” “The Martyrdom of Joseph and Hyrum Smith,” “Zelph, the White Lamanite,” “The Causes of Mormon-non-Mormon Conflict in Hancock County, Illinois,” “The Battle of Nauvoo,” “Daily Life in Mormon Nauvoo,” “Charles W. Penrose and the Mormon Quest for Utah Statehood,” and “Frank J. Cannon,” to name just a few of my publications.

While I served as director of the L.D.S. Institute adjacent to Stanford University in 1967, the Reverend Wesley P. Walters sent the editors of a new “journal of Mormon thought,” Dialogue, his article “New Light on Mormon Origins from Palmyra (N.Y.) Revival.” Walters had spent considerable time studying primary sources that seemed relevant to religion in western New York in the early 1800s and concluded that there were serious problems regarding the historical setting of Joseph Smith’s first vision. One of the editors of Dialogue, Eugene England, who also taught institute part-time, asked me to read the article and advise him as to whether or not it should be published. After studying the document it became clear that Walters was plowing in a field that had not seen the plow of any Mormon historian. Knowing that my friend Paul Cheesman had published a master’s thesis in 1965 entitled “An Analysis of the Accounts [note the plural] Relating to Joseph Smith’s Early Visions,” Eugene and I decided to send Paul a copy of Walters’s article, and asked if there were answers rooted in historical documents to the questions Walters raised. Our letter and the article fueled a fire of interest in what Richard L. Bushman called “Mormon Beginnings.” Mormon historians who scoured libraries, court and church records in the east, as well as the Church archives, came away from their search with new information regarding the religious setting of Latter-day Saint history, the First Vision, Joseph Smith’s youth, the translation of the Book of Mormon, the restoration of the priesthood, and the organization of the church, as well as new insights regarding the Mormon experience in Ohio, Missouri, and Illinois. Dialogue published the Walters article (Dialogue 4 [Spring 1969]: 60-81), together with a response from Richard L. Bushman. My own faith, as I too engaged in research into the man whom Donna Hill called “the First Mormon,” grew as a flood of articles and books favorable and unfavorable came from the pens of historians. It seemed to me that, on balance, all this new information favored Joseph Smith. Two examples follow:

While preparing the Joseph Smith papers for publication, scholars discovered the record of a previously unknown court trial that involved Joseph Smith, Sr., the sale of a team of horses, and a Palmyra New York resident. The court record had a serendipitous quality. It proved that the Prophet Joseph Smith lived in Palmyra in 1818, refuting Walters’s claims that Joseph arrived there after 1820 and, thus, could not have had there his encounter with God. To cite another example, a careful investigation of court documents by legal historian Gordon Madsen revealed that the Prophet did all he was legally required to do and more in his care of the Lawrence sisters, refuting anti-Mormon claims that he cheated the girls and used their inheritance for his own purposes. (See Gordon A. Madsen, “Joseph Smith as Guardian: The Lawrence Estate Case,” Journal of Mormon History, 36/3 [Summer 2010]: 172-211.)

The Book of Mormon with its complex plots, parallelisms, chiasms, and sophisticated use of irony, with its throne theophany, ancient farewell addresses, ancient parallels for Mosiah’s weights and measuring, legal exemptions from military duty, handling of a case of an unobserved murder, law of apostate cities, and double-sealed witnessed documents seems to bear witness itself that this book is something more than the attic writing of a Palmyra farm boy. (See Donald W. Parry, Daniel C. Peterson, and John W. Welch, eds., Echoes and Evidences of the Book of Mormon [Provo: Foundation For Ancient Research and Mormon Studies, 2002].)

In the 1960s I received permission from President Joseph Fielding Smith to research the unclassified letter file in the Church archives. This trove of primary source material consisted of more than 3,000 letters written by and to residents of Nauvoo, Illinois. Unedited, these missives written by Church leaders, as well as those residents who lacked position, station and wealth, grew my faith as they bore witness that they were engaged in a cause that was somehow linked to a personal God who cared about them and revealed things of import to their prophet-leader.

Early in the 1980s I spent three afternoons a week for months reading more than 20,000 (the librarian’s count) letters written by Brigham Young. As I concluded my reading I also finished my last class of the winter quarter, which was titled “The Greatness of Brigham Young.” As the class ended, something prompted me to bear witness of Brother Brigham, as he was called, and the prophetic office he held. Unplanned tears graced my cheeks and a warm assurance seemed to fill my body that I had told my students the truth. I believed my tender feelings for Brigham Young were catalyzed by my having spent so much time reading the words he wrote.

My research has taken me, too, through the diaries of Anthon H. Lund, L. John Nuttall, Heber J. Grant, Franklin D. Richards, Abraham H. Cannon, Charles W. Penrose, Moses Thatcher, John Henry Smith, Heber C. Kimball, Helen Marr Kimball, Bathsheba Smith, George F. Richards, Wilford Woodruff, Hosea Stout, John D. Lee, and Charles O. Card, and though more than 250 women’s diaries. The personal writings of these men and women reveal that they were real people, dealing with life as it came, all the while confident that they were assisting in preparing the world for the coming of Jesus Christ. Nothing in their writings would indicate that they were engaged in a grand deception. The history of the church, preserved by those who actively participated therein, reveals a people mostly motivated by faith, sacrifice, and consecration. While there might not have been faith in their every footstep, there were enough footprints of faith to impress even the casual reader.

While I believe I have read and studied most of the documents that have a bearing on the Mormon past, new information continues to surface that seems grounded in truth. Some examples follow. Alexander Baugh, an historian known for his study of the Mormons’ Missouri experience, recently noted that Jacob Hawn (not Haun) was not a church member at the time of the Hauns Mill Massacre, and never became a Mormon, though he had a brother who was baptized. Baugh reveals that even after 170 years careful research can uncover documents that alter our perceptions of the past. Another researcher has determined the date and day of the week that the Three Witness saw the plates, the angel, and the other sacred relics, as well as the date and day of the week that the Eight Witnesses saw and handled the plates before Joseph Smith gave them back to the angel Moroni. Such “facts” may appear trivial and unimportant, but when dates and days of the week fit nicely with other documents that relate to these two sacred events my faith in Joseph Smith grows.

Study of the “physical evidence at the Carthage Jail” reveals new facts regarding the assassination of Joseph and Hyrum Smith. (See Joseph L. Lyon and David W. Lyon, “Physical Evidence at Carthage Jail and What it Reveals about the Assassination of Joseph and Hyrum Smith,” BYU Studies, 47/4 [2008]: 4-50). Brian Q. Cannon’s published collection of priesthood restoration documents is impressive. Cannon wrote “The powerful thrust of these accounts of Joseph Smith and Oliver Cowdery corroborated by numerous statements from other early members of the church renders them intellectually challenging and spiritually invigorating.” (Brian Q. Cannon and BYU Studies staff, “Priesthood Restoration Documents,” BYU Studies 35/4 [1995-1996]: 162-207).

Documents and testimonies from the past, when read and evaluated in their historical and doctrinal context, have assisted in providing reasons for faith growing within me. More than four decades of research, teaching, and writing about Latter-day Saint history has only fueled my testimony. Still, the foundation of my faith came in sacred moments when the Holy Ghost whispered to my mind and my heart informing me that Joseph Smith was indeed a prophet, that the First Vision happened, that the Book of Mormon is a translation of an ancient record, that the doctrines of the gospel came from God, that temple ordinances bind the living and the dead, and that authentic priesthood authority is on the earth once more. There have been moments, too, when I have been reminded that those sacred moments did happen to me and were real. I remain appreciative that Mormon history and the documents to which it is bound have only enriched that faith which came to me as a gift from God.


Kenneth W. Godfrey grew up on a small farm in Cornish, Utah, before attending Ricks College and Utah State University, where he earned a bachelor’s degree in political science. He served an LDS mission to the Southern States Mission, spending most of his time in Florida, from 1953 to 1955. He married Audrey Ann Montgomery on September 17, 1956, and soon after completed a master’s degree at Utah State in political science. He then entered the Church Education System (CES) and worked for CES as a seminary and institute teacher, as well as an administrator, until his retirement in 1995. Additional graduate work at the University of Southern California, the University of Utah, and Brigham Young University culminated in a doctorate from BYU in 1967.

Dr. Godfrey has spent most of his professional life immersed in Mormon history, reading almost everything written in that field and compiling an impressive bibliography of books and articles, including Women’s Voices: An Untold History of the Latter-day Saints (1982), which he coauthored with Audrey Godfrey and Jill Mulvay Derr. He has also become an authority on the history of Cache Valley and has published several historical works on that region.

In 1983-1984, Dr. Godfrey served as president of the Mormon History Association.

Posted July 2011