A present of a subscription to the British Newspaper Archives may seem an unusual Christmas present, but I had asked for it, and it kept me absorbed and busy during lockdown and beyond.
I had been reading Doctrine & Covenants section 123 where Joseph Smith is commanded by the Lord “to gather up the libellous publications that are afloat”. Three times it is called “an imperative duty”, because the Lord knew that the Saints were not guilty of the crimes with which they had been charged by their enemies, nor did they hold some doctrines that were credited to them.
I felt I could help to address this. The British Newspaper Archive is the result of a collaboration between the British Library and Findmypast, to digitise the former’s vast collection of British newspapers. With the Church being so small in numerical terms, particularly before 1960, I was not expecting to find large numbers of relevant articles. My naivety soon became apparent. It was now too big a task for one person to complete in any reasonable amount of time. I therefore decided to limit my explorations to collecting items from one place; I chose Hull. Still, there were over five hundred articles and letters published in the period 1844-1950 for Hull.
I found that the British public were well informed of early Church history in that period. Much was factual and basically true but interwoven among the facts were lurid stories of murder, treason, and white slavery. These were seized upon and enhanced by enemies of the Church and made an excuse for violence. Although violence must always be condemned, I quickly concluded that the public generally could not be blamed for their feelings of hostility towards the Church. It was no wonder to me that the public appeared to accept without question what they were told.
In 1885 an elder wrote to the Millennial Star (the Church’s British periodical) expressing his sadness on finding the same spirit of animosity and slander wherever he went. “I have failed, as yet, to find a family who have not heard more or less of the libellous stories circulated about the Latter-day Saints.”
The Lord tells us that “it must needs be, that there is an opposition in all things” (2 Nephi 2:11), because opposition provides choices. Indeed, the late Elder Neal A Maxwell said: “Without the existence of choices, without our freedom to choose and without opposition, there would be no real existence.” However, to make proper choices it is important that each side gets a fair and clear hearing. Today we still need to be vigilant and courageous in defending the reputation of the Church, in correcting misrepresentations and living the principles we declare we believe in, in order that the good people of the world will not be deceived but hear the truth that they need to make a choice.
Indifference rather than hostility may be our lot today but standing tall in defence of the Church is still needed and a great help in missionary work.