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Education Week: Church History

College of Humanities professors dive deep into Church history.

Education Week at BYU lasted from August 21–25, 2023. Cecilia Peek, Donald Parry, and Tomas Hildago Nava presented on various eras of Church history.

Ancient Perspectives on Atonement and Grace
By Emma Rostrom

Although they lived over a thousand years ago, early followers of Christ planted the roots of modern Christian ideas. In her Education Week presentation on August 24, 2023, Associate Professor Cecilia Peek (Classics, Hellenistic and Roman History) highlighted ancient Christian teachings from the Apostle Paul and others. She emphasized that “we as Latter-day Saints have a great deal more in common with early-day Saints than we sometimes assume.”

Christ Pantocrator in St. Catherine's Monastery in Egypt
Photo by Wikimedia Commons

Grace has always stood as an important concept in the gospel of Jesus Christ. The word grace derived from the Greek word charis, which relates to the giving and receiving of gifts. Ancient Greco-Roman culture valued the reciprocity of gifts and the worthiness of recipients, so many considered it revolutionary when Paul taught that the grace of Christ is completely unmerited. Today, Church teachings align with Paul’s notion that Christ freely atoned for our sins without any stipulations. Peek said, “Whereas traditional giving of gifts and favors has the expectation of return . . . we emphatically and categorically did not deserve the gift [Christ’s Atonement] when the gift was given.”

Modern-day members of the Church recognize the connection between grace and repentance, as did the ancients. Clement I, the third bishop of Rome, believed that grace compels humans to repent. Peek said, “When we learn the story of Jesus and what He has done for us, that inspires in us gratitude. And then Clement would say it also obligates us to be transformed by repentance.” Along the same lines, early Christian apologist Justin Martyr argued that the Lord’s call to change through repentance is a part of grace and our path to salvation.

Peek explained that reflections like these led the early Christians to form ideas of Jesus Christ as an illuminator of God’s love and commandments and a victor over physical and spiritual death, among other roles that members of the Church still use to describe Him today. Despite the centuries that divide ancient Christians from current Latter-day Saints, Christ’s followers have preserved the unchanging truth that He is the center of all spirituality.

Learn about Cecilia Peek’s contribution to Ancient Christians: An Introduction for Latter-day Saints.

27 Similarities Between Ancient and Modern Temples
By Lauren Walker

Model of the Second Jewish Temple in the Israel Museum
Photo by Wikimedia Commons

One of the greatest and most comforting elements of the restored gospel of Jesus Christ is the unchanging nature of our doctrine. But while Church leaders always preserve core doctrine, they occasionally make changes to the presentation of our temple ordinances with Jesus Christ’s guidance. Although a lot has changed since the Israelites practiced in their temples, ancient and modern temples have more in common than you might think.

On August 21, Professor Donald Parry (Hebrew Bible and Dead Sea Scrolls) provided 27 similarities of the ancient and modern temple at his Education Week lecture. A few of his insights pointed out that ancient and modern temples

  • Teach powerful truths regarding the Atonement of Jesus Christ 
  • Involve wearing sacred clothing 
  • Display a large receptacle of water on the backs of 12 oxen 
  • Require moral qualities for temple entrance 
  • Involve making covenants, signs, and tokens 
  • Have the inscription, “Holiness to the Lord” 
  • Use the motif of trumpets and trumpet symbolism 
  • Administer the priesthood 
  • Have gatekeepers that regulate who go into the temple, like bishops 
  • Utilize altars 

Parry ended with his testimony that Joseph Smith was a seer and revelator who restored ancient, and Christ-centered temples in our day. To learn more about Education Week, click here.

Exploring the History of an Elect Lady
By Emma Rostrom

Emma Hale Smith: elect lady, first Relief Society General President, wife of the prophet. Out of the many notable figures of Church history, Professor Donald Parry (Hebrew Bible and Dead Sea Scrolls) chose Emma Smith as his subject for his Education Week lecture on August 21, 2023, where he discussed the importance of Smith’s impressive life and her integral role in the Restoration of the gospel.

According to Parry, Smith was a woman of many talents. In addition to her skills as an adept canoeist, horsewoman, midwife, and soprano singer, she used her considerable education to act as a scribe during the translation of the Book of Mormon. Furthermore, she proved herself a great leader while serving in many callings in the early days of the Church. Parry said, “She's the first priestess and the first prophetess in this dispensation. She's the first female to receive the endowments. She's the first to supervise women's temple ordinances, and all endowed females to this very day trace back the temple blessings to Emma.”

Sketch of the Nauvoo temple in 1890
Photo by Library of Congress

After the infamous martyrdom of Joseph Smith at Carthage Jail, Emma Smith chose to remain with her family in Nauvoo instead of traveling west with Brigham Young and the Saints. Referencing criticism over this decision, Parry symbolically compared her life to a 40,320-piece puzzle—of which we only have access to 133 pieces. “We don't know the full picture. We don’t. We cannot judge her, nor can we judge the Prophet Joseph.”

Both before and after her husband’s death, Smith generously opened the doors of her home to those in need. She continued serving her community as a midwife in Nauvoo, with one doctor stating that she knew more about babies than he did. And today, members of the Church still sing the hymns that she selected for the original hymnbook and participate in the Relief Society organization that she first directed.

Parry said, “I would hope that each of you would bear testimony of Emma Smith's great contributions. I testify to you that Emma was indeed an elect lady in all the women of the world.”

Defending Faith During the Mexican Revolution
By Emma Rostrom

Stories of early Saints who made sacrifices for their beliefs can help Saints today find the courage to make their own sacrifices. Assistant Teaching Professor Tomas Hidalgo Nava (Mexican and Latin American Narrative and Film) delivered his Education Week presentation in Spanish on August 21, 2023, and shared the history of Mexican Latter-day Saint Rafael Monroy and his family in the hopes of inspiring the audience to reflect on the profound faith of early international Saints.

The Monroy family converted to the Church in San Marcos, Mexico, during the tumultuous Mexican Revolution. After only two months of membership, Monroy accepted a calling to serve as leader of the San Marcos branch when Church leaders from the United States were forced out of the country due to wartime anti-American sentiments.

Mexican soldiers during the Mexican Revolution
Photo by Library of Congress

In 1915, a revolutionary group called the Zapatistas entered San Marcos and captured Monroy and his first counselor, Vicente Morales. Believing the two men to be members of an enemy war faction, and having heard of their allegiance to a new religion associated with the United States, the Zapatistas offered the brethren freedom if they would agree to give up their religion.

Under threat of death by firing squad, Monroy proclaimed, “My religion is dearer to me than my life, and I cannot forsake it.” Monroy and Morales were assassinated by the Zapatistas on July 17, 1915.

Although they made the ultimate sacrifice for their beliefs, their example inspired future generations. Many of Monroy’s and Morales’ descendants have served as faithful missionaries and leaders of the Church. Hidalgo Nava said, “Even though they and their families suffered enormously, the Lord never abandoned them. And the Lord will never abandon us.”

Learn more about Education Week.