A few years ago, while my wife and I were having dinner at a restaurant with an LDS member and her non-Mormon husband, the latter suddenly asked me, “out of the blue,” the following question: “Dan, as an academician and someone who teaches a variety of subjects, have you ever found anything in all your years of study and research that has made you doubt your belief in the Church?” I answered, “No, actually quite the contrary. The more research I’ve done, the greater my testimony has grown of the truthfulness of the Restored Gospel.”
This affirmation may come as a surprise to those who may read these words, yet such a conviction has always been with me, even from my earliest memory as a child. Being a fifth-generation “Kentucky Mormon” and the only active member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in my high school, I had numerous opportunities to discuss religion and my own beliefs with my peers of other Christian faiths. Now, as an academician, I have continued to have similar interaction at times with my students who come from very diverse cultural and religious backgrounds, from Islam to Buddhism. Yet I have always known that the Book of Mormon was true, along with the Bible—a knowledge obtained through much study, but most importantly through the convincing witness and influence of the Holy Ghost.
Columbus assured King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella of Spain in the late fifteenth century that it was through the influence of the Holy Spirit that he had learned the basic skills of cartography and maritime skills by which he successfully made his voyages to the New World. I too have gained a personal and peaceful witness that the Book of Mormon is indeed the “word of God,” and that Joseph Smith, Jr., was a true prophet of God in these latter-days, the same as Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and other famous biblical personalities.
As I served a two-year, full-time mission for my church in southern California and then completed a B.A. in history and a minor in anthropology, an M.A. in history, and a doctorate in folklore and folklife, that same conviction has continually stayed with me and buoyed me up in a world steeped in doubt and confusion as to the meaning of life.
The Gospel of Jesus Christ, as taught within Mormonism, has made me appreciate my wife, five children, and, now, thirteen grandchildren more abundantly, when I realize that we can be together forever as a family. One of the very reasons my second great-grandfather, Edward Callahan Rolph, converted to Mormonism in Kentucky in 1897 was because of his own fervent belief that families should be together forever, and that the Lord’s Church should have apostles and prophets as did the ancient Church, as recorded within the Bible. I cherish the fact that, as a middle-aged man, he strongly believed such doctrine, even though he was “tied to a tree and whipped” for his convictions.
The diversity and subject content of the courses I’ve taught or currently teach continue to convince me of the truthfulness of the Gospel message, be they ancient, medieval, early American or non-Western world classes, etc. I have always been a true Renaissance Man when it comes to learning, as witnessed by my own personal library, my filing cabinets, and the material found within my own home, besides almost one hundred boxes in public storage, centered on every subject from entomology to Islam.
When my five children were growing up in our household, like most children they would occasionally complain of being bored. I’d scold them and say, “If every library was burned to the ground, and nothing was left but what is in my study, you would be able to reconstruct the ‘History of the World’ and even part of the Cosmos from the information contained within my books and files.” They may still have been bored after the lecture, but at least they eventually quit complaining! My poor wife, as well, though a scholar of religion in her own right, objects at times to seeing every edition that exists of Beowulf in our bedroom bookcase!
For the past twenty-six years, I have worked not only as an historian but also as the “Head of Reference Services” at The Historical Society of Pennsylvania (or HSP) in Philadelphia, where I serve primarily as the Civil War scholar, though I also help patrons with their varied dissertation topics and with family history. At HSP, some 21 million manuscripts, 700,000 books, and over 500,000 graphic items, which include many primary sources written by our nation’s Founding Fathers, are housed for the benefit of both scholars and the general public. There I also pen a monthly sketch entitled History Hits, as well as a blog called Hidden Histories, both being derived from our vast collections. My topics are as diverse as “Antarctic exploration” and the “Signatures of Muslim Slaves” in antebellum America.
The point to all the above is that, regardless of the fields of enquiry, many of which I am acutely familiar with from an academic or scholarly perspective, I strongly feel that the principles and doctrines of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints are not opposed to any truth, but reinforce it more abundantly. I am not in any way opposed to empirical evidence, but I do question what is often taught as fact but upon scrutiny is found to be simply opinion or even what happens to be “academic fashion.”
“Mormonism” is not in any way opposed to rigorous research. In fact, it invites and encourages such investigation by its membership. I would invite all who truly epitomize the Greek word potheo (“to yearn”) to begin to search out why it is that educated Mormon scholars emphatically embrace the Mormon “belief-system” and still retain their faith. I would encourage all to seek out for themselves the answer to that question, which is so puzzling to many. To myself, and to others like me, there is no doubt, only peace of mind and a stronger desire to learn even more.
Daniel N. Rolph is Historian and Head of Reference Services, The Historical Society of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia, where has worked since 1985 and where he frequently lectures, offers presentations, writes newspaper articles, does media interviews, and prepares displays. He is also Senior Lecturer in History at Montgomery County Community College in Bluebell, Pennsylvania, and he has taught at Gwynedd-Mercy College and at Hahnemann University, both in Pennsylvania.
He was born in Maysville, Mason County, Kentucky, in 1953. After earning a bachelor’s degree in history with a minor in anthropology from the University of Utah, he went on to earn an M.A. in history from the University of Kentucky and a Ph.D. from the University of Pennsylvania.
Dr. Rolph is the author of “Kentuckians and Mormonism: An Historical Overview: 1831-1931” (M.A. thesis, University of Kentucky, 1985); “Kentucky Reaction and Casualties in the Utah War of 1857-58,” The Journal of Kentucky Studies, (1987): 89-96; “Family Folklore and the Civil War: The Search for an Elusive ‘Rebel’ Soldier,” Genealogy Digest (Summer 1988): 25-28; “Wooden Signal Horns of Southern Appalachia: Provenance and Function,” Material Culture (now Pioneer America) 21/3 (Fall 1989): 9-25; “Folklore, Symbolic Landscapes, and the Perception of Southern Culture,” Southern Studies 1/2 (Summer 1990): 117-126; To Shoot, Burn, and Hang: Folk-History from a Kentucky Mountain Family and Community (Knoxsville, TN: University of Tennessee Press., 1992); “Prophets, Kings, and Swords: The Sword of Laban and Its Possible Pre-Laban Origin,” Journal of Book of Mormon Studies 2/1 (Spring 1993): 73-79; and My Brother’s Keeper: Union and Confederate Soldiers’ Acts of Mercy During the Civil War (Mechanicsburg, PA: Stackpole Books, 2002), in connection with which did over 150 presentations at bookstores, historical societies, and Civil War roundtables.
Dr. Rolph is married, with five children and thirteen grandchildren.
Posted September 2011