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by Richard E. Turley, Jr.
Latter-day Saints have developed a long tradition of keeping detailed records about Church activities and their own lives (see Record Keeping). As is true for the working files of most private institutions, the current records of the Church are not generally available to outside researchers. Undeterred public access to everyday work files would disrupt the organization's work flow and impinge on the privacy of individual Church members. The current membership records of the Church maintained by the Finance and Records Department are kept confidential, as are records of voluntary financial contributions. The Missionary Department keeps the applications it receives from prospective missionaries confidential because they contain private information about the applicants' health and personal life. Similarly, the Personnel Department does not make employee files available.
Despite the general restriction of access to these current records, the Church allows exceptions in extraordinary cases that promise substantial benefits to mankind. For instance, Church officials have provided extensive membership data to cancer researchers and others who have established a legitimate need for such information (Lyon, pp. 129-33).
Most of the noncurrent records of the Church are stored in the Historical Department, one of the world's largest religious archival institutions. Besides housing institutional records, the department also accepts donations of personal historical materials, such as the diaries and papers of individual Church members.
The majority of the thousands of collections in the Historical Department are open and available to most members of the public. Like other major archival institutions, however, the Historical Department restricts access to some of its collections for several legal and ethical reasons. Some other materials are restricted by the terms of their donation. Some of these donor-imposed restrictions eventually expire, making the donated materials more accessible to the public.
The Historical Department restricts some materials to protect the privacy of persons mentioned in them. Experts on archival law have written that "privacy is by far the most pervasive consideration in restricting materials in archives" (Peterson and Peterson, p. 39). The Church's view of privacy embraces more than the legal principle that recognizes persons' privacy until death. "In addition," Dallin H. Oaks explained, "our belief in life after death causes us to extend this principle to respect the privacy of persons who have left mortality but live beyond the veil" (p. 65). Examples of materials restricted for privacy reasons include the records of Church disciplinary proceedings, confidential minutes of Church councils, and journals of Church officials who record confidential information disclosed to them by Church members.
The Historical Department restricts other records because they are sacred. Examples of such records include transcripts of patriarchal blessings. Generally, researchers are given access only to their own blessing transcripts, those of their spouses, and their direct-line descendants and deceased ancestors.
(See Basic Beliefs home page; Church Organization and Priesthood Authority home page; Church Record Keeping home page)
Clark, James R. MFP 2:315-20.
Lyon, Joseph L., et al. "Cancer Incidence in Mormons and Non-Mormons in Utah, 1966-1970." New England Journal of Medicine 294 (1976):129-33.
Oaks, Dallin H. "Recent Events Involving Church History and Forged Documents." Ensign 17 (Oct. 1987):63-69.
Peterson, Gary M., and Trudy Huskamp Peterson. Archives & Manuscripts: Law. Chicago, 1985.
Encyclopedia of Mormonism, Vol. 1, Confidential Records
Copyright © 1992 by Macmillan Publishing Company
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