For One Alum History is Business
For some, the path less traveled is the wisest course. For Reid Neilson, it was traversing two seemingly disparate paths that made all the difference.
In grad school at BYU, he couldn’t choose between his two passions, so he took on two programs at once—an MBA and an MA in history. Neilson’s choice to follow two roads raised more than a few eyebrows, but the two merged in 2009 when he was offered his dream job as managing director of the LDS Church History Department.
“Looking back, I couldn’t have imagined such a great marriage between my two professional and personal interests,” Neilson says.
His passion for history was sparked by his grandmother Montrue, who told him local and family stories when he visited her as a child in St. George, Utah. And business also ran in the family—his father, Ralph Neilson, earned an MBA and has been a member of the Marriott School’s National Advisory Council since Neilson was a child.
After finishing a bachelor’s degree at BYU in international relations in 1996, Neilson started his career as a consultant at Arthur Andersen, eventually earning his MA in 2001 and MBA in 2002 and capping his formal education in 2006 with a PhD in American religions at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. He taught LDS Church history at BYU before leading the Church History Department, which oversees the Church History Library, Church History Museum, and the Granite Mountain Records Vault.
In January 2015 an ecclesiastical layer was added to his managerial duties with a call as assistant Church historian and recorder by the First Presidency and Quorum of the Twelve.
“On the day the church was organized, the first sentence of the first revelation that was given is why we do everything,” Neilson explains. “It says: ‘Behold, there shall be a record kept among you’ (D&C 21:1). The first commandment was to keep a record of the Restoration.” This scriptural injunction is engraved in large letters inside the Church History Library’s lobby, guiding the work there.
Since taking charge, Neilson has led out in reevaluating how the department implements this work of record-keeping, reorganizing staff and resources accordingly. “As a team we came up with three core activities: collect, preserve, and share,” says Neilson. The department collects and preserves all Church artifacts from pioneer wooden legs to ward and mission histories to the historic buildings of Nauvoo, Illinois. In the Church History Library, where Neilson works day to day, documents from the nineteenth century are washed and preserved, and newspapers, books, and reels of general conferences past are stored in a cold, dark vault at minus four degrees. Roughly two-thirds of the 230,000-square-foot building, which was completed in 2009, is made up of cold-storage vaults.
When it comes to sharing Church history, beyond public access to the library and museum, Neilson and his team embrace the digital age, digitizing records and making Church history transparent and available through projects like the Joseph Smith Papers and online resources and historical essays.
“We don’t just do history for history’s sake,” Neilson explains. “We believe what we do here is sacred history, with an eye of building faith, to be supportive of the prophets and apostles, and a desire to help people come unto Christ.”
Neilson’s wife, Shelley, teases that with his love for history, he has “more friends in the past than in the present.” The two live in Bountiful, Utah, and never miss an opportunity to travel with their five children; Neilson’s office devotes an entire wall to a map, dotted with pins marking past and future destinations.
“I learned lessons at the Marriott School that I thought would never apply in my career as a historian,” Neilson says. “But all of a sudden, I will be drawing on a negotiations class in Nauvoo, or in upstate New York working with foresters and going back to a class called Creativity in Business. My desire is to bring what I know to two typically disparate fields and bring them together to help build the kingdom.”