An Insider’s Outside View of Mormon History

In the spirit of describing personal religious turning points, I am presenting this observational essay. At the same time it touches on a few posts with themes about intellectuals and faith.

The Discovery Years

While reading about the LDS history articles in the Ensign, I was reminded of my own studies. When I was young, interest in the subject started because my own personal faith had grown. My house was filled with history books both secular and religious. As a reader, I would try and find anything I could on whatever subject interested me the most.

My first full biography on Joseph Smith was by John Henry Evans, a rather unsophisticated treatment. What intrigued me about the book was less how definitive it was and more how complicated and exciting Joseph Smith seemed. Noticing more to the man and the Prophet than the author presented didn’t bother me — it fascinated me. Perhaps it had to do with my understanding of history as storytelling rather than a collection of facts that had to be accounted for to make things true.

My second encounter with Mormon history was brief, and I had already gotten a beginner’s start by reading a few chapters in Joseph Smith’s 6 Volume history. At this point my focus of LDS Church history set with Joseph Smith as the center of study. Having read one biography of Joseph Smith, I decided to find another one; and like so many other people picked up Fawn Brodie’s treatment. I read a few chapters at the start and a couple in the middle before reading the rest. Unlike so many people who apparently read her book and become disenchanted, I was unimpressed. As a teenager I could tell where history stopped and her own unfounded biases filled in the gaps. Where Evan’s book was sketchy, this one had been overproduced. Other than a few original for the time newspaper reports, “No Man Knows My History” mostly used the Joseph Smith HIstory volumes and Journal of Discourses. Much of what she writes was discussed in B.H. Roberts History of the LDS Church with a difference of opinion. Reading Hugh Nibley’s criticism about the book was not a discovery, but a realization I wasn’t the only one seeing the problems.

Before graduating High School and leaving my home for college, I read all the historical Ensign articles I could. They contained the most detail on specific topics I had access to at the time. The articles were impressive for someone who didn’t have other treatments to rely on for more information. I lament that such writings in the magazine stopped during the 90s, although one or two good articles came out later. Still, it got me reading more than the outdated books written by a small group of believers.

A Larger Reading

Once I got into college my reading material grew larger and more robust. For once I read articles by people who were either not members of the LDS Church or dealing with subjects you wouldn’t find in Church material. Again, my faith didn’t falter as so many people have said theirs did when they read this kind of information. Instead, my understanding of Joseph Smith and Mormonism expanded. I enjoyed both the more devotional treatments and the more scholarly approaches. They weren’t at odds most of the time for me, as much as complimentary. Those I disagreed with, well, I disagreed with.

Let me put it this way. You don’t reject addition and subtraction because you learn about algebra and physics. For me it was the same way with LDS Church history. I didn’t lose faith because I learned something more difficult to comprehend than what I started with. If anything, those people who were blatantly anti-LDS were easy to detect because they ignored other interpretations and critical contexts. That is one reason I have a hard time believing LDS Church history is damaging to a member’s testimony unless they are looking for a reason. I am just as upset by those who reject the history because it doesn’t fit preconceived notions as those who write just to point out what they perceive as inconsistencies.

An example of how perceptions can be more important than the history is my encounter with reading the books by Dan Vogel on Joseph Smith and American Indians. It was exciting to study how Indians were treated and represented right before and during Joseph Smith’s time. I could see the struggles to come to grips with a group of people that were mysterious and culturally different. My reaction after reading, most surprising to myself now, was how merciful God was for presenting the Mormons with a true understanding of the spiritual history of the Amerindians, especially at a time it was so important to the people. My “misreading” of the books would shatter with later events.

Lines Have Been Drawn

My mixing up of believer with unbeliever would come to an end a few years after the first expanded explorations. Perhaps the beginning of the end started with Mark Hoffman, long before the early 90s LDS History “crisis” and after his conviction of murder and fraud. It is said that he damaged the perception of Mormonism for several years. That seems to be a simplistic understanding of his influence. What he did was expose a certain kind of historian of Mormonism while seeking to support them; a group of wolves in sheep clothing. His “discoveries” were so fantastic while following a certain perception, that those who held to those views were quick to grab hold. Of course, there were anti-Mormons who claimed from the start they were fake and used that as proof they were somehow better historians. The truth is more probable that they knew the forgeries were going to expose their own theories and those they relied on to closer scrutiny. And, it did just that.

Soon after I had gotten really deep into the study of LDS Church history and doctrine there came a crossroad. I read an op-ed in a Mormon history periodical about how the Mormon leadership should leave the historians alone because they were doing some good and causing no harm. At the time I hadn’t been paying attention to what some historians were doing as much as what they were writing. That isn’t always the same thing. Because of that, for a brief period I was mildly on the side of the historians. They were bringing some wonderful history to light that deepened Mormonism as far as I was concerned. I had started to understand things more without worry about damage to my testimony. Historians were asking questions I had been, while other studies answered those questions. At the time I couldn’t discern the difference between the faithful and the more secular approaches.This flirtation with “rebellion” was not long lived.

With one book, “The Word of God: Essays on Mormon Scripture,” my positive vision of a more open Mormon history came crashing down. It was my Rosetta Stone for what was actually going on between the LDS faith and a small set of Mormon historians. I recognized a few names – particularly the main editor – but the voice was all wrong. Each thesis of the articles were trying to prove the very opposite of what the title proclaimed. It was a bait and switch, mixed in with obfuscations about intentions. This was not about getting to know the scriptures better. It was a call to war. Total and complete skepticism and animosity to the faith was out in the open such as would not be seen until the Jesus Seminar for the wider Christian world.

Going back and reading the previous studies often became frustratingly depressing. Some said that the LDS Church and CES religious educators were to blame for silencing better scholarship. Although a plausible argument, the LDS Church and CES educators weren’t completely wrong in their assessments of the negative direction of intellectuals. The famous words of Richard Bushman about keeping faithful and staying scholarly were never headed by either group. Lines had been drawn by both sides with each feeding on the other.

After discovering the real agenda behind most of the secular studies, those voices became loud and strident. They were vindictive, skeptical to a fault, self-righteously positive of themselves, and unapologetically faithless (like many still are). The study of Mormonism had been replaced by political statements. Any calls of “objectivity” were pathetic (but worldly successful) attempts at sympathy. They had betrayed any honest inquiry with calls for revolution. Instead of helping to better understand, they sought to change Mormonism. That is the responsibility of Prophets and Apostles, and many knew enough about that to seek usurpation of power by ridicule and accusing the leadership of not doing this or acknowledging that. The famous September 6 excommunications were not a surprise to those paying attention. The coup failed, even though there is still that push today by new generations of overeducated know-it-all revolutionaries.

The Slow Resurrection

Those who talk of “inoculation” against the more difficult parts of Mormon history and doctrine seem to not recognize a chance was lost years ago. The group who is often seen as intellectual martyrs made sure of that in the race to become relevant. Others such as Richard L. Bushman, Thomas Alexander, Davis Bitton, Grant Underwood, Dean C. Jessee, and Milton V. Backman Jr were ignored. What they wrote was often less sensational and too faithful for those who sought absolute abolition of God and Revelation.

The problem with Mormon history is not, as its critics and the exed-bunch apologists believe, that it has a history. Rather, as now respected scholars Richard Bushman and Terryl Givens have explained, it is how the history is approached. I believe strongly that typical Latter-day Saints can appreciate and not be scandalized by the more complex past. However, that can only happen if the history is presented in a way that (I won’t say the obnoxious and horribly false “objectively”) is less cynical and more informational. Those who oppose such an approach can call it apologia. Fine enough, but all history is apologia written by the victors of real or metaphorical wars. All arguments made are only the creation of scholars putting often desperate material together in a cohesive (and therefore manufactured) presentation.

It is ironic that some involved in presenting history earlier in the Ensign contributed to the breakdown of the “golden age” of Mormon history. The new emphasis in source material engaged by the LDS Church today will hopefully alleviate some of the past damage and damage to the past. Critics and skeptics have a role, but not as the supreme voices going unchallenged.

10 thoughts on “An Insider’s Outside View of Mormon History

  1. Great essay, well put. I am so fed up with all the noise about church history from church “intellectuals” who seemed more anti, that the anti themselves. You have done a great analysis of the situation and it reminded me of what another one of your bloggers discussed recently on how the intellectuals do have a problem with priesthood authority. It does seemed they do want to get rid of God and revelation altogether. To me the road they take ends up at the ” Apostasy Station “.

  2. Nice essay. The only thing I would change is that the “big” excommunication did not occur in October. They were/are known as the “September 6″ for a reason….

    Maxine Hanks, one of the September 6, who recently returned to the Church, acknowledged that one of the things she had to learn was to view the Brethren as “equals” and not as subordinates to her own beliefs and views.

  3. ” It does seemed they do want to get rid of God and revelation altogether.”

    It’s a replay of the age-old tension between the university and the church. Universities were founded as anti-churches, and thus they have never been able to accept the mantic mysticism of revelation. If you take your cues from the university, to maintain mental cohesion you have to jettison anything that smacks of prophecy or revelation.

    In the end, you have to make a choice: will it be the school or the church that gives me my marching orders? No man can serve two masters.

  4. rameumptom, month corrected. Finishing up this month has still been on my mind and somehow got put in. Thank you for those who have commented. Michael, as I always say to quote, “”What indeed has Athens to do with Jerusalem? What concord is there between the Academy and the Church?” (The Prescription Against Heretics, 7)” You can get to “Jerusalem” by way of the academy, but that is not where truth ends.

  5. Disparate not desperate. :-) (In the last sentence of the second to last paragraph.)

    A scholar has a difficult time finding a way to “deal with” revelation. The difficulty lies in the idea that many very different philosophies claim to be based on direct revelation. As our own history states “They could not all be right.” (as Joseph said, speaking of the differing church philosophies in his day) and as such there is logically a general skepticism of them all. So an historian has to ask: What is a reasonable metric to use in evaluating whether someone who claims revelation has actually received revelation? (Unfortunately for the historian) The metric is that God tells you it is true. That is what we tell our members and potential converts. It is the only answer we can give which is going to hold up. But it is also an answer which does NOT work for scholarly history.

    Bushman (and before him Arrington) make no bones about it, they use this metric and say explicitly in their works that they will not pass judgement on whether a given man was, or was not, a prophet – but they will write from the perspective the individual (usually Joseph or Brigham) fully believed they themselves were acting as a prophet. The reader is left to seek his or her own answer from God if the work is true. Fundamentally I think that is the same thing the writers of the Book of Mormon did. They essentially said: “We can’t prove to you that God really talked to us and that all of these things happened, but we can write the history as we understand it and you can ask God if we got it right (or close enough).”

    I think having a history is vital, but I also think it must serve at least two distinct purposes. The first is that it provides a teaching vehicle to bring people into the Church. The Restoration is basically a history lesson. The second purpose though is to *keep* people in the Church. When the reality and attendant mistakes of our actual implementation of the Restoration become clear an inspired history can help members bridge the gap between the ideal and reality of our history.

  6. Thank you for the rational approach. This has been my thinking since I joined the Church and began my own study. I always started with the proposition of giving people the benefit of the doubt and moving from there rather than always assign a negative or sinister motive. It has served me well. Do I still have questions? Yes, sure. But, I am more comfortable having faith and trusting.

    I’ve been pretty convinced that those who are bowled over (or claim to be) by history enough to lose their testimony of Christ have other issues going on.

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