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.