Denial

Rachel WeiszIn 2000, a British judge found Deborah Lipstadt innocent of libel with respect to her book, Denying the Holocaust. The movie Denial, now in post-production, documents the real-life court battle between Holocaust-denier David Irving (played by Timothy Spall) and Professor Lipstadt (played by Rachel Weisz, pictured). Directed by Oscar-nominee Mick Jackson and based on the book Deborah Lipstadt wrote about the trial, the movie may be expected to emphasize the difference between conscientious or objective historical research and “histories” that knowingly and “deliberately mis-represent or manipulate historical evidence.”

David Irving waited to sue Lipstadt in the British courts because English libel law puts the burden of proof on the defendant rather than the plaintiff. Lipstadt and Penguin won the case by demonstrating in court that Lipstadt’s accusations against Irving were substantially true and therefore not libelous. Mr Justice Gray produced a written judgment 334 pages long detailing Irving’s systematic distortion of the historical record.

The trial was the first time a legal standard was established for historical objectivity. For those of us who don’t have time to master all 334 pages, Wendie E. Schneider distilled the ruling into seven concise principles:

1) Treat all sources with appropriate reservations. This is a principle too often ignored in treatments of Mormon history. One can often predict the leanings of a historian by which sources they will include without critical review and which sources they will pretend don’t even exist.

2) Don’t dismiss counter-evidence without scholarly consideration. This is not to say that flawed evidence can’t be dismissed, rather that the doubting historian must produce scholarly rationale for ignoring inconvenient data.

3) Be even-handed in treatment of evidence. We see this often in Mormon history. Critics of Joseph Smith will ignore Joseph’s own statements or the statements of his friends, even when those friends weren’t Mormons themselves. Conversely, some will only hear what Joseph Smith said and ignore the truth if told by someone who fought against Joseph Smith.

4) Identify speculation when suggesting conclusions. I recall noticing consistent projection of certainty in Mormon Enigma, when discussing matters that no one can know with certainty. This blog post is too short to list all the works flawed by inadequate use of the subjunctive case.

5) Correctly transcribe or translate documents. An egregious example of this with respect to Mormon history is Michael Quinn’s transcription of the ecclesiastical trial of Joseph Ellis Johnson. It is not that what was transcribed was not correct. It is that the framing context of that trial was omitted, obfuscating which “Joseph” frigged Joseph Ellis Johnson’s mother-in-law, Mary Heron [Snyder]. In particular, insufficient notice was paid to the presence of Joseph Kelly, who was escorted to Salt Lake City in an express company with Joseph Ellis Johnson. Quinn and his respondents, such as Brian Hales, have not considered this, leading them to presume the Joseph named as frigging Mary Heron must have been Joseph Smith. Omissions should not change the meaning of the extracted information. Yet in the case of the Joseph Ellis Johnson case, the omission of context has completely changed how this document is understood, as seen by the number of lists where Mary Heron’s name can be found as not only Joseph Smith’s plural wife, but a known conjugal wife.

6) Weigh the authenticity of all accounts. A child might stick their fingers in their ears and scream “I’m not listening!” A conscientious historian must never commit equivalent childishness. I witnessed this when the initial Tailhook scandal broke. The women in my office in a Navy facility were highly critical of the then un-named woman claiming to have been sexually assaulted. A more seemly response would have been to wait and see.

7) Consider the motives of historical actors. Properly understood, all historical data is good data. When a known liar tells you there is no money in the safe, this communication is a valuable hint regarding the possible location of the money. To give a more nuanced example, when Joseph Smith denied he was practicing polygamy, this should not be taken as a blanket assertion that Joseph Smith never covenanted with plural wives. By his own account, he was trying to protect women and men from those who were teaching that illicit intercourse was acceptable, so of course he condemned polygamy in that context and denied he had any part in the secret sexual underground implied by the term ‘polygamy.’ Similarly Emma Hale [Smith] would claim she was Joseph’s only wife weeks before her death, even though at least one key RLDS leader had witnessed her participation in the ceremonies joining Joseph to other women for eternity. Emma was likely trying to ensure her sons were not persuaded that their father had been a seducer, particularly given the then-recent return of William Smith to the RLDS community.

Primary versus Secondary Evidence

I have been astounded at the rich trove of contemporary, primary documentation that exists regarding Nauvoo events. Yet too many individuals would prefer to base their world view on second-hand tales told long after the fact.

A case in point here is the late assertion by Alice Merrill Horne that Eliza Snow was gang-raped and rendered infertile. Alice herself says she was a child when she overheard the conversations on which she based her assertion.

Eliza’s nephew, who eventually came to the conclusion that Eliza had been pregnant and lost the child, was twelve when Eliza died. He had access to various of Eliza’s contemporaries, even if we deny the possibility that he could have discussed the troubling rumors with Eliza before her death.

Lastly we have Eliza’s own writings. While she does not refute the possibility that she might have been raped, she wrote:

Clad in the heav’nly robes of innocence,
Amid that worse than every other blast
The blast that strikes at moral character
With floods of falsehood foaming with abuse…–
Thrown side by side and face to face with that
faithless, rottenhearted wretch, whose tongue
Speaks words of trust and fond fidelity,

Whether Eliza was speaking of herself or another, an Eliza who might have been raped elevates moral corruption to the place of the greater disaster. Of which innocent did she write that poem, if not of herself? In the context of the prior testimony of multiple female victims, it seems Eliza’s own words regarding seduction should weigh more heavily in the collective historical consciousness.

In fact, these three accounts are not mutually exclusive, with the possible exception of Alice’s assertion that the rape rendered Eliza infertile.

Avoid Fraud

Few recognized historians commit fraud on purpose. It is true that Mark Hoffmann forged documents, but relatively few individuals still cite those forgeries when developing hypotheses about the past.

I have seen my own words be distorted when retold by others. However those distortions are not likely to be intentional distortions, but an honest inability to understand what I had written.

While it is possible to manipulate statistics in service of a fraudulent historical viewpoint, I suspect it is often merely that people don’t know enough about math to avoid mangling the statistics. We see this in the case of people who maintain that there would have been more babies if there had been no polygamy, refuting the “raise up seed unto me” purpose of plural marriage in the 1800s. The argument that wives of “polygamists” bore a reduced number of children does not appear to consider the heavy load of service these men and their wives bore and would still have borne even had there not been polygamy.

A consistent complaint of the women in our midst is the lack of consideration for feminine realities when recording or interpreting history. Though not always a fraudulent mis-translation of the past, history suffers greatly when the experience of half the human family is neglected regarding past events. As someone who has personally experienced the vagaries of reproduction, I am shocked at the continued presumption that Joseph Smith and his faithful supporters engaged in wanton sexuality in light of the significant lack of children born to plural wives in Nauvoo.

As for those who are knowingly manipulating the historical record, may the fruit of Irving v. Lipstadt yield a standard that makes such manipulation increasingly difficult to foist upon those currently too uninformed to know better.

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About Meg Stout

Meg Stout has been an active member of the Church of Jesus Christ (of Latter-day Saints) for decades. She lives in the DC area with her husband, Bryan, and several daughters. She is an engineer by vocation and a writer by avocation. Meg is the author of Reluctant Polygamist, laying out the possibility that Joseph taught the acceptability of plural marriage but may have privately defied the commandment for love of his wife, Emma.

17 thoughts on “Denial

  1. Sounds like an intriguing movie. I look forward to seeing it. I agree with the points the judge brought out. When we see Joseph as a pious fraud, a genius, one prone to epileptic seizures, a philanderer, or a prophet, we may see that at least some are playing loosely with the historical data.

    So it is with holocaust deniers, political campaigns and accusations against some candidates (Mitt Romney is not a Christian/good Mormon).

  2. Meg,
    I apologize if I have missed the news, I only dabble in Mormon history. I remember that you intend to publish some of your thoughts as articles or in e-book form so they may be formally published and peer reviewed. Can we expect to see something soon?

  3. Is it not at all possible she was put in a gang rape situation by someone she was acquainted with or at least someone who initially spoke words of trust and honor?

    I feel like you have a great imagination to consider alternate possibilities, but rarely use it to give credence to give life to ideas you’re not in favor of…

    Going back to the idea, I can imagine an Eliza holding a gun saying get off my porch, and someone saying put the gun down we won’t harm you and it escalating.

    I can imagine someone Eliza was acquainted with saying, Eliza, open the door or come out of the house we just want to escort you to safety, and then taking advantage of her.

    I can imagine a mob holding a gun to her friends head saying, if you can’t convince her to come (come out of the house/meet you alone for some contrived reason/etc) we’ll shoot you, so the “friend” reluctantly does it and betrays her.

    I know of many gang rape situations where a woman believed she could trust the person she was with who exactly gave words of trust or assurance before the ultimate betrayal.

    In short, your counterfactual, isn’t factual. It’s just denial.

  4. Hi Gry,

    The question is whether the assertion documented by Alice Horne is a primary source. It is not.

    Analysis of the language used by Eliza Snow in her poem shows she uses the same terms that had been used in the Relief Society’s petition to Governor Carlin in July 1842 to describe Dr. Bennett.

    Your scenarios are interesting, as homes in 1840 didn’t have porches. The idea that any home in which Eliza would have been circa 1838-1842 would have featured her as a lone person hoisting a gun draws more from spaghetti westerns than from the reality of 1838-1842. Eliza lived in homes with many other relatives. Eight men would not have needed to speak words of trust and fond fidelity.

    Contemporary documents contain several reports of a woman of good family who was bound hand and foot, after which numerous men took turns raping her. The number of rapists vary in the accounts, with eight being fewer than described in any of the contemporary accounts.

    Your comment, while pithy, does not represent scholarly consideration.

    I do not deny that rapes such as you describe have happened. But the rapes you describe do not agree with the rest of the text of the poem.

  5. Let me correct myself. Log cabins in the frontier of Missouri and Illinois did not have porches. Porches were an innovation that came to Western culture through the influence of West African slaves. The West African peoples who were captured as slaves cultivated yams. Their homes had low overhanging roofs, sheltering the side of the structure from the sun and requiring anyone entering the shelter to stoop. This was supposed to allow the yam farmers to overcome any attacker. But it wasn’t sufficient.

    Frontier homes in the south would begin to have porches, as seen in the 1820s farmhouse on the campus of the Frontier Culture Museum in Staunton, VA.

    I mentioned the other women who confessed to having been pressed to participate in illicit intercourse. I suggest you read those accounts. Wives of Sorrow details all the women known to have become plural wives in 1842. What you have missed is this larger body of evidence suggesting widespread participation in illicit intercourse, as documented by Joseph Smith in his editorial regarding Dr. Bennett in the July 1, 1842, issue of the Times and Seasons.

  6. Hi Old Man,

    The book is in final stages. An Advanced Review Copy has been available since December, but apparently only a couple of dozen brave souls were willing to wade through the early form of the book. I had planned to publish on April 6th, but one reviewer has requested a couple of more days. So I’m not going to hurt myself attempting to meet the April 6th deadline.

  7. Meg – The idea of a legal standard for historical objectivity is horrific – it is like the legal standards of scientific validity which courts have imposed from time to time. The legal system has neither the ability nor the authority to pronounce on such matters in any ultimate sense – such criteria are purely for reasons of legal expedience. And even as such the courts nowadays are thoroughly corrupted by political correctness, so cannot even reason legally. Furthermore, such a bureaucratic checklist approach to matters of truth is in itself monstrous – there is no better evaluation than the informed judgement of a single honest person. That is our bottom line for mortal life. For example, this checklist is ultimately validated by the judgement of a single judge who is (presumably) trying to intuit, express and briefly explain his own thought processes on this topic; or perhaps not even that, but how he thinks things ought to be done in future. Either way, the validity of the checklist is taken for granted and not subjected to the further testing by experience which would be needed to know whether it was valid and wise. (Reproducibility of results is no measure of validity what is needed is justice.)

  8. Meg, of course the poem can’t be connected with rape, because she didn’t have a porch. If I could show you she had a porch, you’d now agree with that theory?

    That’s being pedantic. The fact is, it’s very possible she knew and felt betrayed by at least one of her attackers.

    And the tertiary ‘witness’, although years later is more credible than your subjective and demonstrably incomplete analysis of poem. That’s the point. You’re using really bad ‘evidence’ to bolster your case against the witness.

  9. I have never denied the possibility that the alleged rape could have occurred. I have just exercised caution before proclaiming that it must be true.

    The poem I quote from is part of a rather striking set. Whatever had occurred to prompt her first poem about death, she was writing without attempting scansion or rhyme. The second poem, about the vile wretch, is similarly without meter or rhyme. I the two final poems, about Christ’s atoning grace and solitude, return to Eliza’s typical precise meter and rhyme. All four of these poems are undated, but are bounded by other dated entries making it clear they were written in Nov 1842 in Nauvoo.

    You have not provided a rationale for why a poem about rape would have been written in those terms years after the fact. Your hypothesis resembles those “ingenious but implausible theories used to dismiss credible accounts” – a form of history denial listed with more obvious frauds like forgery.

  10. Hi Bruce,

    The trial in question was rather exhaustive. The historian’s report documenting David Irving’s consistent and deliberate manipulation of the past was roughly 740 pages long.

    We shouldn’t ever need such a legal standard in the us, as a claimant suing someone for libel bears the burden of proof.

    It’s just that, given existence of a standard, we can use it to evaluate the conscientiousness of public discourse. I don’t believe anyone is harmed by being informed that they have neglected to be objective, if this gives us tools to better decant an accurate past.

  11. Bruce,

    Your attack was on the law and the judge and missed the merits of each or any of the elements that he proposed as a standard for review. Perhaps you are a historian and hate the idea of anyone imposing standards on historical analysis and historians.

    History is largely what we make of it. Truth is not. Truth is experienced through our relationship with God. God apparently understands that 1) history is ever prone to ever errant human perceptions, and therefore 2) “the informed judgement of a single honest person” in communion with God is how He prefers to convey truth. (I refer all to Moroni 10: 3-5 for definitions for “informed” and “honest”)

    But, the list is still instructive and many historians and non-historians alike could benefit from the effort to break down historical analysis for those who struggle with 2 because of number 1. Surely, this list is not exhaustive or the final word; but again, (and yes I am a practicing attorney), it is something and a counter to the oft-repeated notion that historians can’t be held to the standards of evidence under the law else they could draw no conclusions at all. Would to God it were so.

  12. The original book Lipstadt wrote on several deniers, including Irving, is here:
    http://www.amazon.com/Denying-Holocaust-Deborah-E-Lipstadt/dp/0029192358/

    The follow-up book, about the trial with Irving, is here:
    http://www.amazon.com/History-Trial-Court-Holocaust-Denier/dp/0060593776

    From Meg’s description, it sounds like the judge went beyond the simple guilt/innocence of Lipstadt in regard to the charge of libel. As I see it, the judge’s job was not to determine if what Irving claimed was true, but rather to determine if what Lipstadt wrote about Irving’s claims was true.

    Bruce Charlton’s comment may need some unpacking or parsing. I _think_ Bruce is glad Lipstadt was found innocent of libel, but doesn’t like the fact that the judge presumed to go on to tell irving how he should go about writing history, in spite of the appearance to most that Irving is a lousy historian.

    Meg: you actually have a bit in common with Bruce, and on an abstract level with Irving, having published things that are not accepted by those who consider themselves arbiters of historical truths. (You’re not a liar like Irving is, but you’re a pariah among historians like he is.)

    Including a third link would cause this comment to go into the spam filter, so look up the Medical Hypotheses entry at Wikipedia to read some of Bruce’s experience in the medical publishing industry, and how he became a pariah among those who considered themselves the guardians of medical publishing.

    I also highly recommend two of Bruce’s books, available free online:
    Thought Prison: the fundamental nature of political correctness. And,
    Addicted to Distraction: Psychological consequences of the modern Mass Media.
    Links are available at his wikipedia entry (Bruce Carlton), or his personal blog.

  13. Hi Bookslinger,

    I am not a pariah amongst historians. There are far too few historians specializing in Mormon studies to significantly affect the pool of all historians. I am merely a laughingstock among a select few of the historians specializing in Mormon Studies who happen to focus on the history of Joseph Smith’s polygamy.

    And since I don’t care that they are laughing, does it matter that they might consider me pariah?

  14. Meg: we are promised in the scriptures that all mysteries and hidden things, both in heaven and on earth, both dark secrets and the derring-do of unsung heros, will be revealed in the millennium. I hope that your historical analysis of Nauvoo polygamy/sealings is vindicated before then.

    Among the things I hope to learn and read about in the millenium are: the details of what went wrong in Kirtland, Missouri, and Nauvoo; was the Illinois governor in on the murder of Joseph, what really happened at Mountain Meadows, who shot JFK, did Ammon marry King Lamoni’s daughter, did the Savior get married during his mortal life, what was the deal with Nephi’s brother Sam, were there pre-existing populations in the Americas when the Lehites and Mulekites arrived, who were the Mound Builders, what are the origins of the differences between Sephardic and Ashkenazi Jews, what have the 3 Nephites been up to since the time Moroni buried the plates, and I’d love to read an English translation of the Large Plates of Nephi, or if possible, learn Reformed Egyptian and read a reprint in the original. And, last but not least, are the oil companies really suppressing a carburetor that could give cars a mileage of 100 mpg?

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