From the founding of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, writing and collecting history has been considered a sacred duty. The founding document of scripture, The Book of Mormon, claims to be an historical document of the ancient Americas. Letters and revelations very early on formed foundational material for spreading the Gospel of the Restoration. Soon after the organization of the LDS Church the position of Church Historian was given as a formal calling. General Authorities were assigned the calling for over a hundred years. Two of the most well known Church Historians would be the prolific B.H. Roberts of the Seventy and Joseph Fielding Smith who would serve for over 40 years in the position before becoming Prophet. These two among others spent years collecting, protecting, and writing historical and doctrinal documents. Some of their works have become classics of great importance, although falling out of favor among academics.
Decades ago a new approach to history was introduced to the LDS Church, but with at best questionable results. For an unknown reason a professional historian, Leonard J. Arrington, was assigned as LDS Church Historian instead of the usual General Authority. There is even a question if he was called or hired, or both. Either way, his approach was far less about defending the LDS Church and spreading the Gospel than conforming to worldly standards. Along with those worldly standards of historical academics came a de-emphasis on miracles and truth claims. Instead it was about economic and social forces, with “objective” consideration of source documents. Almost ten years after the appointment, he was quietly fired and placed as a BYU teacher. Unfortunately the damage was already done and continued with acceleration in the halls of the school. Academia entrenched itself into LDS Church culture, publications, and manuals.
Perhaps the academic and the spiritual narratives of history could co-exist, but the differences became too stark. The academic side wanted desperately to take over. They sought, and in many ways succeeded after a thirty year program, to banish the traditional historians. Among those who were once respected for their work, but now hardly mentioned include B.H. Roberts, George Q. Cannon, Preston Nibley, Bruce R. McConkie, Joseph Fielding Smith, Hugh Nibley, and Gordon B. Hinkley. Replacing them is a large group of academics seeking to “re-educate” the members of the LDS Church by purging the traditional understanding of historical events and doctrines. Those who challenge the new history and doctrine gatekeepers are denounced as without “mature faith,” simple minded ignoramuses, and stuck in the past.
Reformation of the LDS history starts with reinterpretation of the prophets. Most particularly and troubling is the near dismissal of Joseph Smith’s testimony about the divine organization of the LDS Church and his own life story. Where once his history as dictated or written by him was quoted at length, now his words must be shrunk to a few quotations. These must be qualified, opinionated about, and compared to other sources. In other words, they must be filtered through the academic gauntlet just in case what he says doesn’t conform to what they have decided the truth must be. They have agreed with the old anti-Mormon theory that Joseph Smith gave one version of history to the public while privately having multiple versions. To what degree the differences are depends on how much faith a person has that Joseph Smith was a prophet. Even the Joseph Smith Papers that are generously available online by the LDS Church is flooded by academic commentary and opinions. They take up at least as much space as the source documents.
Prophets and Apostles warned that the academics, in or out of the LDS Church, were usurping the rightful authorities of history and doctrine. They were becoming the arbitrates of truth and accuracy while dismissing divine authority. That non-Mormons were doing this was to be expected, but those who claimed to be members were just as guilty. No words so rattled and upset the LDS history academics more than the warning by Elder Boyd K. Packer in his 1981 BYU religious symposium talk “The Mantle Is Far, Far Greater Than the Intellect,” that remains more relevant than ever. He states near the start of the talk:
I have come to believe that it is the tendency for many members of the Church who spend a great deal of time in academic research to begin to judge the Church, its doctrine, organization, and leadership, present and past, by the principles of their own profession. Ofttimes this is done unwittingly, and some of it, perhaps, is not harmful.
It is an easy thing for a man with extensive academic training to measure the Church using the principles he has been taught in his professional training as his standard. In my mind it ought to be the other way around. A member of the Church ought always, particularly if he is pursuing extensive academic studies, to judge the professions of man against the revealed word of the Lord.
The response from those who he spoke to and about seemed predictable. They accused him of not understanding their profession as historians. He was too old and from a generation that wasn’t as sophisticated and open minded. They were objective and he too apologetic to accept the wonderful discoveries and theories. As an Apostle of the Lord he shouldn’t be talking about anything beyond his spiritual stewardship. The list of accusations and excuses hurled his way could probably continue. Many of these same arguments are still made whenever an LDS Church leader speaks out about the pride of the present generation; particularly those who consider themselves intellectuals. They consider themselves smarter and better leaders than the old men speaking from a pulpit.
Apostles continue to warn about the questionable nature of modern academics within the LDS Church who don’t use spiritual discernment . Attending a 2021 BYU University conference, Elder Jeffery R. Holland stated:
I said then and I say now that if we are an extension of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, taking a significant amount of sacred tithes and other precious human resources, all of which might well be expended in other worthy causes, surely our integrity demands that our lives be absolutely consistent with and characteristic of the restored gospel of Jesus Christ. At a university there will always be healthy debate regarding a whole syllabus full of issues. But until “we all come [to] the unity of the faith, and . . . [have grown to] the measure of the stature of the fulness of Christ,” our next best achievement will be to stay in harmony with the Lord’s anointed, those whom He has designated to declare Church doctrine and to guide Brigham Young University as its trustees.
This time the response from critics both inside and out of the LDS Church was not only he was uneducated, but a hateful person to a specific demographic. After more than a thirty year gap between the talks of these two Apostles, academic voices have become louder and more shrill. At the same time the Apostolic voices have become tamer and more carefully worded. The boldness of the so called intellectuals is without boundaries that they set for others.
Those who support and participate in the new LDS history approach have a very specific goa in mind. It isn’t about a free investigation of difficult or original research. They want to usurp the authority of the Priesthood and replace them with the false robes of the scholar. Now more than ever the moral and spiritual teachings of Prophets and Apostles past and present are questioned by them and dismissed. All that needs to be done is show how “of their time” and “human” they are, making it easier to pick and choose what doctrines and teachings to believe.
Humanism and naturalism is the main doctrine held by these new historians. Their prophets are Dale L. Morgan and Fawn Brodie, with No Man Knows My History as the template. They defend their teachings far more than the Gospel of Jesus Christ. Perhaps Joseph Smith and Brigham Young, along with other of the faithful, can be taken as serious believers in their miracles and revelations. What is not acceptable to these historians is a reality of the miracles and revelations. Therefore, anything can be explained away simply by pointing out the assumed historical context. Twist parts of LDS history into metaphor or mythology. Transform the radical religious beliefs of historical ancient scripture, visitation of angels, visions of God and Jesus, and more into parable and the opinions of men. Restructure the moral and authoritative claims of the LDS Church into a new paradigm with less doctrinal assured foundations. Most of all, put intellectuals in charge who know more than any ecclesiastical leader. The LDS Church then can become acceptable to the worldly and its members pliable.
The infiltration has found some success within the LDS Church enough to become part of official publications. Examples of this takeover can be seen on the LDS Church website’s Church History Topics that is supposed to be faith supporting. Half or more of the sources come from researchers and secondary studies, rather than faithful primary accounts. Obviously the secondary sources quote from the primary in many instances, but those are filtered by interpretations. The topic of Crickets and Seagulls, among the most famous of miracles, doesn’t include even one original source. They mention their existence, but quickly dismiss them. It transforms from a miracle that saved the Saints from starvation to, “The Saints saw the protecting hand of the Lord in the arrival of the birds,” because there were other instances of the same after this event. Prayers weren’t actually answered, but assumed to be answered by members. This isn’t an anti-Mormon rejection using historical revisionism. It was written by inside LDS Church academics. To be fair, some articles are better than others. But they all have the problematic “new history” tone and approach that prefers academics over truth claims.
The same can be said about the Saints book and how it treats the subject of faith events. For example, the first volume’s first chapter discusses a volcanic eruption half a world away from the geography of the Restoration. In the past there would be a prelude to the Restoration discussing the ancient Church’s falling away that required the return of divine authority. The volcano would be a side issue, if mentioned at all. In the new narrative the volcano becomes a driving force. True that the Lord often uses natural disasters as a way to destroy the wicked and a warning to repent. However, there is nothing of the kind in the book’s description. The whole point to the inclusion is to say the winters were harsh and caused the Smith family to move. It serves no spiritual purpose. A short paragraph would have worked just as well. The whole of the volumes are filled with these backstories and contextualized content that interrupts the sources. The original quotations used are cut up into small bites explained by interpretations and editorialized paraphrases.
Nothing said in the above examples are meant to go against the LDS Church for publishing these works. The Apostles and Prophets have their reasons for doing so, although why exactly is not always clear. Regardless, the publications are not to be considered authoritative doctrine or theology. The Topics sections are for consideration and personal research, and not the last word on the subjects. How much they are used for reference material is up to the readers. Despite the spread of the Saints books in the LDS Church, “it is not scripture,” as declared in the introduction. Those who wish to embrace them can, but it is not necessary as a sign of faith or ecclesiastical support.
All of this was supposed to be “an inoculation” against all the questions and problematic history and doctrine that has apparently grown over time. Similar to another argument about protecting against a certain virus, the “protection” seems to be worse than the problems. Apparently more people are leaving the LDS Church than ever before since the Kirtland era apostacy. So much for the “inoculation” helping to strengthen the faith of those who are considered vulnerable. Instead of recognizing the failure and making a course correction, these “intellectuals” double down and blame others. According to their “polls” it isn’t because of the new history that people are losing faith and leaving. Instead its because these people no longer trust the LDS Church leadership. That may be so, but it is because of the insistence of the new historians that the leadership can’t be trusted that there is the loss of trust. They have made sure to criticize, dismiss, and contradict all the leadership of the LDS Church past and present to a great degree. The result shouldn’t be hard to predict. Considering the stranglehold these “intellectuals” have with the current narrative, it is a blessing so many remain in the faith. Missionary work might have slowed down, but new members still continue to be baptized.
Despite all the assured opinions of the new historians that they have forever changed the membership and LDS Church policies, they will lose in a few generations. Their aggressive stances against the traditional and faith based narratives will collapse from its own negative weight. Since what they have to offer is a thin soup of platitudes over substantial doctrines and theology, nothing of their views can keep people tied to the institutional LDS Church. After the great sifting going on even now, the number of members might drop considerably. Perhaps the public influence of the LDS Church in Utah and the world will be far less. However, those that remain members and active will be more conservative and traditional than what the new historians are trying to achieve.
Those who champion the new approach to LDS Church history declare that they are the future of Mormonism. In some ways this might be true for the short term, but cracks already are forming. A small, but growing, group of faithful Saints are starting to push back against the forty year old project. They see it for what it is; as a way to reject the prophets and form a new secular morality within the LDS Church free of truth claim constraints. The denial of the historicity of the Book of Mormon, believing the stories of Joseph Smith as a “peep stone” prophet, rejecting the revelation on polygamy as valid, criticizing every word of Brigham Young, and questioning every revelation and miracle cannot remain long as a viable faith option. Documents once considered only in the hands of professional historians are open to the public. A few are recognizing the heavy hand of the intellectuals in interpreting the material, and how it contrasts to the actual texts. The number of truly free thinkers and readers not encumbered by academia, but taught by the Spirit, are growing.
Eventually there will be a re-investment in the traditional narratives free of the false “objectivity” of academics. Once again the Restoration of the Gospel and Priesthood will be championed as testified by the words of the prophets. History of the LDS Church requires acceptance of its divine and sacred origin and nature to be of any use. A template for such a history is Truman G. Madsen’s “Joseph Smith The Prophet,” filled with inspiration and praise for the man who communed with Jehovah. The Holy Ghost testifies on every page. The dry and worldly “Rough Stone Rolling” by Richard L. Bushman that often accepts and sources non or anti-Mormon views could become less tolerated. Joseph Smith needs to be read and believed again, Brigham Young needs to be read and believed again, and the early faithful records of the prophets and Saints need to be read and believed again. Even with some valuable contributions made by academics, hopefully there will be a return to a sacred history that eclipses the scholarly.