Truth versus Myth

Original color transparency of FDR taken at 1944 Official Campaign Portrait session by Leon A. Perskie, Hyde Park, New York, August 21, 1944. Gift of Beatrice Perskie Foxman and Dr. Stanley B. Foxman. August 21, 1944

There are times when we believe things that aren’t quite correct.

One example of this is how most citizens of the United States thought Franklin Delano Roosevelt could walk during his years as president. The press knew the President couldn’t walk, but did not “expose” this physical weakness of President Roosevelt.

Sometimes circumstances have been mis-remembered so long and so persistently that the truth has been obscured. Sometimes the mis-remembered story becomes myth.

One such myth is related to the formation of the Church of Christ in 1830. Many believe the formation of the Church occurred on April 6, 1830 in the Fayette home of the Whitmer family. It is remembered that there were six formal members, though nearly 30 people were remembered as attending the meeting in the Whitmer home.

Alas, it appears this myth isn’t fully consistent with fact.

An amateur historian  acquaintance of mine, Bryan Westover, recently shared his assessment of the 1830 growth of the Church. It had long been known that there was some confusion between meetings. Bryan wrote, “Bushman mentioned it in RSR, Michael Marquardt published on it in the early 90’s, if not before. David Whitmer’s account clearly confuses the organizational meeting in Fayette with later meetings. My central question is what light can the early baptisms in whole shed on the subject?”

In Westover’s admittedly rough paper, “Original Members of the 1830 Church of Christ (LDS/Mormon),” he lays out the chronology of early baptisms, looking at the who, when, and where of each.

It turns out that no baptisms occurred in Fayette around the April 6th date of the original Church meeting. On the other hand, two baptisms occurred in Manchester on April 6th. It appears that there would have only been six baptized members present in Manchester on April 6, 1830.

Writing Women in and out of History

A minor point in Bryan Westover’s paper is the identity of the “Rockwell” who was baptized shortly after the April 6th meeting. Bryan makes a solid case that this was Sarah Witt Rockwell, mother to well-known frontiersman, Orrin Porter Rockwell.

Apparently in 1839 James Mulholland was trying to create a proper record of the early baptisms following the April 6th meeting. Accounts indicate a Sister Rockwell had been baptized. But Mulholland just left a space instead of a proper name, likely hoping to insert Sister Rockwell’s given name in a later edit.

Later Thomas Bullock filled in the space with “Orrin Porter.” A decade after the 1830 founding there were various people baptized on the same June 9th date as Porter Rockwell who were incorrectly remembering themselves as having been baptized at the April 6th founding.

Though it appears Sarah Rockwell was incorrectly written out of being one of the first two women baptized into the Church, the women who were baptized together with Orrin Porter Rockwell on June 9th had written themselves into the April 6th narrative.

Part of the confusion with folks incorrectly remembering themselves at the April 6th meeting is that they had to invent a reason why there would have only been 6 original members (given that the meeting in Fayette involved 27 members). So folks invented the idea that there was some legal requirement for six members. But Bryan Westover reminds us that David Stott uncovered in 2010 there was no such legal requirement.

Truth-telling boys and girls and a True Church

Nothing that Bryan Westover suggests in his paper should shift the ground of faith under our feet. Instead, Bryan’s unique approach of assiduously documenting the baptismal information for early members has clarified a narrative that several other historians had noted was confused.

Even though the April 6 founding of the first Church of Christ congregation may not have been in Fayette with dozens of people, it is still true that the Church in those first days and months consisted of a tiny and valiant group of individuals, who accepted the responsibility to proclaim the good news of the restored gospel of Christ.

In closing, let me repeat a portion of the advice Henry Eyring’s father gave him:

“…in this Church you don’t have to believe anything that isn’t true. You go… and learn everything you can, and whatever is true is a part of the gospel.” 1

Notes:

  1. Henry B. Eyring, “My Father’s Formula,” Ensign, Oct 1978.
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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.

10 thoughts on “Truth versus Myth

  1. Haven’t a clue which historian said they didn’t have a “testimony” of Church History.

  2. I liked this snippet of the talk:

    “When I say I don’t have a testimony of Church history, I mean that the gospel of Jesus Christ is not subject to scrutiny by the feeble tools of the historian. The creation, the fall, the redemption, the “merciful plan of the great Creator”–all of these are simply not subject to proof or disproof by looking over old documents.

    “On the other hand, the people who believed and accepted those doctrines are proper subjects for historical inquiry. In their achievements and failures, their high points and low, their trials and triumphs, in all the ‘crooked timber’ of their humanity, these are imperfect people on the Lord’s errand.”

  3. I will note that Brother Bitton, in his address, was operating from the paradigm that Joseph could appropriately be accused of inappropriate behavior. It’s a subtle thing, but I dare say that had Brother Bitton (in 2004) had a chance to read my 2018 version of Reluctant Polygamist, a couple of phrases and word choices would have been different.

  4. I see that Brother Bitton passed away in 2007.

    One of Bitton’s most celebrated articles discussed the ritualization of history. In this, he mentions that the first celebration of the founding of the Church was in 1833 and was actually a celebration of the 1800th anniversary of Christ’s atoning sacrifice. Regular celebration of the founding of the Church didn’t occur until years later, when the Church began holding conferences in the spring. As late as 1975 it was apparently common to jigger Conference so that 6 April was one of the several days of the conference. With our new format, the annual conference is simply the first weekend of April (sometimes March 31 and April 1 when April 1 is a Sunday). Therefore we’ve migrated away from the ritual regarding April 6th that had lasted roughly 150 years.

    In Bitton’s article, he mentions that the aspects of Church history that became celebrated as ritual did not include ‘polygamy.’ I would love to have had a chance to respond to this, as I believe that there is a significant body of ritual that has seared the lessons of 1842 into the collective Church memory. It’s just that we typically don’t recognize these rituals as arising from 1842.

    Bitton’s article regarding the Ritualization of History ends with this:

    “…historians can help to discourage celebration of the patently false or absurdly puerile. But it would be pedantic of historians to ridicule all ritualization of the past. The sense of perspective which the study of history enhances should enable them to take the ritualistic references in stride, recognizing their inevitability and functional value. For most of us will possess our history ritualistically or not possess it at all.”

  5. Is Bryan Westover going to submit his paper to a journal for publication? Looks like, with some cleanup, it would be ideal for the Journal of Mormon History or BYU Studies.

  6. He was thinking of this as a personal passion project and had not planned to pursue publication. It was because he planned to stop with sharing the google doc that I blogged it here, because it seemed this interesting point might otherwise be entirely ignored.

  7. As ever Meg, you find the most interesting things about the history of the Church. Thanks.

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