The Church Should Stay Out of the History Business

By: Mormon Heretic
July 9, 2012

More than almost any other religion, Mormonism delves into its history.  We draw upon our history to teach lessons.  Yet sometimes, the Church doesn’t like to emphasize certain parts of history.  In the 1970s and 80s, New Mormon History started to make headway, and the Church hired a professional historian, Dr. Leonard Arrington to be the official Church Historian.  But the experiment didn’t last for very many years; Arrington was unceremoniously dumped, and the position lay vacant until it was resurrected recently under the leadership of Seventy Marlin Jensen.

Richard Bushman

Richard Bushman was interviewed by John Dehlin back in 2007.  Bushman advocated the position that Church history should be left to the professionals, and the Church should avoid entanglements with history.

John Dehlin, “Did you know Leonard Arrington, Lowell Bennion, and T. Edgar Lyon?  Can you talk a little bit about about (1) what you felt or experienced during what many call the Camelot years of church history, (2) how you got hooked up to help Leonard Arrington to work on the sesquicentennial series that he was hoping to write, and then (3) and (4) how you felt when that got cancelled and how you felt about the way that that era sort of concluded?”

Bushman, “Well, I didn’t know T. Edgar Lyon very well.  I knew his son very well, he was a bishop in the same building where I was.  We both had a young singles ward in Cambridge.  I knew Lowell Bennion only late in life. I didn’t come up to that university of Utah pattern, but Leonard I knew pretty well.  My first job was at BYU, and when I arrived, somehow he had gotten wind of it and knew I was a Ph.D. in history from Harvard, and he wrote me a personal letter welcoming me to the state and the historical profession.

I realized that this is a person that takes responsibility for the whole direction of Mormon historiography, and that really was his style.  He was sort of the grandfather and dean of the whole operation, not just at USU, not just at the church, but everywhere.  Then I worked with him closely thereafter when my wife got started working with the Boston women on the pink issue of Dialogue, and founding Exponent II, he got wind of it and sent those women a small grant, 1000 bucks or so to help put out Mormon Sisters.  It was just a gesture those housewives needed.  They didn’t know if they could do it.  They were just amateurs.  Of course among them was Laurel Ulrich, a very skilled amateur, but they were not historians, and he knew that a little something would sort of confirm their hopes for this book, so I just felt like he was an encompassing figure of great personal magnitude.  I really loved him.  I would say he was one of the men I really loved during my life.”

JD, “What year was it that he gave this grant to your wife and other women who were writing for Dialogue.”

Bushman, “Ah, you’ve got me, but it would be somewhere in the 70s.”

JD, “Somewhere in the 70s.  So he was a church employee…”

Bushman, “By that time he was at the Church Office Building.”

JD, “So here was head of the Church History Department providing a grant for an upcoming Dialogue edition.  Is that right?”

Bushman, “It was really to produce the set of essays that became Mormon Sisters, which is a book of essays on 19th century Mormon women, still in print”

JD, “Ok.”

Bushman, “And then about that time, he asked me to write the first volume of the 16, projected 16 volume history of the church.  The interesting thing was years before that time, I had written him a letter telling him I thought now is the time to repeat B.H. Robert’s work of 1930, the centennial history of the church.  He took up that idea and really ran with it, asked me to do the first volume which I was quite willing to do.  He asked/actually approached me about coming west and my scholarship on the American Revolution at that time was bogged down, and I very seriously considered for a time moving west, but I figured I just couldn’t get out of the conundrums that were paralyzing me in some of my other work, but I did write that history.

The interesting thing is the first volume, which was Milt Bachman’s The Heavans Resound, had gone through the committees, been read by everybody who had to read it, and they were rolling along, then came along my volume, the beginnings of Mormonism, and after it was cleared by Leonard and all of his group, then it went up to some unknown group of General Authorities to read, never got a word back concerning it, but one day Leonard and I, I happened to be in Salt Lake, we were called in I think it was Lowell Durham.  I think he was the head of the Deseret Book then, and the news was delivered that they were cancelling the series.  They had given big advances to all of the authors, so they were into it financially in a big way, but they cancelled the series.

Leonard was dumbfounded and horrified and it was really a terrible blow to him.  I actually didn’t mind it because I felt this series was not going to work. The problem is that it comes out as an official church history.  Then they have to read everything and they have to take responsibility for everything that’s written, and they would be constantly trying to censor what I’ve said.  They couldn’t just let me write whatever I wanted, because who knows what I or someone else would write, so I felt like all things considered, it was better for the authors to work independently, but Leonard didn’t see it that way.  He was really set back a long way.”

JD, “And just to, a lot of our listeners will have no idea what we are talking about. So basically the idea was 150 years of church history, do a book for every 10 years or so, and have sort of the scholar for that time period write that part of the book.  Is that right?”

Bushman, “Well close to that.  It wasn’t every decade.  It was, there would be a book on the western migration.  There would be a book on the church in Europe and a book on the church in the South Pacific, and a book on New York and one on Kirtland, and one on Missouri, and one on Nauvoo, so you just divvied it up in fairly conventional way, the way we think of church history.  Tom Alexander’s Mormonism in Transition was one of the books, 1890-1920.”

JD, “One of my professors at BYU Lamond Tullis had been asked to do the Latin America book, right?”

Bushman, “Yeah.”

JD, “So what you’re sort of saying is that the church shouldn’t get into the history business?”

Bushman, “Well I, yea, I think they get into all sorts of conflicts because they’re endorsing.  I think that they themselves, I’m basing this on conversations with individual General Authorities, wish that there was some middle tier where church historians could write their work, take chances, explore this or that and the church wouldn’t be held responsible for it.  But it’s very hard to get that distance, if you’re at Deseret Book, there are just going to be loads of Mormons that say if it’s at Deseret Book, it must be the Church’s view.  Even BYU has a certain imprimatur to it.  So it’s a bit of a problem in the church.”

JD, “Because as I understand it, they started by saying we’re getting our clock cleaned by secular historians, we have to get in the game here and that was the intellectual impetus to calling Leonard Arrington to be Church Historian, right?”

Bushman, “That’s right, that’s right.”

JD, “But you’re saying, and it sounds like the lesson learned from that whole era was, that the church needs to stay out of the Church history business and leave it to the historians?”

Bushman, “Yeah, I think you could say that is the lesson learned.  Whether it can be learned permanently is another question.” [JD chuckles, Bushman continues]  “Because there’s always a great desire to create a history that will really speak for the Church, because we value our history.  It’s part of our doctrine almost.  So the problem is, can you write a history that will have any validity to a general audience that also tells the church story straight?  So we’re trying again with Mountain Meadows.  We’re trying again with the Joseph Smith Papers, and…”

JD, “So there’s a bit of a pendulum going on.”

Bushman, “Yeah, I think that’s right, that you go to a certain point, then you realize you’ve gone too far, and it swings back, there we go.”

JD, “So how did you feel about the way Leonard Arrington’s time concluded, and I’ve read Adventures by a Church Historian, and it paints this picture, this really sad picture at the end that even though he was called as Church Historian in General Conference, when they released him, they released him quietly, and that now somewhere in church headquarters there’s a mural of every church historian, but his mural isn’t there.  And it just gives you the sense that here’s this wonderful man that I love through text, you love through personal experience that just wasn’t treated in a loving way, in a way that things were ended.  I know that that’s an oversimplified view.  When I want talk to Hugh Midgeley, he basically claims that Lavina Fielding Anderson wrote Leonard Arrington’s autobiography and that wasn’t what Leonard Arrington would have wanted us to believe at all.  Can you help fill in the pieces there for someone like me who’s feeling sad for the way that ended?”

Bushman, “I don’t think I can fill in any pieces.  I wasn’t close enough to know what was going on.  My view comes almost directly out of Leonard’s autobiographical writings.  I know it was a terrible disappointment to him, and I suppose it could have been handled more gracefully and I feel very sad that he was wounded by the whole experience.  But in long run I don’t think it’s going to detract from his actual achievement, because a lot of fabulous work came out of that period and out of his own mind, so I see that as kind of receding as a significant event.”

JD, “Some would look at the anti-Mormonism, especially on the internet that exists today, and say that they have Leonard Arrington to thank for it, because he was given access to Church Archives, all these cans of worms got opened up, and that has become the fodder for—you know Michael Quinn came out of that and a lot of the writings, probably Grant Palmer’s entire book came, a big chunk of that out of what was unleashed out of that ten years.  What if someone were to say that that whole era was just one big mistake, the Church will be forever damaged by all the stuff that came out of that period?  I’m sorry if it sounds dramatic, but I sometimes wonder that.”

Bushman, “I think that until you get down to the bedrock of the source material and what’s there, you never are safe.  You’ve got to base everything you write based on what’s there in the sources, and insofar as we have created a picture of Joseph Smith that wasn’t based on the sources, doesn’t take those things into effect, we are in a very precarious position.  I mean you yourself have gone through this disillusionment, and it comes from suddenly it’s all there.

So yeah it’s painful, and there are people who think we are giving comfort to the enemy by turning out all this stuff, but we’ll never be secure until we can go out and talk about the sources and what’s really in the historical record alongside all the critics of the Church.”

What do you think of Bushman’s position.  Should the Church get out of the history business and leave it to historians?

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26 Responses to The Church Should Stay Out of the History Business

  1. Jeremiah S on July 9, 2012 at 3:16 AM

    I see Arrington’s point about the Church not necessarily endorsing findings by Mormon historians for the layman. However, even if the Church “gets out of the business” by not funding it and printing it, it’s still doing history–the correlated church history curriculum is history, it’s just not very good history. The Church cannot avoid engaging with its history–the question is whether it should attempt to engage it in a way that is better supported by historical evidence, or continue to teach inaccuracies in the “official” GD and CES curricula.

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  2. Stephen M (Ethesis) on July 9, 2012 at 5:49 AM

    In a way that is like saying Luke should not have written a gospel, should have left it to the professionals …

    On the other hand he is drawing the difference between technical historical work and interpretation. At present many of the Church projects (such as the Joseph Smith papers) seem to be drilling down to bedrock, foundational data history.

    On the other hand, he is right that if the historical works bear an imprimatur, then they will be bogged down beyond measure because of the implied endorsement.

    I am reminded of the FARMS essay on the Lehi cave. Yes. There was a cave with clear evidence that it was used by a man named Lehi around the time of Jeremiah. No. It does not look like that Lehi was our Lehi. Which was what FARMS explained, in nice, direct, historical analysis.

    Or some Catholic historical works I’ve read, that were historical work, rather than historical interpretation.

    I do agree that it provides more freedom to just have the historical work done in a different environment than the one it was developing into.

    It allows the data and the interpretation to be more fluid, rather than endorsed, so that you can have multiple ways of thinking and looking at things rather than having to have a fixed “approved” final word.

    As a side note, I think Broadie had a large impact as well. All the footnotes. Which evaporate when you check them for what they say. Her works was one of the first that got the Church interested in more of the bedrock data, because once they started looking at it, they discovered just how inaccurate her attacks were.

    Anyway, interesting thoughts and an interesting point for discussion.

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  3. Howard on July 9, 2012 at 6:45 AM

    then it went up to some unknown group of General Authorities to read, never got a word back concerning it, but one day Leonard and I, I happened to be in Salt Lake, we were called in I think it was Lowell Durham.  I think he was the head of the Deseret Book then, and the news was delivered that they were cancelling the series.  They had given big advances to all of the authors, so they were into it financially in a big way, but they cancelled the series.. So is it God or man who doesn’t want it written in this way?  Does God have a reputation of shrinking from the truth or whitewashing it or is it the church that does stuff like that? And now it is starting to catch up to them, so what are they going to do about the lies of the past?

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  4. Dave on July 9, 2012 at 7:44 AM

    Well, perhaps it is helpful to break Arrington’s vision into two parts: (1) the Church needs to stop producing sub-par history that doesn’t stand up to critical review; (2) the Church needs to start producing professional history that does stand up to critical review. He was right about point 1; I think experience has shown he was wrong about point 2, as noted by Bushman. Turning out 16 independent volumes by 16 independent LDS historians was, in fact, a better way to produce better LDS history than having it officially sponsored by the Church History Department. But Arrington still deserves credit for the vision and for supporting the project.

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  5. Bob on July 9, 2012 at 7:59 AM

    #2:Stephen M (Ethesis),
    I think today’s Mormon historians would say Fawn Brodie was not that inaccurate in her facts or writings. Nibley’s book on her writings her was.

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  6. Stephen M (Ethesis) on July 9, 2012 at 8:29 AM

    Bob, http://adrr.com/living/broadie.htm and other summaries, which include a good number of specifics, are spot on.

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  7. Bob on July 9, 2012 at 8:51 AM

    @Stephen M (Ethesis),
    “No Man Knows My History gave Mormon historical inquiry and academic research a jump start that has over time grown into a large and respected academic discipline. She, in a sense, awoke a slumbering giant. “An enormous amount of energy,” explains Roger D. Launius, “has been expended by Mormon historians, apologists, and critics . . . either to defend or deny [Brodie’s] conclusions.”[27] The massive historiography that comprises Mormon Studies today is, to a large degree, in response to claims made by Brodie’s 1945 publication”.

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  8. Bob on July 9, 2012 at 9:31 AM

    RE: #7,
    Selections from the 2006 Religious Education Student Symposium At BYU.

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  9. Stephen M (Ethesis) on July 9, 2012 at 10:34 AM

    Bob, that was what I said. There is a difference between generating energy and good scholarship.

    Often it is bad scholarship that generates the most energy, as it allows so much room.

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  10. Bob on July 9, 2012 at 11:42 AM

    #9:Stephen M (Ethesis),
    And what I am saying is ” No Man Knows My History”, is good scholarship. ( Maybe too much ‘mind reading’ by Brodie).
    But she researched deep inside the closed Church archives using her McKay name and caused many facts to come to light.

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  11. Stephen M (Ethesis) on July 9, 2012 at 11:50 AM

    Bob, she gets events off, cites sources for conclusions that are 180 degrees off from her point and is no where near good scholarship.

    E.g.

    “Sure I am my Saviour, Christ, is perfect, and never will fail in one circumastance.  To him I commit your souls, bodies, estates, names, characters, lives, deaths and all–and myself, waiting when he shall change my vile body and make it like his own most glorious body.  And I wish to leave to you everything that I have in this world but my faults, and them I take with me to the grave, there to be buried in everlasting oblivion; but leaving my virtues, if ever I had any, to revive and live in you.  Amen. So come, Lord Jesus; come quickly.  Amen.”

    I ask you, Bob, how is it possible that Mrs. Brodie could read this letter of Asael’s and with honesty (scholarly or otherwise) conclude that he was “basically irreligious?”  I don’t see how it is possible. 

    Let us get back to the o.p., but there are hundreds of similar examples.

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  12. Mike S on July 9, 2012 at 2:37 PM

    I think this is one of the fundamental issues facing the Church. For better or for worse, we are a religion stepped in history. Explanation:

    Many religions are very experiential in nature. Some rely on a “born again” experience. Some rely on a personal relationship with Christ. Some, like Buddhism, are nearly all experiential, where you don’t do something just because someone says it, but if you experience that it brings good. History is important in many of these faiths, but ultimately, the ultimate relationship is between a person and the Divine. The religion largely exists to facilitate this.

    The LDS Church, more than most other religions, is very “history-based”. Expectations and rules are given by leaders. Interestingly, if you read most conference talks, they spend a lot of time quoting what earlier leaders have said on the topic, who themselves quoted even earlier leaders. The foundation of the Church rests on history, with President Hinckley saying that the whole thing stands or falls on Joseph Smith’s history of what he saw and the Book of Mormon. We talk about pioneer histories, missionary experience histories, etc. We are a very historical church.

    Because of this, it leads to a dilemma. If the whole Church “stands or falls” based on a historical presentation of something, anything that questions this is potentially a threat. Therefore, our history is an “edited” history (or correlated or whatever you want to call it).

    For example, the Church doesn’t really want anyone reading Brigham Young’s teachings in the Journal of Discourses. Yet certain selections from the JofD are pulled out, edited, and presented in the Teachings of our Times: Brigham Young manual. But these are heavily edited. In the introduction of his history, it doesn’t even mention that he had more than one wife.

    So there is a problem – the church relies on history as the basis of its validity, but doesn’t want aspects presented that might be contrary. It’s understandable for an organization to act that way, but makes it a terrible historian.

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  13. MH on July 9, 2012 at 3:55 PM

    To Jeremiah and Mike’s point, the church does have to talk about history because of the Doctrine and Covenants. This is MODERN revelation, so there are some things that must that we must talk about with regards to history, unlike other churches. I mean who really knows key players for the Baptist Church, or Pentecostal Church, or Presbyterian Church…. The movements don’t have near the emphasis on history that we do, and much of that is because of the Doctrine and Covenants. (Pentecostals are newer than we are.)

    Steve, I must agree with you that Brodie did “energize” studies of Joseph Smith, but much of her material is not only dated, but has been discredited by other sources. She pioneered the “psychobiography”, but this has been shown to have flaws. For example, her Thomas Jefferson biography has been panned because she approached Jefferson just like she did Smith, and her approach just isn’t seen as up to historical standards. THere are much better biographies of both Jefferson and Smith.

    Bob, I know that you seem to like Brodie, but there are better biographies out there. Bushman talks in general terms in the interview about what he didn’t like about Brodie. If you’re into a less faithful type biography, it seems to me that Bushman endorses Dan Vogel as better than Brodie.

    I really like what the Community of Christ has done with regards to history. They are much more open about it, and have reversed positions. A few years ago, Veazey openly acknolwedged that Smith practiced polygamy-reversing a century of official Church position on the issue. I’d be shocked to see out church do such a thing.

    I thought Bushman’s point about the pendulum swinging back and forth was interesting. We had early church history problems in the 1970s, and then abandoned it for a more “faithful” approach, but now are working on the Joseph Smith Papers Project and even much of Turley’s Massacre at Mountain Meadows was paid for by the Church, though officially published by Oxford University. I like these things, and wish our church would move in a direction of more openness and honesty of history and quit relying on the edited history.

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  14. Stephen M (Ethesis) on July 9, 2012 at 4:00 PM
  15. Bob on July 9, 2012 at 6:06 PM

    #13:MH,
    Let’s be fair__Bushman’s RSR was 60 years after Bodie. Bodie was working without a net.
    Bushman had Bodie, Bodie did not have Bushman. How much material did Bodie have available compared to Bushman or Vogel?
    Mostly, I like Bodie’s balls to take on the Church, her uncle, and father, to do her work.

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  16. mh on July 9, 2012 at 7:36 PM

    Bob, I am being fair. Psycho biography is not considered guys history today. Add Steve said, she did inspire lots of people on the subject of Joseph Smith, but that doesn’t mean there aren’t better biographies out there today.

    Columbus was ground breaking, but that doesn’t mean I want to use his maps today.

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  17. Nate on July 9, 2012 at 9:45 PM

    There are different kinds of history the church is involved in, and each has it’s usefulness:

    1. Secular, academically oriented history.
    2. Apologetic history
    3. Spiritual history

    In academic history, Thomas B. Marsh leaves the church because of it’s growing militancy. In apologetic history, Thomas B. Marsh leaves the church because of listening to dissenters and taking his eye off the mark. In spiritual history, he leaves the church because over a pint of cream.

    The Book of Mormon and the Bible are spiritual histories. We cannot trust them as academically accurate. Rather they are stories teaching spiritual truths, purportedly based on actual events.

    Likewise, we can expect church leaders to create spiritual histories of the early church to teach us useful truths in our day. That is their most important mission.

    For centuries, believers have assumed that their spiritual histories were as historically accurate as any academic history. This is no longer possible. History has become much too transparent with the rise of the internet and expanded research. So the church is forced to deal with the myth that spiritual histories represent accurate and impartial historical accounts.

    I don’t know what the answer is. Perhaps they need to actually embrace the academic history, come what may, and let the chips fall. The church survived those actual traumatic events. If we revisit them, we will still survive them.

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  18. MH on July 9, 2012 at 10:12 PM

    Bob, in reference to your comment #8, there’s one thing you should know that Steve’s quote of Roger Launius–he’s a Community of Christ historian. That should give you a better perspective than dismissing it as something produced by BYU.

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  19. Bonnie on July 9, 2012 at 10:44 PM

    I haven’t had time to read all the responses, but I do want to say how much I’ve enjoyed your Bushman interview transcripts on your blog. I know podcasting is the new thing, but I have very little time for listening to something like that, especially hours of it, and I love these transcripts.

    Bushman is such an interesting man and I really love everything he writes. I especially liked his quote at the end of your transcript (I know you had to cut for length on the reprint here so I’ll include it):

    I will confess a little impatience with Sunstone. I read through the list of sessions at their symposium, and think ugh. It just tires me out, all these people working out their problems with the Church, chewing away at some issue that troubles them. I am more of a positive person. I want us to start exploring the potentials of Mormonism. What are its depths and its heights? Where can it go? How can it help us to understand the world better? We should have an art critique that comes out of our Mormonism.

    That’s where this new generation is going. They’re not just fighting through their doubts. They’re sort of exploring, trying to find out what he potentials are, so they could all go sour at a time, and I guess people worry about it but not me. I like to let these guys roll, and if they get off into some heresies, that’s not so bad.

    THIS is where I am in my life. I have a lot of faith in people to work these things out. I am not bothered by much of the “problematic history” because to me it’s just a reprise of the discussion of Elijah and his “like passions.” It’s invigorating to me to consider what God can do with pathetic mortals and it makes me excited to be part of that. Where can this whole big strange mess go? Filling the earth. Gives me goosebumps. Makes me want to do better.

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  20. Howard on July 9, 2012 at 10:45 PM

    I like Nate’s comment! (The like button doesn’t work on this iPad).

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  21. Bob on July 10, 2012 at 1:01 AM

    #16,18:MH,
    When did I ever say Brodie’s work was the best work on JS? Maybe at the time.
    When did I dismiss Roger Launius? I agreed with him.
    I lived through the Church’s hatred and attacks of Bodie’s book.
    The “History” question is: Was it a good history effort?__was she mostly right? Should she still to be hated by those now working in Mormon Studies?

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  22. Stephen M (Ethesis) on July 10, 2012 at 6:20 AM

    Bob, basically you state you like Brodie because she attacked the Church and her family, then you stand up for it as good scholarship, and now you ask about hate.

    I don’t think anyone hates her. She was just doing inaccurate, dishonest work in a hack job aimed more at taking a shot at Joseph Smith than anything else.

    So no, it was not a good history effort. She wasn’t even close to mostly right.

    No one should hate her, mostly she has just become a by-blow of history.

    However, her gaping holes and inaccuracies combined with her public attention did good things for Mormon Studies in the long run because once people got to looking at sources, and because of all the clear and apparently intentional errors, encouraged them.

    Lets look at some specifics.

    Joseph Smith did not teach that throughout history only Melchizedek and Christ had held the Melchizedek priesthood, as is claimed on page 111.

    Evidence does not warrant the statement that Joseph taught that there were “three divisions in heaven, and that one-third of the spirits had been neutral” (pp. 173-174).

    It has at no time been the practice of the Mormon Church to give the priesthood to boys under twelve years of age. She puts the age at eight (p. 412).

    (paraphrasing from someone else’s work).

    Those kind of clear errors encourage people to do some research, think on the subject and think they can do better.

    One of Brodie’s stories has Joseph Smith pass through Paris on his way from Nauvoo to Springfield. A number of errors are noted in the story (number of people with Joseph Smith 9, not 40, etc.) and ….

    “The third error is one of location. Paris, Illinois, is in the east of the state, some 10 miles from the Indiana border. Because it is not an intermediate point between Nauvoo and Springfield, Brodie clearly failed to check basic geography. …. If Brodie distorts simple narrative and cannot read a flashback of Joseph Smith in context, no careful historian can afford to rely upon her judgment without first examining the documentation for himself.”

    But what that does do is cause people to look for themselves.

    Appreciate that you admire Brodie not for the quality of her work, but for the direction of her spite.

    Nate

    Ah, what about the fourth axis, Thomas B. Marsh’s story from his own perspective (the Narrativist approach).

    Thomas describes his separation from the Church as the result of pride. It seems that most of the stories tend to almost infantilize him, to denigrate his ability to tell his own story, which he did.

    I’m not sure why people ignore his telling, his own narrative of his life.

    But his own narrative matches the spiritual history closer than anything else, and is marked by his return to the Church following a stroke when he expected to die. It says a good deal about his faith, at the end of his life and where he put it, once things boiled down to essentials.

    Anyway, just thought I’d toss that in.

    Otherwise I agree. The Catholic Church seems to have survived academic history (and HBO/etc. series) quite well.

    MH ;) I think you said it better than I did.

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  23. Hedgehog on July 10, 2012 at 7:50 AM

    My own view is that the church would benefit by doing more to provide a measured and thoughtful presentation of our history incorporating the difficult bits, in context, perhaps as an adult Sunday School course.

    Growing up, I got the correlated church history in Junior Sunday School, Primary and later Seminary. The local ward library (now abolished) contained the official ‘History of the Church’ volumes but nothing else about history. I was fortunate to attend university in an area where there was an Institute with it’s own offices and (very small) library, and a director who mentioned some of the difficult bits in passing (although they weren’t discussed as such). I had heard of the Mountain Meadows Massacre, that there existed several versions of the first vision, and I did get to read the controversial Emma Smith biography. But very many of my compatriots and fellow members, didn’t attend university, and wouldn’t then, have been eligible to attend Institute. And even if they had, most Institute classes were and are taught by lay teachers who had and have to rely on the official materials supplied by CES. There would have been no library for either the teacher or student to consult. Books available to most members about Mormonism were of the virulent anti-Mormon variety in the local Christian bookshop. Otherwise, the LDS bookshop near the temple, stocking predominantly Deseret Book publications, and later FARMS as well. If you travelled to the temple by coach, you most likely wouldn’t get to visit the shop. If you did get there, you’d need a good income to buy anything. I gather books in the US are more expensive than they are here, and we had to pay in pounds for imported books, the figure of the dollar price, making them yet more expensive.

    The availability of any church history outside of that published by the church was therefore, for most members here, non-existent. Doing any digging beyond that would have required a) to realise there were things you hadn’t been told, b) time to identify what you should be reading and how to get hold of it – time you wouldn’t have because you were working and/or raising small children and serving in several callings in your ward or branch (because church kept, and still does keep you very busy in this country), c) the resources to pay for those materials.

    The growth of the internet, and Amazon has helped provide access to this material. But there are very many members here who take the official church version as ‘The History’. The response of many to the information coming out now is either that it is all anti-Mormon lies, or ‘why has the church been lying’ to them. A few months ago a BBC TV program addressed our faith, in the context of the Mitt Romney candidacy. I gather the GA’s didn’t like the programme, it didn’t portray a good image, and the church hadn’t done itself any favours, but I don’t think the programme lied. I know members who were upset by the ‘lies’ in the programme and of members who had the opposite response.

    There have been, since 2008, again in conjunction the Mitt Romney presidential bids, programmes on BBC Radio discussing Mormonism. Programmes I enjoyed. It was sad to hear that the person actually answering questions and giving a good account of us was not the local GA assigned to participate, but Prof. Douglas Davies of Durham University (Dept. of Theology and Religion).

    I think the church has to address this, and fast. It isn’t practicable to carry on teaching the correlated view, without acknowledging what else is out there. If GA’s are going to participate in media discussions, they have to really know what they are talking about. We as members, need to know the facts. We will need to be able to answer the questions of friends and investigators. We need to be in position where we won’t be saying that it’s all lies, setting up future members for a fall later. The question is, I feel, after decades of correlated history, how can it be done without causing the upset that will be inevitable without it anyway, in our now information-rich world?

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  24. hawkgrrrl on July 10, 2012 at 9:55 AM

    I think the JSP project is a great step in the right direction. The problem is that history is not an objective set of facts. It wasn’t objective when it was recorded (the parts of it that were recorded and still survive, that is), and it’s certainly not been objectively treated in the time since then by pretty much anyone. Believers lack objectivity and so do critics. I trust the scholars more than the rest, but even the scholars will have their biases. I tend to think whether a scholar is believing or not, we’ll get a more accurate picture than we will from a non-scholar where the gloves are off and they are free to proof-text and spin in whatever direction strikes their fancy or sells books. The non-scholars, both in an out of the church, have done more to discredit our history than any scholar ever did. And those who pretend scholarship but don’t have the discipline or follow the rules of good scholarship are perhaps the worst, whether believing or not.

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  25. Bob on July 10, 2012 at 11:41 AM

    I do not think Fawn Brodie ( Fawn McKay) attacked the Church, the Church attacked her. The Church sent it’s attack dogs like Nibley after her.
    I don’t think she attacked her family, her family attacked her. After about a year following her book writing, she was accepted by David O. McKay back into the family.
    Brodie wrote alone in her late 30s, in the early 1940s. All she had was her writing skills,her upbringing as a TBM by the McKays, and her ability to get into the Church archives. In the archives, she was swimming in an ocean of inaccuracy . Where should she have gone for the *Facts*? Her book was a “Sea Change”
    To be in the Chruch in the 50s and 60s, was to hate Bodie’s work.
    Skills? When it came time for Wallace Stegnerr to write a biography of his friend Bernard DeVoto, he went to Brobie for help. Brobie was the one who first wrote about Sally Hemings in her Jefferson Bio.
    I recommend the reading of “Fawn McKay Brodie” by Newell G. Bringhurst (President of Mormron History Association).

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  26. don on July 11, 2012 at 6:47 AM

    I read your post as whether the church should be in the history business at all. Since church history is the church’s history and in the Joseph Smith era you can’t separate history from doctrine and there are truth claims about our history that one must accept to become a member, of course the church should be in the history business. But the church should be as honest as it can about that history, not perpetuate myths or ignore truths, and accept graciously the fact that many, many historians, some of whom do not wish the church well, are out there in the fields every single day slogging away. Just as we believe no one or nothing can stop the church’s forward momentum, no one or nothing, the church included, can stop the work of these historians. Somewhere in all this mess is the truth. No one has a monopoly on it.

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