Sunday, December 02, 2007

An Insider's Outside View of Mormon History

The Discovery Years

While reading about the LDS history articles in the Ensign, I was reminded of my own studies. When I was young my 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 than how complicated and exciting Joseph Smith seemed. That there was 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 purely facts that had to be included or something was missing.

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. Having read one biography of Joseph Smith, I had decided to find another one. As with so many people, that would be Fawn Brodie's treatment. At this point my focus of LDS Church history was set with Joseph Smith as the center of study. I read a few chapters, a few at the start and a couple in the middle. Unlike so many people who apparently read her treatment 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. 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 were the most 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 there was one or two good articles that came out of that era. Still, it got me reading more than the simple works produced 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 productions. Again, my faith didn't falter as so many people have said theirs did when they read this kind of material. 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 their pre-conceived notions.

One example of how perceptions can be more important than the history is my encounter with reading the book by Dan Vogel on Joseph Smith and American Indians. It was an exciting study of 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 the book was, most surprising to myself now, 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 book 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 discoveries. Perhaps the beginning of the end starts with Mark Hoffman long before the LDS History "crisis" 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; a group of wolves in sheep clothing. His "discoveries" were so fantastic and followed a certain perception, that those who held to those views were quick to grab hold. Of course, there was the famous 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 tighter scrutiny. And, it did just that.

It was soon after I had gotten really deep into the study of LDS Church history and Doctrine that I ran into a crossroad. I remember reading 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 than worry about them. Where the historians were asking questions I had been, with other studies, having those questions answered. The 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 leadership and a small set of Mormon historians. I recognized a few names - particularly the main editor - but the voice was all wrong. This was a call to war. Total and complete skepticism and anamosity to the faith was out in the open such as would not be seen until the Jesus Seminar.

Going back and reading the previous studies was often frustratingly depressing. Some say that the LDS Church and CES religious educators are to blame for silencing better scholarship. Although a plausible argument, they weren't completely wrong in their assessments of where intellectuals were going. 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.

Soon after discovering the real agenda behind the secular studies those voices became loud and strident. They were vindictive, skeptical to a fault, self-righteously positive of themselves, and unapologetically faithless. The study of Mormonism had been replaced by political statements. Any calls of "objectivity" were pathetic (but successful) attempts at sympathy. They had betrayed any honest inquiry with calls for revolution. Instead of helping to change Mormons, 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. By the time of the excommunications, it was no surprise what happened.

The Slow Resurrection

Those who talk of "inoculation" against the more difficult parts of Mormon history and doctrine seem to ignore the opportunity was lost years ago. The group who is often seen as intellectual martyrs helped bring those conditions found today. Others such as Richard L. Bushman, Thomas Alexander, Davis Bitton, Grant Underwood, Dean C. Jessee, and Milton V. Backman Jr were long forgotten. 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 recent scholars Richard Bushman and Terryl Givens have shown, 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 is (I won’t say the obnoxious and horribly false “objectively”) less critical and more informational. Those who oppose such an approach can call it apologia. Fine enough, but all history is apologia. All arguments made are only the creation of the scholars putting often desperate material together in a cohesive presentation.

I look forward to the renewed emphasis on the history of Mormonism in the Ensign. It is ironic that those involved in presenting history earlier in the Ensign contributed to its end. Now, I hope that LDS History can return to what it was in the “golden years” before the ignoble rebellion of a few. Critics and skeptics have a role, but not as the supreme voices going unchallenged.


Bronco P3t3 said...

Great post. I really liked the comment about Addition and Subtraction. I know people who have expressed the similar issues and they did not understand it in the same way.

LifeOnaPlate said...

I've felt a journey similar to yours. Interestingly, my revelation that all book written by believers weren't equal came on my mission while read "Fate of the Persecutors of the Prophet Joseph Smith." I discovered the book in a branch library and read it through in a day or two. As I read I became aware of problems in the books approach, and all books are far from being created equally; the compiler of that book being a believing Saint, notwithstanding.

Excellent brief overview.