An insightful comment in an archival letter highlighted an irony for me this week. While the Church cares deeply about history, encourages historical research and production— personal journal writing, family history, etc.— it is simultaneously true that Church materials have long tended to flatten or even ignore all that history. I don’t feel at liberty to disclose the author or recipient here, but this is extracted from a letter written several decades ago.
The Church has been reluctant to view itself as a historical entity, at least in a developing sense, and prefers the ‘timeless’ perspective which considers the opinions and teachings of past leaders as essentially absolute insights unaffected by contemporary values or knowledge. This has widely allowed the casual juxtaposition of remarks by leaders widely separated in time and situation in support of proof-text arguments which on close examination have serious flaws in consistency…. As much as we institutionally decry ‘the learnings of men,’ it seems clear that Mormon teachings are heavily laced with the learnings of men of earlier times. But having officially ignored the intellectual atmosphere surrounding the 19th and early 20th century Church, we have difficulty identifying these external influences. Particularly is this the case when we view history in a proof-text retrospect, aligning only the points in support of a particular position. It’s only in following the internal history very closely… that the external influences are even suggested. I can’t agree more with James Farmer’s remark that we need more studies of Mormon intellectual history. There are few more effective ways to relieve the intellectual tensions felt by Mormon students, or for that matter all of us of academic bent.”
I have a lot to say along these lines… but not much time today. Instead, a few links.
- “the opinions and teachings of past leaders as essentially absolute insights unaffected by contemporary values or knowledge.” I’ve written about “absolutist” approaches to scripture and history here. Pick up the Teachings of the Prophets manuals, for example, and you could almost swap out one from this decade or century with one from that decade or century; the way the history was selected and written had a very flattening effect on how we perceive the focus of a Church president and his reactions to his time. Note, for example, the Joseph Fielding Smith manual had virtually zero on his creationism, which was very much a formative reaction to the early 1900s Fundamentalist/Modernist issue. There’s almost an “inverse historicist” thing going on her sometimes; historicism as an interpretive lens says history was determined by cultural or historical context; LDS writing has sometimes flipped that, presenting teachings as though they were entirely separated and untouched at all by historical or cultural context.
- “a historical entity, at least in a developing sense,” we preach line-upon-line, and continuing revelation, and so on… but then somehow we expect Church understandings, teachings, policies, lived experience etc. to have been the same in 2020 as they were in 1920, or 1870, or 1830, or 1830BC, even. Studying history helps us make sense of development and change. Heck, the point of history is that the past is different from the present.
- “it seems clear that Mormon teachings are heavily laced with the learnings of men of earlier times.” Indeed, but this is just the way prophetic teachings work. Even a directly inspired person will understand and represent the revelation received through words and concepts of the surrounding culture. Thus it is that “scripture comes to us not in purely divine form, but already pre-mingled with ‘philosophies of men.’“
- “There are few more effective ways to relieve the intellectual tensions felt by Mormon students” than understanding historical context. Fully agreed. It has been invaluable for me and deepened my understanding, commitment, and faith to
- study the context of Genesis and realize I’d been approaching it with misguided expectations and asking bad questions; that lead to more contextual understanding about the temple and LDS creation accounts;
- learn more about why Joseph Fielding Smith thought as he did about scripture, and what was at stake (from his perspective) with evolution;
Context and historical understanding are not just useful, sometimes it’s crucial for maintaining a testimony, untangling historical problems and tensions. Heck, my dissertation is a contextual examination of why certain kinds of scriptural and historical interpretation became deeply embedded in LDS DNA, in Seminary and Institute, in manuals, and talks, and how that created a strong culture of creationism; it wasn’t revelation, but interpretation.
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