The Complexities of History in The Ensign

Doctor Who Intro Screenshot

Doctor Who Intro Screenshot

I still haven’t had time for the second post in my Transitional Mormonism series, but I promise to make time soonish.

I want to highlight an important Ensign article in the February 2017 issue, “Understanding Church History by Study and Faith.” Written by the Church History Library Director Keith Erikson, it makes some important points that are not always obvious or instinctive to non-historians. Erikson echoes several points made in another important Ensign article about history 40 years ago, by Elder G. Homer Durham. I draw on both below.

  1. The past is accessible only indirectly and partially.

    pieces of the past remain—letters, diaries, records of organizations, material objects. Today, we can learn about the past only indirectly through the pieces that remain. Information is always lost between the past and the present. We must study the records that do survive while remembering that they do not represent the entirety of the past.Consider one example: When Joseph Smith preached a sermon to the Saints, he typically had no prepared text, and no audio or video recording was made. Though a few in attendance may have written notes or reflections, even fewer of those notes survive. Thus, we cannot claim to know everything Joseph Smith ever said, though we can, for instance, quote Wilford Woodruff’s notes about Joseph’s sermon.- Erikson

  2. There is a difference between the events of the past and the records of those events, between what happened and the evidence that remains to reconstruct it.

    Many years ago one of America’s distinguished historians, Professor James T. Shotwell of Columbia University, reminded us that history is at least two things: (1) a record of events and (2) the events themselves.- Durham

  3. The evidence or records that survive are often extremely fragmentary, and even the best and most accurate records are incomplete, sometimes in important ways.

    even if the official records are accurate, they are always incomplete. A marriage certificate records the names of the parties, the officiator, the witnesses, the place, and the date of the marriage. But it doesn’t tell how the bride, groom, family, and friends felt, or what they experienced. And everyone participating will naturally have had a different experience.- Durham

    As Elder Eyring said, “no event in history can be fully known.”

  4. Historians must interpret that fragmentary evidence in telling the historical story. Every telling, every retelling, has some purpose, some goal, some bias, and is based on partial and incomplete access.

    The “events themselves,” which took place in the past, whether yesterday or 5,000 years ago, are beyond exact recall with our present facilities. We cannot re-experience an event. Thus, we are left with records of events, all of which are interpretations of events. (Even television involves a human judgment on where to point the camera.) Furthermore, despite the contributions of archaeology, linguistics, and the natural and social sciences, most history is a form of literature. Naturally, the most reliable records come from qualified participants in the events or from analysts with access to all the records, but their re-creation of the event for us will always be shaped by their own perspective.- Durham

    Because the surviving pieces of the past are incomplete, people attempt to put the pieces together in order to tell a story. The earliest stories were told by participants and typically describe what they experienced and why it was important to them. Some participants told their stories on multiple occasions to different audiences. Some events prompted many participants to relate their experiences. Other events were forgotten until a later experience called them to mind.

    Stories are collected and retold by others for many reasons—to entertain an audience, sell a product, shape public opinion, or lobby for change. Each story becomes an interpretation of the past, built on factual pieces and influenced by the teller’s memory, interests, and goals. As a result, stories about the past are incomplete and sometimes contradictory. We must always consider who is telling the stories, how they are telling them, and why they are telling them.- Eriksen

  5. The past is different than the present. Duh, you may say. While obvious once stated, the implications of this difference are extremely important. We distort the past when we interpret it as if it were the present, and we do this all the time. This is called “presentism” and it’s a common and massive problem.

    The past is different from the present (and that’s OK)

    As we seek to make sense of the pieces of the past and the stories told about it, we discover people, places, experiences, and traditions different from our own. Changes in science, technology, and culture produce different experiences with birth, eating, travel, holidays, hygiene, dating, medicine, and death. Different political and economic systems create different experiences with education, choice, freedom, and opportunity. Past views differ from our views on work, family, public service, and the role and status of women and minorities. Every temporal aspect of human experience changes over time in ways both small and great.

    For example, from our perspective in the present, Joseph Smith’s use of a seer stone to translate the Book of Mormon appears very different. [See my post on teaching the seer stone at BYU in 2004 here, and my post about Oliver Cowdery’s rod and Joseph in Egypt’s divining cup here.] In his time, however, many people believed that physical objects could be used to receive divine messages. These beliefs were based, in part, on biblical stories in which objects were used for divine purposes (see Numbers 17:1–10; 2 Kings 5; John 9:6). A revelation Joseph received for the organization of the Church explained that God “gave him power from on high, by the means which were before prepared, to translate the Book of Mormon” (D&C 20:8). Though the “means” included a seer stone as well as the Urim and Thummim, we can still discern the doctrinal message “that God does inspire men and call them to his holy work in this age … ; thereby showing that he is the same God yesterday, today, and forever” (D&C 20:11–12).

    Present assumptions distort the past

    Because the past was different from our day, we must take special care not to make assumptions about the past based on our present ideas and values. We cannot assume that people in the past were just like us or that they would appreciate our culture or beliefs. We cannot assume that we now know everything, that we have read every source, or that our current understanding of the past will never change. Frequently, so-called problems with the past are actually just bad assumptions made in the present.

    For example, Joseph Smith declared, “I never told you I was perfect.” If we were to assume that prophets never made mistakes, then we might be startled to discover times when Joseph did. To “fix” this problem, we should neither stubbornly hold that Joseph was perfect nor charge the Church with deception. Rather, we can acknowledge Joseph’s humanity and see him in the context of other scriptural stories about prophets. As a result, we can adjust our assumptions to recognize that all prophets are mortal and therefore have imperfections. We can feel grateful that God patiently works with each of us. Admitting the errors in our own thinking is sometimes the most difficult part of understanding history.- Erikson (my italics, bold in original)

As mentioned above, history-writing is a form of literature. Indeed, Robert Alter, a professor of literature and Hebrew, bluntly stated that “history is far more intimately related to fiction than we have been accustomed to assume.” Latin fictio means “something made or fashioned.” In that limited etymological sense, all history is “fiction” because all history is the conscious attempt by someone to select certain historical data points and make or fashion a coherent story with them. A different person at a different time with a different focus or different sources might tell a different story about the same events.

This is not to undermine “history” as a profession. Indeed not, it is professional historians who are most trustworthy to handle historical materials and narratives. They are the ones trained on its pitfalls and accordingly the most careful about making authoritative historical claims.

This discussion about the nature of history and history-writing applies very much to the Bible, the Book of Mormon, and other scripture, as well as how we interpret and understand it. In writing and editing the Book of Mormon, Mormon functions as an ancient historian. What does he select? What does he leave out? How does he arrange his sources to make certain points? What does he know? (See Grant Hardy, Mormon as Editor, and his Understanding the Book of Mormon for much greater depth.) Recalling from above that the past differs from the present, we must also ask if history-writing in the past differed from history-writing in the present.  Peter Enns writes

What were the ancient conventions for writing history? What did it mean to record history? What can be called good or accurate history writing by standards that were in existence when the Bible was written?

Do we unconsciously assume every part of ancient scripture is “history” and then read it according to modern historical standards? (This is a genre question. See my posts here and here.) How might this distort the original inspired purpose?

Although the editorial processes involved with the Bible are far more opaque than in the Book of Mormon, the same issues are present there.  Enns continues.

All historiography [or history writing] is a literary product, which means it is about people writing down (or transmitting orally) their version of that history. In other words, historiography is by definition an interpretive exercise. There might not be much that is interpretive about saying “David lived,” but when you give an account of David’s life—what he did, when, with whom, why, what the implications were—you are most certainly engaged in interpreting these events. How  so? Anyone who communicates historical events must be very selective about what is communicated. You simply can’t say everything, nor would you want to. You say only those things that are important to the point you want to get across. Also, you will say those things in such a way that will drive your point home. In other words, this presentation, this literary product, looks the way it does because the author has a purpose in mind for why those events should be reported. The presentation is not divorced from the events, but it is a purposeful representation of those events.
These three elements are always interconnected. All written accounts of history are literary products that are based on historical events that are shaped to conform to the purpose the historian wants to get across.- Enns, I&I, link below.

Why is understanding all this important?

I think that when we have a better handle on the nature of history and history-writing, we are better equipped to interpret and understand scripture, and make sense of the oft-puzzling past. Particularly when the past seems to pose a serious challenge to us in some way, the more tools we have to “handle” it, the better off we are. I’m terribly pleased to see The Ensign trying to put those tools into the hands of everyday readers.

Beyond the two Ensign articles, here is some further suggested reading, some quoted above.

As always, you can help me pay my tuition here, or you can support my work through making your regular Amazon purchases through this Amazon link. You can also get updates by email whenever a post goes up (subscription box on the right). If you friend me on Facebook, please drop me a note telling me you’re a reader. I tend not to accept friend requests from people I’m not acquainted with.

Brigham Young, Studying Evil, and Living in a Bubble

A real character study in making bad decisions.

A real character study in making bad decisions.

I originally wrote this about 10 years ago, reposted it five years ago, and since I mentioned it in Church today, thought it merited a repost.

I enjoy Orson Scott Card’s books. I know some people who think that he portrays too much evil in them. OSC has his own robust defenses of this (cf. A Storyteller in Zion), but I thought of it when I came across these comments by Brigham Young.

Shall I sit down and read the Bible, the Book of Mormon, and the Book of Covenants all the time?” says one. Yes, if you please, and when you have done, you may be nothing but a sectarian after all. It is your duty to study to know everything upon the face of the earth, in addition to reading those books. We should not only study good, and its effects upon our race, but also evil, and its consequences.- Journal of Discourses, 2:34. (BTW, there’s some good new scholarship on the JD.)

Study evil? These remarks fascinated me, so I ran some searches and looked up the context. I found that President Faust quoted these words at least twice in his teachings.

Brigham continued.

I make these remarks to lay the foundation for principle in the minds of the people; and if you do not yet understand what I would be at, I will try to illustrate it still further. For example, we will take a strict, religious, holy, down country, eastern Yankee, who would whip a beer barrel for working on Sunday, and never suffer a child to go into company of his age, never suffer him to have any associates, or permit him to do any thing or know anything, only what the deacon, priests, or missionaries bring to the house; when that child attains to mature age, say eighteen or twenty years, he is very apt to steal away from his father and mother; and when he has broken his bands, you would think all hell was let loose, and that he would compass the world at once.

Now understand it, when parents whip their children for reading novels, and never let them go to the theatre, or to any place of recreation and amusement, but bind them to the moral law, until duty becomes loathsome to them; when they are freed by age from the rigorous training of their parents, they are more fit for companions to devils, than to be the children of such religious parents.

If I do not learn what is in the world, from first to last, somebody will be wiser than I am. I intend to know the whole of it, both good and bad. Shall I practise evil? No; neither have I told you to practise it, but to learn by the light of truth every principle there is in existence in the world.- Journal of Discourses, 2:34.

Brigham reiterated these ideas nine years later at the dedication of a new SLC theater in 1862.

“My son,” says the Christian father, “you should not attend a theatre, for there the wicked assemble; nor a ball-room, for there the wicked assemble; you should not be found playing a ball, for the sinner does that.” Hundreds of like admonitions are thus given, and so we have been thus traditioned; but it is our privilege and our duty to scan all the works of man from the days of Adam until now, and thereby learn what man was made for, what he is capable of performing, and how far his wisdom can reach into the heavens, and to know the evil and the good.

It is written in the Scriptures, “Shall a trumpet be blown in the city, and the people not be afraid? Shall there be evil in a city, and the Lord hath not done it?” Is there an evil thing upon the earth that he does not fully understand? There is not…. The Lord understands the evil and the good; why should we not likewise understand them? We should. Why? To know how to choose the good and refuse the evil; which we cannot do, unless we understand the evil as well as the good. I do not wish to convey the idea that it is necessary to commit evil in order to obtain this knowledge.

Upon the stage of a theatre can be represented in character, evil and its consequences, good and its happy results and rewards; the weakness and the follies of man, the magnanimity of virtue and the greatness of truth. The stage can be made to aid the pulpit in impressing upon the minds of a community an enlightened sense of a virtuous life, also a proper horror of the enormity of sin and a just dread of its consequences. The path of sin with its thorns and pitfalls, its gins and snares can be revealed, and how to shun it.

The Lord knows all things; man should know all things pertaining to this life, and to obtain this knowledge it is right that he should use every feasible means; and I do not hesitate to say that the stage can, in a great degree, be made to subserve this end. It is written, “Prove all things, hold fast that which is good.” Refuse evil, choose good, hate iniquity, love truth. All this our fathers have done before us; I do not particularly mean father Adam, or his Father; I do not particularly mean Abraham, or Moses, the Prophets, or Apostles, but I mean our fathers who have been exalted for millions of years previous to Adam’s time. They have all passed through the same ordeals we are now passing through, and have searched all things, even to the depths of hell.

Is there evil in the theatre? in the ball-room? in the place of worship? in the dwelling? in the world? Yes, when men are inclined to do evil in any of those places. There is evil in persons meeting simply for a chit-chat, if they will allow themselves to commit evil while thus engaged. –Journal of Discourses, 9:242-243.

Brigham makes several interesting points, I think.

  1. We should not create such a filtered or strictly controlled life for our children that they go wild once they live on their own. (I’ve seen this at all three Universities I’ve attended, though less so at BYU.)  They need to learn to develop their own internal restraints, so that when all external parental restraint is removed, they do just fine.
  2. God knows and understands the evil as well as the good. We thus have a duty to understand evil, its consequences and effects.
  3. It is not necessary to sin or practice evil to acquire this knowledge. Elder Faust notes in connection with Brigham’s comments “It is not good practice to become intrigued by Satan and his mysteries. No good can come from getting close to evil. Like playing with fire, it is too easy to get burned…My principal reason for choosing this subject is to help young people by warning them, as Paul said, ‘lest Satan should get an advantage of us: for we are not ignorant of his devices.” (2 Cor. 2:11.)’” In the Strength of the Lord: The Life and Teachings of James E. Faust, 415-416.
  4. Fiction, in the form of novels or theater, can provide this understanding of good and evil and the effects thereof. Historically speaking, I believe novel reading was considered to be very trashy and have little redeeming social value, so Brigham is a bit edgy here.

I like this. Though I currently have no children, I plan to impose on my children such fictional horrors (to teenage boys, at least) as Pride and Prejudice or Sense and Sensibility. Why? Because they show contrasting characters in a realistic way. Austen deals with personal choices about integrity, honesty, and character. We see the negative effects of greed, infidelity, shallowness, and deception, temptations much more common than rape or murder, which seem to be the standard fare for much TV and film. Her characters are three-dimensional and complex, another failing of much fiction today.

Certainly, as appropriate, I will watch more troubling fare with my children and discuss the choices and situations the characters face. If my children sneak in the occasional R-rated movie, as I suspect many of us did as teens, I’d much rather watch it with them and discuss it. Certainly, some provide more entertainment than thought, but historical films in particular such as Glory (9th grade history) are excellent studies in good, evil, and character, and can be highly edifying.

Reasonable parents can differ on this, I believe, but I can imagine some “acceptable” tv shows/movies failing to depict the consequences of actions (James Bond rarely experiences negative effects of his killing and sleeping around, but they’re “just PG-13”) while other “unacceptable” tv shows/movies do a fantastic job of this. If you want to see the potential effects of taking or selling drugs, for example, you’re going to need to watch something that depicts that, like Requiem for a Dream or Breaking Bad.

Given Brigham’s reputation as an iron-fisted religious dictator, what I found most interesting is his insistence that we not be so strict or limiting as to drive people away from the Gospel. There comes a point where increasing discipline or standards results in diminishing returns. Surely Brigham was not advocating a gospel free-for-all or sampling sin, but simply living the gospel and being acquainted with evil as well as good.

As always, you can help me pay my tuition here, or you can support my work through making your regular Amazon purchases through this Amazon link. You can also get updates by email whenever a post goes up (subscription box on the right). If you friend me on Facebook, please drop me a note telling me you’re a reader. I tend not to accept friend requests from people I’m not acquainted with.

Critical Scholarship and Faith at BYU, Brief Partial Summary and Thoughts

Jacob wrestles with critical scholarship. Gustav Doré, public domain.

Jacob wrestles with critical scholarship.
Gustav Doré, public domain.

Several weeks ago, the Maxwell Institute’s Studies in the Bible and Antiquity journal sponsored a small non-public conference  at BYU on the topic of “Critical Scholarship and Faith.” If you’re unsure why this is an issue for LDS, read Julie Smith’s post “the next generation’s faith crisis.” I largely agree with her, and was thus quite excited to see this conference happen.

“Critical scholarship,” of course, does not mean scholarship that finds fault or is nit-picky. Its use of “critical” is more along the lines of “critical thinking.” (See my post on critical thinking and BYU here.) The term is shorthand for a vague collection of modern issues, ideas, methods, and conclusions that can seem to (or actually do) undermine faith in scripture and/or God. They are largely things most LDS have never heard about, and that’s a problem.  While scholars talk about “critical scholarship” as shorthand for a variety of issues and methods, it might be better to say, “modern biblical scholarship” which is a) often strongly persuasive, b)based on close readings of the texts themselves, and c) doesn’t always cohere well with some elements of either the broader Judeo-christian tradition or narrower LDS tradition. And we haven’t dealt with it very well yet, if at all, as Mormons.

The afternoon session consisted of three LDS scholars David Seely (BYU), J. Kirby (Phd Catholic University of America), and Phillip Barlow (PhD Harvard, now at Utah State).

The morning session, which I’m focusing on, consisted of three non-LDS scholars talking personally about their own religious traditions conflict and interaction with critical scholarship and faith. Peter Enns (PhD from Harvard, now at Eastern University) represented a Protestant view, Candida Moss (Notre Dame) Catholic, and James Kugel (Harvard) Jewish.

This collection of people and speakers was fantastic. Readers may know that I’ve greatly appreciated the work of Enns and Kugel, so it was fantastic to interact with them in person. I knew Moss’s name, but as she has not written as directly on topics pertaining to Biblical interpretation or related issues of interest to me, I hadn’t read any of her books. Since my wife and I are about to celebrate 17 surprisingly childless years, I have now added Moss’ Reconceiving Infertility: Biblical Perspectives on Procreation and Childlessness to my reading list.

Each talk (morning and afternoon sessions) will be published in the MI’s journal in the coming months, so I won’t rehash too much.

Kugel recounted some of the history found in his books, especially the excellent intro material in How to Read the Bible: A Guide to Scripture Then and Now. He’s a little bit of a Jewish Richard Bushman, as I describe here. Someone asked him a question about his faith community (he’s an Orthodox Jew), and he replied that “I often feel that,with my views, my faith community consists solely of James Kugel.” 🙂

Moss talked about her experiences teaching at Notre Dame. This was eye-opening; many of my academic LDS friends have “Vatican II” holy envy, wherein the Vatican essentially gave a blessing to critical scholarship and approved translating the Bible into modern vernacular. Moss showed us that Catholicism has still not fully dealt with the ramifications of critical scholarship, Vatican II notwithstanding.

Enns recounted some of the American Protestant history of critical scholarship from the turn of the century, and referred to his own experiences as an Evangelical scholar who was “let go” from a prominent Seminary for publishing a book that was deemed not orthodox enough.

All of these, in some ways, evoked the BYU student and professor experience. In other ways, they differ sharply. One thing was clear. A full confrontation of critical scholarship yet awaits Mormonism. While we may have our own variations to confront, other faith traditions have walked this path before, and we don’t need to reinvent the wheel. We can learn from the experiences of others in other faith traditions.  Indeed, one of the reasons I’ve pushed Enns and Kugel is because they offer a model of faithful interaction with critical scholarship. Their answers are not necessarily ours, but they can certainly help. This conference felt like a great first step, and I look forward to further discussions.


If the names above aren’t familiar to you from reading me, let me rehash. These are good scholars to read on the Bible.

As always, you can help me pay my tuition here, or you can support my work through making your regular Amazon purchases through this Amazon link. You can also get updates by email whenever a post goes up (subscription box on the right). If you friend me on Facebook, please drop me a note telling me you’re a reader. I tend not to accept friend requests from people I’m not acquainted with.

A Note on Pioneer Day Talks, Sweetwater, and Tradition

I didn’t grow up in Utah, and never heard of Pioneer Day until I was on my mission in France/Belgium. There, a PR event was organized for the Sesquicentennial that included a large parade with handcarts, historical garb, dancing, etc. It wasn’t actually held on Pioneer Day, but a few weeks later in August. It had some Church News coverage, and a local member filmed and edited over an hour of video, all in French.

-Related reading: Eric Eliason, “The Cultural Dynamics of Historical Self-Fashioning: LDS Pioneer Nostalgia, American Culture, and the International Church” Journal of Mormon History 28:2 (2002)

BYUI historian Andrea RM offers some great tips on Pioneer Day talks here, and briefly mentions the famous Sweetwater River Rescue. I heard this retold recently in a missionary farewell, so it was on my mind. Sweetwater plays a role in my book where I discuss the influence of tradition upon knowledge and scriptural interpretation (see  my post here as well). In essence, the story as often told is, well, inaccurate for the main reasons we tell it. The traditional information comes from one late source, and looking at contemporary sources undermines it.

The evidence indicates that more than three rescuers braved the icy water that day. Of those positively identified as being involved in the Sweetwater crossing, none were exactly eighteen. Although these rescuers helped a great many of the handcart pioneers across the river, they carried only a portion of the company across. While some of these rescuers complained of health problems that resulted from the experience, most lived long and active lives that terminated in deaths that cannot be de nitively attributed to their exposure to the icy water that day.

Consequently, Brigham Young never eulogized three youths (since there were more) who died (because they didn’t), promising them the celestial kingdom for that act alone.

How do we know? Chad Orton published an article in BYU Studies examining it. A fantastic follow-up article in BYU’s Religious Educator summarizes Orton’s conclusions and looks at the problem of teaching the actual history to LDS students when the traditional version has been told in General Conference by such as Presidents Hinckley and Monson.

I asked my students something like, “What’s right and what’s wrong with that account?” The first hands went up on the back row, where three or four male students sat (all returned missionaries). Soon after the first student started talking, I felt heat rising on the back of my neck. He said that “he only ‘felt the Spirit’ when reading the traditional account.” Then a nearby student weighed in: “I don’t see what’s so wrong with that version anyway,” he said, questioning the value of revisiting the story. And one of them raised another issue: Why would President Hinckley use this story if there’s something wrong with it? In retrospect, these seem like predictable concerns, but they caught me by surprise that day…

The author goes to on to talk about framing the history, lowering emotional barriers to learning, and other bits. Perhaps most importantly, he concludes by pointing out that Sweetwater was told again in General Conference by Elder Cook in 2008… who cites the BYU Studies article in footnote 5.

The takeaway? Be careful about uncritically repeating traditional stories, even if you heard them in General Conference.

As always, you can help me pay my tuition here, or you can support my work through making your regular Amazon purchases through this Amazon link. You can also get updates by email whenever a post goes up (subscription box on the right). If you friend me on Facebook, please drop me a note telling me you’re a reader. I tend not to accept friend requests from people I’m not acquainted with.

Mormons, Evangelicals, Tradition, and Sunday School

  When it comes to frustrations with Gospel Doctrine class, one problem is that we don’t pay a lot of attention to context, and we like to casually shoe-horn modern doctrinal concepts or concerns into any old bit of verse that seems to relate. This is really only made possible by ignoring context, and not reading. For example, I wrote this in 2007.

I happened to be home once last year during a lesson on some chapters from Isaiah. The teacher did a decent job, but the comments all tended in one direction. By typical Gospel Doctrine standards, it was probably quite good. But afterwards, as I walked out, one man I know well asked me, “Why didn’t you say anything about Isaiah?”

“We didn’t talk about Isaiah.” I replied. “We selected some phrases in Isaiah that evoked familiar and current LDS principles, discussed those, and then decided that’s what Isaiah was really talking about in the first place. My Hebrew and ancient Near Eastern studies are irrelevant to that kind of discussion.”

Continue reading “Mormons, Evangelicals, Tradition, and Sunday School”