Faithful History: Essays on Writing Mormon History

Faithful History: Essays on Writing Mormon History

Faithful History: Essays on Writing Mormon History

from the publisher:
Over the past decade, Mormon history has undergone a transformation as LDS scholars have debated how their church’s story should be written. So-called New Mormon Historians distinguish between what they believe is verifiable and what they suspect may be folklore, and they approach history from a variety of different academic and social perspectives. Mormonism has become of interest to non-LDS historians as well, which raises the important question of whether outsiders can truly understand Mormons, or, conversely, whether insiders can achieve enough detachment to see themselves objectively–or whether this is desirable. Stated another way, does history have an inherent meaning beyond the scholar’s particular viewpoint, and should a writer strive to understand the other person’s perspective, or is the writer’s subjective vantage what is important and all that is ultimately possible?

The new traditionalists contend that objectivity is, in fact, impossible and that history should therefore be written with certain pre-understandings, including that God exists and that Joseph Smith was his prophet. New Mormon historians believe that it is the limits of objectivity itself which precludes such dogmatic faith assertions, that the historian’s role is to report examples of faith, not to impose it.

In this compilation, the editor has assembled sixteen essays which represent all sides of this ongoing discussion. Contributors include Leonard J. Arrington, Edward H. Ashment, David Earle Bohn, Richard L. Bushman, Paul M. Edwards, Robert B. Flanders, Lawrence Foster, Edwin S. Gaustad, Neal W. Kramer, Martin E. Marty, C. Robert Mesle, Louis Midgley, D. Michael Quinn, Kent E. Robson, Richard Sherlock, Melvin T. Smith, and Malcolm R. Thorp.

“History, myth, and legend are not always distinguishable,” Smith cautions, “but there are some things we can know. The authors of these essays attempt to define the boundaries between objectivity and the biases of belief and unbelief which may color what is written about the past.”

George D. Smith, B.A., Stanford, M.B.A., New York University, is the president and publisher of Signature Books and president of Smith Research Associates. He sits on the national advisory boards of Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought and Sunstone magazine. He is the editor of Faithful History: Essays on Writing Mormon History; An Intimate Chronicle: The Journals of William Clayton; and Religion, Feminism, and Freedom of Conscience: A Mormon/Humanist Dialogue. He is a contributing author to The Word of God: Essays on Mormon Scripture. His writing has appeared in Free Inquiry, The John Whitmer Historical Association Journal, Journal of Mormon History, and elsewhere. He lives with his wife and family in San Francisco.

from Roger D. Launius:
A debate has been raging for more than a decade in Mormon intellectual (and in some not so intellectual) circles about the study of Mormon history. Beginning with Richard L. Bushman’s 1969 article, from which the main title of this book is taken, to Edward Ashment’s previously unpublished paper, “Historiography of the Canon,” this anthology of 17 essays presents some of the major issues of the subject. It encapsulates well the stresses of Mormon historiography which essentially revolve around the long-standing merging of history and theology and the inevitable problem of historical interpretation not always matching previous faith perceptions. When historians have found that Mormon historical evolution has not been nearly so cut and dried as the faith story suggested, it had the potential of creating a theological crisis of conscience in thinking Mormons. This led many Mormon leaders to question the value of studying history with “functional objectivity,” a goal of most professionally trained Mormon historians working in the post-World War II era.

These strains have prompted political actions by Mormon authorities to restrict access to church records, to censure historians who explore controversial themes or advance alternative interpretations from those of the accepted story, and to support defensive rather than analytical studies of church history. These essays debate this problem, and the most significant of them, D. Michael Quinn’s “On Being a Mormon Historian (and its Aftermath),” suggests the lengths to which this debate is being played out inside the Mormon historical commnunity. The extreme perspective of Mormon officials was expressed by apostle Boyd K. Packer: “I have a hard time with historians because they idolize the truth. The truth is not uplifting it destroys. . . . Historians should tell only that part of the truth that is inspiring and uplifting” (p. 103). It is an unfinished debate, but at stake is the freedom to differ. This collection provides ammunition for both sides.

from Brian Waterman:
Since the late 1960s, when LDS archive materials first received large amounts of attention from trained historians, Mormon academics have been engaged in a fight-to-the-finish over how to write Mormon history. Decades later, the clash continues. “A struggle is being waged for control of the Mormon past,” maintains Louis Midgley, BYU political scientist and defender of traditional Mormon history.

“Like the high priests of old,” counters Malcolm Thorpe, BYU history professor and new history advocate, “the traditionalists would exclude from the temple all who do not understand Mormonism in quite the same way as they do.” The debate is treated in a new book, Faithful History: Essays on Writing Mormon History (Signature, 1992), edited by George D. Smith, a graduate of Stanford and New York University.

The book contains essays from scholars on both sides, who describe the conflict as a “crisis in Mormon historiography.” Traditionalists view Mormon history as “faith” promoting, with contrary information being excluded. New Mormon Historians insist that it is unethical to omit unfavorable data; readers draw their own faith conclusions.

Midgley accuses “revisionist historians” of bringing up contrary evidence to support secular agendas. Some Mormon historians, according to Midgley, “simply do not believe.” According to Midgley, “Evidence is trivial without assumptions and theories to make sense of it.” There is no academic way of knowing how things “really happened,” and historians ultimately find what they are looking for.

Midgley’s colleague David Bohn agrees. New Mormon Historians, contends Bohn, commit “acts of intellectual violence against the believing community” by attempting to “de-literalize or mythologize the historical reality” of founding events. Bohn wants historians to admit their anti-religious biases and not hide behind a smokescreen of supposed objectivity.

Thorpe counters that traditionalists are simply “authoritarian” and “anti-historical.” Their histories are “repetitive, predictable, monolithic, and inaccurate.” In response to the charge that New Mormon Historians use God, he asks what “other-worldly language” historians might otherwise use. Traditionalists also “place themselves above rational evaluation,” complains Edward Ashment, former coordinator of LDS church translation services. “They deny the possibility of finding truth for the historiographer but assume it for themselves.” Former BYU historian Michael Quinn enters the fray, represented by a revision of his well-known essay, “On Being a Mormon Historian.” Quinn points to the multi-volume History of the Church, ascribed to Joseph Smith, but compiled years after his death. The book’s editors, writes Quinn, “deleted evidence, introduced anachronisms, and reversed meanings in manuscript minutes and other documents which were detailed and explicit in their original form.” According to Quinn, when “the omission of relevant information is intentional, it is fraud.” Quinn argues that not all information is necessary for all people, but that “a diet of milk alone stunts the growth of any child.”

The tug-of-war of methodology is all the more significant because in the late 1980s non-traditionalists were expelled from the Church archives. Only the most trusted authors are now allowed entrance, and those granted access may not quote archival documents directly without prior approval of context and interpretation.

Faithful History’s strength lies in its uniqueness in representing both sides of the argument in a single volume. BYU faculty from both sides are represented, giving objective readers the opportunity to answer these questions for themselves. By acknowledging a true dialogue, Smith has taken a step toward healing wounds and reconciling differences in what remains a hostile struggle.