“And whatsoever is more or less than this is the spirit of that wicked one who was a liar from the beginning” (D&C 93:24).
Honest students of history have the dilemma of sorting through what is true and what is false. This is true of the history of any subject, but becomes particularly important in matters of religion.
At times, this is easy to do. Blatant lies are often easy to detect, especially when not substantiated by other contemporaneous accounts. But when the perpetrator of an historical event is himself misinformed, or wittingly or unwittingly exaggerates or leaves out important details, it becomes rather difficult for the reader to sort through the data and develop an accurate picture.
Latter-day Saint history is filled with the miraculous, and with accounts of God’s dealings with men in our own day. Many of the accounts are both faithful and faith-promoting. These recorded events, like ancient scripture, invite you to improve upon your time and to obtain from God what others have received. It is appropriate for us to be excited about and delight in the retelling of these accounts.
Some events in our history are ugly and alarming. Plenty of Mormons refuse to acknowledge this. Other folks, however, may be constituted so as to acknowledge nothing but the ugly. Some go to great lengths to point out discrepancies, errors, failings, and lies. Various authors may or may not choose to confront certain events from our past. Both sides are inevitably criticized by the others who disagree with the approach they’ve taken to the study of the faith.
Much of the time, reaching a sound conclusion about a matter requires you to exhaust the resources available to you. Adding up the details, while considering the pertinent context, paints the true picture. At times you will be forced to choose between sources, as one may present a different view of the events than another. You may choose to believe one man’s witness as credible and honest, for instance, while putting off ten other witnesses who all agree with one another, but who propound a contrary view to the one. That is every man’s prerogative. You may not know about the ten other witnesses at all. Perhaps you will choose to suspend judgment on a matter for now. Whatever the case, these things take work.
We need context to truly understand people and events. Ignoring some aspects of the overall context could cause us to miss out on some truth. Without understanding the cultural context surrounding the massacre at Mountain Meadows, for example, it is impossible to begin to understand the event. The culture of violent rhetoric that preceded the massacre helps you not only understand how such an event could have transpired, but provides a lens through which to discern varying contemporaneous accounts that were given of it.
Historians only offer their opinions about what really happened in the past. They pick and choose their sources according to their motive, and present the data they've gathered. Some are more honest than others; some more intelligent. Usually, an eager student of the gospel will find his opinion may change a number of times about a doctrine or historical event depending on which sources he encounters, when, and to which sources he gives credence.
Having done these things, you also must consider prophetic descriptions of our day - as found in the scriptures - to inform your reading of history. Without the context of prophecy, events in our history can bend to fit the desired outcome of any historian; or any student. When we take the prophecies seriously, we begin to see that our traditional telling of some aspects of Mormon history may be off. We've sorely neglected the prophecies of the Book of Mormon in this regard.