Wednesday, August 15, 2012

Historians' Attempts at Sorting Through History

For about ten years, from 1972 to 1982, Leonard Arrington served faithfully as LDS Church Historian and Recorder.  During that time he was granted extensive access to Church archives and made an effort to make information available to Mormons and non-Mormons alike.  He was the first professional historian to be called to that position. 

In 1982 the History Division that Arrington oversaw was transferred to BYU, and liberal access to Church archives came to a halt.  Arrington was privately released from both his calling as Church Historian and head of the History Division, and in the April 1982 General Conference the standard public announcement of release and vote of thanks was absent.

In the minds of at least some of the leaders, the degree of transparency Arrington desired for Mormon history turned out to be too much for the Saints  and the world to handle. 

Arrington felt that our “authenticity” as Latter-day Saints depended on members confronting history with complete honesty.  He apparently felt we hadn’t done a stand-up job with that.  As Church Historian and Recorder he was motivated by a desire to see a change in the way we handled and presented our history.  Quoting a Jewish novelist, Arrington makes this point:

“In his autobiographical recollections and reflections, Little Did I Know, the great Jewish novelist and Zionist Maurice Samuel asserts that the ‘authentic Jew’ is ‘the one who understands and is faithful to his own personal and social identity.  One who, in short, accepts his history.’  May we not make an analogous definition of the Latter-day Saint?  Are we authentic Latter-day Saints (i.e., real Mormons) unless we receive messages from our collective past? …Our individual and collective authenticity as Latter-day Saints depends on the historians telling the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth about our past.  This includes the failures as well as the achievements, the weaknesses as well as the strengths, the individual derelictions as well as the heroism and self-sacrifice” (Arrington, “The Search for Truth and Meaning in Mormon History,” Dialogue 3:56-66).

Though some members share Arrington’s approach to history, as a people we tend to be oddly touchy about controversial issues from our past.  This leaves us in no real good position to help others who are struggling to understand our faith.  In Arrington's view we are, to some degree, not "authentic" Mormons.  We are often uncomfortable subjecting our own history to critical analysis.  

Polly Aird, Jeff Nichols, and Will Bagley pointed this out in the preface of a book they recently coauthored: 

"An odd defensiveness still characterizes the “faithful” version of Mormon history, which occasionally borders on paranoia: the mildest critical analysis is often condemned as yet another example of the faith’s long-sanctified history of persecution. To this day, the religion’s protectors paint the motives of those who do not subscribe to their faith-promoting version of history as suspect. …At times it seems that any scholar not thumping a tub for the restored Gospel is untrustworthy and relegated to an enemies’ list dating all the way back to the 1830’s" (quoted in Snuffer's recent paper on Brigham Young).

You don't have to like, agree with, or have a testimony of everything that has transpired in Mormon history.  Not everything is beautiful, not everything is praiseworthy, and not everything is true.  Arrington's Assistant Church Historian Davis Bitton said as much (see his article, "I Don't Have a Testimony of the History of the Church").  In that article, he expressed the view that it was not the truth of history that is ever the problem that troubles members, but their own expectations being conflicted that can tear them apart:

"What's potentially damaging or challenging to faith depends entirely, I think, on one's expectations, and not necessarily history. Any kind of experience can be shattering to faith if the expectation is such that one is not prepared for the experience. . . . A person can be converted to the Church in a distant part of the globe and have great pictures of Salt Lake City, the temple looming large in the center of the city. Here we have our home teaching in nice little blocks and we all go to church on Sunday, they believe. It won't take very many hours or days before the reality of experiencing Salt Lake City can be devastating to a person with those expectations. The problem is not the religion; the problem is the incongruity between the expectation and the reality.

"History is similar. One moves into the land of history, so to speak, and finds shattering incongruities which can be devastating to faith. But the problem is with the expectation, not with the history. One of the jobs of the historians and of educators in the Church, who teach people growing up in the Church and people coming into the Church, is to try to see to it that expectations are realistic. The Lord does not expect us to believe lies. We believe in being honest and true, as well as chaste and benevolent. My experience, like that of Leonard, has not been one of having my faith destroyed. I think my faith has changed and deepened and become richer and more consistent with the complexities of human experience. . . . Perhaps the only answer to a question about faith and history is to say that we are examples of people who know a fair amount about Mormon history and still have strong testimonies of the gospel" (Bitton, ibid.). 

The Church encourages its members to seek individual “spiritual confirmation” of the things they are taught (see Newsroom).  Would it be unacceptable, given that invitation, to decide at some point that there is some idea with which you disagree, because the Spirit of the Lord is not in it?  Or because you've done a little bit of research and discovered an alternative view of part of our history?  If the invitation is extended in the hope that members will take it seriously, then the outcome of some members choosing to act upon it should be pleasing to those who lead the Church, even if it results in some members coming to alternative views about a matter.

After decades of extensive digging into Mormon history, Leonard Arrington observed that not all theological and organizational changes were made in response to "explicit instructions from on High."  Many times, he continued, these changes were introduced "by people - by learned scripturists, talented organizers, and energetic innovators.  They may have operated individually or in groups; they may have been motivated by ambition, prestige, or the good of the Church" (Arrington, ibid., emphasis mine).

Discovering that a faithful Church Historian came to those conclusions, I feel at liberty to come to what I consider to be honest conclusions about issues from our past.  I am grateful for the work of honest historians like Leonard Arrington.  

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