Sunday, August 19, 2012

Sorting Through History, Conclusion

"If you can control people's ideas of the past, you control their ideas of the present and hence the future" (Nibley, Of All Things, p. 247).

I have not followed the advice of that visiting Seventy during the last decade.  It would have altered my gospel study dramatically, and I’m grateful it hasn’t.  While I have read, learned from, and enjoyed many of the articles, talks, and books written by leaders in the Church, I have found truth from others sources, too; truth that, in all likelihood, I would never have discovered had I limited my search to the brethren.  This is particularly true of my efforts to learn Church history.

Honest questions about history lead to real answers.  Those who are determined to find answers to their questions cannot be contented with non-answers.  They will very likely persist until they acquire the sources that will deliver the answers they seek.  Those who have earnestly sought an answer know how this feels.  That feeling could be expressed in words like these: “I know there’s got to be an answer to this question.  I know some person or some book or some place has the answer I’m seeking, and I’ll not rest until I find it.”  Fortunately for us, Joseph Smith felt that way in 1820 in his search for which church to join.  In his case, the answer was only to be found by prevailing upon heaven for answers.    

Assistant Church Historian John Jaques put it well:

Yes, say, what is truth? 'Tis the brightest prize
To which mortals or Gods can aspire;
Go search in the depths where it glittering lies
Or ascend in pursuit to the loftiest skies.
'Tis an aim for the noblest desire.
(Hymn 272, “Oh Say, What is Truth”)

David, in his Psalm expressed this eager sentiment:

“Teach me, O Lord, the way of thy statutes; and I shall keep it unto the end.

“Give me understanding, and I shall keep thy law; yea, I shall observe it with my whole heart.

“Make me to go in the path of thy commandments; for therein do I delight.

“Behold, I have longed after thy precepts: quicken me in thy righteousness” (Psalm 119:33-35, 40). 

The Lord does not expect his Church, or any of his children for that matter, to believe in fabrications about the past.  He has always desired from the beginning that we seek further light and knowledge.  This light and knowledge of the truth make a man like his God (D&C 93:36).

Many members have begun asking honest, tough questions, but been disappointed to discover that the answers they’ve been seeking are to be found outside of “approved” channels of dissemination.  In the recent interview done with Elder Marlin Jensen, he acknowledged this and explained the Church is trying to find solutions to this problem.  Some of the brethren are supportive of that effort and others are not. 

While men are trying to decide how much truth is too much, we are meanwhile faced with the challenge of finding true answers to honest inquiries.  But where do you go looking?  You look wherever you need to look to find your answers.  Truth is truth whether it is found here or there.

The historians who authored the recent book on Mountain Meadows provide a good example of diligently searching into history.  Where did they look for answers?  They looked wherever they needed to look to find their answers.  Their project was so comprehensive it really required them to look everywhere. 

But what about you?  Are you allowed to do that?  Are you allowed to seek out matters in that kind of depth?  What if the source is Jerald and Sandra Tanner, or Ogden Kraut?  They’re the bad folks, right?  If they present a true doctrine, or provide credible information about our history that cannot be found in Deseret Book publications, should it not be accepted?  Or must the facts provided by their research first be acknowledged by the brethren before you can accept them as truth?  What if the information they provided even helped somebody find faith in Christ, or find the determination to stay in the Church?  Would you be justified in judging a woman as "on the fringe" because she finally found a helpful, straight-forward answer but it happened to come from them?

Ogden Kraut was a fundamentalist and I’m not.  Though I don't agree with some of his views, much of his work is superb.  There are few authors I’ve read who seemed so bent on understanding and living what he believed the scriptures were teaching.  He and his research are respectable to me. 

From his writings I could give examples where history is presented in a more faithful manner by a fundamentalist than by our own church’s portrayals.  I could give examples that demonstrate a more clear understanding of and faithful devotion to Joseph Smith’s teachings than our own practices do.  I could show a man who studied, understood, and lived the doctrines in the scriptures better than many Mormons would ever contemplate trying.  I didn’t know the man, but I like what he wrote.  He seems to me to have cared very little about popularity, the praise of men, the lusts of the flesh, or Babylon.  I'm not suggesting you need to read his books though.  He's only a useful example in making a point.  There are others I could have chosen.            

The Tanners are anti-Mormon and I’m pro-Mormon.  They have come to a very different conclusion about Mormonism than I have, but their research has sometimes been helpful to me.  To be clear, I’m not recommending their work to you either.  But, when I’ve needed to get to the bottom of a matter in the Joseph Smith History, for instance, they’ve been happy to oblige.  Their work is well documented.  I'll provide only one example: 

In what has become accepted as an official record we now read this:

“Dr. Richards was taken sick, when Joseph said, ‘Brother Markham,…go and get the doctor something he needs to settle his stomach,’ and Markham went out for medicine.  When he had got the remedies desired, and was returning to jail,…” (History of the Church, vol. 6, p. 614).

The Millennial Star, where the account was originally published, read like this:

“Dr. Richards was taken sick, when Joseph said, ‘Brother Markham,…go and get the Doctor a pipe and some tobacco to settle his stomach,’ and Markham went out for them.  When he had got the pipe and tobacco, and was returning to jail,…” (Millennial Star, vol. 24, p. 471).

Now, some might ask: So what?  What is the big deal that these changes have been made?  This really isn't a big deal.  These are just small things.  

The big deal is this: These aren’t the only changes that have been made.  These aren’t the only things that have been covered up.  There are more changes and cover-ups than any one of us could find or want to count.  Some of them seem harmless, as does the change just mentioned.  But when a man or woman who’s been raised in the Church finds one or two of these changes for the first time in their 30s or 40s, they begin to wonder what other changes have been made.  They wonder what other information has been withheld from them.  In rapid succession, they go uncover a heaping pile of history and teachings that smothers them.  They are unprepared and often too tender for the cruel manner in which much of the information has been portrayed by enemies to the Church.  They wonder whether the leaders knew about these things, and if so, why they have not been honest with the members.  They are deciding to leave the Church over these “small things.”  It's happened to people I know.

To me, these are all small things.  Probably no harm was intended when changes were made, but harm is being done.  Nobody who made decisions to edit the texts probably ever foresaw the kind of trouble it would get folks into years down the road.  These are unintended consequences of hiding the truth, but consequences nonetheless.  Folks are struggling because of this stuff.      

J. Reuben Clark, who was a councilor in the first presidency of the Church for 27 years said: 

"One of the reasons why the so-called 'Fundamentalists' had made such inroads among our young people was because we had failed to teach them the truth" (Elder Statesman: A Biography of J. Ruben Clark, p.249).

Where do you look for answers?  Look wherever you need to look to find your answers.  "Thy mind, o man, ..." et cetera; remember that quote from Joseph Smith?

At the root of all of this seeking, of course, is a personal attempt at coming unto Christ.  That is why you should be seeking answers.  That is ultimately what you should be seeking for.  

Piecing together the puzzle pieces to get an accurate view of Mormon history will help you understand the scriptures.  The reverse is also true.  You cannot properly understand Mormon history without first considering and believing in the prophecies in the scriptures.  Understanding and believing the warnings of the Book of Mormon will help you interpret our history more accurately.  In fact, it is impossible to accurately interpret the whole of our history independent of those prophecies and warnings.


  1. This series was awesome. Keep writing this kind of stuff.

  2. I agree with your respect for Ogden Kraut. To hear him tell his story, he was friends with and respected by a number of general authorities. And then something happened. I believe it involved a book he wrote on plural marriage.

    I think sometimes people tell us to confine our search to the Church because going outside is dangerous. However, if we are going to achieve heaven, we are also going to have to deal with hell. And everywhere in between.

    I like your advice to view our history in the light of the Book of Mormon.


  3. "The big deal is this: These aren't the only changes that have been made. These aren't the only things that have been covered up. There are more changes and cover-ups than any one of us could find or want to count."

    If we had extant primary sources to the degree we do for the restoration, the same could undoubtedly be said for Herodotus, Thucydides, Eusebius, Edward Gibbon or, dare I say, Nephi & Mormon along with most "pre-modern" "pre-professional" historians.

    As Dean Jessee's Encyclopedia of Mormonism article on the 7-volume History
    of the Church
    notes, "[e]mphasizing the role of God in human affairs, this history falls within the Judeo-Christian tradition of 'providential history.' Because it was not written in a literary vacuum, it exhibits characteristics and flaws commonly found in the history and biography of its day: unacknowledged ghostwriting, edited sources, and a lack of balance."

    It has been said that "the past is a foreign country; they do things differently there." The types of editing of sources that would be scandalous with our modern notions of acceptable historiography and historical "truth" were, at the time, generally acceptable handling of sources. Therefore imposing our modern notions of "cover-ups" on the early history of the restoration is somewhat anachronistic and unfair. (But certainly effective in the hands of an uncharitable author, since I doubt many Americans--members or not--realize that our modern notions came out of German Universities towards the end of the 19th century).

    Maybe we should have a course in Sunday school that uses something like Oxford University Presses History: A Very Short Introduction as a text?

  4. It's interesting--if the church were an individual seeking a temple recommend, his answer to "Are you honest in your dealings with your fellow men" would have to be no. Hence, the church is not worthy of obtaining a temple recommend nor entering worthily into the House of the Lord.