Question: How can one answer criticisms of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints based in history?

FAIR Answers Wiki Table of Contents

Question: How can one answer criticisms of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints based in history?

Introduction to Question

The history of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is researched on an ongoing basis and critics are almost always a part of that group that are researching to create new criticisms that they can level at the Church. This article will present several principles and other resources that will help individuals in evaluating historical criticisms.

Articles that Are Necessary to be Familiar With

There are a number of articles that we recommend on familiarize themselves with in order to respond to/react properly to historical criticism.

Disagreeing with Church Leaders

FAIR has produced an article about disagreeing with Church leaders. Honing these principles will help you know how you need to react to the decisions and words of Church leaders in the past.

Moral Standards of Church

Latter-day Saints have a moral code informed by the Savior’s teachings about love. This article discusses love from a Gospel point of view.

General Principles to Keep in Mind

Remember that Seeming Contradictions in a series of historical accounts about the same event by the same person are not inherently problematic

As taught on the Church's website, "Historians expect that when an individual retells an experience in multiple settings to different audiences over many years, each account will emphasize various aspects of the experience and contain unique details."[1]

This is a general principle that has been used to respond to criticism of the First Vision, for instance.

We’re trying to establish what most likely happened. Not what actually did happen.

As taught by BYU Professor Gerrit Dirkmaat:

Historians can only establish what most likely happened in the past. We aren’t in the business of being able to prove impossibilities. Historians--based upon sources that exist, based upon context--are able to say “this is most likely what happened in the past.” And so, part of understanding the past--when you’re studying religion, when you’re studying Latter-day Saint history--is realizing that all sources are not created equal. The fact that someone said something in the past is not proof that what they’re saying did or didn’t happen--especially when it comes to a miraculous event.[2]

Doing History

Now we get into some of the bread and butter skills a person will need to have when doing history so that they can properly evaluate sources and the claims of the people today, scholars and laypeople alike, who are interpreting those sources.

1. Evaluate Your Historical Sources

The first skills you will need to acquire are in evaluating historical sources. This video and infographic explain how to evaluate historical sources.

Evaluating Historical Sources.png

2. Use the Best Sources for Your Analysis

You need to trust the best sources. The best sources are:

  1. First hand: We want to learn about an event from the person who experienced it first. Sources that are second, third, fourth hand, and so on are increasingly likely, to be unreliable in relaying information correctly. It’s like the game of telephone where a message starts out as “I like monkeys”, gets passed around the room through whispers, and then comes out as “pie bike palm trees.” Sometimes the first hand accounts don’t exist and we have to rely on second hand witnesses. The later hand sources are not automatically less reliable, but they are only more likely to not be such.
  2. Early: The closer in time an account is to its corresponding event, the more likely we are to have an accurate recollection of something that happened. This is for the simple reason that our memory is more likely to fail us over time.
  3. Friendly: People are more likely prone to relaying information about someone in a less accurate way when they are biased or hostile towards a person. The friendly sources are often times more likely to be more accurate in relaying information.
  4. Sober: the more people will recall the events that happened to them in a matter-of-fact way, the more we can trust their account as reliable. When that person obviously is filtering their memory through nervousness and other emotions, we might be more likely to be dealing with fabrications, distortions, half-truths, and more.

3. Read through all the sources

We obviously then need to read through all sources, reliable and unreliable, to get an idea of what happened.

4. Craft a narrative

We need to give an account, based on the sources, of what you believe most likely happened.

5. Read what other historians have said about an issue

You will want to compare your findings to what other interpreters have said about a particular event to be able to make sure that you haven’t overlooked important arguments that may or may not change how you view an event.

Notes

  1. "First Vision Accounts," Gospel Topics Essays, November 2013, https://www.churchofjesuschrist.org/study/manual/gospel-topics-essays/first-vision-accounts?lang=eng.
  2. BYU Religious Education, “Understanding Latter-day Saint Doctrine and History,” BYU Religious Education, December 7, 2020, video, 6:32, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_4U2OI00tCs