Approaching history

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Approaching history

The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there.

From our perspective in the present, the past is mostly gone. The people have passed away; their experiences have ended. However, pieces of the past remain . . . Today, we can learn about the past only indirectly through the pieces that remain. Information is always lost between the past and the present.[1]

To read articles about Latter-day Saint history, click "Expand" in the blue bar below:

Articles about Latter-day Saint history

Seeing Historical People in Context

Elder Dallin Oaks discusses the issue of church history and facts that are not discussed frequently in church approved curriculum during an interview with Helen Whitney (HW) for the PBS documentary, The Mormons. He gives a good description of this dilemma and the church's method for confronting it. [2]

Referring to the importance of not focusing on a person's negative aspects while learning of their history Elder Oaks said,

...See a person in context; don’t depreciate their effectiveness in one area because they have some misbehavior in another area — especially from their youth. I think that’s the spirit of that. I think I’m not talking necessarily just about writing Mormon history; I’m talking about George Washington or any other case. If he had an affair with a girl when he was a teenager, I don’t need to read that when I’m trying to read a biography of the Founding Father of our nation.

Elder Oaks is then asked how the church deals with imperfections of early church members and current members coming across this information themselves on the internet rather than through teachings of the church. Elder Oaks responds,

It’s an old problem, the extent to which official histories, whatever they are, or semi-official histories, get into things that are shadowy or less well-known or whatever. That’s an old problem in Mormonism — a feeling of members that they shouldn’t have been surprised by the fact that this or that happened, they should’ve been alerted to it. I have felt that throughout my life.

People's Readiness to Understand History

There are several different elements of that. One element is that we’re emerging from a period of history writing within the Church [of] adoring history that doesn’t deal with anything that’s unfavorable, and we’re coming into a period of “warts and all” kind of history. Perhaps our writing of history is lagging behind the times, but I believe that there is purpose in all these things — there may have been a time when Church members could not have been as well prepared for that kind of historical writing as they may be now.

On the other hand, there are constraints on trying to reveal everything. You don’t want to be getting into and creating doubts that didn’t exist in the first place. And what is plenty of history for one person is inadequate for another, and we have a large church, and that’s a big problem. And another problem is there are a lot of things that the Church has written about that the members haven’t read. And the Sunday School teacher that gives “Brother Jones” his understanding of Church history may be inadequately informed and may not reveal something which the Church has published. It’s in the history written for college or Institute students, sources written for quite mature students, but not every Sunday School teacher that introduces people to a history is familiar with that. And so there is no way to avoid this criticism. The best I can say is that we’re moving with the times, we’re getting more and more forthright, but we will never satisfy every complaint along that line and probably shouldn’t.

Apologist Michael Ash has observed something similar to Elder Oaks:

Information can be withheld intentionally or unintentionally. First we will discuss the intentional reasons. In the context of early creations of LDS history, we find a tradition among most-nineteenth century biographies (the primary form of historical creations) that emphasized the positive aspects of heroic figures in the hopes of inspiring readers while often exaggerating or even fabricating anecdotes--such as George Washington chopping down his father's cherry tree. Frequently, in cases of early American biographies involving religious or philosophical movements, the movement took center stage and the "history" was a tool for evangelizing the movement. Any information that might harm the movement was withheld from the biography/history.

Early Mormon historians, like many historians of their era, were not trained in history but were instead influenced by the English Puritans whose histories were written as faithful explanations of their events. These Puritans (as well as early LDS historians) believed that, like the Hebrews before them, they were God’s chosen people whose coming to America was part of God's unfolding plan. "Their history and biography" note three prominent historians, "told the saga of God's dealings as seen in their personal lives. In short, Puritan biography and autobiography were simultaneously scripture as well as history." "Accuracy and realism were...largely things of the future."[3]

Apostle George Q. Cannon, whose faith-promoting stories were intended for the youth of the Church, wrote some of the more popular historical accounts of early Mormonism. Such works, like many other non-LDS works of the nineteenth century, were defensive in tone, biased, one-dimensional, and devoted to evangelizing a particular perspective. Today such writings are often referred to as hagiographies. It was not until the middle of the twentieth century that the modern biography—critical, multi-dimensional, and objective (at least in principle)—"began to take its present form."[4] The early faith-promoting histories, however, became the source of historical knowledge for many Church members and launched similar popular works for decades to come. While it can be said that early LDS histories intentionally withheld challenging and non-flattering information, in the context of the times this was not unique to Mormonism and is to be expected.[5]


  1. Keith A. Erekson, “Understanding Church History by Study and Faith,” Ensign, February 2017
  2. Dallin Oaks, "Elder Oaks Interview Transcript from PBS Documentary," Newsroom (20 July 2007) off-site
  3. Ronald W. Walker, David J. Whitaker, and James B. Allen, Mormon History (Urbana and Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 2001), 117.
  4. Ibid., 117, 119–120.
  5. Michael R. Ash, Shaken Faith Syndrome (Redding, CA: FairMormon Press, 2014), 13.