Approaching history

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Articles about Latter-day Saint history


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]

We can only ever partly understand the past. We don't have all the "pieces," and the evidence of what happened is not the same thing as what happened. For example, consider eating a meal today. You could video record eating the meal, but that recording leaves out a lot of what actually happened: what was the situation leading up to the meal? what was happening beyond the view of the camera? what was your emotion while eating? All of these can't be fully captured or understood through the video.

This is even more true about the "distant" past. We have only fragmentary writings, and sometimes a photograph or painting, to help us understand an event. Thus, we must try and interpret what the fragmentary records are telling us about what actually happened. This is even harder because we don't fully understand the context of the past. They had different customs and norms, and trying to understand the past based on our present customs and norms is called "presentism."


Video by BYU Religious Education.

Understanding Information and Records

When trying to interpret the past, we use information in an attempt to demonstrate that some belief can at least be true. This information comes from records, which are compiled by people (sources). Understanding information and records can help in addressing doubts. Understanding the perspective and bias of sources is also important.

Information

In our context, information can be objective (descriptive) or subjective (normative).

  • Objective (descriptive) information is a statement about the physical condition of something at a moment in time, or in other words. The statement is either true or false for everyone. For example, "Joseph Smith saw the Father and the Son" is an objective statement. Either the event happened or it didn't. People may disagree on whether or not it happened, but the event cannot have happened for some people but not for others.
  • Subjective (normative) information is a statement about the value condition (good or bad, better or worse) of something at a moment in time. Whether the statement is true or false depends on who is speaking. For example, "Joseph Smith was a good person" is a subjective statement. Good is a subjective value and its meaning depends on the person speaking. Joseph Smith could be seen as good by some people and not by others.

Information can come from a primary or secondary source.

  • A primary source means someone directly involved in whatever is being discussed. In addition, generally the person needs to share the information close to whatever moment in time is referenced. (This is due to how human memory works.) For example, "Joseph Smith saw the Father and the Son" would be primary information if it was stated by Joseph shortly after the event.
  • A secondary source means someone not directly involved in whatever is being discussed. It can also apply to someone directly involved if the person did not share the information close to whatever moment in time is referenced. For example, "Joseph Smith saw the Father and the Son" would be secondary information if it was stated by someone other than Joseph. Also, if Joseph stated this information 50 years after the event, it would be secondary information (again, because of how human memory works).

Finally, information can be direct or indirect.

  • Direct information is an explicit statement. For example, suppose we want to know the year Joseph Smith had his First Vision. The statement "Joseph Smith saw his First Vision in 1820" explicitly gives the information we want.
  • Indirect information is not an explicit statement, but information can be inferred based on what is or isn't stated as well as other information we already have. For example, the statement "Joseph Smith was 14 years old when he saw his First Vision" does not tell us what year the vision happened. However, combining that information with information we already had about Joseph's birth year (1805) allows us to determine the year of the vision (1820).

Records

Information is contained in records. Records are either original or derivative.

  • An original record is, well, original. It is probably best described by what it is not. It is not a derivative record. For example, Joseph Smith's original 1832 history is an original record. (An image of the original record is available on the Joseph Smith Papers website. It should be noted that images of original records are generally also considered original records.)
  • A derivative record is any record with information that is translated, transcribed, abstracted, extracted, indexed, and so forth. For example, the transcription of Joseph's 1832 history that appears next to the image is a derivative record. Some derivative records are more reliable than others. For example, the transcription of the history on the Joseph Smith Papers website is more reliable than a transcription appearing in a self-published book by an anonymous author.

Perspectives and Bias

When evaluating information and records, it is important to understand the source of the information or record. In addition to affecting the category of information or record provided, knowing the source helps to be aware of whatever perspective or bias affected the information and records searched or cited. (Everyone has some sort of perspective or bias, and anyone who thinks they don't are deceiving themselves. If you want to know more about biases, just do an internet search for something like "everyone has a bias.")

Evaluating Information and Records

There are various ways to evaluate information and records about Church history, doctrine, or practice.

Five Questions

BYU professors Anthony Sweat and Kenneth Alford encourage asking five questions about an account or information discussing Church history:[2]

  1. "Is it a primary account?
  2. "What is its relationship to other sources?
  3. "Is it a contemporary account?
  4. "Does it have an objective perspective?
  5. "Are its claims supported by evidence?"

Seeing Historical People in Context

Another part of interpreting the past is understanding the 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. [3]

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."[4]

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."[5] 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.[6]


Notes

  1. Keith A. Erekson, “Understanding Church History by Study and Faith,” Ensign, February 2017
  2. Anthony Sweat and Kenneth L. Alford, "A Method for Evaluating Latter-day Saint History," Religious Educator 21:3 (2020).
  3. Dallin Oaks, "Elder Oaks Interview Transcript from PBS Documentary," Newsroom (20 July 2007) off-site
  4. Ronald W. Walker, David J. Whitaker, and James B. Allen, Mormon History (Urbana and Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 2001), 117.
  5. Ibid., 117, 119–120.
  6. Michael R. Ash, Shaken Faith Syndrome (Redding, CA: FairMormon Press, 2014), 13.