(A lecture given before the Student History Association, Brigham Young University, Fall, 1981. The following text was scanned from a copy of the speech given to those who attended the presentation).
Although Latter-day Saints
have been trained as historians at universities outside Utah for half a century and have been
publishing Mormon history during that entire period, only recently have prominent LDS general
authorities publicly criticized the motivations and publications of Mormon historians. In part,
this can be explained as a reaction to the increasingly "high profile" or scholarly and
interpretative Mormon history during the past fifteen years.
At a time of phenomenal increases in the numbers of new conversions in the United States and throughout the world, there has been a growing crescendo or interest (particularly on the part of Latter-day Saints with generations of experience in the Church) in researching, writing, and learning about the history of Mormonism. Among the most significant examples of this trend are: the organization of the institutionally independent Mormon History Association in 1965 which has held annual conferences for the presentation of scholarly papers, and whose membership has grown from a few dozen to more than a thousand; the establishment of Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought in 1966 with its emphasis on interpretative Mormon history; the intensified historical focus of the periodical Brigham Young University Studies which began devoting whole issues to LDS Church history from 1969 onward; the gradual opening of LDS Church Archives to professional researchers by Church Historian Joseph Fielding Smith in the late 1960s, the acceleration of that trend by his successor as Church Historian Howard W. Hunter, followed by the unprecedented appointment by the First Presidency of a professional Mormon historian Leonard J. Arrington to the position of Church Historian in 1972; the launching of the exclusively historical Journal of Mormon History in 1974; the addition of Mormon history to the format of Sunstone Magazine in 1977; and the activity from 1972 to 1980 (under the official auspices of Church headquarters) of the professionally trained Church Historian, Assistant Historians, and a university trained staff who Published scholarly and interpretative books and articles about Mormon history. This explosion of professional, interpretative, and footnoted approaches to Mormon history not reached out to the community of Mormon scholars and history buffs, but also has extended to the general membership of the Church through faculty members at Brigham Young University, Ricks Collage, and in the Church seminaries and institutes, as well as through scholarly historical publications by Deseret Book Company, the Church News, the Ensign and New Era magazines and their international counterparts.
Preoccupied with trying to assimilate hundreds of thousands of new converts annually into the LDS Church's present theological, social, and administrative identity, some Church administrators have voiced with understandable misgiving this burgeoning exploration of Mormonism's fluid past. The concern of these Church leaders has not been assuaged by the fact that contemporary with the proliferation of Mormon historians and histories there has been a shift in anti-Mormon propaganda from doctrinal diatribe to the polemical use of elements from the Mormon past to discredit the LDS Church today. In reaction to this confluence of developments, two members of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles (Ezra Taft Benson and Boyd K. Packer) have specifically identified Latter-day Saint historians as the source of difficulty. Elder Benson gave two talks about this subject in 1976, one of which states:
This Humanistic emphasis on history is not confined only to secular history; there have been and continue to be attempts made to bring this philosophy into our own Church history. Again the emphasis is to underplay revelation and God's intervention in significant events, and to inordinately humanize the prophets of God so that their human frailties become more evident than their spiritual qualities.1Five years later, Elder Packer expanded upon the point of view of Elder Benson in a detailed message delivered to religion teachers but directed to Latter-day Saint historians.2 As part of his indictment against Latter-day Saints who write scholarly, interpretative history, Boyd K. Packer has told his 1981 audience:
Unfortunately, many of the things they tell one another are not uplifting, go far beyond the audience they may have intended, and destroy faith.In addition to these jaundiced ecclesiastical views of Mormon history writing by Latter-day Saints, Mormon historians have also recently received criticism from fellow academic Louis C. Midgley, political philosopher at Brigham Young University. Midgley concludes a 1981 presentation on Mormon historians with the following statement:
One who chooses to follow the tenets of his profession, regardless of how they may injure the church or destroy the faith of those not ready for "advanced history" is himself in spiritual jeopardy.3
It is depressing to see some historians now struggling to get on the stage to act out the role of the mature, honest historian committed to something called "objective history," and, at the same time, the role of the faithful Saint. The discordance between those roles has produced more than a little bad faith (that is, self-deception) and even, perhaps, some blatant hypocrisy; it has also produced some pretentious[,] bad history.4As one of those historians who have struggled to get on the stage Midgley describes, I would like to explore things that he and others have questioned: the motivations, rationale, intentions, and conduct of Latter-day Saints who profess to write objective Mormon history.
At present my evaluation of what I am going to have to do to be spiritually educated in the Gospel is to become extremely well acquainted with the Standard Works, Journal of Discourses, Times and Seasons, History of the Church, and the discourses and writings of the Prophets. It is a monumental task at this alone, which requires more than a cursory reading or even a single, very detailed reading of these materials. I can now see clearly, for really the first time, that such a task will take a lifetime to encounter, and longer to master...6Over the next decade, a series of unforseen circumstances (which he now regards as divine intervention) caused him to abandon his life's ambition to become a medical physician, and in turn abandon his second-best decision to complete a doctorate in literature. Instead, after much prayer and soul-searching, he decided to turn his intense avocation of scriptural and Church history research into a life's work. He began graduate study in history, even though he had enrolled in only a couple of undergraduate history courses and had never taken a course in LDS Church history.
The Documentary History of the Church unfortunately as printed does not contain all of the documentary history as it was written. Brother Roberts made some changes in it. We do not know always what the changes were or what they are, so that, as an absolute historical source, the printed Documentary History is not one that we can invariably rely upon. . . Brother Roberts' work is the work of an advocate and not of a judge, and you cannot always rely on what Brother Roberts say. Frequently he started out apparently to establish a certain thesis and he took his facts to support his thesis, and if some facts got in the way it was too bad, and they were omitted.11It does disservice to the cause of the Church for Latter-day Saint historians to render themselves and the Church itself subject to justified criticism because they have ignored readily available and previously published materials in the writing of Mormon history. If such material is sensitive, controversial, unworthy, unsavory, or sensational, then it is a matter of the author's judgment of its importance whether the item should be quoted, paraphrased, or only referred to in a footnote.
What that historian did with the reputation of the President of the Church was not worth doing. He seemed determined to convince everyone that the prophet was a man. We knew that already. All of the prophets and all of the Apostles have been men. It would have been much more worthwhile for him to have convinced us that the man was a prophet; a fact quite as true as the fact that be was a man.This is, in part, related to the infallibility question. Elder Packer criticizes historians for eliminating the spiritual dimension from their studies of prophets, and he accuses such historians of distortion for failing to deal with such a fundamental characteristic. Yet Elders Benson and Packer also demand that historians omit any reference to human frailty (aside from physical problems, I suppose) in studies of LDS leaders, and emphasize only the spiritual dimension. Elder Packer quite rightly observes that omitting the spiritual, revelatory dimension from the life of a Church leader would also deny the existence of the spiritual and revelatory, but it is equally true that omitting reference to human weaknesses, faults, and limitations from the life of a prophet is also a virtual denial of the existence of human weaknesses and fallibility in the prophet. Must Church history writing portray LDS leaders as infallible, both as leaders and as men? This is not the Sacred History we know.
He has taken something away from the memory of a prophet. He has destroyed faith.26
Some people will say "Oh, don't talk about it." I think a full, free talk is frequently of great use; we want nothing secret nor underhanded, and for one I want no association with things that cannot be talked about and will not bear investigation.39As a Mormon historian, I desire to use the skills of scholarship in research and documentation, to emulate the examples of Sacred History in approach and philosophy and to help the Saints understand the vitality of Mormonism from a position of knowledgeable strength. In warning Mormon historians against objective history and against telling too much truth about the Mormon past, Boyd K. Packer says, "Do not spread disease germs!"40 To adopt the symbolism of Elder Packer, I suggest that it is apostates and anti-Mormons who seek to infect the Saints with disease germs of doubt, disloyalty, disaffection, and rebellion. These typhoid Marys of spiritual contagion obtain the materials of their assaults primarily from the readily available documents and publications created by former LDS leaders and members themselves. Historians have not created the problem areas of the Mormon past; they are trying to respond to them. Believing Mormon historians like myself seek to write candid Church history in a context of perspective in order to inoculate the Saints against the historical disease germs that apostates and anti-Mormons may thrust upon them. The criticism we have received in our efforts would be similar to leaders of eighteenth-century towns trying to combat smallpox contagion by locking up Dr. Edward Jenner who tried to inoculate the people, and killing the cows he wanted to use for his vaccine.
O Thou Rock of our Salvation, Jesus, Savior of the world,
In our poor and lowly station We thy banner have unfurled.
Gather round the standard bearer; Gather round in strength of youth.
Every day the prospect's fairer While we're battling for the truth.
ON BEING A MORMON HISTORIAN--NOTES
*Associate Professor of History, Brigham Young University.
1.Ezra Taft Benson, "God's Hand in Our Nation's History," in 1976 Devotional Speeches of the Year, (Provo, Utah: Brigham Young University Press, 1977), 310, 313.
2.Boyd K. Packer, "The Mantle is Far, Far Greater Than the Intellect," presented on 22 August 1981 to Seminary, Institute, and Brigham Young University religion instructors, and published in Brigham Young University Studies 21 (Summer 1981): 259-78. This talk has been published as a pamphlet by the Church Educational System and is scheduled for full publication in the Church's Ensign magazine in February 1982.
3. Ibid., 265, 266.
Louis C. Midgley, "A Critique of Mormon Historians: The Question of Faith and History," mimeographed draft, dated 30 September 1981, 54-55.
5. Dennis Michael Quinn Journal, 2 August 1962.
6. Ibid., 21 November 1962.
7. Ezra Taft Benson, The Gospel Teacher and His Message, (Salt Lake City: The Church Educational System, 1976), 11-12. "Communitarianism" also appears in the transcript copy of the talk, p. 8, Special Collections, Harold B. Lee Library, Brigham Young University, Provo, Utah. Specifically, Elder Benson objected to classifying Joseph Smith "among so-called 'primitivists,'" but the studies to which he referred used the terms "Christian Primitivists" and "Christian Primitivism."
8. B. H. Roberts, A Comprehensive History of the Church of Jesus Christ of Later-day Saints, 6 vols. (Salt Lake City: "Published by the Church," 1930), 5:487, 6:519.
9. A written example is Joseph Fielding Smith to the author, 9 August 1962, in which be enclosed a letter decrying Wilford Wood's reprinting of the 1830 edition of the Book of Mormon. The author is aware or verbal statements by general authorities with regard to the other examples cited in the text.
10. Packer, "The Mantle," 272, 263.
11. J. Reuben Clark statement, 8 April 1943, in "Budget Beginnings," 11-12, Box 188, J. Reuben Clark Papers, Harold B. Lee Library, Brigham Young University, Provo, Utah.
12. Benson, The Gospel Teacher, 11.
13. Packer, "The Mantle," 262.
14. Benson, The Gospel Teacher, 11; Midgley,"A Critique of Mormon Historians," 27-32.
15. Packer, "The Mantle," 260. Emphasis in original.
16. Benson, The Gospel Teacher, 10; Packer, "The Mantle," 259; Midgley, "A Critique of Mormon Historians," 112.
17. Packer, "The Mantle," 262.
18. Jacob 3:3-7, 10.
19. Helaman 8:26.
20. Helaman 2:13.
21. Ether 8:21.
22. Alma 10:27.
23. Moroni 8:27.
24. Benson, The Gospel Teacher, 10.
25. I Corinthians 7:6; Book of Mormon title page; Alma 40:20; History of the Church 5:265; April 1940 Conference Report, 14, Church News, 31 July 1954, p. 8.
26. Benson, "God's Hand in Our Nation's History," 310; Benson, The Gospel Teacher, 10; Packer, "The Mantle," 265. Emphasis in original.
27. Packer, "The Mantle," 266.
28. George Q. Cannon Journal, 7 January 1898, quoted in Stanley B. Kimball, Heber C. Kimball: Mormon Patriarch and Pioneer (Urbana: University of Illinois Press. 1981), p. xv.
29. Packer, "The Mantle," 267, 271.
30. Ibid., 265.
31. Ibid., 265, 263.
32. I Corinthians 3:3; Hebrews 5:12.
33. April 1952 Conference Report, 81; Remarks to Bishops' Meeting, 29 September 19 typescript in Box 151, Clark Papers, Brigham Young University.
34. Benson, The Gospel Teacher, 10; Benson, "God's Hand in Our Nation's History."
35. Packer, "The Mantle," 268, 271.
36. Examples re B. H. Roberts, A Comprehensive History of the Church 6: 399-400; Joseph Fielding Smith, Essentials in Church History, 24th ed. (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book Company, 1971), 512-13; J. Max Anderson, The Polygamy Story: Fiction and Fact, (Salt Lake City: Publishers Press, 1979), viii. Several scholarly LDS historians, who should have known better, have also adopted the half-truth, official history approach toward post-manifesto plural marriage. See James B. Allen and Glen M. Leonard, The Story of the Latter-day Saints,(Salt Lake City: Deseret Book Company, 1976), 443-44, and Leonard J. Arrington and Davis Bitton, The Mormon Experience: A History of the Latter-day Saints, (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1979), 245-246.
37. J. Reuben Clark statement, 21 March 1945, research in possession of the author.
38. Personal research of the author, as well as the fragmentary introduction to the question in Victor W. Jorgensen and B. Carmon Hardy, "The Taylor-Cowley Affair and the Watershed of Mormon History," Utah Historical Quarterly 48 (Winter 1980): 16-36.
39. Journal of Discourses 20:264.
40. Packer. "The Mantle," 271.
41. Ephesians 14:15.
Other Links Relating to this Topic:
"The Mantle Is Far, Far Greater than the Intellect," by Boyd K. Packer--A talk given at the Fifth Annual Church Educational System Religious Educators' Symposium, 22 August, 1981, Brigham Young University, Provo, Utah.
"Fourteen Fundamental In Following The Prophets" by Ezra Taft Benson--In 1945, the LDS Church News stated: "When our leaders speak, the thinking has been done.....To think otherwise, without immediate repentance, may cost one his faith, may destroy his testimony, and leave him a stranger to the kingdom of God. (Deseret News, Church Section, Page 5, May 26, 1945; see also Improvement Era, June 1945, p.354) LDS leaders and Public Relation spokesmen have attempted to downplay this statement, saying that church members have "free agency" to choose for themselves; yet today, the encouragement for members to blindly follow and obey the council of their leaders continues. In March 1996, Mormon Apostle M. Russell Ballard "preached obedience to the LDS Church's First Presidency. . ." to more that 10,000 Brigham Young University students and faculty members. He informed them that "'We will not lead you astray. We cannot, . . .'" (The Salt Lake Tribue, March 16, 1996, C-2) Sixteen-years earlier, this admonition was phased in harsher terms by Apostle (later Prophet) Ezra Taft Benson at a BYU devotional, February 26, 1980. In his talk Benson warned that the prophet of the LDS church constitutes God's "mortal captain" and how well church member's "lives harmonize with the words of God's anointed--the living prophet--president of the Church, and the Quorum of the First Presidency" was a gauge of "how well [they]...stand with the Lord." Benson warned: "follow them [the Church leaders] and be blessed--reject them and suffer."
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