History and Faith
by Richard D. Poll
Myths, Documents, and History
The study of history, whether as professional or non-professional, is fraught with the same perils as the exploration of any field of knowledge—a peril aptly expressed in this slightly paraphrased language of English theologian William Inge: “The fruit of the tree of knowledge always drives us from some Garden of Eden.”1
I am a Mormon of the Liahona persuasion. I believe in God as the organizer and manager of the eternal enterprise in which we are all engaged. I believe in Jesus Christ as the great exemplar of righteousness and as our redeemer. I believe that we have the right and power to make choices and that the choices make a difference. I believe that Joseph Smith was a prophet and that this church is prophetically led. I do not subscribe to the concepts of scriptural inerrancy or prophetic infallibility. I do believe that God will yet reveal many great and important things pertaining to his work.
As a historian, I accept the challenge of the great nineteenth-century German historian Leopold von Ranke to try to describe the past wie es eigentlich gewesen ist—as it actually was. That is a real challenge, and I suspect von Ranke knew that it was only an ideal. It could not be done then and it cannot be done now. Why? Because of the limitations all of us share in approaching any past happening, limitations that no analytical skill or linguistic or statistical tool can transcend. Among these are:
Perspective: Each of us looks at what is happening from a certain point of view; we cannot see it in the round. We have invented [p.60] machines that do a better job of looking at a thing from all sides than we are able to do with our human perceptions.
Bias: We bring not only a point of view to every event but also prejudices. We may think our approach to books and articles, such as this one, is relatively neutral and dispassionate, but bias—prejudgment—concerning subject or author had something to do with our decision to read and it will certainly affect what we retain.
Memory: Each of us can remember occasions, either amusing or stressful, in which efforts to recall a relatively recent conversation generated differences about the content and even the conclusions reached. Memory affects all events.
Records: As time and distance affect our memories of an event, we confront our dependence upon documents and artifacts and the problem of the incompleteness and impermanence of all records.
Context: As we try to reconstruct the past, we find that we cannot deal with the whole situation. We look at a happening that has meaning, in part, because of the other things that were going on at the time, but we cannot take them all into account. Some have been forgotten, others have fuzzy details, and the synthesizing of others may be unmanageable.
Selective remembering: We tend to remember some things—like pleasure—better than others—like pain. Sometimes, in looking back, we transform pain into a kind of pleasure, even spiritual exaltation. For example, some of the accounts of the Mormon handcart pioneers give an impression that as their feet froze, they lay in the snowdrifts quietly singing the fourth verse of “Come, Come Ye Saints” while waiting for deliverance.
If all these limitations complicate the historian’s reconstruction of a single event, surely he or she should speak of the causes, connections, and meanings of interrelated events and the personalities, ideas, and motives of people with even less certitude, for reasons that readily come to mind. Still, I believe that a competent historian can get close enough to history “as it actually was” to generate provocative, often profitable, sometimes perilous knowledge.
Let me first offer a provocative example that is neither perilous nor particularly profitable.
“The Case of ‘This is the Place’” is drawn from my teaching experience. Today’s Mormon students say they have grown up with [p.61] about the same images which I encountered when I first heard about the pioneers over sixty years ago. The Saints were driven out of Nauvoo, Illinois, for a variety of reasons, all classified as “persecution.” They were led into an uncharted wilderness by their prophet, Brigham Young. After spending some time there, Brigham, like Moses of old, recognized their destination, rose up in Wilford Woodruff’s wagon, and, gazing at the Great Salt Lake Valley, said, “This is the right place. Drive on.” They went down into the valley and began to make the desert blossom as the rose.
A problem arises when one discovers that the statement, “This is the right place,” was first attributed to Young by Woodruff more than thirty years after the pioneer advent.2
That may or may not prove anything. Even what Woodruff wrote at the time may not prove anything, but here is part of his journal entry for 24 July 1847: “This is an important day in the History of my life and the history of the Church.… On this important day, after trav[eling] from our encampment 6 miles … we came in full view of the great valley or Bason [of] the Salt Lake and land of promise held in reserve by the hand of GOD.” He then described the pleasing prospect and reported: “President Young expressed his full satisfaction in the Appearance of the valley as A resting place for the Saints & was Amply repaid for his Journey.” Woodruff recorded that they traveled about four miles down to the camp of “our brethren who had arrived two days before. They had … broke about five acres of ground and commenced planting potatoes.”3
It is clear from this contemporary record that, at least in Woodruff’s judgment, the hand of the Lord was visible in the selection of the Latter-day Saints’ new home. The surprising point is that the memorable Pioneer Day words do not appear in this account. They do turn up in 1880, in a Pioneer Day address given three years after Brigham Young’s death. Woodruff was looking back to 1847, and the language nicely epitomizes the sentiments which Young may have expressed, even in those very words. But it is evident that the journal account in some way affects the Pioneer Day tradition, because there were people already down there plowing and planting potatoes by the time Young said, “This is the right place,” or whatever it was that he said. Their action obviously had not waited upon this prophetic identification of the spot. That decision had been made earlier as Young considered the options with his colleagues, studied the available [p.62] geographic information about the Great Salt Lake Valley, and received at least provisional confirmation that this, in God’s judgment, was the place.
This is no earth-shaking matter, unless it has become important to one that the pioneers did not know where they were going until their leader received a particular miraculous sign. It is simply an illustration of what happens from time to time when memories of the past are tested against contemporary documentation.
It seems fitting to add here that historians, like practitioners of other trades, sometimes speak as one having more authority than they actually do. They are only entitled to dismiss a myth categorically when it alleges that something occurred which, on the basis of evidence, could not have occurred. I will give an illustration of this presently. It is entirely competent for someone to argue today that Brigham Young did say on the 24th of July, “This is the right place. Drive on.” The documents surely suggest that he and others experienced a confirmation of some kind. Only the language is at issue.
However, the number of people who shared that confirmation is not clear from the contemporary evidence. Some who came into the valley in the first few months, including Sam Brannan and some of the Mormon Battalion people who had been to California, thought that perhaps Young ought to ask the question again.
A further caution may be in order here. Historians are not very helpful in determining how God communicates with people. They can discover details about the way men and women have said such communication took place and can report and interpret according to their perceptions and biases. They are no better than philosophers, mathematicians, or anybody else in giving definitive answers to the questions which have been vexing people since the first wonderings about where we came from, why we are here, and where we are going.
To return to my theme: Some things in the past are more important than others—more useful than others. We remember them best and we recall them in association with the purpose or cause or value which makes them useful. Sometimes an alteration of the event “as it actually happened” occurs in this process.
This brings us to the term “myth.”
Most dictionaries insist that a myth must be fictitious—like a fairy tale. However, that is not what it means to historians. A [p.63] historical myth is an idealized version of an event which once happened. It is what the memory of an event becomes after people, usually for reasons involving group values, have transformed it so that it is more useful. The process of myth-making distills from the past elements which motivate people to be more patriotic, generous, loving, or virtuous in some other dimension.
This process of taking something out of historic experience and converting it—by addition, subtraction, modification, or revision—into a value-laden symbolic memory can be observed in many contexts. George Washington was hardly dead before the myth-making process began. The cherry tree was added because Parson Weems wanted to make Washington’s honesty vivid for children. A Valley Forge prayer which may never have been uttered became one of the most familiar events associated with the father of our country.
Myth making forgets things, too. Sally Fairfax almost disappeared from the Washington record until the diggers into documents and the psycho-historians discovered her again. There was no big scandal here, but there is evidence that Washington, for all his uprightness, never quite got over feeling special about this wife of his good friend, whom he almost certainly would have courted if the friend had not done so first.
We ascribe ideas to people when they have become folk heroes, simply because any cause is strengthened by the support of a mythic figure. I once investigated a quotation on gun control that an op-ed contribution to the Salt Lake Tribune (29 Jan. 1984) attributed to George Washington. Here is part of it: “Firearms stand next in importance to the Constitution itself. They are the American people’s liberty teeth.”
It does not sound like Washington. After going through the index of Washington’s collected writings, writing to the Library of Congress legislative reference section and to the author of the Tribune article, and finally locating the hate-sheet from which this author obtained the quotation, I am satisfied that Washington never said this. So it belongs, in my opinion, in the five-foot shelf of quotations attributed to people whom we wish very much had said them because they give a little extra cachet to our opinions. The next best thing to having the scriptures to quote is having one of the Founding Fathers or Abraham Lincoln on one’s side.
[p.64] The mythologizing process can be seen in the images which gradually emerge and are accepted as somehow definitive—the pictures of the pilgrims landing on Plymouth Rock or of the sea gulls devouring the crickets in the Great Salt Lake Valley. The statue of Joseph and Emma Smith at the Nauvoo visitors’ center is a beautiful idealization of these important people. The statue of Brigham Young on the BYU campus is another. It is fair to say that you may know you have become a myth when you become the subject of a statue. Unless, of course, you are a demagogue who commissions your own statue—a clear sign that you expect to become a myth.
Let us turn next to the tools of the historians.
If an event is in the recent past, historians can use the testimony of witnesses—people who were there or heard about it from people who were there. They also have the artifacts which people leave behind for archaeologists, anthropologists, and antique collectors to find. Mostly, however, historians work with information from documents written on paper, papyrus, wood, metal, stone, or some other material. Only where there are documents can one really begin to “do history.”
Putting the bits and pieces together can be exciting, because the evidence sometimes contains surprising things. This is one reason why some people find the work of historians provoking: The surprises we turn up do not always sustain our myths. As with “The Case of ‘This Is the Place,’” so with the account which follows.
“The Case of the Missing Convention” involves a myth which is chiefly of interest to historians. It comes out of the Mormon statehood movement of 1849. The key document and the associated problem are described in a brochure, The State of Deseret, which Peter Crawley wrote in 1982 to commemorate the acquisition of the two-millionth volume in the Harold B. Lee Library collections at Brigham Young University.
This rare book, The Constitution of the State of Deseret, together with the journal of the convention which formed it and the proceedings of the legislature consequent thereon, is a pamphlet of sixteen pages published in September 1849. It gives the text of the constitution and describes the events which produced it and the elections which approved it and selected the first officers for the proposed new Mormon commonwealth in the Great Basin.
[p.65] Historians for at least two generations have been perplexed by the fact that, according to the available documents, two political activities seemed to be going on simultaneously in early 1849. One—a movement to create a territorial government—produced petitions with several thousand signatures which John M. Bernhisel carried back to Congress. The other—a constitutional convention to create a new state—sent Almon W. Babbitt east to join forces with Bernhisel.4 Coincident with both, an election in Great Salt Lake City on 12 March 1849 unanimously chose a slate of executive and judicial officers, who began to function immediately. It is not clear from the documents whether those involved saw the proposed political entity as a territory or embryonic state. As Dale Morgan described it, “The Mormons very simply … elaborated their ecclesiastical machinery into a political government.”5
We rationalized away this dissonance or just left it on the back burner until Crawley made some interesting discoveries. Among other things, he found that people who are described in this pamphlet as having attended the March 1849 constitutional convention were doing other things at the time. Further, in the diary of one of the alleged participants, he found what the Watergate generation might call “the smoking gun.” Here is Franklin D. Richards’s entry for Thursday, 19 July, months after some of the events described in the pamphlet were alleged to have occurred: “Attended Council the two weeks past, at which the Memorial[,] Constitution of the State of Deseret, Journal of its Legislature, Bill or Declaration of Rights, and the election of A. W. Babbitt as delegate to Congress, was all accomplished” (Crawley, 9). (Richards was probably referring to the Council of Fifty because no other council was involved with such political matters then.)
Crawley’s explanation is persuasive. He notes that the United States had just acquired the Great Basin as part of the spoils of the Mexican War and that national politics was very much in flux before the Compromise of 1850. After the proposal for territorial government was devised and dispatched (and a de facto local government was formed), news from the east, including recommendations from Thomas L. Kane, led to the conclusion that statehood should have been sought instead. If California and New Mexico were going for it, why not Deseret? Statehood would give the Mormons the self-government which they really wanted.
[p.66] However, the decision makers in Great Salt Lake City concluded that there was not time to go through the steps of electing, drafting, ratifying, electing again, and then petitioning Congress. They also knew that if they asked for statehood without going through this, they could not succeed. So they created a record. They wrote a constitution, borrowing mostly from a copy of Iowa’s. They then created minutes and election documents, named members to a legislature, and sent the papers back to Kanesville, Iowa, where Apostle Orson Hyde printed them at the Frontier Guardian office because the Salt Lake Valley did not yet have an operating press. Babbitt took copies of the pamphlet back to Washington and went to work with Kane and Bernhisel in an unsuccessful effort to secure statehood (Crawley, 10-17).
One can make a credible rationalization for this pamphlet, and Crawley does, but this document is as fraudulent in its content as the Donation of Constantine and the “white salamander letter.” It is still precious, but it does raise questions, especially if one has difficulty coping with the fact that an LDS First Presidency created and published it.
I turn next to a personal episode, “The Case of Elder Poll and the Gift of Tongues.” It involves two documents, one contemporary with the event to which the story relates and the other retrospective. In general, a contemporary document is more reliable than a written account produced from memory years after the event. The more that matters involve personal faith and values, the greater the difference in reliability is likely to become.
The first source is my missionary journal. I was a missionary in Bremen, Germany, when war started in 1939. After an unsuccessful effort to go to Holland, my companion and I found ourselves in Copenhagen. While it was still thought that some of the missionaries might stay in Scandinavia, Elder Joseph Fielding Smith set me apart to the Danish Mission. I went to the fairy-tale city of Odense to start the second phase of my mission. My linguistic preparation consisted of six weeks in Bremen and two years of college German. In Copenhagen I discovered that there were similarities between the German and Danish tongues, and I entered hopefully into the task of learning the new language; in Odense, I worked a little harder at it. Within two weeks, however, the decision was made that all the missionaries [p.67] in Europe were to come home. Of the day that we bade farewell to the Odense Saints, 19 September 1939, here is part of what I wrote:
“Meeting—Relief Society. A pathetic affair. Bro[ther]s Pitcher and Neilson had passed the word around, and everyone was there. And every time the missionaries were mentioned, eyes filled with tears. Bro. H. said we’d probably be expected to say something; so while the lesson was going on, I planned. Came the time, and Bro. H. took charge. He called on Bro. Clark [another one of the "greenies"] and overset [translated] a short … swan song for him.… after he got through, I talked for a couple of minutes—very slowly—but I believe the Saints were with me [I was talking in Danish]. Afterwards I felt very good when Bro. H. said that I really had the gift of tongues to speak so well after less than two weeks time. I am thankful for whatever is responsible.… After the other elders had spoken very sincerely and touchingly, the meeting closed.… There followed the ordeal of farewells. Everybody wished ‘Gude Rejse,’ and it seemed like losing real friends, though I’d known them only such a short time. I labored painfully to converse in Dansk with some of the young folks, and received several compliments on my progress in the language. Such things are a not undesirable supplement to the direct personal joy of achievement.”
In 1982 a young man from the Macomb, Illinois, Ward went on a mission to Denmark and was assigned to Odense. While looking through the ward records there, he found an account, written in Danish, with an attached picture of Elder Richard Poll and another missionary, taken on shipboard as they traveled back to the states. I do not know how the picture got there; I suppose the other elder, who had been there longer, sent it back to a friend. This is a translation of that bit of ward history:
“In 1939 Odense received a visit of missionaries on their way home from Germany to the USA.…One of them, Elder R. D. Poll, had just arrived in Germany one or two days ago and now was being sent home. During the one and one-half days he was in Denmark he came through Odense and at a church meeting he was asked to speak. He spoke about ‘the rough times that would come, but that people shouldn’t fear, but hold fast to the gospel and be faithful to the church and nothing would happen. The strange thing was, he spoke in Danish.
[p.68] “When the meeting was over, the lady who submitted this article, rushed up to talk to him. She began to talk to him in Danish of course and he looked at her very strangely and soon it was learned he couldn’t speak or understand Danish.
“About 20 years later this sister was visiting in America and knew a former Danish missionary who knew Bro. Poll and he told her Bro. Poll was a Professor at BYU. This sister had hundreds of times over the years, thought over that special experience and about convinced herself she must have heard wrong back in 1939, so she went to see him again at his office at BYU. Bro. Poll by now had been in Denmark and could speak some Danish. He confirmed to her that in 1939 he couldn’t speak Danish, but remembers very clearly that special meeting where he spoke perfect Danish. As he said to her, ‘Such things happen.’”
There is obviously a conflict between the two documents. Not only are there discrepancies in details, but if this sister ever met me in America, the contact was so casual that I have no memory of it. I have no overwhelming urge to write to the bishop of the Odense Ward and tell him to correct the ward history. But what should I do if someone from Odense does come to see me?
Myths abound in our traditionalized church history. The exodus from Nauvoo offers several examples. I was mildly traumatized when, as a young person, I found out that the first refugees did not cross the Mississippi on the ice—the river did not freeze over until two weeks later. Those nine births on Sugar Creek became a perplexing part of the myth when I learned that a few weeks later William Clayton wrote “Come, Come Ye Saints” partly in thanksgiving for the successful arrival of a child to his wife, Diantha, who was still in Nauvoo. Why would nine pregnant women cross the river on that first night if other pregnant women could stay behind? The documents suggest that the untimely births took place when the last group of poor Saints was driven out of Nauvoo in September 1846.
There are problems in other pioneer stories, including the sea gulls and crickets and the traditional account of the calling of the Mormon Battalion. Think of what has happened to the pioneer treks. Although tens of thousands of people came west between 1847 and 1869, the myth-making process has reduced the pioneer experience to Brigham Young’s advance company and the handcart pioneers of [p.69] 1856—neither of them representative. (Young’s caravan of 143 men, 3 women, and 2 children was hardly the demographic mix to build up Zion in the Rocky Mountains.) The handcart migration has been reduced to one heroic, tragic episode. Although three thousand people crossed the Great Plains with handcarts between 1856 and 1860, the only ones remembered are the members of the Willie and Martin companies who either did not make it or did so with severe frostbite. The myth invites reflection. Which is the more faith-promoting experience: To cross the plains with nothing more serious than blisters or to leave one’s feet along the way?
Many such myths develop to sharpen the focus on cherished values. Folk memory cannot handle eighty thousand or even three thousand people in an interminable series of wagon trains and handcart companies plodding across the plains, so it singles out details most suitable for idealization. This is what we have done with Abraham Lincoln and George Washington and what we do with our own lives. We romanticize some of the events of our youth; we remember them with such vividness now that we can be almost certain that we include details which never happened. We move ourselves closer to the center of the action, accentuating our role. Sometimes we move ourselves in when we were not there at all. It gives us standing with our grandchildren, and it helps our self images.
Incongruities—minor or major disharmonies—abound in our several versions of the past. One may ask, “What difference do they make?” The answer is, “Little, if nothing important is at stake.” I suspect that very little depends on whose crops were saved by the sea gulls, or whose great-grandparents suffered with the handcart companies. On the other hand, it may make a great deal of difference if a historical myth has become a significant feature of “some Garden of Eden.”
A danger in some historical myths is that by depicting levels of aspiration and accomplishment which transcend the historic events, they lead us to inaccurate assessments of ourselves. The point is often made in talks about the pioneers: “We could never do that.” The documents suggest that those people did what they did because they had to do it. We do not know what we would do if we were in their shoes. Some of us might lie down by the path and murmur “and should we die,” but I believe most of us would tough it out. People have a capacity to rise to challenges.
[p.70] If people grow up believing that the heroes and heroines of their past were a different kind of people, without the human traits and vulnerabilities which we have, they have been ill served by their “history.” The greater the disparity between myth and event, the greater the potential trauma in confronting the past “as it actually happened.” And the more natural the tendency to respond irrationally. Ancient history tells of a soldier who stumbled into town with the report that he was the only survivor of a great battle; he was killed for bringing the bad news.
To recapitulate: Discriminating between myths and documents is important only to historians unless something important to a larger community depends on it. Then the perils of disillusionment arise, and the charges of debunking.
It need not necessarily be so. We had an interesting and encouraging illustration a few years ago of how a document with important implications for institutional traditions and values can be handled. (The fact that the document later turned out to be fraudulent does not, in my opinion, alter the main point.) In 1981 Mark W. Hofmann “found” what purported to be Thomas Bullock’s copy of a blessing Joseph Smith, Jr., gave to Joseph Smith III, setting him apart for leadership in the church. Both the Utah Mormons and the Reorganized Latter Day Saints had a stake in this discovery. Its initial impact was to confirm the RLDS position while producing perplexity in the Utah church. How should we handle this in view of what we have been taught?
I happened to be present at the press conference in Salt Lake City where the transfer of the document from our people to the RLDS representatives took place. One of the reporters asked what effect it would have. The spokesmen for both churches said in substance, “It will make very little difference.”
That, in fact, is the way it worked out. We Latter-day Saints benefited from the service which one of our younger scholars, D. Michael Quinn, had already rendered in a well-documented article showing that at one time or another, Joseph Smith had considered several alternative ways of handling the succession. The Joseph Smith III blessing document fitted very comfortably into that context of alternatives.6 The issue was handled well because the worth of [p.71] neither church depended on that document, nor did the testimonies of their members.
How well—how righteously—life is lived does not depend on either myths or documents about the past. The myth-making process contributes to the pursuit of righteousness to the extent that it provides ideal models and motivating traditions which are consistent with truth. The historians with their documents contribute to the pursuit of righteousness to the extent that they check the myth-making capability to generate and perpetuate untruths and half-truths and even to sanctify unrighteousness.
Only God knows the past “as it actually happened.” Whether we are myth-makers or myth-shakers, we see history “through a glass darkly.” Properly understood, both myths and documents can assist our quest for that understanding of yesterday which can be helpful in coping with today and making choices for tomorrow.[p.73]
1. The exact quotation, as it appears without source citation in class notes my wife, Gene, and I took when we audited P. A. Christensen’s BYU course on Milton, is: “The fruit of the tree of knowledge always drives man from some Paradise or other; and even the Paradise of fools is not an unpleasant abode while it is habitable.”
4. Dale L. Morgan, “The State of Deseret,” Utah Historical Quarterly 8 (April, July, and Oct. 1940), 2-4:67-155. Most subsequent treatments of this subject have been based on this monograph. It was reprinted in 1987 by the Utah State University Press.
5. Morgan, 34. It does not appear from Morgan or Crawley that the name State of Deseret was used before the makers of the proposed state constitution adopted this name in the state-making events described by Crawley.