Edited by George D. Smith
Unfounded Claims and Impossible Expectations:
A Critique of New Mormon History
David Earle Bohn
[p.227]The writing of history is central to the Latter-day Saint experience. Joseph Smith himself felt keenly the importance of keeping diaries and records and reminded his most intimate colleagues that their assignment to keep the church’s history was by way of commandment. The language within which Latter-day Saints define themselves invokes a historical space defined by concrete events, past, present, and future. They include the Creation and Fall, the death and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth, the apostasy and the restoration of the gospel, the Second Coming, the resurrection, and the final judgment of all humankind. The scriptures are historical texts which chronicle the relationship of God to his earthbound children. Their teachings are often expressed in stories which work within the larger framework of scriptural time, the understanding of which requires readers, aided by the Holy Spirit, to make present the ethical situations of scriptural people.
It is in both the scriptural and non-scriptural histories of the people of God that members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints understand their past and, in so doing, their present and future condition. Again, aided by the Holy Spirit, each generation and each person must re-present the past—that is, make the past [p.228]present for themselves—in order for it to live and to serve as a foundation for and guide to the future; indeed, in order for there to be any future at all.
Because Mormons believe that God participates in the unfolding of historical events and will eventually bring them to an appropriate end, every attempt to undermine the historical authenticity of the foundational events of the Mormon past constitutes an assault on Latter-day Saint self-understanding. Even when done with the best of intentions, efforts to de-literalize or mythologize the historical reality of the concrete occurrences that constitute the Restoration are never merely benign attempts to get this or that detail right. Rather they are nothing less than acts of intellectual violence1 against the believing community.
It is not surprising then that many thoughtful Mormons have raised concerns about the claims of those sometimes referred to as “New Mormon Historians,”2 a group of Mormon3 and non-Mormon historians4 that seems to argue for an essentially naturalistic or secular approach to the Mormon past. In an essay entitled “New Perspectives in Mormon History,” Lawrence Foster provides a useful, if occasionally caustic, summary of the arguments in support of the New Mormon History.5 Foster begins his essay with the contention that sectarian controversies over whether or not the church was divinely restored have distracted historians interested in Mormonism from their principal task: the pursuit of historical truth.6 Foster notes that a few disaffected Mormons and many Fundamentalist Protestant critics have used history as a weapon with which to attack, rather than an aid with which to understand, the prophetic claims of the LDS church. From Foster’s perspective, even “Fawn Brodie’s path-breaking biography” suffers because she spent too much time complaining that her naive Sunday school image of Joseph Smith had not been the full picture.7
At the other end of the spectrum, believing Latter-day Saints are accused of using history as an instrument of indoctrination to elicit the unquestioned acquiescence of its members. According to Foster, the church desires edifying histories, “sanitized, saccharine accounts, treatments, which would best be characterized as ‘propaganda’ by an objective observer.”8 As a result, otherwise “sober Mormon scholars” spend inordinate amounts of time trying to find evidence that Joseph Smith really saw angels. Foster judges these endeav-[p.229]ors as akin to the “debates of medieval scholastics over how many angels could dance on the head of a pin.”9 Foster finds histories written from this point of view to be “deadly dull and pointless.” He asks himself how an otherwise interesting subject matter could be turned into such “pablum.”10 This is why, according to Foster, “traditional” Mormon scholarship is simply a “joke” to professional historians. It has produced little more than an enormous mass of “undigested data with no apparent organizing principle.” He charges that Mormon historians have been unwilling to use theories from other disciplines (presumably the social sciences), have ignored the broader social context, and on the whole remained blind to the rich “complexity,” “social vitality,” and insights of the Mormon experience.11
Foster then lauds what he calls the New Mormon History as a way out of such sectarian squabbling and into the mainstream of American historical writing.12 The approach he advocates pretends simply not to be interested in the religious claims of the Mormon restoration; its focus is instead on the “facts.” In what seems to me to be a clearly pejorative manner, Foster repeatedly contrasts the objective historical accounts produced by secular scholarship against faith-promoting ones; the former are portrayed as standing for maturity, understanding, rigor, and truth, while the latter are seen as inevitably naive, sentimental, one-sided, inaccurate, and mistaken.13
Despite this, Foster fears that the official policy of the Mormon church appears to be moving against the New Mormon History, making the writing of objective accounts of the Mormon past more difficult. He warns that this would be short-sighted and not in the best interests of the church. In his eyes, the type of history authorized by secular historians is preferable, even from the perspective of the church. First, it is believable. It tells the “real” story about “the real people who struggled to create Mormondom” rather than myths about “idealized paragons of virtue.” Furthermore, Foster believes a secularized Mormon history would be compatible with Mormon theology in its naturalistic and materialistic assumptions, and would actually help the church meet constructively the challenges of the future.14
The argument supporting such a New Mormon History is by no means original with Foster. Indeed his article is merely one version of an argument that has been made regularly for over thirty years. This is not to say that New Mormon Historians and their supporters [p.230]such as Leonard J. Arrington, Robert B. Flanders, Thomas G. Alexander, Jan Shipps, Marvin S. Hill, Davis Bitton, Klaus J. Hansen, Melvin T. Smith, D. Michael Quinn, James L. Clayton, Sterling M. McMurrin, Paul M. Edwards, Richard P. Howard, and others agree with Foster on every point. But they do seem to support the general argument for a secular middle ground between the extremes of sectarian history.15 In addition, some New Mormon Historians seem to agree with Foster that the questions addressed in Traditional Mormon History are no longer of genuine interest and that they rest upon an approach that is neither conceptual nor objective but compromised on every side by personal bias and a priori commitments.
According to New Mormon Historians, their call for a middle ground is, among other things, a call for objectivity and neutrality. Leonard Arrington, for example, pleads for an “objective” history that will eschew “the author’s personal feelings and opinions . . . and [the] prejudices of the time.”16 James Clayton celebrates the New Mormon History for its belief that “religious history . . . should be neutral . . . objective . . . and concerned with [the] consequences for . . . accumulations of wisdom.” He sees historians as “objective and scholarly advocates of the truth . . . who respect objectivity more than orthodoxy.”17
The detachment or neutrality called for by apologists for the New Mormon History rests on the assumption of a certain transparency in understanding the past; it demands a presuppositionless or objective vantage point—one above passion and polemic—which, we are told, allows the reality of the past to reappear as it really was, uncolored or undistorted by personal longings and biases. The “sectarian squabbles,” as Foster calls them, that have generally characterized conflicting interpretations of the Mormon past deny the historian such neutral ground. Thus, in calling for a detached, neutral middle ground, New Mormon Historians are really calling for a movement to a “higher ground.” From such heights, they implicitly claim that their versions of the past are objective reconstructions of what actually took place based upon obvious judgments of fact discovered through exhaustive work with the source materials themselves.
The allusion to a higher ground is seductive. But is it a chimera? Can secular historians rightly claim that their approach is truly objective and that their interests and questions reflect a higher [p.231]order of significance than those of believers? Can they legitimately refer to their own accounts as mature, accurate, and insightful as opposed to what Foster among others labels as the “naive, narrow minded, pollyannish” histories written by Mormon historians who take their own religious categories as a theme for the understanding of the Mormon past?18
Such questions must be answered because if the ideals of detachment, neutrality, and objectivity cannot be reached or even approximated, then the kind of distinctions the objectivist historian wants to make between “good history” and “bad history” evaporates and the claim of secular history that its accounts are of a higher order no longer hold. Clearly Foster’s advice to the church on the advantages of “good” history—that is, secular history, presupposes this distinction and depends on its validity.19
Exactly what assumptions are central to this objectivist position? I will treat at least two in this essay: (1) that historians can somehow achieve a detached, neutral state of mind and an objective attitude with regard to the subject matter under investigation; and (2) that the historical record is an independent and objective ground for the verification of properly constituted historical explanations. Clearly, neither assumption can stand up to careful scrutiny. I hope to demonstrate why this is so.
Let us examine what is being claimed in the first assumption. By assuming an objective and neutral posture—an attitude of detachment from the faith and hence a neutrality with no controlling values except a “passion for truth”—it is implied that the historian can gain a true and factual understanding of the past. The claim is literally that in some way historians can escape the biases of their own historical condition and view the past in its truth. Indeed, the assumption here seems to be that from such heights, the past can be apprehended in the truth of its self-evidence without the need for interpretation to constitute or integrate its elements. Such an assertion leaves the most fair-minded person asking, “How is that possible?” Historians necessarily work out their understanding of the past from within history, prejudiced by their own time’s way of constituting the past. Of course, some historians may well disagree with the prevailing way in which the past has been put together by other historians, but every such disagreement will nonetheless be situated within a tradition of discussing how the past ought to be understood, and the provisional [p.232]conclusions reached along the way will necessarily bear the stamp of the very age in which the various points of view were articulated; said differently, every such disagreement will reveal the possible ways the historical scholarship of a given time understood its own activity. Finally, not even “human rationality” is exempted from such temporal limits to stand as an objective ground for the writing of history, for every discussion that discloses the rational and seeks to characterize it reflects a given historical moment’s own particular understanding of what reason is and how it operates.
The personal putting-together of the past, the questions and interests, the methods and procedures of historians may in some limited sense be authentically their own, but they will still be situated within the boundaries of their own time’s way of making sense out of what went on before. For these reasons, the claim that adopting a neutral state of mind leads to “real history” requires that we believe the unbelievable. We must accept the notion that researchers can indeed rise to some higher plane beyond time and place and literally gaze upon a landscape of unchanging historical truths. In fact, historians achieve points of agreement that satisfy almost everyone for a time, only to break down eventually and be abandoned in the face of new arguments which themselves subsequently yield to later consensus. In the course of things, even the meaning of the original questions change as the horizon of the discussion moves on.
For the same reasons, it is not even possible for historians to approximate neutrality and objectivity. While people continuously approximate, few of us would claim that our approximations are objective, that they are working within some absolute universe or describing some deep structures of “reality.” Rather we see them as working within agreed upon universes whose boundaries and standards of measure are defined by conventions which for one reason or another we find useful. If we define, for example, a uniform area and call it a “football field,” and if we agree on a way of dividing it into sections, then we are in a position to approximate distances from various points on the field and invent games to be played within its boundaries. In all of this we realize that our approximations only have validity within the framework of the conventions upon which they are based. Similarly, historians need to acknowledge that instead of approximating objectivity that would necessarily presuppose a fixed standard of measure rooted in a historically unconditioned universe, [p.233]they are only struggling to satisfy the conventions of the tradition of historical scholarship they have accepted or into which they have been socialized.20
Of course, hidden in this objectivist way of thinking are almost always implicit assumptions about universal human nature which is apparently law abiding and can supposedly be abstracted out of human experiences and then used to found the psychological and sociological principles or laws which constitute the social sciences. By drawing upon this conceptual language, the argument then follows, historians can produce objective histories precisely by moving beyond the particularities of cultural and personal prejudice in order to allow the underlying patterns that determine human reality to be seen. But again, are we expected to accept these assertions on the bases of self-evidence alone? How could such a position ever be validated? Clearly, efforts of historians to ground their conceptual language objectively on claims to having discovered a universal methodology, underlying laws, core social structures, or essential human nature fail to own up to the historically situated conventions that make possible and necessarily prejudice their historical accounts. In any case, such universal claims are inadequate and serve surreptitiously to give universal significance to what are otherwise merely our own personal and often arbitrary interpretations.
Finally, in the light of such deterministic language, how could historians ever speak in a defensible way about human freedom and thus also about ethical behavior? New Mormon Historians often criticize church policies and the conduct of the Saints, yet, strangely, naturalistic approaches to historical writing repress or rule out in advance the very possibility of authentic choice and thus responsibility, making legitimate moral and ethical judgments impossible. The problem is complex and touches all aspects of objectivist research. Nevertheless, I have always been struck at how naturalistic history leaves the reader with a rather odd scenario where evil is no one’s fault. Rather, the impersonal socio-biological causes which are said to underlie history become responsible for the ethical failures that we individually and collectively suffer. In a sense, for objectivists, we are all “victims” of history and its causes.
At this point, and no doubt often even with the best of intentions, revisionist historians will redefine what they mean by a neutral and objective attitude. To define oneself as an objective and [p.234]neutral observer is only a way of reaffirming one’s commitment to honest and fair history, to giving a balanced account of things. But if this is all that is meant, then most of us would agree that the issue loses its force. Moreover, we are left to wonder whether the whole discussion of neutrality and objectivity does not boil down to an unwitting form of self-adulation. As a group, there is no clear evidence that New Mormon Historians are any more honest, fair-minded, or balanced in their judgment than those who write traditional accounts.21 For example, while calling for objectivity and neutrality, Foster’s characterization of Traditional Mormon History, which was quoted earlier, is neither “impartial” nor “balanced” but rather tendentious and derisive. What is more, I do not believe historians from any tradition would publicly advocate lopsided, narrow, unfair, or distorted history. Indeed the self-aggrandizing language of neutrality and objectivity may, in the long run, be counter-productive, leaving the reader to wonder whether such terms do not constitute merely a rhetorical device designed to privilege a given historian’s productions, or those one wishes to advance, without having to deal with actual questions of merit.
This leads us back to our earlier conclusion that the critical issue has little to do with appeals for honesty and fair-mindedness but rather with the impossibility of overcoming the very way the ideas, world views, and practices of one’s own time condition in advance the historian’s personal disclosure of the past. Taken together they constitute the preunderstanding or historical prejudice that researchers necessarily bring to the historical record and in so doing undermine any claim to objectivity or neutrality that they might wish to advance. Indeed, I will endeavor to show that it is this very preunderstanding which allows the historical record to have meaning at all. Were reason somehow capable of gazing upon some objective past from a purely neutral vantage point, it would likely apprehend nothing at all.
This brings us to a critical juncture in our study. There is little doubt where writers of Traditional Mormon History stand. They have made no secret that at the most fundamental level their histories have been guided by a belief that Joseph Smith was a prophet of God, that the church was restored by the hand of God and is led by revelation to bring forth the fullness of the gospel of Jesus Christ. Nor have they concealed the fact that in the final moment the validity [p.235]of these foundations will not be established by the convincing use of language, but also—and more decisively—by the witness of the Holy Spirit.
On the other hand, where do writers of the New Mormon History stand? What are the prejudices and preconceptions that pre-condition their writings and frame their conclusions? Peter Novick in That Noble Dream: The “Objectivity Question” and the American Historical Profession argues persuasively that the professional historical establishment resident in the graduate programs of America’s universities is the most obvious and immediate institution which both constitutes and reflects the prevailing norms of acceptable historical research. Here the well-trained historian is portrayed as one who strives to produce a rational and objective version of the past rooted in a naturalistic understanding of human behavior with a strong bent toward some form of environmental explanation, that is an explanation in which the cause of human action is attributed to external circumstances. The last thirty years have seen a growth in the popularity of positivism as expressed in the methods and theories of the social sciences, which have been made to cohabit somehow with a more ingrained historicism.22 The entire orientation seems to be pervaded with the ideology of humanism and at least a faint hope of progress.23 Recently, this professional orthodoxy has been challenged on many fronts and can no longer be said to fully unify American historians, but it seems to remain dominant among New Mormon Historians.24 Though some have striven to distance themselves from its more extreme manifestations, most continue to depend on its vocabulary and fundamental categories to justify their methods and conclusions.
This orthodox view of history embraced by most New Mormon Historians furnishes an overarching framework within which the world is disclosed in largely materialist terms. Its models and procedures are drawn for the most part from the non-human sciences. They include empiricism working within a defining framework of biological and environmental determinism. Presumably, the ultimate goal of this objectivist methodology is to provide causal explanations of human events. In the words of one New Mormon Historian, “It is far past the time when scholars can be satisfied with vague categories and glib generalization. Writers on complex topics like the development of important religious movements must be clear in their [p.236]demonstration of causal connections between events.”25 Sterling M. McMurrin refers to these controlling methodological assumptions as naturalistic humanism with some flavor of positivism; and James L. Clayton asserts that the methodology of the inductive sciences is in principle appropriate for historical inquiry.26
It would seem then that it is simply not possible for historians of whatever tradition to occupy a detached and neutral stance with regard to the subject matter under investigation. The New Mormon History, like any other tradition of inquiry, works within historically defined prejudices which necessarily circumscribe the way in which those histories will be written.
But what of those historians who do have reservations about escaping their own historical condition and achieving neutrality? Could they not legitimately do an about face in order to sustain their objectivist position? Could they not assert that how historians actually come upon their explanations of the past is not important? They might willingly agree that scientists are driven by the same passions and interests as other people. What matters then would not be the attitudes and personal commitments of the researcher, but rather whether the historical explanations they proffer can be confirmed or disconfirmed. Do they correspond to the objective facts of history? Do they hold up against the evidence, against the facts? For this approach, it is in the possibility of confirming one’s account against the hard facts that make up the historical record itself that the validity of the historian’s claim to objectivity resides.
This position relates to the second basic assumption central to objectivist history presented earlier: the historical record itself is an independent and objective ground against which properly constituted historical explanations can be tested and perhaps verified. When secular historians are challenged, they make ready reference to “the record” and the “facts,” to the “evidence,” the “sources,” and the “documents.” The implication is that historians are simply letting the “facts speak for themselves” or that any rational individual could hardly infer different conclusions from the “evidence.” Foster furnishes an excellent example. “The Mormon past,” he writes, “came even more vividly alive as I began to work closely in the printed and manuscript records.” These brought to mind the “real men and women” of the Mormon past.28 We are left to conclude that if we could only get to the facts, the objective truth of the matter would be clear and [p.237]apparent. This is what Foster believes the New Mormon History is doing—getting to the facts which, according to Sterling M. McMurrin, are precisely what faithful members of the church and their leaders do not want to face.29
Nevertheless, the thoughtful person would be well advised to examine these claims more closely. It is not at all clear that it is possible to verify historical accounts objectively against historical evidence or the historical record. The point certainly should not be conceded on the basis of self-evidence. What is a fact? How does mere information rise to the status of a fact? What is the relationship between historians and the facts which supposedly confirm their accounts of the past? Do historians have unmediated access to the facts? If not, what kind of access do they have?
To better understand the discussion about the “factual” claims historians can make, it is important to get one thing clear: the past is not really like a picture that can be approximated if one just has enough information, or a puzzle the pieces of which can be assembled presumably on the basis of perception alone. This is because, strangely enough, the meaning of a “picture” is not self-evident but can only be worked out if one already understands its components. For example, when it is pointed out to students both through discussion and reading what a diesel injector is, they can readily recognize one in a photograph. Otherwise such a photo would seem strange, and its content only recognizable as some kind of gadget based on some prior understanding of gadgetry. But in turn the meaning of gadgetry is not self-evident. It would likewise rest on previous discussions or reading about mechanical devices or instruments, and so on. This is why the meaning of visual objects in the historical record cannot simply be “pictured.” Such meaning is not objectively manifest. Rather it is arrived at through interpretation that is always led by some kind of preunderstanding. In a sense, visual objects, like a text, are “read” and “interpreted.” But the issue is more complex.
Human history is itself not really about visual objects. Instead it is an accounting of human activity, intentional and historical, rooted in our common possibility for language—that is for shared meaning. The past never appears as merely a fixed or static “picture” but is disclosed through the mediation of historical interpretation as a rich and ever-changing complexity of human interactions arising out of this sharing of meaning and the way of life in which it is [p.238]embedded.30 Thus human possibilities—inherent in the indeterminateness of language and the common world it discloses—can be encountered only through interpretation. Properly worked out, such accountings reveal the ambiguity of human being, an ambiguity concealed by objectivist approaches that work within the visual metaphor of objects, a terminology more appropriate to the non-human sciences.
Returning to the role of “facts” in writing historical accounts, most historians would point out that “facts” themselves are contained in the historical record, which is the mass of inherited information that historians draw upon to write their histories. The record consists of a variety of artifacts all of which can be read and interpreted as texts or as text analogues. The obvious but critically important aspect which all these diverse texts and text analogues have in common is that they happened to have survived.
The problem is that although the textual record is the historian’s only avenue of access to the past, the meaning of the specific documents it contains cannot be said to be objective characterizations of the time in which they were produced; rather they represent the opinions, beliefs, and ideas of those who wrote them. Furthermore, the textual record will always be incomplete, never containing more than fragments and traces from the past whose accuracy can never be fully verified. Nor can the historian always depend on the record being a representative sample of what occurred in the past. For this reason scholars frequently lament that the data they need simply were not recorded or that what was recorded seems irrelevant to their research. In the end, the historian fleshes out an account of the past from conjecture of what an imaginary textual record—somehow objectively complete and fully accurate—might have contained.
But obviously our ability to disclose the past is not limited solely by the fragmentary and temporal makeup of the textual record. It is also mediated by the very character of language and the understanding it bears. Language is much more than a set of empirically stipulated definitions. It is in our common possibility for language that we as human beings are able to collectively disclose and share a “world.” It is in language that we are able to participate in a tradition of understanding and a given way of life.31 Thus language is not merely the medium in which understanding is transmitted; it is the [p.239]very way in which people arrive at meaning, coordinate a shared way of life, and disclose a common world. Furthermore, in the same way that people in their individual and collective activity are not fixed, static, or inert but are ever-changing in how they disclose the “world” and work out their lives within it, so too is language always in transformation, since language and the understanding it brokers are the very means of that change, are the very foundation of the future. But as Martin Heidegger has shown, language renders possible the future by preserving the past. It is in language—in its very structure and content—that the understanding of one historical moment is passed on to the next; it is in the collective remembering—the very being of language—that culture is possible. Every movement of language toward the future is by way of the past.
Since language is historical and always underway, since it is at one with the changes in the way of life and culture in which it is practiced, the meaning it bears necessarily changes. Even the formal meaning of words and statements becomes more and more ambiguous and indefinite as the world of the text—the way of life and the language within which a text was produced—becomes increasingly remote from the world of the historian who endeavors to interpret the text. Clearly, students of history can come to the language of the text only from across the horizon of their own time, pregnant with its own meanings, proffering its own way of life, and prejudiced by all that is understood to have happened in between. But at the same time we must keep in mind that the language practices we have inherited are themselves historical; our way of using language is constituted by the ways of using language which preceded it, and therefore we can in some measure read and understand texts authored at earlier points. We can begin to share in the understandings worked out in different historical moments, but never in the same way. We can never approach it from within their world. Making the meaning of the texts present always involves interpretation; it always involves getting clear on what the texts can mean for us, fusing their horizon to ours. The historical record does not interpret itself: it is the reader who explores the possible meanings of the texts, who interprets the text from within the language of his or her own time. Hence history is necessarily in part a discovery and in part an invention or creation.
Since interpretation always works within a linguistic horizon, [p.240]even the most elementary ordering principles prejudice or structure in advance our access to the meaning of the historical record and define the field of study. For example, to order their materials historians will define the contents of the record vertically according to time and horizontally according to topic. In so doing, the mass of data is altered as researchers draw together into a whole, bits and pieces which otherwise seem only accidentally connected.32 Few historians want to stop simply at doing chronology or archiving information. Most would affirm that to write history is to tell a story and give explanations of events. As they begin to craft their story, the very questions they ask and tools they use will in part determine what kind of past will get disclosed through their writings. As they introduce or accept an already existent chronology as well as cross-cutting categories of psychology, economy, politics, religion, culture, etc., and the related theories that map out those categories, the historian becomes more and more the creator of the past which will be remembered and not the midwife who lets the “facts” tell their own story.
In making this point, I wish in no way to demean historical scholarship. Quite the contrary. It seems to me that when historians deny the artistic character of their endeavor, when they work out their accounts in the indifferent, insensitive, and indeed inhuman and determinate terms of scientific discourse, they hide the genius, imagination, and inventiveness that constitutes the substance of the best historical narratives. It is no embarrassment that the vitality and spontaneity of human activity does not give itself without disfigurement and deformation to the necessarily rigid and programmatic vocabularies of the natural sciences but rather comes to life within the creative play of spirit and language. We must remember that art tells its truth too, but in a different way, speaking with a kind of richness denied to the pedantic: it discloses us as living, creative, and above all ethical beings. This is not to say that the historian can do whatever he or she pleases. The elements of texts do have a structure whose possible meanings will be worked out in one way or another within the interpretive horizon of the historian; but that is the point, the working out of these meanings can never be an objective enterprise.
In any case, every story requires a setting. Historians make theirs plausible by drawing on widely accepted prejudices about [p.241]”human nature” and stereotypes of given historical periods such as the “Renaissance,” the “Age of Discovery,” “Western Americana,” etc. This setting or context is rarely more than a ready-made backdrop to orient the reader to time and place and allow the writer to then sketch in the immediate background and flow of events. This done, historians must produce a script that relates the setting and events to the major and minor historical characters who will people the story. This is no small task. The writer must decide who will be heroes and who will be villains, who will appear and who will simply be lost like faceless props in the multitude. The characterization of the principals, of how they influence each other and affect the outcome of events, and the creation of a seamless narrative that can combine all of these elements into a plausible drama, challenges even the most skilled and creative authors.
Critical to the art of historical composition as described above is what Paul Ricoeur calls “emplotment.”33 The historian introduces a plot in order to give structure to historical narrative, to weave all the fragments drawn from the historical record together into a plausible and interesting story. The plot itself is a quasi-causal model which seeks to define and connect the elements (the so-called “facts”) that make up the story-line, bringing them to some kind of climax or conclusion.34 Simply understood, the plot functions as a kind of explanatory theory that links the parts of a story into a unity by defining how things happen and why people act as they do.
In the case of Mormon history, this involves weaving the disparate elements of what is understood to make up the Mormon textual record into a whole with regard to a given question. Historians must decide what is important and interesting. They must posit the “how” and the “why” of the past. They may raise such questions as: Why were the early Saints driven out of Missouri? Why did they adopt the practice of polygamy? How did Mormons come to believe in temples and associated ceremonies? Why did people join the LDS church in such large numbers in Great Britain? Why did persecution act to increase the fervor of many of the Saints? To answer these questions, secular scholars go beyond establishing events and dates and offer explanations. This requires the positing of a theory whose function it is to emplot the story and thus guide the interpretation of the text and organize its content. The theory assists the historian in deciding on and sorting out the relevant “facts” and fitting them [p.242]together into a coherent response or conclusion. To understand how all of this is done requires that we explore in greater detail the relationship between “fact” and theory.
Most historians seem to use the word “fact” in at least two different ways without necessarily being consistent in what they mean. First, it is often used as a synonym for phenomena: “facts” are simply undifferentiated sensuous representations that appear to the conscious mind such as color, shape, and sequence. “Facts” understood as phenomena would supposedly require no interpretation to be encountered but would simply be there. But as mere phenomena, “facts” would have no meaning, no identity. For example, a house would appear as merely a dimensional entity occupying time and space in the broader matrix of a person’s consciousness. Only in the measure that it is noticed and interpreted within the categories of understanding of a given historical moment does it acquire identity and get apprehended in its function as a shelter. Clearly, were it actually possible to encounter pure and unmediated phenomena, one would be about as close as imaginable to “true objectivity”–that is, the uninterpreted “facts”–but it is equally true that such objectivity would be vacuous. Without identity or meaning, such “facts” could never constitute a sufficient ground for the validation of truth claims.
Secular historians also use the word “fact” as a synonym for evidence–that which can prove or disprove a conjecture. But obviously not all “facts” understood as phenomena would be evidence. One need only think of the infinite and bewildering kaleidoscope of undifferentiated phenomena present in any historical moment to realize that only some would be legitimately considered evidence with regard to a given question. While still at least in one sense “facts,” the remaining information would be defined as accidentally co-present. In short, the historian must decide which “facts” will count as evidence and which will not.
Karl Popper has shown that it is the theory one has chosen that determines which “facts” (phenomena) constitute the evidence and which do not.35 “Facts” cannot be understood as a category of evidence until some hypothesized account has been posited, until some plot has been proposed. Obviously only those “facts” which are defined as relevant to this hypothesized account count as evidence. But since this distinction is achieved only by processing (interpreting or identifying) the “facts,” they acquire the status of evidence only at [p.243]the cost of losing their objective or phenomenal character. In sum, phenomena may or may not appear involuntarily to the conscious mind, but evidence does not; it is defined by theory and validated by argument. And of course without a theory, without a plot, without some idea of how to connect things together—that is, without a ground for interpreting the text—we would be hard pressed to make much sense at all out of the historical record.
For example, in seeking to give the how and why of Joseph Smith’s prophetic claims, one might theorize that he was an epileptic and that his visions were the inevitable hallucinatory properties of his seizures. Such a theory would establish in advance that information relevant to seizures, as they are currently understood, constitutes the factual evidence on this subject. The researcher, eager to advance such an explanation, would then sift through the record for data that can be made to support his hypothesis. Other information (“facts”) in the record would recede into the background. Were one to assert that Joseph Smith’s visions were caused by delusions of grandeur arising from basic psychological disorders, the information relating to epilepsy would become irrelevant while the writer pieces together whatever in Joseph Smith’s background might lend itself to such a psychological approach. There is no end to the theories that could be invented to emplot Joseph’s story, to specify relevant “facts” and connect them together into a supposedly “true” and “real” account of his life. Each attempt would put into motion a new examination of the record specifying a search for different “facts” and arriving at different conclusions.
But theory does more than furnish explanations, identify what will count as evidence, and define criteria and standards of measure. It determines how to interpret the text appropriately, how to divide the record into periods, and how to develop categories for collecting and organizing information. Again, in so doing, theory will be used to distinguish the interesting and relevant from the unimportant and trivial. Finally, these various aspects of historical composition are not distinct, individual, and sequential; rather they are interdefining, interconnected, and circular. Thus even the most elementary ordering or interpreting of information, indeed, even the initial questions asked by the historian, will necessarily work within some kind of background theory or pre-understanding.
The way in which theory integrates the various aspects of [p.244]historical research into a whole can be seen in how Marxist historians interpret the language and periodize the content of the historical record differently than economic liberals. Drawing from the theory of dialectical materialism, Marxists use such categories as class, repression, revolution, mode of production, forces of production, capital, surplus value, and alienation to select from the record those “facts” which they see as important and believe stand as evidence in support of their way of disclosing the past. In the same way, so-called multi-culturalists are calling for the radical rewriting of the story of America and its peoples. Moving from widely differing premises, Americans of diverse racial and cultural backgrounds re-script the story with different plots, peopled by new casts of characters, and defined by a distinctive re-structuring of events. These divergent historical narratives arrive at conclusions that vary greatly from the academic accounts which orthodox professional historians are accustomed to writing.
For the most part, the theories used to emplot and organize historical accounts are not necessarily found anywhere in the textual record. They are rarely a part of the thinking or the explanations that the people under investigation gave of themselves or of their time. They are usually foreign elements, situated in the historians’ own historical horizon, introduced by them to coordinate and give direction to their story of the past. And is not that the point? Theories reflect the horizon of understanding of a given circle of historians and the interpretive tradition in which they stand, situated as it is in their time’s way of making sense out of the past.
Then too it is ironic how theories borrowed from other disciplines, few of which can lay claim to much predictability and none of which can adequately explain the phenomena of the present, always appear to fit so much better when applied to the past. For example, the usefulness of Freudian psychoanalysis is disputed in contemporary philosophy and psychology. A significant segment of the psychological profession rejects it outright. Yet for some historians it is an important source of insight for understanding Joseph Smith and his prophetic claims. More alarming is the fact that while a modern psychoanalyst may cautiously venture a reconstruction of what psychoanalytic theory defines as a patient’s personality only after months of intimate consultation, a psychohistorian with almost no such information and across more than a [p.245]hundred and fifty years tries to make transparent Joseph Smith’s underlying motivations.
Finally the whole enterprise is subject to the caprice of fashion. Theories that once invoked great authority are abandoned and given the most derisive treatment by a later generation, only to be revived under new garb to widespread popularity by a subsequent age. And somehow each historical epoch tends to believe its understanding of the past (or at least its categories) to be consummate, so much so that the image projected by these categories appears as reality, the “truth” of what happened, the world as it “really” is. The categories themselves almost fade from view because of their very familiarity; the structure they have produced seems merely to be common sense and self-evident “reality,” very much like a person used to wearing glasses who forgets that the vision she has of the world is the result of the curvature of the lenses.
For all the above reasons, the second argument on behalf of objective history, like the first, cannot hold. Historians inescapably face the necessarily circular character of historical understanding; no matter at what level they find themselves in their research, the textual record only acquires additional meaning by the further imposition of the historian’s categories and criteria which are necessarily external to the supposed phenomena themselves. Clearly, then, the facts—the uninterpreted textual record—cannot stand apart from the enterprise of interpretation and explanation as an objective standard against which our understanding of the past can be verified. Indeed, there are no unmediated facts; a fact becomes evidence only if one accepts the theoretical framework which confers the status of evidence upon what is otherwise merely undifferentiated data that happen to have been preserved and would otherwise go unnoticed.
This brings the discussion full circle, for the theoretical framework of historians is not arrived at in a vacuum. Their questions, interests, categories, ordering principles, values, and commitments are situated within the medium of their own time’s way of understanding the past. In the case of the New Mormon History, this means an objectivist tradition. For these reasons, secular historical scholarship cannot use neutrality and objectivity as a ground for claiming that its accounts are better or have higher standing. In a very real sense such historians have already come to their conclusion [p.246]about the meaning of the textual record—of the facts—before having consulted them and all pretense to objectivity and neutrality is delusory. However, it is precisely this claim that is continually rearticulated both implicitly and explicitly to legitimate the objectivist and naturalistic accounts of the New Mormon History, and with it the equally unjustified impression that now, finally, progress is being made in the telling of the Mormon story.
This may account for the surprising degree of prejudice and disdain that secularized historians exhibit against traditional accounts, for to make progress and to advance in one’s career, the professional historian must necessarily challenge established historical interpretations. This prejudice deteriorates into retrograde debunking when faced with religious histories not based on the secular historian’s objectivist assumptions. Authentic religious history is quickly dismissed as myth, as the revisionist writer rescripts its content in the language of naturalistic explanation. In all of this, there is a strange fascination with the “new” as opposed to the traditional, and a tendency to exaggerate the importance of recently discovered material against a preponderance of “evidence” in the established record; thus a line in a letter here, or a rumor written down there, become the justification for a radical revision of traditional accounts. And when there are no documents, it is sufficient to invoke strange theories and bizarre conjectures to fill in the cracks.36 In view of this, it is not altogether surprising that many New Mormon Historians were taken in by the Mark Hofmann forgeries. Hofmann knew how to invent the kind of documents such historians longed to find in order to flesh out their peculiar speculations about Mormon origins. So strong was their conviction of the authenticity of the Salamander letter and other counterfeit documents that the prosecution in the Hofmann case found it difficult to persuade these historians to “give up their attachment to the Hofmann forgeries,” despite all the forensic evidence.37
In any case, it is this audience of professional historians who share the same kind of training and prejudice about historical understanding that writers of revisionist Mormon history have in mind when they craft their stories about the Mormon past. This, of course, can create difficulties for believing historians who write about Mormon things in secular terms. By applying the methods, using the theories and language, and appealing to the standards and criteria of [p.247]naturalistic history, these historians may be able to meet the expectations of prevailing fashion found in certain academic circles. Nevertheless, they will find themselves ill equipped to write meaningfully about those most fundamental aspects of the Mormon past to which they are committed. This is because the language of the profane in which secular historiography is written represses that which is sacred; it cannot open up a space for a genuine discussion of that which is holy—it has no vocabulary for authentic spiritual experience and no words for the genuinely divine.38
The word profane itself means before [outside] the temple. Here, the temple is understood as the link between Heaven and Earth, the hallowed ground where God is present to and communicates with humankind. Otherwise, no matter how exquisite its design, it remains merely a building. The thick walls of the temple constitute an opaque boundary that excludes the unholy from God’s presence. To be outside the temple is not to have access to that which is most sacred. From the outside, then, the temple is just a building and that which is most essential to its meaning cannot be encountered.
This imagery gives insight into why secular or profane language can only represent the sacred—the temple—from the outside and as something merely human, something only to be understood in the impoverished terms of psychological discourse. For believers who have felt the presence of the sacred in their lives, arguments which claim that in order to get clear on things spiritual we must implement a naturalistic language that denies the very possibility of the spiritual seem strange and unreasonable. Certainly with regard to religious histories, it is difficult to understand how naturalistic accounts that repress or qualify all information of a genuinely spiritual character could claim to be more informative and complete than believing ones.
All this leads one to wonder how Foster could ever gain an understanding of the “real men and women” of the Mormon past, how he could ever hope to get clear on a movement that was integrated in every respect by the spiritual, with a language steeped in the secular? In saying this, I have no desire to argue in behalf of narrow-mindedness. To the contrary, in a very real sense a believing Mormon can better grasp what is at work in the religious life of Catholics, Protestants, Jews, and non-Christian believers than those not open to the sacred. A non-believing account inevitably exhibits a certain hol-[p.248]lowness which comes from its repression of the divine, its reduction of spiritual life to a kind of deviant form of psychological behavior.
In light of the foregoing discussion, the New Mormon Historian’s criticism of Traditional Mormon History can be misleading. When New Mormon Historians criticize the Traditional Mormon Historian for not being conceptual or willing to use or depend on ordering principles from other disciplines, they show a lack of understanding of the larger question. Indeed traditionalists do use concepts to order their accounts of the Mormon past, for it is impossible not to do so. What I believe New Mormon Historians really object to is that traditional accounts do not use naturalistic concepts authorized by the world view currently in fashion among revisionist historians.
Clearly it is not simply a question of New Mormon Historians who presumably want to get to the “facts” and let them speak for themselves and Traditional Mormon Historians who want to manipulate the “facts” for their own religious ends. Psychological, sociological, and economic explanations of visions, texts (such as the Book of Mormon, the Pearl of Great Price, or the Doctrine and Covenants), and practices (such as temple work) do not constitute a neutral or objective way of getting to the bottom of things. The language underlying such theories is repressive. Subtly and sometimes not so subtly it denies a priori that the foregoing could authentically involve revelation and the divine and imposes its own explanation. And it is precisely because these theories are not objective or neutral and cannot deal authentically with the sacred that traditionalists have every right to take issue with the way such theories structure the Mormon past. Traditional Mormon Historians have every right to reject the unsubstantiated but still implicit claim that revisionist accounts are necessarily more interesting, significant, and true.
New Mormon Historians might well respond that no reputable historian believes it is possible to be objective and therefore the arguments I have made are directed at straw people. Perhaps, but aside from routine disclaimers about how perfect objectivity is unattainable, most revisionist historians continue to write as if they were barely aware there is a problem. Others admit that objectivity is not fully possible but continue to offer it as a worthy ideal that can be approximated. Even those who refuse to take a position still use [p.249]methods, evolve categories, and develop explanations that presuppose some notion of objectivity. In addition, objectivist vocabulary is ubiquitous, lending a false sense of legitimacy and rigor to historical accounts.
If Foster and other New Mormon Historians do really reject the objectivist tradition, then it seems incumbent upon them to provide a clear justification of the methodology and related criteria they use. It is simply not enough to satisfy oneself with recognizing the limits and bias inherent in naturalistic explanation and then continue on as if there were none. The willingness of secular historians to admit discomfort with the logical implications of their methodology does not constitute of itself a clarification of or a remedy for its untenable ground. It is not enough to say that one is only trying to approximate objectivity when it is clear that objectivity and neutrality cannot be approximated. It is not enough to redefine objectivity as an effort to be fair, high-minded, and honest—all undeniably laudable qualities—but not ones which New Mormon Historians hold in any greater measure than Traditional Mormon Historians. In the end, all such efforts to parry criticism act to shroud the repressive character of naturalistic explanation and conceal the subjective nature of its accounts.
Since revisionist histories cannot justify themselves as being more objectively true than Traditional Mormon accounts, what does distinguish them from the latter? They cannot be said to be making “progress” by giving us the real picture of the Mormon past, since such a claim would require an unequivocal standard that is being progressively realized—which is precisely what is lacking. Rather the critical difference is that openly and without shame, Traditional Mormon History works out its accounts within a horizon of belief. This honest and straightforward approach does not hide its commitments or highest concern. At its best, Traditional Mormon History is a faithful history that seeks to authentically re-present our common past, our inheritance, to fuse the horizon of believing past and believing present. Traditional Mormon History is a history worked out within and for the believing community. Its central theme is the restoration of the gospel of Jesus Christ, the mission of the LDS church in the present dispensation of time, and God’s power to unfold his purpose on earth. It is distinguished by the priority it gives to the sacred and the implementation of a language which can frame [p.250]our common past in terms that take into account the spiritual. It recovers that which has been forgotten or repressed by secular discourse and displaces the “violence” done by vocabularies that disbelieve. In a very genuine way, the language of Traditional Mormon History resonates with the same meaning as that of the early Saints: it operates within the same tradition and is true to the same kinds of values and expectations, albeit made present along a later historical horizon.
Of course actual accounts of Mormon history written within the community of belief will necessarily vary in their merit and purpose. Obviously, this essay was not written to defend everything and anything that claims to be a believing account, only the possibility of high quality history soundly worked out within categories true to the faith. Nor do I wish to advance a narrow and limited perspective. Certainly believing histories will stress many different themes. At numerous junctures there will be relatively few areas of difference between a Traditional Mormon History and its revisionist counterpart; at other points they will diverge significantly. But as already noted, the decisive factor is that Traditional Mormon History is motivated by the community of belief which faithful Mormons share. It will necessarily work within an understanding animated by individual and collective encounters with the Holy Spirit. Indeed, for the faithful, an account of their past worked out from within some other framework would be a story robbed of its substance. Such a past would appear as something pointless, distant, and trivial, an alien production worked out within the hostile language of secular historiography.
At this point, thoughtful readers are probably wondering how apologists for the New Mormon History have responded to such assessments. Candidly speaking, none have remedied its methodological weaknesses or rehabilitated its claims. Even more disturbing is the defensiveness and general lack of openness to the discussion itself. For example, Malcolm Thorp’s essay entitled “Some Reflections on New Mormon History” summarizes much of the reaction of New Mormon Historians to their critics.39 On the whole Thorp, a historian specializing in British studies at Brigham Young University, concedes as correct the majority of criticisms made of the New Mormon History. But he then seeks to trivialize these admissions in order to reassert—without arguments—a weaker ver-[p.251]sion of the same objectivist claim.
Thorp’s efforts involve what we might call the archival fallacy. With more than a little disdain, he asserts that criticisms of the New Mormon History are uninformed because they are made by non-historians who have never done archival research and therefore cannot understand how the reading of the record flows more or less unproblematically from the documents themselves. In support, he cites Kellner who contends “most [historians] will assert that the guarantee of adequacy of the historical account is found in the sources. If the sources are available, scrupulously and comprehensively examined according to the rules of evidence, and compiled in good faith by a reasonably mature professional, the resulting work will more or less `image’ reality.”40
From here Thorp insists that the New Mormon History arose from the availability of new sources which naturally produced new and apparently “stronger” interpretations of the Mormon past.41 He scrupulously avoids using the term “objectivity” and interjects disclaimers along the way. Nonetheless, even a casual reader will see that Thorp reinserts the claim to an objective reading where the documents themselves determine the interpretation—that is, where the “facts” speak for themselves. To do this, he minimizes the role the historian plays in scripting historical accounts, a role we have already explored in this essay, arguments which Thorp himself concedes to be correct. Paradoxically, in asserting the autonomy of the texts he also places himself at odds with other New Mormon Historians, such as Foster, who laud the New Mormon History for modeling the Mormon past according to the naturalistic theories and concepts of the social sciences.
Dominique LaCapra, a historian at Cornell University, calls this kind of approach the “documentary model” that makes a “fetish of archival research” and relies on a relatively mundane and uninformed sort of “Quellenkritik” to get at the meaning of the documents. He finds that this obsession with documents fosters an insider mentality which LaCapra calls, “l’esprit de cénacle,” a kind of clannishness that resists rigorous criticism and is satisfied with a narrow “cracker-barrel” logic for interpreting the intertextuality of the record.42 Then LaCapra cites H. Stuart Hughes, who sees in all of this a “primitive positivism” unaware of how “new readings” [his italics] and not just new sources account for new interpretations.43
[p.252]LaCapra does not wish to deny the value of archival research nor the practical skills necessary to conduct it. Rather the intention is to bring into view the controlling assumptions that lead to an unjustified privileging of historical accounts on the basis of having served time in the archive. He also wants to surface clearly the “objectivist model of knowledge”44 implicit in this archival fetish and expose how it conceals the degree to which the meaning of the text is always worked out within an interpretive horizon that the historian brings to the archive.
Despite Thorp’s contentions about the autonomy of the documents in determining interpretations, historians do come to the archive with certain research interests and questions, with an array of concepts and theories, and with methodological commitments and professional practices that guide in advance which documents they will choose and how they will interpret them. And it is in the light of these same prejudices that interpretations will be judged as either strong or weak. This does not mean that historians never change their mind about the meaning of sources, but most adjustments are minor and work within the historian’s existing framework of reference. When fundamental shifts in understanding do occur, they are more likely to result from extensive philosophical or methodological discussions than some enlightening archival experience with a new document.
Simply put, Thorp’s attempt to rehabilitate the New Mormon History’s objectivist claim fails to show that archival research with its controlling methodology and references to some new document can actually “image” reality or produce necessarily “stronger” accounts than those advanced by Traditional Mormon Historians. But there is another point to be made. Has Thorp done anything more than obliquely assert that New Mormon Historians are masters of the archive? Indeed, has Thorp shown that the best traditionalist Mormon historians do not use archives well, read and process texts in a scrupulous manner, and demonstrate mature judgment and good will in arriving at their conclusions? And certainly, in the measure that the best traditionalists do demonstrate archival competence, then the difference between believing histories and secular ones cannot be reduced to the documents themselves; rather it must be the function of a difference in interpretive horizon.
[p.253]There is a second, more troubling aspect to Thorp’s essay. He insists that accounts of the Mormon past put together in terms that take religious claims seriously would necessarily be narrow and confining, indeed illiberal. He quickly demotes discourse involving the sacred to a radically restrictive and private kind of language, a sort of closed system, which in his view “denies all possibility of rational discussion.”45 His assertion seems to imply that languages of belief are necessarily irrational, belonging to the realm of sentiment rather than reason. In asserting such a position, Thorp necessarily reserves reason to secular discursive practices alone, thus privileging the methodology of the New Mormon History.
Of course, such a narrow, “logocentric,” or “dichotomous” view of rationality would deny much of the richest scholarship found in the traditions of both East and West where rational discourse worked out its arguments from within a horizon of belief. It would deny rationality to the prophets of Israel and the Rabbinic tradition in their efforts to get clear on the meaning of the Word; to much of what constitutes the history of philosophy; indeed to our own Mormon tradition in which we are enjoined to seek wisdom through both Spirit and Reason.
Clearly, Latter-day Saints understand rational discourse in a much broader way. They are willing to explore all modes of discourse, even those that are blind to spiritual things in order to get clear on their past; but they realize that all “worldly” ways of understanding work within limits and are thus insufficient. Indeed, language left to its own devices comes to no final conclusion and the plenitude of reason is obtained only in a space opened up by the Holy Spirit. The horizon of understanding of believers is made richer not poorer by their openness to the sacred.
As previously argued, it was within the language of the sacred and its categories of faith that both early and contemporary Latter-day Saints have disclosed a world of common meaning and action. How incongruent and futile it would be to try to fuse horizons with that world, to interpret its documents and to write its histories in purely secular and naturalistic terms. How could such histories, systematically closed as they inevitably would be to the genuine possibility of the sacred, escape doing enormous violence to the meaning of the texts and to the very world they seek to disclose? This is why such naturalistic accounts are properly understood as repressive and [p.254]hostile. It is for this reason that thoughtful members of the church will turn to more authentic histories written in a language that is open to the sacred and sympathetic to belief.
The archival fallacy and Thorp’s unsatisfying portrayal of reason and its relationship to spiritual things are not the only problems. The essay is also troubled by a general lack of arguments, moving as it does from assertion to assertion. It attributes a wholly private meaning to critical terms such as “naturalistic.” It misunderstands Gadamer, making him support an “ecumenical”—that is objectivist position—that he spent his life combatting. It denigrates Derridean deconstruction by improperly portraying it as some sinister threat to the church. And finally, rather than dealing straightforwardly with the arguments themselves, it resorts to portraying New Mormon Historians as innocent victims who have been laid low by malevolent critics. It is painful to probe these and other weaknesses apparent in the efforts of the New Mormon History to deal with fundamental questions of methodology. Nevertheless, it is necessary since these apologists display the same inclination that according to Hayden V. White characterizes orthodox historians everywhere: “a resistance throughout the entire profession to almost any kind of critical self-analysis.”46
Peter Novick shows why by rightly pointing out that the crucial questions of methodology—in this case the objectivity question—fall into the domain of philosophy, not history. Since most historians are not trained in philosophy, and the history profession does not monitor such discussion with much rigor, the quality of the methodological debate often suffers.47 But more than this, Novick argues that orthodox professionals have reacted strongly against critics of historical objectivism because it involves far more than just “a philosophical question. It is an enormously charged emotional issue: one in which the stakes are very high, much higher than in any dispute over substantive interpretations. For many, what has been at issue is nothing less than the meaning of the venture to which they have devoted their lives, and thus, to a very considerable extent, the meaning of their own lives.”48 How much more distressing the problem must be for believing New Mormon Historians who willingly use secular modes of discourse to please professional referents and yet somehow must integrate that understanding with more fundamental commitments of faith. To assuage those feelings Thorp’s essay [p.255]tries to redefine the Mormon community as one in which people can believe anything because Mormonism itself has no central tenets and no binding content.49
This leads us to the final and central issue: on what grounds can New Mormon Historians claim that their accounts are inherently superior and of greater relevance than accounts worked out from within categories that assume faith? What reasons can they advance to support the contention that their histories raise the right questions—the important questions—about the Mormon past, and that their methods allow them to provide “real” answers to those questions, thereby bringing New Mormon Historians closer to the “real human beings” who lived the Mormon experience? Can the New Mormon History actually justify the claim that somehow its plots are intrinsically more interesting and salient and should serve as a model for the rewriting of the history of the Mormon past?
As I have endeavored to show, New Mormon Historians have provided few arguments that speak convincingly to the question.50 In any case, I think that all would admit that simply because objectivist history and positivist methodology have been fashionable among American historians, it does not seem to get to the heart of the problem. As noted earlier, and as we are seeing now in the present debate, history itself records that what is fashionable in one generation can fall out of fashion in the next. Nor should we be talked too quickly into believing that Mormon historians must use secular language in order to bring their secular counterparts to an understanding of Mormonism and its past. It seems obvious that if scholars do not come to understand us in our own terms, they will probably never come to understand us at all. In addition, one does not have to abandon one’s beliefs to genuinely understand and occasionally find useful positions advanced by those of a more secular vein. But, if popularity and acceptance or professional advancement and recognition comprise the fundamental justification for revising the way we put together our past, then I think that sincere New Mormon Historians would join in declaring, “Who cares?”
Whatever the case, there is a real danger to writers operating within the community of belief. The danger is not that secular approaches to the past will somehow disestablish the truth claims of the Mormon restoration. Rather, it is that the challenge of secular historiography will distract them from their central concerns. Indeed, [p.256]if Traditional Mormon Historians allow secular historians to set the agenda, to define what questions are relevant and what information is salient, if as a community we turn our attention away from the Restoration as the organizing principle of our self-understanding, we will end up defending our terrain with their language and trying to justify our beliefs by satisfying their standards and meeting their criteria. By doing so we assume a burden of proof which should be legitimately theirs. Indeed, it is for them to show that the traditional and accepted language used in telling the Mormon past should be discarded. They should give reasons satisfying to us why our understanding the Mormon past should undergo a wholesale revision and be retold in a naturalistic language.
Until that time Mormon historians should strive to produce an intelligent and carefully researched account of our common past: one of high quality that is safeguarded by honest efforts to meet demanding internal standards of excellence—certainly one subject to sincere and constructive criticism—but above all one centered by the interests and concerns of believing Mormons as they seek to better understand the unfolding of the Restoration.
DAVID EARLE BOHN is professor of political science at Brigham Young University in Provo, Utah. “Unfounded Claims and Impossible Expectations: A Critique of New Mormon History” is a revised and expanded revision of “No Higher Ground,” Sunstone 8 (May-June 1983): 26-32; “The Burden of Proof,” Sunstone 10 (June 1985): 2-3; “Our Own Agenda,” Sunstone 14 (June 1990): 45-49.
2. The first real use of the label “New Mormon History” was by Robert B. Flanders, a historian of the Reorganized Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints. See his “Some Reflections on the New Mormon History,” Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought 9 (Spring 1974): 34-41, reprinted in this volume.
3. This “new history” has been promoted by a number of prominent RLDS historians. See, for example, Paul M. Edwards, “The New Mormon History,” Saints’ Herald 133 (Nov. 1986): 12-14, 20. For an LDS apology, see Thomas G. Alexander, “Historiography and the New Mormon History: A Historian’s Perspective,” Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought 19 (Fall 1986): 25-49; and compare his “Toward the New Mormon History,” in Historians and the American West, Michael Malone, ed. (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1983), 344-86.
15. I am not implying that “New Mormon Historians” agree on everything; nor am I impugning their religious commitments. My point is simply to suggest that beneath their differences seems to exist a fundamental agreement on methodological postulates.
19. Ibid., 45. Here again I would like to avoid being accused of “lumping everyone together” under the rubric of positivism. Surely there are important differences which separate “New Mormon Historians,” but when it comes to the fundamental framework of analysis and methodological procedures there seems to be agreement, at least according to my reading of their works. Readers interested in investigating the problems of positivism more extensively might begin with works listed under n31. For a short treatment, see Joseph Bleicher, The Hermeneutic Imagination (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1982), chaps. 1 and 2.
20. See Philip L. Barlow, Mormons and the Bible (New York: Oxford University Press, 1991), xv. Here Barlow talks about “attain[ing] a certain level of objectivity.” While rejecting talk of an absolute objectivity, he asserts that the concept retains meaning for him without advancing an argument to sustain that position at a more public level. Unfortunately, historians often similarly assert their opinion on foundational issues without also demonstrating or justifying their position. Barlow argues from effect to cause on page xvii, where he asserts—erroneously in my opinion—that nihilism is inherent in every argument against objectivity. But it is often the case that historians repeat statements they have heard others make without fully understanding the import of the claim. The question is resolved by Heidegger and Gadamer; see Kockelmans, On the Truth of Being (Bloomington: University of Indiana Press, 1984), 5-17.
[p.258]21. Barlow, xvi-xvii. Note also a redefinition of objectivity by D. Michael Quinn, “Editor’s Introduction,” The New Mormon History: Revisionist Essays on the Past (Salt Lake City: Signature Books, 1992), vii-xix. Here Quinn introduces a kind of “functionalist objectivity” which seems to me to be an arbitrary and subjective standard that does not fit either the standards New Mormon Historians have used in this methodological debate over history or Quinn’s own efforts to reestablish a common “functionalist” standard. Quinn’s language, in particularly how he understands “truth,” continues to betray a controlling objectivist metaphysics. In addition, he does not realize that even a “functionalist objectivity” needs to be grounded. If not, it risks appearing as another effort to elevate the claims of New Mormon History without dealing with more fundamental philosophical issues—for this is first a philosophical question and only second a historical one. On the other hand, Quinn’s short essay does invite genuine discussion.
22. See Alexander, “Historiography and the New Mormon History.” Some New Mormon Historians defend their approach by appealing to ingrained historicism which in the end presupposes a kind of hidden objectivism.
23. See Peter Novick, That Noble Dream: The “Objectivity Question” and the American Historical Profession (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1988), 379-80. This work contains a comprehensive discussion of the American historical establishment; also see Dominique LaCapra, History and Criticism (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1985), chaps. 1 and 4.
24. Novick, 627-29. In the early 1980s I had everyday contact with well known historians writing secular accounts of the Mormon past. I was surprised at what seemed to be a lack of understanding of the problems of historical methodology whether raised from an ontological or epistemological perspective. All seemed dedicated disciples of the historical establishment, unaware of the challenges already being made by historians elsewhere who were less willing to conform to professional orthodoxy.
26. Sterling M. McMurrin, “On Mormon Theology,” Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought 1 (Summer 1966): 136. I have difficulty in determining how such a position fits McMurrin’s own way of understanding; see his Religion, Reason, and Truth (Salt Lake City: University of Utah Press, 1982), 1-19, esp. 17-19; also see Clayton, “Does History Undermine Faith?” 36.
[p.259]29. Sterling M. McMurrin, “Religion and the Denial of History,” Sunstone 7 (Mar.-Apr. 1982): 48-49; republished in his Religion, Reason, and Truth, 133-44. In this essay McMurrin seems to take a rather strong position on objective methodology, yet in other places he qualifies his position in such a way that it is difficult to know where he stands.
30. This is because the idea of our historical past as a kind of static object detached from the historian and open for his or her inspection overlooks the historicity of the writing of history itself. It fails to take into account what Gadamer calls Wirkungsgeschichte or the ongoing effect of history at work in the historian’s efforts to produce a history.
31. W. V. Quine, Words and Objects, D. Davidson and J. Hintikka, eds (Dortretcht: Reidel, 1969), 221, 303-306. Richard Rorty, Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1979), 193-212; David Couzens Hoy, The Critical Circle (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1982), 20. For a more extensive treatment of the subject as well as the major sources used for the framing of the following arguments, see Imre Lakatos and Alan Musgrave, Criticism and the Growth of Scientific Knowledge (London: Cambridge University Press, 1976); Harold Morick et al., Challenges to Empiricism (Belmont, CA: Wadsworth, 1972); Karl R. Popper, The Logic of Scientific Conjectures and Refutations: The Growth of Scientific Knowledge (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1979); Thomas S. Kuhn, The Structure of Scientific Resolutions, 2d. ed. (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1970); Frederick Suppe, The Structure of Scientific Theories (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1974); Carl G. Hempel, Aspects of Scientific Explanation and Other Essays in the Philosopy of Science (New York: Free Press, 1965); “Reason and Covering Laws in Historical Explanation,” Sidney Hook, ed., Philosophy and History (New York: New York University Press, 1963); Ernst Nagel, The Structure of Science (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1961); W. V. Quine and J. S. Ullian, The Web of Belief (New York: Random House, 1978).
It is my opinion that the most salient criticisms and alternative models can be found in the literature that deals with hermeneutics and deconstruction. See Martin Heidegger, Being and Time, John Macquarrie and Edward Robinson, trans. (New York: Harper and Row, 1962); Martin Heidegger, Gesamtausgabe Die Grundprobleme der Phanomenologie, vol. 24 (Frankfurt: Vittorio Klostermann, 1975); Gesamtausgabe Beitrage zur Philosophie, vol. 65 (Frankfurt: Vittorio Klostermann, 1975); Joseph J. Kockelmans, On the Truth of Being (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1984); Hans-Georg Gadamer, Truth and Method (New York: Continuum, 1975); Philosophical Hermeneutics (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1977); Reason in the Age of Science, Frederick G. Lawrence, trans. (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1981); Maurice Merleau-Ponty, Phenomenoligie de la Perception [p.260](Paris: Gallimard, 1945); Paul Ricoeur, History and Truth (Evanston, IL: Northwestern University Press, 1969); Time and Narrative, vol. 1 (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1983); Jurgen Habermas, Knowledge and Human Interest (Boston: Beacon, 1972); Adorno et al., The Positivist Dispute in German Sociology (New York: Harper Torchbooks, 1976); R. Bubner et al., Hermeneutik und Dialektik: Idealogierkritik (Frankfurt: Suhrkamp, 1971); Josef Bleicher, Hermeneutics as Method, Philosophy, and Critique (London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1980); also note an excellent book which reformulates Collingwood’s ideas in even more powerful form, Rex Martin, Historical Explanation (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1977). Probably Jacques Derrida, along with Gadamer, have done most to advance criticism inherent in Martin Heidegger; see Jacques Derrida, Speech and Phenomena, David B. Allison, trans. (Evanston, IL: Northwestern University Press, 1973); Dissemination, Barbara Johnson, trans. (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1981); Margins of Philosophy, Alan Bass, trans. (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1982); Of Grammatology, Gayatri C. Spivak, trans. (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1976). Certainly Foucault as an historian has shaped the language of objectivist criticism. A few of his more important works are Madness and Civilization: A History of Madness in the Age of Reason, R. Howard, trans. (New York: Vintage Press, 1970). For an even more radical critique of objectivity from the point of view of the history of the other, see Levinas, Totality and Infinity.
32. Even in the beginning stages of constituting the record, staffs at libraries and archives carefully process received materials cataloging them in accordance with a taxonomy that anticipates what historians might want to see.
33. Paul Ricoeur, Time and Narrative, vol. 1 (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1983). In a sense, one should read the whole book to grasp the rich understanding of Historical Narrative that Ricoeur recovers for the reader, but most important is chap. 5, “In Defense of Narrative.”
38. Shipps, “The Mormon Past.” Drawing from the work of Eliade, [p.261]Shipps tries to distinguish between “Ordinary” and “Sacred” history but at best only elevates “ordinary” history, which she apparently sees as recovering the objective truth about the Mormon past, and debases “sacred” history, which she sees as essentially mythological.
49. Thorp, 43-44. Thorp seems to want to define the Mormon community empirically in such a way that one need have no sense of conviction at all. Anyone who happens to have been born a Mormon or who might be interested in Mormon things would be a member. In this way Thorp avoids claims of a community that is unified by a common set of tenets and shared experiences of spiritual confirmation. For me, Thorp’s position trivializes the meaning of genuine Mormon spirituality, reducing it to the status of a plaything in the grasp of secular discourse.
50. In “Historiography and the New Mormon History,” Alexander seeks to defend the New Mormon History against detractors but, in my opinion, fails because of an inadequate understanding of historicism. He seems not to see that objectivism and positivism go hand in hand with historicist explanations–Marx, Freud, and modern structural-functionalism being obvious examples. He would have profited from James Faulconer and Richard Williams’s excellent article, “Temporality in Human Action: An Alternative to Positivism and Historicism,” American Psychologist 40 (Nov. 1985): 1179-88. See also their “More on Temporality,” American Psychologists 42 (Feb. 1987): 197-199. Marvin Hill’s “The ‘New Mormon History’ Reassessed in Light of Recent Books on Joseph Smith and Mormon Origins,” Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thougth 21 (Autumn 1988): 116-27. Here, Hill reviews a small number of books without addressing any of the fundamental problems of method.