Edited by George D. Smith
Faithful History/Secular Religion
Melvin T. Smith
[p.141]The debate about faithful history holds great interest for me, both for personal and for academic reasons. I came to the history profession with the convictions of a “true believer,” and my pursuit of professional stature as a historian has been fraught with a multitude of challenges.
I remember talking with a young professor of history at Brigham Young University after I had completed course work and comprehensive examinations for a Ph.D. program there. I asked him, “Well, now that I am a bonafide historian, what do I do with Joseph Smith?” I was surprised by his answer: for him Joseph Smith presented no particular problems. And frankly I felt a certain envy at his secure hold on faith, for I was by then seeing holes in my own faithful armor.
I am still asking myself the question, what do we do with Joseph Smith and with others who claim that they have had direct communication with God or other divine beings? I have also seen many of my colleagues struggle with their own versions of this issue.
There has already been considerable debate about faithful history—what it is and how Latter-day Saints and Mormons who are historians ought to write it. For me none of the arguments has proven wholly satisfactory. It is for that reason that I am continuing my own probing of the subject.1 The primary purpose of this essay is to provide a rationale for believing historians whereby they can produce objective professional history rather than so-called “faithful history.”
[p.142]My basic premises are simple. First, I see history as a finite tool used by very human men and women to study the lives, behavior, and institutions of finite human beings. Even when one includes all of human learning, which in a sense is part of human history, it is still finite. Additionally the sources of history are only people, no matter how important or brilliant or wise or righteous they may be. Hence history can only tell us about our finite world and about its finite inhabitants—which message, however, makes the pursuit of good history worthwhile.
Now to premise number two. I accept that there may be an infinite reality, called the realm of God or the divine. I also allow that God may choose and may have chosen to communicate with finite human beings at various times and for his own purposes. However, witnessing to divinity is God’s domain alone, if such a witness is to be given. Human beings cannot do it, and especially historians with history cannot do it. History tells us about people, not about God. The terms faith and religion as related to the faithful history debate are inexorably tied to a belief and hope in God. The acquisition of religious or faithful insights into reality are usually reported to be very good by those who have claimed them. Therefore one’s quest for faith and religious witnessing seems worthy of one’s best efforts. However this essay is not an attempt to explore or to explicate the value and meaning of such religious experiences.
My third premise suggests that there is value in keeping the information of these two worlds separate while pursuing the truths or insights to be gained from each. Since believing historians are both historian and believer, there will be for them a continuous interplay of information from each of these sources. Therefore the historians’ major challenge will be to use only historic data in premising their research and in drawing their conclusions. Otherwise their history will be faithful history, about which I will be saying more later.
In my opinion, it is ultimately within each of us that our truths and realities are best dealt with–hopefully in positive, constructive ways. To further clarify let me add that it is after truths and insights of both human learning (history) and divine witnessing (God) are received that each person must struggle to give them meaning for her- or himself. Those so struggling may find the services of theologians or philosophers or ministers most useful. Perhaps the scriptural analogy that the kingdom of God is within [p.143]us is relevant (Luke 17: 20-21).
Now to return to the faithful history issue. A basic problem arises for believing historians when they see themselves judging their historical data in light of perceived superior facts or truths. All historians of professional stature know the tenuous nature of their conclusions drawn from never-completed research. Thus when that superior truth is perceived to be God’s word, faithful historians will become vulnerable, for it appears to them that they are challenging God himself. Additionally historians will probably feel that their community of believers sees them as challenging God—hardly a climate for objective, effective scholarship.
How can believing historians deal with those problems? The answer lies in desensitizing history. If we accept the fact that history cannot testify of God, we recognize that neither can it testify against God. This attitude allows believing scholars to pursue their historical research unrestrained by so-called superior wisdom or divine disfavor, providing a favorable climate in which to produce their best histories.
Perhaps it would be helpful at this point to suggest a more useful definition of faithful history. It is simply “history” (so-called) written either to prove or to disprove the things of faith and religion or God, his will and ways. Mormons find they have the well-known writings both of Joseph Fielding Smith, Essentials in Church History (proof positive), and of Jerald and Sandra Tanner, Mormonism: Shadow or Reality? (proof negative). Neither is good history; and it seems doubtful that either is a viable fountain for faith or disbelief.
One additional point on this issue. Many define faithful history as history written to promote the faith. At best such action is a use of history not a kind of history, and frequently it is simply propaganda and apologetics.
Desensitizing history also allows believing historians to extend the range of historical evidence. For example, what do historians do with Joseph Smith when he said that divine beings talked with him? (JSH 2:17, 30-42, 44-46, 49) How do historians handle that historic fact—namely his statement?
Some historians elect to go the way of superior truth and insight by declaring that they know Joseph Smith was God’s prophet. Therefore they conclude he talked with God. The problem for such historians rapidly compounds when other conflicting historical evi-[p.144]dences are produced that show a variation in what Joseph Smith said happened and when techniques of scriptural higher criticism2 are applied to their claims. Faithful historians continually face challenges (both to their history and to their faith) because historical conclusions are made with the bias of their religious perceptions of reality, which bias distorts the message of history.
Next, a look at a second option for dealing with Joseph Smith. Some historians state that Joseph claimed he talked with God. Their presumption is that he did not; still they have not actually called him a liar. Others do call him a liar. Now I ask you how does one prove that Joseph Smith did not talk with God? How can historians call their witness a liar—unless the historical record itself clearly shows that he lied? Historians hardly have the luxury of saying to their historic source, “I’ll use this, but I won’t use that portion of the evidence.” Granted we must bring to our scrutiny of Joseph’s data the same careful evaluation we bring to any historical resource.
The key to using the historic witness of one who is testifying to divine experiences lies in desensitizing that witness’s message. I reiterate, history can only measure the historicity of a prophet’s statements not their divinity. So why look for divine evidence in history? Second, Joseph Smith’s witness is itself not a divine witness; it is a historic witness only. It differs qualitatively from the witness he claimed he received of God. For example, Joseph was puzzled that people in Palmyra did not generally believe his visionary claims. They even persecuted him for “telling the truth” as he perceived it. Joseph identified with the Apostle Paul (JSH 2:24), whose message of a divine communication was also rejected by many who heard him. What these people heard was Joseph’s and Paul’s witnesses. It requires little effort to discern that our reading of their accounts (the history) is not in any sense a replication of the experience each claimed of direct, personal communication with the infinite.
Let us continue to explore Joseph Smith’s desensitized historic witness for additional insights. Three of the people he testified to were Martin Harris, David Whitmer, and Oliver Cowdery. These three men proclaimed later that they saw an angel who showed them the gold plates and testified to them of the plates’ divine purposes. These men bore witness of these experiences, which is written in the preface to the Book of Mormon. Does this mean the Book of Mormon is true? God’s word? The answer is no, for remember that we are [p.145]looking at the historicity of the record only, not at its divinity.
Joseph Smith reported to his mother soon after their angelic witness that the burden of testifying of God’s work no longer was his alone. They now had to bear it with him. He was relieved to the point of ecstasy.3 Does that prove they saw the angel and the gold plates? No, but this desensitized look at the history of these events leaves us with some interesting questions and with new historical insights. Joseph Smith clearly recognized the difference between his witness and the angel’s, a distinction apparent to Harris, Whitmer, and Cowdery also. And I suggest that these kinds of experiences confirmed for Joseph Smith in significant ways his own sense of his prophetic role. For us the question still remains: What did these men experience anyway?
Let me turn to my second point, that God only can witness to the divine. I do not presume to judge, nor is this essay an attempt to judge whether or not people have had a divine witness. That is their own personal experience. Yet one often sees examples of “faith” premised on historical evidence or some rationalization made from such data. It is easy to make a qualitative distinction between one’s reading of Joseph’s account of the angel’s visit (history) and one’s experiencing an actual angelic visit. I suggest that it would be this latter kind of witnessing that gives substance to faith and divinity to religion. Perhaps some Saints may be foregoing genuine religious witnessing from divine sources, because they have been seduced into accepting the “lesser light” of history as witness for their faith. However this essay is not a formula for religious experiences nor an explication of them. Rather it is a rationale for desensitized rather than faithful history.
An additional problem arises for people who presume an understanding of God, of how he operates, or what his will is from history. Again to Joseph Smith for an example: many good Christians maintain that God would not speak to Joseph Smith, because he was a money digger, a peep stone artist, and a charlatan.4 The historic record shows that Joseph Smith did dig for buried treasure, did use a peep stone, and could have some of his behavior “charlatanized.” However, when these same critics look to the desensitized historical record of the scriptures, they discover that God spoke to Moses, who killed an Egyptian in a fight (Ex. 2:11-15), and to King David, the psalmist who committed adultery and sent the husband into the thick [p.146]of battle so he would be killed (2 Sam. 11:2-17). There is also Saul of Tarsus who actively persecuted the early-day Saints (Acts 8:1, 3-4; 9:1-9). Had he lived in the nineteenth century, one may have found him at Haun’s Mill or at least in Missouri’s courts. Latter-day Saints find little relief when looking at sixteen-year-old Nephi, who beheaded Laban to obtain the brass plates (1 Ne. 4:6-18). Or Martin Harris, who was entrusted with the first 116 pages of the newly translated Book of Mormon manuscript and lost them. Yet still an angel visited him with a divine message (JSH 2:63-65; D&C 3:12-13; 10:1-7, 9; 5:26-29; 17:1-9).
Can Saints presume an understanding of God from the historic record? Better the message be from God. For history as God’s message maketh uncertain sounds indeed.
Next I digress only slightly to reinforce my argument for desensitizing history. The scriptural record advises us that the worst fate that could befall any mortal would be to be cast into hell or outer darkness with the devil and his angels, to become a son (or daughter?) of perdition (D&C 76:31-37, 43-46). I ask you to recognize that scripturally this terrible damnation is assigned not to those who have denied the witness of faithful history but to those who have received the most profound and sacred of divine witnesses—a visitation from Jesus Christ himself—and then denied it (ibid., vv. 35, 43; 88:3-4). The other side of the coin suggests that the hoped-for rewards of heaven and eternal life will require more than merely believing in faithful history.
I have been attempting to elaborate some of the nuances implied in the title of this essay, “Faithful History/Secular Religion.” I reiterate my rationale: history is finite, witnessed to by humans only. If one’s religion is based on faithful history, it is only a secular religion.
Problem number one. Whom did God want to succeed the prophet Joseph Smith? The Reorganized Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints affirms that the prophet ordained his son to succeed him. But does Joseph III’s ordination mean that his line was to provide all succeeding presidents for the RLDS church? Were successors to be only the first born or were other male heirs equally eligible?
I am neither proposing church policy nor trying to determine the will of God in these matters for the RLDS church or anyone else. What I think can be shown is that to read the “historic” record as [p.147]God’s will and word clouds the issue unnecessarily. It shows also the extensive rationalization required to obtain acceptable answers. Rationalization itself is a proper human practice. I question, however, that God’s witnessing submits to human rationalizations.
Now take the succession issue to the LDS church. Was Brigham Young, president and senior apostle in the Quorum of Twelve Apostles when Joseph the prophet was killed, to succeed him? Did he not hold the keys of authority and was not the seniority system God’s way of choosing the next president of the church? Does not God still use that method? The church certainly has not run out of seniority. In fact, it faces the problem in a new dimension as people live longer and as life support systems are brought to them. Does God also speak through life support systems as an aspect of seniority?
I sense it is easier for RLDS students to answer the second set of questions than the first. Why? Because they are easier? I do not think so. Utah Mormons find the first set of questions easy to answer. Why again? Because when we look at each other’s issues, we tend to see them wholly from a historical perspective, unclouded by suppositions of what God has in mind. I can verify that the LDS questions are for Utah Mormons very difficult, for they recognize that the prophetic office and presidency require not only spiritual qualities but enormous physical stamina and mental strength. On the other hand RLDS members could readily recommend retirement and emeritus status for apostles, as Utah Mormons would be ready to recommend practical, reasonable solutions for the RLDS succession issue also.
This kind of juxtaposing of issues allows one to see what desensitized history, free of religious/faith bias, is and how such distance allows historians to gain the insights that history can give—insights usually unperceived when faith or religion clouds their scrutiny.
Moving to a second problem: polygamy or plural marriage. Utah Mormons accepted Doctrine and Covenants section 132 as the will of God and can produce historical evidence that Joseph the prophet was polygamous. After 1852 they practiced and preached it publicly.5 Thirty-eight years later Wilford Woodruff issued the Manifesto (1890),6 which supposedly ended plural marriage. Still a second manifesto had to be issued in 1904 by Joseph F. Smith.7 There are [p.148]fundamentalists practicing polygamy in Utah today, though it is not LDS church policy.
Now what was God’s will in the matter? Did God want it to end in 1890 or never? Is God influenced by the law of the land? Will cases before the courts today of Utah polygamists make any difference to God? If the cases go to the U.S. Supreme Court and that body finds anti-polygamy laws unconstitutional, would God change his mind again? And would Mormons again practice polygamy?
The questions raised here are only relevant to the perspective that faithful history produces. Desensitized history shows that Mormons in territorial Utah worked against themselves in their territorial politics. First, they wanted as much self-rule as possible, which after Utah territory was created in 1850 would be achieved by statehood status. The only way they could gain statehood and its self-rule advantages was to give up peculiarities such as polygamy, cooperatives, united order economics, and theocratic politics. By 1896 (statehood) they had done that generally. History provides evidence that neither Brigham Young nor his successor, John Taylor, could let go of their perceptions of God’s will for his Saints. Young died in 1877 propounding all of them. Taylor died on the polygamy underground—hiding out—in 1887. He did not insist on continuing the United Order. Wilford Woodruff stated that God no longer required these sacrifices of his Saints and issued the Manifesto in 1890. The historic facts are that the national government had disfranchised Mormons, persecuted and prosecuted them, escheated their properties, threatened disincorporation of the church itself, and closed out the perpetual emigrating fund. The LDS church as an institution was on the brink of extinction.8 Objective history shows that the pioneer legacy for Utah and the LDS church was not without problems.
What about the RLDS church on polygamy? Has there not been some embarrassment over denial of sound historic evidence of the practice by Joseph Smith? Today both churches support monogamous marriages, but what do they do when converts are made in lands where polygamy is practiced legally? A clouded view of faithful history is of little help. God’s direct witness or even desensitized human history would be better.
Let me turn to a third and final example, which I believe provides a classic, if tragic, example of “faithful history/secular religion.” It is early fall of 1857, the location is southwestern Utah [p.149]territory. You are there because you believe God wants you there to build up the kingdom of God on earth. You know God’s will in the matter, because your church leaders have told you that Joseph Smith prophesied the Saints would become a mighty people in the Rocky Mountains,9 and you have received a call from Brigham Young to go south and help build up the Iron Mission. You believe the earth is the Lord’s and the fullness thereof. You are one of the elect to help usher in Christ’s millennial reign on earth.
You know that the Saints ought to be pure, and you responded to the reformation preachings of Jedediah Grant and others by confessing your sins and being rebaptized.10 You recognized that something was at fault when crickets and grasshoppers came in 1855 and when heavy crop damage from late frosts occurred the next year. Why would God permit such bad things to happen to his Saints if there was indeed a law upon which all blessings are predicated (D&C 130:20-21), as you believe? It must be because of the sinners and the evil in Zion, as Brother Grant had proclaimed. Zion must first be cleansed. You try to be as faithful as possible, even to become perfect.
In August 1857 Apostle George A. Smith preached in your meetings, warning you of the coming of an army to destroy the Saints. Just how faithful would you prove to be, he asked. You recalled mobs at Nauvoo, the Missouri persecutions, and absence of protection and redress from the government. You wondered, what did all of this mean? What did God have in mind for you and his Saints? It is now September. What should you do when a wealthy company of Arkansas emigrants comes through southern Utah and camps at Mountain Meadows before heading into the desert en route to California?11
Some are arguing that these are bad people from Arkansas and Missouri and enemies of God’s people. Others add that they might return from California with a second army to destroy the Saints. Isn’t this the situation Apostle Smith alluded to? And where do Indians fit into the picture? Surely Mormons need an alliance with them to help in case of war and to avoid a second front.
What should you do when the matter finally comes to a vote, either to destroy the wagon train or to let it go? You believe murder is an unforgivable sin (Ex. 20:13). You are commanded to love your enemies, to do good to them that persecute you (Matt. 5:38-39, 43-44). You know these commandments and believe them devoutly.
[p.150]Yet somehow you understand that church leaders would approve of the wagon train’s destruction. You reason it really is war in some ways with your enemy the United States sending an army to destroy you. These are bad people, you rationalize. Some of them are even from Missouri. So what should you do? Follow counsel? And what is that counsel officially?
If you happen to be John D. Lee,12 adopted son to Brigham Young, you elect to do what you understand church leaders approve of (and there were many, many others also making similar choices), for you believe that God’s will comes to you through his anointed prophet.
So you join the Indians who attacked the wagon train. You see the Iron County militia arrive. You take part in the council to select a course of action. (Later at your trial you claim you tried to talk them out of their chosen course of action.) You are not successful, and so the next morning you, John D. Lee, take a flag of truce to the emigrants, disarm them, and set the stage for the brutal massacre that follows: Mormons killing white men, Indian allies killing women and older children. It does not take long. The next morning you return to the site and join your compatriots in a prayer circle, there taking the most solemn of oaths not to reveal the details of that event.
You become haunted by what you have done, even though in your report to Brigham Young two weeks later you carefully lay the main blame on the Indians. You note that you do not believe there was any “innocent blood” in the whole bunch. Hadn’t you been careful not to kill the innocent little children?
You continue to ask yourself during the remaining twenty years of your life, why? But you hold fast to the position that church officials, who “ordered” you to do it, would be held accountable before God, not you, if only you remain faithful. This you try to do—fulfilling calls to serve, to pioneer, to build a ferry to cross the Colorado River. Perhaps you seek comfort in the scriptural assurance of Doctrine and Covenants 132 that though you commit all manner of sins (after receiving the covenant of celestial marriage), save the “shedding of innocent blood,” you might be destroyed in the flesh and turned over the buffeting of Satan but still you will come forth with your blessings in the resurrection (D&C 132:19, 26). It seems to be all you have after your excommunication from the church in 1870.
[p.151]Lee never did turn against church leaders, and on 23 March 1877 he was “destroyed in the flesh” by a firing squad at Mountain Meadows. Lee’s is only one of the many tragedies of Mountain Meadows. Another is Nephi Johnson, age eighteen in 1857. He was also there. In his deathbed delirium as an old man, he cried out, “Blood! Blood! Blood!”13
How did it happen? I have not heard any historian, even writers of faithful history, argue that God commanded them to do it. Then how? I maintain this is a classic example of people misconstruing what they heard from leaders as the will of God. The results were the tragic deaths of more than one hundred California-bound emigrants, the debasing of the Mormon people, particularly those who were involved directly, and a stain on both the Mormon church and its leadership during those years.
The issue was not just the fault of bad leadership, although in this instance it was surely bad. It must be remembered that these faithful Saints also had to override their belief in the commandments of God—Thou shalt not kill. Do good to them that persecute you.
For those Mormons their versions of faithful history left them bereft of individual morality, human judgments, and values to be found in objective, desensitized history. It also secularized their religion with grievous consequences for all. Thus these faithful followers found themselves at Mountain Meadows in September 1857 with the worst of both their worlds.
As stated earlier my purpose is to provide a rationale to believers who are historians writing about Mormon history. Arguments that faithful history, as defined herein, secularizes religion, are made not to discredit any particular religion or religious rationale. Rather it is an attempt to provide a justification to believing historians for desensitizing their histories and concluding from their studies what history by itself can tell us. It is hoped thereby that all of us will have the best facts and insights that history can provide.
Those historic “truths,” along with whatever divinely witnessed “truths” one may receive, present each believing student of history with the raw materials from which he or she will draw conclusions about life: What is it? What are its purposes? What does one really know? and What now does one do with what he or she knows?
It is not an easy struggle, at least not for me, but it is a fascinating one which provides us with a great range of choices—the [p.152]choice to believe, to follow, to support, to affiliate, and to question, the choice to “be engaged in good causes,” to explore fully both human wisdom and God’s witnessing for what each can mean in one’s life.
This attitude allows each of us to enlist the help of specialists, of those wiser than we are in these matters—theologians, philosophers, psychologists, geneticists, biologists, anthropologists, and so on. What does all that we know really mean anyway? The big, profound, and final question, the question which religions generally attempt to answer, and the question ever present in the minds of believing historians, is a question best answered by them when they acknowledge the limits of history, desensitize their study of those evidences which refer to God and the infinite, and draw their historical conclusions from historic data only. With the good history they produce thereby, they and others are better able to wrestle with that “big question” than if they produced faithful history.
The struggle will not disappear, but it is better to have good evidences (tools) with which to struggle, be they historic or divine. Neither faithful history nor secular faith or religion are useful tools in the human search for understanding.
MELVIN T. SMITH is former director of the Utah State Historical Society and the Idaho State Historical Society. “Faithful History/Secular Religion” first appeared in Journal of the John Whitmer Historical Association 4 (1984): 51-58.
1. The reader’s attention is called to two previous articles on this topic by the author: “Faithful History: Hazards and Limitations,” Journal of Mormon History 9 (1982): 61-69; and “Faithful History/Secular Faith,” Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought 16 (Winter 1983): 65-71.
2. See William D. Russell, “History and the Mormon Scriptures,” Journal of Mormon History 10 (1983): 53-63; and his “A Further Inquiry into the Historicity of the Book of Mormon,” Sunstone 7 (Sept.-Oct. 1982): 20-27.