Faithful History
Edited by George D. Smith

Chapter 16.
Historiography of the Canon
Edward H. Ashment

[p.281]In contrast to other Protestant Christian primitivists, Joseph Smith taught that the Bible was not inerrant and that appeal to scripture was not the final authority. Instead the Bible had been corrupted by “the great and abominable church,” which removed “many parts which are plain and most precious” in order to “pervert the right ways of the Lord, that they might blind the eyes and harden the hearts” of men and women (1 Ne. 13:24-27).1 To remedy this Smith announced that God had chosen him as a prophet to reopen the heavens after nearly two thousand years of silence. Smith said that “God ministered to him by an holy angel,” who gave him “commandments which inspired him” and empowered him to produce the Book of Mormon, which “contains . . . the fulness of the gospel of Jesus Christ” (D&C 20:6). Smith hoped that the Book of Mormon would enlarge the canon of scripture, chiding objectors as “fool[s], that shall say: A Bible, we have got a Bible, and we need no more Bible”; just because God produced one book, the Bible, it did not mean that he could not produce more, because his “work is not yet finished” (2 Ne. 29:6, 9).

Shortly after publication of the Book of Mormon in March 1830, Smith’s second canonical project was to correct errors and omissions in the Bible. His initial efforts provided the majority of textual “restorations.” These changes demonstrated Smith’s belief in a primordial Christianity first revealed by God to Adam and reflected an effort to legitimize the Book of Mormon and Smith’s own prophetic vocation. But this ambitious undertaking soon dwindled to little more than minor corrections.2

[p.282]Smith declared that many more ancient records would come to light as part of the “restoration of all things.” For example, he promised that Oliver Cowdery would translate “records that contain much of [the] gospel”—those parts of the “scriptures which have been hidden because of iniquity” (D&C 6:26; cf. 8:1; 9:2). He announced that Warren Parrish would “see much of [the Lord’s] ancient records, and shall know of hiden things, and shall be endowed with a knowledge of hiden languages.”3 The enthusiasm with which Smith welcomed the arrival of Michael Chandler and his mummies and papyri in Kirtland, Ohio, the Reverend Caswall with his Greek Psalter in Nauvoo, Illinois, and the Kinderhook plates, also in Nauvoo, reflect Smith’s promises and early Mormons’ consequent anticipation of more and more of God’s ancient records coming to light.4

But he produced little. Oliver Cowdery wrote in the December 1835 Messenger and Advocate that Smith’s third translation project, an exposition of the contents of Egyptian papyri, which contained the book of ancient Abraham, could result in large volumes.5 But the project was virtually abandoned by 1836, and Smith’s vocation changed from restorer of God’s ancient records to builder of God’s kingdom on earth.6 Thereafter he spent only a day and a half producing ancient scripture even though his followers’ enthusiasm to receive more of God’s hidden truths remained high. He decided that it would be too much to produce another book and opted instead to publish installments of his interpretations of ancient papyri. Three installments appeared in Nauvoo in the Times and Seasons in 1842. Smith promised to publish more from time to time, but he never did.7

By the time of Smith’s murder in 1844, only the first of the three scriptural projects—the Book of Mormon—had been accepted as canon by Mormons. Thereafter different paths to canonization were pursued. The Reorganized Latter Day Saint church published Smith’s Inspired Version of the Bible in 1866 and authoritatively endorsed it as canon in 1878.8 They never canonized the Book of Abraham. In contrast the Utah-based Latter-day Saint church never canonized Smith’s Bible but in 1880 did canonize a small portion which had been included in the already published Pearl of Great Price. The Book of Abraham was canonized in the same process.9 A century later the Utah church intercalated extracts from the Inspired Version into their scriptural apparatus cross reference system, thus indirectly giving it canonical status.10

[p.283]The belief that more books could be added to the canon has continued in Mormonism and become one of its most exciting and controversial calling cards. Since Joseph Smith’s death, however, the opening in the heavens has become more restricted. While the Reorganized LDS church has continued to add revelations to its Doctrine and Covenants, only four revelations and two “Official Declarations” produced since Smith’s lifetime have been canonized by the Utah church.11

Much of the recent controversy over historiography in the LDS community has revolved around questions about the historicity of these canonized books. Mormonism’s premier apologist, Hugh Nibley, issued the challenge for scrutiny of the canonized restored records which Smith produced: to test the “main hypothesis” of the Book of Mormon, that it “contains genuine history”12; to evaluate the historicity of the Book of Abraham and Smith’s claim that it is an actual “TRANSLATION of Some ancient Records that have fallen into our hands, from the Catecombs of Egypt.”13 This hypothesis is based on the proposition that Smith’s “work was divinely inspired.”14 Brigham Young University political scientist Louis Midgley added that the “primary issue” for Mormon studies is “a combination of two related questions: Was Joseph Smith a genuine seer and prophet, and is the Book of Mormon true? If either one or the other is true, because both are linked, the truth of the other is thereby warranted.”15

Historians and others have taken up these challenges to consider canonized texts in the context of history. But the apologetic formulation of the relevant questions frames the issue in an impossible way. It requires presuppositions which would automatically disqualify any historical inquiry and thereby nullify conclusions that historical analysis might arrive at. As one scholar has explained, it represents “an attempt to resolve a nonempirical problem by empirical means” by “framing . . . a question which cannot be resolved before the researcher settles some central metaphysical problem.”16 In other words, one must first answer the question “Was Joseph Smith a prophet of God?” before historical research can proceed.

Christianity has struggled with issues raised by its canon, the Old and New Testaments, which are not unlike those encountered by Mormon theologians. Christianity accepted as genuine, inspired, and binding only certain books written by ancient Jews and early Christians. That list of books became known as the canon of scripture, [p.284]the Bible of today, and assumed the position of an encyclopedic constitution governing all knowledge, belief, and action.17 Those books in the canon known as the Apocrypha, which seemed to buttress the authority and some of the doctrines of the Catholic church, were jettisoned by the Protestant Reformation, in part so that Protestantism would not be bound by Catholic claims.18 While still affirming the “sole right of the Church to interpret the Bible,” the Catholic church eventually reduced the Apocrypha to semi-canonical status.19 The Christian canon was thus reduced and remained “closed” or limited until Joseph Smith’s affirmation that the Christian encyclopedia could be amended.

Canon makes certain historical claims on Christians. As Van Harvey has pointed out in his book, The Historian and the Believer: The Morality of Historical Knowledge and Christian Belief, many believers may doubt the historicity of such “stories of floating axes, suns standing still, asses talking, blood raining from heaven, supernatural births, [and] walking on water,” but they insist absolutely that the unique event of the resurrection of Jesus is a historical “fact.” But that “fact” is really a conclusion which does not follow from the usual historiographic methodology of collecting data and arguing from generalizations based on consistently observed data. It is a conclusion about a totally unique event which can be “grasped only in faith.”20

Mormons can have a similar relation to their own distinctive canon. They may doubt the historicity of such claims as non-tarnishing, forever incorruptible brass plates anachronistically representing an already established Old Testament canon as early as 600 BCE21; shining stones in ancient semi-submarines; a magic compass which worked only for the righteous; archaeologically unverifiable civilizations; botanically unverifiable animals; linguistically unverifiable languages in the pre-Columbian New World; and the existence of an autobiographic papyrus of ancient Abraham in their church’s vault.

But in addition to Jesus’s resurrection, Mormons insist absolutely on further unique events, “facts” also to be grasped only through faith: God and Jesus actually appeared to Joseph Smith; Smith really was visited by an angel named Moroni, who revealed to him an authentic, ancient history of America’s pre-Columbian inhabitants; Smith dictated an English version of this history to scribes and published it; and God inspired Smith to render in English an auto-[p.285]biographic document written by ancient Abraham when he was in Egypt.

According to Harvey, historiographic methodology is “based on assumptions quite irreconcilable with traditional belief. If the theologian regards the Scriptures as supernaturally inspired, the historian must assume that [they are] intelligible only in terms of [their] historical context and [are] subject to the same principles of interpretation and criticism that are applied to other ancient literature. If the theologian believes that the events of the [scriptures] are the results of the supernatural intervention of God, the historian regards such an explanation as a hindrance to true historical understanding. If the theologian believes that the events upon which Christendom rests are unique, the historian assumes that those events, like all events, are analogous to those in the present and that it is only on this assumption that statements about them can be assessed at all. If the theologian believes on faith that certain events occurred, the historian regards all historical claims as having only a greater or lesser degree of probability, and he regards the attachment of faith to these claims as a corruption of historical judgment.”22

In other words, “History of religions cannot make pronouncements about God, His existence or His nature. The word revelation does not fit in with its terminology.” As a result, “there is a marked difference between history of religions and theology in the way in which they deal with religious values. The theologian ultimately assumes a personal attitude towards religious values. The historian of religions acknowledges the existence of religious values and tries to understand their significance. But his method should be completely free from any value judgement.”23 Otherwise historians end up exempting their own theological system from the rigorous analysis used to scrutinize other systems and thus indulge in “special pleading.”

However, this does not mean that the historian of religion must exempt theology as an object of study. As one scholar has argued, “a prime object of study for the historian of religion ought to be theological tradition, taking the term in its widest sense, in particular, those elements of the theological endeavor that are concerned with canon and its exegesis,” at the same time “bracketing any presuppositions as to its character as revelation” from which “the historian of religion must abstain.”24

[p.286]The problem that theologians have with historiography is that it brackets the elements of faith and revelation—the cornerstones on which believers rest their unique facts. Midgley discusses the source of this conflict from the perspective of the believer: “The primary source of the present crisis of faith is the appropriation by some historians of competing or conflicting ideologies that began to dominate the thinking of educated people beginning with the Enlightenment. The crisis is rooted in conflict between the substance of Mormon faith, especially the prophetic claims upon which it rests, and certain of the dominant ideas found in the secular culture. Prophetic claims appear questionable, if not absurd, from the perspective of secular modernity, which also provides the ideological grounds of both rival explanations of the faith, and competing secular accounts of the meaning of life.”25

To enter the debate and “attempt to vindicate the truth of the sacred narrative,” the apologist “could no longer appeal to the eye of faith or to any special warrants.”26 But Mormon apologists, according to this articulation by Gary Novak, regard such a position as threatening: “For example, one cannot find anything like an appeal to ‘facts’ in any scriptural chronicle; the scriptural chronicles are written under an entirely different set of assumptions from those that govern modern histories. The appeal to ‘facts’ by modern historians is often symptomatic of positivism or historical objectivism, serving as a vehicle to subtly transform the faith and erode memory. Much of the New Mormon History is written in such a way as to exclude or bracket what scripture understands as the mighty acts of God. These mighty acts are precisely what are essential for the collective memory of the Saints.”27

In other words, by submitting the Book of Mormon and the Book of Abraham to historical inquiry, historiography reduces their claims of uniqueness to the same level on which Mormons have already placed the unique claims of the rest of Christianity and other world religions, which they do not consider to be inspired. For an objectivist apologist such as Midgley, the consequences of such thinking to the Mormon canon is that the Book of Mormon “when viewed as a fictional or mythical account, and not as reality, no longer can have authority over us or provide genuine hope for the future. To treat the Book of Mormon as a strange theologically motivated brand of fiction, and in that sense as myth, is to alter radically both [p.287]the form and content of faith and thereby fashion a new ‘church’ in which the texts are told what they can and cannot mean on the basis of some exterior ideology. To reduce the Book of Mormon to mere myth weakens, if not destroys, the possibility of it witnessing to the truth about divine things. A fictional Book of Mormon fabricated by Joseph Smith, even when his inventiveness, genius, or inspiration is celebrated, does not witness to Jesus Christ but to human folly. A true Book of Mormon is a powerful witness; a fictional one is hardly worth reading and pondering.”28

In this objectivist view “the faithful” would be allowed to “abandon the questions of whether there was a Lehi colony with whom God made a covenant, . . . whether Jesus was resurrected or whether angels visited Joseph Smith.”29 Such fears help to explain why Mormon theologians regard historiography as inimical when it is applied to their dogma. They perceive history as attempting to destroy their house of faith. And because they have objectivistically identified their own perspective so completely with what is “True,” they sometimes regard alternative perspectives as attacks against that truth and their advocates as deluded and enemies of God. Thus they often frame part of their response in ad hominems, for they feel compelled to defend what they believe has been attacked by those they perceive as enemies.30

The conflict between historians and theologians which has surfaced in Mormonism is not a new one. It has been staged in various guises already in the larger context of Christianity. That battle can provide a useful context for the Mormon controversy.

Mormon apologists have focused on the Enlightenment as the period when history writing went awry.31 This has traditionally been the strategy of conservative Christians as well. The choice of the Enlightenment is no accident. Before the Enlightenment, as historians of religion have pointed out, one morality of knowledge prevailed in which “professional historians were ordinarily cast as story-tellers who were defenders of the faith. . . . Most were called, if they were Catholic, to summon events from the past to certify the truth of Catholicism over against Protestantism. Needless to say, vice versa.”32

In contrast the Enlightenment introduced a new morality of knowledge which is similar to that of today’s scholarly world. One of its major accomplishments was what one scholar has termed its “establishing once and for all the methodological priority of [p.288]historiography as an instrument of liberation and a principle of interpretation.”33 One of the results of this shift, according to another scholar, was that “religion was domesticated; it was transformed from pathos to ethos. At no little cost, religion was brought within the realm of common sense, of civil discourse and commerce. [Its] impulse was one of tolerance and, as a necessary concomitant, one which refused to leave any human datum, including religion, beyond the pale of understanding, beyond the realm of reason.”34 Consequently historians could not make a special exemption of their own religion from historiographic method while at the same time subjecting all others to rigorous analysis.

Thus the Enlightenment was what one scholar has called a “declaration of independence against every authority that rests on the dictatorial command, ‘Obey, don’t think.'”35 Theologians who demand unquestioning obedience not surprisingly support the trend to “dismiss the Enlightenment as intellectually and morally bankrupt”36 or to “destroy its values and drive out its way of dealing with biblical materials.”37

While making a special exemption for their own objectivism about the Truth of traditional claims,38 some Mormon apologists adopt a deconstructionist strategy when it serves their purpose and label modern historians as “positivists” and “historicists.” For example, one apologist asserts that “it is a crude and now rather widely rejected positivism that assumes that there is much of anything evident apart from theories, assumptions, or formal or informal preunderstandings,” because those “familiar with the discussions of historical method” believe that these prejudgments “are necessarily brought to texts by the exegete or historian.”39 Further, the “positivist” historians of Mormonism have been slow to understand how discredited their method has become.40 Another apologist objectivistically inveighs against what he terms an “empirical religion” of historians that he feels is hostile to “objective, propositional revelations from God or objective knowledge of future events” to which the Holy Spirit serves as “a witness.”41

Thus Mormon objectivist apologists attempt to neutralize what they term the “revisionist history” of Mormonism. They claim that historiography is attempting to nullify traditionally unique Mormon historical-theological claims and reduce the theology of the Utah church to the status of the RLDS church, which now, thanks to its [p.289]own revisionists, retains only “remnants” of its traditional faith. Thus today’s historians of Mormonism would revise out of existence the traditional LDS church.42

Modern historiographical methodology is neither positivistic nor objectivistic. But because Mormon apologists rely so heavily on identifying historiography with positivism, it is important to consider how historiographic methodology evolved. According to Norman F. Cantor and Richard I. Schneider in How to Study History, historical process traditionally was considered “intrinsic in history” itself. As a result, no one focused on historians, who were regarded simply as the ones “to recognize and describe the inner reality that produced historical change.” Classical writers “believed that history moved in ever-recurring cyclic patterns and that a process of growth and decay was the ultimate historical reality.” Thus from the fourth to the eighteenth century it was widely believed that divine providence was the inner reality “that moved history.” The primary effect of the Enlightenment was to separate that inner reality from the church.43

Still imbued with the notion that process was intrinsic in history, the nineteenth-century philosopher Hegel thought that he identified “an objective causal reality inside the process of history itself, a ‘spirit’ that moved inexorably forward.” Philosophers spent the rest of the century developing an explanatory metaphysics and portraying “in various ways the historical reality” that they “assumed to exist outside the mind of the historical observer and beneath the surface of facts and to impel history forward to a goal of glory or damnation.” But at the end of the nineteenth century, “doubt set in as to the ability of the human mind to get outside of itself and to focus upon a final and causal reality that stood over and against individual human minds.” The resulting relativism, according to Cantor and Schneider, held that “Historical process was not an objectified reality: it was the act of thinking and writing itself. Historians did not discover history: they created it.” Consequently, the question of what constitutes fact has become the “central focus of the philosophy of history since 1900.”44

Relativism had, explain Cantor and Schneider, “reached extreme proportions” by the 1930s with Becker and Beard proclaiming “respectively that every man was his own historian and that writing history was simply an act of faith.”45 The terrible conse-[p.290]quences of the extreme historical views of Nazis and Communists forced philosophers of history to again reconsider such a position.46 The deconstructionism of today is a fossil of that extreme relativist school of thought—Allan Bloom has described it as “the last, predictable, stage in the suppression of reason and the denial of the possibility of truth in the name of philosophy.”47 Interestingly one Mormon apologist acknowledges that his post-philosophical “radical hermeneutics” are “deconstruction.”48

According to Cantor and Schneider, today’s historiography represents a “middle ground” between the ancient belief in the “absolute truth of history and the recent extreme relativism.” Today’s “historical analysis does follow `probablistic’ rules about human conduct,” and “the historian employs a reasonable process of explanation and logic.”49

In embracing relativistic arguments, Mormon apologists align themselves with conservative Christian apologists who employ similar strategies. Van Harvey identifies several Christian apologetic arguments—arguments which sound familiar to those acquainted with the current controversy in Mormonism:

1. Apologists accuse historians of “surrendering the [scriptural] conception of faith,” while accepting a “naive philosophy of history” protected “by invoking the sanctity of intellectual integrity.”

2. To apologists the central issue is “God’s supernatural action in certain historical events,” without which “the whole Christian edifice would be found to be built on sand” if those events did not occur “in the way they were reported.”

3. Apologists employ the relativistic argument that “all interpretation presupposes some criteria, some principles of interpretation,” which ultimately “reflect the faith-perspective of the historian.”

4. Apologists accuse historians of not perceiving that “there is no impersonal objective standpoint; that disbelief, with its corresponding doubt about miracles, is not derived from an impartial study of the records but is itself based upon a faith-principle, albeit a positivistic and secular one.”

5. Apologists insist that one must receive “some prior enlightening of the eyes of the mind before either the facts or their meaning can be seen in the true perspective.” From a Mormon perspective, that would mean that only people with a testimony of the truth of Mormonism can truly understand Mormon history.

[p.291]6. Apologists claim that miracles are matters of faith and are undetectable by scientific means. To assert otherwise is “to be committed to the view that the only forces in the universe are those [that] science can describe,” which is “a metaphysical not a scientific belief.”50

Addressing the apologetic claim that “historical narrative is necessarily selective” and thus the historian’s selection of data “presupposes the interests, values, and beliefs of the historian,” Harvey observes that such relativism “assumes that selection always involves distortion, that interest and purpose are necessarily antithetical to objectivity.” He points out, however, that such assumptions require an impossible ideal: that the historian “should reproduce the past in the way some divine observer with no interests and purposes would.” In other words the apologist maintains that the historian should “reproduce the past as it really was,” which of course is how the apologist’s “traditional history” and “traditional theology” already reproduce it. Thus historiography—selecting data according to its naturalistic presuppositions—can never be objective and can only distort what the apologist already knows by faith to be God’s objective and true perspective “against which all human answers are measured and found wanting.”51

Harvey regards the apologist’s claim that a “historian’s deepest convictions will dictate what and how he will write about the past” as both true and misleading. He acknowledges this is true “in the obvious sense that no scholar is apt to spend much time or labor studying that in which he has no real interest, although some doctoral dissertations seem to be exceptions to this truism.” But it is misleading in the sense that one may be interested in something generally, without committing to it. Moreover, if as the apologist claims “historians cannot be objective in matters where their deepest convictions are at stake,” then “we should generally distrust the work of [sectarian] scholars because their deepest convictions are obviously at stake in the inquiry.”52

Perspectivistic apologetics does not recognize a difference between “explanation and the justification of [that] explanation, between getting into the position to know something and defending what we have come to know, between why we want to know something (psychology) and the grounds (logic) that can be given for saying that we know.” The question is not “whether historians can be [p.292]objective, but whether some selective judgments” about the past “are more entitled to credence than others”; whether self-transcendence is possible, which means that people can “arrive at unpleasant truths . . . at judgments which run counter to their treasured hopes and desires.” On the one hand the apologist denies that possibility for the historiographer but assumes it for his or her own position.53 After basing their case against historiography on relativism, apologists argue positivistically that their own perspective “is the true one because it enables us to see the facts as they really are,” and their conclusion is not based on empirical argument but on faith and revelation.54 Consequently they are convinced that their perspective is above rational evaluation.

What they fail to acknowledge is that nearly 21,000 other sectarian perspectives would thus be above rational evaluation too, and all other denominations would be as true as theirs, which of course they cannot accept. In other words, historians of Mormonism must accept Mormon Truth claims. In like manner, historians of Catholicism must accept Catholic Truth claims and the Catholic Holy Spirit as a reliable indicator of those claims, which of course would automatically nullify Mormon Truth claims. The same must obtain for historians of Eastern Orthodoxy, Lutheranism, and the remainder of the almost 21,000 Christian denominations. Since it would not be possible for historians of religion to write about other religions or denominations without accepting their Truth claims, no historian of one perspective could critically analyze another perspective with any validity because he or she would have to accept the latter’s Truth claims which of course would naturally be self-validating of the other perspective. Historiographers would be turned back into pre-Enlightenment “story-tellers” or “defenders of the faith” called by the church “to summon events from the past” and write “faith-promoting history.”

Harvey identifies the core idea of perspectivist apologetics as “the claim that it is meaningless to make a distinction between fact and interpretation in history,” because “there can be no true historical understanding of [scripture] which is not also devotional, or religious, or theological.”55

But there are facts in history that are separate from interpretation. Harvey points to police files and scientific notebooks that are full of facts “that we simply are unable to interpret in any meaningful [p.293]way” and “the unintelligible cuneiform tablet, the discovery of a third-century Roman coin in a first-century ruin, the discovery of a diary that contradicts a widely accepted version of an event. All these require interpretation. They are facts in search of a meaning, so to speak.” Moreover, “fact” is an important word in historiography because it draws attention to intentional and unintentional data. Intentional data reflect conscious intent. Unintentional data refer to “those types of things that witness to something in spite of themselves, so to speak, and that may be the basis for an interpretation quite foreign to the conscious intention of the author of a document. It is significant that historians rely far more on unintentional than intentional data.”56

Mormon apologists focus almost exclusively on the intentional data of the Book of Mormon and the Book of Abraham, but the examination of unintentional data has led some historians to question the ancient historicity of those documents. Thus one apologist accuses historians of simply “jettisoning the traditional understanding of the Book of Mormon.” He fears the specter raised by considering unintentional data: “without a real Lehi colony, how could there have been a real resurrected Nephite angel who later visited with Joseph Smith, or real plates, all of which are part of the controlling narrative of the Mormon faith.”57

Harvey points to the death of Hitler as an example which demonstrates that facts exist separate from interpretation. The fact is that Hitler died. But “are we to argue that the history of this even is the meaning given to it by those Nazis who were most closely identified with him? Or should we say it is the meaning given to it by those Jews who were persecuted and survived? Or is the true meaning apprehended by the German people?” This example shows that “there is no one significance to any event. There may be as many meanings attributed to it as there are persons who interpret it. But it is precisely this diversity of interpretation that forces us to use the rough distinction between fact and interpretation. By using this distinction, we indicate that although the death of Hitler meant many different things to different people, his death was a fact alike for Nazis, Jews, Germans, Russians, and English historians.” Likewise, “The life and death of Jesus have one sort of importance as events in the history of religions, another from the standpoint of Roman provincial justice, still another as an illustration of man’s inhumanity [p.294]to man, and still another as a disclosure of the meaning of life and death.”58 Harvey concludes that perspectivistic apologetics-—”Hard Perspectivism”—is “the denial of self-transcendence” or “the ability of human beings to enter imaginatively into possibilities of understanding and valuation not their own, to appreciate alien claims, to evaluate and assess them, and to commit oneself to them.”59

In contrast, it is this cultural and imaginative use of religion which the historian of religion can address. The canon and its exegesis provide an important focus for such study. One scholar has described the interest for historians of religion. They are fascinated by the “radical and arbitrary reduction” from a large range of possibilities into a limited list “represented by the notion of canon and the ingenuity represented by the rule-governed exegetical enterprise of applying the canon to every dimension of human life.” Such application of the canon represents “that most characteristic, persistent, and obsessive religious activity,” which is “at the same time, the most profoundly cultural human activity.”60

What should Mormon historians do if such an enterprise seems to conflict with their faith? There are as many responses to that question as there are Mormon historians, although many resolutions have not been easy. Some move from Martin Marty’s “primitive naivete” to his “second naivete.”61 Others conclude, as other Christian historians have, that they “can be a believer only at the price of sacrificing the standards of truth and honesty which have dominated the scholarly community since the Enlightenment.”62 While some make that sacrifice, others are compelled to make an odyssey into the lone and dreary world. Harvey’s description of the difficulties for Christians in general is poignant: “It was, after all, Christianity itself which tutored the Western mind to believe that it should know the truth and the truth would make it free. But now that the student has learned to prize the truth, he has discovered, with pain both to himself and his teacher, that it can only be gained at the cost of rejecting the one who first instilled in him the love of it.”63 Not without significance, there are increasing numbers of non-Mormon historians who are fascinated by the colorful history and sincere people who call themselves Mormon. The result is a melody of voices that speaks the language of Mormon history.

Historiography is a marvelous debate based on pluralism in which historians discover, discuss, and examine various facts, events, [p.295]warrants, and conclusions. Apologists do them a service when they challenge their methodology, because they must constantly keep it in good repair and relevant. And they are compelled to remind apologists, as one scholar has succinctly put the matter, that “any attempt to give a theological appraisal of historic facts means a transgression from historic study to theology.”64

EDWARD H. ASHMENT, former coordinator of translation services for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, studied Egyptology at the University of Chicago. “Historicity of the Canon” is published here for the first time.


1. James B. Allen and Glen M. Leonard observe: “Unlike many advocates of the primitive gospel movement, the Saints did not believe the Bible was an infallible, final religious authority. They agreed with the Campbellites that the King James Bible required correction, but also claimed new revelation to restore lost truths” (The Story of the Latter-day Saints [Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1976], 66). See also Marvin S. Hill, Quest for Refuge: The Mormon Flight from American Pluralism (Salt Lake City: Signature Books, 1989); and F. L. Cross and E. A. Livingstone, eds., The Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church, 2 ed. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1983), 409.

2. See F. Henry Edwards, “Introduction” in Joseph Smith’s “New Translation” of the Bible, ed. Paul A. Wellington (Independence, MO: Herald Publishing House, 1970), 27-115.

In Joseph Smith’s additional text for Genesis 50 the biblical Joseph identifies Smith as a “choice seer” who will produce the Book of Mormon “in the latter days.” This portion of Smith’s restoration was based on the already-published 2 Nephi 3:6-18. However, the Bible addition omits 2 Nephi 3:8, which limits Smith’s mission to the production of the Book of Mormon. A verse similar to the one in 2 Nephi also appeared in the Book of Commandments: “and he has a gift to translate the book, and I have commanded him that he shall pretend to no other gift, for I will grant him no other gift” (BC 4:2). This verse was later altered in the Doctrine and Covenants: “And you have a gift to translate the plates; and this is the first gift that I bestowed upon you; and I have commanded that you should pretend to no other gift until my purpose is fulfilled in this” (D&C 5:4).

In Smith’s addition for Isaiah 29 (based on the already-published 2 Nephi 27) Isaiah provides a detailed prophecy of the history of the production of the Book of Mormon, specifically pointing out that the gold plates would be invisible except through the “power” and “will of God.” By that means “three witnesses” and another “few” would “behold” and “view” them (v. 17). The “Testimony of the Three Witnesses” had already declared that “we have seen the engravings which are upon the plates; and they have been shown unto us by the power of God, and not of man.” Smith described this process more clearly in Moses 1:11, in which Moses declares: “But now mine own eyes have [p.296]beheld God; but not my natural, but my spiritual eyes, for my natural eyes could not have beheld.” Martin Harris, one of the Three Witnesses, concurred, declaring that he had seen the plates only through spiritual means (see Marvin S. Hill, “Brodie Revisited: A Reappraisal,” Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought 7 [Winter 1972]: 83).

3. Dean C. Jessee, ed., The Personal Writings of Joseph Smith (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1984), 83.

4. See my forthcoming book, “The Papyrus Which Has Lived”: The Joseph Smith Papyri and the Book of Abraham, esp. chap. 2.

5. “When the translation of these valuable documents will be completed, I am unable to say; neither can I give you a probable idea of how large volumes they will make; but judging from their size, and the comprehensiveness of the language, one might reasonably expect to see a sufficient to develop much upon the mighty acts of the ancient men of God, and of his dealing with the children of men when they saw him face to face” (Messenger and Advocate 2:236).

6. Hill, Quest for Refuge, chaps. 3-4.

7. See Ashment, An Introduction to the Book of Abraham, chap. 2. As editor of the Times and Seasons, John Taylor later enticed renewals from many who first subscribed to the periodical “at the time when the translations from the Book of Abraham commenced,” by stating that “we had the promise of Br. Joseph, to furnish us with further extracts from the Book of Abraham” (Times and Seasons 4 [1 Feb. 1843]: 95).

8. Edwards, “Introduction,” 18, 19.

9. James Clark, The Story of the Pearl of Great Price (Salt Lake City: Bookcraft, 1955), 186ff.

10. Edward H. Ashment, “Making the Scriptures ‘Indeed One in Our Hands,'” in The Word of God: Essays on Mormon Scripture, ed. Dan Vogel (Salt Lake City: Signature Books, 1990), 237, 253f.

11. None of the restored records that have “come forth from the dust” of Nag Hammadi and Qumran has found its way into either denomination’s canon. See speculations about such a possibility in Hugh Nibley, Since Cumorah: The Book of Mormon in the Modern World (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1967).

12. Nibley, Since Cumorah, v.

13. Times and Seasons 3 (1 Mar. 1842): 704; Hugh Nibley, Abraham in Egypt (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1981), x, 1.

14. Nibley, Since Cumorah, v.

15. Louis Midgley, “The Challenge of Historical Consciousness: Mormon History and the Encounter with Secular Modernity,” in By Study and Also by Faith, eds. John M. Lundquist and Stephen D. Ricks, vol. 2 (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1990), 510. Similarly Alan Goff declares that “We [p.297]Latter-day Saints are in a position to accept the Bible and the Book of Mormon not only as literature but also as scripture and history. To insist that the text is only one or the other of the alternatives is to diminish it; to insist that the book has no power to transcend our own understanding or expectations about the book constrains us to what we think at the moment, without recognizing possibilities for growth” (“A Hermeneutic of Sacred Texts: Historicism, Revisionism, Positivism, and the Bible and Book of Mormon,” M.A. thesis, Brigham Young University, 1989, 43). Stephen E. Robinson points out that there are “only two [interpretive issues] that are determinative for the Latter-day Saint view of scripture: the guidance of living prophets and the witness of the Holy Spirit.” To separate the “scriptural texts from the interpretation of the apostles and prophets” would be “from a Latter-day Saint perspective a crippled view of scripture” (“Review of The Word of God: Essays on Mormon Scripture, ed. Dan Vogel,” in Review of Books on the Book of Mormon, eds. Daniel C. Peterson and Shirley S. Ricks, vol. 3 [Provo, UT: Foundation for Ancient Research and Mormon Studies, 1991], 313).

16. David Hackett Fischer, Historians’ Fallacies: Toward a Logic of Historical Thought (New York: Harper Torchbooks, 1970), 12.

17. The following books provide good summaries of the development of the Christian canon: Norman Perrin and Dennis C. Duling, The New Testament: An Introduction, 2d ed. (San Diego: Harcourt, Brace, Jovanovich, 1982), 435-46; James H. Charlesworth, ed., Apocalyptic Literature and Testaments, vol. 1 of The Old Testament Pseudepigrapha (Garden City, NY: Doubleday & Company, Inc., 1983), xxiii-xxiv; and Cross and Livingstone, Oxford Dictionary, 232.

18. See Roland H. Bainton, “The Bible in the Reformation,” in The Cambridge History of the Bible: The West from the Reformation to the Present Day, ed. S. L. Greenslade (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1963), 6-9; Cross and Livingstone, The Oxford Dictionary, 70f.

19. Cross and Livingstone, The Oxford Dictionary, 1392, xxiv.

20. Van Harvey, The Historian and the Believer: The Morality of Historical Knowledge and Christian Belief (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1966), 229, 219. Jonathan Smith notes that in religious studies “unique” is “phoenix-like”: “it expresses that which is sui generis, singularis, and, therefore, incomparably valuable. ‘Unique’ becomes an ontological rather than a taxonomic category; an assertion of a radical difference so absolute that it becomes ‘Wholly Other,’ and the act of comparison is perceived as both an impossibility and an impiety.” He further observes that the “uniqueness” of the “death and resurrection of Jesus” is really a “double claim”: “On the ontological level, it is a statement of the absolutely alien nature of the divine protagonist (monogenes) and the unprecedented (and paradoxical) character of his self-disclosure; on the historical level, it is an assertion of the radical [p.298]incomparability of the Christian ‘proclamation’ with respect to the ‘environment.’ For many scholars of early Christianity, the latter claim is often combined with the former, so as to transfer the (proper, though problematic) theological affirmation of absolute uniqueness to an historical statement that, standing alone, could never assert more than relative uniqueness, that is to say, a quite ordinary postulation of difference. It is this illicit transfer from the ontological to the historical that raises the question of the comparison of early Christianity and the religions of Late Antiquity” (Drudgery Divine: On the Comparison of Early Christianities and the Religions of Late Antiquity [Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1990], 38).

21. It is curious, for example, that the Book of Mormon proclaims anachronistically that the brass plates contained “the five books of Moses,” the histories, and “the prophecies of the holy prophets,” including “many prophecies which have been spoken by the mouth of Jeremiah” (1 Ne. 5:11-13). Consequently, they would represent evidence that the text of the Pentateuch was completed before the time of Ezra. Yet the “full predominance of the Torah, seen as Mosaic law, comes from about the fifth century: it is still not there in Jeremiah, in Ezekiel, or in the latter parts of the Book of Isaiah; in Ezra-Nehemiah, however, in rough terms, it is already there.” Moreover, the “religious recognition of much of [the later prophets] may have been earlier than the recognition of the supremacy of the Torah” (James Barr, Holy Scripture: Canon, Authority, Criticism [Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1983], 52f).

22. Harvey, The Historian and the Believer, 5.

23. Ibid., 28.

24. Jonathan Z. Smith, Imagining Religion: From Babylon to Jonestown (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1982), 43.

25. Louis Midgley, “More Revisionist Legerdemain and the Book of Mormon,” in Review of Books on the Book of Mormon, eds. Daniel C. Peterson and Shirley S. Ricks, vol. 3 (Provo, UT: Foundation for Ancient Research and Mormon Studies, 1991), 505.

26. Harvey, The Historian and the Believer, 105f.

27. Gary F. Novak, “Naturalistic Assumptions and the Book of Mormon,” Brigham Young University Studies 30 (Summer 1990): 35.

28. Midgley, “The Challenge of Historical Consciousness,” 525. Novak articulates the spiritual dilemma this way: “From the very beginning, the Book of Mormon has served as a vessel of memory and identity for the Saints. It sets them apart from the world and orients them in God’s plan. If the Book of Mormon is true, if it is authentic history brought forth in the last days for the wise purposes of God, then the Saints have good reason for faith and a genuine hope for a trust in God. If the Book of Mormon is the product of deliberate deception or the sincere psychological delusion caused by [p.299]severe stress, the Saints have no reason for faith or for hope” (“Naturalistic Assumptions,” 35).

29. Midgley, “The Challenge of Historical Consciousness,” 526.

30. In this context, see Goff, “A Hermeneutic of Sacred Texts,” 1-42; Midgley, “More Revisionist Legerdemain,” 261-311; and esp. Robinson, “Review of The Word of God,” 312-18.

31. Midgley, “The Challenge of Historical Consciousness,” 505. See also Goff, “A Hermeneutic of Sacred Texts,” 44, who cites Gadamer’s assertion that “historicism . . . is based on the modern enlightenment and unknowingly shares it[s] prejudices.”

32. Martin E. Marty, Religion and Republic: The American Circumstance (Boston: Beacon Press, 1987), 306; see also Harvey, The Historian and the Believer, 127. In modern Mormon terms, apologetic, believing historians rally to their leaders’ summons to write only “faith-promoting history” (see Boyd K. Packer, The Mantle is Far, Far Greater Than the Intellect [Salt Lake City: The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, 1981], 4).

Robinson, a Brigham Young University professor of religion who castigates a collection of “empirical studies” on the Mormon canon “as a work of propaganda,” would do well to analyze this morality of knowledge in the same way (see Robinson, “Review of The Word of God,” 317). “Propaganda” is defined by the Oxford English Dictionary as: “The systematic propagation of information or ideas by an interested party, especially in a tendentious way in order to encourage or instil a particular attitude or response” (Sup. 3:837b). History that is “faith-promoting” seems to fit well within that definition.

33. Jaroslav Pelikan, The Melody of Theology: A Philosophical Dictionary (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1988), 70. See also Harvey, The Historian and the Believer, 127.

34. Smith, Imagining Religion, 104. Barr notes that the academy no longer was under control of the church, with the result that “theology itself could no longer count as the sole and absolute criterion for the evaluation of biblical studies” (Holy Scripture, 109).

35. Harvey, The Historian and the Believer, 39.

36. Pelikan, The Melody of Theology, 70. Goff claims that “a discussion of literary criticism, historiography, and method requires the adoption of a whole new vocabulary from [deconstructionist] philosophy,” because “virtually all the social and humanistic disciplines face the prospect of having long-standing approaches questioned and overthrown” (“A Hermeneutic of Sacred Texts, 1).

37. Barr, Holy Scripture, 123.

38. See notes 27-29.

39. Midgley, “More Revisionist Legerdemain,” 291; see also Midgley, “A Hermeneutic of Sacred Texts,” 1-42. Midgley’s proposition parallels [p.300]that of deconstructionist post-philosophers. See Kenneth Baynes, James Bohman, and Thomas McCarthy, After Philosophy (Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 1987), 2ff.

40. See Midgley, “A Hermeneutic of Sacred Texts,” 1; Midgley, “More Revisionist Legerdemain,” 295.

41. Robinson, “Review of the Word of God,” 312, 313. On the other hand Stephen Ricks doubts that objectivity is even possible. To him it is “still the elusive—and unreachable—will-o’-the-wisp of many in the historical profession” (“Review of Lehi in the Deseret, The World of the Jaredites, There Were Jaredites,” in Review of Books on the Book of Mormon, eds. Daniel C. Peterson and Shirley S. Ricks, vol. 2 [Provo: Foundation for Ancient Research and Mormon Studies, 1990], 130).

42. Midgley, “More Revisionist Legerdemain,” 262n3, 295ff. Robinson refers to “five RLDS scholars and clerics who have already helped to ‘correct’ the views of that denomination” by infusing it with “liberal Protestant theology” (“Review of the Word of God,” 312).

43. Norman F. Cantor and Richard I. Schneider, How to Study History (New York: Thomas Y. Cromwell Co., 1967), 255.

44. Ibid., 255, 256.

45. Ibid., 258.

46. Fischer, Historians’ Fallacies, 42n4, identifies five categories of relativist error:

“First, there is a confusion between the way knowledge is acquired and the validity of that knowledge. An American historian may chauvinistically assert that the United States declared its independence from England in 1776. That statement is true, no matter what the motives of its maker may have been. On the other hand, an English historian may patriotically insist that England declared its independence from the United States in 1776. That assertion is false, and always will be.

“Second, relativism mistakenly argues that because all historical accounts must be partial in the sense of incomplete, that they must also be partial in the sense of false. An incomplete account can be an objectively true account; it cannot be the whole truth. In this respect, the relativists continued to bootleg the idea of telling the whole truth in their work.

“Third, relativism makes false distinctions between history and the natural sciences. Beard in particular did this, and his error consisted in rendering a special judgment upon historical science for its use of hypotheses, etc., which are also characteristic of natural science. Arthur Danto comments, `It is as though a man were to lament that it is a sad thing to be a Frenchman, for all Frenchmen die. . . . History is no more and no less subject to relativistic factors than science is’ (Danto, p. 110). Mannheim made the same error in Ideology and Utopia (p. 79).

[p.301]”Fourth, relativists all argue that they and their friends were exempt from relativism in some degree. Thus, Beard’s special pleading for an economic interpretation; and Mannheim’s, for the intelligentsia. Both scholars were inconsistent, and understandably so. Cushing Strout has observed that `a consistent relativism is a form of intellectual suicide’ (The Pragmatic Revolt in American History: Carl Becker and Charles Beard [New Haven, 1958], p. 84).

“Finally the idea of subjectivity which the relativists used was literal nonsense. `Subjective’ is a correlative term which cannot be meaningful unless its opposite is also meaningful. To say that all knowledge is subjective is like saying that all things are short. Nothing can be short, unless something is tall. So, also, no knowledge can be subjective unless some knowledge is objective. (See Christopher Blake, “Can History Be Objective?” Mind 72 [1955]: 61-78.)

47. Allan Bloom, The Closing of the American Mind (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1987), 379. For a discussion of Goff’s type of deconstructionist radical hermeneutics as canonical criticism, see Barr, Holy Scripture, 76ff.

48. Goff, “A Hermeneutic of Sacred Texts,” 1.

49. Cantor and Schneider, How to Study History, 258.

50. Harvey, The Historian and the Believer, 205-207. In a Mormon context, Robinson, for example, claims that “as both the scriptures and the philosophers know, genuine faith is belief in the absence of evidence or even belief that contradicts the evidence” (“Review of The Word of God,” 316).

51. Ibid., 209-12.

52. Ibid., 212, 213.

53. Thus Mormon apologists plead positivistically to “let Joseph Smith speak for himself.”

54. Harvey, The Historian and the Believer, 213, 214.

55. Ibid.

56. Ibid., 215, 216.

57. Midgley, “More Revisionist Legerdemain,” 263, 299.

58. Harvey, 217, 219.

59. Ibid., 221.

60. Smith, Imagining Religion, 43.

61. Marty, Religion and Republic, 308.

62. Harvey, The Historian and the Believer, 308.

63. Ibid., 246.

64. C. J. Bleeker, The Rainbow: A Collection of Studies in the Science of Religions, Studies in the History of Religions (Supplements to Numen), vol. 30 (Leiden: E. J. Brill, 1975), 23.