Faithful History
Edited by George D. Smith

Chapter 8.
History, Faith, and Myth
C. Robert Mesle

[p.123]Historians live with uncertainty and ambiguity. The uncertainty and to some extent the ambiguity arise from an irony which philosophers have known at least since Socrates. We are committed to a search for truth according to rules which say we cannot ultimately find it. That is, we are striving to find an objective description of what actually happened knowing that we can only interpret what happened. The reasons are obvious. The past is never directly observable. What remains from past events is always partial. The process of selecting which evidence is relevant and helpful is limiting. And every observer and historian has some point of view, a set of conscious or unconscious presuppositions and concerns that make it impossible to ever be fully objective.

This dilemma is especially acute for historians who are members of a community of faith. We want to know what really happened in the Exodus, but we cannot. We want to know if Jesus really said that the kingdom would come within one generation, but we cannot. We want to know what Joseph Smith really experienced in his fifteenth or sixteenth year, but we cannot. Still we continually insist on doing what we insist we cannot do. And when we fail, as we must, to provide an absolutely safe historical foundation for our faith, we do not know whether to applaud our historical and theological sophistication or to weep for our lost souls.

As historical research gives us more adequate images of people and communities, historians become increasingly aware of the imperfections of those people and communities and hence of the necessary ambiguity of all human commitments. As many modern [p.124]theologians have pointed out, we can escape neither uncertainty nor ambiguity by appeal to the divine, for we never deal with the divine apart from humanity. Even if one believes that God brought a religious community into existence and directed it on how to structure itself, it is still a community of imperfect men and women who have perceived and responded to that divine initiative. While God may never mislead us or make a mistake, we can never be absolutely certain that the human end of the connection is as reliable.

Because of this inherent ambiguity, the historian who is expected to use historical research to defend the community of faith, to write histories which support that faith, is forced into a difficult position. His or her dilemma is made far more intense by the prevalent idea that faith is belief without sufficient evidence, or even belief against the evidence. Such a concept of faith makes it logically impossible for a historian to be both faithful and scholarly.

The reason should be clear enough. When faith is understood as belief without evidence, one begins with a belief and uses it as a criterion by which to select evidence. Evidence which does not support belief is suppressed, distorted, or ignored. An important expression of this position is found in Elder Boyd K. Packer’s article, “The Mantle is Far, Far Greater than the Intellect.”1 Elder Packer asserts that no one can properly write Mormon history unless they believe that “God the Father and His Son Jesus Christ personally appeared to the boy prophet, Joseph Smith, Jr., in the year 1820” and that those heavenly beings “instructed [Joseph] according to the testimony that he gave to the world in his published history.”2 He insists that historians of the Mormon church must presuppose that they have the truth and then select only that evidence for their histories which supports that truth. In such a view there cannot be a genuine attempt to arrive at truth on the basis of evidence by means of scholarly inquiry. The historian is forced to choose between the integrity of faith and the integrity of inquiry.

I do not believe that such a contradiction between faith and inquiry need exist, because I do not think that one need define faith as belief without evidence or as any form of belief. Instead I intend to offer what logicians call a persuasive definition. I want to change the descriptive meaning of the word faith while keeping its positive emotional and value connotations. But I do not do so arbitrarily. I have two justifications. First, I believe the definition I wish to offer is [p.125]truer to the traditional meaning of the word than modern usage. Second, the former, traditional usage still has a strong place in our language and is almost always at least partially intended by the word.3

I propose that we abandon use of the word faith to mean belief and instead use the word faith to indicate commitment, loyalty, concern, and love: the experience of “being grasped” by something of ultimate concern.4 In order to emphasize this, I will use the word “faith” only in that manner or I will choose one of these synonyms or I will use a phrase like faithful commitment or faithful love.

I also propose that we shift the positive, virtuous connotations evoked by the word faith to this new meaning and try to develop a negative attitude toward the concept of belief without evidence. The former should be thought of as virtuous, the latter as non-virtuous.

This proposal is hardly original. The work of Wilfred Cantwell Smith5 increasingly persuades me that the equation of faith and belief is a modern Western heresy. I am therefore proposing a “restoration” of the meaning of faith found in the Bible and in the Christian tradition up to the last three centuries.

This restoration will enable us to make great strides towards resolving our dilemma. There will no longer be any conflict between faith and inquiry for at least three reasons. First, since faith no longer designates belief, it does not tell us what factual claims we should presuppose. Second, if we are really committed to something, we will wish to discover the truth about it, so that we can act out our commitments more effectively. Third, we are enabled to see that faith can often survive and even be deepened by changes in belief.

Let me offer a simple comparison. Having faith is much like falling in love. We do not fall in love without having some beliefs about the person we love. But neither do we suffer from any confused idea that love is identical with belief. We want our beliefs to be accurate so that our love will be properly placed and so that we can express our love effectively. But our beliefs can certainly change without automatically destroying our love. Indeed since people change, beliefs about them must change as well. A person who refuses to deal with the realities of a loved one is not admired by us. We see it as rather pitiful because that person seems to be in love with a dream, an ideal, rather than with a real person. What we admire is the ability to face reality and to love in the midst of ambiguity.

[p.126]The same is true for faith. And the historian who has faith in a particular community—is committed to, concerned about, grasped by, and in love with that community—is well equipped to help members of that community develop a more mature faith-commitment by helping them recognize and live with the uncertainty and ambiguity which inevitably exist in the life and history of that particular community. For a concrete example of what I am talking about, I would like to consider the way in which LDS and RLDS historians may help their communities to deal with our knowledge of Joseph Smith’s first vision.

In 1977 official RLDS church historian Richard P. Howard authored an essay entitled “Six Contemporary Accounts of Joseph Smith, Jr.’s, Early Visionary Experiences.”6 Most of the paper compared six known accounts of the first vision, all of which claimed either direct authorship by Joseph Smith or at least his editorial approval. There are certainly many important similarities between these accounts. One might therefore argue that even the most striking differences need not be logically incompatible, that Joseph might have been recounting different parts of the vision, which taken together give a more complete picture.

Despite this possible compatibility of some parts, there are clear differences among them. Chronologically the second account (and the first published account) omits the first vision entirely. In this account Joseph, who is in his seventeenth year, wonders about the existence of a supreme being, seeks assurance that he has been accepted by such a being, and is visited by an angel. The visitation of the Lord is entirely skipped over, and the text is clearly written as if there were no vision at all prior to 1823.

But the earliest account of his visions does include the appearance of Jesus.7 However, this account is different from the 1842 account published in the Times and Seasons as the “History of Joseph Smith.” The first account does not mention the grove, an experience of darkness, or a combat with demonic powers. Nor does it single out the denominations, though Joseph says it was on his mind. He sees Jesus, who says, “Lo, I come quickly as it was written of me,” but only Jesus appears. Three later accounts describe two unidentified personages. One tells about many angels. Only the 1842 account says that the two personages were the Father and the Son.

[p.127]It seems to me that there is a general progression in these accounts. From no mention of any difficulties attending Joseph’s experience, we move in subsequent accounts to Joseph’s difficulties in speaking and to the noise of someone walking toward him, and then to being tempted by the powers of darkness. Finally Joseph is seized by a power which binds his tongue and envelops him with thick darkness and a foreboding sense of destruction. First, there is one personage—Jesus. In subsequent retellings there are angels, and then we see God the Father and his son Jesus Christ. At first Joseph is concerned about the sinfulness of the world and forgiveness of his own sins–a classic Protestant theme which is omitted in the final account. Later accounts include statements that denominations believe incorrect doctrines, and finally there are condemnations of denominational creeds and of those who profess belief in them. We do not seem to be dealing here with differences of emphasis or with partial accounts that can be fitted together to provide a complete picture. Rather we seem to have intentional efforts to build up the miraculous character of the events and to buttress Joseph’s position as he comes into increasing conflict with other denominations. One thing is certain: we cannot factually know that the first vision occurred or when or what Joseph experienced.

Such a situation should not surprise the historian. It is a common human tendency to build up the miraculous or heroic character of an event in telling and retelling it. And it is certainly common to gradually shape stories so that they illustrate or support some point of view. It happens in thousands of sermons every week. Furthermore the Bible itself gives us a wealth of examples of just such a process—for example the multiple accounts of the Exodus or the four gospels. All four gospels demonstrate that their authors are motivated by theological rather than modern historical interests. Who, for example, can deny the growth of the miraculous from Mark through John? In the same way Joseph Smith was simply telling and retelling his story.

But we moderns are uncomfortable with this approach. Our sense of history and the integrity of the historian are different. We may not condemn pre-modern people for their views and uses of history, but we do not share their freedom to alter accounts to fit needs. And mostly I think this is to our credit. Since I am one who happens to believe that reality always has the last word, I am con-[p.128]vinced that the more adequately and honestly we can discover the past the better off we will all be.

What then can the faithful Mormon or RLDS historian say to the church community about the first vision and about Joseph’s accounts of it? I was told once by a friend, who is both philosopher and historian, that most books by modern theologians are like fairy tales with three parts. In the first part we are told that the author has fallen into an infinitely wide and infinitely deep pit. The bulk of the text describes the horrors of the pit and all the reasons why it is absolutely inescapable. And then in the last part, the hero or heroine climbs out of the infinitely wide and infinitely deep pit, leaps onto the white horse, and rides away with the beautiful young woman or handsome young man.

I agree that this is true of many texts. And it is certainly an accurate description of the first two-thirds of this one. But I hope I shall not be guilty of such an ending. Instead I want to ask, “Having fallen into this pit, or rather having discovered that we have always been in it, what possibilities are there for creativity and faith?” I want us to find solutions that admit and accept the ambiguity inherent in any commitment to a community of faith and to find ways to tell our story that are faithful so far as possible to our communities, to our scholarly integrity, and to reality.

I believe it may be helpful and fruitful to introduce to our communities the concept of myth—or, if that term is too threatening, faith story. To provide a context which can help clarify the concept of myth, I will briefly summarize two sets of meaning for the words history, faith, and myth. First, I will offer what I take to be the popular understandings of the terms and then the alternatives I am suggesting—noting that none of my definitions are original.8 I am only trying to bring them together for us.

Popular definitions. History: What actually happened or an account of what actually happened; history is true or false depending on whether it accurately reports the events.

[p.129]Faith: Belief, often without or against the evidence; true belief; belief about what actually happened.

Myth: False stories about the past; false and fanciful history.

Alternative definitions. History: An honest reflection of some-one’s perspective, interests, and concerns about something that “actually happened.”

Faith: Commitment which involves belief, based on events as related in a community of faith.

Myth: Here is a progression of definitions: (1) stories about the gods; (2) stories about “the other side” (the Transcendent or Divine) told in terms of “this side”; (3) stories which serve as symbols of our faith commitments, or faith stories; (4) narrative which explains the meaning of one or more symbols for a particular community of faith.

Note that this last definition of myth does not make any judgment about the historical accuracy of a story. The “truth” of a myth, like the truth of a symbol, does not refer to factual accuracy but to the adequacy with which it expresses the living concerns and commitments of the community of faith. In evaluating myth we ask, “Does it really tell people what the event or symbols mean to us?” Myths are not proved or disproved as myths. Instead they are born and die according to the faith of the community.

The relationship between myth and historical “reality” (what “actually” happened) is complex. If our commitments really rest on a belief that a specific event occurred, then historical evidence refuting that belief may destroy faith. But if the event is symbolic, expressing the content of our commitments rather than our beliefs about history, refutation of the belief may still leave the symbol intact. Historical data that challenges the accuracy of a myth can only make the myth “false” by killing the faith commitment which the myth expresses.

Three examples will help to clarify this approach to myth.

The Jewish Passover is celebrated in part through the sharing of a special meal called the Seder. The meal consists of several specific and highly symbolic foods. The feast is structured around the reading of the story of the Exodus. This story—the Haggadah—answers four questions asked by people at the table. For example, the youngest child asks, “Why is this different from any other night?” By answering these questions about the meal, the Haggadah explains the meaning of the symbols of the life of the community and tells the story of Israel. In this sense the Haggadah is a classic example of a myth, regardless of one’s historical view of the biblical account of the Exodus.

Like the Jewish Seder, the Christian celebration of the Lord’s Supper is a ritual myth. There too we tell the story which explains the meaning of the symbols central to our community of faith. Even [p.130]though there are differing gospel accounts of that event, the eucharist expresses the basic commitments of the Christian community.

In the same way the story of the first vision of Joseph Smith, Jr., is a myth. The most well-known account includes several symbols which have great meaning for all Latter-day Saints: the scripture James 1:5, “If any of ye lack wisdom…”; the grove; the pillar of light; and the counsel to “join none of them.” Regardless of one’s historical judgment regarding the first vision, there can be no doubt that the story of that vision became a central means by which Latter-day Saints explain to themselves and to others “who we are.” In telling this story Joseph was acting not as historian but as theologian. We should realize this and present his accounts of the first vision as successive attempts to explain who he was, how he saw the world, and to what he was committed. In so doing I believe we will be telling a more accurate truth about Joseph’s view of history and of himself and will thus be providing a more solid foundation for the faith of our communities.

We do not thereby deny the historical nature of faith. On the contrary, problems of historical faith are ignored and the historical character of faith is denied when we demand that faith be blind to historical evidence and accept beliefs on authority. To claim that we can discover truth through some means which is immune to our humanness is to deny that we live, move, and have our being and our faith within history. This we cannot do.

ROBERT C. MESLE is professor of philosophy and religion at Graceland College in Lamoni, Iowa. “History, Faith, and Myth” first appeared in Sunstone 7 (Nov.-Dec. 1982): 10-13.


1. Brigham Young University Studies 21 (Summer 1981): 259-78.

2. Ibid., 272-73.

3. Consider, for example, how we use the words faithful and faithfulness and especially the words unfaithful and unfaithfulness. In the latter cases especially it is obvious that we are dealing with failure to acknowledge and love a known truth—that a commitment has been made. When we speak of unfaithfulness, we speak of lying, cheating, betrayal, and adultery not of mere opinions about propositions. In international relations we often hear nations accused of negotiating in “bad faith.”

4. See Paul Tillich, Dynamics of Faith (New York: Harper and Row, 1957), and also Tillich’s other definitions.

5. Wilfred Cantwell Smith, see Belief and History (Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1977) and Faith and Belief (Princeton, NJ: [p.131]Princeton University Press, 1979). Smith documents how meanings of the words “faith” and “belief” have changed dramatically over the last three and a half centuries. At the time the King James version of the Bible was produced, the word “believe” meant “to belove,” obviously a radically different sense than it has now. The word “believe” did not mean to have an opinion about something. For example, Smith cites a thirteenth-century poem in which a knight is urged to believe the oath he had sworn. That is, he is asked to acknowledge and honor his oath, to belove it rather than reject it. Obviously in the modern sense of the word, it makes no sense to ask someone to believe her or his own oath (see Faith and Belief, 110ff). That this sense was still dominant in 1611 is also established by Smith (see Belief and History, 61ff). See also Rudolph Bultmann and Artur Weiser, Faith (London: Adam & Charles Black, 1961).

6. Howard’s essay is available in Restoration Studies I, ed. Maurice Draper (Independence, MO: Herald House, 1981). This article contains the texts of the various accounts under discussion.

7. It may be worth noting that according to Dean Jessee, this first account is the only one in Joseph Smith’s own handwriting. See Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought 6 (Spring 1971): 86.

8. The approach I am taking to myth depends on the work of Mircea Eliade, Paul Ricouer, and Norman Perrin. An excellent and brief summary of their definitions is available in Perrin’s The New Testament: An Introduction (Chicago: Harcourt, Brace, Jovanovich, Inc., 1974), 21-26. Rudolph Bultmann’s approach may be found in his Kerygma and Myth, ed. H. W. Bartsch (London: S.P.C.K., 1953), 10.