Edited by George D. Smith
Some Reflections on New Mormon History
and the Possibilities of a “New” Traditional History
Malcolm R. Thorp
[p.263]In the last decade an important discussion has occurred about certain methodological assumptions underlying what has been called New Mormon History. This discussion has allowed historians to reflect on the ideas which underlie historical presentation, in spite of the fact that some of the discussion has been marred by personal attacks and strategies similar to sectarian pamphlet warfare. “The constructive task of the philosopher,” said Oxford University philosopher of history Patrick Gardiner, “lies in sympathetic analysis rather than in justification and condemnation.”1
David Bohn, a professor of political science at Brigham Young University, stands out as one of the most constructive critics in this debate. He has raised important considerations about the problems of objectivity.2 He points out, “What the historian has access to is not the past but only texts and text analogues. The information they provide is fragmented, incomplete, unrepresentative, and ambiguous.” Of course, it is an assumption that texts are “unrepresentative,” but few historians would quibble with Bohn on these points.
Bohn’s hermeneutic, which rejects the “false sense of legitimacy and rigor” found in objectivist historical accounts, is sensible.3 [p.264]But are historians as neolithic? To be sure objectivism is alive and well in American academia,4 although serious reevaluation is already taking place within the discipline, but there are few “positivists” left, at least in the mainstream of the profession.5 More important, Bohn’s response to objectivist language in historical accounts represents an overreaction to a problem of some significance but perhaps not of the magnitude he would have us believe. Objectivism and its false grounding in a reality independent of the historian as creator cannot be defended on ontological grounds, but this still provides no reason for de facto rejection of such histories. Objectivist accounts still must be seriously considered on the basis of their contribution to the discussion and not summarily dismissed as methodologically defective.6
Most historians would also agree with Bohn that historical facts do not speak for themselves, for it is the historian who ultimately decides on the selection as well as the interpretation of sources.7 While this may seem self-evident, some historians cling to entrenched ways of understanding history. Hans Kellner described this reluctance to acknowledge the flexibility of so-called “facts”: “The historian’s sources are, as we have been taught, those particles of reality from which an image of the past is made; while few historians object to the idea that histories are produced, most will assert that the guarantee of adequacy in the historical account is found in the sources. If the sources are available, scrupulously and comprehensively examined according to the rules of evidence, and compiled in good faith by a reasonably mature professional, the resulting work will more or less ‘image’ reality.”8
Most practicing historians, even those who have abandoned the quest for historical certainties, will undoubtedly find difficulty with Paul Ricoeur’s assertion (which Bohn ascribes to9 that history takes on the same characteristics as the novel.10 Such an assertion does not take into proper consideration the extent to which historical arguments are shaped by textual readings, a point not always developed in theories comparing historical narratives to patterns of literary representation. The texts themselves remain important, even the dominant, determinants in historical construction, although there are also non-textual sources at work in writing history.11 Kellner asserts that any story must arise out of an act of contemplation. “To understand history in this way is not to reject those works which make claims to realistic representation based upon the authority of documentary sources; it is rather to read them in a way that reveals that their authority is a creation effected with other sources, essentially rhetorical in character.”12 It logically follows that this resort to a-textual, rhetorical devices in the construction of narratives also applies (as we will see) to the methods of historical representation employed by traditional Mormon historians.
Bohn is also undoubtedly correct in pointing out the historian’s use of models in the process of historical construction. No thinking can take place without such devices. According to him: “As historians begin to ask questions of the past, as they begin to craft their story, the very questions they ask and the very tools they use will in part determine how the past will be understood. As they introduce or accept an already existent chronology—cross-cutting categories of psychology, economy, politics, religion, culture, etc., and the related theories which map out those categories—the historian becomes more and more the creator of the past which will be remembered and not the midwife who lets the past tell its own story.”13
Yet textual readings play a more significant role in historical construction than Bohn is willing to admit. Moreover, these “other sources” (models and literary strategies) likewise affect the outcome of traditional historical accounts, which are therefore not quite so “up front” in methodology as Bohn leads his readers to believe.14 Traditional LDS historians might be more forthright in proclaiming the Restoration, but there is no recognition of the implicit objectivism of their works. Nor is there a comprehension of the rhetorical devises used in framing their narratives. The proclamation (kerygma) serves literary functions in such accounts and provides a sense of certainty to such histories that must be recognized as authorial perspectives and not necessarily historical reality.
What Bohn does not tell us is that the undercutting objectivist assumptions do not lead to a democratization of scholarship in which every man or woman is his or her own historian and every interpretation holds the same significance. Most historians would agree that there is not a single “right” interpretation of historical phenomena, since each account is conditioned by the situation of the interpreter and must include methodological and historiographical considerations. Still there will always be stronger and weaker formulations that will arise out of rigorous criticism of sources and the [p.266]significance of interpretation.15 Of course this process of evaluation is hardly new to historians. And as is also the current practice, historical accounts that stand out as insightful will be those which raise new and meaningful questions or which make available new or significantly different readings of familiar texts, thus carrying the discussion further.
The hermeneutical position developed by Hans-Georg Gadamer (which Bohn uses in his critique16 is an ecumenical endeavor aimed at clarifying the process in which understanding takes place. It is not an endeavor that creates battle lines between radically different approaches. As Gadamer says, mediation makes insightful sharing possible, thus throwing light on the conditions of understanding in all modes of thought.17
Bohn’s definition of New Mormon History does not represent how these historians describe themselves. Indeed while some New Mormon Historians are products of the large American graduate schools, and obviously some of these scholars use models from the social sciences,18 the raison d’etre of this approach lies elsewhere. New Mormon History arose out of new access to LDS sources in the 1950s and 1960s and an awareness of the possibilities for new questions and interpretations which were not possible within traditional approaches to the Mormon past. Indeed there was a feeling that traditional accounts, characterized by objectivist certainties, could no longer be entirely maintained and that many of the “truth claims” of this tradition contradicted archival sources. Thus what has characterized New Mormon History from its traditional counterpart has been the importance of texts and an openness in interpreting such sources for new ways of understanding the past.19
Bohn misses the point when he asserts that by asking new questions, New Mormon Historians were necessarily calling for “the wholesale abandonment of categories of self-understanding internal to the community in favor of a new set of standards external to the faith.”20 Bohn does not precisely explain what this “wholesale abandonment” is all about. Is he suggesting that such historians have denied the revelatory experience within the Mormon past? Simply stated, there is no evidence for this. Although pluralistic in composition, the general tenor of New Mormon Historiography has never been to destroy faith but to increase understanding of Mormon themes and experiences.
[p.267]If Bohn is accusing historians of relying on external vocabulary and environmental explanations,21 it can be argued that these have only enriched not diminished our understanding of the Mormon past. Mormonism did not arise in vacuo. It has always been seen as part of the American religious experience. Our understanding of the movement is conditioned by this obvious fact. Such categories as millenarianism, seeker, identity crisis, myth, primitivism, and even magic are not indigenous to Mormonism but are used by a wide variety of scholars, including traditionalists. In addition, one need not go far to find environmental explanations in support of the cause. Such an argument might be that social, political, and religious conditions made society “ripe” for the harvest by Mormon missionaries. To argue that Mormonism can be understood only through its own language, categories, and truth claims denies all possibilities of rational discussion.
Bohn further contends: “The head of the discussion rightly involves underlying assumptions and methodological commitments which determine the direction of historical inquiry, grounding the criteria by which questions are asked, theories selected, information is gathered, and conclusions are reached and validated.” And all of this occurs, he argues, “in advance, before the historical record is even touched.”22 Here Bohn is half right. Tradition and methodology are determinants but not the only ones. Not a practicing historian himself, all this only demonstrates that Bohn has no practical understanding of how archival research is actually done by historians. He shows no comprehension of the possibility that scholars’ minds are influenced by the texts they read, that new approaches are made possible by such readings which completely change the direction of one’s thought and even break with previous historiographical assumptions.
Bohn’s position, taken to a logical conclusion, rests on an anti-historical bias or at least on a low regard for the historian’s craft. Consider, for example, this statement: “There is a strange fascination with the ‘new’ as opposed to the traditional, and a tendency to exaggerate the importance of recently discovered material against the preponderance of ‘evidence’ in the established record; thus, a line in a letter here, or a rumor written down there become the justification for a radical revision of traditional accounts.” Historians are not the only ones to come under fire. Archivists are depicted as [p.268]pandering to the whims of the historical profession, building collections and processing texts to please their trend-minded clientele.23
Any academic discipline is interested in recently discovered sources as well as in new interpretations of existing sources. This is hardly sinister. But do historians ignore the rigorous methods of textual criticism developed by their craft, and are they really collectively guilty of manipulating texts for their own self interest? This is a serious charge, but Bohn does not prove the case. Rather than provide allegations related to the role of historians in the Mark Hofmann forgeries,24 clearly an exceptional case, Bohn should have provided concrete examples over a broad spectrum of writers to prove his point. To be sure there is shoddy work in history just as there are shoddy efforts in political science and philosophy.
His remarks suggest a certain nostalgia for the past, a fear that images from “the record” and “the story” will be destroyed by wolves in sheeps’ clothing, hidden secularists (“cultural Mormons”), whose real intentions are to undermine traditions. These fears are hardly new. The only thing original is the strange connection to new critical methodologies, the purpose of which is to provide avenues for revisionism.
The traditional Mormon history has been aptly diagnosed by American historian Peter Novick. Using Thomas Kuhn’s model of an internal paradigm, he describes how objectivist claims have become self-validating. Novick’s concluding point was to raise the issue: Do New Mormon Historians really want to work within the confines of a contained objectivist paradigm with its narrow strictures and implicit authoritarianism?25
Bohn accuses New Mormon Historians of reaching conclusions before the examination of sources really begins. This is a more appropriate criticism when applied to traditional Mormon history, where the story line has been long established, and scholarly interpretation is concerned largely with finding props for an existing interpretation. Like such accounts, Bohn’s version of history within the community of faith implies that there is “a story,” which in itself presupposes that there is an objective, verifiable past.26 The preservation of this story, with its authentic language and categories, constitutes his avowed purpose.
Bohn does not tell readers that this “story” was never brought down from Mount Sinai or revealed in a sacred grove but was crafted [p.269]by scribes and early historians, including Willard Richards, George A. Smith, Wilford Woodruff, Orson F. Whitney, and B. H. Roberts. Like all historical writings, they reflect the age in which they were written, including positivist assumptions that were well entrenched in nineteenth-century American culture.27 These early accounts are of historiographical value to us today, but they hardly represent the final word for historical understanding. Yet along with their twentieth-century counterparts such as Joseph Fielding Smith’s Essentials of Church History (1922), they continue to supply one of the “other sources” for traditional historical representation.
Because such traditional accounts tend to be repetitive, non-Mormon historian Lawrence Foster asserted that such histories are “boring,” one way of saying that they are predictable.28 Despite Foster’s unfortunate choice of words, he never implied that the subject matter of interest to the believing Mormon community was either trivial or inconsequential.29 Simply stated, Foster was asserting the obvious, that the bulk of traditional histories tend to depend on the same sources and do not cut new ground.30 Consequently such accounts fail to open up new avenues for understanding.
Bohn’s statement that traditional historians are more “honest” and “up front” than New Mormon counterparts is one of the most controversial aspects of the on-going debate.31 In one sense, Bohn is correct. It is indeed easy to discover the ecclesiastical perspective of such writers. But in another sense he is wrong. Can he really claim that traditional historians have been as open and receptive to texts and the possibilities that are contained in such sources as their New Mormon counterparts have been? Is traditional Mormon history, either as now practiced or as Bohn would have it established, a serious encounter with the available texts bearing on the Mormon past? Bohn never really indicates what he would have traditionalists do with such sources—especially those not conforming to preconceived images of reality. It is one thing for Bohn to say that historical accounts should be “up front” and not be “public relations” jobs in which everything turns out “rosy.”32 It is quite another to argue for a dialogical encounter along the lines advocated by Gadamer in which a multi-perspective encounter with texts becomes the objective of scholarly interchange.
Nor does Bohn really explain who is to maintain historical [p.270]standards within “the community of faith.” Indeed how can historical purity be maintained within a church committed to precepts of human freedom and the right of individual choice? There will always be people who probe into discrepancies between the “faithful history” told by the closed community and discordant texts that inevitably make their way into our present world (memory holes have not yet been invented). Given the impossibility of such a task, perhaps the best solution is the present one: let historical pluralism flourish, recognizing that there never was “a story” but many stories open to a multiplicity of interpretations.
One may wonder, however, if Bohn’s version would be satisfactory to Mormon traditionalists. Paradoxically his advocacy of history rising above image-making would be unsettling to some. For Bohn’s version would not only exclude faith-promoting homilies but encourage probing into human cupidities, even in high places. It would also seemingly tie history to a doctrine of human nature, for in his view humankind displays a “general unwillingness” to choose the good and consequently to adhere to a moral life.33 Of course this sounds suspiciously like Calvinism. Yet one of the attractive features of Mormonism has been its exalted view of humankind and the possibilities for eternal development.
The problem for the practicing historian is not so simple. Human activities are so mixed and muddled that history cannot be often described as a straightforward struggle between good and evil. This is especially true in dealing with collectivities such as nations and religious communities.34 Thus to take but one example from the Mormon past, which Bohn raises, can the Mountain Meadows Massacre be seen from this simple right-versus-wrong paradigm, or would it be more appropriate to view this incident as a tragic predicament in which motives were so twisted and tangled on both sides that no mere historian will ever be capable of a moral assessment? All that is possible is for the historian to construct a narrative of events (recognizing even the finitude of this endeavor) based upon all the sources at his or her disposal.
Of course the idea of the historian as a moral judge has a long (and unfortunate) tradition. It was Lord Acton who most fully developed this attitude in the late nineteenth century. He took this task seriously, even to the point of asserting that we should weigh historical characters on the scales of justice, and if found wanting, they should be defamed for time immemorial as lasting examples for [p.271]other reprobates. If the scales failed to tilt but remained at a position of equipoise, the individual should still be consigned to outer darkness so that firmness be shown, thus demonstrating a commitment to morality.35 It is safe to say that few scholars today would want to delve into the murky waters of moral judgments. Most would undoubtedly agree with the admonition to judge nothing before its time (1 Cor. 4:4-5).
Perhaps the most problematic aspect of Bohn’s model, however, is his advocacy of viewing history “as the stage upon which the power of God will pour forth to abolish in one last and final conflagration the confines of mortality and the forces of darkness.”36 Certainly millennial prophecies are part of Mormon beliefs, but one can reasonably ask why historians should be committed to futuristic projection (chiliastic or otherwise) when the subject matter of history is the past not the present or the future. Bohn’s contention certainly suggests that somehow historians should know about how God has shaped the past and will shape the future. But how can one really know, for example, what role the Holocaust played in the divine scheme of history? Although it is acceptable to argue that God is in all human events, it is not for historians to assign divine significance to those events. Without resorting to wild historicist speculations, we can only say that God’s purposes are woven into the texture of history even though this is invisible to mortal eyes.
We are left to wonder about the validity of Bohn’s “other-worldly” approach: “the fundamental understanding which guides the faithful historian’s reading of the historical record is always sure precisely because it does not derive from everyday discourse, but from genuine spiritual experience grounded in God’s power to confirm and reveal truth.”37 Does this mean that all “inspired” historians will interpret the past the same way? If God reveals truths about the historical past to the faithful historian, is this not objectivism (revealed truth or “surety” about what actually happened)? If history can be written from the perspective of unambiguous revelation, why the need for rational discourse, including post-structural methodologies?
Indeed how does Bohn reconcile his advocacy of history as revelation with his espousal of post-structural methods? Bohn must realize that such approaches often lead to disturbing, even frightening results, far more unsettling than the rather calm, rational, soft [p.272]objectivism of some New Mormon Historians. If historical studies are tied to post-structuralist methods such as Derridean deconstruction with its avowed purpose to tear apart structures of thought, reveal displacements in language, and question the effects of tradition on shaping interpretations, where will this lead Mormon studies? Using such a methodology, truth becomes multi-perspectival not monolithic—a fact that has bothered many in religious studies.38 For in Derrida, interpretation becomes nothing more than a game or jeu.39 Thus we find such results as Carl A. Raschke’s statement: “Deconstruction is the dance of death upon the tomb of God; it is the tarantella whose footfalls evoke the archaism of the Great Mother, who takes back with the solemnity of the Pieta her wounded, divine son.” He then continues into an area of contemporary concern to LDS church leaders: “Deconstruction, therefore, can be seen as a kind of Bacchic fascination with the metaphysics of decomposition and death, with the murky undercurrent of modern discourse; in this respect it serves as a simile for the return of the repressed feminine in the predominantly patriarchal academy.”40
From the perspective of post-structural criticism, one would also have to concede the possibilities of Foucaultean probing into historical discontinuities in Mormon history as well as investigations into how structures of power have manipulated individuals.41 It is not my purpose here to shock, only to suggest that these are real possibilities within such methodologies. Is Mormonism ready for this?
All language is essentially naturalistic (evolutionary) and historically situated. This indeed is at the root of one of the most serious problems in Bohn’s essays. He assumes that because terminology employed by historians (and for that matter all other scholars) often originates from positivism and naturalistic disciplines, language use remains within the original mode of understanding. This is clearly not so. Language changes in meaning and context and hence in scholarly usage. Moreover the use of secular vocabulary does not necessarily presuppose any ontological grounds for belief or disbelief.42
If I were to use the term “myth” to describe Genesis 1, would this tell the reader anything significant about my religious convictions? One dictionary definition is “a commonly-held belief that is untrue, or without foundation.”43 But if I adopted Eliade’s definition [p.273]of myth (as does Jan Shipps),44 this would likewise reveal only that I find such a concept useful to my understanding of Genesis. I could still be an atheist, an agnostic, or a theist. I could hardly be accused of dualism in thought (as Bohn accuses faithful LDS historians who write as professional historians).45 There is no hidden ontological significance to my choice—other than confirming my belief in the value of models in human thought. Indeed I am no different than Bohn, who must also rely upon secular modes of understanding and language.46
This quest for discovering hidden meaning in language use is indeed disturbing. For example, Lawrence Foster stated that it was his purpose as a historian that “as much of the evidence as possible be investigated before conclusions are reached.” He then explained that the perspectives one brings to historical inquiry only partially predetermine one’s conclusions. He believes that the historian “who is sincerely interested in determining what happened in the past will continually test out different hypotheses and seek new evidence in attempting to explain and understand events.” Foster has attempted to describe his research strategy, nothing more. On this flimsy pretext Bohn concludes that Foster is really a closet “soft positivist,” that he believes the “facts” will prove the true past.47 But Foster disavows such connections, which would seem to suggest that Bohn somehow knows Foster better than Foster knows himself. Certainly if Foster was a positivist, his article would contain references to either attempts to discover governing laws in history or statements concerning the historian’s ability to recover the reality of the past. But we find neither.
According to Bohn, Foster and other New Mormon Historians “use methods, evolve categories, and develop explanations that presuppose objectivity.”48 Essentially Bohn’s conclusions about Foster rest on an old logical fallacy: if A is found to exist, then it is assumed that B must exist.
However, Bohn is correct in his assertion that New Mormon Historians use the vocabulary of secular historiography and the underlying language of modern social sciences. But what other possibilities are there? Perhaps Bohn means that the imposition of models derived from the various humanistic disciplines somehow distorts the conceptualization of traditional stories. But he should be up front in recognizing that many of the same social science and [p.274]environmental explanations are likewise used by traditional Mormon historians and apologists.49
Bohn assumes there exists an “other worldly” language and modes of understanding unique to Mormonism and unavailable to other traditions. In his view efforts at understanding LDS religious phenomena somehow become degraded if scholarly language and models are applied to Mormonism. In this he assumes a strange dualism which could be eliminated by realizing “The earth is the Lord’s and the fullness therein” (1 Cor. 10:26).
Unfortunately Bohn never defines what a “community of faith” means. Instead he resorts to a rather vague metaphor about the “sacred” and the “profane,” in which the profanators are seemingly the outsiders of the temple walls who look scornfully at proceedings within: “To be outside the temple is not to have access to that which is most sacred.”50 Presumably “sacred” history is to be written from the inner sanctum, and this accounts for why “secular” historians write about the Mormon experience as something merely human.51 Certainly we might question if Gadamer, who does refer to communities of scholars with common methodological views, ever intended such communities to include only “true believers.”
As we have observed, the purpose of hermeneutics is to make dialogical discussions possible between scholars of differing interests and approaches. Gadamer asserted that his version of textual explication demanded the suspension of faith as well as prejudice in order that the horizons of the text and that of the interpreter might come closer together.52 Gadamer refers to the necessity of a “loss of self” which is crucial to theological hermeneutics. He compares hermeneutical understanding to a game in which each player “conforms to the game or subjects himself to it—that is, he relinquishes the autonomy of his own will. For example, two men who use a saw together allow the free play of the saw to take place, it would seem, by reciprocally adjusting to each other so that one man’s impulse to movement takes effect just when that of the other man ends.” Gadamer then goes on to say that “absorption into the game is an ecstatic self-forgetting that is experienced not as a loss of self-possession, but as the free buoyancy of an elevation above oneself.”53 Of course this applies to all of the traditions engaged in understanding the Mormon past. But it has special relevance to his argument because there is an explicit ecumenism in hermeneutical [p.275]understanding that is apparently denied by Bohn and his counterparts. Like the high priests of old who rigorously protected their own self-interest, those excluded from the temple of understanding would be all “secular” historians, cultural Mormons, and even faithful Latter-day Saints who do not understand Mormonism in quite the same way as Bohn or who use naughty language.54
I question whether this “community of faith” corresponds at all to the community one joins at the local chapel on Sunday. As demonstrated by a recent study, LDS wards are hardly monolithic communities of idealized Saints.55 Rather they more often than not resemble a motley collection of human beings similar to the characters in John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress, some striving to reach the gates of the Heavenly City but many bogged down in life’s problems along the way.
History cannot concern itself exclusively with the celestial but must move outside of the inner sanctum into the terrestrial world. For to believers in Providence, God reveals his purposes in all places and at all times.
Does Bohn’s argument open up the possibilities for a New Faith-Promoting History? The answer must be an ambiguous one. He certainly suggests that the horizon of Mormon texts needs to be more fully understood. This would include transcendental experiences speaking to us in our present situation. This is an important point that should not be overlooked. Speakers from the past do carry messages of profound significance for us. They confirm the premise that God continually reveals truth to the church as well as to individuals. This does not mean that historians are not free to go beyond the textual horizon in their quest for understanding, but such messages deserve to be understood on their own terms.56
But Bohn does not apply his hermeneutic to a faithful history, at least not consistently. Traditional LDS history is based on the certainty of an objective past. By speaking of “a story,” Bohn seemingly gives justification for this approach—but not for New Mormon versions of the story, some of which are likewise objectivist. What is even more confusing, however, is how he has also linked various modes of post-structural methodology with personal revelation as a method of textual explication. Bohn needs to explain how in practice he can advocate doing history by combining these seemingly incompatible elements into a workable synthesis.
MALCOLM R. THORP is professor of history at Brigham Young University in Provo, Utah. “Some Reflections on New Mormon History and the Possibilities of a ‘New’ Traditional History” was first published in Sunstone 15 (Nov. 1991): 39-46.
5. For an example of continuing tradition of positivism in history, see Robert Fogel and G. R. Elton, Which Road to the Past? Two Views of Scientific and Traditional History (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1983). According to Novick, “The book constitutes a mutual nonaggression pact between two hitherto warring positivistic schools”; Novick, That Noble Dream, 610.
6. See, for example, Dominick LaCapra’s critique of G. R. Elton’s approach to sixteenth-century English history. Elton is considered to be the premier objectivist historian of his generation, and his handbook, The Practice of History (London: Fontana, 1969), stands out as the most significant practical defense of “soft positivism” among historians of today. LaCapra, the most forceful exponent of post-structural approaches to history in America, sees Elton’s method as too restrictive and unresponsive to the demands of intellectual history. But otherwise he recognizes the importance (as well as the objectivist limitations) of Elton’s work. See Dominick LaCapra, History & Criticism (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1985), 136-39.
10. Kellner, Language and Representation, 3-25, 325-33. He ultimately modifies Ricoeur by averring “the deepest respect for reality” but at the same time recognizing the function of rhetorical devices on the historical imagination. There is an interplay of both in historical representation.
Hayden White stands out as the most important American historian who attempts to impose literary models on historical writing. See Metahistory: The Historical Imagination in Nineteenth-Century Europe (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1973). For general reactions to White, see Novick, That Noble Dream, 624-25.
18. Bohn seemingly ignores that his description would also characterize such traditional historians as Milton V. Backman and Richard Anderson as well as Hugh Nibley, who are all products of large American universities and who likewise apply models from the social sciences. Indeed is there a current intellectual writing on Mormon history who has completely avoided the use of such models?
19. For a useful summary of the historiography of New Mormon History, see Louis Midgley and David J. Whittaker, “Mapping Contemporary Mormon Historiography,” book in progress; draft of 6 November 1990 is available in Special Collections, Harold B. Lee Library, Brigham Young University. Chapter 3 is an annotated bibliography of discussions on Mormon historiography since 1958.
21. Bohn asserts that secular historiography “has no vocabulary for authentic spiritual experience and no words for the genuinely divine.” This flies in the face of the long tradition of biblical historical studies. Many of these scholars participate and publish in forums sponsored by Brigham Young University. See “Our Own Agenda,” 47.
24. The one example used by Bohn to demonstrate this is the Mark Hofmann forgery affair. Bohn contends that the prosecution in the case found it difficult to persuade the New Mormon Historians to give up belief in the Hofmann forgeries. This was true at least until physical evidence on the forgeries was made available. I was present at the BYU lecture given by George Throckmorton, a forensic document expert, in which he demonstrated how the Martin Harris “salamander” letter was shown to be a forgery. I discussed Throckmorton’s presentation with my university colleagues, including a number of prominent New Mormon Historians. Not one scholar said that they still believed in the Hofmann forgeries, although questions were raised about why the FBI forensic experts earlier authenticated the document. Of course, historians were fooled by Hofmann, and this points to the need for more careful standards. [p.278]But this does not in itself prove that historians do not conscientiously try to be critical of their sources.
27. See Howard Clair Searle, “Early Mormon Historiography: Writing the History of the Mormons 1830-1858,” Ph.D. diss., University of California at Los Angeles, 1979; David Bitton and Leonard J. Arrington, Mormons and their Historians (Salt Lake City: University of Utah Press, 1988).
30. An excellent example of this is in V. Ben Bloxham, James R. Moss, and Larry C. Porter, eds., Truth Will Prevail: The Rise of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in the British Isles 1837-1987 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press for the Corporation of the President of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, 1987). Chapters 3-5, the crucial chapters in early Mormonism in the British Isles, were largely written from printed sources such as Orson F. Whitney and the compilations of Andrew Jensen. The archival sources behind such stories were never consulted, nor were a wealth of material from diaries, journals, and reminiscences.
42. A good example of such thinking is provided by Gary F. Novak, who in assessing Marvin S. Hill’s studies on early Mormon origins has [p.279]”discovered” hidden sources of “atheism” in Hill’s remarks: the “models from the social and behavioral sciences from which Hill draws—social stress theories of revelation, the cultural connections of teachings in the Book of Mormon with the Calvinism of Joseph’s immediate environment—all involve implicit assumptions about such questions as the existence of God.” Rather than atheism, such lines of reasoning can only be described as a non sequitur. See “Naturalistic Assumptions and the Book of Mormon,” Brigham Young University Studies 3 (Summer 1990): 33 and passim.
46. Hayden White has written, “Historical events, whatever else they may be, are events which really happened or are believed really to have happened, but which are no longer directly accessible to perception. As such, in order to be constituted as objects of reflection, they must be described, and described in some kind of natural or technical language.” Hayden White, “New Historicism: A Comment,” in The New Historicism, ed. H. Aram Veeser (London: Routledge, 1989), 297.
49. See for example, Milton V. Backman, Jr., The Heavens Resound: A History of the Latter-day Saints in Ohio 1830-1838 (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1983). Backman uses such terminology from the social sciences as seekers, primitive Christianity, revolution, as well as economic models and environmental explanations for persecution and internal dissent. This in no way casts aspersions on Backman’s book but demonstrates that even traditional writers cannot (and should not) avoid such categories and modes of explanation.
51. The basic meaning of profane seems to mean to desecrate or defile such things as the altar, the Sabbath, the sanctuary, and the name of God. It also has the more modern meaning of showing contempt for sacred things. Can it be argued that collectively New Mormon Historians have really shown contempt for sacred things? Is there evidence that New Mormon Historians argue that LDS history is “merely human”? Thus the appropriateness of Bohn’s analogy of sacred and profane must be questioned.
52. Gadamer, Truth and Method, 277-307. Also germane to this discussion is Gadamer’s contention concerning the possibilities of historical understanding of the New Testament and its authors. He maintains that the [p.280]kerygmatic meaning of the New Testament “cannot ultimately contradict the legitimate investigation of meaning by historical science.” See Hans-Georg Gadamer, Philosophical Hermeneutics (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1976), 209-11.
54. See especially Bohn, “Our Own Agenda,” 49n17. He asserts, “Some committed historians seek to resolve the dilemma by clearly stating in advance that they accept the truth claims of the Church. Although this brings the dilemma to the reader’s attention, it does not resolve it. In the measure that the historians rely on naturalistic language to account for fundamentally prophetic phenomena, they will offer explanations which are essentially at odds with the claims of the Church. As a result, the believing historian is forced to compartmentalize his understanding of the Church into seemingly unbridgeable categories of the spiritual, accepted on the basis of faith, and the secular, rooted in naturalist explanation.” This becomes a serious matter, because he is suggesting that this is sinful (making statements at odds with the claims of the Church) to use naturalistic language to describe religious experience. Of course naturalistic language is commonly used in discourse through the church and is rooted in all human language. Perhaps what is needed is a new vocabulary (God-speak, perhaps) to keep us from such pharisaic sins.
56. For an approach that is critical of historians who “mine” texts for “facts” and advocates a broader, dialogical reading, see LaCapra, Rethinking Intellectual History, and his History of Criticism (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1985).