Edited by George D. Smith
The Acids of Modernity and the Crisis in Mormon Historiography
[p.189]Coming from outside the latter-day saint community, Martin E. Marty1 situates the current Mormon controversy over faith and history in a larger context by demonstrating that the struggle over how best to approach the Mormon past resembles one that has taken place in the larger Christian and Jewish communities. In addition, Marty is not burdened with a narrow secular parochialism in his approach to Mormon historiography. Hence his analysis is perhaps better grounded than that taken by those who tend to focus their attention on a narrow slice of American history. Marty’s identification of “the crisis in Mormon historiography”2—a quandary of faith among Mormon historians—thus constitutes a sound starting point for further probing of key issues. This crisis concerns Joseph Smith’s prophetic claims and the Book of Mormon which are now being debated in an academic arena in which a struggle is being waged for control of the Mormon past. I believe that this debate is both theoretically challenging and central to the faith.3
Though Marty does not describe the emergence of a presumably “new” history of the Mormon past, he demonstrates that a discussion is taking place of issues that have significant practical consequences for the life of the community of faith and memory. What is at stake in the current debate is the possibility and content of faith as Latter-day Saints have known it. Before turning to the [p.190]details of Marty’s essay, I will sketch the background of the crisis he sees in Mormon historiography, a crisis that has drawn public attention during the period since 1974 in which historians have employed the label “new Mormon history.”4 What constitutes this New History? When and why did it start? What are its characteristics? In what way might New History be in any way linked to a “crisis”?
In 1983 Thomas G. Alexander, a respected prize-winning Mormon historian and advocate for the so-called New Mormon History,5 indicated that a distinctively new approach “started in the 1950s among both Mormon and non-Mormon scholars,” who believed “that secular and spiritual motivation coexist in human affairs and that a sympathetic but critical evaluation of the Mormon past, using techniques derived from historical, humanistic, social-scientific, and religious perspectives, could help in understanding what is at base a religious movement.”6 “Thirty years ago,” according to Robert B. Flanders, “Leonard Arrington in Great Basin Kingdom raised for Mormons a fundamental question of epistemology: can empiricism, the secular method of modern history, stand with or even shoulder aside prophetic insight as a means of describing and understanding the saints’ experience with the Kingdom in time and space?”7 If Flanders is correct, as early as 1958 an effort was made within the Mormon community to characterize the controlling assumptions that ought to govern what historians write about the Mormon past.8
Others, however, have held that Fawn M. Brodie9 and Dale L. Morgan10—two secular critics of Mormon origins—set the stage, provided “the bridge” to the history that followed, and furnished some of the crucial vocabulary in which the discussion is conducted.11 In 1986 Paul M. Edwards, director of curriculum and clergy training at the Temple School Division of the Reorganized Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, claimed that “this new approach to Mormon history started with Fawn Brodie’s No Man Knows My History (1945).”12 Earlier, in 1974, Flanders claimed that “the 1945 publication of Fawn M. Brodie’s No Man Knows My History was a landmark” in the emergence of a New Mormon History; her book was “a transitional work. A new era dawned with her book. All subsequent serious studies of early Mormonism have necessarily had Brodie as a reference point.”13 In 1991 William D. Russell, also RLDS, traced the development of a New Mormon History as follows: “Beginning with [p.191]Fawn Brodie’s biography of Joseph Smith in 1945 and continuing with Leonard Arrington’s Great Basin Kingdom (1958) and Robert Flanders’s Nauvoo: Kingdom on the Mississippi (1966), professional historians began to write church history by the standards of their profession. A great volume of professional works has been produced by these ‘New Mormon Historians.'”14
There are, of course, disparate views even on whether there is a New Mormon History,15 and, if there is, what exactly characterizes and distinguishes it from its antecedents, and hence where exactly it began. For example, one apologist for the kind of secular, naturalistic accounts provided by Brodie and Morgan flatly rejects the view that “the rise of a scientific, objective Mormon history began . . . barely thirty years ago,” a stance he attributes to Davis Bitton and Leonard J. Arrington. From his perspective, Mormon history “turned an important corner in the 1940s.”16 For various reasons, LDS historians, unlike RLDS, have stressed the role of Arrington in New Mormon History, downplaying or ignoring earlier authors like Brodie and Morgan. For example, Alexander, writing in 1983, insisted that “an explicit application of social-scientific concepts to a Mormon problem had to await what is probably the single most significant bellwether of the New Mormon History, Leonard J. Arrington’s Great Basin Kingdom.”17
Charles S. Peterson has recently drawn attention to the dilemma faced by New Mormon Historians who seem increasingly isolated from Latter-day Saints and their leaders; he attributes this to the narrowing of intellectual horizons generated by the attention of New Mormon Historians in the 1980s to distinctively “Mormon concepts”—to what he calls “questions relating to revelation, otherworldly influences or the matter of ultimate loyalty.” From his perspective the apologia for the New Mormon History are flawed because they are “defensive and assertive rather than analytical or philosophical.”18 Responding to a growing criticism directed at the more secular, naturalistic accounts, in 1986 Alexander for the first time distinguished among (1) history written from within the categories of faith that he feels is being defended by those he labels “Traditionalists,”19 (2) a “New Mormon History,”20 and (3) history written by “Secularists.” His defense of New Mormon History bolsters it against criticisms from “Traditionalists” as well as “Secularists.”21 New Mormon Historians, from Alexander’s perspective, while ac-[p.192]knowledging “religious” motivations, endeavor to explain the Mormon past with categories of secular religious studies and from current fashions in social or behavioral sciences.22 Alexander spurns the history he assumes “Traditionalists” defend because he sees it as apologetic, faith-promoting, pietistic and polemical, while he also shies away from history done by “secularists” because it tends not to give sufficient attention to “religious” motivations.23
The symptoms of the historiographical crisis Marty describes turn out to be, from my perspective, primarily the work of those Alexander describes as “Secularists.” The work of many of those he labels “New Mormon Historians” seems to raise few fundamental issues except by inadvertence. But it is different with those whom Marvin S. Hill describes as “middle ground historians,”24 for he denies that their secular, naturalistic accounts of Mormon origins challenge the integrity of faith,25 while Alexander, by designating some historians as “Secularists,” seems to sense that at least some accounts may dissolve the grounds and contest the content of faith.
Marty understands Mormon faith to be characterized by a “thoroughly historical mode and mold”  which opens it to both inquiry and controversy.26 He recognizes that Latter-day Saint faith has both historical content and grounding. Why? Joseph Smith told a strange story. Was it the truth? If he was a faker or victim of illusion and hence his prophetic message false, ultimately we have nothing that places us in touch with deity. But if he told the truth, and if foundational texts like the Book of Mormon are genuine, then we have something. History is therefore the arena in which the truth claims of the restored gospel are contested. Those who have received the Book of Mormon and the story of Joseph Smith’s prophetic gifts have found therein grounds for faith in God. Others do not receive the message, and, according to Marty, “there have been Mormons who left the faith because their view of the historical events which gave shape to it no longer permitted them to sustain it” . The Book of Mormon and Joseph Smith’s story are clearly a stumbling block, but they also furnish grounds for a distinctive community of memory and faith.27
As the writing of Mormon history has moved since 1945 from cottage to academic industry, Marty believes that the discussion of the historical foundations of the Latter-day Saint faith has grown in both intensity and urgency [170-71, 175] to the point where it has [p.193]reached a critical stage. Some of the questions being debated concern the core of faith. “Mormon thought is experiencing a crisis comparable to but more profound than that which Roman Catholicism recognized around the time of the Second Vatican Council (1962-65)” . The Catholic crisis was dogmatic; the Mormon agitation is historical in the sense that it involves the understanding of the historical foundations of the faith [169-70]. According to Marty, “when Latter-day Saints argue, they argue about morals based on history, or about historical events and their meaning—and about how the contemporary community acquires its identity and its sense of ‘what to do and how to do it’ from the assessment of the character, quality, content, and impetus of that story.” In addition, and more to the point, he also recognizes that “Mormons have not made much of doctrine, of theology: They especially live as chosen and covenanted people in part of a developing history. Much is at stake when the story is threatened, as it potentially could have been when [Mark Hofmann’s] forged documents concerning Mormon origins agitated the community and led to tragedy a few years ago.”28
The reason for the crisis in Mormon historiography, according to Marty, is that a “faith attached to or mediated through historical events has always had some dimensions of an ‘offense’ or ‘scandal'” . Some find unseemly the account of Joseph Smith’s prophetic gifts, visits with angels, the Book of Mormon, and other revelations. But why should the ferment now reach inside the community and touch the faith of some intellectuals? It was inevitable, according to Marty, since the faith is thoroughly historical, that crisis would overtake some Saints as they confront their past under the impact of elements of modernity. The primary source of the present crisis is the appropriation by a few intellectuals of competing or conflicting ideologies that began to dominate the thinking of educated people beginning with the Enlightenment . The crisis is thus a conflict between the substance of Latter-day Saint faith, especially the prophetic claims upon which it rests, and certain of the dominant or at least fashionable ideas found in the secular culture.
Though it is widely recognized by competent observers both outside and inside the Mormon community that the faith of the Saints is profoundly historical,29 some writers argue that this is not so, or, if it is so, it is a tragic mistake.30 Perhaps in order to avoid what is assumed to be an unfortunate historical grounding of faith, or [p.194]because of presumably unseemly contents, these writers claim that faith is not (or should not be) tied to accounts of the past. Entailed in such a stance is the view that faith should have neither an historical grounding nor content. Instead, texts like the Book of Mormon or Joseph Smith’s reports of plates and visits with angels merely appear to credulous believers to constitute a genuine past made up of actual events. In addition, it is sometimes claimed that a past understood as essentially fictional, and in that sense mythical, cannot be examined other than by looking at its possible effects in the lives of its adherents, that the story of Mormon origins cannot be told from the perspective of the believer because an essentially mythical past grounded in what are thought to be illusions or delusions or at best ineffable mystical experiences does not yield to genuine historical scrutiny, that is, as they often say, it cannot be “proven” to be true. By adopting such a stance historians take a position on historical issues crucial to the faith, for it is clear that a radically different strategy must be adopted for dealing with texts that are thought to be fraudulent or that are believed to report ineffable mystical intuitions or that merely constitute grounds for a fictional “foundation myth” than the strategy for reading non-fictional texts that strive to record realities. These two strategies have, of course, generated a debate, and this controversy constitutes part of what Marty describes as the “crisis in Mormon historiography” .
Marty maintains that the current crisis centers on the attempts of a few Latter-day Saint historians to assess the historical foundations of the faith in the light of categories and assumptions borrowed from the larger culture. Instead of following the recommendation of Richard L. Bushman,31 or following his example in Joseph Smith and the Beginnings of Mormonism by telling the story of Mormon origins from within categories of faith, some historians tell the story of the Mormon past from within a horizon provided by assumptions essentially foreign to the faith—assumptions borrowed from the social or behavioral sciences or from secularized religious studies. Such assumptions tend to compete with the faith, if they do not flatly contradict it. Such secular (or naturalistic) explanations may also provide intellectual justifications for radically altering the grounds, form, and content of faith or for unbelief. Marty thus holds that the crisis in Mormon historiography is not generated by the discovery of new texts, for they only complicate or enhance the [p.195]picture of the past, or by inquiries into polygamy or other such issues. The difficulties he sees at the heart of the crisis arise in the way texts, especially the Book of Mormon, are to be understood, and this necessarily involves a network of assumptions held by the historian. This is the case precisely because what is brought to the interpretive task colors and controls the way texts are read. It is not even what historians call “facts” or “evidences” that are decisive, for there is nothing much evident about the past that is non-trivial without theories and assumptions that make it so by opening up in different ways the possible meanings of the texts upon which historical accounts necessarily depend. Thus background assumptions, as well as interpretative theories, determine in large measure how a story is told. The crisis that Marty describes is, therefore, not a difficulty forced on historians by some dramatic discovery that suddenly unravels the truth claims of the faith. Marty describes the difficulty confronting Mormon historians as a crisis of understanding, and hence of faith, and not of history as such.32
Marty rejects as “trivial the question of whether the faith is threatened by the revelation of human shortcomings” of the Saints or their leaders [175-76]. Such issues have fascinated a segment of historians, but from Marty’s perspective such matters raise only public relations and pedagogical issues, or constitute what he calls “political embarrassments” or address merely “borderline religious issues” . As important as such issues may be, “intellectually these are not of much interest” . Marty thus attempts to “cut through all the peripheral issues”  that plague the discussion of the Mormon past in order to address what is really at stake. He shows that the crisis of faith does not center on peripheral issues like polygamy, but on the way founding events are to be understood. Nor is it brought on by the refutation of something essential to the faith. Rather it centers on how founding events—Joseph Smith’s gifts, special revelations, and the Book of Mormon—are to be understood. It is foundational questions (for example, is the Book of Mormon what it claims to be?) that are crucial and these issues are essentially historical in that they are open to scrutiny by historians. It is therefore a mistake to assert, as some do, that the way history is written “seldom directly threatens fundamental religious beliefs because history and religion seldom meet,”33 especially if one has in mind Latter-day Saints. To begin with such a premise ends up begging important [p.196]questions by tacitly assuming what should be demonstrated: that nothing really important is at stake when the history of the faith is being radically transformed or challenged.
Marty traces the impact of certain of the dominant ideas of the larger culture that deny the possibility of the truth of Latter-day Saint faith, that compete with explanations internal to the faith, or that reduce such matters to mere expressions of sentiment. In addition, Marty argues that both the content as well as the possibility of faith are linked to the way the past is understood. He concludes that “if the beginning . . . , the First Vision and the Book of Mormon, can survive the crisis, then the rest of the promenade follows and nothing that happens in it can really detract from the miracle of the whole. If the first steps do not survive, there can be only antiquarian, not fateful or faith-full interest in the rest of the story” . This is a clear statement of the decisive issue in the current controversy generated by recent efforts to fashion secular (or naturalistic) understandings of the foundations of the faith of Latter-day Saints.
Marty grants that it has not been proven that Joseph Smith was a fraud or the victim of illusion or that the Book of Mormon is fiction [178, 179, 186]—there is only a crisis of faith. The roots of this crisis he traces to ideologies that began corroding Protestant and Roman Catholic piety with the Enlightenment. According to Marty, the challenges to the historical foundations of the faith of the Saints are analogous to those corroding Christian and Jewish faith. Elsewhere, he describes the challenges to Christian faith from “modernity,”34 a term commonly used to describe a cluster of related, though also competing, secular ideologies that distinguish the modern from the pre-modern world. Marty maintains that religious controversies in America are mostly internal to the churches simply because “so many of the battles seem to have to do with matters of faith.” The reason for this is that such quarrels have “grown up on the sparse soil of modernity.”35 From Marty’s perspective, European Protestants, like French Catholics, “have stared into the face of practical and metaphysical atheism and have seen what modernity has done to the meaning of faith itself.” He finds that modernity eventually comes to fruition in the writings of Marx, Nietzsche, Darwin and Freud—the so-called “God-Killers.”36 He thus uses the expression “acids of modernity”37 to describe “the process of corrosion which affected the vessel of apostolicity.”38
[p.197]Modernity yields scientism—a new secular religion of science—as well as Secular Fundamentalism: ideologies that dislodge God from history and from the world generally. Modernity also includes the new understanding of history that challenges the historical foundations of biblical faith among both Christians and Jews, as well as the rise of an historical consciousness which plunges all elements of culture into a sea of relativity. The source of the malaise that challenges the claims of historically grounded and mediated faith is the radical Historicist belief in the relativity of all positions, especially those resting on special revelations, and even of those grounded in unaided human reason. The problem is not generated by merely holding that the truths of history cannot be demonstrated or finally proven, that they are not somehow “objective,” for even that understanding of truth, from the perspective of a radical Historicism, is itself only a part of the perpetual flux of ideas in history .
The “crisis of historical consciousness” that troubles the Christian world is one that Marty believes has “cut to the marrow in the Protestant body of thoughtful scholars in Western Europe in the nineteenth century” , and is analogous to one the Saints now face as they emerge from prereflective naivete. One of the chief sources of the crisis is a remnant of Enlightenment-grounded fear of superstition. The assault on Christian piety also came from ideologies linked to an historical consciousness which began “to relativize Christian distinctiveness in the face of other ways . . .” . Modernity thus includes the Romantic reaction to the Enlightenment commonly known as Historicism, but it also includes other ideologies that have found their way into the hearts and minds of historians: “In the nineteenth century, the age of modern critical history, the crisis of historical consciousness became intense and drastic. Now no events, experiences, traces, or texts were exempt from scrutiny by historians who believed they could be value-free, dispassionate. Today, of course, no one sees them as being successful in their search. They were tainted by radical Hegelian dialectics, neo-Kantian rigorisms, or the biases of a positivism that thought it could be unbiased” . This now seems naive, but it was once “highly successful at destroying the primitive naivete among those who read them seriously” .
Marty thus traces the crisis among Latter-day Saint historians to ideologies with roots in the Enlightenment: to a deep confidence in reason and even deeper fear of superstition, to naive Positivist [p.198]notions of historical objectivity, and to the Historicist insistence on the relativity and hence equality of all faith or of all religions. These ideologies have now fallen on hard times, though their remnants are still at home among a few Latter-day Saint historians. Should these intellectual fashions serve as the foundation for the understanding of the Mormon past? On that issue Marty is silent.
The most common justification for efforts to transform what Latter-day Saints believe is historical reality into fiction (into myth understood as something other than authentic history, or into instances of mysticism) has been the assumption that the historian must strive for detachment from the faith, coupled with the notion that a presumably “objective” historian cannot deal with prophetic truth claims. Some writers have assumed that it is necessary and possible to achieve a measure of balance, detachment, or objectivity. And, as a corollary, they sometimes maintain that an historian cannot assume the truth of the faith, hence the story of the Mormon past cannot be told from the perspective of faith.39 In the extreme case, they insist that the presumed need for detachment from the faith requires treating the prophetic truth claims of Joseph Smith as false, or at least that they cannot be assumed to be true when telling the story of the Mormon past. Some denigrate telling the Mormon story from within the categories of faith as apologetic or faith-promoting and hence, from their perspective, not genuine history. Or they may hold that historical inquiry has (or will) somehow disprove those historical truth claims unless they can be insulated from the scrutiny of historians by converting them into instances of mysticism or into myths which are not the same thing as the study of real places, persons, and things.
Marty places the delicious ironies of the various encounters between faith and modernity near the core of his interpretation of American religiosity. He expresses apprehension about the capitulation of believers to certain of the fashions of modernity. He also argues, and from my perspective persuasively, that Christian faith, whatever its content and contours, has a legitimate place in the doing of history.40 The corrosive effects of modernity impact diverse types of religiosity in different ways. The particular “aspect of modernity” that has generated the current crisis of faith among a few Latter-day Saint historians “has to do with the challenge of modern historical consciousness and criticism” .
[p.199]Christians confronted by the corrosive ideologies of the nineteenth century responded in various ways: “Some lost faith,” Marty explains; while others affirmed their faith in seemingly more satisfactory ways; others transformed the content of faith to accommodate as best they could the pressures of secular ideologies; and some turned to “defensive fundamentalisms” . Unfortunately, when Marty examines the impact of modernity in the Latter-day Saint setting, he does not acknowledge the same range of responses. These have issued as dissent and denial, loss of faith, or radical alterations to the content of faith to accommodate competing secular ideologies. But it has also yielded more adequate accounts of the Mormon past that are also fully consonant with faith.41
The crisis, Marty realizes, does not involve secondary or peripheral issues [176, 177-78 ], like the faults of the Saints or their leaders, but does involve what he calls “generative issues” . The primary question concerns the veracity of Joseph Smith’s “theophanies” and “revelations.” Joseph’s epiphanies—the prophetic charisms, visits with angels, the seer stones—are linked to the founding revelation, the Book of Mormon. These work together to constitute “a single base for Mormon history. When historians call into question both the process and the product, they come to or stand on holy ground” . If these revelations do not survive historical inquiry “there can be only antiquarian, not fateful or faith-full, interest in the rest of the story” . The primary issue thus becomes a combination of two related questions: Was Joseph Smith a genuine seer and prophet? and Is the Book of Mormon true? Hence a fateful response to the Mormon past depends upon the founding events being simply true. “To say ‘prophet’ made one a Saint” and to deny or reject the prophetic claims “is precisely what made one leave Mormonism or never convert in the first place” .
But the “stark prophet/fraud polarity”  troubles Marty, as it has others. For historians to ask if Joseph Smith was a genuine prophet exerts a chilling effect on discussions between believers and sympathetic unbelievers, and it seems unlikely that it is a question that can be resolved to the satisfaction of everyone, though it is a question that historians can address either directly or indirectly. In any case, most historians do not concentrate on that particular question. Perhaps a different way of formulating or conceiving the fundamental question might facilitate attention to secondary issues with which historians, especially those in the grasp of modernity, would feel somewhat more comfortable. Reasoning in this way, Marty struggles to move outside or “beyond the prophet/fraud issue addressed to generative Mormon events” . But he also explains why Joseph Smith’s claims are such that they ultimately demand either a prophet or a not-prophet answer. When dealing with generative events, Marty senses that one cannot have it both ways, and one cannot entirely avoid the issue of whether they are authentic.
Marty strives to avoid the prophet/fraud dialectic, while still addressing Joseph Smith’s prophetic claims. He proposes two ways to do this. First, historians might simply bracket or suspend the question of whether Joseph Smith was a genuine prophet and the Book of Mormon an authentic ancient history. They could do so in order to deal with “a new range of questions,” which include: “what sort of people are these people [who believe such things], what sort of faith is this faith, what sort of prophet with what sort of theophany and revelation was Joseph Smith?”  Those interested in the Mormon past often address secondary questions. For the most part, the issues Latter-day Saint historians deal with stand outside the controversy over whether the Book of Mormon is true and Joseph Smith a genuine prophet. Yet opinions on these questions may still be reflected in or even control the way historians address secondary issues. The primary question can, of course, be bracketed in order to inquire into such secondary questions. But whether it is possible to deal with secondary questions without an implicit answer to the primary issue coming into play has not been settled.
Marty also holds that in addressing the primary question it is unlikely that historians are going to disprove Joseph Smith’s prophetic claims. They “may find it possible to prove to their own satisfaction that Smith was a fraud” [179, also 178, 186] but may have difficulty convincing others that they have succeeded. In any case, “the issue of fraud, hoax, or charlatanry simply need not, does not, preoccupy the historical profession most of the time” , but that is not to say that it does not occupy the attention of historians some of the time, or that opinions of historians form on the truth of Joseph Smith’s prophetic claims do not wield subtle influence on answers to the questions that preoccupy them most of the time. Marty grants that historians who bracket the question of the truth of Joseph Smith’s claims are still “nagged or tantalized”  by it. And the [p.201]answer to the question of whether Joseph Smith was a genuine prophet and the Book of Mormon true may influence if not control what they make of the rest.
Marty’s second way around the question of the truth of Joseph Smith’s prophetic claims has been fashioned by historians who have started asking “more radical questions than before. They had to move through history and interpretation toward a `second naivete’ which made possible transformed belief and persistent identification with the people. They brought new instruments to their inquiry into Mormon origins . . .” . He grants that these historians have achieved a “transformed belief” through the categories informing their “interpretation” . For such historians the accounts of events which may have once shaped their participation in the Mormon community of faith and memory may no longer sustain it, and yet some have “remained with the Mormon people” for various reasons. They have, he feels, “made their own adjustment” . Hence some historians who have experienced the corrosive power of the ideological acids of modernity still desire for sentimental or other reasons “persistent identification with the people” of faith .
According to Marty, some historians have “brought new instruments to their inquiry into Mormon origins”  with which they picture Joseph Smith as a sincere though superstitious rustic with a genius for addressing the religious concerns of his age, instead of charging him with blatant fraud. In such revisionist accounts42 he is pictured as a mystic, a magician, a myth-maker who eventually managed to found a “new religious tradition.” The new revised standard version differs from the old standard version in that it does not accuse Joseph Smith of fraud or deceit, as did the line of critics running from Alexander Campbell through Fawn M. Brodie and Dale L. Morgan to Wesley P. Walters. Instead, Joseph Smith is seen as an inventive, conflicted, dissociative, sincerely superstitious scryer or magus. This is, of course, one possible way around the “prophet/fraud dialectic” . In that sense, there is a middle ground between prophet and fraud. But these revisionist accounts end up denying the historical foundations of the faith by compromising Joseph Smith’s prophetic claims–there can be no equivocation on that issue. For to begin to understand the foundations as essentially mystical,43 mythical,44 or magical45 is to deny that they are simply true. Why is that so?
[p.202]Abraham Joshua Heschel, from within Judaism, has examined the range of possible explanations of special revelations. For Heschel, one who confronts the core message of the Bible is presented with certain claims. “The problem concerning us most is whether revelation has ever taken place,” and again, “Is revelation a fact? Did it actually take place?”46 Heschel finds that “there are only three ways of judging the prophets: they [a] told the truth, [b] deliberately invented a tale, or [c] were victims of an illusion. In other words, a revelation is either a fact or the product of insanity, self-delusion, or a pedagogical invention, the product of a mental confusion, or wishful thinking [that is, an outgrowth of `the spirit of the age’] or a subconscious activity.”47 The New Mormon History, at least in its secularist mode, entertains or embraces one or more of these alternatives but without always carefully considering whether they are inimical to a faith-full response to the Mormon past.
Marty describes three approaches to Mormon history that go “beyond the prophet/fraud issue [and that can be] addressed to generative Mormon events” . The first of these he calls “consciousness” studies or psychological explanations of Joseph Smith that would “make plausible the prophethood and throw light on prophetic character” .48 The second approach is most attractively advanced by Jan Shipps,49 who avoids the question of whether or not Joseph Smith was a genuine prophet by opining that “as far as history is concerned, the question of whether Smith was prophet or fraud is not particularly important.”50 Obviously this question is not important for those with only antiquarian curiosity about Mormon things. Nor does it make a difference from an essentially Historicist or radically relativist perspective. Though her recent book is insightful, especially about the place of the Book of Mormon in the faith of the Saints, and she approaches her subject matter with a measure of sympathy, Shipps does not manage to suspend unbelief; she merely strives to make questions of truth seem irrelevant to her questions. The chief weakness in her approach is that it does not genuinely allow the possibility that Joseph Smith’s prophetic claims or the Book of Mormon are simply true, and until one has faced that possibility, one has not begun to penetrate the heart and mind of the faithful.
From the point of view of the believer or potential believer the question of whether Joseph was a genuine prophet and whether the Book of Mormon is true is decisive. Shipps insists that the Saints [p.203]cannot prove that the Book of Mormon is true or that Joseph Smith was a prophet. From that she concludes that the Book of Mormon “has never lent itself to the same process of verification that historians use to verify ordinary accounts of what happened in the past. The historicity of the Book of Mormon has been asserted through demonstrations that ancient concepts, practices, doctrines, and rituals are present in the work. . . .” However, she claims that “such demonstrations point, finally, only to plausibility. Proof is a different matter.”51 Historians, from her point of view, deal in proofs and not merely in plausibility; they seek “intellectual verification” and try to know “what really happened.”52 On this issue she is simply wrong, for plausibility is about as good as one can expect from historical accounts that confront more than trivial issues. The crucial question is whether accounts of human and divine things, and hence myth in that sense, disclose historical reality. Bushman shows that the strength and “staying power of the Latter-day Saints from 1830 to the present rest on belief in the reality” of certain crucial events, including “that the Book of Mormon was true history. . . .”53 Bushman’s account of Mormon origins has, of course, drawn attention precisely because he writes candidly as a believer and explicitly defends the historical authenticity of the Book of Mormon and the prophetic truth claims of Joseph Smith. Hence he has been seen by some as an apologist, which he clearly is, and either praised or faulted for assuming that role. Though their positions have some things in common, in the decisive respect Bushman’s position differs from that of Shipps, who holds that what the Saints have in the Book of Mormon is myth, at least when seen from the perspective of history. Her stance implies that faith is not in touch with a genuine historical reality.
Marty does not examine the background assumptions at work in the history done by Klaus J. Hansen, Lawrence Foster, and Jan Shipps, the historians whose works he mentions.54 Instead, he bestows “integrity” on both the radical mythological and psychological accounts of Mormon foundational texts and events. He admits that such accounts have obviously “transformed belief” , but neglects to examine the extent or consequences of the transformation of belief or the reasons for the transformation in revisionist literature. From my perspective, both what is believed and faith itself are altered when the story of Lehi and his people is understood as fictional and the messenger with the plates transformed into crude [p.203]magic, or into a product of a dream of surcease of a troubled rustic, or into an expression of mysticism, or when the message or teachings of the Book of Mormon are seen as Joseph Smith’s imaginative effort to deal with sectarian controversies in his age through expansions on various theological themes drawn from his environment.
Marty’s “two integrities” identify, first, the integrity of the faith that a child might have (or an entirely unreflective adult) and, second, the integrity of one whose faith has survived an encounter with ideas in the outside world which compete with the content or ground of faith. Marty uses Paul Ricoeur’s expression “primitive naivete” to describe the beliefs of the child or isolated tribe or unreflective adult, and uses “secondary naivete” to describe the faith of one who has faced a crisis of faith and has managed to retain them. Marty makes much of the “primitive naivete”  of what he calls “unreflective” Saints . A crisis of faith is brought on by threats to naive faith through the recognition of competing possibilities. But, because their faith is tied to a controversial history, the Saints have always been involved with issues that seem to have taken them somewhat beyond a primitive naivete to a measure of reflective understanding. A more mature faith—Marty’s “second naivete”—has faced and overcome doubts brought on by the confrontation with the modernity. The crisis Marty depicts is thus a turning point in which either the desire for faith or the presence of faith, or both, eventually disappear in a loss or denial of faith, or are affirmed in a more complete and mature faith. When the troubled one is healed of unbelief by a new and deeper affirmation of faith, one could speak of a new secondary integrity. If the grounds and contents of faith were radically compromised, there would be no genuine faith or a transformed belief with an alien content. This seems to be the reason that the “generative events” must survive for there to be a “fateful or faith-full” response to the Mormon past. “If the first steps do not survive, there can be only antiquarian, not fateful or faith-full interest in the rest of the story” . Marty’s “two integrities” thus identify a soundness of faith on either side of the crisis of faith.
Some Latter-day Saint historians have advanced explanations of the crucial generative events and founding texts similar to those advanced by Shipps and Foster. For instance, Shipps did not invent her account—she borrowed its outlines from Marvin S. Hill. She drew upon his opinion that there is a “middle ground” between genuine [p.205]prophet and conscious fraud and hence a way around what she once described as the “prophet puzzle”—the “charlatan-true prophet dichotomy which has plagued Mormon history from the beginning.”55 One of Shipps’s explanations of Mormon origins is that Joseph Smith began his career as a magician and, eventually, became a kind of “religious genius” and powerful myth-maker. Presumably such an explanation avoids the old quarrel over the truth of the Mormon faith, which Hill now thinks cannot be resolved with proofs and hence should be abandoned by presumably objective historians.
Hill began his career noting that the “recurrent conflict between Saint and Gentile has generally divided historians into two groups, forging a cleavage in sentiment which is evident in the debates over the origin of the Book of Mormon,” as well as Joseph Smith’s prophetic claims.56 He argued that the most important issue concerns “the nature of that unique American scripture, the Book of Mormon. Acclaimed by the faithful as a sacred history of a Christian people in ancient America, the book has been labelled a fraud by non-believers. Bernard DeVoto recognized the fundamental character of this controversy when he said ‘it is inseparable from one’s explanation of Joseph Smith’.”57 Apparently Hill saw only two major ways of explaining the Book of Mormon. But by 1974 he attempted to fashion an explanation of the Book of Mormon and an account of Joseph Smith’s prophetic claims situated somewhere between the prophet or fraud alternatives he had outlined fifteen years earlier. In 1974 he claimed that “in attempting a psychological explanation of Smith rather than that of daring deception, the mature Brodie seems to be telling us that her old interpretation was too simple. Perhaps what Brodie may have recognized at last is that her original interpretation perceived Joseph Smith in falacious [sic] terms, as either prophet in the traditional Mormon sense or else as a faker. Her original thesis opens considerable room for speculation because its either-or alternatives were precisely the same as those of the early Mormon apologist and missionary, Orson Pratt. . . .”58
Brodie thought that the key to Joseph Smith was the Book of Mormon.59 Once one determined that the book was fiction, what remained was to work out a plausible explanation of how and why Joseph Smith made it up. Hence, in No Man Knows My History, she toyed with a number of related explanations for what she considered the Mormon imposture. In 1959 Hill provided a brief paraphrase of [p.206]her explanation, which he described as “the most plausible exposition of the Smith hypothesis.”60 Following a line of explanations that began with Alexander Campbell,61 she argued that Joseph Smith’s prophetic claims began as a tale which later took on the trappings of religion. In contrast, Hill has tried to locate a “broad, promising middle ground” between the traditional prophet-fraud alternatives.62 Such a stance runs counter to the traditional understanding, which is that, when confronted with the Book of Mormon, “there is no middle ground. This book is either false or true. If it is false, everybody ought to know it,” but if it is true, then it is appropriate that it serve as “the cornerstone of the Church.”63
Hill has, of course, elaborated a “Smith hypothesis” in ways that distinguish it from Brodie’s account. For example, more than Brodie, he stresses Joseph Smith’s sincerity and mystical or magical religiosity, though like Brodie he leaves that language undefined. He explains Joseph Smith’s “religion” as the product of elements common in nineteenth-century folk culture; it was all a product of superstition, confusions, and later embellishments of youthful half-forgotten dreams and hence a product of magic, myth, and mysticism rather than Brodie’s gross imposture, deception, or charlatanry. Hill’s “broad, promising middle ground” between prophet and fraud seems to be the notion that Joseph Smith was sincere and vaguely “religious.” Shipps has, from time to time, appropriated some of Hill’s position on these issues, but she goes further in the direction of a mythological rather than a psychological-environmental explanation.
In 1988, however, Hill claimed that he had “used the term `middle ground’ to describe a position between those who said Mormonism is untrue and those who insisted on conclusive proof that it is true.”64 But neither in his 1959 nor his 1974 essays does he search for a middle ground between a conservative “right” among Mormon historians and an anti-Mormon “left.”65 It seems that the mode of explanation he called for in 1974 was between prophet and faker. What he now offers as a “middle ground” is a methodological agnosticism about the Book of Mormon and Joseph Smith’s prophetic claims, and his “middle ground historians” are those who do not try to prove either that Joseph Smith was a prophet or a fraud.66 Hill seems to deny that a text like the Book of Mormon can be examined by historians. He thus appears to skirt the question of [p.207]whether Joseph Smith’s prophetic claims are within the arena of history. But to treat the historical grounds and contents of Mormon faith as anything but firmly rooted in history, which is what his stance entails, is to rob the faith of something essential. In 1959 Hill had no doubt that “the faithful” regard the Book of Mormon “as a sacred history of a Christian people in ancient America.” He now proposes that because some who reject it as authentic ancient history still find it “inspired” or inspiring, historians might be justified in pursuing that line of reasoning.67 Yet he also holds that to adopt a radically relativist position robs the faith of something essential: “if it is not possible to say anything truthful about the past, the missionary message of the restoration would be included. A position so cynical would destroy all Mormon claims to historical truth,”68 which he is not willing to, and yet he claims that a fictional Book of Mormon might be considered “inspired.” Unfortunately, he does not avoid rejecting traditional Mormon claims to historical truth.
Until recently, the standard non-Mormon explanation of the restoration was that Joseph Smith was a conscious or intentional fraud. Joseph Smith, as I have shown, is now sometimes pictured as a sincerely religious victim “of an illusion.”69 Such alternative perspectives on Joseph Smith (and the Book of Mormon) preclude the possibility of his prophetic claims being simply true. Revisionists “suggest” that Joseph Smith was “perhaps” confused, caught up in the spirit of his age, even dissociative or some combination of such possibilities, all of which tend to render the prophetic claims questionable or even false. One can, of course, fashion explanations of the Book of Mormon and of Joseph Smith’s prophetic claims that render them false without picturing them as instances of conscious deception and fraud and, in that way, work around the “prophet/fraud dialectic” , as Marty calls it. But the prophetic claims will still present the believer and unbeliever alike with either a prophet or not-prophet alternative.
One way to treat the historical portions of the foundational texts is to read them as myths and not as genuine historical realities. Some writers explain the Book of Mormon and Joseph Smith’s epiphanies as parabolic, allegorical, metaphorical, and hence not as actual events in an authentic past. But what meaning and authority would the Book of Mormon have when read that way? Anthony A. Hutchinson claims that the founding stories, understood as myths, [p.208]have “in some ways gained a new power because of their newly acquired clarity of meaning,” though he personally “suffered a sense of loss” and “experienced a certain disappointment” as he rejected “the claim of many of Joseph Smith’s works that they not only have a divine origin but also have an ancient origin.”70 For Hutchinson, divine revelation consists of “imaginative appropriation,” “imaginative reworking,” or “creative reworking” of older beliefs, stories, or traditions by “inspired” redactors. The product of such “imagination”71 is “myth,” understood as “the casting of theology in story form” or “inspired fiction.”72 And yet, Hutchinson acknowledges, “one may freely agree that a myth’s power in part depends upon the historical reality of events or persons within it.” An historical reality must stand behind myth “only when this historical reality is somehow directly related to the reality the myth seeks to meditate.” When and why might that be? “The power of a myth about redemption through Christ crucified and resurrected,” he admits, “seems directly dependent on whether Jesus in fact died and then bodily reappeared to his disciples.”73 But the authority and power of the restored gospel, for Hutchinson, is not dependent upon whether angels actually visited with Joseph Smith, or whether certain of his works have an ancient origin. The Book of Mormon, Book of Abraham, and Book of Moses (including the Enoch materials) are, for him, “myths” generated by Joseph Smith’s “creative reworking” of biblical and other lore.
Some Latter-day Saints who advance naturalistic accounts seem inclined to turn to what Sterling M. McMurrin denigrates as “sophisticated theories of symbol and myth,”74 turning prophets into mystics or imaginative myth-makers in order to salvage some semblance of “religious” meaning from stories no longer believed to be simply true. McMurrin will have nothing of such legerdemain. Instead, he has a more radical program which if systematically followed would retain only fragments of a culture resting on abandoned beliefs about the crucial elements in the past. He insists that the church must abandon the traditional understanding of the beginnings of the faith. He opines that a failure to do so is dishonest because an objective scrutiny of the historical foundations of the faith by genuinely competent historians discloses “a good many unsavory things.” Hence he charges “that the Church has intentionally distorted its own history by dealing fast and loose with historical data and imposing theological and religious interpretations on those data that are entirely unwar-[p.209]ranted.”75 From his perspective the Mormon “faith is so mixed up with so many commitments to historical events—or to events that are purported to be historical–that a competent study of history can be very disillusioning. Mormonism is a historically oriented religion. To a remarkable degree, the Church has concealed much of its history from its people, while at the same time causing them to tie their religious faith to its own controlled interpretations of its history.” His premise is that “nothing can produce a more rapid deterioration of religious faith than the honest study of the history of religion.”
The problem, as McMurrin sees it, is a “fault of the weakness of the faith” which should not be tied to history.76 He recommends a separation of faith from history, or rather what he calls “religion” (defined as sentiment) from history, substituting “naturalistic humanism”77 for prophetic faith. If something “religious” remained, since its links with the past would be effectively severed except for essentially sentimental purposes, it would be one determined entirely by current intellectual fashions. We should, from McMurrin’s perspective, begin with the dogma “that you don’t get books from angels and translate them by miracles; it is just that simple.”78 That dogma presumably takes care of Joseph Smith and the Book of Mormon. A history resting on such a premise would require, among other things, a fundamental reordering—if not outright abandonment—of the content of faith. McMurrin thus provides the least sentimental statement of the intellectual grounds for a secular (or naturalistic) and hence revisionist Mormon history. But would a program of turning the Mormon past and sacred texts into myths do any better? At least part of the difference between these programs seems to be the degree of sentimentality about elements of the faith whose historical grounds have been compromised or abandoned.
The justification for revisionist history is that an unbiased, detached, objective look at the Mormon past and at the Book of Mormon calls for a modification in the traditional links between faith and history. Sometimes it is assumed that detachment (or objectivity) and honesty (or truth) are necessarily aligned. But there should be no illusions about objectivity or about the possibility or desirability of avoiding bias. “People used to say,” according to Marty, “they should be ‘objective,’ but,” he claims, “objectivity seems to be a dream denied” . Still, some Mormon historians, especially those who advocate drawing upon categories and modes of explanation found [p.210]in secular religious studies or borrowing explanations from the social sciences, tend to see their work as more balanced, detached, or objective than the accounts they denigrate as faith-promoting, pietistic, or apologetic. For example, Hill defends “the possibility of an objective history” against the belief “that historians can never escape their own culture and personal biases.”79 Abandonment of historical objectivism would, he believes, lead to a destructive nihilism.80
Competent scholars outside and some writers within the Mormon community have questioned historical objectivism by probing the assumptions upon which that so-called “noble dream” (or professional “myth”) rests. They criticize the use of objectivist language while calling attention to the political function of such language.81 Thus a debate has erupted over the possibility or necessity of detachment or objectivity—ideas that were previously more or less taken for granted both by segments of the American historian profession and by some historians with interests in the Mormon past. It turns out that historical objectivism (or positivism) lacks coherence, and talk about the necessity of avoiding bias—of detachment, neutrality, and objectivity—is illusory precisely because the historian always brings formal and informal preunderstandings, assumptions, biases, theories, and viewpoints to the task of interpreting texts and providing explanations.82 This is not, as some may assume, a limitation that has to be overcome but a necessary condition for finding meaning in texts and text analogues.
After describing several possible strategies for avoiding what he calls the “prophet/fraud dialectic,” none of which is entirely satisfactory, Marty sets out an approach to doing religious history which rests on a different understanding of the method and limits of history [170-71] than that employed by the historians for whom he offers an apology. He seems to claim a superiority—not merely a distinction—for his approach. He also claims that his way has been used successfully by some Mormon historians to achieve a “second naivete” but does not cite any instances.
Drawing on portions of the current literature on textual exegesis or hermeneutics, Marty maintains that historical understanding rests on preunderstandings brought to the text by historians [181-82]. Revisionists tend to be uncomfortable with discussions of hermeneutics. “Although,” according to Hutchinson, “the recent [p.211]discussion is needed and somewhat helpful, I think that some basic cautions are needed,” though he has not indicated what they might be. Still he grants that a presuppositionless exegesis of texts is impossible.83 Hill provides a second example by affirming that he “is not as skeptical as certain hermeneuticists” about an essentially Positivist approach to the past.84 He holds that “there is grave danger in any Mormon historian adopting their perspective: the possibility that we can say anything with validity beyond our own cultural mind-set is then wiped out and with it hope that we have a true history to tell the world. It is indeed paradoxical that any Mormon would advance such a relativistic theory and assume that doing so is in the interest of the Church. This theory reflects, I think, what amounts to an intellectual crisis in Mormonism in which all are involved, albeit some without awareness.”85 But there is nothing necessarily nihilistic about careful textual exegesis. The more competent discussions of hermeneutics show that historians must necessarily strive to understand the meaning of the texts that provide the only windows to the past through the lens of formal and informal preunderstandings.86
These brief discussions of hermeneutics show, I believe, that some of the speculation of Mormon historians about their enterprise is still “tainted” by ideologies about which historians tend to be naive and uncritical precisely because they believe that they can or even have avoided having the bias introduced by faith. Some of these writers are still more or less enthralled by what Marty calls “the biases of a positivism that thought it could be unbiased” . Such a bias still fuels the demand for objectivity, neutrality or detachment from faith found in revisionist Mormon history. For example, though the thrust of one of Alexander’s essays is the claim that those doing New Mormon History are not in any way Positivists, he grants that “the term ‘objectivity’ has become so weighted with the positivistic connotation of full detachment . . . that it should be abandoned.” Furthermore, he admits, “it is clear that some historians, including some of the New Mormon Historians—in the search for objectivity—have tried to detach their personal religious and moral views from their writing.”87
Some of the pressure on Mormon historians to leave their beliefs out of their history—for detachment or objectivity in that sense—comes from those who simply do not believe. The demand for objectivity or detachment from faith and the demand for naturalistic [p.212]treatments of Mormon origins originally came from those who thought they had avoided the corrupting commitments of apologists engaged in writing what they denigrate as apologetic, faith-promoting history. Morgan and Brodie, both writers with roots in Mormon culture, were flush with that illusion. But both Morgan’s work, as well as the recent seemingly more neutral or detached history, suffers in comparison with that done by those who do not hold illusions about the possibility of objectivity and who are therefore not embarrassed to have their faith play a role in their history. However, the strength of Morgan’s position is that he sensed that when dealing with the Book of Mormon and Joseph Smith’s prophetic claims it had to be one way or the other—that there is what he called a Great Divide necessarily separating those who write naturalistic accounts from those who allow the possibility that Joseph Smith’s prophetic claims could be simply true. Ironically, when Bushman’s Joseph Smith is compared with Morgan’s efforts—both cover somewhat the same ground—it turns out that Bushman’s work is superior in content, style, and plausibility. Furthermore, Bushman’s book does not manifest the affectation of seeming detachment or neutrality that leaves the reader guessing about his assumptions or biases; nor does it suffer from the assumption that an account of the Mormon past, in order to be well-grounded, must be detached from the faith, nor does it manufacture paper heroes or skirt difficult or controversial issues. Bushman’s book is a fine exemplar of how I believe Mormon history ought to be written.
History “is not a reproduction of reality” from Marty’s perspective—”the historian invents” . When historians tell their stories they provide the plots and fill in everything not accessible through texts or text analogues; they must necessarily interpret or explain what they try to take from texts. Since historians are necessarily involved in a “social construction of reality,” they cannot expect to discover exactly what happened—Marty clearly rejects that illusion, as well the notion that historians provide proofs.88 Only “traces” of the past remain and from these only more or less plausible accounts are open to us; these are accessible only through texts colored by understanding and hence they constitute interpretations and are not merely neutral reports. Even plausibility depends on a network of assumptions and preunderstandings. And every text (or set of texts) remains open to more or less plausible though sometimes radically [p.213]competing interpretations and explanations. Marty’s account of method is clearly unlike that of historians currently enthralled by some variety of historical objectivism.
Marty’s description of the method, limits, and situated character of historians contributes to clarifying the current debate over Mormon historiography. He has helped to identify certain of the ideologies that control the way in which the Mormon past is approached. Historians may not be aware of at least some of the assumptions upon which they operate, because these form, for them, a kind of natural horizon. Marty sets out a modest version of an historical skepticism which makes room for the possibility of faith in the face of scientism, naturalistic humanism, and dogmatic unbelief—all of which are manifestations of the “acids of modernity.”
A measure of modesty leading to a suspension of unbelief makes possible a sympathetic understanding of the categories, norms, and explanations internal to faith. This is especially true when faith rests on historical claims that clearly run against the grain of assumptions common in our world, for example, that angels bring books that are translated by the gift and power of God. However, the dogmatisms of modernity stand in the way of the suspension of unbelief that is necessary for the truth of the faith to shine through when prophetic messages are encountered. Ironically, it turns out that every genuine historical understanding rests on suspending unbelief, on a willingness to grant the possibility that things are other than what the controlling ideas of an age demand.
I agree with Marty that final proof is not possible in historical accounts and I hold that it is neither possible nor necessary in matters of faith . Still, faith, if it is an “historical faith,” is one in which texts witness to divine things.89 The texts upon which Mormon faith rests confront us with a message that makes claims upon us. Marty holds that we can, if so disposed, hear the message contained in texts; we must then judge whether or not it will be true for us. He calls this, following Paul Ricoeur, the “hermeneutics . . . of testimony” [183-84].90 Assuming that he is correct on this issue, how then does one come to believe? How is faith justified? What is it that is believed when faith has as its object a complex network of events in the past?
We are, of course, shielded from direct access to the past and can only encounter a small segment of it already interpreted for us through texts. The historian, like everyone else, is confronted with the question of whether or not certain of these texts open a window to the past—a real and not merely a fictional one. In the case of the Saints or potential Saints, the decisive question is ultimately whether the Book of Mormon witnesses to the truth. An historical faith, like that of Latter-day Saints, comes by listening to its messages, by suspending unbelief and seeking with the aid of deity the truth found in the witness contained in the sacred texts. The Book of Mormon makes claims upon us concerning a then-and-there in which deity acted. These claims ultimately must be judged by hearing the witness and receiving the testimony of the message for our own here-and-now. In that way, the Book of Mormon bears the memory of divine things that we may begin to appropriate through the interpretative enterprise.
When viewed as a fictional-mythical account, and not as reality, the Book of Mormon neither has authority nor provides 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 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. Still, the claims of the text must be scrutinized and tested, then either believed or not believed always without a final proof.
The truth of the prophetic message in the Book of Mormon is linked to both its claim to be an authentic history and to Joseph Smith’s story of how we came to have the book. To be a Latter-day Saint is to believe, among other things, that the Book of Mormon is true, that there once was a Lehi who made a covenant with God and was led out of Jerusalem and so forth. Such an historically grounded faith is, of course, vulnerable to the potential ravages of historical inquiry, but it is also one that can be true in a way that makes a profound difference. It seems that we are left, by God, with a witness to mighty acts on our behalf, but we must judge, for we are always at the turning point between two ways. And listening to the text to [p.215]discover its truth for us, not proving it true—an impossibility if not a presumption—both reveals its truth and makes the sacred in the past plausible and thereby gives substance and meaning to the deepest longings of the believer. It is in this way that the Latter-day Saint community of faith and memory is now, as it has been in the past, both formed and sustained.
Marty feels that to begin to understand the message of a text like the Book of Mormon frees us so that we are somehow “less burdened by concern over the exact reference to literal historical events” . He is correct if he means that a deeper, more profound understanding of the Book of Mormon removes obstacles that seekers may confront in grasping its prophetic message. But when the Book of Mormon is understood as fiction, and in that sense an element in a “Mormon myth,” we have, at best, one more melancholy instance of human folly and not the word of God. To begin to suppose that the Book of Mormon is true requires that the text be taken with genuine seriousness in all its various aspects. Therefore, it is a mistake to hold that a mature faith calls for or yields a lessening of concerns about historical or literary details in the Book of Mormon or that it somehow allows the faithful to abandon the question of whether or not there was a Lehi colony with whom God made a covenant, or whether angels really visited Joseph Smith, or whether Jesus was resurrected and so forth. Only when faith has become an empty routine or mere sentimentality, and thereby shorn of its substance and meaning, does it no longer matter if the Book of Mormon is an authentic ancient history and its teachings simply true. For Latter-day Saint faith to have what Marty describes as a “thoroughly historical mode and mold”  includes the assurance that Joseph Smith’s story constitute genuine history and that the Book of Mormon is an authentic record of the past providing a prophetic access to divine things and not merely a kind of “Mormon myth” entertained in some allegorical or sentimental sense.
LOUIS MIDGLEY is professor of political science at Brigham Young University. A version of “The Acids of Modernity and the Crisis in Mormon Historiography” was first published as “The Challenge of Historical Consciousness: Mormon History and the Encounter with Secular Modernity,” in By Study and by Faith: Essays in Honor of Hugh W. Nibley on the Occasion of His Eightieth Birthday, eds. John M. Lundquist and Stephen D. Ricks (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book and FARMS, 1990), 2:502-51.
2. Page numbers in brackets refer to Marty’s “Two Integrities: An [p.216]Address to the Crisis in Mormon Historiography,” included in this volume, 169-188. His essay was originally the Tanner Lecture at the 1983 Mormon History Association meeting and was previously published in the Journal of Mormon History 10 (1983): 3-19 and again under the title “History: The Case of the Mormons, a Special People,” in Marty’s Religion and Republic: The American Circumstance (Boston: Beacon, 1987), 303-25, 337-78.
3. See Midgley, “The Challenge of Historical Consciousness: Mormon History and the Encounter with Secular Modernity,” in By Study and by Faith: Essays in Honor of Hugh W. Nibley on the Occasion of His Eightieth Birthday, John M. Lundquist and Stephen D. Ricks, eds. (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book and FARMS, 1990), 2:502-51, for a more richly documented version of my argument.
4. The label “new Mormon history” was first used as the title of a review essay by Moses Rischin, a Jewish historian, in The American West Review 6 (Mar. 1969): 49, however the significant use of the label began with Robert B. Flanders in 1974. See his “Some Reflections on the New Mormon History,” this volume, which first appeared in Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought 9 (Spring 1974): 34-41. Flanders characterized what he understood as the “new” history, but others have employed the label without giving his views sufficient attention.
5. See, for example, Thomas G. Alexander’s “Toward the New Mormon History: An Examination of the Literature on the Latter-day Saints,” in Historians and the American West, Michael P. Malone, ed. (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1983), 344-68; “Historiography and the New Mormon History: A Historian’s Perspective,” Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought 19 (Fall 1986): 25-49; and “Introduction” to Great Basin Kingdom Revisited: Contemporary Perspective, Thomas G. Alexander, ed. (Logan: Utah State University Press, 1991), 2-3, 14-17, 19. Leonard J. Arrington seems to have avoided use of the label, even though Alexander and others have identified his work as the beginning or at least a significant milestone in New Mormon History.
7. Flanders, review of New Views of Mormon History: A Collection of Essays in Honor of Leonard J. Arrington, Davis Bitton and Maureen U. Beecher, eds., in John Whitmer Historical Association Journal 8 (1988): 91.
8. See Arrington’s “Preface” to his Great Basin Kingdom: Economic History of the Latter-day Saints, 1830-1900 (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1958; pap. ed., Lincoln: University of Nebraska, 1966), vii-xi; cf. Arrington, “Scholarly Studies of Mormonism in the Twentieth Century,” Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought 1 (Spring 1966): 28, which is the most widely quoted statement setting forth his program for explaining “the Mormon history and its religion” in what he called “human and naturalistic [p.217]terms.” He seems to have assumed that the meaning of such language was self-evident and did not require an explicit definition.
10. Morgan worked for seventeen years on what he projected to be a three-volume history of Mormonism. He produced a draft of four chapters and some fragments of three other chapters for his first volume. See Dale Morgan on Early Mormonism: Correspondence & A New History, John Phillip Walker, ed. (Salt Lake City: Signature Books, 1986), 219-319. For a sympathetic review, see Gary Topping, “Dale Morgan’s Unfinished Mormon History,” Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought 20 (Spring 1987): 173-74.
11. See Davis Bitton and Leonard J. Arrington, The Mormons and Their Historians (Salt Lake City: University of Utah Press, 1988), especially the chapter entitled “The Bridge,” which deals with Brodie and Morgan. For an examination of the key language in the programmatic statements by Brodie and Morgan, see Gary F. Novak, “Naturalistic Assumptions and the Book of Mormon,” Brigham Young University Studies 30 (Summer 1990): 23-40.
12. Edwards, “The New Mormon History,” Saints’ Herald 133 (Nov. 1986): 14. For Edwards, Brodie’s “biography of Joseph Smith was an open, honest, generally objective, yet strangely limited account. Her position has often been misunderstood and her motives seriously questioned. But she raised the significant question of Mormonism as a new religious experience in the Western world.”
13. Flanders, “Some Reflections on the New Mormon History,” this volume, citing Marvin S. Hill, “Secular or Sectarian History: A Critique of No Man Knows My History,” Church History 43 (Mar. 1974): 78-96. Hill indicated that Brodie’s book “falls short of greatness because of fundamental weaknesses which no amount of patching in a later edition can correct,” but “that Brodie had written an immensely important book, a powerful book, which greatly influenced the thinking of Mormon liberals and conservatives with respect to the life of the prophet.” Hill, “Brodie Revisited: A Reappraisal,” Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought 7 (Winter 1972): 73.
14. Russell, review of Our Legacy of Faith: A Brief History of the Reorganized Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints by Paul M. Edwards, John Whitmer Historical Association Journal 11 (1991): 91. Russell includes non Mormon authors Thomas F. O’Dea, Mario S. DePillis, Jan Shipps, and Lawrence Foster among New Mormon Historians.
15. For example, one writer does “not believe that there actually exists an entirely ‘new Mormon history’ in terms of the issues argued or the points of view expressed, and certainly not in the negative sense that some would describe it.” Hill, “The ‘New Mormon History’ Reassessed in Light of Recent Books on Joseph Smith and Mormon Origins,” Dialogue: A Journal of [p.218]Mormon Thought 21 (Autumn 1988): 115.
16. Gary Topping, “History of Historians,” Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought 22 (Spring 1989): 157 (reviewing Bitton and Arrington, Mormons and Their Historians). LeAnn Cragun made the same point in her “Mormons and History: In Control of the Past,” Ph.D diss., University of Hawaii, Dec. 1981.
17. Alexander, “Toward the New Mormon History,” 354. However, D. Michael Quinn holds that New Mormon History starts with the 1950 publication of Mountain Meadows Massacre, by Juanita Brooks, rather than with Arrington in 1958 or Brodie in 1945. See his “Editor’s Introduction” The New Mormon History: Revisionist Essays on the Past (Salt Lake City: Signature Books, 1992), viii.
19. See Alexander, “Historiography and the New Mormon History,” 26-30, 34-8, 41-5. He identifies David E. Bohn, Neal W. Kramer, Gary F. Novak, and me as “Traditionalists.” If we assume that “Traditionalists” defend something like the traditional believing accounts of the Mormon past, then Richard L. Bushman and numerous other contemporary LDS historians might be included in that category and the list of New Mormon Historians substantially reduced.
20. Alexander, “Historiography and the New Mormon History,” 30, 45-46. For a criticism of Alexander’s position, see M. Gerald Bradford, “The Case for the New Mormon History: Thomas G. Alexander and His Critics,” Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought 21 (Winter 1988): 143-50.
21. In 1985 Alexander complained that Klaus J. Hansen, “on the left, has joined forces with critics of the New Mormon History on the right who insist that history which accepts the Latter-day Saints on their own terms and then proceeds to interpret these people using models drawn from historical works on context, religious studies, and the social behavioral science are misguided because they do not try to resolve questions of faith.” Alexander, “Substantial, Important, and Brilliant,” Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought 18 (Winter 1985): 186; cf. his “Toward the New Mormon History,” 368n38, for an earlier version of this complaint.
22. If Alexander’s account of New Mormon History is accepted, then Richard L. Bushman’s Joseph Smith and the Beginnings of Mormonism (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1984), for example, is not part of that type of history but a much more plausible, accurate, and better written traditional account of the Mormon past.
23. Alexander, “Historiography and the New Mormon History,” 24, 45. Alexander includes non-Mormon historians like DePillis as well as historians from the Mormon community like Hansen and Michael T. Walton in [p.219]the category of “Secularists.” Accordingly, “New Mormon Historians have included both active Latter-day Saints . . ., and interested persons of other persuasions or of no particular religious conviction who studied the Mormon past from a combination of religious and naturalistic vantage points.” Alexander, “Introduction,” 2. If this is true, then religious conviction, persuasion, or activity is not necessarily relevant in the consideration of the competence and coherence of New Mormon History. But Alexander seems anxious to make the religious standing of LDS New Mormon Historians the chief grounds for his defense of their accounts.
25. Ibid., 124-25; and Hill, in his letter in “Afterword,” Brigham Young University Studies 30 (Fall 1990): 117-24. For an examination of some of the differences between Hill and Alexander, see Midgley, “Which Middle Ground?” Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought 22 (Summer 1989): 6-9.
26. 26. See Midgley, “Faith and History,” in “To Be Learned Is Good If . . .”, Robert L. Millet, ed. (Salt Lake City: Bookcraft, 1987), 219-26. For a criticism, see Gary James Bergera, “The New Mormon Anti-Intellectualism,” Sunstone 15 (June 1991): 54-55. For a response, see Midgley, “Revisionist Pride,” Sunstone 15 (Sept. 1991): 4-5.
27. Marty drew attention to links between memory, history, and faith (especially in a Mormon context) in a lecture entitled “We Might Know What to Do and How to Do It: On the Usefulness of the Religious Past,” The Westminster Tanner-McMurrin Lectures on the History and Philosophy of Religion at Westminster College (Salt Lake City: Westminster College of Salt Lake City, 1989), 1:11-12. His views parallel somewhat those found in Yosef Hayim Yerushalmi’s Zakhor: Jewish History and Jewish Memory (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1982; pap. ed., foreword by Harold Bloom, New York: Schocken Books, 1989). For efforts to draw parallels between Yerushalmi’s work and developments in Mormon historiography, see Novak and Midgley, “Remembrance and the Past: Jewish and Mormon Memory and the New History,” unpublished paper presented to the annual meeting of Mormon History Association, May 11, 1984; and the concluding remarks in Novak’s “Naturalistic Assumptions and the Book of Mormon,” 34-35.
29. See, for example, William F. Albright’s summary of some of the reasons Mormonism is an historical faith in his “Archaeology and Religion,” Cross Currents 9 (1959): 111. Edwin S. Gaustad, in addition to Marty, argues that Mormonism is a radically historical faith. See his “History and Theology: The Mormon Connection,” in Sunstone 5 (Nov.-Dec. 1980): 44-50, reprinted in this volume, and also his “Historical Theology and Theological History: [p.220]Mormon Possibilities,” Journal of Mormon History 11 (1984): 99-111.
30. See, for example, Sterling M. McMurrin, “Religion and the Denial of History,” Sunstone 7 (Mar.-Apr. 1982): 46-49; with direct applications made to the Mormon setting in his “The History of Mormonism and Church Authorities: An Interview with Sterling M. McMurrin,” Free Inquiry 4 (Winter 1983-84): 32-34, reprinted in an expanded version as “An Interview with Sterling M. McMurrin,” Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought 17 (Spring 1984): 18-43.
32. I believe that Marty is on the right track when he maintains that historians cannot “prove that Smith was a prophet” and it is “improbable that they will prove him a fraud.” “Similarly, historians cannot prove that the Book of Mormon was translated from golden plates and have not proven that it was simply a fiction of Joseph Smith” [186, see also 179].
39. One writer has claimed, for example, that even believing historians must be neutral or detached from their faith when they write history. His reason is that historians “cannot prove historically” that their “beliefs are true and certainly cannot apply these beliefs to his or her scholarly research because there is no historically acceptable evidence of God, divine intervention, or life after death. Historians have no way to discern the hand of God or to measure the validity of inspiration because historians have no tools to deal with the supernatural. They can neither confirm nor disconfirm mystical experiences.” Clayton, “Does History Undermine Faith?” 38.
40. Marty, “The Difference in Being a Christian and the Difference It Makes–for History,” in History and Historical Understanding, C. T. McIntire and Ronald A. Wells, eds. (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1984), 41-54. Marty’s position seems quite unlike that advanced years ago by Van A. Harvey in The Historian and the Believer (New York: Macmillan, 1966), but it is not entirely unlike that advanced by Bushman in “Faithful History.”
42. I borrow the label “revisionist” from those who use it to describe essentially secular, naturalistic accounts of Mormon faith. See, for example, Edwards, “The New Mormon History,” 14, and RLDS Church Historian Richard P. Howard’s “Revisionist History and the Document Dealers,” Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought 19 (Winter 1986): 69.
43. Jan Shipps once claimed that Joseph Smith was a typical mystic and the Book of Mormon a typical mystical text. See “Mormons in Politics,”Ph.D. diss., University of Colorado, 1965, 31-32. See also Arrington and Bitton, The Mormon Experience: A History of the Latter-day Saints (New York: Vintage Press, 1979), 5, where Joseph’s special revelations are described as mystical theophanies; Alexander, “Wilford Woodruff and the Changing Nature of Mormon Religious Experience,” Church History 45 (Mar. 1976): 60-61, 69; Things in Heaven and Earth: The Life and Times of Wilford Woodruff, a Mormon Prophet (Salt Lake City: Signature Books, 1991), 49, 353-54n19, cf. 341n95 and n97; and also his “The Place of Joseph Smith in the Development of American Religion,” Church History 5 (1978): 14-15. Edwards turns Joseph Smith into an Eastern mystic in his “The Secular Smiths,” Journal of Mormon History 4 (1977): 3-17. He also accounts for the Book of Mormon as Joseph Smith’s “speculative work that gives the story of his experience” which he understands as mystical. See Edwards, Preface to Faith: A Philosophical Inquiry into RLDS Beliefs (Midvale, UT: Signature Books, 1984), 31-34. In 1983 Anthony A. Hutchinson associated mysticism with fiction-fabrication or myth-production in Joseph Smith’s dissociative personality to explain the Book of Moses and Book of Mormon, as well as the story of Moroni. See his “A Mormon Midrash? LDS Creation Narratives in Redaction-Critical Perspective,” a paper presented at the Mormon History Association meetings in Omaha, Nebraska, in May 1983, 10-14; cf. his “A Mormon Midrash? LDS Creation Narratives Reconsidered,” Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought 21 (Winter 1988): 18n5. Hill once attempted to link superstition, mysticism, and magic in an explanation of Joseph Smith. See his “Secular or Sectarian History?” Church History 43 (Mar. 1974): 80, 86, 92; and “Brodie Revisited,” 75, 76-78. Efforts to turn Joseph Smith into a mystic should be contrasted with the arguments presented by Hugh Nibley in “Prophets and Mystics,” in The World and the Prophets, vol. 3, The Collected Works of Hugh Nibley (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book and FARMS, 1987), 98-107.
44. See Arrington, “Why I am a Believer,” Sunstone 10 (1985): 36-38 (an edited version appeared in Philip L. Barlow, ed., A Thoughtful Faith: Essays on Belief by Mormon Scholars [Centerville, UT: Canon Press, 1986], 225-233); Shipps, Mormonism: The Story of a New Religious Tradition (Urbana: University of Chicago Press, 1985), 46. For specific application of the category of myth [p.222]understood as something other than authentic history to the Book of Mormon, see Richard Sherlock, “The Gospel Beyond Time: Thoughts on the Relation of Faith and Historical Knowledge,” Sunstone 5 (July-Aug. 1980): 20-23, reprinted in this volume; see also his “B. H. Roberts’s Voice from the Dust,” Sunstone 11 (Sept. 1987): 39 (especially the final paragraph); and C. Robert Mesle, “History, Faith and Myth,” Sunstone 7 (Nov.-Dec., 1982): 10-13, reprinted in this volume.
45. Shipps, Mormonism, xii, 6-8, 18, 36, 68. She credits Marvin Hill with fashioning this explanation. The culmination of these efforts is D. Michael Quinn’s Early Mormonism and the Magic World View (Salt Lake City: Signature Books, 1987). For an assessment of the presumed involvement of Joseph Smith with folk magic, see Bushman, “The Book of Mormon in Early Mormon History,” in New Views of Mormon History, 3-4.
48. The two examples Marty mentions are Klaus J. Hansen, Mormonism and the American Experience (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1981); and Lawrence Foster, Religion and Sexuality: The Shakers, the Mormons, and the Oneida Community (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1984).
49. Shipps, Mormonism. According to Marty, Shipps holds that the Book of Mormon and Joseph Smith’s story are “best understood in the context of his sequential assumptions of positions/roles that allowed the Saints to recover a usable past” by linking them with ancient and true Israel through the mythical history found in the Book of Mormon. “That was his religious function and achievement” .
54. A puzzling thing about Marty’s essay is the attention he gives to the work of Shipps and Foster. Neither are Latter-day Saints. When they refer to Mormon prophets and special revelations they do so from outside the categories of faith; they are at their best when they ask what Marty calls secondary questions, for example, how the Book of Mormon functions in the life of believers. From their perspective the Book of Mormon is fiction, or what Shipps calls “myth,” and not a text that makes accessible a genuine historical reality. One would expect no more from even a sympathetic outsider. Have either Shipps or Foster fashioned ways in which troubled Latter-day Saint historians might resolve their own crisis of faith? Presumably, from Marty’s perspective, they have. Yet, Marty moves beyond, and even dismisses, their approaches in favor of another way of understanding and [p.223]doing history.
58. Hill, “Secular or Sectarian?” 96. He is citing Brodie’s “Supplement,” to her No Man Knows, 2d ed., 405-25. Hill may not have been aware of the subtle sophistication of Brodie’s position because he did not have access to the discussions that took place within the Brodie-Morgan circle. For an examination of those discussions and their implications, see Novak, “Naturalistic Assumptions and the Book of Mormon,” 23-40.
79. Hill, “The ‘New Mormon History’ Reassessed,” 125. In 1986 Edwards, while defending revisionist Mormon history, employed the terms “objective” and “objectivity” ten times. See his “The New Mormon History,” [p.224]12-14, 20.
81. See Peter Novick, That Noble Dream: The “Objectivity Question” and the American Historical Profession (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1988), for a detailed examination of the enthrallment of American historians with what he calls the “myth of objectivity” from the beginning of professional history in America. For comparisons with the Mormon history profession, see Midgley, “The Myth of Objectivity: Some Lessons for Latter-day Saints,” Sunstone 14 (Aug. 1990): 54-56, and Midgley, review of That Noble Dream, in John Whitmer Historical Association Journal 10 (1990): 102-104.
82. See Novick, That Noble Dream. One justification for continuing to talk about objectivity in the face of the kind of critique advanced by Novick (and others) is to grant the validity of the criticisms and then ignore the implications of having done so. For an example, see Philip L. Barlow, Mormons and the Bible: The Place of the Latter-day Saints in American Religion (New York: Oxford University Press, 1991), xv-xvi. Quinn has made a similar move. In his response to criticisms directed at the more secularized accounts of the Mormon past, he claims for New Mormon History a “functional objectivity,” which he distinguishes from “ultimate” objectivity, which he grants is not attainable. See Quinn’s “Editor’s Introduction,” viii. Quinn, unfortunately, does not address Novick’s criticisms of appeals to seemingly modest versions of objectivity. Yet his “functional objectivity” appears to consitute a thin or soft version of a myth that Novick has shown lacks coherence even in its most truncated formulations. Much of Novick’s That Noble Dream consists of exposing efforts by historians to save a weak or diluted notion of objectivity in the face of criticisms by granting the soundness of the criticisms and then advancing a less robust version of objectivity in an effort to warrant or certify certain accounts of the past. In both of these instances there is nothing approaching a confrontation with the issues raised by the critique of historical objectivism.
84. That is, Hill has more confidence in objectivity than any of his critics, some of whom have introduced a vocabulary and subtle analysis into the discussion of the assumptions upon which the new history rests that are drawn from a philosophical literature with which he seems unfamiliar. See Alexander, “Historiography and the New Mormon History,” who seems to come from an Historicist and relativist perspective and who maintains that New Mormon Historians have not been influenced by the myth of objectivity; and Novak, “Naturalistic Assumptions and the Book of Mormon,” coming from a perspective critical of both Historicism and historical objectivism.
86. Marty turns to some of the current literature on hermeneutics [181-85]. Martin Heidegger has shown, according to Marty, “that unprejudiced, objective knowledge was not possible” by identifying the preunderstandings that stand behind all interpretations and explanations. Marty assumes that what he calls hermeneutics is a special approach to texts. It is actually the attempt to understand the conditions necessary for understanding any text or text analogue. The literature on hermeneutics is, among other things, an endeavor to clarify historical method and it is not a special technique that can be set over against other interpretative techniques. Marty also seems to neglect the function of tradition in making the meaning of texts accessible.
90. This portion of Marty’s essay [182-86] is potentially the most fruitful because he has gotten to the crux of the issues and has separated himself from both relativistic historicism and historical objectivism.