History and Faith
by Richard D. Poll
The Challenge of Living with Change
We all live with change, whether we regard it as a plight or an opportunity. We live with change, not merely because the world is always changing but because our understanding of that world is also changing. No happy valley is impervious to new insights and information—and their challenges.
The foregoing essays reflect more than fifty years of living with history—with the records and the processes of change. The observations and conclusions that follow are partly professional, partly personal. They address two questions: What have I learned from the study of Mormon history? and How have my studies affected my faith as a Latter-day Saint?
My answer to the first question—and I am only one of many historians who are both Mormons and students of Mormon history—combines and augments conclusions suggested in the previous essays:
1. The historian’s goal—to recapture the past “as it actually happened”—is for many reasons unattainable.
2. Institutions and movements, like the people who comprise them, have a capacity for selectively embellishing, revising, and forgetting aspects of their experience.
3. The creation of historical myths—idealized versions of important past experiences—is an inevitable process which contributes to the pursuit of righteousness to the extent that it provides role models and motivating traditions which are consistent with truth.
[p.124] 4. Historians, with their documents, contribute to the pursuit of righteousness when they check the myth-making capability to generate and perpetuate untruth and half-truth and to sanctify unrighteousness.
5. The historian who looks at church history finds confirmation of the distinction between unchanging gospel principles, which are accessible through the eye of faith, and changing institutions, which may be studied through documents and other tools of the historian’s craft.
6. Given what history (and other disciplines) tell us about institutional dynamics, the current vigor of the Mormon church is prima facie evidence that it has changed since 1830.
7. In the perspective of the Ninth Article of Faith, past changes in the LDS church should not surprise us nor should the virtual certainty of future changes distress us.
8. At this point in the development of each, Utah and the Mormons are what they are because their lives have been so intertwined; the association has been a symbiotic relationship in the mutually interactive sense.
9. As to the future of the symbiosis, it is much more likely that the Mormons will continue to influence the development of the state than that Utah will continue to influence Mormonism as Salt Lake City becomes the center of an international church.
10. Part of our changing past is our changing perception of our heroes as new documents and new insights force us to take fresh looks at the mythic figures they have become.
11. The process of historical inquiry, which constantly alters and expands our understanding of George Washington and Abraham Lincoln, Abigail Adams and Eleanor Roosevelt, may be expected to continue to affect our understanding of the heroic figures of Mormonism.
12. Historical inquiry provides little support for doctrines of infallibility and inerrancy, whether applied to historic documents, persons, or institutions.
13. The exploration of the historic past, like the investigation of other fields of knowledge, presents no unmanageable risks to those who accept Henry Eyring’s challenge: “In this Church you have only to believe the truth. Find out what the truth is” (Faith of a Scientist [Salt Lake City: Bookcraft, 1969], 41).
[p.125] The central problem in following the Eyring recommendation is what learning theory calls “cognitive dissonance.” We learn things which do not fit with what we have learned before, and the experience can be jarring. It may be a little jar or it may be traumatic. Trauma is likely to occur when new information is inconsistent, incongruent, or incompatible with what we have previously regarded as important truth.
For example, emerging modern European society had difficulty when somebody suggested, on the basis of new data, that the earth is not the center of the universe. Many important concepts and values hung on pre-Copernican perceptions of heaven and earth. People had a hard time adjusting to the new knowledge; indeed, a few people in our own day still resist.
Our discussion of myths and documents presented several examples of cognitive dissonance, most of which generated little or no stress. Some myths do have a trauma potential; when I told the following story to a Sunstone Theological Symposium audience, an academic colleague suggested that I might be unintentionally undermining people’s faith in President Hugh B. Brown.
Before turning to the story, I remind you that the historical accuracy of a faith-promoting story is not relevant to its value unless one makes that depend on its factual correctness. Infallibilitarians and literalists can create problems for other believers, and sometimes for themselves, by insisting that basic components of faith are inseparably connected with sharply delineated historic contexts.
“The Case of the Disappointed Canadian Officer” concerns one of the favorite LDS General Authorities of the twentieth century. One of the great experiences of my life was working with my good friend, the late Eugene Campbell, on a biography of Hugh B. Brown. Our last meeting with President Brown was to report that the book was in press. He was bedfast and near death, but he still had his smile and his wit. When we told him the book was almost ready, he said, “We can call it my obituary.” I protested, “Oh no, President Brown. This is far more than that.” He said, “Maybe we should call it ‘Son of Obituary.'”
Many Mormons have heard the story of Hugh Brown and the currant bush. In summary, it tells how Brown, as an officer in the Canadian Army in World War I, took a contingent of troops to [p.126] England, expecting to lead them into combat and anticipating a promotion in rank. At a critical point he was called in for an interview. His superior officer, a general, fussed and stalled and then was called away, giving Brown opportunity to glance at the papers on the desk. On his service record, in very legible letters, was written, “This man is a Mormon.” Denied the appointment, Major Brown was inclined to be resentful. Then he recalled the currant bush complaining of being pruned too short, and his response: “You’ve been cut back so that you can get the growth that you’re intended for.”
It is a wonderful story. The problem with it is that, on the basis of the documents as I read them, it is not quite true. Hugh B. Brown was a good and very popular officer, and he did go overseas expecting advancement. But when he got to England, he discovered what the history of that war clearly establishes—that more enlisted men than field grade officers were being killed in France. By 1917 recruits were going to the front as replacements, not as new combat units, and there was no place for all of the officers who had trained them. The journal of Major Brown’s aide suggests that personal favoritism was behind the selection of one of the other contenders for advancement; it also reports, however, that Brown was never granted the interview he requested. He returned to Canada, and as the soldiers he took over began to die, some Albertans made snide comments about “slackers.” He wrote in his journal then: “I spent most of ders for advancement; it also reports, however, that Brown was never granted the interview he requested. He returned to Canada, and as the soldiers he took over began to die, some Albertans made snide comments about “slackers.” He wrote in his journal then: “I spent most of … May at home visiting family and friends and learned by bitter experience of being misjudged, for some who had appeared to be my friends were most harsh in their criticism of my returning home, thinking I came on account of my fear of the battle line. But God knows I did not have any choosing and that I tried to do my duty and play the game.”1
In such circumstances, one can imagine the parable of the currant bush beginning to take shape. From the time it first appeared in print in 1939 until President Brown’s death thirty-six years later, it evolved further, as such tales do. President Brown was a story teller par excellence, and he knew what good story tellers know—that you use what works with the crowd. It may be that he came in time to believe the mythologized version of the event, in which case there would have been no conscious dishonesty in telling it. Who has not discovered the capacity of his own memory to remodel the past?
[p.127] What is one to do with this story? Gene Campbell and I never had a chance to ask President Brown about it, so we fretted, then told the World War I events as we had reconstructed them and fell back on Elder Harold B. Lee for protection. In writing of President Brown’s appointment as an assistant to the Quorum of Twelve Apostles, Lee had mentioned the military disappointment in terms that we felt the documents supported, so we quoted him.2 We never really made a judgment on the currant bush story but used it in another chapter without the details.
What to do with a story in a book is a small thing. What separating the myth from the documents does to the image of President Hugh B. Brown, or any other religious or secular leader, each individual must experience for him- or herself. I still love and respect President Brown very much after finding what I believe is a small chink in his armor.
We should be very cautious about passing judgment on those who create historical myths. Henry D. Moyle used to scold missionaries when they asked to have their missions cut short, mentioning his own two-and-a-half years of service in Germany. His own journal records that when he had been twenty-three months on his mission he was permitted to enroll in the University of Freiberg with the understanding that he would help the missionaries there while he was in school. The last seven months of his mission were spent as a student at Freiberg, where the East German temple now stands. The point he stressed with the missionaries a generation later was a good one—good enough to alter his memory or appease his conscience.
A myth does not go anywhere unless it meets needs. (The same may be said for folklore, which is another way people distill out of experience that which is of value. Even a community as young, with members as sophisticated, as the Mormons has its treasury of folklore.)
I turn now to a case of more traumatic dissonance—a case in which the discovery of documents has had substantial impact upon an important faith-related historical myth. It also illustrates several approaches to dissonance management and permits me to draw some conclusions. It is “The Case of the Book of Abraham.”
The rediscovery of some of the Egyptian papyri associated with The Pearl of Great Price certainly challenged the LDS [p.128] tradition—the historical myth—that the Book of Abraham is a literal translation of an ancient document. The recovery and identification of the sn-sn text presents a two-fold problem of dissonance.
One problem involves the LDS concept, or concepts, of translation. If the book did not derive in any linguistic sense from the papyrus documents with which its origin is associated, was there a significant connection between them?
The second problem involves the LDS concept, or concepts, of revelation. If the book did not come from the papyri, did it come from God?
The dissonance—the incongruity—between the pictures and text of the Book of Abraham bothered me when I read the work as an undergraduate, possibly because of my exposure to textual criticism at Texas Christian University. Being under no urgent necessity to impose harmony, I adopted stimulating and helpful ideas from the book and left the questions alone—as any lazy Liahona would. When the recovery of the papyri forced the issue, I sampled a little of the apologetic literature, found it unsatisfactory, and left my own position unarticulated until James B. Allen and Glen M. Leonard offered a superbly phrased formulation in The Story of the Latter-day Saints (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1976): “The exact relationship between the ancient scrolls and the printed text of the Book of Abraham has been a matter of controversy.… Although translations by both LDS and other scholars made it clear that [the papyri] were not part of the Abraham text, Church scholars … suggested that the scrolls themselves may simply have been the catalyst that turned Joseph’s mind back to ancient Egypt and opened it to revelation on the experiences of Abraham.… Joseph may have received these ideas the same way he did those of the inspired translation of the Bible. In that instance, acting without original documents, the Prophet’s only claim was that by divine inspiration he was able to replace incorrect with correct ideas and restore the original biblical meaning.… Even the Book of Mormon was translated by the gift and power of God rather than through any prior knowledge of ancient language. When applied by Mormons to Joseph Smith, the term ‘translator’ thus has a special meaning” (p. 68).
Why Joseph Smith thought it important to provide partial explanations of the pictures associated with the Book of Abraham is, to me, part of the larger enigma that is the prophet. I wish that the [p.129] Allen-Leonard concept of “translator” had wider currency among today’s Latter-day Saints.
This brings me to the second problem: If the Book of Abraham is not from the papyri, is it from God?
The Allen-Leonard formulation implies an affirmative answer, to which I will add this personal observation: If one prophet can hear God in a burning bush, is it not also possible for another to be inspired by an ancient burial text?
This was less of a problem during my undergraduate days, because there was less pressure within the church to identify revelation with such dogmas as prophetic infallibility and scriptural inerrancy. We quoted the Eighth and Ninth Articles of Faith as though the words “as far as it is translated correctly” and “He will yet reveal many great and important things” had real meaning. We took Joseph Smith seriously when he said that some of his own revelations might be from man or the devil, and it helped us to cherish the great insights in his teachings without worrying unduly about Zelph or the Kinderhook plates or whether that figure in the Pearl of Great Price is really Abraham on an altar.
The relatively recent preoccupation with institutional unity and individual security has brought us today, however, to the point where it appears that dissonance must be denied. This effort to make everything tidy does not, in my view, stem from doctrine or even institutional necessity but from the idiosyncracies of some leaders and the psychological needs of many followers. Without digging further into the “why” question, I want to make a point or two about the prevalence of the denial of dissonance and the degree of its success.
Authoritarian pronouncement is, of course, one technique of denial, well represented in the literature of the new LDS orthodoxy. Since the gospel is true and all truth is harmonious, perceived incongruities in church teaching and practice must reflect the frailty of the perceiver. Since the scriptures are substantially inerrant, now that the footnotes from the prophet’s revision are there to smooth out rough places in the Bible, neither fossils nor floating axes need trouble the faithful. Since the public utterances of the prophets are almost always inspired and cover almost every consequential topic, one needs only quasi-authoritative help with the odd incongruity in the Journal of Discourses to remain secure against the buffetings of dissonance and doubt.
[p.130] Reliance on selected “experts” is another way to finesse dissonance. My good friend Hugh Nibley is a superb example. Since he gained unique status as “defender of the faith” with his rebuttal to Fawn M. Brodie’s biography of Joseph Smith, No Man Knows My History, he has become a security blanket for Latter-day Saints to whom dissonance is intolerable. Dr. Nibley’s contribution to dissonance management is not so much what he has written as that he has written. On the basis of no scientific evidence, I suggest that relatively few Latter-day Saints read the Nibley books that they give to one another or the copiously annotated articles he has contributed to church publications. It is enough for most of us that they are there. We have a scholar who has met the scholars on their own ground and established that the dissonances they point to are only apparent, not real. As Hugh Nibley retires from the lists, other defenders of the faith are coming forward to perform this service.
Discouraging inquiry is yet another way of denying dissonance. I refer not only to the formal and informal restraints on academic investigation with which recent LDS history is spotted but to the general inhibition of free discussion in the educational programs of the church. As a teacher who sees questions as stepping stones to learning in both college and church classes, I am perturbed that the highly structured and correlated lessons prepared for our Sunday and seminary consideration repress inquiry, even by the teachers, and treat questions from class members as impediments to “covering the material.” Where the scriptural segments under study have the potential to raise questions, teachers are counseled to use pre-packaged answers and avoid “controversy.” The apparent intent and observable result is to produce bland instruction in which acquiescent students read or recite on cue and even contradictory opinions are heard without demurrer. The capacity to perceive dissonance is dulled.
There is a touch of irony in all this, because Mormons of both Iron Rod and Liahona complexion have shown remarkable capacity to accommodate dissonance when it has been unavoidable. The Pearl of Great Price has survived the recovery of the papyri, with Dr. Nibley’s help or in spite of it. The discovery that certain of God’s children are not going to have to wait until the Millennium for the priesthood has been accommodated with grace even by those whose prior concepts of the plan of salvation were shaken by it. The Joseph Smith III blessing document had already been accommodated by most [p.131] testimonies before it was exposed as a forgery, requiring no accommodation. As seerstones and freemasonry are demonstrated to have figured prominently in the Restoration, similar outcomes may be expected.
What is the moral? A cynical view might be that belief will overcome evidence. I prefer a more hopeful, helpful interpretation. Given our human limitations and the cautions expressed in the Eighth and Ninth Articles of Faith, we must expect to encounter cognitive dissonance, even in the sphere of faith. As God’s free agent children, we have the right and responsibility to choose how we will cope with it.
So how has the study of our changing past affected the faith and commitments of this Mormon historian?
The study of history in general, and church history in particular, is faith testing. It will, in my view, almost certainly weaken faith if faith is defined as certitude. It may strengthen faith if faith is defined as commitment. Certitude is a state of mind; commitment is a state of living.
For almost half a century I have been teaching history, mostly American, and studying history, mostly Mormon. I have been sustained in this enterprise by the sheer pleasure of living with the past, by the stimulation of professional relations, and by the prophetic assurance that this is an honorable vocation. Does not the voice of revelation urge us to become more perfectly informed of “things which have been, things which are, things which must shortly come to pass; things which are at home, things which are abroad; the wars and perplexities of nations, and the judgments which are on the land” (D&C 88:79)?
Most historians of Mormonism, whether Mormon or Gentile, define their mission in purely professional terms. They examine the documents and other records and report their findings, quite aware of two humbling considerations: Their best efforts cannot recapture the past “as it actually happened,” for reasons discussed earlier in these essays; and not more than a twentieth or a fiftieth of today’s Latter-day Saints are interested in their writings. Still, they are available for those who encounter questions or who are interested in pursuing the history of their faith. This motivated church historian Leonard Arrington and his associates during what had been described as “the [p.132] Camelot years” in the church’s historical department, and it motivates almost all scholars writing Mormon history today.
Because some people seem to feel that historical study is inherently destructive of religious faith, I wish to report that some of the finest spiritual experiences of my life have been the devotionals at the annual meetings of the Mormon History Association. At a worship service in the Kirtland Temple, arranged jointly by representatives of the RLDS and LDS churches, we sang to the accompaniment of a brass choir, “The Spirit of God Like a Fire is Burning.” It was a particularly moving experience because almost every singer knew some of the history of that sacred place. Meetings in the Sacred Grove, the chapel at Graceland College, the Assembly Hall in Salt Lake City, and the RLDS Auditorium in Independence, Missouri, were all inspirational. The stories of Haun’s Mill, Benbow Farm, the Red Brick Store, the Mountain Meadows tragedy, the Ribble River baptisms, and Winter Quarters had special impact when told on site by men and women who had studied them. The notion that religious truth cannot stand exposure to the past has only to be stated to be dismissed.
Mormon historians would not wrestle so much with this problem of “faithful history” if they were not, in fact, so concerned about it. What is the “faithful” treatment of a document? If Joseph Smith actually wrote a letter, then what that letter says has to be dealt with. If you are dealing with Joseph Smith as a whole person, then you cannot just ignore it because it has incorrect spelling or contains some ideas that have not stood the test. You fit it in; you accept it like a lot of other things that do not fit in neatly.
I have found that history gives more information than answers. It is a better tool for identifying error than for validating truth; it gives one more certainty about what was not and is not than about what is or may be.
This leaves ample room for faith and for differences of opinion on how faith and history relate. A didactic view has been expressed by a prominent critic of some LDS historiography. “Some things that are true,” he points out, “are not very useful.” A pitfall to be avoided, he cautions, is the “temptation for the writer or the teacher of church history to want to tell everything, whether it is worthy or faith promoting or not.”3
[p.133] My professional and personal view of “faithful history” embraces these propositions:
The scriptural counsel to give milk before meat (Heb. 5:11-15) recognizes that seekers after truth do not all start at the same place, proceed at the same pace, or have the same intellectual needs or goals; it does not, however, endorse a universal diet of milk only.
No one—not even children and prospective converts—should be wittingly taught falsehoods about the past.
All Saints should be taught, as soon as they can comprehend the idea, that God works through fallible men and women, and that these frailities are sometimes revealed in surprising and distressing ways.
Historical truth, like other facets of truth, should be rigorously pursued, untrammeled by institutional restraints, so that it is available to Saints and Gentiles who are curious about the past.
Historical findings should be shared with sensitivity and love, not in the spirit of the debunker or sectarian crusader.
Historical knowledge should be promulgated humbly, because it is almost certainly not “the whole truth and nothing but the truth.”
Which brings me back to the point earlier made about history being a better tool for identifying error than for validating truth. This is why I can say that the study of history has not weakened my faith but changed it. I do not now believe some of the historical propositions that were once part of my testimony. I am a Liahona Mormon with even fewer firm answers than I had as a youth. But as I once wrote in “What the Church Means to People Like Me,” I find in the gospel—as I understand it now—”answers to enough important questions so that I can function purposefully without answers to the rest.”
To me the gospel means that the history of humanity is not already written, not even for the Lord himself. What we are presently engaged in is not a drama without a point or a fortuitous comedy of errors or a foredoomed tragedy or a fully scripted pageant in which we are all mimes. God is the producer and Jesus Christ is the central actor in the play, but what happens on the stage depends significantly upon the choices of all members of the cast.
The study of the past helps all of us—not just “people like me”—to make wise choices. It is thus profitable in spite of the fact that it rocks the ark of faith. I agree with those who have pointed out [p.134] that the efficacy of the gospel does not depend on beliefs about the past, which may become unbelievable. I know that the inspirational power of the scriptures does not depend on God’s having written every word. I see the church as a human institution permeated with a sense of divine calling, changing over time in response to new perceptions of God’s will. I work—most of the time happily—at being a good Mormon because thesethings are important to me: the fellowship of the Saints;
The study of the past helps all of us—not just “people like me”—to make wise choices. It is thus profitable in spite of the fact that it rocks the ark of faith. I agree with those who have pointed out [p.134] that the efficacy of the gospel does not depend on beliefs about the past, which may become unbelievable. I know that the inspirational power of the scriptures does not depend on God’s having written every word. I see the church as a human institution permeated with a sense of divine calling, changing over time in response to new perceptions of God’s will. I work—most of the time happily—at being a good Mormon because thesethe good counsel that prophet-leaders almost always give; the inspiration and insight to be found in sacred scriptures; the rituals, customs, and ordinances that remind me that history is going somewhere; the consolation of prayer; the challenges to service; and the reinforcement of that “hope in Christ” which gives meaning to all life.
I confront the golden years—and the years beyond—with optimism and gratitude.