Edited by George D. Smith
The Gospel Beyond Time:
Thoughts on the Relation of Faith and Historical Knowledge
[p.47]In the last quarter century we have witnessed a remarkable renaissance in the scholarly study of the Mormon faith and experience. Several disciplines have contributed to this blossoming but none as profoundly as the study of history. Given the Mormon propensity for record keeping, for genealogy, and for family history, this emphasis is hardly surprising. But history potentially poses profound questions for a community of faith, and no other liberal arts study is as likely to necessitate reevaluation of our self-image as a people.
My thesis is simple: The study of history raises questions that we Mormons have yet to consider seriously. In this essay I will first discuss some of these questions and then offer some suggestions about how we might face the difficulties posed by the scholarly examination of our past.
Better than two decades ago James Allen published a path-breaking essay on Joseph Smith’s first vision as a historical event. Allen made two important points concerning the experience. He pointed out that the version we have in our Pearl of Great Price is not the only nor is it the earliest such account. It is a rather late version, and unlike some others, it was not written in Joseph Smith’s [p.48]own hand. Second, he called attention to the fact that in the earliest days of the church, the story was largely unknown and therefore not used for missionary purposes. When it did become known and widely quoted in the church, it was not used for the missionary or devotional purposes we use it for now.
Subsequent research has confirmed these conclusions. We now know that there are eight separate versions of the first vision. We know that the canonical version is one of the latest. Most significantly, we know that all eight versions differ in ways that are significant and sometimes theologically crucial. We also know that the early church was largely ignorant of these versions. It was not until publication of the canonical account that any attention was paid to the experience. Even after that time it was used to buttress Joseph Smith’s prophetic authority and not to demonstrate the existence of God and Jesus Christ as separate material beings.
Given so many primary sources, historians do not of course throw up their hands in dismay. They analyze each document to see if it is spurious. They check handwriting. Is it Joseph Smith’s or that of a known and trusted scribe or simply that of someone to whom Joseph Smith told the story? Are some versions more accurate in describing confirmable details than others? Are others less so?
The critical question, however, is where does such study lead? It leads finally to a probable conclusion about the precise character of the event. Historians give their best judgment that one of the versions is better than another, that there are irreconcilable differences among them, and so on. Their judgment is based on skill, training, and experience, but it is, nevertheless, a human judgment. No matter how certain they may be, they cannot declare one of these versions to be definitive in the life and faith of the church.
The potential problem lies in the tentative quality of the historian’s conclusions. Historians operate on the basis of presuppositions (impartiality, evidentiary relevance, and persuasiveness) that may be incapable of leading them to the kinds of conclusions accepted by the church. Even the most certain conclusions of the researcher are probable, certain only in the most human of ways and justified only by the skill and diligence of the researcher and the availability of evidence.
The distance between historian and unquestioning believer is immense at this point. It cannot be swept away with the facile [p.49]observation that historical study will eventually end up supporting the claims of the church. That may be true, but it is irrelevant. The issue is really one of method not conclusions. By their very methods historians are committed to a process of inquiry whose results are open-ended. Even the most scholarly dedicated defender of the faith is committed to a method of inquiry that could produce conclusions utterly worthless for apologetic purposes. As Hugh Nibley is fond of pointing out, there are enormous gaps in our knowledge of ancient times. The filling in of just one of these gaps could destroy an apologist’s entire defense.
A true believer is not comfortable with this possibility. Men and women do not become faithful Saints for a tentative, probably true gospel. Tentative conclusions lead to tentative faith. To put it bluntly, religious men and women seek what no mortal can give them—a certainty that is beyond dispute. They long for the sure knowledge that their view of humanity, world, and cosmos is true beyond a shadow of a doubt, that they have grasped the iron rod and are justified in their religious life by a power beyond the flux of human history and knowledge.
The historian’s knowledge cannot lead the religious man or woman to that certain path. To put it directly, the honest historian cannot say whether Joseph Smith saw—or even thought he saw—one being or two on a spring morning in 1820. Our canonical account speaks of two, as do most others, but the earliest account, the one closest in time to the event, speaks of only one being. Of course it may be argued that two is more likely: most of the accounts, including the one published by Joseph Smith, which he never repudiated, describe two beings. Unfortunately such reasoning misses the point. On historical grounds we cannot say with the certainty of the faithful apologist that one of these versions is the most truthful record of the past. To do so would be to forsake the pursuit of human truth, retreating into the comfortable irrationality that leads to an incoherent faith and an incomprehensible God. Mormons have always been wary of religious questioning that yields inscrutable mysteries.
But can we not believe in the canonical account without forsaking historical knowledge? Perhaps we cannot prove that this version is the best account, but then we cannot show that it is not the best account either. Another example will prove the shallowness of this response. Consider the book of Daniel in the Old Testament, [p.50]supposedly a record of the experiences of an individual of considerable importance in the political affairs of one of the chief empires in the Near East during the first millennium B.C. The earliest texts we have are dated several hundred years after the events supposedly happened (copies of copies of copies), but this does not affect the fact that the text claims to record actual events. For the historian this claim poses both a problem and an opportunity. Because the Babylonian empire was so important, many decipherable archaeological records have survived. Thus we may check Daniel’s history against records unquestionably dating from the precise period in question—a test that any good historian would apply. Unfortunately the book of Daniel comes off rather badly. It makes documentable errors which would be similar in magnitude to claiming that George McGovern won the 1972 presidential race. Now either Daniel is right and all the tablets, epigraphy, and king lists are wrong, or Daniel is wrong. And if he is wrong in these verifiable political details, why should we trust the historical truthfulness of the rest of the story?
To maintain that Daniel is right is to grasp at unconvincing straws and to give up rational demand for evidence—retreating to the nihilistic irrationality of the fundamentalist. It would require that we abandon the merging of reason and faith, which the church has supported through its higher education system and which many Saints have proclaimed in their pursuits of knowledge, for a know-nothing response, hiding our heads in the sands of faith.1
So far we Mormons have tended to assume that faith necessarily depends on history, or rather on a particular view of past events. But perhaps we have built our dilemma on a false set of presuppositions. Unless we assume that any particular view of the past is necessary for faith, the problem is itself non-existent. Do we really need to assume this? To do so simply buys into the world view of the Protestant fundamentalist concerned with preserving a most un-Mormon, errorless Bible.
We may further see the falsity of assuming that faith depends on history by considering what we call “testimony.” The experience of “testimony” is one of the distinguishing marks, if not the distinguishing mark, of the Mormon church. In a testimony meeting we do not hear about events in the past but rather about the present acts of God and about our relationship with him (and that of the church with him through the prophet). We do not preach that the dead Jesus is [p.51]the head of the church but rather that the living Jesus Christ now rules in heaven.
Observations about the primacy of current religious realities over historical ones lead to the following question: Is there any conceivable fact or set of facts that might be discovered about Joseph Smith that would cause one to lose one’s faith in the church? If the answer to that question is yes, then I submit that you have placed your faith in hock to the historian, that you are willing to believe the church is true only to the extent that you have not found any human evidence to contradict it. It seems to me that this is an entirely un-Mormon way of looking at faith. If we have seen God at work in our lives and in the church, then any particular fact about the past will be irrelevant insofar as the commitment we have to Mormonism is concerned. Faith comes from the present reality of God not from remote events whose meaning is inevitably colored by the language and perceptions of those who recorded the events and those who present them to us today.
That a living faith is based on the experiences of living men and women with their God is, it seems to me, an incontrovertible point. But granting this premise still leaves many questions unanswered. We must still find a way to relate faith and history. The knowledge of history can no longer be decisive in determining the faith of the believer in the way we once thought. But what of those beliefs we as a people have about the past that seem crucial in our self-understanding and decisive in terms of our commitment to church? Can we understand how records of these events have become central in the life and faith of the church without at the same time assuming that historians must justify our faith by their research? I think we can.
The answer, it seems to me, lies in a proper understanding of “truth” and of the method by which we say that something is true for the church, whatever conclusions seem dictated by the historian’s research. Consider Jesus’ parables. Are they not considered “truthful” because they reveal truths about our relationship to each other and to God? Yet none of these stories are history in any sense of that word. That we recognize their truth in our lives does not mean that we know they actually happened at some time in the past (as when we say of a story that it “rings true” or of a writer that he or she has a “true feel” for Mormon life and culture). If this is a proper way of [p.52]looking at truth, one which is demanded by the Mormon concept that a living relationship with God is what matters not knowledge of a dead and inerrant Bible, then I think we have a clue to understanding what canonization and scripture mean for the church.
Consider the story of Joseph Smith’s first vision with which this essay began. The church has canonized one version of the event, but historians cannot verify whether or not that description of the event is more or less reliable than the others. Might we not say then that the 1838 account became true for the church not because of what happened between 1830 and 1838 or between 1830 and 1880 when one particular version was canonized? Is it not more honest to say that this one account is true because it bears witness to the faith of the church better than any other? For example, the canonical version speaks of two separate material beings in hierarchical relationship to one another. Canonization thus underscored the importance of this description of our relationship to God as it has come to be understood in the church. Canonization is both an act of and a witness to the faith of the church and need not be justified by the social scientist’s research.
Understanding this process of canonization also sheds some light on the meaning of scripture. The truth of scripture lies in its relationship to faith not history. We have been tempted to forget this because of a scientific world view that reduces meaningfulness to empirical verifiability. Once the primacy of scripture to faith is made clear, much else falls into line. Scripture is seen to reveal God to humanity, not humanity’s past to the present. It provides a window through which the divine light might shed on our lives; thus it is God’s word.
To see this better, consider the act of Jesus in the Atonement. Jesus’ atonement was an event in the past. Making that event alive in our lives is an ongoing process. If the primary function of scripture is to teach us about past events, then we adopt a way of thinking which has led Protestantism to the belief that the historical Atonement is the central proof of God’s relationship to humanity, the evidence for which is contained in a closed scriptural canon. Both of these beliefs are so alien to Mormonism that it is strange that we should ever have thought of adopting a view of scripture borrowed from this manner of theological thinking.
A remark by S. Dilworth Young distills the essence of what [p.53]scripture means for the church. He told a group of leaders to teach the youth that “every grove can be a sacred grove.” The importance of the first vision is that it teaches us this great truth. If a fourteen-year-old boy with little schooling can have an intimate relationship to God—whatever its historicity—then so can we. This is the meaning of that part of our canon, and I think that a similar statement can be made about scripture in general.
RICHARD SHERLOCK is professor of philosophy at Utah State University in Logan. “The Gospel Beyond Time: Thoughts on the Relation of Faith and Historical Knowledge” was first published in Sunstone 5 (July-Aug. 1980): 20-23.
1. In this essay I realize that I do not discuss historical knowledge precisely. Specifically I do not discuss the degree to which all historical accounts are subjective in the sense of being interpretations rendered by historians. It has been argued that if this is true, then a believer’s interpretation is just as valid as a non-believer’s since both represent interpretations based on mutually incompatible but non-verifiable premises. While I believe there is some truth in this assertion about subjectivity, I have chosen examples that skirt the issue. The two cases I have chosen do not involve interpretation. For example, either the text of Daniel is right in what it says about the political history of the sixth century B.C. or it is wrong. This is a question of testable fact, not interpretation. To believe contrary to evidence that something in the past happened the way that tradition says it happened is not a matter of justified subjectivity but simply of incoherent commitment to the irrational.