Essays on Writing Mormon HistoryFaithful History
Essays on Writing Mormon History
Edited by George D. Smith

on the cover:
In this compilation, editor George D. Smith has assembled sixteen thought-provoking essays which represent this ongoing discussion. They include “On Being a Mormon Historian” by D. Michael Quinn, “Two Integrities: An Address to the Crisis in Mormon Historiography” by Martin E. Marty, “Objectivity and History” by Kent E. Robson, “The Acids of Modernity and the Crisis in Mormon Historiography” by Louis Midgley, and “Historicity of the Canon” by Edward H. Ashment.

“History, myth, and legend are not always distinguishable,” cautions Smith,” “but there are some things we can know. The authors of these essays attempt to define the boundaries between objectivity and the biases of belief and unbelief which may color what is written about the past.”

Over the past decade Mormons have debated how their history should be written. New Mormon Historians believe that balanced, unprejudiced approaches produce the most reliable history. Traditionalists contend that no historian can be completely objective, that Mormon history should therefore be written with the “pre-understanding” that Joseph Smith restored the ancient Christian church.

About the editor: George D. Smith, a graduate of Stanford University with an M.B.A. from New York University, is president of Signature Books. He sits on the national advisory boards of Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought and Sunstone magazine, and has published in each of these periodicals as well as in Free Inquiry and the John Whitmer Historical Association Journal. He is compiler and editor of An Intimate Chronicle: The Journals of William Clayton.

title page:
Faithful History
Essays on Writing Mormon History
Edited by George D. Smith
Signature Books / Salt Lake City / 1992

copyright page:
To inquiring readers who confront their own biases of language and opinion with ambiguities from another age
Cover illustration: Odessa, by Neil Hadlock, 1987, laquer on metal,
Courtesy John Keahey
Cover design: Julie Easton
Printed on acid-free paper.
© 1992 by Signature Books, Inc. All rights reserved.
Signature Books is a registered trademark of Signature Books, Inc.
Composed and printed in the United States of America.Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data
Faithful History : essays on writing Mormon history / edited by George D. Smith
p. cm.

1. Mormon Church–Historiography.
2. Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints–Historiography.
I. Smith, George D. (George Dempster)

ISBN 1-56085-007-8
BX8611.F35 1992
289.3’072–dc20 91-21222

Editor’s Introduction
01 – Faithful History
02 – The Irony of Mormon History
03 – Some Reflections on the New Mormon History
04 – Thoughts on the Relation of Faith and Historical Knowledge
05 – History and Theology: The Mormon Connection
06 – On Being a Mormon Historian (and Its Aftermath)
07 – Reflections of a Non-Mormon Historian
08 – History, Faith, and Myth
09 – Looking for God in History
10 – Faithful History/Secular Religion
11 – Objectivity and History
12 – An Address to the Crisis in Mormon Historiography
13 – The Acids of Modernity and the Crisis in Mormon Historiography
14 – A Critique of New Mormon History
15 – Some Possibilities of a “New” Traditional History
16 – Historiography of the Canon
Epilogue: Myth, Symbol, and Truth

Editor’s Introduction

[p.vii]The term “faithful history” has at least two meanings: history written to express and support religious faith, and history that attempts to be faithful to the past. In the Mormon community these two perspectives are usually labeled “traditional” and “new,” and between them lies an on-going dialogue about the appropriate way to portray the Mormon past.

Recorded European history dates back to the Greeks. Herodotus (485-425 B.C.) was one of the first to write systematic history, but his record of Greece’s war with Persia was influenced by national pride. Roman historian Livy (59 B.C.-17 A.D.) similarly extolled the heroism of his people. After the triumph of Christianity in the West, medieval historians, often members of the clergy, described past events from within a framework of Christian assumptions. Composing devout narratives, they presented history as God’s plan that began with Genesis and ended with a vision of the Millennium and Judgment Day. Alternative views were not only unacceptable but heretical.

The recovery of Greek manuscripts during the Renaissance gave birth to a new historical tradition. As they studied multiple versions of the same event, Renaissance humanists asserted that history could be interpreted from more than one point of view. To separate factual information from legends, they began to evaluate, correct, and organize the material they collected. The rewriting of previously accepted historical and religious truths continued through the Protestant Reformation of the 1600s and into the Enlightenment with its emphasis on science and human progress.

[p.viii]Historical writing flourished in the Age of Romanticism when, for the first time, history was taught in schools throughout Europe. Nineteenth-century Romantics sought evidence of the human story in diaries, letters, and legal documents, and historiography developed into a social science.

By the early twentieth century, most accounts had abandoned God or any other organizing principle of human history. The focus of writing history shifted to the retrieval of verifiable facts and meaningful context. Context, however, has become elusive as linguistic theory has declared that language itself shapes human experience. If the nature of an event is defined by the language and mindset of the individual experiencing it, the story of the past necessarily varies with the narrator. Such relativist methodologies have placed modern religious historians in a milieu which no longer affirms God’s authoritative presence or the possibility of a “true” account; therefore some traditionalists have added religious presuppositions to the terms of inquiry.

Religious traditionalists have generally resisted the secular redefinition of history. Nineteenth-century German theologian Friedrich Schleiermacher, commonly acknowledged as the father of modern Protestant theology, contended that historians cannot understand the spiritual side of faith unless they themselves have faith. Protestant churches split over the 1898 Fundamentalist Manifesto which opposed historical criticism and maintained that the Bible is inerrant, plenary, and literally true. But by the 1960s the Second Vatican Council began to encourage Roman Catholic scholars to use the tools of modern historiography to examine scriptural and ecclesiastical history. The resulting Jerome Biblical Commentary aroused concern among conservative Catholics when it endorsed critical evaluation of the Bible by affirming, for example, that several Hebrew writers, not Moses, wrote the first five books of the Old Testament.

At approximately the same time and using similar tools, the New Mormon History ignited similar controversy. Within the LDS community, traditional narratives of the supernatural have usually been taught as factual events. Beginning in the 1950s, however, professional Mormon historians with greater access to important primary documents have begun to present a more inclusive past. Historical inquiry has reexamined traditional accounts in the context of contemporary American culture and has challenged some of the [p.ix]sources. Thus Latter-day Saints have discovered that most early Mormons were probably unaware of Joseph Smith’s “first vision,” and that the accounts were retrospective and self-contradictory. Church members have also learned that the Word of Wisdom’s dietary proscriptions coincided with a national temperance movement. And similarities have been found between Joseph Smith’s revelation of the three degrees of afterlife glory and the contemporary writings of Thomas Dick and Emanuel Swedenborg. The new historiography has not attempted to argue whether Joseph Smith was a prophet or a fraud, but essentially to understand Mormonism as part of American religious experience.

Traditional Mormon historians, however, deny that the New Mormon History represents progress. They also typically reject compromises, such as the view that a mythical Book of Mormon can evince religious authenticity as “inspired redaction.” Everything in the Book of Mormon, they say, must be accepted as historical fact. They also take issue with the methodology of New Mormon historians.

In support of their views, traditionalists incorporate theories from modern linguistics. They declare that objective truth cannot exist free of human interpretation. If all knowledge is bound by pre-knowledge, they say, no historian can be completely neutral; no “objective” record can exist; so-called “facts” demand interpretation. Thus in a world where knowledge is relative to point of view, traditionalists declare that their faithful interpretation is just as valid as that of the new school of history. Furthermore, they argue, the language of modern historiography is flawed because it is secular and excludes spiritual experiences which are essential to religious tradition. Historians who strive for objectivity have their own unconscious secular agendas based on presuppositions they cannot overcome. Only true believers can understand and write faithful history.

This discussion about alternative directions in LDS history continues. Current New Mormon Historians claim that they allow for the supernatural by recounting past religious experiences in the words of the people having them. Thus Joseph Smith’s ideas deserve examination even though their inspiration cannot be verified; the words of the three witnesses express their beliefs but they cannot prove the authenticity of the Book of Mormon. From this perspective Mormon history addresses narratives of spiritual events without [p.x]trying to authenticate them. Historian Malcolm R. Thorp comments, “It is not for historians to assign divine significance to those [human] events.” Traditionalists counter that historians begin their search from a position of either faith or disbelief; if they challenge the validity of spiritual narratives it is because they lack faith.

The essays chosen for this compilation explore, in their own words, the perceptions of traditional and New Mormon Historians. History, myth, and legend are not always distinguishable, but there are some things we can know. The authors of these essays attempt to define the boundaries between objectivity and biases of belief and unbelief which may color what is written about the past. Readers should understand that different positions and perspectives are to be expected, that neither the authors nor the editor necessarily agrees with the views, criticisms, and conclusions reached in each of these essays.

Appreciation is extended to the following authors, publications, and publishers for permission to reproduce, sometimes under a different title, many of the essays appearing in this collection: to Sunstone for essays by Richard Sherlock, Edwin S. Gaustad, Lawrence Foster, C. Robert Mesle, Neal W. Kramer, David Earl Bohn, Malcolm R. Thorp, and Leonard J. Arrington; to Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought for essays by Richard L. Bushman, Robert B. Flanders, and Kent E. Robson; to the Journal of Mormon History for the essay by Martin E. Marty; to the John Whitmer Historical Association Journal for the essay by Melvin T. Smith; to the Utah Historical Quarterly for the essay by Paul M. Edwards; and to Deseret Book and the Foundation for Ancient Research and Mormon Studies for the essay by Louis Midgley. Published here for the first time are “On Being a Mormon Historian (and Its Aftermath),” by D. Michael Quinn, and “Historicity of the Canon,” by Edward H. Ashment.