I Don't Have a Testimony of Church History

I don't have a testimony of the history of the Church. That is why I can be a historian and also a believing Latter-day Saint. I will expand on this idea, but first let me address some related questions.

Do all well-informed historians become anti-Mormons?

The critics would have you believe that they are disinterested pursuers of the truth. There they were, minding their own business, going about their conscientious study of Church history and—shock and dismay!—they came across this, whatever this is, that blew them away. As hurtful as it is for them, they can no longer believe in the Church and, out of love for you, they now want to help you see the light of day.

Let's get one thing clear: There is nothing in Church history that leads inevitably to the conclusion that the Church is false. There is nothing that requires the conclusion that Joseph Smith was a fraud. How can I say this with such confidence? For the simple reason that the historians who know most about our Church history have been and are faithful, committed members of the Church. Or, to restate the situation more precisely, there are faithful Latter-day Saint historians who know as much about this subject as any anti-Mormon or as anyone who writes on the subject from an outside perspective. With few exceptions, they know much, much more. They have not been blown away. They have not gnashed their teeth and abandoned their faith. To repeat, they have found nothing that forces the extreme conclusion our enemies like to promote.

We need to reject the simple-minded, inaccurate picture that divides people into two classes. On the one hand, according to our enemies, are the sincere seekers of truth, full of goodness and charity. On the other hand, in their view, stand the ignorant Mormons. Even faithful Mormon scholars must be ignorant. Otherwise they are dishonest, playing their part in the conspiracy to deceive their people. This is the anti-Mormon view of the situation.

Can we see how ridiculous this picture is? It is a travesty on both sides. Many Latter-day Saints may not know their history in depth. But some of them know a good deal. As for Latter-day Saint scholars, as a group they compare favorably with any similar group of historians. It will not do to charge them with being dishonest. I happen to know most of them and have no hesitation in rejecting a smear of their character.

On the other hand, your typical anti-Mormon is no disinterested pursuer of the truth. If you are confronted with a "problem," some kind of "non-faith-promoting" take on Church history, the chances are that your willing helper can lay no claim to doing any significant research in Mormon history. Oblivious to the primary sources, unread in the journal literature, the critic has picked up his nugget from previous anti-Mormon writers and offers it to you as though it is a fresh discovery. Most of the time it is anything but new. It is a stock item in a litany of anti-Mormon claims that serves their purpose.

Why does the charge accomplish anything? Because they don't tell you how stale it is and of course will not let you know where answers have already been provided. To you it is new, or may be new. Falling into the trap, you think you have been deceived by the Church, and here is something that is seriously damaging to the restored gospel. Like peddlers of snake oil from time immemorial, the critic is willing to take full advantage of the situation.

How many historians who are deeply familiar with the sources on Mormon origins still find it possible to remain in the fold? We might start with names like Richard Bushman, James B. Allen, Glen L. Leonard, Richard L. Anderson, Larry Porter, Milton Backman, Dean C. Jessee, and Ronald W. Walker, all of whom are thoroughly familiar with the issues and sources. Joining their ranks are historians like Ronald Esplin, Grant Underwood, Richard Bennett, Steven Harper and Mark Ashurst-McGee. Many others also fit the description. I offer only a sampling of faithful, knowledgeable historians.

I do not claim that all historians are believing Mormons. That would be patently absurd. From the beginning disbelieving historians have written accounts of the events. There have also been historians like Hubert Howe Bancroft who simply put the truth question on the shelf. No one denies that such approaches are possible. But there is also a long tradition of important work by Latter-day Saint scholars. In other words, those who know most about Mormon history do not simply and inevitably join the ranks of disbelievers and Mormon-haters. It is quite possible, apparently, to know a great deal about Mormon history and still be a practicing, believing Latter-day Saint.

Why do I spend time insisting on this simple, obvious fact? Because our opponents want to leave the opposite impression. And because for many Latter-day Saints it is sufficient to know that faithful historians who are thoroughly familiar with the issues do not accept the interpretations and conclusions of the would-be destroyers of faith. I have not entered the argument over any of the specific issues. My point is simpler than that. It is simply this: Competent historians who have devoted many years of study to the issues have not felt compelled to abandon their faith in the restored gospel.


May I reminisce just a little? The year was 1979. Leonard Arrington and I had just published a one-volume history of the Church entitled The Mormon Experience: A History of the Latter-day Saints. The story behind the story is that this work was intended primarily for the non-Mormon audience. To reach that audience we had to have a national publisher. But Alfred Knopf or any other publisher of the same stature would not, we realized, allow us to publish a propaganda tract for the Church. To communicate with a general reading audience, we had to use terminology that would be understood, meaning that we had to avoid in-house terms and expressions that may be appropriate for our manuals and other books written for Church members.

To pass muster with our publisher, we could not write history that would be too triumphalist or celebratory. We knew we were walking a narrow line. Some Church members may not have liked our book. On the other hand, we were quite surprised, but of course pleased, to find out that our book even led to some conversions—or, more exactly, provoked the interest and the openness that allowed a conversion to occur. I will never forget how jubilant we felt one day when we received the report from our publisher that The Mormon Experience had been ordered by six hundred different libraries.

During that euphoric time, Leonard and I attended autograph parties, we were interviewed, and we gave quite a few talks. In one interview we were asked to describe the relationship between faith and history. Here is Leonard Arrington's answer:

I have never felt any conflict between maintaining my faith and writing historical truth. If one sticks to historical truth that shouldn't damage his faith in any way. The Lord doesn't require us to believe anything that's untrue. My long interest in Mormon history (I've been working in it for 33 years) has only served to build my testimony of the gospel and I find the same thing happening to other Latter-day Saint historians as well.

My own answer went like this:

What's potentially damaging or challenging to faith depends entirely, I think, on one's expectations, and not necessarily history. Any kind of experience can be shattering to faith if the expectation is such that one is not prepared for the experience. ... A person can be converted to the Church in a distant part of the globe and have great pictures of Salt Lake City, the temple looming large in the center of the city. Here we have our home teaching in nice little blocks and we all go to church on Sunday, they believe. It won't take very many hours or days before the reality of experiencing Salt Lake City can be devastating to a person with those expectations. The problem is not the religion; the problem is the incongruity between the expectation and the reality.

History is similar [I am still quoting myself]. One moves into the land of history, so to speak, and finds shattering incongruities which can be devastating to faith. But the problem is with the expectation, not with the history. One of the jobs of the historians and of educators in the Church, who teach people growing up in the Church and people coming into the Church, is to try to see to it that expectations are realistic. The Lord does not expect us to believe lies. We believe in being honest and true, as well as chaste and benevolent. My experience, like that of Leonard, has not been one of having my faith destroyed. I think my faith has changed and deepened and become richer and more consistent with the complexities of human experience.

Then I conclude: "We are examples of people who know a fair amount about Mormon history and still have strong testimonies of the gospel."

We must have realistic expectations. That is true at many points in life—in choosing a profession, in entering a marriage, in joining an athletic team, in moving to a new location.

Think not when you gather to Zion,
Your troubles and trials are through,
That nothing but comfort and pleasure
Are waiting in Zion for you.
No, no, 'tis designed as a furnace,
All substance, all textures to try,
To burn all the "wood, hay, and stubble,"
The gold from the dross purify.

When Eliza R. Snow penned those words, they were good advice for the emigrants leaving Europe to join the Saints in the West. Similar counsel is sometimes needed by students of our LDS history. "Think not when ye study Church history," we might sing, "that everyone was always smiling, that the women were always dressed in freshly laundered, starched pinafores, that the men spoke softly, grammatically, and always politely, or that the children were well mannered angels." Think not! In other words, get real!

I suppose this is a message to those Church members who have such tender eyes and ears that the real history of real people comes as shock and awe. "Oh, no," they whine. "This can't be true." Or, quick to judge, they attack the historian, accusing him or her of lacking spirituality or coveting the praise of the world. My message in many such cases is, "Please! Don't speak until you know what you are talking about." Or if that sentence is too long, try this: "Grow up."

Let me tell you about a thought experiment. It goes approximately like this: I approach an episode of Church history or skim it over so that I know the approximate contours. I then ask myself three questions. First, what is the minimum I must find here if it is to be consistent with the truth of the restoration? Very often the answer is blank because that large issue is simply unaffected.

Second, what, from the point of view of a believing Latter-day Saint, is the worst thing I could find? Here I let my mind run free. I pull all the stops. For example, in my imagination, Joseph Smith could have planned out ahead of time just what he wanted his family to think. So he goes into the woods. He waits a certain interval of time. Then, pretending and acting, he rushes home and acts like he has seen a vision. As a second example, there were meetings in the Kirtland Temple just prior to its dedication. In my imagination, someone came in with a plentiful supply of hard liquor. Everyone there had a drink and then another and then another. Soon they were feeling no pain. Some started singing in nonsense syllables. Others, unable to walk a straight line, said things like, "I can top that. What I see is angels swooping around the room." And so on. In other words, I am seeing the whole scene as a ridiculous drunken spree. You get the idea; it is a version of the worst-case-scenario approach.

I am now prepared for my third question: What do I actually find when I consider the evidence? I can say that never do the events match the worst-case scenario—or even come close. My imagination had prepared me to face the music, if you will, and to discover behavior that was not all perfectly pious. But every time I go through this exercise, I end up with the same conclusion. Yes, there were different personalities, mistakes were made, and so on. But there is nothing here so disabling that I must collapse in a swoon with the certain knowledge that Mormonism is rotten, bad, false, lacking in authenticity.

Of what do you have a testimony?

A number of years ago, I was asked to speak to a combined priesthood group in the Federal Heights Ward. At the conclusion of my remarks, someone asked the following question: "What effect has your extensive study of Church history had on your testimony?" I wasn't really prepared for the question. The first words out of my mouth were: "I never had a testimony of Church history. My testimony is in the gospel of Jesus Christ."

Let me anticipate a question that is bound to occur to some. Are there not some historical events that are essential to the restoration? How, in other words, can I be indifferent to the following claims?

  • Joseph Smith had a vision in the Sacred Grove.
  • Metal plates were found, kept in his possession for a period of time, shown to witnesses, and translated.
  • Heavenly beings restored keys and priesthood authority.
  • Many spiritual manifestations occurred at the dedication of the Kirtland Temple.

The list could be lengthened, but let us stop with those. These are "historical" events, if you will, events that occurred in historical time. But not a single one of them is subject to proof or disproof by historians. If I have a testimony of these events, it is not because of my advanced historical training or many years of delving in the primary documents of Church history.

My friend and colleague at the University of Utah who taught Utah history for many years was David E. Miller. He taught a course in Utah history that was popular among all kinds of students. After summarizing the First Vision, he said, "Now you can't prove things like this by historical evidence. You also can't disprove them." Bearing no testimony but also using no ridicule, Professor Miller quoted what Joseph Smith said and then moved on to follow the history of the people who accepted the Prophet's leadership.

Short of being present during these transcendent manifestations—and, let us say, recording them with a camcorder—all we can do is quote what people said about them. If any of us have a testimony of their historicity, it is not because of the kind of evidence that would stand up in a courtroom. It is because we believe other witnesses. It is because we have our own spiritual confirmation. I am not required to let historians determine for me what I will believe.

When I say I don't have a testimony of Church history, I mean that the gospel of Jesus Christ is not subject to scrutiny by the feeble tools of the historian. The creation, the fall, the redemption, the "merciful plan of the great Creator"—all of these are simply not subject to proof or disproof by looking over old documents.

On the other hand, the people who believed and accepted those doctrines are proper subjects for historical inquiry. In their achievements and failures, their high points and low, their trials and triumphs, in all the "crooked timber" of their humanity, these are imperfect people on the Lord's errand. They stumble and fall, they pick themselves up, they complain and lose their tempers, they become discouraged, they sometimes abandon ship. No one ever said that the history of the Church was the history of perfect people. In fact, the Church, as I understand it, is for "the perfecting of the saints."

What was the religion they had subscribed to? If the Latter-day Saints in 1840 or 1870 or 1950 or 2004 were instructed by their leaders to lie, cheat, and steal, to be thoroughly bad people, let's hear about it. Such a case cannot be made by any fair-minded investigator, but I don't doubt for a minute that those capable of making disgraceful, defamatory "documentaries" like The God Makers would like people to believe the worst of the Mormons. The makers, promoters, and distributors of such scandalous misrepresentation are possessed of a spirit—but it is not the spirit of fairness, not the spirit of charity, not the spirit of truth.

Consider the inexhaustible resource of material unscrupulous anti-Mormons can draw upon from seventeen decades of Church history. With people joining the Church from different backgrounds and with the human differences that inevitably manifest themselves, there will be examples of just about everything. You want a Mormon who was not always in perfect control of his life and who made mistakes? That's too easy. As J. Golden Kimball might have said, " @#!*% , we can come up with embezzlers, grave robbers, cross-dressers, plagiarists, forgers, and if you need someone who can recite the Protocols of Zion while hanging from his knees on a flying trapeze, we can probably oblige you."

Dipping into the huge reservoir of human beings, plucking examples that suit their purpose, anti-Mormons delight audiences already disposed to viewing Mormons as eccentric, unenlightened people. Their job is to make Mormons and their religion appear ridiculous and evil. As someone said about the shameful Michael Moore documentary Fahrenheit 9/11: "Any skilled filmmaker...could fashion a movie making any American look like a pinhead. That's easy to do. Just get a bunch of video, some people who hate the guy, some factoids that may or may not be true, heat it up with sardonic rhetoric and serve. Presto, Fahrenheit 9/11."

Your dedicated anti-Mormon has a repertoire of horror stories. If we think of our critic as an escapee from the reportorial staff of the National Enquirer, we may be on the right track. First, we cannot be at all sure that the allegation is true. Think flying saucers landing on the Church Office Building but seen only by one highly favored witness. Even if the negative incident can be substantiated, our critic studiously avoids addressing the question of how representative it is. The Lafferty brothers on death row in the Utah State Penitentiary—there, according to some, are typical Mormons. The critic may make the argument less ridiculous by saying, "Yes, they are extreme, but"—and here we need the low, chilling music used in terror movies—"they show what Mormonism can lead to!"

Does it occur to critics who revel in such hate speech when directed against Mormons, and the readers who chortle with delight as they read it, that their own group might not emerge spotless if studied through the worst possible examples?

I do not have a testimony of the history of the Church. In making this declaration, I have no need to deny that our Church history is peopled with many inspiring individuals. What they preached and taught can be studied. In the course of enhancing my historical understanding I often find reinforcement for my faith. But I uncouple the two—testimony and history. I leave ample room for human perversity. I am not wed to any single, simple version of the past. I leave room for new information and new interpretations. My testimony is not dependent on scholars. My testimony in the eternal gospel does not hang in the balance.

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