Is Critical History forbidden to Latter-day Saints?

On another forum (in another language), we had some discussion about Critical History some while ago. In that discussion, I guess we all were very much for open history. The audience was somewhat self-selected for openness, as it is a site for airing “issues” in a polite, but open way. We should not, by any means, leave the Historiography of LDS restoration to those who do it to look for something unflattering for us. We’re much better off bringing as much as we can to light.

Our theory in principle is, that if we can research the Church history, as well as secular history, with an open mind and without blinding ourselves to contradictory evidence, in the end we will come out stronger, although we might have to reformat some of our preconceptions.

Popular culture is very conservative if we compare it with the so-called high arts, which do not seek to fill the seats as much as offer the audience an experience that will enrich them and also provoke them to think. We tend to think that being provocative is not a good thing, but it can be. In popular culture there may be some fashions that come and go very quickly, but they are, in a closer examination, slight variations of a common theme.

Right now, in American literature, for example, we have been saying goodbye to the “beats” and getting anxious to say goodbye to the “boomers”.  Not that all the beatniks behaved and/or thought alike, any more than the boomers do. But certain ideas are around from one generation to another. But it’s still a matter of course that we buy (some of us do!) detective novels.

To be sure, we have our lady detectives created by lady writers such as Grafton, Cornwell or Paretsky, and that is a phenomenon of the last 20 years, but these detectives owe surprisingly to Raymond Chandler and Dashiel Hammett &co.

How much do we know about the history of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints? It seems most of what we have in the Church Curriculum is either missionary prep or CES material, which is not written for someone who is literate. Any literate person, see, aided by a computer, will find out within five minutes on the Web, that not everything she learned at Church is as simple as she had been told. Is the answer to consciously avoid anything that deals with LDS history? It is difficult to believe that could be a strong foundation.

If we go ahead and study history, we can’t approach it as a cafeteria, to go with the same metaphor as has been used for people, who pick and choose what doctrines of the Church they want to include in their own life. History tends to be a formless, colourless lump that we have to stroke, iron out and hack to pieces for a while before we start seeing snapshots of things that have happened. It is a process, that may take time, and more than half the time we feel like we’re groping in the dark.

Whenever we have a report of something happening 150 years ago, that means that photography was new; only posed personal portraits would have been possible for most people 150 years ago. Outdoor photography on a hike was strictly a professional’s job, and the pro would be hauling heavy equipment around. How many people participated, and how many of those wrote a journal, and do we have them? Did they write letters, what did the newspapers and the magazines of the day publish?

You see, that we are picking up clues, a bit like a detective, who comes to a truly cold case. A historian can never know what the participants of that sesquicentennial event thought, unless they wrote it down themselves for us. Thus, we probably can not establish any motives for the majority of participants. Once we’ve collected as much as possible documentation about the event, we sift through the documentation, assess their provenance and value as evidence of things that happened.

They didn’t have taped conversations. Only somebody who could do shorthand very well could take notes of a three-hour meeting without leaving significant holes. For example, we have seven different versions of King Follett Sermon, in different people’s journals. Not one of them is done in shorthand, so they have recorded a small portion of an hour and a half of lively speaking. In Parallel Joseph, we have all seven records side by side as well as a scholar can do it. A literate friend posted a thoughtful set of articles (also books by Blake Ostler) (May 22, 24 and 25, 2006).

Well, this King Follett is a “safe” one, unless some doctrines that aren’t receiving as much attention today, feel weird. There are, however, many much more complicated and controversial events in history. Does it offend us, that the Church leaders 150 years ago did something that is “unhygienic” or even downright sinful from our post-modern perspective. We can always count on that to have happened. 150 years ago the Saints would have been well on their way of settling Inter-mountain areas that were habitable, and some besides.

They dis surprisingly much, when I look at their tools and equipment, but they didn’t waste time watching TV or surfing on the Web. They didn’t have to go to the gym, because they went to gym every day, carrying stuff, pulling, pushing and jostling things in their right place. So they had less time to pay attention to detail, whereas we get stuck on those details. 😀 I am sure that just as we make mistakes today, LDS leaders just after Civil War were quite likely to come up some gaffes and some proper cock-ups.

Anyway, I wish we can leave the blinders off and keep our eyes wide open. To me it seems like some who seem to have a particular wish to make early LDS leaders look bad, are doing it in a nihilistic way, and presenting their findings often with no leavening, just everything in the worst possible light, and if there is nothing that can be brought up like that, then they move on. If the early LDS leaders did anything right, it is okay to belittle and mock it from today’s perspective, as they see it. And still we have nothing to fear from honestly seeking the truth.

I want to wish you a good night and I hope this stimulated your thoughts somewhat. And I hit my thousand-word inner requirement. 😀


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