96–97: Mormonism and Its History—Past, Present, and Future

Every religion has many dilemmas when it comes to its history. How does a group incorporate the idea of a God or Universal force or will that acts in the development of that group and/or the unfolding of world events when such things are not acceptable claims in academic disciplines? How does a tradition balance the doing of history for the purposes of community and faith building through the creation and maintenance of a shared story with other ideals, such as telling the truth about missteps and all the humanness and frailties that are also present in each event? Should a religion’s history be told primarily in terms of what its founders and leaders do, or should the focus be on how it is received and lived among adherents in different social situations? What is a group’s responsibility toward making records and documents public that were originally intended only for private purposes?

In this two-part episode, historians Ben Park, Matthew Bowman, and Ron Barney join Mormon Matters host Dan Wotherspoon in a discussion of the way Mormonism has negotiated these dilemmas in the past, as well as how it seems to be facing them now and into the near future. What kinds of progress have been made in the relationship between the Church and the academic community? How has the Church professionalized its history division while still honoring the role of history and sacred narrative for vital community cohesion and faith? What are some of the debates and who have been the major players in shaping the place Mormonism finds itself now in relationship to its own history and the presentation of its history?

Mixed into all of these inquiries are also explorations of the relationship between history and faith crisis, including the ways that that panelists themselves negotiation the tensions between human frailty and divine workings? The discussion also goes a bit broader into the immediate horizon of Mormon studies in general. What is happening now and how might the increased interest in Mormonism from all sorts of academic disciplines affect our understanding of the Mormon story going forth? The panel also reflects briefly on the leadership tenure of Elder Marlin K. Jensen as Church Historian, who will be stepping down from this role in the next few months.

We invite you to listen and then join in the discussion below!



22 comments for “96–97: Mormonism and Its History—Past, Present, and Future

  1. Thisiscrazy28
    May 10, 2012 at 3:57 pm

    Interesting comments from Ron
    Barney (props for getting him on the podcast by the way) on the history and
    evolution of the Church History Department. I found it interesting for him to
    admit the lack of understanding on the materials contained in the Church
    Archives in the 1970s. My question to Bro. Barney (or Ben or Matt) would be,
    now that the Church has a much better grasp on what these materials contain,
    what is the plan, if any, for incorporating this information into Church
    curriculum? It seems that, to me, the approach for Church curriculum hasn’t
    changed a whole lot since the release of Arrington (i.e., whitewashed, low-level
    detail, generalities, etc.), despite the understanding that has apparently been
    gained from Church archive material. First off, is there a plan to disseminate
    this material into the curriculum? If so, what is the overall governing
    philosophy that the Church Historian (e.g. Elder Jensen’s philosophy) for how
    this process will work? Also, now that Elder Jensen has been released, do you
    foresee a change in philosophy for material dissemination to curriculum?


    Finally, you briefly mentioned
    Richard Turley’s involvement in reviving the department after the Mark Hoffman
    scandal. What effect did the Mark Hoffmann forgeries have on the Church History
    Department? It seems as though this may have been a huge catalyst for change
    within the organization. 

  2. JT
    May 10, 2012 at 9:42 pm

    The mention of Davis Bitton’s 2004 lecture, “I Don’t Have a Testimony of the History of the Church,” brought back unpleasant memories.  I don’t think that piece  has much going for it.  During a period I was struggling with Church history it increased my distrust of “faithful historians.”  I invite anyone to read or reread it.


    If you are  interested in what I found objectionable,  I can post the main points and would even appreciate criticism particularly from trained historians.  If not, I’ll keep it to myself, though I do think this paper is generally relevant to this discussion.

  3. Nancy Beck
    May 10, 2012 at 10:32 pm

    Do you think Richard Turley treated his review of the book, “Under the Banner of Heaven” fairly?

  4. JT
    May 11, 2012 at 11:19 am

    A question for Ron Barney,

    Do the Church archives contain minutes to the meetings of the Council of Fifty, or any related records?  If so, are there plans to make them available?

  5. JT
    May 11, 2012 at 11:24 am

    A question for any of the panelists:

    Can a theology/theory of “horizontal” revelation be reasonably maintained in the case of revelators who claims only “vertical” revelation?  

  6. May 11, 2012 at 11:51 am

    Thisiscrazy: regarding the correlation between the work being done in the Church History Department and the Curriculum Department: great question! I’m not the person to answer since I am not involved in those decisions and processes, but I can say that progress is being made. I know new curriculum is currently underway, but the extent to which new scholarship is utilized is both out of my knowledge and somewhat in flux. With you, I hope there will be a vigorous and direct relationship between the two projects.

    JT: good questions, and I will try to answer two of them. Regarding Bitton’s essay: I fully agree that there are problems in them, especially the tone (in general, I am not a fan of Mormon apologetics), but I still feel that his argument for a testimony being based in the religious beliefs rather than it’s history is still apt. That is why I didn’t say it was an excellent essay, only that it made an excellent point. 

    Regarding your other astute question:

    “Can a theology/theory of “horizontal” revelation be reasonably maintained in the case of revelators who claims only “vertical” revelation?”

    I don’t think JS only claimed vertical revelation. That is an unfortunate narrative that Mormonism has picked up over the last century, mostly as a way to validate our truth claims. Smith was very forthright in the importance of horizontal revelation, constantly pushing his followers to gather truth from every place possible. For example, one of my favorite JS sermons included, “if Presbyterians have any truth, embrace that. If Baptists or Methodists have any truth, embrace that. Get all the good in the world in order to come out a pure Mormon.” (grammar modernized) Terryl Givens’s forthcoming book persuasively argues this point. I wish our tradition could embrace this revelatory worldview again.

  7. JT
    May 11, 2012 at 6:22 pm


    Yes, I see your point with regard to Joseph’s mode of revelation.

    With regard to Bitton’s essay you say 

    “…but I still feel that his argument for a testimony being based in the religious beliefs rather than it’s history is still apt.”   

    I agree.  Perhaps my biggest problem with Bitton’s essay is that he does not go far enough.  One might say he has a not-quite-non-testimony of history.

    As I read (into it) he tries to preserve a rational basis for his faith even as he tries to put it aside.  He does this by leveraging his intellectual credentials (an argument from intellectual authority) as a rational defense against historical problems but succumbs to the pseudo-rational principle of the impossibility of disproving anything ( “There is nothing in Church history that leads inevitably to the conclusion that the
    Church is false.”)

    In other words, he wants (and claims) a pure faith but can’t quite free it from history.  What he seems to have is a  “not-quite-non-testimony of Church history.”  Perhaps it was a blind spot. I am also not certain I don’t.  

    My general position is that scientists go seriously astray when they try to mix their supernatural
    beliefs with their research.  Doing so makes a mockery
    of reason as much as it demeans genuine faith.  I guess I am seeing this happening in Bitton’s essay.  It seemed to me that you Matthew, Ron and Dan did a better job avoiding that.  In my mind that makes you all better historians and better believers.



  8. May 12, 2012 at 2:51 pm

    What a stellar panel! Very impressed Dan. Looking forward to listening. 

  9. Thomas G Thigpen
    May 13, 2012 at 2:32 am

    I read Bitton’s essay several years ago. I didn’t get the impression that he was mixing supernatural beliefs  with his research. The impression I received is that he is not turning off his brain and following blindly, but that when there is an apparent conflict between current scientific or historical research and faith, he is putting his money on the testimony he has received via the Holy Ghost.


    • JT
      May 14, 2012 at 11:52 am

      Well, to be honest, I am not impressed with what Bitton has done in this essay with his brain turned on … and I am also not impressed with his attitude toward his fellow Church members with regard to their turning off their brains and following him blindly.

      If you recall, he said:

      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.””

      and also:

      Here is where the faithful Latter-day Saint should take the wind out of the sails of his critic. Instead of collapsing or emitting a wail of distress, you smile. You shrug your shoulders. You say things like this. “Hmm. I wonder if that’s true.” “I haven’t heard what might be said on the other side.” “You know what? That probably interests you a lot more than it does me.” “That isn’t part of my religion. I have never heard it taught in any of the classes and have not read it in any of our manuals.” 

      Let me recommend that you reread the piece.  As I said, there is a kernel of his relying on the Holy Ghost (though he never explicitly mentions this) but he undermines it on several counts – perhaps overlapping with what Ben saw.  Perhaps you’ll see the same.


  10. ROBarney
    May 14, 2012 at 10:35 am

    Regarding the embrace by the LDS Church Curriculum Department of much of what is being packaged by the  LDS Church History Department, I have never been in a position to speak for the LDS Church History Department. Nor do I speak for the Church Curriculum folks. I can only characterize what I presently see in world that I once knew. 

    I don’t see Church Curriculum changing any time soon, for a number of reasons. Nor do I see the fine things being done by the Church History Department shifting the paradigm in this generation. If there is anything that we have learned about change in the Church it is that unless it is advanced from the Tabernacle/Conference Center pulpit with the imprimatur of revelation attached to it, we morph as the culture in which we live morphs. I suppose you could argue that the Tab/Con Cent pulpits also morphs with the culture, but don’t miss my point. Finely crafted Church History will appeal to only a small number in the Church unless something significant accompanies its dissemination. I don’t see that happening on a large scale, but who knows?

    Regarding the Council of Fifty minutes being made available, I can only say that the Church leadership has been very generous and placed a great deal of confidence in those who administer the Joseph Smith Papers Project.

    • JT
      May 14, 2012 at 11:59 am

      Thanks for telling me the only things you can say.  

  11. May 15, 2012 at 7:14 am

    This podcast sounded like a group of advisors telling the emperor that his non-existent clothes were splendid.  The LDS Church has forwarded specific historical events in support of its alleged divinity.  Unfortunately, these alleged events, when examined are either debunked or called into questions.  In the LDS Church, one’s standing is directly connected to accepting that the alleged historical events happened as presented by the LDS Church.

    • Dan Wotherspoon
      May 15, 2012 at 9:26 am

      Would love the touchstones you grabbed from the podcast that suggest that any panel member is an emperor kiss up.

      Related to your last statement, I find a person’s beliefs–and about particularities of certain historical presentations–to actually be the LEAST relevant to her or his standing within the church. Service to others, being willing to be an active part of a community, and other ways that convey being “with” the Saints far outweigh what a person believes. Also, if we use TR interview questions as a standard of sorts, I can’t recall any question that suggests one must have a naive view of what happened historically in order to claim “good standing” through TR status. What, exactly, are you thinking is the “direct connection” to “historical events happened as presented by the LDS Church?”

      • Blorg Jorgensson
        May 16, 2012 at 4:04 pm

        (Please see my reply below to Matt Bowman for a mention of one problem regarding the TR questions.)

        When I have heard “liberal Mormons” describe their belief, and especially when they specifically discuss the TR questions, I find their personalized interpretation of the questions to be pretty mangled. Although some wording is vague enough to allow for a few “loopholes,” you still have to be pretty orthodox in your faith to answer correctly to any reasonable interpretation of the questions.

        This is just my view, of course. I’m not here to tell anyone what to do or not do about their church membership or standing. I’m just saying that, in my mind, the TR questions are relatively straightforward in defining the acceptable boundaries of belief in the church. In my opinion, the “believers” I’ve heard on Mormon Matters and Mormon Stories don’t fit very well into those boundaries.

        Obviously, I expect disagreement.

  12. May 16, 2012 at 1:56 pm

    “Unfortunately, these alleged events, when examined are either debunked or called into questions.”

    Odell, you’re missing the point.   I spend a large amount of the podcast stating that we need 1) to back up and talk about the methods by which we “examine,” and therefore 2) call into question how we “debunk.”   It’s becoming increasingly apparent to scholars throughout the academy – history, religious studies, even evolutionary science and psychology – that a naive empiricism which equates reality with what we can footnote is painfully limited.  

    -Matt Bowman

    • Blorg Jorgensson
      May 16, 2012 at 3:40 pm

      For instance, it is clear that The Book of Mormon is not “true,” and by that, I mean that there is empirical evidence showing that it is not what the institutional church claims. And no one with any authority in the church has ever substantially deviated from the official and/or canonized position of the church’s truth claims about The Book of Mormon.

      I am well aware of the alternative interpretations and explanations of these issues. None of them ring true to me, but that’s beside the point: none of them represent or even resemble the church’s stance. I mean, how much do I really believe in the church’s prophets, seers, and revelators if I can’t trust their teachings about an aspect of the church as basic and essential as The Book of Mormon? (And when it comes to Dan’s point about the TR questions, I would be unable to answer “yes” to number four for this example alone, in addition to a variety of other issues.)

      Perhaps this was one example of what Odell was referring to. We don’t have to empirically prove that Joseph Smith knowingly wrote The Book of Mormon as a fraud in order to disprove what he and the church have unequivocally taught about it for nearly 200 years. When the church’s spiritual truth claims intersect with scientific fields of study, those claims are subject to scientific inquiry.

  13. Jacob Brown
    May 27, 2012 at 9:26 am

    I love the freshness and honestly that I have seen Matt Bowman display as he has publicly spoken about the LDS church in the media. I will be emotionally honest and say that I was bothered by his defense of “The Mantle is Far, Far Greater than the Intellect” and other such condemnations of academic history by senior church leadership.

    Bowman’s implications seems to be that Packer’s approach is equally valid to academic history because it is inadequate at addressing religious history to the satisfaction of believers, i.e., in an un-naturalistic fashion.

    Packer’s concern is “the tendency for many members of the Church who spend a great deal of time in academic research to begin to judge the Church , its doctrine, organization, and leadership, present and past, by the principles of their own profession.” Packer simply wants us to do the opposite. “A member of the Church ought always, particularly if he is pursuing extensive academic studies, to judge the professions of man against the revealed word of the Lord.”

    To argue that Packer’s talk is about something other than the conflict between authority (mantle) and an individual’s ability to discern truth (intellect) would be to dismiss the title that Packer himself ostensibly assigned to his remarks. The real problem with Packer’s talk is that it is characteristically un-Mormon. It sounds much more like the condemnation of reason found in the Syllabus Errorum issued by the Holy See in 1864 or the opposition to rationalism and liberalism in the agenda of the First Vatican Council. It is an authoritarian institutions stop-gap response to a rising body of ideas.

    I don’t think most Mormons would argue that academic history has
    inadequate tools or methodology to address Church history. (This is Bowman’s apologetic that I have a hard time accepting.) They would
    just say non-believers are unaware or ignore certain facts and events and, therefore,
    leave the restoration out of their historical accounts. What disturbs
    most Mormons is when they found out that they too have been unaware of
    certain facts and events in constructing a historical perspective of the
    Church. Packer does not address this problem at all except by arguing that we should continue to keep these facts guarded because they potentially destroy faith.

  14. Steamtrain
    June 8, 2012 at 2:27 pm

    I had and continue to have zero problems with Bitton’s talk. I too went through a period of being unsure about the Church and his talk coincided exactly with what my Philosophy of History Prof. was saying.

  15. June 26, 2012 at 2:11 pm

    Great podcast throughout, but my favorite section was when each of the panelists explained their own personal way of dealing with historical issues that appear to be deal-breakers from a black/white/truth/falsehood perspective.  I know that’s a big part of your project here with MM, Dan, and I personally take a similar approach, with my favorite metaphors for Capital-T Truth being Plato’s cave and Paul’s “glass, darkly”–anyhow, I thought that section articulated the difficulty in approaching religion with a black/white sense of “truth” wonderfully, much more clearly than I ever seem to find the words for.

  16. June 29, 2012 at 2:14 pm

    I have heard this argument several times now. We should not base our faith in the Church on the early historical events that framed the Church.  Instead, we should assess the validity of the religion (teachings, scriptures, what kind of a person it helps me become, …) and decide if it is “true.”

    I have no problem with that process until you come to the “one true Church” and the “only Church with the priesthood of God” claims.

    If those claims did not exist, I would have no problem living in my faith and “using” the Church as a tool to better myself, my family, and my neighbors.  But, these claims come with a whole set of “hooks” that make a semi-faithful journey in Mormonism quite uncomfortable.  Temple recommend questions, unquestioned authority of leaders, tithing, tow the line…

    I keep coming back to the fundamentals.  There are, and have been, fraudulent people who have used religion to control people.  We know that is true. We see it time and time again, Jim Jones, David Koresh, Warren Jeffs to name a few contemporary examples. All of these people had loyal followers that were willing to die for the religion. 

    My “task” when it comes to accepting a religion is to somehow detect these frauds. To do this, I have two tools: emotion and logic.

    Most religions claim that emotion is a valid indicator of truth. If a religion “works” for a person, they will probably have good emotions about it and they could interpret that as a confirmation of truth. However, emotion is easily manipulated by outside parties and many people have fallen victim to becoming very “emotional” about very “bad” belief systems.

    Very few religions claim that logic is an all encompassing (failsafe) indicator of truth. In the Mormon culture, it seems to flip flop around depending on the audience and speaker.  I have heard several talks by Elder Oaks where he talks about the logical aspects of the gospel.  However, generally, the “Spirit” is promoted as the main divining rod in Mormonism.

    I am struggling to use these two tools effectively.

    I have tried the “spirit” approach for 40 some odd years and I have made no headway. I am still sitting right where I started. From a logical perspective, I question my ability (as well as anyone’s ability)  to take the fine measurements required to distinguish between “nice,”  “better,” “best,” and “the winner” truths. I cannot distinguish a “gradient” of emotions.

    That only leaves a a logical academic approach.  When you say that “religion is different” and we cannot apply the same historical evaluations to religion that we might to other histories, I get really worried. It seems to me that this is exactly what we should be doing.

    One of the speakers talked about his experience coming to terms with the Masonic aspects of the temple ceremonies. I believe the term “horizontal revelation” was coined to describe Joseph using cultural objects to further his teachings. Critics of horizontal revelation would argue that such patterns of behavior are exactly what charlatans do. Especially highly charismatic leaders with holds over followers that are tight enough to overcome any internal questions that such behavior might provoke.

    So, what is one to do?  The “spirit” does not work for me.  You are claiming that I cannot objectively examine history because that is not a viable alternative unless I am willing to allow the “divine” into the equation and turn it into a “sacred narrative.”

    A religion must earn my trust such that I am willing to allow the divine. I do not start out my search allowing the divine.  That path is dangerous and, in my opinion, has led too many people to destruction.  Therefore, it seems to me, an honest search for “the one true church” and “the only priesthood of God” must start with a critical logical examination of its origins. Once that passes muster, then the sacred narrative can be accepted, not the other way around.

    Now, again, if I was just looking for a “nice” church to raise my family in, I think emotion would an adequate tool to use. But Mormonism raises the bar on itself as to require much higher levels of scrutiny.

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