Moving along on both tracks

Jeff NeedleMormon 7 Comments

Well, my latest ponderings.  Your feedback will be welcome.

Mormonism is unique among America’s religions in that it travels along two paths simultaneously, and each path is buttressed by a belief in historicity.

The first path is that of the historicity of the Book of Mormon.  So much is invested in Nephi and Lehi being real people, and the migrations actually happening.  Mormon children learn to speak and sing of these heroes as they would of documented historical characters.

The second path is that of the historicity of the founding of the Church.  Yes, Joseph Smith, Oliver Cowdery, Emma Hale, etc., existed in history.  And yes, they left a living legacy for the rest of us to enjoy.  But how much of the reported history of the Church is dressed up in myth and legend?  How reliable are the official histories of the Church?

These dual tensions are likely to take their toll on anyone living on the fringes of belief, and may impact those who are beginning to ask questions.

I have become convinced (at least for now) that the following observations are true:

1.  Although these are separate and distinct tracks, it would be a mistake to think that the weakening of one track will have no effect on the other.  Once you figure out that Lehi did not exist in history, for example, the rest of the Church’s foundation begins to collapse, including any study of Mormon origins.

2.  In order for the Church to maintain its stance re: historicity, it must therefore continue to support both lines of thought.  It cannot permit weakening on either front, lest the entire structure collapse.

3.  And therefore the Church has no choice but to continue its emphasis on obedience and loyalty.  Anything short of this can only create doubt and questioning.

I think other institutions can tolerate dissent because they don’t have such an investment in historicity.  Mormonism has two tracks, making the job doubly difficult.

Do I read this situation correctly?

Comments 7

  1. Well, it greatly depends on which institutions you refer to. The Catholic Church, for instance, has as much invested in historicity as do we. And no institution tolerates too much dissent, especially when that dissent strikes at the nature of the institution itself.

    But I think that there’s also a fallacy in assuming that we can “figure out that Lehi does not exist in history.” What would constitute proof of that–merely lack of corroborative archaeological evidence? Not to pick on that one example, to broaden our perspective, the historicity of most events is subjective–only a handful of witnesses, who remained true to their witness until their death, viewed any major spiritual manifestation. I am not claiming that this “proves” their assertions; I am claiming that disproof is probably impossible. The true historicity is starting to be explored more openly with project like the Joseph Smith Papers, and the scholarly world, the Bloggernacle, etc., are always going to be opening the door on new views on LDS history and keeping us honest, as it were.

    So I guess I don’t see why these are two different lines of thought, when it comes down to it. Correlated history aside, every individual must come to grasps with their own vision of history as they understand it, and that’s all that really matters. It can be changed, but ultimately what is inside of us will guide our decisions and beliefs.

  2. I think that there is too much emphasis on the issue of historicity. The Gospel as the glue of the whole Church has little to do with historicity itself since most of the history surrounding it cannot be proved. The fact there is a town of Nazareth does mean there was a Jesus. Just because there is a tomb does mean there was a resurrection. The fact there is a Bible does mean there was a Noah and a flood. It is faith, pure and simple. if one has faith in Jesus Christ, proving that He existed is not an issue. If one has faith that Joseph Smith was a Prophet, proof of the historicity of the Book of Mormon and the reality of First Vision are founded in the faith that one has in Joseph’s calling as a Prophet.

    In fact, those that are constantly in search of physical proof can be said to possess less faith than those who do not feel the need to seek it, yet believe.

  3. re 2 and 3:

    I was about to say, Jeff….without that correction…

    But yeah, I agree.

    I think the issue is that with Christian claims, these events did happen so very long ago. So really, there are different standards for evaluating historicity. Now, I think what the church has going for it is that although its events are later than original Christian events, those events still took place in a relatively “early” time. It’s plausible to think that something could happen that was so ambiguously documented in the 1800s, but it wouldn’t really happen like that now (although, it still does, if our collapsing economy and the information about who knew what and when means nothing).

    …where was I going…like I was saying, I agree that the church puts too much emphasis on historicity…but I don’t know if that’s necessarily a bad thing. I mean, haven’t there been posts written on this very blog about what happens if the church were to abandon its historical claims? What happens if the Book of Mormon ceases to be a literally true book and becomes just a true, literary book. What happens if the Book of Mormon becomes good stories instead of being inspired and inspiring biographies and autobiographies?

    It would change the character of the religion. When I compare other denominations which have moved from biblical inerrancy to biblical literal historicity, and from biblical historical to biblical allegory, I sense a change in the character of the denomination and its adherents. And I don’t think the church would want to go that direction.

    But then again, I think we diverge somewhere here. In the later part of your post, you bring this idea that what people should be doing is accepting things as actually/literally/historically true but simply not seeking for proofs of that. But then again, my comment here has been based on the idea that when people stop looking for proofs, they also stop asserting or defending the actual/literal/historical truth claims and instead focus on the practical and spiritual claims.

  4. Christian evangelicals/fundamentalists/Biblical literalists also seem to me to have a dual-track belief. They are invested in 1) the historicity of the Old Testament (similar to LDS belief in the Book of Mormon) and 2) the historicity of the authors of the New Testament (similar to the LDS belief in the Church’s latter-day founders).

    I think the difference is that they know for certain at least that the Old Testament locations existed, while we don’t know that for the Book of Mormon’s New World locations. OTOH, we know for certain at least that Joseph Smith and friends existed and produced the latter-day scriptures, while they don’t know that for the New Testament authors.

    But the end result seems similar. Once one learns, for example, that the Earth is billions rather than thousands of years old, that the story of Noah’s Ark is impossible as written, that the Bible contradicts itself many times, and so on, how is one to remain a Fundamentalist? At that point one is faced with the question of what to believe about the Bible and Christianity.

    Hence, in order to maintain their beliefs, Fundamentalists have mounted an enormous effort in this country to deny scientific facts such as evolution.

  5. A weakening on either front has always been a matter of testimony. But if you don’t have that kind of testimony, and don’t want one, or cant concieve how you can get one, or don’t believe you have one anymore, I recommend getting a different kind of testimony apart from the historicity one. And I’d say this type of testimony, even a historicity doubter can get.

    I recommend that you get a testimony of whether *you are in the place the LORD wants you to be* regardless of historicity. Ask the Lord if he wants you in the LDS Church. Then if he answers to the positive, then the historicity question simply has no meaning anymore. Then it becomes a matter of obedience to what the LORD wants you to do rather than being a part of something because of truth claims. And perhaps if you ever get a testimony of the historicity, it is because you held on, being obedient to what the Lord wanted you to do.

    On the other hand, too many people get caught up in the fish stories and take them too seriously. I mean, i totally expect that there are many fish stories that don’t hold up. The question really is, is there some core historicity *in spite of* the fish stories. It is obvious enough that there are fish stories. Dont get so bent out of shape about them. Thats the key.

  6. I’ve got to put my two cents into this one. I hear the apologist say so often that you can’t prove the BoM either way or lack of evidence is not evidence of lack. I could go one but really folks, how far does science have to go to validate the BoM one way or the other? Please with-strain the temptation to say that it’s a matter of faith, not knowledge. We’re talking about a civilization that existed for over a 1,000 years, involving 100’s of thousands of people and yet I have to have faith that they even existed?

    Even the best evidence for the historicity of the BoM, according to Terryl Given’s (Nahom), is not near as convincing in light of the facts documented interestingly enough by FARMS. Several articles written by FARMS verifies how many people knew about Nahom in the 1700’s. According to FARMS, the better maps of the Arabian Peninsula had the location of NHM pinpointed.

    “Of course, not all maps of Arabia between the years 1751 and 1814 recorded the location of Nahom. In fact, it is generally found only on the finest and most expensive maps created by the best cartographers and published by the finest printers. In my searches I found countless maps of Arabia with no reference to Nahom or anything like it. Thus, it is somewhat amazing that the first modern map of the Arabian Peninsula, created by D’Anville in 1751, did record the location of this often ignored or unrecognized district. Furthermore, that same map inspired the Danes to send an expedition to the region to fill in the missing information, and the only survivor was the cartographer, Carsten Niebuhr. Not only did he engrave a place called Nahom on his map but he also gave us more details of the area in his journal. These two maps and the ones that followed all give testimony to Lehi’s epic journey almost two thousand years earlier.” (

    Let me take you back to the assertion of the Joker’s word print study. They worked to show that Rigdon/Spaulding most likely wrote the BoM. I know we went round and round about how valid this study was and I don’t want to ride that marry-go-round again. Dartmouth University most assuredly would have had many of these good maps in its library at the time that Spaulding, Rigdon, and Ethan Smith attended there. All of these folks wrote about people coming from the old world to the new. It’s fair to conclude that they would have done some research into writing their books and therefore the inclusion of Nahom and for that matter “Bountiful” is not remarkable if one concludes that some or all of these men contributed to the BoM either willingly or unknowingly.

    If that’s the best evidence for the BoM, then there is no evidence at all that can’t be explained scientifically. Even if we assume that JS wrote the book, the fact that this area was know and written about in several books about Arabia (see FARMS) means there is a real possibility that he could have gotten his hands on the information.

    Don’t misunderstand me; I don’t need proof that spiritual message of the BoM is beneficial. Is it so wrong to think that this group of people would have left something behind to help us learn about them besides the gold plates that no-one actually saw with their physical eyes? I can’t prove to you that Santa Claus doesn’t exist or the good people of middle earth from Lord of the Rings, but I’m going to bet you don’t believe in them, and yet there’s better evidence for both of those stories then you can find for the BoM.

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