President looks at church history with fresh eyes

James book of mormon, christianity, community of christ, faith, FLDS, history, joseph, LDS, mitt romney, Mormon, prophets, RLDS, thought 30 Comments

While I was much more than casually aware of church history previously, since becoming president of the church I have engaged in an extensive study of our story. I have explored books and articles from a wide spectrum of scholars, authors, and publishers, ranging from the faithful to the skeptical and in between. Truth has nothing to fear from scrutiny.

During recent decades there has been a mounting wave of added information as religious historians have gained access to more source material and have written with increasing frankness about various topics. Also, in the past few years, the media spotlight—including several high-profile television series—has been turned on to Latter Day Saint history because of the Mitt Romney campaign for the U.S. Presidency and the disturbing activities of LDS fundamentalist groups.

Because of my exploration of various credible works, and probing discussions with historians, some of my previously held notions have been challenged and adjusted in the face of additional knowledge. The “apologetic” approach to church history—presenting our story in as favorable a light as possible—is not sufficient for the journey ahead. That approach does not evidence the integrity that must be fundamental to our witness and ministry.

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President Stephen M. Veazey here


  1. Do you think Pres Monson and our First Presidency have done the same as President Stephen M. Veazey have and explored books and articles from a wide spectrum of scholars, authors, and publishers, ranging from the faithful to the skeptical and in between?
  2. Do you feel we believe Truth has nothing to fear from scrutiny?
  3. The “apologetic” approach to church history—presenting our story in as favorable a light as possible—is not sufficient for the journey ahead. Would you agree with that?
  4. Do you think will start moving to more of a pastoral approach described in Richard Bushman recent CES seminar?here

Please discuss

Comments

comments

Comments 30

  1. The more I discover about the Community of Christ the more I like it. We Brighamites need to spend more time with our Josephite cousins. I think we could learn a lot from them.

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    4 Matt W

    If their principles of church history came before President Veazey’s statement, he may have felt obligated to make a statement after he had a clear picture of the facts.

    3. The church encourages honest, responsible historical scholarship. Studying history involves related fields. Historians use academic research to get as many facts as they can; then, they interpret those facts to construct as clear a picture as possible of what was going on in the past. This includes analyzing human culture to see how it affected events. Historians try to understand patterns of meaning to interpret what the past means for our future. This process should avoid “presentism,” or interpreting the past based on a current worldview and culture instead of the culture of the time.

  3. Frankly (and those who know me best know how utterly OCD about documentary honesty), I tend to believe that the FP is already a step ahead of this. Veazey is recognizing that the apologetic approach–(embodied by the reactive, acted-upon, rock-em, sock-em historians in some sectors of our faith)–doesn’t really get to the core of the gospel (even if this approach might be one arrow in the quiver). As a whole, this seems to be the attitude of SL (with perhaps one or two apostles acting as the uber-orthodox, a check-and-balance sort of thing methinks).

    I’m specifically not addressing the rather uncomfortable era of the 80s on purpose (don’t really want to open that can of worms). But as long as I have lived (and I’ve been engaged in serious research on the Church since I was about 12), I have felt essentially at home engaging in the scholarly way (with a significant minority of members offering cliche reminders about how we can’t “prove the gospel true”). I’ve never been seriously criticized for “knowing too much” (and I’ve lived in the heart of Mormondom for aprx. 95% of my life). When I hear about individuals who do, they strike me more as an imagined bete noire than a meaningful part of the church’s culture.

  4. I expect that the Salt Lake Church’s accommodation threshold (Russell’s comment, #8) indeed depends principally upon how publicly one expresses non-orthodox ideas. The Independence Church, by contrast, strikes me as being far more accommodating at present, and Pres. Veazey’s October 1, 2008 statement seems almost to invite open historical dissent. If a Community of Christ leader were to express doubt about golden plates and “interpreters” publicly, what would happen to him in 2008? If a Latter-day Saint leader were to express doubt about golden plates and “interpreters” publicly, what would happen to him in 2008?

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    9 Rick Gunder

    “If a Latter-day Saint leader were to express doubt about golden plates and “interpreters” publicly, what would happen to him in 2008?”

    I don’t think the correlation committee would let it get that far!

  6. I actually got to look at the article at the JWHA conference in September when they had print outs for everyone. THe whole article is very interesting.

    “Interesting. I wonder why the CoC needed this?”

    It is actually in preparation for a new book of Church history coming out by their Church Historian, which challenges a lot of their previous historical understandings.

  7. The church will continue its dance of denial for years. Historically accurate statements from church leaders constantly do not pass the monitors on the Deseret News website.

    The internet will continue to disseminate historical information for those who want to read it. Most saints don’t read and don’t care. They already “know” all they need do “know”.

    If a church leader were to become vocally non-orthodox, he would be dismissed certainly and demonized if necessary.

  8. 1. Do you think Pres Monson and our First Presidency have done the same as President Stephen M. Veazey have and explored books and articles from a wide spectrum of scholars, authors, and publishers, ranging from the faithful to the skeptical and in between?

    My personal belief about question one is similar to the views expressed by John Dehlin in “How to Stay Active in the LDS Faith after Becoming Disaffected”. It’s worth a read if you haven’t seen it over at mormonstories.org

    2. Do you feel we believe Truth has nothing to fear from scrutiny?

    I think the record is very clear with regards to the church. I’m thinking of the number of members who have been disciplined for exposing points about our history that the church would have liked to keep out of the public view. I’ve been warned personally about bringing up “uncorrelated historical points”, no matter how well documented, in meetings such as SS and Priesthood. These are not the actions of an organization that has no fear of the truth.

    3. The “apologetic” approach to church history—presenting our story in as favorable a light as possible—is not sufficient for the journey ahead. Would you agree with that?

    Of course, with the world becoming more informed and scientific advances progressing at an ever increasing rate, the attitudes of the past will change. I say that with certainty as change as already been a part of the church and will continue to be. Just as the members of the church from 120 years ago would hardly recognize the church of today, so it will be for us in 120 years from now. I’m referring to our understanding of church history and doctrines in this context.

    4. Do you think will start moving to more of a pastoral approach described in Richard Bushman recent CES seminar?

    Wow, isn’t that a novel idea! I think it’s sad that the perception is one of needing to move in that direction instead of maintaining it.

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  10. I wonder exactly how is Joseph Smith Papers project equal to burying head in the sand?

    I have run into zealots, who discount all controversial evidences, true. And yes, I have some issues with the conclusions made in cases where there is conflicting evidence. But in the end, truth has nothing to fear from scrutiny.

    As the world changes, the way we bring the message of the Restoration to people is bound to change. Some see in that evidence that the message is not true because presentation changes. I can’t agree with that. Besides, when I read JOD, majority of what I see is basic principles, with some things emphasized differently than today.

  11. #6 Bill stated: “I’d have to say that the CoC is taking the moral high ground on this issue.”

    In the October conference Hales said that saying nothing and loving church critics is taking the high ground.

    I suppose that’s true when you have no defense against historical facts other than to say, “The church is true because we say it is. Please pray about that won’t you?”

  12. #14 – Ray, I could have guessed your ‘Yes.’ answer, but wonder what evidence supports that view. Can you provide examples of how you can answer ‘Yes’ to each question?

    #17 – The church doesn’t talk about history because it is hard to defend. Not responding is deceptive–implying that the historical issues are baseless attacks from critics rather than sincere questions from members (or members that are on their way out if they don’t get answers).

  13. Stu (17, 19)

    IS NOT!

    (an attempt to respond with an equivalent level of insight and nuance)

    Please feel free to confine your comments to the topic at hand.

  14. Bill (18)

    I’m personally happy that the brethren do not see it as their role to directly respond to attacks on the church. Correcting mistakes in the media is, I believe, as far as they should go in directly responding to negative portrayals of the church. They cannot win if they decide to get in a wrestling match with the church’s critics, many of whom are not, to state matters mildly, interested in a fair hearing. They can approach the media as a neutral party that is presumably acting in good faith. Engaging in a direct discussion with the church’s critics is the religious equivalent of engaging in unilateral talks with Cuba or Iran — you lose simply for approaching the table. (Yes, from the church’s perspective critics = Iran and Cuba. And we’re constantly seeing highly irresponsible attacks from critics who reinforce that perception. The critics are more responsible than anyone for SLC’s reluctance to open up.) Not addressing the critics directly isn’t dishonesty, it’s the only sane course of action. Let people who aren’t in official church offices do the pig-wrestling.

    I see plenty of action going on in the church historical department under Elder Jensen to get the uncomfortable stuff dealt with out in the open. I perceive that whatever the new openness we are seeing/will see from the church will be on the church’s terms. I believe they’ll stridently work to avoid even the perception that alternate voices are helping drive the agenda. (I agree with this stance, assuming that’s what it is.) I agree with Ray in 14, although I would expect to see it done in more unannounced manner than the CoC.

  15. #21 Lorin (responding to Bill):

    “They cannot win if they decide to get in a wrestling match with the church’s critics…”

    Why? Is it because it’s impossible for the church to win when they don’t have the facts on their side? When history conflicts with the LDS narrative?

    “I perceive that whatever the new openness we are seeing/will see from the church will be on the church’s terms.”

    In other words, so the church can spin and lie to it’s own advantage. All organizations will spin and lie to place themselves in the best light possible, but when you’re messing with the salvation of souls, you’re treading on very dangerous ground.

  16. Stu,

    “No” and “No.”

    I am speaking as a believing member who is familiar with the critics’ case against the church and has found nothing that compels disbelief. In the process, I have found plenty that does not speak well of the critics’ general level of fairness and honesty. Most critics are primarily concerned with leaving the impression that they have the factual upper hand and that believers are grasping at straws. Just because that line of attack is effective among certain people doesn’t make it honest or defensible. Church leaders are correct to refuse to engage with those who play that game.

    You could argue about whether the church should explain things in greater detail in its magazines and manuals, but I find the church proceeding in good faith when explaining its doctrines and founding history. I do not believe the critics have a factual upper hand supporting their version of events. (I could go on forever about why, but this is enough of a thread-jack as it is.) Their main upper hand is that people are disposed to disbelieve in angelic ministrations and miraculous translations, so the critics don’t need a factual advantage to tip the scales of public perception.

    I work in public communications, so I’m sensitive to the politics of perception and the dishonest means many church critics use to bolster their narrative. I think the church is proceeding in the best possible manner against an opponent that doesn’t play fair. The critics who proceed with intellectual honesty are more difficult to find, but you do see more prominent members in exchanges with such from time to time. Dialog with opponents who play fair is fine with me.

  17. Dishonest means used by church critics? You don’t have to go any further than the church’s own documents; i.e., HC, JD, etc. Those documents are filled with stuff that should make the least reasonable person realize that God has very little to do with the founding and running of the LDS church.

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    Lorin 24

    Don’t worry about thread jacking – I don’t think you have. I think tj’ing should be made legal anyway!

    “Impression that they have the factual upper hand and that believers are grasping at straws. Just because that line of attack is effective among certain people doesn’t make it honest or defensible. Church leaders are correct to refuse to engage with those who play that game.”

    I think both sides IM0 haven’t played fair and turned members off – thats why mormon stories has done so well in that it tried to be more neutral.

  19. Stu, an reasoned argument based on “is so”, “is not”, ad nauseaum isn’t going to change anyone’s mind. You’ve made you’re point that the historical facts lead you to certain undeniable conclusions, some of which I probably agree with. Lorin’s done the same so let’s move on.

  20. 1. Do you think Pres Monson and our First Presidency have done the same as President Stephen M. Veazey have and explored books and articles from a wide spectrum of scholars, authors, and publishers, ranging from the faithful to the skeptical and in between?

    -Don’t know.

    2. Do you feel we believe Truth has nothing to fear from scrutiny?

    -Depends on how it is scrutinized.

    3. The “apologetic” approach to church history—presenting our story in as favorable a light as possible—is not sufficient for the journey ahead. Would you agree with that?

    -The JSPP would seem to indicate the Church is interested in straight-up historical scholarship.

    4. Do you think will start moving to more of a pastoral approach described in Richard Bushman recent CES seminar?here

    -In ways many already have.

  21. I’m little late to the party here, but I’ll second Ray’s YES to all the questions. The LDS Church spends more time, effort and money with it’s history than any other faith that I know of. I don’t see the Catholic Church publishing books on the “Truth behind the Crusades” or the “Inquisition Revealed,” for example. They struggle with the whole Pope Pius XII, the Jews, Hitler and WWII.

    The CoC can certainly have a more broader view of their own history since they have just about abandoned it, their core beliefs and their own identity in order to become a rather generic Protestant denomination.

  22. #29 Jeff, That’s a pretty serious accusation against CoC, that all they have done has been “to become…generic….” Why not ascribe to them higher ideals than that?

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