Bloggernacle classics: ‘Why Mormon history is not what they say’

It’s an American history lesson, really, and a critical one.

From Pure Mormonism:

…it turns out that a great deal of what passed for true history prior to the twentieth century has turned out to be wildly unreliable, and that goes double for the historical record on polygamy.

Everything You Know Is Wrong

A couple of weeks ago Jeff Rigenbach sent me his latest book, Why American History Is Not What They Say: An Introduction To Revisionism.

 I’ve had a passion for revisionist history for as long as I can remember, but something I read in Riggenbach’s informative volume caught me up short.  It was an essential factor that I had never considered before and which just so happens to have direct application to why the historical record about Joseph Smith and Polygamy is so confusing and contradictory.

While doing the research for her biography of Joseph Smith back in the 1940’s, Fawn Brodie wrote to a friend that “the more I work with the polygamy material, the more baffled I become.” She has not been alone.  Every biographer since has struggled with the dichotomy of what Joseph Smith asserted and what the historical record appears to show.

I think Jeff Rigenbach may have uncovered the explanation for us.

Correcting The Past

If the study of history can be defined as “the science of discovering what happened,” then revisionism is the forensic science of methodically re-sifting through the evidence of the past to get at the truth of what really happened.  According to Joseph R. Stromberg, “revisionism refers to any efforts to revise a faulty existing historical record or interpretation.”

Harry Elmer Barnes, the father of modern revisionist history, describes revisionism as “the effort to revise the historical record in the light of a more complete collection of historical facts, a more calm political atmosphere, and a more objective attitude.”  As Riggenbach himself succinctly puts it, “We need to revise the historical record when we have new facts.”

What surprised me about Riggenbach’s book -and which is directly applicable to our discussion here- is his revelation that until quite recently there was no such thing as “history” as we usually think of it; that is, the kind of history that could actually be relied upon:

“It was the tail end of the 19th century before the calling of the historian had been professionalized and academicized to such an extent that a majority of practitioners in the field had come to hold the view of their discipline that we now take for granted -the historian as dispassionate seeker of truth, a scholar, much more like an anthropologist…Still, there were holdouts.” (Pg 27)

…George Bancroft, whose ten volume History of the United States, published in 1874, remained the unchallenged standard work for decades.  But even Bancroft’s classic History was far from objective:

“Bancroft believed that his job was to write a chronicle that would make his readers proud of their country’s history, and when it suited his didactic purpose, he fabricated.” (Why American History Is Not What They Say, Pg 27)

It was not only Bancroft who was making up history to suit his agenda; Riggenbach demonstrates how this “style” was common among virtually all historians of the time.   He shows how “most of them saw themselves in particular as the providers of an important kind of inspirational literature.”  Facts were elastic.  This practice of bending reality to fit the lesson plan was rampant in the 19th century.  It was systemic.  And it was considered normal.

One can easily see the parallels between writers wishing to portray actions of the American government favorably, and those within the LDS church tasked with portraying Mormon history in the most positive light.  According to Riggenbach:

“The American history taught in most schools during the past hundred years faithfully reflected received opinion, and received opinion sees the United States as a consistent, devoted partisan of the same spirit of individual liberty that once moved its founders -a peace-loving nation that wishes the rest of the world only the best, and never goes to war except in self-defense.”

“Apply this set of principles to what we know of the past and, at the end of the day, you’ll wind up with quite a pile of facts that didn’t meet the criteria and now litter the cutting room floor.”

“The facts about the gross violations of individual liberty that have been championed by U.S. presidents almost since the beginning, for example -John Adams’s Sedition Acts, Andrew Jackson’s genocidal treatment of the American Indians, Abraham Lincoln’s military conscription (to say nothing of his suspension of habeas corpus and his imprisonment of newspaper editors who dared to disagree with his prosecution of the Civil War), William McKinley’s brutal suppression of the independence movement in the Philippines after the Spanish American War, Franklin Roosevelt’s order to round up American citizens of Japanese ancestry and imprison them in concentration camps- are any of these inconvenient facts likely to be selected for inclusion in a textbook based on the “commonly shared principle” of the saintliness of the U.S. government?” (Pg. 24)

Similarly we Mormons may ask ourselves if we should really expect inconvenient facts that reflect poorly on the “saintliness” of our church leaders to find their way into books and Sunday School manuals published by the church.

History: It Ain’t What It Used To Be

In 1972 the church appointed LDS Professor Leonard J. Arrington as the official Church Historian.  This was the first time a true historian, a trained academic, had been given that post.  This important office had always been held by a general authority.  Arrington opened up the massive church archives to other Mormon academics, and the era of The New Mormon History was born.  Surprise, surprise; that magic era didn’t last long. Just barely a decade.

The archives were a treasure house of information for the excited historians involved.  They were soon discovering things that even the current leadership of the church hadn’t known about.  Paul Toscano reports that Hyrum L. Andrus was opening wooden crates full of church records that had been nailed shut since they left Nauvoo in 1846.  All kinds of fascinating stuff was in there.

Books and essays were written based on these newly found letters, diaries, journals, newspapers, and records. But not all of the information in these documents was seen as favorable to church leadership.  Some of the revisions clearly contradicted elements of what had become the official church history.

A massively ambitious multi-volume church history was planned, utilizing the talents of the church’s most qualified scholars and historians.  Then one day the order came down from on high to scrap the project, and the historian’s office was “reorganized.” Arrington, who had been introduced at general conference with great fanfare for a vote of approval ten years earlier, was quietly released in 1982 without even a mention in conference or any vote of thanks. The position of Church Historian was again placed into the hands of a trusted general authority.  The archives were closed to all but a select few, and have remained closed to this day.

… We have new facts. Using letters, diaries, journals, newspaper accounts, and church records, Van Wagoner walks us through the event.  He revises the history.  You can read his essay here, entitled The Making of a Mormon Myth.  (You can find another excellent analysis by Reid L. Harper in the Fall 1996 Journal of Mormon History.)

Why It Matters, And Why It Doesn’t

Just as 19th century historian George Bancroft believed there was nothing wrong with fabricating and reshaping the facts as long as the resulting stories “would make his readers proud of their country’s history”, so did 19th century Mormons profess to fudging the facts if it led to promoting the faith.

But such Mormon urban legends have a way of backfiring.  Rather than strengthening testimonies, once the deception is revealed, testimonies are often destroyed. Witness the hoards of good and faithful people leaving the church in droves every year after discovering their testimonies were dependent on deeply held beliefs that had been manipulated by those they trusted most.

Nearly a hundred years ago B.H. Roberts was already concerned about this trend:

“Suppose your youth receive their impressions of church history from “pictures and stories” and build their faith upon these alleged miracles [and] shall someday come face to face with the fact that their belief rests on falsehoods; what then will be the result? Will they not say that since these things are myth and our Church has permitted them to be perpetuated …might not the other fundamentals to the actual story of the Church, the things in which it had its origin, might they not all be lies and nothing but lies?”

Art or Science?

Today the study of history is a social science, no longer the malleable “art” that it was prior to the twentieth century.  So perhaps it’s time Mormons as well as ex-Mormons applied the scientific process when trying to determine whether Joseph Smith was being honest in his denunciation of polygamy, or whether he was a flaming hypocrite.

“Occam’s Razor” is the scientific principle embodied in the statement that “the simplest explanation is usually the correct one.”

Perhaps Fawn Brodie’s frustrated bewilderment at the conflicting evidence tying Joseph Smith to plural marriage was simply a result of her having been raised in the church (as were most subsequent Joseph Smith biographers) and accepted as a “given” that the doctrine of polygamy originated with Joseph Smith.  Was she predisposed to ignore the simplest explanation?

How many of us have ever thought to check the provenance of D&C 132? Haven’t we always just assumed that it was written in Joseph’s hand?  We unquestioningly accept as truth what has been handed down to us from people whose own recollections of key events changed radically depending upon the lesson they wished to convey, and who lived in a time when even the professional historians were no sticklers for accuracy.

After weighing all the evidence in any historical controversy, the best we can conclude about any given event is that it was more likely to have happened one way, and less likely to have happened another. Important factors to consider are primary and contemporary accounts (accounts written at the time), versus secondary accounts, hearsay, and later recollections. …

…I don’t quite understand this reluctance some people have – both believing Mormons as well as others raised in the parochial Mormon culture – to automatically reject new information that might force a paradigm shift in their thinking.

I like how B.H. Roberts looked at it: “I find my own heart strengthened in the truth by getting rid of the untruth, the spectacular, the bizarre, as soon as I learn that it is based upon worthless testimony.”

I actually like discovering I might have been wrong about something.  It’s kind of exhilarating.  It tells me I’m still learning.


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