The Complexities of History in The Ensign

Doctor Who Intro Screenshot
Doctor Who Intro Screenshot

I still haven’t had time for the second post in my Transitional Mormonism series, but I promise to make time soonish.

I want to highlight an important Ensign article in the February 2017 issue, “Understanding Church History by Study and Faith.” Written by the Church History Library Director Keith Erikson, it makes some important points that are not always obvious or instinctive to non-historians. Erikson echoes several points made in another important Ensign article about history 40 years ago, by Elder G. Homer Durham. I draw on both below.

  1. The past is accessible only indirectly and partially.

    pieces of the past remain—letters, diaries, records of organizations, material objects. Today, we can learn about the past only indirectly through the pieces that remain. Information is always lost between the past and the present. We must study the records that do survive while remembering that they do not represent the entirety of the past.Consider one example: When Joseph Smith preached a sermon to the Saints, he typically had no prepared text, and no audio or video recording was made. Though a few in attendance may have written notes or reflections, even fewer of those notes survive. Thus, we cannot claim to know everything Joseph Smith ever said, though we can, for instance, quote Wilford Woodruff’s notes about Joseph’s sermon.- Erikson

  2. There is a difference between the events of the past and the records of those events, between what happened and the evidence that remains to reconstruct it.

    Many years ago one of America’s distinguished historians, Professor James T. Shotwell of Columbia University, reminded us that history is at least two things: (1) a record of events and (2) the events themselves.- Durham

  3. The evidence or records that survive are often extremely fragmentary, and even the best and most accurate records are incomplete, sometimes in important ways.

    even if the official records are accurate, they are always incomplete. A marriage certificate records the names of the parties, the officiator, the witnesses, the place, and the date of the marriage. But it doesn’t tell how the bride, groom, family, and friends felt, or what they experienced. And everyone participating will naturally have had a different experience.- Durham

    As Elder Eyring said, “no event in history can be fully known.”

  4. Historians must interpret that fragmentary evidence in telling the historical story. Every telling, every retelling, has some purpose, some goal, some bias, and is based on partial and incomplete access.

    The “events themselves,” which took place in the past, whether yesterday or 5,000 years ago, are beyond exact recall with our present facilities. We cannot re-experience an event. Thus, we are left with records of events, all of which are interpretations of events. (Even television involves a human judgment on where to point the camera.) Furthermore, despite the contributions of archaeology, linguistics, and the natural and social sciences, most history is a form of literature. Naturally, the most reliable records come from qualified participants in the events or from analysts with access to all the records, but their re-creation of the event for us will always be shaped by their own perspective.- Durham

    Because the surviving pieces of the past are incomplete, people attempt to put the pieces together in order to tell a story. The earliest stories were told by participants and typically describe what they experienced and why it was important to them. Some participants told their stories on multiple occasions to different audiences. Some events prompted many participants to relate their experiences. Other events were forgotten until a later experience called them to mind.

    Stories are collected and retold by others for many reasons—to entertain an audience, sell a product, shape public opinion, or lobby for change. Each story becomes an interpretation of the past, built on factual pieces and influenced by the teller’s memory, interests, and goals. As a result, stories about the past are incomplete and sometimes contradictory. We must always consider who is telling the stories, how they are telling them, and why they are telling them.- Eriksen

  5. The past is different than the present. Duh, you may say. While obvious once stated, the implications of this difference are extremely important. We distort the past when we interpret it as if it were the present, and we do this all the time. This is called “presentism” and it’s a common and massive problem.

    The past is different from the present (and that’s OK)

    As we seek to make sense of the pieces of the past and the stories told about it, we discover people, places, experiences, and traditions different from our own. Changes in science, technology, and culture produce different experiences with birth, eating, travel, holidays, hygiene, dating, medicine, and death. Different political and economic systems create different experiences with education, choice, freedom, and opportunity. Past views differ from our views on work, family, public service, and the role and status of women and minorities. Every temporal aspect of human experience changes over time in ways both small and great.

    For example, from our perspective in the present, Joseph Smith’s use of a seer stone to translate the Book of Mormon appears very different. [See my post on teaching the seer stone at BYU in 2004 here, and my post about Oliver Cowdery’s rod and Joseph in Egypt’s divining cup here.] In his time, however, many people believed that physical objects could be used to receive divine messages. These beliefs were based, in part, on biblical stories in which objects were used for divine purposes (see Numbers 17:1–10; 2 Kings 5; John 9:6). A revelation Joseph received for the organization of the Church explained that God “gave him power from on high, by the means which were before prepared, to translate the Book of Mormon” (D&C 20:8). Though the “means” included a seer stone as well as the Urim and Thummim, we can still discern the doctrinal message “that God does inspire men and call them to his holy work in this age … ; thereby showing that he is the same God yesterday, today, and forever” (D&C 20:11–12).

    Present assumptions distort the past

    Because the past was different from our day, we must take special care not to make assumptions about the past based on our present ideas and values. We cannot assume that people in the past were just like us or that they would appreciate our culture or beliefs. We cannot assume that we now know everything, that we have read every source, or that our current understanding of the past will never change. Frequently, so-called problems with the past are actually just bad assumptions made in the present.

    For example, Joseph Smith declared, “I never told you I was perfect.” If we were to assume that prophets never made mistakes, then we might be startled to discover times when Joseph did. To “fix” this problem, we should neither stubbornly hold that Joseph was perfect nor charge the Church with deception. Rather, we can acknowledge Joseph’s humanity and see him in the context of other scriptural stories about prophets. As a result, we can adjust our assumptions to recognize that all prophets are mortal and therefore have imperfections. We can feel grateful that God patiently works with each of us. Admitting the errors in our own thinking is sometimes the most difficult part of understanding history.- Erikson (my italics, bold in original)

As mentioned above, history-writing is a form of literature. Indeed, Robert Alter, a professor of literature and Hebrew, bluntly stated that “history is far more intimately related to fiction than we have been accustomed to assume.” Latin fictio means “something made or fashioned.” In that limited etymological sense, all history is “fiction” because all history is the conscious attempt by someone to select certain historical data points and make or fashion a coherent story with them. A different person at a different time with a different focus or different sources might tell a different story about the same events.

This is not to undermine “history” as a profession. Indeed not, it is professional historians who are most trustworthy to handle historical materials and narratives. They are the ones trained on its pitfalls and accordingly the most careful about making authoritative historical claims.

This discussion about the nature of history and history-writing applies very much to the Bible, the Book of Mormon, and other scripture, as well as how we interpret and understand it. In writing and editing the Book of Mormon, Mormon functions as an ancient historian. What does he select? What does he leave out? How does he arrange his sources to make certain points? What does he know? (See Grant Hardy, Mormon as Editor, and his Understanding the Book of Mormon for much greater depth.) Recalling from above that the past differs from the present, we must also ask if history-writing in the past differed from history-writing in the present.  Peter Enns writes

What were the ancient conventions for writing history? What did it mean to record history? What can be called good or accurate history writing by standards that were in existence when the Bible was written?

Do we unconsciously assume every part of ancient scripture is “history” and then read it according to modern historical standards? (This is a genre question. See my posts here and here.) How might this distort the original inspired purpose?

Although the editorial processes involved with the Bible are far more opaque than in the Book of Mormon, the same issues are present there.  Enns continues.

All historiography [or history writing] is a literary product, which means it is about people writing down (or transmitting orally) their version of that history. In other words, historiography is by definition an interpretive exercise. There might not be much that is interpretive about saying “David lived,” but when you give an account of David’s life—what he did, when, with whom, why, what the implications were—you are most certainly engaged in interpreting these events. How  so? Anyone who communicates historical events must be very selective about what is communicated. You simply can’t say everything, nor would you want to. You say only those things that are important to the point you want to get across. Also, you will say those things in such a way that will drive your point home. In other words, this presentation, this literary product, looks the way it does because the author has a purpose in mind for why those events should be reported. The presentation is not divorced from the events, but it is a purposeful representation of those events.
These three elements are always interconnected. All written accounts of history are literary products that are based on historical events that are shaped to conform to the purpose the historian wants to get across.- Enns, I&I, link below.

Why is understanding all this important?

I think that when we have a better handle on the nature of history and history-writing, we are better equipped to interpret and understand scripture, and make sense of the oft-puzzling past. Particularly when the past seems to pose a serious challenge to us in some way, the more tools we have to “handle” it, the better off we are. I’m terribly pleased to see The Ensign trying to put those tools into the hands of everyday readers.

Beyond the two Ensign articles, here is some further suggested reading, some quoted above.

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