Thinking Historically as a Christian (And/Or a Mormon)

This last weekend, during the Saturday morning session of General Conference for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, President Dieter Uchdorf of the First Presidency offered one of the most meme-worthy quotes for scholars of Mormonism. (You know, if Mormon scholars did memes.) While explaining that there are a number of possible reasons why some would choose to leave the Church and giving the particular example of being nagged by “unanswered questions,” he admitted that “there have been times when members or leaders in the Church have simply made mistakes. There may have been things said or done,” he cautioned, “that were not in harmony with our values, principles, or doctrine.” While many rushed to plaster facebook with the quote (guilty!) and, sadly, were too busy using it as a bludgeon for ideological reasons to miss the entire talk’s overall message, Uchdorf’s message actually brings up important questions.

For much of Mormonism’s past few decades, the traditional framework in which understood was a basic, yet cosmic, morality play of good versus evil, saints versus sinners. God’s hand is seen in “every hour and every moment of the Church from its beginning till now,” as one famous formulation put it, and history’s primary purpose was to demonstrate divine intervention into everyday life—particularly the actions, thoughts, and decisions of God’s leaders. This conception of history was hardly alone to the Mormon tradition; indeed, it became quite common amongst Evangelical religions as they grappled with concerns introduced by (post)modernity in the twentieth century. Often, the best way to reaffirm God’s importance in the presence is to reassure His intervention in the past. But the resulting framework that often follows typically doesn’t encompass the nuances, complexities, and, as Uchdorf put it, “mistakes” that occurred. And this demolished worldview, more than the supposed demolishing facts, are what lead to a crisis of faith.

So, how is one to construct a historical conscience that is infused with Christian belief yet responsible to historical standards?

I’ve recently been riveted by the work of two Christian scholars, Robert Tracy McKenzie and John Fea. Both are established scholars of American history, both are forthcoming about their attachment to the Christian faith, and both have published books on the intersections between the two in recent months. McKenzie’s The First Thanksgiving: What the Real Story Tells Us About Loving God and Learning from History (InterVarsity Press) uses a particular (and formative) event from America’s past to explore how God works though humankind to show His love and grace, and Fea’s Why Study History?: Reflecting on the Importance of the Past (Baker Academic) is much more general in examining the importance of a historical conscience to a believing Christian. These are not books that try to straddle the academic/devotional line; they explicitly use tools from the former in order to speak particularly to the latter. “I am a Christian as well as a historian,” McKenzie explains in his introduction, “and I have written this book for fellow believers who want help in thinking—Christianly and historically—about the American past.”

I’ll leave the particulars of their excellent books and their provocative arguments for another time. For now, I just have two questions. First, why do we not have this same type of work—that is, rigorous explorations by trained historians of how faith and history can be meshed—is not taking place within Mormonism. And second, what would a Mormon framework for history even look like?

It is somewhat curious that the most recent generation of Mormon studies seem mostly uninterested in questions of faith and history. This is due, I think, to at least three reasons. First, burned by the battles over “faithful history” in the 1980s and 1990s, Mormon historians have retreated from the battleground of determining modern relevancy, instead being satisfied with crafting sophisticated and nuanced reconstructions of past ages without explaining the significance to modern LDS readers. Second, the proliferation of numerous “faith-promoting histories” within LDS culture, and the constant accusations of being an “apologist” from within the academy, has made Mormon scholars anxious to make a distinction between their academic work and the devotional work sold at Deseret Book. And finally, by avoiding the stewardship over making points immediately relevant to contemporary Saints, scholars have much more freedom in not worrying what their fellow ward members will think. This is an issue that I hope to see addressed more by Mormon scholars in the future. (Likely after they get tenure!)

But when the topic is addressed, what will the result(s) look like? For an act of comparison, McKenzie, an Evangelical, explains part of his Christian framework in his book by stating, “the past is a sphere of human experience that [God] has sovereignly ordained.” I imagine Mormons might quibble with both “sovereignly” and “ordained” in that formulation, with potentially intriguing implications. The Book of Mormon seems to have a pretty distinct sense of not only history’s importance, but how history is to be used; by historicizing scripture (or scripturalizing history), and then urging readers to “liken” the scriptures and history unto ourselves, there is a allegorical sense of historical consciousness being introduced. Or what about the frequent injunctions in both the Book of Mormon and Joseph Smith’s revelations that humankind is fallible, prone to mistakes, and oft to fall short of expectations? Does Mormonism’s Plan of Salvation tell us that history is best understood as cycles, like the pride cycles in the Nephite record, or a progressive trajectory, like Smith’s audacious revelations? It seems the tools are there to construct a number of potential frameworks, but it will require a much more rigorous and sustained analysis than has heretofore been offered.

Here’s hoping future scholarship will do much better in conceptualizing a sacred past.

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