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“New Mormon History” and Invigorating Faith

When I was in graduate school, a few friends and I would get together and read various articles on Church History. Since I had really enjoyed Church History, this was of interest to me. We read articles from various academic publications. I was familiar with most of these publications, having taken a course from a Professor at Ricks College who assigned reading from them in a church history course. During this course there were some articles that challenged my previous perceptions of church history. Typically, this involved actions by a church leader which didn't fit into the historical framework I had mentally built around them. Some were annoyed by the tenor of the class, but I really enjoyed it and was happy to expand my understanding of history in a different context than I was used to.  

So when I was invited to the graduate school discussion group, I was interested, despite the heavy pressures of studying. Once again, I found head scratching articles that further challenged the common historical framework of church history and sometimes the perception of the character of its leaders I had mentally created based on previous readings.

What do we do with this kind of information? How do we file it away in our consciousness? How do we reconcile it with things we know for certain already? I found most, if not all, of what might be considered "challenging" historical information can be categorized into one the following three possibilities:

  1. The historical information may be passed down incorrectly, out of context, or invented.
  2. The information is correct, and there is something I do not understand.
  3. The information is correct, and the individuals involved were wrong, acted inappropriately, or at best exercised poor judgement.

As an academic, church member, citizen, and amateur historian, I am interested in the correct categorization. I like to understand and know what really happened, if there was an error, who made errors, what the errors were, etc. But even for a professional historian, it's not practical to be able to positively, absolutely categorize every incident in church history with complete certainty. Considering the impossibility or at least impracticability of the task, how do we deal with this information? The answer for me is the following. I consider the things I know for certain. They may be few, but they are sure. Among the things I know for certain is knowledge that has been confirmed to my soul by the Spirit of God. Everything else must be reconciled with this knowledge. Given this, I came to the realization that I didn't care which of the three categories historical evidence fit into from a personal religious perspective. I'm interested, yes, but simply because I want to be educated, not because it could challenge my faith. 

Some would be troubled by this approach, particularly when it comes to category 3. Can't we expect that prophets and other church leaders have reached a point in their lives where they are beyond saying anything in error, or acting in error either personally, or with regards to church administration? When I was 20 I might have said, "absolutely". But the course of life has a way of tempering our thinking.

The longer I live, the more I realize that people are subject to a complex set of challenges and it is impossible to look from the outside in and understand what someone is going through and how that might effect their behavior. God does understand and exercises compassion and forgiveness accordingly.  Personal circumstances change in peoples lives, sometimes for reasons beyond their control. God makes do with the servants He has available to him at any given time and place.  Our perceptions of what is required to be one of God's servants may be inaccurate.  

None of us are anywhere near the perfect life of the Savior.  Should we really demand that our leaders must be so much better than we are?  “The leaders of the Church are honest but imperfect men. Remember the words of Moroni: ‘Condemn me not because of mine imperfection, neither my father … ; but rather give thanks unto God that he hath made manifest unto you our imperfections, that ye may learn to be more wise than we have been.’”[1]  Hopefully, we can all look within our own lives and find experiences that illustrate our own personal weakness and God's grace in overcoming them.

How can we find our faith invigorated by "new" history, rather than challenged?  I think the key is knowledge we receive directly from God.  What do we know by the inspiration of the Spirit?  Everything else is based on assumption. Assumption that information being passed to us has been correctly represented from its source. Assumption that we understand all the details surrounding that information. Assumption that information being passed to us is complete, even if it is correct. Assumption that the knowledge and wisdom we currently have is sufficient to interpret information correctly, even if it is complete and correctly represented. Assumption that church leaders should not make serious mistakes according to our definition of serious. Assumption that if they did make a mistake, even a serious one, that it demonstrates that everything else they did before and/or after must also have been in error. Assumption that God's timing for correcting errors should be more in line with what we think it should be. 

But when the Spirit confirms knowledge to our souls, it becomes sure knowledge. You can write it down and count on it.  "When we know spiritual truths by spiritual means, we can be just as sure of that knowledge as scholars and scientists are of the different kinds of knowledge they have acquired by different methods.”[2]  Our faith is invigorated as we fit new information into the framework of our current knowledge.  We have learned something additional rather than doubting what we already know.  As we give thanks to God for this additional knowledge we can learn to be more wise than our leaders from the past.  

So what do I know? I know there is a God. He gives me regular and consistent guidance. There is power in believing that Jesus Christ atoned for our sins - a power that can be obtained in no other way. The New Testament contains the record of the most important events in the history of the world - the ministry, atonement, and resurrection of Jesus Christ.  The Book of Mormon - Another Testament of Jesus Christ - also contains the word of God. 

All will be clear to us at some point. Until then, I don't feel the need to understand everything today. I do pray for more understanding. I pray that if there are errors in the scriptures or my interpretation of them and of history that they will be brought to my knowledge. It appears to me that God is not in a great hurry to correct all of them. On the other hand, I have the sense that God is slowly bringing some of these things into better focus; for example, through things like the dead sea scrolls - not to imply that these are a final authority. I am aware that I could make an effort on my part to learn more about language, history, and archeology which would help me understand the scriptures more. I have chosen not to invest huge amounts of time for that right now, partly because I have too many other interests[3] I consider more important at this period of time. I justify this because of the first sentences of the previous paragraph. I know what I know. I am interested in the details, but I don't have to know them today.

President Deiter F. Uchtdorf said it in another way the October 2013 General Conference[4]. I'd like to quote the entire section, but don't think this can be done without permission, so here are a few key quotes with my highlights and a link to the full text.

"Some struggle with unanswered questions about things that have been done or said in the past. We openly acknowledge that in nearly 200 years of Church history ... there have been some things said and done that could cause people to question."

"Sometimes questions arise because we simply don’t have all the information and we just need a bit more patience. When the entire truth is eventually known, things that didn’t make sense to us before will be resolved to our satisfaction."

"Sometimes there is a difference of opinion as to what the “facts” really mean. A question that creates doubt in some can, after careful investigation, build faith in others."

"And, to be perfectly frank, there have been times when members or leaders in the Church have simply made mistakes. There may have been things said or done that were not in harmony with our values, principles, or doctrine."

"God is perfect, and His doctrine is pure. But He works through us—His imperfect children—and imperfect people make mistakes."

"It’s natural to have questions—the acorn of honest inquiry has often sprouted and matured into a great oak of understanding. There are few members of the Church who, at one time or another, have not wrestled with serious or sensitive questions. One of the purposes of the Church is to nurture and cultivate the seed of faith—even in the sometimes sandy soil of doubt and uncertainty. Faith is to hope for things which are not seen but which are true."

"Therefore, my dear brothers and sisters—my dear friends—please, first doubt your doubts before you doubt your faith.  We must never allow doubt to hold us prisoner and keep us from the divine love, peace, and gifts that come through faith in the Lord Jesus Christ."  [5]

This is the first time I recall hearing language like this in General Conference.  Richard E. Bennett, Professor of Church History at Brigham Young University, said something similar regarding history at an interfaith dialogue in Nauvoo, IL in 2006.

"... the intellectualization of Church history and the rise of what many term the "New Mormon History" have changed the intellectual landscape of our past and have invigorated the faith of some while sorely testing it in others”.[6]

I did find my faith invigorated.  Hopefully, some of the thoughts above describe how to get past "sorely testing" and suspicion, and move on to "invigorated”.




[1] Neil L. Anderson, Trial of Your Faith, Ensign Nov. 2012. (quoting Mormon 9:31). 

[2] Dallin H. Oaks, Testimony, Apr. 2008 General Conference

[3] Brad Porter, Our place in the The History of the World, (Some things that are more important to me at this time than investing huge amounts of time in language, archaeology, and history.)

[4] October 2013 General Conference.

[5] Dieter F. Uchtdorf, Oct. 2013 General Conference

[6] Richard E. Bennett, From Calvary to Cumorah: What Mormon History Means to Me, The Religious Educator, Vol 8, No 3, 2007.

Revision history:  Original:  2012-11-25.  Major Revisions:  2013-12-29, 2014-03-30, 2014-05-03, 2015-02-08



Brad Porter commented on Sun, 02/08/2015 - 18:33

Acts of leaders are subject to scrutiny, but arguably unnecessary to broadcast.  Individuals do not consistently and intentionally wear their mistakes on their forehead.  It is not any more sensible for an organization to advertise the mistakes of individuals within it.  If we do become aware of them, “give thanks unto God that he hath made manifest unto you our imperfections, that ye may learn to be more wise than we have been.”[10]  This way, our faith can be invigorated with new knowledge rather than challenged.[11]

(from  An Anchor in Rochester )