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A Brief History Lesson

I recently stumbled onto a new website called Millennial Ex-Mormon, which at present contains nothing more than a single post explaining “Who we Are & Why we Left…” (dated to March 15, 2015, so this thing appears to be brand spanking new). As a history major, I found this particular paragraph interesting:
Can you imagine if the Holocaust, the slave trade, or the attacks on 9/11 were sugar-coated or weren’t taught in schools because they give us bad feelings? Just because those events in history make us uncomfortable doesn’t mean they are any less true. Do you think that, if given the opportunity, the LDS church would hide the truth or unsavory facts of its history or organization?
The implication, of course, is that the Church has not been up front about things that “make us uncomfortable” in the Mormon past. While I am sure that whoever wrote this was sincere, that does not preclude them from being mistaken or shield them from scrutiny or criticism. And I, for one, find the implications here rather misguided.

For starters, let me explain something about the way historians conceptualize the past. Historians recognize a familiar past and a distant past. The familiar past is not necessarily familiar in the sense that everybody knows about it. Rather, it refers to the part of the past that seems like, or relatable to, the present. It can also refer to the tendency to interpret the past as if it were just like the present. The distant past, on the other hand, refers not to the past that is distant in time, but rather that is “distant” in the sense that is far different from the present. It is a foreign past, where people say and do strange things that don’t make much sense to us; and yes, they do and say things that make us uncomfortable. These two “pasts” are generally viewed as being in constant tension with one another, and historians strive to find a proper balance.

Unsurprisingly, most institutions—including public schools—teach a version of the familiar past. The Church is not dramatically different in this respect, and accusing the Church of being dishonest about its past seriously ignores the nature of how communities form their own narratives and build themselves around the identity those narratives create. There is a lot that could be said about this, but I am not really interested in laying all that out right now. The point is that the Church’s use of history is more or less the same as that of other institutions/communities.

What I find more interesting at the moment, however, is the examples they give of “uncomfortable” events in American history. Holocaust and 9/11 are, frankly, bad examples. It really is too early to talk about how 9/11 is/will be handled in American history texts, but in any case it is like complaining that the Church is not honest about its past because it does not talk about all the “uncomfortable” aspects of the Haun’s Mill massacre, like 10-year-old Mormon boy’s being shot in cold blood because “nits make lice.” No one makes this kind of argument, and I think it is obvious why. The Holocaust, meanwhile, is not really a blemish on the American past, so no one should be surprised that we can talk about it pretty openly—even comfortably. Now, if they had said something about, say, the unlawful internment of Japanese-Americans in concentration camps during World War II, they might have had a point. Then again, they may not have been aware of these because… they kind of aren’t really taught in public schools. At least they weren’t at any of the public schools I went to. And, even if they are mentioned in some high school courses, I suspect they are probably “sugar-coated.” My guess is that, for the most part, the average American is not going to seriously learn about these unless they are a history major in college.  And even then, they might not if they don’t have the right emphasis. While having some awareness of them from survey courses, I was not seriously exposed to this unsavory piece of American history until I was in an upper division course on the history of Utah (of all things!).

So, the Holocaust and 9/11 examples don’t really serve their argument well. What about the slave trade? Well, it is certainly true that it would be incredibly egregious to teach American history without mentioning the slave trade. But once again, unless you were a history major in college, odds are the public school version of slavery and the slave trade you learned growing was… sugar-coated. I am not saying that you didn’t learn some uncomfortable details, say, watching Roots in 8th grade or whatever. What I am saying is that if all you know about the slave trade is you public school, K–12 education, then you honestly have no idea just how unsavory the practice and attitudes could be. So this does not really serve their argument well, either.

We see that even in your public, high school education, uncomfortable things were sugar-coated, and even omitted altogether. An important question is whether or not this fact undermines the legitimacy of the American institutions that our “whitewashed” and “sugar-coated” narratives are built around? Should we cease to recognize the authority of the United States government simply because US History is not exactly what we were taught it was in schools? I’m sure there are a few who think so, but most of us would see them as radicals. So I now am left to wonder the same thing about the Mormon past. Is the legitimacy of the priesthood authority undermined simply because the Mormon past is a lot more complicated than what we are taught in Sunday School? Is the fact that there are some uncomfortable events in Mormon history—say, the Mountain Meadows Massacre, for example—enough to justify not recognizing the priesthood authority of current presiding quorums of the Church?

One response to this question might be the very origins of that priesthood authority are part of the “uncomfortable” details we don’t want to talk about. (The same could probably be argued about the formation of the American government, if one really wanted to go there, which I don’t at the moment.) Even if this is so, however, there is an epistemological issue that should not be ignored. Whatever historical arguments for or against the restoration of the priesthood could be formed (and I do think such historical arguments for it can be, and even should be, made), the bottom line is that historical epistemologies simply are not designed to answer questions about divine things. Even if we had day of documentation, the default historical epistemology would be that it didn’t happen because the story involves angels. So historical ways of knowing are limited in their ability to answer the most important questions about the Mormon past. Any attempt to determine whether priesthood was really restored, or if Joseph Smith really divinely-translated an ancient text, or really saw God and Christ in a grove of trees, must necessarily go beyond what the historical evidence can ultimately determine.

This leads me to comment, briefly, on another aspect of the post. There is an emphasis, toward the end, on how “it took humility” to reach the conclusion that the Church was false. Furthermore, they (whoever they are) write:
Contrary to what church leaders say about ex-Mormons, our new perspective of the LDS church is not the result of pride — it comes from humility. When an honest man discovers he is mistaken, he will either cease being mistaken, or cease being honest. Pride didn’t make us leave the church, it kept us in it. We’ve fought against our pride, and we are better people because of that.
There is, alas, a certain challenge that comes when talking about one’s own humility. No matter how true and sincere such statements of humility are, it is hard for them not to come across as something of an oxymoron. The truly humble just don’t go around talking about their humility, even in the face of accusations to the contrary.  But beyond that, there is a striking lack of epistemological humility throughout the post. For example, after talking about knowing if the Church lied about its history, they state:
To us, we can’t just be told what to believe. We have to know that whatever we believe is true and that we believe in it for the right reasons. We yearn for knowledge, we’re constantly learning, and we strive to view the world without bias.
The implication is that if you don’t know the “full” history “without bias,” you can’t know whether what you believe in is true or if you believe it for the right reasons. But this kind of objective “knowing” about the past is impossible to achieve by means of historical epistemologies. Such notions are painfully out-dated in American historiography. Believing that they can view the world and the past without bias, and thus come to “know” what to believe about the Church that way is, if not epistemological arrogance, epistemological immaturity. And often failure to recognize one’s own immaturities stems from personal pride.

This is the very kind of epistemological immaturity one tends to see in people who learn about history online (usually from sensational, non-professional sources). It is also a symptom most commonly found in those who fail to learn about the nature of history, or that such a thing even exists. Not that I am trying to “blame the victim,” as some are wont to say when this kind of thing gets pointed out. I am more than happy to acknowledge that for most people, immature historical thinking comes naturally. What is more it is reinforced by society at large through schools, media, family, and yes, even the Church. I’m all for improving these matters. But figuring out who is to blame is a lot less important, to me, than just understanding that the kind of thinking reflected by the Millennial Ex-Mormon is poor historical thinking, and as such, it simply is not a good idea to make major life changing decisions based on the conclusions reached through such reasoning.

I get that not everyone can be a historian (I probably won’t be when the dust of my life settles), but don’t you think if you are going to make major decisions in your life based on the conclusions you reach while investigating history, you owe it to yourself to ensure that you are operating on solid ground, build from strong historiographical foundations?   Learning about the nature of history and historical method and epistemology is probably not all that important if all you are interested in is trivia. But if you are going to stake your life-changing decisions on historical arguments, it would serve you well to know what history can and cannot tell you. 


  1. Neal,

    There are many other points along this line that could be stressed. First, it should be stated that the dearth of history taught in US public schools is more "shameful" (if that is really the right word) than the dearth in the LDS church. Public schools have the potential to teach history quite a bit more (more days per week) when compared with LDS Sunday School classes.


    PS: If it is any consolation, I learned about some of the "unsavory" tidbits of Church history as a new convert in (of all places) Junior High School. Where? Ohio. The class? Ohio State History, which one could expect Joseph had a part in.

  2. “Though radically compressed, this is a fair statement of the mainstream position on historical objectivity. Now I have not the time, and you have not the patience, to go through the ups and downs of this program over the past hundred years. I will only report that to an ever-increasing number of historians in recent decades it has not just seemed unapproachable, but an incoherent ideal; not impossible, in the sense of unachievable (that would not make it a less worthy goal than many other goals that we reasonably pursue), but meaningless. This is not because of human frailty on the part of the historian (that, after all, we can struggle against), not because of irresistible outside pressures (these too we can resist with some success, if not complete success). No, the principal problem is different, and it is laughably simple. It is the problem of selecting from among the zillions and zillions of bits of historical data out there the handful that we can fit in even the largest book, and the associated problem of how we arrange those bits that we choose. The criterion of selection and the way we arrange the bits we choose are not given out there in the historical record. Neutrality, value-freedom, and absence of preconceptions on the part of the historian would not result in a neutral account, it would result in no account at all, because any historian, precisely to the extent that she was neutral, without values, free of preconceptions, would be paralyzed, would not have the foggiest notion of how to go about choosing from the vast, unbelievably messy chaos of stuff out there.” -- Peter Novick, “Why the Old Mormon Historians Are More Objective Than the New.” A talk delivered at the 1989 Sunstone Symposium held at the University of Utah in Salt Lake City. Never published, but the recording is available.

  3. This post reminded me of this quote.


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