Wednesday, May 9, 2012

Learning our history

I’ve enjoyed a discussion in the comments of a recent post over at BCC. The post itself was about teaching the methods Joseph used when translating the Book of Mormon, and the subsequent discussion has touched on how we Mormons learn about our own history. There seem to be two broad points of view that have emerged in the discussion (which I will now simplify in such a way that proponents of either might not recognize them anymore…):

1. I learned my church history from Sunday School and seminary classes and learned only the very basic and most sterile view of the restoration and events surrounding it.

2. Somehow I learned not only the fundamental founding stories of the restoration but also the complexity of our history. This knowledge may have come from Sunday School and seminary lessons or from my parents or from my own exploration or perhaps from further study I’ve done as an adult.

There is a view advanced by some that the church, by “sanitizing” a history, has either misled or oversimplified or out-and-out lied to its flock in order to teach a certain faith-promoting point of view. I do not share that view simply because that has not been my experience.

I am a convert to the church. I was baptized with my parents at age eight (almost nine), so I had the benefit of hearing the missionary lessons AND “growing up” in the church. I attended Primary for nearly a year prior to my baptism (I was the first in my family to go to church), and I continued to attend MIA (back in the day), priesthood, Sunday School and seminary. Our family was not completely diligent in holding Family Home Evenings throughout my youth, but we did often enough and regularly enough that I knew what Home Evening was and how it worked. And I have fond memories of many of our family activities. I’m old enough that church was in the morning and in the afternoon on Sundays, and Primary and Relief Society were held during the week. Our family car made the half-hour trip to church every day of the week – often twice – except the rare Saturday that there wasn’t a stake meeting, a youth activity or some sports thing going on.

By the time I got to BYU as a freshman, I was not unfamiliar with some of the anti-Mormon stories. I’d heard some of the arguments of the day against the church (some from my well-meaning “Christian” friends, some from politically active folks who worried about blacks and the priesthood). Perhaps because I came to the church as a convert in a convert family, I was not steeped in a more narrow view of our history, so if I heard something new (like Joseph’s use of a seer stone), I didn’t worry about it; I just filed it away with other things I’d learned.

I took a church history class from our mission president the summer before I went to BYU and there I was likely exposed to a few new things about Joseph and his experience. Our instructor was Kenneth Godfrey, whom I didn’t realize at the time was quite a church history scholar. I also benefited from a rather progressive Sunday School teacher in my last years in high school; she challenged us to consider our testimonies and consider what we knew and could know. She gave me new ways to think about general authorities and how they taught. She was completely faithful, but also frank in her discussions in our class.

When I got to BYU, I had a roommate whose father had been leaving the church for years. My roommate was well-versed in the foibles of our history, and he was anxious to find resolution to many of his questions. To my good fortune, he included me in his search for answers, and we spent a good deal of time at the Special Collections section of the Harold B. Lee Library at BYU. Ultimately, he and I ended up in different places. Although we both left for our missions on the same day, he left his mission after six months unable to look himself in the mirror and truthfully testify that he knew Joseph was a prophet. My reaction was the opposite. I am still impressed with his integrity, and I cannot account for our different outcomes, only my own. I found peace in my study of doctrine and was ok with some ambivalence along the way as it related to specific historical questions.

Over time, I’ve been greatly encouraged by efforts by the church to make more real history more available. And I’ve sought out and enjoyed reading more scholarly efforts from Bushman and Arrington and Givens and others. The relatively recent (well, several years old, now) work by Walker, Turley, and Leonard on Mountain Meadows was far more satisfying to me than Juanita Brooks’ treatment that I read in my freshman year at the Y, though Brooks’ account was also illuminating and helpful as far as it went.

Recent online conversations have caused me to think again about how I’ve talked about church history with my children. I could do more. I have had the approach of waiting for their questions and then to answer as honestly as I can, and reaffirming my own faith. Perhaps there is value in my being more proactive than I have been; I don’t know.

When I have taught church history in Sunday School or institute classes or in priesthood, I’ve also done my best to represent truth as I understand it. I have generally sought supplemental information, and, when I’ve felt it appropriate, I’ve introduced it into my lessons. I try to measure such introductions against the needs and interests of my class.

My testimony is not as simple as saying “I know the Book of Mormon is true; therefore I know that Joseph was a prophet; therefore the church is true.” In fact, that is absolutely not my own path to testimony.

But my testimony is pretty simple. I do know from my own experience and in my own way that God is in His heaven. The scriptures, including the Book of Mormon, have taught me doctrine that has blessed my life. The fruits of the restoration – the priesthood and its ordinances, including temple ordinances – have been the source of great spiritual strength for me. All of those things point me toward the atonement and its remarkable power and grace.

Against that backdrop, I’ve yet to be overcome by historical issues. I realize my approach does not work for everyone. I have members of my family who have left the church over unresolved issues regarding our history, and one needn’t look far on the internet to find many others who are in the same boat. I read a comment a while ago that wondered what a TBM like me would have to learn to turn him away from the church, and I don’t have an answer to that question. I suppose the reason is that my testimony is rooted in the gospel, not the church; it is rooted in the Savior and His redeeming power, including the ordinances of His priesthood, not in the history of the restoration as I understand it, nor even the historicity of the scriptures. It’s not that I doubt the history or the scriptures’ historicity; those things are not the most important thing to me.

But I’m happy to learn more about them as I go along.


  1. Having dealt with a lot of antagonism from my extended family who has chosen to leave the church due to some of the issues that you've discussed, I appreciate your perspective and testimony. Thank you.

  2. Great post, Paul. Thank you!

    "(which I will now simplify in such a way that proponents of either might not recognize them anymore…)"

    I hope you realize how appropriate that introductory statement is for this topic. *grin*

    "I am still impressed with his integrity, and I cannot account for our different outcomes, only my own."

    Amen. I wish we all could say that - honestly and sincerely. We have this verse about not judging that we not be judged . . .

    In the end, when all is said and done, I personally believe that the vast majority of "issues" that drive some people from the Church are manifestations of one very basic thing: unrealistic expectations - of God, of self and of others. That, imo, is why all the law and the prophets hang on the first and great commandments - and why charity (as described in 1 Corinthians 13) is the foundation that supports and maintains faith and testimony.