Keepapitchinin, the Mormon History blog » Telling the Truth about the Past
 


Telling the Truth about the Past

By: Ardis E. Parshall - July 13, 2009

Once upon a time — long enough ago that the specific issue and personality no longer matter — I took exception to an opinion-piece-qua-historical-article in the Salt Lake Tribune that, I believed, resorted to unethical manipulation of the historical record, distorting the past for humor in a way that also cast living people in a dangerously false light.

Every historian is going to have a personal view of past events and will occasionally take exception to someone else’s interpretation. Those honest disagreements are not of great concern. Neither are the inevitable errors that creep in despite all our best efforts at accuracy. Rather, I object to the manufacture of false history by putting lying words into the mouths or twisted behaviors into the biographies of people of the past.

The principles outlined here are equally valid for blogging about history. (I anticipate an objection to that  from one or two people who have been barred from commenting at Keepa. Their unwelcome, however, arises not from their differing views of Mormon history, but from the unrelenting sarcasm of earlier comments.)

“Thou shalt not bear false witness against thy neighbor” is one of the oldest tenets of Judeo-Christian civilization. Ancient secular wisdom requires witnesses to make an oath to tell “the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth.”

Historians testify of the past and speak for men and women who can no longer explain their words and defend their actions. At the risk of taking ourselves too seriously, historians have a duty to those men and women – and to you, as readers – to tell the truth about the past to the best of our ability.

You have the right to demand that we honor the values of responsible historians. As expressed by the American Historical Association’s standards of professional conduct, those values include these points:

“Individuals from all backgrounds have a stake in how the past is interpreted, for it cuts to the very heart of their identities.” Especially in Utah, where the notorious “divide” causes such trouble, the past is important. Many of us have hair-trigger sensitivities to how our own stories are told, and it is a short-sighted and callous historian who does not take those sensitivities into account.

“The trust and respect both of one’s peers and of the public at large are among the greatest and most hard-won achievements that any historian can attain. It is foolish indeed to put them at risk.” I spend my days sifting through the records of Utah’s past more intimately than most Tribune readers will ever have the opportunity to do. The value of that effort gradually increases as I build a reputation for fairness and honesty. Its value would be destroyed overnight if I betrayed your trust for cheap laughs or religious partisanship.

“All historians believe in honoring the integrity of the historical record. They do not fabricate evidence. Forgery and fraud violate the most basic foundations [of our craft].” Forgery includes rewriting the words and misstating the beliefs of past Utahns, thus making them appear to say and believe ideas that were abhorrent to them. Fraud includes skipping lightly through generations of history, picking a fact here and a fact there, creating a twisted picture that misrepresents past lives and societies.

“Practicing history with integrity does not mean being neutral or having no point of view.” None of us pretends to be objective – an impossible standard – and each of us interprets the past through our own experience. Realizing that other perspectives exist, however, and that our own knowledge is imperfect, historians have a duty to be generous toward ideas that are cherished by others but which we ourselves do not fully comprehend. Anything else belongs on the editorial page and not in a history column.

“Doing justice to [others’] views means … to see their worlds through their eyes.” My greatest pleasures as a historian have come when readers whose worlds differ from mine have told me that I got it right. My bus driver thanked me for a story about a Catholic priest because he so seldom saw his own people depicted in Utah history. Following a column on Utah’s black history, a woman exchanged half a dozen messages with me before she realized that I was not black. My goal is to write charitably about all Utahns, celebrating what it means to be a Utahn regardless of whether the story reflects my individual past.

It is not possible in the space of 650 words to tell “the whole truth” about any event. But it is possible – it is obligatory – to tell “nothing but the truth,” to represent the past fairly even when events are condensed and people’s words are abbreviated. Out of respect to you whose backgrounds differ from mine, it is also obligatory for me to treat your stories as sympathetically and as courteously as my own.

If I ever do less than that, hold me accountable. Start with a protest to my editor.



52 Comments »

  1. Great insights — couldn’t agree more.

    Comment by john f. — July 13, 2009 @ 6:58 am

  2. Ardis, it sounds like your response (the body of this post) was published in the SL Trib. Or maybe I’m just misreading your “Start with a protest to my editor” comment at the end.

    Comment by Dave — July 13, 2009 @ 7:25 am

  3. It was, Dave; I cut my introduction way down at the last moment and apparently cut out the part that made that clear.

    Although it wasn’t my usual type of column (I usually tell stories rather than lecture like a schoolmarm), my editor let me publish this as written, deleting only the word “malicious” from my submitted draft.

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — July 13, 2009 @ 7:44 am

  4. Wonderful thoughts, Ardis.

    One of the things that makes this a bit of a challenge in recent years is the advent of the Internet and rise of comments by non-historians and arm-chair historians. Too often these come into the debate about historical events with a pre-conceived notion or bias, and select the facts about the events that fit their beliefs. [Of course, some professional historians do this also.]

    I’m glad that you’ve covered this, and I have to now think that there needs to be ongoing training about these issues, not just for professional historians, but also for the non-historians who are now so frequently participating in the conversation about history.

    Comment by Kent Larsen — July 13, 2009 @ 8:34 am

  5. Ardis, this is timely for me, as I’ve been having historiographical discussions (for which I am unqualified) with a couple of writers (also not professionally trained as historians).

    One of the questions that comes up in doing Mormon history, which you only obliquely address above, and about which I would love to know your opinion, is how to handle historical information which, even truthfully and skillfully presented, may disturb readers’ religious convictions, and require some revision of their views.

    It’s easy (and proper)to condemn historians who pick and choose with the deliberate intent to destroy testimonies, but what do you think is the thoughtful (LDS) historian’s responsibility for readers’ testimonies? You mention taking people’s sensitivities into account, but what does that look like? Should a historian ever withhold information or present it through a devotional filter to avoid challenging someone’s faith?

    Comment by Kristine — July 13, 2009 @ 9:05 am

  6. And should one say “an historian”?

    Comment by Kristine — July 13, 2009 @ 9:06 am

  7. What brought this on? I don’t get it.

    I checked out the Tribune website and couldn’t find anything to help explain the controversy or the timing of your response. Care to share the background a bit more? If you’d rather just leave it alone (which I presume you do, given your intro), I certainly understand. It’s just that without the background, these musings on an historian’s ethics exist in a sort of vacuum for me.

    (For example, I incorrectly took your “start with my editor” suggestion as a reference to you, “editor” of Keepapitchinin. And, why respond now to an opinion piece that was apparently published a long while ago?)

    Comment by Hunter — July 13, 2009 @ 9:14 am

  8. Hunter, this is an old piece (published in 2005 or 2006, IIRC); you won’t find the particular article that I objected to back then, when both article and my objection were published in the Trib. The specific context doesn’t matter because the principles are general: Historians always have to decide how to represent the past, and have an obligation to represent it fairly.

    “An historian” comes most naturally to me; I know others who are adamant that “a historian” is the only true, correct and eternal formulation.

    Kristine, I don’t believe in super-sanitized history any more than I believe in super-sensational history. There is obviously going to be some ground in the middle where different people are going to make different conclusions, but we can probably agree that the extremes do not fairly represent any question: Characterizing the Girl Scouts as “door-to-door cookie peddlers” as I once read in a Soviet magazine is, we’d probably agree, so exaggerated as to be false, even though it is 100% accurate. So are biographies that characterize Thomas Jefferson in the narrow perspective as a slave owner, period. So is characterizing the Articles of Faith as something we believe in (but not really) and an important summary of our faith (only it isn’t) without exploring what it really is and was intended to be. I don’t believe in hiding doctrinal difficulties, or difficulties in ecclesiastical history, but I also think it’s wrong to exaggerate those difficulties, or present them without context or in a way that those involved wouldn’t recognize them.

    If you have any particular case you want to use as an example, my response might be more on point.

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — July 13, 2009 @ 10:53 am

  9. Not sure these examples are within the realm of professional historical analysis for the point you are making here, but how does your sentiment apply to the way the church presents restorational history in Seminary, Institute, and Sunday School? Is there a responsibility of the church to ensure church manuals that use history to promote faith fully disclose challenging issues such as:

    1. Joseph’s polygamy when studying church history (specifically D&C 132) in Seminary, Institute, or Sunday School?

    2. That the BOA is not likely a literal “translation” as we understand the word?

    3. That the 8 witnesses likely witnessed the plates with the “eyes of their understanding?”

    Comment by Aaron T. — July 13, 2009 @ 11:07 am

  10. Aaron, that two of your three items are labeled “likely” (rather than knowable with any degree of certainty through present historical methods, or taught as an article of faith [in the lowercase sense of that term]) points to the difficulty of your question.

    The purpose of Sunday lessons is to teach doctrine and to increase commitment to faithful living and to bear testimony; the purpose is not to teach history in an academic sense, or to present the unsettled intellectual debates hinted at by the marker “likely.” While those questions *might* come up in a Sunday setting, no, I don’t think it is an obligation of the church to be certain they are addressed there.

    Seminary and institute classes, on the other hand, are supposed to integrate the academic with the doctrinal. As a practical matter, too, a lot more time is available for exploring history, linguistics, archaeology, and other disciplines, in conjunction with doctrine. In those settings, yeah, I think there is a greater obligation to address the kinds of historical matters you suggest.

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — July 13, 2009 @ 11:30 am

  11. It’s easy (and proper)to condemn historians who pick and choose with the deliberate intent to destroy testimonies, but what do you think is the thoughtful (LDS) historian’s responsibility for readers’ testimonies? You mention taking people’s sensitivities into account, but what does that look like? Should a historian ever withhold information or present it through a devotional filter to avoid challenging someone’s faith?

    Kristine, this is nicely put. I don’t have an answer, but feel caught on the horns of the dilemma nearly every week I teach SS. Do I share what I know as a historian, which to me is crucial historical context and helps to understand the revelation(s) under question or do I keep it to myself. Because I’m comfortable with some of the complexities of the story, I forget that others are not even aware of those complexities. I am sometimes surprised when I say something that I take for granted, but that catches some class members by surprise. Am I honest in all my dealings if I’m not honest with the historical record? What do I do with a lesson manual that sometimes perpetuates cultural myths rather than evidence that the historical record can support?

    Comment by Paul Reeve — July 13, 2009 @ 11:35 am

  12. When I committed to “doing” church history, I made a [self-righteous, priggish, pretentious, naive] vow that should I ever uncover something that the church did not want exposed, all they had to do was warn me and I would walk away from it.

    What a jerk I was. Well-meaning, maybe, but inescapably a jerk.

    The more I have learned, the more I realize that there is nothing to uncover that would be so shocking, so explosive, that the church needs to be protected from exposure: That a man fails to live up to his calling in some spectacularly evil way does not negate the truth that God does call men to lead his church. That some practice developed in a way other than my childish understanding first conceived does not negate the righteousness of the practice. That some doctrine is more complex than I once thought doesn’t change the doctrine, only requires me to expand my own understanding.

    I don’t try to conceal anything I’ve learned about the church or its history. When I’m aware that something that is of little consequence to me could be a potential testimony shaker to someone else, I’m as careful as I know how to be, using calm and un-inflammatory wording, perhaps explaining how the misunderstanding came to be, perhaps explaining the context in which some event happened, including mitigating circumstances if there are any. If the purpose is to help somebody resolve the difficulty — not to glory in my role as messenger bringing the difficulty to light, not to create excitement by presenting a sensational version of the difficulty — then you can bring up any difficulty, I think. There are ways of doing it with good intent, and other ways of doing it with evil intent.

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — July 13, 2009 @ 11:56 am

  13. If the purpose is to help somebody resolve the difficulty — not to glory in my role as messenger bringing the difficulty to light, not to create excitement by presenting a sensational version of the difficulty — then you can bring up any difficulty, I think. There are ways of doing it with good intent, and other ways of doing it with evil intent.

    Well put. I agree. But there is no way of controlling how something is received by listeners, even when what one says is well within the parameters of the principles you describe. There is also no way of knowing how it effects and impacts different people and what they do with new information however well presented.

    Comment by Paul Reeve — July 13, 2009 @ 12:08 pm

  14. Ardis, thanks for the post. It is always good to get a reminder on historical standards, etc. As a footnote, it should be added there are several different historical approaches that a persona can utilize, and I personally think it would do us well to learn more about the philosophy of history itself, as well as the ways in which history is created. It would be especially useful in terms of Aaron’s comments.

    Aaron (#9): Regarding your first point on polygamy, you could keep in mind the purpose of Sunday School instruction generally, which is to apply the teachings to our lives today. Evidently, it is felt this can be better done without delving far into plural marriage. I did a brief overview of how plural marriage is represented in current church manuals, and argue that an Institute class would be an ideal place to discuss polygamy in-depth. See my “Plural Marriage as Discussed in the Church Today.”

    Regarding your third point, I suggest a thorough review of the actual Book of Mormon witness statements. We have a pretty good collection of them and it appears you haven’t yet made a substantive study on the topic given that you bring it up as an example of poor history on the part of the church. Perhaps you have been influenced by various revisionist accounts which often fall under “fraud” as Ardis has described it:

    “Fraud includes skipping lightly through generations of history, picking a fact here and a fact there, creating a twisted picture that misrepresents past lives and societies.”

    I don’t know why this particular issue keeps popping up so often, but the “spiritual eyes” version of events disagrees much more with the historical record than anything I’ve ever been taught in an official Church capacity. For instance, claims that witnesses only saw the plates in a vision of sorts is directly contradicted- not only by the three witnesses who saw the plates and angel- but also with the testimony of the 8 witnesses who simply saw the plates themselves. I advise checking the following places:

    Richard Lloyd Anderson, “Attempts to Redefine the Experience of the Eight Witnesses,” Journal of Book of Mormon Studies 14/1 (2005): 18–31.

    Richard Lloyd Anderson, “Explaining Away the Book of Mormon Witnesses,” paper given at the 2004 FAIR Conference. See the YouTube clip.

    Richard Lloyd Anderson, Investigating the Book of Mormon Witnesses (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book Company, 1981). This book is a key source to look at.

    Kirk B. Henrichsen, “How Witnesses Described the “Gold Plates“,” Journal of Book of Mormon Studies 10/1 (2001): 16–21.

    Matthew Roper, “Comments on the Book of Mormon Witnesses: A Response to Jerald and Sandra Tanner,” Journal of Book of Mormon Studies 2/2 (1993): 164–193.

    I have more when you need more.

    Comment by BHodges — July 13, 2009 @ 1:05 pm

  15. BHodges, I’m thinking specifically of Harris’s comment about his experience (as one of the three witnesses) and what he said specifically about the 8 witnesses. But more importantly, I am talking about the issues of credibility the eight witnesses had….specifically when you look at what else they testified about. Important to know, imo.

    Comment by Aaron T. — July 13, 2009 @ 1:43 pm

  16. Aaron, these things are important to know, I agree. But your comments appear to imply there is only one Martin Harris “comment” that we should consider above all others. In this regard you fail to actually dissect the sources, and there are more than one, to investigate provenance, reliability, time period, venue or audience, and many other factors. What are we to do with the many Harris statements about literally seeing and feeling the actual plates themselves, the same as he sees and feels the bed he is sitting next to, etc.? So again, you manifest a very poor grasp on the historical record. The sources I provided above give ample support to my conclusion that your view in this matter is flawed. As for the credibility, I again refer you, first of all, to R.L. Anderson’s Investigating book.

    Comment by BHodges — July 13, 2009 @ 2:22 pm

  17. To clarify, you actually might be thinking of David Whitmer’s statements. He typically is invoked more often than Martin Harris in regards to the “spiritual eyes” thing. After all, Whitmer did state:

    “Of course we were in the spirit when we had the view, for no man can behold the face of an angel, except in a spiritual view,”

    Which some have argued indicates some supernatural vision resulting group persuasion or hypnosis. Folks fail to take into account the rest of the sentence, though:

    “but we were in the body also, and everything was as natural to us as it is at any time.”

    See Anthony Metcalf, Ten Years Before the Mast (Malad, Idaho: A. Metcalf, 1888), 74.

    For an earlier account, Whitmer made it clear he wasn’t hallucinating, but saw the plates with his physical eyes. See The Saints’ Herald, 28 January 1936.

    In other words, Whitmer emphasized both natural and “supernatural” elements in viewing the plates. Moreover, the “8 witnesses” said they simply saw and handled the plates in the broad light of day with no attending angel or any other manifestation. What are we to do with their testimonies?

    But we are moving too far afield from Ardis’s post, so I’ll let you have the last word here if you’d like it. Frankly, my studies lead me to conclude you are misrepresenting the historical record and I’m not sure exactly why. Perhaps you simply haven’t surveyed all of the relevant info. If you want to call the witnesses deluded or liars, you don’t need to overlook all of the historical data in favor of one favorite quote.

    Anyway, if you’d like to discuss this further, I recommend emailing me at lifeonaplate[@]gmail.com.

    Comment by BHodges — July 13, 2009 @ 2:38 pm

  18. “The sources I provided above give ample support to my conclusion that your view in this matter is flawed.”

    You linked to several BYU articles, and then criticize me for not dissecting my sources? Sources funded by the church will always provide you with ample support that your pre-determined conclusions relative to my view in any matter that diverges from official church doctrine (or issues that raise questions relative to historical matters) are flawed….that’s the problem with your sources (how’s that for source dissection?).

    Comment by Aaron T. — July 13, 2009 @ 2:49 pm

  19. I’m thinkin’, Aaron, that it is time for you to move along now. Thanks.

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — July 13, 2009 @ 2:53 pm

  20. It’s not very impressive source dissection at all. It actually avoids source dissection by simply poisoning the well. The articles to which I linked, if you actually take the time to red them, cite examples from the historical records to which I would refer you to. I don’t get the impression that you are much a an “archives” kinda guy, so providing the articles is an easy way to get things together for you to review. Instead of doing the homework you dismiss the sources as biased. Who is really allowing “pre-determined conclusions” to guide the results here? I submit it is you. A good argument is a good argument, whether it is published at BYU, Harvard, or on the discarded shell of a watermelon.

    Comment by BHodges — July 13, 2009 @ 2:54 pm

  21. Back to Paul’s point, though:

    Am I honest in all my dealings if I’m not honest with the historical record? What do I do with a lesson manual that sometimes perpetuates cultural myths rather than evidence that the historical record can support?

    This is a solid question. I haven’t been a GD teacher for several years now, but I sub teach once in a while. I’ve ruffled a few feathers by straying too far from the manual at times and so it is difficult to strike a balance. Further, as a class participant I am hesitant to bring up matters the teacher has not prepared to discuss in the class and has not planned to discuss. So there’s a problem with class participation along the same lines.

    Comment by BHodges — July 13, 2009 @ 2:59 pm

  22. As an armchair historian, and not as well read as I would like to be, this is good advice as I focus in on digging up stories in my family history. While I may dislike what Brigham Young said about my great-grandfather and his companions on their short-lived Arizona colonizing mission, I understand that he had good reasons to express his disappointment, even as the members of that colonizing party had good reasons to turn around. I just hope to get as much of the truth as possible, and be fair to my ancestors, as well as to my descendants who end up reading what I find.

    I’ve read too much “family history” that is not always truthful, and often hides the reality of the difficulties many of our forbears faced. You have given me a good example to follow, Ardis, especially finding the noble and good in small and seemingly trivial affairs that often get overlooked.

    Comment by kevinf — July 13, 2009 @ 3:04 pm

  23. An excellent discussion. I particularly like Ardis#12. I’ve felt the angst of Paul’s #11 though in the context of teaching NT and OT in GD and Institute.

    My compromise is often to say something like “I want you to know that there is more to this topic than what we’re covering, understand that there are some complexities here, not everyone sees things the way we’re presenting it, and there are certainly some problems with it. But dissecting those complexities or problems isn’t the focus of oru discussion.” And then I hand out a short balanced bibliography.

    Comment by Nitsav — July 13, 2009 @ 3:08 pm

  24. Nitsav, an interesting approach. I could see a blog as a useful way to go as well, where interested folks could check out things that might not fit well into the lesson. You could let people know about it and it would be their decision to check things out from there,. I like the idea of advising sources, as well, for further study.

    Comment by BHodges — July 13, 2009 @ 3:14 pm

  25. Ardis-

    A good reminder about our responsibility to do justice to the past. Thanks.

    Comment by Brandon — July 13, 2009 @ 3:25 pm

  26. #23 and #24, good advice. I’ve only offered a bib once, when we did the WofW. I traced its historical development over time, including BY quotes instructing Bishops to grow their own tobacco, build distilleries as a part of his overall effort at economic self-sufficiency–up through Pres. Grant and its current interpretation/implementation. I offered a bib of further reading because I feared some class members might be so caught off guard by the lesson that they would want to see for themselves some of the articles/sources. I started with a quote from Erasmus, Praise of Folly, warning 16th cent Catholics against clinging too tightly to cultural myths versus Jesus and the Apostles. The point of the lesson centered upon the temptation to view ourselves as somehow superior to others because we don’t smoke or drink. The WofW in historical context can serve to temper such a temptation. The response was positive, with people sometimes still referring to that lesson.

    I’m convinced that Ardis is correct in #12, but it doesn’t make it any less tricky to navigate difficult waters and to know where to draw the line on any given Sunday. The WofW is one thing, but JS and polygamy is something else.

    Comment by Paul Reeve — July 13, 2009 @ 3:51 pm

  27. Nothing to add; but thank you Ardis for the original post which is astute and important. I also enjoyed many of the comments.

    Comment by J. Stapley — July 13, 2009 @ 4:01 pm

  28. I appreciate this article a lot, Ardis.

    I think I appreciate this comment even more.

    The purpose of Sunday lessons is to teach doctrine and to increase commitment to faithful living and to bear testimony; the purpose is not to teach history in an academic sense, or to present the unsettled intellectual debates hinted at by the marker “likely.” While those questions *might* come up in a Sunday setting, no, I don’t think it is an obligation of the church to be certain they are addressed there.

    I think sometimes people confuse the Church’s role and responsibility (to teach doctrine and provide saving ordinances), which is not the same as historians’ jobs. Questions and concerns about history become more intense when people expect the Church to answer all the historical questions.

    I think it is also extremely important to not necessarily conflate historical discussion and exploration for pronouncement (or denouncement) of doctrinal truth. There often isn’t going to be a crossover as you sort through the messiness of history. Doctrine transcends mortal weakness, and can be ultimately discerned only through the Spirit, not through academic discussion alone.

    Of course, history plays an important role in our doctrine (for example, in order to accept the notion of restoration you have to understand and accept the notion of historical apostasy), I think it’s essential to realize that history won’t always equal (or prove or disprove) doctrinal Truth…even if you are telling the Facts about history.

    Don’t know if I’m making sense here….

    Comment by m&m — July 13, 2009 @ 4:07 pm

  29. My brain is fuzzy today…sorry for the weird sentences in my comment…I know what I’m trying to say, but I’m too tired to get it all out coherently.

    Comment by m&m — July 13, 2009 @ 4:11 pm

  30. You’re perfectly coherent, m&m — you’re making the distinction between history and doctrine, which, while they overlap in our experience and each reflects on the other, are two distinct ways of thinking, learning, judging, knowing. They merit different emphases, too, depending on the purpose of the discussion and where it takes place.

    This whole discussion has gone in directions I did not anticipate. I am a fascinated reader of all that you’re saying. Thanks for every contribution, all.

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — July 13, 2009 @ 4:19 pm

  31. as neither a professional historian nor an armchair historian, i will just say that i appreciate the research ardis puts into all the articles on this blog. one knows, more or less, that there are ways to be a good historian, and these types of posts show me the intricacies involved in navigating the many ways an event can be interpreted. ardis’s writing is detailed, clear and uncomplicated — deceptively so, since that is the most difficult voice to achieve.

    on another note, one of my lifetime favorite books has a character who is almost finished completing some research that will allow him to accept a teaching position that he needs to support his wife and children when he finds a letter that completely negates his thesis. his loyalty to history prevents him from destroying the letter, but his financial desperation causes him to hide it. it’s fiction, but addresses some of the issues in the original post.

    Comment by ellen — July 13, 2009 @ 4:20 pm

  32. What book is that, ellen?

    Comment by BHodges — July 13, 2009 @ 5:00 pm

  33. You’re perfectly coherent, m&m — you’re making the distinction between history and doctrine, which, while they overlap in our experience and each reflects on the other, are two distinct ways of thinking, learning, judging, knowing. They merit different emphases, too, depending on the purpose of the discussion and where it takes place.

    I agree, but the problem for this year’s SS course of study is that it is titled “Doctrine and Covenants and Church History”. It makes the connection between the two–doctrine and history–explicit and sometimes conflates the two. I have no problem teaching the Doctrine and Covenants part in SS and would have no problem teaching the history part academically at the university, its the history part in SS that can be problematic at times.

    I think that part of the issue is the negotiation between teacher and students, something that BH’s #21 raises. And my audience is very different from someone teaching GD in Ghana. I have no idea how this manual would play out there? What do these issues mean for an international church?

    Comment by Paul Reeve — July 13, 2009 @ 5:03 pm

  34. What book is that, ellen?

    darn. i shot myself in the foot by giving away a big piece of the plot. can i email you the title so it isn’t right out there in live pixels having its plot spoiled?

    Comment by ellen — July 13, 2009 @ 5:19 pm

  35. It seems to me that there the problem in Sunday School is not to try to “inoculate” class members, but to convey the attitude Ardis has so nicely put in this paragraph:

    The more I have learned, the more I realize that there is nothing to uncover that would be so shocking, so explosive, that the church needs to be protected from exposure: That a man fails to live up to his calling in some spectacularly evil way does not negate the truth that God does call men to lead his church. That some practice developed in a way other than my childish understanding first conceived does not negate the righteousness of the practice. That some doctrine is more complex than I once thought doesn’t change the doctrine, only requires me to expand my own understanding.”

    Paul also points to the difficulty of this approach–while Ardis is right to focus on the intent of the teacher, and while in most situations, that would be all one could be held responsible for, in Sunday School we’re talking to people whose unpredictable reactions we are bound by covenant to care about–there’s no such thing as going home with a clear conscience if someone was distressed by something you taught, even if your presentation was historically accurate and righteously intended. That is indeed a fraught teacher-student negotiation!

    I wish we could clone Paul and Ardis and other thoughtful teachers who have commented here! (And soon–I’ll have to teach Section 132 to my 13-year-olds before very long!)

    Comment by Kristine — July 13, 2009 @ 5:52 pm

  36. Hmmm. I guess I never took it seriously when the manual identified this year’s course as “Doctrine & Covenants and Church History.” There’s precious little history in it — and I don’t mean that in a snide way, as saying that it teaches false or folk or incomplete history, only that there are so few illustrations drawn from history, and virtually no background telling what caused a particular revelation to be sought or received. We could equally call it “Doctrine & Covenants and Gospel Artwork” because the manual suggests as many pictures as it does historical stories. As I’ve taught I’ve almost always presented a little history, partly because I think we need to know what question was being asked when the Lord gave an answer, but mostly as a gimmick to create interested attention at the beginning of a lesson. In other words, the history in my classes has always been so subordinated to the doctrine, and as a prelude to modern parallels that church members actually have to negotiate, that m&m’s distinction feels very comfortable.

    Maybe I need to watch more, not for the interested and excited faces, but the ones that may be skeptical or disturbed, and less likely than the first group to stick around the classroom chatting after the bell rings. We’ve talked a little about the wild goings-on in Kirtland, but polygamy has not yet arisen at all. Not until this coming Sunday.

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — July 13, 2009 @ 6:17 pm

  37. This is a good topic and great discussion! I have really enjoyed reading the OP and comments. I agree with most of what I have read throughout. And the discussions have made me think about how LDS history is presented. Excuse me, but I’m going to ramble some.

    I took a Church History class from LaMar Barrett at that one university in Prove. :-) First day of class he told us that there are parts of Church history that are controversial. He then advised students who were “weak in testimony” that they should drop the class. Over the years and as one who has done work on a controversial aspect of LDS history it does cause me to think about how important it is to be precise and honest in my research.

    When I was first hired ABD, my department chair, a political scientist (multi-disciplinary department) who was also LDS gave me great advise: Do good research and let the cards fall where they may. Don’t pursue an agenda. I felt this kept me true to history.

    I think the other line of discussion concerning how we teach history in church is interesting. Many times in Gos Doc class the historian comes out in my. (I’ve made my wife cringe.) I’m sure I’ve rattled some people. It makes me think, what is the purpose of Gos Doc or priesthood class. Ultimately, I realize it is to teach doctrine. I subbed yesterday and did the lesson on the priesthood. I had to fight my urge to teach a history lesson. I ended up focusing on the Oath and Covenant.

    That said, I feel that we (the Church membership, not Keepaninnies) need to have a better understanding of LDS history. For example, living in Arkansas we heard and read much about the Mountain Meadows Massacre. Many members here are, unfortunately, uneducated in that episode. I feel it’s important to have more academic knowledge then we have now. My wife and I discuss this from time to time. I think we should have a forum where we do discuss, amongst ourselves, LDS history including the controversial points rather than hearing it from a source with an anti-Mormon agenda. (My wife doesn’t fully agree–at least she doesn’t agree that it should be done at church). In earlier comments, people have mentioned doing this in institute. That could be a possible venue in some areas, but here where the Church is small, it is difficult to call someone with the background to tackle the issues.

    I’ve rambled enough. (Ardis, you have my permission to edit any or all of this comment.)

    Comment by Steve C. — July 13, 2009 @ 8:51 pm

  38. I’ll edit it by saying amen, Steve!

    I wonder what would be the best forum for real discussion of church history. I think it would have to be a church-sponsored setting, or most members couldn’t relax enough to trust anything novel they were hearing. That setting would cause other people to dismiss it as nothing but propaganda, though, so what do you do?

    It’s a start that the Ensign seems willing again to publish articles like Richard Turley’s Mountain Meadows piece last year, and Marlin Jensen’s piece in the current issue about the development of the D&C texts … but do enough people really read those? And obviously a single such article per year is a slow education.

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — July 13, 2009 @ 9:25 pm

  39. For me a challenge becomes when there is enough historical statements in multiple directions that the past could reasonably be interpreted in many different ways. For example, we recently discussed Thomas B. Marsh over at BCC and the milk and stripings story. Either that did or did not happen, and whether it did or not really does matter to a lot of people. We need to be careful, to be sure.

    Comment by Matt W. — July 13, 2009 @ 9:29 pm

  40. RE: My post in #37 should read “in Arkansas we hear and read…” not we heard and read. It was a typo on my part, not a lame attempt at any stereotype.

    Comment by Steve C. — July 13, 2009 @ 9:58 pm

  41. Definitely requires some thought to know what to pursue in a discussion of the D&C. If people have some reason to trust you, you can be frank about many issues. LDS people who happen to do history, Mormon history in particular, go through a genuine process of accommodation of the proselyting message (which remains fairly constant in church curriculum) with the raw material of history. You cannot expect people who come to class once a week with a spectrum of reasons why they do so, to put up with too much inoculation. But you have to provide some in the name of responsibility. How much, requires more insight than you can get from another human being I think. Your idea of watching carefully how some class members respond is another important point.

    In the end your point about being honest is vital but as you know, it’s always an approximation to the truth. The next diary or scrap of paper in some archive can bring a sea-change sometimes.

    By the way Ardis, I think I’ve seen your name on the sign- in sheet at the old reading room in east wing CHL. Next time I’m up – I’ve have not been to the new place – I’ll look on purpose if they still do that.

    -Bill

    Comment by W. Smith — July 13, 2009 @ 10:59 pm

  42. I’ve enjoyed reading the comments. Especially those about what to do with the common GD class!

    As to another point, Ardis, you say:

    [i]t is not possible in the space of 650 words to tell “the whole truth” about any event. But it is possible – it is obligatory – to tell “nothing but the truth…,”

    And I think of Bushman’s comment that historical truths, or “the facts,” are not pre-packaged bundles of information that we simply view sequentially and walk away. Rather, conveying historical accounts involves a creative process of sort of figuring it all out. And so I really appreciate the reminder here; even though an historian may not be able ever to tell “the whole truth,” that doesn’t mean s/he should give up on the quest to be truthful.

    Comment by Hunter — July 13, 2009 @ 11:02 pm

  43. Steve, my wife cringes sometimes when I teach GD and add history. But I try to do so with an agenda; to let people know that church history is messy, AND to build testimonies! I can have an agenda because I’m the GD teacher. But I can still be historically acurate.

    When I was in seminary we had an hour long seession on Mountain Meadows. Looking back they got many things wrong. It was a good try, but not everyone can attend seminary. Maybe the compromise is a Stake Fireside; it is at church but not during church. Maybe bring in an expert from another Stake if you need to.

    Comment by Bruce Crow — July 13, 2009 @ 11:18 pm

  44. We should always be building testimonies when teaching in Church — not sure why “adding in history” (as if it’s something alien to the topic) would or should detract from building testimonies.

    Comment by john f. — July 14, 2009 @ 3:40 am

  45. I’m surprised that people understood my sleep-deprived ramblings on my comment last night. :-)

    I think really the tension that we feel is that many of us (Keepaninnies and others) have a passion for history, especially LDS history. Many times in Gos Doc and Priesthood/RS classes there are people who are passionate about other topics rather than history. For them “Our Heritage” is more than enough. It’s sanitized and succinct. And that’s the problem we face.

    I think too, people don’t appreciate the complexities of LDS history. They want it to be in black and white. Adding history and building testimonies are not mutually exclusive. But it can be challenging when members are so steeped in the “Our Heritage” type of LDS history, not realizing it can be complicated. (I hope I didn’t offend anyone who likes “Our Heritage”.)

    Bruce Crow: I think you describe the problem well with devoting a whole lesson in seminary (or institute) to messy historical issues. Locally, our “institute” teacher is a member of our unit called by the stake to teach the class. To be frank, she does not have the background in Church history. It’s basically read the manual warm and fuzzy account. On the other hand, I know that I would probably scare a lot of the institute students away.

    I wonder about a stake fireside. Here again, there is an issue of expertise. There are two people in our stake who have PhDs in history and have done their doctoral research on LDS topics. The problem is, we’ve both done topics on 20th Century European Mormonism. I’d feel inadequate trying to tackle plural marriage or the Danites. And, unfortunately, I think for many that would be too much “non-faith promoting” history.

    So…I just don’t know.

    Comment by Steve C. — July 14, 2009 @ 9:29 am

  46. I have a pleasant fantasy of restoring the old “Know Your Religion”-format circuit of traveling speakers, only this time using speakers who were qualified to present historical topics in an interesting, accessible, faith-compatible, candid, professional way. 20th century European Mormonism would have a place in a season’s program like that, especially to address the occasional controversies.

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — July 14, 2009 @ 9:40 am

  47. That would be cool, Ardis.

    I strongly recommend everyone here to check out a source I recently re-read that dI think provides some overall context to the discussion we are having here.

    David B. Honey and Daniel C. Peterson, “Advocacy and Inquiry in the Writing of Latter-day Saint History,” BYU Studies, Vol. 31:2 (1991), 1-41.

    The authors discuss different approaches to history, it’s a meta-discussion on method, goals, shortcomings, and advantages to different approaches. I would especially be interested to know what Ardis, Paul, and other more active historians in their own right think of the piece.

    Comment by BHodges — July 14, 2009 @ 10:53 am

  48. Hmmm. I’m afraid I’ll have to pass on any substantive evaluation of the article, BHodges. Neither author is an historian, neither evidently appreciates the practical realities of producing history, and between them they don’t appear to approve of Mormon historical writing in general. Besides, they use too many big words for simple-minded me to be sure I understand them. I’ll have to leave it to a philosopher like you to critique.

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — July 14, 2009 @ 11:51 am

  49. We’ll have to agree to disagree, Ardis, I believe both authors have experience in historical research, and the article itself is an interesting overview of various methods of doing history. It is one of the best articles on Church history I’ve read. In my top 5 for sure.

    Comment by BHodges — July 14, 2009 @ 1:24 pm

  50. The entire point of studying history is to learn from the past. If we deliberately tell only part of the story (which usually means one side), we are incapable of learning the truth.
    A classic of Utah history is the Mountain Meadows Massacre. What would prompt people do such a thing? What lessons can we draw from it today? But, when the story isn’t complete, we can’t draw any conclusions from it. The victims might as well have died in vain.

    Comment by Mel — July 14, 2009 @ 5:48 pm

  51. Mel, I was glad to see the relatively recent Turley article on MMM in the Ensign for that reason.

    Comment by BHodges — July 15, 2009 @ 8:49 am

  52. But, when the story isn’t complete, we can’t draw any conclusions from it.

    But people draw conclusions with incomplete information all the time. The rub is that some people try to lead you into drawing the conclusion that supports their agenda by cherry picking pieces of the story. That doesn’t necessarily invalidate their agenda, but it isn’t telling the truth either.

    Telling the truth means being open with all the important pieces of the story even if they don’t support your agenda. Then you have to explain why you are still holding to your agenda in the light of all the evidence. But that is another discussion.

    Comment by Bruce Crow — July 15, 2009 @ 9:17 am

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