Tuesday, May 27, 2014

Why I Study Church History and Why I Think You Should Too

This was inspired by a response I started writing to a comment about my post last week about Elder Christofferson's and President Uchtdorf's recent talks on Church History and some of my thoughts in regards to some of what they said. It turned in to a "why I study church history and why you should to". I'm putting it here due to size and the hope it will be more permanent than as a comment--as a disclaimer, it is not a complete explanation of my thoughts on the subject of church history, nor is it perfect (in thought or grammar), but these are some of my reasons and explanations as they currently stand:

To start off, I completely believe and agree that immersing oneself in the scriptures is the priority. That's actually how I ended up studying church history. It gives context to the teachings of the church. The Doctrine and Covenants is tied inseparably to it's history. The events surrounding the revelations makes them all the more interesting and insightful. I have found forays into extra-canonical (outside of the LDS quad and general conference) history, tradition, geography and theology to be extremely insightful to my personal thoughts on scripture and the words of the latter day prophets. I understand that not everyone enjoys this like I do, but I hope to explain some of why I agree with Elder Christofferson's assertion that church history is turning into an "all or nothing" sort of paradox. Some of these thoughts are not contiguous, so please, keep that in mind.

In Elder Christofferson's talk, he puts his main emphasis on Joseph Smith's calling and reminds people to trust the Spirit, which is key, however, the Spirit speaks to our heart and mind and when someone comes across something they don't like in history, it can cause thoughts and feelings of confusion, doubt, disbelief and these can seem overwhelming and lead one to question what they know is true, question the validity of the blessings and the hand of God in their lives. This can lead to doubt and a wearied soul. I'm not saying that they have no choice or reason to believe anymore, but it can seem like it to them. I have listened to many who have reached that point in their lives and it is real, painful, heartbreaking and needs to be dealt with. Dipping toes in the history of the church does not lead to resolving this problem. Complete immersion in the history can bring one to the point again where their mind and heart reach a balance that makes the choice of faith feasible. 

It is odd, as you mentioned, that Elder Christofferson would push the idea of a need to immerse ourselves in church history if we are going to study it. All I can say is that there is much more to study and read on individual topics than I believe many have ever considered, both ugly and beautiful. I think it's possible that he quoted Richard Turley because he is someone who has studied difficult things and wrestled with them, even written books and articles about them (namely assisting with "Massacre at Mountain Meadows" which is not a pleasant read).

I would put much of the reason that this is the case on the fact that the internet has provided an unfiltered means for the dissemination of information, both correct and incorrect. Those who are antagonistic to the church jumped on this immediately to share all they could to "prove" the church isn't true and to shake it at it's roots, the early history which so much of our belief is based on. The problem was/is that many of the sources of the information were good, but the interpretation was lacking, but the documents were being shared by antagonists! They must be wrong...or something...well, the church has started to remedy this problem and publish everything under the sun that mentions or deals with Joseph Smith or the early church. They recently posted on the Joseph Smith Papers website a journal of John Whitmer that covers history from 1831 to around 1847. He doesn't always have the nicest things to say since he was excommunicated in 1838.

As a side note, the Church Historians Office is doing the Joseph Smith Papers, not BYU. There are some BYU professors involved and some funding from BYU but they are being headed and done by the Church Historians office, which is awesome. They are publishing things no one has ever had access to or seen (council of the 50 minutes is one I'm interested in), which has been really good to counter the attacks of critics that they are hiding something. Also, FARMS no longer exists as it once did (kind of sad, and a mess depending on who you ask). The Maxwell Institute has a Mormon Studies board that has zero of the people from FARMS and BYU has taken a completely different approach by having 19th century historians, early Mormon scholars, theologians and some Near Eastern studies scholars--several of which don't teach at BYU, which is kind of fun. Anyway, the people from FARMS founded The Interpreter after the dissolution of FARMS about two years ago now, which is very much worth anybody's time.

The idea of what history the church should teach/publish has been a serious back and forth for years, recently since the 1980s, but has been around much longer. There have been different types of historians throughout the churches history pushing for different things. B.H. Roberts and Joseph Fielding Smith are my favorite examples. B.H. Roberts wanted and considered everything, hence his mountain of books and seven volume history of the church with detailed footnotes. Joseph Fielding Smith only published the parts that were considered faith promoting (see "Essentials in Church History")--this discussion influenced part of what history we grew up with in the church. From 1972 to 1982, Leonard J. Arrington was the church historian and wanted to publish scholarly LDS histories. This article on LDS.org is an interview with him from 1975 that showed his hope and vision of the future of church history and histories, but little became of it--the factors of which can only be speculated. Some claim that President Packer's emphasis on "faith promoting history" is why Leonard J. Arrington was cut short. I can't imagine how thrilled he would be to know that The Joseph Smith Papers project is pushing ahead and adding more volumes and announcing additions to the originally proposed set!


Here is a snippet from the end of the interview that explains a major reason why I study church history:

Ensign: Does your study of Church history give you any special perspective on the various contemporary issues that create tensions for members of the Church?
Brother Arrington: Yes, it’s extremely helpful. We believe very strongly that the more people know about the gospel, the stronger their testimony will be. My study of Church history makes me feel very confident about the Church, its history, and its future. Our leaders are showing great wisdom in handling and solving organizational problems and in the delicate social and moral issues of our age. It’s not always easy and matters do not always go as some would like, but the leadership seems sure and competently surmounts each problem as it arises. Moreover, the Lord will not allow the Church to fail or its leaders to take us astray. Many of the things that perturb some in relation to the Church will be seen in the perspective of historians to be handled with remarkable restraint, wisdom, and forthrightness.
Ensign: Confidence in the future, then, is one of the results for you of your involvement in Church history. Are there other reasons why we should understand Church history?
Brother Arrington: Yes! Understanding Church history helps us understand the importance of what we’re doing by explaining something about the purposes of the Lord at each stage of history. It makes it easier to understand the importance of what we’re doing today. Each decade, each month, and each day is important in building the kingdom, and you get a perspective of that in viewing the months and years already past.
Each day we are confronted with the sensual images of the material side of life. Church history helps us see a more important side, a spiritual side, the eternal values of what goes on in our hearts and minds. It helps us maintain a sense of identity with our roots, with those whose ideas, policies, and suggestions are incorporated in our daily lives. History helps us develop loyalty to our traditional values and institutions, to our families, our leaders, our policies and programs. No individual is complete without history. No family is. And neither is the Church.

The churches foundations and faith are tied to relatively recent history. The first vision, the restoration of the Priesthood, receiving the Gold plates, translation, testimonies of witnesses, the coming forth of the Book of Abraham and more. We believe one thing as history, and base our understanding around it, but when we encounter another account that is different, it can appear as a challenge to our personal faith paradigm. The first vision and accounts of the translation of the Book of Mormon are some of the most common ones I've heard people encounter first and some are quite bothered while others enjoy the new information. There are things that are difficult, potentially unsettling and have few or no good answers and some (if not many) find this challenging to the foundations of their faith due to our faiths historical nature.

Elder Steven E. Snow (current church historian) and Elder Marlin Jensen (previous church historian) have been speaking about this as well. Elder Snow has said that church is shifting from the "sanitized history" and can't afford that anymore. This is partially why new Seminary manuals are coming out. They'll mention polygamy, the different accounts of the first vision, "money digging", etc...

What other reasons do I have for studying church history? Many others, but a few important ones are: I want to help others to hold on to the good. Hold fast to what they know is true. To "doubt [their] doubts before [they] doubt [their] faith." (Elder Holland, October 2013 General Conference). Remember the feelings they have while studying the Book of Mormon and listening to a Prophet's voice.

Anyway, I've seen people leave over history issues that they haven't studied well enough. But, to tie back to what you said about immersing ourselves in the scriptures, they sometimes seem to have lightened up on their studying and living of the Gospel--but, this is not always the case.

Hopefully this clarifies and expounds on some of my views and thoughts. I have a lot more I could say about this, but I will save that for future posts.

Tuesday, May 20, 2014

President Uchtdorf and Elder Christofferson on Church History

I have been thinking about the importance of church history to each of us and wanted to share some thoughts from two great talks that were given within the last year.

The first I will share from is a talk Elder Christofferson gave at BYU-Idaho on September 24, 2013.
Elder Christofferson opens by discussing what the angel Moroni told Joseph Smith, that his name would be had for good and evil and how that is being fulfilled. He then talks about the Joseph Smith Papers project and the Teachings of Presidents of the Church: Joseph Smith manual, commending it to be studied. He had this to say in regards to the WHY behind the Joseph Smith Papers project, 
"Our study of the Prophet’s life and ministry are more than an intellectual exercise to satisfy curiosity. Insofar as we can, we want to know what he knew; we want to understand what he understood; we want to draw near to God as he did, for as Nicodemus said of the Savior so we can say of Joseph, “Rabbi, we know that thou art a teacher come from God.” "

I want to just say that studying the life of Joseph Smith has provided me with insight into what he knew and has helped my perspective expand to begin to understand a tiny bit of what he understood. I just finished Rough Stone Rolling by Richard Bushman and I was inspired to be more humble, meek and trusting as Joseph was. There is so much that we can learn from studying his life as to how to be a better disciple of Jesus Christ.

Elder Christofferson mentions patience in dealing with evidences for the Book of Mormon and gives an example of steel being found in the America's by referring to a blog post from FairMormon that discusses recent findings. He concludes the thought here by saying, 

"Where answers are incomplete or lacking altogether, patient study and patient waiting for new information and discoveries to unfold will often be rewarded with understanding."

I have found that to be true. In my few years of studying church history, scripture, doctrine and theology, I have seen things come to light that weren't available or known about 10 years ago! Patiently pressing forward, especially when you are frustrated or struggling with an incomplete answer or church history jig saw puzzle, is crucial and key to continue to grow in faith.

I also want to plug FairMormon as a reference for quick answers to difficult questions. It doesn't contain everything or even some of the best answers at times, but it is highly commendable. I guess I may call it a springboard into the waters of discussion on difficult topics.

He then says, "Don't be superficial." He clarifies,

"When I say don’t be superficial, I mean don’t form conclusions based on unexamined assertions or incomplete research, and don’t be influenced by insincere seekers. I would offer you the advice of our Assistant Church Historian, Rick Turley, an intellectually gifted researcher and author whose recent works include the definitive history of the Mountain Meadows Massacre. He says simply, “Don’t study Church history too little.” "

He then adds this by Alexander Pope,
"A little learning is a dangerous thing;
Drink deep, or taste not the Pierian spring:
There shallow draughts intoxicate the brain,
And drinking largely sobers us again."

This is exactly how I feel! We have to dig in and commit. The more we study, the mite expansive our view becomes. This doesn't mean we won't run into things along the way that bother us.

The next point he makes is to not ignore the Spirit.

"Finally, don’t neglect the Spirit. As regards Joseph Smith, we seek learning both by study and by faith. Both are fruitful paths of inquiry. A complete understanding can never be attained by scholarly research alone, especially since much of what is needed is either lost or never existed. There is no benefit in imposing artificial limits on ourselves that cut off the light of Christ and the revelations of the Holy Spirit."

Faith and study compliment each other. Using our minds that God has given us to study those things which we have broaden our understanding and deepen our faith, if we let them. Studying with our mind alone can shut out faith, but so can studying by "faith" shut out the intellect. God wants us to use both! This takes more work than many of us have considered or been told, but it is extremely rewarding.

I am not going to cover anything from his last three points except I will quote Joseph's testimony of the resurrected Christ.

D&C 76:22-24
22 And now, after the many testimonies which have been given of him, this is the testimony, last of all, which we give of him: That he lives!
23 For we saw him, even on the right hand of God; and we heard the voice bearing record that he is the Only Begotten of the Father
24 That by him, and through him, and of him, the worlds are and were created, and the inhabitants thereof are begotten sons and daughters unto God.

The rest of the talk is great, so go read the whole thing!


The other talk I wanted to recommend is from President Uchtdorf when he gave the keynote address at the BYU Church History Symposium earlier this year. He said a few things that really resonated with me.

"History teaches us not only about the leaves of existence. It also teaches about the twigs, branches, trunks, and roots of life. And these lessons are important.
One of the weaknesses we have as mortals is to assume that our “leaf” is all there is—that our experience encompasses everyone else’s, that our truth is complete and universal. As I considered what I wanted to speak about today, it seemed that the metaphor of the leaf needed to be at the heart. But I also ran across an old Yiddish expression that goes, “To a worm in horseradish, the world is horseradish.” I want to emphasize that the truth embraced by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints extends beyond leaves and certainly beyond horseradish. It extends beyond time and space and encompasses all truth—from the mysteries of the tiniest atoms to the vast and incomprehensible secrets that the universe holds so tantalizingly before us."

Beautiful, right? This is how I feel about truth as a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints. We encompass ALL truth, wherever it comes from. We continue digging, searching, seeking, pondering, asking, praying, using our might, mind and strength to find truth.

Our little leaf is just that, little. We can and should expand our minds and understandings to stretch and understand the twigs, branches trunks and roots of life--not just mortal life, but our eternal life.

The scriptures are a starting ground, but we have our own history, our own teachings, ideologies and interpretations that require us to go beyond our current leaves to understand as much of the tree as we can.

Well, my last quote is lengthy, so you'll have to read the whole talk at this link:


Here's my final quote choice,

"Throughout the record of sacred history, we find that our Heavenly Father teaches His children over and again not to place their trust in the wisdom of the world—not to overvalue what the world holds in high regard. He teaches us that “the foolishness of God is wiser than men; and the weakness of God is stronger than men.” And yet we have an almost irresistible desire to assume that the leaf of information we have in our possession is a representation of all there is to know. We assume that the horseradish that we see all around us is proof that the world is made of the substance.
We do the best we can with the information at our disposal to make assumptions and increase the body of knowledge—and this is a noble pursuit. However, when we assume that what we know is all there is to know, we miss the mark and our philosophies and theories fall short of the rich truths that populate heaven and earth.
In the words of Orson F. Whitney, an early Apostle of the Church, the gospel “embraces all truth, whether known or unknown. It incorporates all intelligence, both past and prospective. No righteous principle will ever be revealed, no truth can possibly be discovered, either in time or in eternity, that does not in some manner, directly or indirectly, pertain to the Gospel of Jesus Christ”
Our Heavenly Father teaches this lesson to His children over and again—He warns against setting aside the knowledge of God or dismissing its importance. He teaches us that we should not assume that what we know—what we can prove and test and verify—is all that there is. “We believe all that God has revealed, all that He does now reveal, and we believe that He will yet reveal many great and important things pertaining to the Kingdom of God.” 

Truth is truth is truth is truth. However, we should not assume that it little slivers are the whole picture. Don't confuse the type and color of the paint for the painting.

God wants us to believe Him and to believe IN Him. As we follow Him, He will expand our understanding, strengthen our Spirits and lead us back to Him. We can't let our limited understanding keep us from Him. Whether we stumble over church history, science, doctrine, principles, theology, philosophy, what have you, don't lose sight of what is truly important. Keep pressing forward.

Friday, May 9, 2014

Thoughts from "Increase in Learning" by David A. Bednar--Part 4

Chapter 4: Doctrine, Principles, and Applications: A Framework for Gospel Learning

"In the times in which we do now and will yet live, only the restored gospel of Jesus Christ provides the answers to the eternally important why questions--the questions of the soul. Answers to all of the why questions we might ask have not been revealed, but the answers to the most fundamental why questions are readily available in the doctrine of Christ."--P.154

Yep. Not much more to be said, other than that I know that I have found many answers to the why questions from studying AND living the Gospel. It is both an intellectual knowledge and an experiential knowledge.

"Do not be too concerned or worried about quickly finding the right answer. Rather, focus upon asking the right questions. If the questions are right, then we are much more likely to obtain inspired and insightful answers as we work, ponder, search, and pray."--P.161

This is one of my favorite quotes of the entire book! I have seen this time and time again in my own experience of studying the scriptures, serving in the church, studying church history and seeking to better understand how to become more like Christ--there is an entire blog post in the works on the power of right questions. The right questions and the best questions lead to the right answers and the best answers. Everytime. Keep in mind that this doesn’t mean that the just because you ask the right or best question that the answer will fall in your lap, some of these answers take YEARS to finally get or even properly understand, but asking the right questions can prepare your mind to be accepting of the right answers, no matter what they may be.

I have a brief example of how asking questions improves our scripture study. I was listening to a podcast about the influence of Hugh Nibley in the church (there is a blog post in the future about some of my favorite LDS podcasts) and a story was shared where Hugh Nibley discussed Moses 1:1 for an ENTIRE semester!  I’ve been studying Alma 32 quite a bit recently and have just been blown away by how much there is contained in a single verse. This morning, I was going over Alma 32:16-22 and I was trying to ask better questions about these verses than I have before. I ended up asking, “What am I missing here?” because I felt like there was something going on that I was missing. After asking this, a couple things stood out as it caused me to slow down and scour the verses. I didn’t find everything, and I’ll keep combing them over, but I did find this in verse 22, “I would that ye should remember, that God is merciful unto all who believe on his name; therefore he desireth, in the first place, that ye should believe, yea, even on his word.” I’ve read that many times, but today, it struck me after asking an initial question of “What was I missing?” I now see that this verse is telling me that God wants me to just believe His word so that He will pour out His mercy on me! Simple, but prompted by a question that caused me to read slower.

"...the purification, the joy, the happiness, the continuing conversion, and the spiritual power and protection that come from "yielding [our] hearts unto God" (Helaman 3:35) cannot be obtained merely by performing and checking off all of the gospel things we are supposed to do. Consistently completing the various tasks without experiencing the mighty change of heart and becoming more devoted disciples will not produce the spiritual strength we need to withstand the evils and opposition of the latter days."--P.163

Beautifully stated. The Gospel is not a checklist. It just isn’t. We want to systematize things sooo badly, but the Gospel resists this because God wants us to live, grow and ultimately experience the mighty change of heart and receive the power we need. Doing, following, blessing, serving, lead us forward on the path of becoming. This is where true Gospel power lies.

"Programs and meetings are not events to be managed; rather, they are opportunities to minister to individuals and families."--P.165

What a positive way (and, I believe, the correct way) to look at meetings and to make sure that our meetings are ALLOWING us to do these things! Meetings for the sake of meetings is gross. Meetings where we are able to organize and bless the lives of individuals and families is power. The beginning, “Programs and meetings are not events to be managed” reminds me of Hugh Nibley’s classic talk “Leaders and Managers” that can be found here: http://speeches.byu.edu/?act=viewitem&id=578