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!

https://www.lds.org/ensign/1975/07/history-is-then-and-now-a-conversation-with-leonard-j-arrington-church-historian?lang=eng

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.