Mormonism and history/Boyd K. Packer's talk: "The Mantle is Far, Far Greater Than the Intellect"

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PERSPECTIVES MEDIA QUESTIONS RESOURCES 2014 CONFERENCE

    Boyd K. Packer's talk: "The Mantle is Far, Far Greater Than the Intellect"

There is a temptation for the writer or the teacher of Church history to want to tell everything, whether it is worthy or faith promoting or not.
Some things that are true are not very useful.

—Elder Boyd K. Packer, "The Mantle is Far, Far Greater than the Intellect"
∗       ∗       ∗

Questions


Elder Packer gave an address to religious educators called "The Mantle is Far, Far Greater Than the Intellect."[1] The quote shown above has become a favorite of critics as a way to demonstrate that the Church suppresses truth or intellectual thought.

Detailed Analysis

Consider the audience

A common criticism of Elder Packer's remarks is represented by the following quote from D. Michael Quinn:

Elder Packer demands that Mormon historians demonstrate and affirm that "the hand of the Lord [has been] in every hour and every moment of the Church from its beginning till now."

— D. Michael Quinn, "On Being a Mormon Historian," 80.[2]

This does not accurately reflect Elder Packer's remarks, however, since Elder Packer was not speaking to "Mormon historians"—he was, rather, speaking to members of CES, the Church Educational System. Elder Packer makes his intended audience clear:

You seminary teachers and some of you institute and BYU men will be teaching the history of the Church this school year. This is an unparalleled opportunity in the lives of your students to increase their faith and testimony of the divinity of this work. Your objective should be that they will see the hand of the Lord in every hour and every moment of the Church from its beginning till now.

CES consists of Church employees who have been hired by the Church to teach its doctrine and promote faith in its young people. Surely it is well within the Church's purview to insist that the perspective on Church history taught in its religion classes will be supportive of, and not destructive of, faith? Surely the CES's study of history is not merely an academic exercise, but also has a spiritual goal?

Risks and warning

Elder Packer's worries about the actions of some historians were made clear in a letter to the First Presidency:

On several occasions I have expressed in our council meetings my concern for some projects being undertaken by the Church Historian's Office and some of those who have been engaged to work on the projects. May I state with emphasis, as I have in our meetings, that my concern does not deny in any way that these brethren are active members of the Church.… I think our brethren in the Historical Department are wonderful men. It is the principle that concerns me.

It is a matter of orientation toward scholarly work—historians' work in particular—that sponsors my concern. I have come to believe that it is the tendency for most members of the Church who spend a great deal of time in academic research to begin to judge the Church, its doctrine, organization, and history, by the principles of their own profession. Ofttimes this is done unwittingly, and some of it perhaps is wholesome. However, it is an easy thing for a man with extensive academic training to consider the Church with the principles he has been taught in his professional training as his measuring standard.

In my mind it ought to be the other way around. A member of the Church ought always, particularly if he is pursuing extended academic studies, to judge the professions of men against the revealed word of the Lord.

I do feel, however, and feel very deeply, that some tempering of the purely historical approach needs to be effected. Otherwise these publications will be of interest to other historians and perhaps serve them well, but at once may have a negative effect upon many. Particularly can they affect our youngsters, who will not view the publications with the same academic detachment that a trained historian is taught to develop. [3]

A "purely historical" approach will not do for the seminaries and institutes of the Church. That this would concern Elder Packer is unsurprising, since his early work with CES required that he confront a number of teachers who had become wholly secularized, leading to substantial problems for teachers and students. [4] One would expect the Church, after all, to teach religious history in its seminaries and institutes, which is distinct from secular history. Elder Packer's concern is with what happens in Church institutions, not with what happens in non-Church venues in which historians may participate.

It is not merely Elder Packer who might conclude that Quinn does not understand the problems at issue. For example, David Bohn noted:

It has nothing to do with saving the Church from embarrassment or sanitizing its past. It has to do rather with deep and complex issues that Quinn has never confronted. It explores the way historians use language to constitute the past and the limit of the claims that can be made for their accounts. Above all it opposes revisionism which for us is the recasting of the Restoration in language that explains the sacred in naturalistic terms, making genuine belief impossible. Revisionism is not simply "getting the details straight," or "the facts right." Actually, every generation of Mormons will necessarily "represent" their common past differently than those who went before. They will struggle with different issues and different questions; they will in some measure write a different script. But it will, nevertheless, work within the shared conviction that the Church was restored by God's power....

It is...the present generation of professional historians who advance such air-tight distinctions, believing as they do that scientific rationalism—and in particular that variant found in the social sciences—has given us a mode of discourse-a new meta-language-that can assure neutral and objective historical accounts. It is revisionist historians and their friends who have scoffed at treatments of our past worked out in believing language. It is they who label it "bolstering, uncritical, and pollyannaish." It is they who have found Hugh Nibley and others "outrageous" because these writers did not shrink from framing the Mormon past in faithful terms. [5]

That Elder Packer spoke his critique in more spiritual terms while Bohn frames his in the language of academia in no way diminishes their relevance. Warned Elder Packer:

If we are not careful, very careful, and if we are not wise, very wise, we first leave out of our professional study the things of the Spirit. The next step soon follows: we leave the spiritual things out of our lives. [6]

First caution

Elder Packer observed:

There is no such thing as an accurate, objective history of the Church without consideration of the spiritual powers that attend this work. [7]

A historian who rejects the existence of spiritual things a priori might disagree with this. Even a secularist, however, ought to admit that an objective history of the Church that does not acknowledge and treat seriously the idea that the early members sincerely believed in such spiritual things would be incomplete.

Again, though, we must remember the audience—Elder Packer is addressing CES personnel, and Church employees who presumably believe in things of the Spirit should not exclude them simply because they want to be considered "objective" by some academics.

Second caution

Elder Packer then made some remarks that have been particularly vulnerable to misrepresentation, and opportunity for considerable derision:

There is a temptation for the writer or the teacher of Church history to want to tell everything, whether it is worthy or faith promoting or not. Some things that are true are not very useful. [8]

This has been portrayed by critics as an invitation to hide the truth or unsavory facts. But again, critics often omit the context. Here Elder Packer does address himself to historians, saying:

Historians seem to take great pride in publishing something new, particularly if it illustrates a weakness or mistake of a prominent historical figure. For some reason, historians and novelists seem to savor such things. If it related to a living person, it would come under the heading of gossip. History can be as misleading as gossip and much more difficult—often impossible—to verify. [9]

Elder Packer is not objecting to such things because they are true—but, because one may (as discussed earlier) use a "true" statement (e.g., some person said X about Joseph Smith) in such a way or context as to give a misleading or even false impression. Note that he emphasizes that such things can be "impossible...to verify"—thus, the full, more global truth cannot be established. But, one can use one truth to give a false impression about the larger (and more important) "global truth."

This interpretation is made clear by Elder Packer's discussion of a historian who, he felt, had committed this error:

Some time ago a historian gave a lecture to an audience of college students on one of the past Presidents of the Church. It seemed to be his purpose to show that that President was a man subject to the foibles of men. He introduced many so-called facts that put that President in a very unfavorable light, particularly when they were taken out of the context of the historical period in which he lived.

Someone who has not theretofore acquainted with this historical figure (particularly someone not mature) must have come away very negatively affected. Those who were unsteady in their convictions surely must have had their faith weakened or destroyed. [10]

In this case, the historian may well have used true statements ("so-called facts"), but he focused upon them. He chose to include some material and exclude other material. And, most importantly, he did not adequately prepare his audience, since he did not ground them in a proper understanding of "the context of the historical period in which he lived." Thus, true statements can be made to serve the cause of misrepresentation. Thus, Elder Packer's criticism is grounded not in a desire to "suppress" the truth, but an insistence that proximal truth telling not distort the broader, over-arching truths of Church history.

Elder Packer's claim that "some facts are not very useful," has come in for particular ridicule. However, this statement is virtually self-evident. Facts about the price of rice during Ming Dynasty China surely is not very useful for teaching Church history. Unsubstantiated gossip by Joseph Smith's neighbors may likewise be of little use in discussing the foundational events of the restoration, though it may illustrate attitudes toward the Smith family. [11] For any truth to be useful for teaching any subject, it must be verifiable, and one must have the time, ability, and audience preparation to allow adequate contextualization. Since all class time is limited, any subject will have true matters related to it which simply cannot—or should not—be mentioned to avoid either leaving a misleading impression that cannot be dispelled without further work or ignoring material of equal truth and greater importance.

For example, should an introductory physics class digress into adjusting for friction in all its calculations? Friction is certainly "true," and it is important. Indeed, one cannot do real-world physics without it. But, other vital concepts might be short-changed, ignored, or made confusing beyond recognition if friction is introduced every time it applies. [12]

Elder Packer also points out that one leader told him "how grateful he is that a testimony that the past leaders of the Church were prophets of God was firmly fixed in his mind before he was exposed to some of the so-called facts that historians have put in their published writings." [13] And, given that the goal and mission of CES is to develop testimonies, is it any wonder that Elder Packer wants his audience to focus first on helping students gain that testimony?

Elder Packer makes this point explicit:

That historian or scholar who delights in pointing out the weaknesses and frailties of present or past leaders destroys faith. A destroyer of faith—particularly one within the Church, and more particularly one who is employed specifically to build faith—places himself in great spiritual jeopardy. [14]

Again, we note the emphasis that his audience consists of those "employed specifically to build faith." And, Elder Packer's opprobrium is directed at those "who delight...in pointing out the weakness or frailties of present or past leaders." These then, are not motivated solely by a desire to "tell the truth," but to use the truth to focus on only one facet of it: weakness, failure, or frailties. This is a bias and misrepresentation—though usually an unadmitted one—as much as an apologetic or unreservedly-celebratory history is.

Third caution

In an effort to be objective, impartial, and scholarly, a writer or a teacher may unwittingly be giving equal time to the adversary....Some of our scholars establish for themselves a posture of neutrality. They call it “sympathetic detachment.” Historians are particularly wont to do that. If they make a complimentary statement about the Church, they seem to have to counter it with something that is uncomplimentary. Some of them, since they are members of the Church, are quite embarrassed with the thought that they might be accused of being partial. [15]

Elder Packer recognizes what some historians ignore, but which everyone from scientist to historian should have recognized long ago: there is no such thing as a truly "neutral" or "unbiased" history. Some bias will always be present. [16] Yet, this pretended "objectivity" can, in fact, lead to even greater misrepresentation. As in Elder Packer's example, one may feel inclined to balance every positive statement with a negative statement—yet, the negative evidence may not be as compelling as the positive. Or, negative statements may require greater contextualization to be understood. This issues simply must be grappled with, but Elder Packer is routinely caricatured and attacked for suggesting their consideration.

Elder Packer observed further that:

President Joseph Fielding Smith pointed out that it would be a foolish general who would give access to all of his intelligence to his enemy. It is neither expected nor necessary for us to accommodate those who seek to retrieve references from our sources, distort them, and use them against us. [17]

Again, Elder Packer points out that is concern is not with the facts or the documents, but the misrepresentation of them. It is difficult to argue that the Church has not repeatedly been the victim of such misrepresentation—as many of D. Michael Quinn's works demonstrate, among others.

Fourth caution

Elder Packer concludes:

The final caution concerns the idea that so long as something is already in print, so long as it is available from another source, there is nothing out of order in using it in writing or speaking or teaching. Surely you can see the fallacy in that.

The fallacy is obvious, but many have not grasped it, so we will here make it explicit. Elder Packer's concern is the use of facts, documents, or "truth" to distort other, perhaps greater, truth. It does not matter whether one is the first, second, or hundredth person to use a particular fact or statement—each use can potentially distort if one does not prepare the appropriate context, narrative, and audience. A fallacious or distorted use of the truth is no excuse just because it has been done before.

Elder Packer endorses President Benson, who said:

You must realize that when you purchase their writings or subscribe to their periodicals, you help sustain their cause. We would hope that their writings not be on your seminary or institute or personal bookshelves. We are entrusting you to represent the Lord and the First Presidency to your students, not the views of the detractors of the Church. [18]

We note again that Pres. Benson was here addressing CES teachers: he emphasizes that the reason for their employment is "to represent the Lord and the First Presidency," and "not the views of the detractors of the Church." As the employer of CES, surely the Church can tell them what it wishes to be taught, and how to do it?

Mercy

Elder Packer's hopeful and merciful conclusion is often ignored by critics of this address, and so we include it here:

Now, what about that historian who defamed the early President of the Church and may well have weakened or destroyed faith in the process? What about other members of the Church who have in their writings or in their teaching been guilty of something similar?

I want to say something that may surprise you. I know of a man who did something quite as destructive as that who later became the prophet of the Church. I refer to Alma the Younger. I learned about him from reading the Book of Mormon, which in reality is a very reliable history of the Church in ancient times.

You are acquainted with the record of Alma as a young man. He followed his father, the prophet Alma, about, and ridiculed what his father preached. He was, in that period of his life, a destroyer of faith. Then came a turning point. Because his father had prayed for it, he came to himself. He changed. He became one of the great men in religious history. [19]

For further information related to this topic


Notes


  1. Boyd K. Packer, "The Mantle is Far, Far Greater Than the Intellect," Address to the Fifth Annual CES Religious Educators' Symposium, 1981; see also Let Not Your Heart Be Troubled (Salt Lake City: Bookcraft, 1991), 101-122; see also Boyd K. Packer, "'The Mantle is Far, Far Greater than the Intellect.'," Brigham Young University Studies 21 no. 3 (Summer 1981), 259–278. PDF link Later references to this address refer to the BYU Studies reprint, since the PDF is available on-line. It starts on page 1.
  2. The essay from which the footnote comes is derived from Quinn's Fall 1981 lecture to the BYU Student History Association. The first publication was, unsurprisingly, by the Tanner's anti-Mormon press (without Quinn's permission: see p. 89 of his account): "On Being A Mormon Historian," Salt Lake City: Modern Microfilm Co., 1982. The source here cited was from the reprinted version (with some additions) in D. Michael Quinn, "On Being a Mormon Historian (and Its Aftermath)," in Faithful History: Essays on Writing Mormon History, edited by George D. Smith, (Salt Lake City, Utah: Signature Books, 1992), 76 n. 22.
  3. Boyd K. Packer, Letter to the First Presidency, 24 October 1974; cited in Lucile C. Tate, Boyd K. Packer: A Watchman on the Tower (Salt Lake City, Utah: Bookcraft, 1995), 243–245.
  4. See That All May Be Edified (Salt Lake City: Bookcraft, 1982), 45-46, 206; see also Teach Ye Diligently 208-218; see also his frequent reference to J. Reuben Clark's "The Charted Course in Church Education," cited on pp. 361-378, which was given during a period of similar difficulties in the CES.
  5. David Bohn, "The Larger Issue," Sunstone 16 no. (Issue #8/45) (February 1994), note 22. off-site (italics added)
  6. Packer, "Mantle," 3 (in all cases, emphasis has been added to this address; all italics are in the original).
  7. Packer, "Mantle," 3.
  8. Packer, "Mantle," 5.
  9. Packer, "Mantle," 5.
  10. Packer, "Mantle," 5.
  11. See, for example, a demonstration of the falsehoods on objective grounds of the Smiths' purported laziness in Donald L. Enders, "The Joseph Smith, Sr., Family: Farmers of the Genesee," in Joseph Smith: The Prophet, the Man, ed. Susan Easton Black and Charles D. Tate Jr. (Provo, Utah: BYU Religious Studies Center, 1993), 213—25. For more detail see Wiki: Lazy Smiths?.
  12. Elder Packer uses a similar type of analogy in his discussion of prerequisites, Packer, "Mantle," 5-6.
  13. Packer, "Mantle," 6.
  14. Packer, "Mantle," 7.
  15. Packer, "Mantle," 8.
  16. Peter Novick, That Noble Dream : The "Objectivity Question" And the American Historical Profession, Ideas in Context. Cambridge [England]: Cambridge University Press, 1988.
  17. Packer, "Mantle," 9.
  18. Ezra Taft Benson, The Gospel Teacher and His Message, Address delivered to Church Educational System personnel, 17 September 1976, 12; cited in Packer, "Mantle," 11.
  19. Packer, "Mantle," 13.


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