Mormonism and history

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Mormonism and history

Church response

Elder Dallin Oaks discusses the issue of church history and facts that are not discussed frequently in church approved curriculum during an interview with Helen Whitney (HW) for the PBS documentary, The Mormons [1]. He gives a good description of this dilemma and the church's method for confronting it. [2]

Referring to the importance of not focusing on a person's negative aspects while learning of their history Elder Oaks said,

...See a person in context; don’t depreciate their effectiveness in one area because they have some misbehavior in another area — especially from their youth. I think that’s the spirit of that. I think I’m not talking necessarily just about writing Mormon history; I’m talking about George Washington or any other case. If he had an affair with a girl when he was a teenager, I don’t need to read that when I’m trying to read a biography of the Founding Father of our nation.

Elder Oaks is then asked how the church deals with imperfections of early church members and current members coming across this information themselves on the internet rather than through teachings of the church. Elder Oaks responds,

It’s an old problem, the extent to which official histories, whatever they are, or semi-official histories, get into things that are shadowy or less well-known or whatever. That’s an old problem in Mormonism — a feeling of members that they shouldn’t have been surprised by the fact that this or that happened, they should’ve been alerted to it. I have felt that throughout my life.

There are several different elements of that. One element is that we’re emerging from a period of history writing within the Church [of] adoring history that doesn’t deal with anything that’s unfavorable, and we’re coming into a period of “warts and all” kind of history. Perhaps our writing of history is lagging behind the times, but I believe that there is purpose in all these things — there may have been a time when Church members could not have been as well prepared for that kind of historical writing as they may be now.

On the other hand, there are constraints on trying to reveal everything. You don’t want to be getting into and creating doubts that didn’t exist in the first place. And what is plenty of history for one person is inadequate for another, and we have a large church, and that’s a big problem. And another problem is there are a lot of things that the Church has written about that the members haven’t read. And the Sunday School teacher that gives “Brother Jones” his understanding of Church history may be inadequately informed and may not reveal something which the Church has published. It’s in the history written for college or Institute students, sources written for quite mature students, but not every Sunday School teacher that introduces people to a history is familiar with that. And so there is no way to avoid this criticism. The best I can say is that we’re moving with the times, we’re getting more and more forthright, but we will never satisfy every complaint along that line and probably shouldn’t.

Accuracy of Church history

  • Accuracy of Church art
    Brief Summary: Critics charge that the Church knowingly "lies" or distorts the historical record in its artwork in order to whitewash the past, or for propaganda purposes. A commonly used example is the inaccuracy of any Church art representing the translation process of the Book of Mormon. (Click here for full article)
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  • Censorship and revision
    Brief Summary: Critics claim that the church has "whitewashed" some of the information about its origins to appear more palatable to members and investigators. Some feel that this is done intentionally to hide negative aspects of church history. Others feel that it is done to focus on the good, but that it causes problems for believing members when they encounter these issues outside of church curriculum. (Click here for full article)
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Attitude of the Church toward historians

  • "Some things that are true are not very useful."
    Brief Summary: Elder Packer gave an address to religious educators called "The Mantle is Far, Far Greater Than the Intellect." The following quote is a favorite of critics who wish to demonstrate that the Church wishes to suppress its history and independent thought: "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." (Click here for full article)
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  • "I have a hard time with historians because they idolize the truth."
    Brief Summary: There is much that critics do not reveal about this quote or its context, which is attributed to Elder Packer. The source of this quote is the now excommunicated D. Michael Quinn, who wrote in a footnote that, "When Elder Packer interviewed me as a prospective member of Brigham Young University's faculty in 1976, he explained: 'I have a hard time with historians because they idolize the truth.'" This quote is not from any recorded address by Elder Packer, nor is it in any of his writings. (Click here for full article)
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  • Church discipline of scholars: The "September Six"
    Brief Summary: Critics claim that the Church excommunicates or disfellowships scholars who publish historical information that is embarrassing to Church leaders. Despite the fact that these disciplinary actions are carried out by local leaders, some critics insist that they are in reality instigated by general authorities. (Click here for full article)
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Other Church history topics




  1. [note]  "Elder Oaks Interview Transcript from PBS Documentary," (accessed 21 August 2007) off-site
  2. [note]  "The Mormons," off-site

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