Criticism of Mormonism/Books/One Nation Under Gods/Use of sources/Boyd K. Packer on the truth

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Elder Packer: "I have a hard time with historians because they idolize the truth."

A FairMormon Analysis of: One Nation Under Gods, a work by author: Richard Abanes

Author's Claims


One Nation under Gods, page 441 (paperback)

  • Boyd K. Packer said: "I have a hard time with historians because they idolize the truth."

Author's Sources


Endnote 10 (paperback)

  • Roger D. Launius, Book Review, Journal of the West, reproduced online at Signature Books. The author is apparently quoting from a secondary source, the Signature Books website. There is much that he does not reveal about this quote or its context.


Question: Did Boyd K. Packer say, "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

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.[1]

So, this quote is not from any recorded address by Elder Packer, nor is it in any of his writings. At best, all we can say is that "Boyd K. Packer is alleged to have said these things, and the allegation comes from a hostile critic with clear personal animosity[2] for Elder Packer." By Quinn's account, Elder Packer "lectured me for forty-five minutes." If so, isn't it just possible—maybe even likely—that we're missing some context in Quinn's rather telegraphic summary?[3]

Others have noted Quinn's repeated tendency to vilify those with whom he has professional disagreements, and to caricaturize their positions.[4] Quinn's decision to "come out" as a practicing homosexual coincided with the publication of his work Same Sex Dynamics: A Mormon Example. This work was criticized on numerous counts for its arguments that the early Church was much more favorable to male homosexual behavior than the present Church:

  • Duane Boyce, "A Betrayal of Trust (Review of: The Mormon Hierarchy: Extensions of Power, by D. Michael Quinn)," FARMS Review of Books 9/2 (1997): 147–163. off-site
  • Klaus J. Hansen, "Quinnspeak (Review of Same-Sex Dynamics among Nineteenth-Century Americans: A Mormon Example by D. Michael Quinn)," FARMS Review of Books 10/1 (1998): 132–140. off-site
  • George L. Mitton and Rhett S. James, "A Response to D. Michael Quinn's Homosexual Distortion of Latter-day Saint History (Review of Same-Sex Dynamics among Nineteenth-Century Americans: A Mormon Example by D. Michael Quinn)," FARMS Review of Books 10/1 (1998): 141–263. off-site

Thus, it appears that Quinn presents the evidence in a manner which serves his agenda. Why, then, ought we to accept his account of what Elder Packer did—or did not—say, much less the perspective that he imputes to it, especially when his account forms part of his effort to justify his ideas about history and condemn those who disagree? These questions become even more weighty when we realize that Quinn has also demonstrably reinterpreted on-the-record statements about Elder Packer in another of his works.[5]

The complete quote from Quinn

Let us turn, now, to the complete source from Quinn. It reads:

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. The truth is not uplifting; it destroys. I could tell most of the secretaries in the church office building that they are ugly and fat. That would be the truth, but it would hurt and destroy them. Historians should tell only that part of the truth that is inspiring and uplifting."

As noted, we cannot be sure that this completely or accurately reflects Elder Packer's words or intent. As we will show below, there is good reason to think that in some respects it does not. But, let us assume for the sake of argument that Elder Packer said something like this.

It is absurd, though, to think that Elder Packer would say simply, "The truth is not uplifting; it destroys." This might tickle the ears of anti-Mormons, or those determined to vilify Elder Packer, but it is difficult to take such a claim seriously when the totality of Elder Packer's writing and thought is considered.

It is much more plausible, however, to argue that Elder Packer said that some uses of the truth are not uplifting, but destructive. After all, the example he gives makes exactly this point—it might be true that a secretary was ugly, but to merely inform her of this blunt fact would be destructive.

Elder Packer's expressed attitude

Elder Packer's attitude to truthful matters and the Church is made clear in his account of two different teaching styles:

Years ago two teachers on the faculty of one of the large institutes of religion were both talented in their classroom procedures, and both enjoyed a large registration of students. One teacher, however, was always embroiled in controversy. The complaint would be oft–coming, and not without some foundation, that his teachings were destructive in faith. He took the position (and there is much to recommend it) that he was teaching alert, inquiring college students, and there must be freedom to explore and analyze all problems. Often they spent the class periods contesting issues that were very touchy and open to much speculation. After careful study, we were firmly convinced that although he was popular, his teaching did not foster faith. Indeed, it raised doubts.

The other teacher, in the same building and likewise popular with the students, seemed to consistently stabilize them. Faith was the product of his effort.

I sat through classes of both of these teachers. The second teacher was no more restrictive than the first. He was willing to discuss any question an alert, inquiring university student wanted to bring up. He would discuss the main channel of the question or readily be diverted up any side canyons. He talked just as freely about the same issues as the first teacher. The result of his teaching, however, was faith, whereas the first teacher left his students unsettled and doubting. It took some careful analysis to determine the difference between them, and it was a very simple difference.

The second teacher concluded every class period with a testimony—not always a formal, sacrament meeting–type testimony, but there was always a message at the end of his lessons. Quite often, of course, the lesson would conclude in the middle of the discussion, and the students would be left to ponder on and wrestle with the effects of the discussion sometimes for several days or a week until the new class period convened. He would simply say, "Now, we haven't been able to complete this discussion, and before you leave I want you to keep one thing in mind. When we've found all we need to find about this subject, you will come to know as I know that God lives and that He directs this church and kingdom and that He sustains a prophet of God who is our leader."

Or he would say, "While you are thinking about this during the week, keep in mind the certain truth that God is our Heavenly Father, that He loves us, and that we can come to know that as perhaps the most important part of the knowledge we gain. I know that and I want you to come to know that even better than I know it, if possible."[6]:200-201

In this example, it seems clear that Elder Packer has no complaint with discussing anything and everything—provided that the "big picture" was not lost, and that it was not done in a context or style which was destructive to faith.

The abuse of truth

One can, though Quinn and the author here under review may not believe it, use "truth" for untruthful ends. Our review of One Nation Under Gods repeatedly demonstrates how a true statement—transcribed accurately, say, from the Journal of Discourses—can through a lack of context, special pleading, distortion, or rhetoric, appear to mean something quite different. And, such a quote can be used to great a larger narrative which is inherently inaccurate and deceptive. The context and rhetorical environment in which a truth is placed will have an influence—as in the case of the two religion teachers—over how a given truth is interpreted, perceived, or used. A truth can be made into a falsehood.

This is, one suspects, what Elder Packer was alluding to when he compared some historians to idolaters (assuming—and it is a large assumption—that he has been properly quoted). One can rather disingenuously and self-righteously defend the spreading of local, proximate "truths" (e.g., like accurately quoting an early Mormon document) in a context which is deceptive, unfair, unbalanced, or purposefully destructive of faith with a simple shrug, "I'm only telling the truth." Facts and documents, however, do not interpret or position themselves—they are interpreted and positioned by authors, and true facts may be positioned falsely. Ironically, Quinn's work contains many examples of exactly this problem:

One can make "the truth" an idol if one praises the invocation of local truths while ignoring the wider use to which one is putting such truths. It matters less if all the quotes from LDS leaders cited in One Nation Under Gods are accurately transcribed than if the resulting story and atmosphere is accurate, balanced, and fair.

Elder Packer's biography notes this:

When using materials that detract from a leader, a historian making a case for realism or showing that the leader is a man with whom his readers can more easily relate will often cite examples from the Old Testament. Elder Packer has one response to this: he would not have written those accounts; rather, he would have focused upon the leader's inspiring works.[7]

We note that this does not say that Elder Packer would not mention faults, foibles, or failures. But he objects to "accounts" that focus on such things, to the point of obscuring the inspiring works accomplished by those with such faults. A lens can only focus on one thing; all else is blurred. Like the two CES instructors, two accounts might mention the same events, positive and negative, but the focus given to faith on one hand and doubt and criticism on the other makes all the difference.

Othello and Iago

Elder Packer elsewhere describes the same tactic in different terms, in a section entitled "Deceit by a Gesture, an Inflection":

I can best make the point by referring to Shakespeare's Othello....

Iago wanted most in life to be general. Motivated by malignant jealousy, he set out to destroy Othello, never openly, always careful and clever. In the play he does not tell an open, bald-faced lie. He works by innuendo and suggestion.

"Where is Desdemona tonight?" he might ask.

"Oh, she has gone to Relief Society," Othello might answer.

"Oh, has she?" Iago might question.

It is not the words. On paper they are a harmless inquiry, but the inflection makes them contagious with suspicion.

On one occasion Cassio comes to Othello's home with a message. After a conversation with Desdemona, he leaves to attend to other matters. As he is leaving the home, Othello and Iago approach.

Iago perverts an innocent situation with his comment, "I cannot think it that he would steal away so guilty-like, seeing you coming."

And so it unfolds. Nothing to incriminate Iago, so innocent is he. Just a sly reference, a gesture, an inflection, the emphasis on the word or the sentence....

Students may well meet an Iago one day as they move through life. Through innuendo and sly remarks, through an inflection or a question, in mock innocence, he might persuade them to kill their faith, to throttle their patriotism, to tamper with drugs, to kill their agency, to abandon morality and chastity and virtue. If they do so, they have an awakening as terribly tragic as that of Othello (italics in original, bold emphasis added).[6]:222-224

Elder Boyd K. Packer: The mantle and the intellect

Some of what apparently stimulated Quinn's animus[8] against Elder Packer was the latter's address to religious educators, "The Mantle is Far, Far Greater Than the Intellect."[9]

Conclusion

Is all this intended as a defense of Elder Packer? Hardly—Elder Packer neither needs nor requires personal defense:

As I begin a new relationship with anyone—students, missionaries, or those with whom I associate or whom I supervise—it is on the basis of confidence and trust. I have been much happier since. Of course, there have been times when I have been disappointed, and a few times when I have been badly used. I do not care about that. Who am I not to be so misused or abused? Why should I be above that? If that is the price of extending trust to everyone, I am glad to pay it.[10]

One suspects that Quinn's report of Elder Packer's alleged remarks may represent something of a breach of trust. But, the key point for our purposes is not the breach (if any) of Elder Packer's trust. It is, rather, the breach of the trust suffered by Quinn's and One Nation Under Gods' audiences, who are not provided with all the facts and all the context. Thus it is that a truth can serve a lie.




Notes

  1. 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.
  2. For examples, see Duane Boyce, "A Betrayal of Trust (Review of: The Mormon Hierarchy: Extensions of Power, by D. Michael Quinn)," FARMS Review of Books 9/2 (1997): 147–163. off-site
  3. D. Michael Quinn, "Pillars of My Faith," Sunstone Symposium, Salt Lake City, 19 Aug. 1994; cited by Lavina Fielding Anderson, "DNA Mormon: D. Michael Quinn," in Mormon Mavericks: Essays on Dissenters (Salt Lake City, Signature Books, 2002), 329–364.
  4. Examples include:
    • Quinn, "On Being A Mormon Historian," 71-72, 78;
    • William J. Hamblin, "That Old Black Magic (Review of Early Mormonism and the Magic World View, revised and enlarged edition, by D. Michael Quinn)," FARMS Review of Books 12/2 (2000): 225–394. [{{{url}}} off-site] pp. 6-7, 10-19, 46-49, 104-109, 114, 132-134, 145-146, 151-153, 156-157 and notes 20, 21, and 325;
    • Rhett S. James, "Writing History Must Not Be an Act of Magic (Review of Early Mormonism and the Magic World View, revised and enlarged edition, by D. Michael Quinn)," FARMS Review of Books 12/2 (2000): 395–414. [{{{url}}} off-site] pp. 10-17.
    • John Gee, "Review of Early Mormonism and the Magic World View, revised and enlarged edition, by D. Michael Quinn," FARMS Review of Books 12/2 (2000): 185–224. [{{{url}}} off-site]pp. 6-10, and notes 24, 33, 36.
  5. See pages 147-148, 150-151 of Duane Boyce, "A Betrayal of Trust (Review of: The Mormon Hierarchy: Extensions of Power, by D. Michael Quinn)," FARMS Review of Books 9/2 (1997): 147–163. off-site
  6. 6.0 6.1 Boyd K. Packer, Teach Ye Diligently (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1975).
  7. Lucile C. Tate, Boyd K. Packer: A Watchman on the Tower (Salt Lake City, Utah: Bookcraft, 1995), 243–244, citing Boyd K. Packer, Letter to the First Presidency, 24 October 1974, 246.
  8. See Quinn, "On Being A Mormon Historian," 71, 75-76, 78, 82-85, 88, 90, 92; see also Richard D. Poll, "Seeking the Past: Noble Quest or Fool's Errand," Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought 25 no. 4 (Winter 1992), 207.
  9. 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
  10. Boyd K. Packer, Teach Ye Diligently (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1975), 95.