Mormonism and history/Church response

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How the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has responded to issues related to Church history

Summary: 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]

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Question: How has the Church responded to issues related to Church history?

Dallin Oaks: "Don’t depreciate their effectiveness in one area because they have some misbehavior in another area"

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. 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.

Dallin Oaks: We’re emerging from a period of history writing within the Church [of] adoring history that doesn’t deal with anything that’s unfavorable

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.


Notes

  1. Helen Whitney, interview with Dallin H. Oaks, "Elder Oaks Interview Transcript from PBS Documentary," LDS.org.
  2. Dallin Oaks, "Elder Oaks Interview Transcript from PBS Documentary," Newsroom (20 JULY 2007) off-site