Question: Are histories written by Mormon historians not reliable?

Table of Contents

Question: Are histories written by Mormon historians not reliable?

Ironically, those who criticize Mormon histories as being unreliable and incomplete use Church-produced documents as their source material

The author of the critical book One Nation Under Gods claims that "Mormon leaders, especially since the 1970s, have repeatedly called for LDS historians to 'tell only that part of the truth that is inspiring and uplifting.'" and that "some of the least reliable reports on Mormon history, especially with regard to its earliest years, are those that have been produced by the LDS church."

How does one define "least reliable?" The assertion by the author that "some of the least reliable reports on Mormon history" are those "produced by the LDS church" is very interesting in light of the fact that some of the source documents used by the author in his book include the Journal of Discourses, the Messenger and Advocate, the Millennial Star, the Evening and Morning Star, the Ensign, Conference Reports, and the Encyclopedia of Mormonism, to name a few. Each of these sources is viewed by members and non-members alike as being "produced by the LDS church." If they are so unreliable, why does the author cite from them? If there is a disagreement between two sources -- one from the Church and the other from someone viewed as an enemy of the Church -- how does the author know which one is more reliable?

The author of One Nation Under Gods castigates sources produced by the LDS Church, but then uses many of those materials in constructing and expressing viewpoints. He also cites material from people who have a professed grudge against the LDS Church and its teachings. Reliability of documents, then, becomes an issue of acceptability to each individual.

Elder Boyd K. Packer's comment: "Some things that are true are not very useful"

Elder Packer gave an address to religious educators called "The Mantle is Far, Far Greater Than the Intellect."[1] The quote "Some things that are true are not very useful" has become a favorite of critics as a way to demonstrate that the Church suppresses truth or intellectual thought.

Elder Packer said nothing about stopping historians or insisting that they not be objective

An examination of the reference provided above may prove insightful. There are two main parts to this reference. First, is the assertion that Church officials have "routinely" insisted LDS-authored historical materials be "faith promoting" at the expense of being historically accurate. To prove this assertion, the author provides the example of a talk by Boyd K. Packer that was published in BYU Studies. Elder Packer stressed four main points:

  1. There is no such thing as an accurate, objective history of the Church without consideration of the spiritual powers that attend this work.
  2. 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.
  3. In an effort to be objective, impartial, and scholarly, a writer or a teacher may unwittingly be giving equal time to the adversary.
  4. 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.

The only mention of "objectivity" in the talk was in relation to the first and third points, and Elder Packer said nothing about stopping historians or insisting that they not be objective. He simply said that no treatment of LDS Church history could hope to be objective without consideration of the spiritual powers that attend the work. In other words, he was telling LDS historians that to leave out consideration of God's Spirit was to leave out an important component of why and how things were done in the Church.

The second main part of the ONUG reference is the claim that the Church historical department staff were required to "sign a form" regarding the Church's right to censor anything the staff might publish. It appears that the author feels such a form is an example of ways in which the LDS Church suppresses scholarly work. The author never addresses the issue, however, of whether the Church has a right to control (a) access to their own historical records, and (b) how those records are used. If this were a discussion about business corporations, there would be no question that the businesses have the right to do both — control access and use of past business records.

Does The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (or any church, for that matter) have the right to control its own records and how they are used? If businesses and governments do, why not churches?

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.