Criticism of Mormonism/Books/One Nation Under Gods/Use of sources/An Example of Biased Histories

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An Example of Biased Histories

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

Author's Claims


One Nation under Gods, page xv-xvi (hardback); page ix-x (paperback)

John E. Hallwas and Roger D. Launius are quoted as saying the following regarding LDS historians:

Their work might be of a scholarly nature, but it strives to reinforce traditional Mormon conceptions about the church rather than to comprehend the full complexity of the past....These historians do not mention Mormon intimidation, deception, repression, theft, and violence, or any other matters that might call into question the sacred nature of the Mormon experience....[T]hey do not make any attempt to portray dissenters or non-Mormon critics of the church as anything but miscreants and troublemakers motivated by religious bigotry. (hardback edition)

These historians do not mention Mormon intimidation, deception, repression, theft, and violence, or any other matter that might call into question the sacred nature of the Mormon experience....[T]hey do not make any attempt to portray dissenters or non-Mormon critics of the church as anything but miscreants and troublemakers motivated by religious bigotry. (paperback edition)

Author's Sources


Endnote 6, page 477 (hardback); page 475 (paperback)

John E. Hallwas and Roger D. Launius, Cultures in Conflict: A Documentary History of the Mormon War in Illinois (Logan, UT: Utah State University Press, 1995), 2-3. [The balance of the endnote is a laundry list of additional sources critical of the way history is treated by faithful LDS. It is deleted here, as it is not directly related to the use of the quotes in question.]

Answer


What the author of ONUG won't tell you is that anyone is free to write any history of the LDS they want—as many have—and the Church will not stand in their way. Such freedom on the part of individuals does not reduce the freedom of the Church, as the Church is not required to allow such writers to ply their craft from within its membership. Just as a writer has control over what they write, the Church has control over who it allows to remain members in good standing. Besides One Nation Under Gods, the author has also written a book on the evil present within the Harry Potter stories. Had the author been a member of the official Harry Potter fan club before writing that book, could he reasonably expect to remain a member in good standing after its publication?

To expect the Church to facilitate the writing of all histories and cooperate in their preparation in the name of scholarship--without regard to the value and quality of that scholarship--is unreasonable in the extreme.

Detailed Analysis

A question of context

The foundational argument presented by the author of ONUG is that "Mormons don't tell their history correctly" (he sees his book as a way to help correct that deficiency). He quotes, in this instance, from a source that is critical of some histories done in the past, but he misapplies it to the point he is trying to make. The author does this by removing the quote from the context to which it applies, and then applies it to a larger context. This particular quote, which will be provided in full in a moment, was written in the Introduction to Cultures in Conflict, where the authors indicate why they felt the need to write their book. Their comments apply solely and singularly to an analysis of two previous histories of the Nauvoo era.

In other words, they wrote their comment as application for two particular books about a limited portion of LDS history (the Nauvoo period), but the author of ONUG -- by pulling the quote from its original context -- applies it to all LDS history writing, covering all periods of LDS history.

Quote extraction

Additionally, in the hardback edition of ONUG the author is rather loose with his application of ellipses in this particular quote. The following is the entire passage from which the author pulled his quote. The text highlighted in bold indicates the words he pulled from the text to synthesize his quote. In the paperback edition, the first portion and ellipsis are eliminated, leaving only the second statement.

Much Mormon scholarship on the Nauvoo era is essentially sacred history. If not overtly mythic--as Mormon historical writing once was under such scholars as B.H. Roberts--it too often reduces the actual complexity of events, avoids matters that challenge or contradict Mormon myth, views the Mormons as good and their opponents as evil, and ignores the cultural context of the early church. Hence, Mormon scholars too often write history that, if not blatantly, at least tacitly defends the faith. Their work might be of a scholarly nature, but it strives to reinforce traditional Mormon conceptions about the church rather than to comprehend the full complexity of the past.

This is exemplified in the discussions of the Nauvoo experience contained in the two leading modern histories of the church: The Story of the Latter-day Saints by James B. Allen and Glen M. Leonard, and The Mormon Experience: A History of the Latter-day Saints by Leonard J. Arrington and Davis Bitton. Allen and Leonard provide only brief comments about religion in the United States at the time and otherwise ignore the ideals and values of non-Mormon America, so there is virtually no cultural context for understanding the Mormon conflict in Illinois. Also, they treat the Mormons as idealized figures whose motives are sacred. No action by Smith is ever truly questioned, and no criticism of Smith leveled by others is examined on its merits. For example, the dissenters who founded the Nauvoo Expositor to protest theocratic authoritarianism, the secret practice of polygamy, and other intrusions of the church into secular affairs are dismissed as "a disgruntled cabal" that "plotted dissension" with no other explanation offered for their actions, when other reasons are readily apparent. The reader is forced to conclude that they must have been evil men bent on the destruction of the church when such was never the case. In contrast, the good "city fathers," in destroying the newspaper established by the dissidents, are not depicted as violating freedom of the press--much less any other constitutional right--and Smith himself is not viewed as the instigator of that action, despite his complete and unquestioned control of the community. Mormon innocence is thereby sustained by the authors, both professionally trained historians who apparently chose not to move beyond the faith story and ask other legitimate questions.

Even Arrington and Bitton, an exceptionally capable and fair pair of historians, fail to explore seriously the Mormon conflict in Illinois. While they do a somewhat better job than Allen and Leonard in relating the church to its American cultural context--although they omit such pertinent intellectual currents as American millennialism and theories about the origin of the prehistoric mound builders--they still do not investigate seriously the causes of the conflict between early Mormons and their neighbors. Instead they see it as essentially a matter of religious persecution (one of their chapters is even entitled "Early Persecutions"). And Smith is idealized as a sensitive, magnanimous, just, loving, and sincere man, while his critics are portrayed as misinformed and ill motivated. The Mormon dissidents who established the Expositor, for instance, are dismissed as "libelers" who simply published "inflammatory allegations about the sex lives of Mormon leaders and members." The dissenters' actual motive--to reform the church--and their well-informed critique of Smith's leadership are never seriously considered. Once again, the destruction of their newspaper is not viewed as a violation of freedom of the press and due process of law. Furthermore, when focusing on developments after the death of the prophet, Arrington and Bitton cover the complex events of the exodus with a simplistic commentary. The "Mormons united under Young's leadership and, under the duress of continuing persecutions, reached westward for the long-sought dream of a Kingdom of God on earth." They were forced to leave Nauvoo only when "persecution began again in the fall of 1844, when Mormon homes in Illinois were subjected to 'wolf hunts'--freewheeling raids." These historians do not mention Mormon intimidation, deception, repression, theft, and violence, or any other matters that might call into question the sacred nature of the Mormon experience. Similarly, they do not make any attempt to portray dissenters or non-Mormon critics of the church as anything but miscreants and troublemakers motivated by religious bigotry.

In case you are not inclined to count words, the first ellipsis used by the author blithely skips over 548 words. In these words Hallwas and Launius essentially critique two history books, explaining why they feel that the books don't do justice to the complexity of the Nauvoo period. The author of ONUG, on the other hand, applies these authors' evaluation of these books to the much larger field of LDS histories as a whole. He is guilty, in other words, of generalization and stereotyping in the use of this quote. The author of ONUG corrects this in the paperback edition.

Notice that Hallwas and Launius start by discussing a single subset of Mormon scholars--those who write history about Nauvoo. They then narrow their comments even further, discussing the published works of two pairs of LDS scholars. The author of ONUG, on the other hand, pulls the quote out of context and applies it to all LDS scholars. Hallwas and Launius use "their work" to apply to scholars who write history about Nauvoo. Later their use of the words "these historians" and "they" is used to refer to specifically the work of Arrington and Bitton. You would never know this, however, by the way the author of ONUG crafts his selection from the original text. By the selective use of the authors' original words, "their work," "these historians," and "they" are applied to all LDS historians, and more broadly to the LDS Church, which must somehow control them.

It is interesting to note that regardless of the generally negative critique leveled by Hallwas and Launius, they also admit that "much Mormon scholarship on the Nauvoo era is essentially sacred history." In other words, histories written for a specific audience that views the events of the period as essentially sacred events. The author of ONUG, of course, sees no sacredness in the history at all, so he removes the reference to the type of histories being written about Nauvoo, and quotes Hallwas and Launius as saying that all LDS histories are biased and therefore corrupt. Is one to assume that since the story of the trial and crucifixion of Jesus is similarly a sacred history, that it should be just as easily dismissed because it is biased and therefore corrupt?

The fact is, histories are written to interpret past events for a present audience. That interpretation is only effective if it takes into account the needs of the audience for which it is written. In that regard, sacred histories--including LDS sacred histories--fulfill a very valuable need in any community. In the case of the Latter-day Saints, however, the author of ONUG would have us consider such histories as the product of conspiratorial efforts at control and domination.