I Am a Believer, but I Don’t “Just Believe”
I am a believer, but contrary to the Tony award winning Book of Mormon musical, I don’t “just believe.” My convictions derive from a more complex blend of study and faith than the musical suggests when the fictional Elder Price sings, “I am a Mormon and a Mormon just believes.” In addition to being a Mormon, I am also an historian who teaches and researches Utah history, Mormon history, and the history of the U. S. West. I am a believer, in part, because of my profession, not in spite of it.
I fully recognize that there are those who delve into the Mormon past, poke around in the sources, uncover inconsistencies, unsavory actions on the part of past leaders or followers, find too much human and too little divine, or otherwise encounter aspects of LDS history that disturb them. For some a messy historical record overpowers belief and convinces them to abandon their faith. Some even suggest that knowing the “truth” about Mormon history undermines the very foundations of Mormonism and will inevitably lead any rational person with a devotion to empirical evidence outside the fold, never to return. Those who stay, according to this version of things, either ignore the evidence or are ignorant of it and “just believe.”
I understand this argument, understand the evidence, and even understand the human fallibility bound up in the Mormon past, but I reject the conclusion that faith and messy Mormon history are incompatible. I embrace the fallible founders and followers of Mormonism, the faithful and faithless, the defenders and the detractors, in all of their complexities, just as I hope Jesus will one day embrace me in all of my human complexities, my unprofitable service despite my doubt, and my too frequent misgivings despite His offering ample reason for confidence. “Lord, I believe; help thou mine unbelief” (Mark 9:24).
In shaping my personal cosmology, I don’t “just believe.” There are guiding principles that I employ to keep the intersections between my faith and my profession in check. In some circumstances the tools of my profession provide intellectually satisfying answers, even to religious questions. In other instances, my faith offers compelling and spiritually fulfilling solutions to some of life’s most challenging problems. Both have limitations as systems of comprehending the world. A healthy understanding of the limits of my profession helps to keep me grounded in my faith. A healthy understanding of the limits of faith helps to keep me grounded in my profession.
As an historian I don’t “just believe.” I am always confronted with the limitations inherent in my profession. History is incomplete. It can never fully capture the hearts and minds of past peoples or completely recreate past events. Reconstructing the past from the trace fragments left behind is the thrill of the profession to me. Incomplete stories; gaps in the historical record; inconsistent or conflicting sources; single sources; the vagaries of memory; the lapse of time; the happenstance of the creation or destruction, the altering or amending, of historical documents; the biases of my fellow historians; and ultimately my own biases and cultural baggage all impact the craft of history to shape various versions of the past. Mormon history seems to engender its fair share of competing narratives from sometimes antagonistic camps, perhaps because in the minds of some people, the stakes are so high, the very truth claims of Mormonism hang in the balance.
As an historian this can be especially problematic because those truth claims are so tightly interwoven into Mormonism’s historical narrative. Mormonism’s genesis miracle and the subsequent cast of heavenly visitors Joseph Smith claimed to encounter form a veritable who’s who of the Bible and Book of Mormon (the scripture, not the play). It is an otherworldly cast of characters that interrupt and disturb enlightenment Christianity, especially as they breach the boundaries of time and space to insert their very bodies—and golden plates and other relics—into the recent historical record.
The rational mind is correct to be skeptical. Yet it is in that very moment of skepticism that the Book of Mormon (the scripture, not the play) encourages empiricism of an otherworldly kind and suggests a different way of “knowing.” The book’s last author presents all readers with an experiment in which he promises that God will actually answer prayers that are offered “with a sincere heart, with real intent” and that He will confirm the “truth of all things” unto the seeker. Mormonism contains, at its core, an empirical test grounded in rational methodology but confirmed by the supernatural “power of the Holy Ghost.” For me it is a beautiful blend of the best aspects of my life as an historian and as a practicing Mormon. This alternate way of knowing forms the bedrock of my faith. Empiricism leads me to the ultimate source of truth, and it is there, at the very margins of what is knowable through rational means, that I fall to my knees and crawl into the darkness, my faith replacing knowledge and sometimes leading me down less-traveled roads.
I first applied this test in my own life, as an insecure and wavering nineteen-year-old. I studied, I pondered, I questioned, I asked, and eventually God reached down to envelop me in His love. He also answered my questions. I had my own otherworldly encounter which continues to speak to my soul and nourish me when spiritually weak. In the intervening years I have learned a significant amount of Church history, more academic than devotional: polygamy, polyandry, treasure digging, first vision narratives, race, blood atonement, Mormonism and women, Mountain Meadows Massacre, curse of Cain/Ham, blacks and the priesthood, blacks and the temple, post-manifesto polygamy, correlation, and other topics that were unknown to me when I was nineteen. If I accept God as an omniscient being, then He obviously knew about these potentially prickly issues when I was an insecure and wavering nineteen year old, and He still confirmed my path. His knowledge did not change His answer to me, nor does the new information I learn somehow negate that same answer. The new awareness does not change the old answer, it only broadens my perspective and adds new twists to a more complex narrative, one that I find wonderfully fulfilling and intensely compelling.
Even then, I don’t “just believe.” As an intellectual, my reliance upon faith is an important check against the excesses of smug self-assurance and the temptation to counsel the Lord, steady the ark, or think I know better how to minister a global gospel outreach than those whose burden it is to actually consider the weight of the world. The prophet Isaiah perhaps expressed it best when he warned, “Woe unto them that are wise in their own eyes, and prudent in their own sight!” (Isaiah 5: 21) or as Paul puts it in an epistle to the Romans, “Professing themselves to be wise, they became fools” (Romans 1: 21-23).
My profession also provides a rational check on my faith. An academic approach to Mormon history brings my understanding of that history into agreement with my professional understanding of history in general. As the American Historical Association puts it, “multiple, conflicting perspectives are among the truths of history.”1 Understanding the nature of those varied perspectives makes my study of the past much less about concrete and immutable “facts” and much more about capturing a multiplicity of voices. It is my task to try and listen to those voices—on their terms, not mine—and then represent them in an evenhanded manner.
History introduces me to a variety of complex and sometimes contradictory individuals. Thomas Jefferson, whose ideals helped to establish a nation, led a personal life that did not always conform to those same ideals. Jefferson declared that “all men are created equal” while simultaneously owning slaves. He fathered at least one child with one of his slaves, his wife’s half sister, Sally Hemmings, a girl about thirty years younger than he. How should history judge such a man? Can we remember him both as a revered founding father as well as someone who struggled with personal peccadilloes?
For people of faith, the stakes can be even higher than how to best remember an admired founding father. For the faithful their cosmology is intertwined with sometimes flawed individuals. At times, crises of faith for members of the LDS Church arise because the narratives they have heard in Church settings are challenged by new information, sometimes from polemical sources, and the disparity can be jarring. In this regard, my professional training kicks in and desires, even craves, a more complex narrative, one that allows Mormon leaders and followers to be three dimensionally human. For me such complexity offers a more satisfying version of the past that is intellectually sound, sometimes cautionary, and frequently inspiring.
God seems to follow a pattern of selecting fallible yet gifted women and men through whom to work. It is not clear to me that he has an alternative. Moses murdered an Egyptian and then hid the body in sand. God later spoke to him face to face. Noah was drunk and naked in his tent; Elijah killed four hundred of the priests of Baal and then complained when Jezebel sought his life. Eve ate the forbidden fruit, Sariah murmured, Laman and Lemuel rebelled, Judah slept with his daughter-in-law who was dressed like a harlot, the missionary Corianton left the ministry to chase after a harlot, and the harlot Rahab hid the spies at Jericho and “by faith” “perished not” (Hebrews 11:31). Peter denied Jesus three times, and Judas, one of the original twelve apostles, betrayed Jesus for thirty pieces of silver. The list could go on, but the message seems clear: God is accustomed to working through fallible folks.
Given such a less than stellar historical track record, is it any wonder that the Lord’s preface to the Doctrine and Covenants anticipated similar difficulties among leaders and followers in this last dispensation? Jesus, in fact, made ample provision for the “weakness” of “my servants,” stating that “inasmuch as they erred it might be made known . . . and inasmuch as they sinned they might be chastened, that they might repent” (Doctrine and Covenants 1: 24-28). Jesus Christ himself saw the “weaknesses” of His servants and predicted our errors and sins. He has a long history of working with weak, error prone, people. His great atoning sacrifice would have been a useless exercise otherwise. If Jesus is willing to accept the weaknesses of His servants, I believe our historical narratives can too?
The wonder of Joseph Smith for me is his willingness to view himself as a “rough stone rolling,” to declare himself a prophet and still publicly grapple with his flaws. He printed and published a revelation that announced “how oft” he had “transgressed the commandments and the laws of God” (Doctrine and Covenants 3:6) and another that declared that he had “not kept the commandments and must needs stand rebuked before the Lord” (Doctrine and Covenants 93: 47). These were hardly messages one would expect from a charlatan, fraud, or megalomaniac.
I find significant hope in learning about women and men from Mormon history who struggled with emotions, failings, doubts, or weaknesses, because in their striving they become real to me, people with whom I can identify. They come down from their unreachable pedestals to walk with me, rather than away from me, singing as they walk, and walk, and walk. Even those who sought solace and solutions outside of Mormonism and left the faith altogether have lessons to share that don’t all come from a place of moral superiority simply because they left and I stayed. They teach me of the vulnerability of faith and its need for nurture, but they also teach me of tolerance and respect for the personal paths that others choose. They help me to value a religiously pluralistic society and to honor diversity of thought. They help me to learn that many people are seeking the divine through different means and that what is satisfying for me might not always be satisfying for others. Ultimately, they motivate me to protect and defend humankind’s freedom to worship “how, where, or what they may,” because in doing so I protect and defend my right to do the same.
Studying the Mormon past prompts new questions and constantly motivates reassessments and rearrangements of old assumptions. It makes me less certain and more open to new ideas and perspectives. It makes me less dogmatic about absolute knowledge and more invested in what I believe. Ultimately it deepens my faith, and it is there at the margins of historical evidence, where the tools of my profession give way to my commune with God, that it will always be just that, a matter of faith. When I’m tempted to think otherwise, I’m constrained by the Lord’s gentle but pointed reminder to Oliver Cowdery: “Did I not speak peace to your mind concerning the matter? What greater witness can you have than from God?” (Doctrine and Covenants 6:23). Apparently there is no greater witness than from God and so I choose to believe.
Ultimately my profession and my faith come together in the divinity of Jesus Christ. I believe in Jesus, but I don’t “just believe.” For me, He is the definitive historian. Only He can understand the past in its totality, mesh and merge the various perspectives, and weigh the evidence in the balance. He can capture what historians only grasp at, the thoughts and intents of the hearts and minds under question (Doctrine and Covenants 6:16). I am satisfied that at judgment day we will all receive a fair hearing, and that all people will be accountable before God, leaders and followers alike. I am willing to let Jesus be the judge. In the meantime, I attempt to be balanced and to see the past as clearly as possible through the eyes of those who lived it, knowing that one day my own history will be open for review. On that day I hope for an historian who will take into account all of the various forces that came to bear upon my decisions, failings, and fortunes, and their vagaries across time and space. I hope for a merciful and compassionate treatment of my sources, just as I suspect historical figures would want of theirs.
In the end, I am a believer, but unlike the fictional Elder Price, I don’t “just believe.”
1 Visit http://www.historians.org/pubs/Free/ProfessionalStandards.cfm to view the American Historical Association’s “Statement on Standards of Professional Conduct.”
W. Paul Reeve (Ph.D., University of Utah) is an associate professor of history at the University of Utah and formerly the Associate Chair of the history department. He is on the board of editors of the Utah Historical Quarterly and previously on the governing board of the Mormon History Association. He is the author of Making Space on the Western Frontier: Mormons, Miners, and Southern Paiutes (University of Illinois Press, 2007), winner of the Mormon History Association’s Smith-Pettit Best First Book Award in 2008. He is co-editor with Ardis E. Parshall of Mormonism: A Historical Encyclopedia, published by ABC-CLIO in 2010, and co-editor with Michael Scott Van Wagenen of Between Pulpit and Pew: The Supernatural World in Mormon History and Folklore (Utah State University Press, 2011). In 2007 Reeve was awarded a Mayers Research Fellowship at the Huntington Library in San Marino, California, and a Virgil C. Aldrich Research Fellowship at the Tanner Humanities Center at the University of Utah. He is researching nineteenth-century notions of Mormon physical otherness, including ways in which outsiders racialized Mormons and a corresponding Mormon construction of whiteness. His book on the project, Religion of a Different Color: Race and the Mormon Struggle for Whiteness, is under contract with Oxford University Press.
Posted August 2011