“The more we understand individual objects, the more we understand God.”
“Ethical truth is man’s answer to the progress of his knowledge.”
Our epigraphs suggest that knowledge and spirituality are not mutually exclusive, but rather are essential concomitants in understanding the significance of life and living it fully. Recent debate in Latter-day Saint circles, however, seems most often to stress the incompatibility of spiritual faith and historical knowledge, whether the emphasis be on the supposed lack of faith in Latter-day Saint historiography or on the purported lack of history in Latter-day Saint apologetics.1 However, the debaters often seem to rely on different underlying assumptions, to utilize different historical forms, to address different audiences, and to argue along intellectual lines which lie in different dimensions. In short, each faction seems to defend a different definition of history and of its function. The situation is manifestly unproductive, and more than a few onlookers have expressed impatience with it. Thomas G. Alexander, a leading practitioner of the so-called New Mormon History and one of the central figures in the ongoing debate between professional historians and apologists, has recently declared it to be “imperative that we begin building bridges” between spiritual faith and historical knowledge.2 The present article attempts to assist in the work of construction.
A new approach may lend fresh perspectives if it comes from beyond the debate. This essay does just that, in that neither author is a professional historian nor active apologist. Both of us are philologists who work with written sources of all kinds. Since we have had the need to consult Arabic and Chinese historical documents and, on occasion, to translate and annotate them, we have had to learn something of the proper methodologies of historical research and of the possibilities and limitations of the modern discipline of history. Because we are practicing believers in the Latter-day Saint faith, we have also read and reflected on the important literature devoted to defending that faith. The following observations can thus be proffered from a neutral quarter, as it were, without either side feeling compelled to take us so seriously as to be offended if our reflections are not found persuasive. Much of what we say is not new, but the theoretical background to the debate offered here has not previously appeared in print with sufficient breadth or emphasis in the context of Latter-day Saint historiography.
The chief concern of those who would understand the philosophy of an epoch, according to the historian of Greek philosophy W. K. C. Guthrie, should be to isolate the fundamental assumptions which underlie the various “intellectual positions” being advocated in it.3 “These assumptions,” explained Guthrie, “are ‘that groundwork of current conceptions shared by all men of any given culture and never mentioned because it is taken for granted as obvious.’”4 Latter-day Saint historians and those who read their works have never been especially good about clarifying the assumptions that underlie their historical endeavors; nor do many of those who find some of this work objectionable seem to understand that their own unspoken assumptions predispose them to a negative assessment of Latter-day Saint historical scholarship.
However, a recent work of Davis Bitton and Leonard J. Arrington, Mormons and Their Historians, is helpful for assessing the value of twentieth-century Latter-day Saint history because the authors are careful to clarify their subjects’ assumptions.5 For instance, we are told that B. H. Roberts’s assumptions are those of “Romantic historiography,” which involved “responding emotionally ‘to the past’” and “compared history to drama and sought to present it dramatically.”6 Also, Andrew Love Neff assumed that the “principal purpose of well-written Mormon history . . . was ‘to show why and how the Mormon Pioneers functioned in a political, economic, social, and religious way as they did.’”7 Further examples include Fawn Brodie, who assumed that Joseph Smith’s claims were spurious (“her job,” the authors point out, “was therefore to find the mundane level of explanation”), and Dale Morgan, who opted for “naturalistic explanations” in interpreting the Latter-day Saint past.8 As final instances, Arrington’s personal assumptions are aired as well as those of other scholars, such as Richard Bushman, Jan Shipps, and Charles S. Peterson, who were more sympathetic to the spiritual factor in Latter-day Saint history.9
In examining Bitton and Arrington’s analyses, we should first ask ourselves what their own underlying assumptions are. Being professionally trained historians (a frequent phrase of theirs), Bitton and Arrington assume the outlook of their profession. Historiography has developed from sixteenth-century French practitioners into its modern form,10 a development that has seen historiography evolve from an earnest but essentially amateurish pastime into a disciplined science. No longer is special pleading, specious handling of sources, selective inclusion of data, or emphasis on style over substance to be tolerated in historiographical circles.11 Modern Latter-day Saint historians “are often unsatisfied with the narrative and inspirational histories produced in previous generations. Accustomed to more rigorous standards of documentation, often interested in different approaches, these people—and thousands of others who may not have had the specialized training but who share the attitudes,” the authors conclude, “constitute an audience for Mormon history that did not exist before the war.”12
We will examine Bitton and Arrington’s assumptions, especially the assumption that the modern Latter-day Saint historian is automatically motivated and guided by the historiography of inquiry.
The fundamental tasks of the typical historian are often compressed into three main spheres of activity. (Later we will say more about the inadequacy of this description.) First, historians search for “facts”; that is, they research. Second, after selecting certain facts for special consideration, they judge the facts’ reliability and importance, or evaluate. Third, they organize and synthesize the facts to reconstruct past events or to solve problems, or interpret. In this description the differences in the subjective processes of evaluation and interpretation are what distinguish various historical forms from each other.
One modern model of history that is useful for this discussion recognizes three such historical forms: exemplar, evolutionary, and functional-structural. According to Traian Stoianovich, a historian of modern French historiography, exemplar historiography is a “guide to action.” Its function is to “select the relevant example (paradeigma, exemplum), in the didactic sense of being illustrative of what the society, through the historian, desires to inculcate and what it wants to warn against.”13 The second paradigm, evolutionary historiography, “examine[s] the particular with the object of discovering the general, or universal, laws of human development, but . . . also focuse[s] on the particular aspects of change for their own sake.”14 The third paradigm, functional-structural historiography, continued Stoianovich, “embraces problem-solving and puzzle-solving.”15 The weaning of historical inquiry from the composition of narratives to the investigation of problems was introduced and adopted as a historical paradigm by yet another group of Frenchmen: Lucien Febvre, Marc Bloch, and their annales group.16 This movement made possible the flourishing of many types of history—economic, technological, social, and the like—as different investigative techniques were developed to answer newly posed questions.17
In examining the historical assumptions of Bitton and Arrington, we find that the modern form of historical inquiry followed by professionally trained historians did develop out of sixteenth-century France and that it avails itself of certain quasi-scientific techniques in order to insure accuracy and clarity of presentation. But the framework of Bitton and Arrington’s inquiry, tracing the development of Latter-day Saint historiography up to its present form (the third, problem-solving paradigm) and “trying to understand the general pattern and some of the changing standards of historical writing,”18 presupposes the obsolescence of the first paradigm. Indeed, the authors barely allow the parallel existence of the exemplar paradigm, assigning to it the pious preservation of primary sources and the creation of popular works.19 But the exemplar paradigm of historiography cannot be dismissed lightly. It happens to have been the earliest historical form (antedating even the doughty French) and has strong advocates in both secular and religious spheres even in the twentieth century.
The purpose of the exemplar paradigm is to advocate a point. From early on in classical antiquity it determined the content of historical works.
The earliest western example is Herodotus, the traditional “father of history.” He stated that he composed his narrative “so that the memory of the past may not be blotted out from among men by time, and that great and marvelous deeds done by Greeks and foreigners and especially the reason why they warred against each other may not lack renown.”20 His subject was the klea andron, the “famous deeds of men,”21 yet his historical assumption, or, we may say, his theoretical framework, was based on the conventional morality of the Greeks of his time and therefore did not need to be—and hence was not—stated explicitly. (At the least, it was clearly not emphasized.)22 His assumption was defined by Hugh Lloyd-Jones as follows:
Herodotus was not merely a great collector of facts but a great historian, one who saw history not simply as a mass of events and genealogies, but as a process whose meaning he made a sustained attempt to understand. He interpreted history in terms of the outlook upon human life common to educated persons of his place and time. His work is pervaded by all the characteristic features of the archaic Greek outlook; notably a conviction of the all-powerfulness of the gods and the insignificance of man, and a belief that the gods maintain the universal order of justice by chastising not only mortals who offend against each other but also mortals who infringe by word or action their own peculiar prerogatives.23
The chief moral lesson exemplified by Herodotus’s stories is the “perils of pride.”24 Hence Greek historiography started out with a moral element. However, with the passage of time, that moral element loomed ever larger, and Greek historical writing grew more and more tendentious. By the end of the fourth century, it had become frankly judgmental; historians even turned to lecturing their audiences and to pronouncing praise or blame on the conduct of individual men or the public policies of cities.25
Not only history but all of Greek literature (and other cultural forms including drama and music) held an overarching application to moral development through education. In the three volumes of his Paideia, Werner Jaeger exhaustively examined Greek literature from this point of view.26 His goal was to trace the “concept of arete (virtue or goodness) and its semantic evolution from Homer to Plato” to see “why the Greeks themselves saw their spiritual world so ‘unhistorically,’ namely as the cosmic structure of unchanging norms, and not as a merely temporal course of events.”27 Even the goal of philosophy, according to Socrates, was itself moral: the attainment of arete through knowledge would bring man into alignment with the “cosmic structure of unchanging norms,” or Platonic ‘ideas’.28
Another equally early instance of exemplar historiography is found in the East. Traditional Chinese scholarship produced exemplar history almost solely:
Practically speaking, exemplar history to the Chinese historian meant that he included in his narrative only those facts (personalities and events) which served to illustrate, either positively or negatively, the ethical norms and principles he supported. The moral message in the Chinese histories appears in the earliest one to survive, the archival court chronicle of the state of Lu, the Ch’un ch’iu (Spring and Autumn Annals), and was of course based upon orthodox Confucian conceptions of behavior within an idealized society, as taught by—or read into—the Confucian classics. This moral message permeated historical understanding, and indeed has been a prime motivation for writing and criticizing history.29
The Chinese form of exemplar historiography can be compared with the classical Greek tradition, but only rather loosely. Both provided models of conduct, encouraging the moral and discouraging the immoral. But, while exemplar historiography maintained a unitary form in China, in the West it branched off over time into various divisions—narrative, biography, and hagiography. (Biography and hagiography remained the bastion of moralized history and eventually began to be recognized for what they finally did become: pious and reverent mythology. The narrative branch became progressively etiolated, spiritually, until it was finally harnessed to purely scientific inquiry by the industrious French.) Chinese exemplar historiography further differs from the western tradition in the striking fact that it is still the official historical form, innocently promulgated by the powers that be today. Of course, the party has replaced the moral element with a Marxist one, but the party’s intent is still advocacy: the verification and description of the dialectical materialist view of history as time marches from one ineluctable stage of history to the next. The discernment of the justification of history through the signs of periodization has thus become the modern People’s Republic of China equivalent of the hoary Confucian concern for interpreting the will of Heaven by means of omens and oracles.30
In Islamic historiography, as well, the exemplar paradigm has dominated since the very beginning of the tradition. As M. G. S. Hodgson expressed it, Muslim civilization had (and continues to have) “a persistent sense of the moral importance of historical events.”31 “Even more than usually in the Irano-Semitic traditions,” he wrote, “Islamic piety reflected a strong historical consciousness.”32 The Qur’ān itself stresses the lessons and warnings embodied in the history of former times and frequently refers to the experiences of past nations and peoples in order to emphasize the spiritual and ethical precepts that could be learned from them. Further, the Qur’ān indicates that the words of the Prophet Muḥammad were divinely inspired and that his life provided a model for other Muslims to emulate. Thus it is not surprising that succeeding generations of learned Muslims, lacking either a living prophet or a papal magisterium, considered it a duty to devote their attention to the words and deeds of Muḥammad and that those words and deeds came to be not merely sources of spiritual guidance, but also precedents applicable to jurisprudence, administrative questions, and the affairs of daily life. And before long, when it became clear that the life of one man, even if that man were Muḥammad, could not supply sufficient material for the guidance of a wide and varied empire, his associates—the so-called Companions—also came to be regarded as paragons of wisdom and virtue, paradigms for emulation.33
Reports (ḥadīth) of what the Prophet and his companions had said and done, as well as of what they had left unsaid or had forbidden to be done, were assiduously gathered from all corners of the vast Arab empire. They were carefully sifted, and the chains of transmitters by which the ḥadīth had reached the collector’s ears were minutely examined. Were all of the transmitters honest? Were they marked by suspicious partisan bias? Could they really have met each other so as to have effected the purported transmission? (Where did they live? Were they contemporaries?) These questions all required tools of historical analysis, making it virtually impossible in the earliest Islamic centuries to distinguish history from ḥadīth scholarship.34
“An understanding of history was necessary,” wrote Hodgson, “if only because the divine revelation had itself been historical—through prophets sent to given peoples at given times—and the Islamic community, in which the godly life was to be lived, was a historical community.”35 But there was a yet more pressing reason for an expansion of the scope of Islamic historiography: eventually, as new questions arose and the finite resources of ḥadīth proved insufficient, the majority of Muslim scholars allowed that the consensus (ijmā‘) of the learned within the Islamic community could be a source of legal precedent and authority. Thus, the experiences of learned Muslims came to be viewed as revelatory: “In its broad lines, history was an expression of the will of God.” This belief led, naturally, to an even wider study of the past and gave that study a deeply religious hue.36
The great traditionalist and jurisprudent ‘Urwa b. al-Zubayr (d. A.D. 712) is a clear example of this attitude. ‘Urwa, whom A. A. Duri called “the forerunner of historical writing” among the Arabs and A. Guillaume called “the founder of Islamic history,” was characterized by an asceticism and a religiosity which were intimately related to his love of learning. And such interests and attitudes were widely shared. Al-Zuhri (d. A.D. 742), for instance, who founded the historical school of Medina, was basically a scholar of ḥadīth. Among the theological and juridical materials he gathered were items that were more purely historical, and a mastery of all of these materials led, for him, to ‘ilm, or “knowledge.” Such mastery not only filled social and spiritual needs but was, he thought, an act of faith.37
The great ideological battles of the first centuries of Islam were fought in terms of historical scholarship. Who should have succeeded the Prophet Muḥammad as political leader of the nascent Arab empire? Should leadership of the community remain within the Prophet’s family alone? One’s answer to these questions depended very much upon historical considerations, such as whether or not one accepted the story that during an encampment at the pond of Ghadīr Khumm, Muḥammad had appointed ‘Alī as his successor. Most of the factions of the empire evolved out of such politico-historical disputes. Partisans of the ‘Abbāsid dynasty chronicled its activities in such a way as to make its claimed messianic nature clear and drew upon older Islamic patterns to do so.38 “For the Muslim historian,” Tarif Khalidi wrote, “Muslim history was of immediate relevance to the legal and theological disputes of the community.”39 The situation continues to be so today. For example, the persisting disagreement between Shī‘ites and Sunnīs is firmly rooted in events of the seventh century A.D. Even events and personalities of the present day are habitually assimilated to events and figures of the remote past. Thus, Jimmy Carter and the late Shah of Iran are routinely depicted in Shī‘ite iconography as the two chief villains in the martyrdom of the sainted grandson of Muḥammad, and Israel is frequently compared to the Latin Crusader kingdom of Jerusalem.
Sometime in the early ninth century A.D., when a distinct discipline of historiography had begun to arise out of the study of legal and theological ḥadīth, the discipline still retained its didactic intention. History, wrote A. A. Duri, summarizing the views of the classical Arab historians, “provides examples enabling the individual to live a better life and serving to enlighten the ruling authorities; history was thus important for a proper education.”40 At the very least, “the administrator . . . wanted guidance in the increasingly complex affairs of state, and history itself was often the only guide to precedent.”41 Three of the major figures of Islamic historiography should serve to illustrate this point.42
Almost certainly the greatest of classical Arabic historians was Ibn Jarīr al-Ṭabarī (d. A.D. 923). His historical work has been held in the highest repute not only by Muslims of all periods, but also by western orientalists.43 al-Ṭabarī was a legal theorist, a historian, and author of “the most substantial of all Qur’ān commentaries.”44 Given these interests, he predictably “sought to elucidate the will of God in his history.”45 He followed the Qur’ānic treatment of the struggle between righteousness and iniquity in the pre-Islamic period and clearly felt that the chief value of studying ancient nations was didactic. From such study, one could come to understand the workings of God and see “how he exalted the virtuous and humbled the evil.”46 But al-Ṭabarī’s didactic approach to history was not limited to his treatment of the pre-Islamic era or of pagan unbelievers. For he was also
concerned with tracing the success and failure of the various communities that had been summoned to follow God’s will, and particularly the triumphs and backslidings of the Muslim community. Moreover, he was, as befitted a Shar‘ī [“legal”] scholar, concerned above all with the responsible behaviour of individuals, not with the workings of institutions as such or even, primarily, with the splendour of kings. He produced a record of the personal decisions of Muslim souls in the series of choices which had faced the Muslim community.47
For al-Ṭabarī, history “was an expression of divine will and he wrote it accordingly. His history is thus the counterpart to his Qur’ān commentary: just as the latter elucidates the will of God through His words, the former elucidates the will of God through the activities of mankind.”48 It cannot, however, be overstressed that al-Ṭabarī’s commitment to exemplar historiography did not mean he was not honest or scrupulous in his use of sources. “The main characteristic of the Annals,” declared D. M. Dunlop, “is undoubtedly the effort which has been made to attain to historical truth.”49
Another Arabic historian, Al-Mas‘ūdī (d. A.D. 956), wrote two major works—the Murūj al-Dhahab (Meadows of Gold) and the Tanbīh (Admonition)—which are still extant and which are generally considered to be “masterpieces of Arabic historical writing.”50 His wide travels and fascinating narratives, sometimes reminiscent of Ripley’s “Believe-It-or-Not,” have led many western readers to think of him as “the Herodotus of the Arabs.”51 Like al-Ṭabarī, al-Mas‘ūdī sought lessons in history. He felt that he could detect in the ebb and flow of events the rules for causing a society to prosper or fall into ruin. A recurrent theme is how nations of the past, who had religious truth and wisdom, had relapsed into infidelity and barbarism. In order to counteract such a tendency, al-Mas‘ūdī used history to illustrate tenets of his own Shi‘īte sect of Islam, as well as elements from the political philosophy of al-Fārābi (d. A.D. 950).52 “The wise man,” al-Fārābi said, “who contemplates the course of human events will discover the wisdom (ḥikma) to be found therein.”53
Ibn Khaldūn (d. A.D. 1406) has been described as “a personality très réaliste,” not given to idealism, and has sometimes been called the founder of sociology because of his attempts to identify the social laws undergirding historical change.54 (These laws, and the cycles of social bloom and decay with which he illustrates them, go considerably beyond al-Mas‘ūdī’s treatment of similar issues. Intriguingly, they resemble the Book of Mormon’s cyclical view of history in several important ways.) Ibn Khaldūn, too, had a practical interest in his subject; he hoped to use the principles which he could detect operating in the past to predict, and thus to control, the future. And, surprisingly in someone who has often been considered a cynic, he claimed divine inspiration in his discoveries.55
In many ways, Islamic historians were simply carrying on the historical emphasis which is characteristic of the “Abrahamic” tradition of which their religion is such an important part. This emphasis was operational already in the remarkable chronicles of the Hebrew Bible and sharply distinguishes Judaism, Christianity, and Islam from the relatively ahistorical religious and cultural traditions found elsewhere on the globe. Memory and forgetting are major themes throughout the Bible, and the result of the efforts of the Hebrew and Christian writers was, as Yosef Hayim Yerushalmi aptly remarked, “not theology, but history on an unprecedented scale.”56
Once Israel settled in Canaan, the danger was always great that the people would forget their heritage and thus lose their identity.57 The Hebrew Bible repeatedly warns against this danger, but “the biblical appeal to remember,” Yerushalmi observed, “has little to do with curiosity about the past. Israel is told only that it must be a kingdom of priests and a holy people; nowhere is it suggested that it become a nation of historians. Memory is, by its nature, selective, and the demand that Israel remember is no exception.”58 “Like most primitive peoples,” the skeptical Michael Oakeshott remarked with no little condescension, “the past had meaning for them only in so far as it was seen to be their past; their concern was with its life, not with its deadness; for them it was a saga, it was (in fact) a mythology, an effort to make actual and impressive their beliefs about their present world and about the character of God.”59 We shall return later to this matter of historical selectivity.
In medieval Jewry, there was much meditation and writing on the meaning of Jewish history, but very little actual historiography. Indeed, the only kind of historiography generally accepted was that concerning the “chain of tradition,” the rabbinic personalities that transmitted law and doctrine to the present. (This approach is obviously similar to the tradition of ḥadīth scholarship in Islam.)60 Throughout the medieval period, historiography remained peripheral, and the main ways of remembering the past in Judaism were ritual and liturgical, with all the “scientific” limitations that such means imply. The relevant past was the distant, or formative, past, which provided the archetypes and patterns for understanding even current persecutions and events.61 Individual Jews identified themselves with their ancestors and in doing so recapitulated the past.62 This “schematology” clearly reveals a concern for meaning as opposed to mere historical curiosity.63
It is only in the sixteenth century that we see something truly historiographical (in the modern sense) taking an important place among Jews. But even then, there was a defensiveness about the writing of history which continued until the late eighteenth century, and transcendent meaning was sought by many observant Jews in a historical cabalism rather than in the new, comparatively secular, records of the Jewish past.64 Yerushalmi argued that this new history was probably foreign, a product of assimilation, evidence of Jewish lack of confidence, and remarked that, while history continued to hold little interest for many, it assumed great importance for a distinct few, becoming indeed “the faith of fallen Jews.”65
Michael Oakeshott would have us refuse the name “history” to the kinds of writing we have surveyed from ancient Greece, classical and modern China, formative and classical Islam, and ancient and medieval Judaism. “Whenever,” he declared, “the past is regarded as a storehouse of political wisdom, as the authority for a body of religious beliefs, as a mode of expressing a philosophical system, or as the raw material of literature, wherever the past is seen in specific relation to the present, that past is not the past in history.” Instead, it is what he calls “the practical past,” a past that is scanned for practical guidance to right action and correct belief in the present. “The practical past,” he announced, “is a past alien to that in history.” “History is the past for the sake of the past.”66
But to follow Oakeshott would be to redefine the word “history” so as to allow the legitimacy only of Stoianovich’s third paradigm. It would be to arbitrarily dismiss the overwhelming bulk of historical works as they have been produced over much of the globe and throughout much of human history. For as we have seen, exemplar historiography has both a wide distribution and a rich heritage. Not only does it dominate Chinese and classical Greek historical writing, but it is the preeminent mode of historical thinking in the two “Abrahamic” traditions of Islam and premodern Judaism. These traditions are closely related, in their use of history and other areas, to Mormonism. However, there is a closer tradition, one of which the Latter-day Saints feel themselves to be communicant members: in the West, the main survival of the exemplar tradition of advocacy, excluding the realms of political propaganda and biography, is the unbroken chain of Christian literature commencing with the Gospels. Oakeshott is correct in observing that while “Christianity seems, almost from the beginning, to have provided a new incentive for studying the past, . . . it provided no incentive whatever for studying the historical past.” Rather, the emphasis from the very beginning was on what Oakeshott termed, as we have seen, “the practical past.”67 The unique form and purpose of the Gospels were superbly summarized by Werner Kummel as follows:
In the Synoptic Gospels we meet for the first time a new and distinctive literary genus. Viewed as a literary form, the Gospels are a new creation. . . . The aim of the Gospels is not recollection about Jesus nor glorification of his miracles—these form only one aspect among others of the Gospels’ content—but the main concern is rather to evoke faith and to strengthen it. Jesus’ words and deeds are brought together from out of his life and reproduced in the form of a simple narrative in order to show to the early Christian church the ground of its faith and to provide firm support in its mission for preaching, instruction, and debate with its opponents.68
Christian historiography ever after—whether apologetic, hermeneutic, or elegiac—has taken, if not for a specific topic then at least as the underlying assumption, the event in human history that the Gospels narrated: the creation, incarnation, and consummation of Christ. Therefore, the Christian theology of history, “a history of fulfillment and salvation,” according to Karl Löwith, was and is ultimately eschatological because it concerns the future, our future in the Kingdom of God as determined by our relationship with the agent of the event in history, Christ:
According to the New Testament view, the advent of Christ is not a particular, though outstanding, fact within the continuity of secular history but the unique event that shattered once and for all the whole frame of history by breaking into its natural course, which is a course of sin and death. The importance of secular history decreases in direct proportion to the intensity of man’s concern with God and himself.69
It is within the framework of this unabashedly teleological view of history that Latter-day Saints function qua Latter-day Saints. They view reality, define epistemology, choose modes of explanation, decide issues, and judge conduct on the basis of immediate moral applications and ultimate eternal consequences within the framework of the “gospel plan.”70 In doing so, they clearly follow the scriptures.
Given their religious commitment, it is not surprising that many Latter-day Saint historians, modern, scientific, and otherwise, choose at times (usually when addressing the Latter-day Saint public) to adopt the paradigm of exemplar historiography. Their concern on such occasions is not to solve a puzzle, to answer a question, or to identify the historically anonymous (the concern of other historiographic paradigms), but, as with the Gospels, to inculcate faith and motivate to good works.71 With Paul, they say, “For I determined not to know any thing among you, save Jesus Christ, and him crucified. . . . And my speech and my preaching was not with enticing words of man’s wisdom, but in demonstration of the Spirit and of power. That your faith should not stand in the wisdom of men, but in the power of God” (1 Cor. 2:2, 4–5). They, like Paul, seek to convert and to motivate through testimony, not to persuade through logic or to teach bald, abstract facts. But because of different factors, they adopt different methods depending on their purpose, audience, and personal abilities.
The experience of Paul offers an early example of the necessity of choosing a method to match the audience. He and other early missionaries often changed their approaches from place to place because “the Jew required a sign, and the Greeks seek after wisdom” (1 Cor. 1:23). The “sign” of a borne testimony appropriate for Jewish auditors was often replaced, as a preliminary step, by the “wisdom” of a polished speech that incorporated rhetorical devices, philosophical terminology, and literary allusions a Greek audience would appreciate.72 Latter-day Saint historians will likewise adjust their medium depending on the audience; Sunday School classes are likely to require a different presentation than even institute or BYU religion classes. But the purpose in each case is the same: to teach the commandments and Church responsibilities, to edify, uplift, and comfort, and to inspire to action through various approaches such as sharing a faith-promoting experience from the past or present, relating an illustrative story or interesting sidelight, presenting a doctrinal exposition, or—the sine qua non of gospel scholarship and teaching—inviting the guidance and witness of the Holy Ghost. As an example of this type of historical writing, Richard O. Cowan’s book The Church in the Twentieth Century serves well: “Even though the Lord has worked through fallible human beings and institutions,” Cowan declared in his introduction, “I am convinced that his hand can be seen, not only in specific incidents where inspired guidance was obvious, but also in the overall progress of his kingdom during the present century. Thus we do not need to look only to past ages for examples of divine direction or assistance.” Cowan expressed the hope that his readers would find not only information in his volume, but “inspiration.” Nevertheless, he insisted that his type of advocacy historiography does not involve surrendering the canons of professional historiography: “Even though I have written from the perspective of faith,” he said, “I have also wanted to follow high standards of historical scholarship. I do not believe that one necessarily excludes the other.”73
We agree. Historians of the exemplar paradigm, even if they elect to apply this method in the nonscientific setting of didactic religious consumption, are employing an honorable approach with hoary roots in antiquity, an approach that, as we have seen, continues to be utilized today. In fact, this model was dominant among American historians as recently as the early nineteenth century. And when “scientific historians” began to displace their predecessors of the early nineteenth century (such as George Bancroft, William Lothrop Motley, William H. Prescott, and Francis Parkman) and, indeed, to feel something akin to contempt or disdain for them, “the issue was certainly not one of scholarship.” The older scholars had been assiduous gatherers of evidence, careful in their analysis, diligent in their documentation. Instead, the disagreement involved “the moral posture of the historian.” The older historians had felt that they “had an urgent message to deliver to the general reading public.” They made no effort to attain “authorial invisibility,” and their works were characterized by “explicit moralizing” and “overt partisanship.” Their critics complained that everything came to the reader as interpreted by the historian and that the reader was thus at his or her mercy. The facts were selected and arranged according to the notions of the historian.74 (As we shall see later, the second charge was something of a red herring, since “facts” are always “selected and arranged according to the notions of the historian.”)
Hegel categorized what we term exemplar historiography as the “pragmatic” species of the “reflective kind of history” and mused on its contemporary use as follows:
Disgusted by such reflective histories, readers have often returned with pleasure to a narrative adopting no particular point of view. These certainly have their value; but for the most part they offer only material for history. We Germans are content with such. The French, on the other hand, display great genius in reanimating bygone times, and in bringing the past to bear upon the present condition of things.75
Like the French of yesteryear, Latter-day Saints are particularly animated by faith-promoting stories from the past. But in light of the nature of the exemplar paradigm, if Latter-day Saints who practice it leave out less-than-desirable episodes, tell only one side of the story, or are incomplete in their treatment, their actions do not imply that they are somehow dishonest or bad historians. Given the didactic basis of their theoretical framework, irrelevant aspects may be justifiably ignored.76 In ignoring such aspects, they follow in the footsteps of earlier Jewish exemplar historians, whose selectivity has been noted previously.
Unfortunately, modern scientific historians take a more narrow view of their discipline and often seem to think that their particular approach is the only viable one within the field. Examples abound of such historians criticizing exemplar historiography from the unfair, and ultimately irrelevant, perspective (for the purpose of the author) of Troian Stoianovich’s third paradigm. For instance, Bitton and Arrington summarized the History of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints: Period I, edited by B. H. Roberts, as “a story of God’s dealings with His people. How people dressed, what they ate, how things went in their family, the preoccupations of their secular life, were unimportant. There was no search for political, economic, social, or psychological causes of events. The central themes were the dramatic tensions between the Church and the world, between God and his Church.”77 Thomas Alexander, a veteran practitioner of the third paradigm, acknowledged that the “Venerative Scholars,” his classification of Latter-day Saint exemplar historians, pose questions and use methodologies different than his own brand of history; yet he then criticized them for having been “unwilling to probe the difficult areas,” an aspect of history that is utterly irrelevant to their didactic task, which he himself described as “the need to reaffirm the faith of Latter-day Saints for whom they are writing.”78 James Clayton did not concede that any historical paradigm exists other than some ideal “historical craft,” the essence of which is violated by the one-sided history we have characterized as exemplar historiography.79 We must stress that we agree with the learned historians that exemplary writing is unsatisfactory from the point of view of third-paradigmatic tasks and that one problem with “teaching only what is uplifting,” to cite Clayton again, may be that “this approach leaves people unprepared to face the realities of life.”80 But these are tangential problems which concern the applicability of exemplary historiography, not the central concern of its separate existence and function within the discipline of history. The point is, therefore—and this is crucial—that both types of historiography have a purpose, an audience, and an application for life. The existence of the exemplar mode of historiography should therefore be acknowledged, and its practitioners left free to write for audiences of their own choosing.
For all these reasons, advocates deserve full participation in Latter-day Saint scholarship, even if their products may not always be useful for third-paradigmatic historical goals. At the very least, they deserve serious and even-handed treatment in any discussion of Latter-day Saint historiography—especially in such a work as Mormons and Their Historians. (Its title does, after all, imply that some attention will be paid to the relationship between Latter-day Saints, laity as well as intellectuals, and historians—that is, unless it is understood that the historians included represent only developmental stages in the evolution of one single, unitary historiographical form. But such narrow treatment would be itself a form of special pleading and would need to be frankly acknowledged.)
The Third Paradigm
But what of Latter-day Saint historians who adopt the equally honorable, more “scientific,” and less tendentious paradigms of modern historiography? Do they merit inclusion under the rubric “Mormon historian” (apart from the trivial sense of “historian whose personal religion is Mormonism”)? Can they serve the kingdom even if their methodological framework, being secularly based, rejects that of theological history?
Our answer is yes. The crux of the issue seems to us to be a question not of which historiographical model is best or right in some cosmic sense, but of which is immediately applicable and suitable for the task at hand. If an inquiry historian opts to address a different audience than does the advocacy historian, his method and his paradigm will naturally differ as well.
The task of the third paradigm, it will be recalled, is to solve particular problems.81 No attempt, generally, is made by those operating within this paradigm to relate the solution or bit of data to an overriding view of reality or to the purported meaning of history.82 Rather, the third-paradigmatic historian seeks to set his solution within a framework of “objectivity,” relating it to other similar data in order to see what pattern or construct is discernible. However, as Peter Novick has pointed out, “‘historical objectivity’ is not a single idea, but rather a sprawling collection of assumptions, attitudes, aspirations, and antipathies. At best it is what the philosopher W. B. Gallie has called ‘an essentially contested concept,’ like ‘social justice’ or ‘leading a Christian life,’ the exact meaning of which will always be in dispute.” Novick nonetheless attempted to recapitulate the principal elements of the idea of “historical objectivity.” Among these, he said, is “a sharp separation between knower and known. . . . Historical facts are seen as prior to and independent of interpretation. . . . Whatever patterns exist in history are ‘found,’ not ‘made.’” The historian is to purge himself of preferences and biases, of partisanship.83
The notion that the historian consults all the facts and then lets them form a hypothesis within his or her mind is widespread, and we have already alluded to it above. It suggests that the historian’s first role is to recall, rather than to think; that he or she is primarily a receptive, rather than a constructive agent; that, in Michael Oakeshott’s memorable phrase, “he [or she] is a memory, not a mind.”84 “What is important to the serious student,” wrote Melvin T. Smith, who appears to hold some such view, “is that interpretation and uses of data/facts follow their acquisition. Historians should not have the big answers before they have the evidences for them.”85 While there is something to be said for this position, it can easily mislead.
Michael Oakeshott powerfully questioned the “naive” notion that history begins with the collection of data, of isolated facts, which are then scrutinized before any theory is developed. “If we consider what is in the mind of the historian as he collects his material,” he argued, “we shall find, in place of this supposed miscellaneous assortment of ‘facts’, first, a homogeneous system of ideas or postulates, in terms of which he is conscious of whatever comes before him. The collection of materials is certainly not the first step in history.” Furthermore, Oakeshott contended, the mind of the historian
contains not only a system of postulates, but also a general view of the course of events, an hypothesis, governed by these postulates. No historian ever began with a blank consciousness, an isolated idea or a genuinely universal doubt, for none of these is a possible state of mind. He begins always with a system of postulates (largely unexamined) which define the limits of his thought, and with a specific view of the course of events, a view consonant with his postulates. And whenever the historian imagines himself actually to begin with the collection of materials, he is suffering from an illusion.86
Indeed, Oakeshott has argued on a more general level that there is no such thing anywhere, in any discipline or even in everyday life, as pure sensation, prior to judgment and thought:
In thought there is nothing analogous to the painter’s colours or the builder’s bricks—raw material existing apart from the use made of it. Sensation implies consciousness, consciousness implies judgment, and judgment is thought.87
There is no knowledge of “things” apart from concepts. . . . To see, to touch, to taste, to hear, to smell is, always and everywhere, to judge and to infer.88
Fact is what has been made or achieved; it is the product of judgment. . . . [It] is not what is given, it is what is achieved in experience. Facts are never merely observed, remembered or combined; they are always made. We cannot “take” facts, because there are none to take until we have constructed them.89
It seems clear, following Oakeshott, that neither the original witness nor the historian sifting the records of such witnesses is in a privileged position, transcending normal human experience and simply responding to the facts “as they are.” “We perceive only that which we, in some sense, recognize, that which has some meaning or significance for us,” Oakeshott wrote.90 “The historian’s business is not to discover, to recapture, or even to interpret; it is to create and to construct.”91
Leonard Arrington recognized this point in 1968 when he wrote that the historian
invests the narrative with meaning by consciously selecting from the sources what he thinks important, by interpolating in the reports of the participants and observers things which they do not explicitly say, and by rejecting or amending what he regards as due to misinformation or mendacity. Above all, he puts his sources in the witness-box, and by cross-examination extorts from them information which in their original statements they withheld, either because they did not wish to give it or because they did not realize they possessed it. In other words, the Latter-day Saint historian, like other historians, must read contemporary accounts with a question in his mind, and seek to find out, by inference and otherwise, what he wants to find out from them. Every step in his research depends on asking a question.92
Arrington’s comments, although they implicitly presuppose the historiography of inquiry as the only valid model, are essentially correct. As Oakeshott maintained, “Before a ‘recorded’ event becomes an ‘historical’ event, a judgment must have been interposed.”93 And it is not only historians, or even social scientists and scholars in the humanities, who are under the necessity of making judgments at the very beginning of their enterprise and who consequently fall prey to the human condition of subjectivity. “About thirty years ago,” Charles Darwin wrote in a letter of 1861, “there was much talk that geologists ought only to observe and not theorize; and I well remember someone saying that at this rate a man might as well go into a gravel-pit and count the pebbles and describe the colours. How odd it is that anyone should not see that all observation must be for or against some view if it is to be of any service!”94 “Even within the stricter traditions of scientific theory proper, there is some room for differences of national, local, and even personal style,” wrote Stephen Toulmin. In cosmology, to a large degree, theories “depend . . . on the earlier backgrounds and presuppositions that the writers bring to this task.”95 William Barrett showed convincingly that even mathematics and symbolic logic, surely the most purely “objective” of all disciplines, bear the marks of their cultural context.96
The reality is that all historians, whether they be (in our terminology) of the advocacy school or adherents of the third paradigm, come to their materials with questions and hypotheses, with preconceived notions, or with positions seeking support. Their presuppositions blind them, it is true, to some of the possibilities of their data. But it is both humanly impossible and undesirable to think without presuppositions, since only our preexisting questions and hypotheses allow us to see anything in the data at all. The nineteenth-century American historian Francis Bowen wrote:
A naked record of facts must be untrustworthy; it will be not merely incomplete, but deceptive. It will give rise to undue impressions, and create false judgments. . . . It is impossible to write history without seeking, either avowedly or stealthily, or unawares, to verify some hypothesis, or establish some theory, which furnishes a reason and a guide for the selection and arrangement of materials. . . . The facts have no connection with each other, and the story has no unity, unless some doctrine lies at the bottom to which they are all, more or less, related.97
Nelson Blake was entirely correct when he declared that “without imagination the historian could not see any patterns of meaning in past occurrences.”98
One serious attempt to define “historical objectivity” while taking into account the many varied factors at play in the historian’s own mind can be found in the words of historical economist Immanuel Wallerstein. He asserted that “the scholar’s role is to discern, within the framework of his commitments, the present reality of the phenomena he studies, to derive from this study general principles, from which ultimately particular applications may be made.” Wallerstein described the limitations of the framework of objectivity as follows: “‘Truth’ changes because society changes. At any given time, nothing is successive; everything is contemporaneous, even that which is past. And in the present we are all irremediably the products of our background, our training, our personality and social role, and the structured pressures within which we operate . . . Objectivity,” he concluded, “is honesty within this framework.”99
For Paul Ricoeur, not only objectivity, but also truth itself has a strictly delimited application in historical research because historians do not engage in vain attempts at embracing abstract, infinite, ultimate truth. Instead they engage in grasping concrete, finite, ephemeral answers. Therefore, “truth,” to Ricoeur, consists in the ethical “fulfillment of my task as a workman of history.”100 Truth then consists of consistently truthful actions, of complete honesty within the limitations of human possibilities in a framework of self-imposed scholarly procedures. It is a function of the historian’s work, not the product of his research. Michael Oakeshott used a similarly limited application of the word history. Rather than the usual sense of “the notional grand total of all that has ever happened in the lives of human beings,” he used it in the original Herodotean sense of “an inquiry.” “An historically understood past,” he concluded, “is, then, the conclusion of a critical enquiry of a certain sort; it is to be found nowhere but in a history book. And it may be specified only in terms of the procedure of this enquiry.”101 Hence, “historical understanding” is the understanding or view reached through the historical means of investigation, not an all-encompassing understanding of history-as-reality.
The recognition that whatever views we have on the past are ephemeral (Wallerstein’s “changing truth”) as more data are discovered and that different perspectives necessitate constant revision of the theories, is a frequent theme of Hugh Nibley.102 This honesty within the framework of what a historian knows, what he seeks to learn, and how far what he learns may be utilized is then one assurance that he generally poses little if any threat to the advocate historian who preaches eternal truths. It mitigates against dogmatism and keeps the inquirer ever open to research and reinterpretation.
Beside these explicit methodological limitations on the objectivity and Rankean accurateness of historical views of things “as they really are”—a phrase that has misled American historians for generations—lie implicit logical features which impose subjective limitations.103 We may condense Paul Ricouer’s conclusions as follows:
The feature of the judgment of importance selects certain facts for treatment based on the subjective judgement of the historian as to what is important.
The feature of the popular conception of causality undermines the effort to separate and serrate forces in history such as causes, motivations, opportunities, conditions, fields of influence, and the like, because the network of causality is not understood nor its separate levels distinguished.
The phenomenon of historical distance makes it necessary for the historian to insert himself in historical time with the anachronistic language of his own time; such a projection of imagination involves subjectivity.
The last feature, that history ultimately tries to explain and understand men, utilizes a subjective sympathy for men and their ideals in the attempt to both explain and encounter them.104
It is true that some methodologies have subjective features built into them because their practitioners use preexisting, purposely selected frameworks—ideological, economic, econometric, social, sociological, materialistic, psychological, feminist, geographic, demographic, and the like—which guide the search for data. But these methodologies seek specific answers and are honorable endeavors, unless they exceed the limitations of their approaches and attempt instead to work towards a political agenda or to reinterpret all historical events from their particular, narrow points of view.105 Apart from these tendentious enterprises, third-paradigmatic historiography need not be hamstrung by the question of objectivity if it recognizes objectivity as impossible, even in theory. This acknowledgment is not too much to ask since the issue has been well aired; the problem of bias in historians has been argued about since antiquity.106 Thomas Alexander pointed out that the topic of objectivity is already passé in historical circles, so often has it been debated, and contended that the New Mormon Historians are certainly aware of its implications. Ideally they work within this awareness.107
But the nature of the historian’s work is more important for ensuring that the inquirer poses no threat to the task of the advocate historian than are the methodological and logical limitations imposed on the historian’s work. If the inquirer properly conceives the character and tools of his discipline, he will gladly surrender the domain of spiritual questions to those who wield spiritual research tools, for he is concerned with the mundane (and usually with only a small corner of that) approached through his admittedly mundane methodologies. Hence, he would be foolish indeed to pronounce spiritual conclusions in all but a very few conceivable but highly improbable cases. (And even then, he would be temporarily stepping out of his role as a third-paradigmatic historian.) He will recognize that economic-historical inquiry yields answers of an economic character, that social history results in socially oriented historiography, and that secular methodologies will seldom, if ever, produce or even confirm theophanies. Gertrude Himmelfarb admirably summed up the crux of this issue as follows:
The traditional historian has no . . . disdain for the ephemeral or the existential. He lays no claim to certitude, has no blinding revelation, no arcane knowledge (“no gnosis”) that penetrates to the “underlying realities” beyond the “capricious,” “delusive,” “contingent,” “provisional,” realm of events. Indeed, it is just this mundane realm that he prefers to dwell in, that he accepts as reality. And his explanations of these events are as contingent and provisional as the events themselves. Having no grand theory or methodology to unite all of history, to create a “total history,” he is content to try to understand the past as best—and as imperfectly—as it can be known. This may be a modest aspiration, but not an unworthy one.108
Elder Boyd K. Packer’s pronouncement that “the mantle is far, far greater than the intellect” should not cause concern for any Latter-day Saint historian who accepts the framework of theological history as a matter of religious faith, regardless of which methodology and its concomitant framework he uses for the moment to address a particular historiographical issue.109 The only point of dispute may be in just which areas and just how far spiritual prescience should be applied to secular subjects, for the investigation of which the Lord has provided intellectual tools.
By dividing inquiry into intellectual “existential judgments” and spiritual “propositions of value,” William James has attempted to defuse the difficulty in addressing this interface. While not wholly satisfactory, his attempt is a significant one:
In the matter of religions it is particularly easy to distinguish the two orders of question. Every religious phenomenon has its history and its derivation from natural antecedents. What is nowadays called the higher criticism of the Bible is only a study of the Bible from this existential point of view. . . . These are manifestly questions of historical fact, and one does not see how the answer to them can decide offhand the still further question [of value]. . . . You see that the existential facts by themselves are insufficient for determining the value; and the best adepts of the higher criticism accordingly never confound the existential with the spiritual problem.110
Such a distinction in reality posits two different models of history that lie in different dimensions. These may be characterized in terms borrowed from Ricouer: the “system” model strives for an overarching systematization or summation of historical meaning; the “singularities” model focuses on individual items in history. James’s distinction is also reminiscent of the ancient debate between poetry and history: poetry (including drama), according to Aristotle, is concerned with the universal in establishing truths; history on the other hand speaks merely of the particular and the transient.111 Modern variations of this debate include the following oppositions: myth versus reality, science versus religion, religion versus history, faith versus reason, reason versus revelation, and the like. They are all concerned with processes of knowledge that lie on different planes and deal with practical applications that exist in different spheres. Hence they cannot compete but only complement each other. At the very least their interactions are usually irrelevant, not mutually exclusive.
Problems with accepting historical works that focus on the secular, “singularities” dimension of history do occur among the faithful laity if they expect only exemplar historiography from their historians. Ecclesiastical authorities do, of course, have the right to guide the reading consumption of their membership when the goal is moral action, not intellectual enlightenment. And conflict almost certainly does break out when well-intentioned historians transcend the secular frameworks of their writing in an attempt to pronounce on spiritual matters.
An example of the problems that occur when the purpose of third-paradigmatic historiography is forgotten by readers comes from a work of D. Michael Quinn, Early Mormonism and the Magical World View.112 At the outset Quinn clearly stated his own belief in the theological framework of the Latter-day Saint faith.113 He explained that even if the sources he treated are unusual, he does not believe that his analysis “disparages Joseph Smith’s integrity or prophetic claims.”114 His intent, he stated, “has simply been to sketch in broad strokes the outline of a topic that I believe merits the careful, cautious scrutiny of Mormons and non-Mormons alike. For if we hope to begin to understand fully the origins of Mormonism, we cannot ignore the environment and world view of its first adherents or of the place and meaning of magic.”115 Quinn therefore posited a set of questions that he desired to investigate; the success of his investigation should be judged on methodological grounds, that is, on how well he acts the historian of the third paradigm. The fact that his work is unsuitable for exemplar historiography, that is, that it does not seek to build faith and motivate to good behavior, does not necessarily mean that for Latter-day Saints it is not a good work of history. On the other hand, Quinn cannot complain should ecclesiastical leaders refrain from recommending his work for internal consumption. His task is third-paradigmatic, generally irrelevant to reaching religious and behavioral goals.
It is only when the lines between inquiring into a historical question and advocating a religious point are blurred either by the writing of an author or by the interpretation of a reader that controversy arises. An instance of this is on page xxi of Quinn’s book, where he stated that, if his interpretations prove valid, they will “of course require that Mormons and non-Mormons try to understand Joseph Smith and early Mormonism in a different light.” To us, a different light means a new perspective from which to view the early Church, one which can be combined with other perspectives—economic, social, religious, and political—to approach as comprehensive an understanding of the past as is possible. But if Quinn’s “different light” is understood in the sense not merely of a “different interpretation,” but as a new and reductionist “explanation” of the origin of the Church, controversy is the inescapable result. However, given the third-paradigmatic character of Quinn’s writing, that controversy is inappropriate if it focuses chiefly upon the book’s consequences for an advocacy-historiographical position on the Church. The only justifiable first line of criticism for a third-paradigmatic work of Latter-day Saint history is not on the question of whether or not it promotes orthodoxy or righteousness, but rather on scholarly grounds—which have indeed, in Quinn’s case, provided sufficient grist for the mill even if they can probably never be final.116 Unfortunately, most of the fireworks sparked by this book seem instead to have resulted from ignorance of the purpose and applicability of this third-paradigmatic historical work.117 Significantly, Quinn responded that both Latter-day Saint insiders and outsiders have misunderstood his book because of their unstated assumptions about history.118
Obviously, there are conceivable historical discoveries which might threaten the basis of a religious community, as well as that of an advocacy historiography. Paul Tillich is reputed to have said that it would not matter for his theology if conclusive proof were found tomorrow that Jesus of Nazareth never existed—but few other Christians would feel the same way. Similarly, if it could be demonstrated that Joseph Smith was not in New York between 1815 and 1825 but was actually marauding as a pirate along the Barbary Coast, this discovery would have weighty implications for the claims of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. So, likewise, would the discovery in situ of an Arabian stela inscribed with an account of the tree of life, followed by the signature of one “Nephi, son of Lehi.” But such discoveries are highly improbable, and it appears likely that historical studies on this side of the veil will have to continue to make do with somewhat less than decisive evidence as to the truth or falsity of Joseph Smith’s revelations. Still, Mormonism is a religion of marked historical character, with strong historical claims which do not, in principle, lie beyond empirical test. Latter-day Saint “theologians” have generally tended to be “historians”—as in the cases of B. H. Roberts and Joseph Fielding Smith, and their best and most prolific thinking and writing have tended to be historical. Hugh Nibley and Richard L. Anderson, among others, have shown that the issues between Latter-day Saints and critics of the Church will be fought largely on historical grounds.119
The Inquirer-Advocate Debate in Perspective
Writing over twenty years ago, Leonard Arrington cited the novelist and Zionist Maurice Samuel as asserting that the “authentic Jew” is “the one who understands and is faithful to his own personal and social identity. One who, in short, accepts his history.” Arrington thought that it would be possible to define the “real” Latter-day Saint in analogous terms:
Are we authentic Latter-day Saints (i.e., real Mormons) unless we receive messages from our collective past? And who but the historian is prepared to relay authentic messages from the past? Our individual and collective authenticity as Latter-day Saints depends on the historians telling the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth about our past. This includes the failures as well as the achievements, the weaknesses as well as the strengths, the individual derelictions as well as the heroism and self-sacrifice.120
At first glance, Arrington’s statement may seem unobjectionable, and, indeed, there are elements of truth in it. But does our authenticity as Latter-day Saints really depend upon receiving “authentic messages from the past” rather than from living prophets? Is “historical authenticity” the essential criterion or is righteousness? Have we no avenue to God except through the past? And to the extent that the past is still a very important factor in the spirituality of the Latter-day Saints, which past is the significant one? That of the professional historians or that of the scriptures? Though he almost certainly does not intend it to do so, doesn’t Arrington’s principle of “authenticity” tend to set historians in the place of the prophets and apostles?121 But if Arrington seems merely to have expressed himself somewhat incautiously, Lawrence Foster, a non-Mormon, appears to claim the mantle forthrightly and in distinctly religious terms:
The Truth that Joseph Smith saw is still powerful though largely hidden even from faithful Latter-day Saints. Historians, at their best, have the opportunity of trying to recapture that Truth, at least in part. Such historical writing, far from threatening true religious understanding, provides one of the very few ways that it may, to a degree, be achieved. Good history and good religion go together, in Mormonism as in all faiths. Crushed and crushed again, Truth will rise ever with renewed strength and power. This, at least, is my faith.122
It is clear to us that such claims far exceed the natural limits of the third paradigm. “Scientific historiography” can no more define “true religious understanding” (much less deliver it!) than a yardstick can assay gold. While it is manifestly true that communities are constituted, at least to a large degree, by their shared memories, the question here must be whether “scientific” historiography is capable of serving as the basis for a community of memory. An affirmative answer seems highly doubtful. When speaking of third-paradigmatic history or the historiography of inquiry, which he calls “Socratic or interpretive history”—a less adequate description, we think, since all history is necessarily interpretive—Leonard Arrington spoke wisely, it appears to us, when he said:
It must by its very nature be a private and not a Church venture. Although this history is intended to imbue the written record with meaning and significance, the Church cannot afford to place its official stamp of approval on any “private” interpretation of its past. Interpretations are influenced by styles and ideas of the times, not to say the personalities and experiences of historians, and the Church itself ought not to be burdened with the responsibility of weighing the worth of one interpretation as against another.123
The more systematic and comprehensive approach characteristic of “scientific” historiography has not necessarily been an unmixed blessing to the world at large, as Hans Meyerhoff noted:
A situation has developed which is quite paradoxical in human terms: The barriers of the past have been pushed back as never before; our knowledge of the history of man and the universe has been enlarged on a scale and to a degree not dreamed of by previous generations. At the same time, the sense of identity and continuity with the past, whether our own or history’s, has gradually and steadily declined. Previous generations knew much less about the past than we do, but perhaps felt a much greater sense of identity and continuity with it.124
Harold Bloom reminded us of something we have already noted—“the uniquely selective nature of Hebrew memory, which calls for a particular kind of acting rather than for any curiosity about the past.”125 And, indeed, Jewish collective memory is “drastically selective,” in stark contrast to the all-inclusive tendency of modern historical scholarship. What seems to have been preserved in medieval Jewish memory is that which teaches behavioral ideals and proper belief. All else was pruned away.126 (Among other things, to borrow Thomas Alexander’s already-cited complaint about Latter-day Saint exemplar historiography, medieval Jewish collective memory exhibits no interest in “probing the difficult areas.”)127 “The notion that everything in the past is worth knowing ‘for its own sake,’” wrote Yosef Hayim Yerushalmi, “is a mythology of modern historians, as is the lingering suspicion that a conscious responsibility toward the living concerns of the group must result in history that is somehow less scholarly or ‘scientific.’ Both stances lead, not to science, but to antiquarianism.”128 (In other words, they lead to Michael Oakeshott’s favored “past for the sake of the past,” alluded to above.)129 Yerushalmi’s opinion of hypothetical historian-priests is clear: “While memory of the past was always a central component of Jewish experience, the historian was not its primary custodian.”130 Yerushalmi added, “Historiography, I will continue to insist, cannot be a substitute for collective memory, nor does it show signs of creating an alternative tradition that is capable of being shared.”131
There is another, yet deeper, reason why historiography of the third paradigm cannot serve as the basis for a religious community. Yerushalmi illustrated this in the case of contemporary Judaism:
There is an inherent tension in modern Jewish historiography even though most often it is not felt on the surface nor even acknowledged. To the degree that this historiography is indeed “modern” and demands to be taken seriously, it must at least functionally repudiate premises that were basic to all Jewish conceptions of history in the past. In effect, it must stand in sharp opposition to its own subject matter, not on this or that detail, but concerning the vital core: the belief that divine providence is not only an ultimate but an active causal factor in Jewish history, and the related belief in the uniqueness of Jewish history itself.
It is the conscious denial, or at least the pragmatic evasion, of these two cardinal assumptions that constitutes the essence of the secularization of Jewish history on which modern Jewish historiography is grounded.132
But Jewish history is extremely resistant to secularization, because of its very nature, and Jewish “collective memories” were and are a function of “shared faith.”133
Only in the modern era do we really find, for the first time, a Jewish historiography divorced from Jewish collective memory and, in crucial respects, thoroughly at odds with it.134
The detachment of the modern historian from the group and its memory . . . his growing desire for scientific objectivity seems to demand that he distance himself ever more from the living concerns of the group and, indeed, from his own subject matter.135
What Yerushalmi says of Judaism is manifestly true of the Church as well. Thus, when Leonard Arrington and Davis Bitton introduce a survey of Latter-day Saint history aimed at non-Latter-day Saint readers with a claim of neutrality—“we have sought to understand as scholars of any faith or no faith would seek to understand”136—we can well understand the two on methodological grounds, but we can also reject such historical writing as the basis for a community of faith.137 Secularized historiography and secularized historians accomplish a great deal by bracketing transcendent questions, but their accomplishments are not pure gain, and to leave such questions out of account is to pay a considerable price.138 It will simply not do to rejoice, as one prominent non–Latter-day Saint historian did a few years ago at a meeting of the Mormon History Association, that we can now, having set aside the issue of the Church’s truth-claims, get on with really important questions like the economic status of early Latter-day Saint converts or the sociology of the Nauvoo ward. These may be important questions, but they are not—if the history of religious and philosophical thought is any indication—the important questions. They are not the questions that the early Latter-day Saints themselves would have seen as important. (With a few historians of Mormonism, one gets the feeling that the ultimate questions are no longer important because they have already been tacitly answered in the negative.)
Furthermore, secular, third-paradigm historiography, while it can contribute mightily in many areas of inquiry, seems forbidden by its very nature from grasping what is most important, most essential, in religion and religious experience. Leonard Arrington described the historian’s task as “creatively re-thinking the thoughts of the participants [in any given event] in the context of his knowledge.”139 However, the historian’s knowledge will always be different from the knowledge possessed by the participants themselves, and while it may in some ways be superior, it will always, from other angles, be relatively deficient. C. S. Lewis gave this point striking expression:
Each of us finds that in his own life every moment of time is completely filled. He is bombarded every second by sensations, emotions, thoughts, which he cannot attend to for multitude, and nine-tenths of which he must simply ignore. A single second of lived time contains more than can be recorded. And every second of past time has been like that for every man that ever lived. The past (I am assuming in the Historicist’s favour that we need consider only the human past) in its reality, was a roaring cataract of billions upon billions of such moments: any one of them too complex to grasp in its entirety, and the aggregate beyond all imagination. By far the greater pan of this teeming reality escaped human consciousness almost as soon as it occurred. None of us could at this moment give anything like a full account of his own life for the last twenty-four hours. We have already forgotten; even if we remembered, we have not time. The new moments are upon us. At every tick of the clock, in every inhabited part of the world, an unimaginable richness and variety of “history” falls off the world into total oblivion. Most of the experiences in “the past as it really was” were instantly forgotten by the subject himself. Of the small percentage which he remembered (and never remembered with perfect accuracy) a smaller percentage was ever communicated to even his closest intimates; of this, a smaller percentage still was recorded; of the recorded fraction only another fraction has ever reached posterity. Ad nos vix tenuis famae perlabitur aura. When once we have realized what “the past as it really was” means, we must freely admit that most—that nearly all—history . . . is, and will remain, wholly unknown to us. And if per impossibile the whole were known, it would be wholly unmanageable. To know the whole of one minute in Napoleon’s life would require a whole minute of your own life. You could not keep up with it.140
The inability of the historian to fully know another human being or to fully understand another person’s experiences, is especially apparent with regard to the transcendent. “We can understand Joseph Smith,” remarked Klaus Hansen, “only if we can get inside him, so to speak, and experience what he experienced.”141 But if this point is true, only those who have experienced spiritually something of what Joseph Smith experienced can ever even begin to understand him—and this sort of experience is by definition off limits to secularizing historians who write as if they have “any faith or no faith.”142 Michael Oakeshott, who recognizes only secular, third-paradigmatic historiography as “history,” put it this way: “The so-called ‘authorities’ (better called ‘sources’) of history are frequently not themselves the product of historical thought and require to be translated into the categories of history before they are used. What is a ‘miracle’ for the writer of any of the gospels cannot remain a miracle for the historian.”143 (This statement obviously does not deny that historians of the third paradigm may well have flourishing spiritual lives in their private capacity. But in their role as neutral-inquiry historians, their own spirituality is irrelevant.) Lawrence Foster ranked Joseph Smith’s theophanies and angelophanies as “among the most powerful religious experiences on record” and declared that they are to be taken with the utmost seriousness.144 But however seriously he may take them, Lawrence Foster cannot possibly understand Joseph Smith’s religious experiences in the way Joseph himself understood them, for this is the same Lawrence Foster who said that many converts to the Church in the years following World War II “are simply looking for authoritative answers to questions which, by their very nature, have no authoritative answers.”145 Joseph Smith, on the other hand, emerging from the Sacred Grove, seemed to have felt that he had indeed received “authoritative answers,” as have many of his followers in the nearly two centuries that have followed. (We seem to have a clear illustration, here, of the kind of prehistorical, even theological, assumptions brought to historical inquiry by “scientific” scholars no less than by advocates. Can such assumptions fail to influence the product?)
Having criticized third-paradigm “scientific” history, we do not want to leave the impression that we see exemplar or advocacy historiography as without flaw. However, those flaws should be abundantly clear, since exemplar historiography in and out of the Latter-day Saint community has long been accused—and often with justice—of special pleading, dishonesty, self-indulgence, manipulation of sources, and general unreliability. We would not wish to appear to favor subjectivism and irrationality in the writing of history, nor to deny that history even of the advocacy model can be judged good or bad on nonsubjective grounds.146 (Which is to say that we reject an absolutizing removal of history from faith just as we repudiate the complete removal of faith from history.) For if exemplar historiography cannot be condemned for failing to answer questions it has not asked, it can nonetheless be judged according to many of the same criteria against which the historiography of inquiry is to be measured (since, as we have been at pains to demonstrate, the two paradigms are neither fundamentally opposed nor essentially unlike). Is the advocate honest “within the framework of his commitments”? Does the evidence he adduces support his claims? Is there other evidence which does not? Is the account coherent? (As Michael Oakeshott pointed out, “the criterion of truth is coherence.”147)
Exemplar historiography and the historiography of inquiry need each other. The latter keeps the former honest, while the former supplies the meaning which the latter is manifestly unsuited to provide on its own.148 They are complementary, alike and yet different. We have found that what separates the advocate from the inquiry historian is the purposes behind their historiographical tasks and the frameworks adopted to accomplish them. Just as they may frequently share the same texts and research methodologies, so, too, do they share other, psychological motivations.
Both groups share the common need for faith. The inquirer’s faith assures him of the importance of the view he so painstakingly constructs of the past, a view that is acknowledged to be ephemeral at best and partial or flawed at worst.149 The advocate’s faith assures him that, while the breadth of eternal reality can ultimately accommodate all historical facts, however uncomfortable for the moment, mortal vision cannot possibly hazard a summation of, let alone encompass, the breadth of this reality.150
Both groups share the common sense of mission. The inquirer strives to serve the present on the plane of intellectual understanding by unfolding the past. The advocate strives to serve the present on the plane of spiritual cultivation by unfolding the past.
Both groups share in subjectivity, which is an inescapable element of the human condition. Oakeshott has caricatured claimants to historical objectivity as saying that, for them, the historical past is
the direct presentation of the objective life of the universe, uncompromised by experience and unmodified by interpretation. In the “pageant of history” we perceive naked reality, unencumbered with the generalities of philosophy and the abstractions of science, passing before our eyes. We see the whole, of which the present is but a part; the detailed whole, from which science abstracts a mere aspect and of which philosophy grasps a mere outline.151
Today, such smug self-satisfaction is certainly open neither to the exemplar historian nor to the representative of the third paradigm, if indeed smugness was ever a tenable position at all. The advocate self-consciously seeks in the historical record for signs that signify the fulfillment of God’s plan. Wittingly or unwittingly, the inquirer selects features of life important to his own culture and himself and builds models of their influence on the past.152 “Every true history,” said Benedetto Croce, “is contemporary history,” since it inevitably addresses the questions which are most important to the historian and to the audience for which the historian is writing.153 One reason Peter Novick recently suggested that the old Mormon historians are actually more objective than the new is their willingness to lay bare their biases and to work objectively within the framework of their commitments, while the New Mormon Historians, he felt, ignoring the protestations of their profession, frequently seem to lay claim to a scientific objectivity vitiated by their own unacknowledged assumptions.154 At any rate, in light of their own claims and Novick’s recent reminders—as well as those of Gertrude Himmelfarb and others—it is certain that inquirers can no longer charge advocates with a subjectivity which leaves the inquirers utterly untouched.155 No such privileged scholarly class exists.
Both advocates and inquirers share in a common search for what they perceive as “truth.” The inquirer searches for it on the secular level of attempting to explain and encounter man. The advocate searches for it on the spiritual level in the attempt to explain and encounter God in man. But ultimately, as Ricouer pointed out, “the truth does not contradict itself; falsehood is legion. The truth brings men together, falsehood scatters them and sets discord among them.”156 Historians are false to their profession if they do not recognize its limitations and work within its ranges of possibility. Likewise, advocates err if they dogmatically refuse to grant the testimonies of inquirers or to allow for the existence of historians who utilize intellectual tools which the Lord has not only sanctioned but sanctified. (That there are historians without faith is indisputable. That there are also secular, third-paradigmatic historians of deep personal religious belief is also beyond question.)
Finally, both groups can share the common hermeneutical work of interpreting and relating the past of Mormonism to contemporary belief and practice. The inquirer can help maintain the integrity of the sources by promoting time-tested rules of research that mitigate the worst excesses of subjectivity. As Robert Morgan and John Barton pointed out,
specialists make their contributions, and the historians’ call to respect the integrity of the past commands a double respect: their charge that we do not force the texts to say what suits our immediate interests is a call for truthfulness which demands unqualified assent; and their suggestion that we are more likely to learn from the past if we respect its integrity is also an appeal to our long-term investment in knowing the human past, over the quick buck to be made by turning its monuments to our immediate advantage.157
Thomas Alexander correctly noted that, “far from undermining faith, intelligent description and analysis of historical contexts may actually strengthen it [faith] by adding greater clarity and understanding.”158 James Clayton concluded that even if history has revealed some religious excesses and abuses, it has likewise recorded man’s fundamental need and expression of religion. It has also been history that has preserved religion’s role in civilization.159 And James Allen reminded us that continual study of history is part of the gospel mandate of acquiring intelligence, including historical knowledge, “line upon line.”160 But inquiring historians should never forget that history, if it is applied to religious concerns, is but one tool of the task of hermeneutics, since, again quoting Morgan and Barton, who echoed James, “it leaves unanswered all the important questions about the value of historical knowledge relative to other legitimate and often more pressing human concerns.”161
Suggestions from contemporary Latter-day Saint historians on how they can contribute to both their profession and their faith abound. Richard Bushman, seeking perhaps to link secular and theological approaches to historiography, urged Latter-day Saint historians to utilize the tools of their training to pose new questions that have originated from gospel insights. An example is how God has intervened in history; particular approaches may include the history of salvation, the history of revelation, or the history of Providence. All in all, since any framework has built-in subjective features, he encouraged Latter-day Saints to go ahead and develop their own religion-inspired frameworks to better understand the secular history of the past.162 Ronald K. Esplin encouraged Latter-day Saints to write better history, to wield more effectively the tools of the trade, and to address uncomfortable issues fairly but accurately. Even though he glossed over the differences between exemplar and other historical paradigms, he did recover somewhat by concluding that Latter-day Saint history should be written “in many ways. Audience, subject, purpose, and individual perspective will continue to influence how our history is written, and we must resist any tendency to exclude all but one brand of history as unscholarly, unfaithful, or inappropriate.”163 In 1971 Robert Rees suggested that the incipient New Mormon Literature join forces with the emerging New Mormon History to “establish a climate of historical and creative writing that will open our past in new and exciting ways”:
The new Mormon historian in uncovering and interpreting more and more historical data (though most remarkably in the new ways of approaching his materials) can provide the literary artist with the raw materials out of which plays, poems, stories and novels will be written. And the literary artist, by resurrecting the past through the imagination, can provide the historian with a view that will help him to penetrate the myths and misconceptions which prevent us from seeing our past and therefore from seeing ourselves.164
His approach was recently reiterated by Dominick LaCapra for the entire field of historiography. LaCapra argued that the profession needs to get away from models of historiography that imitate too closely “ideal” scientific models; these models, he said, ignore the imaginative interplay of a rhetorical engagement with the texts of the historical past.165
We cannot suggest specific approaches. We stress, simply, that various approaches do exist. Among these, both exemplar historiography and third-paradigmatic historiography are honorable yet distinct disciplines that serve different purposes. They need not ultimately conflict, but can and should both be utilized at various times to enlighten the intellect, strengthen the spirit, and enrich all aspects of our lives.