Approaching Mormon History

The increasing media attention devoted to The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has led many journalists to explore Mormon history. Some of them have questioned the miraculous aspects of the faith and have inquired as to why Latter-day Saints continue to believe them as reality and not myth.

Some writers have suggested that Mormons have a tougher “sell” with their faith because the miraculous events associated with its history are relatively recent and not obscured by antiquity. One scholar even wondered whether the Church — as it becomes more familiar and more widely accepted — will be pressured by public opinion to step back from those doctrines and elements of its history that are unique and challenging to modern eyes.

But to deny the Church’s miraculous history is to deny its very foundation. During an interview for the recent PBS documentary “The Mormons,” Elder Marlin K. Jensen, Church Historian* and a member of the high-ranking Quorum of the Seventy, was asked why Mormon history is taken so literally and not simply treated as a myth. In response he said that viewing history as a “figment of language or … imagination” takes away its essential meaning. From the perspective of believers, for example, Joseph Smith’s miraculous visions give real meaning to their lives not because of their symbolic value, but because they actually happened

According to the scriptural model of history, prophets and apostles taught spiritual truths through historical narratives. Likewise, according to Elder Jensen, “the greatest piece of Church history that we have is Joseph Smith's story. It's scripture, and it's history, and it's the foundation, really, for everything that we have and we are, and it's beautifully clear and simple."

Mormon history is often viewed in terms of how sacred history can be reconciled with the empirical demands of secular history. It is often asked, for example, how the Church can reconcile the authenticity of the Book of Mormon with the absence of archeological proof. This difficulty is inherent in all religious history and illustrates how spiritual matters are best verified by spiritual means. For example, the Jewish belief in the reality of the Exodus is not dependent on archeological evidence, but rests on faith. At a time when many religions are pressured to treat their sacred histories as myths, the Latter-day Saints on the contrary embrace their history as a literal expression of their faith.

Elder Jeffrey R. Holland, member of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, was asked how faith interacts with history. He emphasized that ultimately spiritual matters cannot be empirically verified, but require faith: “It will forever come to faith, or it isn't religion in any way that I understand religion.” Furthermore, Elder Holland said that there is no need to hide from Church history and that it should be accepted for what it is.

Church President Gordon B. Hinckley (1910-2008), also interviewed by Helen Whitney, similarly expressed the need to take Church history literally. Articulating the difficulty of finding middle ground between myth and reality, President Hinckley said of the foundational story of Mormonism that “it's either true or false. If it's false, we're engaged in a great fraud. If it's true, it's the most important thing in the world.”

Since the birth and growth of the Church has taken place right before the public’s eyes these past two centuries, it cannot escape public scrutiny. Nevertheless, this scrutiny does not require that the Church compromise or hide from its history. Far from being a liability, Mormons view their history as one of the Church’s greatest assets.

*Marlin K. Jensen concluded his assignment as Church Historian and member of the Seventy on 6 October 2012

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