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Davis Bitton
Thursday, August 01 2013

I Don't Have a Testimony of the History of the Church

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Davis Bitton, who died in 2007, was a regular columnist on Meridian. He was president of the Mormon History Association, professor of history at the University of Utah, and official Assistant Church Historian in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. This article, somewhat shortened from what we published years ago, is a classic, a statement from a scholar who had looked deeply into Church history and, like so many others, cannot find anything that forces the conclusion “our enemies like to promote.”

I don't have a testimony of the history of the church. That is why I can be a historian and also a believing Latter-day Saint. I will expand on this idea, but first let me address some related questions.

Do all well-informed historians become anti-Mormons?

The critics would have you believe that they are disinterested pursuers of the truth. There they were, minding their own business, going about their conscientious study of church history and—shock and dismay!—they came across this (whatever this is) that blew them away. As hurtful as it is for them, they can no longer believe in the church and, out of love for you, they now want to help you see the light of day.

Let's get one thing clear. There is nothing in church history that leads inevitably to the conclusion that the church is false. There is nothing that requires the conclusion that Joseph Smith was a fraud. How can I say this with such confidence? For the simple reason that the Latter-day Saint historians who know the most about our church history have been and are faithful, committed members of the church. More precisely, there are faithful Latter-day Saint historians who know as much about this subject as any anti-Mormon or anyone who writes on the subject from an outside perspective. In fact, with few exceptions, they know much, much more. They have not been blown away. They have not gnashed their teeth and abandoned their faith. To repeat, they have found nothing that forces the extreme conclusion our enemies like to promote.

We need to reject the simpleminded, inaccurate picture that divides people into two classes. On the one hand, according to our enemies, are the sincere seekers of truth, full of goodness and charity. On the other hand, in the critics' view, stand the ignorant Mormons. Even faithful Mormon scholars must be ignorant. Otherwise they are dishonest, playing their part in the conspiracy to deceive their people. This is the anti-Mormon view of the situation.

Can we see how ridiculous this picture is? It is a travesty on both sides. Many Latter-day Saints may not know their history in depth, but some of them know a good deal. As for Latter-day Saint scholars, as a group they compare favorably with any similar group of historians. It will not do to charge them with being dishonest. I happen to know most of them and have no hesitation in rejecting a smear of their character.

On the other hand, your typical anti-Mormon is no disinterested pursuer of the truth. If you are confronted with a "problem," some kind of "non-faith-promoting" take on church history, the chances are that your willing helper can lay no claim to having done any significant research in Mormon history. Oblivious to the primary sources, unread in the journal literature, the critic has picked up the nugget from previous anti-Mormon writers and offers it as though it were a fresh discovery. Most of the time it is anything but new—it is a stock item in a litany of anti-Mormon claims that serves their purpose. It is a broken record.

Why does the charge accomplish anything? Because they don't tell you how stale it is and of course will not let you know where to find the answers that have already been provided. To you the charge is new, or may be new. Falling into the trap, you think you have been deceived by the church—after all, here is something that appears to be seriously damaging to the restored gospel. Like peddlers of snake oil from time immemorial, the critic is willing to take full advantage of the situation.

How many historians who are deeply familiar with the sources on Mormon origins still find it possible to remain in the fold? We might start with names like Richard L. Bushman, James B. Allen, Glen M. Leonard, Richard Lloyd Anderson, Larry C. Porter, Milton V. Backman, Dean C. Jessee, and Ronald W. Walker, all of whom are thoroughly familiar with the issues and sources. Joining their ranks are younger historians like Steven Harper and Mark Ashurst-McGee. I offer just a sampling of faithful, knowledgeable historians.

I do not claim that all who study Mormon history are believing Latter-day Saints. That would be patently absurd. From the beginning, disbelieving historians have written accounts of the events. There have also been historians like Hubert Howe Bancroft who simply put the truth question on the shelf. No one denies that such approaches are possible. But there is also a long tradition of important work by Latter-day Saint scholars. In other words, those who know the most about Mormon history do not simply and inevitably join the ranks of disbelievers and Mormon-haters. It is quite possible, apparently, to know a great deal about Mormon history and still be a practicing, believing Latter-day Saint.

Why do I spend time insisting on this simple, obvious fact? Because our opponents want to leave the opposite impression. And because for many Latter-day Saints it is sufficient to know that faithful historians who are thoroughly familiar with the issues do not accept the interpretations and conclusions of the would-be destroyers of faith. I have not entered the argument over any of the specific issues. My point is simpler than that: Competent historians who have devoted many years of study to the issues have not felt compelled to abandon their faith in the restored gospel.

Are our expectations realistic?

May I reminisce just a little? The year was 1979. Leonard Arrington and I had just published a one-volume history of the church entitled The Mormon Experience: A History of the Latter-day Saints...

During that euphoric time, Leonard and I attended autograph parties, were interviewed, and gave quite a few talks. In an interview for Sunstone, we were asked to describe the relationship between faith and history. Here is Leonard Arrington's response:

I have never felt any conflict between maintaining my faith and writing historical truth. If one sticks to historical truth that shouldn't damage his faith in any way. The Lord doesn't require us to believe anything that's untrue. My long interest in Mormon history (I've been working in it for 33 years) has only served to build my testimony of the gospel and I find the same thing happening to other Latter-day Saint historians as well.

My own answer went like this:

What's potentially damaging or challenging to faith depends entirely, I think, on one's expectations, and not necessarily history. Any kind of experience can be shattering to faith if the expectation is such that one is not prepared for the experience. . . . A person can be converted to the Church in a distant part of the globe and have great pictures of Salt Lake City, the temple looming large in the center of the city.


9 Comments

  1. This is an article on a very important topic. As a person who has studied Church history for over 40 years, often in response to anti-Mormon attacks on Joseph Smith, the Book of Mormon, or some other aspect of Church history, I have learned that there are satisfactory, faith-supporting answers to these questions, but it takes work and patience to find them out. Sometimes, when those attacking our religion circulate their mis-information, half-truths, and, yes, lies, we are more inclined to believe that the Church has hidden the truth from us and deceived us than to trust in the testimonies of those that we respect the most, including parents, Church leaders, and friends--and our own experiences, including the enlightenment that has come to us through scripture study, answers to prayers, and the blessing we have received by keeping the commandments of Jesus Christ. How silly! The next thing we know, our faith has become doubt, our testimony weakened, and our Church activity reduced, and our effort to seek out the truth about the issue stops, all to the loss of our own blessings. I commend Meridian for re-publishing this article
  2. This is an awesome article that ought to be read by everyone. I too have a testimony of the church, not it's history. I pity those who have lost their testimonies because of thinking that the history and doctrin have to line up.
  3. The history of the church increases my testimony of the gospel. There is no such thing as a "testimony" of an unsanctified church. Where, in all the scriptural record, do we EVER find a prophet of the Lord bearing witness of the truthfulness of the church? Never, not even at times when the people themselves are in a sanctified state. The church is just a servant, like any individual. It is capable of sin, and it is under condemnation, ALWAYS, until it becomes Zion - this according to the teachings of Joseph, of Brigham, and of our latter-day scriptures. See D&C 84:54-58, 103:5-10, 105:2-6, etc., etc..
  4. Great article. We can't PROVE some of the events of LDS history, but we can't DISprove them either. Which brings us to the stark reality that it is ultimately what WE believe vs. what our opponents believe. That leaves only one way to FIND OUT the truth--ask God.
  5. Great article. I really appreciate your efforts here. I have known several people who have left the church because of listening to and reading falsified history. It is too bad some people can be so easily led to believe lies about Joseph Smith. The bottom line is, stay away from anti Mormon literature. Don't waist your time reading it because it is packed with lies that are designed to shake or destroy our faith.
  6. Wouldn't it be wonderful to put the responsibility back on individual members of the church for their own testimonies? I'd love it for teachers, speakers, Bishops and General Authorities to say before every talk, "don't believe my words, don't trust me. Ask God for his confirmation."
  7. People do NOT leave the church because of reading falsified accounts of church history. They leave because they do not have a testimony of the restored gospel of Jesus Christ and His church. People who have paid the price to receive deep rooted testimonies are not blown about by the winds of false doctrines and doubts. Many times people leave the church because they just don't want to put forth the effort to live the commandments or repent. They need to justify themselves by trying in vain to "disprove" the church. After discovering that the "freedom" they sought through leaving the church does not exist, they often humble themselves and return.
  8. Just because people remain in their faith tradition despite being knowledgeable about all the controversial history does not mean there are reasonable explanations for everything. I always find these types of arguments a bit odd, as if faith isnt really a requirement because there's simply enough evidence out there based upon the behaviors of otger people. Faith is still required and thus some things are never going to make perfect sense. Also, I sought out the most official reputable sources I could find on church history. Anti stuff is so easy to spot by its tone and bias that I didn't pay it no mind. Apologetic sites like FAIR, featuring our best scholars and official sources lead me to the massive catalog of all things legitimately controversial. The recurring reliance upon "God's ways are not man's ways" and "even a prophet doesn't have a clear idea of God's will when he's speaking for God" to justify some pretty ugly things of the past really saddened me. For me, I felt my spiritual confirmations of truth were undermined. I had felt what I interpreted to be the spirit confirm that things happened a certain way and then discovered they happened in much different ways or under much different circumstances. I know that some people will maintain faith in Mormonism no matter what contrary evidences may come. That's a part of being faithful in any religion. I can respect that. What I can't respect is a condescending attitude towards those who have legitimately done their best to seek truth from the right places and have come to different conclusions. We are not all fooled by anti-Mormon parlor tricks. Many of us have fought hard to maintain our faith and integrity and yes, many of us feel according to the same spiritual types of confirmations that we felt before our faith was shaken, that we cannot in good conscience continue to support or be a part of the church anymore. It is extremely painful to let go of the literal believer world view and the LDS communities. These decisions are not taken lightly and without thought and meditation. Please don't assume we are all being petty and "silly". Please have some compassion and show some respect.
  9. I have a testimony of the Church, that it is made up of men and that men make mistakes, they are fallible, venal and broken. I have that same testimony of Joseph Smith but also that he was a prophet of God. I know that God can take a fallible man and use him for Holy purposes. It matters not to me if there were physical golden plates or not, I know that the words of the Book of Mormon are true and that Heavenly Father can use many ways of communicate with us. I know that how we understand Heavenly Father is limited by our own intellect and knowledge. Thus you can have steel and horses when none were there because that is how you understand what has been presented to you. My testimony is in the Gospel of Jesus Christ and how it has changed me and works within me. I know it is true; I have no doubt of it. The fallibility of man doesn't change that. That there are General Authorities that would subvert truth to help others to maintain faith doesn't change that. My testimony is not in man but in God and his works.

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