Faith in the Past: Church History in an Information Age
I am deeply grateful for that musical number. My wife leaned over and said, “That’s a lot of power for so few people,” and truly, I’ve never heard that sung better. The inspired words about charity and the inspired song about a prophet’s voice lead rather naturally to my topic today. But I can’t begin without first recognizing this incredible space in which we meet. Surely one of the great blessings for all of you in the LDS Business College community is the chance to meet here. I hope you don’t take it for granted. If we were to pause and listen carefully, we might hear joy and faith from generations past echo out these walls.
I am fascinated and moved by generations past in this Church. They have given to us a priceless inheritance. And I want to pay honor, in part, to those generations today. I’m so very honored to be with you today and to speak in this beautiful space—what historian could be anything but giddy standing here? I am a historian, but I’ve chosen not to talk about the past itself today, but rather about our relationship to the past and our approach to it.
I’ll begin by telling you something you already know: we’re living in an “information age.” In the time it takes to walk from my car to my Provo office, I can adjust my fantasy football roster, answer a student email (yes, the paper due on Friday is due on Friday), text my wife (no, I forgot to grab apples, sorry), and check out my daughter’s steady stream of “tweets,” which often link to something called a “vine,” which in turn sometimes contains videos of babies sneezing. It’s a world of wonders we live in, although it can be a tad exhausting.
Importantly for my topic today, this information explosion has fundamentally changed how many Church members approach our religious past. For some, this has been exhilarating, since it has provided enhanced access, and with incredible speed, to an avalanche of information about LDS history and scripture. For many, though, this enhanced access has proven to be destabilizing, disorienting, or even corrosive to faith. I suspect most everyone listening today knows someone who has been troubled in their faith over what they’ve learned about our history. Whether it’s early LDS polygamy, or race and priesthood, or the Book of Abraham, or accounts of the First Vision, or issues of gender or sexuality, it is not uncommon for 21st century Latter-day Saints to encounter information online that is either new or troubling, or both.
I have been talking with students, parents, colleagues, and friends about these matters for many years. I suspect my conversations on related topics now number in the hundreds. Today, I want to share some things I’ve learned from these sometimes-difficult conversations.
First, it is clear to me that Latter-day Saints in the past, the very Saints who once occupied these same comfortable pews, often battled misrepresentation and misunderstanding. And I acknowledge that these problems certainly persist to the present—they’ll probably never end. But I’m convinced that future historians will regard our generation’s challenge differently. I believe ours is not primarily a problem of lies or the misrepresentation of our history. Rather, it falls to us, my friends, to come to grips with the complex realities of our past, of “things as . . . they [really] were,” to paraphrase D&C 93.[i]
Second, those who struggle with aspects of LDS history typically deal with more than questions about troubling content. Rather, it often becomes a matter of trust. They wonder why they were never told of this or that story, or of this or that detail. Many report finding it difficult to get straight answers, which only compounds their anxieties. Some have even been told by well-meaning leaders or friends to simply put their questions away, as if honest questions were themselves dangerous. They are sometimes left feeling isolated and alienated from their fellow Saints.
Third, many who struggle find themselves in what philosophers would call an “epistemological” crisis. (“Epistemology” is the study of the nature and meaning of knowledge—how do we know what we know?) For many in the midst of a faith crisis, the old ways of knowing become suspect. Can they trust past spiritual experiences? When the edifice of faith seems to be trembling, what authorities or sources or voices or experiences can settle such pressing questions? For many, this can be a very distressing experience.
Fourth, those who struggle have often been devastated to hear—again, from well-meaning fellow Saints—that questions or doubts essentially reduce to sin. This has usually been communicated to them in one of two ways. Some have been told that doubt is itself sinful. Others have had it suggested to them that behind their doubts or concerns, really is some secret transgression. Either way, it feels to them like “evasive action,” a dismissal or non-acknowledgment of the very things causing them concern. As a result, some wonder if they’ve even been heard. I’ll add here, too, that these are not strangers. These are people very close to me. Maybe you’ve known them as well.
This brief list could be added upon or modified, I’m sure, but I offer it as a candid diagnosis of real and pressing concerns for the rising generation in this true and living Church.
The thrust of my message today is that we’ve not been left alone to fend for ourselves in this unruly information jungle. I’m convinced that our modern predicaments of faith and doubt have their resolution in the Restoration’s revelations. I’m struck in particular with Doctrine & Covenants 88, verse 118, which rather straightforwardly asserts what I’ve learned during these years in the Church history trenches:
And as all have not faith, seek ye diligently and teach one another words of wisdom; yea, seek ye out of the best books words of wisdom; seek learning, even by study and also by faith.
With our topic in mind, several points explode off this scriptural page. For instance, in that remarkable opening line, God’s own voice acknowledges that the modern Church includes some, perhaps many, who lack faith. In fact, it’s stated so casually—so matter-of-factly—that I’m persuaded we need to rethink doubt itself. Is doubt like a cancerous disease that demands inoculation or quarantine or frenzied attempts at eradication? Perhaps not. It may be that doubt is simply the stuff of life. No one needs seek it out, after all. It finds all of us, at some level, at some point, much like pain or disappointment, I suspect. Without doubt, I wonder if real faith is even possible. I call your attention to 2 Nephi chapter 2, which talks about coming to know joy and righteousness because of their opposites. In other words, I’m convinced that doubt is the foundation from which real faith can be defined and experienced.[ii]
Also worth noting is that the revelation’s answer to doubt relates to community. Those words—“teach one another”—offer a vision that stands in stark contrast to the loneliness and alienation that too many feel when sorting through these questions about Church history and doctrine. How tragic that some struggling Saints find what shreds of community they can in anonymous online comment sections rather than in their flesh-and-blood wards or biological families. Surely, we can listen better, we can walk more compassionately with those who are earnestly seeking, and we can make our Church and family spaces safer for those who “have not faith.”
Finally, I’m moved by the confidence on display in that revelation. Evasive action? Not hardly! Nowhere in the section do we get some version of “forget your questions and do your home teaching.” (Though, as an aside, yes, please do your home teaching.) The Lord’s answer for a famine of faith is disarmingly simple: study. Help each other with wise words, it suggests, and then study. Study with faith, ever and always, but study we must. In other words, God trusts us to seek and learn and ask and to dive deeply into the best books. The scriptures certainly rank as the best of books. I am regularly amazed at their usefulness for our seeming uniquely modern problems. To be clear: I can’t think of a single modern spiritual conundrum that isn’t helped and healed by scripture. But even as I acknowledge their undisputed position as the best of books, they clearly do not exhaust the category “best books,” especially when one considers LDS history.
And I’ll here call attention to the generation of faithful Saints who have dedicated their lives to the research and writing of LDS Church history. I know many of them personally and consider these women and men to be living models of the kind of faith and wisdom D&C 88 calls for. Theirs are certainly among the best books I know. From the Joseph Smith Papers project to the “Gospel Topics” pages on LDS.org to the women and men across the earth (many not of our faith) writing our stories with compassion, and honesty and generosity—we are not suffering from a lack of “best books.”
I have watched with joy over the years as many of my conversation partners have successfully navigated complicated questions of history and faith. Every story is different and we all have unique experiences and needs, but I’ve seen some commonalities in those who make peace with the difficult elements in our past.
For one, they get comfortable with complexity and nuance. They went into their journey yearning for simple black-and-white answers but in the end many conclude that mortality sometimes provides only shades of grey on many subjects.
Secondly, they get comfortable with the human side of Church experience. They come to see past Saints and leaders alike less as cardboard superhero cutouts—larger than life but two dimensional—and more like real people. For some, this humanizing view of past Saints actually makes them more compelling, not less. Instead of unreachable icons of piety or spirituality, they seem somehow more relatable in their humanity, somehow more usable as actual examples for struggling saints like you and me.
Thirdly, those who have successfully navigated these sometimes choppy waters come to think differently about history itself. By that I mean they get comfortable with the idea of change. They come to expect it, in fact. They come to see one’s cultural and political and social contexts as mattering a great deal. They get comfortable with what history can and cannot prove. They come to realize that because the past is in many ways unavailable to us in the present, it is less like an exact science and more a matter of argument and interpretation. They conclude, in fact, that matters as fundamentally spiritual as the prophetic calling of Joseph Smith cannot be arbitrated by history alone. As Elder Neil L. Andersen wisely reminded us on Saturday afternoon (General Conference, October 2014), “the importance of Joseph [Smith’s] work requires more than intellectual consideration.”[iii]
Perhaps most importantly, many of the Saints who have made peace with troubling episodes in our history have come to see themselves as seekers. They see the pursuit of truth as a lifelong endeavor. For them, spiritual certainty comes piecemeal and only incrementally. To paraphrase Alma 32:34, just because our “knowledge is perfect in [one] thing” doesn’t mean our journey of faith is at its end. And there is no shame in not knowing yet. The mere “desire to believe,”[iv] after all, qualifies one for a place at the Lord’s table. Elder M. Russell Ballard put it this way on Sunday: “Having questions and experiencing doubts are not incongruent with dedicated discipleship.”[v] We want you with us as you sort through these tremendous questions of faith.
I am suggesting that we can be simultaneously more confident, candid, and studious in our approach to Church history and more faithful, hopeful, and charitable, too. A study of Church history will help us avoid the myth of prophetic infallibility on the one hand and, on the other, help us view past leaders more charitably. Similarly, a careful study of Church history will keep us from portraying this or that question as “settled” when there is not apostolic unity on the particular topic, but we’ll also be better able to see what (or more properly, Who) stands at the center of our faith, this restored Church. And, significantly, we’ll find it difficult to seriously study Church history without a deepened sense of humility.
I’m struck by two examples from one of our most complicated and inspiring modern stories: that of the 1978 priesthood revelation. Not long after the revelation was announced, Elder Bruce R. McConkie offered a memorable example of the kind of humility history routinely forces upon the faithful:
Forget everything that I have said, or what President Brigham Young or President George Q. Cannon or whomsoever has said in days past that is contrary to the present revelation. We spoke with a limited understanding and without the light and knowledge that now has come into the world . . . . We have now had added a new flood of intelligence and light on this particular subject, and it erases all the darkness and all the views and all the thoughts of the past.[vi]
In a similar vein, President Spencer W. Kimball himself provides one of the most poignant lessons about Church history. Looking back on the revelation, he candidly described his struggle as a deeply personal and internal one:
Day after day, and especially on Saturdays and Sundays when there were no [sessions] in the temple, I went there when I could be alone
I was very humble . . . I was searching for this . . . I wanted to be sure. . . .
I had a great deal to fight . . . myself, largely, because I had grown up with this thought that Negroes should not have the priesthood and I was prepared to go all the rest of my life until my death and fight for it and defend it as it was.[vii]
As a young scholar, I expected to find evidence of the Latter-day Saints waiting on God for the change. Transformed by accounts like President Kimball’s, I emerged humbly persuaded that God was waiting on us. I ended up, in other words, with a wealth of unexpected insight into revelation, mortality, history, and a host of other topics when I sought out learning “by study and also by faith.” As a result, I don’t fear our history.
Years ago, when I was sorting through the historical thickets of Nauvoo polygamy, I came across a retrospective account written by one of the Joseph Smith’s plural wives, Helen Mar Kimball Whitney. I had been working for months, anxiously trying to make sense of it all. A line in her account went through me like electricity. Speaking of early LDS polygamy, she wrote, simply, “It is a subject that can bear investigation.”[viii]Her confidence rebuked me. It struck me she wanted to be understood on her own terms. Moreover, I sensed that to forget her or to apologize for her was a shabby monument to her faith.
And so I am a witness to history’s powerful capacity to mold and shape us as disciples of Jesus Christ. In straining to see clearly into the past’s dark glass, we can come to see ourselves and the Lord more clearly. Even acknowledging the very human difficulties in our stories, I bear witness that there is more than enough inspiration and edification to compensate. Indeed, our history is a reservoir with spiritual resources sufficient to feed us spiritually for a lifetime and beyond. I am not a committed Latter-day Saint in spite of my careful study of LDS history, but because of it.
In the Restoration’s accounts of the Fall from Eden’s paradisiacal simplicity, first Eve and then Adam come to realize that the price of lasting spiritual progress is mortality’s complexities and pain. I think that price remains for true disciples, and I for one will gladly pay it. Looking back, would we trade the thorns of doubt for our high mountain moments of faith and vision? Would we turn back to the safety of the simple? In the end, the Fall was more than compensated for in the wisdom and growth gained on the journey of faith. That was the promise to Eve, to Adam, and to all of us if we’ll study, teach, and seek it out. As one who has endeavored to do just that with Church history, I testify of Joseph Smith’s prophetic calling and of the truth of the scriptures he brought to the world. I pray that each of us may sense God’s hand in our rich past, in our stormy present, and in our very bright future, in the name of Jesus Christ, amen.
[i]D&C 93:24. My paraphrase combines D&C 93 and related language from Jacob 4:13.
[ii]See 2 Nephi 2:11.
[iii]Neil L. Andersen, “Joseph Smith,” General Conference, October 2014.
[iv]See Alma 32:27.
[v]M. Russell Ballard, “Stay in the Boat and Hold On!” General Conference, October 2014.
[vi]Bruce R. McConkie, “The New Revelation on Priesthood,” in Priesthood (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book Co., 1981), 132.
[vii]Quoted in Edward L. Kimball, “Spencer W. Kimball and the Revelation on Priesthood,” BYU Studies Quarterly 47, no. 2 (2008), 48.
[viii]Helen Mar Kimball Whitney,Plural Marriage as Taught by the Prophet Joseph: A Reply to Joseph Smith, Editor of the Lamoni (Iowa) “Herald” (Salt Lake City: Juvenile Instructor Office, 1882), 38.
Introduction: President J. Lawrence Richards
Brother Fluhman is a professor of history at Brigham Young University, where he teaches American religious history. He graduated summa cum laude, which means that’s about as high as you can get with your grade point average from BYU. And then he went on to receive a master’s and a doctorate degree from the University of Wisconsin-Madison. His work has appeared in he New York Times, the Journal of Religion and Society, the Journal of Mormon History, BYU Studies Quarterly, and the Mormon Historical Studies. In 2013, he was named editor of the Mormon Studies Review, a publication for BYU’s Neal A. Maxwell Institute for Religious Scholarship. His book “A Peculiar People”: Anti-Mormonism and the Making of Religion in Nineteenth-Century America was published by the University of North Carolina press in 2012 and won the Mormon History Association’s “Best First Book” award in 2013. In 2014, he won the Karl and Mollie Butler Young Scholar Award in Western Studies from BYU’s Charles Redd Center for Western Studies. He is currently at work on a biography of the Apostle James E. Talmage, who was the third president of LDS Business College. He and his wife, Hollie, who is with him on the stand, live with their four children in Cedar Hills, Utah, where Professor Fluhman currently serves as the bishop of the Cedar Hills Ninth Ward.