History can be troubling, for it often challenges the neat views we have of how things are. The reality is that every life is flawed and every hero except the Savior had weaknesses. The problem with history is how easily it can be manipulated. The winners of wars rewrite the history to vilify the losers. Those in power rewrite history to glorify their status and hide their faults. Whether it’s the history of mankind, the history of this nation, or the history of the Church, the are several different camps with their own agendas and their own tendency to select what events and data to focus on. All very natural. It’s important to understand that what we get from Sunday School might not reflect some of the warts and problems in our own history. But I think it’s even more important to understand that “history” in the hands of critics and cynics might completely overlook some of the most important events and data that would be important for someone wondering if there is any merit to the Church and the Restoration.
The possible failings of Joseph Smith in various stages of his life take on less significance if we can determine that he actually had ancient golden plates from an angel of God. Think about that. If the story of the divine origin of the Book of Mormon has actual support, and if the Book of Mormon did have its origins in genuine gold plates received with the help of an angel of God – now stop rolling on the floor, this is a serious question! – would that have any impact on how we should evaluate Joseph Smith in light of, say, the Kirtland Bank disaster or the problem of polygamy? I think it must dramatically affect the perspective we take on Joseph. Prophet of God with some human failings, or con man from the beginning?
A history of the Church written with the assumption that there is no such things as prophets of God will inevitably overlook important elements. A history written by someone whose goal is not to review history but to challenge faith will suffer much more serious distortions and deletions of data. There is good reason to be troubled by that kind of Mormon history.
Scott Gordon recently gave a talk (now available at FAIRblog.com) that addressed the issue of people troubled by our history. He asked a few insightful questions:
For those who claim our history is a problem for the church, I have to ask what they are reading for history.
Does the history they read include the lives, histories, and testimonies of the witnesses who said over and over again that they had seen the plates and they had seen an angel?
Does it include the story of Martin Harris complaining how heavy the plates were as he held them on his lap for an hour and a half?
Does it include Martin Harris saying, “Well as sure as you see my hand so sure did I see the angel and the plates”?
Does it include Oliver Cowdery speaking of the Book of Mormon translation from his deathbed and saying, “I know that whereof I testified is true. It was no dream, no vain imagination of the mind–it was real”?
Does it include the story of Katharine, Joseph Smith’s sister hiding the plates in her bed?
Does it include the quote from John Whitmer as he says, “I handled those plates; there were fine engravings on both sides”?
Does the history include the many reports from others who also saw angels? Or the 121 independent eyewitness accounts of the mantel of Joseph Smith being passed on to Brigham Young on August 8, 1844, such as the one from nine-year-old William Van Orden who suddenly turned to his mother and said, “The Prophet [is] not dead, for I [see] him on the stand”?
An understanding of Church history demands that the witnesses of the Angel Moroni and the many more witnesses of the gold plates be accounted for. Different times, different circumstances, with no one – not single person – denying the reality of what they saw, even when some were later excommunicated or upset with Joseph. To their deathbed, they stayed true to this testimony, with no personal gain to be had.
Witnesses, a genuine primary source of information. Understanding the testimony of witnesses, especially the witnesses to the Book of Mormon, is the key to faithful, accurate history.