Interpreting History, Part 2

Everyone who contributes to the documentation of history must be evaluated to decide if they are a believable source or a source to be discounted. Even an otherwise unreliable source may be believable on a point. Deciding whether to accept or reject their information is part of your responsibility in interpreting history for yourself. You can’t put that responsibility on others. We are each one accountable for what we believe about life’s most important topic.

Another standard I use to evaluate a someone’s story is also drawn from the law. When a witness admits something contrary to their own position, or contradicts the position they are trying to advance, that should attract your notice. Admissions against personal interests are almost inherently credible. When someone is saying something self-deprecating they are almost always telling the truth, both in the courtroom and in life. For example, throughout John D. Lee’s final Confessions, he makes a number of admissions of his own failings. He acknowledges his guilt and attempts to set the record straight with members of his family and close friends. These admissions expose his failures. It is not likely he is lying when making such personal admissions of guilt. Therefore, I do not dismiss his material out of hand. Instead, it becomes something to weigh and consider piece by piece. As I do that, I also consider that there are a number of incidents which are distant in time and location that would tax the memory of anyone trying to retell the events. For such things his accounts become useful only in a big-picture. The details are likely to be the product of his imagination rather than his actual memory. So there needs to be other sources consulted before reaching a conclusion about such details.

When Brigham Young makes the same admission multiple times, using almost the same words over a period of decades, I think he is telling the truth. Particularly when the admission is contrary to his own best interests, or they reduce his stature as a religious figure. That is why in Passing the Heavenly Gift I quote his repeated admission about never seeing an angel or having contact with heavenly beings. It is an important and believable factor in understanding Brigham Young. When he goes on to explain that God is “duty bound” to support his best decision, we can then know and understand how he led the church. He used his best judgment. He proceeded without angelic guidance and fully expected that the Lord would uphold his decisions.

Put yourself in his shoes and try to understand what pressures that would exert on a normal person. When there were serious mistakes made, like the incident at Battle Creek near Pleasant Grove, there is no time to second-guess the slaughter of the Indians. You just move on. When Blackhawk (a survivor of the slaughter) later leads a war against the saints in retaliation for the event, Brigham Young knew he had created the mess. I read in his reactions a detectable crisis. It was a deep personal loss of confidence. There was a breakdown. For all the bombast we are used to in reading Brigham Young, he was very troubled by some of the things that resulted from decisions he made.

The Reformation he led in the 1850’s grew out of his frustration with the hardships and overall failing of the early western movement. He reacted by blaming the saints for their personal impurity and lack of faith. The Reformation was an attempt to have the saints to take their religion more seriously. He thought they needed to repent. God would not be visiting all these troubles on the church if the saints were living their religion. So he started the Reformation, with all its excesses and threats. The Reformation, a terrible moment, now all but forgotten, confirms several things: first, the saints were not doing well as a people; second, Brigham did not think the problem came from the top; third, the members were blamed and then punished because Brigham believed they were not living the religion well enough. (He even cut off the entire church from receiving the sacrament for a period of time.)

Interesting that throughout Brigham Young’s Reformation there was never a thought given to the failures in Nauvoo discussed in Passing the Heavenly Gift. Instead, the leaders presumed they were right, and God was punishing the unfaithful membership. This approach led to mistakes.

Today, as Elder Jensen discussed, there is a view that the church is undergoing an apostasy comparable to Kirtland. But no thought is being entertained that the church itself has created these problems through leadership decisions at the top. The presumption is that God has been behind all that they’ve decided in their counsels, and therefore, the problem lies in the membership.

I’ve already posted about the unfolding disaster of the “raising the bar” program that resulted in preventing many young men from serving who wanted to serve. Eighty percent of the results in the mission field were being produced by 20% of the missionaries. So the church cut back the missionary rolls to purge the ineffective few who required babysitting from the mission presidents. We now have thousands of young men who feel rejected, judged and found unworthy by the church. They bear deep inward resentments as a result of this rejection. They all knew older brothers, or friends of their older brothers, who did as much wrong, or worse things than they had done. But these older brothers and their friends were allowed to serve. Some of them were noble missionaries. Their lives changed while serving. But the “raised bar” kept these younger brothers out of service and stigmatized them. Now we have earnest young men who wanted to serve, were told they weren’t good enough who now have to reconcile that rejection by the church.

The missionary who baptized me would not have qualified under the “raised bar.” [I hesitate to confess another’s sins, but I do not view that acknowledgement as a criticism of him. It reflected his true intent to repent and serve. For that I am eternally grateful.] He was a gift from heaven and a servant of God when I met him. He taught and testified of the truth, and baptized me with authority. He is active and faithful still today. Some of his own conversion happened while serving. I thank God there was no administratively imposed “bar” to his service.

The point is that some, perhaps much, of the church’s present malaise is driven by mistakes made at the top. But those mistakes become very difficult to discuss in an atmosphere where every subordinate is expected to testify that God is making the decisions and never question the mistakes as they are made. “It’s good Bart did that” is the mantra. [You’d need to have seen the Treehouse of Horrors episodes of The Simpsons to understand that remark. Get one of your kids to explain it to you.]

At the risk of having some think it is blasphemy, I think the current problems stem largely from top-down mistakes more so than the members being disobedient and unfaithful. I think the people at the bottom want to please God. But they’re led that in many instances they err. Not for any lack of good faith on their part, but because there are not enough true principles taught to permit them to govern themselves correctly. There is at a minimum some shared responsibility. Our history prevents leadership from sharing any responsibility because of the fundamentals established in fourth phase Mormonism. The adoration of the president has been co-opted by Correlation to spread a veil of implied inspiration across everything done at the top. This problematic historical issue leaves us with little choice now but to blame the members for current problems. All the leaders need to do is what Marlin Jensen says they’re presently attempting. Just optimize search engine results, direct the public to the church’s website where the faith promoting stories are found, and everything will turn out just fine.

All of this arises from our history. All of this fits seamlessly into a continuation of steps begun more than a century ago. The issues run into our past and cannot be adequately understood apart from our history. But a corrollary to our history also arises from the present difficulties. History brought us to this moment. There must be answers to be found there. But the ‘only-faith-promoting’ account of our past does not give an adequate answer. Therefore something is missing. We need to let other views help explain how we arrived here. Passing the Heavenly Gift provides a better answer to the questions than the traditional narrative. Even if you decide it is not persuasive, it offers another view to be considered to explain how we got where we are now.