Interpreting History, Part 5

In the search through our history, at some point you must reach conclusions on events. The weight of the evidence accumulates and you reach a conclusion. Your conclusion may be different than mine. Each of us is free to find something persuasive and believe it. But we all must make our minds up about the events.

The evidence you find convincing may be based on what a single person had to say. Even if there are fourteen witnesses saying something else, you may choose to believe a single witness telling a story you are willing to accept as the truth. The reasons for that are personal. For example, your own great-grandmother may have told a story that was handed down within the family and now you cherish that version of the events because it was told to you when you were a child by people you love. Other proof may never convince you otherwise because you have an emotional need to believe that story. For you to think otherwise would feel tantamount to rejection of your own family.

However, suppose you learn that the great-grandmother’s story originated with the popular retelling of an earlier event. The actual event was in the 1840’s but it was popular to retell it in a much more inspirational way some twenty years after the event, in the 1860’s. The push to belong among the saints was so compelling they began to compete with one another to embellish the retelling. As a result the story grew well beyond anything that was recorded contemporaneous with the actual event. Even after learning this, you may still resist changing your view because you worry it makes your great-grandmother a liar. It really does no such thing. Her faith produced a culture. She lived inside that culture. The culture encouraged her to say faith-promoting things like others in the culture. She succumbed to the temptation, joined in the recasting of the event, and it helped secure both her own faith and the beliefs of her children. Your life and your parents’ were all enriched by the story.

But when it comes to your understanding of history, something more than traditions ought to at least be considered. If that is impossible for you, then at a minimum you must allow others who do not share your great-grandmother in their genealogy to explore the question and reach their own conclusion. You can believe as you do for the reasons you find convincing, but others should not be required to join you. They do not share your emotional need to believe the retelling, and therefore ought to be free to consider other sources. What we all share, however, is faith in the religion. We all believe this is a true faith restored by God through the Prophet Joseph Smith. I can have tolerance for your view and your needs, but you should permit me to believe as I do. My beliefs should not threaten you. Yours do not threaten me. I freely allow you to hold onto the family tradition, and respect the value that has provided your family. I am a convert. There are no family traditions I need to honor when it comes to Latter-day Saint history. I am not being negative when I think differently than you. Instead I am honestly trying to grapple with the events to reach my own conclusion about the truth. When I read the fourteen other witnesses I may disregard the one you believe.

As people of good faith attempt to retell Mormon history, there will always be events some people view differently than others. For example in Richard Van Wagoner’s book Sidney Rigdon: A Portrait of Religious Excess, he puts Joseph and Sidney into the underground Danite movement in Missouri. I was surprised he did that. I don’t agree and thought he was wrong, but I don’t for a minute doubt he believed his conclusion.

Since Sampson Avard’s testimony before the Court of Inquiry was not believed by even the hostile anti-Mormon crowd, I discount him as a reliable source. He was trying to save his own skin. He was like a jailhouse snitch who got free for telling a lurid tale about another prisoner. Motivation, background, overall credibility and inconsistency make him an unreliable source to me. Sampson Avard was the primary mover behind the Danite group. He had a great interest in pushing Joseph and Sidney forward and retreating into the shadows. His story did that. I don’t believe him.

This issue illustrates how difficult it is to weigh the evidence and reach the right conclusion. When someone as good as Van Wagoner reaches this conclusion, any fair-minded person needs to consider his evidence. I checked his footnotes, considered his arguments, re-thought the matter and found I was not persuaded. I kept my view that Joseph Smith was not involved and was the victim of a perjured witness in the Missouri court proceedings. If someone else chooses to believe it, that is up to them. It certainly complicates Joseph Smith’s story. It does not utterly compromise it. The primary effect it would have, in my view, is that Joseph learned from the Missouri disaster that a violent response to the church’s enemies was a very bad idea. He never did it again. When the next crisis arose in Nauvoo, he surrendered the Nauvoo Legion state arms and surrendered to the authorities. He did not use his army to protect his followers.

So the choice is between what I believe (i.e., that Joseph was already pre-disposed to avoid violent reactions) and Van Wagoner’s view (i.e., that Joseph attempted violence through the Danites before learning that violence was not useful). Either way the final lesson is the same. I believe mine is more consistent with Joseph’s overall behavior and character, both during Zion’s Camp and later in Nauvoo. Van Wagoner has Joseph fluctuating in between. But there is no real meaningful difference to the alternatives.

What this issue illustrates, however, is that the matter has been out there since 1838 and remains unsettled and open for debate and discussion today. The discussion is very interesting. More information will undoubtedly arise as more of the church’s archives are made available to read. Hiding the information does not alter the truth, it only temporarily hides it. Those who distrust our leaders, resolve all questions by claiming the failure to open the complete historical records to public view is evidence there will be incriminating things found there. That argument no doubt has some weight to it, but on this point of Joseph Smith’s Danite involvement I very much doubt there’s a hidden “smoking gun” to be found in unopened archival material.

The Jensen interview ended on a troubling note to me. He explained the Church History Department was a tool for the “fifteen men” and ultimately “the Prophet” to direct. The Department was going to act in conformity with their desires, and would not proceed as an independent source of historical information. That aside puts the problem of candor and motivation back to the fore. It makes absolute sense the Church History Department supports the church’s leadership. However, for anyone interested in a full disclosure, you must remember that the Church History Department acts as an agent controlled by a group whose agenda is not always to let history be told in less than a “faith promoting” way. They feel the responsibility of promoting faith. That is natural. They don’t want to challenge people’s faith by letting out any ugliness. It risks turning the Department into the purveyor of propaganda, rather than history.

This may have worked well in the past, but in the age of the Internet there are leaks. It is all coming out. It will be better for the church to take the initiative than to let it just slip out through inadvertence. If Mitt Romney is the candidate, and even more so if he becomes the President, there will be pressure from the media, perhaps even efforts to pay church employees for copies of previously undisclosed documents. Who knows what will occur in the future to empty the vaults of the hidden materials. The recent dust-up over the Joseph Smith Papers draft volume on plural marriage between an apostle and the staff working on the project is now known by a wide group. To their credit both Dallin Oaks and Jeffrey Holland were supportive of the effort. Another member of the twelve was scandalized by it, thinking the church membership was unprepared to read the material. It will all be out there eventually. Those who advocate candor will be respected in the future, and those who insist on secrecy will be less so.

Nothing will remain hidden. Even if the Lord is the one who does it, the day will come when it will all be “shouted from the rooftops” and every hidden thing will be revealed. It will be too late to acquit yourself if you’ve been one hiding the truth. Better to do it now, before the coming forced confession.