Interpreting History

There is an art to interpreting history. No matter what the schools teach, in the end there are judgment calls that are always made in arriving at a final interpretation.

The problems of church history are not evidence that some people are acting in bad faith and others are not. Everyone should be motivated to seek and know the truth. However, even when claiming to seek the truth, various motivations color the results of our interpretation.

When a court case is presented to a jury, both sides are duty bound to tell the truth. All the witnesses are sworn in before they are allowed to tell the jury anything. Then whatever they say is supposed to be the truth. If they lie, they do so under the condition they will be charged with perjury. Despite this, in almost every case the story told by the Plaintiff is completely at odds with the story told by the Defendant. If you believe the Plaintiff’s witnesses and arguments, the Plaintiff will win. If you believe the Defendant’s witnesses and arguments, the Defendant will win. The jury’s responsibility is to decide who to believe.

Sometimes a witness is believable because of their demeanor. Sometimes it is the content of their statements, sometimes the way they appear. Their age, opportunity to observe, self-interest, relationship with the parties, clarity of explanation and other things all play a part. There are intangibles that affect credibility, some so difficult to explain they are reduced to “impressions” or “feelings” about the witness. Their reputation for honesty, or personal history matters. When the case ends the jury deliberates all they’ve heard and seen, consult their common sense, talk the matter over and reach a consensus. That consensus becomes the verdict. The case is then concluded.

History is no different. The witnesses are evaluated, and what they have to say is considered. But in the end, they are weighed and either believed or not. Orson Hyde arrived back in Nauvoo on August 13th. He was not present on August 8th. Therefore, his two lengthy reminiscenses of the transfiguration of Brigham Young on August 8th cannot be believed by me. I suppose you could decide to believe Orson Hyde, despite the fact that his story could not possibly be based on what he saw August 8, 1844. But if you decide to believe him, you must show me the courtesy of allowing me to disbelieve him.

The daily diaries of Brigham Young, Heber C. Kimball, Willard Richards and Wilford Woodruff all had entries on August 8, 1844. None of them mention the “transfiguration” of Brigham Young. Nauvoo newspapers, Times and Seasons and Nauvoo Neighbor both covered the debates on August 8, 1844 and neither one mention the transfiguration. Even Orson Hyde’s accounts written in 1844 and 1845 fail to mention the transfiguration. He did not begin to provide his elaborate account of the event until 1869, when he claimed Brigham Young’s “words went through [him] like electricity. It was not only the voice of Joseph Smith but there were the features, the gestures and even the stature of Joseph before us in the person of Brigham.(JD 13: 181, 6 Oct 1869.) So, when I weigh the evidence, I conclude the story is merely faith-promoting, and much like Paul Dunn, bearing something less than an accurate retelling of the truth.

The truth of the restoration does not depend merely upon men’s imagination to support it. After all, Joseph produced the Book of Mormon, revelations found in the Doctrine and Covenants, Pearl of Great Price, and other unpublished revelations. He left a body of letters, talks and ordinances. What Joseph did accomplish is more than enough proof of his stature as a prophet of God.

I am interested in the truth of the restoration. It is not important for me to justify succession, or to defend any office or friends. I do not want to be popular or to have anyone follow me. I hope only to please God and defend the truth. If it causes anyone, including myself, embarrassment I couldn’t care less. We have a duty to our Maker to act our part in helping one another to find our way back to Him.

I also don’t care if someone chooses to believe otherwise and to weep like a child while retelling the story of Brigham Young being transfigured into Joseph Smith as he pleaded for votes following Joseph’s death. I can endure that without insulting them or arguing the point. They are free to believe what I regard as false. But what should not happen is for someone who holds this view to forbid or condemn me for thinking them wrong. I enjoyed Paul Dunn’s stories. They were inspiring. If you accept them as inspirational fiction, you can enjoy them too. The likelihood is that Job is pious fiction also. It is part of a category of “Wisdom Literature” written to explain a true principle, but probably not based on an actual person named Job. It is “true” in the sense of teaching principles of truth, not in the sense the characters existed.

I’ve weighed the evidence in our history, sorted through what I accept and find persuasive, and what I find less than believable. It has involved considerable effort. It is fine with me for others to disagree. When a disagreement is based on a superficial review of the available record, or on bombast without ever studying the history, then I’d appreciate the courtesy of allowing me to continue in my honest, good faith delusion.