Interpreting History, Part 8

When you come to understand something in our history as an actual event then you need to understand the event. What are its details? How important are differing accounts? If there are contradictions among witnesses, how are they harmonized? When you’ve sorted through the material and arrived at the most accurate version, what does the incident mean? If you change the details does the meaning change?

In the King Follett Discourse, for example, there were several note-takers who left accounts of the sermon. Most people are acquainted with this talk through The Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith. That version is an amalgamation of the various notes of those who were present. In compiling the consolidated version, some of the trimming and harmonizing left details out of the final transcript that may be important. Almost all of the notes from that day have been gathered by Andrew Ehat and Lyndon Cook in their book The Words of Joseph Smith. That very valuable book allows you compare what one person preserved of the talk with what another person preserved. The contrasts are important and make actual doctrinal differences.

If you are content with the TPJS version and have developed some of your religious views based on it, then discovering that it may have omitted details from Joseph’s talk may alarm you. You must decide whether you want to know what Joseph actually said, and perhaps what he actually meant, or if you are only interested in keeping what you already believe.

Many people “feel” the truth. They determine what they believe by how it makes them feel. Their “truth detector” is not rational, but intuitive. I’ve been involved in litigation for long enough to realize there is an irrational component to every conclusion we make. Despite the effort to be rational, we always have our personal filters and our hidden biases. Humans are rational, but not entirely so. Therefore this “feel” for truth happens in us all. Malcom Gladwell has written several books exploring this trait.

The challenge is to control your impulse to come to a conclusion about something before you let all the available information develop. You may come to a conclusion that you can defend rationally and emotionally, but it may not be true. If, instead, you suspend your impulse to decide something and let information expand, you may still reach the same conclusion, but it will be deeper, richer and more complete.

I’ve found that since my conversion, the simple stories told in 1973 have remained basically intact. But they are now much more complex, more nuanced, poignant and wonderful. Sometimes it has been painful to approach a new and expanded account of familiar events. D. Michael Quinn’s work has sometimes left me wondering how he could make such mistakes. But I’ve never doubted the impressive, even amazing capacity he has for gathering information and adding new sources to tell the stories of our history. He is valuable and almost irreplaceable as a pioneer in moving our understanding of Mormon history forward. I still disagree with some of his conclusions, but I respect and admire his work. Some of what I originally thought were mistakes by him I now find I accept and believe to be true.

It made me nervous to read some of Quinn’s work at first. I was afraid I would encounter something that would break my heart and show there was nothing to this faith I had adopted as my own. That would be difficult for me. I stared down that dark corridor and decided to proceed anyway. As I did there were painful moments, and anxiety-filled nights. I know the bitterness expressed by some of the people who have fallen away from our faith and now are vocal critics. If Mormonism is a fraud and I was certain of it I would also probably express a vocal opposition to it. Therefore, if that is their conclusion, they are coping with their sense of loss by venting. I understand it. I was willing to risk it too. But my faith has remained intact.

I still believe God spoke to young Joseph Smith, and that Oliver Cowdery, David Whitmer and Martin Harris saw the angel Moroni and the gold plates. I’ve also very much appreciated the “apostasy” of both Cowdery and Whitmer and their post-church affiliation writings. They remained true to their testimony as witnesses of the Book of Mormon, even if they left the church. That enhances their credibility in my view. In my opinion, if they hadn’t seen the plates and the angel, they would have denounced Joseph as a fraud after they were disaffected toward him.

These three witnesses make a formidable obstacle to dismissing Joseph Smith. As a result, there have been efforts to diminish the significance of their testimony. I think the best summary of the reasons to question their testimony can be found in Grant Palmer’s book An Insider’s View of Mormon Origins. He does a good job of putting together the best way to disregard the Three Witnesses’ Testimony. But his work is entirely derivative from other critics and therefore you need to begin with Palmer and work your way back through the footnotes to the earlier stuff to arrive at the point of departure. In the case of his book, I was already acquainted with his sources and therefore found nothing new in it. The approach is basically to discount the idea of “second sight” and to “spiritualize” away the event. For me it was not a problem. I’ve seen angels. I’ve been taught by them. I know what the experience is like. Therefore, I know what the challenge is to convert the otherworldly into this-worldly. That other world is more real and even more concrete than this. But it isn’t here. It is more tangible, but not the same as what we experience here. Joseph taught about “shaking an angel’s hand” (D&C 129: 4-5) so you can know it is possible to touch and feel them. They are tangible. But if you’re quickened and they are quickened then it is not like this place. So how do you make it possible for someone else to understand. Paul says “whether in the body or out I cannot tell” (2 Cor. 12: 3) and that’s a pretty good way to put it. He just couldn’t tell. Because it is concrete even if you want to say you saw it with “spiritual eyes.” So Grant Palmer takes those statements and turns them into the ephemeral, then into imagination, and dismisses the Testimony of the Three Witnesses. In that way he hoped to evade the Book of Mormon by turning it into a work of fiction. None of that persuaded me. I know better. Not only do I have experience in studying history, and the lives of Cowdery, Whitmer and Harris, but also in comparing other scriptures and experiences of Paul, Daniel, Joseph, Abraham, Enoch, Moses, and so many others. In addition to all the rest I have personal experience.

On the matter of “feeling” things to be true and right, we should not be hasty about closing the door on additional information. New information may change your view dramatically, and then with the new insights you will “feel” right about another, better informed view. When you deal with less information you may think in your heart that everything is just as you believe it to be; only to later find that good-faith belief was sadly under-informed or misinformed. You can only proceed on the basis of what you know, and never on the basis of what you do not know. This is why our good-faith critics who advance honest objections are not evil. They even raise questions we should ask ourselves and try to provide an honest answer.

I do not believe it is possible to acquire the faith necessary to arrive at the truth unless you are willing to know the truth. I believe that history is intended to be a test of faith and we bar ourselves from heaven and heavenly messengers through our fears. Fear is the opposite of faith.

All I’ve written has been done in the hope I can increase faith in others. I understand why I have been denounced, accused of being apostate, and had claims that I’m disrespectful of the church authorities. It is always easy to allow your fears to interpret my motives. But I can tell you that I hope to save souls. The way I write is intended to accomplish that end. If it were possible to do it in any other way I would do it differently. But I don’t intend to be popular. I only want the Lord to approve what I’ve been able to do with what I’ve been given.