The Mormon Times features an address by Elder Dallin H. Oaks, which is of extraordinary interest to those with a penchant for LDS Church History. Here’s what I would consider the money quote, in which Elder Oaks refers to a 1985 BYU Symposium address:
Evil speaking of the Lord’s anointed is in a class by itself. It is one thing to depreciate a person who exercises corporate power or even government power. It is quite another thing to criticize or depreciate a person for the performance of an office to which he or she has been called of God. It does not matter that the criticism is true.
This statement — particularly the whopper at the final sentence — may raise the hackles of some historians, but I agree with Elder Oaks.
First I believe we need to differentiate between history that criticizes, or that has a political end in itself, and history or biography that tells a complete narrative of a person or event, “warts and all.” The former leads to a nefarious kind of history, a Krakauer-esque amalgamation that begins a priori with a given thesis and tends to adapt itself to suit that thesis. It’s poor work, I think, if a history steps out of analytical shoes and slips on instead the noisy clogs of the author’s pet peeves (1).
Going beyond that, I do think that LDS Church members have an obligation — for some, a covenant — to avoid practices that tear down the Kingdom of God. It is an ongoing temptation to be cruel to past leaders for their limited understandings; sometimes it appears to be like shooting fish in a barrel, particularly when policies or doctrines have changed, and we can look back with the benefit of hindsight. I believe that in most cases it’s inappropriate to criticize or tear down the Church for its past mistakes. This may smack of intellectual dishonesty, but I am not speaking of covering up the truth or whitewashing history. Certainly I think we should be able to call a spade a spade. I guess I am thinking more of casual pot-shots or pithy put-downs, which tend to serve little purpose than to establish the moral superiority of the speaker.
Let’s take a pretty obvious example: Elder Bruce R. McConkie. Mormon Doctrine was (and in many ways still is) an erroneous book, and certainly one that presumed to speak in authoritative terms where the Church itself did not tread. I don’t know if the community of saints today is served well if I only remember him to scoff in a blog post, or if the only quote of him we keep is:
Forget everything that I have said, or what President Brigham Young or George Q. Cannon or whoever has said in days past that is contrary to the present revelation. We spoke with a limited understanding and without the light and knowledge that now has come into the world.
I guess my view (because of COURSE you all are dying to know it!) is that generally, (a) in the absence of certainty, we should be willing to give the Church the benefit of the doubt, (b) it speaks poorly of us if all we can remember from our history are goof-ups (and worse), and (c) we can tell a lot about ourselves and our relationship to the Church by the way we approach our history.
Over the weekend I bought Lengthen Your Stride: The Presidency of Spencer W. Kimball. I know, I know, I should have read it months and months ago. But if any readers would be interested, I’d be up to blogging from my reading of it as I go. Consider it putting Elder Oaks’ advice into practice.
(1) I suppose the same criticism could be leveled at “believing history” or “faith-promoting history,” and I have to admit that I am suspicious of the ability of an historian to be faithful to the full spectrum of detail while still knowing that the work as a whole must end up being laudatory of a given person or doctrine.