Or, “an ode to invested Latter-day Saint history”*
Yesterday, various bloggers and writers were invited to a meeting
with the editors of the most recent volume of the Joseph Smith Papers
Project to discuss the new “Histories” volume. This post is partially
a reflection on that event, and you can expect other blog posts and reviews to come.
In a revelation dictated on the day of his church’s founding, Smith reported God’s command: “there shall be a record kept among you.”1 And so it was; with various fits and starts the early Saints strove to fulfill what they took to be a divine mandate. Mormon history, from the very beginning, was invested. It was Mormon history. Much of our earliest material was recorded under the dictation, direction or influence of Joseph Smith. It doesn’t take a genius or a meticulous historian to recognize that such records will carry deeply impressed fingerprints of the personalities, prejudices, and perspectives of those doing the recording. And such records are invested.
You might sense a problem with this. We want people to simply tell it like it is, enough cheerleading, tell the truth, lay everything bare. However, I’m suggesting that those who complain loudest about the obviously-partisan nature of official accounts might find it more fruitful to deeply consider the initial impulses behind the records Mormons kept. Why did they record this and not that? What are they focusing on, and what seems to escape their gaze altogether? Invested history won’t often provide distanced, dry, meticulous, disconnected accounts though the stuff from which it is crafted might very well seem less-than-exciting. I’m asking you instead to conceive of our earliest historical accounts with close attention to their context. Such accounts include personal witnesses of spiritual experiences (visions of the heavens, visitations from heavenly beings), shot through with political, economic, and social concerns. Words like “bias” and “objectivity” should give way to words like “perspective” and “values.”
Perhaps this is the grand secret of understanding Mormon history! [Read more...]