Historians Debate Krakauer

The Deseret News has a short piece reporting remarks at the just-concluded Mormon History Association conference by two LDS historians commenting on Jon Krakauer’s recent book, Under the Banner of Heaven.

Craig Foster, affiliated with the LDS Family History Library and also a FARMS author, “delved into Krakauer’s family background.” Here’s a quote from the article:

Raised in an “atheist household,” Foster said the author has openly admitted his “skepticism and cynicism” regarding organized religion, and he has “demonstrated animosity toward those of faith.” * * * He ended by calling Krakauer’s work an “anti-Mormon book in a fancy cover,” and a “hypersensationalistic work which will soon be forgotten.”

Newell Bringhurst, a past president of the MHA, was the other speaker. The article quotes him as saying, “I think (Foster) goes a bit too far in exonerating Joseph Smith for taking teenage plural wives while excoriating Krakauer for delving into a highly sensitive topic.” It summarizes his comments as follows: “The fact that Foster cites Krakauer’s appearances at various book signings in Protestant churches and that his book has been recommended on anti-Mormon Web sites doesn’t make him ‘anti-Mormon,’ Bringhurst said.”

Personally, I like Krakauer and enjoyed the book. I collected some of the early media reviews of UBH in my very first post at the first incarnation of my other blog. The most interesting of the bunch was the semi-official LDS response by Richard E. Turley, another LDS historian “on the payroll” (with the Family and Church History Department).


  1. “Are you, or have you ever been, associated with the FARMS?”

  2. Kristine says:

    “Can a non-physicist really write an “accurate” book about quarks, mesons and muons? I don’t think so.”

    Don’t know about muons, but Bill Bryson managed to write a physics book that my father, a physics professor, thought was awfully good.

  3. “One of the unfortunate effects of the FARMS-Signature wars is that it has become easier for many to dismiss criticisms of certain work as apologetic over-reaction.”

    Sorry Nate, gotta disagree here. I think FARMS brought this upon themselves, without Signature’s help. Their occasional nastiness is what’s helped some do dismiss their apologetic work. It may not be fair to dismiss all their work based on the vitriol of a few, but it’s something I can understand.

    Craig Foster’s review of Krakauer was quite good, however, and I hope it gets circulated. The book does have many, many errors. That said, I don’t think it’s nearly as bad as some people portray. The reaction to the book has largely struck me as a “circle the wagons” mentality.

  4. Dale Morgan, as an example, said of his “objectivity” as a historian (vs. Krakauer as journalist) that
    “It is an objectivity on one side only of a philosophical Great Divide. With my point of view on God, I am incapable of accepting the claims of Joseph Smith and the Mormons, be they however so convincing. If God does not exist, how can Joseph Smith’s story have any possible validity? I will look everywhere for explanations except to the ONE explanation that is the position of the Church”

    Dale Morgan On Early Mormonism: Correspondence and a New History p.87

  5. Dave: Large chunks of the Doctrine & Covenants as we now had it had their genesis in the 1830s, were first taught in the 1840s, were later committed to writing, and then canonized in an informal start and go way during the Utah period. Of course, if you are going to jettison other revelations along with Section 132 using your procedural criteria (what was it again?), fine, but if you are not, then the discussion of cannonization and polygamy looks like little more than post hoc rationalization.

    For example, it seems that the following sections would also need to be jettisoned:

    129 (nature of God and spirits)
    130 (nature of God, intelligences and exaltation)
    131 (marriage and exaltation)

    In addition, I think that the epistletory sections where only later canonized. This would exclude:

    128 (baptism for the dead)
    127 (baptism for the dead)
    122 (nature of suffering)
    121 (nature of the priesthood)

  6. Dave: Section 132 has been canonized. How about Section 137, another revelation of Joseph’s not cannonized in his life time. Section 93. What about 138, also not cannonized in Joseph’s lifetime. In looking at your dismissal of polygamy, one is tempted to think, “You need some rule besides hindsight or convenience to make the determination as to what is inspired or what isn’t. “

  7. FYI, Rick Turley is the head of the Family and Church History Department.

  8. I haven’t heard this kind of statement from anyone before, regardless of what flavor LDS they would label themselves. I personally don’t see it as a mistake…

    I also doubt that many practicing Mormon, or LDS leaders secretly harbor the thought that it was Joseph writing off lustful thoughts as revelation. Your anecdotal evidence is as good as mine.

    I don’t see tension between thinking it was revelatory and not wanting to practice it. Are God’s commandments supposed to be easy to do? Culturally comfortable? If so, where’s the testing and growth in that?

  9. I haven’t read the Krakauer book, but even it’s defender at MHA, Brighurst, noted that it contained numerous historical and doctrinal errors. According to a portion of the article not quoted by Dave:

    “Newell Bringhurst, a long-time LDS historian, agreed that there are many factual and historical errors in Krakauer’s book, particularly with regard to mainstream LDS doctrine.”

    One of the unfortunate effects of the FARMS-Signature wars is that it has become easier for many to dismiss criticisms of certain work as apologetic over-reaction.

  10. I think John hit the nail on the head with his last comment: (1) No practicing Mormon, and especially no LDS leader, wants to admit polygamy was not inspired; but (2) no one wants to practice it either. There be tension here.

    Mormons constantly repeat the refrain, “A prophet is only a prophet when he is speaking as one,” to excuse the human mistakes made by leaders. So what’s wrong with actually applying that principle? “Polygamy was an uninspired mistake, and one we won’t make again” seems like a pretty unobjectionable announcement. Once you admit it was a mistake, it’s hard to call it an inspired mistake, which leaves “uninspired mistake” as the best label. Nothing wrong with admitting your mistakes.

  11. Kristine says:

    I think the church response to Krakauer has been, on the whole, terribly unproductive. I heard Krakauer and then Turley interviewed on Fresh Air. Krakauer sounded reasonably, funny, personable. Yes, he got some things wrong about Mormonism, but he also got at some very touchy and difficult issues. So then Turley comes on, sounds defensive and totally unresponsive to Gross’ questions–just kept repeating over and over again that polygamists should not be considered “Mormon”, even if they call themselves that. It was awful. I don’t know why it’s so hard for us to say “yes, we have a very colorful, occasionally wacky, even more occasionally violent past. Our beliefs about obedience and authority do make Mormons go against the grain of American culture sometimes…” The defensiveness just doesn’t play well, and I don’t think it’s really necessary.

  12. I’m also unconvinced by the implied assertion that an atheist is to Mormons as a Nazi is to Jews.

    Atheists haven’t killed six million Mormons. Many (most) athiests don’t really care about Mormons anyway. And many atheists are careful, understanding people who are aware of the sensitive issues of religion in others’ lives.

    It’s true that an avowed enemy of Mormonism (such as Decker) almost certainly cannot write an accurate history of the church. But applying that to every atheist (or potentially to every non-Mormon) seems falacious.

  13. It seems that there are different problems. There is potential lack of knowledge and potential hostility from an outsider. At the same time, there is potential apologetics from an insider.

    Do we want every history of a group to be authored only by that group’s members? It is asked, “Could a Nazi write a good history of the Jews?” But let’s also ask, “Can Jew write a history of Nazis?”

    I.e., do we _want_ the only people writing about Nazism to be Nazis, the only people writing about Judaism to be Jews, the only people writing about Mormonism to be Mormons? Isn’t there a benefit from writing a book that is understandable to a non-insular audience?

  14. John H.: I didn’t know that I was assigning blame anywhere in particular. I happen to agree that some of the FARMS reviews were overheated. (Although once George Smith starts calling his lawyer, it seems that there is ample blame to toss about.) Frankly, I can understand those who want to dismiss Sunstone completely on the basis of some of the ill-advised things it has allowed into its pages and symposiums, although I personally think that it is unfair.

    If it is tiresome to hear Mormons issue over defensive responses to books that don’t portray Mormonism in an entirely positive light, it is equally tiresome to hear the equally predictable finger wagging at the apologists for over reacting. The entire discussion gets so choreographed and predictable.

    BTW, I also heard the Fresh Air spot (while driving through Lexington, Virginia of all places), and I agree that it was not Rick Turley’s finest hour.

  15. Krakauer sure didn’t bring any sensitivity to this “highly sensitive topic.” I think that by nature of their (un?) beliefs, atheists are incapable of understanding and thus accurately writing about believers of any kind.

  16. Julie in Austin says:


    I listened to the Fresh Air out of the archive and I agree with you.

    (1) Krakauer missed a golden opportunity to bring up Nephi and Laban–does he in the book?

    (2) How could Turley sit there with a straight face (OK, I am assuming here, it is radio) and say that God would never command someone to kill someone? (see above)

  17. Nate, I think D&C 132 is unique as a document held out as a justification for a highly controversial pre-canonization practice, and one that was conducted secretly without informing most members. If polygamy had never been practiced and D&C 132 had simply been an explanation of how Solomon and David had taken plural wives without incurring divine displeasure, then the canonization process would not be an issue (as it is not really an issue for the sections you cite). Nor would polygamy be the issue that it is now, for that matter.

    A mistake in a purely doctrinal revelation might be entirely harmless. For example, if the proper divinely approved course of conduct when one encounters a messenger from God is to salute rather than offer to shake hands (D&C 129, one you cited), I’m not sure that any harm has come from that mistake. Not many messengers come down for a visit these days, and in any case I know of no accounts where anyone even claims to have employed the technique outlined in D&C 129. Joseph, for example, didn’t when he was visited by Moroni.

    But D&C 132, if mistaken, was not harmless. Which makes it somewhat unique and worth understanding, IMHO.

  18. Nate, I’m pleased you approve of my rule. Applying it, of course, is not as easy as it looks. The genesis in the 1830s of the principles found in D&C 132 , its commitment to writing at some unspecified time thereafter, and its eventual disclosure to the general membership of the Church years later in Utah is a complicated story. Hardly the usual canonization process, although that process was admittedly informal and undefined.

  19. Nate, perhaps this thread is pretty much dead by now, but I’ll reply anyway.

    It seems like we’re back to the “liberal Mormons are a mirror of conservative Mormons” argument. I couldn’t agree more with your statement that the discussion is choreographed and predictable. For the most part, I’ve lost patience with it.

    Back to Krakauer, I would agree that apologetic responses shouldn’t be dismissed just because they are apologetic in nature. But I also would say that Krakauer’s book shouldn’t be entirely dismissed because it isn’t entirely complimentary to the Church. It seems we love attention, so long as the attention focuses on our nuclear families, our hard work ethic, our high moral standards, etc. Krakauer’s book was definitely flawed, but I think it had some questions and raised some issues worth looking at. But no one is talking about those because they are too busy wringing their hands over the fact that “this might be the only book someone reads about the Mormon Church!” (a statement I’ve heard way too many times to count).

    Krakauer’s questions, such as why one person’s spiritual claims get to be divine and another’s get to be crazy are intriguing, and I think it’s something one must wrestle with to develop a mature, sustaining faith. Krakauer’s discussion of fundamentalists and polygamy is spot on, IMO. He captures quite well the current conundrum – no one wants to admit that polygamy wasn’t inspired; talk about some unpleasant implications for Joseph Smith. But no one wants to believe in it because, for the most part, no one ever wants to practice it. Krakauer’s statement on our treatment of fundamentalists is exactly right – they’re the crazy uncle we keep locked in the attic, but he occasionally escapes and embarrasses us. I think this is stuff worth discussing.

  20. Objectivity is a myth. But there are some biases that are not overcomable. Could a Nazi write a good history of the Jews? Can a non-physicist really write an “accurate” book about quarks, mesons and muons? I don’t think so.

    I didn’t say that only conservative LDS historians can write good LDS history. I just don’t think Krakauer approached this with the thought “Gosh, here’s an interesting and nuanced issue that hasn’t been explored from this particular angle, and maybe I can bring a new viewpoint.” Does anyone here really think that?

    I think he thought more along the lines of “Wow, this is nuts! What a great story! I can make a great book out of this- religion, cults, sex, opresssion, coverups…” I didn’t see much sensitivity in his treatment. I saw him taking an opportunity to exploit. Sensationalism, not sensitivity. True journalism, where “the facts” take a back seat to “the story.”

    Surely our own historians aren’t perfect, and we have, traditionally, been quite defensive, and overly sensitive.

  21. Tom, I didn’t mean to suggest such a statement had been made or circulated, although I was kind of loose in my phrasing. What I was saying was that such a statement *would be* fairly unobjectionable if it were made, to me at least and to a fair but undetermined percentage of members as well.

    What is the source of this glib but widely held assumption that every thought in Joseph’s head was inspired straight from God? Joseph himself rejected that idea. You need some rule besides hindsight or convenience to make the determination as to what is inspired or what isn’t. Typically, canonization or presentation to the membership for a vote is the line that is drawn. Joseph had 14 years to present polygamy to the Church and didn’t, which ought to tell us something. It’s no different than a President who is a vegeatarian but doesn’t present vegetarianism as a commandment to be binding on the Church as a whole.

    Also, I think God’s commandments are based (we hope) on morality and what is good: “If you, being evil, know how to give what is good to your children, how much more does God being good know what to give you.” Commandments are not founded on a desire to test us, it’s the adversary that does that kind of thing. “Lead us not into temptation, deliver us from evil” is the believer’s plea. There ought to be a better basis for defending polygamy if one is inclined to do so.

  22. Tom, I’m glad you find the issue so engaging. I understand the frustration some Mormons feel when an outsider misrepresents LDS history. But you need to distinguish between intentional or careless misrepresentation, which deserves criticism, and the unavoidable imperfections that plague any human endeavour. You seem inclined, like footnote-sniping FRB types, to hold any non-laudatory LDS book up to the standard of perfection, which even the Book of Mormon (by its own admission!) falls short of.

    It is silly to suggest Krakauer’s early accounts of the Everest fiasco were badly flawed by any humanly attainable standard (as opposed to the unattainable omniscience standard). He was (1) there on the mountain, and (2) was a veteran writer, which makes him probably the most qualified human on the planet to write about that event. The later book had the advantage of more research and better hindsight, so one would hope it makes some corrections and improvements.

  23. Tom, yes the objectivity issue gets thrown around a lot, but IMHO adds more heat than light to the debate. I suppose a conservative LDS historian thinks only conservative LDS historians can write objective LDS history. Of course, believing historians with no ties to the LDS Church think only believing historians with no ties to the LDS Church can be objective. No doubt Krakauer thinks only seasoned journalists can be objective.

    Rather than pursue an unresolvable debate about who occupies the higher ground of an objective position (likely no one), I prefer to consider who demonstrates fair but demanding rhetorical methods–acknowledging one’s potential biases up front, using sources and data responsibly, acknowledging contrary facts and arguments, and addressing the merits of an issue rather then attacking the opposing author(s). That is how historical issues are supposed to be considered, on the quality of the evidence and the overall support for the arguments advanced, not on endless arguments about who is more objective.

  24. With his previous book, “Into thin air” Krakuaer was trying to correct “painful factual errors”


    that he had committed in his article on the hike in “Outside.” And what was the result? A great read, of course, but also “charges and countercharges… flying back & forth.”

    “the heated discourse that has raged since”

    In other words, if Krakauer makes “painful factual errors” in recounting an event he was present at, and, even afer correcting those, others of his party strongly disagree with his portrayal of that event, than how can I expect him to get it right when he WASN’T there, when it’s religious? Not a good track record, IMHO. My wife flipped through it, and she’s no historian, but after two pages, she was picking out factual errors.

    But hey, it’s a good read. And that’s all that really matters. Down from the soapbox, won’t respond to anything else now.