It is often said that, in place of a theology, Mormonism has a history. In fact, of course, Mormonism has many histories and many historiographies. Yet if there is plurality in our history, there is far more in our theology. Few, if any, major questions of theology are really permanently settled in Mormon thought. The Mormon tradition presents believers with a range of possible theological stances regarding the godhead, the atonement of Jesus Christ, the meaning and nature of revelation, the source and scope of priesthood, the nature of family, post-mortal life, the authoritativeness of scripture, and virtually every other important question. Ongoing debates among Mormons regarding the advisability of developing a personal relationship with Jesus Christ, or the possible conditionality of God’s love, are instances of this general state of theological openness.
Under these circumstances, I think it is logical and comprehensible that people seek answers to questions about God and faith in our past. The historical record may not be univocal or uncontested, but it is publicly accessible in a way that directly theological resolutions to many religious issues are not in Mormonism. Even so, this recourse to history to answer theological questions stands in need of some consideration. Does the past contain definitive answers about God in a way that present experience does not? Are the beliefs and practices of the earliest Mormons more authoritative, closer to an original divine truth than those of current Mormons?
There is certainly an attraction to saying that the past holds answers for the present. Most Mormons today seem to report relatively little charismatic experience, while we tend to imagine the years of Joseph Smith’s life, in particular, as a time when the divine routinely intruded into the mundane. If there are differences in beliefs and practice between now and then, it is easy to conclude that the experience of the past must be the better of the two. Gordon B. Hinckley has occasionally made remarks suggesting that he shares this perspective of the Joseph Smith years as a time when revelation and theological information was far more readily available than at the present. In two separate 1997 interviews, Hinckley made remarks along these lines:
Let me say first that we have a great body of revelation, the vast majority of which came from the prophet Joseph Smith. We don’t need much revelation. We need to pay more attention to the revelation we’ve already received. (Prophet Gordon B. Hinckley, San Francisco Chronicle, Sunday Interview, April 13, 1997, by Don Lattin)
Now we don’t need a lot of continuing revelation. We have a great, basic reservoir of revelation. (Compass Interview with Prophet Gordon B. Hinckley, aired Nov. 9, 1997)
In some tension with this point of view is the idea of continuing revelation, of a God who continually reveals Himself in line with the changing needs of His people. Revelation may have ceased, or slowed to a relative trickle, among Mormons since Joseph Smith’s day. But if so, our scriptures condemn us:
…if these things have ceased, then has faith ceased also; and awful is the state of man, for they are as though there had been no redemption made. (Moroni 7:38)
If we do believe in continuing revelation, then an argument can easily be made that changes since the earliest days of Mormonism have God’s hand in them. In fact, such an argument is routinely made about the development of the priesthood. Likewise, advocates of limited Book of Mormon geographies generally claim that the probable support of Joseph Smith, and the manifest support of several of his contemporaries, for a hemispheric reading of the Book of Mormon is not authoritative and simply reflects the limited understanding of the time.
This reading of our history as not being an authoritative source when the beliefs of the past differ with those of the present is consistent with the widely cited scriptural statement that theological knowledge grows “line upon line, precept upon precept” (see Isaiah 28:10, 13, where this model of revelation seems to be a punishment for wickedness and a means to the destruction of Jerusalem; see also 2 Nephi 28:30, D&C 98:12, and D&C 128:21, where the text assumes its more familiar positive meanings). If God speaks gradually over time, a bit here and a bit there as we are prepared to receive it, then it seems reasonable to assume that present practices and beliefs are — at least potentially — superior to those of Joseph Smith’s day. But if this is the case, then it follows that history is not a reliable source of theology at all, since historical precedent will always bend to current belief and practice.
This is a coherent belief system, and yet I worry that it is inadequately attentive to the possibility that some changes from the past may be due to culture or even simple error rather than the workings of God’s hand. Even so, I favor a second account of why history should usually not be seen as a resource for theological argumentation. Let us suppose (counterfactually, I think) that the Saints of Joseph Smith’s day knew God’s mind on all important issues of the day and in all particulars. Notwithstanding the existence of a time of perfect knowledge, we would still need new theology today. There are two major reasons for this.
First, our questions today are not generally the questions that were foremost in Joseph Smith’s time. For example, in the 19th century, the theology of the family was, of course, an issue — but the issue then involved whether families should include only one or more than one wife, not how to adjust to single-parent families, approach emergent societal acceptance of same-sex couples, or react to the manifold theological dilemmas associated with feminist claims. Furthermore, Joseph Smith’s question about God was which church He approved of — not whether He exists at all given the availability of irreligious explanations for the origins of life and the universe. New questions demand new theology, and perhaps new revelation. A turn to history simply will not, in itself, suffice.
Second, even where our questions are the same as those of Joseph Smith’s days, our language and systems of concepts are not. We do not share a culture with the earliest Mormons, although our culture is obviously in some respects descended from theirs. We lack many of the networks of meanings and associations that they had readily at hand. As a result, our words are not their words, and to at least some extent our minds are not their minds. The theological task of interpreting God’s answers for people who think with 21st-century American minds and speak 21-century American words is inevitable and can never be circumvented by a recourse to the past.
All of this is not to say that history and theology should go their separate ways. Instead, my argument is that we ought to have a certain modesty about the theological questions we expect our history to answer. The record of the past cannot tell us what God is; only God can do that. Documents in the archives cannot tell us the right, or the better, system of beliefs or practices. However, those documents can preserve for us a sense of the multiplicity of beliefs and practices that the Saints have found useful in one place or another. History does not answer theological questions, but it does something almost as good: it raises new questions by reminding us that our way has not been the only way. That is, I think, all the theology we can ask of our history — but it is perhaps enough.