What is the force of religion in history? Over the last century or so, historians of Christianity moved from the idea of teleologic morality operating within history to one where the notion of a good-directed society was submerged into the laws of chance. For scholars of faith, it meant that while God was driven from the role of guiding the planets and the providential orbits of human lives, he was still present in the moral choices of men and women. But for others, seeing salvific or moral meaning in every event was a burden now left behind. We can argue the benefit or shame of this transformation, but it exists.
Placing religion inside culture rather than the reverse has troubled many who encounter modern scholarship but there is no question that scholarship of all kinds has advanced by many measures in concert with this evolving frame of reference. In a way historiography was late to this party, probably for the same reasons that Mormon historical study has taken an even more circuitous and branching road during the same period. Indeed, the idea of historical accidents is still troublesome to many who repeat the mantra, “everything happens for a reason.” Perhaps we sacrifice a kind of reverence in the abandonment of a providential reading of the past but Elvis has left this building and is not likely to return.
The questions here interpenetrate Mormon thought in a number of related ways. Mormons have participated in the piety vs. morality debates of the past to some degree, but mostly to poke some occasional fun at the associated angst of Calvinists. I mean, who doesn’t find *that* a little stiff — sending big batches of people to everlasting hell on the strength a tenuous syllogism? But in Calvin himself, I find some Mormonism, if not in some of his intellectual or spiritual descendants. Calvin clearly struggled with all these ideas and some of his language suggests a somewhat broader view of things than what we tend to bind him with. That however, is for another day. I only want to point out here that Mormon theologians of the past have found an uncomfortable if only briefly acknowledged interface here. One that requires at least a nod. Is God in control of everything, every life being planned to the “T” — events not being subsets of some huge probability space of outcomes? There is a certain comfort there and you may find support in Holy Books.
On the other hand this leads to the usual arguments from the absurd which are difficult to thoughtfully confront in all honesty. Many of the horrific events of human history are hard to place in any reasonable context of “probationary state.” And then what do we do with those extraordinary punctuation marks of life? The ones where we experience the numinous, the clear testimony/grace/comfort/certainty that we sometimes feel and yet find hard to encompass in our mental constructs of reality. Everyone answers this in largely personal ways I suppose (as I step on bordering blooms of theological gardens).
I first encountered the faith in history idea as I sat in a course offered by Robert Helbling. As a newly minted returned missionary, I had serious ideas about what could be contextualized, and what certainly could not. As Helbling began a lecture about religion and the nature and concepts of God, I couldn’t help interrupting him to ask what God might think of all this. I don’t recall his answer. The point of my question was just this sort of conundrum: what are we really doing here? The answer of course was that we were talking history of human expression about God. A topic of human study. It is, in my opinion, really hard to study God. You can’t really get an interview on your terms, despite Joseph Smith’s worries that we might encounter counterfeits on some regular basis. It took me a while to think this through. I’m a bit slow. But Helbling was patient. I learned to wear two hats. One at university, one at church. While Davis may have come up with a haberdashery product for all occasions, I have not.
In part II, I want to continue by offering something about transitions and the influence of environment on theology. Unless I get distracted by something else.
 For this change and its effect on one well-known journal, see Amanda Porterfield, “Leaving Providence Behind,” Church History 80/2 (June 2011) 336.
 For a non-Mormon Christian’s approach here consider Don G. Davis, Jr. and his Fides et Historia. An interesting summary of Davis’s beliefs is found in John Mark Tucker’s article on Davis and Fides in Libraries and Culture 40/3 (Summer 2005): 460-474.
 If you’re intrigued, try Thomas J. Davis’s edited volume John Calvin’s American Legacy. Oxford UP, 2010.
 A term not in any way confined to Joseph Smith’s contributions. Is it useful to put the idea of probationary state in cultural context? I think yes.
 I don’t wish to imply that I’m a split personality. Just that the language and concerns here don’t mesh well for me. Perhaps this means I need to repent.