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Perspectives

on Church History

A Pattern for Learning Church History by Study and Faith

Keith A. Erekson

Many of the revelations received by Joseph Smith and published in the Doctrine and Covenants emphasize the importance of learning history. We are to “obtain a knowledge of history . . . for the salvation of Zion” (D&C 93:53). We are to learn about “things which have been” in order to “be instructed more perfectly in theory, in principle, in doctrine, in the law of the gospel” (D&C 88:78–79). Learning Church history enriches our understanding of the scriptures and provides examples for facing the challenges of life. Above all, we are to learn “by study and also by faith” (D&C 88:118), a process that involves both mental and spiritual exertion.

Learning by study and faith is different than learning history in school in two important ways. First, unlike in a school setting where a learner responds to questions posed by the teacher, the study of Church history begins with the sincere questions in the learner’s heart and mind. President Dieter F. Uchtdorf has encouraged that “we [be] a question-asking people. We have always been, because we know that inquiry leads to truth.”1 A second important difference is that learning Church history should be more than just memorizing dates and facts for a test. We must prayerfully feast, read multiple sources, make connections, look for patterns, and draw out lessons.

Study and faith combine as we learn Church history through the pattern illustrated by Alma’s comparison of planting a seed (see Alma 32:27–43). We give place for learning history by thinking about our relationship to the past. We plant the seed in our minds and hearts through careful reading and reflection. We can discern the importance of our reading by considering how authentic and reliable the source is, placing our answers in proper historical contexts, and identifying eternal principles that can be applied to our personal circumstances. Throughout our lives, we can nourish a faithful study of Church history through diligent reading, thinking, praying, sharing, and teaching. By so doing, we will come to reap the fruit of faithful study as our understanding improves and our faith deepens, making us better learners and teachers, parents and children, and disciples and Saints.

1. Give Place

We give place for the study of Church history by pausing to think about what we can and cannot know. The past is gone. The people who lived through the past have passed away. They left pieces of the past in the form of letters, diaries, and other records. Because the surviving pieces of the past are incomplete, storytellers—historians, writers, speakers—attempt to put the pieces together in order to tell a story. Facts don’t speak, but storytellers do. These stories become an interpretation of the past built on factual pieces and influenced by the teller’s memory, interests, and goals. As a result, stories about the past are incomplete and sometimes contradictory. We must always consider who is telling the stories, how they are telling them, and why they are telling them.

As we seek to make sense of the pieces of the past and the stories told about it, we discover people, places, experiences, and traditions different from our own. The past is different than the present, and that’s okay. Because the past is different from our day, we must take special care not to make assumptions about the past based on our present ideas and values. Present assumptions distort the past. We cannot assume that people in the past were just like us or that they would appreciate our culture or beliefs. Thus, it requires humility to not judge people in the past by our standards, to admit we do not know everything, and to wait patiently for more answers.

2. Plant

We plant Church history in our minds and hearts by hearing, reading, and seeking to understand the pieces of the past that remain and the stories that people tell about that past. In agriculture, planting means cultivating a seed with nutrients and sunlight. In history, planting means asking many questions about sources from the past.

Before You Read. As you pick up something from the past to read, you should immediately ask questions. You may not be able to answer all questions at the outset, but keeping them in your mind as you read will help you recognize the strengths and limitations of the stories you encounter.

An example of this anticipatory thinking is found in the Book of Mormon. King Limhi sent 43 people to search for Zarahemla. The people returned to King Limhi after finding the ruins of a large settlement and records engraved on plates in an unknown language. Despite not being able to read the records, they began to wonder, in Limhi’s words, “perhaps, they will give us a knowledge of a remnant of the people who have been destroyed, from whence these records came; or, perhaps, they will give us a knowledge of this very people who have been destroyed; and I am desirous to know the cause of their destruction” (Mosiah 8:12).

Before you read, you can prepare your mind by posing similar questions: What kind of source is it? When and where was the source created? Who was the author or creator? Who was the author’s intended audience? What was the author’s purpose in writing to this audience? What kinds of things might this source tell us today?

Close Reading. After you have identified preliminary information about the source, you are ready to give it a very close reading. Close reading focuses on the contents of the source—the words, phrases, ideas, evidence, form, perspective, assumptions, and omissions.

Ideas and Meaning. Reading closely will help you find answers to basic questions about the source’s topic. What is the source about? Who are the actors, characters, or participants? What events are discussed? You can also focus on the source’s main ideas and meanings. What claims does the author make? What are the important illustrations, images, or metaphors used?

An example of close reading is found in the Gospel Topics essay “First Vision Accounts.” The essay identifies all existing accounts of the First Vision and categorizes them into those written by Joseph Smith (firsthand) or by others who heard him talk about the vision (secondhand). The essay looks at similarities and differences between the accounts and then explores questions that others have asked about Joseph’s memory or the embellishment of the stories over time.

Evidence. Ask questions about the evidence presented in historical sources. Did the author live through the events in question? If not, how does the author know about the past? Who speaks? Who is quoted? Does the author assert positions based on common sense or the ideas that many people hold? Does the author cite sources in a way that allows you to locate and review them?

Assumptions and Values. Finally, as you read closely, try to read between the lines or beneath the text to ask about the author’s assumptions and values. Elder Dallin H. Oaks observed of Latter-day Saints that “on many important subjects our assumptions—our starting points or major premises—are different from many of our friends and associates.” As an example, he said that “because Latter-day Saints know our Heavenly Father’s plan for His children, we know that this mortal life is not a one-act play sandwiched between an unknowable past and an uncertain future.” Thus, “because of our knowledge of this plan and other truths that God has revealed, we start with different assumptions than those who do not share our knowledge. As a result, we reach different conclusions on many important subjects that others judge only in terms of their opinions about mortal life.”2

To identify assumptions and values, you might ask: How does the author conceive of the world and the place of humans within it? Does the author assume that a reader will already know something (and therefore not talk about it)? How does the author define goodness? What does the author assume about history and culture?

3. Discern

Closely reading the contents of a source prepares you to discern more than what is contained within its pages. Sometimes you can find clues contained within the contents of the source, but more often you must look outside of the source to establish its authenticity and reliability, to place it within relevant contexts, and to weigh its possible significance.

Authenticity and Reliability. Historical sources and stories need to be examined to determine authenticity. Was the source created in the past or created after the fact? Was the source created by the person who claims to have created it? Where has the source been since the author created it? Sources and stories also vary in their reliability. What has the author done to gain an understanding of the topic? Can the author be considered an authority on the topic? Do other sources from the same time period corroborate the information in the source?

Joseph Smith provided an example of evaluating storytellers. In 1838, he observed that there were already “many reports which have been put in circulation by evil-disposed and designing persons, in relation to the rise and progress of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.” As a result, he chose to publish a historical statement intended to “put all inquirers after truth in possession of the facts, as they have transpired, in relation both to myself and the Church, so far as I have such facts in my possession” (Joseph Smith—History 1:1).

Contexts. Each source that you read can be placed within multiple, relevant contexts. Contexts help illuminate a wider understanding of the contents of any source. Sometimes the same source will have different meanings or uses in different contexts.

Historical Context. Generally speaking, historical context includes everything else that was going on in a particular time and place. An example of placing an event into historical context can be found in the Gospel Topics essay “Peace and Violence among 19th-Century Latter-day Saints.” The essay describes the tragic murder of 120 immigrants in Utah in September 1857 that has come to be known as the Mountain Meadows Massacre. The essay sees the event within the local context of the ongoing “Reformation” among the Saints and Utah War of the mid-1850s as well as within the Latter-day Saints’ relationship with American Indians. The violence is viewed in relation to other acts of violence in Utah Territory, acts of violence during the Mormon Missouri War in the 1830s, and acts of violence and vigilantism in the 19th-century United States. Additionally, it connects the Mormon response of the 1850s with religious persecution in the 1830s and 1840s.

As you consider historical context, you may ask questions such as these: When did the event in question occur? What was the setting for this source? What other events were happening at the same time, such as wars, political movements, or economic crises? What long-term societal, cultural, political, or demographic trends were underway?

Literary Context. The source you are reading will invariably relate to other similar kinds of sources. For example, the Gospel Topics essay “Becoming Like God” situates Mormon views of the relationship between God and man within the context of views recorded by authors of the Bible and by early Christian writers.

As you consider literary context, you may ask: Does what I’m reading respond to questions posed previously by others? Does what I’m reading ask questions that later writers attempted to answer? How does this source fit into ongoing conversations among authors? How does a particular scripture passage fit within the context of all of the standard works?

Textual, Biographical, and Eternal Contexts. A source becomes context for its internal parts. How do the individual words, phrases, or elements of the source fit with the other sentences and passages and uses? How do the parts of a story fit within the entire storyline? A source becomes part of the life and work of its creator. Is this the first or only thing written by the author, or is it one of many? Did the author’s views change over time? Our reading is shaped by our eternal perspective. How does the source or topic fit within the plan of salvation? How does it fit within the gospel of Jesus Christ?

Significances. Historical events and sources may be considered important or significant for many different reasons. Significance is not an objective quality—something is not significant in the same way that it is tall or blue. Rather, significance is a judgment made by different people at different times who bear different relationships to the event or source in question.

In its own time, an event or source may be considered significant because of its impact on other events and sources. What were the immediate consequences of this event or source? Did the event cause new developments or events? Did the event set a precedent for future actions or interpretations?

From the perspective of our time, an event or source may be considered significant because it helps us. Does it document the conditions in the past or illuminate the past for us today? Is an event or source relevant or applicable to you in the present? Is the author or subject your ancestor?

4. Nourish

If the knowledge of Church history is planted through careful reading, it must be nourished and cultivated through a lifetime of study and inquiry. Faith and study combine as we prayerfully feast on the scriptures, read and reflect on multiple historical sources, make connections between passages and sources, consider information within proper contexts, look for patterns and themes, and draw out relevant lessons. These practices help us make sense of historical facts and find answers to our questions.

Our understanding is nourished by asking good questions. Rather than seeking to know yes, no, or a specific date, good questions seek to understand what, how, and why things happened. There can be more than one good answer. Rather than seeking factual recall, good questions explore interpretations, investigate opinions, and prompt deep thinking.

The best understanding of history comes through a comprehensive investigation of all relevant sources and previous interpretations. The process of inquiring about history leads not to a list of dates to be memorized but rather, as Elder Oaks has illustrated, from answers that are good to answers that are better.3 Sometimes such an investigation will uncover new sources that have never been studied before, which bring new insight and understanding. Other times we ask new questions derived from our present needs, problems, goals, values, or ways of thinking. Sometimes we ask questions that cannot be answered by existing sources, and so we wait. In every case, we make history better as we revise previous stories to improve accuracy, employ stronger evidence, and report clearer documentation.

5. Reap

The study of Church history yields many fruits. As our understanding deepens, our own faith and commitment increase. As we develop the ability to ask good questions and find sound answers, we become spiritually self-reliant.

An understanding of history makes good parents better as they identify the causes of a child’s actions or discern patterns of behavior over time. Leaders and decision makers will wisely consider the past as they seek solutions in the present and future. The humility developed through historical study reminds us that while we do not understand all things, we look forward to a future day when all things will be revealed. The study of things “as they were” helps us understand “things as they are” and prepares us for things that “are to come” (D&C 93:24).

 

Footnotes

[1] Dieter F. Uchtdorf, “The Reflection in the Water” (Church Educational System fireside for young adults, Nov. 1, 2009), broadcasts.lds.org.

[2] Dallin H. Oaks, “As He Thinketh in His Heart” (evening with a General Authority, Feb. 8, 2013).

[3] See Dallin H. Oaks, “Good, Better, Best,” Ensign, Nov. 2007, 104–8.