The Church History Department has been working incredibly hard to publish as much information as possible about the early history of our church and church leaders. Perhaps there is no other religion today trying to be as transparent with their past as The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints or as encouraging to its members to study their own personal ancestry and history.
Faithful members have access to information about the early saints and early church leaders with more at hand than ever before. There is an abundance of faith-promoting stories available. Yet I continue to see an increase in members of the church focusing on the few things that are most difficult to understand vs. finding increased faith through our history. I want to explore the possible reasons for that behavior.
First, let me say that I love to learn about the history of many different cultures, peoples, and periods of time. My favorite means of studying individuals is through autobiographies and biographies. As an example, I’ve read the most prominent biographies of every Founding Father and early President of the United States of America. Franklin, Washington, Hamilton, Adams, Jefferson, and Madison shaped so many of the ideals of our great nation and laid the groundwork that still blesses our lives today. Each and every one of them were men that I admire deeply, but none of them lived anything close to a perfect life. Every one of the biographies I have read about these men and others have been written by some of the most respected biographers and historians still alive today. In the New Era article “Balancing Church History” Elder Steven E. Snow of the Seventy admonishes us when studying church history to, “Look for sources by recognized and respected historians, whether they’re members of the Church or not.”
With that in mind I decided to read a cultural biography about the Prophet Joseph Smith. It’s an incredibly detailed exploration and comprehensive study about the background and life of the man I admire most in American history. I confess that, even though I’ve been a devout member of the church my entire life, nothing I have ever read before (besides the scriptures) has strengthened my testimony as much about the divine calling of Joseph Smith as the text in this biography. But it’s somewhat ironic for me to say because I have learned that many church members have read this same book and used it as a justification to leave the church.
So what’s different between my take on this biography vs. the way others have read the same words? I think there’s a lot to it but perhaps the fundamental difference is that I choose to follow the advice of President Uchtdorf to, “Doubt your doubts before you doubt your faith.” Frankly, I learned the importance of that lesson long before I started studying church history. That lesson can be applied to studying any type of history.
When studying any history it is so important to recognize the context of what you are reading. By context, I don’t just mean the context of the conversations recorded; I mean the context of the times of the people you are studying. Consider the circumstances of their day, the civil unrest, economic realities, reports of violence, and political pressures. Consider the whole of each life you study – who did they associate with? What was their relationship like with their parents and siblings? Consider the way they were raised, the lessons they were taught, prejudices and perspectives that they were introduced to, trials they witnessed or endured, and consider that their version of right vs. wrong is probably prioritized very differently than the versions of right vs. wrong that we define today. I have not studied a single person in history that looks nearly as polished through the modern lens that we see things through in this day and age. Regarding church history in particular, it’s also important to note that oftentimes church leaders were acting as men – and not always as prophets, seers, and revelators. They were learning their way through life just like we all do and making mistakes along the way. They had “bad days” just like we do and they sometimes even spoke out of anger, frustration, and during moments of deep discouragement and despair. To study history in all its color, one is required to sympathize with the people you are reading about.
There is also much damage that can be done by isolating a single quote or action of any one man’s history. I believe that the majority of people that abandon their principles as a result of something they discover in history, do so because of this. In doing so, they fuel their ignorance – not their intelligence. When studying history you must consider the circumstances under which things were said and done. And you can almost never judge intent. Intent is probably the single most important factor when trying to evaluate someone or their behavior. Think of how different our criminal justice system would be without the burden of proof of intent. Intent is so important that in American history it was very common to write under a pseudonym so people wouldn’t judge intent by whoever the author was known to be. In addition, there are many circumstances where a statement was made to a very specific and select group of individuals with the purpose of motivating them to accomplish something or seeing something differently in a way that is completely unknown to us now. Statements were often made in an attempt to be witty, ironic, or even extreme; “shock value” has been used in one form or another for generations of time. Yet, many of those attempts and emphasis can get lost over time.
Many statements were made out of fear, or in response to circumstances totally unknown to us today. It is so easy to take a quote out of context and point it at anything we desire to prove that the author was “for this” or “against that.” Take George Washington for example, historians estimate that he wrote or dictated between 18,000 to 20,000 letters in his lifetime. Many of these letters were incredibly long and very personal. Washington assumed that they would only be read by his intended recipient. As a result we see a very different George Washington from one letter to the next, depending on whom he was addressing. Some of his own letters seem to totally contradict themselves. The circumstances of whom he was addressing – and how well they knew him and could perceive his intents and values – varied widely from one letter to another. As a result he is often misunderstood and misrepresented.
I’ve always believed that in both American history and church history, one of the fortunate effects of loved ones being separated from each other for such long periods of time was the resulting letters that were written back and forth, that would subsequently be preserved for a later day. There is so much detail revealed in these letters that give us deep insight into the ideologies and priorities of the authors thereof.
Thomas Jefferson believed, “History was philosophy teaching by examples.” He once told his niece that she should devote more hours of study to history every day than any other topic.
Historian Jon Meacham wrote,"We tend to view our history as an inevitable chain of events leading to a sure and certain conclusion,” but forget that the people living through it didn't see it that way. Nothing feels foreordained to someone living through his or her own place in time. As a result we see men reacting to circumstances that we can’t really understand through a modern lens.
When we think about men and women of significance we forget that they acted out of fear, prejudices, jealousies, and reacted to misinformation just as much as we do today. It's easy to judge the decisions they made at the time with the benefit of decades or centuries of experience and wisdom that followed. Hindsight is a wonderful thing. But that's what makes their achievements and contributions in their day that much more amazing and inspirational.
History allows us to peek into a different time and place–a fantasyland so unknown to society today that in some ways, it’s as foreign to us as the worlds or galaxies of Harry Potter and Star Wars.
Seeing men and women, REAL men and women who lived through and overcame so much adversity of their day is an incredibly insightful experience. History gives us the opportunity to see all men and women with much more compassion and understanding. When you see the accomplishments of so many, while also learning of their weaknesses and mistakes, you realize that all men and women– even those of considerable controversy have accomplished great and wonderful things.
Seeing how much good and bad one man can be capable of teaches valuable lessons of every civilization since the beginning of time. The rich lessons learned from the people of the Israelite, Nephite and Lamanite civilizations come to mind.
In studying history, I find less and less purpose in exposing the flaws and contradictions of men and women; instead I am more interested than ever to see what makes them great in spite of their flaws.
I pity the person who’s religious or patriotic beliefs all rest on the perfect behavior or perfect life of any one man. No man–save Christ–could ever uphold the mantle of such a responsibility.
Mankind has apostatized so many times against their religion, families, countries, and even God Himself as they discover incongruous behaviors and beliefs. And that’s the very reason we should study history: to prevent that dissolution from ever occurring.
The more I study every celebrated man of history, the more I discover that every great man has made significant mistakes. This doesn't cause me to prohibit all men from being able to teach and influence me. Instead it opens my eyes to the opposite truth: that every man and woman has something of value to share. It’s so easy to isolate one man in history and obsess over his flaws and shortcomings to the point of wanting to rid our history of him completely. The danger of that line of thinking is that if you do that to any one good man, you must do that to every good man if you judge them by the same standards. Study all great men in history and you’ll discover that collectively they all had their share of scandals, their methods of madness, and their contributions to controversy. But if you can judge a man in his entirety, and not just by any of his components, you’ll see that all men have achieved some of the greatest good that we still benefit from in the world today. No one page of a book tells the entire story, which is why I advise that you seek the whole story of every man you study, and not just the negative or misunderstood components. Because the moment you choose to denigrate one good man, you denigrate them all.
The study of history allows you to develop emotional muscles you have possibly never strengthened before. It’s a skill, not a weakness, to study history with the purpose of developing deeper wells of empathy and understanding. History is not a tool we should use to demonize the dead. If we do that, we reveal our own intolerance and ignorance.
Elder Steven E. Snow reminds us, “That while most of our ancestors are to be admired, they were human and made mistakes. There are sad or confusing episodes in our history that we seek to understand better, but some of these questions might not be answered on this side of the veil. And that’s fine.”
There is much to be learned from our own church history and from all history, but there are some things in history that we still do not understand; moments when we do not have the full context, or circumstances that we cannot comprehend. When I read about those moments in history I place them on a shelf in my mind I call my “faith and empathy” shelf. That’s where I keep things that I know I will learn more about on the other side of the veil when I have a fullness of knowledge and understanding.
History is full of life and lessons. More riches lie in history than all of the wealth in the modern world combined. By studying history you can more easily see past flaws and human emotions, and see through the bad to all of the good. It's hard to judge the future growth of a tree that is newly planted, but history itself reveals the grandeur that some trees eventually became. Seeing their lasting contributions and legacy through modern eyes underscores that all manner of men can make all manner of change for good to this world we all share.
As we seek to study the men and women that have gone before us with more understanding, love, tolerance, and empathy, we gain the ability to do the same with men and women that lead us or teach us in our day. As we study history this way, our personal relationships will deepen, communities will come together, and testimonies will grow when we focus on that which unites us more than that which divides us. In his talk “Cynics do not contribute, skeptics do not create, doubters do not achieve” President Hinckley admonishes us to, “Turn from the negativism that so permeates our society and look for the remarkable good among those with whom we associate, that we speak of one another’s virtues more than we speak of one another’s faults, that optimism replace pessimism, that our faith exceed our fears.”
These words from a modern prophet help to defend the men and women that came before him. They give us cause to see all of our brothers and sisters in a greater light of empathy and understanding. History has shown us the way.
Lead image from Getty Images
Daryl Austin lives with his wife and three daughters in Eagle Mountain, Utah.