A Statute of Limitations on Anonymity?

The Church is often accused of being secretive about its history. My tendency is to think that this is a bit overplayed. No less an iconoclast that Will Bagley (of Blood of the Prophets fame) has stated that he doesn’t think that there is any secret history of Mormonism to be written. This is not to say that there aren’t some documents that I would love to see!

Interestingly, the Church Archives recently did a massive digital doccument dump, putting thousands of pages of documents on DVD. Among the items included are numerous documents discussing church trials for moral infractions in Nauvoo. As much as possible, these names have been carefully blacked out, although the number of documents digitized was large enough that some places were missed and you can probably reconstruct who most of these church courts were about.

The stated reason for this policy was not to save the faithful from unseemly details. Rather, it flowed from the church policy that church courts are confidental and their proceedings are not released to the public. Even when the church court occured over 150 years ago. In his basically laudatory review of the DVD’s in the Journal of Mormon Studies, Gary Begerra — managing editor of Signature Books — said that he thought such a policy was not justified. One’s right to anonymity in ecclesiastical courts lapsed at death or some point thereafter.

It is an interesting issue. Full disclosure now. I am very interested in Mormon legal history, and in particular in the practice of Mormon courts resolving civil disputes during the 19th century. Unfortunately, the primary sources for this research consists almost ENTIRELY of sealed, church court records. A couple of researchers have been given access to this material (see Zion in the Courts), but only on the condition that names be expunged from records. And here we are talking not about sexual misconduct, but two brothers arguing over wandering live stock or a promissory note. On the other hand, there is a certain integrity to the Church’s position.

Still. I would love to see the records…

8 comments for “A Statute of Limitations on Anonymity?

  1. February 26, 2004 at 5:40 pm

    I think that this commitment to anonymity is commendable. Sure, and argument of 80 years after death (basically assuming the deaths of anyone who directly knew the individual) may be justifiable (and who knows, it might change to that), but there is something comforting about the current policy.

  2. Karen
    February 26, 2004 at 5:44 pm

    Nate, I was so incredibly excited by your post until I followed the link and saw the price tag. Wow. I wonder if I could convince our stake family history library to splurge? Better yet, maybe you could just pick up a copy, and I could borrow them. :o) (I love reading original documents from that era. One of my favorite books is a collection of the Missouri redress petitions. The emotion just leaks through–even after 150 years.)

    Although the historical purist in me would like to see the names (putting those particular disputes in context of other known facts–leading to broader historical application), I think the church has a point. Mormons are much closer to their history than so many other groups. We self-identify with our ancestors, and use them in an Aesop’s fable kind of way–moralizing through their experiences. Maybe 150 years isn’t long enough for a statute of limitations on a point that we’re so prideful about.

  3. Nate Oman
    February 26, 2004 at 5:47 pm

    The full set of DVDs costs something like $1300 so it is not the sort of thing you stick in your personal references library. The idea is clearly that libraries at research institutions buy a copy for their patrons. Kind of like buying a full set of John Adams’s papers on microfilm from the Massachusetts Historical Society.

  4. Karen
    February 26, 2004 at 5:56 pm

    Yeah Nate, I caught that, hence the sarcastic emoticon that was apparently insufficiently sarcastic. I’ll try again with a wink. ;o)

    On to more serious matters: what is the subject matter. Does is run the broad gamut of church courts, or stay away from certain topics? I’m curious if there were political excommunications, or at least discipline relating to political issues…i.e. opposing the theocratic government structure of Nauvoo. Would be fascinating to read. I wonder if the John C. Bennett court is on there, and if so, if it’s obvious who it is. That would also be fascinating reading.

  5. Nate Oman
    February 26, 2004 at 5:59 pm

    Karen: I honestly don’t know. I haven’t looked at the collection. I have only talked to some people working on it read Begerra’s review. BTW, my bet is that you could probably request a copy of it through your local family history library. You would only be able to view it at the church facility, but I am sure that the main family history library in SLC has copies that can be mailed to branch locations.

  6. February 26, 2004 at 6:28 pm

    I suspect that because of our focus on our pioneer heritage and our focus on families and geneology that such private matters are considered private longer. For instance we probably *care* how I grandparents and extended family are thought of longer than the average American.

  7. February 26, 2004 at 8:19 pm

    Let’s assume you’re someone who was involved in a church trial for moral infractions 150 years ago.

    Now, let’s assume that the church adopts a policy that the records of such trials will be opened to the public 80 years after the death of the person involved.

    Since you’re dead (and most likely your children are, too), it no longer matters to you whether your records remain anonymous, right?


    You wouldn’t be too happy if, during the millenium, someone came up to you and said, “So, I was reading in the records about that morality problem you had back in Nauvoo…”

  8. Grasshopper
    February 27, 2004 at 2:06 am

    Luke 12:2-3 (cf. D&C 1:3)
    2 For there is nothing covered, that shall not be revealed; neither hid, that shall not be known.
    3 Therefore whatsoever ye have spoken in darkness shall be heard in the light; and that which ye have spoken in the ear in closets shall be proclaimed upon the housetops.

    On the other hand:

    Ezekiel 33:14, 16
    14 Again, when I say unto the wicked, Thou shalt surely die; if he turn from his sin, and do that which is lawful and right…
    16 None of his sins that he hath committed shall be mentioned unto him…

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