Davis Bitton: “I Don’t Have a Testimony of the History of the Church”

Davis Bitton, one of the Mormon church’s most prominent historians, has written an essay with the provocative title, “I Don’t Have a Testimony of the History of the Church.” First delivered at the 2004 FAIR Conference, his purpose is to distinguish the gospel, of which he has a testimony, from church history, of which he does not. Meridian Magazine has published the essay here.

I don’t find his reasoning persuasive.

While I like many of his points, especially his observation that there are no facts that anti-Mormons know that believing Mormons don’t also know, I don’t find his main argument persuasive. It mirrors the routine tactic of apologists whose response to critics is to assert that every element of the gospel a critic has shown to be false is not actually part of the gospel. They thereby limit gospel to “those things incapable of being disproven.” It’s a convenient position to defend, but that’s the problem. It’s all convenience and no conviction. The crucial elements of Bitton’s essay suffer this same problem.

This tactic surfaces in Bitton’s claim that the History of the Church has no bearing on the Truth of the Gospel. The gospel, he believes, is not subject to historical research because the gospel is, tautologically, those things not subject to historical research. But this position misses the point. Historians who leave the church after learning facts about church history don’t claim to have discovered that the gospel, as Bitton has defined it, is untrue. They don’t, to use Bitton’s example, have a videotape of Moroni not appearing to Joseph Smith. Rather, they look for contradictions or inconsistencies in historical documents about the story of Moroni’s appearance to test the witness’s reliability. Bitton ignores this critical factor in this section:

Let me anticipate a question that is bound to occur to some. Are there not some historical events that are essential to the restoration? How, in other words, can I be indifferent to the following claims?

1. Joseph Smith had a vision in the Sacred Grove.

2. Metal plates were found, kept in his possession for a period of time, shown to witnesses, and translated.

3. Heavenly beings restored keys and priesthood authority.

4. Many spiritual manifestations occurred at the dedication of the Kirtland Temple.

The list could be lengthened, but let us stop with those. These are “historical” events, if you will, events that occurred in historical time. But not a single one of them is subject to proof or disproof by historians. If I have a testimony of these events, it is not because of my advanced historical training or many years of delving in the primary documents of church history.

My complaint is with his final two sentences. Bitton overlooks the central role of Joseph Smith’s testimony in his four example. If Joseph Smith had never said that any of those things happened, Bitton wouldn’t believe them and Bitton wouldn’t be writing Mormon history. There wouldn’t be any Mormon history to write. Mormon history exists only because Joseph Smith said these things happened.

We can conceive of hypothetical documents that, if they were genuine, would remove the initial basis for Bitton’s testimony. Imagine Joseph Smith kept a parallel journal throughout his life, only in this journal he says that the whole thing started as a practical joke. He concocts the visions and heavenly messengers. He decides, once his family and community take him seriously and treat him special, that it’s a good gig and determines to play it out. He promises his friends influence in exchange for their witnesses of the gold plates. He expresses guilt when he allows martyrs to die to preserve his mantle and ego.

Britton appears to be saying that even those journals would not disprove the gospel. I can’t tell if that’s because of (a) the possibility that God restored the gospel through Joseph Smith even though he thought he was lying about everything, or if it’s because Britton believes the gospel’s truth doesn’t depend on Joseph Smith in the first place. I can see the logic of the first possibility, implausible as it is, but I do not comprehend the second. Joseph Smith’s accounts of those events are central to our testimonies of the gospel.

18 comments for “Davis Bitton: “I Don’t Have a Testimony of the History of the Church”

  1. It is our history that keeps us from being a mere sect. In other words, without the history, we would have no Mormon culture. There would be no reason to believe in the church, because there would be no historical “signs” that Joseph Smith wasn’t just a theologian with some expanded thoughts of eschatology. If the historical events surrounding the revelation of this new theology did not exist, I beleive there would be multiple churches, each with their own interpretation of the plan of salvation, progression, etc… with no real sense that it is more than a theological theory, much like process theology.

    I have a testimony of the gospel as recieved through Joseph Smith and other prophets. I believe these people speak for God because of the historical events or miracles surrounding their lives. Again without the manifistation of a Divine hand in the history of the church, we would not be a church at all.

  2. Interesting article.
    I do in many ways like the separation of Testimony and from whence it is gained, and study of history- especially statements like-

    I don’t have to be running scared all the time, fearful that I may say something or quote something that will shake up poor little Sister Blavatsky or new convert Brother Jones. I won’t take delight in affronting them. But I should be able to study my subject and give my best effort in understanding the personalities and the events.


    I study marriage among the Mormons in the second half of the nineteenth century. Was there more polygamy than I had been led to believe? So be it. I report what the best evidence supports.

    But I really wonder what you do when you are a Church historian and it seems the Church doesn’t think you holding that view is OK. It seems like Michael Quinn started with a simmilar view.
    Dr. Bitton talks about the expectations being the problem, not the history- but sometimes it feels as though the Church to some extent creates those expectations.

  3. Here’s where I lose Davis–very early in his essay. He says:
    “For the simple reason that the historians who know most about our church history have been and are faithful, committed members of the church.”

    This simply isn’t true. People who know a great deal end up on very different sides of the fence.

  4. He wasn’t talking about “people” who “know a great deal”. He specifically named historians who know the most. How that can be measured is another thing but let’s give him the benefit of using his own words.

  5. The way that many people deal with “Church History” you would think they have never read the Old Testatment.

    Or read the D&C with God’s constant admonitions “be sober my son” etc.

  6. Matt

    I think you are missing the point of the article. From my point of view, as a PhD student in History, he is talking about three things, all related to good historical scholarship.

    1. Does History prove truth?

    For the most part, no. This is a dirty secret most Historians do not talk about outside the field, otherwise why would anyone buy our books :)?

    Documents are not unsullied, pure representations of the past, but are filtered accounts with their own biases, assumptions, and forms. A perfect example from my field, Chinese History, is that although we have perhaps the longest and best maintained literary/historical tradition in the world, we have few if any documents from people who do not share, or were looked down on in, the Confucian world view. In any case, historians view the past as seeing “through a glass, darkly.” Thus the historian can not, in most circumstances, pin “down the truth” with 100% accuracy, but we do deliver our best guess.

    In addition Prof. Bitten is addressing the state of scholarship and documentary evidence as it now stands. He does not address your theoretical document.

    2. Bias/unbias

    Most of the scholarship in the past 15 years or so studying Religious History of all types puts aside the issue of the truth of a religion because most metaphysical points can not be proved within the confines of the discipline. People who try to use history, as a discipline, to prove or disprove religions are wrong headed.

    Every one has inherent bias. For anti-Mormons (or Mormons) to pose as unbiased observers of the “truth” through history is misleading at best.

    3. Handling of sources

    Prof. Britton is also critical of the anti-Mormon and (if you read carefully) Mormon use of sources. One can not pick and choose from the historical record but must take one’s subject as a whole, with both parties often fail to do.

    In short:

    In stating “I never had a testimony of church history. My testimony is in the gospel of Jesus Christ.” Britton is saying History “as a discipline I have no faith in History showing me the truth. That comes from other sources.”

    When the brother asked Prof. Britton “What effect has your extensive study of church history had on your testimony?” He switched the subject and the object. It is one’s testimony that effects one’s view of Church History, not the other way around.

  7. I agree that his article reflects a lack of confidence in history as a discipline for learning the truth. However, if it wasn’t for history (as recorded in the scriptures), he wouldn’t know anything about the gospel that he accepts as true. I think the essay was mostly an effort to dissuade people from studying church history by discounting its importance or even its relevance.

    What is the gospel if not history, or a version of history? Christ’s crucifixion and resurrection are history. Surely he’s not saying he doesn’t have a testimony of those events, or the other four he listed as examples. So what he really means, is: “I have a testimony of a version of history that I choose to believe. But I don’t have a testimony of contrary versions of history, and I don’t base my testimony on historical accounts alone.”

    This approach explains why people can study the same historical accounts and reach different conclusions, which is perfectly normal. What I find risky is the attitude of encouraging (or permitting) church members to study and discuss only “faith-promoting” versions of history. This creates a house of cards that collapses quickly when alternative versions are encoutered. The resulting disillusionment, in many cases, undermines the confidence members have in everything the church teaches. I’ve lost count of the number of people I’ve known who have gone through this and are no longer active in church. IMO, it’s all quite unnecessary and unhealthy to continue this approach.

    BTW, I find the idea of imagining the worst possible thing and then comparing it to the various accounts to be preposterous. It’s like saying: “the President of the U.S. could be a child abuser, wife murderer, genocidal maniac; but since he’s not, then he’s okay (even if, hypothetically, he takes bribes from the privileged rich, undermines the Constitution, etc.)”

  8. Juliann,

    Even using his own words, it is unclear that his assertion is correct. Yes, Bushman, Jessee, et al are very well-read historians on church history who have remained faithful. However, others have not. Most prominently, Michael Quinn.

  9. See, I always wonder about Quinn. Because we say – well Quinn didn’t remain faithfull after he “found out the truth” but the thing is- he did. He still believed. The things he found din’t diminish his belief in the restoration- he didn’t apostosize because he thought it was untrue. He just thought that the church is true and that a lot of chruch leaders continued allowing poligamy- which really seems to be what Bitton thinks.
    I really don’t see where the huge difference between Bitton and Quinn lies- other than Quinn having been asked to be a bit quiet about what he found and in response raising a fuss. What would Bitton have done if he was asked the same thing? Or was he and we just don’t know.
    What Bitton seems to say is that it is pretty rare for someone who was a legit historian and who had a testimony to suddenly lose that testimony because of something unseemly they found. Quinn certainly didn’t lose his testimony because of something he found. He got censured for speaking too loudly about what he found- after that he got kicked out for raising a fuss about being censured.
    But he never lost a testimony in the gospel because of church history (although depending on how you define losing a testimony- he may have lost one because of what he found in the church here and now)

  10. I’m with Susan – this is where Bitton lost me. Quinn is one example, but there are plenty of others. I probably shouldn’t name names, but I’m always one who throws caution to the wind on the Internet. For the record, I don’t know what the personal faith of the following people is (since it isn’t my business), but I suspect they wouldn’t qualify as believers under Bitton’s narrow definition. What about Gary Bergera, Carmon Hardy, Newell Bringhurst, Jan Shipps, Sally Gordon, Scott Kenney, Richard Van Wagoner, Brigham Madsen, Will Bagley (say what you will about Blood of the Prophets, his Kingdom in the West series can’t be beat), Roger Launius, Dan Vogel (name me one person who’s more familiar with the documents of early Mormonism – and don’t say Bushman since he already singled out Vogel as knowing more than he does), Stan Larsen, John Sillito, and Michael Marquardt.

    I’m sure I’ve left plenty off this list. Also, I know some people will take exception to some, or even all of the names I listed. That’s fine, but the point remains that Bitton’s little example isn’t as clear cut as he’d like us to believe. Apparently Bitton wants to get to define exactly who qualifies as “knowledgeable” and who doesn’t.

  11. I agree with Nathan that D. Bitton was arguing that the academic discipline we call history is not particularly useful in discovering absolute truth in a religious or metaphysical sense. History attempts to piece together a limited picture of the past through small pieces of documentary evidece, kind of like putting together a 1000-piece puzzle with about 50 pieces. If any of you wish to experience this, read Susan Easton Black’s bio of Brigham Young, and then read Leonard Arrington’s bio (if you can manage; Arrington was the better historian, but Black is a better writer IMO). You will encounter two very different Brigham Youngs.

    This is one reason why church history at BYU is mostly taught by people from the Religion department, not the History department. The church history faculty typically have training as historians, but the pedagogical method and use of primary sources (or lack thereof) is quite different in religion class than it would be in a history class. If you took Ron Walker’s Utah history course at BYU or Lydon Cook’s at UVSC then you know what I mean.

    Bitton may be right about the limitations of history in discovering metaphysical truth. The problem is that we are required to believe that certain historical events happened in order to be members in good-standing. As Nate Oman and others never tire of pointing out, the church mostly cares about what we do rather than what we believe. But some of those few required beliefs are that Joseph Smith actually had a vision and translated the plates through genuine divine inspiration.

    Because so much of our faith rests upon historical events that either happened or did not, all the whens, whats, hows, etc. of church history will continue to be important not only to faithful members, but to the critics as well.

    If Bitton was merely arguing that one should not rest his or her testimony on church history through the use of traditional historical methods, then I agree with him. Whether Joseph Smith actually had the experiences he claimed may be true or false as a matter of history, but given the discipline’s inherent limitations, what we believe is and should be much more a matter of faith.

  12. My reading of what Bitton is saying is not that traditional historical scholarship is wholly irrelevant to religious faith, but rather that traditional historical methods are unlikely to be determinative of those historical events which are most important to religious faith. These are events where the divine interposes into the normal world.

    I do not think that Bitton was saying as a matter of logical necessity that there is no case in which tradional historical methods would ever affect religious faith. He is just saying that these particular kinds of events are so subjective that it is highly unlikely that there could be any physical historical evidence which could only be interpreted as defintively disproving the experience with the divine.

    I think you are misreading Bitton’s article by treating it as an abstract philosphical argument when in fact it is about the practical limits of historical methodology.

    With regard to John H’s list of historians, many never were LDS, many left the Church for reasons unrelated to historical studies, and many are really just unprofessional dabblers with obvious biases and agenda. But again, I don’t think Bitton was really contending that the most knowledgeable historians are all faithful. I think he was noting that many highly knowledgeable historians are and remain faithful as a rebuttal to the implication that some on John H’s list like to make that anyone who *really* knows Mormon history will not believe the Church’s basic faith claims.

  13. My personal thought, as I listened to him give the presentation, was that the people who know the most about church history are people who work for the church and have access to stuff that the public doesn’t. If these people have not lost their faith over things they have seen, I think that should say something.

    I believe his whole point was that although it seems to be almost trendy among ex-Mormons to say that when they learned “the truth” about church history, they lost their faith, there really is nothing in church history that should cause this to happen, as long as we have a testimony of the proper things and reasonable expectations.

  14. It seems to me that there are thoughtful, well educated people who believe all kinds of things. Some believe in alien abductions. Some believe they can cure cancer or deafness by cracking a patient’s back. Some believe that the earth is 6,000 years old. I am certainly not equating religious faith with these other beliefs, but why should it be reassuring to know that thoughtful, well-informed people believe in the restoration? The large majority of the thoughtful well-informed people in the world think that the odds of Mormonism being what it claims to be is so small, that it is not even worth a serious look. If we suggest to people in general that they should be comfortable with their religious beliefs because so many smart people hold similar beliefs, then most people will be quite comfortable saying “thanks, but no thanks” to our missionaries.

  15. Trevor:

    I can very much appreciate the general gist of Bitton’s point. I think he’s absolutely right in refuting this anti-Mormon notion that *everybody* who learns Church history leaves.

    That said, the way he tried to make his point was relatively thoughtless, IMO. For starters, the list didn’t mention a single woman. Jill Derr, Maureen Beecher and many others deserve to be on the list. Second, it does open him up to criticisms for conveniently ignoring many qualified historians who, as Susan correctly pointed out, have diverse beliefs and opinions about Mormonism.

  16. John H,

    I agree that it was a bad article. It seemed chaotic and the writing was often unclear. The only reson why I made any sense of it is that I am a Historian.

  17. Well, it’s hardly fair to call it “a bad article.” First, I wish more LDS scholars would deliver published talks giving their personal perspective in reconciling their academic knowledge and beliefs with their LDS beliefs. Let’s give him credit for doing what few other LDS scholars seem inclined to do. Second, the talk was delivered to a bunch of Mormon apologists (FAIR), which explains, for example, the frequent references to “anti-Mormons.” No doubt he would deliver a talk on the same theme somewhat differently to a group of graduate students or historians.

    I thought he fumbled his first attempt at expressing his main point, but said it better later on: Competent historians who have devoted many years of study to the issues have not felt compelled to abandon their faith in the restored gospel. That’s a fair statement, as long as one would admit (as I’m sure Bitton would) that there are some similarly devoted historians whose study has modified their beliefs.

    However, agreeing with Matt’s post and with some earlier comments, it’s odd that Bitton attempts to downplay the role of historical events in LDS self-understanding and testimony. It seems like the Great Apostasy and the Joseph Smith story (vision, BoM, angelic priesthood bestowal) are the core of LDS gospel truth claims and are eminently historical.

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