Past and Present

It’s an intellectual banality to point out that how one thinks of the present structures how one thinks about the past. The cliché, however, is useful when thinking about Mormon history. We often look to the past in the search for origins, assuming that if we understand how something began we will have a better grasp on what it is and how it works. This search for origins, however, means that frequently we view the past in reverse, picking out elements as central or important on the basis of later developments.

Latter-day Saints tend to look to Mormon history in the search for their own origins. Hence, we tend to read Mormon history as being the story of the beginning of our church and community. We take the present church as our implicit point of reference and then decide what is central and what is peripheral in the past on the basis of the present. I think that this tendency generally pushes Mormon historians to place the story of building Zion at the center of the Mormon historical experience. It is in this quest for Zion that we find continuity from the past to the present. We understand that building Zion meant something different to a nineteenth-century Mormon pioneer than it does to us, but ultimately it was that impulse to build up the expanding Kingdom that led to us and that continues to animate our contemporary lives.

We often forget, however, that it is possible to look at the Mormon past as the prelude to a different future. Consider, for example, the work of Jon Krakauer. His ultimate interest is in a violent strand of modern polygamists. Accordingly, he sees in Mormon history the origin of his contemporary subject. This changes his interpretation of what constitutes the essence of nineteenth-century Mormon experience. Where Latter-day Saints see the story of building Zion at the center, Krakauerr sees the essence of nineteenth-century Mormonism in terms of plural marriage and violence. On this view, Mountain Meadows becomes a paradigmatic case of Mormonism as opposed to a horrific outlier case. Mormon critics of Krakauer rightly point out that his historical research is sloppy and derivative. But this is not what ultimately raised hackles. Rather, it was that he defined the essence of the Mormon past in terms of the origin of a different present.

15 comments for “Past and Present

  1. November 30, 2008 at 10:09 pm

    We take the present church as our implicit point of reference and then decide what is central and what is peripheral in the past on the basis of the present.

    What has fascinated me about church history is how they looked at what was central so much differently than we do.

  2. November 30, 2008 at 10:20 pm

    As for Krakauer, his problem is that he wants to take a modern outlier and insist that it is the necessary mainstream. That is a pretty obviously fraudulent choice that informs all of his analysis. It comes across as intentional and in bad faith, which repulses those LDS who encounter him.

    In fact, one might want to look at his life choices as inspiration for a culture that creates such an approach and outlook. He probably would not appreciate that much. isn’t a bad start, considering.

  3. Ray
    November 30, 2008 at 11:06 pm

    “On this view, Mountain Meadows becomes a paradigmatic case of Mormonism as opposed to a horrific outlier case.”

    I think this sentence is spot-on. When you start with a specific question about an outlier (“How did this happen?”) and couple it with a core assumption (“Religious people are irrational, and irrational people will defend themselves violently in the face of imagined danger.”), it is easy to find evidence for that assumption in both the specific outlier and other examples of violence – regardless of the actual causes of that violence.

    I had a foster son who was the biggest, strongest kid his age. No matter the cause, if he was involved in a confrontation of any kind in any way there were school administrators who automatically saw it as his fault – since they couldn’t imagine anyone starting anything with such a big kid. He also had an extreme protection complex, which means he was involved regularly in trying to stop students who were picking on other kids – leading those same administrators to view him as a troublemaker, since he often was in the middle of it by the time they got there to intervene.

    I’m sure Krakauer would have been one of those administrators. He would have written a compelling book about my son, but it would have been fundamentally wrong. I’m concerned, however, how I and other members might fall victim to our own similar biases and incorrect assumptions.

  4. December 1, 2008 at 2:06 am

    Mormon critics of Krakauer rightly point out that his historical research is sloppy and derivative.

    So also are most non-academic history books. I agree with you. The reason that we are irritated at Krakauer isn’t his lack of rigor, its that we don’t like his conclusions and argument.

    I like the idea that history is framed by the author’s point of view. But I would really like to see what other points of view exist, especially if they exist, or existed at one time, among Church members.

    And I wonder if our own point of view won’t change eventually.

    I’m just having trouble figuring out what other points of view Church members could hold.

  5. December 1, 2008 at 2:16 am

    In fact, one might want to look at his life choices as inspiration for a culture that creates such an approach and outlook. He probably would not appreciate that much.

    Stephen, I’m afraid I don’t see what you are referring to in the wikipedia article. Other than a propensity to climb and the possibly ill-advised risk that might entail, I don’t see any “life choices” that would explain your comment.

    What are you referring to?

    [I should note that I’m NOT trying to defend Krakauer. I’ve not read his book, nor do I want to given its apparent attempt to skew Mormon history to meet his thesis. I suspect that he is a fine writer, but not necessarily fair. I just don’t see what you are referring to.]

  6. Rameumptom
    December 1, 2008 at 10:42 am

    Are there currently LDS members that are bent on violence? Of course. I’ve known many who hide caches of weapons and food up in the Uintah and Oquirrh mountains, awaiting the invading hordes, so they can do battle.
    I know members who train constantly for warfare, etc. All believing they are doing the Lord a service.
    However, as many of these that I know, I know countless more that are peaceable. We don’t see Mormons actively and violently protesting the anti-Prop 8 groups, for instance.

    What has made the mainstream Mormonism what it is today are those issues of the past that have had the greatest impact. Has MMM had an impact? Of course. But it is opposite what one would expect if Krakauer was correct in his theory. We’ve become a people who abhor violence, and seek to accomplish things in peaceful ways. We don’t establish militias or Danite groups to eliminate the threats around us.

    The Church actively sought change so it could change Deseret from a territory into a state. That change included radical changes, including stopping polygamy and rancorous war-like language of the past. Joseph F Smith’s statements for members to leave his critics alone, were very different than the incendiary statements Brigham Young made.

    If anything, the effect was opposite what one would expect if Krakauer was correct. Instead of small outlying groups of radicals, the mainstream Church would still be seeking what he believes were the central points of the gospel. Instead, our Sunday lessons intentionally avoid polygamy discussions, and focus on doctrines that affect us today. We have a different focus that dwells more on ideas, such as establishing Zion. Whether that or polygamy was Brigham Young’s focus is immaterial to us today. As it is, Zion was Joseph Smith’s focus, since plural marriage was a secret activity, and ignores his city and temple building: activities focused on Zion.

  7. Craig H.
    December 1, 2008 at 1:13 pm

    I saw another but related sort of anachronism on one of those recent LDS scriptural discussions on KBYU. The topic was the New Testament, and the choosing of a new apostle after the death of Judas. The presenters weren’t quite sure what to make of the drawing of lots, and one specifically said you had to look to the modern church to understand what was going on then–if you did so, then you’d see that what drawing lots really meant was raising your hand to sustain someone. I couldn’t imagine that this conclusion could be more wrong. I think it’s fine for present issues and interests to spark inquiry into the past, but the problem of course is when you see the past strictly through a present lens. You not only get it wrong but, ironically, given the desire to link past to present, when you get the past wrong then any links you are trying to make to the present fall flat.

  8. December 2, 2008 at 12:26 pm

    Craig (#7) hits on a point I also thought about while reading Nate’s excellent post. Members of the church have a tendency to “liken the scriptures” unto themselves, so to speak, and this likening manifests itself not only in scripture, but in history as well, I believe. This likening approach has colored LDS interpretations of the “great apostasy,” as Reynolds’ “Early Christians in Disarray” discusses in several chapters. I did a blog post on cautiously likening a few weeks ago:

    Great post, Nate.

  9. December 2, 2008 at 12:40 pm

    I see two general approaches to the scriptures in the church. One is the reflective approach — non-critical, using the current text of the scriptures as a lens with which to interpret morality, history, the church, and the world. In other words, it allows the reader to see modern life reflected in the scriptures. The historical approach, on the other hand, seeks to understand the scriptures by their original context and purpose.

    It seems to me that the more conservative (to use an overly broad term) members of the church prefer a reflective approach. I find that interesting because it seems counter-intuitive. I would expect the most conservative members to be the ones most interested in the original texts, the ones who would be studying Greek and Hebrew, and championing the Joseph Smith Papers project…but that doesn’t appear to be the case.

  10. December 2, 2008 at 1:21 pm

    A closer look may disrupt the status quo?

    Interesting observation, Dane, I wonder how solid it is. (My guess is that many members of the Church are simply concerned with day-to-day mortality and don’t feel an urge to get to the nitty gritty. Especially in our heavily mediated culture many people appear to long for soundbites more than rigorous investigation. (Check the length of the common blog post, for example)

  11. December 2, 2008 at 10:50 pm

    This is all bringing to mind a recent discussion with my father-in-law, who is an historian. We were discussing the contextual relevance of an author to any given statement. In other words, does it really matter who said something, if the thought is profound? He recently quoted Karl Marx on his blog, as an intro to a thought about history. I had often used a quote from William Ayers in my email signature. Neither quote contained anything offensive or even inflammatory. But there were several people who protested because of the source. My argument, to which the FIL agrees, is that the source has no real bearing, because NONE of us know what the “original” context was.

    Likewise for any study of history. We must place our own personal context into any understanding of the past. We cannot help but do this. One of my favourite theories of education is Louise Rosenblatt’s Transactional Theory of Literary Criticism. She pretty much says that we interpret literature through our own ideas and understanding of the world around us. In other words, we liken literature to our own lives. Therefore, there is no way to understand the “original context” unless you, yourself, are the author. And even then, later events in your life will change the context for you. Have you ever gone back and read your old journals? You usually experience the same thing that happens when you re-read a book: you think of different things, you remember different things, and you understand things differently.

  12. Craig H.
    December 3, 2008 at 12:04 pm

    It’s true, Alex, that you can’t know the original context with 100% certainty. You probably can’t even know what the percentage of certainty is. But as one scholar has pointed out, neither can surgeons completely sterilize an operating room, and yet there’s a lot of benefit to trying. Study the context enough and you’re likely getting beyond superficial meanings or interpretations.

  13. aloysiusmiller
    December 4, 2008 at 12:13 am

    Timely, I travelled today so I bought Under the Banner of Heaven in the airport and read it on the flight. I kept thinking about Bill Ayers and Bernardine Dohrn and seeing how they could be explained in light of their faith — Marxist atheistic utopianism. As I considered it it occurred to me that all of Christianity including the conquest of the Americas, the Inquisition, the Mountain Meadow Massacre etc. was a lot safer than atheism.

  14. Eduard A. Erdtsieck
    December 6, 2008 at 4:46 pm

    There was a rich young man, who once asked Jesus how he could receive eternal life? Jesus answered keep all the commandments and He named them one by one. This young man replied, I keep them all, what do I lack? Jesus said, you are seeking perfection, then He said, go and sell what you own and give the proceeds to the poor and come, follow me.

    Lately I have heard a lot about the Church causing this or causing that, but really, who is the Church. In the past it was the Mountain Meadow massacre and today it is Proposition 8, the California Marriage Amendment. Who is doing, this doing? Brigham Young was blamed for the massacre and our First Presidency for the passage of Prop #8.

    Nate, I am sure that historians should not place the building up of Zion at the center of Mormon history. The Book of Mormon is the prelude to our history, it places Jesus Christ at the center of the events in these latter days. That rich young man and we are led by the desire to see perfection in the law, but we don’t knock or seek to understand what is.

    If you seek eternal life, keep all the commandments and Lawyers and soldiers will find the temporary bloody or embarrassing solutions.

    However, if you seek perfection, you are still subject to the outcomes of them, who choose their rights over forgiveness and repentance. At least, I have the hope to a righteous Judge over the law, when the time is ripe. It is foolishness to think of it otherwise.

    I saw this bumper sticker not too long ago. “Jesus is the answer,” but meanwhile we’re having bloody fun. The building of Zion is a shared responsibility of everyone born of flesh and blood! Be they, Muslim, Christian, Hindu, Budhist, Sikh, Heathen, etc. . . etc. . . etc.

    The reason we have the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is to give all of God’s children a chance to make a pure offering in preparation of His second coming. That is why we have over 130 temples around the globe. The world is offering a substitute by burning incense in His name.

    Eduard Erdtsieck

  15. December 8, 2008 at 12:04 am

    Craig H. – I am not suggesting that we should merely skim the scriptures and seek for the most immediate and superficial interpretation. In fact, if you think about it, the process of transactional interpretation is essentially the same thing as “likening the scriptures”. You must dig deep into your own personal experiences and make meaningful connections to your own life. As I continue to ponder this, I think of other terms that can be related… the cognitive psychological concept of anchoring and adjusting, for example.

    The wonderful thing about studying the past is that it gives us an insight into our own beliefs and ideas. When we study the Teachings of the Presidents of the Church, I don’t care so much as to what they thought when they said things. I care about what I think about these ideas now and, more importantly, how they impact my relationship with Deity. What do I consider most important? Do I focus on that which uplifts, or that which detracts?

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