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 Rather, they look for contradictions or inconsistencies in historical documents about the story of Moroni’s appearance to test the witness’s reliability.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.