Credible Witnesses

March 25, 2006 | 21 comments
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Do historians also need to be credible witnesses in the evidentiary sense? I think they do.

Working with witnesses, in both written and oral form, is a major focus of practicing law. At certain phases in the course of a lawsuit, a lawyer pays close attention to whether a witness, either adverse or friendly, will be seen by a judge or jury as credible. Evidentiary rules allow lawyers to dedicate time and information solely to the subject of a witness’s credibility. In fact, lawyers frequently use exceptions to evidentiary rules prohibiting irrelevant character evidence meant to prejudice a jury against a witness’s testimony to offer evidence of a witness’s very character for truthfulness.

Maybe this is why it is so surprising when a historian reveals fundamental ignorance on a very basic fact in his or her area of expertise. Last week, Doug Fabrizio, the host of Radio West, hosted a show about dietary restrictions in religion and whether they are logical or consistent. The show was titled “The Word of Wisdom.” The person Doug Fabrizio chose to interview with regard to the Latter-day Saint Word of Wisdom in this show was Will Bagley. As an “independent historian” writing about Mormon history, Will Bagley has been the editor of the fifteen volume series titled Kingdom in the West: Mormons in the American Frontier as well as the author or co-author of numerous volumes in that series. (He has also recently written a history of the Mountain Meadows Massacre called Blood of the Prophets (2002).[1]) One would think that someone writing such an ambitious history of the Latter-day Saints in the American West would know something about Latter-day Saints.

As expected, Bagley’s tone in the radio show was pejorative with regard to Latter-day Saints and their beliefs. No surprise there. The shocker was when Bagley basically revealed that, although holding himself out as a scholar on Mormonism, he has never read D&C 89, or doesn’t know its content — and this in a radio show in which he is participating as the expert on Mormons and their Word of Wisdom. In one of his derisive comments about the Latter-day Saint Word of Wisdom in the show, Bagley noted in an incredulous tone of voice and with a chuckle that the Word of Wisdom specified tobacco for horses. This elicited a similar chuckle from the Protestant guest and Doug Fabrizio. A small conversation ensued in which Bagley again laughed at the thought of the stupidity of Mormons and seemed to be imagining some Mormon trying to shove tobacco down a horse’s throat. One doesn’t have to be an expert on the Word of Wisdom to know that it simply does not say this.

The Word of Wisdom, in its modern interpretation, prohibits the human consumption of tobacco. Anyone who knows a Mormon knows this. But with regard to tobacco, the Word of Wisdom also notes

And again, tobacco is not for the body, neither for the belly, and is not good for man, but is an herb for bruises and all sick cattle, to be used with judgment and skill. (D&C 89:8)

Arguably, anyone who has read the Word of Wisdom once through will know that it does not mandate tobacco for horses. Bagley should know this. But as shown in the radio show, Bagley was all too willing to make such a statement and laugh at how stupid Mormons are for believing it.

If Bagley does not have such a basic fact about Latter-day Saints correct — or is willing to obfuscate the topic on public radio despite more accurate knowledge for the purpose of casting aspersions on the religion as a whole — then shouldn’t this call his credibility as a historian focusing on Mormonism and Mormon history into question?

Bagley is just a glaring example of this issue. I would hope that someone holding themselves out as an expert on a topic, and viewed by at least some as such an expert, would take the time and care to know the basics about their subject matter. And if they are wrong about such a basic thing, then what else are they wrong about?

[1] With regard to Bagley’s Blood of the Prophets, one reviewer has noted that

Bagley’s analysis of the evidence is uncritical and unbalanced, usually favoring explanations that would condemn authorities of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Bagley often ignores exculpatory evidence of a much higher quality than the evidence upon which he relies to inculpate Brigham Young. Bagley often favors rumor and speculation over hard evidence, or he relies solely upon rumor and speculation when there is no evidence. Although rich in quantity with primary sources, many of these sources are neither competent nor credible. Quantity does not equal quality. Bagley sometimes relies upon secondary sources where primary sources are more reliable.

Bagley also has difficulty with chronology. At times, he actually reverses the sequence of events to distort what really happened. This disregard for the sequence of events causes him to lose the perspective needed to assess the implications of geographic distances and the passage of time. (Robert D. Crockett, FARMS, 2003, pp. 199 – 254.)

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21 Responses to Credible Witnesses

  1. Pete on March 26, 2006 at 1:38 am

    Great post John.

    It *should* be unbelievable that Mr. Bagley has never actually read the words of D&C 89.

  2. Kimball Hunt on March 26, 2006 at 1:46 am

    ONLY to take the devil’s advocate position here (because I understand and sypathize with the basic thrust of what you’re talking about here– ) but your argument begs the question: Is or is not tobacco an effective folk remedy if not for horses then for “all sick cattle”?

  3. Mike on March 26, 2006 at 8:31 am

    Tobacco has nicotine which is s stimulant and makes man and animals alike feel a little “better.” That is why people smoke, they say it feels good. At a time when Pasteur was still working out the germ theory of disease, when the most common way to kill pain was alcohol, with no antiboitics, when mercury was used to treat syphilis, before the science of phrenology had been born and debunked, etc. etc., it might have been better than nothing. We sometime forget how much medical science has advanced since the days of Joseph Smith.

    Some of the tobacco coming out of the Far East was laced with opium which was the most powerful narcotic of the time and one of the few really effective medicines around. That might have been what they had in mind. My grandmother told me that Brigham Young has really severe dental absesses which were extremely painful and he chewed tobacco because of the opium in it which effectively treated the pain.

    The Word of Wisdom has a historical context and within that context I think it was pretty sound advice. Bagley is arrogantly ridiculing the backwardness of a previous time as much as he is taking pot shots at Mormons, with little historical appreciation of what it was like to live back then. I find this attitude remarkable, especially from a historian which is what Bagley is supposed to be.

    In the spirit of the word of wisdom, we should consider adding sugar salt and fat to be used in moderation.

  4. Wilfried on March 26, 2006 at 9:30 am

    John, you raise a fundamental issue, one that continues to affect the way Mormons are viewed in so many parts of the world. Just this past week I have been following the controversy surrounding the plans of the Church to purchase a huge piece of land near Paris to build the first temple in France. As often happens in such a case, even in the US outside Utah, part of the local population is nervous about such news: Mormons in our backyard? Then the media (it’s been main news on TV) call in “witnesses” to explain who Mormons are, what they believe, what the community can expect if a temple is built. Happily, quite a few were pretty correct, basing themselves on investigation and experience. But then you see how some anti’s are able to distort the picture by ludicrous statements, and their credibility as witnesses is never questioned.

  5. RTSwen on March 26, 2006 at 1:00 pm

    If anyone cares to go to the source, it’s on the KUER.ORG archives for RadioWest – Wednesday, March 15.

    I listened, and I wonder how credible John Fowles is? I failed to find Bagley explicitly stating that he had never read section 89 – was this inferred? Or are you using “horses” (rather than cattle) to come to that conclusion? Remember, it is live radio, so #2′s response seems quite plausible and is much less of a leap than stating that Bagley has never read the section.

    With respect to the actual “horses” comment, following a brief discussion on the prescriptive elements Bagley asks Daniel Sack (the historian with a broad background in American religious folk beliefs) if he knows why the WoW might include such prescription for tobacco. Specifically, Bagley says “My assumption is that it was referring to polstices or something for treating horses, you don’t have any background on why the revelation would recommend tobacco for horses?” Sack responds “I have no idea” in a manner which elicits a small laugh, and Fabrizio says “Interesting”. Not exactly a mocking statement but rather a question looking for some evidence of the folk influences on the early Mormons. It seems to me that such a question is exactly what a historian should ask.

    Far from “Bagley’s tone [being] pejorative with regard to Latter-day Saints and their beliefs” he talks of the difficulty of delineating the cultural from the spiritual. Further, Bagley states that it is “unurguable that the practical effects of the Word of Wisdom have been hugely beneficial” and that “the discpline that it has brought and the sense of identity have been very powerful.” He acknowledges that, as a historian, it is fun and interesting to look at the cultural oddities, but that is far from an overall pejorative tone.

    Of course, using the actual content of the program isn’t as provocative, nor does it tee up Bagley for a Times and Seasons post.

  6. ed on March 26, 2006 at 1:54 pm

    I listened to the broadcast. There is much to disagree with, but I didn’t find it “perjorative” or “derisive;” for the most part it is a serious and civil discussion. The parts about tobacco and horses that I found are at 18:30, and again at 29:00, and 31:50. I suggest you listen for yourself, and decide whether you find John Fowles’ description of these exchange to be accurate.

    (I am in no way defending Bagley’s historical research, which I’m not familiar with.)

  7. Kimball Hunt on March 26, 2006 at 3:35 pm

    This discussion of the particular way the Word of Wisdom has come to be practiced as a moral standard in the Church brings to ming the entire topic of the evolution of Mormon cultural byways in general. E.g.: my sisters’ never being allowed to have anything less than a full sleeve on thier shoulders when growing up, but allowing their own daughters to modestly wear sleevless shirts and blouses showing a small flash of their stomachs– )

    My folks would also use a Rook deck play cards with friends (which, of course, have cards numbered eleven, twelve, and thirteen instead of face cards and use various colors for suits instead of the usual hearts, spades, diamonds, clubs). And I guess is that many Protestants as well, during the even earlier part of the twentieth century–even now?–looked askance at playing cards, billiards, and, of course, alcohol. I’ve read somewhere in Times & Seasons that Brigham Young University’s student center apparently has no billiards tables (and BYU’s Ricks campus disallows the wearing of overalls– ) And I guess if I were to hear some presumed “expert” on Mormon religious practices and cultural byways on the radio falsely claim that some Mormons merely take the aces out of the deck or that BYU doesn’t have “foos ball” this would lead for me to question this “expert’s” status, for sure.

    But still the underlying question remains as to the purposes for any such moral code or cultural byway in question.

    If moral prohibition against alcohol is fairly self-explanatory, I guess I’ve always figured the purpose of the cultural byway Rook cards was–well, if you were to tell the people at a friendly neighborhood poker game, “Sure, I’ll sit in for a few hands . . . but, geez, would it be all right if we were to use these Rook cards I’ve brought along here?”– well, maybe this would be simply too laughable of a request for us to make and so maybe we’d have a tendency to not end up gambling. Before T&S I’d never heard of any presumed culteral “pox” on billiards playing before, though.

    I came of working age (sixteen) in 1972 and that summer I worked in the pinapple fields over in Hawaii under the auspices of a Church group. There was a counsellor there who was extremely adamant about BYU grooming standards, claiming that a man’s hair should be cut so as any hair couldn’t be tugged and be able to touch his ear. However, if I recalled right, the charismatic Church president David O. McKay had an older style of European (Scots?) haircut which featured a flowing shock of white hair on his head which certainly wasn’t the G.I. standard haircut of his successor, Joseph Fielding Smith. And McKay had only died in 1970. (Interestingly, McKay’s predecessor, George Albert Smith, had served until 1951, had even had a beard. And I read somewhere here in T&S that often missions of the church in the very early twentieth century had a standard wherein all missionaries were required to have, and not shave, their beards.) In any case, it’s true that after that summer I myself grew long hair–plus a beard, too! My oldest sister’s husband was bishop then and he and all the men then wore brightly colored shirts and ties. I wore black cords with a handtooled belt with a sterling silver buckle; a white, snap-up Western-style dress shirt with a skinny, dark tie.

    I sincerely believed in the Church still then but was intellectually questioning; and, although I lived all the moral standards including the Word of Wisdom and chastity, I determined at this time (which practice I continued from the ages of 16 through 20) to quit partaking of the sacrament until such time as I could come to a true spiritual conversion. (And, incidentally, no one has ever questioned me about my not partaking of the sacrament to this day!) Yet, years later, this oldest sister of mine was talking about this time some years before and she said how she’d always felt sorry for me ‘caus I looked so out of place: Yet–get this–she hadn’t mention the length of my hair, or my coral-and-turquois necklaces, et cetera (the type of things which had became a not uncommon style among the subsequent generation in California to some extent), what she’d mentioned was how I’d looked so out of place because everyone else had been wearing super-brightly colored shirts and there I had always been sitting, wearing a white one!

    So, needless to say, when I read here in T&S about the current cultural byway favoring mission-field like “white shirts only,” in light of my sister’s statement I had to smile.

  8. john f. on March 26, 2006 at 3:48 pm

    RTSwen, I linked the show so that anyone can listen and form their own opinion. Your opinion is that it was not pejorative. My opinion differs.

    As far as Bagley not having read D&C 89 — I surely hope that he has, since he holds himself out as an expert on Mormon history. The assertion that he has not read it was a tongue-in-cheek inference. The problem is this: how could Bagley have thought that our word of wisdom recommends tobacco for horses if he has read it? Also, I disagree with you when you say that he, Sack, and Fabrizio were not discussing tobacco and horses in a mocking tone during that segment. To me it came across as a disingenuous attempt to make Mormons look stupid based on their word of wisdom (I say disingenuous because, obviously, Bagley must have read the Word of Wisdom and therefore would know that it does not command giving tobacco to horses). That stems from the context, tone, and tobacco/horses comment. As I said in the main post, it seemed like Bagley was hoping that it would create the image of some dumb Mormon trying to give tobacco to a horse.

    When I wrote this, however, I knew that many people would not agree with my view of the pejorative nature of the whole discussion. That is fine.

  9. john f. on March 26, 2006 at 3:58 pm

    By the way, one of the reasons that I found it pejorative was precisely because it was Bagley who made the statement. If it had been Sack or Fabrizio who had said it, then that would not necessarily have come across as pejorative. If it had been some caller who made the comments, then similarly, that would not have resulted in my conclusion that the discussion was somewhat mocking. But because Bagley, the “expert” on Mormonism brought it up and then asked Sack if he had any idea why the Word of Wisdom would command tobacco for horses — that is what comes across as mocking. Again, I acknowledge that others might find nothing amiss in these aspects of the discussion.

  10. Kimball Hunt on March 26, 2006 at 7:19 pm

    I personally don’t care if Bagley’s a critic or a defender as long as he puts his biases out there. Nonetheless, even if Bagley’s faulty memory provides a chink in his armor of “credibility” (his fumblingly remembering the revelation’s “bruises” and “sick cattle” and on-the-fly combining them into “polstices or something for treating horses”), it’s less the particulars of this error than his tone in several places throughout which reveal Bagley to be a harsh critic of Mormonism.

  11. RTSwen on March 26, 2006 at 7:52 pm

    John,

    Thank you for providing the link, a very valuable resource for discussing this post. As for your statement being tongue-in-cheek, I must say that it does not read as such, but I understand how those things can happen. It is a challenge to try and communicate your thoughts without the benefit of immediate feedback and clarification – doubly so for live radio, wouldn’t you say?

    You’re contention in this post seems to hinge upon Bagley being interviewed as an expert and yet mistakenly stating that section 89 recommended the use of tobacco for horses. Horses/Cattle, aside from the fact that I wouldn’t want my dairy farmer or butcher to make this mistake, in this context is it really such a significant difference? I, for one, think not. I have read 89 more times than I care to count, but it has been well over a year since I have read it through and I didn’t blink twice when Bagley used the term horses, especially considering his expansion on this idea as using tobacco as a polstice, which is entirely in line with the spirit of section 89.

    Perhaps, if we grant you a charitable reading of your tongue-in-cheek comment, you might offer the same latitude to Bagley?

  12. john f. on March 27, 2006 at 9:53 am

    Perhaps, if we grant you a charitable reading of your tongue-in-cheek comment, you might offer the same latitude to Bagley?

    Yes, I would. But, Bagley completely aside, the point of this post still stands. Bagley was just an example.

    (And, while listening, when I heard Bagley make the horses comment, it was like hearing fingernails screeching on a chalkboard — this is because of who Bagley is and what he is supposed to be. Bagley is more like the butcher who shouldn’t be allowed to confuse horses and cattle than like you, who didn’t notice or care when Bagley started asking a Protestant scholar just why Mormons would think that tobacco needs to be given to horses.)

  13. Kimball Hunt on March 27, 2006 at 10:54 am

    If John’s lawyerly cum scholarly exegesis of Bagley’s radio comments (revealing Bagley’s ignorance of the exact content of the pre-scheduled topic for the radio program) was kind of fun, it’s also fun to have the same treatment then turned upon John by RT. So, therefore, ultimately John’s tongue-in-cheek quandry as to whether Bagley had ever even read the Word of Wisdom was said by RT not to able to be read as being tongue in cheek unless someone were to grant it a charitable reading. Which of course leads the reader of the thread to go up and re-read John’s [original?] statement:

    “[. . . A]lthough holding himself out as a scholar on Mormonism, he had never read D&C 89, or doesn’t know its content — and this is in a radio show in which he is participating as the expert on Mormons and their Word of Wisdom.”

  14. Last Lemming on March 27, 2006 at 11:04 am

    I search in vain for a definition of “polstice”. Does the historian Bagley really not know that the word is “poultice” or does his defender RTSwen not know how to spell it? My credulity hangs in the balance.

  15. john f. on March 27, 2006 at 11:32 am

    yes original — I didn’t change anything in the body of the post.

  16. john f. on March 27, 2006 at 11:33 am

    KH, I think that RTSwen and RT are different bloggernacle personalities. I haven’t seen RT participate on this thread.

  17. RTSwen on March 27, 2006 at 11:44 am

    Correct, RTSwen and RT are different people. I’ve used a pseudonym in the past on the various blogs, but I used my actual initials (and long established username in various forums) in this thread as I thought it only fair, considering I was taking a fairly direct line against the thrust of John’s post.

    /s/
    The second (but original!) RT

  18. Eric James Stone on March 27, 2006 at 2:28 pm

    I’ve read somewhere in Times & Seasons that Brigham Young University’s student center apparently has no billiards tables

    We got Trouble — with a capital T that rhymes with B that stands for Billiards.

  19. Robert Crockett on April 10, 2006 at 6:00 pm

    I have gotten to know Bagley a little, both while I spent almost a year preparing my 60-some page review of his work, and thereafter.

    He has never consented to respond to a single point in my review, except to point out a typo as to a date. Not wishing to characterize it further, here is how he responded when Sam Weller’s specifically asked him to comment upon my review.

    http://72.14.203.104/search?q=cache:uJh3QsuyrbkJ:www.samwellers.com/booktalk/feb-mar06.pdf+weller%27s+bagley+massacre&hl=en&gl=us&ct=clnk&cd=4

  20. john f. on April 10, 2006 at 6:09 pm

    Robert, thanks for the insight and the link.

  21. john f. on April 10, 2006 at 6:20 pm

    For the lazy, I’ll just provide the relevant portion right here (you have to scroll down several pages in the link):

    Q: What is your reaction to such critiques in general and Crockett’s in particular?

    A (by Bagley): Scurrilous, well, scurrilous and dishonest. It is a classic FARMS hatchet job! He misrepresents what the book actually says, he uses virtually every known logical fallacy in his argument. It is an Ad Hominem attack — attacking me personally and questioning my character; he makes claims that are untrue — setting upstraw man arguments based on claims which the book does not make. I have not responded directly to it, but therecord will bear me out.

    He [Crockett] comes up with this bizarre notion that there was no cover up of the Mountain Meadows Massacre [by Brigham Young and George A. Smith]. Well, here is the evidence,and if, as an attorney, he can’t evaluate the evidence, his bar should deal with him.

    Bagley then gives a brief summary of some evidence that Brigham Young might have know as early as 1858 about MMM.

    I recommend reading the entire interview — interesting stuff.