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).) 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?
 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.)