Where do I find “Official” History?

August 28, 2007 | 88 comments
By

The tension between “official” Mormon history and other sorts of Mormon history is a central narrative for a lot of Mormon intellectual discussion. D. Michael Quinn, for example, who is a fabulously tenacious researcher at times seems to have little in the way of a historiographic agenda other than to do “honest” history rather than “official” history. This is very laudable, of course, but it is an intellectual agenda that depends decisively on being able to identify “official” history and its scholarly lapses. Which brings me to my question: Where do I find the “official” history of the church?

Tags:

88 Responses to Where do I find “Official” History?

  1. cchrissyy on August 28, 2007 at 10:34 am

    the church-published mini-book “truth restored”

  2. Mark IV on August 28, 2007 at 10:40 am

    Nate,

    I think we run into the many of same problems here that we encounter when we attempt to outline what, exactly, official doctrine is.

    Our history is not interesting, to me at least, as a narrative of events (first we went to Jackson county. They we had to move to Far West. Then we got kicked out and went to Nauvoo), but rather as the mix of events, personalities, and God’s inspiration that shaped our beliefs.

  3. Mike Parker on August 28, 2007 at 11:30 am

    I imagine the closest thing in print is the 7-volume History of the Church compiled by B. H. Roberts.

    But as far as the “official” history of the Church, the Church Historian’s office keeps that. It’s not a published work, but a collection of documents, news clippings, meeting minutes, and journals.

  4. Matt Evans on August 28, 2007 at 11:35 am

    The CES Institute manual Church History in the Fulness of Times is a good candidate for being the current “official” version of church history. It’s comprehensive — a 600-page textbook, no less — and is the only comprehensive history currently published by the church or sold at church distribution centers.

  5. Steve Evans on August 28, 2007 at 12:24 pm

    It’s on the shelf next to the Official Doctrine.

  6. David Grua on August 28, 2007 at 12:38 pm

    At least in Quinn’s Hierarchy vol. 1, the “official history” target is the 7 vol. History of the Church, mentioned by Mike Parker (#3). That is also the target of Palmer’s An Insider’s View. From there, I’d say that JFS’s Essentials qualifies as semi-official history, as does Church History in the Fulness of Times (#4).

  7. Deep Sea on August 28, 2007 at 12:39 pm

    You don’t “find” it anywhere, Nate. “Official” history, like any other kind, is created, written, funded, distributed, discussed, defended by those with certain interests. I think it’s fairly clear that if you line up all church-sponsored efforts at telling the “Mormon story,” you will arrive at a certain type of narrative, with emphases and gaps, strengths and weaknesses, drawn from a certain base of sources. (What exactly constitues “church-sponsored” is clearly a somewhat messy category, given the various institutions and institutional affiliations of those who work on Mormon history.)

    The non-”official” history, then, takes the above product as its starting point and examines the gaps, the weaknesses, the omissions, etc., while perhaps also advancing different goals and agendas.

    I disagree to an extent with your suggestion that Quinn’s “intellectual agenda depends decisively on being able to identify ‘official’ history and its scholarly lapses.” You make “scholarly lapses” sound more ominous (or willful, or both) than they are, in my opinion. It seems pretty obvious, for example, that an Andrew Jenson or a Parley Pratt or a Joseph Fielding Smith would write Mormon history differently than a Yale PhD student, doesn’t it?

  8. roland on August 28, 2007 at 12:43 pm

    I have lots of fun when I find church history books or websites on special topics directly related to me or my ancesters. I.e. California Saints is a great big history of the establishment of the LDS Church in my home state.

    The last church history book that I just finished last week is Saints at War. 400+ true stories of the LDS in World War II.

    History is not just one official book, but a collection of different perspectives of major events.

  9. AHLDuke on August 28, 2007 at 12:43 pm

    I would agree with some of the earlier suggestions- look to “Truth Restored” (which is occasionally used in Gospel Doctrine Sunday School classes) and the History of the Church series (though this is so outdated as to be practically useless for issues of 20th century history). Also, for specific issues, I think that it is pretty safe to use something like the Sept. 2007 Ensign article about MMM. It was produced by the Church historian and published in the official Church magazine.

    That being said, I would not regard anything produced by the Church historian and published through some other means as “official” though it may be highly credible. For better or worse, the Church simply is not in the business of producing a great deal of published history. However, this does leave space open for people like Richard Bushman and Terryl Givens to work.

    One place where the Church’s “history-making” is probably not appreciated fully is when historical accounts are given in General Conference talks. GAs typically tell stories about the pioneers, or the opening of a mission in a particular country, and this could be considered an official history, given that GC talks are vetted, right? But what is even more interesting, in my opinion, is when the GAs get into telling sweeping epic histories of Western civilization, especially as it concerns Martin Luther, the Reformation, the formation of America, etc. Those who know a little bit about these topics might tell you that while it is an “official” history, it is not a particularly well-done history. My wife (a Ph.D. candidate in Early Christianity) chuckles every time the GAs try to talk about the history of the Great Apostasy or the importance of the Reformation.

  10. BTD Greg on August 28, 2007 at 12:59 pm

    I’d second “Church History in the Fullness of Time.” Also, “Our History,” which is arguably not a history book at all but rather a collection of sanitized anecdotes. These two books are as close to “official” in the accepted and correlated sense as anything I’m aware of.

    A more general observation: I think the difference between “official” and “honest” seems to be that the former is way too simplified and the latter is far too esoteric.

  11. Clark on August 28, 2007 at 1:01 pm

    I think you touch upon something quite pertinent Nate. The way “official history” is used really means “mainstream views of history.” But they are anything but formally official in any useful sense. At best they mean “history as discussed in major publications.” But that isn’t official either.

    I don’t mind folks focusing in on “believed in the mainstream” but that just seems so radically different from what is official that one is left a bit frustrated.

    Despite being seen as authoritarian it seems like history and doctrine are rarely presented in an official form. I think claims some have made that theology is not central is a fundamental aspect of Mormonism.

  12. Bob on August 28, 2007 at 1:05 pm

    If there is no “Official History’, what happened to Quinn?

  13. Dave on August 28, 2007 at 1:18 pm

    No, I would never christen a CES manual as the “official” history of the Church. CES, like any bureaucracy, has its own agenda. I’d start with the observation that, quite often, “orthodox doctrine” for any church emerges when there is a clear challenge mounted or a heresy that become popular. Orthodoxy emerges in response to labelling the heresy or challenging view as “unorthodox.” That’s one reason why Mormonism is so popular and useful among Evangelicals (who in terms of demographics and culture are a lot like Mormons) — we help them define who they are.

    In the same way, maybe our official history — which carries some of the self-definition burden that doctrine carries for Protestantism — emerges partly in response to dissenting histories (and I use the term “dissenting” rather loosely). So we might not be able to point to an official biography of Joseph Smith, but No Man Knows My History is definitely not it. We might not be able to point to an official account of the early history of the Church, but An Insider’s View of Mormon Origins is definitely not it. We might no have an official doctrinal catechism, but Mormon Doctrine is definitely not it. And so forth.

  14. JKC on August 28, 2007 at 1:19 pm

    Nate makes a good point. The idea of official history is a bit elusive. But if we are going to find, it, the church-published books that have already been mentioned are a pretty good source. But I’d also look at the “curriculum” presented by site missionaries at the church historical sites.

  15. Clark on August 28, 2007 at 1:31 pm

    While I think there’s truth to the idea behind what you say Dave, I think in practice it doesn’t work. Consider Rough Stone Rolling. How different in terms of history is it from No Man Knows My History? The problem is that today (as opposed to say the 1960′s) most of the historical claims are largely accepted even if the psycho-reading and “Joseph as lovable charlatan” isn’t.

    Put an other way, what we might call official history are roughly claims that the Church overwhelmingly reacts against.

    Except that typically the Church reacts by having apologists react. Thus history seems quite fundamentally different from theology except on a few things like Joseph as real prophet and there being real Nephites. But those few things are typically places where history and theology intersect.

  16. Matt Evans on August 28, 2007 at 2:12 pm

    “I would never christen a CES manual as the “official’ history of the Church”

    But it’s the church that decides its “official” history, and there’s no better definition of “official church history” than “histories published, promoted or sold by the church.” It’s possible that “official” church history might be defined to include more than histories published, promoted or sold by the church, but I don’t think “official history” can be defined so narrowly that histories published and sold by the church are excluded. It seems especially hard to argue that a history published, promoted and sold by the church under the title Church History is not “official” church history.

  17. David Grua on August 28, 2007 at 2:34 pm

    I think that there’s some truth to what Dave (#12) speculates. When JS dictated his 1838 history he stated:

    Owing to the many reports which have been put in circulation by evil-disposed and designing persons, in relation to the rise and progress of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, all of which have been designed by the authors thereof to militate against its character as a Church and its progress in the world—I have been induced to write this history, to disabuse the public mind, and put all inquirers after truth in possession of the facts, as they have transpired, in relation both to myself and the Church, so far as I have such facts in my possession.

    There’s not much of a question concerning the influence that the 1838 history has had on how Mormons imagine their past, at least prior to the 1950s, although I think it’s safe to say that it still has “official” status.

    I think we can also point to the context surrounding the Turley, etc. Mountain Meadows book. I can’t imagine that it would have been written without a Sally Denton or a Will Bagley, or that the Ensign would have run that article without September Dawn.

    I’m not sure we can spread this idea accross the board, but there’s evidence that much of our history has been written in response to alternative narratives.

  18. Behind the Infamous Veil on August 28, 2007 at 2:34 pm

    In pondering this question, I’m beginning to think that the “official” church history is a lot like BRM’s “Unwritten Order of Things.” Just read the following quote and substitute “the history of the Church” for “things.”

    Generally principles are not spelled out in detail. That leaves you free to adapt and to find your way with an enduring truth, a principle, as an anchor. The things I am going to tell you are not explained in our handbooks or manuals either. Even if they were, most of you don’t have handbooks–not the Melchizedek Priesthood or Relief Society handbooks and the others–because they are given only to the leaders.

    I will be speaking about what I call the “unwritten order of things.” My lesson might be entitled “The Ordinary Things about the Church Which Every Member Should Know.” Although they are very ordinary things, they are, nevertheless, very important! We somehow assume that everybody knows all the ordinary things already. If you do know them, you must have learned them through observation and experience, for they are not written anywhere and they are not taught in classes.

  19. Behind the Infamous Veil on August 28, 2007 at 2:37 pm

    Those of us who have been members for a while can recognize official history when we hear it or read it. It isn’t authorized anywhere, but it has a certain taste or flavor.

  20. Clark on August 28, 2007 at 2:40 pm

    Matt, but surely you’d allow the church to publish things without them being official in a strong sense. My sense is that you don’t want to make that distinction.

  21. Steve Evans on August 28, 2007 at 2:40 pm

    Seriously, aren’t people just repeating what I said in #5? The problem of “official” history seems to be the same as the problem of “official” doctrine.

  22. Jacob on August 28, 2007 at 2:43 pm

    Steve – Obviously your brilliance was too much to take in one sentence!

  23. Jacob J on August 28, 2007 at 2:56 pm

    Steve, in #5, weren’t you just repeating what Mark IV said in #2?

  24. Ardis Parshall on August 28, 2007 at 3:04 pm

    There is church-sponsored history, and history sold at church outlets, and istorical fact cited in doctrinal lessons, but there is not and cannot be “official” church history, unless “history” means nothing more than a collection of factual trivia (“Brigham Young was the second president of the church.” “The Manifesto was issued in 1890.” “BYU won the Miracle Bowl.”).

    If history is the story we tell, the lessons we draw, the models we follow, the motivation for certain actions, our shared narrative, our explanation for who we are — anything that is more complex than a collection of sterile facts — then we can’t have an official history which, by the nature of things official, couldn’t change as we change (we may learn a lot from the Old Testament, but its history doesn’t do much to satisfy the uses we demand from our own history). The Mormon narrative shared in 2030 may draw on the same factoids as the history we’ll hear over the General Conference pulpit this October, but because we’ll be different in 2030, the history then will necessarily be different. An official history would bind us to something that met the needs of the generation that produced it, but which would lose much of its utility for the future.

  25. Clark on August 28, 2007 at 3:10 pm

    I agree Steve, although I think my point is that there is probably less focus on history than there is doctrine. For instance I think we can safely say the existence of Jesus as Christ is official doctrine. Likewise the reception by Joseph of the Book of Mormon is official history. But it’s much rarer for the Church to weigh in on history than theology.

  26. Non-Winter Meat Eater on August 28, 2007 at 3:10 pm

    Aren’t you all forgetting the “Legacy” movie that we used to show at Temple Square?! (wink)

  27. Last Lemming on August 28, 2007 at 3:15 pm

    I don’t agree with #5. I care about what is “official doctrine” because I want to know what is binding on me and what is not. Except in the context of a historian explicitly challenging “official history” (Nate’s premise for the post), I don’t care what it is because its officialness has no particular impact on me.

    Furthermore, although I haven’t read Quinn, I suspect that he is not really challenging the collected body of “official” history per se, but rather specific accounts that have been published in a variety of documents with some kind of church imprimatur. David Grua identifies one of them in #6, and others who have read Quinn might be able to identify more.

  28. Clark on August 28, 2007 at 3:30 pm

    Lemming, Quinn has challenged mainstream history at times. One example would be the dating of the reception of the MP. (Although I always saw that as murkier than most – but clearly the mainstream view was seriously challenged) He also argued that Joseph was going to get rid of temple garments (quite weakly in my opinion) I’m sure if I went through his books I could find quite a few other major challenges. Of course his most infamous challenge was much more a theological one than a historical one. The last page and a half of his paper for Women and Authority was seen as a challenge as reportedly constituted the main reason for his excommunication. (Whether folks see that as justified or not – but it sure went beyond the rest of the paper that I thought was relatively uncontroversial at the time)

  29. Steve Evans on August 28, 2007 at 3:51 pm

    LL, are you sure that official history has no particular impact on you? As Ardis hints, it is “binding” upon us in ways that might prove chafing with the passage of time.

    Jacob J — zonk! Good one, of course.

  30. Billy Bob on August 28, 2007 at 3:55 pm

    Like it or not, I’d wager that the “Work and the Glory” series is, for many Mormons, either consciously or unconsciously treated as their official source of Church history.

  31. Clark on August 28, 2007 at 4:00 pm

    Bob, doesn’t that say something about how non-authoritative we are in our “official” label? I mean if a fictional book by someone not in leadership is taken as official then something is seriously wrong with the very label “official.”

    Maybe that’s why it’s used so much by the disaffected and by historians who like to draw themselves against it. It’s so meaningless it gives them power to be what they want to be with no worry about running into facts.

  32. John Mansfield on August 28, 2007 at 4:01 pm

    The correct, correlated term for “official history” is “sesquicentennial.”
    With faith in ev’ry footstep, we follow Christ, the Lord …

  33. Andrew Ainsworth on August 28, 2007 at 4:13 pm

    The following statement by Elder Ballard in a General Conference address may shed some light on where the General Authorities “draw the line” on historical interpretations that challenge the “mainstream” view of Church history:

    “False prophets and false teachers are those who declare that the Prophet Joseph Smith was a duplicitous deceiver; they challenge the First Vision as an authentic experience. They declare that the Book of Mormon and other canonical works are not ancient records of scripture.”

    M. Russell Ballard, “Beware of False Prophets and False Teachers,” Ensign, Nov 1999, 62.

  34. Last Lemming on August 28, 2007 at 4:21 pm

    Clark,

    My point was not that Quinn hasn’t challenged mainstream history, but rather that each such challenge can probably be directed at a specific account rather than at a generic “official history”. To clarify, which of the following formats best applies to Quinn’s challenge of the timing of the reception of the MP?

    1. Contrary to “official church history,” the MP was probably restored in [insert month or season] 18?? rather than in the summer of 1829.

    or

    2. Contrary to the account in the History of the Church, volume 1, chapter ?, the MP was probably restored in [insert month or season], 18?? rather than in the summer of 1829.

    If the answer is 2, then Nate is asking the wrong question. It should not be “Where can I find the official history?” but rather “How much importance does the Church today place on the accounts that Quinn is criticizing?”

    Steve,

    But Ardis also says “there is not and cannot be ‘official’ church history, unless ‘history’ means nothing more than a collection of factual trivia.” I agree, and therefore find the concept of “official” history unhelpful. I find the concept of “official doctrine,” on the other hand to be useful, however difficult it is to define.

  35. Matt Evans on August 28, 2007 at 4:26 pm

    If the church published, promoted and sold a book titled “Church Doctrine” it would be hard to argue it isn’t “official” church doctrine. “Official” means “done with authority;” the brethren disliked McConkie’s calling his book “Mormon Doctrine” because it suggested it was written under the authority of the church (when in fact it demonstrated McConkie’s inability to distinguish himself from the church.) Had the church published and promoted it, however, the church would have made “Mormon Doctrine” into “official” doctrine. The Work and The Glory is not “official” history, it is “mainstream” history.

    Ardis, I agree with your definition of history, but that doesn’t mean the CES manual isn’t “official” church history today, it only shows that it may not be “official” history of the church once the church stops publishing, promoting or selling it.

  36. Mark IV on August 28, 2007 at 4:39 pm

    Matt, just a quibble, but it reinforces what Ardis said.

    Let’s say that the CES manual is official history. What then do we make of the MMM story in this month’s Ensign? Both the CES manual and the Ensign are officially sponsored by the church, yet they differ from one another in some material respects, as Julie has pointed out in this forum. It would not surprise me to see the CES material revised to reflect the new perspective.

  37. Bob on August 28, 2007 at 5:00 pm

    #24: Just because this is one of my ‘do something stupid days’, I am going to challenge your definition of History. To me, History starts and stops with Facts. It ‘s the Math, the Genealogy of life. It should be cold and unchallengeable: It’s dates, it’s names, it’s places. What you and others are talking about is Lore. Which is story, wisdom, sometimes tale. Lore does change with time, History can’t, (unless corrected). Lore is is open to challenge and should be. In Baseball, what is a ‘Strike’ …is Lore. Three Strikes and you’re out… is History.

  38. k l h on August 28, 2007 at 5:07 pm

    Sometimes official history is mostly just silent. Yet facts and documents collect. So that, for example, at the point of the excommunications of Lee and Higbee in 1872, I suppose it could be said, after a fashion, that “official history” has it that these men–if not the institution of the church otherwise–were culpable for the atrocity at Mountain Meadows. Then diaries and whatnot about the event came to be archived by Bro. Jenson. And, now,…should the famous, thoroughly researched manuscript by Leonard-Walker-Turley about the tragedy in actuality ever be published by Oxford University, it would come pretty close to being an official history for the controversial episode. (But I wouldn’t hold my breath.)

  39. k l h on August 28, 2007 at 5:12 pm

    change higbee to haight

  40. Ray on August 28, 2007 at 5:17 pm

    FWIW, Steve, I thought #5 was brilliant – obtuse, but brilliant.

  41. Mark B. on August 28, 2007 at 5:18 pm

    36: As Hugh Nibley said, in a completely different context:

    “No, ma’am, thats not history.”

    Of course, like Humpty Dumpty, you are free to define a word to mean whatever you want.

  42. Ardis Parshall on August 28, 2007 at 5:22 pm

    37: Bob, I salute you on the magnificently appropriate manner in which you have observed your ‘do something stupid day.’ /grin/

    What you are describing as “history” is only chronology, or lists, or a collection of meaningless-in-isolation trivia.

    History isn’t “lore,” either. Lore is only trivia with its party clothes on — interesting, amusing, trivial. Lore has its place in written history, but if you limit history to lore, you get the pleasant pulpit musings of a buff, the guy in your ward who tells stories well, but who can’t distinguish between stories that matter and stories that merely pass the time in a painless way, much less between stories that are historically accurate and stories that are suspect.

    History is interpretation, and perspective, and analysis. It’s open to challenge and reinterpretation, because the ground shifts under the narrators, requiring us to find new perspectives and listen to new voices. History integrates the facts with each other, and finds meaning in their relative positions. History calls on lore to add a little sparkle, but keeps lore in check by requiring it to present adequate credentials.

    Facts are the bones, history is the muscle and the sinew, and lore is the shine in the hair.

  43. David R on August 28, 2007 at 5:24 pm

    #18-I think Elder Packer the author of the “Unwritten Order of Things” instead of Elder McConkie.

  44. Ardis Parshall on August 28, 2007 at 5:27 pm

    By the way, Bob (37), math is the most creative and artistic playground I’ve ever known. So far from being cold and unchallengeable, what non-Euclidean geometry did to Euclidean geometry, and what Heisenberg did to everybody else in 1927, proves that math is a living, breathing, growing, changing, and beautiful creation of God.

  45. Billy Bob on August 28, 2007 at 5:35 pm

    By raise of hands, how many people think that the true purpose behind comment #44 was to use the word “non-Euclidean”?

    The justification for Ardis’ expulsion from the FAIR conference becomes more apparent each passing day . . . :)

  46. Clark on August 28, 2007 at 6:04 pm

    Matt I just can’t buy that since most CES manuals have a disclaimer that they aren’t official doctrine. (Or at least they used to)

  47. Jamie Trwth on August 28, 2007 at 6:35 pm

    \”Truth Resotred\” is a good step into the history of the church. But it doesn\’t state non-faith promoting info about the church and its leaters. If you want Official Church History you must read History of the Church.

    http://byustudies.byu.edu/hc/hcpgs/hc.aspx?HC=/

    above is an online version you can search.

  48. Bob on August 28, 2007 at 6:39 pm

    #42: You’re going have do better if you hope to spoil a day I practice three times a week! You are right as to how I define History, but what I am trying to do is build a wall between History and Lore. Or to restate your last line: History is the bones (facts), Lore is the muscle and sinew, Wisdom is the shine in the hair. #44: who told you I am no good at Math?!

  49. Ardis Parshall on August 28, 2007 at 6:41 pm

    I can even say “Pythagorean,” Billy Bob. Nyah!

  50. R. Gary on August 28, 2007 at 7:19 pm
  51. Jacob on August 28, 2007 at 7:27 pm

    R Gary, I think you won. Can’t get more official than that! And the CES manual is prominent on the page!

    And math is the never ending Pit of Doom!

  52. Kevinf on August 28, 2007 at 7:38 pm

    I have to agree with Mark in # 2, and Steve in # 5. This reminds me of the “faithful history” vs “objective history discussions of the 80′s. The church may publish an official history book, or multiple books, as in “Truth Restored” and the CES manual, but history is an ever moving target. We can only view it through the lens of various interpreters, but not totally objectively, as we are constantly learning new things, old manuscripts are lost, oral histories are not recorded, and new artifacts uncovered.

    We can take a snapshot in time, and say this is what the church currently says about it’s history, but it can be different in many important ways in just a few years. Turley’s MMM article in the September Ensign was probably unthinkable 10 years ago. Just as the doctrine, outside of a few core principles (and who can always say what that is?) is also subject to change in important ways.

    There are few constants in history, unlike math or chemistry. Would that we could lay claim to the historical equivalent of Avagadro’s Number (take that, you non-euclideans!).

  53. Ray on August 28, 2007 at 7:51 pm

    kevinf going all mathematician on our backsides! Good to see you here, man.

    I was a history teacher for a few years. Frankly, I stopped looking for objective, official history long ago, when I realized how much more fun, entertaining and exciting real history is – to study and to teach. As Ardis implies often, journals and letters and unguarded communications are SO much richer than textbooks – the account of the winners’ most elite element. Academicians brought us the flat-earth theory; sailors knew better for many, many years.

    If you want to know what “Mormonism” really is (or was at a given time), at its most basic level, read the writings of the lay members of that time. The official pronouncements tell what the Church teaches; the local implementations show what the Church believes. The gap is fascinating.

  54. Dave on August 28, 2007 at 8:00 pm

    Nice link, R. Gary (#50). But the page at that link (at LDS.org) describes the accompanying text and links as: “The introductory resources assembled here tell this story.” They are just resources; they are just introductory; and they are assembled (i.e., listed on the page) rather than used as sources in a unified narrative. There is certainly nothing with the heading “The following account constitutes an official history of the Church.”

    I would have expected you to link to Joseph Smith–History, a canonized text that at least makes an arguable claim to being “official” history.

  55. R. Gary on August 28, 2007 at 8:20 pm

    Dave, I like Ray’s comment about the distinction between official and real. So if you folks don’t like the LDS.org version, feel free to look elsewhere. I’m curious though. Where else are you going to look for “official” (i.e. “authorized”) Church history? And who will have authorized it?

  56. Ardis Parshall on August 28, 2007 at 8:22 pm

    Aw, he’s not going mathematician on us, Ray, he’s going chemist. Plain ol’ boring, garden variety, utilitarian chemist. “Let geese gabble and hiss.” Come with me and “stare at nothing, intricately drawn nowhere,” if you want math in its purest, most eternal and endlessly creative form.

  57. Dave on August 28, 2007 at 9:14 pm

    R. Gary (#55), certainly a canonized text is a prime candidate. If the Church took an actual book and distributed it as part of the LDS curriculum for Sunday teaching, that would be a good candidate as well. This was done about fifty years back, for example, with Hugh Nibley’s Lehi in the Desert. But since the Church doesn’t really issue books or documents captioned “Official History,” I’d be inclined to question how useful the category is. It seems silly for us to maintain the category exists if we can’t figure out what is in it. Even if there was such a category, it’s not like it would be equivalent to “accurate history.” Infallibility is not, after all, an LDS claim.

    Maybe we just have to muddle through historical questions (and historical faith questions) by actually reading history books and thinking about it ourselves.

  58. Ray on August 28, 2007 at 9:18 pm

    Thanks, Ardis. No wonder it lost me. I am proud of the fact that I have never read a chemistry book in my life. (*wink*)

  59. Bob on August 28, 2007 at 9:30 pm

    #52: I will try one last time (maybe). There are Billions of constants in History, like the address of the home you grew up in. These constants must be isolated and agreed too. That is History. Then we can move on to what the mean, that is Lore. In law. evidence first (facts,history), then arguments as to what the facts mean. If you don’t want to use my words ( History Vs, Lore), fine. But if you don’t draw a line, you can’t get to where you want to be. Fining Official Church history is easy, fining Official Church Lore is hard.

  60. Rand on August 28, 2007 at 9:54 pm

    Try your own journal.

  61. Ardis Parshall on August 28, 2007 at 10:21 pm

    Bob, I understand what you mean, and appreciate why you mean it. Identifying the most basic, immutable, indisputable elements of fact is the first step; everything else is a superstructure built on those fundamental bits.

    Even those most basic facts, though, may be so burdened with meanings beyond themselves that such a definition of “history” is so impractical as to be useless. The very fact of selecting the isolated constants can imply meaning beyond those facts:

    Joseph Smith jr. was the son of Joseph Smith sr.
    ‘Joseph’ was the name of a Book of Mormon prophet.
    ‘Joseph’ was the name of an Old Testament prophet.

    Those might all be considered constants, basic facts of history. Isolating those three constants and agreeing to their validity means a whole lot more to most of us than meets the eye, though.

    We might also identify and agree to the validity of these facts of history:

    John Taylor was born on a Thursday.
    Brigham Young enjoyed peppermint candy.
    Lucy Mack Smith wore a blue apron on the morning of May 14, 1840.

    Together — or separate — those statements mean a lot LESS than meets the eye.

    Even the act of isolating and agreeing on the basic evidence involves making judgments and telling history. I don’t believe it is possible to strip history down to such elemental factoids that those judgments are absent.

  62. Bob on August 28, 2007 at 10:55 pm

    61: I agree. It has always been the problem: Science takes things apart to the point they no longer have value. Art takes things of little value, and turns them into something of worth.

    Sorry for over talking, I will be silent now.

  63. Clark on August 28, 2007 at 11:12 pm

    Bob, I seriously disagree that science takes things apart so they don’t have value.

  64. Ray on August 28, 2007 at 11:13 pm

    I agree 100% with Ardis on this one. Look at the MMM – the Ensign article and September Dawn. There is very little disagreement about the “dry facts” (once you eliminate the obviously fictional love story), but there is a HUGE difference in how those facts are told to explain what they mean.

    I think most of us have heard something like, “Faith isn’t faith until it’s exercised.” When I started teaching, I was told, “History isn’t history until it comes alive by being told. Until then, it’s just dead trivia.” I also came to believe that history is useless until it is analyzed and interpreted – that learning historical facts is meaningless unless one draws conclusions from those facts – that studying the “what, when, where and how” has no power unless one also tries to determine the “why” and the “why not” and the “so what”.

    In many ways, continuing revelation keeps the Church from establishing immutable, official doctrine, and in many ways, the lay ministry and emphasis on individual revelation and the Gift of the Holy Ghost eliminates the need to establish official history – as I have come to define history. Frankly, many bloggers seem to ask for an “official history” to be written, but I guarantee that almost all (if not all) of those same bloggers would read that “official history” and immediately, automatically and somewhat subconsciously initiate their own individual version of that history. I have no problem with that. It’s one of the things that I really like about the Church.

  65. Mark B. on August 28, 2007 at 11:18 pm

    I know nothing about chemistry, except what I learned while helping my father proofread his freshman chemistry textbook (Quantitative Measurements and Chemical Equilibria, 1972), but I do remember that it was Avogadro, not Avagadro (or Ava Gardner, for that matter) who came up with that number.

  66. Douglas on August 28, 2007 at 11:28 pm

    #18…ditto #43…it was then-Elder Packer who wrote that talk.

  67. Bill MacKinnon on August 29, 2007 at 12:26 am

    Nate has raised an intriguing issue and k l h (#38) has made it even more so by linking it in his comments to the Turley-Leonard-Walker ms. (“Tragedy at Mountain Meadows”) forthcoming from Oxford U. Press. I find it very difficult to believe that Oxford would publish an “official” (authorized) history by any church, including the LDS Church. So what IS it that Oxford will be publishing? Is it the independent work of three scholars working on their own time without church sponsorship, funding, ms. review, or endorsement? Or will Oxford be publishing a study researched and written by three scholars (employed by the church) working on church as well as personal time using the services of a small army of church-paid researchers whose extensive travels and time-consuming efforts are well-known and the subject of much speculation (as to the cost in tithing dollars and its meaning) in the historical community interested in this book.? There are, of course, answers to these questions. How, when, and with what clarity the answers are forthcoming will have a very important impact on the book’s credibility and reception and Oxford’s reputation — no small matter. Presumably all will be revealed when the book comes out and the public can read whatever the Foreword says about the basis on which the book was produced. The September “Ensign” article then becomes even more important if it — in a church-sponsored publication — turns out to be an accurate (maybe even verbatim) summary of the book’s conclusions. So who, if anyone, has sponsored what and what is “official” and what is wholly independent? Ambiguity, like rain water, cuts at least two ways. It can be a wonderful (at times essential) facilitator as well as a destructive force that produces havoc through lack of clarity. There are times when institutions like churches and publishers need to be very clear on what they sponsor, endorse, pay for, distribute, and stand behind foresquare in the way of narrative history — times when destructive, murky ambiguity doesn’t cut it. The answers will be important, and I look forward to reading them within the context of such words used in this thread as independent, official, sponsored, and endorsed.

  68. Clark on August 29, 2007 at 1:34 am

    My personal opinion (more or less what Steve said) is that something is official when the Church says it is official and not just because it’s published by them. And they rarely say something is official.

  69. Bob on August 29, 2007 at 1:37 am

    ^#63: You pull a rose apart, soon the ‘rose’ is gone. It’s sum was greater than it’s parts..the rose is gone,what is it now? I agree I could have worded better, especially since I was backing first Science than Art in History.
    #^4 Ray: Again I have failed. I do agree fully with you. I am only trying to say there IS an Official Church History,but it IS only ‘dead Trina’, But beyond that is Lore,it’s a great story, but open to challenge . I am saying Lore is more useful than History (My words), in gaining wisdom. But let’s not say (my words), there is no Official History.

  70. Matt Evans on August 29, 2007 at 2:26 am

    Everyone, I think people are misconstruing the challenge in identifying “official church history.” The comparison to the challenge of identifying church doctrine is unhelpful because in that case the trick is defining “doctrine,” as opposed to policies, principles, ideas, and concepts. There is no similar trick to defining a history; we’re agreed on what is a history. The only label in dispute is “official,” and anything done by the church proper is, by definition, “official.” Any history done by the church is therefore “official history”. The only remaining question (and this matters for “official” church doctrine, too), is determing what other authorities, besides the church itself, “officially” speak for the church. The First Presidency? The president? Apostles? Church historian?

    Mark IV, there’s no reason official church histories can’t contradict each other. That histories contradict each other in parts doesn’t mean they aren’t “official”.

    Clark, “most CES manuals have a disclaimer that they aren’t official doctrine.” This would be a disclaimer about the meaning of “doctrine,” not about “official”. Anything an organization does in its own name is “official” whether or not they want it to be.

  71. Clark on August 29, 2007 at 2:56 am

    Matt, but official in this context seems to imply something more than simply “published by the Church.”

  72. Matt Evans on August 29, 2007 at 3:05 am

    Because “published by the church” is sufficient, but not necessary, for something to be “official,” I agree there may be more official histories than just those produced by the church.

  73. Kyle R on August 29, 2007 at 4:12 am

    I don’t know about ‘official’ and non-official histories of the LDS Church but the official encouragement to members to keep personal journals creates a wealth of wonderful and very genuine history.

  74. Ardis Parshall on August 29, 2007 at 4:28 am

    Matt (#70): That’s certainly a clear and perhaps defensible definition – anything issued from an office is “office-ial” — but it lacks an element of authoritativeness that most of us are trying to define. Does every sermon, letter, and grocery list dictated by Pres. Hinckley carry the same prophetic weight, or do recipients have to discriminate between the prophetic, the personal, and the temporarily practical? A lot of church departments issue materials referencing the church’s past for a lot of different purposes, and while they may all be therefore “official,” they don’t all merit the same consideration. IMO.

    Bill (#67): There are a lot of gradations between total independence and total submission. We don’t have any trouble recognizing that in academia: A professor may think and write on salaried time, use his school’s libraries and ILL resources, command an army of grad students paid by university funds, direct his secretary to type his manuscript while on the school clock, keep his superiors advised of progress, consult with his colleagues, travel to conferences on the university’s dime to speak of his findings, use file folders and paper clips drawn from the department supply closet, and address a topic closely allied with the school’s past, yet the world’s belief in “academic freedom” establishes the book as the work of Professor X (“with the generous cooperation of Podunk U”) and not the voice of Podunk U itself, unless the university president or board of trustees or other authoritative voice announces “he speaks for us.” The world assumes differently where Mormons are concerned, but I’m not sure that’s a legitimate assumption. I think it is a modern version of the old canard that Mormons are so controlled by a despotic hierarchy that we can’t do anything individually without permission and direction from above. I hope, as a matter of curiosity, that the MMM book’s foreword does clarify the issues you outline, but I also think that nothing that could possibly be stated in the foreword will affect the credibility pre-judgments of the book’s audience, in or out of the church.

  75. Kyle R on August 29, 2007 at 4:45 am

    A key issue in the tension between ‘official’ and non-official history is surely that LDS history is not hermetically sealed. It takes place in the context of other historical narratives swirling in and out of it. Any official LDS history will inevitably have to tell bits of those stories as well in order to tell its own, and thus impinge on other people’s narratives. Thus someone might not quarrel with how the LDS church defines itself in its own terms but how it may at points directly or indirectly redefine other people’s identities.

  76. Bill MacKinnon on August 29, 2007 at 8:32 am

    Ardis,
    Your #74′s parallel with the publishing output of a university faculty member is helpful and reflects your non-Euclidian thought process at its best, although I think there are some significant differences in the two institutions (university and church) that make it important for there to be a clarification in the latter that would seem wholly unnnecessary in the former (especially when the book treads such sensitive reputational ground as accusations of mass murder by the institution’s leaders at various levels). For example, based on my involvement with it, I’m pretty sure that in 1998 when Howard Lamar and Yale Press brought out his 1,000+-page “New Encyclopedia of the American West” that the financial and human resources were strictly a matter of him alone and the press, not the university as an institution. (He has a hard time even getting the history department’s secretary to type his letters, many of which are therefore longhand, eventhough he’s president emeritus and Sterling Professor of History, Emeritus. If he had cadged, say, $400,000 in university resources outside of the press’s support to produce the book, it would have created an uproar on campus.) For me, it would be helpful and supportive of the MMM book’s credibility if the Foreword were to contain a statement to the effect that the historians’ employer was supportive of their effort at finding the truth about this important subject by providing time, financial, and research resources but has not sponsored, directed or influenced the historians’ conclusions/interpretations other than perhaps to comment on matters of fact along with the ms.’s official (press-designated) readers. Such a statement is pretty close to the fact of the matter as I understand it, and, if I have it correct, would serve to clarify for readers like me the roles and responsibilities for the book’s production. I would think Oxford University Press would also need to have such a statement in order to answer questions that will inevitably arise as to the book’s origins/sponsorship. I also think that Oxford’s marketing people will need to know at some point what they can say promotionally about the LDS Church’s “position” on the book. Apparently the church as an institution has recently said that it has no comment on the film “September Dawn.” What will it say by way of requests for comment about “Tragedy at MM”? We’ll find out soon enough, and I hope that whatever is said will help rather than muddy the waters about what I predict will be a very good study produced by three fine historians working prodigiously hard over a five-year period.
    By the way, Ardis, if you are tempted to think that I have raised this matter of clarity because of a belief that Mormon historians can’t possibly produce anything about the history of the church and its members without church control, relax. Your “Pursue, Retake & Punish” article on the Santa Clara Ambush of 1857 in “UHQ” certainly refutes any such notion, and in the case of the “Tragedy at MM” ms. I’m pretty sure that its origins are rooted in Rick Turley’s ability to convince the church’s Historical Dept. that such a truth-seeking book is need rather than a matter of him, Glen, and Ron being dragooned by their employer into taking on such a daunting project.

  77. Matt Evans on August 29, 2007 at 9:54 am

    anything issued from an office is “office-ial” — but it lacks an element of authoritativeness that most of us are trying to define.

    Ardis, it’s not possible to be more official — to have greater authority to speak — than the church has to speak for itself. When the president or an apostle writes a history they can say that the views expressed are those of the author, the purpose being to point out that it isn’t “official” — it’s not done with the authority of the church. When the church writes a history, however, it’s not possible to say that the views aren’t those of the church because the church is the author. Of course it wasn’t necessary for the church to produce histories, especially a history textbook, and some may have discouraged them from doing one and leaving the writing of histories to individuals, or even paid an historian to write the history and publish it under their name, but for whatever reason the church decided to produce a church history book and publish and promote it under their own name.

    The tough cases you mention are attempts to determine when other actors, like presidents or apostles of the church, are speaking officially for the church — as though the church were speaking itself — even though they’re acting under their own name. In the law this issue is called “agency” — if a Pizza Hut employee causes an accident, is Pizza Hut responsible? If Pizza Hut owns the car? If he’d stolen the car? If he was on the clock? Off the clock? On break? In violation of managers instructions?, etc. The question is figuring out when the individual’s acts are acts of Pizza Hut, as though Pizza Hut did the act itself.

  78. Ardis Parshall on August 29, 2007 at 9:55 am

    Bill (#76): The “generous support” extended by the church in this case is certainly extraordinary in scale, but not, I maintain, in kind from an academic’s use of official resources within his contract or research allowance for the production of a book bearing his name. (Your use of the word “cadging” makes me hasten to add that modification – it’s another matter entirely for anyone at any institution to misappropriate resources.)

    I also hope we know each other well enough that you don’t think I put you among those who won’t evaluate the new MMM book on its merits, regardless of any sponsorship clarity offered (or not) upon publication. We do have colleagues who have already passed judgment on the book’s merits based on the authors’ day jobs, though. Epithets of “hacks” and “shills” have been freely and publicly used by the less restrained of our colleagues, and even so staid and respectable an historian as Jan Shipps, in her remarks following the trio’s papers at MHA two (? or three?) years ago, acknowledged that their status as church employees could not, should not, would not be removed from evaluations of the book’s candor.

    To tie this more closely to the topic of this post, some Mormons will be no more able to avoid their prejudices in deciding whether “Tragedy at MM” is “official” history. There will be some who insist that it is not official until the First Presidency or Quorum of the Twelve explicitly endorse it as such, and there will be others – probably more – who assume that because “those nice boys down at church headquarters” wrote it, it is official.

  79. John Mansfield on August 29, 2007 at 9:55 am

    Someone please explain for me the difference between official history and “official” history. Is the difference related to the position that the father of the writer of this post holds at the Museum of Church History and Art? Or should that be “Museum” of Church History and Art?

  80. Ardis Parshall on August 29, 2007 at 9:58 am

    Matt (#77): This has become, or is fast becoming, one of those instances where “winning” through having one’s own definition adopted is more important than reaching mutual understanding. I have no further comment.

  81. Ardis Parshall on August 29, 2007 at 10:07 am

    John (#79): I don’t know about others, but I have used the quotation marks as a form of emphasis, not as scare quotes to cast doubt.

  82. Matt W. on August 29, 2007 at 10:17 am

    emphasis is better done with *asterisks*, to eliminate confussion. In my opinion. Now I feel like a jerk.

  83. Ardis Parshall on August 29, 2007 at 10:21 am

    Matt W, you’re not a jerk, a “jerk” or a *jerk*

  84. Matt Evans on August 29, 2007 at 10:45 am

    Ardis, I’m open to an alternative definition of “official,” I honestly don’t know what definition anyone else is proposing that I’m not understanding. I’ve been responding to those seeking a history more official and authoritative than a history done by the church in the name of the church — I don’t believe anything can be more official than “done by the church in the name of the church.” I’m open to counterarguments.

  85. LifeOnaPlate on August 29, 2007 at 3:37 pm

    I’m currently reading the Comprehensive History of the Church by B.H. Roberts, and find it to be a pretty candid, yet faith-promoting look at Church history. I’d recommend it as a nice starting point.

  86. Bill MacKinnon on August 29, 2007 at 5:50 pm

    I agree with LifeOnaPlate’s #85 about the value of B.H. Roberts’s “Comprehensive History.” It was one of the first sources that I used fifty years ago, and I still use it. One example — this one about Utah rather than church history — deals with the long-standing myth that Brevet Lieut. Col. E.J. Steptoe declined Utah’s governorship (from President Pierce) and signed a petition urging Brigham Young’s retention in that role because BY blackmailed him after entrapping him in a compromising situation in Salt Lake City involving two Mormon women during December 1854. In “Tell It All” Fannie Stenhouse embraced the BY entrapment story with great enthusiasm and decades later Nels Anderson (“Deseret Saints”) perpetuated the piece about Steptoe misconduct. B.H. Roberts threaded his way through this reputational minefield in very careful, balanced fashion, putting the lie to the notion of BY shoving women at Steptoe and of Steptoe’s libido running amok in GSLC (although some of his subordinate officers were clearly off the reservation). Also Roberts is about the only historian (Mormon or non-Mormon) who has reported that By was indicted for treason by a federal grand jury on 30 December 1857 — probably not something that most Mormon historians of the era were eager to report, if they knew it — , and he is about the only one who also analyzed carefully the composition of the grand jury and how that might have impacted the character of the indictment returned. The trouble with Roberts’ s great study is that it ended with 1930.

  87. Kevinf on August 29, 2007 at 7:39 pm

    Wouldn’t you know it, but I have been accused of misspelling the only word I remember from high school chemistry (you say Avogadro, I say Avagadro). Just goes to show how history can sure get messed up.

  88. Susan S. on August 29, 2007 at 10:03 pm

    Sorry, Nate. But this seems like a trick question.