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.