Julie Smith opens her excellent T&S review of Turner’s Brigham Young: Pioneer Prophet (which I’ve not yet read) with clear reservations about recommending this book to the “average” church member.
I suspect that John G. Turner’s Brigham Young: Pioneer Prophet will be the definitive biography of Brigham Young for the next few decades. Overall, this is a good thing.
But it may also be a troubling thing, at least for some people. I wholeheartedly recommended the recent Joseph Smith, David O. McKay, and Spencer W. Kimball biographies to all members of the Church. Sure, they are a little less sanitized than we are used to, but the picture in each one of those works is of a prophet of God who had some flaws, with far more emphasis on the “prophet” part than on the “flawed” part.
This book? Not so much. I have serious reservations about recommending it to the average church member; if you need your prophet to be larger than life, or even just better than the average bear, this book is not for you. I think there is a substantial risk that people raised on hagiographic, presentist images of prophets would have their testimonies rocked, if not shattered, by this book.
As far as I can tell, Julie is probably right to harbor these kinds of reservations.
But what does this say about the kind of thing a “testimony” is?
What kind of testimony is capable of being rocked or even shattered by Turner’s brand of honest but unfiltered history?
Has Julie just conceded that the average member’s testimony is propped up by a misreading of history sufficiently grievous that it can’t bear any real historical weight?
Is she right?
If she’s right, does it matter?
What does it mean about the relationship between our church history and our spiritual work if a testimony can be historically ignorant about basic facts and still be genuinely valid and efficacious?
What does it mean if an ignorant testimony can’t still be genuinely valid and efficacious?
How “right” would a testimony have to be (and about what kinds of things?) in order to be legitimate?
If an ignorant testimony isn’t valid, then does anyone actually have one?
If my testimony consists primarily of my biased, compromised, ignorant (and often self-serving) versions of both historical events and God’s intentions for me and mine, then does God want me to “lose” that “testimony” in order to be, instead, grounded in his inconvenient grace?
[Note: I'm not interested in discussing here the colorful aspects of church history. Rather, I'm just interested in addressing exactly the questions posed above.]