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Is Brother Brigham our black eye?

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I'll post some real thoughts tomorrow or Friday, but here's an article on the new Church history library.

I mentioned to Mike the other day when discussing Church history that Brigham Young is the black eye of the Church in some ways in terms of the appeal of our history to others. I'm not sure how much I believe this, but I think it's at least a little true.

Which brings me to the open question that I wanted to ask our discussants/loyal fan club: what do you think about the way in which the Church handles its history? Are we open enough? Do we whitewash things? If so, is our whitewashing legitimate (in the sense that it isn't really our job to provide reasons not to join the Church)?

7 Responses to “Is Brother Brigham our black eye?”

  1. Blogger Mike 

    What do I think about how we handle our history?
    I think that the Church seems a little too scared and defensive. I wish we were a bit more open.

    That said, although we do whitewash things I do think that in general it is legit. First because it isn't really the Church's job to have a comprehensive history of the Church taught to everyone all the time. Second, the elements of Church history that are faith inspiring etc are the ones that become part of doctrine and or discussion from the Church and that seems fine. This is the place monument, the seagulls, all that fun stuff is fine.

    The problem I have isn’t with the official version being whitewashed- because it is only meant to be faith inspiring rather than exhaustive. My problem is with the reaction to dissent, reaction to scholarship that is critical, reaction to people pointing out strange things and making them seem more of a black eye.
    I would feel better about the whitewashing if there were less of an official problem with dissent from the whitewashed view. It would be great if there were more open access to church records (although really the access is pretty open and hardly anybody even uses the archives.)

    My ideal? The Church goes ahead and continues to publish Church history manuals that have nice little easy to digest lessons- but the Michael Quinns of the world aren't given a hard time or pressured to tow the line. The Church acknowledges that there are imperfections in the past, but most of them really don’t need to be defended in too much depth. There are plenty of apologist scholars who will write in response to those critical, and plenty of scholars in between.

    The Church itself doesn’t really bother responding to anti-mormon attacks, but it doesn’t really know what to do when the criticism comes from within. When some one who has Church sanction to view documents that are not openly available and on some level seems to speak as an authorized (or at minimum faithful mainline) Latter-day Saint offers a view different from the official Church position and is openly critical Church leadership seems to some extent to flip out.

    Basically, I wish we would just chill.

  2. Blogger Pris 

    It seems like there's actually two church histories: pre-1844 history and post-1844 history.

    Pre-1844 history does seem to be the focus (probably rightly) of most historical discussions. I think the Church does a pretty good job with this, though there is clearly bias and spin.

    Contrarywise, there doesn't seem to be much discussion of post-1844 history. Frankly, I'm a bit baffled by this. It may not be as "exciting" or "important" as the Restoration of Visions, but I think more can be understood about the modern LDS experience by post-1844 history.

    So, maybe it is to distance the church from Young. There does seem to be whitewashing here (i.e. Adam-God).

    That said, the more interesting question is: "is our whitewashing legitimate?" I'm of the mind that if you truly believe something to be good and right (the Church, that Van Morrison's "Astral Weeks" is the most perfect album ever made, etc.), then you should have faith and confidence that, if an investigator hears everything (the good, the bad, the downright disgusting), they'll make the right decision. So, ideally, I'm against any whitewashing. Ideally.

    Practically, though...well, I'm with Mike.

    (As a sidenote, the simpilist way to check the bias of a book on Mormon history is to check the index for "Haun's Mill" and "Mountain Meadow's Massacre" and compare the number of cites.)

  3. Blogger D-Train 

    I just think that the Church is so bent on emphasizing only the positives of theology and history that it leads to a skewed perception among the members. I don't really think that it's a problem for missionary work, since (like Mike says) there are plenty of positive accounts outside of the official publications that defend the Church that go along with the attacks. Most people that want to investigate the history of the Church in order to determine if they ought to join it are probably going to look a little further than a bad website or two, presuming that their interest is quite deep to begin with. If it's pretty shallow, they probably won't end up joining anyway.

    And, like Mike says, the biggest thing with history that the Church can't deal with that well is internal criticism. Maybe that's a consequence of a whitewashed history --- that those that get ahead in the organization tend to tow the line more readily than others, meaning that they just believe the whitewashed version.

    I do have a problem with faith-promoting history that isn't right. Individual things are fine, but if you're going to say that history is faith promoting, you should be able to defend it in more than a few examples.

    Pris is right on target about the practical/ideal divide. I don't think the Church should present critical materials, I just don't think that they should all be labeled as apostasy in a knee jerk reaction. I don't know what is taught to missionaries about resolving history type concerns at the MTC, but I think that a whitewash is probably the definitive feature. The issue for missionary work as I see it is the ability to admit that the Church isn't perfect. But most members don't accept that as doctrine, so saying that we should admit it is a little presumputous.

  4. Anonymous Steve (FSF) 

    BY is to the LDS church what Paul was to the ancient church. Both saved the church. Both talk a lot. And neither one lets Jesus get in a word edgewise. In short, BY was an organizational/leadership genius. But as a prophet, BY was an embarrassing dork that indeed we should distance ourselves from. Fortunately, modern Mormonism has reformed from all his BS, be it Adam-G-d or that horribly mean and hurtful Mark of Cain BS, etc. JS would have never permitted slavery in Utah, but BY did because he was a racist bigot AH. Does this mean the church isn’t true? Of course not, unless we teach prophet infallibility, which we don’t. The LDS church as we know it wouldn’t exist w/o BY, and no one can take that legacy from him, even though he was a complete theological moron and a poor excuse for a human being. It wouldn’t surprise me if BY was a secret conspirator against JS. Perhaps JS polygamy was a mistake too from which we’ve since reformed.

    Now if we could only reform the WofW as a requirement BS, we’d be on the path of a true LDS revival. It's become our circumcision, a stupid and unnecessary road block in the why of entrance into the Kingdom.

  5. Blogger D-Train 


    I agree with some of what you said. It does seem clear to me that Brigham was essential to the temporal salvation of the Church, and that's no small thing.

    I do think that you're a bit hard on Brigham (and on Paul) in that you expect more of them than perhaps would have been appropriate. Certainly, Joseph Smith would have stood against slavery. But the fact that Brigham didn't did not make him that unusual in his day. Really, Joseph was the unusual one.

    Brigham went out on a lot of doctrinal limbs, but I don't think he compelled anyone to follow them. I do think that Adam-God and the like were ridiculous constructions and it does seem clear that he taught them. But I wouldn't take these things as all that central to his leadership of the Church.

    Steve, are you saying that Brigham was the wrong man for the Church? I think "poor excuse for a human being" is way too harsh. If Brigham wanted to work against Joseph, by all accounts, he had that opportunity in Kirtland and chose not to take it (and at the time when Joseph was at his weakest, no less). I'd say that Brigham was basically a good man that made some pretty high profile mistakes, but that was a vital leader for the Church at that time. I think that a "poor excuse for a human being" probably wouldn't have become the prophet unless there are a lot of things wrong with the Church, both in actuality and in doctrine. Flawed? Yes. Terrible person? No.

    As for the Word of Wisdom, I largely agree with you, but I don't think it's like circumcision was. This has a rational basis and isn't part of a law that's been fulfilled. I think we stress it way too much at the expense of other things, though.

  6. Anonymous Steve (FSF) 

    D-Train: Check out how BY treated Elijah Able and his wife and tell me that he wasn’t a racist Nazi and poor excuse for a human being. I’m old enough, I had to suffer through that Mark of Cain crap before the church finally rectified BY’s disgusting bigotry.

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