Mormons have an ingrained habit of interpreting their history in the rosiest of all possible terms, even when — as a historical matter — a less rosy interpretation makes more sense. Those who worry about such things have offered a couple of reasons as to why this is so. Some have suggested that this is dishonesty, pure and simple. Mormons — or at least some of them — are lying about their history because they don’t want to face the possible consequences of more honest interpretations. A related explanation is that Mormons — or at least some of them — are ignorant of their history, offering ultra-rosy explanations of the Mormon past because they simply don’t know the dark and dangerous details. On either of these views, the will to rosey-ness is essentially apologetic. It is offered as a way of either avoiding intellectual attacks on Mormonism or else as a way of giving “faith-promoting” pabulum to the masses. The arguments against ultra-rosy history are equally familiar. First, there is the straight forward ethical claim that it is immoral. On this view, rosy Mormon history is a lie, and we ought not to be liars. Second, there is a practical argument. Building up faith on the basis of untrue stories is a bad idea because some of those whose faith is so built will find that the stories are wrong, leading them to lose their faith. Much better to be up front about everything.
I think that there is some truth to all of these claims. Mormons have not always been upfront about their history. We do often feed ourselves a Bowdlerized Mormon history that will back-fire when we learn that the past is not as saccharine as our seminary teachers might have suggested. We shouldn’t lie. All of these criticisms as subject to very tricky problems of practice. How exactly ought one to go about teaching a new convert (or an old one) about polyandry or Adam-God?
I do think, however, that it is a mistake to think that the will to rosy interpretations is entirely apologetic. It is not simply about defending Mormonism from attacks, or telling stories to increase commitment to the faith. I think that it is also about doctrine and authority. Much of Mormon theology is worked out in terms of history. The most obvious example of this is the whole doctrine of the Restoration, which is essentially a story about the history of the Christian religion. But there are also other stories that we use to work out our theology, stories about prophets, revelations, the transfer of priesthood authority, and many many other things. At the heart of this concern with history lies, I think, the idea of continuing revelation. By definition Mormon doctrine is a continuing process that unfolds itself in history. Thus, deeply engrained in Mormonism is the idea that the past has a claim on the Saints.
But not everything in the past has a claim on us. This is also inherent in the idea of continuing revelation. There are certain portions of the past that are not normative. Hence, one of the central theological conundrums that Mormons find themselves in is sorting out which bits of the past have a claim on them, and which do not. I think that the rosy interpretations that we offer of the Mormon past are often — although almost never consciously or explicitly — about this search for the normative. As often as not, we are less concerned with understanding the causes and course of past events than with understanding whether or not thet have a claim on us now. Consider, for example, the stories that one might offer about the reasons for polygamy. Most “folk” interpretations of polygamy — e.g. it was practiced because there was a surplus of women crossing the plains, etc. etc. — are appallingly bad as historical explanations. However, this is not, I think, their primary purpose. Rather, I think that their purpose is to show that polygamy is no longer normative on Latter-day Saints. Of course, they are still — in a sense — historical interpretations, but interpretations of a very particular kind. To paraphrase one philosopher:
Church doctrine begins in the present and pursues the past only so far as and in the way its contemporary focus dictates. It does not aim to recapture, even for present church doctrine, the ideals or practical purposes of the prophets who first created it. It aims rather to justify what they did (sometimes including what they said) in an overall story worth telling now, a story with a complex claim: that present practice can be organized by and justified in principles sufficiently attractive to provide an honorable future. (Cf. Ronald Dworkin, Law’s Empire 227-228)