Providing a theological interpretation of Mormon history is tricky. I’ve argued elsewhere that one of the reasons that Mormons care so much about history is that in some sense they regard it has having a normative force. Part of how we understand God’s will is by offering an interpretation of our past that sees in it the working out of God’s purposes. On this view, God is involved in the story of the Restoration and a careful parsing of that story will reveal something about God.
This, of course, is the sort of thing that sets the teeth of professional historians on edge, and avoiding this sort of interpretative frame work was one of the central obsessions of the New Mormon History. For the record, I am sympathetic to the NMH and I think that we gained a tremendous amount of insight and understanding by bracketing theological questions and just trying to understand the nuts of bolts of past events and the human stories of the saints.
But, I think that for Mormons quite rightly the NMH will never be enough. They want a past that has religious meaning. This is a historical exercise, but it is also a theological one, and while professional historians aren’t supposed to do theology in their work there is no reason that believers can’t have historically informed and sophisticated theological discussions among themselves. (Whew! That was a long sentence.) The trick, of course, is to figure out how one identifies the hand of God.
Take, for example, the idea of Zion as it was worked out in the nineteenth century. I am extremely sympathetic to those who want to mine this historical experience for some insight into God’s designs for a righteous and godly community. But what are we to make of the concrete practices and institutions of nineteenth century Zion building?
If the Mormon experience was unique, a wholly new set of ideas and practices, then it would be easier to draw some kind of theological inference. This is utterly new, so it must have come from God.
The problem, of course, is that little that the Mormons did in the nineteenth century was utterly new. Religious commonwealths, communal economics, plural marriage, a penchant for unifying church and state, and all of the rest of it have their antecedents and examples elsewhere. This is not a theological problem for Mormons, per se. We have a ready set of intellectual tools for coping with these facts as challenges to the reality of the Restoration. For example, we needn’t claim that everything was inspired by God, after all there is always human agency and human experience, even in those moments when the divine intervenes in history. Alternatively, we are comfortable saying that God inspires many people in many times and many places. He was preparing the world for the Restoration, so naturally there would be antecedents of Mormonism to be found. This is just God’s advance work. And so on…
The problem is not theological but interpretative. If I show, for example, that Mormon anti-capitalism was actually fairly common among a certain strata of American society in the early 19th century and this set of ideas simply transferred itself to the Great Basin where it endured for longer in a kind of geographic time capsule, what then? Does this mean that the ideas circulating in this particular strata of early 19th century America were a God-inspired ferment? Does it mean that Mormon converts simply carried pre-existing ideas with them into their new faith, and these ideas ought to be seen as essentially accidental to the true message of the Restoration? And how do I identify that message again?
Put another way, I have the interpretive tools to expand the notion of revelation to sweep in huge swaths of human history that are quite remote from Mormonism. I also have the tools to limit the notion of revelation within Mormonism so as to exclude many Mormon practices and institutions from the legitimating force of the divine. When do I use one strategy rather than the other?
I suspect that there is no clear answer to this, and that the best that I can do is fall back on the circularity of some notion of reflective equilibrium. With luck the circularity is not vicious. Such, I suppose, is the substance of things hoped for and the evidence of things not seen.