Not too long ago, I stumbled across the PBS presentation of Jared Diamond’s book Guns, Germs, and Steel (2d ed. 1999). It reminded me of dealing with the book at college and enjoying the ideas presented and the sweeping take of world history that it offered. But while watching the presentation and contemplating the message of the book itself, I was reminded about how much Diamond’s whole analysis depends solely on inference from extremely scant historical evidence.
Do we perhaps put too much faith — blind faith? — in history in our post-Enlightenment lives and cultures? As an introductory disclaimer, I have always been an enthusiast for history and genuinely love to read history books. I learn a lot from history and realize that history can aide and accompany civilization in its progress; conversely, ignoring the lessons of history can result in downfall. But despite this love for history, I wonder whether I am sometimes more of an agnostic on matters of history than a true believer in the inferences that constitute “history.” After all, at its core history is really just inference, isn’t it? History depends on the existence of evidence and on the interpretation of that evidence to create something intelligible. True, the story created by a historian drawing inferences from an evidentiary record must be able to stand up to the scrutiny of logic. The evidence either conceivably supports the narrative or not. Poorly executed history is often not difficult to detect. But even with sound history, we are still relying on someone else’s inferences from arbitrarily extant facts and evidence. Working as a lawyer has thrown this into even starker relief for me than did my studies.
As I watched the Diamond special on PBS and considered the study of history, I began to think about a provocative statement I had read more than a decade ago. In his book The Great Apostasy (1909), James E. Talmage had quoted B.H. Roberts on prophecy vs. history:
What is prophecy but history reversed? Nothing. Prophecy is a record of things before they transpire. History is a record of them after they have occured; and of the two prophecy is more to be trusted for its accuracy than history: for the reason that it has for its source the unerring inspiration of Almighty God; while history — except in the case of inspired historians — is colored by the favor or prejudice of the writer, depends for its exactness upon the point of view from which he [or she] looks upon the events; and is likely to be marred in a thousand ways by the influences surrounding him — party considerations, national interest or prejudice; supposed influence upon present conditions and future prospects — all these things may interfere with history; but prophecy is free from such influences. Historians are self-constituted, or appointed by men; but prophets are chosen of God. (James E. Talmage, The Great Apostacy (1909), pg. 37, note 5.)
Do we or should we believe this? B.H. Roberts is making an even more startling claim with this statement: prophecies are objectively accurate and true, regardless of whether someone — the hearer or reader — believes in the truth claims of the prophet. If, for example, Isaiah was really a prophet at all, then his prophecies and revelations are “more accurate” than the fallible inferences drawn by historians about what has transpired in the past. As Latter-day Saints who believe in the concept of a living prophet and continuing revelation, we can benefit from this idea subject to two underlying assumptions. First, we must presume that God does choose prophets through whom to speak. Second, in the Latter-day Saint context, we must believe that our prophet is God’s prophet.
For Latter-day Saints, God’s prophet is also a seer. In the Book of Mormon we read that
a seer is greater than a prophet. . . . [and] that a seer is a revelator and a prophet also; and a gift which is greater can no man have, except he should possess the power of God, which no man can; yet a man may have great power given him from God. But a seer can know of things which are past, and also of things which are to come, and by them shall all things be revealed, or, rather, shall secret things be made manifest, and hidden things shall come to light, and things which are not known shall be made known by them, and also things shall be made known by them which otherwise could not be known. (Mosiah 8:15-17.)
If we believe B.H. Roberts’s statement about prophecy versus history and read it in light of the prophet’s role as a seer, what implications might this have for such controversial works of the Prophet Joseph Smith as the Book of Abraham or Moses, or even the Book of Mormon? As a seer, Joseph Smith was able to “know of things which are past.” Understandably, people not of this faith might think that Joseph Smith was not a prophet and will find these works to be ridiculous. But for those who believe in Joseph Smith as a prophet, what should we think if the “historical record” — or what we know of it at any given time — seems to contradict what Joseph Smith has revealed in his role as a prophet and a seer? Are we better off putting our faith in history (is it still just faith?) that follows from sound inferences, regardless of how sketchy the “evidence” really is when considered in light of the breadth of human experience? Why does it often seem like we are more unlikely to be agnostic about the conclusions of history than about prophecy, and particularly prophecy that looks back in time rather than forward?
 In his book, Diamond is talking about stuff that presumably happened 13,000 years ago; how agriculture developed in pre-history and how and where humans first domesticed animals and settled in villages with houses — all in the laudable bid at showing that the peoples and cultures of this world that developed powerful civilizations with strong institutions, the rule of law, functioning economies and the accompanying societal and architectural infrastructure, not to mention physical health and important immunities, were able to achieve these things because of the luck of geography and the scarcity of farmable crops and animals in other geographical locations, and not because of any kind of racial or genetic superiority. Peoples lucky enough to find themselves in a geographical location that sported the right conditions together with the right species of crops and animals, such as the Fertile Crescent, prospered and developed such civilizations. The civilizations followed the march of these crops and animals. The book’s broad view is precisely what makes it so valuable and it proves to be an educational read for anyone, regardless of background.
 Lawyers deal with evidence every day. We analyze evidence and also, in a certain sense, create history from whatever evidence happens to fall into our hands. In the Anglo and American common-law legal systems, which rely on the adversarial system to administer civil justice, lawyers for each side will often take the same evidence as support for their own opposing viewpoints or stories. The meaning of a document in evidence, that actually might seem pretty clear at first blush, can often be fought over for years with no agreement. Both sides might have compelling interpretations; the inferences both sides draw from the document and what is known through other pieces of evidence about the context surrounding the creation of the document can be logically sound in their own right. And even when a judge or jury makes a final determination about what the document or other evidence means, that still does not really settle the issue of true meaning in an objective or cosmic sense. Rather, the matter is only concluded because the law creates a fiction of finality in the matter (as it must). Unfortunately, the outcome all too often seems arbitrary. (Lawyers also, when not supervised closely, use too many footnotes.)
 This is certainly not what one would call an “ecumenical” work, but I would highly recommend it nonetheless, if for no other reason than for such tidbits as: “A more infamous doctrine than that of the condemnation of un-baptized infants can scarcely be imagined, and a stronger proof of the heresies that had invaded and corrupted the early Church need not be sought. Such a doctrine is foreign to the gospel and to the Church of Christ, and its adoption as an essential tenet is proof of apostasy” (119).