The Difficulty of Theological Interpretations of Mormon History

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.

26 comments for “The Difficulty of Theological Interpretations of Mormon History

  1. Craig H.
    October 9, 2008 at 11:15 am

    I think the best strategy of anyone doing religious history is to study the past as carefully as you can in the context of its time and leave interpretations of divine hands and intervention to private interpretation. Because such interpretations do not rely on evidence of the sort historians work with (thus evidence that everyone can see; you might disagree about what you see, but at least you see it).The sort of thing many believers want is more properly understood as speculative theology, not history, and that’s perfectly fine. But only those within your culture or sub-culture will find it helpful. The other problem is this: the more history you read, the more you come to admire people and societies in spite of their flaws. Most believers want inspiring history that starts the other way around: the virtues dominate, and the flaws are trivial and few. Students and others often use uninspiring examples from other faiths to suggest the lack of truth in those faiths, but fail to recognize that every religion has such examples, if not in equal number then in equal degree of seriousness. So, my answer to your question, I suppose, is to continue to condition readers, explicitly or implicitly, to realize that any story about humans is bound to be full of flaws, and that the trick is to find the gleaming nuggets in spite of them. And that any speculation about divine intervention is best left to them. More books like Rough Stone Rolling would help in this, I think.

  2. October 9, 2008 at 11:26 am

    Craig: I agree with everything that you say here. My point, however, is that to call something “speculative theology” or “private interpretation” hardly solves the intellectual quandary of how to best carry on that kind of interpretation. Likewise, the fact that Mormon theology is not of interest to non-Mormons (and this may or may not be true) hardly means that Mormon theology does not have a set of difficult problems that require careful and rigorous thought.

    I also think that the issue of “faith promoting stories” is somewhat different. This is a homiletic use of history rather than a theological one. I actually LIKE homiletic history, and I think that it can be done in powerful and responsible ways, even if it is often done very poorly. (Despite the fact that I am well aware of the controvery and complexity surrounding the hand-cart migration and the Martin and Willey companies, this sermon by President Hinkley still gives me goosebumps and motivates me to be a better person.) However, debates about how best to tell faith promoting stories and whether or not one even ought to do so are not quite the same thing as debates about the theological meaning of history.

    Finally, while I agree that theological speculation is best left out of explicitly historical accounts of the Mormon past, I do think that there is a place for historically rigorous theological speculation. If you want to see my own attempts to try to cash out this distinction compare this paper, which I regard as a bit of Mormon legal history devoid of theological speculation, and this paper, which tries to use Mormon legal history as part of an overtly theological project.

  3. October 9, 2008 at 11:39 am

    Great post! You articulated the problem perfectly. ( I wish I could do that).

  4. October 9, 2008 at 11:42 am

    The problem, of course, is that little that the Mormons did in the nineteenth century was utterly new.

    This has never bothered me. As Latter-day Saints, we need to be careful not to fall into the same trap regarding the historical milieu of the Restoration that Christian scholars and theologians had largely fallen into regarding Christ and His message, i.e., that it had to be new, unique, original — leading them to reject, downplay or even rewrite pre-Christian materials that contained Christian themes.

    I think that if the concepts and doctrines of the Restoration had been wholly unique and novel, they would largely have been rejected (I suspect one can find examples of religious movements from that period that were truly outre and died quiet deaths).

    I don’t have a good answer for your fundamental question…

    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?

    …but I’m not sure how much it matters. For myself, I keep going back to a couple of quotes. One is D&C 1:24, which I think means far more than, say, the Lord’s use of Biblical English in the Book of Mormon and/or the D&C — it (IMHO) also means that the Lord works with us within our current cultural and intellectual setting and draws upon those elements to achieve His ends.

    The other is Pres. Hinckley’s comment some years ago that “the most important element in inspiration is information.” It’s interesting that the Word of Wisdom — one of the most publicly-known (though again certainly not unique) aspects of the LDS faith — came in response to a housekeeping issue. If Emma had never complained, or if the School of the Prophets had met elsewhere, would we have the Word of Wisdom today? I honestly don’t know.

    Finally, in thinking about how the Lord must deal with us, I occasionally remember the poem by Piet Hein:

    True wisdom must comprise
    Some foolishness as compromise
    Lest fools should fail to find it wise.

    Heh. ..bruce..

  5. October 9, 2008 at 12:05 pm

    I think your evaluation Nate is a good one. I think if we isolate ourselves in a kind of bubble where history happens for the LDS somehow different from others we are fooling ourselves. Just like how often Western Historians will ignore the LDS as if they are not a part of the Old West. It just seems futile.

    We need to accept, and I think it is easy to do so, that just as now the Saints are product of their era. Thus the Lord works within that understanding. Otherwise we have a seemingly arbitrary God who tells us to discriminate against blacks, enslave them in Utah, be for polygamy before we were against it. I just feel that separating theology (or even theological history) from history for a believing Latter-day Saint is a fools errand.

    As you noted revelations came because of questions, even historical events, such as the troubles in North Carolina in the 1830s or the Adventists Great Disappointment in 1844. Just because their are secular sources for the questions does not invalidate the result.

  6. Kylie Turley
    October 9, 2008 at 2:13 pm

    You people are using very big words for someone who didn’t get much sleep last night.

    “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?”

    That’s a good question, especially as it applies to history and to an historian. For me, one key is whether the people involved in the event saw themselves as being caught up in a God-ordained moment, if they felt they were living through an event/time that God’s hand was involved in.

    I’m wondering if framing it in terms of the future clarifies or complicates things more. Or framing in terms of a personal life v. the huge swath of Mormon history. For example, I think of the ways I’ve heard various members talk about their patriarchal blessings. Are these futuristic promises things that they, themselves, are supposed to make happen or work toward? Or is a patriarchal blessing a prophecy that God will bring to pass–however difficult it seems? It seems to me that we Mormons like to look behind us and see the hand of God (on both a personal and institutional basis), but applying that forward complicates things. I’m not sure that we agree on how much God is actively involved in shaping history, even our personal history.

    I don’t think I’m making sense. I’ll go take a nap.

  7. Raymond Takashi Swenson
    October 9, 2008 at 3:45 pm

    My own favorite historical-theological hobby horse is political events that open doors of countries to missionary work. Of course, Spencer W. Kimball specifically asserted to new mission presidents in 1974 that, as the members of the church prepared themselves and made themselves available to serve as missionaries, God would open up new fields of service where people would be found to hear the Restored Gospel.

    Points of contact to that concept for me are my birth in Japan to the Japanese wife of LDS serviceman-turned-missionary, and the talk of Hugh B. Brown in 1967 in Osaka, Japan, which I listenmed to as a missionary. Japan was opened to serious missionary work in 1901 by Heber J. Grant, and made little headway during Japan’s imperialist expansion and modernization. When racial animosity by Americans toward the Japanese led to a ban on immigration in 1923, the Japanese reaction was so much hostility to americans that the mission was closed in 1924. After Japan was defeated in World War II, people were much more responsive to the Gospel than before, though Japan is far less responsive to Christianity in general than Korea has been.

    Brown announced that he felt the spirit of prophecy, and among other things he told the congregation that they would do missionary work in Russia (not the Soviet Union). Barely 5 years after the Cuban Missile Crisis and the erection of the Berlin Wall, that was not an idea that had a lot of people nodding their heads and saying “Well, of course it will happen.” But it did anyway.

    I think most non-Mormons would be incredulous at the true stories of the many people in Nigeria and Ghana who, prior to the 1978 revelation on priesthood, believed in the Book of Mormon and the Church so much that they organized unofficial congregations.

    As with Japan, the ability to preach the Restored Gospel around the world is a thing of fits and starts, of uneven progress, with all sorts of developments that few have foreseen. Yet the overall pattern is one of progress toward fulfilling the vision of prophets, of making Mormons all over the world. General authorities are actually so involved in the day to day details of administration and missionary work that it must be a challenge to step back and see a big picture, but there seems to be a general understanding that the Church is going to go forward generally because God does things for us that we alone, that the Church alone, could not do.

    John H. Groberg tells the story of difficulties arising with the government of Mongolia granting visas to missionaries. He travels to Mongolia and asks the members to fast and pray, but also to think hard about any contacts they have in the government that might give the Church a chance to talk to someone who can change the policy. One of the members remembers that a former minister of the subject department was an ambassador who had returned home because of his son being in a car accident. It turns out the son was not injured severely, so he is leaving the country soon, but elder Groberg gets a few minutes with him. He is being given a new, additional portfolio to represent Mongolia in Slovenia. He tells Groberg that he is concerned because he knows little about the country. Elder Groberg has brought along his daughter, who had just come to Hong Kong to rejoin her parents after completing a mission in . . . Slovenia. You can guess the rest.

    So yes, I think that the idea that God takes a hand in world events to support the development of the Church is a widely held belief that has plenty of evidence that is sufficient for those who are willing to accept the idea. It is the basis for a long-term optimism by both members and leaders that lies at the base of the progress of the Church, that gives us the confidence to venture into new countries and new cities in the belief there are people there who will recognize the Gospel as something they have been waiting for, often without realizing it until it happens.

    At the level of individual actions, of faithfulness or apostacy, of integrity or sin and repentance, there is room for all the normal secular forces of history to operate. The tragedy of the 1856 handcart pioneers had all the normal causes of any disaster, a combination of human limited judgment and foresight combined with weather that was bad even for Wyoming, even though the response of those pioneers and of those who placed themselves in peril to rescue them says many positive things about an organization that could motivate such selfless sacrifice and continued faith in the face of trial.

    But the progress of the church overall, and the historical “accidents” that have enabled that progress, are things that secular historians must credit to lucky breaks, to random chance, just as secular scientists credit the anthropic settings of the apparently arbitrary universal constants to a one-in-a-trillion lucky draw that makes intelligent life possible in our universe, when it would be impossible in any randomly created universe. They will try to identify laws of social organization that account for the success of the Church. But they don’t tackle the question of how an untutored frontier farmer like Joseph Smith could set in motion such an organization, without any education in social dynamics and organizational behavior. For them to ackowledge that there is a guiding hand involved in these events would destroy how they see reality. But for those who are willing to believe as an “experiment upon the word,” there is overflowing evidence of divine, purposive action to confirm our faith in God’s overruling role in history.

  8. October 9, 2008 at 4:32 pm

    Craig H., when you say “I think the best strategy of anyone doing religious history is to study the past as carefully as you can in the context of its time and leave interpretations of divine hands and intervention to private interpretation” I have some points to make. How can a historian leave interpretation of divine hands out of it if a historian really believes there was a divine hand there? Would that historian be true to him or herself if he or she suppressed that? Also, take into account that people whom the historian writes about may be the ones interpreting the hand of the divine into the events as well, points of view which can’t really be censored.

    Interesting post, Nate. We are to see the hand of God in all things, but honestly, how can that be done from the historian’s perspective?

  9. mlu
    October 9, 2008 at 7:09 pm

    I think it’s a small step from accepting the limitation of the historical method–its inability to deal well with revelation–to asserting that reality is only what can be viewed through that method. If prophecy occurs, then many professional historians have a mistaken view of the structure of reality.

    It’s important for people to be as clear as they can be about the methods and reasoning they used to arrive at the various understandings they have–something I learned largely from professional historians.

    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. . .

    If you don’t know which would be correct, then don’t pretend more certainty and authority than you really fear, but share your reasoning for which way you go. It’s seems to me the guide is just to be as honest as you can be.

  10. kevinf
    October 9, 2008 at 7:34 pm

    I recall Richard Bushman talking about straddling this divide, but the particular reference escapes me at the moment. More immediately, though, how do you folks think Bushman did in Rough Stone Rolling? There are church members who are scandalized at the treatment of Joseph Smith in his book, and outside (non-LDS) scholars who refuse to take the work as seriously as Bushman hoped, due to his personal belief in the “supernatural” aspects of the story, ie he hadn’t sufficiently bracketed the theological events of that history. As a non-academic, faithful member, I found it immensely useful and well done, and did not think that he overplayed the “Hand of God” issue. I have not talked with any non-LDS who have read the book, though, so I don’t know how it is received out there.

  11. Craig H.
    October 9, 2008 at 7:35 pm

    BHodges, “how can a historian leave interpretation of divine hands out of it” is the oldest historiographical question in the world. When the Greeks invented historical writing by insisting that they were going to study the past using only evidence that all could see, they were of course immediately accused of being atheists. The accusation continues to this day. One reason historians work this way is, again, so that they can talk to people outside their own culture. If they start saying God’s hand is here or there, then they’re engaging in speculative philosophy and that’s fine, but only people within their own culture (and then only some) will bother to see what they have to say. It’s not just about having an audience, it’s about keeping open communication and setting out a plausible rendition of the past based on visible evidence, while speculative interpretations of the past based on belief will vary wildly (and maybe interestingly so). Another reason the early Greek inventors of history decided to leave out the gods was because they didn’t feel they could presume to know the minds of the gods. I’d say that idea still prevails among professional historians who are also believers. They are finite creatures with finite minds, and any opinion they have about how God works is subject to much greater variation and fallibility than their opinions about this-worldly explanations of the past. Historians understand better than anyone how limited their approach is; but they also understand the advantages. I disagree that most historians believe reality can only be viewed through the historical method, as mlu suggests. Every method has its limitations and advantages. Including speculative theology or philosophy. I feel like the advantages and fruits of the historical method generally outweigh those of speculative philosophy, but that may be my bias.

  12. October 9, 2008 at 8:46 pm

    ” I feel like the advantages and fruits of the historical method generally outweigh those of speculative philosophy, but that may be my bias.”

    I am not quite sure what you mean by “speculative philosophy” here. I am also not quite sure that it is an either or choice. I am not suggesting that Mormon historians ought to spend all of their time looking for the hand of God in history. I am suggesting, however, that one of the ways that the believers try to learn about the nature of God is by looking at his actions in history and this raises tricky interpretative issues. One can avoid these issues by the kind of fideism that you seem to flirt with in your comment, but such an approach tends toward a largely unknowable God which I don’t find spiritually or theologically satisfying. I am more than willing to concede, however, that a kind of chastened fideism can lead to an admirable humility about one’s own intellect. I am all in favor of being tentative and provisional in one’s speculations. You raise the legitimate issue of how one talks across or beyond a religious community without adopting the kind of religiously agnostic stance that history counsels in favor of. It is a legitimate concern, not simply for crassly professional reasons — no one gets tenure working on an LDS theology of history in a history department — but also in terms of the intellectual conversations that one is involved in. Here, I would simply make two points:

    1. There are worse things in life than devoting some of one’s intellectual energy toward thinking about the intellectual quandarys of the Saints.

    2. While historians are uninterested in theologies of history as history, it doesn’t follow that those theologies are necessarily uninteresting beyond the community. If one’s theology of history contributes towards useful insights about human life it may be of interest to non-believers if it is presented in ways that make it relevent to on going conversations about human life, even if those conversations are not occuring in history departments. This is something that Mormons have not done particularlly well. It doesn’t follow, however, that it is impossible to do, although ultimately it will require some hard intellectual labor and, for those of us who are professional scholars, a willingness to take some risks. Richard Bushman’s courage in this regard is one of the things that makes him admirable in my mind.

  13. Craig H.
    October 9, 2008 at 9:50 pm

    Nate, by speculative philosophy (and there are probably other and better terms for it) I simply mean the sort of speculating about divine intervention discussed here. I have no problem with people trying it or spending their time, I just guess I haven’t found too many satisfying examples, and neither have you, which is why you want to try to improve the process. And sure, maybe it can be interesting beyond the culture. I’ve simply been stating my point of view, which is that I haven’t had much luck developing or reading convincing views, which makes me wary of the process per se. It doesn’t mean someone else can’t develop something helpful, however. I think Richard Bushman did a great job, as I said above, but what he did was history, even if some non-LDS academics thought he was on the edge of the discipline, or beyond it.

  14. Craig H.
    October 9, 2008 at 10:05 pm

    P.S. Nate, I liked the papers to which you linked above, but I don’t find the second an example of what I mean by speculative philosophy. It’s good history. So maybe we’re misunderstanding each other, or I don’t understand precisely enough what you have in mind. You’re showing a Mormon perspective on property, etc., but you’re not necessarily saying here is God’s hand at work.

  15. October 9, 2008 at 10:07 pm

    Those who see church history through the eyes of a trained academic, who have little experience in things of the Spirit, will invariably treat the history of Spiritual occurrences with a gain of salt.

    Those few who attempt to bring things of the Spirit to the forefront when writing church history incur the displease of their peers; few are willing to swim in those kinds of tides and currents.

    Consequently, things of the Spirit lose out and so do those who seek an education in church history.

    Things of the Spirit are not welcome in academic circles.

  16. quin
    October 10, 2008 at 1:42 pm

    May I suggest that because this problem has existed since the time that historical events were recorded that perhaps it simply cannot be solved?

    Secular historians want history to be accepted as solely human driven events that transpired without the influence of God-and when religious individuals read such histories-they automatically discount or re-interpret certain events according to the strength of their own individual religious bias.

    Religious historians want history to be accepted as a combination of human and God driven events that transpired the way they did because of both parties-and when secular individuals read such histories-they automatically discount or re-interpret certain events according to their own evidence-driven bias.

    Historians in both camps (as with any other academic discipline) usually think that their work “needs to” reach a broader audience than it does for various reasons, but I’d guess that most of them think that the greater the audience, the greater the chance of it significantly enhancing or changing the world somehow. So they attempt to get those on the other side of the line, or who operate and influence those in different circles, to validate and promote what they author.

    But even if it was possible to get all of the historical “authorities” and their peers to agree to only publish “history” using ONE method, or under ONE strictly defined definition-individual readers will always be the uncontrollable variable. Those who really “thirst after” historical works in any or all forms-be it religious history, secular history, ancient history, etc.- will enthusiastically seek them out and read almost anything regardless of who the author is or the biases of that author are. Those that do not “thirst” after historical works in the least (or scientific or doctrinal or mathematical or cultural etc) will never seek them out, and may or may not give them even a cursory thought no matter how popular or widely known they become (even if you handed them one and kidnap their kids for the weekend to give them time to read it).

    The thing is, no matter how in depth the research is, or how subjective or objective one is about historical data and evidence-the “truth” is that especially in cases where the persons involved in the events are dead, (and even in some where they aren’t) the whole truth simply cannot be known. It can only be agreed that certain events took place, but until it is possible to know and agree upon every single detail involved in the “why” and the “how” certain things came to be, it is really possible to form a complete consensus on anything?

  17. Assorted Chocolates
    October 10, 2008 at 3:30 pm

    The way I see it, it’s almost like asking the question, “Does God make the planets orbit the sun, or does gravity?” Should we say that gravity doesn’t exist and that what we are seeing is God’s action. Or should we say that he lets gravity work on its own.

    Is the communal society aspect of early Mormonism God’s doing, or did he just let it happen on its own?

    Sorry, it’s sort of a silly analogy.

    Maybe God IS gravity.

  18. October 10, 2008 at 4:28 pm

    I think the question is less whether history proper should change how it is written. Some complain it has a “positivist” bias – but I think that significantly overstates things and even a non-positivist account isn’t necessarily going to embrace theology. In any case to be scholarly history is always going to have severe limits on what is written. At least from a theological perspective.

    I think the more interesting question is whether we ought consider theology that embraces history and deals with it in a rigorous and scholarly fashion. I think we ought. Unfortunately while there has been some work done along these lines (say the narrative theology movement) it’s been fairly limited. Frankly the place it’s probably done the most is in “apologetics.” I put that in quotation marks simply because despite some flaws and excesses I don’t think things written by the main apologetic movements typically warrant the negative connotation they have. One has to be picky and careful of course. But let’s not kid ourselves. There’s plenty of bad history out there too.

    I think that the apologetics movement (initially primarily Nibley but taking off with FARMS as a serious force in the late 80’s) has probably embraced both science and history more robustly than any other theological movement in LDS history. The development of apologetics – especially during the last decade and a half has arguably produced the most interesting theological thinking as well. (Just consider the theological implications of a limited geographic view of the Book of Mormon)

  19. October 10, 2008 at 4:33 pm

    Just to add, the obvious place where history and theology converge is the question of the redemption of Zion in Missouri. Apologists got involved due to anti-Mormons using various scriptures in the D&C as purported failed prophecies. However the very meaning of Zion in Mormon theology (rather than mere social beliefs at a given time) seems to demand a grappling with the history of the Missouri persecutions, the exodus to Utah, prophecies in the latter days, as well as consideration of related texts from the ANE.

    Put an other way, I think theology in Mormonism needs to be extremely interdisciplinarian in a way it really hasn’t.

    An other great example is the Law of Concecration and the United Order. Once again one has to look at the various schemes to implement this both before and after the Utah exodus. One has to consider contemporary utopian and communitarian schemes. That gets one into the reality of political science and sociology not to mention economics.

    I know Nate is aware of all this since I think arguably he’s done more than almost anyone I know of to bring this interdisciplinary aspect to light. (Of which this post is just a part)

  20. mlu
    October 10, 2008 at 9:43 pm

    I believe God’s hand is present in every detail of history.

    I also believe my understanding of how He’s working is so ludicrously limited that I assume I’ll be wrong if I try to say he did this or that for this or that reason.

    I wouldn’t trust for a long a historian trying to explain to me the part God played in a particular event. I would rather the focus were on what evidence could be found for what human actors did, and what they thought they did, and what they hoped was going to happen.

    I would similarly distrust a historian who mocked or made fun of what historical actors believed about the role God was playing.

  21. aloysiusmiller
    October 11, 2008 at 10:17 pm

    I am a big fan of the Wilford Woodruff style of church history. He keeps the transcendent elements in. Bushman(for example) is a fine scholar but you would never understand why so many would have sacrificed so much for the Restoration of the Gospel by reading Rough Stone Rolling. But you can get a flavor of it when you read the old historians. A blogger I enjoy reading describes a “scientistic” mind set that feels an obsessive need to ignore the transcendent in an attempt to get some “objectivity” but all they wind up doing is a reductionist hatchet job.

  22. quin
    October 12, 2008 at 1:14 pm

    I agree mlu. Doctrine would indicate that each one of us is born on earth during a specific age and time for reasons we do not currently know. If that is true, then God’s hand IS in every event just in that one way alone.

    We view events through our very limited perspectives, and some people believe that if God had truly been involved things would have turned out differently. But faith in a God who knows the end as well as He knows the beginning allows us to trust in Him to make sure that whatever happens in this second estate, when combined with the events of the first estate, benefits all involved to the fullest degree possible. In other words, who are we to say that mortal events “should be” any different than they have been or will be?

  23. mlu
    October 12, 2008 at 1:28 pm

    I am certain God played a crucial role in some defining moments in my own life. I am also taught both by exhortation and by experience to be quite circumspect in talking about those things. No historian coming after me (should he be interested) would likely get it right.

    However, prophecy is quite a different thing than history, and I don’t mind at all people speaking expansively about the past in the spirit of prophecy, acknowledging the power of that spirit in their lives.

    I love scholars. They are not prophets. I’m glad our church is not led by theologians.

  24. DavidH
    October 12, 2008 at 3:55 pm

    An example of the difficulty of discerning the hand of God in past religious history and, in particular, the meaning of God’s involvement or revelation:

    About 150 years ago Brigham Young announced publicly a practice that resulted in the withholding of priesthood and temple blessings that lasted for many years based on race/lineage.

    Was the hand of the Lord in that announcement? And if it was, what did it mean?

    The bases for the practice offered by the early Brethren did not come out of whole cloth. As I understand it, the theories of Ham’s (or Cain’s) being the ancestor of a particular race, and descendents’ being subject to some sort of curse (such as slavery) were commonly held at the time of the Restoration, albeit with very little, if any, basis in the Bible.

    If, indeed, God explicitly or implicitly directed Brigham (or Joseph, who passed it along in an nonrecorded way to Brigham) to institute that practice, was it effectively a “revelation” about past practice (i.e., implicitly confirming the then commonly held beliefs of the origins of race and status, and giving rise to the common LDS understanding that, until 1978, God had forbidden any one with black African lineage from receiving priesthood/temple blessings in mortality)? Or was it a “revelation” entirely time and culturally bound? Might God have effectively been saying that the practice should be in place at that time and place because of the explosive nature of debates about race and slavery, and recognized that the predominantly white Saints had enough to deal with in defending the explosive issue of plural marriage? Or did God take a hands off issue, neither commanding nor forbidding the practice, but allowing Brigham and his successors to deal with the issue as best they could?

    What about other, plainly timebound practices, like rebaptism for health or to evidence recommitment? Or sealings to prominent Church leaders rather than one’s ancestors? Or shortening the period of single male missions to 18 months, and then lengthening it out again?

    And finally, what about today’s position of the Brethren strongly opposing the recognition of same sex marriage by secular governments? One hundred years from now, will our descendents, in gospel doctrine class, marvel that, at a time when no one else in our society opposed same sex marriage, God revealed this unexpected revelation opposing same sex marriage which saved our society from untold calamity? Would it be unduly naturalistic (and testimony deflating) for an historian to raise her hand and observe that, in fact, there many other churches who opposed same sex marriage in secular society, and the LDS Church was just one of them? Or, in the event future revelation changes the Church’s position on the subject, will future Saints wonder something else?

  25. comet
    October 15, 2008 at 4:18 am

    Great post, Nate.

    I guess I find both extremes–no God in our history and all God in our history–unsatisfying in the end.

    The thought that God’s hand is in everything that occurs is emotionally heartening, even exhilerating, at times, but at other times it’s stultifying to the mind, a dead-end, or intellectual taboo. Why is that? Is it that what is satisfying to the heart isn’t always satisfying to the mind (and vice versa)?

    What’s the point of the veil if not to remove us from His overpowering, overdetermining presence? Total continuous communion with God could be a debilitating ecstasy.

    Is there no room for chance, randomness, luck, etc.? Not that we would make these our gods, but where are these in the Plan? Are these merely elements evicted from our spiritual discourse left to shadow us as secular alternatives? Agency might be the closest possibility, I suppose, since theoretically there is no moral constraint imposed on human choice, although that tends to get hedged by folk doctrine (such as the one about stray children of faithful parents unconditionally returning to the fold by the power of the covenant).

    I do believe that God can intervene in the world, having as much (or more?) agency as the next guy. How much of that intervention we see is discernment or projection is hard to tell sometimes. I would imagine it’s usually discernment for us and projection for the other guy (unless the other guy happens to be a prophet or other group representative who has authority to say what counts as one or the other).

    It seems like God usually abides by the rules in play– works through the agency and understanding of those already in the game, doesn’t usually overturn the routines, predictabilities, constants of our lives and beyond….seems more interested in letting things play out (there are exceptions of course like in 3rd Nephi).

    I wonder if God has ever heard the word “micro-manage”? When I was young I begged God to make some major life decisions for me (and some minor ones too like when I asked him to turn my arm into a bionic arm!)–after all, how could you go wrong with his counsel, if only you could be spiritual enough to get it? Maybe this isn’t what most people mean by “the hand of God”, but it’s not easy to tell sometimes.

  26. mlu
    October 17, 2008 at 8:22 pm

    I’m not sure what I mean by the hand of God. I’m not even sure what I mean by all things. If I knew, then I would see what he is doing at all times.

    It does seem that something–call it randomness if you wish–is allowed to wreak havoc (and good fortune) upon us, within limits. And we are allowed to use our free will and intentionality to learn better to control and mitigate these things: epidemics and tsunamis come to mind.

    I have no way of knowing or figuring out to what level of detail God’s knowledge extends. It’s impossible for me to imagine He is contemplating the movements of individual molecules, atoms, quarks.

    I know that as a gardener I increasingly contemplate processes and cycles that were invisible to me a few short decades ago, when my gardening amounted to little more than putting out marigolds after the last hard frost. But my knowledge of these things only increases my awareness of how deep and profound my ignorance is.

    I can more easily imagine the earth as a garden which God tends with sufficient knowledge to know how the story ends, and to know when people need help, and to understand when they need to be left to struggle without much apparent help.

    I have faith that God’s hand is present in all things, and I keep refining my sense of what such a strange and vast statement might mean. For now, I don’t think I’m ever alone. I think the story has a happy ending. And I think even the trouble is part of a wisdom I can’t always see.

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