There’s a common assumption that historical accuracy and a spiritual orthodoxy compete against each other in a zero-sum game. Either you have to take the most recent finding or the dominant academic consensus as credible, or you have to take a literal reading of the scriptures as axiomatic, but you can’t have both.
Well, that’s probably OK, because in my case I prefer neither. Reading the scriptures “literally” is a proposition that makes no more sense than trying to read Robert Frost “literally” since the scriptures contain poetry (and a host of other literary genres) that are supposed to be read in some fashion other than “literal.” On the other hand–much as I value and am interested in scholarship and research–I cannot take seriously the idea of handing the ultimate authority over any spiritual question to a committee of experts, which is about the most optimistic way you can look at the consensus of scholarship on any one particular issue at any particular time. The only person who gets a veto on my testimony is, in the end, me.
So, although I’m way too far out of my area of expertise to have anything specific to say about particular controversies, my general attitude is to try and approach the scriptures–as much as I can–on their own terms. This is of course difficult and (in some sense) impossible. The scriptures are not self-interpreting, and I cannot recover the historical and cultural context in which they were originally written. (Which makes it awfully convenient that the Book of Mormon was intentionally written for a far-future audience, but of course gets us nowhere with the Old and New Testaments and doesn’t render the Book of Mormon entirely transparent to our investigations, either.) The best we human effort we can deploy is a synthesis of the research we have available, the text before us, and our own common sense.
But what does that look like in practice?
Well, I stumbled upon an interesting case study that I thought I’d run by everyone. It’s interesting because it’s a very, very unusually recent example of a radically shifting historical context, one in which the assumptions of the speaker are radically different from the reality experienced by an audience today but where–with only a little bit of research–the facts about the historical context are still easily recoverable.
My case study is Elder LeGrand Richards’ talk What After Death? from the Saturday afternoon session of the October 1974 General Conference. Here’s how Elder Richards introduces his theme:
I thought today that I would like to direct what I have to say to those parents who have lost children in death before they reached maturity and could enter into the covenant of marriage and have their own children here upon this earth. I reckon that there aren’t many families who haven’t had that experience.
I was struck by the last statement that he made. After all, I only know a very few families who have lost a child. Surely things weren’t so different in 1974, were they?
Luckily, we have the data to answer that question.
First, it’s important to note that Elder Richards was born in 1886, and so his impressions over how frequently this kind of tragic loss occurred would have been formed right around the turn of the century. Secondly, we can get a feel for child mortality rates by looking at some publicly available historical data, in this case from the website Our World In Data. Here’s an illustrative chart:
I included France and the United Kingdom because the US data didn’t go back far enough. Neither does the UK data, but all together they show that we’re looking at a fairly cohesive trend. Obviously I’d expect all kinds of regional differences–and it’s entirely probable that someone reading this post could give me exact figures for Utah around the turn-of-the-century–but for our purposes it is sufficient to say that childhood mortality was about 250 out of 1,000 (25%) in the 1880 – 1900 range, about 25 out of 1,000 (2.5%) in the mid 1970s (when the talk was given) and has fallen to about 4 out of 1,000 (0.4%) for the most recent data (2013).
You could also point out that Elder Richards is talking about deaths before marriage and childbirth, and this data is specifically for deaths before the age of 5, but stay with me, because the overall point is robust in spite of these finer details.
Let me just make one more point with the numbers. If we assume a family with 4 childbirths, what’s the probability that at least one will die in childhood? In the earliest time range, it’s about 68%. By the 1970s, that has fallen to about 10%. By today, it has fallen to 1-2%.
So this is what I mean by a radical shift in historical context, but one that is close enough that we have the data to recover it, at least on an intellectual level. In Elder Richards’ day, his comment that “there aren’t many families who haven’t had that experience” would have been entirely accurate (especially if you consider families with more than 4 children born). But in our day and in our region of the world, the tragedy of losing a child is quite rare.
Now, as a final caveat, this talk does not constitute scripture in the strict sense of the word. That’s fine. I think it’s still close enough for us to ask this question: what role does understanding the historical context–both the turn of the century and the mid 1970s–have to play with our understanding of the message Elder Richards was trying to convey? Here are a couple of brief thoughts.
First, it’s not really that important. Although he assumed that the experiences he was relating would be commonplace, they need not be commonplace for the main message of his talk to come through. Primarily, he was interested in explaining some practical aspects of the resurrection, aspects that would of course be of tremendous comfort to grieving families in his day, and which may afford comfort to grieving families today.
Second, an apparently false note in Elder Richards’ talk resolves once we take the historical context into account. To answer the question of whether or not Elder Richards’ statement held true at the time he made it (1974), you’d have to do all kinds of work with age distribution and definitions that I’m not going to get into. New families just starting out had a low probability of losing a child (remember: 10% for a family of 4 children), but older families had lived through the time period when the rate was much, much higher and so many of them had already lost children decades ago. But the point is that what seems to someone in 2016 like a very, very odd and even apparently false statement makes perfect sense once we take the historical differences into account.
Third, the message does make more sense when we can recover the historical context. In his talk, Elder Richards reveals that he and his wife lost two children, so (even if the historical context were missing), we’d know that he had a personal stake in his message. However, I think that realizing how common the loss of a child could be to someone hearing this talk when it was first given hones the point on his message. Additionally, understanding that there’s a difference between Elder Richards’ historical context and our own can help us apply his message all the better. We do not face exactly the same challenges. Understanding that–and understanding where some of the differences lie–can help us unearth the common threads. (I wrote about that in greater length a month back on my own blog, and I won’t go into it in greater detail in this post today.)
Of course, there’s a tremendous difference between the relatively minute historical changes between Elder Richards’ day and our own and between the days of Moses or Abraham or Jesus Christ and our own. Increasing the gap will change things, and change them substantially. My intention here is just to present a kind of baby-example for thinking about how we approach scripture that originates in a different context.
And, along those lines, it’s worth remembering that all writing “originates in a different context.” Something written by another person today will, in small but real ways, reflect their own personal life history in ways that can lead to misunderstanding even between historical contemporaries.
I think it’s plausible to suggest that it’s possible to take away main ideas without mastering the ancient historical context. You don’t need to have perfect understanding to get a lot of value from the scriptures. However, it seems beneficial to try and overcome socio-linguistic-historical chasms to the extent that we’re able to do so, and we may be rewarded for our effort with even greater understanding of holy writ.