While studying in a scientific field, two major ideas were drilled into me that have been fairly helpful in interpreting history. First is the belief that nothing can ever truly be proved, only that things can be disproved. If something goes a long time without being disproved, then it is likely (though not certainly) to be an accurate understanding of how something works. Second is the idea of backing things up with data. For biological studies, those data often looks like measured levels of chemicals in a sample or cell counts, but in history, data is mostly based around finding evaluating sources. Keith Erekson, director of the Church History Library, recently published a primer on how to approach stories from Latter-day Saint History with the historical method as Real vs. Rumor: How to Dispel Latter-day Myths, and sat down with Kurt Manwaring for an interview to discuss some of the core concepts presented there. What follows on this page is a co-post—a short post with excerpts and some discussion—but the full interview is available here.
One of the key points that Erekson discussed was the danger of sharing church history stories before they’ve been examined. As stated in the interview:
I’ll start by saying that I don’t think inaccurate stories can be truly “faith-promoting.” But it depends on what you assume “faith” to be. If faith is just some gooey abstract thing, then, sure you might try to promote it with silly stories or tear-jerker films.
But if faith is an action, if it involves mental exertion, if it is (as President Hinckley described it) like a muscle, then it is promoted by work, resistance, and training. In cognitive terms, it is promoted by conscientiously developing effective thinking habits.
Learning to approach and think about stories shared in the Church in rigorous ways takes time and effort to understand and apply regularly.
The basic habits for evaluating stories that he shared were to:
First, identify specific details in the story. Specific details are most helpful for narrowing your search.
Second, follow those details to specific sources. Third, evaluate the accuracy and authenticity of the sources.
Finally, determine the reliability of the story. The criteria of accuracy, authenticity, and reliability are developed respectively in Chapters 9, 10, and 11.
These few steps can be helpful in evaluating whether stories are true or not.
An example that Keith Erekson shared from everyday life of a member centered on a quote taken out of context for a girls camp. Local leaders took a statement from 2 Nephi/Isaiah out of context to use as a slogan to “aim high”—namely, “I will ascend above the heights of the clouds” (2 Nephi 24:14). The issue, of course, is that these are the words of Lucifer or the king of Babylon as they try to exalt themselves to be like God. As the story continued to unfold:
Young women at the camp chose to read the entire chapter and realized that the slogan – which had been plastered all over t-shirts, water bottles, banners, and study journals – reflected Satan’s inner aspirations.
They took the finding to their leaders who sheepishly admitted that they too had figured it out, but only after they had paid for all the swag. The leaders asked the girls not to tell anyone else.
The preferred response would have been to change the slogan during the planning process as soon as someone figured it out, accepting the previous purchases as sunk costs.
It’s a minor, if unfortunate, story of not thoroughly vetting a quote before using it and getting caught doing so.
Another example that he shared were some thoughts from Richard Lyman Bushman about the Joseph Smith Wikipedia page. As Erekson shared:
Richard Bushman made a really insightful observation. He noted that the Wikipedia article does contain accurate facts that can be traced to nineteenth-century documents. Several content studies of the online encyclopedia bear this out as its accuracy approaches that of Encyclopedia Britannica.
However, he also notes that the entry on Joseph Smith also “lacks scope.”
He explained, “It just picks its way along from one little fact to another little fact. . . . It . . . isn’t inaccurate, but it sort of lacks depth. It ends up being shallow.”
This is an important insight because so often fact-checking exercises focus very narrowly on the specific facts. But as I develop early in the book, “facts don’t speak for themselves” (Chapter 4). They are always incomplete and therefore must be interpreted. And it’s this shallow interpretation that makes true facts ring hollow or be twisted out of context.
It’s a good observation for approaching sources–work to get the full picture and then see if an individual source is accurate and how much of that full picture it displays.
These are some important thoughts in approaching historical sources. I would also observe that there is danger in assuming that even if one approaches historical sources using these methods that one has the only correct way of interpreting data—that’s part of the messy process of history that makes it easy to argue about things indefinitely, but it’s important to note. But, I digress. For more of the interview, including thoughts about prophetic infallibility, Joseph Smith and evaluating historical sources, and more, visit Kurt Manwaring’s here. For those who would like to stick around for discussion, some potential questions—have you read Erekson’s book, and if so, what do you think about it? What are some examples you’ve encountered of times when people (perhaps yourself included) should have checked before sharing a story? What have you found useful in evaluating stories you hear at Church?