Some people find history boring, but I have always loved studying and teaching it. Both my university degrees are in history, and I taught it in the British Columbia community college system for almost a quarter century. History, however has a dark side. It cannot be fully trusted.
In The Merchant of Venice, Antonio says, “The devil can cite scripture for his purpose” (William Shakespeare, “The Merchant of Venice,” act 1, scene 3). Similarly, those who wish to advance an agenda cite history for their purpose. At the beginning of each semester I would illustrate this point by showing my students two accounts of a 1919 riot in Winnipeg. Both accounts were written by historians, but from different perspectives. It is hard to believe they were describing the same event.
When the angel Moroni appeared to Joseph Smith on September 21, 1823, he prophesied that Joseph’s name “should be had for good and evil among all nations, kindreds, and tongues, or that it should be both good and evil spoken of among all people” (Joseph Smith—History 1:33). The veracity of this prophesy is apparent today as millions of faithful members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints revere Joseph.
On the other hand, manipulation of history to disparage the Prophet is one of the prime devices used by those who by “cunning craftiness . . . lie in wait to deceive” (Ephesians 4:14). These detractors research and write to denigrate the Church and hopefully destroy the testimonies of its members. This device has had some success in causing people to leave the Church.
An extreme example of deception is the Salamander Letter controversy of the mid-1980s. This letter, purportedly written by Martin Harris, suggested that Joseph Smith was involved in magic. The testimonies of some members of the Church were severely tested when the letter was authenticated by experts. However, it was eventually found to be a clever forgery. The forger, Mark Hofmann, also turned out to be a murderer and is still in the Utah penitentiary today (Dennis Romboy, “Who Is Mark Hofmann and What Did He Do?” Deseret News, March 1, 2021).
The unreliability of history
Fortunately, there are faithful Latter-day Saint historians who defend the Church. One of these was the late Professor Davis Bitton, who in 2004 published an insightful essay (which I highly recommend) titled “I Don’t Have a Testimony of the History of the Church” found in (Interpreter: A Journal of Latter-day Saint Faith and Scholarship 31 (2019). Although the title sounds like it is an attack on the Church, it is actually a strong defense. Professor Bitton, who was the Assistant Church Historian for a decade, writes:
“There is nothing in Church history that leads inevitably to the conclusion that the Church is false. There is nothing that requires the conclusion that Joseph Smith was a fraud. How can I say this with such confidence? For the simple reason that the historians who know the most about our Church history have been and are faithful, committed members of the Church. Or, to restate the situation more precisely, there are faithful Latter-day Saint historians who know as much about this subject as any anti-Mormon or anyone who writes on the subject from an outside perspective. With few exceptions, they know much, much more. They have not been blown away. They have not gnashed their teeth and abandoned their faith. To repeat, they have found nothing that forces the extreme conclusion our enemies like to promote” (David Bitton, “I Don’t Have a Testimony of the History of the Church,” 286).
I dare say that there are more faithful Latter-day Saint historians than critical ones. In the words of Elisha the prophet: “Fear not: for they that be with us are more than they that be with them” (2 Kings 6:16).
So, why did Professor Bitton not have a testimony of the history of the Church? Quite simply, he understood the unreliability of history. His practice was to “uncouple the two—testimony and history” (Bitton, 293). In other words, history is fallible, but a true testimony of the restored gospel of Jesus Christ, witnessed by the Holy Ghost, is inviolable.
Following Professor Bitton’s example can take a load off our shoulders. Whenever a negative historical “bombshell” is shouted from the rooftops of social media, rather than gnashing our teeth, or wringing our hands in despair for the future of the Church we can rest assured that faithful historians will set the record straight. If we uncouple our testimonies from Church history, we will find it easier to navigate these “perilous times” (2 Timothy 3:1).
A true testimony of Jesus Christ is needed
Despite what critics dig up through mining the history of the Church, we are assured by Joseph Smith that the Church will prevail:
“The Standard of Truth has been erected; no unhallowed hand can stop the work from progressing; persecutions may rage, mobs may combine, armies may assemble, calumny may defame, but the truth of God will go forth boldly, nobly, and independent, till it has penetrated every continent, visited every clime, swept every country, and sounded in every ear; till the purposes of God shall be accomplished, and the Great Jehovah shall say the work is done” (Joseph Smith Jr., “The Wentworth Letter,” Ensign, July 2002).
Because Church history, like all history, is fallible, should we completely ignore it? Certainly not. It is full of wonderful, faith promoting stories that can strengthen our testimonies. As a convert to the Church, I soon adopted the rich tapestry of Church history as my heritage and have delighted in it and even used it as the basis of my professional writing.
The trick is to discern the wheat from the chaff, or as Moroni has written, “By the power of the Holy Ghost [we] may know the truth of all things” (Moroni 10:5).