How should history be written. . . or unwritten?

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If one is writing a history or a biography and is tempted to leave out damning information, what should one do?

Poll ended at Sun Nov 05, 2006 10:51 pm

Finish writing the book, but leave out the offending items. Incomplete information is better than no information at all.
No votes
Stop writing the book. Leaving out key points does more harm than good.
Don't know/undecided/case-by-case basis/depends on the information
Total votes: 9

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Dr. Shades
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How should history be written. . . or unwritten?

Post by Dr. Shades »

Ray A made a fascinating post about his experience with Truman Madsen's biography of B. H. Roberts--a biography that left out Roberts' struggles as related to his Studies of the Book of Mormon, the one work for which Roberts is most well-known, no less.

This is, of course, a common charge from critics--that pro-LDS writers leave out or gloss over embarrassing details or historical items that might cast the church or one of its leaders in a bad light.

Now, if it were me, I simply couldn't stand to leave any relevant details out of a history or a biography. My conscience wouldn't let me. I couldn't live with myself if I thought I wasn't giving my readers the "full picture." But be that as it may, it's clear that at least Truman Madsen has absolutely no problem with it (assuming the omissions aren't due to overzealous editors). Perhaps other Mormon authors--or readers--have no problem with it, either.

This brings up a question in my mind: If one is writing a history or a biography and simply can't include damning historical information--due to inner turmoil, outside pressure, or whatever--is it better to go ahead and leave the information out, since some information is always better than none? Or is it better to simply not write the history at all?

(Notice that in the poll I did not add an option for "one should force oneself to include everything, consequences be damned" since that's how everyone would probably answer. This obviously wasn't an option for Madsen, so it won't be an option in this poll.)

Ray A

Post by Ray A »


Just so people will know this was not my imagination (I no longer have the book as I threw it out), here is a quote from Sterling McMurrin's introduction to Studies of the Book of Mormon:

In his authorized biography published in 1980, Madsen devoted comparatively little attention to Roberts's views on the Book of Mormon, referring only to publications that had appeared prior to 1910. Although Roberts's unpublished manuscript, "The Truth, the Way, the Life," a summary of his religious and theological views, received an entire chapter, "A Book of Mormon Study" was not mentioned, nor was there any indication of the important and interesting controversy that it had generated.

I don't believe it was an editorial decision. Madsen could easily have answered my questions, but he chose not to say a word about what he left out. I voted that it's better not to write a biography than to leave out such important facts. Another LDS author notorious for this is Francis Gibbons, who did several biographies of church presidents, and the one on Brigham Young was a cut and paste job.

You will also note in this portrait of Roberts by Davis Bitton that no mention is made of Studies of the Book of Mormon:,BRIGHAM.html

Mike Ash said this in his conclusion to an essay on "Mormon Myths":

In conclusion, this particular section of Mormon Fortress– which hopes to dispel many Mormon myths in a positive perspective– takes an approach similar to that of LDS scholar, Truman G. Madsen:

"I find my own heart strengthened in the truth by getting rid of the untruth, the spectacular, the bizarre, as soon as I learn that it is based upon worthless testimony."

I don't know if Madsen considered Studies among the "spectacular" and the "bizarre", but since it occupied about the last eight years of Roberts' life it should have been given coverage.

In the Journal of Book of Mormon Studies (Vol.8, Issue 2), Davis Bitton went a bit further by mentioning Studies in footnote 34, but he did not mention it in the main body of his article:

Attempting to address five questions about the Book of Mormon propounded by an Eastern letter-writer, he wrote three different pieces of a manuscript not intended for publication.34 Without becoming entangled in the question of what this private document signified, we can state that none of the specific questions, all based on false assumptions, has proved fatal to the Book of Mormon, and each of them is in a different position in the 1990s than it was in the 1920s. ... r-50-23919

Bitton concluded his essay with this quote:

Roberts raised a noble standard for all students of the Book of Mormon down to the present:

We need not follow our researches in any spirit of fear and trembling. We desire only to ascertain the truth; nothing but the truth will endure; and the ascertainment of the truth and the proclamation of the truth in any given case, or upon any subject, will do no harm to the work of the Lord which is itself truth. Nor need we be surprised if now and then we find our predecessors, many of whom bear honored names and deserve our respect and gratitude for what they achieved in making clear the truth, as they conceived it to be—we need not be surprised if we sometimes find them mistaken in their conceptions and deductions; just as the generations who succeed us in unfolding in a larger way some of the yet unlearned truths of the Gospel, will find that we have had some misconceptions and made some wrong deductions in our day and time. The book of knowledge is never a sealed book. It is never "complete and forever closed;" rather it is an eternally open book, in which one may go on constantly discovering new truths and modifying our knowledge of old ones. The generation which preceded us did not exhaust by their knowledge all the truth, so that nothing was left for us in its unfolding; no, not even in respect of the Book of Mormon; any more than we shall exhaust all discovery in relation to that book and leave nothing for the generation following us to develop.50

This was from New Witnesses For God, the last volume of which was finished in 1911. Yet Roberts' Studies became his major work in the 1920s and it totally preoccupied him. There is no question he was deeply troubled by this, and it led to this statement: "To talk of 'literal translation' is to talk of literal nonsense" (Introduction by Brigham Madsen, Studies, 8).

Wesley P. Lloyd, who was a missionary in the Easter States under Roberts, spent three and a half hours talking to Roberts, and recorded of that conversation:

He swings to a psychological explanation of the Book of Mormon and shows that the plates were not objective but subjective with Joseph Smith, that his exceptional imagination qualified him psychologically for the experience which he had in presenting to the world the Book of Mormon and that the plates with the Urim and Thummim were not objective
(Studies, p.23)

As I said before, it matters not if Roberts' speculations were wrong, what matters is that he held unorthodox opinions and revised his understanding of how the Book of Mormon was produced. None of this is mentioned in the hagiographies of Roberts.

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Dr. Shades
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Post by Dr. Shades »

Thanks for collecting all that and posting it, Ray!

It seems to me that although Truman G. Madsen might have considered Studies of the Book of Mormon to be "untruth, spectacular, and bizarre," it's obvious that B. H. Roberts certainly didn't. Therefore, methinks he was duty-bound to devote many more pages to it.

Writing a biography of B. H. Roberts but failing to mention Studies of the Book of Mormon seems a little akin to writing a biography of Neil Armstrong but failing to mention that he walked on the moon.

Ray A

Post by Ray A »

I have just been doing some more reading up on Davis Bitton’s comments about B.H.Roberts, and I think here are some more things to consider about how we write history or biography, or for that matter, reviews and essays. In the post above I mentioned that Bitton virtually ignored or dismissed the significance of Studies of the Book of Mormon. In Bitton’s Journal of Book of Mormon Studies article, this is all the coverage he gave to Studies:

Attempting to address five questions about the Book of Mormon propounded by an Eastern letter-writer, he wrote three different pieces of a manuscript not intended for publication.34 Without becoming entangled in the question of what this private document signified, we can state that none of the specific questions, all based on false assumptions, has proved fatal to the Book of Mormon, and each of them is in a different position in the 1990s than it was in the 1920s.35 Roberts continued to use the Book of Mormon in his preaching, his missionary work, and the two great works he completed during these years. (JBMS 8:2) ... r-50-23919

But in a review of The Autobiography of B.H. Roberts (which I have also read) published in BYU Studies and republished on the Signature website, Bitton had this to say:

But the biggest problem is that of omission. For practical purposes there is nothing here about Roberts's family life, his wives and children. Some of the controversies in which he became embroiled are passed over briefly or simply ignored. Editor Bergera's three-page afterward briefly and selectively summarizes the circumstances under which Roberts prepared two manuscripts regarding "difficulties" of the Book of Mormon for private discussion by the Quorum of the Twelve. In the same afterward, we get a brief narrative about the writing of the still unpublished "The Truth, the Way, the Life," its review by a reading committee of the Twelve, and subsequent discussion regarding the age of the earth. Both of these encounters require (and have received) much more lengthy treatment for adequate understanding. It is not Bergera's fault if Roberts failed to include something on these and many other topics in the manuscript, of course, but one wonders what Roberts might have done with his autobiography had he lived longer.
(emphasis added)

Bitton is criticizing Begera for omitting information about the Studies controversy, and unlike his Journal of Book of Mormon Studies article Bitton seems to be giving more information about he really feels about the omissions. Giving him some credit, he also criticized Madsen’s omission of the controversies in this BYU Studies review:

For a more comprehensive life of Roberts, one still needs to read Truman G. Madsen, Defender of the Faith: The B. H. Roberts Story, which, even with its adulation and omission of some controversial detail, remains the standard treatment. For some topics of interest, articles are the best resource. Other facets of Roberts's life still deserve study.
(Emphasis added)

Note that in the JBMS essay Bitton dismissed the controversies, but in BYU Studies he lets loose with the critical observations. It seems to me that Bitton was writing defensively in his JBMS essay, but more critically in the BYU Studies review.

It has been a long time since I read Roberts’ autobiography, but Bitton reminded me of what eventually happened to Roberts:

Suffering severely with diabetes and other afflictions, increasingly morose and incapacitated, continuing to feel a kind of persecution or lack of appreciation from his brethren, Roberts did not much enjoy his last two or three years on earth. It is to his credit that he managed to avoid a spirit of bitterness. As it stands, his autobiography, with all its deficiencies, is a sprightly, personal account that touches many bases of Mormon history. B. H. Roberts was a grand old warrior and, as Brigham Young would have said, had the grit in him. Right to the end.
(Emphasis added)

I thought this interesting in light of the topic of the thread. Maybe I’m mistaken, but Bitton seems to be writing with two different voices here. I think this defines the difference between apologia and scholarship. Bear in mind that Bitton's JBMS article was titled, "B. H. Roberts and Book of Mormon Scholarship: Early Twentieth Century: Age of Transition", but he not only ignored the controversy, in footnote 35 of the JBMS article he gave a spirited critique of the criticisms Roberts made.

Ray A

Post by Ray A »

Years ago I read Van Harvey's The Historian and the Believer, and I found some online assessments of his book by a "radical faith" site (all emphases added):

Split-level Christianity
It has for years been a puzzle to me how Christians are able to assent to apparently fantastic happenings and yet participate in a society which contradicts so many of their deeply-held convictions. They appear to live split-level lives.

This book fastens on an aspect of that contradiction which lies so deep in our consciousness that it is hidden from us, is so woven into the way we think that we fail to understand its immense power in our lives.

Harvey follows in the footsteps of a little-known great, Ernst Troeltsch, whose fundamental conclusion was that development of the historical method constitutes one of the great advances of human thought.

Is mundane, ordinary schoolboy history a great advance?

Yes, says Harvey. We of the 21st century find it difficult to appreciate just how revolutionary it is to try to discover "what really happened" - that is, the "facts" of the past.

Theologians who use historical methods come up with disturbing conclusions, says Harvey, not because they have made new discoveries, but because the historical method cannot in itself be reconciled with the type of thinking which produces traditional Christianity.

One implication of Harvey's conclusion for me is that the only way traditional Christians can maintain some sense of coherence in today's world is to split their thinking into two levels. One level unconsciously holds the historical method deep within itself. The other (on Sundays) freely asserts propositions which are anti-historical. ... harvey.htm

The article goes for two pages. I do not agree with everything the author wrote, but my interpretation of this is that faith can be separate from history. To phrase it more clearly: We can extract the good from Christianity/Mormonism, even if that means living on "split levels". I don't believe that history and faith will ever be reconciled. I think there are historical absurdities in both Christianity and Mormonism, and in this sense I view defenses or apologia as a vain effort to reconcile the impossible.

The author of the article goes on:

The Bombshell Jesus
Harvey's account and analysis of how Christian theologians have tried to avoid the impact of history is penetrating and his criticism of their contortions I found most convincing.

The first bombshell came in 1834 when Strauss's Life of Jesus was published. He asserted that people of New Testament times perceived reality in a way totally alien to modern man. In reaction, Christian scholars desperately sought to establish the validity of the Bible, hoping to be able to discover "what really happened" and so produce a
life-portrait or biography of Jesus.

They failed. The Bible in general and the New Testament in particular have been conclusively shown to be of diverse origins and of often contradictory content. And so it is hardly surprising that orthodox theologians have so fiercely resisted the analytical historical method.

Harvey deals with the most influential defenders of the orthodox position, each one of whom has many disciples. They include Bultmann, Tillich and Barth.

His account of Karl Barth's last-ditch stand is illuminating. Barth's theology was sensational because be broke both with liberals (who put aside myths and symbols to search for "what really happened") and the orthodox (who retained the scriptures on the grounds that they are "divinely inspired").

At first Barth used a subtle (but basically devious) defense. It was good and right, he said, to apply all the tools of the historian and biblical critic to the texts of the Bible. This would take the seeker up to a certain point, beyond which the "eye of faith" would take over to make sense of what remained.

Only through faith, said Barth, can we really penetrate and fully understand the Bible. He was later to abandon this stance - but not before many imitators had used his fundamental argument to complicate and confuse the theological scene.

Barth's progress in defence of orthodoxy was long and tortuous. But one element persisted throughout. In essence he defined the New Testament as a set of documents which report events of a unique class. It's arrogant to suppose, he says, that only events which can be confirmed by historical methods could have happened in history. The Bible, as God's revelation to mankind, includes unique events.

The criticism of Barth which Harvey offers is nothing short of devastating. In effect, Barth is telling us that there is a class of evidence which is beyond the capacity of the historian to describe, analyse, assess and soundly judge. In other words, history is bunkum
when applied to the Bible, but valid when applied to everything else.


It's worth quoting a crucial passage at this point: "If the historian permits his authorities to stand uncriticised … He is no longer a seeker of knowledge but a mediator of past belief, not a thinker but a transmitter of tradition."

The author concludes:

What about the baby?
This book explores many other aspects of historical discipline and the new ethic of truth. History is, in Harvey's view, a "field-encompassing field" because it can and does draw from any and every field of evidence in order to test its conclusions.

Now that it has done with tradition, is anything left - or has the baby gone out with the bath water?

Not so says Harvey. What has been done away with are the over-stretched attempts to save revelation, in essence an attempt to preserve for Christians a sort of special access to truth.

What remains is still powerful, what Harvey calls a "perspectival Jesus" who does not require miracle or resurrection to convey ultimate meaning to our lives and to draw our commitment to him as a
special person.

Thus, my own attraction to scripture is not based on "historical truth", but on what I see as worthwhile, and very selectively so. I repeat, the dilemma between history and faith will never be reconciled. But because I am selective it will bring condemnation from both literalists and those who oppose them on the grounds that if it can't be proved it must be fraudulent. I will throw out the bathwater, but I think I will keep the baby.

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