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Winter 1996, Volume 13.1



Thomas G. Alexander

Relativism and Interest in the New Mormon History

Thomas G. Alexander (Ph.D., U.C. Berkeley) is Lemuel Hardison Redd, Jr. Professor of Western American History at Brigham Young University. His many publications include
Mormonism in Transition: A History of the Latter-day Saints, 1890-1930 (1986), and Utah, the Right Place: The Official Centennial History (1995).


In 1891 Frederick Jackson Turner published an essay in which he expressed the views of many historians. After noting the shift in interest then taking place from political to economic history, he wrote: "Each age tries to form its own conception of the past. Each age writes the history of the past anew with reference to the conditions uppermost in its own time" (200). In this he expressed a relativistic or perspectival understanding of the past. From this point of view—one with which I agree—our understanding of the past is relative to our own interests.

Significantly, in the next paragraph, in what seems inconsistent with the relativism of the previous statement, Turner argued that people in his day understood the past better than those who lived in the past, "not only because we know how to use the sources better but also because the significance of events develops with time, because today is so much a product of yesterday that yesterday can only be understood as it is explained by today" (200).

This can be read as an objectivist statement incompatible with Turner's original relativist position. On the surface, the latter statement seems to assume a progressive improvement of historical narratives that will inevitably lead to a better understanding of the past. On a more profound level, however, if instead of reading Turner's second statement as objectivist, we recognize that he did not intend internal inconsistency, we can interpret the two statements as part of a single historiographical theory.

With these assumptions we can reenvision the second statement as myth or illusion. I should hasten to say that I am using these terms—myth and illusion—not in the everyday sense of something that is not true, but rather as historians generally use them. For historians, myths are commonly believed symbols and perceptions that allow people to function within the inevitable ambiguity of a culture. Thus, Turner's myth was for him and his generation salutary rather than pernicious, because it helped them to make intuitive sense of the condition in which they found themselves. As a historicist in the sense that Frederick Meinecke rather than Karl Popper used that term, Turner understood persons and events through an intuitive understanding of their historical development. To invest his historical understanding with validity, Turner believed that each generation could understand its own condition only by reinterpreting the past in the light of its perception of the present and that the present generation possessed an understanding of the past superior to that of previous generations.

I would argue that for me at least, Turner's myth is no longer true, and I would substitute another for it. I will suggest a substitute myth later in this essay; but for the present, I would argue that Turner's insights can help us to understand the New Mormon History and to suggest what sort of history will be written over the next decade. I would suggest that we can best predict what sorts of history will be written by understanding the interests and points of view of New Mormon Historians and their audience.

If I were to sum up the ideals of the New Mormon Historians, I would say that they seek to rewrite and revise the Latter-day Saint past for essentially the same reason that Turner suggested. They are essentially historicists who seek to understand their own time and condition through an intuitive understanding of how the past led to the situation in which they see themselves. At the same time, though they represent a wide range of points of view and a large number of techniques and interpretations, they are motivated by a number of common ideals. Among the most important are: understanding, honesty, faith, and imagination. Let me consider each of these in some detail.

To understand the points of view of the New Mormon Historians, we need to revise part of Turner's perception. Turner's belief that each age rewrites the past seems to assume a single interest in each age. That might have been true for historians of Turner's time, but it no longer suffices for ours. He spoke for a relatively homogeneous group of middle class Euro-Americans. By contrast, in our contemporary society the diversity of interests and cultural groups has outdated the perception that a single point of view could suffice for an age. For our age, it seems clear that there can be no single interest. Carl Becker, Turner's younger contemporary, argued that every man was his own historian. I would revise Becker's point of view by arguing that all persons are their own historians. More recently, Peter Novick has pointed out that every group—indeed each person—seeks an understanding of the past that allows them to make sense of their current condition. Since each of our conditions is different—if ever so slightly—each of us will understand the past somewhat differently. An understanding of the past that satisfies one person or even one group of people will not necessarily satisfy another.

The question then arises why, within a community of faith and memory like the LDS Church, will one understanding of the past not suffice? The reason for that ought to be obvious, and it has nothing to do with a secular or naturalistic interpretation of sacred things, undermining faith, or rejecting the inspiration and mission of Joseph Smith. In part it is the same reason that Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John each wrote a separate account of Christ's ministry. Some of the information in each is different, some is contradictory. For instance, Matthew's and Luke's genealogies of Joseph, Jesus's stepfather, are different (Matthew 1:16; Luke 1:23). In part it is the reason that we find in the books of Acts (10: 9-48) and Galatians (2:11) conflicting narratives about the decision by the early apostles not to require gentiles to become Jews before they became Christians. Thus, in part, it is because those of us who are historicists seek a usable past—we each want an intuitive understanding of our own condition and we seek that understanding in the study of the past.

There are undoubtedly some memories that each of us share. These include such things as Joseph Smith's revelations and spiritual experiences, persecutions by the dominant American society, and the exodus to the west.

Still, the membership and interests of Mormons are no longer encompassed within the circle of small farmers, business people, laborers, and clerks who made up the nineteenth century Church or of Euro-American farmers, workers, middle-class business people, and professionals as in the early twentieth century. In the contemporary world a large number of groups with divergent interests has arisen. These groups include large numbers of Latin Americans, Asians, Africans, and Pacific Islanders, professional women, housewives, scholars of every stripe, company CEO's, salaried managers, factory workers, clerks, day laborers, and uncounted categories of other people.

Under these circumstances, it seems evident that each group will have different questions about the Church's past, and that answers to at least part of the things they seek to understand will neither interest nor satisfy others. Clearly, a single history written from a single point of view will certainly not provide an understanding for everyone. Suffice it to say that understanding is intuitive and personal. It is part of the need humans have to locate themselves in time, in culture, and in community.

Let me turn to the second ideal, that of honesty. If I were to list the attributes of honest historical writing, I would include such virtues as truthfulness, tolerance, balance, perspective, and fairness. If historians reach a point where they cannot research and write honestly about events or personalities in the Church's past, then they should turn their efforts to some other enterprise. On the one hand, historians need not shade the truth in order to defend the Church. On the other, we need not titillate readers by writing narratives in which we speculate on the possibly evil motives of Church members or leaders.

In pursuing the ideal of honesty, the historian does not need to tell everything. Thucydides, the fifth-century Greek historian suggested the ideal that we all should follow. He said that the historian should search for accuracy and relevancy. We ought to include in narratives those facts and interpretations that bring our readers to understand the subject. All narratives consist necessarily of selective information. With a sense of caution, however, we should understand that selection is not the same thing as suppression. The term suppression connotes the intention to hide. Instead of asking ourselves whether we might embarrass or offend someone if we include particular information, although we have an obligation to write with sympathy and balance as part of our obligation for honesty, we should ask rather whether what we write is accurate and relevant. Beyond that, every historical work, whether it is written in narrative or analytical style, is interpretive. Thus, we need to ask whether our interpretation is consistent with the data we have available. In this connection, we should be certain that we select information for inclusion because we are trying to help ourselves and our readers to understand what, why, and how something happened in the past, and not because we are trying to defame people or to titillate the reader, on the one hand, or to suppress information in order to avoid embarrassing or offending someone, on the other.

Let me turn to the third attribute of the New Mormon History—faith. All the New Mormon Historians that I know are either Latter-day Saint believers or people of other backgrounds who have treated the Latter-day Saint past and faith claims seriously and respectfully. They understand, as University of California historian Henry May suggested, that in order to write excellent religious history they must "have something like religious sensibility or imagination." May went on to argue that someone who is not a believer could write "excellent history." But, for someone who is not a believer, he wrote, "Somehow one's definition of reality must be broad enough to include the religious stream as well as the sociological banks between which it flows" (31-32). Those who write excellent religious history must take religion seriously on its own terms.

We find an example of this genre in the seminal study by a New Mormon Historian, Leonard J. Arrington's Great Basin Kingdom: An Economic History of the Latter-day Saints, 1830-1900. In a section of the preface designed for Mormon readers, Arrington argues that

The true essence of God's revealed will, if such it be, cannot be apprehended without an understanding of the conditions surrounding the prophetic vision, and the symbolism and verbiage which it is couched. Surely God does not reveal His will except to those prepared, by intellectual and social experience and by spiritual insight and imagination, to grasp and convey it. A naturalistic discussion of "the people and the times" and of the mind and experience of Latter-day prophets is therefore a perfectly valid aspect of religious history, and, indeed, makes more plausible the truths they attempt to convey. While the discussion of naturalistic causes of revelations does not preclude its claim to be revealed or inspired of God, in practice, it is difficult, if not impossible, to distinguish what is objectively "revealed" from what is subjectively "contributed" by those receiving the revelation." (ix)

In this connection, those who have not treated the faith claims of the Latter-day Saints respectfully and seriously are by definition not New Mormon Historians. They belong to some other group. Possibilities for categorizing them that come readily to mind include: the anti-Mormon faction of the Old Mormon Historians and naturalistic Progressive Historians.

We find a recent example of the naturalistic historian with little understanding of Mormon faith claims in John L. Brooke's prize-winning, The Refiner's Fire: The Making of Mormon Cosmology, 1644-1844. Brooke begins with an excursion through the secondary literature of the Hermetic tradition. He then considers the Hermetic experience in the United States, especially in New England towns, with dissenting traditions. He completes his essay by documenting Hermetic activity in ancestors of a selected group of Mormons and by repeating the well-known information that Joseph Smith and his family engaged in magic-related money digging and certain other occult exercises.

Although Brooke's study is undoubtedly original, his emphasis does not square with what we know about the culture in which Mormonism appeared. Rather, available primary evidence suggests that Mormonism appeared in a Christian culture that was overwhelmingly biblical and only slightly Hermetical.

At about the same time as Cambridge University Press published Brooke's work, Brigham Young University Studies published an edition of The Journals of William E. McLellin, 1831-1836 edited by Jan Shipps, a distinguished scholar of American religion, and John Welch, an attorney and editor of BYU Studies. Though archivists had not discovered these diaries until recently, speculation about their existence and content figured centrally in the Mark Hoffman forgeries and bombings. Most importantly, the diaries offer a vastly different picture of early Mormonism from the speculative reconstruction Brooke offers in his narrative. Far from centering on the Hermetic and occult traditions, McLellin's world centered in Biblical Christianity and new revelation.

The world of McLellin's diary was much more like the world described some years ago by Johns Hopkins University's eminent religious historian Timothy L. Smith (3-21). For Smith, a Protestant who took the claims of the Mormons seriously, Mormonism attracted people because of its Biblical and Christian message, not because of Hermeticism.

As the examples of Shipps and Smith show, even though most New Mormon Historians are Mormons, one does not have to be a Mormon to belong to the group. Brooke excludes himself by offering an explanation for Mormonism foreign to the central tendencies of the Mormon tradition. Shipps and Smith include themselves by investigating the Mormon past on its own terms while rejecting Mormonism as their personal faith.

After considering historians like Shipps and Smith, I should hasten to add that even faithful Mormons who belong to the New Mormon Historians do not perceive every event in the Mormon past to have been spiritually motivated. People do things for natural as well as spiritual reasons, and part of the job of the historian is to identify and interpret both the spiritual and natural.

Now, let me turn to the final ideal—that of imagination. History does not write itself. Historical events do not fall naturally into a particular pattern. A human mind creates every historical narrative. In researching history, we find what are really isolated pieces of information. In the creative act of interpreting and writing, we weave these pieces into a narrative; and, in an interpretive analysis, we explain what, in our view, that narrative means. At every step we exercise creative imagination in selecting and emplotting events from times past. As Hayden White has shown, each of us may emplot a narrative in different ways depending on our perceptions, interests, and purposes (xii). If we are self-reflective, we ask ourselves such questions as: what is it that we are trying to understand, and what understanding are we trying to convey to our readers?

Are there limits to our imagination? Probably not. Should we place limits on our imagination? Some historians like Simon Schama and Robert Rosenstone have offered a qualified: "no." They believe that a reconstruction of the past may include fictitious information culled from their understanding of past documents as filtered through the historian's imagination (10, 12, 20). I would reject such fictitious reconstructions for the same reason that I would reject Turner's view that present-day historians understand the past better than people who lived before. The reason generally is not that we know too little, but that we know too much. That is because the totality of our knowledge and the cultural baggage we carry invariably color any narrative that we write about the past.

As a corollary, I would argue rather that while each of us understands the past differently, one understanding is not necessarily universally better than another. Instead, one understanding may be simply more satisfactory for us and for those who share our point of view.

The human imagination can conceptualize virtually anything. Human beings can envision interplanetary travel, alien civilizations, and six-headed monsters. Given the boundless nature of human imagination, if historians do not restrain themselves by basing their narratives only on information they can verify from the past, they run the very real danger of plying the reader with information and interpretations that cannot possibly be true. This restraint is one—perhaps the only one—that separates history from fiction. As a basic rule, I would suggest that although we may emplot our narratives in different tropes, we should not include information that we cannot verify from texts produced by actors in past times. In the examples noted above, I prefer William McLellin's account of early Mormonism centered in biblical Christianity to John Brooke's reconstruction which places Mormonism in a Hermetic nexus.

Congruent with the ideals and limitations that I have suggested above, I would substitute another myth for Turner's myth of our progressively better understanding of the past. I would suggest instead that through creative reinterpretation of texts from times past we can produce narratives that help us to understand the past in ways more satisfactory to our own times and interests than those produced by people from times past and those from current times with different intentions and interests.

Now, then, with an explanation of the ideals of understanding, honesty, faith, and imagination, with the substitution of a new myth for Turner's old one, we can consider the sorts of history we can expect the New Mormon Historians to write over the next decade. I would suggest that in order to do that, we simply need to examine the interests of those who write history and the audience for whom they write. For instance, some women want to understand the role of professional women in the Church's past. Representatives of certain minority groups want to understand how the majority Euro-American culture treated them and how they lived in and achieved status within the larger Mormon community. Some social scientists may seek a demographic or sociological understanding of aspects of the Church's past. Some people with theological interests may want a comparative understanding of doctrinal change and of the relationship of Mormonism to other religions. People interested in the occult may want to understand more about the role of magic in the Church's past. Economists may want to understand the role of markets in economic development in church-controlled regions and the role of ethnicity and mobility in wealth accumulation. People interested in violence may want a better understanding of the role of the Danites or the significance of the Mountain Meadows Massacre. Those interested in gender studies may want to understand polygamy, spousal interaction, male-female relationships, child rearing practices, the role of fathers, and relationships of sisters and brothers. Those interested in organizational behavior may want to understand the changing dynamic of church administration. Environmentalists may want to understand how Latter-day Saints have conceived their relationship to and dealt with the land, animals, and plants.

Beyond this, the subjects of the New Mormon Historians are bound only by the interests of readers and writers. Now, I could go on from here to list other topics, but probably with the principles I have suggested, you can list them yourselves. If you are a historicist—someone who understands the present by investigating its development from the past—you can ask yourself what sorts of things would I like to understand. You can almost count on it that some other people will have the same questions and either you or they will want to research and write on them.

We should understand also that not all people who accept the truth claims of Mormonism or who treat them seriously are New Mormon Historians. Numerous people within the LDS community would prefer to ignore or suppress information they fear might prove embarrassing to the Church or its leadership. For instance, if you ask most Church members they will probably insist that plural marriage ended with Wilford Woodruff's manifesto in 1890. Studies by Kenneth L. Cannon (27-35), D. Michael Quinn (9-105), B. Carmon Hardy (206-243), Jessie L. Embry (14-16), and others have demonstrated that this is simply not true. Mormons continued to marry polygamously with the approval of some general authorities into the early twentieth century.

Moreover, some Church members may go to extraordinary lengths to suppress controversial information or to punish those who reveal it. In a sad example of the mistreatment of a member for trying to explore and understand her peoples' past, Juanita Brooks and her family suffered ostracism and abuse in the Latter-day Saint community. After the publication of her path-breaking The Mountain Meadows Massacre, Brooks (who had served her ward and stake in the Young Women's Mutual Improvement Association, the Sunday School, and the Relief Society) endured the censure of leaders and members for revealing matters that in the words of one critic "cast a shadow upon the integrity of the leaders of the church" (Peterson 145-46). Nevertheless, in the face of such abuse, Brooks remained a faithful Latter-day Saint throughout her life.

In my view, Brooks performed a valuable service for the Latter-day Saint community. She believed that faithful, Godfearing, and believing Latter-day Saints ought to understand the dark side of their past. In the process she helped us to understand ourselves better by showing that even faithful Latter-day Saints could decide that the bloody massacre of a large party of immigrants served to build and sustain the Lord's kingdom. In doing so, Brooks revealed the vulnerability of all humans to the temptation to believe that we can serve a higher purpose through some illegal or immoral act which seems at the time to defend the Church and the Lord.

All people should learn the lesson that Brooks taught. We can learn such a lesson more easily if we learn it through an example from our own culture. It is frankly difficult to believe that we can really understand others if we do not understand ourselves and the culture to which we belong.

New Mormon Historians have learned that in trying to understand themselves and others, the honest position is that of a relativist and a revisionist. Honest historians conclude that their understanding of the past is at best tentative and incomplete. As interests change, each of us finds new questions to answer, and in answering those questions we find new perspectives and new understandings of ourselves and our community. Each person will view the past somewhat differently, but the honest historian will find a perspective from which to write a reasonably satisfactory account.



Arrington, Leonard J. Great Basin Kingdom: An Economic History of the Latter-day Saints, 1830-1900. Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1958.

Becker, Carl L. Everyman His Own Historian: Essays on History and Politics. New York: Appleton-Century-Crofts, 1935.

Brooke, John L. The Refiner's Fire: The Making of Mormon Cosmology, 1644-1844. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1994.

Brooks, Juanita. The Mountain Meadows Massacre. 1950. Norman: U of Oklahoma P, 1962.

Cannon II, Kenneth L. "After the Manifesto: Mormon Polygamy, 1890-1906." Sunstone January-April 1983: 27-35.

Hardy, B. Carmon. Solemn Covenant: The Mormon Polygamous Passage. Urbana: U of Illinois P, 1992.

Embry, Jessie L. Mormon Polygamous Families: Life in the Principle. Salt Lake City: U of Utah P, 1987.

May, Henry F. The Divided Heart: Essays on Protestantism and the Enlightenment in America. New York: Oxford UP, 1991.

Quinn, D. Michael. "LDS Church Authority and New Plural Marriages, 1890-1904." Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought 18.1 (Spring 1985): 9-105.

Meinecke, Frederick. Historism: The Rise of a New Historical Outlook trans J.E. Anderson. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1972.

Novick, Peter. That Noble Dream: The "Objectivity Question" and the American Historical Profession. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1988.

Peterson, Levi S. Juanita Brooks: Mormon Woman Historian. Salt Lake City: U of Utah P, 1988.

Popper, Karl R. The Poverty of Historicism. Boston: Beacon Press, 1957.

Rosenstone, Robert A. "Experiments in Writing the PastIs Anybody Interested?" Perspectives: American Historical Association Newsletter 30 (December 1992): 10, 12, 20.

Shipps, Jan, and John W. Welch, Eds. The Journals of William E. McLellin, 1831-1836. Urbana: U of Illinois P, 1994.

Smith, Timothy L. "The Book of Mormon in a Biblical Culture." Journal of Mormon History 3 (1980): 3-21.

Turner, Frederick Jackson. "The Significance of History." In Fritz Stern. The Varieties of History from Voltaire to the Present. New York: Meridian Books (1956):197-208.

White, Hayden. Metahistory: The Historical Imagination in Nineteenth-century Europe. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UP, 1973.


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