[These comments were presented at the Mormon History Association Annual Conference, June 6, 2015, as part of the session “Telling Mormon History.”]
Our very language of English turns out to be quite impoverished for telling of historical things. Let’s begin with the word “history,” used by English speakers to mean past, story, and inquiry.
Sometimes we use this word history to describe the past, a moment or moments in previous times that existed once, but no longer. Novelists and sci-fi writers have dreamed of traveling to this history, while the marketing materials at historic sites and museums often promise that fee-paying visitors can “step back in time” to this kind of history. Such rhetorical deceptions elide the fact that the past is gone and all that remains of it are traces, pieces, records, sources created “way back then” that somehow wind up today in a family or library collection. Sometimes, as Richard Saunders pointed out, people will point to a trace and allege that it was the whole. Even very well trained and intelligent persons can mistake the contents of a letter or journal entry for “the past” and believe that they have discovered history.
Next, we use the very same word history to describe the stories that we tell about the past, as in an academic who wrote a history of the church or, as Richard Jensen illustrated, a clerk who prepared an annual history of the congregation. This kind of history is inseparable from the perspective of the teller, as highlighted by the sponsor of our MHA handbag who reminded us there is his-story, her-story, and my-story (but apparently no our-story). Again there is the temptation to conflate, this time the written “story” with the “past” in rhetoric that grants the teller authority over both past and present. If I can convince you that my telling of history really was the way it was, then I have hidden the loss of the past, I have hidden its fragmentary and politicized records, and I have hidden my own present perspective in a triple sleight of hand that happens far more frequently and with far less fanfare than horse racing’s Triple Crown.
Third, the word history is also used to describe the process of inquiring about the past and the stories told about it. So history is a discipline, a profession, a methodology of academic inquiry and discourse. The traces matter here, as do the perspectivally-based stories, but most importantly, the inquiry finds its home amongst a community of inquirers and participation in the community becomes a way of differentiating the trained inquirers on the inside from those on the outside who just love history (amateurs) or collect its traces as a hobby.
Past, story, inquiry . . . the English word history is used to mean them all. So how do we know which meaning we invoke? Does my Church History Library house the past and its traces, or tell stories, or promote inquiry? Do polemicists battle over the existence of the past and its traces, the validity of its stories, or the sophistication of the inquiry? Has this session brought any of us into communion with the past, into the presence of good stories, or fostered future inquiry?
We don’t really know, or at least we cannot know in English because there is not a word in our Westernized and professionalized lingua franca for the meta- cognitive analysis of what we are actually doing when we say that we are doing history. Richard Saunders had to use what seems like an invented word, “historiology.” The word “historiography” doesn’t cut it either because it, too, is burdened with more usages than a Swiss pocket knife. We need words that will remind us that the debates Saunders traced unfolded within a larger Western and professional context in which historians seeking authority in modern society looked to Ranke and sources in quest for objectivity that was contested from the outset by Progressive historians. We need words that will suggest that the Mormon encounter with historicism and higher criticism should not and cannot not be viewed outside of the context of Protestants and Catholics who likewise wrestled with the same concerns. We need words that will help us unravel the sleights of hand and disentangle the assumptions we bring to the table. We need words that articulate the values and experiences of those who seek the past, listen to its stories, and participate in its inquiries.
If doing history were like painting, then we would need to create a composition containing both the hard lines of realism and unbounded and dazzling light of impressionism. In short, if we are to Tell Mormon History, it will behoove us to talk more about what we are doing.
Mormon History Association Annual Meeting 2015
Provo, Utah, June 6, 2015
Session 4F. “Telling Mormon History”
Richard L. Jensen, “A Record-Keeping Culture? The Rise, Fall, and Partial Resuscitation of Local Latter-day Saint Historical Records”
Dr. Richard L. Saunders, “The Contest over Historical Proof in Mormonism in the Generation before MHA: Brodie, Burgess, Morgan, Smith, Smith, Smith, and Others”
Brent Smith, “Taking Mormon History Into All the World”