SALT LAKE CITY 5 July 2007
The increasing media attention devoted to The Church of Jesus Christ
of Latter-day Saints has led many journalists to explore Mormon
history. Some of them have questioned the miraculous aspects of the
faith and have inquired as to why Latter-day Saints continue to
believe them as reality and not myth.
Some writers have suggested that Mormons have a tougher "sell" with
their faith because the miraculous events associated with its history
are relatively recent and not obscured by antiquity. One scholar even
wondered whether the Church — as it becomes more familiar and more
widely accepted — will be pressured by public opinion to step back
from those doctrines and elements of its history that are unique and
challenging to modern eyes.
But to deny the Church's miraculous history is to deny its very
foundation. During an interview for the recent PBS documentary "The
Mormons," Elder Marlin K. Jensen, Church Historian and a member of the
high-ranking Quorum of the Seventy, was asked why Mormon history is
taken so literally and not simply treated as a myth. In response he
said that viewing history as a "figment of language or … imagination"
takes away its essential meaning. From the perspective of believers,
for example, Joseph Smith's miraculous visions give real meaning to
their lives not because of their symbolic value, but because they
According to the scriptural model of history, prophets and apostles
taught spiritual truths through historical narratives. Likewise,
according to Elder Jensen, "the greatest piece of Church history that
we have is Joseph Smith's story. It's scripture, and it's history, and
it's the foundation, really, for everything that we have and we are,
and it's beautifully clear and simple."
Mormon history is often viewed in terms of how sacred history can be
reconciled with the empirical demands of secular history. It is often
asked, for example, how the Church can reconcile the authenticity of
the Book of Mormon with the absence of archeological proof. This
difficulty is inherent in all religious history and illustrates how
spiritual matters are best verified by spiritual means. For example,
the Jewish belief in the reality of the Exodus is not dependent on
archeological evidence, but rests on faith. At a time when many
religions are pressured to treat their sacred histories as myths, the
Latter-day Saints on the contrary embrace their history as a literal
expression of their faith.
Elder Jeffrey R. Holland, member of the Quorum of the Twelve
Apostles, was asked how faith interacts with history. He emphasized
that ultimately spiritual matters cannot be empirically verified, but
require faith: "It will forever come to faith, or it isn't religion in
any way that I understand religion." Furthermore, Elder Holland said
that there is no need to hide from Church history and that it should
be accepted for what it is.
Church President Gordon B. Hinckley, also interviewed by Helen
Whitney, similarly expressed the need to take Church history
literally. Articulating the difficulty of finding middle ground
between myth and reality, President Hinckley said of the foundational
story of Mormonism that "it's either true or false. If it's false,
we're engaged in a great fraud. If it's true, it's the most important
thing in the world."
Since the birth and growth of the Church has taken place right before
the public's eyes these past two centuries, it cannot escape public
scrutiny. Nevertheless, this scrutiny does not require that the Church
compromise or hide from its history. Far from being a liability,
Mormons view their history as one of the Church's greatest assets.