Naturalistic Terms: Some Reflections on a Motto and Type of Historical Explanation
by Louis Midgley
The adjective naturalistic is typically used to describe explanations, categories or terms that explain away or deny prophetic truth claims or miracles, however they might be understood. I will provide an example of this usage outside of an LDS setting.1 Edgar Krentz has described how David Friedrich Strauss (1808-1874), in his highly influential Das Leben Jesu,2 which first appeared in 1835, followed the trendy and highly secularized scholarly fashion of the day by providing what he called naturalistic explanations for the seemingly miraculous happenings reported in the New Testament about Jesus of Nazareth.3 According to Krentz, Strauss denied “the historicity of all miracles, the resurrection, and most of the content of the Gospels. However, he tried to save the eternal truths contained in the historically dubious materials through the concept of myth.”4 Thus, again according to Krentz, the approach to the Gospels provided by Strauss “destroys truth by its naturalistic explanations; the use of myth allows the preservation of truth in the face of rationalism. Myth allowed Strauss to place the Gospels into their own conceptual world and save their writers from being deceivers.”5 There have been a number of different naturalistic explanations of Joseph Smith and the Book of Mormon. These are easily recognized as efforts to explain away the Book of Mormon and the story of its recovery with what Krentz labels “naturalistic explanations.”
In 1974, in the first essay in the first issue of the Journal of Mormon History, Jan Shipps set out what she described as “a naturalistic explanation” of the Book of Mormon.6 Shipps distinguished her explanation from those who “posit a Book of Mormon produced by an essentially irreligious young man,”7 a view she correctly associated with Fawn Brodie, Reverend Wesley P. Walters, and those inveterate anti-Mormons Sandra and Jerald Tanner, each of whom claimed that Joseph Smith’s account of visions was an afterthought, that “the first vision never occurred–that the prophet invented it in order to defend himself when his credibility was under attack,”8 and so forth. After asserting that the Book of Mormon “has by and large been neglected as a source which might facilitate a better understanding of Joseph Smith’s early career,”9 Shipps then sketches her own “naturalistic explanation” of the Book of Mormon and the story of its recovery.
Shipps insisted that “the entire project must be approached with an open mind, a generous spirit, and a determination to follow the evidence that appeals to reason from whatever source it comes, wherever it leads. Only then will the outcome be a picture of the prophet and an account of the foundations of the Mormon faith which will be convincing to both tough minds, which demand empirical facts, and tender minds, comfortable in the presence of leaps of faith.”10 She sees the crucial problem as explaining in some satisfactory manner the Book of Mormon. The Book of Mormon simply could not, she claims, have been
produced by an essentially irreligious young man, adopting such a position, in fact requires a greater leap of faith than accepting a naturalistic explanation which holds (1) that “Joseph grew up in a family fascinated by religion; (2) that, as he said, he thoroughly searched the scriptures and came to know them well; (3) that around 1820 he probably did have a vision, or go through some other nonrational experience…; (4) that in the throes of revivalistic excitement he could well have come to doubt his earlier conclusion about the Protestant churches, leading him to inquire about the matter a second time, thereby stimulating a second vision around 1824; (5) that…in connection with his money-digging activities, he actually found some Indian artifacts, or he hoped so much to do so, that the discovery or the desire for the discovery, inspired the writing of the Book of Mormon.11
Latter-day Saints have understood “naturalistic explanations” such as the one sketched by Jan Shipps as attempts to explain away the historical authenticity of the Book of Mormon and also to provide some more or less plausible alternative to the story of its recovery told by Joseph Smith. In a bibliographical essay initially published in 1978 in which he assessed the literature on Joseph Smith, Tom Alexander insisted that “Mormons have argued that their church was the restored church of Christ,” and “those antagonistic to the church have tended to see Mormonism and Joseph Smith as frauds or delusions. Other positions have ranged between these extremes, some viewing Mormonism as Joseph Smith’s creation, but as authentic religious experience, and others seeing it as growing from the religious interests of early nineteenth-century America.”12 Alexander dates these “new scholarly studies of Mormonism” to the period after 1950, when a few efforts were made to place Mormonism in a larger context of theological developments in American religion. He gives special attention to writers who see Joseph Smith as a mystic, while also noting that writers like Jan Shipps and Mario S. DePillis “use naturalistic explanations” even though they also are inclined to see “Joseph Smith’s work as authentically religious,” thereby differing from “a broad range of writers taking various positions assuming Mormonism is better understood as fraud than as religious movement.”13 But, I must insist, by merely moving Joseph Smith and the Book of Mormon to the amorphous category of “religious movement” still does not mean that they take the claims of either seriously. Their efforts to explain away both are merely less abrasive.
When Mario DePillis later responded to Richard Bushman’s Joseph Smith and the Beginnings of Mormonism,14 he found in it some significant limitations. “Were it not for this sympathetic narrative,” according to DePillis, “Bushman’s book could be classified as another in the old Faith Promoting Series–a defensive series that one can find in every religious tradition. So the apologetic intent is there but is partly a matter of indirection and omission as well as emotional empathy.”15 DePillis then insisted that “any historian–not just Brodie and the anti-Mormons–any historian who rejects the historicity and supernaturalism of Mormon religion, or of any other religion, is compelled to emphasize Joseph Smith as just another product of local historical conditions. For Bushman, however, the critics’ recourse to historical forces, and to naturalistic explanation is almost irrelevant.”16 The reason for this is that
Bushman proceeds from the premise that the Book of Mormon was an authentic historical document translated from ancient gold plates. On this topic the apologetical stance dictated another omission: there are no lengthy arguments defending the Book of Mormon as true history. Bushman does not jump into that morass but distances his account by merely summarizing the objections of the “critics,” old and new.17
DePillis recognized that “for a scholar to spend time analyzing the text of the Book of Mormon to prove that it was not a rediscovered ancient Hebrew document but rather a concoction from rural Jacksonian America is, for Bushman, not an approach that will yield understanding of the historical origins of Mormon faith.”18 But he labels this rejection of naturalistic explanations of Joseph Smith and the Book of Mormon “a defensive position,” and concludes that some of Bushman’s “arguments seem strained and overly defensive,” or “apologetical.”19
Later, when Klaus Hansen published his Joseph Smith and the American Experience,20 Tom Alexander defended Hansen from his critics, including me, with the following remarks: “Hansen’s argument is naturalistic rather than supernatural, but at base defends Joseph Smith and the Mormons for those outside the Church.”21 Oh he does? By denying that the Book of Mormon is an authentic history, Hansen defends the Church with his naturalistic explanation of that text? The truth is that Hansen is naturalistically explaining away the foundations of the faith of the Saints. He flatly rejects the Book of Mormon and does not hold that Joseph Smith was an authentic prophet. But Alexander claimed “that books like Hansen’s help support faith by raising important questions which need to be addressed.”22 But Alexander neglects to explain how Hansen has accomplished this without explaining away the faith of the Saints.
Then Alexander complained that critics–I think he had me in mind–of works like that of Hansen “usually fail to understand the basic nature of historical methodology. Contrary to what these critics assert, most historians recognize that historical accounts are not ‘objective,’ that historians will only find evidence which helps answer questions they first think of asking, and that historians understand that in much of their work they are testing theories.”23 He concludes that, “contrary to what some of the critics of the New Mormon History have asserted, it is possible–perhaps even necessary–for purposes of analysis to separate the question of authenticity from the question of significance in considering various aspects of the Mormon experience. It may even prove useful to address the latter question and ignore the former.”24 It is, of course, possible to bracket the question of whether the Book of Mormon is authentic and whether the story of its recovery is true, and then turn to other issues. But Hansen does not bracket either question. Those are exactly the questions he addresses with his naturalistic explanations.
I do not find it troublesome when those who are not Latter-day Saints advance “naturalistic” explanations of Joseph Smith and the Book of Mormon. They are not, after all, believers. And they must either decide to avoid dealing with the Book of Mormon and the story of its recovery, that is, truth questions, and turn instead to other issues, or they must assume or perhaps try to advance some kind of naturalistic explanation of both. And they are certainly entitled to try to explain the crucial generative events in the Mormon past as best they can from their own perspective. What is for me puzzling is to find Latter-day Saints insisting on the use of naturalistic explanations or defending their use. Though this is not common, it does happen, as I will demonstrate.
We sometimes hear of something vaguely called a “New Mormon History.” The expression was first used rather casually by a non-LDS historian in a one-page review of some recent Mormon history.25 Robert B. Flanders, then RLDS, popularized the label in 1974,26 and others have assumed that there is some such movement and have passionately defended it.27 Recently Ron Walker has described what he imagines constitutes the parameters of this style of history in the following way: “Instead of defending or attacking LDS faith claims–one of the major characteristics of nineteenth-century Mormon historiography–the new historians were more interested in examining the Mormon past in the hope of understanding it–and understanding themselves. Their tools were the same as those of other professionally trained historians: secular or naturalistic historical analysis.”28 Walker then makes Arrington “the dean” of these New Mormon Historians. And he claims that Arrington may have best captured the spirit of this style of history when he insisted that he and his associates “were investigating the Mormon past in human or naturalistic terms without rejecting its divinity.”29 Walker calls upon some famous language found in the first essay in the first issue of Dialogue. The most famous single thing that Arrington wrote is that “the details of Mormon history can be studied in human or naturalistic terms–indeed, must be so studied–and without thus rejecting the divinity of the Church’s origin and work.”30 In a note in this essay, he claimed that an unnamed reader of his paper31 has asked whether it is “really possible to humanize all phases of Mormon history without destroying church doctrines regarding historical events?” He then granted that this “is a subject which warrants a full essay.”32 Walker was obviously merely paraphrasing a remark Arrington included in 1965 at the end of the first essay in the first issue of Dialogue.
In his final statement about the use of naturalistic explanations, Arrington insisted that “writers of religious history are obligated to inform readers of both naturalistic explanations and divine influences.”33 This formulation, from my perspective, is by far the least problematic, and most coherent, of all his several earlier statements about such explanations. I have no objections to this statement. But I have grave doubts about the soundness of Arrington’s closing remarks to the first essay in the first issue of Dialogue. Why? If we must employ naturalistic explanations, is it simply not the case that we will have explained away the Book of Mormon and Joseph Smith’s prophetic truth claims? But Arrington’s final remark on this topic are the most cogent of his many earlier statements. Earlier in his career we see a number of statements in which the adjectives “human” and “naturalistic” used to describe the terms or explanations that he thought were both possible and necessary when dealing with the Mormon past, and we also find his claim that the use of such terms would not result in a rejection of the “divinity” of that past. But we find no explanation of how this is possible.
In the most recent apologia for “New Mormon History,” we are told by Ron Walker that “to its credit, at its best the Mormons’ new history used the tools current in the broader historical profession.”34 And what might these tools be? Walker indicates that the “tools” employed by the new historians include “comparative analysis, folklore, local history, geography, local history, material culture study, religious studies, sociology, demography, and woman’s history.” But these are not clever, sophisticated, new ways of unlocking the secrets of the past. Are they even tools? Is the new history new because historians take up new topics or because they borrow from other disciplines?
These new historians, according to Walker, “asked new questions and explored new topics, many of which had nothing to do with the ‘truth’ of religion.’ Their hope was to broaden the base for understanding Mormonism’s history.”35 All of this is, of course, true, but it hardly constitutes something worthy of an apologia. “Some of the ‘new historians’ were,” Walker points out, “non-Mormon. Others came from non-Utahn branches of the LDS restoration. Still others were ‘cultural Mormons,’ more interested in their heritage than in exploring faith. The largest group of ‘new Mormon historians’ were, however, ‘believing’ Mormons, positioned at various places on a spectrum of belief, who hoped to use new historical methods to interpret their religion. Even these men and women wrote with a quite interpretive voice that some church leaders found disturbingly detached and passive. Most new Mormon history writers sought a middle ground between the polemical historical literature of the past and intellectual and ‘scientific’ disapproval of religion.”36 They sought to avoid polemics about the Mormon past.37
But, unfortunately, according to Walker, there has been some criticism of this wonderful new history. First, some of the Brethren wanted “more traditional, faith-promoting history.”38 And some people called by their critics Mormon “traditionalists had only begrudging praise and more often criticism.”39 Elders Benson and Packer did not like the new trends in writing about the Mormon past, so there was a “growing conservative criticism.” “The process often left [the New Mormon Historians] at the intellectual margins.”40
And these new “historians were increasingly attacked by conservative academics led by a few BYU political scientists. In their view, the new Mormon history was a form of secularism, and to prove their point, they claimed that the authors were guilty of employing loose working assumptions that were drawn, perhaps unconsciously, from nineteen-century positivism.41 This criticism went beyond a debate about methods and philosophy; it implicitly sought to reestablish a faith story that in its most extreme form represented an ahistoricism. Stung by these views, some new Mormon historians defended themselves and counterattacked.42 “The neotraditionalist criticism was weakened by a zest for controversy that at times seemed as personal as it was professional. Moreover, none of the neotraditionalists attempted to write history, and as a result their criticisms remained abstract and theoretical. On the few occasions that the critics cited books they admired, historians were left wondering if a playful sense of irony was at work.”43
But Walker is confident that “on one item the critics [of the so-called new history] certainly erred: few new Mormon historians advocated ‘scientific’ or ‘objective history,’ a nineteenth- and early twentieth-century chimera long abandoned by the profession.”44 But Armund Mauss, in the same volume, talks about “academic detachment,”45 and about historical scholarship that “became more detached and academic,”46 and also about a “more detached stance” adopted by some authors.47 Is there such a thing as objective history? Arrington seems to have believed in an objective history. Quinn thinks that there is such a thing, as does Hill. Alexander denies that there is, but then ends up substituting the word “balance” for “objective.”
There are a few accounts of the Book of Mormon and the related story told by Joseph Smith that are clearly recognized as “naturalistic explanations of Joseph Smith’s theophanies” done in entirely “secular terms.” And even Tom Alexander, who ranks among the most ardent apologists for a “new Mormon History,” grants that such naturalistic explanations end up denying “the possibility of genuine individual creativity or [divine?] inspiration.”48 And it is exactly that kind of revisionist history that some of those he defends think of as approaching what they quaintly label objectivity precisely because they boast that they are not subservient to or involved in the faith. And it is precisely those accounts, if they were to become popular, that would transform or destroy the Latter-day Saint community of faith and memory.
By complaining about revisionist accounts of the Book of Mormon and Joseph Smith’s prophetic charisms,49 that is the kind of revisionist history which interdicts the story that forms the community of faith and memory. I do not question the need for accurate, profound and fruitful accounts of the Mormon past by Latter-day Saints (or sympathetic, better-informed accounts of others), nor do I deny that important advancements have taken place in writing about the Mormon past in the last thirty years. Furthermore, I deplore pictures of the Saints as faultless heroes. Attempts to conceal the frailties or shortcomings among the Saints are simply silly. Recognizing that historical accounts, as well as the understanding of certain texts on which they rest and by which they are transmitted have a crucial role in the perpetuation of communities of faith and memory, my concern is with the way artifacts such as the Book of Mormon and the related prophetic truth claims of Joseph Smith are understood. To this point at least, for the most part the acids of modernity have not corroded the faith of the Saints, as they have the faith of many other Christians.
Addenda: Supplementary Note
After I presented this paper, I had an opportunity to examine Leonard Arrington’s papers, which are housed in Special Collections at the library at Utah State University. I made some discoveries that have changed my mind about some of what is contained in this paper. I discovered how that famous language in the first essay in Dialogue that carries Leonard Arrington’s name came to be in that essay. The irony is that the language Ron Walker and others have picked to characterize the movement they want him to have started and led was not even written by Arrington. I was unable to find a single instance in unpublished materials where he said a thing about a “new Mormon history.”
In May 2001, Ron Walker set out to describe “historical writing since 1950,” which he labeled “The New Mormon History.”50 After describing how Moses Rischin, a gentile historian, in a brief (one page) review essay covering some recent essays on the Mormon past,51 had first given us the label “new Mormon history,” Walker then claims that “it was Leonard J. Arrington, the dean of the new historians, who may have best captured the spirit of the writing” that some have insisted on labeling “The New Mormon History.” Walker claims that Arrington believed that “he and his contemporaries were investigating the Mormon past in human or naturalistic terms without rejecting its divinity.”52
To support this claim, Walker mentions Leonard J. Arrington’s “Scholarly Studies of Mormonism in the Twentieth Century.”53 This now-famous passage, which was also cited by Rischin as somehow more or less defining the approach he believed was to be found in the recent Mormon history upon which he was commenting, reads as follows:
Most of those who have promoted the [Mormon History] Association and Dialogue are practicing Latter-day Saints; they share basic agreement that the Mormon religion and its history are subject to discussion, if not to argument and that any particular feature of Mormon life is fair game for detached examination and clarification. They believe that the details of Mormon history and culture can be studied in human or naturalistic terms–indeed, must be so studied–and without thus rejecting the divinity of the Church’s origin and work.54
In a note, Arrington added that “the above also expresses my own conviction; it is a subject which warrants a full essay. As one reader of this paper has asked, is it really possible to humanize all phases of Mormon history without destroying church doctrines and events?”55 Arrington then ended this note by asking if it is “a valid historical approach to begin with the assumption that the Church itself is not subject to argument.”56
This language has been puzzling to me. Why? The literature on historical method from which historians learn their craft does not instruct them on how they are to use naturalistic terms in writing history. This literature does not make a natural/supernatural distinction. The adjective “naturalistic” has a narrow, limited use–it is common, for example, to find those who attempt to explain away the reports in the New Testament of the resurrection of Jesus to both see themselves and be seen by their critics as advancing naturalistic explanations. And in some extreme cases their controlling or background assumptions may be described as naturalistic or as manifesting some form of “naturalism.” So it turns out that the adjective “naturalistic,” though not part of the vocabulary employed by historians generally as they describe what they consider either historical method or their own or others explanations, is rather commonly employed by those who attempt to explain away religious truth claims. In this context the adjective “naturalistic” plays a rather obvious role, and its meaning can easily be inferred from the contexts in which it is employed.
The talk about naturalistic terms, assumptions, explanation, and so forth thus has a narrow and rather specific function and meaning in scholarly discourse. So it is easy to figure out what writers like Sterling McMurrin, Fawn Brodie and Dale Morgan, as well as Jan Shipps and Larry Foster, have in mind when they describe their explanations of the Book of Mormon (or of Joseph Smith prophetic truth claims) as naturalistic. But the language found on page 28 of Arrington’s “Scholarly Studies on Mormonism” is puzzling. It is not clear what, if anything, he is attempting to communicate. How should we understand the expression “human and naturalistic terms?” Was he signaling to those who are not believers that he was covertly on their side? When I approached the Arrington Papers housed in Special Collections in the Merrill Library at Utah State University, among other things I wanted to know what could be learned about the language found at the end of Arrington’s famous essay.
Knowing how the adjective “naturalistic” currently functions among those busy debating accounts of religious truth claims, I have long been puzzled by Arrington’s willingness to insist on the use of naturalistic terms. And others have shared my own bewilderment. In 1990, for example, Gary Novak drew attention to Arrington’s insistence on the use of naturalistic terms.57
I once suspected that the one Arrington described in 1966 as “one reader of this paper” on “Scholarly Studies on Mormonism” was Dale Morgan. But when Gary Novak checked the Morgan Papers at the University of Utah it turned out that I was wrong. Instead, as Novak’s research has shown, Morgan wrote to Arrington concerning “Scholarly Studies of Mormonism,” providing corrections concerning some matters that Arrington had gotten wrong in a preliminary draft of that essay. Arrington then copied those corrections into his manuscript and they were printed in Dialogue.58 In addition, Morgan commented directly on the language found on page 28 of Arrington’s essay and on the contents of note 44 found on that same page. It was therefore not Morgan, as I had suspected, who was the “one reader” of Arrington’s paper who made the remark he mentions. Morgan indicated in his letter to Arrington59 that what principally troubled him about Arrington’s essay “is that its more critical comments are offered anonymously in your footnotes. One is led to wonder whether ‘one reader’ is not truly your own alter ego, merely a literary device for getting over some important points ‘without stirring up trouble.’”60 It seems that Morgan read Arrington’s remarks as a covert way of raising difficult and troubling issues for the faith and the faithful. Morgan, as I will demonstrate, seems to have been wrong.
Some of my suspicions were wrong. I excuse myself, since how could one tell what, if anything Arrington had in mind? There is what might be read as some code language here and there in his writings but no sustained examination of the vexing intellectual issues surrounding the writing of Mormon history. To see that this is true, I will offer a brief account of how “Scholarly Studies of Mormonism” came to appear in print the way it did. This essay was first entitled “The Secularization of Mormon History and Culture.” For years I have owned a photocopy of this talk, which was read to a section on “Religion in the West” at the Western History Association meetings in Helena, Montana, on 16 October 1965.61
The first thing that should be noted is that “Scholarly Studies of Mormonism” is substantially the same as “The Secularization of Mormon History and Culture.” The title has been changed and hence, among other things, obscures the fact that the original draft of this essay was dependent upon a lecture Arrington had heard in Logan that was entitled “Problems of Writing Mormon History.” At some time before 1965, Arrington scribbled notes on a lecture by George Ellsworth in which there were numerous complaints set forth about the secularization that was taking place in the LDS community and especially in the way Mormon history was being written.62
Arrington has Ellsworth say, among other things, that “perhaps the most difficult problem of all is one of getting inside the phenomenon of Mormonism to understand it. It [sic] once the Mormons had to adopt strong defensive measures to project their faith and their Kingdom from the encroachments of the dominant and aggressive Protestant outsiders.” [If we remove the "it," which seems to take the place of "if," then we have avoided a sentence fragment.] Arrington then reports that “in recent years since, society has become more secular, there is not strong opposition [against the Church] from any particular faith. The problem now is the faith of secular humanism.”
Arrington was clearly attracted to the idea that was advanced by Ellsworth that there had recently been a secularization that has impacted the culture of the Latter-day Saints and especially the way Mormon history was being written at least at the university level. According to Arrington’s notes, Ellsworth had complained that the Church has simply given up on education, allowed it to be taken over by those who reject religion, and it has also simply given up seeing that its history is being written. Ellsworth thus describes how the Saints are in constant retreat before this secularizing process–how they now take things lying down from those whose faith is secular humanism. Arrington quotes Ellsworth as having said that this unfortunate “secularization [is] caused by [the] failure of the Church to fight back to preserve its beliefs.” And the crucial point at which there has been retreat is with Mormon history–there is a “failure to fight back with history–history is a potent tool–molding philosophy and moving to action.” All kinds of other faiths, for example, Marxists, Communists, even Fascists, employ history in various different ways to generate action. But the Saints have been in retreat, according to Ellsworth, as reported by Arrington. “But M’s [Mormons?] are doing nothing creative in this sphere.” So a “religion of secularization has taken hold even or especially in Utah, according to Ellsworth. And then in his notes Arrington describes Ellsworth’s wry comments about the secularization at Utah State in which the Saints have been marginalized. Once Utah history was taught, and people were hired to teach it. And this history would necessarily have been the history of Utah and hence of Mormonism since Utah history necessarily involves the history of the Church. But now, Ellsworth complained, it would be impossible to hire a practicing Latter-day Saint to teach even Utah history.
Then Arrington reports that Ellsworth, as he described the secularization that he saw going on, shifted to describing the kinds of history that are now acceptable from the dominant secular perspective. Ellsworth cites and criticizes Fawn Brodie. Ellsworth thinks that those who deal with Joseph Smith must sooner or later answer the question: “and do you accept heavenly visitations or not?” Brodie does not. She begins with a dogmatic secular stance–Joseph Smith was a fraud, and, according to Ellsworth, she “doctored her evidence to prove it.” But, also according to Ellsworth, when dealing with the Mormon past, ultimately the fundamental question is: “How does one explain Joseph Smith?”
Arrington’s notes have Ellsworth complaining that “Dale Morgan can’t bring himself to accept what the evidence sometimes shows.” Ellsworth thinks that Morgan “does better on the fur trade where he is not emotionally involved one way or the other.” Then Arrington reports that Ellsworth argued that “these writers have repudiated the dogma of the immaculateness of church origin–of the restoration–and have called for the ‘humanization’ of LDS history.”
When I saw this rather strange word “immaculateness” in Arrington’s notes, which he seems to attribute to Ellsworth, I immediately remembered the language that he had placed at the end of “The Secularization of Mormon History and Culture.” Instead of that language insisting that he and Mormon historians generally think that “the details of Mormon history and culture can be studied in human or naturalistic terms–indeed must be so studied–and without rejecting the divinity of the Church’s origin and work,” what Arrington originally wrote was as follows:
Those who are promoting both the association [that is, the MHA] and Dialogue are practicing Mormons and share basic agreement that the church itself is not subject to argument, but that any particular feature of Mormon life (a different thing) is fair game for objective, complete examination. They believe that Mormon history can be “humanized” without completely throwing out the dogma of the immaculateness of the church’s origin.63
In Arrington’s notes on Ellsworth’s talk, he had Ellsworth say that “these writers,” that is, Brodie and Morgan, “have repudiated the dogma of the immaculateness of church origin [sic]–of the restoration–and called for the ‘humanization of LDS history.’” It is clear that Ellsworth did not want such a thing, and there is no reason whatsoever to believe that this is what Arrington was advocating. And this explains why Arrington seems to say that the Church (that is, the restoration) is not “subject to argument.” This is an important point.
But Arrington had to face critics and referees. Jim Clayton wrote to Arrington complaining about what seemed to him to be an unwarranted privileging of the Church or restoration.64 He forcefully objected to what seemed to him to be Arrington’s claim that the “church [is] not subject to argument.” Then I discovered that an unidentified referee challenged Arrington’s remarks on secularization. And this referee also complained about Arrington’s language about the “immaculateness of the Church’s origin.” This referee suggested that Arrington substitute something like the following language: “They believe that the details of Mormon history and culture can be studied in human or naturalistic terms–indeed, must be so studied–without necessarily rejecting the divinity of the Church’s ultimate origin.” And this referee also suggest that Arrington say something about how “this distinction deserves an essay sometimes, but for the moment this puts across the point.” This language then became the core of the footnote (#44) that appears on page 28 of “Scholarly Studies of Mormonism.”
But there was never an essay on this matter. Why not? Because Arrington clearly wanted to say that he and his associates, as he understood them, did not want to challenge the truth claims upon which the Church rests, but he imagined or hoped that they agreed with him “that any particular feature of Mormon life (a different thing [than the prophetic truth claims]) is fair game for objective, complete examination.”65 And here and there in all the versions of this essay, much like Ellsworth, from whom he was borrowing heavily, Arrington was anxious to complain about how “naturalistic humanism has gradually displaced life orientations of a theistic character” and so forth.66 Arrington points out that the Saints do not ordinarily talk about secularization but “there is increasing justification for the use of some such term to refer to the gradual replacement of the church as the central focus of all aspects of life–and the church leader as the authority on all aspect of life–with a more naturalistic or ‘secular’ humanism.” This additional comment seems to reflect the opinions set out earlier in a lecture, according to Arrington’s notes, by George Ellsworth.
What I now believe is that Arrington had exactly nothing in mind with the famous language that Moses Rischin, in 1969, associated with the so-called “New Mormon History.” Those were not even Arrington’s own words. In placing that language in that essay, Arrington was merely obediently doing what Joe Jeppson and the unidentified referee insisted upon. In doing this, he replaced his own rather innocent (even naÔve) formulation with some language suggested by someone else. And it also seems that after that language became famous and people started quoting it and citing it–they still do, as I have shown–he had to figure out what meaning could be poured into it. He eventually insisted that “writers of religious history are obliged to inform readers of both naturalistic explanations and divine influences.”67 He finally got it about right in this passage in his Adventures of a Church Historian.
Now it is obvious that a history of the sugar industry in Utah would not involve divine causation. It would be, in one sense, naturalistic. Most accounts of the Mormon past might, in this sense, involve naturalistic explanations, and there is nothing problematic about this. What Arrington wanted, and on this issue he was right, is that what he called “divine influences,” where appropriate, also get attention. It took him over thirty years to get to this formulation. It is possible to trace his efforts to find the right formula, one that made sense, out of language that someone else wrote. I like being able to point this out to those who have seen something profound and wonderful in a few sentences he did not even write, and also to those who have wanted to see in his remarks a justification for brushing aside the miraculous and the prophetic. What I have found is that Arrington seems to have wanted to find a way of including, where appropriate, the miraculous and prophetic, but without giving the gentiles and the disaffected reasons for mocking. This desire on his part was not something sinister, even though it may have been a naive hope. So we can, or at least I have, learned something from the Arrington Papers.
1For five additional examples, see Louis Midgley, “No Middle Ground: The Debate over the Authenticity of the Book of Mormon,” Historicity and the Latter-day Scriptures, edited by Paul Y. Hoskinson (Provo, Utah: Religious Studies Center, 2001), 169 (n. 19).
2Das Leben Jesu was made available in English in a translation by George Eliot (Mary Ann Evans). This version was reissued by Fortress Press in 1973; The Life of Jesus Critically Examined (Sigler Press, 1994).
3Edgar Krentz, The Historical-Critical Method (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1975), 26.
6Jan Shipps, “The Prophet Puzzle: Suggestions Leading Toward a More Comprehensive Interpretation of Joseph Smith,” Journal of Mormon History 1 (1974): 3-20, subsequently republished in The New Mormon History: Revisionist Essays on the Past, edited by D. Michael Quinn (Salt Lake City: Signature Books, 1992), 53-74. I quote from the most recent republication of her essay, which can be found in The Prophet Puzzle: Interpretative Essays on Joseph Smith, edited by Bryan Waterman (Salt Lake City: Signature Books, 1999), 25-47, at 34.
8Ibid., 32, 46 (n. 10 for citations).
12Thomas G. Alexander, “The Place of Joseph Smith in the Development of American Religion: An Historiographical Inquiry,” Journal of Mormon History 5 (1978): 3-17. This essay has been reprinted in a The Prophet Puzzle, with some introductory remarks in which Alexander distances himself from much of the opining found therein.
14Richard L. Bushman, Joseph Smith and the Beginnings of Mormonism (Urbana, Illinois: University of Illinois Press, 1984).
15Mario S. DePillis, Review of Richard L. Bushman’s Joseph Smith and the Beginnings of Mormonism, Utah Historical Quarterly 53/3 (Summer 1985): 292-294.
20Klaus J. Hansen, Joseph Smith and the American Experience (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1981).
21Thomas G. Alexander, “An Approach to the Mormon Past,” Dialogue 16/4 (Winter 1983): 146-148. This essay is a review of Hansen’s Mormonism and the American Experience in which Alexander defends Hansen against some of his Latter-day Saint critics.
25Moses Rischin, “The New Mormon History,” American West 6/2 (March 1969): 49. Both Tom Alexander and James B. Allen cite this essay as appearing in volume 5 of American West. I have pointed out this mistake several times, but it continues. Hence even in Studies in Mormon History, 1830-1997; An Indexed Bibliography, ed. by James B. Allen, Ronald W. Walker and David J. Whittaker (Urbana, Illinois: University of Illinois Press, 2000), this mistake is perpetuated. It has not been uncommon to misquote the language quoted by Rischin in his review, and even attribute it to Rischin rather than Arrington. For an instance of both mistakes, see Thomas G. Alexander, “Historiography and the New Mormon History: A Historian’s Perspective,” Dialogue 19/3 (Fall 1986): 24-49.
26Robert B. Flanders, “Some Reflections on the New Mormon History,” Dialogue 3/2 (Summer 1974): 34-41.
27These defenders of a New Mormon History include D. Michael Quinn, who recognizes Juanita Brooks as the founder of the movement, and Thomas G. Alexander, who identifies Leonard Arrington as the founder. I have found no indication in Arrington’s personal papers or in his published essays that he ever used the label.
28Ronald W. Walker, “The New Mormon History: Historical Writing since 1950,” Mormon History (Urbana, Illinois: University of Illinois, 2001), 61. This is a book Walker did with James Allen and David Whittaker as an interpretive supplement to their massive and impressive 1,152 page bibliography entitled Studies in Mormon History. Walker’s responsibility for this chapter of Mormon History is clearly demonstrated by his publication elsewhere of the substance of the chapter under his own name. See Walker “Mormonism’s ‘Happy Warrior:’ Appreciating Leonard J. Arrington,” Journal of Mormon History 25/1 (Spring 1999): 113-130.
29Walker, Mormon History, 60.
30Leonard J. Arrington, “Scholarly Studies of Mormonism in the Twentieth Century,” Dialogue 1/1 (Spring 1966): 15-28 at 28.
33Leonard J. Arrington, Adventures of a Church Historian (Urbana, Illinois: University of Illinois Press, 1998), 7.
34Walker, Mormon History, 61.
37Incidently, the expression “cultural Mormon” was first used in 1969 in an essay in Dialogue entitled “The Secular Relevance of the Gospel,” which was a review of Hugh Nibley’s Since Cumorah.
38Walker, Mormon History, 68.
41Citing David Bohn, Neal Kramer, Gary Novak, Gerald Bradford and me.
42Citing Tom Alexander, Larry Foster and Malcolm Thorp, but Walker could have also cited Marvin Hill, Jan Shipps and others.
43Ibid., 111 (n. 184).
48Thomas G. Alexander, “Historiography and the New Mormon History,” 30.
49Louis Midgley, “The Current Battle over the Book of Mormon: ‘Is Modernity Somehow Canonical?’” Review of Books on the Book of Mormon 6 (1994): 200-225.
50Walker, in Mormon History, 60.
51See Rischin, “The New Mormon History,” 49.
53Walker, Mormon History, 115 (n. 5).
54Arrington, “Scholarly Studies of Mormonism,” 28.
55Ibid., 28 (n. 44).
57See Gary F. Novak, “Naturalistic Assumptions and the Book of Mormon,” BYU Studies 30/3 (Summer 1990): 23-40 at 23, 35 (n. 1, 2).
58See Arrington, “Scholarly Studies of Mormonism,” 24 (n. 32), for example.
59Dale Morgan Microfilm, MS 560, Box 2, Folder 10, Special Collections Department, Marriott Library, University of Utah.
61There are materials in Arrington’s papers that place those meetings in Butte, Montana.
62See Arrington Papers, Series 12, Box 154, Folder 6. Subsequent quotations otherwise not cited are taken from this source.
63Arrington, “The Secularization of Mormon History and Culture,” the last page of the 20-page manuscript of the paper read in Montana to the WHA meetings.
64James B. Clayton to Arrington, dated 7 October 1965.
65Arrington, “Secularization of Mormon History and Culture,” 20.
66See “Secularization of Mormon History and Culture,” 9 (n. 18), where he quotes John Flint on secularization in Norway, and also “Scholarly Studies of Mormonism,” 21 (n. 20) where he does the same thing and then adds his own refrain.
67Arrington, Adventures of a Church Historian, 7.