The ongoing debate over the proper approach to writing LDS history can almost be pared down to a debate over the definition of the term "faithful history." Here are four sources for understanding this debate: (1) Richard L. Bushman's 1969 essay entitled "Faithful History," in Dialogue 4 (Winter 1969):11-28; (2) a 1992 Signature book, Faithful History, which includes Bushman's 1969 essay as well as fifteen others by various authors representing the entire specturm of LDS scholarly opinion on the subject (here's the book's Table of Contents); (3) a 1981 speech by Elder Boyd K. Packer to CES instructors, entitled "The Mantle is Far, Far Greater that the Intellect," published in BYU Studies 21 (Summer 1981):259-78; and (4) a historian's response to Packer's talk, D. Michael Quinn's "On Being a Mormon Historian" (included in the Signature book), a rather personal essay detailing Quinn's experience navigating the tricky waters of LDS historiography as a history professor at BYU. In the balance of this post I'll give a few comments on each of these four sources.
Since I can't find an online version of the essay [update: online version now available], I'll summarize it briefly, with page numbers referencing the essay as published in the 1992 Signature book. First, Bushman disposes of the what might be called the "facts are facts" view of history:
I doubt if any historian today thinks of history as a series of bead-like facts fixed in unchangeable order along the strings of time. The facts are more like blocks which each historian piles up as he or she chooses, which is why written history always assumes new shapes. I do not mean to say that historical materials are completely plastic. The facts cannot be forced into any form at all. Some statements can be proven wrong. But historians have much more leeway than a casual reading of history discloses. (p. 4)
After discussing some of the philosophical issues that face historians, Bushman says, "Mormon historians, if they are given to philosophizing about their work, must ask themselves what values govern their scholarship. What determines their view of causation, their sense of significance, and their moral concerns?" (p. 6). He doesn't then prescribe an orthodox view of causation, significance, or morality (I'm sure Correlation has since tackled this task), but notes, "The possible styles of Mormon history are as varied as the people who write it. The authentic forms of Mormon-style history can emerge in the various works of only Mormon historians. They cannot be deduced from theological doctrines" (p. 7).
He then proceeds to do what appears to be exactly that, deducing some requirements of faithful LDS history using LDS doctrine: "But our faith certainly compels us to search for [God] as best we can, and the scriptures suggest some avenues to follow. We know from our doctrine that God enters history in various ways: revelation, providential direction, and inspiration" (p. 8). Over several pages, Bushman considers how an LDS historian would incorporate revelation, providential direction, and inspiration into his or her interpretive model, no simple exercise. It should be noted that in Rough Stone Rolling Bushman arguably did as good a job as can be done in writing sound LDS historical narrative while accommodating revelation and providential direction.
FARMS Review of Faithful History
The FARMS Review published a review of the Signature book of essays. The reviewer liked Bushman's essay, as well as those by Martin Marty, Louis Midgely ("The Acids of Modernity and the Crisis in Mormon Historiography"), and David Bohn (rewriting his earlier essay "No Higher Ground" and two others, previously published in Sunstone). In typical FARMS Review fashion, the reviewer spends only three paragraphs talking about the four essays he likes, and about half the review taking potshots at Quinn's contribution to the volume. The balance of the review is spent critiquing two other essays, by Malcolm R. Thorp and by Edward Ashment, both of whom had the temerity to disagree with the reviewer by name in their respective essays. Anyway, I'm sure most readers will enjoy the review.
The Mantle and the Intellect
Since you can read the talk yourself, I'll just list the "Four Cautions" put forth by Elder Packer. I think they do a good job of conveying what he has in mind by the term "faithful history." [Note: I'm taking them word-for-word from the text of the talk.]
- There is no such thing as an accurate, objective history of the Church without consideration of the spiritual powers that attend this work.
- There is a temptation for the writer or the teacher of church history to want to tell everything, whether it is worthy or faith promoting or not.
- In an effort to be objective and impartial, and scholarly a writer or a teacher may unwittingly be giving equal time to the adversary.
- The final caution concerns the idea that so long as something is already in print, so long as it is available from another source, there is nothing out of order in using it in writing or speaking, or teaching.
Equating objectivity and impartiality with "giving equal time to the adversary" probably rubs some people the wrong way. I suppose it's worth remembering that Elder Packer was addressing CES instructors, suggesting that objectivity and impartiality are more acceptable for the rest of us non-CES folks. In that section he also states: "Those who have carefully purged their work of any religious faith in the name of academic freedom or so-called honesty ought not expect to be accommodated in their researches or to be paid by the Church to do it." This, too, suggests his direction is tailored to the CES audience. He's not making a general denunciation of objectivity and impartiality, just reminding CES instructors who is paying them.
On Being a Mormon Historian
Quinn's response gives the other side of the issue, speaking for the Intellect as opposed to the Mantle. Again, since you can read it yourself, I won't dwell on it. It's probably wrong to see the two (the mantle and the intellect) as necessarily opposed. I think Bushman's essay argues for an interpretive framework that uses the intellect but accommodates the mantle. Anyway, here's one paragraph from Quinn's essay that summarizes his "full disclosure" view of writing LDS history:
Mormon historians have both a religious and professional obligation not to conceal the ambivalence, debate, give-and-take, uncertainty, and simple pragmatism that often attend decisions of the prophet and First Presidency. The historian has an equal obligation not to conceal the limitations, errors, and negative consequences of some significant statements of the prophet and First Presidency. In like manner, Mormon historians would be equally false if they failed to report the inspiration, visions, revelations, and solemn testimonies that have also attended prophetic decisions and statements throughout Mormon history. (p. 82 in Faithful History)
It's ironic that Quinn, who referred in his article to getting death threats from anti-Mormons because of his work, ended up taking a symbolic bullet for the writing of "full-disclosure" Mormon history. Mormon history, and I think the Church itself, is better for it, but it will be a cold day in St. George before he gets a thank you letter from the COB. As discussed recently, he's still paying the price.
Winding this up, you might like to read a short essay that tries to take a middle view of the faithful history debate, the Encyclopedia of Mormonism article "Significance of History to Latter-day Saints." Here is its admirably diplomatic final paragraph:
Most recent LDS historical scholarship represents a wide and changing spectrum. There is, as Henry Bawden advised, room for a number of perspectives and purposes. On the one hand, there is "faithful history," as expressed by Richard L. Bushman and others, in which the historian has a responsibility not only to consider the divine role but also to lead the kind of life that will permit the discernment of God's influence. For others, strictly empirical social-scientific and historicist methods suffice. Most historians of "Mormonism," however, LDS and non-LDS alike, recognize that both secular factors and spiritual claims can be taken seriously, while at the same time adhering to traditional canons of historical scholarship and addressing historical questions raised by contemporary issues.