Wednesday, March 24, 2010

For I am not embarrassed...

I have said before that we Mormons love our history. And we do. But the other day I wondered are we also embarrassed by our history. Intentionally or not, we ignore the parts that we don't like. I've done it too. Even some of our leaders tell us not all history is useful, even if it is true. Of course, they are right. Not every piece of history is edifying and uplifting. I don't study the various ways innocent people were killed in the horrific events of September 11th, 1857. I'm sure if I did I might not be able to sleep at night. (I don't sleep well at night anyway, but that is another story). I know the basics, but I'm not as interested in the details. It didn't happen in Tennessee. (wink)

We pick only the parts of our history that fulfill a specific purpose. We tell just those stories over and over again. We all know how the boy Joseph Smith bravely refused whiskey to deaden the pain of surgery on his leg. Or how Brigham Young saw a funeral procession after being told about plural marriage and how he wished he were in the casket instead of having to obey the principle he had just been taught. We re-tell them because they convey a view of the world with which we agree.

But cherry picking the good parts is not a bad thing. We do it in our personal lives. When I tell about my last vacation to Cades Cove, I don't go on about how the public restrooms were under construction. I tell the good stuff. And even years later I will filter through all my memories and tell just the best parts of the good stuff. What I don't tell are the memories about which I am embarrassed. That time at the school play in Angels Camp? (no, I am not telling you about it).

At the last Stake Conference the visiting General Authority (we get those once in a while out here in Tennessee) opened up the time for questions. He fielded the questions and then decided which stake, mission, or temple leader would answer it. When the obligatory question about polygamy came up, he answered it himself. "That was 100 years ago. Next question." I know that was not the time or place to discuss this issue. That was the time for practical, spiritual questions. No, that is not an oxymoron. He wanted questions that were important to our salvation. "How do we prepare our youth to operate in the world and not get lost in it?"  Questions about what happened 100 years ago are best discussed one on one. History is not a pressing issue in most people's lives. And when your job is to help people to deal with the pressing issues of their life, how can you spend time on something that happened 100 years ago.

I, however, live in history all the time. I am frequently confronted with plural marriage, Joseph's superstitious upbringing, and the pre-Talmage speculation on the nature of God. Because of that I am sometimes not satisfied with the "That was a hundred years ago" answer. But I needn't be. You see, I am not embarrassed with LDS church history. Just a little proccupied with one little part of it.


Susan W H said...

With so much history, especially family history, available these days, questions are inevitable. Alas, polygamy was not a hundred years ago; current headlines and TV dramas make it “now” as we know so well. I can understand a leader not wanting a meeting hijacked into a discussion of controversial subjects. I do think that perhaps dealing with the issue in a straightforward, if brief, statement would counter the claims that “the church is trying to bury its past.”

I’m like you, Bruce. I spend a significant part of each week living in the latter part of the 19th century. I’m asking all the questions that I wish I had asked decades ago. In my case, just one question put me on the path to a fascinating journey through the past. I do appreciate you and the bloggers who deal with historical matters, as well as the authors of wonderful biographies and histories that are being published now. You respect your subjects—even the murderers. Keep asking those questions.

BruceCrow said...

Thank you, Susan. You are right. I do come to respect most (but not all) of my subjects even if I don't agree with them.

Susan W H said...

What I mean by respect is that you present the facts evenhandedly and let them do the speaking, as opposed to ranting and condemning what were definitely horrendous acts. I don't mean to imply that you respect them as human beings, but that you treat them with a certain reserve, leaving it to your readers to form an opinion as to what kind of human beings they were. One of these days I'll send you a piece I am working on about one of the criminals in my own family history.

Steve C. said...

Bruce: I think you touched an important issue. As a missionary I knew all the Church history soundbites--i.e. polygamy was a hundred years ago. Now, as a historian by profession, I have a very difficult time with that. In Gospel Doctrine class I have to remind myself what the purpose of the lesson is rather than trying to correct the class's knowledge of LDS history. That said, living here in Arkansas we are confronted by the brutal murders of 11 September 1857. It came up in my daughter's middle school history class. I feel that it is very important to have a grasp on the good, bad and ugly of LDS history.

Thanks for your thoughts on this.

BruceCrow said...

Steve, I'm glad you liked it.

Some things, like what happened to the Arkansas wagon train, just can't be defended. Did the teacher bring it up in middle school for shock value, or is it part of a state wide lesson plan?