I just wanted.to thank everyone for their comments to my last post about the place of theory in the study of history and its implications for the study of the Mormon past. This post will focus on historical methodology and its implications in the study of Mormon history. Questions about historical methodology and Mormonism are what inspired my recent rhapsodies on process of historical inquiry. I was skimming through Prince’s provocative biography of David O. McKay, which I liked very much in many ways, but I was appalled at the way he described his methodology. I know he is not a trained historian, and I don’t believe that he was being disingenuous–he really believes that he was describing his writing process correctly. Nevertheless, I found the following statements extremely troublesome as a historian:
With no training in either historiography or biography, I chose to follow my instincts and use the only tools at my disposal, those of scientific methodology. I believe that this is a valid approach for nonfiction writing, be it science or biography, depending on the author’s ability to gather and analyze data. 
While I can heartily commend the biography as a fascinating read, I completely disagree with Prince’s characterization of how he put it together. His description of the deductive research process surely counts as a valid historical method, but to portray it as scientific; and thus, unbiased and unassailable is just irresponsible from the perspective of a trained historian. He also claimed that “given the wealth of data, they [the authors] were able to stand behind the biography, not in front of it.”  In my view, more evidence means more interpretive choices for the historians and not less. In my mind, standing in front or behind a particular work is more of a rhetorical than an evidential choice. Once again, I would like to reiterate that I am not criticizing the accuracy of the biography or making a judgment about its quality, I am criticizing Prince’s portrayal of his method because I think that it foregrounds one of the largest mistakes that some academic historians and most non-historians make when they don’t understand the role of methodology in the creation of historical writing.
Before continuing, I would like to offer a very basic definition of what methodology is. First, the word methodology has come to mean something very different to historians, and other academics, than its etymological roots might suggest. The term methodology does not simply refer to the study of method, but instead it can be defined as the intellectual lens and process that the historian utilizes to create an analysis from raw evidence. Thus, methodologies are the path between historical sources and history. The difference between methodology and theory lies in their portability. Methodologies are extremely source driven, while theories tend to claim more universal applicability. Methodologies often represent the ways in which historians apply theory to actual historical circumstances.
Historians utilize their methodologies to solve the complex problem of truth in their sources. Historical sources never unearth the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth. As an example, let’s think about journals and the potential problems that they present as historical sources. First, journals rely on short term memory and generally convey an event in the way that a historical actor wanted to remember it. Journal entries are subject to the mood that the writer was in when writing and hold the potential for deliberate falsifications. For example, writers sometimes omit certain events from their journals that they find embarrassing and can stretch or exaggerate other moments to make themselves look good. Journals only tell the story of an event from the perspective of the journal writer and are often not written by representative persons–they are the work of literate, thoughtful people. Thus, when utilizing a journal as historical source you are limited by that source’s scope, depth, and accuracy.
Part of a historian’s methodology involves envisioning the way in which to deal with the potential difficulties in a particular source. This can be done by verifying a particular account by cross checking its information with another source or by demonstrating that particular source’s authenticity by establishing the credibility of the sources’ author. Historians might also choose to trust a particular source while acknowledging the sources human production and foibles. They might also try to read a particular source utilizing literary theory-reading it either for meta-narrative or focusing on its intentional omissions.
Methodologies not only account for sources’ human production, but also account for the ways in which historians organize their arguments and the aspects of the story upon which they focus. Methodologies can arrange evidence chronologically, and show change over time, or thematically, and demonstrate the importance of different historical forces over time. Some methodologies track the genealogies of ideas while other focus on certain classes or groups of people. It is through our methods, that we historians present our skills and training.
Although complex and intricate methodologies abound throughout historical world, it is important to remember that these methodologies represent choices made by historians. It was for this reason, that I was so annoyed by Prince’s description. Although he brings massive amounts of evidence to bear in his interpretation of the McKay years, his assertion of scientific methodology serves to obscure the thousands of important choices he made in putting the biography together. For example, he chose to let his interviewees speak for themselves and take the notes of Claire Middlemiss as fairly literal depictions of what occurred in the McKay Presidency. My purpose is not to claim inaccuracy; I just want to bring to light the choices inherent in creating any work of history.
I think Prince’s methodological mischaracterization offers another window into one of the most prevalent problems that I see among many Mormons and their relationship with academic history. Many Mormons, as well as people in general, still think of history as a science. Thus, any historical conclusions that they feel is inimical to the Church’s claims to truth must either be refuted, thus the apologists, or ignored, standard procedure for devotional history.
Please let me indulge in a short aside about devotional history and its methodologies. Devotional historians look for and draw conclusions from moments when members and leaders have claimed Godly intervention in their lives and in the workings of the church. Their methodology usually consists of chronologically stringing together the accounts taken from the sources uncritically and creating a portrait that sheds the best light on the history of the church. Recently, these histories have often included apologetic discussions to answer questions posed by the Church’s critics. Because such histories take interactions between men and God as “Truth,” they have no methodological mechanism for accounting for incongruities within sources. Devotional histories also have the added purpose of building faith. Personally, I think this type of history has a place in the church which I will elaborate in my next post, but I think it should never claim to be the product of critical methodologies-coequal with academic history.
Historians that utilize critical methodologies will always find something different from those that practice devotional history because they are bringing different methodological tools to bear in their study of the past. Frankly, I don’t think the church, as long as it’s true and I believe that it is, has anything to worry about from academic historians precisely because they cannot claim to discover anything close to scientific truth-which, by the way, has fallen under much criticism as well in recent years by historians of science. Academic historians will examine the Mormon past from a variety of perspectives while employing many different methodologies-creating dialogue and debate. This is the way the historical discipline works. The hope is that over time and through debate the truth will emerge-or at least a good approximation of what happened. Nevertheless, barring an unanticipated turn toward methodologies that take the metaphysical seriously, historians can never know what really happened in the Sacred Grove; thus, some sacred narratives will always be safe.
 Gregory A. Prince and Wm. Robert Wright, David O. McKay and the Rise of Modern Mormonism (Salt Lake City: University of Utah Press, 2005), xv.
 Ibid., xvii.