Phil Barlow on the Historical Task

By March 8, 2008

In reading through Phil Barlow’s ground breaking work on Mormons and the Bible, I came across this soundbite from page xvii of the introduction:

If God works through imperfect human beings, one danger among others is that human, culturally defined allegiances and perceptions will displace God’s work.  Whether or not one is a believer, the good faith attempt to critically examine human tendencies ought not induce defensiveness.  The historical task can and should be essentially a constructive work for humanity, possibly having as one of his positive goals the distinguishing of moral, spiritual, and intellectual wheat from chaff.

I think this paragraph pregnant with meaning (to borrow from John Taylor’s description of the Constitution of the Council of Fifty), but for now, a few things stuck out to me.  First, the words “the good faith attempt” stuck out to me.  Next, on that same sentence, “Whether or not one is a believer”.  I took this to refer to the scholar making the “good faith attempt”.  Last semester I had the wonderful opportunity to attend a class in Mormonism at BYU (In the History department), along with a number of my cobloggers here.  The overwhealming response to the “good faith” efforts of the various scholars we engaged was positive, which was encouraging.  Once in a while there was a fairly negative reponse to a non-LDS scholar, even one response in particular that described one such effort as, in effect, the Devil’s sophistry.

In my interactions with scholars, ecclesiastical officials, rank and file Mormons and not-so rank and file Mormons, I get the sense that there is still a real defensiveness toward any attempt at a critical examination of the humanity of a religious tradition on the part of the rank and file and the ecclesiastical.  I have found, however, that once these groups have a chance to interact on a more personal level with the scholar, and the “good faith” nature of the inquiry is made more clear, the defensiveness diminishes and there is greater opportunity for learning and mutual interaction.

As a believing Latter-day Saint, I value this interaction.  The academic world may rage, and it may not matter in that sphere whether or not academic treatments of Mormonism are well received by the rank and file, but it matters to this Latter-day Saint, who is striving to make a “good faith attempt” to understand his religious tradition.  Thank you, Dr. Barlow, for this bit of wisdom.


  1. Thanks for this, Jared. I can’t think of many better examples of what you’re getting at than Phil Barlow. He’s done a great job of negotiating his faith with his scholarship during his career.

    Comment by David G. — March 9, 2008 @ 12:34 am

  2. I think this is why someone like Bushman, and Leonard Arrington are so important to the field. They push the boundries but do so in a way that may not offend.

    Some historians are for the whole truth, as they see it, and nothing but the truth kind of people. I think we have tread carefully on the traditions and understandings of others. If we are careful, considerate and make room (to use term negotiate)that sometimes things might be better left out.

    So what am I getting at. Bushman’s Rough Stone Rolling did not attempt to go into detail on some issues about Smith that are obviously controversial. However, I would say there were definately some surprises for those who only know the primary version of church history.

    I think Bushman did a very careful, yet frank, job bringing the facts while leaving others to be delved into at a later time.

    When scholars allow things to perculate and continue to expand with care rather than with a bludgeon I think the average member can “get it”.

    Of course when you deal with things on an academic level of publishing you are not worried about the weapon of choice you are just trying to be seen as doing due dilligence.

    Comment by JonW — March 9, 2008 @ 1:17 am

  3. As my Judaism professor said on the first day of class:
    We are going to step on some ideas, and if you are not comfortable with that I understand. We are going to show respect at all times, but we are not going be holding to the bible as the correct version of history.

    Comment by JonW — March 9, 2008 @ 1:20 am

  4. Amen to your post and David’s #1. Thanks, Jared.

    Comment by Christopher — March 10, 2008 @ 1:43 am

  5. Good quote. Pregnant with meaning, indeed

    Comment by Chris — March 10, 2008 @ 10:06 pm

  6. Check out Peter Novick on the historical task in his book That Noble Dream. He also spoke at a Sunstone symposium in 1989. His talk, “Why The Old Mormon Historians Are More Objective Than The New.”

    Comment by BHodges — March 12, 2008 @ 12:10 pm


Recent Comments

Armand Mauss on Reassessing the Classics: Armand: “I am pleasantly surprised and deeply grateful for the three assessments offered in this space this week by Gary Shepherd, Jana Riess, and Matt Bowman.…”

Roger T on Reassessing the Classics: Armand: “Since I work in Mormon studies, I tend to read a lot. It's impossible to keep up with everything being published, but over the past…”

Jeff T on Q&A with Taylor Petrey,: “Thanks, Taylor!”

Jeff T on The Mechanics of Applying: “Thanks, J!”

Jeff T on Reassessing the Classics: Armand: “Thanks, Matt!”

Jeff T on Reassessing the Classics: Armand: “Thanks, Jana! My experience with Armand, too, has been that of generosity and genuine care for Mormon Studies as a broad and inclusive field. And…”