?Some things that are true are not very useful:? a vindication.

By April 1, 2010

Part II in the JI’s ongoing series on secularism and religious education.

I am recently, and demonstrably, interested in the ways in which Mormons think about what history is, and how it is manufactured, and why, exactly, we care so much about it. As you are probably aware, Dallin H. Oaks of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles recently delivered at Harvard Law School an address titled ?The Fundamental Premises of our Faith.? Generally speaking, he delivered, offering a reasonable primer of the basics of contemporary LDS doctrine and church life: from an embodied God and eternal progression to wards and to nobody?s surprise, marriage. But more than merely outlining the Gospel Principles manual, throughout the entire talk ? oftentimes glancingly, but occasionally explicitly ? Oaks enunciated a particular way of thinking about information, and from whence it is derived, and how it is organized into knowledge, and about how all these things relate to God that, I think, we can use to understand more deeply the position of those ranks of General Authorities of the church who have spoken most notoriously on the writing of church history in the past thirty years or so, on how the writing of Mormon history should be understood.

In ?The Fundamental Premises,? Oaks says, ?We seek after knowledge, but we do so in a special way because we believe there are two dimensions of knowledge, material and spiritual. We seek knowledge in the material dimension by scientific inquiry and in the spiritual dimension by revelation.? (He?s repeated this position frequently; in his famous ?alternate voices? talk in 1989 that scared Mormons away from Sunstone symposiums and book clubs, Oaks claimed that ?The acquisition of knowledge by revelation . . . is the fundamental method for those who seek to know God and the doctrines of his gospel. In this area of knowledge, scholarship and reason are insufficient.?[2]) And of course, both Oaks and Boyd K. Packer, president of the Quorum of the Twelve, have uttered slight variances of what has become an infamous phrase: referring to the work of historians who uncovered blemishes and inconsistencies in the Mormon past, Packer said, ?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. Some things that are true are not very useful.? Oaks uttered the phrase originally in a talk entitled ?Reading Church History,? and again repeated it to the documentarian Helen Whitney, saying ?that people ought to be careful in what they publish because not everything that?s true is useful. See a person in context; don?t depreciate their effectiveness in one area because they have some misbehavior in another area.?[3] I?m interested in the ways in which these two sets of quotations are connected.

What I want to point out here are the precise qualifiers Oaks and Packer offer. They are not saying that no history is good; they are not trying to hide from the past. On the contrary, they are precisely aware of how essential history is, which is why they are so anxious that their position be understood. Rather, what some read as their blithe disregard for history is rather a set of assumptions about how history is known and how history should be written that does not jive with the standards of professional, academic history, because they reflect allegiance to an intellectual system that only Mormons accept in total.

Some people froth at the mouth at the temerity religious people have to believe that knowledge works in ways differently than as outlined in the set of standards and procedures by which the academy functions.[4] Indeed, the identification of the fruits of empiricism and rationality with genuine ?knowledge? is so deep and intuitive to so many that presumably smart people like Richard Dawkins seem baffled at the fact that many Americans continue to cite reasons that cannot be measured or documented for their belief in things like God and Santa Claus.

This is not necessarily a bad thing, for its purposes. The rules of academic history intentionally narrow the realm of acceptable evidence precisely so smart people with different premises can have intelligible conversations. In a lot of ways this has been remarkably successful; academic history has not only produced a great amount of good stories, but has also probably explained why we are who (and what, and where) we are as well as any other sort of history. The rules of academic history have saved us from a lot of demonstrable errors and willful distortion; they force us to take things like context, and rigorous evaluation of sources, and Richard Hofstadter, seriously. This is a good thing. Being required to participate in a conversation that begun long before you are born and will continue long after you die makes the historian humble about her claims and careful about how she makes them. These are virtues; hubris is the first thing beaten out of you in graduate school.

However, it remains that academic history is only one type of talking about the human experience; a particular way of grappling with the great and elusive chameleon that is the past. Saying that it?s the best way depends on what you expect the past to accomplish. And among the particular premises of academic history is not the expectation that it will tell us about God.

Oaks, Packer, and their nemeses in the academy can actually all climb on that bandwagon. Shortly after castigating a particular young man?s dissertation committee for raising their collective eyebrows when the student credited bishops with the spiritual power of discernment in his dissertation, Packer mused, ?I must not be too critical of those professors. They do not know of the things of the Spirit.? They are well aware that their ways of history are not quite those of the academy ? and this makes professional history not so much misguided as inadequate to illustrate the reality they live in.

So Packer claimed, ?There is no such thing as an accurate, objective history of the Church without consideration of the spiritual powers that attend this work.? Words like ?accurate? and ?objective? here don?t mean the same thing that they do to academics, who associate them with things like empiricism and positivism. What Packer is doing here is signaling the different ways in which he understands epistemology, the different ways in which people gain knowledge about the past. And that difference is predicated on what he expects the past to do.

More, from the same speech (the often-spoken-of-in-dread-tones ?The Mantle is Far, Far Greater than the Intellect?): Packer expresses confusion about historians who ?seem to take great pride in publishing something new.? This is not a priority for history as Packer sees it; new knowledge is less important than illustrating what is already known. This is why ?Teaching some things that are true, prematurely or at the wrong time, can invite sorrow and heartbreak instead of the joy intended to accompany learning.? History to Packer has power. It?s not valuable to him for the same reasons that it?s valuable to professional historians; he does not want knowledge for knowledge?s own sake, or even knowledge for the sake of better understanding how humans work, precisely because he doesn?t believe that history is most basically the illustration of human agency in action. Rather, the power of history is precisely correlated with the extent to which it illustrates the principles of religion around which his life orbits. Indeed, he calls upon scholars to, as they write history, be ?obliged to give preference to and protect all that is represented in the gospel of Jesus Christ, and we have made covenants to do it.? [5]

Back to Oaks. It should be clear by now that the way he and Packer think about history depends upon the distinction he draws between knowledge given by revelation and knowledge derived from human faculties. It?s upon the claim to this special revelation, of course, that Mormonism rests its claim to distinctiveness and particular authority. But the claim is also the wellspring of the particular narratives of Mormon sacred history. Thus, history writing, for the leaders of the Latter-day Saints, should erect the product of human reason upon the foundations of divine; use the tools of the former to reveal more fully the salvific claims of the latter.

That distinction puts Oaks directly in a line of Mormon theologians that includes BH Roberts, among others, who also insisted that the fullest knowledge of God came through revelation rather than the exercise of human faculty of thought or reason or observation. [6] This, of course, It also placed Roberts ? and his contemporary intellectual descendants ? in opposition to the liberal theology ascendant in late nineteenth and early twentieth century America.

Liberal theologians maintained above all else that God was properly understood to be not transcendent to but immanent in the creation ? that he revealed himself in the things of world (song of a bird, blue blue sky, Alma 30:44, etc) rather than only through the abstract _difference_ of the Creator from his creation. If immanence theology was accurate, then God?s intentions, characteristics, and self-revelation could be discovered through examining the world. And indeed, for liberals, scientists exploring evolution were unfolding the means of the God?s creative actions, the growing gentility of Victorian culture signaled the coming Kingdom of God, and the beauty of God?s love apprehended through art. They were, naturally, quite optimistic about humanity?s potential and capabilities. [7]

So are Mormons, interestingly enough. While distinction between humanity and the divine (what Terryl Givens calls ?sacred distance?) absolutely evaporated for the liberals, placing apprehension of the divine within the reach of human ways of knowing, Mormon insistence upon the distinction between these two types of knowledge meant that their tendencies in that direction stopped shorter than historians may often assume. [8] At least in these ways, Mormon thinkers remained ? and remain ?sympathetic with conservative Christians who insist that God?s revelations, particularly in Scripture, provide knowledge about the cosmos inaccessible in any other form. The oddity of this particular configuration of transcendence and immanence is probably worth further historical mucking about.


[1] Dallin Oaks, ?The fundamental premises of our faith,? 26 February 2010, http://www.newsroom.lds.org/ldsnewsroom/eng/news-releases-stories/fundamental-premises-of-our-faith-talk-given-by-elder-dallin-h-oaks-at-harvard-law-school

[2] Dallin H. Oaks, ?Alternate Voices,? Ensign, May 1989, 27

[3] Boyd K. Packer, ?The mantle is far far greater than the intellect,? BYU Studies 21:3, 5; Oaks interview with Helen Whitney, 20 July 2007; http://newsroom.lds.org/ldsnewsroom/eng/news-releases-stories/elder-oaks-interview-transcript-from-pbs-documentary. Ironically, ?Reading Church History? has been removed from LDS.org; Oaks quoted some of the talk, however, in Dallin H. Oaks, ?Recent Events Involving Church History and Forged Documents,? Ensign, Oct 1987, 63.

[4] See, for instance, that anti-Mormon classic; the Tanner?s Mormonism: Shadow or Reality? (Salt Lake City: Utah Lighthouse Ministry, 1987) 14. Or just plug the phrase into a search engine.

[5] All Packer quotations here are from Packer, ?Mantle,? 4-6. Italics original. He also claims that the dissertation committee frowned on qualifiers like ?Mormons believe that bishops receive inspiration,? which seems implausible; that?s perfectly good phenomenology.

[6] See, for instance, Roberts?s Defense of the Faith and the Saints v 1 (Salt Lake City: Deseret News 1912) 504.

[7] The best single volume history of liberal theology in this period is William Hutchison, The Modernist impulse in American Protestantism (Cambridge: Harvard, 1971); see particularly 2-6. Also, Garry Dorrien, The making of American liberal theology: idealism, realism and modernity (Louisville: WJK, 2002). These liberal thinkers owe some debt to German idealism (particularly Hegel?s arguments about the manifestation of God as Absolute in history), but more deeply and directly, to the romantic movement in general and its emphasis upon the power of human sentiment to discern Truth with a capital T in the contemplation of medieval ruins and waterfalls and other such sublimities of the nature around them.

[8] Interestingly enough, Leopold von Ranke, the great advocate of historical empiricism, had tendencies toward both romanticism and immanence. He stressed the importance of primary sources, of evaluating the reliability of claims about the past based upon how well such claims could be documented in evidence. But he also believed that the past would reveal, ultimately, the guiding will of God for each people, and hence that professional history could discern the characteristics of the divine. For him, all knowledge was essentially of one sort. On this, see George Iggers, The German Conception of History (Middletown: CT: Wesleyan, 1968) 63-4.

Article filed under Methodology, Academic Issues State of the Discipline


  1. It should also be pointed out that Packer wasn’t actually expressing original thought with his infamous phrasing, but was simply adapting Benjamin Franklin’s quip about Deism:

    “Tho’ it might be true, was not very useful” (Autobiography).

    Comment by Russell — April 1, 2010 @ 5:08 am

  2. Saying that it?s the best way depends on what you expect the past to accomplish. And among the particular premises of academic history is not the expectation that it will tell us about God.


    Wonderfully put, Matt. I think you provide a very useful paradigm to understand these debates: that they are speaking two different languages and with two distinct epistemologies. Your example of Packer’s use of ‘objective’ and ‘accurate’ is dead-on.

    Comment by Ben — April 1, 2010 @ 5:43 am

  3. I appreciated this. If you are interested, you ought to see what I wrote about this a few years back – this dovetails very nicely with it.

    Here were my thoughts regarding the Mantle and the Intellect.

    Comment by Jordan F. — April 1, 2010 @ 8:20 am

  4. Matt,

    But don’t you think that for LDS people the distinction is a lot murkier than for other conservative Christians? The Restoration’s canon (sec. 9, for instance, and also elsewhere in the D&C) presents secular study as part of the process of revelation. I don’t think we can separate secular learning from revelation quite so neatly. For us, the intellect is part of the mantle.

    Comment by Mark Brown — April 1, 2010 @ 8:38 am

  5. I often have to step through the looking glass with non-Mormon clients so they can understand the words and worldviews and actions of 19th century Mormons. Here you step through the same looking glass for a related purpose. People who can stand on one side only have no hope of understanding what is going on. I appreciate your clarity here in explaining what is going on.

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — April 1, 2010 @ 8:51 am

  6. Matt, I published something on this subject several year ago and I came to conclusions similar to yours. After 8 years, I’m not sure that I agree with myself anymore. But I do appreciate your work, which is thoughtful as usual.

    Comment by SC Taysom — April 1, 2010 @ 9:27 am

  7. Matt,
    This is an excellent analysis and makes me so happy. Thanks! Yet, I wonder if it doesn’t ultimately leave unanswered a major issue. Yes, we can see that there are different epistemologies at work in LDS and academic circles, broadly defined. Yes, we can grant that each is internally consistent and rest on a set of presuppositions which cannot be proven. Yes, we can trace the history of LDS epistemological shifts as distinguished from other religious movements. But, is there simply no commensurability between LDS and academic discourses of knowledge? Are these two islands that occupy such essentially different territory that one cannot claim to live in both? To what degree, if any, may there be a rapprochement between these two worldviews in LDS thought and culture?

    Comment by TT — April 1, 2010 @ 9:38 am

  8. placing apprehension of the divine within the reach of human ways of knowing,

    Do you think that Mormonism places apprehension of the divine within the reach of human ways of being?

    Comment by J. Stapley — April 1, 2010 @ 9:49 am

  9. I think the challenge of trying to accurately and fairly comprehend Mormon History has done more than graduate school to beat some of the hubris out of me. In graduate school, we spent a lot of our seminar time hubristically critiquing very intelligent books, unaware of how hard it was to write such things.

    Comment by JGT — April 1, 2010 @ 10:18 am

  10. Mark (#4), I think that’s right. I think we can see knowledge and insights as gifts of the spirit we may not notice until they are gone.

    Comment by Clark — April 1, 2010 @ 11:07 am

  11. Thanks, Matt. This is critical understanding for both believers and scholars, who must absolutely acknowledge their epistemic differences, even if they criticize them. As some of the of the comments have stressed, it leaves some challenging questions, and the two “independent” epistemologies are probably intertwined with each other. Still, I think they maintain their essential integrity, that the dichotomy you outline cannot be dismissed. The kinds of observations you derive from that model here are of first-order importance in conversations that occur after this most fundamental one.

    Comment by Ryan T — April 1, 2010 @ 11:29 am

  12. Thanks, folks. I’m pleased to see the discussion.

    Mark – I think it’s useful to point out the ways in which these two types of knowing can support and promote each other; just as Cowdery was told to study it out in his mind, so does Oaks argue elsewhere in his “Alternate Voices” speech that many great inventions and discoveries have been product of revelation. But I think the distinction still remains – Cowdery is told that study might _lead to_ revelation, that after studying _then_ to ask for revelation. The sense that studying is itself a form of revelation, which many liberal Protestants embraced, seems absent here.

    TT – that’s a good question, and I wonder if Steve has anything to say about it. I would, I think, point to something in my second paragraph on Packer that I think’s been overlooked – that is, it’s not simply about epistemology, but also about how we organize knowledge once we have it. That is, Packer and Oaks do not entirely reject scholarly ways of knowing, but they believe the knowledge gained there should be bent to other purposes. I hate to say ‘devotional’ purposes, because that sounds very Especially For Mormons-ish, but it’s along those lines. The purpose of history for Packer and Oaks is to demonstrate the unfolding of God’s intentions in the world. These are not purposes irreconcilable with the methods of academic scholarship, if you tweak your suppositions a bit.

    Comment by matt b. — April 1, 2010 @ 2:28 pm

  13. I really appreciate this post, matt, thanks.

    Comment by BHodges — April 1, 2010 @ 3:18 pm

  14. Shortly after castigating a particular young man?s dissertation committee for raising their collective eyebrows when the student credited bishops with the spiritual power of discernment in his dissertation, Packer mused, ?I must not be too critical of those professors. They do not know of the things of the Spirit.?

    I was surprised to learn some time ago that the student’s first reader was LDS. I wonder whether Packer was aware of it.

    Comment by Justin — April 1, 2010 @ 4:01 pm

  15. I have mixed feelings about all this. Many things that are true aren’t useful but exactly which is or isn’t is often in the eye of the beholder. The facts themselves may not be the issue. Ron Esplin wrote back in the early ’80s that the issue for the Brethren was not what historians said, but how they said it. I think that really matters. What are the historians trying to do with the information?

    Faith promoting also is in the eye of the beholder. Ultimately we ought to be engaged in learning something new (or why bother).

    The timing of Packer’s speech is important. There was a lot of worry about what that amorphous “New Mormon History” was up to. I wonder what sort of speech he would give now. That is, what do the Brethren think of RSR?

    Comment by Steve Fleming — April 1, 2010 @ 6:18 pm

  16. I have often wondered how the whole “true/useful” response would go over in a temple rec. interview. I know I’m a hopeless Foucauldian, but I tend to see Packer’s speech as fundamentally about power.

    Comment by SC Taysom — April 1, 2010 @ 7:19 pm

  17. Matt,
    I’m not sure that subordinating one to the other really constitutes preserving both, at least not as it is articulated here. If one is simply in the service of the other, then it really doesn’t have any independence at all. I think the kind of reconciliation I’m hoping for is one that maintains the values of both, or both as comimentary in some sense, rather than one which unilaterally sets the terms for the other.

    Comment by TT — April 1, 2010 @ 8:58 pm

  18. Taysom – the question for me is what that power is in service of.

    TT – I see, I think, where you’re going, but I wonder if there is space for such a reconciliation in the Church. It strikes me that to become a General Authority is to always already presume the foundational supremacy of your point of view. Which is more or less how it should be.

    Comment by matt b. — April 1, 2010 @ 10:46 pm

  19. Thanks for the thoughtful post. I have mixed feelings about this too…but I’m not in a position to sort them out at this time.

    Comment by Jared T — April 1, 2010 @ 10:59 pm

  20. SC, I think it is about power but I think the lines of power are simply more complex than overt power – which is how you appear to be taking it. Rather I think Pres. Packer was concerned that historians were unwittingly exercising power without being aware of certain lines of power. That is one could constitute Pres. Packer’s point is that historians thought they just had a will to knowledge when really this was a will to power. Like a bull in a china shop they knocked things down without being aware of it. I took Pres. Packer’s point about utility as a cry that we are engaged in many more activities than mere theoretical knowledge and that those exercises of power need be addressed.

    Maybe that’s taking Pres. Packer in too Derridean a fashion. But I think I have to agree with Pres. Packer here. There is a tendency in the academy to take a “let the chips fall where they will” attitude towards a lot of things. Which is of course silly since even overtly academics isn’t just about power – if nothing else the “publish or perish” background suggests it’s all about power there too… A controversial paper that lines up with ones peers expectations has much more power than something true but no one cares about. And I can’t imagine anyone is truly naive enough to consider otherwise.

    Comment by Clark — April 2, 2010 @ 12:34 am

  21. Steve, I think you’re right that RSR changes everything if only to show that readers are much better able to deal with controversial information than some thought. However I’d not RSR was told with a faithful point of view. But as you suggest this indicates that what historians are attempting to do counts for a lot. And it often doesn’t take much reading to discern the biases of authors. Occasionally one might be wrong, but we all have biases and they come through loud and clear at times.

    Comment by Clark — April 2, 2010 @ 12:36 am

  22. I always thought that one of the greatest gifts of Joseph Smith was that he did not make a distinction between temporal and spiritual knowledge. To him, all knowledge was ultimately spiritual.

    Comment by John — April 2, 2010 @ 7:56 am

  23. I think the lines of power are simply more complex than overt power ? which is how you appear to be taking it.

    Ya, that’s an understandable misreading of my minimalist statement. My concern is very much with the unstated power dynamics on both sides of the question, not with any overt flexing (which isn’t really there as far as I’m concerned). And I must say that I’m not necessarily in disagreement with Matt’s basic arguments or the ones you outlined in your comment.

    Comment by SC Taysom — April 2, 2010 @ 7:57 am

  24. Perhaps it’s also important to say that the epistemological distinctions Matt outlines also seem able to accommodate – at least to some extent – a postmodern plurality of truths. Truth from an unlimited number of perspectives can be acknowledged, even entertained, but these truths do not necessarily undermine “a” fundamental one because they may fail a test of utility. This can look either like subversion and control, if we’re talking in terms of power, or like a sophisticated process that preserves meaning and order.

    Comment by Ryan T — April 2, 2010 @ 12:35 pm

  25. Ryan, I think that’s a bit too instrumentalist a view. I know William James went that way at times but I think many people are a bit too uncomfortable with that level of pluralism. It’s hard to make sense of it.

    Comment by Clark — April 2, 2010 @ 6:43 pm

  26. SC, yes, it does sound like we’re saying the same thing. Although I’m a bit skeptical of too formal a Foucaldian analysis. They make me want to deconstruct them. (Grin)

    Comment by Clark — April 3, 2010 @ 1:30 am

  27. It seems that Epistemology precedes and determines our ontology as we are a church (and by extension one could argue an intellgence) as founded and premised on modern day revelation.

    How could there then be even serious talk about epistemological lines drawn between the Priesthood and Academy?

    If we were indeed secure in our purpose, with confidence in our epistemological origins (which are always ongoing, not just the result from the first instance), then we should easily be able to declare, like the Roman Catholics, what is canon and what is not.

    However, because revelation not only belongs to the Pope, but to individuals, then the immanence of God’s own episteme would be determined, not by common vote, but by common assent through the collective practice of the revealed Truth.

    Why then, if we are privy to the fullness of the Truth, indeed it is even our purpose, have we not yet definitively decided upon epistemological foundations so as to make this debate a moot exercise?

    Or does this make any sense at all?

    Comment by TS — April 3, 2010 @ 2:11 am

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  29. […] dialogue, but encourages it. It acknowledges the epistemological differences that Matt B succinctly pointed out, and keeps the academic discussion of religion within, to borrow Kant?s influential title, ?the […]

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