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.”) 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.” 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. 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.” 
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.  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. 
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.  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.
 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
 Dallin H. Oaks, “Alternate Voices,” Ensign, May 1989, 27
 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.
 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.
 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.
 See, for instance, Roberts’s Defense of the Faith and the Saints v 1 (Salt Lake City: Deseret News 1912) 504.
 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.
 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.