The other day I was reading two articles published in BYU Studies for the Mormonism class I’m taking here at the U, both by Chad M. Orton. The one deals with Francis Webster, a member of the Martin handcart company, the other with the Sweetwater River rescue. As I read them, I was constantly struck how they were almost devotional in nature, something that didn’t make sense to me as a scholar until I took a step back.
The Francis Webster article’s subtitle is, “The Unique Story of One Handcart Pioneer’s Faith and Sacrifice,” which in retrospect should have tipped me off that there was something else going on in additional to historical scholarship. It deals with the testimony of the “unnamed old man in the corner of the Sunday school class who arose to silence criticism directed toward those who allowed that company to come west” (117), a story that can be read here if you’re not familiar with it.
Orton then goes on to dissect and contextualize this statement, as well as discuss the historical provenance and trustworthiness of the testimony. It is perhaps ironic to study the Webster testimony in light of the line that reads, “cold historic facts mean nothing here,” but Orton makes sure his readers know that he recognizes the validity of the story as an inspiring narrative when he includes this sidebar:
The real story is often better than the popularly told tale. Such is the case with Francis Webster … While his statement is a moving tribute to the faith and sacrifice of handcart pioneers, it becomes an even more inspiring testimony, and takes on an added significance, when understood in light of the rest of the story (118)
The article includes numerous sentences like this one, meant to convey that the author is trying to add to the meaning of the story, not detract from it. The other article is simply titled, “The Martin Handcart Company at the Sweetwater: Another Look,” but displays the same carefulness, in that Orton uses it to debunk several myths surrounding the Sweetwater rescue (the idea that there were only three rescuers, that they carried the entire company across the river and died for their efforts, that they would be immediately admitted into the Celestial Kingdom because of their heroic act, etc). Orton very carefully and very painstakingly lays out the historical facts, concluding that the story is no less powerful in its more accurate form, “Although not the only remarkable story associated with the rescue, the Martin Company’s crossing of the Sweetwater serves as a reminder that for an extended period of time countless individuals demonstrated the best of human nature under extremely adverse conditions” (6). The end of the article reads:
Since most of the stories of the rescue will likely never be known, let the story of the Sweetwater crossing symbolize the many selfless sacrifices forged during a trying time. The identified rescuers at the river should serve as the face of the massive undertaking and be symbolic of the other equally needed and equally heroic assistance provided by hundreds of individuals who freely gave of themselves, most of whom remain anonymous (37)
This is a fair and important point. From a cultural memory standpoint, stories do not have to be accurate or historically true for them to be valuable and provide meaning for those invested in them, but knowing the historical reality behind such stories can add a deeper layer of meaning and make them more powerful, rather than tearing down their spiritual and cultural significance–let’s hope.
Now, as a non-Mormon studying Mormons, I’m sensitive to issues of tone, and I try not to be abrasive or devalue others’ faith experiences just because they’re not mine. But this outsider position also means there are certain things I never worry about, like whether my work is faith-promoting or faith-destroying (frankly, these are very foreign concepts to me, since I identify with an Episcopalian tradition that thrives on tension and ambiguity, at least on good days). I try to be informed, fair, and balanced and figure that’s all anyone can ask from me. But it did make me curious how some of you deal with this as historians, but also as readers of history: are there times that reading (or producing!) scholarly work has changed your faith? Do scholars have a special responsibility to ‘cushion’ their statements when it comes to sensitive matters, and especially when it comes to religion? Or does the imperative to share knowledge trump all? I’m guessing it’s somewhere in the middle, but I’d be curious to hear how you handle this.
 Chad M. Orton, “Francis Webster: The Unique Story of One Handcart Pioneer’s Faith and Sacrifice”, BYU Studies 45, no. 2 (2006), 117-140.
 Chad M. Orton, “The Martin Handcart Company at the Sweetwater: Another Look,” BYU Studies 45, no. 3 (2006), 4-37.