Decades ago, I attended a gathering where the late Stanley Kimball, a professor of history at Southern Illinois University and president of the Mormon History Association, spoke. His remarks have stuck in my mind ever since. (If anybody out there knows where a written version of the speech can be found, I would be delighted to see it.)
Kimball explained what he called the "three levels" of Mormon history, which he termed Levels A, B, and C. (Given my own background in philosophy, I might have chosen Hegel's terminology instead: "thesis," "antithesis" and "synthesis.")
Level A, he said, is the Sunday School version of the church and its history. Virtually everything connected with the church on Level A is obviously good and true and harmonious. Members occasionally make mistakes, perhaps, but leaders seldom, if ever, do. It's difficult for somebody on Level A to imagine why everybody out there doesn't immediately recognize the obvious truth of the gospel, and opposition to the church seems flatly satanic.
Level B — what I call the "antithesis" to Level A's "thesis" — is perhaps most clearly seen in anti-Mormon versions of church history. According to many hostile commentators, everything that Level A says is good and true and harmonious turns out actually to be evil and false and chaotic. Leaders are deceitful and evil, the church's account of its own story is a lie, and, some extreme anti-Mormons say, even the general membership often (typically?) misbehaves very badly.
But one doesn't need to read anti-Mormon propaganda in order to be exposed to elements of Level B that can't quite be squared with an idealized portrait of the Restoration. Whether new converts or born in the covenant, maturing members of the church will inevitably discover, sooner or later, that other Saints, including leaders, are fallible and sometimes even disappointing mortals. There are areas of ambiguity, even unresolved problems, in church history; there have been disagreements about certain doctrines; some questions don't have immediately satisfying answers.
Eliza Snow sought to caution new converts against starry-eyed naiveté back in the 19th century:
Think not when you gather to Zion,
Your troubles and trials are through,
That nothing but comfort and pleasure
Are waiting in Zion for you:
No, no, 'tis designed as a furnace,
All substance, all textures to try,
To burn all the "wood, hay, and stubble,"
The gold from the dross purify.
Think not when you gather to Zion,
That all will be holy and pure;
That fraud and deception are banished,
And confidence wholly secure:
No, no, for the Lord our Redeemer
Has said that the tares with the wheat
Must grow till the great day of burning
Shall render the harvest complete.
Kimball remarked that the church isn't eager to expose its members to such problems. Why? Because souls can be and are lost on Level B. And, anyway, the church isn't some sort of floating seminar in historiography. Regrettably, perhaps, most Latter-day Saints — many of them far better people than I — aren't deeply interested in history, and, more importantly, many other very important priorities demand attention, including training the youth and giving service. Were he in a leadership position, Kimball said, he would probably make the same decision.
But he argued that once members of the church have been exposed to Level B, their best hope is to press on to the richer but more complicated version of history (or to the more realistic view of humanity) that is to be found on Level C. Very importantly, he contended (and I agree) that Level C — what I call the "synthesis" — turns out to be essentially, and profoundly, like Level A. The gospel is, in fact, true. Church leaders at all levels have, overwhelmingly, been good and sincere people, doing the best that they can with imperfect human materials (including themselves) under often very difficult circumstances.
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But charity and context are all-important. Life would be much easier if we could find a church composed of perfect leaders and flawless members. Unfortunately, at least in my case, the glaringly obvious problem is that such a church would never admit me to membership.
The claims of the Restoration do, in fact, stand up to historical examination, although (very likely by divine design) their truth is neither so blazingly obvious nor so indisputable as to compel acceptance — least of all from people disinclined to accept them.
Daniel C. Peterson is a professor of Islamic studies and Arabic at BYU, where he also serves as editor in chief of the Middle Eastern Texts Initiative and as director of advancement for the Neal A. Maxwell Institute for Religious Scholarship. He is the founder of MormonScholarsTestify.org.