August 6, 2009

Ronald Barney: The Reliability of Mormon History Produced by the LDS Church

Update: August 21, 2009- Transcript is now available from FAIR here

Barney is coeditor of volume five of the Documents Series of The Joseph Smith Papers. He has history degrees from Weber State and Utah State Universities. He has been employed since 1977 as an archivist and historian in the Church History Department of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. The following are my imperfect notes only.

There has been a general impression that the Church hedges on history and so forth, and so RB will discuss his interactions with various projects that church has done, including the new PH/RS manual on Joseph Smith.

The historical department was moved and reconstituted with a professional staf a few decades ago, it was multi-tiered, not just Leonard Arrignton and those individuals, but also archivists, etc. who served as a platform whereby the Church could not only produce an excellent history but also ensure it was defendable.

1984 milestone when one member of the staff published Personal Writings of Joseph Smith. Dean C. Jesse.  He was assigned to do JS personal writings. The first edition was compromised because it included some Mark Hofmann forgeries so it lay dormant until 2002 when a 2nd edition came out with close attention to detail, etc. Forgeries were removed, additional findings were included. A remarkable volume, I think when people ask me to recommend 5 vol.s on JS this is one I always recommend. This was followed up by his intention to publish the papers. A 6-8 volume set. But he was doing it alone. First volume in 1989, dealing with autobio and historical writings, and then the first vol. of diaries in 1992. The project stalled for various reasons, and until the end of the 90s it stalled until Ron Esplin jump-started the project again.

The new project, as many as 59 people working on at a time, 22 full-time currently, the first volume of the journals came out last Fall, and volume two is coming out in September. I know something about the rigor that has been applied to ensure these will have a long shelf life. I don't believe we have to make any apologies about it; the scrutiny applied by outside readers, the dozens of reviewers to ensure accuracy and defendability, etc. We are very comfortable in that process. Still trying to streamline the process but it should come out as planned.

Want to talk about one of the most significant things the church has done in its history. There was a new copyright law in effect Jan 1, 2003. In order to undermine the efforts of people who did not own church documents who were having unrestricted publication access to some of the things we believe are very important, we decided to publish many of our documents in a way that we could create a copyright for them for a generation or so. A very ambitious project to produce selected collections from the Churchf archives. A two-volume dvd set, 31 collections are represented here, including totality of JS collection, GASmith collection, and others. Included manuscript of the History of the Church, the office journal. It would be hard to overstate the importance of these documents to the Church and a study of its history. Also the Journal History of the Church, over a thousand volumes. All told, over 74 DVDs. (Originally over 700 cds). 450,000 scanned document images. In the forthcoming volume of JSPP there will be

Recently, the MMM book was published, written by Ronald Walker, Rick Turley and Glen Leonard. The Military Book Club said the book examines questions more deeply than any previous book. A scholarly, even-handed, thorough, objective analysis.

"That is the kind of things that will be coming from the church in the future."

Western American Literature called the book distinctive because of the depth of research, which was also supported by church leaders who wanted full disclosure. Everything that could be made available was made available. I think we will see much more of this kind of production in the future.

The church moves at a bit of the slower pace than perhaps an independent organization does. But there is so much care and attention to detail applied, we want what we do to become bullet proof so it can withstand an agrressive -I wanna choose my words carefully here- an aggressive alternative.

There were some derivative products that came from our work on the JSP. I want to mention a few. For example, the creation of a new press: The Church Historians Press which will be documaentary, but eventually could have narrative history as well. There are several other documentary related projects lined

We have a website for the JSPP. Everything we produce in textual print will end up on the site, obviously with a time-lapse.

The JSPP is similar to other projects, like George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin, etc. We are doing things that fit in the norm with most recent and careful scholarship in American historical studies. About 30 volumes between 5-700 pages. (Next vol. is more than 700.) Eleven are currently in production. One for next year, and hopefully two per year after.

Received generous funding from Larry Miller. His family is also under-writing the website, and for the last year and a half also underwritten the documentary we have on KJZZ TV, weekly, on the scholarship and research we have done. The intent is that the same day Rev. 1 comes out, the fiorst season of 52 episodes will be published by Deseret Book.

The new priesthood, relief society manual. We highlighted some of this work on the tv special. To show you the care and attention that went into this. As much rigor as you can imagine was indeed supplied.
Background about why this is such an important book in a historical context. Even though the Teachings of the Presidents of the Church series is not a history book, it is a book of teachings that are applicable today. But how has the church collected the teachings over time?

The first compilation began in Times and Seasons March of 1842, History of Joseph Smith, published in Deseret News in 1859.

Next, "Sermons and Writings of the Prophet Joseph" in The Contributor (1881-1883). This was the MIA organ.

1882, Franklin D. Richards and James A. Little, A Compendium, "Gems from the history of Joseph Smith," which contained excerpts of earlier History of Joesph Smith.

1902-1909, Joseph Smith, History of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, B.H. Roberts, ed., 6 vol., (SLC: Deseret News).

The most impoortant publication the Church has ever done. Edited by B.H. Roberts. I do not believe we can overstate the importance of this work. It set the doctrine, the knowledge about Joseph Smith, it was so important.

The year that the 6th vol. came out there was a little volume by Edwin F. Perry JS's Teachings: A Classified Arrangement...

1938- TPJS compiled by Joseph Fielding Smith. Noted by teachers in the church as the number one influential book in teaching, etc.

Alma Burton, Discourses of the Prophet Joseph Smith (1956)

Andrew F. Ehat, Cook, 1980, Words of Joseph Smith. "This is a big deal. Where all of the other comp. prior to that time and subsequent are exerpts and topically, these authors published all of the sermons that existed at the time in total during Nauvoo 1839-1844, I think 173 sermons represented, only a fifth or so of all his sermons wound up here, had enough substantive text. Most all of those are here. A new edition is inthe works.

Robert Millett, 1989, Joseph Smith: Selected Sermons and Writings.

1997, 2000 Larry Dahl, Donald Q. Cannon, Encyclopedia of Joseph Smith's Teachings. "Worth a purchase topically." 

The way in which we determined the way we would prepare the manual for PH/RS, we needed to get our head around what we really wanted to do and how we could properly prepare it. A book that influenced me is one regarding Abraham Lincoln. In 1996, 200th anniversary of his birth, (there are a ton of books on Lincoln). Recollected Words of Abraham Lincoln, Don E. Fehrenbacher and Virginia Feh. He took the things people said Lincoln said, and he came up with a list to determine accuracy. From their book:

It creates a level of expectation about what you read, and you think twice about the texts that maybe normally, appearing in print, seem to have a level of credibility. So because I was given the charge to pull these documents together I decided to do the same thing with JS. So we formed a little committee and created a similar standard to consider. The curriculum comittee could look at a glance and know if they could include it. A Classification system. Ours was a bit different from the Fehrenbacher's.

[I transcribed this document from the KJZZ TV shown and it can be found here]

5 October 1840 sermon on priesthood seems to have been a dictated text, though it was not delivered evidently, a clerk gave the sermon.

Where would we be in the absence of note-takers? I can't imagine! Typescript of Bullock's notes can be read through in 17 minutes, but the sermon is said to have lasted 2 hours, etc.

Took into consideration the rocky relationship of William Smith to the Church and Joseph to consider that.

Showed some examples that are rated, C1+, B1+, etc. It filled 17 3-inch binders which were made into e-database passed on to the writing committee to produce a manual that has great power, it would be foolish to ignore.

We need to look at the historical

You shou;ld scrutinize what I am telling you today, if we're so lazyto accept whatever someone else says because they have a white shirt on...we;ll that sounded too...[laughter] someone in a tie and coat, we can't be lazy like that. This religion is too important. I have a stronger belief in JS and his divine appointment, I've worked for thew Church for 32 years and I feel more sure about the truthfulness than I ever had. We do not have to cut corners, this really is the kingdom and there are men who really do have keys that really were handed to them by JS and really were handed down. I am banking the rest of my eternal future on it and I am entirely comfortable. I didn;t plan to bear a testimony but I have one.

Jan Shipps once wrote an article called "The Prophet Puzzle." Many have used this to scrutinize this to see if JS was, as Dan Vogel said a "pious fraud," or a "man who had authentic experiences who represented himself in a real way" as Bushman argued in Rough Stone Rolling, and Jan Shipps raised the question where the truth is. I think it is worth creating a literature that shows we are careful about the question. Well she called it a prophet puzzle. Each facet of this puzzle represents facts, but it depends how it is arranged to see what the conclusion will be. It can be arranged in a way to make it not familiar to a pattern. Others might make it very tight and tidy and maybe that doesn;t represent it accurately either. Sometimes we do that, and I don't think it does us any favors. There are all kinds of ways to do it. If we are brave enough, and have confidence enough, as we place these things together, as we create from historical info, the impossible past that we really don't have a chance to replicate entirely but must give a best shot, we may come up with something attractive and compelling and causes us to look at our religion in new ways. We will find in so doing, an entity that must be defendable because of its importance in the world in both mortal and immortal realms. I think it's worth any kind of trouble we take to wnsure we do this right. He is worth all of the effort required for us to understand him. He has won me over in every way, and I say that in the name of Jesus Christ, Amen.

Q: Common criticism is that church manuals avoid difficult issues including plural marriage. Will this change? Are church leaders aware of innoculation in classes.

A: Did I write this?

Q: How would you respond to the JS blessing to JS the III?

A: It was a Hofmann forgery. But there was something to the idea because BY made appeals to the sons saying they would be placed in rightful positions if they would join, Hofmann seems to have played upon it.

Q: Did other publishers want tpo print JSPP, if so, why did Church decide to do publishing?

A: There were several prestigious presses  who wanted to do it, but one pushback was if we gave all the manuscripts they would have done it, but 15 years of publication at 2 volumes per year, some weren;t willing. We wanted to assert control, have final say, and hope that over time it will prove itself to be credible and predictable, respond to the hard questions, etc. It isn;t a fear thing, it was a decision that doing it on our own with a prestigious press though initially unknown, overtime the identity will do us well.

Q: Vogel preparing updated 7 vol HC

A: As far as I know, he is doing his edition based upon B.H. Roberts use of the Millenial Star as primary source, that's how I understand it, then annotate with Manuscript History. We are going to publish the original as well. Time will tell about who did the best stuff.

Q: Arrington related direct negative intervention by 12 to some of his stuff. Has this changed?

A: I can only say we have enourmous support for what we are doing and have a pass off on this from highest levels.

Q: If we are so open with our history why are people so surprised about polygamy, hat translation, etc.

A: Not enough time to talk about it, I don't understand why we can;t be as up front with kids as we can be with adults. We have to do it right, but our people are smart enough, faithful enough, I am very confident about that.

Q: Why paintings published with translation JS looking at plates, etc.

A: Good question. I don't have the answer. [Semed he'd like to see one]



cinepro said...

Great write up! Sounds like a very interesting presentation, with a lot to look forward to in the future.

Sione said...

Did you get the impression that he felt "Massacre" had implicit approval from "The Church" and was therefore a Church publication?

BHodges said...

Basically I saw the MMM thing as evidence the Church is willing to open those sources, etc. and is noe making them available to other researchers as well. The Turley, et. al. book is probably as close to official as anything will ever be.

Hunter said...

I really enjoyed reading this! Thanks for making the effort to transcribe Barney's comments.

I recognize this was a rough draft, but can you provide more elaboration on this:

"Q: Common criticism is that church manuals avoid difficult issues including plural marriage. Will this change? Are church leaders aware of innoculation in classes.

A: Did I write this?"

What does that mean?

Mike Parker said...


I submitted that Q&A question. Br. Barney's response was a humorous indication that he agreed with the premise of the question: We need to be teaching our history in classroom settings and dealing with difficult and complex issues. Having a Sunday School class on D&C 132 and not talking about plural marriage just avoids the issue.

BHodges said...

Hunter, Mike Parker explained it well.

Brett said...

History should not be written to be defensible or but rather to be complete and accurate. This means the skeletons come out of the closet. Joseph Smith's history is so incomplete and sanitized by church accounts that the accurate history sounds like a lie. Members of the church still deny he lived polygamy, few know about his earliest affair, and few understand his "Money Digging" activities and previous pursuit for gold. When the church commits these historical event to accurate print, then we will have real history. Document his 32 living wives he married and how they listened to him denounce polygamy while they sat in the pews listening to their husband (read Todd Compton).

BHodges said...

"History should not be written to be defensible or but rather to be complete and accurate."

Academic history has a long history itself regarding what "truth" can be discovered there. There is simply no such thing as a "complete and accurate" history in the ultimate sense, speaking from the standpoint of philosophy. History making is an art as much as it is a science, perhaps more an art. It is a process of analysis and selection, it is done by different practitioners for different purposes. Brett, it seems to me your conception of what counts as "history" is something of a "common sense" just-so story like view. I love history and have taken a particular interest in the philosophy of history, how it is applied in different circumstances for different purposes. You would be right in saying the Church materials present and select the parts of our history we wish to emphasize, remember, and perhaps reenact. The "history" we get on Sunday is not supposed to be an academic seminar but an opportunity to reflect on the past to give our present and future direction and meaning. One can read all about polygamy, the Mountain Meadows Massacre, and various other more difficult aspects of Church history in official Church sources, and in non-official LDS journals. This includes the History of the Church and B.H. Roberts's Comprehensive HC. There is nothing stopping members from accessing these materials; there is no prohibition against learning about the past. In Church the emphasis is on preaching Christ, and preaching the aspects of our past that give direction and meaning. This is not unique to Latter-day Saints, there is a strong historical tradition in this vein.

All that being said, I would love to see more elements of academic history become a part of church curriculum. On the positive side of things the Church is again coming into an open period with a new archive and library, the Joseph Smith Papers project, and many other great projects. Those who complain about the things the church is "hiding" can pay some more attention to what is available, they might be surprised at what they missed the first time around. And they might be eager to see what is coming down the pipeline.

This means the skeletons come out of the closet. Joseph Smith's history is so incomplete and sanitized by church accounts that the accurate history sounds like a lie.

Like you I would like to see more of the difficulties fleshed out in a Church setting. Again, this would need to be done in a way so as to encourage members to live the gospel. That is the purpose of church, not to gain a phd in Church history. That's something anyone can do on their own time and dime. But it is also too broad and a mischaracterization to say the Church has not dealt with any difficult aspects of its history; it has.

BHodges said...

Members of the church still deny he lived polygamy,

I don't know of any who deny it. I've met people who didn't know about it but not people who would straight up deny it. Moreover, there are about a thousand things more important than plural marriage for living the gospel today, for that matter.

few know about his earliest affair,

This begs the historical question. For a fellow who calls for more historical accuracy I would hope you would take more care to provide such in your own remarks. But already it seems we are getting to the real reason behind this comment: is it to accuse the church of wrong-doing and to moralize about it? The emotion here is too strong for a simple "historian," so it becomes apparent this may be less about history and more about polemics. Polemics are fine, but it should be acknowledged when one is being polemic.

and few understand his "Money Digging" activities and previous pursuit for gold.

And more people are learning about these interesting things all the time. That's great. I like it. I can see why people wouldn't be eager to discuss it, though, given your evident disdain for it.

When the church commits these historical event to accurate print, then we will have real history.

You are familiar with the Joseph Smith papers project, no? A fellow so interested in history would be, I assume. What you are asking for is being delivered. (Also, there have been many church sources already discussing money digging. BYU Studies has been publishing a few articles on it literally for decades.)

Document his 32 living wives he married and how they listened to him denounce polygamy while they sat in the pews listening to their husband (read Todd Compton).

Yes, I've read Todd Compton, and he has his own agenda to pursue. In terms of history, Todd picks a pony and rides it (though recently it has become more difficult to know what he meant since he hasn't clarified some key points others have made.) Nevertheless, it has been shown how Compton's work is certainly not the type of unbiased history you are apparently calling for (though one can't really fault Compton for that; such history simply doesn't exist at all!)

Check it: "Advocacy and Inquiry"

Take care, Brett.

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