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Friday, May 21, 2010

Church History and Limitations of Historical Research

Elder Marlin K. Jensen is our guest General Authority for the Olathe Stake Conference this weekend. Besides the usual Saturday and Sunday meetings, there was a special fireside on Church history tonight at the Olathe Stake Center. He is the Church Historian. I mention this only because he "inspired" my post tonight.

For my Ph.D. dissertation, I examined The Savings & Loan Disaster, specifically The Keating Five Hearings. As part of my research I read all the transcripts and exhibits compiled by the Senate Ethics Committee. There were about 20 volumes of several hundred pages each. I read them all. About half are what is known as the "cold historical record." This would include letters, memos, reports, minutes, writings, transcripts of meetings etc. The other half contain transcripts from the Hearings where witnesses were asked questions about the exhibits and other questions.

As I was finishing my dissertation and writing up my conclusions, I asked myself this question, "If I were researching all of this 100 years from now and all I had was the "cold historical record" what would my conclusions be? I was startled to realize that my conclusions would have been very different, and they would have been wrong.

For example, the Senators all testified that they had nothing to do with the Memorandum of Understanding (M.O.U.)  that Keating agreed to with the Securities and Exchange Commission (S.E.C.) in the late 1970s. However, a draft copy of the M.O.U. was found in each Senators' files. Looking at the cold historical record alone, I would have to have concluded that each Senator lied about his involvement or at least was involved in some way in negotiating the M.O.U.

When directly questioned, the Senators were at a loss as to how the draft copy might have gotten into their files. The staff had the answer. Keating reguarly sent numerous copies of everything he did to everyone he interacted with in Congress or anywhere else. Most sent their copies to the garbage can, some without opening them. Conscientious congressional staff simply filed it away in the Senators' files.

So, something that looked damning turned out to have a simple, innocuous, non-sinister explanation. This is one example of many.  This dramatic, personal experience convinced me that I should not let historical records, facts, inconsistencies etc. challenge my religious faith.

I know what can be discovered through historical research because I have done my own. I also have a deep appreciation for its limitations as well as its strengths.

Historical research is important. I am glad we do it in the Church. I am glad we keep records. But, it should never serve to undermine the truthfulness of the restored gospel. It has not undermined Elder Jensens, and he pointed out that he has access to literally everything. His faith has been strengthened, not weakened.  If his faith can survive then mine certainly can.

1 comment:

  1. That's a great example. Sometimes we tend to enshrine texts and documents as though they were as reliable as geiger counter or thermometer readings. History is not a science. It's incredibly useful and important, but every tool is used best when its limitations are understood.