Reconsidering the Great Apostasy, with Miranda Wilcox and John Young
BLAIR HODGES: It’s the Maxwell Institute Podcast. We’re talking about the Great Apostasy in this episode of the Maxwell Institute Podcast. So we’ll open up the green hymnals to the first song, which triumphantly exclaims “the morning breaks, the shadows flee.” Parley P. Pratt wrote this one. He describes the restoration as a glorious morning following the long, dark night of apostasy when God’s church seemed lost from the earth. Since the beginning of the Latter-day Saint movement, Mormons have been captivated by this idea of apostasy, speculating about its nature, its timing, the causes of it, and the results. Various church leaders and scholars have proposed different answers to these questions. The basic Sunday School version stabilized around the idea that Christ established a church with particular truths and practices, a church that apostatized, and then was restored through Joseph Smith.
Now, how accurate is this basic story? That’s a question a group of LDS scholars recently addressed. They’ve published a watershed book with Oxford University Press addressing questions about the Great Apostasy. The book is called Standing Apart and the editors of the book, Miranda Wilcox and John Young, join me in this episode of the Maxwell Institute Podcast to talk about this surprising volume.
BLAIR HODGES: Miranda Wilcox and John Young have edited the book Standing Apart: Mormon Historical Consciousness and the Concept of Apostasy. They join me today. John joins us from Florida through Skype. How are you doing, John?
JOHN YOUNG: Fine, thank you.
HODGES: Miranda is here with me at the Maxwell Institute.
MIRANDA WILCOX: Hello.
ASSUMPTIONS OF THE GREAT APOSTASY
HODGES: You’ve got this book that just came out. I reviewed it on the Maxwell Institute blog. I did a quick review of it and I said this book is the most important book in Mormon studies that I’ve read since Richard Bushman’s Rough Stone Rolling. They’re different books. One of them is a biography, one of them is a collection of essays, but the reason I’ve framed it that way is because you’re offering sort of a different take on what apostasy means that members of the church might not have encountered before, and similar to what Richard Bushman did with Joseph Smith, introducing them to a Joseph that maybe they hadn’t encountered before.
So I want to begin by talking about some of the assumptions or beliefs that you both had growing up as Latter-day Saints about the Great Apostasy, some of the assumptions that a lot of Mormons probably still have. So Miranda, let’s start with you.
WILCOX: I grew up in Southern California and I attended the standard church curriculum, the Sunday School lessons about the Great Apostasy, slideshows at that point, pictures of priests holding sketchy objects and sort of scary music. Growing up I didn’t really know much about the Middle Ages except what I heard at church and what I heard at church was things were evil and corrupt.
As I started my undergraduate program and fell in love with Old English poetry I started to study the Middle Ages and began to discover that there were many people who were very sincere about their belief in Christ and took great pains to try to articulate their understanding of Christ to each other and they went to great lengths to document their study of the scriptures and manuscripts, which were incredibly time intensive to produce and are a testament of the importance of transmitting their Christian faith.
HODGES: How about you, John? Does that sort of match up to your experience as well in terms of the things you learned growing up in the church and then what you got at school?
YOUNG: Yeah, more or less. I mean, I was always fascinated with the Middle Ages when I was growing up. I think it was probably the sword and shield that my brother made me out of wood when I was little that got me fascinated in it, but yeah. It was the seminary sort of narrative of indulgence peddlers and corrupt popes and things like that. I carried that assumption with me. I remember teaching the apostasy as a missionary and really wanting to learn about the period so that I could teach the kind of standard narrative of apostasy more effectively. I wanted more stories of corruption and spiritual darkness and things like that. As a missionary I read James Talmage’s The Great Apostasy and really scoured every missionary apartment I was in for more information and at that point I decided I wanted to study history.
I remember my first semester as a student of history at Rick’s College then I had to do an essay on the concept of just war, and the essay prompt read something like, “An idea of just war emerged in the Middle Ages,” and I remember writing, “That sounds ridiculous because how could anything just come out of the Middle Ages? It was such a corrupt and terrible time in history,” and that was how I began that essay, but then I started to really study it. I remember taking a class from Paul Pixton at BYU about the Middle Ages and somebody asked a question prompted by the standard apostasy narrative and he said, “You’ve been listening to your seminary teacher too much,” or something like that.
At that point in reading the works of especially monks and others in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries reading Bernard of Clairvaux, reading Abelard, recognizing the complexity and the richness, and there I’m borrowing Spencer Young’s title of his essay in the book, but really the complexity and the richness of the Middle Ages is becoming very annoyed at the term “Dark Ages” at that point, you know, following that into grad school. Just becoming more and more convinced of the worth of the people during that period of history. I think that’s what led to the conversations that ultimately led to this book.
CHALLENGES TO STORIES WITHIN THE CHURCH
HODGES: Both of you kind of describe an experience of going to school, going to college, going to university, and learning more about history that sort of challenged some of the stories that you heard growing up in church, or the view that you had of what the apostasy meant. Is that fair to say?
YOUNG: Yeah, for sure. I was working as a research assistant to Eric Dursteler in the BYU history department my last year as an undergrad and there was an Ensign issue that came out in I think it was the spring of 1999, April or May of ’99, something like that. It had a picture of Martin Luther on the cover and it was the same kind of standard narrative of the original church and then this collapse of priesthood authority, descent into darkness, and then very much the light coming back into the world with the renaissance and the reformation and the lionizing of the reformers. I remember Dursteler saying, “I need to do some investigating and find out when this started. Who came up with these ideas?” So he asked me as his research assistant to start reading into Mormon authors who had written about the apostasy. So that research led ultimately to him publishing his article, and I won’t claim any credit to that, he’s the one who wrote it, but those conversations really I think had a long life for a lot of us who were involved in this volume. That led to Dursteler’s article which was published in the Journal of Mormon History in 2002, which was very well received. A form of that, of course, appears in Standing Apart.
ANGLO SAXON ENGLAND
HODGES: Miranda, you heard John just a second ago. John talked about how he went into it sort of looking for these really interesting of titillating stories almost. I felt that way too, especially as I read Talmage’s Great Apostasy. There are these great stories in there about popes doing crazy things or people selling indulgences and all these things and that the word “Dark Ages” was kind of how it was presented. When you started getting more into history did you have that same kind of, I don’t want to call it a hope, but maybe an interest in finding these shadier sides of history that was overturned? Or did you go into it with sort of a different approach to begin with?
WILCOX: I went into it not looking for, I guess, trying to find evidence to support our narrative. I study Anglo Saxon England, and Anglo Saxon England is pretty much ignored in the Mormon narrative completely. There’s a lot of broad generalizations that are made about the Middle Ages, but if anything they tend to be more focused on, say, Rome. But Anglo Saxon England is out in the edge of Christendom and it doesn’t really appear in the narrative.
My first encounter with Old English, the language Old English, was when I was translating elegiac poems. Another poem was called “Dream of the Rood” about the finding of the cross. These are deeply spiritual poems that really resonated with me. So I wanted to explore a culture that produced this poetry that was so rich and so powerful, and that’s what really led me to the Middle Ages was to understand the Anglo Saxon. Then of course I learned a lot more about their context in the wider continental western Europe.
THE WORD “APOSTASY”
HODGES: So let’s talk about the notion of apostasy then. Miranda, how about you start, and just talk about what the word means in general, maybe its semantic range, how it’s used by different people.
WILCOX: Well if we look back in the history of the word, its etymology, it’s a Greek word. It’s an ancient word. It appears long before the New Testament. It’s actually in two parts. There’s an adverb meaning “away” and then part of a verb that means “standing.” So when you put the two parts together it means “standing apart,” which is why we titled our book Standing Apart, evoking this etymology.
But as far as, and I’m not a Greek scholar, but from commentaries I gather that apostasy in Ancient Greece was usually involved in spacial separation. So when people left cities or left families, communities, apostasy was used to describe that kind of an action. It was used quite often with respect to desertion from military units up until the introduction of Christianity, and at some point Paul uses it I think once or twice in the New Testament. From that point onward it takes on sort of a more religious connotation. So Latin borrows “apostasia” into Latin. It’s a Greek loan word. But it’s not a word that appears frequently in the Latin corpus, Medieval latin Christian corpus. They tend to be more focused on the word “heresy.”
HODGES: Is there much of a thing of like Christians calling each other apostates? My impression would be they’d be more inclined to talk about heresy.
WILCOX: They’re more inclined to talk about heresy. Occasionally when I did corpus searches in Latin databases I would see in the discussion of the sort of heresy orthodoxy there would be a comment maybe about so-and-so is an apostate, but the majority of the discourse is focused on the word orthodoxy and heresy, and correctness or incorrectness of belief. Because Christianity pretty much was the only alternative for most of western Europe, I mean there were Christians who would convert to Judaism and maybe were considered apostates, but that was—and John can actually talk more about that—a fairly rare occurrence I think.
CONNOTATIONS FOR REBELLION
HODGES: Yeah, go ahead, John. Same question to you.
YOUNG: Well Miranda certainly did I think the legwork on the etymological origin of the word. But I think in the church there are enough astute scholars who have now informed us the word has connotations of rebellion. I think that is important for understanding apostasy. There are certainly evidences in the New Testament. I was just looking in the Vulgate here for the translation of the word “apostasia” into Latin. It has the same kinds of connotations. There were rebellions, of course. There were those who rejected and stood apart from the church. We’re dealing with a very complex and rich and variegated Christianity in those early centuries, as some of the essays in the volume discuss. It’s very quickly I think replaced by heresy.
The question is, for Mormons reading apostasy, is how do we understand apostasy as it occurred, given the church leaders from the time of Joseph Smith have taught that Christianity had fallen into corruption and began to use the word “apostasy.” How do we understand the word apostasy in our own theology? I think that there’s abundant information in Mormon scripture, especially in the Book of Mormon, but in Pearl of Great Price as well and other places, that indicate that there is some nuance to the word for Mormon theology.
FIRST VISION NARRATIVE
HODGES: I wanted to ask you about that, specifically concerning Joseph Smith’s First Vision narrative, John. This has become a key text in our scriptural canon, obviously. So Joseph Smith recorded a few different versions of the First Vision, but I think each of them include the idea that God was displeased with the state of religion in 1820ish. It uses blunt language. Joseph reports God saying their creeds are an abomination, things like this. It sounds very straight forward. It seems pretty blanket. So talk about how that kind of a statement in our scripture stacks up with other scriptural statements in terms of maybe modifying such a blanket view of what apostasy means.
YOUNG: Sure. I think the word “creed” is important there, and other scholars have worked on this, I think Jack Welch spent some time on this in the volume that was done, the Early Christians in Disarray volume, but we have to think about what Joseph would have understood by “creeds” in the early nineteenth century. Probably not the Nicene Creed or the Creed of Constantinople or any of the early Christian creeds necessarily. So he singles out creeds, probably the Protestant creeds that were more recent from the reformation period, that may be what Joseph would have understood by “creed.” But yeah, there is strong language in the First Vision narrative. In 1838, which is the canonized account, of course, it talks in fairly stark terms about the followers of religion being all wrong together, their creeds are an abomination, they strive for godliness but they fall short for a variety of reason. So, yeah, the language is strong.
But if we juxtapose that with the way that apostasy in presented in the Book of Mormon, or the way that apostasy is presented in the account of Enoch in the Pearl of Great Price, for instance, we see that promises are still very much extended to those who live in an apostate condition. The Lamanites, you know, the Lord says repeatedly in the Book of Mormon through various Nephite prophets that the Lamanites are still chosen Israel, that the promises that were made will be restored to them eventually, and moreover, and maybe an even more important point, it wasn’t their fault. It was the originator’s, what Medieval Christians, what Dante for instance, would have called the arch heretics, the ones who formulated the heresy, or formulated the apostasy are the ones to blame. Those who inherit those conditions are not culpable for those conditions that they live in.
Less, I think, clear, but there are certainly hints that these people are capable of great righteousness. We have stories in the Book of Mormon of people like Abish, who somehow she and her father become converted to the Lord and she eventually recognizes the Nephite missionaries who were sent for what they are, but they became converted independently of those missionaries, of people who had the true authority or whatever we want to call it. So people who live in conditions of apostasy are capable of righteousness. That, I think, squares with what Miranda and I have been talking about, that these people we encounter in the Middle Ages, whether in Anglo Saxon poetry or in twelfth century spirituality, were close to God. They did have truth. They were inspired in some ways. I think that Mormon theology leaves open that possibility. Our scripture certainly does. So we have these various texts that are juxtaposed with each other. It’s our job I think as members of the church to try to make sense of all of that and try to figure out what it means for us.
JOSEPH’S CONCEPT OF APOSTASY
HODGES: That’s John Young. I’m joined by John and Miranda Wilcox. They’re two scholars who just edited the book Standing Apart. It’s a book about the Great Apostasy in Mormon history and the ways that Mormons understand the apostasy. The book’s epilogue was written by Terryl Givens. He argues that Joseph Smith’s conception of the apostasy was somewhat different from the sort of apostasy narrative that we might hear at church today. So, Miranda, would you take a moment to sort of describe Givens’ perspective on that? Then I have a follow-up question to that.
WILCOX: Givens describes Joseph Smith as being very optimistic about the past, that he looks to the past as a source of truth and knowledge, and of course recognizing that the truth might have been fragmented or scattered across the centuries, but he looks to lots of different sources: the Ancient Hebrew Israelite religions, he’s looking to Luther, he’s looking to how much he knows about the Middle Ages, I don’t know if anybody’s really done a lot of study on that. But we do know he looks into Masonic traditions as well. He’s looking into ancient practices and ancient spiritual ideas and he’s trying to find and bring together the truth that have been passed down through the centuries and the ages.
Givens describes Joseph as gathering these truths together, bringing them together into a whole again, combined with the new revelation that he’s receiving from God, and being able to integrate them into this new religious tradition that he’s starting, but this tradition is very much rooted through the past. It’s not a rupture with the past, but it grows out of the past and is sort of, I guess, like a seed or something that’s just been waiting to get some water and it just grows up out of the past into this new plant and flourishes. He refers to the scripture in Revelations describing the woman lost in the wilderness as the woman in the wilderness survives and she’s sheltered in the wilderness—
HODGES: She represents the church.
WILCOX: And she represents the church. He describes how important this scripture about the woman in the wilderness is to Joseph and how he comes to realize that he’s involved in this work of bringing the woman, the church, out of the wilderness and that this is very important for his prophetic self-understanding.
FINDING VALUE IN OTHER RELIGIONS
HODGES: So the follow-up to that for either of you, maybe John, you can touch on this, is this view of the apostasy according to Givens, it seems really useful for people who are interested in building bridges between different faiths, in learning from other faiths, in recognizing good things from other religions and other traditions. So what’s your response to someone who might say that interpretation seems more like wishful thinking, more than an actual reflection of Joseph Smith’s perspective on it? What would you say in response to that?
YOUNG: Well I think that what Givens has given us is a really interesting and useful way of thinking about our own identity, whether we follow it up and actually build any bridges is another thing, I hope that happens certainly, but if we are to understand, and the text that he uses as evidence here seem to indicate that Joseph understood this, if we are to understand that the Mormon church, the LDS church was not created ex nihilo or as it was often taught, it was not a tree that was uprooted and then a new tree planted. I remember that story being shared from various teachers when I was growing up. But that it survived and God’s inspiration remained with people and that the project of restoration was really a gathering of a variety of strands with the Lord using a variety of people who each had a perspective, whether they came from the Baptists or from the Methodists or from the Campbellites, or whatever their faith of origin, or today whether they come from a non-religious background or something like that, that restoration really is a way of bringing all perspectives together.
I think that’s not a lesson just for the 1830s and ’40s, but that as Latter-day Saints we might take that as a sort of call for how we might perceive other people, how we might recognize that the perspective provided by somebody who is a Catholic or is a Muslim or is a Jew can be really valuable for us. I remember being shocked, especially as a graduate student reading Medieval texts and saying these people understand this stuff a whole lot better than I do. They understand basic doctrines of the Christian gospel or religious truths a whole lot better than I do, and being shocked that they did understand that. After a while I ceased to be shocked and decided instead to learn from these people.
HODGES: Yeah, I think sometimes approaching people of the past we bring a little bit of modern arrogance along with us I think to that enterprise. It’s easy to forget that these weren’t just these poor unfortunate souls who lived in the dark and didn’t quite understand what was going on. I think that studies like this really can help inject more humility in the way that we approach the past.
YOUNG: I remember attending my parent’s, or the ward I grew up in, maybe four or five years ago. The Sunday School teacher asked so what did people know about, and I forget which doctrine it was, but what did people know about the gospel of Jesus Christ before Joseph Smith restored it? Somebody piped up and said, “Practically nothing!” I’m not certainly going to fault anyone for having that perspective, that’s simply the way that we’re taught. But I wanted to get out some text from the Middle Ages. I wanted to get out some Dante and say really? Dante did not understand, was not inspired in some way in writing the Divine Comedy? The author of the “Dream of the Rood,” as Miranda alluded to earlier, did not have a really developed spirituality and understood some important things about the crucifixion of Jesus? It’s simply not the case. These are people we can learn from. What that indicates is we can learn from peoples of other faiths in a variety of ways. I think we need to pursue that sort of thing.
HODGES: Yeah. One of the real benefits I think from reading this book is getting familiar with the past in a new way, and realizing that we actually have quite a bit to learn about our forbearers. I want to zoom out a little bit and talk about this idea that you bring up in the introduction about historical consciousness. So let’s talk about this idea. This is an interesting concept that kind of comes up throughout the book. So, Miranda, what is historical consciousness? Why is that a framing device that you brought to this particular book?
WILCOX: Well there’s different ways of defining historical consciousness if you look at contemporary historians. I guess the people, the scholars that resonated with me were typically religious scholars. Many of them Catholic, but some of Evangelical persuasion, who have been writing for probably the last fifteen or so years about how do we write about faithful people in the past, whether we’re of the same confessional tradition as those people, or even if we’re not of the same confessional tradition. How do we respect their faith in a way that’s authentic and in a way that doesn’t colonize them, in a way that doesn’t doubt them?
HODGES: What do you mean, colonize them? That’s a really interesting phrase.
WILCOX: Well I think we have a tendency, people in the present have a tendency to look into the past and say, “Oh, well, we see something that looks a little bit familiar, that looks parallel to what we do today,” so we assume that they must have understood things the same way that we do, or must have done things the same way that we do. So Taylor Petrey talks about this in his chapter where he looks at the church in the first century, Christ’s church. He says we often will see words in the New Testament that are still words that we use today, and he uses the word “apostle.” He actually goes through and he says according to contemporary scholarship of the first century, the people who were called apostles didn’t operate in the same way that Mormon apostles do today. So he said we tend to conflate the present and the past with just these hints of similarity. So I think these historians are trying to develop an ethical way of writing history that takes into account that even as we’re finding similarities that we also need to be respectful of the differences, and not conflate things that aren’t true, but try to be as authentic as we can to the experience of the people of the past.
I also looked at the work of David Tracy, who is a theologian at the University of Chicago, or was, he might be retired now. But he writes less about the past but more about engaging in ecumenical interactions. He talks about the necessity for there being empathy in the process, but also reflective as well as critical engagement with the process and that it needs to be authentic on both sides. People need to sort of enter into this encounter with the other, willing to take the risk of being changed by it. I thought that was a really important thing to try to convey, is that when we study history our perspective of who we are in the present changes. If we’re so scared of changing and we’re just so fixed that what we have today is right and the only way that things have ever been done, then we really miss out on the opportunity to learn from the past, and potentially maybe avoid some of their mistakes.
As I study religious culture, Monasticism, Credal discourse, and so forth, there were problems and when you study the interactions of nuns in a group in a convent, or monks in a monastery, there were inter-personal problems, there were political problems, there were lots of hard things. I think as Mormons we understand this because we work in wards and wards are hard. There’s a lot of personalities to sort of manage. There’s a lot of responsibilities to divvy out, so I think as we try to make sense of the complexities of our own religious life that we can look and see how things maybe went right, and maybe how things didn’t go so well and maybe we can avoid some of those things happening if we’re at least aware of that potential.
HISTORY AND IDENTITY
YOUNG: If I might chime in very briefly here, I think that what we realized as this project began to come together was what we were really talking about how we frame our own identity. A large part of identity is how we shape the past, how we understand the past. So I think that the concept or the term “historical consciousness” really arose from that. Whether our view of the past is accurate or jives with the historical records or not, the perception we have of the past is a very important marker of who we are.
It’s a problem I think when the understanding of the historical records, and this is not to say that professional historians get it right all of the time, but when the kind of general understanding of the historical record begins to move beyond the narratives that we have latched hold onto, that have become a part of our identity. Do we then say, well, I don’t care what the historical record says, or I don’t care what these new understandings, the revisionist understandings are, I’m going to continue to hold onto this? Or do we then say, well, maybe there’s room in my theology, in my own concept of identity, in my own consciousness, for new ways of thinking about this?
History is not just history. History is not just something that is entirely self-evident. History is narrative, which is subjective and open to a variety of interpretations. We have to acknowledge that, respect that, about history, and then do our best to get it right. If the narratives we’re telling are not right, then perhaps we need to open up our minds and think about that, and recognize that there are a variety of options out there for telling new narratives. I think what we try to get out in the introduction is that we have these models of narratives, and maybe we can look at these other models of narratives and start to reconstruct our narrative in ways that are more true to what the historical record tells us now.
PREVIOUS SCHOLARSHIP ON APOSTASY
HODGES: One thing that you mentioned that was interesting is sort of the role of scholars in the process. So this is an interesting issue for Latter-day Saints in particular because this understanding of history also has theological implications, right? So it affects the way that we view the church. It affects our interpretation of the restoration itself, which is a key component of LDS teaching. So there’s sort of a theological question that arises here that concerns the respective roles of scholars, of church leaders, of apologists, and of regular members of the church. I’m interested to hear you both. Miranda go ahead, how do you see these roles sort of shaking out when it comes to a book like this?
WILCOX: Well, as we were putting together the book proposal, one of the sections of the proposal asked for a summary of previous scholarship on the topic, and then a statement about how we were going to make a contribution with respect to the previous scholarship. So as we started to go through and document previous books about Mormon conceptions of historical apostasy we found that there were a group of books that were published around the turn of the century, so this is late 1800s, beginning, first twenty years of the 1900s, by primarily general authorities, apostles, one future president of the church, and they were, well, Talmage was a geologist, so I mean he was a scholar, not necessarily a historian. B.H. Roberts was an amateur historian, very well read, and then Joseph Fielding Smith is the church historian from a very young age. Didn’t really receive a lot of specific training as a historian, but spent his whole life working, well decades of his life, working at the church historian’s office.
So we have this group of, where church leaders and scholars are sort of not separated in the early twentieth century, who are writing foundational books about the Great Apostasy. Their long books get distilled down into a pretty direct, distinct narrative by the middle of the twentieth century. That just takes off during correlation because it’s very easy, portable, to spread throughout the church.
But then there were several books, McConkie writes quite a bit of polemic in Mormon Doctrine, as well as his other writings.
HODGES: One of the best is the cross-reference he did in Mormon Doctrine where I think it said “Catholic church” and then it said “See the Great and Abominable Church” or something like that. He took the time to put that in there.
WILCOX: Yeah. I think that gets taken out in the second edition, but you hear that as a very common interpretation of those passages in Nephi.
YOUNG: Kind of like this passage in A New Witness for the Articles of Faith or whichever book it was, “It was a dark and abysmal night. The stench of spiritual death corrupted the nostrils of…” or something like that.
HODGES: Very poetic.
RESURGENCE OF INTEREST IN THE APOSTASY
WILCOX: We have another scholar who writes quite a bit about the apostasy in the ’70s, the ’80s, into the ’90s, Hugh Nibley. He is bringing his scholarly background, he studies ancient Palestine, Egypt, the beginnings of Christianity, and he brings all of his linguistic talents and knowledge to bear on… really trying to support the existing church’s narrative. So he’s doing what John was trying to do on his mission; he’s trying to find as many examples as he can from as many sources as he can to show evidence of corruption and of twisting or changing of doctrines or of mistranslation and so forth. He compiles that and publishes a number of work.
So I think by the late twentieth century the narrative is so well established, not only in the church curriculum, but also we have a scholar the caliber of Nibley who has provided all this evidence that people aren’t really questioning the narrative anymore. There’s actually, if you look at the General Conference talks, there’s a decrease in the reference to the Great Apostasy narrative in the 1990s. It’s just not… I assume everybody is just taking it for granted, but at the beginning of the twenty-first century there’s this resurgence of interest. I think there’s a couple of things happening. Most recently there’s been the anniversary of the King James Bible. Lots of people are kind of interested, okay, why are we still using the King James Bible? So there’s this interest in the reformation.
YOUNG: The Mormon discovery of William Tyndale I think happens around the late 1990s. He becomes kind of this proto-restorationist in a way. Michael Wilcox publishes his book on Tyndale and he becomes this almost Mormon saint as it were, somebody who is talked about frequently in General Conference as an example.
WILCOX: Yeah. So then there’s a series of book that are published in the early twenty-first century by general authorities, not necessarily apostles, but members of the seventy, who are not professional historians, but who are writing for a more pastoral purpose. So they basically go through and support the narratives.
HODGES: Are they adding anything new to that or are they just sort of going back to the same sources, like going back to Talmage and going back to these—
WILCOX: They’re going back to Talmage. It’s very circular if you look at the footnotes and the end-notes. It’s very circular. They’re going back to B.H. Roberts. They’re going back to Talmage.
HODGES: And they were going back to like Protestant anti-Catholic stuff. They were also borrowing as well.
YOUNG: On the other hand, I mean, Alexander Morrison’s book, which comes out in 2005 or something like that, called Turning from Truth, I think he must have read Eric Dursteler’s article in the Journal of Mormon History because he says, and I think he even quotes from some of the same sources that Dursteler uses, maybe R.W. Southern or something like that, where he says we need a new understanding. The Middle Ages were not as dark as we’ve assumed they were. We need a new understanding. But then, yeah, he goes back largely to Talmage. He goes back to some of the sources that Talmage uses. At one point he quotes Lorenz von Mosheim, who is the eighteenth century ecclesiastical historian who Talmage and Roberts use extensively. He puts something in there about Mosheim, who was an upstanding scholar, a well-respected scholar of history. Yeah, well he was a well-respected scholar of history in the eighteenth century. So we’ve continued, I think, in apologetics to use the same works to maybe begin to shift the narrative a little bit and appreciate people who lived during the time of apostasy, but ultimately reached the same theological and largely historical conclusions about those periods.
WILCOX: So we’ve pretty much realized that we have several groups of people who have written about Mormon concepts of the apostasy. We have ecclesiastical leaders who are writing from a pastoral perspective or an institutional perspective. We have a group of Mormon scholars writing for apologetics’ purpose, and then occasionally there was sort of a member who wrote a book or was interested and started doing some research and wanted to share.
But we found other than Eric Dursteler’s piece, there was a discussion group among BYU faculty that led to Early Christians in Disarray, and I think that was kind of this desire to start thinking or rethinking the narrative. So one of the limitations, as much as that book made leaps forward in sort of rethinking the early Christian period, because it was just focused on looking at early Christianity, was that the scholars involved in that project weren’t for the most part specialists in early Christianity, and so they were writing out of their disciplinary training, and so one of the things that we wanted to do with our book was gather a group of people who were going to be writing about the discipline they were trained in, that they’re experts in, so that we wanted them to bring that scholarly expertise to bear on providing insights into that historical period, not just as sort of general scholars, outsiders kind of looking into the discipline, but actually in that discipline kind of saying okay, as a member of this discipline, this is kind of what we can say as Mormons as well.
So I think that’s where we situate our book, is that here we are as Mormon scholars trying to contribute from our disciplinary training.
YOUNG’S FAVORITE CHAPTERS
HODGES: That’s Miranda Wilcox. She and John Young are joining us today on this episode. They edited the book Standing Apart: Mormon Historical Consciousness and the Concept of Apostasy. One of the things I like about the book is it’s sort of got two parts. The first part sort of talks about the history of Mormon discussions of apostasy, right? So there are chapters that talk about the development of LDS narratives of apostasy and how those aren’t static, how those weren’t necessarily claimed to have been revealed, that they’re adaptable, that they borrow, and that they can change. So you kind of set that idea up in part one, and then in part two the book zooms in further to discuss some of the drawbacks to the current popular apostasy narrative, and it also offers some alternative ways of talking about apostasy and restoration.
So John Young, can you take a minute to pick one or two of your favorite chapters and describe those? Some of the stand-out pieces.
YOUNG: Well we mentioned Taylor Petrey’s article earlier. I think that’s a real blockbuster piece in the book, at least that’s been very well received by a lot of people, by the reviewers in particular at Oxford University Press who looked at it. One that I particularly enjoy as a Medievalist of course is Spencer Young’s piece. I remember talking to Spencer at the conference we held that was sort of the working conference, trying to work through the ideas that ultimately ended up in the book, but he decided he was going to try to deal with the topic of the selling of indulgences. He said, “I just went to the piece of evidence, or the theme that more than any other is viewed as evidence of apostasy.
HODGES: This is basically people who can sort of pay their way out of a sin, right? It’s like paid repentance.
YOUNG: Well that was the topic that I remember Paul Pixton saying you’ve been listening to your seminary teacher too much.
HODGES: Right. I remember learning about it specifically on my mission, this idea that they were out, oh you could do all sorts of things, pay, and then be absolved of that sin. Wow.
YOUNG: Well and I think what Spencer did with that is show that this is motivated by the same empathy that we are supposed to feel when we do family history. These are people who are doing work, from their perspective, that will provide salvation for their deceased relatives. That’s the doctrinal basis for this. Were there abuses of it? Yes. But are there abuses of family history? I think that we’ve got plenty of sort of high profile cases, holocaust victims being baptized for the dead, and other things to show that there can be abuses by well-meaning people all around probably. So that’s a piece that I particularly enjoy as a Medievalist, but I think every one has definite strengths.
Jonathan Green’s piece on continuing revelation, the concept of revelation and prophesy in the early modern periods, I think shows that we have a kinship with a variety of religious peoples from the past though, as he says these might be people who were disrespected, as he says, friends in low places.
I think that David Peck’s piece on Islam. We wanted at least one article that would cover thinking about apostasy relative to a non-Christian perspective. I think that his term “binary logic,” the binary logic of apostasy is especially important. That this becomes a situation where we are right and you are wrong and there’s really no alternative to that. David goes through some passages in the Qur’an to show that there are perspectives that we might adopt from other religious traditions that will help us understand that there is an alternative to binary logic, that we don’t need to think about apostasy in binary terms. I think that ties nicely with some of the things that Givens says in the epilogue about restoration being a kind of in-gathering of religious traditions rather than a complete break from the past.
WILCOX’S FAVORITE CHAPTERS
HODGES: So John named a few there. Miranda, are there any other ones that stuck out to you that you really liked?
YOUNG: It’s like asking which of your children are—
WILCOX: I know. I mean, we have sort of nurtured all of the chapters along for the last couple of years so it’s hard to single them out. But I was really fascinated with Christopher Jones and Stephen Fleming’s discussion. They went back to the writings of Joseph Smith, Parley P. Pratt, and also they looked at diaries of a wider variety of document records than have typically been looked at. Christopher Jones was bringing his interest in Methodism. They conclude that really there’s not a set narrative, that there’s sort of at least two major perspectives among the early Mormon converts. One, that their previous religious tradition had prepared them to become Mormon, so they kind of took the best part of what they knew before and just added to it with the revelation that was coming to Joseph Smith and the scriptures and the new ordinances. There was also a strong strain among the early converts of rejecting their previous traditions.
So I was fascinated to find that there was a balance between these two perspectives of wanting to build on their past, and being converts it wasn’t just we’re rejecting others, but we’re rejecting who we were. It wasn’t an outright rejection of other traditions. It was a much more complicated story. We tend to focus in on that First Vision narrative, and that one sentence in the First Vision narrative about all the creeds were corrupt and so forth. So I really liked the way that they complicated that perspective and showed in the writings of these early members that there was a wider variety of perspectives about other religious traditions.
I also appreciated Matt Grey talking about how so much of the narrative that we tell about the inner testimental period is very derivative of Protestant polemical work that was done in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, and he documents this very thoroughly.
YOUNG: Many a Mormon home has Alfred Edersheim on its bookshelf, and it’s something that we still… I have several of his books, but we have to realize that it came from a time and a place that we’ve moved far beyond.
WILCOX: And I think just being aware of the fact that primarily Talmage in Jesus the Christ was drawing on scholarship that maybe was a little bit outdated when he was drawing on it, but it’s a lot outdated now. But we’ve stayed really… our tradition has been so conservative that we’re still treating Talmage’s sources as if they’re sort of cutting-edge history and they’re just not anymore. So he offers a lot of corrective and he also points out a lot of the anti-semitic biases of Talmage’s sources and says we probably can let this go. Because Mormons have tended to be quite friendly toward Judaism, it seems to make sense that we can sort of let that part of the narrative kind of die away.
YOUNG: If I might say, Miranda’s essay is my personal favorite. I’m sure she won’t say it herself. But I think that she gives us so much to think about in terms of the way that we construct narratives, the way that narrative forms our identity. The options we have for a narrative that remains true to our core beliefs, but at the same time helps us to, I think, be more responsive to others and that gives us possibilities for being more ecumenical in the way we approach people of other religions. That piece I think is maybe the most challenging of the book, but at the same time offers the greatest rewards. It certainly did that for me.
THEOLOGY AND HISTORY
HODGES: One of the questions I have that sort of revolves around that, again we come back to this idea of the way that history helps shape identity is the idea that this book in that way sort of does theological work as well as historical work. In other words, the stories that it tells also reflect on the ways that Latter-day Saints might understand their religious beliefs, or change their religious beliefs. So I’m interested to hear, Miranda, if you’ll expand on this distinction between theology and history and how you see it as playing out in this book, if you see it as a book that does theological work, if that was a side effect, or if that was an intended effect, or what was the situation?
WILCOX: Well, John and I are not theologians, trained theologians. We’re both trained Medievalists, but I guess in the Medieval period there’s really not a distinction between theology and history because every history was deemed as the plan of salvation, or Medieval people believed that history was a revealed God and a relationship to God.
I think as Latter-day Saints we are very similar. We see history as unfolding in a plan in an ordered way. We teach about a pre-existent life. We teach about mortality. We teach about a post-existent life. We call this the Plan of Salvation. We’re very invested in history theologically and so I guess if we’re writing about history and historical consciousness, I don’t think there’s a way to not address theological issues. I’m not sure that we can really separate theology and history. I think Richard Bushman said for Mormons history is theology, or someone said that about one of his books. I think that’s true, that when we make historical claims we’re also making historical claims.
ANXIETY IN WRITING
HODGES: So if that’s the case then it seems like there is a little bit more at stake when Latter-day Saints write a book like this. There’s a little bit more at stake because it does have implications for the faith. So was there any felt anxiety on the part of you or John or the contributors of needing to be careful in the types of things that are discussed or any sense that the book would come across as challenging something or be misunderstood in that way?
WILCOX: The answer is yes. There is a considerable amount of anxiety. I’m a faculty member at BYU and that puts me in a particular situation where I have professional loyalties to the church as well as being a member of the Latter-day Saint church, so I was in communication with administration and so forth, to make sure that everybody was aware and clear of what kind of project I was working on so it wouldn’t take anybody by surprise.
I think the contributor’s felt anxiety as well. It depended on their personal situation as to the type of anxiety for some. It was professional anxiety about being faculty members at a church institution. For others, it was responses or the fact that we were presenting new ideas or even re-envisioning historical narratives is challenging to many Latter-day Saints. So yeah, there was some pushback and some criticism and some questioning about our motivations and so it was definitely a part of the project that we had to work through carefully.
HODGES: What about you, John?
YOUNG: Well I think at the same time I felt a lot less anxiety than Miranda did, maybe because I’m not employed by BYU or anything like that. I know what motivates me to do this kind of work. And it’s the same thing that motivates me, I think, to serve in church callings that I might have or to do my own personal family history work or to go to the temple or anything I do as a Latter-day Saint, and I was motivated really by love for the people that I study. I think we have room, a particular place for that in Mormon theology. We talk about the spirit of Elijah, we talk about salvation for the dead, and I’ve felt since I started studying history a tremendous responsibility to speak for those who have passed on and to get their story right.
My personal belief is that I’ll be accountable to these people that I write about someday. But regardless of that there’s a responsibility that goes along with that, and I felt that we were fulfilling that responsibility here. Telling the right story about the past is a religious responsibility that I have as a Latter-day Saint. When we don’t tell the story properly of our ancestors I think there’s an accountability there, at least theologically within Mormonism, there’s an accountability to them.
So I sensed through the entire project, through the conference that we had, through the communication we had with all of the authors, through the extensive discussions and editing that Miranda and I did together, usually from a distance but together on this, that was exactly what was motivating everyone here. No one had an ax to grind, no one was trying to undermine LDS theology, no one was trying to undermine the church or to tell general authorities that their perspectives were wrong or something like that, it was motivated entirely by the same kinds of things that we’re supposed to be motivated by, that we felt this responsibility to those who came before us.
HODGES: How about when it comes to working on a Mormon topic? Mormon studies is sort of an academic subfield that’s becoming a bit more popular these days, but for some other disciplines like biblical scholarship, Mormonism isn’t seen as playing on the same level. So were there any professional concerns in terms of scholars who are working on a Mormon topic and how did you negotiate with those concerns in terms of framing this book for a Mormon and non-Mormon audience?
YOUNG: That’s where I felt the anxiety, to be perfectly honest. I mean, I’m a Medievalist trying to publish in journals that cover Medieval history and here I am working on a book about Mormonism, which Miranda and I are both relatively recent PhDs, both relatively recently into our jobs, and with responsibilities or requirements to publish in our fields, so I mean I think we both for those who are over us, our deans or our department chairs or whatever, had to say this does have something to do with the Middle Ages. We’re really doing Medieval scholarship here, though intended I guess for an audience that is kind of non-traditional in that way.
So I did feel some anxiety, but I am so glad that there is a venue for this, that Oxford University Press sees value in a project like this, that there are scholars out there who in trying to understand Mormonism or trying to understand religious identity in general can look at this book and say this is how one religious tradition makes sense of its history and here are scholars who recognize that there are drawbacks to that, that there are limitations to that, that there may be other perspectives that can be adopted. Thankfully OUP saw fit to publish this and can reach the variety I think of audiences that we intended, not only members of the church, though we certainly hope members of the church will read this and think about their own understanding of apostasy, and maybe make room for a more generous reading of the past, but there are scholars out there of Mormonism, both the LDS and non-LDS and scholars of religious history more generally who can use this book, and it will be helpful to them
HODGES: Miranda, do you have something on that too?
WILCOX: Well I think one of our hopes is that the book would be helpful to non-LDS audience, whether they’re professional, whether they’re sort of professionally interested in Mormonism or just curious about Mormonism, because I think Mormons have presented such an exclusive view of ourselves in the American public realm over the last one hundred plus years that this book explains that relationship and the tensions in that relationship in a way that I think might help non-members understand kind of where we were coming from, but I think also might help ourselves to understand where we’re coming from. So hopefully that will be maybe the beginning of building some bridges, of less exclusivity and more looking at parallels, continuity, compatibility, and so forth as we move into a new century.
I think, and just to go back to what John was saying before about feeling a responsibility to the past and to the people of the past, we picked two verses from the Doctrine and Covenants to put at the beginning of our book that we felt really captured our goals as well as our sort of spiritual desires for doing such a project. One of them, Doctrine and Covenants 98:16 echoes Malachi where he says therefore, renounce war and proclaim peace and seek diligently to turn the hearts of the children to their fathers and the hearts of the fathers to their children. As John was saying, we felt this desire as children to turn the hearts to our fathers and instead of saying we’re at war with you, you’re other, we wanted to make peace with them and say we respect your contribution and we respect your inheritance and we’re grateful for your sacrifice and your faith.
We also chose Doctrine and Covenants 128:18, which says, and this is an excerpt from a rather long verse, for it is necessary in the ushering in of the dispensation of the fulness of time, which dispensation is now beginning to usher in that a whole and complete and perfect union and welding together of dispensations and keys and powers and glories should take place and be revealed from the days of Adam even to the present time. So we saw our work as being part of this ongoing work of the restoration, of looking to the past dispensations and saying how can we see ourselves as more whole and complete and perfect union of the past, as we kind of looked toward the future. So I just wanted to point that out as sort of echoing John’s thought.
HODGES: That’s Miranda Wilcox. Her and John Young join me today on the Maxwell Institute Podcast. We’re talking about their new book, Standing Apart: Mormon Historical Consciousness and the Concept of Apostasy. The book’s available now. You can pick it up on Amazon. Do you know if they’re going to do an eBook?
YOUNG: There is a Kindle version available now. Also the Google Play Bookstore has an electronic version of it too. So you can get it now electronically.
HODGES: Okay. Oh good. That’s a less expensive option. The hardcover is really expensive. The soft cover is not as expensive. Whichever you choose, I really think folks ought to pick up this book and sit down with it and consider it. I think it’s a great contribution to Mormon studies. I’m really glad that both of you took the time to talk about it today.
WILCOX: Thank you very much.
YOUNG: Thank you.