Chapter 4

Faith vs. Objectivity:
Trends in Providential and Mormon History

Brian Q. Cannon

In his 1948 presidential address before the American Historical Association, Kenneth Latourette, a professor of missions and Oriental history at Yale University, observed, “Christians believe that God is the creator of the universe and rules throughout all its vast reaches.” For Latourette, it followed logically from this belief that “ultimately and in His own way . . . God is sovereign in the affairs of men.” As a devout Baptist, Latourette was interested in looking for evidence of God’s influence in human history. He advised historians who shared his convictions and interest to look beyond the subjects that engaged most historians including politics, diplomacy, warfare, economics and urbanization. Instead, they should look for God’s hand in the efforts of missionaries and churches to spread the knowledge and “influence of Jesus” worldwide.[1]

Latourette was advocating providential history, an approach to history inspired in large part by the Bible, in which writers seek to identify God’s influence upon historical developments. This ran counter to the generally accepted canons of historical scholarship of the day. In his time -- as at present -- mainstream historical writing was dominated by a secular approach, in which empirical evidence, that is to say, that which can be seen and observed, was deemed the only valid basis for historical interpretation. The quest for objectivity in historical writing precluded any attribution of influence to that which could not be documented in this manner.

The writing of providential history, on the other hand, involves the attribution of divine influence or guidance to the unfolding of human events, assuming that God plays a role in the unfolding of human affairs. The challenges of writing this kind of history have been common to that relatively small group of providential historians in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, whether they have focused on the broad canvas of human history, the history of the United States or the history of Mormonism. They have struggled to find a methodology suitable for marshaling and assessing evidence from faith-based sources such as the scriptures, the affirmations of theologians and religious leaders or their own religious or political traditions. For better or for worse, providential historians have functioned from the perspective of their own faith-based belief system, world view or philosophy, which has informed their inquiry. Finally, nearly all have struggled with the relationship between human volition and material factors on the one hand and divine influences on the other. From these issues and others has arisen the seeming tension in their writing between faith and objectivity, and a noted ebb and flow over time in historians’ affirmation of divine influences in their interpretations.

The Transition from Providential to Secular History

Providential history was the dominant form of historical interpretation from the time of Augustine, a Catholic leader in the fifth century, through the seventeenth century, when the French historian and theologian Jacques-Benigne Bossuet wrote his Discourse on Universal History, a history from the Creation to the time of the Holy Roman Empire. The Protestant Reformation produced a bifurcation in historical scholarship based upon conflicting interpretations of the history of Christianity, but Protestant writers like Catholics interpreted history as the unfolding of a divine design for the redemption of humanity and orderly life on earth. For instance, on a smaller scale but with a similar emphasis upon God’s guidance, Bossuet’s contemporary, the American minister Cotton Mather, recounted the history of Puritan colonization and preaching in New England in Magnalia Christi Americana (“The Great Achievements of Christ in America”). Many providential histories placed the world on a time line consisting of seven dispensations that began with the Creation and ended with the Last Judgment and emphasized the lives of missionaries and martyrs, church history and the progress of Christianity. [2]

The transition to secular history was largely influenced by the eighteenth-century Enlightenment, which led to a questioning of the divine role, veneration of scientific inquiry and greater emphasis upon material forces. Scholars pointed out that providential claims such as the notion that kings ruled by divine right or that religious leaders were God’s vice regents had been used unjustly to bolster authority, deflect criticism and justify tyranny. [3] Some disputed the very existence of God while many others adopted the Deist viewpoint that God was the creator, but rarely intervened in human affairs, governing instead by natural laws. Thus, they reasoned, it was pointless to search for God’s hand in history.

The transformation wrought by these Enlightenment viewpoints was swift; European historical work written in the later 1700s rarely mentioned direct intervention by God, and the traditional time line of Christian historiography running from Creation to Judgment was replaced with a new subdivision of history into ancient, medieval and modern eras.[4]

Providential history revived somewhat in the 1800s as Enlightenment ideas temporarily fell from favor but never gained much traction. In Germany, Leopold von Ranke, a highly influential professor at the University of Berlin, sometimes deemed the “father of modern history”, trained scores of budding professional historians in his seminars. Ranke taught his students to conduct careful archival research and to concern themselves primarily with war, diplomacy and politics. He also taught that it was appropriate to raise questions about divine influence. He believed that nation states had evolved to achieve God’s will and urged historians to write about “the life of the individual, of generations, or nations, and at times the hand of God above them.”[5] But the rigor of his empirical method was what his followers retained. By the beginning of the twentieth century, professional history writing in Europe had become overwhelmingly secular and empirical.

The American Experience. In the United States, where belief in God was more prevalent than in nineteenth century Europe, and a sense of national purpose more deeply anchored, the secularization of history proceeded less definitively and more slowly. George Bancroft, the most widely read and influential historian in the United States in the late nineteenth century, described the progression of the American colonies toward independence as “the change which Divine Wisdom ordained.” Bancroft believed that God operated on the basis of universal truths or eternal principles including world peace, liberty and democracy and interpreted historical events as evidence of the progression toward those principles. He was convinced that Providence governed all and that events that appeared to some to be lucky or coincidental were never the product of chance.[6]

Like Bancroft, the men and women who founded and patronized local historical societies in nineteenth-century America believed that “God’s Providence had created the United States as the defender of the ideal of liberty in the on-going struggle between the forces of liberty and its opponents.” This widespread idea of a God actively promoting liberty in the United States was aptly expressed in the popular lyrics penned by Julia Ward Howe, the “Battle Hymn of the Republic.”[7]

The dominant academic trend was otherwise. Although some of the most influential historians of the nineteenth century wrote occasionally about God, they wrote largely in secular terms. In the classrooms of American universities, the first generation of historians holding PhD’s generally offered material rather than spiritual explanations for historical change as they focused upon natural forces including geography and economics that seemed to have shaped history. In both Europe and the United States, the Darwinian theory of evolution as popularly understood toward the end of the century and the massive changes wrought by scientific discoveries and mechanization during the Industrial Revolution made it easier to attribute amazing events that had previously been explained by reference to an all-powerful God to natural processes and human ingenuity.[8]

Adopting science as their model, historians were increasingly inclined to segregate their religious beliefs from their historical interpretations so as not to alienate those who did not believe in divine intervention. One could privately be convinced that God intervened in human affairs, but claims of divine intervention could not be corroborated on the basis of evidence from a variety of viewpoints in the same way that one could document a battle or the passage of legislation. Sacred encounters such as visions and dreams could only be referred to tentatively as alleged experiences so as not to alienate skeptical colleagues and readers.

Professionally Trained Mormon Historians

Andrew Love Neff, the first professionally trained Latter-day Saint historian of Mormonism to receive his doctoral degree in history, adopted this approach during his graduate studies, but made important adaptations in an attempt to straddle both worlds. In 1906, prior to pursuing a doctoral degree, Neff wrote that he “intend[ed] to make allowance for inspiration” in his historical studies of Mormonism’s role in western settlement. But he discovered how difficult that was to achieve in writing for an audience that did not share his testimony. In 1918 Neff completed a dissertation at the University of California at Berkeley entitled “The Mormon Migration to Utah, 1830-1847.” Therein Neff quoted Joseph Smith’s description of his First Vision and the appearance of Moroni. Readers might disagree regarding “the actuality of the visitation” in the Sacred Grove or Moroni’s appearance, Neff noted in a nod to his non-Mormon professors, but “the plausibility of the story need not concern us.” Rather than attacking or deriding Smith’s accounts – an approach that could either alienate his professors or violate his convictions – Neff decided to focus on the historical impact of the “reported visitations and revelations.” Neff later wrote, “Historians possess sharp tools, scientific acumen, and admirable technique for investigating the so-called natural world. . . . They find themselves impotent and powerless however in the presence of supernatural evidences.” Thus, the historian could “narrate the manifestations, and measure the intensity and motivating power of belief” but stop short of “explor[ing] the mysteries of the Unknown.”[9]

Neff’s was the dominant approach to sacred history adopted by believing Christian historians of his generation.

The Post-World War II Revival of Providential History

While the writing of history generally remained secular, a small group of eminent scholars, reflecting on recent experience, perceived the Great Depression, the Second World War and the Holocaust as tragic consequences of a secularized society that had forgotten God and denied the existence of evil. They felt impelled to reintroduce God into historical discussions. Although relatively few scholars participated, C. T. McIntire characterized this surge of interest in providential history in the middle decades of the twentieth century among historians and philosophers as “a major [intellectual] movement.”[10]

Two historians in Britain who wrote of God’s influence in history as well as of the impact of human nature, agency, and natural processes were Herbert Butterfield and Christopher Dawson.[11] Butterfield maintained that history revealed God and the “real conflict between good and evil.”[12] Using the Old Testament and God’s relationship to covenant people as his model, he believed that nations and people prospered according to how well they followed worthy political and cultural ideals. Even in their failure to do so, thereby bringing upon themselves dire consequences, God could extract better outcomes.[13] Dawson expressed “belief in the intervention by God in the life of mankind by direct action at certain definite points in time and place.” He wrote that divine intervention was most apparent in the life and mission of Jesus, but that it also occurred in “the providential preparation of mankind” for Christ’s mortal mission, “the life of the Christian Church” and the future events connected with “the final establishment of the Kingdom of God when the harvest of this world is reaped.”[14]

Dawson’s and Butterfield’s work gained attention from audiences in Europe and the United States who were struggling to make sense of the colossal evil of the Second World War. Although Dawson eventually held a chair in Catholic studies at Harvard, among historians in the United States it was Kenneth Latourette, earlier cited, who most prominently promoted the providential approach to history in the decade following World War II. “Whether within or beyond time God’s will is to be accomplished and His full sovereignty will be seen to have prevailed,” Latourette maintained.[15] Short of that day, the historian who would “understand history as God sees it . . . must focus his attention upon events which he would normally ignore.”[16] Latourette saw evidence of the Holy Ghost’s influence in the role Christianity and the Christian churches had played in promoting art, education, literature, morals, democracy, literacy, pacifism, abolitionism, and internationalism.

Internal quandaries. Criticism of providential historians such as Latourette, Butterfield and Dawson came not only from non-believers but from unquestionably devout Christians who felt it was impossible to discern God’s hand in history. In 1950, the Christian philosopher and writer C. S. Lewis charged that historians who attempted to write God into history were “at the very best, wasting their time.” He believed that “history is a story written by the finger of God,” but was convinced for several reasons that humans lacked the faculties to perceive that story. First, historians are prisoners of the present who can glimpse the end of the world only through prophecy and who do not even know precisely “what stage in the journey we have reached.” Lewis likened the providential historian to a person arriving at the theater midway through a play, with only a fragmentary knowledge of what has gone before and no knowledge of what lies ahead. Such a person might easily “mistake a mere super [or extra] in a fine dress for one of the protagonists.” Second, humans notice only a portion of the events that transpire and record even a smaller portion. “Most of the experiences in ‘the past as it really was’ were instantly forgotten by the subject himself.” Third, although humans record the things they consider to be most important, there is no guarantee that their assessments of importance square with God’s criteria. Fourth, even the fragmentary records humans create are imperfectly preserved; “Do you ever turn out an old drawer,” queried Lewis, “without wondering at the survival of trivial documents and the disappearance of those which everyone would have thought worth preservation?”[17] He, nevertheless on a theoretical level left the door open for additional revelation as a palliative. While decrying the idea that humans “by the use of their natural powers” could discern God’s hand in history, Lewis admitted that if a writer “had asked me to accept it on the grounds that it had been shown him in a vision” and offered “supporting evidence in the way of sanctity and miracles . . . that would be another matter.”[18]

The criticism of believers like Lewis apparently induced a new generation of historians interested in God’s role in history to temper their approach. Harris Harbison, a member of the Princeton Department of History, identified “the very essence of a Christian understanding of history” as “the strange paradox that God both reveals and conceals Himself in history.” Thus the spiritual significance of history could not be “unambiguously clear” to any historian as a human being. How would God enter into a believing historian’s interpretations? The historian’s conclusions would be tentative and speculative: he should look for God in history with “a sense of pondering and wondering more than of either dogmatizing or doubting.”[19]

Revival and Regrouping

In his presidential address before the American Society of Church History in 1964 Albert Outler highlighted a particular type of historical phenomena where providential explanations seemed especially apt: “chance occurrences” in history. Could divine influence be the reason behind these historical mysteries? While Outler, like Harbison, rejected “glib and always unverifiable” claims of episodic divine intervention or special providences, he argued that the mysteries and surprises of history were possibly attributable to God. The historian might refer to pronoia, or “God’s total resourcefulness in dealing with his human children” in accounts of these inexplicable developments. [20]

In 1964, one seminarian disputed the spreading consensus among Christian scholars that historians lacked the evidence to trace God’s direct intervention definitively. John Warwick Montgomery, a professor of church history at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School, reflected, “Let us suppose that the historical process were known in its entirety by a God who created both the process and the people who take a part in it. Now if this were the case, and if that God entered the human sphere and revealed to men the origin and goal of the historical drama, the criteria for significance and value in the process, the true nature of the human participants in the drama, and the ethical values appropriate to the process, then, obviously, the question, ‘Where is history going?’ could be successfully and meaningfully answered. A gigantic If, you say. True, but this is precisely the central contention of the Christian religion.” Although God’s judgmental hand was not always “transparent” it could be discerned in light of Biblical principles and foreshadowings, Montgomery argued. Thus one could use Biblical precedents and principles to interpret developments from “the fall of decadent Rome” to the “annihilation of the demonic fascism of the Third Reich.”[21]

Montgomery and other Christian scholars who sought to relate history in light of their religious beliefs helped to found the Conference on Faith and History in 1967 and established a new professional journal, Fides et Historia.[22] Most historians who participated in organizing the Conference on Faith and History were more cautious in their approach than Montgomery. A handful, like Janette Bohi, an evangelical and a history professor at the University of Wisconsin-Whitewater, shared Montgomery’s certitude. Bohi argued in an article in 1973 that “all events of history [were] tied” to a three pronged divine program: “the preservation of moral law, the preaching of the gospel, and a partiality to the Jew.” With these purposes in mind and with the Bible and prayer as “a source of instruction” the Christian historian could “dimly read God’s time chart.”[23]

Certitude about God’s role in history was most fully expressed, decades after Montgomery’s work, in the publication of books intended for use in Christian academies and homeschools. Between 1977 and 1997, Peter Marshall, a graduate of Princeton Theological Seminary, and David Manuel, a professional writer, authored three volumes published by Revell Press: The Light and the Glory: Did God Have a Plan for America?, From Sea to Shining Sea: God’s Plan for America Unfolds; and Sounding Forth the Trumpet: God’s Plan for America in Peril, 1837-1860. Mark Beliles, a pastor in Virginia, and Stephen McDowell, president of the distance learning Biblical Worldview University, published America’s Providential History in 1989 through their Providence Foundation. The authors invited readers to “discover why many historians consider the Bible America’s founding document.” The book would demonstrate “how God’s presence was evident at our nation’s founding in the men who fought for independence and shaped the Constitution.” Readers would find “documents that show our nation grew from Christian principles.” Nearly all professional historians, however, disregarded these authors’ approaches or rejected them as ahistorical, extravagant and unbalanced.[24]

The Calvin School. Beginning in the 1970s, a group of professional historians who had joined the Conference on Faith and History hoping to nurture their religious convictions without turning their backs on their historical training, proposed an approach to Christian history that came to be known as the Calvin School of historiography. The name came from Calvin College, an institution supported by the Christian Reformed Church in America.[25] Historians on the Calvin faculty who would play a prominent role in shifting the focus of the debate over Christian history included Frank C. Roberts, George M. Marsden, Dirk W. Jellema, Edwin J. Van Kley, Dale K. Van Kley, M. Howard Rienstra and Ronald A. Wells. C. T. McIntire, a faculty member at the Institute for Christian Studies (ICS) in Toronto (a graduate institution rooted in the same Dutch Reformed Tradition as Calvin College) lent stature and energy to the movement. The first book to emerge from the Calvin school, containing chapters by many of the participants, was A Christian View of History?(1975). While the contributors believed that “biblical revelation must be the starting point for the Christian historian,” they were skeptical of the “overassurance” of some scholars such as Montgomery who, they charged, “play down the complexity and ambiguity of history and . . . emphasize the clarity of the divine plan and purpose in events of the past . . . pointing out the good and evil forces within history.” While they believed such “clear-cut or easy answers” about God’s role in history were indefensible, they insisted that “valuable things can be learned through the study of history concerning God and man and the way man ought to relate to his neighbor.”[26]

Marsden. Elaborating upon these generalities, one of the editors, George Marsden, observed that the Bible recorded God’s actions, but he argued that the Biblical patterns were complex. Only by a selective reading of scripture could one cite the Old Testament theme that “God visibly blesses men and nations who serve him and punishes those who do not” in order to conclude that the outcome of the American Civil War, the fall of the Third Reich, or the defeat of the Spanish Armada were manifestations of God’s judgment. Pointing out that the New Testament provided an alternate pattern of divine influence in which the righteous were told to expect to suffer for their beliefs, Marsden argued against broadly applying principles from one era to another. He contended instead that “all we do know is that God has worked in our history and is continuing to work, but outside of biblical revelation we do not know clearly his precise purposes in permitting particular historical developments.” Marsden posited that the Christian historian might admit divine influence as a “possible causal explanation” because of his belief in “the continuing active work of the Holy Spirit,” but not to the exclusion of other causal factors. Christian historians’ work would be distinguished largely by their biblically based views concerning the nature of man. Thus from a perspective of religious belief the Christian scholar might discuss the great gains in science and technology during the Enlightenment but also the detrimental effects of substituting human reason and science for revelation and religion. In short, the Christian historian would “uncover man’s self-deceptions” as well as his achievements.[27]

Mark Noll, a Christian historian and admirer of Marsden, contended in 2001 that he had yet to read good providential history, although he believed it could be written. The problem was writers’ tendency to see God in their own favorite causes. “If someone said the Reformation was God’s way of bringing about a reform in the church, I knew that person wasn’t a Catholic.” Those who wanted to write good providential history would do well to focus on the lessons of the crucifixion. “Good appears to fail. The monuments of historical goodness – Roman order, Jewish morality – conspire to do unspeakable evil. Good things come out of hopeless situations. Things that are not supposed to happen – the resurrection of the dead – happen, and happen at the center of the universe.” The providential historian must look for “a lot of built-in reversals” and counterintuitive developments.[28]

Bebbington. During the 1970s, a few professional historians in Europe as well as the United States sought to relate their religious faith to their historical scholarship. In 1979 David W. Bebbington, a historian trained at Cambridge and working at the University of Stirling in Scotland, wrote that a Christian can “put his vision of the historical process into his writing,” a vision that might encompass not only God’s general superintendence of the world’s history but also his direct intervention in minute details. Bebbington’s approach was cautious and deliberate. He warned against over generalization, insisted that the historian must also recognize natural causes and human agency and acknowledged that historians “lack the inspiration that gave the biblical historians their special insight.” While acknowledging the need for humility, Bebbington nevertheless believed it to be inconsistent for the believer with “personal experience of the intervention of God” in his life to suppress the urge “to discern it in the world as well.” Bebbington suggested that it was “reasonable” to suggest supernatural influence when “the expected course of events [is] diverted in a way which accords with the character of God as the author of peace.” He used the example of the peaceful disbanding of the English Army following the restoration of Charles II notwithstanding the army’s history of conquest, murder and disregard for civil liberties. While historians would be remiss if they did not recognize “the role of individuals” and “circumstances” as causal factors, “he will also wish to acknowledge . . . God’s merciful part in the process,” wrote Bebbington. The believing historian might also look for “the characteristic divine tactic of bringing good out of evil” as in the case of the fourteenth-century plagues which contributed to a better standard of living for surviving laborers. While such conclusions could not be proved definitively, they could be presented as plausible scenarios to audiences who shared the author’s belief in God.[29]

In 2003, Clyde P. Greer, Jr., a professor of history at The Master’s College, a Christian liberal arts college in California, found precedents among Biblical characters and writers for the type of history Bebbington had advocated. For instance, after being reunited with his brothers who had betrayed him, Joseph of Egypt had used circumstantial evidence to assert that God’s hand had led him to Egypt to save many people from famine. In a similar fashion, “perhaps delineating how God brings ultimate good out of human fiascoes may be one area of focus for credible providential history.” However, such attempts must be characterized by “forthright humility and tentativeness.”[30] A good example of this approach is the work of diplomatic historian Walter Russell Mead, who hinted mildly at the possibility of divine guidance in America’s rise to global power in an interpretive study of foreign policy published in 2001.[31]

In 2007 Donald Yerxa, a professor of history at Eastern Nazarene College, proposed an alternate approach to providential history. It would entail brainstorming about “what would one expect of find in the past based upon Christian theological assumptions” and then testing those assumptions empirically by examining the past, asking “does the past look as we expect it would if our Christian worldview is correct?”[32]

The work of Steven J. Keillor represents one of the boldest and most sweeping recent attempts by a professional historian to produce providential history. Keillor, an independent historian holding a Ph.D. from the University of Minnesota, chronicled “human sinfulness” and “the rebellious fist” in This Rebellious House: American History and the Truth of Christianity, published by the evangelical publisher InterVarsity Press in 1996. In 2007 he published a sequel, God’s Judgments: Interpreting History and the Christian Faith, which he described as an attempt “to add God’s response of judgment” to his earlier account of the nation’s sins. Building upon scriptural teachings of God as judge including Amos 3:6 NIV: “When disaster comes to a city, has not the Lord caused it?” Keillor interpreted events in American History including the burning of Washington, D.C. during the War of 1812 and the Civil War as manifestations of divine judgment. Keillor’s approach in God’s Judgments has been characterized by evangelical historian John Fea as “a serious effort to link the providence of God with the historical task” and by historical theologian Robert Cornwall as a mixture of “narrow and rigid theology” and “intriguing interpretations.”

In 2013, Keillor self-published the first volume of an intended multi-volume providential history of the United States: Providence Forms a Nation in the Womb of Time: Colonial America, 1492-1775. He began by identifying a divine priority based upon his reading of the prophecy and charge recorded in Matthew 24:14 that the gospel should be preached in all the world. “I’m arguing that God used the United States as one of His tools to advance global proclamation of the gospel, a goal clearly stated in the New Testament that fulfills God’s Old Testament promise to Abraham to bless all nations though him,” he explained. Often critical of America, Keillor contended that “God temporarily used the United States to accomplish that global purpose, not to exalt the U.S. for its own goals or glory.” Keillor boldly claimed to discern God’s purposes in statements such as “God’s holy will was for the thirteen colonies to become one nation.” Mainstream history journals ignored Keillor’s work, but one reviewer in the Conference on Faith and History’s journal praised the book as “solid academic work with Christian reflection” while another admired its audacity but pointed out that Keillor did not engage in biblical exegesis and wondered whether Keillor was actually “right about both history and theology at the same time.”[33]

In sum, the affirmation of faith among succeeding generations of providential historians has been tempered by criticism, followed by a reaffirmation of faith-based interpretations. In the several instances observed, the tension has often centered on the broad questions of divine influence and the relative weight it should be given in the light of material factors in the human experience, the insufficiency and ambiguity of the scriptural record as the basis for definitive affirmations, and the volition of man in the total equation.

Arrington and the Church’s History Division

The tensions experienced by Latter-day Saints in the writing of Mormon history paralleled those of their Protestant contemporaries who participated in the Conference on Faith and History. By the mid-1940s, professional Mormon historians had experimented successfully with several strategies for describing sacred events in LDS history. By quoting participants’ accounts of those events, qualifying their accounts with words like “reported” and “claimed,” or focusing upon revelation’s impact upon believers, they were able to write in ways that harmonized their professional and religious commitments. Much depended on audience. Those writing for a largely Latter-day Saint audience, particularly the historians hired to work in the Church’s Institutes of Religion and in BYU’s College of Religion, tended to be more overt in their affirmation of the divine role in Mormon history and wrote more assertively of visions and miracles.[34]

In 1972, the LDS Church opened the floodgates for scholarly Mormon history by appointing Leonard Arrington as LDS Church historian and director of the History Division within the Church’s Historical Department. Though trained in economics rather than history, Arrington was the first professionally trained scholar to serve in that position. His academic credentials were unexcelled; he was the author of the widely acclaimed 1958 publication, Great Basin Kingdom: An Economic History of the Latter-day Saints, 1830-1900, and had been the prime mover in the founding of the Mormon History Association in 1965. Arrington named BYU professor James Allen and University of Utah professor Davis Bitton as his assistants. Eventually Arrington added eleven associates to his staff. Arrington spearheaded a sixteen-volume history of the Latter-day Saints as well as two shorter surveys of church history.

Arrington believed that “true historical understanding did not rule out the supernatural intervention of God” but he also believed that the historian “must have respect for the past as it really was, and one must be impartial and objective in telling the story.” Being objective meant that one must be cautious in asserting divine influence, give economic, social and cultural factors and the human element their due, and write in a way that would appeal to those who did or did not believe that God had intervened.[35]

In his more sweeping surveys and biographies where he discussed the supernatural, Arrington left the door open to the possibility of divine intervention without insisting upon it. For instance, in discussing the passing of the “Mantle of Joseph” to Brigham Young in The Mormon Experience, a work he co-authored with Bitton primarily for a non-LDS audience, Arrington quoted directly from some of Latter-day Saints’ reminiscences of the event and then concluded, “However social psychologists might explain the change of Young’s voice and appearance at the August 8 meeting, he was in fact a Joseph Smith to those who accepted him.”[36]

Most of the mountain of work undertaken by Arrington’s History Division proceeded without objection from Church authorities, but a major book by personnel in the division that appeared in 1976 aroused concern. The book was James Allen and Glen Leonard’s Story of the Latter-day Saints, and at stake was the authors’ depiction of God’s relationship to the Church’s history. Apostles Ezra Taft Benson and Mark E. Peterson objected to the book’s secular treatment of incidents such as the deliverance of Mormon pioneers from an infestation of crickets in 1848. Their fundamental concern, Arrington later reported, was that “the book was basically a secular history and did not have enough of the spiritual to be a ‘true’ account of LDS history.” In a meeting with several apostles and the First Presidency, Arrington defended the authors by pointing out that they had included additional explanations and evidence in notes and documents rather than referring solely to the supernatural and prophecy because “the book would be read by non-Mormons and scholars as well as by Latter-day Saints.” President Spencer W. Kimball responded that he shared Benson’s concern “that we were paying too much attention to outside audiences and too little to the church audience”[37]

In 1976, Elder Benson criticized secular accounts of Church history in a BYU devotional and later in an address to seminary and institute teachers and religious education faculty at BYU. In the first talk, Benson observed that too many church history writers sought “to underplay revelation and God’s intervention in significant events, and to inordinately humanize the prophets of God so that their human frailties become more evident than their spiritual qualities.” In the second talk, Elder Benson advised church history teachers, “Facts should be taught not only as facts; they should be taught to increase one’s faith in the gospel, to build testimony.” As models of how this was to be done, he pointed to the Book of Mormon along with Orson F. Whitney’s Life of Heber C. Kimball and Mathias Cowley’s Life of Wilford Woodruff. In a thinly veiled criticism of The Story of the Latter-day Saints Benson faulted historians for attributing too much of the Word of Wisdom to the temperance movement and too much of Doctrine and Covenants 76 to leading discussions and debates among American philosophers and theologians in the 1830s. He also bristled at the use of terms such as “alleged”, “experimental systems,” “communal life” and “communitarianism” in describing early Mormonism and revelatory experiences. “A revelation of God is not an experiment. The Lord has already done his research. Revelations from God are not based on the theories or philosophies of men,” he admonished.[38]

Although church authorities generally avoided publicly criticizing the Historical Department over the next five years, their suspicions festered, and in 1980 they decided to downsize the division and move it from the Church Office Building to BYU. In announcing the decision, President Spencer W. Kimball optimistically predicted, “The stature, objectivity, and effectiveness of our fine professional historians will be enhanced by association with the church’s university.” While it was true that the move would give Arrington and his colleagues greater intellectual leeway, it was also a sign, Arrington recognized, that Church authorities wanted the staff to “be less tied to the church and the Archives,” an indicator of their disfavor. In 1981 at a Religious Educators Symposium held at BYU, Elder Boyd K. Packer added his voice to the criticisms of Benson and Peterson, inveighing against Latter-day Saint academics who “forsake the things of the Spirit” and write Church history “as they were taught in graduate school, rather than as Mormons.” The spiritual element in church history must be present and the scholar must write in such a way that the reader could tell his or her sympathies. He warned that in the Church Office building “we have been getting a great deal of experience . . . in the past few years” in writing history that lacked the spiritual component. Packer likewise criticized a historian who had delivered a lecture on Brigham Young the man, portraying him as “a man subject to the foibles of men.” “It would have been much more worthwhile for him to have convinced us that the man was a prophet,” he observed. He cautioned against “tell[ing] everything, whether it is worthy or faith promoting or not.” Packer went on to advise that Latter-day Saint should demonstrate “the hand of the Lord in every hour and every moment of the church from its beginning till now.” Packer’s statements marked the high tide of General Authorities’ criticism of historians.[39]

Combining Scholarship and Faith.

Responding to General Authorities’ criticisms of The Story of the Latter-day Saints, James Allen and Glen Leonard revised the manuscript and Deseret Book reissued it in 1992. An illustrative revision involves their treatment of the Word of Wisdom. In the original edition, the authors discussed the temperance crusade in Jacksonian America and Kirtland and then indicated that “during the height of the movement to close the Geauga County distilleries, the Prophet gave the Saints their own guidelines on temperance.” In their revised version, the revelatory nature of the Word of Wisdom was more fully emphasized within the context of the broader temperance movement. After describing the temperance movement and indicating that the Prophet gave the Saints a health code, the authors wrote, “This revelation, known as the Word of Wisdom, was another good example of divine guidance coming to the Church in response to inquiries about particular matters.” They added a quotation from Brigham Young in which he described how Joseph Smith “‘inquired of the Lord relating to the conduct of the Elders in using tobacco, and the revelation known as the Word of Wisdom was the result.’”[40]

Other historians also spoke about God and spiritual forces more forthrightly in their work. Published in 1984, Richard Bushman’s Joseph Smith and the Beginnings of Mormonism strove to accommodate believers and non-believers. “My method,” Bushman wrote, “has been to relate events as the participants themselves experienced them, using their own words where possible. Insofar as the revelations were a reality to them, I have treated them as real in this narrative.” Bushman identified himself as a “believing Mormon.” He did not ignore naturalistic causes; in fact he traced connections between the cultural milieu of Smith and his work. But he did not force connections, and he maintained that parts of Mormonism were “alien and peculiar” rather than reflections of that milieu – a challenge to those who assumed that Smith’s work was entirely derivative of his society.[41]

Mormon historian Thomas Alexander achieved an important breakthrough in writing about Mormons’ religious experiences when he applied methods and theories from cultural history and religious studies. Bushman’s 1969 essay on providential history had resonated with Alexander’s thoughts and reinforced his conviction that his religious faith and identity might enable him to interpret the church’s history “with much greater facility than one who did not” believe. At about the same time Alexander read Robert Berkhofer’s A Behavioral Approach to Historical Analysis, which offered a convincing theoretical rationale for investigating history from the viewpoint or worldview of people in the past.

When Alexander began writing about Wilford Woodruff’s religious experiences in the 1970s he was ready to apply Berkhofer’s and Bushman’s insights. As he later described that approach: “If, I believed, an actor in past times reported particular religious experiences, and if his or her personal life and activities were consistent with those experiences, the historian could accept the report in the same way he would the report of any event to which there was only one witness. That the event was supernatural was irrelevant.” This was a significant departure from previous scholars’ claims that they could not pass judgment upon the validity of supernatural experiences using scholarly tools. Alexander elaborated, “In my view, the only question the historian had a right to ask was whether the reported experience was consistent with the other aspects of the actor’s personal life. The historian had no right to reject it or to bracket it by referring to an experience as alleged simply because he or she had never had a similar experience.” This reasoning enabled Alexander to write, without disclaimers, of Woodruff’s “visitations by heavenly beings, speaking in tongues, receiving washings and anointings, formal blessings in which the power to heal the sick and other gifts were given to him, manifestations of clouds of blood and fire in the heavens, and the overcoming of the power of Satan.” Alexander found that this approach enabled him to write for an audience that included non-Mormons “without raising questions about the reality of those experiences.”[42]

According to John-Charles Duffy, Alexander’s approach resembled phenomenology, an approach adopted by some scholars in religious studies, in which scholars seriously studied religious experience in the language of those who experienced it.

Similar approaches became common in histories of religious experience written near the turn of the twenty-first century. Catholic historian Brad Gregory’s study of Christian martyrs in the Early Modern period rejected material and psychological interpretations of martyrdom, contending that one must “take religion seriously, on the terms of people who were willing to die for their convictions,” in order to understand it. BYU history professor Craig Harline in his Miracles at the Jesus Oak: Histories of the Supernatural in Reformation Europe, set aside the “laboring over whether an event was ‘truly’ miraculous (by the questioner’s implicitly objective standards)” and instead sought “to understand how people in and around the event saw things.” Reviewing the work of Robert Orsi, historian Matthew Bowman described “a Catholic way of doing history” that gives place for “the mediation and sacred meaning of human networks, of relationships, of innumerable legions of saints and guardians, and the constant rushing of the supernatural.”[43]

In sum, the parallels are striking. In Mormon history, as in providential history in general, the question of how much to attribute to God and how much to natural causes, including man’s volition, came dramatically to the fore with the New Mormon History, with its fuller application of the norms of academe. Much as George Marsden and the Calvin School backed away from overtly providential explanations in an effort to broaden the reach and audience of the Conference on Faith and History in the 1970s, Arrington and many of his colleagues wrote about Mormon history in ways that would be accessible to a diverse scholarly audience. Like John Montgomery and other seminarians, Church leaders who had a stake in the faith-affirming outcome of the discussion pushed back against the secularization of Mormon history. Pioneer scholars like Bushman and Alexander have demonstrated, at least tentatively, how these tensions might be mitigated in a new synthesis of faith and scholarship.

New Views on Objectivity

In the 1980s and 1990s, some scholars used an interpretive approach known as postmodernism that became increasingly fashionable to justify their attempts to take religious history seriously. Postmodernists denied the reliability and fixity of documents that purported to represent historical developments. They criticized the “discourse” of the academy with its claims to arriving at truth through rational, scientific and objective study of historical documents. Those claims only appeared unassailable because society had uncritically embraced them. But at the bottom of those claims were assumptions about science and documents containing words that are ambiguous and subject to multiple interpretations. In its rejection of claims to knowable, ultimate truth, postmodernism found itself at odds with religion. But it provided a useful framework for exposing the problems with historians’ claims that their secular approaches to the past were objective and scientific.

George Marsden, who made the case for “Christian Scholarship” in his widely reviewed, The Outrageous Idea of Christian Scholarship in 1997, argued that postmodernism had pierced the discourse surrounding objectivity and rationality and had allowed scholars to write credibly from a wide variety of points of view. If it was possible to write from a Marxist perspective or a feminist perspective, should it not also be possible to write from a religious, faith-based perspective?[44] In 1998, C. Stephen Evans drew upon postmodern theory in arguing that the “‘modern’ intellectual assumptions about the supernatural that we have inherited from the Enlightenment” including a rejection of the possibility of miracles are assumptions that are not universally shared. Indeed, he pointed out, “traditional religious beliefs, including belief in the supernatural” are common in Asia, Africa, and Latin America and among the poor.[45] Jeffrey Burton Russell argued that by discerning patterns in human experiences with the supernatural (visions of heaven, encounters with Satan) over the centuries one could attain the “surest truth available to us in this world.”[46] Latter-day Saint scholars who experimented with this approach include Richard Bushman, Grant Underwood, Reid Nielson and Jed Woodworth.[47]

Regardless of the relative weight they attach to divine influence, historians of Mormonism today enjoy greater liberty in the academy to write to a diverse professional audience about sacred historical events and religious experience. The American Historical Association’s Statement on Standards of Professional Conduct adopted in 2005 acknowledges, “Everyone who comes to the study of history brings with them a host of identities, experiences, and interests that cannot help but affect the questions they ask of the past and the answers they wish to know. When applied with integrity and self-critical fair-mindedness, the political, social, and religious beliefs of historians can appropriately inform their historical practice.” Historians also enjoy greater acceptance within the Church. Moving beyond the difficult years of the1970s and 1980s, Church leaders called to supervise the Church’s Historical resources and efforts, including recent Church Historians Marlin Jensen and Steven Snow have evinced an understanding and appreciation of the historian’s craft, a readiness to engage historians, and a clear sense of the ways that history produced by the Church History Department will differ methodologically from history produced elsewhere by Latter-day Saints. As Steven Snow observed in 2017 when he announced a new, four-volume comprehensive history of the church and progress on the Joseph Smith papers project, “Never before has Church history been able to assemble such a team of bright scholars as now exists in the [Church History] department. . . . I believe those who have gone before will be pleased with what is happening today.”[48]

Nevertheless, despite the arguments one could make on the basis of postmodernism, or otherwise, most historians remain skeptical of attempts to identify God’s hand in history. As Christian historian Dale Van Kley said in 2001, “Certainly, I couldn’t hope to present events or developments as the workings of God in history, causally linked to the will of God, and hope to get a hearing.” Grant Wacker, a historian of religion at Duke University said, “How do you talk about God in history in a public university? Does that kind of language have any credibility? If language is likely to repel, or to bemuse, there’s no point raising it.”[49]

Latter-day Saint Historians on God in World History

In the late sixties and early seventies, at roughly the same time that scholars and ministers were organizing the Conference on Faith and History, other Latter-day Saint historians were publicly asking similar questions about God’s relationship to history in general in a thoughtful, appropriately critical fashion. Along with Arrington’s contemporaneous pioneering of his new approach to Mormon history, these historians identified new avenues of historical inquiry. In a 1969 essay, Richard Bushman, reflecting on questions of God’s role in history, found it ironic that “religious faith has little influence on Mormon historians.” He encouraged Latter-day Saints to apply “the more penetrating insights of our faith” regarding history. Acknowledging that historians are not prophets, Bushman nevertheless highlighted three paths that Latter-day Saint historians might pursue in their quest for God in history, although he acknowledged difficulties with each approach.

One of them involved revelation to prophets and the impact of that revelation upon people and institutions. In this regard “the most obvious subject for Mormon historians is the history of the Church, the story of God’s revelation to his people and the implementation of his will on the earth” although there were many other topics related to the Gospel in previous dispensations. In its favor, this type of history could be relatively easy because “the prophets tell us where God intervened. We do not have to rely on our own insight to make this most difficult of judgments.” But a disadvantage of this type of history would be that it would only gain an audience among believing Latter-day Saints.

Bushman’s second approach involved charting providential direction of peoples and nations – presumably accounting for ups and downs in the history of nations in relation to their righteousness. A problem with this approach was coming up with a consistent way to measure societal righteousness. Another problem involved the fact that the consequences of righteousness vary in the scriptures, making it difficult to attribute peace, wealth, military power, art, imperial conquest or other outcomes to correct choices.

The third approach (and the most promising for Bushman) was divine inspiration granted to men and women through the light of Christ and their conscience. Bushman labeled this approach the History of Salvation. Such a history would investigate humans’ efforts to improve and achieve their ideals or to justify their behavior, attributing the inspiration to improve to the light of Christ. A problem with this approach was that it could easily become indistinguishable from secular history in its recounting of human progress. Although he offered these reflections, Bushman did not immediately pursue them.[50]

In an address to Mormon historians in 1970, BYU history professor Richard Poll raised doctrinal questions regarding the idea that “God is actively directing the historic process” to the extent of micromanaging it. Poll was convinced that God had intervened directly at points where “that intervention is indispensable for God’s purposes to be fulfilled – most notably in the atonement and in the opening of dispensations.” He wondered, though, if it would be inconsistent for God to intervene frequently in the details of history given His respect for natural law and human agency, as revealed in modern revelation. Because of the gift of agency, human choice made “a difference in the outcome of history,” at least in the short run. “If the historical process is, in fact, being worked out by meaningful choices – if something that happens can make a real difference in what happens next – then the ultimate outcome can only be clear in general terms to anyone – God or man – who functions within that process,” Poll reasoned.”[51]

Other continued to reflect. In an encyclopedia article published in 1992, two Latter-day Saint historians, George Ellsworth and Douglas Tobler, likewise noted the difficulty with confidently identifying God’s role in historical events. Latter-day Saints believe “God is seen as actively achieving his ultimate purposes through events that make up history, while simultaneously allowing individuals the choice of working for or against his purposes.” Aside from “a series of historic events,” though, that provided the foundation for the Church, discerning God’s hand in religious history was difficult: “surviving documents are limited and often inconsistent” and “memories and lore are selective and fallible.”[52]

The realization nonetheless that modern revelation provided a wealth of interpretive material fired the imagination of Roy A. Prete, a historian at the Royal Military College of Canada, just as the conviction that the Bible could illuminate God’s purposes in modern history impelled Steven Keillor’s approach. Assembling a group of nearly two dozen scholars working primarily at BYU in Religious Education and History, Prete solicited articles from a variety of approaches that used scripture and modern revelation as the basis for investigating philosophical questions and historical developments. This process culminated in the publication in 2005 of Window of Faith: Latter-day Saint Perspectives on World History by the Religious Studies Center at BYU. In his introductory essay to the volume Prete identified broad themes in history that could be attributed to divine influence and purpose, including the development and spread of freedom, the scientific revolution and some of the attendant technological advances and the spread of the Gospel and growth of the Church. The approaches taken in that volume can be seem as exploratory and varied. They demonstrate that studying what prophets and apostles have said about certain events in world history, and particularly contemporary events, can be an engaging and rich experience.[53] The current volume continues in that line of inquiry.

The Blessing and Challenge of Ongoing Revelation

Even for historians who believe like Marsden that “God as revealed in Scripture is the dominant force” in history, detecting God’s hand remains a daunting task.[54] In the absence of prophets to point the way, providential historians are forced to extrapolate from general Biblical patterns and principles or circumstantial evidence, to be content with documenting the role of religion and religious sentiment in history, or to limit themselves to critiquing assumptions and behavior on the basis of morals or theology.

As much as we desire to know God’s purposes, “we don’t get there through study, as scholars. . . . Knowledge of providence comes through inspiration to prophets,” cautions C. John Sommerville, a historian at the University of Florida.[55] On the basis of historical methodology alone, Princeton historian Arthur Link reflected, “It is not given to me to say, ‘Thus saith the Lord.’ This is the prophet’s word.”[56] As George Marsden observed in 1975, through “biblical revelation” one may ascertain God’s “precise purposes in permitting particular historical developments,” but Christian historians generally recognize nothing dating since the Biblical era that resembles the revelations of the Old and New Testaments.[57] David Bebbington dryly observed, modern historians “cannot write history in the manner, say, of the writer of the Second Book of Kings” because they “lack the inspiration that gave the biblical historians their special insight.”[58]

Revelation would change the equation dramatically, these Christian writers acknowledge, opening avenues for inquiry in many directions. Providential history might be written with “the special revelation God gave to the apostles and through the risen Christ,” noted Darryl Hart.[59]

In the Latter-day panoply of additional scriptures--the Book of Mormon, the Doctrine and Covenants, and the Pearl of Great Price-- and in the discourse of modern prophets and apostles, Latter-day Saints possess an array of inspired sources of which other Christian historians have only dreamed. Modern scripture and the words of modern prophets and apostles enrich the work of the thoughtful LDS historian providing vast new vistas of interpretation.

They also complicate their task. Such sources are not recognized as valid beyond the LDS community and are therefore unconvincing as evidence of God’s purposes and influence in articles and books written for a mainstream audience. There is also ambiguity in prophetic and scriptural accounts, which assert divine intervention in cases such as the drafting of the Constitution, but do not specify the nature or the degree of that intervention. Does the knowledge that God inspired the founders make every word of the Constitution divine? Even inspired accounts of fundamental instances of divine intervention such as the first vision and the restoration of the Melchizedek priesthood emphasize divergent elements, defying simplistic synthesis.[60] This being the case, it is only natural that in some matters that are less central and fundamental doctrinally, the record is incomplete, and even more diverse and complex, complicating the attribution of divine influence. As was the case in Biblical times, modern apostles and prophets are inspired seers and revelators but also human beings who bear the imprint of their own cultures, backgrounds and personalities; they sometimes speak, as Apostle Bruce R. McConkie candidly observed, “with a limited understanding” and obtain truth “line upon line and precept upon precept.”[61]

The careful Latter-day Saint historian will be sensitive to nuances and differences of opinion within prophetic discourse as well as change over time in an inspired individual’s rhetoric and views, bearing in mind Elder McConkie’s description of the sometimes incremental nature of the revelatory process. Not all documents will be equally useful. Viewpoints that defy conventional wisdom or cultural norms, official statements, or articulations of a broad consensus on the part of apostles and prophets may deserve particular attention. Even with the benefit of the rich sources available to them, Latter-day Saint historians will still see through a glass darkly and partially. But they will see more than would otherwise be possible.


[1] Kenneth Scott Latourette, “The Christian Understanding of History,” in God, History and Historians: Modern Christian Views of History, ed. C. T. McIntire (New York: Oxford University Press, 1977), 51-52, 56, 65.

[2].For an excellent history of historical interpretation, with detailed coverage of providential approaches, see Ernest Breisach, Historiography: Ancient, Medieval and Modern, 2d .ed. (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1994), 77-97, 125-44, 166-70, 177-85, 195-98. See also E. Harris Harbison, Christianity and History: Essays by E. Harris Harbison (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1964), 53-59; Christopher Dawson, “The Christian View of History,” in God, History and Historians: Modern Christian Views of History, ed. C. T. McIntire (New York: Oxford University Press, 1977), 35-38; D. W. Bebbington, Patterns in History: A Christian View (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1979), 43-63; Michael Kraus and David D. Joyce, The Writing of American History, rev. ed. (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1985), 12, 28-31.

[3].Harbison, Christianity and History,16. Although providential historical writing was the dominant model, it was not universally practiced. As early as the Renaissance Niccolo Machiavelli prefigured Enlightenment-era approaches when he eschewed supernatural explanations and based his account upon personal observation and experience and reading of classical sources. See Breisach, Historiography, 157-58.

[4].Breisach, Historiography, 199.

[5].Breisach, Historiography, 232-34.

[6].Ibid., 256-57; David Levin, History as Romantic Art: Bancroft, Prescott, Motley, and Parkman (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1959), 79-80.

[7] Breisach, Historiography 266.

[8] Owen Chadwick, The Secularization of the European Mind in the Nineteenth Century (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1974), 161-88, 212-23.

[9].Leonard J. Arrington and Davis Bitton, The Mormons and Their Historians (Salt Lake City: University of Utah Press, 1988), 92; Andrew Love Neff, “The Mormon Migration to Utah, 1830-1847" (Ph.D. diss., University of California, Berkeley, 1918), 4, 7, 9; Andrew Love Neff, History of Utah, 1847 to 1869 (Salt Lake City: Deseret News Press, 1940), ix, 525.

[10].McIntire, God, History and Historians , 4.

[11].Ibid., 9-15.

[12].Herbert Butterfield quoted in Harbison, Christianity and History , 67.

[13]. For a fuller treatment, see Malcolm Thorp, “Herbert Butterfield on Tragedies and Providence in the Twentieth-Century Historical Experience: A Reappraisal,” in Roy A. Prete et al. eds., Window of Faith : Latter-day Saint Perspectives on World History ( Provo, Utah: Religious Studies Center Brigham Young University, 2005), 447-60.

[14].Christopher Dawson, “The Christian View of History,” in McIntire, 31-32.

[15].Ibid., 52.

[16].Ibid., 56.

[17].C. S. Lewis, “Historicism,” in McIntire, 226, 230-35.

[18]. Ibid, 225, 230.

[19].Harbison, Christianity and History, 339, 353-55.

[20].Albert C. Outler, “Theodosius’s Horse: Reflections on the Predicament of the Church Historian,” Church History 34 (September 1965):257.

[21].John Warwick Montgomery, Where is History Going? (Grand Rapids: Zondervan Publishing Co., 1969), 29, 31, 34, 35 (originally published in 1964 in Religion in Life).

[22].D. G. Hart, “History in Search of Meaning: The Conference on Faith and History,” in History and the Christian Historian, ed. Ronald A. Wells (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans, 1998), 71-78.

[23].Janette Bohi, “The Relevance of Faith and History: A Mandate from God,” Fides et Historia 6 (Fall 1973):49.

[24]“Providence Foundation: Spreading Liberty Among the Nations,”, accessed October 19, 2010; Robert R. Newell, World History for Latter-day Saints: A Synthesis of Major World Events and the Gospel of Jesus Christ, 3 vols. (Orem, UT: Granite Publishing, 2000-2001); Mark A. Beliles and Stephen K. McDowell, America’s Providential History (Charlottesville, VA: Providence Press, 1989); Peter Marshall and David Manuel, The Light and the Glory: Did God Have a Plan for America? (Grand Rapids: Revell, 1977); Marshall and Manuel, From Sea to Shining Sea: God’s Plan for America Unfolds (Grand Rapids: Revell, 1986); Marshall and Manuel, Sounding Forth the Trumpet: God’s Plan for America in Peril, 1837-1860 (Grand Rapids: Revell, 1997); Donald A. Yerxa, “That Embarrassing Dream: Big Questions and the Limits of History,” Fides et Historia 39 (Winter/Spring 2007), 56.

[25].Ronald A. Wells, “Beyond ‘Religious History’” The Calling of the Christian Historian,” Fides et Historia 34 (Winter/Spring 2002):41-47 (quotation p. 47).

[26].Frank C. Roberts, “Introduction,” in Marsden and Roberts, eds., 9-14 (quotations pp. 10, 14).

[27].George Marsden, “A Christian Perspective for the Teaching of History,” in Marsden and Roberts, eds., 38, 39, 44, 46.

[28] Tim Stafford, “Whatever Happened to Christian History?” Christianity Today, April 2, 2001,, accessed October 19, 2010.

[29].Bebbington, 173-74, 183-84.

[30] John MacArthur, ed., Think Biblically!: Recovering a Christian Worldview (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Books, 2003), 278.

[31] Walter Russell Mead, Special Providence: American Foreign Policy and How It Changed the World (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2001), 310.

[32] Donald Yerxa, “That Embarrassing Dream: Big Questions and the Limits of Histoyr,” Fides et Historia 39 (Winter/Spring 2007):63.

[33] Steven J. Keillor, This Rebellious House: American History and the Truth of Christianity (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1996); Keillor, God’s Judgments: Interpreting History and the Christian Faith (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2007); Steven J. Keillor, Providence Forms a Nation in the Womb of Time: Colonial America, 1492-1775 (privately published, 2013); Donald A. Yerxa, “The Case for Minimalist Providentialism: An Interview with Steven J. Keillor,” Fides et Historia 47 (Winter/Spring 2015):P156, 157, 161; John Fea, Why Study History? Reflecting on the Importance of the Past (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2013), 69; Review of God’s Judgments by Robert Cornwall, Reviews in Religion and Theology 15 (no. 3, 2008): 327; Jonathan Boyd, “The Gospel Truth,” Fides et Historia 47 (Winter/Spring 2015):166-75; Rick Kennedy, “A Different Religiously-Minded History,” Ibid., 163-65.

[34] See Brian Q. Cannon, “Many Refractions of Light: The Divine Role in LDS History,” unpublished manuscript in author’s possession.

[35].Arrington, Adventures of a Church Historian, 69, 70, 144.

[36].Leonard J. Arrington and Davis Bitton, The Mormon Experience: A History of the Latter-day Saints (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1979), 85.

[37].Arrington, Adventures of a Church Historian, 143-53.

[38].Ezra Taft Benson, “The Gospel Teacher and His Message,” in Charge to Religious Educators (Salt Lake City: Church Educational System, 1982), 51-52.

[39].Walker, Whittaker and Allen, Mormon History, 68; Arrington, Adventures of a Church Historian, 214; Boyd K. Packer, “‘The Mantle Is Far, Far Greater than the Intellect,’” BYU Studies 21 (Summer 1981):261-64.

[40].James B. Allen and Glen M. Leonard, The Story of the Latter-day Saints (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1976), 95; 1976; James B. Allen and Glen M. Leonard, The Story of the Latter-day Saints, rev. ed. (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1992), 105.

[41].Richard L. Bushman, Joseph Smith and the Beginnings of Mormonism (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1984), 3, 7. In 2005, Bushman’s biography of Joseph Smith, Joseph Smith: Rough Stone Rolling, was published. Bushman pointed out the vexing problem biographers of Smith face: “Are his ideas to be attributed to him or to God?” He acknowledged that as a courtesy to nonbelievers it might be appropriate to precede each reference to Smith’s visions and revelations with qualifiers such as “purportedly.” But he resisted doing so, arguing that “to get inside the movement, we have to think of Smith as the early Mormons thought of him and as he thought of himself – as a revelator.” Richard Lyman Bushman, Joseph Smith: Rough Stone Rolling (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2005), xxi.

[42]. Thomas [G.] Alexander, “The Faith of An Urban Mormon,” A Thoughtful Faith: Essays on Belief by Mormon Scholars, ed. Philip A. Barlow (Centerville, UT: Canon Press, 1986), 63-64, italics added.

[43]John Charles Duffy, “Can Deconstruction Save the Day? ‘Faithful Scholarship;’ and the Uses of Post-Modernism,” Dialogue 41 (Spring 2008):24; Brad S. Gregory, Salvation at Stake: Christian Martyrdom in Early Modern Europe (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1999), 350; Craig Harline, Miracles at the Jesus Oak: Histories of the Supernatural in Reformation Europe (New York: Doubleday, 2003), 4; Matthew Bowman, “History Thrown Into Divinity: Faith, Knowledge, and the Telling of the Mormon Past,” Fides et Historia 45 (Winter/Spring 2013):81-82. See also Harry S. Stout, “Theological Commitment and American Religious History,” Theological Education (Spring 1989):55-56, 58 and Robert Orsi, “Abundant History: Marian Apparitions as Alternative Modernity,” Historically Speaking (September/October 2003), 13.

[44] Marsden, Outrageous Idea, 71, 74.

[45].C. Stephan Evans, “Critical Historical Judgment and Biblical Faith,” in Wells, ed., History and the Christian Historian, 65.

[46].Jeffrey B. Russell, “History and Truth, The Historian 50 (1987):3. See also Russell, A History of Heaven: The Singing Silence (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1997) and Rick Kennedy, “Introduction: The Sacred Calling of History,” Fides et Historia 35 (Summer/Fall 2003):4.

[47].John Charles Duffy, “Can Deconstruction Save the Day?: ‘Faithful Scholarship’ and the Uses of Post-Modernism,” Dialogue 41 (Spring 2008): 12, 17, 20; Jed Woodworth and Reid L. Neilson, “Introduction,” in Richard Lyman Bushman, Believing History: Latter-day Saint Essays (New York: Columbia University Press, 2004), x; Grant Underwood, “Attempting to Situate Joseph Smith,” in The Worlds of Joseph Smith: Bicentennial Conference at the Library of Congress (Provo: Brigham Young University Press, 2006), 46-47.

[48] Steven E. Snow quoted in R. Scott Lloyd, “Church Historian Announces New 4-volume History of the Church,” Church News, June 4, 2017,, accessed May 16, 2018; Marlin K. Jensen, “‘May the Kingdom of God Go Forth,” Susan Easton Black et al., eds., Out of Obscurity: The LDS Church in the Twentieth Century (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book Co., 2000), 2-3, 13; Marlin K. Jensen, “LDS Church History: Past, Present, and Future,” Journal of Mormon History 34 (Spring 2008):20-42.

[49] Stafford.

[50].Richard L. Bushman, “Faithful History,” Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought 4 (Winter 1969):11-28.

[51].Richard D. Poll, “God and Man in History,” Dialogue 7 (Spring 1972): 102, 106, 108. In a later essay published in 1988 Poll reiterated his belief in God: “I believe in God as the organizer and manager of the eternal enterprise in which we are all engaged. I believe in Jesus Christ as the great exemplar of righteousness and as our redeemer. I believe that we have the right and power to make choices and that the choices make a difference. I believe that Joseph Smith was a prophet and that this church is prophetically led. I do not subscribe to the concepts of scriptural inerrancy or prophetic infallibility. I do believe that God will yet reveal many great and important things pertaining to his work.” Richard D. Poll, “Myths, Documents, and History,” in Poll, History and Faith: Reflections of a Mormon Historian (Salt Lake City: Signature Books, 1969), p. 59.

[52] Douglas F. Tobler and S. George Ellsworth, “History, Significance to Latter-day Saints,” Encyclopedia of Mormonism, ed. Daniel S. Ludlow (New York: Macmillan, 1992), 596.

[53] Roy A. Prete, et al, eds., Window of Faith: Latter-day Saint Perspectives on World History (Provo: Religious Studies Center, 2005).

[54] George M. Marsden, Fundamentalism and American Culture: The Shaping of Twentieth-Century Evangelicalism, 1870-1925 (New York: Oxford University Press, 1980), 229.

[55].C. John Sommerville, “Christian Historiography? A Pragmatic Approach,” Fides et Historia 35 (Winter/Spring 2003):3.

[56].Arthur S. Link, “The Historian’s Vocation,” in McIntire, Christian View, 388.

[57].Marsden, “A Christian Perspective for the Teaching of History,” 38.

[58].Bebbington, 183.

[59].Hart, “History in Search of Meaning,” 86.

[60].Dean C. Jessee, “The Early Accounts of Joseph Smith’s First Vision,” BYU Studies 9 (Spring 1969):275-94; Milton V. Backman, Joseph Smith’s First Vision: Confirming Evidences and Contemporary Accounts, 2d rev. ed. (Salt Lake City: Bookcraft, 1980); Brian Q. Cannon and BYU Studies Staff, “Priesthood Restoration Documents,” BYU Studies 35 (No. 4 1996):162-207.

[61].Bruce R. McConkie, “The New Revelation on Priesthood,” Spencer W. Kimball et al., Priesthood (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1981), 132