Church History and the Present

I’ve had several periods of deep gospel questioning in my life, and one period a few years ago, of crisis-level questioning. But years before that, in college, I first got some exposure to more complicated church history. I took a class on the Doctrine and Covenants that showed me that early members and leaders of the church had 19th century worldviews, and that was something I had not ever considered up to that point. I also learned that church leaders were not always right, which was another thing that had not really disturbed me until that point. I was happy in the church, but I also had a constant nagging feeling of being unsettled.

After graduating, I spent a summer in Southern California where I grew up. In my younger years there in California, I hiked Mount Whitney, which is the highest mountain in the lower 48 U.S. states. I had always wanted to revisit that place, and in my summer after college, I had a short window of time to try. I contacted the ranger station and asked if they had any available permits, and they did. So I got some backpacking gear and drove up to the trailhead to begin hiking the 11 miles to the summit.

As I began the hike, and continued mile after mile, I was surprised by the fact that nothing was as I remembered it. The details of the landscape just seemed totally new to me, even though I had been there in person only 15 years earlier. That was a lesson to me in the nature of memory. And an amazing detail I had not remembered was the beautiful crystal clear water in the streams and lakes early in the hike.

The next morning I was near the summit, at an altitude where no vegetation grows, and I could see murky water coming out of cracks in the rocks all around. This is murky water that runs over more and more rocks, feeds into streams, flows over vegetation, and becomes crystal clear over time as it flows down the mountain.

In that observation, nature facilitated personal revelation that strongly informs my epistemology: the farther back we go, the murkier things are. There is much more clarity in the present. When it comes to church history events like the Kirtland Temple dedication, I can’t go back in time and speak to eyewitnesses. And just reading people’s accounts from back then, I expect to see people remembering details differently, especially if they are recounting something that happened a decade or more earlier.

But I can look into the clear water of witness testimony now, here in the present. I can balance my study of the Kirtland temple dedication with the testimonies of contemporary witnesses to what is happening in our temples now. I can wonder endlessly to myself if the early saints and people in the scriptures were really experiencing visions and the gifts of the spirit, but why not ask if people are experiencing those things in their church service right now? Is God involved in our missionary work? I am a witness of that, and I can ask other witnesses. Is God involved in other areas of the work of the church, even to the point of caring about the specific locations where temples are built? We can ask witnesses. I will take one conversation with a sober-minded, credible witness in the present over a thousand ping-pong debates over historical records from hundreds of years ago.

All of this isn’t to say that history is not valuable; it certainly is. But it’s only valuable if we view it as part of a larger picture that extends into the present. And there is probably no more reliable guide to a historian’s views of witnesses in the distant past, than the questions he or she is willing to ask of witnesses here and now.

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