Dale Morgan on Objectivity in Mormon History

 Dale Morgan, 1914-1971.

Lowell Dale Morgan (who commonly went by simply Dale Morgan) was an American historian (and former Mormon) who influenced such authors as Juanita Brooks and Fawn Brodie. Morgan left behind an interesting collection of personal letters and correspondences that has been published by Signature Books.

In reading through his letters, I was struck by some of Morgan’s comments to Juanita Brooks dated 15 December 1945.

Consider again how our individual points of view upon Mormonism and all religion are rooted in our fundamental viewpoint on God. It is in part a consequence of your experience of life, your upbringing and certain things that have befallen you, that you have an unshakable conviction of the reality of God. That is basic in your whole attitude toward Mormonism. It gives an emotional color that subtly shapes all your thinking on every subject, and all your reactions to what we call the objective facts of your life. The result is that when you contemplate Mormon history, there is a vast area of the probable and the possible that you accept without much question.

Morgan understood that how individuals approach Joseph Smith and Mormon history will, in large part, depend upon their personal beliefs and life circumstances. How one interprets the historical evidence surrounding Joseph Smith and Mormon history will depend on prior experiences, both worldly and spiritual, and assumptions about the existence or nonexistence of God as much as it will depend on purely intellectual endeavor. In the case of Juanita Brooks, Morgan recognized that her Mormon upbringing had influenced what she “accept[ed] without much question” with regards to Mormonism’s truth claims.

On the other hand, Morgan portrayed his own position as follows:

At the other extreme we have my attitude (which I believe is substantially Fawn’s). I feel absolutely no necessity to postulate the existence of God as explanation of anything whatever. To me God exists only as a force in human conduct consequent upon the hypothecation of such a being by man. I find infinitely more interesting than abstract philosophical ideas of deity the quirk in men’s minds by which they have found it necessary to originate the concept of God. Essentially my views are atheist, but I call myself an agnostic because I regard professing atheists as being as much deluded as professing theists. The one says, “I know there isn’t a God”; the other, “I know that there is.” And I find the proof lacking in either case. Thus when I formulate my views, I say that I have no personal belief in God and see no necessity for the existence of such a being; I say further that I think this is the only life we’ll ever have, and that we’d better make the most of it.

So Morgan was an agnostic atheist, and approached his academic work from that paradigm. Fair enough. What’s most revealing, however, is Morgan’s remarkably candid comment made directly after this declaration of his atheism.

I believe I have about as great a reasonableness of spirit as anyone who has made inquiries in Mormon history. But I am aware also of a fatal defect in my objectivity. It is an objectivity on one side only of a philosophical Great Divide. With my point of view on God, I am incapable of accepting the claims of Joseph Smith and the Mormons, be they however so convincing. If God does not exist, how can Joseph Smith’s story have any possible validity? I will look everywhere for explanations except to the ONE explanation that is the position of the church. 

This is remarkable. After acknowledging his atheism, Morgan goes on to acknowledge that his atheism precluded him from accepting certain positions relative to Joseph Smith’s prophetic calling, “be they however so convincing.”

To his credit, Morgan was honest enough to admit this. I wish more contemporary atheistic critics of Mormonism would be just as honest.