Quick Thoughts from Patrick Mason on Studying the Past and Presentism

From the Latter-day Saint historian Patrick Q. Mason.

I. Concerning studying the past:

In seeking learning, the revelation [in D&C 88] counsels, we must do so “diligently.” If we want answers to our questions, we have to put in the time. Research is hard work. If we have existential questions, we cannot be satisfied with blog-level answers. In this respect, the Internet has spoiled us. Simple keyword searches are excellent at delivering simple answers. But the range and depth of human wisdom on a given topic cannot be satisfied, or even skimmed, by a quick glance at Wikipedia or a cursory scan of the random thoughts of a blogger whose musings happen to come up on the first page of our Google search. There is respectable, evidence-driven, peer-reviewed scholarship available on almost every question. . . . More important than offering timeless or final answers, such work also models faithful, rigorous, and variable ways of authentically engaging questions about our history and belief. 

If you think you might have cancer, you don’t begin and end your search for answers by consulting WebMD. You probably won’t even stop by seeing just one doctor. If your life is at stake, and serious treatments are being suggested, you will probably want to receive multiple expert opinions. You don’t rely on just the good news or listen only to the people who tell you what you want to hear. It’s perfectly reasonable to search out contrary opinions and weigh the worst-case scenario with the best. Once you have identified a treatment regimen that you believe will help, you are willing to spend however many hours, weeks, months, or even years it takes in order to return to health. If one course of treatment makes you worse or otherwise doesn’t work, you try another one. You approach the issue with utmost seriousness, not as a casual hobby. 

For people who have dedicated themselves to the church and have built their lives around it, discovering something incongruous in church history can be just as destabilizing as receiving a troubling medical diagnosis. But not all conditions are terminal. You certainly don’t throw away your health, your relationships, and the things you love simply because you get bad news from the doctor. Your body may have temporarily betrayed you, but that doesn’t mean you lose hope for a resolution. This metaphor breaks down, of course, because physical life comes to an end for all of us, while spiritual life will be nurtured into the eternities. The lesson is that when your life is on the line— whether physically, spiritually, emotionally, or relationally—you put in the necessary time and effort and diligence to save it. Consult experts. Go deep. Critically weigh evidence. Think for yourself. Don’t make the first thing you read the last. Give the issue the attention and care it deserves. As Richard E. Turley Jr., an assistant church historian and recorder, is fond of saying, “Don’t study Church history too little.” Do your homework not only by study, but also by faith—which includes the elements of prayer, fasting, scripture study, repentance, hope, humility, perseverance, charity, and grace.

(Patrick Q. Mason, Planted: Belief and Belonging in an Age of Doubt [Provo, UT: Neal A. Maxwell Institute for Religious Scholarship, 2015], 86–87.)

II. Concerning presentism:

The key thing to remember is that when we step out of [a] time machine [into the past], it is we, not the people whom we encounter, who are out of place. Disoriented though we may be, our first responsibility is to get to know them on their own terms. However, that does not mean we can never pass judgment. The violent displacement of Native Americans from Utah Valley can be better understood by making sense of nineteenth-century views of race and Manifest Destiny, but the sin remains. To explain is not to excuse. Nevertheless, generosity, fairness, and human solidarity require us to make our best efforts to understand and empathize with our brothers and sisters in the past, recognizing that some aspects of their lives and culture will never be fully comprehensible for us. And it should also make us pause to think what future generations will condemn us for. All cultures and historical eras have their blind spots. The Saints in the nineteenth century had theirs, and we certainly have ours. For the Christian, the recurring dilemma of the mysteriousness of the other is best met with charity, the perfect passport for entry into the foreign past.

(Mason, Planted, 90.)

These comments by Mason are consistent with what other Latter-day Saint historians (such as J. Spencer Fluhman), leaders (such as D. Todd Christofferson), and apologists (such as Michael Ash) have stressed in recent years. They are wise thoughts and will benefit any student of Mormon history.

3 thoughts on “Quick Thoughts from Patrick Mason on Studying the Past and Presentism”

  1. I have been thinking about the doubts that sometimes arise as certain issues in Church History (or other areas of the Church governance, administration or doctrine) are encountered. Rather that President Uctdorf's "doubt your doubts" phrase, I am thinking of something along the lines of "when you encounter things that give you doubts, first give the benefit of the doubt to… (the historical person or the modern leader) that they are doing their best to fulfill their calling." If we start with giving the benefit of the doubt in our search for answers or reconciliations we may be more charitable in our search. Something the Savior might appreciate also.

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