The perils of judging the past

This post's title comes from the L. P. Hartley quote, "The past is a foreign country; they do things differently there."

It's usually used to illustrate the problems of judging the past by our modern sensibilities.

I could name numerous examples.

One of the best is that the Church allowed some individuals to publish some Church materials and then sell them to provide an income for themselves.

We react with horror now, but this was so common during a particular time period that it would have been accepted without comment or critique back then.

In fact, we owe our knowledge of the first United States Supreme Court opinions to this system. Individuals were allowed to publish official opinions and profit from the sale of them.

Why didn't the Court itself publish them? The answer is simple. At that time, they didn't have staff or any kind of a budget. These are modern inventions.

The only ones that got paid anything were the Justices themselves. If anyone helped them in their Supreme duties they either did it for free or got paid through a path like I outlined above.

The government didn't have budgets or staff for much of its history because it didn't have any money. It only obtained these items after the federal income tax was instituted.

So, occasionally, the Church used the same system. No real surprises there.

Really?! Is that truth??

So many people have been derailed by some sort of "truth" they found in church history or thought they had found.

I marvel that people think they can shine a magnifying glass on tiny fragments of the past and think they are finding truth.

I'm skeptical and I've covered this issue in some detail before.

Look at our modern-day. People can't agree on what's happening now. Do you honestly think a historian looking at a fragment of things 100 years from now is going to be able to decipher the truth and declare with confidence something that was reputedly said or something that occurred?

Look at your own life. Could somebody write a biography of you and get it right? Wouldn't there be glaring biases and inaccuracies depending on who of your family, friends, acquaintances, and enemies they relied on?

The Journal of Discourses

Some recent monumental discoveries further discredit the Journal of Discourses.

This resource gets overused by our enemies and detractors. The Church has always known it is unreliable. It says so on its website.

None of what the Discourses contain are primary sources and no speaker ever edited their remarks for accuracy. It's not even consistent with itself.

Its accuracies and inaccuracies can only be explained by reviewing it given its context. The crucial point is this: In the past, their idea of accuracy is very different compared to our modern definition of accuracy.

Want details? Here they are in a series of three articles written by a woman who trained herself to transcribe Pitman Shorthand notes verbatim and works as a historian in the Church History Library. They are well worth your time:

Preached vs. Published: Shorthand Record Discrepancies (Part 1 of 3)

Preached vs. Published: Shorthand Record Discrepancies (Part 2 of 3)

Preached vs. Published: Shorthand Record Discrepancies (Part 3 of 3)

She tries to explain the context for how these inaccuracies were introduced into the Journal of Discourses. She doesn't know exactly why and neither do we. However, it is clear that extreme inaccuracies exist based on the Pitman Shorthand and what was eventually published.

In fact, sometimes, things were just made up and attributed to early church leaders, especially Brigham Young.

It's obvious Young has been done a disservice.

What was Brigham Young really like?

Brigham Young obviously didn't say everything we thought he said or in the way we thought he said it.

So, what assumptions can we make about him? That's anybody's guess.

The following ideas from Church historians can help:

Another one I like is Book of Mormon Central's video on Zelph. It totally upends what a lot of people currently believe:

Access the article, Who Was Zelph? for more details alluded to in the video.


The next time you are tempted to judge the past by the present, remember the lessons today's post has taught you.

The past IS a foreign country. They did things differently there.

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