Introduction

Paul Y. Hoskisson, ed., Historicity and the Latter-day Saint Scriptures (Provo, UT: Religious Studies Center, Brigham Young University, 2001), vii—x.

Introduction

Paul Y. Hoskisson

When I lived in Waltham, an old industrial town on the Charles River near Boston, Massachusetts, I would take a shortcut through the woods to my classes at the nearby university. There were no paths or markers, so my course each day took a different route. I never ceased to marvel at the beauty of the deciduous forests of New England, especially early in the spring of the year. I would inhale the air, heavy with moisture and with the odor of rich humus, damp tree bark, and decaying leaves. If I treaded lightly over the matted leaves covering the damp soil, it seemed to me that I hardly left a trace behind of my intrusion. Yet for the trained eye I did leave telltale signs that I had passed that way. Here and there I would have crushed a stubborn leaf that had refused to fuse into the mat of the previous fall’s leaves.

On the morning of a beautiful, clear, early spring day in 1820, the young lad Joseph Smith walked into such woods seeking divine guidance. Somewhere along his path he would have crushed just such a leaf. If we had walked along that same path an hour later, we might have found the crushed leaf, and we would have concluded that someone had walked this way before us. We might have recognized the imprint of his shoe sole on the fertile earth. We might even have seen the Prophet leaving the woods. Therefore, even though today we cannot empirically demonstrate that he had been in the woods, the imprint of his sole on a crushed leaf, or any other such sign at the time, would have demonstrated his presence in the grove that momentous spring day of 1820.

The title of this volume, Historicity and the Latter-day Saint Scriptures, introduces the theme. Historicity is the study of the authenticity of recorded past events and as such is a narrow sub field of the broad discipline of history. [1] This volume will address the issue of historicity as it relates to the scriptures that the Latter-day Saints accept as canon. Some articles discuss historicity, others discuss scripture, and some treat both. All the articles contribute to a more complete picture of historicity and Latter-day Saint scripture.

The topic is of special interest to Latter-day Saints for several reasons. Since the beginnings of the Church, those who participated in the Restoration were commanded to keep a history (see D&C 21:1). Latter-day Saints are known to go to extraordinary lengths to capture the history of our predecessors. We have an abiding interest in the history of God’s dealings with this earth. We reverence the history of scripture because our faith is grounded in events that took place in the space and time of this world.

It is no longer sufficient, however, that Latter-day Saints simply take for granted the necessity for a historical basis of our faith. For over two hundred years now the historical faith of our brothers and sisters among other faiths, and more recently our Latter-day Saint faith, has been under siege. Some vociferous scholars and a few clamorous armchair theologians have attempted to convince those who believe in scripture that holy writ is not historical. An even smaller minority have argued that the scriptures need not be historical to produce faith because the stories in the scriptures, though not historical, are nevertheless inspired fiction.

Latter-day Saints must reject these ideas. For us, historical events and historical people do form the basis of our faith. Therefore, with growing concern for what is happening in the secular world of scripture study and its possible overflow into Latter-day Saint spheres, it was decided to hold a conference on Latter-day Saint scriptures and historicity. A call for papers was issued, presenters were selected, and the conference took place 23–24 February 1996 on the campus of Brigham Young University. Those who presented at the conference were invited to submit papers for publication, the results of which appear in this volume. In addition, this volume contains two articles that were not presented at the symposium. Elder Dallin H. Oaks’s piece on Book of Mormon historicity had been presented earlier at a Foundation for Ancient Research and Mormon Studies (FARMS) banquet and subsequently made available through FARMS as a typescript offprint. It was decided to include his article in this volume for two reasons. The content fits very well within and adds to the theme of this volume, and it is hoped that through its inclusion Elder Oaks’s valuable contribution may reach an additional audience. Permission to include it was graciously granted. Sometime after the symposium, James Faulconer approached me with a draft ofsome ideas he had been wrestling with and asked if I might consider including it in the final publication. After reading the manuscript, I was enthusiastic about his contemporary approach and encouraged him to submit a final draft. The felicitous and carefully reasoned result appears herein.

It is my desire as editor that with the articles in this volume we, the authors, have added reason to our hope and substance to our faith. This volume, therefore, is dedicated to proclaiming our Latter-day Saint faith through exploring historicity and scripture.

Note

[1] In general, if a story has historicity it is also historical; if it is not historical, then it lacks historicity. For example, the story of the Good Samaritan may be historical without having historicity. That is, the story may be accurate in presenting material that is true to the historical period in which the story took place. In fact, every detail of the story of the Good Samaritan could have been drawn from actual incidents in the New Testament period, and therefore every detail would be historical. Yet the story as Jesus told it may never have happened. Therefore, the story may be historical but lack historicity. Another way to explain this is that not all stories that are historical also have historicity. Conversely, a story may have historicity, that is, it actually happened, but through the recording and transmission process some of the details may have been garbled and therefore are not historical. Thus, we can talk about the degree of historical facts in a story that has historicity. But a story that is not historical at all cannot have historicity.