The Truth of Untrue Storytelling in Mormonism

A common point of frustration many Mormons feel concerns the inconsistencies and contradictions between the official stories being told and the actual history behind those stories. Many then ask, “But it didn’t happen that way! Why is the Church lying to me?” The feeling then is of betrayal and dishonesty, not edification and truth. It is at this point that the larger house of cards comes crashing down and whatever truth was once enjoyed in these stories is eroded into irrelevance and at times bitterness.

I sympathize with these statements. I understand the pain and frustration. At the same time, it is important to remember what storytelling means within a broader religious context. People tell stories, and historical accuracy has rarely been an essential component of conveying a true story. For example, whether or not the Buddha really threw an elephant over the wall or whether or not he walked on water is much less interesting to a Buddhist than what the story is trying to solve and the spiritual or mental orientation such stories are seeking to encourage. A story might be historically false, but it can still be very true. Stories get retold because they are relevant and meaningful, not because they actually happened. We could say they tell principles that happen, even if the events didn’t happen. Another way to look at it is that these stories illuminate internal realities even if the telling of external events proves incorrect.

This brings us to a recent story that Mormons throughout the world have recently retold in Mormonism’s correlated Sunday School – the Willie and Martin handcart companies and the Sweetwater River rescue.

In the official lesson, President Thomas S. Monson recites the story of the Sweetwater Crossing as written by Solomon F. Kimball in 1914 in the Improvement Era:

Three eighteen-year-old boys belonging to the relief party came to the rescue; and to the astonishment of all who saw, carried nearly every member of that ill-fated handcart company across the snow-bound stream. The strain was so terrible, and the exposure so great, that in later years all the boys died from the effects of it. When President Brigham young heard of this heroic act, he wept like a child, and later declared publicly, ‘That act alone will ensure C. Allen Huntington, George W. Grant, and David P. Kimball an everlasting salvation in the Celestial Kingdom of God, worlds without end.'” (LeRoy R. Hafen and Ann W. Hafen, Handcarts to Zion, 132–33)

This story is both powerful and relevant, but not historically accurate. For example, as explained by Church historian Chad M. Orton, there were more than three people who braved the cold waters—at least eighteen rescuers, but at least five actually carrying people across while others helped in other ways. None were eighteen; their ages ranged from sixteen to twenty-four. Only about a third of the company’s members were actually carried. None of the rescuers appear to have died from consequences of exposure to the freezing water. Beyond this, both Brigham Young and Heber C. Kimball publically praised these Sweetwater rescuers, but did not base the salvation of these young men on this one act, but rather this act in connection to a full life of living the gospel and enduring to the end. (Chad M. Orton, “The Martin Handcart Company at the Sweetwater: Another Look,” BYU Studies 45, no. 3 [2006]: 8–12)

handcartsStorytelling includes a simultaneous remembering and forgetting that allows for a particular picture to emerge for a specific purpose. The picture that emerges here is one of easily defined savior figures and a theological narrative that connects us to that of the heroics of Christ himself. As Mormons throughout the church re-enact this handcart trek and even the river crossing, they are creating group memories and a shared sense of what it means to be Mormon. The handcart story is thus ever-present among Mormons in the 21st century. It didn’t happen in 1856; it happened in 2013.

What then have we chosen to forget in this performance of remembering? The Willie and Martin handcart companies represent the single largest failure of the Mormon westward movement, illuminating also the dangers of overzealous and fanatical leadership and the perils of blind obedience. Yet the story has become one of the most repeated and inspiring of Mormon stories, reminding us of the meaning of suffering and the importance of not criticizing priesthood leaders. The handcarts, though less than 5% of the actual Mormon pioneer system, makes up the majority of our conversations, lessons, and talks about pioneers. In other words, there is something about this story that goes much deeper than our concern to portray an accurate history.

What problem does this story solve?  The handcart rescue story represents a type of Mormon theodicy, which means it answers the question as to why suffering happens in the world. There were pioneers who laughed and sang their way across the plains, but our remembrance is of those who died (even when they actually didn’t). We remember that suffering brings spiritual insight and celestial promise. But what is forgotten is Mormon leaders like Elder John Jacques and others whose overzealousness and religious fanaticism cost the unnecessary deaths of two hundred Mormons and the unimaginable suffering of hundreds more, and that while some gained spiritual insight, others left the church. This unspeakable tragedy not only interrupted the hopes of many faithful Mormons and their never-to-be posterity, but also hurt the society of Saints in the West who desperately depended upon such immigrants for the success and growth of Zion. Because this story is a theodicy, this side of the story does not get retold and thus disappears from the collective Mormon memory.

Storytelling has never been an innocent endeavor. In 1857, stories told by Mormons led to the massacre at Mountain Meadows, while stories told about Mormons by outsiders inspired Pres. James Buchanan to send troops to Utah as a point of philanthropy for a deluded people. Popular stories have similarly emboldened modern US imperialism under the logic of rescue. Stories can inspire great heroics (such as the Sweetwater rescue), but can also exploit the powerless, crush dissent and uphold the oppressive policies of the powerful. As history shows, stories can be so powerful that even the powerless sometimes appropriate the very stories that oppress them. It is important then to be aware of how we tell stories and to be careful about what we have agreed to collectively forget. Ignorance mixed with storytelling can be dangerous for any religion, and Mormonism is no exception. Our goal in telling stories should not be merely to reaffirm what is already comfortable, but also to allow us to complicate and challenge.

Even in its fabrications, the Sweetwater story is true; it is true because it motivates and changes lives. It uplifts and inspires. However important Mormons hold written scriptural texts to be, the stories and re-enactments of handcart pioneers create a type of lived scriptural text that renews individual commitment and defines group identity as it relates to the past. Though they are told and performed rather than read in the Standard Works, they are powerful and authoritative nonetheless. Under such a dynamic canon of scripture, the Mormon faith has been easily grasped and performed by all, particularly eighteen-year old young men readying themselves for missionary service. At the same time, there is no reason new stories of this event cannot be told in more historically accurate ways, ones that generate broader discussion—not just about finding meaning in suffering, but about avoiding unnecessary suffering altogether.


The Truth of Untrue Storytelling in Mormonism — 26 Comments

  1. I’d like to discuss one aspect of the article; the benign nature of untrue stories. I feel like false stories and rewritten histories become a serious problem when policy and belief are founded upon those falsehoods. One example is the relationship between the priesthood and the church. Early on in our history it was understood that the church depended on the priesthood, like the body depends on the spirit to animate and bring life to it; that priesthood was separate and independent. Now however, that doctrine has changed to make priesthood power and authority depending on good standing in the church. This changes policy on ordinances, disciplinary action, etc.

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  3. Another Correlation failure, showing that whatever Correlation does it is not checking for accuracy or avoiding negative fallout from misleading statements in manuals. Or perhaps whoever drafted the lesson actually had the Orton account in an earlier draft, which Correlation then removed in favor of the traditional account? It sure would be nice to know what they think their job is.

  4. Maybe the problem isn’t with the “accuracy” of Church accounts.

    Maybe the problem is that we in a rather imagination-poor society, among a generation largely lobotomized on a diet of the flickering lights. A society that can look at a great story and do nothing but nitpick about trivial rubbish that never mattered in the slightest – as a defense mechanism against the painful process of having our emotions jump-started again.

  5. This pretty much creates a Baudrillardian nightmare of epic proportions. We don’t have a history anymore but a variety of simulacra that give the false sense of being history but are really just homiletic devices. Even more worrisome is that Konden even used a simulacrum as an example of helping people to justify suffering!

    The analogy with Buddhist accounts is puzzling and I‘m not sure how it supports the thesis reaffirmed at the end. Is there a connection between the exegesis Pali and Sanskrit Buddhist scriptures from over a millennia ago and how a corporate structure (whom knows better) utilizes a (for the most part) fictitious account from less than 200 years ago? And how about that pragmatic utility as a measure for truth tacked on at the end? It is true because motivates and uplifts folk?

    This is a worrisome post for me, I can’t tell if this is a shallow gloss on some kind of Levi-Strauss notion of bricolage in myth or an apology for bad historical revisionism. I feel a lot more is needed from the author.

  6. Patrick, I think you missed my point. I am hardly an apologist for bad historical revisionism. I was speaking about what Mormons do in their collective memories and juxtaposed that with the dangers involved in such collective amnesia. The picture I posted with this helps pull out some of the irony of what we allow ourselves to remember while there are obvious contradictions. My point is two-fold: 1) It is helpful to understand religion by looking at how they tell stories (this gets at the heart of their “truth”); 2) we should not just tell stories to reassure ourselves of our own bad history, but to challenge it. To allow stories to contradict our very memories. To allow a more accurate history to disorient us. In other words, I was making a subtle critique of Mormon storytelling, while at the same time recognizing the potency of how religions tell stories.

    Chris, regarding the Book of Mormon musical as part of the Canon, I agree. It’s brilliant story telling. And according to my thesis here, it’s absolutely a “true” story.

  7. Patrick, I think you missed my point. I am hardly an apologist for bad historical revisionism. I was speaking about what Mormons do in their collective memories and juxtaposed that with the dangers involved in such collective amnesia. The picture I posted with this helps pull out some of the irony of what we allow ourselves to remember while there are obvious contradictions. My point is two-fold: 1) It is helpful to understand religion by looking at how they tell stories (this gets at the heart of their “truth”); 2) we should not just tell stories to reassure ourselves of our own bad history, but to look closer at history so as to challenge that which makes us comfortable. In this case, to cause a little introspection into what allows one to turn such a terrible tale of fanaticism, failure and unnecessary suffering into that of proud heroics. I’m advocating for Mormons to allow this more accurate history to disorient the traditional narrative. To get people to recognize that bad story telling can cause real harm. In other words, I was making a subtle critique of Mormon storytelling, while at the same time recognizing the potency of how religions tell stories and recognizing that this is something religion does.

    Chris, regarding the Book of Mormon musical as part of the Canon, I agree. It’s brilliant story telling. And according to my thesis here, it’s absolutely a “true” story.

  8. Hi Konden,

    I’m almost certain I’ve missed the point of your post, which is why I was compelled to comment. I’m pretty sure you did not intend any of the ideas I attributed to your post, but I can’t help but come away with them. I appreciate the follow up and I think it helps a great deal in helping me understand you.

    In regards to your two points I find #1 isn’t getting across because you don’t quite make the mechanic of you analyze stories and extract the truth from them and when/where it is appropriate to do so. That sort of happens behind a curtain and leaves the impression that you can imply something important from the religion from the story’s apparent function.

    I’m onboard with what you are striving to do here, but something is getting garbled. I’d point to Seth R’s post above my own as an indication that I’m not the only one this is lost on.

  9. First off, The “story”, related to me in a church history class at BYU, of Brigham Young, halting conference mid day, dismissing with the rest of General Conference for that day, with the alarming news of the Martin Handcart company. Meetings and prayer will not do, when meat and potatoes are what’s needed. In that moment, that “story” rocketed Brigham Young, from one of my favorite Mormons to the greatest prophet, of this dispensation, because it got it! He was a practical prophet, no questionable translations, peepstoning or excuses why he can’t translate the same thing the same way twice in a row. This was a prophet I could trust in 100%, no relying on stories visitations in the woods or along the river bed, this guy acted like he knew the the right thing to do without having to pray about it first! My testimony that the will of the Lord was with the Brigham-ites not the Joseph-ites, despite that he had not added cannon fodder.

    Then later I learn “the rest of the STORY”, i.e. the real truth. Brigham had known about the snowbound saints, for some time and used dramatic license at the start of the afternoon session of general conference.

    I have relatives in the rescue parties as does the GGGGrand ancestor of my children. (read X-wife’s side)

    But the nail in the coffin was when I learned from a true historian, Will Bagley, of the rescue mission at the same time, of a steam engine, for commercial gain, was stranded in the same storm, and Brigham Young diverted rescue party, supplies, horses, wagons and men, to bring a large piece of metal out of the storm. Which was only partially used for about a year and then rusted away in a barn until torn apart for scrap metal.

    The higher one is placed on a pedestal, whose base is filled with fiction, missing data points, and faith promoting distortion, the farther the fall from hero worship to despot.

    Men risked their lives to save stranded saints, and you, Brother Brigham risked lives to save scrap metal.

    When push comes to shove and pull comes to lever, it is all about the money.

    2nd I realize that you are trying to introduce a this topic when you write:

    “People tell stories, and historical accuracy has rarely been an essential component of conveying a true story. … A story might be historically false, but it can still be very true.”

    Well you either need to redefine the word “story” or redefine “truth”.

    This was painful to read.

    It would make more sense if you wrote:

    “When People tell tall tells, historical accuracy has rarely been an essential component of conveying a entertaining story. … A ‘historical’ novel might be historically false, but that fiction can still be very ring true to one’s emotions even if the facts cause cognitive dissonance.”

    Do you not think that Warren Jeff, has spun many a “true story”, of angles and promptings of the spirit that warmed the hearts of gullible young women.

    Do you not also think that around the campfires in Afghanistan, Al Qaeda faithful, have repeated “stories” laces with “truth” that has inspired young 18 year old boys to hold strong to their faith and their belief that they are the only chosen of God?

    You cannot advocate the ends justify the means, for OUR religion, or you have no response when Al Qaeda, the FLDS or Holocaust deniers do the same!

    Is there possibly a better way I could drive my point home?

    These words come to mind!

    “Oh say, what is truth? ’Tis the fairest gem
    That the riches of worlds can produce”

    “Yes, say, what is truth? ’Tis the brightest prize
    To which mortals or Gods can aspire”

    Then the final verse:

    4. “Then say, what is truth? ’Tis the last and the first,
    For the limits of time it steps o’er.

    Tho the heavens depart and the earth’s fountains burst,
    Truth, the sum of existence, will weather the worst,

    Eternal, unchanged, evermore.”

    Text: John Jaques, 1827–1900

    Music: Ellen Knowles Melling, 1820–1905

    Imagine my shock, surprise and Yea, even delight, when I see who penned those words !!!

    Be better than a common Mormon, Mr. Smith, admit you misstated, and re-write your introduction and retract any hint that faith promoting fiction, has any redeeming value.

    Oh say what is Truth!!!

    “But the pillar of truth will endure to the last,
    And its firm-rooted bulwarks outstand the rude blast”,

    …. of the internet’s cast.

    Perry L. Porter

  10. Why cant the claases in sunday school just tell everyone honestly about the differant accounts of joseph smiths visions that he had.the visuon account that is in joseph smiths handwriting when the lord only appeared to him at sge 16 this should be taught in the class and also brought up to investigators. Investigators are not ignorant of lds church history these days especially with the progress of the internet

  11. Thank you for a thought-provoking post, Konden. I am intrigued by the problems involved in the tension between accurate history and communal story-telling. Mormonism is a religion that is rich in stories, and it seems like this tendency has weakened a little over the past few decades. I sense more hesitance to tell stories of a certain kind because they will be dismissed as “faith-promoting rumors.” Folklorists must lament that kind of self-editing.

    At the end of the day, though, I find myself to be more sympathetic to those who dislike the inaccurate retelling of history in Church publications. It is simply the case that we have a higher standard for what constitutes history than our forebears did. The LDS Church does not get a pass on clinging to an outmoded understanding of history “just because.” I am fine with faithful story-telling, but let’s not call it “Church History” either in our manuals or our class discussions. And, in some cases, I think it would be best to stop miseducating people on certain subjects altogether.

    For example, let’s stop promulgating mistaken ideas about the purpose behind polygamy. “Taking care of widows” had very little to do with it. Lucy Harris was not opposed to the Book of Mormon simply because she was a shrew or because she was a wicked person. William Marsh did not leave the LDS Church over dairy skimmings. Sarah Pratt was not a woman of poor character. William Law was not responsible for the assassination of Joseph Smith, Jr. To perpetuate these falsehoods reflects poorly on the community character. And, make no mistake, what I am saying is not the people are bad for ignorantly repeating such falsehoods; I am rather saying that others will judge the community, and do judge the community, for perpetuating these falsehoods.

    Furthermore, the victims of the falsehoods do not deserve to be so maligned.

    Let us rather give appropriate praise and criticism based on something that more closely approximates the best reading of all the evidence. Let us praise those who rescued the handcart company for what they actually accomplished. Isn’t it sufficiently amazing and inspiring as it is? For better or worse, and I say better, we do not view the 19th century with the same rosy lens that we view the time of Jesus. We know too much, and we are too close to the actors. We own this past in a way that we don’t really own the deep past in an era when even the writing of history had quite different standards and expectations informing and influencing its readership.

    I think I understand what you are getting at. At the same time, it seems to me that much more has to be invested in exploring this problem. Nevertheless, I am happy that you got me thinking.

  12. I also feel that their should be a specific class in sunday school called gospel doctrine trilogy which would specialize on church doctrines of the,past and,present. Explanations of the Adam God doctrine sermon by brigham young page 150 of journal of discourses should be discussed at lenghth to the,degree of how tgis doxtrine is related or not related to the,church and the, should honestly discussed as to why spencer w kimball considers it false doctrine today and not yesterday since it was a sermon or yet a problematic anomaly.

  13. The history of joseph smith being a mason should also be honestlg discussed as their is church history that proves joseph smith was a mason. Although the church teaches that the,temple is the house of the lord and is sacred and not secret i cant help but to say to outsiders of the lds church and some newly conveets in the,church it does seem like secrecy because the temple ceremonies were changed after 1990.this seem s bit disturbing to members and non members. Now adays the temple ceremonies can be easily found on the internet and books such as whats going on their by chuck sackett a ex mormon temple patron publishes the temple ceremonies which a lot of non members and members would have questions about which are puzzleing to them such as the handshakes and tokens that are related to the masonry handshakes and tokens related to the masons
    These things should also be honestly discussed in class among members and non members.

  14. The king folliet discourse by joseph smith should be discussed at lenghth in the church classes and how it contradicts the scriptures in the eyes of the,cheistian world that is generally monotheistic not henotheistic or polytheistic. Joseph smith in his king folliet discourse said perhaps God the father of our lord jesus christ had a father also who dwelt on a earth
    ..then the discourse goes on to say in the very beginning of the sermon how God came to be God!! To most cheistians this is absurb!! Theres onlg one God. In the ten commandments of God in exodous 20:3″you shall have no other gods before me” this neans no other idols graven images and other dieties exodous 34:14-17 there is only one God duet 6:4 there are no othergods isiah 43:10-11 miss apply psalms 82:6 and 1 cor 8:4-6out

  15. Lds missaply out of context psalms 82:6 and 1 cor 8:4-6 and rev 1:5 to mean there are other gods.psalms 82 to read the whole chapter 82 in context it is talkung about gods that die as mortal men in 1 cor 8:4-6 the apostle paul is referring to false goda the heathen gods.God the father did not have a father otherwise thats pilytheism not to mention lds theology does teach in a heavenly mother read bruce r mcckonkies mormon doctrine.joseph smith was correct when he said elohim is plural bur he went too far to the extreme of saying that God has a father.God has always been God from everlasting psalms 90:2.

  16. I also think that polygamy should be presented as it is not white washed ans not modified in manuals. Just tell the history honestly as it is of joseph smith and brigham young having many wives. Whats so embarrassing about discussing honestly the history and heritage of plural marriage? I find it very interesting besides people who seem to be shocked at church hustory of plural marruage shoulnt react so negativelg when plural marriage can be found in the old testament

  17. Trevor, I absolutely agree with your sentiments. I think there still awaits much ground to be covered on this issue.

  18. I think Joshua hit the nail on the head @1.

    It’s one thing to have stories that contain Truth even if they did not (or maybe did not) literally occur the way the story says. I tend to agree with Seth R that the attitude that stories must be true to be True is evidence of a modernist lack of imagination.

    But when we talk about Mormon narratives, we are not just talking about myths that express Truth, bind groups with collective identity or transmit culture. We’re talking about an organization that makes specific claims about objective truth and asks for conversion, tremendous commitment and deep personal sacrifice based on those claims.

    I think it’s easy for someone who grew up Mormon to think of Mormonism like an ethnicity bound by collective identity, like Judaism, because they’ve grown up as insiders and see it with only insider’s eyes.

  19. That was a fantastic piece Konden. You nailed something I’ve been trying to articulate to my friends and family for a long time. Thank you.

  20. Sigh. I must be an anomele. I just want the truth and may I please ask it to be accurate as possible truth? I want to know that JS translated with a peep stone he also used to find buried treasure back when he was a young charlaton. I dont want to be told a whitewashed version of the story simply because Packer and Oaks purport that “some [historical] things, while true, arent very useful”. Whitewashing history is the same as distorting it. That is evil and inappropriate… way I see it.

  21. I must add: to find out about the warty historicals on my own… which contradicted so many things I had been taught in the whitewashed mormon history….ugh!!! It just killed me. Why cover it all up? How did they think we wouldnt eventually find it out? It just makes them look so manipulative and philosopher-king-esque. Barf! If salvation through mormonism is what really matters…. dont they see that a significant number of truth seeking souls are being turned off to mormonism by their blatant and evil dishonesty?

  22. Thanks Nate. Mross, there is a difference between moral/spiritual truths and historical truths. You can get at one while violating the other. Religions do this all the time (Garden of Eden, Red Sea parting, etc). The problem Mormonism has, is that it cannot seem to discern the difference between the two, thus leaving Mormons in either simplistic delusion or enlightened frustration. Neither seem good to me. My point in writing this was not to excuse dishonest storytelling, but to show that Mormons need to start telling better stories, ones that either look toward greater historical accuracy, or that are more honest about its lack of historical accuracy.

  23. Konden wrote: “…there is a difference between moral/spiritual truths and historical truths. You can get at one while violating the other.”

    Pretty much any behavior or distortion of truth can is a good thing if it leads towards the perceived “Greater Good”.

    I don’t think so. The premise of God or the greater good, is all about truth and light, not Public Relations BS.

    The path to an actual God is not paved with useful deception, and the purist aspiration of becoming an Goddess or God is to a conduit of pure truth, not a purveyor of Madison Avenue Correlation Committee Crap.

    This is really weak support of your argument:
    “Religions do this all the time (Garden of Eden, Red Sea parting, etc).”

    Religions also cover up child molesting within the rank and file as well as much higher up the chain. Religions do bad stuff all the time, that is hardly justification for dishonesty.

    Crazy stories like the Garden of Eden, Red Sea, (Tower of Babble, American Indians are genetically Jews) yada yada, if the high octane fuel that lights the way from Religion to Atheism.

    Let me start out by telling a big whopper of a LIE, followed by some important trusts, that are even bigger to swallow, such as Jews are my chosen people, except for that Hitler guy, he had me over a barrel. I sent my Son and he suffered all of the anguish and remorse that every person, living, dead, and future living, has ever felt, even what it feels like to be a rapist that later is in the Tabernacle Choir, for 30 years and a BYU Professor for 30 years, and Stake President, for 10+ years, and my heroic Son, knew what that long term guilt felt like, and he did so in record time of a few hours.

    You are SO wrong and at the same time SO right!

    So wrong that the end justifies the means, and so right, that human nature stand by and support your vile means, of building the kingdom.