This will be a short series on the important book Real vs. Rumor by Keith A. Erekson. His website is here:
Erekson does an exceptional job discussing the issues presented by historical research. But in some specific instances, he doesn't follow his own advice, as we'll see. It's quite surprising to see these instances, so we'll discuss them in some depth.
Part 1 is an excerpt from an interview about the book.
Sarah Jane Weaver: Well, from the earliest days that I had the opportunity to interact with you, you have been promoting this idea that we should be telling accurate and better stories. Why is it so important that our history and the retelling of history be accurate?
Keith A. Erekson: Well, I think there are several levels where accuracy matters. At the most basic level, we want to get the story right and we want to be true to the people who lived it. It was their experience, so we don’t want to distort their experience or turn it into something that it wasn’t.
But I think for Latter-day Saints in particular, history is so much a part of our worship in our devotions. We sing hymns about the history of the Church, we study the history of the Church, texts from our history have become part of our scripture, and so we’re using these texts and using our history as ways to learn about God. And so, in that context, having an accurate understanding of history and God’s dealings with people helps us have an accurate understanding of God.
Sarah Jane Weaver: Well, it is true that our scriptures, including the Book of Mormon, are actually history books.
Keith A. Erekson: They are. They’re full of stories. They’re full of what historians today call primary sources or texts. There are letters in the scriptures, there are sermons in the scriptures, all these kinds of records that have been carried down to us for our edification.
Sarah Jane Weaver: And tell us what happens when we promote stories that aren’t true or that aren’t entirely true.
Keith A. Erekson: A couple of things happen when we tell those kinds of stories, and some of the most damaging results are for the hearers. If we continually tell stories that are partially true or left out significant detail, or left out whole groups of people entirely — the challenge is when lots of things are left out, people fail to see themselves in history. They fail to see the connections, and they fail to see — for example, if we’re trying to learn how God blesses people, how God protects people, how God watches over people, but you never see anyone in the story that looks like you, then you start to wonder: “Well, does God protect me? I see God protects those other people in the story. But what about people like me?”
I think it also can be harmful if people then later learn: “Oh, there are parts of the story that they left out. Well, why did they do that?” Sometimes it can lead to feeling betrayed, or even singled out: “Well, why would they leave out my kind of people if my people were in the story?” And by my kind of people, we can mean all kinds of things. This could be from the nation that you live. Many stories from Church history leave out women — half of the Church’s population, or more, and so we have to be better at telling the complete and accurate stories.