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Some Things I Believe, and Why

Four important things have been at the center of my adult life: my family, my church, the study of history, and, after I began my teaching career, the well-being (both academic and spiritual) of my students. I hope I have balanced my activities well enough to have made a positive and befitting contribution to each.

As a historian and a teacher, academics have been a major element of my career. I love the intellectual stimulation and challenges of the world of academia, though in many ways that world is quite different from the world of religion and spirituality. In academia one is taught (and teaches others) to study various points of view, question assumptions, challenge old ideas, and always look for new insights into whatever one is studying. However, this kind of activity can challenge one’s religious belief, and makes some people wonder (often with good reason) about the faith of academics. That is why I begin my contribution to the “Mormon Scholars Testify” website by stating as clearly as I can my own unequivocal testimony that this Church to which I have devoted my life is, indeed, the true Church of Jesus Christ, that Joseph Smith and his successors were and are true prophets of God, that the Book of Mormon is exactly what it claims to be and, most importantly, that Jesus is truly the Christ, the Son of God, my Savior, and the Redeemer of the World.

That said, the challenge of writing this essay caused me to consider again, as I have many times before, why I have such a testimony—what people, influences, or experiences have helped me maintain that faith in the face of all the questions that are inevitably raised as someone like me gets deeply involved in the study of Church history and, therefore, in the personal lives of those who walk across the pages of that history? Frankly, I am grateful for the opportunity to think through that question again.

Maybe I had some great Sunday School teachers when I was young, but either because of them or because of someone else I grew up imbued with the belief that my church is led by inspired prophets of God who, at the same time, are men, and therefore are not perfect. It was somehow drilled into my psyche that God works through men (and women) despite their weaknesses, and that we will be disappointed if we expect perfection. Our prophets and other church leaders have been, and are, great people, chosen in part for their faith, integrity, goodness, and openness to the prompting of the Spirit. They are recipients of divine revelation and purveyors of God’s will. The fact that they are not infallible, and, at times, have been known to make mistakes, should not diminish our reverence for them as prophets or our commitment to the truths they teach. That was the attitude I grew up with, and even though that testimony has been challenged from time to time I am grateful that somehow I maintained the ability not to “jump ship” whenever a new challenge appeared. The simple things of the gospel were so clear and satisfying, the Spirit continued to bear witness so abundantly, and the work of the Church seemed so important that it was not hard to cling to the fundamentals while holding the difficult and often unanswerable questions in abeyance as I considered the alternatives.

I mention all this because of one of the complaints from critics of the Church that bothers me most. They cannot accept Joseph Smith as a prophet, they say, because they have found some weakness in his character or some mistake in something he said or did. Or, they refuse to take the Church seriously because they have been disappointed in the actions of some other leader or some ordinary members. I suppose I was fortunate, for as a result of the way I grew up it was not difficult for me, after I began to study Church history more intensely, to look beyond their human nature and accept Joseph Smith, Brigham Young, and later Church leaders as prophets of God. Even though I found what I, at least, thought were a few human weaknesses, and found in some of the things they said some speculative ideas that were not necessarily Church doctrine, my reverence for them as Church leaders did not diminish. They were still remarkable, inspired men, the fundamentals they taught were still divinely given, Joseph Smith’s First Vision was still an absolute reality, the Book of Mormon was what it claimed to be, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints was still the only church with divine authority to administer the saving ordinances of the gospel of Christ and, as emphasized above, Jesus Christ (of whom the Book of Mormon and all the modern prophets testify) was the Son of God, the Redeemer of the world, and my personal Savior. Throughout my life these things have remained fundamental to me. I can honestly say, as Leonard Arrington so often did when he was Church Historian, that none of the historical documents I ever had access to gave me reason to doubt the authenticity of Joseph Smith’s First Vision, his other recorded visions and revelations, the Book of Mormon, or the divine mission of the Church itself.

This does not mean that my faith was never challenged, or that I never had questions—sometimes serious questions. Some had to do with science and religion or with various academic issues. They included such things as the age of the earth, evolution and the creation of man, the implications of higher criticism for the scriptures, how literally we should take some of the biblical stories that seem impossible (such as the sun standing still in Joshua 10:12-13), the Book of Mormon passages that seem near-exact parallels with biblical verses, and other matters often pointed out by critics. Of course I found both academic and religious, or spiritual, “answers” to all these concerns. They were often well documented and persuasively argued, no matter which side they took on the issue. I soon realized, however, that neither academia nor religion had all the answers and that, in fact, it is not necessary to have all the answers to all the questions in order to have faith in the integrity of the prophets and the fundamentals of the gospel. Perhaps this over-simplifies, but it was that attitude that helped me “roll with the punches” whenever I needed to.

And it was that attitude that I spent much of my time at BYU trying to help students understand. It was surprising to me how often students came with just those kinds of questions: “Why do I see Church leaders disagreeing with each other—I thought they were supposed to be unified?” “Why, in the Journal of Discourses, do I find (such and such) being taught, when it is not the doctrine of the Church?” “How do I reconcile what I am being taught in my biology classes with what I hear in Sunday School and some of my religion classes?” “How do I deal with higher criticism, which I am learning about in some of my classes, when I am reading the scriptures?” “What about (this–or-that embarrassing event in Church history) that I have never heard about? Why was I not told about it in my Sunday School or seminary classes?” Questions such as these went on, as students frequently came to my office asking them. Interestingly enough, my children sometimes had the same kinds of questions. I hope I helped them, at least in part, by trying to share the attitude I grew up with and which my own LDS institute of religion teachers enhanced while I was in college. It was, in summary: “Hold fast to the simple truths that are consistently taught in the Church and that the Spirit bears witness are true. Feel free to ask questions. In fact, be excited about the fact that an important part of the learning process is asking questions, but don’t let it bother you if you cannot find all the answers immediately—or ever, for that matter. As you study hard and gain in secular knowledge, don’t leave behind the continuing quest for spiritual knowledge and understanding. Conversely, even though it is important that you study the scriptures and other Church literature regularly, don’t pass up your great opportunities to also learn about the things of the world. The Lord once instructed Joseph Smith ‘to obtain a knowledge of history, and of countries, and of kingdoms, of laws of God and man, and all this for the salvation of Zion’ (D&C 93:53), and such advice applies equally to all of us. But above all, don’t be caught in the trap described by Nephi: ‘O the vainness, and the frailties, and the foolishness of men! When they are learned they think they are wise, and they hearken not unto the counsel of God, for they set it aside, supposing they know of themselves, wherefore, their wisdom is foolishness and it profiteth them not. . . . But to be learned is good if they hearken unto the counsels of God’ (2 Nephi 9:28-29). If you can retain your humility, not becoming someone who is just ‘wise in his own conceit’ (Proverbs 26:12), you can have the best of both worlds!”

However, my faith certainly does not rely solely on that kind of reasoning. More important, for me, has been my personal experience, which I also tried to share with my children and my students. I have never had a vision or seen a heavenly being, though on some special and private occasions I have felt, strongly and undeniably, the powerful influence of the Spirit—sometimes in helping me make decisions and other times simply giving me reassurances when I needed them. I have also witnessed a few miraculous occurrences, and have been told of others by people whose integrity I trust without question.

Beyond these things, however, the people of the Church inspire me. As I study and reflect on Church history, I am constantly inspired not just by the leaders but by the tens of thousands of ordinary Latter-day Saints (including some of my own ancestors) whose unshakeable testimonies of the truth of this work led them to sacrifice so much and endure such agonizing hardship and suffering for the sake of what they believed. Equally important, I am constantly uplifted by the sweet spirit reflected (and which I can feel) in the lives of the many contemporary Latter-day Saints who devote so much of their time to the service of others. These include not just the tireless ward and stake leaders, who so willingly put untold hours into their important callings, but also the many “ordinary” Saints who have learned so well King Benjamin’s teaching “that when ye are in the service of your fellow beings ye are only in the service of your God” (Mosiah 2:17). In addition, since January 2004 my wife and I have been privileged to work as officiators in the Mt. Timpanogos Temple. I cannot overemphasize the powerful spirit I feel as I associate with the hundreds of people who come to the temple during our shift each Friday night, hear of some of their remarkable experiences, literally feel their testimonies and love of the Savior, and sense their commitment to everything the temple stands for. All this and more only serves to strengthen my own testimony and commitment. It is nothing that can be “proven” in an “objective” or academic way, but it is all part of the testimony of the Spirit that I, for one, cannot deny.

Finally, my faith is only enhanced as I read the Book of Mormon. Yes, I have considered all the problems—all the questions and difficulties raised by those who would deny its authenticity. I have even written responses to some of their charges. But at least three things make it undeniably true to me. One is the remarkable complexity of the book. Flash-backs, stories-within-stories, important threads that run throughout the book, persistent references to earlier ideas and events, and other complexities: all these are handled so smoothly and consistently that it seems impossible to me that the relatively uneducated Joseph Smith could have made it all up and dictated it all so readily, and without hesitation, in just over two months time. Secondly, as I read the book I find so many passages that contain such powerful messages and inspiring ideas that I can’t believe that they were created by a meagerly educated and fraudulent mind. And lastly, the overriding message of the Book of Mormon concerning Jesus Christ and his divinity is awe-inspiring to me. It not only enhances my understanding and appreciation of Christ himself but also bears added witness to me that the Book of Mormon itself is true.

As I said at the outset, four important things have been at the center of my adult life: my family, my church, the study of history, and a concern for the well-being (both academic and spiritual) of my students. I hope the attitudes expressed here have “rubbed off” onto my family, my students, and any others with whom I have discussed these things over the years. I also hope that this essay, along with all the others in “Mormon Scholars Testify,” will help with whatever questions readers may have about what Mormon scholars really think.

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James B. Allen is Lemuel Hardison Redd Jr. Professor of Western American History, Emeritus, at Brigham Young University and was, until recently, a Senior Research Fellow at the Joseph Fielding Smith Institute for Latter-day Saint History at BYU.

Professor Allen was born in 1927, in Ogden, Utah, and married Renée Jones in 1953. They have five children, twenty grandchildren and five great-grandchildren. He received a bachelor’s degree in history from Utah State University in 1954; a master’s degree from Brigham Young University in 1956, and a Ph.D. in history from the University of Southern California in 1963.

He has been active in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints all of his life, and has served in numerous positions, including tenures as bishop of two BYU wards and as a member of five different BYU high councils. In 1999-2000, he and Renée served as missionaries at the Boston Institute of Religion. He has also been active in the Republican Party, and once served as a delegate to the state convention.

In his professional career, he taught in the LDS Seminary and Institute program from 1954-63, after which he was a member of the faculty at Brigham Young University until his retirement in 1992. From 1972 to 1979, he also served as Assistant Church Historian (splitting his time between BYU and the Church Historical Department). He chaired the History Department from 1981-1987, and then, during his last five years at BYU, held the Lemuel Hardison Redd Jr. Chair in Western American History. After his retirement, he became associated with the Joseph Fielding Smith Institute for Latter-day Saint History at BYU, where for several years he held an appointment as a Senior Research Fellow.

He has also been active in various professional organizations, including the Western History Association (for which he served on various committees, and as chair of a program committee) and the Mormon History Association (of which he served as the president, 1971-1973). He has been on various boards of editors and advisory committees, and has presented numerous papers at the meetings of various historical associations

As a researcher and writer, he is the author, co-author, or co-editor of fourteen books or monographs and around ninety articles relating to Western American history and Mormon history, as well as numerous book reviews in professional journals. Among his books are the following:

  • The Company Town in the American West (University of Oklahoma Press, 1966)
  • The Story of the Latter-day Saints (with Glen M. Leonard; Deseret Book Company, 1976; 2nd edition, 1992)
  • Trials of Discipleship: The Story of William Clayton, a Mormon (University of Illinois Press, 1987). Revised and republished in 2002 by BYU Press under the title No Toil Nor Labor Fear: The Story of William Clayton. In 1986, while still in press, this book won the prestigious David Woolley Evans and Beatrice Cannon Evans Biography Award.
  • Men With a Mission: The Quorum of the Twelve Apostles in the British Isles, 1837-1841 (with Ronald K. Esplin and David J. Whittaker, Deseret Book Company, 1992)
  • Studies in Mormon History 1830-1997: An Indexed Bibliography (with Ronald W. Walker and David J. Whittaker; University of Illinois Press, 2000). This important work lists, and provides an index to, all the significant books, articles, doctoral dissertations, and master’s theses on Mormon history produced between 1830 and 1997. It has been widely hailed as one of the most important aids to finding LDS history ever published. In 2001 the Mormon History Association awarded Drs. Allen, Walker, and Whittaker a special citation for the publication of this book. Since then, working with J. Michael Hunter, Professor Allen has continuously updated the bibliography database, which is now online at mormonhistory.byu.edu.
  • Mormon History (with Ronald W. Walker and David J. Whittaker, University of Illinois Press, 2001). This book is a history of the writing of Mormon history, from the days of Joseph Smith until the present time.

Over the years Professor Allen has received various awards, honors, and recognitions, besides those indicated above. Among them were several “best article” awards; the Karl G. Maeser Research and Creative Arts Award, Brigham Young University, 1980; the Distinguished Faculty Lectureship, Brigham Young University, 1984; and being named a Fellow of the Utah State Historical Society, on 15 July 1988.

Posted October 2010