Wednesday, July 15, 2020

Books to read - Ronald Barney

People ask me what books I read, so I'm going to mention a few. These will be brief observations, not full book reviews.

Today's book is by Ronald O. Barney, titled Joseph Smith: History, Methods & Memory.

This is a terrific book. As the title suggests, Barney discusses the methodology of history, exploring the challenges of relying on memory to figure out what has happened in the past. He provides an insightful overview of the historical context of Joseph Smith's life, reviews the evidence for Joseph's foundational experiences, and discusses Joseph as a man and a prophet.

Barney writes from a faithful perspective with refreshing candor. He summarizes the book's purpose in the Introduction here.

"This work is an attempt to reemphasize the techniques refined for generations by the historical community that may help readers of the Mormon past to better negotiate the conflicted historical record.... the issues addressed are so fundamental that despite the use from time to time of academic dialogue, all interested in Joseph Smith should recognize the necessity of treating the primary themes in a manner other than simply devotional or critical formulations."

I have made dozens of notes in the margins of this book that I refer to as I finish my current projects. Barney's book is a very useful tool for self-assessment of my writing about Church history. 

As readers here know, I have a different take on several aspects of Church history than what we read in the predominant critical and apologetic materials. I disagree with some of the assertions made in the editorial portions of the Joseph Smith Papers, which in some cases reflect an overly enthusiastic desire to change long-held beliefs, but I welcome the approach of re-evaluating traditions in light of new evidence. 

Barney writes, "Inevitably, in this generations' access to material regarding JS and early Mormonism discussed in this work, a transformation of thinking will be required due to traditions previously based on limited understanding. And, it is probably the case that in the future new insights, if not new documentation, will amend the scope of what we present think we know about the prophet."

That is a critical reminder that just when we think we know it all, we discover we maybe don't know as much as we did. My note in the margin here is simple: "Transformation of thinking--but it assumes BY et al did not have this info." 

That's a reminder to me that, as Barney also points out, some of the material we think of as essential may have never been recorded at all. Much of what was taught by Brigham Young and his associates who knew Joseph personally could have been what Joseph himself taught them, even though we don't have a specific record of those teachings. Actually, "could have been" is a misnomer. I think it's fair to say that BY and his associates certainly knew more about what Joseph taught than the record shows.  

For those interested in Church history and analysis of historical sources, Barney's book is the best I've seen so far at explaining the strengths and weaknesses of both the sources and the methodology of interpreting those sources.

The cover explains that Barney served for 34 years as an archivist and historian in the History Department in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. He is a former associate editor of the Joseph Smith Papers and creator and executive producer of the Joseph Smith Papers documentary television series.

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