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Good Thinking | 

Episode 4

Learning to Think Like a Historian

58 min

How can we know what actually happened in the past? Whose stories are true? Piecing together accurate history can be tricky business. People in the past, like people today, were diverse. Some were honest; some were not. Some were straight-shooting truth tellers who gave honest, though subjective, accounts of what happened. Others emphasized or omitted specific details in ways that would serve their particular agenda. And others just lied. So how should we think about and evaluate the reliability of historical claims and assertions to discern what is historically accurate from what is mistaken or misleading? In this episode of Church History Matters, we dig into the basic toolbox that trained historians use in their efforts to be source critical. And being source critical essentially means caring about where our information is coming from and being honest about what that information can and cannot tell us. It means we recognize that not all historical claims are created equal, and so we aim to use only the best data to inform our understanding of the past. And while we cannot always protect ourselves from deception, developing the skill of being source critical will greatly reduce the odds that we will be misled. So, in short, today is our crash course in learning how to think like a trained historian.

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Scott Woodward:
How can we know what actually happened in the past? Whose stories are true? Piecing together accurate history can be tricky business. People in the past, like people today, were diverse. Some were honest; some were not. Some were straight-shooting truth tellers who gave honest, though subjective, accounts of what happened. Others emphasized or omitted specific details in ways that would serve their particular agenda. And others just lied. So how should we think about and evaluate the reliability of historical claims and assertions to discern what is historically accurate from what is mistaken or misleading? In today’s episode of Church History Matters, we dig into the basic toolbox that trained historians use in their efforts to be source critical. And being source critical essentially means caring about where our information is coming from and being honest about what that information can and cannot tell us. It means we recognize that not all historical claims are created equal, and so we aim to use only the best data to inform our understanding of the past. And while we cannot always protect ourselves from deception, developing the skill of being source critical will greatly reduce the odds that we will be misled. So, in short, today is our crash course in learning how to think like a trained historian. I’m Scott Woodward, and my co-host is Casey Griffiths, and today we dive into our fourth episode of this series dealing with truth seeking and good thinking Now, let’s get into it. Casey, Casey, Casey.

Casey Paul Griffiths:
Hey, Scott. How’s it going?

Scott Woodward:
Good, man. How are you?

Casey Paul Griffiths:
Good! I have been taking some of the things we’ve been talking about out for a test drive.

Scott Woodward:
Oh.

Casey Paul Griffiths:
Using some of those models that you came up with and really enjoying them, so.

Scott Woodward:
Well, I want to know how you’re taking these out for a test drive. That’s exciting. What have you been doing?

Casey Paul Griffiths:
Presenting.

Scott Woodward:
Oh, okay.

Casey Paul Griffiths:
Arguing with people.

Scott Woodward:
Ha ha ha.

Casey Paul Griffiths:
Most of the principles I knew, but you have a great way of simplifying and making things a little bit more approachable.

Scott Woodward:
I am a simple man.

Casey Paul Griffiths:
And I as well.

Scott Woodward:
Ha ha. Well, good.

Casey Paul Griffiths:
What are we going to talk about today? What’s today’s subject?

Scott Woodward:
Let’s recap what we’re up to. This is our epistemology series, right? We haven’t decided exactly what to call it, but it’s a series about epistemology. What do we know? How do we know it? In fact, our burning question of this series has been, “What are some of the mental moves that are made by intelligent, critically thinking Latter-day Saints whose faith is strengthened rather than damaged by diving deeply into our church’s history and doctrine?” Right? What frameworks of thinking do they use when approaching scripture and history? And we set up a lot of key terms in our first episode, and then in our second episode we introduced a three-lens paradigm about how to evaluate theological or doctrinal claims. Those three lenses are Scripture, Modern Prophets, and the Spirit. Our questions were, “Is it consistently taught in scriptures?” That’s the most important question when it comes to doctrine. “Is it consistently taught by modern prophets?” And “Does the Spirit confirm its truthfulness?” And then in our third episode, last time, we took some time to drill on this doctrinal method by actually evaluating several specific doctrinal claims together. And that was fun. Had a good time. What did we call it?

Casey Paul Griffiths:
Doctrinal Pickleball.

Scott Woodward:
That’s right. Doctrinal Pickleball.

Casey Paul Griffiths:
And I don’t know who won. I think it was actually doubles tennis. It was you and I playing against the world or something like that. Because we weren’t in opposition.

Scott Woodward:
That’s true.

Casey Paul Griffiths:
I remember you serving me some good serves and hitting them back and forth.

Scott Woodward:
It was a collaborative, friendly back-and-forth, that’s right.

Casey Paul Griffiths:
Yeah, we’re running out of metaphors to describe what we did, but you get the idea.

Scott Woodward:
Yeah. So that’s good. So that was our efforts to talk about doctrine and how to approach scripture and how to try to come to a high level of confidence relative to doctrinal claims.

Casey Paul Griffiths:
Mm-hmm.

Scott Woodward:
Now, today, transition from doctrine toward history, right? So today’s question is going to be in that same vein, but this time about history, is, “How can we recognize reliable historical claims from less reliable historical claims?” Casey, I think we are blessed to have you. You actually have a degree in history, correct?

Casey Paul Griffiths:
Correct, yes. I like history, and I learn a lot from history, and as a Latter-day Saint, I feel like one of the skills you should have in your toolbox of truth is knowing good history from bad history. And let me just add, when I say this, too, there is bad history that is opposed to the church, that’s critical to the church, and there is bad history that is favorable to the church.

Scott Woodward:
Right. Right.

Casey Paul Griffiths:
There’s some bad history out there that’s very faith-promoting, but it’s sort of a sandy foundation to build on if it’s not done soundly. So the most responsible historians I know, if they’re people of faith, also are willing to call out a story that’s bad history, even if it is faith-promoting. And we’re going to try and help you figure out how to do that today.

Scott Woodward:
Excellent.

Casey Paul Griffiths:
Just a couple things about, hey, here’s some questions historians ask when they’re determining the reliability of a historical account.

Scott Woodward:
Let me start with a little quiz question for our listeners, okay? Casey, you can’t answer this. Alright, here’s the question. Who would be the best source for learning reliable history? A. Your smart uncle, B. Prophets and apostles, C. A guy with a blog, or D. Trained historians.

Casey Paul Griffiths:
I mean, I’m going to do what I think any college freshman would do, and immediately eliminate your smart uncle. Because I have a very smart uncle—hey, Uncle Kevin, shout out to you—but I think he’s wise enough to say he’s not a trained historian. He is a trained chemist. I go to him for my chemistry questions.

Scott Woodward:
Oh, interesting.

Casey Paul Griffiths:
I’d also eliminate a guy with a blog, because one of the wonderful things about the internet is anybody, anywhere can say anything on any subject they want to, and one of the bad things about the internet is anybody, anywhere can say anything about any subject they want to, and it’s not always great information.

Scott Woodward:
Right.

Casey Paul Griffiths:
The internet has opened up this flood. It’s not always good information, but it’s there, and so we’ve got to be better consumers. So I’m going to eliminate those two right off the bat. And, and pitch it back to you, Scott, because now your only options are prophets or apostles.

Scott Woodward:
Oh.

Casey Paul Griffiths:
Or trained historians.

Scott Woodward:
Ah, shoot.

Casey Paul Griffiths:
What do you think is the most reliable source when it comes to history?

Scott Woodward:
Well, yeah, this is fun. I’m reminded of a statement from Elder Ballard. This was actually in a devotional he gave at BYU where he let students ask him questions. It was a Q&A, kind of unique format with Elder Ballard—he doesn’t typically do that—but he was kind of setting it up and trying to manage expectations of the audience when he said, I’m a general authority, but that doesn’t make me an authority in general, he said. He said, sometimes church members have unrealistic expectations of prophets and apostles, expecting us to be experts in all fields, history, theology, science, everything. And then he said this. Let me quote him directly. He said, “If you have a question that requires an expert, please take the time to find a thoughtful and qualified expert to help you. There are many on this campus,” referring to BYU, “and elsewhere, who have the degrees and expertise to respond and give some insight to most of these types of questions.” And then he says, “This is exactly what I do when I need an answer to my own questions that I cannot answer myself.” And so this was a, I think, a humble and perfect move from Elder Ballard and instructive for all of us to say, listen, if it’s a kind of a question that requires an expert, let’s reach out to an expert. So who would be the best source for finding reliable history? With Elder Ballard’s backing there, that would be a trained historian.

Casey Paul Griffiths:
Correct.

Scott Woodward:
Trained historians are the best.

Casey Paul Griffiths:
Some of our prophets and apostles have been trained historians.

Scott Woodward:
Ah, yes.

Casey Paul Griffiths:
And they were awesome. Wilford Woodruff, excellent historian. B. H. Roberts, who is kind of the patron saint of Latter-day Saint historians and intellectuals. Excellent historian. He was also a member of the First Council of the Seventy. But most of the prophets and apostles come from varying backgrounds. We walk down the First Presidency and the Twelve: You’ve got a heart surgeon, a Utah Supreme Court justice, and a commissioner of education, that’s the First Presidency right there. Most of them would say, we’re not trained historians. And sometimes they do. I have heard tell of apostles calling BYU and saying, hey, I’ve got a historical question. Tell me what you think. Or relying on the church history department, which has a number of excellent trained historians. Jed Woodworth. Matt Groh, Reed Nilsson—good, good, solid scholars that have done some good work in a number of different venues, and are the kind of experts I think Elder Ballard’s talking about here that you should reach out to.

Scott Woodward:
Yeah, excellent. And we’re blessed to have with us on this show today Casey Griffiths, who is also a trained historian. And so—

Casey Paul Griffiths:
You’re making me blush. And, and I’ll say this: Scott’s pretty good also. What’s your degree in? Instructional Design?

Scott Woodward:
You can’t say my degree and then laugh, Casey.

Casey Paul Griffiths:
Sorry.

Scott Woodward:
Jeez. Instructional psychology and technology, yes. It’s all about the science of learning, and I think it’s a broad umbrella, which includes learning history, but, yeah, we weren’t specifically trained in my PhD on historical questions, however. So I try to hang out with as many reliable historians as I can and read their stuff and glean from folks like you, but yeah, that’s not my degree, actually.

Casey Paul Griffiths:
The point is though behind Scott Woodward’s name there are three little letters: PhD.

Scott Woodward:
Oh, my word. So what we want to ask today, Casey, is how do trained historians think?

Casey Paul Griffiths:
OK.

Scott Woodward:
Like, not all members of the church can become trained historians, but maybe you could share with us today some of the basic thought patterns or some basic historical questions that historians ask to evaluate historical claims that maybe we could all use and even put to use, like, right away.

Casey Paul Griffiths:
Yeah. This is kind of a do-it-yourself historical methodology, right?

Scott Woodward:
Yeah, at least a good place to start if, like, you come across something online that’s making a historical claim, typically about some church history issue. So what’s a church member to do? What are some questions they can start to ask? What are some mental moves they can make in order to start evaluating immediately those historical claims?

Casey Paul Griffiths:
Very good. Yeah. And I bring up that DIY mindset because the other day my wife and I changed our garbage disposal. Neither one of us are plumbers, but we found a good video—

Scott Woodward:
See?

Casey Paul Griffiths:
—explaining it. Likewise, if you’re dealing with a historical question, these tools are going to be really useful. But if it’s a really difficult historical question, and I think we’ve tackled some of those on this program, consult with a trained historian. Go to somebody that knows the sources, knows them well, and knows these tools of historical methodology. But this is kind of your survival guide when it comes to understanding and knowing good history. Okay. A couple questions that we would ask about a historical account: Number one: How close is the source? How close is the source? So, in historical methodology, we would say a primary source is the best. Most of you are probably familiar with what this means, but a primary source is someone that’s there, someone that participated in the event itself and saw it happen.

Scott Woodward:
And they’re the ones actually telling the story.

Casey Paul Griffiths:
Yeah.

Scott Woodward:
They’re the ones claiming the thing. Okay.

Casey Paul Griffiths:
Yeah, they’re the ones that are there. July 9th, 1840, Joseph Smith rose from his sickbed and healed several dozen people on the banks of the Mississippi River. Wilford Woodruff was there. He saw it. He wrote it down in his journal. We’re going to take Wilford’s word over somebody who heard it from somebody else because Wilford was actually there. If that makes sense.

Scott Woodward:
Yeah.

Casey Paul Griffiths:
In Carthage Jail, we’re going to listen to Willard Richards and John Taylor, because they were there.

Scott Woodward:
Right.

Casey Paul Griffiths:
And that doesn’t mean that if it’s not firsthand, it’s not accurate. It can be. It’s just it tends to get less reliable the more people it has to be filtered through.

Scott Woodward:
Like that telephone game, right, where you whisper something into somebody’s ear, it goes from person to person, and at the end it usually comes out kind of funny, like, uh, Benedict Cumberpatch—no. Cumberbatch? What’s his name?

Casey Paul Griffiths:
Benedict Cumberbatch, yeah, Sherlock.

Scott Woodward:
Benedict Cumberbatch. And then the next person hears Benadryl Cabbagepatch, you know? And then it’s Bandicoot Thundersnatch, and then it’s Brenderdirk Crumblescrunch, and then it finally ends up being Peppermint Scooby Snack or something, right?

Casey Paul Griffiths:
Yeah.

Scott Woodward:
It can go from Benedict Cumberbatch to Peppermint Scooby Snacks real quick if we’re not careful.

Casey Paul Griffiths:
And we’ve got to be careful, because some history that really circulates a lot goes through this whole process where it gets filtered through person after person after person, and it’s very jarbled and sometimes doesn’t come out the right way. Like, let me cite an example. We always tell the story about Symonds Ryder, who apparently left the church because his name was spelled wrong on his ordination certificate.

Scott Woodward:
Yeah.

Casey Paul Griffiths:
Now, the story about Symonds Ryder leaving the church is true. He did leave the church.

Scott Woodward:
That’s the fact.

Casey Paul Griffiths:
But did he leave because his name was spelled wrong? Well, when we go back and look at documents, we find out that Symonds Ryder spelled his name different ways on different documents. He didn’t seem like he had the spelling pinned down. We found his headstone. His headstone—

Scott Woodward:
So funny.

Casey Paul Griffiths:
—if it’s accurate, means that his name is still spelled wrong in the Doctrine and Covenants.

Scott Woodward:
Totally.

Casey Paul Griffiths:
And that actual source comes from the funeral of Symonds Ryder that was preached by a priest that knew him. It doesn’t come from Symonds Ryder, itself. And the priest didn’t even say, oh, I heard Symonds tell me this once. He just kind of declared the story. And so how reliable is it? I don’t know. And when we go back and look at what Symonds Ryder did, because he’s one of the people that led the mob that attacked Joseph Smith at the Johnson farm, there were other, more clear, more well-certified motivations for why he didn’t like Joseph Smith. He didn’t like consecration. He openly says this. His wife was planning on moving to Missouri to build Zion. He doesn’t like that. It’s a good story to say his name was spelled wrong, and it really makes him look like . . .

Scott Woodward:
A doofus.

Casey Paul Griffiths:
Yeah.

Scott Woodward:
Faithless doofus.

Casey Paul Griffiths:
Yeah. But it might not be fair to him, and it might not be accurate to us. It’s a at least thirdhand story. And so we’re not going to say it’s not true, we’re just going to consider it for what it is and put it down the chain of reliability a little bit.

Scott Woodward:
Got it.

Casey Paul Griffiths:
So, first thing: How close is the source?

Scott Woodward:
Okay.

Casey Paul Griffiths:
Was the person there? Did they see it? If it’s secondhand, thirdhand, so on and so forth, we’ll start to doubt it a little bit more.

Scott Woodward:
It just becomes less reliable, but not absolutely false. It’s just less and less reliable, basically.

Casey Paul Griffiths:
Yeah.

Scott Woodward:
That’s question number one.

Casey Paul Griffiths:
Question number two: how much time went by before they wrote it down? How much time went by before they wrote it down? Again, the gold standard here is Wilford Woodruff. July 9, 1840, he wrote down that night what he saw Joseph Smith do. And so this isn’t a question of a person’s integrity. Sometimes it’s about the reliability of memory.

Scott Woodward:
Yeah.

Casey Paul Griffiths:
The greater the distance from the events that took place, the more likely it is that little mistakes will creep in here or there. Now, this isn’t a slam dunk, either. The first account of the First Vision, we noted on our podcast, was written down twelve years after Joseph Smith experienced it.

Scott Woodward:
Yeah.

Casey Paul Griffiths:
And most people honestly don’t accord their lives much significance and don’t write down stuff right away when it happens. But something that is closer to the time of the event is probably going to be more accurate, if that makes sense.

Scott Woodward:
Based on human memory, right?

Casey Paul Griffiths:
Human memory.

Scott Woodward:
The details are going to be more crisp because of the recency. Okay.

Casey Paul Griffiths:
So if we’re going back to Carthage Jail, Willard Richards writes down his account, “Two Minutes in Jail,” within a couple weeks of the attack on Carthage Jail. So that’s going to be our first—it’s very contemporary. John Taylor, later on, writes an account that is very long and has incredibly long conversations between Joseph Smith and Governor Ford, and because that was written, I believe, around 1856 or so, twelve years after, I’m going to assume that John Taylor’s filling in the gaps a little bit, but he’s not precisely quoting Governor Ford. He’s giving us the gist of the conversation. Some of the witnesses of the Book of Mormon recorded experiences very close to the time of the event. Like, Oliver Cowdery writes a history in 1834. Others are interviewed decades and decades after. We’re not saying they’re lying or anything, we’re just saying you have to take into account there had been several decades that intervened between the time.

Scott Woodward:
It helps when several decades go by and they’re still saying the same thing that they said early on in 1830, right?

Casey Paul Griffiths:
Yeah.

Scott Woodward:
Like, in their united witness. Like, if it stays consistent over time, then, boy, that’s something else as well, isn’t it?

Casey Paul Griffiths:
Yeah. That’s the thing, is you compare different accounts, and, I mean, the accounts don’t have to exactly agree. We noted that the First Vision accounts record varying details of the First Vision. That doesn’t invalidate the story of the First Vision.

Scott Woodward:
Right.

Casey Paul Griffiths:
But you can see consistency over time. And again, ideally, it’s something that was written down at or near the time of the event, but not everybody has the kind of historical sense that Wilford Woodruff had, so if they waited a little while to write it down, it’s okay, it’s just we’re going to put on our historian hat and say, I’m going to be cautious with that, because it was written down—one of the accounts of the First Vision we shared was Charles Walker’s, which was written down in 1893. And it wasn’t even Charles Walker. It was John Alger. Charles Walker heard John Alger saying that he heard the story. It’s a thirdhand account 73 years after the First Vision. So we’re not going to say it’s not true because it has some cool stuff in it, but we’re going to be a little bit more cautious with it. We’re not going to totally build our foundation on it, because it’s a little shaky.

Scott Woodward:
Is that one of the other questions historians ask is does it have cool stuff in it? Is that one of them?

Casey Paul Griffiths:
Definitely. Yeah, historians are all about, hey, this is cool stuff. Yeah.

Scott Woodward:
I just wanted to double check.

Casey Paul Griffiths:
Can I tell a story really fast?

Scott Woodward:
Yeah.

Casey Paul Griffiths:
There is a story that’s been told for decades and decades about Pearl Harbor and the Hawaii temple. Because the Laie temple’s on the north end of Oahu. The Japanese planes that are attacking Pearl Harbor fly over the north part of the island and attack Pearl Harbor. And one of the stories that always gets told is that some Japanese plane tried to strafe the Hawaii temple.

Scott Woodward:
Wait. Define “strafe.”

Casey Paul Griffiths:
Like, the way the story’s told is that the pilot was coming back and saw a big white building, and he didn’t know what it was, and so he turned to, like, fire his machine guns at the temple, and his guns jammed, and he turned to drop a bomb on the temple, and his bomb jammed, and so he decided, I’m running out of fuel, I‘ve got to fly back, and when he got out over open water, he pulled the trigger on his guns and they fired, and he pulled the lever on his bomb, and his bomb dropped. And the way the story is told is that this pilot was telling a missionary serving in Japan that story, and the missionaries showed him a picture of the Hawaii temple in the course of their discussion, and the guy said, that’s the building that I tried to strafe. Cool story, right?

Scott Woodward:
Cool story, bro.

Casey Paul Griffiths:
Awesome story. But we’ve got a couple of questions we’ve got to ask. Number one: It’s a secondhand account. It’s being told by the missionary that said this guy told them the story. We don’t know where the guy is, where he comes from. Most Japanese pilots did not survive the war. Why did this Pearl Harbor pilot make it all the way through? But can I throw in a little wrinkle?

Scott Woodward:
Throw it.

Casey Paul Griffiths:
The guy who was the missionary was a guy who worked for seminaries and institutes. I was working on the history of seminaries and institutes. I went and talked to his family. He just passed away.

Scott Woodward:
Mm.

Casey Paul Griffiths:
And I asked them about that story, and I was expecting them to say, oh man, that was all blown out of proportion. We don’t know what was going on there. Instead, the first thing his wife said was, I don’t know why Satan doesn’t want people to know that story. And I go, What?!

Scott Woodward:
Oh. Oh.

Casey Paul Griffiths:
And she brought out his journal and showed me in his missionary journal where he had written down the experience the day that that guy shared it with them.

Scott Woodward:
Oh.

Casey Paul Griffiths:
And so, I mean, as a historian, I look at it now and go, oh, my—what do I do with this? I mean, it’s a secondhand account.

Scott Woodward:
Yeah.

Casey Paul Griffiths:
And it doesn’t seem to fit a lot of the established facts, but hey, it’s there.

Scott Woodward:
I mean, I can’t completely invalidate it, but—

Casey Paul Griffiths:
It’s more reliable if it has cool stuff.

Scott Woodward:
Yeah. That’s how complicated some of these things can be.

Casey Paul Griffiths:
This is good. This is helpful. Okay. So we have two tools now.

Scott Woodward:
Yeah. So we have source. How close was it to the actual event? Or was that person themselves there? Are they hearing this secondhand? And then how long did it take them to write it down? And so John Taylor was there at the martyrdom, but he didn’t write down his experience until 1856, at least that full-blown experience that you were referring to.

Casey Paul Griffiths:
Yeah.

Scott Woodward:
And so you need to just kind of weigh both of those factors together as you’re trying to assess reliability.

Casey Paul Griffiths:
Yeah. And none of this would be questioning John Taylor’s integrity or his sincerity. It’s just that the conversation he has—that Joseph Smith has with Governor Ford, as John Taylor records it—is so specific.

Scott Woodward:
Very specific, yeah.

Casey Paul Griffiths:
I’ve got to assume that unless John Taylor has the world’s most amazing memory, and he never claimed to, he was filling in the gaps a little bit. And that’s another thing is sometimes historians from different eras felt a little bit more free to massage a narrative to fill in the gaps in conversations as they go. Which might be a good lead to point three, which is what is the motive of the person telling the account?

Scott Woodward:
Okay.

Casey Paul Griffiths:
In other words, why are they doing this, and do they have a potential agenda or an ulterior motive behind what they’re saying? Do they have an axe to grind that may influence what or how it was written? Who’s the audience that they’re writing to? Is their tone neutral or balanced or candid or open? Is it attacking? One-sided? Defensive? All that kind of stuff.

Scott Woodward:
Wow.

Casey Paul Griffiths:
Sometimes, yeah, a person has an axe to grind, and we might need to take that into account. Or a person could be propagandizing for the church. For instance, just going back to Carthage Jail again, there are several accounts of—one of them from a former mob member who joined the church, who said that after Joseph Smith was killed, a member of the mob—and in some versions of the story, it is not just a member of the mob: It’s the son of Lilburn Boggs, the governor of Missouri—stepped out of the crowd with a large Bowie knife and walked up to decapitate Joseph Smith. The individual was struck by a ray of light and frozen in place, and the mob had to drag him away because he could not move. And that is awesome, right? That’s totally faith-promoting.

Scott Woodward:
Cool story.

Casey Paul Griffiths:
Cool story, right? But when B. H. Roberts, who’s acting as church historian, looks at that, he says, Well, Willard Richards, who I trust, said it all took place in two minutes. And no other member of the mob tells that story. And so it’s a cool story, but I might not trust it very much, because it does seem like the person telling the story has an ulterior motive. This individual had converted to the church. He believes Joseph Smith’s a prophet. Even if it’s, you know, a win for my team, if it’s not good history, it’s not good history.

Scott Woodward:
So it wasn’t reliable because that event would have taken longer than two minutes to have unfolded.

Casey Paul Griffiths:
Yeah.

Scott Woodward:
And the motive of the person telling it was to—okay. First of all, I have a question: Who is this guy? The fact that he was in the mob, does that mean he was complicit in the murder of Joseph Smith? And what problems did that introduce as he tried to join the church as one who was in the mob that murdered the prophet? What do we know about this guy?

Casey Paul Griffiths:
Well, he was just in the mob, you know? He was part of the Warsaw Militia. He actually testified at Joseph Smith’s trial. There was a murder trial.

Scott Woodward:
Yeah.

Casey Paul Griffiths:
Six people were indicted for the murder of Joseph and Hyrum Smith, and this guy was one of the witnesses on the stand. So he was willing to do this under oath. But when you put it up against the established facts surrounding the murder of Joseph and Hyrum, it raises a lot of questions. It raises a lot of questions. Especially because the mob was around 100 to 150 people, and nobody else says that this happened. That’s question number one. Number two, Willard Richards gives a time frame that doesn’t seem like it’s allowable for this to happen. And so, taking that together, we’d have to take even a faith-promoting story like that with a grain of salt.

Scott Woodward:
Interesting.

Casey Paul Griffiths:
On the other hand, there are some people that are antagonistic towards the church, and we have to look at their motives, too. William McClellan writes a bunch of really negative stuff about Joseph Smith. He’s upset. He’s angry. He’s been excommunicated from the church. How does that affect his motives and when he’s telling stories and when he’s relating historical narrative?

Scott Woodward:
Often to smear the name of Joseph.

Casey Paul Griffiths:
Yeah. Or John C. Bennett. John C. Bennett writes a history of the church, later on says he was a double agent the whole time, but his actions when he was in the church don’t seem to indicate any kind of double agent motive. John C. Bennett, and I’m opening up a can of worms that maybe we can’t fully dump out here, is accused of adultery because he’s seducing women under the doctrine of spiritual wifery.

Scott Woodward:
Yeah.

Casey Paul Griffiths:
He’s excommunicated from the church. He tries to commit suicide. The members of the church nurse him back to health. None of that seems to suggest that he was some kind of double agent intended on exposing the church the entire time. So his motives are highly questionable when they’re measured against his actions and against other sources that cover the same time period.

Scott Woodward:
It seems like he—instead, he actually got angry because he was excommunicated and so publicly basically shamed out of Nauvoo for his flagrant adultery. Serial adultery, we called it, I think, in our episode when we talked about this. And then he had an axe to grind. He wrote a book. What was his book called?

Casey Paul Griffiths:
History of the Saints, isn’t it?

Scott Woodward:
History of the Saints, yeah, where he’s really just trying to smear the saints’ name, joseph Smith and the whole institution of Mormonism and everybody in Nauvoo. And he just makes up a bunch of junk that’s, like, so not true. I was just reading yesterday about some of the stuff he said about the Relief Society, how it was divided into three different orders of ladies, and how there’s secret harems and stuff. Like, he’s just making up junk to try to make it look as saucy and awful as possible.

Casey Paul Griffiths:
Yeah. You measure that against the rest of John C. Bennett’s life, where he was constantly making up stories and jumping from place to place.

Scott Woodward:
Yeah.

Casey Paul Griffiths:
It seems like he has an ulterior motive. And everybody has a motive.

Scott Woodward:
Yeah.

Casey Paul Griffiths:
I mean, if a historian tells you they’re totally objective, they’re lying. You and I have motives, right?

Scott Woodward:
Yes.

Casey Paul Griffiths:
We’re transparent about that.

Scott Woodward:
Yes.

Casey Paul Griffiths:
But you should take that into account when you listen to what we have to say.

Scott Woodward:
Yeah. We’re trying to—what’s the tagline? We’re trying to help church history be accessible, comprehensible, and defensible. We state it every episode. That’s what we’re trying to do.

Casey Paul Griffiths:
Yeah.

Scott Woodward:
So with motive, how do you evaluate that? So would it be, I guess on a spectrum, if it’s more neutral? If it’s more balanced? If it’s more candid, is that more reliable than to say it’s more axe-grindy, more accusative, more attacking, more one-sided? Is that kind of what you’re saying? So there’s kind of a spectrum to kind of think about the tone there?

Casey Paul Griffiths:
I like the word “axe-grindy,” and that is going to enter into my historical lexicon as we go. But let me refer back to something we actually quoted on this podcast when we did the First Vision—

Scott Woodward:
Okay.

Casey Paul Griffiths:
—which was an English professor named Arthur Henry King who converted to the church, later on wrote an essay called “Joseph Smith as a Writer.” And he mentions the objectivity of the First Vision account. This is what Arthur Henry King wrote: he said, “When I was first brought to read Joseph Smith’s story, I was deeply impressed. I wasn’t inclined to be impressed. As a stylistician, I’ve spent my life being disinclined to be impressed. So when I read his story, I thought to myself, this is an extraordinary thing. This is an astonishingly matter-of-fact and cool account. This man is not trying to persuade me of anything. He doesn’t feel the need to. He’s stating what happened to him, and he’s stating it not enthusiastically, but in quite a matter-of-fact way. He’s not trying to make me cry or feel ecstatic. That struck me, and that began to build my testimony, for I could see that this man was telling the truth.” So to this English writer who’s a stylistician, he’s saying, the way Joseph Smith wrote this history caught my attention because he does try to take on at least a neutral tone. Joseph Smith doesn’t make himself sound like he’s the most righteous kid in the neighborhood or the worst sinner that’s out there. He tries greatly to be neutral in what he’s saying, and that helped the guy basically trust his account. You can read something when it’s really polemical, or when it’s really extreme, and sort of understand and know that the person is, you know, writing a screed, basically. So, do they have an agenda behind it, would be one question. And that leads to maybe the next question, which is, how opinionated is this? So how much of this is opinion, and how much of it is them reporting fact? We did this already on one of our podcasts, but let’s walk through these again. A fact is based on verifiable evidence, no matter what your perspective is.

Scott Woodward:
Right.

Casey Paul Griffiths:
An inference is a snap conclusion and meaning we give facts based on our pre-existing assumptions. So there’s a difference between saying, “I live in Provo,” which is a fact, and an inference saying, “He used the word ‘pop’ instead of ‘soda,’ so he must be from Provo,” or something like that.

Scott Woodward:
Based on people that you know who say soda or pop.

Casey Paul Griffiths:
Yeah. Yeah, basically.

Scott Woodward:
Okay.

Casey Paul Griffiths:
Assumptions are beliefs we suppose to be true and that we used to interpret our world. So we make assumptions about how things work. We base our life around assumptions. They’re not always bad, but sometimes we make assumptions based on bad information.

Scott Woodward:
Yeah.

Casey Paul Griffiths:
An opinion is an inferential conclusion that goes beyond the facts of the matter. So a responsible person usually says, I don’t know this for sure, but here’s my opinion. Here’s my judgment. Here’s my feeling on the matter. And an innuendo is an indirect suggestion meant to lead one to a certain opinion about a fact. So when you read a historical account, it can be sometimes, well, I infer that this happened, or let’s assume this, or because I saw this, this was what was probably going on, when we could be completely wrong based on our assumptions, based on our innuendos.

Scott Woodward:
And an example we used—back to the First Vision—was the fact is that the first account of the First Vision that Joseph Smith wrote was twelve years after he said it happened. This is 1832. That’s fact. Inference would be, okay, now—some people like Fawn Brodie and others would say the reason—they’re going to now bring some inference here: a snap conclusion. They’re going to give meaning to that by saying the reason he didn’t write it until twelve years later was because he had to make up something in order to bolster his prophetic authority as it was being questioned in 1832. Holy cow.

Casey Paul Griffiths:
That’s a leap, right?

Scott Woodward:
That’s a leap. That’s not factual. That’s an inference based on her own assumptions. One of her major assumptions was that Joseph was a fraud.

Casey Paul Griffiths:
Mm-hmm.

Scott Woodward:
And so from that assumption, that hermeneutic of suspicion, you‘ve got to infer what the fact means.

Casey Paul Griffiths:
Yeah.

Scott Woodward:
And so she gives her opinion or makes innuendo, indirectly suggesting that that should be the only conclusion that really is intelligent to make, right? And we, through our First Vision series, went into some detail about why that assumption does not hold up and what else actually helps make better sense out of why he didn’t write it until 1832, but that’s not the purpose of this episode. We’re basically just saying that we do this all the time, and people who look at the history of the church do this all the time, and we just need to first be aware of it, right? Let’s be aware of the difference between a fact, an inference, an assumption, an opinion, and when someone’s doing innuendo so that we can now think about how we might want to think about that: so that we can evaluate, you know, how reliable is this?

Casey Paul Griffiths:
Yeah.

Scott Woodward:
Can I restate it like this? Tell me what you think about this. So the more factual a source is, the more reliable it likely is, and the more inference or opinion, innuendo are involved, the less reliable the source or the conclusion the source is making. Is that fair?

Casey Paul Griffiths:
Yeah. So Fawn Brodie, who you brought up, for example, has sections in her biography of Joseph Smith where she basically claims to know what he was thinking, you know? There’s one section where she goes, while Joseph was saying this, he must have been thinking about how he could keep the lie going. And that’s all an assumption. I mean, how does she know what Joseph Smith was thinking at this particular point? That’s a model of irresponsible historical scholarship. A responsible historian would say, here’s what Joseph Smith said, and here’s the context in which it was said and not make inferences or assumptions based on that. Or if they do, at least be cautious with their language and not openly claim to know what was going on inside a person’s head, because there could be all kinds of motivations or factors that we don’t understand. So we don’t over-claim, basically. Bad historians tend to say, well, because this person said this, they were thinking this, or they were acting for this reason, when, if we don’t have the information, the most responsible thing to say is, we don’t really know.

Scott Woodward:
So if something like that is said, we can kind of catch that in our mind. Oh, that’s an opinion, right? That’s an inferential conclusion that’s going beyond the facts of the matter. Just being able to recognize that helps you know how to evaluate it, right?

Casey Paul Griffiths:
Yeah.

Scott Woodward:
That’s, that’s so helpful. What’s the difference between innuendo and spin?

Casey Paul Griffiths:
I mean, spin is propaganda, right? That’s when we’re outright just saying anything we can to try and convince people of our opinion. And, I mean, I guess it depends on how you define propaganda. We used propaganda in World War II to convince Americans that they needed to go fight the Germans and the Japanese. But some of that, even though it was well-intentioned, is dangerous, too. Propaganda can cause us to see or dehumanize someone else. It can cause us to have the wrong assumptions about things. But it’s primarily meant to motivate, to produce an emotional response. That is how a lot of church critics go off. They’ll throw a bomb out there that’s meant to generate a huge emotional response and get you out of this rational mode of thinking, where you are kind of sitting down and evaluating the sources. They’ll say stuff like, “Joseph Smith was married to a 14-year-old,” and immediately, you know, your moral center goes off, and you don’t take the time to investigate and say, what does that actually mean?

Scott Woodward:
Yeah.

Casey Paul Griffiths:
What are the facts behind that?

Scott Woodward:
What are the facts of the matter?

Casey Paul Griffiths:
Yeah.

Scott Woodward:
Yeah, and innuendo seems to often happen with Joseph Smith’s polygamy. I’ve seen that a lot. Like, Joseph Smith married other men’s wives. Why would he do that? Wink, wink, nudge, nudge, right? It’s like, just trying to make you feel like, oh, this guy is this—he’s this lustful, like, sexually motivated guy. He’s abusing his ecclesiastical position, right? Like, that’s what they want you to think. He married a 14-year-old girl.

Casey Paul Griffiths:
Yeah.

Scott Woodward:
Oh, the innuendo there is there was something sexual going on, right? Is that the facts of the matter? Do we know that? Well, as we talked about in our episode about this, that 14-year-old girl has actually written two books about this and you might want to investigate what she had to say before you come to any certain conclusion about this, because it’s actually wildly different than the spin masters or the innuendoizers would want you to think. So nothing sexual going on there at all, but that’s the innuendo, always and forever, with Joseph Smith’s polygamy, in those two cases especially: married other men’s wives, and married a 14-year-old girl. Like, the innuendo is just always laid on by the critics.

Casey Paul Griffiths:
Yeah.

Scott Woodward:
And back to this topic of spin, I want to give my favorite example of this. I think I saw. . . maybe Tony Sweat shared this once, and I really liked it, so I share this with my students. It’s the example of a guy named Remus Starr. Remus Starr, there’s this picture of him with a noose around his neck where he’s on this scaffolding, this platform, and he’s about to be hanged, and on the back of that picture it says, “Remus Starr—horse thief, sent to Montana Territorial Prison 1885. Escaped 1887. Robbed a Montana flyer six times. Caught by Pinkerton detectives. Convicted and hanged 1889.” That’s the caption on the back of the photo. So this guy’s a horse thief, right? Executed 1889. But here’s a classic example of historical spin. One of his descendants wrote this about Remus Starr. They said—now, listen to this carefully, because none of what you’re about to hear is inaccurate, but just look at the spin of the facts. Okay? It says this, “Remus Starr was a famous cowboy in the Montana territory. His business empire grew to include the acquisition of valuable equestrian assets and included intimate dealings with the Montana Railroad. Beginning in 1885, he devoted several years of his life to service at a government facility, finally taking a role in a vital investigation run by the renowned Pinkerton Detective Agency. In 1889, Ramos passed away during an important civic function held in his honor when the platform upon which he was standing collapsed.”

Casey Paul Griffiths:
That is some good spin. That is some good spin, yeah.

Scott Woodward:
You walk away from that thinking Remus Starr is just an ace. What a guy. What a cool guy.

Casey Paul Griffiths:
Fine, upstanding citizen, right? Good guy.

Scott Woodward:
Upstanding man. Yeah, poor guy. He died when the platform he was standing on collapsed. What a tragedy. I don’t know if this is a phrase historians use, but I call that narrative cropping. Selectively telling events in such a way as to achieve a certain effect with the audience, right? To try to drive them toward a certain conclusion. It’s kind of like innuendo, except it’s, like, all spoken out loud, but framed in just such a way as to try to make it sound good. If you took the picture of Remus Starr, where he’s standing on the platform with the noose around his neck, right? Before his execution, you just crop it, right? Just bring it in, just crop it real tight so all you kind of see is his, his face. He’s got this mustache. He’s, yeah, wearing a suit, and you can’t really tell there’s a noose around his neck, kind of black and white, kind of fuzzy. That’s the story, right? You’re kind of narrative cropping. You’re cropping the story in such a way as to kind of cut out all the bad parts, or to make it sound better than it was. Or the opposite can happen too. Try to make something that’s kind of benign sound horrible, right? Sound just, like, the worst. So we do this on both sides, don’t we? Sometimes members of the church will want to crop out anything that kind of sounds bad, and critics will try to amplify anything that is even remotely potentially problematic and make a mountain out of a molehill.

Casey Paul Griffiths:
Yeah.

Scott Woodward:
So we both have to watch ourselves not to play loose with the facts, not to play loose with the history, and not to crop in such a way that it only favors our narrative.

Casey Paul Griffiths:
I’ve heard people describe Joseph Smith’s death in an antagonistic source by saying Joseph Smith died in a gunfight with the authorities in Carthage Jail. And I mean, okay, yeah, I guess technically that’s true. The people he was shooting at weren’t authorities. They were a mob, an assassination group. And I’ve also noticed that, you know, sometimes when people tell the story of Carthage Jail, they don’t want to say that Joseph Smith fired back. The truth is Joseph Smith had a pistol that was smuggled into him by Cyrus Wheelock, and Joseph Smith did fire back at the mob. But if 200 people are coming to kill me—and they’ve already killed one person, because he fires back after Hyrum is shot in the face—and you have a gun, it’s reasonable to use the gun to defend yourself. And so. . . Spin both directions and, like you so adequately called it, historical cropping can really make it dangerous. The full version of the story is a mob attacked Carthage Jail, Joseph Smith had a gun, and he fired back. That doesn’t make it a gunfight with the authorities, and it also isn’t necessary for us to try and defend Joseph’s status as a martyr by saying he didn’t resist the people that were trying to kill him. There were three other people in the room. He was trying to defend their lives, too. One of them had already been killed. So.

Scott Woodward:
Yeah.

Casey Paul Griffiths:
Yeah. Good history and bad history on both sides of the aisle here.

Scott Woodward:
Yeah.

Casey Paul Griffiths:
Last question is how does it compare with other sources? So when you’re talking about a historical account, you usually have, if it’s a big deal, more than one source. You can compare and contrast the account with other primary and secondary sources dealing with the same event. Are the dates, the facts, and the claims consistent with other sources, and what are the major similarities and differences, and why do those exist? So let me cite an example here. It is a story commonly told in the church that when Brigham Young spoke to the crowd after Joseph Smith’s death, he was transfigured before the crowd.

Scott Woodward:
8th of August, 1844.

Casey Paul Griffiths:
8th of August 1844, yeah. Brigham Young and Sidney Rigdon are both making claims to lead the church. Sidney Rigdon speaks, then Brigham Young speaks. The story is commonly told that Brigham Young is transfigured. Now, here’s how complicated this gets: Most of those accounts are from around twenty years later, when the RLDS church was making its claim. Brigham Young and the leadership of the church asked anybody that was there to come into the historian’s office and tell their story. And so most of the accounts—not all of them: there is one or two that’s contemporary—are from 20 years later when the church historian’s office made an effort to record those accounts. So, as historians, we look at that and say, that’s not very contemporary, but 150 people showed up. 150 people. All these are printed in a BYU Studies article.

Scott Woodward:
Great article.

Casey Paul Griffiths:
But they’re also not totally consistent across the board. George Q. Cannon thought Joseph Smith had been resurrected, like, he thought Joseph Smith was up on the stand. Other people said that they felt that the mantle of the prophet had fallen on Brigham Young. It’s an established fact that when the church voted that day, they chose Brigham Young as the leader of the church. So you take all those together, and you still have this really wonderful story, but if you just tell it as Brigham Young was transfigured and you imply that everybody saw the same thing, you’re robbing it of some of its complexity and some of its authenticity, which actually makes it more faith strengthening than if you kind of spin it and try and smooth over the rough parts of the narrative.

Scott Woodward:
Yeah. Because I’ve read through all of those accounts, and some people say that they looked up and saw Brigham but heard Joseph. Others say they saw Joseph in the place of Brigham. Some say that it looked like Joseph resurrected. Some say they heard Joseph’s voice with even, like, the little whistle that he had when he would say S’s because his—one of his teeth was chipped when a mob tried to force poison into his mouth and chipped his tooth, and he always had a little bit of a whistle when he said his S’s, I guess. Some people said that they even heard that. Others didn’t see it at all.

Casey Paul Griffiths:
Uh-huh.

Scott Woodward:
Some people were there and didn’t see anything spectacular.

Casey Paul Griffiths:
Yeah. One of the reasons why church critics tackle that one is because Wilford Woodruff didn’t write anything down. Wilford Woodruff kept a pretty good journal, and he was there, and he didn’t record anything special happening. Neither did Brigham Young. Brigham Young’s journal for the day just said, “I arose and spoke. My heart was moved with compassion towards the saints, and I laid before them the course and will of the Lord.” But 150 people. . . That gives you higher confidence to say, okay, something happened. It wasn’t uniform.

Scott Woodward:
Something happened.

Casey Paul Griffiths:
And they didn’t write it down until later on when there was a need to record that, but also the fact that they chose Brigham Young as their leader seems to suggest there were compelling reasons to do so. So we take something that’s absolutely amazing like that, and we need to, again, maybe bring it down to earth a little bit and introduce complexity, which is totally okay when it comes to this. In fact, understanding the complexity might make it a little bit more compelling and understandable.

Scott Woodward:
So you’re saying on this particular example, it does seem, based on the historical evidence and the overwhelming number of sources, that something significant happened that day that convinced the majority of saints to follow Brigham Young, and the other Twelve, west. Like, something significant occurred.

Casey Paul Griffiths:
Yeah. And that’s the story they told 20 years later.

Scott Woodward:
Yeah.

Casey Paul Griffiths:
And so we should take that seriously. Is that what I’m hearing you say? We should take that source serious.

Scott Woodward:
Yes, let’s take this particular incident and run it through the five questions: Number one, how close is the source? 150 primary source participants that were there.

Casey Paul Griffiths:
That’s pretty good.

Scott Woodward:
And claim something happened. So on question number one, it really excels. How much time passed before it was recorded? There’s one or two contemporary accounts. They’re very vague. Most of them just say something like, it was clear that the mantle of the prophet had passed to Brigham Young. Most of the accounts were written down 20 years later, when the RLDS church was challenging us. So it’s not a slam dunk on question two. It’s not a slam dunk, but it’s not out of the question. It’s still reasonable. What’s the motive of the person telling the account? These were active church members who believe Brigham Young was a prophet. That’s their motive.

Casey Paul Griffiths:
And they’re pushing against the claim of the RLDS church at that point.

Scott Woodward:
Yeah. The RLDS church is claiming that Brigham Young is not the prophet, that Joseph Smith’s son Joseph Smith III is. These people have a motive for doing that. And so that might temper our expectations a little bit. How factual or opinionated is it? We have some verified facts. There was a meeting. There was a sustaining vote. This was an actual vote as to who should be the leader of the church. That’s not disputed by anybody, including Sidney Rigdon, including people that were antagonistic towards Brigham Young or didn’t want him to be leader of the church. That that meeting happened seems to be a verifiable historical fact. And number five, how does it compare to other accounts? Well, when we compare the accounts, we find there was a wide variety of experience, from people that just had a prompting, that felt spiritually that Brigham Young was the right person, to people that saw a full spiritual manifestation, that thought Joseph Smith was resurrected. You put all that together, and you can see that this one has some really strong points. It has some points where it could be stronger, but enough evidence is there to say, yeah, something significant happened when Brigham Young got up to speak, and nobody’s disputing that what happened, or at least the events of that day, were powerful enough to convince the majority of the people there that Brigham Young should be the leader of the church.

Casey Paul Griffiths:
Yeah, that’s good. And then they show that sincerity by being willing to walk across the plains.

Scott Woodward:
Yeah, their subsequent actions afterwards demonstrate they sincerely believed what they were doing. And that’s a factor too, right?

Casey Paul Griffiths:
Yeah.

Scott Woodward:
Sincerity.

Casey Paul Griffiths:
Yeah.

Scott Woodward:
Okay, that’s good. So, Casey, those are, I think, five super helpful questions. And I’m wondering if we could just do one example of a historical claim, and we can kind of run it through all five questions at once. Can we do one more? Would that be all right?

Casey Paul Griffiths:
Let’s do one more. What do you want to do?

Scott Woodward:
Let’s do something that kind of comes up often enough to, I think, be a problem, is a letter that William E. McClellan wrote in 1872 to Joseph Smith III, Joseph Smith’s son. And McClellan, in that letter, he recalled details of an 1847 conversation with Emma Smith that he had, where Emma acknowledged to William McClellan that in the spring of 1836 she, “missed Joseph and Fanny Alger.” Wasn’t sure where they went, and so she went to the barn and saw him and Fanny in the barn together alone, and “She looked through a crack.” I’m quoting now from the McClellan letter, “and saw the transaction!!!” Three exclamation point. “She told me this story, too, was verily true,” he says. Close quote. And then, by the way, in another letter three years later, he clarified that Emma said that she saw the sealing take place. That’s what he meant by the transaction, in the barn, on the hay, through the crack in the door. So can we just kind of analyze this for a second? So this is all about Joseph’s first plural wife and this idea that maybe it was something scandalous, and this William McClellan letter just kind of crops up about this. So it’s an 1872 letter, recalling the details of an 1847 conversation McClellan had with Emma about something that she saw in 1836 and told McClellan that he’s now conveying to Joseph Smith III. What do you make of that as a trained historian? Walk us through what your brain does with that account.

Casey Paul Griffiths:
I’m glad you brought this up, because it gets brought up all the time, and it feels like it’s never quoted with accuracy. First of all, it’s stated like it’s just plain fact. Like, I had a person come up to me at a presentation and say, you know, my friend left the church because Joseph Smith was seducing girls in barns.

Scott Woodward:
Oh, that’s too bad.

Casey Paul Griffiths:
And I was like, okay, the barn thing is something I’ve never heard mentioned in any account except for this one, so it must come from this. But let’s ask the questions, Scott, and you can answer them. How close is this to the actual source? Does this come from Joseph Smith or Fanny Alger, or even Emma Smith? Like, number one, it’s William McClellan recalling an 1846 conversation of Emma Smith talking about an 1836 incident. And then it’s secondhand at best.

Scott Woodward:
A secondhand account of a 25-year-old conversation about an event that happened 36 years earlier.

Casey Paul Griffiths:
Yep. You’ve just stumbled across question number two, which is how much time was passed before it was recorded.

Scott Woodward:
Yeah.

Casey Paul Griffiths:
That’s a long time, right?

Scott Woodward:
Yeah. So what’s his motive? What do we know about William McClellan that would help us answer the motive question?

Casey Paul Griffiths:
William McClellan’s excommunicated from the church. He’s one of those people that doesn’t just leave the church—that goes full anti-Mormon, challenges Joseph Smith to a fight, turns out to be very antagonistic towards the church, tries to start his own church, fails.

Scott Woodward:
Yeah.

Casey Paul Griffiths:
A complicated individual here. So does he have a motive? Yeah. The fact that he had to clarify later on and say that, “Oh, I believe it was a sealing ceremony.” The language in that letter strongly suggests that McClellan is trying to imply that Emma caught Joseph and Fanny Alger, you know. . .

Scott Woodward:
Engaging in, he called it, “the transaction.”

Casey Paul Griffiths:
Engaging in the transaction, which again is language meant to infer that she’s seeing them commit adultery.

Scott Woodward:
Yeah. Later on, he’s pushed about that, and he says, no, I meant the sealing. I meant that they were just getting married.

Casey Paul Griffiths:
Yeah.

Scott Woodward:
It’s like, okay, buddy. That doesn’t seem like that’s what you meant when you said “transaction.”

Casey Paul Griffiths:
Yeah. He’s got a ton of motives to try and discredit Joseph Smith or make him look bad.

Scott Woodward:
Yeah.

Casey Paul Griffiths:
How factual or opinionated is it? Pretty opinionated, right?

Scott Woodward:
Yeah.

Casey Paul Griffiths:
Joseph Smith, according to other sources, and some of them very reliable, was sealed to Fanny Alger. Number five, how does it compare to other accounts?

Scott Woodward:
There are no other accounts, right?

Casey Paul Griffiths:
There’s no other accounts of this particular incident. There are other sources that say Fanny Alger was sealed to Joseph Smith and was his first plural wife. There’s several people—

Scott Woodward:
Okay, yeah.

Casey Paul Griffiths:
—that say that. Most important one, Eliza R. Snow. When the church historian Andrew Jensen was trying to compile a list of Joseph Smith’s plural wives, Eliza R. Snow approached him and said Fanny Alger was actually the first person. Eliza was also sealed to Joseph Smith as well. She was one of his plural wives.

Scott Woodward:
But she’s a good source because she was living with them at the time, correct?

Casey Paul Griffiths:
Yeah. Yeah. She was Fanny’s roommate, basically. And so she was there. She was contemporary.

Scott Woodward:
That’s a pretty good source.

Casey Paul Griffiths:
That’s a good source. She doesn’t mention anything about this barn incident. Other sources: Fanny Alger comes up when Oliver Cowdery is excommunicated, when he’s put on trial. Joseph Smith himself testifies and says, yes. President Cowdery accused me of something. He and I spoke about the business with Fanny Alger, and we resolved it. At least verifies something went on with Fanny Alger, but again, nothing about this Emma caught him doing things or anything like that. So what’s your trustworthiness of this source? Where do you think?

Scott Woodward:
My trustworthy-ometer says that this account stinks to high heaven. It doesn’t pass. It doesn’t pass, Casey. Yeah, Oliver Cowdery, in his excommunication trial, which we’ve talked about, one of the accusations brought against him was that he insinuated that Joseph had committed adultery with Fanny Alger. And as you just mentioned, that was, it appears, resolved between the two men. Oliver Cowdery will come back to the church and will continue to testify that Joseph was a true prophet. Mm-hmm. It doesn’t seem like he comes to the same conclusion as McClellan. But, yeah, nothing about a barn, nothing about Emma discovering them as I’ve ever found. I’ve tried to read a lot about this stuff, but I’ve never found anything that would corroborate this. No other sources. So, yeah, just checking through all your questions, this account stinks.

Casey Paul Griffiths:
Yeah.

Scott Woodward:
I think he’s got an axe to grind, and he’s trying to stir the pot. And the fact that he’s telling this to Joseph Smith III sounds like he’s trying to shake him up a little bit on this. So, yeah, I don’t like it, Casey.

Casey Paul Griffiths:
Mm-hmm.

Scott Woodward:
And by the way, another point is that he says that Emma Smith told him that. Right there my alarm bells are going off. We know that Emma did not talk with people about Joseph’s plural marriages. Ever. And she did not like William. Like, he stole from them in 1838. Like, he went into their house when the Saints were being driven out of Missouri, and he, like, stole, I think—what did he steal? Bedsheets and stuff? I can’t remember the account exactly, but to say that Emma, like, trusted William McClellan with something that we know just, like, was such a difficult subject for her and when she’s asked about it later on in life, like, she’ll deny that it even happened. Like, to think that Emma would confide in William McClellan who had been antagonistic toward their family about a topic like that—to me, like, one thing stacks on top of another thing on top of another thing to tell me that is not trustworthy.

Casey Paul Griffiths:
Yeah. That’s our example. So maybe in our next episode, we need to do a couple examples and run through this just so you can start to get a feel. Because as you use this, as time goes on, it’ll become more and more automatic. By the end of the semester, I usually have students saying, hey, was that guy even there? Is he a primary source? Or, wait, when was that written down? And the skills become useful. And by the way, these aren’t just good skills for history. This is good skills when you’re reading the news, basically, to be a little bit discerning. Say, what are the sources? Where does it come from? Does it corroborate with other sources?

Scott Woodward:
Yeah. Excellent. This is just good, sound thinking.

Casey Paul Griffiths:
Yep.

Scott Woodward:
Well, thanks Casey. That was fun. Next time, let’s practice.

Casey Paul Griffiths:
Next time, historical pickleball. Is that what we’re going to call it?

Scott Woodward:
Sounds good. Thank you for listening to this episode of Church History Matters. In our next episode, Casey and I put on something of an informal, historical, source criticism workshop by spending the episode evaluating the reliability of various historical statements by using the five questions we discussed today. It should be a good time. If you’re enjoying Church History Matters, we’d appreciate it if you could take a moment to subscribe, rate, review, and comment on the podcast. That makes us easier to find. Today’s episode was produced by Scott Woodward and edited by Nick Galieti and Scott Woodward, with show notes and transcript by Gabe Davis. Church History Matters is a podcast of Scripture Central, a nonprofit which exists to help build enduring faith in Jesus Christ by making Latter-day Saint scripture and church history accessible, comprehensible, and defensible to people everywhere. For more resources to enhance your gospel study, go to scripturecentral.org, where everything is available for free because of the generous donations of people like you. And while we try very hard to be historically and doctrinally accurate in what we say on this podcast, please remember that all views expressed in this and every episode are our views alone and do not necessarily reflect the views of Scripture Central or The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Thank you so much for being a part of this with us.

Show produced by Scott Woodward and edited by Nick Galieti and Scott Woodward, with show notes and transcript by Gabe Davis.

Church History Matters is a podcast of Scripture Central. For more resources to enhance your gospel study go to scripturecentral.org, where everything is available for free because of the generous donations of people like you.