Hanlon’s Razor, Occam’s Razor, and How To Explore Mormon History

For the past several years I’ve been exploring Mormon History. I’m an amature, of course – and a lazy and poorly read amature at best. My reading list is unimpressive, and my struggling memory makes me a poor student of anything historical. But I would like to offer some advice to others choosing to explore Mormon history. Exploring Mormon history can be disorienting for many Latter-Day Saints. For many, it is a process of learning that the faith-promoting stories about the history of the church taught in Sunday School are inaccurate, or at least incomplete. Many people have left the church feeling like the Church has lied to them, withheld information, or “whitewashed” its own history. For many, an honest study of Church history will lead to disaffection and confusion. For many, studying history is like an earthquake that leaves them surrounded by the rubble that was once their testimony.
I have two pieces of advice to anyone interested in exploring Mormon History. The first is Occam’s razor, which states that “entities should not be multiplied unnecessarily.” More commonly: “of several acceptable explanations, the simplest is preferable.” There are numerous aspects of Mormon History that will require you to make decisions – evidence alone will not prove anything. For any issue, you will encounter theories and explanations that will seem far-fetched and tenuous. Sometimes these theories will come from LDS apologists, sometimes form LDS critics. I have found it useful and practical to accept the simplest of available explanations.
The second is Hanlon’s razor, which states, “Never attribute to malice that which can be adequately explained by stupidity.” By all accounts, Mormonism’s founders at times made mistakes, were imperfect, made poor decisions, chased selfish desires, and committed sins. You will discover numerous events, statements, and actions that are not easily explained. Many choose to attribute the mistakes of church leaders to malice or conspiracy. I have found it comforting, practical, and more logical to attribute things to stupidity (ok, “stupidity” sounds a little harsh, but you get the idea…).
For better advice, go here.
What advice would YOU give a rookie student of Mormon history?

8 comments to Hanlon’s Razor, Occam’s Razor, and How To Explore Mormon History

  • I think your advice is perfect.

    I am proud of my heritage, and believe my forebears had mostly good intentions if not perfect actions.

    Funny, I don't really care to learn more about church history though. I don't want the rose-colored versions or the "honesty." I just want to get away from both sides, and away from what often feels like manipulative persuasion.

  • Bolcheck

    I don't fall into the camp which requires the full factual truth from history or church history. While I understand that many of the Sunday School stories are "whitewashed", I can't get worked up over it.

    An average person recounting an average life will recount their histories in a "colored" manner. I don't see this as wrong, I see it as natural. I personally want to embellish the good and downplay the bad. Isn't that natural?

    I prefer to think of the early church as a work in progress. Imagine if some of the things we allege, are true. People are doing some seriously strange and impressive things. No only that, but they are learning about the gospel as it is revealed. They have no history to copy. How are you supposed to react to a gospel that suddenly changes to accept polygamy or denounce tobacco? The early church has this incomplete set of revelations that could change at any moment. Everyone is a new convert that is learning by trial and error. Talk about a recipe for disaster. It is truly amazing that it only went slightly off the rails.

    Back to why it doesn't matter that our history is whitewashed. I always use the following example from church history. Does it matter to you that when Joseph Smith was killed, he had a gun AND shot two people while trying to protect himself? This is probably news to you because even when the fact that Joseph had a gun is acknowledged we say the gun malfunctioned. Well it did, for three of the six shots. He got off three rounds and one of the men he shot died. But who cares, if a mob is out there trying to kill you, are you going to go quietly into the night? I think if I had a gun, and for those who know me I love guns, I would try to save myself. Is there something wrong with that? I am okay with the fact that mistakes were made (Brigham) and humans running the church acted human (Brigham again).

  • Good advice (and good comments above). I don't study too much Mormon history, but I'll give some advice anyway. I would suggest making prayer a companion to study. I believe a prayer (whether formal or in your heart) will help to bring an understanding of the lessons we can learn from our history. Prayer will also help keep us from hardening our hearts against anyone too much.

  • Kat

    I really like your advice as well. I should do some more church history study. I'll add that to the mile long reading list that I'm someday going to tackle.

  • simplysarah, I think it is fine to not be interested in Mormon history. I wasn't either until a few years go. For me, it is a faith-promoting hobby, but I understand why others aren't interested. I agree that there is a lot of "manipulative persuasion" from all sides.

  • Bolcheck, I disagree that it doesn't matter that history is whitewashed. I like your perspective on church history you mention in your third paragraph… but why aren't we comfortable discussing the failures of the early leaders at church? Nobody should base their faith on church history… but something is wrong when a study of history so commonly leads to someone leaving the church.

  • Melanie, thanks for the reminder about the importance of prayer & meditation. I firmly believe that God will place truth in the hearts of those who honestly seek Him.

    Kat, once the baby comes, you should have plenty of free time to hit the books.

  • Christian

    AAH! It's Hanlon's Razor! I never knew! I thought I just had a really clever friend who made that saying up! Because I know some very clever people. And I thought he was being modest when he said he got it from somewhere else!