Chris Smith on suspensive historiography

Chris Smith’s remarks are entitled, “What Hath Oxford to do with Salt Lake?”  As the token non-LDS scholar on the panel, he raised questions about historical approaches to Mormon Studies, scholarly treatment of LDS truth claims, and the fine line he walks with academic and personal colleagues if he expresses views that contradict or critique LDS understandings.

Chris described one way academics have approached religious studies–by bracketing or suspending judgment regarding truth claims and faith claims of the group they’re studying. Then he described what he called four bad arguments for this suspensive historiography approach:

1. Religious beliefs are theological, not empirical; truth claims fall outside of a historian’s job description. Chris argues that Mormon history does have empirical elements that can be explored–and that it’s not really possible to completely excise truth claims out of the study of religions.

2. Historians should report the facts and leave the interpretation to the reader. Chris argued that would make for pretty boring history books. More dynamic dialogue happens when people are confronted with ideas they don’t agree with and have to think about.

3. Tell histories in a way that the involved historical figures would recognize. Chris commented it is difficult to get in the minds of historical participants, even with plenty of documentary evidence.

4. The pragmatic argument–that how a religion functions is more important than whether it’s “true.” Chris points out that questions about truth claims are not the only questions of interest to historians.

Chris also made some arguments for giving up the suspensive historiography approach altogether–audiences are interested in truth claims and excluding them from examination can be considered elitist; being honest regarding religious views helps build bridges if we can be straightforward and respectful in exploring them; bracketing truth claims actually does a disservice to the religion being studied and it’s a sad commentary if a religion really is “too fragile” to withstand criticism; and lastly that questions of true/false are not a trivial matter to members of the religion being studied.

In short, suspensive historiography is not the only methodology available for asking useful questions; let’s not bracket away important parts of the historical conversation!


  1. Mary Ellen says:

    You’re welcome, Chris! Next time, I’ll put together a live blogging team rather than trying to do it solo. Great presentation, btw!

  2. Maxine Hanks says:

    Chris – I like your response to notions of suspensive historiography, which have merit but need refinement (esp. re: truth claims), yet they also constitute only one approach (somewhat outdated) of many approaches and methodologies used by scholars to study religion.

    One reason for differentiating or segregating truth claims from scholarly study is that scholars don’t make theological truth claims FOR a religion (defining god, priesthood, doctrine), but scholars do study the truth claims made by a religion and scholars make truth claims about the truth claims that religion makes. So there is a real difference between making truth claims FOR a religion and making truth claims ABOUT the truth claims that a religion makes.

    But the bigger problem with a suspensive historiography is that it’s only one method among many–not invalid, just limited–particularly among newer and feminist methodologies that recognize and focus on the constructions of religion, theology, doctrine, and identity as being far more complex and revealing than previously assumed by traditional historical critical method.

    More on that in another venue, 😉 Maxine

  3. Chris Smith says:

    Hey Maxine,

    I didn’t argue that suspensive historiography is invalid, or that we should *always* discuss religious truth claims in our academic work. Mostly I was just responding to *normative* arguments for a suspensive approach– that is, arguments that say a suspensive approach is the only or best way to do history. I just wanted to clear a little ground for people to be more open about what they believe, or about their real motives for taking a suspensive approach if that’s what they choose to do.

    As for “truth claims”, I was using the phrase to refer to specifically supernatural or theological truth claims. But I agree that this category is somewhat problematic; I employed it only because that’s the way the suspensive school frames its approach. The line between the natural and the supernatural is socially constructed. Take magic and dark matter, for instance. There’s nothing on the face of either phenomenon that makes it obviously classifiable one way or the other. Magic was considered a science in previous eras. Dark matter is just as mysterious, ineffable, and inexplicable to us as magic. The reason we define magic as supernatural and dark matter as natural is that scientists have been able to reliably and repeatedly measure the effects of the latter, whereas they have not been able to do so for the former. So before we can “suspend” judgment about the supernatural, we essentially have to have *already* judged it in order to determine that it is supernatural (i.e. scientifically unverifiable) in the first place. If someone comes along and disagrees with that pre-judgment, then the whole discussion about suspending the supernatural becomes nonsensical.



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