You and I and everyone else are sometimes guilty of presentism, which Merriam-Webster defines as “an attitude toward the past dominated by present-day attitudes and experiences.” Presentism can be an innocent mistake.
I am a docent at the Church History Museum in Salt Lake City, at least I was before COVID-19 hit and the museum closed. A few years ago, a Church historian came into the museum. He told me he came to correct an information label. I interrupted his work and asked him a question about Hyrum Smith’s watch that is on display in the museum. As I said the word “watch,” I unconsciously looked at my left wrist as though checking the time on a wristwatch. “No,” he said, abruptly. Then he mimed taking a pocketwatch out of a vest pocket to look at the time. I was embarrassed. I knew Hyrum’s watch was a pocketwatch not a wristwatch.
Timepieces are just one of thousands of tangible artifacts that have changed over time. But the greatest value in learning about the past comes in studying the human intangibles that highlight error and give perspective. The desire to avoid repeating the mistakes of the past requires that we look at the past as a foreign land of culture, ethics, motives, societal norms, and attitudes. If we overlay the present, we can falsely judge the dead, the dead who cannot defend themselves or set the record straight. Wrongly judging the dead, who are alive in the spirit world and that we will meet someday, is presentism at its worst.
For the last decade, I have observed museum curators’ efforts to help visitors leave their presentism at the door to be immersed in another time and place. They accomplish this by adherence to fact, even difficult and uncomfortable fact. When new, verifiable research showed that a display or information label misinformed or misinterpreted the facts, changes were made. But this piecemeal approach for the Church Museum wasn’t enough.
From October 2014 to October 2015, the museum was closed to the public. Artifacts and art were moved to storage; the entire first floor was gutted. When the museum reopened, visitors entered a state-of-the-art, time-travel experience beginning with Joseph Smith’s grandparents and concluding with the Nauvoo exodus. Every aspect was new and improved from the naming of the exhibit, to openness about controversial topics, to the retraining of docents. I think you will be interested in two traditional stories that were corrected.
The day I asked the historian about Hyrum’s watch, he was making changes to a display case showing an early page of Doctrine and Covenants 76 along side an architectural drawing of the Nauvoo Temple. Linking the two artifacts together implied that the moonstones, sunstones, and starstones on the Nauvoo Temple were symbolic of the three degrees of glory—telestial, terrestial, and celestial—from Section 76. The historian told me the page of scripture was going to be removed and that he was composing a new label. He said: “Section 76 likens the celestial to the sun, the terrestrial to the moon, and the telestial to the stars. On the temple, they are placed in order as we see them from earth, looking up into the sky. They do not represent the three degrees of glory.”
Here on the architectural drawing, notice the star by the attic window, the sunstone directly beneath, and the moonstone, looking down at the earth at the base.
In the museum are two pocket watches that Hyrum Smith and John Taylor had in their vest pockets when they were shot in Carthage Jail. As a child, you probably heard the story of John Taylor’s watch miraculously stopping a bullet and saving his life. However, consider a side-by-side comparison of the two watches. Hyrum’s (on the left) looks like a bullet hit it, while John Taylor’s (on the right) is not nearly as damaged. Originally, the hands were on the John Taylor watch—documenting the time of the martyrdom at 5 o’clock, 16 minutes, and 26 seconds. Recent scientific testing shows it is very unlikely that a bullet hit Elder Taylor’s watch. Historian Glen Leonard believes the watch was damaged when John collapsed on the windowsill.
A personal example:
In 2005, I started reading The History of the Church, that was published in 1930, compiled by B. H. Roberts. Eighteen months later I finished volume seven. It was a serious study for me. Then in 2008, the first volume of The Joseph Smith Papers, a collection of original documents pertaining to Joseph Smith’s life, was published. As I began to study it, I realized that in the ninety years since Elder Roberts compiled The History of the Church, original documents had been found to correct and expand knowledge about the early years of the church. Historian Dr. Richard E. Bennett commented: “The publication of The Joseph Smith Papers has been a tremendous boon to research. The Gospel Topic Essays, now on LDS.org [ChurchofJesusChrist.org], have also proven helpful. In addition, many scholars have recently been writing and publishing on a wide range of related history topics, some never explored before” [Richard E. Bennett, Temples Rising,” Deseret Book, 2019, 9]). Saints, the new four-volume history of the Church, is another example of this open approach.
With these experiences as my background, recent news footage of activists acting as judge, jury, and executioner on the past has been hard for me to watch. Then about ten days ago, I heard a news report that John Newton was a racist and that his song “Amazing Grace” should be torn out of songbooks.
Into my mind came memories of a day last year at the Salt Lake Cemetery. I was standing by the headstones of my parents, grandparents, uncle, brother, and sister, when a man dressed in Scottish attire carrying a bagpipe walked by. I asked if I had missed his playing. He said a family had hired him to play and he was waiting for them to arrive. I went back to my car and waited with my sisters for almost an hour. Finally, bagpipe music filled the air. I thought the words:
Amazing Grace, how sweet the sound
That saved a wretch like me
I once was lost, but now am found
Was blind but now I see.
I know John Newton’s life story. He was born in 1725. He wrote the words to “Amazing Grace” in 1772, when he was forty-six. The words are autobiographical. He was a “wretch,” “lost,” and “blind” when he captained a slave ship. Later he came to realize how wrong slavery was, converted to Christianity, and “found” grace in Jesus Christ. He left the slave trade business and participated in the campaign with William Wilberforce to abolish the slave trade. He spent his last years as a minister in Olney, England. He died in 1807, the year the slave trade became illegal in British colonies.
The news that John Newton’s “Amazing Grace” should be torn out of songbooks jolted me into thinking more about presentism. I wondered if those who wanted this retribution against him knew his full story. Being a slave trader was but one chapter of his life and the catalyst that brought him to an awareness of the awfulness of the slave trade.
How should the John Newtons of the past be judged? By the fact that he was a slave trader, end of story? By the fact that he had a change of heart? By the fact that he ended on a high note? How should the truly evil persons of the past be judged?
The example of identifying Hitler’s birthplace is worth noting. In 1989, Mayor Gerhard Skiba of the town where he was born decided to memorialize the place. She obtained a slab of stone from a quarry where a former concentration camp stood near Linz, Austria. On the slab are eleven German words. What is so telling about this marker is that neither his name nor the reason for the marker is mentioned. Only those who know, know. The translation reads:
For Peace, Freedom and Democracy
Never Again Fascism.
Millions of Dead Remind [us].
Peace, freedom, and democracy could be expanded to include liberty, justice, equality, and good will, and Fascism is one of many evil forms of government that trample individual rights. But the energy behind the words “never again” invites us to rise above accepting opinion, hearsay, myth, and tradition as truth. Searching original documents and leaving presentism at the door will help us learn from the past and focus on the injustices of today.