Understanding our history involves a process of learning and discovery that can strengthen our testimonies, help us deflect doubt, tell the best stories, discern true doctrine, and improve our thinking. However, without the proper perspective, the past can be a source of confusion that diminishes testimony and creates doubt.
These five principles from Keith Erekson, Church History Library director, can help us understand the past.
1. The past is gone—only pieces remain. From our perspective in the present, the past is mostly gone. However, pieces of the past remain. We must study the records that survive while remembering that they do not represent the entirety of the past.
2. Facts don’t speak, but storytellers do. Because the surviving pieces of the past are incomplete, some people attempt to put the pieces together to tell a story. We must always consider who is telling the stories, how they are telling them, and why they are telling them.
3. The past is different from the present (and that’s OK). As we seek to make sense of the pieces of the past and the stories told about it, we discover that past views differ from our views. Every temporal aspect of human experience changes over time in ways both small and great.
4. Present assumptions distort the past. Because the past was different from our day, we must take special care not to make assumptions about the past based on our present ideas and values. Frequently, so-called problems with the past are actually just bad assumptions made in the present.
5. Learning history requires humility. From our perspective today, we obviously know more than participants did about the outcome of the past, but we also know far less about their experience of living in it. It requires humility to admit we do not know everything, to wait patiently for more answers, and to continue learning.