How trustworthy are memoirs or after the fact memory

As someone looking a history I find us relatively hypocritical over what we accept as a primary source material.  Some times this has to do with the paucity of material, such as in the dark ages or roman period or earlier.  Some times it just seems like a selective choice.

Case in point Zebedee Coltrin is credited for having linked the idea of a the Priesthood ban to Joseph Smith as opposed to Brigham Young.  Coltrin is pulling from a memory over 35 years old when he is looking at the issue in 1879.  I mean how many of us can remember incidents clearly a year ago let alone 35.  But at the same time you cannot devalue it out of hand.

So historians have to come along and look and compare records from the period.  In the end simply make judgment calls.  Like, it appears that Joseph Smith did not say any such thing in his life that was actually recorded.  And what was recorded was contradictary within itself.   As well Coltrin, as a Southern origin member of the church may have a bias which needs to be considered.

Yet historians will often use memoirs and after the fact interviews as primary source documents.  I myself have done similar so I understand the conundrum for historians and biographers.

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3 Responses to How trustworthy are memoirs or after the fact memory

  1. Aunt Em says:

    Hi! As a direct descendent of Zebedee Coltrin (my great grandfather), I don’t want to intrude on your discussion of race and priesthood. However, I would like to correct one of your statements. You mentioned that Zebedee might be biased against blacks because of his “Southern origin”. South of Canada, maybe. Zebedee was born in New York state, and his family moved to Ohio during his youth. This data is available all over the web in many genealogical sites. I would love to know your source of the description “Southern origin”. Perhaps it would provide me with some unknown information.

  2. Jon W says:

    Good catch.

    I cannot believe I did not notice that but you are of course correct. Maybe it was a quote in one of the several articles that I read about his giving the priesthood to Elijah Abel which has me confused with his origin.

    Naughty of my to assume that. I think I mixed up his mission to the south as being from the south. Doh.

    See that is what you get when you trust memory.

    Here is where I think this thought came from:

    The charge that Abel was dropped from the priesthood originated
    with Zebedee Coltrin. It is unfortunate that his memory proved unreliable on this point, as he should have been in a position to provide valuable information—for it was he who ordained Abel to the office of seventy (two years after purportedly being told that Negroes were not to receive the priesthood).36

    The circumstances of Coltrin’s account may be of some relevance. He claimed to have questioned the right of Negroes to hold the priesthood after a visit to the South. Abraham Smoot, the only other person to claim firsthand counsel from Joseph Smith on this subject, also had asked about the situation in the South:

    “What should be done with the Negroes in the South as I was preaching to them? [The prophet] said I could baptize them by the consent of their masters, but not to confer the priesthood upon them.”

    Additionally, a secondhand account related by Smoot in which Smith allegedly gave the same advice was also directed at Negroes “in the Southern States.” Most, if not all, of the Negroes involved in these accounts were slaves. It may be, notwithstanding the lack of contemporary documentation, that a policy was in effect denying the priesthood to slaves or isolated free southern Negroes. In any case, a de facto restriction is demonstrable in the South, and empirical justification for the policy is not difficult to imagine.

    Also helpful:

    When presented with the story, Coltrin replied that on the contrary
    Joseph Smith had told him in 1834 that “the Spirit of the Lord saith the
    Negro had no right nor cannot hold the Priesthood.” While Coltrin acknowledged washing and annointing a Negro, Elijah Abel, in a ceremony in the Kirtland temple after receiving these instructions, he stated that in so doing he “never had such unpleasant feelings in my life—and I said I never would again Annoint another person who had Negro blood in him. [sic] unless I was commanded by the Prophet to do so.” Coltrin did not mention ordaining Abel a seventy (at the direction of Joseph Smith?), but he did state that he was a president of the seventies when the prophet directed that Abel be dropped because of his “lineage.”

    Abraham Smoot, at whose home the 1879 interview took place, added
    that he had received similar instructions in 1838.

    I have taken all of this from Lester Bush’s article in the Dialogue Journal of Mormon Thought.
    Mormonism’s Negro Doctrine: An Historical Overview
    Vol. 8, Num. 1 – Spring 1973

  3. Dane says:

    Isn’t it great that it doesn’t matter?

    Joseph Sitati

    “It does not bother him that the church barred blacks from the priesthood until 1978.” “Christ came only to the Jews and not until the end of his mission did he commission the apostles to go to all the world,” he said. “Different communities are invited to participate in the plan of salvation at different times. What is important is that the salvation to which they are invited is the same. It doesn’t matter that the Jews were the first, if you like, and the Africans are the last.”

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