Jesus Visits The Americas? [Roundtable]

For the 9th Annual Loyola History Graduate Student Conference, the LUC Public History Committee will host a roundtable on “Revisionist Public History.” This is a post that introduces a case study on the topic. The Committee welcomes participation both online and at the conference. If you have an example of “Revisionist” Public History, please feel free to mention it as a comment on the blog, or contact the blog editors to request the opportunity to author a guest post. For more information on the Conference and the Roundtable–to be held November 3 at Loyola’s downtown Water Tower Campus–click here.

This post comes from Dr. Sarah Doherty, a recent graduate of Loyola’s Public History/US History joint PhD program. 

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This past summer I spent a week in Salt Lake City as an AP World History grader.  I had ample opportunity to visit local cultural institutions, but I was most interested in taking a look around Temple Square which is the headquarters of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints (LDS).  The ten acre Temple Square compound was filled with pairs of helpful young women tour guides from around the world on their mission year.  They cheerfully provided visitors with information about Temple Square, history of Mormons in Utah and if you stood still for too long read you scripture from copies of the Book of Mormon they all carried.

In the North Visitors Center, guests to Temple Square are greeted with a history of the universe as told by the LDS.  On my first visit I was accompanied by a group of other world history teachers who all had running commentary below their breaths about the “history” that was presented.  I went back alone to revisit one exhibit that particularly piqued my interest.  As seen in the above photo, a hippie looking Jesus spent some time hanging out with indigenous peoples of the New World.  The exhibit label was titled “Jesus Christ Visited Ancient America.”  I am not well-versed in biblical history or archaeology, but I am quite certain that the vast majority of scholars in these fields would agree with me that the widely accepted Christian cannon and historical record does not support Jesus traveling to the Americas.  I stepped back from the exhibit as a tour group with a bunch of young children approached.  The young female tour guide asked the children if they knew what Jesus did in the New World.  The children, in their excited voices, all chimed in that Jesus taught the Aztec and Maya how to read and write.  The tour guide affirmed their answer and all the parents of the children nodded in agreement.  As a teacher of Native American history I found the entire lesson and historical interpretation of the exhibit troubling.

In thinking about revisionist history, how do we evaluate historical interpretations that do no support the established historical record?  Do we simply dismiss the Mormons, one of the fastest growing modern religions, as crazy folk on society’s fringes?  Or, must we give serious consideration to world and biblical history as presented by the LDS?