Tuesday, May 24, 2022

Real vs. Rumor, Part 6: SITH

One major fallacy in Real vs. Rumor is the failure to recognize multiple working hypotheses, based on the same facts. The book lurches from one declarative "factual" statement to another--including the "fact" of SITH.

The last thing we would expect from a book on "how to dispel latter-day myths" is a full embrace of SITH (the stone-in-the-hat myth). Yet the book Real vs. Rumor takes SITH as granted, teaching that Joseph Smith didn't really translate the plates.

Chapter 3, "I Assumed..." offers an important insight:

Assumptions are things we presuppose or take for granted or assert as true or certain without offering any evidence. Historian Steven C. Harper noted, "Assumptions are not knowledge, but often those who hold them do not discern the difference." Typically, an assumption is the starting place for thinking, an opening premise.

Frequently, so-called challenges with Church history stem from bad assumptions in the present...As we identify and address the assumptions in our thinking, we follow Paul's counsel to "prove all things; hold fast that which is good" (1 Thes. 5:21). It takes humility to change our assumptions after we learn they are incorrect. 

So far, so good. That's good advice.

But then we read this (p. 40). 

"Sometimes assumptions arise from artistic representations of history. For example, painters who depict the translation of the Book of Mormon have placed the plates on a table in view of the scribe, despite the fact that the plates were always hidden from the scribe."

While it's true that assumptions can arise from artistic representations, the example contradicts the previous discussion of assumptions! 

Erekson seems oblivious to the assumption he made when he declared a fact here.

Although Erekson claims he's stating a fact, no one can say, based on the evidence, that "the plates were always hidden from the scribe." First, what we do know is that neither Martin Harris nor Emma Smith saw the plates during the translation. We know that David Whitmer described the SITH experience in the main room downstairs in the Whitmer home. Emma described a SITH experience that could have been in the Whitmer home or in Harmony, but we can't tell for sure. David admitted he was not present for most of the translation in the Whitmer home, and none of the translation in Harmony. Emma also was not always present during the translation.

Second, neither Oliver Cowdery nor John Whitmer described a SITH experience. We know Oliver Cowdery was given permission to translate the plates. How could he do that if he couldn't see the plates? John Whitmer stated that Joseph translated the plates with the Urim and Thummim. John also created the document titled "Caractors," presumably copying them from either an earlier copy from the plates or from the plates themselves.   

To state as a fact that the plates were always hidden from the scribe not only goes beyond the evidence, but contradicts a fair reading of the evidence. 

Continuing...

Some painters include a lamp or candle in the scene to symbolize the light of revelation, even though Joseph normally translated during daylight hours when there was so much light that he had to place the interpreters in a hat in order to see the message on the stones.

Here again, Erekson simply assumes the SITH accounts described the translation. But he goes even further to claim Joseph "normally translated" with SITH, and that he used the hat because "there was so much light."

Not one of the SITH witnesses explained what, exactly, Joseph dictated on the occasion. Thus, there is no direct link between these sessions and the text we have today. It's one thing to accept what those witnesses say they observed--Joseph putting a stone into a hat, placing his face in the hat, and then dictating words--but it's something else entirely to accept what those witnesses merely inferred or assumed as historical fact. 

A book purporting to distinguish between "real" and "rumor" should make that distinction clear, but instead Erekson blurs the distinction. 

As for daylight hours, David explained that during the Fayette demonstration, they hung a blanket over the window so people could not look in and see what was taking place. Anyone who has visited the recreated Whitmer home knows that room is dim even when the window is not covered with a blanket, particularly on a cloudy day, but what would be the source of light when the window was covered?

Even in the upstairs room, the small window on a cloudy day offers minimal light.

This brings up a useful question: Why did Joseph translate from early morning until sunset (about 14 hours in New York in June)? If he was really reading words off a stone in a hat, wouldn't it make more sense to translate at night? The scribe would need a candle to write by in that case, but Joseph presumably could read the words more clearly.

The alternative explanation, that Joseph was reading the engravings on the plates, makes more sense. With good daylight, Joseph could read the engravings and his scribe could read his work. They might still need a candle on cloudy or stormy days, but it would have been far more difficult to translate the plates at night than it would have been to read engravings on the plates. 

Continuing on page 41. 

Assumptions Cause Harm

So what's the harm with filling in the holes in our knowledge about the past with present assumptions? At the most basic level, assumptions contaminate our thinking. Terryl and Fiona Givens warned that our assumptions "get us off on the wrong foot, obscure our light of sight, or simply misdirect our focus. This is because, all too often, we don't realize the limiting assumptions with which we are working." 

This is indisputably helpful analysis. But the SITH assumption is one of the most contaminating assumptions in Church history. It causes a lot of harm.

And Real vs. Rumor embraces SITH!

On page 44, we read "'Assuming is intellectually and spiritually lazy,' observed Harper. 'It is arrogant. It is easy.' By contrast, exposing the assumptions hidden in our culture, worldview and subconscious requires hard, thoughtful work."

Again, awesome observation. 

But we can only conclude that Erekson assumes SITH because it is easy to do so. The harm it causes was set forth by Royal Skousen, who concluded, based on SITH, that Joseph and Oliver misled everyone about the translation.

The harm is also evident in the Gospel Topics essay on Book of Mormon Translation, which doesn't even quote what Joseph and Oliver said but instead relies on the speculations of scholars who relied on the SITH witnesses.

Most importantly, the harm of SITH is that it teaches the Latter-day Saints to mistrust Joseph Smith and Oliver Cowdery, as well as the Book of Mormon itself. If the text is not an actual translation of an ancient text--particularly considering that Joseph claimed the Title Page was a "literal translation of the last leaf of the plates"--then what is it?

To claim it was purely a "revelation" repudiates what Joseph and Oliver said, and transforms an ancient document into an ethereal, amorphous composition not grounded in reality.

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Chapter 7, They Were Just Like Us, seeks to justify SITH. It opens with an unlikely scenario from maybe 20 years ago. It's unlikely partly because kids know how to search terms on their phones and don't need a computer lab instructor to explain how to google something, but it's also unlikely because Latter-day Saints are now being taught SITH from a young age. But the larger point is well taken: everyone finds information on the Internet that challenges or contradicts their beliefs. 

The tragedy today is that a kid searching the Internet is more likely to be surprised about what Joseph and Oliver said because what they said is not taught any longer. Watch.

The images on the screen surprised Noelle. Sitting in her school's computer lab, she had listened closely as the librarian taught about researching on the internet.  When instructed to "type something in the search bar that you know about," she typed "Book of Mormon." Her family read the book each day, and she had recently begun to read it on her own.

After she typed the words and hit Enter, she expected to see something about Nephi or the golden plates, but instead pictures of rocks filled the screen. She had not heard about seer stones, and she had never seen a picture of one! Noelle's mind began to fill with questions. What is a seer stone? What does it have to do with the Book of Mormon? How come I've never heard about this?

This scenario is designed to justify the "inoculation" theory of teaching SITH throughout the Church as a fact. But in today's world, students are more likely to be surprised to learn what Joseph and Oliver taught about the translation (as well as the Hill Cumorah).

Continuing...

Noelle's experience reveals a couple of common problems. First, she encountered something she didn't know before and doesn't know how to make sense of it. This is a relatively minor problem since all good learning should introduce us to new things. Her second problem is that what she learned about the past--that the Book of Mormon was translated using a seer stone--was different that what she thought it would be. Further, the use of a seer stone is unfamiliar to her present experience. That past experience is different from our present experience is often surprising because we frequently assume that our understanding of the past is both correct and complete and that the people in the past were "just like us" when, in reality, almost everything was different for them.

 Assuming a Noelle who was familiar with what Joseph and Oliver taught (an unlikely situation today), it would not be surprising that she doesn't know how to make sense of SITH. Not the claim of SITH--that has been around since 1834's Mormonism Unvailed--but the teaching of SITH as fact by leading LDS scholars. 

At a minimum, Erekson should present SITH as one of multiple working hypotheses. We can all see that both anti-Mormon critics and LDS scholars such as Royal Skousen and Keith Erekson teach SITH, and they have historical evidence to support their views. But there is other historical evidence that contradicts SITH, leading to alternative working hypotheses. Some people deny that Joseph ever used a seer stone. While that is implausible, given the historical evidence, it should be included among the multiple working hypotheses. Another hypothesis is that Joseph used the seer stone only to conduct demonstrations, or as Gurley put it, "to satisfy the awful curiosity" of his followers. The demonstration hypothesis explains the SITH witnesses as seeking to refute the Spalding theory, which their testimony, considered in context, clearly does.

Rather than present multiple working hypotheses, Erekson seeks to justify SITH.

From page 92:

Differences can exist even within a single word. Today, when we speak of translation, we commonly think of a person who converts one language to another by using their knowledge of both languages, as well as a dictionary, lexicon, or electronic tools. So what did Joseph Smith mean when he said he "translated" the Book of Mormon "by the gift and power of God" (Book of Mormon title page)?

Here is a double misdirection. In Joseph Smith's day, the term "translation" meant exactly what it means today. The cover of every copy of the King James Bible explains 

The Holy Bible Containing the Old and New Testaments

Translated out of the Original Tongues: and with the Former Translations Diligently Compared and Revised, by His Majesty’s Special Command

People were familiar with translating languages because they dealt with Indian languages, as well as French, Latin, Greek, and Hebrew. Joseph described the language on the plates, explaining that the text read from right to left like the Hebrew.

The other misdirection is quoting from the Book of Mormon Title Page out of context to justify SITH. First, the Title Page was written by Mormon/Moroni. But Moroni also explained that "he commanded me that I should seal them up; and he also hath commanded that I should seal up the interpretation thereof; wherefore I have sealed up the interpreters, according to the commandment of the Lord." (Ether 4:5) And he told Joseph "that there were two stones in silver bows—and these stones, fastened to a breastplate, constituted what is called the Urim and Thummim—deposited with the plates; and the possession and use of these stones were what constituted “seers” in ancient or former times; and that God had prepared them for the purpose of translating the book." (Joseph Smith—History 1:35) Nothing Moroni wrote or said involved a seer stone Joseph found in a well.

Second, Joseph said his translation was a "literal translation." The term "literal" means the same now as it did then; i.e., Webster's 1828 dictionary defines it as "2. Following the letter or exact words; not free; as a literal translation." There's nothing mystical about a literal translation.
 
Continuing from p. 92.

He clearly did not mean that he was fluent in the Nephite language, nor could he have used a dictionary or lexicon, so "translate" meant something different to him.

Here's what Joseph actually said as he prepared to begin the translation: "immediately after my arrival there [in Harmony] I commenced copying the characters off the plates. I copied a considerable number of them, and by means of the Urim and Thummim I translated some of them, which I did between the time I arrived at the house of my wife’s father, in the month of December, and the February following."
(Joseph Smith—History 1:62)

This is the opposite of not learning the Nephite language. Joseph said he copied and translated the characters, not that he read words off a seer stone. It's difficult to imagine how he could have been more explicit about this.

This discussion shows there are multiple working hypotheses. Yes, maybe the Book of Mormon is purely a revelation. Maybe, as our SITH scholars now teach, Joseph and Oliver did intentionally mislead everyone about the translation. Or maybe, as other scholars claim, Joseph composed the text, recited it from memory, or copied it from the Spalding manuscript or another text. 

But maybe Joseph did actually translate the engravings on the plates as he, Oliver, and the Lord (in the D&C) said.

Why not recognize multiple working hypotheses, including the possibility that Joseph and Oliver told the truth accurately?
_____

From page 102. 

3. Taking history out of context. Beware of histories that present true information out of context. Critics of Joseph Smith will cite his use of a seer stone to hunt treasure but not his prophetic use of the seer stone in translation. Joseph readily acknowledged both facts.

This is inexcusable because Erekson is deliberately misleading his readers here. Recall that throughout the book, he uses the term "seer stone" but never the term Urim and Thummim. 

Both Joseph and Oliver acknowledged Joseph's treasure digging, making fun of the exaggerations of the critics. But neither of them acknowledged or even accommodated the claim that Joseph used "the seer stone in translation." Instead, both of them explained that Joseph used the Urim and Thummim that came with the plates; i.e., the Nephite interpreters.

And because Joseph could not show the U&T to anyone, by definition those who observed SITH were not witnessing the translation, regardless of what they inferred/assumed.

Why does Erekson falsely claim that Joseph "readily acknowledged" the "fact" that he used "the seer stone in translation" here?

Some modern scholars have tried to conflate the terms, claiming that when Joseph and Oliver wrote/said "Urim and Thummim" they actually meant the seer stone Joseph found in a well. Erekson follows that line of thinking here, but without making it clear or explicit. 

Conflating the terms is a modern apologist concoction that defies the historical evidence. The 1834 book Mormonism Unvailed made a clear distinction between the "peep stone" and the Urim and Thummim. 

The conflation SITH scholars cite a reference in Wilford Woodruff's journal from 1842 in which he arguably conflates the U&T with the seer stone, but on the same occasion, Brigham Young made the distinction clear. Another working hypothesis is that by 1842, Joseph had extended the term Urim and Thummim beyond the instrument Moroni put in the stone box with the abridged plates.

But that's no excuse for claiming that Joseph "readily acknowledged" SITH.

On page 135, Erekson discusses the provenance of the seer stone featured in the Ensign and in the Joseph Smith papers. The sources do not include either Joseph or Oliver. It's fair to say that this is the stone that Joseph possessed, but the provenance does not verify that Joseph used the stone to translate anything. Gurley's explanation that Joseph used it to satisfy the curiosity of his supporters remains the most likely explanation.

Again, the main point is that Erekson does not provide readers multiple working hypotheses to consider. Worse, he does not offer a scenario that supports and corroborates what Joseph and Oliver taught.

On page 169, Erekson writes, "The best arguments are comprehensive, our final criterion for establishing trustworthiness. They seek out all of the accurate facts, authentic sources, and reliable stories... Arguments dive deeply into the complexities of the past and the relevant contexts. They consider a breadth of perspectives and interpretations."

That's an excellent standard, but Erekson himself doesn't live up to it in this book. Nor do the Gospel Topics Essays that he cites as good examples, because they don't even quote what Joseph and Oliver said about the translation (or about Cumorah). 

Finally, Erekson turns a bug into a feature. On page 224, he writes, "Joseph Smith translated the Book of Mormon using stones. Sometimes, when people express their concern to me about Joseph Smith's seer stone, I respond that I'd be more worried if God had not instructed Joseph to use a stone because its presence is part of "showing that he is the same God yesterday, today, and forever" (D&C 20:12).

Of course, nowhere in Joseph's writings and revelations does God instruct him to use the seer stone he found in a well. This is pure misdirection. Throughout the D&C and the teachings of Joseph and Oliver, Moroni instructed Joseph to translate with the Nephite interpreters and Joseph did just that.
_____

This is not a distinction without a difference. The SITH problem goes directly to the credibility of Joseph and Oliver, as well as the credibility and plausibility of the Book of Mormon itself. 

If, contrary to what Joseph and Oliver taught and the claims of the text itself, the Book of Mormon was purely the product of "revelation" in the guise of words appearing on a seer stone, there is no connection between the text and the real world. The plates were an irrelevant talisman at best, leaving the abridgment and preservation of the records pointless. Really, the entire founding narrative disintegrates under SITH, which is why Mormonism Unvailed described it in the first place and why Joseph and Oliver refuted it directly in Letter I. 

When a book purporting to "dispel Latter-day myths" instead promotes the myths created by critics, it's no wonder that the rising generation finds it increasingly difficult to exercise faith in the changing narrative.

 




 






Monday, May 23, 2022

Real vs. Rumor, part 5: inexplicable errors


As I've explained before, I wanted to like and recommend the book Real vs. Rumor because people need to understand how to approach Church history. But the book itself perpetuates rumors!

The subtitle of Real vs. Rumor is sadly ironic: "How to dispel Latter-day Myths." The book includes several factual errors that contribute to, instead of reduce, confusion about Church history. 

Here are some key passages.

p. 2. Given that history is nearly everywhere in Latter-day Saint life, it's no surprise that we frequently encounter rumors and myths. "It never ceases to amaze me," President Harold B. Lee observed, "how gullible some of our Church members are in broadcasting sensational stories, or dreams, or visions, or purported patriarchal blessings, or quotations, or supposedly from some person's private diary." 

The quotation misleadingly fails to alert readers with an ellipsis that it omitted the end of President Lee's sentence: "without first verifying the report with proper Church authorities."

In a book that emphasizes the importance of accuracy, it's surprising to see such an omission. You can read President Lee's entire statement in context here: 

More of President Lee's talk is found below.*

How do we verify reports with proper Church authorities? Obviously we can't ask Church leaders every question that comes to our minds. Church leaders have emphasized repeatedly that we consult the scriptures and the teachings of the prophets. Keep that in mind when we see what else is in this book, Real vs. Rumor.

Page 2 continues.

Antagonists distort the Church's history, and some Saints abandon their faith because they can't make sense of the past or discern present manipulations.

As we've seen elsewhere, it is not only "antagonists" who distort the Church's history. The Saints book, volume 1, deliberately presented a false historical narrative present by omitting any reference to Cumorah, which early Church members universally knew was in New York. The reason was to accommodate modern ideas of geography that varied from what Joseph and Oliver taught, specifically the modern idea that the "real" Hill Cumorah of Mormon 6:6 is somewhere in southern Mexico (M2C). The manual Teachings of the Presidents of the Church: Joseph Smith deliberately omitted key parts of the Wentworth Letter that also contradict M2C. 

These distortions of Church history do lead some Latter-day Saints to abandon their faith. They can't make sense of these changes to Church history. Because scholars such as Erekson don't teach what the prophets taught, Latter-day Saints can't easily discern present manipulations. 
_____

Page 10 discusses Emma Smith. We read, "The pages she wrote as scribe for the Book of Mormon were lost with the 116 pages." 

This is presented as a statement of fact (without a citation), but it contradicts what Emma herself said, as well as what David Whitmer and others reported. Emma claimed that Joseph used SITH, but only after the 116 pages were lost. Before that, she said, he used the Urim and Thummim. Yet she claimed that she wrote when Joseph used SITH. Whatever she wrote, therefore, had to be after the 116 pages were lost. David Whitmer also said that Emma was a scribe, as did John Gilbert, who typeset the Book of Mormon. 

This is relevant for two reasons. First, Erekson warns us about people who cite facts without references, just as he did here. Second, if Emma served as scribe in the Whitmer home, the pages she wrote are missing. We have most of 1 Nephi and the first part of 2 Nephi, so she apparently scribed for part of 2 Nephi. This means she probably wrote while Joseph dictated some of the Isaiah chapters, consistent with David Whitmer's description of the SITH demonstration downstairs in the Whitmer home. While we don't know what Joseph dictated during the SITH demonstration(s) because none of the witnesses told us, if those dictations are in the text we have today, they were probably the Isaiah chapters. This is significant because it indicates that the Isaiah chapters in 2 Nephi were not translations, as I discussed in more detail in A Man that Can Translate.

But in Real vs. Rumor, instead of a discussion of the historical record, we get a statement of fact which is nothing but an unfounded opinion that contradicts the facts: "The pages she wrote as scribe for the Book of Mormon were lost with the 116 pages."
_____

On page 11, we read this: "In a history that is now part of the Pearl of Great Price, Joseph Smith described his visits from Moroni in only 900 words. Later, Oliver Cowdery related what Joseph had told him about the visit in 2,400 words--almost three times as many as Joseph left."

This chronology is simply wrong. Oliver published his account in 1835. He explained that Joseph helped him write that history and Joseph had his scribes copy it into his own history as part of his life story. https://www.josephsmithpapers.org/paper-summary/history-1834-1836/82

Joseph's history in the Pearl of Great Price was compiled by his scribes in 1838-9 and first published in 1842. We don't know how directly Joseph was involved in creating this history, as explained here: https://www.josephsmithpapers.org/intro/introduction-to-history-drafts-1838-1842. However, when first published in the Times and Seasons, this history identified the messenger as Nephi, not Moroni. So even on this detail, Erekson misleads the reader.


We realize that Real vs. Rumor is not a comprehensive history, but shouldn't it at least be accurate in the details it does relate? And how can readers trust what they're reading when Erekson tells us on page 11 that "we have to do the best we can with what has survived" but he doesn't do that himself? 
_____

Real vs. Rumor repeats the Moroni version of the Mary Whitmer story, without explaining that this historical record identified the messenger as one of the Three Nephites.

On page 27, we read, "A dozen men and women reported being eyewitness observers of the plates--three witnesses were shown them by an angel, eight witnesses were shown them by Joseph Smith, and Mary Whitmer was shown them by a visitor who was later deduced to be Moroni."

It is exasperating to see this in a book that was supposedly intended to "dispel Latter-day myths!"

The historical evidence from David and Mary shows that the messenger was one of the Three Nephites and called himself Brother Nephi. That it could not have been Moroni should be obvious, both from the fact that David Whitmer had personal, face-to-face encounters with both Moroni and the messenger, and from the teaching that resurrected beings are restored perfectly and are not shape-shifters who can deceive people by changing their appearance. (Alma 11:44)

To his credit, Erekson recognizes that there is no historical evidence to support the Moroni version, but he writes in the passive voice, obscuring the source: "a visitor who was later deduced to be Moroni."

Interested readers can see the historical details here: https://www.lettervii.com/p/moroni-and-nephi.html

The fake Moroni/Mary Whitmer story is one of the most destructive "Latter-day myths" for two reasons. First, it contradicts Alma's teaching of the resurrection. Are we now to believe that after we're resurrected, we can appear as a tall man in perfect condition, but if so inclined we can change our shape so we can appear as an short, older man, heavyset with a long beard, simply to mislead people?

The second problem here is the way M2C scholars such as John W. Welch have used the Moroni myth to deflect from the point of David Whitmer's account. David explained that when he first encountered the messenger, he was taking the plates from Harmony to Cumorah. That was direct corroboration of what Joseph and Oliver always said; i.e., that the Hill Cumorah was in western New York. We infer that the messenger was taking the abridged plates to the repository in Cumorah so he could pick up the plates of Nephi and take them to Fayette so Joseph could translate them as directed by D&C 10. But of course the M2C scholars insist Cumorah cannot be in New York. Even in the reference book Opening the Heavens, Brother Welch changed the reference to omit the mention of Cumorah. 


Readers of Real vs. Rumor should expect to see such myths exposed, not amplified.
_____

I have more examples of this type of thing in the book, but by now you should get the gist.

Next, we'll look at the way Real vs. Rumor perpetuates one of the worst of all the Latter-day myths: SITH (the stone-in-the-hat theory).

_____
* President Lee gave that talk in the Oct. 1972 General Conference when he was first sustained as President of the Church. Here is more from that talk. Consider whether Real vs. Rumor cherry-picked from President Lee's talk, even while objecting to cherry picking.

I want to warn this great body of priesthood against that great sin of Sodom and Gomorrah, which has been labeled as a sin second only in seriousness to the sin of murder. I speak of the sin of adultery, which, as you know, was the name used by the Master as he referred to unlicensed sexual sins of fornication as well as adultery; and besides this, the equally grievous sin of homosexuality, which seems to be gaining momentum with social acceptance in the Babylon of the world, of which Church members must not be a part.

While we are in the world, we must not be of the world. Any attempts being made by the schools or places of entertainment to flaunt sexual perversions, which can do nothing but excite to experimentation, must find among the priesthood in this church a vigorous and unrelenting defense through every lawful means that can be employed.

The common judges of Israel, our bishops and stake presidents, must not stand by and fail to apply disciplinary measures within their jurisdiction, as set forth plainly in the laws of the Lord and procedures as set forth in plain and simple instructions that cannot be misunderstood. Never must we allow supposed mercy to the unrepentant sinner to rob the justice upon which true repentance from sinful practices is predicated.

One more matter: There are among us many loose writings predicting the calamities which are about to overtake us. Some of these have been publicized as though they were necessary to wake up the world to the horrors about to overtake us. Many of these are from sources upon which there cannot be unquestioned reliance.
 

Monday, May 9, 2022

Real vs Rumor, part 4: Loyalty to groupthink

The book Real vs. Rumor contains lots of excellent insights into methods of historical analysis, along with cautions about common logical and conceptual fallacies. The book is commendable for that content.

But the book also inexplicably contradicts its own guidance over and over.  As we'll see, Real vs. Rumor would be a far more effective book if the author had applied his own sniff tests to his own writing.

_____

In part 3, we looked at one example of how Brother Erekson disregards (contradicts) his own rules to accommodate the M2C groupthink idea that Oliver and Joseph misled the Church about the Hill Cumorah in New York. 

The M2C obsession among LDS scholars at Book of Mormon Central, the Interpreter, FAIRLDS, and the rest of the M2C citation cartel has seeped into the Church History Department as well. 

Perhaps this is attributable to the revolving doors between BYU, the M2C citation cartel, and the Church History Department; i.e., the historians seek to accommodate their peers' obsession with M2C and interpret Church history accordingly.

We've already seen how they've changed Church history to accommodate M2C in the Saints book, volume 1, as well as in lesson manuals (such as Teachings of the Presidents of the Church: Joseph Smith). We've seen how the editorial content in the Joseph Smith Papers consistently accommodates M2C. Today we'll look at another example from Real vs. Rumor.

First, though, consider this observation by Andy Kessler of the Wall St. Journal (emphasis added):

In her 2014 book, “A Fighting Chance,” Elizabeth Warren describes advice she received from Lawrence Summers when he was Harvard’s president: “I had a choice. I could be an insider or I could be an outsider. Outsiders can say whatever they want. But people on the inside don’t listen to them. Insiders, however, get lots of access and a chance to push their ideas. People—powerful people—listen to what they have to say. But insiders also understand one unbreakable rule: They don’t criticize other insiders.”

Want to see this in action? In his 2021 book, “A Plague Upon Our House,” about his time as an adviser to the Trump administration on Covid-19, the Hoover Institution’s Scott Atlas describes “a functioning troika of ‘medical experts’ composed of Drs. Birx, Fauci, and Redfield.” He “noticed that there was virtually no disagreement among them. It was an amazing consistency, as though there were an agreed-upon complicity—even though some of their statements were so patently simplistic or erroneous.” Loyalty! But was that for the best? After two years of Covid restrictions, obviously not.

Loyalty is overrated.

"The Biden Loyalty Machine: Administration insiders play by one rule: Never criticize other insiders."

https://www.wsj.com/articles/the-biden-loyalty-machine-democrats-dgb-disinformation-sec-climate-risk-fauci-covid-lockdowns-biden-inflation-supply-equity-federal-reserve-military-russia-11652025653?st=ndtx5lhi8cqdvtk&reflink=desktopwebshare_permalink 

From my perspective as an "outsider" studying and writing about LDS Church history, loyalty is not only overrated, it's destructive. 

Not only does changing Church history confuse the Latter-day Saints, not only does it undermine the credibility and reliability of Joseph, Oliver, their contemporaries and their successors, but it supports the claims of the critics of the Church. After all, if the leading LDS intellectuals teach that the prophets were wrong, what are ordinary members supposed to think? 

_____

The book Real vs. Rumor promotes both the SITH and M2C narratives. 

For example, here's how the book handles Book of Mormon geography, starting on page 187. The author relies on implicit, unstated assumptions to reach his conclusions.

Reading and seeking are required to make sense of most topics that generate rumors and myths. Consider the question of where events in the Book of Mormon occurred—this topic has generated a very long conversation that has produced few “best books” and much that fails the sniff tests.

As we'll see, this analysis itself fails the sniff tests. The "sniff tests" are summarized in Appendix C, pages 252-3, under these headings: Survey the Situation, Analyze the Contents, Connect to Contexts, and Evaluate Significances.  

When analyzing the author's arguments, the most apparent finding is an absence of evidence. Nothing within the Book of Mormon points directly to a place in the Americas recognizable in modern terms. 

Nothing within the Book of Mormon points directly to a place in the Americas, period. Yet the author assumes the setting must be in the Americas without stating the basis for that assumption. That's one of his own "sniff tests." 

Presumably, the assumption about "the Americas" (a vague modern term that never appears in early Church historical documents) depends on what Joseph said Moroni told him, as well as other revelations in the Doctrine and Covenants (such as D&C 28, 30 and 32 which identify the Lamanites as the Indian tribes in New York and Ohio). When explaining the plates to Joseph, Moroni "gave a history of the aborigenes of this country" and "said this history was written and deposited not far from that place" [i.e., Joseph's home near Palmyra]. 

The Wentworth letter provides another reason for assuming the events took place in America. "I was also informed concerning the aboriginal inhabitants of this country, and shown who they were, and from whence they came... The remnant are the Indians that now inhabit this country." 
Unfortunately, many Latter-day Saints today are unfamiliar with what Joseph wrote there because his statement was edited out of the lesson manual, Teachings of the Presidents of the Church: Joseph Smith, to accommodate M2C. 

And no archeological discovery in the Americas has yet uncovered a clear reference to a place in the book.

This is a deliberate revision of Church history. As we saw in part 3, Joseph, Oliver and others visited the repository of Nephite records in the Hill Cumorah in New York. Oliver expressly declared it was a fact that this hill was the very Cumorah of Mormon 6:6 as the site of the repository and the scene of the final battles of the Jaredites and Nephites.  

During his lifetime, Joseph Smith accepted evidence for connections to both the North American Midwest and Central America.

The book portrays this ambivalence as a statement of fact, but it's only a fact with regard to the North American Midwest, about which Joseph personally wrote a letter to Emma and related his vision of Zelph. References to Central America cannot be directly attributed to Joseph Smith. At best, they can be linked by inference, such as by the inference that, as nominal editor of the Times and Seasons, Joseph wrote or approved of all the anonymous editorials it contained. 

Claiming inferences as fact is another failure of the sniff tests. 

In 2019, a Church statement declared that "the Church's only position is that the events the Book of Mormon describes took place in the ancient Americas.”10 After nearly two hundred years of searching, no interpretation has assembled enough evidence to be fully persuasive.

This loose, misleading statement doesn't pass the sniff tests. The dozens of interpretations are fully persuasive to those who accept them. Those who accept the teachings of the prophets about the New York Cumorah are persuaded by those teachings; those who reject or repudiate those teachings are unpersuaded. All proponents have assembled enough evidence to persuade their respective adherents.   

Lacking both direct and contextual evidence, interpreters must make an analogy (see chapter 8) through parallels or “correspondences” to frame a modern landscape with information found in the text.

Oliver Cowdery cited both direct and contextual evidence when he declared it was a fact that the Hill Cumorah of Mormon 6:6 is in New York. Framing Oliver as an "interpreter" is a common tactic used by M2C advocates and those who seek to accommodate M2C. Beyond Cumorah, however, the setting does remain a matter of interpretation.  

For example, the Book of Mormon refers to minerals, such as copper, and land features, such as rivers, a “small” or “narrow neck of land” (Alma 22:32; Ether 10:20), and a hill called “Ramala or “Cumorah," where both the Jaredite and Nephite civilizations ended (Ether 15:11; Morm. 6:6). With that information, interpreters reconstruct a generic map of the relationships between places, but the result is very much like the map at the heart of the movie Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade—an exciting mystery with no starting place.

The obvious fallacy here (the sniff test) is that the prophets gave us a very specific starting place--the New York Cumorah. Brother Erekson simply omits critical context, a blatant violation of one of his key sniff tests.  

The earliest assumptions placed events in the entirety of North and South America (a “hemispheric” view). 11 [Note 11. See works by George Q. Cannon, George Reynolds, Janne M. Sjodahl, and Joel Ricks.]

Here, he refers to "assumptions," as though Oliver and Joseph never spelled out the facts of Cumorah and the plains of the Nephites. Consequently, his statement about "the earliest assumptions" may be technically true, but it is misleading (doesn't pass the sniff tests) because he simply omits the statements of fact. The note is not useful at any rate because it gives the reader no idea of what "works" to consult. 

In the twentieth century, a more limited approach focused on Central America (a “Mesoamerican” view),12 [Note 12. See works by B. H. Roberts, Jesse A. and Jesse N. Washburn, Thomas Ferguson, Fletcher Hammond, and Sidney B. Sperry.]

This is another misleading reference that fails the sniff tests. It omits the work of RLDS scholars Stebbins and Hills, who first developed the limited geography based in Central America, and doesn't give the reader any "works" to consult. 

with a consensus emerging that the small or narrow neck of land corresponded with the Mexican isthmus of Tehuantepec. 13 [Note 13. See works by John L. Sorenson, Brant A. Gardner, and John L. Lund.]

Now we read about "a consensus emerging" as if this is a settled issue, which doesn't pass the sniff test by the author's own claim that there is a divergence of views on the topic. The "consensus" to which he refers consists of a handful of M2C scholars who have dominated the discussion because of their status at and connections with BYU (and the Church History Department).  

This view only works if there were two hills named Cumorah-one in the text of the book where the final battles were fought and a second in New York where the plates were buried, named after the original; this interpretation requires Moroni to have walked from Mexico to New York. 14 [Note 14. A hand-drawn map of Moroni's wanderings if often cited, though a note on the back of the map states that the unnamed mapmaker got the information thirdhand. "Diagram Showing Moroni's Travels, undated," Church History Library, Salt Lake City.

Here, the author recognizes the "Two Cumorahs" element of M2C, but he still does not mention (let alone cite) the direct historical teachings about Cumorah found right in the Joseph Smith Papers. It's inexplicable why a book about how to analyze historical sources would omit the relevant historical sources in favor of modern commentaries. This is another failure of the sniff tests.

The idea of a more "limited geography” prompted other theories that place the Nephite experience exclusively in South America, 15 nestled between the Great Lakes, 16 on the Baja Peninsula in Mexico, 17 on the Malay Peninsula in southeast Asia, 18 or in Africa.19

These notes also vaguely refer to the respective authors, no to any specific titles.   

Some populist theories make appeals to plain-sense reasoning, American patriotism, and distrust of “experts.”

Note the shift to pejorative rhetoric here. "Populist" invokes a political theory: "A political philosophy supporting the rights and power of the people in their struggle against the privileged elite." What the author means by "plain-sense reasoning" is anyone's guess, but from the context he seems to contrast it to the convoluted reasoning of the previous theories. "American patriotism" is another inscrutable term that we'll discuss below. "Distrust of 'experts'" is decidedly pejorative, as if the previous authors he cited were all "experts" in Book of Mormon geography, when in reality the only "expertise" they share is their distrust of the prophets who taught the New York Cumorah.  

The “heartland” theory, for instance, begins with the assumption that the Book of Mormon promises of liberty and prosperity can really apply only to the United States (and certainly not (Mexico)--Lehi landed in Florida, the Nephites moved inland to Missouri and Iowa, and then the civilization ended in New York, all under the banner of the stars and stripes (which, incidentally, appears frequently in materials promoting the heartland theory).20 [Note 10. See works by Bruce H. Porter, Rod L. Meldrum, and Jonathan Neville.]

This long sentence requires a bit of unpacking because it fails the sniff tests on multiple levels.

First, it directly misrepresents the "Heartland" model, which begins with the assumption that Cumorah is in New York. 

As with Erekson's previous vague notes, he cites three authors but none of their specific works, forcing the reader to guess to which works he is referring. To my knowledge, Bruce H. Porter's only "work" on Book of Mormon geography is the book Prophecies and Promises that he co-authored with Rod L. Meldrum, which was published in 2009.  

That book was published long before I got involved with this topic, and I don't recall ever having quoted or cited it. I haven't read it in a long time, but I don't recall it beginning with the assumption Erekson claims it does; Erekson's portrayal looks more like it came from a review of the book by M2C advocates instead of an actual reading of the book. But I find it highly unlikely that the book claims the Nephites moved "under the banner of the stars and stripes."

At any rate, anyone who has actually read my work knows that I don't subscribe to the idea that the promises of liberty and prosperity apply only to the United States. I consider those promises universal, applicable throughout the world. 

For Erekson to lump me in with a viewpoint that I don't subscribe to not only doesn't pass the sniff test, but he directly misinforms his readers. 

Furthermore, my entire approach to the topic of Book of Mormon geography has focused on corroborating the teachings of the prophets about the New York Cumorah. In doing so, I have relied on a variety of experts in various relevant fields. To frame me as distrusting "experts" is simply a lie.

That said, I don't defer to self-appointed "experts" on the Book of Mormon because I don't think expertise in Mayan civilization has any relevance whatsoever to the Book of Mormon. 

This landscape of conjecture produces many sniff tests. Lacking direct evidence, interpreters selectively emphasize and omit evidence, promoting one of Joseph Smith's statements while downplaying another or singling out only some Book of Mormon passages.

While I agree that the "landscape of conjecture produces many sniff tests," on this topic there is no lack of direct evidence: we have the specific words from Joseph, Oliver, and their contemporaries and successors. Erekson himself is the one who downplays Joseph's own statements in favor of statements that can, at best, be attributed to him only by inference.

Maybe it's true that some of the models single out only some Book of Mormon passages, but all the models I'm familiar with deal with all the passages. Erekson's vague claim strikes me as uninformed at best but more likely deliberately misleading. 

Single-sided treatments offer praise for the interpreter's “brilliance” or “inspiration" and the book's “definitive” treatment. Some interpreters resort to piling up long lists and addenda. You'll find much competitive contention and sniping. There are even conspiracy theories that the Smithsonian uses the Book of Mormon to guide its archeological fieldwork,21 that the Church is secretly hiding or endorsing an interpretation, and that Moroni intentionally peppered his abridgment with dozens of secret clues about the land because he wanted us to find the place.

If these conspiracy claims actually exist, I'd love to see a citation to them. Erekson's failure to provide such citations fails his own sniff tests. 

The “best books” will respect the text of the Book of Mormon, carefully scrutinize evidence from nineteenth-century figures, be written by authors with relevant expertise, and be published by reputable presses.

This statement is another example of how Erekson doesn't live up to his own standards. A few sentences earlier, he accused me of distrusting "experts," yet my work fulfills all his criteria here. To my knowledge, no other author in this arena has scrutinized evidence from the 1800s more carefully than I have, for example. 

Perhaps the best advice was published by the Church in January 2019: “Individuals may have their own opinions regarding Book of Mormon geography and other such matters about which the Lord has not spoken. However, the First Presidency and Quorum of the Twelve Apostles urge leaders and members not to advocate those personal theories in any setting or manner that would imply either prophetic or Church support for those theories. All parties should strive to avoid contention on these matters."

The statement published in January 2019 is not the statement currently on the Church's website. The original statement contained obvious errors. A few weeks after I pointed out those errors on my blog, the statement was modified to address some, but not all, of the errors. 

The statement on Book of Mormon Geography, like the Gospel Topics Essays, is both anonymous and subject to change. Everyone agrees that people should strive to avoid contention on these matters. 

However, misleading explanations such as Erekson's here engender contention. The best way to avoid contention is to discuss the issues honestly, not by making false claims and mischaracterizations. Ideally, everyone should agree on the facts in the historical record. From there, multiple working hypotheses can be derived for everyone to consider. We're all free to believe whatever we want, but the better informed our decisions are, the stronger we'll all be.

Thus, any answer to the question of Book of Mormon geography currently resides somewhere in the neighborhood of insufficient evidence--"we don't know (and that's okay).” Regardless, true discipleship is built on a testimony of the book's message, not its geography.

It's one thing if the evidence is not sufficient to lead everyone to agree. That's the multiple working hypotheses model that everyone should be able to accept.

But Erekson, by omitting key evidence and instead simply adopting a prevailing narrative without doing his own research and without helping his readers to do their own research, has amplified the problem.  

Real vs. Rumor would be a far more effective book if the author had applied his own sniff tests to his own writing.

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Friday, May 6, 2022

Real vs. Rumor, part 3: historians "knowing" vs. reporting - the "most common question" example

Brother Erekson, Director of the Church History Library in Salt Lake City, says that the most common question he receives is "Do you have the sword of Laban?"

That's a surprising question, in a way, but it reflects the ongoing confusion about the early events surrounding the Hill Cumorah. Based on Erekson's explanation in his book, that confusion is destined to linger, if not intensify.

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One of the strangest aspects of Brother Erekson's book is the way he disregards his own advice and standards regarding historical analysis to comply with particular interpretations of Church history that accommodate modern theories. 

Another surprising habit among many LDS historians is their penchant for declaring what they "know" instead of merely reporting the historical evidence. Today we'll look at a specific example.

While surprising, Brother Erekson's approach is not unique. Many current LDS historians take for granted the twin theories of M2C (the "Mesoamerican/two-Cumorahs" theory of Book of Mormon geography) and SITH (the "stone-in-the-hat" theory of Book of Mormon translation).

On page 2, Erekson writes, "Antagonists distort the Church's history, and some Saints abandon their faith because they can't make sense of the past or discern present manipulations." But then he proceeds to do exactly what he accuses "antagonists" of doing.

On page 29, under the heading Show Me the Evidence, Erekson offers this important suggestion:

Every time we hear a quote or story or rumor we must respond with "Show me the evidence." After asking about what we know and what we don't, we should also ask "How do we know it?"

I couldn't agree more. But then let's look at the next paragraph.

Let me illustrate this process by answering the most common question I receive when people learn that I'm the director of the Church History Library--"Do you have the sword of Laban?" The short answer is "No," but there is more to the response. I don't know where the sword is now or whether it has even been used since the late 1820s, but I do know that Joseph Smith saw the sword in the box with the plates, that Moroni showed it to the Three Witnesses, and that Oliver reported seeing the sword unsheathed on a table in a vision about a cave of records. Once we establish what we know, then we ask, "How do we know it?" (emphasis added)

This is significant for several reasons, but notice that this is the most common question people ask of the director of the Church History Library, and he gives them an answer based on M2C, not on the historical sources!

To understand how manipulative this paragraph is, we have to first understand that many current LDS historians (particularly those at BYU and the Church History Department) embrace the premise of M2C; i.e., they agree with the M2C citation cartel that Joseph and Oliver misled everyone about the Hill Cumorah (Mormon 6:6) being in New York. 

An essential element of M2C is the claim that the repository of records (Mormon 6:6) is actually somewhere in southern Mexico (or elsewhere--actually, anywhere in the world except western New York). This is critical for M2C because they also insist that the final battles of the Jaredites and Nephites could not have happened in New York.

Thus, our M2C scholars teach that the "hill in New York" where Moroni built the stone box was wrongly named Cumorah because of a false tradition that Joseph Smith inexplicably embraced. They furthermore teach that all the prophets and apostles who reiterated the New York Cumorah, including members of the First Presidency speaking in General Conference, compounded the error by misleading the Church, the Latter-day Saints, and the world at large for generations until the M2C scholars discovered the mistake and corrected the prophets by locating Cumorah in southern Mexico.

That may seem like hyperbole, but that's the reality as we've seen on this blog many times. M2C is depicted in the logo of Book of Mormon Central and in the writings and presentations of all the members of the M2C citation cartel. The cartel expressly repudiates the teachings of the prophets, although they mute their position with sophistry and laundry-list arguments as we discussed yesterday.

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To sustain the M2C narrative, these historians consistently (in the words of Brother Erekson) "distort the Church's history," causing an unnecessary faith crises among Latter-day Saints who "can't make sense of the past or discern present manipulations."

M2C is the reason why the Saints book, volume 1, created a false historical narrative present by depicting early Latter-day Saints as though they never heard of Cumorah.

M2C is the reason why the Gospel Topics entry on Book of Mormon geography ignores Cumorah completely, as if the historical record doesn't even exist.

Display in the North Visitors Center
on Temple Square
M2C is the reason why the North Visitors Center on Temple Square depicted two Cumorahs: one in Mexico where Mormon supposedly abridged the records and kept the repository of all the Nephite records (Mormon 6:6), and one in New York where Moroni supposedly deposited the plates, the sword of Laban, and the Liahona after traveling thousands of miles from the Mexican Cumorah.

Thankfully, the North Visitors Center no longer exists, so visitors will no longer be indoctrinated into believing M2C is official Church doctrine. But plenty of Latter-day Saints and other visitors were subjected to M2C for many years.


And M2C is the reason why Brother Erekson manipulates the historical sources as I've bolded above, as we'll see next.

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Brother Erekson applies his "Show Me the Evidence" rule with this table on pages 30-31. For clarity, the text is reproduced to the right of the images.

Recall that he introduced this table by testifying "I do know that Joseph Smith saw the sword in the box with the plates."

How does he know that?

Because of an 1886 statement by Joseph's sister Catherine that doesn't even say what Brother Erekson claims.

In fact, none of what Brother Erekson claims "we know" is based on historical evidence. All three are merely his M2C-inspired interpretations of selected sources that contradict other, more credible sources.

It's stunning. Let's sort it out.


What We Know

How We Know It

Joseph Smith saw the sword in the stone box with the plates.

His sister Catherine stated in 1886 that Joseph "went frequently to the hill, and upon returning he would tell us, 'I have seen the records, also the brass plates and the sword of Laban with the breast plate and the interpreters.'

Moroni showed the sword to the Three Witnesses

The Lord promised to show the sword to the Three Witnesses in a revelation (D&C 17:1), and in the late 1870s and early 1880s, David Whitmer told multiple interviewers that Moroni "exhibited to them the plates, the sword of Laban, the Directors which were given to Lehi (called Liahona), the Urim and Thummim, and other records."

Joseph and Oliver Cowdery saw the sword on a table in a cave in a vision.

Brigham Young related the story in a talk in June 1877, noting that Oliver and Joseph "walked into a cave" containing "more plates than probably many wagon



loads." The first time they visited, the sword hung on the wall, but "when they went again it had been taken down and laid upon the table across the gold plates; it was unsheathed, and on it was written these words: 'This sword will never be sheathed again until the kingdoms of this world become the kingdom of our God and his Christ.'" Brigham said he heard this story from Oliver and from Joseph's brother Don Carlos. Three people recorded hearing Brigham Young tell this story, two people recorded hearing it from David Whitmer, and one reported hearing it from Martin Harris.





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We begin with Katherine's statement. Katherine wrote a letter to the RLDS publication Saints' Herald in 1886, when she was 73 years old. (She was born on July 8, 1813, making her 14 years old when Joseph obtained the plates in 1827.) This was nearly 60 years after the events. You can read her letter here, on page 260. https://www.latterdaytruth.org/pdf/100200.pdf

In her letter, she doesn't provide dates or details, but she does say Joseph went "frequently" to the hill. 

However, we know from Joseph's account that he went once a year to the hill until he obtained the plates. On another occasion in early 1827 he met with Moroni "as I passed by the Hill of Cumorah," but because that account identified the hill as Cumorah our historians never refer to it.

Joseph's own account, canonized in the Pearl of Great Price, differs from Katherine's in another respect. Moroni told Joseph there were three items in the stone box, which Joseph verified:

Having removed the earth, I obtained a lever, which I got fixed under the edge of the stone, and with a little exertion raised it up. I looked in, and there indeed did I behold the plates, the Urim and Thummim, and the breastplate, as stated by the messenger. The box in which they lay was formed by laying stones together in some kind of cement. In the bottom of the box were laid two stones crossways of the box, and on these stones lay the plates and the other things with them.

(Joseph Smith—History 1:52)

Oliver Cowdery provided a more detailed description in Letter VIII, emphasizing that the box was large enough to accommodate the breastplate as well as the plates and the interpreters, but there was not even a suggestion that other items were in the stone box.

When considering Katherine's statement, we naturally wonder, why would Moroni put the brass plates, the sword of Laban, and the Liahona in the stone box with the abridged plates, breastplate and interpreters? They would serve no purpose; they wouldn't even be meaningful to Joseph until he had translated the plates. Joseph never said or implied that Moroni explained such additional items. 

Plus, as difficult as it is to believe (according to M2C) that Moroni hauled a 60-pound set of abridged plates from Mexico to New York, it's even less credible that he also hauled a set of brass plates with the sword of Laban and the Liahona. 

Nevertheless, Brother Erekson disregards all these considerations and testifies to visitors at the Church History Library that he "knows" Joseph "saw the sword in the box with the plates." 

What could be more disturbing to faith than to have the Director of the Church History Library testifying to the truth of his interpretation of a 60-year-old account that both (i) contradicts what Joseph and Oliver taught and (ii) doesn't make any sense?

While Erekson's interpretation is problematic at best, Katherine's statement can easily be reconciled with other historical accounts--including the account from Oliver regarding the repository of records in the Hill Cumorah that we'll discuss below. If, as Oliver claimed, he and Joseph entered the repository on multiple occasions, then Joseph would not only have seen the brass plates, sword of Laban, and Liahona but could have told his family about them as Katherine claimed 60 years later. The imprecision in her letter is easily attributed to her late recollection of events that took place when she was a teenager.

IOW, there is no need for Erekson or anyone else to imply (let alone testify!) that the detailed narratives from Joseph and Oliver were wrong or incomplete. 

No need, we should say, except for the need to support the M2C narrative. 


BTW, whoever created the display of the "hill in New York" (the "false" Cumorah) in the North Visitors Center agreed with Brother Erekson. 

The diorama and associated video depicts Moroni putting the sword of Laban and Liahona into the stone box, along with the plates. 

Except they forgot to show the brass plates...

It was one thing for the North Visitors Center to teach this bizarre contradiction to what Joseph and Oliver taught, but they actually replicated the same display at the Hill Cumorah visitors center in New York!

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Erekson's second statement of "What We Know" is that "Moroni showed the sword to the Three Witnesses." As evidence, he cites D&C 17:1 and late statements by David Whitmer.

This is not serious historical analysis. 

First, D&C 17:1 was prospective. It was a promise of a future event, not an account of an event that had taken place.

Second, D&C 17:1 is bifurcated:

Behold, I say unto you, that you must rely upon my word, which if you do with full purpose of heart, you shall have a view of the plates, and also of the breastplate, the sword of Laban, the Urim and Thummim, which were given to the brother of Jared upon the mount, when he talked with the Lord face to face, and the miraculous directors which were given to Lehi while in the wilderness, on the borders of the Red Sea. (Doctrine and Covenants 17:1)

The "and also" suggests or implies that there would be two separate viewings.

Third, the official testimony of the Three Witnesses mentions only the plates: "we declare with words of soberness, that an angel of God came down from heaven, and he brought and laid before our eyes, that we beheld and saw the plates, and the engravings thereon."

Logically, we could say that their testimony that they saw the plates doesn't necessarily mean they didn't also see the other objects at the same time. But given the bifurcated nature of D&C 17:1 and the absence of any record from Joseph Smith, Martin Harris or Oliver Cowdery that they saw these artifacts on this occasion, it is hardly viable to testify that we "know" they all saw all these objects on that occasion, based solely on David Whitmer's statements, particularly when David explained that Martin was not present on the occasion.

The first known statement by David about seeing the other objects (in addition to the plates) is from an interview he had with Joseph F. Smith and Orson Pratt in September 1878. He repeated the essence of that account in 1881 and 1882.

Here is the March 1, 1882, account from the Saints' Herald

We then got up and sat on the log and were talking, when all at once a light came down from above us and encircled us for quite a little distance around; and the angel stood before us. He was dressed in white, and spoke and called me by name and said 'Blessed is he that keepeth His commandments.' This is all that I heard the angel say. A table was set before us and on it the records were placed. The Records of the Nephites, from which the Book of Mormon was translated, the brass plates, the Ball of Directors, the sword of Laban and other plates. While we were viewing them the voice of' God spoke out of heaven saying that the Book was true and the translation correct."

https://www.latterdaytruth.org/pdf/100196.pdf p. 68

While this account doesn't directly contradict the official statement by the Three Witnesses, it includes details that had been discussed by others as early as 1855, but in a completely different context.

Other than David's accounts, all other accounts (accounts which preceded David's) of the table bearing the records, sword of Laban, and other artifacts involve the repository in the Hill Cumorah referenced in Mormon 6:6. Significantly, David's accounts all post-date the detailed 1877 account related by Brigham Young two months before his death. 

The 1855 account has David accompanying Joseph, Hyrum and Oliver to the repository in the Hill Cumorah, where they saw the angel and the artifacts.

Ordinarily, historians prefer earlier accounts over later ones. Ordinarily, they prefer corroborated accounts by multiple witnesses over isolated accounts by one witness. 

If we apply those preferences to David's account of seeing the artifacts on a table, the more plausible explanation is that David conflated two separate events; i.e., he related his experience as one of the Three Witnesses, consistent with the formal Testimony of the Three Witnesses, but he added his experience seeing the other artifacts in the repository in Cumorah.

This is not only plausible but justifiable, given that David sought to discourage treasure seekers from digging in the Hill Cumorah. In terms of the authenticity of his testimony, what mattered is his declaration that he physically observed the artifacts, not when and where he saw them. 

At any rate, to state as a fact that the Three Witnesses saw these artifacts fails to account for the absence of Martin Harris from the event, regardless of when and where it took place.

This is all relevant to the question of M2C because if, as others related, the artifacts were actually observed in the repository inside the New York Cumorah, then the teachings of the prophets about the New York Cumorah are corroborated and vindicated. 

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The third thing Erekson says we "know" is that "Joseph and Oliver Cowdery saw the sword on a table in a cave in a vision.

With all the sources relating the event as a physical experience, we naturally wonder why Erekson would frame the event as a mere "vision." The source for that framing is a statement by Heber C. Kimball, who when responding to a comment about the handcart pioneers, said, "How does it compare with the vision that Joseph and others had, when they went into a cave in the hill Cumorah and saw more records than ten men could carry?

https://www.josephsmithfoundation.org/journalofdiscourses/reporters/g-d-watt/emigration-the-saints-warned-to-repent-or-judgments-will-come-upon-them/

M2C advocates portray the event as a "vision" based on Kimball's use of the term, reasoning that if it was not an actual physical event in New York, it could instead be merely some kind of spiritual sight of the actual repository which must, according to M2C, be located in southern Mexico. 

There are several problems with this framing.

First, Kimball preceded this sentence with a very literal reference to the hill Cumorah. 

Brother Mills mentioned in his song, that crossing the Plains with handcarts was one of the greatest events that ever transpired in this Church. I will admit that it is an important event, successfully testing another method for gathering Israel, but its importance is small in comparison with the visitation of the angel of God to the Prophet Joseph, and with the reception of the sacred records from the hand of Moroni at the hill Cumorah.

Second, Kimball said they had a vision "when they went into a cave in the hill Cumorah," another statement of physicality. 

Third, while the term "vision" can refer to a revelation, or imaginary, other supernatural presentation, the 1828 Webster's dictionary offers as the first connotation "the act of seeing external objects; actual sight." That connotation is consistent with all the other accounts of the repository, none of which refer to a "vision."

Fourth, if the term "vision" can refer only to a metaphysical experience, then what can we make of the "First Vision" during which Joseph claimed he saw Christ and God in a literal, physical sense? 

At any rate, the historical evidence doesn't support the "vision" framing.

Erekson cites Cameron Packer's important article, "Cumorah's Cave," which is online here:  

https://scholarsarchive.byu.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1360&context=jbms

Packer's first reference is the William Horne Dame Diary, dated 14 January 1855, which states, "Attended meeting a discourse from W. W. Phelps. He related a story told him by Hyrum Smith which was as follows: Joseph, Hyrum, Cowdery & Whitmere went to the hill Cormorah. As they were walking up the hill, a door opened and they walked into a room about 16 ft square. In that room was an angel and a trunk. On that trunk lay a book of Mormon & gold plates, Laban’s sword, Aaron’s brestplate."

Heber C. Kimball gave his "vision" version in a sermon on 28 September 1856. Additional accounts from 1867, 1869, 1873, and 1874 corroborate the actual visit to the repository in the Hill Cumorah. 

Finally, on 17 June 1877, just two months before he died, Brigham Young related the account that Erekson excepts in the third panel of the table. The full account emphasizes the physical reality of the experience. More than one experience, actually; Brigham related at least two occasions when Joseph and Oliver entered the repository.

In light of this historical evidence, consider again Erekson's summary of "What We Know" here:

"Joseph and Oliver Cowdery saw the sword on a table in a cave in a vision."

That statement cannot be reasonably characterized as anything other than "distorting the Church's history... [so that Latter-day Saints] can't make sense of the past or discern present manipulations." 

_____

To summarize:

Brother Erekson, as Director of the Church History Library, fields all kinds of questions, but his number one question is, "Do you have the sword of Laban?"

The question reflects the serious confusion among Latter-day Saints about the early events of the restoration, particularly those involving the plates and the Hill Cumorah. 

An answer based on actual historical accounts would be simple and clear; i.e., Joseph, Oliver, and others saw the sword of Laban in the repository in the Hill Cumorah in New York multiple times, but it remains with the other Nephite records and artifacts. We don't know where those are now, except David Whitmer and Oliver Cowdery said they are no longer in the repository in the Hill Cumorah. David did say they are not far from there, however.

Instead, Brother Erekson testifies of three facts that contradict the narrative given to us by Joseph and Oliver in favor of academic interpretations promoted by M2C advocates that are intended to accommodate M2C, even though they distort Church history and leave the Latter-day Saints unable to make sense of the past or to discern present manipulation.




 



Thursday, April 28, 2022

Real vs. Rumor part 2: the youth

The most perplexing aspect of the book is the way Brother Erekson does not follow his own advice about how to approach history. We'll look at several examples in coming posts, but in this part 2, we want to focus on the impact of Church history issues on the youth of the Church.

On page 156, Brother Erekson writes,

"Does anyone even run into that faith-challenging, anti-Mormon stuff?" an older woman asked.

"The only people who do are the ones hanging out in bars and places like that," said a man of her same generation.

I was surprised how prevalent this assumption is, so I began to gather evidence. During the summer of 2019, I spoke to hundreds of Latter-day Saint youth at conferences and firesides. Using an anonymous polling system that operated through their phones, they responded to this question: "Have you ever encountered something that challenged your testimony?" The "yes" results were usually in the 90 percent range and never less than 80 percent. The most surprised people in the room were the adults!

I have questions. 

First, the opening dialogue isn't plausible, but let's say they are accurate quotations nevertheless. Who talks like that? Who thinks like that? And what does hanging out in bars have to do with anti-Mormon literature? The conversation depicted here reflects extreme isolation and naivete, more of a parody than an authentic scenario.

Is relative exposure to "anti-Mormon stuff" a generational difference? While the Internet has made materials far more accessible, "anti-Mormon stuff" has been around since the inception of the Restoration. Maybe in pockets of Utah or Idaho there are Latter-day Saints who never "run into" these things, but that's definitely an exception.

Alternatively, the opening dialogue may reflect the "lazy learners" who don't ask questions and are impervious to outside literature or even conversations with people outside their bubble.

I don't know how old one has to be to qualify as "older" but when I was a 19-year-old missionary, I had long since heard the "anti-Mormon" arguments that I encountered during my mission. So had all of my companions. We discussed these things. And this was decades ago.

Another question: why would the adults be surprised at the poll? I don't see any indication that the adults themselves were polled, so it's not clear how Erekson knows the adults were the most surprised people. Are these parents who never talk with their kids? Church leaders who never engage with the youth they are responsible to lead?

Again, let's assume everything Erekson reports here is accurate. If so, that leads to the inescapable conclusion that there are adult Latter-day Saints who are poorly informed themselves, don't talk with their kids, and have fragile testimonies that have never been challenged. That doesn't bode well.

Then again, the question "Have you ever encountered something that challenged your testimony?" is so open-ended it doesn't help us much. People would answer yes if they felt a prayer went unanswered, if they thought about the evil in the world (war, crime, hunger, etc.), or if they read the CES Letter. 

For many Latter-day Saints, it is the teachings of certain LDS intellectuals that are faith challenging. Lately some of our own LDS intellectuals are trying to persuade us that Joseph Smith never really translated anything, that he didn't even use the plates, and that he and Oliver misled everyone about the Nephite interpreters and the New York Cumorah.

We have examples of these teachings right in Real vs. Rumor!

It would be interesting if Brother Erekson had polled the youth regarding their reaction to the stone-in-the-hat (SITH) narrative. Or the M2C (Mesoamerican/two-Cumorahs theory). In my experience, few people find SITH either credible or inspiring. The well-known declines in activity and conversion rates correlate to this SITH narrative, which became popular in the 1990s and early 2000s. While correlation is not causation, it's difficult to believe that the SITH tactic employed by Mormonism Unvailed in 1834 would not have the intended impact when it is so fully embraced by LDS intellectuals that it is now in our curriculum.

M2C explicitly rejects the teachings of the prophets about Cumorah. When LDS scholars teach the youth that the prophets were wrong about Cumorah, it hardly builds faith.

(click to enlarge)







Real vs. Rumor, Part 6: SITH

One major fallacy in Real vs. Rumor is the failure to recognize multiple working hypotheses, based on the same facts. The book lurches from...