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.


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.


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.


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.


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.

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!


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." 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. 


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?

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:

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.


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