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. 


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.


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).


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.



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