Friday, December 29, 2023

The obsolete Gospel Topics Essays

The Gospel Topics Essays on Book of Mormon Translation and Geography have always been notorious for the way they studiously avoid the clear, direct and unmistakable statements by Joseph Smith and Oliver Cowdery on these topics. This is now more obvious than ever because of a recent announcement on the Church's website that renders those essays obsolete, as anyone can see.

In December the Church announced a new resource called "Topics and Questions" which replaces "Gospel Topics."

This is a significant improvement. We will see many changes if the concept and methodology permeates all Gospel instruction and study throughout the Church.

Topics and Questions "provides resources for those seeking answers and for helping others with their gospel questions." The link is here:

The new resource offers two categories of principles based on "Helping Others with Questions" and "Seeking Answers to Questions." 

This resource is congruent with the Institute course "Answering Gospel Questions" that I've been teaching online. 

One of the principles under "Seeking Answers to Questions" is "Consult Reliable Sources." Here's the link:

The following excerpt shows the aspirations of the new approach. When we compare this aspiration to the reality of the Gospel Topics Essay on Book of Mormon Translation and the short article on geography we see that the essays need a lot of work. 

The Translation essay violates every one of the principles outlined in the following excerpt. Instead of quoting and citing what Joseph Smith and Oliver Cowdery said about the translation, the essay quotes and cites the speculative opinions of certain modern scholars.

We can hope that in 2024, this essay, along with others we've discussed, will be revised according to the principles set out in "Seeking Answers."

Original in blue, my comments in red.

Consult Reliable Sources

Elder Dieter F. Uchtdorf taught, “Never in the history of the world have we had easier access to more information—some of it true, some of it false, and much of it partially true.”1 In this environment of uncertainty, the Church urges members to “seek out and share only credible, reliable, and factual sources of information.”2 We should avoid sources that are founded on rumor or that promote contention or anger.

Learning to assess the quality of our sources of information involves both spiritual and intellectual work. Here are some tips for evaluating information:

  • Evaluate the reliability of sources. Not all sources are of equal value on all topics. The best sources will have direct knowledge of a topic instead of relying on hearsay, rumor, or innuendo. They will speak from a position of direct knowledge or expertise. 

[Comment. The Translation essay omits the best sources about the translation; i.e., what Joseph Smith and Oliver Cowdery said. These two men had direct knowledge. Their statements are not hearsay related decades after the events, but explicit, clear, and unmistakable explanations of the translation, published in an environment of criticism and false claims. Omitting their statements is a direct, obvious defiance of the new guidance. At a minimum, the revised Translation essay must include the full published statements of Joseph and Oliver regarding the translation of the Book of Mormon.]

  • They will refer to other reputable sources so you can check their claims. Reliable sources will not always affirm what you already think. They may challenge your views. If you have questions about official Church teachings, look first at what current Church leaders have and have not said. This will help you evaluate other, earlier statements.

[Comment. This principle brings an element of irony to the discussion. The reliable sources of Joseph and Oliver will definitely not "affirm what you already think" if you've succumbed to the SITH narrative (stone-in-the-hat) or M2C (the Mesoamerican/two Cumorahs narrative.]

  • Learn to recognize bias. Almost all sources have some bias. This does not automatically make them unreliable, but it is important to take the source creator’s perspective into account. Examine your source’s motives and background. Be wary of sources that claim to be unbiased or that express views in inflammatory ways.

[Comment. The obvious problem with the Gospel Topics Essays is that they are anonymous. It is literally impossible to recognize the bias of an anonymous source that neither admits nor explains any bias. Since the Gospel Topics Essays were originally published, we've wondered why they authors did not explain their bias. We've had to infer that the authors sought to accommodate M2C and SITH because there is no other apparent explanation for why they omitted the direct, explicit teachings of Joseph, Oliver and their successors regarding both Cumorah and the translation by means of the Urim and Thummim that came with the plates. We infer that their motives involve their background as intellectuals who have promoted M2C and SITH. Revised essays that acknowledge the principle of recognizing bias will surely correct this fundamental error.] 

  • Corroborate what you learn. It is significant when multiple reliable sources agree or speak with clarity on a topic. This is especially true when studying sources discussing Church history and teachings. Though it is not always possible to find this kind of agreement among sources, it is helpful to compare information from different sources so you can better assess their quality.

[Comment. The teachings of Joseph and Oliver about the origin and setting of the Book of Mormon are not only clear and consistent, but they are corroborated by the teachings of their peers and successors in Church leadership. Readers of the current versions of the essays would never know this because the essays omit what Joseph, Oliver and their successors taught about the origin and setting of the Book of Mormon.]

  • Distinguish facts from interpretation. Some pieces of information are facts. But much of what we encounter on the internet and in other publications consists of someone’s interpretation of the facts. The best interpretations try to account for all the facts. They consider specific details or facts in broader context and give them proper weight. They don’t simply dismiss information that doesn’t agree with a particular point of view. Check the sources used to make a particular interpretation to ensure they support the claims being made and are not taken out of context.

[Comment. This is one of the most glaring errors in the Translation and Geography essays. Both are replete with interpretations by scholars who promote M2C and SITH, and both lack authentic historical facts taught by Joseph and Oliver. They link to third-hand accounts and speculations of scholars instead of to authentic published statements by Joseph and Oliver and their successors.]


For anyone unfamiliar with the problems with the Gospel Topics Essays, I've discussed the subject several times.

Here is a brief summary of the issues.

1. Essay on geography. The obvious omission in the geography essay is that it completely omits (aka censors, or decorrelates) the teachings of the prophets about Cumorah in New York, including those listed here:

Church leaders have always been clear about two things: (i) The Cumorah of Mormon 6:6 is in western New York, and (ii) we don't know the location of other settings. These twin teachings are well established and are corroborated by extrinsic scientific evidence. 

Omitting these teachings from the essay is confusing to Latter-day Saints and others interested in the Restoration. The only conceivable rationale for omitting these teachings is to accommodate the M2C theory (Mesoamerican/two Cumorahs theory) promoted by certain RLDS and LDS scholars, who explicitly reject the teachings of the prophets. Which is fine. People can believe and teach whatever they want. But obfuscating the issue by censoring the teachings of the prophets is the antithesis of clarity, charity and understanding. 

Revising the obsolete essay will go far to promoting clarity, charity and understanding among all those interested in the Restoration.

2. Essay on Translation. The obvious omission in the translation essay is that it completely omits (aka censors, or decorrelates) the teachings of the prophets about the translation of the Book of Mormon.

In the Preface to the 1830 edition of the Book of Mormon, Joseph Smith wrote:

As  many  false  reports  have  been  circulated  respec­ting  the  following  work,  and  also  many  unlawful  mea­sures  taken  by  evil  designing  persons  to  destroy  me, and also the work, I would inform you that I translated, by the gift and power of God, and caused to be written, one hundred and sixteen pages, the which I took from the Book of Lehi, which was an account abridged from the plates of Lehi, by the hand of Mormon.

The "many false reports" circulated consisted of the article by Jonathan Hadley that related SITH in Hadley's effort to ridicule the Book of Mormon. In the Preface, Joseph explicitly states that he translated the text that he took from the Book of Lehi and not from a stone (or spectacles) in a hat. 

Joseph and Oliver repeatedly explained that Joseph translated the engravings by means of the Urim and Thummim that came with the plates, but the essay on Translation neither quotes nor cites what they taught. 

The obsolete essay can be easily edited to provide the complete list of statements by Joseph and Oliver. If the authors decide to repudiate those teachings in favor of SITH, they should at least do so overtly and clearly so everyone can see their bias and agenda instead of avoiding the issue by omitting those teachings.

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