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.
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.
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.