Saturday, August 26, 2023

Credibility of Emma Smith's "Last Testimony"

Discussions about the origin of the Book of Mormon inevitably involve quotations from Emma Smith's "Last Testimony," an interview recorded by her son Joseph Smith III shortly before her death, which was published several months after she died and which she never publicly acknowledged.

Usually the people involved in the discussions accept Emma's "Last Testimony" on its face; i.e., they simply assume that Emma actually spoke the words her son recorded, that her memory was intact and accurate, that she had no agenda to promote, etc.

This, despite the obvious lack of basic details such as time, place and manner, which any witness would be asked in a serious interview. Her son didn't even ask her what parts of the text she translated. Or, if he did, she couldn't remember so he didn't write it down. For that matter, it would be surprising if, as a lawyer, Joseph Smith III did not ask more detailed questions during the conversation. Not in the nature of cross-examination, but for clarification and precision.

Nevertheless, historians are so eager to accept the "Last Testimony" that they insert their own interpretation of the missing information, such as in this paragraph from the Gospel Topics Essay on Book of Mormon Translation:

Joseph’s wife Emma explained that she “frequently wrote day after day” at a small table in their house in Harmony, Pennsylvania. She described Joseph “sitting with his face buried in his hat, with the stone in it, and dictating hour after hour with nothing between us.”

In the actual interview, Emma didn't say where she wrote, but our scholars felt entitled to supply the missing information. 

(For a discussion of that essay, see: https://www.ldshistoricalnarratives.com/2022/09/analysis-gospel-topics-essay-on-book-of.html)

While we are never satisfied with the paucity of the historical record--we always wish people had kept and preserved more records, especially contemporaneous records--that is no excuse for simply embracing vague recollections as accurate history.

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In our book By Means of the Urim and Thummim: Restoring Translation to the Restoration, Jim Lucas and I point out that years after conducting the interview with his mother, Joseph Smith III concluded that Joseph used the Urim and Thummim to translate. In an 1886 article in the Saints' Herald reviewing the evidence, he didn't even mention his mother's "Last Testimony." Instead, he relied on what Joseph and Oliver said all along. He also rejected the SITH statements from David Whitmer.

 https://www.google.com/books/edition/Saints_Herald/qmqsXWe1xFAC?gbpv=1&bsq=707

It's ironic that while Joseph Smith III did not cite his own mother's "Last Testimony" as authoritative or even persuasive, modern SITH proponents cite the "Last Testimony" as conclusive evidence.

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Another consideration is the contemporaneous response the "Last Testimony" received in Salt Lake City. Here's an excerpt from the chapter on the "Last Testimony" in my book A Man that Can Translate:

[Joseph F. Smith] suggested that Emma’s “Last Testimony” may not have been hers. In his letter, he quoted from Emma’s “Last Testimony” and then rebutted its claims about polygamy with sworn statements and affidavits. Among these were

Two of the wives of the Prophet Joseph Smith, which I think, will assert quite as strong claims for belief and present a much better appearance of veracity than the published dialogue between Joseph Smith [III] and his mother, for this reason, if no other, these people, well known to this community, are mostly still living and can be cross-examined, while “Sister Emma,” whose lips are sealed in death, is represented as denying facts which it can be abundantly proven, were well known to her, and to many now living in these mountains…

Although he focuses on the polygamy question, JFS’s observations about the credibility of the “Last Testimony” and Emma’s unavailability for questioning apply to the entire document.

On the same page of the Deseret News another letter to the editor questioned the authenticity of the “Last Testimony.” This one was from Eliza R. Snow, who identified herself as “A wife of Joseph Smith the Prophet.” Snow wrote:

To my great astonishment, I read an article headed “Last Testimony of Sister Emma,” published in the Saints’ Advocate, a pamphlet issued in Plano, Ill…. I once dearly loved “Sister Emma,” and now, for me to believe that she, a once highly honored woman, should have sunk so low, even in her own estimation, as to deny what she knew to be true, seems a palpable absurdity. If what purports to be her “last testimony” was really her testimony, she died with a libel on her lips—a libel against her husband—against his wives—against the truth, and a libel against God; and in publishing that libel, her son has fastened a stigma on the character of his mother that can never be erased…. So far as Sister Emma personally is concerned, I would gladly have been silent and let her memory rest in peace, had not her misguided son, through a sinister policy, branded her name with gross wickedness—charging her with the denial of a sacred principle which she had heretofore not only acknowledged but had acted upon…. 

This strong denunciation of Emma’s “Last Testimony” with respect to polygamy serves to impeach, or invalidate, the entire statement. If she was lying this blatantly about polygamy, the argument goes, why should we trust her regarding the translation?

When Emma gave her "Last Testimony" in 1879, 35 years had elapsed since the polygamy days in Nauvoo. Emma's contemporaries strongly disputed her account of polygamy. We can't know what Emma was thinking, or whether her memory was faulty, she had an agenda, or her son guided (or composed) her testimony. But with respect to the translation, she was looking back 50 years. 

Emma's "Last Testimony" is a good example of the wisdom of using "multiple working hypotheses" as we assess historical accounts. 

The only historical fact about the "Last Testimony" is that Joseph Smith III wrote the questions and answers. We can all agree on that. Anyone can obtain a copy of the original document (as I have). 

Joseph Smith III also claimed that he actually visited his mother and asked the questions. There is documentation to support that claim. But we cannot observe the visit; we can only assume he told the truth about visiting and interviewing his mother.

Beyond that, we apply our assumptions, inferences and theories to interpret the actual fact (the document) and develop our hypotheses about its accuracy and relevance.

Historians are free to accept the "Last Testimony" on its face. Or they can reject it in whole or in part. But in any case, everyone involved should be clear about what they assume, infer, etc. so others can accurately understand their positions. That way we can fairly compare multiple working alternatives in our own pursuit of clarity.  

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