Friday, September 10, 2021

Scholars vs prophets and multiple working hypotheses

The discussion about the New York Cumorah presents people with a simple, clear choice about whom you follow and how you interact with the scriptures, particularly the text of the Book of Mormon but also the Doctrine and Covenants and Pearl of Great Price.

Choice 1: Scholarly, subjective speculations about the text and extrinsic evidence that guide our interpretation of the location of Cumorah. 

Choice 2: Prophetic, factual statements about Cumorah in New York that guide our interpretation of the text and extrinsic evidence.

In the case of Cumorah, it makes an enormous difference which choice we make. If we accept the teachings of the scholars, we reject the teachings of the prophets. If we accept the teachings of the prophets, we reject the teachings of the scholars. There is no middle ground on this point. It's a binary, either/or choice. The Cumorah of Mormon 6:6 is either in western New York, or it's elsewhere. And if the prophets were wrong about the New York setting, it doesn't really matter where the "real Cumorah" is. 

It's a bizarre "tail wags the dog" scenario. The scholars insist the prophets are wrong solely because of their subjective speculations about where the Nephites must have lived, which leads them to develop "criteria" for Cumorah based on extrinsic evidence from their speculations. For example, because they insist the Nephites lived in Mesoamerica, they also insist Cumorah must be in a land of volcanoes, even though the text never mentions volcanoes. They insist Cumorah must be in a place inhabited by millions of ancient people, even though the text never says or implies that was the case.

When we read what the text actually says, as opposed to what commentators have said about what the text says, it's easy to reconcile the teachings of the prophets about Cumorah with the extrinsic evidence. For example, we can see that population estimates based on the text are congruent with extrinsic evidence from archaeology and anthropology in western New York, Ohio, etc. I discussed some of that here: 

http://www.lettervii.com/2021/03/book-of-mormon-populations.html

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Discussions about history involve two elements:

A. Historical facts (documents and extrinsic evidence). Because we're dealing with history, and no one is claiming any new revelation about that history, everyone is on a level playing field. No one has "special knowledge" about history because of their experience, credentials, positions, etc. Anyone who can read and understand English has equal access to all the facts.

B. Interpretation of those facts (multiple working hypotheses). This is where it is easy to get confused. Often, historians write in a style that presents their hypotheses as facts. Obviously, they have no personal knowledge of historical facts; they rely on evidence just like everyone else. This is a standard persuasive technique, but don't accept historians' statements as fact without seeing the evidence they rely upon. In the context of Church history, historians who are both believers and unbelievers use this rhetorical style. Discerning readers can tell the difference. 

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Ideally, we first establish the facts. Everyone should be able to agree about what the facts are. Proponents often avoid, discount, or even censor facts that contradict their hypotheses, but that's easy to expose. 

For example, ask yourself, did you know that Joseph's mother reported that Moroni identified the hill in New York as Cumorah the first time he visited Joseph Smith in 1823? 

Moroni said, "the record is on a side hill on the Hill of Cumorah 3 miles from this place."

If you don't know that, why don't you know that? 

Ask your BYU or CES teacher. Or ask the teachers of your children or grandchildren. 

It is inexcusable that Latter-day Saints don't know about this.

As a test, if you search for that phrase on Fairlatterdaysaints.org, you get two results, here and here. Both are buried in discussions about the First Vision, and both cite Dan Vogel's Early Mormon Documents book, volume 1, instead of the Joseph Smith Papers. 

If fairlatterdaysaints.org was a legitimate educational organization instead of an advocacy front for the M2C citation cartel, they would feature Lucy's account in their discussions of Cumorah. But they don't and they won't. They don't want Church members to know about anything that contradicts M2C.

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Every sincere seeker of truth should be able to agree on what the facts are. 

That's the easy part.

Next, we interpret those facts to develop hypotheses that explain and reconcile the facts in various ways. This involves assessing reliability, credibility, authenticity, and other indicia of truthfulness. Much of that analysis is subjective, but that's fine so long as we clearly explain our reasoning.

Different people develop different hypotheses that reflect their respective biases, desired outcomes, values, priorities, etc. Some people claim they "follow the evidence" but we can all see that is a delusion. The worst extreme of bias confirmation is not recognizing your own biases--or actually believing you have no bias.

To repeat: Because we're dealing with history, and no one is claiming any new revelation about that history, everyone is on a level playing field. We all have access to all the evidence. 

In this short post, I can't list all the evidence about Cumorah (some of it is here), but readers of this blog by now are familiar with it. Really, regarding Cumorah there is very little debate about the evidence itself. The debate involves (i) disclosing and (ii) interpreting the evidence. 

Here's a table that illustrates the two separate approaches to the Cumorah issue. Most references are here: http://www.lettervii.com/p/byu-packet-on-cumorah.html


Facts

Interpretation - Prophets

Interpretation - Scholars

Lucy Mack Smith: When Moroni first visited Joseph Smith, he told Joseph that "the record is on a side hill on the Hill of Cumorah 3 miles from this place."

Lucy was correct and this explains why everyone knew Cumorah was in New York

Lucy was wrong because she related a false tradition, or else Moroni was referring to a “second” Cumorah because the real Cumorah is in Mexico

Lucy Mack Smith: Joseph said, “as I passed by the hill of Cumorah, where the plates are

Lucy was correct and this explains why everyone knew Cumorah was in New York

Lucy was wrong because she related a false tradition, or else Moroni was referring to a “second” Cumorah because the real Cumorah is in Mexico

David Whitmer: The messenger who had the abridged plates declined a ride to Fayette and said “No, I am going to Cumorah.” David said, “This name was something new to me, I did not know what Cumorah meant.”

David was correct and this explains why everyone knew Cumorah was in New York

David was wrong because she related a false tradition, or else the messenger was referring to a “second” Cumorah because the real Cumorah is in Mexico

Oliver Cowdery (quoted by Parley P. Pratt) during the mission to the Lamanites (D&C 28, 30 and 32). "This Book, which contained these things, was hid in the earth by Moroni, in a hill called by him, Cumorah, which hill is now in the State of New York, near the village of Palmyra, in Ontario County.”

Oliver and Parley were correct and this explains why everyone knew Cumorah was in New York

Oliver and Parley were wrong because they related a false tradition, or else the Moroni was referring to a “second” Cumorah because the real Cumorah is in Mexico

Heber C. Kimball, who lived in western New York and joined the Church in 1832, visited Cumorah after his baptism and reported he could still see the embankments around the hill (most of which have since been plowed under)

Heber was correct because he had been taught about the New York Cumorah and observed the evidence with his own eyes

Heber was wrong because he didn’t describe the embankments in enough detail to verify his observations and because he was relying on a false tradition anyway

Oliver Cowdery, then Assistant President of the Church (which meant he was Joseph’s spokesman) wrote a series of essays about Church history with the assistance of Joseph Smith, published as letters in the Messenger and Advocate, Times and Seasons, Gospel Reflector, Millennial Star, The Prophet, and the Improvement Era. Joseph also had them copied into his journal as part of his life story.

Letter I. “[Moroni] said this history was written and deposited not far from that place” referring to Joseph’s home near Palmyra

Oliver was correct. If the history was “written and deposited” not far from Joseph’s home, Mormon and Moroni lived in that vicinity when they abridged the Nephite and Jaredite records.

Oliver was wrong because either he or Joseph misquoted Moroni based on a false tradition

Letter VI. Referring to the mile-wide valley west of the hill in New York where Joseph found the plates, “here, between these hills, the entire power and national strength of both the Jaredites and Nephites were destroyed.”

Oliver was correct because he and Joseph had visited the depository of Nephite records in the hill mentioned in Mormon 6:6 multiple times, as related by Brigham Young, Heber C. Kimball, David Whitmer, and others

Oliver, David Whitmer, Brigham Young, Heber C. Kimball, and others were wrong because either Oliver misled people based on a false tradition or he was relating multiple joint visions of the “real Cumorah” in southern Mexico, but also Oliver and Joseph never had any revelation about Cumorah

Letter VII. “[Mormon] deposited, as he says, on the 529th page, all the records in this same hill, Cumorah and after gave his small record to his son Moroni”

Oliver was correct because he had visited that depository, so he knew exactly where it was and he explained by citing Mormon 6:6

Oliver was wrong because he was merely speculating based on a false tradition

Letter VII. “This hill, by the Jaredites, was called Ramah: by it, or around it pitched the famous army of Coriantumr their tents.”

Oliver was correct because he had visited that depository and knew from personal experience what it contained

Oliver was wrong because he was merely speculating based on a false tradition

D&C 128:20 (originally a letter published in the Times and Seasons in September 1842): “And again, what do we hear? Glad tidings from Cumorah! Moroni, an angel from heaven, declaring the fulfilment of the prophets—the book to be revealed.”

Joseph was correct because he had learned the name from Moroni before he ever got the plates, he had visited the depository, and he had helped write and promulgate Letter VII, which had been published in the Times and Seasons a year previously.

Joseph was wrong because he had adopted the false tradition about Cumorah, or else he was referring to the hill in southern Mexico because of speculative articles in the Times and Seasons that anachronistically attributed Mayan ruins to the Nephites

Various other teachings by Joseph’s contemporaries and successors about the New York Cumorah

They were correct because they relied on what Joseph and Oliver taught

They were wrong because they relied on a false tradition, which we know is false because our interpretation of the Book of Mormon requires Cumorah to be in southern Mexico


Monday, August 23, 2021

Abraham Lincoln on extinct giants

Book of Mormon geography and historicity is not complicated. Moroni explained that the history of the Jaredites was the history of those who lived in "this north country." (Ether 1:1) Separately, he told Joseph that "the history of the aborigenes of this country... was written and deposited not far from" Joseph's home.

https://www.josephsmithpapers.org/paper-summary/history-1834-1836/69

Because Mormon and Moroni wrote the history not far from Joseph's home near Palmyra, NY, and because Moroni explained that the Jaredites lived in "this" north country, we can see that the Jaredites lived in the "north country" that included western New York.  

It's very simple (unless you've been persuaded by M2C scholars and their followers who insist the prophets were wrong about Cumorah, that Oliver was an ignorant speculator, etc.)

Those of us Latter-day Saints who still believe the teachings of the prophets about the New York Cumorah know about the ancient giants who lived in "this north country" as Moroni described it. 

And it came to pass that they ate and slept, and prepared for death on the morrow. And they were large and mighty men as to the strength of men. (Ether 15:26)

In Moroni's America I quoted what Abraham Lincoln said about the "race of extinct giants" when he visited Niagara Falls. The original, with a link, is below.

The eyes of that species of extinct giants - whose bones fill the mounds of America, have gazed on Niagara as ours do now....

https://www.loc.gov/resource/mal.4167500/?sp=14&st=text&r=0.009,0.502,1.184,0.623,0

page 14.

In the late 1800s there were newspaper accounts from that area describing the discovery of giant human skeletons deep in the ground. Some from Cayuga and Dunnville are included below.

(click to enlarge)


Note the proximity of Cayuga and Dunnville to both Niagara and Cumorah.






Another book described the mummies found in Lexington, Kentucky.

Friday, August 6, 2021

Translation art

The best depiction of the translation is still on the Church's web page.

https://history.churchofjesuschrist.org/content/joseph-smith-translates-the-gold-plates?lang=eng

(click to enlarge)











This image is exceptionally important because it shows the curtain or screen that was common knowledge. If not for the screen, the Spalding theory would have made no sense. The whole point of the book Mormonism Unvailed was to explain what was behind the "vail" when Joseph dictated. This is one way we can tell that the SITH sayers (stone-in-the-hat) witnesses were not observing the actual translation, but instead merely a demonstration.

It would be even better if this image showed the Urim and Thummim, but this is far more historically and doctrinally accurate than the goofy SITH images. So far, I haven't seen a single SITH image that aligns with David Whitmer's description of the demonstration, with the people gathered around the table and the three scribes ready to take turns because Joseph was dictating so fast.


Wednesday, June 30, 2021

David Whitmer, the Nephite, and the Urim and Thummim

Edward Stevenson's journal entry in which he reported that David claimed the messenger who took the abridged plates to Cumorah was one of the Three Nephites.

https://catalog.churchofjesuschrist.org/assets/82199881-7613-43e6-a79e-b72609d95b23/0/22

(click to enlarge)






Stevenson's journal entry in which David said the angel showed him the Urim and Thummim with the plates.

https://catalog.churchofjesuschrist.org/assets/82199881-7613-43e6-a79e-b72609d95b23/0/17

(click to enlarge)


Later in this journal, Stevenson recorded this note: "David said that the Prophet translated first by the Urim and Thummim and afterwards by a seer stone." Because David was never present in Harmony during the translation, he was either repeating hearsay or what he observed (or heard) at the Whitmer home in Fayette.

When Joseph arrived at the Whitmer home, he began translating the plates of Nephi that we refer to today as the "small plates." The Original Manuscript shows that Oliver, Christian Whitmer and John Whitmer were the scribes for 1 Nephi. 

Later, Emma arrived and Joseph conducted a demonstration with three scribes taking turns as they got tired. Because Joseph couldn't show the plates or the U&T, he used the stone in the hat (SITH) to demonstrate the concept of translating. 

Thus, David was correct in the sense that Joseph translated first with the U&T, which took place upstairs from morning until night, out of sight of the household. Later, Joseph conducted the demonstration with SITH downstairs, probably reciting the Isaiah chapters by memory. David naturally inferred this was part of the translation. 

Joseph and Oliver would have concluded the final few pages of 2 Nephi through Words of Mormon after the demonstration, upstairs.


Thursday, June 17, 2021

A record of the Indians

There was a time when Church members still believed what Moroni first told Joseph Smith when he "gave a history of the aborigenes of this country" and said "this history was written and deposited" not far from Joseph's home near Palmyra, New York.

See https://www.josephsmithpapers.org/paper-summary/history-1834-1836/68

For example, Lucy Mack Smith told people it was a record of the Indians.

From Lucy Mack Smith's History, 1844-5.

I will now return to the time when the Elders set out for Misouri the reader will reccollect that Hyrum Smith my oldest son was directed to go by the way of Detroit I thought this would be a good opportunity for me to visit the family of my My Brother stephen Mack Who had been dead some 4 or 5 years this being 1831 and my brother died in 1826— Hyrum was very anxious to have me accompany him And as my niece was about returning home I this was another inducement for me to undertake the journey I accordingly set off in the month 

[p. [8], bk. 12]

of june our company consisted Hyram Smith Brother Moredock [John Murdock] Lyman Wight Brother Corril [John Corrill] Almira Mack my Niece and myself— 

When we went on board the boat we held a consultation to Determine whether it was best to say much concerning the gospel at first it was concluded that we should be entirely still as to religion but finally Hyrum said that Mother might say what she was disposed to and if a difficulty arose the Elders should assist her out of it 

We had not been long on board when as I was setting one day at the door of the cabin very much engaged reading the Book of Mormon a lady accosted me thus What book have you madam you seem very much engaged The Book of Mormon I replied— The Book of Mormon said she what work is that I then gave her a brief history of the coming forth of the work She seemed highly delighted I said that it was a record of the Indians Is it possible she exclaimed why My Husband is a Missionary out now among the Indians and I am going to how I do wish that I could get a book to carry him

https://www.josephsmithpapers.org/paper-summary/lucy-mack-smith-history-1844-1845/148

Monday, May 10, 2021

Article from the Times and Seasons, Vol. 6, 20:1076

Sunday, June 1st, 1834, We had preaching, and many of the inhabitants of the town came to hear. Elder John Carter, who had formerly been a Baptist preacher, spoke in the morning, and was followed by four other Elders in the course of the day all of whom had formerly been preachers for different denominations.—  

When the inhabitants heard these elders they appeared much interested, and were very desirous to know who we were, and we told them one had been a Baptist preacher, and one a Campbellite; one a Reformed Methodist, and another a Restorationer, &c. 

During the day many questions were asked but no one could learn our names, profession, business or destination, and, although they suspected we were Mormons they were very civil. Our enemies had threatened that we should not cross the Illinois river, but on Monday the 2nd we were ferried over without any difficulty. The ferryman counted and declared there were five hundred of us; yet our true number was only about one hundred and fifty. Our company had been increased since our departure from Kirtland, by volunteers from different branches of the church through which we had passed. 

We encamped on the bank of the river until Tuesday the 3rd during our travels we visited several of the mounds which had been thrown up be the ancient inhabitants of this county, Nephites, Lamanites, &c., and this morning I went up on a high mound, near the river, accompanied by the brethren. From this mound we could overlook the tops of the trees and view the prairie on each side of the river as far as our vision could extend, and the scenery was truly delightful.

On the top of the mound were stones which presented the appearance of three alters having been erected one above the other, according to ancient order; and human bones were strown over the surface of the ground. 

The brethren procured a shovel and hoe, and removing the earth to the depth of about one foot discovered skeleton of a man, almost entire, and between his ribs was a Lamanitish arrow, which evidently produced his death, Elder Brigham Young retained the arrow and the brethren carried some pieces of the skeleton to Clay county. 

The contemplation of the scenery before us produced peculiar sensations in our bosoms; and the visions of the past being opened to my understanding by the spirit of the Almighty I discovered that the person whose skeleton was before us, was a white Lamanite, a large thick set man, and a man of God. He was a warrior and chieftain under the great prophet Omandagus, who was know from the hill Cumorah, or Eastern sea, to the Rocky Mountains. His name was Zelph. The curse was taken from him or at least, in part; one of his thigh bones was broken, by a stone flung from a sling, while in battle, by the arrow found among his ribs, during the last great struggle of the Lamanites and Nephites.

(Times and Seasons VI.20:1076 ¶4–5)

(click to enlarge)



Monday, April 19, 2021

An accurate account

A recent article in the Wall St. Journal discussed a physicist who has assessed the data regarding climate change and has concluded the media and politicians have misled the public (no surprise). 

The article included this observation.

Mr. Koonin says he wants voters, politicians and business leaders to have an accurate account of the science. He doesn’t care where the debate lands.

That observation struck me as describing the way I approach issues of Church history. 

I want members of the Church to have an accurate account of all the history, and I don't care where the debate lands.

As I see it, there have been four distinct approaches to Church history.

1. Traditional faithful narratives that supported Joseph Smith's prophetic role but were highly edited versions of Church history, generally omitting what could be perceived as "negative" information from historical sources. Examples: Essentials in Church History and Truth Restored.

2. Critical narratives that undermined or directly attacked Joseph Smith's prophetic role but generally omitted information from historical sources that supported Joseph's claims. Examples: Mormonism Unvailed and No Man Knows my History.

3. "New Mormon History" that, while purportedly faithful, sought to incorporate the "negative" information by reframing our understanding of Church history by largely accepting the critical narratives and omitting information that contradicts modern consensus on such topics as M2C and SITH. Examples: Rough Stone Rolling, Saints and From Darkness unto Light.

4. Reactionary narratives that responded to the "New Mormon History" by characterizing as lies the historical sources that contradicted or reframed the traditional faithful narratives. Example: Seer stone vs Urim and Thummim.

Each approach naturally satisfies a distinct audience because each is an exercise in bias confirmation. I have no problem with anyone accepting whichever approach they prefer.

However, as I evaluated these approaches, I concluded that each lacked what I considered a basic requirement because each approach simply ignored evidence that contradicted the thesis of the respective authors. While each presents itself as the "correct" interpretation, unsuspecting readers never see the information that the authors omit.

Narratives by nature involve interpretation, assumptions and conjecture. Each individual can assess an author's views and make an informed decision--but only if they have all the relevant facts available.

As Mr. Koonin said in the WSJ article, I want people to have an accurate account of all the history.

I think it makes more sense to assess all of the available and relevant evidence, and then see if there is a narrative that explains all of that evidence. 

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Following that approach led me to write numerous blog articles and three books on Church history and related topics. I make my assumptions and biases clear up front. I include all the relevant information I can find from all four categories of approaches listed above, plus additional sources. 

Regarding the translation issue, A Man that Can Translate proposes that Joseph did translate the engravings on the plates with the aid of the Urim and Thummim, but also used the seer stone to conduct a demonstration for his supporters.

Regarding Book of Mormon historicity, Between these Hills makes a case for the New York Cumorah that Joseph, Oliver, their contemporaries and successors consistently and persistently taught.

Regarding the language of the Book of Mormon, Infinite Goodness argues that the text itself is evidence that Joseph translated the plates "after the manner of his language."

I welcome input from readers, including critics. I often update my blogs and books in response to new information or better arguments.

I hope the ongoing discussion will lead to improved understanding of historical events and greater faith among Latter-day Saints.