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. 


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.

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