Friday, June 10, 2016

Historical documents and narratives

For the rest of June, I'm going to revisit the historical documents that have contributed to the resistance against accepting Letter VII and the New York Cumorah.

To keep this blog focused on Letter VII and Cumorah, I will post the historical material on my blog titled LDS Historical Narratives. (That way, historians don't have to look at Book of Mormon geography issues, and geography people don't have to read historical material.)

Today, for example, I posted about the Bernhisel letter. You can see that post here.

November 1841 thank-you note
to Dr. John Bernhisel
A quick summary: Dr. Bernhisel was a Church leader who lived in New York. He gave a copy of Stephens' books about Central America to Wilford Woodruff to take to Nauvoo as a gift for Joseph Smith. In November, someone wrote a note thanking Bernhisel for the gift, with the observation that the Stephens book "unfolds & developes [sic] many things that are of great importance to this generation & corresponds with & supports the testimony of The Book of Mormon."

No one knows who wrote the letter because the handwriting has never been identified. And, obviously, the note says nothing about Book of Mormon geography. All the archaeology in the Americas "corresponds with and supports the testimony of the Book of Mormon" because the Book of Mormon people eventually spread throughout the hemisphere by migrating and intermarrying with indigenous people. (Plus, although he focuses primarily on Central America, Stephens also discusses North American antiquities in his books.) Nevertheless, this brief note has been attributed to Joseph Smith and used to claim he "greeted" the Stephens books "enthusiastically."

In reality, there is not a single piece of evidence directly attributable to Joseph Smith that shows he ever saw the Stephens books, let alone read or wrote about them. Yet this letter and other anonymous writings have led to a historical narrative that Joseph Smith connected the Book of Mormon to Central America. That narrative, in my opinion, cannot be supported by the historical record without making a series of assumptions and inferences (i.e., a violation of Occam's razor).


My conclusion, after studying everything I could find on the topic of pre-1844 Church documents, boils down to two very simple observations.

1. Everything directly attributable to Joseph Smith supports and corroborates Letter VII.

2. Everything that contradicts Letter VII cannot be directly attributed to Joseph Smith.

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