long ago ideas

“When we are tired, we are attacked by ideas we conquered long ago." - Friedrich Nietzsche. Long ago, Joseph Smith and Oliver Cowdery conquered false claims that the Book of Mormon was fiction or that it came through a stone in a hat. But these old claims have resurfaced in recent years. To conquer them again, we have to return to what Joseph and Oliver taught.

Saturday, June 20, 2015

Michael Ash-Confusing Tradition with Doctrine

I remain hopeful that someday the Maxwell Institute and FAIR MORMON will honestly evaluate an alternative to the Mesoamerican model of Book of Mormon geography, but I admit that is more of a fantasy than a likelihood, based on their ongoing efforts. In the last month, for example, FAIR re-released podcasts from years ago that touch on Book of Mormon geography:

Fair Issues 89: Dilemmas with Great Lakes Model
Author: Ned Scarisbrick
Posted: June 7, 2015, 2:00 pm

Fair Issues 88: Geographical inconsistencies in the Great Lakes model
Author: Ned Scarisbrick
Posted: May 31, 2015, 2:00 pm

Both of these are based on articles by Michael Ash, originally published in the Deseret News in 2011. (As an aside, I haven't been able to find a single example of the Deseret News publishing a point of view in support of the North American setting--or critical of the Mesoamerican setting.) Ash actually cites Sorenson's bizarre list of "problems" with the North American setting that I addressed long ago. By repeating these podcasts within the last 30 days, FAIR is continuing to mislead its readers and listeners with long-outdated information.

Michael Ash is a frequent contributor to FAIRMORMON, a group that holds annual conferences and maintains a web page subtitled "Critical questions. Faithful answers." I think FAIR does a reasonable job on most topics, but their ongoing support of the Mesoamerican setting undermines everything else they do.

One quotation from Ash stands out: "I’m certainly open to all new evidences and data on this topic, but I have yet to see how the Great Lakes data supports the Book of Mormon text on geographical, cultural, archaeological, and climatological requirements and inferences."

If he's serious, I hope he contacts me. But given the close relationship between Ash, FAIR, and the Maxwell Institute, I somehow don't think that's going to happen.


Ash is known for his book Shaken Faith Syndrome: Strengthening One’s Testimony in the Face of Criticism and Doubt. There's one chapter in there that, ironically and unfortunately, undermines the testimonies of those who read it.

In Chapter 4, Ash writes:

It’s likely that Joseph Smith, most of his contemporaries, and probably most modern-day prophets assumed and even embraced this hemispheric view. It also seems likely that Joseph and his contemporaries believed that the Indian remnants of his local vicinity furnished evidence of the lives and wars of the Nephites and Lamanites. From where did such beliefs arise? A superficial reading of the Book of Mormon—in the context of cultural beliefs about the Indians in Joseph’s day—plausibly suggests such a scenario. Some early nineteenth-century frontiersmen, for example, believed that the Indians were originally white settlers from the lost tribes of Israel.2 In the weakness of early LDS understanding it would have made logical sense to envision Book of Mormon geography in context of what they believed about the existence of Indians in North America.

Early LDS leader and writer, Orson Pratt, became a primary promoter of the hemispheric Book of Mormon geography and some of his thoughts were eventually incorporated as footnotes to geographical events in the 1879 edition of the Book of Mormon. These notes were removed in the 1920 edition, but the influence had already made its impact on many Latter-day Saints. The hemispheric model was born from supposition in context of nineteenth-century American speculation
and achieved quasi-official status among many members because of tradition rather than revelation. For most members, there was no need to question a hemispheric geography—it appeared to be the obvious interpretation of the Book of Mormon text.

Like all Mesoamerican proponents, Ash asserts that Joseph Smith didn't know much about the Book of Mormon, including its geography. But as I've explained, Joseph Smith expressly repudiated Orson Pratt's hemispheric geography in the Wentworth letter, which was published in March 1842 in the Times and Seasons, and which Joseph actually signed.

Ash, like other Mesoamerican proponents (including the Curriculum Committee which deleted this section from the Wentworth letter in the lesson manual Teachings of the Prophets: Joseph Smith), ignores what Joseph expressly wrote. Instead, Ash and the Curriculum Committee prefer to think that "it is likely Joseph... embraced this hemispheric view."

There is a paragraph in chapter 4 that I hope Ash (and the Curriculum Committee) take to heart:

Sometimes when new light is given we resist. Most of us are adverse to change; after all, we are creatures of habit. “I have tried for a number of years,” said Joseph Smith, “to get the minds of the Saints prepared to receive the things of God; but we frequently see some of them, after suffering all they have for the work of God, will fly to pieces like glass as soon as anything comes that is contrary to their traditions.”

The reference Joseph's quotation is a discourse he gave on January 21, 1844, in Nauvoo, reported by Wilford Woodruff. In my view, the Wentworth letter is a perfect example of this. Joseph edited Orson Pratt's work (as documented in the Joseph Smith Papers) to correct aspects of his own biography, the doctrines in the Articles of Faith, the genealogy of Lehi's group, and the setting for the Book of Mormon. He expressly deleted Pratt's hemispheric model. And yet here we have Michael Ash (and FAIR, the Maxwell Institute, the Curriculum Committee, etc.) claiming that Joseph Smith "likely... embraced the hemispheric model."

I'll quote Ash one more time and hope he, and everyone else who adheres to the Mesoamerican model, takes his own advice.

It really doesn’t matter how long or how many people (including prophets) believed an erroneous non-doctrinal idea. Doctrine is not determined by how long something is believed, or by the belief’s popularity.... When we recognize that both members and non-members
sometimes mistake official LDS doctrines with traditions, procedures, policies, and the presentation of doctrine, many anti-LDS arguments lose what potency they might have had.

1 comment:

  1. Jonathan, you write: " I think FAIR does a reasonable job on most topics, but their ongoing support of the Mesoamerican setting undermines everything else they do."

    Sadly, you are right. As much as I like what FAIR has done on many topics, it really bristles me when they get this one (Book of Mormon Geography, especially their unseemly pride in their adherence to the MesoAmerican model and opposition to Heartland models) so wrong. It makes it even tougher when you know, as I do, several who work or volunteer for FAIR.