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.

Tuesday, March 8, 2016

Creating and changing historical narratives

Historical narratives are related by word (written and spoken), but even more, people retain images they see. A good example is this one:

See the problem?

There are no historical accounts that have Joseph Smith translating directly from the plates with Oliver Cowdery writing down what he spoke.

The photo is pure fiction. It's an artist's conception, but it's not historically accurate.

Nevertheless, this image has become reality in the minds of many people who saw it. In fact, a version like this made the cover of the Ensign as recently as 2001.

An outstanding article titled "Joseph the Seer" was published in the October 2015 Ensign, here. The subtitle explains what the article is about:
The historical record clarifies how Joseph Smith fulfilled his role as a seer and translated the Book of Mormon.

The article explains how artists' conceptions have not been historically accurate: "Over the years, artists have sought to portray the Book of Mormon translation, showing the participants in many settings and poses with different material objects. Each artistic interpretation is based upon its artist’s own views, research, and imagination, sometimes aided by input and direction from others."

One of the main points of the article is to explain that Joseph used a seer stone and placed it in a hat to block out the light so he could read what appeared on the stone. Here's the image of the stone:

And here is the display at recreated home where Joseph and Oliver worked on the translation in what was then Harmony, PA:
When I have spoken about this history at various events, some people object when I show the seer stone and the hat. They've been brought up with the images of Joseph reading from the plates and don't realize that Church historians have corrected the record.

It is very difficult for people to change their mental image of historical events when they've seen inaccurate artwork for so long.

A very similar thing is going on with the Book of Mormon right now. Most people have seen the Arnold Friberg paintings, including this one of Christ appearing to the Nephites.

Friberg specifically intended to depict a Mesoamerican setting, down to the detail of the species of birds he painted in the scene of Lehi arriving at the promised land.

What he forgot was that nowhere in the text does it say the Nephites built with stone, other than stone walls. No stone temples, no stone cities, not even stone houses. Yet here is an image of a massive stone temple at Bountiful, completely made up, that has influence millions of people who have read the Book of Mormon with these paintings inside.

Just this week I picked up a Book of Mormon at a Marriott Courtyard and it had Arnold Friberg paintings of Mesoamerica inside. This copy had been printed in December 2014.


Although these paintings are dramatic, this artwork is misleading in multiple ways. When the official Church policy is supposedly neutral on Book of Mormon geography, why do we keep seeing the Arnold Friberg Mesoamerican paintings in copies of the Book of Mormon?

Fortunately, there are alternatives, such as this depiction of Christ visiting the Nephites in North America. This is from the video titled Scriptures Legacy, one of the best productions I've seen yet.

The problem is, few people have seen it.

This is what should be in copies of the Book of Mormon, not the erroneous Arnold Friberg paintings.

Fortunately, more and more LDS artists are creating historically accurate depictions of Church history, as well as textually accurate depictions of Book of Mormon events. Until these replace the misleading artwork of the past in the minds of the people, though, erroneous ideas will continue.

I realize critics will say the depiction of North America is no more valid than the depiction of Mesoamerica, but how can they argue against at least showing both?

There are artists who focus on accuracy instead of drama when they depict historical events, whether that involves Church history or Book of Mormon narratives, but their artwork doesn't appear on lds.org or in copies of the Book of Mormon. Instead, hotel guests, investigators, and anyone who visits LDS visitors centers (or chapels) is exposed to misleading artwork that creates false mental images that are difficult to correct later on.

BTW, I hope it's clear I'm not criticizing the art itself. Medieval and Renaissance painting is filled with anachronism similar to Arnold Friberg's. Here's a well-known painting that put the last supper into Leonardo da Vinci's time frame:

This one, Luca van Leyden's 1520 painting titled "Lot and his Daughters," depicts the Sodom of the Old Testament as a typical Dutch city, circa 1520.

As long as people realize the Friberg paintings are not historically accurate and don't even reflect what the text says, fine. But why are they included in official copies of the Book of Mormon?


  1. FWIW, I've always thought Friberg intended to depict high classical civilization with his artwork, not Mesoamerica (the painting doesn't even look like Mesoamerica). When I look at his paintings, I'm reminded of great ancient cities, like Rome -- not Tikal.

    1. Absolutely - look at his depiction of Samuel the Lamanite. Those aren't Mesoamerican walls. Likewise look at his depiction of Mormon lamenting over the Nephites. Moroni is shown with a horned helmet. That's there not because Friberg thought the Nephites were Vikings (not that they wore them either...), but because it generates connotations with Ragnarok and last battles. It's an artistic statement, not a historical one.

  2. Great article!!! I feel the same way. Too many people have felt deceived by artists' interpretations endorsed by the church, however unintentional. It's very frustrating. :S

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  4. Another thought... The artists who did these painting aren't dumb people-- why didn't any research go into their paintings, and why doesn't the art department of the church correct them? Maybe it's not that important?

  5. If the leaders of the Church are neutral why were videos of Christ at the temples in Mesoamerica used in the Spanish production/celebration at the Conference Center in 2013? It was a great production but it was completely mesoamerican. Is that entire nation deceived and have their hearts set on being the true Lamanites? How would one tell the 21,000+ attendees that the basis of their belief is all fiction? Let alone the 1,000s of church members that believe it.

    1. guess you have to ask yourself what is more important: to be a true Lamenite and be able to receive the highest of covenants blessings God can give to his children on this earth -- or -- to not be a true Lamenite and be able to receive the highest of covenants and blessings God can give to his children on this earth? In the end, what's important? I've been there-- am I or aren't I a Lamenite by blood? You know what I found? It doesn't matter. I agrees it's you, paradigms are shifting and will shift and that can be a scary proposition. In that case, I sure hope their basis of belief isn't based on whether a person is or isn't the literal seed of Lehi-- that's not what the Church of Jesus Christ has endorsed (nor what the Book of Mormon itself endorses). A testimony basis built on archeology and Mesoamerican Book of Mormon settings is hardly a testimony of Jesus Christ. I have a good feeling your fears won't be the case as we learn more about North America being the place of Lehi's inheritance.

    2. RJ~

      I have no idea what your heritage is, but this is an important issue: If your patriarchal blessing declares you to be a descendant of Lehi, you have good reason to believe it. It deals with population growth and dispersal modeling and is a little complicated, so let me offer this example: I am a direct descendant of Charlemagne -- a man living about 1300 years ago -- as is literally (used correctly) every other white European currently living on this planet. It's not that Charlemagne is my *only* ancestor, and I would never claim the right to the various thrones of Europe by this regal (shared) descent, but that makes Charlemagne no less one of my ancestors.

      Lehi lived approximately 2600 years ago. The chances that Lehi has *any* descendants living in the Americas without *every* person of indigenous origin -- whether First Peoples, Native American, Latin American, etc. -- sharing him as a common ancestor are infinitesimally small. And that's true whether Lehi lived in Alaska, Argentina, or anywhere in between. He's not your *only* ancestor, but if your patriarchal blessing declares that lineage, you can have confidence that promise is true.

  6. Please check:
    Fabio Sagebin