The things I write about on this blog are pretty simple. Letter VII is straightforward and unambiguous: the New York Hill Cumorah was the scene of the last battles of the Jaredites and Nephites.
If you disagree with that, you're not arguing with me, but with Oliver Cowdery and Joseph Smith. Which, I emphasize, is fine with me.
True, I've posted some some thoughts about why they are credible and reliable, some corroborating evidence, and some defenses of them when I learn about attacks that I consider to be based on factual or logical errors. But my objectives are to clarify and specify and amplify. I'm not trying to convince anyone of anything. Believe whatever you want. But take responsibility for your beliefs. Spell out your assumptions. Let people know what worldview is behind the things you say and write.
I want every member of the Church to read Letter VII during 2016 not to persuade them of anything, but so they can see that their choices about what to believe are serious choices, not merely whims or emotions.
Criticism is a lot of fun for both sides. Plus, it's important and useful. I have sought input on every one of my books before it was published. I make changes all the time when readers point to errors and omissions, as well as new information or insights. Pursuing the truth is an iterative process that ideally would involve everyone. The actual number of people who get involved is far smaller than that, of course, due to limits of time, interest, expertise, and subject-matter knowledge, but I have greatly appreciated the input from both supporters and detractors.
That said, I don't have the time or interest to respond to most of the criticism. If you've been following this blog, you've seen some occasions when I have taken the time to discuss particular issues, and I think you've all seen how that goes. People become increasingly irrational, defensive and emotional--all of which is valid in its place, but I think is counterproductive in this area. If you are emotionally attached to a particular setting for the Book of Mormon, great. I'm not going to change your mind even if I wanted to because I'm not writing about emotional attachments to places.
I have no problem with agreeing to disagree. And, of course, I've done a fair bit of criticizing myself in a mostly futile effort to open the minds (and editorial boards) of the citation cartel.
There is plenty of scientific literature about how people react to new ideas and changes. For some, it's easy and even liberating. For others, it's difficult and even impossible. At one end of the spectrum, we see Church members who always thought the Book of Mormon took place in North America. They love Letter VII. At the other end, we see authors and scholars who have decades of publications on the line. They're doing everything possible to discredit Letter VII. Everyone on the spectrum has a story, everyone has an agenda, and as far as I'm concerned, everyone can stay where they feel most comfortable.
While I do believe in the aphorism that "there is no growth in the comfort zone, and no comfort in the growth zone," I also recognize that far more people choose comfort than growth.
Ironically, though, I don't think any of the stuff I write is "new." The critics are reacting to ideas that are new to them because they've been, let's say educated, about a particular way of interpreting historical events. They've been taught to accept long-held beliefs and assumptions. A thick gloss has been painted over the original sources. For example, the two-Cumorah theory apparently arose in the 1920s. While it dominates current thinking among LDS scholars and educators today (an extremely unfortunate development, in my view), it directly contradicts what people wrote and said when Joseph Smith was alive. It's the two-Cumorah theory that is new, not Letter VII.
Which is a great example of the principle that ideas are not valid, or better, just because they are new. (Actually, as I explain at the end of this post, the rationale behind the two-Cumorah theory is nearly as old as the Restoration itself.)
I also emphasize that the two-Cumorah theory is a rejection of Oliver Cowdery and the New York Cumorah. It claims the "real" Cumorah was anywhere but New York. As such, my comments here should not be taken or understood to be critical of any particular theory of geography.
That said, in this blog I've pointed out a few examples of how the two-Cumorah theory has tainted recent LDS writing. These are representative, not comprehensive, and I'm not criticizing individuals but instead the mindset that the theory has created. You ought to see the number of tabs in my copies of books written by the citation cartel, and the number of posts on this very blog that are sitting there as drafts, waiting for me to click on the Publish button. Probably I'll never publish them, but you're not missing out on anything. You can detect the pervasive influence of the two-Cumorah theory yourselves whenever you read something from the citation cartel. It's quite obvious.
From my perspective, people aren't criticizing me, anyway. They're criticizing Oliver Cowdery and Joseph Smith. After all, I didn't write Letter VII. I didn't tell people I'd visited a room in the Hill Cumorah that contained wagon loads of plates. I didn't write to my wife about crossing the plains of the Nephites when I walked across Ohio, Indiana, and Illinois. I didn't have a vision of Zelph. I didn't meet Moroni and learn about the former inhabitants of this country from him. I didn't engrave the plates, read the words from the interpreters or write them down, and I had nothing to do with the publication of the Book of Mormon and the other revelations.
So in a sense, any response I could give to critics of my writing is irrelevant. It's not about me; it's about the original sources and the text of the Book of Mormon itself.
In recent months, I've had lots of reactions to Letter VII, overwhelmingly positive. On the critical side, people tell me Oliver Cowdery didn't know what he was talking about, he was speculating, he was repeating a tradition started by unknown persons at an unknown time, etc. I've heard similar things about Joseph Smith. These arguments, as I understand them, are indistinguishable from the earliest anti-Mormon arguments: i.e., that Oliver and Joseph made it all up, that the three and eight witnesses saw visions, not actual plates, and even that the Book of Mormon itself is a "pious fraud," meaning it's not a real history of real people, but it teaches pastoral truths, so that, like the Biblical parables, it is "true" only in the sense that it teaches truths. It's in that sense that the rationale behind the two-Cumorah theory is as old as the Restoration itself.
These arguments against Letter VII are put forth solely to support the two-Cumorah theory. In my view the words of Joseph Fielding Smith have been well-vindicated by the things the citation cartel has published for the last forty decades: "Because of this theory some members of the Church have become confused and greatly disturbed in their faith in the Book of Mormon."
It's difficult to think of a more debilitating explanation of Letter VII than the one I'm hearing most often; i.e., that Oliver Cowdery misled his readers by stating as fact something he didn't actually know. That's exactly what the critics of the Restoration have said all along, and yet this is coming from the scholarly and educational leaders of today's Church.
I think members of the Church are starting to see this clearly. Some, "confused and greatly disturbed" by what passes for LDS scholarship today, leave the Church or remain while living with their cognitive dissonance. Others disregard what the scholars and Church educators are saying--but that has its own set of problems, because the two-Cumorah theory taints other areas of scholarship as well.
Let me emphasize, again, that I have great respect and appreciation for LDS scholars and educators and the work they do. It is primarily this issue of Book of Mormon geography/historicity that, in my opinion, has led to unnecessary confusion. I hope at some point they will see that by adhering to this two-Cumorah theory and its implicit undermining of Oliver and Joseph, they are also undermining all the tremendously insightful and effective Gospel scholarship that has been done and is ongoing.
Members of the Church should have confidence that faithful LDS scholars and educators will build and support faith, not cause them and their children to become confused and greatly disturbed in their faith.
Finally, if you still want me to respond to specific criticism, send me an email and I'll consider it. But overall, I avoid restating things I have already written, and I've addressed most criticism preemptively in my blogs and books.
I also try to avoid restating things others have written. The single best response to criticism from the citation cartel that I've read so far was published by Todd Compton. Here's the link.
His credo is classic, and I hope he doesn't mind that I copy part of it here:
This is my credo, as a Mormon who looks on himself as believing, and as a historian who tries to be honest and balanced:
I believe that all truth is faith-promoting, if we're talking about authentic faith. No authentic truth damages authentic faith. Truth, even difficult truths, will only deepen and give breadth of vision to authentic faith. Only brittle, oversimplified faith will break easily when confronted with difficult truths. When we face difficult truths, we should not sensationalize them, but we should deal with them straightforwardly and honestly, using historical context and sympathetic insight to put them into perspective. Sometimes, when we have had oversimplified faith, we will need to deepen and broaden our faith to include tragedy and contradiction and human limitation, but that is not a matter of giving up our faith -- it is a matter of developing our faith. I realize that this can be a painful process at times, but it is a process that gives our faith more solidity and more breadth. The eye of faith sees greater depth, perspectives, and gradations of color; the heart of faith responds more to the tragedies of our bygone brothers and sisters, who become more real and more sympathetic to us.
I believe that the gospel includes all truth, and all truth is part of the gospel.
I believe that the gospel is afraid of no truth. All truths, both the brightness of love and the shadows of tragedy, contribute to the infinite beauty of the gospel.
The gospel includes heights and depths. It includes shining, dazzling light, and darkest shadow -- and everything in between, all shades of gray. It includes knowledge of God, but it also includes knowledge of Satan. It includes knowledge of great and good men and women, and of deeply flawed men and women. It also includes men and women who have great goodness and serious flaws at the same time -- sometimes, seemingly, on alternate days. It includes aspects of reality that are supposedly "secular" -- science, economics, music, history. (See D&C 93:53.)