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.

Friday, September 1, 2017

Value of Historical Research

I'd like to follow up on President Hinckley's comment: “If we are going to stay on the track the Lord put us on, we must know our history.”

By now, many LDS scholars and educators think they know my position about Cumorah. They think they know everything about the topic. And maybe they do, but there are still some points I haven't published yet.

As I'll explain below, I think it's unwise to allow BYU scholars to keep Joseph on a track of adopting Oliver's false traditions. By "allow" I don't mean interfering with academic freedom; instead, I mean allow them to keep teaching their two-Cumorahs and Mesoamerican theories without being challenged by those who know Church history and who still believe what Joseph and Oliver taught about the Hill Cumorah.

LDS literature freely quotes from statements attributed to Joseph Smith. (I'm referring here to statements not included in the scriptures; i.e., statements that have not been canonized.)

In most cases, these statements exist in only one source. I'll call them "one-source statements."

In rare cases, we have instances where Joseph Smith wrote, or helped write, material that he personally directed should be copied and reprinted multiple times. I consider these multiple sources because each reprinting Joseph directed was an explicit additional endorsement of the content.

In my view, this material has more credibility than material someone claimed Joseph said or wrote (a second-hand source).

Some of the one-source second-hand statements were picked up in History of the Church, which has traditionally been cited as a legitimate source. Historians have long known it was not exactly a reliable source. The compilers added comments based on inferences and conjecture. They often re-wrote original sources to convert them to first person quotations.

The most famous example of this is the quotation attributed to Joseph Smith that appears in the Introduction to the Book of Mormon (and is featured in the entry at the MTC in Provo):

"Concerning this record the Prophet Joseph Smith said: 'I told the brethren that the Book of Mormon was the most correct of any book on earth, and the keystone of our religion, and a man would get nearer to God by abiding by its precepts, than by any other book.'”

The source for this quotation is not first hand and is not itself a quotation. The compilers of the History of the Church converted it from a summary statement in Wilford Woodruff's journal into a first person quotation by Joseph Smith. I discussed this in more detail here:

This is a minor objection, of course; we can assume that Woodruff correctly summarized Joseph's teachings that day, and maybe Joseph even used those phrases, although Woofruff typically used quotation marks when he was directly quoting someone in his journal.

I think it's misleading to continue using the first person quotation, however. It would be far better to quote Woodruff directly; i.e., "Joseph Said the Book of Mormon was the most correct of any Book on Earth & the key stone of our religion & a man would get nearer to God by abiding by its precepts than any other Book."

Because of History of the Church, we have a first-person quotation attributed to Joseph Smith that actually was Woodruff's personal summary of a day's teaching. The quotation is ubiquitous, having been printed millions of times, quoted in General Conference, etc. It is universally accepted, even though it is not, technically, accurate.

By contrast, we have the eight historical letters written by Oliver Cowdery with Joseph's assistance. Joseph specifically endorsed them at least three separate times. (We don't have evidence that Joseph specifically encouraged his brother William to publish them, but William did publish Letter VII in New York City two days after Joseph's martyrdom.) They've been republished on several other occasions, including in the Millennial Star and the Improvement Era. Parts of Letter I are included in the Pearl of Great Price.

I'm not aware of any other material that Joseph was so directly involved with and that he had reprinted so many times. One indicator of the value he placed on these letters was that he had both his brother Don Carlos and Benjamin Winchester reprint the letters even after Oliver Cowdery had left the Church. He thought they were important for Church members to know and understand.

Yet our modern LDS scholars and educators continue to reject what these letters teach about Moroni's visit to Joseph and what Oliver and Joseph taught about the Hill Cumorah being in New York.

If I had Mesomania and I wasn't able to completely censor Letter VII, I'd try to come up with reasons for people to disbelieve what Joseph and Oliver taught. I've discussed some of these reasons before, here:

Lately, I've heard the rationale that we should disbelieve Letter VII because it has not been canonized. I know, that sounds like a joke, but it's a serious claim by Mesomaniacs, so I discussed that one recently as well.

Those eight reasons really aren't persuasive. So how about this one? How about a claim that Joseph didn't write the letters, but that it was merely Oliver's opinion, and Oliver was wrong?

Obviously, it's a problem for Mesomaniacs to have Joseph Smith repeatedly endorsing the letters, even after Oliver left the Church. Mesomaniacs claim Joseph simply adopted a false tradition that Oliver started, but does any historian really believe that? D&C 28:11 is one of many examples in which Joseph corrected others whose teachings were false.

If we're going to allow BYU scholars to keep Joseph on a track of adopting Oliver's false traditions, we need to realize that track is on a slippery slope to oblivion, because Oliver was the only other witness to some of the most foundational events in Church history. 

As long as we're taking about tracks, here's another one to consider.

The Lord designated Oliver Cowdery as a writer for the Church. In addition to being the principal scribe for the Book of Mormon, the Lord told Joseph Smith in 1831, "And let my servant Oliver Cowdery assist him [Phelps], even as I have commanded, in whatsoever place I shall appoint unto him, to copy, and to correct, and select, that all things may be right before me, as it shall be proved by the Spirit through him." (D&C 57:13).

In fact, the Lord told Phelps that "you shall be ordained to assist my servant Oliver Cowdery to do the work of printing, and of selecting and writing books for schools in this church, that little children also may receive instruction before me as is pleasing unto me." (D&C 55:4)

That Oliver took this charge seriously is evident from his Valedictory when he concluded his service at the Messenger and Advocate.

Here is a man called by revelation to copy, correct and select things that may be right before the Lord, as directed by the Spirit. He was directed to select and write books for church schools. He was ordained as Assistant President of the Church. He worked closely with Joseph Smith when he wrote the historical letters, including Letter VII. He specified that it was a fact that the final battles of the Jaredites and Nephites took place in the mile-wide valley west of the Hill Cumorah in New York.

And yet, our modern LDS scholars reject what Oliver taught purely because of their own theories about two Cumorahs and Mesoamerica.

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