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 20, 2018

Why don't the Brethren...

One of the most persistent questions people ask me about M2C* is, "Why don't the Brethren resolve this Cumorah issue?"

I can't speak for anyone else, and certainly not for the Brethren, but my response has three parts.

First, I ask, "What makes you think they haven't resolved the Cumorah issue?"

Second, I ask, "How many times do the Brethren have to declare something before you will believe them?"

Finally, I ask, "Do you think the Brethren today have any intention of repudiating their predecessors just because the M2C intellectuals have?" 

I don't see why any Church leader should feel obligated to reiterate the clear, definitive teachings of prior prophets just because a few intellectuals have repudiated those teachings. The Brethren always urge us to focus on the scriptures and the teachings of the prophets, not the teachings of intellectuals.

Another consideration: no one in the Church is compelled to believe anything. "We claim the privilege of worshiping Almighty God according to the dictates of our own conscience, and allow all men the same privilege, let them worship how, where, or what they may." People are free to believe the Book of Mormon took place anywhere they want to. Mesoamerica, Baja, New York, the Midwestern U.S., Panama, Chile, Peru, Eritrea, Malaysia--even the BYU/CES fantasy map--whatever works for each person. No one is required to believe what the prophets have taught, even about the hill Cumorah.

That said, members of the Church are confused because while the New York Cumorah is well established in the teachings of the prophets, M2C is taught at CES/BYU and is depicted widely in Church media, artwork, visitors centers, and curriculum.

We'll briefly address each point below, but first let's look at a problem directly related to this issue of Cumorah.

Jana Riess did a survey of Millennials, asking why they left the Church. Tied for first was this reason: "I did not trust the Church leadership to tell the truth surrounding controversial or historical issues."

This is a broad statement, and there are many possible applications of it. But why would Millennials think Church leadership has not told the truth?

BYU fantasy map of the Book of Mormon
which teaches students that the prophets are wrong
The most obvious reason is because our CES/BYU faculty have been teaching the youth that the prophets are wrong. 

Think a moment: If you're a teenager in seminary or a college student in Institute or at a BYU campus and your CES/BYU teacher tells you the prophets are wrong about the New York Cumorah, what conclusion would you reach about the credibility of the prophets?

It is these M2C intellectuals and their followers in CES/BYU who are the ones teaching the Millennials not to trust Church leadership.

Sure, out of one side of their mouths they emphasize the importance of following the prophets. But when it comes to the Book of Mormon, and specifically the Hill Cumorah, they teach their students that the prophets are wrong.

And these same teachers try to avoid the problem by suppressing Letter VII and the other teachings of the prophets--which is exactly the problem that the Millennials cited as the reason they left the Church.

Many people claim the Cumorah issue is not important, but you don't have to spend more than a minute on the Internet to discover the deep chasm between the teachings of the prophets and the teachings of the M2C intellectuals on this point. E.g., http://www.utlm.org/onlineresources/cumorah.htm

We can pretend the youth (and the missionaries) are unaware of the issue, but that's self-delusion of major proportions. 

Because the Book of Mormon is the keystone of our religion, and "all the Church stands or falls with the truthfulness of the Book of Mormon," there is no more important question than what the Church teaches about the Book of Mormon itself.

The New York Cumorah has become a controversial issue purely because the M2C intellectuals have persuaded so many members of the Church that the prophets were wrong. In recent years, the New York Cumorah (and Letter VII) have been almost completely censored from Church curriculum, media, artwork, visitors centers, etc. This is a result of the concerted and determined effort of M2C believers, not because of anything the prophets have said.

In my view, Church leaders have consistently told the truth about the New York Cumorah. It is the M2C intellectuals who have obscured these teachings, contested them, and outright repudiated them. 

Consider President Ezra Taft Benson's comments on prophets vs. intellectuals:

Sometimes there are those who feel their earthly knowledge on a certain subject is superior to the heavenly knowledge which God gives to his prophet on the same subject. They feel the prophet must have the same earthly credentials or training which they have had before they will accept anything the prophet has to say that might contradict their earthly schooling. How much earthly schooling did Joseph Smith have? Yet he gave revelations on all kinds of subjects. … We encourage earthly knowledge in many areas, but remember if there is ever a conflict between earthly knowledge and the words of the prophet, you stand with the prophet and you’ll be blessed and time will show you have done the right thing....

The learned may feel the prophet is only inspired when he agrees with them, otherwise the prophet is just giving his opinion—speaking as a man...

As a prophet reveals the truth it divides the people. The honest in heart heed his words but the unrighteous either ignore the prophet or fight him....

As members of the Church we have some close quarters to pass through if we are going to get home safely. We will be given a chance to choose between conflicting counsel given by some. That’s why we must learn—and the sooner we learn, the better—to keep our eye on the Prophet, the President of the Church.

There is definitely a major conflict between the earthly knowledge of the M2C intellectuals and the words of the prophets regarding the Hill Cumorah. The M2C intellectuals actually make the argument President Benson identified when they say President Cowdery and all the other prophets were "just giving [their] opinions." 

The question for us is, do we stand with the intellectuals or with the prophets?

Now, back to our questions.

1. What makes you think they haven't resolved the Cumorah issue?

It is not possible to write a description of Cumorah and its significance that is more clear and unambiguous than what President Cowdery wrote in Letter VII. Recently I posted excerpts here,

At about one mile west rises another ridge of less height, running parallel with the former, leaving a beautiful vale between. The soil is of the first quality for the country, and under a state of cultivation, which gives a prospect at once imposing, when one reflects on the fact, that here, between these hills, the entire power and national strength of both the Jaredites and Nephites were destroyed.

This statement alone definitely resolves the location of the Hill Cumorah. It is the same hill in Western New York where Joseph found the original plates in Moroni's box made of stone and cement. To remove any uncertainty, President Cowdery quotes directly from the text itself.

2. How many times do the Brethren have to declare the New York Cumorah before you will believe them?

This is not a rhetorical question. We would very much like the M2C intellectuals to explain how many times the New York Cumorah has to be taught by the prophets before they will accept it. I suspect it doesn't matter how many times, because the M2C ideology rejects prophetic direction in the first place. But let's at least examine the point.

If Letter VII had been an isolated statement, published only in the 1835 Messenger and Advocate, maybe we could chalk it up to President Cowdery's personal speculation. But as we all know by now, it was not isolated. Joseph had his scribes copy it into his personal history, where you can read it now in the Joseph Smith Papers. He approved republication of Letter VII in the Gospel Reflector and Times and Seasons, and, apparently, in the Millennial Star and the Prophet

Joseph F. Smith later republished it again in the Improvement Era. Letter VII has been cited with approval and its teaching about the New York Cumorah repeated by many prophets over the years, including by members of the First Presidency speaking in General Conference. 

Few books have been published by the Church itself, but one of them, Articles of Faith by Elder James E. Talmage, definitely teaches that the Hill Cumorah is in New York: "The final struggles between Nephites and Lamanites were waged in the vicinity of the Hill Cumorah, in what is now the State of New York, resulting in the destruction of the Nephites as a nation, about 400 A.D."

For more discussion of the significance of Articles of Faith, go to 

We can only surmise, from what the M2C intellectuals say, that it doesn't matter how many times the Brethren declare the New York Cumorah. The M2C intellectuals will reject the teachings of the prophets regardless.

3. Do you think the Brethren today have any intention of repudiating their predecessors just because the M2C intellectuals have?

The M2C intellectuals are proud to repudiate President Cowdery's Letter VII and the subsequent teachings of the prophets affirming the New York Cumorah, but does that mean the Brethren today intend to follow that approach?

I doubt it.

Let's be clear that we are not discussing Book of Mormon geography here. On that point, the Brethren have consistently explained that the Lord has not revealed the details. But that is entirely different and separate from the New York Hill Cumorah, which has been clearly and definitively taught for over 150 years.

Also, I'm not speaking for anyone else, and of course Church leaders have the authority to declare whatever the Lord wants them to, but consider what a change in course would mean.

The New York Cumorah is not an isolated, out-of-the-mainstream teaching by a single Apostle, or a concept or tradition that has a murky origin. The New York Cumorah has been declared to be a fact by many modern prophets, starting with President Oliver Cowdery.

In February, 1835, President Cowdery, the Assistant President of the Church, ordained the original Quorum of the Twelve and gave them their charge, which is available here:

A few months later, in July 1835, President Cowdery published Letter VII, one of the eight Gospel Topics essays he wrote with the assistance of Joseph Smith.

A few months after that, Joseph's scribes copied Letter VII into his personal history.

Then, a few months later, in April 1836, President Cowdery, along with Joseph Smith, received the keys of the Priesthood from Moses, Elias, Elijah, and the Lord Himself. (D&C 110).

In addition to these fundamentally important Priesthood-related events, President Cowdery had personally visited Mormon's depository in the Hill Cumorah in New York, so he wrote Letter VII from personal experience.

It doesn't seem likely to me that, just because a few intellectuals at BYU/CES have decided the prophets are wrong about Cumorah, the current members of the Twelve or First Presidency would repudiate what President Cowdery taught in Letter VII. Such a course seems even less likely given that their predecessors have consistently and persistently reaffirmed Letter VII through at least 1990.

But again, that's just my opinion.

Here's a final consideration.

Every man who holds the Melchizedek Priesthood has a Line of Authority that, by tradition, goes back to the Three Witnesses. I say by tradition, because, as Richard Turley has pointed out, the first Apostles were not necessarily all ordained by the Three Witnesses:

During that first meeting, Lyman Johnson, Brigham Young, and Heber C. Kimball were ordained by the Three Witnesses. The next day, a Sunday, Oliver “Cowdery called forwar[d] Orson Hyde, David W. Patten and Luke Johnson and proceeded to their ordination & blessing.” William E. McLellin, John F. Boynton, and William Smith were ordained the same day. On Saturday, February 21, “Parley P. Pratt was called to the stand and ordained as one of the Twelve” by Joseph Smith, David Whitmer, and Oliver Cowdery. [16]

Here is Footnote 16

[16] Kirtland High Council Minutes, 149, 151, 153–54; History of the Church, 2:187, 189–91. The record does not name who ordained each person. For B. H. Roberts’s best guess on who ordained whom, see Comprehensive History of the Church, 1:374–75n13. After the ordination, Oliver Cowdery gave Parley P. Pratt a charge, not to be confused with the one Cowdery gave to the Twelve later.

The minutes are available in the Joseph Smith Papers here: 

In turn, CHC n. 13 reads: 

13. Much interest has been manifested in the church concerning who was mouth in ordaining respectively the brethren of the first twelve. Most likely the three witnesses who ordained the apostles were mouth in the order in which they have always stood as witnesses, viz., Oliver Cowdery first, David Whitmer second, and Martin Harris, third. If they officiated in this order then Oliver Cowdery ordained Lyman E. Johnson; David Whitmer, Brigham Young; and Martin Harris, Heber C. Kimball. It has been suggested by some that the Prophet Joseph may have joined the three witnesses in ordaining the twelve and in that event would be mouth first, and therefore would have ordained Lyman E. Johnson, leaving Oliver Cowdery to ordain Brigham Young; David Whitmer, Heber C. Kimball. This, however, is not likely since but three of those who had been chosen were called up in a group at the above meeting to be ordained, one for each witness. Besides, the express language of the minutes of the proceedings is. "The three witnesses laid their hands upon each ones head and prayed separately;" that is, each ordained his man. The statement of Heber C. Kimball in the published extracts of his journal, also confirms this view of the matter. After giving the names of the twelve men chosen he says: "After having expressed our feelings on this occasion, we were severally called into the stand, and there received our ordinations, under the hands of Oliver Cowdery, David Whitmer, and Martin Harris. These brethren ordained us to the apostleship and predicted many things which would come to pass." (Times and Seasons, vol. vi, p. 868).

Of course, it doesn't matter who acts as voice or "mouth" during an ordination. The point is, President Cowdery was not only one of the Three Witnesses, but he was the original recipient of the Melchizedek Priesthood along with Joseph Smith; he was the senior member of the First Presidency next to Joseph Smith; and he ordained the original Twelve Apostles, either individually (Orson Hyde, David W. Patten, and Luke Johnson) or as a participant in the circle.

It is also significant that President Cowdery gave several of the Twelve their blessings, and delivered the charge to them as a Quorum. You can read this here: http://www.josephsmithpapers.org/paper-summary/minute-book-1/162

I think that one reason why the modern prophets have so consistently affirmed Letter VII over many decades is the respect they have for President Cowdery, who delivered this famous charge to the original Twelve. Another reason is the respect they share for Brigham Young, Heber C. Kimball, and Wilford Woodruff, who each related the accounts of President Cowdery's visits to Mormon's depository in the New York Hill Cumorah, visits that corroborate President Cowdery's teachings about Cumorah. 

The likelihood of repudiating the prophets because of M2C seems even more remote when we realize that the M2C position originated with a mistake in Church history and is now based purely on confirmation bias and illusory "correspondences" between the M2C interpretation of the text and the M2C interpretation of Mayan culture.

In my view, the teachings of the prophets not only deserve our deference due to faith, but they are well corroborated by relevant archaeology, anthropology, geology, and geography.

*M2C is the acronym for the Mesoamerican/two-Cumorahs theory; i.e., the theory that the "real" hill Cumorah is somewhere in southern Mexico because the Book of Mormon events took place in Mesoamerica.

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