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, February 5, 2019

The Times and Seasons articles

The Gospel Topics essay on Book of Mormon geography (published here) cites two articles from the 1842 Church newspaper called the Times and Seasons that was published in Nauvoo, IL.

“Traits of the Mosaic History, Found among the Azteca Nation,” Times and Seasons, June 15, 1842, 818–20; see also “American Antiquities,” Times and Seasons, July 15, 1842, 858–60.

Because the essay cites these two anonymous articles as evidence that "The Prophet Joseph Smith himself accepted what he felt was evidence of Book of Mormon civilizations in both North America and Central America," it's important for people to understand these articles in context.

There is no historical record of Joseph ever saying or implying anything like what that quoted sentence claims.

It is pure mindreading. 

That sentence is merely wishful thinking on the part of M2C* proponents and has no place in a Gospel Topics essay.

The claim arises from a long-held assumption that Joseph Smith approved of everything published in the Times and Seasons between March and October 1842, all because the boilerplate at the end of each issue said the paper was edited, printed and published by Joseph Smith.

Yet no one believes Joseph Smith literally printed the paper. The print shop employed people who set type and operated the printing press. It's unthinkable that Joseph would have spent his time literally running the press to print the paper.

It's equally unthinkable that Joseph would have spent his time literally editing the paper.

Attributing these anonymous articles to Joseph Smith, and then using them to infer what he secretly thought about Book of Mormon geography, is pure advocacy of a point of view, not factual history. 

Besides, none of these anonymous Times and Seasons articles mention the Hill Cumorah; speculations about ruins in Central America has no bearing whatsoever on the consistent, persistent teaching that the Hill Cumorah is in New York. In fact, the Times and Seasons itself published Letter VII, which teaches it is a fact that the Hill Cumorah of Mormon 6:6 is the same hill where Joseph found the plates. The Times and Seasons also published what became D&C 128:20, which refers specifically to Cumorah.

Consequently, even if people want to engage in mindreading about what Joseph Smith thought about ruins in Central America, there is no need to mind read about the New York Cumorah. 

Let's look at the facts.

Here are the articles if you want to read them. There are two good sources for the Times and Seasons. You can find both articles in both sources, but here I show the first one in the Joseph Smith Papers (facsimile plus text) and the second one at Centerplace.org (text only, but easier to search).

"Traits of the Mosaic History"

"American Antiquities"

The Times and Seasons was the first Church history topic that I researched in depth because these anonymous articles, along with other anonymous articles, were the intellectual ancestors of M2C.

I ended up writing three long, detailed books on the topic: The Lost City of Zarahemla, Brought to Light, and The Editors: Joseph, William and Don Carlos Smith.

My conclusions, based on all the facts:

1. Joseph Smith was the nominal editor only, with little to no actual editing activity apart from articles he personally signed.

2. William Smith, Joseph's brother and a member of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, was the actual editor (just like their brother Don Carlos had been the editor of the Times and Seasons before his death in 1841).

3. During 1842, William was also editing another Nauvoo newspaper, The Wasp, using the same print shop. Often the two papers shared content. W.W. Phelps was also in Nauvoo during this period and probably helped edit content for both papers.

4. William Smith was friends with Benjamin Winchester, whose work was published frequently in the Times and Seasons (beginning with the very first issue). Most of Winchester's articles were published anonymously.

5. In 1841, Winchester published a Church-related newspaper in Philadelphia called the Gospel Reflector. Joseph Smith stayed with Winchester during his trip to Washington, D.C. and expressly gave Winchester permission to republish Oliver Cowdery's eight historical letters in the Gospel Reflector.

6. In the Gospel Reflector, Winchester published articles linking the Book of Mormon to ancient ruins in America, including Central America. He quoted from Josiah Priest's book American Antiquities, the book quoted in the articles cited in the Gospel Topics essay, and is the only Church member known to have owned a copy of this book in 1842 when the articles appeared in the Times and Seasons.

7. Winchester moved to Nauvoo in late 1841 and worked for the Times and Seasons. He returned to Philadelphia in 1842 and sent articles to William Smith in Nauvoo for publication.

8. William published Winchester's work anonymously, including the anonymous articles about evidence for the Book of Mormon as well as such articles as Try the Spirits.

9. In 1842, Joseph was very busy; Wilford Woodruff noted that Joseph barely had time to sign his name to official documents. During the summer he was in hiding from Missouri authorities who sought to extradite him. Joseph usually read the paper for the first time after it was published. In September Joseph sent two letters to the actual editor for publication. (D&C 127 and 128).

10. When Joseph read an article in the Times and Seasons that claimed Zarahemla was in Guatemala, he resigned as nominal editor and fired William Smith from both the Times and Seasons and the Wasp.

11. In 1844, when William was editor of The Prophet (a Church newspaper in New York), he again solicited articles from Benjamin Winchester.

There's more detail that I can summarize in a blog post; that's why I ended up writing the three books. But the evidence is there for anyone to read.

To date, the only pushback I've received on all of this is from M2C proponents who claim to have conducted a "stylometry" analysis of the anonymous articles that shows Joseph is a likely author. I don't give the study any credence because the authors have refused to disclose their assumptions, methodology and database. It's a "black-box" methodology, and their secrecy suggests they reached their conclusions first and tweaked the results to confirm their biases. As long as their data remains a secret, the only reason to accept their results is bias confirmation.

By contrast, the actual historical facts are public. Anyone can examine them and reach their own conclusions.

The first thing to notice: the articles are anonymous. They were signed not by Joseph Smith, but by "Ed." For decades, historians have assumed that "Ed." meant Joseph Smith because the boilerplate at the end of each issue of the newspaper said the paper was edited, printed, and published by Joseph Smith, but as I mentioned above, that boilerplate is meaningless--unless you also want to claim that Joseph himself physically printed the paper.

Some people are surprised to learn that there are no historical accounts of Joseph editing the paper. His journal never mentions such activities. None of his contemporaries remarked on Joseph spending time editing the paper. His own history that was published in the Times and Seasons contains a significant error that later historians attribute to Joseph's scribes and clerks, and there are other specific examples in the paper that show Joseph had no direct involvement with the editing process.

The exceptions are specific articles that Joseph signed separately, such as the Wentworth letter and the letters that became D&C 127 and 128.

As I said, there's a lot of detailed historical information to consider. This post is merely a summary. But what I've shown here is more than enough to demonstrate that the Gospel Topics essay relies on mindreading, not facts, to characterize Joseph Smith as uncertain and speculative about Book of Mormon geography.

I think this approach does an injustice to the Prophet and is designed purely and solely to accommodate M2C.

*M2C is the Mesoamerican/two-Cumorahs theory that teaches Joseph Smith and Oliver Cowdery were ignorant speculators who misled the Church about the New York Cumorah because the "real" Cumorah is in southern Mexico.

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