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.

Thursday, March 14, 2019

Creation of false traditions

We are seeing, right before our eyes, how false traditions arise and spread throughout the Church.

The Gospel Topics Essay on Book of Mormon Geography made a statement of fact that I immediately pointed out was actually nothing more than editorial opinion. This is a common drafting error, but it should have been caught by whoever edited the document.

Unless the editorial opinion is agenda-driven, which we all hope is not the case.

Here is the statement:

The Prophet Joseph Smith himself accepted what he felt was evidence of Book of Mormon civilizations in both North America and Central America. 

The statement would have been accurate had it said "It is possible that Joseph..." or "Some believe that Joseph..." Or even, "there is evidence that Joseph..."

But to declare what Joseph accepted and felt is not factual because there is no known document written or dictated by Joseph Smith, nor any recorded statement by Joseph, that supports this statement.*

It is pure mind-reading.

Look at the language in the essay. "Joseph Smith himself accepted." That is not only mind-reading (no one can say what he accepted when he never articulated such acceptance), but the insertion of "himself" is a rhetorical device used to convey authority for the specific proposition he allegedly "accepted."

The next mind-reading is here: "what he felt was evidence."

The footnote at the end of this post discusses the evidence from 1841 and 1842 that M2C intellectuals usually cite for this claim, but as you'll see, it is merely conjecture, not fact. And that evidence was not cited in the essay anyway.

BTW, I proposed changes to the essay to correct factual errors. Most of my proposals were ignored. Consequently, this and other errors remain in the current version.

Of course, the statement in the Gospel Topics Essay is now being quoted everywhere as the official Church position on what Joseph thought and taught.

But it's a false tradition. It teaches the youth of the Church (and everyone in the world) that Joseph learned Book of Mormon geography from a popular travel book.

This false tradition exalts academic inquiry (only by those trained in the ministry field) over the teachings of the prophets.

Joseph explicitly claimed that he was informed by Moroni "concerning the aboriginal inhabitants of this country and shown who they were, and from whence they came; a brief sketch of their origin, progress, civilization, laws, governments, of their righteousness and iniquity, and the blessings of God being finally withdrawn from them as a people, was made known unto me."

[Source: the Wentworth letter, available here: https://www.lds.org/study/ensign/2002/07/the-wentworth-letter?lang=eng. Remember, don't read the Wentworth letter in the Joseph Smith lesson manual because critical passages were censored by the Correlation Department to accommodate M2C.]

Note that the Wentworth letter was published in the Times and Seasons on March 1, 1842, well after the supposed evidence that he learned the geography from a popular travel book. The M2C intellectuals (and the Gospel Topics Essay) want us to believe that Joseph was more persuaded by the popular travel book than by what Moroni taught him.

Aside from the inherent problem of creating and spreading a false tradition, the application in this case is especially tragic.

The Gospel Topics Essay uses the statement to cast doubt on what the prophets and apostles have always taught about the New York Cumorah.

Let's say, for sake of argument, that Joseph Smith did actually learn Book of Mormon geography from a travel book in 1841-1842. Let's even say he thought ruins in Central America were built by the Nephites, despite what Moroni taught him.

That still has nothing to do with what he taught about the New York Cumorah.

Both before and after 1842, Joseph's own brothers republished Letter VII in official Church newspapers. Don Carlos, at Joseph's direction, republished Letter VII in early 1841 in the Times and Seasons. Joseph's brother William, one of the Twelve Apostles, republished Letter VII in 1844 in the Church newspaper in New York City titled The Prophet. Letter VII appeared two days after Joseph was martyred in Carthage.

And, of course, Joseph specifically referred to Cumorah in his September 1842 letter, originally published in the Times and Seasons and now canonized as D&C 128:20.

Consequently, the false tradition established in the Gospel Topics essay still has nothing to say about what Joseph, Oliver, and all the other prophets and apostles have consistently taught about the New York Cumorah.

Nevertheless, M2C intellectuals continue to claim that because Joseph learned Book of Mormon geography from a travel book, he must have also changed his mind about the New York Cumorah. That's the fundamental premise of M2C.

In the Preface to the second edition of my book Brought to Light, I wrote this observation about what we can say about history:

A friend of mine recently made the point that there is a difference between testifying about the truthfulness of the Gospel and testifying about the truthfulness of historical events. Any individual can experience the Gospel in his/her own life and can then testify about that experience. By contrast, no one can personally experience a historical event that occurred in another time and place. How can anyone living today testify about events that took place in the 1800s? The best we can do is assemble evidence and decide what we think happened, considering all the evidence as well as our own knowledge of human nature.

For that reason, I’m not seeking to convince you of anything. I can’t say I know what happened in 1842—no one can. In my books on Church history and Book of Mormon historicity, I simply present evidence I’ve found and offer explanations that make sense to me. Often the explanations contradict what I’ve been taught and what I’ve read in commentaries, but I suspect we all know that an opinion is not correct just because it has been held for a long time by a lot of people. If that was the case, Joseph never would have gone into the grove.

BTW, I have a new book coming out in about a month (hopefully). Based on early responses, I think it will definitely challenge more false traditions that have arisen over the years. I'm excited about it more than anything else I've done because of the insights these discoveries have given me, and I hope you'll like it, too.


* The Gospel Topics Essay on Book of Mormon Geography cited an anonymous editorial published in the Times and Seasons during 1842 when Joseph Smith was the nominal editor of the newspaper. That year, several such articles that discussed ruins in Central America were published in the paper. People have long assumed that Joseph wrote, edited, or approved of these articles solely because his name was listed on the boilerplate at the end of each issue of the paper. The boilerplate stated that the paper was "edited, published, and printed" by Joseph Smith. (There were two different boilerplates during this era, but both said essentially the same thing.)

The fallacy of attributing everything in the paper to Joseph Smith is obvious: no one believes Joseph Smith personally set type or operated the printing press, even though the boilerplate claimed he "printed" the paper. There is no more reason to assume he personally wrote, edited, or even approved of everything published in the paper.

There are far more detailed reasons, based on historical evidence, to conclude that Joseph had little if anything to do with the paper. For those interested, I wrote three long, detailed books about all of this. (The Lost City of Zarahemla, Brought to Light, and The Editors: Joseph, Don Carlos, and William Smith.)

The other piece of evidence M2C intellectuals rely upon, which fortunately was not cited in the Gospel Topics Essay, is a thank-you letter written to John Bernhisel, the man in New York who gave a copy of the two-volume travel books to Wilford Woodruff to give to Joseph Smith. 

At first glance, the letter looks convincing. It's understandable why historians long assumed it reflects Joseph's beliefs (although the letter doesn't make the specific claim in the Gospel Topics Essay, which may be why it wasn't cited). It's even more understandable why the M2C intellectuals rely so heavily on the letter.

But there are factual problems with the assumption.

The letter purports to have been written by Joseph Smith, but it is not in his handwriting and there is no extrinsic evidence that he dictated the letter (or even knew about it). I wrote an article (now an entire chapter in The Lost City of Zarahemla) about this letter, explaining that the historical evidence points to Woodruff as its originator. For example, in his journal, Woodruff mentions he wrote a letter to Bernhisel. The first time he records seeing Joseph was just a few days before the letter was written, which makes it virtually impossible for Joseph to have read the two thick volumes. 

All of this is to say that the evidence is, at best (for M2C intellectuals), ambiguous. By no standard of objective analysis is the evidence strong enough to state, as a fact, that "The Prophet Joseph Smith himself accepted what he felt was evidence of Book of Mormon civilizations in both North America and Central America." 

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