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, August 1, 2019

Education Week: Peep stones vs. Urim and Thummim - Part 4

Today we address the question, "How are revisionist historians (including professors at a certain Church university) teaching the youth that the prophets are wrong?"

2019 Education Week
This is a timely topic because at Education Week from Aug 20-23, 2019, in the Marriott Center (capacity of 19,000), the stone-in-a-hat is about to get a major boost.

One of the most prominent promoters of the stone-in-a-hat theory, Professor Anthony Sweat, is conducting eight classes in the Marriott Center on Tuesday through Friday between 1:50-2:45 and 3:10-4:05.

The Marriott Center is the largest venue on campus. It's where Elder Gary E. Stevenson is speaking on Tuesday for the Education Week Devotional.

Education Week is giving two hours of time, during all four days of Education Week, in the Marriott Center, to Brother Sweat.

In the first class, he's speaking on his new book, Seekers Wanted. (I discuss that book below.)

In the second class, he's displaying his latest artwork under the title of "Repicturing the Restoration." This is a perfect title for revisionist Church history.

You can see the program here.


I won't be in Utah during Education Week, but I hope some readers will attend so you can go to these presentations and see them for yourselves. Blog about them. Post on Facebook and Twitter, etc. 

Members of the Church need to know what's going on.

If they allow Q&A, feel free to ask questions.

In past years, I've been astonished at some of the things I've heard at Education Week. A few years ago I heard one speaker, an expert in Church history, note that Joseph Smith said the Title Page was a literal translation of the last leaf of the plates. But then this expert said, "We don't know how Joseph could have known that because he never used the plates."

That's how absurd this whole stone-in-a-hat narrative has become.

I don't know Brother Sweat, and I'm sure he's an awesome teacher, a wonderful artist, a faithful member of the Church, a great guy in all ways. But that has nothing to do with whether we should accept what he's teaching. None of my observations are personal; I'm focused on the message.

And I'm all in favor of artistic license. People should be able to paint whatever they want, just as we can all believe whatever we want.

What I'm not in favor of is teaching a long-discredited theory as a fact that overrides the teachings of the prophets.

In 2017, the Daily Universe published an article that portrayed the stone-in-a-hat theory from Mormonism Unvailed as a fact.


From the article: "Sweat used depictions of Joseph Smith’s translation of the Book of Mormon as an example of artwork that can teach incorrect facts if viewers are not careful. 

[The irony in that sentence is compounded by what comes next.]

While Smith translated the Book of Mormon using seer stones inside of a hat, almost all current artwork shows Smith studying open plates without the hat or seer stones in sight. Sweat said because of this, people often believe the translation process was entirely different than it actually was."

This statement of fact repudiates the consistent teachings of the prophets for generations. It refutes what Joseph and Oliver themselves taught. 

First, Joseph himself said he copied the characters off the plates. (JS-H 1:62) How could he do that if he didn't handle them openly, as depicted in the artwork brother Sweat is criticizing? 

Second, Joseph said he translated some of the characters by means of the Urim and Thummim. Joseph never said he translated the plates with a seer stone he found in a well.  

Third, Joseph never said he used a hat. It makes sense that he may, on occasion, have put the Urim and Thummim in a hat to make it easier to read, but we have to infer that from others. 

Fourth, I agree with Brother Sweat that many of these paintings do not depict the Urim and Thummim as part of the translation process, and to that extent they do not reflect that actually happened. But, ironically, Brother Sweat's paintings also don't depict the Urim and Thummim. Worse, as we'll see below, he doesn't depict Joseph even using the plates, in direct contradiction to Joseph's own testimony.

Another way to understand this is looking at William E. McLellin, one of the original Twelve Apostles. He left the Church in 1838. As we discussed in part 2, in 1880, he wrote an explanation of why he was not a "Mormon" that included a list of 55 "Things which I do not believe that is generally believed by Latter Day Saints most firmly."

Among these were several that involved the translation:

1. I do not believe that Joseph translated the book of Mormon. He only read the translation as it appeared before him. The Lord translated it for him, so says the book. "Wherefore, thou shalt read the words which I shall give unto thee." Page 111, of the Palmyra edition (2 Ne. 27:20).

3. I do not believe he ever possessed the Interpreters after he lost the 116 pages first translated.

25. I do not believe, in pretending to translate with Urim and Thummim when only a small Stone was used.

Today, revisionist Church historians have embraced McLellin's disbelief in these teachings.

The Gospel Topics Essay on Book of Mormon Translation sets out the McLellin narrative instead of the teachings of the prophets. Brother Sweat illustrates stone-in-a-hat narrative and frames the McLellin position as how the translation "actually was."

In fact, Brother Sweat's new book, Seekers Wanted, teaches the stone-in-a-hat theory by censoring the teachings of the prophets.

Seekers Wanted has a chapter on "Studying Church History" that is a good guide to how we can persuade ourselves, step-by-step, that the prophets are wrong.

Here's a passage from the book (in blue) with my comments (in red).

Relationship to Other Sources 

The next factor to examine for the reliability of a historical source is to compare and contrast the account with other sources dealing with the same events. Are the dates, facts, details and claims consistent with other sources? What are the major similarities and differences? Why might those exist? 

This is a good statement of the historian's task. Historians are basically detectives. When I practiced law, I found that, like in most detective novels, the actual explanation for the facts was often not what seemed obvious at the outset.  

[Brother Sweat next cites the different accounts of Joseph Smith's First Vision, arguing the essential details are consistent despite discrepancies.]

As an artist and a professor of Church history and doctrine, some of my research has to do with how the Book of Mormon translation has been depicted in Church are over the years.19 Notably, until recently there were no known paintings produced by Latter-day Saint artists or published in Church materials that depicted Joseph Smith translating the book Mormon by using a seer stone(s) placed in a hat. I decided to attempt to create this image, as I felt it was important to have this historical visual. The painting was later published in the book From Darkness unto Light: Joseph Smith's Translation and Publication of the Book of Mormon

Here is a forensic clue akin to the dog that didn't bark. Brother Sweat doesn't explain here whether he considered why no such paintings had been created before.

The answer is easy. The historical record shows that the peep stone-in-a-hat vs. the Urim and Thummim were two alternative narratives (the way Mormonism Unvailed presented them in 1834). Church leadership, starting with Joseph and Oliver, have always taught the Urim and Thummim narrative. Even if only by implication, Joseph, Oliver and the others rejected the stone-in-a-hat narrative. [I think they were more explicit than by implication, but can't get into that in this blog post.] Consequently, for 180+ years, no one who accepted Church leadership as honest, credible and reliable would depict the stone-in-a-hat narrative in a painting.

That deliberate choice between the two narratives leaves the stone-in-a-hat testimony hanging out there for critics to latch onto, just as Mormonism Unvailed did in 1834.

Some Church members apparently dismissed the stone-in-a-hat testimony as mere lies, but that strikes me as an unreasonable, nonhistorical position. That's the type of explanation that non-Mormons would find not credible. It's purely apologetic in nature, and it plays into the hands of the critics.

Apparently, Brother Sweat and other revisionist Church historians (such as the authors of From Darkness unto Light) also found that position untenable. Instead of choosing between the two narratives, they proposed a way to reconcile them. They came up with the idea that actually, there were not two different narratives

They concluded that when Joseph, Oliver and their successors were teaching the Urim and Thummim narrative, they were also teaching the stone-in-a-hat narrative because they used the term Urim and Thummim to apply to both the Nephite interpreters and the seer stone.  

This is a clever approach that has obvious appeal, but it relies on a false historical narrative present (meaning what people living in the 1830s and 1840s believed). Everyone can read Mormonism Unvailed and see that the two narratives were separate and distinct. As we've seen, Oliver Cowdery's eight essays on Church history declared as a fact that Joseph translated with the Urim and Thummim that accompanied the plates; it was a deliberate affirmation of that narrative as opposed to the stone-in-a-hat.

Relying on a false historical narrative present to reconcile the accounts is problematic; it's really no better, in terms of credibility, than claiming the stone-in-a-hat witnesses were all liars. 

So what to do? 

After examining all the evidence, it seems obvious to me now that the stone-in-a-hat witnesses truthfully testified about what they observed, but they were not observing the actual translation of the Book of Mormon. Instead, they were observing a demonstration that Joseph conducted to satisfy their curiosity and explain what he was doing, albeit without showing the actual plates and Urim and Thummim he was using, and which he had been commanded not to show to anyone.

If you read all the accounts carefully, along with the ensuing testimonies from Brigham Young, Orson Pratt, Heber C. Kimball, and other contemporaries of Joseph Smith, no other interpretation is viable.

As you read the rest of Brother Sweat's explanation, see what you think.

After the painting was published and began to be circulated, I received an email from someone who had been a mentor to me as I began my career in LDS religious education. His email asked, “Can you help me understand the purpose in teaching that the Prophet translated in this manner [using the hat]?” His email showed good scholarship, asking why I would choose to rely on sources for my painting from disaffected members of the Church who have potential for bias, such as David Whitmer or Emma Smith. 

This is the commonly held position that all the stone-in-a-hat witnesses were liars, as discussed above. As I explained in Part 3, Emma Smith definitely had biases, as did her son who reported what she said. Every witness has biases, of course; ideally we would examine each one. In my book, where I get into more detail about all of this, I examine bias, opportunity, motive and the other indicia of credibility. Overall, I think the witnesses were mostly reliable and credible, but much of what they said was based on their own inferences and what they heard from others. 

Unfortunately, Joseph Smith is relatively silent on the mechanics of translation, saying only that the translation was done “by the gift and power of God”20 and sometimes adding the line “by means of the Urim and Thummim” (Joseph Smith-History 1:64). 

Here is an example of Brother Sweat's bias. You see this same truncation of what Joseph and Oliver actually said throughout the writings of the revisionist historians, including in the Gospel Topics Essay on Book of Mormon Translation. 

The citation here should be JS-H 1:62, but that's not the only place in JS-H that refers to the Urim and Thummim.

JS-H 1:35 is too specific to accommodate the peep stone. "Also, that there were two stones in silver bows—and these stones, fastened to a breastplate, constituted what is called the Urim and Thummim—deposited with the plates; and the possession and use of these stones were what constituted “seers” in ancient or former times; and that God had prepared them for the purpose of translating the book."

JS-H 1:42 explains that Joseph was forbidden to show the Urim and Thummim to people. Oliver Cowdery's letter I, excerpted in the footnotes to JS-H, also excludes the peep stone: "Day after day I continued, uninterrupted, to write from his mouth, as he translated with the Urim and Thummim, or, as the Nephites would have said, ‘Interpreters,’ the history or record called ‘The Book of Mormon.’" 

It's not only the accounts of Joseph and Oliver that the revisionist historians censor. For example, I haven't seen any of them address Lucy Mack Smith's explanation that, in May 1829, Joseph received the commandment to write to David Whitmer after he had applied the Urim and Thummim to his eyes and looked on the plates.  

Her observation contradicts the McLellin narrative that the revisionist Church historians have adopted as their own. But it's not good scholarship to simply ignore her observation as if it didn't exist.

To understand the process of the Book of Mormon translation, we are left to rely on those who saw Joseph Smith translate (a type of primary source because they can relate what they personally observed of the translation process) or heard him tell about it. 

Here's the fallacy of the stone-in-a-hat narrative. Brother Sweat simply assumes that the witnesses saw Joseph translate because the witnesses thought they saw Joseph translate. But none of them recorded what Joseph actually dictated during these sessions, and none of them quote Joseph or Oliver as saying they were translating the Book of Mormon during these sessions. Their testimony is consistent with having observed a demonstration.

In my email reply to my friend, I sent the following accounts, and I share them here with you. The questions are: What is consistent across each account? What differs? 

Fair enough.

First, an early contemporary account (1829) of the translation by an antagonistic source, Jonathan Hadley, a local printer who declined to print the Book of Mormon when he was approached with the offer by Joseph Smith. Hadley published the following in The Palmyra Freeman on August 11, 1829: 

"It was said that the leaves of the (Gold) Bible were plates, of gold about eight inches long, six wide, and one eighth of an inch thick, on which were engraved characters or hieroglyphics. By placing the spectacles in a hat, and looking into it, Smith could (he said so, at least,) interpret these characters.”21

This is a secondhand account, as Hadley would have been told the details of the translation by someone else (assumedly Joseph Smith, Hyrum Smith, Martin Harris, or Oliver Cowdery). 

Why assume it was one of those brethren? Hadley wrote "it was said" but he doesn't say by whom. He didn't write "Smith could (he told me, at least)," which would have been a first-person account. Hadley had declined to publish the Book of Mormon, so it's unclear why he would have heard any of this from Joseph, Hyrum, Martin or Oliver. By August 1829, all of the stone-in-a-hat witnesses had already observed whatever they observed and were talking about it. Any of them, or anyone who had heard their accounts, could have been Hadley's source.

However, it is a strong contemporary account from 1829, the earliest on record and before the Book of Mormon was published. 

Here's another indicia of bias. What makes this account "strong" when it is, on its face, hearsay from an unidentified source?

Here is another secondhand, contemporaneous account (1831), this time by a less antagonistic Shaker man who had heard Oliver Cowdery preach, saying that the Book of Mormon was translated by “two transparent stones in the form of spectacles" through which the translator "looked on the engraving & afterwards put his face into a hat & the interpretation then flowed into his mind.”22 

Even though this is not a direct quotation of what Oliver actually said, this account directly contradicts the stone-in-a-hat narrative that brother Sweat has painted. The account relates the Urim and Thummim narrative, not the stone-in-a-hat narrative, and is consistent with everything Joseph, Oliver and their successors taught. 

Joseph "looked on the engraving" with the Urim and Thummim, then put his face into a hat to read it.

Instead of this narrative, Brother Sweat's art shows the plates under a cloth and the Urim and Thummim nowhere to be seen. This is also what the Church's recent movies show.  

Here are some more moderate translation sources, by individuals who believed in the Book of Mormon but did not remain faithful to or come westward to Utah with the Church. 

[In this section, Brother Sweat relates the 1879 Emma interview that I examined in Part 3, one of the David Whitmer accounts, the Joseph Knight account, and a Martin Harris account. All of these are a combination of hearsay and inference by people who never saw the plates or the Urim and Thummim (except for David and Martin, and then only after the translation was finished). I have a detailed treatment of David and Martin similar to the one I did on Emma in Part 3, but that's too much detail for this blog post.]

I’ve presented six sources that give details about the Book of Mormon translation. 

Again, Brother Sweat assumes these witnesses were observing the translation instead of a demonstration.

All of them are tainted in various ways through bias, or secondhand nature, or late reminiscence. Independent of one another, however, what do they each consistently claim? After laying out these sources I replied in my email to my mentor/colleague, “I do think there is enough consistent mention of Joseph using a hat to translate to logically deduce he may have done so. In my opinion there are just too many independent sources that mention the hat in the to try to explain it away or ignore it. 

This is a reasonable conclusion, but the same evidence supports the use of a hat for both a demonstration and a translation as two separate events.

Thus, in the painting I did, I wanted to faithfully show Joseph using the hat to translate, as we (Church members) didn't have any images showing the hat process that many documents seem to support.” 

By now, you can see the two problems with this. Brother Sweat's painting of Joseph and Oliver alone together expressly rejects what Oliver said in the account Brother Sweat quoted above. That is not a faithful depiction. 

An accurate depiction of what others said would show the witnesses around the table, watching a scene that would be at least ambiguous enough to constitute either a demonstration or a translation.  

When analyzing historical accounts, we should not carelessly dismiss unique claims in various historical narratives, we should weigh those details with other accounts, looking for consistency. Consistency is the friend of surety.

These two sentences contradict everything Brother Sweat has written up to this point. He has admitted that the statements from the stone-in-a-hat witnesses were inconsistent. What he ignores is that the statements from Joseph, Oliver and their successors are not inconsistent at all. For 180 years they have consistently taught that Joseph translated the engravings on the plates with the Urim and Thummim that accompanied the plates Moroni put in the stone box. 

So far, none of brother Sweat's paintings depict that consistent teaching.

I hope someone asks him about this at Education Week. Actually, I hope a lot of people, including his students, ask him about this.

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