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, May 28, 2020

Revisionist history and new narratives

It is fascinating to observe how quickly new narratives can be embraced and old ones forgotten.

Yesterday the NY Times published an interview with Chan Koonshung who wrote a novel about how societies have short memories.

How quickly can a whole nation forget about a catastrophe?

In Chan Koonchung’s 2009 dystopian novel “The Fat Years,” China endures a huge, fictional crisis. Two years later, nobody seems to remember it.

In reality, Mr. Chan realized, it took less than two months for many people in China to leave behind their anger and despair over the coronavirus crisis and the government’s bungled response. Today, they believe China triumphed over the outbreak.

“It’s like nothing had happened,” Mr. Chan said in an interview. “I’m dumbfounded. How could they make a U-turn so fast?

We are all observing, in real time, how media drives public opinion. Fake news become real news, and facts don't matter, especially when they get in the way of a popular narrative.

Many members of the Church are wondering the same thing about the U-turn involving the translation of the Book of Mormon.

From the beginning of the Restoration until 2007, Church leaders and members embraced the narrative that Joseph Smith and Oliver Cowdery repeatedly set forth; i.e., that Joseph Smith translated the plates with the Urim and Thummim that came with the plates.

Now, we're told that Joseph didn't really use the plates or the Urim and Thummim. Instead, he just read words that appeared on a seer stone that he found in a well long before he got the plates. He would put the seer stone into a hat and read the words out loud to his scribe.

We're told that when Joseph and Oliver said Joseph "translated" the plates, they didn't really mean "translate" in the ordinary sense of the word as a synonym for "interpret" (which is why they were called "interpreters").

We're supposed to believe that, as used by Joseph and Oliver, "translate" really means to read words off a stone in the hat (SITH).

Now Royal Skousen is trying to persuade people that the text of the Book of Mormon was created in the 16th century by an unknown individual who somehow transmitted the text to the seer stone. We'll discuss this more tomorrow.

Scholars strive to discuss Church history in context to help explain past teachings and practices. Regarding seer stones, for example, historians say lots of people used them in Joseph's time, so it was not unusual for him to use them. Ideas about race in Brigham Young's time may explain the priesthood restrictions. Beliefs about Native Americans and the ancient ruins in Central America drove the development M2C, and so on.

What is the modern context? What would future historians say about the influences of our culture? Certainly one element is the "credentialed class" who expect others to defer to their expertise and judgment.

It's apparent that the "credentialed class" among LDS scholars think there is no greater sin than to accept what Joseph Smith and Oliver Cowdery taught, even when it contradicts the theories and revisionist history promoted by the scholars.

The intellectual evolution of SITH is fascinating. All the accounts cited to support SITH were known in the 19th century. As early as 1834, the book Mormonism Unvailed proposed SITH as an alternative to the Urim and Thummim explanation of the translation. It was in response to that book that Joseph and Oliver wrote the eight essays on Church history, starting with Letter I that includes this declaration:

“These were days never to be forgotten—to sit under the sound of a voice dictated by the inspiration of heaven, awakened the utmost gratitude of this bosom! 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.’


For decades, Church leaders have reaffirmed what Joseph and Oliver taught, despite being fully aware of SITH. The so-called "Last Testimony" of Emma Smith was published in the late 1800s, along with David Whitmer's statements about the seer stone. But those who personally knew Joseph, Oliver, Emma, and David continued to teach that Joseph translated the plates with the Urim and Thummim, reiterating it over and over in General Conference.

In General Conference from 1971-2007, speakers discussed the Urim and Thummim 14 times, including by Elders Packer, Perry, Hales, Romney, Petersen, and Hinckley.

After 2007, though, there has been a change. In General Conference from 2008-2019, the Urim and Thummim has been mentioned only twice, neither time reaffirming that Joseph translated the Book of Mormon by means of the Urim and Thummim. 

I was curious what changed in 2007. The book Rough Stone Rolling, which promoted SITH, was published in 2005. That book cites the evidence for SITH but not for the use of the plates with the Urim and Thummim, such as Lucy Mack Smith's account.

In January 2007, Richard Bushman was interviewed by John Dehlin of Mormon Stories. This excerpt from a transcript of that interview claims that it was a mistake to teach that Joseph translated with the Urim and Thummim. John said someday the Ensign would have to set the record straight by showing the stone in the hat. 

With the January 2020 issue of the Ensign, that has come to fruition. 

Before looking at the transcript, let's discuss a possible explanation for the new narrative.

Some people say this embrace of SITH is a result of the ongoing "Restoration." Yet no one claims the change is a result of new revelation. Some historians claim that we've overcome the animosity between, say, Brigham Young and Emma Smith that caused Church leaders to reject her testimony. 

Another interpretation is that Brigham Young knew better.  

We also have the strange technique of taking part of Emma's "Last Testimony" as pure truth, while rejecting other parts (dealing with polygamy) as outright falsehood. It's the same with David Whitmer's statement. Historians quote what he said about the seer stone as pure truth, while they reject what he said about Joseph Smith. Such cherry picking is not a persuasive approach.

As most readers here know, my explanation for SITH is that Joseph did perform a demonstration, but I won't take the time to discuss that now.

Notice in the transcript how the participants frame these issues and see how their approach has become mainstream, 13 years later. 

January 22, 2007
around 50:00:00

JD (John Dehlin): So Martin begins helping out with the translation. What do we know about the actual mechanics of the translation?

RB (Richard Bushman): Not a lot. There are all these various theories about what’s going on. I think what is quite evident is that Joseph Smith was not looking at the plates. We do have a number of descriptions of him, the plates, sitting on the table wrapped in a linen cloth, he looking at his seer stone, not the Urim and Thummim, but his seer stone, which is in a hat, which he uses to darken the space right around the stone which presumes that there was some light coming from the stone, so that you had to read something that was faint, and if there were other lights it would obliterate the shape of the letters. So we know that much. There are these theories that the stone or the inspiration would plant ideas in Joseph’s head and then he would find the words, so it’s very much his language, it’s his story as he’s inspired to dictate it. 
That’s one theory.
The other theory, which is the Royal Skousen theory now, is that the words of the translation actually appeared to Joseph Smith in the stone and he just dictated them off and they remained there until they were written down and then they disappeared and new words came. David Whitmer describes the process somewhat this way.
Lacking a real explanation from Joseph Smith himself, I think we just have to leave it like that. There are these two accounts. We don’t know which one is accurate.

[Comment: there is also the unmentioned "theory" taught by Joseph and Oliver that Joseph actually translated the plates with the Urim and Thummim that came with the plates; i.e., "by means of the Urim and Thummim." Joseph's mother and brother both testified that Joseph looked on the plates and turned them as he translated. The SITH accounts can be easily explained as a demonstration in the Whitmer home to satisfy curiosity.]

JD: I was under the understanding that when Martin Harris was involved, there wasn’t a hat, and that he
used what we would traditionally understand was the Urim and Thummim, which is these crystals.

RB: Well, there is some evidence of that. That is true, and I have said as much in things I have written.

People who have looked at that evidence, scrutinized it carefully, say you don’t really have evidence that you had the Urim and Thummim because they use this word “Interpreters,” which could refer to the seer stone as well. Later on, Joseph Smith did call the stone a Urim and Thummim. So the Urim and Thummim is a type of an instrument. It wasn’t necessarily that specific instrument with the stones set in the breastplate.

[Except Joseph and Oliver specified that Joseph used the Urim and Thummim that came with the plates.]

JD: So we don’t know if these crystals set in the breastplate were ever used. There’s no account of them ever being used.

RB: I don’t think so. No.

JD: This begs a really interesting question, and I’m sure you get this a lot. Why ask the Book of Mormon prophets to spend all this time and energy creating gold plates, writing on them, handing them down through generations, make Moroni walk all the way to Hill Cumorah from wherever he was to deposit them in the hill, have Joseph Smith go through all this pain to hide them, and then when he gets to the time to actually create the book, he doesn’t seem to use them.

RB: Yeah, that is a mystery. And it’s a mystery that carries over to the Book of Abraham. Did he need those scrolls or not, in order to translate? And I don’t really have an answer with any authority behind it at all. It actually points toward the need for speculation about why… Let’s begin by accepting as a fact that the plates were necessary, that all that effort was not symbolic. They had to be there with the words written on them. Why would that have to be?
I don’t really know except that it seems to indicate some relationship between the physical and the spiritual. For words to come into this man’s head, you needed the presence of the physical object that was laden with the physical efforts and thought of so many prophets preceding him. I reach for analogies. The one that comes to me is induction, by which if you move a magnet across a wire, you don’t have to touch it, but just pass it across the wire, it makes the electrons in the wire move in a certain direction. That’s the way electricity is generated, by making wires cross magnets. There you have some force radiating from the physical object that has an effect on the electrical current. That’s just a fairly lame analogy.
But when it comes right down to it, I don’t have an answer to that question.

JD: Most people would be just stunned to know that there’s no real evidence that the plates were used materially in the translation, and that the Urim and Thummim, meaning the crystals in the breastplate, weren’t used either. That’s real different from the accounts that we kind of grow up with in primary and Sunday School and seminary.

RB: Well, that’s the account that’s in the historical records, though, so we just have to live with it.

[Or, we can accept what Joseph and Oliver taught and explain SITH as a demonstration.]

JD: Isn’t it completely dishonest, or disingenuous, to ever use the word translate or translation. Aren’t those just the wrong words? Why do we even call it a translation?

RB: Nibley has discoursed on that subject. What does it mean to translate, to carry over from one culture or one time to another. We use the word translated to talk about bodies being resurrected or carried about one way or another.
I don’t think you could call it dishonest. It certainly has misled us into thinking… I used to think that Joseph Smith learned Reformed Egyptian peering at those plates and coming up with the words, and that of course is beside the point if you see it this way.
Maybe we do need to have another word. I think we certainly need to make clear to our children as we teach them or whoever that when we refer to a translation is carrying a message from one language or culture into another, not necessarily by using a dictionary. You do have to generalize or change the meaning of translation from its ordinary usage.

JD: Do you think we need to change the art and the pictures and the graphics and the motion pictures
that we are using to depict the process? Do you think it’s disingenuous to continue having the curtain,
and using some kind of spectacles and showing Joseph staring at the plates, thinking earnestly and then
dictating? Do you think that’s something we need to change, maybe.

RB: Yeah, I definitely think we need to change it. It’s not because it’s a horrible mistake because the guys
who drew those pictures are not trying to deceive anyone. That’s what they think actually happened. It’s
just a matter of accuracy. The problem is, if you’re not accurate, then you, down the line, put your own
credibility in jeopardy. I just think all of our young people should feel they are really getting the straight
story on Joseph Smith, or they’re going to go through the experience you had. Disillusionment. Anger.
It’s a very sad thing and it’s unnecessary, so we do need to avoid that.

JD: Is it possible that somehow the mechanics were never really known and so someone in the 1850s or
1860s and let’s say 19th century correlation sort of just came up with this story and even subsequent
apostles and prophets sort of understood that to be the way the translation happened? When did we
learn about the hat in the stone? Have we always known it and just never talked about it? How did this
creep in, and how did it get allowed to creep in the way that it did?

RB: That’s actually an interesting historiographical question. The stories of the hat in the stone were recorded very close to Joseph Smith’s lifetime by the people who were there: Oliver Cowdery, David Whitmer, and Emma Smith. So it’s not like that we’ve sort of made up this new version. It’s been there.
But I think what threw us off was our own embarrassment about Joseph Smith.
We so wanted him to be kind of a 19 th century Protestant view of a prophet. A noble soul. Sort of partly ethereal, who speaks only spiritual wisdom, and not someone who’s involved in magical practices, which is superstition, and which Protestants are dead set against in the 19 th century.
That effort to kind of suppress anything that would scandalize Joseph Smith or turn him into a scandal I think motivated the desire to make it all sort of lovely and common sensical rather than anything that would be magical.

JD: So someone along the way maybe felt embarrassed, or said people aren’t going to buy this, or people aren’t going to believe it, or people are going to think we’re goofy, and so let’s re-write history and depict it in a way that is a little bit more palatable.

RB: I’m not sure it’s quite that calculated, but it has that effect, that you kind of just kind of bowdlerize the story, you kind of whitewash it and it ends up this way.

JD: I know that life is more complex than this, but I know a lot of people, it seems like a lot of the people who leave, they don’t leave because they’re weak or they’re sinners or adulterers, they leave because they’ve got this view of what integrity and honesty is. They’ve always bought that integrity and honesty is absolute. There are blacks and whites, there is good and bad, and a lot of people say to me, John, Look, if the Church knows that they’re depicting the translation process inaccurately, it is their duty and obligation to stand up, do it in General Conference, and tell everybody, all right, here’s the deal, we were saying it wrong, here’s how it is, and from now on, whenever it is depicted in a motion picture or in the Ensign, we’re going to stick his face in a hat with a stone in it. I know you can’t answer for them, but do you have any thoughts on that, or is that something you just have to leave to the way things are in life?

RB: I think your depiction of the disillusioned person is probably quite accurate. It’s the absolutist, it’s that personality that sees things as black and white that is going to be shocked and deeply offended by this whole thing. A personality that can’t tolerate ambiguity and realize people get caught in situations and all sorts of strange things come out that is going to feel like you’ve got to lay down the law one way or another, and the Church has failed to do that, so while I was thoroughly devoted to it at one time in my absolutist way, I’m not thoroughly against it in my absolutist way.
I don’t know what to do about that kind of personality because they’re going to have troubles with the Church. That’s quite true.

[Or, maybe they're not absolutist but consider all the evidence and choose what Joseph and Oliver said over the explanations from their opponents and today's credentialed class. Their problems are not with the Church but with the revisionist historians.]

JD: I guess the Church is in a bind. We’re all speculating, but they can’t just come out and say we were wrong and here’s the right way because one, people may still think it’s goofy, and that might cause them to leave, and also they’ll wonder why there was the deception and then what else have we been deceived about.

RB: There are all sorts of middle grounds. You could just begin to straighten up and tell the story as the records tell it and say well, our artists previously had a different view of things and now we’re in a better position.

I know there are still a lot of people who are averse to the magical thing. They think my book gives altogether too much credit to magic. I hope we can overcome that. There’s nothing malicious about magic. It’s a form of supernaturalism that people the world over have believed in. People who study magical practices from times past find much that is admirable in them like there is in free masonry. It’s not the devil’s tool. It’s a form of human questing for powers beyond themselves.

There are fewer and fewer references to what Joseph and Oliver taught. The Gospel Topics Essay on the Translation is only one example. Here's a passage from the Liahona in 2017:

For example, from our perspective in the present, Joseph Smith’s use of a seer stone to translate the Book of Mormon appears very different. In his time, however, many people believed that physical objects could be used to receive divine messages. These beliefs were based, in part, on biblical stories in which objects were used for divine purposes (see Numbers 17:1–10; 2 Kings 5; John 9:6). A revelation Joseph received for the organization of the Church explained that God “gave him power from on high, by the means which were before prepared, to translate the Book of Mormon” (D&C 20:8). Though the “means” included a seer stone as well as the Urim and Thummim, we can still discern the doctrinal message “that God does inspire men and call them to his holy work in this age … ; thereby showing that he is the same God yesterday, today, and forever” (D&C 20:11–12).

In the height of irony, that article included this:

Joseph Smith provided an example of how to evaluate storytellers and facts. In 1838, he observed that there were already “many reports which have been put in circulation by evil-disposed and designing persons, in relation to the rise and progress of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.” As a result, he wrote a history intended to “put all inquirers after truth in possession of the facts, as they have transpired, in relation both to myself and the Church, so far as I have such facts in my possession” (Joseph Smith—History 1:1).

The "many reports" included the claims about the seer (peep) stone. The "facts" he reported included the fact that he translated the plates with the Urim and Thummim. But now we're being told that the claims about the seer stone were true.

As Joseph wrote in the Wentworth letter,

With the records was found a curious instrument, which the ancients called “Urim and Thummim,” which consisted of two transparent stones set in the rims of a bow fastened to a breastplate. Through the medium of the Urim and Thummim I translated the record by the gift and power of God.

Joseph Smith--History, in the Pearl of Great Price, explains it this way.

35 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.

52 Having removed the earth, I obtained a lever, which I got fixed under the edge of the stone, and with a little exertion raised it up. I looked in, and there indeed did I behold the plates, the Urim and Thummim, and the breastplate, as stated by the messenger.

62 By this timely aid was I enabled to reach the place of my destination in Pennsylvania; and immediately after my arrival there I commenced copying the characters off the plates. I copied a considerable number of them, and by means of the Urim and Thummim I translated some of them...

Note to verse 71*Oliver Cowdery describes these events thus: “These were days never to be forgotten—to sit under the sound of a voice dictated by the inspiration of heaven, awakened the utmost gratitude of this bosom! 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.’

That's the old narrative. Now we're learning the revisionist history. Here's how Saints, volume 1, teaches this.

Buried with the plates, Moroni said, were two seer stones, which Joseph later called the Urim and
Thummim, or interpreters. The Lord had prepared these stones to help Joseph translate the record.... Beneath the boulder was a box, its walls and base made of stone. Looking inside, Joseph saw the gold plates, seer stones, and breastplate.... Moroni appeared, and Joseph lifted the gold plates
and seer stones from the stone box....   Assisted by Emma, he copied many of the strange characters from the plates to paper. Then, for several weeks, he tried to translate them with the Urim and Thummim. 

Joseph was growing into his divine role as a seer and revelator. Looking into the interpreters or another seer stone, he was able to translate whether the plates were in front of him or wrapped in one of Emma’s linen cloths on the table....  Sometimes Joseph translated by looking through the interpreters and reading in English the characters on the plates. Often he found a single seer stone to be more convenient. He would put the seer stone in his hat, place his face into the hat to block out the light, and peer at the stone. Light from the stone would shine in the darkness, revealing words that Joseph dictated as Oliver rapidly copied them down.

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