This is an excellent time to discuss the best methodology for assessing issues of Church history. The Witnesses movie, along with the Saints book, Gospel Topics Essays, and related curriculum and media from both faithful and critical sources, have brought this all to a head through social media.
In his book First Vision: Memory and Mormon Origins
, Steven Harper does a great job explaining how historical narratives are created. That book is an admission, really, of how our scholars have changed the narratives and imposed a single interpretation of Church history that is a legitimate working hypothesis but not the only one and not, in my view, the best one.
That's not to say anyone is correct or incorrect, but the methodology based on a single authoritative interpretation does not empower people to make their own informed decisions.
Despite the claims of my critics, I also don't think the changing narratives we see today are the result of any conspiracies. I don't think the citation cartel is a conspiracy. It's more of a Groupthink that evolved step-by-step. We can observe that evolution in the pages of the historical record of academia.
The process is similar to the evolution of legal theories, as I used to discuss in my books on U.S. constitutional law and other legal fields. One decision logically leads to the next and the next, and yet even the Justices of the U.S. Supreme Court often strongly disagree about what the next step should be.
But at least the Justices set out their multiple working hypotheses so everyone can see them and make informed decisions.
That's not what is happening now regarding Church history. Instead, we have a handful of scholars "interpreting" the facts for everyone else on a take-it-or-leave-it basis.
The current approach leads to tribalism and emotional attachment to one's beliefs that clouds reason and prevents people from communicating effectively, openly, and cordially.
In my view, the optimum approach consists of three steps:
1. Lay out all the known facts. Everyone should be able to agree upon what those facts are. This includes distinguishing between statements of fact (documents, first person eyewitness accounts, etc.) and statements of opinion, hearsay, inference, etc. Opening the Heavens was a great start, but editorial decisions there altered key facts and omitted others. Maybe a third edition could fix these problems and also distinguish between facts and hearsay.
2. Offer multiple working hypotheses, or interpretations, of those facts. Every interpretation should be included, from both faithful and critical perspectives. Because of the natural human tendency to seek approval and confirmation from others, people are uncomfortable when others interpret the same facts differently. But hopefully, everyone can rise above that insecurity and seek first to understand, then to be understood. Let everyone interested contribute, without editing. It's easy to argue for and against every hypothesis; that's not the point. We want to consider all of them.
3. Encourage those interested to make their own informed decisions. People adopt an interpretation or hypothesis for their own reasons, each thinking they are "following the facts" when in reality they are confirming their biases. It boils down to faith in one thing or another. But sometimes, seeing new facts or seeing old facts through new filters does change minds. We see this process with the "reveal" in every episode of mystery shows, every mystery novel, and even, sometimes, with every new discovery of an artifact or historical document.
So far, I know of no resource such as this, apart from a few comparison tables I've posted over the years. Both faithful and critical sources resort to choosing facts that they think support their respective beliefs and then making arguments based on those facts. You can take any topic and see examples from FairLDS, MormonThink, the Interpreter, CES Letter, Book of Mormon Central, MormonStories, etc. They all talk past each other because they don't even agree on the facts, let alone what alternative interpretations are available.
Maybe it's too much to ask. Even within the LDS community, there is tremendous reluctance to follow this methodology.
The "faithful" sites not only don't accurately present critical arguments, but they don't even allow alternative faithful arguments. Worse, they embed their intolerant positions in their logos and enforce them through their control of the citation cartel. It's sad for many of us who believe in the Restoration to see so many people rejecting the Restoration because of changing narratives, implausible explanations they're told they must believe, feeling they've been lied to, etc.
MormonThink and CESLetter cleverly purport to show "both sides" to persuade readers they are "neutral," but instead they emphasize a critical agenda by omitting facts and interpretations that contradict their respective narratives.
Incentives. The obvious problem is neither the dominant "faithful" sites nor the dominant "critical" sites have an incentive to pursue the model I propose. Instead, both focus on fortifying their respective adherents and demonizing the other "team." Such team-building enables them to attract donors and followers.
Maybe those incentives, combined with the psychology of bias confirmation, are too powerful to overcome. But I'm an optimist, and I think there are lots of people who want what I'm describing here.
We can't expect people to agree on the interpretations, but we can expect them to agree on the body of facts. Then everyone can choose whichever interpretation they prefer and agree to disagree if they differ.
And then everyone can proceed accordingly, with no animosity, contention, hurt feelings, etc.
But as I pointed out at the beginning, the current approach leads to tribalism and emotional attachment to one's beliefs that clouds reason and prevents people from communicating effectively, openly, and cordially.
One example in the news now is the Witnesses movie.
The Interpreter Foundation is following up the Witnesses movie with a longer documentary. It "will also feature interviews with scholars, both Latter-day Saint and non-LDS, and others to shed light on the events covered in the theatrical movie."
What remains to be seen is whether the documentary will feature anyone who still believes what Joseph and Oliver (and others) said about Joseph translating the plates with the Urim and Thummim. Such individuals are apparently difficult to find among LDS academia, based on what we read in the citation cartel. I saw recently where one of our prominent scholars said he doesn't even like the word "translate" in connection with the Book of Mormon.
But surely the Interpreter Foundation will find at least one person to make a case for Joseph actually translating the plates. If no one else, I volunteer.
Not that they'd even consider that. Apparently Dan the Interpreter was upset over the weekend. Links here.
Besides providing more material for my upcoming book on LDS apologetics, this semi-controversy based on being offended raises the larger question of why apologists mingle emotions with rational thinking. I've discussed that many times before. I'll have a chapter or two in the book.
One reason for optimism is a growing number of people who like the idea of multiple working hypotheses.
Once we all agree on the facts, we can agree there are multiple working hypotheses to choose among, allowing people to make informed decisions.
To use the current vernacular, "Heartlanders" tend to favor this model, while M2Cers don't. It's a surprising but unambiguous difference between the two "tribes" that plays out daily on the respective web pages and social media.
Most Heartlanders, like me, were brought into these issues after recognizing that the prevailing M2C hypothesis not only doesn't make sense from a narrative or scientific perspective, but it contradicts the unambiguous, consistent and persistent teachings of the prophets about Cumorah.
That "second reality" awakening led us to take a closer look at other things the M2C scholars were teaching, including SITH.
That's not to say we object to people believing M2C. People can believe whatever they want.
We just want people to know that there are faithful alternatives to M2C and SITH.
The critics are having a lot of success focusing on M2C and especially SITH. John Dehlin says SITH is the number one reason why people leave the Church. I don't know if that's quantifiable because people leave for a variety of reasons, but clearly SITH is among the main reasons. It's also a major impediment for people listening to the missionaries.
When faithful members think their only option is to believe SITH (or M2C), they are susceptible to the critical arguments. But when members learn about faithful alternatives to SITH that rely on all the historical evidence, they can deal with the facts and make fully informed decisions.
The internal problem is that faithful alternatives to SITH are disallowed by the citation cartel's cancel culture.
I realize that many members of the credentialed class, especially participants of the citation cartel, have been offended by things I've said or written. I've explained before that I don't relate to emotional attachments to intellectual arguments. I underestimated how attached people are to their theories. I naively thought people would welcome new approaches, new interpretations, and alternative working hypotheses.
I certainly didn't realize how insecure and defensive our intellectuals are. It's a shame, because they're all great people, smart, dedicated, faithful, etc. It would be awesome if we could have an open dialog and establish the analysis model I described above, but I don't see that happening.
Well, there are exceptions, so anything is possible. I know of one exemplary open- and fair-minded scholar who is also influential and may make a difference.
In the meantime, to contribute one working hypothesis, here is my summary of the SITH vs U&T issue. I'm not saying this is the correct interpretation of the facts, only that it is one of multiple working hypotheses that everyone, faithful or critical, should consider and deal with.
It's very simple. (The details are in my book, A Man that Can Translate.) The confusion arose because of a misunderstanding of what happened at the Whitmer home.
1. Joseph used the U&T to translate the engravings on the plates. He started by copying and translating the characters one by one and progressed to translating the engravings on each plate. He wasn't allowed to show the plates or U&T to anyone, so he used them behind a screen, blanket, or other concealment. He didn't "translate" anything with the plates covered or with a stone in a hat.
2. Joseph used SITH to conduct a demonstration in the Whitmer home to explain the process to his supporters because he couldn't show them the plates or the U&T.
(We can see evidence of all of this in the Original and Printer's manuscript, as I explained in detail in the book.)
3. As early as August 1829, witnesses to the demonstration reported what they observed. Some incorrectly inferred they saw the translation, but none of them reported what Joseph actually dictated. Consequently, we can't say whether anything he dictated on that occasion made its way into the text (although, based on the manuscripts, I think he dictated some of the Isaiah chapters in 2 Nephi from memory).
4. In 1834, Mormonism Unvailed set out the Spalding theory. That book also explained SITH and U&T as distinct alternatives (not different names for the same seer stone), but it claimed Joseph didn't use the plates under either scenario.
5. In response, Oliver and Joseph affirmed that Joseph translated the plates with the U&T.
6. Nevertheless, the Spalding theory was widely accepted by the public. That theory relied on the accounts of Joseph dictating from behind a screen or blanket; i.e., he was reading the Spalding manuscript to his scribes.
7. Consequently, to support their testimony of the divinity of the Book of Mormon, David, Emma, and others described the demonstration to refute the Solomon Spalding theory; i.e., Joseph "had nothing to read from" and used SITH in front of witnesses.
8. Church leaders, including Joseph's contemporaries, consistently taught U&T, despite knowing what David, Emma, and others said about SITH.
9. Those Church leaders were correct, but so were David and Emma, regarding what they observed (but not what they inferred); i.e., Joseph did a demonstration with SITH but never translated with SITH.
10. Critics claimed Church leaders were "covering up the truth" by not adopting SITH.
11. Modern scholars bought into the "cover up" narrative because they didn't take into account the demonstration or the Spalding problem, so they assumed David and Emma were correct about both what they observed and what they inferred. They proposed that Joseph and Oliver misled people by referring to the "seer stone" as the "Urim and Thummim." This revisionist interpretation contradicts the plain distinction in Mormonism Unvailed, but it became the accepted working hypotheses.
12. Anonymous Church materials defer to the expert historians and now teach the new narrative that SITH = U&T (Saints book, Gospel Topics Essay, etc.). The Witness movie reportedly teaches SITH to broad audiences.
13. Critics such as John Dehlin and the CES Letter encourage people to read the Gospel Topics Essays, etc., to persuade people to leave the Church and/or reject the missionaries. They use the same rationale that Mormonism Unvailed did; i.e., Joseph didn't even use the plates, the whole text came from a peep stone, and therefore the Book of Mormon is anything but a translation of ancient records.
14. Some faithful LDS authors others claim SITH was an occult conspiracy concocted by Kirtland apostates inspired by Satan, but historical evidence shows SITH starting within a month of the time Moroni showed the plates to the witnesses (in the 1829 newspapers). By framing the witnesses as liars, the SITH conspiracy theory corroborates the critics .
15. Some faithful LDS authors claim it doesn't matter how the Book of Mormon was produced because the words of the book are evidence that it is true, and people can get a spiritual confirmation. But adherents of every religion make the same claim. Joseph and Oliver taught about the historicity of the text and its origin as an actual translation of ancient records because they recognized that was what distinguished the Book of Mormon from other texts.
16. Some faithful members will accept SITH. And that's great. It's awesome.
17. Most people, inside and outside the Church, are skeptical that Joseph would say he translated the plates if he didn't even use them. The SITH narrative did not originate from any additional revelation or any new historical information. It's merely a modern rehash of Mormonism Unvailed, accompanied by skepticism about what Joseph and Oliver claimed (similar to skepticism about what they taught about Cumorah and other topics), as well as skepticism about what is recorded in the Book of Mormon and D&C.
18. Having multiple working hypotheses regarding a complete set of facts empowers people to make informed decisions, which is what most people want to do in the first place.
Joseph said he copied and translated the characters. (JS-H)
The Lord told him to translate the engravings on the plates. (D&C 10)
Moroni told Joseph not to touch the sealed portion "in order that ye may translate." (Ether 5:1)
None of that makes sense if Joseph was merely reading words off a stone, whether it was the U&T or SITH.