I've been too busy on another project to post much lately, but people continue to ask questions and offer some great insights that I hope to get to soon.
There were a few tweets lately relevant to this blog.
The transcript of Claudia and Richard Bushman is making the rounds. You can see it here if you want.
One key point in the transcript is Elder Holland's statement that "Transparency is the watchword." (I excerpted that passage below.)
Transparency is what we all want (I hope).
But our M2C and SITH scholars continue to resist transparency.
This is my primary objection to the M2C (Mesoamerican/two-Cumorahs) and SITH (stone-in-the-hat) citation cartels. Book of Mormon Central is the worst because they continue to present only their own pet theories of geography (as exemplified by their logo), but BYU Studies, the Interpreter, FAIRLDS, Meridian Magazine and the rest do the same. Now they're doing the same with SITH.
We see the antithesis of transparency in the Gospel Topics Essays, the Saints books, the Book of Mormon videos, and other materials. Instead of transparency, they exalt the opinions of scholars over original sources (which they don't even quote or cite), all to accommodate the M2C and SITH theories.
I continue to hope that, eventually, Elder Holland's statement will become a reality. But I don't see that happening so long as our M2C and SITH scholars are driving the agenda.
Nearly every day I hear from people about SITH problems. Usually it's someone who has doubts or has left the Church over SITH. Sometimes it's questions about why we are reading about SITH everywhere, both from the critics (John Dehlin says it's the #1 reason why people leave the Church) and from faithful sources, including Church magazines and the Gospel Topics Essays.
Because I get enough questions about these things, I want to explain my views here so people don't have to contact me about this. As always, I'm not trying to convince or persuade anyone of anything. People can believe whatever they want. I post these blogs as my own notes, and to let others see what I think and react however they want.
1. I think Richard and Claudia are awesome. Of all the LDS scholars I've met or had any involvement with, they are the most open-minded and fair. They are not part of the M2C or SITH citation cartels, even though members of the cartels cite their work.
2. I completely disagree with Church members who attack the Bushmans for various reasons, particularly those who claim they are part of a conspiracy to discredit Joseph Smith.
3. Critics such as John Dehlin focus on Rough Stone Rolling to confirm their biases. Some LDS authors also focus on Rough Stone Rolling as the cause of people leaving the Church. I agree with Bushman that it was important for Church members to know all aspects of Church history, and in that sense I think Rough Stone Rolling did a great job. However, Rough Stone Rolling is not an encyclopedia. It does not, and could not possibly, include all the historical evidence or all the plausible interpretations of the evidence.
4. In some cases, Rough Stone Rolling presents interpretations as statements of fact. Discerning readers can tell the difference, but many readers apparently cannot. This enables Dehlin and other critics to cite these interpretations as facts, thereby confusing and misleading the unwary.
5. I wrote a brief line-by-line analysis of the translation section of Rough Stone Rolling to point out some of the omissions and interpretations. It's an appendix in my July update of A Man that Can Translate. Subscribers to the MOBOM newsletter have already received it.
An earlier version is available on this web page.
6. The Bushman transcript includes this exchange (original in blue, my comments in red):
But on the whole the church authorities had no better knowledge of church history than the normal members and the general authorities also had to be educated in this new kind of history. So it’s put us in this difficult position where we are being asked to change very rapidly to a new construct of our own history and it’s put a lot of strain on a lot of people.
[The statements about SITH that everyone is quoting now are hardly "new sources." They were very well known to Joseph's contemporaries and successors, as was the material in the 1834 Mormonism Unvailed. Yet none of Joseph's successors in Church leadership taught that Joseph merely read words that appeared on a stone in the hat (SITH). The "new kind of history" seems to be pretending these are new discoveries, or that they are suddenly more credible than they were in the past among contemporaries.
The "Last Testimony of Emma Smith" was published in the Saints' Herald in October, 1879, several months after she died on April 30, 1879. Her testimony was widely discussed in Utah.
David Whitmer's An Address to All Believers in Christ was published in 1887. You can read it here:
Or, incredibly, you can read excerpts in the January 2020 Ensign, as I discussed here:
Nevertheless, with full knowledge of what David and Emma said, Church leaders continued to reaffirm that Joseph translated the plates with the Urim and Thummim that came with the plates.
In 1882 John Taylor explained, "We have here on the ceiling of this building pictured to us, Moroni making known to Joseph Smith the plates, from which the Book of Mormon was translated, which plates had been hidden up in the earth; and in connection with them was the Urim and Thummim, by which sacred instrument Joseph was enabled to translate the ancient characters, now given unto us in the form of the Book of Mormon; in which is set forth the theories, doctrines, principles, organizations, etc., of these peoples who lived upon this continent."
(1880s, 1882 JD, JT Dispensation ¶3 • JD 23:29)
In 1895, Franklin D. Richards reaffirmed that Mormon "wrote it upon plates of pure gold, and in the language called the reformed Egyptian—a language which no people knew very well; and he being a prophet and having the Urim and Thummim, hid it up with these plates, so that in due time the plates should come forth and the means to interpret the record on them.
(1890s, 1895, October, 3rd Session, Elder Franklin D. Richards, ¶13 • CR)
The last member of the Twelve or First Presidency to testify in General Conference that Joseph translated the plates with the U&T, however, was Elder L. Tom Perry in April, 2007.
[00:48] I think what’s most heartwarming is that the policy of transparency now governs church publications.
Part of Marlin Jensen’s genius as a church historian was that when he wanted to — when the Joseph Smith papers were going forward with a mandate from president Hinkley, Do papers that the scholars will value. That is, be rigorous. [unintelligble] As he was moving forward with that project, he just didn’t take that and run with it and turn out these marvelous papers.
I agree completely with this. The Joseph Smith Papers project is wonderful--so far as the documents go. The commentary and notes, however, are agenda-driven in many respects, as I've documented many times. IOW, trust the documents. The notes and commentary, take with a grain of salt.
He brought along all the Quorum of the Twelve, the first presidency, and CES. He got everyone agreeing that what we’re doing here is to be the new standard of truth — historical truth — for the church, what goes into those papers.
I've been told the Church leaders lead the scholars, not vice versa, but the available evidence supports what Bushman says here. Recall also that employees of Book of Mormon Central claim they've been hired by the prophets to guide the Church in these matters.
I think we’re pretty well there. I [unintelligible] church history advisors, we were called into a seminar in Salt Lake and Elder Holland addressed us, talking about collecting history out of the provinces. He said, “Transparency is the watchword.” And he said, “Not everyone agrees with me around here but I’m telling you it’s the watchword.” What that tells me is the balance of power is shifting. There’s going to be general authorities, lots of others who would say, “Why bother with all that stuff? It just mucks up the picture,” but on the whole the official policy is, we’re never going to be secure in our own history until we tell it straight and I think that’s what they’re going to try to do.
I agree with Elder Holland completely, which is why it remains inexplicable why Saints, the Gospel Topics Essays, Church magazines, and other resources refuse to tell it straight. Instead, they de-correlate the New York Cumorah and historical evidence that supports the U&T translation.
7. Another exchange.
Audience #3: I’m wondering, for me a lot of the incongruity that exists now, that is giving rise to a lot of crisis of faith and [unintelligible] situations seems to be caused, in my view, by the disparity between the dominant narrative, what I call the orthodox narrative, which is what we learn as missionaries, what we teach investigators or we learn in Sunday school. Then as you get older, you start to experience Mormonism in different ways. And those ways become very important, even dear to you but sometimes they may not jive with some elements of orthodox narrative. What I’m wondering is, in your view do you see room within Mormonism for several different, multiple narratives of religious experience? Or do you think that in order for the Church to remain strong, they will have to hold to that predominant one?
Richard [00:57:35]: I think for the Church to remain strong it has to reconstruct its narrative. The dominant narrative is not true. It can’t be sustained.
It's difficult to tell from this vague statement what he means. People impose their own views on this to support whatever position they have.
For example, if Richard was referring to the translation with the U&T, assuming it is untrue and needs to be reconstructed with SITH, then I completely disagree with that because I think the evidence supports U&T and does not support SITH, with respect to the translation. That either/or approach is simplistic and omits evidence from one side or the other.
I'm all in favor of multiple working hypotheses, based on all the evidence (full transparency). Yet I'm not aware of any explanations that deal with all of the evidence except the demonstration narrative. Consequently, I interpret Richard's comment to mean the "dominant narrative" that Joseph never used SITH for any reason cannot be sustained. But that doesn't mean a wholesale rejection of U&T is appropriate. Nor does it mean Joseph produced the Book of Mormon by reading words that appeared on SITH.
The Church has to absorb all this new information or it will be on very shaky grounds, and that’s what it’s trying to do.
As I pointed out above, none of this is new information. It was well understood when it originally came out in 1834, 1879, etc. Perhaps there was a gap after the first generation of Church leaders, who had first-hand knowledge, passed away. Subsequent generations perhaps forgot about or ignored the SITH sayers, although critics were very active publishing and re-publishing SITH.
What seems to be happening now is historians are applying that gap retroactively to the first-generation leaders. Attributing ignorance to the first-generation leaders is ahistorical. It comes across as hubris on the part of these historians who assume they know better, looking back 200 years, than the people who experience the events themselves (Joseph and Oliver) and the people who knew Joseph and Oliver and couldn't possibly have recorded everything they taught.
And they’ll be a strain for a lot of people, older people especially.
I agree with this, to the extent the "older people" didn't know Church history, and to the extent the "new narrative" censors early teachings and presumes that Joseph, Oliver and their contemporaries were wrong.
But I think it has to change. Elder Packer had the sense of “protecting the little people.” He felt like the scholars were an enemy to his faith, and that of the grandmothers living in Sanpete County. That was a very lovely pastoral image. But the price of protecting the grandmothers was the loss of the grandsons. They got a story that didn’t work. So we’ve just had to change our narrative.
The story that doesn't work is the currently popular narrative that Joseph Smith never translated anything, that he merely read words off a stone in a hat (and it doesn't matter whether that was a "peep stone" he found in a well or the spectacles, if he didn't even use the plates), and Joseph and Oliver misled people by claiming he translated the engravings on the plates by means of the Nephite interpreters.
We know the narrative Joseph and Oliver gave us works. It is supported by documentary and historical and theological evidence. Millions of people have gained testimonies of the truth of that narrative.
It remains to be seen whether SITH is a narrative that will "work." So far, the evidence, in terms of conversions and retentions, soundly rejects the proposition that SITH "works."
After all, it was largely to defeat SITH that Joseph and Oliver wrote Letter I in the first place.
George Orwell, writing about the defeatist attitude of the Left in World War II: One has to belong to the intelligentsia to believe things like that: no ordinary man could be such a fool.*
People can believe whatever they want to believe. People can talk themselves into believing all kinds of things.
But we also like the things that we believe to make sense.
M2C (the Mesoamerican/two-Cumorahs theory) tries to persuade people to reject the teachings of the prophets about the New York Cumorah because an anonymous article in the 1842 Times and Seasons claimed that ruins in Central America were left by the Nephites.
Even when it turned out that those ruins long post-dated the Book of Mormon, the M2Cers persisted because they had already convinced themselves the prophets were wrong about Cumorah. Everything written on the topic since then is an effort to confirm that bias.
The alternative approach that more and more Latter-day Saints adopt is to accept the teachings of the prophets about Cumorah and proceed from there. That makes sense to us.
We don't mind if others disagree. We just want everyone to make informed decisions.
SITH (the stone-in-the-hat theory) tries to persuade people to believe that Joseph never really translated anything because some of his contemporaries claimed he merely read words off a stone in the hat and never even used the plates. Even the critics at the time realized this was a lame diversion from the real issue; i.e., what was behind the curtain when Joseph dictated the Book of Mormon?
The 1834 book Mormonism Unvailed ridiculed SITH because it undermined the entire narrative of the plates. As the book pointed out, if Joseph never used the plates when he translated, what good was the testimony of the witnesses?
Mormonism Unvailed used the term "unvailed" only once (apart from the title), and that was in connection with the curtain that Charles Anthon had described. "This young man was placed behind a curtain, in the garret of a farm house, and, being thus concealed from view, put on the spectacles occasionally, or rather, looked through one of the glasses, decyphered [sic] the characters in the book."
Here's how Mormonism Unvailed explained its title.
That there has been, from the beginning of the imposture, a more talented knave behind the curtain, is evident to our mind, at least ; but whether he will ever be clearly, fully and positively unvailed and brought into open day-light, may of course be doubted.
The entire book is an effort to "unvail" Mormonism by figuring out what was behind the curtain when Joseph was dictating. Was Joseph translating plates, or reading from the Spalding manuscript? As someone said recently, is it Joseph Smith or Joseph SITH?
Those of us who believe Joseph and Oliver when they said Joseph translated the plates reject the Spalding theory. We believe there were plates behind the curtain. That makes sense to us.
We don't mind if others disagree. We just want everyone to make informed decisions.
We see that SITH contradicts what Joseph and Oliver said and is based on the demonstration at the Whitmer home that David Whitmer described, as I discussed in detail in A Man that Can Translate.
The Spalding theory was the predominant explanation for the Book of Mormon for 100 years. It depended on the common understanding that Joseph dictated from behind a screen, which is the only thing he could do given he was commanded not to let anyone see the plates or U&T.
To defeat the Spalding theory, David Whitmer, Emma Smith, and others related SITH accounts, based on the demonstration. They emphasized there was no screen or curtain, and that Joseph had nothing to read from, which makes sense. The demonstration was conducted in the open. That was the point. But the demonstration was not the translation, which took place in the small room upstairs in the Whitmer home.
Church leaders who knew Joseph personally also knew all about Mormonism Unvailed and the SITH-sayers. They certainly knew a lot more than today's scholars, who concoct their theories based on scraps of paper instead of personal interaction with Joseph and Oliver. These leaders reaffirmed over and over that Joseph translated the plates with the U&T, the way Joseph and Oliver always said.
How difficult is this to understand?
*for more context, see https://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=17647355 and citations there.
Usually I avoid topics that I don't want to bring attention to. I discuss them with small groups of people instead of openly and publicly like this.
But sometimes a topic deserves more attention.
For example, there's a sense that maybe the impact of critics such as John Dehlin and Jeremy Runnels has peaked. While I find it tragic that issues related to SITH and M2C have led so many people to leave the Church, question their faith, or decline to meet with or continue with the missionaries, maybe their influence is waning. Maybe most people who are troubled by these issues have already worked through them, one way or another.
To be clear, that's not my opinion or experience, but because data is impossible to come by, anything is possible.*
Nevertheless, John keeps posting new material.
The other day John posted a video/podcast titled "Questions I Would Ask Richard Bushman."
He spent two hours asking a series of loaded questions along the lines of "Have you stopped beating your wife?"
(To understand the logical fallacy of loaded questions, there's a good overview here.)
He expressed frustration that faithful LDS tend to avoid his podcast, but anyone listening to this example would be wise to avoid his show.
While I don't recommend it, you can listen/watch here:
FWIW, I listened to it while on a driving trip. I didn't waste two hours; I accelerated the replay.
For example, I'd be happy to address John's questions.
Instead, John took a video clip out of context and expanded it into a tirade.
He sounds/looks like he was venting his frustration that his audience and donors are declining and he is running out of ideas.
I respect John for his early work, when he seemed to be sincerely seeking answers and explanations. He pointed out problems with Church history narratives, Book of Mormon historicity, etc. He engaged with a variety of perspectives, both faithful and critical. Like Jeremy Runnels and his CES Letter, John's objections originated with what he had been taught and his perception that he'd been misled or lied to.
(Unfortunately, our SITH and M2C scholars have largely agreed with the critical approaches to these issues, as we've discussed many times on this blog and elsewhere. For example, our top LDS scholars now agree that Joseph never really translated the plates, that Joseph and Oliver misled Church members by teaching that Cumorah was in New York, etc.)
Lately, though, John's podcasts have been repetitive recitations by undoubtedly sincere people who, for one reason or another, have "left the Church." Naturally, these guests confirm John's biases.
If/when I get some free time, I'll go through the list of logical and factual fallacies John uses to persuade his listeners. They're essentially parallel to the logical and factual fallacies employed by the SITH and M2C apologists.
In the meantime, I've discussed some of his points on my blog here:
* I think that the SITH and M2C narratives continue to erode confidence and faith in what Joseph, Oliver and their contemporaries and successors taught. Critics thrive by focusing on what most LDS apologists claim, particularly those in the M2C citation cartel. Unlike the SITH and M2C proponents, both inside and outside the Church, I think the traditional narratives hold up to scrutiny. But of course, the SITH and M2C proponents think the opposite, and their views dominate. The results speak for themselves.