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.