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.

Friday, October 29, 2021

BYU Studies strikes again-Part 2


There are many positive things to say about the article in BYU Studies titled "Book of Mormon Geographies." It's healthy to see the issue openly discussed. This is an important step toward laying out all the facts and then offering multiple working hypotheses.

Questions about Book of Mormon historicity are at the core of the "faith crisis" epidemic everyone is familiar with. 

Church leaders have long pointed out that the claims of the Church depend on the validity of the "keystone of our religion." Critics claim the book is fiction, and their arguments are bolstered when the faithful disagree among themselves about where the events took place. 

BYU and CES currently teach that the best way to understand the text is by reference to imaginary maps that have no connection to the real world. 

As a result, the debate has led even many faithful members to conclude the book is not an actual history but instead an inspirational parable of some sort, particularly when they're told the entire text came from words appearing supernaturally on a stone in the hat and that Joseph never even used the plates (to be discussed in Part 3). 

That's hardly a model for building faith. It impacts retention, reactivation, and conversion. Everyone can see the results in both statistics and personal experiences in our wards, families, and friends.

The article discusses the Cumorah question briefly, but evades the clear framing that is needed. The Book of Mormon is the keystone of our religion, and Cumorah is the keystone of Book of Mormon historicity. It's an either/or question; either the prophets were correct about the New York Cumorah, or they were not. There is no middle ground. Obfuscating the issue prevents people from making informed decisions. 

Still, the article provides some important information that all Church members should know about. 

For example, the article quotes and cites Joseph Smith's 1834 letter to Emma about "wandering over the plains of the Nephites, recounting occasionaly [sic] the history of the Book of Mormon, roving over the mounds of that once beloved people of the Lord, picking up their skulls & their bones, as a proof of its divine authenticity."

It's awesome to see this reference in BYU Studies, finally. I did a search on the BYU Studies website for "roving over the mounds" and this article is the only result that comes up.  

Seriously? We're in volume 60 of BYU Studies and the journal has never before even quoted Joseph's letter to Emma during Zion's Camp? Apparently there is a gap in the database, because I know of at least one prior BYU Studies article that did quote the letter: "The Zelph Story," published in 1989 (discussed below). Readers of BYU Studies can decide for themselves whether they have been fully informed about this topic.  

I still remember reading that letter for the first time in Dean Jessee's book, Personal Writings of Joseph Smith. It was eye-opening. It was one of several specific moments when I realized how deeply I had been misled by my BYU/CES teachers and the FARMS scholars. Critics say these scholars (and, by extension, the Church) "hide" historical information they don't like. While I disagree with the critics on many of their assertions, it is undeniable that the M2C scholars and their citation cartel, including BYU Studies, have been far from forthright. 

It's also refreshing to see the "Limited Mesoamerican" (M2C) and "Heartland" models discussed on roughly comparable ground, something the M2C citation cartel has previously refused to do (and which Book of Mormon Central continues to refuse to do).

Kudos to Andy Hedges for this breakthrough.

And yet, despite the baby steps this article makes, serious problems remain. Assuming this article was "peer reviewed" in some sense, no one familiar with the Heartland model was involved.  

In Part 1, we focused on the article's claim that "the only firm link" between the real world and a Book of Mormon location in the New World is the site in New York where Moroni deposited the abridged plates that Joseph Smith found and translated. We reviewed how that "firm link" was provided by Oliver Cowdery's Letters IV, VII and VIII, and how M2C scholars arbitrarily and subjectively decide which parts of Oliver's letters should be accepted and which parts should be rejected.

Specifically, M2C scholars reject what Oliver (and Joseph, who helped write the letters) declared was a fact: that the hill in New York where Joseph found the plates was the same Hill Cumorah spoken of in Mormon 6:6, the scene of the final battles of the Nephites and Jaredites. These scholars also reject the consistent and persistent teachings of Joseph's successors on the topic, including members of the First Presidency speaking in General Conference, and then say the location of Cumorah is "yet to be revealed."

There is nothing inherently wrong with rejecting this basic teaching; we can all believe whatever we want, and M2C scholars have come up with what they consider to be good reasons for rejecting the New York Cumorah. But at a minimum, they should own their decision and not try to obfuscate by avoiding that discussion and pretending that the historical facts don't exist (the way the Saints book does). 

The BYU Studies article not only fails to make this point, but it ironically turns it on its head with this statement: "Like many other questions Latter-day Saints grapple with, this one has its basis in taking both Joseph Smith and the Book of Mormon at their word." That's true, in the sense that everyone working on the geography issue relies on the premise that the book is an actual history. But it's not true in the sense that many working on the issue specifically reject what Joseph said about Cumorah. Worse, they deny he ever said anything about that topic, and they say everyone who quoted or relied on what he (and Oliver) said was wrong. If everyone took Joseph Smith at his word, all the theories would have one Cumorah in western New York and most of the debate would be over. 

The article recognizes the problem in this sentence: "The essence of the problem is the simple fact that, with a handful of notable exceptions—all of them, such as Jerusalem and the Red Sea, in the Middle East—none of the places mentioned in the Book of Mormon can reasonably be identified with real-world locations today at the exclusion of other possible locations" (emphasis in the original). Obviously, accepting the New York Cumorah as the Cumorah of Mormon 6:6 excludes other possible locations for Cumorah. That still leaves open the locations of other sites (a point the prophets have also made), but with the New York Cumorah as a pin in the map, we can interpret the text accordingly. 

Instead, we're faced with M2C scholars who use their private, subjective interpretations of the text to justify rejecting the teachings of the prophets. Hence, the confusion that reigns, and as the article says, "Remarkably, after years of research, discussion, and debate, the question of where the Book of Mormon played itself out is more wide open than it has ever been, with individuals from all walks of life and educational backgrounds weighing in on the topic."

The last point illustrates the implicit assumption the credentialed class always makes; i.e., that "education backgrounds" are relevant to accepting the teachings of the prophets. It's the age-old scholars vs. prophets issue. In this case, the problem is worse than usual because the M2C scholars have arranged a Potemkin village of interlocked publications that I call the "M2C citation cartel" that review one another's publications for M2C orthodoxy and they label their work "peer reviewed." 

(I offer numerous examples on a blog for peer reviews of the Interpreter that illustrate the groupthink nature of that front of the Potemkin village, here: http://interpreterpeerreviews.blogspot.com/)

The article turns to evidence here, starting with the letter we discussed at the outset of this post: "While many researchers have overlooked it, the earliest effort to identify a specific real-world location with the events mentioned in the Book of Mormon appears to be a June 4, 1834, letter to Joseph Smith’s wife, Emma, written from Pike County, Illinois, “on the banks of the Mississippi,” as Smith was traveling to Missouri with Zion’s Camp. Purporting to be a letter “dictate[d]” by Smith himself, the letter recounts how he and his companions had been “wandering over the plains of the Nephites, recounting occasionaly [sic] the history of the Book of Mormon, roving over the mounds of that once beloved people of the Lord, picking up their skulls & their bones, as a proof of its divine authenticity.”5 

The article cites Dean Jessee's now obscure source instead of the Joseph Smith Papers, so here's the link: https://www.josephsmithpapers.org/paper-summary/letter-to-emma-smith-4-june-1834/3

At that link, note 14 mentions the Zelph incident (which Hedges inexplicably omitted, possibly due to space constraints, which is another reason why referencing the JSP would be more useful). Note 14 references Ken Godfrey's BYU Studies article, "The Zelph Story," which you can read here: https://byustudies.byu.edu/article/the-zelph-story/. That's a fascinating topic both from the early accounts and from the way the scholars have treated it. For many events in early Church history, we have only Wilford Woodruff's account (such as the "most correct book" statement, which was Woodruff's summary of Joseph's teachings but was later transformed into a first-person quotation by Joseph Smith). Woodruff wrote about the Zelph incident, explaining that "zelph was a large thick set man and a man of god he was a warrior under the great prophet that was known from the hill cumorah to the rocky mountains the above knowledge joseph receieved in a vision." Normally, we cherish Joseph's visions. But not in this case, because Woodruff mentioned "Cumorah" in connection with "knowledge Joseph received in a vision." That cannot be, according to the M2C scholars, so in this instance, they equivocate and ultimately reject what Woodruff wrote. Some Latter-day Saints still accept this vision as reported by Woodruff, partly because it corroborates all the other teachings about Cumorah. It also happens to fit the archaeological finds from the mound, which is definitely Hopewell from Book of Mormon time frames with artifacts from throughout North America. M2C scholars reject this vision even though scientific evidence supports Joseph's claims.

The article next cites is Letter VII, which we discussed in part 1.

A letter written the same year by Oliver Cowdery to William W. Phelps similarly identifies a North American setting for at least some of what happened in the Book of Mormon—in this case, New York’s Hill Cumorah, where Smith reportedly found the gold plates, as the site of the final battles of the Jaredites and the Nephites.6 "

Note 6 inexplicably offers another obscure reference instead of the Joseph Smith papers, but it adds this comment: "Cowdery also identified this same hill as the site of the Jaredites’ final battles, as well as the place where other Nephite records, in addition to the Book of Mormon, had been buried (see Morm. 6:6)."

It's not clear why the note repeats the Jaredite point, but the mention of the "other Nephite records" should alert readers to what used to be taught in CES manuals: Joseph and Oliver visited the repository of Nephite records in the Hill Cumorah in New York on multiple occasions. 

The next evidence the article cites is the Stephens book about Central America and the speculation it engendered in the pages of the Times and Seasons. "These and other sources suggests that Smith and his contemporaries eventually came to see Central America as the center of Book of Mormon civilization, with sites in the Midwest and eastern United States coming into the picture toward the end of the narrative."

That's a fair characterization of the speculation that took place because none of Joseph's contemporaries or successors questioned the New York Cumorah, which was a given for them (even in Orson Pratt's 1879 footnotes, which acknowledged the speculative nature of other locations). However, Hedges doesn't mention the other alternative interpretation of the evidence, which is that Joseph never accepted the Central American theories and even tried to correct Orson Pratt in the Wentworth letter. 

The article reviews the development of the "limited geography" model based on M2C. "While some researchers continued to propound this model [the hemispheric model with Cumorah in New York] well into the twentieth century, others began to suggest the possibility that Book of Mormon lands were much more limited in extent. Although differing in the details of their respective models, proponents of the latter view believed that the events of the entire book, including the last battles at Cumorah, took place in a Central American context." 

What Hedges omits (due to space constraints?) are three significant facts. First, RLDS scholar L.E. Hills published the first M2C map in 1917. Leadership of the RLDS church distanced themselves from Hills' map and publications. LDS Church historian Joseph Fielding Smith objected to the idea of Cumorah in Mexico, which was contrary to the teachings of the Church and would "cause members of the Church to become confused and disturbed in their faith in the Book of Mormon." Nowhere does the article mention (or quote) teachings of the prophets about Cumorah. The article frames the entire discussion as a purely academic question.

The article proceeds to effectively review the development of M2C with David A. Palmer and John L. Sorenson as the "most articulate supporters" who decided Cumorah needed to be near the "narrow neck of land" that was in Mesoamerica, and that the New York Cumorah "does not match the text's description of the hill where the final battles took place." Everyone agrees it does not match Sorenson's interpretation of the text. But the text is not self-executing; it supports a variety of interpretations, including interpretations that corroborate the teachings of the prophets--unlike M2C.

The article also effectively outlines the arguments pro and con for the North American setting. 

"As strongly worded as the criticisms against this North American model have been, they have done little to dissuade its supporters. Led by Rod L. Meldrum, proponents of the “Heartland” model, as it has come to be called, have responded to the critics’ objections by willingly and creatively adjusting their proposed geography to better match the descriptions in the text."

Here, though, we see a thumb on the scale. The sentence makes a false implication because both M2C and Heartland proponents are "willingly and creatively adjusting their proposed geography to better match the descriptions in the text." That's the nature of this process.

Then we see this: "Less scrupulous about evidence than trained historians, scientists, and archaeologists might be, Meldrum draws on a variety of sources to offer real-world, visually compelling locations and remains for a variety of phenomena described in the Book of Mormon, including such traditional conundrums as elephants, horses, and Hebrew writing."

"Trained historians, scientists and archaeologists" can be "scrupulous about evidence," but only a member of the credentialed class would pretend they always are, or are at all when it comes to Book of Mormon geography, particularly the M2C model. For example, Mormon's Codex, the book cited in the article as the "ultimate expression" of M2C, is a hodgepodge of speculation about illusory "correspondences" that no mainstream historian, scientist or archaeologist finds in the least persuasive or even relevant. Had anyone actually familiar with the Heartland model been involved with peer review of this article, the voluminous citations in Heartland literature to non-LDS historians, scientists and archaeologists would have been featured, not ignored.  

This leads into the point we discussed in Part 1, that M2C "peer review" is merely "peer approval," despite the article's framing. "Sorenson, Palmer, and other proponents of a Mesoamerican geography have generally made their case in peer-reviewed journals and academic presentations, where they have directed their research toward university-trained specialists in history, archaeology, and anthropology."

Then, as academicians often do, we see a turn toward the "business" aspects, as if economics drives the discussion. Most participants in the discussions would agree they are motivated by the pursuit of truth and the desire to corroborate and support the divine authenticity of the Book of Mormon. Nevertheless, economics is a factor.

"The result has been the development of two worldviews, essentially, whose ties to one of Mormonism’s foundational texts on the one hand and tourism industries on the other have moved the study of Book of Mormon geography into realms of faith, orthodoxy, and finances that transcend the mere differences of opinion or interpretation that characterize more abstract academic questions. One need only attend a conference put on by either camp or search the internet for “Tours of Book of Mormon Lands” to see how serious a business, both emotionally and financially, the whole thing has become for some."

A knowledgeable peer reviewer would have pointed out that the equivalence portrayed in that paragraph is hardly "scrupulous about evidence." 

Unreported here is that only one side has raised millions of dollars to promote its ideology. Book of Mormon Central (BMC) is the premiere fundraiser, persuading wealthy Latter-day Saints to fund its operations as it seeks to enshrine M2C as the de facto official position of the Church. 

BMC's employees patrol the Internet to aggressively attack criticism of its M2C (and SITH) ideologies, at one point insisting that any criticism of BMC's scholars constitutes criticism of Church leaders because Church leaders have hired these scholars to guide Church members. They regularly label those who don't accept M2C as "apostates." 

BMC has an M2C-driven scripture app (ScripturePlus) that directly competes with the Church's own Gospel Library app, using the donations from Latter-day Saints to lure unsuspecting Church members away from the Gospel Library by glamorizing M2C with attractive videos and links to its "Kno-Whys" that promote M2C. 

BMC's donors finance the M2C-promoting "Come Follow Me" series that features BYU professors and, in many wards around the Church, has become the curriculum for the Come Follow Me classes. People are watching these indoctrination videos instead of engaging in interpersonal, local involvement and discussion in families and wards. 

At fundraiser events, BMC staff wear name tags designed to look like Church missionary badges (albeit embossed with the BMC Mayan-themed logo) while touting BMC's status as an approved partner of the Church. 

The Interpreter Foundation and FairLatterdaysaints are also proficient fundraisers, working in tandem with BMC.

The article's conclusion reiterates and underscores the irrelevance of the teachings of the prophets, turning the conversation about Book of Mormon geography into a question of whether a "textual component" will be found. According to the text itself, from beginning to end, the Lamanites sought to destroy the Nephite records. Mormon moved them from Shim to Cumorah specifically to prevent the Lamanites from seizing and destroying them. It's unclear why we should expect something to have escaped and survived for 1700+ years, and why any such evidence could be "unambiguous," but if that's the standard, the more time that passes the less likely such an improbable discovery will be.

Even Biblical archaeology is debated, after all.

"Popular or not, the very fact that new ideas on the question are still being propounded underscores the basic problem that plagues all proposed Book of Mormon geographies, including those that can count hundreds or even thousands of supporters. For all the evidence that each may be able to marshal in support of its position, no one has yet found any remains outside the Middle East that can be definitively linked to the Book of Mormon. Such remains could take any number of forms, although at this point it seems that they would have to include some sort of textual component—some inscription or record found in situ, dating to Book of Mormon times, that makes an unambiguous allusion to a person, event, or location (and preferably all three) discussed in the book itself. Until such a “Welcome to Zarahemla” signpost is found, the geography of the Book of Mormon seems destined to remain more a topic for discussion and debate than a real-world location on the ground."

The alternative approach would be to accept the teachings of the prophets about Cumorah, interpret the text accordingly, and then seek extrinsic corroborating evidence. 

Readers of this blog know that's how I've approached these issues. That's what led me to reject M2C after decades of trusting the LDS scholars.    

As a result, I've found abundant corroborating evidence in the scientific (non-LDS) journals, in Church and general history, and at the sites.  

I'm fine with people believing whatever they want. Not everyone will reach the same conclusions even when looking at the same evidence. But it is inexcusable to hide, censor, or even obscure relevant evidence. 

The healthiest approach would be laying out all the facts and then offering multiple working hypotheses.

As I wrote at the outset, this article is a great first step in that direction. We can all hope that BYU Studies continues on this path with more welcoming of diverse opinions.


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