2023 saw important developments regarding narratives in Church history, including books, articles, conferences, and innumerable podcasts, conversations, and other exchanges of ideas.
Bushman is the single best scholar of Church history today (IMO). He is open-minded, careful, thoughtful, and knowledgeable. If more LDS scholars adopted his approach to history, we'd all be much better off.
This book is the best overview of the cultural history about the gold plates.
In the book, Bushman referred to several of my books. He described the two separate sets of plates scenario, whereby Joseph translated the abridged plates from Moroni's stone box in Harmony and Nephi's original plates from the repository in Fayette (Whatever Happened to the Golden Plates?). He discussed the connections with Jonathan Edwards (Infinite Goodness: Joseph Smith, Jonathan Edwards, and the Book of Mormon). He explained the view that perhaps Joseph and Oliver were correct all along when they said Joseph translated with the Urim and Thummim that came with the plates (A Man that Can Translate and By Means of the Urim and Thummim.)
For many readers, this was the first time they have heard of these concepts. Bushman's book is not only a significant contribution in its own right, but by bringing these alternative, faithful narratives to the attention of the Latter-day Saints and others interested in the Restoration, Bushman has breathed new life into an appreciation for Joseph and Oliver that contradicts the prevailing narratives of SITH and M2C.
Another important book published this year is By Means of the Urim and Thummim: Restoring Translation to the Restoration, which I wrote with my co-author, James Lucas.
In this book we built on the material in A Man that Can Translate to assess the various accounts of the translation and to propose a new model of the translation that incorporates the known historical evidence.
For example, we discussed how Joseph Smith III, who interviewed his mother Emma for her "Last Testimony," did not even mention that "Last Testimony" in his subsequent analysis of the translation process. JSIII concluded that, contrary to Davie Whitmer's numerous statements promoting SITH, Joseph used the Urim and Thummim as the sole, or at least primary, instrument for the translation.
It is significant that JSIII, who conducted the interview that produced the "Last Testimony" and published it after his mother's death, apparently gave it little credibility regarding the method of translation. This is a sharp contrast to the way modern LDS scholars and critics, including the Saints book, the Gospel Topics Essays, and John Dehlin's Mormon Stories, accept the "Last Testimony" as a credible, reliable refutation of what Joseph and Oliver always said.
Although the book covers the topics of SITH and M2C, it extends far beyond those.
The pursuit of clarity, charity and understanding is designed to promote "no more contention" among scholars, critics, and others who express opinions and interpretations about the Restoration. The pursuit of clarity asks everyone to distinguish Facts from Assumptions, Inferences, and Theories so ancestry of the disparate Hypotheses can be readily understood. (This is the FAITH model.) The pursuit of charity assumes everyone acts in good faith and eliminates ad hominem arguments. The pursuit of understanding transforms the compulsion for conformity, conversion and persuasion, which is the heart of contention, into a confident, generous and sincere desire to understand how others think and live.
For example, it does not seem rational to accept what Joseph and Oliver clearly taught through their published statements about every topic except for the origin and setting of the Book of Mormon. When scholars and critics reject what they taught on the ground that those teachings contradict the private theories of the scholars and critics (such as SITH and M2C), they adopt an irrational approach to the Restoration.
Among significant blog posts, articles, presentations, podcasts, and conversations are these.
The Jonathan Hadley narrative. In August 1829, Hadley published the first known article that mentions the translation. Some scholars have claimed that Hadley heard the SITH account directly from Joseph Smith, but Hadley himself never said he met Joseph and instead he dealt only with Martin Harris. Hadley explained he was strongly opposed to the Book of Mormon, which contradicts the fictional narrative promoted in books by certain LDS scholars.
Clarity about M2C. In 2023 a couple of prominent M2C scholars gave interviews about the origins of M2C that reaffirmed what we've been saying on this blog for years. Basically, M2C originated with a focus on Central America in anonymous articles published in the 1842 Times and Seasons. Then, relying on the assumption (not fact) that Book of Mormon events took place in Central America, an RLDS scholars named L.E. Hills published a map showing Cumorah in southern Mexico. Eventually LDS scholars adopted this approach and developed a narrative about Mesoamerica that confirms their bias. It's a fascinating history, discussed here:
Joseph as a translator. The origin of the Book of Mormon continues to generate conversation and debate. At one extreme, people characterize Joseph as an ignorant, illiterate farm boy plucked out of oblivion and transformed into a prophet by miraculous intervention. At the other extreme, people characterize Joseph as a manipulative, clever, treasure-seeking scoundrel who composed the Book of Mormon and created a church to seek power and wealth. Both sides cite historical evidence to support their positions. In my view, an alternative narrative is both more plausible and better attested. This is the view that God prepared Joseph Smith from a young age to become a translator and prophet. The life-threatening leg surgery at a young age led Joseph to become a religious seeker and his disability enabled him to acquire an "intimate acquaintance" with those of different denominations. Among these was Jonathan Edwards, whose language and concepts permeate the Book of Mormon, second only to the influence of the King James Bible. In 2023 I expanded on the Infinite Goodness book by publishing on Kindle the expanded Nonbiblical Intertextual Database, a living document that continues to grow.
A list of podcasts is available here:
In addition to the various sites linked to above, we've added numerous posts to these sites:
In December, the Church announced the Church announced a new resource called "Topics and Questions" which replaces "Gospel Topics."
This is a significant improvement. Hopefully the concept and methodology will eventually permeate all Gospel instruction and study throughout the Church.
To live up to the new approach, the Gospel Topics Essays will need to be revised substantially. We hope to see this take place during 2024.
There were many more positive developments in 2023 that we could discuss here, including the expansion of temple and missionary work, the growth of Pathway and other educational and self-reliance programs, increasing interaction with other faith communities, and even less contention among Latter-day Saints.
Everything is awesome.
We'll discuss critics tomorrow.