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, June 7, 2024

Who cares what "experts" think?

We seek clarity, charity and understanding in the pursuit of "no more contention." 

But clarity seems to be the biggest hurdle.

From time to time I still hear people say things such as "Most historians agree that Joseph Smith used a seer stone in the hat (SITH) to produce the Book of Mormon, so we have to accept what they teach." 

And it doesn't matter whether these historians are believing or unbelieving. Whether they work for Mormon Stories, CES Letter, Book of Mormon Central or the Church History Department, they agree on SITH. They all agree that, at best, Joseph and Oliver misled everyone about the translation.

[By the way, these groups also all agree that Joseph and Oliver misled everyone about the New York Cumorah, but that's a topic for another day.]

My question is, who cares what "experts" think? 

People who defer to experts because the experts "know more" are exactly the lazy learners that President Nelson warned us about. 

Experts have no special or secret knowledge (see below).

But they do have the ability to pretend they have such knowledge by keeping non-experts ignorant.


One of the core principles of the AHA Historians' Standards of Professional Conduct is this:

Historians should not misrepresent their sources. They should report their findings as accurately as possible and not omit evidence that runs counter to their own interpretation. 


This call for clarity prevents historians from "hiding the ball" to promote their personal beliefs and agendas by keeping people ignorant of all the relevant evidence.

This is a serious problem in the Church today because some of our historians do not follow this basic standard of professional conduct. 

Consider the Gospel Topics Essay on Book of Mormon Translation.

Not only does the essay not accept what Joseph and Oliver taught as the starting point for the discussion, the historians who wrote it took care to "omit evidence that runs counter to their own interpretation." It's a textbook violation of the basic standards of professional conduct for historians.

Not once does the essay quote what Joseph and Oliver had to say on the topic.

Like many Latter-day Saints, I consider Joseph Smith and Oliver Cowdery to be the best sources for knowing how the Book of Mormon was translated. I start with them and then look at other sources. 

But I acknowledge that reasonable people can disagree. 

We can all see that the experts at Mormon Stories, CES Letter, Book of Mormon Central, and the Church History Department, to name a few, disagree with my approach. Because they all promote SITH, they directly reject what Joseph and Oliver said.

But just because they reject what Joseph and Oliver said does not give them a legitimate justification for omitting the statements by Joseph and Oliver. 

They owe it to their readers to at least give them all the relevant evidence.


Let's look at one example. In the 1838 Elders' Journal, Joseph Smith published his direct answer to the question he was repeatedly asked. (He wrote it was one of the "questions which are daily and hourly asked by all classes of people." See Elders’ Journal I.2:28 ¶5)

Here is the question with his answer.

Question 4th. How, and where did you obtain the Book of Mormon?

Answer. Moroni, the person who deposited the plates, from whence the Book of Mormon  was translated, in a hill in Manchester, Ontario County, New York, being dead, and raised again therefrom, appeared unto me and told me where they were and gave me directions how to obtain them. I obtained them and the Urim and Thummim with them, by the means of which I translated the plates and thus came the Book of Mormon.

(Elders’ Journal I.3:42 ¶20–43 ¶1)


We can reasonably infer that because Joseph went to the trouble of publishing a specific answer to this common question, he considered the matter closed (although he did reiterated it in 1842 in the Wentworth letter).

What Joseph couldn't have imagined was that future historians, including faithful Latter-day Saints, would not only reject his answer, but they would deprive Latter-day Saints of even knowing he answered this question.

The authors of the Gospel Topics Essay did not omit Joseph's statement out of ignorance. They were obviously aware of Joseph's explanation in the Elders' Journal because in their note 19, they cited another question and answer from the same page.

Note 19. ... In 1838, he published responses to questions frequently asked of him. “Was not Jo Smith a money digger,” one question read. “Yes,” Joseph answered, “but it was never a very profitable job to him, as he only got fourteen dollars a month for it.” (Selections from Elders’ Journal, July 1838, 43, available at josephsmithpapers.org.) 

[Notice that if you click on that link, it goes directly back to the essay itself. It's a circular link that does not go to the Joseph Smith Papers generally and not to the Elders' Journal! Whether that is merely sloppy or intentional, you can decide. But does anyone think the links in the Gospel Topics Essays are not double-checked? It strains credulity to think this link problem, which has persisted in the essay for many years, is a simple error instead of an effort to appear academic while thwarting readers who want to read the original source.]

But the problem is not merely one of omission. 

The entire Gospel Topics Essay is written to explicitly refute what Joseph Smith made perfectly clear in this published answer to a specific question.

This becomes apparent when we understand the historical context.

Even before the Book of Mormon was published, newspaper articles claimed Joseph produced the text with SITH. In the Preface to the 1830 edition, Joseph sought to refute that claim by explaining that he translated the text and he took it from the Book of Lehi, which was an account abridged from the plates of Lehi. 

Nevertheless, his critics continued to promote SITH. Mormonism Unvailed explained there were two narratives circulating: (i) that Joseph used a "peep stone" or (ii) that he used the Urim and Thummim. But that book claimed that in either case, he did not use the plates

[Ignoring that distinction and all testimony from Joseph, Oliver and his faithful contemporaries and successors, some modern LDS historians insist Joseph used a stone he found in a well, called it the Urim and Thummim, and put it into a hat to read the text to his scribe. That's the gist of the Gospel Topics Essay.]

Fully aware of the accusations in Mormonism Unvailed, Joseph explained that he translated the plates and that he used the Urim and Thummim that he obtained with the plates

But because Joseph's answer contradicts the popular SITH narrative, our historians simply omitted it from the Gospel Topics Essay. 

Perhaps not coincidentally, the authors of the infamous book From Darkness Unto Light also omitted the Urim and Thummim quotation from the Elders' Journal. 

But they included the same "money digger" quotation from the Elders' Journal used in Note 19.

Just as the Gospel Topics Essay, they knew about Joseph's specific, published statement about the translation but chose not to inform their readers about it.


Professional historians are awesome for their expertise when they discover, accumulate, assemble, and present historical information. The Joseph Smith Papers project is exemplary, much like similar projects for Thomas Jefferson, George Washington, Abraham Lincoln, Jonathan Edwards, Winston Churchill, and many others. 

This is the work of historians that deserves praise and gratitude. They produce historical documents that provide a factual basis for understanding and edification. To the extent that they have comprehensive knowledge of historical facts, they can help put historical figures and events in context.

But when it comes to their opinions, they deserve no deference.

Especially when they manipulate the historical record or violate professional ethics.

If they are doing their jobs professionally, they have no special or secret knowledge. Professional ethics requires them to set out all the facts they have, whether the facts confirm or contradicts their own beliefs.

They can explain their opinions, and we're happy to consider those opinions. But we can all see the identical evidence for ourselves and reach our own conclusions.

This is the clarity we all seek. If our historians change course and comply with the professional standards, then we can move closer to "no more contention."


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