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.

Tuesday, June 2, 2015

The Worlds of Joseph Smith

In 2005, BYU Studies published The Worlds of Joseph Smith: A Bicentennial Conference at the Library of Congress. [All page references here are to BYU Studies Vol. 44, No. 4 2005.] There are some excellent articles, of course, but there is also one by John E. Clark titled "Archaeological Trends and the Book of Mormon" that I want to review here.

Before doing so, I point out the volume contains a "Gallery Display" of items that were "mounted in the foyer and display cases of the Coolidge Auditorium by the Library's Exhibition Office." p. 119. Here are some of the items on display reproduced in BYU Studies:

p. 130: Page of the Original (Dictation) Manuscript of the Book of Mormon, 1829.
p. 131: Diary of William Wines Phelps, Containing a Transcription of Moses 1, 1835.
p. 132: A Page from John Lloyd Stephens, Incidents of Travel in Central America, Chiapas, and Yucatan (New York, 1841).
p. 133: "Zarahemla," Times and Seasons (October 1, 1842, p. 927).

So the next time some Mesoamerican proponent tells me the Times and Seasons article isn't really all that important, I'll ask why it was put on display in the Smithsonian along with the original manuscript of the Book of Mormon.

Far better would have been to display something Joseph actually wrote, such as the Wentworth letter, or Joseph's letter to Emma during the Zion's Camp march, than to display an article Joseph didn't write.


Clark's article starts on page 83. I'm not going to reproduce the whole thing here, just a few sections that I'll comment on in red, as usual.

p. 85: Most Mormons fall into a more subtle error that also inflates Joseph's talents; they confuse translation with authorship. They presume that Joseph Smith knew the contents of the book as if he were its real author, and they accord him perfect knowledge of the text. This presumption removes from discussion the most compelling evidence of the book's authenticity--Joseph's unfamiliarity with its contents. To put the matter clearly: Joseph Smith did not fully understand the Book of Mormon. I propose that he transmitted to readers an ancient book that he neither imagined nor wrote. This paragraph is full of logical fallacies and fact avoidance. Start with the idea that Mormons are falling into "a more subtle error" when they presume Joseph knew the contents of the book and had a perfect knowledge of the text. In fact, Joseph re-read the text many times, correcting it in some cases. In 1842, he re-read it again (I think because Winchester was challenging it), yet he made no corrections. During the translation, Joseph spelled out words for Oliver Cowdery. But prior to even beginning the translation, Moroni and others tutored him. Joseph wrote: "I was also informed concerning the aboriginal inhabitants of this country, and shown who they were, and from whence they came; a brief sketch of their origin, progress, civilization, laws, governments, of their righteousness and iniquity, and the blessings of God being finally withdrawn from them as a people was made known unto me." Joseph knew far more about the cultural context than the book itself reveals. There is zero evidence that Joseph was unfamiliar with its contents; what he was unfamiliar with is the Mesoamerican setting. This is why Clark and other Mesoamerican proponents insist Joseph didn't understand the book. It is a logical fallacy to assert that because Joseph transmitted an ancient book he neither imagined nor wrote, he therefore could not understand the book. The assertion that one can only understand a book one writes is not just nonsensical; it defies the very purpose for writing.  Clark wrote an article to convey his understanding of the topic. His argument would mean that because his readers did not write his article, they cannot understand it. This argument is akin to that made by the old Catholic priests who didn't want people having access to the Bible because they could never understand it.   

One thing all readers share with Joseph is a partial understanding of the book's complexities. Indeed, many things about the book were simply unknowable in 1830. Over the last sixty years, Hugh Nibley, John Sorenson, and other scholars have shown the Book of Mormon to be "truer" than Joseph Smith or any of his contemporaries could know. Consequently, what Joseph Smith knew and understood about the book ought to be research questions rather than presumptions. Thanks in large part to his critics, it is becoming clear that Joseph Smith did not fully understand the geography, scope, historical scale, literary form, or cultural content of the book. Far from becoming clear, Clark's assertion is contrary to the evidence. One must reject what Joseph himself said about the tutoring he received to accept Clark's claim here. That said, it does make sense that Joseph didn't understand the literary form (i.e., chiasmus and Hebrew parallelisms). That is one area Joseph never identified as a topic of his training by Moroni. [I've written elsewhere that I think Joseph could not figure out Mormon's geography descriptions; i.e., he knew where the Book of Mormon events took place because he recognized them during his travels (having been shown them by Moroni), but he didn't see how the text described them because he was not familiar with Hebrew literary forms.]  

For example, early Mormons believed Book of Mormon lands stretched throughout all of North and South America, a presumption clearly at odd with the book itself (fig 1a). This is one of the most important points of all. Joseph adapted the Wentworth letter from Orson Pratt's prior work. Pratt had detailed the hemispheric model Clark refers to here. Pratt went on for five pages explaining his theory about Lamanites in South America, Nephites in North America, the last battle starting in Panama, etc. Joseph deleted all of that and wrote, simply, "The remnant are the Indians that now inhabit this country." IOW, Joseph expressly repudiated the prevailing hemispheric model. He established a "limited geography" before anyone else did--but he didn't place it in Mesoamerica! [Note. Fig 1 compares two maps: "Traditional 19th century Book of Mormon geography" with "Joseph Smith's 1842 Speculation of Book of Mormon Geography." The first map shows all of North and South America, shaded. The second shows Sorenson's Mesoamerican setting shaded.] The book speaks specifically only of a limited land about the size of Pennsylvania. Of course, the text "specifically speaks" of no such thing. Clark here is making inferences based on his guestimates of how far people could travel in Central American jungles and swamps.  In 1842, after reading about ancient cities in Central America, the only evidence that Joseph ever read these books is a polite, generalized thank-you note to Dr. Bernhisel written by an unknown person. Joseph speculated that Book of Mormon lands were located there (fig. 1b). Even if Joseph dictated the Bernhisel letter (instead of directing that someone send a thank-you note), he wrote the Wentworth letter afterward, and the Wentworth letter expressly rejects the hemispheric model (including Mesoamerica). As I've shown elsewhere, Joseph did not speculate about Mesoamerica. The "Zarahemla" article in the Times and Seasons was not written by him. In fact, it would be a bigger problem if Joseph had written it; the article is nonsensical (what was "found" between September 15 and October 1, 1842?) and counterfactual (the Stephens ruins don't date to Book of Mormon times). The Mesoamerican proponents want Church members to believe not only that Joseph Smith was speculating, but that he was factually wrong. Is there a single Mesoamerican proponent who believes Zarahemla is in Quirigua? How does a River Sidon flow past Quirigua? I've examined all of this elsewhere, but anyone reading these ridiculous articles can see the problems. I derive two lessons from his speculation: First, Joseph did not know exactly where Book of Mormon lands were; second, he considered their location an important question addressable through scholarship. Here is the crux of the Mesoamerican argument. Aside from deriving lessons from an article Joseph didn't write or even approve of, Clark here rejects Joseph's claim about revelation regarding these matters in favor of "scholarship," presumably scholarship of the type Clark engages in.  The book makes hundreds of claims about ancient peoples in the Americas. It has always been clear to people on both sides of the controversy that antiquities could be, and should be, used to corroborate or destroy the book's pedigree. This is a fair point. The problem is, Clark rejects the antiquities and locations Joseph actually invoked in favor for his own theory of Mesoamerica. Next we'll look at examples of how he does this. 

p. 89: These highly credible Book of Mormon lands are tucked away where Joseph Smith never saw them and would never have found them. Contrary to Reverend Lamb and subsequent critics, the Book of Mormon does have a place in the Americas--just not a place in Joseph Smith's experience. Book of Mormon geography fits a corner of the Americas Joseph did not know. Therefore, the book's geography could not have derived from his personal experience. It follows that he dictated a book with complexities beyond his own comprehension. This is a fascinating argument. Clark makes a valid point, but not the one he thinks he's making. The only places Joseph had seen before he translated the Book of Mormon were Vermont, upstate New York, and upper Pennsylvania. Within that area, he did specifically identify the Hill Cumorah, but that's the only Book of Mormon reference to the area he was familiar with. It was not until years later that he moved to Ohio and then crossed the Midwest to Missouri; it was not until Zion's Camp that he recognized the "plains of the Nephites," for example. So Clark is right that "Book of Mormon geography fits a corner of the Americas Joseph did not know" when he translated the book. But when he saw it later, in Ohio and Indiana and Illinois and Missouri, he recognized it and identified it as such. Clark's argument here is akin to what I think motivated Winchester, John Page, and William Smith; i.e., they wanted to distance the Book of Mormon from the anti-Mormon claims that Joseph copied it from Ethan Smith and/or Solomon Spaulding. [Note: I address this point in detail in Moroni's History.] 

p. 90. As the consummate recordkeepers in Mesoamerica, the Maya erected numerous stone monuments in their cities that recorded the time elapsed since 3114 BC, their year zero. Maya calculations were based on counting by twenties instead of our practice of counting by tens. The major cycle of Maya time was a four-hundred-year period called a baktun. The Book of Mormon records several references to a significant four-hundred-year prophecy, [footnote 19 here says "See Alma 45:10, Helaman 13:9, 2 Nephi 26:9-10, Mormon 8:6, and Moroni 10:1]  consistent with this idosyncratic Mesoamerican calendar practice. This claim that a four-hundred year prophecy is evidence (if not proof) of a Mesoamerican connection is not only unfounded, but it destroys the spiritual significance of the 400 year period. Four hundred years is an important date in Genesis 15:13-14: "And he said unto Abram, Know of a surety that they seed shall be a stranger in a land that is not theirs, and shall serve them; and they shall afflict them four hundred years; and also that nation, whom they shall serve, will I judge: and afterward shall they come out with great substance." So the Children of Israel were in bondage for 400 years and delivered by Moses as the type for Christ. E.g., see 1 Nephi 17:24. Then the Book of Mormon people were delivered by Christ but after 400 years fell into bondage of sin. There are lots of interesting parallels here, but to justify the Mesoamerican geography, the parallels and lessons from Genesis and the Egyptian bondage are all replaced by a purported reference to Mayan calendars. 

I don't have time right now to go through the rest of Clark's article, but at least I've shown three things:

1) how central the Times and Seasons articles are to the Mesoamerican theory;
2) the need for Mesoamerican advocates to undermine Joseph's knowledge of the Book of Mormon and his explicit rejection of the hemispheric and Mesoamerican models; and 
3) the irrationality of replacing Old Testament references with allusions to Mayan culture. On this last point, the Mesoamerican advocates also de-emphasize the Nephite observance of the Law of Moses, to the point that they claim the Nephites sacrificed rodents instead of lambs!  

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