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, July 14, 2015

Orwellian FairMormon Answers

[NB: I am not saying that FairMormon, Matt Roper, John E. Clark, could make better arguments. I think they are making the best arguments possible to defend the Mesoamerican model; certainly I couldn't make any better arguments. The problem, in my view, is that they are defending and promoting a fundamentally incorrect idea--and that's why their arguments consistently fail.]

I mentioned this in my previous post but a lot of people may not read far enough into it to get this key point. I think people should be aware, when they go to fairmormon.org, that they are reading a particular point of view that has evolved (or devolved) to the point of outright Orwellian misinformation. Much of the material on that site is excellent, which makes the sections on Book of Mormon geography all the more insidious.

Orwell, of course, wrote the book 1984. (I mention this because I find that my younger college students have never heard of the book, which apparently is no longer taught in high school, which itself is an Orwellian development.) In the book 1984, Orwell describes a society dominated by Big Brother, in which NEWSPEAK is employed to control thinking, and in which history is rewritten. The protagonist, Winston Smith, works at the Ministry of Truth as an editor of history; i.e., he rewrites history so it complies with whatever the State wants. Thought Police permeate society to detect thoughtcriminals.

With that background, consider the fairmormon entry on the Hill Cumorah. It is found here. It is a response to this question:

"If Mormon chapter 6 is a literal description of the destruction of the Nephites by the Lamanites — approximately 100 thousand were killed by swords and axes — why hasn't any evidence of the battle been found at the site that was traditionally identified as the hill Cumorah in western New York state?"

Mesoamericanists (proponents of a Mesoamerican setting for the Book of Mormon) and Anti-Mormons both claim the New York setting is impossible because there is no evidence that hundreds of thousands--or millions--of men were killed there in a great battle. One of many examples is John Clark's piece, published by the Maxwell Institute here.

And yet, there is no question that the early members of the Church believed the New York Hill Cumorah was the same as the Book of Mormon Hill Cumorah; i.e., the site of the final battles.

Mesoamericanists and Anti-Mormons share these three premises:

1. Jaredites and Nephites died in the hundreds of thousands or millions at Cumorah;
2. There is no archaeological evidence of such massive battles in New York;
3. The early LDS believed the New York Cumorah was the Book of Mormon Cumorah.

[Note: one of these premises is wrong, as I'll show later.]

The Anti-Mormons accept these three premises on their face and conclude the Book of Mormon is false.

The Mesoamericans accept these three premises on their face and conclude the early LDS were wrong. Instead, the Mesoamericanists claim the Book of Mormon Cumorah is in Mesoamerica; i.e., they promote a "two Cumorah" theory.

This is where the Orwellian stuff comes in. Obviously, for Mesoamericanists, the early LDS beliefs are troubling. Oliver Cowdery wrote a letter containing a detailed description of New York Cumorah and the final battles taking place there. His letter was published three times during Joseph Smith's lifetime, and Cowdery claimed Joseph helped him write the letter. Worse, D&C 128 expressly identifies the hill near Palmyra as Cumorah. Joseph Fielding Smith expressly rejected the two Cumorah theory. So how do the Mesoamericans justify their two Cumorah theory?

They write articles such as the one in fairlds that cast doubt on the early LDS view.

I'm only going to discuss one example. The Joseph Fielding Smith piece, available here, is six pages long. It quotes from part of Cowdery's letter, along with several other early LDS references, to reject the two-Cumorah theory.

Instead of giving a link to Pres. Smith's analysis, FairMormon merely cites a critical "review" that itself casts doubt on Pres. Smith's conclusion. Readers have to search for themselves to find what Smith actually wrote. [that's why you're better off reading this blog than FairMormon/FARMS/Maxwell Institute/Interpreter/BYU Studies, etc.]

From FairMormon, with my comments in red.

Joseph Fielding Smith
One review of this topic [the reference is to Matt Roper's article, which I've peer reviewed on this blog] notes:

In 1938 Elder Joseph Fielding Smith wrote an article published in the Deseret News arguing against what he then termed the "modernist" theory that the final battlefield of the Nephites and Jaredites may have been in Central America rather than in New York. [The reference I cited contains a heading titled "Not Two Cumorahs." The provenance of the letter that follows is not known, so far as I can tell, but it is not included in the Doctrines of Salvation text. Roper is a proponent of the two-Cumorah theory, so it makes sense that he would imply Pres. Smith was only referring to a quaint "modernist" theory. The reality, of course, is that the two-Cumorah theory is central to the Mesoamerican theory.] In 1956 this article was included in a selection of Elder Smith's writings compiled by his son-in-law Bruce R. McConkie. Although Elder Smith would later become president of the church in 1970, his article arguing for a New York location as the scene of the final battlefield was written many years before he assumed that position, and he apparently never revisited the question as president of the church. [This is a common argument among Mesoamericanists, argued only in one direction. First, though, I should point out that Doctrines of Salvation had several reprintings, including in 1974. It was in print while Smith was President of the Church from 1970-1972. Roper's inference that Pres. Smith had written something long before he became President and forgot about it, or changed his mind, by the time he became President is unfounded. Second, Roper likes to argue that if a Prophet only says something once, he (the Prophet) didn't mean it. He makes the same argument about the reference to Cumorah in Section 128. But he never raises that point about the isolated, outlier Zarahemla article in the Times and Seasons that wasn't even signed! That one, he insists, reflects what Joseph Smith truly believed, even though no Prophet "ever revisited the question as president of the church."] There is evidence that Elder Smith may have softened his opposition on the Cumorah question. In a letter written to Fletcher B. Hammond, who argued emphatically for a Central American location and had sent Elder Smith a copy of his findings, the apostle explained, "I am sure this will be very interesting although I have never paid any attention whatever to Book of Mormon geography because it appears to me that it is inevitable that there must be a great deal of guesswork."  Apparently, he did not consider his 1938 argument as settled and definitive or as a measure of doctrinal orthodoxy. [This is an outlandish claim on Roper's part. To identify the location of Cumorah, as Pres. Smith unequivocally did, is not to have an opinion on where the rest of the events took place. In fact, Roper's inference makes Pres. Smith a liar. When Smith wrote "I have never paid any attention whatever to Book of Mormon geography," he could not have meant he had never written the long piece about Cumorah. Perhaps he viewed that as a matter of historical fact, not geography; i.e., there is no question that NY Cumorah is where the final battles took place--simply as a matter of history--but that has no direct bearing on Book of Mormon geography as a whole. Certainly nothing in the letter to Hammond mentions Cumorah, despite Roper's attempt to conflate the issues. The only reasonable inference to draw from Pres. Smith's letter is that he was not persuaded by Hammond's arguments for a Central American location. It was merely "interesting."]
Sidney B. Sperry, after whom an annual Brigham Young University symposium is named, [Roper's typical appeal to authority] was also one who initially supported the New York Cumorah view (that is, an area of New York as the final battlefield of the Nephites and Jaredites). During the 1960s, as he began to explore the issue, he came to a different conclusion... Reversing his earlier position, he wrote: "It is now my very carefully studied and considered opinion that the Hill Cumorah to which Mormon and his people gathered was somewhere in Middle America. The Book of Mormon evidence to this effect is irresistible and conclusive to one who will approach it with an open mind. [I.e., Pres. Smith does not have an open mind.] This evidence has been reviewed by a few generations of bright students in graduate classes who have been given the challenge to break it down if they can. To date none has ever been able to do so."  Sperry, who was very familiar with what Joseph Fielding Smith had previously written, told him that he did not feel comfortable publishing something that contradicted what the apostle had written, but that he and other sincere students of the Book of Mormon had come to that conclusion only after serious and careful study of the text. Sperry said that Elder Smith then lovingly put his arm around his shoulder and said, "Sidney, you are as entitled to your opinion as I am to mine. You go ahead and publish it." [3] [Pres. Smith's answer was perfect. He showed that anyone can believe whatever he/she wants, as stated in the Articles of Faith. But Pres. Smith is not agreeing with Sperry here; in fact, contrary to what Roper wants his readers to believe, Smith reaffirmed his previous view on Cumorah! So now a reader has a choice: accept the opinions of Oliver Cowdery (who claims Joseph assisted him) and President Joseph Fielding Smith that there is one Cumorah and it is in New York, or accept the opinions of Sidney B. Sperry and Matt Roper that there are two Cumorahs, one in New York and the other somewhere in Mesoamerica. The two opinions are incompatible; it is one or the other (or something entirely different). The key point here, though, is that FairMormon does not present Pres. Smith's views and the evidence he relied on; the reader of this piece comes away with the impression that Pres. Smith was only criticizing a "modernist" theory, that he changed his mind, and that, as Roper puts it next, he wasn't all that confident in his views anyway.]

It seems clear, then, that Elder (later President) Smith did not regard his views as the product of revelation, nor did he regard it as illegitimate to have a different view of the matter. [This is axiomatic, but it does not mean a "different view" that rejects all the evidence cited by Pres. Smith is equally legitimate with his by any objective and faithful standard. One need not agree with Pres. Smith's inferences, but how can one justify ignoring--or suppressing--the evidence he relied on? Roper here makes a relativistic argument; i.e., anyone's views are as legitimate as anyone else's views. This line of reasons makes the views of the Maze Ministry or of Sandra Tanner equally legitimate with Pres. Smith's. As I've shown, the anti-Mormons and the Mesoamericans share the same premises, so I suppose Roper's relativism makes sense, but those who accept this relativistic approach need to understand what they are doing.]

So Ultimately, each individual can adopt whatever view he/she wants. One can accept or reject whatever evidence one wants. But I want readers to know that the Mesoamerican view, as expressed here, relies on misleading readers and hiding key information from them.

Now, a comment on the premises shared by the Mesoamericanists and the anti-Mormons. There is no basis for concluding that hundreds of thousands, or millions, of men were killed at Cumorah. I address this more completely in Mormon's History, but as I wrote in the last blog entry:

Nowhere does the text say 2 million, or even 230,000, people died at the site For both the Jaredites and Nephites, Cumorah was the scene of the last battle, not every battle. The premise of the anti-Mormons and the Mesoamericanists is akin to claiming that all 620,000 soldiers who died in the Civil War died at Palmito Ranch, Texas--the final battle of the Civil War.

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