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, April 26, 2016

Objectives and Methodology

Lately I've had some questions about my objectives in writing this blog and the methodology I'm using. My objectives are spelled out in the masthead, but a lot of people pass right by that.

What I've tried to do here is offer my peer reviews of articles, books, and presentations that promote the Mesoamerican theory. I wish this entire discussion could be done on an anonymous basis, but of course in reality, individuals write and publish, and they put their names on their work. As I constantly reiterate, I have great respect and admiration for the scholars who have published their research. I don't question their motives or abilities, but I do assess the facts cited and the arguments made.

Here is my view: the Mesoamerican model of Book of Mormon geography is based on a historical mistake (the assumption that Joseph Smith wrote or approved of the anonymous articles in the 1842 Times and Seasons). Ever since, faithful and talented LDS scholars have sought to vindicate what they thought Joseph Smith taught and believed.

It was a reasonable premise, actually, and one that I accepted for decades. But then the Joseph Smith Papers and digital research technology made it possible to uncover previously unknown facts.

There was a time when many faithful LDS were leery of detailed Church history. Books such as Rough Stone Rolling have helped put historical events and personalities in context, and certainly the Joseph Smith Papers have given more people access to more documents than ever before. As a result, we're correcting a lot of historical mistakes. See this article in the October Ensign as a great example. The subtitle: "The historical record clarifies how Joseph Smith fulfilled his role as a seer and translated the Book of Mormon."

This historical record is also clarifying what happened in 1842 Nauvoo with the Times and Seasons (the equivalent of today's Ensign). However, the idea that Joseph Smith wrote anonymous articles for the Times and Seasons persists, largely because the Mesoamerican theory depends on those articles.

There are obvious reasons why the idea is ill-conceived.

1. Joseph was never much of an author. He had little formal education; he never prepared written speeches (with one exception); he used scribes to write down what he said and did; and most of the material written in his own handwriting that we do have was written in the early 1830s. Even as late as January 1841, the Lord told him to get help writing (D&C 124:12).

2. Joseph was pressed for time. He had to deal with governing Nauvoo and the Nauvoo legion, organizing and educating the Relief Society, responding to legal action including extradition to Missouri and bankruptcy, handling real estate developments, building the temple and associated doctrines, including baptisms for the dead and the endowment, managing the integration of new coverts from Europe and the Eastern States, overseeing the missionary work, arbitrating conflicts among Church members, responding to hostile media, and more. And yet, the anonymous articles reflect some serious research and reading. There is no evidence that Joseph spent time reading and studying the books cited in these anonymous articles. In June 1842, Wilford Woodruff observed that Joseph hardly had time to sign his name to documents that were prepared for his signature. The assertion that Joseph would write anonymous articles in the midst of all this activity is simply ahistorical nostalgia.

3.  The content of the anonymous articles is problematic. Some of the content contradicts other contemporary teachings that are clearly attributable to Joseph. In other cases, the articles are irrational and counterfactual.

Much of what has passed for historical analysis on this issue suffers from presentism, which is "the anachronistic introduction of present-day ideas and perspectives into depictions or interpretations of the past." It's a common fallacy of historical writing, whereby historians interpret the past to validate their own beliefs.

In this case, we have Mesoamerican theorists (those who believe the Book of Mormon events took place in Central America) interpreting the historical record to justify their beliefs. One primary example is the way they discredit the writing of Oliver Cowdery about the Hill Cumorah in New York in his Letter VII. Although Joseph Smith helped him write that letter, had his scribes copy it into his own journal as part of his history, and explicitly approved the re-publication of the letter (it was published at least 4 times during Joseph's lifetime), Mesoamerican scholars continue to insist that Joseph never said anything about Cumorah except for Section 128--and some even claim that SEction 128 pays homage to a hill in Mesoamerica!

Presentism also appears in the insistence by Mesoamerican proponents that Joseph wrote anonymous articles in the Times and Seasons. They use those articles to claim Joseph merely speculated about Book of Mormon geography, that he changed his mind, and that he thought scholarship would answer the questions. How much more self-serving could historical interpretation be than that?

I'm not arguing against scholarship; to the contrary, I think scholarship is essential. We are to "seek learning, even by study and also by faith." In this context, I interpret that to mean neither of those elements should be used in isolation.

In my own analysis, I started with a hypothesis based on faith that 1) the Hill Cumorah is in New York (D&C 128 and Letter VII) and that 2) Zarahemla was in Iowa, across from Nauvoo (D&C 125). Then I tested the hypothesis "by study" of the text and relevant disciplines of geography, geology, anthropology, archaeology, and history (both of the Church and of North America). In my view, everything fits the North American setting.

In stark contrast, the Mesoamerican theory requires people to jettison what Oliver Cowdery said about Cumorah, to reject Joseph's explicit endorsement of Oliver's work, and to resort to what I consider sophistry to explain away everything else Joseph said or wrote about the topic (as well as David Whitmer's testimony about Cumorah). Instead, people are expected to accept articles in the Times and Seasons that are so unreliable and counterfactual that even the original author left them anonymous. Then, as "evidence," we are expected to accept a series of "correspondences" between Mayan culture and the descriptions in the text, even though such "correspondences" are ubiquitous in human cultures around the world and throughout human history.

What accounts for the persistence of the Mesoamerican theory? So far, I've identified two key points.

First, there is a tremendous amount of intellectual inertia. Generations of Mormons have been raised with the Arnold Friberg illustrations of Central America, the "hourglass" depiction of the "abstract" map of Book of Mormon lands, and the waves of publications by LDS scholars that uniformly endorse and promote the Mesoamerican theory to the exclusion of alternatives. The theory has acquired a life of its own. I've had Mesoamerica proponents tell me recently that the Times and Seasons articles have nothing to do with the Mesoamerican theory, which is like saying Thomas Jefferson had nothing to do with the Declaration of Independence. It takes tremendous energy to swim upstream against the Mesoamerican current, and will take even more to divert the flow of scholarship into the North American channel, but I think LDS scholars will find this new course far more rewarding.

Second, to a significant degree the Mesoamerican theory was a response to the anti-Mormon argument that the Book of Mormon merely articulates the old Moundbuilder legends; i.e., that Joseph Smith was simply retelling stories he'd heard growing up of an ancient advanced civilization that was destroyed by savages. I think there may be an element of concern among modern LDS scholars that a focus on North America will revive that old argument, but I also think they will soon realize there's nothing to fear on that account.

Overall, I'm optimistic that there will be open-minded LDS scholars who will take another look at what has happened over the last 50 years or so. Like me, I think they will be surprised at how superficial much of the scholarship has been. There has been a tremendous amount of confirmation bias, and scholars have been much too quick to dismiss what Oliver Cowdery wrote. As I indicated at the outset, this has largely been due to a historical mistake. I hope we can correct the errors and move forward with greater unity.

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