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, May 31, 2016

Proving contrarieties

Most people just want to live peaceful lives. They want to do their thing without a lot of conflict. They tend to avoid arguments.

A well-known phrase attributed to Joseph Smith but more likely written by W.W. Phelps is this: "By proving contrarieties truth frequently appears." http://centerplace.org/history/ts/v3n21.htm

In the next sentence, Phelps wrote an insightful application: "So with the religion of Jesus, its beauties and glories often shine, when its revilers are endeavoring to expose what they may denominate, its deformities."

In this sense, discussion, debate, analysis, and even argument can be productive, so long as the discourse is friendly, collaborative, cooperative, etc.

Let's all keep that in mind when we discuss Book of Mormon topics (or any topic).

Sunday, May 29, 2016

Why abstract models don't--and can't--work

I've discussed the problem with abstract models before, but I want to call your attention to a thoughtful analysis on another web page. Here's the link: http://www.bofmmodel.org/study/danger-of-false-requirements/

[NOTE: That web page advocates a setting on the Baja peninsula. My comments on that are at the end of this post.]

Despite the Baja proposal, the web page makes an excellent point about abstract maps. The author uses the example of locating Jerusalem by creating an abstract model from the text of the Book of Mormon. We would never find the real Jerusalem that way, as he demonstrates very well. It is well worth reading.

You'd have the same problem if you used the text of the Bible--unless you already knew where Jerusalem was from extrinsic evidence, which is exactly how we know where Jerusalem was.

IOW, Jerusalem is a pin in the map when we read the Bible. We can find other locations by reference to Jerusalem. That's why, in my opinion, the Lord gave us the New York Cumorah as a pin in the map for Book of Mormon geography questions.


The importance of Letter VII and the New York Cumorah becomes apparent as you continue reading the analysis of abstract maps:

Perhaps the biggest mistake that we commonly make when searching for the lands of the Book of Mormon is that we try to decide what the verses mean. As soon as we “decide” what it means, we close our mind to reasonable alternatives.
Inventing false internal requirements is actually a very natural thing for us to do. For example, as I developed this model of the Book of Mormon in Baja, finding an appropriate location for Cumorah was troubling. It was the most puzzling single geographical reference in the whole text for me to try to model. That’s not to say that I think that I’ve identified every other reference perfectly, there is plenty of room for error on a great many of the model’s locations, but that just means means is that there is often more than one location that seems to be able to fit the vague textual references. Cumorah was different. Nothing seemed to fit Cumorah.
You can read the proposal that Cumorah was a desert hill in Baja and decide for yourself, but the Baja scenario is another in a long list of otherwise viable Book of Mormon settings that reject or ignore Letter VII. I think you could make an argument for just about any place in the world with some imaginative geography work; that's why this whole geography issue has never been resolved. And that's why having a pin in the map is essential, which in turn is why Letter VII is essential.

Now, if they would just take a look at Letter VII and the North American setting...


Comments on Baja. I'm quite sure the Hill Cumorah in New York does not fit in a Baja-based geography. Because I think any proposed geography needs to account for Oliver Cowdery's Letter VII, the Baja concept doesn't work for me. (They propose Cumorah as a hill in the desert, suggesting that the Colorado river satisfies the requirements of a land of many waters, etc.) If you're wondering why I'm citing a web page that argues for a different geography than I do, I look for good arguments and evidence everywhere, and I recommend consideration of every proposed Book of Mormon geography, if only so we all know what everyone else is thinking. Unlike the citation cartel, I trust readers to make up their own minds. In the spirit of the First Amendment, more speech is better than less speech.

Friday, May 27, 2016

Book version of blog

I've had requests for a book version of this blog, so I converted it to a Word document. So far, it's 298,357 words and 991 pages.

Too big to print, obviously.

So far, there have been 236 posts. (There are many more I haven't published yet.) I've been asked to organize them by subject matter so they're easier to access.

Plus, I speak to a lot of groups that include people who don't use the Internet except for email, facebook, and family history. They don't want to start on blogs, they don't like to click on links, etc. Some people don't use the Internet at all. Some like to read when they're not online, etc.

IOW, I can understand the desire for a book version.

Reviewing the posts has been quite interesting. There's a lot of good material in here that, with some organization and editing, would be valuable to have in another format. Maybe, with some editing, we can reduce it to two books of about 350 pages each. That's the goal.

Stay tuned.

Mosaics and constructing history

A couple of months ago I was in Istanbul at the Hagia Sophia. It was built in 537 A.D. as a Greek Orthodox basilica and was the headquarters of the Patriarch of Constantinople until 1453 (except from 1204 and 1261 when crusaders converted it to a Roman Catholic cathedral). The interior is full of wonderful mosaics, like the one in this photo.

Mosaics are pictures created by arranging small colored pieces of material, such as flat stones and ceramic tiles. Each individual piece, on its own, tells next to nothing about the scene depicted. If you took all the tiles off and put them in a box, they'd be nothing but rubble.

To create an effective mosaic, you have to know where each piece fits.

I take a similar approach to Book of Mormon historicity and geography.

I seek to reconcile facts with the fewest assumptions possible. Simplicity generally leads to the best results, so long as all relevant facts are accounted for.

Of course, facts don't stand on their own, any more than the random pieces of tile in the box. Each fact is a piece of truth that must be assembled, like a mosaic, to complete the picture. Gaps must be filled by reasonable inferences, for which I consider probabilities and general human nature, adapted as much as possible to what is known of the individuals and culture involved.

[I like the mosaic metaphor better than the puzzle metaphor, because in a puzzle, each piece can only go one place. In a mosaic, pieces are more fluid. It is not their specific shape that determines where they fit, since they are usually all about the same size and shape. Instead, it's their color, combined with the artist's overall vision, that determines where they go. There is a element of flexibility in assembling pieces of evidence in the real world that, to me, is more like a mosaic than a puzzle.] 

I tend to be an empiricist; i.e., I think God generally works with natural laws and intervenes obliquely, to use Richard Bushman’s phrase. This preserves our free agency and also motivates us to develop our spiritual talents and skills. I fully believe in divine revelation and inspiration, as well as prophecy. I believe the scriptures are true, in the sense they were written by inspired people and relate actual facts as understood by the authors.

I also believe the scientific method is a valid approach to learning about and explaining the natural world, but I recognize that we all have much to learn.

Hence, I seek to reconcile every available element of Church history, scriptural text, and natural sciences. In my view, the more I examine each of these, the more they work together to reinforce and corroborate a Book of Mormon geography that fits mostly within the United States, circa 1842, with parts of Canada thrown in.

To the extent I have a hierarchy of evidence, I assign the most credibility and reliability to Joseph Smith, Oliver Cowdery, and David Whitmer as compared to Benjamin Winchester, William Smith, Orson Pratt, Wilford Woodruff, and Joseph’s other contemporaries. This is because Joseph and Oliver were the two men who shared the most experiences with the Book of Mormon and divine messengers, from the translation through the restoration of Priesthood keys at the Kirtland temple. David, too, participated in the early events. Plus, David and Oliver were two of the three witnesses and among the first members of the Church.

Consequently, if there is a discrepancy between Joseph, Oliver and David on one side (and they were consistent their entire lives on the question of Book of Mormon geography), and Winchester, Pratt, Woodruff and the others on the other side, I go with the former.

Oliver gave us the first detailed Church history in the letters he wrote to W.W. Phelps and published in the Messenger and Advocate. Among them was Letter VII, which unequivocally described the final battles of the Nephites and Jaredites at the New York hill Cumorah. He said this setting was a fact, and that Joseph helped him write the history. Joseph had his scribes copy the letters into his journal as part of his history, and also approved their republication in the Times and Seasonsand the Gospel Reflector. To me, this is convincing evidence that Letter VII is accurate.

Oliver Cowdery was well qualified to write about the Book of Mormon and early Church history. No one other than Joseph Smith himself was more qualified--and Joseph helped him write the letters.

Think of Letter VII as a whole section of the mosaic, around which the others need to fit.

Thursday, May 26, 2016


William of  Ockham
The simplest explanation is usually the best, a principle often described as Occam's razor. "Among competing hypotheses, the one with the fewest assumptions should be selected."

On the topic of Book of Mormon geography, which setting requires the fewest assumptions?

Which explanation is the simplest?

The North American setting has one assumption.

1. Joseph Smith and Oliver Cowdery knew that the Hill Cumorah in New York was the place where the Nephite and Jaredite civilizations were destroyed. Everything directly attributable to them is consistent with that setting. Contrary ideas are not directly attributable to them; therefore, these contrary ideas were produced by other people who didn't know what Joseph and Oliver knew.

The Mesoamerican setting relies on a series of assumptions:

1. Joseph Smith didn't know where the Book of Mormon events took place.
2. Oliver Cowdery (or another unknown person) at some unspecified date started a folk tradition that Cumorah was in New York, based on an incorrect assumption.
3. Joseph misled his wife Emma when he wrote to her about crossing the plains of the Nephites after he'd crossed Ohio, Indiana, and Illinois.
4. Oliver memorialized the incorrect folk tradition in Letter VII in 1835.
5. Joseph, for unexplained reasons, passively adopted Oliver's speculation and had it widely published.
6. Joseph, who wrote very little himself, nevertheless wrote a series of  articles in the Times and Seasons about Central America that he left anonymous for unknown reasons.
7. David Whitmer, late in life, conflated his own specific memory of the first time he heard the word "Cumorah" with Oliver's folk tradition.
8. Etc.

Which set of assumptions makes the most sense to you?


Here are some relevant quotations about simplicity.

“If you can't explain it to a six year old, you don't understand it yourself.”
― Albert Einstein

To which Groucho Marx replied:

“A child of five could understand this. Send someone to fetch a child of five.”
― Groucho Marx

“Truth is ever to be found in the simplicity, and not in the multiplicity and confusion of things.”
― Isaac Newton

“Why did they believe? Because they saw miracles. Things one man took as chance, a man of faith took as a sign. A loved one recovering from disease, a fortunate business deal, a chance meeting with a long lost friend. It wasn't the grand doctrines or the sweeping ideals that seemed to make believers out of men. It was the simple magic in the world around them.”
― Brandon Sanderson, The Hero of Ages

“People who pride themselves on their "complexity" and deride others for being "simplistic" should realize that the truth is often not very complicated. What gets complex is evading the truth.”
― Thomas Sowell, Barbarians inside the Gates and Other Controversial Essays

“..things are never as complicated as they seem. It is only our arrogance that prompts us to find unnecessarily complicated answers to simple problems.”
― Muhammad Yunus, Banker to the Poor: Micro-Lending and the Battle Against World Poverty

“I am not a genius, I am just curious. I ask many questions. and when the answer is simple, then God is answering.”
― Albert Einstein

Wednesday, May 25, 2016

Orson Hyde and the Cowdery letters

When Orson Hyde was on his way to Palestine to dedicate the land for the returning of the Jews, he stopped in Germany. He wrote a German-language pamphlet Ein Ruf aus der W├╝ste [A cry out of the wilderness], the earliest church publication in a language other than English. In describing that pamphlet, he wrote,

"I have written a book to publish in the German language, setting forth our doctrine and principles in as clear and concise a manner as I possibly could. After giving the history of the rise of the church, in something the manner that Br. O. Pratt did, I have written a snug little article upon every point of doctrine believed by the saints. I began with the Priesthood, and showed that the saints were not under the necessity of tracing back the dark and bloody stream of papal superstition to find their authority, neither were they compelled to seek for it among the floating and trancient [transient] notions of Protestant reformers; but God has sent his holy angel directly from heaven with this seal and authority, and confered [conferred] it upon men with his own hands: quoting the letter and testimony of O. Cowdery." Times and Seasons, 1 October 1841.

Oliver Cowdery's letters were the first published account of the restoration of the Priesthood, so it's understandable that Hyde used the Cowdery letters. This means he must have taken a copy with him. This was after the republication of those letters in the Times and Seasons and Gospel Reflector, so maybe he took a copy of one of those with him. (The March 15 Gospel Reflector would have been the easiest, since it contained all the letters in one issue.)

It's also interesting to know that Orson Pratt's pamphlet, A[n] Interesting Account of Several Remarkable Visions, 1840, online here, also contained part of Cowdery's letters (including Letter VII).

This is all just additional evidence of how well accepted Oliver Cowdery's letters were during Joseph Smith's lifetime.

Tuesday, May 24, 2016

Think Different

Some people tell me that the North American setting for the Book of Mormon is different from anything they have heard before.

That's a good thing.

The other day I was reminded of the famous Apple ad titled "Think Different" from 1997.

In a way, that line summarizes the Gospel itself. Missionaries go out to share a new way of thinking with people. The Book of Mormon is a completely different way of thinking about Christianity and God's involvement with the world. The ideas of temple ordinances and building a Zion society are different from what the rest of the world thinks.

A common thread throughout the scriptures, from the Old Testament through the Doctrine and Covenants, is to think about life in a different way.

Here's an example from Matthew 5:

43 "Ye have heard that it hath been said, Thou shalt love thy neighbour, and hate thine enemy.
44 But I say unto you, Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them which despitefully use you, and persecute you."


Here is a link to the original ads, along with the script to the TV ad. If you're interested in business and marketing, you will enjoy "the real story" behind the ad, here.

Grammar. The grammar issue was discussed at length. The Jobs biography explains: "They debated the grammatical issue: If “different” was supposed to modify the verb “think,” it should be an adverb, as in “think differently.” But Jobs insisted that he wanted “different” to be used as a noun, as in “think victory” or “think beauty.” Also, it echoed colloquial use, as in “think big.” Jobs later explained, “We discussed whether it was correct before we ran it. It’s grammatical, if you think about what we’re trying to say. It’s not think the same, it’s think different. Think a little different, think a lot different, think different. ‘Think differently’ wouldn’t hit the meaning for me.”

Monday, May 23, 2016

Oliver and Joseph in 1835

Letter VII was published in the Messenger and Advocate in July 1835. When he wrote the letters to Phelps, Oliver said Joseph Smith helped him. Scholars who promote the Mesoamerican "two-Cumorah" theory respond in these ways to Letter VII (which unequivocally rejects the two-Cumorah theory and places the Hill Cumorah squarely in western New York):

1. They question Oliver's statement that Joseph helped write the letters.

2. If they accept that Joseph helped write the letters, they claim Joseph himself was also speculating about the Hill Cumorah (or that Joseph passively accepted Oliver's speculation).

Here I present evidence on the first point; i.e., how Joseph and Oliver worked together during 1835.

We have very little of Joseph's own writing. He kept journals on and off during 1832-1835. We have nothing he wrote between 1 April 1834 through 22 September 1835.

In September, Joseph made three entries in a book titled "Sketch Book for the use of
Joseph Smith, jr" (referred to in the Joseph Smith Papers as Journal, 1835-1836). The book was titled by Oliver Cowdery, who also wrote the first entry. Joseph made three subsequent entries, and then Oliver took over again.

You can get a sense of how closely these two men worked together from this image of the first page from the journal. The title at the top and the first paragraph is in Oliver's handwriting. The next paragraph is in Joseph's handwriting.

You can see this yourself at this link.


Here is what the text says. The part in italics is Oliver, the part in bold is Joseph:

Sketch Book for the use of
Joseph Smith, jr.
22 September 1835 • Tuesday
September 22, 1835. This day Joseph Smith, jr.  labored with Oliver Cowdery, in obtaining and  writing blessings. We were thronged a part of the  time with company, so that our labor, in this thing,  was hindered; but we obtained many precious things, and  our souls were blessed. O Lord, may thy Holy Spirit be with  thy servants forever. Amen.
September 23.th [22nd] This day Joseph Smith, Jr. was at home  writing blessings for my most beloved Brotheren <I>, have  been hindered by a multitude of visitors but the Lord  has blessed our Souls this day. May God grant <to> continue his mercies unto my house, this <night,> day For Christ sake. This day my Soul has desired the salvation of Brother Ezra, Thay[e]r. Also Brother Noah,  Packard. Came to my house and let the Chappel Committee have one thousand dollers, by loan,  for the building the house of the Lord; Oh may  God bless him with an hundred fold! even of the  <things of> Earth, for this ritious [righteous] act. My heart is full of  desire to day, to <be> blessed of the God, of Abraham;

The writing styles are different, but the narrative is continuous.

These two writing samples also show us why Joseph relied on Oliver to do the writing. Oliver's sentences are clear and accurate, while Joseph's are more like spoken language.

You can see the differences more clearly in this image, with Oliver inside the red box and Joseph inside the blue.

Later, when Joseph finished his entries, Oliver resumed writing in this journal. You can see that here.

When we read this shared journal, it's not surprising or strange that Joseph would direct his scribes to copy Oliver's letters into his own journal as part of his own life history.

The only thing that is surprising and strange is that LDS scholars reject Letter VII.

Sunday, May 22, 2016

The Promised Land

Over the years, there have been many discussions about the location of the Promised Land described by the Book of Mormon. Some say the Promised Land is all of the Americas. Others say the Promised Land is in Central America (Mesoamerica).

The answer is fairly obvious, as this article in the Ensign explains..

"The United States is the promised land foretold in the Book of Mormon—a place where divine guidance directed inspired men to create the conditions necessary for the Restoration of the gospel of Jesus Christ. It was the birth of the United States of America that ushered out the Great Apostasy, when the earth was darkened by the absence of prophets and revealed light. It was no coincidence that the lovely morning of the First Vision occurred just a few decades after the establishment of the United States."

Here's a video depiction of the promised land:

The original site has more graphics.

And here are more references from the Ensign:

Jeffrey Holland

Marion G. Romney


More from the first article I cited:

The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is truly a worldwide Church. Nevertheless, it is important to realize that the Church could never have become what it is today without the birth of a great nation, the United States of America. The Lord prepared a new land to attract the peoples of the world who sought liberty and religious freedom. This new land was blessed with strong leaders who felt duty bound to establish a government that allowed individuals to worship according to their own conscience.
The Founding Fathers of the United States believed that religious faith was fundamental to the establishment of strong government. Many people in the world, however, have forgotten the central importance of religious beliefs in the formation of the policies, laws, and rules of government. Many Americans, for example, do not understand that the founders believed the role of religion would be as important in our day as it was in their day. The founders did not consider religion and morality an intellectual exercise—they forcefully declared it an essential ingredient of good government and the happiness of humankind.
This position was set forth by the first U.S. president, George Washington, in his Farewell Address. He said:
“Of all the dispositions and habits which lead to political prosperity, religion and morality are indispensable supports. … Let us with caution indulge the supposition that morality can be maintained without religion. … Reason and experience both forbid us to expect that national morality can prevail in exclusion of religious principle.
“It is substantially true that virtue or morality is a necessary spring of popular government.”1

1 Nephi 12:1

"And it came to pass that the angel said unto me: Look, and behold thy seed, and also the seed of thy brethren. And I looked and beheld the land of promise; and I beheld multitudes of people, yea, even as it were in number as many as the sand of the sea."

 1 Nephi 13:14

"And it came to pass that I beheld many multitudes of the Gentiles upon the land of promise; and I beheld the wrath of God, that it was upon the seed of my brethren; and they were scattered before the Gentiles and were smitten."

 "And harden not their hearts against the Lamb of God, they shall be numbered among the seed of thy father; yea, they shall be numbered among the house of Israel; and they shall be a blessed people upon the promised land forever; they shall be no more brought down into captivity; and the house of Israel shall no more be confounded."

 2 Nephi 1:5

"But, said he, notwithstanding our afflictions, we have obtained a land of promise, a land which is choice above all other lands; a land which the Lord God hath covenanted with me should be a land for the inheritance of my seed. Yea, the Lord hath covenanted this land unto me, and to my children forever, and also all those who should be led out of other countries by the hand of the Lord."

 2 Nephi 1:10

 "But behold, when the time cometh that they shall dwindle in unbelief, after they have received so great blessings from the hand of the Lord—having a knowledge of the creation of the earth, and all men, knowing the great and marvelous works of the Lord from the creation of the world; having power given them to do all things by faith; having all the commandments from the beginning, and having been brought by his infinite goodness into this precious land of promise—behold, I say, if the day shall come that they will reject the Holy One of Israel, the true Messiah, their Redeemer and their God, behold, the judgments of him that is just shall rest upon them."

 Ether 2:8

"And he had sworn in his wrath unto the brother of Jared, that whoso should possess this land of promise, from that time henceforth and forever, should serve him, the true and only God, or they should be swept off when the fulness of his wrath should come upon them."

Saturday, May 21, 2016

Oliver Cowdery's sense of responsibility and Letter VII

The portrait of Oliver Cowdery
that now hangs in the J. Reuben Clark
Law School Library is painted from
a daguerreotype found in the
Library of Congress in 2006.
Photo courtesy of Ken Corbett.
People keep contacting me to say that Letter VII was just Oliver Cowdery's speculation about Cumorah. This is the position taken by the citation cartel. Why? Because Oliver's Letter VII contradicts their Mesoamerican theory of Book of Mormon geography.

[If you're new to the blog, you can read a short book that puts Letter VII in context online here, on Kindle here, or in print here. You can read Letter VII in Joseph Smith's own journal here, in the 1844 Liverpool pamphlet here, in the 1841 Gospel Reflector here, in the 1841 Times and Seasons here, in Orson Patt's 1840 missionary pamphlet here, and in the 1835 Messenger and Advocate here,]

As you can see from these citations, Letter VII and the New York Cumorah it describes were universally accepted and understood during Joseph Smith's lifetime.

People can believe whatever they want, of course. But in my view, the historical evidence supports Oliver.

Consider what Oliver himself wrote about his sense of responsibility. The following is an excerpt from the Preface to my next book, The Editors: Joseph, William, and Don Carlos Smith:

"One important lesson was expressed by Oliver Cowdery. When he announced his resignation from the Messenger and Advocate in August 1837, he wrote:

"a man is responsible to God for all he writes. If his communications are not according to the truths of heaven, men may follow incorrect principles, and digress, step after step from the straight path, till arguments, persuasions and facts, are as unheeded as the idle vision, when darkness and death rivet their destructive chains to be beaten off no more.

"When this last reflection rises in the mind, the heart almost sinks within this bosom, lest in consequence of some darkness over the intellect, or some deep anxiety and concern, occasioned by inevitable and irresistable pecuniary embarrassment, I may have dropped an item, or left unintelligible some important fact, which has occasioned an incorrect understanding on matters of eternal life."

This is a strong statement of responsibility that lends additional credence to Letter VII, which Oliver published in the Messenger and Advocate.

Consider what is going on here. The Mesoamerican two-Cumorah theory directly contradicts Oliver Cowdery's unambiguous declaration that the final wars of the Nephites and Jaredites took place in western New York. Therefore, according to the citation cartel, Letter VII cannot be true. The effort to undermine the credibility and reliability of Oliver Cowdery has only one purpose: to defend an ideological fixation on the Mesoamerican theory of Book of Mormon geography.

They go on to insist that Joseph Smith passively adopted Cowdery's speculation when he had his scribes copy Letter VII into his journal, saw Letter VII republished multiple times, and referred to Cumorah (and Moroni) in D&C 128.

Here are more facts to consider. Oliver Cowdery was the principal scribe of the Restoration. He wrote in his own handwriting all of the Book of Mormon (twice) and much of the D&C and PoGP. He is responsible for most of the early Church history we have, including the 8 letters to W.W. Phelps and other journal entries. He was the only witness besides Joseph Smith of the restoration of the Priesthood, the restoration of the keys, and much more. He was called by revelation to print Church materials, select and write books for Church schools, and to "copy, correct, and select" materials for Church publications. [D&C 55, 57, 68, 104]

Oliver published all of his letters about Church history, including Letter VII, when he was working at the Messenger and Advocate and felt the responsibility he described above. Some have criticized the letters as too verbose, but when we see what Oliver was thinking--that he feared dropping an item or leaving an important fact unintelligible--we can better understand why he tried to be as specific and comprehensive as possible. 

For the first 100 years of Church history, Oliver's writings were sufficiently clear and understandable that there was no confusion about the location of Cumorah. Starting in the 1920s, though, scholars began digressing from what was clearly expressed by Oliver and fully endorsed by Joseph Smith.

Now, in 2016, we have LDS scholars who claim Oliver Cowdery disguised his speculation as facts. One wonders how much more explicit and clear Oliver could have been, or what more Joseph could have done to endorse what Oliver wrote. Remember, Letter VII was widely--probably universally--known and accepted among Church members during Joseph's lifetime.

As members of the Church read Letter VII and ponder its validity, I hope they keep in mind what the author himself wrote about his duty, his intentions, and his aspirations. In my opinion, Oliver discharged his responsibilities very well. Not only in writing the entire Book of Mormon, twice, in his own handwriting, and not only in recording what is now the Book of Moses and many of the original revelations, and not only in all the other work he did in publishing, but also in writing and publishing the eight letters, including Letter VII.

When assessing Oliver's credibility and reliability, readers of Letter VII should also consider the life Oliver led and his reputation as a well-respected lawyer.


In November 2013, the BYU Law School unveiled the painting of Oliver Cowdery that appears at the beginning of this blog. An article on LDS.org discusses the event and some of Oliver's life events and reputation. The following are edited extracts from the article.

Elder Steven E. Snow of the Seventy, Church Historian and Recorder, noted that Oliver died of tuberculosis in Richmond, Missouri, before he could join the Saints in Utah. He had gone there to persuade David Whitmer to join him.

“We can only wonder what great accomplishments he might have given … had he survived to an older age,” Elder Snow said.

“Certainly in the early days of the Church there was no closer confidant to the Prophet Joseph Smith than Oliver,” he said. “He was next in authority only to Joseph and was present at many of the critical events in the Restoration of the gospel.”

In addition to being one of the Three Witnesses, he was present during the restoration of the Aaronic and Melchizedek Priesthoods and “during those marvelous manifestations at the Kirtland Temple,” Elder Snow noted.

“There are many great LDS attorneys, and Oliver Cowdery was the first LDS attorney, so it just makes sense that his portrait will hang here in this school.”

Church historians have studied Oliver's life and law practice. Oliver was excommunicated on charges he disputed, yet he never became antagonistic toward the Church.

Attorney Jeffrey N. Walker, adjunct faculty member at the school and a senior adviser and volume editor for the Joseph Smith Papers Project of the Church History Department, noted that “He had beautiful handwriting. We ended up scanning almost 2,500 pages of his law practice. Since then we’ve been back three other times, and we now have over 15,000 pages of the law practice in Tiffin as we try to put together exactly how he practiced law.

“What we found was that he was a very clever, smart, and capable lawyer, one very prominently recognized in the community and that was well-respected among his own colleagues of lawyers.”

In the end, when he went to Winter Quarters to seek readmission to the Church, Oliver said, “I feel that I can honorably return. I sustained an honorable character before the world during my absence from you,” Brother Walker recounted.

John W. Welch, BYU J. Reuben Clark Law School professor, said, “We will all be better lawyers if we seek to emulate Oliver’s sensitivities and legal skills.”

He mentioned 10 of those skills, including accuracy, an understanding of authority, an acute and analytical mind, forensic (debate) skills, tolerance for the views of others, legal resourcefulness, his character as justice of the peace, his putting of family first in making difficult decisions, his sense of timing, and his knowledge of the importance of witnesses, affidavits, and testimony under oath.


In his letters, Oliver was careful to distinguish between fact and speculation. For example, he speculated about how deep Moroni originally buried the plates. But he said it was a fact that the Nephites and Jaredites fought their final battles in the valley west of the Hill Cumorah in New York.

On one hand, we have Oliver Cowdery as one of the Three Witnesses, whose entire life demonstrated his knowledge of the importance of witnesses, who wrote Letter VII under a sense of deep responsibility to be accurate and truthful.

On the other hand, we have LDS scholars who, purely for ideological purposes, question Oliver's reliability and veracity on the important question of Cumorah.

For me, it's an easy choice.

Friday, May 20, 2016

More on David Whitmer, Zina Young, and Cumorah

David Whitmer, circa 1855
(photo links to JSP)
This post offers more detail on David Whitmer and Zina Young.

I've had some feedback on the previous post that there is no evidence Zina had heard about David Whitmer's Cumorah experience from David himself. It's true we don't have written evidence of when she heard the story or from whom, but Stevenson's journal shows Zina had heard it from somewhere before Stevenson visited Whitmer. That's why she told Stevenson to ask Whitmer about it. I imagine the conversation being something such as this:

Zina: "You're going to visit David Whitmer?"
Stevenson: "I plan to. I hope he'll see me."
Zina: "Ask him about the Nephite he met."
Stevenson: "He met a Nephite?"
Zina (nodding): "And he was carrying the plates to the hill Cumorah because Joseph didn't want the responsibility. David, Joseph and Oliver Cowdery were riding in a wagon from Harmony to the Whitmer farm. He'll tell you all about it."
Stevenson: "Sounds interesting."
Zina: "You should publish it when you get back."

The Mesoamerican advocates who reject Whitmer's testimony rely on the "late" retelling to Stevenson and Joseph F. Smith. Their objection is based on the premise that Whitmer's experience hearing the term "Cumorah" for the first time occurred in 1829, but he did not tell the story before 1878. Certainly, 50 years after the fact could be considered late; each person has to assess that "lateness" in light of the detail of Whitmer's account, the surprising and unusual circumstances, and the presence of Joseph and Oliver when the event occurred.

The Stevenson account undermines the "lateness" objection, however. Whether Zina heard the story directly from Whitmer in 1835, or heard it from someone else, the point is that she did hear it before Stevenson asked Whitmer about it. From his journal, we have to infer that Stevenson had not heard the story before.

There is no record of anyone knowing this story before Stevenson's interview with David, except for Zina. So all the evidence we have suggests that before the interview, the only two people who knew the story were Zina and David (and Oliver and Joseph, if David's testimony is to be believed, but Joseph and Oliver were dead by then).

And the only evidence we have of David and Zina interacting was when David and Hyrum Smith were missionary companions in 1835 in Watertown, NY, where Hyrum baptized her. [This is no minor point. David Whitmer didn't go on a lot of missionary journeys. When you read Zina's account, notice how she emphasizes how hard David worked to persuade her to get baptized. I think it's safe to infer he tried everything he could, including his viewing of the golden plates as one of the Three Witnesses. In this context, his claim he saw one of the Nephites carrying the plates to Cumorah would be another thing to bring up.

Later, Joseph F. Smith and Orson Pratt visited David Whitmer and elicited the same story from him. This suggests they first heard it when Stevenson published it (or told them about it).

Zina published an article, probably taken from parts of her journal we don't otherwise have now, in the April 1893 issue of The Young Woman's Journal. Titled "How I Gained my Testimony of the Truth," the article gives details on how she joined the Church in 1835. It is available online here. In the next section, I show the relevant aspects of Zina's article.

In the following summer Hyrum Smith and David Whitmer came to our house and stayed several days. Father and mother had been baptized in the April of that same year, but neither myself nor my sister were baptized.

David Whitmer persuaded me to be baptized while they were at our home, but some way I did not accept his offer. I had told my sister-in-law, Fanny Huntingdon, that when she was baptized I would go with her.

The morning for the departure of these men from our house arrived, and I had not as yet become a member of the Church. That morning, a short time before they were to start, Hyrum Smith’s cousin rode up with a message that they could not leave that day, as my brother Dimick and his wife Fanny, my dear sister-in-law, were desirous of being baptized.

That morning at prayers I had presented to me a heavenly vision of a man going down into the water and baptizing someone. So when this message came I felt it was a testimony that the time had come for me to receive baptism. Brother Hyrum Smith was mouth in prayer, and in my secret soul I had a wish that he should baptize me. I had refused the coaxing of Brother Whitmer, as I told myself, because mother and father were going away from home, and I had all the home cares on me, and I feared I would be tempted to speak crossly or say something I ought not to after so sacred an ordinance as that; but this strong testimony that the proper time had arrived I did not dare treat lightly.

As soon as I consented to go with my brother and sister-in-law David Whitmer began talking about performing the office for us. Happily for me, however, Brother Hyrum was chosen by the others to be the proper one and I added my preference to their words. Accordingly, we all went down to the water and were baptized by Hyrum Smith, and confirmed under the hands of Hyrum Smith and David Whitmer. [This was on August 1, 1835.]

Thursday, May 19, 2016

Mistake on lds.org needs to be corrected

If there's anyone from the Church Media Department reading this, (or if any readers know someone who works there), I'm asking you to correct a mistake on lds.org.

This painting represents Christ visiting people throughout the Americas--no problem at all. The official title of the painting is "Jesus Teaching in the Western Hemisphere (Jesus Christ Visits the Americas), by John Scott."

The painting is a melange or mixture of a variety of locations, with both Chichen Itza and Machu Picchu in the background. The damaged temple setting postdates Book of Mormon time frames.

Again, no problem. It's conceptual, not historically or geographically accurate. The scriptures support the idea that Christ visited people everywhere, including throughout the Americas. (One could argue the painting is misleading because nothing from North America is shown, but I like to think the clouds are from North America.) 


The painting is only a problem when it is incorrectly titled "Christ visiting (or teaching) the Nephites" instead of "Christ visits the Americas." Apparently some people in the Church Media department don't recognize the difference. Look at this link to the painting: https://www.lds.org/media-library/images/christ-teaching-nephites-39665?lang=eng.

The language in the link incorrectly names the painting, but worse, it contradicts the official Church policy of neutrality on Book of Mormon geography. Because nothing in this painting reflects a North American setting, titling the painting as "Christ teaching the Nephites" conveys a particular geography; i.e., it teaches that the Nephites lived in Central America (the obscure homage to Peru notwithstanding, because few people recognize that anyway).

Correcting the link should be relatively easy.

While you're at it, please also correct the information at https://www.lds.org/children/resources/topics/jesus-christ-visits?lang=eng. The title of the page is fine, but the artwork in the links depicts Christ visiting the Nephites in Mesoamerica exclusively, contrary to the official Church policy of neutrality.

Artwork such as this creates and reinforces historical narratives that are misleading if not properly titled and explained. This article in the October 2015 explains the problem with historically inaccurate paintings.

Long ago, Joseph Fielding Smith explained that because of the two-Cumorah theory on which the Mesoamerican geography depends, "some members of the Church have become confused and greatly disturbed in their faith in the Book of Mormon." Correcting the references to this painting to eliminate any mention that it depicts Christ visiting the Nephites will help avoid the problems President Smith identified.

Wednesday, May 18, 2016

Note on Cumorah, David Whitmer and Zina Young

I realize the topic of Cumorah has been discussed a lot lately, so don't read this if you're tired of the Cumorah topic. I actually covered this topic in detail last August, here. I'm writing today because of a new bit of information that's always been available but I didn't really notice until now and I wanted it here on the blog as a note for future reference.

If you're new to this topic, it has to do with two of the Three Witnesses. Those who advocate a Mesoamerican geography reject Oliver Cowdery's description of Cumorah in Letter VII. They also reject David Whitmer's explanation of the first time he heard the word Cumorah (which he said was in June 1829, before he'd ever read the text, and he heard it from a heavenly messenger).

The rationale for rejecting David Whitmer's testimony is that he supposedly never talked about it until 50 years after the fact, in interviews he gave to Edward Stevenson in 1877 and to Joseph F. Smith and Orson Pratt in 1878.

Here's how one scholar articulated the argument (I won't mention names, but you can get it from my August post if you're interested):

Edward Stevenson
"The earliest possible connection between the New York hill and the Book of Mormon Cumorah comes from an 1878 interview with David Whitmer by Orson Pratt and Joseph F. Smith,... This report [the Whitmer interview] would be much more conclusive had it not been recorded nearly fifty years later. The passage of time and the accepted designation of “Cumorah” as the name of the New York hill by the time of the recollection argue against the second-hand report from Whitmer as being a definitive statement."

There are all kinds of logical errors in that statement, but I've addressed those before. Today, I want to point out something in the Stevenson statement, taken from his contemporaneous journal.

I obtained a copy of Stevenson's journal recently and here's what his entry says:

Page from Stevenson journal
"I wish to mention an Item of conversation with David Whitmer in regard to Seeing one of the Nephites, Zina Young, Desired me to ask about it. David Said, Oliver, & The Prophet, & I were riding in a wagon, & an aged man about 5 feet 10, heavey Set & on his back, an old fashioned Armey knapsack Straped over his Shoulders & Something Square in it, & he walked alongside of the Wagon & Wiped the Sweat off his face, Smileing very Pleasant David asked him to ride and he replied I am going across to the hill Cumorah. Soon after they Passed they felt Strangeley and Stoped, but could see nothing of him all around was clean and they asked the Lord about it. He Said that the Prophet Looked as White as a Sheet & Said that it was one of the Nephites & that he had the plates."*


Edward Stevenson was a general authority (one of the seven presidents of the Seventy). He was a well-known missionary (one of the MTC buildings is named after him). There's no reason to doubt the credibility of his interview with David Whitmer.

What I find fascinating is that Zina Young asked Stevenson to ask David Whitmer about seeing one of the Nephites. That was the focus of the interview, not the Cumorah question.

Zina Young
This means that Zina had heard this story earlier. 

Why Zina Young? 

And when could she have heard it? 

And from whom?

It could not have been from the interview with Joseph F. Smith, which occurred a year later.

Instead, it's highly likely she heard it from David Whitmer directly!

Zina was born in 1821. Her family lived in Watertown, New York. In 1835, when she was 14 years old, two missionaries came to town: Hyrum Smith and David Whitmer. Hyrum baptized her on August 1, 1835. The family moved to Kirtland, and eventually to Far West, and then to Nauvoo along with most of the rest of the Saints. Zina married, had two children, and then also married Joseph Smith. After his death, she married Brigham Young. (That's a topic for another day.)

David Whitmer left the Church in 1837-1838 and lived in Missouri for the rest of his life. Zina would have had no contact with him after about 1837, at the latest. If that's the case, then she could only have heard the story from him between 1835 and 1837--just a few years after 1829, when David said the event happened.

Of course, modern Mesoamerican scholars will dispute this somehow, but the argument that David's testimony is unreliable because it was 50 years late contradicts the Stevenson account.

Interestingly, Zina was also the one who inherited Joseph's seer stone after Brigham Young died.

The simplest, historically justified explanation is that David told Zina and her family the story when he contacted them as a missionary. Zina remembered it and told Stevenson to ask David about it in 1877. Stevenson recorded it and wrote about it. 

David Whitmer
Then Joseph F. Smith asked David about it, and he reiterated his account of the event.

It's not a 50-year-old story related from a feeble and tainted memory. It's a retelling of an account related by a missionary to his investigators just a few years after the event.

Other than to defend the Mesoamerican ideology, there's no reason to cast doubt on the testimony of the Three Witnesses.

The bottom line is this (adapted from my August post):

Think about this. To accept the Mesoaemerican setting you have to disbelieve two of the three main witnesses to the Book of Mormon: Oliver Cowdery and David Whitmer. The Mesoamerican advocates seek to persuade you these two men were not reliable witnesses when it comes to the issue of Cumorah being in New York.

By contrast, to accept the North American (or Heartland) setting, you fully embrace what these two men said.

References: http://contentdm.lib.byu.edu/cdm/ref/collection/BYUIBooks/id/3527

*You can find this account in these references, although apparently not transcribed exactly: "Edward Stevenson Interview (1) 22-23 December 1877, Richmond, Missouri Diary of Edward Stevenson," LDS Church Archives, Lyndon W. Cook, ed., David Whitmer Interviews, 1993, p. 13; also Dan Vogel, ed., Early Mormon Documents, 2003, vol. v, p. 30.

Tuesday, May 17, 2016

Brought to Light officially released

My latest book, Brought to Light, will be officially released this week at an event in Provo (sorry, the venue is full). The book is already on Amazon here and will be on Kindle tomorrow.

This book is intended primarily for readers interested in Church history. It doesn't address Book of Mormon geography, except indirectly. Instead, it looks at authorship of articles in the Times and Seasons that have long been attributed to Joseph Smith. Among other things, I propose that not only did Joseph not write these articles, but he specifically repudiated one of them when he addressed the Relief Society on April 28, 1842. This could have an impact on our understanding of the role of women in the Church. In his address that day, Joseph explained that there was nothing wrong with women blessing the sick by the laying on of hands. I propose a specific reason why he gave that instruction, which may invite a re-evaluation of that topic.

People have asked why I'm writing more Church history. Here's the background. My first Church history book, The Lost City of Zarahemla (2015), proposes that Benjamin Winchester wrote the anonymous articles in the September and October 1842 Times and Seasons that linked the Book of Mormon to Central America. Although I had sought input from some LDS scholars prior to publication, and they accepted advance copies of the book with the understanding that they'd give me such input and address questions to me, instead they refused to work with me and instead published three long attack articles in the citation cartel's online journal, The Interpreter. Fair enough. Although I thought their approach was inefficient and unprofessional, I did appreciate the input and I incorporated their suggestions in the Second Edition of Lost City. (I continue to revise that book as I come across new information.)

My research for Lost City had generated a lot of material that I couldn't fit in that book, so I set it aside and wrote Letter VII and Moroni's America. In the meantime, I received a lot of interest in the Church history aspects of Lost City. People who read Lost City wanted to know more. I organized my notes and research materials and started writing Brought to Light. But that manuscript, too, ballooned beyond reasonableness. (It's astonishing how much material there is, thanks to the Joseph Smith Papers and other digitized records.) Plus, my publisher said people don't want long books. So I took out about half of Brought to Light and put it in yet another book. (This one will be released in about two weeks. It is titled The Editors: Joseph, William, and Don Carlos Smith.)

Brought to Light now focuses primarily on Benjamin Winchester's influence on the Times and Seasons. Scholars have long overlooked his book titled A Synopsis of the Holy Scriptures and Concordance. I knew about this book when I wrote Lost City, but I didn't pay much attention to it because I thought it was just a compilation of scriptures, organized by topic, along with an analysis of the history of the Christian Church. But then I took a closer look and discovered several surprising things.

For example, in Brought to Light I propose that Winchester was the primary author of the article titled "Try the Spirits," published in the Times and Seasons on April 1, 1842. This article has been important for many reasons. The citation cartel has cited it as proof that Joseph wrote the unattributed articles in the Times and Seasons (including the Central American ones). Excerpts from "Try the Spirits" have been included in Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith, Teachings of Presidents of the Church: Joseph Smith, and innumerable other books and articles, all on the assumption that Joseph Smith wrote the article.

There are other unattributed articles in the Times and Seasons that I propose Winchester wrote, which I explain in the book. I found the material quite interesting and I hope you do, too.

Here's the table of contents:


BTW, I've stopped giving advance copies to the citation cartel. They never provide input directly to me. Instead, they wait until after publication and then write foolish attack articles in the Interpreter. But in a way, that just gives me more fodder for the blogs.


Monday, May 16, 2016

Why Book of Mormon Wars?

I'm often asked about the title of this blog. I used it because it's relatively easy to remember and because it is a play on major themes in the Book of Mormon itself. Still, some people think it sounds contentious.

I'm migrating everything to a new blog that has a more "friendly" name, which I'll announce soon, but in the meantime, I'd like to give an example of what I'm trying to do here.

In October 1834, Joseph Smith, David Whitmer, Oliver Cowdery, Hyrum Smith, F.G. Williams, and R. and A. Orton left Kirtland on a steam boat, heading west. Below I quote Oliver's account of an incident that occurred on the boat that illustrates the importance of speaking out when you hear error. 

Some might consider Oliver's account contentious--in effect, a war--but I think it's a good illustration of what everyone should do when we hear or read errors.

That's all I'm trying to do on this blog.


From the Messenger and Advocate, October 1834

While passing this evening toward Monroe, at the mouth of the river Raisin, we held a conversation with a man calling himself Ellmer, on the subject of religion. When any thing was mentioned of the doctrine or belief of the Latter Day Saints, we could not but remark the similarity of spirit, and the uniformity of sentiment apparent in the actions and arguments of this man, with others alike ignorant. 

He said that he was personally acquainted with Joe Smith; had heard him preach his lies, and now, since he was dead, he was glad! In fact, he seemingly expressed more joy in this belief than any thing else which he advanced during the conversation. 

He said that he had heard Joe Smith preach in Bainbridge Chenango co. N. Y. five years since; he knew it to be him; that he was a dark complexioned man, &c. I was as particular to enquire [inquire] his appearance, size, age, &c. as decency would admit, and found that the man was guilty of falsehood. This accounted for the warmth of his assertions when he pronounced the name "Joe Smith," and I conclude that he learned it from the popular priests of the day, who, thro' fear that their craft will be injured if their systems are compared with the truth, seek to ridicule those who teach it.

Now, that he lied, I have no hesitancy in saying, as our brother Joseph Smith Jr. had not commenced to preach five years since, neither has he ever preached in Bainbridge; and, as to the correctness of his description of his complexion I leave all who are acquainted with his person, to judge. But his bluster, (for he made no little noise,) excited the curiosity of many who crowded round, eager to assertain [ascertain] the cause of this "war of words." 

After making several assertions, and many flourishes, he gave opportunity for an answer.-He said that the Savior had not been seen since his ascension, and that any man contradicting this was a deceiver.

After obtaining liberty to speak, we informed the gentleman that, to commence, we would correct one assertion just advanced, which was, that "Christ had not appeared to any man or men since his ascension into heaven, after his resurrection." 

The company listened intensely, and we proceeded:-

In John's testimony we read that after Peter and John, early in the morning, had left Mary at the sepulcher, she stood without, weeping, and after she had conversed with the angels, turned round and saw Jesus standing by; that when she knew that it was the Lord, she was forbidden to touch him: "For I am not yet ascended to my Father," were his words. See John, 20:17.

[Oliver describes other Bible verses they read.]

After ending these few remarks upon this item, we were prevented from making any further, as our friend Ellmer had grown quite uneasy, and also said that they were not to be found in the scriptures. 

He was informed, however, that if he would wait till I could go to my trunk he should have a privilege of seeing for himself, as those passages could be found in a few moments, to which I had referred. He said that he wanted nothing of my Mormon bible; that he did not believe in it, neither would he hear it.He was informed that it was the English version of the bible, containing the Old and New Testaments, translated by order of James VI, between the years 1607 and '10. 

As he refused to hear our bible, he was told if he would produce one on board the Boat, I would produce those items previously named-but he refused. 

A gentleman present (a methodist preacher by profession) said, that any man acquainted with his bible would be ready to admit the correctness of what had been quoted.-

The poor man soon found that the company discovered his ignorance, and also his anger, as he soon turned from us with a loud boast and an important swell, as another methodist priest from England had done a short time previous, after being shown the weakness of his own argument by our brother H. Smith.

How far this conversation was, or will be productive of good, I am unable to say; but by that means numbers heard, and no doubt, felt an increased anxiety to learn something further relative to this "strange work." 

One individual purchased a book of Mormon, notwithstanding Mr. Ellmer's bitter cry of "Joe Smith," and "false prophets;" and will thus have a privilege of hearing the truth, though he may be separated far from those who have authority to administer the ordinances of the everlasting gospel. May heaven inspire his heart to seek diligently until he obtains a certain knowledge of the kingdom of our God in these last days!

Read Letter VII

I hope every member of the Church reads Letter VII during 2016. (We're having it translated for non-English speakers. Let me know if you'd like it in your language.)

If you haven't read Letter VII, you owe it to yourself to do so ASAP. If your family and friends haven't read it, tell them about it.

Much of the controversy over Book of Mormon geography would be resolved if everyone read Oliver Cowdery's Letter VII. (This is the letter that unequivocally states, as a fact, that the hill in New York was the scene of the final battles of the Nephites and Jaredites.) You can find it online here, but there's a lot of detail to go through if you read all the letters at that link. They're all great, but most people don't have time to wade through them all.

My short annotated version is widely available in bookstores (including Deseret Book) and on Amazon and Kindle. You can also read it free online at Book of Mormon Central here.

When you read the letter, remember these points:

1. Joseph Smith helped to write it.

2. Oliver Cowdery was his scribe for the Book of Mormon and much more.

3. Letter VII is one of 8 letters Cowdery wrote about Church history, and an excerpt from one is included in the Pearl of Great Price at the end of Joseph Smith-History here.

4. The letters contain details only Joseph Smith (and Moroni) could have known.

5. Joseph Smith had his scribes copy the letters into his journal as part of his own history.

6. The letters were published in the Messenger and Advocate (the Kirtland equivalent of today's Ensign) in 1834-5, the Times and Seasons (the Nauvoo equivalent of the Ensign) in 1841, and the Gospel Reflector (an independent Mormon paper in Philadelphia) in 1841) as well as in a separate pamphlet in the UK in 1844. During Joseph's lifetime, most members of the Church were familiar with the letters, including Letter VII.

7. The letters, including letter VII, were used to compile the official history that is now in the Pearl of Great Price as Joseph Smith-History.


In light of these facts, ask yourself why the Mesoamerican advocates continue to reject Letter VII. Is it because it is not reliable, or because it contradicts their ideology?

Read it and see what you think.

Saturday, May 14, 2016

When All Economics Is Political

The WSJ has an excellent article today titled "When All Economics Is Political." I find a lot of analogies to the question of Book of Mormon geography.

The article is an interview Russ Roberts. I'll provide excerpts and comments.

WSJ: Economics fancies itself a science, and Mr. Roberts used to believe, as many of his peers do, that practitioners could draw dispassionate conclusions. But he has in recent years undergone something of a crisis of economic faith. “The problem is, you can’t look at the data objectively most of the time,” he says. “You have prior beliefs that are methodological or ideological about the impact of things, and that inevitably color the assumptions you make.”

ME: In similar fashion, the discussion about Book of Mormon geography and historicity is affected by ideology. As someone who has held different scholarly views over time--for decades, I accepted the citation cartel's position on Mesoamerica, but now I accept the North American setting--the power of ideology is quite apparent to me. It is the problem of seers; i.e., those wearing Mesoamerican glasses can't unsee Mesoamerica (and some wearing North American or Heartland glasses can't unsee that setting, either, although most, if not all, of them have previously worn the Mesoamerican glasses because that's what they were taught their entire lives).

I don't think it's possible to be completely objective, of course, but unless you can fully articulate the other side's position in a debate or argument, you don't understand the issues. I don't think anyone involved with this topic has bad motives or is, for lack of a better term, dumb. But the citation cartel seems determined to prevent people from knowing about the North American setting.

Overall, the major reasons why I changed my mind from Mesoamerica to North America are because the Mesoamerican arguments require us to deny (or rationalize away) basic facts of Church history, such as Letter VII, to disbelieve two of the Three Witnesses, to believe Joseph translated the book incorrectly, and to find "correspondences" between Mayan culture and the text that, in my view, are illusory at best and contradictory at worst. These objections are not the product of my prior beliefs; for decades, I actually agreed with the Mesoamerican view; i.e., I wore the Mesoamerican glasses. Instead, my change in positions is the product of removing the Mesoamerican glasses long enough to take another look at everything. And without those glasses, none of the Mesoamerican ideology holds up (which I think is one reason why it has been so utterly unpersuasive to non-Mormons and former Mormons).

WSJ: This seems obvious to an outsider, given the field’s tendency to devolve into stalemate. Each side has highly intelligent scholars, some with fancy Swedish gold medals, and yet each finds the other’s conclusions self-evidently stupid. The old saw in science is that progress comes one funeral at a time, as disciples of old theories die off. Economics doesn’t work that way. “There’s still Keynesians. There’s still monetarists. There’s still Austrians. Still arguing about it. And the worst part to me is that everybody looks at the other side and goes ‘What a moron!’ ” Mr. Roberts says. “That’s not how you debate science.”
If economists can’t even agree about the past, why are they so eager to predict the future?
ME: In the geography arena, it's not progress that comes one funeral at a time, but increased confusion. For the first 100 years of Church history, the New York setting for Cumorah was unilaterally accepted, even to the point of being included in the footnotes in the official version of the Book of Mormon itself. It wasn't until the 1920s that scholars began developing the two-Cumorah theory, and that in turn was based largely on the anonymous articles in the Times and Seasons. Those who had participated in the Times and Seasons were all dead, so despite warnings from Joseph Fielding Smith, the two-Cumorah theory took on a life of its own.

Now, in 2016, we're in a situation where LDS scholars can't even agree whether to give credence to Letter VII. During Joseph Smith's lifetime, Letter VII was a given. No one questioned its unequivocal explanation that the final wars of the Nephites and Jaredites took place in the valley west of what we call today the Hill Cumorah.

If LDS scholars can't even agree about the past, why are they so eager to promulgate their theories about geography?

I've long called for an agreement about basic facts of Church history, but so far, that hasn't happened.

WSJ: To a hard materialist, the world is physics all the way down. If free will is an illusion, if knowable laws govern every unfolding event, then why can’t social scientists march toward a perfect understanding?

This one is a fascinating philosophical question, but I apply it to the geography debate this way. Some people insist on "conclusive evidence" about historical events. That's akin to insisting on the laws of physics explaining everything. But there can be no "conclusive evidence" about what happened in history. First-person accounts are the best evidence we have, but they can be erroneous, self-interested, biased, or even intentionally deceptive. That's why we consider such evidence in light of extrinsic evidence that corroborates or contradicts the account, including any physical evidence, and knowledge about basic human behavior.

Insisting on "conclusive evidence" is essentially opening the door to whatever one wants to think; i.e., because there neither is nor can be "conclusive evidence" of what happened in history, one's theories are not constrained by any facts at all. This is what I see happening in the Mesoamerican arena. Their theories contradict the evidence we do have (such as Letter VII), so they disregard the evidence. This untethered approach has led to what we see today in the writings of the citation cartel.

Overall, I think members of the Church who are allowed to see all of the evidence will soundly reject the Mesoamerican theory. (Many are too indoctrinated by BYU/CES to be willing to even take a look at alternatives, but that is changing.) I think that's why the citation cartel has refused to allow their readers to see alternatives to the Mesoamerican theory.

I've been told more than once (mostly by old-timers) that those who speak or write against the Mesoamerican theory are apostates, shouldn't have temple recommends, etc. That's how serious this indoctrination has become.

In this sense, then, maybe the old saw will actually work on Book of Mormon geography after all. The old saw in science is that progress comes one funeral at a time, as disciples of old theories die off.