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.

Thursday, April 13, 2017

Book summaries - The Lost City of Zarahemla

People have asked for summaries of my books, so I'll start with The Lost City of Zarahemla. You might enjoy reading it because it explains, for the first time, who actually wrote the anonymous articles in the Times and Seasons. (On Amazon or Deseret Book).

I wrote this one more than two years ago. It was my first book about Church history, and it initially provoked considerable controversy. Now, I think my conclusions are generally accepted.

The book started when I wanted to answer this question, "Who wrote the anonymous articles in the Times and Seasons that linked the Book of Mormon to Central America?"

The Mesoamerican theory that many LDS scholars and educators continue to promote has always relied on these articles for support, based on the inference that Joseph Smith wrote them because he was the editor of the paper.

After researching the issue, I found lots of evidence that Joseph had nothing to do with these editorials and that Benjamin Winchester, probably with editorial input from W.W. Phelps and/or William Smith, wrote the anonymous editorials.

The book generated some fascinating opposition from the Mesoamerican advocates. They didn't know I had more research that I couldn't fit into this book (which I'll discuss when I summarize Brought to Light and The Editors).

You can see why they opposed my conclusions. If it wasn't Joseph Smith who wrote or edited (or at least approved of) these articles, then who did? And why? I offered answers in Lost City, but the answers undermined one of the fundamental premises for the Mesoamerican theory.

So far as I know, this was the first book to propose a specific alternative author for the anonymous articles. Previously, everyone simply assumed that Joseph Smith (or John Taylor) had written them.

I think now most historians who have looked into this issue agree with my general conclusions, although people may have various views about the relative contributions of Winchester, Phelps and William Smith. The main point--that Joseph Smith did not write or edit these anonymous editorials--is pretty well accepted now by those who have considered the historical record in detail.

Some Mesoamerican proponents have lately said they never relied on these articles in the first place, so it doesn't matter that Joseph didn't write or edit them. That's revisionist history, of course, as anyone can see by simply reading the literature. For example, John Sorenson cites the anonymous articles on pages 2-3 of his seminal book, An Ancient American Setting for the Book of Mormon.

There are still a few Mesoamerican proponents who stick with the idea that Joseph Smith wrote (or edited) the anonymous articles. I've never seen a detailed analysis of the historical evidence that supports that theory; however, these proponents rely on a "stylometry" analysis published a few years ago that I discussed briefly in the book and will review here.

When I first inquired about the question of authorship, I was often referred to an article published by the Maxwell Institute here, titled "Joseph Smith, the Times and Seasons, and Central American Ruins."

Here is the Abstract, with my notes in red:

[During the time the Latter-day Saints lived in Nauvoo, John Stephens and Frederick Catherwood published Incidents of Travel in Central America, an illustrated report of the first discovery of ancient ruins in Central America by explorers. These discoveries caused great excitement among the Saints, and subsequently five editorials appeared in the Times and Seasons commenting on what these meant for the church. Although the author of the editorials was not indicated, historians have wondered if Joseph Smith penned them since he was the newspaper’s editor at the time. [Mesoamerican advocates have always assumed he did, which is why they continue to cite these articles to support their theory.] We examined the historical evidence surrounding the editorials and conducted a detailed stylometric analysis of the texts, comparing the writing style in the editorials with the writing styles of Joseph Smith, John Taylor, and Wilford Woodruff—the only men involved with the newspaper during the time the editorials were published. [Actually, Woodruff handled the business matters of the printing shop, which printed the newspaper among other things. Taylor wrote some things for Joseph--Joseph needed lots of things written in his various civic and church capacities--but Taylor never said he wrote for the paper and Joseph said Taylor began his editorial career in November 1842. Several people worked at the newspaper, including a copy editor. William Smith edited and published the Wasp from the same office during this time.] Both the historical and stylometric evidence point toward Joseph Smith as the most likely author of the editorials. [There is zero historical evidence that Joseph wrote the editorials. The authors refuse to share their assumptions, database, and software for independent analysis of any legitimate "stylometric evidence" that exists.]  Even if he did not write them alone, he took full responsibility for the contents of the newspaper during his editorial tenure when he stated, “I alone stand for it.” [This statement was written in the Times and Seasons in March, months before the anonymous articles were written. There is no documentary evidence that Joseph Smith even wrote the statement in the first place. Other people wrote lots of things in his name, and even signed his signature at times.]
The abstract alone includes logical and factual fallacies, but the article itself is even worse. IMO, it is basically an exercise in confirmation bias, using "black box" stylometry results. I won't get into the details, but I wanted to collaborate with the author and revisit the "stylometry" analysis. Instead, the author wrote three long attack articles and refused to make his database, assumptions, and software available for replication. I would have been happy to accept the results of the stylometry had these factors been available for analysis and replication, and I think the author's refusal to release the critical information says all anyone needs to know about the validity of the study.


  1. "I think the author's refusal to release the critical information says all anyone needs to know about the validity of the study."
    Indeed. Thanks.

  2. I remember the three-part series and how embarrassing many of us supporters and long-time readers of the Interpreter found those articles. And also disappointing. The first two articles seemed to suggest an alternative author, and the data shared from the final one really seemed to confirm it (even if the author avoided what seemed to me to be the obvious conclusion from the rest of his evidence and analysis). I've been curious since: Did you ever consider John E. Page as a potential author of/contributor to these specific anonymous Times and Seasons articles?