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.

Wednesday, February 7, 2018

Getting real about Cumorah - Part 5b, unique treatment of Cumorah in New York

It is fascinating to observe how the psychological power of confirmation bias has led people to form strong opinions on the topic of Book of Mormon geography. Anyone who thinks he/she has taken a position based on "the evidence" or on "the text" is living in a delusion.

Everyone involved in this discussion has the same faith and testimony.

Everyone is reading the same text.

Everyone has access to the same physical and scientific evidence.

Everyone has access to the same teachings of the prophets.

Yet people reach completely contradictory conclusions. Why?

The truth is, we are all interpreting "the evidence" and "the text" through filters that confirm our biases. And our bias is driven by whether we accept (i) the prophets who teach a New York Cumorah or (ii) the intellectuals who teach a non-New York Cumorah. 

Everything else is confirmation bias. 

Our psychology is such that, once we make the choice about which expert to follow, we automatically reject the other category of expert.

We defer to experts (prophets or intellectuals, respectively) precisely because there is physical and scientific evidence to support both positions. Both positions rely on subjective interpretations of the text that confirm our respective biases, which in turn are determined by our initial choice of which expert we follow.

Those who accept the prophets reject the intellectuals who contradict the prophets, while those who accept the intellectuals reject the prophets who contradict the intellectuals. It's axiomatic. It's an irresistible psychological reality.

The fun comes when those who accept the intellectuals, and yet also claim they want to follow the prophets (such as BYU/CES employees teaching Book of Mormon or Church History classes), try to rationalize their choice by claiming the prophets haven't actually taught the things they have declared. They stare at the words and deny they are there--the power of confirmation bias.

Tomorrow we'll assess the origin of these powerful biases. Friday I'll offer some suggestions for cognitive debiasing. Next week we'll look at more of the physical and scientific aspects of the Hill Cumorah.

But today I want to point out how, because of confirmation bias , the New York Cumorah has been treated uniquely among all the other teachings of the prophets and apostles. 

Before getting started with examples, I need to explain my purpose here.

Psychological studies have shown that information rarely, if ever, overcomes bias confirmation. People always interpret new information so that if it confirms their bias, they accept it, but if it contradicts their bias, they reject it as unreliable or otherwise flawed.

If you think the Hill Cumorah is in New York, evidence regarding other theories will have no impact on your beliefs. You will dismiss it out of hand because it contradicts the experts you've chosen (the prophets). Because of your confirmation bias, the information in this post will make you even more perplexed at the rejection of the prophets and apostles by faithful members of the Church.

Because your bias is based on the words of the prophets, however, if, say, President Nelson came out today and declared that the Hill Cumorah is somewhere else, accepting that teaching would be consistent with your bias, even if it conflicted with your previous beliefs about Cumorah. You might have to work out the inconsistencies between past and present prophets, but your bias in favor of accepting the prophets would lead you to accept the new teaching. You would suddenly see the evidence differently to confirm your stronger bias of following the prophet.

Likewise, if you think the Hill Cumorah is not in New York--if you accept the M2C (Mesoamerican/two-Cumorahs) theory or another non-New York theory--none of the information in this post will change your mind. You have already accepted the proposition that the prophets and apostles were wrong, so no matter how many times they repeated the teaching and no matter the purpose or context, you are convinced they are wrong and bias confirmation will make sure any new data fits the M2C paradigm.

Because of the psychology of bias confirmation, there is literally nothing any Church leader can say that will change your mind on this topic. Even if President Nelson came out today and read Letter VII and said he stands by it, your bias confirmation would have you believe that was just his opinion and he was wrong because you've already interpreted past statements by the prophets and apostles that way.

The corollary, of course, is that because your bias is based on teachings of intellectuals you respect, if those same intellectuals began teaching a New York Cumorah, it would be consistent with your bias to adopt that view, even though it contradicted your past beliefs. You would suddenly see the evidence differently to confirm your stronger bias of following the intellectuals you respect.

Bottom line: I'm offering this information not to convince anyone of anything, but to (i) show the power of bias confirmation and (ii) illustrate how deeply bias confirmation has seeped into the Church.

Let me re-emphasize that last point.

Bias confirmation on the part of Church employees has always led to decisions about curriculum, media, artwork, visitors' center displays, etc., that confirm their bias. Until about 1980, the bias was in favor of the prophets and opposed to the intellectuals. Since about 1980, that bias has been in favor of the intellectuals and opposed to the prophets.

The question for today is which bias will prevail in the future.

Let's look at three examples of how confirmation bias operates to treat the teaching (doctrine) of the New York Cumorah uniquely.

1. Official Mormon Doctrine. The Church has published guidelines so people can know what is and what is not official Church doctrine. See https://www.mormonnewsroom.org/article/approaching-mormon-doctrine

The New York Cumorah seems to fit the criteria, as I've explained in these posts:




As far as I have discovered, and as far as anyone else has told me, the New York Cumorah is the only teaching that (i) meets these criteria, yet (ii) people nevertheless deny is Church doctrine.

Some people say the location of Cumorah is not a doctrinal issue because locations are not doctrinal in nature. "Doctrine" is defined as "a set of beliefs. The word comes from the Latin doctor for “teacher,” so think of a doctrine is the teachings of a school, religion, or political group." By that definition, locations of sacred events are doctrines when they are what a religion teaches.

Would we say the location of the Sacred Grove is not Church doctrine? If it is not doctrine, why do we have a Visitors' Center in Palmyra? Unquestionably, the Church teaches that the First Vision took place there, so it is a teaching--a doctrine--of the Church.

It's certainly true that, as the Mormon Newsroom points out, "Some doctrines are more important than others and might be considered core doctrines. For example, the precise location of the Garden of Eden is far less important than doctrine about Jesus Christ and His atoning sacrifice." The example given there is extreme to make the point clear, but what about closer cases?

For example, could we say that it doesn't matter whether the First Vision took place near Palmyra or somewhere else?

I think not. The reason: it goes to the credibility of Joseph Smith, the only witness to the event. He said it happened in what we now know was the Sacred Grove. If someone produces evidence that it actually occurred in Pennsylvania, that might not change the reality of the visitation, but it would raise a serious issue about the credibility of Joseph Smith that would carry over to other things he claimed.

Another point about the relative importance of doctrines is how often they are taught, and for what purposes. Letter VII was written partly in response to the claim in Mormonism Unvailed that the Book of Mormon was fiction. President Cowdery emphasized the physical reality of the Book of Mormon by stating it was a fact that the final battles of the Jaredites and Nephites took place in the mile-wide valley west of the New York hill where Joseph found the plates. The teaching served a very important purpose then, and it continues to do so today. That's why it was repeated so often.

It is indisputable that for over 150 years, leaders of the Church have consistently and specifically taught that the Hill Cumorah of Mormon 6:6 is the same hill in Western New York from which Joseph Smith obtained the set of plates that he translated in Harmony, PA. This was no isolated statement; it was proclaimed openly in General Conference by members of the First Presidency and Quorum of the Twelve. It was published repeatedly in official Church publications. It has never been contradicted by any member of the Twelve or First Presidency.

The only ones who oppose this teaching are certain intellectuals in the Church and their followers.

I know of no other such teaching that has been so often repeated by Church leaders yet is openly repudiated by LDS scholars and Church staff.  I'd like to know if anyone can think of another one.

Some may say the New York Cumorah is an unimportant doctrine.

We've already seen why President Cowdery formally published Letter VII. We've seen how many times the teaching was repeated. Now let's look at one example of how important previous prophets and apostles have considered the teaching.

In October 1975, President Marion G. Romney of the First Presidency spoke in General Conference on the topic of "America's Destiny." Present at the time were President Spencer W. Kimball and Elders (and future Presidents) Ezra Taft Benson, Howard W. Hunter, Gordon B. Hinckley, and Thomas S. Monson.

President Romney said this:

I will give you a lesson today that the Lord has taken great pains to bring to us.... In the western part of the state of New York near Palmyra is a prominent hill known as the “hill Cumorah.” (Morm. 6:6.) On July twenty-fifth of this year, as I stood on the crest of that hill admiring with awe the breathtaking panorama which stretched out before me on every hand, my mind reverted to the events which occurred in that vicinity some twenty-five centuries ago—events which brought to an end the great Jaredite nation.... Thus perished at the foot of Cumorah the remnant of the once mighty Jaredite nation, of whom the Lord had said, “There shall be none greater … upon all the face of the earth.” (Ether 1:43.)

As I contemplated this tragic scene from the crest of Cumorah and viewed the beautiful land of the Restoration as it appears today, I cried in my soul, “How could it have happened?”... This second civilization to which I refer, the Nephites, flourished in America between 600 B.C. and A.D. 400. Their civilization came to an end for the same reason, at the same place, and in the same manner as did the Jaredites’.... I bear you my personal witness that I know that the things I have presented to you today are true—both those pertaining to past events and those pertaining to events yet to come.

The language here is unambiguous. Can anyone say President Romney did not think his teaching was important? He bore his personal witness that the things he told about past events were true. And yet, confirmation bias is so strong among the M2C intellectuals that they have convinced themselves and their followers that President Romney did not say what he said; instead, he was merely expressing his personal opinion and that he was wrong.

Because of confirmation bias, they honestly believe that 5 Presidents of the Church sat there and listened to false doctrine being preached without saying anything.

In fact, far from opposing President Romney's teaching, 15 years later President Hinckley himself personally approved of a letter that stated, “The Church has long maintained, as attested to by references in the writings of General Authorities, that the Hill Cumorah in western New York state is the same as referenced in the Book of Mormon.”

As I indicated at the outset, if you believe Cumorah is not in New York, none of this will change your bias one iota because you've chosen the intellectuals as your experts, not the prophets. But if you believe Cumorah is in New York, than all of this strongly confirms your bias.

2. Brigham  Young. As the second President of the Church, Brigham Young has been enormously influential--and controversial, both inside and outside the Church. But as far as I've been able to discover, and as far as anyone else has explained, there is only one time he described a historical incident about which people say he was either lying, mistaken, or describing a vision.

Of course, I'm referring to his observations about Mormon's depository in the Hill Cumorah in New York.

This is a core issue because if President Young was telling the truth about what he knew, then Oliver Cowdery and at least Don Carlos bore witness to him that they and others had actually entered Mormon's depository in the Hill Cumorah in New York. This means that when President Cowdery wrote Letter VII, he was speaking from personal experience, not from speculation, rumor, or even revelation. I've discussed this several times, including here: http://www.lettervii.com/2016/06/the-room-in-cumorah-why-its-important.html

Knowing this, the M2C intellectuals claim that Brigham was merely describing a vision that Oliver had of a hill in southern Mexico. This alleged vision was shared with Joseph on multiple occasions. During this alleged vision, Joseph and Oliver returned the plates to the cave and saw the other plates and artifacts. Don Carlos and others either shared the same vision or were a witness to Oliver and Joseph having the vision.

The detailed account is here: http://www.lettervii.com/2016/06/the-room-in-cumorah-brigham-young.html

When you read the account, ask yourself, was Brigham Young relating a vision or an actual experience? Note these statements:

I lived right in the country where the plates were found from which the Book of Mormon was translated, and I know a great many things pertaining to that country.

Oliver Cowdery went with the Prophet Joseph when he deposited these plates.

Oliver says that when Joseph and Oliver went there, the hill opened, and they walked into a cave, in which there was a large and spacious room.

They laid the plates on a table; it was a large table that stood in the room. Under this table there was a pile of plates as much as two feet high, and there were altogether in this room more plates than probably many wagon loads; they were piled up in the corners and along the walls. 

I tell you this as coming not only from Oliver Cowdery, but others who were familiar with it, and who understood it just as well as we understand coming to this meeting, enjoying the day, and by and by we separate and go away, forgetting most of what is said, but remembering some things. 

I relate this to you, and I want you to understand it. I take this liberty of referring to those things so that they will not be forgotten and lost. Carlos Smith was a young man of as much veracity as any young man we had, and he was a witness to these things.

Normally, a historian would be thrilled with such testimony. Here is a President of the Church, nearing the end of his life (he would die 2 months later), relating an event he thought was so important that he didn't want the Church to forget about it. He cited specifics. He named other witnesses. The event corroborated not only Letter VII but the teachings of all the other prophets and apostles who had also claimed that the Hill Cumorah was in New York.

Those who choose to follow the prophets readily accept this account. It passes right through their confirmation bias filter.

Even those who choose to follow the intellectuals would normally accept Brigham Young's statements about historical events, but this one presents a problem. It contradicts their bias about the New York Cumorah. To accept this statement as an accurate account of an actual event would obliterate their belief that Cumorah cannot be in New York, but worse, it would destroy the credibility of their chosen expert, the intellectuals who teach M2C.

Therefore, once again, the Prophet cannot be correct.

Confirmation bias requires them to interpret President Young's account as something other than literal.

Inferring that President Young was describing a dream here is pretty much impossible. We have Oliver, Joseph, and at least Don Carlos as participants.

We can tell ourselves that maybe Mormon's depository was magically transported to New York for Joseph, Oliver, Don Carlos and others to experience. Or we could tell ourselves that these brethren were magically transported to southern Mexico to have these experiences.

To an outside observer, no matter which of these alternatives we choose, we're straining. Our confirmation bias is at full strength, but even then, the magical thinking causes more problems than it solves.

So we tell ourselves that Brigham Young was wrong, or that Oliver and Don Carlos lied about what happened; i.e., it was completely made up or it was merely a vision or dream.

Even though we accept the intellectuals over the prophets, we don't want to base our position on the premise that the prophets are liars. We can't say Brigham Young was expressing a false opinion here, either; he was simply relating what others told him.

So the only solution is to frame this as a dream, as improbable as that is.

Fortunately, we have other accounts (about 10 of them). Unfortunately, they all speak in literal terms the way President Young did.

But we can turn to Heber C. Kimball's separate account and focus on a single term he used.

When he was discussing the handcart pioneers, Kimball said, "How does it compare with the vision that Joseph and others had, when they went into a cave in the hill Cumorah, and saw more records than ten men could carry? There were books piled up on tables, book upon book. Those records this people will yet have, if they accept of the Book of Mormon and observe its precepts, and keep the commandments."

On another occasion, Brigham Young noted that "President [Heber C.] Kimball talked familiarly
to the brethren about Father Smith, [Oliver] Cowdery, and others walking into the hill Cumorah and seeing records upon records piled upon table[s,] they walked from cell to cell and saw the records that were piled up. . . ."

That account sounds literal, but it doesn't matter. Our confirmation bias has seized on that term "vision" and that's the only thing that matters. Everything in every one of these accounts must be interpreted as a vision.

Someone who doesn't share our bias may point out that the term "vision" is a synonym for "view," but that, too, doesn't matter. Our bias will not allow this account of walking into Mormon's depository on the Hill Cumorah to be true, so our minds will latch onto one connotation of one term and dismiss everything else.

And it doesn't matter that this interpretation of Brigham Young's statement is unique to this account because it involves the New York Cumorah.

3. Oliver Cowdery. In a previous post, I pointed out that most LDS agree that Oliver Cowdery, as one of the 3 Witnesses, was truthful.

Those with the M2C bias, however, cannot accept what he wrote in Letter VII. Consequently, they have to tell themselves that on this unique topic, he was lying or mistaken. I demonstrated their confirmation bias with a table that shows how they accept everything except this one teachings.

Oliver was truthful about everything except...

Letter VII from Messenger and Advocate, July 1835
Those who reject Letter VII cite no reasons other than their preference for a different location for the Hill Cumorah.

It is interesting to take a look at Oliver Cowdery's participation in the Church to put Letter VII in context. When he wrote it, he was the Assistant President of the Church. He had been commanded by revelation to select materials to publish. All eight of Oliver's letters about history are accepted by Church historians as important insights into the early events of the Church.

The only ones who object to any of Oliver's writings are the Mesoamerican advocates who reject just a few paragraphs out of one of the eight letters.

Oliver published Letter VII in July 1835. In February 1835, he, as one of the Three Witnesses, had selected the first members of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles. He gave them their aspostolic charge. In April 1836, he, along with Joseph Smith, was visited in the Kirtland temple by Moses, Elias, Elijah, and the Savior Himself. Oliver and Joseph were given the keys of the gathering of Israel and the dispensation of the gospel of Abraham.

Mesoamerican advocates expect you to believe that Oliver Cowdery could faithfully record the entire Book of Mormon, most of the Book of Moses, and much of Church history. Oliver could faithfully edit and publish two Church newspapers, the Book of Commandments, and the original Doctrine and Covenants. He could accurately write the statement for the Three Witnesses. Of all the writing he did, you're supposed to believe he was faithful and accurate except for a few paragraphs in one letter, solely because those paragraphs contradict the opinions of the scholars.

Here is the chronology. Everything that is okay is marked green. The items the scholars object to is marked red.


1829 April
Transcribes Book of Mormon as Joseph dictates

1829 May
Receives Aaronic Priesthood from John the Baptist, baptizes Joseph and is baptized by him

1829 May
Receives Melchizedek Priesthood from Peter, James and John

1829 June
Sees the plates and angel as one of the Three Witnesses

1829 June
Completes Book of Mormon and makes a printer’s copy, supervises printing and publication

1830 April
Helps organize the Church as a Second Elder and apostle, ordains Joseph Smith as First Elder

1830 June
Transcribes Book of Moses 1:1 through 5:43

1830 Oct.
Leaves on mission to the Lamanites

1830 Nov.
Baptizes Sidney Rigdon

1831 Jan.
Arrives in Jackson County, Mo.

1831 Summer
Meets Joseph in Jackson County

1831 Nov.
Takes revelations from Ohio to Missouri for publication

Helps Phelps with printing operation in Missouri

1832 Apr.
Approves Book of Commandments

1833 Nov.
Sets up printing press in Kirtland, reprints Evening and Morning Star

1833 Dec.
Begins editing Evening and Morning Star

1834 Feb.
Chosen as founding member of Kirtland Council

1834 May-Aug.
Leader in Kirtland after Zions Camp left

1834 Oct
Edits LDS Messenger and Advocate and Northern Times

1834 Oct
Publishes Letter I about Church history, part of which is in the current Pearl of Great Price

1834 Nov
Publishes Letter II about Church history

1834 Dec
Publishes Letter III about Church history

1834 Dec
Ordained by Joseph Smith as “Assistant President of the Church”

Publishes Letter IV about Church history

1835 Feb
With David Whitmer and Martin Harris, selects first members of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles

1835 Feb
Gives apostolic charge to the Twelve Apostles

1835 Mar
Publishes Letter V about Church history

1835 Apr
Publishes Letter VI about Church history

1835 May
Resigns from Messenger and Advocate

1835 July
Publishes Letter VII about Church history

1835 Aug.
Gets Doctrine and Covenants approved for printing

1835 Oct.
Publishes Letter VIII about Church history

1836 Mar.
Resumes editing the Messenger and Advocate

1836 Apr.
Visited in Kirtland temple by Moses, Elias, Elijah, and Christ, receives the keys of the gathering of Israel and dispensation of gospel of Abraham

1836 July
Accompanies Joseph to Salem, MA

1837 Feb.
Turns over printing company to Joseph and Sidney

1838 July
“Excluded from fellowship” for accusations against Joseph

1848 Nov.
Rebaptized into the Church

1850 March
Dies in Richmond at home of David Whitmer

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