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, May 23, 2018

From Darkness Unto Light?

This week I was going to show how revisionist LDS historians are rewriting Church history. I have to go out of town unexpectedly and probably won't get a chance to post the entire series until next week, but here's an overview.

In 1834-5, Joseph Smith and Oliver Cowdery wrote a series of essays on Church history and doctrine (the first "gospel topics essays") to refute an 1834 anti-Mormon book titled Mormonism Unvailed.

Now revisionist LDS historians are using Mormonism Unvailed to refute Joseph Smith and Oliver Cowdery. 

Among other things, they are claiming that Joseph Smith didn't really use the plates when he translated. Instead, according to these revisionists, the plates were left covered by a cloth throughout the translation process and Joseph merely read the words of a seer stone in the bottom of a hat.

In my view, this is a grave mistake.

Worse, the Church History Department is accepting their spin. The Correlation Department is implementing the revisionist history throughout the Church. Missionaries are being told to teach people what the revisionist historians are promoting. This is causing confusion and uncertainty.

I think this is a disaster for the same reasons Oliver and Joseph responded to the claims of Mormonism Unvailed in the first place, all the way back in 1834 and 1835.

I emphasize that these are merely my personal conclusions, based on my own research and careful reading of this book and the sources they cite and omit. None of this is personal, of course; we're merely dealing with words on pages, not people. The authors are faithful LDS, careful scholars, and nice people. I just think this book seeks to confirm a bias about the plates and the translation process that also happens to support M2C (the Mesoamerican/two-Cumorahs theory).

In October 1834, Oliver Cowdery published the first of a series of eight essays he wrote with the assistance of Joseph Smith. I call these the first "gospel topics essays" because they address important issues involving Church history and doctrine that remain relevant today. They were originally published as letters to W.W. Phelps in the Church's newspaper in Kirtland, Ohio, titled the Latter Day Saints' Messenger and Advocate.

For example, essay (letter) IV is available online here:

Soon after the eighth essay was published, President Frederick G. Williams, Second Counselor in the First Presidency, began copying them into Joseph's personal history. You can see them in the Joseph Smith Papers today, such as essay IV here:

Also in October 1834, the anti-Mormon book Mormonism Unvailed was published in nearby Painesville, Ohio. You can see it here:

The influence of Mormonism Unvailed persisted for years. (Actually, with the book From Darkness Unto Light its influence has been rejuvenated.)

During Joseph's lifetime, President Cowdery's essays were republished in Church newspapers for everyone to read and re-read them. This includes the Times and Seasons, the Millennial Star, the Gospel Reflector, and The Prophet. The essays were cited by Church leaders in later years. Part of Letter I is canonized in the Pearl of Great Price. The essays were published again in Utah in the Improvement Era when Joseph F. Smith was the editor.

Yet these essays have never been published in the Ensign. They have been essentially forgotten and overlooked. Worse, they have been specifically repudiated by some revisionist historians and Book of Mormon scholars. M2C intellectuals at BYU/CES and the Correlation and History Departments even teach that President Cowdery was lying in Letter VII.

Today, it seems the revisionist historians rely more on Mormonism Unvailed than on President Cowdery's letters.

Richard L. Bushman's Foreword foreshadows some of the problems I found in this book. Original in blue.

p. v. “Books like this one will bring Latter-day Saint readers up to date on the results of the latest historical research. While, like all histories, From Darkness unto Light is necessarily an interpretation, the authors base their story firmly on the original sources. They get down to what historians consider to be the bedrock of historical constructions.”

I found the historical references in this book very helpful. But, as we'll see, there is a lot of interpretation in this book. I mean, a lot. The authors tell us what Joseph was thinking, what motivated him, etc. That's fine when it is acknowledged, but several important and relevant original sources are omitted in the book. Why? The only reason I can think of is because these original sources contradict the authors' interpretations. This is problematic.

“Joseph probably first used the stones set in spectacles that came with the plates, and then, for most of the translation period, substituted one of the stones he had found. Joseph put the seer stone in a hat to exclude the light and read off the translated text by looking in the stone. All the while, the plates lay wrapped in a cloth on the table. Apparently Joseph did not look at the plates through most of the translation.”

To persuade readers of this conclusion, the authors simply omit contrary evidence. That makes their conclusion appear obvious, but there's another way to interpret the same evidence that is consistent with both the evidence they consider and the evidence they omit. From my perspective, all the evidence, when considered together, is consistent with the traditional narrative that Joseph did actually use the plates and sometimes used the hat during the final part of the translation process when he read what appeared on the stone. I disagree with the authors' interpretation because I think Joseph actually translated the engravings on the plates, as the scriptures state. 

“Failure to acknowledge these factual accounts, almost all of them in friendly sources, can devastate Latter-day Saints who run across them. Feeling that the Church has covered up the truth, they become disillusioned and even angry. This book is an attempt to repair the misconceptions so that the next generation of Latter-day Saints will be better informed.”

I agree with this concept, but in my view, the book covers up critical original sources that contradict the authors' conclusions. Consequently, the book creates more misconceptions that will have far-reaching consequences now that the Church History Department has essentially adopted the authors' conclusions.

“For years Mormon scholars simply disregarded critical sources, such as the affidavits concerning the Smith family in E..D. Howe’s Mormonism Unvailed… Everything has to be examined and evaluated. MacKay and Dirkmaat work on the principle that bias must be taken into account in analyzing any historical sources. The art of the historian is to extract useful information from original sources whether negative or positive.”

President Cowdery considered Mormonism Unvailed as soon as it was published. That's why he emphasized he was using facts when he wrote the eight essays. Yet the authors ignore much of what President Cowdery wrote and instead rely more on Mormonism Unvailed, as I indicated at the outset of this post.

In upcoming posts we'll look at passages in the book itself to see what sources the authors omitted and why.

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