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, June 25, 2019

Writing off the next generation

Revisionist Church historians and M2C intellectuals keep erecting barriers to entry for nonmembers, youth, and less active members. Their theories make the Restoration less and less believable because they are embracing claims made by opponents to Joseph Smith in the 1830s.

We've seen how, as a result of these efforts, fewer and fewer Church members believe the Book of Mormon is an authentic history. Even some BYU professors don't believe the Book of Mormon is a real history. That trend is accelerating with younger generations, which is completely understandable given what they're being taught.

Maybe it's time to go ahead and write off the next generation completely?

The latest barrier is the book Mormonism Unvailed, which some intellectuals have embraced as a more accurate account of what happened in the early days of the Church than the statements made by Joseph Smith, Oliver Cowdery, and the revelations in the D&C.

We can show this as a chiasm.

A - Mormonism Unvailed (MA) published
      B - Oliver and Joseph refute MA with facts in 8 widely published essays (letters)
            C - LDS prophets and apostles reaffirm Oliver's response
                  D - LDS intellectuals are hired to guide the Church
            C1 - LDS intellectuals teach that the prophets merely express their own opinions
      B1 - LDS intellectuals say Oliver and Joseph were ignorant speculators
A1 - LDS intellectuals embrace Mormonism Unvailed

And now, we have the teachings of Mormonism Unvailed presented as the truth right on lds.org.

The irony, of course, is that the same intellectuals who are teaching from Mormonism Unvailed don't want members of the Church to even read the eight essays produced by Joseph and Oliver.

(Thanks to the direction of Joseph Smith, his scribes copied them into his personal history. You can read them in the Joseph Smith Papers. For more context, go here: http://www.lettervii.com/).

The full title of the book explains its themes and why embracing it now is, let's say, not a positive development.


Mormonism Unvailed version of the translation
of the Book of Mormon, presented in the latest video
on lds.org
Watch this video, especially starting around 2:30.


This interpretation replaces a series of unambiguous statements from Joseph and Oliver (combined with specific revelations) with an derogatory narrative about the stone-in-a-hat, taken from the 1834 book Mormonism Unvailed.

Notice, the video doesn't even quote Joseph and Oliver:

Two days after the arrival of Mr. Cowdery (being the 7th of April) I commenced to translate the Book of Mormon, and he began to write for me. JS-H 1:67

Day after day I continued, uninterrupted, to write from his mouth, as he translated with the Urim and Thummim, or, as the Nephites would have said, ‘Interpreters,’ the history or record called ‘The Book of Mormon.’ (Note after JS-H 1:75, excepted from Letter I, Messenger and Advocate, vol. 1 (October 1834), pp. 14-16, also in History 1834-1836.

[Moroni] gave me directions how to obtain them. I obtained them, and the Urim and Thummim with them; by the means of which, I translated the plates; and thus came the book of Mormon. Joseph Smith, Elder's Journal, July 1838

With the records was found a curious instrument which the ancients called “Urim and Thummim,” which consisted of two transparent stones set in the rim of a bow fastened to a breastplate.

Through the medium of the Urim and Thummim I translated the record by the gift, and power of God. Joseph Smith, Church History, 1 March 1842, Times and Seasons

Here's a key point.

When Oliver wrote Letter I, quoted above, he was responding in part to Mormonism Unvailed, which made the claim that Joseph used a stone in a hat to find treasure and to translate the Book of Mormon without using the plates. Oliver emphasized that he was relying on facts to rebut false accusations.

Here are the passages from Mormonism Unvailed:


and here:


From Mormonism Unvailed: The translation finally commenced. They were found to contain a language not now known upon the earth which they termed "reformed Egyptian characters." The plates, therefore, which had been so much talked of, were found to be of no manner of use. After all, the Lord showed and communicated to him every word and letter of the Book. Instead of looking at the characters inscribed upon the plates, the prophet was obliged to resort to the old "peep stone," which he formerly used in money-digging. This he placed in a hat, or box, into which he also thrust his face. Through the stone he could then discover a single word at a time, which he repeated aloud to his amanuensis, who committed it to paper, when another word would immediately appear, and thus the performance continued to the end of the book.

Another account they give of the translation, is, that it was performed with the big spectacles before mentioned, and which were in fact, the identical Urim and Thumim mentioned in Exodus 28 - 30, and were brought away from Jerusalem by the heroes of the book, handed down from one generation to another, and finally buried up in Ontario county, some fifteen centuries since, to enable Smith to translate the plates without looking at them!

Mormonism Unvailed claimed Joseph used a peep stone in a hat, or alternatively he used the Nephite Urim and Thummim, without looking at the plates.

Oliver's first-person account, along with Joseph's first person accounts, rebutted the erroneous points in both of these claims by Mormonism Unvailed. Joseph, Oliver and the revelations in the D&C explained that Joseph translated the engravings on the plates using the Nephite interpreters, called by them the Urim and Thummim.

In addition to his own accounts and the scriptures, Joseph Smith helped write Oliver's letters and specifically approved them by having them copied into his history as part of his life story and by having them republished by two of his brothers, as well as Parley P. Pratt and Benjamin Winchester.

Yet our revisionist LDS historians embrace the Mormonism Unvailed account instead and portrayed that in the video.

Everyone can see there is a direct conflict between Mormonism Unvailed and the statements from Joseph, Oliver and the D&C. There are three ways to resolve the conflict.

1. Embrace Mormonism Unvailed. The revisionist Church historians have embraced the account in Mormonism Unvailed, which is what is depicted in this video. They have tried to reconcile the conflicts by applying an expanded definition of the term Urim and Thummim so it applies to both the peep stone and the Nephite interpreters. Then they ignore the verses that tell Joseph to translate the engravings on the plates, his own account of translating the characters he copied from the plates, his statement that the Title Page is a literal translation of the last leaf of the plates, etc.

We can stipulate that Joseph translated by the "gift and power of God." In that sense, reading words off a stone in a hat could be considered just as miraculous as translating ancient engravings with the use of specially prepared interpreters.

However, we learn from Joseph's writings and the D&C that for months before he began the dictation, he copied off the characters from the plates, studied them, and translated them with the Nephite interpreters. He had to study it out in his mind. Nowhere does Joseph, Oliver, or the revelations in the D&C suggest that all Joseph had to do was read words that appeared on a stone in a hat.

One big problem with the "stone-in-a-hat" scenario is that it renders pointless the work of the Nephite recordkeepers, the abridgment work of Mormon and Moroni, and all the efforts to keep the plates safe and secure. IOW, it undermines the credibility of Joseph's explanation of what happened, as well as the entire narrative of the Book of Mormon, which is exactly why Mormonism Unvailed pushed this narrative in the first place.

Most members of the Church today know people who lost their faith because of this narrative. More surely will. Again, Mormonism Unvailed promoted the stone-in-a-hat theory to prevent people from joining the Church and to persuade those who had joined to leave.

Now our own scholars are promoting this theory.

There are additional problems with the stone-in-the-hat theory, including the language of the text and the teachings of Church leaders over the years, that I don't have time to get into.

Of course, everyone is free to believe whatever they want. But the revisionist stone-in-a-hat framing is not the only possible explanation of the various accounts.

Any honest explanation of the translation should at least acknowledge the teachings of the prophets and explanations alternative to Mormonism Unvailed. We expect that of critics; we should also expect that from our own LDS scholars.

2. Call everyone a liar. Some LDS authors choose to disbelieve the stone-in-a-hat statements, even though there were several witnesses including David Whitmer and Martin Harris. These authors claim all the accounts are lies, motivated by opposition to Joseph Smith.

Certainly, many of these statements were motivated by antipathy toward Joseph and the Book of Mormon, but to say everyone was lying strikes me as implausible. Not because Mormonism Unvailed was trustworthy, but because these accounts were repeated before and after that book was published.

True, there are inconsistencies among the accounts, but that's true of every eyewitness account. It is a weak defense to say that everyone who described what they saw was lying just because we don't like what they said.

Requiring people to choose between these alternatives is a false dilemma.

We don't have to choose between accepting Mormonism Unvailed as the official version of the translation on one hand, and claiming that everyone who said they saw Joseph dictate words from a stone in a hat was a liar on the other hand.

There is a third option that both reconciles the historical record and makes common sense.

3. Demonstration vs translation. The obvious way to reconcile the accounts is that Joseph used the stone-in-a-hat to demonstrate how the translation worked, but that he did not allow people to observe the actual translation. He let people infer they were watching the translation, perhaps; some certainly took it that way.

Recall that Joseph had been strictly commanded not to show the Urim and Thummim, or the plates, to anyone except designated witnesses. He couldn't allow people to watch him actually translate the plates. And yet, he was under constant pressure from curious people. Providing demonstrations was a natural and relatively easy way to satisfy curiosity while leaving him and Oliver in relative peace to finish the actual translation.

Notice, none of the stone-in-a-hat witnesses related the actual words that Joseph dictated in their presence. None quoted Joseph as saying, "I am now translating the record" or any words to that effect. They simply reported what they observed.

The important point is that neither Joseph nor Oliver ever said Joseph merely read words that appeared on a peep stone (or seer stone) in a hat. They could have easily mitigated the persecution that arose from Mormonism Unvailed had they simply "admitted" the stone-in-a-hat scenario if that was the truth. But they didn't. Instead, they consistently taught that Joseph translated the plates using the Nephite Urim and Thummim.

I discussed this here:


More detail is in my upcoming book for those interested.

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