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, July 9, 2019

Neutrality - Maxwell Institute

In a recent address to the Neal A. Maxwell Institute at BYU, Elder Holland gave this an apostolic charge: "the Neal A. Maxwell Institute must see itself as among the best the university has to offer, as a faithful, rich, rewarding center of faith-promoting gospel scholarship enlivened by remarkable disciple-scholars."

Elder Holland also pointed out that Elder Maxwell "said that we are not really “learned” if we exclude the body of divine data that the eternities place at our disposal through revelation and the prophets of God."

The Maxwell Institute has done outstanding work in the past and will surely do even more in the future. On one topic, however, the Maxwell Institute has excluded the prophets of God under the guise of neutrality. The topic is M2C (the Mesoamerican/two-Cumorahs theory of Book of Mormon geography).

For a while now, I've been pointing out that M2C is taken for granted throughout the Church because of the Academic Cycle. Once M2C intellectuals managed to take control of the curriculum at BYU and CES, it was inevitable that M2C would become the default position of the Church.

The Maxwell Institute has played a role in this academic cycle by promoting M2C, not only by absorbing FARMS and including its materials in the archive, but by promulgating M2C in its own publications.

We do not say that the Maxwell Institute is solely, or even largely, responsible for M2C. But it continues to promote M2C.

M2C taught on Temple Square in Salt Lake City, Utah
This leads to such M2C depictions as the North Visitors Center at Temple Square, which specifically and deliberately teaches two separate Cumorahs:

(1) the "real" Cumorah of Mormon 6:6 is portrayed in a cave in Mesoamerica, gratuitously decorated with Mayan glyphs; and

(2) the "false" Cumorah off in the distance in western New York where Moroni buried the plates in a stone box.

For more on this M2C display, see http://www.bookofmormoncentralamerica.com/2016/12/yes-they-do-teach-two-cumorahs-theory.html

Even purportedly "neutral" or "unbiased" Church members take M2C for granted. Today we'll look at a specific example from the Maxwell Institute at BYU.

First, some background.

We recognize that the Maxwell Institute (MI) made important changes in 2014, described here:


But those changes were gradual.

Their podcast logo emphasized the Mayan glyph, of all things.

Old MI logo
Recently, MI finally removed their M2C logo with the Mayan glyph, which they inherited from FARMS and which is now the logo for Book of Mormon Central (which is why I call that organization Book of Mormon Central America).

Everywhere you see the old FARMS logo, you know you're looking at M2C intellectuals, which is why it makes sense for Book of Mormon Central to use it.

Another positive development is that a former MI employee who is a strong M2C proponent (a great guy whom I won't name) left MI to work for Book of Mormon Central, where he does a great job confirming the M2C bias. 

However, the M2C bias is implicit still in the Maxwell Institute. For example, Terryl Givens, the M2C promoter who wrote the Foreword for Mormon's Codex, is on the MI Executive Committee.

M2C readers edition
MI published a Study Edition of the Book of Mormon that explicitly teaches M2C under the guise of being "neutral."

For example, in the books "Chronology of the Translation" under 1824-1826, the authors write "For three consecutive years, Joseph meets the angel at the hill (later called Cumorah) on Sept. 22." But Lucy Mack Smith quoted Joseph calling the hill Cumorah even before he got the plates.

In the Index, the entry for Cumorah reads "Cumorah, land and hill: scene of the last Nephite battle and place where Mormon hid many records; Morm 6:2; see also Ramah, hill. The hill in upstate New York where Joeph Smith found the gold plates was named for this ancient site."

Of course, that is pure M2C propaganda. Not a single source in Church history claims "the hill in upstate New York" was named for some other Cumorah. That is M2C spin concocted within the last few decades. Every actual source declares that the "hill in upstate New York" is in fact the Hill Cumorah of Mormon 6:6.

It's also astonishing that any study guide of the Book of Mormon omits the most detailed accounts we have of Moroni's visit to Joseph and the Hill Cumorah itself, accounts that were repeatedly republished and copied into Joseph's own history as part of his life story. But the M2C intellectuals reject those accounts so, naturally, they are omitted from this MI study guide.

A real study guide would at least inform readers about the facts of Church history. By contrast, this guide seeks to imprint M2C by censoring the facts.

We do not attribute this teaching of M2C to bad motives. Instead, we see that M2C is so deeply imprinted on the minds of these scholars that they don't even realize what they're doing.

Here is the example we want to look at today.

After the first version of the anonymous Gospel Topics Essay on Book of Mormon Geography was released, the Maxwell Institute published this review on its web site:

‘Until we have clearer knowledge’—On Book of Mormon geography in church history


It's a fascinating piece because it illustrates how M2C bias is so endemic, even an "unbiased" observer is oblivious to his own M2C bias.

The title of the review is taken from a 1923 statement by Elder James E. Talmage. This was five years before the Church purchased the Hill Cumorah in New York. That acquisition was memorialized in the April 1928 General Conference when President Ivins of the First Presidency delivered an address that focused on the Hill Cumorah and reaffirmed the long-held teaching from Letter VII onward that the Hill Cumorah in western New York is, in fact, the Hill Cumorah of Mormon 6:6.

The next year, President Ivins followed up with a General Conference address that distinguished between the Hill Cumorah, the location of which is known, and all the other Book of Mormon sites, whose locations have not been identified.

As you'll see, this MI review completely overlooks this key distinction. That's understandable, because the Gospel Topics Essay does the same thing.

Readers here know that the first version of the anonymous Gospel Topics Essay was recalled and rewritten after I pointed out some of the logical and factual fallacies it contained. The second and current version fixed some, but not all, of the problems.

Hopefully, someday we'll get a third revision that fixes the remaining errors of fact and logic.

Let's take a look at the MI review.

‘Until we have clearer knowledge’—On Book of Mormon geography in church history

Earlier this week LDS.org published an essay in the “Gospel Topics” series laying out the position of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints on the geographic location of the events recorded in the Book of Mormon. The short essay is worth a read, but I’ll quickly review it here and offer a few thoughts about how it maps onto previous Church discussions. 

A worthy objective. All good so far.

It begins with a reference to the “internal consistency” in descriptions of setting and place in the Book of Mormon as one of the scripture’s “striking features.” It acknowledges the range of views taken on Book of Mormon geography by individual “members and leaders” throughout church history. Supposing that Joseph Smith would have the best information on this subject, the essay notes that he accepted evidence of Book of Mormon civilization in both North America and Central America. 

Here is one of the factual fallacies that should be corrected. It is mindreading to say Joseph "accepted evidence of Book of Mormon civilization in... Central America." This claim is based on an inference from anonymous articles in the 1842 Times and Seasons. 

The M2C intellectuals insist that Joseph wrote and/or edited these articles because he was listed as the nominal editor of the paper. But he was also listed as the nominal printer, and no one makes the claim that he actually set type or operated the printing press. There is zero historical evidence of Joseph ever writing or editing anything in the paper that he did not individually sign or explicitly acknowledge, let alone these anonymous articles. 

Besides, nothing in these articles mentions the New York Cumorah, which had been reaffirmed just the year before in the Times and Seasons by yet another republication of Letter VII. Even if Joseph had approved of the anonymous articles, there is no reason to infer he changed his mind about Cumorah. In fact, he wrote the letter that became D&C 128, which references Cumorah in the context of other New York area events, and sent it to the editor of the Times and Seasons for publication in the same issue that contained some of the anonymous articles.

By contrast, Joseph specifically linked the Book of Mormon people to the route of Zion's Camp through Ohio, Indiana, and Illinois because he wrote to Emma about it.

Finally, the essay notes that the Church has no official position (or revelation) on the subject beyond the Book of Mormon having taken place in the Americas. 

The essay doesn't use the term revelation and certainly doesn't equate position with revelation. In addition, the essay simply ignores past official statements in which the Church took the position that the Hill Cumorah is in New York. This leaves readers to wonder if these past positions were considered and are being explicitly repudiated, or were not considered at all. Being anonymous, the essay is immune from follow-up questions about clarity. 

Because the essay has already been withdrawn and reissued with unannounced changes, it remains subject to additional editing and revision.   

Importantly, what this statement did not say was that any one theory of the Book of Mormon’s setting was correct or incorrect. 

This is important, but it contradicts what is being taught by CES, BYU, and the departments at COB (the Church Office Building). M2C is being explicitly taught right on Temple Square, for example.

Rather, “The Church urges local leaders and members not to advocate theories of Book of Mormon geography in official Church settings.” 

This raises the question, is the North Visitors Center on Temple Square an "official Church setting" as defined by this essay? Are CES and BYU classes "official Church settings," or does this term apply only to chapels and temples? 

Because CES, BYU, the visitors centers, and even the illustrations in the missionary edition of the Book of Mormon all teach M2C, readers are left to wonder if the employees responsible for these teachings are not considered "local leaders and members." 

IOW, is the essay saying it's okay for Church employees to advocate M2C in official Church settings? If not, why is this practice continuing at CES, BYU, and the other venues.

My days at the Maxwell Institute are spent working on a book that will examine each of the major geographic models for the Book of Mormon. 

This should be an important book.

My goal isn’t to figure out which of these communities of theorists have the most accurate understanding. Instead, I’m asking why particular different theories have been attractive to different Latter-day Saints at different times. 

Again, awesome.

What I’ve discovered early in my research is that while in the twentieth and twenty-first century, discussion about Book of Mormon geography took a highly contentious turn, this was not the case in early Latter-day Saint culture. In Utah, the Saints saw themselves in Book of Mormon lands just like they had in Missouri. They didn’t place their general acceptance of a Hill Cumorah in New York against the evidence they saw in reports of Mesoamerican archaeology. 

It will be interesting to see how the book handles M2C and the RLDS who originally developed it. In the late 1800s and early 1900s, when President Joseph F. Smith republished Letter VII in the Improvement Era, visited the Hill Cumorah in New York, and made arrangements to begin purchasing the hill, RLDS scholars began teaching that the "real" Hill Cumorah was in Central America, while the "hill in New York" was not the Hill Cumorah of Mormon 6:6. 

LDS leaders opposed the RLDS ideas, but LDS scholars eventually embraced the RLDS ideas anyway.

While many members accepted the belief that Lehi had landed in modern Chile, no one questioned that the Hopi or the Utes were also descended from Israelite peoples. Today Latter-day Saints also hold many views on Book of Mormon geography, but with the advent of limited geographic models, there is an intensity behind this debate that was not present previously. I have yet to discover when Church leaders realized that mapping the Book of Mormon would require taking sides, but it was a subject of deliberations in the Church’s highest quorums in the 1920s. 

I hope we see some research about the RLDS/LDS divide on this issue, starting in the late 1800s.

On February 23, 1923, the apostle James Talmage responded to Jean R. Driggs who had written to general authorities about his efforts to decipher the modern locations of Book of Mormon lands. Talmage did not discourage the pursuit, but urged that “the more capable workers we have in this field the better.” Continuing, Talmage wrote:
Somewhat over a year ago a committee of the Council of Twelve sat for days listening to the presentation of the subject of book of Mormon geography by several of our brethren who have given particular study to the subject, and we found that their views differed as widely as the continent. It was there and then decided that until we have clearer knowledge in the matter, the Church could not authorize or approve the issuance of any map, chart, or text, purporting to set forth demonstrated facts relating to Book of Mormon lands.1
This statement from 1923 predates the Church's acquisition of the Hill Cumorah in New York in 1928. Elder Talmage himself affirmed the New York Cumorah in his books Jesus the Christ and Articles of Faith. Early drafts distinguished between the certain Cumorah and the speculative other geography, but later editions of his books seemed to endorse a hemispheric model. Research into this should indicate whether Elder Talmage himself made these changes, or whether an editor made them.
Maxwell Institute book
that teaches M2C

The new Maxwell Institute Study Edition of the Book of Mormon includes a newly commissioned hypothetical map and, in accordance with this precedent, doesn’t identify a geographic location. (See it below.) 

We assume the author here is sincere, but the statement is misleading because, according to the book itself, "This reconstruction of book of Mormon lands is taken from John L. Sorenson's Mormon's Map," a book that explicitly promotes M2C. It even depicts Cumorah in a site that cannot be New York. 

The Maxwell Institute links to Mormon's Map here:

Maxwell Institute fantasy map

Then the book references the BYU fantasy map by saying "For an alternative map that is similary based on the internal geographical references in the text," go to the BYU web page, here: http://bom.byu.edu/.

While the Maxwell Institute map does not technically "identify" a geographic location, it does "exclude" the only location that Church leaders have consistently and persistently taught; i.e., the New York Cumorah.

The map is based on the close reading by John Sorenson and other scholars of the geographical markings in the text such as place names and distances. It is intended to help readers visualize various battles, missions, and other movements described in the text, but not to identify an exact location. 

Here the author's bias comes out, but he appears oblivious of that bias. He lists John Sorenson, the most influential M2C intellectual, as the interpreter of the text for the creation of the "hypothetical" map. According to brother Sorenson, though, M2C is a fact, as he explained this way: 

What may startle some about this situation is that most of what Joseph Smith said or implied about geography indicates that he did not understand or was ambiguous about the fact, as it turns out, that Mesoamerica was the particular setting for Nephite history. 
M2C book used by
Maxwell Institute

The "other scholars" whose "close reading" also contributed to the hypothetical map all agree with brother Sorenson's claim that M2C is a fact. The hypothetical map is driven by the strongest possible bias; i.e., the conviction that M2C is a fact.

The map is explicitly intended "to help readers visualize" events in the text in the M2C-driven setting. While the map does not "identify an exact location," it narrowly limits possible locations to Mesoamerica.

The bias is evident because M2C requires a specific interpretation of terms that are not required or even implied by the text. Alternative interpretations exclude Mesoamerica as a possible setting. Rather than deal with these, M2C intellectuals pretend there are no other possible interpretations.

That's what led brother Sorenson to insist M2C is a fact.

Here's the point:

The Maxwell Institute map, like the BYU fantasy map, is a tool of indoctrination. It's not neutral in any sense. Only M2C scholars were consulted in its creation.

Six years after Talmage’s letter, Anthony W. Ivins similarly stated in general conference that the Church had no official position on geography.
There is a great deal of talk about the geography of the Book of Mormon. Where was the land of Zarahemla? Where was the City of Zarahemla? and other geographic matters. It does not make any difference to us. There has never been anything yet set forth that definitely settles that question. So the Church says we are just waiting until we discover the truth. All kinds of theories have been advanced. I have talked with at least half a dozen men that have found the very place where the City of Zarahemla stood, and notwithstanding the fact that they profess to be Book of Mormon students, they vary a thousand miles apart in the places they have located. We do not offer any definite solution. As you study the Book of Mormon keep these things in mind and do not make definite statements concerning things that have not been proven in advance to be true.2
In other words, the Gospel Topics essay does not alter the century old policy of the Church to officially decline to take sides in the debate. 

This might be my favorite part of this essay. Like the Gospel Topics Essay, this review draws a direct line between E. Talmage's 1923 statement and Pres. Ivins 1929 General Conference address about the location of Zarahemla and other geographic matters.

The Gospel Topics Essay made the same false representation of the facts, except it misleadingly paraphrased key points in Pres. Ivins 1929 address.

Both this essay and the Gospel Topics Essay fail to inform readers about two key facts:

1. In 1928, the Church purchased the Hill Cumorah in New York.

2. In the April 1928 General Conference, Pres. Ivins devoted an entire address to reaffirming the teaching of Letter VII that the hill in New York is the very Hill Cumorah of Mormon 6:6. 

After I pointed out the serious and misleading omission, did the authors of the anonymous Gospel Topics Essay correct the error?

Absolutely not.

Instead, they simply deleted Pres. Ivins 1929 conference address.

It's really an amazing thing to behold.

In reading the immediate online response to the new essay, I noticed a few possible places where Latter-day Saints could misunderstand. 

One of these places, of course, is the misleading treatment of Pres. Ivins addresses.

I’m taken by how difficult the Church’s official position of not having an official position on Book of Mormon geography can be for Latter-day Saints. 

When the Church's official position was that the Hill Cumorah was in New York, it was easy and clear. What is difficult for many members is seeing the official position change without explanation and even without acknowledgment of the previous official position.

The essay asks us to be willing to consider the views of Church leaders as separate from the official views of the Church. 

Wait. Let's read this again. 

The views of Church leaders [are] separate from the official views of the Church....

What is the Church? Who declares the official view if not the leaders of the Church? Are we supposed to place an anonymous Gospel Topics Essay somewhere between the views of Church leaders and the scriptures? Or maybe put them above the scriptures?

The fact that these anonymous Gospel Topics Essays have been changed, without announcement or comparison between old and new, makes them even less credible than, say, General Conference addresses by members of the First Presidency that are part of the official records of the Church.

The real question is this: why should we accept anonymous and transitory "views of the Church" as declared through Gospel Topics Essays instead of the specific, consistent, and persistent teachings of the prophets and apostles in General Conference. 

In this case, the only reason I can think of is because M2C intellectuals insist it is a fact that the Book of Mormon took place in Mesoamerica and any prophet who disagrees with M2C is by definition wrong.

And that's exactly what the next section of this essay seeks to persuade us to believe. 

This should be no surprise for Church members often familiar with Joseph Smith’s warning that “‘A Prophet is not always a Prophet’ only when he is acting as such”; but in application this is a difficult principle.3 

This is undoubtedly the most abused statement attributed to Joseph Smith. Here is the entire quotation in context:

Wednesday Feb. 8. Lesson in German. visited with breth[r]en & Sisters from. 

Think of this in context, and then apply it to what we know about Cumorah.

Joseph has a lesson in German and visits with members from Michigan, perhaps having dinner with them. None of those activities involves "acting as a prophet." Perhaps the visit included laughter, playing around, or even goofing off. IOW, Joseph is taking time off. Someone asked him about it, so he said a prophet is only a prophet when he is acting as such. But this could also have been an observation by the visitors from Michigan; the statement is not directly attributed to Joseph.

It seems reasonable to believe that a prophet is not acting as a prophet when having dinner with friends. But when is a prophet "acting as such" in this context? 

Is a member of the First Presidency speaking in General Conference acting as a prophet? If not, why is he speaking? Why do we listen? 
Currently Speaking as: a man/a prophet

A General Conference address is a far cry from Joseph visiting with members prior to or during dinner. 

The M2C proposition that we can ignore what the prophets teach in General Conference if we disagree with it generates memes such as this depiction of General Conference with a sign board telling the audience when the person at the podium is speaking as "a man" or "a prophet."

The men who bear the mantle of “Prophet, Seer, and Revelator” and local leaders are, like other members, able to speculate about matters that have yet to be revealed. 

This is axiomatic, but when we apply it to the consistent, persistent teachings of the First Presidency and Quorum of the Twelve, in General Conference and official publications, there is no limiting principle.  

The statement warns that the Church does not have an official position on Book of Mormon geography and that such positions should not be presented by leaders or members in official settings. 

Why doesn't this essay address the ways M2C is presented in official settings (not to mention in the Maxwell Institute edition of the Book of Mormon)?

While not all Latter-day Saints have a strong opinion on Book of Mormon geography, all members of the Church hold views, preferences, and passions that are not “officially” held by the Church. We should be careful in how and where we present these opinions. Can something be unofficial and also true? The answer is certainly “yes.” This becomes a problem when we force our personal opinions on others by declaring them “official.” 

This is undoubtedly true for us a members, but what is the limiting principle? If General Conference addresses, and statements by members of the First Presidency about facts, can be dismissed as "speculation," why have Church leaders at all? Are they relevant only for administrative purposes?

The Gospel Topics essay does not discourage presenting one’s views on Book of Mormon geography in special symposium, on the web, or in personal conversation. 

Hmmm... Maybe this is the rationale for promoting M2C in the Maxwell Institute edition of the Book of Mormon?

In fact, it does not even discourage the monetization of Book of Mormon geography through book and video sales, tours, cruises, or conferences, however people feel about such endeavors. It only regulates official Church settings—Sunday services and so forth—and the claim that there is an official position. 

Does it regulate anything when M2C is openly taught by CES, BYU, etc?

Finally, another way some Latter-day Saints have applied this and similar statements in the past is to assume that Book of Mormon geography is an unworthy cause. We—myself included—sometimes have a tendency to view those who have a deep commitment to one geographic model or another as “zealots.” 

The first missionaries (Cowdery, Pratt, Whitmer, Peterson) made historicity a major part of their message. So did the Apostles on the British Mission. Letter VII was republished in every Church newspaper. Those who are uncomfortable with the conflict between M2C and the teachings of the prophets dismiss the issue, but historicity remains a major issue for nonmembers, youth, and less active members. .

To be sure, the recent Gospel Topics essay and President Ivins’s statement acknowledge that a testimony of the Book of Mormon and the Book of Mormon’s testimony of Jesus Christ is vastly more important than the exact setting of the text. 

President Ivins also emphasized how important the New York Hill Cumorah is.

Yet, there has also been a consistent respect among Church leaders for those who seek to find evidence of the Book of Mormon. With history as our guide, we see that although the Church doesn’t weigh in on the accuracy of specific sites or maps, that need not be seen as a deterrent for those who have found meaning and fulfillment in their search for ancient Nephite civilization. 

This is carefully worded, but it's still misleading. Maybe the "Church" doesn't weigh in, but CES, BYU, the Maxwell Institute, the Visitors Centers, the MTC, etc. all weigh in by depicting and teaching M2C.

My forthcoming book will tell more of their stories.   

I look forward to it, especially if the author can identify and purge his M2C bias.

1. James Talmage, Letter to Jean R. Driggs, February 23, 1923, MS 1232, Church History Library, Salt Lake City, Utah. I am indebted to Ardis Parshall for sharing this source with me. 
2. Anthony W. Ivins, Conference Report (April 1929), 16. A portion of this quote appears in “Book of Mormon Geography,” Gospel Topics Essay.
3. Joseph Smith, Journal, February 8, 1843, in Andrew H. Hedges, Alex D. Smith, Richard Lloyd Anderson, eds., The Joseph Smith Papers: Journals 2:256. [Scroll to see both pages included in the PDF] [pdf-embedder url=”http://mi.byu.edu/wp-content/uploads/2019/02/MISE-BOM-MAP.pdf”]  


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