Friday, January 1, 2021

Starting the new year with SITH

Who would have thought that the last day of the year 2020 would provide a high-profile promotion of SITH? (SITH = stone-in-the-hat theory). I'll discuss the Dec 31st article in the Salt Lake Tribune below.

SITH is about the last thing I wanted to discuss in 2021, but it's inevitable and, apparently, necessary. I'm posting this on this blog because our M2C citation cartel is also our SITH citation cartel. 

For more detail on Church history, see my new web page: ComeFollowMe2021.org. I'll have commentary and links to podcasts for every lesson this year.

(BTW, last year I intended to do the same for the Book of Mormon in 2020, but I had lots of other projects and anyway, I was curious to see how the citation cartel was going to handle the issues. As expected, Book of Mormon Central ended up spending millions of dollars promoting M2C (and SITH), depriving their readers/viewers of the opportunity to make informed decisions. They are the mirror images of the critical sites (CES Letter, MormonStories, etc.) that also deprive their readers/viewers of the opportunity to make informed decisions.

Sigh.

We can't expect the scholars, whether LDS, former LDS, or anti-LDS, to sacrifice their theories any more than we can expect the wealthy to sacrifice their wealth, as we discussed yesterday. For the credentialed class, Zion remains a theory--something for other people to live. 

So let's move on.

Warning: this is a long post. I'll be traveling and probably won't post again for a week or so. 

I posted a short video summary here. https://www.bookofmormoncentralamerica.com/p/video-summary-of-sith-and-new-mormon.html

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The article in the SLTribune was an interview with Richard Bushman, the author of Rough Stone Rolling. (see below)

People often ask me about Brother Bushman. I've met him, spoken with him briefly a few times, and I think he's awesome. He's brilliant, friendly, personable, thoughtful. He's an excellent historian, of course. I respect his work. But... he's a historian.

If you're not already familiar with the term "talent stack," you should learn about it. Everyone develops different combinations of talents. We have natural interests and aptitudes. We get an education. We gain experience and expertise. We pursue our interests and develop our skills. The sum of all that is our talent stack.

Our talent stacks are part of our filters on the world. Our brains only process what our filters allow to pass through. Some of that is perceptual--what we see, touch, smell, hear, etc.--and part of that is mental or psychological--what confirms our biases, mostly.

For example, our M2C scholars say they "cannot unsee" Mesoamerica when they read the Book of Mormon. Their talent stack--Mesoamerican anthropology, archaeology, etc., combined with an M2C interpretation of the Book of Mormon--literally filters out information and explanations that contradict their M2C beliefs. That's why they create this incestuous citation cartel and engage in peer approval instead of peer review. It's all about bias confirmation, but to them, their beliefs are reality and everyone else is wrong. They think they're doing a favor to Latter-day Saints by "protecting" them from impossible ideas such as the idea that the prophets were correct about the New York Cumorah.

It's the same with the dominant LDS historians. They have convinced themselves that Joseph Smith didn't use the plates, that he didn't really translate anything, and that he merely read words off a seer stone in the hat (SITH). 

Why?

Because they're historians. Their talent stack involves finding, uncovering, and preserving historical evidence (mainly documents). They consider the context and weigh the credibility of the evidence and reach conclusions. They think they are striving to be "objective" and get at the truth.

But historians are people, subject like everyone else to bias confirmation. Once they reach a conclusion, they profess skepticism or "caution" about documents that contradict their conclusions. They'll redefine terms to suit their conclusions. They'll omit inconvenient evidence, etc. For a prime example, notice how the Saints book, volume 1, censored Cumorah from the historical record.

Another good example is the "Early Modern English" theory promoted by Royal Skousen and Stanford Carmack. They're linguists. Plus, they're members of the citation cartels. Here is an excerpt from Brother Skousen's book on the King James quotations in the Book of Mormon: "“The Book of Mormon is a creative and cultural translation of what was on the plates, not a literal one. Based on the linguistic evidence, the translation must have involved serious intervention from the English-language translator, who was not Joseph Smith.”

I've discussed before the inherent weakness of intellectuals; they are blind to their own blindness. That's why, when you read the work of LDS historians and other intellectuals, you can trust, but you better verify. (I wouldn't even say trust, but that's how the saying goes. I'd say you can "consider, but verify.")
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At this point, I should pause to briefly address some of my critics who assert that I'm also an intellectual. True, I'm a lawyer, so I have credentials: J.D., M.S., B.S. I've taught courses for three universities, written lots of books, etc. But I don't want or expect anyone to trust me because of my education or credentials. I encourage everyone to make informed decisions. I encourage people to consider alternative points of view. That's exactly the opposite approach taken by our LDS scholars. Book of Mormon Central's own logo forecloses alternative interpretations, even (actually, especially) those that support and corroborate the teachings of the prophets.

I'm all in favor of education. The more the better. But that's only one element of a healthy talent stack, and when your education blinds you to your own blindness, it's time to branch out.

Which brings us back to Rough Stone Rolling.
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Years ago, my Stake President asked if I had read Rough Stone Rolling (I was the stake Sunday School president at the time). He said it was the best book on Church history he'd ever read. I told him I had read it, and I also thought it was great, although it reflected an editorial bias that I didn't completely share.

Many Church members have contacted me to say they find the book appalling, along with the rest of "New Mormon History" promoted by Leonard Arrington, et al. Usually they object to the "anti" evidence, meaning the evidence that differs from or contradicts the traditional Church history narratives.

There are numerous anecdotes of faithful LDS who have found the book troubling. In fact, John Dehlin and other former LDS who encourage people to leave the Church feature Rough Stone Rolling (along with the Gospel Topics Essays) as one of the main factors for people losing their faith. One of Dehlin's most popular podcasts is the interview he did with Brother Bushman several years ago, which I've discussed before.

[Some readers here know I have a web page that reviews MormonStories called MormonStoriesReviewed. I have a few reviews on there, but it's a work in progress. If you want updates, subscribe or follow by email.]

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I think Rough Stone Rolling, like most of the New Mormon History, is useful and important but stopped short of reconciling the various historical accounts and historical evidence. 

It's important to show all the evidence, for sure. To make informed decisions, people should have access to and consider all of the evidence, along with a variety of explanations and interpretations. But you can't get that from one book.

Rough Stone Rolling omits important evidence and offers only limited alternative explanations. But that's what the book is supposed to do. That's all any book can do! 

This is an inherent problem every author faces. You can't provide all the evidence or you've written a reference book. We already have reference books, and even those are abridgments. One of the most popular is Opening the Heavens, but by taking all the quotations out of context, the book is useful only as a quote book, or to confirm one's biases, or as a guide to actual references in the footnotes. And, as I've shown, the editorial bias in Opening the Heavens is a serious problem. 

The Joseph Smith Papers are the only comprehensive references and they're not even complete yet. Plus, the notes reflect the editorial agenda of the editors.

Think of Rough Stone Rolling (and every other book) as an abridgement. You can't blame an author for omitting information because it's impossible to include all the information in any one book. 

That's why you consider the editorial agenda. What did the author plan (and hope) to accomplish? We'll discuss that below, but first, let's look at how people are using Rough Stone Rolling.

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The critics, such as John Dehlin, use Rough Stone Rolling as a tool to persuade Latter-day Saints to question their faith. But they are using a basic logical fallacy to mislead their readers and listeners. They frame Rough Stone Rolling as the most comprehensive, honest, detailed history of Joseph Smith. 

Of course, that's nonsense. The book is selectively detailed and pursues an editorial agenda.

Nevertheless, Dehlin portrays Rough Stone Rolling as a sort of reference book, which it is not.

I don't question Dehlin's sincerity. I'll assume he really believes what he says. But Dehlin's straw man is an effective persuasion trick. Latter-day Saints and others who don't know much about history generally, or Mormon history specifically, take Dehlin's word for it. They accept the straw man argument that Rough Stone Rolling is the most honest, or even only honest, book about Joseph Smith written by a faithful Latter-day Saint. Richard Bushman, after all, is a Stake Patriarch and a former Stake President, one of the editors of the Joseph Smith Papers, etc.

Many faithful Latter-day Saints are unprepared for what they read in Rough Stone Rolling. Why?

Most people merely want to confirm their biases, so they read and listen enough to do that and then stop, satisfied. We actually get a dopamine hit when we confirm our biases. It feels good. We like to associate with people who share our beliefs. We meet with them regularly. We work with them. We trust them. 

Dehlin and others know that. Because of the way they frame the book, they know that Latter-day Saints will expect to get another dopamine hit when they read Rough Stone Rolling because they think it will somehow "prove" Joseph Smith was a prophet, etc.

Instead, the book gives them an alternative history that is jarring for many. It's the opposite of a dopamine hit. It's disturbing.

And it's a major reason for Dehlin's success. Whether he sends people to Rough Stone Rolling, the Gospel Topics Essays, FairMormon, Book of Mormon Central, the Interpreter, it doesn't matter. All of these references create expectations for Latter-day Saints that are dashed when they realize these sources are teaching Latter-day Saints that the prophets were wrong.

Then, Dehlin can offer them an alternative source for a dopamine hit. Now, it's the dopamine that comes from confirming the new bias that the prophets are wrong. 

It's why people who leave the Church--the "ex-Mormons"--keep coming back to Dehlin's webpage and podcasts to confirm their new biases. It's a constant dopamine hit.

Bias confirmation is not inherently good or bad. It's a core part of our psychology. It helps us navigate an uncertain and unpredictable world. We confirm our biases daily in innumerable ways. If your bias makes you happy and productive, great. But there's always a risk that the bias we're confirming is based on a mistake.

The big mistake here is the assumption that Rough Stone Rolling is actual history. It's not. It presents merely an abridgment of one version of history. Like every other book, it relates some facts and omits others. It suggests some conclusions and omits others. It's not good or bad. It's a tool. It's one of many windows into actual history.

I always say people can believe whatever they want. It doesn't matter to me what you believe. I just encourage people to pursue the truth and make informed decisions. 

People who want to make informed decisions will not read Rough Stone Rolling and stop, no matter how it makes them feel. They won't read Essentials in Church History and stop. They won't read Come Follow Me 2021 and stop. They will read a variety of materials, hopefully skewed toward authentic original sources. They will use both their minds and their hearts. They will follow the guidance in D&C 9:8. "you must study it out in your mind; then you must ask me if it be right, and if it is right I will cause that your bosom shall burn within you; therefore, you shall feel that it is right."

As I noted above, unfortunately Dehlin can point to the Gospel Topics Essays for confirmation, but that's a discussion for another day.

Dehlin can also point to FairMormon, Book of Mormon Central, the Interpreter, and the rest of the citation cartel for confirmation. These LDS intellectuals are making Dehlin's case for him. He just has to point it out.  

One of the best examples is SITH.

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For over 150 years, LDS Church leaders taught that Joseph Smith translated the Nephite plates with the Urim and Thummim. From the early 1830s, critics said that Joseph produced the Book of Mormon by either (i) reading words off a seer stone he put in a hat or (ii) reading a manuscript written by Solomon Spalding and edited by Sidney Rigdon.

All three alternatives were set out in the 1834 book Mormonism Unvailed. When that book was released in October 1834, Oliver Cowdery responded by declaring unambiguously that Joseph translated the record with the Urim and Thummim. You can see Oliver's declaration in the Pearl of Great Price, at the end of Joseph Smith-History, or in the Joseph Smith papers here:

https://www.josephsmithpapers.org/paper-summary/history-1834-1836/50

You might think that Oliver's declaration, which Joseph Smith helped write and specifically endorsed multiple times, would end the debate.

But no.

A few decades ago, some LDS historians decided it was time to deal with "all the evidence." They started what has been called the "New Mormon History" to bring out some of the evidence that differed from, and contradicted, the traditional Church history narratives.

Among these was SITH.

Historians largely rejected the Spalding theory, so they focused on SITH vs U&T. 

(Sending the Spalding theory into oblivion is one reason why everyone has overlooked the key role it played, as I've discussed before.)

Rough Stone Rolling was a key part of the New Mormon History's focus on SITH, but lots of people contributed. The historians in the Church History department largely embraced the New Mormon History (as well as M2C), and the result is the presentation of SITH in the Ensign (which I discussed here), the lesson manuals, the videos, etc.

Several justifications have been proposed. 

Some have claimed that when Joseph and Oliver said or wrote "Urim and Thummim" they really meant the peep stone Joseph found in a well. That obviously contradicts both what they said and the historical record. Others claim Joseph used both, but that also contradicts both what Joseph and Oliver always said. Some say the "SITH sayers" were all liars who hated Joseph Smith, but that also contradicts the historical record. Besides, people on the other side just say Joseph and Oliver were liars. Stalemate.

In a recent presentation, I summarized it this way, leading to my own conclusions. (click to enlarge) 


As I mentioned at the outset, a longer version of this is available here:

https://www.bookofmormoncentralamerica.com/p/video-summary-of-sith-and-new-mormon.html

The full presentation is also available. Email me at lostzarahemla@gmail.com if you want a link.

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I hope by now you can see that it doesn't matter whether you agree or disagree with my conclusions. What matters is whether you are satisfied that you've made an informed decision. Did you read multiple perspectives and interpretations of the facts? Did you study things out in your mind and then get confirmation in your heart?

If so, you can read Rough Stone Rolling and spot the editorial agenda and bias. You can read Essentials in Church History, Truth Restored, No Man Knows my History, or any other book about Church history and spot the editorial agenda and bias. But you will have decided, for yourself, what is factual, logical, rational, and true.

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Let's consider the bias and motivation behind Rough Stone Rolling to keep it in perspective.

In the Preface, Brother Bushman wrote this:

it is unlikely there will ever be consensus on Joseph Smith's character or his achievements... Everything about Smith matters to people who have built their lives on his teachings. To protect their own deepest commitments, believers want to shield their prophet's reputation. On the other hand, people who have broken away from Mormonism-and they produce a large amount of the scholarship-have to justify their decision to leave. They cannot countenance evidence of divine inspiration in his teachings without catching themselves in a disastrous error. Added to these combatants are those suspicious of all religious authority who find in Joseph Smith a perfect target for their fears. Given the emotional crosscurrents, agreement will never be reached about his character, his inspiration, or his accomplishments.

A believing historian like myself cannot hope to rise above these battles or pretend nothing personal is at stake. For a character as controversial as Smith, pure objectivity is impossible.

What I can do is to look frankly at all sides of Joseph Smith, facing up to his mistakes and flaws. Covering up errors makes no sense in any case. Most readers do not believe in, nor are they interested in, perfection. Flawless characters are neither attractive nor useful. We want to meet a real person....

Joseph Smith did not offer himself as an exemplar of virtue. He told his followers not to expect perfection. Smith called himself a rough stone, thinking of his own impetuosity and lack of polish. He was sensitive to insults and could not stand to be crossed. Twice he was brought to trial before one of his own church councils for scolding offenders too severely. He so dominated the rooms he entered that some thought him arrogant. But it was his iron will that brought the church, the cities, and the temples into existence.

If people read and consider this preface, the rest of the book makes sense. Brother Bushman does not set out to write a book that is either apologetic or critical. 

"Frankly" means "open, honest, direct." That's not technically the same as "objective," but it does create a misleading implication of objectivity.

As any author must, Brother Bushman decided to include some facts and omit others. For example, he omitted some of the most direct historical statements about the Urim and Thummim.

Here's the main passage in the book about the translation, with my notes in red. The style of writing--framing theories as facts--can be misleading to readers who don't understand that this is more advocacy than reporting.

Emma said she sat at the same table with Joseph, writing as he dictated, with nothing between them, and the plates wrapped in a linen cloth on the table.53 [This comes from Emma's Last Testimony, recorded shortly before she died by her son Joseph Smith III. Emma never publicly acknowledged the statement. At the time, Joseph Smith III was corresponding with a dissident who insisted the Solomon Spalding theory was the best explanation for the Book of Mormon; hence, it was convenient for him to have his mother say "there was nothing between us" when Joseph dictated. I have an entire chapter on this in my book, A Man that Can Translate.] When Cowdery took up the job of scribe, he and Joseph translated in the same room where Emma was working. Joseph looked in the seerstone, and the plates lay covered on the table.54 [The note claims the description of translation comes from Emma, Oliver, David, Martin and William. However, there is no such description from any of these people from the time Oliver was acting as scribe in Harmony. Only Oliver, Joseph and Emma were present there, and we have no statements from Emma regarding Oliver's service as scribe. However, Joseph and Oliver always said Joseph translated with the Urim and Thummim, the Nephite interpreters. David, Martin and William related events at the Whitmer farm, although it's unclear what they actually observed vs. what they heard others say. David and Martin gave a variety of statements. I think these are all consistent with Joseph doing a demonstration with SITH at the Whitmer farm which was not a translation. Joseph had been commanded not to show the plates or interpreters to anyone unless commanded, so a demonstration made sense.]

Neither Joseph nor Oliver explained how translation worked, but Joseph did not pretend to look at the "reformed Egyptian” words, the language on the plates, according to the book's own description. [Here is another indication of the author's bias: "Joseph did not pretend." There was no question of pretending; Joseph himself said he not only looked at the plates, but he copied the characters on them, studied the characters, and translated them. As we'll see below, Joseph's mother explained that Joseph applied the U&T to his eyes and looked on the plates, but RSJ omitted that, too.] The plates lay covered on the table, while Joseph's head was in a hat looking at the seerstone, which by this time had replaced the interpreters. [This is stated as fact based on one account and hearsay based on that account, but other historical evidence contradicts this version.] The varying explanations of the perplexing process fall roughly into two categories: composition and transcription. [Notice, translation is not even considered as a possibility, even though that's what Joseph and Oliver both said happened.] The first holds that Joseph was the author of the book. He composed it out of knowledge and imaginings collected in his own mind, perhaps aided by inspiration. He had stuffed his head with ideas for sermons, Christian doctrine, biblical language, multiple characters, stories of adventure, social criticism, theories of Indian origins, ideas about Mesoamerican civilization, and many other matters. During translation, he composed it all into a narrative dictated over the space of three months in Harmony and Fayette.55

Composition is the naturalistic explanation for the Book of Mormon - the way books are always written-but it is at odds with the Joseph Smith of the historical record. The accounts of the neighbors picture an unambitious, uneducated, treasure-seeking Joseph, who had never written anything and is not known to have read anything but the Bible and perhaps the newspaper. None of the neighbors noted signs of learning or intellectual interests beyond the religious discussions in a juvenile debating club. To account for the disjuncture between the Book of Mormon's complexity and Joseph's history as an uneducated rural visionary, the composition theory calls for a precocious genius of extraordinary powers who was voraciously consuming information without anyone knowing it.56

[This explanation has too many problems to itemize here, but the main composition theory during Joseph's lifetime and for decades afterward was the Solomon Spalding theory, which the American media repeatedly published as fact but is omitted from RSR. The Spalding theory required that Joseph dictate from the Spalding manuscript from behind a screen or curtain, as some early accounts described. To defeat the Spalding theory, David, Emma and others insisted that Joseph was not behind a curtain and had nothing to read from. That makes sense, if you see it from their perspective. Plus, they had the demonstration in the Whitmer home to go by. But it contradicts what Joseph and Oliver always said.]

The transcription theory has Joseph Smith “seeing" the Book of Mormon text in the seerstone or the Urim and Thummim. He saw the words in the stone as he had seen lost objects or treasure and dictated them to his secretary. The eyewitnesses who described translation, Joseph Knight, Martin Harris, Oliver Cowdery, and David Whitmer, who was in the house during the last weeks of translation, understood translation as transcription. Referring to the seerstone as a Urim and Thummim, Knight said: "Now the way he translated was he put the urim and thummim into his hat and Darkned his Eyes then he would take a sentance and it would apper in Brite Roman Letters. Then he would tell the writer and he would write it. Then that would go away the next sentance would come and so on.”

[This is all consistent with the demonstration, but it is not consistent with D&C 1, 9 and 10, Joseph's early work in studying the characters and translating them, and his repeated claim that he translated the engravings on the plates.]

Joseph himself said almost nothing about his method but implied transcription when he said that "the Lord had prepared spectacles for to read the Book.” [That's also an implication of translation, which was what the spectacles (the Urim and Thummim or Nephite interpreters) were prepared for.] Close scrutiny of the original manuscript (by a believing scholar) seems to support transcription. [The believing scholar, Royal Skousen, claims Joseph Smith is not the translator.] Judging from the way Cowdery wrote down the words, Joseph saw twenty to thirty words at a time, dictated them, and then waited for the next twenty to appear. Difficult names (Zenoch, Amalickiah) were spelled out.57 By any measure, transcription was a miraculous process, calling for a huge leap of faith to believe, yet, paradoxically, it is more in harmony with the young Joseph of the historical record than is composition. [Others disagree with this opinion, noting that it was not that unusual for people of the day to relate long stories, or for ministers to speak for hours without notes, in both cases using mnemonic rhetorical devices to keep their place.] Transcription theory gives us a Joseph with a miraculous gift that evolved naturally out of his earlier treasure-seeking. The boy who gazed into stones and saw treasure grew up to become a translator who looked in a stone and saw words. [Again, realize that this is advocacy, not reporting, despite how it's written.]

Whatever the process, the experience thrilled Oliver Cowdery. "These were days never to be forgotten,” Cowdery reflected in 1834. “To sit under the sound of a voice dictated by the inspiration of heaven, awakened the utmost gratitude of this bosom!” [Careful readers will spot the omission of the next sentence from the actual quotation: "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.’"] The young prophet more than fulfilled Cowdery's expectations. On the other hand, the shock of the sudden immersion in a supernatural work now and then gave Cowdery pause, and like Harris he needed further reassurance.58 [This is speculative mind-reading, not reporting, but as long as readers understand that, it's not a problem.]

That is one of many such examples. Here is one more. I trust you can find others if you're so inclined, but the point is, those who claim Rough Stone Rolling is a reliable reference are misleading others, intentionally or not.

People have asked me to provide a supplement to Rough Stone Rolling to point out more examples of editorial decisions. I'd be happy to if I had the time...

:)

In late May, 1829, Oliver Cowdery wrote to David Whitmer to ask David to come pick up Joseph and Oliver in Harmony so they could finish the translation at the Whitmer farm in Fayette, NY.

Lucy Mack Smith wrote (dictated) this: 

In the mean time Joseph was 150 miles distant and knew naught of the matter e[x]cept an intimation that was given through the urim and thumim for as he one morning applied the<​m​> latter to his eyes to look upon the record instead of the words of the book being given him he was commanded to write a letter to one David Whitmore [Whitmer] this man Joseph had never seen but he was instructed to say him that he must come with his team immediately in order to convey Joseph and his family <​Oliver [Cowdery]​> back to his house which was 135 miles that they might remain with him there untill the translation should be completed for that an evil designing people were seeking to take away Joseph’s life in order to prevent the work of God from going forth among the world 


This is an unambiguous statement that Joseph applied the "Urim and Thummim" to his eyes to look upon the record. Nothing is mentioned about a stone or a hat. Also, the letter to David Whitmer was a commandment received through the Urim and Thummim.

Here is the alternative account presented in Rough Stone Rolling:

Joseph's activities had not gone unnoticed in the neighborhood. He and Cowdery said nothing publicly about the vision of John the Baptist, but people knew about the translating. “We had been threatened with being mobbed, from time to time,” Joseph said, “and this too by professors of religion.” He had won over the Hale family far enough to receive their protection, but he needed uninterrupted time to complete the translation. 70

Sometime in the latter part of May 1829, Cowdery wrote David Whitmer to ask if they could work in his father's house in Fayette. [RSR provides background information on the Whitmers here.]
Joseph and Cowdery began to translate the day after they arrived at the Whitmer farm.

In this version, it was Joseph or Oliver who came up with the idea of contacting David Whitmer. The Urim and Thummim had nothing to do with it.

Alert readers will notice that Brother Bushman omitted the account of the trip from Harmony to Fayette, which included meeting the messenger who was taking the Harmony plates (the abridged plates) to Cumorah before giving the plates of Nephi to Joseph in Fayette.

This is one of many such examples. Brother Bushman believes Joseph used a seer stone to produce the Book of Mormon and he selected historical evidence to support that belief. There is nothing wrong with that; as we say previously, that's how books are written. 

This is an observer problem. Any reader who thinks Rough Stone Rolling is either objective or history is mistaken. The book, like all history books, relates the author's interpretation of selected historical evidence. 

You can agree or disagree, but it is irrational to blame the author if he/she doesn't agree with you.

Make up your own mind.

Now, here is a link to the article that created the attention to SITH on the last day of 2020.


Excerpts

"The Book of Mormon is a problem right now. It’s so baffling to so many that Joseph was not even looking at the gold plates [to translate them]. And there’s so much in the Book of Mormon that comes out of the 19th century that there’s a question of whether or not the text is an exact transcription of Nephi’s and Mormon’s words, or if it has been reshaped by inspiration to be more suitable for us, a kind of an expansion or elucidation of the Nephite record for our times. I have no idea how that might have worked or whether that’s true. But there are just too many scholars now, faithful church scholars, who find 19th-century material in that text. That remains a little bit of a mystery, just how it came to be.. . . .

You are completing a book about the plates, which Smith claimed to have but then returned to an angel. What is your fascination with them?
All they are is an imaginary object. We can’t see them or touch them, but they’re in our heads. Gold plates figure in the imagination of modern Mormons and especially educated Mormons. They’re one of our great fantasies, one of the most fabulous and unbelievable parts of our history.

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