Wednesday, August 10, 2022

David McCullough on history

The outstanding historian David McCullough passed away this week. In February 2005 in Arizona at a Hillsdale College National Leadership Seminar, McCullough gave a speech titled "Knowing History and Knowing Who We Are."

His observations pertain to the study of LDS Church history. Young and new Latter-day Saints have difficulty understand our history because important events and historical records have been mowed over by modern theories and interpretations, particularly regarding SITH and M2C.

In the excerpts below (in blue) I offer some applications to LDS history (in red). Emphasis added.

The speech was adapted and reprinted in 2008, here: 

https://www.americanheritage.com/history-and-knowing-who-we-are

Excerpts:

Former President Harry S. Truman once remarked that the history we don’t know is the only new thing in the world. 

For young and new Latter-day Saints, it's a "new thing" for them to learn that Joseph Smith translated the plates with the Urim and Thummim that came with the plates. Another '"new thing" is learning that the hill Cumorah in New York state is actually the hill Cumorah (and hill Ramah) of the Book of Mormon.

Picking up on a related theme, the late Daniel Boorstin, an eminent historian, Librarian of Congress, and griend of mine, wrote that planning for the future without a sense of the past is similar to planting cut flowers and hoping for the best.

Today, the new generation of young Americans are like a field of cut flowers, by-and-large historically illiterate. This does not bode well for our future.

The same is true for young and new Latter-day Saints, who are easily confused by SITH and M2C because they are illiterate on those topics.

After delivering a talk at the University of Missouri, I spoke with a young woman who said that until my talk she had not known that all of the original 13 colonies were on the east coast. How could a student at a fine university not know this, I wondered.

Ask most young Latter-day Saints about the hill Cumorah or the Urim and Thummim and they have no clue about what Joseph and his contemporaries.

...

All of us who are educators, parents, and writers bear a great responsibility: We must communicate to the younger generation that Americans — as individuals, but also collectively as a nation — cannot truly know who we are or where we are going unless we know where we have been.

We should value what our forebears — and that includes our own parents and grandparents — have done for us; otherwise our history will simply slip away. If we inherit an old oil painting and no one tells us that it is a priceless work of art, then we’ll probably lose interest in it, either sticking it in a closet or selling it. Of course, history is not static like a painting, but eternally fascinating, because events and people can be freshly examined with new techniques and perspectives. Each generation, we peel back biases that have blinded those before us. The more we know about the past enables us to ask richer and more provocative questions about who we are today.

We also must tell the next generation one of the great truths of history: that no past event was preordained. Every battle, election, and revolution could have turned out differently at any point along the way, just as a person’s own life can change unpredictably. Nothing occurs in a vacuum, a fact that is not as self-evident as it might sound, particularly to a young person.

And we would do well to remind young people that nobody ever lived in the past. Jefferson, Adams, and Washington did not walk around thinking, “Isn’t it fascinating living in the past?” They lived in the present, of course, just as we do today, every bit uncertain of the future as we are. How easy it is for historians and biographers — or any of us — to look backward in time and judge the actions of others. Yet we are not making those tough decisions in real time with definite uncertainties.

...

Family, teachers, friends, rivals, and competitors have all shaped us. So, too, have those who lived long before us. Think about symphony composers, painters, poets, and writers of great literature: We walk around every day quoting Shakespeare, Cervantes, and Pope without even knowing it. We believe that its our way of speaking, but it’s actually what we have been given.

Naturally, Joseph Smith translated the plates using his own lexicon, which is exactly what we expect of any translator.

The laws that govern us, the freedoms we enjoy, the institutions that we often unfortunately take for granted, represent the hard work of others stretching back far into the past. Acting indifferent to this fact does not just smack of ignorance, but rudeness. How can we claim indifference to learning about those people who made it possible for us to become citizens of the world’s greatest country? The freedoms we enjoy are not just a birthright, but something for which millions have struggled, suffered, and died.

Character and Destiny

None of the writers and signers of the Declaration of Independence in Philadelphia during that fateful summer of 1776 were superhuman; each had flaws, failings, and weaknesses. Some ardently disliked others. All said and did things he regretted. Yet the fact that these imperfect human beings rose to the occasion and performed as they did testifies to their humanity. It is our ability then and now to rise to the occasion and exhibit our strengths—not our failings, weaknesses, and sins—that define us as Americans.

...

The desire to find out what’s not working, fix it, and then maybe get it to work is an American quality and our guiding star. The founding fathers had no prior experience in revolutions or nation-making. The faces of these men, framed by powdered hair and marked by awkward-looking teeth, stare out from old paintings and the money in our wallets, like elder statesmen. But, when George Washington took command of the continental army at Cambridge in 1775, he was 43-years-old, the oldest of the lot. Jefferson penned the Declaration at 33, while John Adams signed it at 40. Benjamin Rush — a founder of the antislavery movement in Philadelphia and one of the most interesting founding fathers — was only 30 years old.

...

The freedoms we enjoy represent the hard work of others stretching back far into the past


Our Failure, Our Duty

There’s no secret to teaching history well or making it interesting. Barbara Tuchman summed up what every teacher, parent, and writer should know in two words: “Tell stories.” E.M. Forster gave a wonderful definition of “story.” If you say that the king died and then the queen died of grief, then that becomes a story, because it calls for empathy on the part of both the storyteller and the listener. We need historians who have the heart and humanity necessary to help students imagine the lives of people who have lived in the past and were just as human as we are today.

...

Listening to the Past

Samuel Eliot Morison wrote that we should read history because it helps us behave better. So, too, we ought to read history because it breaks down dividers between the disciplines of science, medicine, philosophy, art, and music, which is all part of the human story. History enables us to understand the interconnections. Understanding the 18th century, for example, depends on familiarity with its vocabulary, because their words often mean something different than they do today. In a letter that John Adams wrote to his wife Abigail, “We can’t guarantee success in this war, but we can do something better. We can deserve it.” The word “deserve” has such a different meaning today when all that matters is success, getting ahead, and rising to the top.

Adam’s letter indicates that while God controls the outcome of the war, the colonists can control how they behave. They can “deserve” success. That line practically lifted me out of my chair when I first read it. Three weeks later I found the same word in George Washington’s correspondence. It occurred to me that they both were quoting somebody else. I pulled down Bartlett’s Familiar Quotations from the bookshelf and scanned entries from the 18th century. Bingo, I found it in Joseph Addison’s play, Cato . Adams, Washington, and others were quoting the language of the time, a kind of secular creed if you will. It is impossible to fathom their behavior without knowing why honor mattered so much that they put their lives and fortunes on the line for it. Those were not just words.

We hear talk frequently these days about the difficult, dangerous times we live in. Yet our nation has lived through darker times, although this is not evident listening to those who broadcast the news. The year 1776 was perhaps the darkest time in our history. Or what about the first months of 1942 after Pearl Harbor when German submarines sank our oil tankers in plain sight off the coats of Florida and New Jersey? Our recruits drilled with wooden rifles. Our air force did not exist, and the navy was badly hurt. The Nazi machine looked unstoppable. After Pearl Harbor, when Winston Churchill crossed the Atlantic and gave a magnificent speech, saying that we had not journeyed this far because we were made of sugar candy. It’s as true today as it ever was.

History is not just a subject that ought to be taught or read because it will make us a better citizen, although it will. Nor should we encourage young people to embrace history only because it creates more thoughtful and understanding human beings. Nor should we only share stories about the past because we will behave better. History should be taught for pleasure. The joy of history, like art or music or literature, consists of an expansion of the experience of being alive. And that is what education is largely about.


Monday, August 8, 2022

The Orson Pratt landmine

Experienced SITH sayers and M2Cers avoid citing or even mentioning Orson Pratt because they don't want their followers to know that Orson unequivocally affirmed the New York Cumorah and the translation of the Book of Mormon with the Urim and Thummim that came with the plates.

Someone forgot to alert Brother Kraus about Orson Pratt before he stepped on that landmine.

Because so many people asked me to respond to Brother Kraus' tedious 63-page, 24,000-word review of my book A Man that Can Translate, I've been wading through it as time permits. As you'll see, he has inadvertently strengthened the arguments I made in that book. More importantly, he has exposed the vapid SITH arguments for all to see.

Buried in his review, Brother Kraus cited as authority for one of his claims Orson Pratt's December 1877 sermon.

That sermon should have disposed of the SITH argument once and for all.

Here's an excerpt from my review of Brother Kraus' review, with his work in blue and mine in red.

Orson Pratt likewise taught that the Urim and Thummim were not in the possession of the Church while in Utah (contrary to Neville’s claim that Brigham Young possessed them), describing the future coming forth and translation of “other records translated by the Urim and Thummim, that same instrument that Joseph Smith used in the translation of the ‘Book of Mormon,’ which will again come forth and be revealed to the seer and revelator that God will raise up by which these ancient records will be brought to light.20

Take a moment to consider what just happened here.

Brother Kraus and other SITH sayers argue that Joseph used the term Urim and Thummim to refer to the brown stone they claim Joseph put in the hat, upon which words appeared that Joseph read out loud to his scribes.

https://www.josephsmithpapers.org/topic/seer-stone 
Yet that brown stone is in the Church vaults today. As mentioned above, its provenance has been demonstrated by a continuous chain of custody. Photographs have been published and widely distributed.

https://www.josephsmithpapers.org/topic/seer-stone

Whether or not Orson Pratt knew Brigham had the brown stone, his statement, quoted by Brother Kraus, specifically excludes the brown stone from any connection with the translation of the Book of Mormon because, instead of being in the possession of Brigham Young as the brown stone was, the actual Urim and Thummim that Joseph used to translate the Book of Mormon “will again come forth” sometime in the future to be used to bring to light ancient records.

Parenthetically, something Brother Kraus forgot to quote from this same sermon by Orson Pratt ought to be the end of the SITH argument conflating the Urim and Thummim with the brown seer stone.

 

You will perceive, Latter-day Saints, how this Urim and Thummim was formed in the first place. It was not something that existed on the earth in a natural state, it was something made by the Lord. He is a good mechanic, he understands how to make things….

He made the Urim and Thummim, and we have an account of his making it in the words which I have been reading. Two crystal stones that he gave unto the brother of Jared were made by him. When ye shall write these things, ye shall seal them up, also the interpreters, until the Lord shall see fit, in his own due time, to reveal them to the children of men.

 (Wordcrucher citation, 1877, OP King Limhi ¶34 • JD 19:214)

 Orson’s explanation precludes any possible conflation of ordinary rocks, such as the brown one the Church has displayed, with the Urim and Thummim formed by God that Moroni deposited in the stone box with the plates. The SITH sayers cannot reconcile their redefinition of terms with what Orson explained here. Instead, they simply ignore what he said. 

_____

My discussion of Brother Kraus' claim continues, but for purposes of this post, I'll stop it there. 

As always, we should assess Orson Pratt's sermon in context. He was familiar with SITH because the 1834 book Mormonism Unvailed had set out the SITH argument. Here's an excerpt from A Man that Can Translate:

For decades, leaders of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints taught that Joseph used the U&T. If you search the Journal of Discourses or LDS General Conference addresses, you get over 100 results of leaders testifying that Joseph translated the plates with the “Urim and Thummim” that he obtained from Moroni, which had been prepared for the purpose of translating the plates.[1]

On the other hand, the 1834 book Mormonism Unvailed described a different process.

 

The translation finally commenced. They [the plates] 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.[2]

 

This 1834 passage looks contemporary because it is the same narrative many modern historians have adopted.

The speakers in Journal of Discourses were familiar with Mormonism Unvailed and Oliver’s eight essays that cited facts to rebut the claims of the critics (see Chapter 4). Many of them knew Oliver and Joseph personally and heard them testify that Joseph used the U&T to translate the plates.

In recent decades, however, faithful LDS scholars re-evaluated the historical evidence cited by critics regarding SITH. They decided the evidence was credible enough to warrant incorporation into standard Church history narratives, thereby implementing Synthesis #1. 



[1] I recommend using WordCruncher to search LDS General Conference addresses. A good alternative is https://scriptures.byu.edu/ .

[2] Mormonism Unvailed, p. 18, available online at. https://play.google.com/books/reader?id=KXJNAAAAYAAJ&printsec=frontcover&pg=GBS.PA18 





Thursday, August 4, 2022

Intellectual curiosity and geography


People often ask how and why I changed my mind about Book of Mormon geography and the translation process. I've explained it a few times, but I'll summarize it again here regarding the geography and later regarding SITH (the stone-in-the-hat).

These are important issues because of the well-known impact they are having in creating the "faith crisis" epidemic that we're all familiar with. 

Basically, I've gone from accepting the New York Cumorah in the hemispheric model, to rejecting the New York Cumorah in favor of M2C (the limited geography Mesoamerican setting with Cumorah in southern Mexico), to re-accepting the New York Cumorah in a limited "Heartland" model that encompasses the eastern half of North America. In my view, the evidence for the Heartland model is compelling in several ways. 

First, the teachings of Joseph Smith and Oliver Cowdery are unambiguous and intentional, as are the teachings of their contemporaries and successors. While the M2C scholars rationalize away those teachings, anything can be rationalized away in the pursuit of bias confirmation, and the M2C arguments resort to the type of logical and factual fallacies we expect when driven by bias confirmation.

Second, the text of the Book of Mormon is vague about geography but specific enough to describe a variety of possible settings that incorporate the New York Cumorah.

Third, relevant sciences of archaeology, anthropology, geology, and geography corroborate many of the models based on the New York Cumorah.

Fourth, the refusal by M2C scholars to engage in serious, respectful dialog about the Heartland model, their continuing misrepresentations and even personal antipathy, and their ongoing efforts to censor the teachings of the prophets argues strongly against the validity of their theories. 

I'm happy for people to believe whatever they want. I just oppose the actions of LDS intellectuals who use their positions of power and influence to denigrate the beliefs of others and set up impediments for everyone, including other Latter-day Saints, to make informed decisions about these topics. 
______

When I was a young Latter-day Saint, we were taught that the Book of Mormon took place over the entire western hemisphere, from Chile to Canada. This was the Orson Pratt model that he outlined in his footnotes in the 1879 Book of Mormon, although he distinguished between fact (Cumorah in New York) and theory (Lehi landing in Chile, Zarahemla in Colombia, etc.). 

I had a seminary teacher tell me that all the Native Americans were descended from Lehi and that the idea these people crossed the Bering Strait was a lie. 

Then, when I went to BYU, I had a change in paradigm when I took a class from John Sorenson, who taught M2C (the limited geography model based in Mesoamerica that also teaches Cumorah is in southern Mexico and the "Cumorah" in New York was a false speculation by early Latter-day Saints). FARMS also taught M2C, claiming there was all kinds of evidence coming out to validate the Mesoamerican setting. I attended the conferences, read the newsletters, etc. I trusted Jack Welch, John Sorenson, Dan Peterson, etc. because I figured they knew a lot more about this than I did and, given the information they provided, it made sense.

Life (family, career, etc.) intervened and I didn't spend a lot of time assessing M2C for many years. But after visiting Mesoamerica a few times, I found the M2C theory didn't align with reality on the ground. In addition, many people I knew were leaving the Church, including former missionary companions, family members, and friends, mostly because of disbelief in the Book of Mormon.

I had a second change in paradigm several years ago when a mutual friend introduced me to Rod Meldrum, who told me about the Heartland approach to geography/historicity. Naturally, I did my "due diligence" and read what FAIRLDS, BMAF, and others had to say. I was surprised at how antagonistic the M2C scholars were toward the Heartland ideas. Their arrogance led me to further investigation. 

I went on a tour with Rod  and Wayne May. The sites and museums in Ohio are full of artifacts that fit the Book of Mormon better than what I'd seen in Mesoamerica. 

Returning to the M2C scholars, their arguments relied primarily on the 1842 Times and Seasons articles, which they claimed were written by Joseph Smith. The M2C scholars said Joseph didn't know much about the Book of Mormon or the Nephites, but he learned about them from the Stephens and Catherwood books.  

When I went back through Sorenson's work, such as Mormon's Codex, it soon became apparent that the whole thing is transparent bias confirmation. The M2C scholars to this day are trying to validate and corroborate what they think Joseph taught, even though they had to reject the New York Cumorah and rationalize away other statements Joseph actually made. 

I started pulling on the M2C thread and its components unraveled, starting with the Times and Seasons articles, then the M2C interpretation of the text of the Book of Mormon, then the M2C rejection of the New York Cumorah, and so forth. 

I wrote a few books, articles and blogs about M2C and why people should reconsider M2C and look at the Heartland alternative.

The reactions have been fascinating. The M2C scholars turned out to be incredibly closed-minded and self-satisfied, while the "Heartlanders" have been open-minded and eager to learn. It's the exact opposite of what we ordinary people might think, because intellectuals often tout their supposed open-mindedness and fairness.

There are exceptions from both sides, of course, but overall, the M2C scholars continue to refuse to engage the Heartland ideas seriously while also refusing to address the problems with M2C.

Next I'll discuss the SITH saga.