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.

Friday, July 28, 2023

Saints Unscripted: another "just move on" effort

Saints Unscripted recently posted a video about SITH (the stone-in-the-hat theory) titled "Did the Church hide the truth about Joseph Smith’s seer stone?" | Ep. 201


Saints Unscripted produces great videos, with effective graphics and commentary. 

But ultimately, this one is another "just move on" approach, similar to that taken by many of the references provided in the notes. Avoiding the issue by minimizing and trivializing seems short-sighted and ultimately ineffective. 

Screen shot from Saints Unscripted

Some people adopt the "just move on" approach, of course, and that's fine with me. 

But the pursuit of clarity, charity and understanding to achieve no more contention leads me to discuss how this video is another example of classic cognitive dissonance. 


As suggested by the title, the video attempts to respond to critics who claim "the Church" somehow "hid" the so-called "truth" about Joseph's seer stone.

As you can see, the title is laden with assumptions. The video makes a decent case that "the Church" has not "hidden" claims that Joseph used SITH to produce the Book of Mormon. But to imply, as the video does, that SITH is "the truth" is a leap of fact and logic--and a concession to the critics, which undermines the premise of the video itself.

There's a good reason why critics tout SITH as a major problem with "Mormonism." 

The question is not whether "the Church" hid the historical record about the seer stones, but whether Joseph Smith misled everyone.

IOW, SITH is a challenge to the credibility and reliability of Joseph and Oliver, a point the video completely ignores.

In the past, everyone knew that Joseph Smith and Oliver Cowdery claimed openly and publicly that Joseph translated the plates with the Urim and Thummim that came with the plates.

In recent years, though, Church historians have moved away from that claim. Instead, they've argued that Joseph actually dictated words that appeared on a seer stone he found in a well years earlier. Some even say he didn't use the plates at all, especially after losing the 116 pages. Instead, once he prepared spiritually, he dictated words that appeared on the stone-in-the-hat (SITH).

The discrepancy--SITH vs Urim and Thummim--was articulated in the 1834 book Mormonism Unvailed. In our day, some faithful LDS scholars, along with most critics of the Church, claim that the SITH account in Mormonism Unvailed is "the truth" about the origin of the Book of Mormon. 

Many people don't realize that Joseph Smith denounced Mormonism Unvailed, as I discussed here:


Consequently, the discrepancy between SITH and U&T persists to this day, despite the unambiguous declarations by Joseph and Oliver that should have clarified the issue (at least, for those who believe them).


The discrepancy generates obvious cognitive dissonance in both believers and nonbelievers.

- If Joseph actually used the U&T to translate the plates, then unbelievers have a big problem when they reject the divine authenticity of the Book of Mormon. Hence their insistence that Joseph did not use the U&T and did not use the plates.

- If Joseph dictated words that appeared on the stone-in-the-hat (or through vision or composition), then believers have a big problem because the SITH narrative (i) contradicts what Joseph and Oliver said, (ii) undermines the viability of the plates/U&T narrative, and (iii) calls into question the source of the words (whether they appeared on the stone, or in Joseph's mind by revelation, or by some other means, there is no direct link to the plates and thus the source of the text could range from divine to human to devilish, depending on what one wants to believe). 

It is well known that there are four strategies to reduce the discomfort of cognitive dissonance. People take one or more of these strategies to resolve the SITH/U&T dissonance:

1. We trivialize the inconsistency altogether, making it less important and less relevant.

2. We add other (consonant) thoughts that justify or reduce the importance of one thought and therefore diminish the inconsistency.

3. We change our behavior so that it is consistent with the other thought.

4. We change one of the dissonant thoughts in order to restore consistency. 

1. Trivialize the inconsistency. Some believers trivialize SITH/U&T dissonance altogether by saying, in effect, "it doesn't matter how Joseph produced the Book of Mormon because I have a testimony it is true, because the words in the text are evidence of their divine origin, because no ignorant farm boy could produce the book, etc."

This is the approach taken in the video.   

5:57 the evidence isn't overwhelmingly straightforward. If I die and find out that Joseph never used his Seer Stone to translate I'm not going to lose any sleep. Frankly, I don't really care which Stones Joseph used. It's just a rock. 

We'll discuss this more in the section below, but it's easy to see how the video concludes the evidence isn't straightforward. It simply ignores what Joseph and Oliver said in favor of the confusing, inconsistent statements from others.

2. Add consonant thoughts. Some believers add other consonant thoughts, such as the idea that Joseph used both the U&T and SITH and/or used the term "Urim and Thummim" to refer to both. That approach may be soothing for those who are unaware of the details of the historical record, but the record defies both consonant thoughts. 

Contrary to the thought that Joseph used both, the SITH witnesses said that Joseph used only SITH (except possibly for the 116 pages), while Joseph, Oliver, Lucy Mack Smith, and John Whitmer said Joseph used only the U&T to translate. One historian who interviewed David, Emma and others pointed out that Joseph used a seer stone to "satisfy the awful curiosity" of his supporters, but not to translate. 

Contrary to the thought that Joseph used the term "Urim and Thummim" to refer to both the Nephite interpreters and the seer stone, the 1834 book Mormonism Unvailed clearly delineated between the two alternative explanations. David Whitmer, Emma Smith, and others likewise distinguished the two alternatives whenever they addressed the topic. Joseph himself resolved the confusion with his specific declaration that he used the U&T that came with the plates.

3. Change behavior. Some believers deal with the SITH/U&T dissonance by changing their behavior; i.e., unable to reconcile SITH and U&T, they stop learning about Church history and put the topic "on the shelf" so they can ignore it. 

Others accept SITH and leave the Church on the ground that they've been misled by the teachings about the U&T. Responding to that response is one of the ostensible objectives of the video, but because the video resorts to strategy 1, it doesn't offer much for those who respond to cognitive dissonance with strategy 3. 

4. Change dissonant thoughts. Some believers change one of the dissonant thoughts by rejecting either SITH or U&T. 

Some believers reject U&T and embrace SITH as "cool" or a faith-promoting narrative. They turn a "bug" into a "feature," to use the software metaphor.

Some believers reject U&T and embrace SITH, leading them to change their behavior accordingly as discussed in 3. above.

Other believers reject SITH and embrace U&T for various reasons, such as accusing the SITH witnesses of lying. 

I think #4 is the most rational and evidence-based approach to resolving cognitive dissonance, but I don't think it is rational or evidence-based to simply conclude one side or the other was outright lying.

My detailed examination of the historical record, combined with my experience with witnesses and evidence as a lawyer, indicated to me that the SITH witnesses were not outright lying, but (i) they had a strong motivation to use SITH to defend against the Spalding theory and (ii) they developed a SITH narrative that was apparently based on a demonstration event that may not have even involved the text of the Book of Mormon. As witnesses do, they relied on hearsay, assumptions, and inferences to coordinate a narrative they thought was useful.

For me, this is an easy, obvious, and straightforward resolution that is supported by the evidence. Basically, I believe what Joseph and Oliver taught for all the reasons I've explained elsewhere.


How does trivializing the conflict resolve cognitive dissonance?

The trivializing approach in this video works (sort of) because of two key rhetorical tricks.

First, the title. The question is not whether "the Church" hid "the truth," but whether Joseph Smith hid "the truth" about the origin of the Book of Mormon. By focusing on "the Church," the video can find isolated examples of Church leaders and authors mentioning the seer stone and thereby refute claims the Church has hid "the truth."

Of course, everyone with even cursory understanding of the issue knows this is a dodge because the isolated statements quoted in the video were far outside the mainstream teachings in General Conference and Church materials, all of which reiterated Joseph's claim that he translated the plates by means of the U&T that came with the plates. 

This brings up the second trick.

The video never quotes what Joseph Smith and Oliver Cowdery said about the translation. This is the same tactic used in the Gospel Topics Essay, the MacKay/Dirkmaat books, and the other SITH sayer sources.

By simply ignoring the source of the cognitive dissonance--the clear, unambiguous declarations by Joseph and Oliver--the video downgrades the conflict into a vague fog of confusing historical accounts that can't be reconciled and aren't important anyway. 

That's why the "just move on" approach is unsatisfactory to many people, both believers and nonbelievers. 


My comments I posted on youtube:

Although this video is a good effort to respond to some critics, the title of this video is misleading because the issue isn't whether "the Church" hid "the truth" but whether Joseph Smith "hid the truth."

One reason people consider this issue important is that it goes directly to the credibility and reliability of Joseph Smith and Oliver Cowdery, who always said (including in published statements) that Joseph translated the record with the Urim and Thummim that came with the plates. Those who claim instead that Joseph found a stone in a well, used the stone-in-the-hat (SITH) to produce the text, and didn't even use the plates, are explicitly repudiating what Joseph and Oliver said.

People can believe whatever they want, but no one can make informed decisions without considering all the relevant information.

Notice that this video and the SITH sayer references in the notes (including the Gospel Topics Essay) all ignore the simple, clear, and unambiguous answer Joseph gave to this question, a question which he said arose daily as he traveled from Kirtland to Missouri in 1838. The question persisted partly because of the 1834 publication of Mormonism Unvailed, which clearly distinguished between the seer stone (peep stone) and the Urim and Thummim (contrary to the MacKay/Dirkmaat theory mentioned in the video that the terms were interchangeable).

"Question: How, and where did you obtain the book of Mormon?
Answer: Moroni, the person who deposited the plates, from whence the book of Mormon was translated, in a hill in Manchester, Ontario County, New York, being dead; and raised again therefrom, appeared unto me, and told me where they were, and 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." (Elders’ Journal, July 1838)

This clear, definitive answer should suffice for believers.

There is no room in that answer for a seer stone (or peep stone) he found in a well. All the obfuscation efforts of the SITH sayers cannot overcome the direct, consistent statements from Joseph and Oliver on this question. Bottom line, do we believe what Joseph and Oliver said and published, or do we believe the contradictory statements of others?

No comments:

Post a Comment