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, March 1, 2024

March Liahona: Mark Ashurst-McGee almost gets there

In this post, we'll discuss the second article published in the US/Canada section of the March 2024 Liahona

"Witnesses of the Gold Plates of the Book of Mormon," by Mark Ashurst-McGee, Senior Historian, Joseph Smith Papers Project, Church History Department


Mark is an awesome individual, a truly professional scholar and historian, and an exemplary Latter-day Saint. The article makes some steps toward improved accuracy about historical sources. Specifically, Mark Ashurst-McGee avoids the "Mary Whitmer met Moroni" narrative by quoting and citing some of the original sources. 

In that sense, this is a big improvement over the Saints book, BYU Studies, and Book of Mormon Central. 

Mark almost gets there.

But he couldn't quite go all the way to educating readers about the complete and accurate Church history regarding this event.

I commend Mark for this small step toward correcting one of the more egregious fictional narratives in the Saints book. He at least included some important references in his article (note 15), but in a practical sense the references remain opaque because he did not provide specific citations for specific quotations and did not provide links so people can find the references.

Fixing those problems would significantly improve the article and better educate readers.

Even better, how about taking this small step further by fixing the Saints book electronically in all the languages? 

It seems unfair to Latter-day Saints who don't read English to have this small correction available only to readers of the Liahona in the United States and Canada.

Still better: fixing both the Saints book and this article and then republishing both in all the languages with links to the original sources.

We assume that these articles were editorially pruned for space restrictions. Yet certain tangential sources were quoted at length while other core sources (particularly Joseph Smith and Oliver Cowdery) were truncated or omitted entirely. 

For a detailed analysis of both articles, go to 


Here, we will look at a highlight after a short explanation of why I'm posting these comments.


We all recognize and appreciate the diligent, professional historians who have assembled, compiled, organized, and presented the voluminous historical record of the Restoration, particularly those who have worked with the Joseph Smith Papers. 

In the pursuit of clarity, charity and understanding (nomorecontention.com), we have all been blessed by the world-class accuracy and reliability of the historical content in the Joseph Smith Papers.

For some time now we've also hoped that more accurate and complete information about the origin and setting of the Book of Mormon would be made available to the Latter-day Saints around the world. For non-English speakers, the historical references are difficult to access. Few of these sources have been translated. Consequently, new, young and non-English speaking Latter-day Saints necessarily rely on a handful of materials, including the Saints books and the Gospel Topics Essays, for accurate information.

We've previously discussed the way the Saints book (Vol. 1) was written to accommodate the SITH (stone-in-the-hat) and M2C (Mesoamerican/two-Cumorahs) agendas instead of to inform readers about the authentic historical record regarding the origin and setting of the Book of Mormon. E.g., https://saintsreview.blogspot.com/2018/10/the-historians-explain-censorship-in.html

We've also discussed how the Gospel Topics Essays on Book of Mormon Translation and Geography were written to accommodate the same agendas. For example, it's unthinkable that an essay on the translation of the Book of Mormon would omit what Joseph Smith and Oliver Cowdery said about the topic, but everyone can read the essays and see for themselves. E.g., https://www.ldshistoricalnarratives.com/p/gospel-topics-essay-on-translation.html

Even the editorial content of the Joseph Smith Papers accommodates these agendas. E.g., https://www.academia.edu/67756647/Agenda_driven_editorial_content_in_the_Joseph_Smith_Papers

Thus, there is room for improvement, as we've discussed many times on this blog. This post encourages such improvement in accuracy in the editorial content of ancillary materials, in this case the Liahona magazine.

Another consideration: In my view, the way this article and related materials are edited (such as using ellipses to change meanings and providing obscure citations without links) seems to contravene basic principles of the Standard of Professional Conduct from the American Historical Association, such as this one:

Professional integrity in the practice of history requires awareness of one’s own biases and a readiness to follow sound method and analysis wherever they may lead. Historians should document their findings and be prepared to make available their sources, evidence, and data, including any documentation they develop through interviews. Historians should not misrepresent their sources. They should report their findings as accurately as possible and not omit evidence that runs counter to their own interpretation. 


Hopefully we can all do better in the future.


Here's an excerpt of my discussion of the way Mark discusses the Mary Whitmer account of seeing the plates. It's refreshing that he uses some original sources and doesn't default to the "Moroni" narrative.

But he edited David Whitmer's account to avoid incorporating David's explanation!

Original article in blue, my comments in red, original sources in green.

Her son David said that “she was met out near the yard by [an] old man.” 

This is amazing editing that misleads readers. The original reference (cited only generally in note 15, which includes no links to these obscure references that have never been translated into other languages) reads, "Sometime after this, my mother was going to milk the cows, when she was met out near the yard by the same old man (judging by her description of him)." 

Contrary the implication in the article, was not merely "an old man" but "the same old man" whom David saw along the road to Fayette. David reported that the man was the messenger who had the plates, so this is another important witness of the reality of the plates that the article omits.

This encounter is important because Edward Stevenson reported this during his interview with David: "Shortly afterwards, David relates, the Prophet looked very white but with a heavenly appearance and said their visitor was one of the three Nephites to whom the Savior gave the promise of life on earth until He should come in power." 

The article lists Stevenson's account as a reference in note 15, but again without a link, making it difficult for anyone to read the full account. The article also inexplicably omits Mary Whitmer identification of the messenger as "Brother Nephi," which is consistent with Joseph's identification.

But to its credit, at least the article does not reiterate the "messenger was Moroni" narrative taught by M2C advocates who claim the real Cumorah is in Mexico so the messenger could not have been going to Cumorah, despite what David Whitmer said. 


Again, we commend Mark for at least including these important references in his article (note 15), but in a practical sense the references remain opaque because he didn't provide specific citations for specific quotation and did not provide links so people can find the references.

All of this suggests an intent to provide the illusion of candor and openness while making it impossible for ordinary readers--and all non-English speakers--to learn from the actual original sources.

Let's hope this step toward correcting past errors continues.

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