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.

Saturday, April 20, 2024

Joseph Smith conference 2005

This is a repost of a classic post, slightly updated. I like multiple working hypotheses: people can believe whatever they want. If people want to believe a Mesoamerican setting for the Book of Mormon, that's fine with me. 

However, I don't consider it legitimate for a presentation at an academic conference to omit relevant, specific evidence solely because it contradicts the proponent's theories. While no article or presentation can include all the relevant evidence, this conference was presented to the entire world and included several speakers, none of whom quoted or discussed what Joseph Smith and Oliver Cowdery actually said about the origin and setting of the Book of Mormon. 

Hence, this review.

Fun with John E. Clark - BYU Studies and Archaeological Trends

"The Worlds of Joseph Smith" Conference

In 2005, BYU and the Library of Congress sponsored a two-day academic conference to commemorate the 200th anniversary of Joseph Smith's birth. The press release on lds.org is here. An example of more publicity, including the list of speakers, is here.

This symposium was one of the most high-profile discussions of Joseph Smith to date. In addition to the presentations, "An exhibit of books and other materials related to Joseph Smith, drawn from the collections of the Library of Congress and Brigham Young University, will be on display in the foyer." Among the displays were a first-edition Book of Mormon, original letters and other important historical documents, portraits, etc.
The anonymous "Zarahemla" article in the
Oct 1, 1842 Times and Seasons that is the
basis for the Mesoamerican theory of
Book of Mormon geography. This was one
of the displays at the "Worlds of Joseph Smith" 
symposium at the Library of Congress

But the Mesoamerican theory was prominent. The exhibit included a page from the Times and Seasons: the infamous "Zarahemla" article from Oct. 1, 1842. Plus, they exhibited a page from John Lloyd Stephens' Incidents of Travel in Central America, Chiapas, and Yucatan.

Needless to say, they did not display the issue of the Times and Seasons that contained Letter VII (declaring the New York Cumorah to be a fact), or the page from Joseph's journal that contained Letter VII, or the Messenger and Advocate page that contained Letter VII, or the Gospel Reflector issue that contained Letter VII. 

In fact, the exhibitors had nothing at all about Cumorah. The term Cumorah doesn't even appear in the index of the proceedings.

The symposium portrayed to the world the Mesoamerican setting for the Book of Mormon that repudiates basic teachings about that setting--i.e., the Hill Cumorah was in New York--that was embraced by and articulated by Joseph Smith himself.

The proceedings were published by BYU Studies 44:4 (2005). One of the presentations became the well-known article, "Archaeological Trends and Book of Mormon Origins" by John E. Clark. This article is also on the BOMC site here.  It was originally a May 2004 BYU forum address, then a presentation at the May 2005 Worlds of Joseph Smith Symposium at the Library of Congress, and finally a presentation at the August 2005 FAIR Conference. It has been frequently cited by other Mesoamerican proponents.


The article is too long to reproduce in its entirety, so I'll comment on excerpts. Basically, Brother Clark makes an unchallenged case for the Mesoamerican/two-Cumorah's theory of Book of Mormon geography (M2C) that was presented to the world as the current consensus about the subject.

Original in blue, my comments in red.

"Any fair understanding of Joseph Smith must derive from a plausible explanation of the Book of Mormon, and both science and reason can and should be involved in the evaluation. Because the book makes claims about American prehistory, archaeology has long been implicated in assessments of the book's credentials as ancient history, and, by direct implication, of the veracity, sanity, or honesty of Joseph Smith. I revisit issues of archaeology and the Book of Mormon here in addressing the character of Joseph Smith. Archaeology shows that almost everyone involved in the running quarrel over Joseph and the book have misrepresented and misunderstood both." 

[This is a thoughtful and useful statement of the issues, but the last sentence is unintentionally ironic, given the way Brother Clark has previously misrepresented the archaeology of western New York, as I've shown in other blog posts. In this article, he discusses and cites only sources that promote M2C.]

"For Mormons, Joseph Smith is a prophet, seer, and revelator, and the Book of Mormon is the word of God. Detractors ridicule both as blasphemous frauds. There is no secure middle ground between positions, but there is one spectacular point of agreement. Champions on both sides see the Book of Mormon as the key to Joseph Smith's claim to be a prophet." 

[This is an excellent framing of the fundamental issue about Joseph Smith. It parallels the debate among Mormons about the setting for the Book of Mormon, in which there is also no secure middle ground between positions; i.e., Cumorah was either in New York or elsewhere, such as in Mesoamerica. (There are a few proponents of the idea that Cumorah was in New York while most of the events took place in Mesoamerica.)]

Extract from John Lloyd Stephens,
one of the displays at the "Worlds of Joseph Smith"
symposium at the Library of Congress
"Critics see Joseph Smith as author of a romantic fiction, the Book of Mormon, and in doing so they distort both the man and the book beyond belief. They see the book as a logical product of its 1820s intellectual environment, combined with Joseph Smith's native intelligence and deceitful propensities. 

[This is a good summary of the anti-Mormon position, but it is also a description of an original premise for the Mesoamerican theory. In the early 1830s, Parley P. Pratt faced this argument and invoked Central America as a partial answer; i.e., in 1829 Joseph did not know about the extravagant ruined cities in Central America, so the book could not be a product of his own knowledge. Benjamin Winchester and others made similar arguments, and modern LDS scholars have embraced these arguments as well. However, in my view these arguments have caused more problems than they've solved--and they weren't necessary in the first place.] 

"Most  Mormons  fall  into  a  more  subtle  error  that  also  inflates Joseph’s talents; they confuse translation with authorship. 

[Few if any Mormons confuse this. In fact, I've never met one who did, nor have I read any books, articles, or blogs that make this error. I think Brother Clark is building a straw man here.]

They presume that Joseph Smith knew the contents of the book as if he were its real author, and they accord him perfect knowledge of the text. 

[One citation would be very helpful here, but I don't expect one because this is a straw man argument.]

This  presumption  removes from  discussion  the  most  compelling evidence of the book’s authenticity—Joseph’s unfamiliarity with its contents. 

[This is the "most compelling evidence?" Critics have long said Sydney Rigdon wrote the text, or that Joseph (or Oliver) copied it from Ethan Smith or Solomon Spaulding or someone else. To these critics, Joseph's unfamiliarity would be evidence that supports their theory; i.e., that he didn't translate it! More importantly, we teach the most compelling evidence is the spiritual witness people receive when the read the book and pray about it. That said, the available evidence does not suggest that Joseph was unfamiliar with its contents. He re-read it several times and twice made detailed changes for new editions. It's a strange argument that Joseph was unfamiliar with its contents when he changed punctuation, spelling, and even terminology.]

To put the matter clearly: Joseph Smith did not fully understand the Book of Mormon. 

[In a sense, this is true--in an axiomatic way. How could anyone "fully understand" any text? Every reader brings his/her own background, knowledge, experience, etc. to a text; there is no such thing as an objective "full understanding" of a text. Surely Brother Clark is not implying that scholars today "fully understand" the text. That would constitute a bigger problem than whatever problems he hopes to resolve here.]

I propose that he transmitted to readers an ancient book that he neither imagined nor wrote. 

[Fair enough, since that's what he claimed and what every believer accepts. Besides, technically Oliver Cowdery wrote it; Joseph dictated it.]

One thing all readers share with Joseph is a partial understanding of the book’s complexities. 

[One thing no reader shares with Joseph is the four-year tutorial from Moroni that Joseph summarized this way in the Wentworth letter: "I was also informed concerning the aboriginal inhabitants of this country and shown who they were, and from whence they came; a brief sketch of their origin, progress, civilization, laws, governments, of their righteousness and iniquity..." In addition, Joseph's mother said he described the people as if he lived among them.]

Indeed, many things about the book were simply unknowable in 1830. 

[Unknowable because Moroni was incapable of teaching them? Or unknowable because those who weren't tutored by Moroni had no way of knowing these things? I assume Brother Clark means the latter. Indeed, many things about the book are simply unknowable even today, but this includes things Moroni knew and apparently taught Joseph Smith.]

Over the last sixty years, Hugh Nibley, John Sorenson, and other scholars have shown the Book of Mormon to be “truer” than Joseph Smith or any of his contemporaries could know.⁷  

[This rhetorical claim does not withstand scrutiny. First, because how much more "true" can a book be than what Joseph learned when he was taught about it by an angel, he read the text through divinely prepared instruments, he hauled around the ancient plates, and he accompanied others when they, too, saw the plates and the angel? Second, Brother Clark's footnote references books by Hugh Nibley and John Sorenson. Sorenson insists on a Mesoamerican setting, which is problematic in multiple levels, not the least of which is that it contradicts the men who actually saw the plates and the angel. Brother Clark appears to claim here that the Mesoamerican seers know better than the prophetic seers. Yet the Mesoamerican seers don't agree among themselves and their theories depend on their own translations of the text; i.e., the text is "truer" because when it says horses, it means tapirs. Third, I assume Brother Clark means this in the sense that Joseph didn't appreciate the indicia in the book of ancient origins, such as chiasmus. But chiasmus is a subject of as much debate as the origin of the Book itself, and those who "see" Mesoamerica in the text are bringing their own biases with them.]

Consequently,  what  Joseph  Smith  knew  and  understood about the book ought to be research questions rather than presumptions.  Thanks  in  large  part  to  his  critics,  it  is  becoming  clear that Joseph Smith did not fully understand the geography, scope, historical scale, literary form, or cultural content of the book. 

[The only way we can know what Joseph Smith understood is to look at what he said and did, but even if we had every word he ever spoke, we still wouldn't know what he understood. No one ever expresses everything they know; it's impossible, both theoretically and in practice. In Joseph's case, he explicitly said he couldn't relate everything he knew. (And even when he did explain what Moroni taught him, as in the Wentworth letter, we have modern scholars dismissing that!) 

As we'll see, what Brother Clark means here is that Joseph didn't agree with the Mesoamerican theory, so therefore Joseph didn't understand the text as well as the modern-day Mesoamerican seers do. In that sense, I agree with him; Joseph didn't fully understand the modern-day Mesoamerican theories, which rely on the two-Cumorah theory, which to him and his peers was unthinkable.]

"For  example,  early  Mormons  believed  Book  of  Mormon  lands stretched  throughout  all  of North  and  South  America,  a  presumption clearly at odds with the book itself (fig. 1a).⁸ 

[Some early Mormons believed that, but we only know of a handful who wrote about that theory. Projecting the ideas of a few onto an entire population is a logical fallacy. Here, it's even worse than usual because Joseph Smith explicitly rejected the hemispheric model. When he wrote the Wentworth letter, he based it on Orson Pratt's pamphlet, An Interesting Account of Several Remarkable Visions. In that pamphlet, Pratt had spent several pages outlining the hemispheric model, expounding on the people in Central America. Joseph crossed out that section and replaced it with this: "the remnant [of the Nephites and Lamanites] are the Indians that now inhabit this country." 

BTW, if you look up the "Wentworth letter," don't use the link that goes to the lesson manual, Teachings of the Presidents of the Church: Joseph Smith. The curriculum committee (which is dominated by M2C ideas) edited out Joseph's teaching about the Indians. Fortunately, the full Wentworth letter slipped past the censors into the Ensign in 2002, and you can still find it here.)]

The book speaks specifically only of a limited land about the size of Pennsylvania. 

[This is Brother Clark's idea, not what the text says.] 

In 1842, after reading about ancient cities in Central America, Joseph speculated that Book of Mormon lands were located there (fig. 1b). 

[This alludes to the infamous Times and Seasons articles, published anonymously, that I've shown elsewhere were written and edited by a combination of Benjamin Winchester, W.W. Phelps, and William Smith. The only evidence cited for the claim that Joseph Smith read the books about Central America is a thank-you note written to John Bernhisel by an unknown person. I've shown elsewhere that Wilford Woodruff is almost certainly the author of that note, for a long list of reasons I can't get into here. It's fun that for the last year, some of the Mesoamerican seers have been insisting that these anonymous Times and Seasons articles are not the basis for their theory, but if not for these articles, why would anyone ever have looked in Mesoamerica in the first place? Why would Brother Clark cite them here? Why would they be on display at the Library of Congress?]

I derive two lessons from his speculation: First, Joseph did not know exactly where Book of Mormon lands were; second, he considered their  location  an  important  question  addressable  through scholarship. 

[This is wonderful sophistry. Readers should try this for themselves. First, you rely on inferences that aren't supported by the historical facts to speculate that Joseph speculated, then derive self-serving lessons from that speculation that just happen to confirm your biases. 

The historical facts are that 1) Joseph embraced Oliver's Letter VII (which he helped write and then had his scribes copy into his journal); 2) Joseph identified the Midwestern U.S. as the "plains of the Nephites," which are mentioned in the text; and 3) Joseph identified the Native North American Indians from the Northeast as the remnant of Lehi's descendants--the Lamanites. He never once mentioned or alluded to Mesoamerica, and he never once varied from what he said. He never speculated.] 

The book makes hundreds of claims about ancient peoples in the Americas. It has always been clear to people on both sides of the controversy that antiquities could be, and should be, used to corroborate or destroy the book’s pedigree. 

[In the next section, Brother Clark discusses Noel Reynolds' excellent point that a truly authentic ancient document will continue to look ancient in the light of new discoveries about the past. But he inserts a fascinating graphic]

[Notice two things. First, the depiction of "Traditional 19th Century Book of Mormon Geography" strangely puts Cumorah in the Midwest instead of New York. Second, it declares the anonymous Times and Seasons articles to be "Joseph Smith's speculation." Even the anonymous Times and Seasons articles never suggested that Cumorah was anywhere other than in New York, but Brother Clark's map doesn't show that. The very same issue of the Times and Seasons that contains the infamous "Zarahemla" article also contains Joseph's letter that invokes the New York Cumorah (D&C 128), corroborating his mother's recollection that he learned the plates were in the "Hill of Cumorah" even before he saw the plates: "Glad tidings from Cumorah!... the book to be revealed."

The "Traditional" or hemispheric model was described by Church members before and after the Times and Seasons articles were published. It was included in the footnotes of the official Book of Mormon from 1879 to the 1920s. One critical point about those footnotes: they were equivocal about the location of Zarahemla, Lehi's landing point, etc., recognizing those were merely beliefs and/or speculation. But the footnotes were unequivocal in declaring that Cumorah was in New York. So even if, contrary to all historical evidence, it was Joseph Smith who wrote or approved of the anonymous Times and Seasons articles, the New York Cumorah was never in question. This map is a misrepresentation of the speculation about what Joseph Smith speculated.

This next paragraph is one of the most fun in the entire piece:]

A major turning point in Book of Mormon studies came with the realization that early Mormons had missed or misunderstood salient facts of geography, history, and culture embedded in its narrative. The book describes a small place. This insight has shifted the whole debate in recent years. 

[This is actually a good point, but not for the reason Brother Clark thinks. In the Wentworth letter, Joseph Smith himself repudiated the hemispheric model. In 1841, he had rejected the South American setting when an individual brought to Nauvoo a purportedly ancient scroll from South America that depicted Lehi's family crossing the ocean and landing there. When he wrote to Emma about crossing the plains of the Nephites during Zion's Camp, when he sent the missionaries to the Lamanites living in New York, Ohio and Missouri, and when he identified the New Jerusalem in Missouri, he described a "limited geography"--but in North America, not Central America. 

Nevertheless, eager missionaries, including Parley P. Pratt, Benjamin Winchester, William Smith, Orson Pratt, and others, continued to claim the Book of Mormon covered both hemispheres. These early Mormons--not Joseph Smith--were the ones who missed or misunderstood the geography. And today's Mesoamerican seers have missed and understood the geography just as much as they did.

Also, to be clear, the "limited geography in Mesoamerica" did not arise "in recent years" because RLDS scholar L.E. Hills described it with a map he published in 1917, showing Cumorah in southern Mexico. 
1917 map from L.E. Hills

In response to Hills, LDS Apostle and Church Historian Joseph Fielding Smith said "this modernistic theory... would cause Church members to become confused and disturbed in their faith." It wasn't until the 1960s that LDS scholars began embracing Hills' "two Cumorahs" theory. 

Brother Clark follows up with another well-known graphic of John Sorenson's internal Book of Mormon geography:]

... The book provides over seven hundred references to its geography and is consistent from beginning to end, allowing construction of an internal geography.

[An internal geography? Assuming, as Mesoamerican advocates must, that there are no "pins in the map" given by Joseph Smith (i.e., Cumorah in New York), there is no limit to the number of internal geographies one can construct. No two people can possibly come up with identical internal geographies because the text is vague about directions and distances. One must make assumptions about each. "Northward" alone can be a range of 180 degrees. 

It is possible to concoct a "consensus" internal geography among people who agree on assumptions, but such assumptions do not, and cannot, be binding on anyone but on those who agree. 

I think the vagueness of the text is another indication of its ancient origins, but as with any ancient text, we need to know the location of at least one named place to figure out the rest of the geography. This is why the New York Hill Cumorah is essential--and why Brother Clark and everyone else involved with the symposium ignored Cumorah.]

The book describes a narrow, hour-glass-shaped territory several hundred miles long that is sandwiched between eastern and western seas. 

[Nowhere does the text mention an hourglass shape. To the contrary, the text says the land of Zarahemla and the land of Nephi were "nearly surrounded with water." An hourglass shape flatly contradicts that idea, as this graphic shows. It should be needless to say that the text doesn't mention miles at all, but such designations have been imposed on the text by Mesoamerican seers for so long that many people now assume these distances are found somewhere in the text.]

John Sorenson has demonstrated  that  southern  Mexico and  northern  Central  America  fit remarkably well the book’s geography in overall size, configuration, and location of physical features. 

[Sorenson's internal geography is designed not to fit the text but to fit Mesoamerica because of the anonymous Times and Seasons articles, which he quotes on pages 2-3 of An Ancient American Setting for the Book of Mormon. As such, it this hourglass geography doesn't fit the text itself.] 

His proposal for Book of Mormon geography is illustrated in figure 2. These highly credible Book of Mormon lands are tucked away where Joseph Smith never saw them and would never have found them. 

[It is true Joseph never saw Mesoamerica--but he did see where the Nephites lived, as he explained in the Wentworth letter. "I was also informed concerning the aboriginal inhabitants of this country and shown who they were, and from whence they came; a brief sketch of their origin, progress, civilization, laws, governments." Joseph himself described Ohio, Indiana and Illinois as "the plains of the Nephites." He found them quite easily.]  

Contrary  to Reverend  Lamb  and  subsequent  critics,  the Book of Mormon does have a place in the Americas—just not a place  in  Joseph  Smith’s  experience. Book  of  Mormon  geography fits a corner of the Americas Joseph did not know. Therefore, the book’s geography could not have derived from his personal experience. 

[This may appear to be an effective argument against critics--the same rationale used by the early missionaries who cited Mesoamerica in the first place--but it contradicts everything Joseph and Oliver actually said or wrote about the topic. Furthermore, because Joseph did not cross the plains of the Nephites in the Midwestern U.S. until 1834, it was an area outside his personal experience at the time he translated the text. Thus, in a real sense, the North American setting answers the critics as well as Mesoamerica; i.e., there is no need to look at Mesoamerica.] 

It follows that he dictated a book with complexities beyond his own comprehension.  

[I agree with Brother Clark that the text contains complexities. Whether Joseph comprehended them or not is a matter of speculation. Joseph could have comprehended things he never articulated; in fact, he said that was the case. Let's take chiasmus as one example. Joseph never said anything about chiasmus, or Hebrew parallelisms in general. Does that me he didn't comprehend them or was unaware of them? Maybe. Maybe not. I think it's likely he didn't know how the text described the North American setting he referred to throughout his life, but that's only a likelihood; he could just as well have understood chiasmus without ever discussing it.]

After  geographical  considerations,  the  second  major  challenge for Book of Mormon correlations is history... For present purposes, the best place to search for histories matching those in the book is Mesoamerica. 

[Brother Clark makes an excellent point here, but why is Mesoamerica the "best place" to look for matching histories? He includes this graphic:

This graphic is designed to match the Olmec and Mayan cultures to the Book of Mormon cultures, but there are many problems with it. For example, the text never says all the Jaredites were destroyed; Moroni wrote only about those "in this north country." Nothing in the text says or implies that the City of Nephi was destroyed in the same time frame as the battle at Cumorah; in fact, the victorious Lamanite civilization continued on unabated. We should be looking for particular civilizations that were destroyed in the relevant time frames while the conquerors continued on. What we see in North America are Hopewell and Adena civilizations that correspond quite well with the Nephite and Jaredite development and destruction, but within the limited areas of which the text speaks. And Joseph himself identified an Adena burial as Jaredite and Hopewell mounds as Nephite.]

Peoples  there  had  calendar  systems.  Evidence  of  these  native calendars  is  doubly  interesting because  Joseph  Smith’s  critics  have accused  him  of  plagiarizing  books  that  contain information on Hebrew and Aztec timekeeping, principally from Ethan Smith’s View of the Hebrews published in 1825. Similarities between Amerindian and Hebrew months were taken long ago as evidence that American Indians descended from the Lost Ten Tribes, another idea Joseph supposedly  pilfered. Neither accusation holds up. Timekeeping in the Book of Mormon differs from descriptions available in 1829 of Hebrew and Indian lunar counts. Of greater interest, some peculiar details in the book correspond to Maya time-cycles discovered nearly sixty years after the book’s publication.... The Book of Mormon records several references to a significant four-hundred-year prophecy, consistent with this idio-syncratic Mesoamerican calendar practice. 

[It's interesting that only recently have archaeologists figured out that the Newark, Ohio, earthworks were aligned to lunar movements. Of course, Hebrew culture used lunar cycles; the Mayans used solar cycles. We would expect the Book of Mormon people to use lunar cycles. 

The Mesoamerican proponents often cite the 400-year prophecy, but that's a Biblical allusion that a Hebrew culture would be familiar with.  Genesis 15:13 reads: "And he said unto Abram, Know of a surety that thy seed shall be a stranger in a land that is not theirs, and shall serve them; and they shall afflict them four hundred years." Nephi referred to this in 1 Nephi 17:25. "Now ye know that the children of Israel were in bondage; and ye know that they were laden with tasks, which were grievous to be borne; wherefore, ye know that it must needs be a good thing for them, that they should be brought out of bondage." King Limhi referred to the same event in Mosiah 7:19. 

Contrary to this direct link to the Old Testatment, there is not a single reference in the text to any Mayan literature, legends, themes, or symbolism. The Mayans were careful to keep track of time and commemorate their kings on monuments, but not a single link to the Book of Mormon has been found on any of these carved or painted memorials.]

Brother Clark next tackles the population question:

Natives occupied American territories for millennia before Jaredites and Nephites arrived. The apparent rabbit-like population counts for early Nephites, therefore, are best explained by the Nephites’ incorporation of natives. The book does not provide a clear account of such associations, but this is an issue of record keeping, not of biological reproduction. 

[I agree with him about the assimilation of indigenous populations, but differ in its implications. After all, Lehi explained that "it is wisdom that this land should be kept as yet from the knowledge of other nations; for behold, many nations would overrun the land, that there would be no place for an inheritance." (2 Nephi 1:8)

In my view, it seems highly unlikely that a well-established Mayan culture (many nations) would have accepted the Nephite intruders, much less adopted their customs or made them kings. On the other hand, the Nephites would have brought in small bands of hunter/gatherers (not constituting nations) who would be impressed by the advanced technology Nephi brought with him. We find just such unorganized hunter/gatherers in North America, but not in the heart of Mayan culture.]

In the final section, Brother Clark addresses Evidence and Consequences.

What do these myriad facts and observations add up to? They constitute a strong case that the Book of Mormon is an ancient Mesoamerican record, an authentic old book. 

[In my view, the facts align against the Mesoamerican setting, for all the reasons I've described previously on this blog. The Mesoamerican theory itself is an outdated response to the early erroneous objections to the Book of Mormon that were based on misunderstandings of North American archaeology. For example, the anti-Mormon book Cumorah Revisited claimed the Book of Mormon couldn't be true because it describes two sets of ancient people, but, according to the author, there was only one ancient culture in America. That book was published before archaeologists distinguished between the Adena and Hopewell civilizations.

The ancient inhabitants of North America were more advanced that people of Joseph Smith's day realized. The legends of a white race being destroyed by savages contradicts what the text says. The Mesoamerican theory may have served a useful purpose in shifting the focus away from North America to Central America, but the more we learn about ancient societies in both North and Central America, the less the text matches Central America and the more it matches ancient North America.] 

This conclusion  harbors multiple ironies, two worth touching on in closing. First, if the book is an ancient Mesoamerican record, most past arguments for and against it have been wrongheaded.  

[Maybe most past arguments based on a hemispheric model have been wrongheaded, but modern arguments that point out the inconsistencies of the Mesoamerican theory, along with the basic problem of rejecting the New York Cumorah and all that entails, leave M2C proponents worse off than the early Saints who were confronted by anti-Mormon arguments based on then-current ideas about the North American setting. By contrast, recent discoveries about ancient North America, including DNA, do much more to corroborate the text than could have been imagined just a few years ago.] 

Second, if the book is authentic history, most biographies of Joseph Smith are deficient.

[I don't know how to quantify this, but I don't object to this claim.]

This is where archaeology intersects theology and history. The basic  question  to  be  resolved  is this:  What  needs  to  be  explained about  Joseph  Smith  and  the  Book  of  Mormon?  The  most remarkable things about the book are not the intricate plots, myriad characters, rich settings, or textual consistencies. Ordinary novelists and movie-makers create elaborate fantasy worlds every year. The Book of Mormon separates itself from all fantasy and fiction in its predictions about the past. 

[I love this phrase because it captures exactly what the Book of Mormon does--except not in Mesoamerica.] 

Accurate predictions of a then unknown past beg explanation. Emerging facts from archaeology, as shown, confirm a trend of unusual and specific details in the book that could not have been known in any book or language in 1829.  

[This is true for North America but not true for Central America. The Mayans left relatively detailed accounts of their political history, none of which reflects the Book of Mormon or any Hebrew influence. The more we learn about ancient Central America, the less it looks like the Book of Mormon descriptions--except for the contorted additions to the text made by M2C proponents.]

The continuing challenge is to explain how these facts made their way into the Book of Mormon. The two most likely answers are that they either had to be conveyed to Joseph Smith through supernatural means, or he had to guess each one individually and sequentially at virtually impossible odds. Thus, explanations of the book will need to admit God or the Devil into the equation, or grant supranatural clairvoyance or abilities to Joseph Smith. 

[Good point that I think all believers can agree with.]

[Overall, I think Brother Clark framed the arguments well. His focus on Mesoamerica, however, undermines his points. He would find much firmer ground in North America. I propose that instead of casting doubt on the credibility of Oliver Cowdery and Joseph Smith, Book of Mormon scholars should work to find ways to reconcile what they wrote and said with what archaeology and other sciences are telling us.]

Wednesday, April 17, 2024

April 18-20 Book of Mormon Evidence conference

April 18-20, 2024 (starting tomorrow)

Sandy, Utah.

3 days with about 150 presentations about Book of Mormon evidence and related topics.


Friday, April 12, 2024

Legacy post: simplicity

Another legacy post on the setting of the Book of Mormon, slightly edited.


William of  Ockham
The simplest explanation is usually the best, a principle often described as Occam's razor.
"Among competing hypotheses, the one with the fewest assumptions should be selected."

On the topic of the setting of the Book of Mormon, there are two basic perspectives. 

One accepts the New York Cumorah as a "pin in the map" which drives the interpretation of the geographical passages in the text. 

The other rejects the New York Cumorah in favor of a Mesoamerican setting, explaining that the Cumorah in New York was a folk tradition but the "real" Cumorah of Mormon 6:6 is in southern Mexico.

Pursuant to Occam's razor, we can ask, which narrative requires the fewest assumptions, explanations, and qualifications?

Which explanation is the simplest?

Which set of assumptions makes the most sense to you?

The North American setting based on the New York Cumorah has one assumption.

1. Assumption: Joseph Smith and Oliver Cowdery knew that the Hill Cumorah in New York was the place where the Nephite and Jaredite civilizations were destroyed. 

Everything directly attributable to them is consistent with that setting (such as Moroni telling Joseph the plates were in the "hill of Cumorah" the first time they met, Joseph referring to the hill as Cumorah before he even got the plates, Joseph referring to this in D&C 128:20, Oliver having visited the repository in the hill, his declaration in Letter VII that it was a fact, David Whitmer explaining that the messenger took the abridged plates from Harmony to Cumorah before meeting Joseph in Fayette, etc.). Contrary ideas are not directly attributable to them; therefore, these contrary ideas were produced by other people who either (i) didn't know what Joseph and Oliver said or (ii) rejected what Joseph and Oliver said.

The Mesoamerican/two-Cumorahs setting relies on a series of assumptions:

1. Assumption: Joseph Smith didn't know where the Book of Mormon events took place.
2. Assumption:  Lucy Mack Smith misremembered what Joseph told her about Moroni's first visit and about passing by the Hill Cumorah where he met with Moroni in early 1827.
3. Assumption: In D&C 128:20, Joseph Smith incorrectly reported "Glad tidings from Cumorah... the book to be revealed" because he didn't learn about Cumorah until he was translating Mormon 6:6 in 1829.
4. Assumption: David Whitmer misremembered when he said he had a specific memory of the first time he heard the word "Cumorah" in 1829, directly from the messenger to whom Joseph had given the plates in Harmony when the messenger said he was taking them to Cumorah. 
5. Assumption: Oliver Cowdery (or another unknown person) at some unspecified date started a folk tradition that Cumorah was in New York, based on an incorrect and ignorant assumption.
6. Assumption: When Oliver, as Assistant President of the Church in 1835, published an article claiming that it was a fact that the hill in New York was the Cumorah of Mormon 6:6, he was merely expressing an incorrect folk tradition. (Letter VII)
7. Assumption: Joseph, for unexplained reasons, passively adopted Oliver's erroneous speculation and had it widely re-published, including in the 1841 Times and Seasons.
8. Assumption: Joseph, who wrote very little himself, and, according to Wilford Woodruff, barely had time to sign documents they prepared for him, nevertheless wrote a series of articles in the 1842 Times and Seasons about Central America that he left anonymous (signed Ed.) for unknown reasons.
9. Assumption: Those 1842 articles were either (i) prophetic confirmation of a Mesoamerican setting or (ii) evidence that Joseph relied on scholarship to learn about the setting of the Book of Mormon.
10. Assumption: Modern LDS scholars have correctly determined that (i) early Church members had incorrect beliefs about the location of Cumorah and (ii) Cumorah cannot be in New York because that is too far from Mesoamerica.
11. Assumption: All Church leaders who reaffirmed or corroborated what Joseph and Oliver said about Cumorah were also wrong because they merely expressed their own incorrect opinions.

Again: Which set of assumptions makes the most sense to you?

In assessing the two sets of assumptions, it's important to recognize that both sets of assumptions involve interpretations of the text and can be corroborated with extrinsic evidence from archaeology, anthropology, geology, geography, etc.

For references to the sources for the assumptions, see 



Here are some relevant quotations about simplicity.

“If you can't explain it to a six year old, you don't understand it yourself.”
― Albert Einstein

To which Groucho Marx replied:

“A child of five could understand this. Send someone to fetch a child of five.”
― Groucho Marx

“Truth is ever to be found in the simplicity, and not in the multiplicity and confusion of things.”
― Isaac Newton

“Why did they believe? Because they saw miracles. Things one man took as chance, a man of faith took as a sign. A loved one recovering from disease, a fortunate business deal, a chance meeting with a long lost friend. It wasn't the grand doctrines or the sweeping ideals that seemed to make believers out of men. It was the simple magic in the world around them.”
― Brandon Sanderson, The Hero of Ages

“People who pride themselves on their "complexity" and deride others for being "simplistic" should realize that the truth is often not very complicated. What gets complex is evading the truth.”
― Thomas Sowell, Barbarians inside the Gates and Other Controversial Essays

“..things are never as complicated as they seem. It is only our arrogance that prompts us to find unnecessarily complicated answers to simple problems.”
― Muhammad Yunus, Banker to the Poor: Micro-Lending and the Battle Against World Poverty

“I am not a genius, I am just curious. I ask many questions. and when the answer is simple, then God is answering.”
― Albert Einstein

Thursday, April 11, 2024

"Circular referencing"

A good example of how "circular referencing" works in the real world. See the entire thread.


🚨 New systematic review exposes deceptive practices among medical organizations that endorse youth transition. Rather than relying on robust evidence, medical authorities fabricated consensus by deferring to each others' guidelines.

The new review reveals that medical organizations have misled the public by basing their recommendations on insufficient evidence, inaccurately labeling their approach as "evidence-based," and engaging in a corrupt practice known as "circular referencing."

The review found that clinical guidelines globally used to treat gender-questioning children and adolescents were crafted in violation of international standards for guideline development and recommended medical interventions for minors despite insufficient evidence.

The review identified initial guidelines recommending youth transition, published by the Endocrine Society (ES) in 2009 and the World Professional Association for Transgender Health (WPATH) in 2012, that were foundational to numerous other national and regional guidelines.

Dr. Hilary Cass highlighted the ways in which WPATH and ES were closely interlinked, noting their mutual co-sponsorship and input into each other’s drafts. This coordinated effort suggests that WPATH and ES were colluding to grant undue credibility to their guidelines.

The corruption persisted in the formulation of national and regional guidelines by prominent organizations. Rather than grounding their recommendations in robust evidence, these guidelines deferred to the endorsements from the initial guidelines of WPATH and ES.

Years later, when WPATH and ES updated their guidelines, they referenced the same national and regional guidelines that had initially drawn from their recommendations. This perpetuated a cycle, each time without sufficient evidence to support the recommendations.

Dr. Cass highlighted the problematic nature of this circular referencing, stating, “The circularity of this approach may explain why there has been an apparent consensus on key areas of practice despite the evidence being poor.”

This figure shows how nearly all the national and regional guidelines identified were influenced by ES (2009) and WPATH (2012) guidelines, how these guidelines cite and rely on each other, and how the latest ES (2017) and WPATH (2022) guidelines have cited and drawn on others.

By engaging in circular referencing, these medical bodies have actively deceived healthcare professionals and the public, leading them to believe in the validity and reliability of recommendations founded on weak evidence.

WPATH, which aims to promote "evidence-based care," and ES, which calls its approach "evidence-based transgender medicine," along with any organization advocating medical transition for minors, mislead the public by claiming to be "evidence-based."

Dr. Gordon Guyatt, a highly respected figure who pioneered the evidence-based medicine (EBM) movement, stated that the current guidelines in the United States for managing gender dysphoria in adolescents should not be considered evidence-based.

In the end, the review team was only able to recommend two guidelines for practice: the 2020 Finnish guideline and the 2022 Swedish guideline. Both adhere to the best available evidence and do not recommend medical transition treatments for minors.