Saturday, June 12, 2010

Myths and Stories

Mormons and non-Mormons, and yes anti-Mormons, all have their favorite 'true' stories they love to tell. Unfortunately, because history is a complex tapestry of events, and requires some form of editing to tell the story, we find the regular accusation of one side or the other "lying" or "deceiving" to get their story out with their spin.

I try to deal with the problem by reading both sides of an issue in attempting to make a decision about what history might actually have been. If you look at my personal library, I probably by a ratio of three or four to one own non-LDS books, and I probably own about 1/2 as many anti-Mormon books as Mormon-authored books, the vast majority of my library consisting of non-LDS scholarly works.

So let's discuss a few issues which are commonly discussed using the ever authoritative "everybody knows" author.

1. Wes Walters proved there was no revival in 1820, therefore Joseph Smith lied about the First Vision.
False. The Rev. Wesley Walters is most famous for finding, and then stealing, a document he said showed Joseph Smith was convicted of "glass looking". He only returned the document when he was threatened with charges for the unlawful removal of the document. In any event, subsequent analysis has shown that according to the fees in place for a constable and justice of the peace, Joseph Smith was only charged, but was found not guilty.

In any event, prior to finding this document, a 1967 article about revivals in the Palmyra area put Walters on the anti-Mormon historian map. He asserted there was no record of a revival in the Palmyra area in 1820. This led to frantic activity by LDS scholars to verify his assertion, and see if evidence to the contrary existed. Walters took the position that he was an unbiased and open seeker of truth, and that he simply had a heart for the deceived Mormon people. That was his position until irrefutable proof of the existence of not just revivals in Palmyra was discovered, but that there were in fact huge numbers of converts in the period from 1817-1820 (See Backman's, "The First Vision", Chapters 3-5 and appendices P & Q, and D. Michael Quinn's 2006 article (hard to find now on the Internet, but I have a copy)"Joseph Smith's Experience of a Methodist 'Camp Meeting' in 1820", wherein he points out that they told Walters about the camp meetings in the Palmyra area back in 1969, and he thereafter refused to engage the LDS scholarly community, and essentially played to the sympathetic, uninformed and trusting anti-LDS community. He lied about the existence of any evidence in a 1980 article, and never came clean before his 1990 death. I must point out the irony of a man who attacks Joseph Smith for making up events and deceiving people who himself consciously stole documents from government offices and outright lies about the very existence of sources after previously acknowledging them in his writings.

So we have documented revivals in the Palmyra-Manchester area from 1817 through 1820 by non-LDS sources. The assertion that Joseph got confused about 1824 revivals has no merit. Joseph's story of heavy religious activity in the Palmyra area is confirmed.

2. Joseph Smith used a curtain to separate himself from his scribes during the translation of the Book of Mormon.
Answer: Mostly false. There was a very brief period of a few days during the time Joseph was translating with Martin Harris when they put up a curtain. But this was the exception. They did put a curtain over the front door to the house to get people to not look in just passing by, but everyone in the house could see what was going on, if they cared to look.

The translation process really is divided into two parts. During the early translation time, before the 116 pages were lost, Joseph would wear the breast plate with the silver glass bow attached at the shoulder, containing the translators.

After the plates were returned following the loss of the pages, Joseph used the Seer Stone exclusively in the hat with a small hole for light. Apparently the silver bow was uncomfortable to wear. Joseph had confidence in the seer stone based on his earlier experiences, so I am sure after prayerful consideration, he made the change.

Interestingly, translation was always a wide open process in the home of wherever he was translating. Everyone saw what was happening. Thus Emma noted in an interview with her son that it was impossible for Joseph to have any books or manuscripts to copy from, since he was in plain view and she would have seen them. This is devastating news to anti-Mormons, who envision Joseph behind a curtain reading the Isaiah passages directly from the Bible, changing the occasional word. (Did I mention there was no Bible in the home when the Isaiah passages were translated? True. Makes it hard to read from a book which isn't there.)

So what of the plates being seen by everyone? Well, it turns out that Joseph never looks at the bare plates during translation. They are in a box or a large bag while sitting on the table or nearby. In at least one instance, he translated using the Seer stone while the plates were not in the house at all. This is not really shocking when seen in the context that the translation was achieved by the "gift and power of God", and not by human intelligence. Joseph is having the translation communicated to him via divine means.

Why do we have those classic pictures in Ward libraries showing Joseph with his finger on the plates, sometimes with Oliver seeing the plates, and not Urim and Thummim or Seer stone? I am not really sure. I have looked at this from a historical perspective, and it seems that starting early in the 20th Century, discussion of the mechanics of the translation virtually ceased, as use of the Book of Mormon in public preaching also was reduced. In the second half of the 20th Century there was a huge push in missionary work and reading the Book of Mormon. At that point artists offered up psuedo-realistic artwork which lacked accurate detail. The correct discussion of the process has been discussed in official LDS sources, but institutional inertia being what it is, I suspect nobody wants to take responsibility inside the Curriculum department to change.

3. Danites enforced Joseph and Brigham's dictates.
False. In fact the opposite. Initially the Danites were a more or less positive civic service organization to help the Saints. But when they turned sinister, Joseph separated them from the Church.

Related topic is people were killed or afraid of death by the Danites.
False, at least as related to Church doctrine and apostasy. Thousands left the Church for various reasons in the 1800's. Not a single assassination is tied to the Church leaders by any credible, verifiable source. When I hear this charge, I always ask for the name of someone among these masses. There is always dumb silence, or they name one or two events which have no link to Brigham Young or Joseph Smith. Name names, if you have a case, prove it.

4. Mormons are ignorant of their doctrines.
Yes and No. I know very few theologians in the Church. Most study for their own spiritual growth. In fact, a PEW survey showed Mormons study the Bible more than any other denomination's adherents. (So if Mormons are ignorant, what word do you use for those who study even less?) Most can tell you what they believe, which in my experience is pretty close to official doctrine. Most cannot tell you at any depth about controversial historical issues. And why should they? I literally have never met a non-ministerial person who even understands the issues around Biblical textual transmission and errors. I am certainly no expert, but I am informed. Most swallow what their pastor told them, and go no further. Which, I think, is generally good enough. The Bible is not true because of perfect transmission. It is true because the Spirit can testify of its truth. Just like the Book of Mormon, as the D&C says.

5. The Church is money driven.
No more so than Malachi is money driven. Financial issues drive the ability of an organization to impact the lives of believers and non-believers alike. The Church expects members to be willing to pay tithing because we all obligated to help move the ministry forward. The Church does much good with what it has. Considering it is about 1/70th the size of the Catholic Church, and makes more money than any other Church, I think that is a statement to the commitment of members, who live in the real world and not cult-like compounds attempting to control the members exposure to the world, it is even more remarkable.

6. Brigham Young ordered the Mountain Meadows Massacre.
Answer: No. In fact, emphatically no. We have a copy of his memo saying to let them pass. His secretary took the original ink note he composed, wetted it with water, then pressed it against another sheet of paper to get an exact, mirror image duplicate of the note. (This was standard procedure of all 1st presidency correspondence.) He said to let them pass. Assertions of him wanting to let the Indians kill the Fancher party are likewise complete distortions of history. He certainly was OK with the Indians harrassing all non-LDS wagon parties, striving for some degree of isolation at one point in time. But there is never any OK given to kill anyone. Ever. If that were not the case, the Cedar City Stake President and leader of the local militia, Isaac Haight, would not have reportedly been quoted as saying, after ordering the attack, upon receiving the note from Pres. Young, "Too late, too late," and then began to cry. In other words, he made the decision, not BY.

7. The Church is not growing.
Well, not really true. You can do the math on the number of wards being created year over year, and that is the most accurate measure of active membership. The rate of adding wards is slowing, true. But it is growing. Now I think growth means absolutely nothing in terms of whether an organization is true or false. But expansion throughout the world is one of the signs of the times, and so is important in that way. And also the fact that there were prophecies about temples to dot the world is also important. That growth is occurring is not seriously questionable. The Church does not waste money. It won't build buildings, add ward units, etc., if there is no growth. Since 1999, there are 300 new stakes (2,542 vs. 2,865) and about 3 million members. There are over 2,700 new wards and branches (25,793 vs. 28,424. So if an average ward has 150 active members, then you are talking around 1/2 million new active members. Which is not a great retention rate, to be sure, but it is certainly growth. But it also doesn't speak to the issue of allowing wards to backfill more. I know our activity rate is above 50% in my area. But is there only 4.5 million active members worldwide? Official and anecdotal evidence would seem to be contrary to that.

8. Mormons "earn" salvation.
No. If that were the case, there would be no doctrine of the Atonement. Man DOES have a role in his salvation, but it is simply false to think that a Mormon believes he can get to heaven without Jesus' help. I think it is like driving a car up a steep hill. Jesus is the car and the gas. But we still need to get in the car, turn it on and drive. Too many "Christians" think they just need to know the car is there, and don't have to get on board.

Enough for today. Drop me a note if you have additional items.