Sunday, April 27, 2014

Letter to CES, Follow-up

Update:  September 2014  FAIRMormon has expanded its responses to Jeremy Runnels quite dramatically.  I strongly recommend them, as they really cut through what I think is largely a false justification for his actions.  FAIRMormon truly devastates his arguments.

I had a nice conversation the other night with a friend of mine about my last post concerning the Letter to a CES Director.  I had mentioned in my original post that not all evidence is equal, but after discussing it with my friend, I realized I had failed to really make the point about the logical implications of the evidence.  So let's make the point a little more explicit:

It is a fact that in September 1827, Joseph Smith brought something home, and allowed everyone in the home to both hold and touch that something.  At least two of those present at that 1827 first encounter would later go on to become witnesses to the Book of Mormon.

So, what was this something?  That Joseph Smith actually had some real, tangible object is evident from the fact that critics, such as Dan Vogel, go to great pains to explain how Joseph Smith could have purchased tin from a local supplier, and crafted plates during his annual trips to Hill Cumorah. (Vogel, Joseph Smith, The Making of a Prophet, pages 98-99 and the corresponding footnotes on pages 599-600, #63, #64, #65 and #66.).  Vogel even speculates that Joseph's dislocated thumb occurred finishing the rods which were binding the spine of the plates (Vogel, pg 99 and footnote 66 on page 600).

Vogel therefore concedes that Joseph had something cut to the 6 x 8 inch plates, six inches thick and with rods holding the plates together.  While he makes a novice error in postulating the tin was "pure tin" in order to get to the approximate weight he believed they weighed, ("pure tin" is actually a powder, so his calculation based on the density of tin are wrong, but nice try), he is in any event contradicting the now popular line of attack which says that Joseph Smith was the world's first mass hypnosis master and caused everyone to hallucinate their experience of seeing the plates.

So what do we have?  We have everyone who is at least trying to reconcile the evidence acknowledging plates existed.  So now deal with the logic of the positions:  If Joseph bought the tin from a local source, or had used 60 pounds of tin from the Smith family stocks used in their coopering work, someone would have noticed.  During the time when E.D. Howe's "Mormonism Unveiled" was collecting statements from every neighbor and acquaintance of the Smith's, surely the first place they went was to the local blacksmiths and metal suppliers.  We don't have any direct evidence of Howe talking with the local craftsmen or suppliers, but if you were trying as Howe to pile disrepute on the reputation of the Smith's and to provide a naturalistic explanation, that would be the first place anyone would go.  The lack of such interviews actually silently speaks to a lack of support for a tangible alternative explanation.

But here is the problem for the alternative theories:  By Joseph allowing people to handle and feel the plates, it would be completely silly for the witnesses to be aware of their physical existence and then lie about actually seeing the plates.  In fact, the Eight Witnesses make it clear they saw and handled the plates in broad daylight.  And they maintained that position throughout their lives.  It is particularly unsatisfying to think they saw and handled gold painted tin plates, considering the quality of paints was such as to provide instant recognition the plates were painted, if that were Joseph Smith's attempt.

Therefore, the best evidence is that Joseph Smith had gold colored plates with inscriptions on them.

If this is true, and the best evidence is that it is true, then speculation about whether the stuff on the plates is real or correct is actually irrelevant.  There is only one way the story can go if the plates are real:  Joseph Smith received them from an angel named Moroni who helped to write the plates and lived in ancient America.

The only point Mormons should be arguing with non-believers is over the reality of the plates.  If the plates are real, then Joseph Smith was a prophet of God, and God's Church has been restored.  The alternative positions, that Joseph either manufactured the plates himself or with some help, or the plates never existed and he used some form of mass hypnosis or suggestion to trick a dozen folks into thinking they saw something they would then stake their lives on for the remainder of their lives, is illogical.  Such positions only exist in the desires of non-believers and detractors to not believe that God was in the founding of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.  They don't want to accept the reality that God can and does actively work miracles on the scale we find in the Bible, and their unauthoritative self-serving interpretation of scripture and creation of false doctrines is not acceptable to the true God in heaven.

Wanting something to be false does not make it false.  Evidence and rational conclusions based on the evidence leads to the conclusion the plates existed.  Deal with that before you change the discussion to the content of the Book of Mormon or the character of LDS Church leaders.  If the plates existed, the Church is true.  Thus, as Dan Peterson said, the plates stand as a thumb in the eye of the critics, since failing to deal with how the plates came into Joseph Smith's possession after admitting he had some plates, is the same as conceding the plates came from Moroni, the prophet whose name and writings are in the Book of Mormon.

Thursday, April 17, 2014

Letter to CES and Responses

I had a reader submit a question about responding to the "Letter to a CES Director".  He wanted a response.  FAIR Mormon has done a great and thorough response which you can find here.  But I want to talk about things that matter, and not just the multitude of details which tend to lose sight of important issues.

The Church did engage in covering up perceived weaknesses of leaders in the past.  Typically these efforts were led by people and sometimes leaders who feared for the impact of certain issues on members' faith, or on public perception of issues.

No one should lose faith because past members or leaders lacked faith in the ability of members or non-members to fairly process the issues involved.  It is however easily demonstrable that current leadership does not feel that way.  The Joseph Smith's Papers project sits front and center as the most thorough and transparent publishing effort around an historical figure ever.  You don't do that if you are afraid of what will be discovered.

But there are a lot of issues, and I will only discuss a few.  First, most leaders were ignorant of indepth historical matters.  Thus you get a statement from Harold B. Lee that based on information from Joseph Fielding Smith that Joseph Smith never did ordain any black men.  With the documents we now know exist, such a position is simply not true.  But ask where Joseph Fielding Smith got his info?  Well, at some point the first Presidency in the early 1900's reaffirmed the Brigham Young ban on ordinations, which Brigham Young attributed to Joseph Smith.

So did JFS look at every document?  Probably not.  Even as the Church Historian, he had little time and no training to go through the Church's records.  It was enough that he knew that his father had endorsed the ban.  And in the 1960's, the Church did not have resources or inclination to challenge Brigham Young's ban which had been reaffirmed by nearly all Church presidents down to that time, unless they received a revelation.

If the Church leaders could only sit for a year or so and get a crash course on LDS history from original documents and eyewitness statements, and then get deeply versed historians to walk them through it, then we could claim that General Authorities are also well informed historians.  But that is not now nor has it ever been their roles.

But there is a second point, much more important to consider.  That is, not all evidence is of equal value.  So understand this point clearly.  Someone may want to say the evidence for the Book of Abraham or Book of Mormon geography, or First Vision documents is weak.  I personally am fine with it, but let's pretend you are critical of those topics.  Those are truly secondary.  Primary evidence is physical and spiritual about the Book of Mormon.

I have written extensively on the physical evidence and witnesses of the Book of Mormon.  As a whole it is excellent.  In detail, it is amazing.  Try as critics like Jeremy do to attack the reality of the Book of Mormon, their arguments inevitably lead to accounts from secondary or tertiary sources because the primary sources are consistent and supportive of each other.  There can be no doubt the Eight Witnesses saw and handled something.  In 1827, when Joseph brought the plates home for the first time, more than a dozen folks handled the plates, though they did not see them.  At least several of them would later become witnesses.  It requires one to believe JS had in a finished form the plates in 1827, at a time when he was newlywed and flat broke, because they could feel the engravings, handle the spine, etc.  Keep asking the question:  How could he do that?

I once heard Dan Peterson say the purpose of the plates was to be a thumb in the eye of the critics.  You must, if you choose to lose your faith, explain how Joseph Smith could have put the plates together without anyone being aware of it; having the skills to forge and punch and craft them into their shapes; to paint them in a way that the primitive paints of the early 19th century would be unnoticeable to close scrutiny; and to convince people who in many cases left the Church and were offered significant fortunes to tell the "truth" about the plates.  In all these things they fail.  The current attempt to discredit the witnesses by saying the plates were immaterial and only viewed spiritually requires one to twist what the witnesses actually said.

Secondly, there is the spiritual witness.  The Bible is replete with statements that God is received and perceived spiritually.  There is no way to come to a knowledge of truth by study alone.  When I discuss the problems with leadership, the Bible, the Book of Abraham or other issues, there is no intent to make people think these are not trustworthy.  I usually discuss such things due to the double standards imposed by critics.  My personal problem with the critics usually comes down to two issues:  Their hypocrisy in what they consider evidence, and their lack of effort in finding balanced evidence.  When you hear Richard Bushman discuss Joseph Smith, he discusses every aspect of him, good and bad.  The critics will only discuss the bad, and only occasionally throw a bone at acknowledging there was some good.

People may rightly say there are things which could cause one to think twice about the Church.  But such conversations miss the only point where God has said in the scriptures he will provide proof to the faithful:  A witness of the Book of Mormon.

My personal experience, which I have outlined elsewhere, goes beyond this.  But it started here.