Thursday, January 19, 2017

"Early church members" - Joseph Smith Papers edition

I've commented before on the display in the Church History Museum titled "The Indian Mission." See here. The display portrays the mission Oliver Cowdery and others went on in 1830, as directed by the Lord in D&C 28, 30 and 32.

The display is misleading. Instead of "The Indian Mission" it should read "The Lamanite Mission."

The placard says "Early Church members believed that these Indians were descendants of Israelites who were known as Lamanites in the Book of Mormon. In late 1830, Cowdery and his companions preached to Seneca Indians in New York and Huron Indians in Ohio."

Think about this.

Was this merely a quaint, naive belief of "early Church members" as the exhibit claims?

Look at the preceding statement on the placard. "In September 1830 in Fayette, New York, Joseph Smith received a revelation in which the Lord called Oliver Cowdery, Parley P. Pratt, and others to preach to American Indians."

That statement is simply false.

Read D&C 28:8. "And now, behold, I say unto you that you shall go unto the Lamanites and preach my gospel unto them."

The revelation says nothing about "American Indians." These men were called to preach to the Lamanites.

This was not a folk belief held by "early Church members" as the display claims. It was a direct revelation from the Lord. Sections 30 and 32 say the same thing. Not a word about "American Indians." The mission was specifically to preach to the Lamanites.

The tribes Oliver and the others visited are the only specific people whom the Lord has identified as Lamanites. It's right there in the scriptures.

Besides, this "belief" is not limited to "early Church members." There are many members of the Church today, including members of the tribes these missionaries visited, who still believe what the Lord said in D&C 28, 30 and 32. If the museum doesn't want to display the actual scripture or paraphrase it accurately, the display could at least acknowledge that many members today still believe in what the scriptures say.

Why does the museum have it wrong?

Apparently people in the Church History Department don't want people to know what the scriptures actually say, so they reworded the revelation for the exhibit. Notice that the exhibit doesn't even give a citation to the scripture, let alone quote it. You have millions of people going through this museum being told a falsehood, both overtly (by misrepresenting what the revelation says) and covertly (by not quoting the actual scripture).

You'll find the same thing in the Joseph Smith Papers. Look at this entry on "Lamanites," which you can find here:

"Early church members viewed contemporary American Indian tribes as the descendants of the Lamanites.
"Since the Book of Mormon was written in part “to the Lamanites,” some of the first missionaries were sent to preach the gospel and establish the church among the American Indians."

Don't misunderstand. The Church History Department is awesome. They do a wonderful job and they are a pleasure to work with.

But somehow the Department has been infiltrated by people who reject what D&C Sections 28, 30 and 32 teach. Oliver Cowdery and the others went to the Lamanites, not to "American Indians" that "early Church members" "viewed" as "descendants of the Lamanites."

I've suggested that the Museum change the exhibit. I've also made the suggestion to the Joseph Smith Papers. We'll see what, if anything, happens.


If you want to make suggestions, you could write to the Museum and the Joseph Smith Papers pursuant to the guidelines on their respective web pages. Here's a sample:

The glossary entry under Lamanites contains misinformation. Here's the link:

The entry reads: "Early church members viewed contemporary American Indian tribes as the descendants of the Lamanites. Since the Book of Mormon was written in part “to the Lamanites,” some of the first missionaries were sent to preach the gospel and establish the church among the American Indians.

The scriptures that called these men on their mission actually say nothing about "American Indians." D&C 28, 30, and 32 all refer specifically to the Lamanites. It was not "early church members" who held this belief, but the Lord himself who revealed that these tribes were Lamanites. The glossary should use the terminology of the scriptures, not someone's interpretive spin about what "early church members" believed. Besides, many members of the Church today, including members of the tribes these missionaries visited, still believe what the Lord said in D&C 28, 30 and 32, so if you're going to avoid using the scriptural terminology, at least don't limit the belief to "early" church members. You could say "many Church members then and now view contemporary American Indian tribes..." 

Thank you in advance for considering this correction. I love the work you do!

2017 gospel doctrine comments

From time to time I'll comment on the 2017 gospel doctrine lessons (Church History) like I did last year for the Book of Mormon lessons. The link is

Here's the first lesson I've had time to discuss:

Wednesday, January 18, 2017

Science and history

I'm working on a project that involves science, but I see a lot of parallels with theories that circulate about Book of Mormon geography and Church history. In science and in history, theories are always subject to change with new information. Scientists and historians create models that help explain events and predict future events and discoveries.

For example, Newton's theories explained the observable world pretty well, but left some things unexplained. Einstein's theories explained things better, but still left some gaps. New theories will offer even better explanations.

In Church history, I've encountered several theories that didn't explain the evidence. One that I've written about was the theory that Joseph Smith wrote (or edited) anonymous articles in the 1842 Times and Seasons. I proposed a different theory in my first Church-related book, The Lost City of Zarahemla; i.e., Benjamin Winchester was writing articles and sending them to Nauvoo for publication. My theory predicted I'd find additional corroborating evidence, and I did. First, critics pointed out some facts I hadn't considered, which bolstered the theory and led me to write a second edition. Then more evidence came forward, so I wrote a second book about it (Brought to Light). Later, completely unknown to me, the Church history department released a letter from Winchester to the First Presidency, dated exactly when my theory predicted such correspondence would be going on. It's included in a third book almost ready for publication. So for me, the Winchester explanation is more useful than the long-held theory that Joseph Smith wrote (or edited) the anonymous articles. (That long-held theory is so pervasive that when you read the manual Teachings of the Presidents of the Church: Joseph Smith, you're reading extracts from articles Joseph never wrote and probably never even saw until after they were published. I listed these in Brought to Light.)

I have another theory of Church history that is even more useful. I've been speaking about it and will discuss it more next week here.

On the issue of Book of Mormon geography, there are also competing theories. I divide them into two main groups: New York Cumorah and non-New York Cumorah (the two-Cumorahs group).

Which theory offers the best explanations and the best predictions? And could an expert change your opinion?

Scott Adams has a great blog post today about a similar problem with the climate change debate. He poses this thought experiment:

"Let’s say you are new to the debate about climate change and I put you in a room with the most well-informed climate scientist in the world. The scientist spends as much time with you as you want, answering every question and making her case that climate change is a human-caused disaster in the making. Let’s say this scientists is also the best communicator in the world, unlike most scientists. So now you have the best information, from the most knowledgeable person in the world on this topic, communicated in the best possible way, and answering all of your questions. Would you be persuaded by all of that credibility and good communication?"

Many people would say yes (assuming they were really new to the debate and unbiased; otherwise, most of us would be confirming our biases regardless of what the expert said).

An application of this is the typical student in a CES context, whether in Seminary, Institute, or a BYU campus. Students in these settings think their teachers are telling them the complete truth, in a credible and clear way.

Adams explains it this way:

"The unbiased mind is likely to be totally convinced in this thought experiment. And that mind would also think it had engaged in rational behavior. After all, what could be more rational than getting the best information on a topic, from the best expert in the world, communicated in the clearest possible way?
"But your new certainty about climate change would be a fraud that you perpetrated on yourself. If you don’t yet see in my thought experiment why the best information from the best source is still unreliable, even when clearly communicated, you probably don’t understand enough about the world to participate in decision-making."

Do you see the problem here?

Based on my experience, most students in a CES context do not see the problem. Most members of the Church do not see the problem. They don't even think there could be a problem.

But there is.

"The thing that is missing is that you can’t know what the expert didn’t tell you. 
If you are not an expert in the field yourself, how could you possibly know what has been left out?
"You also don’t know if the scientist is suffering from cognitive dissonance. It would look exactly the same to you. And cognitive dissonance is common to all humans, including scientists."
How does a student know whether his/her instructor is not relating relevant information? It's impossible for that student to know about undisclosed information if he/she is relying solely on his/her instructor.

This is one reason why experts place such emphasis on credentials. They want people to think that one must have credentials to be credible; one must be trained in the ministry, so to speak. Only experts know what information is relevant; if they don't tell you about it, then it's not relevant, or credible, or reliable.

Basically, the experts think you're better off not knowing about information they don't want to tell you.

Of course, this leads to groupthink, a well-known and pervasive problem.

I'm a good example of this. I went to seminary. I went to BYU. Because I was interested in Book of Mormon geography/historicity, I read a lot of books and continued my education beyond law school by attending conferences, forums, and seminars, as well as by traveling extensively. For decades, I went along with the two-Cumorahs theory because I didn't realize that all these LDS scholars knew things they never told me (which I'll explain in a moment).

Adams makes this important point:

"If you are frustrated with the people who are on the other side of the debate, no matter which side that is, I think you should give them some slack. There is no way for this sort of information to be credibly conveyed to human beings. And the problem is not always on the receiving end." 

In the context of Book of Mormon geography and historicity, I take this to mean that there are inherent problems of communication, as well as assumptions and priorities, that make it very difficult for people to reach complete agreement. [Note: difficult, but not impossible.]

I think this difficulty in reaching a scholarly consensus is a feature, not a bug. It's a good thing.

Every LDS person has an obligation to think these things out, individually. It made a big difference for me when I did that.

I'm in favor of every theory of Book of Mormon geography that is meaningful to the people who believe it. Maybe someday the scholarly community will adopt that approach as well. (I thought they had, but apparently I was wrong.)

You can apply the adage, "trust but verify." But how can you trust someone who doesn't tell you the entire story?

That's where Letter VII comes in.

When Joseph Smith was alive, every member of the Church was familiar with Letter VII. It wasn't until the 1930s or so that LDS scholars began suppressing it. Fortunately, thousands of members of the Church read Letter VII last year, and this year, 2017, tens of thousands will. After long being suppressed by the LDS scholarly community, it is finally "out there" where people can access it and consider it.

There are people--experts--who are trying to persuade members of the Church to disbelieve Letter VII. I've discussed that on and will continue to do so as the need arises.

Actually, I'm glad they're at least addressing the issue instead of not even telling students about it. The entire discussion about Book of Mormon geography and Church history will be enhanced as more and more people read and ponder Letter VII (and the many other things that go along with it).

Deferring to experts on this topic is a mistake anyway. There really are no living experts in Book of Mormon geography. There are people from many disciplines and backgrounds who claim expertise of one kind or another, but in my view, experts who reject what Joseph and Oliver said about the Hill Cumorah are missing the entire point.

The comments to Adams' blog include this:

"On a first level, I could be possibly convinced by both sides, as you wrote. What makes me favor the skeptic side is mainly a couple of facts:
1) the mainstream faction (let's call it so) refuses a public discussion, and it always did so: if it had such a stringent evidence for their theory, it shouldn't refuse the debate. Unfortunately, besides refusing any publicly exposed criticism, their proponents actually shunned in the most brutal way even respected members of the scientific community..."

The application to Book of Mormon geography should be obvious. So long as the "mainstream" LDS scholarly community refuses a public discussion, you can rest assured that their position is, let's say, questionable. I think most members of the Church, when presented with the two theories on an equal and fair basis, will choose the New York Cumorah over the non-New York Cumorah as a starting point.

But as the comment indicated, the mainstream faction doesn't want a public discussion. They don't want people to see both sides. So far as I know, my little comparison chart is still the only attempt to present both sides in an open, fair manner. Check it out here:

Until you see New York Cumorah geography theories covered fairly by [since I can't say citation cartel, I'll list them: The Interpreter, BYU Studies, Book of Mormon Central, BMAF, FairMormon, Meridian Magazine, etc.], you will have to take your own initiative to learn what these experts are not telling you.

Thursday, January 12, 2017

Responsible physical evidence

Critics of the Book of Mormon point to the lack of physical evidence to corroborate the narrative in the text, but the real problem is choosing among the abundant evidences. Almost no matter where you look in the Americas, scientists are uncovering more and more physical evidence of ancient civilizations that expands our understanding and appreciation of these cultures. These civilizations were more extensive and more sophisticated than previous generations realized.

But that's a topic for another day.

Here, I want to address the challenge of zeal. Advocates of most theories of Book of Mormon geography have a certain degree of zeal or they wouldn't be advocates. Nothing wrong with zeal, per se. You need zeal to accomplish anything. But you can also have excessive zeal, and we want to be cognizant of that so we don't make counterproductive mistakes.

Drawing of Stela 5 from
At the same time, we don't want to dismiss a proposed setting just because some advocates have emphasized artifacts that turn out not to be what they were once thought to be, or are represented to be. That's just as irrational as relying on the artifacts in the first place.


In the area of Book of Mormon archaeology, probably the best-known mistake is Izapa Stela 5, the so-called "Lehi's Tree of Life" stone. For decades, it was promoted as proof that the Book of Mormon took place in Mesoamerica.

The Church even got involved. An article in the 1985 Ensign evaluates Stela 5 and says, "If this is true—and, again, we must remain cautious and tentative until all the evidence is in—Stela 5 may prove to be the first deciphered artifact from the Nephite civilization."

That's some powerful hype.

Image from the Liahona, July 2010
Stela 5 was again on display in the Liahona magazine in 2010.

There's a replica of Stela 5 on display at the Utah Cultural Center. For years, you could buy replicas at Deseret Book and the BYU bookstore. I've seen them in the homes of many Latter-day Saints. I've seen replicas in offices. Stela 5 has become the emblem of the Mesoamerican theory for many people.

Even the wikipedia article on Stela 5 comments on this:

"Based on parallels with traditions originating in the Old World, a few researchers have linked the stone to theories of pre-Columbian trans-oceanic contactMormon theorist M. Wells Jakeman proposed that the image was a representation of a tree of life vision found in the Book of Mormon.[11] Jakeman's theory was popular for a time among Mormons, but found little support from Mormon apologists.[12] Julia Guernsey finds that Jakeman's research "belies an obvious religious agenda that ignored Izapa Stela 5's heritage".[13]"

In fact, I have an article from 2004 titled "Izapa Stela 5: Deception in Stone" by Kathryn Egan that demonstrates the stone has nothing to do with the Book of Mormon, but the myth persisted anyway.

I think it's fair to say now that the link between Stela 5 and the Book of Mormon has been largely abandoned by LDS scholars, including those who otherwise believe the Mesoamerican setting. I attended a seminar last year when this was announced and the audience seemed upset and disappointed. Nevertheless, the connection persists in LDS culture. Just google "Stela 5" and you'll find lots of examples.

Does this example of poor evidence invalidate the Mesoamerican theory? Of course not. We should recognize people make mistakes. Research continues throughout the Americas.

Historical note. The first "proof" artifact from South America was brought to Nauvoo in 1842. These were paper facsimiles taken from a 20-foot long hieroglyphic engraving on a rock in South America. It purported to show Lehi crossing the "large waters" before landing on this continent, as well as their travels and encampments. They were presented to Joseph Smith. If you have never heard about this, it's because Joseph didn't give it any credence. Just like we shouldn't give any credence to physical evidence that doesn't add up.

There is unreliable physical evidence everywhere we look, both because of fakes and because of illusory "correspondences" that we hope will validate our expectations.

I'm hoping we can all work together to support evidence that corroborates the Book of Mormon wherever it is found.

Shifting to Church history

Because we're studying Church history in Gospel Doctrine classes this year, I'm focusing more on that than I am on Book of Mormon geography issues right now. You'll see more posts over at the Letter VII blog than you will here.

Wednesday, January 11, 2017

When absence of evidence is, actually, evidence

Ever since I first read the Book of Mormon, I've asked myself, if we're going to find evidence of the Book of Mormon, what should we be looking for?

I've written about this quite a bit in the past, but thought I should revisit it a little here.

In the field of Book of Mormon geography and historicity, each of us has unique, subjective expectations that may or may not be met by the available evidence. We simply read the text differently in many respects. That leads us to expect different kinds of evidence.

I learned long ago that individual jurors, although united as a group into a jury, still have individual, subjective expectations about what the evidence needs to show to convince them. There are legal standards of proof that judges read to jurors, but those are just words. People have to interpret them, and that introduces subjectivity. What convinces one juror may not convince another.

Our expectations are driven by our interpretation of the text.

One of my favorite examples is writing. I know a lot of people think the Book of Mormon describes a society of literate people who left records of all kinds all over the place. That argument makes sense, and I'm not attacking or even criticizing it.

However, I read the text differently.

Authors typically make note of unusual things, and every mention of writing in the text has an exceptional quality about it. Only Aminadi could interpret the writing on the wall of the temple, for example (Alma 10:2). Mosiah and Benjamin sent writing "among the people" but that is consistent with having community leaders read the writings; it doesn't mean everyone was literate, and it doesn't mean anything was engraved on stone. There are epistles exchanged among military and political leaders, but that, too, is consistent with literacy among the elite. The rest of the writing involves the plates, which were kept by the educated, trained record keepers.

Mormon hid up all the records of the Nephites so the Lamanites wouldn't destroy them. (You can think of your own reasons why the Lamanites sought to destroy records.) To me, this says there were no Nephite records laying around. If there were stone memorials adorning the buildings everywhere, why would the Lamanites be so obsessed with destroying the Nephite records?

Also, as I read the text, the people of Zarahemla did not have a writing system. They were more numerous than the Nephites but they didn't know how to read; they memorized their genealogy instead of writing it down. They lived in Zarahemla for hundreds of years without a written language.

The text speaks of exactly one "large stone" on which writing was engraved: Coriantumr's stone. (I've long been curious if the stone at the base of Monk's Mound at Cahokia is Coriantumr's stone. Maybe someday an excavation to that stone will be possible.)

There are very few references to writing among the Lamanites, and from beginning to end, the Lamanites sought to destroy the Nephite records.

To me, all of this describes a mostly illiterate society, with some few exceptions. We should be looking for a society in which writing was rare. One in which there are no example of Nephite writing because they are all in the record repository Mormon described. One in which oral traditions were passed down from generation to generation.

The last place we should look is in ancient societies that had ubiquitous writing. The more writing an ancient society has, the less likely the Book of Mormon took place there.

At least, that's how I see it.

The only exception would be if we find quotations from Alma, Benjamin, or even Isaiah in the writings of the other ancient societies, dating to Book of Mormon time frames. Now that would be interesting.

But again, I emphasize that others read the text differently and I support their efforts to corroborate the Book of Mormon text in their way.

No problem at all.

Tuesday, January 10, 2017

Why I blog

Sometimes people ask me why I blog instead of submitting articles to the academic journals.

The short answer is timing.

About two years ago I met with a major publisher who was interested in my first book, which became The Lost City of Zarahemla. I was told the production timeline was 18-24 months.

IOW, had I gone with that publisher, I'd just now be coming out with my first book. Instead, in the same amount of time, the publisher I chose has released 7 of my books with two more to go this month. Not that speed is the top priority, but it's an important factor because so much is happening and time is short.

Another reason is that in my experience, the academic world has one way of viewing the issues I'm studying and writing about. I don't share their viewpoint, and I don't think they're open to alternatives to what they already think. From what I've observed, at least in LDS fields, peer-review is peer-approval. There is a high level of groupthink, more than I've seen in other fields, and I think it's at least partly attributable to a siege mentality; i.e., many LDS people feel like it's "us against the world." As I've shown in several instances, people are more comfortable confirming their biases than in challenging their assumptions and taking a fresh look at the evidence.

That said, I'm fine with people believing whatever they want. I don't write these blogs or the books to persuade anyone, but just to explain how I see the issues and how I assess the evidence.

I like to get feedback and I've sought feedback before I've published everything that's out there. Feedback is essential to improve the research and writing. As I've mentioned many times, the critics have been very helpful. Usually, they complain because I don't see things the way they do, but sometimes they give me good ideas and sometimes they point out mistakes, which I try to correct immediately or as soon as possible. (I'd rather give and receive criticism privately before either side publishes, but those who disagree with me refuse to give or receive private criticism. In fact, they publish criticism of my work but refuse to publish my responses. That's another major reason why I blog.)

Another reason: because I'm not in academia, I don't have an obligation to "publish or perish."

Another reason: my readers frequently contact me with additional insights and material that I can incorporate in future printings and editions, as well as blogs. I figure the more these ideas are disseminated throughout LDS society, the more additional data people will send to me or share with others. Eventually some of these ideas might make it into mainstream LDS scholarly circles, and I'm always in favor of that, but I'm more interested in ordinary members of the Church who are smart and well-informed and don't need a scholar to tell them what to think.

There are parallels in the non-LDS world. For example, a climate scientist whose work I respect recently resigned from her tenured position at a well-known university. She explained:

"Once you detach from the academic mindset, publishing on the internet makes much more sense, and the peer review you can get on a technical blog is much more extensive. But peer review is not really the point; provoking people to think in new ways about something is really the point. In other words, science as process, rather than a collection of decreed ‘truths.’
"At this point, the private sector seems like a more ‘honest’ place for a scientist working in a politicized field than universities or government labs — at least when you are your own boss."
Like climate change, issues of Book of Mormon geography and historicity also involve a scientific approach. I explained at the outset that Moroni's America was purely an experiment to see if, assuming Joseph and Oliver were right, the text describes a setting in which Cumorah is in New York. The experiment turned out far better than I hoped for. Now, for those who accept the New York Cumorah, there is a detailed model of geography, including lots of specific maps, that explain how it works with the text. 
Obviously others disagree, and that's fine. 
Maybe it would be boring if we all agreed.