Wednesday, August 5, 2015

The more I look...

The more I look into Church history and the text of the Book of Mormon, the worse things look for the Mesoamerican theory of Book of Mormon geography. Which also means, the better things look for Joseph Smith, Oliver Cowdery, and the authenticity of the Book of Mormon.

The Mesoamerican theory thrives by casting doubt on what Joseph and Oliver unambiguously taught, as I've shown in many of these posts that have quoted from the Mesoamericanists' own books and articles. Think of it as a teeter-totter. Joseph, Oliver, and North America are on one end, with Mesoamerica on the other. As the Mesoamerican setting rises in stature and prominence, Joseph, Oliver, and North America decline, and vice versa. Here's how I see the current trend:

In this entry, I want to focus on a specific example: the 1841 Bernhisel letter.  (This is a letter the Mesoamericanists claim connects Joseph Smith, Mesoamerica, and the Book of Mormon.)

Some background: It was in December 2014 when I first read Matthew Roper's article about Joseph Smith and the Times and Seasons. When he and his co-authors rejected the obvious conclusion of their own research, I figured something had to be wrong.

Something was.

I wrote a whole book about it.

In that book, I relied, to some extent, on previous research. For example, I assumed the Mesoamericanists were correct when they repeatedly stated that John Taylor, on behalf of Joseph Smith, wrote a letter to John Bernhisel in Nov. 1841.

Except they are wrong--John Taylor didn't write the letter.

The Bernhisel letter was written by an unknown person. Not only does the entry in the Joseph Smith papers make this clear, but I have confirmed the point with the Church History department. No one knows who wrote this letter. I compared the letter to the handwriting of the following candidates and excluded them all: John Taylor, Robert B. Thompson, Hyrum Smith, Sidney Rigdon, John E. Page, Benjamin Winchester, William Smith, Wilford Woodruff, W.W. Phelps, Willard Richards, William Clayton, and Erastus Derby. (I'm not a handwriting expert, but I have prosecuted forgery cases and I learned enough about the topic to explain it to juries.)

We don't know who wrote the letter. As I discuss in the second edition of the Zarahemla book, there is no evidence that Joseph ever saw this letter (which I characterize as a polite thank-you note). Bernhisel's name is misspelled on the envelope. The content of the note is generic. The timeline makes it unlikely Joseph ever read the books.

Here is an excerpt from the second edition of The Lost City of Zarahemla, in which I corrected my error of relying on Mesoamericanist researchers on this point:

"Would he [Joseph] take the time to read these two lengthy books when he didn’t have time to write a thank-you note? Had he taken the time to read both volumes—Vol. I is 424 pages, plus illustrations, and Vol. II is 486 pages, plus illustrations and index—is it plausible that neither he nor anyone else would make note of the activity or any thoughts he may have had? Woodruff read the books during his trip from New York to Nauvoo, and even with all that free time, he wrote in his journal that he merely “perused the 2d Vol.” on September 16th. The Stephens books are not light reading.

"One would expect Woodruff, especially, to note the Prophet’s reaction, but his journal is silent on the matter. He doesn’t even mention when he gave the books to Joseph, let alone whether Joseph read them—or discussed them with anyone. Woodruff does record in his journal on November 5th that he wrote a letter to Dr. Bernhisel. Perhaps in that letter he states he gave the books to Joseph (which would give Joseph only 11 days to read the 910 pages). Maybe he describes Joseph’s thoughts. Or maybe he doesn’t mention Joseph. Unless someone locates that letter, we can only speculate about what Woodruff told Bernhisel. But we don't have to speculate about what Woodruff recorded in his daily journal about this supposedly important topic. He wrote not a word about it."


This is only one example of how, when I looked into the actual history, I found that the Mesoamericanists were repeating an inaccurate assumption. They simply didn't do the research themselves. Instead, they accepted the consensus, apparently because it fit their narrative. In my case, I accepted the consensus because, even in light of that consensus, the Mesoamericanist arguments are weak. But now that I have done the research and discovered the consensus was wrong, their arguments are even weaker.

This is far from the most important error they've made, but I call attention to it because it's also an example of how the citation cartel works. One person makes a statement that supports the consensus narrative, and the others pick it up without verifying it. (This is one of the reasons I've done my own peer reviews of Maxwell Institute publications on this blog).

Maybe the Mesoamericanists have since corrected this error and I missed it (since they still refuse to even talk with me). Maybe they will correct it in the future. Maybe they can frame their argument differently in response to the truth. Maybe one day we will discover who wrote the letter and find out which side of the teeter totter that new fact will favor.

I hope so.

My only dog in this race is the truth. I have no consensus or list of publications to defend and protect.


Nevertheless, the Mesoamericanists have long made John Taylor's authorship of the Bernhisel letter a central feature of their argument. Here are some examples (my comments in red, my emphasis in bold). (Some of these Mesoamericanists actually claimed Joseph himself wrote the letter, so I included some examples of those.)

Neal Rappleye, in a 2014 Interpreter article, thinks Taylor's authorship is key:

"Because this letter is in the handwriting of John Taylor, Meldrum and others feel that they can dismiss it as not representing Joseph Smith’s views, but rather Taylor’s. But Joseph Smith commonly had his letters, and even his journal entries, written out by scribes, and if we held all such documents with this same level of skepticism then scarcely a thought at all could be attributed to the prophet himself (see the similar [Page 54] point made by Lund, pp. 17–19). [In fact, the most important of Joseph's writings were canonized; his journal have credibility because he designated specific individuals to write, we know who they are, and many of the details are corroborated by others; and the relatively few letters that are significant--except for this Bernhisel letter--were written by known people and include details that are unique to Joseph (such as letters to his wife).] To me, the fact that the letter, signed “Joseph Smith,” is written in Taylor’s hand suggests that Joseph trusted Taylor to accurately record and express his (Joseph’s) own views on the book. This would not be likely if Joseph’s feelings towards it—and its relationship to the Book of Mormon—were dramatically different from Taylor’s.

"These three lines of evidence—the two endorsements of Taylor’s editorial work, and his being trusted to pen the letter to Bernhisel—come together to paint a picture of Taylor as Joseph Smith’s trusted friend, with whom he shared an excitement over recent archaeological finds thought to be related to the Book of Mormon, not some rogue apostle spinning theories contrary to what Joseph knew by revelation."

Matt Roper, in a Maxwell Institute publication, claims Joseph Smith wrote the letter:

"In the fall of that year [1841], John Bernhisel sent Joseph Smith a copy of Stephens and Catherwood’s work. In a letter thanking his friend for the gift, Joseph wrote: [quotes the Bernhisel letter]."

In 2013, Roper clarified the point in another Maxwell Institute publication:

"Then, on 16 November 1841 Joseph Smith dictated a letter to John Bernhisel thanking him for the gift: [quotes the Bernhisel letter]9... This letter shows that Joseph Smith had read Stephens and Catherwood’s work and shared the excitement these discoveries generated among his associates. It also, in effect, signaled his approval of such interests in connection with the Book of Mormon."

His footnote 9 says, "The letter to Bernhisel, written in the hand of John Taylor, belongs to a class of historical documents that are extant only in the hand of scribes but are included in the Joseph Smith corpus (see, for example, Jessee, Personal Writings of Joseph Smith, 527–28, 551–52). The letter could suggest that Joseph Smith either dictated the letter or directed the apostle to write to Bernhisel on his behalf. In either case, it would be unlikely for Taylor to knowingly attribute views to the Prophet that were not his own."

In 2010, Roper compared Joseph's letter to Emma with the Bernhisel letter in another Maxwell Institute publication:

"Joseph Smith’s 1834 letter to Emma Smith mentioning the “plains of the Nephites” receives a strong rating for being in Joseph Smith’s own hand and being signed by him, while the Prophet’s 1841 letter to John Bernhisel is rated weak because it was not written in the Prophet’s own hand. In fact, both letters were dictated to scribes and signed by Joseph Smith [in fact, neither were signed by Joseph] and have equal evidentiary value.114

"Note 114. Jessee, Personal Writings of Joseph Smith, 344, 533. Joseph’s letter to Emma is
written in the hand of James Mulholland, while the Bernhisel letter is written in the hand
of John Taylor." 

William J. Hamblin, in another Maxwell Institute paper, writes:

"The editorials were unsigned; Joseph Smith was supervising editor, while John Taylor was managing editor. But even if John Taylor wrote the actual words, the ideas clearly reflect Joseph Smith’s view, as can be seen in his letter to John Bernhisel, 16 November 1841."

Kenneth W. Godfrey, in another Maxwell Institute paper, writes:

"In a letter dated 16 November 1841, the Prophet thanked Bernhisel and wrote about the book that “of all histories that had been written pertaining to the antiquities of this country it is the most correct” and it “supports the testimony of the Book of Mormon.”

Chris Heimerdinger (who in my opinion has done more to mislead LDS youth than anyone else through his Tennis Shoes series, which teach a Mesoamerican setting while also arguing against the North American setting), also in the Interpreter, goes so far as to claim Joseph Smith wrote the letter:

"As the editor of Church periodicals like the Times and Seasons, Joseph Smith, Jr. was fascinated with the works of John Lloyd Stephens and Frederick Catherwood, who documented their travels in the Yucatan. Commenting on the book, Incidents of Travel in Central America to a friend named John Bernhisel, the prophet writes, [quoting the Bernhisel letter]."


Lots more to come.


  1. One thing I like about your blog (not to mention your books on the subject) Jonathan, is that I have learned more about Book of Mormon geography in weeks (since I first became aware of its existence in late June and ordered the Kindle version of "The Lost City of Zarahemla" on the 2nd of July) than in the last several decades. I used to belong to the MesoAmericanist camp, but through the efforts of the Heartlanders starting several years ago but more recently reinforced through your efforts my views have completely changed.

    You also tend to document when needed through hyperlinks your references. So I can go and read them for myself. Something that I don't always get (or in some [most?] cases never) with Mormon Interpreter or Maxwell Institute articles.

    I know I've said this before, but Kudo's. Keep up the good work.

  2. Have you considered looking at Elder Lucian R. Foster as the possible scribe?