Wednesday, September 9, 2015

Why Mesoamericanists obscure facts about Cumorah

The reason Mesoamericanists insist the Book of Mormon Cumorah cannot be in New York is because such a scenario defies their limited geography theory. IOW, New York is too far from Mesoamerica to fit the narrative in the text.

If Cumorah is in New York, then the Book of Mormon events could not have taken place in Mesoamerica.

It's really as simple as that.

Consequently, Mesoamericanists claim the name stuck to the New York hill as a misguided tradition started by early members of the Church.

Oliver Cowdery's letter VII repudiates that notion, as I've explained. This is why you don't see it mentioned, let alone quoted, in Mesoamericanist materials. 

Yesterday I showed how the Mesoamericanists obscure the facts by citing the Reeve/Cowan article which was never intended as an in-depth analysis of the origins of the name. Reeve/Cowan never mention Oliver Cowdery.

Today I'm showing how Brant Gardner avoids the Cowdery material, despite making a show of quoting numerous outside sources. The first section is from Gardner's book Translating the Book of Mormon, p. 129-131. My comments in red.

A Hill Becomes Cumorah

Although the Bible served as an important model for religious vocabulary and the construction of a religious story, the early Saints also had the Book of Mormon. Denigrated by other Christians, the Book of Mormon was foundational to the Mormon religion. It is therefore hardly surprising that the early Saints [who?] also turned to that book to find ways to tie their sacred experiences to the vocabulary and story of that book, thus creating an indelible association between a small glacial drumlin not far from Joseph Smith's home and the name of a Book of Mormon hill. We call both of them Cumorah.

The hill wasn't, and isn't, an imposing natural feature.
[This is a judgment call, of course. Cumorah is the highest hill in the area. From the top you can see all the way to Rochester, which is 20 miles away on the border of Lake Ontario. You have a 360 degree view of the surrounding terrain. It is in a strategic location between the finger lakes and Lake Ontario.]
Of course it could not have been Cumorah before the translation of the Book of Mormon; someone would have pointed out the "convenience"of that particular identification.
[So far as we know, the first person to hear the name other than Joseph and Oliver was David Whitmer, who heard it from a heavenly messenger who was carrying the plates to Cumorah from Harmony, PA.] 
Even almost a hundred years later, Orson F. Whitney would indicate: "In the summer of 1914, it fell to my lot to visit some of the scenes made memorable by the early experiences of the Latter-day Saints. One object of surpassing interest was the Hill Cumorah, called "Mormon Hill" by the inhabitants of the region in which it is situated--namely, wester New York state about midway between the towns of Palmyra and Manchester." (Orson F. Whitney, "Some Historical and Prophetic Phases of the Book of Mormon," 216)

Rex C. Reeve Jr. and Richard O. Cowan discuss the way it acquired its current name.

"At what point in modern times this New York hill was first called Cumorah is difficult to determine. In his account in the Pearl of Great Price, Joseph Smith refers to the hill where the plates were buried, but never calls it by any name. In the Doctrine and Covenants the name “Cumorah” only appears one time, in an 1842 epistle written by Joseph Smith: “And again, what do we hear? Glad tidings from Cumorah!” (D&C 128:20 ). No other uses of “Cumorah” have been found in any other of Joseph Smith’s personal writings. When this name does appear it has been added by later editors or is being quoted from another individual." 28
[I'm surprised and disappointed that Gardner uses this citation. Gardner is usually a careful, thoughtful and detailed scholar. In this case, he cites an article that did not focus on the origin of the name Cumorah and does not claim to provide a definitive or even comprehensive examination of the issue. Reeve/Cowan merely outline a few of the facts as part of the background to the main purpose of their article, which is to discuss the acquisition of the hill and the development of the pageant. No doubt Reeve/Cowan were aware of Oliver Cowdery's Letter VII and its multiple reprintings. I have to wonder if Gardner really doesn't know that history, or if he cites Reeve/Cowan to provide an illusion of research on the topic, knowing full well they don't address the major document regarding the Hill Cumorah in New York.]

Joseph's use of the term in 1842 is similar to his use of Urim and Thummim for the interpreters and the seer stones. Although he was in a perfect position to know a different name and to correct the Saints,
[exactly--but he didn't use a different name or correct them because they were right.]
what we see is that the Saints' communal interpretation of history also fed Joseph's vocabulary and therefore influenced descriptions of that history. Joseph not only allowed the communal creation of the Church's history; he embraced it.
[Gardner's premise here is that the early Saints were wrong. He has zero evidence of that. In what other areas would Joseph have embraced a false tradition? Joseph was all about fighting false traditions, not incorporating them into his personal history and the scriptures.]

The sacralization of the New York hill by association with Cumorah tapped into the miraculous nature of the discovery and translation of the plates. Nevertheless, the connection appears to have been made upon a misreading of the text.
[This is a stunning assumption. Joseph Smith and the early Saints read and re-read the text. There is zero evidence of anyone "misreading" the text regarding Cumorah. This is purely Gardner's wishful thinking.]
Mormon specifically says: "I made this record out of the plates of Nephi, and hid up in the hill Cumorah all the records which had been entrusted to me by the hand of the Lord, save it were these few plates which I gave unto my son Moroni" (Mormon 6:6, emphasis mine). Although the Book of Mormon specifically tells of plates being buried in the hill Cumorah, they were explicitly not the plates delivered to Joseph Smith.
[Surely Gardner realizes that Oliver and Joseph visited the New York hill on at least two occasions when they entered a room containing the other records. They were fully aware of Mormon 6:6, and they observed it first hand. The text never says where Moroni buried the final record; it certainly never says he did not bury the final record in Cumorah.]
Nevertheless, the association was made and became so entrenched in the Saints' understanding that it is difficult to separate the historical data from the communal story.
[Why would anyone want to separate the historical data from the communal story when the historical data is the basis for the communal story?]

(Note 28: Reeve and Cowan, "The Hill Called Cumorah," 73-74. The earlier possible connection between the New York hill and the Book of Mormon Cumorah comes from a David Whitmer interview: Orson Pratt and Joseph F. Smith, "Report of Elders Orson Pratt and Joseph F. Smith," 772-73:

"When I was returning to Fayette, with Joseph and Oliver, all of us riding in the wagon, Oliver and I on an old-fashioned, wooden, spring seat and Joseph behind us; while traveling along in a clear open place, a very pleasant, nice-looking old man suddenly appeared by the side of our wagon and saluted us with, "Good morning, it is very warm," at the same time wiping his face or forehead with his hand. We returned the salutation, and, by a sign from Joseph, I invited him to ride if he was going our way. But he said very pleasantly, "No, I am going to Cumorah." This name was something new to me, I did not know what Cumorah meant. We all gazed at him and at each other, and as I looked around inquiringly of Joseph, the old man instantly disappeared, so that I did not see him again."

This report would be much more conclusive had it not been recorded nearly fifty years later.
[This may be true, but how conclusive does it need to be? Would Gardner have accepted it if we had a record from, say, 1842? That's the date Joseph recorded the version of his history that has been canonized. That's nearly 20 years after the First Vision. We have records of David Whitmer repeating this story 3 times late in life, but that doesn't mean he didn't relate it early in life. At most, Gardner can complain that we don't have records of an earlier statement by Whitmer, but that has no bearing on his veracity in 1878, when this interview was conducted.]
The passage of time and the accepted designation of "Cumorah" as the name of the New York hill by the time of the recollection argues against this second-hand report from Whitmer as being a definitive statement.)
[Gardner's spin here ignores the specificity of Whitmer's statement. Whitmer recalled several details because it was the very first time he heard the name Cumorah. Encountering a heavenly messenger who was carrying the plates to Cumorah is not the kind of mundane, everyday experience that one could conflate with other events. Read what Gardner says here again. He is calling Whitmer a liar, or at least an unreliable witness. 
Richard Lloyd Anderson wrote a book titled Investigating the Book of Mormon Witnesses. In it, he notes that Whitmer was visited in 1884 and 1886 by other interviewers. This is six and eight years additional years beyond the time when Gardner thinks Whitmer was not credible. One 1886 visitor, the RLDS president, wrote, "[O]ne thing is certain--no man could hear him make his affirmation, as he has to us in there, and doubt for one moment the honesty and sincerity of the man himself. He fully believes he saw and heard, just as he stated he did."
Anderson concludes, "Over a hundred detailed personal statements and interviews with them [the Three Witnesses] exist, about half of which come from David Whitmer. Like the others, the modest but intense Missouri businessman admirably passes the test of examining his person and his story. Impeccable in reputation, consistent in scores of recorded interviews, obviously sincere, and personally capable of detecting delusion--no witness is more compelling than David Whitmer."
Unless, that is, if you're a Mesoamericanist trying to deny the New York Cumorah is the Book of Mormon Cumorah.]


The next section is from Gardner's book Traditions of the Fathers, p. 375-6. I addressed this before, but revisit it again because it is so crucial to the Mesoamericanist argument.

The New York Cumorah

Not long after the Book of Mormon was published, the community of believers began using the name "Cumorah" for the hill from which Joseph had retrieved the plates.
[Actually, it was in June 1829, eight months before the Book of Mormon was published, that David Whitmer first heard the name "Cumorah" in connection with the New York hill. Joseph and Oliver were with him on that occasion.]
The New York hill wasn't, and isn't, an imposing natural feature. There is nothing about the New York hill that suggests an important defensive position, particularly for the numbers of defenders mentioned.
[This is a variation of what Gardner wrote in his previous book. One would think it is obvious that the highest hill in the area would be an important defensive position. The hill overlooks a mile-wide valley to the west, where Oliver says the final battles took place. The number of defenders is unclear from the text; in my view, the most likely interpretation is that the tens of thousands were killed along the way, leading to the final battles on the hill Cumorah.]
Although there is a strong tradition linking that hill with Cumorah, the tradition is stronger than any evidence for the correlation.
[I can't make sense of this sentence. The tradition, according to Gardner, is "indelible" and "entrenched." Evidence for the correlation, whatever that might be, could hardly be stronger than either of those terms. Among the evidence, though, is the physical location and size of the hill and the thousands of artifacts found in the vicinity over the years.]
As later as almost a hundred years after the publication of the Book of Mormon, Orson F. Whitney indicated that it had different local names.
[Here Gardner repeats the Whitney and Reeve/Cowan quotations, with the same footnote denigrating David Whitmer's testimony. However, he adds an additional note.]
Sidney B. Sperry, "Were There Two Cumorahs?" 268, suggests: "Now, if it is agreed that the Book of Mormon evidence points inevitably to a Ramah-Cumorah in Middle America, the question then arises as to how the hill in New York from which the Prophet Joseph Smith received the sacred Nephite records came to be called Cumorah. No details are afforded us as to either how or when the hill was so named. But certainly no adherent of the Middle-American view of Ramah-Cumorah would object to the suggestion that Moroni himself may have called the hill Cumorah in honor of the one in Middle America. He may even have told the prophet Joseph Smith about it but of this we have no proof."
[Gardner doesn't say whether he agrees with Sperry's theory. Sperry has Moroni deceiving Joseph, Oliver and David Whitmer. Joseph and Oliver had just translated the books of Mormon, Ether and Moroni when the messenger referred to the New York hill as Cumorah; David had never heard the term before. All three believed the New York hill to be the Book of Mormon Cumorah. Why Moroni would deceive them, Sperry does not explain.]
The sacralization of the New York hill by association with Cumorah tapped into the miraculous nature of the discovery and translation of the plates. It was an association that certainly occurred very early, but the source of the connection between the New York hill and the Cumorah of the Book of Mormon is unknown.
[It's only unknown if one disbelieves David Whitmer.]
One might suppose that had Moroni identified the New York hill as Cumorah, Joseph would have used the term earlier than he did.
[Gardner is referring to D&C 128, but Joseph in fact had his scribes copy Oliver's Letter VII into his personal journal in 1836.]
Joseph's use of the term in 1842 is similar to his use of Urim and Thummim for the interpreters and seer stones. Although he was in a perfect position to know a different name and to correct the Saints, he didn't. However, that should not be seen as confirmation that the tradition was correct, but rather that the Saints' communal interpretation of history influenced Joseph's descriptions of that history. Joseph not only allowed the communal creation of the Church's history; he embraced it.
[I commented on this language above; Gardner essentially copied it from his first book.]
It is plausible that just as W. W. Phelps was the one to associate the interpreters with Urim and Thummim of the Bible, one of Joseph's companions made the association between the hill from which the plates were taken with the hill in which Mormon had hid the plates. While that is a plausible connection, it is based on a misreading of the text.
[Here Gardner makes the same argument that the early Saints misunderstood the Book of Mormon. I responded to that above. But he adds a new assertion that's worth assessing.]
On the basis of the only information we have in the text of the Book of Mormon, the hill from which Joseph retrieved the plates should never have been called Cumorah.
[Of course, nothing in the text would prevent Moroni from depositing the plates in the hill Cumorah; Moroni doesn't say where he buried them because they were buried; he would have had to dig them up again to write where they were buried, or at a minimum write where he intended to bury them just before he put them in the ground, assuming he had the ability to do so at that point.]
Nevertheless, the association was made and became so entrenched in the Saints' understanding that it is difficult to separate the historical data from the communal story.
The strength of the communal story was sufficient that Sidney B. Sperry originally argued for a single hill that bore the name Cumorah. However, he changed his mind after reviewing the evidence. He records: "The friendly controversy still goes on, the one camp holding that the only Cumorah in or out of the Book of Mormon is the traditional one in New York States, the other supporting the view that the Cumorah in New York has been named after the one in Middle America, but is not the one around which the last great battles of the Nephites and Lamanites took place. Now which of these two points of view is correct? It would be desirable if possible, to come to a unity in the matter. Truth should never be on the defensive, but sometimes it is hard to decide just where it is. Perhaps most people of the Church hold to the traditional view of Cumorah, and, indeed, I have defended that view in some of my writings. But in recent years we have again gone over the Book of Mormon evidence very carefully and are prepared to present what we feel are the elements of the strongest case that can be made for a Cumorah in Middle America."
[Gardner doesn't share what Sperry's evidence is, but at least in the quoted portion, Sperry ignores Oliver Cowdery.]
Countering the force of traditional association is the archaeological data for the hill and the surrounding lands. John E. Clark discusses the reasons that the New York hill could not have been the location of the final Nephite battle: "Archaeologically speaking, it is a clean hill. No artifacts, no walls, no trenches, no arrow-heads. The area immediately surrounding the hill is similarly clean. Pre-Columbian people did not settle or build here. This is not the place of Mormon's last stand. We must look elsewhere for that hill." Clark has also noted, "The cultural worlds of ancient Mesoamerica and early New York are far enough apart that it ought to be simple to discover from which one the book came. The cultures described in the Book of Mormon fit much better in Mesoamerica than in New York for any century."
[Clark relies on a single 1950 book about the archaeology of New York, as I've previously noted. His statement defies the reports of people who live in the area, including Willard Bean, the missionary sent to live in Palmyra who acquired the hill after living in the area over 20 years. Plus, Clark creates a straw man argument; the text never says the Nephites settled or built on the hill. It was the scene of the final battle, not of a Nephite city. Clark's expectations are unrealistic, anyway. Even in England, when 10,000 people died in the well-documented Battle of Hastings, archaeologists have never found the remains.]
Nevertheless, we do understand that the plates from which Joseph translated the Book of Mormon came from the New York hill. HOw did they come to be there? Sorenson comments:
[Gardner cites Sorenson's assertion that Moroni hauled the plates several thousand miles northward from Mesoamerica. He doesn't mention the sword, breastplate, and other items. Nor does he address the room full of plates that Joseph and Oliver saw at least twice. Mesoamericanists explain that one away by claiming it was only a vision, repeated twice with some variation.]
How should we see Joseph Fielding Smith's firm declaration that the New York hill must be Cumorah? His opinion is unambiguous.
"The Prophet Joseph Smith himself is on record, definitively declaring the present hill called Cumorah to be the exact hill spoken of in the Book of Mormon. The fact that all of his associates from the beginning down have spoken of it as the identical hill where Mormon and Moroni hid the records must carry some weight. It is difficult for a reasonable person to believe that such men as Oliver Cowdery, Brigham Young, Parley P. Pratt, Orson Pratt, David Whitmer, and many others, could speak frequently of the spot where the Prophet Joseph Smith obtained the plates as the Hill Cumorah, and not be corrected by the Prophet, if that were not the fact. That they did speak of this hill in the days of the Prophet in this definite manner is an established fact of history."
Although Joseph Fielding Smith was adamant in his opinion, the data upon which the opinion was based are not nearly as strong as his statement suggests. 30
[Gardner's footnote 30 here complains that JFS cited Zelph. Gardner claims the Zelph reference to Cumorah "is not an identification, but a reference of distance." That's his opinion, of course, but JFS and most readers would see this otherwise.]
Joseph did make the association between Cumorah and the New York hill, but only late and well after it had become an accepted designation.
[This argument is one of my favorite ironies. The "association" Gardner refers to here is in D&C 128, which was first published in the 1 Oct 1842 Times and Seasons--the same issue that contains the unsigned Zarahemla article! So Gardner discounts the letter Joseph signed and canonized as D&C 128 because he prefers the unsigned Zarahemla article that was never even mentioned again. Here we have Gardner dismissing JFS because he relies on D&C 128, which Gardner also dismisses as the product of a false tradition established by unknown persons on an unknown date.]
The weight of tradition certainly sees Cumorah in New York, but that tradition hangs on assumption rather than revelation or any firm evidence.
[This is another of my favorite ironies. Gardner is making an assumption that the tradition he opposes "hangs on assumption." In his view, it is not revelation when a heavenly messenger tells you something you didn't know; i.e., David Whitmer learning about Cumorah for the first time. Nor is David Whitmer's account "firm evidence."]
There is an assumption that Joseph knew Book of Mormon geography, knew where the Book of Mormon Cumorah was, and declared the Book of Mormon Cumorah to be in New York. Those are [not] three assumptions on which to base such as strong declaration, especially when the evidence does not support the thread on which the weight of tradition hangs.
[Gardner's offering a straw man argument again. As I've shown, none of those assumptions are part of the evidence; it is Oliver Cowdery and David Whitmer, two of the Three Witnesses, who provided the evidence about the New York hill being the Book of Mormon Cumorah. Of course, Joseph confirmed Oliver's evidence by incorporating it into his own journal.]
Archaeology and history declare a different story.
[They certainly do not.]
The New York hill cannot be the Cumorah described in the text.
[It not only can be, but the physical evidence makes it a prime candidate.]
What history does support is that Joseph came late to using Cumorah to identify the New York hill.
[Here, Gardner is again referring to 1842, ignoring Joseph's 1836 adoption of Cowdery's account.]
Rather than being able to use Joseph as the foundation of the naming tradition, it is easier, according to the evidence of history, to see Joseph as accepting the tradition.
[If "easier" is the criteria, then why do Mesoamericanists resist all the documentary evidence in the first place? If the truth is the criteria, then resisting all the documentary evidence is even less excusable.]

He would not have corrected it for the same reason he did not correct the use of “Urim and Thummim” when applied to the interpreters or seer stone. [p. 379]

[It's true that Joseph had a record of allowing people to believe whatever they wanted and not correcting false doctrine, preferring to let people judge for themselves. So that part of Gardner's argument is legitimate. But the implication that the use of the term "Urim and Thummim" needed to be corrected is without foundation. Joseph, like everyone else, used the term to refer to the Nephite translators or Interpreters, thinking it was a better description of their function. No need to correct the use of that term.]

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