Friday, July 1, 2016

Letter VII, critics and criticism

People keep telling me that I have critics all over the Internet. I've heard of discussions on Facebook, on lds blogs, and the usual reactions from the citation cartel. A lot of people want me to respond, so I'm writing this post to explain my views on criticism.

The things I write about on this blog are pretty simple. Letter VII is straightforward and unambiguous: the New York Hill Cumorah was the scene of the last battles of the Jaredites and Nephites.

Really, that's it. End of story.

If you disagree with that, you're not arguing with me, but with Oliver Cowdery and Joseph Smith. Which, I emphasize, is fine with me.

True, I've posted some some thoughts about why they are credible and reliable, some corroborating evidence, and some defenses of them when I learn about attacks that I consider to be based on factual or logical errors. But my objectives are to clarify and specify and amplify. I'm not trying to convince anyone of anything. Believe whatever you want. But take responsibility for your beliefs. Spell out your assumptions. Let people know what worldview is behind the things you say and write.

I want every member of the Church to read Letter VII during 2016 not to persuade them of anything, but so they can see that their choices about what to believe are serious choices, not merely whims or emotions.
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Criticism is a lot of fun for both sides. Plus, it's important and useful. I have sought input on every one of my books before it was published. I make changes all the time when readers point to errors and omissions, as well as new information or insights. Pursuing the truth is an iterative process that ideally would involve everyone. The actual number of people who get involved is far smaller than that, of course, due to limits of time, interest, expertise, and subject-matter knowledge, but I have greatly appreciated the input from both supporters and detractors.

That said, I don't have the time or interest to respond to most of the criticism. If you've been following this blog, you've seen some occasions when I have taken the time to discuss particular issues, and I think you've all seen how that goes. People become increasingly irrational, defensive and emotional--all of which is valid in its place, but I think is counterproductive in this area. If you are emotionally attached to a particular setting for the Book of Mormon, great. I'm not going to change your mind even if I wanted to because I'm not writing about emotional attachments to places.

I have no problem with agreeing to disagree. And, of course, I've done a fair bit of criticizing myself in a mostly futile effort to open the minds (and editorial boards) of the citation cartel.

There is plenty of scientific literature about how people react to new ideas and changes. For some, it's easy and even liberating. For others, it's difficult and even impossible. At one end of the spectrum, we see Church members who always thought the Book of Mormon took place in North America. They love Letter VII. At the other end, we see authors and scholars who have decades of publications on the line. They're doing everything possible to discredit Letter VII. Everyone on the spectrum has a story, everyone has an agenda, and as far as I'm concerned, everyone can stay where they feel most comfortable. 

While I do believe in the aphorism that "there is no growth in the comfort zone, and no comfort in the growth zone," I also recognize that far more people choose comfort than growth.

Ironically, though, I don't think any of the stuff I write is "new." The critics are reacting to ideas that are new to them because they've been, let's say educated, about a particular way of interpreting historical events. They've been taught to accept long-held beliefs and assumptions. A thick gloss has been painted over the original sources. For example, the two-Cumorah theory apparently arose in the 1920s. While it dominates current thinking among LDS scholars and educators today (an extremely unfortunate development, in my view), it directly contradicts what people wrote and said when Joseph Smith was alive. It's the two-Cumorah theory that is new, not Letter VII.

Which is a great example of the principle that ideas are not valid, or better, just because they are new. (Actually, as I explain at the end of this post, the rationale behind the two-Cumorah theory is nearly as old as the Restoration itself.)

I also emphasize that the two-Cumorah theory is a rejection of Oliver Cowdery and the New York Cumorah. It claims the "real" Cumorah was anywhere but New York. As such, my comments here should not be taken or understood to be critical of any particular theory of geography.

That said, in this blog I've pointed out a few examples of how the two-Cumorah theory has tainted recent LDS writing. These are representative, not comprehensive, and I'm not criticizing individuals but instead the mindset that the theory has created. You ought to see the number of tabs in my copies of books written by the citation cartel, and the number of posts on this very blog that are sitting there as drafts, waiting for me to click on the Publish button. Probably I'll never publish them, but you're not missing out on anything. You can detect the pervasive influence of the two-Cumorah theory yourselves whenever you read something from the citation cartel. It's quite obvious.
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From my perspective, people aren't criticizing me, anyway. They're criticizing Oliver Cowdery and Joseph Smith. After all, I didn't write Letter VII. I didn't tell people I'd visited a room in the Hill Cumorah that contained wagon loads of plates. I didn't write to my wife about crossing the plains of the Nephites when I walked across Ohio, Indiana, and Illinois. I didn't have a vision of Zelph. I didn't meet Moroni and learn about the former inhabitants of this country from him. I didn't engrave the plates, read the words from the interpreters or write them down, and I had nothing to do with the publication of the Book of Mormon and the other revelations.

So in a sense, any response I could give to critics of my writing is irrelevant. It's not about me; it's about the original sources and the text of the Book of Mormon itself.
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In recent months, I've had lots of reactions to Letter VII, overwhelmingly positive. On the critical side, people tell me Oliver Cowdery didn't know what he was talking about, he was speculating, he was repeating a tradition started by unknown persons at an unknown time, etc. I've heard similar things about Joseph Smith. These arguments, as I understand them, are indistinguishable from the earliest anti-Mormon arguments: i.e., that Oliver and Joseph made it all up, that the three and eight witnesses saw visions, not actual plates, and even that the Book of Mormon itself is a "pious fraud," meaning it's not a real history of real people, but it teaches pastoral truths, so that, like the Biblical parables, it is "true" only in the sense that it teaches truths. It's in that sense that the rationale behind the two-Cumorah theory is as old as the Restoration itself.

These arguments against Letter VII are put forth solely to support the two-Cumorah theory. In my view the words of Joseph Fielding Smith have been well-vindicated by the things the citation cartel has published for the last forty decades: "Because of this theory some members of the Church have become confused and greatly disturbed in their faith in the Book of Mormon."

It's difficult to think of a more debilitating explanation of Letter VII than the one I'm hearing most often; i.e., that Oliver Cowdery misled his readers by stating as fact something he didn't actually know. That's exactly what the critics of the Restoration have said all along, and yet this is coming from the scholarly and educational leaders of today's Church.

I think members of the Church are starting to see this clearly. Some, "confused and greatly disturbed" by what passes for LDS scholarship today, leave the Church or remain while living with their cognitive dissonance. Others disregard what the scholars and Church educators are saying--but that has its own set of problems, because the two-Cumorah theory taints other areas of scholarship as well.

Let me emphasize, again, that I have great respect and appreciation for LDS scholars and educators and the work they do. It is primarily this issue of Book of Mormon geography/historicity that, in my opinion, has led to unnecessary confusion. I hope at some point they will see that by adhering to this two-Cumorah theory and its implicit undermining of Oliver and Joseph, they are also undermining all the tremendously insightful and effective Gospel scholarship that has been done and is ongoing.

Members of the Church should have confidence that faithful LDS scholars and educators will build and support faith, not cause them and their children to become confused and greatly disturbed in their faith.
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Finally, if you still want me to respond to specific criticism, send me an email and I'll consider it. But overall, I avoid restating things I have already written, and I've addressed most criticism preemptively in my blogs and books.

I also try to avoid restating things others have written. The single best response to criticism from the citation cartel that I've read so far was published by Todd Compton. Here's the link.

His credo is classic, and I hope he doesn't mind that I copy part of it here:

Credo

This is my credo, as a Mormon who looks on himself as believing, and as a historian who tries to be honest and balanced:

I believe that all truth is faith-promoting, if we're talking about authentic faith. No authentic truth damages authentic faith. Truth, even difficult truths, will only deepen and give breadth of vision to authentic faith. Only brittle, oversimplified faith will break easily when confronted with difficult truths. When we face difficult truths, we should not sensationalize them, but we should deal with them straightforwardly and honestly, using historical context and sympathetic insight to put them into perspective. Sometimes, when we have had oversimplified faith, we will need to deepen and broaden our faith to include tragedy and contradiction and human limitation, but that is not a matter of giving up our faith -- it is a matter of developing our faith. I realize that this can be a painful process at times, but it is a process that gives our faith more solidity and more breadth. The eye of faith sees greater depth, perspectives, and gradations of color; the heart of faith responds more to the tragedies of our bygone brothers and sisters, who become more real and more sympathetic to us.

I believe that the gospel includes all truth, and all truth is part of the gospel.

I believe that the gospel is afraid of no truth. All truths, both the brightness of love and the shadows of tragedy, contribute to the infinite beauty of the gospel.


The gospel includes heights and depths. It includes shining, dazzling light, and darkest shadow -- and everything in between, all shades of gray. It includes knowledge of God, but it also includes knowledge of Satan. It includes knowledge of great and good men and women, and of deeply flawed men and women. It also includes men and women who have great goodness and serious flaws at the same time -- sometimes, seemingly, on alternate days. It includes aspects of reality that are supposedly "secular" -- science, economics, music, history. (See D&C 93:53.)

8 comments:

  1. Recorded in March 1836
    By the Prophet Joseph
    (The Bernhisel JST Manuscript, Page 135)
    At Kirtland, Ohio

    The course that Lehi traveled from the city of Jerusalem to the place where he and his family took ship:
    2 They traveled nearly a south-southeast direction until they came to the nineteenth degree of North latitude.
    3 Then nearly east to the Sea of Arabia;
    4 Then sailed in a Southeast direction, and landed on the continent of South America in Chile-- thirty degrees South latitude.

    Early faithful Mormons close to Joseph believed this was given by revelation. A revelation has more reason to be accepted than Letter VII, or any non-revelation letter.

    Is their any absolute evidence that this is NOT a true revelation? I have seen none. I have only seen people with a vested interest in it being false seeking to undermine the possibility that it was given by revelation.

    The very fact that a ship JUST driven by the winds could leave the Southern coast of Arabia, and travel by the fast currents in the Southern Ocean and then come by the Humboldt current right up to 30 degrees South latitude where the currents would slow to about nothing and where there is a perfect harbor at one of a very few places on earth with the same climate as Jerusalem so the seeds they carried would grow-- and on and on-- all this greatly increases the probability that this is a true revelation.

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  2. This is a good example of the type of comment I have to respond to so that people are not misled or confused. I appreciate another opportunity to go through this. Many of these errors have been perpetuated for a long time, and I've previously addressed them, but hopefully, with enough repetition, we can get the historical record straight.

    This is another rehash of the Frederick G. Williams note.

    First, Bernhisel wasn't even a member of the Church in 1836.
    Second, this so-called "revelation" was not "recorded" "By the Prophet Joseph." It was written by Bernhisel.
    Third, the Bernhisel JST manuscript was created in 1845 (after Joseph's death) in Nauvoo, not in Kirtland.
    Fourth, it is a copy of the Frederick G. Williams (FGW) note, itself of dubious origins.
    Fifth, Nancy Williams, FGW's first biographer, says the revelation was given to FGW for the benefit of his family.
    Sixth, unlike Letter VII, Joseph Smith never endorsed the FGW "revelation." He never had his scribes put it in his journal as part of his history.
    Seventh, unlike Letter VII, the FGW "revelation" was never published in any official Church newspaper. Letter VII was published in the Messenger and Advocate, the Times and Seasons, and the Gospel Reflector.
    Eighth, the FGW "revelation" was supposedly recorded in connection with the Kirtland temple dedication, although there is a range of years during which FGW might have written it down (since no one knows anything about where it came from). In connection with the Kirtland temple dedication, Moses, Elias, Elijah, and the Lord Himself appeared to Joseph Smith and Oliver Cowdery. This was six months after Letter VII was published and recorded in Joseph's journal.
    Ninth, not a single Mormon, close to Joseph or not, cited the FGW "revelation." In 1879, when Orson Pratt wrote his footnotes in the Book of Mormon, he declared without qualification that Cumorah was in New York. His footnote to Mormon 6:2 reads, "The Hill Cumorah is in Manchester, Ontario Co. N. York." Regarding the Chile landing, he recognized he was speculating. His footnote to 1 Ne 18:23 reads, "believed to be on the coast of Chile, S. America."
    Tenth, Bernhisel copied the note on a blank page of his copy of the JST. It has no connection to JST itself. There is no indication of why he copied it, and certainly no indication that he thought it was a revelation or even originated with Joseph Smith.

    The only geography universally accepted during Joseph's lifetime was the New York hill Cumorah. Orson Pratt recognized everything else was speculation or belief, not the result of revelation.

    The rejection of Letter VII today would have been unthinkable during Joseph's day. Oliver Cowdery was Assistant President of the Church when he wrote the letters, which put him in a position senior to the counselors in the First Presidency.

    Of course, people are free to reject Oliver Cowdery. Most people do, actually; most people don't accept any of the Three Witnesses. It just seems strange to me that active, believing LDS reject Oliver Cowdery this way.

    As for the direction Lehi sailed from the Arabian peninsula, the direction they went depends on the time they went, and Nephi tells us they left in the fall, which means they had to sail southwest around Africa. Then there is Isaiah 18.

    I'd be interested in any accounts of 600 B.C. ships sailing from the Arabian peninsula to Chile if any exist, but the rest of this comment, IMO, is a series of errors and wishful thinking.

    For more detail on the Bernhisel JST note, here's a reference:

    https://byustudies.byu.edu/content/notes-lehis-travels

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    1. The BYU studies article simply establishes the history of copies of this claimed revelation. Nothing in the article suggests that the revelation is necessarily false. Joseph himself admitted "I never told you I was perfect; but there is no error in the revelations which I have taught." Letter VII does not claim to be revelation. I have a testimony from the Holy Ghost that the Chile revelation is true revelation. So I am being consistent when I accept the revelation and reject the non-revelation. The fact that the revelation is part of an understanding of the geography and history of the Book of Mormon that does not continually have to redefine words in the Book of Mormon makes it even easier to accept. The fact that all the North American models of the Book of Mormon history and geography have to continually redefine the words in the Book of Mormon again makes it easier to accept. Why can I not just accept the Word of the Lord as it is written?

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    2. My initial response was intended to correct the statements of historical facts made about the Bernhisel note. In this response, I'll address this statement, "Nothing in the article suggests that the revelation is necessarily false," which epitomizes the problem with the FGW note.

      People assume, based on no evidence, that the FGW note was a revelation. Then they assume, based on no evidence, that it originated with Joseph Smith. Then they insist others prove it was "necessarily false."

      The FGW note is just that--a note FGW wrote, with no explanation or context. Not even FGW claimed it was a revelation.

      People can assume that FGW wrote down something Joseph said, and they can assume it was a revelation, but that kind of logic defies the whole point of canonized scripture and well-attested words of the prophets.

      Letter VII does not claim to be a revelation--instead, it relates a fact. I've explained before that Oliver and Joseph had good reasons to know the battles took place at the New York Cumorah even if they didn't receive a specific revelation about it.

      So on one hand, we have Letter VII, a well-attested, clear and unequivocal declaration of fact, written by the Assistant President of the Church, endorsed by Joseph Smith, and republished multiple times.

      On the other hand, we have a note written by FGW that was never published, never cited, never even mentioned until long after Joseph died, and never even claimed to be revelation in the first place.

      There are plenty of examples in Church history of people claiming Joseph said this or that and then persuading others to go along, usually by claiming they got a testimony of it. The FGW note is even less credible than the claims of James Strang or William Smith, because at least they claimed Joseph Smith actually said something. FGW never made that claim.

      As I say, anyone can believe whatever they want. As I wrote in the original post, "If you are emotionally attached to a particular setting for the Book of Mormon, great. I'm not going to change your mind even if I wanted to because I'm not writing about emotional attachments to places."

      One last point. Rather than redefine words in the text, the North American model in Moroni's America recognizes that Mormon himself used different terms for different things. A common example of redefining words that I see in other models is the claim that "narrow neck" is the same as "small neck" which is the same as "narrow neck of land."

      I encourage everyone to stick with the text of the scriptures and not chase tangents such as the FGW letter. Obviously, others don't agree, and that's fine with me.

      If someone wants to believe Lehi landed in Chile, great. A lot of people believe that, and if it works for them, I have no problem with it.

      People just need to take responsibility for their choices and 1) not misstate historical facts or 2) misrepresent the North American model.

      BTW, I'm using my wife's computer, hence the different name on the comments.

      :)

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  3. I am not a Church History scholar. Like Wilford Woodruff, I am not as brilliant as the Church's intellectual minds of our respective days. So, like Wilford,I choose to follow the Prophet as I know Amos 3:7 to be true. There is not one Latter-Day Prophet who has ever established the Book of Mormon Lands in Meso-America. On the contrary, the only Prophetic Revelations by Latter-Day Prophets have established the Book of Mormon Lands been in North America. I would rather spend my time and energy in helping prepare myself and others for the Savior's Return than bickering over non-prophetic speculation.

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  5. Love your credo Jonathan, and wish all LDS scholars were as open and motivated by truth as you are.

    I became aware of the two-Cumorah theory as a missionary in Chicago in 1982, when my second mission president allowed a man who had just written a Book of Mormon geography book to take some time to speak to all of our missionaries at a mission conference. This author had a fervent zeal about his Mesoamerican book, and emphasized several times that in order for us to believe in and understand any of the references to geography mentioned in the Book of Mormon, we had to understand that the Hill Cumorah in New York could not be the same Hill Cumorah mentioned as being such in the text of the Book of Mormon. He openly taught that Joseph Smith had received no revelation on this, and that his opinion that the Hill Cumorah was in New York was just blind speculation and was his own uninspired opinion.

    I remember feeling that this man's testimony was too tied to this idea, and that I also didn't like his teaching that Joseph didn't know the truth on this. However, I didn't know anything about Book of Mormon geography, and I didn't have any opinion on the matter, so I just let this pass and got on with my missionary work. However, in our next monthly newsletter, my mission president published a small quote that he had received from Elder Boyd K. Packer on the matter in which he simply stated that the official doctrine of the church was that the Hill Cumorah in New York was in fact the hill mentioned in the Book of Mormon. That put the matter to rest for me, and I felt that we had been subjected to two days of false doctrine on the subject by a misguided author.

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  6. Thanks for that comment, Inventioneer. For decades, we've had people tell us that Joseph Smith did not receive revelation so he speculated and had "uninspired opinions" published multiple times and put into his own journal. I'm glad it was clarified quickly on your mission. Hopefully as more members of the Church read Letter VII for themselves, they can resolve this issue for themselves as well.

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