Friday, May 20, 2016

More on David Whitmer, Zina Young, and Cumorah


David Whitmer, circa 1855
(photo links to JSP)
This post offers more detail on David Whitmer and Zina Young.

I've had some feedback on the previous post that there is no evidence Zina had heard about David Whitmer's Cumorah experience from David himself. It's true we don't have written evidence of when she heard the story or from whom, but Stevenson's journal shows Zina had heard it from somewhere before Stevenson visited Whitmer. That's why she told Stevenson to ask Whitmer about it. I imagine the conversation being something such as this:

Zina: "You're going to visit David Whitmer?"
Stevenson: "I plan to. I hope he'll see me."
Zina: "Ask him about the Nephite he met."
Stevenson: "He met a Nephite?"
Zina (nodding): "And he was carrying the plates to the hill Cumorah because Joseph didn't want the responsibility. David, Joseph and Oliver Cowdery were riding in a wagon from Harmony to the Whitmer farm. He'll tell you all about it."
Stevenson: "Sounds interesting."
Zina: "You should publish it when you get back."

The Mesoamerican advocates who reject Whitmer's testimony rely on the "late" retelling to Stevenson and Joseph F. Smith. Their objection is based on the premise that Whitmer's experience hearing the term "Cumorah" for the first time occurred in 1829, but he did not tell the story before 1878. Certainly, 50 years after the fact could be considered late; each person has to assess that "lateness" in light of the detail of Whitmer's account, the surprising and unusual circumstances, and the presence of Joseph and Oliver when the event occurred.

The Stevenson account undermines the "lateness" objection, however. Whether Zina heard the story directly from Whitmer in 1835, or heard it from someone else, the point is that she did hear it before Stevenson asked Whitmer about it. From his journal, we have to infer that Stevenson had not heard the story before.

There is no record of anyone knowing this story before Stevenson's interview with David, except for Zina. So all the evidence we have suggests that before the interview, the only two people who knew the story were Zina and David (and Oliver and Joseph, if David's testimony is to be believed, but Joseph and Oliver were dead by then).

And the only evidence we have of David and Zina interacting was when David and Hyrum Smith were missionary companions in 1835 in Watertown, NY, where Hyrum baptized her. [This is no minor point. David Whitmer didn't go on a lot of missionary journeys. When you read Zina's account, notice how she emphasizes how hard David worked to persuade her to get baptized. I think it's safe to infer he tried everything he could, including his viewing of the golden plates as one of the Three Witnesses. In this context, his claim he saw one of the Nephites carrying the plates to Cumorah would be another thing to bring up.

Later, Joseph F. Smith and Orson Pratt visited David Whitmer and elicited the same story from him. This suggests they first heard it when Stevenson published it (or told them about it).

Zina published an article, probably taken from parts of her journal we don't otherwise have now, in the April 1893 issue of The Young Woman's Journal. Titled "How I Gained my Testimony of the Truth," the article gives details on how she joined the Church in 1835. It is available online here. In the next section, I show the relevant aspects of Zina's article.

In the following summer Hyrum Smith and David Whitmer came to our house and stayed several days. Father and mother had been baptized in the April of that same year, but neither myself nor my sister were baptized.

David Whitmer persuaded me to be baptized while they were at our home, but some way I did not accept his offer. I had told my sister-in-law, Fanny Huntingdon, that when she was baptized I would go with her.

The morning for the departure of these men from our house arrived, and I had not as yet become a member of the Church. That morning, a short time before they were to start, Hyrum Smith’s cousin rode up with a message that they could not leave that day, as my brother Dimick and his wife Fanny, my dear sister-in-law, were desirous of being baptized.

That morning at prayers I had presented to me a heavenly vision of a man going down into the water and baptizing someone. So when this message came I felt it was a testimony that the time had come for me to receive baptism. Brother Hyrum Smith was mouth in prayer, and in my secret soul I had a wish that he should baptize me. I had refused the coaxing of Brother Whitmer, as I told myself, because mother and father were going away from home, and I had all the home cares on me, and I feared I would be tempted to speak crossly or say something I ought not to after so sacred an ordinance as that; but this strong testimony that the proper time had arrived I did not dare treat lightly.

As soon as I consented to go with my brother and sister-in-law David Whitmer began talking about performing the office for us. Happily for me, however, Brother Hyrum was chosen by the others to be the proper one and I added my preference to their words. Accordingly, we all went down to the water and were baptized by Hyrum Smith, and confirmed under the hands of Hyrum Smith and David Whitmer. [This was on August 1, 1835.]

Wednesday, May 18, 2016

Note on Cumorah, David Whitmer and Zina Young

I realize the topic of Cumorah has been discussed a lot lately, so don't read this if you're tired of the Cumorah topic. I actually covered this topic in detail last August, 

here. I'm writing today because of a new bit of information that's always been available but I didn't really notice until now and I wanted it here on the blog as a note for future reference.

If you're new to this topic, it has to do with two of the Three Witnesses. Those who advocate a Mesoamerican geography reject Oliver Cowdery's description of Cumorah in Letter VII. They also reject David Whitmer's explanation of the first time he heard the word Cumorah (which he said was in June 1829, before he'd ever read the text, and he heard it from a heavenly messenger).

The rationale for rejecting David Whitmer's testimony is that he supposedly never talked about it until 50 years after the fact, in interviews he gave to Edward Stevenson in 1877 and to Joseph F. Smith and Orson Pratt in 1878.

Here's how one scholar articulated the argument (I won't mention names, but you can get it from my August post if you're interested):

Edward Stevenson
"The earliest possible connection between the New York hill and the Book of Mormon Cumorah comes from an 1878 interview with David Whitmer by Orson Pratt and Joseph F. Smith,... This report [the Whitmer interview] would be much more conclusive had it not been recorded nearly fifty years later. The passage of time and the accepted designation of “Cumorah” as the name of the New York hill by the time of the recollection argue against the second-hand report from Whitmer as being a definitive statement."

There are all kinds of logical errors in that statement, but I've addressed those before. Today, I want to point out something in the Stevenson statement, taken from his contemporaneous journal.

I obtained a copy of Stevenson's journal recently and here's what his entry says:

Page from Stevenson journal
"I wish to mention an Item of conversation with David Whitmer in regard to Seeing one of the Nephites, Zina Young, Desired me to ask about it. David Said, Oliver, & The Prophet, & I were riding in a wagon, & an aged man about 5 feet 10, heavey Set & on his back, an old fashioned Armey knapsack Straped over his Shoulders & Something Square in it, & he walked alongside of the Wagon & Wiped the Sweat off his face, Smileing very Pleasant David asked him to ride and he replied I am going across to the hill Cumorah. Soon after they Passed they felt Strangeley and Stoped, but could see nothing of him all around was clean and they asked the Lord about it. He Said that the Prophet Looked as White as a Sheet & Said that it was one of the Nephites & that he had the plates."*


Edward Stevenson was a general authority (one of the seven presidents of the Seventy). He was a well-known missionary (one of the MTC buildings is named after him). There's no reason to doubt the credibility of his interview with David Whitmer.

What I find fascinating is that Zina Young asked Stevenson to ask David Whitmer about seeing one of the Nephites. That was the focus of the interview, not the Cumorah question.

Zina Young
This means that Zina had heard this story earlier. 

Why Zina Young? 

And when could she have heard it? 

And from whom?

It could not have been from the interview with Joseph F. Smith, which occurred a year later.

Instead, it's highly likely she heard it from David Whitmer directly!

Zina was born in 1821. Her family lived in Watertown, New York. In 1835, when she was 14 years old, two missionaries came to town: Hyrum Smith and David Whitmer. Hyrum baptized her on August 1, 1835. The family moved to Kirtland, and eventually to Far West, and then to Nauvoo along with most of the rest of the Saints. Zina married, had two children, and then also married Joseph Smith. After his death, she married Brigham Young. (That's a topic for another day.)

David Whitmer left the Church in 1837-1838 and lived in Missouri for the rest of his life. Zina would have had no contact with him after about 1837, at the latest. If that's the case, then she could only have heard the story from him between 1835 and 1837--just a few years after 1829, when David said the event happened.

Of course, modern Mesoamerican scholars will dispute this somehow, but the argument that David's testimony is unreliable because it was 50 years late contradicts the Stevenson account.

Interestingly, Zina was also the one who inherited Joseph's seer stone after Brigham Young died.

The simplest, historically justified explanation is that David told Zina and her family the story when he contacted them as a missionary. Zina remembered it and told Stevenson to ask David about it in 1877. Stevenson recorded it and wrote about it. 

David Whitmer
Then Joseph F. Smith asked David about it, and he reiterated his account of the event.

It's not a 50-year-old story related from a feeble and tainted memory. It's a retelling of an account related by a missionary to his investigators just a few years after the event.

Other than to defend the Mesoamerican ideology, there's no reason to cast doubt on the testimony of the Three Witnesses.

The bottom line is this (adapted from my August post):

Think about this. To accept the Mesoaemerican setting you have to disbelieve two of the three main witnesses to the Book of Mormon: Oliver Cowdery and David Whitmer. The Mesoamerican advocates seek to persuade you these two men were not reliable witnesses when it comes to the issue of Cumorah being in New York.

By contrast, to accept the North American (or Heartland) setting, you fully embrace what these two men said.


*You can find this account in these references, although apparently not transcribed exactly: "Edward Stevenson Interview (1) 22-23 December 1877, Richmond, Missouri Diary of Edward Stevenson," LDS Church Archives, Lyndon W. Cook, ed., David Whitmer Interviews, 1993, p. 13; also Dan Vogel, ed., Early Mormon Documents, 2003, vol. v, p. 30.

Tuesday, May 10, 2016

Abstract maps revisited


Abstract maps revisited

I've commented on the futility of abstract maps before, but a new one has appeared that prompts me to revisit the topic.

I actually like this one a lot. It is well executed, with good coloring and detail. I'm not criticizing the people who put this map together, and I'm not criticizing those who published it, because I think they are well-intentioned and I like the map because it is at least ambiguous (i.e., there is no actual place on Earth that looks like this).

Plus, they cited Moroni's America in the footnotes.


However, I think it's a mistake to create an abstract map of the Book of Mormon in the first place, because the process requires a series of assumptions not required by the text, and the mere creation of the map transforms a theory into an artificial reality. Images such as this create their own reality in the mind of the viewer, and it becomes difficult to dislodge the image while reading the text. For example, this abstract map essentially codifies an interpretation of "narrow neck of land" that I think is inconsistent with--or at least not required by--the text.

(I'm not going to point out areas in which I think this map contradicts the text because that's the inherent problem with abstract maps--they are all entirely subjective. No two people, working independently from the text alone, can possibly create the same abstract map--unless they share a mental image they've previously seen or been taught.)

(I also don't think there is a problem with most of the generic relational maps found in current Church lesson manuals; i.e., Zarahemla is north of the land of Nephi. This helps students follow the text without imprinting an arbitrary abstract map on their minds.)

I think it would be far more productive to develop a Book of Mormon map based on a real-world setting we already know about, which I discuss below.

If we're going to depict abstract maps, we should at least show some alternatives. In this case, we have some variation, but not a single map shows Cumorah in New York! A person reading this post would have no idea that a New York Cumorah is even an option (let alone that it was universally accepted as long as Joseph Smith was alive).

In fact, the caption notes that all the maps "exhibit general consistency." I see that as a defect, not a feature.

If the point is that the geography passages in the text are internally consistent, which the narrative here suggests, that's a valid point. But the collage of maps shows a consistency in interpretation, which is precisely the problem with creating abstract maps in the first place. They create a mental image that leads to derivative maps such as these, but not to new or different interpretations.

One example I've used before is from Xenophon's Anabasis. This is a Greek text that I studied when I was learning Greek many years ago. There's a good introduction to Xenophon here. As a member of a greek army, he wrote a narrative of the Persian Expedition (Anabasis means expedition) in 401 B.C. Like Mormon, he mentioned distances and directions but did not include a map in his narrative. Unlike the Book of Mormon, though, the Anabasis took place in a well-documented area of the world. Consequently, scholars have been able to map the expedition.

Or have they?

Even with all the touchstones--the pins in the map--that Xenophon gave us in his narrative, all well-known in terms of history and geography, scholars continue to debate about particular details of the expedition. For example, here's an article that assesses the ongoing debate about routes and parasangs in the the Anabasis. Look at Map 2 on p. 226. There are four different proposals for the retreat, based on different scholarly interpretations of the river Xenophon was referring to.

Now, imagine how confused Xenophon scholars would be if they had not a single pin in the map. That's what we have when Book of Mormon scholars disregard the New York Hill Cumorah.

Another example is Lewis and Clark. Thomas Jefferson sent them to explore the "Continent of North American" as Clark phrased it on his 1810 map. Before he left, Jefferson personally taught Lewis how to determine latitude using an octant. Lewis and Clark took rudimentary maps with them.

The Lewis and Clark journals are almost 5,000 pages long. Did Thomas Jefferson create an abstract map based on their narrative?

Of course not.

Lewis and Clark (well, Clark) created 140 maps! Plus, they collected 30 maps from people they encountered, including Indians and traders.

When they got home, Clark spent years compiling a comprehensive map (the 1810 map). He relied on his personal knowledge, the 170 maps they accumulated, and interviews with Indians and traders. It was a remarkable accomplishment, but if you compare it to a google Earth map, you'll immediately see the errors.

It was an effective map for people operating on the ground, following rivers and landmarks, but it was not "accurate" in the sense we're used to today.

Now, if someone were to take the 5,000 pages of journals and try to create an abstract map, would they come up with something close to Clark's map? Probably. Why?

Because everyone already has a mental image of what North America looks like.

Take someone who has never seen a map of North America, maybe someone from Mongolia or the Amazon basin, and have them create an abstract map of North America from the Lewis and Clark journals. What are the chances they'll produce a map we would recognize?

Essentially zero.

Yet that's what Book of Mormon scholars are trying to do when they reject the New York setting for the Hill Cumorah.

That's why I think the effort is futile. Worse, it is counterproductive.

What would make more sense, IMO, would be a serious, multi-disciplinary effort to analyze the text using the New York Cumorah as a starting point--as a pin in the map. Throw out the mental images of the "narrow neck of land" in Central America--after all, that feature is found in exactly one verse in the entire text, Ether 10:20--and see what we come up with.

[Because the image of the Central American narrow neck has been imprinted on the minds of nearly every Latter-day Saint by now, it may require non-LDS people to do this experiment. Unfortunately, most non-LDS who have heard anything about the Book of Mormon have also had this image imprinted, so we'd probably have to find people who have never heard of Mormons before.]

People who object to the New York Cumorah can at least accept this challenge as a testable hypothesis.

It would be interesting to see how many variations people would develop, even when they have a solid starting point in New York.

We would always have differences of interpretation about details, as in the case of the Anabasis, but at least we might have an overall map that works in the real world and incorporates all of the geography "clues" in the text.

Even better, we could add the second pin--Zarahemla in Iowa.

I think we'd end up with something such as this:

You fill in the blanks for Cumorah, Bountiful, etc.


Monday, May 9, 2016

The futility of an abstract map


The futility of an abstract map

This week I did a presentation for a private group of about 60 people. Among other things, I explained the futility of trying to develop an abstract map based on the text of the Book of Mormon.

No two people can possibly come up with the same map, simply because the text is too vague.

Think of a group of five Boy Scouts. You give them a set of instructions for a rendezvous point and have them leave about 30 minutes apart. Here are the instructions:

"Journey in the wilderness for the space of many days."

Are they going to end up in the same place? Of course not. So you give them something more specific: "Travel eight days’ journey into the wilderness."

They could go in any direction, and just about any distance.

How about this? "Go three days’ journey on the north of the land of Melek." Even if they knew where Melek was, they won't end up in the same place.

Of course, these are all quotations from the text.

Now, a particular group of people can reach a consensus about an abstract map by reaching agreement on how far someone will travel in a day, and in what direction, but it's at best a guess. Usually it's completely arbitrary and creates at best an illusion of accuracy based on a series of assumptions.

And yet, this pursuit of an illusory abstract map has dominated the discussion among Book of Mormon scholars for decades.

The only way to develop even a plausible map based on an ancient text is to have at least one identifiable point. There has to be at least one connection between the text and the modern world. (Even with that, there will be some uncertainty. Despite thousands of years of history, there are still differences of opinion regarding the location of Mount Sinai, for example.)

I describe this as a pin in the map. With one known site, we at least have a frame of reference for the rest of the geography.

For the first 100 years of Church history, we had that one pin: the Hill Cumorah in New York. It was unequivocally accepted that the New York hill was the scene of the last battles of the Nephites and Jaredites.

But then things changed, and that's a topic of another post.

An amazing amount of time and effort has been wasted on abstract maps because so many people have refused to accept the pin of Cumorah in New York. That's all water under the bridge, of course; I just hope we can avoid more wasted time and effort going forward.