Monday, August 15, 2016

Book Review: Joseph Smith's Seer Stones

Joseph Smith's Seer Stones (2016)
At a church conference on October 25–26, 1831, the topic of the translation of the Book of Mormon arose and Joseph Smith was pressed to furnish the details pertaining thereto. According to the minutes taken at the conference, "Br. Joseph Smith jr. said that it was not intended to tell the world all the particulars of the coming forth of the book of Mormon, & also said that it was not expedient for him to relate these things &c."

While Joseph Smith may have been reluctant to divulge too much about the nature of the translation of the Book of Mormon beyond affirming it was accomplished "by the gift and power of God" (perhaps in part because he considered it sacred, and perhaps in part because even he couldn't fully explain the miracle), there has survived a splendid corpus of historical documentation from the eyewitnesses involved in the coming forth of the Book of Mormon, as well as from those who interviewed and interacted with said eyewitnesses. Letters, interviews, journal entries, personal histories, and other types of documentation detail the coming forth of the Book of Mormon to such a degree as perhaps no other sacred text in the world enjoys. While the historical record is lamentably patchy in some places, historians of early Mormonism nevertheless have access to a deep well of sources to draw from.

Building on recently published work on the coming forth of the Book of Mormon, the Religious Studies Center at Brigham Young University and Deseret Book have co-published a superb new volume titled simply enough Joseph Smith's Seer Stones. Written by Michael Hubbard MacKay and Nicholas J. Frederick, this new monograph is an extremely valuable contribution to not only Book of Mormon studies, but also to such subjects as Joseph Smith's involvement with "folk magic" and the religious worldview of Mormonism's first generation of converts.

The appearance of this volume is timely. In conjunction with the publication of a facsimile edition of the printer's manuscript of the Book of Mormon, just one year ago The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints for the first time published photographs of a seer stone once in the possession of Joseph Smith and widely considered by historians to be the stone used in the translation of the Book of Mormon. Two months later the Ensign published an article on the topic of Joseph Smith as a seer, including the now-famous photo of the stone. Subsequent commentary by authorities such as Richard Bushman and even President Dieter F. Uchtdorf once again ignited interest in Joseph's seer stones.
Joseph Smith's brown seer stone

Joseph Smith's Seer Stones can easily be read as picking up where the initial wave of last year's enthusiasm and interest left off. It dives into not only the history of Joseph Smith's seer stones themselves (where and when they were discovered, how they were used, which hands they passed through after leaving Joseph's possession, etc.) but into a wider discussion of folk magic, the supposed "magic world view" of Joseph Smith and the early Saints, the translation of the Book of Mormon, what the Book of Mormon itself has to say about seers and seer stones, and other related topics. The book is richly illustrated with original artwork from Anthony Sweat and other artists. Additionally, graphs, charts, appendixes, and an enormously helpful selected annotated bibliography of primary sources on Joseph's seer stones compliment the historical and theological analysis offered by MacKay and Frederick.

Much of the story told by MacKay and Frederick would undoubtedly already be familiar to students of early Mormonism. Those acquainted with the work of D. Michael Quinn and Mark Ashurst-McGee, for example, will be greeted by familiar topics: folk magic, money digging, seer stones, Indian lore, Book of Mormon translation, etc. However, where MacKay and Frederick stand out is both in in their thoughtful critique of once-prevailing paradigms and their careful look at the provenance of Joseph Smith's seer stones down to the present day.

For instance, chapter 2 ("Money Digging and the Second Great Awakening") of the book argues that looking at "the broader religious cultural context" of early 19th century America "helps to demonstrate why Joseph interpreted the recovery of his seer stones as fundamentally religious in nature" (p. 6). Despite the past efforts of some to demarcate "magic" from "authentic" religious experience, MacKay and Frederick (along with some others) convincingly critique "the idea that money digging was a nonreligious endeavor, while the translation of the Book of Mormon was decidedly religious in nature." They continue, "These are labels imposed by the modern perspective, and they ignore that both treasure seeking and translating were likely perceived by Joseph's early converts as supernatural events. Early believers did not necessarily struggle with the fusion of Joseph the treasure seeker and Joseph the translator" (p. 9). MacKay and Frederick thus recommend a healthy dose of historiographical humility in approaching this topic, as a sloppy polemical approach (as seen on some questionable Internet sites today) can easily make one stumble into a presentistic ditch.

Most fascinating is MacKay and Frederick's treatment of the provenance of Joseph Smith's seer stones, including the brown stone brought to the public's attention last year and a white stone possessed by Joseph beginning sometime in the early to mid-1820s. Despite "numerous gaps" in provenance, the brown stone can be relatively easily traced from Oliver Cowdery's possession in 1830 to the First Presidency's private collection in 1970, where it has resided since (pp. 66–77). The provenance of the white stone has been more difficult to ascertain, but it appears to have been handed down from prophet to prophet beginning with Brigham Young. "This stone may have remained in the hands of the Presidency for decades," write MacKay and Frederick, and "it is apparently in the possession of the First Presidency" as of today (p. 84). Unfortunately, much less is known about the white stone beyond that it was shown to members of the Quorum of the Twelve in Nauvoo and was eventually consecrated on the altar of the Manti Temple by Wilford Woodruff in 1887 (pp. 79–80).

Perhaps future research will uncover more on the provenance of Joseph Smith's white seer stone. Perhaps, assuming it is in fact in the possession of the First Presidency, the white stone will also be photographed and published along with the brown stone at some future time. It may even turn out that the white stone was used in the translation of the Book of Mormon all along, as MacKay and Frederick draw attention to some historical sources that suggest such (pp. 77–82). At this point, however, we must be content with speculation until further sources come to light. "If the Presidency's papers do not include more historical information about the white stone, they . . . face the problem of not knowing its provenance with certainty." While the brown stone appears to be a "better candidate" for being the stone used in the translation, and thus was selected for publication, some uncertainty remains, and caution should therefore be exercised (pp. 84–85).

To conclude, I think it's important to not overlook the significance of this book's mere existence. To see a book published by Deseret Book that dives right into the heart of this topic is a testament to the growing maturity of the Church's institutional historical consciousness. It is an encouraging sign that Church leaders and members are not afraid to face inquiries raised by both sympathetic and hostile questioners. It is also promising evidence that Elder M. Russell Ballard's challenge given earlier this year to "raise the bar," as it were, in producing institutionally-sanctioned works on Church history is being answered.

Seriously, read both of these.
I would strongly recommend every thoughtful Latter-day Saint who has in interest in the history of his or her religion (which, of course, should be every Latter-day Saint!) to pick up a copy of Joseph Smith's Seer Stones. Along with From Darkness Unto Light: Joseph Smith's Translation and Publication of the Book of Mormon, MacKay and Frederick's new volume is indispensable in understanding the foundation of the faith of the Saints and is an excellent addition to the growing number of works that are bringing the miracle of the Restoration out of obscurity.

Thursday, July 14, 2016

John Dehlin and the Art of Selective Outrage (#GordonGate)

John Dehlin delivering a TED talk in 2013. 
I've long been a fan of Jon Stewart. Being politically liberal (on most issues), I naturally enjoy his wit, humor, and political and cultural satire. I remember when in 2011 when he went on Fox News and debated Bill O'Reilly over the appropriateness of the White House inviting the rapper Common to a social function. During the debate, Stewart pointed out what he perceived was the "selective outrage" at Fox News over incidents such as this. He specifically claimed, "There is a selective outrage machine here at Fox that pettifogs only when it suits the narrative that suits them." (Source: 4:53–5:01).

Last night my Facebook newsfeed exploded with comments on what might be called #GordonGate. Back in June, Scott Gordon (whom I count as a friend, for full disclosure), the president of FairMormon (of which I was once a member, for full disclosure), delivered an address in Sweden titled "Maintaining Faith." In his presentation Scott gave some examples of those who have challenged or attacked the Church, its teachings, its history, and its members and leaders. One example he gave was the work of John Dehlin, the host of the popular Mormon Stories podcast.
This second example here is called Mormon Stories. It was established by another member. He was counseled by his stake president many many times but he was finally excommunicated this past year. This website mostly focuses on the Church's stance on social issues such as gay marriage and women in the church. I know this man personally and have had many conversations with him. His sister is a member of FairMormon. He has long believed there is no God. The Church is [a] nice social organization and he's been attempting to fix it for a long time. So he hasn't wanted to leave because it's such a nice group of people. But God doesn't exist. (Source)
After crowdsourcing help from ex-Mormons on Reddit, Dehlin posted a reply to Scott's comments. He opened his salvo with no ambiguity. "Since you chose to publicly smear/malign me in a disingenuous way during your recent trip to Europe on multiple occasions," Dehlin began, "I would like to ask you to do five things as a courtesy to me, and as a way to demonstrate your credibility to your followers."

What could Scott's brazen attack have possibly been? Instead of doing something like, say, spreading rumors about Dehlin's mental health on the Internet, according to Dehlin, Scott's unacceptable behavior was claiming to know Dehlin personally and saying that Dehlin does not believe in God.

The first claim is erroneous, Dehlin insists, because he himself cannot recall them ever becoming that acquainted on a personal level. The second is erroneous, he also insists, because he's really not an avowed atheist, just a soft agnostic. "Perhaps my faith in God has wavered/fluctuated at times — perhaps I lost a belief in an anthropomorphic God — perhaps I admit that I do not “know” there is a God," Dehlin granted, "but to this day I maintain hope that there is a God and/or an afterlife…even though I have made peace with the possibility that there is no God or afterlife. This has been my position on God for many, many years."

That's it. Scott Gordon doesn't really know Dehlin personally and Dehlin really isn't an avowed atheist. A levelheaded and adult way to respond to a misunderstanding or misstatement of this sort would be to calmly correct the public record. Maybe something like this:

"Dear Scott, you've claimed that we know each other personally, and that I don't believe in God. I wouldn't really say we know each other that well 'personally.' We've only met a time or two and that's about it as far as I can recall. Also, I'm not really an atheist. I'm not sure if God exists, but I don't outright disavow his existence. Kind of. So I'd probably best be called an agnostic or something like that. I would thank you to be more careful in the future."

But in the world of Internet ex-Mormonism, where assuming bad faith on the part of your opponents is the order of the day, misunderstandings or misstatements are more than just someone not being careful. They're deliberate attacks. Thus, these two infractions, Dehlin and his outraged followers insist, constitute a "smear" and a "character assault" on Dehlin. Scott is "maligning" Dehlin, and "publicly deceiving, manipulating, and smearing" people.

Ever scrupulously concerned about preserving the Church's good image, Dehlin voiced his concern "that your ill-conceieved smear tactics are backfiring." Based on the testimony of no less than two anonymous European supporters (from the UK and Sweden, respectively), Dehlin is worried that Scott's behavior reflects poorly on both "FAIRMORMON [sic]" as well as "the gospel of Jesus Christ."

As some form of penance for this grotesque injustice, Dehlin has asked Scott to remove or edit the offensive video, and has (bizarrely) requested Scott disclose FairMormon's finances.

There's a lot that could be said about #GordonGate. Daniel Peterson has already made a few observations, as well as the illuminating blog dearjohndehlin.

What's fascinating to me, however, is the selective outrage on full display. A few weeks before Scott Gordon delivered his remarks in Sweden, another podcast with a primarily ex-Mormon audience posted an interview titled "John Dehlin: The Reluctant Atheist." I confess that I have not listened to the interview (my time and brain cells are precious to me), but from the comments left by listeners it would appear that Dehlin can best be described as an apatheist. So not strictly an atheist, but not necessarily a believer either.

It's understandable, however, why Scott Gordon and others would be confused on how to precisely categorize Dehlin. The podcaster himself has somewhat ambivalent feelings towards God's existence. As revealed in public statements, Dehlin has waffled somewhere between non-belief and a sort of apathetic agnosticism.

  • I’m at the point where I realize that God, the probability that God exists is quite low. . . . As I look at the probability that everything that we have here is just random, and there’s no purpose or meaning to it, that actually seems almost as absurd as the idea that there is some type of God. Those seem almost equally absurd to me. . . . there has been enough support for what I’ve tried to do that I just call that God. I slap the ‘God’ label on that, fully aware that there is a low probability that there actually is anything. . . . I’m aware that might be completely a product of my imagination. (John Larsen and Zilpa Larsen, “Episode 180: John Dehlin,” podcast interview with John Dehlin, [2 January 2012])
  •  I still consider myself to be a believer in “the divine” or “God” — although I prefer to retain a great deal of humility when attempting to assign a specific form, beliefs, or behavior to God.  I believe that all of us are only guessing when we speak about the divine.  While I often question or even doubt the existence of God, it does appear to me as though our creation has some sort of driving force or power, and I cannot deny that (at times) I have felt influence and support in my life which appeared to be outside my own power/ability.  Consequently, I retain some hope that there is divine purpose and influence in our existence (and I call this God).  I fully acknowledge that I could be wrong about all this, that there could be no “God,” and that this life could be the only life we get.  Consequently, I remain determined to make the most of my life on earth — whether or not there is an afterlife. (John Dehlin, "What aspects of LDS Church teachings/doctrine do you still believe in, vs. not?," [27 June 2014])

But this is really beside the point. I'll grant that Scott was wrong in saying Dehlin doesn't believe in God, if only to grant Dehlin the courtesy of being able to define his own labels for himself.

What's most important to all of this is how Dehlin reacted to the Infants on Thrones podcast calling him a "reluctant atheist."

Or, rather, how he didn't respond.

As far as I can tell (I've been banned from Dehlin's social media platforms so I can't verify myself, and am thus relying on reports from others), there have been no public cries of outrage from Dehlin. No screaming that "Glenn, Randy, Heather, and Matt" had smeared or maligned him, or that they were "manipulating" or "deceiving" the public by calling Dehlin an atheist. There were no Jovian bolts cast down upon the hosts of the Infants on Thrones podcast. No demands to edit or remove the interview (or at least the title). No Dehlinite mobs crying for blood and retribution. And no awkward requests for Infants on Thrones to disclose its finances.

Why not? What gives? The only way I can really account for this selective outrage is because Dehlin likes to cry foul when it plays into his narrative about how mean and nasty Mormon apologists supposedly are. Part of the narrative that Dehlin has made for himself is that he is a martyr at the hands of spiteful and callous Mormon apologists. Scott Gordon (mistakenly) calling him an atheist plays right into this narrative. It wasn't that Scott was just mistaken. He was out to deliberately attack Dehlin. Or so Dehlin would have us believe. This would explain why he had to reach for his smelling salts when Scott Gordon called him a non-believer, but was totally chill when the gang at Infants on Thrones called him a "reluctant atheist." This would also explain not only Dehlin's litany of (transparently insincere) questions directed at Scott, but his deafening silence in response to the Infants on Thrones podcast as well.

I guess what I'm saying here is that John Dehlin is the Fox News of ex-Mormonism: he switches on the selective outrage machine and pettifogs only when it suits his narrative. This may help reinforce his own worldview, as well as give his eager supporters the ammunition they need to continue their ideological warfare against the LDS Church and those who defend it. But that's about all that it accomplishes. It is a wholly unedifying and unsatisfying way to go about handling these kinds of affairs.

Wednesday, July 6, 2016

A Postscript on Book of Mormon Battle Numbers

Not long ago I posted a few thoughts on the improbable battle numbers reported in the Book of Mormon.

In response to my post, some offered very interesting thoughts on the interplay between archaeology, history, and the critical reading of ancient sources.

Others, however, were not so nuanced.

Over at the ex-Mormon Subreddit, for instance, the diligent savants of that prestigious salon were less than impressed with my arguments. The main complaint, as far as I could tell, was that my post was just another sad example of an apologist making up stuff on the fly to save his desperate faith in the Book of Mormon.

Because . . . something, something . . . confirmation bias!

This morning I encountered a rather interesting passage in a book on ancient Egyptian history.
One of the hardest tasks for the scholar of ancient Egypt is to subject the textual record to historical criticism. Often a single source, or a set that presents the same point of view, provides the only information on an event or a practice. It is thus difficult to ascertain whether the outcome of a military campaign was as glorious as the author proclaims or even whether the campaign took place. In other fields of historical research the rule that a single testimony is no testimony is often invoked, but this attitude would leave ancient Egyptian history in tatters, as often we have to rely on one source only. Historians need to use great caution.
(Marc Van De Mieroop, A History of Ancient Egypt [Oxford: Wiley–Blackwell, 2011], 13.)

Van De Mieroop reminds us, "The modern concept of history is very different from the ancient Egyptians" (19). The ancient Egyptians, after all, "did not produce accounts that professed to be accurate historical investigations of the past." Rather, they wrote accounts and stories "of historical figures" that functioned to "inspire royal and elite conduct that could deal with adversity" (13–14).

The point here, of course, is that mainstream scholars (historians and archaeologists and the like) frequently urge us all the time to be very cautious in accepting the historical claims of ancient texts on face value. We must read these texts critically, and in addition to the non-textual data take into consideration such factors as authorship, bias, sources, literary, narrative, or compositional technique, etc., when we evaluate the text's historicity. This is especially true when we have only one surviving source on a given topic.

(Notice that Van De Mieroop specifically mentioned the claimed outcome of military campaigns as a prominent example of when we need to be cautious in evaluating ancient historical sources.)

We must ask questions such as: what religious, political, or social agenda does this text attempt to promote? Why did the author of this text present the history of such-and-such in this manner? What liberties might the author have taken in his presentation of this history? Why did he do such? What was his purpose? What was he attempting to communicate to his readers? How might these liberties have affected the text's historicity? How does this technique compare to the literary culture of neighboring societies?

If this is the standard procedure for evaluating ancient Egyptian sources (and it is the same procedure, by the way, used by biblical scholars grappling with the historical claims of the Hebrew Bible), then what exactly is the problem with me wanting to do the same for the Book of Mormon?

–––Addendum (July 7, 2016)–––

I encountered the following a day after posting this, and thought it'd be appropriate to just stick it here:
In contrast to the texts of other ancient Near Eastern cultures which typically provide relatively little information about the size of their armies, the Bible includes a great deal of information about the number of Israelite troops. Unfortunately, much of this information is problematic. . . . The numbers appear quite high, especially considering the apparent size of the armies of other, better established contemporary nations. . . . This difficulty has led many to discount the biblical numbers altogether, or consider them to be intentional exaggerations. Clearly, the Bible does include exaggerations. . . . Thus, some argue that the biblical numbers often also exaggerate to make certain points, such as glorifying the God of Israel.
(Boyd Seevers, Warfare in the Old Testament: The Organization, Weapons, and Tactics of Ancient Near Eastern Armies [Grand Rapids, MI: Kregel Academic, 2013], 53.)

If the Bible can get away with doing this, why can't the Book of Mormon?

Tuesday, June 7, 2016

Book Review: "Let Your Hearts and Minds Expand: Reflections on Faith, Reason, Charity, and Beauty"

Click to enlarge
 The Neal A. Maxwell Institute's "Living Faith" series adds another volume alongside its already respectable roster of books with the publication of Let Your Hearts and Minds Expand: Reflections on Faith, Reason, Charity, and Beauty. The book is a collection of essays and poetry by Thomas F. Rogers, a Latter-day Saint playwright and scholar who taught at Brigham Young University for some 30 years. It is an interesting mix of apologetics, personal memoir, and meditations on gospel and other philosophical themes. While I admittedly found some parts much more interesting than others, overall I feel that Let Your Hearts and Minds Expand is a solid addition to the Living Faith series.

The book is structured into four parts that reflect the four things named in the book's subtitle: faith, reason, charity, and beauty. Part 1 ("The Just Shall Live by Faith") reads very much like Adam Miller's Letters to a Young Mormon. Along personal reflections on his service in the Church, it is comprised of a number of correspondences between Rogers and his family members and friends. Rogers is commendably honest in tackling the contradictions that often attend those who live a life of faithfulness, such as when he acknowledges the reality of the doubts of his former student Mark (pp. 24–28). Rather than pretending like these doubts don't or shouldn't exist, Rogers frankly addresses Mark's doubts (although the readers are not really told what specifically they are). "I want to say whatever else I can that might reassure and reconcile you to what we have both experienced" in the Church, Rogers writes (p. 24). This is a wholesome way to help those who experience doubts. Instead of shaming or guilting them for having questions or doubts, one should rather reach out and freely talk about those challenges in a place of safety and love.

That being said, it is also entirely appropriate, as Rogers does, to give reasons or benefits for remaining in the Church despite challenges to faith. For Rogers these include a "sense of selflessness and high personal moral standards" (p. 25), a "special emphasis the church places on the importance of family" (p. 25), an "eternal and potentially exalted self-image" that is granted by the gospel (p. 26), the "preeminently sacralized history" that thrills students of Mormon history (p. 26), the concept that we are "literally the children of deity" (p. 26), and the "serene 'peace that passeth understanding'" afforded to the faithful (p. 26).

The second part of Let Your Hearts and Minds Expand ("Now Come, Saith the Lord, and Let Us Reason") was my favorite, and included outstanding contributions to the discourse surrounding how Latter-day Saints can balance testimony with scholarship or rationality. Again, Rogers' treatment is marked with unflinching honesty. In a republished version of a 1990 article, Rogers directly took to task Latter-day Saints who feel only "faith-promoting" history should be written.
But to those who in their turn selectively handle Mormon history and discourage our probing it in a number of areas, one needs to say (or at least ask): Haven’t we been, if anything, overly cautious, overly mistrustful, overly condescending to a membership and a public who are far more perceptive and discerning than we often give them credit for? Haven’t we, in our care not to offend a soul or cause anyone the least misunderstanding, too much deprived such individuals of needful occasions for personal growth and more in-depth life-probing experience? In our neurotic cautiousness, our fear of venturing, haven’t we often settled for an all-too-shallow and confining common denominator that insults the very Intelligence we presume to glorify and is also dishonest because, deep down, we all know better (to the extent that we do)? Isn’t our intervention often too arbitrary, reflecting the hasty, uninformed reaction of only one or a couple of influential objectors? Don’t we in the process too severely and needlessly test the loyalty and respect of and lose credibility with many more than we imagine? Isn’t there a tendency among us, bred by the fear of displeasing, to avoid healthy self-disclosure–––public or private–––and to pretend about ourselves to ourselves and others? Doesn’t this in turn breed loneliness and make us, more than it should, strangers to each other? And when we are too calculating, too self-conscious, too mistrustful, too prescriptive, and too regimental about our roots and about one another’s aesthetic, intellectual, and spiritual life, aren’t we self-defeating? (pp. 102–103)
Comments such as these reveal a welcomed maturity on Rogers' part. Latter-day Saints who wish to find harmony between their faith and reason should ask themselves these kinds of questions to achieve such a maturity.

The last two sections of the book cover the topics of charity and beauty ("The Greatest of These Is Charity" and "Out of Zion, the Perfection of Beauty, God Hath Shined"). Truthfully, these were the two sections that I found the least interesting. Not that they're entirely bereft of anything worthwhile, I hasten to add. Rogers' account of his time as a traveling patriarch in Russia (pp. 194–217) offers an intimate look at the lives of Church members in Eastern Europe, to say nothing of Rogers' own life and experience. I suppose my lukewarm reaction to these two sections is more because my own interests lie elsewhere, and not because of any poor quality on the book's part. I am sure there are many who would find these sections interesting. Those particularly interested in literary theory would most likely enjoy these sections, as especially in part 4 Rogers delves into such (e.g. "The Sacred in Literature," pp. 255–269 and "The Image of Christ in Russian Literature," pp. 318–338).

Given its somewhat eclectic nature, Let Your Hearts and Minds Expand probably has something to offer for everyone. Those interested in more traditional apologetics will especially appreciate part 2. Those who are seeking a sympathetic voice when it comes to grappling with a faith crisis will probably find much agreeable material in part 1. And those interested in literature and the dramatic arts will enjoy the reflections in part 4. I would therefore recommend Let Your Hearts and Minds Expand as a fine volume for any Latter-day Saint to add to their personal library.  

Monday, May 9, 2016

Why the Book of Mormon's Battle Numbers Don't Add Up (And Why That's Evidence for its Authenticity)

I Even Remain Alone by Walter Rane.
An easy target for critics of the Book of Mormon is its reported army sizes and battle casualties. The final extermination of the Nephites, for instance, reportedly involved tens of thousands of combatants and hundreds of thousands of combatant and non-combatant casualties (Mormon 6:11–15). This pales in comparison to the level of Jaredite slaughter, which, Moroni lamented, reached into the millions (Ether 15:2).

This has led some to deem the Book of Mormon's depiction of war fanciful. No less than the eminent authorities of the ex-Mormon subreddit have dismissed the Book of Mormon's reported numbers as "hilariously impossible," "not remotely plausible on any level by any stretch of the imagination," and the sad result of Joseph Smith's "fecund imagination and general ignorance."[1]

How have Latter-day Saints responded to this challenge? Some, like James E. Smith and John L. Sorenson, have argued that the numbers are actually defensible on historical grounds.[2] 

But maybe there's another way to look at this issue. Perhaps the reported battle numbers in the Book of Mormon, or at least those involving the extinction of the Nephites and Jaredites, were purposefully exaggerated by Mormon and Moroni or their sources. This would have been done, conceivably, to overwhelm the reader with a larger-than-life and almost Romantically tragic conclusion to an already turbulent narrative.

This is by no means some desperate, ad hoc apologetic ruse. Mainstream historical scholarship recognizes that sometimes ancient sources purposefully exaggerated numbers (including population sizes, army sizes, battle casualties, etc.) for rhetorical effect. Unfortunately, as explained by David Stuart (one the world's leading Maya epigraphers) at last month's meeting for the Society for American Archaeology, "Late Preclassic [Maya] political entities and geopolitical structures are impossible to reconstruct on current evidence," and "no historical texts (epigraphic evidence) exist before the Early Classic."[3] This effectively means that we're in the dark when it comes to comparing the Book of Mormon with New World historiography during purported Nephite times.

We therefore turn to the Old World, where we encounter the venerable Herodotus: "The number, then, of those whom Xerxes son of Darius led as far as the Sepiad headland and Thermopylae was five million, two hundred and eighty-three thousand, two hundred and twenty" (Histories 7.186; cf. 7.184–185). In other words, the Persian invasion of Greece, according to the principal historical source, was slightly larger than the German invasion of the Soviet Union in June 1941 (the largest land invasion in modern military history) and almost five times larger than the Allied invasion of German-occupied France in June 1944 (the largest sea invasion in modern military history).

Lee L. Brice, commenting on Herodotus' numbers, straightforwardly explains, "Accurate numbers would have been extremely difficult for sources to learn and really did not matter to ancient authors [like Herodotus] as much as the scale the numbers convey."[4] Applying the logic of our experts at the ex-Mormon subreddit, we might be tempted to conclude, based on Herodotus' numbers not being "remotely plausible on any level by any stretch of the imagination," that the Father of History's account of the Greco-Persian Wars of the 5th century BC lacks historicity.

Instead of jettisoning Herodotus outright, though, we need to instead appreciate that ancient historians were as much concerned with providing a compelling story as they were with providing factual descriptions of their subjects. Concerning the Histories, "we are dealing with a work of art here, not dry annals," Jennifer Roberts helpfully reminds us. "Consequently, there are elements of dramatic reconstruction and exaggeration."[5]

Royal propaganda, in particular, almost effortlessly lent itself to exaggeration and hyperbole when it came to reporting the military victories of the monarch. Thus the celebrated war propaganda of Ramses II hailing his victory over the Hittites at the battle of Qadesh (1274 BC). According to the Egyptian sources, Ramses effortlessly quashed the Hittites and their allies in a triumphant Endsieg. Ramses, in fact, is praised for having practically conquered Egypt's enemies singlehandedly. "I repulsed a million foreign lands, on my own," boasts Ramses, "with (only)" the help of the gods and his trusty chariot-steeds "Victory in Thebes and Mut is Content" (COS 2.5A 251–276). The historical reality, of course, is that Qadesh ended in a stalemate, with the Egyptians and the Hittites enacting a reluctant truce. And yet despite Ramses' baldfaced fibbing, nobody seriously doubts the historicity of the battle of Qadesh.

Likewise, the proud king Mesha of Moab exults at having utterly decimated his neighbors, including Gad and Nebo in Israel. Both Gad and Nebo, Mesha claims, suffered complete annihilation. "I killed all the people" of Gad, and "killed [the] whole population" of Nebo, the Moabite king's victory stela reads (COS 2.23 10–18a). To make sure there was no confusion about the matter, Mesha gratuitously boasted that "Israel was utterly wasted forever" (my translation: וישראל אבד אבד עלם). Conspicuously missing from Mesha's propaganda are descriptions of any setbacks or problems (logistical or otherwise) that he surely encountered in his campaign, or the inconvenient fact that Israel would go on to survive for another century until its fall to the Neo-Assyrian Empire. But like Ramses' Qadesh reports, the contents of the Mesha stela are not discarded simply because of the propensity towards hyperbole on the part of Moab's sovereign.

Turning to the Bible, readers quickly discover a similar phenomenon. John A. Tvedtnes summarizes,
As early as the time of David, when the kingdom of Israel was just getting started, we read that David slew 22,000 Syrian soldiers and captured 27,000 (1 Chronicles 18:4–5). In a subsequent battle, David’s army slew 47,000 Syrians (1 Chronicles 19:18). His cousin Abishai is said to have led an Israelite force that slew 18,000 Edomites in battle (1 Chronicles 18:12). One of David’s descendants, Abijah, king of Judah, waged war with the northern kingdom of Israel and slew 500,000 soldiers (2 Chronicles 13:17). Another Judean king, Amaziah, fought against the Edomites of Seir and slew 10,000 of them and carried away the same number of prisoners, whom they cast over a cliff (2 Chronicles 25:11–12; 2 Kings 14:7). In a battle with Syria, the Israelites slew 100,000 footmen “in one day” (1 Kings 20:29). During a subsequent war, Pekah, king of Israel, slew 120,000 Jews “in one day” and took some 200,000 “women, sons, and daughters” captive (2 Chronicles 28:6, 8).
This biblical hyperbole has been recognized by John B. Gabel, Charles B. Wheeler, and Anthony D. York, who write, "As we might anticipate, stories having to do with military activity are especially likely to show hyperbole" (emphasis added). After citing numerous examples of both military and non-military number inflation (Exodus 12:37; Judges 6:5; 20:1–2; 2 Samuel 18:8; 1 Kings 8:63), these authors continue, "These and other statistics should not be taken too seriously; behind them is the imagination of a storyteller, not the figures of a census taker." As such, "it would be idle . . . to dispute them on factual grounds." The point, then, of these inflated numbers weren't to provide a factual description of the event, but rather were "intended to impress the reader with the magnitude of the subject: It is this that comes across to the reader, and this is only the important consideration."[6]

This "deliberate exaggeration for effect" that is "so common in biblical writings"[7] is also arguably what's happening in Mormon's (and subsequently Moroni's) historical narrative. If we grant that Mormon was an ancient historian who followed the conventions of ancient "historiography," such as it is, then we must allow him the privilege of writing as other ancient authors wrote. This would include the privilege to heavily moralize on this or that topic (which he and other Nephite historians are ever wont to do) and to embellish story elements to meet ideological or narrative goals. To deny him this privilege is to otherwise fallaciously impose a presentistic standard on an ancient source.

"But Stephen," one objects, "the Book of Mormon claims to be the 'most correct book,' meaning it has to be factually correct in every particular." Actually, Joseph Smith claimed the Book of Mormon was "the most correct book" with regard to its doctrinal content, and in its ability to draw people closer to God. He, to say nothing of the Nephite annalists themselves, never claimed the Book of Mormon was infallible with regard to its historical content or textual transmission.

I essentially agree with Brant Gardner that we should read the large numbers of war casualties in the Book of Mormon as "communicating tremendous devastation with a greater loss of life than had ever been seen before."[8] So the Book of Mormon's battle numbers may indeed be fanciful. In fact, I suspect that they largely are. But even if so, this may, paradoxically, actually be splendid evidence for the Book of Mormon's antiquity. Like other ancient histories, the Book of Mormon's depiction of warfare appears to be highly exaggerated when it comes to the size and scope of the conflicts and their outcomes. We can perhaps therefore add "exaggerated numbers" to William Hamblin's already impressive list of elements in the Book of Mormon's depiction of warfare that bespeak its historical authenticity.[9]


[1]: "Do book of Mormon population numbers make sense?" at See also John C. Kunich, "Multiply Exceedingly: Book of Mormon Population Sizes," online here.

[2]: See also John L. Sorenson, Mormon's Codex: An Ancient American Book (Salt Lake City and Provo, UT: Deseret Book and the Neal A. Maxwell Institute for Religious Scholarship, 2013), 381–425, for an extensive look at Nephite warfare (including army organization) in the light of pre-Columbian Mesoamerican culture.

[3]: Email from Mark Wright to Stephen Smoot and Neal Rappleye, April 11, 2016, with accompanying notes and photograph of Stuart's presentation.

[4]: Lee L. Brice, Greek Warfare: From the Battle of Marathon to the Conquests of Alexander the Great (Santa Barbara, CA: ABC-CLIO, 2012), 74.

[5]: Jennifer T. Roberts, Herodotus: A Very Short Introduction (New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 2011), 31.

[6]: John B. Gabel, Charles B. Wheeler, and Anthony D. York, The Bible as Literature: An Introduction, 3rd ed. (New York, N. Y.: Oxford University Press, 1996), 24.

[7]: Gabel, Wheeler, and York, The Bible as Literature, 23.

[8]: Brant A. Gardner, Second Witness: Analytical and Contextual Commentary on the Book of Mormon, 6 vols. (Salt Lake City, UT: Greg Kofford Books, 2007), 6:320.

[9]: William J. Hamblin, "The Importance of Warfare in Book of Mormon Studies," in Warfare in the Book of Mormon, ed. Stephen D. Ricks and William J. Hamblin (Salt Lake City and Provo, UT: Deseret Book and FARMS, 1990), 495–496. "Let me conclude this overview by summarizing the military topics on which the Book of Mormon manifests clear parallels to ancient patterns of military behavior: the use of only pregunpowder weapons; communal bases of military loyalty; tribal military organization; agricultural economic base; seasonal patterns in warfare; military implications of geography and climate; limited use of animal resources; weapons technology and typology; fortifications; military innovations; social and economic impact of warfare; the military implications of changing demographic patterns; recruitment based on tribes and communities; the problems of supplying soldiers in times of war; complex prebattle maneuvering; extensive scouting and spying; prebattle war councils; use of banners for mobilization and organization; decimal military organization; proper tactical role of missile and melee combat; patterns of flight after battle; the importance of oaths of loyalty and surrender; dorms of international relations; the causes of warfare; treatment of robbers as brigands; laws of war; importance of plunder in warfare; guerrilla warfare; ritual destruction of cities; ritual capture of kings; human sacrifice; treatment of prisoners; disposal of the dead; centrality of war to the elite culture; the fundamental interrelationship between war and religion; religious ritual behavior before, during, and after battle; divination before battle; camp purity; and the ideology of holy war. In none of these topics does the Book of Mormon contradict the ancient patterns of the practice of warfare. In many of these topics, the Book of Mormon uniquely reflects its dual heritage of the ancient Near East and Mesoamerica."

Saturday, April 30, 2016

An Open Letter to Tyler Glenn

The Provo City Center Temple of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

Dear Tyler,

I've been a fan of yours for a few years now. I discovered Neon Trees not long after I returned from my mission and have enjoyed your music ever since. I recall about two years ago or so (if I'm remembering correctly) when you had an open air concert in Provo. My apartment was close enough that I could listen from my balcony. It was wonderful!

I was inspired by your courage to come out back in 2014. I remember thinking how great it was that you were, it seemed, able to juggle your sexuality with your faith (certainly not an easy task for members of the Church with same-sex attraction) in a wholesome and healthy manner.

But then something changed. I read yesterday in the Salt Lake Tribune how the Church's recently enacted policy towards same-sex couples and their children deeply affected you. "[Your] exit from the LDS faith," I read, "was triggered after the November announcement that married gay couples would be considered apostates of the church and children of gay couples would not be allowed to participate in church rites."

At the same time a friend of mine sent me a link to your new music video. "Trash"–––a provocative title. I watched it with interest, which quickly turned to shock. The opening lyrics gripped me. "I think I lost myself in your new religion / You say a prayer for me like a superstition." And then, "Maybe I’ll see you in hell / Okay, whatever / One man’s trash is another man’s treasure."

Surrounding you were distorted images of Joseph Smith, upon one of which you spat.

Then you entered the elevator.

That's when my shock turned to sadness.

I'm not outraged, or indignant, or offended, Tyler. I'm sad. Sad for a number of reasons.

First, and foremost, I'm sad that you're obviously in such a deep and dark place of pain and frustration. I understand why. And I don't want to diminish the reality of that. In fact, I share some of that pain and frustration.

I'm also sad, however, because you've taken that pain and frustration and instead of finding reconciliation and atonement, you've turned it into vitriol and anger. And what's worse, you turned it into profanity (in the literal sense of the word).

You see, Tyler, I write this after working a double shift at the Provo City Center Temple. I arrived for my shift before dawn and finished in the afternoon. While in the temple I felt peace, safety, comfort, and enlightenment. I was spiritually vivified as I administered sacred ordinances to others seeking refuge from the blood and sins of this fallen world.

I officiated over a company of Latter-day Saints as they received an endowment from on high. Watching over the company, I saw soft tears in some eyes, and heard gentle sniffles in the room. My own eyes moistened more than once. I noticed many smiles as each member of the company, one by one, conversed with the Lord through the veil.

This was the peak of holiness for me and several others. We were away from the world, learning about God's plan of salvation for his children, and making sacred covenants. We were making eternal bonds with dear ones away. We were in the house and presence of the Lord.

That's why I'm deeply sad that in your anger you felt you were justified to degrade the sacredness of the tokens of the priesthood. The rites of the temple are dear to the hearts of millions of Latter-day Saints, including my own. To see them profaned before the world was wounding.

But I'm not just sad because of that. I'm also sad that now I cannot show your music video to other Latter-day Saints who may have been sympathetic to your plight, or who may have wanted to better understand you. I'm sad that now to many Latter-day Saints you'll be just another angry ex-Mormon who "can't leave the Church alone," and who is out for revenge. And so they'll tune you off, block you out, and turn you away.

That's the last thing we need at a time like this.

I hope you'll understand that I'm not saying this to guilt you. Nor am I saying this as some kind of call to repentance. Rather, I'm saying this because I feel very strongly that respect, civility, and sympathy is a two-way street. I'm saying this because actions have consequences, and I'm afraid your actions have only placed greater enmity between the LGBTQ community and members of the Church.

You feel hurt and betrayed by the Church. I understand that, and I don't doubt your feelings are real (and, heck, even justified). I'm not asking you to pretend like everything is just okay; like your feelings don't exist. Nor am I asking you to keep your mouth shut and suffer in silence. Rather, I hope that you'll understand why I and many other Latter-day Saints now feel like it is much, much harder to fully support you.

Let me end by saying this, Tyler. You sing, "One man’s trash is another man’s treasure." I confess that I'm not exactly sure how to understand this line. I suppose you could mean several things, and I suspect that one of those meanings is that you feel like trash.

You are not trash, Tyler. Not to your Heavenly Father, not to your Savior Jesus Christ, and not to me. You are a treasure. You are a beloved son of Heavenly Parents, who weep with you in your pain (Moses 7:28). You have infinite worth in Their eyes. As it says in the revelation given to the man whose image you spat on, "Remember the worth of souls is great in the sight of God" (Doctrine and Covenants 18:10).

I hope you'll never forget your eternal worth, Tyler, and that you'll find peace, wherever it may be.

Your friend,

Tuesday, April 26, 2016

Book Review: "A Reason for Faith: Navigating LDS Doctrine & Church History"

When I was in junior high school I attended a performance of Annie Get Your Gun that was put on by a nearby high school. I vividly remember the number "Anything You Can Do" because the actress playing Annie Oakley broke or sprained her ankle in the middle of the performance (she badly misstepped during the dancing). Of course, the opening lyrics to the song, famously, are, "Anything you can do, I can do better! I can do anything better than you!"

As I was making my way through A Reason for Faith: Navigating LDS Doctrine & Church History, a new volume co-published by the Religious Studies Center and Deseret Book and edited by Laura Harris Hales, this song came to my mind a number of times. You see, it occurred to me that this volume covers practically everything that is (ineptly) handled by Jeremy Runnells in the CES Letter. But in almost every way conceivable A Reason for Faith handles the given topic better. It's not just that A Reason for Faith is written by scholars with academic credentials, whereas the CES Letter is written by an amateur; it's not just that A Reason for Faith actually underwent an academic peer review process, whereas the CES Letter did not; it's not just that A Reason for Faith eschews sensationalism, dogmatism, ideological snobbery, and other vices, whereas the CES Letter is absolutely riddled with such fallacies (and many others); it's all of those things and the fact that A Reason for Faith actually addresses the issues in a responsible manner.

Basically, everything Runnells has done, Hales and her all-star team have done better.

It's impressive the amount of talent Hales has brought into A Reason for Faith. Her roster includes:

Bushman. Harper. Gardner. Muhlestein. Reeve. Perego. These are some of the leading scholars in the respective subjects that they cover. Each contributor has excellent academic training and important publications to their names. They have engaged thoughtfully and respectably with the primary sources and the secondary literature, offering nuanced and well-reasoned discussions that correct misunderstandings or falsehoods frequently perpetuated in the literature of the disaffected.

Let's start with Kerry Muhlestein's article on the Book of Abraham as an example ("The Explanation-Defying Book of Abraham," pp. 79–91). Muhlestein begins by cautioning that "there are many things about the Book of Abraham that do not fit tidily into the little boxes we have created regarding scripture and how it is revealed and recorded" (p. 80). This is crucial for anyone wanting to approach the Book of Abraham meaningfully, as Hugh Nibley warned.
Consider for a moment the scope and complexity of the materials with which the student must cope if he would undertake a serious study of the Book of Abraham's authenticity. At the very least he must be thoroughly familiar with (1) the texts of the "Joseph Smith Papyri" identified as belonging to the Book of the Dead, (2) the content and nature of mysterious "Sen-sen" fragment, (3) the so-called "Egyptian Alphabet and Grammar" attributed to Joseph Smith, (4) statements by and about Joseph Smith concerning the nature of the Book of Abraham and its origin, (5) the original document of Facsimile 1 with its accompanying hieroglyphic inscriptions, (6) the text of the Book of Abraham itself in its various editions, (7) the three facsimiles as reproduced in various editions of the Pearl of Great Price, (8) Joseph Smith's explanation of the facsimiles, (9) the large and growing literature of ancient traditions and legends about Abraham in Hebrew, Aramaic, Arabic, Greek, Slavonic, etc., and (10) the studies and opinions of modern scholars on all aspects of the Book of Abraham.
(Hugh Nibley, Abraham in Egypt, The Collected Works of Hugh Nibley: Volume 14 [Provo, UT: FARMS, 2000], 154–155)

Muhlestein largely meets Nibley's recommendations by making his way carefully through the history of the Joseph Smith Papyri (pp. 80–81), the translation of the papyri (pp. 81–84), the Egyptian grammar documents (pp. 84–85), the evidence for the Book of Abraham as an ancient text (pp. 85–87), and finally the facsimiles (pp. 87–88). But even after all of this, Muhlestein emphasizes that further study is needed on many of these topics. "It would be unfortunate to make assumptions regarding the things we don’t know and then condemn Joseph Smith or the Book of Abraham based upon those assumptions," Muhlestein concludes. "On the other hand, how interesting it is to explore the mystery of the translation of the Book of Abraham, which continues to reveal answers as it simultaneously elicits further questions" (p. 88).

Contrast the scholarly humility of Muhlestein (a professional Egyptologist who has studied the issues surrounding the Book of Abraham for some time now) with Runnells, who kamikazes through the intricacies of the Book of Abraham with little more than a squad of simplistic memes at his command. Where Muhlestein sees a plaque-obstructed carotid artery in need of a skillfully executed endarterectomy in order to save the patient, Runnells instead declares the very much alive patient dead on arrival and proceeds to hack away at the body with a meat cleaver.

Or consider how Richard Bushman tackles the question of Joseph Smith's participation in "folk magic" ("Joseph Smith and Money Digging," pp. 1–6). When it comes to the early life of Joseph Smith, there are few people who are better equipped to handle the topic than Bushman, who has written two excellent biographies of the Prophet. After an overview of the issue, including a helpful look at the historiography on Joseph Smith's treasure seeking, Bushman concludes, "Magic and Christianity did not seem at odds with one another [in Joseph Smith's environment]. The combination was altogether too common in the nineteenth century for it to invalidate Joseph Smith’s more conventional religious claims. In Mormonism and for many Christians, folk traditions and religion blend. To call the two incongruous seems more like a matter of religious taste than a necessary conclusion" (p. 4). This, of course, is followed by the necessary caveats.
At present, a question remains about how involved Joseph Smith was in folk magic. Was he enthusiastically pursuing treasure seeking as a business in the 1820s, or was he a somewhat reluctant participant, egged on by his father? Was his worldview fundamentally shaped by folk traditions? I think there is substantial evidence of his reluctance, and, in my opinion, the evidence for extensive involvement is tenuous. But this is a matter of degree. No one denies that magic was there, especially in the mid-1820s. Smith never repudiated folk traditions; he continued to use the seer stone until late in life and used it in the translation process. It certainly had an influence on his outlook, but it was peripheral—not central. Biblical Christianity was the overwhelming influence in the Book of Mormon and the Doctrine and Covenants. Folk magic was in the mix but was not the basic ingredient. (p. 4)
Contrast this carefully formulated and argued conclusion with Runnells, who liberally peppers his hopelessly reductionistic descriptions of Joseph Smith's and other early Mormons' participation in "folk magic" with pejoratives like "superstitious" and "magical." Runnells may condescendingly sneer at these 19th century people if he wants to, but such reveals more about Runnells than it does about early Mormonism. If Runnells wants to be condescending, he's free to be so. But if he chooses to be such, he must then abandon any pretense to offering worthwhile historical commentary, and it must be acknowledged that the CES Letter is universes apart from the kind of responsible historiography practiced by Bushman and other critical scholars.

One more example. Don Bradley and Mark Ashurst-McGee offer a meticulously argued and scrupulously sourced treatise on the Kinderhook plates ("Joseph Smith and the Kinderhook Plates," pp. 93–115). Besides looking at what the historical record reveals about Joseph Smith's involvement with the Kinderhook plates, Bradley and Ashurst-McGee include a crucial discussion on "translation" in Joseph Smith's ministry. They write:
Since 1981, when Stanley Kimball published his article on the Kinderhook plates, his evidence that the plates were forgeries has been uniformly accepted. Nearly all devout Latter-day Saints who have written about the plates have also accepted Kimball’s argument that Joseph Smith did not translate from them. Latter-day Saints have been inclined to accept Kimball’s argument that Joseph Smith did not translate the plates. They likely want to defend Joseph Smith as a true prophet, and they believe this means that he could not have translated anything from the fraudulent Kinderhook plates. Critics claim that since the plates were fake, Joseph Smith was a false prophet, and they have used this as evidence that he deceived others about having the gift of translation. What both these positions share in common is the assumption that Joseph Smith would have been acting as a prophet while translating from the Kinderhook plates. (p. 100)
This assumption is deconstructed by Bradley and Ashurst-McGee. They ask, "When Joseph Smith attempted to translate from the Kinderhook plates, was he acting as a prophet or was he acting as an amateur linguist?" (p. 104). Careful analysis leads them to conclude that "the relevant historical sources reveals Joseph Smith acting neither as an inspired prophet nor as a fraudulent imposter. Instead, it reveals an enthusiastic, yet amateur, linguist" (p. 110).

What exactly does Runnels have to say about this? Well, by now you should know where this is going. A search through the CES Letter reveals the Kinderhook plates mentioned exactly seven times, not counting the table of contents. Four of those instances sees Runnells simply glossing that the plates are "disturbing" (p. 35), Joseph was "duped" by them (p. 63) , he "failed the test" with them (p. 44), and that they "destroy" his "credibility" (p. 81). The one time where Runnells does offer some meager form of analysis, if it can be called that, it's in the form of, you guessed it, a meme and an out-of-context quote by Bushman (p. 43). It's as if Runnells is afflicted with a terrible Millennial version of the Midas touch, but instead of things turning into gold, whatever historical subject Runnells touches turns into wholly misleading and sometimes outright dishonest memes.

As I thought about how to frame my review of A Reason for Faith I was initially reluctant to mention Runnells or the CES Letter at all. After all, Runnells has received more than enough attention than he deserves. But as I kept reading A Reason for Faith I could not escape the obvious fact that in almost every respect the CES Letter acts as a handy foil when set next to it. To appropriate a metaphor used in Preach my GospelA Reason for Faith is a brilliant diamond when displayed on the black velvet that is the CES Letter. Or, if you prefer, when read side-by-side to an excellent work like A Reason for Faith, it is quickly apparent that the CES Letter is like the attempted Cecilia Giménez restoration of Ecce Homo: a botched attempt at art that would be hilarious were it not for the irreparable damage done to the source material.

So, with all of that in mind, I can heartily recommend A Reason for Faith as an excellent resource for students interested in Mormon history and scripture. I can especially recommend it alongside such works as Patrick Mason's Planted as a great resource for those whose testimonies have been shaken or for those who are trying to help family and friends in a faith crisis. A Reason for Faith offers both familiar and new content that will prove useful to many readers.