Sunday, January 7, 2018

Early Mormon history: an important paradigm shift - Part 1

Since my June 29, 2017 post on Mormonism (LINKI have been delving deeply into Joseph Smith’s alleged use of “seer” stones, as well as other items and practices, that may fall under the classification of magic and/or the occult. The time frame of this study is focused on the period just prior to “The First Vision”, through the completion of the “translation” of the Book of Mormon.

We are nearing almost two hundred years of analysis, debate, polemics, and theorizing on this relatively brief period of time. Of the hundreds of folk who have engaged in the task of investigating and writing on this unique interval of history, the vast majority have done so with a certain set of presuppositions that reflect the central foundations of one of three paradigms: the Mormon worldview, the non-Mormon Christian worldview, and the agnostic/atheistic/secular worldview. The first two worldviews share a number of presuppositions, which include belief in the divine origin of the Bible, supernatural beings─e.g. God the Father, His Son Jesus Christ, the Holy Spirit, angels, Satan, demons─in miracles, prophecy, heaven and hell, et al.; all of which are explicitly rejected by the third worldview.

Three primary explanations/interpretations of the historical period under investigation emerged shortly after the publication of the Book of Mormon, and have remained in place to this day (with a number of nuanced variations within each of the three). The first explanation I shall term 'Supernatural A', is the story advanced by Joseph Smith Jr.. The second, I shall term 'Supernatural B', promulgated by a good number of non-Mormon Christians who believe that a strictly 'naturalistic' explanation of the germane events fails to provide an adequate narrative of all that took place within the timeframe under discussion, maintaining that Satanic deception was involved. The third is the 'naturalistic' view, which excludes a priori any possibility of supernatural events.

Devout, faithful Mormons embrace the 'Supernatural A' explanation; non-Mormon Christians who take their faith seriously have been divided in their assessments, with a good number supporting the 'Supernatural B' interpretation, others the 'naturalistic' view, and some a combination of both. Secular, agnostic and atheistic folk emphatically reject the 'Supernatural A' and 'Supernatural B' explanations, embracing a strictly 'naturalistic' view.

As for myself, I approach our topic at hand with the presuppositions of the non-Mormon Christian worldview, but also as one who remains somewhat open to the remote possibility that the Mormon worldview may be the more correct one. As such, the claims made by Joseph Smith Jr. and the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, hold a high degree of importance to me.

In my June 29, 2017 post, I pointed out an important paradigm shift that I had personally experienced—i.e. a significant change in the method that Joseph used to translate the Book of Mormon as perceived by LDS missionaries and 'lay' Mormons. This paradigm shift concerning the understanding of the translation process of the Book of Mormon is inextricably linked to a much broader issue—Joseph Smith's involvement in magic/occult practices. As suggested above, the period of time concerning this paradigm shift is relatively brief—about ten years—and has been an intensely debated one between Mormons and non-Mormons.

However, since the mid-1980s, it seems that a new battlefront has opened up: a debate amongst believing Mormons between two opposing views concerning the time frame under investigation. The following selections from LDS authors reveals this internal debate. I shall begin with the assessment of an LDS historian who has been a major contributor to the paradigm shift, Richard Bushman, who penned the following in the forward of a book recently published by the Brigham Young University Religious Study Center:

This volume is first of what could be many potential histories coming out of the Joseph Smith Papers Project [link to official site]. Michael Hubbard McKay and Gerrit Dirkmaat have been editors of the Documents series, which is just beginning to appear. The results of this research can be partially found in introductions, headnotes, and footnotes of the Joseph Smith Papers volumes, but the findings will be properly valued only when integrated into the narratives of early Church history...

Books like this one will bring Latter-day Saint readers up to date on the results of the latest historical research...Working form original materials, the authors introduce readers to aspects of early of early Church history that are well known to historians [and anti-Mormons] but that are not necessarily common knowledge in the Church. MacKay and Dirkmaat also reveal brand new findings in this work. They speak at length, for example, about Joseph Smith's use of two seer stones in translation. In translating, Joseph probably first used the stones set in spectacles that came with the plates, and then, for most of the translation period, substituted one of the stones he had found. Joseph put the seer stone in a hat to exclude the light and read off the translated text by looking in the stone. All the while, the plates wrapped in a cloth on the table [most probably, the plates were in a locked wooden chest, not 'on the table'].  Apparently Joseph did not look at the plates through most of the translation.

This description will startle Latter-day Saints who are familiar with artistic depictions showing Joseph Smith with his finger on the plates while he writes down the words as they come to him [as well as some early written accounts of this same process]. The image of Joseph with his face in the hat as he translates is not so well known and is much less decorous, which may shock some readers. But it is essential that the Church at large become aware of what historians have discovered in the sources. Failure to acknowledge these factual accounts [an assumption that cannot be proved, and is contested by some LDS researchers], almost all of them in friendly sources, can devastate Latter-day Saints who run across them. Feeling that the Church has covered up the truth, they become disillusioned and even angry. This book is an attempt to repair the misconceptions so that the next generation of Latter-day Saints will be better informed. (Michael Hubbard McKay and Gerrit Dirkmaat, From Darkness unto Light - Joseph Smith's Translation and Publication of the Book of Mormon, 2015, pp. v, vi.)

In the very next paragraph of this same forward, Bushman relates to his readers what he believes has been a flawed/problematic approach by LDS scholars concerning early Mormon history; note the following:

For years Mormon scholars simply disregarded critical sources, such as the affidavits concerning the Smith family in E. D. Howe's Mormonism Unvailed. They felt the critical writings were too biased to be of any use. But in recent years, automatic exclusion of negative reports is no longer the practice. Everything has to be examined and evaluated. (Ibid., vi.)

It is the issue over how much value should be given to the "critical sources"—one must also add 'late sources' to the equation—that divides Mormons who accept the paradigm shift, against those who reject it.

In 2013, The Interpreter Foundation (LINK) published an essay that provides an account of the paradigm shift under investigation. The following are a few selections from this informative contribution:

This essay seeks to examine the Book of Mormon translation method from the perspective of a regular, nonscholarly, believing member in the twenty-first century, by taking into account both what is learned in Church and what can be learned from historical records that are now easily available. What do we know? What should we know? How can a believing Latter-day Saint reconcile apparently conflicting accounts of the translation process? An examination of the historical sources is used to provide us with a fuller and more complete understanding of the complexity that exists in the early events of the Restoration. These accounts come from both believing and nonbelieving sources, and some skepticism ought to be employed in choosing to accept some of the interpretations offered by some of these sources as fact. However, an examination of these sources provides a larger picture, and the answers to these questions provide an enlightening look into Church history and the evolution of the translation story. This essay focuses primarily on the methods and instruments used in the translation process and how a faithful Latter-day Saint might view these as further evidence of truthfulness of the restored Gospel. (Roger Nicholson, "The Spectacles, the Stone, the Hat. and the Book: A Twenty-first Century Believer's View of the Book of Mormon Translation", Interpreter - A Journal of Mormon Scripture, vol. 5, 2013, p. 121; link to PDF copy - HERE.) 

After the above introduction, Nicholson then provides the translation process of the Book of Mormon that has been taught to the vast majority of active Mormons for decades:

As an active Latter-day Saint, I cannot remember a time when I was not familiar with the story of the translation of the Book of Mormon. The story with which we are quite familiar from Sunday School and Seminary describes Joseph using the Urim and Thummim (the Nephite interpreters) to look at the gold plates while screened from his scribe by a curtain. Joseph dictated the entire text of the Book of Mormon to his scribe, picking up the next day right where he had left off the day before, and the text was written without any punctuation. Joseph never required that any of the previous text be re-read when the translation started again the next day. The bulk of the translation was accomplished within a roughly three-month period, and the resulting text is remarkably consistent not only with itself, but with the Bible. The circumstances surrounding the translation and production of the Book of Mormon can only be considered miraculous when considered by a believing member of the Church. (Ibid. p. 122)

He then goes on to relate, "another story with which many have become familiar in recent years", which "story" is the translation process promulgated by various anti-Mormon sources, and a number of LDS scholars who are pushing the paradigm shift which has Joseph Smith 'translating' the Book of Mormon via one of the seer stones that he had found in the early 1820s, which he placed into the bottom of a hat to exclude any light and then put his face into it. During this process, the plates are not used at all, but rather, were stored away in a wooden chest.

Nicholson then writes that the, "twenty-first century has given us access to a wealth of historical sources that were simply unavailable to the average Latter-day Saint in previous decades", and then provides quotations from a number of these "historical sources" including some which describe the translation method from folk who had actually seen translation process firsthand—e.g. Emma Smith, Martin Harris, Oliver Cowdery, David Whitmer. (Ibid., p. 124). 

Later on, Nicholson relates:

Prior to the appearance of the angel Moroni, Joseph possessed several stones that he used for the purpose of locating things, the most well known use being the location of lost objects or buried treasure. (Ibid., p. 163)

He seems to accept the above as fact, stating:

It makes logical sense that the Lord would choose to approach someone who would readily accept the idea that one could "see" using a stone. Joseph already believed that the stone could be used to "see" things, and the transition from using the stone to receive information to a means of receiving revelation from God would have been straightforward. Recall that to Joseph, the spectacles that he received from Moroni were simply a more powerful version of the stone that he already possessed. (Ibid., p. 164)

The following account of the translation method provided by Nicholson is worth repeating here:

The translation of the entire text of the Book of Mormon that we now have took place primarily at David Whitmer's home. Not only is the use of a curtain not apparent, but there is an actual denial that it was used in the process. David Whitmer's daughter Elizabeth Ann Whitmer Cowdery stated,

I cheerfully certify that I was familiar with the manner of Joseph Smith's translating the book of Mormon. He translated the most of it at my Father's house. And I often sat by and saw and heard them translate and write for hours together. Joseph never had a curtain drawn between him and his scribe while he was translating. He would place the director in his hat, and then place his [face in his] hat, so as to exclude the light, and then [read] to his scribe the words as they appeared before him. (Ibid., pp. 173, 174)

Nicholson then continues with:

The fact that Elizabeth felt the need to make such a statement at all strongly implies that there was still a story in circulation among the Latter-day Saints that a curtain was used in the translation process. In 1887, David Whitmer, who two years earlier in the 1885 Chicago Tribune interview asserted the use of the Nephite interpreters and curtain, now also described the translation method using the stone and the hat.

I will now give you a description of the manner in which the Book of Mormon was translated. Joseph Smith would put the seer stone into a hat, and put his face in the hat, drawing it closely around his face to exclude the light; and in the darkness the spiritual light would shine. A piece of something resembling parchment would appear, and on that appeared the writing. One character at a time would appear, and under it was the interpretation in English. Brother Joseph would read off the English to Oliver Cowdery, who was his principal scribe, and when it was written down and repeated to Brother Joseph to see if it was correct, then it would disappear, and another character with the interpretation would appear. Thus the Book of Mormon was translated by the gift and power of God, and not by any power of man. (Ibid., pp. 174, 175)

On page 178, Nicholson starts a section under the title, "The Stone and the Hat Become Buried in History". This part of the essay is the most interesting for me because he relates to his readers the story of the LDS scholar Francis Kirkham, whose referenced works I own, and read years before the 21st century push to accept a paradigm shift in the understanding of Joseph Smith's translation process, and involvement in magic/occult practices. Note the following:

During the 1930s, Dr. Francis Kirkham endeavored to "gather and evaluate all the newspaper articles he could locate about the Book of Mormon." Many of these articles were obtained from newspaper collections located in the New York area and have recently been made available in an online database hosted by the Neal A. Maxwell Institute for Religious Scholarship.

As we have seen, many of these news accounts refer to the use of the spectacles or stone together with a hat, consistent with the late statements of Martin Harris and David Whitmer. Kirkham, in the October 1939 Improvement Era, quoted the accounts of the stone and the hat given by Martin Harris and David Whitmer. Kirkham, however, did not accept the eyewitness accounts that Joseph actually used a seer stone in the translation of the Book of Mormon, concluding that "the statements of both of these men are to be explained by the eagerness of old age to call upon a fading and uncertain memory for the details of events which still remained real and objective to them." In his 1951 book A New Witness For Christ in America, Kirkham believed that "it may not have been expedient for the Prophet to try and explain the method of translation for the reason his hearers would lack the capacity to understand. It seemed sufficient to them at that time to know that the translation had been made by the gift and power of God." Kirkham goes on to say that, "After a lapse of forty years of time, both David Whitmer and Martin Harris attempted to give the method of the translation. Evidently the Prophet did not tell them the method." Despite the fact that elements of Harris's and Whitmer's story were consistent with each other, Kirkham simply refused to accept the idea that the accounts might have basis in the truth. (Ibid., pp. 178, 179.) [Nicholson provides THIS LINK to a 1984 Ensign article on Kirkham that is worth reading.]

Now, I find it more than a bit interesting Nicholson had previously stated in his essay (referenced above), that the, "twenty-first century has given us access to a wealth of historical sources that were simply unavailable to the average Latter-day Saint in previous decades". Perhaps he has the internet in mind, but then, a good number of those historical sources were provided by Kirkham clear back in 1937 (Source Material Concerning the Origin of the “Book of Mormon) and 1939 (Improvement Era), with many more added in 1951 (A New Witness for Christ in America, 2 vols.). I have copies of all of above contributions, and seriously doubt that the "the average Latter-day Saint in previous decades" would have had difficulty obtaining them.

And further, Nicholson seems somewhat puzzled by the fact that Kirkham, armed with the same information as 21st scholars approving the paradigm shift, "simply refused to accept the idea that the accounts might have basis in the truth." One could say that Nicholson (and a number of LDS scholars) have, 'simply refused to accept the idea that the critical and late accounts are not accurate, and should not provide the basis for truth assessments'.

Kirkham was not alone in his conclusions concerning value of the critical and late historical accounts that have Joseph Smith using a "peepstone" in a hat method to translate the Book of Mormon; sources which also have him in deeply involved in "money-digging" and magic/occult practices. A contemporary of Kirkham, Dr. Hugh Nibley, also placed little value on such sources. In his 1961 satirical book, The Myth Makers, he demonstrates that he was well acquainted with, and possessed a good grasp, of the critical and late historical accounts that Kirkham had compiled and published a few years earlier. Anyone who has read The Myth Makers, knows that Nibley had nothing but disdain for those accounts he takes to task.

The question that needs to be asked is: WHY has Kirkham's and Nibley's assessments been jettisoned by so many 21st century LDS scholars?

Nicholson himself points to what I believe is the root cause of the beginning of the reassessments of the extant historical sources: the forged documents of Mark Hofmann. Nicholson writes:

The visibility of these issues [translation method and magic/occult practices] among the general Church membership began to change significantly in the early 1980s as the result of a very unusual and tragic event: the exposure of the Mark Hofmann forgeries. Suddenly, newspapers were talking about salamanders and treasure guardians in association with some of the Church's founding events...

Hofmann's documents were so well crafted that they fooled a number of experts in the field, and they were all considered genuine for a period of time. During that period of time, a new wave of Latter-day Saint historical works were produced, taking into account the "magical" aspects emphasized in the Salamander Letter. There was also an effort to reconcile and integrate the new information with existing accounts.

Some of Hofmann's documents were created based upon existing eyewitness accounts regarding treasure seeking, and to some extent simply amplified concepts that were already known to historians. Once the forgeries were exposed, it became necessary to re-examine what had been written to support the now discredited documents. Although the Hofmann forgeries were discounted, the underlying legitimate historical accounts that fueled their creation began to become more well known among the general Church membership. Joseph's early involvement with treasure seeking, beyond what had long been documented in Church publications regarding his efforts with Josiah Stowell, became more well known. (Ibid., pp. 181, 182.)

Thirteen years prior to Nicholson's musings, Mark Ashurst-McGee—one of the prominent LDS scholars of the 21st century who supports and promotes the paradigm shift—pointed out that Hofmann's forgeries played an important role in the reassessment of the extant historical accounts. From his master thesis we read:

Spurred on by the Hofmann controversy, a number of Latter-day Saint historians began to reassess the historical record and to explore the context of time in which Mormonism emerged. Although the Hofmann documents proved spurious, historians discovered that Joseph's involvement in such practices had been substantial. Over the last two decades, a number of scholarly studies by devout Latter-day Saint scholars and empathetic secularists have concluded that Joseph Smith was involved in treasure seeking and an early American milieu of beliefs and practices that many modem Americans would label "magic." (Mark Ashurst-McGee, A Pathway to Prophethood: Joseph Smith Junior as Rodsman, Village Seer, and Judeo-Christian Prophet, 2000, p. 9 - link to PDF copy HERE.)

On the same page, in footnote #26, Ashurst-McGee lists a number of those "scholarly studies by devout Latter-day Saint scholars and empathetic secularists", all of which I have been able to obtain and read. By far the most significant work he lists is D. Michael Quinn's, Early Mormonism and the Magic World, which was first published in 1987—an expanded and updated second edition was released in 1999. Though Quinn's book produced a few less than flattering reviews from some LDS scholars, for the most part, his contribution has been received as the 'cutting-edge', 'go to' work on the topic.

I suspect I have given folk who read this post plenty to digest; and with said, shall end here for now. Hope to have Part 2 up soon...

Grace and peace,