CES Reply: The Priesthood and Magic

Continuing my reply to Jeremy Runnell’s “Letter to a CES Director,” with Jeremy’s original words in green:

Priesthood Restoration Concerns & Questions:

“The late appearance of these accounts raises the possibility of later fabrication.”LDS Historian Richard Bushman, Rough Stone Rolling, p. 75

Are you saying that Richard Bushman believes that these accounts were fabricated? Because Richard Bushman doesn’t believe these accounts were fabricated, and it’s dishonest of you to yank a single sentence out of a paragraph to give the impression that he does.

The full paragraph:

The late appearance of these accounts raises the possibility of later fabrication. Did Joseph add the stories of angels to embellish his early history and make himself more of a visionary? If so, he made little of the occurrence. Cowdery was the first to recount the story of John’s appearance, not Joseph himself. In an 1834 Church newspaper, Cowdery exulted in his still fresh memory of the experience. “On a sudden, as from the midst of eternity, the voice of the Redeemer spake peace unto us, while the vail was parted and the angel of God came down clothed with glory, and delivered the anxiously looked for message, and the keys of the gospel of repentance!” When Joseph described John’s visit, he was much more plainspoken. Moreover, he inserted the story into a history composed in 1838 but not published until 1842. It circulated without fanfare, more like a refurbished memory than a triumphant announcement. [Emphasis added]

1. Like the First Vision story, none of the members of the Church or Joseph Smith’s family had ever heard prior to 1834 about a priesthood restoration from John the Baptist or Peter, James, and John.

And like your error with regard to the First Vision story, you assume that if something wasn’t yet written down in its entirety, that constitutes proof that it was never spoken of or discussed, which is a wholly ridiculous assumption.

Although the priesthood is now taught to have been restored in 1829, Joseph and Oliver made no such claim until 1834.

Nonsense. People were being ordained to the priesthood beginning in 1830. How could they be ordained if Joseph and Oliver made no claim to its restoration? As for the details about Peter, James, and John, actually, only Oliver provided those details in written form in 1834. Joseph didn’t mention anything about this until 1838, as Bushman recounts above. When Joseph did make the claim, it “circulated without fanfare,” which would be surprising if this were a sensational piece of information that the Saints had never heard before.

Why did it take five years for Joseph or Oliver to tell members of the Church about the priesthood?

It didn’t. Joseph and Oliver announced they had been baptized and ordained the day the Church was organized, and revelations prior to 1834 make reference to their priesthood authority.

2.Joseph Smith and Oliver Cowdery did not teach anyone or record anything prior to 1834 that men ordained to offices in the Church were receiving “priesthood authority.”

That’s a nonsensical statement. Read Section 20 of the Doctrine and Covenants, recorded in 1830, which outlines the offices and duties of the priesthood. You’re suggesting that people who were “ordained” to be “priests,” the quoted words being used in the revelation, didn’t realize they had priesthood authority? What kind of priest has no priesthood?

Also, look at the Book of Mormon. Alma 13 described priesthood authority in great detail, and there are several other references to priesthood throughout the book. The Book of Mormon was also published in 1830.

3. Joseph Smith and Oliver Cowdery changed the wording of earlier revelations when they compiled the 1835 Doctrine & Covenants, adding verses about the appearances of John the Baptist and Peter, James, and John as if those appearances were mentioned in the earlier revelations in the Book of Commandments, which they weren’t.

And, as mentioned earlier, Joseph changed the wording of several verses in the Book of Mormon after it was first published. He edited a number of his revelations over the course of his life. That’s actually the very nature of the Restoration – we do not believe in inerrant prophets or in inerrant scripture, and, unlike Catholics or Protestants who believe in a closed canon, we believe more light and knowledge is always welcome.

4.Were the restoration of the Aaronic Priesthood under the hand of John the Baptist recorded in the Church prior to 1833, it would have appeared in the Book of Commandments.

Really? Why? The First Vision was recorded in 1832. Why doesn’t it appear in the Book of Commandments? Isn’t a visit from the Lord a bigger deal than a visit from John the Baptist?

It’s not recorded anywhere in the Book of Commandments.

There’s no biographical info at all recorded in the Book of Commandments. This was not a book used to establish Joseph’s authority; it was a book used to catalogue revelations of direct relevance to the early members of the Church. That’s why several early revelations didn’t make the cut.

Were the restoration of the Melchizedek Priesthood under the hands of Peter, James, and John recorded prior to 1833, it would have appeared in the Book of Commandments.  It’s not recorded anywhere in the Book of Commandments.

Look at the New Testament. How many times do the apostles make reference to Jesus’s biography in their epistles? How many times do they mention the Virgin Birth, or his baptism at the hands of John the Baptist, or the keys he received from Moses and Elias on the Mount of Transfiguration? Precisely zero times. Epistles, like the Book of Commandments, were written directly to believers who already accepted the authority of the people writing to them.

5.It wasn’t until the 1835 edition Doctrine & Covenants that Joseph and Oliver backdated and retrofitted Priesthood restoration events to an 1829-30 time period – none of which existed in any previous Church records; including Doctrine & Covenants’ precursor, The Book of Commandments, nor the original Church history as published in The Evening and Morning Star.

For them to be “backdating and retrofitting” events, they would have to be correcting an erroneous record. There’s no alternative record of different priesthood restoration events, so no “retrofit” was necessary. Members of the Church were well acquainted with the priesthood by 1835, so they obviously believed it came from somewhere before Joseph and Oliver got around to writing down the details. If Joseph and Oliver were suddenly making it all up five years after the fact, members would have likely noticed. The fact that Joseph, in particular, is relatively casual about the whole thing until 1838 is clear evidence that this was not a new story to the Saints.

6.David Whitmer, one of the witnesses to the Book of Mormon, had this to say about the Priesthood restoration:

“I never heard that an Angel had ordained Joseph and Oliver to the Aaronic Priesthood until the year 1834[,] [183]5, or [183]6 – in Ohio…I do not believe that John the Baptist ever ordained Joseph and Oliver…”

– Early Mormon Documents, 5:137

Whitmer himself was given priesthood authority in 1829, as referenced in a contemporaneous revelation recorded in D&C 18:9. He didn’t doubt the veracity of that authority while he was a member of the Church. Only decades later, when he was severely disaffected from Joseph Smith, does he begin to criticize the details.

Witnesses Concerns & Questions:

1.The testimony of the Three and Eight witnesses to the Book of Mormon is a key part to the testimonies of many members of the Church. Some even base their testimony of the truthfulness of the Book of Mormon on these 11 witnesses and their testimonies.

If they do, then they’re not following the instructions of the Book of Mormon itself, which counsels members to base their testimonies in the witness of the Holy Ghost. That’s not to discount the value of the testimony of these 11 witnesses, which are remarkably consistent and reliable, but rather to emphasize that this kind of evidence ought to confirm faith rather than establish it.

As a missionary, I was instructed to teach investigators about the testimonies of the witnesses to the Book of Mormon as part of boosting the book’s credibility.

When did you serve your mission? None of the six discussions I taught made any reference to Book of Mormon witnesses, although I’m older than you, and they’ve changed the discussions since. I’d be surprised, however, if these testimonies were actually included in the prescribed lessons to be taught to investigators.

There are several critical problems for relying and betting on these 19th century men as credible witnesses.

The problems you proceed to enumerate are based largely on the premise that these people are, in fact “19th century men” who believed things common to many 19th century men. How could the Book of Mormon have had any witnesses who were not “19th century men,” given that it came forth in the 19th Century?

2. Magical Worldview: In order to truly understand the Book of Mormon witnesses and the issues, one must understand the magical worldview of people in early 19th century New England. These are people who believed in folk magic, divining rods, visions, second sight, peep stones in hats, treasure hunting (money digging or glass looking), and so on.

Your point being? People then – and people now – believed and believe in a number of harmless superstitions. Why does this disqualify them from being instruments in the hands of the Lord? The evidence suggests that belief in folk magic left Joseph and Oliver open to the idea of genuine revelation.

Many people believed in buried treasure, the ability to see spirits and their dwelling places within the local hills and elsewhere. This is why treasure digging existed.

Yes! Treasure digging existed because people believed in buried treasure. 
Seems a bit obvious.

Joseph Smith, his father, and his brother (Hyrum) had a family business treasure hunting from 1820 – 1827.

No, they didn’t. Joseph Smith, his father, and his brother (Hyrum) had a family business called a “farm.” Check the tax records.

Joseph was hired by folks like Josiah Stowell, who Joseph mentions in his history.

It’s kind of disingenuous to say that “Joseph was hired by folks like Josiah Stowell” when we only have record of Joseph being hired by one “folk” – i.e. Josiah Stowell. If you can produce other clients for this non-existent treasure hunting business, that would bolster your case considerably. 

As for Josiah Stowell, Joseph worked for him for less than a month digging for silver with no success, until he “finally… prevailed with the old gentleman to cease digging after it.” (JS-H 1:56.) Hardly a long-term career pursuit.

In 1826, Joseph was arrested and brought to court in Bainbridge, New York, for trial on fraud.

Joseph was neither arrested nor brought to trial. He was called to appear at a preliminary hearing on the matter of being a “disorderly person,” and the hearing was dismissed with no charges filed. The matter was so insignificant that it was never raised again, even as Joseph was forced to confront a host of other far more serious legal charges throughout his life.

He was arrested on the complaint of Stowell’s nephew who accused Joseph of being a “disorderly person and an imposter.”

The word “arrested” has a specific meaning that implies Joseph was taken into custody, which he was not. The word first appears in an 1877 anti-Mormon account half a century later, but there is reason to assume this is hyperbole. There’s no record that Joseph went to jail. The judge considered the accusation baseless, and the matter was quickly dismissed.

It would not be unusual for a neighbor, friend, or even a stranger to come up to you and say, “I received a vision of the Lord!” and for you to respond, “What did the Lord say?”

It would also not be unusual for a neighbor, friend, or even a stranger to say “Does anyone know what we’re having for dinner?” I don’t get your point here, or how it in any way discredits anybody of anything.

This is one of the reasons why 21st century Mormons, once including myself, are so confused and bewildered when hearing stuff like Joseph Smith using a peep stone in a hat or Oliver Cowdery using a divining rod or dowsing rod such as illustrated below:


I, too, am a 21st Century Mormon, and I find this neither confusing nor bewildering. I find it evidence that Joseph and Oliver lived in a different place and time and believed in harmless superstitions that were common to their era.

My wife was a missionary in Chile. In almost every home she visited, including homes of Church members, people had an inflated brown paper bag in the center of the main living area, because they were convinced that the bag kept bugs away. They also chastised her for drinking cold drinks on a hot day, or hot drinks on a cold day, as they insisted that would make a person “chueca,” which roughly translates as “crooked.” Both of these ideas have no factual basis and are firmly in the realm of superstition, yet members who believe them don’t get denied temple recommends.

The above divining rod is mentioned in the scriptures.  In Doctrine & Covenants 8, the following heading provides context for the discussion:

“Revelation given through Joseph Smith the Prophet to Oliver Cowdery, at Harmony, Pennsylvania, April 1829.  In the course of the translation of the Book of Mormon, Oliver, who continued to serve as scribe, writing at the Prophet’s dictation, desired to be endowed with the gift of translation.  The Lord responded to his supplication by granting this revelation.”

The revelation states, in relevant part:

    1. Now this is not all they gift; for you have another gift, which is the gift of Aaron; behold, it has told you many things;
    2. Behold, there is no other power, save the power of God, that can cause this gift of Aaron to be with you.
    3. Therefore, doubt not, for it is the gift of God; and you shall hold it in your hands, and do marvelous works; and no power shall be able to take it away out of your hands, for it is the work of God.
    4. And, therefore, whatsoever you shall ask me to tell you by that means, that I will grant unto you, and you shall have knowledge concerning it.
    5. Remember that without faith you can do nothing; therefore ask in faith.  Trifle not with these things; do not ask for that which you ought not.
    6. Ask that you may know the mysteries of God, and that you may translate and receive knowledge from all those ancient records which have been hid up, that are sacred; and according to your faith shall it be done unto you.

(D&C 8:6-11, emphasis added)

From the D&C 8 account, we don’t really know much about what exactly the “gift of Aaron” is that Oliver Cowdery received.  What is “the gift of Aaron”?  The text provides several clues:

  • Oliver has a history of using it, since “it has told [him] many things.”
  • It is “the gift of God.”
  • It is to be held in Oliver’s hands (and kept there, impervious to any power).
  • It allows Oliver to “do marvelous works.”
  • It is “the work of God.”
  • The Lord will speak through it to Oliver and tell him anything he asks while using it.
  • It works  through  faith.
  • It enables  Oliver  to  translate  ancient  sacred  documents.

With only these clues, the “gift of Aaron” remains very hard to identify.  The task becomes much easier, however, when we look at the original revelation contained in The Book of Commandments, a predecessor volume to the Doctrine & Covenants, used by the LDS Church before 1835.  Section 7 of the Book of Commandments contains wording that was changed in the Doctrine & Covenants 8.  The term “gift of Aaron” was originally “rod” and “rod of nature” in the Book of Commandments:

“Now this is not all, for you have another gift, which is the gift of working with the rod: behold it has told you things: behold there is no other power save God, that can cause this rod of nature, to work in your hands.”

The Book of Commandments 7:3

So, what is the “gift of Aaron” mentioned in D&C 8?  It is a “rod of nature.”

What is a “rod of nature”? It is a divining rod or dowsing rod as illustrated in the above images, which Oliver Cowdery used to hunt for buried treasure.

Didn’t want to interrupt you until you had fully made your point on this one, although I’m still not quite sure what your point is.  What seems evident is that the Lord was communicating with Oliver by means of a common frame of reference he was likely to understand.  If Oliver had confidence in a harmless superstition, then why shouldn’t the Lord use that superstition as a stepping stone toward a better appreciation of spiritual gifts?  “Behold, I am God and have spoken it; these commandments are of me, and were given unto my servants in their weakness, after the manner of their language, that they might come to understanding.” (D&C 1:24, Emphasis Added.) That’s the same reason he let Joseph use a seer stone, as it was something to which Joseph was already culturally accustomed. The fact that it is strange to our culture shouldn’t allow us to smugly condescend to those whose manner is different than ours.

Remember Ammon talking to King Lamoni about the Great Spirit in Alma 22? Lamoni’s understanding of God was mingled with superstition, but rather than condemn Lamoni for his superstitions, he built on the common ground in his incorrect tradition to lead Lamoni to a better understanding. That’s the way the Lord has always worked, and that’s all he’s doing here by indulging Oliver’s interest in dowsing rods. In the Old Testament, the Lord indulged Moses’s use of a rod to part the Red Sea, strike rocks to bring forth water, and raise up with a serpent wrapped around it in order to heal Israel. Could God have accomplished all those things through Moses without using a rod? Of course. But using the rod was apparently helpful to Moses, so God worked through Moses in his weakness, and after the manner of his language and understanding. I don’t see why that’s a problem.

The revision to “gift of Aaron” connects the dowsing rod to Moses’s rod, thereby leading Oliver to a greater understanding of the Lord’s purposes. It’s a rather elegant teaching method, it seems to me, to communicate by means of commonly understood iconography.

Cowdery’s use of a divining rod to search for buried treasure evokes similar images of Joseph Smith hunting for treasure with a stone in a hat. 

Stone in a hat?! Why haven’t you ever mentioned that before?

Oliver also wished to use his divining rod, in the same way Joseph Smith used his stone and hat, to translate ancient documents.  Doctrine & Covenants 8 indicates that the Lord, through Joseph Smith, granted Oliver’s request to translate using a…rod.

Yes, he… did. Again, I don’t understand what your problem is. The Lord was speaking to Oliver in his weakness, after the manner of his language, so to speak, just as he promised to do. What’s wrong with a rod? Should we think Moses was a weirdo for using one, too?

If Oliver Cowdery’s gift was really a divining rod then this tells us that the origins of the Church are much more rooted in folk magic and superstition than we’ve been led to believe by the LDS Church’s whitewashing of its origins and history.

“Whitewashing,” huh? All right, let’s return to the version of history that you remember. Here’s one of the pictures you provided that represented your “whitewashed” understanding of how Joseph translated.
urim See? Now THIS makes a lot more sense, what with Joseph wearing a pair of granny spectacles attached to a suit of armor and all. That’s how translation is supposed to be done – two rocks and a coat of armor, not one rock and a hat. (This picture, incidentally, accurately represents at least part of how the translation took place.)

Do you see yet just how petty your objection is? From my perspective, this “whitewashed” picture looks far weirder than the rock in the hat. But since this culturally fits your own expectations, it’s acceptable to you, but something that uses something more akin to a 19th Century person’s cultural expectations is entirely unacceptable. Presentism, thy name is Runnells.

Tomorrow: The Three Witnesses


CES Reply: Following the Spirit

Continuing my reply to Jeremy Runnell’s “Letter to a CES Director,” with Jeremy’s original words in green:

6. Paul H. Dunn:  Dunn was a General Authority of the Church for many years. 

Indeed! I adored Paul H. Dunn. Still do. Marvelous speaker – funny, engaging, and perceptive.

He was a very popular speaker who told incredible faith-promoting war and baseball stories.

He told a lot of other stories, too. He spoke on a great deal of subjects, and, while he clearly made serious errors in judgment, he was, on the whole, a good and decent man.

Stories like how God protected him as enemy machine-gun bullets ripped away his clothing, gear, and helmet without ever touching his skin and how he was preserved by the Lord.  Members of the Church shared how they really felt the Spirit as they listened to Dunn’s testimony and stories.

Well, I realize this is going to sound self-serving, but I was on my mission in an apartment in Dundee, Scotland, when I first heard a talk with that particular story. I remember thinking, “Hunh. That sounds a little too good to be true.” This wasn’t a major revelation – there were no alarm bells clanging, and I didn’t feel prompted to toss my Paul Dunn tapes into the trash.

But what that says to me is that the Spirit testifies of truth even when it’s being delivered by imperfect vessels, mainly because it is always being delivered by imperfect vessels. Paul Dunn’s false stories did not negate the confirmation of his true ones, and I’m willing to bet that other people had the same kind of nagging doubts I did about the stuff he was making up.

Unfortunately, Dunn was later caught lying about all his war and baseball stories and was forced to apologize to the members.  He became the first General Authority to gain “emeritus” status and was removed from public Church life.

He was caught lying, yes. Don’t think that’s accurate re: first G.A. to gain “emeritus” status, but I can’t pinpoint it one way or the other. I remember being in the Tabernacle after the scandal when Paul Dunn received an award for something or other, so I think it’s a bit over-the-top to say he was “removed from public Church life.”

What about the members who felt the Spirit from Dunn’s fabricated and false stories? 

I’m not convinced they did feel the Spirit when Paul Dunn was not telling the truth. They may have felt emotionally moved – Paul Dunn was a very dynamic speaker, after all, and his stories tugged at the heartstrings – but that’s not the same thing as feeling the spirit.

What does this say about the Spirit and what the Spirit really is?

Quite a lot, actually. It says the Spirit testifies of truth wherever it is found, and even in unlikely places and from imperfect vessels. The vast majority of what Paul Dunn said was true, and the Spirit didn’t deprive those listening to him of confirmation of the truths he told even though Elder Dunn made poor choices. It also tells us that we each have a responsibility to discern truth from error, and we do not abdicate that responsibility to someone else’s ecclesiastical position, because even our leaders are fallible.

7. The following are counsel from Elder Boyd K. Packer, Elder Dallin H. Oaks and Elder Neil L. Andersen on how to gain a testimony:

“It is not unusual to have a missionary say, ‘How can I bear testimony until I get one? How can I testify that God lives, that Jesus is the Christ, and that the gospel is true? If I do not have such a testimony, would that not be dishonest?’   Oh, if I could teach you this one principle: a testimony is to be found in the bearing of it!” – Boyd K. Packer, The Quest for Spiritual Knowledge

This is one of my favorite talks by Elder Packer, and you seem to be missing the point of it entirely. Elder Packer is not instructing people to lie; quite the opposite, in fact. “You cannot force spiritual things,” he says. “You must await the growth.” These are not the instructions of someone telling people to get out and lie for the Lord.

The next paragraph after the one you quote clarifies his intent:

“Somewhere in your quest for spiritual knowledge, there is that “leap of faith,” as the philosophers call it. It is the moment when you have gone to the edge of the light and stepped into the darkness to discover that the way is lighted ahead for just a footstep or two. “The spirit of man is,” as the scripture says, indeed “the candle of the Lord” (Proverbs 20:27).

It is one thing to receive a witness from what you have read or what another has said; and that is a necessary beginning. It is quite another to have the Spirit confirm to you in your bosom that what you have testified is true. Can you not see that it will be supplied as you share it? As you give that which you have, there is a replacement, with increase!

To speak out is the test of your faith.”

This talk helped me to understand faith and how it works, namely that if you push yourself to your limit, the Lord shows you the next steps. It’s a talk that confirms the principle found in Ether 12:6 –  “I would show unto the world that faith is things which are hoped for and not seen; wherefore, dispute not because ye see not, for ye receive no witness until after the trial of your faith.”

Indulge me as I share a practical example from my own life. Every year since the beginning of time, my extended family attends Aspen Grove Family Camp up in Provo Canyon. Being morbidly afraid of heights, I spent years avoiding Aspen Grove’s massive ropes course, where you climb up into the trees and walk around on metal wires that are about thirty feet above the ground. You’re attached to belay lines and are perfectly safe, but even though I mentally understood that, that didn’t keep my legs from wobbling like jelly with every step I took when I finally tried the thing. It wasn’t until I actually fell and the belay mechanisms caught me that I got a feel for just how safe I was, and I was able to move forward in a terror-free manner.

That’s the experience that gave me a hands-on practical lesson in faith.

The reason we “receive no witness until after the trial of [our] faith” is not because God is refusing to let us in on His secrets. The truth is that that’s the way faith works. No matter how much one of those nice Aspen Grove staffers were to describe to me the safety features of the helmets and the ropes and the carabiners – I dig the word “carabiner” – it wasn’t until I actually tested the stuff for myself that I was able to develop the faith and confidence to rely on them.

“Faith,” therefore, is not synonymous with “belief,” or passive intellectual assent. Intellectually, I believed I was safe from the first moment. But my negligible faith – my willingness and confidence to act on that belief – didn’t gain strength until after it had been tried. Elder Packer is merely pointing out that exercising enough faith to bear a testimony will provide the spiritual confirmation necessary to strengthen it. That’s a true principle that has been verified time and time again.

“Another way to seek a testimony seems astonishing when compared with the methods of obtaining other knowledge.  We gain or strengthen a testimony by bearing it.   Someone even suggested that some testimonies are better gained on the feet bearing them than on the knees praying for them.”

– Dallin H. Oaks, Testimony

Context is helpful here, too. In this talk, Elder Oaks also counsels people to fast, pray, and study in order to build a testimony. Neither he nor Elder Packer are asking people to bear a testimony that they do not believe to be true.

As a young man, I remember asking my own father how I could bear a testimony when I didn’t actually know that the Church was true. “Do you believe the Church is true?” he asked me. I said that I did. “Well, why can’t you say that? If that’s the extent of your testimony, there’s no shame in sharing where you are.” I then found that bearing that degree of testimony – I had faith and belief – strengthened my personal conviction. Accompanied with study and prayer, I can now stand up and testify to my knowledge of the truthfulness of the Restored Gospel, and my bearing of the testimony I had was instrumental in building the testimony I have.

“It may come as you bear your own testimony of the Prophet…Consider recording the testimony of Joseph Smith in your own voice, listening to it regularly…Listening to the Prophet’s testimony in your own voice will help bring the witness you seek.”

– Neil  L.  Andersen,  Joseph Smith

When I read this with your ellipses, I assumed Elder Andersen was counseling people to record their own personal testimony of the prophet and listen to it, which admittedly seemed strange. You’ve done some very selective and misleading editing here, as that isn’t what Elder Andersen was saying at all.

The first sentence you quote is from an entirely different paragraph and is not connected to the rest of the text. Here’s his pertinent statement without the ellipses:

Next, read the testimony of the Prophet Joseph Smith in the Pearl of Great Price or in this pamphlet, now in 158 languages. You can find it online at LDS.org or with the missionaries. This is Joseph’s own testimony of what actually occurred. Read it often. Consider recording the testimony of Joseph Smith in your own voice, listening to it regularly, and sharing it with friends. Listening to the Prophet’s testimony in your own voice will help bring the witness you seek.

He’s not asking people to bear their own testimonies and listen to themselves saying “I know Joseph Smith was a prophet.” He’s asking people to read Joseph Smith – History, which will strengthen their testimony. He then asks them to consider recording the testimony of Joseph Smith – i.e. “I saw a pillar of light, etc.” – not recording their testimony of Joseph Smith – i.e. saying “I know it’s true” over and over again.

In other words, repeat things over and over until you convince yourself that it’s true.   Just keep telling yourself, “I know it’s true…I know it’s true…I know it’s true” until you believe it and voilà!   You now have a testimony that the Church is true and Joseph Smith was a prophet.

Nope. If you follow Elder Andersen’s instructions – a suggestion, really, as advice to “consider” something isn’t really an apostolic mandate –  you won’t be telling yourself “I know it’s true” over and over again; you’ll be listening to and pondering Joseph’s words, not your own.

You’ve grossly distorted both Elder Andersen’s words and his intent here.

How is this honest?  How is this ethical?  

It certainly isn’t honest or ethical to grossly distort an apostle’s words and intent.

What kind of advice are these Apostles giving when they’re telling you that if you don’t have a testimony, bear one anyway? 

That’s not what they’re saying.

How is this not lying? 

Because no one is being asked to say anything they don’t believe is true.

There’s a difference between saying you know something and you believe something.

Yes, and one can bear a testimony of both. Bearing testimony of one will strengthen the testimony of the other.

What about members and investigators who are on the other side listening to your “testimony”?  How are they supposed to know whether you actually do have a testimony of Mormonism or if you’re just following Packer’s, Oaks’ and Andersen’s counsel and you’re lying your way into one?

Elders Packer, Oaks, and Andersen would agree that nobody should lie when they’re bearing their testimony.

8. There are many members who share their testimonies that the Spirit told them that they were to marry this person or go to this school or move to this location or start up this business or invest in this investment. They rely on this Spirit in making critical life decisions.

Indeed, and I am very skeptical of such members. When teaching Sunday School, I will occasionally ask the class which brand of toothpaste the Lord would want them to use. This usually gets a laugh, as most people realize that the Lord doesn’t care. People who expect spiritual confirmations to guide them through every decision in their life are conducting themselves contrary to D&C 58:26, where the Lord says, “For behold, it is not meet that I should command in all things; for he that is compelled in all things, the same is a slothful and not a wise servant; wherefore he receiveth no reward.”

The reason we were sent to Earth was to exercise our own agency and use our own judgment. Waiting around for the Lord to tell us what to do at every turn is essentially a low-grade version of the plan we rejected in the pre-mortal life.

But what about the big decisions? Who we marry, where we go to school, what we should do for a living? Personally, I prayed very hard to get a confirmation as to whether or not I should marry my wife. I received no answer one way or the other. Then I was kneeling across the altar from her in the Salt Lake Temple, and I got a very clear, sweet message from the Spirit that I was doing the right thing. That actually made me somewhat frustrated. I was thinking, “You know, Lord, I would have appreciated this if you’d given me this message just a few days ago.” But in my experience, that’s not how the Lord works. He expects me to make decisions and act on them, and only afterward does the confirmation come. I receive no witness until after the trial of my faith.

When the decision turns out to be not only incorrect but disastrous, the fault lies on the individual and never on the Spirit. 

The Spirit never overrides our agency, so we are always accountable for our own decisions. That’s the plan. And the Lord also knew that we would make mistakes, some of them disastrous. That’s why the Infinite Atonement is at the center of the plan.

The individual didn’t have the discernment or it was the individual’s hormones talking or it was the individual’s greed that was talking or the individual wasn’t worthy at the time.

Those are all possibilities, but none of us are in a position to judge another’s heart. We’re also not always able to see if things that look like huge mistakes work out as blessings down the road.

This poses a profound flaw and dilemma:  if individuals can be so convinced that they’re being led by the Spirit but yet be so wrong about what the Spirit tells them, how can they be sure of the reliability of this same exact process in telling them that Mormonism is true?

I think the process you’re describing is not the same process the Lord uses to communicate with his children. There’s a reason the Spirit is referred to as a “still, small voice.” It requires experience and effort and commitment to know how and when to listen, and the Spirit’s gentle promptings can be overlooked or ignored when our focus is elsewhere. You seem to be advocating a process where the Spirit screams at us through a megaphone. Certainly that would be harder to ignore, but it would also defeat the purpose of mortality, which is to learn to exercise faith.

9. I felt the Spirit watching “Saving Private Ryan” and the “Schindler’s List.” Both R-rated and horribly violent movies.

Me, too. Other R-rated movies where I’ve felt the Spirit include “The Shawshank Redemption,” and, most recently, “Spotlight.” I think the counsel to avoid R-rated movies is a good general rule, but I don’t think the Motion Picture Association of America is infallible, either, nor do I think they have a mandate from heaven. There are valuable lessons and profound truths in both of those movies, so it doesn’t surprise me that the Spirit would bear witness to them.

I also felt the Spirit watching “Forrest Gump” and the “Lion King.”

Well, okay. Except I think “Lion King” in particular is just plain awful, although I recognize that’s a minority position.

After I lost my testimony, I attended a conference where former Mormons shared their stories. The same Spirit I felt telling me that Mormonism is true and that Joseph Smith was a true prophet is the same Spirit I felt in all of the above experiences.

Well, here I begin to wonder what it is you think is the Spirit, especially since you no longer really believe there is a Spirit.

Does this mean that Lion King is true?   That Mufasa is real and true?   Does this mean that Forrest Gump is real and the story happened in real life?  

This is a clear indication that you have a very warped understanding of what the Spirit actually is – or, more appropriately, who He is. When you felt the Spirit during “Forrest Gump,” was He telling you Forrest Gump was a historical figure? Because the Spirit isn’t an inanimate object; He is a member of the Godhead who imparts information, not just warm and pleasant feelings. As Joseph Smith taught, “No man can receive the Holy Ghost without receiving revelations. The Holy Ghost is a revelator.”(Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith, p. 328)

The Holy Ghost actually tells you what it is that He’s confirming.

When feeling the Spirit during Schindler’s List, for instance, He confirmed the truth that sacrifices made to save Jews during World War II were noble and good, and that I was seeing a story that reinforced true and good virtues. During The Shawshank Redemption, He confirmed that friendship and compassion are of infinite worth. During “Spotlight,” He confirmed that it was right to call attention to the terrible child abuse taking place in the Catholic church.

For you to ask whether feeling the Spirit means that Mufasa truly exists, you give the impression that you see the Spirit as something akin to the buzzer that rings at church when there are five minutes left in Sunday School. To you, He’s a thing, not a person, and, furthermore, He’s a thing that can only impart binary information. (I.E. Warm feelings means this is historical; no warm feelings means this is not.) This actually makes me very sad, because if you could spend your whole life in the Church and ask if a good feeling you have during the Lion King is spiritual confirmation that Mufasa was a historical figure, then there is something fundamentally wrong with how we teach children – and adults, for that matter – about how the Spirit operates.

Why did I feel the Spirit as I listened to the stories of apostates sharing how they discovered for themselves that Mormonism is not true?

How can you say you felt the Spirit after you rejected the existence of a Spirit as you listened to people deny that there actually is a Spirit? Especially after you think feeling the Spirit confirms the physical existence of cartoon characters?

Why is this Spirit so unreliable and inconsistent?

He isn’t. Your own spiritual education, however, seems to have been far more unreliable and inconsistent than it ought to have been.

How can I trust such an inconsistent and contradictory Source for knowing that Mormonism is worth betting my  life, time, money, heart, mind, and obedience  to?

You can’t. Because based on your observations here, whatever source you’ve been listening to bears little or no resemblance to the Spirit.

This thought–provoking video raises some profound questions and challenges to the Latter-day Saint concept of “testimony” and receiving a witness from the Holy Ghost or Spirit as being a unique, reliable, and trustworthy source to discerning truth and reality:

I can’t seem to embed the video here on my blog. (It’s in my PDF reply.) The video raises essentially the same questions and challenges you’ve raised in your text, and my above responses apply to this video as well.

Tomorrow: The Priesthood and Magic

CES Reply: Testimonies

I apologize for the pause in posting here – lots going on at the moment. Picking up where I left off with my reply to Jeremy Runnell’s “Letter to a CES Director,” with Jeremy’s original words in green:

Testimony/Spiritual Witness Concerns & Questions:

Every major religion has members who claim the same thing: God or God’s spirit bore witness to them that their religion, prophet/pope/leaders, book(s), and teachings are true.

Hmmm. Are you sure about this? Because that’s not actually how non-LDS Christians tend to operate.

You’d be hard-pressed to find Catholic sermons where priests implore their parishioners to pray to know whether or not the Catholic church is true, or whether the Pope has been called of God. They rely on the weight of Catholic history and tradition and the argument of apostolic succession to establish their authority.

And while it’s true that Protestants emphasize a spiritual experience with Jesus, they, too, lean on arguments from authority when it comes to any specific theology. The a priori assumption is that the Bible is infallible, and biblical proof-texts take precedence over Mormon-style claims of spiritual confirmation.

Joseph Fielding McConkie on page 83 of his book “Here We Stand,” says that he has “frequently asked classes of returned missionaries if they ever met anyone who, while professing a belief in the Bible, could at the same time honestly say they prayed to know if it was true. I have yet to receive an affirmative response to that question.”

More McConkie, from the same book, pages 43 and 44:

An anti-Mormon book that uses the title God’s Word Final, Infallible, and Forever gives its readers three standards that, if followed, will assure that they will not be caught in the Mormon net. Each of these standards, we are to assume, is rooted in the Bible. First, as readers we are warned not to pray about the message; after all, it is reasoned, people have been deceived by their prayers. The second warning is not to trust our feelings, because, we are told, feelings can also be deceptive. The third warning is not to trust our minds, for “our minds are reprobate.” So, the book concludes, if we refuse to pray, to trust our feelings, and to use our minds, there is no chance the Mormons will get us. (That was the only conclusion in a lengthy book which I was able to agree.) What than are we to trust?

The answer is, of course, the Bible.

The premise that everyone has direct access to heaven and can – and should – receive personal revelation as confirmation of truth turns out to be a uniquely Mormon idea.

Just as it would be arrogant of a FLDS, Jehovah Witness, Catholic, Seventh-day Adventist, or Muslim to deny a Latter-day Saint’s spiritual experience and testimony of the truthfulness of Mormonism, it would likewise be arrogant of a Latter-day Saint to deny their spiritual experiences and testimonies of the truthfulness of their own religion. Yet, every religion cannot be right together.

Have you ever had a Jehovah’s Witness bear their testimony to you? A Muslim? A Catholic? That’s just not how it works. Jehovah’s Witnesses will spend all day long citing Bible verses to build a legalistic case to support their position, but never in a million years would they interrupt their Bible bashing by saying something like, “I know the Jehovah’s Witnesses are true because the Spirit told me so.”

You’re looking at everything through a Mormon lens, and the frame of reference for other faiths is actually very different, which, I think, is due to the fact that they believe the scriptural canon is closed. There is no attempt to seek additional revelation because scripture, be it the Bible or the Koran, is all the revelation we will ever have or need, and it would be blasphemy to ask God for any more.

As for the FLDS, you may have a point, as they share a theological history with us. Except a shared theological history with the mainstream LDS Church hasn’t prevented the Community of Christ from abandoning any exclusive claims to truth. Mormons are actually far more unique here than you seem to realize.

LDS member in 2014: I know that Joseph Smith was a true prophet. I know the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is the one and only true Church. I know the Book of Mormon is true. I know that Thomas S. Monson is the Lord’s true Prophet today.

FLDS member in 2014: I know that Joseph Smith was a true prophet. I know the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints is the one and only true Church. I know the Book of Mormon is true. I know that Warren Jeffs is the Lord’s true Prophet today.

RLDS member in 1975: I know that Joseph Smith was a true prophet. I know the Reorganized Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints is the one and only true Church. I know the Book of Mormon is true. I know that W. Wallace Smith is the Lord’s true Prophet today.

LDCJC member in 2014: I know that Joseph Smith was a true prophet. I know The Latter Day Church of Jesus Christ is the one and only true Church. I know the Book of Mormon and the Book of Jeraneck are true. I know that Matthew P. Gill is the Lord’s true Prophet, Seer, Revelator, and Translator today.

Where’s the Catholic testimony in your examples? The testimony of the Jehovah’s Witness or the Muslim? Your original premise was that all churches operate this way, yet you only use groups rooted in a common theology as your examples. You would never hear a Catholic, Protestant, Jew or Muslim bear this kind of testimony.

It’s also telling that you have to reach back to 1975 to find an example of what the RLDS would say, because a modern Community of Christ member surely wouldn’t speak this way.

That leaves us with the FLDS and the LDCJC, two tiny splinter groups rife with corruption, fraud, and pedophilia. Do I think we’re right and they are deceived? Absolutely.

Same method: read, ponder, and pray. 

That’s not the Catholic, Protestant, Jewish, or Muslim method. In fact, for the centuries preceding Vatican II, the Catholics actively discouraged Bible reading in favor of study of church traditions.

Different testimonies. All four testimonies cannot simultaneously be true. This is the best God can come up with in revealing His truth to His children?

All four testimonies, huh? No more references to Muslim testimony meetings? You’re conceding here that the seeking of a testimony is a practice only rooted in the LDS tradition. 

But to answer your question – yes, this is the best God can come up with in revealing His truth to His children. We ask, and He answers. Of course, our access to heaven is predicated on our faith and our righteousness, so it shouldn’t be surprising that groups engaged in financial fraud and child rape are far less likely to gain that access and therefore far more likely to be deceived.

Only .2% of the world’s population are members of God’s true Church. This is God’s model and standard of efficiency?

No, this is God’s way of telling us we need to do our temple work, which will eventually provide 100% of the world’s population, past and present, with the opportunity to fully accept or reject the gospel. Mormons are astonishingly inclusive here in a way that no other religion can match.

Praying about the truthfulness of the Book of Mormon does not follow that the LDS Church is true. The FLDS also believe in the Book of Mormon. So do 20+ Mormon splinter groups. They believe in the divinity of the Book of Mormon as well.

And they are right to do so. In the case of the FLDS and the LDCJC, they are also engaged in grievous sin, which distorts their ability to have the companionship of the Holy Ghost. As for the other groups, they’re at varying levels of belief in the Book of Mormon. The Community of Christ has essentially downgraded it to the status of inspired fiction, and other groups have done the same.

Praying about the First Vision: Which account is true? They can’t all be correct together as they conflict with one another.

We covered this. They’re actually quite consistent with each other, and you see conflicts that aren’t there.

If God’s method to revealing truth is through feelings, it’s a pretty ineffective method.

That’s true, which is why this is only part of God’s method. D&C 8:2 gives us this promise: “Yea, behold, I will tell you in your mind and in your heart, by the Holy Ghost.” [Emphasis added.] Yes, the heart and its feelings are part of the equation, but they are also accompanied by the imparting of intelligence. Spiritual experiences are intellectual as well as emotional. Joseph Fielding McConkie used to say that the Lord has never given us a mindless revelation. Genuine spiritual experience sink deeply into every part of us, and they are far more profound than just warm fuzzies.

Perhaps the best example of this is Joseph Smith’s own experience in reading James 1:5. He describes his personal revelation in the following terms:

“Never did any passage of scripture come with more power to the heart of man than this did at this time to mine. It seemed to enter with great force into every feeling of my heart. I reflected on it again and again, knowing that if any person needed wisdom from God, I did;” – Joseph Smith – History 1:12

There’s a powerful feeling here, yes, but there’s also deep intellectual engagement. “I reflected on it again and again.” The Spirit does not require you to leave your brain at the Church’s front door.

We have thousands of religions and billions of members of those religions saying that their truth is God’s only truth and everyone else is wrong because they felt God or God’s spirit reveal the truth to them.

If that’s truly the case, then you ought to provide the testimonies that demonstrate this. Outside of the LDS tradition, that’s not generally how other religions define their relationship with their church or with God.

Joseph Smith received a revelation, through the peep stone in his hat, to send Hiram Page and Oliver Cowdery to Toronto, Canada for the sole purpose of selling the copyright of the Book of Mormon, which is another concern in itself (why would God command to sell the copyright to His word?).

Perhaps because it could provide the fledgling Church with revenue in order to fulfill its mission. Same reason he asks us to pay tithing, really. 

Glad you got another mention of the rock in the hat in there, though. I was beginning to think you’d forgotten about it, as you’d gone several paragraphs without bringing it up.

The mission failed and the prophet was asked why his revelation was wrong.

Here’s the revelation in question. It’s hard to read, because it’s a direct transcription from the Joseph Smith Papers, complete with original spelling, grammar, and some digital detritus thrown in the mix:

Blessing2 & Behold I also covenanted with those who have assisted  him in my work that I will do unto them even the same3  Because they have done that which is pleasing in my sight  4(yea even all save M◊◊tin only5 it be one only) Wherefore be  dilligent in Securing the Copy right of my Servent work  upon all the face of the Earth of which is known by you  unto unto my Servent Joseph & unto him whom he willeth  accordinng as I shall command him that the faithful & the  righteous may retain the temperal Blessing as well as the  Spirit[u]al & also that my work be not destroyed by the workers  of iniquity to their own distruction & damnation when they  are fully ripe & now Behold I say unto you that I have coven anted & it Pleaseth me that Oliver Cowderey Joseph Knight Hyram  Page & Josiah Stowel shall do my work in this thing yea  even in securing the right & they shall do it with an eye single  to my Glory that it may be the means of bringing souls  unto me Salvation through mine only Begotten Behold I am  God I have spoken it & it is expedient in me Wherefor I say  unto you that ye shall go to Kingston6 seeking me continually  through mine only Begotten & if ye do this ye shall have my  spirit to go with you & ye shall have an addition of all things  which is expedient in me. & I grant unto my servent a privelige  that he may sell through you speaking after the manner of  men for the four Provinces7 if the People harden not their hearts against the enticeings of my spirit & my word for Behold it lieth in themselves to their condemnation & or to their salvation  Behold my way is before you & the means I will prepare  & the Blessing I hold in mine own hand & if ye are faithful  I will pour out upon you even as much as ye are able to  Bear & thus it shall be Behold I am the father & it is through  mine only begotten which is Jesus Christ your Redeemer amen [p. 31]”

Not sure if you can see the emphasis I added in there, but the revelation includes a phrase that this will be fulfilled only “if the People harden not their hearts against the enticeings [sic] of my spirit & my word.” The people hardened their hearts, and so the copyright wasn’t sold, and the revelation wasn’t wrong. Pretty straightforward.

Joseph decided to inquire of the Lord regarding the question. The following is a quote from Book of Mormon witness David Whitmer’s testimony:

“…and behold the following revelation came through the stone: ‘Some revelations are of God; and some revelations are of man: and some revelations are of the devil.’ So we see that the revelation to go to Toronto and sell the copy-right was not of God, but was of the devil or of the heart of man.”
– David Whitmer, An Address to All Believers in Christ, p.31

Testimony written 57 years after the fact when Whitmer was deeply disaffected with Joseph Smith and was providing reasons why Joseph should be seen as a fallen prophet. (Tangentially, this 57-years-later testimony is also our main source for the rock-in-the-hat story you love so much, and its late date and Whitmer’s disaffection are the reasons the McConkies and the Joseph Fielding Smiths of the world reject the hat/stone idea.)

Whitmer didn’t participate in going to Canada, and accounts from those who accompanied Joseph on the trip contradict Whitmer’s opinion. The contemporaneous document makes it clear that the Lord told Joseph that the people of Canada had a say in whether or not the copyright would be sold. Whether or not Joseph actually said what Whitmer says he said does not change the fact that the actual outcome was consistent with the revelation.

How are we supposed to know what revelations are from God, from the devil, or from the heart of man if even the Prophet Joseph Smith couldn’t tell? 

That’s an outstanding question. The fact is that we each have an individual responsibility to discern truth from error. “By the power of the Holy Ghost, ye may know the truth of all things.” (Moroni 10:5) That’s a promise given to all, not just prophets.

What kind of a god and method is this if Heavenly Father allows Satan to interfere with our direct line of communication to Him? Sincerely asking for answers?

I don’t accept the premise of your question, as it’s based on the idea that the revelation re: the Canadian copyright came from the devil, which I don’t believe it did. I will say, however, that the Lord never interferes with agency, and people can receive “answers” that conveniently coincide with the answers they wanted or expected, which is a case of mistaking their own desires for the will of God. 

I do, however, believe that when our hearts are pure and we are truly sincere, the Lord’s voice will cut through any attempts by Satan to stifle it.

5. As a believing Mormon, I saw a testimony as more than just spiritual experiences and feelings. I saw that we had evidence and logic on our side based on the correlated narrative I was fed by the Church about its origins. I lost this confidence at 31-years-old when I discovered that the gap between what the Church teaches about its origins versus what the primary historical documents actually show happened, what history shows what happened, what science shows what happened…couldn’t be further apart.

And yet here I am, still a believing Mormon who has looked at all the same documents that you have, and I still see we have evidence and logic on our side, as well as spiritual confirmation of that truth. How is that possible? Maybe it’s because at every opportunity to interpret that same evidence, you take the point of view that is the most critical of Joseph and the Church and refuse to give the LDS argument the benefit of any doubts.

I read an experience that explains this in another way:

“I resigned from the LDS Church and informed my bishop that the reasons had to do with discovering the real history of the Church. When I was done he asked about the spiritual witness I had surely received as a missionary. I agreed that I had felt a sure witness, as strong as he currently felt. I gave him the analogy of Santa; I believed in Santa until I was 12. I refused to listen to reason from my friends who had discovered the truth much earlier…I just knew. However, once I learned the facts, feelings changed. I told him that Mormons have to re-define faith in order to believe; traditionally, faith is an instrument to bridge that gap between where science, history and logic end, and what you hope to be true. Mormonism re-defines faith as embracing what you hope to be true in spite of science, fact and history.”
And far be it from me to second-guess someone else’s experience. What’s interesting, though, is how critical you are of those who bear their testimonies when confronted with difficult information, yet that’s exactly what you’re doing here. This person is bearing their testimony of the untruthfulness of the Gospel. It’s impossible to argue with a testimony, which may be why so many people, when backed into a corner, toss that out as the best they can do.

For my part, all I can say is that my experience has been markedly different than this one, and I don’t believe for one second that Mormons “have to re-define faith in order to believe.” I guess we’ll have to agree to disagree on this one.

Tomorrow: Following the Spirit

CES Reply: Kinderhookin’

Continuing my reply to Jeremy Runnell’s “Letter to a CES Director,” with Jeremy’s original words in green:

Kinderhook Plates and Translator/Seer Claims Concerns & Questions:

  1. Kinderhook Plates:

Awesome! Who doesn’t like Kinderhook Plates?


What’s with all the MormonInfographics cribbing? Do you owe those guys money?

The quote from the History of the Church is actually a modified excerpt from William Clayton’s journal, which was later rewritten into the History of the Church after Joseph’s death as if the prophet had said it himself. It was not written by Joseph, who, as far as we know, never wrote anything about this subject. Certainly he made no translation of the fake plates.

What we do know is that when Joseph received the plates, he compared one character to a character on the Kirtland Egyptian Papers and found what appeared to be a match. So perhaps Clayton was accurate in saying he had “translated a portion of them” – i.e. a single character. One of the plates has a thingee that looks similar to a Ham-referencing boat-shaped symbol in the Kirtland Egyptian Papers. That was it. Nothing supernatural took place. My guess is that after that single moment of excitement, Joseph quickly realized someone was pulling his leg and just moved on to other things.

Best detailed summation of all things Kinderhook can be found online here.

2. Book of Abraham:

As outlined in the “Book of Abraham” section, Joseph Smith got everything wrong about the papyri, the facsimiles, the names, the gods, the scene context, the fact that the papyri and facsimiles were 1st  century CE funerary text, who was male, who was female, etc.  It’s gibberish.

Gloovy binglurf sharbabrabaranian. That, my friend, is gibberish.

You’re just repeating yourself here. My prior response still stands.

There is not one single non-LDS Egyptologist who supports Joseph’s Book of Abraham or its claims.   Even LDS Egyptologists acknowledge there are serious problems with the Book of Abraham and Joseph’s claims.

I clicked on your link and got pages and pages of stuff like this:

“%PDF-1.7 %âãÏÓ 2 0 obj <>stream x_•[³_ÇqçßçSLø…”

Now that’s some high quality gibberish.

In any case, we’ve been over this. Non-LDS Egyptologists generally don’t pay attention to the Book of Abraham, and there are startling parallels between the book and ancient Abrahamic traditions.

Joseph Smith made a claim that he could translate ancient documents.  This is a testable claim.

Not if you don’t have the original documents to compare to the translation.

Joseph failed the test with the Book of Abraham.

Only if you assume that the scraps we have are the actual source material, which they aren’t.

He failed the test with the Kinderhook Plates.

He did? Do you know of a translation of the Kinderhook Plates that everyone else has missed? Since he didn’t translate the fake plates, how could this matter have any bearing on his abilities as a translator?

With this modus operandi and track record, I’m now supposed to believe that Joseph has the credibility of translating the keystone Book of Mormon? 

Except the Book of Mormon came first and established the M.O. It’s a complex and internally consistent document that stands on its own merits. Certainly you have not offered a coherent alternative explanation for its existence. Now you’re trying to fallaciously discredit it based on the false premise that we have the source material for the Book of Abraham. You’re also falsely claiming that Joseph translated false plates that he didn’t translate.

With a rock in a hat?

Sure. Why not? How is a rock in a hat inherently weirder than ancient biblical granny glasses tied to a metal breastplate? Just saying “rock in a hat” doesn’t do anything to discredit the Book of Mormon – it’s still here, and making fun of it doesn’t make it go away.

That the gold plates that ancient prophets went through all the time and effort of making, engraving, compiling, abridging, preserving, hiding, and transporting were useless?

Who says they were useless? They were extraordinarily useful. They provided tangible evidence of the Book of Mormon’s divine origins, and they were viewed by multiple witnesses, including many not mentioned in the official Three and Eight Witness testimonies. They also provide a stumbling block for critics who want to pretend Joseph made it all up have to account for the overwhelming physical evidence that Joseph actually had some kind of plates. (Hence the theories of forged tin plates, etc.) The plates tangibly tied the Book of Mormon to the ancient world. Very useful indeed, in my opinion.

Moroni’s 5,000 mile journey lugging the gold plates from Mesoamerica (if you believe the unofficial apologists) all the way to New York to bury the plates, come back as a resurrected angel, and instruct Joseph for 4 years only for Joseph to translate instead using just a…rock in a hat?

So we keep coming back to the hat rock. What have you got against rocks in hats?

I wonder what process would have been sufficient to impress you. You sound like Naaman in the Old Testament. He got ticked off because the prophet told him to bathe seven times in the Jordan River to cure his leprosy. He wanted some far grander process, or at least a better river. If the rock hadn’t been in the hat, would that have been better? Maybe if Moroni had stuck around personally to dictate to Oliver?

The rock in the hat is culturally odd to Jeremy Runnells and Jim Bennett and 21st Century folks, but it wasn’t culturally odd to Joseph Smith, and since he was the one doing the translating, I don’t see any problem with the Lord communicating with him by means of methods that would have been familiar to Joseph, even if they are strange to us.

A rock he found digging in his neighbor’s property in 1822; a year before Moroni appeared in his bedroom, 5 years before he got the gold plates and Urim and Thummim, and the same stone and method Joseph used for his treasure hunting activities?

That’s the one! It probably put his mind at ease to be able to have familiar frame of reference to help him relate to the overwhelming task of transitioning from “a boy of no consequence in the world” to a prophet, seer, and revelator.


Again, Joseph Smith never translated the Kinderhook Plates or claimed that he had. That leaves us with two, not three, ancient records, and we do not have the original text for the Book of Abraham, so it has not been proven a fraud. Also, it’s weird to call the Book of Mormon the third “clunker” when it’s the one that came first.

Tomorrow: Testimonies and Witnesses




CES Reply: The Priesthood Ban

Continuing my reply to Jeremy Runnell’s “Letter to a CES Director,” with Jeremy’s original words in green:

Blacks Ban:  As you know, for close to 130 years blacks were not only banned from holding the priesthood but black individuals and families were blocked from the saving ordinances of the Temple.  Every single prophet from Brigham Young all the way to Harold B. Lee kept this ban in place.

Now we finally get to something I find genuinely troubling, too. Frankly, I’m not particularly enamored with the Church’s record on the subject. I have spent a great deal of time defending the Church’s exclusion of black members from leadership prior to 1978, and my arguments have fallen flat with others and, frankly, with me.

After the Church reversed its policy excluding black leaders a little over thirty years ago, several church leaders dusted off 2 Nephi 26:33 and made it the centerpiece of several very good sermons on the subject. I particularly like Elder Bruce R. McConkie’s sermon, which contained this startlingly candid admission of error.

“Forget everything that I have said, or what President Brigham Young or President George Q. Cannon or whomsoever has said in days past that is contrary to the present revelation. We spoke with a limited understanding and without the light and knowledge that now has come into the world.”

– Bruce R. McConkie, “All Are Alike Unto God,” August 18, 1978

Fine. So why do so many members of the Church feel it necessary to defend some of the more racist nonsense that these people were spouting prior to the 1978 revelation? Those who honestly and open-heartedly examine the life of Brigham Young will come to the conclusion that he was a mighty man called by God to lead the Church and do a great work.

But as evidenced by some of the issues you raise, anyone who believes he was infallible is missing the boat.

Indeed, pretty much all of the racism that wormed its way into Church policy can be traced back to Brigham, who gave more credence to popular 19th century theories about the ancestry of the African people than he should have. It certainly doesn’t come from Joseph Smith, who received the fundamental revelations that form the spiritual foundation for the Church as it existed then and today. That scripture quoted above from 2 Nephi, for instance, has been around for over 180 years. Joseph Smith himself ordained several black men to the priesthood. When asked about “the situation of the negro,” as was the language of the time, here was Joseph Smith’s reply:

“They came into the world slaves mentally and physically. Change their situation with the whites, and they would be like them. They have souls, and are subjects of salvation. Go into Cincinnati or any city, and find an educated negro, who rides in his carriage, and you will see a man who has risen by the powers of his own mind to his exalted state of respectability. The slaves in Washington are more refined than many in high places, and the black boys will take the shine of many of those they brush and wait on.”

– History of the Church, Volume 5, page 216.

That’s not to say that Joseph Smith was Martin Luther King, but the view expressed in the preceding paragraph is remarkably enlightened for that time period. I doubt even Abraham Lincoln, who firmly believed that blacks were inferior to whites, would have been nearly as egalitarian.

The idea that the African people descended from Cain and were a cursed race did not originate with the LDS Church. It was a popular 19th Century justification for slavery, and while Brigham Young certainly believed it, there is no scriptural justification for using that idea to exclude black members from Church leadership. Indeed, the idea was not codified as church policy until long after Brigham Young’s death.

David O. McKay, president of the Church from 1950 to 1970, made this very clear when he stated:

“There is not now, and there never has been a doctrine in this church that the negroes are under a divine curse. There is no doctrine in the church of any kind pertaining to the negro. We believe that we have a scriptural precedent for withholding the priesthood from the negro. It is a practice, not a doctrine, and the practice someday will be changed. And that’s all there is to it.”

David O McKay, 1954

The idea of “scriptural precedent” disturbs me somewhat. Critics of the church seize on volatile statements in the Book of Mormon that talk about a curse being placed on the Lamanites which included a “skin of darkness,” but the irony is that the Lamanites are believed to be ancestors of Native Americans, not people of African descent. Indeed, Church leaders, both then and now, consider Native Americans to be part of the House of Israel and heirs to a magnificent destiny. No one has ever tried to use those inflammatory passages in the Book of Mormon to justify keeping the priesthood from Native Americans, even though these passages are far more explicit and defamatory than the cryptic verses used to link Africans to Cain.

President McKay repeatedly stated that the priesthood ban was a policy, not a doctrine, although it would take a revelation to reverse it. My question, as well as everybody else’s question, is if it’s just a policy, then why would it take a revelation to reverse it? And why didn’t the revelation come to President McKay, who reportedly prayed very ardently to receive such?

There’s no definitive answer. I believe, however, that since President McKay was, like many of his generation, a believer in segregation, he had difficulty imagining a colorblind world. It took someone willing to fully accept the idea that “all are alike unto God,” and all the ramifications of that to open the door for the revelation. I don’t think that someone arrived on the scene until Spencer Kimball became President of the Church in 1974.

Prophets, Seers, and Revelators of 2013 – in its December 2013 Race and the Priesthood essay – disavowed the “theories” of yesterday’s Prophets, Seers, and Revelators for their theological, institutional, and doctrinal racist teachings and “revelation”. Yesterday’s racist doctrine and revelation is today’s “disavowed theories”.

Your use of the word “revelation” – quotation marks yours – is interesting. Can you show me the revelation that banned blacks from the priesthood? You can’t, because none exists. The idea that lifting the ban was a renunciation of a revelation cannot be sustained by the facts. In addition, President McKay’s statement that the ban was a policy, not a doctrine, further undermines your position here.

Joseph Smith permitted the priesthood to at least two black men.  Elijah Abel was one of them.  Walker Lewis was another.

So, Joseph Smith gives the priesthood to blacks.  Brigham Young bans blacks.  Each and every single one of the 10 prophets from Brigham Young to Harold B. Lee supported what Spencer W. Kimball referred to as a “possible error” (Teachings of Spencer W. Kimball, p. 448-449).

A possible error, yes, because error is possible. Prior to your faith crisis, you apparently believed that prophetic error was impossible, despite the central nature of agency to Mormon theology.

Heavenly Father likes blacks enough to give them the priesthood under Joseph Smith but He decides they’re not okay when Brigham Young shows up. And He still doesn’t think they’re okay for the next 130 years and the next 9 prophets until President Kimball decides to get a revelation.

Heavenly Father’s love for all people has been clear in the Book of Mormon since the founding of the Church. 2 Nephi 26:33 states that “[The Lord] denieth none that cometh unto him, black and white, bond and free, male and female; … all are alike unto God.” The fact that the Church didn’t fully live up to that principle is the fault of man, not God.

The same God who “denieth none that come unto him, black and white, bond and free, male and female” is the same God who denied blacks from the saving ordinances of the Temple for 130 years.   Yet, He changed His mind again in 1978 about black people.

Quoting from the Book or Mormon musical, are we? Of course God didn’t change his mind about black people. God instead had to wait for fallible white people to reject racism.

Of course, the revelation He gives to the Brethren in the Salt Lake Temple on June 1, 1978 has absolutely nothing to do with Jimmy Carter’s IRS potentially revoking the Church’s and BYU’s tax-exempt status, Stanford and other universities boycotting BYU athletics, we can’t figure out who’s black or not in Brazil, and that post-Civil Rights societal trends were against the Church’s racism.

On the contrary, I’m sure the revelation had a great deal to do with all of those things. Why would that be a problem? Revelations don’t come in a vacuum and never have. Remember, the Word of Wisdom was received because Emma was tired of cleaning up the tobacco stains all over the floor in the School of the Prophets. Revelations come when we ask questions, and we ask questions when there are pressing circumstances that require an answer.

Christ’s true Church should have been the one leading the Civil Rights movement, not be the last major Church on the planet in 1978 to adopt it.

Indeed! That’s probably why Church issued strong statements in support of the Civil Rights Movement well before the 1978 revelation. The following statement was read by a member of the First Presidency in the October 1963 General Conference:

During recent months, both in Salt Lake City and across the nation, considerable interest has been expressed in the position of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints on the matter of civil rights. We would like it to be known that there is in this Church no doctrine, belief, or practice that is intended to deny the enjoyment of full civil rights by any person regardless of race, color, or creed.

We say again, as we have said many times before, that we believe that all men are the children of the same God, and that it is a moral evil for any person or group of persons to deny any human being the right to gainful employment, to full educational opportunity, and to every privilege of citizenship, just as it is a moral evil to deny him the right to worship according to the dictates of his own conscience.

On this one, the Church beat Congress to the punch. The landmark Civil Rights Act, which codified these ideas into law, didn’t pass until 1964.

As a believing member, I had no idea that Joseph Smith gave the priesthood to black men.

Then I would think discovering that Joseph gave the priesthood to black men would be extraordinarily encouraging, as that info demonstrates that the early Church was remarkably egalitarian for its time.

I’m supposed to go to the drawing board now and believe in a god who is not only a schizophrenic racist but who is inconsistent as well?

No, you’re supposed to go to the drawing board and rethink your faulty premise that prophets have their agency extracted from them when they become prophets.

Yesterday’s doctrine is today’s false doctrine. Yesterday’s 10 prophets are today’s heretics.

Just as all of us will be tomorrow’s heretics when new light and knowledge enters the world.

Tomorrow: Mark Hoffman… and More!




CES Reply: Brother Brigham

Continuing my reply to Jeremy Runnell’s “Letter to a CES Director,” with Jeremy’s original words in green:

Prophets Concerns & Questions:

1. Adam-God:  President Brigham Young taught what is now known as “Adam-God theory.” He taught that Adam is “our Father and our God, and the only God with whom we have to do.”  Young not only taught this doctrine over the pulpit at the 1852 and 1854 General Conferences but he also introduced this doctrine as the Lecture at the Veil in the endowment ceremony of the Temple.

Yeah, Adam-God is wacky. It makes no sense, even in context. I can’t find any evidence that it penetrated the culture of the Church, which leaves open the possibility that the early saints understood Brigham in a way that eludes modern interpretation. (That’s the case with Blood Atonement, which we’ll get to later.) There doesn’t seem to be any attempt by church members to apply Adam-God in practice, which, if this were binding doctrine, would likely have had a greater impact than a handful of confusing sermons. Fundamentalist splinter groups now teach this, but they didn’t start doing so until long after Brigham was dead.

Stephen Robinson – a BYU prof, so perhaps he and Nibley are at least semi-official apologists? – had the best take on this in his book Are Mormons Christians?, the relevant excerpt of which can be found online. His opinion is reflective of my own on this subject:

Yet another way in which anti-Mormon critics often misrepresent LDS doctrine is in the presentation of anomalies as though they were the doctrine of the Church. Anomalies occur in every field of human endeavor, even in science. An anomaly is something unexpected that cannot be explained by the existing laws or theories, but which does not constitute evidence for changing the laws and theories. An anomaly is a glitch.

For example, if a chemist combines two parts hydrogen and one part oxygen a hundred times in a row, and ninety-nine times she gets water but on the hundredth time she gets alcohol, this does not mean that one percent of the time the laws of chemistry are different. It simply means that something was wrong with the hundredth experiment, even though the experimenter may not know what it was. Beakers may have been mislabelled; grad students may have been playing a practical joke; instruments might have given incorrect readings; secretaries might have typed the wrong information. If the anomaly could be reproduced experimentally, then it would be significant and would demand a change in the theories. But if it can’t be reproduced, it is simply ignored–as an anomaly. It is assumed that some unknown factor was different in the case of the anomalous results, and the experiment yielding those results is therefore invalid. Moreover, to ignore such anomalies is not considered dishonesty, but represents sound scientific method…

A classic example of an anomaly in the LDS tradition is the so-called “Adam-God theory.” During the latter half of the nineteenth century Brigham Young made some remarks about the relationship between Adam and God that the Latter-day Saints have never been able to understand. The reported statements conflict with LDS teachings before and after Brigham Young, as well as with statements of President Young himself during the same period of time. So how do Latter-day Saints deal with the phenomenon? We don’t; we simply set it aside. It is an anomaly. On occasion my colleagues and I at Brigham Young University have tried to figure out what Brigham Young might have actually said and what it might have meant, but the attempts have always failed. The reported statements simply do not compute –we cannot make sense out of them. This is not a matter of believing it or disbelieving it; we simply don’t know what “it” is. If Brigham Young were here we could ask him what he actually said and what he meant by it, but he is not here, and even expert students of his thought are left to wonder whether he was misquoted, whether he meant to say one thing and actually said another, whether he was somehow joking with or testing the Saints, or whether some vital element that would make sense out of the reports has been omitted.

For the Latter-day Saints, however, the point is moot, since whatever Brigham Young said, true or false, was never presented to the Church for a sustaining vote. It was not then and is not now a doctrine of the Church, and–like the chemist who can neither explain nor reproduce her results–the Church has merely set the phenomenon aside as an anomaly.

Prophets and apostles after Young renounced Adam-God theory as false doctrine.

That’s probably because it is a false doctrine, at least as it’s understood by modern sensibilities.

President Spencer W. Kimball renounced Adam-God theory in the October 1976 Conference:

“We warn you against the dissemination of doctrines which are not according to the scriptures and which are alleged to have been taught by some of the General Authorities of past generations. Such, for instance, is the Adam-God theory. We denounce that theory and hope that everyone will be cautioned against this and other kinds of false doctrine.” – President Spencer W. Kimball, Our Own Liahona

And amen to President Kimball for that.

Along with President Spencer W. Kimball and similar statements from others, Bruce R. McConkie made the following statement:

“The devil keeps this heresy alive as a means of obtaining converts to cultism. It is contrary to the whole plan of salvation set forth in the scriptures, and anyone who has read the Book of Moses, and anyone who has received the temple endowment, has no excuse whatever for being led astray by it. Those who are so ensnared reject the living prophet and close their ears to the apostles of their day.” – Bruce R. McConkie, The Seven Deadly Heresies

Yeah, not a fan of The Seven Deadly Heresies, but that’s another discussion altogether. Your point, however, is that prophets and apostles after Brigham have vigorously disavowed Adam-God as false doctrine, and you are entirely correct, just as they were correct to disavow it.

Ironically, McConkie’s June 1980 condemnation asks you to trust him and Kimball as today’s living prophet.

I don’t see how that’s ironic at all. Wasn’t President Kimball the living prophet in 1980?

Further, McConkie is pointing to the endowment ceremony as a source of factual information.

Meaning what? The fact Elder McConkie is citing is that the endowment ceremony makes it very clear that Adam is the archangel Michael, not God the Father. Given that Brigham Young wrote the endowment ceremony when they got to Salt Lake based on his memory of Nauvoo, Brigham clearly knew that Adam was Michael, not Heavenly Father, which make these anomalous forays into Adam God-ism more confusing.

What about the Saints of Brigham’s day who were following their living prophet?

What about them? The records of the day suggest that they saw no need to incorporate Adam-God into Mormon theology, so they obviously understood Brigham’s point in a way that we don’t.

And what about the endowment ceremony of their day where Adam-God was being taught at the veil?

What about it? We don’t have anything but a second-hand recounting of notes from his secretary. Again, if this was received as the kind of earth-shattering departure from what the Church currently teaches, it would be something that we’d have to reckon with. As it is, everything Brigham had to say on the subject was greeted with a collective shrug from the Church at large, so there seems to be an element of this that we no longer understand.

Yesterday’s doctrine is today’s false doctrine and yesterday’s prophet is today’s heretic.

I don’t think you’ve thought through the implications of your assumption here. For no prophet to ever say something that isn’t later shown to be wrong by revelation, then you have to believe that the entirety of information on every subject would have to be given to them from heaven. At what point did you assume that took place? Did Joseph get it all before he died? Even if he did – which he didn’t – up until the point where the download was complete, doesn’t that make him yesterday’s heretic for most of his life?

Consider that this can be true not just from prophet to prophet, but even within any given prophet’s tenure as a prophet. Latter-day Saints, including Joseph and Oliver, believed in a traditional Christian heaven and hell when the Church was organized in 1830. Then in 1832, Joseph and Sidney Rigdon had the vision of the Three Degrees of Glory, and it blew the traditional Christian theology to smithereens. So Joseph himself believed yesterday’s false doctrine and was yesterday’s heretic. Of course, no one is under condemnation for being mistaken in the absence of revelation, as we’re all judged on the level of light and knowledge we receive.

Latter-day Saint theology is diametrically opposed to that kind of thinking. We believe the Lord teaches his people the way he always has – “line upon line, precept upon precept, here a little and there a little.” (2 Nephi 28:30) If that’s the process, then surely it means that the Church is going to move away from positions of error when it receives greater light.

If your assumption were correct, that would also negate the Ninth Article of Faith, which states that “We believe all that God has revealed, all that He does now reveal, and we believe that He will yet reveal many great and important things pertaining to the Kingdom of God.” [Emphasis added]

If he’s going to reveal many great and important things tomorrow, won’t that make all of us yesterday’s heretics? The fact is that this has always been the Lord’s method throughout all generations of time. It has always been the case that people who reject living prophets almost always do so by professing fealty to dead ones. Those who rejected Christ did so in the name of Abraham, just as those who most vigorously fight against Joseph Smith do so in the name of Christ.

Blood Atonement:  Along with Adam-God, Young taught a doctrine known as “Blood Atonement” where a person’s blood had to be shed to atone for their own sins as it was beyond the atonement of Jesus Christ.

“There are sins that men commit for which they cannot receive forgiveness in this world, or in that which is to come, and if they had their eyes open to see their true condition, they would be perfectly willing to have their blood spilt upon the ground, that the smoke thereof might ascend to heaven as an offering for their sins; and the smoking incense would atone for their sins, whereas, if such is not the case, they will stick to them and remain upon them in the spirit world.

I know, when you hear my brethren telling about cutting people off from the earth, that you consider it is strong doctrine; but it is to save them, not to destroy them…

And furthermore, I know that there are transgressors, who, if they knew themselves, and the only condition upon which they can obtain forgiveness, would beg of their brethren to shed their blood, that the smoke thereof might ascend to God as an offering to appease the wrath that is kindled against them, and that the law might have its course. I will say further;

I have had men come to me and offer their lives to atone for their sins.

It is true that the blood of the Son of God was shed for sins through the fall and those committed by men, yet men can commit sins which it can never remit… There are sins that can be atoned for by an offering upon an altar, as in ancient days; and there are sins that the blood of a lamb,  or  a  calf,  or  of  turtle  dove, cannot remit, but they must be atoned for by the blood of the man.”

Journal of Discourses, Vol. 4, p. 53-54

Ah, Brigham, you silver-tongued smooth talker, you. You say the sweetest things.

Basically, we’re looking at a big heaping mess of 19th Century rhetorical excess right here. This was part and parcel with the Mormon “reformation,” where Brigham felt it necessary to scare the hell out of everyone in order to get them to recommit to living the gospel. People were rebaptized, and Brigham was essentially playing the part of Billy Graham, laying it on as thick as he possibly could – and, clearly, going too far on this particular occasion.

How do we know this was heated rhetoric that wasn’t taken very seriously? Because while we have this intemperate sermon, we don’t actually have any documented practice of blood atonement. (The Church, in the footnotes to their essay on 19th Century violence, says that there was “at least one instance” where someone took action based on this, but I don’t know what that would be.)  Brigham knew his audience, and he knew they would understand how much of this was just bluster. The problem would be if people actually started killing themselves or other people, but that’s not what happened.

There is, however, scriptural precedent for this kind of spiritual “scared-straight” approach.

Check out D&C 19, where God states that endless punishment isn’t really endless, and eternal punishment isn’t really eternal. The Lord acknowledges that describing punishment this way is “more express than other scriptures, that it might work upon the hearts of the children of men, altogether for my name’s glory.”

In other words, God is literally trying to scare the hell out of people. Brigham is taking that approach here, I think, and, in my estimation, not doing a very good job at it.

We keep circling back to the idea of prophetic infallibility – you believed in it, and you were crushed when it turned out not to be true. But it isn’t true, and that’s a good thing. An infallible prophet no longer has agency, and the one thing the Lord will never do is mess with agency, even for the guys in the First Presidency.

I think we do a huge disservice to our youth with the hero worship of church leaders. So many of the problems you raise stop being problems when you can simply acknowledge that these good men occasionally made mistakes.

The Church now confirms in its May 2014 essay that Blood Atonement was taught by the prophet Brigham Young.

No, not really. The essay alludes to to sermon you cite in the main body, but the only direct reference to Blood Atonement comes in Footnote #36, which reads as follows:

See, for example, Brigham Young, in Journal of Discourses, 4:53–54; and Heber C. Kimball, in Journal of Discourses, 7:16–21. This concept, which came to be known as blood atonement, was a stock component of anti-Mormon rhetoric in the 19th century. While many of the exaggerated claims that appeared in the popular press and anti-Mormon literature are easily disproven, it is likely that in at least one instance, a few Latter-day Saints acted on this rhetoric. Nevertheless, most Latter-day Saints seem to have recognized that the blood atonement sermons were, in the words of historian Paul Peterson, “hyperbole or incendiary talk” that were “likely designed to frighten church members into conforming with Latter-day Saint principles. To Saints with good intentions, they were calculated to cause alarm, introspection, and ultimately repentance. For those who refused to comply with Mormon standards, it was hoped such ominous threats would hasten their departure from the Territory.” (See Isaac C. Haight letter to Brigham Young, June 11, 1857, Brigham Young Office Files; Peterson, “Mormon Reformation of 1856–1857,” 67, 84n66; see also Encyclopedia of Mormonism, 5 vols. [1992], “Blood Atonement,” 1:131.) [Emphasis added.]

The Blood Atonement doctrine was later declared false by future prophets and apostles.

That’s because it was never doctrine to begin with.

Yesterday’s doctrine is today’s false doctrine.  Yesterday’s prophet is today’s heretic.

Amen! As it always has been, as it always will be. Line upon line. Many great and important things will yet be revealed.

Polygamy:  Brigham Young taught the doctrine that polygamy is required for exaltation: “The only men who become Gods, even the Sons of God, are those who enter into polygamy.” – Journal of Discourses 11:269

You really need to read the rest of the sermon, where he insists that to receive eternal life “you will be polygamists at least in your faith.” [Emphasis added] He comes back to this idea two other times in the speech. In other words, his message was that the Saints of the time needed to accept the divine origins of the doctrine, not necessarily engage in the practice.

Several other prophets after Young, including Taylor, Woodruff, Snow, and Joseph F. Smith gave similar teachings that the New and Everlasting Covenant of plural marriage was doctrinal and essential for exaltation.

Nope. The New and Everlasting Covenant as defined in D&C is celestial marriage, which includes monogamous sealings. Even Brigham Young admitted to George Q. Cannon. that “there would be men in the Celestial Kingdom that had but one wife.”

It’s even in the scriptures.  Doctrine & Covenants 132:4:

“For behold, I reveal unto you a new and an everlasting covenant; and if ye abide not that covenant, then are ye damned; for no one can reject this covenant and be permitted to enter into my glory.”

The new and everlasting covenant is celestial marriage, not plural marriage.

In a September 1998 Larry King Live interview (14:37), Hinckley was asked about polygamy:

Larry King:  You condemn it [polygamy]?

Hinckley:   I condemn it.   Yes, as a practice, because I think it is not doctrinal.

President Hinckley was correct. The doctrine is clear: monogamy is the standard; polygamy is the exception. Since that exception is not now authorized, it is not doctrinal to violate the monogamous standard.

We still have Doctrine & Covenants 132 canonized. 

And a good thing, too. So much of the modern church’s most precious theology is inextricably tied to the principles in D&C 132. When primary children sing “Families Can Be Together Forever,” they’re referencing D&C 132. The concept of sealing families together, as well as the doctrine of theosis, trace their theological roots to the revelation on plural marriage. Rather than simply reject the whole thing out of hand, it’s much better to try to understand its place in Joseph’s thinking and in church history.

We’re still practicing plural marriage in the Temples.  Apostles Elder Oaks and Elder Nelson are modern examples of LDS polygamists in that they’re sealed to multiple women.

So now you make the distinction between a marriage and a sealing? Because neither Elder Oaks nor Elder Nelson, while sealed to multiple women, have ever been married to more than one woman at a time.

Polygamy is doctrinal.  Polygamy is not doctrinal. 

Correct. It is doctrinal when it is authorized; when unauthorized, it is not.

Yesterday’s doctrine is today’s false doctrine.   Yesterday’s prophets are today’s heretics.

Amen! As it always has been, as it always will be. Precept on precept. Living prophets always trump dead ones, which is why we need living ones.

Tomorrow: The Priesthood Ban




CES Reply: Even More Polygamy

Continuing my reply to Jeremy Runnell’s “Letter to a CES Director,” with Jeremy’s original words in green:

Joseph’s destruction of the Nauvoo Expositor that exposed his polygamy and which printing press destruction started the chain of events that led to Joseph’s death.

Yes. I remember listening to Truman Madsen’s hagiographic Joseph Smith tapes on my mission, where he describes this event in almost your exact words. Elder Ben B. Banks, former member of the presidency of the Seventy, told an audience at BYU Idaho that “both friends and enemies of the Prophet now agree that the act, legal or not, was unwise and inflammatory and was the major immediate factor that culminated in the Prophet’s death.”

Elder Banks was my first mission president and a beloved mentor. He performed my wedding in the Salt Lake Temple. A more kind, faithful – and orthodox – Latter-day Saint has never lived. If Ben Banks agrees with you here, I don’t think there’s anyone who would dispute this.

Marriages to young girls living in Joseph’s home as foster daughters (Lawrence sisters, Partridge sisters, Fanny Alger, Lucy Walker).

We’re back to the idea of “foster children” again, despite this not being a thing in America prior to 1853. None of these women would have referred to themselves as such. Fanny was a housekeeper, as were the Lawrence sisters. All of them were of marriageable age. You’re putting a modern label on them that they wouldn’t have recognized.

Joseph’s marriage to Fanny Alger was described by Oliver Cowdery as a “dirty, nasty, filthy affair” – Rough Stone Rolling, p.323

He did. (Actually, he said “scrape” instead of “affair,” but that’s as much a quibble as saying Joseph said “light” instead of “fire” in describing the First Vision.) Although, as Rough Stone Rolling makes clear on the same page, Joseph made no effort to deny the relationship, but only to deny that the relationship was adultery.

Oliver’s life has always fascinated me. He was the first person baptized in this dispensation; he was indispensable in the translation of the Book of Mormon; he was one of the Three Witnesses; he saw John the Baptist and Peter, James, and John; he was side-by-side with Joseph when the Savior Himself appeared at the Kirtland Temple dedication. If all these miraculous experiences were nothing but frauds, Oliver could have profited tremendously by bringing down Joseph Smith’s house of cards. Yet even when his anger at Joseph drove him out of the Church, he never denied any of this, and he came back to the Church late in his life, after Joseph was dead and despite having no position of prominence or authority. Apparently, Oliver was ultimately able to accept that Joseph Smith’s character was not so soiled by plural marriage as to invalidate his prophetic role.

Joseph was practicing polygamy before the sealing authority was given. LDS historian, Richard Bushman, states: “There is evidence that Joseph was a polygamist by 1835” – Rough Stone Rolling, p.323. Plural marriages are rooted in the notion of “sealing” for both time and eternity. The “sealing” power was not restored until April 3, 1836 when Elijah appeared to Joseph in the Kirtland Temple and conferred the sealing keys upon him. So, Joseph’s marriage to Fanny Alger in 1833 was illegal under both the laws of the land and under any theory of divine authority; it was adultery.

The best evidence suggests that Joseph received the revelation now recorded in Section 132 sometime in 1831 when he was engaged in his translation of the Bible. Such a revelation would have given him the authority to perform a plural marriage for time only, but not for eternity until the sealing power was restored. So in the case of Fanny Alger, we have a case of a marriage – including sex – that was not a sealing. There were several other cases where this happened even after the sealing keys were restored. In addition, we don’t have a firm date on when the marriage took place, and some scholars place it after the Kirtland Temple dedication.

D&C 132:63 very clearly states that the only purpose of polygamy is to “multiply and replenish the earth” and “bear the souls of men.”

We’ve just been over this, and you got it wrong then, too. These are two very different things. See previous.

Why did Joseph marry women who were already married?

He didn’t. He was sealed to women who were already married, but not married to them. See previous.

These women were obviously not virgins, which violated D&C 132:61.

No violation. They were pure in the eyes of God. See previous.

Zina Huntington had been married seven and a half months and was about six months pregnant with her first husband’s baby at the time she married Joseph; clearly she didn’t need any more help to “bear the souls of men.”

Say it with me now: sealing, not marriage, no sex. See above.

Also, verse 63 states that if the new wives are with another man after the polygamous marriage, they will be destroyed. Eleven of Joseph’s wives lived with their first husbands after marrying Joseph Smith. Most of them lived on to old age. Why weren’t they “destroyed”?

The answer to your question, in a manner of speaking, can be found by taking a detour into the first verse of the Book of Mormon. Unlike the first verse of the First Book of Napoleon, it starts out something like this:

“I, Nephi, having been born of goodly parents…”

This has been the subject of countless sermons about how goodly it is to have goodly parents. It is virtually canonized in songs our young’uns sing every Sunday.

“We have been born, as Nephi of old, to goodly parents who love the Lord…”

Mormons have all bought the idea that “goodly,” therefore, is synonymous with “good.” But if “goodly” means “good,” then why not use the word “good?” Nephi, the guy who calls his parents “goodly,” says it was a “good thing” that the children of Israel were brought out of bondage. (1 Nephi 17:25) After he built his ship, he tells us that “my brethren beheld that it was good.” According to LDS.org, the word “Good” appears 205 times in the Book of Mormon, and it always means what you think it would mean. The word “goodly,” however, never appears in the Book of Mormon again after that first verse.

Of course, you could argue that Nephi never used the words “good” or “goodly,” because the Book of Mormon is a translated document. But if you did that, you’d be playing right into my evilly hands, because “goodly” would therefore be reflective of the translator’s vocabulary, not the author’s. And what did the word “goodly” mean to Joseph Smith in 19th Century America?

The clue is in the next word after the clause in question.

“I, Nephi, having been born of goodly parents, therefore…”

Aha! The word “therefore” establishes causality. The goodliness of Nephi’s parents led to some result, which is revealed in the subsequent clause.

“I, Nephi, having been born of goodly parents, therefore I was taught somewhat in all the learning of my father;”

Nephi’s parents’ goodliness allowed for Nephi to receive a stellar education. How does one receive a stellar education? One pays through the nose for it using one’s goods. “Goodly,” in the 19th Century, meant “laden with goods,” or “wealthy.” But that screws everything up.

“We have been born, as Nephi of old, to wealthy parents who love the Lord…”

I’m sorry, but it just doesn’t have the same ringly to it.

So, to your point, “destroyed” is a goodly example of this principle. The 1830s Webster Dictionary defines “destroyed” as “to cause to cease; to put an end to.” Marital relationships that are not bound by the sealing power will ultimately be destroyed – i.e. ended. That’s goodly enough for me.

How about the consent of the first wife, which receives so much attention in D&C 132? Emma was unaware of most of Joseph’s plural marriages, at least until after the fact, which violated D&C 132.

Can you provide me a number of marriages of which Emma was aware? No, because you don’t know, and neither do I, and neither does anyone else. We know there are some marriages where she was aware and consenting. And D&C 132, as you noted earlier, makes a provision that the man is not subject to the “law of Sarah,” i.e. the consent of the first wife, if the first wife rejects the principle altogether. This put Joseph in the position of having to choose Emma or the Lord, and I doubt either you or I would have fared better in walking that line if placed in a similar predicament.

I’ve been asked once by an LDS apologist if I would be okay with Joseph Smith’s polygamy and polyandry if I received a witness that God really did command Joseph Smith to participate in these practices. The question is not if I would “be okay with” God commanding Joseph Smith to secretly steal other men’s wives and to marry underage and teenage girls.

You’re right; that isn’t the question, because Joseph Smith didn’t steal other men’s wives or marry underage girls. One more time: sealing, not marriage, no sex.

The question is “Do I believe that God did such a thing?” The answer, based on comparing D&C 132 to what actually happened, along with my personal belief that there is no such thing as an insane polygamist god who demanded such sadistic, immoral, adulterous, despicable, and pedophilic behavior while threatening Joseph’s life with one of his angels with a sword…is an emphatic and absolute “no.”

That’s my answer, too. The difference is that I don’t think God did anything close to what you’re describing. No sadism, no immorality, no adultery, strange but not despicable, and absolutely no pedophilia. Also, in many cases, sealing, not marriage, no sex.

The secrecy of the marriages and the private and public denials by Joseph Smith are not congruent with honest behavior.

You and Immanuel Kant have a lot in common.

Kant was the philosopher who insisted that honesty was a “categorical imperative,” and that it was never appropriate to tell a lie under any circumstances. The famous example to illustrate this comes from the story of “Kant’s Axe,” where Kant posits that if an axe-wielding murderer shows up on your doorstep and asks where your best friend is so he can go kill him, the “categorical imperative” of honestly required you to answer him truthfully, even if it were likely to result in your friend’s grisly death.

From my perspective, an honest answer in that situation would be entirely immoral. Yes, honesty is important. But my friend is more important. In that situation, he represents a higher value – love trumping honesty.

There are plenty of other situations, most far less dramatic, where I feel another value can trump honesty. What did you think of my talk, Bishop? Well, Sister Jones, you had nothing interesting to say, and I had a hard time paying attention to you because I couldn’t take my eyes off of that honker you call a nose. Dad, did you enjoy my piano recital? Why, no, son, I thought it was deathly boring, and you may have been the worst one up there. Honey, does this dress make me look fat? Oh my, yes. You look like a whale in that thing!

In those examples, I believe kindness is far more important than honesty. Values are often competing priorities, and they can’t all be satisfied in every case.

The choices in mortality are seldom choices between good and evil. (Should I go to Church this Sunday or rob a bank instead? Maybe I’ll flip a coin.) They’re usually choices between less good and more good. Joseph firmly believed, and not without good reason, that the lives of many good people were in danger if he were to be fully forthright about polygamy. In hindsight, as you read his “carefully worded” denials, you can see the struggle and his attempt to be as honest as he felt was safe. You may have chosen differently in that case, but surely you wouldn’t tell an axe murderer where your best friend was.

Emma was unaware of most of these marriages.

Objection, your honor. Speculative. Also asked and answered.

She certainly did not consent to most of them as required by D&C 132.

Law of Sarah was waived. See previous.

The Saints did not know what was going on behind the scenes as polygamy did not become common knowledge until 1852 when Brigham Young revealed it in Utah.

Given that roughly 25% of the Church was practicing plural marriage as they crossed the plains, this is almost certainly untrue. The 1852 declaration of plural marriage was an announcement to the world, not a statement to the Church, which was living with the doctrine firsthand.

Joseph Smith did everything he could to keep the practice in the dark.

Actually, there are several incidences where Joseph tried to teach the principle and was disheartened by the Saints’ unwillingness to accept it.

In fact, Joseph’s desire to keep this part of his life a secret is what ultimately contributed to his death when he ordered the destruction of the printing press (Nauvoo Expositor) that dared expose his behavior in June 1844. This event initiated a chain of events that led to Carthage.

Nobody denies this.

Consider the following denial made by Joseph Smith to Latter-day Saints in Nauvoo in May 1844 – a month before his death:

“…What a thing it is for a man to be accused of committing adultery, and having seven wives, when I can only find one. I am the same man, and as innocent as I was fourteen years ago; and I can prove them all perjurers.” – History of the Church, Vol. 6, Chapter 19, p. 411

Again, look at the actual text. As Bushman pointed out above, it’s “carefully worded.” Joseph full statement here is vigorously denying adultery, of which Joseph believed he was not guilty, as he was married to the women with whom he was having sexual relations. The seven wives reference in the thing is the only direct reference to polygamy, and Joseph is leaning on the idea that Emma is his only legal wife, which, too, was true. Misleading? Yes. But not nearly as brazenly dishonest as you’re suggesting.

It is a matter of historical fact that Joseph had secretly taken over 30 plural wives by May 1844 when he made the above denial that he was ever a polygamist.

He’s denying he’s an adulterer, not a polygamist, and many of the wives were sealings, not marriages, no sex.

If you go to Familysearch.org – an LDS-owned genealogy website – you can clearly see that Joseph Smith had many wives.  The Church’s new October 2014 Plural Marriage in Kirtland and Nauvoo essay acknowledges that Joseph Smith was a polygamist. 

Those facts have been openly acknowledged by the Church for over 150 years.

The facts speak for themselves – from 100% LDS sources – that Joseph Smith was dishonest.

See previous. Joseph tried to walk the line between honesty and keeping himself and his family safe, and, like all human beings trying to satisfy conflicting values, he wasn’t always able to do.

The following 1835 edition of Doctrine & Covenants revelations bans polygamy:

1835 Doctrine & Covenants 101:4: “Inasmuch as this Church of Christ has been reproached with the crime of fornication, and polygamy: we declare that we believe, that one man should have one wife; and one woman, but one husband, except in case of death, when either is at liberty to marry again.”

There’s that careful wording again. Notice the use of the word “but” in reference to women, but not to men. Women are therefore explicitly prohibited from having more than one husband, while men “should have one wife,” without the explicit prohibition of having more than one. Also keep in mind that plural marriage, at least in the minds of the Saints, was not “polygamy” as understood by 19th Century folk – i.e. harems and concubines and seraglios. Even after plural marriage became public, the Utah saints went out of their way to distance themselves from those kinds of practices. This revelation is trying to put some distance between those two versions of polygyny, which, in practice, really were quite different from each other.

1835 Doctrine & Covenants 13:7:

“Thou shalt love thy wife with all thy heart, and shall cleave unto her and none else.”

And? A polygamist would be in full agreement with this. A man cleaving unto a woman who is not his wife is adultery.

1835 Doctrine & Covenants 65:3:

“Wherefore, it is lawful that he should have one wife, and they twain shall be one flesh, and all this that the earth might answer the end of its creation.”

Yes. Notably, this uses the language of Genesis, which somehow did not stop many of the ancient patriarchs from practicing polygamy. It states the lawfulness of having one wife but makes no statement on the lawfulness of having more than one.

Joseph Smith was already a polygamist when these revelations were introduced into the 1835 edition of the Doctrine & Covenants and Joseph publicly taught that the doctrine of the Church was monogamy. Joseph continued secretly marrying multiple women as these revelations/scriptures remained in force.

The doctrine of the Church was monogamy. The Book of Mormon makes it clear that monogamy is the standard, and polygamy is the occasional exception. Joseph’s teaching on this subject was therefore correct, as anyone entering into plural marriage without priesthood authorization to do so would be guilty of adultery.

Tomorrow: Polygamy – The Conclusion!

CES Reply: Polygamy (Part II)

Continuing my reply to Jeremy Runnell’s “Letter to a CES Director,” with Jeremy’s original words in green:

This is not the Joseph Smith I grew up learning about in the Church and having a testimony of.

That’s because this is not the Joseph Smith that is Joseph Smith. The Warren Jeffs-like Joseph Smith that you’re describing here is a grotesque caricature of the real thing.

Keep in mind that of the 34 women you’re talking about, 33 of them were married after 1841. By June of 1844, Joseph Smith was dead. All of these weddings, then, took place during a compressed three-and-a-half year time frame that was the busiest period of Joseph’s life, when he was doing a great many of the things you were telling people about on your mission. This was when he was building the second-largest city in Illinois and the largest religious building in the country, as well as leading a rapidly expanding church and, oh yeah, running for President of the United States. For most of these sealings, the wives got a ceremony and nothing more.

It’s noteworthy, too, that Joseph fathered nine children with Emma, yet, as far as has been verified, he had no children with any of his other wives. That alone is the basis for the specious RLDS claim that Joseph couldn’t have been a polygamist after all. While that doesn’t prove any such thing, it does suggest that sex was not the only or even the primary motivation for these marriages. It demonstrates that plural marriage does not negate everything else Joseph Smith was and did, and that you’re condemning him based on a series of assumptions that don’t match the record.

This is not the Joseph Smith that I sang “Praise to the Man” to or taught others about two years in the mission field.

Are you saying that when you served a mission, you didn’t know Joseph Smith was a polygamist? When investigators brought up polygamy, did you assume they were lying? That’s astonishing to me. I don’t know how anyone could spend more than a week in the mission field and not know this information.

A lot of members don’t realize that there is a set of very specific and bizarre rules outlined in Doctrine & Covenants 132 (still in LDS canon despite President Hinckley publicly stating that polygamy is not doctrinal) on how polygamy is to be practiced.

You’re getting very legalistic here. The context of President Hinckley’s statement suggests that he was not disavowing previous polygamy but, instead, drawing a distinction between the past and present. He was absolutely correct in saying that it is not doctrinal to practice plural marriage today. (I can think of no faster route to excommunication from the Church than becoming a polygamist.) His statement is consistent with the passage in Jacob 2: monogamy is the doctrinal norm, but there are periods in history where the Lord requires polygamous exceptions to the rule.

As for the “specific and bizarre rules,” I find that a puzzling construct. Aren’t rules, by their nature, supposed to be specific? There are specific rules as to how to play baseball, for instance. If there weren’t, the game would be unplayable. (“Rule 17: The batter should probably stop batting after he gets a bunch of strikes.”) As to the idea that “a lot of members don’t realize” what these rules are, one wonders why they can’t read the revelation itself, which the Church has been printing as scripture for 175 years or so.

As to whether the rules are “bizarre,” we’ll address those with the examples you provide below.

It is the kind of revelation you’d expect from the likes of Warren Jeffs to his FLDS followers.

No, it is the kind of revelation you’d expect from the likes of Warren Jeffs to his FLDS followers. Or, to be more precise, you provide a flawed analysis of the revelation because you deliberately misinterpret Section 132 to match your own expectations, which are rooted in inaccurate and distorted information. This tells me a great deal about your expectations and nothing about Section 132.

The only form of polygamy permitted by D&C 132 is a union with a virgin after first giving the opportunity to the first wife to consent to the marriage.

This is inaccurate, but before I point out why it’s inaccurate, I want to take several steps back and point out how far down the rabbit hole you’re going here.

Your accusations are premised on the idea that Joseph invented polygamy to have sex with a lot of women, including underage girls. That was John C. Bennett’s M.O. – his “spiritual wifery,” which had no accompanying revelation to justify it, involved him telling married women that they should sleep with him because they were “spiritually married,” so they could do as they pleased with their husbands none the wiser. That strikes me as a far more effective method to achieve easy sexual gratification – no rules, no boundaries, and no responsibility.

Joseph’s plural marriage, however, didn’t operate like this at all. Sex was not a part of most of these relationships. He married old widows who never saw him after the ceremony. He was sealed to married women who never had any significant relationship with him, sexual or otherwise, and who continued to live as wives to their existing husbands. And the revelation which authorized Joseph to do all this set very clear guidelines as to what was appropriate and what was not, including strict prohibition of the kind of polyandry of which you accuse him.

So now here you are, criticizing Joseph for practicing polygamy because of his supposed sexual licentiousness, and then you turn around and lay out reasons why Joseph wasn’t actually following his own revelation. Do you see the exasperating futility of what you’re doing? What if, for instance, it could be demonstrated – and I think it can be demonstrated – that Joseph’s behavior was consistent with the boundaries set in Section 132? Would you be okay with polygamy then? If not, then what’s the point?

You’ve settled on the idea that this is all just Joseph the Fraud creating a flimsy pretext to justify adultery, yet you then nitpick here and adopt a tortured legalistic interpretation of Section 132 to indict him for not living up to the rules of his own fraud. The fact that he made any rules at all is a clear argument against fraud. L. Ron Hubbard, founder of Scientology, once wrote a note to himself in which he said “All men are your slaves.” Surely Joseph could have given himself similar license if Section 132 was solely a product of his imagination. Maybe something like “Verily, I say unto you, my servant Joseph, that all women are given to you to do with as you will.” See how easy that was? Why would a sexual predator make things as difficult as Section 132 did for Joseph?

If it’s a fraud, then the rules don’t matter, and you’re just looking for more excuses to berate Joseph Smith.

This is one of the reasons why so many responses to your letter have been more dismissive than perhaps they should have been. Because all the questions you ask aren’t really questions at all – they’re indictments. They couldn’t get Al Capone on racketeering and murder charges, so they got him on tax evasion. Similarly, if you can’t tear down Joseph Smith on the basis of him being a simple pervert, then you can get him on the contradictory charge of not following his own revelation. You don’t care if people believe that Joseph plagiarized View of the Hebrews or the First Book of Napoleon just as long as they don’t believe the Book of Mormon is what it claims to be. This explode the premise that you’re “just asking questions.” You’re not inquiring; you’re carpet bombing. You’re throwing everything you can find at the Church in the hopes that at least something will stick.

If the first wife doesn’t consent, the husband is exempt and may still take an additional wife, but the first wife must at least have the opportunity to consent. In case the first wife doesn’t consent, she will be “destroyed”. Also, the new wife must be a virgin before the marriage and be completely monogamous after the marriage or she will be destroyed (D&C 132: 41 & 63).

You’re leaning pretty heavily on the word “virgin,” as if God expects every sealing to be preceded by a medical exam a la Princess Diana before her wedding to Prince Charles. I don’t think that interpretation of the word is at all consistent with the context or how the Lord views sexual purity.

Consider a victim of sexual assault, who, medically speaking, is no longer a virgin. D&C 132 still provides the doctrinal template for how monogamous sealings are performed today, and under your legalistic interpretation of this scripture, innocent victims would not be eligible to be sealed in the temple, despite the fact that they have done nothing wrong. The more appropriate contextual understanding of the word “virgin” here is a woman who is sexually pure in the eyes of God.  So even a repentant adulterer would not be disqualified, because the Lord has said that when we repent of our sins, he will “remember them no more.” (D&C 58:42)

As for wives being “destroyed,” no doubt that’s some pretty harsh language. Almost as harsh as “damned.” In the context of what’s being described, however, it has a unique spiritual application that you’re deliberately missing. D&C 132 outlines the nature of exaltation, which is a continuation of posterity throughout the eternities. But when a river is damned, it does not continue. So it is when a person is damned – their posterity is capped. The destruction being talked about here is not being hit by a meteor or run over by a bus. It’s the destruction of the opportunity to have eternal increase.

It is interesting that the only prerequisite that is mentioned for the man is that he must desire another wife: “if any man espouse a virgin, and desire to espouse another…”. It does not say that the man must get a specific revelation from the living prophet, although we assume today that this is what was meant.

Sorry for adding emphasis, but this last phrase is critically instructive. Are we wrong to assume that? Why? Generations of Latter-day Saints have read Section 132 and not reached the conclusion that just wanting more wives was all that was necessary to justify marrying them. But they’re all wrong, and you’re the only one smart enough to get it right? There are so many other qualifiers in this very complex and far-reaching revelation with regard to when marriage is appropriate, but you cherry-pick a single sentence and presume it simply obliterates everything else.

So much of your rejection of the church is rooted in the idea that every word in the revelations has a singular and self-evident meaning, so when anyone else interprets those words differently than you do, they’re obviously wrong. But if that were the case, then there would be no division in the Christian world, as everyone could read the Bible and never disagree about what it means. This is the reason living prophets are essential. Revelation is necessary not just to tell us new doctrine, but to give us greater understanding of the doctrine we already have.

D&C 132 is unequivocal on the point that polygamy is permitted only “to multiply and replenish the earth” and “bear the souls of men.” This would be consistent with the Book of Mormon prohibition on polygamy except in the case where God commands it to “raise up seed.”

There are a lot more words between “multiply and replenish the earth” and “bear the souls of me” that you fail to cite. Here is the text in its entirety, from verse 62: “for they are given unto him to multiply and replenish the earth, according to my commandment, and to fulfil the promise which was given by my Father before the foundation of the world, and for their exaltation in the eternal worlds, that they may bear the souls of men.” [Emphasis added.]

If you want to get legalistic, we can get legalistic. Just for fun, let’s parse the snot out of this.

This phrase begins with multiplying and replenishing as a primary justification. Then we get the word “and” thrown in there. You’re reading this as if it says “they are given unto him to multiply and replenish the earth, according to my commandment, in order to fulfil the promise…” But that’s not what it says. “And” suggests we’re about to get a second reason, not a clarification of the first. In fact, a tight, strict-constructionist reading of this verse reveals three different and distinct reasons for plural marriage, not “only” the replenishment of the earth, as you contend. (You also mistakenly assume that “bear the souls of men” is a reiteration of “multiply and replenish the earth.” That’s a pretty big mistake, as I will shortly demonstrate.)

So what are the three reasons?

1. Multiply and replenish the earth. You’re right; D&C 132 is unequivocal on this point, just as it is unequivocal on the two points that follow.

2. Fulfil “the promise which was given by my Father before the foundation of the world.”

What promise? This seems to have reference to the “restitution of all things, which God hath spoken by the mouth of all his holy prophets since the world began.” (Acts 3:21) Joseph often cited the need to restore ancient practices to prepare for the Second Coming as a justification for polygamy, and this verse provides a credible scriptural context for him to do so.

So just relying on this phrase – plural marriage is acceptable because it fulfills God’s promises – would be justification enough for the practice, at least according to D&C 132.

3. For “their exaltation in the eternal worlds, that they may bear the souls of men.”

Oh, this one’s my favorite. Notice the emphasis I added on the “that.” The word appears there to create a conditional clause. You claim the bearing of souls is the same thing as multiplying and replenishing the earth, but the actual text insists that the bearing of the souls of men will only be made possible by “exaltation in the eternal worlds.” This is a promise of eternal increase, of bearing souls after the earth is no longer around to be replenished. Big, big difference.

And right here, with Reason #3, we have a clear rationale and justification for Joseph being sealed to women with whom he made no attempts to multiply and replenish the earth – i.e. no sex.

Again, looking at how polygamy was actually practiced by Joseph Smith:

Joseph married 11 women who were already married. Multiple husbands = Polyandry.

Sealings, not marriages. No sex. Not polyandry.

These married women continued to live as husband and wife with their first husband after marrying Joseph.

Which is compelling evidence that Joseph wasn’t sleeping with them.

Joseph’s polygamy also included:

Unions with teenagers as young as 14-years-old.

One fourteen year old, to whom he was sealed and not married. No sex.

Unions without the knowledge or consent of first wife Emma.

Also unions with the knowledge and consent of first wife Emma.

Unions without the knowledge or consent of the husband, in cases of polyandry.

Possibly not true. Almost all so called “polyandry” sealings – no sex in any of these – were done with the documented knowledge and consent of husbands. Miranda Hyde is the only possible exception, and the fact she was sealed to Orson, not Joseph, after her death suggests there was no sealing. Also no sex, regardless if it’s true or not.

A union with Apostle Orson Hyde’s wife while he was on a mission (Marinda Hyde).

Again, possibly not true. See above.

A union with a newlywed and pregnant woman (Zina Huntington).

From an interview with Zina Huntington in 1898:

Q. “Then it is a fact, Mrs. [Zina] Young, is it not, that you married Mr. Smith at the same time you were married to Mr. [Henry] Jacobs?”

A. “What right have you to ask such questions? I was sealed to Joseph Smith for eternity.”

Q. “Mrs. Young, you claim, I believe, that you were not married to him for time?”

A. “For eternity. I was married to Mr. Jacobs, but the marriage was unhappy and we parted.”

Married for time and not eternity means sealing, not marriage. Notice Zina corrects the questioner who claims she was married by saying she was sealed to Joseph and married to Mr. Jacobs. Not polyandry, and no sex.

Promises of salvation and exaltation for the girls’ entire families.


Threats that Joseph would be slain by an angel with a drawn sword if they did not enter into the union (Zina Huntington, Almera Woodard Johnson, Mary Lightner).

No. Joseph claimed an angel with a drawn sword would slay him if he did not accept the principle of plural marriage in general. He never claimed he would be slain if Zina, Almera, or Mary did not marry him, nor did any of these women say that he did.

Threats of loss of salvation if the woman didn’t agree to the union with Joseph Smith.

No. If you have evidence of such a thing, you ought to provide it.

Dishonesty in public sermons, 1835 D&C 101:4, denials by Joseph Smith denying he was a polygamist,

Richard Bushman in Rough Stone Rolling refers to these as “carefully worded” denials, which is the accurate way to describe them. Joseph’s most vigorous denials were directed at the idea that he was an adulterer, which he insisted – and which he believed – he was not. He also leaned heavily on the idea that his only legal wife was Emma, which was true. I think it likely that a fraud wouldn’t have carefully worded anything and lied with impunity – the John C. Bennett and/or Donald Trump model – and taken no pains to craft evasive answers that were technically true but still misleading.

Understand, however, that I agree with you here to an extent. I don’t think there’s any question that Joseph was not fully honest in these statements. He justified it to himself by the belief that he was protecting himself, his family, and others engaged in plural marriage from physical harm. I like to think he took the “Abraham-said-his-wife-was-his-sister” approach. Even since the beginning, when Adam had to choose between not eating the fruit and having children, human prophets have been forced, like all of us, to make difficult choices between two bad options.

Tomorrow: Still more polygamy!

CES Reply: Polygamy (Part I)

Continuing my reply to Jeremy Runnell’s “Letter to a CES Director,” with Jeremy’s original words in green:

Polygamy/Polyandry Concerns & Questions:

One of the things that really disturbed me in my research was discovering the real origins of polygamy and how Joseph Smith really practiced it.

This is an interesting way to describe your objections to polygamy. It implies that you’re not, in the abstract, upset that polygamy was practiced, but its “real origins” and Joseph Smith’s personal polygamy was uniquely and egregiously wicked in and of itself.

Seems like we’re going to be talking about plural marriage for quite awhile, so I thought I’d begin with my personal overview on the subject. My great-grandfather was Heber J. Grant, who had three wives. My grandmother was his youngest daughter, and she lived in hiding for twelve years, raised by her sister and unable to use her real name. It’s undeniable that the whole history of polygamy in the LDS Church is fraught with difficulty, and everyone would just as soon forget that it ever happened. That’s pretty hard to do, though, especially since it was the defining doctrine of the church for about half a century. So where there ought to be frank discussion, too often there’s awkward silence.

That’s mainly because modern Mormons find the practice abhorrent, including me. I had never met an actual polygamist until I moved to St. George and saw polygamous women crowding into the local Wal-Mart and Costco, their dowdy homespun dresses and strange, braided, non-bangs hair making them stick out like sore thumbs. I had been operating under the illusion that my ancestors weren’t nearly this weird, but that’s much harder to do when confronted with actual polygamists. My ancestors were probably were just as weird. Maybe even weirder.

Where does that leave me?

Still in denial, at least to a degree. Because, first off, my grandmother wasn’t weird. She was an accomplished woman who, to my knowledge, was never forced to wear an ugly burlap dress or yank her hair back in a strange, swooshy coiffure. I don’t know when dowdiness became part and parcel with the polygamy experience, but they could certainly do without it. And in the second place, I’ve seen no evidence that the systemic physical and sexual abuse that is rampant in these polygamous subcultures was part of polygamy back in the day.

Yet the modern practice of polygamy invites everyone to imagine the worst.

Every young Mormon missionary is deluged with questions about polygamy, and few of them give substantive or satisfying answers. Some talk about the glut of single ladies on the frontier who needed the protection of a land-owning husband, so Mormon men dutifully obliged them in a historical anomaly that vanished when conditions changed. I’ve never used that line, because, frankly, it’s not true. Polygamy was always a religious principle, and to minimize its importance in the early history of the church is the height of disingenuity. But it’s a principle that repulses me in practice, so how do I reconcile its previous sanction by my church with my present faith?

I do it the same way the Book of Mormon does.

Many anti-Mormons take delight in pointing out that the Book of Mormon rails on polygamy with more ferocity than anything in the Bible. The Lord condemns the unauthorized practice of polygamy as an “abomination” and refers to the taking of multiple wives as “whoredoms,” and then says the following:

“Wherefore, my brethren, hear me, and hearken to the word of the Lord: For there shall not any man among you have save it be one wife; and concubines he shall have none.” (Jacob 2:27)

That seems to be a pretty clear-cut standard, which makes you wonder how Joseph Smith could possibly lead the church to go contrary to the plain language of the scripture he himself translated.

Until you read on to verse 30:

“For if I will, saith the Lord of Hosts, raise up seed unto me, I will command my people; otherwise they shall hearken unto these things.”

In other words, monogamy is the norm, unless commanded otherwise by the Lord to “raise up seed” unto Him. That’s exactly what happened when the Church practiced polygamy in the 19th century. The doctrine bound the church together through a torturous time and raised up a large second generation to carry the gospel forward. And now, when it is no longer necessary, the Lord has commanded us to revert back to the norm.

Still, while the doctrine seems clear, the practice remains disturbing, to me and to most other Mormons I know. I appreciate the essays on this subject, and I view them as solid first steps towards coming to terms with our past.

So let’s see if we can confront this issue together.

Joseph Smith was married to at least 34 women.

Yes, no, and sort of. The Wikipedia list you link to includes several disputed names, but, more importantly it makes no distinction between marriages and sealings. That distinction is essential, because Joseph was married – i.e. sealed – to dozens of other women, most of them after his death. Heber J. Grant’s father Jedidiah M. Grant stood proxy as his wife was sealed to Joseph Smith. Much of the confusion over polyandry is explained by the fact that Joseph was sealed to other men’s wives but not married to them. We’ll no doubt discuss that crucial distinction going forward, because it’s one you repeatedly ignore.

Polyandry: Of those 34 women, 11 of them were married women of other living men.

Yep. There it is.

Joseph married lots of women, and some of them were, in fact, already married at the time. Yet in plural marriages where Joseph married other men’s wives, the supposed cuckolds knew about this arrangement, sanctioned it, and, what’s more, went on to live with their wives as they had before Joseph Smith came on the scene. Never mind Joseph Smith – what husband would allow such a thing? What on earth was going on?

The answer, as I foreshadowed earlier, comes from an understanding of the difference between a marriage and a sealing. Because there is a crucial difference, especially in the early years of the Church. And, not to put too fine a point on it, that difference is sex. (More on that later.)

The word “seal” comes from D&C 132:45, where the Lord says to Joseph Smith, “[W]hatsoever you [i.e. Joseph Smith] seal on earth shall be sealed in heaven; and whatsoever you bind on earth, in my name and by my word, saith the Lord, it shall be eternally bound in the heavens.” This “sealing power” is thought by Mormons to be identical to the authority given to the apostle Peter in the New Testament as written in Matthew 18:18 – “Verily I say unto you, Whatsoever ye shall bind on earth shall be bound in heaven: and whatsoever ye shall loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.” Binding/sealing a couple with this authority perpetuates family bonds beyond the grave.

Today, the word “sealing” is often synonymous with “marriage,” but not always. Children, for instance, are “sealed” in temple ceremonies to their parents. Joseph saw all of this as part of his role in the “restitution of all things” mentioned in Acts 3:21. That included restoring both the sealing, or binding, power mentioned earlier, along with the ancient practice of plural marriage.

Evidence suggests that what happened in the so-called “polyandry” was that Joseph drew a distinction between sealing and regular marriage. Some married women were sealed to Joseph, but, in this life, they stayed faithful to their husbands, who were aware of the sealing and consented to it. Many more women, including my own great-great grandmother, were sealed to Joseph after his death.

Back to the sexual question, the record indicates that Joseph had sex with women to whom he was both married and sealed. When Joseph was sealed to a woman but not married to her, sexual relations would have constituted adultery, and they were absent from the relationship. There is no solid evidence to suggest that Joseph slept with the women who remained married to other men, and not much in the way of flimsy evidence, either.

Those who claim that the doctrine of plural marriage was a convenient outlet for Joseph’s libido overlook the reality of how Joseph actually conducted himself in living this principle.

There were no orgies or harems. A large number of his plural wives got a wedding ceremony and nothing else. Offshoots of the mainstream LDS Church, notably the Community of Christ, insist Joseph couldn’t possibly have been a polygamist. After all, how could a man could be married to over two dozen women and father children with none of them? The answer is that Joseph did not view polygamy as a license for licentiousness, and how he lived this doctrine defies the modern caricatures that have sprung up around it.

Again, understand the narrowness of my point. I’m not saying polygamy is wonderful, and I concede it is strange and disturbing. What I am saying is that it wasn’t the sexual free-for-all that your suggesting with accusations of polyandry, and all this needs to be understood in its proper historical and theological context.

Also, I’m probably going to have to say the word “sex” a lot, mainly to deny its inclusion in Joseph’s non-marriage sealings. I know that, puritanically speaking, we got into trouble about this sort of thing when we had to acknowledge that God has genitalia, but the main objection to polyandry is the idea that Joseph was sleeping with other men’s wives, and Joseph wasn’t sleeping with other men’s wives. He was sealed to them in a religious ceremony, and then these women continued sleeping with their lawful husbands.

That’s an odd arrangement by modern standards, surely, but it’s not consistent with the caricature you’re trying to perpetuate.

Among them being Apostle Orson Hyde who was sent on his mission to dedicate Israel when Joseph secretly married his wife, Marinda Hyde.

Not true. Joseph may have been sealed to Marinda Hyde – the reports are conflicting, and they only come from antagonistic sources – but this would have been a sealing and not a marriage. Marinda Hyde continued to live with Orson Hyde long afterward, and she was sealed to him after his death, even though they had been divorced. It has never been church policy to seal a woman to two men, so the fact that Marinda was sealed to Orson and not Joseph suggests that the sealing of Joseph and Marinda may have been fabricated by church critics. Regardless, there is zero evidence that Joseph and Marinda had a sexual relationship.

Church historian Elder Marlin K. Jensen and unofficial apologists like FairMormon do not dispute the polyandry. The Church now admits the polyandry in its October 2014 Plural Marriage in Kirtland and Nauvoo essay.

Not true, at least not in the context you suggest. Elder Jensen, FairMormon, and the Church’s essay admit to sealings, not to sex. Footnote 30 from the Church’s essay:

Polyandry, the marriage of one woman to more than one man, typically involves shared financial, residential, and sexual resources, and children are often raised communally. There is no evidence that Joseph Smith’s sealings functioned in this way, and much evidence works against that view. [Emphasis added.]

Out of the 34 women, 7 of them were teenage girls as young as 14-years-old.

Precisely one of the girls Joseph was sealed to – Helen Mar Kimball – was 14 years old. The rest were older than sixteen, which was marriageable age in the 19th Century. And the evidence suggests that the sealing to Helen Mar Kimball was a sealing only, not a marriage. She continued to live with her parents, who approved the sealing, and Joseph was dead a year later. No sex.

Joseph was 37-years-old when he married 14-year-old Helen Mar Kimball, twenty-three years his junior. Even by 19th century standards, this was shocking.

It’s also not true, at least in the way you’re implying. Joseph was sealed in a dynastic union to Helen Mar Kimball, not married in the shocking – i.e. sexual – sense. He never lived with her, and he never slept with her. Helen later married Horace Whitney when she was 18 and bore him eleven children.

The Church now admits that Joseph Smith married Helen Mar Kimball “several months before her 15th birthday” in its October 2014 Plural Marriage in Kirtland and Nauvoo essay.

Using phrases like “the Church now admits” suggests that the prior to 2014, the Church didn’t acknowledge that this sealing had taken place. That’s simply not true. Helen herself wrote two manuals published by the Church in the late 19th Century in which she defends plural marriage and acknowledges her sealing to Joseph Smith. Official admissions by the Church took place over a hundred years before the Church’s recent essay.

Among the women was a mother-daughter set and three sister sets.

Well, at least they had someone to talk to at family reunions! Honestly, how does this make polygamy even worse? Would you have found polygamy acceptable if Joseph only married women who were unrelated to each other? This is just piling on for the sake of piling on.

Several of these women included Joseph’s own foster daughters.

Joseph didn’t have any foster daughters. The foster parenting system in the United States wasn’t instituted until 1853, so this would not have been a label anyone in Joseph Smith’s era would have recognized.

Some of the marriages to these women included promises by Joseph of eternal life to the girls and their families, threats of loss of salvation, and threats that he (Joseph) was going to be slain by an angel with a drawn sword if the girls didn’t marry him.

Promises of eternal blessings? Yes. Threats of loss of salvation? None. Threats that Joseph would be killed by an angel with a drawn sword if girls didn’t marry him? Wrong. You’re conflating a bunch of different and disparate events into one ugly mess to make Joseph look as seedy as possible.

Let’s address each one with the appropriate context.

No question Joseph promised eternal blessings to both his wives and their families should they consent to live this principle. Richard Bushman, in answering the question as to why a husband would consent to having their wives sealed to Joseph, said that the “only answer seems to be the explanation Joseph gave when he asked a woman for her consent: they and their families would benefit spiritually from a close tie to the Prophet.” (Rough Stone Rolling, p. 439) This kind of explanation demonstrates that these marriages functioned in a spiritual rather than a carnal context. If Joseph really were just trying to bed as many women as he possibly could, he constructed a very inefficient vehicle for that process.

As for threats of hellfire should a woman refuse him, there aren’t any. If you have them, you ought to produce them. Yes, there are second-hand accusations from critics of Joseph that were leveled long after the fact, but no woman to whom Joseph proposed or married provides a firsthand account of such a thing.

A columnist named Mike Adams, in order to smear Mormonism during the Mitt Romney campaign, thought he’d found one in the case of Lucy Walker. “I am sorry that after her mother died, Joseph Smith approached teenager Lucy Walker with a command that she marry Smith with the threat of eternal damnation as the punishment if she refused,” Adams wrote. “I am sorry that the year before Joseph Smith died, he said the following to Lucy: ‘I will give you until tomorrow to decide (whether to marry me). If you reject this message the gate will be closed forever against you.’”

Game over, right? Well, just like your accusation, there is much about this story that Adams isn’t telling you, because it doesn’t make for nearly as sordid a tale.

To begin with, I can find no direct quote with reference to this marriage citing eternal damnation, hell, or anything similar in either Lucy Walker’s writings or anyone else’s. It is unlikely, then, that Joseph said anything like that in his proposal, as, if he did, that would be the money quote that would prove, beyond question, that Joseph was a beast. The best Adams has got is this bit about “the gate will be closed forever.”

What gate?

The insinuation is that this is the “Pearly Gate,” the gate to heaven, and that, if he turned the prophet down, the door to paradise would be slammed in her face. But that’s a really odd formulation, especially since Mormon theology rejects a static heaven or hell. Something else is clearly going on here.

In addition, Joseph had recently excommunicated John C. Bennett – no relation to yours truly – because this was his M.O. in picking up ladies – he tried to make them “spiritual wives” and threatened hellfire if they didn’t sleep with him. Joseph found this reprehensible and booted him out of the church. Seems unlikely, then, that he would then turn around and apply the same tactics, especially since none of his other wives reported this kind of threat.

So what’s the full story?

It begins four months prior to the supposed hellfire ultimatum. He taught Lucy Walker the principle of plural marriage and then proposed to her, and she said no, absolutely not. “Oh that the grave would kindly receive me that I might find rest of the bosom of my dear mother!” she wrote, but four months before she consented, not 24 hours. Four months. And during that time, Joseph didn’t mention the proposal at all. He finally approached her and issued the money quote with the gate in it, which Lucy Walker refused emphatically. If she truly feared eternal torment as a consequence of her defiance, it was unlikely that she would be comfortable writing, as she did, that after she shut him down she would “emphatically forbid him speaking again to me on this Subject.”

Joseph, rather than bring out the fire and brimstone, did something else entirely. From Lucy Walker’s writings:

“He walked across the room, returned, and stood before me. With the most beautiful expression of countenance, he said, ‘God almighty bless you. You shall have a manifestation of the will of God concerning you; a testimony that you can never deny. I will tell you what it shall be. It shall be that peace and joy that you never knew.’”

“God almighty bless you?” Peace and joy? That’s not quite “Demons will feast upon your innards,” is it?

Incidentally, Joseph’s promise, according to Lucy Walker, was fulfilled to the letter. In her own words, with her own poor spelling:

“My room became filled with a heavenly influence. To me it was in comparison like the brilliant sun bursting through the darkest cloud… My Soul was filled with a calm, sweet peace that I never knew. Supreme happiness took possession of my whole being. And I received a powerful and irristable testimony of the truth of the marriage covenant called ‘Celestial or plural mariage.’ Which has been like an anchor to the soul through all the trials of life.”

So the entire denial-of-salvation case against Joseph in this case rests on one word – gate. What did Joseph mean that the gate would be forever closed? In context, it looks as if he’s talking about the opportunity to marry him. He’d given her four months; she’d put him off. He finally said, “Look, fish or cut bait.” And her refusal even on that occasion spurred Joseph’s kindness, not threats. Try as he might, Mike Adams can’t really shoehorn this experience into a John C. Bennett kind of nightmare. (Again, no relation. At all.)

The story of the angel with the drawn sword is especially dramatic, and it comes from several different sources. But absolutely no account exists where Joseph told anyone that an angel would slay him if a specific woman didn’t marry him.  The angel appeared due to Joseph’s reluctance to engage in plural marriage as a general principle. This story was never used as leverage to get a woman to agree to marry Joseph.

I have a problem with this. This is Warren Jeffs territory.

Actually, this is precisely the opposite of the way Warren Jeffs, a convicted pedophile, conducted the principle of plural marriage. Joseph saw plural marriage as a religious principle to bind families together, not a license for sexual adventurism. He was sealed to dozens of women with whom he had no sexual relations, and he did not have sexual relations with any underage women. There is no evidence of coercion, and there is solid evidence that he took no for an answer.  Jeffs, on the other hand, forced underage girls to marry and have sex with himself and other men or be damned forever. You’re trying to drag Joseph Smith into Warren Jeffs territory, but the facts don’t support you in that effort.

More polygamy tomorrow!

CES Reply: The Abrahamic Finale

Continuing my reply to Jeremy Runnell’s “Letter to a CES Director,” with Jeremy’s original words in green:

8. There’s a book published in 1830 by Thomas Dick entitled The Philosophy of the Future State.

1830. A very good year, indeed. Same year, in fact, that the Church was organized and the Book of Mormon was published. Joseph was already pretty far down the road with Mormon theology by this point, so this book couldn’t have been included in all the stuff he supposedly plagiarized to write the Book of Mormon. Maybe this made for a bit of light reading after he was poring through View of the Hebrews, The Late War between the United States and Great Britain, The First Book of Napolean, oodles of Captain Kidd stories, and dozens of obscure local and African maps.

But, okay, here we go. One more accusation of plagiarism. Excuse me for not being staggered, floored, or astounded. You can only cry wolf so many times.

Joseph Smith owned a copy of the book and Oliver Cowdery quoted some lengthy excerpts from the book in the December 1836 Messenger and Advocate.

Indeed! And Oliver participated in the Book of Abraham translation process. Why would a plagiarist call attention to his source? A source which, just by reading the excerpt to which you link, clearly bears no textual resemblance to the Book of Abraham at all?

Klaus Hansen, an LDS scholar, stated:

Klaus Hansen? Am I supposed to know who he is? Why is it that the only LDS scholars you respect are those who agree with you, while those who disagree are just “unofficial apologists?”

But OK. What did the good Mr. Hansen state?

“The progressive aspect of Joseph’s theology, as well as its cosmology, while in a general way compatible with antebellum thought, bears some remarkable resemblances to Thomas Dick’s ‘Philosophy of a Future State’.”

That may be why Oliver chose to quote from him. I quote from C.S. Lewis on my blog all the time, because I’m thrilled to find a non-Mormon writer advancing what seem, to me, to be some very remarkable resemblances to Mormon ideas. To my knowledge, no one has accused me of plagiarism as a result, nor should it surprise us when people from different backgrounds arrive at similar philosophical conclusions. Because that’s what we’re talking about here – ideas that Thomas Dick had that bear some similarity to ideas in the Book of Abraham. Clearly none of Dick’s text can be found in the B of A, so insinuations of plagiarism are pretty silly.

Hansen continues:

“Some very striking parallels to Smith’s theology suggest that the similarities between the two may be more than coincidental. Dick’s lengthy book, an ambitious treatise on astronomy and metaphysics, proposed the idea that matter is eternal and indestructible…


… and rejected the notion of a creation ex nihilo.


“None but that Eternal Mind which counts the number of the stars, which called them from nothing into existence, and arranged them in the respective stations they occupy, and whose

eyes run to and fro through the unlimited extent of creation, can form a clear and comprehensive conception of the number, the order, and the economy of this vast portion of the system of nature.” [Emphasis added]

– Thomas Dick, Philosophy of a Future State, pp. 206-207.

Calling things from “nothing into existence” is the very definition of ex nihilo creation, which Dick clearly accepts and the Book of Abraham explicitly rejects. Mr. Dick has a bunch of other ideas that fly in the face of Mormon theology. His God is “a spiritual uncompounded substance, having no visible form, nor sensible quantities, ‘inhabiting eternity,’ and filling immensity with his presence, his essential glory cannot form an object for the direct contemplation of any finite intelligence.” (p.202) This deity also “existed alone, independent of every other being” for “[i]nnumerable ages before the universe was created.” (p. 56)

That’s about as un-Mormon – and un-Book of Abraham – as a God can possibly be.

Much of the book dealt with the infinity of the universe, made up of innumerable stars spread out over immeasurable distances. Dick speculated that many of these stars were peopled by “various orders of intelligences” and that these intelligences were “progressive beings” in various stages of evolution toward perfection.

Those, apparently, are the parts of the book that Oliver liked, which is why he quoted from them in the Messenger and Advocate. Like you, he apparently prefers to quote scholars when they agree with him.

In the Book of Abraham, part of which consists of a treatise on astronomy and cosmology, eternal beings of various orders and stages of development likewise populate numerous stars. They, too, are called “intelligences.”

Same name, yes, but with entirely different functions. Dick’s divine intelligence is completely and forever removed from every other intelligence, all of which is far too limited and weak to ever understand the Eternal Mind. Abraham 3, where God steps into the midst of intelligences and proclaims “These I shall make my rulers” is antithetical to Dick’s conception of deity.

Dick speculated that “the systems of the universe revolve around a common centre…the throne of God.” In the Book of Abraham, one star named Kolob “was nearest unto the throne of God.”

“Therefore are they before the throne of God, and serve him day and night in his temple: and he that sitteth on the throne shall dwell among them.” – Revelation 7:15

“And he that shall swear by heaven, sweareth by the throne of God, and by him that sitteth thereon.” – Matthew 23:22

“Looking unto Jesus the author and finisher of our faith; who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is set down at the right hand of the throne of God.” – Hebrews 12:2

Emphasis added in all above biblical passages. There are plenty more. The “throne of God” even makes several appearances in the Book of Mormon, which was published before Joseph got his hands on Philosophy of a Future State. Incredible as it may seem, this is proof that Joseph could have thought of using this three-word phrase without Thomas Dick’s help.

Other stars, in ever diminishing order, were placed in increasing distances from this center.” – Mormonism and the American Experience, Klaus Hansen, p.79-80, 110

I’d very much like to read the rest of this passage from Klaus Hansen, as the few articles I can find of his suggest that he’s a faithful Latter-day Saint. I don’t have a copy of his book, and the text is unavailable online. It would be interesting to see if these observations are tempered by a broader context that you neglect to cite, as I suspect they probably are.

9. Elder Jeffrey R. Holland was directly asked about the papyri not matching the Book of Abraham in a March 2012 BBC interview:

Sweeney: Mr. Smith got this papyri and he translated them and subsequently as the Egyptologists cracked the code something completely different…

Holland: (Interrupts) All I’m saying…all I’m saying is that what got translated got translated into the word of God. The vehicle for that, I do not understand and don’t claim to know and know no Egyptian.

Is “I don’t know and I don’t understand but it’s the word of God” really the best answer that a “prophet, seer, and revelator” can come up with to such a profound problem that is driving many members out of the Church?

Is paraphrasing Elder Holland to torture his words into sounding more ignorant than they actually were really the best way to make your argument?

Elder Holland didn’t say “I don’t know and I don’t understand but it’s the word of God.” What he said was that he didn’t understand “the vehicle for that,” meaning the means of translation, and that he didn’t know Egyptian. If you actually watched the documentary, which I did at the time, you’d recognize that Sweeney was about as obnoxious to Elder Holland as he could have possibly been. Elder Holland’s patience and grace under hostile fire was impressive by any objective standard.

This may be a tangent, but that documentary merits additional comment. Throughout the piece John Sweeney gets all the simple details wrong. For example, he constantly refers to chapels as temples; yet when he stands outside the Boston Temple, he claims Mitt Romney was “a bishop here.” Well, no. As any Mormon knows, regular meetinghouses and temples serve very different purposes. If someone’s going to warn the world about Mitt’s scary cult, which was the purpose of the piece, maybe they should get the little things right if they want us to trust the, on the big things.

It’s clear who Sweeney trusts, though – dissidents. He spends about twenty minutes interviewing modern polygamists who have zero connection to the church to which Mitt Romney belongs, and then another twenty or so interviewing unstable people who’ve left the church, one of whom claims to have been “followed,” although whether or not it was the church that was following him, he can’t be sure. Sweeney makes one offhand comment that the vast majority of the people who knew Mitt as a bishop really liked and respected him, but that comment comes before a lengthy interview with the one woman who didn’t.

That’s the approach. If you hate the Mormons, then you’re honest and credible. If you like them, then you’re hiding something.

Sound familiar, Jeremy?

At one point in Sweeney’s piece, some wackadoodle, random hairy dude claims that Mormon spies are trained by the CIA to learn how to snoop on church members’ private lives. Sweeney then cuts to a spooky shot of the Church Office Building and scarily intones that he has contacted a CIA agent “who refuses to reveal his name.” This CIA wannabe Deep Throat confirms… that the CIA does, in fact, employ Mormons. That’s it. That’s the smoking gun evidence of some secret Mormon spy network. No word if Lutherans who work for the CIA are also being trained to spy on parishioners.

After giving full hearing to reports by the angriest people imaginable about all the horrors of Mormonism, he then ambushes Elder Holland and asks him to deny these horrors, which he does, after which Sweeney presents some variation of “Oh, sure, Elder Holland. You may claim that you don’t follow people and shun people and cut them out of their families, but I’ve found thirty people” – Sweeney’s own, admitted number – “who beg to differ.”

That’s the tone of this piece – thirty loopy, ex-Mormon cranks vs. the entire faithful membership of the LDS Church, the whole of which gets about a fifth of the total screen time.

But you’re right – as he was being badgered by a hostile interviewer who was unwilling to give him time to respond, Elder Holland did not provide a comprehensive understanding of the Book of Abraham in the five seconds he was allotted before the next question. Or perhaps he did go on at length, and Sweeney left it on the cutting room floor. Making Elder Holland look good was not on John Sweeney’s agenda.

The following are respected Egyptian scholars/Egyptologists statements regarding Joseph Smith and the Book of Abraham:

“…these three facsimiles of Egyptian documents in the Pearl of Great Price depict the most common objects in the Mortuary religion of Egypt. Joseph Smith’s interpretations of them as part of a unique revelation through Abraham, therefore, very clearly demonstrates that he was totally unacquainted with the significance of these documents and absolutely ignorant of the simplest facts of Egyptian writing and civilization.”

– Dr. James H. Breasted, University of Chicago

“It may be safely said that there is not one single word that is true in these explanations…” – Dr. W.M. Flinders Petrie, London University

“It is difficult to deal seriously with Joseph Smith’s impudent fraud…Smith has turned the goddess [Isis in Facsimile #3] into a king and Osiris into Abraham.”

– Dr. A.H. Sayce, Oxford professor of Egyptology

Man. You left all the big guns for the end, didn’t you? If you had all these respected Egyptian scholars in your back pocket, why did you keep trotting out the guy who wrote Saturday’s Voyeur to make your case?

I’d like to see what else Dr. James H. Breasted has to say on the subject. Is he still teaching at the University of Chicago? No, he isn’t, probably because he’s been dead for over eighty years. Same with A.H. Sayce. Flinders Petrie is the kid of the group – he died in 1942. All these statements were made over a hundred years ago in the service of an anti-Mormon tract published by Franklin Spalding, an Episcopal bishop. All of them would have believed Egyptological ideas that modern scholars would now reject, based on the most current research available. Certainly all of them precede the flood of Book of Abraham scholarship that has taken place since the Joseph Smith Papyri were discovered in 1967.

Hugh Nibley, who I quote in fire red again, absolutely destroys these guys.

At that time it was claimed that the pronouncements of five of the greatest scholars of all time had “completely demolished” all grounds for belief in the divine inspiration or historic authenticity of the Book of Abraham and, through it, the Book of Mormon. It turned out, however, that Bishop Franklin S. Spalding, in gathering and manipulating the necessary evidence for his determined and devious campaign, had (1) disqualified the Mormons from all participation in the discussion on the grounds that they were not professional Egyptologists; (2) sent special warnings and instructions to his experts that made it impossible for any of them to decide for Joseph Smith; (3) concealed all correspondence that did not support the verdict he desired; (4) given the learned jury to understand that the original Egyptian manuscripts were available, which they were not; (5) said that Mormons claimed them to be the unique autobiographic writings and sketching of Abraham, which they did not; (6) announced to the world that Joseph Smith was being tested on linguistic grounds alone, specifically as a translator, though none of his experts ventured to translate a single word of the documents submitted; and (7) rested his case on the “complete agreement” of the scholars, who agreed on nothing save that the Book of Abraham was a hoax.

The experts (1) did not agree among themselves at all when they spoke without collusion; (2) with the exception of James H. Breasted, they wrote only brief and contemptuous notes, though it was claimed that they had given the documents “careful consideration”; (3) they admitted that they were hasty and ill-tempered, since they at no time considered anything of Joseph Smith’s worth any serious attention at all; (4) they translated nothing and produced none of the “identical” documents, which, according to them, were available in countless numbers and proved Joseph Smith’s interpretations a fraud. They should have done much better than they did since they had everything their own way, being free to choose for interpretation and comment whatever was easiest and most obvious, and to pass by in complete silence the many formidable problems presented by the three facsimiles. Those Mormons who ventured a few polite and diffident questions about the consistency of the criticisms or the completeness of the evidence instantly called down upon their heads the Jovian bolts of the New York Times, accusing them of “reviling scholars and scholarship.” A safer setup for the critics of Joseph Smith could not be imagined. And yet it was they and not the Mormons who insisted on calling off the whole show just when it was getting interesting. It was not a very edifying performance.

– From “A New Look at the History of the Pearl of Great Price” published in The Improvement Era, May, 1970.

Yeah, maybe the flying violin dude was your best bet after all.

The Church conceded in its July 2014 Translation and Historicity of the Book of Abraham essay that Joseph’s translations of the papyri and the facsimiles do not match what’s in the Book of Abraham.

Wrong. The Church announced to the world that the papyri did not match what’s in the Book of Abraham two months after the papyri were found.

From the cover story of the January 1968 edition of The Improvement Era

Some of the pieces of papyrus apparently include conventional hieroglyphics (sacred inscriptions, resembling picture-drawing) and hieratic (a cursive shorthand version of hieroglyphics) Egyptian funerary texts, which were commonly buried with Egyptian mummies. Often the funerary texts contained passages from the “Book of the Dead,” a book that was to assist in the safe passage of the dead person into the spirit world. It is not known at this time whether the ten other pieces of papyri have a direct connection with the Book of Abraham.

Emphasis added.

Since that time, there have been countless admissions that the text of the JS Papyri does not match the text of the Book of Abraham. I remember reading this article on my mission – “Why doesn’t the translation of the Egyptian papyri found in 1967 match the text of the Book of Abraham in the Pearl of Great Price?” It was published in the July 1988 edition of the Ensign. Your statement implies that the Church only first “conceded” these facts in 2014, which is demonstrably false. There has never been any attempt by the Church to claim that the Joseph Smith Papyri contains the text of the Book of Abraham. It is patently dishonest to suggest otherwise.

Of all of the issues, the Book of Abraham is the issue that has both fascinated and disturbed me the most. It is the issue that I’ve spent the most time researching on because it offers a real insight into Joseph’s modus operandi as well as Joseph’s claim of being a translator. It is the smoking gun that has completely obliterated my testimony of Joseph Smith and his claims.

This makes me very sad, indeed. It is always a tragedy when someone loses their faith, but I consider it especially tragic when someone’s testimony is obliterated because of misunderstandings, bad information, and logically fallacious assumptions like the kind you present in your letter. The gun is smoking because you have unwittingly shot yourself in the foot.

Tomorrow: Polygamy!