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
CES Reply: The Three Witnesses - Martin Harris

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