Various Interpretations of Historical Issues

This is a follow up on my post about 9 church history facts I wish I had known. It mentions church history facts lots of people may not want to know or read about, so please skip this post if you would rather not know about the issues. I wanted to give a couple different interpretations of the facts I talked about. I am leaving out references, so this really is a poor quality post, but I wanted to at least let people know how some people make sense of these facts (goes back to facts vs. interpretations of facts; here are some interpretations).

Fact vs. Interpretation (these are not the only possible interpretations of the facts. Red is the non-believing perspective, blue is the believing perspective)

  1. Joseph Smith married some women who were already married to other men. Some find the evidence overwhelming that Joseph Smith was caught in an affair, which led to the “revelation” about plural marriage (basically justification for the sin). Then eventually he got cocky enough that he decided he could marry anyone he was attracted to, even other people’s wives. Another way to make sense of this fact is that Joseph was obsessed with the idea of unity and he saw eternal marriage as a way of doing this. He possibly thought that he was helping women by having them sealed to at least one worthy priesthood holder (himself). I probably didn’t do a very good job explaining this faithful perspective, but that is sort of the gist of it.
  2. Much of the temple ceremony is nearly identical to the ceremony used by Masons. Joseph Smith and many of the first church leaders were also Masons. Lots of people think Joseph pretty much used the secrecy of the Masonic ceremony as a tool to keep his plural marriages secretive. This perspective basically says Joseph stole the Masonic ceremony and made it his own by making a few slight changes. This means the temple ceremony could not possibly be any older than Joseph’s day, and certainly nothing like the Old Testament temple ceremony. Some of the symbols and signs used both in the temple ceremony and in the Masonic ceremony are very old. Maybe parts of the temple ceremony are crucial and maybe the signs and symbols and tokens are part of what is crucial. Joseph may have used the Masonic elements of the ceremony because he felt it was an effective tool for teaching and a ceremony that lots of people were comfortable with since many men at the time were also masons.
  3. J.S. was very secretive about polygamy, to the point he had a role in burning down a printing press that was going to out him as a polygamist (it would be a tough position if God was commanding you to do something that people largely despised…but it also looks an awful lot like someone trying to hide their mistakes).
  4. People, including (maybe especially) the prophets and apostles continued drinking alcohol long after the Word of Wisdom and continued marrying multiple wives after the Manifesto was given. The story of Joseph Smith keeping his teeth clenched closed so he wouldn’t ingest the alcohol the mob was trying to poor down his throat probably needs to go (him clenching his teeth so he wouldn’t ingest what he suspected was poison does make more sense, but doesn’t promote the WoW as much), since Joseph Smith (and basically everyone back then) drank alcohol his whole life. The Word of Wisdom was initially just a word of wisdom, it was advice, and some members followed it more than others. It has been taken more literally and also interpreted differently in modern times. We can follow the modern interpretation of it believing that interpretation is revealed by God. Stopping polygamy and consuming alcohol, tobacco, and coffee are not things you can just stop on a dime. People needed time gradually embrace these things before they became commandments. Like many things in the church, polygamy stopped once the political pressure to stop it was too great. The Word of Wisdom became a big deal during prohibition times when people started seeing drinking alcohol as a moral issue.
  5. Joseph Smith translated the majority of the BoM with a stone in a hat. This is evidence that Joseph was making the whole BoM up. Joseph’s mother talks about him telling stories about the native people of the land that were very believable long before he wrote the book of Mormon. There also are way too many similarities between the BoM text and other texts of the time, locations in Joseph’s area, and such that the case is closed. The BoM is not a historical document. Who cares how J.S. translated the BoM. All a person needs to know is that it came from God, Joseph using a stone to translate the book makes no difference. You can find this out based on the feelings you have while reading the book and praying about it. Sorry, but feelings do not equate to evidence of the truth of something. Sorry, but powerful experiences had while reading the BoM can be considered revelation from God.
  6. The Mountain Meadows Massacre happened. That Danites existed and did some bad things. That Mormons persecution was a two-way street–Mormons did horrible things too. People aren’t perfect. Prophets are people too. The early members of the church made mistakes, that does not make the church false. These tragedies are evidences that the prophet is not and never has been chosen of or inspired by God.
  7. There is lots of evidence that contradicts the historicity of the Book of Abraham and the Book of Mormon. There is also some evidence to suggest certain things about the Book of Abraham or the Book of Mormon could be historically accurate. I think members should be given some understanding of both sides–or at least not be criticized for trying to find out what the historical problems are. The names of places in the BoM are a lot like the names of places around where Joseph lived. There are also names that appear truly Arabic or Hebrew, which are unlikely for Joseph to have made up with such accuracy. Joseph was always a great story teller. Joseph used a treasure hunting stone to “translate” the book. There are a couple books that are very similar–in story line, ideas, and actual text–to many parts of the BoM. (This is probably one of the most compelling arguments to me). These are books Joseph would have had access to. Medals in the BoM didn’t exist during those times. Maybe they weren’t talking about actual steel, but something sort of like steel. Neither did horses, wheels, several plants that are mentioned, and lots of other things. Horses went extinct in N. America, but maybe a few hung around somewhere and we just don’t know about them. Chariots could have been more of a sleigh (without wheels). The growth statistics in the BoM are impossible, so are the huge numbers of people killed. No grave mounds of these proportions have ever been found. Maybe some of the numbers in the BoM were more metaphorical or categorical rather than specific. DNA evidence suggests the people of the Americas are of Asian descent, not Middle Eastern.  Linguistic evidence may suggest Aramaic or Hebrew influence. There are quotes from the New Testament that appear in the Book of Mormon even though the New Testament wouldn’t have been written during those times. The BoM is a creative work, case closed. There is some evidence to suggest the BoM and BoA are authentic and possibly historical.
  8. Prophets said and taught some things that are no longer said and taught. Things like Brigham Young teaching that murders’ blood must be shed to atone for their sins, or that Adam was God the Father. The church now shies away from fringe teachings like this. You have to look at these quotes in their historical context and they make more sense for those people at that time. The early apostles were all converts and brought their own ideas from their previous religions with them. Prophets are no more inspired than their own personal ideas and biases. The church still does things that are sexist and homophobic and people don’t question these things because prophets say them.
  9. Prophets sometimes contradict each other. Some early prophets taught polygamy as necessary for exaltation, some modern prophets say this is not true, etc. Prophets can be inspired and yet still be human and make mistakes. Prophets sometimes are speaking as men and other times as prophets. How do you know when a prophet is speaking as a man or as a prophet. Some of the crazy ideas were spoken in ways that sound like prophecy and some of the crazy ideas were phrased in ways that made them sound like doctrine. It seems that people say prophets were “speaking as a man” in hindsight, when the church decides it no longer supports something a previous prophet said. Revelation is a complicated process that involves a man, with his biases and God’s inspiration. The result is something that is generally inspired but sometimes slightly incorrect.
  10. Kinderhook plates (This is actually a new one). J.S. said they were records from BoM people and started to translate the records. They turned out to be a hoax. This is evidence that Joseph was faking translation all along. Joseph was translating these plates by traditional means, using the Egyptian alphabet as understood by the First Presidency at that time–an alphabet which was entirely incorrect.
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5 Responses to Various Interpretations of Historical Issues

  1. Jennifer says:

    wow. I’m still finishing thinking about the God stuff. You move quick! 🙂 My thoughts:

    1.I’d be very careful about using anything from Fawn Brodie. her work is old and she’s been widely discredited in many places by now. I’d at least read Rough stone rolling p.324-326 to get a different perspective. Polygamy is problematic for me too. But I’m pretty careful about the whole Fanny Alger “affair” thing. Levi Hancock says he made the marriage proposal to Fanny and her family, and officiated at the wedding and was also told polygamy was a way of raising a righteous posterity for the second coming. The other crazy thing is that Fanny left the church and married someone else but never spoke badly of Joseph Smith. I’d think if she felt taken advantage of she surely would have. There’s evidence of an early revelation about polygamy (before the Fanny thing), so maybe Emma had already told Joseph her feelings about it (which in my mind means Joseph shouldn’t have done it even based solely on her feelings). I would have been right there with Emma and Oliver Cowdrey, upset about it, but that doesn’t mean that Joseph didn’t think he was justified. The marriage, Fanny’s later reactions etc. seem to show me it wasn’t a traditional affair that a convenient revelation about polygamy justified. Polyandry sealings are crazy, but at least they weren’t sexual except for that one lady who was estranged from her husband at the time and has possibly the only case of a child by Joseph (Joseph was almost always with Emma). I’m not justifiying polygamy, and I’m certainly open to the idea that Joseph made mistakes here, but I think it’s important to not overly speculate either.

    2. as far as the temple ceremony being old…parts of it at least pre-dated anything Masonic, such as the Kirtland washings etc. Don Bradley pointed out parts were in the 116 lost pages. As far as the masonic parts covering up polygamy hummm. maybe, but there were women in the temple too (as a side note the marriage ceremony is not masonic and aparently was done outside of the temple with Fanny etc.).

    3. Joseph also knew that the saints would likely be driven out again because of polygamy and he was right. Even so, I think if he really believed it from God he should have just taught it openly and let things fall where they would.

    4.ya I agree that interpretation of that story should go. The saints certainly did consider the W of W as council, but i think most gave up whiskey and getting drunk at least after it, though they probably still drank on occasion until like you said prohibition made it a bigger deal. It seems to me that most saints also differentiated between slightly fermented wine and beer of their own making and stronger stuff (as does the w of W).

    5. I wouldn’t say Joseph was telling those stories long before the Book of Mormon. In Lucy’s history she says Joseph would come home from his annual instruction with Moroni and tell them stories, so this would be the few years before he got the plates. Either Joseph was up there fabricating the whole thing and creating some false plates on this one day a year over 3 years (he got the plates on the 4th year right?), an impressive feat considering that no one reported him buying material as heavy and expensive as lead (which could possibly match in weight to the reported dimensions). Also the witnesses who saw the plates and examined the insciprtions etc. I think the thing confusing to me is that if Joseph was talking about their warfare and travel why doesn’t it match better with what we find archeologically? Of course most people in the book of Mormon walked everywhere, but in a couple places it seems the kings had access to a wheeled carrier and animals of some sort. There are rare engravings of people riding deer and a rare horse bone or so but it sure would be convenient if things could have matched perfectly.

    6. I guess i posted about Danites earlier, but there’s good reserach out on the mountain meadows massacre now. If they’d received Brigham Young’s warning soon enough not to do it, maybe it would not have happened.

    7. I think the similar names to where Joseph smith lived is a little crazy. I think Fawn Brodie used that but some of those places weren’t named until after Joseph smith lived (i haven’t looked into this for a while though). The spaulding manuscript theory is pretty much completely discredited now. I’ve read View of the Hebrews and find it mildly similar in ideas but not a lot more. I don’t know why he didn’t use the evidences that view of the Hebrews used (good thing because they were wrong even the ones he talked about in Nauvoo) if he was using that book. The language of the book of Mormon appears to me to the language Joseph smtih thought of as sacred–king James English. I’ve struggled with this in the past but presently feel fine about it.

    8. prophets are not infallble, but I think God does work with their mind and culture in the same way he does us. I think they help the saints to do good things as a community, and I think they offer the ordinances of salvation.

    9.yup, we should think about what they say. It’s not a blind obedience church. Not even Joseph smith wanted that.

    10. Ya, this used to bug me but I agree with the whole Egyptian alphabet thing since the characters used do seem closest to the same characters and descriptions on the fake plates. If Joseph smith thought it authentic I”m not sure why he just dropped it suddenly even if it persisted in myth for many years past that.

    This is just me and my imperfect thoughts. I struggle with some things that cause me occasional doubt too, but there seem too many good reasons for belief to just throw the towel in for me at least. Love you.

    • crooks14 says:

      Hey Jenny,

      Thanks for responding. This post did come kind of out of nowhere. I guess I started feeling like I keep mentioning there are church history issues and then never really saying what they are, so I kind of just decided to throw an outline out there. But then, as I was thinking about it, I realized that people might want to know a couple different interpretations of the information. Honestly, this outline wasn’t well researched at all. I need to do more of that and post better posts about it in the future. I suppose it was a rough introduction.

      To respond to you:
      1. I think the interesting/difficult thing about the polygamy and polyandry situations is that given all the first, second, and third hand accounts of what happened, you can tell the story just about however you want. Even though I agree that I don’t think it was a “traditional” affair, there are some quotes out there that make it sound like the Fannie situation was a traditional affair. And for people who think of Joseph only as a man, and not as an inspired person or as a prophet, the idea that he had an affair and then covered it up makes the most sense (whether the evidence supports this BEST is another question. I was just reading this article: http://www.fairlds.org/fair-conferences/2012-fair-conference/2012-joseph-smiths-sexual-polyandry-and-the-emperors-new-clothes-on-closer-inspection-what-do-we-find, and I really liked the tables and such in it that summarized the viewpoints of various writers and historians who have written about Joseph’s polygamy and polyandry. I think there is evidence to support pretty much whatever viewpoint a person takes, but I’ll keep reading more. The more I read though, the more I think that people decide the evidence supports whatever conclusion they come to. In other words, if I believe Joseph is a prophet, then the evidence can suggest that he was not breaking any chastity laws, and if I believe is was a proud, horny guy then there is evidence to support that too. But, like I said, I need to keep reading 🙂

      2. I definitely need to read more on the ancient parts of the temple ceremony. I have read very conflicting things so far about this, so I need to keep reading.

      5. I need to read more about the plates too. From what I have read so far, the information seems contradictory. Some people lifted a box with the plates and described the weight, but anything could have been in the box. Other people saw the plates, but the way it is described, it could have been a vision, not an actual, physical viewing of the plates. I need to read more on this too.

      6. The Mountain Meadows Massacre: Again, there’s conflicting evidence. Brigham Young on one hand seemed to want retribution against the people of the United States, and specifically against the people of Missouri and Arkansas (Arkansas because some Mormons blamed the people of Arkansas for the murder of Parley P. Pratt) (I read there was a rumor going around that some of the people who killed J.S. were in the party at Mountain Meadows), and on the other hand didn’t want to cause further problems with the U.S. government. Either way it seems that his violent language about blood atonement and the people of the U.S. paying for the crimes they had committed seemed to create a lot of tension with the Saints. Whether the leaders of the church are directly implicated or not seems very unclear since they had contact with the people who attacked the wagon train at M.M. shortly before the attacks and yet there is no actual statement about what was said during those meetings (at least no statement I have seen). The whole situation seems to have been fueled by anger, vengeance, and rumors, and then covered up and swept under the rug as much as possible. In my opinion, there were a lot more guilty parties involved, probably including some high up leaders, than there were people who paid for their crimes.

      7. For sure I need to do more research on the BoM anachronisms and the books that are similar to the BoM. It gives me some hope that maybe some of the latter have been discredited. But for sure I am kind of generally unimpressed with evidence FOR the BoM as a historical book. I still hope I’m wrong, but the evidence FOR it seems so limited, while the evidence against it seems so extensive. I want to read more for sure because I would love to be wrong, but at the moment I guess I am happy to maybe try to embrace it as a spiritual, but not a historical, book. I’ll keep you posted though as I start reading about this (which will probably take me a while to getting around to doing).

      Thanks so much for your comments! You have read SOOOO much, it amazes me! I always learn new things and you always are great for fact checking me. Thanks!

  2. Pingback: A Reply to a Friend | MyModernMormonism

  3. Alicia,
    I’m going to skip over the soap opera that is early Mormon polygamy. I know this is a big issue for you, so I’ll leave you to sort out your own thoughts.
    As far as BoM historicity, consider this. Biblical archaeology, while doing nothing to prove or disprove the beliefs of the Hebrews, has produced thousands and thousands of artifacts from hundreds of sites, verifying the existence of the Hebrew people beyond a reasonable doubt. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Biblical_archaeology#Table_I:_Excavations_and_surveys
    There is not a single BoM archaeology site that correlates with the narrative of the BoM. Zero. Zip. And not for lack of trying.
    As far as the linguistic evidence, what evidence? There were some studies indicating the BoM was probably not written by a single author, but the evidence does not give any credibility to the claim that it is a translated ancient text. And, of course, the original text is not available.
    The Pearl of Great Price broke Joseph’s rule of having the evidence whisked away by angels. He actually included a copy of some of the document he was translating. It was positively identified as something from the “book of Breathings”– a fairly common Egyptian burial scroll.
    How about, “Brethren, adieu” from the book of Jacob. French? Really?!?
    Every modern church has some scandals. So polygamy, blood atonement, massacres, racism, bigotry, etc. are ugly, but do not prove or disprove the Book of Mormon. However, archaeology, DNA, well, every aspect of science I’ve seen agree. The case against the BoM is sound. Some facets of the science, like linguistics, cannot prove the case beyond a reasonable doubt by themselves, but others can. Biology and archaeology have made a rock solid case against the historicity of the BoM.

    • crooks14 says:

      Hey Justin,

      I think I really need to do my research on the Book of Mormon and do a whole post on it afterward. But where I am right now, I serious doubt the BoM and PGP are anything but creative works. I guess I still hope they are based on history, but it doesn’t seem likely based on what I have read so far. So, mostly I agree with you, but I really need to do more research on both sides. The BoM is probably one of my biggest issues. Thanks for your comment!

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