Monday, September 29, 2008

Purpose of this Blog

This isn't a ministry. If you are Mormon and happy, then I wish you peace. I'm not trying to steer anyone out of a path that they find comforting. I don't go out on the weekends passing out tracts or knocking doors hoping to convince people of the ridiculousness of their religious beliefs.

But if you find yourself on this blog it is probably because you have had some doubts or questions. I'm here because I want Mormons struggling with their beliefs to know that they aren't alone and that their doubts are well justified and reasonable. I want them to understand that they are among the many Mormons who are suddenly getting access to good information about the church's origins that was previously difficult to find and that are confused by what they've found.

I want you to know that it is perfectly fine to doubt and to question. I want you to doubt and question. If the church is really true then your research will confirm your beliefs and resolve your doubts. But if it just creates more questions and doubts then it's time to consider that maybe it isn't true.

If you reach that conclusion then you'll have joined the many Mormons that are leaving the church just like a child who realizes that there is no Santa Claus and moves on with a more mature world view. You'll find that you haven't really changed, but that you'll suddenly have more time and resources to devote to the things that really matter to you.

You won't suddenly be morally adrift. You won't suddenly lose the Spirit and be unable to differentiate between right and wrong. You won't lose access to your intuition and judgment that allow you to make tough decisions with incomplete information. If you lose anything in the process, then you never really had it anyway.

You may lose friends. Family may shun you or disrespect your decision. You will certainly cut yourself off from the network of support offered by your ward or branch. You will probably spend a lot of time rethinking your beliefs. You will feel loss and pain and will go through a grieving process. It won't be easy.

But, you aren't alone.

That's one reason I'm blogging.

The other reason is that I've found that I like putting my thoughts and experiences down in words and sharing them semi-anonymously here on the web. If others find them entertaining or useful, then that's great, but it's really all about me. A lot of the time this is my therapy and my attempt to organize and make sense of my thoughts and feelings.

What Would Convince Me?

I recently wrote three posts about what I feel are particularly damning evidences against the divine origins of the Mormon church:
  1. Joseph's use of a seer stone to translate the Book of Mormon (see Rock In A Hat).
  2. Joseph's claim to have translated Egyptian hieroglyphics even though the church now has a portion of the papyrus he used and the text of his "translation" bears no resemblance to the papyrus (see Translation Strike 2).
  3. Joseph's practice of polygamy which included marrying other men's wives and young teenagers (see 38 year old man, 14 year old girl).
The church's apologists believe that they have thoroughly dealt with these and many other issues. However I've read their explanations and found them to stretch credibility far beyond my breaking point. They ask me to ignore the most obvious explanation of these facts and instead believe that while lesser men might have been wrong, Joseph Smith wasn't because he was a prophet.

So, what evidence would convince me?

On the first point, I have to admit that there isn't much that would convince me. I don't believe that Joseph Smith was ever able to find lost treasure using his seer stone and that his use of it was outright fraud and deception. I guess you'd have to show me evidence that that seer stone can actually do what Joseph Smith claimed it did. This isn't implausible since the current church prophet still has this seer stone and claims to be a prophet, seer, and revelator and to have the keys to all spiritual gifts. So, he could theoretically pull out the brown seer stone and demonstrate his abilities but I won't hold my breath.

On the second point I'd be convinced if the church could produce the papyrus from which the Book of Abraham was translated and impartial Egyptologists could authenticate the papyrus and the translation. Again, I think the church already has the correct papyrus and that they clearly show Joseph Smith to be a fraud. But if the church can produce the evidence, I'll clearly recant.

On the third point, like the first, I simply find the history of the institution of polygamy to be antithetical to any kind of moral behavior and evidence of the craven nature of Joseph Smith and how far he'd fallen by that time in his life and how much power he had over his followers so that they would do things that they would otherwise find to be abominable. The answer of the apologists seems to be that it can't be wrong if God ordered it. But the more pertinent question to me is, if the prophetic status of Joseph Smith is the question, then isn't his immoral behavior the answer? It is to me.

The above three issues rise to the top for me, but there are many, many, many other issues. Once I allowed myself to consider the facts without prejudice, I started asking, "Are these facts more consistent with the church being true or false?" What I found was that all the facts were consistent with the church being an earthly invention of Joseph Smith and that I had to swallow all sorts of improbable explanations in order to believe that the church is divine. It's really no contest.

Friday, September 19, 2008

Gamma Party

Obrajes had been "tracted out" when I arrived, meaning that previous elders had already knocked on every door and reaped whatever converts were to be had. Of course, the same could probably be said of just about any place where Mormon missionaries have been working for very long. My trainer and I buckled down to work.

Our house was at the top of a steep hill, a cliff almost, above a road that wound up a valley, across a river and into a neighborhood of adobe houses called Bella Vista. The road was paved in a way I'd never seen before, but was common in this part of the world. The soil was mostly rocks with a little clay to hold it together and as they dug the road bed they harvested fist sized round river rocks which they then laid back down as the pavers. This made for a nice, hard surface but it was really uncomfortable to walk on because it wasn't really flat and the stones dug into the balls of your feet and made your ankles roll.

Every morning we would eat our breakfast of war bread and carrot tea, descend the switchbacks from our house to the road, cross over and take a shortcut up the trail from hell into Bella Vista. Both my feet still hurt from the muscles I'd torn playing basketball at the MTC and climbing almost straight up at 13,000 feet altitude made my legs burn. Every morning I'd say a little mantra as I climbed that hill to help me believe that God would give me strength to keep up with my companion who was already conditioned to the altitude and endless walking.

Health in the navel
Marrow in the bones
Strength in the loins and in the sinews
Power in the priesthood be upon me and upon all my posterity
through all generations of time and through out all eternity

I'd repeat this over and over in my head as I climbed believing that God would fulfill his promises and give me strength if I would just put in the effort.

Bella Vista was typical of the areas I worked in Bolivia. It was a tightly packed warren of houses made from adobe bricks with corrugated steel roofs. The dirt for the adobe was dug from the ground on the home site so its only cost was the back breaking labor which the Bolivians could afford. However they could afford little else so the houses usually had no plaster to cover the adobe. The houses were dark and were sparsely furnished. Many had a single room with a bed, a table, a few chairs, perhaps some pictures of the Virgin, and little else. Many cooked on kerosene stoves and with few windows the atmosphere in the house was sometimes toxic.

Wealthier neighbors had homes built of rebar reinforced frames and red ceramic bricks. Some of these homes left the bricks exposed, but some were covered in stucco or plaster.

We worked every day from Tuesday to Saturday, going door to door knocking and trying to share our message. We taught a lot of first discussions, but very few second ones. On Sunday we attended church in the Obrajes Ward which met in a nice two story brick building that the church rented. The bishop was a Bolivian who went to college in the United States and worked in the church office building in La Paz. The meetings were well attended by a core group of about 30 or 40 members out of the 500 plus that lived in the ward boundaries. As in most of Latin America, the elders had been very successful in baptizing many converts, but not many of those converts ever remained active in the church resulting in a substantial number of members of record and an abysmal activity rate.

Sunday wasn't a day of rest for us because after church we were supposed to do missionary work like any other day. However, we often took the day off from tracting and only went to appointments we'd made during the week or visited with members or read scriptures or studied.

Monday was our day off. We called it P day, for preparation day. The missionaries get the day off to take care of their personal business and to have some recreation. For many it was basketball. My companion was a slim, athletic blond southern Utahn who loved to play ball so we always met with other elders for pick up games in the morning. After that we'd usually have lunch at a downtown restaurant and then shop or write letters in the afternoon. The day off ended early because the day ended with a zone meeting in the evening with the zone leaders and all the missionaries in your zone.

December in La Paz is the middle of summer because Bolivia is south of the equator and someone forgot to tell me to bring sunscreen. Even though the weather wasn't particularly hot, the sun was fierce and by the end of the week my ears were peeling and bloody and cracked from sunburn.

I'd only been in Bolivia for a short time I had a bout of altitude sickness. I woke up with a pounding head ache and nausea. After I threw up my breakfast I went back to bed. The lady of the house brought me in some tea made from anise and coca. I'd heard about it in the MTC and although I'm not a fan of the licorice flavored anise, it made me feel better and withing a couple of days I was back trudging through the hills and knocking doors.

The mission had all kinds of lore, and I was skeptical of most of the fantastic stories the elders were constantly telling. Over time I learned that most of them were true. One piece of lore was the gamma party. One week after zone meeting my companion and I headed over zone leaders' house for a gamma party.

Bolivia is an area were you can easily get exposed to hepatitis. I have a friend who contracted hepatitis while serving in Guatemala. At the time there was no vaccine, but the church provided gamma globulin so that the missionaries could receive regular injections to boost their immune system. The syringes and vials were generally kept at the zone leaders' house and the mission ritual was that all self respecting elders had to inject themselves.

A large group of elders paraded to the ZLs aparment thrilled to show a greenie (me) his first gamma party and how to do it. They filed into the ZLs aparment, got a syringe, dropped their pants, and sat on the bed. The ZLs brought the gamma and the elders filled their syringes. The mission manual had detailed instructions on how to inject the stuff into the quadricep muscle of your leg. The first elder swabbed his thigh with alcohol, slapped it hard with a loud "Yee Haw!" and jabbed the long, thick needle to its hilt in his thigh. After pulling back to make sure he wasn't in a vein he slowing pushed the thick syrup into this leg. This was repeated over and over for my viewing enjoyment. Some elders had recently done it, but did it again just to show off.

I was fresh out of the MTC, so I didn't have to do it then but a few months later my time had come. I had a new companion by then and he was an expert. We did it in our own apartment, just the two of us, and it wasn't pretty. I tried the slap and stab method, but every time I would instinctively pull the needle back out leaving a blooding hole in my thigh. By the time I'd done this about 6 times my companion was rolling on the floor laughing. Embarrassed, I sat the needle on my leg and began to slowly push. With now surprise I was able to keep from pulling back as my skin tented inwards further and further. I watched in amazement as the skin pushed in at least a quarter of an inch, maybe more before the needle suddenly snapped up around the needle. I let go and cringed. OK, I was in. Worst part over. Only an inch and a half to go. Once through the skin there was just a dull ache as the needle slowly burrowed through muscle. Then I could feel the gamma filling the muscle and leaving a lump as I slowly depressed the plunger. No problem pulling the needle out. It was over.

My comp was so entertained by my wimpiness that he grabbed two syringes, prepped both legs, and with a needle in each hand slammed them into both thighs at the same time. He then stood up while I took a picture and he flexed his legs to make the syringes dance up and down.

I went through this ritual regularly throughout my mission and grossed out every companion I had with my slow and steady technique which was the only way I could manage. But I always did it myself.

I may have to post some gamma party pictures if I can dig them up.

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

38 year old man, 14 year old girl

This is the third in a series of posts about what I consider solid evidence the Mormon church isn't true. The first was Rock In a Hat and the second was Translation Strike 2.

The title of this blog entry links to a web site dedicated to the wives of Joseph Smith and to one in particular, Helen Marr Kimball. Helen was the daughter of apostle Heber C. Kimball. Joseph Smith initially proposed to take Heber's beloved wife Vilate as one of his plural wives. Heber tearfully agreed and then to his great relief Joseph told him it was just a test. However, he then asked for his 14 year old daughter Helen. Heber consented and then convinced his daughter to agree. Joseph Smith, 38 years old, was then married to this 14 year old girl.

This is merely one of Joseph's many polygamous marriages, but one of the more shocking because of the age of the girl. He also married other men's wives. Some of the women he proposed to, such as the wife of apostle Orson Pratt, refused him and threatened to expose him. He then tried to ruin their reputations through libel and threats. When his first counselor in the First Presidency, Willian Law, found out that he had proposed to his wife he created a paper, the Nauvoo Expositor, to expose Joseph Smith's practice of polygamy. Joseph excommunicated William Law and his wife, declared the Nauvoo Expositor a public nuisance, destroyed the press and paper and created an atmosphere that caused those who refused his polygamous advances to flee the city.

The church has always acknowledged that Joseph Smith instituted polygamy, but details aren't to be found in church lessons. This can perhaps be put down to the fact that the church no longer considers polygamy an important doctrine and no longer practices it among the living, but it is also conventient that the details are so damning. As a result most members learn of the details and are shocked because they seem so out of character for what the church considers the greatest prophet in the history of the world.

Probably the best reference on the topic is "In Sacred Loneliness". Don't trust the FARMS review of the book which borders on libelous unless you also reads the author's rebuttal of the review. The book is thorough and if anything biased in favor of the prophet.

I recently read some of the apologetic explanations to refresh my memory of how they respond to Joseph's practice of polygamy. I want to talk about two defenses in particular because it's difficult for me to imagine them being put forward with a straight face. In fact, I can't imagine that in my most faithful, believing state of mind I could have ever even considered these defenses.

1) It wasn't uncommon in that place and time for girls as young as 14 to get married.

Perhaps, but it wasn't common either and it was very uncommon for them marry a man 24 years older. It was even more uncommon if the 38 year old man was already married to a dozen or more wives.

Seriously, read the accounts from Helen and it becomes clear that the idea of marrying Joseph was repugnant to her and that she only did it because she was told that it would ensure the salvation of her family and that it would be a marriage in name only.

2) It wasn't about sex. There were other reasons such as dynastic marriages.

There is something wrong about this whole line of reasoning. Does it imply that if it was about sex then there WOULD be something wrong? It tacitly acknowledges that if sex were the primary marriage that it would look bad. It would make Joseph Smith look like so many other false prophets and powerful men who use their power and influence to gain sexual access to their followers. Think David Koresh and Bill Clinton for religious and political examples.

First of all, the church in Utah went around and got legal affidavits from as many of the surviving widows of Joseph Smith as it could to confirm that he did have real marriages including sexual relations with them to contest the RLDS accusation that Joseph Smith never practiced polygamy.

Also consider, if it wasn't about sex, then what was the outrage about? If these marriage didn't include the right to have sex, then why were the husbands so outraged to have their wives married to Joseph? Why was Emma, his first and only legal wife, so upset? Why did he have sex with some of them? It's possible, given the quantity of marriages and requirement of secrecy, that not all of the marriages were consummated, but it is clear that the marriages allowed sex. Heck, read D&C 132 and the Book of Mormon. It's clear that polygamy was about having sex and children. The possibility that not all the marriages were consummated simply allows Mormons to believe that Joseph may not have been bedding young teenage girls. However he was caught in the sack with other teenage wives who weren't much older. In fact, he married sisters that he was the guardian of.

So, I guess you can believe that God was the author of all of that. If so, then why not. God can do whatever he wants.

But if you just heard about Joseph Smith's polygamous practices, does it really seem to have the hand of God involved?

Still confused? Consider the fruits of the church's practice in Utah which ultimately resulted in the church being disenfranchised and nearly destroyed. Consider that the world is still plagued with Mormon fundamentalists that still believe and follow the church's original teachings.

To me it is too much to swallow and the apologetics involved are simply whistling past the graveyard; they are completely unconvincing to me.

Friday, September 12, 2008

Somebody Play With Me! Please...

No running for the last month means the dog is unhappy. Can you tell?

Even the cat is getting to know me and hang out on the bed.

Alive! (Queasy alert: One picture of closed surgical incision)

I was very nervous prior to my surgery on Monday. I've never had a general anesthetic or surgery so it was more fear of the unknown than anything. I was also a little nervous about pain management. They prescribed Percocet (oxycodone) which I had after I snapped a collar bone and it didn't do the trick. It's supposed to be about 7 times stronger than Vicodin, but the vike seemed much more effective that time.

I showed up at the surgical hospital at 10:30 am, filled out some paperwork, and was quickly called back because the doctor was running ahead of schedule. I stripped, slipped into the oh so hot gown, and put all of my belongings into a plastic bag. Then they gave me a compression stocking to go over my good leg. The pre-op area had a row of beds separated by curtains and they led me past a few waiting patients to mine. They took my vitals, put on ID tags, wired me up for an EKG monitor, shaved my ankle, and put in an IV. The doc came by to say hi and we were ready to go. The nurse anesthetist shot some sleepy juice into my IV and they wheeled me out of the pre-op area and down a hallway. I was talking, wondering what was next...

A nurse was asking me if I was OK as I started slowly waking up from a deep sleep. She told me my throat might be a little sore because they had put a breathing tube in. I opened my eyes and I felt a little disconnected, like I often do after a migraine. She sat me up and covered me with a warm blanket. I wiggled my left toes and they were still there. I glanced down and I had a large black boot on my ankle which was gently aching. As I woke up the ankle started hurting so she pushed a pain killer into my IV. I continued to chat until I was feeling pretty alert. Then they helped me into a wheel chair and moved me into the discharge area where they sat me down in a recliner and propped up my ankle. My wife came in, I got dressed, and they wheeled me out the the car. All told I was at the hospital from 10:30 to 2:45, but it only felt like about 30 minutes. The rest of the time I was completely unconscious.

I spent the next three days in bed with my leg propped up while downing oxycodone at regular intervals, surfing the web, watching TV, and working. This is how the world looked:

On Wednesday I decided to see how long I could go without the pain meds and made it through the day without any. I guess I lucked out and am not experiencing really any pain. I haven't taken any more since Wednesday night at bedtime.

I went for my post operative visit on Wednesday and snapped the following picture of my ankle. As you can see it's not too swollen and the incision seems to be healing well. Notice the magic marking writing on my leg to identify that it is the leg they are supposed to be working on.

All's well except I can't put any weight on the ankle for 4 weeks and hopping around on crutches sucks.

Also, the doctor said that the cartilage over the OCD was intact and in good shape so he didn't have to drill out much bone. He did have to cut away some scarred cartilage in the joint, but overall the surgery went well and with no complications.

Friday, September 05, 2008

Translation Strike 2

I previously wrote about what I consider pretty strong evidence that the Mormon church is not, as it claims, the only true church on the face of the earth. It seems that the church and its apologists and historians agree that Joseph Smith used his treasure hunting seer stone to translate the Book of Mormon even though most members don't seem to know it. I simply don't believe it for the same reason that I don't believe he could find treasure with it.

Now I'm going to give the next piece of evidence against the church's divinity that I find very nearly indisputable. The fact that the church doesn't have an official response to this issue and the fact that its apologists have so many competing explanations and have written so much about it should give an idea about how difficult the issue is to explain away.

I'll be brief about it because the issue is actually quite simple. Joseph Smith and the church purchased some mummies and papyri after Joseph revealed that the papyri actually contained the ancient writings of no less than Abraham and Joseph of biblical fame. Since he'd translated the Book of Mormon and since at the time no one could read ancient Egyptian he proceeded in fits and starts to translate the Book of Abraham which is canonized scripture in the Mormon church.

Two unexpected things happened. First, after centuries of trying scholars deciphered Egyptian. Was the Book of Abraham and the papyri the Rosetta Stone that broke the code? Well, no, actually it was the Rosetta Stone. Second, after being lost for many years fragments of the Joseph Smith papyri were found.

The undisputed facts of the matter are that the papyri are common funerary texts that are part of something called the Book of the Dead and that the Book of Abraham has absolutely no relationship whatsoever to the discovered fragments.

Church leaders were initially excited that they would finally have concrete, irrefutable evidence of Joseph Smith's ability to translate, but that excitement quickly turned to dread when their own scholars translated the papyri and discovered that they didn't contain the Book of Abraham.

Game over, right? Well, over the years Joseph's defenders have put forward many explanations the most plausible of which is that only a portion of the papyri have been found so the missing parts must contain the Book of Abraham. That is a reasonable and plausible explanation that is, I suspect, what allows most Mormons who know of the papyri to continue believing. However, other evidence exists that seems to refute the explanation. Most notably, the church also has in its possession an Egyptian alphabet and grammar that was an attempt to use the Book of Abraham in the same way the Rosetta Stone was used to decipher the hieroglyphs. It contains the translation with the glyphs written beside the text. Guess where those glyphs are found? Right on the papyri that the church has in its possession which indicates that whoever created the grammar believed that those glyphs were the source of the Book of Abraham.

Since that is obviously not the case, the apologists claim that the grammar was not written by Joseph Smith and therefore it must have been an uninformed and mislead attempt. However, to accept this you must accept that Joseph Smith's scribes and confidantes didn't get any help from Joseph in matching glyphs to translation. Again, this seem highly unlikely to me.

Apparently to at least some of the apologists too because they've produced even more unlikely explanations that include the possibility that even if we had all of the papyri and they still didn't contain the Book of Abraham then it still doesn't mean anything because the papyri may have just been the inspiration that caused Joseph Smith to receive a revelation that he believed was a translation but actually wasn't. I shit you not.

In other words, the refuse to consider the most likely explanation: Joseph Smith couldn't and didn't translate.

The issue is really quite simple to anyone who doesn't already have a great emotional and spiritual investment in believing. It only gets complicated when you are put in a position of trying to refute the known physical evidence and its most straightforward interpretation.

I actually learned about this in BYU and read the apologetic material and believed it at the time. Unfortunately, I assumed that since the church was true and it had nothing to hide that the material I read was accurate and completely represented the facts. I've since changed my mind.

I think that you can find the church's side of the story represented on the FARMS web site. If you are unfamiliar I actually encourage you to start there. Then I'd encourage you to read the following book: By His Own Hand Upon Papyrus: A New Look at the Joseph Smith Papyri. It's only $12 on Amazon and it's worth the price for the color photos of the papyri alone.

For me this is solid, nearly irrefutable, evidence that Joseph Smith couldn't translate. If he couldn't translate the Book of Abraham then it adds further evidence against his ability to translate the Book of Mormon.

Thursday, September 04, 2008

Rock In A Hat

I was recently asked what evidence could convince me the church is true. This post, and maybe following ones, is meant to present what I consider strong evidence against the church's truth claims. The problem for the church and it's defenders is that it's much easier to prove something false than to prove it true and a bigger problem is the insistence of its leaders that you have to accept all of it as true or reject it all as false (a false dichotomy if ever there was one). Sorry for the long post and I apologize if it's not terribly coherent.

Some of you may be multi-lingual and have experience in the difficult task of translating written text from one language to another. If not, then trust me, it is very hard. I am intrigued with the process Joseph Smith used to translate the Book of Mormon, which he said was done through “the gift and power of God". Unfortunately other than that rather nondescript phrase he seems to have been rather tight lipped about how he actually did it.
“Also, that there were two stones in silver bows—and these stones, fastened to a breastplate, constituted what is called the Urim and Thummim—deposited with the plates; and the possession and use of these stones were what constituted ‘seers’ in ancient or former times; and that God had prepared them for the purpose of translating the book.” (JS—H 1:34–35.)
The text of the Book of Mormon talks about interpreters that were used by its prophets to translate records written in lost tongues. According to Joseph Smith those interpreters were hidden away with the gold plates to facilitate their translation. Joseph Smith didn't start calling the interpreters Urim and Thummim until a couple of years after the Book of Mormon was published (Joseph Smith History wasn't written until 1838) and the term is a mouthful so I'll stick to interpreters.
I was under the impression that the interpreters were used to translate the Book of Mormon. Joseph seems to give the same impression. According to a second hand account, Oliver Cowdery described their use as follows. It is from a 1977 Ensign article.
“He represented Joseph as sitting at a table with the plates before him, translating them by means of the Urim and Thummim, while he (Oliver) sat beside him writing every word as Joseph spoke them to him. This was done by holding the ‘translators’ over the hieroglyphics, the translation appearing distinctly on the instrument, which had been touched by the finger of God and dedicated and consecrated for the express purpose of translating languages. Every word was distinctly visible even to every letter; and if Oliver omitted a word or failed to spell a word correctly, the translation remained on the ‘interpreter’ until it was copied correctly.”
Oliver Cowdery was the scribe for most of the book and he was also one of the three witnesses. When the church was founded he was a presiding elder and then co-president of the new church along with Joseph Smith. He was a first hand witness of all of the seminal events of the church including the production of the Book of Mormon, priesthood restoration, church founding, and many of its revelations. So, this account should be pretty trustworthy.

At one point the Lord granted Oliver the opportunity to attempt translation. He failed. Joseph Smith received the revelation in D&C 9 explaining why. He apparently thought that the words would just magically come, but the revelation said you must first study it out in your mind and ask God if it is right. This seems like a rather unlikely method of "translation". Instead it seems to describe a method for inspired authorship. After all, with zero knowledge of the original script and language then there is nothing to study or ask about. It really sounds like the "translator" is formulating ideas in his head and then seeking divine confirmation that the words are correct. It seems at odds with the description given above where visible words appear that can then be read to the scribe. This method has another problem because the original Book of Mormon contains thousands of spelling and grammatical errors that have subsequently been corrected. The process described indicates that the translator couldn't proceed until the scribe had correctly written the words. So, either God wasn't able to correctly spell or use proper grammar or else the method described above isn't they way the translation was actually done.

However, things get even a more confusing when you read the following account. This is quoted from a talk by Mormon apostle Russell Nelson given in a seminar for new mission presidents in 1992 that was subsequently published in 1993 in the church's magazine The Ensign.

The details of this miraculous method of translation are still not fully known. Yet we do have a few precious insights. David Whitmer wrote:

“Joseph Smith would put the seer stone into a hat, and put his face in the hat, drawing it closely around his face to exclude the light; and in the darkness the spiritual light would shine. A piece of something resembling parchment would appear, and on that appeared the writing. One character at a time would appear, and under it was the interpretation in English. Brother Joseph would read off the English to Oliver Cowdery, who was his principal scribe, and when it was written down and repeated to Brother Joseph to see if it was correct, then it would disappear, and another character with the interpretation would appear. Thus the Book of Mormon was translated by the gift and power of God, and not by any power of man.” (David Whitmer, An Address to All Believers in Christ, Richmond, Mo.: n.p., 1887, p. 12.)

David Whitmer was another of the three witnesses and like Oliver Cowdery was a partipcant in the translation of the Book of Mormon and the founding of the church. If you're a fan of South Park and have seen their episode on Mormons then you'll recognize the rock in the hat method of translation. However, most members of the church wouldn't. In fact when I told my father about this, his response was, "I can't possibly believe that Joseph Smith translated the Book of Mormon with a common field stone." How is it possible that he, I, and so many other members of the church were ignorant of this fact? Now, why couldn't he believe that? An apostle of the church apparently does and the David Whitmer was a firsthand witness of the translation and one of the Three Witnesses to the Book of Mormon and went to his grave believing in the divine origins of the book. The above account is what he published to the world.

Mormon apologists like to point to articles like this one to point out that the church isn't hiding or concealing its history and that if members don't know about this stuff then it's their own fault. I'll partially concede the point. The church periodically does publish articles like this one about problematic historical issues, however, it often doesn't tell the rest of the story and it also doesn't incorporate quotes such as the above into lesson materials and missionary discussions. The result is that most members find out about this method of translation from anti-Mormon sources or from non-Mormons. Maybe it's because they emphasize the JSH account that refers to the interpreters in most of their materials and because most of their artwork shows Joseph Smith at a table with the gold plates beside him dictating the transaction to a scribe. In other words, they prefer to emphasize the Cowdery account because it is more consistent with the Book of Mormon itself and because the rock in a hat methods sounds a little silly.

It is a little confusing and disconcerting and inconsistent. Well, it is if you believe that the Book of Mormon is a translation. It's pretty easy to understand for most other people and anyone who has dealt with a pathological liar or con man.

Missing from the church articles is further information about the seer stone. Joseph Smith found it when he was a teenager and digging a well for a neighbor. He claimed to be able to use it to find buried treasure and apparently gained some notoriety as a seer. It's difficult to tell how involved he was in this activity, but he was at least well enough known that a farmer in Pennsylvania had heard of him and hired him to come down and help him find a lost silver mine. While there he met his future wife Emma Hale and her family. While there he was also arrested and convicted of in 1826 "glass looking" which was a crime. Apparently seers were common enough that laws had been passed to make it a crime. I guess they considered it a kind of fraud.

That, I think, is the explanation for my father's reaction to the rock in a hat story. If Joseph came to any of us and told us he could find buried treasure with his rock in a hat method we'd simply laugh at him. But Oliver Cowdery and the rest of the Mormons believed that he could. Richard Bushman in his faithful biography "Rough Stone Rolling" posits that Joseph's career as a treasure hunter was like a preparatory priesthood that prepared him for translating the Book of Mormon and also prepared a following for him who already believed in his extraordinary powers as a seer. Of course, that rationalization cuts both ways. It seems to presuppose that he could acutally see buried treasure. On the other hand, if he couldn't translate then Bushman is also right and ait was an excellent preparation in how to defraud people.

Ultimately I guess my father sides with Bushman. Or perhaps he simply accepts it as a mystery. However, I simply can't swallow this. Joseph never successfully found any treasure although he claimed to be able to do so. I don't believe in seer stones or folk magic and don't believe that there is any evidence for it. And I don't think that that stone magically started working for a holy purpose.

I count this as very, very strong evidence that Joseph Smith was a fraud.

The problem for me, is that, grammar and spelling aside, the Book of Mormon is an exceptional book and quite an accomplishment. So, how can I explain how it was produced? I can't. And I don't have to. The burden of proof is not on me. But I certainly don't believe it was done using a rock in a hat.

If you want a thorough academic treatment of the translation process by the church's apologists I would highly recommend "Joseph Smith's Translation of the Book of Mormon: Evidence for Tight Control of the Text" by Royal Skousen. He explores the various accounts of how the translation was done as well as analysis of the actual manuscripts that resulted. His conclusion is, "Evidence from the original manuscript supports the traditional belief that Joseph Smith received a revealed text by means of the interpreters." I assume by interpreters he includes both the ancient ones found with the gold plates as well as Joseph's seer stone. I encourage you to read the article to see if the evidence leads you to the same conclusion. I found the evidence more consistent with either a pious fraud or outright deception on the part of the authors.

A longer manuscript was written by LDS general authority B. H. Roberts. Here is one choice quote:

"One other subject remains to be considered in this division... viz.—was Joseph Smith possessed of a sufficiently vivid and creative imagination as to produce such a work as the Book of Mormon from such materials as have been indicated in the preceding chapters... That such power of imagination would have to be of a high order is conceded; that Joseph Smith possessed such a gift of mind there can be no question....

"In the light of this evidence, there can be no doubt as to the possession of a vividly strong, creative imagination by Joseph Smith, the Prophet, an imagination, it could with reason be urged, which, given the suggestions that are found in the 'common knowledge' of accepted American antiquities of the times, supplemented by such a work as Ethan Smith's View of the Hebrews, would make it possible for him to create a book such as the Book of Mormon is." (Studies of the Book of Mormon, pp. 243, 250)

"If from all that has gone before in Part 1, the view be taken that the Book of Mormon is merely of human origin... if it be assumed that he is the author of it, then it could be said there is much internal evidence in the book itself to sustain such a view.

"In the first place there is a certain lack of perspective in the things the book relates as history that points quite clearly to an undeveloped mind as their origin. The narrative proceeds in characteristic disregard of conditions necessary to its reasonableness, as if it were a tale told by a child, with utter disregard for consistency." (Ibid., page 251)

"There were other Anti-Christs among the Nephites, but they were more military leaders than religious innovators... they are all of one breed and brand; so nearly alike that one mind is the author of them, and that a young and undeveloped, but piously inclined mind. The evidence I sorrowfully submit, points to Joseph Smith as their creator. It is difficult to believe that they are the product of history, that they come upon the scene separated by long periods of time, and among a race which was the ancestral race of the red man of America." (Ibid., page 271)

This is quoted from UTLM and the emphasis is theirs. The book they quote from is an impressive analysis by B. H. Roberts and despite the above quote it's questionable that he ever lost his belief in the Book of Mormon. However, I respect the fact that he earnestly investigated a number of issues, acknowledged the problems, and honestly considered the possibility that a case could be made that it is not what it claims to be.

If you are interested, I invite you to look into the above information further and make your own judgement. But I find the evidence persuasive and rather overwhelming that the Book of Mormon is not a translation of an ancient record.

Wednesday, September 03, 2008

Call Me Butterball

The doctor's office called today. They had a cancellation and can fit me in for a preoperative visit tomorrow and on Monday they are going to carve me up like a Thanksgiving turkey. I decided not to go to Indianapolis for the MotoGP and wanted to go ahead and get the surgery taken care of so I can get on the road to recovery.

Since my diagnosis I've completely stopped running and am swimming instead. I've worked up to 1400m in 42 minutes which is probably pathetically slow, but it's a good workout, I can do it without stopping, and it's really helping my messed up shoulders. However, my ankle isn't any better and some days I think it's worse. Going down stairs is particularly scary because sometimes the ankle hurts so bad I nearly fall.

You can go to the following Podiatry Today article if you want to see pictures of what the surgery entails. Warning, it includes graphic pictures of a surgery which I think are pretty cool, but which apparently make some people swoon. I originally included a couple of the pictures here, but I've taken them off so you don't have to see them unless you want to.