Friday, July 31, 2020

Note on Producing Ancient Scripture

If you wondered why it is so difficult to reach consensus on basic issues such as whether Joseph Smith translated the Book of Mormon, here's a fascinating example.

On another blog I've been discussing the book Producing Ancient Scripture.

Readers have been debating  the book at the FairMormon blog, here:

The participants are among the most prominent scholars in the Church today, all awesome people, smart, informed, etc.

You can see the range of opinions about the translation, the direction of the Maxwell Institute and other members of the M2C citation cartel, and even the Book of Abraham.

Notice the apparently unanimous agreement that Joseph "translated" with the "seer stone in the hat."

If you follow these issues, you know that people in the debate are essentially defending and promoting ideas they've been advocating for years. They are deeply invested in their ideas; hence the display of bias confirmation.

One lesson I take away from this: people will believe whatever they want (they develop a bias) and then find evidence to confirm their bias while ignoring, disputing, or not even seeing contrary evidence.

The exchange of ideas and facts is productive, even essential. We can only think and do things that we first imagine or conceptualize. After you read an exchange such as this, you are somewhat freer to make informed decisions for yourself.

Friday, July 17, 2020

Learn, unlearn, relearn

All the way back in 1970, Alvin Toffler provided an insight that is even more relevant today:

"By instructing students how to learn, unlearn and relearn, a powerful new dimension can be added to education…Tomorrow's illiterate will not be the man who can't read; he will be the man who has not learned how to learn."

now usually quoted as ‘The illiterate of the 21st century will not be those who cannot read and write, but those who cannot learn, unlearn, and relearn’
Future Shock (1970)

Technically, there are problems with this statement. For example, those who cannot read in the 21st century are still illiterate. But Toffler's claim suggests that a person with obsolete knowledge has just as much a disadvantage as a person who cannot read. Maybe more so.

The learn, unlearn, relearn paradigm explains not only how we improve by adapting to rapidly changing knowledge and understanding, but also how we improve by converting to different ways of thinking and believing.

The paradigm can be applied in two ways. People learn (school, from parents, peers, school, etc.) When new knowledge comes along, if they are flexible and open, they unlearn what they had learned and relearn the new knowledge.

Everyone in the world has learned, from a young age, a framework for understanding the world. They learn language, customs, culture, and values, often (but not always) within a particular religious context.

As we mature, we learn new things that force us into a choice: we can incorporate new things into our existing framework, or we can unlearn that framework to adapt to the new things.

A couple of scriptures help apply these ideas:

54 And your minds in times past have been darkened because of unbelief, and because you have treated lightly the things you have received—
(Doctrine and Covenants 84:54)

1 Now, behold, I say unto you, that because you delivered up those writings which you had power given unto you to translate by the means of the Urim and Thummim, into the hands of a wicked man, you have lost them.
2 And you also lost your gift at the same time, and your mind became darkened.
3 Nevertheless, it is now restored unto you again; therefore see that you are faithful and continue on unto the finishing of the remainder of the work of translation as you have begun.
(Doctrine and Covenants 10:1–3)

the end

Thursday, July 16, 2020

discovering the simulation

One way to achieve some degree of consensus is seeing more of the same movie on the screen. Here's an idea:

The closer a civilization gets to being able to program a simulated universe, the closer it gets to discovering it is one.

Monday, June 29, 2020

Good advice - assume nothing, question everything, etc.

Good advice:

1. See failure as a beginning. 2. Never stop learning. 3. Assume nothing, question everything. 4. Teach others what you know. 5. Analyze objectively. 6. Practice humility. 7. Respect constructive criticism. 8. Take initiative. 9. Give credit where it's due. 10. Love what you do.

Saturday, June 27, 2020

Orson Pratt's prophecy

Journal of Discourses, vol. 18, pp. 335-348

Daniel's Vision—Nebuchadnezzar's Dream—Its Interpretation—The Coming of the Ancient of Days—Joseph Smith's Prophecy—Things Yet to Be Fulfilled—The Valley of God Where Adam Dwelt—The Establishment of the Kingdom of God—The Coming Millennium and Triumph of the Saints

Discourse by Elder Orson Pratt, delivered in the Eighteenth Ward Meetinghouse, Salt Lake City, Sunday Afternoon, Feb. 25, 1877.
Reported by Geo. F. Gibbs.

For instance, this great republic must pass away in the manner indicated unless the people repent. There is only one condition by which they can be preserved as a nation, and the Lord himself has decreed it. We can read it in the various revelations which God has given, respecting this land. 

The Book of Mormon, for instance, speaks in many places, of the overthrow of the government that should exist on this land if they should reject the divine message contained therein. Inasmuch as they repent not, the Lord has said that he would visit them in his anger, and that he would throw down all their strongholds. And he further says, that he will cut off their horses out of their midst. This will doubtless be done through some great calamity or disease. 

He also says that he will cut off the cities of our land, that all manner of lying, deceits, hypocrisy, murders, priestcrafts, whoredoms and secret abominations shall be done away, having reference particularly to this nation. He says, too, “I will execute vengeance and fury upon them, even as upon the heathen, such as they have not heard.” We are told, too, that the nature of these judgments is to be swift and terrible, coming upon them like a fierce wind, when they expect it not; when they are crying peace and safety, behold sudden destruction is at their doors....

It has been revealed that the time will come in the history of our nation, that one State will rise against another, one city against another, even every man's hand shall be against his neighbor, until the whole Republic will be in general commotion and warfare. How and when this will take place, the Lord, in his wisdom, has not told us; but it is sufficient for us to say, that he has told us of the facts that such and such will be the case.
For aught we know, the fulfillment of this prophecy may grow out of politics. If the people are very nearly equally divided in politics, this feeling may run so high, in years to come, as to be the direct cause of war. And if this should be the case, it would very naturally spread to every neighborhood in the Union. 
One class of political opponents would rise up against the other class in the same city and country, and thus would arise a war of mobocracy.
If a war of this description should take place, who could carry on his business in safety? Who would feel safe to put his crops in the ground, or to carry on any enterprise? There would be fleeing from one State to another, and general confusion would exist throughout the whole Republic. Such eventually is to be the condition of this whole nation, if the people do not repent of their wickedness; and such a state of affairs means no more or less than the complete overthrow of the nation, and not only of this nation, but the nations of Europe, which form the feet and toes of that great image. They are the powers to be first broken; it is not the nation representing the head of gold, the remnant of the Babylonish Empire that still exists in Asia, that will be attacked first, neither is it the Persians and Medes, whose descendants still live; but the Lord will first break up those kingdoms which represent the feet and toes of the image, of which I have been speaking. After that, he will proceed to break in pieces the kingdoms that represent the brass, the silver, and the gold. Some are to be spared for a little season. The kingdom of God is to roll forth...

Monday, May 18, 2020

Friday, April 3, 2020

Chance to retool missionary approach

Now that most of the missionaries have been recalled to their homes of origin, there is an opportunity to retool the missionary program by trying a new approach.

We can look at the highly successful British Mission in 1840-1841 as an example (see below).

The table below compares the approach taken by the Apostles in the British Mission with the standard approach taken today in Church manuals, lessons, media presentations, visitors centers, magazines, etc.

As you consider these, realize that there is substantial extrinsic evidence to support both scenarios. You can find evidence from archaeology, anthropology, geology, geography, linguistics, etc. to support whichever position you favor.

One happens to corroborate the prophets. The other happens to repudiate the prophets.

Which approach do you think would have more appeal? Which would generate more interest and bring more people to Christ?

British Mission 1840-1841
Joseph Smith translated ancient metal plates with the Urim and Thummim, an instrument created to enable prophets to translate ancient records and buried with the plates in the Hill Cumorah.
Joseph Smith didn’t really translate the plates but merely read words that appeared on a seer stone he found in a well. He didn’t even use the plates; they were covered with a cloth the whole time.
The Book of Mormon is an authentic history of real people who had the gospel of Jesus Christ. The Jaredite and Nephite nations fought final wars of extinction at the Hill Cumorah in western New York.
The Book of Mormon is an authentic history of real people, but we have no idea where they lived or who they were except that it was somewhere in the Western Hemisphere. All the prophets who taught that Cumorah was in New York were expressing their private, erroneous opinions.
The ancient mounds and burial sites in the midwestern United States are evidence of the divine authenticity of the Book of Mormon (as stated by Joseph Smith).
The ancient mounds and burial sites in the midwestern United States have nothing to do with the Book of Mormon. Instead, look to the stone pyramids of Mesoamerica.
The Indian tribes of the Northeastern U.S. are the Lamanites (D&C 28, 30, 32). As Joseph Smith wrote, “The remnant are the Indians that now inhabit this country.” (Wentworth letter)
Early Latter-day Saints believed the Indian tribes in the Northeastern U.S. were the Lamanites, but actually the Lamanites are descendants of Mayans in Mesoamerica (who have completely different DNA than the Indians in the Northeastern U.S.)

The Church reportedly has $100 billion in liquid investments (probably reduced to around $80 billion now). Imagine a well-funded, re-tooled missionary message that focused on the teachings of the prophets instead of the teachings of the scholars.

It's an interesting thought experiment, at least.

Lessons from the British Mission

Modern missionary work could learn some important lessons from the British Mission in the 1830s and 1840s.

Then, as today, the Book of Mormon is the key to conversion. It's the instrument the Lord prepared to gather scattered Israel.

The missionaries in England in the 1830s and 1840s encouraged investigators to consider physical evidence as well as to pray about the truthfulness of the Book of Mormon.

Today, missionaries are told not to discuss, or even mention, physical evidence for the Book of Mormon. Investigators and the missionaries themselves are left wondering where all of these events took place.

Most investigators check the Internet. There, they learn four things:

1. DNA "disproves" the Book of Mormon (and the Gospel Topics DNA essay has little persuasive effect as a counter to the critics).

2. LDS scholars say the prophets and apostles have been wrong when they have taught that Cumorah is in New York.

3. LDS scholars generally agree the events occurred in Mesoamerica but strongly disagree about exactly where.

4. Non-LDS scholars see zero connection between the Book of Mormon and Mesoamerican civilizations.

Contrast this state of affairs with what the early Apostles did when they went to England.

Among other things, Parley P. Pratt published Oliver's historical letters in the Millennial Star, beginning with his second issue in June 1840. He published Letter VII in October 1840.

Not only was it a definite fact that Cumorah, the scene of the final battles, was in New York, but Pratt also editorialized about additional physical evidence. He explained, "If any further proof of the truth of the Book of Mormon were wanting than the spirit of inspiration and truth which is breathed into the soul of every honest man as he reads the blessed volume, he might easily find it in the ruins of cities, towns, military roads, forts, fortifications, mounds, artificial caves, temples, statues, monuments, obelisks, hieroglyphics, sculptured altars, aqueducts, and an endless variety of articles of husbandry, cooking utensils..."

Pratt mentioned physical evidence throughout North and South America. In our day, we have more detailed knowledge of these civilizations, including their DNA, and we see that what the Lord told us in D&C 28, 30, and 32--that the descendants of Lehi are the Indians living in New York, Ohio, and Missouri (where they had been relocated from the East)--fits the descriptions in the text in terms of anthropology, archaeology, geology and geography.

Now, let's compare the results of the two approaches to missionary work.

Brigham Young reported when he left in April 1841,

"We landed in the spring of 1840, as strangers in a strange land and penniless, but through the mercy of God we have gained many friends, established churches in almost every noted town and city in the kingdom of Great Britain, baptized between seven and eight thousand, printed 5,000 Books of Mormon, 3,000 Hymn Books, 2,500 [copies] of the Millennial Star, and 50,000 tracts, and emigrated to Zion 1,000 souls."

Assuming his numbers were correct, 7,000-8,000 converts in a year when there were only about 16,000 members total means nearly one convert per every two members. In terms of converts as a percentage of membership, this is 50%.

It means more than one convert per copy of the Book of Mormon printed.

Today, there are over 150 million copies of the Book of Mormon in print. There are nearly 16 million members, with around 300,000 converts per year. The chart below, from, is the conversion rate for the last few years, where it has declined from less than 5% to less than 2%.

Think of this. 50% vs 2%.

Obviously, when you have a smaller base, it's easier to grow at a rapid rate. We can't expect the success of the British Mission to continue today. We all know the challenges are different, etc.

Some things haven't changed. As in the British Mission, today's missionaries tell people to read the book, live the teachings, and pray about it.

But unlike today, the missionaries in the British Mission were not going around telling people there was no evidence of the Book of Mormon. 

And unlike today, the missionaries in the British Mission were not being taught before they left that the prophets and apostles were wrong about Cumorah in New York.

Instead, the British missionaries published and taught Letter VII. They encouraged people to consider the physical evidence.

And despite tremendous opposition, the missionaries in the British Mission succeeded in converting thousands of people, more than one for every Book of Mormon printed.

Printing numbers are irrelevant today when most people use electronic versions, but since more than 150 million physical copies of the Book of Mormon have been printed, a success rate comparable to the British Mission would have converted well over 150 million people.

Which is about what we should expect, given that we have the truth.

We all know there are myriad differences between 1840 England and the modern world in 2017, but those differences cut both ways. People may be more worldly and less religious, but communications are easier and there is far less opposition. Missionaries are free to travel and teach in most of the world, and the Internet gives additional access beyond that.

In fact, if the modern world is less religious and more skeptical than 1840 England, that's all the more reason to offer more evidence, not less.

We could start with a simple step.

Why not have missionaries teach the words of the prophets and apostles about Cumorah in New York? 

We may not have specific answers for the rest of the geography, but we have that pin in the map that takes the Book of Mormon out of the realm of mystical fiction, where it exists today in the minds of most of the world (and even in the minds of many members of the Church, especially those being taught an "abstract" fantasy map at BYU).

Once we as members reach unity by believing the words of the prophets on the Cumorah issue, then we can work on the rest of the physical evidence. 

Maybe, having exercised faith in the words of the prophets, we'll be in a position for the Lord to assist us (a topic for another day).

Now, here is the background on the British Mission.

After the keys of the gathering of Israel were restored to the earth to Joseph Smith and Oliver Cowdery in the Kirtland temple (D&C 110), Joseph sent Parley P. Pratt to Toronto, promising that his work there would "lead to the introduction of the gospel into England." Among his converts were John Taylor and Joseph Fielding. In 1837, Joseph sent Heber C. Kimball and Orson Hyde to England. They returned home in April 1838, having converted about 1,500 people in England.

In Far West in April 1838, Joseph received a revelation that the twelve should return to England (D&C 118). Here's a summary of their work from the Encyclopedia of Mormonism:

Departing in conditions of poverty and illness and trusting in the promises of God that all would be well with them and their families, most of the members of the Twelve made their way in various groups to Liverpool. By April 1840, they were together for the first time as a quorum in a foreign land. On April 14, 1840, in Preston, they ordained Willard Richards an apostle and sustained Brigham Young as "standing president" of their quorum. They held a general conference the next day in which they conducted Church business and further organized the mission. On the 16th they met again as a quorum and further planned their work. On the next day, they separated to various assigned geographical areas: Brigham Young and Willard Richards were to assist Wilford Woodruff with the work he had already begun among the United Brethren in Herefordshire; Heber C. Kimball was to return to the areas of his 1837-1838 missionary successes; Parley P. Pratt was to establish a mission home and publishing concern in Manchester; Orson Pratt was assigned to Scotland, where the work had already begun; John Taylor was to go to Liverpool, Ireland, and the Isle of Man; and George A. Smith was assigned to the area of the Staffordshire potteries. In time, Wilford Woodruff and George A. Smith would extend their work to London.

As a result of this mission, an additional 4,000 converts joined the Church by 1841.

I bolded Parley Pratt because he started the Millennial Star. The first issue was published in May 1840. Beginning with the second issue, Elder Pratt reprinted Oliver's eight historical letters as a continuing series under the title "A Remarkable Vision."

Letter VII was published in volume 6, October 1840. We can't tell how much of a role the letters played in the success of the mission, but popular demand for the letters led to them being printed in a special pamphlet in 1844. The introduction says, "We have frequently been solicited to publish, in pamphlet form, the following letters of Oliver Cowdery..." Thousands of copies were printed.

You can read the pamphlet here.

You can read the Millennial Star on google books here.

It's interesting that Elder Pratt offered evidence to support the Book of Mormon. In addition to Oliver's letters, he made comments such as this one on p. 117, after quoting 3 Nephi 10.

If any further proof of the truth of the Book of Mormon were wanting than the spirit of inspiration and truth which is breathed into the soul of every honest man as he reads the blessed volume, he might easily find it in the ruins of cities, towns, military roads, forts, fortifications, mounds, artificial caves, temples, statues, monuments, obelisks, hieroglyphics, sculptured altars, aqueducts, and an endless variety of articles of husbandry, cooking utensils, &c. &c. which are the product of some ancient race, who inhabited that land, and who had risen to a high state of refinement in the arts and sciences, as the relics of their labours prove—as they now lie scattered over a vast extent of North and South America, either on the surface, or buried beneath by the convulsions of nature, or the visitations of the Most High, as recorded in the fore-going extract; and which are frequently discovered and brought to light by antiquarian travellers.

Pratt followed those comments with an article about the travels of Stephens and Catherwood in Central America. Then he wrote, "For further testimony and proof positive of the Book of Mormon, we copy the following [the Testimony of Three Witnesses].

My take on all of this is that Elder Pratt accepted and endorsed Oliver's letters, including Letter VII. There was no question that Cumorah was in New York. Pratt suggested that ruins through the entire Western hemisphere were evidence to support the Book of Mormon, but he proposed it in a generalized way.

There is a definite contrast between the specificity of Letter VII, based as it was on the personal experience of Joseph and Oliver in Mormon's depository of Nephite records, and the generalized claim that evidence of advanced civilizations in ancient North and South America. Here are some of the excerpts from Letter VII as published in the 1840 Millennial Star.