Wednesday, November 2, 2016

Why not fix it? Why not now?

For the last many months, I've discussed issues relating to Book of Mormon geography. I think it's apparent now, based on the facts, that the premise for the Mesoamerican theory was a mistake from the outset. Joseph Smith never once wrote about or even alluded to the Book of Mormon taking place in Central America. Some of his associates did, and so far as we know he didn't publicly correct them (except in the Wentworth letter), but it was a mistake to attribute their words to him.*

The other big mistake involves Letter VII. It was a mistake to lose sight of that important letter that was so well known and accepted during Joseph's lifetime and thereafter. It was a mistake to reject it. And it is an ongoing mistake to assert that Joseph, Oliver and the others were merely speculating and wrong about the New York Cumorah.

What do we do when such mistakes have been made?

We have basically two choices.

1) We can correct the mistakes, or

2) We can resist correcting the mistakes and perpetuate them for as long as possible.

I hope we will chose the former and correct them. Soon.

I don't think there's a single LDS scholar or educator who wants to mislead anyone. The intellectual history of the Mesoamerican theory shows a logical progression of thought, all well-intentioned, as people sought to reconcile what they thought Joseph Smith taught with the facts on the ground. But good intentions are not good enough.

IMO, once the scholars and educators jettisoned Letter VII, they were left on their own; in fact, they have gone so far as to claim that Joseph himself thought the questions could be answered only by scholarship and science. They have overtly rejected Letter VII in favor of their own ideas and interpretations of the text.

I don't think we were left without prophetic guidance on this matter. Joseph Fielding Smith's warning about the two-Cumorah theory, and his citation of Letter VII, should have at least caused the scholars and educators to pause and rethink their approach.

But it didn't.

The problem became more acute in the 1950s and 1960s with the creation and dissemination of the Arnold Friberg paintings. That's when Mesomania became widespread in the Church. Since then, generations of Latter-day Saints have been trained to think of the Book of Mormon in that framework.

The psychological impact is profound and largely overlooked. But the confusion which Joseph Fielding Smith warned has become endemic in LDS culture. It has a serious impact on missionary work, retention, and activity because, as President Smith warned, the two-Cumorahs theory causes members to become confused and disturbed in their faith in the Book of Mormon.

Now, it's up to the scholars and educators to fix the mistakes made by their predecessors. No one is to blame; we've all felt the impact of Mesomania. But going forward, we are all responsible for how we deal with Letter VII.

It won't take much to correct the mistakes, and it shouldn't be difficult.

All that's needed is for the scholars and educators to accept Letter VII.

At that point, we would have unity throughout the Church. There would be no more articles written by faithful LDS scholars and educators trying to explain why Joseph and Oliver and David Whitmer and the rest were speculating, were unreliable witnesses, and all the rest.

We would no longer have faithful scholars saying Joseph's successors were also speculating and wrong, or that other modern apostles were wrong when they spoke about the New York Cumorah in General Conference as recently as 1975 and 1978.

We would have tremendous unity about the Book of Mormon and the teachings of Joseph and Oliver and every other prophet and apostle who has spoken on the issue.

If that unity is not worth correcting mistakes, then what is?

Another way to say it: Is perpetuating mistakes really more important than fostering unity?

Accepting Letter VII does not commit the Church or any individuals to any particular setting for the Book of Mormon (except, obviously, to the location of the final battles). People can still believe and advocate their own theories, from as small as western New York to as large as the entire hemisphere.

But at least we would be united in supporting the prophets and apostles who have spoken on the issue of Cumorah. 

And we would eliminate a tremendous amount of confusion.

If it's so easy, why hasn't it been done?

Every scholar and educator may have his/her own reasons, but here are the ones I hear the most often.

1. The hill in New York doesn't match the text. This objection is based almost entirely on a handful of sources, each of which I've addressed in detail. In the interests of comity, I won't name them here, but feel free to email me if you don't know what I'm referring to. IMO, this objection is based on bad information and can be easily resolved.

2. Mesoamerica is too far away from Cumorah. This objection assumes that most Book of Mormon events took place in Central America, but that's all it is: an assumption. Does anyone really want to reject Letter VII over a mere assumption? Besides, there are smart people who have assembled a theory of geography that accommodates both.

3. I've been teaching this for years and can't change now. The rejection of Letter VII started nearly a century ago. Generations of Latter-day Saints have been taught the Mesoamerican theory by well-meaning, conscientious teachers. But we shouldn't be sad about good scholarship. Rejecting the rejection of Letter VII is an opportunity to build faith where it has been lost. We should be glad to present better information to our students and to one another. We should be enthusiastic about it. What's done is done. Tradition is no reason to subject new generations to the doubt and confusion that arises from the two-Cumorah theory.

4. There are so many correspondences to Mesoamerica. There are three considerations here. First, a Meosamerican setting is not necessarily incompatible with the New York Cumorah just because some scholars have made that argument. Second, these correspondences can be explained by the hinterlands theory. Third, we need to re-examine these correspondences to see if they are really specific to Lehite culture or are simply examples common to many human societies.

5. I've had spiritual experiences in Mesoamerica. People have had spiritual experiences in many parts of the world that they associate with the Book of Mormon. Likening the scripture to ourselves is what makes the book so powerful and life-changing, but we ought not deem those spiritual experiences as proof of Book of Mormon geography. If that were the case, then how could we explain people having similar experiences in many different parts of the world?

There may be additional objections I haven't listed here, but ultimately, can any objection be more important than restoring the unity and clarity that once prevailed on this issue?

In Joseph's day, members of the Church had plenty of disagreements about plenty of things. Joseph expressed his frustration at getting the Saints to understand what he was trying to teach them.

But he had no problem with the New York Cumorah because he made sure everyone knew about and read Letter VII.

So let this be my plea to the LDS scholars, educators, and teachers everywhere in the Church, as well as members everywhere, that we read and accept Letter VII's teachings about the Hill Cumorah in New York.

* There are many possible reasons why Joseph didn't correct them. Not that it matters to the main issue, but he may have simply had too many other things to worry about in 1842 Nauvoo; he may have wanted to avoid destroying the credibility of the Times and Seasons and hoped people would forget the articles about Zarahemla in Guatemala (which, in fact, happened until the articles were revived in the early 20th Century); he may have known that there was Lamanite influence in Central America that post-dated Book of Mormon time frames; he may have wanted to avoid another source of infighting among the brethren; and he may have tried to correct them but encountered resistance that wasn't worth the fight. I think a combination of these factors was involved, but of course that's mostly speculation. We can be pretty confident that neither John Taylor nor Wilford Woodruff thought Joseph authored the 1842 Zarahemla article or they wouldn't have approved Orson Pratt's footnotes in the official edition of the Book of Mormon that suggested Zarahemla was further south of Guatemala. At any rate, it's clear everyone accepted the New York setting for Cumorah, and presumably Joseph thought that was the most important point for everyone to understand. 

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