Tuesday, July 18, 2017

Check your biases - updated

In the pursuit of a consensus about LDS Church history and Book of Mormon geography, I find it useful to understand the positions of the various groups.

This post lets you see which group you most closely agree with.

Scoring.


You can see which bias is closest to yours by adding up the number of x’s you put next to each bias. See the list below.
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Categories.

Many Church members don’t care about Church history and Book of Mormon geography because they accept the religion on its face (just like adherents to every religion). These members generally avoid the discussions about these issues.

Many other Church members think issues in Church history and Book of Mormon geography are important because of one or more of the following factors: (i) they’ve heard anti-Mormon arguments that focus on these issues: (ii) they know people who have left the Church over unresolved issues in these areas; (iii) they desire to know everything possible about the topics; (iv) they want to resolve the cognitive dissonance that results from the discrepancies between what they’ve been taught and what the facts seem to show.

Based on their publications, I find that most Church historians want to get the history correct as much as possible, but tend to avoid the topic of Book of Mormon geography because they think the issue is either (i) not important or (ii) not capable of resolution with the historical information we currently have.

Proponents of the Heartland or Moroni’s America setting seek to reconcile all the incidents in Church history, without censoring any. They also seek to interpret the text in light of statements by the early brethren, especially Joseph and Oliver, as well as in light of the D&C, PofGP, and evidence from anthropology, archaeology, geography, geology, etc.

Proponents of the Mesoamerican setting and the two-Cumorahs theory tend to disregard incidents in Church history except to the extent these incidents generate confusion and uncertainty, which they seek to resolve by interpreting the text of the Book of Mormon in light of evidence from anthropology, archaeology, geography, geology, etc. They also tend to disregard the D&C and PofGP as relevant to the geography questions.

Former and anti-Mormons regard the Book of Mormon as fiction. They think Church history supports their views because so many details are inconsistent or inexplicable.
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Consensus.

I think members of the Church ought to reach a consensus about a few key issues, based on the historical evidence.

  1. Letter VII is accurate: there is one Cumorah and it is in New York.
  2. Cumorah in New York is the site of Mormon’s repository (Mormon 6:6) and the final battles of the Jaredites and Nephites.
  3. The final battles of the Jaredites involved thousands of people, but fewer than 10,000. The final battles of the Nephites involved tens of thousands of people on all sides, but fewer then 100,000.
  4.  Joseph and Oliver translated two different sets of plates.
  5. The plates were “written and deposited” not far from Joseph’s home.

I think it is probably impossible to reach a general consensus about Book of Mormon locations other than Cumorah, partly because the text is ambiguous and partly because there are so many possible locations that it’s impossible to choose among them with certitude.

One obstacle to consensus about any issue is confirmation bias. People see what they want to see. As one scholar put it, Mesoamerican proponents "can't unsee" Mesoamerica when they read the Book of Mormon.

Advocates of every alternative generally feel the same way about their own perspectives—including the detractors who don't accept the Book of Mormon as an authentic divine translation of an actual history.

For many years, I, too, could not "unsee" Mesoamerica in the text. But that changed once I learned about a few critical facts and re-examined the text from another perspective.

Critics could say my biases changed, and all I'm doing is confirming my new biases.

Fair enough.

Let's lay out our biases and let others see which biases they most closely identify with.
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Biases

Here are the respective biases as I understand them, based on writings, speeches, presentations and conversations. I’ve tried to be as accurate and succinct as possible. If I'm wrong about any of these, I’d like to know.

My bias is based on my own assessment of the evidence.

The Traditional bias is what I’ve seen reflected in Church history publications.

The Meso bias is the bias I’ve found in publications by promoters of the Mesoamerican and two-Cumorahs theory.

The anti/former LDS bias is the bias typically expressed in publications by people who disbelieve in all the LDS Church truth claims.

Notice that in many cases, the Meso bias is basically the same as the anti/former LDS bias, at least with respect to some of these issues.

Put a checkmark next to the bias that is closest to yours.
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Letter VII

Facts: Letter VII, published in 1835, was one of eight historical letters written by Oliver Cowdery with the assistance of Joseph Smith. Letter VII unequivocally declares that the New York Cumorah is (i) the scene of the final battles of the Nephites and Jaredites, (ii) the location of Mormon’s repository of Nephite records, and (iii) the location of Moroni’s stone box that contained golden plates. Joseph subsequently directed his scribe to copy it into his own history, authorized Benjamin Winchester to publish it in the Gospel Reflector, gave it to Don Carlos Smith to publish in the Times and Seasons. Letter VII was later published in The Prophet in New York, in a special pamphlet in England, in the Millennial Star, and in the Improvement Era. The question is whether we should accept Letter VII as factual or speculative (and false) opinion.

__ My bias: I accept Letter VII’s teachings on Cumorah. Oliver Cowdery was credible and reliable because of his personal experience with (i) Joseph Smith, (ii) the plates, (iii) ministry of angels, (iv) his calling as Assistant President of the Church, and (v) his visits to the repository itself. I accept Oliver’s claim that Joseph Smith helped him write the eight historical letters, including Letter VII. I also think Joseph fully endorsed the letters on multiple occasions.

__ Traditional Church history bias: With respect to his claims about Cumorah in Letter VII, Oliver Cowdery may or may not have been correct because we don’t know where Cumorah is, and we don’t know why Joseph endorsed the historical letters.

__ Meso bias: With respect to his claims about Cumorah in Letter VII, Oliver Cowdery was not credible or reliable; instead, he was an ignorant speculator who misled the Church because Cumorah is actually in Mexico. Joseph Smith passively accepted this false tradition about the New York Cumorah and perpetuated it when he had it copied into his history, published in the Gospel Reflector, and published in the Times and Seasons.

__ Anti/Former LDS bias: Oliver Cowdery was not credible or reliable about anything, including Cumorah, and he was an ignorant speculator who misled the Church. Joseph Smith passively accepted and perpetuated a false tradition about the New York Cumorah.
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The Golden Plates and the Cumorah messenger

Facts: Joseph claimed he obtained a set of plates, a breastplate, and a pair of spectacles or translators from a box made of stone and cement. Oliver Cowdery described the box in detail.

__ My bias: Joseph translated all the plates from Moroni’s box (except the unsealed portion) in Harmony, returned them to a heavenly messenger who took them back to Cumorah (David Whitmer account) and got the plates of Nephi from the repository, which he then took to Fayette and gave to Joseph, which is why Joseph translated those plates in Fayette.

__ Traditional Church history bias: Joseph obtained only one set of plates from Moroni’s box, of which he translated part in Harmony and part in Fayette. David Whitmer may or may not have recalled the incident with the messenger accurately. Although they are not mentioned in the Title Page, the plates of Nephi were always in the set of plates Joseph originally got from Moroni. Witnesses described the plates differently because they were confused or just wrong. We don’t know why he translated the Title Page on the last leaf of the plates before he translated the plates of Nephi. D&C 10 tells Joseph he has to translate the plates of Nephi because they were a replacement for the Book of Lehi, but he had the plates of Nephi all along.

__ Meso bias: Because Cumorah is in Mexico, David Whitmer was not credible or reliable so he made up or misremembered the experience with the messenger going to Cumorah. Although they are not mentioned in the Title Page, the plates of Nephi were always in the set of plates Joseph originally got from Moroni. Witnesses described the plates differently because they were confused or just wrong. We don’t know why he translated the Title Page on the last leaf of the plates before he translated the plates of Nephi. D&C 10 tells Joseph he has to translate the plates of Nephi because they were a replacement for the Book of Lehi, but he had the plates of Nephi all along.

__ Anti/Former LDS bias: Basically the same as the Meso bias, except neither Joseph nor any of the witnesses were credible or reliable because there were no plates to begin with.

The Title Page.

Facts: The Title Page refers to two abridgments and Moroni’s sealing of the plates. Joseph translated the Title Page, which he said was on “the last leaf” of the plates, before he translated the plates of Nephi. The questions are (i) why doesn’t the Title Page mention original plates of Nephi and (ii) where and when did Joseph translate the Title Page.

__ My bias: The Title Page doesn’t mention the plates of Nephi because those plates were not in Moroni’s box; i.e., they were not part of the “original Book of Mormon” as Joseph put it in his explanation of the Title Page. Joseph translated the Title Page in Harmony before leaving for Fayette because he finished the translation of the first set of plates in Harmony. He had the Title Page printed (probably in Binghamton) and sent to the court to register the copyright. D&C 10 tells Joseph he has to translate the plates of Nephi because he didn’t have the plates of Nephi and would get them later.

__ Traditional Church history bias: The Title Page doesn’t mention the original plates of Nephi because Moroni didn’t know they were included or he forgot to mention them. Joseph translated the Title Page either in Harmony before leaving for Fayette or after he arrived in Fayette because he needed to get it printed and sent to the court to register the copyright. We don’t know where it was printed, but probably not in Grandin’s shop. D&C 10 tells Joseph he has to translate the plates of Nephi to replace the Book of Lehi, but he had the plates of Nephi all along. It’s not clear why he translated the last leaf before he translated the plates of Nephi.

__ Meso bias: The Title Page doesn’t mention the original plates of Nephi because Moroni didn’t know they were included or he forgot to mention them. Joseph translated the Title Page either in Harmony before leaving for Fayette or after he arrived in Fayette because he needed to get it printed and sent to the court to register the copyright. We don’t know where it was printed, but probably not in Grandin’s shop. D&C 10 tells Joseph he has to translate the plates of Nephi to replace the Book of Lehi, but he had the plates of Nephi all along. It’s not clear why he translated the last leaf before he translated the plates of Nephi.

__ Anti/Former LDS bias: None of this matters. Neither Joseph nor any of the witnesses were credible or reliable because there were no plates to begin with.

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The repository in Cumorah

Facts. Brigham Young, Heber C. Kimball, Wilford Woodruff and others said there was a repository in the Hill Cumorah that was full of artifacts and metal records as mentioned by Mormon (Mormon 6:6). Orson Pratt said there were two departments in the hill Cumorah; one for the repository, and the other for Moroni’s box.

__ My bias: Brigham Young and others accurately reported what Oliver and others said about entering the records repository in the Hill Cumorah in New York. David Whitmer accurately explained that the plates were no longer in Cumorah but were not far from there. Oliver also said the plates were no longer in Cumorah.

__ Traditional Church history bias: Brigham Young and others may have accurately reported what Oliver and others said about entering the records repository in the Hill Cumorah in New York, but it was merely a vision of a hill somewhere that Oliver and the others shared multiple times. We don’t know what David Whitmer meant when he explained that the plates were no longer in Cumorah but were not far from there.

__ Meso bias: Brigham Young and others may have accurately reported what Oliver and others said about entering the records repository in the Hill Cumorah in New York, but it was merely a vision of a hill in Mexico, which these men shared multiple times. David Whitmer was unreliable and not credible when he explained that the plates were no longer in Cumorah but were not far from there because the plates were either taken by an angel or had never left the repository in Mexico.

__ Anti/Former LDS bias: Basically the same as the Meso bias, except neither Joseph nor any of the witnesses were credible or reliable because there were no plates to begin with, and no repository except, maybe, a "visionary" one.
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The Liahona and Sword of Laban

Facts: The Three Witnesses said an angel appeared and showed them the plates, turning them over one-by-one, and testifying that they had been translated correctly. At the time, none of the witnesses said they handled the plates, although they subsequently claimed they did. Joseph came home and told his parents he was relieved because now others had seen the plates. There was no mention of the Liahona or Sword of Laban at the time, nor did Joseph or Oliver ever say these artifacts were in Moroni’s stone box.

Much later, David Whitmer said when the angel appeared, there was a table piled with plates and the Liahona and Sword of Laban. D&C 17:1 promised the witnesses “you shall have a view of the plates, and also of the breastplate, the sword of Laban, the Urim and Thummim, which were given to the brother of Jared upon the mount, when he talked with the Lord face to face, and the miraculous directors which were given to Lehi while in the wilderness, on the borders of the Red Sea.” No original copies of D&C 17 are extant, and the earliest version was copied not before 25 Nov. 1834. According to the Joseph Smith Papers, “John Whitmer copied this revelation circa March 1831 into Revelation Book 1, but the page on which it was copied was removed at some point from that volume and is no longer extant. For unknown reasons, printers of the Book of Commandments chose not to include this revelation text in that volume. Some language used in the version copied into Revelation Book 2 does not fit an 1829 context, suggesting that version was modified from the original, although the degree of modification cannot be known.”

__ My bias: I think Moroni’s stone box contained only one set of plates, the interpreters, and the breastplate. I also think the Three Witnesses accurately described their experience; i.e., the angel showed them the plates and testified to them. The explanation for the Liahona, Sword of Laban, and additional plates comes from an event after the angel appeared to the Three Witnesses, when David Whitmer and Oliver Cowdery, at least, entered the repository and saw the piles of plates and artifacts, including the Liahona and Sword of Laban, as Brigham Young and others described. I think David knew he wasn’t supposed to talk about the repository, so he conflated his statement about the artifacts and plates with the original account of the Three Witnesses. I think D&C 17 originally referred only to the plates because verse 5 required them to testify about what they saw, and their official statement mentions only the plates. This is why we don’t have the original record of the revelation and why it was removed from Revelation Book 1. It was later modified to add the other artifacts because David and Oliver had spoken about them, and they were not supposed to talk about the repository.

__ Traditional Church history bias: Either the Liahona and Sword of Laban were in Moroni’s stone box all along and Joseph kept them hidden (as depicted in the North Visitors Center on Temple Square), or the angel miraculously produced them in June 1829 near Fayette, along with the table and piles of other plates that are not mentioned in D&C 17 or the official statement of the Three Witnesses.

__ Meso bias: Either the Liahona and Sword of Laban were in Moroni’s stone box all along and Joseph kept them hidden (as depicted in the North Visitors Center on Temple Square), or the angel miraculously produced them in June 1829 near Fayette, along with the table and piles of other plates that are not mentioned in D&C 17 or the official statement of the Three Witnesses.

__ Anti/Former LDS bias: None of these artifacts were in Moroni’s stone box or in any repository because they never existed.

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Statements about Central America

__ My bias: Orson Pratt, Benjamin Winchester, WW. Phelps, William Smith, and others invoked the discovery of ancient ruins in Central America as evidence of the Book of Mormon to support their zealous missionary efforts. In addition, anonymous articles appeared in the Times and Seasons during 1842, when Joseph was the nominal editor. Joseph had nothing to do with these articles. Joseph never made a single direct link between the Book of Mormon and Central America, and actually made specific statements repudiating that theory. Alleged correspondences between the Book of Mormon and Central America are illusory because they are characteristics of most ancient societies. Joseph's statements about North America fit the text and relevant anthropology, archaeology, geology, and geography.

__ Traditional Church history bias: Orson Pratt, Benjamin Winchester, WW. Phelps, William Smith, and others invoked the discovery of ancient ruins in Central America as evidence of the Book of Mormon to support their zealous missionary efforts. In addition, anonymous articles appeared in the Times and Seasons during 1842, when Joseph was the actual editor. Joseph actually wrote these articles, or at least edited and approved of them, because he didn't know where the Book of Mormon took place. We don’t have enough evidence to know about the geography one way or the other.

__ Meso bias: Orson Pratt, Benjamin Winchester, WW. Phelps, William Smith, and others invoked the discovery of ancient ruins in Central America as evidence of the Book of Mormon to support their zealous missionary efforts. In addition, anonymous articles appeared in the Times and Seasons during 1842, when Joseph was the actual editor. Joseph actually wrote these articles, or at least edited and approved of them, because he didn't know where the Book of Mormon took place and he expected scholarship to answer the question. Modern LDS scholars and educators know more about the Book of Mormon than Joseph did. Joseph's statements about the North American setting are ambiguous and reflect his confusion and adoption of an early false tradition. Alleged correspondences between the Book of Mormon and Central America are reliable, especially when we realize that Joseph Smith used the wrong terms to translate the plates and thereby missed the Central American connections. The Mesoamerican models fit the text and relevant anthropology, archaeology, geology, and geography.

__ Anti/Former LDS bias: Basically the same as the Meso bias, except modern LDS scholars and educators can't point to any evidence directly connecting the Book of Mormon text to Central America or anywhere else.
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Cumorah Statements by Joseph's successors

Facts: 
Every one of Joseph's contemporaries expressed or accepted the New York setting for the Hill Cumorah. Orson Pratt's 1879 footnotes in the official edition of the Book of Mormon specified, unequivocally, that the Hill Cumorah was in New York, while he acknowledged his identification of other sites was speculative, or "believed to be." Beyond Joseph's contemporaries, Joseph Fielding Smith, Marion G. Romney, Mark E. Peterson and others reaffirmed the New York Cumorah, including in General Conference addresses, while no General Authority has ever contradicted the New York Cumorah in General Conference.

__ My bias: Every one of these prophets and apostles was correct about Cumorah.
__ Traditional Church history bias: We don’t have enough evidence to know whether these men expressed opinions or were correct or wrong about Cumorah.

__ Meso bias: Every one of these prophets and apostles was speculating about the New York Cumorah and was wrong.

__ Anti/Former LDS bias: Basically the same as the Meso bias, except the prophets and apostles were not only speculating and were wrong about Cumorah, but about everything else as well.

Score.


You can see which bias is closest to yours by adding up the number of x’s you put next to each bias.

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