contention

The prevalence of a spirit of contention amongst a people is a certain sign of deadness with respect to the things of religion. When men's spirits are hot with contention, they are cold to religion. - Jonathan Edwards

Wednesday, June 19, 2019

The apologetics of M2C

From time to time I repost articles here from my other blogs. I've renamed this one.

The apologetics of M2C

I've been reluctant to post this material but I think it's time. As we've seen recently, faith in the historicity of the Book of Mormon is declining in the Church, not only among the younger generations but among BYU faculty. That trend will undoubtedly accelerate. And IMO, the reason is M2C.

This is not a question about what past Church leaders have said about Cumorah. It's not a question of interpreting the text and other semantic considerations.

The issue is the core belief of M2C that makes it attractive to so many Church members.
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People often ask why M2C advocates get angry when their theory is questioned.  A good answer appeared on twitter recently:

"Do you know why your feelings are hurt by criticism of your beliefs? Because you believe for emotional reasons instead of factual ones."

M2C believers are emotionally attached to their theory because they say it is the only plausible explanation of the Book of Mormon. For them, it is M2C or bust.

They actually think the truthfulness of the Book of Mormon depends on its Mesoamerican setting.

The M2C advocates think they are protecting and defending the Book of Mormon when they promote M2C. They think that alternative interpretations, including the New York Cumorah, are false. That's why they censor information about those alternatives, including the teachings of the prophets.

But the core belief of M2C has nothing to do with the teachings of the prophets.

Brother John Sorenson summarized the basic idea on p. 144 of his book, Mormon's Codex. Other M2C intellectuals make the same argument, but Sorenson's book is still the "high-water mark of scholarship" among M2C believers.

One of the most common explanations for the origin of the Book of Mormon holds that Joseph Smith created the book on the basis of his local knowledge environment. In that case, one would have expected him to establish a more modest historical account than what he published. That is, lightly and almost entirely at second hand, he would have described Indians like the tribes known in his rural New York home where he grew up in the 1820s. Instead, in the book he published we read of full-fledged civilizations located in tropical America.
The idea that there was any ancient “civilization” in the Western Hemisphere was contrary to notions commonly held in Smith’s area in his day, and for that matter, it was contrary to the views of the entire Western world of the time. That there had existed ancient civilizations far to the south of the United States did not dawn on even sophisticated scholars or readers until the 1840s.

Do you see what's happening here?

M2C advocates think that Joseph could not have known about ancient civilizations in Mesoamerica, so the Mesoamerican setting proves Joseph couldn't have written the Book of Mormon. 

By contrast, they claim a setting in North America, with the Hill Cumorah in New York, supports the arguments of critics who say Joseph wrote the book.

In my view, they have it exactly backwards.

As we're about to see, if Joseph Smith had composed the Book of Mormon, he would have set it in Central and South America.
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As I discuss in more depth in my upcoming book, there are three possible origins for the Book of Mormon.

1. Composition. This is the claim that Joseph (and/or co-conspirators) composed the Book of Mormon based on his experience and the information available to him.

2. Transcription. This is the claim that Joseph merely read words that appeared on a stone he placed into a hat (the "stone-in-a-hat" theory that is popular among today's LDS historians and M2C proponents).

3. Translation. This is Joseph's claim that he translated the engravings on ancient metal plates that related one thousand years of history of the ancient inhabitants "of this country."

We won't discuss transcription or translation in this post. Instead, we'll focus on the composition claim by examining what Brother Sorenson wrote. Original in blue, my comments in red.

One of the most common explanations for the origin of the Book of Mormon holds that Joseph Smith created the book on the basis of his local knowledge environment. 

This is always the first assumption for any new book; i.e., that the author wrote it. What did Joseph's "local knowledge environment" consist of? Let's see what Brother Sorenson thinks. 

In that case, one would have expected him to establish a more modest historical account than what he published. That is, lightly and almost entirely at second hand, he would have described Indians like the tribes known in his rural New York home where he grew up in the 1820s. 

The "would have" argument is really no argument at all. It's pure mind reading (and usually it's projection). M2C scholars have embraced this mind reading uncritically because it confirms their bias, but we all know authors can invent all kinds of settings beyond the limits of their personal lives. 
Nevertheless, it's a good point in the sense that the Book of Mormon does notdescribe Indian tribes such as those known in western New York in the the 1820s. Of course, that says nothing about what the book does describe.  

Instead, in the book he published we read of full-fledged civilizations located in tropical America.

Here we have the flip side of mind reading. Instead of reading Joseph's mind, now Brother Sorenson is reading his own mind. The word "tropical" never appears in the text. Every indicia of "tropical America" is concocted by Brother Sorenson and his like-minded M2C believers. For example, the actual text omits the big three Js: jade, jaguars, and jungles. When Brother Sorenson sees the term "horses" in the text, he reads it as "tapirs." One well-known M2C scholar has explained that he "can't unsee" Mesoamerica when he reads the text. While that's undoubtedly true, it's because he wants to see Mesoamerica there, not because the words of the text describe Mesoamerica.   

The idea that there was any ancient “civilization” in the Western Hemisphere was contrary to notions commonly held in Smith’s area in his day, and for that matter, it was contrary to the views of the entire Western world of the time. 

This may have reflected the views of some people in Joseph's day, but not the views of Alexander von Humboldt, whose books were available in English in the early 1800s. Humboldt's 1811 book "Political Essay on the Kingdom of New Spain" was on sale in Palmyra in 1818 at the printing shop Joseph visited weekly to get the newspaper for his father.
Three times in that book, Humboldt referred to the isthmus of Panama as a "neck of land," which may explain why so many early Church writers inferred Panama was the "neck of land" mentioned in the Book of Mormon. 
Humboldt wrote about the "ancient pyramid of Cholula," "the ruins called las Casas grandes" that was "the site of an ancient cultivation of the human species," "the valley of Tenochititlan... the site of an ancient civilization of American people... more ancient monuments, the pyramids of Teotihuacan, dedicated to the sun and the moon," and more. He discussed the "aborigines" of Mexico, "these Indians, degraded by the despotism of the ancient Aztec sovereigns." He claimed that tribes of the "savages" "possess even languages of which the mechanism proves an ancient civilization." 
In one passage, he noted that past civilizations were greater than those built by the Spanish. "The enormous magnitude of the market-place of Tlatelolco, of which the boundaries are still discernible, proves the great population of the ancient city."
He also mentioned the "ancient grandeur of the empire of Cusco" and other ancient civilizations in South America. "These ruins appeared to him demonstrative of an immense population in Peru at a remote period."
Humboldt wrote about carved stones, statues covered with hieroglyphics, the entire destruction of a city, intermittent fevers, a city governed by a king independent of the larger nation, and more. 
Compare this passage from Humboldt to terms and concepts found in the Book of Mormon:
"In every village we find eight or ten old Indians who live at the expense of the rest, in the most complete idleness, whose authority is founded either on a pretended elevation of birth, or on a cunning policy transmitted from father to son. These chiefs... have the greatest interest in maintaining their fellow-citizens in the most profound ignorance; and they contribute the most to perpetuate prejudices, ignorance, and the ancient barbarity of manners." 

Recall, all of this is in an 1811 book on sale in Palmyra in 1819.

That there had existed ancient civilizations far to the south of the United States did not dawn on even sophisticated scholars or readers until the 1840s.

Humboldt's 1811 book stated the exact opposite of Sorenson's claim. Humboldt discussed the origins of the ancient people in Central America when, after observing that the "Toultecs" built cities, made roads, and constructed those great pyramids, he asked, "where is the source of that cultivation? where is the country from which the Toultecs and Mexicans issued?... There are no remains at this day of any ancient civilization of the human species to the north of the Rio Gila, or in the northern regions travelled through by Hearne, Fiedler, and Mackenzie."

In 1841 explorer John Lloyd Stephens published the first American edition of his sensational account of the discovery of ruined cities in Central America (Incidents of Travel in Central America, Chiapas, and Yucatan). 

The Stephens book was the first account of his discoveries, but it was far from the first account of the ancient civilizations in Mexico and Central America.
Before he knew about Stephens' book, Benjamin Winchester referred to Humboldt in his 1841 Gospel ReflectorHe wrote "if any one should wish to learn farther concerning the antiquities of America, we recommend him to A. Davis' "Discovery of America by the North-men." J. Priests's "American Antiquities," Mr. Hill's Do.; and Baron Humboldt's "Travels in South America."
The Third Edition of Davis' book was published in 1839. Davis had sold out two previous editions in less than three months and had lectured widely. He sold 5,000 copies before publishing the Fifth Edition. 
Winchester quoted a passage from Davis' book about Palenque, but he did not quote the Third Edition (1839) or the Fifth Edition (1840). 
Davis wrote, "That America was peopled by those in advance of the savage state long before any authentic accounts are given of settlements, is manifest from nameless monuments of antiquity found in various parts. The ruins of a city in Central America are among the most striking of such. This city, called Palenque, lies two hundred and forty miles from Tabasco."

As Stephens’s biographer explained, “The acceptance of an ‘Indian civilization’ demanded, to an American living in 1839 [when Stephens’s book came out in London], an entire reorientation, for to him an Indian was one of those barbaric, half-naked te-pee dwellers against whom wars were constantly waged [on the American frontier]. . . . Nor did one ever think of calling the other indigenous inhabitants of the continent ‘civilized.’ In the universally accepted opinion [of that day], they were like their North American counterparts—savages.”1

The sensational aspect of Stephens' book was the illustrations of exotic ruins, not the idea that there had been ancient civilizations in Central and South America. Stephens was born in 1805, after Humboldt had already returned from his travels and met with President Thomas Jefferson. 
Long before Stephens traveled to Mesoamerica, the existence of ruined cities there was well known. In fact, Stephens read about the ancient civilization, including cities in Mesoamerica, in Humboldt's books.

Smith and his cohorts were just as surprised by what Stephens brought to light as was the contemporary public. Apparently, early believing readers of the Book of Mormon—including even Joseph Smith—had not paid enough attention to the book’s descriptions of the setting where Nephite history was played out to fully realize the implied level of civilization that now seems obvious when we read the text. The book relates that the people it tells about dwelled in “cities,” and even “great cities.” They practiced intensive agriculture to support the large populations implied. 

If "Joseph and his cohorts" were surprised by Stephens' books, they weren't paying attention to books being sold in Palmyra, let alone what Benjamin Winchester and others were writing.
In the 1814 English translation of his book titled Researches concerning the institutions and Monuments of the Ancient Inhabitants of America, Humboldt wrote about Quetzalcoatl, explaining the tradition and how the Spaniards were taken by Montezuma as being the descendants of Quetzalcoatl. "The reign of Quetzalcoatl was the golden age of the people of Anahuac. At that period, all animals, and even men, lived in peace; the earth brought forth, without culture, the most fruitful harvests; and the air was filled with a multitude of birds, which were admired for their song, and the beauty of their plumage. But this reign, like that of Saturn, and the happiness of the world, were not of long duration."
Humboldt described the Mayan numbering system. 
He included illustrations of ruins and "hieoglyphicals." 
He wrote about cement in Peru: "it is a true mortar, of which I detached considerable portions with a knife, by digging into the interstices which were left between the parallel courses of the stones. This fact deserves some attention; because the travellers who preceded us have all asserted, that the Peruvians were unacquainted with the use of mortar; but the supposition, that the Peruvians were as ignorant in this point as the ancient inhabitants of Egypt, is erroneous." 


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I could go on with this, but I suspect you see the point by now.

Its easy to see why some of the early LDS leaders and authors (but never Joseph Smith) claimed the Book of Mormon explained the civilizations described by Humboldt, Stephens and others. Contrary to what our M2C intellectuals have been telling us, people in Joseph's day knew all about ancient civilizations in Central and South America. To them, a hemispheric model made sense, especially because Humboldt himself had described Panama as a "neck of land."

Move forward to the late 1800s, when Joseph F. Smith was reaffirming the New York Cumorah and sought to purchase the hill. His opponents in the RLDS church declared that the hill in New York was not the real Cumorah, after all. They claimed that the "real Cumorah" was in Mexico.

Hence, M2C.

Soon enough, certain LDS scholars adopted their theory, partly because of the apologetic benefit. They began promoting the idea that Joseph could not have known about ancient civilizations in Central America before he translated the Book of Mormon; therefore, M2C actually proved the Book of Mormon was true.

And some of them still think that.

But, as we've seen in this post, it's a fundamentally flawed premise.

If Joseph (and/or his co-conspirators) composed the Book of Mormon as a record of a lost civilization, the most natural setting would be ancient America in Central and South America, precisely as described by Humboldt and others before the Book of Mormon was published in 1830.

This is why I think M2C is exactly the wrong theory to promote the authenticity of the Book of Mormon. 

This is why I think M2C is going to continue to leave people confused and disturbed in their faith in the Book of Mormon, just as Joseph Fielding Smith warned all those decades ago.
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Brother Sorenson did make a good point: Joseph could have composed a book based on his experiences with Indians in and around New York, but he didn't.

Joseph could just have easily composed a book set in ancient Central and/or South America. But he didn't.

So what is the Book of Mormon?
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I won't get into all the semantic arguments about geography, or the teachings of the prophets about Cumorah in New York, or Joseph Smith's statements in the Wentworth letter, on Zion's Camp, etc.

For now, just consider this.

Brother Sorenson made another good point: a powerful evidence of the divine authenticity of the Book of Mormon would be its description of a civilization unknown and unknowable before Joseph translated the plates.

The ancient civilizations in Central and South America simply don't qualify because they were described in books sold right in Palmyra before Joseph even met Moroni.

What does qualify?

The Hopewell and Adena civilizations of North America.

These civilizations were not even named until around 1900. The extent and sophistication of these civilizations is still being discovered today.

They fit the time frames from the text and the locations Joseph identified. They align with the New York Cumorah. They match up with other important events that have taken place, and will take place, in North America.
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Long-time readers know that I accepted M2C for decades. Like the fine young scholars employed by the M2C citation cartel today, I was convinced by my CES and BYU teachers that the prophets were wrong and that the scholars were right.

That was my mistake, and I hope that more members of the Church, as well as non-members, can come to see M2C for the mistake it is. I'm not trying to persuade anyone; I simply encourage people to make informed decisions.

In recent years I have come to realize the prophets were right about Book of Mormon geography all along. They have always emphasized two main points:

1. The Hill Cumorah of Mormon 6:6 is in New York.

2. We don't know the location of the other events.

These are the only two positions I hold.

Point #2 is important because it's not a lack of evidence but an overabundance of evidence that we confront. It's impossible to choose among dozens or hundreds of sites in North America that could match up with the text.

That said, I don't reject a Mesoamerican setting per se (although I think it's relatively implausible). I don't categorically exclude any theory of geography that has Cumorah in New York.

As more and more people return to accepting what the prophets have taught all along, we will discover more and more evidence that supports their teachings.

It's an exciting time to be a member of the Church.

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