Tuesday, July 11, 2006

how much longer can the church maintain an inaccurate portrayal of its history?

i want to begin with a short quiz.


image a:



image b:



question 1: which of these images comes from a South Park episode and begins with the disclaimer that "all characters and events in this show - even those based on real people - are entirely fictional"?
question 2: which of these images comes from the lds church-produced film, "joseph smith: prophet of the restoration" and was touted as being "historically accurate"?
question 3: which of these images portrays the method with which joseph smith used to translate the golden plates?
question 4: which of these images portrays a method which has no historical basis?

the answers - 1:a 2:b 3:a 4:b

----------------------

i am not asking whether or not the church should maintain an inaccurate portrayal of its history, but how much longer it can portray its often very misleading (dare i say dishonest?) portrayal.

compare the following images from the church's official website about joseph smith with statements by joseph's friends and family who witnessed the translation process.



"I will now give you a description of the manner in which the Book of Mormon was translated. 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." - david whitmer, in "an address to all believers in christ."


"In writing for your father I frequently wrote day after day, often sitting at the table close by him, he sitting with his face buried in his hat, with the stone in it, and dictating hour after hour with nothing between us." - emma smith, "last testimony of sister emma", in rlds church history vol 3 ch 18 page 356. the church's website actually quotes from this interview with emma about the book of mormon, but does not mention her reference to the use of a hat.


"Now the way he translated was he put the urim and thummim into his hat and Darkned his Eyes then he would take a sentance and it would apper in Brite Roman Letters. Then he would tell the writer and he would write it. . . Thus was the hol [whole] translated." - joseph knight (loyal friend of joseph smith), quoted in dean jesse's "Joseph Knight's Recollection of Early Mormon History."


"The manner in which this was done was by looking into the Urim and Thummim, which was placed in a hat to exclude the light, (the plates lying near by covered up), and reading off the translation, which appeared in the stone by the power of God." - william smith (joseph smith's brother) in "william smith on mormonism" page 11.


this is only one example of the dozens of instances where the church has been either portraying a version of history that is blatantly false, or presenting it in such a way that it is deceptively hiding history (for example see the church's different biographical sketches of lds presidents. no marriages are listed for leaders who are polygamous - besides joseph smith who only has emma smith listed). other examples include joseph smith's polygamous marriages, often either against or unknownst to emma(i know many who did not learn this until their missions - from anti-mormons); joseph's smiths deep background with folk magic; the succession crisis; harmony in the church hierarchy; that the melchizedek priesthood was most likely restored in 1830 after the organization of the church; the structure and establishment of priesthood quorums and callings; and the masonic-endowment relationship.

for the last several decades, most of this was only known to historians, anti-mormons, and history buffs. such is not the case anymore. a few minutes with google can reveal more church history than the common member learns in a life-time of sunday school, seminary, and institute. also, with publications by very faithful scholars (such as richard bushman's rough stone rolling), these things can no longer be tossed aside as mere anti-mormon lies. more and more members are beginning to learn that they have not been told the truth by the church. the next question which is often ask is if i had been lied to or hidden from these things, then what else is the church lying/hiding about?

that is where we come back to the question: how much longer can the church maintain an inaccurate portrayal of its history? it seems that eventually the divide between the church's version of history and more accurate versions will be so glaringly obvious that the church will need to deal with it. can the church maintain its version much longer? forever? or will the time soon come that it will need to step away from its ficticious portrayal and start being more honest about it?

57 comments:

  1. I'm taking Church History right now, and just read several accounts that you quoted from the book "Opening the Heavens". I was planning on asking a question similar to yours in class tomorrow (more along the lines of why does the church depict it this way).
    Some of my ideas have to do with persecution and trying to make our religion sound less fantastic and more like other religions, so we don't scare everyone off with stories about Joseph Smith looking in a hat to get revelations. I think as a kid I would have been confused, but now I think it is very interesting. During Joseph's times stones were used to look for the supernatural by other people (including Hiram Page and some lady..I forgot her name) they simply considered it a part of religion. (I think it is interesting how Satan will use similar objects, feelings, etc. to mimic what the Lord does.)
    Anyway, good question Loyd.

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  2. one of joseph smith's sons, david hyrum smith, went crazy and had to be institutionalized after he discovered that his father did practice polygamy (which his mother and brother constantly denied). it was too hard for him to accept that his father was involved with that 'sinful' practice.

    i don't think the small things like folk magic and priesthood aren't too big of an issue, or even joseph smith's possible affair. when these things add up though, the bigger threat to many members is the feeling that they have been lied to by an institution that they put so much faith in. especially when the question arises of what else the church might be hiding (and there is still much history the church has locked up for on a select few to see).

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  3. What's your point? If the church is true, who cares? If it's not true then who cares?

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  4. Oh my gosh! This changes everything!

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  5. I'm not convinced that the Church is hiding anything. I am a convert of 6 years, and without doing any digging, I have come to learn all about interpreting the Book of Mormon in the manner you have described, all about the succession crisis, the timing of the Melchizedek priesthood, and everything else you mentioned. I have seen no attempt to hide or whitewash any information. It is readily available.

    Perhaps the reason why the Church doesn't outright discuss the manner of the translation (via the stones and hat, etc.) is similar to the reasons why most Christians don't ouright talk about Judah's illicit sons Er and Onan being slain by the Lord or of Balaam talking to a donkey. It isn't because the events aren't true; it's because you can't understand these events if you first haven't seen to the basic principles of the Gospel - faith, repentance, baptism, the Gift of the Holy Ghost.

    I believe it is very good to ask these kinds of questions. Just don't pick at straws or lose sight of the forest for the trees.

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  6. I have seen no attempt to hide or whitewash any information. It is readily available.

    Readily available, but from what source?

    You'd be hard-pressed to find these issues discussed on lds.org or mormon.org, in Sunday School manuals, in conference talks, in Preach My Gospel, or any of the standard Church-published materials that are meant to educate members and non-members about Church history.

    I think this is an important, relevant issue. For a Church that bases so much on its history, and trains its members to do so as well, the revelation that it has not been totally up front about its history could be very damaging, both to the institution and the individual members.

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  7. i personally don't think the basis for belief lies in how Joseph Smith translated the plates. the matter onto which testimony should be based is that the plates were indeed translated through a power much higher than we possess. whether or not one story matches the other is beside the point. someone once told me that all history is is a biased account of events, a journal from one person's point of view.

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  8. raging wombat:

    as i already mentioned in my post, these things have not been completely hidden (or else how would i have known about them?). as i said:

    for the last several decades, most of this was only known to historians, anti-mormons, and history buffs. such is not the case anymore. a few minutes with google can reveal more church history than the common member learns in a life-time of sunday school, seminary, and institute. also, with publications by very faithful scholars ... these things can no longer be tossed aside as mere anti-mormon lies. more and more members are beginning to learn that they have not been told the truth by the church.

    much of this has been readily available to readers of scholarly church history and apologetics (such as farms). the problem is that the church constantly portrays their official version as 'this is the way things happened - all nice and perfect - just like the church is'. even worse, the church often portrays it's skewed portrayal as a foundational and important truth when it most likely wasn't the case (for example, an 1829 dating of the melchezidek priesthood).

    stace:

    i agree with you. that is why i was saying that the problem is not in the hidden history, but in the hiding of history.


    on a side note, my mission president (now elder workman of the seventy) banned farms literature in the mission because "some idiot from farms wrote that the prophet joseph smith translated the book of mormon by placing a seerstone into a hat! THAT IS THE STUPIDEST THING I'VE EVER HEARD! we all know that the book of mormon WASN'T TRANSLATED THAT WAY! BUT WAS TRANSLATED BY THE GIFT AND POWER OF GOD!!!!" (he had a tendency to yell a lot)
    during my interview with him later, i asked him if he had read the article (which he hadn't) and told him about the different sources which talk about the hat. he had a blank stare on his face and thanked me for informing him.

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  9. anonymous coward #1:

    What's your point?

    i'm asking a question. not answering it. imagine the following conversation:

    child - "mom, what's for dinner?"
    mother - "what's your point?"

    If the church is true, who cares?

    a lot of people.

    this is what richard bushman had to say about the disconnect between official church history and more honest church history: "I believe the disconnect can damage young Latter-day Saints who learn later in life they have not been given the whole story on Church history. They are tempted to doubt the credibility of their former teachers; what else are they hiding, the shocked young people want to know?"

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  10. Here's something from the Friend magazine that gives a pretty good idea of the events of the transaltion:

    “A Peaceful Heart,” Friend, Sept. 1974, 7
    Translating the ancient and strange looking writing on the gold plates was not a job that just anyone could do. Such an important work needed to be done by someone who was especially prepared by the Lord to do it.

    Because of his spiritual nature and his willingness to learn the truth, Joseph Smith was tested and found worthy to be the translator of the Book of Mormon. To help him with the translation, Joseph found with the gold plates “a curious instrument which the ancients called Urim and Thummim, which consisted of two transparent stones set in a rim of a bow fastened to a breastplate.”

    Joseph also used an egg-shaped, brown rock for translating called a seer stone. The translating was done at Peter Whitmer’s home, a friend of the Prophet’s where Oliver Cowdery, Emma Smith (Joseph’s wife), one of the Whitmers, or Martin Harris wrote down the words spoken by the Prophet as soon as they were made known to him.

    Martin Harris said that on the seer stone “sentences would appear and were read by the Prophet and written by [the one writing them down] and when finished [that person] would say ‘written;’ and if correctly written, the sentence would disappear and another take its place; but if not written correctly it remained until corrected, so that the translation was just as it was engraven on the plates.”

    Even with the help of the Urim and Thummim and the seer stone, it wasn’t easy to translate the sacred record. It required the Prophet’s greatest concentration and spiritual strength.

    Joseph’s friend, David Whitmer, said that sometimes when the Prophet would try to translate, “he was spiritually blind” and could not do it. Joseph explained that when that happened it was because his mind “dwelt too much on earthly things.”

    One morning the Prophet was unhappy with his wife Emma over a household matter. When he went upstairs where Oliver Cowdery and David Whitmer were waiting to continue with the translation, he still had a bad feeling about his wife in his heart. Joseph tried to translate but not even a syllable of a word came to him; and he knew why. Joseph went downstairs and out into an orchard where he prayed to the Lord.

    After about an hour, Joseph returned to the house feeling humble and repentant. He asked Emma to forgive him for his lack of understanding. Then he went back upstairs where he was able to translate without any difficulty.

    David Whitmer also understood why the Prophet couldn’t translate just an hour before. He said, “Now we see how very strict the Lord is, and how he requires the heart of man to be just right in his sight before he can receive revelations from him.”

    While this doesn't identify the hat directly, it doesn't hide the fact that the seer stones were used to translate the Book of Mormon. Anyway, if the Friend publishes these things it seems like the church isn't too worried about "being exposed" or something. Also I think the important thing here isn't what instruments were used, but the fact that the Book of Mormon was translated by the Power of God, and that Joseph Smith did not write the Book of Mormon himself. The testimony is that the Book of Mormon came from God.

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  11. thanks heather. that's really interesting. it goes along with much of my thesis (the one in my head) that for the last 20 years the church's policies, theology, and history has largely been public relations driven. like you said, much of it has to do with "trying to make our religion sound less fantastic and more like other religions". it fits in well with all of the "we are christians too!" rhetoric and pr that the church has been putting out lately.

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  12. heather:

    Anyway, if the Friend publishes these things it seems like the church isn't too worried about "being exposed" or something.

    thirty years can make a huge difference. however, i don't think it has as much to do with the church being exposed, as it has to do with image and levels of control.

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  13. Let me clarify when I said "what's your point?" I just don't understand your purpose, where you are going with all of this, why do you post stuff like this. I know you said that you are just posing a question but I don't think that you want to know the answer as much as you want to inform others of trivial details in the restoration of the gospel. I just want to understand.


    (signed)
    Anonymous coward #1

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  14. How long? I think it will be a long time. Most members still see the challenges to the official history as anti-mormon and it will take more than the Bushman book and South Park to change that.

    The people who have a problem with the discrpency are almost universally viewed as being unfaithful, so there is no real challenge to the status quo.

    I do think it will change eventually. But when it does there will be no announcement or public acknowledgment. Just like other issues it will change silently.

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  15. I don't think that you want to know the answer as much as you want to inform others of trivial details in the restoration of the gospel.

    Joseph Smith sticking his face into a hat to translate the Book of Mormon may be a trivial detail, but it's a detail that may be troubling to Mormons who have been accustomed to different renditions of the process since they were in primary.

    Also, there are other details about which the Church has not been straight-forward which might not sound so trivial. For instance, the connection between Freemasonry and the endowment ceremony, which Church leaders still claim was restored from antiquity. Most temple-goers probably have no idea that the temple ordinances may have any connection to Freemasonry, and they would be shocked to learn that there is substantial evidence that connects the endowment to masonic rituals.

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  16. This is exactly why I embrace wholeheartedly Henry Ford's summation, "History is more or less bunk."

    The people who knew most about the translation process, Joseph and Oliver, are the ones who spoke the least about it. The existing accounts are based upon the recollections of people years after the fact and contradictory. I know off the top of my head that David Whitmer's recounting is 50+ years old. There's nothing wrong with this from a historian's perspective, it's simply the nature of the beast. What historians do is look at everything and make an educated guess --it's not an exact science.

    So to say that the church is deliberately lying or deceiving people, or portraying a history that is "blatantly false" when they are simply going off different sources, is stupid.

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  17. ac#1:

    i sometimes get frustrated when i feel like people throw out criticisms under the guise of anonymity. i only leave it on so that those without blogger accounts can still comment.

    as i have said, the point of my post was to ask the question: how much longer can the church maintain an inaccurate portrayal of its history?

    i brought up examples for two reasons. first, i knew that the first critique to the question would be the claim that the church does not portray an inaccurate version of its history. by juxtaposing the church's portrayal with the more historic version, i could show that the church is actively presenting a false portrayal of its history. second, i intended my post to be an example of the very thing that common mormons are coming across that could very well damge their testimonies (there is a reason why anti-mormons enjoy bringing up the hat). i can also pretty much guarantee you that there have been life-long mormons who nothing about the hat until reading about it in this post.

    many scholars in mormon studies are heralding richard bushman's rough stone rolling as a milestone in church history, not only because its a magnificent piece of work, but because it is the first scholarly work on joseph smith that disseminates and brings to the common member many of the historical aspects that can be troubling to many mormons. there were a few general authorities who did not like richard bushman's book for this very reason. and there have already been mormons who have decided to leave the church after reading it.

    so the point of my post was to ask the question of how long can the church maintain its inaccurate portrayal. as more and more mormons come to realize that the church hasn't been honest about some of these things (either by silence, or outright fabrication) this will be an issue that the church will have to face. i only ask how long (if ever) it will take.

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  18. every religion has flaws, and issues which are skewed in their full context. when the issue in question becomes one of considerable importance and, in a sense, faith determining, then the exact full truth is important. and i understand it is hard not to wonder if we are receiving full truths one some issues if they are witheld in others. but i believe it really just comes down to faith. if we have faith in and rely on those issues and concepts of the gospel that we know are "of good report" then trivial matters that don't need to have any affect on our testimony of the gospel, wont.

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  19. s.o.:

    The people who knew most about the translation process, Joseph and Oliver, are the ones who spoke the least about it.

    the translation process was done openly in front of others. emma (and i believe joseph knight) were also scribes during the translation.

    The existing accounts are based upon the recollections of people years after the fact...

    joseph knight's recollections were written between 1833 and 1847, most likely earlier.

    ...and contradictory.

    while they differed on what happened inside the hat (which they couldn't see), they pretty much agreed on what happened outside (which they personally witnessed.

    So to say that the church is deliberately lying or deceiving people, or portraying a history that is "blatantly false" when they are simply going off different sources, is stupid.

    as i have already shown. the church's website on joseph smith quotes from the VERY SAME SOURCE from emma smith that i have quoted from. to say that they are using different sources "is stupid." appealling to supposed different sources to justify the church's portrayal "is stupid" because no sources back up the portrayal of joseph reading the plates like a book.

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  20. stace:

    i agree that these issues need not be troubling to those with faith, however, they often are very troubling. this is especially difficult when there has been so much rhetoric lately in having faith 'in the church'. when people feel like the church has been dishonest with them, it can be difficult for them. also, it's not just a matter of the church withholding things, but withholding things and replacing them with things that are not true.

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  21. Hey great article, and great discussion on it. Did you change your blogs name? Or is that just a recently inspired addition to your banner?

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  22. no sources back up the portrayal of joseph reading the plates like a book

    Joseph Smith himself wrote this, "[Martin Harris] returned to me and gave them to translate and I said I said [I] cannot for I am not learned but the Lord had prepared spectacles for to read the Book therefore I commenced translating the characters and thus the Prop[h]icy of Isah was fulfilled which is writen in the 29 chapter concerning the book." Papers of Joseph Smith 1:9

    And here's another for good measure:

    "[Oliver Cowdery] testified under oath, that said Smith found with the plates, from which he translated his book, two transparent stones, resembling glass, set in silver bows. That by looking through these, he was able to read in English, the reformed Egyptian characters, which were engraved on the plates." A. W. Benton, "Mormonites," Evangelical Magazine and Gospel Advocate n.s. 2:15(April 9, 101).

    When I said "different sources" I meant ones like these.

    The good thing about the "true" history of the church being on the internet is that you can find all versions of it :)

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  23. s.o.:

    i think it's funny that you are always trying to accuse me of playing semantic games. look at what you are doing. those quotes do not imply that joseph smith read the plates like a book (as depicted in josephsmith.net and church videos).

    neal a. maxwell and russell m. nelson have both affirmed in semi-private meetings that joseph smith used a hat. every historian who has studied the issue will assert that joseph smith used a hat. gordon b. hinckley knows joseph used a hat. you can't go off with your little word games to make different claims.

    elder oaks and elder packer have given talks on 'faithful history' where they both advocated only doing church history which does not raise questions about the church's 'official' portrayal of things. the church's inaccurate portrayal of history is just that plan put into action.

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  24. I'm glad you let anonymous comments be posted, because I like to leave comments but I'm way to lazy to create a blogger account just to do so...

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  25. You're wrong; the passages do imply that Joseph read the plates like a book. For example, one does not generally put on spectacles and then bury their face in a hat to "read a book." The passages do not flat out say that Joseph read the plates like a book, but it is implied in these quotes, and in numerous other sources. I bet if I spent more than the 10 seconds I did on google to find these, I would be able to find sources that did say he read the plates like a book.

    Furthermore, like Elder Maxwell and Elder Nelson, I do not deny that Joseph used a hat for some, most, or even all of the translation of the book of Mormon. And I already knew that historians do not discount it either, because if they discounted every contradictory, dated, or secondhand source they came across, they'd be called Current-Eventians. Historians look at everything and make an educated guess. This is why Bushman et al usually rely upon the David Whitmer account --most of the translation took place in his house, he had apostatized from the church had therefore had nothing to gain by sugar-coating the history, etc. etc. But on the other hand, he's trying to remember stuff that happened 50 years ago, he never personally participated in the process and bumbles a lot of the details, not to mention it contradicts other accounts. For historians, it's a judgement call.

    The main complaint I have here is that you're taking a discipline with very soft-edges and ill-defined boundaries and making very precise statements about an issue that is just not as clear-cut as you're making it out to be.

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  26. I agree with the narrator. The Joseph Smith quote and the A. W. Benton quote do not substantially imply that the translation was read directly from the plates. Both quotes can reasonably be interpreted that he read the translation from the seer stone which may or may not have been in a hat. Since no sources specifically exclude the hat the only reasonable conclusion to be made from all available sources (at least the ones here cited) is that Joseph Smith used a hat to allow his eyes to be dark adapted sufficiently to see the faint glow of the English translation which appeared upon the seer stone.

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  27. s.o.:

    You're wrong; the passages do imply that Joseph read the plates like a book.

    no. you have to add 'like a book' in order for it to mean that. by some of harris' other accounts, joseph smith transcribed symbols from the plates and placed those in the hat. there are NO accounts that joseph smith ever directly used the plates during translation. NOT A SINGLE ONE.

    I bet if I spent more than the 10 seconds I did on google to find these, I would be able to find sources that did say he read the plates like a book.

    well, you'd miracuosly find an account that no other historian has been able to find.

    This is why Bushman et al usually rely upon the David Whitmer account --most of the translation took place in his house, he had apostatized from the church had therefore had nothing to gain by sugar-coating the history, etc. etc. But on the other hand, he's trying to remember stuff that happened 50 years ago, he never personally participated in the process and bumbles a lot of the details, not to mention it contradicts other accounts.

    do you even read what i write, or just pull a farms act and selectively choose what you want to critique? as i have already shown, emma smith, joseph knight, and william smith all gave the same account of the process. the difference lies on what they believed joseph witnessed in the hat. they all confirmed the seerstones in the hat (the stones were often called urim and thummim as well).

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  28. s.o.: furthermore, all accounts of joseph using the urim and thummim (that were included with the plates) indicate that he used them like he used his seerstones: either buy placing them in a hat or cupping them in his hands to block out light.

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  29. no. you have to add 'like a book' in order for it to mean that.

    LOL! Let's try it out:

    "the Lord had prepared spectacles for to read the Book like a book"

    Is it just me, or is that a little redundant? The Oliver Cowdery account is less explicit, which brings us back to your claim that the Urim and Thummim were used the same way as the seerstone. This won't work, because, as you point out, the seerstone was often called a Urim and Thummim and vice versa (P.S. I don't deny that he may have used the U&T in a hat, either). Not only that, you take off with your absolutist language, which I have pointed out has no place in discussions on history:

    all accounts... indicate that he used them like he used his seerstones

    Joseph Smith's kid brother said "a double silver bow was twisted into the shape of the figure eight, and the two stones were placed literally between the two rims of a bow. At one end was attached a rod which was connected with the outer edge of the right shoulder of the breast-plate. By pressing the head a little forward, the rod held the Urim and Thummim before the eyes much like a pair of spectacles. A pocket was prepared in the breastplate on the left side, immediately over the heart. When not in use the Urim and Thummim was placed in this pocket, the rod being of just the right length to allow it to be so deposited. This instrument could, however, be detached from the breastplate and his brother said Joseph often wore it detached when away from home, but always used it in connection with the breastplate when receiving official communications, and usually so when translating as it permitted him to have both hands free to hold the plates."

    Elapsed time on google: 20 seconds.

    But according to datasurfer's standards, this doesn't count either, because I guess he could have been holding the plates in his hands, wearing the breastplate, his eyes up to the U&T, with his face buried in a hat, since it does not specifically say he did not use a hat.

    do you even read what i write, or just pull a farms act and selectively choose what you want to critique?

    I was just using Whitmer's account as an example since it is the most widely respected. IIRC, it's the only one Bushman even bothers to mention in RSR. I'm sure the other sources you cited here all have their various merits and demerits, too. If I cared, I would look at them and tell you what I thought they were, but I don't.

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  30. Joseph Smith's kid brother said...

    you quote this as though these were williams own words, when in fact they are stephen ricks rephrasing of j.w. peterson's rephrasing of his supposed interview with william smith.

    william actually said: "A silver bow ran over one stone, under the other, arround over that one and under the first in the shape of a horizontal figure 8 much like a pair of spectacles. That they were much too large for Joseph and he could only see through one at a time using sometimes one and sometimes the other. By putting his head in a hat or some dark object it was not necessary to close one eye while looking through the stone with the other. In that way sometimes when his eyes grew tired he releaved them of the strain. He also said the Urim and Thummim was attached to the breastplate by a rod which was fastened at the outer shoulder edge of the breastplate and to the end of the silver bow. This rod was just the right length so that when the Urim and thummim was removed from before the eyes it would reach to a pocked [pocket?] on the left side of the breastplate where the instrument was kept when not in use by the Seer. I was not informed whether it was detachable from the breastplate or not. From the fact that Joseph often had it with him and sometimes when at work, I am of the opinion that it could be detached. He also informed us that the rod served to hold it before the eyes of the Seer."

    this is still not an eyewitness account. rather it is, at the most, williams recollection of joseph's description sixty years later. joseph did not allow anyone to see the breast plates nor the urim and thummim.

    ricks conjecture that "it permitted him to have both hands free to hold the plates" is his own speculation and not from william's interview.

    keep googling.

    I was just using Whitmer's account as an example since it is the most widely respected

    whatever that means... i've actually seen emma's account more than whitmer's.

    [whitmer's account is] the only one Bushman even bothers to mention in RSR

    Actually, the account that bushman quotes is from joseph knight. also on page 578 bushman says: "The description of translation comes from Emma Smith, Oliver Cowdery, David Whitmer, Martin Harris, and William Smith..."

    I'm sure the other sources you cited here all have their various merits and demerits, too. If I cared, I would look at them and tell you what I thought they were, but I don't.

    well that explains your ignorance.

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  31. I've read five biographies of Joseph Smith and several other essays and books on the Book of Mormon, and I have to agree with Loyd (and Bushman and everyone else who has taken the time to study this) on the method of translation.

    Furthermore, I've concluded that the way Joseph Smith uses the word "translation" is a bit different than one might assume. Here's an example: What are the Joseph Smith "translations" in the King James Bible? Was he, like a linugist or scholar of ancient languages, literally looking at documents and interpreting them? No. What about the papyrus that become the Books of Abraham and Moses? Well, it turns out those weren't literal "translations" either.

    The way Joseph Smith "translated" then, seems to be by revelation not literal "translating" from one language to another. He wrote under the direction of divine inspiration, that's why he never even looked at the plates. That's also why large chunks of the Book of Mormon happen to be the exact same Queen's English passages as the King James Bible. Do people honestly think that a literal translation of the BOM would turn into identical wording as the Sermon on the Mount?

    All of this is not to say, of course, that the Book of Mormon, D&C, Pearl of Great Price, etc. aren't "true." But I agree with Loyd that it is an important distinction to understand.

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  32. You made me second guess myself; I gave up googling and hit the Gospelink archives. The "both hands free to hold the plates" is not Ricks' conjecture. It is in the quote. Ricks' article is formatted badly; that whole paragraph should be a blockquote.

    What I didn't notice before is that same article also has another quote which doesn't mention the hat:

    Oliver Cowdery according to Samuel Richards: "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."

    this is still not an eyewitness account.

    I'm not pretending that any of these accounts are any more correct than the others. I'm just using them to torpedo your ridiculous claim that zero accounts mention involvement of the plates.

    well that explains your ignorance.

    Don't be a dick.

    PS - The Gospelink article also had Emma's eyewitness description of breastplate.

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  33. Correction: that previous comment should read "a quote" that does not mention the hat" instead of "another quote," since the complete version of it does mention said hat.

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  34. Loyd, I appreciate both of your purposes in this post--asking the title question and giving an example of something which would create confusion (as it certainly has). Unfortunately the one has confounded the other and your main point has been missed.

    I think the Church will continue to provide milk-history before meat-history indefinitely, and will leave the rest to "scholars, anti-mormons, history buffs," as well as more mature and/or inquisitive members.

    Milk-history is not unique to the Church. Contrast stories of Columbus from when you were in grade school to those from college, for example. How long can schools (universities too) maintain an inaccurate (aka simplified?)portrayal of history? As long as there is a need or desire to provide an unnuanced perspective. There's my answer.

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  35. The "both hands free to hold the plates" is not Ricks' conjecture. It is in the quote. Ricks' article is formatted badly; that whole paragraph should be a blockquote.

    if not rick's conjecture, then it is peterson's and pendor's conjecture which peterson wrote almost forty years after their interview. william smith did not make that claim in his interview with them.

    Oliver Cowdery according to Samuel Richards...

    richard anderson (who wrote the article which ricks sites as his source) says this about the oliver richard account: "One document explicitly says that the translator placed the Urim and Thummim over the characters on the plates, though it must be judged with great caution. . . . . it is doubtful whether Samuel Richards could quote Oliver accurately in 1907, fifty-nine years after their intimate visit. In fact, he continued the above statement by picturing Oliver Cowdery as successfully translating himself, thus learning how Joseph Smith performed that work. But the contemporary revelation to Oliver Cowdery says the opposite."

    I'm just using them to torpedo your ridiculous claim that zero accounts mention involvement of the plates.

    ok. so you have one account of a guy who's testimony of oliver's account to him is highly questioned and doubted by historians, and another account of an interview with william smith purporting to say things which smith did not in fact say.

    keep googling, or gospelling, or whatever.

    >>well that explains your ignorance.

    Don't be a dick.


    you are the one blasting me, questioning my sources, claiming 'different sources' and a bunch of other silliness when you admit yourself that you have not even checked on what i was quoting. you yourself admitted your ignorance.

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  36. I think the Church will continue to provide milk-history before meat-history indefinitely, and will leave the rest to "scholars, anti-mormons, history buffs," as well as more mature and/or inquisitive members.

    you may be right russ, though i think more along the lines of johnny. while 30 years ago this may have been an adequate description, i don't think such is the case anymore. i think the gap between the church's public-relations-driven version of history and the scholarly (or even anti-mormon) version has gotten much bigger. 30 years ago the church was much more open to these things (as evidenced by magazine articles). the church today has a very different approach to history and education, basically a "this is the truth and don't waver from it" approach. furthermore, with the church's correlated curriculum (sunday and ces), website, movies, and etc the church is presenting it's version of history more and more as the "this is the truth and don't waver from it."

    as i have mentioned, another problem is that the church today presents certain aspects of it's version of history as being a foundational truth that the restoration rests on. (like the 1829 m. priesthood restoration). also the church presents the restoration (and the church today) as a solid unchanging system that is relatively the same today as it was 170 years ago. this is far far far from the actual case. i think these sorts of things can become even more problematic (as well as the "what else are they hiding/lying about?" fear).

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  37. keep googling, or gospelling, or whatever.

    This has been my point the whole time. All of the historical sources suck; you cannot say hardly anything about them is absolute or definitive.

    You wholeheartedly embrace David Whitmer's account which is also 50+ years old and gets other details wrong, but you are quick to point out Anderson's assessment that Richards' account is unreliable because it is old and gets other details wrong. It's the SAME situation, and that's why I will have about as much luck convincing you of Richards' account as you will have convincing me of Whitmer's. This is why "History is more or less bunk."

    And you're still speaking sooo definitively, which baffles me to no end:

    william smith did not make that claim in his interview with them.

    How do you know this? How can you possibly know this? Your training as an anal-retentive philosopher is failing you.

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  38. Russ,

    Milk-history is not unique to the Church. Contrast stories of Columbus from when you were in grade school to those from college, for example. How long can schools (universities too) maintain an inaccurate (aka simplified?)portrayal of history?

    I think you hit on a wonderful corollary. Hmmm…why are we presented with an inaccurate American history?
    a) Young adults are too simple minded for the truth.
    b) History is all bunk.
    c) It would raise a lot of questions about the status quo and those who are currently in power.

    I pick c. As you said I think the same reasoning applies to church history.

    s.o,

    When I was in high school I had your definition of lying. But my Mom didn’t buy it, she had this crazy idea that withholding important information was deceptive.

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  39. All of the historical sources suck; you cannot say hardly anything about them is absolute or definitive.

    i don't want to jump into a debate on epistemology, but that's the everything. that's why historians have established a methodology for qualifying historical evidence.

    You wholeheartedly embrace David Whitmer's account which is also 50+ years old and gets other details wrong, but you are quick to point out Anderson's assessment that Richards' account is unreliable because it is old and gets other details wrong. It's the SAME situation, and that's why I will have about as much luck convincing you of Richards' account as you will have convincing me of Whitmer's.

    this is problematic on so many levels. first of all, i do no "embrace" davd whitmer's account "wholeheartedly." second, you seem to constantly ignore (which you admitted) that there are a several other witnesses who corroborate with whitmer who i have been appealing to even more (knight, emma, william). as i have already pointed out, knight's testimony was written between 1833 and 1847. this is the account i have turned to the most (as most other historians have turned to lately) because it is the earliest account. third, you constantly seem to ignore that there is a huge difference between someone recollecting what they have purportedly personally seen (the seerstones and hat being used for translation) and what they could not have seen (what goes on inside the hat, urim and thummim, plates, breastplate). this difference increases over time. accepting whitmer's account and accepting richards account are not the "SAME situation." the former was an eyewitness account corroborated with other eyewitnesses accounts, the latter is at the most a second-hand account uncorroborated with other accounts. maybe there is some wisdom to that 'two or three witnesses' thing.

    >>william smith did not make that claim in his interview with them.

    How do you know this? How can you possibly know this? Your training as an anal-retentive philosopher is failing you.


    ummm. because the transcript of this interview does not say it. there isn't much philosophical training needed to see this. again, i don't want to go into a debate on episemology, but most people will agree that if person A tells person B x,y,z and if B claims that A said w,x,y,z that B is wrong about A claiming w.

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  40. correction: my first paragraph should read:

    "i don't want to jump into a debate on epistemology, but that's why historians have established a methodology for qualifying historical evidence."

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  41. i don't want to jump into a debate on epistemology...

    And yet, epistemology is the focus of the only point I've been trying to make this whole time.

    It only took you half a dozen comments to figure it out. Well played.

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  42. s.o.:

    And yet, epistemology is the focus of the only point I've been trying to make this whole time.

    It only took you half a dozen comments to figure it out. Well played.


    i didn't take any time to figure it out, because it's too stupid of debate to go into. philosophers have been discussing epistemology since philosophy began. if you want to appeal to the vagueness of knowledge, then go ahead. you can also smear poop on your face as well because neither is practical in our society.

    what is the point of all your tangents anyways? the premises of my question still hold.

    i'll make it as simple as possible for you:

    1 - the church of jesus christ of latterday saints created a website josephsmith.net and several movies to show to members and non-members different aspects of church history.
    2 - in the section of the website of how joseph smith translated the plates, the site has four images and a video deptivting joseph smith reading the plates like a book.
    3 - any idiot looking at these would understand that the church is portraying that joseph smith translated the plates in this manner.
    4 - joseph smith did not translate the plates in this manner (or at least there is no historical basis to make this conclusion)
    5- EVERY account of the process which describes a method does not describe joseph smith reading the plates like a book. even if we accept your second-hand accounts, every account depicts joseph looking into the u&t or seerstones and not directly looking at the plates.
    6 - the church is portraying an inaccurate version of its history
    7 - when some people coem across this (and similar) bits of history, it can hurt their faith
    7a - because they can't deal with the history
    7b - because they feel like the church has lied to them
    8 - more accurate versions of church history are becoming more available to common members through the internet and literature
    9 - more people are going to face #7
    10 - the church has an issue of church history it will have to face.
    11 - how long will it take, if ever?

    this is the issue. i really don't care about discussing theories of knowledge. if you disagree with one of the above premises let me know. if you think that the above is irrelevant because the great epistemological questions have been solved, then you can go around wondering if you really have a brain and how you might know it. have fun.

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  43. Excuse me while I choke on the irony of a UVSC philosophy major instructing me on what is or isn't "practical in our society." At least when I graduate, my diploma will be worth more than a Chili's gift certificate.

    what is the point of all your tangents anyways?

    Well, it seems as though you haven't figured it out yet after all. My only point was, in essence, don't be so frickin' dogmatic.

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  44. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

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  45. Wow. You've stirred up quite a discussion with this one. S.O.(B.) seems a little eager to argue even to the extent of person insults rather than admit any point, but other than that a few people have made some great points. Here's what I think.

    I think that Russ makes a good point with the ideas of "milk-history" and "meat-history." I don't think there's necessarily anything wrong with choosing what level of detail to present depending on the audience.

    Johnny's analysis of the motives for the "milk-history" is good, but maybe a generalization. Regardless of the topic and the audience, the idea of selectively giving detail is certainly motivated by wanting to limit the conclusions that the audience can draw from the information. That could be, as Johnny suggests, to keep them from questioning certain authority, but it could also be simply to avoid distracting from the message of the information. For example, I'm a fan of the newer video of the first vision that doesn't show Joseph being attacked by dark powers, because I think that is hard to represent in a video and it becomes confusing and distracting. I think it's fine that they leave that out from the video-version.

    The difference between the translation story and the first vision video is that the first vision is a selective rendition, and not an alternate rendition. Would it still be ok to cater the message to your audience (even assuming that your motives were not manipulative) if that meant presenting falsehoods instead of limiting the presentation? Or if it meant denying or limiting access to the "meat-history"?

    I also recognize that the point is not whether or not the Church has misrepresented its history or if they are justified in doing so. The issue with the seerstones and translation is only one example of an issue that extends to things not even relating to Church history, such as President Hinckley being indecisive about the existence of Heavenly Mother, and tip-toeing around the homosexuality issue by claiming that it is only an issue of morality.

    I think the bigger issue is that the Church seems more concerned with having good P.R. than with embracing the truth. Maybe a corollary question to "how much longer..." is "how long has the Church been...?" I don't really know the answer to this question, and maybe it varies depending on the issue, but Heather's comment from the Friend indicates that at least on the translation story, it hasn't been forever.

    As Heather's comment showed with the quote from the Friend, it's not like this was always avoided or considered taboo, but rather the decision to show an altered version of the translation story is one that current (or recent) Church administration has made.

    As I see it, the underlying problem with current Church leadership that leads to these issues, is that they are so eager to help people believe that the Church is "true", that they promote the interpretation of "true" as "beyond reproach," rather than "of God" (which I think is a more accurate interpretation of what is meant by "true"). The result is that we end up running from truth instead of embracing it, all the while worried about how this is going to affect the Church's image, both to its members and the public in general.

    Ok, sorry this is long. I've been sitting here trying to think of a nice statement to wrap up my point, but I don't have one. Sorry. (And yes, I'm a retard and it took me two tries to post this.)

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  46. Excuse me while I choke on the irony of a UVSC philosophy major instructing me on what is or isn't "practical in our society." At least when I graduate, my diploma will be worth more than a Chili's gift certificate.

    i see now that you've given up on giving problematic critiques and turned to mere personal attacks. because i see education as having value outside of its potential economic return, i frankly don't give a moon pie about how much your education will pay you back. furthermore. since you've decided to turn to personal attacks, i'll just add that the only problem i have with chilis gift certificates is thatit's difficult for your mom to figure out the change she owes me after a night of services.

    My only point was, in essence, don't be so frickin' dogmatic.

    ummm. is that what you call people when you admittingly ignore the evidence they are utilizing?

    s.o., i used to appreciate your comments. however, if you are just going to throw personal attacks at me, please just don't comment at all.

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  47. In the last paragraph of Loyd’s original post he says, “how much longer can the church maintain an inaccurate portrayal of its history? it seems that eventually the divide between the church’s version of history and more accurate versions will be so glaringly obvious that the church will need to deal with it.”

    I don’t know about that. I think the church—or perhaps the culture of the church—has cultivated a following of people whose testimonies are tied so strongly to the PR-version of the church that they will stop at nothing to defend it. Anonymous’s original comment (“What’s your point? …who cares?”) gives us a glimpse into this way of thinking. The fact that S.O. is so blind to his own dogma is yet another example. That he could think the two quotes he gave in a previous comment prove that Joseph read the plates like a book, but not admit that there is room for other interpretations, further illustrates the tendency for some members’ unwillingness to think critically about these issues. It doesn’t seem to matter how “glaringly obvious” the divide becomes.

    People tend to be more comfortable with NOT questioning and NOT caring. It takes a lot of work and thought to be a member who critically considers why the church would feel the need to change history. It’s even more difficult to be a member who realizes that the church truly does gloss over the murky bits of Mormon history, all the while keeping his or her testimony in tact. On the other hand, it’s easy to be a member who allows feel-good folklore/history to pass as fact even when there is scanty evidence to back it up.

    Maybe I’m just being pessimistic because I just finished reading Orwell’s 1984, but to answer Loyd’s original question “how much longer can the church maintain an inaccurate portrayal of its history?”, I’d venture to say: a very long time. It’s reassuring to see blogs like this and see the publication of books like Rough Stone Rolling, because it shows that honest dialogue is beginning to flow. But at the same time, it’s hard to compete with the easy comfort of convenient histories and traditions.

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  48. kel:

    that kind of talk scares me. replace 'the church' with 'big brother' in happy valley testimonies and religious discussions and you pretty much have half the script for a 1984 movie (ex. 'i know that big brother is true' 'big brother teaches that...' 'big brother discourageous us from...' 'big brother teaches us the important of obedience' etc). replace 'the prophet' with 'big brother' and it gets even worse.

    i've noticed that when people notice these things there is a tendency to compartmentalize them in the back of their mind where it is largely ignored an unquestioned.

    my point is maybe you are right, perhaps big brother... err.. the church has trained its members too well.

    i still have hope that such isn't the case.

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  49. S.O.(B.) seems a little eager to argue even to the extent of person insults rather than admit any point

    That he could think the two quotes he gave in a previous comment prove that Joseph read the plates like a book, but not admit that there is room for other interpretations, further illustrates the tendency for some members’ unwillingness to think critically about these issues.

    Allow me to quote myself: "...I do not deny that Joseph used a hat for some, most, or even all of the translation of the book of Mormon." You can re-read the whole discussion if you are unclear as to why I brought up the quotes I did.

    If you don't like being attacked personally, don't call me ignorant, don't imply that I'm an idiot, and don't compare my ideas to smearing poop on one's face.

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  50. If you don't like being attacked personally, don't call me ignorant,...

    then don't admit of being ignorant: "I'm sure the other sources you cited here all have their various merits and demerits, too. If I cared, I would look at them and tell you what I thought they were, but I don't."

    ...don't imply that I'm an idiot,...

    i'm just pointing out big problems in your criticisms and approach. you are the one implying things from them.

    don't compare my ideas to smearing poop on one's face.

    i was comparing the social practicality of appealing to deep epistemological uncertainty to the social practicality of walking around with poop smeared on your face. they both just don't work in society. you can't go around in the real world questioning knowledge.

    me: how many fingers do you have on your left hand?
    you: i don't know. i count five, but does that mean i know it? how do i know i am not imagining my pinky or middle finger? am i dreaming? are these fingers really there? how do i know that there is actually light reflecting off my head and hitting my eyes? can i trust my retinas?
    me: go smear poop on your face. you are already lost in this world.

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  51. you can't go around in the real world questioning knowledge.

    No kidding. But historical conclusions, especially those drawn from 19th century sources, hardly constitute the same kind of knowledge gained from things like counting fingers on your own hand.

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  52. s.o.:

    different methodology, but same correlation to methodology.

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  53. I don’t know about that. I think the church—or perhaps the culture of the church—has cultivated a following of people whose testimonies are tied so strongly to the PR-version of the church that they will stop at nothing to defend it.

    Unfortunately, I think this summation is painfully accurate. The Joseph Smith portrayed in Church-published media is not the real Joseph, at least not entirely. He's a polished-up, PR-friendly Joseph that seems almost entirely devoid of the less glorious but human elements of his life. What worries me is that, frequently, this is the Joseph Smith of whom zealous testimonies are born on Sunday. This isn't just the Joseph Smith we present to the world, it's the Joseph Smith that many Latter-day Saints love and revere. Frankly, many of these Saints' faith would be shaken, at least a little bit, if they were aware of some of the more colorful details of Joseph's life.

    As Kel observed, in our culture, the testimonies of many Latter-day Saints are tied to this version of Joseph Smith and Church history. This makes it difficult to approach and present his history in an objective manner.

    I don't mean to be sacreligious, but it reminds me of the Simpsons episode where Lisa discovers that Jebediah Springfield is not all he's cracked up to be. In the end, she can't bring herself to reveal the truth because of the harm it would do the town. The leaders of the Church may find themselves in a similar situation.

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  54. I don't mean to be sacreligious, but it reminds me of the Simpsons episode where Lisa discovers that Jebediah Springfield is not all he's cracked up to be. In the end, she can't bring herself to reveal the truth because of the harm it would do the town.

    i can't believe i haven't thought of that episode. thanks.

    The leaders of the Church may find themselves in a similar situation.

    boyd k. packer told byu professors and ces instructors to avoid honest history for this very reason in his talk, "The Mantle Is Far, Far Greater Than The Intellect"

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  55. I just read through Packer's talk.

    I'm all for faith-building. I'm against fault-finding for the sake of tearing somebody down.

    But I don't think misrepresenting or underrepresenting history is justifiable on the grounds that the truth might affect the way we view the Church or those we revere within the Church.

    Some historical details are, as Packer points out, irrelevant and unhelpful. But others really are relevant, and by concealing these, we're preventing members of the Church from making objective decisions and judgments regarding Church history (all while we preach an allegiance to and respect for objectivity).

    I also have issues with the "milk before meat" argument. I agree with the principle, but in practice, we are full of milk, and indefinitely withold the meat. Much of the meat receives no attention in official Church publications.

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  56. Wow. Some great stuff here. I'm not as philisophical or maybe even as smart as most of you who comment on here, but let me throw in my two cents worth.

    I am a convert of two years. I was introduced by a member here in Utah (I was in Wisconsin at the time) who literally cried whenever I tried to ask questions about things in the history that didn't go along with what the church would openly admit to.

    I had some really good missionaires, however. I remember, after reading so many things that just screamed, the church is lying to me, something one of them told me. Something along the lines of:
    The church is true. The gospel is true. Everything else is out there to make the church work. He put it much more elequently, and gave many supporting examples, most that I can't remember. It hit my like a ton of bricks. I knew I should get baptized, that was an important step I couldn't put off any longer. The rest of it would come later.

    Sorry if this makes me sounds dumb, but I felt like throwing something in the mix.

    By the way, the Chili's gift certificate thing was freaking hilarious. :-D


    As for the answer to the question, I don't think the church can ever stray from what it does now. What would it do to the life-long member that cries when I bring this stuff up? How many members are like that? They may have strong testimonies, but HOW strong? I don't know if many of the member's testimonies are strong enough.

    But what do I know?

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  57. I know I'm late to the party here, but this post http://www.bycommonconsent.com/2006/09/secret-or-sacred/#more-2099 at bcc and the discussion following seems related.

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