Monday, March 09, 2009

A gross portrayal of Church history?

I have major issues with the LDS Church's (largely anonymous) Newsroom commentaries. In response to the upcoming Big Love episode they released a commentary which can be read here:

While I agree with some of the content of the commentary, I find some of it laughable. For example, they refer to South Park's "All About the Mormons" episode as "a gross portrayal of Church history." Oh really?

Here is something from a blog post I wrote a while back.


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 "gross portrayal of Church history"?

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


Compare the following images from the Church's official website about Joseph Smith with historical 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 LDS 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.


  1. I see your point. I'll admit I was a little surprised when I read RRS and discovered that J.S. actually looked into his hat to translate.

    However, I think the church newsroom was justified in calling the South Park episode a "gross portrayal." When a show takes information, albeit historical information, and presents it as ridiculous and comical - it IS a gross portrayal - or in other words a coarse representation of the facts. The writers admitted in the commentary that they found mormon beliefs to be laughable, and the undertones in the episode cannot be mistaken.

    Furthermore, some of the information actually wasn't even historically accurate. Like the assumption that Mrs. Harris hid the transcripts to test Joseph. While most other information was "true", the way in which it was presented was malicious and crude. In fact, I can't think of a better phrase than "gross portrayal."

  2. Matt and Trey's point was that any religious belief from the view of an outside is going to seem odd and ridiculous. Mormonism, from the modern Christian and secular view is going to seem ridiculous no matter what without faith. As Terryl Givens said a couple nights ago about the weirdness of Mormonism, "Once you believe in golden plates, you are already there."

    In talking with friends and others, by far the most pointed to aspect of the episode that they say was 'way off' was the use of the hat - the very part they actually got right (among other things).

  3. You seem to be interpreting "gross portrayal" to mean "misportrayal" -- not sure if that is what the Newsroom meant. There is no effort on the part of the Church to actively disclaim that most of the translation was done by Joseph Smith looking into a seer stone in his hat and pulling the hat closed around his face to omit the outside light; in fact, Russell Nelson quoted David Whitmer and Emma Smith about this method in an Ensign article about the miraculous translation of the Book of Mormon.

    It is true that the Church chose to depict Joseph Smith translating directly from the plates in a scene in the Joseph Smith movie but I am not sure that the Church intended to imply that this was the only method of translating the Book of Mormon. It would have been really cool for us history buffs if they had chosen to portray him looking into the seer stone in his hat but it might not have worked as well artistically/dramatically.

    I am not sure that when the Newsroom piece referred to the South Park episode as a "gross portrayal" it was because of the depiction of the seer stone in the hat. First, the piece doesn't say "misportrayal" so it is not necessarily claiming that the South Park episode inaccurate. However, I think that it can accurately be described as a "gross portrayal" because the portrayal was in the nature of making fun of Mormon religion and origins. You absolve the South Park creators by saying that their intent is to show that all religions look ridiculous from the outside and I commend you for being so open-minded about accepting a cartoon that has ridiculed beliefs that are held sacred by other Mormons. I think you might be expecting too much to expect other Mormons to not be bothered by seeing the mocking manner in which the South Park episode portrayed our history.

    For what it's worth, I am with you on the South Park episode to the extent that I thought it was great and got a great laugh out of it. Where I differ from you is that I don't ascribe noble intentions to South Park's creators in mocking us. I just laughed out of an irrepresible sense of schadenfreude. It was brilliant. I also differ from you in disagreeing with the Newsroom's use of the word "gross portrayal" to describe it. It was in fact a gross portrayal of our origins and history and that is what South Park's creators meant it to be. To Mormons' credit, no one started burning down Danish embassies and calling for decapitations after the episode aired.

    The same will be true of the Big Love episode. No one has to see the episode to be sad/disappointed/repulsed that they are going to be depicting the temple ceremony in the first place. You have expressed that you are more enlightened than the rest of the Mormons who are depressed about this but you expect too much to ask that Mormons not be disturbed by this treatment of those things that are most holy to them.

    Having said that, I agree with you on this point as well -- that Mormons should not protest or send angry letters or do anything at all in response to this. That would only backfire and look foolish. I agree with you that the Newsroom piece is a bit ham-fisted, especially the way it lists those examples. That was not artfully done.

  4. Thanks for the comment john f.,

    I don't think the Newsroom was specifically referring to the use of the hat as being the 'gross portrayal.' I sometimes wonder if the Newsroom even knows what it is commenting on at times. It is for this and many other reasons that I am highly suspicious of the Newsroom and see it as just an outlet for hired publicists for the Church.

    A few months ago I asked Church Historian Elder Marlin K. Jensen about the lack of historical accuracy in Church productions and manuals. He replied that in the last couple decades there has been virtually no communication between the Church's curriculum and film departments with the historical department, and that rather than going to historians they have rather depended on historical myths that the culture of the Church has developed over the years.

    As an example, he pointed out that the makers of the new Joseph Smith movie did not communicate with the Church History department until nearly all of the filming had been completely. When they saw a rough cut of the film, it was "full of bad history." He said that unfortunately at that point, too much money had been spent and that significant changes could not be made to the film.

    One of his primary goals as the new Church Historian is to develop a level of communication between the curriculum, media, and PR departments with the history department to try to get so many of our historical myths corrected.

  5. I’m a big fan of South Park and view them as perhaps the smartest social commentary on television today (along with the Daily Show), so my perceptions of the intents of Matt Stone and Trey Parker are probably a bit biased.

  6. Is it okay if I agree with this post but point out that Joseph Smith in fact translated without the aid of the Urim and Thummim (and presumably the hat) by the end of the translation process?

  7. That's a myth Soxy. Joseph lost the Urim and Thummim after the whole Lucy Harris incident. The entirety of the text of the BofM we have today was translated using one of two seer stones Joseph had acquired. There is no historical claim anywhere that Joseph did any translating without the aid of seerstones. One of David Whitmer's criticisms of Joseph Smith in the later 1830s was that Joseph had begun to not use the seerstones

  8. Forgive me for propagating the myth:

    "Whatever the details of the process, it required Joseph’s intense, personal efforts along with the aid of the revelatory instruments. The process may have varied as Joseph’s capabilities grew, involving the Urim and Thummim but perhaps with less reliance upon such instrumentalities in the Prophet’s later work of translation. Elder Orson Pratt of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles said Joseph Smith told him that he used the Urim and Thummim when he was inexperienced at translation but that later he did not need it, which was the case in Joseph’s translation of many verses of the Bible (see Latter-day Saints’ Millennial Star, 11 Aug. 1874, 498–99)."

    -Neal A Maxwell

  9. Soxy,

    what is the purpose of your quote? Joseph lost the Urim and Thummim because of the Lucy Harris incident. Some (mistakingly) referred to Joseph's seerstones as a Urim and Thummim, but they were not the same instruments Joseph received with the plates.

    There is not a single historical claim of Joseph translating the plates in the manner depicted in the paintings.

    Orson Pratt does point out that Joseph in the 1830s began to use the seerstones less and less... and that was the very reason that David Whitmer pointed to as evidence that Joseph was a fallen prophet.

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

  11. Haha, my last post was not family-friendly, or even appropriate, and I apologize.

    So let me sum up:

    There was no point beyond that which was explicitly stated. Joseph didn't always translate with the aid of U&T or seer stones. That's all. Good day.

  12. ...and by "translate" I did not and do not mean "translate the Book of Mormon."

  13. Joseph Smith, Rough Stone Rolling it says (pg. 142) that Joseph "gave up the Urim and Thummim". Is this fact, or did he lose them and never regain them? Elaine

  14. Elaine,

    I'll have to check out my copy when I get home on Friday. From what I remember, Joseph did not get the Urim and Thumimm back after he had to give them to Moroni (with the plates) after the Lucy Harris incident.

  15. Ahh, I might have to do my own post. Maybe. You did so well here. (and I'm sick, so if this doesn't make sense, consider yourselves forewarned :)

    I saw the South Park episode probably a month ago and was FLOORED by its accuracy. Was it 100%? No. But it was largely accurate. And, for South Park, very respectful.

    Knowing South Park, they're allowing the truth to speak for itself. It really is a great satire.

    (please don't construe this to mean that I agree or am comfortable with every episode or their methods)

    The thing is, as I was watching this I was waiting for the punchline. The other shoe to drop. They did well - and I did know about the hat beforehand (just recently learned about it) and wouldn't be surprised if very few LDS know.

    It's weird. True or not, it is weird.

    And actually, if you read about it, Joseph Smith rarely looked at the plates as he translated. I couldn't say about whether or not this changed at all toward the end though, and that would be of interest.

    Loyd, I just finished reading your commentary on the Newsroom's reaction to the Big Love controversy and I have to say: agreed. I didn't catch the nuances you did, especially the anonymity and generality of what is said.

    Just the "A boycott would certainly be effective, but don't say we told you that *wink*"

    Like I've said elsewhere, I know the Church has the Newsroom as their way to get their stories out uncut and unbiased, free from the blasted liberal, anti-mormon media spin.

    That said, I do find the media's version often more palatable for many of the reasons you stated here.

  16. guess the church realizes how weird it seems to be burying your face into a hat looking for the word of god. i believe joseph translated the book of mormon by the power of god, but picturing him with his face in a hat is VERY laughable!


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