Saturday, December 28, 2013

Problems in exemplary Event Analysis

In his book History of Mormonism (1834), E. D. Howe reports the following deposition of Abigail Harris, regarding a conversation she had with Lucy Smith (née Mack), mother of prophet Joseph Smith Jr, probably in the Summer of 1828, right after Joseph and Emma's first child was still-born (though this is not evident from the deposition).
The old lady [i.e. Lucy Smith, RCK] took me into another room [of Martin Harris' house, where the Smiths and Abigail Harris were visiting, RCK], and after closing the door, she said, "have you four or five dollars in money that you can lend until our business [i.e. the publication of the Book of Mormon, which the Smith Srs expected to be a money maker, RCK] is brought to a close ? the spirit has said that you shall receive four fold." I told her that when I gave, I did it not expecting to receive again---as for money I had none to lend. I then asked her what her particular want of money was ; to which she replied, "Joseph [Smith Jr, RCK] wants to take the stage and come home [to Manchester/Palmyra, RCK] from [Harmony, RCK] Pennsylvania to see what we are all about." To which I replied, he might look in his stone and save his time and money. The old lady seemed confused, and left the room, and thus ended the visit. [p.254]
We are not concerned here whether this event happened or not, and whether some of the presuppositions that the deposition makes---e.g. that the Smiths were expecting to make money with the Book of Mormon---are true or not. We merely assume that the story is understandable to its contemporaries, i.e. exhibits habitual stances and behaviors.

If this is so, then there are aspects to this event that we in the 21st century still can readily understand.

  • Since Lucy wants to talk with Abigail in private, they go into another room (even though it is in someone else's house) and close the door; both actions minimize eavesdropping.
  • Since Lucy wants to talk with Abigail about borrowing money, it is appropriate for her to want privacy.
  • Lucy wants to borrow money until the expected arrival time of a successful business venture.
  • Lucy wants to sweeten the deal with the promise of 400% of interest.
  • Abigail rejects the notion of lending on interest.
  • Abigail has no money to borrow.
  • If rejecting a lending request, it is appropriate to see if the underlying problem that caused the request can be resolved in some other fashion.
  • People want to know how their families are doing by visiting with them.
  • Mothers want their sons to come visit.
  • The stage coach from Harmony, Pennsylvania, to Manchester/Palmyra, New York, cost around four to five dollars.
  • An unnecessary trip is wasteful in terms of time and money.
  • Seers are supposed to be able to see other information than mere mortals.
Some things we simply do not know from this information.
  1. Was four to five dollars a lot of money in general in 1828?
  2. Was it reasonable to ask for support for a stage coach trip, or where there cheaper alternate modes of travel that would have been better to ask to support?
  3. How much of the money would have gone to the fare? Where there other expenses that Smith Jr would have been expected to pay from this money (thus lowering the part allocated for the coach), e.g. dinner at an inn along the way, etc? 
  4. When could Smith Jr pay for the stage coach trip? How was he supposed to get the money if he had to pay up front? Was it possible to pay upon his arrival in Manchester/Palmyra, NY, or to pay with a promissory note realized at arrival time?
  5. Is the refusal to accept 400% interest a general aversion to usury, possibly even on religious grounds, or part of the strategy for rejecting this particular lending request?
  6. How is Abigail's comment about the seer stone to be interpreted? Was she going for levity or wit? Was she insulted by the request and responded in a way that expressed her discomfort? Notice that Lucy Smith seemed confused about how to take it as well, but her leaving the room could suggest that she felt mocked.
Questions #1 to #4 have to do with a general lack of knowledge about the times of 1828. Research into general information about prices in 1828 for question #1 and travel modalities and procedures for #2 through #4 would allow us to understand those part better. 
Question #5 requires information about moral attitudes, and religious discourse about these attitudes, to make progress on. Question #6 requires more biographical information about Abigail, though some knowledge about acceptable attitudes could be helpful as well.

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