Thursday, February 20, 2014

Apologetic Argumentation in LDS research

While reading Days Never to be Forgotten, a retrospective on Oliver Cowdery, at the BYU Religious Studies Center website, I was struck by the subtle ways in which argumentation structures are used to plead for that alternate reality where the claims of the Book of Mormons, its translators and scribes and witnesses, and the early LDS are accepted. The general strategy is to boil it down to a "my belief--your belief" setup, where belief is no more than personal taste, which can then be left as un-disputable.

There are multiple objections to raise to this, and I would like to take them in order.

The Death Grip of the "historical" Old Testament

Let me be upfront in saying that I believe that the most damning problems of the LDS position are all upstream from the Book of Mormon itself, in the Old Testament. It is not necessarily a question of the details of what the geography of the Americas looked like in the 7th century BC, it is that the entire OT background of the Tower of Babel and the Lost Tribes are untenable. Without a historically valid OT and its prophecies as something that is still to happen, none of the Biblical primitivism that fuels the prophetic expectations is sustainable. No Tower of Babel, no Jaredites, no BoM as a holistically valid depiction of events in the Americas whenever.

The expectations that OT texts engendered up to the 19th century when Joseph Smith Jr began his work are comparable to the Middle Age expectations of finding the Christian king Presbyter Johannes and overpowering the Tartars, Mongols or Islam through an alliance with him. (Yes, the fact that Joseph Smith Jr did not foresee the damning effects of historical criticism on the OT are a problem for his status as a prophet, but he can have that one as a freebie.)

Notice that this is not a question of whether individual passages in the OT can be salvaged as aligning with the fragmentary record of modern archaeological research. The BoM treats the OT as holistically historically accurate, which it is not, and as a result the BoM is not holistically historically accurate. At present, I do not see how to escape this conclusion.

The Contraction of Reality and Interpretation

Royal Skousen in his discussion of Oliver Cowdery as a scribe has this nice little case from Alma 45:21, where Cowdery, in Skousen's interpretation, fell asleep while writing, thus producing a nonsense sentence fragment. For the purposes of my argument it is irrelevant whether Skousen's analysis is correct or not. The point is that Cowdery heard "they had become exceeding dissenting" and wrote that down. From the point of view of the current text, this was a mistake, and we have an accompanying story: Oliver misheard, was exhausted, whatever. At the point of time when it happened, it was Cowdery's best interpretation of what reality was. The fact that the time T between the shift in interpretation was small is not in itself interesting. Skousen believes that the crossing-out took place immediately, but provides no evidence for that; Skousen's assumption that Joseph Smith Jr had to discharge his translation buffer before they could stop their work for a break only is a blemish on the translation infrastructure and an insult to God's intelligence.

Fast-forward to Stephen C. Harper's discussion of Cowdery's restoration of the priesthood. Harper's statement is worth quoting in full:
I have learned that Oliver Cowdery testified repeatedly that he received priesthood from ministering angels. I believe him. I will use his statements to describe his experiences. Richard L. Anderson wrote that “a careful search of authentic documents on his life discloses an impressive number of declarations on priesthood restoration. These were made during his career in the Church as its second priesthood officer, in the midst of his personal trials and resentments outside of its organization, at his final reconciliation with the Church, and at the closing moments of his life. One may choose to disbelieve such testimony, but no informed person can deny that it exists.”[1] I will review these documents so that all who read will be informed persons. The choice whether to believe Oliver will then be fully yours. I am conscious of his contemporaries and ours who have not believed him. My point is not to prove or disprove that Oliver Cowdery was ordained by angels. I have no more power to prove than unbelievers have to disprove. Any statement affirming or denying his testimony is not proof, but an expression of belief or unbelief. I will simply rehearse and situate his witness historically. And as we remember his bicentennial, I wish to celebrate his testimony and declare that I believe him.
I start with the common ground: Richard L. Anderson is right in noting that Cowdery repeated his declaration of receiving priesthood from ministering angels through-out his life, when he was in the Church, and when he was outside. Anderson terms such declarations "testimony", Harper follows him here, and I can live with that terminology. The main thing this tells me is that Oliver was most likely sincere in his belief that he received the priesthood from ministering angels, that it reflected his personal convictions.

But now things become tricky, for Harper continues, "My point is not to prove or disprove that Oliver Cowdery was ordained by angels." I accept this statement with some weariness. First off, I am not sure what difference this makes for a historical reconstruction of Cowdery. Secondly, we were just talking about his testimony, his own beliefs; why are we now talking about how his beliefs match our present interpretation of reality? Finally, I am not sure what 21st century entity the word "angel" is supposed to refer to; I understand what the reference meant well enough with respect to the apocalyptic contents of the NT and the OT, but that notion is antiquated and unhelpful in the same way a four-element theory of chemistry would be to making Scotch tape work.

The next sentence is truly difficult, for Harper writes, "I have no more power to prove [that Oliver Cowdery was ordained by angels] than unbelievers have to disprove." I beg to differ. The onus is clearly on those who want to prove this highly complicated supposition. The listener's power to disprove is infinite, so to speak, since the claim advanced is by definition exceptional, thus outside of common experience, and therefore in requirement of serious argumentative support. Harper proposes an equality of argumentative ground that does not hold. A simple substitution may show this; if we rephrase the sentence to read, "I have no more power to prove that Oliver Cowdery was ordained by the Loch Ness Monster than unbelievers have to disprove it." I suspect Harper would agree that the equivalence of argumentative ground is chimerical and not even particularly useful.

But now Harper slides back, from proof or disproof of reality, to Cowdery's testimony. "Any statement affirming or denying his testimony is not proof, but an expression of belief or unbelief." We already agreed that by "testimony" we would mean Oliver Cowdery's declarations, which are well documented. So denying Cowdery's testimony in that sense is a non-move, because of the documented context. At the same time, I have rejected the argumentative move that people can pick and choose whether Cowdery's declarations refer to reality; rather, I reiterate, that the onus lies on those wishing to show that there is a sensible 21st century interpretation for the notion of "ordination by ministering angels". I understand why there was a 19th century context in Biblical primitivism for this declaration to be reasonable; but again I cannot connect to that 19th century context without more argumentative bridging than Harper provides.

I mention that there are issues concerned with which tribes of Israel were allowed to have which priesthoods, a discussion that is complex and reaches all the way into Hebrews, where Jesus is denied Levitical priesthood powers because he is not of the tribe Levi. I believe for the overall LDS stance this discussion is fatal to Cowdery's claims on grounds of inter-testamental consistency, regardless of who ordained him. But I am interested in Harper's arguments, so I will return to that issue.

Because Harper does not clearly distinguish between Cowdery's interpretation of what he experienced and whether this interpretation is still comprehensible in the present day and age, I find myself agreeing with some of his sentences and not with others. For example, I can agree with Harper who writes later "Still, there was no doubt in Cowdery’s mind that the events [i.e. the ordinations by ministering angels, RCK] were historical." But I cannot follow Harper when he writes "... Cowdery, who of all men knew whether he had been ordained by angels ..." because Cowdery only knew whether his belief that he had been ordained by angels was honest.

I agree with Harper that the question of whether Cowdery's testimony is early or late is a red herring, in some sense, if you have already accepted as ground rule, as I have here, that Cowdery believed his own declarations. But these are strawmen as well; Harper's quote of Charles Dickens finding the claims an "absurdity" finds no response in his exposition. One suspects that the reason that neither Dickens, nor some of the other critics such as Turner in his 1842 book, go beyond the claim of absurdity is that they have not vested themselves fully from wanting to hold on to some historicity of the OT.

The place where Harper loses me again is when he finds himself compelled by Cowdery's testimony to ask for whether to believe Cowdery, which in this context seems to mean whether Harper can lift Cowdery's interpretation into his 21st century interpretative matrix unchanged. Specifically, Harper writes,
The fact that Oliver Cowdery claimed that “upon this head has Peter James and John laid their hands and confered the Holy Melchesdic Priestood” compels me to choose whether to believe him. Witnesses force me to choose.
I do not see how this follows. One may choose not to have any opinion at all. There is an existential immediacy to this claim that is unsupported by the evidence presented. This hardly suffices to skip across the "nasty ditch". There is no way to generate realism from an interpretation.

Saturday, February 15, 2014

The Mormon use of Testimony

When Marquardt & Walters (p.18) describe the revival of the Baptists, they point to the prevailing role of the conversion experience and its testimony in joining the Church.
For Baptists the awakening began on 20 October 1824, when church minutes show that “Michael Egleston, Erastus Spear, Lorenzo Spear, Abagail Spear, Belena Byxbe, Minerva Titus, Sophia Rogers, and Harriot Rogers told their Christian experience to the Church and were fellowshipped by the Church and on Thursday following were Baptized by Elder Bradley and Received into the Church.” The minutes of 20 November mentioned eight more individuals baptized; the 24 November minutes name an additional twelve. In December nineteen more were added by conversion. In the first four months of 1825 there were forty-five additional baptisms. For the one year period from October 1824 to the end of September 1825 there were a total of 94 persons baptized, an increase of 87 members. Membership increased from 132 to 219 (65 percent). 6
Footnote 6 reads:
For 1820, see Minutes of the Palmyra Baptist church under the dates of 18 Mar., 17 June, and 19 Aug. 1820. For 1824-25, see the Minutes of the Palmyra Baptist church, 16 Oct., 20, 24 Nov., 4, 5, 18 Dec. 1824; 1, 15, 29 Jan., 19 Feb., 5, 19 Mar., and 3 Apr. 1825. See Minutes of the Ontario Baptist Association (Rochester: Printed by Everard Peck, 1825), 5, for published membership figures for the conference year 1824-25.
But this suggests an alternate context in which to interpret the Testimony of the Three and the Testimony of the Twelve in the Book of Mormon preface; it is not meant as a testimony in the court of law, but as a testimony in the sense of the revival experience.

literalizing Zion

In their description of the Revivalism feeling, Marquardt & Walters quote an excited description of the revivalism success that reflects the way revivalists felt about Zion (p.19) (For the quote, see Geneva Presbytery “Records,” 2 Feb. 1825, Book D:27-28.)
As early as February 1825 the Presbytery was called on, in glowing terms, to
bless the Lord for the displays of sovereign grace which have been made <within our boundaries> during the past year. In the congregation of Palmyra, the Lord has appeared in his glory to build up Zion. More than a hundred have been hopefully brought into the kingdom of the Redeemer.

Thus, "building up Zion" is a revivalist term for growing the church. And the LDS with its millenial imprint is a literalization of that revivalist feeling.

whose idea was it anyway

William Smith suggested that the inspiration to go to the Bible for determining which denomination to follow was not necessarily one that Joseph Smith Jr had on his own, but may have come from a sermon that William heard about.
... the next evening a Rev. Mr. Lane of the Methodists preached a sermon on “what church shall I join?” And the burden of his discourse was to ask God, using as a text, “If any man lack wisdom let him ask of God who giveth to all men liberally.”16  (Marquardt & Walters, p.20)
The main part missing is the "upbraideth not" that seemed very important to Joseph Smith Jr. Smith Jr recounted himself as reading it (almost like St Augustine):
“While I was laboring under the extreme difficulties caused by the contests of these parties of religionists, I was one day reading the Epistle of James, first chapter and fifth verse, which reads: If any of you lack wisdom, let him ask of God, that giveth to all men liberally, and upbraideth not; and it shall be given him.” (from the LDS website)
Footnote 16 reads:
Interview of William Smith by E. C. Briggs as reported by J. W. Petersen to Zion’s Ensign 5 (13 Jan. 1894): 6, Independence, Missouri; see also, with minor inaccuracies, Deseret Evening News 27 (20 Jan. 1894): 11; Latter-day Saints’ Millennial Star 56 (26 Feb. 1894): 133-34; Church News, 16 [p.37]Mar. 1968, 11. William stated that “Hyrum, Samuel, Katharine [Sophronia] and mother were members of the Presbyterian church” (Zion’s Ensign 5:6), which he described as the “Church, of whome the Rev. Mr. Stoc[k]ton was the Presiding Paster” (William Smith, “Notes Written on `Chamber’s Life of Joseph Smith’ by William Smith,” typescript, 18, LDS archives).
The fact that the names of Smith’s mother and brothers appear later as members of the Palmyra Presbyterian church who were dropped for nonattendance is further evidence that the revival Smith had in view affected the local Presbyterian church. See Western Presbyterian Church of Palmyra, “Session Records,” 2:11-12. Volume 1, which would have shown the exact date the Smiths joined, has been missing since at least 1932.

Friday, February 14, 2014

Watching the transition between acceptable and reviled

It is hard to observe something falling apart.
According to Joseph, his older brother Hyrum joined the Presbyterian church along with his mother as a result of the revival. Willard [p.17]Chase, a neighbor, mentioned that in 1825 Hyrum asked to borrow his seer stone. Though reluctant to let the stone go, Chase said he honored Hyrum’s request because Hyrum “had made a profession of religion” and Chase felt he could now be trusted to return it. ---Marquardt & Walters, Inventing Mormonism, (pp.16-17)
The story both shows that Hyrum was not implicitly trustworthy; that their religious conversion experience bestowed a sense of trustworthiness on them that the community was not yet willing to accord them on their own (how hard they worked, be damned); and that the trust they were now allotted was dependent on fulfilling the twin conditions of staying religious and behaving in a trustworthy fashion.

When Hyrum later refused to return the stone and dropped out of the Presbyterian church, both of these conditions were violated and the Smiths became the scum the affidavits make them out to be.

Daniel Peterson has pointed to the following quote by Joseph's brother William (in: Deseret Evening News, 20 January 1894, p. 11; compare the verdict of Richard L. Bushman, Joseph Smith and the Beginnings of Mormonism (Urbana: University of Illinois, 1984), 190.)
We never knew we were bad folks until Joseph told his vision. We were considered respectable til then, but at once people began to circulate falsehoods and stories in wonderful ways. (p.11)

More biographical infos

After finally getting around to ordering Fawn Brodie's No Man knows my History and the famed Emma Smith Hale: Mormon Enigma, I was poking around in the LDS bulletin board Mormon Dialogue discussion on the "lazy Smiths", which referenced Richard Lloyd Anderson's classical, "Joseph Smith's New York Reputation Reappraised," BYU Studies 10 (Spring 1970): 283-314.

However when searching for that article, I instead stumbled upon the open Signature Books library, which includes among other goodies:
Plus there are also newspapers, including
Indeed a fine fine.

Among the other books suggested was
  • The Joseph Smith, Sr., Family: Farmers of the Genesee," in Susan Easton Black and Charles D. Tate, Jr., eds., Joseph Smith: The Prophet, the Man (Provo: Religious Studies Center, Brigham Young University, 1993), 213-25; which is archived here.
I also learned that FARMS is now called and the Maxwell Institute at BYU and has a cool website here.

Turner's Criticisms of Book of Mormon

With university professor Turner's 1842 criticism of the Mormon Movement as yet another element in the sheer endless chain of reform movements guided by spiritual assurances we are looking at one of the best articulated criticisms of early Mormonism.

Turner's natural religion would not stand up to present-day scrutiny, as the Deistic consensus he presupposes has eroded. But he makes relevant points about the BoM---and its interpretative tradition, such as Pratt's Voice of Warning publication---that are worth noting.

  • Turner challenges the idea that God, after hiding the Golden Plates safely for hundreds of years, could lose the first 116 pages to the Devil, could not re-reveal them, nor force the Devil to give them back; see also (p.197-198). Turner also points out that the 2nd edition of the BoM eliminated the Preface narrating that story (p.199).
  • Turner exposes the absurdity of considering the Old Testament prophecies literally, since they use metaphorical language that then needs to be mapped to a literal meaning after all (p.185ff). This is especially damning in the case where the Atlantic Ocean needs to be taken as the literal interpretation of the expression "the wall" (p.185); see also the rejection of the literal interpretation of the signs in Mark XVI,17 (p.235); see also the comments on the expounding foreceps 
  • While Gen 48,16 is a prophecy about the seed of Ephraim (p.187f), the book of Mormon actually only talks about descendants of the tribe of Manasseh, thereby leaving all other nine tribes as lost as before (p.188). In my opinion, this is a strong argument for the Spaulding thesis, because this lack of congruency between the intent---which the BoM shares with Ethan Smith's work---and the execution suggest that the base document---Spaulding's romance---has a different interest altogether.
  • The resurrection of the lost tribes from the tribe of Manasseh is itself problematic because in numerous passages in I King and II King only Judah is described as following the Lord (p.191).
  • Turner challenges the Aaronitic priesthood of the Indian tribes, as even Jesus did not have it, and no one descended from Manasseh could (p.192).
  • Turner notes that the description of Jared's water-tight boats (p.194-196) requires Jared to invent a light that God could provide, not God to foresee the need for a light (p.196).
  • Turner points out inconsistencies between the revelations and the BoM witnesses and publication, for example between what the revelation demand the three and the twelve should witness to (REF); or how much of the history should be given to the world (p.199).
  • Turner points out the litany of titles that Joseph Smith Jr decked himself out with over his life, ranging from "General of Nauvoo" to "retailer of ... cap, letter, fool, and wrapping paper", asserting that all these are from the "Book of Mormon" or the "Times and Seasons" (p.203). In my opinion, this is a strong indication of the bad self-image that JS Jr had.
  • Turner has some opinions on the patterns to the revelations in D&C (p.218) as mediators for controlling the followers.
  • Turner points to the hand-in-glove coincidence of the prepared congregation in Kirtland, Ohio, being missionized by Rigdon pal Pratt (p.220) as a sequence of so-many "stumbles".
  • Turner points out how essential (p.222) to the prophetic title the regaining of Zion, Missouri is.
  • Turner points out that the role of Smith Jr was enlarged in a revelation concerning his translator status between the first and the second edition (p.226), as well as the change in the amount of wealth to hand over to the Church (p.233).
  • Turner notes that Hebrews XI,3 is used to claim that God created the world through faith, though the passage says that we understand the world through faith (p.229).
  • Turner notes the missed prophesies in D&C respecting the destruction of the Eastern Home of Mormonism and the everlasting possession of Zion in Missouri (p.236).

Wednesday, February 12, 2014

Dietary assumptions of the Book of Mormon

Brigham H. Roberts in the context of discussing the mismatch between the domesticated animals of the Book of Mormon and the American Indians as researched in 1917 (p.98), notes that the animals that the Indians had domesticated, foremost of which is the dog, are not the animals the BoM mentions, such as cows and oxen, sheep, goats, swine (in the case of the Jaredites), and famously horses (p.98f). Roberts then comments that no milk consumption is recorded in the BoM, but there he is mistaken, as milk and butter occur in 2 Nephi repeatedly (but only there).

Books and the Erie Canal

Brigham D. Masden's introduction to B.H. Roberts' Studies of the Book of Mormon gives speeds and travel rates for goods on the Erie Canal (p.28) while reporting on the Palmyra bookstores and the Manchester Rental Library. 

Saturday, February 8, 2014

On Joseph Smith Jr as Prophet and Seer

Brigham Young University's Religious Studies Center has the chapters of its book on Joseph Smith Jr: Prophet and Seer available on its website.

John Holbrooke's Autobiography

John Holbrooke (1806-1885), a fascinating pioneer of the Mormons, who helped in settling of Missouri, including some of the first houses around Shoal Creek near Far West, left an autobiography with lots of transportation and economic information.

Transcripts can be found here (Book of Abraham Project, in their excellent Early Saints section) and here (part of Mark and Allison Sedgewick's research site).

Manuscript of Joseph Smith's Church History Online

The Joseph Smith Papers project has a cool scanned version of the manuscript for the Church History that is searchable and provides transliterations as well. Since the are six volumes to the manuscript, there are separate links

Friday, February 7, 2014

Goodbye to le temps médiane

I am not almost completely convinced that the temps médiane is not to be found in Braudel's work because he actually does not care about the temporal duration at all.

What he cares about is the predictive value of the temporal categories; that is why the other category is the business cycles, where each iteration is short in temporal extension, but their re-occurrence makes them akin to la longue durée in that way.

Thus, there is maybe then not much point in being able to sort them in their duration, especially tracing them backward. It is at any rate not a lesson that Braudel wished to teach (whether it be interesting or not is a separate question).

This explains why the tracing felt like such a big waste of time emotionally, because it was unclear what it would contribute. Rather there is the general task of establishing the temporal bounds with respect to a specific degree of conceptual abstraction (to generate the identity that permits the comparison).

If we have a temporal problem that exhibits the pattern that we have [start,end] constraining the years of interest, it is hardly helpful to know that start-t or end+t still exhibited the phenomenon—without some analogizing or justificatory explanation, that is.

Rather the question is, does the problem exhibit stability during the time period. If we presume that this is an issue that has stable duration for the bounds in question, then there should be no variability; if we presume that it belongs to the cyclical patterns, then we should assume that we may have variance, but the plotting the "rise and fall" of the value in question will reveal additional useful information.

Whether the problem has stability or not allows us to settle the foreground -- background issue, and gives contour to the explanations or reconstructions in that fashion. The stability of course need not have been obvious to the participants, and the cyclical natures may not have been either.

Monday, February 3, 2014

Saturday, February 1, 2014

The Absence of local law in the Mediterranean

It just occurred to me that my process of extracting interpretative models will not properly succeed for the early Mormons because a key component for the Missouri war, the possibility that the Mormons might form the political majority and take over county control, was an emergent property of the rising number of converts and has no predecessor in the rise of the early church.

This is an exciting result because that shows an unexpected discontinuity in the interpretative process whose anticipation implies prescience.
Thus also poses the question of how Braudel dealt with these issues of local law; he cites the local statues at every point or turn as part of the local expression of the long duration (e.g. Venice). But there was other than the rump Roman law and possibly some of the conventions of international diplomacy and commerce very little to unify the Mediterranean in terms of the legal regulations governing the local regions, bays and cities.