“My Joseph”: Meg Stout and Polygamy, Part 2

March 2, 2015

Moving along with Meg Stout’s series of posts on Joseph Smith’s plural marriages …

She begins her next section, “Six Funerals and a Blessing,” by restating the straw man argument she opened with previously:

When discussing Joseph Smith’s plural marriages, many have simply presumed that Joseph initiated marriages whenever there was a plausible opportunity for Joseph to be in the same town or house or room as a putative wife. This seems to be the rationale behind Compton’s assertion that Joseph married Lucinda Pendleton in 1838 or the belief that Joseph fathered children with Hannah Dubois in the early 1830s.

As I said before, I don’t believe any serious historian has ever said that Joseph Smith entered into plural marriage with any available woman, apparently to satisfy his lusts. Certainly, that is not the reason Todd Compton lists Lucinda Morgan as one of Joseph Smith’s wives. But let’s get into the heart of her arguments.

The main thesis of this section is that several deaths, including that of Joseph’s father, in 1840 opened Joseph’s mind to the need to seal parents to children and thus hastened the practice of plural marriage. She first notes the untimely death of Jane and William Neyman’s teenaged son, Cyrus, who had not been baptized, correctly linking that death with Joseph’s explication of baptism for the dead a few months later at the funeral of Seymour Brunson.

At this point, the connection between these deaths and the introduction of plural marriage is not clear, but then Ms. Stout brings up the death of Marietta Carter Holmes, who was killed as a result of an attack by a mob. After Holmes’s death, Marietta’s husband and two daughters were taken into the Smith home, where one of the children died shortly thereafter. At this point, Ms. Stout launches into pure conjecture:

I imagine Marietta being carried from her burning home to the homestead. Jonathan hurries in, stopping in horror as his worst fears are realized. Joseph Smith watches, knowing that Marietta bears the wounds intended for Emma and himself.

It seems clear to me that Joseph would have comforted Jonathan and Marietta. Though death was imminent, their union and their love could persist despite the cruelty of the mob, despite the tragedy of a life ended so young.

Marietta died August 20, 1840. She was only twenty years old.

Joseph knew of the New and Everlasting Covenant that could bind husbands and wives together for eternity. He had received the keys of that power more than four years earlier, but had yet to use that power to bind his own marriage, much less the marriage of any other couple. As they buried Marietta, I believe Joseph must have realized that the ordinance of marriage could also be performed for those now dead, just as baptism could be performed by proxy.

When Marietta’s daughter died, Ms. Stout again has Joseph pondering baptism for the dead:

I believe it was in this crucible that Joseph finally understood that the sealing power could bind parents to their children and children to their parents. It could seal infant Mary to Jonathan and Marietta. It could seal his own departed children to himself and Emma. It could seal him to his own father, bedridden since March 1840.

Finally, Joseph’s own father died two days after the death of Mary Holmes. Once again, Ms. Stout veers far away from the historical record into speculation:

I submit Joseph’s attempt to obey the 1831 commandment regarding plural marriage and the New and Everlasting Covenant did not start in earnest until September 14, 1840, at the deathbed of his father.

What reason does she give to support this belief? None that I can see, but her next chapter is based on the assumption that these deaths spurred Joseph to begin seeking plural wives in earnest. Accordingly, he approached Joseph Bates Nobles in the fall of 1840 to teach him about the principle and ask for his help in securing Noble’s sister-in-law Louisa Beaman as a wife. Around the same time he approached Zina Huntington, who refused him.

Now things get a little muddled in Stout’s telling. By this time John C. Bennett had firmly established himself as one of Joseph Smith’s chief lieutenants and confidants, as Bennett had been instrumental in getting the state legislature to approve Nauvoo’s city charter. In March 1841, Joseph received confirmation from George Miller that Bennett had abandoned a still-living wife in Ohio. When further confirmation came in June of that year, Smith confronted Bennett, who admitted his guilt. It would be another year before Bennett lost his position in the church.

In the fall of 1840, Elvira Annie Cowles was living in Joseph Smith’s home as a governess for the Smith children. She would not marry Joseph until 1843, a fact that puzzles Ms. Stout. Once again Ms. Stout abandons the evidence and weaves a narrative that suits her:

Here was a possible answer, then. Elvira Annie Cowles, of all the plural wives Joseph would covenant with, appears to have promised Emma that she would not enter into a Covenant with Joseph until after Emma herself had accepted the Covenant.

Even though Elvira Annie wasn’t the first plural wife, there is no reason to think she was not the first woman Joseph talked with after his father’s death. She was an intimate of the Smith family. Emma loved Elvira and trusted her. Elvira may have witnessed the conversation between Joseph and the dying Marietta Holmes and the death bed blessing Father Smith pronounced on Joseph’s head. With this background, Elvira would be uniquely prepared to comprehend the strange doctrine of plural marriage.

Assuming Joseph approached Elvira about joining him in the New and Everlasting Covenant as a plural wife during September 1840, Elvira also understood one other thing about plural marriage. The first wife had to agree–Emma would have to give her consent. There is no good reason to suppose Joseph and Elvira kept this from Emma. If Elvira was going to refuse Joseph, then it seems only natural that she was doing so based on knowledge of Emma’s wishes.

To be clear, there is no evidence that:

1. Joseph Smith approached Elvira Cowles about plural marriage, let alone that she was “the first woman Joseph talked with after his father’s death.”
2. Elvira Cowles made any promise to Emma about marrying Joseph.
3. Elvira Cowles knew that “the first wife had to agree,” as Joseph entered into other marriages without Emma’s knowledge or consents.
4. Elvira Cowles refused any proposal of Joseph’s for any reason, including “Emma’s wishes.”

It’s difficult to overstate how problematic this is. Once again, we have a whole lot of assertions based on no evidence. This is not reputable history; it’s not even good apologetics.

But it gets worse. Next Ms. Stout asserts, again with no evidence, that Dr. Bennett must have pursued Elvira Cowles after Joseph refused to “excoriate” him for his transgressions: “More importantly for Bennett, the reprieve would give him time to secure the affections of his new beloved.” Who was this new beloved? Elvira Cowles:

When Dr. Bennett began to court, I suggest Elvira Annie Cowles was very likely the woman he sought.  When Joseph learned of Bennett’s shady past, it became a matter of significant importance to warn the young woman involved of the impropriety, to break off the acquaintance, as Joseph termed it. Significantly, it was around the timeframe of the Miller letter that Bennett moved out of the homestead, apparently taking a room in the home of Sarah Pratt.

Why is Ms. Cowles “very likely the woman [Bennett] sought”? No reason in particular. She was at the house, so why not? Based on this conjecture, we get a second conjecture, that Joseph tried to warn Elvira about Bennett’s shady past. What evidence is there of such a warning? None, just the suggestion that since Bennett moved out of the house in May, it must have had something to do with improper advances on Elvira.

More speculation follows, including Ms. Stout’s apparent belief that Joseph Smith tried to persuade Noble to enter into plural marriage:

Was it not possible that Joseph Smith was trying to convince Joseph Bates Noble to enter into plural marriage himself? The sight of Joseph Bates Noble assisting his wife and sister-in-law down the street must have been arresting to Smith–so like a vision of plural marriage at its best. If Smith attempted to persuade Noble to take on a plural wife, however, Noble did not act in the winter of 1840/41.

Is it possible? Anything’s possible, but is there any evidence? Again, no. So, to sum up, she says:

By April 1841 Joseph Smith knew he couldn’t trust Dr. Bennett. Elvira Cowles wouldn’t marry him. Zina Huntington wouldn’t marry him. Joseph Bates Noble wouldn’t take a plural wife.

Is there any evidence that Joseph had lost trust in Bennett by April 1841? No. Is there any evidence Elvira Cowles refused a marriage proposal? No. Nor is there evidence that Joseph Noble refused to take a plural wife. The only statement that can be substantiated is that Zina Huntington refused Joseph’s proposal in the fall of 1840.

Finally, Stout explains that Louisa Beaman consented to marry Joseph in April 1841 and that the newlyweds spent the night in Joseph Noble’s house. But even here she can’t bring herself to acknowledge that anything sexual might have occurred. “Despite Joseph and Louisa spending their wedding night under the same roof, Joseph Bates Noble was unable to testify that he’d actually seen the couple get in bed together. ”

I will just quote from Joseph Noble’s actual testimony to show how preposterous this is.

Q. Do you know whether Joseph Smith ever lived any with Louisa Beaman as his wife?. . .

A. I know it for I saw him in bed with her. . . .

Q. What made you say the other day that Joseph Smith and that woman you sealed to him slept together that night?

A. Because they did sleep together.

Q. If you were not there that night, how do you know they slept together?

A. Well, they slept together I know. If it was not that night it was two or three nights after that.

Q. Where did they sleep together?

A. Right straight across the river at my house they slept together. . . .

Q. Did he sleep with her the first night after the ceremony was performed?

A. He did.

Q. Now you say that he did sleep with her?

A. I do.

Q. How do you know he did?

A. Well I was there.

Q. And you saw them go to bed together?

A. I gave him counsel . . . .

Q. What counsel did you give him?

A. I said “blow out the light and get into bed, and you will be safer there,” and he took my advice or counsel . . . .

Q. Well did you stay there until the lights were blown out?

A. No sir I did not stay until they blowed out the lights then.

Q. Well you did not see him get into bed with her that time?

A. No sir.

Q. And so you don’t know whether he followed your advice from your own knowledge?

A. No sir, I did not see him, but he told me he did.

Q. Well, you know from your own knowledge that he did?

A. Well, I am confident he did.

Q. But you don’t know it of your own knowledge from seeing him do it?

A. No sir, for I was not there.

Corroboration comes from Benjamin Winchester:

Q. Were you personally acquainted with any of Smith’s wives?

A. Yes, but especially with Louisa Beaman from a girl. About the year 43 Joseph Smith took rooms for her in my father’s house, and Smith came to see her about once a week.

Q. Did they sleep together?

A. Yes they did.

Q. Was there only one bed in the room?

A. Yes just one bed.

Q. Are you sure it was in 1843?

A. No, but it was about that time, or from 42 to 44

Apparently, Ms. Stout believes that, unless a third party actually watched them have sex, it’s unreasonable to believe that, when they spent the night together in a bedroom with the lights out, they didn’t actually share a bed and “the marriage between Joseph Smith and Louisa Beaman likely remained unconsummated.” Indeed, Joseph Smith must have lied when he told Joseph Nobles he slept with Louisa.

I am trying very hard not to condemn or ridicule Ms. Stout, but I will simply say that this kind of stuff strains credulity.

“My Joseph”: Meg Stout and Polygamy, Part 1

March 2, 2015

I meant to write this all out in one post, but it is long, and it may take a few posts to cover things adequately.

As many of my readers already know, a woman named Meg Stout has created a web site containing what she believes is clear and conclusive evidence that Joseph Smith did not engage in sexual polygamy. Her latest post is a condensed version of her lengthy series (I count 30 posts) on “A Faithful Joseph”:

Faithful Joseph: A Digest

After reading the digest, I dug in and started reading the articles themselves, and what follows is my response. First of all, let me say I feel more than a little guilty that her comments on my blog have become a sort of Internet meme, which I didn’t intend.

The beginning is not auspicious, as she seems to believe that those of us who accept the evidence of sexuality in Smith’s marriages believe that he was “just a pervert.” I can’t speak for anyone else, but I can think of any number of reasons he would have “restored” the practice of polygamy that do not involve lust or perversion. It apparently doesn’t occur to her that the “Joseph as sex fiend” theory is a straw man. Lack of imagination on her part is not a problem for me.

Next, she tells us that learning about Joseph Smith’s polygamy “shattered the simple testimony of [her] childhood,” and she spent “decades” trying to come up with an “explanation.” Needless to say, what she is doing is trying to find an explanation of Joseph Smith’s behavior that doesn’t conflict with her testimony that he was a prophet. So, let us not mistake what she is doing for historical research; this is apologetics, plain and simple. She already has her conclusion (Joseph Smith was a righteous prophet), so she will interpret the evidence to support that conclusion. A historian, on the other hand, follows the evidence to reach a conclusion. Thus, her approach is, to steal a phrase from her, “fundamentally flawed from an evidentiary and logical standpoint.”

One piece of evidence she tackles immediately is the lack of offspring from Joseph Smith and his plural wives:

I realized that there is something odd about the reproductive history of the women Joseph covenanted with prior to his death. In addition, modern DNA analysis cannot prove any children born to Joseph’s plural wives were engendered by him, with only one case even being inconclusive.”

Basically, then, she believes the lack of proof that Smith fathered children is evidence there was no sexuality in the marriages. This is, of course, the argumentum ex silentio, or argument from silence, a logical fallacy that states that the absence of evidence is evidence of absence. Setting aside the poor logic of this argument, we have testimony from multiple women who said they had sexual relations with Joseph Smith, and their testimony is corroborated by others. Also, we have testimony from multiple women who said that they believed Smith may have fathered their children or that they knew of the existence of such children. Such testimony makes no sense if there had been no sexuality in the relationships. In short, either everyone involved was lying, or at least some of the relationships were sexual.

In the next section, Ms. Stout outlines her belief that God demanded polygamy so that all might have an opportunity to be saved in the celestial kingdom. “If strict monogamy were to continue when the New and Everlasting Covenant was implemented, then men could only be sealed to one of their earthly wives, and children of women who were not sealed would remain eternal orphans.” Unfortunately, this doesn’t make much logical sense. Polygyny might ensure that children are sealed to someone else, but what happens to faithful men whose children are not sealed to them because their wives are sealed to someone else? They are left as eternally childless. In the early days of the LDS church, this problem was overcome by allowing people to be sealed as children to a non-relative “parent.” Such was the case with John D. Lee, for example, who was sealed to Brigham Young in just that way. So, there is no theological need for plural marriage to seal all children, and Ms. Stout’s logic doesn’t hold up.

Following that, Ms. Stout discusses “precursors” to Mormon polygamy. I’m not entirely sure what her purpose is in providing a medical, social, and religious context for the emergence of Smith’s polygamy, so I’ll have to withhold judgment for the time being. I did have to chuckle at this gem: “But Cochran’s free love spiritual wifery turned women into sluts while Smith’s concept of marriage turned women into queens (albeit potentially sharing their ‘king’).” This is just subjective judgment, nothing more. One might just as easily say that Cochran’s free love put women into an egalitarian position with respect to men, whereas Smith’s practices put women into a permanently inferior position, akin to a man’s property.

Next she moves on to “The 1831 Revelation Regarding Plural Marriage.” I’m puzzled here because she spins what she calls a “a bit of a midrash,” suggesting that it was Joseph Smith’s translation of the Bible that prompted his inquiry about plural marriage. However, she quotes from the 1843 revelation that is now canonized as section 132 of the LDS Doctrine and Covenants. This is problematic because the claimed 1831 revelation is one in which the Lord supposedly tells missionaries sent to preach to Native Americans to “take unto you wives of the Lamanites and Nephites.” In short, there is no evidence, other than Ms. Stout’s “imagined” narrative, to suggest that section 132 was received in 1831. This is argument by assertion, another obvious logical fallacy. Saying something without evidence does not make it true.

Her next post, “The Decade of Delay,” is fascinating. Someone who didn’t know the actual history might be quite confused and misled, were they to accept Ms. Stout’s creative timeline. In beginning this section, we see Ms. Stout once again explaining her reasons for writing what she does: Joseph’s behavior fills her with “dread” and makes her wish the issues would “all go away.” I suspect it’s that unwillingness to face unpleasant facts that drives this section of her work.

She insists that, between 1831 and 1841, Joseph Smith “delayed” implementing plural marriage owing to a “series of disasters” that befell him and his family. The first such disaster is the tarring and feathering of Smith and Sidney Rigdon in February 1832, which some historians say was motivated by revenge for Joseph’s having made a sexual advance on Marinda Johnson, who would later become one of Joseph’s wives. The assault broke Joseph’s tooth, left Rigdon mentally damaged, and resulted in the death of Joseph and Emma Smith’s first child from exposure. Needless to say, such a traumatic event might make Joseph a little shy about looking for another spouse.

Next, we are told about one Hannah Dubois Smith, whom later writers associate with Joseph Smith. Hannah was married during this time to a John F. Smith, though according to Ms. Stout, no such individual with that name can be found. Rumor had it, apparently, that the name was a pseudonym for Joseph Smith. Ms. Stout, however, claims that, if there had been a Smith involved, it would have been Joseph’s younger brother William. All the evidence she provides consists of vague generalizations, as well as the assertion that William’s giving of a patriarchal blessing to Hannah’s children was unusual (it wasn’t, as he had been appointed church patriarch). The only specific claims is that, “when William is sent to Tennessee in disgrace, circa 1842, Philo Dibble and Hannah accompany him.” I’d like to see some documentation for that, as the evidence shows that William was editor of the LDS newspaper, The Nauvoo Wasp, until December of 1842, at which time he resigned to serve in the Illinois General Assembly. So, unless she has some documentation, I’m taking that one with a grain of salt.

Then Ms. Stout discusses Jared Carter, a member of Zion’s Camp, whose brother died, leaving a wife and seven children. Carter apparently believed he would be justified in taking her has a plural wife but was “chastised” by the church.

Finally we come to the case of Fanny Alger. Most readers will be familiar with the basics of the story: Miss Alger had been hired as a housekeeper in the Smith household, and sometime later, Emma discovered a relationship between Joseph and Fanny, and Fanny was compelled to leave the Smith home. Ms. Stout accepts evidence from Todd Compton that the relationship was a proper marriage, with Joseph having engaged in an “exchange of women,” promising Levi Hancock a wife if he helped acquire Fanny as Joseph’s wife. Then, without any justification whatsoever, Stout declares, “I propose Emma knew of and agreed to the marriage with the stipulation that it remain platonic until some future ‘safe’ time.” Let me just be clear:

  • There is no evidence that Emma knew of or agreed to the marriage.
  • There is also no evidence that the marriage was intended to be platonic for any length of time.

To insist otherwise is wishful thinking and argument by assertion, and it certainly is not rigorous historical research.

But Ms. Stout takes these unsupported assertions and runs with them. Thus, when multiple sources say that Emma discovered Fanny and Joseph together in some kind of compromising position, Stout says with an apparently straight face:

At some point around 1836 Emma found Joseph and Fanny together in the barn, but this needn’t have been bouncy illicit sex or even sex at all. Two people in love, even if not sexually intimate, can project an impression of togetherness that would be misunderstood by others unaware of the possibility of plural marriage. I submit Emma had a post-traumatic stress disorder reaction – not that she didn’t know of the marriage, but what she was seeing could so easily be misunderstood and result in a repeat of the mobbing in Hiram, Ohio.

In essence, then, Stout would have us believe that all of Joseph’s contemporaries, including Emma, jumped to the conclusion that this was, in Oliver Cowdery’s words, a “dirty, filthy, nasty scrape affair.” I could go through all of the relevant evidence and testimony, but then Ms. Stout is undoubtedly familiar with it but chooses to ignore it. She sums up this section as follows:

I like to think of this imprisoned Joseph as a man who had as yet not consummated a plural marriage–a man who was, rather, traumatized by the thought of entering into plural marriage and the failed and unconsummated proposal to Marinda and marriage with Fanny. My Joseph is a man whose dearest hope was to return to the side of his beloved Emma and forever relinquish the horrific requirement of plural marriage.

This is all we need to know: this is “her” Joseph, the man she wants him to be, no matter the evidence.

Part 2

How Not to Do Apologetics

February 27, 2015

About four years ago I wrote a post showing evidence that Joseph Smith married additional wives without the knowledge or consent of his legal wife, Emma. You can read the post here:

Secret Wives

The evidence is quite clear, and it’s also clear that Emily Partridge spent the night in bed with Joseph Smith on their wedding night, and when asked, she confirmed under oath that she had “carnal intercourse” with Smith. Their wedding night was spent in the home of Benjamin Johnson, who confirmed that they occupied the same room and bed.

That would seem fairly straightforward: a man and woman who have just been married and retire to the bedroom are likely to have sexual relations. It strains credulity to believe that they would have gone to the bedroom, closed the door, and spent the night playing cards.

Apparently, it’s not that clear to some people, as I received the following comment this evening. I’m not sure why the comment came four years after the post, but here it is:

Emily Partridge was sufficiently uninformed that she thought Mrs. Durfee’s original questions in 1842 regarding spiritual wifery were germane to Joseph wanting to get it on with her as per Emily’s interpretation of the conversation he tried to have with her and the letter he tried to pass to her.

Lucy Walker’s refusal to testify regarding whether she was intimate with Joseph is telling. This same manner of refusal occurred with Malissa Lott with respect to her own family (who would have loved to know she was Joseph’s factual bedded wife). Malissa always refused to confirm or deny.

I grant that we have Joseph spending the evening in the same room as women who would later be known as his plural wives, per the attestation of Benjamin Johnson. But Benjamin wasn’t watching through the knothole to confirm sexual intercourse. He was merely presuming what activity was occurring.

It all boils down to the one admission from Emily, where she responded “Yes sir.” when asked if she had engaged in carnal intercourse with Joseph Smith. But recall that this Emily had been the wife of Brigham Young, had lived through the culture wars of the 1870s and later, when her people were being put in jail for polygamy, when women were going on the underground with fake identities to avoid being forced to testify against husbands and fathers.

Had Emily not replied “Yes sir.” to that question, she believed that the temple lot of prophesy would be awarded to Joseph’s sons and their Church and therefore forever made unavailable to the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

Besides this, Emily was by then 70 years old, and knew her way around the English language. Carnal refers to meat. Intercourse refers to commerce or trade (ever visited Intercourse, PA?). Therefore “carnal intercourse” would also be a legitimate description of passing Joseph a platter of turkey or chicken or mutton or beef at a meal, an activity the young Emily had almost certainly engaged in.

As I recall the testimony, Emily was really testy after her “Yes sir.” Which I would be too, if I had technically told the truth but actually implied a falsehood.

I would respond to this point by point, but it just doesn’t merit it. I’m sure my commenter is sincere, but anyone who argues that “carnal intercourse” refers to the commercial exchange of meat is not to be taken seriously. If you have to do such violence to language and logic to support your belief, it’s quite likely your belief is erroneous.

Honestly, that is perhaps the worst apologetic argument for polygamy that I have ever read. And that’s saying something.

For what it’s worth, she apparently has a web site dedicated to proving that Joseph Smith did not have sex with those women.

A Faithful Joseph

Open the Books

February 27, 2015

As most of my readers know, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints recently put out a series of essays discussing controversial or difficult historical or doctrinal issues.

Church Provides Context for Recent Media Coverage on Gospel Topics Pages

I have written previously that I found the essays less than “accurate and transparent,” as Jeffrey Holland insisted they are, “within the framework of faith.” Several faithful Latter-day Saints (and even a few non-LDS) I know have responded by saying that it isn’t the church’s responsibility to teach an exhaustive history and deep study of doctrinal matters, so it’s too much to ask for accuracy and transparency.

For a lot critics, the LDS church will never do enough until they air all their dirty laundry and explain it. And in my view, whoever wrote the essays felt they had given as much information as they could to maintain that framework of faith.

Initially, I thought it was pretty obvious the church has been teaching history and doctrine for 185 years, so it isn’t out of bounds to ask that what they teach be accurate and complete. When you’re not completely open, it looks like you’re hiding something, and that never ends well. After all, it was the desire for secrecy and control of the message that led to the Hofmann bombings in the 1980s. But then I recognized that the church focuses on gospel principles and behaviors that are intended to lead people to Christ, so why get sidetracked wading through the depths of these things?

I think I finally have a solution. Open all the church historical archives to researchers in the way that libraries have long opened their “special collections” to academics and others, so long as those accessing the documents and books respect the terms of use (not removing things, wearing gloves where appropriate, and so on) and that confidential information about living people is not compromised. Maybe it really isn’t the church’s responsibility to dig through the records and try to approach “the whole truth,” whatever that might mean. Let someone else do it.

But, you might say, wouldn’t that just open the church to attacks from secular and religious critics? Yes, it would, obviously, but then it’s not as if the church hasn’t been attacked by groups using information that is already in the public domain. Maybe I’m being naive, but I can’t imagine there’s all that much information in the archives that is any more embarrassing than that which is already known publicly. By opening the archives–even the First Presidency’s alleged “vault”–any sensationalistic attacks would be tempered by accurate information and context from academic authors and faithful church members.

In short, it makes sense for the church to focus on its core mission of inviting all to come unto Christ and leave the blips and flecks of history to the historians. Surely, something would arise on occasion that the church would feel it needed to respond to, just as it has with the recent essays, but historical and doctrinal oddities would be kept in proper perspective. I suspect most members would take any “shocking” revelations in stride, as they have other issues. No longer could any church members say that the church had “lied” to them or hidden things, and critics could no longer accuse the church of covering things up. (For the record, I am pretty sure I have never said the church has lied or covered anything up. If I ever did say something like that, it was probably in a moment of frustration.)

I’m a realist and don’t expect the church to do anything like this. Most image-conscious organizations feel the need to control the message, so they guard “proprietary” information carefully. But the church might follow the example of Tesla Motors, which last year released its electric motor and battery storage patents to the public in hopes of furthering the adoption of its technologies by other people, even competitors. Tesla is betting that whatever damage competitors might do with this information is outweighed by the good of putting the information out in the light of day.

It’s a nice thought, anyway.

Ask Me Anything

February 27, 2015

A friend asked if I would do a Reddit “Ask Me Anything,” so I agreed to do it on Wednesday, March 4 at 9 pm Eastern (8 Central, 7 Mountain, 6 Pacific). I’ve never done anything like this before, but I think it will be fun. I was asked to provide a short biography:

I am an author and blogger. My blog, Runtu’s Rincón, has won several awards for LDS commentary and humor, as well as attracting a small group of Mormon stalkers, who consider me “the most dangerous kind of anti-Mormon there is,” though I’m not anti-Mormon at all.

I grew up in Southern California, attended BYU, and served an LDS mission in Bolivia. I’ve worked for more than 20 years as a technical writer and editor, and I spent two years working at the Church Office Building in Salt Lake City. I don’t have too many juicy stories–a few, though–other than getting lost in the tunnels once and, on finding my way out, tripping over then-prophet Howard W. Hunter’s wheelchair.

I was invited to join an LDS-themed email list back in 1995, and eventually I became a bit of an amateur apologist, posting on a couple of listserv and message boards. In 2005, I took a break from message boards, and in the process had a crisis of faith. I returned to the boards as an experiment, posting with the same style and interests but from an unbelieving perspective. Within a year, I was banned from the FAIR board, and a poster sent an email around to all my friends claiming I was mentally ill and possibly a sexual predator.

Needless to say, I have generated a lot of anger by posting my thoughts about Mormonism. At one point, a commenter said he had a loaded shotgun, and the shells in it had my name on them. I try to have a sense of humor about that kind of thing, but eventually my wife received anonymous emails threatening violence if she didn’t “put a stop” to my writing. Since that time, things have calmed down considerably, probably because I’ve mellowed, in part.

In 2011, I published Heaven Up Here, a sort of blow-by-blow account of my time as a Mormon missionary in Bolivia, which won a Brodie Award for best book-length memoir. I tried to write the book as I experienced things as a young missionary, not as a middle-aged man looking back. I’ve been really happy that the book has been well-received by believers and unbelievers alike. I think it’s just a great story, but then I’m biased.

These days I don’t write as much as I like, as I’m busy with life and my family in Northern Virginia.


Chris and Ida

February 24, 2015

My wife tells me it’s a morbid habit, but I sometimes check the obituaries in the Provo newspapers to see if anyone I know has passed on. Probably has something to do with obsessive-compulsive disorder, or perhaps it reflects a longing to stay connected with my past.

This morning I noticed the obituary for Ida Smith, an 83-year-old woman who was the daughter of church Patriarch Joseph Fielding Smith and a proud descendant of Hyrum Smith, brother of Mormon church founder Joseph Smith. After the usual list of survivors and those who preceded her in death comes this:

Idas [sic] most trusted friends in life were Myrna, her neighbor of many years, and Christopher M. Nemelka, both who [sic] were among those who enjoyed Idas [sic] last moments of this Lone and Dreary World.

It was Idas [sic] wish to let the world know, that after a lifelong search for happiness and real truth, she found solace and fulfillment in the Marvelous Work and a Wonder. Ida wanted all of her friends and family members to know about this marvelous find. Ida desired that anyone interested in her life read Joseph Smiths [sic] Inspired Translation of the biblical book of Isaiah, chapter 29, in regards to the sealed portion of the Book of Mormon. Some of Ida Smiths [sic] last words were, Its [sic] a marvelous work and a wonder!

What is this “Marvelous Work and a Wonder” of which she speaks, this marvelous find, the sealed portion of the Book of Mormon? And what in this wonder brought her solace and fulfillment? One is tempted to believe that perhaps the wonder involves a prohibition of apostrophes, but then that would be too snarky.

I read about Ida’s journey of faith a few years ago in the Salt Lake City Weekly newspaper. (Full disclosure: I did an interview with City Weekly a couple of years ago, but I can’t see how that would relate to this post.) In 2007 Ida’s cousin told her that, as prophesied for many years, the “sealed portion of the Book of Mormon” had been translated and published. Ida wrote that, upon hearing this, “I felt like I had been struck by a bolt of lightning.” The description in City Weekly is reminiscent of Parley Pratt’s reaction to receiving a copy of the Book of Mormon in 1830:

She devoured it over six weeks, in the process emptying two boxes of tissues and several red ballpoint pens as she wept and underlined page after page of scripture. The voice of the Mormon angel Moroni “was unmistakable,” she later wrote. By the time she had finished the book, “my entire worldview had been forever changed.” It revealed to her what she had suspected since her youth: that the LDS Church was fallible and unnecessary, and that its prophets since Joseph Smith had been in name only.

It’s always interesting to me what resonates with people. I am moved to tears sometimes by George Herbert, Gerard Manley Hopkins, William Blake, and William Butler Yeats, and yet other people I know find them dull and uninspiring. One of my favorite books is Wright Morris’s The Deep Sleep, but I have loaned my copy to friends who have returned it bewildered as to why I love it. So it is with matters of the spirit. I love the language and content of the King James Bible, while others find its Jacobean prose daunting and inaccessible. In the same way, the prose that changed Ida Smith’s life forever is to me as tedious as one might expect a plagiarism of the Book of Mormon could be. To give you an idea of what it’s like, here’s a bit of Nemelka’s echo of 2 Nephi 2:

39 And Jehovah responded to the words of Lucifer, saying: And how dost thou suppose that we learn about this pain and sorrow of which the Father hath spoken if we do not first experience it? And how dost thou suppose that we comprehend the happiness and joy of eternity if we do not know what causeth them?
40 Behold, thou knowest that one of the eternal laws stateth that there is an opposite to all things. If this were not the case, then we could not know anything. For if there was no dark, how could we comprehend the light? And if there was no bad, how could we comprehend good? And if there is no pain and sorrow, how can we understand what joy and happiness are?
41 And these things are according to our feelings. But even so if there were not cold, how could we know warmth.[sic] Yea, even if there were no rocks, then there would be no earth, which is softer than a rock, yet made up of the same elements. (The Sealed Portion—The Final Testament of Jesus Christ 5:39–41.)
The PDF version of the book is 668 pages of this kind of stuff. It’s definitely not my cup of herbal tea. Maybe, as some have suggested, I’m just missing the forest for the trees.

But I’m not going to criticize Ms. Smith for her taste in literature. For whatever reason, Nemelka’s book touched her in a very deep way, and she went all in as a follower. “I was prepared to give up everything for the truth,” she said. “I was looking for the truth all my life. And I wasn’t afraid.” According to the article, several friends and family members, “all, according to Nemelka’s blog, senior and well-connected figures in the LDS Church, … cut themselves off” from her. She gave Nemelka her burial plot in the Smith family portion of the Salt Lake City cemetery, where he had a tombstone erected “that proclaimed him as the reincarnation of Hyrum Smith, along with boasting two trademarked Websites inscribed in bright blue at the base of the plinth, which promote his work.”

The plot was not all she gave him. Nemelka is the executor of her will and her estate. Ida set up a trust, he says, called The Marvelous Work and Wonder Trust, to which she signed over all her assets. Others, he says, have also signed over their wills to Nemelka’s “work.” His message, he continues, “has freed” many people up. “It has given them a whole different view of life, and knowledge.”

Many of her friends and family tried to dissuade her from following Nemelka. Apostle Jeffrey Holland told her, “This guy is a wacko. He’s just not in touch with reality. … If we really believe there’s an order and a priesthood in the church, it’s gonna come to the president of the church.” Former Senator Robert Bennett wrote to her, “I am convinced, beyond any reasonable doubt, that [Nemelka’s works] are forgeries.” But Ida remained steadfast in her faith, no matter the cost, and she remained faithful to the end. And she’s not the only one. According to the 2011 article, Nemelka has attracted some 80 adherents. If you’re interested, you can read their testimonies here.

Who is this Christopher Nemelka, and how has he managed to convince people to follow him?

The official story is that, while working as a security guard in the Salt Lake Temple in the 1980s, Nemelka had a visionary experience.

Already disillusioned with the church, he ventured into the Temple’s upper room where the Twelve Apostles meet. Confronted with its opulence, he “wept bitterly.” Shortly afterward, a “tremendously bright light began to fill the room.” Not only did Nemelka see the personage of his late grandfather, but Joseph Smith and the gold plates to boot. His mission, he learned, was to “commence” the translation of the sealed portion, but only under the position and authority of Smith. The preamble ends with a rumble of stalwart righteousness: “Though I will endure many persecutions and trials, I will never deny that I have experienced that which I have described above, and if any man mock me or that to which I have testified, I will witness against him at the judgement bar of God … I solemnly testify.”

The sealed portion appears to have been published initially sometime in the early 1990s. By this time Nemelka had been through 2 marriages that had ended in divorce and had served time for abducting his son as a noncustodial parent. But there is some disagreement about Nemelka’s reasons for writing the book. In a 2007 interview, he appears to have decided to act the part of “pious fraud,” or someone who uses deception for godly ends. Some have argued that Joseph Smith was such a pious fraud, and it may have seemed natural for Nemelka to follow in his footsteps:

I set about in my own mischievous and arrogant way, of which I’m not proud of now, to prove that a person could actually write scripture and present it to people who were looking for certain scripture. I was playing on the belief that LDS people have that one day the gold plates would be returned and the sealed portion would be translated. Basically, I set about to write a fictitious version of the sealed portion as I thought Joseph Smith would have written it had he continued to perpetuate his translation of the gold plates. Much to the chagrin of the LDS church and others, what I wrote was indeed well versed and quite appropriate for the scripture I was trying to portray. Anybody who reads it would just be totally amazed. … My true intent was to somehow perpetuate a religion that would be based on true Christian principals [sic] of Christ-like love. Where I made my greatest mistake, for which I’m now extremely sorry for, is that I used deception to perpetuate what I proposed as the truth, assuming at the time that Joseph Smith had done the same thing.

In a letter to one of his wives, Nemelka wrote:

When I deal with people, I am amazed at the ignorance and stupidity of most. People are so easily manipulated and deceived. Knowing this has made me a near master of manipulation. I try only to use this art, however, to help people. Sometimes the things I do seem terrible at the time, but usually the manipulation works to accomplish that which I intended.

At other points, Nemelka has been more direct in explaining his motives: “Yeah that’s, that’s all bullshit. All the revelations are bullshit, of course. I made ‘em up.”

In the early 1990s, Nemelka took his book to the Mormon fundamentalist community, where it was a big hit. Nemelka soon set himself up in a polygamous arrangement, but eventually he admitted to the fundamentalists that he had written the “scripture” himself, angering them such that he fled and adopted a pseudonym:

Yes, Christopher Stohl was an alias that I used after I ran away from religious persecution. I didn’t want anybody to know Chris Nemelka. See, when I did that thing with the fundamentalist group, there were people who wanted to kill me. They were so mad. When I came out and told these other polygamists, fundamentalist guys, that I had really written the sealed portion, that I had done it just to show people that it could be done—they were very upset.

He also ended his polygamous relationships. One wife relates, “He sat us all down and said he didn’t believe in polygamy, but [said], ‘What man wouldn’t want to have sex with more than one wife?”

At this point, one would expect Nemelka to give up his religious enterprise, but not so. In 2000, Nemelka met a woman named Christine Marie, who told him she had seen him in a dream. Seemingly borrowing from the Joseph Smith playbook, Nemelka reportedly told her “he had been called to translate the sealed portion of the Book of Mormon. He almost failed the first time because of his pride, so God took his calling away for a while.” Nemelka made her feel like she had been chosen to receive this new revelation, that, in her words, “God sent me that dream about him because I had been called to help him. He knew I was one of the elect the minute he looked into my eyes.”

Even after Nemelka was jailed for violating a restrictive order, Marie stuck with him, and he sent her revelations from his jail cell. Nemelka denies having told her he was a prophet or called of God:

Never did he try to persuade Marie that he was a prophet of God, translating the sealed portion, he said. Never did he once ask or press Marie for money. It was Marie who projected a divine image onto him, convincing herself of his status as a prophet and man of God, he said. He ran with it and played on it, he admits. For that, he is sorry. And any money she gave him was money she volunteered, almost forced on him. He accepted it only after she told him her business was thriving and her children were being provided for.

“What I did do was I deceived her religiously. I played with her religious beliefs and mind, which I do not think a person should do,” Nemelka said.

Nemelka’s deception led to her financially supporting him, and she ended up forcing on him somewhere in the neighborhood of $5,000. According to her friends, “Marie sold all her furniture and goods to move into a dumpy hotel in downtown Salt Lake City, where she lived almost like a homeless person, among near-homeless people.” Yet Nemelka insists that he never led her on and never asked for money:

My whole purpose was for good. Christine knew that—knew that with all her heart. That’s why she said, ‘I’m going to finance you.’ She’s the one who brought it up. She’s the one who said I don’t want you to work. I wrote it under the inspiration and guise of being a prophet of God. That’s what she wanted me to be.

Indeed, he took pains to make sure that money she spent on him would not be connected back to him.

You have been quite spectacular and trustworthy in your timely payments to my Visa, which covers my child support. By using the Visa method, all transactions will be kept virtually out of my hands and name. So the world will have no cause against me if something happens to you, or if the media, which I am sure will one day be investigating, takes it upon itself to accuse me, as they did Joseph [Smith], of taking advantage of religious contributions for my own gain.

At this point, one could hardly be blamed for wondering if Nemelka himself is clear about his own motivations. Is it for money? Faith? Benefiting humanity? One of his ex-wives says, “There are so many angles that he takes. One minute he claims he’s an atheist, the next he’s a prophet of God.” But for his supporters, the motivation is unimportant. In every sacred text there is something more there than just the tomes.

I’m  less interested in Nemelka himself than in the reasons people adhere to such folks. I readily admit I don’t get the attraction to Christopher Nemelka; to me he seems like a low-rent, wannabe Joseph Smith. But something pulled Ida in, even after she knew about all the sordid details of his past (for some reason, I am reminded of Boyd K. Packer’s statement, “President William E. Berrett has told us how grateful he is that a testimony that the past leaders of the Church were prophets of God was firmly fixed in his mind before he was exposed to some of the so-called facts that historians have put in their published writings”). Similarly, Ida had a firm belief in Nemelka long before she learned about the jail time, the admissions of fraud, and so on. Why would she still believe? Was it the Spirit of God? Was it an unconscious desire to restore her family’s tarnished glory in the LDS church? Was it just that Nemelka’s stuff dovetailed nicely with what she already believed? I have no idea.

In the end, it doesn’t matter the reason. Religious attraction is a matter of individual desire, experience, and preference, and people like Ida are attracted to someone like Chris Nemelka, whereas others wouldn’t cross the street for him. I don’t know if these religious entrepreneurs specifically target certain kinds of people, or they just do what comes naturally in the hopes that the Idas of the world will appear.

Most people–and most Latter-day Saints–would dismiss Nemelka as an obvious fake, but Ida and others believe he has been called to usher in the last days. His website gives us a hint of when the end may come:

Plan to attend the next Marvelous Work and a Wonder® Annual Symposium, June 16th 2015 and every June 16th through 2144 with Wednesday June 16th 2145 being the ultimate culmination of all previous symposiums.

As far as I can tell, Nemelka will be around 183 then.

Maybe Ida will be there in spirit.




A Cumulative, Convincing Case for the Book of Mormon?

February 23, 2015

I notice my friend Dan Peterson has a new article in the Deseret News:

Defending the Faith: Creating a convincing, cumulative case for the Book of Mormon

I should say I have no interest in bashing Dr. Peterson, and I hope people here can talk about substantive issues rather than personalities. For the record, I like Dan Peterson and have for a long time. I understand why he rubs people the wrong way, and I’ll admit sometimes he rubs me the wrong way. But then I rub a lot of people the wrong way (just ask some of my stalkers–err, regular commenters). And I don’t expect a response from Dan, who has said he doesn’t “care for” the environment of my blog, by which I suspect he means my liberal (read: almost nonexistent) comment moderation policies.

Just a few things from his article caught my attention. First, he says, “I’m often confronted with the demand that I prove the Book of Mormon true.” Maybe he does get such demands, but most people I know, myself included, aren’t looking for proof, just reasonable, solid evidence. When someone claims they can create jet fuel by mixing Kool-Aid and Pop-Rocks, that demands proof. When someone says that there is a book that is a record of ancient Hebrews who migrated to the Americas, that demands evidence, not proof. Those who would demand proof of the Book of Mormon are never going to find it, just as believers will never find proof that it is not an ancient record. What we will find is evidence, for or against its authenticity. Around the middle of the 20th century, a number of Mormons made a concerted effort to find the Book of Mormon in the archaeological record. Needless to say, they failed, with at least one of them seeing his faith collapse in the aftermath.

Dr. Peterson continues:

We don’t expect coercive proof of the kind found in mathematics (and virtually only in mathematics). We’re not counting on decisive, secular, public evidence to demonstrate Mormonism true “beyond reasonable doubt.” Probably by divine design, such evidence isn’t available to us. Instead, we’re here for testing in what specialists call “decision making under uncertainty.” Confident conviction, members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints teach, comes through a personal, individual witness from the Spirit, not by sifting through academic arguments.

But this isn’t to say that no public case can be made, or that no secular evidence exists. And it’s certainly not to say that believers must forsake reason in order to have faith.

Dr. Peterson and others have referred on occasion to an “evidentiary stalemate,” meaning that there is sufficient evidence to support the Book of Mormon’s claims to antiquity, and equal evidence to the contrary. Thus, as he says, readers must engage in “decision making under uncertainty,” which is an ideal place from which to exercise faith and seek answers from God.

The apologetic effort, then, isn’t to provide “a handy cluster of arguments exists, let alone a single all-powerful world-conquering proof, that would compel unbelieving scholars to convert if only they paid sufficient attention.”

Rather, what we’ve sought to do over decades (with, in my admittedly biased opinion, considerable success) is to advocate and defend the claims of the Restoration by means of the patient, painstaking accumulation of often fairly small and specific arguments.

I could argue with his claims of “considerable success,” but then that’s in the eye of the beholder. But the point is that, when it became clear that–to steal a phrase–the Book of Mormon wasn’t to be found in Mesoamerica, the focus changed to finding Mesoamerica within the pages of the Book of Mormon. In other words, Mormon apologists (for want of a better word) began looking for ways that the content of the Book of Mormon fits in with what we know of ancient Mesoamerica. A lot of people have done some interesting work, from Jack Welch’s work with chiasmus to my friend Brant Brant Gardner’s six-volume Second Witness: Analytical and Contextual Commentary on the Book of Mormon to John Sorenson’s Mormon’s Codex: An Ancient American Book.

Where the debate lies, in my opinion, is what all that effort has produced. Again from Dr. Peterson:

Taken individually, many such arguments and observations may seem insignificant. It’s only when they’re seen to be meaningful parts of a larger picture that, we hope, they’ll be recognized as important indicators and clues.

A comparison might help: Consider a painting. Just about any painting will serve the purpose here, but 19th-century French “pointillism” provides perhaps the most obvious illustrations, and Georges Seurat’s 1886-1888 “Gray Weather, Grand Jatte” offers an exceptionally good example. If you examine it up close, you’ll see only meaningless daubs of colored paint. Only when you step back and see the pattern formed by hundreds and hundreds of such applications of color can you begin to understand what the overall painting is about.

This is as good an explanation of current apologetic approaches as I’ve heard, but there’s a fundamental problem. The work focuses on the tiny points and “daubs” of possible correlation. Once you “step back and see the pattern,” you see that the big picture doesn’t match at all. To extend Dan’s analogy a little, when you look very closely at a photo or painting reproduced in a newspaper, you see that it is actually made of up tiny dots of varying shades and intensities. Seen up close, it’s difficult to distinguish between Seurat’s “Gray Weather, Grand Jatte” and, say, a panel from Calvin and Hobbes. A careful study of the two would reveal common colors, placement of dots, and so on, but the big picture doesn’t match. But you would never know it as long as you focused only on the small “points of convergence,” as John Clark has called them.

That’s the problem with Mormon apologetics. Much as I appreciate and admire the work Brant Gardner has done to compile all the “Mesoamericanisms” he finds in the Book of Mormon, it still doesn’t add up to a civilization of transplanted Hebrews in the Americas; indeed, the civilizations that existed before and after the time the Nephites were supposed to lived show no appreciable change in culture or technology resulting from any interaction with proto-Christian Israelites. As anthropologist Michael Coe put it:

To make Book of Mormon archaeology at all kind of believable, my friend John Sorenson has gone this route: He has compared, in a general way, the civilizations of Mexico and Mesoamerica with the civilizations of the western part of the Old World, and he has made a study of how diffusion happens, really very good diffusion studies. He’s tried to build a reasonable picture that these two civilizations weren’t all that different from each other. Well, this is true of all civilizations, actually; there’s nothing new under the sun.

So he has built up what he hopes is a convincing background in which you can put Book of Mormon archaeology, and he’s a very serious, bright guy. But I’m sorry to say that I don’t really buy more than a part of this. I don’t really think you can argue, no matter how bright you are, that what’s said in the Book of Mormon applies to the peoples that we study in Mexico and Central America. That’s one way of doing it — to build up a kind of convincing background, a kind of stage set to this — but there’s no actors. That’s the problem.

I’ve written before that a close examination of the small points and details does add up to a clear big picture: the Book of Mormon is pretty much what you would expect from an early 19th-century American myth about the origins of the Native Americans, the mound builders, in particular. Very few scholars have spent a lot of time explaining the origins of the Book of Mormon in mound-builder mythology, but that’s because most historians familiar with the early 1800s find the connections so clear as to be obvious. Mormon history scholar Dan Vogel has spelled it out pretty clearly in his book, Indian Origins and the Book of Mormon, which is fortunately available at no cost on the Internet.

Dan lists what he considers to be “impressive” cumulative evidence of the Book of Mormon, but for me, none of it is remotely as compelling as the evidence of its nineteenth-century origins.


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