Joseph Smith and Language

November 30, 2008

As I learn more about Joseph Smith, I find myself feeling more sympathetic toward him. But every so often I run across something that leaves my jaw on the floor, such as this excerpt from his “Appeal to the Green Mountain Boys”:

Were I a Chaldean I would exclaim: Keed’ nauh to-maroon lehoam elauhayaugh deyshemayaugh veh aur kau lau gnaubadoo, yabadoo ma-ar’guauoomen tehoat shemayaugh alah. (Thus shall we say unto them: The gods that have not made the heavens and the earth, they shall perish from the earth, and from under these heavens.) An Egyptian: Sa e eh-ni: (What other persons are these?) A Grecian: Diabolas basseleuei: (The Devil reigns.) A Frenchman: Messieurs sans Dieu, (Gentlemen without Go.) A Turk: Ain shems: (The fountain of light.) A german: sie sind unferstandig. (What consumate ignorance!) A Syrian: Zaubok. (Sacrifice!) A Spaniard: Il sabio muda conscio, il nescio ne. (A wise man reflects, a fool does not.) A Samaritian: Saunau! (O Stranger!) An Italian: O tempa! oh diffidanza! (O the times! O the diffidence!) A Hebrew: Ajtaij aol raicu (Thou God seest me.) A Dane: Hvnd tidende! (What tidings!) A Saxon: Hwaet riht! (What right!) A Swede: Hvad skilla: (What skill!) A Polander: Nav-yen-wheo bah poa na Jesus Christus: (Blessed be the name of Jesus Christ.) A Western Indian: She-mo-kah She-mo keh ough-nepgab. (The white man, O the white man, he very uncertain.) A Roman: Procul, o procul este profani! (Be off, be off ye profane!) But as I am I will only add: when the wicked rule the people mourn.

No wonder, as Fawn Brodie puts it, “these proud displays … so embarrassed later historians of his church that they were quietly deleted from the official histories.”

Section 104

November 26, 2008

I’m still trying to wrap my brain around section 104 of the Doctrine and Covenants. Until yesterday, I thought it was just a run-of-the-mill revelation describing the distribution of church properties to the leadership after the failure of the Kirtland and Missouri United Orders. I knew about the code names used in the revelation–“Ahashdah for [Newel] Whitney, Olilah for Cowdery, Pelagorum for Rigdon, Mahemson for [Martin] Harris, and Gazelam for [Joseph Smith]” (NMKMH, p.141), but what I didn’t know was that for forty years, the revelation was presented as an ancient revelation to the prophet Enoch, he who, along with his people, was taken up to heaven because of his righteousness.

In the 1835 edition of the Doctrine and Covenants, the heading for the section reads, “Revelation given to Enoch, concerning the order of the church for the benefit of the poor.” Never mind that in its original incarnation in the 1833 Book of Commandments, the revelation was actually about consecrating all your property and entering into the United Order. The membership was not told that this revelation had anything to do with the modern church. As Fawn Brodie explains, “Except for a few leaders who knew better, the Mormons believed these to be the names of people living in the days of Enoch” (Ibid., p. 141). And it wasn’t until the 1876 edition of the Doctrine and Covenants that the Church revealed the truth behind the revelation (and removed the reference to its being a revelation given to Enoch). The revised intro tells us that it is a “Revelation given to Joseph Smith the Prophet, April 23, 1834, concerning the United Order, or the order of the Church for the benefit of the poor.”

So, why does this interest me so much? To me, the parallels to Joseph’s other revelations are obvious and instructive. Originally, the prophet was content to let the people believe that this was an ancient record, like the alleged translation of a revelation given to John the Beloved and written on parchment (see the introduction to section 7 of the Doctrine and Covenants). But it also has clear implications for the validity of Joseph’s major “translations.” Here are some parallels I think are important:

1. The text claims to be a revelation given to an ancient prophet. This is true of the Book of Abraham, the Book of Moses, and the Book of Mormon.

2. The text uses ancient-sounding personal names (Pelagoram, Mahemson) just as the Book of Mormon and Book of Abraham do.

3. The text uses ancient-sounding place names, some of which overlap with Book of Abraham place names (Shinehah, for example).

The difference, then, is that this revelation never was a revelation to Enoch, and the church later acknowledged that to the membership at large. But for forty years or so, members were told that it was an ancient revelation.

One wonders what the apologists would be doing if the revelation had continued to be presented as ancient. Would they have been trying to find Near Eastern etymologies for “Mahemson” and “Laneshine”? Would they have looked for parallels between the transfer of “Zombre’s” inheritance and Abrahamic traditions?

To me, this revelation is a touchstone for apologetics. The only reason the apologists make no attempt to rationalize this revelation as ancient is that we know it isn’t ancient. There’s no need to decipher “shinelah” or “Ozondah” because Joseph Smith invented them.

Erasing the United Order

November 25, 2008

In reading Fawn Brodie’s No Man Knows My History, I learned that, with the collapse of the United Order in both Kirtland and Missouri in 1833, Joseph Smith quietly divided the church’s property among the leadership. Sidney Rigdon had pressed Joseph to create a society in which the Saints held all things in common, but it had failed miserably. Here’s how Brodie describes it:

On April 10, 1834, the Kirtland council dissolved the Order. Dividing the community property was a thorny business. Tired of quibbling and recrimination, Joseph finally resorted to a revelation to parcel out the real estate, deeding himself the temple lot, [Sidney] Rigdon the tannery, [Oliver] Cowdery the printing shop, and most of the other leaders the lots on which they were then living. In 1835 , when the time came to print this curious document in the Doctrine and Covenants, he substituted fictitious names to avoid any unpleasantness—Ahashdah for [Newel] Whitney, Olilah for Cowdery, Pelagorum for Rigdon, Mahemson for [Martin] Harris, and Gazelam for himself. He even used code names for the industries—Laneshine house for the printing shop and Ozondah for the store. Except for a few leaders who knew better, the Mormons believed these to be the names of people living in the days of Enoch (p. 141).

Brodie is correct that, originally, section 104 of the Doctrine and Covenants (section 98 in the original) is presented as a “revelation given to Enoch, concerning the order of the church for the benefit of the poor.” In the current edition, it is presented as a “revelation given to Joseph Smith the Prophet, April 23, 1834, concerning the United Order, or the order of the Church for the benefit of the poor.” The wording is borrowed from the original, but the meaning is quite different. Brodie is probably right that most members would have understood the revelation to apply to the people of Enoch, not to the current church and its leaders. The “substituted names occur in all editions of the D&C from 1835 on, although the practice of bracketing the real names next to the substituted names began with the 1876 edition. By the 1921 edition almost all the real names had been identified. In the 1981 edition the code names were removed from the text in all but four cases, and the identity of one of these four is suggested in a textual note” (David J. Whittaker, “Substituted Names in the Published Revelations of Joseph Smith,” BYU Studies [1983] 1-9). So, in essence, Joseph was willing to present a modern revelation as an ancient revelation to Enoch without explanation.

But here’s where it gets interesting. Joseph had preached the United Order as requiring church members to consecrate all their property to the bishop, who would then distribute them according to the needs of the members. With the failure of the Kirtland and Independence Orders and the deeding of consecrated properties to the leadership, Joseph needed a change in doctrine. Here’s Brodie again:

From this moment Joseph began to efface the communistic rubric in his young theology. Since most of the copies of the Book of Commandments had been burned, it was easy for him to revise drastically the revelation on the United Order when it was republished in the enlarged Doctrine and Covenants in 1835. The Lord no longer demanded consecration of a man’s total property, but only a donation of his “surplus” over and above living expenses. In reprinting the first twelve issues of the Evening and Morning Star, Joseph revised most, though not all, of the descriptions of the original Order and commanded his missionaries to destroy the notion abroad that the church had ever been a common-stock concern (p. 1 41).

Comparing the current section 42 of the Doctrine and Covenants (section 13 in the 1835 edition) to the original section 14 of the 1833 Book of Commandments, we see that Brodie is right: Joseph has rewritten the revelation to erase the idea of consecrating all of one’s property to a mere donation of what is “more than necessary” to the poor.

Compare the following verses. Words that appear only in the 1835 and subsequent editions of the Doctrine and Covenants are marked in italics. Words that appear only in the 1833 Book of Commandments are marked in bold. Words appearing in both editions are in normal text.

29 If thou lovest me thou shalt serve me and keep all my commandments.

30 And behold, thou wilt remember the poor, and shalt consecrate of all thy properties for their support, that which thou hast to impart unto them me, with a covenant and a deed which cannot be broken.

31 And inasmuch as ye impart of your substance unto the poor, ye will do it unto me; and they shall be laid before the bishop of my church and his counselors, two of the elders, or high priests, such as he shall appoint or has appointed and set apart for that purpose.

32 And it shall come to pass, that after they are laid before the bishop of my church, and after that he has received these testimonies concerning the consecration of the properties of my church, that they it cannot be taken from the church, agreeable to my commandments, he shall appoint every man shall be made accountable unto me, a steward over his own property, or that which he has received by consecration, inasmuch as much as is sufficient for himself and family.

33 And again, if there shall be properties in the hands of the church, or any individuals of it, more than is necessary for their support after this first consecration, which is a the residue to be consecrated unto the bishop, it shall be kept to administer to those him who have has not, from time to time, that every man who has need may be amply supplied and receive according to his wants as he stands in need.

34 Therefore, And the residue shall be kept in my storehouse, to administer to the poor and the needy, as shall be appointed by the high council elders of the church, and the bishop and his council;

35 And for the purpose of purchasing lands for the public benefit of the church, and building houses of worship, and the building up of the New Jerusalem, which is hereafter to be revealed—

36 That my covenant people may be gathered in one, in that day when I shall come to my temple. And this I do for the salvation of my people.

As the reader can see, in the original, church members are commanded to consecrate “all thy properties” to the church. The bishop, in turn, appoints each man to be a steward over the property that the bishop gives to him. The “residue” of the property is to be used to “administer to the poor and needy” and also “for the purpose of purchasing lands” for the gathering of church members.

The revised revelation advises church members to “remember the poor” and “consecrate of [members’] properties for their support.” These donations to the poor are to be given to the bishop for distribution to the poor “from time to time.” There is no mention of the bishop giving property back to the members; rather, the members are told they are accountable as stewards to the Lord. The consecration of properties and goods is limited to that which is “more than is necessary for [members’] support, and the purchase of lands is likewise limited to providing for the construction of church buildings.

With the erasure of key tenets of the United Order, Joseph Smith abandoned his attempts to build a communal society, and never again in his lifetime would the Church attempt such an experiment. Interestingly enough, Joseph’s successor, Brigham Young, despite the loss of clear doctrinal exposition on the law of consecration, attempted further United Order communities in Utah, all of them failing within a generation.

Reading Brodie

November 24, 2008

Over the years I’ve read snippets of Fawn Brodie’s No Man Knows My History, but until now I’ve never had a chance to read it all the way through. I bought it twice in Texas, but both times the book mysteriously vanished from the nightstand and the house.

Having read Bushman’s Rough Stone Rolling, it’s tempting to do a comparison, but maybe I’ll do that later. For now, I thought I’d share my impressions (I’m about one-third of the way through the book).

First, despite the hatred Ms. Brodie has attracted from church members (my mom calls the book a “hatchet job”), the book is remarkably sympathetic to Joseph Smith. He emerges as a complex individual with both good and bad motivations, both extraordinary and ordinary at the same time.

Brodie carefully provides the context for the emergence of Joseph the Prophet. From an environment of folk magic (peepstones and treasure seeking), religious zealotry (revivals and the “burnt-over district”), and Indian mythology (Mound Builders and View of the Hebrews) arises a charismatic young man who combines all of this in a millenarian religion that answers all of the day’s pressing questions.

Brodie’s style is understated to great effect. In discussing Joseph’s claims to a First Vision, she simply notes that, despite his assertions that he was “persecuted” for recounting his vision, no one, not even his family, seems to remember anything about such a vision.

Her discussion of the Book of Mormon witnesses is fascinating. Despite their written testimony, Martin Harris says in an interview that he never saw the plates, except by his “spiritual eyes,” and even then they were covered by a cloth.

The Joseph she paints is someone who finds validation as a prophet from his successes, such as the unexpected healing of John Johnson’s wife’s withered hand. But such successes lead to failures, such as the out-of-control 1831 general conference that involved members shouting and rolling and the infirm lining up to be healed (though none were).

The turning point for Joseph seems to have come when the destitute Mormons were expelled from Independence, Missouri, in 1833. At first Joseph was indecisive and put off making any decisions by saying he had heard conflicting reports of the situation. A revelation was thus noncommittal as to what the members should do, other than be patient and hope for legal redress. When the situation became clearer, he blamed the members’ lack of faith for their expulsion. Finally, in response to the members’ predictable dismay at his response, he organized Zion’s Camp.

Anyway, those are some first impressions. I’m sure many of you have read this book. If nothing else, Brodie’s prose is lively and crisp and puts Bushman’s monotony to shame. And she has the advantage over Bushman that she feels no need to make any excuses for Brother Joseph.

Utah Names

November 21, 2008

Today I was driving behind a mini-van, and there was a large sign advertising something or other, but it didn’t register what the service was they were selling. What hit me was the contact name: Loydece Flake.

Who on earth would name their child Loydece? I think it’s a girl’s name, but who knows? Over my many years associating with Mormons, I’ve run across some truly awful names, and they weren’t all Book of Mormon names. At BYU I had professors named VerDon and Leaun. A secretary I worked with was named BoBetta. I have cousins named Tauni, Kea, and TaeLeah. My wife has cousins named LaRue, RaLyn, and Rinnie. I’ve met RoLayne, Lavinia, Jex, Malarie, and Cree-L.

What is it about Mormons that leads so many to give such names? What are your favorite Mormon names?

Go Cougars

November 21, 2008

I’ll probably alienate half my readers (all four of them) by posting this, but I’m still a BYU fan. Heaven help me, I can’t seem to jettison this vestige of Mormonness. It’s like the last hold the LDS church has on me.

Some of my friends are completely appalled at my bleeding blue. My friend Blixa tells me that she associates BYU with self-righteous racists, such as the folks she sat next to at a BYU-Utah game in the seventies. Others have told me that supporting my alma mater’s team amounts to tacit endorsement of the church and its teachings.

Growing up, I wasn’t much of a sports fan. I remember watching baseball games on TV with my dad, but that’s about it. But when I arrived in Provo my freshman year, I discovered that sporting events were the preferred dating venue, being cheap and frequent. That’s all it took for me. I was hooked.

So, even though I no longer believe in Mormonism, I still feel a mixture of awe and excitement every time I step into LaVell Edwards Stadium or watch a game tip off at the Marriott Center. My friend Tyler tells me he supports me, as he’s still a Cougar fan as well. I’m sure we’re not the only apostates sitting in the stands wearing blue.

So, tomorrow is the big game. Looking at it rationally, BYU’s defense is just not good enough this year, and Utah will probably win. But then, since when was religion (or football) a matter of reason? Go Cougars!

Top Ten Signs There Is No God

November 20, 2008

10. De Quervain’s tenosynovitis.

9. The script of Titanic.

8. Britney Spears.

7.  This song.

6. Arby’s.

5. Not content with “The Suite Life of Zack and Cody,” we now have “Suite Life on Deck.”

4. This song.

3. Pioneer Trek re-enactments.

2. Emma Smith: My Story.

1. John Dehlin’s “Mormonstories” is no more.

F-ing Cult

November 20, 2008

A few years ago, after I had my sudden epiphany about Mormonism, I was really angry. I felt like I had wasted 40 years of my life putting all my efforts and energy into something that wasn’t real. And I wanted to blame someone for it. I took to calling the LDS church a “fucking cult” fairly regularly, and I think I meant it. I was pissed off, and I wanted everyone to know it.

My wife taught me something important a while back, and that is that anger is almost always a substitute for a deeper underlying emotion. For me, it was sadness and hurt. I can’t describe how sad and hurt I felt to discover that the life I had devoted myself to was based on a lie, and a pretty big lie at that. I remember the day that we went to talk to my bishop about my lack of faith. I lay on my bed sobbing harder than I have ever sobbed, except for the day I learned my brothers were dead. I could not be consoled, and my wife didn’t even try. She knew that nothing she could say would help.

They say anger is a natural part of grieving, and maybe it was for me. But I’m glad it passed. I’m glad I can drive past a church without flipping it off (I’m embarrassed to admit I did that a few times driving past our stake center in Texas). I’m glad that I can be respectful towards things I do not believe. I’m glad I can appreciate the good that the church does in my family’s lives and in the lives of millions of people.

That’s not to say that I believe in the church. I don’t. And I have solid reasons not to believe. I think one of the other reasons I was angry was that I couldn’t really tell my family about what I was thinking and feeling. It always ended up in hurt feelings and sometimes anger. I’m again grateful that I no longer feel that need to convince anyone that I’m right (though I know I’m right, natch).

My goal is a live-and-let-live existence. My wife has told me before that she backed away from her public forms of worship because she didn’t want to hurt my feelings. I’d like to think I’m beyond that, and it pains me to know that she ever thought that of me.

I have a long way to go, but I’m getting better every day, at least I hope I am.


November 20, 2008

I’ve been told many times that I must accept the testimony of the Book of Mormon witnesses at face value. In their written statement, they say that they saw and “hefted” the plates from which Joseph Smith translated the Book of Mormon. Three of them said that an angel showed them the plates. If they said it, it must be so.

And yet I, a skeptic, am not convinced. As Mark Twain put it sarcastically, “When I am far on the road to conviction, and eight men, be they grammatical or otherwise, come forward and tell me that they have seen the plates too; and not only seen those plates but ‘hefted’ them, I am convinced. I could not feel more satisfied and at rest if the entire Whitmer family had testified.”

But I am reminded of the unreliable nature of eyewitness testimony. You never really do know what people see, as individual perspective is so different. And, as ought to be obvious, the written testimony of the eleven witnesses is not actually their testimony. It was written by Joseph Smith.

However, if we take the witnesses at face value, we still can’t be sure that their testimony is reliable. Compare their testimony to the witnesses who saw the Urim and Thummim, which Joseph Smith described as “two stones in silver bows—and these stones, fastened to a breastplate, constituted what is called the Urim and Thummim” (JS-H 1:35). But what did these stone look like? We have three eyewitness descriptions.

In her history of her son’s life, Lucy Mack Smith describes them as “two smooth three-cornered diamonds set in glass and the glasses set in silver bows.” Yet Martin Harris says they were “white, like polished marble, with a few grey streaks” (Tiffany’s Monthly, 1859, p. 166). And further David Whitmer has them being “two small stones of a chocolate color, nearly egg shape, and perfectly smooth, but not transparent” (Kansas City Journal, June 5, 1881).

If Joseph had the Urim and Thummim, and these witnesses saw them, why the discrepancy? Which one is right? And how would I know?

This is the problem with the Book of Mormon witnesses. At least some of them tell us that they didn’t see the plates with their eyes but in a sort of second-sight vision with their “spiritual” eyes. One wonders, then, if those who saw the Urim and Thummim also saw them with their spiritual eyes, and thus saw what they wanted to see.

That would explain the discrepancy.

A Good Story

November 16, 2008

It’s difficult to type because I have this ridiculous brace on my left hand to immobilize my sprained thumb. The brace is impossible to hide, as it’s big and black and goes halfway to my elbow. My wife said to me that I need to think of a good story to explain my sprained thumb, but that’s the worst part: there is no story. I noticed one day that it was hurting, and it just got steadily worse.

In contrast, I have several rather large and noticeable scars on my upper body from surgery when I was a newborn baby. That’s actually not a bad story, but as a teenager I used to enjoy making up even better stories: I was in a knife fight, or I was shot in Vietnam. And the odd thing is that some people believed it.

With some people, building up the story made it impossible to tell the real one. The brother of a girl I was dating was wide-eyed and fascinated as I told of the firefight outside of Hanoi. When I finally confessed to it being surgery to repair a birth defect, he refused to believe it was something that mundane.

I guess that explains why it’s so difficult for some people to accept a mundane, earthly explanation for the otherwise miraculous. Daniel Peterson recently told me that it was more logical to believe that Joseph Smith dictated the Book of Mormon from words that appeared on a stone in a hat than it was to believe that Joseph or someone else wrote the book over six years (the time from the first suggestion of a book until its completion). I think that’s the same phenomenon as that of my girlfriend’s gullible brother. It’s as if the more far-fetched a story, the easier it is to believe.

As for my thumb, my best guess is that I somehow slept on the hand and injured it. My wife said I should say I got attacked by ninjas or that she got a little overzealous with the handcuffs. I don’t think people would believe either.