Dishonesty and DNA

April 29, 2011

Disclaimer: I have no expertise in DNA of any kind, so I will not be discussing the legitimacy of certain scientific assertions. I do, however, know how to check sources against how they are being used, which is the focus of this post.

Recently, Simon Southerton, a DNA scientist and former Mormon, posted some thoughts on the state of DNA evidence for or against the Book of Mormon. In response, someone referred to a FAIR article by David Stewart, an orthopedic surgeon, entitled DNA and the Book of Mormon.". I will say up front that I have had no interaction with David Stewart, and he is only known to me for his epic debate with DNA researcher “The Dude” on the now-defunct “Mormon Apologetics and Discussion Board.”

Stewart begins by discussing the “traditional LDS position” regarding Native American ancestry before discussing Thomas Murphy’s “challenge” to that position.

He begins by telling us that “Critic Thomas Murphy” is hanging his hat on two types of evidence: Native American mitochondrial DNA (mtDNA), which is passed through females, and Y-chromosome “Cohan Modal Haplotype,” which is passed through males. Stewart says, “Murphy writes that ‘some of the most revealing research into Native American genetics comes from analyses of mtDNA,’ and presents mitochondrial DNA (mtDNA) data to support his conclusion that Native Americans could not possibly have an origin in ancient Israel.” The direct quote is accurate in that Murphy right says that mtDNA has revealed a great deal about Native American genetics. That said, Murphy does not conclude that “Native Americans could not possibly have an origin in ancient Israel.”

Here’s what Murphy actually says. In the first cited article, Murphy writes:

Quantitative scientific methods can now test the claims of an Israelite genetic presence in ancient America. So far, they have demonstrated that nearly all Native Americans can trace their lineages to migrations from Asia sometime between 7,000 and 50,000 years ago. Latter-day Saints who prematurely pointed to haplogroup X as the best hope to salvage Mormon claims were mistaken—indeed, the timing and destination of that migration is inconsistent with either a hemispheric or limited Mesoamerican geography for the BoMor. Moreover, the most recent studies have identified haplogroup X in Siberian populations which share a common ancestry with Native Americans. While molecular anthropologists have demonstrated a technological capability to use DNA to identify descendants of ancient Hebrews, no such evidence has turned up in Central America or elsewhere among Native Americans. Ultimately, as Sorenson has noted, these findings may not matter to Latter-day Saints who have a spiritual witness of the “truth” of the BoMor, yet they caution against confusing a spiritual witness with scientific evidence. Spiritual witnesses may reach beyond science but they should never be confused with it.

Note that Murphy acknowledges that evidence of Hebrew origins “so far” has not “turned up in Central America or elsewhere among Native Americans” and nowhere insists that such evidence cannot possibly be forthcoming.

In the second cited piece (a PowerPoint presentation, I might add), he states:

Lamanites could not possibly be “the principal ancestors of the American Indians” as claimed in the current introduction to the Book of Mormon.

This is hardly controversial, as the church itself has changed the wording of the introduction to “among the ancestors of the American Indians.” More importantly, however, Stewart dramatically exaggerates Murphy’s statement to make it seem as if Murphy believes that the case for Nephite migration is over and has been, metaphorically speaking, pretty much thrown into Mount Doom, with Mount Doom being then dropped under the continental plates. With this strawman firmly in place, Stewart takes on mtDNA evidence.

Over 98% of Native Americans tested to date carry mitochondrial DNA haplogroups A, B, C, or D. Outside of the Americas, these haplogroups are most commonly found in Mongolians and south Siberians, and are rarely found in modern Jews. Another 1% carry haplogroup X, which is found in south Siberian, European, and Near Eastern populations.

So far, so good. We know that these haplogroups appeared in the Americas some 16,000 years BC, indicating that nearly all Native Americans originate in south Siberia or Mongolia some 18,000 years ago, at least.

Murphy’s arguments are based on the assumption that modern Jewish mtDNA accurately represents the mtDNA of ancient Israel.

This is another misstatement. Here’s Murphy’s discussion of “Israelite DNA”:

Researchers have uncovered distinctive genetic markers on the Y-chromosome that can be useful in establishing linkages between ancient Hebrew and contemporary populations. Within the modern Jewish religion there are three patrilineal castes that genetic anthropologists Neil Bradman et al. describe thus: “the Priests (Cohanim, singular Cohen), non-Cohen members of the priestly tribe (Levites) and Israelites (non Cohanim and non-Levites).” As they use the term Israelite, it constitutes a subgroup of Jews “who are neither Cohanim nor Levites.” While Cohanim and Levites are present in most Jewish communities, one becomes a Jew through matrilineal heritage (being born to a Jewess) or through conversion. Thus “Israelite” haplotypes are very diverse, with only the Cohen modal haplotype appearing more frequently than 0.1 (14 out of 119). The Cohen modal haplotype is much more frequent in both Ashkenazic and Sephardic Cohanim (0.509, n = 54) and relatively rare in Levites (0.037). Despite different understandings of the terms Jew and Israelite than those commonly held among Mormons, Bradman and colleagues date the origin of the Cohen modal haplotype to 2,100 to 3,250 years ago (putting it within the historical range of alleged Lehite and Mulekite migrations to the New World). They conclude that it may “be useful for testing hypotheses regarding the relationship between specific contemporary communities and the ancient Hebrew population.”[68] Markers on the Y Chromosome are not the only genetic linkages between descendants of ancient Hebrews. Numerous nuclear DNA polymorphisms and various types of mtDNAs have been used to cluster and chart genetic relationships among Jews in Europe, Asia, and Africa. They have even provided evidence of Jewish connections among probable Spanish American descendants of conversos (Spanish Jews forcefully converted to Christianity in the 15th century).[69] Yet, they consistently fail to produce the linkages one would expect to find if Native Americans descended from ancient Hebrews as the BoMor suggests.

Once again, when Murphy does mention mtDNA, it is simply to note that mtDNA has been used successfully to “cluster and chart genetic relationships among Jews in Europe, Asia, and Africa” and point out that there are no such linkages among Native Americans.

Next Stewart tells us that “Findings that Jewish groups share little mtDNA commonality, but closely reflect the mtDNA of their host populations, flatly contradict Mr. Murphy’s assumptions. Mitochondrial DNA studies have had little success in linking different Jewish groups, leading geneticists to discount mtDNA as being notoriously unreliable in ascertaining ‘Jewish’ roots.” Does the cited study suggest that? Here’s what it actually says:

Previous low-resolution RFLP studies of the maternally inherited mtDNA of Jews, using five or six restriction enzymes, have also revealed patterns interpreted both in terms of common origin and local admixture. Ritte et al. (1993b) found that genetic distances among seven Jewish communities and Israeli Arabs were comparable to those found among five globally dispersed populations, with Ethiopian Jews appearing more as an outgroup than Israeli Arabs. Tikochinski et al. (1991) and Ritte et al. (1992) found that genetic diversity within Jewish populations was generally lower than in populations with a geographically extensive distribution, such as whites, Asians, Australians, and Africans, but was greater than that found in geographically restricted populations such as New Guineans, a pattern they attributed to an unusually polymorphic ancestral Jewish population, a high rate of growth in Jewish populations, or introgression events from neighboring populations. Ritte et al. (1993a) compared mtDNA and Y-chromosome haplotypes in six Jewish communities and found consistently lower genetic diversity in the mtDNA than in the Y-chromosome haplotypes, although differences in mutational processes between these two marker systems make it very difficult to ascribe such differences with certainty to demographic effects.

mtDNA is used in the study cited to show that groups of diaspora Jews tend to have descended from a small group of presumably local women. However, this does not apply to groups such as the Samaritans, who can be traced geographically and genetically (using mtDNA) to ancient Near Easter sources. So, the similarity of the mtDNA to local host populations is irrelevant, as I will discuss.

The University College London study found that that while separate Jewish communities were founded by relatively few female ancestors, this “process was independent in different geographic areas” and that the female ancestors of different communities were largely unrelated.

Coupled with the statement that “the female ancestors of different communities were largely unrelated,” Stewart makes it appear that, because the “founding process” for Jewish communities was “independent in different geographic areas,” one cannot possibly use mtDNA to trace Jewish ancestry.

Next Stewart quotes a summary of the UCL study by New York Times reporter Nicholas Wade:

Nicholas Wade wrote: “A new study now shows that the women in nine Jewish communities from Georgia… to Morocco have vastly different genetic histories from the men…. The women’s identities, however, are a mystery, because…their genetic signatures are not related to one another or to those of present-day Middle Eastern populations.”

This sounds pretty devastating to the suggestion that Jewish ancestry can be traced through mtDNA. But here Stewart ignores a key finding in the UCL study:

We have analyzed the maternally inherited mitochondrial DNA from each of nine geographically separated Jewish groups, eight non-Jewish host populations, and an Israeli Arab/Palestinian population, and we have compared the differences found in Jews and non-Jews with those found using Y-chromosome data that were obtained, in most cases, from the same population samples. The results suggest that most Jewish communities were founded by relatively few women, that the founding process was independent in different geographic areas, and that subsequent genetic input from surrounding populations was limited on the female side.

The last part is important. The study is talking about the founding of a Jewish community outside of Israel/Palestine. An “earlier study, led by Dr. Michael Hammer of University of Arizona, showed from an analysis of the male, or Y chromosome, that Jewish men from seven communities were related to one another and to present-day Palestinian and Syrian populations, but not to the men of their host communities.”

So, what this study shows is that Jewish males (probably traders) settled in non-Jewish communities, and of necessity married local women. However, because the Jewish communities are traditionally insular, further intermarriage with locals was, in the words of the study, “limited.” According to Dr. David Goldstein, one of the study’s authors:

The men came from the Near East, perhaps as traders. They established local populations, probably with local women. But once the community was founded, the barriers had to go up, because otherwise mitochondrial diversity would be increased.

This is important because, according to Mormon proponents of a limited geography theory (LGT) of Nephite/Lamanite population, intermarriage with existing Native American populations caused the genetic traces of Middle Eastern ancestry to vanish with time. There are a couple of differences that are worth noting:

1. The study shows that these diaspora communities were founded by men, who intermarried with local women, thus the lack of Middle Eastern mtDNA, but
2. The Book of Mormon emigrants were both male and female, and there are three separate migrations from the Middle East mentioned. Thus, unlike the diaspora communities studied, there should be both mtDNA and Y-chromosome evidence of Middle Eastern ancestry among Native Americans.

Moving on, Stewart states

Dr. Mark Thomas and colleagues reported: “In no case is there clear evidence of unbroken genetic continuity from early dispersal events to the present…. Unfortunately, in many cases, it is not possible to infer the geographic origin of the founding mtDNAs within the different Jewish groups with any confidence.” (MG Thomas, ME Weale, AL Jones, et. al. “Founding mothers of Jewish communities: geographically separated Jewish groups were independently founded by very few female ancestors.” American Journal of Human Genetics, 70:6 (June 2002), 1411-1420.)

The statement before the ellipses (mind you, the ellipses represent four pages in the original) makes it appear that a scientific study found no “clear evidence of unbroken genetic continuity” from early Jews to today’s Jewish population.

Is that what the original source claims? Here is the citation in context, which is an introduction discussing the difficulty in establishing historical evidence to substantiate claims of descent from Israel and Judea (you can find the entire article here):

Before the Second World War (1939–1945) and the founding of the modern state of Israel (1948), there were many long-standing separate Jewish communities in Europe, North Africa, and Asia. All of them claimed an origin in one or another dispersal from Israel and Judea.However, the origins of small minority communities founded before the 16th century are rarely well documented. For some Jews (e.g., the Babylonian Jews and modern Iraqi Jews), evidence exists of ancient Jewish communities in the same locations as in present times, but gaps often exist in the records of intervening centuries (Rejwan 1985, p. 143). In no case is there clear evidence of unbroken genetic continuity from early dispersal events to the present (de Lange 1984, p. 15; Encyclopaedia Judaica 1972).

Note that the first citation tells us that “gaps often exist in the records of intervening centuries” and that the last two support that original statement. None of these citations is from a scientific article: The first is from a book published by the Theodore Herzl foundation entitled “The Jews of Iraq: 3000 Years of History and Culture”; the second is from the “Atlas of the Jewish World”; and the third is from a 1972 edition of the “Encyclopedia Judaica.” None of these sources discusses DNA issues; rather, they discuss gaps in genealogical records. Stewart’s piece picks up on the word “genetics” and presents the quote as if it suggests that there is no DNA evidence of genetic continuity, which is a gross distortion of the original source.

After the ellipses–which of course suggests a relationship between the two statements–we are told, “Unfortunately, in many cases, it is not possible to infer the geographic origin of the founding mtDNAs within the different Jewish groups with any confidence.” Stewart appears to be linking gaps in genealogical records to an inability to determine the geographic origins of Jews. Again, since the study finds that the mtDNA comes from non-Jewish women, the statement is irrelevant to a discussion of Jewish mtDNA. Rather the authors suggest that “an indigenous origin is certainly possible, given the data,” and that two of the groups (Bene Israel and Ethiopian Jews) are most likely the result of intermarriage by “local recruitment.”

Next comes more from the New York Times:

Dr. Shaye Cohen of Harvard University observed, “The authors are correct in saying the historical origins of most Jewish communities are unknown.”

Again, Stewart makes it sound as if the genetic origins of Jewish communities are unknown. Here are Dr. Cohen’s remarks in context:

Most of those founding narratives do not have strong historical support. Dr. Lawrence H. Schiffman, professor of Hebrew and Judaic studies at New York University, said the new genetic data could well explain how certain far-flung Jewish communities were formed. But he doubted that it would account for the origin of larger Jewish communities that seemed more likely to have been formed by families who were fleeing persecution or making invited settlements.

Dr. Shaye Cohen, professor of Jewish literature and philosophy at Harvard, said the implication of the findings and the idea of Jewish communities’ having been founded by traders, was ”by no means implausible.”

”The authors are correct in saying the historical origins of most Jewish communities are unknown,” Dr. Cohen said. ”Not only the little ones like in India, but even the mainstream Ashkenazic culture from which most American Jews descend.”

In a recent book, ”The Beginnings of Jewishness,” Dr. Cohen argued that far-flung Jewish communities had adopted the rabbinic teaching of the matrilineal descent of Jewishness soon after the Islamic conquests in the seventh, eight and ninth centuries A.D.

One part of the Goldstein team’s analysis, that matrilineal descent of Jewishness was practiced at or soon after the founding of each community, could fit in with this conclusion, Dr. Cohen said, if the communities were founded around this time.

So, Dr. Cohen is not talking about genetic evidence but rather the “founding narratives” of these various communities; in other words, we do not know how or why these Jewish men settled in various locations, but we know they did. But Stewart distorts his source to make it seem damning to Murphy’s paper.

Next Stewart dismisses the relevance of mtDNA entirely from a study of Jewish ancestry:

Even close mtDNA homologies would not necessarily prove an Israelite origin, but the conspicuous absence of such homologies provides strong circumstantial evidence of non-Israelite origins for the mtDNA and much of the other genetic makeup of most modern Jews. With no evidence that modern Jewish mtDNA constitutes a valid control of the genetics of ancient Israel–and considerable evidence to the contrary–claims of Israelite lineage cannot be either confirmed or denied based on mtDNA data.

A couple of things:

Every study I have consulted suggests that the oldest Jewish communities, those of Iran and Iraq, which were formed around the time of Lehi (500-600 BCE) can be traced to Near Eastern origins through mtDNA analysis:

The Jewish communities of Iraq and Iran constitute the oldest non-Ashkenazi Jewish communities outside the Levant and were established during the 6th century B.C.E. For the Iranian (Persian) Jewish community sample set, we found that 41.5% of the mtDNA variation can be attributed to 6 women carrying mtDNA genomes that belong to sub-branches of Hgs H6a1b1, H14a1, T2g, T2c1, U1a1a, and J1b1 (Table 2), all known to be present in West Eurasia. In this regard, it is noteworthy that though Hg H is the dominant European mtDNA Hg (40-50%), its sub-Hgs H6 and H14 are largely restricted to the Near East and the South Caucasus [12]. Similarly, we found that about 43% of the Iraqi Jewish community can be traced back to 5 women whose mtDNA belongs to Hgs T2c1, J1b’e/J1e, U3b1a, H13a2b and W1d (Table 2), all frequent in the Near and Middle East. Again, Hg H13 is typically the Near Eastern, not European variant of Hg H [12]. Consistent with our findings, an independent sample of Iraqi Jews reported in a previous study [7], contained eleven out of 20 individuals who carry mtDNA variants, that can be assigned to the five founding lineages identified in the current study. (Behar et al., Counting the Founders: The Matrilineal Genetic Ancestry of the Jewish Diaspora, Molecular Medicine Laboratory, Rambam Health Care Campus, Haifa, Israel, 2008).

So, whether an “Israelite origin” can be proven is again, irrelevant. Jewish populations from the time period of Lehi show Near Eastern mtDNA. That Native Americans do not have such mtDNA suggests that there is no evidence for Near Eastern ancestry, Israelite or not.

Other studies have used combinations of Y-chromosome evidence, mtDNA, and identity by descent (IBD) to show that “This study demonstrates that the studied Jewish populations [“European/Syrian and Middle Eastern Jews”] represent a series of geographical isolates or clusters with genetic threads that weave them together. These
threads are observed as IBD segments that are shared within and between Jewish groups.” (Atzmon et al., “Major Jewish Diaspora Populations Comprise Distinct Genetic Clusters with Shared Middle Eastern Ancestry,” American Journal of Human Genetics 86, 850-859, 2010).

Stewart finishes his discussion of mtDNA with this paragraph:

Joseph’s wife Asenath, daughter of Potipherah priest of On, is the ancestral mother of the tribes of Ephraim and Manasseh (Genesis 46:20). While her genealogy is unknown, there is no reason to believe that her mitochondrial lineage or that of her descendants, including the Lehites, would have matched that of the tribe of Judah. The presence of mtDNA types in Native Americans that do not match those found in modern Jewish groups is fully consistent with both Book of Mormon and Bible accounts.

This is mind-boggling. In essence, he’s saying that, because we don’t know exactly what the mtDNA of Asenath would look like, we cannot determine a Near Eastern connection to Native Americans. As I mentioned, we know what the mtDNA of Near Eastern peoples looks like, so all it would take to make Israelite ancestry plausible would be the presence of one marker from Middle Eastern DNA. A good analogy would be to the Samaritans, who trace their lineage back to those Israelites who

did not go into exile when the Assyrians conquered the northern kingdom of Israel in 721 BC, but married Assyrian and female exiles relocated from other conquered lands, which was a typical Assyrian policy to obliterate national identities. This is in line with biblical texts that emphasize a common heritage of Jews and Samaritans, but also record the negative attitude of Jews towards the Samaritans because of their association with people that were not Jewish. Such a scenario could explain why Samaritan Y chromosome lineages cluster tightly with Jewish Y lineages, while their mitochondrial lineages are closest to Iraqi Jewish and Palestinian mtDNA sequences.

In short, the older the lineage, the greater affinity in both Y chromosome and mtDNA with other groups founded at the same time. That the Jews exiled to Iraq at the time of the Assyrian conquest are closely related by mtDNA to Samaritan communities founded at the same time suggests that we do know what kind of mtDNA evidence would support the claim that Near Eastern immigrants were assimilated into Native American populations.

This is just one section of Stewart’s paper, but it shows that Murphy’s statements are correct: so far, there is no evidence for Israelite origins among Native Americans. I could go through the rest of the article, but this ought to be sufficient to show that Stewart has built up a strawman and then manipulated sources to knock it down.

If nothing else, I conclude, first, that Stewart’s article is not a trustworthy response to Murphy, and second, that FAIR does not source-check their publications.

Does the LDS Church Hide Its History?

April 27, 2011

A common experience a lot of ex-Mormons have is discovering, to their shock, unsavory or problematic parts of LDS Church history that they had never heard in church, seminary, or on their missions. Predictably, some apologists respond by ridiculing these members who were foolish enough to get their church history and doctrine from approved church sources. LDS Church News writer Scott Lloyd calls such members “lazy and intransigent” for not taking the time away from scripture study and raising a family to study outside sources of church history. Besides, such apologists say, none of this controversial stuff is hidden by the church. For example, when a church member is troubled to find that the Book of Mormon was translated when Joseph Smith “would put the seer stone into a hat and put his face in the hat” they can point to a mention of this in a 1993 Ensign article from Russell M. Nelson. Apparently, if it was stated once, in passing, in a church magazine, it must be widely known. The bottom line is that, for such apologists, members who do not know such things are intellectually lazy, and those who do learn such things ought not to be troubled by them (why, they never say).

But does the church hide its history? I don’t think it’s so much about hiding information as it is about controlling how, when, and where the information is presented. I remember that the Clinton Administration in the US talked often about “message control”: unpleasant information was revealed at times when most people would not be paying attention. Often, information would be discussed or “leaked” late on Friday afternoon, as most people don’t pay much attention to the news over the weekend. By Monday, the information would have been covered in the media and discussed on the Sunday talk shows and would have mostly blown over. I think this is how best to understand the way the church presents information.

As I mentioned, the head-in-hat method of translation is well-known among critics and former Mormons and has been mentioned in the Ensign twice (the other is in a passing reference in a discussion of a tight vs. loose translation method in the September 1977 Ensign). Many church members do read the Ensign, but a significant number do not. If you happened to have been old enough to read the Ensign in 1977 (I was 12) or 1993 (I knew about the head in hat method by then), you would know about this; otherwise, you wouldn’t. The institute manual “Church History in the Fulness of Times” does not mention the seer stone or how it was used. Nor do the seminary and Sunday School manuals. Instead, all of these sources speak of the use of the Urim and Thummim as traditionally understood.

This issue came up for me when a church member I know said that everyone knows that Joseph Smith was a polygamist. It is taught in seminary, and people who are surprised by this were just not paying attention in class. Of course, very few church members know any of the details, the secrecy, the coercion. If you asked most Mormons about polyandry in the early church, they would most likely not know what you were talking about.

So I did a little experiment and searched for mentions of Joseph Smith and polygamy (the web site contains just about everything the church has published since 1971, so if you can’t find it there, you won’t find it).

I searched for the following terms:

Fanny Alger (Joseph Smith’s first alleged plural wife): 0 hits
Sylvia Lyon (one of Joseph’s “polyandrous” wives): 0 hits
Helen Mar Kimball (the young of Joseph’s wives): 1 hit, no mention of plural marriage
Zina D.H. Young (another polyandrous wife): 19 hits, mentions of being Joseph’s plural wife: 0
Eliza Partridge (orphan who moved into Joseph’s home as a teenaged “nurse girl” and was married to him without Emma’s knowledge): 1 hit
Emily Partridge (Emily’s sister, same story): 1 hit

A fairly explicit discussion of Emily and Eliza appears in a 1979 Ensign article by church historian Dean Jessee:

Emma Smith needed help with her newborn son, and hired first sixteen-year-old Emily, then twenty-year-old Eliza too.

Although little Don Carlos Smith died a short time later, Emily and Eliza continued to live in the Smith home, where, in the summer of 1842, both girls “were married to Bro. Joseph about the same time, but neither of us knew about the other at the time; everything was so secret” (Emily, “Incidents,” p. 186).

Louisa Beaman (sometimes considered Joseph’s first plural wife): 1 hit, as follows, from the “Church History in the Fulness of Times” institute manual:

Moreover, Joseph Smith and the Church were to accept the principle of plural marriage as part of the restoration of all things (see v. 45). Accustomed to conventional marriage patterns, the Prophet was at first understandably reluctant to engage in this new practice. Due to a lack of historical documentation, we do not know what his early attempts were to comply with the commandment in Ohio. His first recorded plural marriage in Nauvoo was to Louisa Beaman; it was performed by Bishop Joseph B. Noble on 5 April 1841. During the next three years Joseph took additional plural wives in accordance with the Lord’s commands.

Joseph Smith Plural Marriage: 94 hits

Some representative quotes:

Gordon B. Hinckley’s “Truth Restored” (ostensibly a history of the LDS church) contains only this about plural marriage; the rest of the section covers the persecution polygamy engendered)=:

Although polygamy is no longer practiced in the Church, no account of the Church’s history can be complete without some discussion of the practice. It was first announced by Joseph Smith at Nauvoo in 1842. Many of those close to him knew of it and accepted it as a principle of divine pronouncement. However, it was not publicly taught until 1852.

In the families that practiced polygamy, each wife, with her children, occupied a separate house, or, if the wives lived in the same house, as was sometimes the case, in separate quarters. No distinction was made between either of the wives or the children. The husband provided for each family, was responsible for the education of the children, and gave both the children and their mothers the same advantages he would have given to his family under a monogamous relationship. If it was thought he could not do this, he was not permitted to enter into plural marriage.

While the practice was extremely limited—only a small minority of the families were involved—it was the kind of thing of which enemies of the Church could easily take advantage.

A 1977 article from church historian Davis Bitton:

Starting during Joseph Smith’s own lifetime but limited to a few dozen families until its official announcement in 1852, plural marriage brought a powerful new challenge to the equanimity of Latter-day Saint family life.

The church’s main page about plural marriage says:

After God revealed the doctrine of plural marriage to Joseph Smith in 1831 and commanded him to live it, the Prophet, over a period of years, cautiously taught the doctrine to some close associates. Eventually, he and a small number of Church leaders entered into plural marriages in the early years of the Church. Those who practiced plural marriage at that time, both male and female, experienced a significant trial of their faith. The practice was so foreign to them that they needed and received personal inspiration from God to help them obey the commandment.

Liahona, April 1980:

July 12 [1843]. A revelation on the “Eternity of the Marriage Covenant and Plural Marriage” (D&C 132) was recorded, giving fuller meaning to the “new and everlasting covenant” which had been mentioned as early as 1831. The Prophet had explained the doctrine to a few, and plural marriages had been performed in 1841.

Teachings of the Presidents of the Church: Joseph Smith:

This book also does not discuss plural marriage. The doctrines and principles relating to plural marriage were revealed to Joseph Smith as early as 1831. The Prophet taught the doctrine of plural marriage, and a number of such marriages were performed during his lifetime. …

In 1841 the first sealings of couples were performed, and in 1843 the Prophet dictated the revelation that describes the eternal nature of the marriage covenant (see D&C 132). The doctrines in this revelation had been known by the Prophet since 1831. As commanded by God, he also taught the doctrine of plural marriage.

The only mention in the Gospel Doctrine Doctrine and Covenants manual:

The revelation to practice plural marriage in this dispensation

In this dispensation, the Lord commanded some of the early Saints to practice plural marriage. The Prophet Joseph Smith and those closest to him, including Brigham Young and Heber C. Kimball, were challenged by this command, but they obeyed it. Church leaders regulated the practice. Those entering into it had to be authorized to do so, and the marriages had to be performed through the sealing power of the priesthood.

A D. Michael Quinn article from the Ensign in 1978 is unusually frank:

How a family accepts members who join it by marriage is, in some ways, analogous to how a Church accepts members who join it by baptism. The experiences of plural marriage make the analogy even closer. The Whitney family rose nobly to the challenge in a way that was an example to the Church. On 27 July 1842, the Prophet Joseph Smith recorded a revelation to the Whitneys on plural marriage.

“My husband revealed these things to me; we had always been united, and had the utmost faith and confidence in each other. We pondered upon them continually, and our prayers were unceasing that the Lord would grant us some special manifestation concerning this new and strange doctrine. The Lord was very merciful to us; He revealed unto us His power and glory. We were seemingly wrapt in a heavenly vision, a halo of light encircled us, and we were convinced in our own minds that God had heard and answered our prayers and intercedings before Him.” In obedience to the command of the living prophet, Newel and Elizabeth Ann gave their daughter Sarah Ann in marriage to Joseph Smith. Nearly a year later, Joseph Smith dictated the general revelation about the eternity of marriage and the nature of plural marriage, and Newel asked to have his own copy, a providential request, since the first copy was destroyed. Thus, Newel’s desire to have the word of the Lord has blessed the entire Church by preserving what is now Section 132 [D&C 132] in the Doctrine and Covenants.

As I read these accounts, I noticed something. Through the 1970s, the church discussed some of these things far more openly than they do today (the Quinn and Jessee articles being notable), but in the early 1980s, references to Joseph’s practice of plural marriage became more guarded, usually brief references in the passive voice (“and a number of such marriages were performed during his lifetime”). There is a reason for that.

In the 1970s, the church historian’s office was being run by professional historians, such as Leonard Arrington and Dean Jessee. According to Arrington, “historians, at Brigham Young University and elsewhere, were given full access to the Church Archives and commissioned to write accurate and reliable treatises on a variety of assigned topics” (“The Writing of Latter-day Saints History,” Dialogue, 14:3 [Autumn 1981], p. 126). Several publications came of that new openness from the historian’s office: “The Expanding Church by Spencer Palmer, published in 1978; the biography of Heber C. Kimball by Stanley Kimball, published by the University of Illinois Press; the biography of Jedediah M. Grant by Gene S. Sessions, recently accepted by the University of Illinois Press; and Voices of Women by Ken and Audrey Godfrey and Jill Mulvay Derr, now being published by Deseret Book Company” (Ibid., p. 127). Two works were commissioned for the church’s 1980 sesquicentennial: The Story of the Latter-day Saints, by James Allen and Glen Leonard and published by Deseret Book; and a projected multivolume (reportedly it would have 16 volumes) “History of the Latter-day Saints, 1830-1980,” though no volumes were ever produced.

Suddenly, in 1981, the frank discussion ended, access to the church archives was severely restricted, even for trusted church historians, and Arrington and his staff were transferred from church employment to BYU. Since then, when church history is discussed in manuals and magazines, its presentation follows the admonition of Boyd K. Packer, not coincidentally delivered at almost the same time as the dismissal of the professional historians and closing of the archives:

Church history can he so interesting and so inspiring as to be a very powerful tool indeed for building faith. If not properly written or properly taught, it may be a faith destroyer. … There is a temptation for the writer or the teacher Of Church history to want to tell everything, whether it is worthy or faith promoting or not. Some things that are true are not very useful. There is a temptation for the writer or the teacher Of Church history to want to tell everything, whether it is worthy or faith promoting or not. … In the Church we are not neutral. We are one-sided. There is a war going on and we are engaged in it. It is the war between good and evil, and we are belligerents defending the good. We are therefore obliged to give preference to and protect all that is represented in the gospel of Jesus Christ, and we have made covenants to do it.

Packer is describing a rather extreme form of message control, in which only the positive is to be revealed out of fear for destroying the faith of church members. I think we’re all pretty familiar with the “sanitized” version church history that has resulted over the last thirty years or so. What happened to cause such a change?

As I mentioned, the book “The Story of Latter-day Saints” that was commissioned for the sesquicentennial and published by Deseret Book Company. Before the book was published, Ezra Taft Benson and Mark E. Petersen tried to kill the project. Arrington writes:

Kimball began by saying that The Story of the Latter-day Saints had raised some concerns. Benson admitted that he had read only portions of the book but that at least one of the Twelve had read all of it. Calvin Rudd, an institute teacher, had given him a two-page list of his concern in very general terms: the book would make young people “lose faith,” it “demeaned” Joseph Smith, it gave only sixteen lines to the founding of the church. For five or ten minutes Benson continued his “grave warnings” about “the problems and dangers and risks” of the existence of such a book. I responded. Then Petersen expressed his concerns very strongly and openly. I again responded. Then both Benson and Petersen took another turn.

Arrington was asked by Delbert Stapley to “have members of the Twelve review manuscripts. … Stapley added that some members of the Twelve insisted that we exclude any information from our publication that might put the church in a bad light.”

Shortly after the publication of the book (which was not reprinted until 1986, when the controversy had died down), G. Homer Durham took over the responsibility for the historian’s office. The church stopped cooperating with outside publishers and universities and severely restricted access to the church archives. The historian’s office was now part of the “faith-promoting” mission of the church. To the church’s credit, they have produced a few volumes of the Joseph Smith papers, but then we already know that Joseph Smith tended to leave the unsavory out of his own histories, so that’s a safe, mostly faith-promoting project.

Ironically, back in the 1970s, the church could almost completely control the flow of information to its members, but it chose not to do so. Today, the church has lost all control of information, as many primary sources of controversial issues are readily available on the Internet. It’s quite possible that, had Arrington been allowed to produce a more open and accurate history thirty years ago, the information that is so shocking to so many church members might have elicited only a yawn.

Some Perspective

April 26, 2011

President Hinckley used to say that the church was coming out of obscurity, and indeed his PR appearances and the predictions of Rodney Stark that the LDS church would soon become a major world religion seemed to confirm such a notion.

It was a huge shock to me, when I lost my faith and non-Mormons talked more openly with me about the church, that the church was a miniscule presence in American life, and that most people didn’t think much about it, other than it was a bit odd.

Joseph Smith had predicted that his name would be had for good and evil the world over, but mostly people have never heard of him, and those who have are indifferent to an obscure religious leader who lived nearly 200 years ago. Far from being a stone that has rolled forth to cover the earth, the LDS church has made minor inroads in places around the world, with perhaps 4 million active adherents, but the stone appears to be slowing to a halt and perhaps beginning to roll backwards.

A good comparison to Mormonism, in my view, is the movement of Sathya Sai Baba, an Indian guru who died this past week. Sai Baba had at his death, it is said, 6 million or so active followers around the world. His organization has spread throughout the world, and it has built schools, universities, and hospitals, and funded charitable work, such as water-purification plants, in poor areas. Sai Baba counted as friends and followers presidents, prime ministers, and celebrities.

This is the kind of career that I believe Joseph Smith envisioned for himself. Instead, he lived and died in and out of jail in obscure frontier towns, disdained by the powerful and influential. I would bet money that in 200 years, Sathya Sai Baba will still be more influential than Joseph Smith.

Top Ten Ways to Celebrate a Mormon Easter

April 21, 2011

10. Egg-shaped green jello shots.
9. Re-enact “Nephite Easter” by turning off all the lights in the house and filling it with “mists of darkness” for three days.
8. Tell the Primary kids they can have an Easter Egg hunt after they finish cleaning the meetinghouse.
7. Accessorize conservative suits with ties in festive pastel colors.
6. Watch “Easter Parade” on your smart phone during the Primary program.
5. Hug an illegal immigrant.
4. Keep the priesthood out of the kitchen.
3. Color Easter “runtus.”
2. Enjoy your ham dinner knowing that somewhere a missionary is eating Top Ramen.
1. Ferret out one “closet apostate” to help purify the ward.

Dissent from the Right? The LDS Church and Immigration Law

April 21, 2011

Years ago, when I worked at the LDS (Mormon) church’s Church Office Building in Salt Lake City, I was often amused by a colleague who expressed extremist political views. He would talk about government conspiracies, the United Nations, and black helicopters, and how he was stockpiling food and guns to protect his family against the coming collapse of the United States (you know, when the Constitution would “hang by a thread”). All the while he insisted that the LDS church endorsed his views, although he understood that they couldn’t be too explicit publicly, as they needed to be publicly “neutral.”

At the time I wondered what would happen if at some point the church said or did something that ran counter to this man’s political beliefs. I suspected that, rather than try to adjust his thinking to stay in line with the church, he would likely consider the church to be in apostasy and would choose his political beliefs over loyalty to the church. I’ve known a few fanatics who have made such a choice, one of whom started his own “church” (membership: 2) and two brothers who took weapons to Temple Square to rescue Ezra Taft Benson, who they believed was being held captive in his apartment by those who wanted to silence him politically (needless to say, these two guys spent time in federal prison).

Boyd K. Packer discussed the choice that church members have to make sometimes between their personal beliefs and the church’s teachings. “You need to decide now which way you face…. Perhaps too many of us are strong advocates of our own specialized work or are such strong protectors of our own turf that we face the wrong way — maybe just sideways…. Unwittingly we may turn about and face the wrong way. Then the channels of revelation are reversed. Let me say that again. Then the channels of revelation are reversed. In our efforts to comfort them, we lose our bearings and leave that segment of the line to which we are assigned unprotected…. We face invasions of the intensity and seriousness that we have not faced before. There is the need now to be united with everyone facing the same way. Then the sunlight of truth, coming over our shoulders, will mark the path ahead. If we perchance turn the wrong way, we will shade our eyes from that light and we will fail in our ministries.”

In the last couple of months we’ve seen some members “facing the wrong way,” on a somewhat larger scale, as the church has taken a position on immigration legislation that conflicts with the conservative political beliefs of many of its members. Some background is probably in order.

In November 2010 representatives of business, political, community, and religious groups signed the Utah Compact , a “declaration of five principles to guide Utah’s immigration discussion.” The LDS church did not sign the compact, but on the day the compact was signed, the church released a statement of support for the compact: “The Church regards the declaration of the Utah Compact as a responsible approach to the urgent challenge of immigration reform. It is consistent with important principles for which we stand.”

During the legislative session, the church quietly lobbied lawmakers in support of House Bill 116 , which provides for undocumented workers to receive “guest worker” status in the state. As part of the lobbying effort, legislators were given copies of a Deseret News editorial, “A Model for the Nation,” which they were told reflects the church’s position on H.B. 116. Although the editorial does not mention the bill by name, it mentions its principal authors and sponsors, making clear what legislation the editorial is talking about. Some legislators have said that the church’s “lobbyists were heavily involved and explicitly lobbying legislators to support that specific bill.” Curt Bramble, author of H.B. 116, said that LDS lobbyists did “make it clear where the church stood on immigration.”

Rep. Brian King agrees that the church “made it pretty clear, in subtle and unsubtle ways, that it supported a more moderate approach to dealing with immigration that recognized the complexity of human lives. They weren’t telling legislators anything they hadn’t been conveying to the public, even before the session.”

On March 15, 2011, Governor Gary Herbert signed the legislation. Presiding Bishop H. David Burton, representing the LDS church, attended the signing, which apparently upset more than a few church members. In response, the church issued another press release, “A Principle-Based Approach to Immigration,” which praised the legislation as a ” responsible approach to a very complicated issue” and expressed “support for the diligent efforts of lawmakers in this area.”

This past weekend, Paul Rolly reports that the Salt Lake County Republican Party convention, which is overwhelmingly LDS, passed a “resolution rejecting the legislation allowing for a guest-worker program and asking for it be overturned.” Rolly also mentions a growing movement “in Republican circles in Salt Lake and Utah counties to ‘throw out the bums’ who voted for the bills.”

Told of the church’s support for the guest worker legislation, delegates were shocked and dismayed. “Rep. Greg Hughes, R-Draper, expressed that frustration as a church member. He said on K-TALK’s ‘Red Meat Radio’ program Saturday that he was amazed at how many Republican delegates refused to accept the fact that the church favors a kinder and gentler approach to immigration reform.”

Some church members are not taking this lying down. Ron Mortensen, a church member and fellow of the Center for Immigration Studies, an anti-undocumented worker organization, has written a long piece decrying the church’s involvement in the legislation. He charges the church with dishonesty in its claims of neutrality on the legislation and in one case accuses the church of an “outright lie.” He suggests that the church has lost its bearings:

The press release reveals just how far the LDS Church has moved from its American roots. The statement acknowledges that the Church is dealing with complex issues around the world. Mercy (compassion) is emphasized over justice and the press release gives the distinct impression that the Church is moving to the left and closer to a social justice position.

To me this sounds suspiciously like something a fundamentalist Mormon might write. (Note the reference to Glenn Beck’s condemnation of “social justice” churches.) However, Mortensen is careful to couch his criticisms as asking the church to clarify its position, which he calls inconsistent.

“Mortensen said he hasn’t lost his faith over this issue, nor is he anti-Mormon. He sent a copy of his paper to LDS President Thomas S. Monson, who sent a note saying he doesn’t comment on publications, and four apostles, who never replied. Some Mormon opponents of the bills, Mortensen said, are withholding some contributions from the church because of its stance.”

But I think Brother Mortensen is going to find that he has crossed a line with the church. It is one thing to question the church’s position on specifics, but it is quite another thing to publicly chastise the church and its leaders for abandoning its teachings–at one point claiming the church is “separat[ing]” itself “from the 12th Article of Faith and the rule of law”–and supporting criminal activities.

It will be interesting to see where this debate goes from here.

Quote for the Day

April 19, 2011

One of my favorite songs from Mary Chapin Carpenter:

“And the three greatest gifts of moving on
Are forgiveness, hope, and the great beyond.
After that perhaps peace can come
Peace will come

And you see that you’re leaving…
And you see that you’re gone…”

I am convinced that “moving on” from Mormonism requires forgiveness, hope, and facing the future.

Whom should we forgive? I don’t believe most of the leaders and members of the church intentionally taught me that which isn’t true, so I don’t know that I need to forgive any of them for just doing what they thought was right. I suppose if I had to forgive someone, it would be Joseph Smith for starting the ball rolling. But it seems a little silly to forgive someone who lived and died 120 years before my birth. But I guess he’ll do as the object of my forgiveness. That doesn’t mean I accept that what he did was right or true (I’m sure it wasn’t), but I’m past harboring bad feelings toward the man. And I can forgive the people who have treated me less than charitably since I left because they’ve been taught to do that. I don’t hold them totally responsible, anyway.

As for hope, I think some of us have a hard time seeing anything but the ruins of our faith, the wreckage of our personal relationships, when we leave the church. Hope to me involves expecting that things will get better–and they usually do–but also the wisdom to let go of false hope. We’re not going to have the same kinds of relationships with our friends and family, and we’re never going to look at life the same way we did before–hope means letting go and enjoying the possible and the real. Without getting too horribly personal, I’m quite sure it was the inability to hope that led to my suicide attempt. Those days are long gone.

To me, the great beyond is the future. Too often I get stuck in the past, thinking of all the things that happened to me during my time in the church. You can only grieve so long, only regret what might have been for so long. Then you have to let go of the past and face the future. I think of it as deliberately turning around and facing the light, not letting someone else direct me away from it.

Then peace comes. It really does.

No lion remains discovered in Palestine: another apologetic theory bites the dust

April 19, 2011

So I’m reading Mike Ash’s 2007 piece on the FAIR web site about horses in the Book of Mormon. He makes the claim that no horse bones have been found among Hun archaeological remains, though as others have shown, this claim is erroneous.

He also makes this statement, which made me curious:

Even in areas of the world where animals lived in abundance, we sometimes have problems finding archaeological remains. The textual evidence for lions in Israel, for example, suggests that lions were present in Israel from ancient times until at least the sixteenth century AD, yet no lion remains from ancient Israel have ever been found.

I should mention that here he’s suggesting that the lack of archaeological evidence for something attested to in ancient writings and art may not be conclusive negative evidence. We know that ancient Israel depicted lions as native to Palestine, but according to Ash, no lion bones have been discovered. Thus, if horse bones haven’t been found in the New World, that doesn’t mean the ancient Mesoamericans did not have horses.

Ash’s citation for this claim is:

John Tvedtnes, “The Nature of Prophets and Prophecy” (unpublished, 1994), 29-30 (copy in author’s possession); Benjamin Urrutia, “Lack of Animal Remains at Bible and Book-of-Mormon Sites,” Newsletter and Proceedings of the Society for Early Historic Archaeology, 150 (August 1982), 3-4.

So, here we have two LDS sources suggesting that “no lions remains from ancient Israel have ever been found.” That should be pretty easy to confirm, right?

Apparently not.

The fauna of the country [Palestine] is almost unchanged from the earliest historic times. The lion and the wild ox have become extinct; the former is noticed by an Egyptian traveller in Lebanon in the 14th cent. B.C., and is even said to have survived to the 12th cent. A.D.; its bones are found in caves and in the Jordan gravels. (Dictionary of the Bible, ed. James Hastings, 1900).

More recent archaeological excavation confirms this:

The largest faunal collections and most intensive archaeo-zoological research for [the Chalcolithic] period have been carried out in the northern Negev. This biological data provides us with a detailed picture of human/animal relations during this formative period. … If Shiqmim is taken as a representative sample for the valley, sheep … and goat … make up over 90 percent of the faunal assemblage with the remaining 10 percent consisting of cattle, … dog, equid and ca. 3.8 percent of wild animals (gazelle, hartebeest, hippopotamus, lion, small cat, fox, hare, ostrich, bird and fish). (The Archeology of Society in the Holy Land, ed. Thomas Levy, New York, Continuum, 1998, pp. 231-32)

Heck, even another Maxwell Institute article from 2000 contradicts Ash:

The biblical narrative mentions lions, yet it was not until very recently that the only other evidence for lions in Palestine was pictographic or literary. Before the announcement in a 1988 publication [L. Martin. “The Faunal Remains from Tell es Saidiyeh,” Levant 20 (1988): 83—84] of two bone samples, there was no archaeological evidence to confirm the existence of lions in that region. (Robert R. Bennett, “Horses in the Book of Mormon,” Maxwell Institute, 2000)


The Significance of Pain

April 13, 2011

I used to believe that experiencing pain was good for us. As I recall, it was Satan who taught us that everything has its opposite, and the opposite of pain is pleasure.

There’s something to the notion that you don’t appreciate feeling good–or even feeling “normal”–until you’ve experienced something worse. I didn’t understand what life without depression would be like until I stopped being depressed. I’m now learning that absence of pain is the opposite of pain. When you’re in pain, you really don’t need to feel pleasure, just a break in the pain will do.

But is there some larger cosmic significance in pain? I don’t know. If the lesson to be learned is that we should appreciate not being in pain, I’m already there. Maybe chronic pain is supposed to help one feel empathy and compassion for the pain of others. I think I’ve learned that in a more concrete way.

So I’m sitting here hooked up to some electrodes and pondering what it all means. Maybe it means nothing.