Getting to Know the World

January 31, 2014

Apropos of nothing, I stumbled across this little game on the BBC website.

How Well Do You Know the World?

It’s completely addictive (not good for an OCD/addiction-prone personality like me). What I like about it is that, after you’ve played it a little while, you really do start learning more about different places around the world.

I’ve learned to recognize where certain kinds of trees and plants are, and of course it helps to look at road signs and which side of the road the cars are driving. When I get stuck, my default is Australia.

Anyway, fun stuff.

Ex-Mormons and Belonging

January 31, 2014

A friend pointed me to an interesting article in Newsweek about ex-Mormons.

I thought I’d share my initial reaction.

The article speaks of an organized community of ex-Mormons who actively “recruit” people away from the LDS church with such things as pass-along cards and billboards. I know a few people who do things like that, and Jeff Ricks is a good friend of mine, so I’m well aware of what he does. I’ve never been part of that active effort, but I will say that I don’t think Jeff and people like him are trying to pull people out of the LDS church so much as letting them know, as Jeff’s billboards put it, they “are not alone.”

This is, I think, the important thing to take from that article: as Mormons we lived a highly scripted (for want of a better word) life within a defined context and community. After leaving the church, I realized just how much my life had been built around the church: all day Sunday, seminary, YM/YW, Scouts, cleaning the chapel, firesides, conferences, temple attendance, scripture study, and so on. Leaving the church necessarily creates a huge void in a person’s life, so these support groups are helpful in that, as the therapist in the article mentions, they “parallel the church in the sense that they meet every day … so they can transition out of one community and into another.”

That’s the key for me. Whether I’ve wanted to admit it or not, I had that big void in my life, and I filled it by becoming part of the ex-Mormon community. And I thank God they were there to understand and support me when I needed it. I’ve met some of the greatest people I know in that community, and as different as they are, the one thing they have in common is integrity. I have never met a group of people with as much integrity in my life. I think their integrity is part of what led them to leave the LDS church in the first place: they couldn’t just go along to get along or pretend or quietly sit in the pews. They did what they thought was right.

I laughed at the meetings devoted to learning how to drink alcohol or purchase underwear, but these silly things illustrate just how jarring the experience is and how much of your life you have to figure out, even to the level of what kind of underwear you’re going to wear (boxer-briefs, in case you were wondering).

I’ll always be part of that community, I suppose, simply because I share a common experience with that community, and of course, I have many friends who are active in that community. But I’m never going to be an active participant or organizer or leader because I just don’t care that much anymore. I don’t define myself by the label of “ex-Mormon,” though I may have at one time. Two summers ago I participated in a Sunstone panel about ex-Mormons, along with Jeff Ricks, Carol Hamer, and a couple of other people. It became apparent to me quickly that, for Carol and me, Mormonism no longer generated the emotion or passion that it did in the others. Carol still writes about her Mormon experience, though she’s been out far longer than I have. So, like I hope I am, she’s part of our community but not defined by it.

The other day someone asked me why I have never finished my sarcastic “Concise Dictionary of Mormonism,” and I realized that I wrote those posts during a time when the LDS church was causing a lot of tension in my home, and when I’m annoyed or angry, I tend to react with extremely sarcastic humor. I got to the letter “N” and then stopped. Why? Because the stress had passed, so the motivation passed. Sometimes I think I’ll just finish it off just for some closure, but it’s a good metaphor for my existence after the church. I just don’t have the passion to be angry or hurt or sarcastic anymore. The most I can do these days is to write about specific things that interest me.

I’m glad people like Jeff Ricks are out there to help people who are struggling. Me, I’ll just write what I think, no matter how many people tell me to shut up.

A Conversation with Brother Bishop

January 29, 2014

After I made my post about Joseph Smith attempting to translate English into Hebrew, a curious thing happened: a commenter took issue with my conclusions and then proceeded to veer into irrelevant topics such as Hugh Nibley’s attempt to muddy the Book of Abraham waters by attacking transliterations and, of course, our commenter’s priesthood office. (For the record, I was ordained a high priest in the LDS church 16 years ago.)

In case anyone missed the point, I’ll summarize my earlier post.

1. Before Joseph Smith had any instruction in Hebrew, when he translated, the words he claimed were Hebrew were not Hebrew at all.
2. After Joseph Smith had some instruction in Hebrew, when he translated, the words he claimed were Hebrew turned out to be Hebrew after all.
3. Without knowledge or instruction in Egyptian, when Joseph translated, the words he claimed were Egyptian resembled his first attempt at Hebrew and were not Egyptian.

I think we can make some pretty solid conclusions from this, but obviously others may disagree. Either way, it seems to me that, were I trying to defend Joseph Smith, I could think of a few responses:

1. The first attempt was a secular attempt and does not reflect on his abilities as a translator when inspired of God.
2. The words Joseph claimed were Hebrew really are Hebrew but have either not been revealed yet or have been lost over the centuries.

There are obvious problems with both, but since I have a commenter who has come up with a criticism of my post, I shall respond.

Robin Bishop (I’m going by the comment label) wrote:

Joseph Smith did not have English to Hebrew online translators. So, it is a simple procedure to test the voracity  of the Prophet Joseph. In your post, you have the translation into Hebrew of Joseph’s attempt at “Brethren I bid you adieu”. It apparently produced something nonsensical. Right, I get that.

Not only nonsensical, but non-Hebrew. That’s important.

Using the online translator of your choice, do it for yourself and see what you get. (I’m surprised you didn’t try it for yourself prior to posting. )

For all those who don’t want to take the time to uncover the truth for yourselves, this is what I got.

“Brethren I bid you adieu” delivers אחיהם שיהיה לך in Hebrew. Translating the Hebrew “אחיהם שיהיה לך “ back to English delivers the nonsensical “Their brothers that will be you”.

I got “Brothers I offer you hello.”

This leaves me to wonder what was really contained in the original Hebrew letters of the New Testament. You might want to take a look at the Joseph Smith translation.

Either way, the problem here isn’t that we get a nonsense translation (this is common with online translators, not so much with prophets). There is a fatal flaw in your reasoning:

The Hebrew words the online translator came up with (אחים שאני מציע אותך שלום) are actually Hebrew. “i f s E Zamtri” is not Hebrew. When the translator translated the Hebrew into English, the words it produced were actually English. Nonsensical or not, the Hebrew words Joseph Smith produced are not Hebrew.

Ed Ashment knew this problem before writing his nonsense.

It’s not nonsense to say that the words Joseph Smith wrote are not Hebrew. I’m not sure why you think it was “nonsense” for Ed Ashment to write that simple fact.

Speaking to the translation from English to Hebrew, translate the word “HAVE” into Hebrew….just that simple word. Tell me what you get.

I still get Hebrew words. Joseph Smith did not. Yet just a few months later, he produced correct Hebrew words. What had changed in the interval?

The Great Escape

January 24, 2014

It’s the birthday of a good friend today, and in his honor, I thought I’d share his Mormon “exit” story, which is just a great story, Mormon or otherwise. Happy birthday, Joe! Rereading this story, I’m grateful that he’s received the help he needed and is doing well.


In October 2000 I started university. I was 16 at the time and the youngest student there. My chosen field of study was Social Science, I intended to specialise in political science, and in the end Economics became my major and politics my minor. Before university, I had never really encountered anything that made me seriously question the faith of my upbringing. I knew about a lot of crazy doctrines, but I just accepted them. What other choice did I have? I was the Bishop’s son, the one who was never in trouble, who never misbehaved in classes, and the one with the longest patriarchal blessing. I was destined to serve an honourable mission and become a leader amongst the saints.

One of my first classes was entitled “The Sociology of Sexuality.” The lecturer was a woman who openly discussed her masturbatory habits as an object lesson, and the tutor was the first openly gay man I’d ever met. I did not enjoy the class. It created too many problems: first, given my age my own sexuality was not entirely decided upon, and second, we studied the Kinsey studies in depth and I had a hard time believing that sexual practices outside of the Salt Lake City prescribed norm could be sinful. I simply put these things on the shelf, along with many, many other things I learned during my studies.

Three years passed, and it came time to go on a mission. I wasn’t forced or pressured into going. It just seemed like the next stage. I was conditioned into thinking that a mission was the thing to do. I duly sent off the paperwork to church headquarters and got sent to Germany–ironic, as German was the only subject I ever failed at school.

I was sent to the MTC in Provo in order to learn the language before being sent to Frankfurt. I hated the MTC. It was horrible. The food made me ill, and the culture and regime were oppressive, humourless, and grey. My early mission days were fine. I had good companions whom I liked. My first area was friendly, and the mission regime was laid back. We were expected to do a job, but there were, unlike most missions, no pharisaical rules to keep.

After some time I was moved from my first area to Bonn. Bonn is a beautiful town, and I enjoyed the younger university town atmosphere; however, after only a few weeks, I was emergency transferred out and to the mission office in Frankfurt. Bonn was important to my exit, as it was where I first noticed historical whitewashing. One day an elder in my district handed me a copy of the ‘King Follet Discourse’ that had been sent to him by his grandfather. In that discourse there is a paragraph about child gods. I thought it would be a great idea for language study to compare the German and English versions of the speech. However, when I got the German version in the Joseph Fielding Smith book, ‘Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith,’ I immediately noticed a curious omission: where the child gods paragraph should have been there was simply an asterix. The note at the bottom of the page said that this had been removed because it was a transcription error.

For two years, there had been a couple in the mission office who dealt with the mission finances, and they were due to go home. The church had sent another older couple, but the man told the MP that if he were made do the finance job, he’d have a heart attack. On the phone the MP told me that since I had a degree in Economics and had worked in banks for years, I was the best match for the job. I had only been in Germany four months, but I did not mind.

Life in the office was good. I liked the other elders, and the MP and I developed a good relationship. He liked to talk politics with me because he knew I’d disagree with him. Missions are all about ass-kissing. I was never into that, so I’d disagree, and he actually appreciated that he could have an intelligent conversation with me. Running the mission finances was a big job. We had a budget of more than €1.5m, every penny of which needed to be accounted for. During this time, I became known as mission cook. I hate bad cooking and can cook well, so I used the office to practice my hobby. I cooked for between 6 and 8 missionaries every day. This will become more amazing later in the story.

I was quite able to do all the tasks required of me. It was weird, though; my mission, which was supposed to be a great spiritual experience, had become something like a 9-5 job, only with longer hours. Spirituality was really not a high priority. Sometimes the car elder and his companion got out and did missionary work. I always had too much work to do. I was enjoying it all until, after a while, I stopped being able to sleep.

My sleep patterns went to hell. It was really bad. I was getting only a few hours of sleep a night. I could not function properly during the day. About this time moves happened, and all the office elders changed, except me. One of the new elders was a self-absorbed, ignorant arsehole who thought he received personal revelation about everything. The personality clash between us was a catalyst for major mood swings. One minute I was happy and the next furiously angry. I slipped into a general depression and was referred to the newly assigned area psychiatrist.

The church psychiatrist in Frankfurt dealt with missionaries all over Europe, usually by phone. His office was in the area office, a 10-minute drive away. On my first consultation, he diagnosed me, based on previous experiences and family history, as having Cyclothymia, although this quickly changed to BiPolar Mood Disorder, Type 1 (BP1). Around the same time it was suggested that the office elders make a better attempt at the more ‘spiritual’ side of missionary life.

For most, this meant going out to appointments at night, but more importantly for me, more personal study. I had always felt that church history was a little disjointed and slightly incoherent. I considered this to be a failing of my own knowledge. I started to study church history, including the Journal of Discourses. All the usual suspects were new to me: blood atonement and Adam-God, etc. At this same time, the church psychiatrist decided that some cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) would be useful, especially until the medication kicked in. I had been prescribed Zoloft, which, although it slightly lifted my by-this-time extremely dark mood, also increase the severity of my manic upswings.

When manic, I studied with great speed and intensity, I was devouring the Journal of Discourses. In my CBT sessions I discussed many things relating to the church. For years, I had disagreed with all the political statements the church issued. Having studied world welfare systems, I knew that the church welfare system and the principles upon which it are founded were based on a model of right-wing conservatism for which I had no support. Politics became the first point over which my doctor and I bonded. He was a lifelong Democrat from a line of Democratic politicians in Idaho. He started to relate his feelings as I did mine. During one session I said that, as a result of existing beliefs and the new information I had discovered, I no longer believed the church was true. His response was, “Neither do I.”

He went on to explain that he had known the church was in no way divine from his mission days, too, and that for years he had said very little and never interacted with his wards. As a psychiatrist and a liberal, he had always felt uneasy and unwelcome. Sunstone magazine would call him and his wife, ‘borderlanders.’ From this point on, I have believed that Mormonism is nothing but a facade for most people. Their final straw was the excommunication of the “September Six.”

Although I was in a bad way, I was very grateful to have a friend in whom I could confide. He and his wife were in my ward, and I began spending more and more time with them. We are still in contact and very much friends. Soon after this, things took a turn for the worse. L. Tom Perry announced a mission tour to start his stint as area president. His letter to the MP stated that he wished to examine mission finance records and to ensure that everything was in order. I had managed to make some major innovations to our systems, but having been in a deep depression, I had fallen well behind in everything other than paying bills. I had spent many a day sleeping under my desk, unable to move.

To get ready for L. Tom, I worked 18 hour days trying to get months of transactions to balance, trying to file receipts and the thousands of bits of paper that were strewn around the office. I worked myself into the ground to get things into some semblance of order. The sisters from the neighbouring area even came round to polish and hoover the place for me. This frenetic pace lasted several weeks, my condition continued to deteriorate, and by this time I was suicidal. I was now on the highest possible dose of Zoloft and on mood stabilisers. I felt like shit. There was huge hype about the apostle coming to visit. At his talk in the Frankfurt stake centre, I sat next to the doctor and his wife.

Perry spoke about time management. Where was the spirituality in that? I leaned over and told the doctor that this sounded exactly like a corporate training session I had been to two years earlier with the bank I worked for. Perry even talked about productivity rates. The whole thing was a load of shit, and I said so to the doctor. He and his wife agreed. L. Tom then proceeded to meet with the MP and his staff in the office. His questions were incoherent.

He continually asked questions about mission finances, but they made no sense whatsoever. He was unaware of mission accounting software or any procedures and continually asked about punch cards. I’m sure they were obsolete by the late 50’s. There was no inspection of financial records, no detailed questions that made any sense. I was pissed off. I had worked myself into the ground whilst suicidally ill for this man, and it appeared that he was too senile to have any concept of what was going on. I met L. Tom Perry several times, and I am convinced that he has early to middle-stage dementia, which goes unreported to the general membership.

Throughout my illness, I have to say that everyone was quite understanding. Whenever the APs got haughty about me sleeping during the day or refusing to go to events, the MP always straightened them out for me. However, one day whilst paying invoices, I came across the invoice from the pharmacy. All the medication for missionaries in Europe came from this one little chemist’s shop next to Frankfurt’s West Centrum, and I got a copy of the invoice with the items for my mission highlighted. I suddenly realised that I was on more medication than any other missionary in Europe. Added to this, I knew that I was to be moved in six weeks to become a zone leader after ten months in the mission office. Talk about an inspired calling!

I went to see the doctor, and in my session I told him I’d had enough and that if he did not send me home after training my replacement over the next six weeks I was leaving. Evidently he did not take my threat seriously, something he has since apologised for. His reports to the MP had been increasingly vague, and we had become such good friends that I think it would have been too difficult for him to send me home. His wife was a huge critic of the church. She was forever biting her tongue, and one day, shortly before my departure, she gave me a copy of ‘No Man Knows My History.’

It was moves night. I was moving anyway, and so my packing was in no way suspicious. I was up later than anyone else, not surprising given the length of time I had lived in Frankfurt. Over the previous couple of weeks, I had used the office Internet, my credit cards, and some investments that I sold to buy an aeroplane ticket to my never-Mormon grandmother’s home in America. I even bought a car on E-bay. The deception involved was huge. I had experienced missionary disappearances before. I knew that the APs were sent to Frankfurt airport and the ZLs in Düsseldorf to the airport there. I therefore bought a ticket for a night train to Zürich.

At 1 am I got up very quietly, dressed in full missionary attire. I lifted my suitcase rather than use the wheels and placed it in the stairwell. I then sat down at the table and wrote a letter to the Oberbürgermeisterin of Frankfurt to register my departure from the country. I left the letter and closed the door behind me, my heart racing. I crept down the marble stairs and out the front door to the street. I then drove the mission car to the office, directly next to a major train station. I locked the car and placed the keys in the office letterbox. I then boarded the train. I was sitting in Frankfurt Hauptbahnhof, crying over the decision I had taken–a decision I felt I had to take. I could not have been a ZL or enthuse my zone when I myself had no testimony.

I boarded the night train to Zürich. I had a compartment to myself. I watched through the darkness as I left Frankfurt and travelled south. I went through the most southerly town in our mission with elders in it. I imagined them sleeping peacefully in their beds as I struggled with my own feelings, moods, and the horrific side effects from the medication I was on. As I sat alone in the compartment, I slipped off my name tag and breathed a heavy sigh of relief.

That morning I reached Zürich Flughafen. I checked in for the flight. The man addressed me in German the whole time until he saw my passport. He apologised and said he had thought I was German. For a fleeting moment I wondered if this was a sign. I dismissed it and boarded the flight to Newark. I was in a terrible state, so I was surprised I was allowed to fly, but as I am told constantly, I cover up very well. The stress and my situation combined, and I collapsed in Minneapolis Airport but was allowed to fly. Whilst flying across the Atlantic I used the airphone and called the doctor. He was crying, not for any gospel or related reason but because I was alive and safe and that he cared. I explained where I was and where I was going and why. He realised that I had been cornered without much choice.

When I landed, I phoned my parents–my head spinning–and told them where I was. I regret that my mission ended the way it did. I am glad that I learned about the fraudulent nature of the church. I just wish it could have been better timed, not on a mission and not during a nervous breakdown. I spent eight months in America before I came home to Scotland, eight months before I felt well enough to return home, but not to the church.

Hebrew Lessons from Joseph Smith

January 20, 2014

Most people at all familiar with Mormon history know that Joseph Smith, a young farm boy, claimed to have translated the Book of Mormon into English from the original “reformed Egyptian” written on gold plates. The book tells the story of ancient Hebrews who crossed the ocean around 600 BC and settled the American content.

Outside members of the LDS (Mormon) church, few people know that Joseph Smith also claimed to have translated real Egyptian, not the just the reformed kind. Specifically, in July 1835, Joseph Smith bought two Egyptian mummies and some papyrus scrolls accompanying them for $2,400 (some $53,000 in 2012 dollars). From the scrolls, he produced “A Translation of some ancient Records that have fallen into [his] hands from the catacombs of Egypt. The writings of Abraham while he was in Egypt, called the Book of Abraham, written by his own hand, upon papyrus.” The English translation was apparently begun in or after July 1835, though the timeline is in dispute. After making a few revisions in March 1842, Smith published the Book of Abraham serially in the church’s Times and Seasons newspaper in 1842.

It’s important to remember that, for most of the world in 1835, Egyptian was a “dead” language in that no one spoke it, and no one knew how to read or write the different forms of written Egyptian. The discovery of the Rosetta stone in 1799 began the process of understanding ancient Egyptian language. This stone provided Greek text along with its equivalent in Egyptian hieroglyphics and demotic text, and phonetic characters that spelled foreign and Egyptian words. Scholars–specifically Jean-Francois Champollion–took some 23 years to transliterate the Egyptian and become confident in their ability to decipher ancient Egyptian. During Joseph Smith’s lifetime, Champollion’s achievements had been reported in the press in North America, but the specifics were unknown in frontier Ohio, being limited to a few scholarly works published in Europe–and most of those were in French. As a non-Mormon press noted in 1844, there was “no Champollion, or Denon among the Mormons of Nauvoo” to validate Joseph Smith’s translation.

I’ve discussed the content and themes of the Book of Abraham elsewhere, but here I want to look at the two types of transliterations of Egyptian words that Joseph provides in the Book of Abraham:

1. “Egyptian” words, such as “Oliblish” and “Enish-go-on-dosh.”
2. Hebrew words, such as “Shaumahyeem” and “Kokaubeam.”

The former, of course, are not actually Egyptian words but appear to have been invented by Joseph Smith. The latter are best understood when you know that during the translation of the Book of Abraham, Joseph Smith began studying Hebrew, first with a few books, and then with a teacher, Joshua Seixas. It’s not surprising that the transliterations above and others come from the first few chapters of the Bible and follow Seixas’ transliterations exactly (see Louis Zucker’s essay on Joseph Smith’s use of Hebrew for more information).

The difference, then is obvious: where Joseph Smith had some familiarity with the language (Hebrew), the words are more or less correct; where he didn’t know the language, the words are, well, nonsensical. Of course, some Mormon apologists respond that we don’t necessarily know what the real Egyptian words were and what they meant. For example, Kerry Muhlestein has argued that the validity of Joseph Smith’s translation and transliteration of Egyptian depends on whose translation skills you believe: Joseph’s, or Egyptologists’. Not surprisingly, most scholars side with the Egyptologists.

But what if we had an example of a known language that Joseph Smith didn’t know but that he attempted to translate? Suppose, for example, that Joseph Smith had told us that “sont des mots qui vont tres bien ensemble” is French for “I’m friends with the monster that’s under my bed.” Imagine, further, that Joseph Smith then translated the English into another language he also didn’t know, so using our example, he might tell us that the Spanish translation of the above reads, “Wingardium Leviosa.”

Amazingly, that’s essentially what Joseph Smith did. In December 1835, just when he was beginning to read about Hebrew, but before Joshua Seixas arrived, Joseph attempted a “translation” of the Reformed Egyptian characters from the gold plates first into English and then into Hebrew (the text is clearly from Jacob’s allegory of the olive tree). See Ed Ashment’s essay for more information. Here are some of the results, with Ed Ashment’s modern transliteration of the Hebrew following in brackets:

English: For it grieveth me that I should lose this tree & the fruit thereof
Hebrew: ofin Zimim ezmon E, Zu onis i f s veris etzer ensvonis vineris
[Modern transliteration: ki car li ki yo’bad li ha’ec hazzeh upiryo]

English: Brethren I bid you adieu
Hebrew: i f s E Zamtri
[Modern transliteration: ‘aHay ‘omar lakem shalom]

Needless to say, the “Hebrew” appearing here exists only in the mind of Joseph Smith. As Ashment notes, “Fresh out of Palestine, the Hebrew known to Jacob should have been biblical Hebrew. But as Figure 1 illustrates, it bears no resemblance to Hebrew at all.”

I’m surprised this episode doesn’t generate much interest among critics of the LDS church. I understand why apologists wouldn’t want to touch it, but it’s pretty clear confirmation that Joseph Smith had no ability as a translator but rather had a pretty vivid imagination.