When Bullseyes Aren’t

August 26, 2013

Last week, I ran across an intriguing statement from a 1994 Ensign article about the Book of Abraham:

A number of ancient texts support Joseph Smith’s account, depicted in facsimile 3 from the book of Abraham, that the patriarch taught astronomy in Egypt.

Intrigued, I consulted my oracles (Google), which led me to an article from the Maxwell Institute for Religious Studies at BYU (hereafter “MI”):

And I Saw the Stars — The Book of Abraham and Ancient Geocentric Astronomy

The authors–Daniel C. Peterson, John Gee, and William J. Hamblin–make the following statement in support of Abraham as ancient astronomer:

Abraham’s traditional reputation as an ancient astronomer has been previously analyzed.[Here they refer to Mormon apologist Hugh Nibley’s Abraham in Egypt.] One of the most interesting texts in this regard is by Pseudo-Eupolemus, as quoted by Eusebius in the fourth century A.D., which states that “While living with the Egyptian priests in Heliopolis, Abraham taught them many things, including astronomy, and other related things. . . . Abraham, having been trained in the science of astronomy, first went to Phoenicia, to teach the Phoenicians astronomy, then went into Egypt.”

If accurate, this is remarkable evidence in favor of the Book of Abraham, as Joseph Smith could not possibly have had access to a fourth-century Roman historian citing an earlier Jewish historian. The implication is clear: this is a major “bullseye” for Joseph Smith, for how could he have guessed that Abraham had a reputation in the ancient world as a great astronomer? Surely, this ranks up there with the discover of NHM/Nihm in favor of the Book of Mormon.

I admit that I was duly impressed when I first read this assertion, so I looked up the primary source. One minor quibble is that Eusebius isn’t quoting pseudo-Eupolemus but Alexander Polyhistor, a Greek scholar from the first century BC. Alexander is summarizing pseudo-Eupolemus, not directing quoting him. Also, it appears that the authors are combining this summary with Alexander’s subsequent summary of Artabanus, a Persian historian from the fifth century BC. Either way, however, the passage does essentially say what the MI article says it does (single quotes denote a direct quote from Alexander Polyhistor):

CHAPTER XVII

AND with this agrees also Alexander Polyhistor, a man of great intellect and much learning, and very well known to those Greeks who have gathered the fruits of education in no perfunctory manner: for in his compilation, Concerning the Jews, he records the history of this man Abraham in the following manner word for word:

[ALEXANDER POLYHISTOR] 21 ‘Eupolemus in his book Concerning the Jews of Assyria says that the city Babylon was first founded by those who escaped from the Deluge; and that they were giants, and built the tower renowned in history.

‘But when this had been overthrown by the act of God, the giants were dispersed over the whole earth. And in the tenth generation, he says, in Camarina a city of Babylonia, which some call the city Uria (and which is by interpretation the city of the Chaldees), + in the thirteenth generation + Abraham was born, who surpassed all men in nobility and wisdom, who was also the inventor of astronomy and the Chaldaic art, and pleased God well by his zeal towards religion.

‘By reason of God’s commands this man came and dwelt in Phoenicia, and pleased their king by teaching the Phoenicians the changes of the sun and moon and all things of that kind. And afterwards the Armenians invaded the Phoenicians; and when they had been victorious, and had taken his nephew prisoner, Abraham came to the rescue with his servants, and prevailed over the captors, and made prisoners of the wives and children of the enemy.

‘And when there came to him ambassadors asking that he would ransom them for money, he did not choose to trample upon the unfortunate, but on receiving food for his young men restored the booty; he was also admitted as a guest into the temple of the city called Argarizin, which being interpreted is “Mount of the Most High,” and received gifts from Melchizedek, who was the king, and the priest of God.

‘But when there came a famine Abraham removed into Egypt with all his household, and dwelt there, and the king of Egypt took his wife in marriage, Abraham having said that she was his sister.

‘He also related fully that the king was unable to consort with her, and that it came to pass that his people and his household were perishing. And when he had called for the soothsayers, they said that the woman was not a widow; and thus the king of Egypt learned that she was Abraham’s wife, and gave her back to her husband.

‘And Abraham dwelt with the Egyptian priests in Heliopolis and taught them many things; and it was he who introduced astronomy and the other sciences to them, saying that the Babylonians and himself had found these things out, but tracing back the first discovery to Enoch, and saying that he, and not the Egyptians, had first invented astrology.

‘For the Babylonians say that the first man was Belus, who is Kronos; and that of him was born a son Belus, and Chanaan; and that this Chanaan begat the father of the Phoenicians, and that his son was Churn, who is called by the Greeks Asbolus, and is father of the Aethiopians, and a brother of Mestraim the father of the Egyptians. But the Greeks say that Atlas invented astrology, and that Atlas is the same as Enoch: and that Enoch had a son Methuselah, who learned all things through angels of God, and thus we gained our knowledge.’

CHAPTER XVIII

‘ARTABANUS in his Jewish History says that the Jews were called Ermiuth, which when interpreted after the Greek language means Judaeans, and that they were called Hebrews from Abraham. And he, they say, came with all his household into Egypt, to Pharethothes the king of the Egyptians, and taught him astrology; and after remaining there twenty years, removed back again into the regions of Syria: but that many of those who had come with him remained in Egypt because of the prosperity of the country.

‘In certain anonymous works, however, we found that Abraham traced Lack his origin to the giants, and that they dwelling in Babylonia were destroyed by the gods for their impiety; but that one of them, named Belus, escaped death and settled in Babylon, and lived in a tower which he had built, and which was called Belus from the Belus who built it: and that Abraham having been instructed in the science of astrology came first into Phoenicia, and taught astrology to the Phoenicians, and afterwards passed on into Egypt.’

I’ve quoted the entire passage, lest anyone think I’m playing fast and loose with the source material. I note that both pseudo-Eupolemus and Artabanus have Abraham using his knowledge of astronomy to invent astrology, which is, of course, soothsaying through gazing at the stars. So, although this passage doesn’t completely square with the Book of Abraham’s account of Abraham’s astronomy, it is a very close match. As I said, I was quite impressed, at first, as this passage seemed to indicate that Joseph Smith not only got something right in the text of the Book of Abraham but provided esoteric insights unknown in the nineteenth century. To borrow from Dr. Peterson, the implication is clear: “How could Joseph know all of this?”

But then I noticed the passage in Eusebius immediately preceding his quote from Alexander. Again, single quotes mark Eusebius’s direct quotations from earlier sources:

CHAPTER XVI

AGAIN, as Moses has set forth at large the history of Abraham the forefather of the Hebrews, Josephus says that the foreign historians also bear witness to him, writing as follows:

[JOSEPHUS] 19 ‘Berossus mentions our father Abraham, not by name, but in these terms: “In the tenth generation after the flood there was among the Chaldeans a righteous and great man, experienced also in heavenly things.”

‘But Hecataeus has done something more than mentioning him; for he left behind him a book which he had composed concerning him.

‘And Nicolaus Damascenus, in the fourth book of his Histories, speaks thus:20 “Abraham was king of Damascus, having come as a stranger with an army from the land which lies beyond Babylon, called Chaldaea. But after no long time he removed from this country also, and migrated with his own people into what was then called Canaan, but now Judaea, and so did afterwards the multitude of his descendants, concerning whom I shall relate in another discourse what is recorded in history. Even now the name of Abraham is glorified in the district of Damascus, and a village is pointed out which is called from him the Habitation of Abraham.”

‘When in later times a famine had fallen upon the land of Canaan, Abraham having been informed that the Egyptians were in prosperity was eager to cross over to them, both to partake of their abundance, and to be a hearer of their priests, to learn what they said about the gods; intending either to follow them, if they were found superior, or to bring them over to the better belief, if his own opinions were preferable.’

Then next he adds:

‘And he associated with the most learned of the Egyptians, and the result was that his virtue and his consequent reputation became more illustrious from this cause.

‘For whereas the Egyptians delight in different customs, and disparage one another’s usages, and are for this reason ill-disposed towards each other, he by conferring with them severally, and discussing the arguments which they used in defence of their own practices, proved them to be empty and devoid of all truth.

‘Being therefore admired by them in their conferences as a very wise man, and strong not only in intelligence but also in persuasive speech on whatever subjects he undertook to teach, he freely imparts to them the science of arithmetic, and also communicates to them the facts of astronomy. For before Abraham’s arrival the Egyptians were ignorant of these subjects; for they passed from the Chaldees into Egypt, and thence came also to the Greeks.’

So writes Josephus.

If I didn’t know any better, I would think that this passage from Josephus is further confirmation of Joseph Smith’s prophetic calling. But it isn’t.

The difference between Eusebius and Josephus is simple: Josephus was widely read in Joseph Smith’s day, and Eusebius was unknown to all but a few Latin scholars. Josephus’ Antiquities of the Jews had first been translated into English in 1544, and in 1732 William Whiston’s retranslation became immensely popular in the English-speaking world. Many families had Josephus alongside their Bible as standard religious reading. Indeed, the Palmyra, New York, public library had a copy of Antiquities available before 1820, and Ethan Smith’s View of the Hebrews (1823) and Josiah Priest’s The Wonders of Nature and Providence Displayed (1825) quoted from the book. Early Mormon publications quoted Josephus often in support of Mormon beliefs. For example, in Benjamin Winchester’s 1843 tract, History of the Priesthood, we read:

The apostle holds out the idea, that this priesthood is a kingly one, which appears to be correct, from the fact, that it emanated from God, and He is a King of kings, and Lord of lords; and it is also the authority of his kingdom, and by it, as I have before mentioned, Melchisedec reigned as a king over the inhabitants of the city of Salem. This idea is corroborated by Josephus, who says: “Now the king of Salem met him [Abraham] at a certain place called the Kings’ dale, where Melchisedec king of the city of Salem received him.

Given the availability and knowledge of Josephus’ writings in Joseph Smith’s day, it’s wholly unremarkable that his ideas would have been reflected in a contemporary Book of Abraham. In fact, some have argued that Josephus was a source for many ideas and passages of Mormon scripture (see, for example, Joseph Smith and Josephus). I’m not arguing for plagiarism, but it is clear that this “bullseye” is not impressive in the least.

In the 1994 Ensign article and in a 2012 Deseret News article, “Defending the Faith: How could Joseph know all of this?” Daniel Peterson mentions Josephus as supporting the view of Abraham as astronomer, but the MI article does not mention Josephus at all. The authors tell us that the pseudo-Eupolemus passage is one of the most interesting in support of Joseph Smith, but it’s really  not any more illuminating than the Josephus passage. It’s only interesting in the sense of the rhetorical question, “How could Joseph know all of this?”

The answer, alas, is pretty simple: he was familiar with Josephus, as many other people in his day were.

Often I’ve heard that people who discover the problems with Mormon truth claims are “lazy and intransigent” people who can’t be bothered to put any effort into their study of the gospel. But this Eusebius “bullseye” seems to depend largely on the assumption that readers will accept the evidence at face value without engaging the source material. It almost worked on me.

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As I was saying …

June 14, 2012

I haven’t been around much, given some big family events (one down, one to go), but I haven’t disappeared. Last night I had a slightly surreal experience on Facebook.

A few months ago, a woman sent me a friend request because she had read some of my exmo rantings. We hadn’t really talked much, other than we tended to agree with what the other was saying.

Last night I noticed she had added her maiden name to her profile, and I realized I knew her. She was in one of the three LDS wards that once met in our chapel in Southern California (now there’s only one). We attended seminary together, and I know I danced with her on several occasions at church dances. She hadn’t recognized me now that I’m old and graying.

Now we’re both older but wiser and out of the LDS church. Her siblings are all out of the church, the youngest an RM who came out a couple of years after his mission and now runs a youth ministry with his partner. Of the four surviving siblings in my family, three of us are out of the church.

It was interesting to talk about our differing experiences and perspectives from growing up Mormon. She felt excluded at church (there were some nasty kids in our stake) and never really believed as a teenager. She always struck me as quiet but pretty self-assured. Then she went off to BYU and married an RM. Of course, he left after a car accident gave her a traumatic brain injury, but he wanted to get back together when she recovered. Lovely.

With me, church was the safe place. At school I was bullied and made fun of (being short, skinny, middle class, and Mormon at a rich, predominantly Jewish high school), but at church I had friends, and I felt like I belonged. I think that’s partly why I was so faithful and diligent and really became the poster child for obedient Mormon boys.

For her it was a relief to figure out the church, whereas it was devastating to me. But looking back on it, neither of us regrets our decisions.

I know, there’s no real point to this, but it was a real pleasure to talk to someone who knew me way back when I was everything the church wanted me to be. Now I’m what I want to be, and so is she. That’s something to be happy about.


Concise Dictionary of Mormonism: K

April 27, 2012

KSL: The church’s flagship radio and television stations in Salt Lake City. An NBC affiliate, KSL broadcasts such programs as Dateline NBC and To Catch a Predator, both “true crime” programs focusing on brutal murders and sex crimes. The station has drawn a firm moral line in refusing to air Saturday Night Live.

Keys of the Priesthood: The right of priesthood authorities to exercise power in the name of God. Jesus holds all the keys, Joseph Smith received the keys for the restoration of the gospel, the First Presidency holds the keys of the Kingdom, and the ward building maintenance chairman holds the keys to the chapel for Saturday cleaning.

Kimball, Heber C.: One of the original twelve apostles of this dispensation and counselor to Brigham Young in the First Presidency. Ensured his family’s exaltation by giving his 14-year-old daughter, Helen, to Joseph Smith as a plural wife. Heber embraced plural marriage, eventually marrying 43 women and fathering 65 children. Kimball is also noted for his alleged statement, “I think no more of taking [another] wife than I do of buying a cow.”

Kimball, Sarah Granger: Early Mormon suffragist and Relief Society leader. She publicly taught that “the Father and Mother God” were equal in their divinity, a position that might have led to her excommunication had she been alive a century later.

Kimball, Spencer W.: Twelfth president of the LDS church, and grandson of Heber C. Kimball. A small man physically, he served faithfully and energetically as an apostle and later as church president, despite many serious health problems, including a heart attack, cerebral hemorrhage, and throat cancer, the last of which left him with a distinctive weak, gravelly voice. Under Kimball’s direction, the church’s missionary program experienced massive growth and more aggressive teaching and baptizing. His 1969 book, The Miracle of Forgiveness, brought comfort to the souls of millions who learned that masturbation was a serious sin and would lead to homosexuality, a “crime against nature.” His personal mottos were “lengthen your stride,” and “do it!” (Note that the latter is not license to do what one wants, especially if it leads to homosexuality.) Kimball was also known for his lifelong service to the Lamanites (Native Americans); his success was unsurpassed in helping them develop Mormon middle class values and lighter skin.

Kinderhook Plates: A hoax perpetrated in 1843 in which six brass plates were fabricated and presented to Joseph Smith as being an ancient record discovered buried in the ground. However, Joseph Smith translated a “portion” the plates and said that they contained ” the history of the person with whom they were found and he was a descendant of Ham through the loins of Pharaoh king of Egypt, and that he received his kingdom from the ruler of heaven and earth.” Furthermore, contemporary witnesses produced a map they said Joseph Smith had drawn showing the Kinderhook discovery site as one of Moroni’s stops on the way to Cumorah. These facts show that Joseph was not at all fooled by the hoax.

King: All males who have been through the temple ordinances have the potential to become “Kings and Priests unto the Most High God, to rule and reign in the House of Israel forever.” Joseph Smith reached that potential when he was ordained King and Priest sometime after March 11, 1843, showing his Christlike humility and lack of pretense or ego.

King Follett Discourse: Joseph Smith’s last address to a general conference of the church, this discourse is so named because it occurred shortly after the funeral of church member King Follett. Although the discourse remains uncanonized, Joseph Smith teaches some important beliefs that have since become doctrine. Among the topics explicated are that the spirit or “mind of man” is eternal, that God is Himself an exalted man who lived a mortal life on a planet like ours, and that humans have the potential of becoming Gods in the same sense that God is a God. All of these teachings have been embraced by later prophets, culminating in the memorable statement of Gordon B. Hinckley: “I don’t know that we teach it.”

King James Version of the Bible: The official sanctioned Bible used in the LDS church because it is the most correctly translated Bible and its Jacobean English is the style aped in the Book of Mormon and modern revelations.

Kingdom of God in Heaven: The place where God resides in everlasting burnings. It is a celestial kingdom organized under divine government for all exalted beings. Located near Kolob, the governing star/planet. Contrary to some speculation, one cannot reach this kingdom by traveling to the second star on the right and on till morning.

Kingdom of God on Earth: “The kingdom of God on earth exists wherever the priesthood of God is (TPJS, pp. 271-74). At present it is The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints” (Encyclopedia of Mormonism). After the death of the apostles, the kingdom of God was removed from the earth, as none had the priesthood except for John the Beloved and the Three Nephites. The situation required a restoration of priesthood from resurrected beings and from John the Beloved, though the Three Nephites were apparently occupied in plowing someone’s field or hitchhiking through Utah.

Kirtland Bank: In 1836, Joseph Smith declared that the “audible voice of God, instructed him to establish a banking-anti banking institutions, who like Aaron’s rod shall swallow all other banks (the Bank of Monroe excepted,) and grow and flourish and spread from the rivers to the ends of the earth, and survive when all others should be laid in ruins.” When the Ohio legislature refused to grant a bank charter, Smith organized the “Kirtland Safety Society Anti-Banking Company” in January 1837. Within a month, society notes became backed by land values instead of cash or coin, as the notes had declined precipitously in value. Fearing that businessmen might try to redeem the notes and ruin the bank, Joseph Smith and Sidney Rigdon resigned as officers of the bank, which failed in November. Warned by the Spirit, Joseph Smith fled creditors and lawsuits and moved to Missouri. Local members demonstrated their faith by paying some $35,000 toward Joseph’s debts.

Kirtland Temple: The first LDS temple dedicated in the latter days, built in Kirtland, Ohio, at great sacrifice by church members. After a long fast, those attending the dedication “partook … freely” of bread and wine, and thereafter reported glorious visions and spiritual manifestations. Buzzkill David Whitmer reports having seen “no visitation,” saying that the dedication was “a grand fizzle.” After the dedication, the temple was used for sacred ordinances, such as washing of the feet and anointing, preparatory for the higher ordinances of the endowment and sealing, which would come later in Nauvoo. Joseph Smith anticipated the restoration of the sealing power, so he took Fanny Alger as a plural wife, the sealing and consummation apparently performed in the Smith family’s barn, where wife Emma discovered them.

Kirtland, Ohio: The first major gathering place of the LDS church. A Campbellite congregation in Kirtland had been converted to Mormonism by Parley P. Pratt, one of its members, who had traveled to New York and was introduced to the Book of Mormon. Impoverished Mormons from Colesville, New York, traveled to Kirtland to gather and escape persecution of their neighbors. Demand for their labor and resources in building the temple impoverished the Saints further, until a period of prosperity was brought by the founding of the Kirtland Bank.

Knowledge: The ability to choose right from wrong, as Satan teaches us in the temple. Also refers to the understanding of information as given by the spirit or by secular means. Not to be confused with “so-called science,” which as Thomas Monson declared, is a destroyer of faith; such “agnostic, doubting thoughts” must be forbidden “to destroy the house of [our] faith.”

Kokaubeam: A transliteration of a Hebrew word meaning “all the great lights, which were in the firmament of heaven”; this word commonly appeared in Egyptian funerary texts. Or not. Not to be confused with a cocoa-flavored breakfast cereal.

Kolob: A star (or planet) “nearest unto the throne of God.” Entirely unrelated to Thomas Dick’s discussion of the hierarchy of planets and stars, culminating in the throne of God (see The Philosophy of a Future State pp. 241-247), which Joseph Smith had been reading at the time he translated the Book of Abraham.


Concise Dictionary of Mormonism: J

April 26, 2012

Jackson County, Missouri: Home of the Kansas City Royals, Harry S. Truman, Democratic boss Tom Pendergast, and our first parents Adam and Eve.

Jacob, Son of Lehi: The firstborn of Lehi in the wilderness. Noted for quoting at length previously unknown prophet Zenos’ “allegory of the olive tree,” which is interesting mostly because neither Jacob nor his audience would have ever seen an olive tree.

James: Apostle of Christ most often quoted to support the LDS beliefs that God’s grace must be earned through works. Appared in 1829 with Peter and John to restore the Melchizedek Priesthood. Also, a minor character in a certain film, though apparently his lines were cut to just “we will go down” and “I am James.”

Jared: The brother of the brother of Jared.

Jaredites: Descendants of Jared and his brother who traveled across the ocean in barges and lived for some 1,600 years in the Americas without leaving a trace.

Jehovah: 1) Before Nauvoo, one of the names of God. 2) After Nauvoo, the name of the premortal Jesus.

Jerusalem: Holy city in Palestine, location of Solomon’s temple, scene of Jesus’ crucifixion, dedicated for the gathering of the Jews in 1841.

Jerusalem, Land of: Birthplace of Jesus.

Jerusalem, New: Where the non-Jewish members of the House of Israel will be gathered before Jesus’ Second Coming. See Independence, Missouri.

Jesus: Savior of the World, and Son of God, being fully God and fully man. In modern times, it has been revealed that Jesus was a powerfully built European who looked vaguely like Barry Gibb.

Jews: The “other” chosen people. Unbeknownst to them, their history, rituals, culture, and religion are remarkably similar to those of Mormonism.

John the Baptist: Prophet who paved the way for Jesus. Beheaded by Herod, John appeared on the banks of the Susquehanna River in Pennsylvania and restored the Aaronic Priesthood by ordaining Joseph Smith and Oliver Cowdery. Rumors that he took a boat downstream and had a wild weekend with some coeds at SUNY-Binghamton are unfounded.

John the Beloved: Apostle of Jesus, believed to be the author of the Gospel of John and the Book of Revelation. Although John’s tomb is located in Selcuk, near Ephesus, he had the last laugh by surviving to the present day as a “translated being.” Since then, seen only in 1829 helping to restore the priesthood and in a cameo appearance in the temple film.

John, Revelation of: Also known as the Apocalypse, a highly symbolic prophecy of the future that was largely undecipherable until Joseph Smith produceda “key” that made everything clear (see D&C 77).

Joining the Church: According to the Encyclopedia of Mormonism, converts share three common experiences: “First, [they] meet with missionaries for a series of brief lessons on basic LDS beliefs and religious practices. Second, all prospective converts must demonstrate in a prebaptism interview … that they are making an informed decision of their own free will and that they willingly fulfill the baptismal requirements. Third, every convert must receive the ordinances of baptism and confirmation as performed by authorized representatives of the Church and be accepted as a member of the local ward or branch by the common consent of the members.” (Note: These are optional as circumstances dictate.)

Joseph Smith Translation of the Bible: A remarkable restoration of ancient truths, which Joseph Smith accomplished by adding words in place of the italicized words in the King James Bible.

Joseph Smith–History: After previous efforts at writing a personal history were thwarted by mobs, lawsuits, imprisonment, and getting the story straight, Joseph Smith wrote of his experiences with the divine. Highlights include the First Vision (this time uncluttered by angels), the visit of Moroni, and persecution so intense that no one remembered it.

Joseph Smith–Matthew: The rendering of Matthew 24 in the Joseph Smith Translation so readers would know exactly what Jesus meant without having to wade through parables and prophecies.

Joseph of Egypt: Sold by his brothers into captivity, he became a great prophet, such that he was able to prophesy of Moses, Aaron, and Joseph Smith, mentioning them by name (though he apparently got a little off track when he said that “they that seek to destroy [Joseph Smith] shall be confounded”).

Journal of Discourses: A record of all sermons from church leaders published between 1852 and 1886. Although authorized by Brigham Young and published in conjunction with the church-owned Deseret News, these sermons are not to be taken as official or authoritative statements of church doctrines or contemporary teachings. Some talks contain “deadly heresies,” including those given by prophets and declared as doctrine and revelation.

Journals: Prophets have long counseled that church members keep a journal recording their daily activities. President Spencer W. Kimball taught that a personal journal should not delve “into the ugly phases of the life he is portraying. … Even a long life full of inspiring experiences can be brought to the dust by one ugly story.” Therefore, journals should be uplifting but never negative, which isn’t a problem because that is how most LDS lives are lived.

Joy: A state of lasting happiness that comes from total obedience.

Judgment: The Savior taught that we should not judge others; modern revelation has clarified that we should, however, assess others’ worthiness based on their clothing, facial hair, and number of earrings, among other things.

Judgment Day: After death, all human beings will be judged by Jesus Christ, who is both judge and advocate. He will judge us “according to works, desires, and intent of the heart” (Encyclopedia of Mormonism) and by the records we keep. For this reason, it is important to leave the negative out of your journal.

Justice and Mercy: Two attributes of deity that must be satisfied. In short, it would not be just of God to be merciful and forgive us unconditionally; in order to satisfy justice, the Savior, who was sinless, must suffer in our place. And of course it is absolutely just to punish someone who has done nothing wrong.


Baptizing the Jews

February 16, 2012

Once again, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is getting some negative press because, despite its earlier commitments, it continues to allow proxy ordinances for deceased Jewish victims of the Nazi Holocaust. This time, the names of famed Nazi-hunter Elie Wiesel’s parents were discovered in the database of Mormon proxy ordinances for the dead (called the International Genealogical Index, or IGI). In response, the church has issued an apology and announced that the person who had submitted the name has been indefinitely barred from participating in the name-submission process. But is this enough?

It may help first of all to understand this uniquely Mormon belief and practice. The idea of being baptized by proxy for dead individuals comes from a verse in the New Testament: “Else what shall they do which are baptized for the dead, if the dead rise not at all? why are they then baptized for the dead?” (1 Corinthians 15:29). In 1841, Joseph Smith, the founder of the LDS church who Mormons believe was a prophet, claimed that God had instructed him to build a temple. Here Mormons would be able to perform sacred ordinances, including proxy baptisms for deceased ancestors: “For a baptismal font there is not upon the earth, that they, my saints, may be baptized for those who are dead— For this ordinance belongeth to my house, and cannot be acceptable to me, only in the days of your poverty, wherein ye are not able to build a house unto me” (Doctrine and Covenants 124:29-30).

Later revelations clarified that baptisms for the dead were intended to create a “welding link of some kind or other between the fathers and the children”; all the children of God from all generations would be bound together in righteousness:

For we without [our deceased ancestors] cannot be made perfect; neither can they without us be made perfect. Neither can they nor we be made perfect without those who have died in the gospel also; for it is necessary in the ushering in of the dispensation of the fulness of times, which dispensation is now beginning to usher in, that a whole and complete and perfect union, and welding together of dispensations, and keys, and powers, and glories should take place, and be revealed from the days of Adam even to the present time. (Doctrine and Covenants 128:8, 18.)

For Joseph Smith, this union of all generations required careful record-keeping:

Whatsoever you record on earth shall be recorded in heaven, and whatsoever you do not record on earth shall not be recorded in heaven; for out of the books shall your dead be judged, according to their own works, whether they themselves have attended to the cordinances in their own propria persona, or by the means of their own agents, according to the ordinance which God has prepared for their salvation from before the foundation of the world, according to the records which they have kept concerning their dead. (Doctrine and Covenants 128:8.)

Baptisms for the dead were performed in the Mississippi River near Nauvoo, Illinois. Since the Nauvoo Temple was constructed, baptisms have taken place only within dedicated temples. Only LDS church members who have passed a “temple recommend” interview may enter the temple; these interviews are meant to ascertain the faithfulness of church members in keeping the commandments. Temple baptismal fonts are always located below ground level and are usually supported by representations of twelve oxen, according to the description of the “sea” in the ancient temple (see 1 Kings 7). Below is the font from the Washington, DC, Temple:

Baptismal Font

The person serving as the proxy and a priesthood holder (male, of course) enter the font, and the person is baptized by complete immersion. If I were being baptized as a proxy for, say, Oliver Twist, the baptismal prayer would be given as follows:

“Brother Williams, having been commissioned of Jesus Christ, I baptize you for and in behalf of Oliver Twist, who is dead, in the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Ghost. Amen.”

Then I would be immersed in the water (usually by bending my knees and having the priesthood holder lower my back into the water). Normally, Mormons do such baptisms for a number of people. A recorder seated near the font displays each name, and the person is baptized in fairly rapid succession for each deceased person.

Baptisms are not the only proxy ordinances performed in LDS temples. Mormons believe that only those who have received the ordinances of the Holy Priesthood will be admitted into the highest levels of heaven. Accordingly, after a person is baptized, they must also go through an ordinance called an “endowment,” which is essentially an adaptation of Masonic ritual combined with religious imagery and specific covenants of obedience (it is in the ordinance of the endowment that Mormons receive their temple garments, which are sacred undergarments with Masonic symbols sewn into them). Also, Mormonism teaches that only those who are married “for time and eternity” will be exalted as gods (see Doctrine and Covenants 132). Thus, Mormons must be “sealed,” or married by priesthood authority in the temple. Because these ordinances require priesthood authority, Mormon males must be ordained into the priesthood to receive these ordinances. All of these rituals are performed by proxy for deceased persons.

Early in Mormon history, proxy ordinances were restricted to one’s direct ancestors, the idea being to link all generations of one’s family into a single, sealed family unit. In 1877 church president Wilford Woodruff had a vision that extended the ordinances of the temple to others:

Every one of those men that signed the Declaration of Independence, with General Washington, called upon me, as an Apostle of the Lord Jesus Christ, in th e Temple at St. George, two consecutive nights, and demanded at my hands that I should go forth and attend to the ordinances of the House of God for them…. I told these brethren that it was their duty to go into the Temple and labor until they had got endowments for all of them. They did it. Would those spirits have called upon me, as an Elder in Israel to perform that work if they had not been noble spirits before God? They would not. (Wilford Woodruff, Conference Report, April 1898, p. 89-90.)

From that beginning, the church has over the years done extensive genealogical research all over the world so that members could perform proxy ordinances for every person on record. Individual members are encouraged to submit records for their ancestors using a computer program called TempleReady, which checks the submitted data against the information already in the church’s temple records (the IGI) to avoid duplication. These checks are done locally, such that if a name is successfully checked against TempleReady, the member can take the information on a disk or on paper directly to the temple.

TempleReady is limited in its ability to check information because only records that are identical in every way are considered duplicated; thus, if any information is missing or misspelled, the name is approved, which leads to a great deal of duplication. When one looks at the data in the IGI, it’s obvious how widespread the duplication is and how few real checks there are. For example, church founder Joseph Smith’s name appears in the IGI numerous times, with each record differing only in detail, such as his birthplace, his date of birth, his parents’ names, and the number of his wives. My Williams family genealogy is a hopeless mess in the IGI because my great-grandfather is listed as having no children.

Although church members are supposed to focus on deceased ancestors and are not supposed to submit names of those born within the last 95 years without a widow’s or child’s written permission, things often get out of hand. Zealous Mormons have done temple ordinances for deceased celebrities from Patsy Cline to Tupac Shakur; Karen Carpenter seems to have the celebrity record with 11 baptisms in such far-flung places as Salt Lake City, Washington, DC, and Mexico City. Clearly, there is little oversight of the process, as barely a year after his death, Johnny Cash was baptized in Atlanta and subsequently in São Paulo, Brazil; Boise, Idaho; Nauvoo, Illinois; Newport Beach, California; and Monticello, Utah.

This is the same process by which names of Jewish Holocaust victims were submitted for church ordinances without family permission. After a non-Mormon reported the practice, the church issued an apology and pledged to work with Jewish groups to ensure that it would not happen again.

Which brings us to this year, when the names of Elie Wiesel’s parents, both victims of the Nazis, were discovered in the IGI, meaning that Mormons had performed proxy ordinances for them. The church again apologized and restricted the responsible person’s access to TempleReady and the IGI. But it’s notable that, despite the church’s insistence that it has in place safeguards to avoid such embarrassing incidents, the names cleared TempleReady, the ordinances were performed, and only after the fact did a non-Mormon discover the problem.

Some people are calling on Mitt Romney to pressure the church into ceasing this practice, but to my mind, this just illustrates how little has been done to ensure the proper use of the IGI. It shouldn’t be that hard to prevent duplication of names and, more importantly, inappropriate and unauthorized submission of names to the temple.


Going on the Offensive

December 9, 2011

Mormon readers may be familiar with Sidney Rigdon’s famous “Salt Sermon” and his subsequent oration of July 4, 1838, given in Far West, Missouri. Perhaps some background is necessary. In 1831, a group of Mormons from New York, had arrived in Ohio (then the headquarters of the newly established Church of Christ), where they had been promised land on which to live. But the donor of the land, Leman Copley, reneged on his promise, and Joseph Smith told these church members they were to proceed to Missouri, which God had prepared as a refuge from their enemies and a land of their inheritance (see D&C 52:3-5, 42-43; 54:1-10). Further revelations from Joseph Smith indicated that the Mormon settlements in Jackson County, Missouri, would eventually become the New Jerusalem spoken of in the Bible, where the Savior would return to rule His kingdom (see D&C 57:1-5).

From the time the Mormons arrived in Missouri in June 1831, hostilities grew between them and their non-Mormon neighbors, who apparently became concerned at the influx of over 1200 LDS immigrants by the summer of 1833. As a BYU summary notes, “It did not help that some [LDS] members unwisely boasted that nonmembers would be driven from the county.” Mob violence soon erupted. “Under duress, Church leaders signed an agreement to vacate Jackson County…. When the old settlers saw that the Saints intended not to depart immediately but to hold their ground and defend themselves, they resumed acts of violence. After small battles erupted and led to several fatalities, the local militia succeeded in disarming the Mormons and driving them from Jackson County in early November.”

After an abortive military mission to regain the Saints’ lost land and property, church members relocated to communities farther north and east in Clay County, where they expected to stay temporarily until a more permanent settlement could be found. By 1836, large numbers of Mormons had gathered to Clay County, and once again the Mormons were told they were not welcome. The legislature created a new county, Caldwell, expressly for the settlement of the Mormons, and the Mormons began leaving Clay County in early 1837. By March of 1838, Joseph Smith had declared the settlement of Far West, in Caldwell County, the headquarters of the church, and the town’s population reached 5,000 that summer. Soon Mormons were streaming into other northern counties, and once again tensions grew with their suspicious neighbors. At the same time, financial setbacks among Mormons in Ohio and Missouri led to the emergence of dissenters within the church, who “stirred up trouble among the Saints through the first half of 1838.”

All this time, church members had not responded in kind to the violence aimed at them, but this time would be different. In mid-June, church leader Sidney Rigdon “publicly threatened [Mormon] dissenters in his June ‘Salt Sermon,’ intimating that they should leave Far West or harm would befall them. News of this threat reinforced anti-Mormon hostility throughout Missouri.” A few weeks later, on July 4, Rigdon signaled that the Mormons would bear no more oppression from their neighbors:

We take God and all the holy angels to witness this day, that we warn all men in the name of Jesus Christ, to come on us no more forever. For from this hour, we will bear it no more, our rights shall no more be trampled on with impunity. The man or the set of men, who attempts it, does it at the expense of their lives. And that mob that comes on us to disturb us; it shall be between us and them a war of extermination; for we will follow them till the last drop of their blood is spilled, or else they will have to exterminate us: for we will carry the seat of war to their own houses, and their own families, and one party or the other shall be utterly destroyed.—Remember it then all MEN.

We will never be the aggressors, we will infringe on the rights of no people; but shall stand for our own until death. We claim our own rights, and are willing that all others shall enjoy theirs.

No man shall be at liberty to come into our streets, to threaten us with mobs, for if he does, he shall atone for it before he leaves the place, neither shall he be at liberty, to vilify and slander any of us, for suffer it we will not in this place.

After some Mormons were forcibly prevented from voting on election day, August 6, in Gallatin, Missouri, over 100 armed Mormon men surrounded the home of a local judge and compelled him, the local sheriff, and several prominent citizens to sign a pledge that they would not “molest” the Mormons. Meanwhile, the citizens of Carroll County voted that same day to expel Mormon settlers from their county. Armed mobs soon began burning Mormon homes and farms, and by October 1, they had laid siege to the Mormon town of De Witt. Two days later, the Mormons surrendered the town and began the march to Caldwell County; several Mormon women and children died of exposure and illness as a result. LDS historian Alex Baugh describes what happened next:

Following the dislocation of the De Witt Saints, Missouri assailants continued to extend their threats against Latter-day Saints residing in Daviess County. But on this occasion. Church leaders decided to take decisive action to disperse their antagonists by removing the remaining handful of non-Mormons who continued to reside in Mormon-dominated Daviess County. They justified such aggressive actions because they clearly felt they had been pushed around long enough, and if they were forced to leave Carroll County, they should be entitled to occupy both Caldwell and Daviess counties exclusively. …

During the hours just before dawn on Thursday, 25 October 1838, a contingency of Mormon Caldwell County militia engaged in armed conflict on the Crooked River, situated in northern Ray County, with the Ray militia under the command of Samuel Bogart, a Methodist minister. This skirmish, later known as the Battle of Crooked River, resulted in a dozen wounded and the deaths of three members of the Caldwell company—including the Mormon commander Apostle David W. Patten—and one member of the Ray company. Although casualties were limited, a broader examination of the conflict indicates the battle fueled the civil strife between the Mormons and the Missourians during the fall of 1838, and consequently was a leading factor in bringing about the forced expulsion of the Latter-day Saints from the state. [Alex L. Baugh, “The Battle Between Mormon and Missouri Militia,” Arnold Garr and Clark Johnson, eds., BYU Regional Studies in Latter-day Saint Church History, Missouri (Provo, UT: Department of Church History and Doctrine, BYU University, 1994), 85-86]

The decision of the Mormon leaders to go on the offensive against the mob, while completely understandable, led to the Mormons being seen as the aggressors, not the victims of the violence. Reports of the battle at Crooked River reached the governor, who was already hostile to the Mormons, indicating that Bogard’s militia had been completely slaughtered by the Mormons. Boggs, accepting at face value that the Mormons were “in the attitude of an open and avowed defiance of the laws, and of having made war upon the people of this state,” issued the infamous Extermination Order instructing that “the Mormons must be treated as enemies, and must be exterminated or driven from the state if necessary for the public peace–their outrages are beyond all description.” By the spring of 1839, virtually all members of the LDS church had been forcibly expelled from the state.

Why do I tell this story? It’s a great illustration of my belief that, when tensions are escalating and emotions are running high, it is always best to try and defuse the situation, rather than responding in kind to attacks. Before someone points out that I’m being hypocritical, I will just say that I recognize that I don’t always follow my own beliefs, though I try. Every time I have let my emotions get the best of me and responded angrily or harshly to criticism, I have made the situation worse, and it has often come back to bite me. Would things have been better in Missouri had the Mormons not gone on the offensive? It’s difficult to say, but it is hard to see how it could have been worse.

Recently, Mormonism has been the focus of attention in the media and in popular culture. Two members of the LDS church are running for president of the United States, and the hottest ticket on Broadway is “The Book of Mormon (The Musical).” Some avowed enemies of the church have taken the opportunity to condemn Mormons and spread falsehoods about their beliefs and practices. Notably, Robert Jeffress, a prominent Evangelical preacher urged voters to choose a “real Christian” instead of voting for members of the Mormon “cult.” And of course, every time Mormonism is mentioned in a news item, the comments sections quickly fill with angry rants from opponents of the LDS church. For me, part of being a Mormon was expecting to be called a “deluded cultist,” “Satanist,” and “moron.” I’ve been accused of practicing black magic; engaging in orgies and human sacrifice inside our temples; and, worst of all, forbidding people to eat peanut butter. (Seriously, I’ve heard every one of these.) Most of the time, these misunderstandings come from ignorance, though sometimes they are deliberate. My response has always been to calmly and patiently explain the LDS position and correct any misinformation. It doesn’t always work, but then it’s easy to determine when you are talking to someone who refuses to listen. It doesn’t really bother me.

Although I have lost the simple faith in Mormonism I once had, I still feel it’s important to discuss Mormonism as it is, not as people want it to be. If I’m discussing LDS doctrine, I think it’s only fair to state accurately what that doctrine is. (I should say, however, that some Mormons have accused me of misrepresenting the church and its doctrines. They tell me I didn’t understand the gospel, or I’m just making things up to make the church look bad. It’s ironic, but I digress.) I try very hard to represent the LDS church accurately and fairly, but obviously, my views will always be colored by my experience. My efforts to be fair and honest have attracted criticism from some people who seem disappointed that I don’t hate the LDS church and think it is demon-spawned. An Evangelical friend once invited me to participate in a message board associated with The Christian Apologetics & Research Ministry, as he believed I might be able to help people understand what Mormons really believed; I lasted a couple of days because I was seen as “too Mormon,” “not Christian enough,” and not hostile enough to Mormon heresies. Why? Because I tried to correct some misrepresentations of Mormon beliefs. So, rather than engage in a futile and increasingly hostile exchange, I chose to withdraw. There are a lot of groups and people like CARM and the unfortunate Pastor Jeffress who seem to come out of the woodwork when Mormons are mentioned at all.

Most Mormons I know respond as I would, by trying to correct misinformation and decrease hostility. But some Mormons have decided to go on the offensive. Some groups, such as the More Good Foundation, seem motivated by the belief that church members can positively share their beliefs with others through the Internet and other media. Of course, they do actively go after critics of the church. One of their sponsored web sites describes former Mormons as “definitely not the best source for information about the Mormon religion—they often distort its teachings” and insists that “books published officially by the Church are likely to be more accurate.” I used to get regular visits to my blog from the More Good Foundation, but not so much anymore. Perhaps they’ve decided I’m not worth worrying about.

More recently, the Foundation for Apologetic Information and Research (FAIR) formed the Mormon Defense League, which they said would track media reports for inaccuracies about Mormonism. As the Salt Lake Tribune explains:

If the MDL notices a misstatement or mischaracterization, the group will first contact the journalist, [FAIR president Scott] Gordon said. But if a pattern of misrepresentation emerges, the defense league will “go after the writer” by posting the piece or pieces on its website (mdl.org) and pointing out the errors. (“New website to jump to Mormonism’s defense,” August 4, 2011.)

The article states that the defense league is “modeled after the Anti-Defamation League, created in 1913 “to stop the defamation of the Jewish people and to secure justice and fair treatment to all,” according to its website (adl.org).” However, the name evokes the more militant Jewish Defense League, founded by radical New York rabbi Meir Kahane in 1968. The JDL’s website states one of its guiding principles:

JDL upholds the principle of Barzel — iron — the need to both move to help Jews everywhere and to change the Jewish image through sacrifice and all necessary means — even strength, force and violence. The Galut image of the Jew as a weakling, as one who is easily stepped upon and who does not fight back is an image that must be changed. Not only does that image cause immediate harm to Jews but it is a self-perpetuating thing. Because a Jew runs away or because a Jew allows himself to be stepped upon, he guarantees that another Jew in the future will be attacked because of the image that he has perpetuated. JDL wants to create a physically strong, fearless and courageous Jew who fights back. We are changing an image, an image born of 2,000 years in the Galut, an image that must be buried because it has buried us. We train ourselves for the defense of Jewish lives and Jewish rights. We learn how to fight physically, for it is better to know how and not have to, than have to and not know how. (Five Principles, JDL.org)

(I should probably mention that, because I grew up in a predominantly Jewish neighborhood, I’ve known several members of the JDL, hence my shock that the MDL had chosen that name.) Perhaps recognizing the unwanted connotations of the name, in November 2011 the league changed its name to the far more benign sounding “Mormon Voices.” Their stated mission:

MormonVoices has been created to respond to false information put forward in the media.

The intent is to assist journalists, authors, bloggers, producers, and others in the media in getting their stories right, and to correct misinformation and distortions about Mormons, Mormonism, and other faith communities.

Reading through their web site, I was impressed that their guidelines and suggestions were reasonable and helpful, encouraging civility, and keeping the emphasis on positive ways to correct misinformation and “offer constructive suggestions in a helpful manner.” These guidelines are in keeping with recent counsel from LDS leaders about sharing beliefs online. But given the public statements and actions of some Mormon Voices members and leaders, I’m left feeling that there is a much more aggressive attitude involved.

Some of the rhetoric reflects a sort of siege mentality. FAIR president Scott Gordon, for example, stated in the BYU Daily Universe, “Mostly the critics are looking for quotes that shock and awe when they are making these stories. Their goal is to make it as negative as possible.” Clearly, that is the goal of some critics, but in my experience, they are generally the exception. When we assume that those who criticize us or our beliefs are mostly trying to attack and show us in the worst possible light, we tend to become defensive; instead of opening a dialogue, we want to shut them down. Another Mormon Voices leader stated in the same article, “A Mormon saying this is what we really believe can really discredit anything else the author has to say about us.” I don’t know if he really meant it this way, but the implication is clear: if you can show one misconception or falsehood, you can destroy the credibility of whatever else is said.

Indeed, picking one minor point in order to discredit the rest of the message seems to be a pattern among some Mormon defenders. I came across an example of this tactic the other day. Time Magazine published a former Mormon’s photos of his family and life in “Happy Valley” (the local nickname for Utah County, Utah, where I live). I thought the photos, though unconventional and seemingly mundane, were moving and evocative. I loved the unself-conscious display of what to me are obvious realities of life here in Utah: cluttered bedroom floors, “kid art” on bedroom walls, and the ubiquitous blue tarps covering stored items in the yard. The first photo hit me hard: a family sitting on a couch in the waiting room at the Mt Timpanogos Temple while their loved ones are inside being “sealed” (married for time and eternity). Behind them on the wall is a painting of Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane, where Mormons believe he took upon Him the sins of the world. The juxtaposition of the Savior atoning for our sins so that we could be clean and enter into God’s presence against the family excluded from the sacred–well, it was heartbreaking to me.

I admit that I did not read the accompanying article, which was obviously written by a non-Mormon, until after I had seen and absorbed all of the pictures. But I was taken aback by the contempt and hostility from some LDS commenters. Here are a few examples from different commenters:

I suppose the mediocrity of Mr. Shumway’s photographs would be easier to forgive if it weren’t for the intellectual pretentiousness of the accompanying article. I mean, Wow. Like, umm, he read Friedrich Nietzsche (note the correct spelling) and Jean-Paul Sartre and Erich Fromm at sixteen? So did I. In California. And now I’m a believing Mormon academic.

And no, I have never encountered a Mormon family that thought or taught that it was sinful to watch television on Sunday — “Eeek! Turn the Tabernacle Choir off! Turn general conference off! Don’t you know it’s the Sabbath?” — let alone a family that held it a sin to visit others on Sunday.

This is lame. I lived in Utah County for several years and am an amateur photographer. Real life kept me from “briefly attending” an academy of art but I’ve taken and sold enough photographs to know these photos are not good. Mr. Shumway seems to be going out of his way to paint his family as nut job white trash. These photos and his descriptions are not consistent with my personal experience with the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints or life in Utah County. Really? This is what TIME holds up as art? And Mr. Shumway’s credentials are…?

To me, this kind of aggressive attack isn’t helpful and may in fact backfire. I understand that at some point, you get pushed too far. I have. A couple of years ago, a couple of LDS posters were aggressively attacking me any time I wrote anything, anywhere on the Internet. They attacked my character and integrity and made subtle hints about violence toward me. I didn’t think much of it, but eventually when the attacks kept escalating, I responded more harshly and aggressively than I should have. They seized on my response as a sign of my mental instability, paranoia, and tenuous grasp on reality. When my wife began receiving threatening emails (she is still a believing Mormon), they said I was making things up. In short, adopting a more assertive and aggressive stance accomplished nothing for me, and in fact made things worse.

We don’t live in a time when Mormons are under physical attack from roving mobs, but we can learn from the mistakes our ancestors made. I am not suggesting that the aggressive stance of some Mormons is the moral equivalent of mob violence. However, we can stand up for ourselves and for truth without hostility and aggression. And I am convinced we will all be better for it.


Ouch

October 17, 2011

Christopher Hitchens on Mormonism. Brutal.

Romney’s Mormon Problem