Thoughts on “The Mormon Candidate”

April 5, 2012

I finally got around to watching the BBC This World segment, “The Mormon Candidate.” I’m always fascinated by outsiders’ take on Mormonism, so I thought I’d give my perspective on this piece.

The notion that the Republican Party has become the party of Evangelical Christians is spot on, as is the statement that the LDS church “craves respectability.” But slick ad campaigns and political alliances in such matters as same-sex marriage do not change the deep distrust and hostility of many Evangelical conservatives towards Mormonism as a religion and Mormons as individuals. Ironically, then,   Mormons are trying to gain the respect of the people who are least likely to respect them.

I am always a little annoyed at the focus on polygamy, but then that is what set Mormonism apart for its first sixty years. But I thought it was interesting that the presenter, John Sweeney, described polygamists as “people the church seems to be afraid of,” which is a fair statement. Later in the program, Apostle Jeffrey Holland describes the Strengthening the Church Members Committee as being designed to “protect” the church from polygamists (more on that later). Seeing the polygamists just reminds me of the legacy of one man’s need for power, sex, and money.

Saratoga Springs mayor Mia Love comes across as a nice person and the perfect choice for the “I’m a Mormon” campaign, and most of the ex-Mormons, such as my friend Jeff Ricks, seem like genuine, decent people. Unfortunately, the official church, in the form of PR flack Michael Purdy and Apostle Jeffrey Holland, does not fare so well. Sweeney explains the obvious mistranslation of the Kirtland Egyptian papyri into the Book of Abraham, and Holland immediately becomes defensive, stammering about how all that matters is that what was translated was divine. When Sweeney mentions Joseph Smith’s 1826 trial for being a “juggler” (a term meaning “con man” in the early nineteenth century), Holland says “that’s an incidental matter to the character and integrity of the man.” Seriously?

Presenter Sweeney brings up the penalties that were part of the temple endowment until 1990 and says Mitt Romney presumably would have sworn that oath at the penalty of slitting his throat. The exchange is as fascinating as it is disappointing:

Sweeney: As a Mormon,  in the temple, I’ve been told, [Mitt Romney] would have sworn an oath to say that he would not pass on what happens in the temple, lest he slit his throat. Is that true?

Holland: That’s not true.  That’s not true. We do not have penalties in the temple.

Sweeney: You used to.

Holland: We used to.

Sweeney: Therefore, he swore an oath saying, I will not tell anyone about the secrets here, lest I slit my throat.

Holland: Well, the-the-the vow that was made was regarding the ordinance–the ordinance of the temple.

Sweeney: It sounds Masonic, Sir. It sounds Masonic.

Holland: Well, it’s compara–it’s similar to a Masonic, uh, relationship.

Sweeney: The most powerful–potentially the most powerful man in the world has sworn an oath, which he meant at the time, whatever it is now, that he must not tell anyone about what he’s seen, lest he slit his throat.

Holland: That he would not tell anyone about his personal pledge to the Lord. I’m assuming that any religious candidate, an Evangelical, a Roman Catholic, Rick Santorum, Newt Gingrich, uh, Osama–I mean, uh, President Obama–uh, I’m assuming that anybody who has a relationship to God has made a pledge of some kind to God. There’s–there’d be some kind of loyalty to God, or what kind of God is that?

I’m still shaking my head over this. I’ll let readers decide whether Holland’s statements are accurate. Here is the relevant portion of the pre-1990 endowment:

We will now give unto you the First Token of the Aaronic Priesthood with its accompanying name, sign, and penalty. Before doing this, however, we desire to impress upon your minds the sacred character of the First Token of the Aaronic Priesthood, with its accompanying name, sign, and penalty, as well as that of all the other tokens of the Holy Priesthood, with their names, signs, and penalties, which you will receive in the temple this day. They are most sacred, and are guarded by solemn covenants and obligations of secrecy to the effect that under no condition, even at the peril of your life, will you ever divulge them, except at a certain place that will be shown you hereafter. The representation of the execution of the penalties indicates different ways in which life may be taken. …

The execution of the Penalty is represented by placing the thumb under the left ear, the palm of the hand down, and by drawing the thumb quickly across the throat to the right ear, and dropping the hand to the side.

I will now explain the covenant and obligation of secrecy which are associated with this token, its name, sign and penalty, and which you will be required to take upon yourselves. If I were receiving my own Endowment today, and had been given the name of “John” as my New Name, I would repeat in my mind these words, after making the sign at the same time representing the execution of the penalty:

“I, John, covenant that I will never reveal the First Token of the Aaronic Priesthood, with its accompanying name, sign, and penalty. Rather than do so, I would suffer my life to be taken.”

Does that sound like a simple pledge of loyalty to God? Does anyone believe that, say, Santorum, Gingrich, and Obama have made any comparable promises?

Holland–and Purdy–really stumble when they are asked about the Strengthening the Church Members Committee. For those who aren’t familiar with this group, it is an organization within the Church Office Building that monitors apostates, critics, and anyone else unofficial who has something to say about the LDS church. In 1992, church spokesman Don LeFevre said that the committee “receives complaints from church members about other members who have made statements that ‘conceivably could do harm to the church,'” then the committee will “pass the information along to the person’s ecclesiastical leader.” According to LeFevre, however, “the committee neither makes judgments nor imposes penalties.” Discipline is “entirely up to the discretion of the local leaders.” In 1992 or 1993, when I was working at the Church Office Building, I was introduced to the head of the committee, and if memory serves, his name was Bill Nelson, who was incidentally the author of the Anti-Mormon Publications section of the Encyclopedia of Mormonism. I was told at the time that the committee was essentially as LeFevre described and was a “clipping service” to take note of any hostile publications or efforts against the church.

The committee was pretty much unknown until the leaking of  Bishop Glenn Pace’s 1990 report to the committee on allegations of Satanic ritual abuse within the church. But the committee became well known after the September 1993 church disciplinary action against six church members, who came to be known as the “September Six.” From what I know about this case, clearly local leaders were given information by the central church leadership (Boyd K. Packer is said to have been behind much of this), and presumably the information came from the committee.

So when the BBC presenter asked about the committee, one would have expected Holland and Purdy to acknowledge the existence of the committee and its purpose. But apparently that is too much to ask for. Here’s Purdy’s interview:

Sweeney: What’s the Strengthening the Church Members Committee, and does it still exist?

Purdy: I don’t know, and I’m not–I guess that’s a question not for me. I couldn’t tell you that. I don’t know.

Sweeney: You’re the head of media relations for the church.

Purdy: Right.

Sweeney: And I’ve spoken to people, um, ex-members of the church, who say, um, the Strengthening the Church Members Committee does exist. Does it still exist?

Purdy: I–uh–I–I–I’ve heard that, yeah, there is a Strengthening the Church Members Committtee, but I couldn’t tell you the details of how that works, but we’d be happy to provide someone that can.

Sweeney: Sorry for my confusion. When I originally asked you, you weren’t sure. Now you do know that it exists and you will give me somebody who knows something about it.

Purdy: Absolutely.

Sweeney tells us that Purdy’s answer was not satisfactory, so he would be bring it up with Elder Holland:

Sweeney: What is the Strengthening the Church Members Committee?

Holland:  The Strengthening the Church Members Committee was born some years ago to protect predatory practices of polygamists [nice alliteration, btw].

Sweeney: I asked, What is it?

Holland: Oh, that’s what it is.

Sweeney: So, it does still exist.

Holland: It does still exist.  It does still exist.

Sweeney: And it looks at, uh–it’s there to defend the church against polygamists.

Holland: Principally. That is still the principal task.

Sweeney: And what is its subsidiary task?

Holland: Uh, I suppose just to be protective generally, just to watch and care for any, uh, any insidious influence. But for all intents and purposes, all that I know about it is primarily to guard against polygamy. That would be the substantial, essential part of their work. I’m not on that committee, so I can’t speak.

It’s amazing to me that the church spokesman in 1992 confirmed the purposes and activities of the committee, but in 2012, neither an apostle or the current spokesman can tell us anything about it. I have known about the committee for almost twenty years. Does anyone believe that I know more about the committee than an apostle or official spokesman?

I was pleased to hear this exchange with Elder Holland:

Sweeney: Does the Mormon church shun people who leave?

Holland: No, no, of course, we don’t. We don’t use that word, and we don’t know that practice. If I had a son, this very day, given the office that I have and the visibility that means–if I had a son or a daughter who left the church, was alienated, or had a problem, I can tell you I would not cut that child out of family life.

Of course, many former Mormons have been cut out of family life, lost friends, and even suffered financially or in their careers because they have left the church. But it is nice to hear an apostle say that such things should not happen.

I have nothing against Elder Holland. I met him once many years ago when I was a student at BYU, and he was gracious and kind, and we had a good conversation. And let me also say that I am pretty skeptical of claims that the church follows people or bugs their phones, and such. I will say that I used to get regular hits on my blog from the Church Office Building, and when I mentioned that in a blog post, the hits stopped, but I started getting traffic from the “More Good Foundation,” which is a group of church members dedicated to essentially the same mission as the Strengthening the Church Members Committee. According to their web site, the foundation functions “as a solution to the overwhelming need for increased positive and accurate information about the LDS faith on the Internet.” They have aggressively gone after critics of the church, apparently with the blessing of the church, which often plugs the foundation in its newspaper, The Deseret News. After I mentioned the More Good Foundation, hits from that organization also stopped, leaving me to believe they’re probably still checking in using different IP addresses. So, if you’re reading this, please don’t contact my bishop (just kidding).

In summary, what I liked about the BBC piece was that Sweeney had obviously done his homework. American TV interviewers don’t ask about the SCMC, the Book of Abraham, or temple penalties, and you could see it in the faces of Purdy and Holland that they weren’t expecting to be challenged in that way. I wish they had been more honest and forthcoming, not least because anyone watching that interview can spend five minutes on the Internet and learn the truth. They simply can’t control the message anymore, and there really are only two options: continue dissembling, or act with complete honesty. So far, at least, they are sticking with the former.

Bigotry at Utah Valley University

March 6, 2012

This is really depressing.

UVU student running for office lambasted in email for being gay

The notion that being gay means a person’s “judgment is impaired, and biased” is offensive and ridiculous. This is what impaired judgment looks like:

I could comment on the email author’s tenuous command of the English language, but why bother?

City Creek Update

March 2, 2012

I’ve been criticized in the past for suggesting that the LDS church’s City Creek Mall project was going over its estimated budget, which was supposed to be between $750 million and $1.5 billion. Some had speculated that the costs could soar as high as $8 billion. As of today, KSL (the church-owned television station here in Utah) reports that the church has spent $5 billion.

Of course, the project isn’t entirely finished, but it seems we have a solid number at last.

LDS “Folk Beliefs” about Racism

March 1, 2012

I was listening to Radio from Hell on the way to work, and they were discussing a story in the Salt Lake Tribune, wherein the LDS church repudiated several statements from BYU religion professor Randy Bott about the reasons behind the priesthood ban.

For those who aren’t aware, before 1978, men of sub-Saharan African descent were not allowed to hold the LDS priesthood. In LDS belief, the priesthood is the authority to act in the name of God and perform saving ordinances, such as baptism and temple ceremonies. Black men and women alike were denied entry to LDS temples, even for baptisms for the dead.

In the discussion on Radio from Hell to the Randy Bott/LDS racism story, the producer, Richie, who is a believing Mormon, suggested that the Washington Post had lied to Bott about having received permission from the LDS church and BYU to talk to him; Richie went on to say that Bott’s comments may have been fabricated or distorted. Bill Allred and Kerry Jackson, both former Mormons, explained that Richie is too young to remember when these teachings were common and official. Allred was exactly right about what the church has taught in the past officially; the church is being less than truthful in saying that the teachings Bott described are “folk beliefs” and don’t reflect church doctrine. I’m giving Richie a pass, for the most part, because he wasn’t born when these teachings were common, as Bill, Kerry, and I were.

Let’s take a look at these “folk beliefs.”

  • “Bott pointed to Mormon scriptures that indicate descendants of the biblical Cain — who killed his brother Abel and was “cursed” by God — were black and subsequently barred from the priesthood.” Bill correctly pointed out that LDS scriptures contain that teaching: “ And Enoch also beheld the residue of the people which were the sons of Adam; and they were a mixture of all the seed of Adam save it was the seed of Cain, for the seed of Cain were black, and had not place among them” (Moses 5:22). Also:

“23 The land of Egypt being first discovered by a woman, who was the daughter of Ham, and the daughter of Egyptus, which in the Chaldean signifies Egypt, which signifies that which is forbidden;

“24 When this woman discovered the land it was under water, who afterward settled her sons in it; and thus, from Ham, sprang that race which preserved the curse in the land.

25 Now the first government of Egypt was established by Pharaoh, the eldest son of Egyptus, the daughter of Ham, and it was after the manner of the government of Ham, which was patriarchal.

26 Pharaoh, being a righteous man, established his kingdom and judged his people wisely and justly all his days, seeking earnestly to imitate that order established by the fathers in the first generations, in the days of the first patriarchal reign, even in the reign of Adam, and also of Noah, his father, who blessed him with the blessings of the earth, and with the blessings of wisdom, but cursed him as pertaining to the Priesthood.

27 Now, Pharaoh being of that lineage by which he could not have the right of Priesthood, notwithstanding the Pharaohs would fain claim it from Noah, through Ham, therefore my father was led away by their idolatry;” (Abraham 1:23-27).

Mormon prophets and official publications consistently taught that, as indicated in these scriptures, people of African descent were descendants of Cain who were cursed with black skin and prohibited from the priesthood:

“From this it is very clear that the mark which was set upon the descendants of Cain was a skin of blackness, and there can be no doubt that this was the mark that Cain himself received; in fact, it has been noticed in our day that men who have lost the spirit of the Lord, and from whom His blessings have been withdrawn, have turned dark to such an extent as to excite the comments of all who have known them.” (Juvenile Instructor, vol. 26, page 635).

“Not only was Cain called upon to suffer, but because of his wickedness he became the father of an inferior race” (Joseph Fielding Smith, The Way to Perfection, p. 101).

  • ” He also noted that past LDS leaders suggested blacks were less valiant in the sphere known in Mormon theology as the ‘premortal existence.’” An official statement from the First Presidency in 1949 says exactly that:

“The position of the Church regarding the Negro may be understood when another doctrine of the Church is kept in mind, namely, that the conduct of spirits in the premortal existence has some determining effect upon the conditions and circumstances under which these spirits take on mortality and that while the details of this principle have not been made known, the mortality is a privilege that is given to those who maintain their first estate; and that the worth of the privilege is so great that spirits are willing to come to earth and take on bodies no matter what the handicap may be as to the kind of bodies they are to secure; and that among the handicaps, failure of the right to enjoy in mortality the blessings of the priesthood is a handicap which spirits are willing to assume in order that they might come to earth. Under this principle there is no injustice whatsoever involved in this deprivation as to the holding of the priesthood by the Negroes.” (A Statement from the First Presidency, August 17, 1949, emphasis mine).

  • “The longtime religion professor at LDS Church-owned BYU further argued that blacks were not ready for the priesthood, the Post wrote, “like a young child prematurely asking for the keys to her father’s car.” This one isn’t taught in the scriptures, but it certainly goes along with the notion that black people are “inferior” and incapable of exercising priesthood authority. There are many examples of this teaching: “The Negroes are not equal with other races where the receipt of certain blessings are concerned, particularly the priesthood and the temple blessings that flow there from, but this inequality is not of man’s origin, it is the Lord’s doings.” (Bruce McConkie, Mormon Doctrine, pp. 526-527).

So, these folk beliefs are not really folk beliefs. Maybe the church should have been nominated for Boner of the Day for being so disingenuous.

The problem here isn’t that the current church has racist teachings but that they’ve never acknowledged that the past policies and doctrines were racist or wrong. What they’ve essentially done is to pretend that nothing before 1978 matters, as current teachings are clear. But what this does is force some Mormons, such as Randy Bott and others, to continue to justify past racism, and we see the results in the Washington Post interview. Richie may feel that the Post was dishonest with Bott, but even if Bott didn’t say what he was quoted as saying, these beliefs were common and officially taught in our generation, and they are still being perpetuated today by people who want to make sense of the ban.

Brodie Award Winner

February 23, 2012

Thanks to a lot of kindness and support, my book, Heaven Up Here, won the Brodie award for best book-length memoir of 2011. I’m very proud of the book because I think it’s well-written and compelling. I’m honored to know that many of you feel the same way about it.

Now I can say I’m an award-winning author. Thanks again, everyone! And if you haven’t read the book, what are you waiting for?

If You Haven’t Voted Yet …

February 16, 2012

I’d really appreciate your support in the voting for the Brodie awards:

Brodie Award Vote

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.

Where Did the Book of Mormon Come From?

February 6, 2012

Recently, I was asked, if Joseph Smith really did create the Book of Mormon, how on earth did he come up with a story of ancient civilizations who came across the sea from Jerusalem?

The answer isn’t that difficult, and it has a lot of explanatory power. The Book of Mormon emerges from the mound-builder mythology of the early 1800s. Earthen mounds had been discovered in parts of the United States, which seemed to originate with a sophisticated ancient civilization. White Americans did not believe that Native Americans were capable of such sophistication, so legends began to emerge of a white, advanced civilization that had existed anciently in the Americas, but eventually the savage Indians had destroyed them. Ethan Smith’s “View of the Hebrews” and Spaulding’s manuscript are different takes on this legend, Smith suggesting that the lost civilization was founded by Hebrews, and Spaulding’s tale describing shipwrecked Romans.

In the Finger Lakes region of New York where Joseph Smith grew up are a number of glacial drumlins, which are elongated hills formed by glacial movements. The following image from the US Geological Survey shows drumlins in Wayne County, New York, which are oriented northwest to southeast. Note that Palmyra is located in Wayne County.

In Joseph Smith’s time, these glacial drumlins were believed to have been burial and other “mounds” built by the ancient mound builders. Thus, Joseph Smith in 1841 published articles describing the mound builders (based on Josiah Priest’s work) as supporting the Book of Mormon.

If anything, Joseph Smith taught a hemispheric model, as the Doctrine and Covenants repeatedly refers to western Indian territory as the lands of the Lamanites. But the idea that Cumorah was not in New York does not originate with Joseph, either through revelation or personal opinion. On the contrary, Doctrine and Covenants 128:20 associates Cumorah with the revelation of the Book of Mormon; the verse makes no sense if Cumorah is in Guatemala.

So, then, what are the reasons for shifting Cumorah to Central America?

Mesoamerican civilizations provide the large populations and advanced cities that the Book of Mormon describes. New York-area Native Americans do not fit the model, as they were still largely hunter-gatherer societies, although some “mound builder” societies did show more advanced development.

It would be easy to describe why Mesoamerica is not a good fit, as their technologies, culture, religion, and history are a very poor match for Nephites and Lamanites. See, for example, Mormon Mesoamerica for a discussion of the problems. Mound-builder myths are a much better fit for the Book of Mormon than are Mesoamerican theories (see Book of Mormon Evidence for more).

Shameless Plug

February 2, 2012

If you feel so inclined, please vote for me in the Brodie awards. I’m up for “Best Book-Length Memoirs” (Heaven Up Here) and “Best Church Watch” (Deseret News Is At It Again)

Brodie Award Votes

Horses and Chariots in the Book of Mormons: Red Herring?

January 31, 2012

The Book of Mormon mentions chariots and horses, which King Lamoni orders to be prepared for a journey:


6 Now when Lamoni had heard this he caused that his servants should make ready his horses and his chariots.

7 And he said unto Ammon: Come, I will go with thee down to the land of Middoni, and there I will plead with the king that he will cast thy brethren out of prison.

8 And it came to pass that as Ammon and Lamoni were journeying thither, they met the father of Lamoni, who was king over all the land. (Alma 20:6-8)

Apologetic answers have been very interesting regarding this description (Mike Ash provides a good summary of the reponses).

1. Loan-shift words. Some apologists argue that the words “chariots” and “horses” don’t mean what we naïve fundamentalists think they do. Brant Gardner, for example, suggests that chariots are probably the litters that Mayan kings used for conveyance, and the horses are ceremonial “battle beasts” associated with the king. Curiously, such apologists also insist that the Book of Mormon does not associate horse and chariots with transportation, though the above passage clearly associates them with Lamoni’s impending journey. Is this possible? Perhaps, but it’s certainly not plausible and requires doing significant violence to the text.

2. Mesoamerican evidence for horses and chariots. Others believe that there really were chariot-like wheeled conveyances, but they were pulled by animals such as deer or tapir (in another fun loan-shift approach), or possibly now-extinct equine animals. They tell us that American horses may have died out long ago, and it wouldn’t be surprising if we just didn’t find any (as an analogy he repeats the debunked claim by John Tvedtnes that no lion remains have been found in Palestine and the also bogus claim from Bill Hamblin that no horse remains have been found among ancient Hun artifacts).

Some apologists also point out that the wheel was known in Mesoamerica, as it appears on small ceremonial items and toys. Obviously, they tell us, if they had wheels for such small objects, they must have had larger wheeled conveyances, such as chariots. Game, set, and match, right?

Not so fast. There is an important reason that the wheel was not used in conveyances: there were no suitable beasts of burden to pull them. The tapir, often cited by apologists, is a largely nocturnal animal that spends most of the daytime sleeping. At night, they forage in muddy places or graze from river bottoms. Here’s a description from a University of Texas tapir conservation web site:

During the day you will find Sirena tapirs sleeping in mud holes. They have even been seen sleeping with caymans in some of the very wet mud pits! Sleeping in these holes is much cooler and keeps some of the bugs down. Tapirs wake up and start moving around 4 PM. They are most active from 4PM to 5AM. The tapirs will visit the beach at least once a day. A reason for this beach visit may be to obtain salt and minerals from the ocean.

The tapir have four splayed soft toes on their front feet and three on their rear feet, which are suited for the water and mud they live in. However, their feet are not suited at all for travel or transporting materials and people. Andean peoples had llamas, alpacas, and vicuñas, but there is no similar animal among the Mesoamericans. Deer were domesticated for meat, but not as beasts of burden.

Thus, the real reason the wheel was not used except in small items is that there were no draft animals to take advantage of the technology. In societies where the wheel is introduced for conveyance, its use spreads quickly to other uses, such as pulleys, mills, and pottery wheels. In Mesoamerica, none of these were used.

The Maya understood the rotation principle of the wheel–they used it in spinning thread and drilling stone–and they actually made wheeled toys. They rolled quarried stone over logs and used rope and wooden levers to lift heavy objects. But the Maya never built wheeled transport or employed pulleys. (Foster, Lynn V. and Matthews, Peter, Handbook to Life in the Ancient Maya World, Oxford UP, 2002, p. 314).

In short, there were no beasts of burden in Mesoamerica, nor was the wheel used in transportation. This makes the description of horses and chariots completely anachronistic, unless you accept that Mormon originally wrote, “Now when Lamoni had heard this he caused that his servants should make ready his ceremonial battle beasts and his wheel-less litter.”