Yesterday I happened upon a recent post by Austin Hale, a former believing member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (Mormon Church, or simply the Church). In his post (found here), Austin related his recent struggle of faith that resulted in his departure from the Church. I appreciate that Austin took the time to research the history of the Church so thoroughly and then communicated in an open and reasonable manner his experiences, feelings and conclusions. We all recognize the importance of the free exchange and communication of ideas, along with the right to believe and worship as each of us sees fit. I applaud his openness, frankness and courage. I’m very much a live-and-let-live individual and have no problem with him making his choice to leave the LDS faith. Sure, it's disappointing to me, but he's a "big boy," as they say.
Having said that, though, I have to take umbrage with some of the core assertions and assumptions of his post. Please allow me to explain.
In 2015, the Church released an essay detailing the methods and circumstances of the translation of the Book of Mormon (read it here). Mr. Hale was shocked to find out that Joseph often used a seer stone in a hat (in addition to the Nephite Interpreters/Urim and Thummim) and that the gold plates were sometimes not even present (contrary to what he's seen in paintings). This surprise was the catalyst that launched him on his journey out of the church. He explained his reaction as follows:
“Why in all my years of reading and studying had this never been brought up? It seemed like the information had been in existence from the very beginning of Mormonism. Why change the narrative? Why cover up the truth? To make it easier to accept?”
You see, I have no qualms with Mr. Hale's decision to leave the church. I wish him the best. But I have to challenge his assertion that the narrative was changed and that there was a cover-up. That is factually and demonstrably inaccurate. In addition, I'd like to point out the logical fallacies involved here. I do this not to bash Hale, but highlight the weaknesses of his position for anyone else out there who might be confused or on the fence over these developments. First we'll take each sentence in sequence and unpack them a bit, then we'll end by looking at some hard chronological evidence. Further, because a cover-up cannot be factually supported, conclusions, projections, and nefarious purposes by the church and its leaders—which rely upon the existence of a cover-up—are not tenable and should be rejected.
Why in all my years of reading and studying had this never been brought up?
I think we can all relate to this reaction. How many of us have discovered new ideas or information that weren't previously in our paradigm? All of us. I'm 39 and still learn things about my family and parents that I never knew before. We all have blind spots. Sometimes we fill them in, sometimes we don't. Professionally, personally, politically, historically, etc. We all have different experiences and pick up on different things. In my case, I cannot say positively when I first learned of the seer stone, but I've known about it since at least junior high/high school. The logical fallacy Hale commits here is arguing from anecdote and extrapolating his own personal experience into a larger truth. He assumes that since he'd never read about it before that it had never been brought up! This assumption is demonstrably false (which I will prove later when I list the many times it has been "brought up"). Again, I agree it's disconcerting that he only recently discovered this truth--but for me it's more so because he claims to be well-read and well-studied. His statement leaves me wondering just how "well-read" on the topic he actually was. I find it quite eye-opening that anyone could embark on a study of the mechanics and circumstances of the translation of the Book of Mormon and NOT learn about the seer stone.
It seemed like the information had been in existence from the very beginning of Mormonism.
With this discovery, Hale acknowledges what I just said in the last paragraph: there is considerable historical and contemporary information regarding the seer stone and its role in the translation of the Book of Mormon. We've all been in his shoes. How many of us, upon hearing a "new" word suddenly discover that it was all around us and being used all the time?! How many of us have learned of a band, only to realize later that it sang all those songs we love? You know what I'm talking about. It's a valid reaction. These head-slapping discoveries happen all the time.
But in this case, what I find it interesting is that Hale's reaction to finally "discovering the seer stone" was to look outward for blame, rather than inward for responsibility. It would be one thing if the seer stone had never been mentioned, but it is all over the place (be patient! we're getting there). It has been brought up myriad times. To use the analogy, it would be like blaming your teachers for not having taught you a certain word that you finally learned in your mid-twenties. In fact, it's deeper than that: the books, magazines and videos in your classroom ALL USED THE WORD.
Why change the narrative?
At this point, Hale's false assumptions have led to an erroneous conclusion. Who's narrative? Which narrative? Obviously, the narrative he'd constructed in his mind from his own limited study and understanding. But is this actually the "Chuch's" fault? Does it really mean that the gospel isn't true? That the truth hasn't been restored in the latter days? Pinning down "THE NARRATIVE" is actually harder than it sounds because there are precious few places where the entire known pieces of the picture are assembled. The biggest reason for this, in my estimation, is tautological: there’s no one account or narrative because all the bits and pieces are scattered around in various accounts and narratives! In point of fact, rather than changing the narrative, the essay actually—finally—assembles the complete narrative! Instead of being the perceived "problem," it's the final solution.
Why cover up the truth?
We're getting closer now to the big "reveal." When you see the preliminary list of sources of the information that he was unaware of previously, you’ll see that there has been no “cover-up.” Again, this yearning question arises from an erroneous conclusion brought on by false assumptions. I emphasize to him—and anyone that is still on the fence over this topic—that the handling and sharing of historical information is not the same thing as the historical information itself. What church leaders have talked about — or not talked about — has no bearing on the validity or veracity of the information itself.
Equating the information itself with how it's communicated and treated is itself another logical fallacy. Joseph Smith himself kept much of it a secret from us! He explained that "It was not intended to tell the world all the particulars of the coming forth of the Book of Mormon." Were we to apply Mr. Hale's logic to Joseph himself, we'd have to reject the Book of Mormon simply because Joseph didn't tell us everything! That's a non-sequitur if I've ever heard one: "Joseph didn't tell us everything about how the Book of Mormon was translated. Ergo, it must be false." The one does not depend on the other.
To make it easier to accept?
Having now deviated severely off course, Hale grasps for an explanation. Since he's off course, we shouldn't be surprised that his explanation is wrong. To be fair, he does admit the following:
"It wasn’t the absurdity of the method. To be frank, the difference between a magical pair of spectacles and golden plates isn’t all that different from a magical rock placed inside a hat to block out the light. The confusion and subsequent anger were at the feeling of deceit. I felt like I had been lied to."
He himself admits that there's little difference in the believability of one method over the other, and I agree. After all, many sources describe the Urim and Thummim as seer stones set in metal wiring. A "magic" seer stone is a magic seer stone, right? Having just admitted that they are both equally (un)believable, I find it surprising that he then makes the leap to one method being preferred by the "Church" over the other! After having realized logically that either method is essentially equivalent, doesn't it more logically follow that a different explanation be surmised? Such as: "maybe there are multiple conflicting accounts," or "perhaps one account is preferred over another," or maybe even, "I wonder why this one seems to get more press than the other." Etc. But where's the logic in setting them equivalent in your own mind and then ascribing and illogical or ulterior motive to another individual, group or organization?
After all, as anyone who's been a long-time member of any institution or group knows, historical habits have a way of forming and gaining momentum. We call it “institutional inertia,” wherein decisions or traditions from the past (for one reason or another — and we don’t always know the reasons) continue affecting decisions and traditions made into the future. In other words, the emphasis of certain information in the present differing from the emphasis in the past doesn’t necessarily denote any malicious intent.
We also call these "historical artifacts:" traditions and habits that persist long after we even know why they take the form they do. The famous example is of the mother that cuts the end off of the ham, throws it to the dog to eat and bakes the rest. Her daughter asks her why, and the response is, "I don't know, that's what my mom always did." The daughter calls her grandmother to get to the bottom of it and grandmother explains that when she was a little girl, her mother's pan wasn't big enough for the whole ham!" But, the tradition was set and carried on. Such are the artifacts of history. In the case of the Book of Mormon translation, I can't positively say why one narrative is preferred over the other--if it even is! As you'll see from the list of sources which mention the seer stones usage, it's hard to make the case for a dominant narrative. I suggest that perhaps different things are important to different people, in different ways and for different reasons. These differences in the past have led to certain tendencies in the present and help account for information gaps between members of the church. I grew up knowing about the seer stone. Mr. Hale did not. Should his experience be more valid than mine?
We all learn new things that can be shocking. We know and relate to the sense of confusion Hale suffered. We all find ourselves asking “Why didn’t I find out about this until now?!” It happens to everyone. But that’s how life is. We can’t learn everything all at once. Sometimes we just miss stuff.
Lest anyone get the wrong idea, I want to repeat: my purpose is not to bash or devalue Austin Hale in any way. I have simply tried to point out errors of logic and evidence contrary to his assertions and conclusions. I have done this to provide clarity to anyone who is currently "feeling the shock," or who might be struggling with what they feel is a "shifting narrative."
Mr. Hale read the essay in 2015 and claims to have never know about the seer stone. Fair enough. He somehow missed it. Let us even concede that the Church should have included more complete information in a wider variety of places. Even if the Church could have acted more prudently (and we are of course making this assertion with the benefit of hindsight), the enormity of the evidence available puts to rest any cover-up claims. No sound logic can possibly conclude that the "Church" has deliberately been keeping a secret after seeing this list. It's simply can't be true. It's quite clearly NOT true. I'm sorry for Austin's unfortunate experience, but perhaps it need not have been.
You’ll note in the following list of sources, there has been considerable coverage of the seer stone topic in many official and closely-affiliated sources, along with prominent non-official/non-affiliated sources. I ask you: given this abundance of sources, is it really true that there has been a cover-up?
1887 An Address To All Believers in Christ (David Whitmer), p. 30: https://archive.org/stream/addresstoallbeli00whit#page/30/mode/2up
1907 The Seventy’s Course in Theology (BH Roberts), First Year, p. 111: https://archive.org/stream/seventyscoursein00robe#page/n127/mode/2up
1907 Defense of the Faith and the Saints (BH Roberts) Vol. 1, p. 350–1: https://archive.org/stream/defenseoffaithsa00robe#page/350/mode/2up
1956 Doctrines of Salvation Vol 3, p. 225: https://archive.org/stream/Doctrines-of-Salvation-volume-3-joseph-fielding-smith/JFSDoctrinesofSalvationv3#page/n133/mode/2up
1966 Mormon Doctrine, p. 573: https://archive.org/stream/MormonDoctrine/mormon_doctrine#page/n287/mode/2up
1974 The New Era: https://www.lds.org/new-era/1974/03/fyi-for-your-information?lang=eng
1974 The Children’s Friend: https://www.lds.org/friend/1974/09/a-peaceful-heart?lang=eng
1976 BYU Studies: https://byustudies.byu.edu/content/joseph-knights-recollection-early-mormon-history
1977 The Ensign: https://www.lds.org/ensign/1977/09/by-the-gift-and-power-of-god?lang=eng
1980 Sunstone: https://www.sunstonemagazine.com/pdf/020-10-14.pdf
1982 Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought 15:2 (Summer 1982): 48–68 https://dialoguejournal.com/wp-content/uploads/sbi/articles/Dialogue_V15N02_50.pdf or here: http://www.mormonismi.net/pdf/Gift_of_Seeing.pdf
1987 Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought: https://www.dialoguejournal.com/wp-content/uploads/sbi/articles/Dialogue_V20N01_68.pdf
1987 The Ensign: https://www.lds.org/ensign/1987/08/the-alvin-smith-story-fact-and-fiction?lang=eng
1992 Encyclopedia of Mormonism, p. 210: http://contentdm.lib.byu.edu/cdm/compoundobject/collection/EoM/id/4391/show/5552
1993 The Ensign: https://www.lds.org/ensign/1993/07/a-treasured-testament?lang=eng&_r=1
1994 FARMS Book of Mormon Lecture Series: http://publications.mi.byu.edu/fullscreen/?pub=937&index=1
1994 The Ensign: https://www.lds.org/ensign/1994/06/highlights-in-the-prophets-life?lang=eng
1996 Sunstone: https://www.sunstonemagazine.com/pdf/103-45-55.pdf
1997 The Ensign: https://www.lds.org/ensign/1997/01/by-the-gift-and-power-of-god?lang=eng&_r=1
1997 BYU Forum Talk: https://speeches.byu.edu/talks/noel-b-reynolds_authorship-book-mormon/
1998 Journal of Book of Mormon Studies (FARMS): http://publications.mi.byu.edu/publications/jbms/7/1/S00005-50be28d378b0e4Skousen.pdf
2002 (earlier editions 1987 & 1998) An Insider’s View of Mormon Origins Early Mormonism and the Magic World View (book preview includes the information): https://www.amazon.com/Insiders-View-Mormon-Origins/dp/1560851570
2003 Book of Mormon Student Manual, p.339 (tells how the Urim and Thummim were used to “remote view” scripture written by John the Apostle on ancient parchment): https://archive.org/stream/BookOfMormonStudentManual/Book%20of%20Mormon%20Student%20Manual#page/n343/mode/2up
2005 The FARMS Review: http://publications.mi.byu.edu/fullscreen/?pub=1449&index=1
2009 Deseret News: http://www.deseretnews.com/article/705346461/How-a-seer-stone-helped-in-the-Book-of-Mormon-translation.html?pg=all
2010 BYU Devotional Talk: https://speeches.byu.edu/talks/randal-day_the-sacred-matters/
2012 History.LDS.org Article: https://history.lds.org/article/doctrine-and-covenants-orson-pratt?lang=eng
2013 The Ensign: https://www.lds.org/ensign/2013/01/great-and-marvelous-are-the-revelations-of-god?lang=eng
2013 Seminary Manual: https://www.lds.org/manual/book-of-mormon-seminary-teacher-manual-2013/lessons-1-5/lesson-4?lang=eng
2013 Doctrine and Covenants and Church History Seminary Teacher Manual: https://www.lds.org/manual/doctrine-and-covenants-and-church-history-seminary-teacher-manual-2014/section-01/lesson-34?lang=eng
2013 History.LDS.org Article: https://history.lds.org/article/doctrine-and-covenants-martin-harris?lang=eng
2013 Interpreter — A Journal of Mormon Scripture: http://www.mormoninterpreter.com/the-spectacles-the-stone-the-hat-and-the-book-a-twenty-first-century-believers-view-of-the-book-of-mormon-translation/
The following portion was added on 7/20/2016 in response to various comments on the original post. I realized that debunking the claim of a cover-up is insufficient, a counter-narrative is also needed. I will now provide one.
The Friend. The New Era. The Ensign. Seminary and Institute manuals. Mormon Doctrine. The Encyclopedia of Mormonism. BYU Devotionals. FARMS. If there was a "cover-up," it surely has been one of the most ineffective in history. Now, that is not to say that the fullest possible set of facts has had the widest possible dissemination. Clearly, the publication of the pictures of the seer stones in 2015, along with the historical essay by the church came as quite a "revelation" to many. However, there is a stark difference between asymmetric distribution of public knowledge and a nefarious attempt to restrict knowledge acquisition. Putting it more simply, just because the church's narrative has been "widened" for some people by the world wide web announcement and photos, doesn't mean it was purposely "narrowed" to those same people in the past. As we see, that cannot be logically supported.
What is needed is therefore an alternate interpretation of the evolution of this "controversy." I submit that there are at least 3 principle reasons for this misperception of deviousness by the church. There are undoubtedly more, but these will suffice: "presentism," inadvertent compartmentalization of information storage and transmission, and finally—Joseph Smith himself. Let's take these one at a time, and in reverse order.
Joseph Smith Himself
Yes, my friends, the seeds of this controversy were planted by Joseph himself. Evidently, the seer stone was so nearly equal in function and power to the interpreters, that Joseph used either tool interchangeably. We don't even know when he used one over the other. In fact, such was the lack of differentiation that Joseph himself evidently referred to the seer stone at times as the "Urim and Thummim!" In other words—to Joseph—there was no difference between the two and he therefore never made any special distinctions! In his paradigm, he simply used the Urim and Thummim to translate the Book of Mormon, by the "gift and power" of God. If you were to go back in time and ask Joseph if he used the seer stone or the Urim and Thummim to translate the Book of Mormon, he'd have said, "Yes."
Furthermore, as discussed earlier, Joseph declared "It was not intended to tell the world all the particulars of the coming forth of the Book of Mormon." He never left a full account in the first place. Much of the information we DO have comes from the numerous scribes and witnesses of the process. We should be grateful to them, but also recognize that our knowledge is incidental and accidental in the first place. We should not be surprised that down through the years various narratives have separately co-existed. It was ALWAYS that way—even from the beginning! I wonder what members' reactions were when David Whitmer published his account in 1887? Did many feel offended or lied to by "the Church?" Did they feel the "narrative had been changed?" I ask this in seriousness: did Hale--or anyone else shocked in 2015--stop to ask themselves, "Hmmm, previous members may have experienced something similar to this, how did they cope? Was there a public outcry? If yes, why? If not, why not?" I suspect not, even though it would probably have been instructive. This lack of historical perspective is part of the larger topic that we'll deal with last, called "Presentism."
Let us move on to the more immediate effects of Joseph's actions.
Compartmentalization of Information Storage and Transmission
What do I mean by this? Because Joseph left a sparse account himself, the complete picture that has come down to us was highly random and fragmented. Some people had heard accounts from Martin Harris, perhaps. Others from Lucy Mack Smith. Still others from Emma or Oliver Cowdery. Etc. Add to that the fact that the early body of the "Church" was pretty volatile—marked with several mass migrations, apostasies, conversions, followed by more migrations, apostasies, and conversions. Indeed, while tradition has it that Martin Harris left the church and subsequently returned, he himself claimed that the church left him! This was an oblique reference to all the movement the main body of saints underwent for the first few decades of the church's existence.
In those days, information dissemination was mostly through letters and by word of mouth. Even a high-level glance at church history informs us that communication and information transmission was spotty and not anything like it is now. By and large, the information that persisted then—and at anytime in the world's history—is that which was written down. And what was it that was written down and readily accessible by most members of the Church? The Book of Mormon. The Book of Mormon talks about the Nephite Interpreters (Urim and Thummim), not about a seer stone that Joseph also had. They had the Book of Commandments, which also mentioned the Interpreters. You see, from very early on, the narrative was skewed towards the Urim and Thummim simply because the information storage and transmission systems naturally made no mention of the seer stone!
Indeed, Martin Harris's account wasn't fully revealed until 1859. David Whitmer's account wasn't even available until 1887! That was 57 years after the founding of the church! And how many saints happened to obtain a copy of that?
What was history left with? Parallel, fragmented accounts, with one set of facts more predominantly known than another. The explosion of sources and commentary around the seer stone in the last quarter of the 20th century up to now has not been evidence of a cover-up, it is evidence of a gathering and reconciliation, culminating in 2015!
Let's move on to the final source.
"Presentism" is a logical and interpretive fallacy defined as "uncritical adherence to present-day attitudes, especially the tendency to interpret past events in terms of modern values and concepts." In other words, it's the interpretation of the past through the lens of the present. If you were to criticize George Washington's physicians for bleeding him to death (as they did), you'd be guilty of presentism because you're imposing modern knowledge and understanding on people and events that happened over 2 centuries ago.
In the case of the seer stone, we are able to now get online and instantly find any and all information relating to the translation of the Book of Mormon. We've had this ability for only a few years, which is pretty much a drop in the bucket, historically speaking. However, because we have so much information available to us with the press of a few keys, and because of the explosion of the internet and academia, we've become spoiled. We've developed a perception of ideal transparency which quite frankly has never existed in the history of the world!
The church 10, 15, 30, 50 years ago did not operate, nor did it have the capability to operate, as it does now! Feedback and communication amongst members and between members and non-members did not exist then as it does now. When I see that Austin Hale was born in 1991, and has basically grown up with the so-called "information superhighway" and all its nifty high-tech gadgetry and devices, it's easy to see that he's judged the church's past using a set of sensibilities and expectations that are wholly modern and representative of only the last decade of human history! He's imposing his present-day values on the past. Presentism. Furthermore, utilizing the technology it did have at its disposal--the printing press--it provided pretty good coverage: various church magazine articles throughout the 70s-90s.
By now we are familiar with the new paradigm of modern data and information totality and uniformity. Faced with these pressures, the Church responded and finally gathered the shrapnel of disparate accounts and put all the pieces together. And here's where we see the irony: Hale finally did become aware of the seer stone because of the efforts of the Church! In spite of MILLIONS of current and past members knowing about the seer stone; in spite of it being taught in the institute program; in spite of it being available in various talks and magazine articles, the church realized that some people still didn't know about it and it further acknowledged that this disparity was becoming a hang-up for members. But, as we've seen, this was not the doing of the modern church—our era inherited this discrepancy. And until now—NO ONE CARED. Quite naturally, once the import became evident, the Church responded—and he's mad about it! They solved the problem and he's offended by it! That's irony folks. What would he have preferred, that the church not publish the photos and the essay?
Genesis of the Controversy
But why all the fuss and hubbub now? Why was this on nobody's radar 5-10 years ago, whereas now people are leaving the church over it? What's going on? In my opinion, the Church has become a victim of its own success and efforts. To see this, we need to look at something called the Book of Mormon Critical Text project, recently completed by Royal Skousen of BYU.
Royal Skousen is an internationally-acknowledged expert linguist. In the late 1980s, Skousen began an analysis of the surviving fragments of the original Book of Mormon manuscript in an effort to produce what's called a "critical text." Just what is a critical text? It is a text that draws from all manuscripts and their variants in an attempt to preserve the most accurate wording possible of what the original text said. This is done for biblical manuscripts and other historical documents for which various copies and manuscripts exist. The idea is basic: what did the very first copy say?
You can read a general description of Skousen's project here: http://www.bookofmormoncriticaltext.byustudies.byu.edu/about
You can watch him explain the project and present a summary of his findings in this set of videos:
Skousen's findings are rich and complex. I encourage you to watch and digest this information. I will not rehash everything, but one interesting finding is that the language of the original English translations is Early Modern English—that is, English that was spoken in the 15th-17th century. In other words, we now know that it wasn't written in Joseph's 19th century English dialect, but in a form of English extinct by Joseph's time. Other interesting findings stem from both matches and inconsistencies between the original manuscript and the printer's manuscript. By comparing the two, Skousen was able to determine mistakes that stemmed from the printer's manuscript, and mistakes on the original manuscript that arose from issues like mishearing what Joseph said. Etc. In order to really nail down the Critical Text as much as possible, Skousen and his team had to research and grapple with the methods of translation like no one ever has before.
Skousen only recently finished the project and published his findings in 2009. Many impacts have already been felt, but many ramifications are no doubt yet to be felt. One of the most immediate effects has been an explosion of interest into how Book of Mormon was translated! His project has brought to the forefront all the disparate ideas and competing theories and understandings regarding the process. This renewed focus has been the impetus behind the controversies and the church's recent publication of the essay of 2015.
This whole thing began when someone started asking questions and doing the work to answer the questions. Those questions and answers led to more questions and answers. But this process had to wait until the church was in possession of the manuscript pieces and the technology was available to do the analysis.
In other words, this controversy erupted because the Church was trying to find out the truth—not hide it!
I've reviewed Hale's reaction to his discovery of the seer stone. We've seen that it was a completely understandable and not uncommon reaction. Furthermore, we've seen how and why his conclusions were off-base. He allowed an emotional reaction to overpower his faculties of reason. I've shown that a more comprehensive, and non-presentist view of Church history quite easily presents a plausible and more probable counter-narrative.
Finally, I do think it's a fair criticism to say that the Church has hid some things. Let's be honest, there are difficult issues in our past. Because of various cultural inheritances, sensitivities, and opinions, leaders have made decisions to not talk about certain things. There's plenty of fertile ground for that discussion. But in the case of the seer stone and a supposed "narrative shift," that just isn't the case.
Thanks for reading.
I Am WonderBoy!