Prophecy vs. History

Not too long ago, I stumbled across the PBS presentation of Jared Diamond’s book Guns, Germs, and Steel (2d ed. 1999). It reminded me of dealing with the book at college and enjoying the ideas presented and the sweeping take of world history that it offered. But while watching the presentation and contemplating the message of the book itself, I was reminded about how much Diamond’s whole analysis depends solely on inference from extremely scant historical evidence.[1]

Do we perhaps put too much faith — blind faith? — in history in our post-Enlightenment lives and cultures? As an introductory disclaimer, I have always been an enthusiast for history and genuinely love to read history books. I learn a lot from history and realize that history can aide and accompany civilization in its progress; conversely, ignoring the lessons of history can result in downfall. But despite this love for history, I wonder whether I am sometimes more of an agnostic on matters of history than a true believer in the inferences that constitute “history.” After all, at its core history is really just inference, isn’t it? History depends on the existence of evidence and on the interpretation of that evidence to create something intelligible. True, the story created by a historian drawing inferences from an evidentiary record must be able to stand up to the scrutiny of logic. The evidence either conceivably supports the narrative or not. Poorly executed history is often not difficult to detect. But even with sound history, we are still relying on someone else’s inferences from arbitrarily extant facts and evidence. Working as a lawyer has thrown this into even starker relief for me than did my studies.[2]

As I watched the Diamond special on PBS and considered the study of history, I began to think about a provocative statement I had read more than a decade ago. In his book The Great Apostasy (1909),[3] James E. Talmage had quoted B.H. Roberts on prophecy vs. history:

What is prophecy but history reversed? Nothing. Prophecy is a record of things before they transpire. History is a record of them after they have occured; and of the two prophecy is more to be trusted for its accuracy than history: for the reason that it has for its source the unerring inspiration of Almighty God; while history — except in the case of inspired historians — is colored by the favor or prejudice of the writer, depends for its exactness upon the point of view from which he [or she] looks upon the events; and is likely to be marred in a thousand ways by the influences surrounding him — party considerations, national interest or prejudice; supposed influence upon present conditions and future prospects — all these things may interfere with history; but prophecy is free from such influences. Historians are self-constituted, or appointed by men; but prophets are chosen of God. (James E. Talmage, The Great Apostacy (1909), pg. 37, note 5.)

Do we or should we believe this? B.H. Roberts is making an even more startling claim with this statement: prophecies are objectively accurate and true, regardless of whether someone — the hearer or reader — believes in the truth claims of the prophet. If, for example, Isaiah was really a prophet at all, then his prophecies and revelations are “more accurate” than the fallible inferences drawn by historians about what has transpired in the past. As Latter-day Saints who believe in the concept of a living prophet and continuing revelation, we can benefit from this idea subject to two underlying assumptions. First, we must presume that God does choose prophets through whom to speak. Second, in the Latter-day Saint context, we must believe that our prophet is God’s prophet.

For Latter-day Saints, God’s prophet is also a seer. In the Book of Mormon we read that

a seer is greater than a prophet. . . . [and] that a seer is a revelator and a prophet also; and a gift which is greater can no man have, except he should possess the power of God, which no man can; yet a man may have great power given him from God. But a seer can know of things which are past, and also of things which are to come, and by them shall all things be revealed, or, rather, shall secret things be made manifest, and hidden things shall come to light, and things which are not known shall be made known by them, and also things shall be made known by them which otherwise could not be known. (Mosiah 8:15-17.)

If we believe B.H. Roberts’s statement about prophecy versus history and read it in light of the prophet’s role as a seer, what implications might this have for such controversial works of the Prophet Joseph Smith as the Book of Abraham or Moses, or even the Book of Mormon? As a seer, Joseph Smith was able to “know of things which are past.” Understandably, people not of this faith might think that Joseph Smith was not a prophet and will find these works to be ridiculous. But for those who believe in Joseph Smith as a prophet, what should we think if the “historical record” — or what we know of it at any given time — seems to contradict what Joseph Smith has revealed in his role as a prophet and a seer? Are we better off putting our faith in history (is it still just faith?) that follows from sound inferences, regardless of how sketchy the “evidence” really is when considered in light of the breadth of human experience? Why does it often seem like we are more unlikely to be agnostic about the conclusions of history than about prophecy, and particularly prophecy that looks back in time rather than forward?

[1] In his book, Diamond is talking about stuff that presumably happened 13,000 years ago; how agriculture developed in pre-history and how and where humans first domesticed animals and settled in villages with houses — all in the laudable bid at showing that the peoples and cultures of this world that developed powerful civilizations with strong institutions, the rule of law, functioning economies and the accompanying societal and architectural infrastructure, not to mention physical health and important immunities, were able to achieve these things because of the luck of geography and the scarcity of farmable crops and animals in other geographical locations, and not because of any kind of racial or genetic superiority. Peoples lucky enough to find themselves in a geographical location that sported the right conditions together with the right species of crops and animals, such as the Fertile Crescent, prospered and developed such civilizations. The civilizations followed the march of these crops and animals. The book’s broad view is precisely what makes it so valuable and it proves to be an educational read for anyone, regardless of background.

[2] Lawyers deal with evidence every day. We analyze evidence and also, in a certain sense, create history from whatever evidence happens to fall into our hands. In the Anglo and American common-law legal systems, which rely on the adversarial system to administer civil justice, lawyers for each side will often take the same evidence as support for their own opposing viewpoints or stories. The meaning of a document in evidence, that actually might seem pretty clear at first blush, can often be fought over for years with no agreement. Both sides might have compelling interpretations; the inferences both sides draw from the document and what is known through other pieces of evidence about the context surrounding the creation of the document can be logically sound in their own right. And even when a judge or jury makes a final determination about what the document or other evidence means, that still does not really settle the issue of true meaning in an objective or cosmic sense. Rather, the matter is only concluded because the law creates a fiction of finality in the matter (as it must). Unfortunately, the outcome all too often seems arbitrary. (Lawyers also, when not supervised closely, use too many footnotes.)

[3] This is certainly not what one would call an “ecumenical” work, but I would highly recommend it nonetheless, if for no other reason than for such tidbits as: “A more infamous doctrine than that of the condemnation of un-baptized infants can scarcely be imagined, and a stronger proof of the heresies that had invaded and corrupted the early Church need not be sought. Such a doctrine is foreign to the gospel and to the Church of Christ, and its adoption as an essential tenet is proof of apostasy” (119).

32 comments for “Prophecy vs. History

  1. And even when a judge or jury makes a final determination about what the document or other evidence means, that still does not really settle the issue of true meaning in an objective or cosmic sense. Rather, the matter is only concluded because the law creates a fiction of finality in the matter (as it must). Unfortunately, the outcome all too often seems arbitrary. (Lawyers also, when not supervised closely, use too many footnotes.)

    Indeed ;)

    This has really influenced my attitude towards all the literature out there and all the people who claim to know “the truth” about early Church History.

    The “truth” is that the people closest to the events, even after they seperated, such as Thomas B. Marsh or Oliver Cowdrey, in their heart of hearts believed in the essential truths we believe today.

    The amazing thing about the Church is the way so many left and then returned after long absences.

    Which creates an excellent lense through which to view it all.

  2. When reading Diamonds book, I had similar thoughts. The one example that stuck out most notably in my mind were the various conclusions he came to concerning an ancient circular clay disk that had images stamped into it in a spiral fashion. Because of its apparent antiquity and the lack of anything else of that apparent antiquity, Diamond drew all sorts of conclusions from that single available source. Obviously a problematic situation for historians trying to discern what people were like back then, given the obvious lack of source material. The result is Diamond drew conclusions which would be easily overturned by even the tiniest shred of relevant evidence that was of apparently the same antiquity.

    But, an abundance of source material doesn’t necessarily resove the problem of getting history “right” either. Look at the wide array of present day conflicts over various historical events (which have social and political ramifications) that are relatively recent and for which there is an abundance of source material. Jeffersons relationship with the half-sister slave of his deceased wife is a good example there.

    As for prophecy, sometimes that isn’t always “right” either. The Ezek. 26 predictions concerning Tyre’s destruction come to mind as the most glaring example of this. While Tyre was sacked and besieged and repeatedly attacked and overrun, the specific details of Ezekiel’s predictions didn’t come to pass in a literal physical way that historians would look at and say “Yup, there you have it”.

    Predicting the future as part of “prophecy” is only incidental to what prophecy is really all about. The real purpose of it is to bear witness, not give signs that are yet to be fulfilled. Scriptural prophecies are there for spiritual purposes, not to prognosticate unerringly to convert people. Signs never really converted anyone, just scared them for the time being, hence the Lord’s rebuke of Elijah in 1 Ki. 19. Also note, the signs given in Matt. 24 were given not to predict the future or provide signs, but to warn those who are already believers against being deceived. As far as retelling the past, I would have to assume this applies as well. The Lord has no real intent or purpose in teaching historical facts from an academic point of view of XYZ happened for reasons ABC. The Lord’s primary intent is to get people to humble themselves, repent and have a godly walk. That is not the purpose of academic Historians.

    Saying one is more “right” than the other assumes a particular point of view. And while those points of view arent mutually exclusive, they are significantly different. Roberts statement concerning prophecy being more trustworthy than history is correct in a religious sense of saving our souls and getting us where we really need to be spiritually as individuals and a body of believers. But its not going to get someone a job as a history teacher and put bread on the table in our society.

  3. Interesting post. One thing that occurs to me (more as an elaboration on your point than a disagreement with it) is that it takes less faith to believe in history than it does to believe in believe in prophecy. Your discussion of evidence is significant. One can’t expect evidence to persuade others unless that evidence is available to them in some sense. Scholarly historians are obliged to publish some record of the evidence that fed their conclusions, their conclusions must be open for argument, and prevailing wisdom often changes based on these arguments. This leads to a kind of transparency that makes it easier for outsiders (non-historians) to grasp what’s going on.

    Prophets don’t share these obligations for transparency, and this makes evidence for prophecy is a lot dicier.

  4. Talmadge writes that “history … is colored by the favor or prejudice of the writer”.

    Prophesy is colored by the favor or prejudice of the reader.

    It is no easy thing to find the truth of prophesy, as it follows only from the gifts of the spirit. 2 Peter: “Knowing this first, that no prophecy of the scripture is of any private interpretation. For the prophecy came not in old time by the will of man: but holy men of God spake as they were moved by the Holy Ghost.”

    Knowing the limits of history and prophesy should help us learn from both.

  5. John,

    Your post reminds me of the fireworks display that resulted when Hugh Nibley and Sterling McMurrin had a public debate to resolve the question: Do history and religion conflict?

    I remember reading a transcript of it years ago in the reserve section of the Harold B. Lee library, I don’t know if it is available through FARMS or online somewhere.

    The part that impressed my undergraduate self the most was Nibley’s point that both religion and history require a humble approach. Mormonism believes as an article of faith that many great and important things are yet to be revealed, and history, as you show in your post, often has to make tentative best guesses based on evidence that is far less conclusive than we would like.

  6. “Lawyers also, when not supervised closely, use too many footnotes.”

    I, for one, like using lots of footnotes. If the judge wants a richer context or analysis, then just look down at the bottom of the page. If he’d rather have just have the meat-and-potatos simplified version, then just stick to my text. That way, I can please both Bryan Garner and my innate incapability of not leaving anything unsaid.

  7. Kurt wrote But its not going to get someone a job as a history teacher and put bread on the table in our society.

    I certainly agree with this. Also, your point about prophecy not always being completely accurate was interesting. I think you are probably correct, although it is easy to fall into a question-begging hole here because the question could be asked how we know whether Ezekiel’s prophecy was not accurately fulfilled? Through history, or rather through whatever historical evidence has arbitrarily survived for our (or much earlier historians’) analysis?

    As for these lines of questions, please don’t misunderstand me — I’m not throwing history in the trash can. On the contrary, I am very much a devotee. But if what a team of historians has been able to piece together conflicts with what a (true) prophet has decreed through the seer power about the past, are there any presumptions that flow from that for people who believe that the prophet truly is called of God?

    (The irony that Talmage quotes this B.H. Roberts statement in a book where he is trying to write a history of the Great Apostasy is not lost on me, by the way. But to be fair, Talmage concentrates on collecting prophecies that the Apostasy would happen and then discussing the fulfilment of those prophecies.)

    A healthy dose of agnosticism regarding the conclusions of history — at least some of those conclusions — would be beneficial, I believe, to the faculty as a whole. Perhaps this is indeed merely the “humility” that Nibley posited was necessary for both religion and history, as Mark IV noted. Too often, however, we see historians plow forward with no sense of humility about just how darkly they are seeing in the glass. Sometimes their histories are little more than evidence bootstrapped into a pre-conceived conclusion.

    Personally, I think it is great that a person’s background and beliefs invariably work their way into their scholarship and the histories they create. The same thing happens for politicians, and rightly so, despite any rhetoric about the separation of Church and State. The beliefs and background simply inform a person’s actions and motivate/drive a person’s work. There is nothing wrong with that. And as Clair points out, the hearer or reader of prophecy receives that prophecy through the lense of their own favor or prejudice.

    DKL, I think you have made an important comment re transparency in history vs. prophecy. The larger question, however, is what use transparency is in prophecy anyway? All of this only applies to those who already believe that our prophet is God’s prophet.

  8. I think GG&S is based on a lot more than inferences from scant evidence. For one thing, he got started by examining the present-day inhabitants of New Guinea, which he studied in depth. Most of his book focuses on the last 13,000 years or so, where his evidence is pretty solid, especially the closer to the present he gets. His conclusions are supported by multiple forms of evidence, including historical writings, DNA, archaeology, etc.

    While theoretically I agree that prophecy is more to be trusted than history, in practice, prophecy (at least what is available to us now) is vague and subject to multiple interpretations–even more so than the evidence typically used in litigation.

    What prophecies even refer to China, India, Africa, or Europe? History, including GG&S, deals with each of these in detail.

    For that matter, history tells us much more about even the Americas and the Middle-East than the scriptures do.

  9. JN, don’t misunderstand me — I’m not throwing history in the trash can. I like it and believe in it.

    Diamond has done a thorough job, but much of it is still inference from scant evidence. The reason for this is that there simply isn’t much evidence of anything that happened 13,000 years ago. Or even 4,000 years ago, for that matter. His anthropological work in New Guinea is fascinating, but it takes multiple leaps to get from there to his framework of the development of farming animals in the Fertile Crescent. It’s great stuff, don’t get me wrong, but it really is just inference.

    Another point I should mention is that prophecy, when looking forward, is often a contingent statement, a warning of something that can be diverted through repentance and obedience. It would be interesting to consider how that aspect of prophecy fits into Roberts’s perspective.

  10. “First, we must presume that God does choose prophets through whom to speak. Second, in the Latter-day Saint context, we must believe that our prophet is God’s prophet.”

    Third, we must have some sort of reliable theory of when God’s prophet’s historical statements are really the reliable fruits of his “seer” role, as opposed to his off-the-cuff remarks, or his personal judgments colored by whatever 19th (or 20th) century assumptions were in vogue at a given time, etc.

    Fourth, we must be able to impute some reasonably fixed meaning to the prophet’s prophetic or historical claims, to be able to meaningful talk of its “accuracy.”

    One can believe in 1 and 2, without embracing 3 and 4. And without 3 and 4, I don’t see Roberts’ statement (“and of the two prophecy is more to be trusted for its accuracy than history”) as that helpful. (None of which is to deny the limitations of a historian’s inquiry, or to disagree with the point that we probably put too much faith in historical claims whose evidence is less than solid).

    Aaron B

  11. Aaron, you have pointed out how doubting the prophet still fits into the framework and, based on this point, you are right that Roberts’s statement about the accuracy of prophecy is open for question. An interesting question might be about decisions and presumptions — if one decides at one point in life, based hopefully on a clear spiritual manifestation, that our prophet is God’s prophet, then, at least in theory, one could proceed in life with the knowledge that that decision is already made. The resulting continuing presumption of a prophet’s inspiration/authority could alleviate much doubt about a prophet’s pronouncement.

    But I agree with you that a major difficulty would be in knowing when the prophet is speaking in the role of a prophet or even seer and when the prophet is merely speaking off the cuff and voicing personal opinion, that is certain as fully fallible as the opinion of any historian. This doesn’t seem much of a problem, however, with Joseph Smith. It was pretty clear when he was speaking as a prophet, and much of that content has been canonized. Thus, what should we think if the historical record, as scanty as it is, seems to contradict some work that was given through the seer role, such as the Book of Abraham?

  12. Left turn: I’m in corporate finance — specializing in what I call “headlights:” looking forward to forecast opportunities and problems to handle and then creating the plans to handle them. This is different from “taillights:” the accounting of transpired transactions. Frequently, I hear that the prophecies in which I spend my time are less accurate than the history of the accountants. My answer is Enron, Global Crossing, World Com, GM’s recent $2 BILLION restatement, etc. whereas my forecasts are usually within a few percentage points of actual results.

    Before you say that my claimed accuracy depends upon a comparison with the history of the accountants, let me add that I learned that the final component of accurate forecasting is to recognize what I’m forecasting: not what actually will occur, but how the accountants will report it. I spend time each month discussing what I foresee with them so that I will forecast results the same way that they will report them. In several cases, operating leaders have changed their plans when I revealed how the accountants would report their results*.

    Coming back to Bro. Fowles’ posting, this is using his point to reverse-engineer a process that creates the illusion of accuracy by delivering a prophecy that will conform to what the accepted history will declare. But that’s we want in worldly commerce.

    # # # # #

    * (An example of what can happen when the forecaster does not do this is an automotive joint-venture in Illinois that I joined late. It involved a new plant. To give the new employees and host town some buzz, the company held a dedication ceremony for the empty building once it was completed, but before any tooling was installed. The local authorities decided that dedication = completion, and started taxing the empty building $1 million per month even though no business was yet occuring. A good forecaster would have known this from the accounting and tax people and warned the operating leaders of this risk, which would have resulted in no dedication of the empty building.)

  13. At important junctures, the people turn to their holy man–who has comes down from a retreat to the mountain where, in fasting and even perhaps his partaking of soma, he’d gone on a dream quest–for him to report to them the omens he’s received. Yet any particular prophet is only as good as the omens, often in verse, that he gives. If there are two ersatz prophets, one who claims that Israel will not be carried captive and another who reports the breathings of God that she will, it’s the second prophet who will end up with the tribe’s credence as being the true one.

  14. Also note that in New Testament times, the established Levite priest caste (the Sadducees) accepted solely the Torah as authoritative whereas rival inspirational teachers of the time (the Pharisees) championed also the collected stories and sayings of the later prophets.

    In our time, primarily the inspirations of God through Joseph Smith is canonical, with its authoritative interpretation to be given by properly sanctioned authorities.

    But can sometimes such a limitation be seen to be too conservative? (E.g., Taylor’s famous for prophesyingied that polygamy would never being taken from the Saints whereas many dissidents of that time prayed for and predicted its demise. In this instance, who were the true prophets?)

  15. “Thus, what should we think if the historical record, as scanty as it is, seems to contradict some work that was given through the seer role, such as the Book of Abraham?”

    But the problem with this example, John, is that where a historian is likely to take issue with the Book of Abraham is not so much whether this or that historical claim in the Book really happened at some point in time (which is presumably unknowable to the historian), but rather, whether the manuscript Joseph claimed as the source for the Book of Abraham is really what Joseph appears to have claimed it to be. (O.K., so this wouldn’t be a “historian’s” concern, as much as a “linguist’s” concern). And with respect to the real-world “Book of Abraham controversy” (if I may coin a phrase), although there still appears to be some debate in orthodox circles as to (a) whether the Emma Smith Bidamon manuscript really is THE original BofA manuscript, and (b) what is the necessary relationship between the received Book of Abraham and the actual ancient text in Joseph’s possession, I understand there to be no debate as to (c) whether the Bidamon manuscript located in the 1960s really represents the text of the BofA or whether it is just a simple funerary text (i.e., no one disputes that it is the latter). And many propose new theories of how Joseph received the BofA, on the theory that the Bidamon manuscript may be the real deal, thus necessitating an apologetic response that conforms with the historical/linguistic evidence.

    Maybe you’re just trying to make a general point, and weren’t interested in delving into the Book of Abraham issues, per se. But I guess my point is that, as nice as what you’re saying may sound, if you look at instances in the real world where prophet’s historical claims seem to contradict historical evidence, the debate rarely becomes one where the informed faithful say “Well, I guess you just have to choose between the wisdom of the world, or the wisdom of the Prophets. Prophecy is more trustworthy than history. Thus, as for me and my house ….”

    Instead, what you see are comments like:

    “Well, the Prophets weren’t REALLY saying what is often attributed to them (by Mormons or anti-Mormons)”; or
    “Well, the historical evidence doesn’t REALLY suggest so-and-so, so the perceived conflict isn’t real …”; or
    “Well, the Prophet wasn’t REALLY speaking as a Prophet when he said such-and-such.”

    None of this is to opine on the appropriateness or legitimacy of the above-statements in any given instance. (We’d have to look at individual cases). I just think that we’re more likely to run into these sorts of arguments, rather than arguments where a prophet’s wisdom — presumably untainted by the same biases and problems as that of the historian — is held to be superior to the factual claims of the historian with respect to “what really happened.”

    Aaron B

  16. The problem here is that this debete is taking place under the assumption that “historical truth”, i.e. historical accuracy, “historicity,” whether X or Y *really* happened, etc, is the ultimate form of truth. I get the sense that we’re trying to figure out whether history (what historians do) or prophecy can give a more accurate description of “what really happened” (or “what really will happen”). John alluded to this problem in his original post: “Do we perhaps put too much faith — blind faith? — in history in our post-Enlightenment lives and cultures?” This, in my opinion, is a major source for the vitriol that exists between anti-mormon critics of the BoM and BoM apoligists: it’s all about historicity. My sense, speaking as a historian (or, at least, a graduate student of history), is that the people at FARMS have way too much faith in scientific, positivist, post-enlightenment concepts of history — certainly more faith in the historian’s ability to uncover the “real truth” than any historians I know. Believers and non-believers of the BoM have so much stock in whether or not events described in the BoM are “historical” in the sense of having “really” happened that any effort to de-historicize the book — i.e. by ascribing it to Smith’s (or someone else’s) “religious-making genius,” inspired literary ability, or some other watered-down form of “revelation” — feels like throwing out the baby with the bath water. Sure, there’s the “inspired fiction” model. But even “believing” defenders of inspired fiction share some of the assumptions that make most orthodox saints weary. They argue that even if such a model scraps Nephi, Alma, Mormon, and Moroni (plus the event of the post-resurrection appearance of Christ) as actual historical personages or occurances, that does not take away from Smith’s status as a truly inspired, divinely directed prophet and servant of God. But notwithstanding the reality of Smith’s calling, admit the proponents of inspired fiction, we MUST nevertheless dispense with any and all claims to historicity — and, conveniently, with claims that don’t square with modern archeology, geography, genetics, linguistics, etc.

    The debate for almost two centuries now has been framed in these terms: the BoM is “true,” therefore the events it described “truly” happened; or, the events described in the BoM did NOT “truly” happen, therefore the book is NOT “true.” The indpired fiction crowd have simply tried to re-frame the debate, but in a way that makes orthodox Mormons understandably uncomfortable (as are most traditional Christians with the Jesus Seminar). It should be pointed out here that these assumptions — the assumptions that have informed both sides of this — are rooted in a highly positivist, post-enlightenment, modernist epistemological paradigm regarding the nature of history and even knowledge itself. (More on this below). Additionally, the dichotomy depends upon assumptions not only about Smith’s status as a prophet/seer/revelator but also about Mormon and Moroni’s (among others) status as historians in the “modern” sense. Indeed, the dichotomy treats the status of the book’s (supposedly) ancient authors not as an assumption, open to debate, but as a given. Thus, the BoM’s historicity (or lack thereof) has implications only for Smith’s claims at being a prophet, and not for Mormon’s claim (or the claim we make on his behalf) of being a historian.

    But what reasons do we actually have to think or believe that Mormon was, in fact, a historian in the modern sense, or that he considered himself as such? After all, the profession of “historian” is itself a nineteenth-century (or, debatably, a late-eighteenth century) creation. Surely Mormon (if he “really” existed) had several purposes in mind in his efforts at compilation, redaction, and commentary. Yet somehow I think that testifying to Christ’s divinity and the efficacy of the Atonement, drawing critical lessons that would be applicable for “modern” readers, “showing unto the remnant…” etc, would all rank higher on Mormon’s priority list than technical fidelity to historical “facts,” to say nothing of academic peer review! Is it at all possible that Mormon’s own account was less than historical — that he was not a historian in the modern “do-scientifically-based-research-and-report-the-actual-events-of-the-past-the-way-they-actually-happened” sense of the term but was a revisionist (gasp!) or even worse — a bad historian altogether?!!! Add to that the fact, as reported by, among others, Royal Skousen (not exactly a bastion of radical heterodoxy) that Smith, while never denying that he had “translated” the plates by the gift and power of God, did NOT in fact actually translate the plates in the sense of leafing through the pages, examining the characters and translating them (he spent most of his time with his head in a hat and often kept the plates covered during translation sessions) and what can be said now for the “Mormon-writing-Joseph-translating-accurate-history” version of the coming forth of the BoM?

    If all this smacks of postmodernism it is because I believe that there are important elements of postmodernism that need to be taken more seriously by Mormon scholars and incorporated into our understanding and interpretation of the role of the BoM in LDS theology and practice. Like the Inspired Fiction crowd, I agree that dehistoricizing the Book, in itself, does not necessarily unhinge Smith’s claims of divine calling or prophetic status. But I’d take it a step further: dehistoricizing the BoM takes nothing away from Smith’s status as divinely-guided translator of a record of ancient origin. I am somewhat skeptical of efforts to casually dehistoricize the BoM because such efforts, by implication, render the book’s significance as a historical record null. The “fact” that two great civilization fought a full-scale war in which each side was completely obliterated has considerably less weight and implication for nuclear-era readers if it never “really” happened. In my view, whether it really happened in the technical sense is irrelevant. I am comfortable saying that the account of Jaredite demise is “true” regardless of whether or not Moroni fudged elements of the narrative in order to make his point.

    I am aware that my approach to questions involving BoM historicity (and authenticity) does not exactly square with the standard, fixed interpretation assigned to the book by orthodox Mormonism. I would characterize my position as simultaneously less and more orthodox than the inspired fiction position. It is more orthodox in that is leaves room for divinely-inspired translation as well as Niblian notions of historical significance. But it is less orthodox in its acquiescence to the demands of postmodernism. I would also argue that that standard, fixed “orthodox” interpretation derives less from a straightforward reading of the BoM itself than it does from the assumptions of modernism and positivism. The BoM itself defines the epistemological space within which knowledge about the book, its authenticity, and its “truth” are to be defined and acquired. Alma 32 describes the/a process by which truth and knowledge are to be obtained. The metaphor invoked is that of a seed. The question at hand is whether the seed is “good,” i.e. whether or not it is a true seed in the sense of being capable of producing a fruit-bearing tree if properly taken care of (that is, properly regarded as a seed and treated as a seed). Only by acting upon the assumption that it IS a “good” seed can one truly know one way or the other. Falsifiability is dependent on the possibility (even the assumption) of verifiability. But there is a further implication: the seed’s true nature as a true (“good”) seed only becomes apparent when the seed ceases to be a seed and becomes something else. The “truthfulness” of the seed is defined not merely by its status as an actual seed (as opposed to, say, a pebble) but by the sweetness and abundance of the fruit that ultimately result from its metamorphosis. Moroni 10 declares that the truth of the BoM will come not from historical research and discovery, archeological finds, linguistic connections, genetic markers, or even language itself (all sources of knowledge that postmodernism considers highly suspect) but “by the power of the holy ghost,” a gift of God. And by that same gift and power of God, Joseph “translated” the ancient record without actually translating it.

    If God “tells” me (by means that bypass conventional, positivist forms of knowledge-transfer) that the BoM is “true” does that mean that there were actually so many soldiers in this or that army, that so many individuals made face-to-face contact with the resurrected Jesus in a given, fixed period of time, that descendants of Lehi, Ishmael, or Mulek’s followers at some point comprised a significant majority of the population of the American continents (and surrounding islands)? Or does it mean just what it means — that God confirmed it? Is God’s confirmation a signifier of an independantly defined truth or is it what defines truth itself?

  17. The significant difference between scholarly history and religious prophecy is how we approach them. The historian is trained to approach with skepticism, whereas the faithful believer is trained to approach with the eye of faith; the difference is everything. Diamond understands clearly the difficultly of the ambitious work he undertakes, but he goes about it using the best information available and submits it for critical scrutiny.

    I find it interesting that the faithful always seem to talk about the prophet being prophetic, but seldom does one find much of a collection of significant prophecies that have been critically scrutinized. Tens of thousands, if not more, of 19th century Mormons and Mormon leadership believed the millennium was to occur in the 19th century. They believed this because they had received blessings to that affect by Joseph Smith Sr., and while being ordained apostles as part of their ordination, personal visions, confirmations of the Holy Ghost, confirmation of the 1st p. and Q12 via united prayer circle, by the teachings of Prophets, Seers and Revelators from the pulpit, and numerous other methods of spiritual “knowingâ€?; unfortunately they were wrong in complete contradiction to the veracity of the prophetic process. (See “As a Thief in the Night” The Mormon Quest for Millennial Deliverance, By Dan Erickson)

    As much as one would like to poke holes in Diamond’s Pulitzer Prize winning work, and promote the process of Mormon prophecy, in order to be objective one must find reasonable justification for such a position outside of simple faith, bold statements without substantive backing, and religious preference. Believers tend to demand substantial justification for science and history that appears to contradict their cherished beliefs while at the same time requiring virtually nothing of merit, outside of simple faith, to justify their religious beliefs. As one example I give you the religious concept of a universal flood at the time of Noah. Science and history tell us there is virtually a complete absence of evidence in support of a worldwide flood at that time, or anywhere near that time; whereas the faithful view is “In spite of the world’s arguments against the historicity of the Flood, and despite the supposed lack of geologic evidence, we Latter-day Saints…are assured that these events actually occurred by the multiple testimonies of God’s prophets�. (Ensign, Jan. 1998, 35) The absurdity is NOT the scientist or the historian who has overwhelming evidence against such a flood, the absurdity is with those who cling tenaciously to a fanatical literal interpretation of mythic scripture when substantial evidence is in clear opposition.

    If you are going to be a scholarly critic of diamond’s paraphrase of 13,000 years of human history juxtaposed to Mormon prophecy, personal integrity demands you objectively approach the prophetic on the same basis. The honest scholarly skeptical eye that is you demand in criticizing Diamond’s award winning work would be a brutal blood letting when set loose on the Mormon prophetic perspective. Without the biased eye of faith the prophetic is extremely vulnerable.

  18. Brad, I think it wise to separate out the issues of “true” in the sense of largely true from accuracy. That is there are three issues.

    1. true vs. false as largely true theology versus largely false theology
    2. true vs. false as there being real Nephites versus the text being fiction
    3. true vs. false as a question of how accurate the narrative is relative to the actual events.

    I think though that we have to recognize the flawed nature of the translation process, the flawed nature of the editing by Mormon and Moroni, the flawed nature of the prophetic writing, and thus that there will be errors in the text. It seems impossible to reconcile inerrancy in either its strong or weak forms to the Book of Mormon. Yet clearly some Mormons do embrace such an approach.

  19. I read something the other day (I think a quote by Pres. Benson) that got me thinking (he talked about how God inspired Mormon and others to write what they wrote), and now reading #18 has made some thoughts come together in an interesting way for me. One of those little light bulb moments that I probably won’t be able to communicate well (and will show how much I’m not an expert in history or language or postmodernism…but I do love the BoM!) But I will share anyway, for myself if for no other reason.

    We often think about the BoM as an historical record of sorts, or, on the flip side, those who doubt ittry to discredit it as a “not true” history. (Interesting that they rarely try to disprove it by looking at the spiritual message….) But, if you read Nephi’s words, the “history” really was on the large plates, which essentially wasn’t included in the BoM. And the plates he made were in response to a commandment from the Lord. He made a deliberate effort to leave out geneology, history, wars, etc. and focused on the “things of God.” (see 1 Ne. ch. 6 and 9; 1 Ne. 19:5-6, 2 Ne. 4:15). Jacob repeats this concept in Jacob 1:1-2.The “wise purpose” concept comes back in Al. 37. The small plates were written by prophets not historians. Were they seers, too? Is it possible that they were writing with a view or at least a sense forward? The fact that they write about how the Lord was whispering to them of the need and “wise purpose” to write the spiritual things, and that this was in response to commandments, really changes the way we should look at the book. They knew this was not being written for their day, but for future generations. Indeed, they saw Christ’s day, early American history, the calling of Joseph Smith (even down to his name)…. Come to think of it, Nephi saw it ALL, but couldn’t write because that was left for John the Revelator (end of 1 Ne. 14).

    And then there’s Mormon.

    Mormon 8:34-35
    34 Behold, the Lord hath shown unto me great and marvelous things concerning that which must shortly come, at that day when these things shall come forth among you.
    35 Behold, I speak unto you as if ye were present, and yet ye are not. But behold, Jesus Christ hath shown you unto me, and I know your doing.

    All of this is common knowledge on one hand, but in light of this concept of prophecy vs. history…. Probably just one of those things that was just for me. Sort of sent a light bulb off in my head. Also found this talk that is interesting, relating to this concept. (Boyd K. Packer, “The Things of My Soul,â€? Ensign, May 1986, 59.) I guess all of this is making me think differently about the BoM authors. Not only was Mormon not an historian in our definition — I think it’s very possible (even probable, given e.g., the verses above in Mormon 8) he was writing as a seer. This book is all about prophecy, not really about history. Even the war chapters and such, which at first seem more historical, really have so many spiritual lessons — and, again, were included by Mormon. If he said he couldn’t include even one hundredth of what happened, imagine how he could or would have chosen what to include except through inspiration (prophecy?). He also added what are called “inspired commentaries.” I think it could be argued that many of the other prophets (Lehi, Jacob, Alma, I would imagine others, too…I’d have to look for more specific scriptures to support that…that they were responding to God’ will and guidance and even seeing into the future) were also seers. In my mind, that changes the whole book and the lens through which we look at it. Efforts to “prove” it true by FARMS or whoever else are interesting, but, in the end, futile in isolation, because only those with faith in prophecy can really believe it and appreciate it. And those who don’t won’t listen to any historical “proof” anyway because they don’t have the lens of faith as a foundation first.

    OK, just found the Pres. Benson quote (or one like unto it): “The Book of Mormon was written for us today. The authors were God-inspired and God-directed in their work. It is a record compiled by inspired men for our blessing. It was meant for us. Mormon, the ancient prophet after whom the book is named, abridged centuries of records. God, who knows the end from the beginning, told him what to include in his abridgment that we would need for our day.”

    Maybe I could put it this way. I wonder if maybe we underestimate how involved the Lord was in guiding Nephi, Jacob, Alma, etc. and Mormon and Moroni in what to write. Is it possible he “translated” in a similar way that Joseph did? Nephi established the pattern for how to write and what to write, and it was passed down with similar instructions through the generations. And, again, the compiler had a view of our day, so I think it’s a pretty good assumption that he included more than just what sounded nice to him personally, even if he was a fan of doctrine. It adds a significance to the BoM if I think about the Lord really being the author, through these prophets and/or seers. I think I’m rambling now…. It’s exciting to me, though, to have more clarity (esp. since I’ve had frustrating discussions over the historicity of the BoM at times with people…just makes me that much more determined not to get caught in that trap).

    As a side note, with how much I’m starting to think about how involved the Lord might have been in the entire process, I’m pretty confident in the historical information as well. :)

  20. I thought it was the case that the urim and thummim went along with the plates…this is probably common knowledge to all you smart people, but my brain doesn’t retain info like this well.

    J. M. Sjodahl, An Introduction to the Study of the Book of Mormon, p.4
    “In the Book of Mormon the urim and thummim is called the “interpreters.” The Lord gave the two stones to the brother of Jared and commanded him to seal them up with his writings. (Ether 3:21-28.) Mosiah had such an instrument. (Omni 20; Mosiah 8:13, 19.) He handed it to Alma (Mos. 28:20), and Alma to Helaman. (Alma 37:20-25.)Finally, Moroni sealed it up with his writings. (Ether 4:5.) From Doc. and Cov. 17:1, we learn that the urim and thummim which came into the possession of the Prophet Joseph was the very instrument which God had given to the Brother of Jared upon the mount.”

    If we know a little of how JS translated the plates, is it possible that such a process (or a variation of it) went into writing the plates? Abridging them? Or were they just passed down so JS would eventually get them? With what many of them said (scriptures from previous post), I am leaning toward thinking they were working under the spirit of prophecy at least. Does anyone know if anyone (but Mosiah, who is specifically mentioned) used the urim and thummim? Or am I getting overzealous here?

  21. Brad, you have raised some interesting points in this discussion that are well worth considering. It is an insightful middle position between historicity-supporters and inspired-fiction supporters. It shifts the blame of “fudging” from Joseph Smith to Mormon and Moroni (sparing perhaps even Nephi et al.) That is an interesting point given Moroni’s disclaimer that “And if there be faults they be the faults of a man. But behold, we know no fault; nevertheless God knoweth all things; therefore, he that condemneth, let him be aware lest he shall be in danger of hell fire” (Mormon 8:17).

    M&M, thank you for that great insight. That enriches my view of the Book of Mormon as well. I think we can say that many of the BoM prophets were indeed seers. Through the seer power BoM prophets were able to translate and to know of hidden things, such as the translation of the Jaredite plates and Nephi son of Helaman’s revelation of who had assassinated the chief judge.

  22. M&M, thank you for that great insight. That enriches my view of the Book of Mormon as well. I think we can say that many of the BoM prophets were indeed seers. Through the seer power BoM prophets were able to translate and to know of hidden things, such as the translation of the Jaredite plates and Nephi son of Helaman’s revelation of who had assassinated the chief judge.

    Yes. What I was trying to articulate goes beyond these obvious ways in which we knew they were seers. I am starting to wonder if maybe they WROTE what they wrote as seers…writing forward, wth us in mind, seeing forward…with the history, backward-looking part of their narrative only as a backdrop. If Mormon saw our day, I imagine all of what he included and abridged was with that in mind. “What can/should I include that will benefit people 2000 years after Christ is born?” Nephi saw the whole panarama of all generations of time. So did Lehi, I assume. Surely that had a tremendous impact on what was included. Also, if the Lord was repeatedly whispering about the “wise purpose” of the plates, and promising that they would be preserved, and commanding what should and should not be included, that He might have been more involved than I had ever really thought in the whole writing of the record. If my gut feelings are correct, these men were doing much, much more than just, say, writing in their journals. And, if they were using the U&T (multiple instances in the scriptures show that whoever had the urim and thummim USED it — e.g., Moses, Abraham, brother of Jared, Mosiah…), then is it possible what they should write was literally revealed to them (at least sometimes)??… maybe even something like how the BoM translation was revealed to JS? Even if they didn’t use the U&T, I am finding more and more that confirms this idea that the Lord was intricately involved in at least some of the writing. I would assume that was the pattern more often than not. I’m starting to think that instead of books being called by the names of the writers, the whole thing should be “Book of the Lord,” chapter such-and-such. :)

    Ah. In my searching tonite, I found this (of course, I have read this only about a million times…never ceases to amaze me what I haven’t SEEN before):

    2 Nephi 33:10
    10 And now, my beloved brethren, and also Jew, and all ye ends of the earth, hearken unto these words and believe in Christ; and if ye believe not in these words believe in Christ. And if ye shall believe in Christ ye will believe in these words, for they are the words of Christ, and he hath given them unto me; and they teach all men that they should do good.
    2 Nephi 33:11
    11 And if they are not the words of Christ, judge ye–for Christ will show unto you, with power and great glory, that they are his words, at the last day; and you and I shall stand face to face before his bar; and ye shall know that I have been commanded of him to write these things, notwithstanding my weakness.

    This concept of being commanded to write certain things shows up several times, with different writers. I was struck esp. with the phrase from Nephi, “he hath given them unto me.” Anyway, I’m finding this all very interesting and quite exciting!

  23. john f, I guess my point is that the types of things that are normally identified as “the fallibility of history” are more aptly categorized as “the transparency of history.”

    Moreover, the question arises about exactly what constitutes a fulfillment of prophecy. This business of prophecy fulfillment can have a certain 1984/Big Brother/group think feeling about it. In 1984, the protagonist notes that people never notice when the prevalent opinion changes due to propaganda–the current truth is accepted as what has always been the truth, no matter how often it has changed. Take as an example the Civil War prophecy. Joseph Smith made this prophecy at a time of apparently imminent rebellion in the southern states. The rebellion never materialized and the prophecy was basically set aside. Then the Civil War broke out, and the revelation was resuscitated and canonized. In retrospect, it’s obvious to us all that the prophecy was about the rebellion that Lincoln precipitated in the months immediately preceding and following his inaugeration. But until that point, it was just one more defunct Smithian forecast. I think that it’s arguable that there is no terribly important way in which this prophecy is “more accurate” than history unless it is to re-iterate the Aristotelian principle that given enough time, all possibilities are realized; and to add that hindsight is 20/20.

  24. DKL, the thing that struck me upon re-reading the B.H. Roberts quote recently was that it presents a false dichotomy. I think that your comment #26 demonstrates why. This does not lessen the idea that we can rely on the truthfulness and accuracy of prophecy communicated to us through a seer. However, the idea of accurate prophecy raises a question for me about the contingent nature of prophecy. That is, much prophecy is actually in the form of “if/then” warnings. If you do not repent or obey, then X. This contingency would seem to prevent prophecy from being a reliable predictor upon which to base current perception. The certainty of punishment failing obedience remains, but the possibility that we can change the outcome through our actions creates much uncertainty.

  25. Go to Barlow’s fine book, _Mormons and the Bible_, and read his take on Joseph’s Moroni vision (i.e. he gradually came to think of it as literal), which Givens accepts uncritically in _By the Hand of Mormon_, and then go to Joseph’s journals, and good God. All hail Freud. Joseph wrote one thing, even believing historians write another, sophistication oozing from their pores. Pathetic.

  26. Same goes for Bushman. Fine book, beautiful even, but read the journals and letters and the pathetic cliche of the tortured genius does not come through. Nibley is still our best reader of Joseph, simply because he reads him. Bloom reads Joseph better than Bushman.

  27. Here I am on a drunken tear. Read Joseph, read the accounts of those who brushed up against him, including his enemies. Then read his historians, including believers. Who am I to trust? The men and women who loved and hated him in the flesh, or professional intellectuals 100 + years later? Brodie gets Joseph better (so, again, does Bloom) than Bushman, simply because they allow themselves to go wild, and Joseph demands wildness and not this careful sensitivity for those those who laugh at angels. And then you have Vogel, good God. Nitwit. Vogel, cast up against Joseph, is the proverbial fly on the horse’s arse. It’s depressing, angels are flying down from the heavens with wild glad messages and we get these careful posturing accounts.

  28. Vogel wherever you are, sweating at your computer and mouthing your clumsy typed words, your book provided me with more laughts than _The Onion_, congrats.

  29. John,
    My apologies if I misread, I am glad you think Diamond “rocks�. It must have been the Talmage/Roberts quote “and of the two prophecy is more to be trusted for its accuracy than history� that began to lead me astray; a statement I find not only religiously self-serving, but also ludicrous at the core, particularly coming from Roberts who should have known better. Mormonism has done an extremely poor job of accurately presenting its history and demonstrating the veracity of its prophetic voice. It is in most cases the outside, or heretical, voice that has forced objectivity into Mormon story telling. Joseph Smith was an American religious amazement, but in order for him to be a prophet we must do serious damage to the commonly held Mormon definition of the word. He got too many things wrong and told too many obvious lies to hold true to the purity of our perceived definition. We mostly hold him in reverence for those things he gave us that are not verifiable and we graciously tend to ignore, or hide, those that disappoint. A simple example from the 1834-5 Patriarchal Blessing book:

    “The following blessings, by the spirit of prophecy, were pronounced by Joseph Smith, Jr…These blessings were given by vision and the spirit of prophecy, on the 18th of December, 1833, and written by my own [Oliver Cowdery] hand at the time; and I know them to be correct and according to the mind of the Lord…Thus spake the Seer, and these are the words which fell from his lips while the visions of the Almighty were open to his view, saying:

    “…Blessed of the Lord is my brother Hyrum…he shall be hid by the hand of the Lord that none of his secret parts shall be discovered by his enemies, unto his hurt…his acquaintance shall be among kings, and he shall be sought for that he may sit in council, by nations and kings that are afar off…Behold he shall be blessed with an abundance of riches of the earth: gold, silver, and treasures of precious stones, of diamonds and platina. His chariots shall be numerous, and his cattle shall multiply abundantly: horses, mules, asses, camels, dromedaries, and swift beasts…”

    “Blessed of the Lord is brother Samuel…He shall have an abundance of [the] good things of the earth, for he shall possess great wealth, while he lives…and the earth to bring forth in her glorious apparel, yielding her strength for the sustenance of man, by his warming influence; so shall the voice of Samuel be to the hearts of those that shall seek counsel at his hand in his old age… ”

    “Blessed of the Lord is brother Carlos…[he] shall be called to stand in legislative bodies, and confront the errors of rulers and kings, to their face, and they shall reverence him because of the greatness of his understanding and his nobility of soul…It shall be his lot to stand among the nobles of the earth: and the burden of his influence, over the inhabitants of the earth…among foreign nations shall the power of his wealth extend, even to kingdoms afar off…�

    A blessing may be more of a hope than anything else, but even a hope should be somewhat based in reality, especially when claimed to be received in open vision by the prophetic head of a dispensation. 19th century Mormonism, as with numerous other charismatic religions, has serious difficulty demonstrating the authenticity of its prophetic voice, which it frequently tends to hide and edit in its historical tellings. Hardly the practice of choice for simple seekers of truth.

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