The historicity window

Book of Mormon historicity is not a unitary entity or a binary concept. It has at least three primary components, each of which offers a spectrum of possibilities. The first concerns the Golden Plates and their manner of existence; are they ancient and tangible, a nineteenth-century artifact, or purely fictive? The second involves the English text and the process of its composition; is it a close transcription of an ancient text, a fanciful English composition, or something in between? The third is the relationship between the text and the history that it claims to represent; were the authors objective and omniscient annalists, American fantasts, or something else?

I’ve tried to summarize the possibilities in the table below. The vertical axis represents a scale where fictitiousness, nineteenth-century origins, naturalistic explanations, and greater divergence from modern church teachings are at the bottom, while ancient origins, close agreement between the English and ancient text, identity of the text with historical events, a high degree of supernatural intervention, and complete agreement with the church’s teachings lie towards the top.

Historicity window-table

The value of a multivariate spectrum of historicity is not to determine the historicity of the Book of Mormon once and for all – there are faithful church members who will pick every point on the scale, and there is no overwhelming case for any particular point. Rather, the dual questions that the scale above raises are: What is one’s personal estimation of the historicity of the Book of Mormon? And, just as importantly, what is the minimal level of historicity that justifies one’s continued allegiance to the church and its teachings? The difference between placid acquisition of historical knowledge and a history-based spiritual crisis may lie in the divergence between the level of belief about historicity one holds at a particular moment, and the minimum level of historicity that one requires to justify church participation. The higher one’s estimation of historicity rises above one’s minimal expectations, the more that institutional allegiance is reinforced, but when the estimation drops and the minimal demand rises above it, a history-driven crisis may result. It’s in the best interest of the church as an institution to keep the gap between them as wide as possible by treating the historicity of the Book of Mormon as a given, while keeping the minimum level of essential historicity quite low, for example by founding the Book of Mormon’s value as scripture on a personal spiritual witness of the book’s inspired truth. On the other hand, demanding an exaggerated level of historicity (“Nowhere does the Book of Mormon mention guava cultivation in Central America; the Book of Mormon FAILS AGAIN!”) is a strategy for maximizing the number of people for whom allegiance to the church is untenable.

This model of historicity has some implications. It suggests that there are two paths to spiritual crisis, a left exit and a right exit so to speak: in some cases, the level of credence in the Book of Mormon as a historical document is simply too low, but in other cases, the degree of historicity required is pegged too high. One way to alleviate a crisis – call it the FARMS elixir – is to raise the level of belief in the Book of Mormon’s historicity. Another way – the Sunstone tonic – is to lower the degree of historicity that one demands of the text.

Yet the notion of a historicity window suggests that accepting the Book of Mormon as inspired fiction may not be a stable long-term solution. While the demands it places on historicity are minimal, approaching the Book of Mormon as inspired fiction leaves a very narrow window between the level of belief and the minimum required. As beliefs shift about, there may not be much of a buffer zone, and a dance upon a knife edge is difficult to maintain in perpetuity. Perhaps a low estimation of historicity combined with minimal demands for the same is a long-term solution, but I am not aware of many Mormons who maintain a robust commitment to the church and its teachings while accepting the Book of Mormon only as inspired fiction. It would be helpful to have more examples of church members who fall into that category, if it is in fact a stable solution rather than a way station on the path to disaffection.

When it comes to Book of Mormon historicity, the church offers a big tent, but there can be friction between church members with different understandings of history. We are not nearly so skilled as we think at saying: This is what I believe and what I gain from the text, without at the same time saying: Other ways to read the text are embarrassingly unsophisticated or incorrigibly apostate. We don’t know where other people have established their minimal level of historicity, and it’s possible to say spiritually threatening things unintentionally. One intends to say, “Let’s look at the symbolic possibilities,” one actually says instead, “Treating this as history all the time is boring and simplistic,” and one is understood to have said, “The foundation of your testimony is false.”

As for myself, I prefer the sharp corners and hard edges of solid historicity to the squishiness of inspired fiction, but I am also in favor of reading scripture creatively and flexibly. I would not call my view of Book of Mormon historicity my professional opinion. I don’t know if it’s possible to have a purely professional view of the Book of Mormon; I certainly can’t. On the other hand, I do spend a certain amount of time in a professional capacity thinking and writing about older texts and their transmission, and that professional experience (along with all the other aspects of my experience) necessarily informs my views. One thing that has surprised me in reading about Joseph Smith’s life is how tangible, how heavy and thing-like the plates are. It seems to me that the most likely explanation for that is that Joseph Smith had something heavy and solid in his possession whose physical characteristics closely matched the published descriptions of the Nephite records. I have few reference points to judge translation by divine inspiration; a dictionary and a good reference grammar are more my style, and even then translation is a slippery process. And yet the text of the Book of Mormon feels complicated and textured to me, like something with a convoluted history behind it or something that different people have labored over for many years, not like something that a young man pulled out of his hat one day. There are many paths by which a text can take on its current form, only one of which is the origin story offered by the text itself, and it’s very difficult to reconstruct its actual path with only one textual witness. Usually the simplest explanation is the correct one: the narration of historical events is that which seemed true in the writer’s perspective at the moment it was written down, even as writers (including prophets) are constrained by the limits of their knowledge. Those limits and constraints do not diminish my acceptance of the Book of Mormon as scripture.

69 comments for “The historicity window

  1. So, there you have it: an actual post about Book of Mormon historicity, as opposed to a post about something else that is mistaken for a post about Book of Mormon historicity. You are now free to mingle and discuss. Please do note, however, that as the host of this conversation, I insist that commenters treat the church, its leaders, its teachings, and one another with respect. If that seems onerous to you, this may not be the thread for you to tell everyone how you really feel. I won’t agonize about your free speech rights before consigning your comment to permanent oblivion if I find it offensive; I’ll just delete it and go about my day without a second thought.

  2. Some good thinking here Jonathan. I personally share your stance of solid historicity benefited by creative and flexible reading and thinking. It seems to match God’s behavior and other scripture as well. People also need to consider that experts have quite a history of being wrong, and take any purported developments, whether they seem to substantiate or refute the Book of Mormon, with a generous helping of salt. Especially in history-related fields.

  3. I really like this post. A favorite line: “not like something that a young man pulled out of his hat one day”. Chuckle.

    Also, “weigh station”, right?

  4. You’re right that there are quite a few different variations about Book of Mormon historicity within the believing LDS community, and even among doubters who confront the historicity question (doubters are divided over Spalding-Rigdon theory versus the idea that Joseph Smith made it all up himself). I disagree that the historicity question is not binary, however. All views above the bottom three presume that the Book of Mormon contains the literal words, ideas, and experiences of ancients in the Americas (in significant portion, meaning beyond words such as “he” and “she,” beyond ideas such as “God,” and beyond experiences such as so and so died), which God transmitted to Joseph Smith through revelation. The bottom three presume that the BOM simply does not contain the words, ideas, and experiences of ancients in the Americas in any significant portion. The historicity question is very much a binary when looking at the question of containing.

    Usually the simplest explanation is the correct one

    There are lots of seemingly complex phenomena in nature and history that require detailed explanations to understand. But as long as each point of the explanation is backed up with evidence and minimizes its assumptions, it should be considered a solid explanation, although all explanations should be subject to questioning and revision. I honestly don’t think that any explanation of the Book of Mormon, either from believer or non-believer, is quite so simple. For many, it seems simple to dismiss the Book of Mormon as fraud. But in so doing, you must accept by implication that Joseph Smith was an extremely imaginative and extraordinary person; a sort of prodigy whose memory and imagination was quite beyond the norm. Another challenging aspect of historicity is what people accept as evidence. Believers accept strong feelings as evidence, non-believers tend not to. Believers often have a lower bar for what they accept as historical evidence of the BOM. They are more prone to accept the NHM site, for instance, as evidence that the BOM text corresponds to something in the Arabian peninsula that Joseph Smith could not have known about. Non-believers tend to dismiss this as coincidence and confirmation bias on the part of the believer. They tend to demand much more corresponding evidence (in the form of Middle Eastern DNA, texts and sites in the Americas confirming names and ideas, etc.) in order to accept the Book of Mormon’s historicity.

  5. Are there people who consider themselves “believers” in mormonism, but do not believe the Book of Mormon contains a real history? I’ve never met someone who self identifies as a believing mormon, but does not believe that a real man named nephi lived on this earth.

    I know people who stay in the church for family reasons, or consider themselves “mormon” but they are professed non believers.

    Are there people that believe in things like Brigham Young as a prophet, the word of wisdom, Thomas Monson as a prophet, etc. But don’t believe in a real man named Nephi? Would love to hear from others if they’ve observed this.

  6. PangWitch, there are quite a few. I suspect they’re a small minority but they are definitely there. A friend of mine at BYU was having some doubts about Book of Mormon historicity, went to her stake president for advice and he told her that he didn’t believe in Book of Mormon historicity. Now I’m by and large a big tent Mormon. I’d like as many to come to Church as possible. Yet that just seemed inappropriate to my eyes for a leader – particularly a leader who is counseling people.

  7. PangWitch, yes they exist. They may be sort of a walking contradiction and not realize the full implications of not believing in the historicity of the Book of Mormon, but they define Mormonism a bit differently from the norm.

  8. To me, it seems that the plates story is hard to believe. Why did they “disappear” after the “translation”? If they ever existed, I don’t think God would have taken them away. God would have let them be examined so the translation could be verified. Also, JS didn’t even use the plates in his work, so why were they necessary? Then if one looks at the book internally, there are so many anachronisms and impossibilities that it has to be fiction. So, was it inspired? If so, then why did JS’s religious philosophy move away from it so quickly? The BofM is heaven and hell and trinitarian (before the 1842 edits) and only two yrs after the original 1830 publication, D&C 76 with its universal leanings is presented and JS’s view of the Godhead then changes over time. It’s like JS moved beyond it and discarded it.

    I respect those who still cling to the historicity notion as my family still does but I don’t see how. Myth is a powerful thing.

  9. Nice chart, Jonathan. I really like breaking historicity out into three different axes. That increases, so to speak, the range of the term “historicity” and puts some specific content into it. However, I suspect where a particular individual ends up on each spectrum, top to bottom, is fairly correlated. (I mean statistically, not like the LDS term “Correlation.”) So I am thinking there is likely some underlying personal H factor or measure that drives a person’s response on all three axes. Or, somewhat differently, if a person moved from say strong doubts about the existence of plates to a firm conviction that plates were delivered to Joseph Smith by angelic intervention, that shift would likely prompt shifts on the other two axes as well.

  10. Damien, If you can assume for a moment that the plates existed, why do you believe that God would have an interest that the translation be verified by the examination of the plates by experts?

  11. Where would the following fall on this scale? – My personal take/opinion at the moment is that gold plates really exist(ed) somewhere once buried in a hill somewhere, but probably nowhere near Palmyra, and Joseph Smith probably manufactured his own plates to try and hone in and make a more physical reality what he could perceive in vision only as a personal solution to be granted access to the information therein that he was promised if he became worthy. Perhaps he needed to show his faith to the Lord by exercising his faith like the Brother of Jared did in creating stones for the Lord to touch for light, and Joseph’s personal solution was to present to God physical plates he created and then request revelatory access to that which was in the true gold plates that he was promised once he was prepared. (My reading of Joseph trying to grab the gold plates for wealth/gain and then being shocked backwards, is that Joseph saw the plates in vision, tried to grab them, but physically ran into the ground and was knocked backwards, because the hole/plates weren’t really there. He had to figure out how to obtain them, his solution was to build a physical counterpart to obtain them spiritually once he was prepared. After the 116 pages, Moroni took away the spiritual plates, or Joseph’s ability to perceive them that he was originally given, rather than the physical plates, this is also what was returned to Joseph after a season of repentance.)

    My view on translation is that the real gold plates contained x, y, z information. The meaning of that text, the core underlying truths, as would have been understood by the spirit by hearers in that time and culture, can be stored as light or spiritual information x, y, z. That light with information x, y, z is then revealed to a seer’s spirit, in this case Joseph Smith, in the abstract. Then Joseph Smith has to study out the meaning in his mind and heart using the information in his brain to bring out that information from the abstract and only when the information is sufficiently correct is it confirmed as true, in what I imagine is very similar to how Truman on the Truman Show tears portions of images in magazines and puts them together in such a way to eventually create a true likeness of his lost girlfriend. In this way, the English text is influenced and limited by the mind of the translator, but ultimately the core spiritual information as heard and understood by the spirit by modern day listeners is preserved from the original. And as what is spiritually preserved is most significant, I think of this as a much more important, precise, and valuable means of translation than some sort of word for word translation of the ancient text.

    Damien #10, under this interpretation, I believe in an underlying historicity, and don’t see a real evidence/reason not to when I personally feel the spirit witnessing that what I am reading is true. What I am sure of is that I am perceiving truth when I read the BofM and for this reason I know that it is inspired, at the same time I am open to developing my understanding of what that ultimately means about the historicity. But for now, there is no evidence that tells me I should reject the text as based in real history as I described above.

    Just my $0.02. Don’t mean to waste too much of anyone’s time.

  12. Does anybody out there REALLY BELIEVE that someone named Captain Moroni made a banner from his coat, named it the “title of liberty,” and waved it over Pre-Columbian America? Seriously? It would be far more reasonable, not to mention sane, to believe in spontaneous human combustion. Interestingly, you can’t “disprove” that either. What a hopeless, depressing, circular conversation, and such a distraction from our Christian mission, which is absolutely not dependent upon the historicity of the Book of Mormon.

  13. I personally know a couple somewhat well known, active Mormons who don’t believe in the historicity of the Book of Mormon. I don’t either. But my thoughts don’t quite align with any of the spectrum items, except maybe “text and history”, 5th item.

    On plates as an artifact: don’t care. The story of the physical plates, and details of the actual usage of said plates, lends credence to the possibility that this was a fraudulent undertaking. The same thing with the circumstances surrounding the witnesses and the natures of their testimonies. However, I don’t see Joseph Smith as fraudulent, but rather see him as nervous and uncertain and wanting to hedge his bets, despite believing in himself and his revelations. Wanting his visions and himself to be respected and taken seriously, rather than ridiculed. So God could’ve prepared plates, if that’s what Joseph needed. Or any other alternative that’s been suggested.

    On modern text: that Joseph believed his translation was real. But also that it was incomplete, and his visions and understandings grew and changed and he accepted the changes. What that means, though, is that pre-modern or not it is stuffed with Joseph’s conceptions and misconceptions, assumptions about the story of the Nephites and their culture that deeply shaped the narrative. If what one sees as divine experiences are the foundation of one’s text, I’m not sure divinely-inspired “fiction” quite captures what’s going on, nor “fanciful” expansion.

    If I honestly believed in the reincarnation of the soul, and through meditation conceived of past lives I had lived, and assume those identities within part of myself, what is a fair categorization of it? Self-deception? Perhaps, but that assumes I am wrong and prejudges my experience. Invention? Certainly not — my past lives came to me through meditation as far-off memories. Fiction? I certainly don’t treat my past lives as fictional. True foundation with fanciful or inspired expansions? Perhaps. But creatively cutting holes around parts of my remembrances that don’t align with what others dig up about my past lives and calling them fanciful expansions only works for people who have already assumed the conclusion I’m trying to draw.

    On text and history: Suppose by chance I did indeed have past lives and yet my remembrances are rooted in my current, wildly wrong understanding of the past. Suppose I obtained a copy of the meticulous journals of a past self. Would my memories of my past life be so distorted that I couldn’t even identify the person in the journals with the person in my memories? So much would be different and not align that I would be skeptical if someone tried to convince me. Heck, I can read a journal I MYSELF WROTE from long ago and sometimes it doesn’t match my memories, or my conception of myself. Does it make my current memories lies? Inspired fiction? Even if a narrative is rooted in real history, the transmission process can completely erase all connections between a real event and its narration. But the current narration still carries meaning.

    Suppose there were Nephites, and Nephite prophets, who wished to speak from the dust their memories to Joseph. So Joseph received their memories, and for seven years meditated on them, interpreted them, expanded on them. Imagine the first imprint, received as a dream, remembered as a dream, told, retold, reimagined, like a dream merging with everyday, modern experiences, shaping them and being shaped by them. Did the Nephites really engage in debate club- and 2nd great awakening- type orations? Heavily affected by the transmission process, over the course of several years, we can’t call it fiction, nor invention, nor even having a “textual” foundation. Rather, a vision foundation. A vision of a people who anxiously cast their mind forward to the last generations of men, and toward saving their descendants, and who therefore wrote. A prophet who received their words, by meditating on a vision. A vision which, like all memories, transformed and merged with the experiences of the visionary. A vision whose value perhaps depends on how we receive and change and are changed by it, less so on how well the vision, or memory, preserves its historical content.

  14. P,

    I actually do *really* believe that someone named Captain Moroni made a banner from his coat, named it the “Title of Liberty,” and waved it over Pre-Columbian America. And I for one, have absolutely no idea why that is an unreasonable belief. Nor do I believe it is “insane.” You are branding most active Mormons as having an “insane” belief (at the very least), and multiple generations before them as having had an “insane” belief. Further our Christian mission, is very much connected to faith in the Book of Mormon, and I believe, actually, it’s historicity. I’m not going to invest the time in explaining why I firmly believe that is the case. You are of course most certainly welcome to reject or dispute that connection and my ideas, but for those many who believe in the historicity of the Book of Mormon, you are being extremely dismissive, disrespectful and insulting.

  15. What a hopeless, depressing, circular conversation, and such a distraction from our Christian mission, which is absolutely not dependent upon the historicity of the Book of Mormon.

    And yet here you are, being distracted from your Christian mission by engaging in the conversation. Troll off

  16. I believe that the plates are exactly what they say they are: records of God dealings with a particular group of people, and that the mistakes in them are of men. I believe that those mistakes are a proof, not a contradiction, of their authenticity.

    And I believe it because it is consistent with my experiences of God.

  17. Allan:

    Having the plates examined would have avoided the Book of Abraham fiasco. It would have been a powerful corroborating witness. It would have shown that the plates actually had a purpose. Instead we get a story that looks made up.

  18. Don’t you think that that would be much, much more than a powerful corroborating witness? Where would there be any room for doubt, from any person, any where, of the claims of the Book of Mormon, if there were plates available for inspection, they were found by scholars to be authentic ancient writings, and also found by scholars to have a correct translation? How is that any less of a proof of the claims of the Book of Mormon than, say, Moroni descending from heaven, in glorified form, and appearing on Anderson Cooper 360?

  19. P, why read it as a colonial type of behavior? That’s hardly the only way to read the text. Why is it *that* reading which is the correct reading and that must be lined up with history?

  20. I’m an active, fully participatory member who–if you put the screws to me–doesn’t believe there was a historical person named Nephi. I also don’t care. Seems like the wrong kind of question to ask about scripture generally.

  21. Damien (10), if the issue was just the plates why have Joseph translate them at all? Why not just hand them off to scholars 100 years later when doing translations was more likely? For that matter why doesn’t God reveal himself in an open way to be analyzed by science? I think the two questions end up being the same. If this life is a trial for our progression such that we have to learn faith, then belief in God can’t be easy or default. We already had that life in the pre-mortal world when we were spirits. For this life to make sense, according to the plan of salvation, then we have to be able to doubt. Turning to God and getting answers has to take effort and a degree of difficulty. So of course God had to take the plates away. It’s the missing plates that means we have to find out by forming a personal relationship with God and getting answers directly.

    Of course even with missing plates lot of people still “believe” purely because that’s the social norm. They don’t think about it nor the questions you raise. (Which I think are good important questions to think through) I think the doubts are important because they enable the possibility of personal revelation and getting answers for God. And that’s what a testimony rests upon.

  22. ZZYZYVA – What is you “believe” if you do not believe there was a historical person named Nephi. I am curious.

  23. Jonathan,
    Thanks for the well written article, I really enjoyed it!

    Steve S,
    Have you read this essay by Ann Taves titled “Joseph Smith and the Materialization of the Golden Plates”. I find her thesis to be intriguing.

    Jacob H.
    Thank you for the well written response. I have similar thoughts, but couldn’t have articulated them as well as you did here. Great comment!

  24. hope_for_things,
    Wow, just finished it, no I had not read that before. Very interesting and surprising to see someone else with a theory/thoughts so similar, down to the comparison with the Brother of Jared. Thanks for sharing.

  25. I was thinking more about the idea that the simplest explanation probably being the most correct. 1) My interactions with apologists and believers has led me to believe that they tend to be skeptical of Occam’s Razor-like approaches to truth. 2) The idea that Joseph Smith was delusional and a fraud who fabricated the plates, finagled the witness statements, and that the Book of Mormon is a product of his imagination, good memory of sermons in the area, and precocious understanding of religious rhetoric and thinking seems to be simpler explanation than the LDS church’s explanation. For we know that a) extraordinary people exist who are able to accomplish remarkable feats despite the lack of formal education (i.e. Thomas Edison, Mark Twain, etc.), b) fraudsters are capable of misleading people, sometimes by the hundreds of thousands or even millions, to believe that they are divine or have special access to the divine (i.e. Sri Sathya Sai Baba), and c) reportedly uneducated people are capable of producing texts so seemingly magnificent to some that they believe that they have divine origins, some of which are defended by extremely intellectual people (i.e. Muhammad, James Strang, Baha’ullah, etc.). On the other hand, we cannot establish that anyone has ever managed to translate a text from a different language by looking at stones. Not to say that this isn’t possible, but it is a less simple explanation than the idea that Joseph Smith was delusional and/or a fraud.

  26. Just to be pedantic Ockham’s Razor deals with multiplying metaphysical categories unnecessarily. Parsimony or simplicity is a different matter. However how to judge simplicity is an other matter.

    What’s a simpler explanation? That Joseph maintained a fraud for decades despite huge personal loss for himself including a lot of violence, was able to write a complex book when relatively uneducated in the backwoods, managed to convince others they thought they saw an angel and the plates, etc. or that there was something real behind it? In terms of credulity I tend to think the simplest explanation was he wasn’t a fraud.

    The reason one might say he was a fraud is more because it’s simpler in terms of simply discounting phenomena you don’t have positive evidence for. i.e. angels delivering plates, etc. (And maybe this is Ockham’s Razor in terms of metaphysical categories since it requires more laws than physics now describes)

    My point is just that simplicity has to be explained in terms of what entities one is discussing.

  27. I believe that both critics and apologists have grossly underestimated the Book of Mormon. It is a massively complex conundrum, and neither side has yet come up with a believable explanation as to where this book came from. I am sympathetic with Damien’s comments at 10 and have had those thoughts myself. If there were real plates, why did Joseph not even look at them while “translating”? Why does it matter that Moroni took them away after the 116-pages fiasco? Joseph apparently didn’t use them anyway. And what does it matter that he took away the interpreters too? Joseph apparently used his seer stone most of the time. The plates appear to have had only symbolic value in the translation process.

    The BoM text is a problem for both sides of the argument. There is accurate ancient Near Eastern material in the text that Joseph never could have known. There is also vocabulary and complex grammar that are far beyond Joseph’s capacity to dream up, as either fiction writer or translator (unless he was simply reading an already prepared text, which means he wasn’t translating at all). There is also unmistakably modern content (linguistic and theological) that, oddly, appears to fit in the 16th century better than in the 19th? Credit to Royal Skousen and his fellow researchers for bringing this up without having any theory to explain it. They are puzzled by what they are finding.

    There is also the fact that none of the BoM geography theories has yet identified a feasible locale that actually matches what the text says, unless you twist Mormon’s words and employ highly creative interpretations. And nobody has yet found so much as a single Nephite breastplate or sword. These should be as common as Roman relics in England—somewhere. Archaeologists and other seekers have never found a single relic that can be definitively tied to the Book of Mormon peoples.

    And what about the theology of the book, which is not quite Protestant but also nowhere close to current Mormon beliefs? Are we to believe that these ancient prophets who had regular conversations with God and reported them in detail were never able to receive the doctrines that Joseph received shortly after the Book of Mormon was published, doctrines that either contradict or far surpass the simple theology outlined in the Book of Mormon? Not in a thousand years? Not even after Jesus appeared to them and taught them personally? Why were these people so theologically backward after a thousand years?

    But could Joseph have simply concocted all this out of thin air? Not a chance. I hold Joseph in high esteem, but I know how limited his education was in 1829. This book is not Joseph’s, not even as translator. It is far too complex, even for a 19th-century document.

    Where does this leave us?

    With a lot more work to do. We have certainly underestimated this book.

  28. Steve Smith, from #5, you say: “Believers accept strong feelings as evidence, non-believers tend not to.” I assume that by “strong feelings” you are referring to believer’s claims of knowledge or evidence by the Holy Ghost. Why do you refer those claims of knowledge or evidence by the Holy Ghost as strong feelings, given that believers largely don’t describe it that way? Is it because you come to the conclusion that those claims of knowledge by spiritual means are actually nothing more than strong feelings?

  29. Allan and Steve, I’ve had strong feelings about a lot of things. I’ve also had what I considered strong manifestations from the Spirit about things that then turned out to be misleading. Feelings are a tough thing to base truth on. And what does “true” mean anyway? It can have lots of meanings. For 40 years I prayed about whether or not the Book of Mormon was true. Oddly, I never received an answer, although I received confirmation of other things. Recently, though, I’ve changed my vocabulary when praying. I now pray to know whether the Book of Mormon is an accurate record of an actual people. Still no answer, but I think this question hits nearer the mark.

  30. As I read your comment, a few other specific questions came to mind that may be useful to ask in prayer, “Does the Book of Mormon accurately teach the truth concerning Jesus Christ? Does it accurately portray truths about life? …inline with the teachings of Jesus Christ? And, will reading and pondering on the teachings found in the Book of Mormon benefit my life?”

    Thought I would share, feel free take it for what it’s worth.

  31. Lew, I have also drawn incorrect conclusions about things that were spiritual promptings or things that I thought were spiritual promptings and were probably just feelings. However, I think that the incorrect conclusions were my errors, and my errors say nothing about whether spiritual promptings exist, or whether knowledge by the Holy Ghost can be obtained, or about whether I have increased my ability to recognize spiritual knowledge. I concede that obtaining knowledge by the Holy Ghost is no easy matter, but I believe it to be the most essential life skill.

  32. Lew I think some differences between the religious theology and practices of the Nephites through most of the narrative of the Book of Mormon is to be expected in that they were pre-Christian. The bigger question isn’t why some things are missing but why so many things are there like baptism and a more expansive view of Christ prior to his visit. Were it just missing things I think apologists would have an easier time as it’d line up closer with Palestine prior to Roman conquest.

    That said I do think some interesting things for Mormons are in the text, albeit in a more fragmentary form. For instance if Mosiah 15 is read in terms of Jewish Merkabah literature then we have something akin to divinization. Likewise Alma 12 seems interesting to Mormon concepts of priesthood and temple and even explains why more isn’t given. (verses 9-11) Also according to the text and Joseph we only have a partial translation of the text. Quite a bit is missing and was sealed up. The parts we are most interested in, from a Mormon perspective, is the details of the civilization and theology Christ set up among the Nephites. Yet we really don’t have much on that.

  33. Clark,

    What’s a simpler explanation? That Joseph maintained a fraud for decades despite huge personal loss for himself including a lot of violence, was able to write a complex book when relatively uneducated in the backwoods, managed to convince others they thought they saw an angel and the plates, etc. or that there was something real behind it?

    I said that the simplest explanation is that JS was not just fraudulent, meaning he intentionally deceived, but delusional also, meaning that he truly believed false propositions that he himself was making. This explanation is simpler because it based on fewer assumptions about physics and because we can find other people throughout history and time exhibiting behavior similar to that of Joseph Smith. Many in history have been willing to be subjected to violence and persecution because of their beliefs. You should read about Sayyid Mirza Ali Muhammad (aka the Bab) and one of his followers Baha’ullah, the founder of Baha’ism. The Bab held onto the idea that he was receiving revelations in spite of massive persecution by Iranian society. He was executed for his beliefs and because of his anti-government activities. Baha’ullah and many of his followers were driven into exile, much like the Mormons. For many, the pain of embarrassment and disgrace is greater than the pain of violence.

    You should read about James Strang, too. He claimed that he translated an ancient text called The Book of the Law of the Lord through the gift and power of God, much like Joseph Smith. The book, like the Book of Mormon, is fairly complex. He also had witnesses testify that they saw the original plates from which the book was allegedly translated. I already mentioned people who accomplished extraordinary feats in spite of the lack of education. As for convincing others that they witnessed miracles, consider Lucia Santos and her cousins Jacinta and Francisco Marto who convinced thousands that they witnessed all sorts of miraculous events in Portugal in 1917.

  34. Well done, JG. I was just thinking about your post on the Book of Mormon taking place in the 16th C. somewhere in the Central American backwoods and chuckling.

  35. Clark,

    Your Ockham’s Razor reference is much appreciated, and is an argument I long considered to be compelling. We should not overlook this point.

    There is this idea that in1969, we sent some human astranauts to land on the moon and come back. There are those who doubt that. The problem is, between the two competing theories, the bodacious idea that we landed on the moon is the simpler solution.

    Therefore, call me a sucker, but I have faith we landed on the moon.

  36. Allan #21:

    My problem with your argument is that it presumes that it is required by God to have faith in the unbelievable. Is God tricky like that? Maybe he is if you believe in D&C 19 where supposedly God tells JS that he tricks his children into believing that there is eternal punishment. So, do you think God intentionally planned on having his “true” church have a questionable past in order to try the faith of his children like Daniel Peterson recently opined in the Deseret News? I surely do not. I think God gave us brains for a reason and not to blindly follow leaders. Maybe this blind faith requirement in the questionable is why Utah ranks high in affinity fraud?

  37. Damien,

    Actually, I didn’t make an argument. I asked several questions. They were not rhetorical. I was seeking a response to each of the questions. You didn’t respond to any of the questions, which is of course, your right.

  38. Damien (40), I don’t think God wants us to have faith in the unbelievable. I do think God wants things to be hidden enough that we have to come to him to know. But I think the whole process of inquiry is based on things being believable but not necessarily clear. We have to learn to develop a relationship via revelation. I don’t think in the least God wants blind faith and I’m pretty critical of blind faith.

    Steve (37), my main point is that to appeal to simplicity requires all sorts of assumptions about what simple means. For instance you’ve now modified your argument to one such that new phenomena should be rejected if there’s a similar situation. So it’s less an argument about simplicity than it is similarity. Effectively your argument isn’t the simplicity of the events themselves but the simplicity of having to deal with new phenomena. That’s fine, but you should be clear what it is you’re actually arguing. It’s much more a kind of rough Bayesian approach to religious knowledge which I think it problematic for various reasons.

  39. Great article. Used it as a launching point.
    Excerpt, “…Green has a final reconciliation statement essentially accepting the fallibility of the authors of scripture to account for historical and scientific errors, and he uses that to allow himself to believe the text as scripture. My question, then, is what does it mean for a text to be scripture? By the Green’s definition it is: something that may or may not be historically accurate but inspired from a paranormal source that can lead one to greater spirituality.”

  40. Clark, 1) that wasn’t ever your main point, you just point that out now because you can’t establish how the LDS church’s explanation is the simpler explanation. 2) I never argued that new phenomena should be rejected because there is a similar situation. I brought up the parallels to show that the Joseph Smith story could be argued to fit different patterns of human behavior thus making the fraud/delusion hypothesis more plausible and therefore less reliant on assumptions of the seemingly implausible (and you were suggesting that the fraud/delusion hypothesis was implausible because of things such as the fact that Joseph Smith held to his assertions in the face of violence). The fewer assumptions an explanation is reliant on, the simpler it is (at least that is a common way to look at simplicity, although I realize that it is not the only way). 3)

    Effectively your argument isn’t the simplicity of the events themselves but the simplicity of having to deal with new phenomena.

    We were always talking about the simplicity of explanations, not the simplicity of events. Events can be very complex and difficult to understand. I do concede, however, that sometimes the seemingly simpler explanations may not be the most accurate. It could be that the LDS explanation of the Joseph Smith story is 100% accurate and that more evidence will be produced and found thus making it a more simple and plausible explanation. But based on what evidence we have about collective human behavior and human psychology, the LDS explanation is not simpler than the fraud/delusion explanation. That has been clear in all of my comments. I don’t know how you are deducing that I’ve modified my argument. Enough of the clever philosophical tricks. If the LDS church’s official explanation is the simpler one, then show me how. I guess you sort of tried to in your last comment by suggesting the unsimplicity of the fraud/delusion explanation, but it failed.

  41. Well we’re going down a tangent but my point is that simplicity of explanations has to be tied to simplicity of other things. There’s not absolute measure of simplicity rather it’s simplicity relative to a particular presentation. Offer a different presentation and you get a different calculation of simplicity.

    I brought up the simplicity of the typical Mormon simply to show how we can say it’s simple. You say it’s not simple not by criticizing its simplicity but by adding elements and then saying, no this is simpler. But yours isn’t really simpler. It’s just that now you’ve found parallels. So you’re changing the topic from simplicity to a calculation of likelihood based upon parallels. Again, this is fine, the apologists who do parallels tend to do the same thing – I just tend to be skeptical of proof by parallels whether done by Nibley or critics. I don’t think parallels establish simplicity at all. But clearly you do. But to make this move we have to be invoking more than simplicity in order to make the calculation of what’s simplest. And that’s my whole point.

  42. PangWitch: I believe (no scare quotes, but thanks for the condescension) that I have a loving, active, and ongoing relationship with my heavenly parents. I believe that my Savior and elder brother, Jesus Christ, modeled compassion and service and holiness and godliness, and that I covenant weekly to take his name upon me. I believe that His grace transforms us. I believe that this mortality is a schoolroom to develop our divine natures. I believe that agency and knowledge are the key principles of divinity. I believe in radical agency, and that its end is to teach us to use an equally radical compassion to build Zion. I believe that the Book of Mormon, like many many inspired texts (some formally recognized as scripture by our tradition and some not) offers crucial, inspiring, and moving insight into these principles and helps me to draw closer to my God. I’m not sure what the existence or nonexistence of some guy called Nephi (or Noah or Adam or whatever) has to do with that relationship and the responsibilities, hopes, covenants, and character that I’m trying to cultivate, patiently, as I walk by faith. I’m a committed and fully-engaged Mormon, not on my way out. I or someone like probably sits next to you at church.

  43. Are there people who consider themselves “believers” in mormonism, but do not believe the Book of Mormon contains a real history? I’ve never met someone who self identifies as a believing mormon, but does not believe that a real man named nephi lived on this earth.

    There are people who think of themselves as Christians who don’t believe in the truth claims of Christianity — the resurrection of Jesus is a myth, the virgin birth is a myth, the miracles are myths, Moses is a myth, and so forth. I suppose it is inevitable that such thought patterns would eventually be seen among those who think of themselves as Mormons.

    For me, I believe Joseph Smith was an honest man. In the stories and truth claims that others see as myths or otherwise made-up, I see the hand of our God. Before I joined the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, I believed Jesus really was resurrected — I still do. And I believe He visited Joseph Smith and that Joseph was an honest man. I believe this as matters of faith and history. I have zero historical evidence to rely on, but still believe it as history.

  44. I don’t think the question of Book of Mormon historicity can be considered apart from the history of the Restoration. Book of Mormon historicity is one thing; Book of Mormon historicity, in light of the fact that figures in the Restoration claimed to have interactions with actual objects that purport to be a part of the narrative (plates, but also other objects), is another thing; and Book of Mormon historicity in light of the fact that figures in the Restoration claimed to have interactions with actual beings purporting to have lived during Book of Mormon times in Book of Mormon locales is still another.

    The Book of Mormon is entirely too obsessed with its own purported source material to be a good fraud. If Joseph Smith is a fraudster, he violated the first rule of fraud—repeatedly: “Keep it simple, stupid.” If one is going to perpetrate a fraud, he should have a convincing back story. First mistake? Angels/heavenly beings! Second mistake? Plates (and not only plates, but plates that refer to [several sets of] other plates)!

    The only thing less convincing than the Book of Mormon’s actual narrative (and the narrative of its coming forth) are the various narratives that attempt to account for all of the evidence while explaining away its supernatural origins. It’s as though God said, “Let’s see, what am I going to need to restore my church? The Bible won’t do it. That’s just been confusing everybody for hundreds of years. I need a new (purportedly) sacred text. Should it be on parchment? Stone tablets? Nah! It’s been done. Hey, I think I’ve got it: Plates!” And it’s as though he then said, “If I’ve gonna have plates, I’ve got to have a hologram of an Angel Moroni …” And away He went from there.

  45. Clark, your main point keeps evolving. Now it seems that you are trying to make the case that ‘simplicity’ and ‘simple’ are so subjective as to be useless. Yet in comment 30 you yourself made the assertion that “in terms of credulity” that the “simplest explanation was that [Joseph Smith] wasn’t a fraud” suggesting that the fraud/delusional explanation is less credible because, well, why would a person perpetuate false beliefs in the face of violence, how could a person lacking formal education write a complex book, and how could anyone convince others that they saw angels when they really didn’t. According to your logic we should be accepting James Strang and Baha’ullah as prophets on par with Joseph Smith and the idea that the Virgin Mary appeared to thousands in 1917 as truth. Or at least we should be willing to claim that the simpler explanations are that such people are not fraudulent or under a delusion because their stories and productions are just so magnificent and because some of them held to them in the face of threats and violence. And now I’m Hugh Nibley. Well, maybe if Nibley drew parallels for larger phenomena instead of straining at gnats. If Nibley had been able to say something like, “there is this other text that some boy in Russia unearthed and translated without knowing the language previously and this is accepted as truth in broader scientific and historical communities,” then yes, I would accept the comparison.

  46. kenngo1969, if you’re gasping at the proposition that Joseph Smith was a fraud, then what about delusional? How might you explain other founders of religions who claimed to produce other seemingly complex texts by the hand of God?

    Apologetics for Mormonism seems to stop at the point of applying their logic that they appeal to in order to explain Joseph Smith and the Books of Mormon and Abraham to wider religious phenomena.

  47. Steve Smith: Clark is quite a bit better at this kind of argument than you are, and he’s quite a bit more patient than I am. As people are talking here about how they approach belief and history, we don’t actually need someone to respond to every comment with the suggestion that their beliefs are false. Besides, it leaves me with the nasty feeling that I’m hosting a conversation with Korihor. So please move along to something else. Thank you.

  48. ji,

    some of us don’t give all truth claims equal weight, and eventually learn to give up on some of them. For instance, you brought up the virgin birth. I personally have a hard time believing Isaiah was referring to it in Isaiah 7, when I read it in context and consider that the hebrew refers to a maiden rather than virgin. I also recognize that Luke and Matthew solve the problem of Jesus being from Nazareth, whereas the davidic messiah is supposed to be from Bethlehem, in completely different ways when compared to each other. I further recognize that neither Mark nor John seemed to care about the idea of a virgin birth, but it might be important when pitting the Son of God against other sons of gods like Julius Caesar. I also currently accept the possibility that the original author of Luke didn’t include a birth narrative (that it read more like Marcion’s Luke), and as corroborative evidence that Luke treated Jesus as being “begotten” by God on the day of his baptism.

    Accepting the possibility that the birth of Jesus wasn’t virginal, much less immaculate, is my way of staying honest with the evidence I have access to. Didn’t seem to bother Brother Brigham to suggest Mary had to have sex with the Father in order to conceive a Son. But thinking more broadly, although reorienting one’s view about even seemingly essential details like BoM historicity or virginal births can definitely be part of a slippery slope towards oblivion, it doesn’t have to be. For some of us, reorienting our views is the only way to honestly reconcile the evidence as we see it, and yet there are plethora ways to escape the slippery slope and be satisfied with more nuance and uncertainty in keeping the faith.

    Unfortunately there are further belief-consequences that have to be resolved along with, for instance, not accepting a virginal birth. For instance, what to do about Alma’s and Nephi’s discussions regarding the virgin? On the one hand, you could argue that God is shoring up additional evidence for the skeptic, asking us to reconsider and believe in the virgin birth after all. I had gone that route for a long time and in the end it just doesn’t work for me. Other evidences from the manuscript history of the New Testament, for instance, stack up against using the Book of Mormon like that. Consider the ending of Mark, the particular language of the Sermon on the Mount, or little details like Nephi’s use of Malachi in 2 Ne. 26:9, or Mormon’s reference to sows wallowing in the mire in 3 Ne. 7:8 (using Peter’s expansion of an Old Testament idiom). Being overly literalist made it painful to explore Biblical and historical scholarship, since much of it didn’t fit that framework.

    Aside from Alma and Nephi literally being right about the virgin birth, it’s possible to concede that they were mistaken, or it’s possible that they meant something different that didn’t translate well into English, or it’s possible to pin their words on Joseph’s translation process, in any number of ways. Not making the literalness of everything a necessary assumption entails giving up on the “One Right Viewpoint” and often means more uncertainty, but it also means being open to more, and richer possibilities, more careful scrutiny of assumptions, and more reliance on the mercies of God to cover the gaps in our understanding. For me it provides a strong incentive to always be seeking further light and truth.

    Finally, Joseph Smith being honest about his experiences doesn’t mean we automatically interpret him correctly, nor that his assumptions were always right. For instance, you can find sermons of his where he speaks of the eternity of the elements — fire, earth, water, and air (8 Aug 1839, 5 Jan 1841)! (“The sun has no beginning or end”, “fire, air, & watter are Eternal Existant principles which are the Composition of which the Earth-has been Composed”, “earth, water &c –all these had their existence in an elementary State from Eternity”) I don’t feel compelled to accept alchemical beliefs about the nature of matter just because Joseph and his father did. Everyone has context and interpretive assumptions that complicate simple literalist viewpoints.

  49. kenngo1969,

    have you dealt much with people who have a tendency to lie? My experience and intuition seem to be the opposite of yours. Many fraudsters spin ever more details and outrageous elements into stories they’re trying to pass as true. It could be argued that if Joseph was honest he wouldn’t have had to weave so many elaborate details into his narratives. For instance, when talking about a vision from twenty years previous, the details should be fuzzier or less certain, but for Joseph it seems the details multiply the further removed he is from the event, to the point that he can quote angels and beings word for word, and sometimes they happen to quote matters that only became important in retrospect, to boot.

    This just to say, not that I think Joseph was fraudulent, since I don’t, but that your argument doesn’t seem to hold much weight. If you’ve ever been to a presentation where someone is trying to sell a miracle drug, the more outrageous the claims sometimes the more convinced a certain group of people will become about it. Studies show that when a skeptical person or two point out flaws in the presentation, it makes the people who accept the drug even more tenacious and willing to put their faith in it. Keeping claims small and simple is what the honest tend to do, not the dishonest.

    Also, just because Joseph was generally honest doesn’t mean he didn’t mislead if it helped his larger needs. For instance, it seems pretty clear to me he understated his involvement with the Danites. Furthermore, he probably supervised the changes in D&C 8 (XXXIV of the 1835 ed) from Oliver’s gift being “the gift of working with the sprout” to the 1833 text “the gift of working with the rod” to the 1835 text “the gift of Aaron”, which obscures the original meaning. And it’s not unique to him.

    Have you ever compared the early text of D&C 87 (page 145 of the online version of Revelation Book 1 or page 42 of the online version of Revelation Book 2) with the version Oliver Cowdery prepared in 1835 (page 190 of the online version of Revelation Book 1)? Oliver seemed perfectly willing to modify the text to keep the imminent millennial feel but abstract away particulars like the South Carolina rebellion which had since died down and no longer looked promising. We’re supposed to trust his corroborating witness to important early visions when we catch him heavily modifying prophesies like this, so they keep their relevance? I think a much more nuanced viewpoint is called for, that takes in the complications of being human and the messy process of receiving and interpreting revelation.

  50. Clark, I like your way of reasoning, and will look forward to your comments on future posts (now that I’m occasionally paying attention to T&S).

  51. Steve Smith #50: “kenngo1969, if you’re gasping at the proposition that Joseph Smith was a fraud, then what about delusional? How might you explain other founders of religions who claimed to produce other seemingly complex texts by the hand of God?

    “Apologetics for Mormonism seems to stop at the point of applying their logic that they appeal to in order to explain Joseph Smith and the Books of Mormon and Abraham to wider religious phenomena.”

    I don’t really have any reason to “explain founders of other religions who claimed to produce other seemingly complex texts by the hand of God,” because … well, I’m Mormon. Mormon apologists don’t necessarily have any reason to do that because, well, they’re Mormon apologists, as opposed to being Catholic apologists, or Protestant apologists, et cetera. I’ll leave Catholic apologetics to Catholics, and apologetics of other religions to their respective adherents.

    On the other hand, if someone finds inspiration to better his life through studying the Quran and adhering to the dictates of Islam, more power to him. I believe that, spiritually speaking, God gives good fruit, bread, and fish to anyone who asks Him sincerely, period. I don’t believe God gives me fruit while giving adherents to other religious traditions thorns and thistles; that He gives me bread while giving them stones; or that He gives me fish while giving them serpents. I don’t even believe God gives me “real” fruit while giving them something that seems like fruit but is, in fact, kinda thorny and thistly; that he gives me “real” bread while giving them something that seems like bread but is, in fact, kinda stony; or that He gives me “real” fish while giving them something that seems like fish but is, in fact, kinda serpenty. Good fruit is fruit, bread is bread, and fish is fish, period. ;

    And sound apologetics doesn’t prove Mormonism; it doesn’t try to. Rather, its aim is to provide evidence and room for belief. In the end, we’re all our own triers of fact who decide on our own rules of evidence, what evidence those rules permit us to accept and what evidence those rules require us to reject, how much weight we will give to any particular piece of evidence we decide to accept, and so on. As Farrer said, while argument doesn’t create conviction, lack of it destroys belief. In the end, though, I’m a faithful Mormon (or try to be) because of a spiritual witness, and not because of any particular evidence in favor of the truth claims of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

    You can say that I’m playing tennis with the net down because I don’t refuse to exclude the supernatural from the equation. I won’t lose any sleep over it. ;-D

  52. Well since p and Steve are getting kicked out, I thought I would test the waters.

    I don’t think the issue if historicity can be separated from the issue of the type of revelation and thinking that occurs today. Pressure builds on the more literalist interpretations because it is out of step with BOTH secular and LDS practices of today. There are no new ancient scriptures being found and very little difference between lds leaders teaching and general good advice from traditional religion. The blandness is strikingly different from the historical references. That is why some active people have doubts.

    As Steve points out there is often a double standard where religious fervor and faith healing of the nonLDS is treated different than LDS claims.

    Now as for getting kicked out. It all sounds a bit like “but our crap doesn’t still stink.”

  53. A superb post, Jonathan; thoughtful and challenging and clear. One comment though. You write, “I am not aware of many Mormons who maintain a robust commitment to the church and its teachings while accepting the Book of Mormon only as inspired fiction.” But isn’t that phrasing itself complicated by your own three variables? Fictional in what sense, after all? Personally, my own grasp of scripture and its means of production and its role in bringing to us God’s words lead me to rank the Book of Mormon somewhat lower on your scales in regards to its artifactness and its internal history, but rather higher in regards to its contemporary text. Does that mean I think it’s fictional, or not?

  54. Russell, yes, the value of having a multifaceted scale is that it allows us to describe beliefs about historicity in a more nuanced way – which, as you rightly point out, also includes the notion of inspired fiction. I’m probably not the right person to unpack exactly what it means, though. It’s quite possible that the scale I proposed isn’t entirely adequate for the task and would have to be modified in some way.

  55. It worries me that even on a multivariate spectrum of historicity, certain views are excluded. In that sense, such a view simply becomes a yardstick of measuring orthodoxy, from which judgments are made on whom to include and whom to exclude. If that’s its purpose, I feel binary, absolute tools are better, since they are honest, especially since people are being defined, both here and in the recent Ensign article Dave wrote about as Korihors, which is a very black and white thing to do.

    Any scale that does not include all possible opinions, I feel, fails in the purpose of a scale. I think all good scales include both 0 and 10 on them.

  56. I don’t get it mirrorrorrim.

    What view is closer to 0 (or 10?) than the view that there were no plates, the Book of Mormon was a 19th Century invention created with deceptive intent, and that the reported events in the Book are fiction?

    What view is closer to 10 (or 0?) than the view that an angel appeared to Joseph, consistent with the account in JS-H, the translation was word-for-word with “word/morpheme/phoneme-level agreement between modern English text and pre-modern base text”, and that the Book of Mormon describes everything that happened in the Americas from 600 BC to 410 AD?

  57. Allan, the problem isn’t with the stated aims. The problem is with the practical outcome, which leads to the thread author calling a commenter Korihor and saying his and others’ unorthodox comments are not welcome. In this way, they are excluded from the spectrum of views.

    That’s what I have a problem with.

    “Civility” is a word used to exclude viewpoints, and I dislike it, particularly in the vague form it so often takes. In effect and selective application it limits the scale, particularly since nothing is less traditionally civil than categorically condemning another person’s view through name-calling.

    But since, unlike binary categorical enforcement of orthodoxy, this approach has no openly hard, identifiable rules, true factors of discrimination can obtain plausible deniability. This is why I feel it is more dishonest than the first, more open, method.

    This kind of categorical prohibition is often evidenced by someone saying another person’s views are fine, but that her or his actions are the problem: actions derive from belief, so to deny the one is to repress the other.

    It is far better, I feel, to openly admit that some beliefs are prohibited, and that the scale is there to identify orthodoxy.

  58. Steve, (9) I don’t think my point is evolving. I think there is one sense in which “simple” is tied to subjectivity. However that doesn’t mean it’s fully subjective. If I have time I’ll try to write up a post on this. This is not some postmodern conception. It’s rather well understood in the literature of philosophy of science and applies to looser things like history even more. The SEP on simplicity is worth reading as a primer to the subject.

    My point is simply (pun intended – what can I say?) that when we talk about simplicity we have to ask, simple in terms of what formulation. And by injecting simplicity in terms of parallels rather than simply events you’ve made a decision that goes beyond simplicity. As I said that’s completely fine. We just need to be clear that what we’re doing is making a decision that goes beyond simplicity. I *personally* don’t find parallelitus terribly persuasive – whether it be the Nibley type or secularists comparing to other 19th century events. From my perspective the issue isn’t whether others had complexities that we judge false but the events we’re trying to deal with. But I fully recognize there’s not a way to make the historical arguments objective in any strong sense. Our personal biases are going to strongly affect what we count as evidence and the weights we give to those evidences. I just think calling one simple and the other not a bit more complex than you assert.

  59. Martin wrote: Pressure builds on the more literalist interpretations because it is out of step with BOTH secular and LDS practices of today. There are no new ancient scriptures being found and very little difference between lds leaders teaching and general good advice from traditional religion. The blandness is strikingly different from the historical references. That is why some active people have doubts.

    I think this is a good and important point. I really dislike the term “literalist” since in general none of the sides are being literalist. We really need to unpack what’s going on in interpretation. What sometimes gets called “literalist” is just more a naive exegesis that assumes the text is simple can can be interpreted correctly and fully by a regular reading in suburban 2015 American context. But that’s not literalism since most such readers will recognize lots of allegory, metaphor and so forth.

    I know that sounds pedantic but it’s an important point to make since the real issue tends to be about context and not literalism.

    That said, I think the ethical complaint is important and I agree is a much bigger issue than historicism or the like. I think it tends to get overlooked given the way most of the intellectual debates develop.

    The reality is that there is a lot of ethical development historically. Especially since the industrial revolution – especially during the 19th century, the assembly line manufacturing revolution in the 20th century, and the information revolution in the late 20th century. It’s not just looking at 19th century Mormonism with practices we now find unethical. Nor is it that the Church (and all churches for that matter) tend to develop ethically along with society and largely adopt these ethics to reinterpret its own practices. It’s that looking at the classic ancient texts we find societies massively unethical and the things focused in within their own ethical commands as missing important ethical directives. The typical apologetics on these issues (such as the Law of Moses being necessary to get the Israelites out of a pagan society that saw sacrifice of babies as ethical) seems somewhat hard to accept to the modern mind. It implied not just a strong limit in God’s power (he couldn’t persuade the Israelites better?). Rather the problem is that even if the people didn’t live the ethical commands, shouldn’t God have put them on paper to aid their development. i.e. why no comment on racism or sexisms or even stronger attacks on slavery in the Bible?

    I think there are apologetic answers for this, but they don’t get around the problem that if religion is primarily about ethics, their texts seems largely irrelevant for the 21st century and secular ethics offers more. Now I personally think the solution to this quandary is that religion isn’t primarily about ethics except in a secondary way. But I do agree that for most people the real issue is the practical relevance of religion and not these historicist debates.

  60. Hi folks,

    For those interested, as soon as I get a few FTP issues resolved I’ll post my podcast interview with David Bokovoy on Historicity and the nature of scripture is among the topics we discuss.

    My best,


  61. Clark,

    In your point about ethical development since the 19th century, I think it is important to remember that while we have shed many of the sins of those that came before us, we do things now that they would almost certainly view as unethical and completely immoral.

    It is also likely that we have blind spots of our own. We condemn racism, sexism, etc., but I am sure that future generations in future centuries will have ample cause to criticize our ethics as well. Point being, I guess, is that I don’t think we are necessarily all that more “ethically developed” than our ancestors.

  62. ABM, I think the issue tends to be how one ranks ethical acts or practices. There’s no doubt we do things some in the past would judge as unethical. Some of this is probably correct. Some is undoubtedly wrong. For instance I’m not sure women wearing shorts like men is unethical but I’m sure most in the 19th century would see it as such. Likewise there’s a lot of sexual promiscuity today enabled by birth control. But then there was a tremendous amount in the 19th century often aided by slavery or de facto slavery and arguably worse results in terms of secret abortions or treatment of children that were brought to term due to the lack of birth control.

    How one ranks this is of course somewhat subjective. I tend to see slavery and a lot of justification of egregious violence and huge limits on what the majority of people were allowed to do as much worse than anything around today.

    Now individual pockets may well have been more moral. But then that’s true today as well. How you compare those pockets is difficult to know. We just have to be careful not to make an apples to oranges comparison. i.e. compare one pocket of people in the past to the whole nation today.

  63. Jonathan, i didn’t see any mention in your post of what Joseph Smith *himself* taught about each of your variables. what weight do you give him in your calculations? given the centrality of prophetic guidance to Mormonism, it seems that from the moment you embark on this discussion, you’re giving up quite a bit of ground.

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