Discussions of Mormons and Mormon life, Book of Mormon issues and evidences, and other Latter-day Saint (LDS) topics.

Monday, February 19, 2018

Joseph Smith and the Concept of Multiple Inhabited Worlds: Just Simple Borrowing from Others?

Neighbors in the Tarantula Nebula, just 160,000 light years away.
Latter-day Saints with an interest in science are often intrigued by the coherent network of ideas Joseph Smith's revelations provide on the nature of the cosmos. These teachings include:
  • the material nature of spirit (Doctrine and Covenants 131:7–8), including the teaching that spirit matter is a form of matter that is too "fine or pure" to be seen with our mortal eyes, yet is still genuine matter; 
  • the eternal nature of matter (Doctrine and Covenants 93:33);
  • the plurality of inhabited worlds inhabited by sons and daughters of God across the immensity of space;
  • the denial of creation ex nihilo
  • the insistence that the Creation is for a remarkable purpose, namely, God's work and glory, the endless work of bringing about the salvation of his children (Moses 1:39); and
  • the eternal nature of intelligence and the genuine free agency that God's children have.
The compatibility of some of Joseph Smith's views with science does not necessarily provide proof or "signs" that Joseph was a prophet, for many of the concepts he revealed and discussed have parallels in prior debates and in the discussions of his day. Some concepts such as the plurality of inhabited worlds can be found among other voices of the Enlightenment and in other sources, as Robert Paul has thoroughly documented. See Robert Paul, "Joseph Smith and the Plurality of Worlds Idea," Dialogue, 19/2 (1986): 13–36. However, the net effect of what he provided gives a cohesive set of concepts that strikes me as revolutionary in several ways. Regarding the plurality of worlds, Paul states that:
On careful examination, these complex issues suggest that the environmental thesis -- the view that one's cultural matrix is entirely sufficient to account for the emergence of a coherent set of ideas or conventions – does not provide a wholly adequate explanation of the style and structure of restoration pluralism.
 Such can be argued for much of Joseph Smith's cosmology, and certainly for its overall effect.

As for Joseph's coherent cosmic views relative to Christian theology of the day, Terryl Givens in Wrestling the Angel: The Foundations of Mormon Thought: Cosmos, God, Humanity (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2015) writes:
From an early Mormon perspective, Christian theology was generally too reticent in probing beyond the bounds of the biblically revealed. What of the time before Creation? What was God doing then? Preparing Hell for such as would ask such impudent questions, was the answer Augustine recounted. What of God's other dominions? Why is there man at all? For Milton, it was to compensate for the third of heaven's angels seduced by Satan; the scriptures, however, are silent. What of human destiny in the worlds beyond? What are humans being saved for? Dante thought a state of eternal, rapturous contemplation, and few have proffered more specifics than that. Post-redemption theology seems an oxymoron. (Kindle edition, Chapter 2, footnotes omitted.)
But again, there certainly were ministers speaking of multiple worlds. Some were using it to defend Christianity from deism or to support other arguments, but as Paul observes, Joseph takes this as a given and uses it to teach us God's work and purpose, addressing issues relatively untouched elsewhere. Unfortunately, some critics of the Church attempt to explain away the many profound cosmological and theological aspects of the Book of Abraham by dismissing it as a 19th-centtury fabrication merely drawn from Joseph's environment. The "CES Letter" offers a supposedly well-informed but somewhat shoddy argument on this point, claiming that Joseph merely drew upon a book available in his day.

The book in question is by Thomas Dick, The Philosophy of a Future State (Glasgow and London: William Collins, 1827), viewable at Google Books. A PDF of an 1830 printing is downloadable at Archive.org. Like a number of other evangelical voices of his day, Dick argues for the Christian faith using arguments drawn from science, and along the way speaks of life on multiple worlds. This certainly wasn't a novel concept introduced by Joseph Smith. But the "CES Letter" makes more serious charges of derivation. It claims Joseph owned a copy (at least by 1844, he did have one that he donated to the Nauvoo Library), that Oliver Cowdery quoted from it in 1836, and, more importantly, that it might be the source for the idea that matter is eternal and indestructible and that it also rejected creation ex nihilo.

Michael Ash in Bamboozled by the CES Letter  treats this argument, but too briefly for those keenly interested in the scientific aspects of Joseph Smith's universe. More recently, a more thorough response to this issue was provided on the Conflict of Justice blog in the post "Did Joseph Smith Get The Book Of Abraham Cosmology From 'Philosophy Of A Future State'?" The author, Rick Moser, a.k.a "Teancum," is blunt about the CES Letter's reliance Klaus Hansen's claim that Thomas Dick's book teaches eternal, indestructible matter and rejects creation ex nihilo:
False. This is 100% incorrect. Take a look at Philosophy of a Future State. It teaches the creatio ex nihilo doctrine, in contradiction with the Book of Abraham.
None but that Eternal Mind which counts the number of stars, which called them from nothing, into existence, and arranged them in the respective stations they occupy, and whose eyes run to and fro through the unlimited extent of creation, can form a clear and comprehensive conception of the number, the order, and the economy of this vast portion of the system of nature.

What successive creations have taken place since the first material world was launched into existence by the Omnipotent Creator? What new worlds and beings are still emerging into existence from the voids of space? [Dick, p. 214, 1830 printing, or pp. 206-7, Google Books version; emphasis original in Moser]
It teaches that laws and truth are eternal and that resurrection will be a physical restoration, yes, but there is nothing about Joseph Smith’s and Abraham’s doctrine that matter is eternal.
Other seemingly important parallels are shown to have more ancient sources, such as the Bible itself. For example, the notion of innumerable stars, apart from being in numerous other works, is found in the Bible in Hebrews 11:12.

Further related statements from the "CES Letter" are shown at Conflict of Justice to be misquotes or serious blunders, such as claiming that Dick's book and the Book of Abraham teach of a universe that revolves around the throne of God (wrong in both cases!).

Of course, other modern and fairly ancient sources can be found that reject creation ex nihilo, and thus pre-existing matter or maybe even eternal matter will be implicitly if not explicitly taught elsewhere. But cherry picking lone concepts does not create the coherent and satisfying, even breathtaking (for some of us) framework of concepts that arise from Joseph Smith's revelations. Why does he ignore or reject so much of Dick's teachings if that were an influential book for him? If the case is so compelling, why stretch it past the breaking point with assertions that don't bear scrutiny?

Dick has some interesting statements about eternity and the opportunity for mankind to learn much and enjoy much during immortality from the wonders of the cosmos. But he completely misses a key element of Joseph Smith's cosmology and theology: that God's work and his glory in His endless creative work is to bring us into His presence, for we are His children, co-eternal in some way with Him. His glory and His joy grows as we grow and accept the infinite grace He offers. On p. 62 (1830 printing), Dick writes:
The Creator stands in no need of innumerable assemblages of worlds and of inferior ranks of intelligences, in order to secure or to augment his felicity. Innumerable ages before the universe was created, he existed alone, independent of every other being, and infinitely happy in the contemplation of his own eternal excellencies. No other reason, therefore, can be assigned for the production of the universe, but the gratification of his rational offspring, and that he might give a display of the infinite glories of his nature to innumerable orders of intelligent creatures.
 Such thinking is consistent with much of religious thought in Joseph's day, but is hardly the source for the cosmology of the Book of Abraham and the restored Gospel brought through Joseph Smith.

Other scholars and theologians, though certainly not all and perhaps far from a majority, had proposed that other worlds exist. However, what was taught about God's motivation for the Creation of many other planets? Those who recognized from science that other planets probably exist may have necessarily proffered reasons such as saving souls [so they could endlessly contemplate God or praise Him] or, as Dick did above, allowing immortals to learn about the wonders of the cosmos. But if God is perfectly happy without us, as Dick explains, why bother?

We may struggle to find plausible environmental sources for the sweeping scope of Joseph Smith's cosmology in which the weeping God seeks to bring His sons and daughters home in an infinite work that spans space and time, endlessly motivated by love for us, His children. In Arthur Lovejoy's The Great Chain of Being: A Study of the History of an Idea (viewable at Google Books), we are reminded that a still significant religious concept is the notion, much like that expressed by Dick, that a perfect God does not need man or any of His creations for His perfection and glory. It is a concept drawn from Platonism and is one I find to be directly antagonistic to the work and the glory of God taught in Moses 1:39. Lovejoy explains that in this Platonic paradigm that dominated Western thought for over 2,000 years (less so in the twentieth century as he wrote, though it is "still potent"):
The fullness of good is attained once for all in God; and “the creatures” add nothing to it. They have from the divine point of view no value; if they were not, the universe would be none the worse…. [It is in this implicit aspect of Platonic] doctrine that we must recognize the primary source of that endlessly repeated theorem of the philosophical theologians that God has no need of a world and is indifferent to it and all that goes on it. This implication of the Platonic Idea of the Good speedily became explicit in the theology of Aristotle…. It is — to cite by way of anticipation only or two our of a thousand later examples — this Platonic as well as Aristotelian strain that Jonathan Edwards may be heard echoing in Colonial America, when he declares: “No notion of God’s last end in creation of the world is agreeable to reason which would imply or infer any indigence, insufficiency and mutability in God or any dependence of the Creator on the creature, for any part of his perfection or happiness….” This eternally serene and impassible Absolute is, manifestly, somewhat difficult to recognize in the sadistic deity of the sermon on “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God”; but Edwards did not differ from most of the great theologians in having many Gods under one name. [Lovejoy, The Great Chain of Being, pp. 43-44]
If God has no need of a world, he certainly has no need of many worlds peopled with the same kind of offensive, miserable sinners we have here.

Platonic thought is at the heart of Dick's framework and also guides Jonathan Edwards, another source frequently cited as an influence on Joseph Smith, but Platonic thought is far from the revelatory and revolutionary framework of Joseph Smith.

I have no trouble with language from Joseph's environment, such as "intelligences" as a term to describe intelligent life or spirit beings, influencing his use of language to express revealed concepts. I have no problem with terminology and even core concepts from others having influenced his thinking, his choice of words, his inquiries and interests. But for those who are willing to exercise a modicum of faith, there is something much more interesting going on than just trying to generate revenue with some flashy Egyptian relics or bewilder awed believers with fabricated revelations. There is a richness in his cosmological revelations from the Book of Mormon to the Doctrine and Covenants and the Books of Abraham and Moses that answers deep questions in satisfying ways, These concepts continue to be worthy topics to contemplate in light of expanding scientific knowledge. Simple borrowing from his environment, even if he had been among the literati of his day with advanced education, is a theory that lacks explanatory power for what we have been given.

Saturday, February 10, 2018

New Light on Mesoamerica from LiDAR, Something Book of Mormon Fans Are Likely to Like

Thanks to Kirk Magleby for sharing some exciting implications from an advanced exploration technique, LiDAR, that is being used to make new archaeological finds in Mesoamerica which many LDS people see as the only reasonable possibility for the New World setting of the Book of Mormon. See his Meridian Magazine article of Feb. 4, 2018, "How an Incredible New Archeological Discovery Corroborates the Book of Mormon." Also see his Feb. 2, 2018 blog post, "LiDAR" at BookofMormonResources.blogspot.com. Magleby's reports draw upon his ongoing attention to LiDAR and a hot new story from National Geographic published Feb. 1, 2018, "Exclusive: Laser Scans Reveal Maya 'Megalopolis' Below Guatemalan Jungle." Also see the trailer for their TV show at the page for "The Lost Treasure of the Maya Snake Kings."

LiDAR stands for Light Detection and Ranging, a remote sensing technique that uses pulses of laser light to measure distance. With the right kind of light (infrared can be especially useful for looking at sites covered with jungle) and with sophisticated digital processing, reflected signals can be turned into 3-D maps showing structures that aren't apparent to the eye and that have been missed in previous work. It's long been used for meteorological work and recently has been adapted for archaeological exploration.

LiDAR data can be processed to digitally remove the forest canopy and reveal ruins below that have long been overlooked. Now we can see that Mesoamerican cities such as Tikal were much larger than scholars realized based on ground-based exploration. 

The data from aerial LiDAR over Mesoamerican regions has been truly tantalizing. As National Geographic reports,
In what’s being hailed as a “major breakthrough” in Maya archaeology, researchers have identified the ruins of more than 60,000 houses, palaces, elevated highways, and other human-made features that have been hidden for centuries under the jungles of northern Guatemala
Using a revolutionary technology known as LiDAR (short for “Light Detection And Ranging”), scholars digitally removed the tree canopy from aerial images of the now-unpopulated landscape, revealing the ruins of a sprawling pre-Columbian civilization that was far more complex and interconnected than most Maya specialists had supposed.
Magleby cites some of the results that might be of interest to Book of Mormon students:
Richard Hansen’s and Fernando Paiz’ Fundación Patrimonio Cultural y Natural Maya (PACUNAM) just went public with the results of the largest LiDAR survey ever attempted for archaeological research. It mapped 10 tracts totaling 2,100 square kilometers in the Mirador Basin and other areas of northern Guatemala. The surveyed area is less than half the size of Utah County. And what did archaeologists find buried in the Peten?
  • 60,000 previously unknown structures
  • vast networks of highways elevated so they functioned even in the rainy season
  • ubiquitous fortresses, ramparts, and defensive walls
  • waterworks including dikes, dams, canals, and reservoirs
  • agricultural terraces with irrigation systems
  • animal pens
  • stone quarries
It will take decades to study so many new sites, but settlement patterns and big picture insights are already apparent.
  • Maya lowland population at apogee could have reached 15 million Mormon 1:7
  • Maya civilization was much more complex than previously thought Jarom 1:8Helaman 3:13-15
  • Maya cities were more interconnected than anyone realized 3 Nephi 6:8
  • Food production was on an industrial scale Helaman 6:12
  • land use was intensive – nearing 100% utilization is some areas Mormon 1:7
  • Many people lived on marginal, swampy lands 4 Nephi 1:9
  • Endemic warfare over centuries was the norm Mormon 8:8
  • Warfare was particularly prevalent in the early classic AD 250-500 Moroni 1:2
This northern Guatemalan LiDAR project will continue in phases, eventually mapping more than 5,000 square kilometers (about the size of Utah County). At that point it will have mapped approximately 1.4% of the ancient Maya area which covers 350,000 square kilometers (about the size of Montana).
This new work also reveals to a serious blunder I've made in emphasizing the infancy of archaeological exploration of Mesoamerica to counter absence of evidence claims that Mesoamerica is well understood and leaves no room for Book of Mormon peoples. I've previously quoted others to the effect that less than roughly 10% of archaeological sites in Mesoamerica have been excavated. Now that we are realizing that the extent of ancient civilization in that region is far more advanced and complicated than scholars had imagined, it may be better to say less than 1%. It will take decades or centuries to sort through the treasures of knowledge that we have been missing. That doesn't mean we can expect easy answers to the toughest Book of Mormon challenges, but the century-plus trend of laughable items periodically becoming more plausible might not be over yet. In any case, what a world of knowledge remains to be explored, whether it has any relevance to the Book of Mormon or not. Exciting times are ahead, if we can keep research going and have enough political stability in those lands for the work to be done.

Something that even critics of the Church should notice is that faithful Mormons tend to look forward to more archaeological exploration in proposed Book of Mormon lands. We want more scrutiny, more data, more research, more science, not less, and it's been that way for a long time. Ditto for exploration of the Arabian Peninsula, where some of us hope to learn more about places that may be relevant to Lehi's Trail, but are also significant in their own right. Some impatient enthusiasts have been frustrated with unanswered questions, but in many ways the advances in knowledge have been helpful and have been useful in better appreciating many Book of Mormon issues. Witness John Sorenson's Mormon's Codex and An Ancient American Setting for the Book of Mormon or Brant Gardner's Traditions of the Fathers. There is much we can learn by looking carefully at Mesoamerica as well as by looking in the Book of Mormon for Mesoamerican influence.

Back to LiDAR, here is a section from Wikipedia's article on LiDar that discusses archaeological applications:

Archaeology

Lidar has many uses in archaeology, including planning of field campaigns, mapping features under forest canopy, and overview of broad, continuous features indistinguishable from the ground. Lidar can produce high-resolution datasets quickly and cheaply. Lidar-derived products can be easily integrated into a Geographic Information System (GIS) for analysis and interpretation.

Lidar can also help to create high-resolution digital elevation models (DEMs) of archaeological sites that can reveal micro-topography that is otherwise hidden by vegetation. The intensity of the returned lidar signal can be used to detect features buried under flat vegetated surfaces such as fields, especially when mapping using the infrared spectrum. The presence of these features affects plant growth and thus the amount of infrared light reflected back. For example, at Fort Beauséjour – Fort Cumberland National Historic Site, Canada, lidar discovered archaeological features related to the siege of the Fort in 1755. Features that could not be distinguished on the ground or through aerial photography were identified by overlaying hill shades of the DEM created with artificial illumination from various angles. Another example is work at Caracol by Arlen Chase and his wife Diane Zaino Chase. In 2012, lidar was used to search for the legendary city of La Ciudad Blanca or "City of the Monkey God" in the La Mosquitia region of the Honduran jungle. During a seven-day mapping period, evidence was found of man-made structures. In June 2013, the rediscovery of the city of Mahendraparvata was announced. In southern New England, lidar was used to reveal stone walls, building foundations, abandoned roads, and other landscape features obscured in aerial photography by the region's dense forest canopy. In Cambodia, lidar data were used by Demian Evans and Roland Fletcher to reveal anthropogenic changes to Angkor landscape. In 2018, archaeologists using lidar discovered more than 60,000 man-made structures in the Maya Biosphere Reserve, a "major breakthrough" that showed the Maya civilization was much larger than previously thought. [emphasis added]
I'm looking forward to more light from LiDAR or any other method being shined on Mesoamerica, the spot where, in my opinion, ancient traditions of written language, vast ancient civilizations, a narrow neck of land, the presence of volcanism, and many other factors make it the only reasonable candidate to consider for a plausible New World setting for the Book of Mormon.

Friday, February 09, 2018

Exposed: Ironic Inconsistency in the Book of Mormon

Given all the complexities of preparing the Book of Mormon -- multiple ancient sources combined, redacted, then translated into English that is verbally dictated and written by a scribe, then later copied into a printer's manuscript, and finally put into print -- it's not surprising that there could be inconsistency at times in a text that is still remarkably consistent across the centuries. But now a Mormon scholar has exposed a significant and highly ironic inconsistency that deserves our attention. It's an example of apparently intentional "ironic inconsistency" remarkably similar to that found in the Bible in 2 Samuel 13–20. The ever insightful Matthew L. Bowen explains in "'Possess the Land in Peace': Zeniff’s Ironic Wordplay on Shilom," Interpreter: A Journal of Mormon Scripture 28 (2017): 115-120:

Regarding the narratological wordplay on the name Absalom (“[my] father is peace”) in terms of šālôm (“peace”) and the verbal root šlm throughout 2 Samuel 13–20, Moshe Garsiel observes that “the entire story deals in a manner of the most pronounced irony with the absence of ‘peace’ between ‘father’ and son.”1 It is, he notes, an example of the “ironic inconsistency of names to events” being deliberately highlighted by the biblical writer.2

This observation brings to mind word usage in the brief royal autobiography of Zeniff recorded in Mosiah 9–10. During his life and reign, Zeniff fights multiple wars with the Lamanites and therefore appears to use the toponym Shilom in a similar, ironic3 way:

Mosiah 9:5
A. And it came to pass that I went again with four of my men into the city, in unto the king B. that I might know the disposition of the king,
C. that I might know if I might go in with my people
D. and possess the land in peace [šālôm]
Mosiah 9:6
A′ And I went in unto the king B′ and he covenanted with me
C′ that I might possess the land of Lehi-Nephi,
D′ and [possess] the land of Shilom

Zeniff’s use of parallelistic language in Mosiah 9:5‒6 strongly suggests his correlation of the šlm-derived4 name Shilom with “peace” — Hebrew šālôm. Since the Nephites were a Hebrew-speaking/writing people,5 this correlation makes good sense. We further note Zeniff’s covenant use of the verb know (cf. Hebrew yādaʿ)6 in correlation with “he covenanted with me.” Zeniff seeks a bĕrît šālôm — a “covenant of peace,”7 or what we would today call a “peace treaty” — on terms of equality with the king of the Lamanites.
The last time I mentioned word plays in revealed LDS scriptures, a commenter  objected that it's impossible ("ridiculous") to find word plays without the original text. But that's not quite so. It makes identification of a word play more tentative or speculative, but it can still be done with reasonable plausibility, especially when the proposed word play adds significant meaning to the text or provides reasonable explanatory power in understanding the intent and methods of the authors.

Finding a possible word play in an original text based on examination of a translation is not something unique to desperate Mormon scholars. An interesting example of this comes from China, as I explained in my response to the objection in the comments:
James Fallows at The Atlantic recently mentioned a hilarious example of Chinglish from one of China's leading airlines at Beijing's main airport. An English sign at the check-in area told customers to please "wait outside rice-flour noodle." Those familiar with Chinese may be able to appreciate what happened after a little reflection even without having the original text to consider, because the common word for a noodle made from rice flour is mi xian, with mi meaning rice, but it can also mean "meter." The word xian can mean line or something like a line, such as a noodle. So Chinese students can probably guess that the sign was telling people to stand behind the meter line, or the one-meter line, to keep one meter away from the agent processing people. But there's a word play involve here where the word for "meter line" can also mean "rice-flour noodle." The dual meaning, essentially a word play opportunity, created the ambiguity that led to a very funny translation.

A great deal of English signage in China and other nations needs to be mentally translated back into the (apparent) parent language to come up with hypotheses for what was actually meant. Sometimes that process fails to explain the puzzle, but often can lead to a plausible scenario with explanatory power.

That's what may be going on in the Book of Abraham and the Book of Mormon in quite a few cases. You are right, of course, that we don't have the original test before us, but we can note indicators that point to apparent word plays, and then discuss them as possibilities. Note that I referred to the example in my post as an apparent word play. It's not for sure, it's tentative or even speculative, but in this case it's relatively straightforward and provides explanatory power. I don't think it's as ridiculous as you suggest.
For the word play involving Shilom and peace, it's less speculative than many of the intriguing word plays in the Book of Mormon because here we have a transliterated name from the gold plates, Shilom. This word has long been recognized (see the Book of Mormon Onomasticon entry) as likely being related to the Semitic/Hebrew root š–l–m, “to be whole, or complete,” which links it to the word for peace. The way this word is used in connection with peace and its ironic opposite, including such usage in a case of reasonably clear parallelism, helps us understand authorial intent and suggests we have a deliberate word play and intentional ironic inconsistency in the Book of Mormon, now exposed at last for all to better appreciate. Thanks, Brother Bowen!

Monday, February 05, 2018

The Explanatory Power of an Ancient Setting for the Book of Abraham: One Example

Critics of LDS scriptures sometimes exert great efforts to find parallels to Joseph's environment and modern sources of knowledge to account for our sacred texts. Such parallels can be interesting, but they rarely give any meaningful insight into the how the texts were created and lack explanatory power. If, for example, a rare European map of Arabia with the name Nehem or Nehhm on it were available and relied upon by Joseph as a source for the ancient place Nahom, then it is puzzling that Joseph did not take advantage of the many dozens of other place names and details on the map. Why turn to such a treasure and use it for one of the smallest, most obscure place names? Why select such a minor name at all? Why just one word that nobody will recognize? If it were meant to serve as later evidence of authenticity in the future once a co-conspirator finally "discovered" the map with its evidence, why not announce this? Why would it take roughly 150 years for the first person to ever notice the built-in evidence?

Selecting an obscure place name off a map rich in detail makes no sense. The theory that Joseph used a map to get Nahom offers little explanatory power for the origins of anything except one word, and even then fails to explain why Joseph would change that word to one that happens to better fit what a Hebrew writer would write, and one that also provides a good Hebraic word play in the text of 1 Nephi 16.

We run into the same problems with the Book of Abraham. Those who assume that Joseph just drew upon things in his environment and give us theories for one portion of the text don't provide us with substance that swells with new insights as we explore the text. But if we take the book at face value and consider its ancient context, we often do find new insights that help answer puzzles.

One puzzle in the text is the strange revelation to Abraham in chapter 3 where the Lord begins by discussing the nature of the universe, apparently in ancient heliocentric geocentric terms (a disappointment to all of us who want modern cosmology and astrophysics in our ancient texts! please, teach us about black holes and dark matter and high-energy physics!), and then suddenly moves to a discussion about the nature of souls and our premortal existence. A strange transition. What's going on? Why this content? But by putting this in its ancient context, it makes much more sense than we realized. John Gee explains this in his book, An Introduction to the Book of Abraham (Salt Lake City and Provo, UT: Deseret Book and BYU Religious Studies Center, 2017), pp. 116-119:
The ancient Egyptians associated the idea of encircling something (whether in the sky or on earth) with controlling or governing it, and the same terms are used for both. Thus, the Book of Abraham notes that “there shall be the reckoning of the time of one planet above another, until thou come nigh unto Kolob, . . . which Kolob is set nigh unto the throne of God, to govern all those planets which belong to the same order as that upon which thou standest” (Abraham 3:9; emphasis added). The Egyptians had a similar notion, in which the sun (Re) was not only a god but the head of all the gods and ruled over everything that he encircled. Abraham’s astronomy sets the sun, “that which is to rule the day” (Abraham 3:5), as greater than the moon but less than Kolob, which governs the sun (Abraham 3:9). Thus, in the astronomy of the Book of Abraham, Kolob, which is the nearest star to God (Abraham 3:16; see also 3, 9), revolves around and thus encircles or controls the sun, which is the head of the Egyptian pantheon.

The conversation between Abraham and the Lord shifts from a discussion of heavenly bodies to spiritual beings. This reflects a play on words that Egyptians often use between a star (ach) and a spirit (ich). The shift is done by means of a comparison: “Now, if there be two things, one above the other, and the moon be above the earth, then it may be that a planet or a star may exist above it; . . . as, also, if there be two spirits, and one shall be more intelligent than the other” (Abraham 3:17–18). In an Egyptian context, the play on words would strengthen the parallel.

The first chapter of Abraham narrates how Abraham had been in trouble with the Egyptian government for speaking against the official religion. His family “utterly refused to hearken to [his] voice” (Abraham 1:5) and as a result he was nearly sacrificed and had to move to Haran for safety. While he was there, the Egyptian dynasty changed, but pharaonic ideology had not. Speaking against the pharaoh or the religion was a capital offense, so God revealed to Abraham an implicit rather than explicit critique of Egyptian religion. He taught him an astronomy which, like Egyptian astronomy, was geocentric, where the various heavenly bodies revolved around and governed the earth. So, in Abraham’s astronomy, the star “set nigh unto the throne of God” (Abraham 3:9) encircles and thus controls not only the earth but also the sun, the head of the Egyptian pantheon. This argument, however, must be worked out; it is not obvious. It allowed Abraham to provide an indirect critique of Egyptian religion. Therefore, at least two of the revelations that the Lord gave Abraham before he went into Egypt were to prevent him from being put to death.

The Egyptian play on words between star and spirit allows the astronomical teachings to flow seamlessly into teachings about the preexistence which follow immediately thereafter.
Now that's pretty interesting. The Lord appears to have prepared Abraham with a way to teach astronomy to the Egyptians in a way that they could grasp and find impressive, and then, through a built-in Egyptian wordplay, sets the scene to naturally move into a discussion of souls, building upon the astronomy already taught to illustrate indirectly and in a politically correct way that won't get Abraham killed the important truth that there is a living God above Pharaoh.

Understanding the apparent word play between star and spirit from the ancient setting and language breathes life and explanatory power into the story, and ties it back to the beginning of the text where Abraham's life is threatened for challenging the Egyptian religion (at least the local variety in the area where the story begins). It also links us to the final drawing, Facsimile 3, which has been adapted to represent Abraham teaching astronomy in the Egyptian court -- a scene that other ancient documents suggest may have happened (but yes, it is possible that Joseph could have gleaned that obscure tidbit from a passage in Josephus if he or his associates had that book in 1835, which does not appear to be the case). The details behind Abraham 3 and the apparent use of an Egyptian word play to help Abraham teach the Egyptians is one of many examples of the explanatory power of an ancient setting for the Book of Abraham.  It doesn't solve some of the other puzzles and problems we face in the Book of Abraham, but it reminds us that understanding the ancient setting may be fruitful in understanding the text.

Some Resources for the Puzzling Facsimile 3 of the Book of Abraham

Latter-day Saints interested in the Pearl of Great Price have much to be excited about thanks to recent scholarship giving us many more insights into the significance and meaning of the Book of  Abraham and the Book of Moses. There's much to learn and some difficult, puzzling issues to grapple with, but much to appreciate, including some answers to tough questions and remarkable evidences that something interesting is going on in these texts other than just some ignoramus making up stuff. See, for example, my LDSFAQ pages on the Book of Abraham: Part 1, Part 2, and Part 3.

The easiest part of the Book of Abraham to attack, in my opinion, is Facsimile 3. It's easy to say that this scene is just an ordinary funerary/judgment scene related to the Book of the Dead and that Joseph has grossly misidentified its meaning. The characters don't give the names we expect and there is something odd going on with gender (the prince and the pharaoh are obviously women). What's up? Some believing Latter-day Saints may be OK with obvious errors, feeling that the figure is an unimportant add-on to the inspired text and not meant to be canonized, and may feel that the evidences supporting the text and the other facsimiles outweigh whatever possible error happened there. But I think it's helpful to consider further information about the Facsimile, recognizing the misconceptions that abound regarding what it is.

For an overview and some general answers to common challenges, see:
 Some related posts here on a couple of details and somewhat speculative possibilities:
Some other basic issues around the Book of Abraham are also covered in the Book of Abraham Project's page, "Criticisms of Joseph Smith and the Book of Abraham." The apparent weaknesses with Facs. 3 should, in my opinion, also be considered along with the strengths of the text. As a recent example of growing evidences related to the actual text of the Book of Abraham, see the discussion of the place name Olishem, as discussed in my review of John Gee's recent book, An Introduction to the Book of Abraham. Also see the Gospel Topics publication from the Church, "Translation and Historicity of the Book of Abraham," which cites some of the significant evidence that the Book of Abraham, however it was translated, has an ancient source.

To evaluate a text that purports to be an ancient text, a reasonable approach should begin with taking that claim at face value and seeing how or if it fits into an ancient setting, before looking anywhere else. A theory for its origins, whether it appears to be an outright fraud or a document with ancient roots, also ought to provide a plausible explanation for the manuscript, including its strengths. (This is true of the Book of Mormon especially.) Can those strengths all be explained as lucky coincidences, outweighed by a section of the document with apparent glaring weakness? The strengths of the Book of Abraham, even the fairly simple stuff like correctly identifying the upside down four Sons of Horus in Facsimile 2 as pertaining to the "four quarters of the earth" or the relationship between the solar barque and 1000 cubits or identifying crocodile god Soebek as the god of Pharaoh should be at least noted, however grudgingly, before declaring a premature victory over Joseph Smith.

Yes, Facsimile 3 is still quite puzzling. I'm not sure what's going on there and why it has been adapted by Joseph or the author of an ancient text for the story of Abraham teaching astronomy to the Pharaoh (which, by the way,  is one of the areas with good evidence supporting it). But there's definitely something interesting going on throughout much of the Book of Abraham, and I can say the same for the Book of Moses and the Book of Mormon, though all involve complexity and some difficult issues along with a growing body of exciting issues as well.

Saturday, January 27, 2018

Henry Eyring's Eye-Opening Experience with Councils

Yesterday in Hong Kong I was fortunate to be part of a meeting where Elder Randy D. Funk of the Seventy and Benjamin Tai, an Area Seventy from Hong Kong, provided valuable training to few of us LDS foreigners living in China. One of many inspiring moments came when Elder Tai played a video of Elder Henry B. Eyring describing his experience when he first saw how decision making took place in the top councils of the Church. Elder Tai used this to teach us how to better use the power of councils in our local units of the Church.

The video clip comes from a press conference immediately after Elder Eyring was called into the First Presidency in October 2007, serving under Gordon B. Hinckley. He fielded a question about how his professional background prepared him for what he is doing now. His answer touches upon a surprising experience when he first saw how the top leaders of the Church work in council to make decisions. The story illustrates the beauty and power of councils in the Church and their potential to be places where miracles can take place and where inspiration and wisdom can flow, if we seek to listen and act the way the Lord teaches us. The example of President Harold B. Lee in this story provides an example many leaders should strive to emulate.

Below is the Youtube video and a transcript kindly provided by Richard Alger in his Oct. 10, 2007 post, "Here are the Prophets of God and They're Disagreeing!"




Transcript (slightly edited):
The way to look at Harvard and its effect, at least personally, is with this story:

When I first came as the president of Ricks college, I attended my first meeting that I'd ever been in watching the General Authorities of the church, the First Presidency and others, running a meeting. I had been studying for the ten years I was a professor at Stanford how you make decisions in meetings in groups, so I got a chance, here's my chance to see the way the Lord's servants do it (of which I now am one).

I looked at it with my Harvard and Stanford eyes and I thought. This is the strangest conversation I've [heard]. I mean, here are the prophets of God and they're disagreeing in an openness that I had never seen in business. In business you're careful when you're with the bosses, you know.

Here they were just -- and I watched this process of them disagreeing and I thought, "Good Heavens, I thought revelation would come to them all and they'd all see things the same way, in some sort of..., you know." It was more open than anything I had ever seen in all the groups I had ever studied in business. I was just dumbfounded.

But then after a while the conversation cycled around. And they began to agree and I saw the most incredible thing. Here are these very strong, very bright people all with different opinions. Suddenly the opinions began to just line up and I thought, "I've seen a miracle. I've seen unity come out of this wonderful open kind of exchange that I'd never seen in all my studies of government or business or anywhere else." And so I thought, "Oh, what a miracle!"
It was President Harold B. Lee who was chairing the meeting. It was a board of education meeting. I thought, now he's going to announce the decision, because I've seen this miracle, and he said, "Wait a minute, I think we'll bring this matter up again some other time. I sense there is someone in the room who is not yet settled." And they went on to the next item. And I thought: that is strange. And then I watched somebody, one of the brethren, I think one of the Twelve, walk past President Lee and say, "Thank you, there's something I didn't have a chance to say."

So I want you to know.... This is what it claims to be. This is the true Church of Jesus Christ. Revelation is real, even in what you call the business kinds of settings.

A great man whom I love and will always love, President Harold B. Lee, taught me a great lesson that says. Now, we can be open. We can be direct. We can talk about differences in a way that you can't anywhere else because we're all just looking for the truth. We're not trying to win. We're not trying to make our argument dominate. We just want to find what's right.

And then a man sensitive enough to sense without anybody saying anything, that somebody in the room was not settled. Again, there's a kind of process of openness and yet coming together and having confidence that you know what the Lord wants, not what we want...

I loved Harvard. I loved Stanford. I had a great time there. My wife is --We spent the first ten years of our married life -- I was a professor at Standford. Thought I'd stay there forever; I had tenure. How happy we were. Then [we] went to Rexburg, Idaho from there.

And then [I] came down here and found out that there was a kind of making decisions and working together in groups that I had never seen anywhere else in the world except here.
I've run meetings where my actions were far from the Lord's teachings about how councils should operate. Sure, anybody can get things done and make things happen in a council. Driving a decision and giving out assignments is easy. But the teachings about councils we have in the LDS Handbook and in the scriptures and the teachings of living prophets and apostles is something else entirely.

Councils are designed to open the windows of revelation as we share freely our perspectives and bring new information to the table, helping to make it clear what real problems need to be solved and what can be done. When Saints in unity seek the Lord's help to find solutions and make plans, they can then reach unity and seek revelation that begins with asking the right questions.

There should be nobody in the council who feels they have to bite their lip and say, "Must ... keep ... mouth ... shut," doing all they can avoid trouble by sharing their differing perspectives. Sadly, good people sometimes feel they had better just stay quiet and stay unsettled. Leaders must be sensitive to that and draw out the perspectives of all present, especially those who might be sitting on their hands trying not to be annoying when they really have something that might help if others would listen.

Astonishing Correlations: The Book of Moses and Ancient Texts

Jeffrey Bradshaw's latest publication, "Could Joseph Smith Have Drawn On Ancient Manuscripts When He Translated the Story of Enoch?" at The Interpreter, offers some simply astonishing evidence for the ancient roots of portions of the Book of Moses. The publication begins with this overview:
Question: Some say that Joseph Smith drew on ancient stories about Enoch not found in the Bible as he translated the chapters on Enoch in Moses 6-7. How similar are the stories of Enoch in ancient accounts to modern scripture? And could Joseph Smith have been aware of them?

Summary: Although an English translation of the Ethiopian book of 1 Enoch appeared in 1821, the ancient manuscripts that are most relevant to the LDS story of Enoch were not available during Joseph Smith’s lifetime. The Qumran Book of Giants, discovered in 1948, contains striking resemblances to Moses 6-7, ranging from general themes in the story line to specific occurrences of rare expressions in corresponding contexts. It would be thought remarkable if any nineteenth-century document were to exhibit a similar density of close resemblances with this small collection of ancient fragments, but to find such similarities in appropriate contexts relating in each case to the story of Enoch is astonishing.
That brief summary doesn't convey just how extensive and surprising the parallels are, and how strong the case is that something remarkable is going on in the Book of Moses. Please read Bradshaw, to discover the surprisingly intricate correlations that seem rather bizarre if Joseph were just making this up and drawing upon his environment.

Since some of you have mentioned the thesis of Salvatore Cirillo, I'll note that his work is addressed by Bradshaw. Here's an excerpt related to Cirillo:
Could Joseph Smith have borrowed significant portions of his accounts of Enoch from other sources? In his 2010 master’s thesis from Durham University, Salvatore Cirillo[8] cites and amplifies the arguments of Michael Quinn[9] that the available evidence that Joseph Smith had access to published works related to 1 Enoch has moved “beyond probability — to fact.” He sees no other explanation than this for the substantial similarities that he finds between the book of Moses and the pseudepigraphal Enoch literature.[10] However, after having reflected on the evidence with the more rigorous approach of a seasoned historian about the availability of the 1821 English translation of 1 Enoch to the Prophet, Richard L. Bushman concluded differently:[11] “It is scarcely conceivable that Joseph Smith knew of Laurence’s Enoch translation.”

Just as important, even if 1 Enoch had been available to the Prophet, a study by LDS historian Jed Woodworth reveals that the principal themes of “Laurence’s 105 translated chapters do not resemble Joseph Smith’s Enoch in any obvious way.”[12] Indeed, apart from the shared prominence of the Son of Man motif in 1 Enoch’s Book of the Parables and the book of Moses[13] and one or two general themes in Enoch’s visions of Noah,[14] little of great substance in common between 1 Enoch and modern scripture. After careful study of the two works on Enoch, Woodworth succinctly concluded: “Same name, different voice.”[15]

Note that since Joseph Smith was aware that the biblical book of Jude quotes Enoch[16] — more specifically 1 Enoch itself — the most obvious thing he could have done to bolster his case for the authenticity of the book of Moses (if he were a conscious deceiver) would have been to include the relevant verses from Jude somewhere within his revelations on Enoch. But this the Prophet did not do.

For such reasons, it is increasingly apparent that despite all the spilled ink spent in looking for significant parallels to the Prophet’s revelations on Enoch in 1 Enoch, the most striking resemblances are not found in that work, but rather in related pseudepigrapha such as 2 Enoch, 3 Enoch, and the Qumran Book of Giants.
As time passes, the Book of Moses has become increasingly remarkably rather than easier to explain away as a clumsy fraud.  A fascinating text indeed.

Also consider the intriguing relationships between the Book of Moses and the Book of Mormon in the articles by Noel Reynolds and myself cited below. The relationships suggest that there is a connection between the Book of Moses and the brass plates used by several authors in the Book of Mormon, with a one-way relationship between the Book of Moses as an influence on the Book of Mormon.

Related resources:

Friday, January 19, 2018

Science: "How a Mormon Lawyer Transformed Mesoamerican Archaeology—and Ended Up Losing His Faith"

Lizzie Wade, an excellent science writer with impressive experience and credentials (see LizzieWade.com), just published a touching and beautifully written story about Thomas Ferguson in the illustrious journal Science. Her valuable but slightly flawed essay is "How a Mormon Lawyer Transformed Mesoamerican Archaeology—and Ended Up Losing His Faith," Science,  vol. 359, issue 6373 (19 Jan 2018): 264-268 (DOI: 10.1126/science.359.6373.264), at http://science.sciencemag.org/content/359/6373/264.full. It is also available as a PDF.

She looks respectfully at his life, first reviewing his early enthusiasm for Book of Mormon evidence that he hoped to find easily and quickly by going to Mesoamerica. She recognizes the great good that has come from the efforts that he initiated through the New World Archaeological Foundation (NWAF) that he founded in 1951. She quotes Michael Coe, the famous archaeologist and professor emeritus at Yale University: "They were working in a part of Mesoamerica that was really unknown. NWAF put it on the map."

Wade kindly and appropriately recognizes NWAF's ongoing work, and gives some insight into the Church's ongoing role in the research work being carried out:
“It's such a stimulating place to work,” says Janine Gasco, an archaeologist at California State University in Dominguez Hills, who began working with NWAF in 1978. “It's been a force in my life.”

In the years after Ferguson drifted away from the church and the foundation, NWAF continued to lead excavations, fund graduate students, publish an impressive amount of raw data, and store archaeological collections. Thanks to its work, a region that once seemed an archaeological backwater compared with the nearby Classic Mayan heartland in the Yucatán, Guatemala, and Belize has been revealed as the birthplace of Mesoamerican civilization and an economic and cultural hot spot, where people from all over the region crossed paths. “We wouldn't know anything about [central and coastal] Chiapas if it wasn't for [NWAF],” García-Des Lauriers says.

“Their work set the stage for everything I've done,” says SUNY Albany's Rosenswig, who led recent excavations at Izapa to study the origins of urban life in Mesoamerica. When his graduate student Rebecca Mendelsohn, now a postdoc at the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute in Panama City, excavated in Izapa in 2014, NWAF's original map of its mounds and monuments served as a vital field reference (Science, 16 May 2014, p. 684). “I've been surprised at how sound the work from the 1960s still is,” she says.

NWAF is still run by BYU, which means its funding comes from the Mormon church and all its directors have been Mormons. But aside from a ban on coffee at headquarters, the archaeologists who work here barely notice its religious roots. “There aren't conversations about religion,” Gasco says. “The archaeological community has a lot of respect for the work done here.”
As an aside, I'm pleased to see this acknowledgement for the pro-scholarship, hands-off approach the Church is taking. Research finds do not need to be vetted by General Authorities to ensure they are faith-promoting. This is in contrast to the New York Times harsh obituary on Thomas S. Monson that stated that the Church usually vets publications from historians who are given access to church documents, a claim sharply disputed by Scott Gordon at FairMormon as I discussed in my previous post.

One aspect of Wade's essay that is especially interesting was her treatment of his loss in faith. She states that the real catalyst was disappointment over the Book of Abraham rather than issues over Book of Mormon evidence per se. Unfortunately, she may have missed some important facts about Ferguson and his testimony on both of these issues, which I'll touch upon below.

As for Ferguson and the Book of Abraham, I would not expect Wade to have known this, but Wade's struggle is based on a serious misunderstanding of a fundamental issue, a misunderstanding that our critics tend to propagate. The papyrus fragments discovered in 1967 that drew Ferguson's interest were remnants of the original collection of papyrus scrolls in Joseph's collection, a tiny fraction of the original set. There are good reasons to doubt that those fragments came from the same scroll that Joseph identified as the Book of Abraham. Ferguson's faith crisis was fueled by sloppy methodology, but having gone through roughly the same faith crisis over the Book of Abraham, I can understand how easy it is to not ask the right questions and come to the wrong conclusions, especially when people like the fraudulent "Egyptologist" Dee Jay Nelson are spinning the data for you. I'm grateful that I had the patience to keep learning and get past that.

Thomas Ferguson is a favorite topic for some of our critics because his story supports such a perfect narrative for criticizing LDS claims. Here is my paraphrase of the typical argument:
A scholar decided to dig into the evidence, literally, for the Book of Mormon in the Americas. He went to the only reasonable location for Book of Mormon events and looked for the archaeological evidence that the book requires. To his great dismay, he couldn't find anything and lost his testimony. This courageous scholar dared to speak out and let us know that instead of proving the Book of Mormon to be true, as he intended, he discovered it was fiction.
Lizzie Wade is much more even-handed. This is not a hit piece but a carefully considered and respectful retrospective. (Of course, one can ask why the focus on a disillusioned lawyer trying to do hasty archaeology?) To Wade's credit, rather than just regurgitate anti-Mormon websites, she has actually interviewed and included quotes from a couple of people that knew Thomas Ferguson, namely, John Clark and John Sorenson. I commend her for that.

Unfortunately, the story leaves out some important information and ultimately relies on a critical narrative (from others, I think) that makes far too much of Ferguson's loss of faith and leaves little room for readers to appreciate that there are serious LDS scholars with the training Ferguson lacked who can delve into Mesoamerican archaeology or Egyptology without losing their faith, scholars who understand that scientific research especially in archaeology is messy, difficult, and often takes a great deal of time to get meaningful results. Read alone, her story may create the impression that the evidence related to the Book of Mormon and Book of Abraham is so weak that a serious scholar could not maintain their faith if they seriously considered it.

One reading Wade's essay might conclude that Ferguson is the prime example of a Mormon scholar who actually dared to pursue and accept the evidence from archaeology (or Egyptology). One might conclude that it's a foregone conclusion that Ferguson's reaction to the evidence is the only intellectually honest response possible. But such conclusions do not fit the data. There is much that is left unsaid by Wade here that might be relevant. On the relationship between academic scholarship and the Book of Mormon, consider this excerpt from "Book of Mormon Archaeology and Agenda-Driven Narratives" at Studio et Quoque Fide by Neal Rappleye, 2013:
The problem with this agenda-driven narrative [regarding common treatments of the Thomas Ferguson story of his loss of faith] is it ignores the lives of countless others, like M. Wells Jakeman (deceased), Gareth Lowe (deceased), Bruce W. Warren (deceased), John L. Sorenson, John E. Clark, V. Garth Norman, F. Richard Hauck, Brant A. Gardner, Mark Alan Wright, Allen J. Christensen, and Joseph L. Allen. These 11 individuals all have 3 things in common: (1) They each have advanced degrees that in some way focused or emphasized pre-Columbian Mesoamerica; (2) They each have participated in on-site research at archaeological sites in Mesoamerica; (3) They all believe the Book of Mormon is true and has some basis in Mesoamerican history.

There are others who have those same 3 things in common with the above individuals, but I have chosen to limit my list to people who have publicly made their views clear by having published on the topic. Of course, just because I can rattle off a long list of such individuals does not mean that the Book of Mormon is true, and I want to be clear that is not what I am arguing. But surely what they think about the Book of Mormon is at least as relevant as Thomas Stuart Ferguson’s ultimate stance on the matter, if not more so. They all are more qualified than Ferguson, and most of them have spent much more time than Ferguson ever did thinking about how the Book of Mormon fits into the larger picture of Mesoamerica. John L. Sorenson, for instance, just published a lengthy volume summing up some 60+ years of research on the topic. More to the point, however, these people directly undo the agenda-driven narrative of the critics. As it turns out, it is not inevitable that if you seriously investigate this you will come up empty handed and lose your faith. They all believe in the Book of Mormon, and they insist that there is evidence which supports that belief. What’s more, many of them demonstrate a more sophisticated understanding of the limitations of archeology and thus have more tempered expectations of what kind of evidence it can produce. Those (on this list) who knew Ferguson have reported that he had rather naïve expectations of archaeology and evidence.
The title of Wade's essay promises to explain "how" Ferguson lost his faith. But before addressing the "how," it's fair to first ask about the "did" in this story. What exactly is the evidence that Ferguson actually and fully lost his faith? It seems that he did, but some parts of the story are unclear and some may be speculation. Unfortunately, Wade provides no footnotes or bibliography for her essay. What are her sources? She mentions several of Ferguson's letters and quotes several people who knew him, but is she relying on other secondary sources as well?

In my opinion, her presentation of information seems to draw upon the writings of Stan Larson, who appears to be the source for much of Wade's research on this topic. Larson has two related publications on Ferguson. First, "The Odyssey of Thomas Stuart Ferguson" in Dialog: A Journal of Mormon Thought, vol. 23, no. 1 (1990): 55–93. The other is Stan Larson's book, The Quest for the Gold Plates (Salt Lake City, UT: Freethinker Press, 1997). I don't yet know if the details Larson provides can be extracted from the unpublished letters of Thomas Ferguson, but in both Larson's book and his article, he describes a scene from one of Ferguson's early adventures with three companions in January 1948, giving details that I haven't found in other sources: "Lying in his jungle hammock at the site of Aguacatal during a heavy tropical rain, Ferguson wrote the following by the light of a small flashlight: 'We have discovered a very great city here in the heart of "Bountiful" land' [emphasis added]." Wade also has this:
Thomas Stuart Ferguson lay in his hammock, certain that he had found the promised land. It had been raining for 5 hours in his camp in tropical Mexico on this late January evening in 1948, and his three campmates had long since drifted off to sleep. But Ferguson was vibrating with excitement. Eager to tell someone what he had seen, he dashed through the downpour to retrieve paper from his supply bag. Ensconced in his hammock's cocoon of mosquito netting, he clicked on his flashlight and began to write a letter home.

“We have discovered a very great city here in the heart of ‘Bountiful’ land,” Ferguson wrote. [emphasis added]
The details of the hammock, the rain, and the flashlight seem like the kind of thing one would not bother to record in one's letters or journal. Where does that come from? Let me know if you've got a primary source. A search for "Thomas Ferguson" plus "hammock" or "Mormon" and "hammock" for me yields only two relevant hits: Larson's article, and now Wade's publication in Science. Searching at Google Books also reveals Wade's book at the top of the list and the only relevant candidate I could find.

Larson has been criticized for  employing apparent gifts of mind-reading in understanding what Ferguson thought and how he felt in the absence of solid information, and Wade seems to have outdone Larson a time or two in her article. Literary license, perhaps, or maybe she has other sources I am missing. Larson also makes much of the Book of Abraham as the turning point for Larson, which is also a major point for Wade. I think it's fair to conclude that Larson's thinking if not a few of his specific words have played a role in what Science has published. Wade may, for example, have relied on Larson's account of Ferguson's struggle with the Book of Abraham as the initial cause of Larson's weakened or destroyed testimony and ultimate loss of faith. It may be accurate, but there is more that needs to be said and much that Larson overlooks in his more complete treatment.

Recognizing Stan Larson as the possible source for at least some of Wade's approach, it is appropriate to consider the limitations of Larson's work. An important and arguably devastating rebuttal to Larson's widely adopted spin on Ferguson was offered by Daniel C. Peterson and Matthew Roper in "Ein Heldenleben? On Thomas Stuart Ferguson as an Elias for Cultural Mormons," FARMS Review of Books, 16/1 (2004). Here is an excerpt:
At several points in Larson’s book, judgments are pronounced without a clear basis to justify them.... Consider ... the following: “Disenchanted, he became a Mormon ‘closet doubter'”—that is, someone who “privately disbelieves some of the basic teachings of the Church but keeps that disbelief hidden from his/her public image. Typically this state of skepticism is preceded by an extended period of strong belief in those same tenets” (p. 134). What undergirds Larson’s judgment here? A survey? Personal experience? ... More importantly, after noting that Ferguson’s beliefs subsequent to the early 1960s can be known only from “his conversations and letters” (p. 135), Larson declares that the years 1969-70 “are a documentary blank with no known letters” (p. 136). Undeterred by this lacuna, though, he proceeds to tell us what happened during that time period: Ferguson went through “a period of soul-searching and reflection” and “agonized to find a spiritual meaning to his beliefs. He reexamined his assumptions about the Book of Abraham and even began to question the historicity of the Book of Mormon” (p. 136). Fawn Brodie herself could hardly have bettered this.

Nevertheless, we are quite prepared to entertain the idea that Thomas Stuart Ferguson lost his faith. It seems the most plausible reading of some of the evidence. There are, however, several contrary indications that muddy the waters a bit. For instance, the 1975 symposium paper on which Larson places such weight can be read, in a few passages, as expressing at least a hope that the Book of Mormon might be true. And Thomas Ferguson’s son Larry recalls sitting on a patio with his father shortly after his father had returned from a trip to Mexico with Elder Howard W. Hunter of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles. It was only one month before the senior Ferguson’s entirely unexpected death. “For no apparent reason, out of the blue,” Larry recalls, Thomas Stuart Ferguson turned to his son and bore his testimony. “Larry,” he said, “the Book of Mormon is exactly what Joseph Smith said it is.” Sometime earlier, Ferguson had borne a similar testimony to his wife, Larry’s mother, and, during the year before he died, he had participated in an effort to distribute the Book of Mormon to non-Latter-day Saints. He included his photograph along with the following testimony in several copies of the book:
We have studied the Book of Mormon for 50 years. We can tell you that it follows only the New Testament as a written witness to the mission, divinity, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. And it seems to us that there is no message that is needed by man and mankind more than the message of Christ. Millions of people have come to accept Jesus as the Messiah because of reading the Book of Mormon in a quest for truth. The book is the cornerstone of the Mormon Church.

The greatest witness to the truthfulness of the Book of Mormon is the book itself. But many are the external evidences that support it.
Ferguson also called Robert and Rosemary Brown of Mesa, Arizona, and told them that, yes, the writings of the amateur Egyptologist Dee Jay Nelson had caused him a brief period of doubt about the Book of Abraham. But, he said, their devastating exposé of Nelson’s charlatanry had turned him right around. Shortly before his death, he also told the Browns that Jerald and Sandra Tanner had been publishing material from him without his permission and indicated that he was contemplating a lawsuit against them. He even declared that some of what had been published as coming from him was a forgery.
That last paragraph is important, bringing us full circle to the root cause of Ferguson's faith crisis. If the Book of Abraham was only a temporary albeit years-long crisis for him, and if his faith was at least partially recovered after considering the clear evidence of fraud from one of the "scholars" who had convinced him to abandon the Book of Abraham, then the story of Thomas Ferguson has quite a different flavor to it than readers of Science might get. In addition to Peterson and Roper, also see several serious issues raised by John Gee in "The Hagiography of Doubting Thomas," FARMS Review of Books 10/2 (1998).

Ferguson clearly had a faith crisis and may have doubted either the Book of Abraham or the Book of Mormon for years, but it is not clear that he permanently lost his faith or if permanent, how much was lost. He may have been a closet doubter for years, but he remained in the Church. Michael Coe is quoted as feeling sorry for him because of this, as if Ferguson lacked the courage, the strength, and the resolve to leave the Church he knew was false. But Ferguson clearly was a man of courage, strength, and resolve, ready to take swift and bold action, even if over-zealous and unrealistic. That he stayed in the Church even with his doubts, however long they lasted and how deep the ran, may say more about how much of his faith actually stayed intact than Coe or Wade have given him credit for.

Whatever degree of faith was lost, what do Ferguson's setbacks regarding LDS scripture really tell us? Does it reveal fundamental about the plausibility of the Book of Mormon or conflicts between  archaeology and religion or faith and science? Or does it just stand as a warning against unrealistic expectations in any new field without proper preparation and training?

Wade's article assumes that the narrative on Thomas Ferguson's loss of faith in the Book of Mormon is accurate, in spite of some evidence to the contrary, but she may be right. But if so, what makes this newsworthy or even interesting? "The apostasy of prominent religious figures is hardly a novelty" as Peterson and Roper point out. If this lawyer did truly lose his faith when he failed to realize his unrealistic hopes of finding dramatic evidence through amateur jackpot-seeking, why is this significant? What does this tell us about science or faith? Why is this worthy of so much attention, including the pages of Science magazine? It's a question Neal Rappleye already asked back in 2013:
There are a few questions worth asking at this point. Why is the story of a single, amateur archaeologist worthy of constant retelling, but those of 11 persons with relevant training and field experience not even worthy of acknowledgement? If the loosing of faith is inevitable for those who honestly look at the evidence (or lack thereof), why is it that those in the best position to know what the evidence is continue to believe? Why aren’t there more stories like that of Ferguson’s among LDS archaeologists? Is it honest of critics to use the story of Ferguson while not mentioning these others, and often ignoring the large body of work they have assembled on the subject?
For Peterson and Roper, the key lesson from Ferguson's story is not the one that Larson and other critics would draw. Rather, his story warns us about the needs for realism and proper preparation in any scientific, scholarly, or even religious pursuit:
Stan Larson apparently sees the doubting Thomas Stuart Ferguson as a significant harbinger, a role model, and wants his readers to see him in the same way. But is this justified? “The odyssey of Ferguson,” wrote Larson in the earlier printed version of this work, “is a quest for religious certitude through archaeological evidences.” Precisely. And there’s the rub. Larson refers to Ferguson’s growing conviction of his personal role to demonstrate to the world the authenticity of the Book of Mormon, “His major goal in life” was “proving that Jesus Christ really appeared in ancient Mexico after his crucifixion and resurrection” (p. 69). This sort of language, if it accurately reflects Ferguson’s self-image, perhaps offers a clue to the reason for his possible loss of faith. He was distressed, for example, that inscriptions related to the Book of Mormon were not forthcoming. But it is only within the past few years that any inscriptional evidence even of the biblical “house of David” has been found. The earlier incarnation of Larson’s book quotes a letter from Ferguson to his friend Wendell Phillips, telling about his plans for a trip to the Near East in April 1961. Ferguson intended to travel, among other destinations, to Oman, where, he said, he would “climb to the top of the mountain nearest the sea in Oman and look around for any inscriptions that might have been left on the mountain by Nephi, where he talked to the Lord.” Was he serious? Ferguson’s feeling that one of his early manuscripts “would be a powerful influence for world peace” (p. 16), if it is accurately reported, suggests some degree of estrangement from reality. Likewise, his prediction—following brief remarks about the problem of identifying the Preclassic inhabitants of the Upper Grijalva River basin—that “the solution may well have far-reaching implications and results for the general welfare of the present inhabitants of the earth” clearly seems to ask of archaeology far more than it can ever possibly deliver.

“My personal experience with Tom Ferguson and his evangelism,” recalls Professor John L. Sorenson,
crystallized in a period of 10 days that he and I spent in intensive archaeological survey in April 1953 in the Chiapas central depression. In the field, out of my academic training I saw a host of things which did not register with him. His primary concern was to ask wherever we went if anyone had seen “figurines of horses.” That epitomized his unsubtle concept of “proof.” I could only cringe at this jackpot-or-nothing view of archaeology. No wonder the man’s “quest” failed! He began with naive expectations and they served him right to the end.
“He wondered,” reports Larson, “why the evidence for the antiquity of the Book of Mormon was not coming forth as expected. He was genuinely disappointed that the archaeological support for the Book of Mormon was not being discovered at the rate he had anticipated” (p. 69). Again, though, progress in Mesoamerican archaeology did not destroy the testimony of M. Wells Jakeman. An interesting future question for research would center on why a professional expert in the field remained evidently undisturbed by matters that may have proved troubling to the faith of an amateur. Were Ferguson’s expectations unrealistic? As Sorenson said in 1996 of Professor Jakeman, whose Berkeley dissertation dealt with “the ethnic and political structure of Yucatan immediately preceding the Spanish conquest,” “he remained methodologically cautious his whole life regarding ‘proof’ of the Book of Mormon,” yet “he also still remains a believer in the Book of Mormon.” Are the two facts related?

We argue that Thomas Ferguson was methodologically incautious in his believing days and that this continued into his apparent time of doubt.
Reality is complicated. Archaeology is complicated. Gaining breakthroughs or just insightful knowledge through digging or exploring even in the most fertile fields takes time, sometimes many lifetimes, no matter how sincere and zealous the hopes of a believer may be. Meanwhile, there are LDS scholars who have developed the skills needed for the patient, realistic work in archaeology, Egyptology, linguistics, and other fields relevant to the Book of Mormon, who have over the decades helped us discover and appreciate a growing body of evidence for the very complex and challenging Book of Mormon and Book of Abraham, and I look forward patiently to further discoveries and occasionally revolutions as the research continues.

Ferguson's story does the have the romantic appeal of an amateur dashing off to a mysterious foreign land to search firsthand for evidence related to his faith, ready to go wherever the data leads. But for that angle, a much more interesting headline for Science's next article of this kind ought to be this: "The Warren Aston Story: How An Amateur Mormon Explorer Helped Unveil the First Hard Archaeological Evidence for the Book of Mormon in Yemen and Possibly Found the Mysterious Place 'Bountiful' to Boot." See my Book of Mormon Evidences page and Warren Aston's Lehi and Sariah in Arabia for some details.

Related resources:

Thursday, January 18, 2018

Remembering Thomas S. Monson: The Painful Obituary from the New York Times

Scott Gordon at FairMormon.org offers a firm but gentle rebuke to the New York Times for their embarrassing and painful obituary of one of the world's best men, Thomas S. Monson. The obituary was written by a Pulitzer Prize winning journalist, Robert D. McFadden. Though frustrating to read, it is a helpful piece, for it reminds us how politicized and biased journalism has become, twisting the knife even as its ideological opponents are being buried.

The obituary's opening sentence sets the tone as it complains of Monson's insensitivity to women and the issue of same-sex marriage community: Monson "rebuffed demands to ordain women as priests and refused to alter church opposition to same-sex marriage." And then the opening words of the article continues with this:
Facing vociferous demands to recognize same-sex marriage, and weathering demonstrations at church headquarters by Mormon women pleading for the right to be ordained as priests, Mr. Monson did not bend. Teachings holding homosexuality to be immoral, bans on sexual intercourse outside male-female marriages, and an all-male priesthood would remain unaltered.

Mr. Monson displayed a new openness to scholars of Mormonism, however, allowing them remarkable access to church records. But as rising numbers of church members and critics joined the internet’s free-for-all culture of debate and exposé, his church was confronted with troubling inconsistencies in Mormon history and Scripture.
The negative tone persists with little recognition of who the man was or acknowledgement of his life of loving, Christian service. The article even gives the URL to and quotes from an anti-Mormon website from some Baptist group.  If you read NYT obituaries for others like Hugh Hefner and Fidel Castro (both saints, perhaps, in the NYT worldview), it is clear that President Monson has gotten short shrift. And much less flattering photography.

Moving past the overall negative tone and many omissions from what would have been a fair obituary, Gordon tackles the issue of serious inaccuracies. I'll quote from that part of his excellent rebuttal:

Here they are in the order they appear, not necessarily in order of importance.
  1. “Many Mormons faced sanctions for joining online forums questioning church positions on women’s roles.”
I am not aware of ANY Mormons who have faced sanctions for joining an online forum or for questioning the Church positions on women’s roles. They will need to give examples. We have thousands, and probably millions of members who belong to many forums. We have members who are advocates of women rights and roles who are faithful members. I know some who work in the Church Office Building. I know members who hold differing views on women’s roles, homosexuality, and many political and social issues. Kate Kelly is cited in the article—perhaps the author thinks she is an example of this, but Kate Kelly was not excommunicated for joining a forum or even questioning the Church’s positions. There is a difference between questioning and actively campaigning against the Church and its teachings. Kate Kelly did the latter.
  1. “As the 16th president of the Latter-day Saints, succeeding Gordon B. Hinckley, Mr. Monson faced another test when church members, increasingly scouring online sources, found apparent contradictions between historical records and church teachings, which the church regards as God-given and literally true.”
Perhaps I am nit-picking on this one, but I take some umbrage with the idea that since Gordon B. Hinckley apparent contradictions have been found. The Church has an exceptional history department and there are numerous conferences on Church history – including the FairMormon conference. We have been discussing these topics for years. Additionally, we aren’t fundamentalist evangelicals in that every doctrine and practice is directly from God. This would be especially true with items related to history and science which are full of discovery. Yes, we have divinely inspired teachings, but they typically don’t have anything to do with history.
  1. “Some critics, including the website OnceDelivered.net, which identified itself as an expression of the Baptist faith, said the Latter-day Saints church had previously contended that Smith had been happily married to only one woman, and said the new teaching had used Scripture to “address the inconvenient truth of Smith’s polygamy.””
There are two issues here: First, one has to question why the New York Times reporter sought out a Website that states, “Mormonism fits a classic definition of a cult” and “So, is Mormonism a cult? According to our definition, yes.” Most LDS would rightfully classify OnceDelivered.net to be an anti-Mormon Website. There are many Websites out there that attack Mormonism with little understanding of what we actually teach and believe. It seems odd that the New York Times would be quoting from one for an obituary.

Secondly, the claim that the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (the term Latter-day Saints church would be incorrect and is offensive to most Mormons which underscores the lack of source reliability) previously contended that Joseph Smith was married to only one woman is incorrect. Yes, there are critics who have falsely made that claim, but the idea of plural marriage is taught by Joseph Smith and is part of our scripture in Doctrine and Covenants section 132 which can be found online at https://www.lds.org/scriptures/dc-testament/dc/132. That section was written in July 1843. Another activity you can try is to go to the Official Church Website LDS.org and type “Plural Marriage” into the search box. Many of those articles listed were written prior to Thomas S. Monson becoming prophet. There are many books that talk about this. One of our FairMormon volunteers stated he has 40 – 50 books on his shelf that discuss this topic. It was one of the main topics of the Reed Smoot Hearings in congress from 1904 – 1907. There is no new teaching on this. Ask most New Yorkers if early Mormons practiced polygamy and they would say yes. Many probably believe we still do. To say that we taught otherwise would be unbelievable.
  1. “In recent years, the church allowed historians access to church documents and records to a remarkable degree. Some published their findings online and in printed volumes, although they were usually vetted by church leaders.”
Having worked extensively with Church historians and independent historians, I have NEVER heard of Church leaders vetting anything except what is posted on the official Church Website to represent their position. Just the opposite is true. The Joseph Smith Papers are being published in their entirety on the Church Website. I have had complete freedom to publish anything without any vetting or oversight. There are LDS History conferences that are attended by Church Historians and many controversial and difficult topics are addressed. FairMormon has a conference every year where we talk about Church history. No one has ever vetted our talks.

The New York Times Obituary on President Thomas S. Monson needs a retraction and a rewrite. I’m sure the Times is interested in accuracy. Not correcting the record looks mean spirited, or ignorant. Neither of those positions is something that most newspapers aspire to be.
Thank you, Scott, for your response. And thanks to President Monson and his family for giving us a man who did so much to advance the cause of the poor, of the needy, of the hopeless. He brought real relief and real progress to men and women. How incredible that he would be treated so harshly, while the Times would essentially celebrate someone like Hefner, who exploited and degraded thousands of women for his gratification and financial gain. More than a retraction is in order -- if the Times really were about journalism and truth.