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

Sunday, August 30, 2009

Maybe Obedience Isn't a Dirty Word After All

One of the passages of scripture I've used frequently discussions with fellow Christians objecting to LDS beliefs comes from Deuteronomy 4:2. I've often used that in clarifying some Book of Mormon issues (what does John mean when he warns others not to add or subtract to the words of his book? is he saying that God cannot or will not continue to speak?). Today, though, I'd like to call attention to the last phrase in the verse:
Ye shall not add unto the word which I command you, neither shall ye diminish ought from it, that ye may keep the commandments of the LORD your God which I command you.
Today I'd like to speak to some of our Christian critics by putting in a good word for keeping the commandments. I think many Christians will naturally agree, but there are those who get bent out of shape by the excesses of critical theology.

For some, the phrase "keep the commandments" immediately smacks of denying the grace of Christ and proudly relying on works for salvation. This is often fueled by misunderstanding that the "law" that is so clearly abandoned in the New Testament refers to the Law of Moses, the system of rites, including animal sacrifices, and detailed rules that was a schoolmaster to prepare a hard-hearted generation for the coming of Christ and the higher laws of the the Gospel of Jesus Christ. Laws and commandments are still there, and obedience to the will of God is still asked of those who wish to received the unlimited grace Christ offers. It's not that anything we can do can wash away our sins, or earn the infinitely precious gift of resurrection or eternal life. But the blessings of grace are extended to us in the framework of a covenant relationship. If we follow God and worship Him in a covenant relationship, He offers His blessings to us in return. It is all by grace, but there are conditions upon which the gift is given.

By understanding that, we see that all the teachings in the Old Testament about following God and repenting of sins weren't abominable tripe, but truly were a schoolmaster to bring people to God.

When God spoke to Moses about our need to "keep the commandments," it wasn't a cruel joke. That phrase, used so many times in the Old Testament (e.g., "Ye shall diligently keep the commandments of the LORD your God" in Deut. 6:17, with related language in many other places), is no more irrelevant today than the statement, "If thou wilt enter into life, keep the commandments," as spoken by Jesus Christ in Matthew 19:17. Some of the commandments have changed, and our understanding of their role and our relationship to God has been greatly clarified, but the principle of obeying God has not been abandoned. His grace is essential for us to overcome our failures and sins, and to gain strength to overcome and follow Him, but the standard remains there and we are asked to obey Him with faith and diligence.

While there are numerous New Testament passages that speak of the importance of obedience by Christians, here are a few using "keep the commandments" terminology that may be helpful reminders:
1 John 5:2, 3 - "By this we know that we love the children of God, when we love God, and keep his commandments. For this is the love of God, that we keep his commandments: and his commandments are not grievous."

Rev. 12:17 - "And the dragon was wroth with the woman, and went to make war with the remnant of her seed, which keep the commandments of God, and have the testimony of Jesus Christ." (Nice mix: the combination of commandment keeping and people with a testimony of Jesus Christ.)

Rev. 14:12 - "Here is the patience of the saints: here are they that keep the commandments of God, and the faith of Jesus." (Yes, faith and commandment keeping do belong together among those who follow Christ in a covenant relationship, known in New Testament times as the Saints.)
Of course, neither the New Testament nor Old Testament are misleading people in stressing the importance of obeying God and keeping His commandments. It's part of what God asks of those who wish to accept the Gospel of Jesus Christ. That concept is abundantly expressed not only in the New Testament, but also in the earliest Christian writings after the New Testament, such as in the collection known as the Apostolic Fathers, where we find many sermons that often sound rather like modern LDS General Conference sermons to the Saints rather than lectures on the irrelevance of obedience.

One of the most self-evident reasons why Mormons aren't Christians, according to one local pastor who wrote a letter to the editor in my community on this topic a number of years ago, is our Third Article of Faith:
We believe that through the Atonement of Christ, all mankind may be saved, by obedience to the laws and ordinances of the Gospel.
He cited that as if it removed all doubt that we aren't Christian. The idea that we should strive to keep God's laws and commandments to access the power of the Atonement clearly meant, in his opinion, that we Mormons, in spite of worshiping Jesus Christ, had flawed theology and thus couldn't be Christian. We would fail the Great Theology Quiz on the day of judgment and suffer eternal doom (not to mention flunking the Big Quiz for not embracing the most up-to-date metaphysical formulations regarding the Trinity).

I think he's wrong, and would encourage him to think more openly about what the Bible is teaching. Just read the Gospel of John, for example, and look at the numerous teachings of Christ, and then see if the Third Article of Faith really is so apostate after all. We may have difference nuances on how we interpret the workings of grace, the judgment of God, and the role of human free agency in this process of mortality, but isn't is possible that there can be different understandings by people who still truly believe in and seek to follow Jesus Christ? Even those who seek to follow Him by seriously trying to implement His teachings in what may look shamefully like obedience, even intentional obedience? But there's nothing to be ashamed of: obedience is not a dirty word, but one that Christians should use proudly. No, humbly. That's it. Humbly. Humble obedience is the call, actually, and the great example set by Jesus Christ:
Philip. 2:8 - "And being found in fashion as a man, he humbled himself, and became obedient unto death, even the death of the cross."

Hebrews 5:8 - "Though he were a Son, yet learned he obedience by the things which he suffered."

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Psyched about Singapore! Been There? Looking for Tips

One of my wishes for many years has been to visit Singapore, the beautiful island nation with some of the world's best research and innovation. Plus it's a multicultural gem. After a recent interview of one of Singapore's innovation leaders for my Innovation Fatigue blog, my desire to go there tripled. So you can imagine I was thrilled this week to receive an invitation to speak there in October during their innovation week. Wow! I'm just small fry, but that's a pond I want to swim in for a couple days. Can't wait! Am trying to brush up my weak Mandarin skills. Will be staying close to China Town.

If you live in Singapore or have been there, I'm hoping for travel tips, suggested photo ops, and maybe even a little about the state of the Church there. Also how to eat cheaply. And if there are cool people you know that I should meet, let me know.

A science fiction novel I've been working on in rare spare time has a significant segment that occurs in Singapore, which further increases my excitement about going there.

I'm also intrigued that the name of one of Singapore's beautiful butterflies is the Great Mormon. Any of you know the history behind that? (Hmm, please don't tell me that's where Joseph Smith turned to plagiarize the name Mormon.) Naturally, the Great Mormon butterfly is--you guessed it--true blue. I'll overlook the fact that it is an insect.

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Inspired Sleep: A Few Tips for Overcoming Sleep Disorders

It took me several decades to realize how important good sleep habits are, and how valuable sound sleep is. It took that long to realize that some of my recurring health challenges were related to bad sleep habits. When I was in school, my tendency to stay up late reading or doing homework was directly tied to increased chances of catching a cold or suffering from respiratory infection. I finally realized that there is a raging battle between bacteria and me, and if I wore myself out, they would begin to win.

During the time I served as a bishop, I began to have some recurring frustrations with sleep. Insomnia struck occasionally and left me more weary than I should have been. I sought for solutions and found several things that help - at least that help me. Your results may vary. But the most important factor came from the LDS scriptures. Doctrine & Covenants 88:124 seems like basic wisdom, but it truly helped me:
Cease to be idle; cease to be unclean; cease to find fault one with another; cease to sleep longer than is needful; retire to thy bed early, that ye may not be weary; arise early, that your bodies and your minds may be invigorated.
So much like the old saying, "Early to bed and early to rise, makes a man healthy, wealthy, and wise." (A saying known as early as 1639.) By being taught in the scriptures, I was able to take this principle much more seriously. For my physiology and schedule, I have found that 11 pm is the time when faith needs to take over to help me obey what is a personal commandment for me now (with some flexible exceptions). It takes tremendous faith to walk away from my computer or stop whatever I'm doing to get to sleep. I've always got a dozen things on my mind and want to do so much more, but when I obey and get to sleep anyway, I'm able to arise early and get more done the next day than if I had stayed up another hour or so, for I'll be less effective in most cases by staying up later.

When I stay up too late, for some reason I find it much more difficult to get to sleep and and am more likely to wake up far too early. It's as if the most important sleep for me is early in the sleep cycle, and if I mess that up, even sleeping in the next morning (rarely possible) doesn't do a whole lot of good. If I get to bed on time, I also have better and more interesting dreams, often around 4 or 5 am, and I can arise early and be ready to go. In fact, with good sleep, many of my best ideas are brewing in my mind as I awake, along with occasional inspired guidance - I think that's a key time for personal revelation, somehow. Sleep and inspiration may have a connection, in my personal experience. Shame to miss out on either.

Here are some other things I've found in my observations and experimentation (they may not work for you):
  • Eating much food after 8 or 9 pm can reduce my quality of sleep. Ice cream in particular is not wise for me late at night, and other sugars and perhaps dairy products don't seem favorable for sleep. (A bite of apple, on the other hand, seems to help me, but not apple juice.)

  • Melatonin really helps me. It's a natural compound available in the vitamin sections of places like Walgreens and CVS. Helps your body sleep. I prefer the 8-hour time release (5 mg), sold by Walgreens, over regular melatonin. The regular stuff last for 3 or 4 hours only. First time I bought it, I thought it was like a vitamin and popped a pill around 1 pm, then went back to work. I was quite drowsy that afternoon!

  • Family scripture study and family prayer help me. If we've had them, I feel better about the day and that helps me sleep a little better. When I worry about the things where I messed up or failed as a parent, I sleep worse. So trying to live the Gospel helps. It really does bring rest. At least to those who feel guilty when they don't live it.

  • Breathing patterns make a difference when I'm struggling to sleep. Sometimes I do wake up in the middle of the night or struggle to get to sleep for various reasons anyway. I found that controlled breathing really helps me relax and fall asleep. I will slowly inhale as I count to 7, and then slowly exhale also counting to seven. Doing this for a couple minutes usually helps me get back to sleep. I owe this tip to my wife, who once purchased "The Wild Divine" biofeedback system for me to help me learn relaxation techniques as a step in helping me with my sleep problems. As strange as that New Age game was, it did help me learn that I can do a lot to control my physical state, and that by practicing controlled breathing and mentally relaxing, I really could change my physiology and improve things. Very grateful for that learning.
Helping tired people to sleep better is something I've been doing recently in my new calling. Seeing the weary filing get some deep sleep always makes me feel great at the end of a long talk as a High Council speaker. But you don't have to catch one of my sermons to enjoy such blessings.

I hope some of these suggestions might help you when you struggle with sleep.

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Mixing It Up, Mormon Style: Tom Dickson of "Will It Blend" Fame

BYU Magazine recently published "Will It Blend?" by Charlene Renberg Winters, featuring the famous guru of blender mayhem, Tom Dickson, CEO of Blendtec in Orem, Utah, and a BYU alumnus. Millions have seen Tom in Youtube videos where he demonstrates what his powerful blenders can do to, say, cell phones, boards, tin cans, butane lighters, or other objects. Crazy, dangerous, and highly viral. Sweet! See WillItBlend.com for more. That's not meant to be a product endorsement. In fact, I'm horrified by the product - especially seeing what it did to an iPhone. NOOOO!


I understand someone has proposed putting an anti-LDS street preacher and me into a giant blender to what happens when apologists and antis mix it up. Makes my head spin just thinking about it. I prefer to shake things up virtually, here at Mormanity.org.

Well, I'm happy for Tom, and pleased to see how interesting LDS people sometimes turn up in the strangest places and make their mark on the world in such unexpected ways. Blend on, Tom!

Sunday, August 16, 2009

Relationship Tip: The 90-Second Rule

I try to avoid promoting specific commercial products and services in this blog (apart from a few hints to my secular but still inspiring publication from John Wiley & Sons). However, the video below from a commercial group offers advice that I think is terrific. I don't think this comes across as commercial, and hope you'll find it appropriate and helpful.


After you've been away from someone you care about for more than a couple of hours, take a few seconds to clear your mind and focus on how you can strengthen that relationship as you encounter that person. The first 90 second on interaction upn coming home or being re-united can be so critical. Make it count. Wish I had thought about this years ago! Still time to improve, I hope!

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Those Implausible Plates: With Apologies, I'm Giving In

Aug. 16 update: A more complete version of this post, with some additional finds and information, is now on my main website at http://www.jefflindsay.com/bme25.shtml, where it is one of several short and dry essays, "Book of Mormon Nuggets," supporting my Book of Mormon Evidences page.


“If you don’t respond to my list of objections within 30 days, I will assume that you have no answer and will tell everyone that you implicitly agree – and that you are a Mormon liar.” I get these kind of barbs occasionally from our critics. I see this as spiritual spam whose purpose is to waste my time and trick me into falling for some trap – especially the trap of thinking that somebody really cares about my response. Delete. Move on. That’s my normal procedure for dealing with these uncivil spamsters.

Last month I received one of these with a slightly different and more ominous flavor. Sent by a noted critic of other Christians, it began with the normal pleasantries: a list of arguments and quotes, an accusation that I was a liar and/or stupid, and a demand that I respond within 30 days or be exposed for what I am. But this was more than just spiritual spam – there was also an ominous threat involving someone else, making this more of a ransom note from a spiritual terrorist than just another immature and hostile spammer. That message came in a follow-up note sent a few minutes after the first: “I've shared my emails to you with an exiting Mormon woman to show her that you can't and won't refute my charges. She'll be checking your web site in a month, too. Presumably she'll use this in helping her Mormon friends see the light, as well.” Ah, so now, if I failed to comply with the demands in the ransom note and turn over many hours of my time as a ransom payment, one or more souls will perish – spiritual decapitations, if you will. Or perhaps a sentence of years of hard labor in spiritual captivity. This was ugly, and I struggled with what to do.

“You don’t negotiate with terrorists. You never give in to their demands. If you do, it will just encourage them and make things worse.” That’s so easy to say, and it makes a lot of sense – until someone you care about is the one being held hostage. I don’t know who the “exiting Mormon and her friends” are that Mr. S. has taken into captivity, but my heart goes out to them. I want them to know I care. I want them to know that sometimes there are answers to questions, and that sometimes the arguments they are fed may be distortions or otherwise unfair. If I knew where they were being held, perhaps I’d get some of my Marine friends to rush in and rescue them with a helpful home teaching visit. But all I can personally do is choose to respond to the random note or ignore it. Forgive me, fellow LDS defenders, if I am only making things worse, but I am buckling on this one. Giving in. Paying the ransom demanded, and hoping that the captive souls might find a way to escape and come back.

What follows is the first message from our noble Christian critic, with the full name replaced by “Mr S.” After reading my LDSFAQ web page, "My Turn: Infrequently Asked Questions for Critics of LDS Religion," Mr. S. was infuriated that I would say that the idea of ancient Americans keeping a sacred record on metal plates was a ridiculous concept in 1830 when the Book of Mormon came out. Of course, there were scholars who knew that some ancient peoples had written on metal of various kinds, and there were educated people who knew that there were great civilizations in the ancient Americas that including written records. I did not say that nobody could have known that the ancient inhabitants of Mesoamerica kept written records, nor did I say that nobody knew of ancient writing on metal. My statement about the golden plates being "too funny for words" in 1830 was a reference to the response he received. Mr. S. misunderstands that. Sorry if I wasn't precise enough, but I hope this post will clear things up. So let's begin with his gentle note:
Dear Mr. Lindsay,

You state:
When the Book of Mormon was published in 1830, the idea of ancient people in this continent keeping a written record was hilarious, and the idea of them or anybody else writing on metal plates was simply bizarre - "too funny for words," as Hugh Nibley puts it. It was ridiculed many times, and still is by some critics. http://www.jefflindsay.com/myturn.shtml
This is hilarious! But not for the reasons you state. You can cite all of the Mormon "apologists" you like (Paul Cheesman made this idiotic and insupportable claim for years), but someday you're just going to have to look at sources written BEFORE the Book of Mormon was published. When you do, you'll find that--

Jahn's BIBLICAL ARCHAEOLOGY published in English in 1823 (Andover, MA) states that "Those books [of the ancient Jews], which were inscribed on tablets of wood, lead, brass, or ivory, were connected together by rings at the back . . ."

Now you know: a scholarly work on archaeology before 1830 claimed the Jews wrote on metal plates AND bound them with rings at the back. Curiously, Joseph Smith knew about this book--he mentions it in the TIMES AND SEASONS (Sept. 1, 1842) to vindicate the Book of Mormon. Tellingly, Joseph (as editor) leaves out the fact that that Jahn's book was published seven years prior to the Book of Mormon. (In case the terms confuse you, the T & S points out that "Tablets, tables, and plates are all of the same import . . .")

In ANTIQUITIES OF THE JEWS (Philadelphia, 1823) William Brown, D. D. wrote "It is generally thought that engraving on brass and lead, and on rock or tablets of stone, was the form in which the public laws were written . . ."

Did you catch that? "IT IS GENERALLY THOUGHT." How could it be "Too funny for words" if it was something "generally thought" by antiquarians in 1823?

In AN INTRODUCTION TO THE STUDY OF BIBLIOGRAPHY (Vol. I, London, 1814), Thomas Hartwell Horne devotes pages 33 - 35 to lead and brass as writing materials of the ancients.

And let's not forget the Apocrypha and Bible. I Macabees 8:22 mentions an epistle written on "tables of brass." The Bible states that "ancient writings were inscribed on gold (Exodus 28:36; 39:30)." That last quote is from p. 48 of Paul Chessman's ANCIENT WRITING ON METAL PLATES. Curiously, he too claims Joseph couldn't have known about ancient writing on metal plates.

Here's an UNSUBSTANTIATED claim from the THE NATURAL AND ABORIGINAL HISTORY OF TENNESSEE (1823) by Judge John Haywood:

“two or three plates of brass, with characters inscribed upon them resembling letters” found in West Virginia, and a circular piece of brass with letter-like characters found in North Carolina (328-30).
Haywood later concludes "since we can trace this art into Egypt prior to the exodus . . . there seems to be incontrovertible evidence that the inscriptions in America were made by people of the Old world." (372)

Who were these people who thought in 1830 that the ancients writing on metal plates was "too funny for words"? It wasn't Jahn or Brown or Horne or Haywood or ANYONE familiar with the Bible and the Apocrypha (which all Bibles included at that time--even Joseph's).

As to your ridiculous notion that the idea in 1830 that any ancient Americans kept a written record was considered "hilarious" let's look at a book about American archaeology published ten years before the Book of Mormon called ARCHAEOLOGIA AMERICANA published by the American Antiquarian Society--which is still in existence in Worcester, MA.

In it, Baron von Humboldt quotes Montezuma as saying to Cortez: "We know from our books . . . that myself, and those who inhabit this country, are not natives, but strangers, who came a great distance." Where did Montezuma of the Aztecs get this information? From BOOKS written by earlier Aztecs.

Humboldt didn't find that hilarious. Or Cortez. Or Montezuma. Or the American Antiquarian Society. Can you tell me who did?

I'll close with a quote from Joseph Smith's hometown newspaper the WAYNE SENTINAL of June 1, 1827 (printed on the same press as the Book of Mormon)--nothing indicates the editor found this article, "Decyphering Hieroglyphics," hilarious: The article claimed a Professor Seyffarth of Leipzig had found:

“. . . a Mexican manuscript in hieroglyphics, from which he infers that the Mexicans and the Egyptians had intercourse with each other from the remotest antiquity, and that they had the same system of mythology.”

(Hmm. Ancient American Indian writing based on Egyptian. Could this be where Joseph got the idea for reformed Egyptian, reading the local newspaper?)

I suspect you knew much of the above already. If so, you're just another Mormon liar. If not, then, like Hugh Nibley, you don't do very thorough research--you just repeat other Mormons without bothering to check. However, I'll keep an eye on your web site. If your hilarious (and pathetic) claims remains up a month from now, I'll know it's the former.

Oh, I'd appreciate your citing instances that the idea that the ancients wrote on metal plates or that ancient Americans had a writing system "was ridiculed many times, and still is by some critics." I don't want citations that ridicule Joseph Smith's claims regarding the book of Mormon--that's not what you said. I want to see just one writer ridiculing these ideas UNRELATED to Joseph Smith. You see, one can scoff at Joseph's claims of a golden book and Nephite authors and still accept the ancient Hebrews wrote on metal plates and that ancient Americans had a writing system. I'd especially be interested in any modern scholars who doubt Jahn and Humboldt.

Very sincerely,
"Mr. S." (full name withheld)

Mr. S. makes some valid points. There were people before 1830 who had seen Mesoamerica and knew that they had writing. However, this was definitely not generally known in Joseph’s environment before about 1842, when members of the Church saw the impressive and widely publicized work of John Lloyd Stephens, Incidents of Travel in Central America, Chiapas and Yucatan (New York, 1841, which had been published in Europe in 1839). This book was, for most of the English-speaking world, their first real exposure to the startling nature of ancient Mesoamerican civilization. Church members were excited by this new evidence, supporting previously ridiculed notions that now made sense. The Saints' newspaper, the Times and Seasons, published long excerpts from the book. An 1848 editorial comment exults about the significance of Stephens’ work:
Stephens’s late discoveries in Central America of Egyptian hieroglyphics, great numbers of which he has given in his drawings, and published in his able book of that curious region, and the still later discovery of many thousands of mummies in the caverns of Mexico, similar to those of Ancient Egypt, are evidences so pointed, that Ancient America must have been peopled from the highly civilized nations of Asia, that the learned are at last convinced of the fact. The unlearned, however, have got the start of the learned in this instance, for they found it out about nineteen years ago through the medium of the Book of Mormon. The Latter-Day Saints Millennial Star. Volume X, p. 343.
Apostle Orson Pratt, writing later in 1849, responded to a criticism of his excitement over the work of Stephens. A anonymous merchant pointed out that Humboldt and others had written of similar things long before. Pratt, like LDS apologists today, recognized that there was prior knowledge in this area: “Now no one will dispute the fact that the existence of antique remains in different parts of America was known long before Mr. Smith was born. But every well-informed person knows that the most of the discoveries made by Catherwood and Stephens were original – that the most of the forty-four cities described by [Stephens] had not been described by previous travelers.” “Reply to a Pamphlet Printed in Glasgow, Entitled, “Remarks on Mormonism,” part 3. Millennial Star, Vol. 11, No. 8, 15 April 1849, pp. 115-116. There is no evidence that Joseph Smith had seen von Humboldt's writings or Ethan Smith’s work, View of the Hebrews, that cited some of von Humboldt, and if he did and were fabricating his text, he clearly failed to take advantage of the numerous details that could have been used to strengthen the case for plausibility (see my note, “The Book of Mormon and the Writings of Alexander von Humboldt”). For the typical American, it was Stephens, not Humboldt or others before 1830, who opened up the vision of Mesoamerica as a place where great ancient civilizations once existed. Stephens' biographer gave us an important insight into the impact of Stephens’ work:
The acceptance of an "Indian civilization" demanded, to an American living in 1839 [when the first edition of Stephens appeared in England], an entire reorientation, for to him, an Indian was one of those barbaric, tepee dwellers against whom wars were constantly waged.... Nor did one ever think of calling the other [e.g., Mesoamerican] indigenous inhabitants of the continent "civilized." In the universally accepted opinion [of that day], they were like their North American counterparts -- savages." (Victor Wolfgang Von Hagen, Maya Explorer: The Life of John Lloyd Stephens, Norman, Oklahoma: University of Oklahoma Press, 1948, p. 75, as cited by John L. Sorenson, "How Could Joseph Smith Write So Accurately about Ancient American Civilization?")
As Mr. S. observes, there also were people who had written about some of the ancients writing on metal. But this knowledge, had by some scholars, was not widely known by any means and is very unlikely to have been known by Joseph Smith or his associates. There is no evidence, for example, that Joseph Smith had access to the Jahn’s book, which does not appear to have been available in the nearby Manchester Library. Do we have any critics in the 1830s pointing to von Humboldt or Jahn as sources that Joseph must have used to add plausibility to props in his story? Do we find them noting that ancient writing of scripture on metal plates per se was a plausible notion Smith had derived from earlier sources? No, we find them guffawing at every turn. From what I’ve seen, among the many reactions of early critics to the story of gold plates, we find shock, dismay, outrage, sarcasm, righteous indignation, scorn, mocking, and related rejections. What I have not seen is the least acknowledgment of plausibility in the external physical trappings of the Book of Mormon story. For example. we do not find learned critics admitting that ancient peoples in the New World could have written sacred texts on metal plates and buried their record in stone boxes as Joseph described, particularly if they had ties to the Old World where such practices were well known. We do not find critics dismissing Joseph’s story as an obvious build on established knowledge about ancient writing on metal plates.

Again, what Mr. S. fails to recognize is that neither I nor Nibley are arguing that nobody knew about ancient writing on metal. Neither do we argue that Joseph Smith could not possibly have known that writing on metal was known in the ancient world. We argue that this was not common knowledge, and that the basic concepts were rejected and ridiculed, along with everything about the Book of Mormon – a book that has become less ridiculous with time. Remember, Stephens’ biographer wrote that prior to publication of Stephens’ work in 1839 cause “an entire reorientation” in the minds of Americans, who viewed the native inhabitants of the continent as mere savages.

After 1839, as educated people became more aware of the extensive civilization of ancient Mesoamerica, there was still little recognition outside the Church that such findings might shed favorable light on the Book of Mormon. Critics still condemned it as utterly implausible. An intriguing exception in the reaction of journalists outside the Church to the Book of Mormon comes from The New Yorker, edited by Horace Greeley. On Dec. 12, 1840, there was an article in which a writer under the name of Josephine, believed to be the daughter of General Charles Sanford, a New York lawyer and military figure (according to Donald Q. Cannon, “In the Press: Early Newspaper Reports on the Initial Publication of the Book of Mormon,” Journal of Book of Mormon Studies, Vol. 16, No. 1, 2007, pp. 4-15, see footnote 51). This was later reprinted in the Iowa Territorial Gazette, Feb. 3, 1841. After a fair-minded description of the Book of Mormon, Josephine refers to recent discoveries about Mesoamerica, apparently referencing the work of Stephens:
If on comparison it appears that these characters are similar to those recently discovered on those ruins in Central America, which have attracted so much attention lately, and which are decidedly of Egyptian architecture, it will make a very strong point for Smith. It will tend to prove that the plates are genuine, even if it does not establish the truth of his inspiration, or the fidelity of his translation. . . .
Josephine and The New Yorker do not seem to be aware that knowledge of ancient hieroglyphic-like writing in ancient Mesoamerican civilizations was common knowledge before publication of the Book of Mormon, and seem to view the knowledge brought by Stephens’ works as something that is novel.

If the stout criticism of Mr. S. adequately describes the basic knowledge readily accessible to young Joseph Smith about Mesoamerica and the record keeping practices of the ancients, we might expect an educated Josephine to have written about the obvious plagiarism of prior sources.

As for the idea of ancient Hebrews writing on metal plates, critics now insist that there were plenty of sources that Joseph could have drawn upon for the idea. While a mention of “tables” or tablets” of metal need not conjure up the notion of a book on thin metal leaves, there certainly are references in the Bible and elsewhere to words recorded on metal. However, this seems to have done little to reduce the general hostility to the notion of a record like the Book of Mormon, which still seems to have been “too funny for words,” in spite of the various sources cited by Mr. S. Do we find early critics recognizing the relevance of those sources and thereby finding an attempt by Smith to conjure up an air of plausibility in the alleged physical record itself? I would appreciate any citations for such, but I have found none. In searching for early critical reactions to the gold plates, using Google Books, I found nothing that would allow for any degree of plausibility in the account. Most critics guffaw and speak of blasphemy and spiritual error, but a few do address the props themselves.

The learned Reverend M. T. Lamb in “The Golden Bible, or, The Book of Mormon: Is It From God?” (New York: Ward and Drummond, 1887), p. 11, comes to this forceful conclusion:
But after a very careful study of the book, a conscientious and painstaking examination of all the evidence he has been able to gather both for and against it, the author of these pages has been forced to reject every one of the above claims. He is compelled to believe that no such people as are described in the Book of Mormon ever lived upon this continent; that no such records were ever engraved upon golden plates, or any other plates, in the early ages; that no such men as Mormon or Moroni or any other of the prophets or kings or wise men mentioned in the book, ever existed in this country; that Jesus Christ never appeared upon this continent in person, or had a people here before its discovery by Columbus. In short, that no such civilization, Christian or otherwise, as is described in the Book of Mormon had an existence upon either North or South America.
No such records were ever engraved upon plates of gold or other metals. He doesn’t seem to be hinting that the basic idea of records on metal plates was well known and plausible, albeit a pious fraud in Joseph’s case. No, the very concept of such props is absolutely rejected – almost as if it were too funny for words.

Stuart Martin, writing in 1920, says that no one pointed out to young Joseph that gold would corrode if left buried so long, ridiculing the concept of preserving a text on buried gold plates. (Mystery of Mormonism, printed by Kessinger Publishing, 2003, p. 27).

In 1857, the critic John Hyde, Jr. specifically argued that the idea of ancient Hebrews writing on metal plates was implausible. In Mormonism: Its Leaders and Designs (New York: W.P. Fetridge, 1857, pp. 217-218), we read this:
The plates. We must remember that it is a Hebrew youth, who “has lived at Jerusalem all his days,” until he leaves for “the wilderness.” . . . The writing materials then in use, and it was only very few who could use them, would be those such a youth would be familiar with. Now the Jews did not use plates of brass at that time. Their writing materials were
1. Tablets smeared with wax.
2. Linen rubbed with a kind of gum.
3. Tanned leather and vellum.
4. Parchment (invented by Attalus of Pergamos).
5. Papyrus. (M. Sturat, O. Test. Can.)

All the writings of the Jews long anterior and subsequent to Zedekiah were in rolls. (Isa., xxxiv. 4; Jer. xxxvi. 25; Ezek., iii 9, 10l Ps. xl. 7; Zech. v. 1, etc., etc.) These rolls were chiefly parchment and papyrus. . . . The use of this material superseded the stones filled with lead (Job), Hesiods leaden tables, Solon’s wooden planks, the wax tables, so clumsy and easily erased. This material rolled up could be bound with flax and sealed. . . . The Jews used this material. The Egyptians, whose language Nephi gives his father, used this material. Contradiction and inconsistency are stamped on any other assertion. This is another strong proof of imposture.
Jabs about the plates continue:
The genealogies were kept by public registrars and were written in Hebrew on rolls of papyrus and parchment, not on plates, nor in the Egyptian language. They were very extensive, embracing all members of the family, and were sacredly preserved. . . . This mass of names, embracing from Joseph, son of Jacob, down to Lehi, even though they had been, as pretended, engraved on brass plates, would have formed an immense volume and a great weight. (p. 219)

To have told one of those old Levites, specifically punctilious and even superstitious, that some one had copied their law in the language of the Egyptians (idolaters and enemies) in the first place, and had it durably engraved on brass, when they were handling so delicately these papyrus rolls, would have called it an infamous imposture. Every wise man will imitate the skepticism of that Levite. (p. 220)

All this vast mass of matter, it is pretended, was on these singular brass plates: the Pentateuch, history, prophecies, and of course the Psalms, for was not David a prophet? Add to all this the genealogies of their families ever since Abraham! One man could never have carried it all. (p. 221-222)
Michael Ash also cites LaRoy Sunderland'a pamphlet, Mormonism Exposed and Refuted (Piercy & Reed Printers, New York, 1838), for these two quotes:
The book of Mormon purports to have been originally engraved on brass plates.... How could brass be written on? (p. 44)

This book speaks... of the Jewish Scriptures, having been kept by Jews on plates of brass, six hundred years before Christ. The Jews never kept any of their records on plates of brass. (p. 46)
As for the general claim that LDS apologists have been claiming that no one could have known of ancient writing on metal plates in Joseph Smith’s day, see "An Apologist for the Critics: Brent Lee Metcalfe's Assumptions and Methodologies - A Review of 'Apologetic and Critical Assumptions about Book of Mormon Historicity' by Brent Lee Metcalfe" by William J. Hamblin, FARMS Review of Books, Volume 6, Issue 1, 1994, pp. 434-523. In the section, “The Question of Negative Proof,” Hamblin takes Metcalfe to task for stating, as Mr. S. does, that “Apologists have asserted that Smith and contemporaries could not have known that some ancient peoples engraved on metallic plates.” This is a distortion of what Nibley and many others have stated, and Hamblin provides their quotes to illustrate that. Cheesman could have been more clear and precise, certainly, but the righteous indignation of Mr. S. may not be fully justified.

So where do we stand? We Latter-day Saints need to be more clear, perhaps, that there was information about ancient writing on metal that Joseph Smith could have known about. And it's theoretically possible he could have been on the cutting edge of knowledge about Mesoamerica before he encountered Stephens' work. But in spite of the diverse tidbits of knowledge in various arcane sources before 1830, there is still no dispute that Joseph's story of ancient gold plates was ridiculed and most certainly WAS NOT recognized as having any hint of plausibility. The props as well as the story were dismissed as outrageous. Several references above, found by searching through Google Books with some important leads from Hamblin's article, "An Apologist for the Critics: Brent Lee Metcalfe's Assumptions and Methodologies," provide evidence of learned people dismissing the idea of ancient Hebrews or others having kept such records. (Update: Michael Ash has some of the same finds and additional useful sources in his article, "Metal Plates & Stone Boxes.")

I hope that Mr. S. will gratefully receive this little ransom payment and release his captives, or at least give them a fair-minded retraction of some of the hostile claims he has been feeding them. If not, I hope that some he has influenced might see this and recognize that there might be another side to the stories they have heard.

Sunday, August 09, 2009

"Whither Shall I Go for Ore?" - Another Subtle Requirement for Bountiful's THREE Excellent Candidates

Among the many shreds of allegedly non-existent evidence in favor of the authenticity of the Book of Mormon, some of the recent finds in the Arabian Peninsula are perhaps the most amazing. I've previously discussed the exciting finds related to the Valley of Lemuel and the River Laman, Shazer, Nahom, and Bountiful. The latter place, named for having a local abundance of fruit and honey, has excellent candidates on the eastern coast of Oman, nearly due east of the ancient burial site Nahom, as the Book of Mormon describes. Today I'd like to discuss one of the subtle aspects of evidence in favor of Bountiful on the eastern coast of the Arabian Peninsula: the scarcity and existence of iron ore.

In 1 Nephi 17:9, Nephi begins his task of building a ship, according to instructions from the Lord, with a telling request: "Lord, whither shall I go that I may find ore to molten, that I may make tools to construct the ship?" This simple plea says much. Not only does it speak of Nephi's humility, obedience, and faith, it also implies that Nephi was skilled enough in metallurgy or metalworking that he knew he could make iron tools if he could just be pointed to some suitable ore. The Lord did in fact guide him and he did make tools, so we can also conclude that a suitable site for Bountiful in the Arabian Peninsula not only has the trees, fruit, and (implicitly) water required by the text, but also iron ore.

You may have noticed the exciting news about the discovery of iron ore in the vicinity of the excellent candidates for Bountiful. See the powerful article by Ron Harris, "Lord, Whither Shall I Go that I May Obtain ore?" at LDSMAG.org. Ron Harris describes the trip of a geological team to the Salalah Coast in Dhofar on the eastern coast of Oman, a region that could be reached by Nephi, in my opinion, from any of the THREE lading candidates for Bountiful: Wadi Sayq, Khor Rori, and most recently, Mughsayl. Haven't heard of Mughsayl yet? See Wm. Revell Phillips, "Mughsayl: Another Candidate for Land Bountiful" (that's a PDF file - the report is also available in HTML without the impressive figures) in Journal of Book of Mormon Studies, 2007, Vol. 16, No. 2, pp. 48-59.

The discovery of iron ore in the region was something of a miracle, in the opinion of Brother Harris, for Arabia has very little ore and in spite of previous geological surveys in the region, no iron ore had been found. Yet they were able to find some right away. More surprisingly, the ore was of an unusual nature that would allow smelting to be done at a lower than normal temperature, allowing Nephi to process it using a wood fire:
What seemed at first as an overwhelming task of trying to find a ‘needle in a haystack’ turned out to be a windfall of discovery. Why had the other geologists who had recently explored the region in detail missed these occurrences of mineralization? This is a question we still do not have an answer for. We carefully mapped and sampled the occurrences over the course of several days, then shared our observations with the Ministry of Mines of Oman. They confirmed that these ore bodies were new discoveries and are now planning to explore them further.

Geochemical analysis of samples of the veins indicate they mostly consist of minerals known as limonite and ferroan dolomite, which have many unique properties that make it possible, ‘to molten’ the ore as described by Nephi. These properties include a naturally occurring mixture of iron and carbonate. Carbonate acts as a natural flux that lowers the melting point of iron to temperatures that are most likely achievable with a wood fire and bellows. We tested the process to make certain it was possible by crushing samples and mixing them with carbon, then heating them to 1100° C (2012° F). After a few hours the samples were transformed into sponge-iron, which is a brittle form of iron that can be further refined by a combination of heating and pounding. The samples were essentially ‘molten’ and it would have been possible to forge them into tools. It appears from the scriptural text that Nephi already knew how to do this, which is consistent with his having a metal bow (I Nephi 16:18).

Yes, that's amazing and wonderful news. But I'd like to also call attention to one subtle implication of Nephi's request. While the Book of Mormon indicates that usable iron ore must be present in the region of Bountiful on the eastern coast of the Arabian Peninsula, Nephi's request also implies that it wasn't easy for him to find. He obviously hadn't spotted any as they came into the region, and he felt that he would need divine guidance to find it. As Wm. Revell Phillips observes in his thorough description of the region in "Mughsayl: Another Candidate for Land Bountiful," iron ore is genuinely scarce because the geology of the region is dominated by young limestone, but there are places where ore can be found:
Nephi made only one request of the Lord, so far as we know. Where could he find ore to make shipbuilding tools? Perhaps he could have purchased such tools at Khor Rori, or perhaps not, and surely Lehi had brought basic tools, like a hammer and axe, from Jerusalem. Whatever access he may have had, Nephi chose to make his own tools and, having the ore, seemed to know how to proceed. Perhaps only a geologist would understand the sincere need for divine help, as relatively young limestone layers (Tertiary and Cretaceous) are the surface rocks over nearly all the Dhofar province. Only where these limestone layers have been stripped away by erosion is there a real possibility of finding ore, and the only large area of such "basement" exposure is the Marbat Plain, east of Marbat between Jabal Samhan and the Arabian Sea. On a geologic map (figure 15), the "basement" rock stands out in bold colors, contrasting sharply with the monotonous color representing the youthful limestone, but Nephi had no such map. Only the Marbat Plain and a tiny exposure of basement rock at a small wadi between Raykut and Mughsayl are likely to yield ore, and iron ore is, indeed, present at both locations, not enough for an iron industry, but far more than adequate for Nephi's needs.

It's such a subtle detail, but the candidates for Bountiful on the eastern coast of the Arabian Peninsula fulfill the Book of Mormon requirement that useful iron ore not only be available but also be scarce enough to require divine direction to find.

It's amazing enough that places can be found that come anywhere close to matching the general requirements for the place Bountiful. "Common knowledge" in Joseph Smith's day might suggest that the Arabian Peninsula, as we've all see in the movies, is a place of endless desert but certainly no place that anyone could call Bountiful. As increasing evidence mounts for the bulls-eye nature of First Nephi's description of a journey through the Arabian Peninsula, critics, rather than ridiculing the account, can be increasingly expected to sift through mountains of text to find scattered bits and pieces to support a new hypothesis that the description of this journey was "obvious" and easily forged by Joseph Smith and his resourceful team, relying upon his vast frontier library and world-wide network of scholars.

That memo has gone out, but was sent a little too late to help some anti-Mormon authors. For example, last week as I was perusing the highly touted and allegedly scholarly treatise of Richard Abanes, One Nation Under Gods (New York: Four Walls Eight Windows, 2002), I found this pithy statement (p. 74): "Consider, too, the problem in 1 Nephi 17:5, which describes Arabia as being 'bountiful' because of its fruit and wild honey. The fact is that Arabia has never had bountiful supplies of either fruit or honey. The BOM also speaks of a river in Arabia named Laman continually flowing to the Red Sea (1 Nephi 2:6-9), yet there has never been such river in Arabia. [sic]" (Memo to Richard: Fruit and honey in Salalah must have been common knowledge. A simple-minded extrapolation from Felix Arabia, no doubt. Country folks in Joseph's day surely knew about the river with year-long flow into the Red Sea a few days' south of Jerusalem - don't let George Potter get away with claiming it as a big discovery [PDF]. Didn't Herodotus or Homer or someone hint at that? Too easy for our plagiarist! Please revise your 2nd edition accordingly. Oh, and regarding iron ore: duh, iron is what the core of the earth is made from. Iron must be everywhere. Trivial. Get the word out.)

Such discoveries, interesting as they may seem, don't prove that Joseph Smith was a prophet or that the Book of Mormon was true. However, they do suggest that whoever wrote First Nephi had knowledge of the Arabian Peninsula that appears to have transcended what scholars accessible to Joseph Smith could have known in that day - not to mention transcending what highly educated people could have known until recently in ours. This makes First Nephi more interesting than ever, and less easy to explain as a pious fraud by a silly con-man drawing upon common knowledge and local books and newspapers of his day. That's all. Don't get too excited - it's just a little piece of data to include in your ponderings.

Saturday, August 08, 2009

How Sacrificing a Few Hours for Temple Service Saved My Laser Doppler Paper

Strange title for today's post, but it's true. In 1984, as a young graduate student, I was busy preparing a paper for a cool conference in Lisbon, Portugal on "laser doppler anemometry" (LDA) - a technique in which laser light is used to map out the velocity of dust particles in flowing gas or liquid to reveal the flow characteristics of a system. I had a lot of data in the simulated pulverized coal gasification system I was studying and had to solve a few thorny problems in the work. I was so excited about the opportunity to attend a major international LDA conference (Lisbon!) - if I could get my paper in on time. I was racing toward a deadline with about two or three days to go, when my ward asked me if I could spend a few hours the next morning to help with a service project at the Provo Temple. I thought about that prayerfully and deciced, painfully, that I really was needed and had a duty to go, but was worried about the impact of the sacrifice, for time was of the essence and I had much to do to wrap up the paper. But I went.

While at the Temple, it was actually refreshing to get away from my obsession with that paper and all the number crunching. But I hoped it would turn out OK, and took a moment to pray for help to get it done right. While sitting there in a session, I thought of my paper from a different angle, and began mentally reviewing one of the key equations I had been using -- and then it hit me. In deriving a form of that equation for my needs, I had introduced a subtle but serious math error. Right there in my paper, and right there in the program I had written to extract information about the noise in the laser data. AARGH! But it was something that could be fixed rapidly, and I could rerun the data, and redo a graph, and have everything fixed in time, and I did, just barely, but successfully. Whew!

I believe that if I had not gone to the Temple, I would have plowed ahead with what I had and submitted a paper with a major error - an error that affected some important conclusions. The error would have gone unnoticed until the middle of my presentation, when one of the exports familiar with the issue of noise calculations would have asked why I was using an incorrect equation? And then asked if that equation was what was used in my analysis? And then undoubtedly had me tarred and feathered, Portugese style (something with hot olive oil, I suppose).

Much of my life has been like that (not the tarring and feathering, but the unexpected blessings from the Lord). The answer to my unquestionable incompetence sometimes (not always) seems to be doing my duty, making sacrifices for the right things, and letting the Lord help me fix my problems in ways that transcend my feeble skills. (Proofreading also helps.) Maybe part of it is that when I'm trying to do what's right, my worldly failures don't seem so painful, but I think there's more to it than that.

In living the Gospel, what strikes us as a painful sacrifice is often an opportunity to grow and sometimes even to be overtly blessed. Don't count on it - it's not an exchange, not something we earn, not a deal we cut with the Lord. It's always grace, according to His will. Sometimes when we are thrown into the fire, we really burn. Other times we are miraculously delivered. But the right thing is do always choose Him, sacrifice when He calls for it, and trust that He will help us, regardless of the apparent cost we must bear to do what is right.

Friday, August 07, 2009

Fireproof: Interesting Movie with Christian Themes

Based on a recommendation from a friend, my wife rented the movie Fireproof, which deals with a strained marriage in which a troubled, temperamental fireman learns to sacrifice his pride (and his porn) to save his marriage, allowing God to transform him and ultimately his wife. The movie has its weaknesses and corny moments, but actually provides some excellent thought-provoking material and is highly uplifting. Could even save a few marriages. Unlike the vast majority of popular movies these days, it's one that is likely to make your life better.

I didn't realize it was a "church" movie until well into the film, when I suddenly encountered the cinematic shocker of a positive character actually talking about God and Christ (unlike the typical Hollywood depiction of Gospel-folk who turn out to be child molesters, pension thieves, and racial bigots). The PG rating ("Protestant Group"?) should have been "R" for "religion" to warn people, especially the easily offended, but I got over that and actually appreciated it.

The major weakness with the movie was the acting, especially in the opening scenes. I'm afraid that the actor playing the fireman probably is a genuine, sincere Christian with too little experience in being a total self-absorbed jerk, and thus struggled to compete with some of the experts in Hollywood. The fight scene with his wife was just way over the top and too canned - it seemed obvious that this wasn't natural for him. Should have had a personality double to handle that. But when it came to overcoming sin and especially to asking his wife for forgiveness, he was perfect - very well done.

Sunday, August 02, 2009

Victims by Richard Turley

For those interested in understanding the complexities of the infamous Salamander Letter and the tragic events caused by the criminal Mark Hofmann, you may be pleased to know that much of Richard E. Turley, Jr.'s book, Victims: The LDS Church and the Mark Hoffman Case (Urbana, Illinois: University of Illinois Press, 1992), can be read online at Google Books. Chapter 5, for example, helps clarify the actions of the Church regarding the Salamander letter and also the equally fraudulent letter to Josiah Stowell. Also a topic I discuss on my LDSFAQ page on prophets.