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

Monday, June 23, 2014

No, the Strangite Witnesses Are Not Strong Parallels to the Book of Mormon Witnesses

In my last post, Lawyers, Inc. vs. Faith, some folks suggested that the import of the Book of Mormon witnesses is lessened by the imitative adventure of James Strang and his witnesses who observed the non-miraculous existence of some much less valuable non-precious metal plates. Ironically, it's a fitting comparison to make since Strang himself was a lawyer and his exploits illustrate some of the things that skilled lawyers or other highly educated people can do when they seek to affect (as in misdirect) the faith of others.

Strang claimed that Joseph Smith had appointed him to be his successor, and showed some people a letter that he claimed was a letter of appointment from Joseph. There's no evidence I know of that Joseph ever said or advocated this, apart from Strang's letter. If the letter was a forgery, as seems highly probable, the tiny low-value plates lack evidence of being anything more than that. But wait, he had witnesses! Just like the witnesses to the gold plates, right? No, not like those witnesses.

Strang's witnesses first saw tiny plates that had been buried and dug out of the ground by the witnesses at a spot where Strang prophesied they would be found. But no one doubts that some metal plates existed, for they were not clearly miraculous and not beyond the abilities of that educated man to fabricate or hire out. Gold plates in the hands of Joseph Smith are quite a different matter, and it was gold that the witnesses saw, not the same common metal used in teaware and other items of his day. What the Eight Witnesses experienced already trumps Strang's imitative work, but nothing in his portfolio can even begin to compare with the sheer miraculous power of what the Three Witnesses experienced and affirmed throughout their lives: gold plates and other sacred relics, shown by a majestic angel, his feet not touching the ground, and then the voice of God adding to the witness of divinity. The witnesses of the gold plates testify to the physical tangible reality of the plates under ordinary light and also under miraculous circumstances. Both settings are important. 

For Strang, seeking to obtain the same credentials as Joseph, imitating the discovery of plates was a "smart move" for this lawyer, but for Joseph, announcing the discovery of ancient writings on metal plates was ridiculous. Remember, Joseph showed his witnesses the gold plates many decades before the Darius plates and other ancient records on gold and other metal plates would be found. This was decades before the Mesoamerican practice of using stone boxes to preserve sacred items would be known. This was over a decade before the reality of ancient civilization in Mesoamerica would become widely known to the public (Humboldt and a few others notwithstanding). Strang was the imitator, Joseph was the groundbreaker, and importantly, what the witnesses testified to was quite different and has remarkably different meaning.

Strang's witnesses can be taken at face value, at least regarding the existence of the plates, though unlike Joseph's witnesses, not all would remain convinced that the story of the find was something grander than a man-made fraud. Yes, they saw something. Yes, it was made out of metal--apparently a common metal. Yes, there were some writings on the plates. Tiny plates, much smaller than the gold plates. But taking their witnesses at face value does not imply a divine origin for the plates or a divine call for Strang.

Strang, the educated lawyer, having impressed his witnesses with the buried plates, proceeded to "translate" them. The translation took roughly a decade--not bad, but that's a pace that pales with Joseph's rapid work of dictating the translation, unaided by other resources according to his scribes and others.

Strang, a lawyer seeking to provide evidence that he should be revered as a leader like Joseph, would translate his plates and strive to gain followers. But the story dwindles after that, while the evidences for the reality and plausibility of the Book of Mormon continue to grow in many ways. Those evidences include many witnesses who experienced both miraculous manifestations and mundane evidence for the tangible reality and divine origins of the sacred record, an ancient, Semitic record engraved on gold plates (or, more likely, a gold alloy such as the gold-copper alloy known as tumbaga that was widely used in ancient Mesoamerica, much lighter than gold itself, and which would give a stack of thin plates with Book of Mormon dimensions weighing about 60 pounds, as one of the witnesses recorded regarding their weight).

Daniel Peterson summarizes the case of the Strang witnesses in his 2006 FAIR Conference presentation on the tangible nature of the Restoration (an important essay - please read it):
The first set, the three "Voree" or "Rajah Manchou" plates, were dug up by four "witnesses" whom Strang had brought to the appropriate site. Inscribed on both sides with illustrations and "writing," the Rajah Manchou plates were roughly 1.5 by 2.75 inches in size--small enough to fit in the palm of a hand or to carry in a pocket. Among the many who saw them was Stephen Post, who reported that they were brass and, indeed, that they resembled the French brass used in familiar kitchen kettles. "With all the faith & confidence that I could exercise," he wrote, "all that I could realize was that Strang made the plates himself, or at least that it was possible that he made them." One not altogether reliable source reports that most of the four witnesses to the Rajah Manchou plates ultimately repudiated their testimonies. The eighteen "Plates of Laban," likewise of brass and each about 7 3/8 by 9 inches, were first mentioned in 1849 and, in 1851, were seen by seven witnesses. Their testimony appeared at the front of The Book of the Law of the Lord, which Strang said he translated from the "Plates of Laban." (Work on the translation seems to have begun at least as early as April 1849. An 84-page version appeared in 1851; by 1856, it had reached 350 pages .) The statement of Strang's witnesses speaks of seeing the plates, but mentions nothing of any miraculous character. Nor did Strang supply any second set of corroborating testimony comparable to that of the Three Witnesses to the Book of Mormon. One of the witnesses to the "Plates of Laban," Samuel P. Bacon, eventually denied the inspiration of Strang's movement and denounced it as mere "human invention." Another, Samuel Graham, later claimed that he had assisted Strang in the fabrication of the "Plates of Laban." The well-read Strang had been an editor and lawyer before his brief affiliation with the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and his subsequent career as a schismatic leader. Thus, Strang's plates were much less numerous than those associated with Joseph Smith, his witnesses saw nothing supernatural, his translation required the better part of a decade rather than a little more than two months, and, unlike the Witnesses to the Book of Mormon, Strang's witnesses did not remain faithful to their testimonies. [footnotes omitted]
Whatever you think of James Strang and his plates, he and his witnesses do not lessen the evidence provided by the Three Witnesses nor that from the Eight Witnesses and others for the reality of the gold plates of the Book of Mormon.

Unfortunately, the critics can't see a difference. As one put it in the comments section on my last post,
Oh, the Strangite one is my favorite. Has nearly the exact same arguments for its validity as Mormonism, but we can dismiss Strangite testimonies because, well, for all the reasons we can dismiss Mormon testimonies.

I'm sure Jeff is 100% aware of it, too. It just doesn't click. The brain doesn't work on logic when there are huge emotional barriers.
This is not a difficult issue, IMHO. The reasons for not accepting James Strang's work as divine based on the weak evidence from the Strangite witnesses have little bearing on the Book of Mormon. The two cases do not involve "the exact same arguments." The Strangite witnesses are not parallels to the miraculous evidence from Book of Mormon witnesses. They do not provide the consistent, passionate, and lifelong credibility we have with the gold plates from men who often had much to lose and nothing to gain by standing as witnesses, even after falling away from the institutional Church. The Strangite witnesses are much more easily understood as men who actually saw real, fabricated plates, having been duped for a while by a skilled and well-read lawyer with a scheme to imitate Joseph. This does nothing to explain the origins of what Strang sought to imitate. Emotional barriers are not the issue here.

It's one thing to show some people a little set of plates carefully buried in the ground. It's quite another thing to have a majestic angel present them, and then, to remove all doubts from religious hysteria and frenzied minds, to have men under ordinary light see and handle actual gold plates that Joseph could not plausibly have fabricated. Joseph the uneducated farmboy wins this round against the skilled lawyer, and so do his witnesses.

Tuesday, June 17, 2014

Lawyers, Inc. vs. Faith

My sophomore English class at Brighton High School was a disaster. The school was using a failed but trendy new system where hundreds of kids were in a big open space and split up into rotating groups, moving every few weeks from one teacher to another for different pathetic units that supposedly taught us English while we watched lame movies or engaged in other dull "labs" or whatever. Felt like chaos. Like block scheduling and other ill-informed experiments that sometimes advance administrators more than students, whatever we were doing there couldn't possibly make us better at reading, writing, or grammar (a dreaded g-word that is almost as despised in American schools as that other G-word).

The demographics of the school were pretty good. Lots of suburban kids from generally healthy families in the southern extremes of Salt Lake City. In theory should have been a pretty tame group of kids, though there were some rough elements (I have a scar as a reminder of that from one of my most traumatic stories in 7th grade). Demographics notwithstanding, big, unwieldy groups without much structure can be a recipe for trouble. One day as the mass of classes in the open "pod" were dismissing, a student got into a loud argument with a teacher. Kids gathered around to watch. There were dozens of observers with quite a few nearby eye-witnesses who watched the shouting escalate into physical violence as the student grabbed the teacher near the neck. The teacher, possibly applying some improperly understood scene from a kung-fu movie, attempted to break the student's hold by thrusting his hands upward, but with his thumbs sticking out so he caught the student's arms with his thumbs. This broke the hold and both thumbs. Ouch.

The student was prosecuted for physical assault. Dozens saw it happen. I think it was just grabbing and shaking the teacher, not actual choking, though I don't remember that clearly now--it's recorded somewhere in my journals if I want to review the story. But it was definitely a physical attack of some kind and the student was clearly the perpetrator. He was convicted. However, he came close to escaping legal punishment. I was apparently the only witness during the trial that was able to withstand the questioning of the defense attorney.

My father sat in on the trial and told me what happened to the multiple other witnesses who came in. One by one, a skillful lawyer was able to pick at little details in their story and find gaps, uncertainties, and apparent contradictions and use them to create mountains of doubt. Things like, "You said there were 5 people in front of you, and now you are saying you had an unobstructed view? You first said the teacher was wearing plaid, and now you say it was a white shirt. If you are so wrong about all these basics, are you sure you saw anything at all? Earlier you said this lasted five minutes, but now you are saying it happened so quickly and was only a few seconds. Were you even paying attention at all?" In the end, according to my father, the room full of witnesses was essentially reduced to one. Had it been a better lawyer or a more complex event, I'm sure he could have tripped me up as well.

Lawyers can be great at what they do, but in a court setting, their objective is not to discover the truth, but to represent a client, sometimes at all costs. I see the mind and tactics of lawyers in some of the recent anti-Mormon attempts to attack and dismiss the vast body of scholarship and evidence from the many witnesses of the gold plates of the Book of Mormon. Taking mistakes in quotations, uncertainties in documentation, easily resolved apparent contradictions or errors, and turning them into mountain of doubt where there should be none. It is amazing what skilled lawyers can do to a body of witnesses, but that doesn't remove the reality of what they saw and in many cases handled. Richard L. Anderson's vast body of scholarship on their lives and integrity is dismissed out of hand as just a big book from a true-believer, without addressing the arguments and evidence. Nitpicking at minor issues is the name of the game, but it's a lawyer's game, not that of a seeker for truth. The consistent witnesses of the Book of Mormon deserve a lot more study and respect. They were far better and witnesses than what we had at Brighton High.

Update, June 18, 2014:

In my experience, many lawyers are men and women of integrity and some passionately seek for truth. I just noticed an intriguing example of this wherein one nineteenth century lawyer grilled one of the Three Witnesses to determine if their account might have been fabricated, delusional, imaginary, or otherwise less than real. It was a young lawyer's first cross-examination, sincere and intense. Daniel Peterson shares he account in his important essay, "Tangible Restoration: The Witnesses and What They Experienced" (presentation at the 2006 FAIR Conference):
The young James Henry Moyle, who had just received his law degree from the University of Michigan and was returning home to Utah, took a detour to Richmond, Missouri, for the sole purpose of interviewing David Whitmer. When he saw the Witness, he implored him to tell the truth. He told Whitmer of the sacrifices that his family had made for the gospel's sake, driven from state to state and finally pulling a handcart all the way to the arid desert of the Great Basin.
I said to him: "I was born and reared in the Church and I do pray of you to let me know if there is any possibility of your having been deceived. I am just commencing life as you are preparing to lay it down, and I beg of you to tell me if there is anything connected with the testimony which you have borne to the world that could possibly have been deceptive or misunderstood." I further said, in an earnest youthful appeal, that I didn't want to go through life believing in a falsehood, that it was in his power to make known the truth to me. His answer was unequivocal. There was no question about its truthfulness. The angel had stood in a little clear place in the woods with nothing between them but a fallen log—the angel on one side and the witnesses on the other. It had all occurred in broad, clear daylight. He saw the plates and heard the angel with unmistakable clearness.
"He was the first witness I ever attempted to cross examine," Moyle wrote many years later, "and I did so with all the intensity of my impelling desire to know the truth. The interview lasted two and one-half hours." The young lawyer, who subsequently served as assistant secretary of the treasury in two federal administrations, came away utterly convinced of David Whitmer's sincerity.
The witnesses to the plates insisted that what they had seen, heard, and in many cases touched and handled were real. Some critics, often relying on highly questionable hostile sources and neglecting the weight of scholarship on the topic, have attempted to suggest that the witnesses sort of imagined things and didn't actually see with their physical eyes or touch anything tangible. This revision of history utterly fails to explain the impressive historical record and the reality and sincerity of multiple lives standing as witnesses of what was and is real. Peterson's article helps summarize a few of the key points that have to be neglected by the critics in reaching that unwarranted conclusion.

Related resource: LDSFAQ Page on the Witnesses to the Book of Mormon.

Thursday, June 12, 2014

Scientific American Offers a Surprise Gift Just in Time for Father's Day: Maybe Dads Are Important After All, According to a New Study

In a world that seems zealously devoted to downplaying the importance of gender-related roles in the family, I welcome a surprising article recently published by Scientific American that reminds of something that ought to be obvious but no longer is: children generally do best when there is a mother and a father in their lives. Fathers count. Fatherhood is actually important, and it's not just ignorant, hateful Luddites living in a cave with their boxes of ammo and old Proposition 8 bumper stickers who say this. It's actually the voice of reason with at least a whisper from the voice of science, or at least the voice of someone who managed to get a decent article published on Scientific American's website. Still a gift I'm glad to accept.

The article is "How Dads Influence Teens' Happiness" by Paul Raeburn (May 1, 2014, Scientificamerican.com). The article is adapted from Raeburn's book, Do Fathers Matter?: What Science Is Telling Us About the Parent We've Overlooked.

In this article, Raeburn explains that some significant scientific research recently came up with the "surprising" finding that girls are much more vulnerable to risky sexual behaviors and teenage pregnancy if they do not have a father in their lives. Those who have a close relationship with a father in their early years are less likely to engage in risky behaviors. The key research was not done by fundamentalist Christians with an axe to grind, but by an evolutionary developmental psychologist seeking to know whether Charles Darwin's theory of natural selection can help explain how children's environments shape their development. What he found was more than just a correlation, but evidence of causation. Fathers play an important role and are needed in the lives of girls.

The article also explores some of the fuzzier aspects of fatherhood that also matter a lot:
As parents of teenagers understand, it is often hard to know how to respond to the crises, struggles, school challenges and social difficulties that are a normal part of the passage from childhood to adulthood. What we do matters—but it is so often hard to know what we should do. One key feature of good parenting, however, is to be accepting of teenagers, which again is often easier said than done—especially when they show up with a tattoo or call you from the principal's office.
Ronald P. Rohner of the University of Connecticut has spent some years looking at the consequences for children and teenagers of being either accepted or rejected by their parents. He thinks that parental acceptance influences important aspects of personality. Children who are accepted by their parents are independent and emotionally stable, have strong self-esteem and hold a positive worldview. Those who feel they were rejected show the opposite—hostility, feelings of inadequacy, instability and a negative worldview.
Rohner analyzed data from 36 studies on parental acceptance and rejection and found that they supported his theory. Both maternal and paternal acceptance were associated with these personality characteristics: A father's love and acceptance are, in this regard, at least as important as a mother's love and acceptance. That is not necessarily good news for fathers—it increases the demands on them to get this right. “The great emphasis on mothers and mothering in America has led to an inappropriate tendency to blame mothers for children's behavior problems and maladjustment when, in fact, fathers are often more implicated than mothers in the development of problems such as these,” Rohner says.
He also explores scientific research pointing to the importance of empathy from fathers.

Naturally, he adds a reminder that this is not intended to give guilt-trips to single mothers: 
The evidence shows that fathers make unique contributions to their children. It emphatically does not show that children in families without fathers in the home are doomed to failure or anything close to that. Although fathers matter, others can help fill that role [see “Build Your Own Family” on page 48]. We all know children who grew up in difficult circumstances but now live rich and rewarding lives.... Fatherhood is about helping children become happy and healthy adults, at ease in the world, and prepared to become fathers (or mothers) themselves. We often say that doing what is best for our kids is the most important thing we do. The new attention to fathers, and the research we have discussed here, should help all of us find our way.
 Happy Father's Day!

Sunday, June 08, 2014

Karen Trifiletti's Open Letter on the Ordain Women Movement and the Call to Give the Priesthood to Mormon Women

On my LDSFAQ page on LDS practices, I mention a newly published essay from an LDS woman I know and respect, Karen Trifiletti, who tackles some of the major assumptions in the Ordain Women movement.

Karen is a Philadelphia-born, second generation Italian, and an LDS convert since 1980 who describes herself as a "perfectly imperfect but graced follower of Christ." She is a mother of two, a writer, and a business professional. In "Open Letter to Kate Kelly, Ordain Women, and Questioning Onlookers" at LDS.net (2014), Karen discusses some of the critical assumptions behind the Ordain Women movement and in so doing, helps us better appreciate the current role of women in the Church and their future role in the Church and in the Kingdom of God. What follows is just a small portion of her response, this one dealing with what she labels as Assumption #3 in the Ordain Women movement.
Oppressive Patriarchy vs. Liberating Patriarchal Order

How about ASSUMPTION 3?:

Assumption: We have a patriarchy in which men make all the decisions and one sex is therefore oppressed.

This assumption comes up in various ways in Ordain Women venues.

First of all, it speaks directly to a point Hannah Wheelright made as she shared her very reasons for becoming part of Ordain Women. She was concerned when she read in Genesis that men "ruled over" women, and thought that being ordained to the priesthood would be the only way to level the playing field, as I understood her remarks. (I listened to them 3 times, but correct me if I misunderstood. There were related reasons shared as well, which are addressed here, and some which are not because they fall into the cultural discussion, which I think is a separate and important one.)

This is an unfortunate, blatant misunderstanding of doctrine, and was a significant factor in a leader of OW turning to ordination as the solution for the perceived inequity.

As Bruce C. Hafen, formerly of the Seventy, and his wife, Marie, explained:
Genesis 3:16 states that Adam is to 'rule over' Eve; 'rule over' uses the Hebrew bet, which means ruling 'with,' not ruling 'over.' … The concept of interdependent, equal partners is well-grounded in the doctrine of the restored gospel. Eve was Adam's 'help meet' (Genesis 2:18). The original Hebrew for meet means that Eve was adequate for, or equal to, Adam. She wasn't his servant or his subordinate.
This is also reflected on the OW website FAQ, as follows:
The Church's Proclamation on the Family declares that men preside over their wives and families, thus preserving an antiquated and unequal model in both the domestic and ecclesiastical realms.
The word, "presiding" here is misunderstood and implies "ruling over." This misconception allows women to think they need to set things right. Any woman who simply defers to her husband's every whim because he is male is not exercising the priesthood power she has, nor does she understand the doctrine as a point of order rather than of dominion. She has the ability to think, consult with, disagree with, and share her every consideration, and to have that be considered fully before a united decision is made.

As Glenn Pace stated, "Unfortunately, however, some look upon the patriarchal order as a monarchal order. The patriarchal order is not an authority of command, but a point of order" (Spiritual Plateaus, 75).

That's important doctrine and an important distinction. Patriarchal order isn't the eclipsing of women, nor is it a carryover from other cultures whose system is hierarchical or oppressive. Our view of the patriarchal order, and of marriage and relationships, is not hierarchical or gender-disequal. As Elder Richard G. Scott of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles said:
In some cultures, tradition places a man in a role to dominate, control, and regulate all family affairs. That is not the way of the Lord. In some places the wife is almost owned by her husband, as if she were another of his personal possessions. That is a cruel, mistaken vision of marriage encouraged by Lucifer that every priesthood holder must reject. It is founded on the false premise that a man is somehow superior to a woman. Nothing could be farther from the truth.
As Elder Earl C. Tingey, formerly of the Presidency of the Seventy, has said:
You must not misunderstand what the Lord meant when Adam was told he was to have a helpmeet. A helpmeet is a companion suited to or equal to [the other]. [They] walk side by side … not one before or behind the other. A helpmeet results in an absolute equal partnership between a husband and a wife. Eve was to be equal to Adam as a husband and wife are to be equal to each other.
If we turn to scripture, we see that the root for helpmeet in Hebrew is ezer. We read that word in Psalm 30:10, "O Lord be thou my helper." Sixteen times in the Old Testament it's used to reference God or Yahweh as the helper of His people. As Victor Hamilton notes, "Any suggestion that this particular word denotes one who has only an associate or subordinate status to a senior member is refuted by the fact that most frequently this same word describes Yahweh's relationship to Israel. He is Israel's help(er)" (The Book of Genesis: The International Commentary on the Old Testament, R.K. Harrison, ed., Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1990, 175).
"The patriarchal order is not an authority of command, but a point of order."
Do we have an equal voice and should we? Absolutely. Should our contributions be equally valued? Absolutely. And where they may not be, we have to address those voids culturally, as we are not yet perfect, any of us. But I'll address that, again, in a sequel. I'm speaking to the doctrine so we don't throw the baby out with the bathwater and hide behind the need for ordination when in instances following our foreordination as women is all that's needed. As Elder Perry affirmed: "There is not a president and vice president in a family. We have co-presidents working together eternally for the good of their family" (EnsignMay 2004). So the matriarch is equal to the patriarch, the woman equal to the man in value and capacity. And similarly, President Kimball noted, "We don't want our women to be silent partners or limited partners" (The Teachings of Spencer W. Kimball, ed. Edward L. Kimball, 1982, 315).

Holding an office in the Church organization isn't tantamount to having greater power and it isn't the solution to being ruled over, since being ruled over isn't the doctrine to begin with. Similarly, the person presiding as a point of order has no more power than the one presided with. A male presiding in a meeting has no more power than a woman speaking or a man speaking in that meeting. Power comes from doing our job with the Spirit of the Lord under the umbrella of the priesthood power of God which covers us all.

These OW statements and conclusions are based on misperceptions and are non-sequiturs, unless you hold a paradigm of functionally same equality, which if you look at answers to these assumptions, becomes a non-issue.

Again, there are instances where these principles are violated, and those clearly need to be addressed. But we change the culture by living the doctrine; we don't change the doctrine to undo misunderstandings of the Savior's teachings.
Karen makes many more important points in her article. Thanks, Karen!

I have to admit that I have a hard enough time understand the needs and concerns of men in the Church in spite of being one, so I'm certain that I'm tone deaf on many of the specific challenges sisters face. I've had some help from the very diverse perspectives that some of the women I'm close to have shared with me, and appreciate their input and their faith and patience. It's clear that men need to do a better job in listening to women and respecting their contributions, their input, their leadership, and their inspiration. We need more conversations and discussion to better appreciate what others face and feel. We also need to recognize that those who are effective in gaining publicity may not speak for a majority, and that there are women of high intelligence and faith who offer different perspectives also worth considering.