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

Monday, April 25, 2016

A Thought on Book of Mormon Origins

The full significance of Martin Harris's visit to Charles Anthon has been diminished in the way Latter-day Saints typically retell the story. A consequence of that visit was an apparent fulfillment of prophecy in Isaiah 29 when the learned scholar, Charles Anthon, declared that he could not "read a sealed book," after initially giving a favorable report to Martin Harris about the apparent ancient nature of the characters copied off the gold plates. We have since focused on the trip as fulfilling a prophecy and satisfying Martin Harris's doubts. But the real purpose of the lengthy journey to New York City and other stops was to find someone who could translated text. Significantly, at this time, Joseph did not yet know what language the plates were written in. Harris was not looking for a translator of Egyptian or reformed Egyptian (only European scholars could have provided any hope of translation from Egyptian at that time) or even some version of Hebrew. He may have been looking for experts in Native American languages.

A valuable resource on the details of Martin Harris's journey and its purpose is found in Michael Hubbard Mackay's chapter, '"Git Them Translated': Translating the Characters on the Gold Plates," in Approaching Antiquity: Joseph Smith and the Ancient World, ed. Lincoln H. Blumell, Matthew J. Grey, and Andrew H. Hedges (Provo, UT: Religious Studies Center, Brigham Young University, 2015), 83-116. This chapter has kindly been made available by the author at Academia.edu, but please buy the book (one of my most treasured recent acquisitions, loaded with great material).

Mackay's chapter needs to be read in combination with his new book, Michael Hubbard MacKay and Gerrit J. Dirkmaat, From Darkness unto Light, particularly chapter 3, which adds further details pointing to Joseph's initial desire to find a translator and showing that Joseph did not know what the characters were until he got information as a result of Harris's journey that suggested a connection with ancient Old World languages (specifically, his brother William Smith said that it was through Harris that Joseph would first learn that the script was some form of degenerate Hebrew mixed with Egyptian).

The more we learn about the details of the origins of the Book of Mormon and the translation process, the more we see a young, uneducated man discovering step by step what the treasure was that he had before him. He did not begin with a scheme to create something allegedly in an ancient Egyptian script that the would translate by the power of God. His initial desire was to find someone to do the translation, and he did not have any idea what language the script was. He would later learn that he had to translate, and during the translation he would learn that they were written in reformed Egyptian. This is not the fruit of a carefully worked out scheme, but more and more looks exactly like the kind of thing he and his witnesses testified of: an unlearned man doing something extraordinary with a genuine ancient text, miraculously preserved and miraculously translated.




Tuesday, April 19, 2016

General Conference and Immigration

I've been deeply touched by the emphasis on service to refugees being advocated by the Church during this recent General Conference. Related to that was the message from Elder Donald L. Hallstrom, "I Am a Child of God," which showed great love and appreciation for the powerful faith of new Saints in Liberia, where he and some other leaders were among the first to return to that nation after travel into the nation was again allowed after the recent Ebola crisis was over. The story of such faithful Saints who have memorized so much of scripture and so many hymns reminds me of the immigrants and converts among the Nephite nation, the former Lamanites who called themselves Anti-Nephi-Lehites after conversion. Though given lands of inheritance, they were outsiders, cut off from their former culture and not really part of the new one. It seems that they turned to God and the scriptures for their support, developing their own Zion-based culture, producing families of great faith who would be a great blessing to the Nephites. I think we can look to Africa for great blessings and miracles in our own future.

Immigration and loss of roots is an ongoing problem in Africa, though it is dwarfed in the news by the immigration crises stemming from Syria and other nations whose immigrants are sweeping into Europe and other nations. I am glad to see the Church encouraging compassion and support for immigrants.

Contrary to some critics who insist that Mormons really aren't accepting of outsiders and immigrants, my family's experience suggests that love and acceptance of immigrants and strangers is a vital part of our faith and culture. Two of my siblings married immigrants, one from Korea and one from Brazil. In Appleton, Wisconsin, a large fraction of our ward was made of immigrants, mostly the Hmong people from Laos and Thailand, but also some from Mexico and other lands. One of my first callings in Wisconsin was being asked to reach out to immigrants in the area, and that began my study of the Hmong language and some Spanish.

After having worked closely with immigrants as their bishop, I was then called with my entire family to serve in a Hmong-speaking branch. The stories of tragedy and loss from the Hmong people, who fought and died to rescue Americans in the secret wars in Laos during the Vietnam War, inspired and moved me, and motivated me to create a web page about their story, "The Tragedy of the Hmong," in addition to writing an article that has been published in several sources. While I personally was an advocate for integrating the newly baptized Hmong people into a strong, functional ward rather than forming their own branch, we accepted the calling and strove to serve them for two years. The branch faced disaster, one of the most painful eras of my life, when a key leader there left the Church. Yet I remain his friend and was pleased to visit him and his wife when I was in Appleton on a visit from China, and was delighted to see he still had a large photo of his family with my wife and I from the day he went to the LDS temple with us. We love him and his family, and yearn for their happiness.

We are now strangers in China and though we live in unjust prosperity in the easy city of Shanghai, we can relate to a few of the challenges that strangers and immigrants face in strange lands, though precious few are given the advantages and ease that we have. Our lives, though, are deeply connected with others here whose paths have not been so smooth. The immigrants from the Chinese countryside fill the cities and are strangers and sometimes outcasts, seeking a better life without the benefits of health care and education that would be available if they stayed in their homelands, where jobs are scarce. They stand in great need of help also and represent a great challenge here in China that many are striving to address, but the challenge is so great.

In every nation, there is a need to do more for the needs of the immigrants and the impoverished in out midst. How we respond will determine who we are. May we listen to the wise counsel from General Conference and from other wise proponents of compassion to find better ways to help.

Monday, April 11, 2016

Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dream Map: Part 1 Now at MormonInterpreter.com

"Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dream Map" is the tongue-in cheek title of my serious look at detailed criticisms of the Book of Mormon evidence from the Arabian Peninsula. The Interpreter (MormonInterpreter.com) kindly published it. Part 1 was out on Friday, and Part 2 will be published next Friday. The "Dream Map" theme is my take on the theories that claim Joseph Smith must have seen a high-end European map of Arabia that had the name "Nehhm" or "Nehem" on it. That scrap of information could have revealed the location of the Nihm tribe in Yemen, whose tribal lands are now considered to correspond with the place "Nahom" where Ishmael was buried in 1 Nephi 16:34. Not only is that region the perfect place--the right place--for Nahom, being nearly due west of the leading candidate for Bountiful on the east coast, the existence of that tribal name in the region in roughly the right time in antiquity has been confirmed by three amazing altars from a temple in ancient Marib bearing the NHM tribal name. It's almost as cool as finding a Mesoamerican inscription saying "Welcome to Zarahemla, home of the Nephites."

The details of what Joseph could have gleaned from the best maps of his day is covered in Part 2, but in Part 1 I point out that theories based upon a "Dream Map" or other theories with Joseph as fabricator fail to account for the crown jewels of the evidence, fail to explain how the maps or other resources could have guided the actual recorded path, and fail to explain why Joseph and his peers never tool advantage of the built-in evidence for the Book of Mormon that they allegedly created. If they used information from maps or books to build in evidence or "local color" for enhanced credibility, why was it never exploited? Why not arrange for someone to "discover" the Nahom evidence on a newly purchased map to support the Book of Mormon? When related evidence came out in other sources, it was highly touted in LDS publications. Why neglect the evidence from Arabia, unless Joseph and his peers had no idea it was there? The potential link to a real Nahom-related name on a map would not be noticed until 1978.

Writing this article was an enjoyable process of discovery for me. I feel that I discovered a few interesting things along the way that might not have been widely appreciated before. For example, one of the complaints about George Potter's excellent candidate for the River Laman and the Valley Lemuel (see photo below) is its lack of a mouth, though Nephi says it has one (1 Nephi 2:8). Objections have also been made to the term "fountain of the Red Sea," into which the River Laman "emptied" according to 1 Nephi 2:9. In response, here is an excerpt from Part 1 of the article (footnotes deleted):

Critics in the 1850s guffawed at describing the flow of the river as going into the "fountain of the Red Sea" and some continue to object to Nephi's term. One can argue that fountain can have a broader meaning than a spring or subterranean flow of some kind, but the other uses of "fountain" in the Book of Mormon point to similar concepts: a physical or figurative source of a flow such as a spring. The Hebrew word typically translated as "fountain" (Strong's H4599, mayan) has the meaning of a spring, and is also sometimes translated as spring or well, giving it a subterranean flavor. Interestingly, that more specific meaning may actually fit the physical reality Nephi experienced.

Potter and Wellington, in Lehi in the Wilderness, observe that "the river flows under a gravel bed for the last three-eights of a mile as it approaches the Gulf of Aqaba."  They observe that the river may have previously had much greater water flow, and that the canyon floor is believed to have risen since Lehi's day, so perhaps it flowed directly into the Red Sea when Nephi saw it. On the other hand, I wish to suggest that even through the river flow may have been greater and the elevation of the canyon somewhat lower, what if the river still disappeared beneath the rocks as it approached the Red Sea in Nephi's day? By disappearing into the rocks adjacent the Red Sea, the water is obviously not disappearing completely, but is flowing into the Red Sea through subterranean channels, joining the underground springs that feed the Red Sea. In other words, the River Laman is now, and possibly was in Nephi's day, literally flowing into the fountains that feed the Red Sea.

If the river disappeared near the coast in Nephi's day as it does now, arguably flowing into the "fountain of the Red Sea," then perhaps this would also explain Nephi's repeated use of the verb "empty" rather than "flow." The river "emptied into the Red Sea" (1 Nephi 2:8), and again Lehi "saw that the waters of the river emptied into the fountain of the Red Sea" (1 Nephi 2:9). Waters disappearing, descending into the earth, could well be described this way. Perhaps Potter's candidate for the River Laman fits the details of Nephi's description even better than he realized, although it is difficult to know if the behavior of the river around 600 BC would be similar to its behavior today.

 Another objection to the leading candidate for the River Laman is that it lacks a mouth flowing into the Red Sea, apparently contrary to 1 Nephi 2:8, which states that the river "emptied into the Red Sea; and the valley was in the borders near the mouth thereof." Chadwick emphasizes this repeatedly in his critique, claiming that without a mouth, we can rule this candidate out and be certain that Potter has been looking in the wrong place.  One definition of "mouth" is:
something that resembles a mouth especially in affording entrance or exit: as
a: the place where a stream enters a larger body of water,
b :  the surface opening of an underground cavity….
Another dictionary gives one definition for mouth as "the outfall at the lower end of a river or stream, where flowing water is discharged, as into a larger body of water."  If Nephi understood that the River Laman, as it sank into the ground, was flowing into the subterranean waters that feed the Red Sea, or the fountain of the Red Sea, then the place where that stream disappeared and entered a larger body of water (the subterranean fountain) would appropriately be called a mouth. The Book of Mormon does not say that the mouth directly contacted the Red Sea. It had a mouth and flowed into a fountain, the fountain of (meaning "belonging to" or "associated with," I would argue) the Red Sea, and thus "emptied into the Red Sea," via the fountain. This understanding resolves the primary argument Chadwick offers against this candidate, for the river does indeed have a mouth where it flows into a larger body of water. And, as noted above, it resolves the objection to calling the Red Sea a fountain, which is not necessarily what Nephi is saying. It is also consistent with the ancient concept of interconnected subterranean waters that feed rivers and oceans.
What I enjoyed most about writing the article was the need to dig more deeply into some of the best writings out there, especially Lehi and Sariah in Arabia by Warren Aston, his 2015 masterpiece. The DVD, Lehi in Arabia, also beautifully illustrates the wonder of Bountiful. Well worth the time to ponder! There are so many gems from Arabia that merit more reflection, more study, and more exploration (with the help of more funding, of course). 

Sunday, April 03, 2016

A Mother's Attempt at Prayer

At our recent District Conference (Shanghai International District), an LDS mother in an exellent talk on seeking peace through the Gospel of Jesus Christ opened with her story of attempted prayer. With her kind permission, the story follows:
Several years ago I had a 4-year-old, 2-year-old, and 1-year-old. I was praying one morning, and, as was normal, the kids were climbing all over me happily yelling and playing. Most mornings I would ignore it and continue to pray, but on this particular morning, I had just had enough of the noise and craziness. I just wanted a few minutes to pray without also simultaneously being used as a playground! So I stopped in the middle of my prayer and said in exasperation, “Can you just give me a few minutes of peace????” My kids stopped and my 2-year-old looked at me and said in his best tough guy voice, “You wanna piece of me?” Needless to say, my exasperation quickly melted to laughter. I don’t think I even finished my prayer. 
I love this story. Apart from its humor and the reminder of how much media can influence us  (I think the two-year-old must have picked up that line from Toy Story, is that right?), what I really like is an aspect my wife pointed out that the speaker probably didn't notice. What really impressed us is that this sister made it a habit to pray even in the midst of noise and the pressing demands of life. Even with kids crawling over her, she would seek a moment for for daily prayer.

Too often we find pressing schedules, changing itineraries, and the rush of life squeeze out quiet moments for prayer, and we zoom through our day running on spiritual empty. That mother reminded me that even things are rushed, noisy, and chaotic, I need to take time for prayer. Distractions are not an excuse. Though a hilarious two-year-old tough guy act can throw any of us for a loop.