Saturday, December 20, 2014

Footnotes on Joseph Smith's Polygamy, Polyandry, and Sexuality


The Mormon church recently released a groundbreaking essay on Joseph Smith's polygamous practice during the 1830s and 1840s. I say groundbreaking in the context of its having been authored and posted to the official LDS website. Frankly, I'm pleased the church has chosen to be more transparent about its founder's eccentric marital practice. The brethren are now willing to admit Joseph Smith had between 30-40 wives, some of which were married to other living men, some of which were younger than 16 years old, and that many of these marriages had a sexual dimension. Of course, faithful historians have conceded this information and more for several for decades now, some of them even facing excommunication for their unequivocal transparency.

But like a few of their other recent essays, the church has broad-brushed most of the details in an effort to obscure any “context” that might be faith destroying. For instance, it's not true that we know nothing of how Emma felt about Joseph's infidelity and it's not true that there are no accounts of how Joseph implemented the practice. It seems the men in charge are more concerned with preserving loyalty and admiration for the prophetic mantle than in giving their membership full disclosure on the man who founded their religion. But anyone who has studied the life of Joseph Smith knows that by his own admission, he was a fallible mortal. A spiritual charismatic to be sure, yet he was human. He made mistakes and he manipulated people. Viewing Joseph Smith from a historical-critical perspective is the only way we can reconstruct him as a whole person rather than a caricature. Doing so requires that we account for not only his theological integrity but also for the character of his words and actions from every perspective.

First of all, let’s concede that on the subject of polygamy, Joseph’s public testimony is almost entirely unreliable. Except to a few of his closest associates, he vehemently denied practicing polygamy until the day he died. When allegations arose, he actively smeared the reputations of those who exposed his participation and used church discipline to silence whistleblowers. That’s just the fact of the public record. Joseph denied ever sanctioning it, and were he present today he would likely excommunicate Monson and the twelve for endorsing the polygamy article in official church channels.

But facts are facts and the church has evidently reached a point where it can’t afford to deny these things any longer. Certainly progress is progress and they deserve a plaudit for as much. Nevertheless, it is disappointing that they can’t be bothered to give any of the known details about how Joseph propositioned these women and the deception he used to conceal it. The article doesn’t mention the kind of language in which the prophet couched his propositions. It talks about him promising heaven, but it doesn’t mention his promise of damnation to those who would not comply. It doesn’t offer any examples of the surviving evidence we have for sexuality with the younger women or in the polyandrous marriages. It doesn’t mention Joseph adopting young twins and marrying them – more than once. Actually, one is hard pressed to name a maid or female foster child in the Smith household who doesn’t eventually end up on this list.

The church article doesn’t discuss Joseph using what he called “harsh measures” to discipline his wife, Emma, when she would not be contented with silence on the subject. The article fails to mention Joseph’s suspicions that Emma was poisoning him for his involvement in polygamy. It fails to mention that Joseph offered her a second husband as compromise. It doesn’t mention Joseph marrying older widows and using them to convince younger women to accept his proposals. It doesn’t mention letters he wrote asking close disciples to bring their daughters to his private room while cautioning them against Emma's discovery of the errand. It doesn’t discuss how he sent associates on missions then approached their wives in their absence.

Fortunately, a few of Joseph’s “burn upon reading” letters have survived, and his peers weren’t nearly as opaque about Nauvoo polygamy. These accounts serve to show that there is more to the story than Joseph being threatened by a sword-wielding angel if he resisted God's command, as the prophet intimates he did. The church has cited that story to suggest Smith was reticent rather than enthused to practice polygamy. Here are a few examples that demonstrate this was simply not the case. Consider Mormon historian Richard Van Wagoner’s account of Joseph and Sidney Rigdon’s fallout in Nauvoo:

"Smith was at odds with his long-time friend and counselor Sidney Rigdon over a reputed polygamous proposal on 9 April 1842 to Rigdon's unmarried daughter Nancy. George W. Robinson, a prominent Nauvoo citizen married to another of Rigdon's daughters, wrote to James A. Bennett, a New York friend to the church, on 22 July that 'Smith sent for Miss Rigdon to come to the house of Mrs. [Orson] Hyde, who lived in the under-rooms of the printing- office.’ According to Robinson, Nancy 'inquired of the messenger . . . what was wanting, and the only reply was, that Smith wanted to see her.' Robinson claimed that Smith took her into a room, 'locked the door, and then stated to her that he had had an affection for her for several years, and wished that she should be his; that the Lord was well pleased with this matter, for he had got a revelation on the subject, and God had given him all the blessings of Jacob, etc., etc., and that there was no sin in it whatever.' Robinson reported that Nancy 'repulsed him and was about to raise the neighbors if he did not unlock the door and let her out.'

"Nancy's brother, John, recounting the incident years later in an affidavit, remembered that 'Nancy refused him, saying if she ever got married she would marry a single man or none at all, and took her bonnet and went home, leaving Joseph.' Nancy withheld details of the situation from her family until a day or two later, when a letter from Smith was delivered by Smith's personal secretary, Willard Richards. 'Happiness is the object and design of our existence,' the letter began. 'That which is wrong under one circumstance, may be, and often is, right under another.' The letter went on to teach that 'whatever God requires is right, no matter what it is, although we may not see the reason thereof till long after the events transpire. . . . Our Heavenly Father is more liberal in his views, and boundless in his mercies and blessings, than we are ready to believe or receive.'

"Nancy showed Smith's letter to her father and told him of the incident at the Hyde residence. Rigdon demanded an audience with Smith. George W. Robinson reported that when Smith came to Rigdon's home, the enraged father asked for an explanation. Smith 'attempted to deny it at first,' Robinson said, 'and face her down with the lie; but she told the facts with so much earnestness, and the fact of a letter being present, which he had caused to be written to her, on the same subject, the day after the attempt made on her virtue,' that ultimately 'he could not withstand the testimony; he then and there acknowledged that every word of Miss Rigdon's testimony was true.’ Much later, John Rigdon elaborated that 'Nancy was one of those excitable women and she went into the room and said, “Joseph Smith, you are telling that which is not true You did make such a proposition to me and you know it [crossed out in the original: 'The woman who was there said to Nancy Are you not afraid to call the Lord's anointed a cursed liar No she replied I am not for he does lie and he knows it’”]’

"Robinson wrote that Smith, after acknowledging the incident, claimed he had propositioned Nancy because he 'wished to ascertain whether she was virtuous or not, and took that course to learn the facts!'" (Richard Van Wagoner, Mormon Polygamy: A History, pp. 31-33)

In the same letter to Nancy, Joseph observed, “If we seek first the kingdom of God, all good things will be added. So with Solomon: first he asked wisdom, and God gave it him, and with it every desire of his heart, even things which might be considered abominable to all who understand the order of heaven only in part, but which in reality were right because God gave and sanctioned by special revelation. A parent may whip a child, and justly, too, because he stole an apple; whereas if the child had asked for the apple, and the parent had given it, the child would have eaten it with a better appetite; there would have been no stripes; all the pleasure of the apple would have been secured, all the misery of stealing lost."

By his own account Joseph didn’t steal these women, he felt entitled to them because they were given to him by God. In this way did he persuade faithful women to consent to “things which might [otherwise] be considered abominable.” Thereby he believed the pleasure was preserved without an infraction against eternal law. But was pleasure really an operative aspect of Joseph's motivations? One late recollection from William Law, a counselor in the First Presidency at the time, observed that to his confidants, "Joseph was very free in his talk about his women. He told me one day of a certain girl and remarked, that she had given him more pleasure than any girl he had ever enjoyed" (Interview with William Law, Salt Lake Tribune, July 31, 1887).

His libido is more directly attested by Eliza R. Snow who was asked by Heber C. Kimball whether she remained a virgin after her plural marriage to Joseph, to which she replied, “I thought you knew Joseph Smith better than that” (Todd Compton, In Sacred Loneliness: The Plural Wives of Joseph Smith, p 12, 13). Once the practice became public in the Salt Lake Valley, several of his documented wives testified of having “carnal intercourse” with him and being his wives “in very deed.”

There are many problems with arguing that Joseph's focus was more the spiritual, sealing aspect of Joseph’s marriages. It certainly existed. Joseph forged a loyal inner hierarchy by marrying the daughters and sisters of his closest disciples in exchange for their assured salvation, and often the privilege to take plural wives themselves. But does this feudal sealing strategy sufficiently account for the odd details surrounding some of Joseph’s wives? The prophet's romantic relationship with Fanny Alger began sometime in 1833, at least three years prior to any claim of restored sealing power. One of Joseph’s first wives was actually a non-member at the time. He secretly married Louisa Beaman on 5 April 1841, but she was not baptized until 11 May 1843 (Ibid., p 59; Joseph Smith, History of the Church, vol. 5, p 385). Joseph Noble, a friendly source, conducted the ceremony and testified to their having slept in the same bed from time to time. Why did God command him to marry these women contra what was later claimed to be the Lord’s standard? Was Joseph simply using his ecclesiastical position to his advantage as a roaming suitor?

Recall Joseph’s mode of persuasion when he requested fourteen year old Helen Mar Kimball’s hand in plural marriage (from her memoir): “[Joseph] said to me, ‘If you will take this step, it will ensure your eternal salvation & exaltation and that of your father’s household & all your kindred.’ This promise was so great that I willingly gave myself for such a reward” (Todd Compton, In Sacred Loneliness: The Plural Wives of Joseph Smith, p 499). Not only will she, in a single stroke of action, seal her eternal salvation on her own head, but also on all of her relatives and friends, too. Apparently, Joseph developed a new hierarchical soteriology to justify his actions in Nauvoo. Salvation depends upon obedience to whatever commandment is issued from the Lord’s Anointed, and in this case, also upon one’s attachment to him in the eternities. Because to Joseph his exaltation was already assured, anyone he willed could be sealed to him and partake of his celestial glory. 

In studying the Nauvoo period specifically, it becomes clear that Joseph has long since internalized the persona of deity and takes license with biblical notions to craft his own gospel message with special allowances for his disciples:

"I charged the Saints not to follow the example of the adversary in accusing the brethren, and said "if you do not accuse each other God will not accuse you. If you have no accuser you will enter heaven; and if you will follow the Revelations and instructions which God gives you through me, I will take you into heaven as my back load. If you will not accuse me, I will not accuse you. If you will throw a cloak of charity over my sins, I will over yours – for charity covereth a multitude of sins. What many people call sin is not sin; I do many things to break down superstition, and I will break it down." (Joseph Smith, History of the Church 4:445)

A fine example of Joseph's messianic conflation of his own desires with those of the Almighty as it relates to polygamy is found in his letter to seventeen year old Sarah Ann Whitney and her parents:

“Dear, and Beloved, Brother and Sister, Whitney, and &c.-
“I take this oppertunity to communicate, some of my feelings, privetely at this time, which I want you three Eternaly to keep in your own bosams; for my feelings are so strong for you since what has pased lately between us, that the time of my absence from you seems so long, and dreary, that it seems, as if I could not live long in this way: and if you three would come and see me in this my lonely retreat, it would afford me great relief, of mind, if those with whom I am alied, do love me, now is the time to afford me succour, in the days of exile, for you know I foretold you of these things. I am now at Carlos Graingers, Just back of Brother Hyram's farm, it is only one mile from town, the nights are very pleasant indeed, all three of you can come and See me in the fore part of the night, let Brother Whitney come a little a head, and nock at the south East corner of the house at the window; it is next to the cornfield, I have a room intirely by myself, the whole matter can be attended to with most perfect safty, I know it is the will of God that you should comfort me now in this time of affliction, or not attal now is the time or never, but I have no kneed of saying any such thing, to you, for I know the goodness of your hearts, and that you will do the will of the Lord, when it is made known to you; the only thing to be careful of; is to find out when Emma comes then you cannot be safe, but when she is not here, there is the most perfect safty: only be careful to escape observation, as much as possible, I know it is a heroick undertakeing; but so much the greater friendship, and the more Joy, when I see you I will tell you all my plans, I cannot write them on paper, burn this letter as soon as you read it; keep all locked up in your breasts, my life depends upon it. one thing I want to see you for is to git the fulness of my blessings sealed upon our heads, &c. you will pardon me for my earnestness on this subject when you consider how lonesome I must be, your good feelings know how to make every allowance for me, I close my letter, I think Emma wont come tonight if she dont, dont fail to come to night. I subscribe myself your most obedient, and affectionate, companion, and friend.”
 “Joseph Smith” (Jessee, The Personal Writings of Joseph Smith, p. 539-540)

Joseph hid his marital liaisons from Emma in direct conflict with the stated program in D&C 132. Whether due to narcissism or megalomania, Smith confused his own desires with those of the Almighty – “I know it is the will of God that you should comfort me now” – and he used his position as prophet to exert religious pressure on young girls and their families. Again, lest anyone suppose that Joseph was marrying these women without requiring physical intimacy, consider the unpublished revelation to Sarah’s father a month prior:

“Verily thus saith the Lord unto my servant N[ewel]. K. Whitney, the thing that my servant Joseph Smith has made known unto you and your Family [his plural marriage to Sarah Ann Whitney] and which you have agreed upon is right in mine eyes and shall be rewarded upon your heads with honor and immortality and eternal life to all your house both old & young because of the lineage of my Preast Hood saith the Lord it shall be upon you and upon your children after you from generation to generation, by virtue of the Holy promise which I now make unto you saith the Lord. These are the words which you shall pronounce upon my servant Joseph and your Daughter S[arah]. A[nn]. Whitney they shall take each other by the hand and you shall say you both mutually agree calling them by name to be each other’s companion so long as you both shall live preserving yourselves for each other and from all others and also throughout all eternity reserving only those rights which have been given to my servant Joseph by revelation and commandment and by legal Authority in times passed. If you both agree to covenant and do this then I give you S[arah]. A[nn]. Whitney my Daughter to Joseph Smith to be his wife to observe all the rights between you both that belong to that condition.”
(Revelation to Newell K. Whitney, 27 July 1842, from copy in archives, Historical Department, Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Salt Lake City, Utah)

The fact is Joseph did engage in sexual union with many of his wives; there is much corroboratory evidence attesting the behavior. Parents or guardians were sometimes aware of conjugal visits as in the case of the Whitney’s above. After being sealed to Almera Johnson, Smith stayed with her in her brother's home "as man and wife." Her brother Benjamin Johnson later said Joseph "occupied the same room and bed with my sister, that the previous month he had occupied with the daughter of the late Bishop Partridge as his wife" (Letter from Benjamin F. Johnson to George F. Gibbs).

If we take a moment to consider the line of thinking that suggests polygamy's primary purpose was to raise up "righteous seed," we are then left to wrestle with why there were so few children resulting from these marriages (none are verifiable). We know Joseph was potent because of his first marriage; Emma conceived nearly a dozen times with him. And it is obvious Joseph was concerned about concealing potential pregnancies because the majority of his earliest marriages were to married women. Case in point: months after his own polygamous union to her, Joseph arranged for young Sarah Ann Whitney to marry Joseph C. Kingsbury in what he called a "pretended marriage" to avoid suspicion. If the prophet’s apparent lack of children by these women is telling, keep in mind that Smith’s sometime associate, John C. Bennett, practiced as a medical doctor while in Nauvoo. Among other things, Bennett was accused of secretly conducting abortions and “embryo infanticide” by Joseph's brother before Hyrum ever knew of the prophet's participation in polygamy (Andrew F. Smith, The Saintly Scoundrel: The Life and Times of Dr. John Cook Bennett, p 113). Perhaps there is a connection?

Certainly Joseph’s connection to Bennett, while brief, speaks volumes about how the prophet practiced polygamy. Many choose to dismiss Bennett’s testimony a priori given that Joseph later smeared him as a traitor and a liar. But it should be remembered, however, that as mayor of Nauvoo, Assistant President of the Church, and Counselor in the First Presidency, Bennett was closer to Joseph during this courtship period than any other man. Bennett introduced Smith to the several ranks of Masonic ritual that quickly found their way into the Lord's own revealed liturgy. Before fleeing Nauvoo, we know he courted women on the coattails of Joseph's "spiritual wifery" doctrine, often citing Smith's endorsement of their relationship (and using similar proposal methods). Once excommunicated, Bennett published an exposé correctly naming seven of Joseph’s plural wives and many eye witness details of the ceremonies that are now confirmed in other friendly journals.

My final submission for consideration is a summary of Joseph’s courting of Sarah Pratt, wife of stalwart apostle Orson Pratt, during 1841-1842:

While Orson Pratt was serving a mission in Europe, Joseph told his confidant, the aforementioned Bennett, that he had fostered an affection toward Sarah Pratt for some time. Accordingly, he called on her, made a proposition in the typical manner, and was deftly rejected. After another attempt, she threatened disclosure to Orson upon his return. Joseph reportedly said, “Sister Pratt. I hope you will not expose me; if I am to suffer, all suffer, so do not expose me... If you should tell, I will ruin your reputation; remember that.” Orson returned from his mission and Sarah kept silent until the following year.

Bennett indicates that Joseph subsequently kissed her privately, at which point she reported the behavior to her husband. The apostle Orson was enraged to learn the allegations and engaged Joseph in long conversation. Joseph denied the claims of Sarah, instead accusing his wife of committing adultery with Bennett. Orson initially did not oppose the prophet publically, and refused to testify against Bennett in his excommunication trial, saying, “he knew nothing against the man.” This changed, however, when Smith renewed his attack on Pratt’s wife, calling her a “bitch from her mother’s breast” at the pulpit.

By all accounts, Orson was in a very dark place. From his perspective Smith supposedly wanted Sarah for himself, and Bennett had supposedly slept with her – both men explicitly denying the accusation. Orson’s mind was so depressed he left a note and wandered five miles out of town miserably. Joseph mandated a citywide search, concerned that he would kill himself. When they found him and tried to reconcile his mind, they couldn’t relieve his grief. Orson then sided with his wife, who was opposed to Joseph’s account of things. Joseph encouraged a divorce and warned the apostle “if he did believe his wife and follow her suggestions he would go to hell.” The Pratts’ resisted and were both excommunicated. Eventually Joseph won Orson over, however, and the apostle later began practicing polygamy out West. Sarah in turn divorced her husband because of his “obsession with marrying younger women.” (summary based largely on Van Wagoner, Mormon Polygamy, pp 29-31).

I could go on. Should these details about Joseph Smith’s private behavior change our conception of him as a prophet? Do these details matter? However we esteem his other revelations, shouldn't this last one be scrutinized just as closely? I think its fair to say his actions in Nauvoo caused a great deal of destruction in people’s lives and broke the hearts of his first wife and many followers. Instead of salvation, this "new and everlasting" commandment nearly brought Mormonism to its ruin within fifty years time! 

In my opinion, the missing context in the church article is further evidence that the brethren do not prioritize truth and honesty above commitment to their own program. The certainty of prophetic fallibility is not a notion they wish to emphasize in an organization already struggling to maintain its solidarity and loyalty to the faithful narrative. I think it's a missed opportunity to discuss ethics in religion and its leadership. Like King David to the Jews, we can study Joseph's life and actions to better understand our own humanity and the inevitable humanity of our spiritual guides, despite their best ambitions. Together, we could witness the truth; that "we have learned by sad experience that it is the nature and disposition of almost all men, as soon as they get a little authority, as they suppose, they will immediately begin to exercise unrighteous dominion" (D&C 121:39). Thus they rob their membership of an all-important lesson – that the truth is strengthened only when every man is permitted to think and reason and account for himself the meaning of these and all things.

Wednesday, February 5, 2014

DNA: The Evidence of Things Not Seen

The LDS church recently posted their newest in a series of official apologetic articles dealing with thorny issues that threaten basic Mormon truth claims. You can read "Book of Mormon and DNA Studies" on the church's website. Since the recent advent of genetic population science, critics have argued that DNA evidence disproves the Book of Mormon as an historical record. In the article, the church presses instead for a "No Contest" resolution in the face of these claims. Interesting.

I guess you could say this essay means something to me personally. As that Mormon kid in your elementary class who couldn't contain himself when mention was made of Beringian migration, I just had to raise my hand and set the teacher straight on true Native American origins. Yes, I was that child.  

Like many believers, I took the testimonies of prophets and apostles seriously when they guaranteed the veracity of the Book of Mormon without reservation. It is because I took their words at face value that the church's prevaricating response is such an embarrassment to me. I didn't realize as I shouted from the (schoolyard) rooftops that within a few short decades my church leaders would retreat to a philosophy of plausible deniability on things that were always portrayed as historical truth.

This seems to be a running theme in these apologetic essays. 

Now to be honest, I know virtually nothing about DNA science. But I am becoming familiar with the works of an Australian plant geneticist with whom I share my faith heritage. Simon Southerton formerly served as Bishop in the Mormon church down under. His story is all too familiar for people who've left Mormonism or have been otherwise expelled for voicing dissent. 

He became distressed when discoveries made in the course of his career radically differed from things he, as a Mormon, believed about Native Americans. Pressed by his intimacy with the subject matter, he began to express confusion and doubt over the issue, which he openly sought to resolve. When he refused to sit silently, he was snubbed and set aside by his superiors. He did some further research and published his findings in a book. He was excommunicated as a result.

Southerton has a horse in the race then, but I still think his blog response to the church DNA article, "Tentative Faith meets Uncompromising Facts," points out some glaring misrepresentations on the part of the church. I recommend you read it. Frankly, nothing earth-shattering is presented there. He simply affirms the widespread consensus of the world's top geneticists, namely that Native Americans are demonstrably of East Asian genealogy rather than Hebrew. 

In fact, his expert perspective fits right in with the consensus of literally every other scientific discipline touching on ancient American peoples to this date. Michael Coe and other serious Mesoamerican anthropologists who are familiar with the Nephite account have long understood it to be a non-historical work. Coe says, "The bare facts of the matter are that nothing, absolutely nothing, has ever shown up in any New World excavation which would suggest to a dispassionate observer that the Book of Mormon, as claimed by Joseph Smith, is a historical document relating to the history of early migrants to our hemisphere."

Whereas the church initially sought to leverage archaeology, sociology, and linguistics to establish evidence of Book of Mormon history in ancient America, they have been frustrated time and time again by the results. For B.H. Roberts and others who have tried to harmonize the Book of Mormon with scientific knowledge, the evidence never seemed to match what the book claims for itself. And for many of these intellectuals, what often starts as a legitimate truth-seeking quest is conquered by loyalty to tradition. 

In the wake of these failures, the church has worked hard to obscure the negative evidence from its membership. They've encouraged believers to ignore the physical data, much in the way they are now encouraging believers to dismiss the DNA evidence they know to be accurate. The church's article is a testament to that fact, but I want to further demonstrate it. 

What is really astonishing here is watching the same scenario play out with genetic science as happened with anthropology. The church literally conducted their own genetic surveys to gather data supporting Jewish ancestry for Native Americans. Do you suppose they ever published their results? They did not.

Southerton recounts the history in his book, Losing a Lost Tribe. In many ways modeled after the international Human Genome Project, BYU initiated their own "impressive global molecular genealogy project aimed at welding traditional family histories with cutting-edge DNA technology” (Southerton, p. 180). It was eventually backed by Ira Fulton and James Sorenson in March 2000, major players in the LDS investment community.

Many on their research team hoped to prove the truthfulness of the Book of Mormon narrative by gathering DNA evidence and thereby refuting tentative results from secular, non-LDS studies. By 2003, more than 40,000 individuals had donated blood to the project and it was poised to make incredible strides towards accomplishing its goals and then some.

"Inexplicably," BYU suddenly dropped the project and all ties to the church were severed in the same year. In 2004, their project was relocated to the Sorenson Molecular Genealogy Foundation in SLC and it has since continued bringing to fruition their vision of locating the ancestral homelands of people by examining their blood’s genetic information. Apparently it has been very successful; it is still touted as the world’s foremost archive of human DNA.

Why the trepidation at involvement, the sudden retraction on the part of BYU and the church? I do not take it as coincidence that this is the exact period when scientific surveys garnered from the grandiose HGP began gaining media attention. The genetic evidence concretely refuted the Book of Mormon’s claim that the ancestors of Native Americans are chiefly Semitic by descent. 

Further, ultimate conclusions by Sorenson and his orphaned team admit that today's surviving Native Americans descend from six genetic sources arriving in the Americas about 20,000 years ago. Suffice it to say the time period in question is long before the Book of Mormon migrations purportedly took place.

In fact, one of the project’s original contributors was BYU professor Scott Woodward whose primary vested interest was proving the Book of Mormon’s genealogy true through these means. As with Thomas Ferguson and Howard Hunter in their church-backed archaeological pursuits, Woodward did not experience the desired results. Fortunately, the SMGF and Woodward (as co-author) went on to publish their findings without church backing. They affirmed that the results of the secular scientists were sound.

Despite initial enthusiasm from BYU’s board of trustees (read: apostles) for their global genetic project, it was quietly dismissed when their own research independently confirmed what geneticists and anthropologists had been singing all along - that Native Americans are almost strictly of Asian descent and arrived from Siberia some 15,000-20,000 years ago. 

Actually, the church's DNA article makes more sense in this light. In the face of such mounting opposition, the church can neither confirm nor deny anything besides the spiritual truth of the text itself. It is damage control. The article boils down to an open display of tactical double-speak that slithers in, over, and around the issues science is raising for Mormon truth claims. 

The truth is, there has been a growing stockpile of evidence against the Book of Mormon's historicity for more than a century. Physical evidence for the Book of Mormon has all but vanished under the scope of scientific scrutiny. This contrary data has accumulated from a variety of scientific disciplines, now including genetics, to show that the Book of Mormon's historical claims are dubious, fraudulent. 

I probably would've kept my opinions to myself in social studies class had I known how quickly the brethren would be changing their tune on these fundamental Mormon truth claims. But this is what a brief study of history can afford you. Like any other human culture in history, one can observe that Mormonism changes with the seasons and will continue to adapt where necessary.

I think the brethren will continue to testify of the same old farce in the closed circuit that is Mormon culture, but they must now address a new audience. They must address that portion of the membership who refuse to close their eyes, bow their heads, and simply say, "yes." It is a growing subset of their membership and they can no longer ignore widespread secular education.

Essentially everything that framed my understanding of Book of Mormon history and prophecy growing up in the LDS church is now being dodged, disavowed, or otherwise denied by official church response to controversial scientific findings. 

Is the Book of Mormon a historical work? 
Does it make any verifiable claims about this continent or its ancient inhabitants? 
Who are the Lamanites? Are they of Hebrew descent?
Can their modern descendants be identified so that the Book of Mormon's promises can be fulfilled in them?

The church's answers to these questions are different now than they were when I was a member. They are non-answers. Don't read the church DNA article expecting a response to any of the above questions. 

The only thing the church seems sure about here is that DNA evidence, while a useful aid for genealogical research, really can't tell us anything about the Book of Mormon peoples. Nor can any other scientific study of ancient Americans - no matter the quantity of data, no matter how substantial the results!

This amounts to crucifying Galileo afresh, I believe. The earth is flat and the sun revolves around the Earth, and so forth. Instead, irrational faith will have to suffice as the evidence of things not seen.

My question is this. When did the leading occupation of the Lord's Watchtower shift from prophecy and seership to politics and legal practice? It's almost apocalyptic in its ironic fulfillment of prophecy, isn't it? Then again, perhaps there never was a shift at all. 

Maybe that's what it is to be a prophet. To predict vaguely enough that there is fulfillment regardless of what actually transpires! To assume the credit when things works out, but distance yourself should the prophecy fail! Some call this charlatanism. Whatever we call it, this much seems sure: if you look to the Church Office Building for answers, you'll find little besides pandering platitudes and half-hearted concessions.

Wednesday, December 26, 2012

Consider The Wandering Ones


As a fairly vocal dissenter of Mormon orthodoxy, I am often troubled by just how skewed some of my friends’ and acquaintances’ perceptions are with regard to my motivations. If you’ve chosen to leave the faith, why can’t you just leave it alone? To a point, this is a fair question. If I’ve determined Mormonism doesn’t line up with my beliefs, why not press forward and focus on new endeavors? Why do people like me, a relative few of Mormonism’s defectors, sometimes become consumed with analyzing their religious heritage? Why do we feel the need to vocalize our position, thus becoming a disruptive influence amongst believing friends and family? Is it merely persecution evidencing the bitter discontentment of my sins? It is perceived by some that instead of moving onward and upward, apostates are grasping at straws to fill the aching chasm left in their lives by abandoning the restored gospel.

Growing up in the church, I experienced the same mild rhetorical antagonism as most in the states. I saw people picket LDS conference events and disseminate aggressively antagonistic tracts. There is a great deal of confusion about these people in LDS culture. I myself participated in the expression of disdainful sentiments towards these heretics who for whatever illegitimate reason, couldn’t pass muster in the church and are thence promptly taken in by Satan as he marshals his troops to fight God’s work. In the polemical Mormon worldview, people are not fully agents in and of themselves, they are also principles to be manipulated by powers unseen, and ultimately subjected to a grand polarizing paradigm. Such was the framework suggested by Mormonism’s founding prophet, Joseph Smith, Jr. Daniel Tyler, an early convert baptized in 1833, recalled of the early church’s struggle with apostate influences in the aftermath of the Kirtland fallout:

“Soon after the Prophet’s arrival in Commerce [Nauvoo] from Missouri prison, Brother Isaac Behunin and myself made him a visit at his residence. His persecutions were the topic of conversation. He repeated many false, inconsistent and contradictory statements made by apostates, frightened members of the Church and outsiders. He also told how most of the officials who would fain have taken his life, when he was arrested, turned in his favor on forming his acquaintance. He laid the burden of the blame on false brethren. …

“When the Prophet had ended telling how he had been treated, Brother Behunin remarked: ‘If I should leave this Church I would not do as those men have done: I would go to some remote place where Mormonism had never been heard of, settle down, and no one would ever learn that I knew anything about it.’

“The great Seer immediately replied: ‘Brother Behunin, you don’t know what you would do. No doubt these men once thought as you do. Before you joined this Church you stood on neutral ground. When the gospel was preached, good and evil were set before you. You could choose either or neither. There were two opposite masters inviting you to serve them. When you joined this Church you enlisted to serve God. When you did that you left the neutral ground, and you never can get back on to it. Should you forsake the Master you enlisted to serve, it will be by the instigation of the evil one, and you will follow his dictation and be his servant.’” (“Recollections of the Prophet Joseph Smith,” Juvenile Instructor, Aug. 15, 1892, pp. 491,492)

This paradigm strikes me as a very simplistic one. On the one hand, it is a powerful framework in which to view oneself. The dividing lines between good and evil, right and wrong, black and white are very distinct. Both allies and enemies are easily discerned, although they may be caricatures of their real-world counterparts. But it does tend to offer a clear-cut sense of purpose and validation to whatever meaning one chooses to read into life. Unfortunately, this perspective also seems to guarantee all manner of misrepresentation and misunderstanding toward the opposition. It is a propagandistic position.

If one is not wary, a Mormon’s potent sense of purpose can immunize them from constructive self-criticism and strip them of the very compassion they pretend to practice. Don’t get me wrong, latter-day saints are typically very compassionate people, both to their faithful membership and to members of other faiths. But they struggle with the in-between. Once again, the black and white gospel rhetoric creates a polarity that doesn’t really provide space for the dissociated and the disaffiliates. Most Mormons struggle with how to categorize this sometimes vocal minority; persons like myself who love certain aspects of the gospel but choose to make their feelings and concerns known. Thus, these “apostates” are regularly routed into the opposing camp regardless of their honest intentions. Many do not understand that by thus marginalizing thoughtful, struggling members because of honest skepticism, they are creating artificial apostates. These are then typically characterized as faithless, immoral, or otherwise irregular disciples, unfit for the kingdom.

I have exerted my own small efforts to enable the mutual understanding of both parties. But much of my exertions feel wasted when we seldom come to a mutual understanding. I suppose we see the world so differently, we cannot help but speak past each other in many instances. How can we bridge this chasm? Because much of the misunderstanding seems rooted in confusion at the motives of heretics, I hope what follows will provide some mutual understanding for my faithful friends.  To adopt the spirit of the season, I will suggest an empathetic reading of the almost universally understood allegory of Santa Claus. Consider for a moment what it feels like for someone to lose their faith.

Most of us have been on the receiving end of this one, so it should be easy to relate to. Every winter, parents tell their children a wonderfully magical tale about a portly, bearded man who spends the year crafting toys for believers. In a single night in December, we are told, he graciously delivers presents and toys and candy to all the good boys and girls throughout the world. Parents take their children to sit on the lap of an actor at the mall, have their kids write letters to him, and set out milk, cookies, and a carrot the night before. Many parents go to great lengths to sustain the illusion, staying up all night wrapping presents in his name. When the children wake to find presents stacked knee high, each fulfilling their every hope and desire, they are bedazzled! Witnessing for themselves the many gifts, the carrot and cookies eaten, they can't help but believe. In the eyes of these innocent children there is something magical in everything about it! They have every confirmation they need.

It comes as no surprise to note that children often become a little more obedient and a little more submissive come the holidays. The smart parents will leverage the occasion to teach love and compassion and selfless giving to their little ones. Nevertheless, it is often difficult for children to anticipate anything other than what they will receive from Santa on Christmas. But eventually there comes a time when they're a little older, a little more mature, and a lot more rational thinking. They've experienced more of the laws that govern our world. Perhaps they start discussing the logic of Santa Claus being able to visit every home in a night with their friends, perhaps they find a few gifts with Santa's name on them hidden in Mom's closet, or maybe they begin to comprehend the sheer multitudes of children living in third-world countries who have no concept of Christmas or presents or anything of the sort.

The shattering of that illusion can be devastating to them. Some children will feel hurt for being lied to, others will kick themselves for not examining the evidence more closely, and many more will rush to inform the ignorance of faithful friends. Most of them experience a loss of some sort. The magic of Christmas day seems to vanish, even if they can learn to enjoy the spirit of giving in its stead. Now to begin drawing parallels with a Mormon faith crisis, extend this childhood experience with the Santa Claus fable from a single, superficial holiday tradition once a year to every day of a person's life. Suppose we continue to elaborate on the Christmas fiction so that there is no aspect of life that belief does not affect. It informs everything you see and do in the world, even defining your very identity and purpose. Extend the fable’s duration well into adulthood. Imagine that the parental figures continue to employ elaborate, illusory evidences and emphatically faith-promoting discourse to sustain the credibility of the myth. Imagine that you yourself want it to be true so badly that you yourself begin to contribute to the Christmas culture, and you perpetuate it to your children. And then imagine one day you see through it all. You realize how ridiculous it would be if an obese man really could fit through your chimney and fill your life with awesome goodness.

As an adult believer in this sort of thing, the structural collapse would be crushing, even world-shattering in many respects. Can you imagine reaching middle age and still believing Santa is real? To discover you have been treated as a child for far too long? Consider the intense personal trauma this sort of paradigm collapse would create for even the most strong-minded individuals. Do the parents necessarily deserve the blame? Of course much responsibility does fall on them. Perhaps most “parents” in this scenario are believers themselves, only perpetuating their holiday faith heritage to a new generation with the best of intentions. Their ardent argumentation for the truthfulness of this mythology is certainly validation for their own beliefs, as well as for their children. And even those parents who do not truly believe are contented to perpetuate the myth, believing in arrogance that it is still the best method to encourage obedience and teach proper moral lessons to their subjects. Do these parents profit from the obedience of their children? Definitely. If children become committed dependents, as they typically do during the holiday season, is there nothing parents could not require of mature adults who are likewise convicted of “the truth” all year round? Afterall, parents could hang onerous consequences over the heads of their children so long as they submit to the belief.

Such are the realizations of many who lose their faith. So much the more with Mormonism, too. Can you imagine the disgust, the revulsion these grown adults might feel at learning they were living, breathing, walking manifestations of the lies they were taught in their youth? How furious would they be to realize they were defrauded, no matter how earnest the intentions of their mentors? How embarrassing! Multiply a child's devastation at learning the truth behind Christmas a thousand times, and you begin to understand the pain of leaving Mormonism, from the heretic's point of view. Such is the initial bitterness of our plight. I think if the faithful can muster any empathy for the heartbroken child who discovers the reality behind Christmas, they can begin to sympathize with the broken hearts of many who leave Mormonism.

So what happens to these wandering children? It seems to me that things mostly get better after the initial disappointments. Some will rush off and immediately fill the vacancy with other, similar mythologies. It may be religion or politics or secularism. But others will face the facts unabashedly. We discover new freedoms and learn empowerment from this newfound agency. But we are also forced to own up to the crushing reality of impending death, of having to realize our own purpose in life, etc. All of these pleasures and pains offer a true "coming of age" experience in my opinion – one I do not believe is possible within the confines of Mormonism or any institutional religion. So while the stories of Santa Claus were a beautiful ecstasy to us as children, we must not curse the children who begin to see past it. These begin to discover morality within themselves, independent of any supernatural machinations. You see, these are headed for adulthood as they pursue maturity. They abandon cognitive dissonance and become more fully self-integrated. These begin to realize that they can no longer depend on a mythical man to deliver presents to friends, family, and children. They themselves will learn to give, and thus become the fabled Santa Claus. No longer are these children, constantly submitting to some unseen, pretended higher authority. They grow up and discover that authority within themselves. They become true agents, fit to act and not be acted upon.


For this reason, I believe it is good to speak up and encourage honest dealings when it comes to Mormonism’s faith claims. Those who are ready for the dialogue will be bettered by it. But those who are not ready should be cautious. Do not mistake the adult discussions taking place on controversial subjects within Mormonism as bitterness caused by mystical forces or some other justification within your own paradigm. Consider for a moment that the world is bigger than how you view it. Many of my “fallen” peers invested their whole souls in Mormonism before discovering the disconcerting reality. Should any of us be surprised that they want to speak frankly with their friends and family as a result? To be clear, I suggest this Santa Claus allegory not to belittle believers, but to help them understand the feelings of those who have left the fold.

Sunday, December 2, 2012

D&C 5: An Alteration Altercation


When the LDS Doctrine & Covenants was first published in 1835, some noticed that several of Joseph Smith's revelations had been significantly altered from their earlier manuscript counterparts. What follows is an exacting comparison between the manuscript and published versions of one of Joseph's earliest recorded revelations, received at Harmony, Pennsylvania in March 1829. The revelation was provoked by Martin Harris' desire to confirm Joseph's possession of an ancient record inscribed on gold plates.

I have imposed several editorial earmarks on the text for the reader's convenience. [Bracketed Numbers] are inserted in reference to the modern LDS versification of this revelation (D&C 5:1-20). [Bracketed Letters/Words] are inserted for clarification where helpful. Struckthrough Words are significant portions of text from the manuscripts that were omitted for publication. Boldface Words are new additions to the text not corroborated by any of the early manuscripts; sometimes these fragments replace previous terms or phrases and other times are interpolated seamlessly into the original. Italicised Words reflect a change in tense, perspective, or quantity. Capitalization and punctuation are also accurately represented.

“March 1829 Revelation to Joseph Smith, Jr. and Martin Harris," from the Newell K. Whitney Collection (D&C 5):

“[1] Behold I say unto you that my servant hath desired A witness that my servant Joseph hath got the things which he hath testified that he hath got
“[2] and now Behold this shall ye say unto him I the Lord am God I have given these things unto him & I have commanded him that he should stand as a witness of these things
“[3] nevertheless I have caused him that he should enter into a covenant with me that he should not show them except I command him & he hath no power over them e[x]cept I grant it unto him
“[4] & he hath A gift to translate the Book & I have commanded him that he shall pretend to no other gift for I will grant unto him no other gift
“[5] and verily I say unto you that woe shall come unto the Inhabitents of the Earth if they will not hearken unto my words
“[7] for Behold if they will not believe my words they would not believe my servants if it were possible he could show them all things
“[8] O ye unbelieving ye stiffnecked Generation
“[9] Behold I have reserved the things which have been spoken of which I have entrusted to my servant for a wise purpose in me & it shall be made known unto future Generations
“[10] but for this Generation they shall have my word
“[11] yea & the testimony of three of my servants shall go forth with my word unto this Generation
“[12] yea three shall know of a surety that those things are true
“[13] for I will give them power that they may Behold & view those things as they are
“[14] & to none else will I grant this power among this Generation
“[15] & the testimony of three Witnesses will I send forth & my word
“[16] & behold whosoever believeth in my word him will I visit with the manifestations of my spirit & they shall be Born of me
“[18] & their testimony Shall also go forth & thus if the People of this Generation harden not their hearts I will work a reformation among them & I will put down all lieings & deceivings & Priestcraft & envyings & strifes & Idolatries and sorceries & all manner of Iniquities & I will establish my Church yea even the church which was taught by my Desiples [Disciples] & now if this Generation do harden their hearts against my words Behold I deliver them up unto Satan for he reigneth & hath much Power at this time for he hat got great hold upon the hearts of the People of this Generation & how far from the iniquities of Sodom and Gomorrah do they come at this time & Behold the Sword of justice doth hang above their heads & if they persist in the hardness of the[i]r hearts the time cometh that it must fall upon them
“[20]Behold I tell you these things even as I also told the People of the destruction of Jerusalem & my word shall be verified at this time as it hath hitherto been verrified."

1835 LDS Doctrine & Covenants, section 32 (D&C 5):

“Behold I say unto you, that as my servant Martin Harris has desired a witness at my hand, that you, my servant Joseph Smith, jr.have got the things plates of which you have testified and borne record that you have received of me:
“and now behold, this shall you say unto him, He who spake unto you said unto you, I the Lord am God, and have given these things unto youmy servant Joseph Smith, jr. and I have commanded you that you shall stand as a witness of these things,
“[3] nevertheless and I have caused you that you should enter into a covenant with me that you should not show them except to those persons to whom commanded youand you have no power over them except I grant it unto you.
“[4] And you have a gift to translate the Book plates; and this is the first gift that I bestowed upon youand I have commanded him that you should pretend to no other gift until my purpose is fulfilled in this; for I will grant unto you no other gift until it is finished.
“[5] and Verily I say unto you, that wo shall come unto the inhabitants of the Earth if they will not hearken unto my words”
“[7] for hereafter you shall be ordained and go forth and deliver my words unto the children of men. Behold if they will not believe my words, they would not believe you, my servant Joseph, if it were possible that you could show them all these things which I have committed unto you.
“[8] O this unbelieving and stiffnecked generation, mine anger is kindled against them.
“[9] Behold verily, I say unto you, I have reserved those things which have been spoken of which I have entrusted unto you, my servant Joseph, for a wise purpose in me, and it shall be made known unto future generations;
“[10] but for this generation they shall have my word through you;
“[11] yea And in addition to your testimony the testimony of three of my servants, whom I shall call and ordain, unto whom I will show these thingsand they shall go forth with my words that are given through you, unto this Generation
“[12] yea,  three they shall know of a surety that these things are true:
“[13] for from heaven will I declare it unto them: I will give them power that they may behold and view these things as they are;
“[14] And to none else will I grant this power, to receive this same testimony, among this generation, in this, the beginning of the rising up, and the coming forth of my church out of the wilderness – clear as the moon and fair as the sun and terrible as an army with banners.
“[15] And the testimony of three witnesses will I send forth of my word.
“[16] And behold, whosoever believeth in my wordsthem will I visit with the manifestation of my Spirit; and they shall be born of me, even of water and of the Spirit.
[17] And you must wait yet a little while; for ye are not yet ordained –  
“[18] And their testimony shall also go forth & thus if the People unto the condemnation of this generation if they harden not their hearts against them: I will work a reformation among them & I will put down all lieings & deceivings & Priestcraft & envyings & strifes & Idolatries and sorceries & all manner of Iniquities & I will establish my Church yea even the church which was taught by my Desiples & now if this Generation do harden their hearts against my words Behold I deliver them up unto Satan for he reigneth & hath much Power at this time for he hat got great hold upon the hearts of the People of this Generation & how far from the iniquities of Sodom and Gomorrah do they come at this time & Behold the Sword of justice doth hang above their heads & if they persist in the hardness of the[i]r hearts the time cometh that it must fall upon them
[19] for a desolating scourge shall go forth among the inhabitants of the earth, and shall continue to be poured out, from time to time, if they repent not, until the earth is empty, and the inhabitants thereof are consumed away, and utterly destroyed by the brightness of my coming.
“[20] Behold I tell you these things even as I also told the people of the destruction of Jerusalem, and my word shall be verified at this time as it hath hitherto been verified."

Many other revelations received similar treatment in the first publication of the Doctrine & Covenants. What meaning should these alterations communicate to the Latter-day Saints? From the perspective of one having grown up in the church – mission, temple endowment, sealing and all – learning these facts seems to demand a dramatic shift in the orthodox Mormon conception of revelation, prophecy, and scripture.

Should the modern D&C rely on the earliest available manuscript versions (like the Bible) or on the 1835 edition as it does currently? Should Latter-day Saints have the opportunity to insert redactions and revisions into their own revelations in like manner? Should the scriptures instead be recognized as subjective, faithful musings, only reflective of their contemporary culture? Finally, if it is the case that God's Word is only truly revelatory in hindsight, of what utility is it for us here in the present?

Sources:
– Marquardt, ed., The Joseph Smith Revelations: Text & Commentary, pp. 26-29
– Bench, ed., The Parallel Doctrine and Covenants: The 1832-1833, 1833, and 1835 Editions of Joseph Smith's Revelations, pp. 5-7