Thursday, October 22, 2020

Worlds of Joseph Smith conference


"The Worlds of Joseph Smith" Conference


In 2005, BYU and the Library of Congress sponsored a two-day academic conference to commemorate the 200th anniversary of Joseph Smith's birth. The press release on is here. An example of more publicity, including the list of speakers, is here.

Figure 25 - Worlds of JS - Times and Seasons

This symposium was one of the most high-profile discussions of Joseph Smith to date. In addition to the presentations, "An exhibit of books and other materials related to Joseph Smith, drawn from the collections of the Library of Congress and Brigham Young University, will be on display in the foyer." Among the displays were a first-edition Book of Mormon, original letters and other important historical documents, portraits, etc.


M2C was prominent. The exhibit included a page from the Times and Seasons: the infamous "Zarahemla" article from Oct. 1, 1842.

Plus, they exhibited a page from John Lloyd Stephens’ Incidents of Travel in Central America, Chiapas, and Yucatan.

Needless to say, they did not display the issue of the Times and Seasons that contained Letter VII, or the page from Joseph's journal that contained Letter VII, or the Messenger and Advocate page that contained Letter VII, or the Gospel Reflector issue that contained Letter VII. The exhibitors had nothing at all about Cumorah. The term Cumorah doesn't even appear in the index of the proceedings.

The symposium portrayed to the world the Mesoamerican setting for the Book of Mormon that repudiates what the prophets have taught about the New York Cumorah.

Figure 26 - Worlds of JS - BYU Studies

The proceedings were published by BYU Studies 44:4 (2005). One of the presentations became the well-known article, "Archaeological Trends and Book of Mormon Origins" by John E. Clark. This article is also on the BOMC site here.  

It was originally a May 2004 BYU forum address, then a presentation at the May 2005 Worlds of Joseph Smith Symposium at the Library of Congress, and finally a presentation at the August 2005 FAIR Conference. It is one of the best-known explanations of M2C and has been frequently cited by other M2C proponents.



The article is too long to reproduce in its entirety, so I'll comment on excerpts. Basically, Brother Clark makes an unchallenged case for the Mesoamerican theory of Book of Mormon geography that was presented to the world as the current consensus about the subject.


Clark. Any fair understanding of Joseph Smith must derive from a plausible explanation of the Book of Mormon, and both science and reason can and should be involved in the evaluation. Because the book makes claims about American prehistory, archaeology has long been implicated in assessments of the book's credentials as ancient history, and, by direct implication, of the veracity, sanity, or honesty of Joseph Smith. I revisit issues of archaeology and the Book of Mormon here in addressing the character of Joseph Smith. Archaeology shows that almost everyone involved in the running quarrel over Joseph and the book have misrepresented and misunderstood both. 


[Comment. This is a thoughtful and useful statement of the issues, except for the presumptuous last sentence.]


Clark. For Mormons, Joseph Smith is a prophet, seer, and revelator, and the Book of Mormon is the word of God. Detractors ridicule both as blasphemous frauds. There is no secure middle ground between positions, but there is one spectacular point of agreement. Champions on both sides see the Book of Mormon as the key to Joseph Smith's claim to be a prophet." 


[Comment. This is an excellent framing of the fundamental issue about Joseph Smith. It parallels the debate among Mormons about the setting for the Book of Mormon, in which there is also no secure middle ground between positions; i.e., Cumorah was either in New York or in Mesoamerica. (There are a few proponents of the idea that Cumorah was in New York while most of the events took place in Mesoamerica, but it is difficult to reconcile those theories with the text.)

Extract from John Lloyd Stephens,

one of the displays at the "Worlds of Joseph Smith"

symposium at the Library of Congress

Clark. Critics see Joseph Smith as author of a romantic fiction, the Book of Mormon, and in doing so they distort both the man and the book beyond belief. They see the book as a logical product of its 1820s intellectual environment, combined with Joseph Smith's native intelligence and deceitful propensities. 


[Comment. This is a good summary of the anti-Mormon position, but it is also a description of the premise for M2C. In the early 1830s, Parley P. Pratt faced this argument and invoked Central America as a partial answer; i.e., in 1829 Joseph did not know about the extravagant ruined cities in Central America, so the book could not be a product of his own knowledge. Benjamin Winchester and others made similar arguments, and modern LDS scholars have embraced these arguments as well. However, in my view these arguments have caused more problems than they've solved--and they weren't necessary in the first place.] 


Clark. Most Mormons fall into a more subtle error that also inflates Joseph’s talents; they confuse translation with authorship.


[Comment. Few if any Mormons confuse this. In fact, I've never met one who did, nor have I read any books, articles, or blogs that make this error. I think Brother Clark is building a straw man here.]


Clark. They presume that Joseph Smith knew the contents of the book as if he were its real author, and they accord him perfect knowledge of the text. 


[Comment. One citation would be very helpful here, but I don't expect one because this is a straw man argument.]


Clark. This presumption removes from discussion the most compelling evidence of the book’s authenticity—Joseph’s unfamiliarity with its contents. 


[Comment. [This is the "most compelling evidence?" Critics have long said Sydney Rigdon wrote the text by copying Solomon Spalding and inserting Christian sermons and ideas. Some claim that Joseph (and/or Oliver) copied it from Ethan Smith or someone else. To these critics, Joseph's unfamiliarity would be evidence that supports their theory; i.e., that he didn't translate it! More importantly, the text itself claims the most compelling evidence is the spiritual witness people receive when the read the book and pray about it. Beyond that, there is no evidence that Joseph was unfamiliar with its contents. He re-read it several times and twice made detailed changes for new editions. It's a strange argument that Joseph was unfamiliar with its contents when he changed punctuation, spelling, and even terminology.]


Clark. To put the matter clearly: Joseph Smith did not fully understand the Book of Mormon. 


[Comment. In a sense, this is true—in an axiomatic way. How could anyone "fully understand" any text? Every reader brings his/her own background, knowledge, experience, etc. to a text; there is no such thing as an objective "full understanding" of a text. If Brother Clark is implying that scholars today "fully understand" the text, he is establishing an impossible standard.]


Clark. I propose that he transmitted to readers an ancient book that he neither imagined nor wrote. 


[Comment. That’s not a novel idea; that’s what Joseph claimed and what every believer accepts. Clark probably means “composed” here, because Oliver Cowdery wrote it. Joseph dictated it.]


Clark. One thing all readers share with Joseph is a partial understanding of the book’s complexities. 


[Comment. One thing no reader shares with Joseph is the four-year tutorial from Moroni that Joseph summarized this way in the Wentworth letter: "I was also informed concerning the aboriginal inhabitants of this country and shown who they were, and from whence they came; a brief sketch of their origin, progress, civilization, laws, governments, of their righteousness and iniquity..." In addition, Joseph's mother said he described the people as if he lived among them.]


Clark. Indeed, many things about the book were simply unknowable in 1830. 


[Comment. Unknowable because Moroni was incapable of teaching them? Or unknowable because those who weren't tutored by Moroni had no way of knowing these things? I assume Brother Clark means the latter. Indeed, many things about the book are simply unknowable even today, but this includes things Moroni knew and apparently taught Joseph Smith.]


Clark. Over the last sixty years, Hugh Nibley, John Sorenson, and other scholars have shown the Book of Mormon to be “truer” than Joseph Smith or any of his contemporaries could know.  


[Comment. This elevation of scholarship over experience invites dispute. Joseph knew the book was true because Moroni told him about it, he translated it with divinely prepared instruments, he hauled around the ancient plates, and he accompanied others when they, too, saw the plates and the angel.

Brother Clark cites books by Nibley and Sorenson, neither of whom claimed actual experience comparable to Joseph’s. Sorenson insists on a Mesoamerican setting, which is problematic in part because it contradicts the men who actually saw the plates and the angel. Brother Clark presumably means that Joseph didn't appreciate the indicia in the book of ancient origins, such as chiasmus. But chiasmus is a subject of as much debate as the origin of the Book itself, and those who "see" Mesoamerica in the text are bringing their own biases with them.]


Clark. Consequently, what Joseph Smith knew and understood about the book ought to be research questions rather than presumptions. Thanks in large part to his critics, it is becoming clear that Joseph Smith did not fully understand the geography, scope, historical scale, literary form, or cultural content of the book. 


[Comment. The only way we can know what Joseph Smith understood is to look at what he said and did, but even if we had every word he ever spoke, we still wouldn't know what he understood. In Joseph explicitly said he couldn't relate everything he knew. (And even when he did explain what Moroni taught him, as in the Wentworth letter, we have modern scholars dismissing what he said.)

As we'll see, Brother Clark means that Joseph didn't agree with the Mesoamerican theory, so therefore Joseph didn't understand the text as well as the modern-day Mesoamerican scholars do. In a sense, I agree with him; Joseph didn't fully understand M2C, which to him and his peers was unthinkable.]


Clark. "For example, early Mormons believed Book of Mormon lands stretched throughout all of North and South America, a presumption clearly at odds with the book itself (fig. 1a). 


[Comment. Some early Mormons believed that, but we only know of a handful who wrote about that theory. Projecting the ideas of a few onto an entire population is a logical fallacy. Here, it's even worse than usual because Joseph Smith explicitly rejected the hemispheric model. When he wrote the Wentworth letter, he based it on Orson Pratt's pamphlet, An Interesting Account of Several Remarkable Visions. In that pamphlet, Pratt had spent several pages outlining the hemispheric model. Joseph crossed out that section and replaced it with this: "the remnant [of the Nephites and Lamanites] are the Indians that now inhabit this country." BTW, don't turn to the lesson manual, Teachings of the Presidents of the Church: Joseph Smith. Even though there is an entire chapter on the Wentworth letter, the curriculum department (which is dominated by M2C) edited out Joseph's teaching about the Indians. Fortunately, the full Wentworth letter is available in the 2002 Ensign and you can still find it here.)]


Clark. The book speaks specifically only of a limited land about the size of Pennsylvania. 


[Comment. This is Brother Clark's subjective, result-oriented interpretation, not what the text says.] 


Clark. In 1842, after reading about ancient cities in Central America, Joseph speculated that Book of Mormon lands were located there (fig. 1b). 


[Comment. This alludes to the infamous Times and Seasons articles, published anonymously, that I've proposed were written and edited by a combination of Benjamin Winchester, W.W. Phelps, and William Smith. The only evidence cited for the claim that Joseph Smith read the books about Central America is a thank-you note to John Bernhisel in the handwriting of John Taylor. I've shown elsewhere that Wilford Woodruff almost certainly composed that note, for a long list of reasons I can't get into here. Lately, some of the M2C scholars have insisted that these anonymous Times and Seasons articles are not the basis for their theory, but if not for these articles, why would anyone ever have looked in Mesoamerica in the first place? Why would Brother Clark cite them here? Why would they be on display at the Library of Congress?]


Clark. I derive two lessons from his speculation: First, Joseph did not know exactly where Book of Mormon lands were; second, he considered their location an important question addressable through scholarship. 


[Comment. This is wonderful sophistry. First, you rely on inferences that aren't supported by the historical facts to speculate that Joseph speculated, then derive self-serving lessons from that speculation that just happen to confirm your preference for intellectuals over prophets. The historical facts are that 1) Joseph embraced Oliver's Letter VII (which he helped write and then had his scribes copy into his journal); 2) Joseph identified the Midwestern U.S. as the "plains of the Nephites," which are mentioned in the text; and 3) Joseph identified the Native North American Indians from the Northeast as the remnant of Lehi's descendants—the Lamanites. He never once mentioned or alluded to Mesoamerica, and he never once varied from what he said. He never speculated.] 


Clark. The book makes hundreds of claims about ancient peoples in the Americas. It has always been clear to people on both sides of the controversy that antiquities could be, and should be, used to corroborate or destroy the book’s pedigree. 


[Comment. In the next section, Brother Clark discusses Noel Reynolds' excellent point that a truly authentic ancient document will continue to look ancient in the light of new discoveries about the past. But he inserts a fascinating graphic]



Notice two things. First, the depiction of "Traditional 19th Century Book of Mormon Geography" strangely puts Cumorah in the Midwest instead of New York. Second, it declares the anonymous Times and Seasons articles to be "Joseph Smith's speculation." Even the anonymous Times and Seasons articles never suggested that Cumorah was anywhere other than in New York, but Brother Clark's map doesn't show that. The very same issue of the Times and Seasons that contains the infamous "Zarahemla" article also contains Joseph's letter that invokes the New York Cumorah (D&C 128).

The "Traditional" or hemispheric model was described by Church members before and after the Times and Seasons articles were published. It was included in the footnotes of the official Book of Mormon from 1879 to the 1920s. One critical point about those footnotes: they were equivocal about the location of Zarahemla, Lehi's landing point, etc., but they were unequivocal in declaring that Cumorah was in New York. So even if, contrary to all historical evidence, it was Joseph Smith who wrote or approved of the anonymous Times and Seasons articles, the New York Cumorah was never in question. This map is a misrepresentation of even the speculation about what Joseph Smith speculated.]


Clark. A major turning point in Book of Mormon studies came with the realization that early Mormons had missed or misunderstood salient facts of geography, history, and culture embedded in its narrative. The book describes a small place. This insight has shifted the whole debate in recent years. 


[Comment. This is actually a good point, but not for the reason Brother Clark thinks. In the Wentworth letter, Joseph Smith himself repudiated the hemispheric model. In 1841, he had rejected the South American setting when an individual brought to Nauvoo a purportedly ancient scroll from South America that depicted Lehi's family crossing the ocean and landing there. When he wrote to Emma about crossing the plains of the Nephites during Zion's Camp, when he sent the missionaries to the Lamanites living in New York, Ohio and Missouri, and when he identified the New Jerusalem in Missouri, he described a "limited geography"--but in North America, not Central America. Nevertheless, eager missionaries, including Parley P. Pratt, Benjamin Winchester, William Smith, Orson Pratt, and others, continued to claim the Book of Mormon covered both hemispheres. These early Mormons--not Joseph Smith--were the ones who missed or misunderstood the geography. And today's M2C scholars have missed and understood the geography just as much as they did.

Brother Clark follows up with another well-known graphic of John Sorenson's internal Book of Mormon geography:]


Clark.... The book provides over seven hundred references to its geography and is consistent from beginning to end, allowing construction of an internal geography. 


[Comment. An internal geography? Assuming, as Mesoamerican advocates must, that there are no "pins in the map" given by Joseph Smith, there is no limit to the number of internal geographies one can construct. No two people can possibly come up with identical internal geographies because the text is vague about directions and distances. One must make assumptions about each. "Northward" alone can be a range of 180 degrees. It is possible to concoct a "consensus" internal geography among people who agree on assumptions, but such assumptions are not, and cannot be, binding on anyone but on those who agree. It’s circular reasoning.

I think the vagueness of the text is another indication of its ancient origins, but as with any ancient text, we need to know the location of at least one named place to figure out the rest of the geography. This is why the New York Hill Cumorah is essential—and why Brother Clark and everyone else involved with the symposium ignored Cumorah.]


Clark. The book describes a narrow, hour-glass-shaped territory several hundred miles long that is sandwiched between eastern and western seas. 


[Comment. Nowhere does the text mention an hourglass shape. To the contrary, the text says the land of Zarahemla and the land of Nephi were "nearly surrounded with water." An hourglass shape flatly contradicts that idea, as this graphic shows. It should be needless to say that the text doesn't mention miles at all, but such designations have been imposed on the text by M2C scholars for so long that many people now assume these distances are found somewhere in the text.]


Clark. John Sorenson has demonstrated that southern Mexico and northern Central America fit remarkably well the book’s geography in overall size, configuration, and location of physical features. 


[Comment. Sorenson's internal geography is designed not to fit the text but to fit Mesoamerica because of the anonymous Times and Seasons articles, which he quotes on pages 2-3 of An Ancient American Setting for the Book of Mormon. Consequently, this hourglass geography doesn't fit the text itself.] 


Clark. His proposal for Book of Mormon geography is illustrated in figure 2. These highly credible Book of Mormon lands are tucked away where Joseph Smith never saw them and would never have found them. 


[Comment. It is true Joseph never saw Mesoamerica—but he did see where the Nephites lived, as he explained in the Wentworth letter. "I was also informed concerning the aboriginal inhabitants of this country and shown who they were, and from whence they came; a brief sketch of their origin, progress, civilization, laws, governments." Joseph himself described Ohio, Indiana and Illinois as "the plains of the Nephites." He found them quite easily.]


Clark. Contrary to Reverend Lamb and subsequent critics, the Book of Mormon does have a place in the Americas—just not a place in Joseph Smith’s experience. Book of Mormon geography fits a corner of the Americas Joseph did not know. Therefore, the book’s geography could not have derived from his personal experience. 


[Comment. This may appear to be an effective argument against critics—the same rationale used by the early missionaries who cited Mesoamerica in the first place—but it contradicts everything Joseph and Oliver actually said or wrote about the topic. Furthermore, when Joseph crossed the plains of the Nephites in the Midwestern U.S., it was an area outside his personal experience at the time he translated the text. Thus, in a real sense, the North American setting answers the critics as well as Mesoamerica; i.e., there is no need to look at Mesoamerica.] 


Clark. It follows that he dictated a book with complexities beyond his own comprehension.


[Comment. I agree with Brother Clark that the text contains complexities. Whether Joseph comprehended them or not is a matter of speculation. Joseph could have comprehended things he never articulated; in fact, he said that was the case. Let's take chiasmus as one example. Joseph never said anything about chiasmus, or Hebrew parallelisms in general. Does that mean he didn't comprehend them or was unaware of them? Maybe. Maybe not. Jonathan Edwards, whose work influenced Joseph, wrote extensively about Hebrew parallel structures.

I think it's likely Joseph didn't know how the text described the North American setting he referred to throughout his life, but that's only speculation; he could just as well have understood chiasmus without ever discussing it.]


Clark. After geographical considerations, the second major challenge for Book of Mormon correlations is history... For present purposes, the best place to search for histories matching those in the book is Mesoamerica. 


[Comment. Brother Clark makes an excellent point here, but why is Mesoamerica the "best place" to look for matching histories? He includes this graphic:




This graphic is designed to match the Olmec and Mayan cultures to the Book of Mormon cultures, but there are many problems with it. For example, the text never says all the Jaredites were destroyed; Moroni wrote only about those "in this north country." Nothing in the text says or implies that the City of Nephi was destroyed in the same time frame as the battle at Cumorah; in fact, the victorious Lamanite civilization continued on unabated. We should be looking for particular civilizations that were destroyed in the relevant time frames while the conquerors continued on. What we see in North America are Hopewell and Adena civilizations that correspond with the Nephite and Jaredite development and destruction, but within the limited areas of which the text speaks.]


Clark. Peoples there had calendar systems. Evidence of these native calendars is doubly interesting because Joseph Smith’s critics have accused him of plagiarizing books that contain information on Hebrew and Aztec timekeeping, principally from Ethan Smith’s View of the Hebrews published in 1825. Similarities between Amerindian and Hebrew months were taken long ago as evidence that American Indians descended from the Lost Ten Tribes, another idea Joseph supposedly pilfered. Neither accusation holds up. Timekeeping in the Book of Mormon differs from descriptions available in 1829 of Hebrew and Indian lunar counts. Of greater interest, some peculiar details in the book correspond to Maya time-cycles discovered nearly sixty years after the book’s publication.... The Book of Mormon records several references to a significant four-hundred-year prophecy, consistent with this idiosyncratic Mesoamerican calendar practice. 


[Comment. It's interesting that only recently have archaeologists figured out that the Newark, Ohio, earthworks were aligned to lunar movements. Of course, Hebrew culture used lunar cycles; the Mayans used solar cycles. We would expect the Book of Mormon people to use lunar cycles. M2C proponents often cite the 400-year prophecy, but that's a Biblical allusion that a Hebrew culture would be familiar with. Genesis 15:13 reads: "And he said unto Abram, Know of a surety that thy seed shall be a stranger in a land that is not theirs, and shall serve them; and they shall afflict them four hundred years." Nephi referred to this in 1 Nephi 17:25. "Now ye know that the children of Israel were in bondage; and ye know that they were laden with tasks, which were grievous to be borne; wherefore, ye know that it must needs be a good thing for them, that they should be brought out of bondage." King Limhi referred to the same event in Mosiah 7:19. Contrary to this direct link to the Old Testament, there is not a single reference in the text to any Mayan literature, legends, themes, or symbolism. The Mayans were careful to keep track of time and commemorate their kings on monuments, but not a single link to the Book of Mormon has been found on any of these carved or painted memorials.]


Clark. Natives occupied American territories for millennia before Jaredites and Nephites arrived. The apparent rabbit-like population counts for early Nephites, therefore, are best explained by the Nephites’ incorporation of natives. The book does not provide a clear account of such associations, but this is an issue of record keeping, not of biological reproduction. 


[Comment. I agree with Brother Clark about the assimilation of indigenous populations, but differ in its implications. Lehi said there were no “nations” in their part of the promised land. The Mayans were a well-established Mayan culture that would hardly accept the Nephite intruders, much less adopted their customs or made them kings. On the other hand, the Nephites would have assimilated small bands of hunter/gatherers who would be impressed by the advanced technology Nephi brought with him. We find just such unorganized hunter/gatherers in North America, but not in the heart of Mayan culture.]


Clark. What do these myriad facts and observations add up to? They constitute a strong case that the Book of Mormon is an ancient Mesoamerican record, an authentic old book. 


[Comment. In my view, the facts align against the Mesoamerican setting, for all the reasons I've described previously on this blog. M2C itself is an outdated response to the early erroneous objections to the Book of Mormon that were based on misunderstandings of North American archaeology. The ancient inhabitants of North America were more advanced than people of Joseph Smith's day realized. The legends of a white race being destroyed by savages contradicts what the text says. M2C may have served a useful purpose in shifting the focus away from North America to Central America, but the more we learn about ancient societies in both North and Central America, the less the text matches Central America and the more it matches ancient North America—with Cumorah in New York.] 


Clark. This conclusion harbors multiple ironies, two worth touching on in closing. First, if the book is an ancient Mesoamerican record, most past arguments for and against it have been wrongheaded.


[Comment. Maybe most past arguments have been wrongheaded, but modern arguments that point out the inconsistencies M2C, along with the basic problem of rejecting the New York Cumorah and all that entails, leave proponents worse off than the early Saints who were confronted by anti-Mormon arguments based on once popular ideas about the North American setting that we now recognize as erroneous. By contrast, ongoing discoveries about ancient North America do much more to corroborate the text than could have been imagined just a few years ago.] 


Clark. Second, if the book is authentic history, most biographies of Joseph Smith are deficient.


[Comment. I don't know how to quantify this, but if he means biographies overlooked Mesoamerica, I disagree.]


Clark. This is where archaeology intersects theology and history. The basic question to be resolved is this: What needs to be explained about Joseph Smith and the Book of Mormon? The most remarkable things about the book are not the intricate plots, myriad characters, rich settings, or textual consistencies. Ordinary novelists and movie-makers create elaborate fantasy worlds every year. The Book of Mormon separates itself from all fantasy and fiction in its predictions about the past. 


[Comment. I love this phrase because it captures exactly what the Book of Mormon does--except not in Mesoamerica.] 


Clark. Accurate predictions of a then unknown past beg explanation. Emerging facts from archaeology, as shown, confirm a trend of unusual and specific details in the book that could not have been known in any book or language in 1829.


[Comment. This is true for North America but not true for Central America. The Mayans left relatively detailed accounts of their political history, none of which reflects the Book of Mormon or any Hebrew influence. The more we learn about ancient Central America, the less it looks like the Book of Mormon descriptions.]


Clark. The continuing challenge is to explain how these facts made their way into the Book of Mormon. The two most likely answers are that they either had to be conveyed to Joseph Smith through supernatural means, or he had to guess each one individually and sequentially at virtually impossible odds. Thus, explanations of the book will need to admit God or the Devil into the equation, or grant supranatural clairvoyance or abilities to Joseph Smith. 


[Comment. Good point that I think all believers can agree with.]


[Overall, I think Brother Clark framed the arguments well. His focus on Mesoamerica, however, undermines his points. He would find much firmer ground in North America. I propose that instead of casting doubt on the credibility of Oliver Cowdery and Joseph Smith, Book of Mormon scholars should work to find ways to reconcile what they wrote and said with what archaeology and other sciences are telling us.]

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