This past Sunday, the LDS Church put together an interesting program, aimed for youth worldwide. The event was held in Nauvoo and featured Elder Cook with historians Dr. Matthew Grow and Dr. Kate Holbrook. I respect Grow and Holbrook as “straight shooters” when it comes to explaining LDS history and defending the tough issues that are hard to answer sometimes.
The Church is stepping up their efforts to teach history the right way. I’m very proud of my church in a lot of ways for doing this. The essays were a first step. This new book series Saints is another big step. I understand there is frank discussion of seer stones, polygamy, and many other difficult issues in that book.
I loved one of the questions: Did Joseph translate the gold plates or was it strictly a revelation?
This issue is starting be a prominent one that is acceptable to discuss even among faithful Mormon scholars. Should we think of the Book of Mormon strictly as a word for word translation of an ancient record, dictated to him from heaven? Or should we think of it more of a revelation, created through the mind of Joseph as he interacted with divinity? Or some combination?
Kate Holbrook took the question and talked about how Joseph started with a scholarly approach which failed and then tried a revelatory approach. She said that both terms are appropriate to use to describe how the Book of Mormon was produced. She compared the BOM translation process to the Bible translation (JST version) process, which we know was more of a revelatory, midrashic kind of thing. She was not very direct, but she seemed to be suggesting that it’s OK to understand the BOM as something other than 100% a direct translation of an ancient record.
An interesting comment I read on Facebook about this event from Stephen Smoot:
“Here is an apostle sitting next to two professional historians. When questions about Church history came from the two young adult hosts (questions concerning seer stones, polygamy, and First Vision accounts) this apostle did not immediately jump in and claim to have all the answers. Instead he turned to the historians and asked them for their perspective before adding his own and bearing his apostolic testimony of the Restoration.
In other words, Elder Cook never put up any pretense to being infallible or omniscient on matters of Church history and doctrine. Nor, for that matter, did Drs. Holbrook and Grow grovel before Elder Cook and obsequiously defer to him as the final authority. It was a mutual, reciprocal, and respectful partnership built on trust and faith.
I like it. I applaud the Church’s efforts on all these things. It’s a move in the right direction.
I’ve seen a lot of criticism of the event as well. A lot of comments I saw were that people felt like Cook, Grow, or Holbrook were not adequately addressing criticism or superficially touching something controversial while skirting around the truly difficult aspects of the issue.
I think the reason the event didn’t measure up for some people is explained in an idea I comment frequently about.
The church traditionally taught (or implied) about a certain issue as A then B. With A as the historical facts surrounding a church issue. And B being the conclusion or outcome.
A (facts) = Joseph translated the Book of Mormon with the Gold Plates on the table, using the Urim and Thummim (Nephite Interpreters).
B (outcome) = The Book of Mormon is an ancient record 100% dictated to Joseph from God
Critics will say X then Y.
X (facts) = Joseph used a seer stone with head in hat and the Gold Plates were usually not there.
Y (outcome) = The Book of Mormon is a fraud
A = The First Vision happened exactly according to the official 1838 version.
B = Joseph had a material visitation from God the Father and Jesus Christ and was told all other churches are not true and that he would be responsible for starting God’s exclusively true church.
X = There are other First Vision accounts, and the first one says nothing about church exclusivity.
Y = Joseph was making it up.
The Church is doing a good job on both these issues in cleaning up how we teach about it. But again, we are shifting A to X but sticking with B, so X then B.
The problem is that as we study the facts of church history, not only does it change how we teach the facts (the A or X), it also puts some of our “B’s” into very dubious territory.
We’re accepting the new X about Joseph’s sketchy polygamy details, but then we’re going to stick with B, that God really commanded it?
It’s easier to change the A to X and much, much more difficult to change the B side of the equation. We don’t need to move it all the way from B to Y. We don’t need to agree with critics that it’s all a fraud and give up all the good that we have as a church. But if we don’t move an inch on B, that will be the new faith crisis for kids inoculated on the new church history. We went from clean, perfect, tidy history with clean, perfect, tidy outcome. Now we switched it to messy, sketchy history with clean, perfect, tidy outcome. That doesn’t compute for a lot of people.
Instead of moving from B to Y, let’s move towards L.
The Book of Mormon is not 100% dictated by God, ie could be more of a revelation than a translation from the first part of post.
The First Vision is real, and the multiple versions of it testify of its reality, but we could soften a bit about how certain we are about what exactly was communicated to Joseph in it, since it was understood differently by him in different times of his life.
The facts of polygamy are ugly, and so it’s likely God wasn’t the author of all that confusion.
I don’t know exactly how this will work, but this is a model of how a direction we could go that would make sense of the facts and address them a bit more directly. This is the next step. We’re moving on the left side of the equation. Now we need to move on the right side of the equation.