"The Mormon people teach the American religion; their principles teach the people not only of Heaven and its attendant glories, but how to live so that their social and economic relations with each other are placed on a sound basis. If the people follow the teachings of this Church, nothing can stop their progress — it will be limitless. There have been great movements started in the past but they have died or been modified before they reached maturity. If Mormonism is able to endure, unmodified, until it reaches the third and fourth generation, it is destined to become the greatest power the world has ever known." - Leo Tolstoy

Friday, May 22, 2015

Did Book of Mormon witnesses simply see the golden plates with their 'spiritual eyes'?

(by Daniel Peterson deseretnews.com 5-22-15)

I continually encounter the confident declaration that the witnesses to the Book of Mormon didn’t really see or touch anything at all and didn’t actually claim to have seen or touched anything. They only “saw” the plates with their “spiritual eyes,” I’m assured, and “spiritual eyes,” to them, meant “in their imaginations.”

I responded to this assertion in a column published five years ago (see "Book of Mormon witness testimonies" published May 25, 2010). However, since the claim continues to be made, and given the fundamental importance of this issue, I address it yet again, in somewhat different fashion.

I’ll leave aside the question of whether it’s even remotely plausible that the witnesses sacrificed so very much for something they recognized as merely imaginary. Let’s look at their explicit verbal testimonies. Several of the 11 official witnesses were obviously confronted during their lifetimes with accusations that they had merely hallucinated, and they repeatedly rejected such proposed explanations.

In fact, David Whitmer, one of the initial Three Witnesses, could easily have been addressing today’s skeptics when he declared “I was not under any hallucination, nor was I deceived! I saw with these eyes and I heard with these ears! I know whereof I speak!”

It’s difficult to imagine how he could have been any clearer.

In this column, though, I’ll focus on the experience of the Eight Witnesses, which seems to have included no explicitly supernatural elements but, rather, to have been a wholly matter-of-fact event.

In late 1839, Hyrum Smith wrote an account for the Times and Seasons newspaper covering, among other things, his four months of hungry and cold imprisonment in Missouri’s Liberty Jail, under recurring threats of execution, while his family and fellow members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints were being driven from their homes during the wintertime:

“I thank God,” he told the Saints, “that I felt a determination to die, rather than deny the things which my eyes had seen, which my hands had handled, and which I had borne testimony to. … I can assure my beloved brethren that I was enabled to bear as strong a testimony, when nothing but death presented itself, as ever I did in my life.”

One might dismiss this declaration of willingness to die for his testimony as an empty boast, mere retrospective bravado, were it not for the fact that, less than five years later in Illinois, fully understanding the risk, he did in fact go voluntarily to Carthage Jail. There, with his prophet-brother, he died as a martyr — which, in ancient Greek, means “witness” — in a hail of bullets.

The accounts left behind by the Eight Witnesses are replete not only with claims to have “seen and hefted” the plates, to have turned their individual leaves and examined their engravings, but also with estimates of their weight, descriptions of their physical form and the rings that bound them, and reports of their approximate dimensions as well.

Wilhelm Poulson’s 1878 interview with John Whitmer provides an excellent summary:

“I — Did you handle the plates with your hands? He — I did so!

"I — Then they were a material substance? He — Yes, as material as anything can be.

"I — They were heavy to lift? He — Yes, and you know gold is a heavy metal, they were very heavy.

"I — How big were the leaves? He — So far as I can recollect, 8 by 6 or 7 inches.

"I — Were the leaves thick? He — Yes, just so thick, that characters could be engraven on both sides.
"I — How were the leaves joined together? He — In three rings, each one in the shape of a D with the straight line towards the centre. ...

"I — Did you see them covered with a cloth? He — No. He handed them uncovered into our hands, and we turned the leaves sufficient to satisfy us.”

William Smith, who knew the Eight Witnesses well — his father and two of his brothers were among them — explained “they not only saw with their eyes but handled with their hands the said record.”

Daniel Tyler heard Samuel Smith testify that “He knew his brother Joseph had the plates, for the prophet had shown them to him, and he had handled them and seen the engravings thereon.”

Those who seek to dismiss the testimony of the Eight Witnesses must, on the whole, flatly brush aside what they actually, and very forcefully, said.

For further evidence and analysis on this topic, see Richard Lloyd Anderson’s 2005 article “Attempts to Redefine the Experience of the Eight Witnesses” online at publications.maxwellinstitute.byu.edu.



Monday, May 18, 2015

Much left to discover between archaeology and the Book of Mormon

(by Daniel Peterson deseretnews.com 5-17-15)

Some critics dismiss the Book of Mormon because, they say, no archaeological evidence directly supports it. Archaeological evidence, though, is spotty, and it seldom shows up on cue.

Until Conrad Schick found the pool of Bethesda in Jerusalem’s Muslim quarter in the 19th century, for example, only the Gospel of John suggested the pool ever even existed. Some scholars used that fact to argue that John was late and at least partially fictional, written by an author unacquainted with the city.

Yet Palestine is far more intensively studied and easier to work in than Mesoamerica, with much better textual resources and a continuous tradition of geographical names.

Moreover, that word “directly” is problematic. Archaeology seldom “directly” settles controversial issues. Rocks don’t speak for themselves; decisive, unambiguous inscriptions are rare.

The first nonbiblical allusion to Pontius Pilate was found by Italian archaeologists at Caesarea Maritima, on the Mediterranean coast, in 1981.

The first nonbiblical reference to David and the House of David — and just the fourth ancient inscription mentioning “Israel” at all — was found only during the 1993-1994 archaeological season at northern Israel’s Tel Dan. In some circles, it remains controversial.

A bulla or clay seal, the first tangible ancient artifact demonstrating the existence of biblical Bethlehem, was discovered just three years ago.

As William Hamblin explained in his still-important 1993 article on “Basic Methodological Problems with the Anti-Mormon Approach to the Geography and Archaeology of the Book of Mormon,” the location of Jerusalem would have been difficult, if not impossible, to find were it not for a continuous geographical tradition that doesn’t exist in the Americas:

Canaanites knew the city as “u-ru-sa-lim,” which gave us Hebrew “Yerushalem” or “Yerushalayim.” But the settlement was also often called “the City of David” and “Zion,” which thus yields four distinct names for it in the Old Testament alone. The Greeks called it both “Ierousalem” and “Hierosolyma,” and later Latin speakers preserved that second name. However, following the Second Jewish Revolt in the early second century, the Emperor Hadrian renamed the city “Aelia Capitolina.” It regained its identity as “Jerusalem” only because when "Christians eventually came to dominate the Roman Empire, (they) changed the name back."

But then, following the Muslim conquests, the city was called “Aliya” (from the Roman “Aelia”), “Bayt al-Maqdis” and “al-Quds,” as it continues to be by Palestinians and other Arabic-speakers today. Had Christianity been exterminated, as the Nephites were, "rather than becoming the dominant religion of the Roman empire, what linguistic evidence would we have that al-Quds of today was ancient Jerusalem?"

Real archaeology bears little resemblance to an Indiana Jones movie; overwhelmingly, it’s a matter of painstakingly drawing inferences from such things as pottery fragments and partial building
foundations. And authors who are members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, such as John Clark, Brant Gardner, John Sorenson and Mark Wright, who very much believe the Book of Mormon to have solid footing within Mesoamerican archaeology, have long been engaged in such efforts. I commend their work to anybody who’s interested.

In order to make meaningful statements about the relationship between archaeology and the Book of Mormon, authors need to know both subjects well. It’s plainly insufficient to know just one of them. And among the very first questions that need to be answered are where the events of the Book of Mormon occurred, if they occurred at all, and what the overall dimensions of Book of Mormon territory might be.

Some critics declare that limited geographical models of the Book of Mormon — which include both the Mesoamerican geographies that I favor and the “Heartland” model that others advocate — have arisen in response to mounting threats from archaeological and genetic data and represent a retreat from a “shrinking” Book of Mormon with fictional peoples who will soon “vanish” altogether.

But limited geographical models were created because the Book of Mormon demands them. As Sorenson demonstrated in his seminal 1985 “Ancient American Setting for the Book of Mormon,” when all the travel distances and travel times given in the book are analyzed, it’s obvious beyond reasonable dispute that the Nephite/Lamanite/Jaredite lands were relatively small; they plainly didn’t extend from Patagonia on the southern end of South America to the Aleutian Islands between Alaska and Russia. And such models were on demonstrably public offer long before James Watson and Francis Crick discovered DNA’s double-helix structure in 1953, and decades before anybody was researching Amerindian DNA.

Many interesting questions remain; archaeology and the Book of Mormon still have much to say to each other.



Asael Smith grave

(by Kenneth Mays deseretnews.com 5-6-14)
In 1638, a boy named Robert Smith left England and arrived in America and settled in the region of Topsfield, Massachusetts. Robert and his wife, Mary French, later had a son, Samuel.

Samuel Sr. and his wife, Rebecca Curtis, also had a son, Samuel. The younger Samuel and his wife, Priscilla, had a son, Asael, the father of Joseph Smith Sr. and grandfather of the Prophet Joseph Smith.

Asael was born in Topsfield, Massachusetts, in 1744. He fought in the Revolutionary War and stressed to his family the importance of living a good life. Asael eventually moved to Tunbridge, Vermont, where his son Joseph would meet his future wife, Lucy Mack. Asael and some of his family later moved to St. Lawrence County, New York.

While there, he was introduced to the gospel restored by his grandson, Joseph Smith Jr. It was Joseph Sr. and his son, Don Carlos Smith who taught him. Asael died shortly after their visit in October 1830. He was buried in the Union Cemetery in Stockholm Township, St. Lawrence County, New York.