Thursday, February 28, 2008

The Joseph Smith Papers

So, the LDS church has just unveiled their new publisher's imprint, Church Historian's Press. Their first project is to be a collection of all "known personal papers, correspondence, journals and other primary sources" of Joseph Smith. If indeed that is what they publish, then that collection promises to be eminently enlightening, though perhaps not in the way the church intends...

The church was initially shopping around for university presses, particularly Oxford University, to publish the Smith papers, but they elected to scrap that and start their own press in order to "maintain editorial control."

Maybe it's just me, but I read that as saying "we want to be able to cut, redact or otherwise downplay anything that is not faith affirming," as the LDS church is so very very skilled at doing.

I'm not sure if Joe ever wrote journals or correspondence about his otherwise documented pre-BOM treasure hunting, fraud trial, or claims of magical power. If he did though, I'm willing to bet money that none of that will be in this book.

Maybe I'm wrong. Maybe this will truly be an exhaustive collection that is truly what it purports to be. If so, then I welcome it. The Mormon church has a long history of supressing, downplaying, or (with the advent of the internet) simply telling their members to ignore anything that might call the veracity of Smith and others into question.

For instance, just now, I searched on for the Kinderhook Plates, the forged "ancient" plates brought to Smith by critics of the church in order for him to attempt translation and make him look foolish.

According to in their intro to the topic: "Joseph Smith did not make the hoped-for translation. In fact, no evidence exists that he manifested any further interest in the plates after early examination of them, although some members of the Church hoped that they would prove to be significant."

As you might guess, this is inaccurate. There indeed is evidence that Smith attempted translation, with Smith stating that "I have translated a portion of them, and find they contain the history of the person with whom they were found. He was a descendant of Ham, through the loins of Pharaoh, king of Egypt, and that he received his kingdom from the ruler of heaven and earth." does actually include that quote, which kind of surprised me. But they immediately follow it up with a dismissal, saying that the words were not from Smith, but from William Clayton. Who was Clayton? Oh, you know, just some guy who happened to be employed as Jospeh Smith's scribe! And since Smith never wrote those words himself (you know, because he was largely illiterate), the account cannot be trusted, according to the church. Though numerous other texts attributed to Smith were actually written by a scribe (not the least of which is the Book of Mormon).

This is just dishonesty.

Okay, enough on the historical jiggery pokery of the LDS church. I'm trying to pull this post to some sort of elegant close, but I think I might instead just end in mid sente


Elaine said...

Perfect ending, I declare! As if you got struck by lightning.

Chocolate-Loving Atheist said...

Got struck by lightning by God, of course, for writing anti-Mormon literature.

I loved this post, but I always love your posts. Thanks for keeping us all educated!

John & Audra Day said...

Interesting. It doesn't seem unreasonable to me that those working on this project would want some protection - anyone would. I've never seen people publicly protest a religious function like I have seen people protest Mormon functions. By your comments you have already formed the opinion that the LDS church is skilled at suppressing/downplaying (information?) and advising their members to ignore 'anything that might call the veracity of Smith and others into question' (regardless of what is actually published as part of these papers). In my opinion, I don't know why you bother to write about the project, because you are already convinced that nothing good/insightful/honest will come of it. If your critics and/or enemies came you to looking to make you look foolish, would you indulge them??

GreenishBlue said...

John and Audra,
It's clear to me that you are taking a reasonable approach to this, and that's appreciated. But I do want to address a few of the ideas you brought up.

I agree that the the Mormon church is a common target for criticism and protest. Surely much of this is unfounded, but that does not make ALL criticism of the church by default invalid or inappropriate.

You mention that the people working on this project would naturally want "protection" from their "critics and enemies." Oxford University is not a rag-tag group of anti-Mormon crusaders, but one of the -- if note THE -- most highly regarded scholarly organizations in the world.

I disagree that it is appropriate for someone working of this project to want "protection" from an unbiased scholarly perspective. The reason noted that the church was going it alone on this project was that that they wanted to maintain "editorial control." What is the function of editorial control in what is intended to be an exhaustive compilation of ALL of Smith's writings? Perhaps the intentions here are benign and not intended to be suppressive unflattering material, but the fact of the matter is that the LDS church has -- repeatedly -- edited extant texts, denied well-documented facts, and misled its members about its history and particularly about Joseph Smith.

For example, I mentioned the church's explanation of the Kinderhhok Plates in my post. I believe this to be a clear example of misleading members. To wit: The words were attributed to Joseph, but he didn't write them... Of course the person who DID write them was employed by Smith as his scribe and the account was not contested? I do not see any other way of rationally interpreting this. There are many many more examples of this (the church's reation to the discrediting of the Smith translation of the "Book of Abraham" papyrus, the dissembling justifications for the then-believed-accurate Salamander document, the denial of the reason that Smith was tarred-and-feathered, and on and on)

I have not, as you say I have, already been convinced that nothing "good/insightful/honest" will come out of this project. That is simply false. I think it is entirely possible that the Church will do a thorough, accurate and just job on this project. But the lack of any objective eyes plus the impossibility of verifying veracity paired with a well-documented tendency to edit towards a "faith-affirming" narrative leads me to be skeptical that this is the case.

It is, of course, the church's right to do whatever they please. They can edit, rationalize and mislead with an eye to "faithful history" all they like.

But when they do, they are not immune from criticism.

GreenishBlue said...

Yeah, a couple typos in my last message (was in a tad bit of a hurry, but wanted to get my thoughts out). Oh well. :)

Elaine said...

I find that in the world of religious faith many, many things are considered to be "black or white." This is what I see in the assumption that "a skeptic" has pre-conceived ideas about a subject and therefore, what's the point in even writing about it?

I appreciated and admired your clarification, Patrick, that, as a skeptic, you are fully open to the POSSIBILITY that something COULD be one way ... you're just not going to take it on faith that that's the case, and you're going to take into account all other rational information available.