Sunday, April 9, 2017

Answering Letter to a CES Director # 5

Often in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints we take art to be our doctrine, meaning that we often think that what we see in the paintings in the hallways of our chapels and temples are exactly how the events portrayed took place. However, we would do well to remember that art can be deceptive, which is one reason why Plato in Republic wanted to banish all artisans from his ideal city. Art is an interpretation of someone's idea or ideal, but it may not match with what historical data has to say about a particular event.

Jesus in Gethsemane

Take the above picture of Jesus for example. If you were to convert this into a historical model of what actually happened, then you would assume that Jesus was white, knelt at a tree, and wore white robes the night of his passion. If you compare that with the Gospel of Mark (the first of the Gospels written and perhaps the most historically reliable) you will find no mention of Jesus' color of skin, that Jesus did not kneel (rather he fell on the ground), and there is no mention of the coloring of his garments (Mark 14: 32-36). In short, we should get our historical ideas about what happens from historical texts rather than from pictures. Historical records are about how events took place, art is about beauty according to philosopher Roger Scruton.

All this leads to the next point made by Jeremy Runnells in Letter to a CES Director. Runnells states:
Unlike the story I've been taught in Sunday School, Priesthood, General Conferences, Seminary, EFY, Ensigns, Church history tour, Missionary Training Center, and BYU...Joseph Smith used a rock in a hat for translating the Book of Mormon.   
 In other words, he used the same "Ouija Board" that he used in his days treasure hunting where he would put in a rock – or a peep stone – in his hat and put his face in the hat to tell his customers the location of buried treasure.  He used the exact same method while the gold plates were covered or put in another room or buried in the woods during translating the Book of Mormon.  These facts are not only confirmed in Rough Stone Rolling (p. 71-72), by FairMormon here and here, by Neal A. Maxwell Institute (FARMS), but also in an obscure 1992 talk given by Elder Russell M. Nelson of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles.  Update: The Church’s December 2013 essay admits this.
 Why is the Church not being honest and transparent to its members about how Joseph Smith really translated the Book of Mormon?  How am I supposed to be okay with this deception? (Letter to a CES Director pg. 20-21) (Runnells also shows several pictures the Church portrays of how the Prophet translated the Book of Mormon)
First, Runnells is committing the logical fallacy of a hasty generalization, assuming that his experience in the Church is equivalent to all members' experience. What is more likely is that Runnells, like many but not all young adult members, was not interested in these historical matters until his adulthood, and then re-interpreted his experience as having been deceived. I have been a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints since 2009 (about 4 years before the CES Letter was written), and I knew prior to baptism that the Prophet Joseph Smith had used his seer stone to translate the Book of Mormon.

Further, the Journal of Discourses, as well as the testimony of David Whitmer and others, show that the early Saints were also aware of the Prophets use of the stone. This is not new information, it is readily available. It may be true that Runnells' instructors and family did not tell him about these matters, but it is false to state that the Church is hiding it when you can learn about these matters in books that are available at the Church's bookstore, Deseret Book. So, Runnells statement that the Church and its leaders are deceiving people is patently false.


 As far as Runnells' calling seer stones "Ouija Boards", he is guilty of the logical fallacy of equivocation, which is using two different terms and assuming that they have the same meaning. Ouija Boards are not translation devices, rather they are boards with numbers and letters printed on them that can supposedly receive messages from the devil or deceased spirits. No one has ever reported that they used such a  device to translate a book.

Picture of an Ouija Board
Seer stones, which the Prophet used to translate the Book of Mormon, are mentioned in Biblical times in connection with the breastplate that the High Priest wore, and it was used from time to time to receive messages from God; a good example would be when David asked the High Priest to use it to know what to do (1 Samuel 30:7-8). So, the idea of receiving inspiration through material objects is ancient rather than modern.



Perhaps part of the problem is not so much with the process itself, but the word "translate". When we hear that word in our every day vernacular, we think of a person trained in two or more languages taking a text in one language and transmitting it into another. This was not so with the Prophet. According to Emma, he could hardly dictate a coherent letter, so to think he could translate a dead language is simply preposterous. He needed assistance, great assistance in fact, to accomplish the task the Lord had given him. So, taking a process that was familiar to him, the Lord allowed him to use a stone that he had used for other purposes in order to translate the record.

Further reading: Book of Mormon Translation, Rough Stone Rolling by Richard L. Bushman, Investigating the Book of Mormon Witnesses by Richard L. Anderson, Joseph Smith's Seer Stones by Michael Hubbard MacKay & Nicholas J. Frederick



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