Monday, February 19, 2018

Augustine - on God the Father as 'the principle without principle'

Back on 10 July 2016, I published one of my personal, favorite posts:

In that post I provided a number of examples which prove beyond any doubt that Augustine clearly taught the Son owes his existence to God the Father.

Today, I am publishing yet one more example of causality from Augustine; note the following:

We can ask whether we should understand the words "In the beginning God made heaven and earth" only in accord with history, or whether they also signify something in figures, and how they conform to the gospel and for what reason this book begins in this way. According to history one asks whether "In the beginning" means in the beginning of time in the principle, in the very Wisdom of God. For the Son of God said that he was the principle. When he was asked, "Who are you?" he said, "The principle; that is why I am speaking to you." For there is a principle without principle, and there is a principal along with another principal. The principle without principle is the Father alone, and thus we believe that all things are from one principle. But the Son is a principle in such a way that he is from the Father. (Augustine, On the Literal Translation of Genesis, in  Fathers of the Church, vol. 84, p. 148 - bold emphasis mine.)

The maxim that 'the principle without principle is the Father alone', employed by Augustine, became an important component of Catholic dogma, being adopted by Church councils, and theologians (most notably, Thomas Aquinas). Directly related to this dictum is the monarchy of God the Father, as well as the often neglected  teaching that it is the Father alone who is autotheos.

Hope to have more on 'the principle without principle is the Father alone', in the near future (the Lord willing).

Grace and peace,


Friday, February 2, 2018

Early Mormon history: an important paradigm shift - Part 2

In the first installment of this series (link), I delineated "three primary explanations/interpretations of the historical period under investigation". This post will open with the 'Supernatural B' explanation.
One of the earliest, published examples of 'Supernatural B' came from the pen of a close relative of Joseph Smith Jr., his uncle Jesse Smith, the eldest brother of Joseph Smith Sr. We learn from George A. Smith, a cousin of Joseph Smith Jr., that letters from Joseph Smith Sr. and Joseph Smith Jr., began to be written and sent to close family members (e.g. Asael Smith, Jesse Smith,  John Smith), in the fall of 1828, promoting Joseph Smith Juniors recent supernatural experiences—e.g. the discovery of the 'gold plates', the translation work, and angelic visitations. We learn from the following letter penned by Jesse Smith that Hyrum Smith was also sending letters to close family members. The entire letter is provided below. I am using the Joseph Smith Papers online edition, and have included a few of their editorial additions. The hand written copy, and fully edited version can be accessed online HERE.

Letter, Jesse Smith to Hyrum Smith • 17 June 1829
Stockholm June 17th 1829
Mr. Hiram Smith

Once as I thot my promising Nephew, You wrote to my Father long ago, that after struggling thro various scenes of adversity, you and your family, you had at last been taught the very salutary lesson that the God that made the heavens and the earth w[o]uld at onc[e] give success to your endeavours, this if true, is very well, exactly as it should be— but— alas what is man when left to his own way, he makes his own gods, if a golden calf, he falls down and worship’s before it, and says this is my god which brought me out of the land of Vermont — if it be a gold book discovered by the necromancy of infidelity, & dug from the mines of atheism, he writes that the Angel of the Lord has revealed to him the hidden treasures of wisdom & knowledge, even divine revelation, which has lain in the bowels of the earth for thousands of years is at last made known to him, he says he has eyes to see things that are not, and then has the audacity to say they are; And this Angel of the Lord (Devil it should be) has put me in possession of great wealth, gold and silver and precious stones so that I shall have the dominion in all the land of Palmyra.—
In a subsequent letter you write that you learn from your Grandfather’s letter that uncle Jesse thinks you are carrying on a work of deception, in this he and you are right, Uncle Jesse did, and still does think the whole pretended discovery, not a very deep, but a very clear and foolish deception, a very great wickedness, unpardonable, unless you are shielded by your ignorance. Again you say, if you are decieved God is your deciever, Blasphemous wretch— how dare you utter such a sentence, how dare you harbor such a thot— aye, you never did think so, but being hardened in iniquity, you made use of the holy name of Jehovah! for what, why to cover your nefarious designs & impose on the credulity of your Grandfather, one of the oldest men on the earth,
Blackness of darkness! [p. 59]

You say you have God for a witness— to prove the truth of what you write miserable creature, not to say perjured villain, how dare you thus trifle, in taking the name of God in vain, nay far worse than vain— that God with whom you thus trifle, is of purer eyes than to behold iniquity he cannot look on sin with any degree of approbation or complacency it is true he passeth by iniquity transgression and sin in his redeemed ones, he sees their shield, and for his sake recieves them to favour, but to such as make lead books, and declare to the world that they are of the most fine gold, calling on the great & dreadful name of the most High to witness the truth of their assertions, He says “depart from me ye that work iniquity,” and again “these shall go away into everlasting punishment, they shall be cast into everlasting fire prepared for the devil and his angels” these are the angels that tell where to find gold books.——
Your Grandfather is sorely disappointed he would not have listened a moment to your foolery, had he been forty years younger, he would have discovered barefaced falsehood in every line of your statement, nor would he as it is, but they say there must be one fool in the play, your good, pious & methodistical uncle Asahel induced his father to give credit to your tale of nonsense, your abominable wickedness.— but now the poor old man just dropping into the grave is in tears day and night as David, mourning as did David over Absolam, who fell in rebellion against God & man, my poor old father is in deep mourning, not for his younger son, he sleeps in the dust, his ashes are not disturbed by your horrible deeds, he was taken from this evil, he mourns for Joe & his numerous family, not because wild beasts have torn him in pieces, but because he has destroyed himself & associated so much with thieves murderers etc etc
Your father would not be implicated in this place, but for the message he sent by the hands of a fool to my brother Saml [Smith] this fellow says that you and your father are in this business very deep the fellow also believes all to be a fact, this to be sure, for no one unless predisposed to believe a lie would have heard a syllable from either of you on the subject, he says your father has a wand or rod like Jannes & Jambres who withstood Moses in Egypt— that he can tell the distance from India to Ethiopia or another fool story, many other things alike ridiculous.
You state your Father cannot write by reason of a nervous affection this is a poor excuse, worse than none, he can dictate to others and [p. 60]

they can write, If he knows not what to write, he can get your Brother’s spectacles he would then be as able to dictate a letter, as Joe is to decypher hieroglyphics, if more should be wanting he can employ the same scoundrel of a scribe, and then not only the matter but manner and style would be correct.
My compliments to your Father and Mother, tell them I wish them to review through years that are past, and say if they have done well in not writing to me these many years, tell them the time has been when they were glad to see me, but I am suspicious that the length of time since we last parted, has in some measure obliterated me from their memory, so that they would not now be pleased to recieve a visit from me, If they will write me that I may know their affairs and how they do, I will give them a history of the family concern &c
I write this at the request of my Father not for your sake you have not written to me, the story is that the gold book proved to be lead, that the Authority have taken it & Joe is under bonds to appear before his betters, so let it be.
Jesse Smith.
Mr Hiram Smith.
Palmyra N.Y.
     Wayne County. [p. 61]

[Note: the entire letter, with slightly different editing, and important footnotes, was published back in 1996. See the first volume of Dan Vogel's valuable series, Early Mormon Documents, pages 551-554.]

We learn from the above letter that Jesse did not dispute Joseph had experienced angelic visitations, uncovered metal plates, and was working on a translation of those plates. His opposition concerned the source of Joseph's experiences. He relates some Biblical examples in his critique, and mentions Joseph Smith Senior's involvement in folk magic—i.e. his possession and use of, "a wand or rod like Jannes & Jambres".

Now, as related in my recent posts on Mormonism, it seems the LDS scholars who are promoting the new historical paradigm—e.g. Mark Ashurst-McGee, Richard Bushman, Gerrit Dirkmaat, Eric Eliason, Nicholas Frederick, Terryl Givens, Michael MacKay, Kerry Muhlestein—now accept as fact that Joseph Smith Jr. participated in various forms of 'folk magic'. But for many folk (including Mormons), any participation in 'magic' is considered problematic, given the overall negative appraisal of 'magic' in the Scriptures.

I am firmly convinced that any discussion concerning magic and the occult within a Christian context, must begin with what the Scriptures have to say on the topic. As noted in the previous post, back in the mid-1980s, the Mark Hofmann forgeries gave cause to a number of LDS scholars to reexamine Joseph Smith's involvement in magic/occult practices. One of the earliest published treatments on this subject that I read when I began my studies into Mormonism had the following to say:

There are a score or so of words in the Hebrew Bible that refer to practices or practitioners of magic (as is generally understood), falling roughly into categories of magic in general or sorcery, divination, and astrology (these categories, it should be pointed out, have been devised by modern exegetes, not by the Israelites themselves: in none of these lists are these types of magical practices explicitly divided). Roughly three-quarters of the occurrences of these words refer, explicitly or implicitly, to non-Israelite practitioners or activities. Indeed, some of these words are used exclusively of non-Israelites. The remainder of the occurrences refer to deviant Israelite practices or practitioners. In no instance that we have found are any of these used favorably of an Israelite practice. (Stephen D. Ricks and Daniel C. Peterson, “Joseph Smith and ‘Magic’: Methodological Reflections on the Use of a Term,” in Robert Millet, ed., “To Be Learned Is Good If . . . ” - 1987, p. 133 - bold emphasis mine.)

A number of Old Testament examples are provided below:

Lev. 19:26 - Ye shall not eat any thing with the blood: neither shall ye use enchantment, nor observe times.

Lev. 19:31 - Regard not them that have familiar spirits, neither seek after wizards, to be defiled by them: I am the LORD your God.

Lev. 20:6 - And the soul that turneth after such as have familiar spirits, and after wizards, to go a whoring after them, I will even set my face against that soul, and will cut him off from among his people.

Lev. 20:27 - A man also or woman that hath a familiar spirit, or that is a wizard, shall surely be put to death: they shall stone them with stones: their blood shall be upon them.

Num. 23:23 - Surely there is no enchantment against Jacob, neither is there any divination against Israel: according to this time it shall be said of Jacob and of Israel, What hath God wrought!

Deut. 18:9-12 - When thou art come into the land which the LORD thy God giveth thee, thou shalt not learn to do after the abominations of those nations. There shall not be found among you any one that maketh his son or his daughter to pass through the fire, or that useth divination, or an observer of times, or an enchanter, or a witch, Or a charmer, or a consulter with familiar spirits, or a wizard, or a necromancer. For all that do these things are an abomination unto the LORD: and because of these abominations the LORD thy God doth drive them out from before thee.

Deut. 18:14 - For these nations, which thou shalt possess, hearkened unto observers of times, and unto diviners: but as for thee, the LORD thy God hath not suffered thee so to do.

1 Sam. 15:23 - For rebellion is as the sin of witchcraft, and stubbornness is as iniquity and idolatry. Because thou hast rejected the word of the LORD, he hath also rejected thee from being king.

1 Sa. 28:2-25 - Saul and the witch of Endor.

2 Kings 17:17 - And they caused their sons and their daughters to pass through the fire, and used divination and enchantments, and sold themselves to do evil in the sight of the LORD, to provoke him to anger.

2 Kings 21:6 - And he made his son pass through the fire, and observed times, and used enchantments, and dealt with familiar spirits and wizards: he wrought much wickedness in the sight of the LORD, to provoke him to anger.

2 Kings 23:24 - Moreover the workers with familiar spirits, and the wizards, and the images, and the idols, and all the abominations that were spied in the land of Judah and in Jerusalem, did Josiah put away, that he might perform the words of the law which were written in the book that Hilkiah the priest found in the house of the LORD.

1 Chr. 10:13 - So Saul died for his transgression which he committed against the LORD, even against the word of the LORD, which he kept not, and also for asking counsel of one that had a familiar spirit, to enquire of it;

2 Chr. 33:6 - And he caused his children to pass through the fire in the valley of the son of Hinnom: also he observed times, and used enchantments, and used witchcraft, and dealt with a familiar spirit, and with wizards: he wrought much evil in the sight of the LORD, to provoke him to anger.

Isa. 8:19, 20 - And when they shall say unto you, Seek unto them that have familiar spirits, and unto wizards that peep, and that mutter: should not a people seek unto their God? for the living to the dead? To the law and to the testimony: if they speak not according to this word, it is because there is no light in them.

Isa. 19:3 - And the spirit of Egypt shall fail in the midst thereof; and I will destroy the counsel thereof: and they shall seek to the idols, and to the charmers, and to them that have familiar spirits, and to the wizards.

Isa. 29:4 - And thou shalt be brought down, and shalt speak out of the ground, and thy speech shall be low out of the dust, and thy voice shall be, as of one that hath a familiar spirit, out of the ground, and thy speech shall whisper out of the dust.

Isa. 47:9-12 - But these two things shall come to thee in a moment in one day, the loss of children, and widowhood: they shall come upon thee in their perfection for the multitude of thy sorceries, and for the great abundance of thine enchantments. For thou hast trusted in thy wickedness: thou hast said, None seeth me. Thy wisdom and thy knowledge, it hath perverted thee; and thou hast said in thine heart, I am, and none else beside me. Therefore shall evil come upon thee; thou shalt not know from whence it riseth: and mischief shall fall upon thee; thou shalt not be able to put it off: and desolation shall come upon thee suddenly, which thou shalt not know. Stand now with thine enchantments, and with the multitude of thy sorceries, wherein thou hast laboured from thy youth; if so be thou shalt be able to profit, if so be thou mayest prevail.

Jer. 14:14 - Then the LORD said unto me, The prophets prophesy lies in my name: I sent them not, neither have I commanded them, neither spake unto them: they prophesy unto you a false vision and divination, and a thing of nought, and the deceit of their heart.

Jer. 27:9 - Therefore hearken not ye to your prophets, nor to your diviners, nor to your dreamers, nor to your enchanters, nor to your sorcerers, which speak unto you, saying, Ye shall not serve the king of Babylon:

Ezek. 12:24 - For there shall be no more any vain vision nor flattering divination within the house of Israel.

Ezek. 13:6, 7 - They have seen vanity and lying divination, saying, The LORD saith: and the LORD hath not sent them: and they have made others to hope that they would confirm the word. Have ye not seen a vain vision, and have ye not spoken a lying divination, whereas ye say, The LORD saith it; albeit I have not spoken?

Ezekiel 21:21 For the king of Babylon stood at the parting of the way, at the head of the two ways, to use divination: he made his arrows bright, he consulted with images, he looked in the liver.

Micah 3:5-7, 11 - Thus saith the LORD concerning the prophets that make my people err, that bite with their teeth, and cry, Peace; and he that putteth not into their mouths, they even prepare war against him.Therefore night shall be unto you, that ye shall not have a vision; and it shall be dark unto you, that ye shall not divine; and the sun shall go down over the prophets, and the day shall be dark over them. Then shall the seers be ashamed, and the diviners confounded: yea, they shall all cover their lips; for there is no answer of God... The heads thereof judge for reward, and the priests thereof teach for hire, and the prophets thereof divine for money: yet will they lean upon the LORD, and say, Is not the LORD among us? none evil can come upon us.

Micah 5:12 - And I will cut off witchcrafts out of thine hand; and thou shalt have no more soothsayers:

When one turns to the New Testament, the negative view of magic/occult related practices continues; note the following:

Acts 8:9-11 - But there was a certain man, called Simon, which beforetime in the same city used sorcery, and bewitched the people of Samaria, giving out that himself was some great one: o whom they all gave heed, from the least to the greatest, saying, This man is the great power of God. And to him they had regard, because that of long time he had bewitched them with sorceries.

Acts 13:6-8 - And when they had gone through the isle unto Paphos, they found a certain sorcerer, a false prophet, a Jew, whose name was Barjesus: Which was with the deputy of the country, Sergius Paulus, a prudent man; who called for Barnabas and Saul, and desired to hear the word of God. But Elymas the sorcerer (for so is his name by interpretation ) withstood them, seeking to turn away the deputy from the faith.

Acts 16:16-18 - And it came to pass, as we went to prayer, a certain damsel possessed with a spirit of divination met us, which brought her masters much gain by soothsaying: The same followed Paul and us, and cried, saying, These men are the servants of the most high God, which shew unto us the way of salvation. And this did she many days. But Paul, being grieved, turned and said to the spirit, I command thee in the name of Jesus Christ to come out of her. And he came out the same hour.

Acts 19:19 - Many of them also which used curious arts brought their books together, and burned them before all men: and they counted the price of them, and found it fifty thousand pieces of silver.

Galatians 5:20 - Idolatry, witchcraft, hatred, variance, emulations, wrath, strife, seditions, heresies,

Revelation 9:21 - Neither repented they of their murders, nor of their sorceries, nor of their fornication, nor of their thefts.

Revelation 18:23 - And the light of a candle shall shine no more at all in thee; and the voice of the bridegroom and of the bride shall be heard no more at all in thee: for thy merchants were the great men of the earth; for by thy sorceries were all nations deceived.

Revelation 21:8 - But the fearful, and unbelieving, and the abominable, and murderers, and whoremongers, and sorcerers, and idolaters, and all liars, shall have their part in the lake which burneth with fire and brimstone: which is the second death.

Revelation 22:15 - For without are dogs, and sorcerers, and whoremongers, and murderers, and idolaters, and whosoever loveth and maketh a lie.

It sure seems to me than any unauthorized use of 'spiritual gifts' falls under God's condemnation, for the source is not from God. Not only is the Bible clear on this, but also the Book of Mormon, and D&C. One interesting example is found in D&C 28:11, wherein it is related that Hiram Page's use of a "[seer] stone" was "not of me", but rather of "Satan".

So, how do LDS scholars who are promoting the new historical paradigm defend their assumptions? Three methods are employed: one assigns Joseph's supposed participation in magic and occult practices to youthful folly; a second suggests that many other contemporary, professing 'Christians' also engaged in such practices; and the third, sees Joseph's earlier involvement in magic and occult practices as a progressive preparation for his future divine calling by God.

Note following from Mark Ashurst-McGee's thesis:

A multitude of divinatory methods have flourished in western civilization. By reading omens, or by carefully inspecting the stars, one could forecast the future or obtain information about the otherwise unknown matters of the present. Others have used divinatory instruments and techniques to obtain the information that eluded them when pursued through ordinary means. By casting lots one could shift the responsibility of making difficult decision over a supernatural entity—one with superior wisdom. By waiting for his forked rod to dip, a waterwitch could find a site to dig a well. Others have obtained supernatural visions, but not without the help of a speculum of some sort—whether it be a crystal ball, a magic mirror, or a pool of clear water. A number of aspiring prophets have made use of means and methods such as these to aid them in their spiritual journey.

Joseph Smith, the founding prophet of the Mormon faith, followed such a course. He began "exercising" the "gifts of the spirit" by using a divining rod. Later, he was able to obtain visions by using a seer stone. Then, in 1830, the newly organized Church of Christ accepted and "sustained" him as a "prophet." Joseph Smith's spiritual development through these successive modes of divination constitutes the primary study for this thesis. (Ibid., page 2.)

In this thesis, I will explore in detail the historical origins of this most fundamental aspect of Mormonism. I argue that Joseph Smith's prophethood and his revelations originated to some extent in less ecstatic modes of divination. Astrology, divining rods, and seer stones provided an historical background for Joseph's later revelations as well as did dreams, visions, angel visitations, and theophanies. I lay out a series of divinatory modes through which Joseph Smith progressed on his pathway to prophethood. (Ibid., page 6)

Keeping in mind that Mark Hoffman's forged documents were a major source of the foundational impulses that lie behind the direction which the contributors to the new LDS historical paradigm have taken, take note of what the then LDS apostle and First Counselor in the First Presidency (and future President/Prophet) had to say in General Conference:

As most of you know, in the last four or five years we have passed through an interesting episode in the history of the Church. There came into our hands two letters that were seized upon by the media when we announced them. They were trumpeted across much of the world as documents that would challenge the authenticity of the Church. In announcing them we stated that they really had nothing to do with the essentials of our history. But some few of little faith, who seemingly are always quick to believe the negative, accepted as fact the pronouncements and predictions of the media. I recall a letter from an individual who asked that his name be taken from the records of the Church because he could no longer believe in a church that had to do with an experience with a salamander.

Now, as you know, these letters, together with other documents, have been acknowledged by their forger to be total frauds and part of an evil and devious design which culminated in the murder of two individuals.

I have wondered what those whose faith was shaken have thought since the forger confessed to his evil work.

However, I hasten to add, the vast majority of Church members, all but a very few, paid little attention and went forward with their faithful service, living by a conviction firmly grounded in that knowledge which comes by the power of the Holy Ghost. They knew then and they know now that God watches over this work, that Jesus Christ is the head of this Church, that it is true, and that happiness and growth come of following its precepts and teachings.

Out of this earlier episode has now arisen another phenomenon. It is described as the writing of a “new history” of the Church as distinguished from the “old history.” It represents, among other things, an effort to ferret out every element of folk magic and the occult in the environment in which Joseph Smith lived to explain what he did and why.

I have no doubt there was folk magic practiced in those days. Without question there were superstitions and the superstitious. I suppose there was some of this in the days when the Savior walked the earth. There is even some in this age of so-called enlightenment. For instance, some hotels and business buildings skip the numbering of floor thirteen. Does this mean there is something wrong with the building? Of course not. Or with the builders? No.

Similarly, the fact that there were superstitions among the people in the days of Joseph Smith is no evidence whatever that the Church came of such superstition.

Joseph Smith himself wrote or dictated his history. It is his testimony of what occurred, and he sealed that testimony with his life. It is written in language clear and plain and unmistakable. From an ancient record he translated the Book of Mormon by the gift and power of God. It is here for all to see and handle and read. Those who have read with faith and inquired in prayer have come to a certain knowledge that it is true. The present effort of trying to find some other explanation for the organization of the Church, for the origin of the Book of Mormon, and for the priesthood with its keys and powers will be similar to other anti-Mormon fads which have come and blossomed and faded. Truth will prevail. A knowledge of that truth comes by effort and study, yes. But it comes primarily as a gift from God to those who seek in faith. (Gordon B. Hinckley, “Lord, Increase Our Faith,” Ensign, Nov. 1987 - LINK)

Plenty of 'food for thought'...

Grace and peace,


Sunday, January 7, 2018

Early Mormon history: an important paradigm shift - Part 1

Since my June 29, 2017 post on Mormonism (LINKI have been delving deeply into Joseph Smith’s alleged use of “seer” stones, as well as other items and practices, that may fall under the classification of magic and/or the occult. The time frame of this study is focused on the period just prior to “The First Vision”, through the completion of the “translation” of the Book of Mormon.

We are nearing almost two hundred years of analysis, debate, polemics, and theorizing on this relatively brief period of time. Of the hundreds of folk who have engaged in the task of investigating and writing on this unique interval of history, the vast majority have done so with a certain set of presuppositions that reflect the central foundations of one of three paradigms: the Mormon worldview, the non-Mormon Christian worldview, and the agnostic/atheistic/secular worldview. The first two worldviews share a number of presuppositions, which include belief in the divine origin of the Bible, supernatural beings─e.g. God the Father, His Son Jesus Christ, the Holy Spirit, angels, Satan, demons─in miracles, prophecy, heaven and hell, et al.; all of which are explicitly rejected by the third worldview.

Three primary explanations/interpretations of the historical period under investigation emerged shortly after the publication of the Book of Mormon, and have remained in place to this day (with a number of nuanced variations within each of the three). The first explanation I shall term 'Supernatural A', is the story advanced by Joseph Smith Jr.. The second, I shall term 'Supernatural B', promulgated by a good number of non-Mormon Christians who believe that a strictly 'naturalistic' explanation of the germane events fails to provide an adequate narrative of all that took place within the timeframe under discussion, maintaining that Satanic deception was involved. The third is the 'naturalistic' view, which excludes a priori any possibility of supernatural events.

Devout, faithful Mormons embrace the 'Supernatural A' explanation; non-Mormon Christians who take their faith seriously have been divided in their assessments, with a good number supporting the 'Supernatural B' interpretation, others the 'naturalistic' view, and some a combination of both. Secular, agnostic and atheistic folk emphatically reject the 'Supernatural A' and 'Supernatural B' explanations, embracing a strictly 'naturalistic' view.

As for myself, I approach our topic at hand with the presuppositions of the non-Mormon Christian worldview, but also as one who remains somewhat open to the remote possibility that the Mormon worldview may be the more correct one. As such, the claims made by Joseph Smith Jr. and the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, hold a high degree of importance to me.

In my June 29, 2017 post, I pointed out an important paradigm shift that I had personally experienced—i.e. a significant change in the method that Joseph used to translate the Book of Mormon as perceived by LDS missionaries and 'lay' Mormons. This paradigm shift concerning the understanding of the translation process of the Book of Mormon is inextricably linked to a much broader issue—Joseph Smith's involvement in magic/occult practices. As suggested above, the period of time concerning this paradigm shift is relatively brief—about ten years—and has been an intensely debated one between Mormons and non-Mormons.

However, since the mid-1980s, it seems that a new battlefront has opened up: a debate amongst believing Mormons between two opposing views concerning the time frame under investigation. The following selections from LDS authors reveals this internal debate. I shall begin with the assessment of an LDS historian who has been a major contributor to the paradigm shift, Richard Bushman, who penned the following in the forward of a book recently published by the Brigham Young University Religious Study Center:

This volume is first of what could be many potential histories coming out of the Joseph Smith Papers Project [link to official site]. Michael Hubbard McKay and Gerrit Dirkmaat have been editors of the Documents series, which is just beginning to appear. The results of this research can be partially found in introductions, headnotes, and footnotes of the Joseph Smith Papers volumes, but the findings will be properly valued only when integrated into the narratives of early Church history...

Books like this one will bring Latter-day Saint readers up to date on the results of the latest historical research...Working form original materials, the authors introduce readers to aspects of early of early Church history that are well known to historians [and anti-Mormons] but that are not necessarily common knowledge in the Church. MacKay and Dirkmaat also reveal brand new findings in this work. They speak at length, for example, about Joseph Smith's use of two seer stones in translation. In translating, Joseph probably first used the stones set in spectacles that came with the plates, and then, for most of the translation period, substituted one of the stones he had found. Joseph put the seer stone in a hat to exclude the light and read off the translated text by looking in the stone. All the while, the plates wrapped in a cloth on the table [most probably, the plates were in a locked wooden chest, not 'on the table'].  Apparently Joseph did not look at the plates through most of the translation.

This description will startle Latter-day Saints who are familiar with artistic depictions showing Joseph Smith with his finger on the plates while he writes down the words as they come to him [as well as some early written accounts of this same process]. The image of Joseph with his face in the hat as he translates is not so well known and is much less decorous, which may shock some readers. But it is essential that the Church at large become aware of what historians have discovered in the sources. Failure to acknowledge these factual accounts [an assumption that cannot be proved, and is contested by some LDS researchers], almost all of them in friendly sources, can devastate Latter-day Saints who run across them. Feeling that the Church has covered up the truth, they become disillusioned and even angry. This book is an attempt to repair the misconceptions so that the next generation of Latter-day Saints will be better informed. (Michael Hubbard McKay and Gerrit Dirkmaat, From Darkness unto Light - Joseph Smith's Translation and Publication of the Book of Mormon, 2015, pp. v, vi.)

In the very next paragraph of this same forward, Bushman relates to his readers what he believes has been a flawed/problematic approach by LDS scholars concerning early Mormon history; note the following:

For years Mormon scholars simply disregarded critical sources, such as the affidavits concerning the Smith family in E. D. Howe's Mormonism Unvailed. They felt the critical writings were too biased to be of any use. But in recent years, automatic exclusion of negative reports is no longer the practice. Everything has to be examined and evaluated. (Ibid., vi.)

It is the issue over how much value should be given to the "critical sources"—one must also add 'late sources' to the equation—that divides Mormons who accept the paradigm shift, against those who reject it.

In 2013, The Interpreter Foundation (LINK) published an essay that provides an account of the paradigm shift under investigation. The following are a few selections from this informative contribution:

This essay seeks to examine the Book of Mormon translation method from the perspective of a regular, nonscholarly, believing member in the twenty-first century, by taking into account both what is learned in Church and what can be learned from historical records that are now easily available. What do we know? What should we know? How can a believing Latter-day Saint reconcile apparently conflicting accounts of the translation process? An examination of the historical sources is used to provide us with a fuller and more complete understanding of the complexity that exists in the early events of the Restoration. These accounts come from both believing and nonbelieving sources, and some skepticism ought to be employed in choosing to accept some of the interpretations offered by some of these sources as fact. However, an examination of these sources provides a larger picture, and the answers to these questions provide an enlightening look into Church history and the evolution of the translation story. This essay focuses primarily on the methods and instruments used in the translation process and how a faithful Latter-day Saint might view these as further evidence of truthfulness of the restored Gospel. (Roger Nicholson, "The Spectacles, the Stone, the Hat. and the Book: A Twenty-first Century Believer's View of the Book of Mormon Translation", Interpreter - A Journal of Mormon Scripture, vol. 5, 2013, p. 121; link to PDF copy - HERE.) 

After the above introduction, Nicholson then provides the translation process of the Book of Mormon that has been taught to the vast majority of active Mormons for decades:

As an active Latter-day Saint, I cannot remember a time when I was not familiar with the story of the translation of the Book of Mormon. The story with which we are quite familiar from Sunday School and Seminary describes Joseph using the Urim and Thummim (the Nephite interpreters) to look at the gold plates while screened from his scribe by a curtain. Joseph dictated the entire text of the Book of Mormon to his scribe, picking up the next day right where he had left off the day before, and the text was written without any punctuation. Joseph never required that any of the previous text be re-read when the translation started again the next day. The bulk of the translation was accomplished within a roughly three-month period, and the resulting text is remarkably consistent not only with itself, but with the Bible. The circumstances surrounding the translation and production of the Book of Mormon can only be considered miraculous when considered by a believing member of the Church. (Ibid. p. 122)

He then goes on to relate, "another story with which many have become familiar in recent years", which "story" is the translation process promulgated by various anti-Mormon sources, and a number of LDS scholars who are pushing the paradigm shift which has Joseph Smith 'translating' the Book of Mormon via one of the seer stones that he had found in the early 1820s, which he placed into the bottom of a hat to exclude any light and then put his face into it. During this process, the plates are not used at all, but rather, were stored away in a wooden chest.

Nicholson then writes that the, "twenty-first century has given us access to a wealth of historical sources that were simply unavailable to the average Latter-day Saint in previous decades", and then provides quotations from a number of these "historical sources" including some which describe the translation method from folk who had actually seen translation process firsthand—e.g. Emma Smith, Martin Harris, Oliver Cowdery, David Whitmer. (Ibid., p. 124). 

Later on, Nicholson relates:

Prior to the appearance of the angel Moroni, Joseph possessed several stones that he used for the purpose of locating things, the most well known use being the location of lost objects or buried treasure. (Ibid., p. 163)

He seems to accept the above as fact, stating:

It makes logical sense that the Lord would choose to approach someone who would readily accept the idea that one could "see" using a stone. Joseph already believed that the stone could be used to "see" things, and the transition from using the stone to receive information to a means of receiving revelation from God would have been straightforward. Recall that to Joseph, the spectacles that he received from Moroni were simply a more powerful version of the stone that he already possessed. (Ibid., p. 164)

The following account of the translation method provided by Nicholson is worth repeating here:

The translation of the entire text of the Book of Mormon that we now have took place primarily at David Whitmer's home. Not only is the use of a curtain not apparent, but there is an actual denial that it was used in the process. David Whitmer's daughter Elizabeth Ann Whitmer Cowdery stated,

I cheerfully certify that I was familiar with the manner of Joseph Smith's translating the book of Mormon. He translated the most of it at my Father's house. And I often sat by and saw and heard them translate and write for hours together. Joseph never had a curtain drawn between him and his scribe while he was translating. He would place the director in his hat, and then place his [face in his] hat, so as to exclude the light, and then [read] to his scribe the words as they appeared before him. (Ibid., pp. 173, 174)

Nicholson then continues with:

The fact that Elizabeth felt the need to make such a statement at all strongly implies that there was still a story in circulation among the Latter-day Saints that a curtain was used in the translation process. In 1887, David Whitmer, who two years earlier in the 1885 Chicago Tribune interview asserted the use of the Nephite interpreters and curtain, now also described the translation method using the stone and the hat.

I will now give you a description of the manner in which the Book of Mormon was translated. Joseph Smith would put the seer stone into a hat, and put his face in the hat, drawing it closely around his face to exclude the light; and in the darkness the spiritual light would shine. A piece of something resembling parchment would appear, and on that appeared the writing. One character at a time would appear, and under it was the interpretation in English. Brother Joseph would read off the English to Oliver Cowdery, who was his principal scribe, and when it was written down and repeated to Brother Joseph to see if it was correct, then it would disappear, and another character with the interpretation would appear. Thus the Book of Mormon was translated by the gift and power of God, and not by any power of man. (Ibid., pp. 174, 175)

On page 178, Nicholson starts a section under the title, "The Stone and the Hat Become Buried in History". This part of the essay is the most interesting for me because he relates to his readers the story of the LDS scholar Francis Kirkham, whose referenced works I own, and read years before the 21st century push to accept a paradigm shift in the understanding of Joseph Smith's translation process, and involvement in magic/occult practices. Note the following:

During the 1930s, Dr. Francis Kirkham endeavored to "gather and evaluate all the newspaper articles he could locate about the Book of Mormon." Many of these articles were obtained from newspaper collections located in the New York area and have recently been made available in an online database hosted by the Neal A. Maxwell Institute for Religious Scholarship.

As we have seen, many of these news accounts refer to the use of the spectacles or stone together with a hat, consistent with the late statements of Martin Harris and David Whitmer. Kirkham, in the October 1939 Improvement Era, quoted the accounts of the stone and the hat given by Martin Harris and David Whitmer. Kirkham, however, did not accept the eyewitness accounts that Joseph actually used a seer stone in the translation of the Book of Mormon, concluding that "the statements of both of these men are to be explained by the eagerness of old age to call upon a fading and uncertain memory for the details of events which still remained real and objective to them." In his 1951 book A New Witness For Christ in America, Kirkham believed that "it may not have been expedient for the Prophet to try and explain the method of translation for the reason his hearers would lack the capacity to understand. It seemed sufficient to them at that time to know that the translation had been made by the gift and power of God." Kirkham goes on to say that, "After a lapse of forty years of time, both David Whitmer and Martin Harris attempted to give the method of the translation. Evidently the Prophet did not tell them the method." Despite the fact that elements of Harris's and Whitmer's story were consistent with each other, Kirkham simply refused to accept the idea that the accounts might have basis in the truth. (Ibid., pp. 178, 179.) [Nicholson provides THIS LINK to a 1984 Ensign article on Kirkham that is worth reading.]

Now, I find it more than a bit interesting Nicholson had previously stated in his essay (referenced above), that the, "twenty-first century has given us access to a wealth of historical sources that were simply unavailable to the average Latter-day Saint in previous decades". Perhaps he has the internet in mind, but then, a good number of those historical sources were provided by Kirkham clear back in 1937 (Source Material Concerning the Origin of the “Book of Mormon) and 1939 (Improvement Era), with many more added in 1951 (A New Witness for Christ in America, 2 vols.). I have copies of all of above contributions, and seriously doubt that the "the average Latter-day Saint in previous decades" would have had difficulty obtaining them.

And further, Nicholson seems somewhat puzzled by the fact that Kirkham, armed with the same information as 21st scholars approving the paradigm shift, "simply refused to accept the idea that the accounts might have basis in the truth." One could say that Nicholson (and a number of LDS scholars) have, 'simply refused to accept the idea that the critical and late accounts are not accurate, and should not provide the basis for truth assessments'.

Kirkham was not alone in his conclusions concerning value of the critical and late historical accounts that have Joseph Smith using a "peepstone" in a hat method to translate the Book of Mormon; sources which also have him in deeply involved in "money-digging" and magic/occult practices. A contemporary of Kirkham, Dr. Hugh Nibley, also placed little value on such sources. In his 1961 satirical book, The Myth Makers, he demonstrates that he was well acquainted with, and possessed a good grasp, of the critical and late historical accounts that Kirkham had compiled and published a few years earlier. Anyone who has read The Myth Makers, knows that Nibley had nothing but disdain for those accounts he takes to task.

The question that needs to be asked is: WHY has Kirkham's and Nibley's assessments been jettisoned by so many 21st century LDS scholars?

Nicholson himself points to what I believe is the root cause of the beginning of the reassessments of the extant historical sources: the forged documents of Mark Hofmann. Nicholson writes:

The visibility of these issues [translation method and magic/occult practices] among the general Church membership began to change significantly in the early 1980s as the result of a very unusual and tragic event: the exposure of the Mark Hofmann forgeries. Suddenly, newspapers were talking about salamanders and treasure guardians in association with some of the Church's founding events...

Hofmann's documents were so well crafted that they fooled a number of experts in the field, and they were all considered genuine for a period of time. During that period of time, a new wave of Latter-day Saint historical works were produced, taking into account the "magical" aspects emphasized in the Salamander Letter. There was also an effort to reconcile and integrate the new information with existing accounts.

Some of Hofmann's documents were created based upon existing eyewitness accounts regarding treasure seeking, and to some extent simply amplified concepts that were already known to historians. Once the forgeries were exposed, it became necessary to re-examine what had been written to support the now discredited documents. Although the Hofmann forgeries were discounted, the underlying legitimate historical accounts that fueled their creation began to become more well known among the general Church membership. Joseph's early involvement with treasure seeking, beyond what had long been documented in Church publications regarding his efforts with Josiah Stowell, became more well known. (Ibid., pp. 181, 182.)

Thirteen years prior to Nicholson's musings, Mark Ashurst-McGee—one of the prominent LDS scholars of the 21st century who supports and promotes the paradigm shift—pointed out that Hofmann's forgeries played an important role in the reassessment of the extant historical accounts. From his master thesis we read:

Spurred on by the Hofmann controversy, a number of Latter-day Saint historians began to reassess the historical record and to explore the context of time in which Mormonism emerged. Although the Hofmann documents proved spurious, historians discovered that Joseph's involvement in such practices had been substantial. Over the last two decades, a number of scholarly studies by devout Latter-day Saint scholars and empathetic secularists have concluded that Joseph Smith was involved in treasure seeking and an early American milieu of beliefs and practices that many modem Americans would label "magic." (Mark Ashurst-McGee, A Pathway to Prophethood: Joseph Smith Junior as Rodsman, Village Seer, and Judeo-Christian Prophet, 2000, p. 9 - link to PDF copy HERE.)

On the same page, in footnote #26, Ashurst-McGee lists a number of those "scholarly studies by devout Latter-day Saint scholars and empathetic secularists", all of which I have been able to obtain and read. By far the most significant work he lists is D. Michael Quinn's, Early Mormonism and the Magic World, which was first published in 1987—an expanded and updated second edition was released in 1999. Though Quinn's book produced a few less than flattering reviews from some LDS scholars, for the most part, his contribution has been received as the 'cutting-edge', 'go to' work on the topic.

I suspect I have given folk who read this post plenty to digest; and with said, shall end here for now. Hope to have Part 2 up soon...

Grace and peace,


Thursday, December 28, 2017

Doctoral Dissertation concerning justification in the second century Church Fathers

While I was away on vacation, two books I was not aware of were brought to my attention in the combox of THIS THREAD.

On 12-21-17, I ordered Believer's Baptism, and Long Before Luther. I received both books yesterday, and read the latter of two last night. In early 2018, I hope to provide reviews of both books, but until then, I would like to recommend a dissertation referenced in Long Before Luther: Brian John Arnold's, Justification One Hundred Years After Paul. A PDF copy is available online via THIS LINK.

Though I have just started reading the dissertation, I felt compelled to bring it to the attention of those folk interested in the doctrine of justification as taught in the second century Church Fathers.


Grace and peace,


Tuesday, December 5, 2017

Urim and Thummim, Seers, and Seer Stones, in the Bible, LDS Scriptures, and early Mormon history

During some internet research this morning, I discovered an online book(let) that gathers together, into a single contribution, dozens of references related to the Urim and Thummim, seers and seer stones, as found in the Bible, LDS Scriptures, and early Mormon history. I copied and pasted this work into a Word document; in this format, it comprises some 67 pages of valuable information, and is an excellent supplement to the BYU Religious Studies Center book, Joseph Smith's Seer Stones, that I referenced in my June 29, 2017 post (LINK).

This online book(let) by Odgen Kraut can be accessed via THIS LINK.


Grace and peace,


Friday, December 1, 2017

Mark Ashurst-McGee's, A Pathway to Prophethood: Joseph Smith Junior as Rodsman, Village Seer, and Judeo-Christian Prophet, now available online for free download

I have a very important announcement to make: as of today, Mark Ashurst-McGee's thesis, A Pathway to Prophethood: Joseph Smith Junior as Rodsman, Village Seer, and Judeo-Christian Prophet (2000), is now available online for free download.

Last week, I pointed out to the Utah State Univeristy's Digital Commons that the above master's thesis was missing from their "ALL GRADUATE THESES AND DISSERTATIONS" site. To my surprise, I received an email that they would soon make the thesis available, and today, they informed me that they have done so.

Back in May, a good friend of mine provided me with a PDF copy of Mark's thesis, but it was an image only scanned document which does not allow text to be copied. The new USU PDF document is OCR (Optical Character Recognition) based, which allows text copying (and pasting), and makes citations so much easier.

The document may be downloaded via THIS LINK

Mark Ashurst-McGee's master thesis is one of the most important contributions on the history of Joseph Smith Jr. as it relates to his involvement in certain aspects of 'folk magic' and 'occult' practices. Mark sees Joseph's participation in such practices as a preparation for his eventual calling as God's chosen prophet for the restoration Christ's Church which had fallen into apostasy, becoming a church in name only, having no divine authority. The following is from the abstract of the thesis:

Joseph Smith Junior, founder of the Mormon faith, presented himself to America and the world as a prophet with the same powers as the widely known prophetic figures of the Bible. Like Moses and Elijah, he made God's will known to humankind. Before assuming this role, Smith had used divining rods and then seer stones to find underground water, buried treasure, lost items, and stray livestock. This thesis charts Joseph Smith's progression from rodsman to seer to prophet. (Page iii)

This thesis is a must read for those who have even just a minor interest in Mormonism.


Grace and peace,


Thursday, November 9, 2017

Apologia Spiritualis - An Autobiographical Sketch, by A. J. Arberry

Last night, whilst engaged in my continuing research for an upcoming post on early Mormon origins, I happened upon an autobiographical sketch, from the above pictured book, by one of the most gifted Islamic scholars of the 20th century—A. J. Arberry. The following selection caught my eye, and impressed upon me the notion that I should bring it to the attention of others:

“What is Truth?” asked jesting Pilate of the Man whom he would presently give on a like Cross, the Man who said, “I am the Way, the Truth and the Life.” I have said earlier that as a young man, having abandoned formal worship, I resolved to become an academic scholar, abstract truth being the only altar before which I would kneel. In those days I supposed truth to be a thing intellectually attainable, a quest for reason, far removed from the emotions. But the mystical affinity of truth with light was evidently already apprehended by Sir William Jones, that greatest of British orientalists who died in 1794 and whose example has always been my chief inspiration. Jones

     Before thy mystic altar, heavenly Truth,
     I kneel in manhood, as I knelt in youth.
     There let me kneel, till this dull form decay,
     And life’s last shade be brightened by thy day;
     Then shall my soul, now lost in clouds below,
     Without consuming glow.

Truth, then, is Light—a light that shines into the heart. And what is light? The answer seems to be given in that sublime verse of the Koran:

     God is the light of the heavens and the earth;
     the likeness of His Light is as a niche
     wherein is a lamp
     (the lamp in a glass,
     the glass as it were a glittering star)
     kindled by a Blessed Tree,
     an olive that is neither of the East nor of the West
     whose oil well-nigh would shine, even if no fire touched it.
     Light upon Light,
     God guides to His Light whom He will.

Once this light has shone into the heart, no darkness can ever overcome it. I believe that light to be a reality, because I have myself experienced it. I believe it also to be the Truth, and I think it not inappropriate to call it God. I am an academic scholar, but I have come to realize that pure reason is unqualified to penetrate the mystery of God’s light, and may, indeed, if too fondly indulged, interpose an impenetrable veil between the heart and God. The world in which we live is certainly full of shadows. I have had my full share of personal sorrows and anxieties, and I am as acutely aware as the next man of the appalling dangers threatening mankind. But because I have experienced the Divine Light, I need not wish for any higher grace.

I have now for some years resumed my Christian worship, in which I find great comfort, being no longer troubled by the intellectual doubts generated by too great a concern for dogma. I know that Jew, Muslim, Hindu, Buddhist, Parsi—all sorts and conditions of men—have been, are and will always be irradiated by that Light “kindled by a Blessed Tree, an olive that is neither of the East nor of the West”—the universal tree of the Truth and Goodness of God. For God, being the One Universal, has an infinite solicitude and love of each particular, and suffers His Light to shine into every human heart open to receive it. (Apologia Spiritualis - An Autobiographical Sketch, by A. J. Arberry, in Mystical Poems of Rumi, pp. 25, 26.)

Back to my research...

Grace and peace,