Saturday, March 1, 2014

Latter-day quandry and resolution

As most of my readers know, I am a convert to the Catholic faith. For most adults, leaving the religion of one's upbringing and joining another is a highly significant life event. It certainly was for me. I was born and raised as a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (i.e., Mormon Church). My Mormon roots run deep seven of eight of my great-grandparents were born and raised LDS. In other words, I am the descendant of Mormon pioneers, those who arrived in Utah from the mid-to-late 1800s. I served a full-time proselyting mission from March 1985-March 1987 in the New Mexico Albuquerque Mission. During my mission I served as Mission Financial Secretary, twice as a District Leader, and twice as Zone Leader, and, for the last several months of my mission, I served as a special assistant to the mission president. Upon honorably completing my mission I attended the LDS Church twice: my homecoming in my ward and, the following week, going with a member of the Stake High Council to another ward and delivering another homecoming talk, before ceasing to be active. In the few years that followed, I attended what the Mormons call Sacrament Meeting on a few occasions while staying with my maternal grandmother. I realize that probably none of this is of any real significance to anyone, except those it may put on the defensive.

I received Christian baptism at St. Catherine of Siena Newman Center, adjacent to the University of Utah, on 14 April 1990. I was twenty-four years old. The story of my conversion to the Catholic Church, while not very long (less than two years), is a winding story of intellectual discovery involving a lot of disparate factors (i.e., John Henry Cardinal Newman, Martin Scorcese's film adaptation of Kazantzakis' The Last Temptation of Christ, which led me to read the novel itself, this reading led me to re-read the canonical Gospels for the first time in a modern translation- the New American Bible- and without Mormon preconceptions). When I made the conscious decision to leave Mormonism, not being an atheist and still believing in Jesus Christ, about the last place I thought I would land was in the Catholic Church. The reason why I am writing about this on the verge of Lent is that 14 April 2014 I will mark the twenty-fourth anniversary of my baptism, which means that I have been a Roman Catholic half of my life, but almost all of my adulthood. Such an occasion prompts me to look back and a re-engage with those aspects of Mormonism about which I always had doubts and concerns. In truth, I wrote the bulk of this post late in the summer of 2013 with the intent to post it on my 48th birthday last November.

During my first year of being Catholic I undertook several attempts to write an apologia for myself, one that might turn into something perhaps worthy of publication. My efforts never did turn into much. I made these efforts in the University of Utah computer lab and on the Apple computer of my then fiancée (now wife). I have kept copies of those attempts in hard-copy manuscript. Keep in mind that, while older than most undergraduates, I was at that time a mere college sophomore who had recently decided to major in Philosophy and was taking my first serious, that is, lower division level, non-general, courses.


My current religious beliefs were obtained (though I was quite unconscious of it during the process of obtaining them) by following a very Cartesian method. I cast aside all of my beliefs in Mormonism because, at root, the only reason I held them was because they were the only beliefs to which I had been exposed. So, I had accepted them uncritically, without having considered any alternatives. Considering the vast number of alternatives, ranging from atheism to Hinduism, is a daunting task for anyone to undertake. In light of the immensity of the task of determining through which religion God has spoken, if any of them, or, perhaps in some way through all of them, it would seem to many people that the only responsible stance is agnosticism, resulting in an amiable religious indifferentism. However, agnosticism has always seemed to me to be a cop-out, a decided effort to ignore the most important questions of life: "Why?" "To what end?" "For what purpose have we come to be and to be here?" Religious relativism, which endeavors to give equal weight to all religious claims, strikes me as untenable because it ignores the exclusive claims that most religions make, including Christianity and Mormonism.

Both Mormonism and traditional Christianity claim that the basis of their respective beliefs are actual historical events. Hence, the truth or falsity of the claims of these religious movements can, to a large extent, be determined largely by a critical evaluation of their historical claims. The question then becomes, "Based on the evidence, can I believe these events actually occurred at some point in history?"

For Mormons the question of historical reality must first be asked about Joseph Smith, Jr.'s First Vision. Smith claimed that in the year 1820, in western New York state, God appeared to him. According to Smith's official account as recorded in "Joseph Smith- History" [which can be found in the Pearl of Great Price, one of the four books revered by the LDS as being inspired and, therefore, Scripture], what motivated him to ask God which of all the denominations of Christendom was the one, true, church, was the alleged tremendous religious excitement in and around [the towns of] Palmyra, Manchester {in] Ontario County, New York during the year 1820. It is this claim of religious revival in 1820 that first creates problems for the historicity of Smith's claim.

Wesley P. Walters, lately a Presbyterian minister in Illinois [I have a note here to check in which city in Illinois- I never followed up], a noted historiographer of Mormonism, cast serious doubts on Smith's explicit claim that there was a revival in his hometown in the year 1820. In his [official] history, Smith states that he was born in 1805 and that during his "tenth year, or thereabouts," his family moved from Vermont to Palmyra, Ontario County, New York (J.S. History 1:3). Giving Joseph Smith, Jr. some leeway, we can place his early move in either 1815 or 1816 (1805+10=1815, or 1805+11=1816). Eighteen hundred sixteen is a better guess than 1814 because Smith's birthday is 23 December. It would seem that 1817 would be the latest. So, we can, without demanding unreasonable exactness, place his move to Palmyra between 1814-1817. However, since Smith uses his "tenth year," 1816 suffices for a good base year...[I trail off here with some more about 1814-1817 mentioning chronological problems].


A photograph discovered almost 5 years ago that some believe is of Joseph Smith, Jr.

The point I was driving at here in a very meandering and indirect way were the problems with the official account of Joseph Smith, Jr.'s First Vision, which are now, as then, well documented. Even better than the yeoman's work of Wesley Walters is that of Dale L. Morgan, who was a highly regarded historian of the American West. Being a native of Utah and a Mormon by birth, Morgan was an invaluable historiographer of early Mormonism, especially on the pre-prophetic career Joseph Smith, Jr. and his family. His indefatigable work on Smith's origins is quite exhaustive, extending on the Smith side to the arrival of Robert Smith in Topsfield, Massachusetts in 1638 and the story of the religious conversion of his maternal grandfather, Solomon Mack, and the alleged prophecy of his paternal grandfather, Asael Smith, about one of his descendants lifting his family from obscurity to some kind of prominence.

Morgan's main concern was to show that Joseph Smith, Jr. was wholly a product of his time and place. He set about writing what he originally conceived of as a three volume work on the origins of Mormonism, which work he began in earnest, with the aid of a Guggenheim Fellowship, in 1945. Prior to his death from cancer in 1971 at the age of 56, Morgan only managed to complete fairly advanced drafts of seven chapters, along with two documentary appendices. In the Introduction to the book, published by Utah's own Signature Books, Dale Morgan on Early Mormonism: Correspondence & a New History, which includes a complete bibliography of all Morgan's published work (his voluminous papers are housed at U.C. Berkely's Bancroft Library), John Phillip Walker observed, "The seven chapters Dale more or less completed of his Mormon history reveal both the artist and the scholar in full command of his material" (17).

Sticking with my focus on Joseph Smith, Jr.'s "First Vision," it is important to note that in writing about this Morgan sticks very close to the evidential shore. I have no intention of recreating Morgan's work in this post. I will, therefore, point out two significant issues he raises as to the veracity of the official account of the First Vision:

Morgan notes that "Joseph told two distinctly different stories to account for his having become a prophet of God. The First Vision is the last of these, entirely unknown to his followers before 1838... and was not published in any form until late in 1840, and not by Joseph himself until the spring of 1842" (247). This is problematic because "as early as 1834-35, Joseph had published in the church periodical a history of his life" (247). Central to the first account is the figure of a Methodist minister, one George Lane, who, incidentally, was not in Palmyra until 1823. In this early account, the excitement Lane stirred up in Joseph Smith culminated not in a vision of the Father and the Son, but of the Angel Moroni.

Morgan holds that the revival Smith invokes as the immediate cause of his retiring to a secluded place in the woods to inquire of God as to which Church he should join did not occur in 1820. He cites multiple historical records that indicate there were lively revivals in the vicinity of Palmyra in 1816 and then again in 1823-24. Morgan's research into and exposition of the results of his research is very thorough and factual. At least as it pertains both to what Joseph claimed to have first experienced by way of a vision and when it occurred, Morgan offers very little interpretation, remaining content to set forth the results of his research. In so doing, he also casts serious doubts as to the reliability of Lucy Mack Smith's recollections as recorded in her work, Biographical Sketches of Joseph Smith, the Prophet, and His Progenitors for Many Generations, which was not begun until after Joseph's death in 1844, when she was in her sixties.

There is a review of this book on the Maxwell Institute website written by Gary Novak- "The Most Convenient Form of Error": Dale Morgan on Joseph Smith and the Book of Mormon." Novak's piece strikes me, an admitted non-expert, but someone who has read and re-read Morgan's seven chapters, as effectively ignoring the sources on which Morgan's work depends, as well as paying scant attention to what Morgan actually wrote. Rather, Novak sets about attacking Morgan's historical method, especially what Novak invokes as his "historical naturalism," which is certainly true and something about which Morgan engaged in a heated exchange with Bernard DeVoto, which debate arose in response to Devoto's review of Fawn McKay Brodie's controversial biography of Joseph Smith Jr., No Man Knows My History. In the end, Novak seeks to diminish Morgan's work on early Mormonism, breezily failing to acknowledge Morgan's standing during his lifetime as one of the pre-eminent historians of the American West, having published works, such as The Humboldt: High Road of the West, Utah: A Guide to the State, and Jedediah Smith and the Opening of the West, that are still considered historically relevant today. It's funny that Novak makes the claim that Morgan was obsessively committed to defending Brodie's Smith biography, given that he seems implicitly critical of her psychological method throughout his own work. What Morgan was obsessive about, as his testy correspondence with DeVoto shows, is correcting what he saw as factual errs made in reviews.

Novak apparently thinks he struck rhetorical gold by writing, "Dale Morgan's unfinished history has had little, if any, influence in the community of those who know or care about Mormon history. No one cites On Early Mormonism as an authority for some opinion on Joseph Smith." While he goes into great detail about Morgan's collaboration with Brodie, he only mentions Juanita Brooks three times in the body of his piece (more in his footnotes), never mentioning her collaboration with Morgan, even though this is made explicit in the correspondence published in the very book (8 of 50 letters, constituting 16% of the published correspondence) he is reviewing. I think there are better explanations as to why Morgan's work on the background and early years of Joseph Smith, Jr. and the origins of Mormonism have not had the kind of influence Novak thinks they should have in order to be relevant. First, at the time of his early death, Morgan's work was unfinished and unpublished. It was only published by Signature in 1986. Another reason I believe it is little used or referred to is that most people who are interested in traversing the unstable terrain of LDS origins are Evangelical Christians looking to disprove Mormonism for religious reasons. Like Novak, these people would certainly be put off by Morgan's "historical naturalism." Little use is made of the stellar work of former BYU professor D. Michael Quinn, against whom Novak fires an ad hominem broadside towards the end of his piece. In his book, Early Mormonism and the Magic World View, Quinn attempted something similar to what Morgan achieved in his seven chapters.

Another major issue for me was the historical accuracy of Book of Mormon, which claims to be the actual history of the Americas from roughly BC 600 to AD 400. Yet another difficulty arises from how Smith came to possess the plates and how he "translated" them, plus the highly dubious testimony of the witnesses. Morgan's work on this, too, is outstanding. In short, Mormonism makes a lot of claims that are empirically provable or disprovable, but still asks people to accept even the disproven claims on faith, which, at a fundamental level, strikes me as a perversion of the relationship between faith and reason.

In addition to my anniversary, the LDS Church is (finally) trying to address the many issues that arise from comparing the Church's official account of Joseph Smith, Jr.'s First Vision, which account, taken to be scriptural, is given in the book "Joseph Smith- History," which is contained one of the four books the LDS count among their scriptures, the Pearl of Great Price, with the various, irreconcilable, accounts Smith himself gave during his lifetime, as well as with the historical record. One attempt at doing this is the posting of an article on their official website, "First Vision Accounts." But, in the end, it is the same story of being told to pray about what amount to empirically verifiable claims, at least claims to be weighed on the basis of the evidence available, urging
Neither the truth of the First Vision nor the arguments against it can be proven by historical research alone. Knowing the truth of Joseph Smith’s testimony requires each earnest seeker of truth to study the record and then exercise sufficient faith in Christ to ask God in sincere, humble prayer whether the record is true. If the seeker asks with the real intent to act upon the answer revealed by the Holy Ghost, the truthfulness of Joseph Smith’s vision will be manifest

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