Seeking Simple Answers from Apologists on Tough LDS History Issues

John Dehlin Joseph Smith, Mormon Stories

Ok…let me state up front that I am an active and believing (though non-traditional in some aspects) member of the church. I love and deeply respect the church, Joseph Smith, and the Book of Mormon, and believe that they all are inspired of God, and teach eternal truths.

That said, after studying LDS history, many of us have found that some of the historical facts within Mormonism are very different than what we were taught growing up, and in some instances, a bit hard to understand. Apologists (I believe) often do a wonderful job of doing solid research, and working hard to debunk misunderstandings and provide justifications, in defense of the faith. One of my issues w/ much of what I’ve read in FAIR/FARMS, however, is that the issues get clouded and obscured in too much detail (like on the recent Tal Bachman post).

I would like to propose a small project. I am going to list a series of “facts” or “issues” on this post, and I will invite Daniel Peterson, or any other apologist (preferably from FAIR) to help me fill out the columns. I am interested in a few things for each row/point:

  • Do you (the apologists) concede the basic historical fact? If you don’t, please provide primary sources (where possible) to disprove.
  • If you do concede the fact, how do you explain/justify it (if you can). If you don’t feel like you have a good justification, free to say, “I don’t understand” or “This is a bit of a problem”. Please limit this to 3 sentences max, and feel free to provide links to more detailed explanations.
  • If any of you disagree w/ the apologist response, I’ll post your rebuttal (please also keep that to 3 sentences max).

I would love to go through this exercise for clarity’s sake. I will add new rows as these first rows get developed.

I also want to state categorically that I see NONE of these items that I’ve listed as disproving the church’s validity, or as being “smoking guns” (whatever the facts demonstrate). I also want to express openly that I offer this excercise up with sincerity…not trying to ensnare…but instead to reach a better understanding of our past, and how we might become more comfortable with it (trying to avoid the pitfalls of drilling too deep, and obfuscating the issues).

Please be kind/respectful of each other. I look forward to the exercise.

Simple Answers from Apologists on Tough LDS History Issues
Facts/Issue Apologists: Concede the Facts/Statement?
Apologist Explanation Rebuttal
1) Joseph Smith and some of his family engaged in treasure digging using a stone w/ a hole in it, and the same stone Joseph used to dig for treasure was also used to create a decent portion of the Book of Mormon (via stone in the hat)
Joseph had 19th century sensibilities which included a belief in seer stones and other divining instruments.  God worked within this context to use Joseph as an instrument to bring about the restoration, just as he spoke to previous generations in terms of their understanding.  
2) There are no 1st hand accounts that Joseph actually used the golden plates in the translation process of the Book of Mormon that we have today. The 1st hand accounts that we do have indicate that the plates were either on a table covered up, or not in the room, during the creation of the book.
I think everyone acknowledges that the translation was done via the spirit and not "with the text" in any normal way.  I’ve never read anything in any LDS context asserting otherwise.  I’m surprised anyone even sees this as an issue since clearly Joseph couldn’t read the script.  The issue isn’t whether Joseph read the book (since he *couldn’t* read it) but whether there is a fundamental relation between the produced text and the book.  
3) Joseph Smith had somewhere between 27 and 33 wives
God commanded Joseph Smith to take plural wives. I don’t think many can assert this is too problematic – especially given that earlier polygamist, Abraham’s, own actions regarding his marital state.  
4) Joseph Smith publicly denied he was practicing polygamy
 I think everyone concedes that Joseph practiced polygamy in secret to avoid persecution for it and that this certainly involved lying about it.  Given the nature of the persecution (and what the persecutors eventually did do)  
5) Joseph Smith married some women who were married to other men (including active church members) at the time of his marriage to them (polyandry)
Everyone acknowledges polyandry although there are disputes about how many of the marriages were for time or instead for eternity and how many were intended to be practical marriages.  
6) There is decent evidence to suggest that Joseph Smith had intimate relations with at least some of his plural wives
It would be silly to assert Joseph never slept with people he was married to.  (After all the Utah polygamists did)  One can argue that (as in Utah) some marriages weren’t practical ones and probably didn’t involve sex.  But certainly many surely did – although there isn’t clear evidence on the issue.  
7) Joseph’s polygamy, denial of polygamy, and destruction of the Nauvoo Expositor were important factors in his eventual martyrdom
The Expositor focused on two main complaints: (1) that Joseph Smith had too much power and (2) that he was secretly engaged in the immoral practice of polygamy. The Expositor was published to "expose" (hence the name) Joseph as a despotic tyrant, and it did so using some of the most defamatory language possible. Joseph (as mayor) and the city council declared it a public nusance and ordered its destruction. Some have argued that action was legal based on the city charter and the pre-14th Amendment interpretation of the 1st Amendment. But right or wrong, the destruction of that press enflamed the already-angry surrounding populace and lead directly to Joseph and Hyrum’s deaths.  
8) Martin Harris claimed in the 1830s that the witnesses didn’t see the plates with their physical eyes, but instead with their spiritual eyes
Regarding seeing the Book of Mormon and the spiritual eyes bit, that was Martin Harris’ statement.  But it doesn’t imply others didn’t.  Nor did Harris feel this wasn’t something real.  Further it isn’t clear this is the *only* experience of Harris.  (Harris also said he sat with the plates on his knee for an hour and a half)  
9) At least 3 blacks received the priesthood during Joseph Smith’s era
I’m not sure on the details about which blacks held the priesthood, but I believe that is right.  I think the blacks and the priesthood issue probably involved some big mistakes and unfortunate probably wasn’t something Joseph clarified.  
10) While the Book of Mormon tells of hundreds of thousands of soliders fighting battles with steel swords, shields and helmets, no one has ever found a sampling of any of these items in the Americas.

The issue of swords is a difficult one.  There are the Aztec swords but that doesn’t explain the metal issue.  The main apologetic answer is that absence of find doesn’t imply non-existence.  The claim is that they would have rusted.  I recognize many might find this one unsatisfying.  (I think it one of the few of your list that someone might find legitimately troubling).

Another writes, " None of the scriptures specify that large groups of people had metal swords.  The few mentions of metal weapons are with small, very early, groups.  The only mention of many people dying by sword does not say they the swords were metal.  Thus any sharp edged lever would probably qualify, such as the weapons we do observe in ruins."

11) For over a hundred years, many LDS apostles and prophets taught that American Indians were descendants of the Lamanites. DNA evidence now shows that modern American Indians are primarily descendants of Asians who crossed the Bering straight.

It is true "that some GAs have taught this and believed it, but but that ultimately is irrelevant. Mormons don’t believe in inerrancy of prophets, apostles, and GA’s.

DNA evidence does confirm most if not many native americans are of asiatic descent. It is much, much more difficult to prove or disprove that a group of israelites could have come to Amereica, and interbred with the existing population over thousands of years. Their lineage still would include Israelite blood, but unique Israelite markers could easily have been lost if the founding group had a population of less than about 600 people. Careful reading of the Book of Mormon and inferences made regarding the sudden jumps in populations of Lamanites and Nephites strongly supports this view. In Joseph’s time, the idea of Israelite origin of all Native Americans was a wildly popular idea, and it seems evident that enthusiasm for this idea led to overstated and oversimplified claims about Native american and Polynesian origins, even though they may well have some ancestral lines that trace back to Lehi.

Apologists (long before the DNA issue) asserted it was a local influx into a large pre-existing body of people.  So not finding Indians as primarily of Israelite descent shouldn’t be unexpected.  Rather it is what we expected to find way back in the 80’s. (editor’s note: this does not address the question about what LDS apostles and prophets taught, and it doesn’t address the fact that DNA tests on American indians seem to show DNA ties to Asia. It would be great if these things could be addressed as part of the response).