This post is a write up of some random thoughts of the past few weeks while working on Sunday School Gospel Doctrine lesson preparation the last month, covering multiple First Vision accounts, seerstone translation, and Oliver Cowdery’s divining rod.
I continue to be impressed with the church’s efforts to transition from the old way of teaching church history to the new way.
- teach a sanitized/inaccurate version of church history events that sustains faith but is not accurate to actual facts
- subtly imply the accurate version may be “anti-Mormon lies” and encourage faithful LDS to avoid sources that give this version
- take control of teaching accurate version of church history. Don’t let critical sources be the only place it is taught.
- give context to make some sense to it and hopefully preserve faith
We’re not there yet. I see this as a 20 year plan. But what’s happened just in the last few years is groundbreaking. In the last month, for the first time ever in the church, Sunday School Gospel Doctrine teachers taught multiple First Vision accounts from church approved sources. In the last month, for the first time ever in the church, those teachers taught the seer stone head in hat translation method from church approved sources. In the last month, for the first time ever in the church, those teachers taught that Oliver Cowdery was commanded by God to attempt to translate the Book of Mormon using his divining rod.
We’re not going to get there over night, but this is remarkable, in my opinion.
I was listening to podcasts while preparing my lessons. Jared Anderson’s podcast is very good. His is a little more “edgy” with coverage of the controversial topics. Another I listen to is the Mormon Interpreter’s scripture roundtable, sometimes led by Dan Peterson, which also provides some good insights.
I went back four years ago to listen to Mormon Interpreter’s discussion on the Oliver Cowdery divining rod sections. On that particular session, they had Dan Peterson, Ben McGuire, and Mike Parker. They came to D&C 8:
6 Now this is not all thy gift; for you have another gift, which is the gift of Aaron; behold, it has told you many things;
7 Behold, there is no other power, save the power of God, that can cause this gift of Aaron to be with you.
8 Therefore, doubt not, for it is the gift of God; and you shall hold it in your hands, and do marvelous works; and no power shall be able to take it away out of your hands, for it is the work of God.
Mormon scholars, nearly universally, agree that these verses (which are more clear in the original Book of Commandments), are referencing Oliver Cowdery’s use of a diving rod. The church later confirmed this in the Revelations in Context article Oliver Cowdery’s Gift.
Oliver Cowdery lived in a culture steeped in biblical ideas, language, and practices. The revelation’s reference to Moses likely resonated with him. The Old Testament account of Moses and his brother Aaron recounted several instances of using rods to manifest God’s will (see Exodus 7:9–12; Numbers 17:8). Many Christians in Joseph Smith and Oliver Cowdery’s day similarly believed in divining rods as instruments for revelation. Oliver was among those who believed in and used a divining rod.
The Lord recognized Oliver’s ability to use a rod: “Thou hast another gift which is the gift of working with the sprout [or rod].” Confirming the divinity of this gift, the revelation stated: “Behold there is no other power save God that can cause this thing of Nature to work in your hands for it is the work of God.” If Oliver desired, the revelation went on to say, the Lord would add the gift of translation to the revelatory gifts Oliver already possessed.
I’m sure Dr. Peterson knew this and accepted this, and I’m pretty sure McGuire did as well. Yet, during their discussion Mike Parker said the following:
Some people, especially critics of the church and Joseph Smith, have speculated that this rod was a divining rod…But I consulted with Larry Morris, coauthor of the biography Oliver Cowdery: Scribe, Elder, Witness, and he said there is no evidence of Oliver Cowdery using a divining rod…it seems more likely that this rod is connected to Aaron’s rod (from Old Testament)…
Neither Peterson nor McGuire challenged him on this, but to Peterson’s credit, he did seem to imply disagreement by comparing the use of seerstone by Joseph Smith or divining rod by Oliver Cowdery to the use of training wheels. The seerstone was kind of a crutch, which Joseph depended on, until he became more experienced and came to understand the power of revelation was in the connection of his mind to God’s, not in the seerstone. Which is true. It appears that Joseph put aside the seerstone and no longer used it after the summer of 1829.
But the point here is that for a long time, these things were only taught by “critics” and good LDS didn’t know how to respond. How do I make sense of it? Do I keep it a secret? Am I forced to deny the understanding humans gain through scholarship and science?
Today, four years later from that discussion, it would go completely differently. Faithful LDS will now have the Revelations in Context to use, and now can create dialogue like the “training wheels” concept, to help augment faith, given the actual history. No more will we waste energy denying or obfuscating actual church history. At least on this particular issue. All the issues aren’t resolved yet. Give the church 20 years and be as patient as you can.
“Study it Out” — Implications for Book of Mormon Translation
So Oliver took a shot at translating the Book of Mormon using his divining rod as a conduit for the Spirit. It appears he was successful at first, at least for a brief moment. D&C 9:5.
5 And, behold, it is because that you did not continue as you commenced, when you began to translate, that I have taken away this privilege from you.
You can’t “continue” in something unless you were doing it in the first place, right? I wonder what part of the Book of Mormon that is. OK, so then the Lord gives the reason why he failed, which has become a popular seminary scripture and a foundational piece of a Mormon’s testimony in how we receive personal revelation. D&C 9:7-9.
7 Behold, you have not understood; you have supposed that I would give it unto you, when you took no thought save it was to ask me.
8 But, behold, I say unto you, that you must study it out in your mind; then you must ask me if it be right, and if it is right I will cause that your bosom shall burn within you; therefore, you shall feel that it is right.
9 But if it be not right you shall have no such feelings, but you shall have a stupor of thought that shall cause you to forget the thing which is wrong; therefore, you cannot write that which is sacred save it be given you from me.
It’s up to us to make a decision ourselves. Then we take that decision to God for confirmation. This is how the Lord worked with Brother of Jared. He had to come up with the solution and present it to God. We’re instructed not to lazily ask God who to marry or which subject to major in, but to “study it out”, do the work to decide for ourselves, wrestle with it, list the pro’s and con’s, and make the decision ourselves. It’s great, practical advice. We as Mormons are a people of action. We don’t sit on our hands wondering what God wants us to do. But when it comes to Book of Mormon translation, it’s a bit mind blowing. How did it go? Something like this?
Joseph looking in the seerstone and “studying it out”, his own mind putting words on the stone for God to confirm…
“I, Nephi, having been born of goodly parents in a small village of Malaysia….” “Am I feeling a burning in my bosom? No. Hang on, Oliver. No, this is definitely stupor of thought. Let’s try again.”
“I, Nephi, son of the great Viking warrior, Bjorn…” “No, it’s still a stupor of thought.”
I believe this description of the Book of Mormon translation process provides huge insight, which we as a church haven’t really processed.
Joseph and Emma
Changing directions, I loved this new piece of art, I saw last week. Credit: “Emma as Scribe” by Robert T. Pack.
First, I think it’s great that this new openness about church history is resulting in more accurate artwork. Second, I just love the symbol of marriage partnership illustrated here.
I know some people feel conflicted with the love story that the church likes to put forward between Joseph and Emma, and how that can be resolved with some of his actions related to polygamy and/or infidelity that seem like dirty behavior. But I’m a sucker for romance, and I’d like to believe that despite their ups and downs, Joseph and Emma loved and supported each other. This illustration shows the partnership of marriage that Mormons believe in so deeply. Moses 5:1
1 And it came to pass that after I, the Lord God, had driven them out, that Adam began to till the earth, and to have dominion over all the beasts of the field, and to eat his bread by the sweat of his brow, as I the Lord had commanded him. And Eve, also, his wife, did labor with him.
This illustration took me back to the story of the coming forth of the Gold Plates in D. Michael Quinn’s “Early Mormonism and the Magic World View.” Quinn, using extensive research, shows what is to me a convincing case, that the story of Joseph Smith’s four visits to the Hill Cumorah from Sep 1824 to 1827 is steeped in treasure seeking/treasure guardian lore. With Angel Moroni coming across like a traditional Guardian Spirit, tricking Joseph, with Joseph using his seerstone to outwit the Spirit and obtain the plates.
The first time Joseph went in 1824, he saw the plates and went to grab them and was shocked by the Spirit, who told him he couldn’t have them yet. He was told to come the next year but he had to bring the right person. Joseph assumed it was Alvin, but Alvin died a few months later. The rumor was so strong that people in the community believed Joseph was going back the next year and had to have Alvin with him, that people were accusing him of planning to dig up Alvin’s dead body and take it with him. Joseph Sr. took out an ad in the paper denying this rumor. The next two attempts were fruitless, with the Spirit telling him each time he had to bring the right person with him. On the third trip in 1826, Joseph looked in his seerstone and saw his crush Emma Hale, and he knew that was the person the Spirit required him to bring. The rest is history. He marries Emma in Jan 1827, and they go together that September, and obtain the plates together.
Maybe God wanted him to be married before getting the plates. Maybe Joseph knew deep down there was something important about marriage, that he needed to be married to start his work. Maybe his subconscious knew that from the beginning, therefore hatching the narrative about another person being required.
Three ways to handle messy church history details
This story doesn’t exactly align with the official, sanitized version of church history. We’re not yet on the 20 year timeline to the point where this will all get sorted out. So how does one process this kind of view? Three ways.
1. Either ignore the information. Or determine that it doesn’t significantly alter the sanitized version. The traditional, literal testimony is preserved.
2. Decide the real version is too different than the sanitized version, such that it destroys faith in the core beliefs of the church in a way that testimony can’t be salvaged. Either leave the church or hang on as a frustrated non-believer.
3. Decide the real version is too different than the sanitized version, but find value in the core beliefs and purpose of the church. The old, literal/traditional faith is deconstructed. But in its place a sustaining, vibrant faith is reconstructed. This new faith isn’t as certain. They may believe that church history events though not God-directed are God-ordained. They might not believe in historicity of scripture, exclusivity of the LDS church, and have a non-traditional view on the role of prophets. But many who go through this find the value of their testimony and living a Christ-centered LDS life just as rewarding.
I’m going to leave this month of study with a few take aways.
I don’t believe the BOM is historical and I doubt that actual angels appeared to Joseph and Oliver to confer the priesthood to them, but I think something profound was happening in that spring of 1829 in Harmony, Pennsylvania. In that 90 day period Apr – Jun 1829, pretty much the entire BOM was translated, 14 revelations of the D&C were received, the priesthood was restored, and most of the organization of the church that happened the next spring was roughed out. Of this time period, Oliver said:
These were days never to be forgotten–to sit under the sound of a voice dictated by the inspiration of heaven, awakened the utmost gratitude of this bosom.
I can’t explain how or why it makes sense, but this testimony feels pure to me, and I think something profound was happening.
Again, I doubt the sanitized version of the Angel Moroni visits, but something seems really pure and raw about Joseph’s beliefs about what was happening with respect to obtaining the plates when you read the accounts from scholars like Quinn and Bushman. As a hopeless romantic and believe in the partnership of marriage and the power when a man and woman work together to accomplish things, I’m going to go with the theory that Joseph needed to be married before he started his work, and that those years helped Joseph get in the right frame of mind and prepare him to produce the Book of Mormon and create a religion that works for millions today.
This period in church history where Joseph coached Oliver to use his “means” to connect to God and channel revelation is an illustration of how Greg Prince succinctly describes the heart of Mormonism. Joseph Smith saw the face of God, and he was able to create a set of symbols that allowed his followers to share in that experience and also see the face of God.