I’m not the first to say this, but all religion begins as mystical experience and it all begins in proximity to the volcano, right? It’s the image that is used, I think is a magnificent image. And as the lava flows down the slopes, it cools and we lose the heat and the fire. So that’s how I envision, sadly, the cultural tragedy of the place of the Book of Abraham. Instead of saying “there’s a volcano at work here, something is happening! Joseph is producing and speculating and working and stuff is coming out and there are these ideas and he gets temple texts and ideas and the whole plan of salvation comes to its completion!” as he’s working through these texts that he thinks are temple related. But no, we want it to be this orderly kind of thing. He sits down and he understands the Egyptian and we look at the Egyptologists and they say, well that’s not an accurate translation and we throw it all out. We want to turn the volcano into a nightlight.
And in all honesty, I should address this because it’s a problem and that is that Joseph clearly believed he was working with papyri that were authored by Abraham, that he was recasting into English. So even if you grant more expansive definition of translation as I want to, you still have to deal with that problem…Paul said whether in the body or out of the body, I couldn’t tell. Paul couldn’t tell what was happening to him in a revelatory experience. So the notion that Joseph was kind of fully self-aware and cognizant and rational about it, exactly? I don’t know. You’re overcome by the spirit and who knows what’s happening from that point on. So I think very plainly, Joseph was mistaken.
Brigham Young famously said, if the Book of Mormon were translated today, it would read entirely differently than it did when it came through the mind of Joseph Smith.
I don’t believe the Book of Mormon is historical. I don’t believe the LDS church is exclusively God’s one, true church. But I do believe the Church is good and beautiful and true in the ways that I need it to be true. I’m asked frequently what I think about Joseph, given that he didn’t portray his revelations and the restoration in the way that I interpret it. I think there are four categories of ways to explain this disconnect.
- Joseph was fraudulent. A cynical view would be that he was fraudulent with selfish or sinister motivations: ie power, money, etc. I reject those theories. I do believe he was likely fraudulent in some ways at some times, ie pious fraud. I describe it as he had marvelous, powerful revelations and knew it was his responsibility to share this and because of his weakness and inadequacies, he might have made mistakes exaggerating claims at times in how he portrayed these revelations.
- Joseph was delusional. Again a very cynical view might portray him as being wildly, incompetently delusional. I reject that. But I could easily go along with Brother Givens’ theory here, where spiritual experience came so powerful that it was hard to determine the boundary of physical and spiritual at times. Or like in the case of translating ancient text like the Book of Abraham, he simply was wrong about the source of the text.
- Misremembering and/or memory filling in gaps or adding details to his visions that either weren’t there originally or weren’t interpreted or understood that way earlier. Much of Joseph’s history is written after the fact, recalling events many years prior.
- Others adding details to Joseph’s revelations or stating them with harder lines when Joseph meant to state them softer. I get the feeling that Givens would think Joseph would be surprised today with how forcefully and absolutely we take things that he said that he might have meant more experimentally.
Terryl shared an interesting anecdote where someone went to President Wilford Woodruff to ask if he could be sealed to his father. He said the president laughed at him and said, “your father’s not a prophet, of course you can’t be sealed to him”. Woodruff later said that he felt wrong about that and revealed that all worthy members could be sealed to parents. What Brother Givens thinks was the most interesting part of this story is that in his research as a historian, he found no reactions “how could the Church get that wrong for 50 years??” He only found reactions like “yeah I always thought that was wrong and we assumed it would change eventually.”
Now what that tells me is they’re operating with a very different definition of prophet, a very different definition of restoration and of revelation. And I’ve tracked a whole series of responses by general authorities in the aftermath of that talk. And they’re all on the same theme. Yeah, we get some things right, we get some things wrong, but the trajectory is all in the right direction and eventually it all be right. But we’re fallible instruments and you see what I mean? Canon may be one of those words too. Would we canonize things today and make allowances for weirdness in terms of origin and transmission? I don’t. I think not. We’re not liberal and expansive enough in our understandings as a people.
Asked about whether it’s appropriate to consider works that came to us with uncertain provenance, like Book of Abraham and possibly Book of Mormon, as scripture, Terryl’s response:
I think that problem is omnipresent. Who wrote the Book of Hebrews? We don’t know. Who wrote most of the epistles of Paul? Not Paul. And yet they are still scripture. See what I mean? It’s like nobody has stopped to think, well, wait a minute, we no longer believe those origin stories of those scriptures or those authorship stores, but they’re still canon. It’s because what is canon? A canon does not mean a body of doctrine considered to be infallible. A canon means a common corpus that gives identity to a body of believers.
And so if that’s the definition, then we don’t have to be quite so anxious about who’s speaking, how accurate is their fallibility here, right? I mean Joseph Smith said there are many, he didn’t say some. He said there are many things in the holy scriptures that do not accord with the revelations of the Holy Spirit to me, but we still go to Sunday school class and read the same texts. I think we need to do it all with a more, I don’t want to say skeptical, but with a more critical, evaluative, considered approach.
Another great quote on the use of other sources.
I think it’s almost comical the silliness of those people who say, Oh, I found another plagiarism of Joseph Smith. Look at this. He got this from Charles Buck, or he got this from Adam Clark. No. Joseph published in the church newspaper most of the sources when he found a good source for an idea that he reaffirmed. Whether that’s baptism for the dead or progression through the kingdoms or Thomas Dick, he was excited to find another gem that he could incorporate into the restoration. We have to shift our model of understanding Joseph’s conceiving of himself, he was an inspired syncretist.
Another good quote on infallibility.
It’s always hard to know when you’re quoting Joseph Smith, you know, how much authority to invest in his different expressions. Because the thing I love about Joseph Smith is, I think it was in response to the failed Canadian copyright revelation, he goes, “well, some revelations are of God, some are of man, and some are of the devil. Don’t you love a man who can say that and still expect you to take him seriously the next day? His words aren’t all canonical. A lot of them should be, but not all.