A Remarkable Story – But is it Exaggerated?

A reprint from Mormon Matters.

While reading History of the Church I came across an incredible story as told by Elder Theodore Turley which I wish to share.

On April 5th, 1839, not long after the Mormons had been forcibly removed from Missouri on the authority of Govern Bogg’s extermination order, Theodore Turley, a faithful Mormon, returned Far West with Elder Kimball on a mission to visit the governor and to visit the prisoners in Liberty jail.

As Elder Turley tells the tale, he was at Far West when eight men presented him with the revelation of Joseph Smith given on July 8, 1838 (D&C 118) that stated that the Twelve would “take their leave of the Saints Far West on the building site of the Lord’s House on the 26th of April” (p. 306, vol 3).

This group’s purpose was to assure Elder Turley that there was no possibility that this “prophecy” would come true because if the Twelve returned to fulfill it they’d be killed. (p. 307) Of course Turley defended the prophecy and told the men it would be fulfilled nonetheless. [1]

Amongst this mini-mob was a former member of the Church named John Whitmer. Indeed, he was one of the eight witnesses. The mob then told Elder Turley he should deny the faith even as a former member, John Corrill, was now doing by writing a book against the Church.

According to History of the Church Elder Turley, recognizing John Whitmer’s presence with the group, then tells the following tale: [2]

Turley said, “Gentlemen, I presume there are men here who have heard Corrill say, that ‘Mormonism’ was true, that Joseph Smith was a prophet, and inspired of God. I now call upon you, John Whitmer: you say Corrill is a moral and good man; do you believe him when he says the Book of Mormon is true, or when he says it is not true? There are many things published that they say are true, and again turn around and they are false?”

Whitmer asked, “Do you hint at me?”

Turley replied, “If the cap fits you, wear it; all I know is that you have published to the world that an angel did present those plates to Joseph Smith.”

Whitmer replied: “I now say, I handled those plates; there were fine engravings on both sides. I handled them;” and he described how they were hung, and “they were shown to me by a supernatural power;” he acknowledged all.

Turley asked him, “Why is not the translation now true?”

He [Whitmer] said, “I could not read it [in the original] and I do not know either it [i.e. the translation] is true or not.”

Whitmer testified all this in the presence of eight men.

This is a great story. It’s a so-good-it-gives-you-chills kind of story. Here is one of the eight witnesses in the presence of a mob, that he is now part of, testifying of the truthfulness of having seen and handled the plates as one of the eight witnesses. And the best explanation he can come up with to explain the inconsistency of his own actions is the rather lame excuse that he doesn’t know if the Book of Mormon was translated correctly or not.

But as I read this story in History of the Church, my natural skepticism kicked in. I know from my own experience that I can’t trust one side of a story. Heck, I can’t trust two sides of a story!

Here in lines the problem, there is virtually no chance that this event unfolded exactly the way Elder Turley remembered it. Think about how succinct this whole conversation is compare to the way it would have evolved in real life.

If it really happened exactly the way Elder Turley tells the tale, why didn’t the mobbers all ask for baptism, or at least tar and feather John Whitmer?

The Other Side of the Story

In my mind, I pretended like I had just found a document written by a member of the mob that told his view of the same event:

I, M. Mobocrat, having been born of badly parents, do hereby testify that today I saw a man named Theodore Turley confront John Whitmer today about the Book of Mormon. Whitmer really put Turley in his place by pointing out that just because Joe Smith shows off a bunch of plates that this doesn’t prove that his ‘translation’ of it was from God. Whitmer sure did make Turley look stupid.

Now of course we don’t actually have an alternate account of this event. But if we did, it wouldn’t surprise me at all if it said something just like this. Of course DAMUs and anti-Mormons would be thrilled and would accuse old Elder Turley of lying through his teeth. They’d probably even claim this was tantamount to John Whitmer denying his original testimony. But in real life, both of these accounts could be 100% truthful at the same time. How?

It has to do with the way the human brain works.

A Possible Scenario

Pretend with me, just for a moment, that we travel back in time and hid a video recorder in the same room. Safely back in the 21st century, we play the video recorder and this is what we hear:

Mob Person 1: “Yeah, Turley, you should deny your faith and get out of the Mormon Church just like John Corrill did. Hey, you can write a book against the Church like he is doing.

Turley: [Noticing John Whitmer in their ranks] Well, gentlemen, sometimes people say something is true and then later recant their testimony. Didn’t John Corrill once say the Book of Mormon was true and then later deny it? When was he being more truthful?

Mob Person 2: He was being more truthful when he came to his senses and stopped believing in something as ridiculous as the Book of Mormon and stopped worshiping Joe Smith.

Mob Group: [Snickers and chuckles]

Mob Person 3: Pardon me Turley, but obviously Corrill thought it was true at one time because he was hoodwinked by that imposter, Joe Smith. Then he realized that God wasn’t with Smith when we kicked you all out of Missouri to defend ourselves.

John Whitmer: I think he’s actually talking about me, boys.

Mob Group: [Turning to look at Whitmer.]

John Whitmer: Is that what you are hinting at, Turley?

Turley: Yes, John, tell me which is more true, when Corrill said the Book of Mormon was true and went on record or when he said it wasn’t true.

John Whitmer: You want to know about my own testimony as one of the eight witnesses, don’t you?

Turley: If the cap fits… You once testified that Joseph Smith received the Book of Mormon from an angel. Your testimony is still printed in that book!

Mob Person 1: I’ve heard enough of this. We’ve delivered our message, let’s go.

John Whitmer: Very well, I’ll tell all. Yes, I did sign that affidavit as one of the eight witnesses, though I never said I saw an angel deliver it to Smith. And I don’t regret my testimony. But I also don’t regret leaving the Church. Joseph Smith is a fallen prophet, or maybe was never one to begin with!

Turley: [Getting upset] How can you say that? No one was able to see those plates except a select few who God allowed to see them. You were one of, what, twelve people, that God allowed to see the plates? What a privilege from God that you are squandering.

John Whitmer: Calm down, Turley, there is nothing mysterious about what I did. Joseph Smith told my brothers and me that we’d get to see the plates. All I ever did was claim to have seen them. That’s it. That doesn’t mean that I have to believe Joseph was or still is a prophet sent from God.

Turley: [Losing his cool and a little worried about his own testimony] I don’t get you, Whitmer! You don’t mind signing a document saying that God allowed you to see the plates but then you don’t mind turning your back on God like this!

Whitmer: You say I was shown these plates by God? Well, I admit it seems unlikely that Smith could have forged them, though to be frank I’m not sure if they were gold or copper. So, yeah, maybe something supernatural was involved. But did you ever consider the possibility that it wasn’t from God? What if the devil led Smith to some plates in the ground, what then?

But even if it had originally come from God, how could we possibly know if Smith continued in that charge and didn’t take advantage of the situation? We all know how poor he was and even he admits the temptation to profit from it. Maybe even back then Joe Smith was a fallen prophet — called by God but it’s him that turned his back on God!

Turley: [Losing his cool now] You saw the plates! God never let me see them. But I believe in the Book of Mormon and you don’t. Explain that!

Whitmer: [Shaking his head] You just don’t get it, do you, Turley? Seeing the plates doesn’t mean the Book of Mormon is “true” as you say. Yeah, I saw the plates. I handled them and I saw engravings on them. They were strange workmanship. So maybe that does mean the plates themselves came from a supernatural source – one way or another.

But what does that mean about the Book of Mormon? Nothing. It just means that there was once some plates. The Book of Mormon itself may have no relation to the plates at all! Joseph may have made that part up entirely out of his mind. I have to say, Turley, I’m not ready to go charging after Joseph Smith every way he takes us with unquestioning loyalty when I have no idea if he’s really doing God’s will or not. I think he once was most likely, but he took off in his own direction. Now were dealing with paramilitary groups, threats of violence against apostates, threats of violence against their neighbors, and it never ends! So let me ask you, Turley, how can you still believe in Joseph Smith? He’s rotting in jail right now and there he’ll stay! Some prophet of the Lord!

Mob Group: “Good one Whitmer.” “You sure showed him.” “Put that Mormon in his place!”

Turley: [Smiling to himself] Well, I can see that we’ve said enough, so I’ll take my leave gentleman. Whitmer, I enjoyed this conversation immensely.

Conclusions

Now obviously this is all just coming out of my imagination. But it’s easy to see that the real conversation might have been far more nuanced then how Elder Turley tells us. And it’s easy to see how a believer like Turley and an unbeliever both present in the same conversation would focus in on entirely different aspects of that conversation.

This is how history works, I’m afraid. All too often we quote someone like Elder Turley, or his unbelieving equivalent, and don’t realize just how different the original conversation they are reporting might have been compared to the way they sincerely remember it.

Yet what alternative do we have? History is nothing more then, as one of my history professors put it, professionally reading a lot of old gossip.

The Challenge

So here is the question: Is it okay to share a story like Elder Turley’s in Sunday School without a critical examination of how it’s natural for someone like Elder Turley to exaggerate? Bear in mind that we have no way of knowing if he did or didn’t, we’re just guessing he did because that’s normal, natural, and unconscious.

I feel that history is the stories themselves, myths and all. I have my doubts that historians’ have the ability to reconstruct “what really happened.” Indeed, I believe that approach is often a much bigger lie than just telling the stories as is.

Because of these feelings/beliefs I have, I, for one, would not hesitate to tell this story in Sunday School even though I have my suspicions of exaggeration.

On the other hand, I wouldn’t be against mentioning my suspicions of exaggeration, but it would depend on the context and setting. I doubt Sunday School would be the right place to bring them up. The Bloggernacle would be a much better setting to mention something like that.

So how do you feel about telling a story such as this exactly as it’s presently recorded in a Sunday School setting? Oh, and if you disagree with me, please explain how you can do so while maintaining consistency – that is to say fair treatment of others — in all aspects of your own life since telling one side of a story is a human foible that I guarantee we’re all guilty of in large amounts. [3]

Notes:

[1] As I’m sure you all know, the Twelve sneaked in a night and fulfilled the charge.

[2] History of the Church, vol 3, p. 307-308. I’m sure most of you know that History of the Church is actually a second hand source culled together out of other people’s journals and testimonies and then rewritten as if Joseph Smith was telling the tale. The antis have made much over the fact that it seems like a primary source but is actually a secondary source. But of course they are just unfairly holding record keepers of that day to the modern standards of historians today. And besides, let’s admit that a secondary source put together by scribes that lived through all these events using the primary sources available to them has value in and of itself.

[3] A fair question would be how I feel about anti-Mormons that pass along what I feel are exaggerated stories against the LDS church? Would I still feel this is fair? Answer: Yes. Regardless of what faith you are trying to build up through your myth telling, I feel passing along historical stories “as is” is always a fair tactic.

That being said, I get a good laugh out of how often the story being told is then passed along to someone of another faith, say an anti-Mormon telling a story to a Mormon (or vice versa), with the naive expectation that this somehow proves something. I feel we could all do with a more realistic view of what history really is, especially when dealing with others of a different faith then our own.

8 thoughts on “A Remarkable Story – But is it Exaggerated?

  1. I would assume if the same standard was applied to the Scriptures we could not believe a word if dialogue was genuine. Jesus does seem tone a man of little words who just walks for hours and hours to get to a place talk for 1minute and even less and go on his way!
    Of course… I think the conversations and teachings have been edited for brevity. If we wouldn’t feel comfortable quoting this story I don’t know why we’d felt comfortable quoting the bible. Unless we believe the people who recorded it 1-200 years later go it more right than BH Roberts.

  2. Chris is right. The scriptures cannot be considered unbiased and reliable from a historical point of view. But this doesn’t make them any less sacred.

    I believe revising the past is the prerogative of the present. I recently discovered that my great-grandfather was an abusive and incurable alcoholic. But I chose to leave out this sordid detail from his published life history. Was that wrong of me? 99% of the past is irretrievably lost anyway. When we cherry pick details from the past, and try to get them historically right, we are still missing 99% of the lost context, and will likely fail to “get it right” just as much as those who practice historical revisionism. What about all the unrecorded private prayers my great-grandfather might have said to God, that would have given greater context to his pathos and addiction? Am I really being more accurate if I simply invite modern readers to dismiss him as an alcoholic?

  3. Bruce- It depends when the account was first recorded. Was it a journal or letter written in 1839? If so, then the account could be accurate. Was it first recored years after the event? If so, the credibility of the account should be called into question.
    If it is second-hand the reliability is also questionable.

    An historical record is not the same as the scriptures. Apples and oranges.

  4. The scriptures are in many ways a record and the church and apostles have called them as such. It does not pretended to be a balanced or complete historical record by any means. If you want to make a food analogy it is more likely the difference between pasta and spaghetti with meatballs. Spaghetti with sauce is after all still a pasta but has something else too make it something more.

    I’ll also address the timing of it being written down. I’ve had some amazing moments that were not written down until years after the fact and some that still haven’t been. It’s a shame someone would doubt them as being true… in fact if I wanted to lie about it one would give it more weight if I was more methodical and set out to lie from the beginning?

    I understand the rationale for raising an eyebrow at something recorded years later but I wonder if regrettable those who do so have never had the experience of dedicating themselves to the Lord and receiving daily revelations or if grey are just so Good they write everything down as it comes to them.

  5. Agree Chris, Scriptures are records, they also can be parables. The value in the scriptures lies not in the absolute truth/record, but the message G-d is trying to convey to his children.

    I agree we can have some great experiences we fail to write down, but if an experience is passed off as a historical event more weight is placed on what is recorded close to the occurrence. The reason for this is, as more time passes the truth can become distorted. People in the 1800′s are notorious for “stretching the truth” because there were not any fact checkers. Also as time passes the human mind is prone to “suggestion”. The more an individual wants to use a distant memory to justify a point they are trying to make, the more susceptible their mind may be to “remember” the event in such a way as to support their cause.

    True accounts are often similar to how Joseph Smith described the FIrst Vision. If someone is lying about an fictionalized event, they will always tell it the same way, because they have memorized the lie. Joseph told the story many times; each time essentially the same, but he added or left out important or trivial details. Joseph was not lying, because with a true event, the teller may emphasize certain elements at different tellings.

  6. JA Benson,

    While it seems obvious to me that an earlier recording is ‘better’ than a later remembrance just based on the fallibility of human memory, I must say that it’s difficult for me to see how that plays a role in this case. The story could be true, false, or exaggerated either way. This is especially true since it comes from a single source and we can’t check it against someone elses’ remembrances.

    Also, all scripture would suffer substantially if we went only be the ‘later remembrance’ rule. I have my doubts we can’t substantially remember many true things over a very long period of time.

    In fact, that rule basically eradicates the value of all ancient history. Every last ounce of it. None of it has within a few years of what the history reports. The bible comes by far the closest to the actual events and with the most versions of it. Nothing else is comparable in the slightest. So we’d not be able to tell any ancient history at all.

  7. Bruce, are you also disappointed we don’t get to read Laman and Lemuel’s side of the story? :-)

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