An Insider’s Outside View of Mormon History

In the spirit of describing personal religious turning points, I am presenting this observational essay. At the same time it touches on a few posts with themes about intellectuals and faith.

The Discovery Years

While reading about the LDS history articles in the Ensign, I was reminded of my own studies. When I was young, interest in the subject started because my own personal faith had grown. My house was filled with history books both secular and religious. As a reader, I would try and find anything I could on whatever subject interested me the most.

My first full biography on Joseph Smith was by John Henry Evans, a rather unsophisticated treatment. What intrigued me about the book was less how definitive it was and more how complicated and exciting Joseph Smith seemed. Noticing more to the man and the Prophet than the author presented didn’t bother me — it fascinated me. Perhaps it had to do with my understanding of history as storytelling rather than a collection of facts that had to be accounted for to make things true.

My second encounter with Mormon history was brief, and I had already gotten a beginner’s start by reading a few chapters in Joseph Smith’s 6 Volume history. At this point my focus of LDS Church history set with Joseph Smith as the center of study. Having read one biography of Joseph Smith, I decided to find another one; and like so many other people picked up Fawn Brodie’s treatment. I read a few chapters at the start and a couple in the middle before reading the rest. Unlike so many people who apparently read her book and become disenchanted, I was unimpressed. As a teenager I could tell where history stopped and her own unfounded biases filled in the gaps. Where Evan’s book was sketchy, this one had been overproduced. Other than a few original for the time newspaper reports, “No Man Knows My History” mostly used the Joseph Smith HIstory volumes and Journal of Discourses. Much of what she writes was discussed in B.H. Roberts History of the LDS Church with a difference of opinion. Reading Hugh Nibley’s criticism about the book was not a discovery, but a realization I wasn’t the only one seeing the problems.

Before graduating High School and leaving my home for college, I read all the historical Ensign articles I could. They contained the most detail on specific topics I had access to at the time. The articles were impressive for someone who didn’t have other treatments to rely on for more information. I lament that such writings in the magazine stopped during the 90s, although one or two good articles came out later. Still, it got me reading more than the outdated books written by a small group of believers. Continue reading

The Faith of Abraham

Back in my Mormon Matters days (a Dehlinite website), it seems like we’d get a post every couple of weeks about how the scriptures are full of bad stories of God commanding the death of someone. We’d get complaints about Nephi and Laban, of course, but the story that seemed to get the most attention was that of Abraham being commanded to sacrifice Isaac.

I remember one post, in particular that suggested the story should be changed to have Abraham refuse to sacrifice Isaac and the angel of God then praises Abraham for refusing to do something immoral even if God commands it.

I can see why this story is so troubling to theological liberals and non-believers. This story simply leaves no room to ethically explain it away. Continue reading

Peter, Oliver Cowdery, and the Melchezidek Priesthood

How many of you remember this post where I talked about “the problem of history“? In that post I gave a fake example of how in history, especially religious history, we often build informationless narrative fallacies that, due to the way human beings think, seem like rational arguments but in fact are not.

Now compare that to this post from John Nilsson back from my Mormon Matters days. I found it an interesting example of how difficult it is for us to remove our biases when dealing with religious history. (Or probably with any sort of history we care about.)

When I turned this rudimentary training [in history] on the sources describing the stories above [about angelic ordination of the priesthood], I found the records to be vague and contradictory, more so than in the case of Joseph’s different accounts of the First Vision. This is partly because Joseph had a co-participant, Oliver Cowdery, who left his own account of these experiences, and that many other early Church members wrote as if they did not hear of these ordinations until 1834 or 1835. Cowdery’s account is especially interesting, as he mentions only one occasion of priesthood bestowal, only one priesthood, only one angel visiting, and declines to name the angel as either John the Baptist or Peter, James, and John. (Note that the Church has added an “s” to “holy angel(s) in the link to the Oliver Cowdery account above to soften the ambiguity, under the guise of correcting “spelling, grammar, and punctuation”.

Continue reading

The Problem of History – First a Fake Example

Another reprint from Mormon Matters. I never did finish this series on history and narrative fallacy.

In my past posts I discussed the impossibility of knowing what really happened in history as well as the problem that, believe or disbelieve, we all have much riding on how Mormon history is interpreted. Either way, it’s your personal religion at stake. 

The problem with me saying that is that, well, we all know it’s true — for other people. But due to the narrative fallacy, we think we’re the exception not the rule.

To prove that, at times, we’re all the rule, I am forced to start with a fake example because it is the only way to not derail the conversation immediately. Continue reading

The Biology of Irrationality

In my previous post, I discussed my introduction to the science behind the rationality problems all humans suffer from. I later found another book, this one called Evil Genes: Why Rome Fell, Hitler Rose, Enron Failed, and My Sister Stole My Mother’s Boyfriend, that introduced me to the biology behind our emotional – and sometimes irrational — thinking.

This time, I’m going to mostly just go with quotes from the book, as they say it all:

The Limbic System’s Role in “Emotional Thinking”

The role of emotion in shaping “rational” thinking is tremendously underrated. Strong evidence shows that human behavior is the product of both the rational deliberation that takes place in the front areas of the cerebral cortex and the “emote control” — emotional reasoning – that originates in the limbic system. …As Princeton sociologist Douglass Massey writes: ‘Emotionality clearly preceded rationality in evolutionary sequence, and as rationality developed it did not replace emotionality as a basis for human interaction. Rather, rational abilities were gradually added to preexisting and simultaneously developing emotional capacities….’

Human behavior…is not under the sole control of either affect or deliberation but results from the interaction of these two qualitatively different processes… Emote control is fast but is largely limited to operating according to evolved patterns. Deliberation is far more flexible… but is comparatively slow and laborious.  (p. 187) Continue reading