Returning BYU to its Original Mission

The founding of Brigham Young University was a long process. Although the official date is considered 1875, it wasn’t a full university and accredited until after the turn of the century. It started out as an LDS high school before receiving the designation as a higher education academy. A few years in and a fire destroyed the original main building. Presidents of the school came and went as some wanted to improve their professional opportunities. Benjamin Cluff Jr. was the president possibly most responsible for BYU becoming the university it is today, splitting the high school from the college students and implementing updated college curriculum. During his time the LDS Church formally took over the institution and it became a full university in name and purpose. Later presidents of the university would build on these changes and continue expanding its place in higher education.

Not only was the process for BYU long, but it had early controversies. When university President Benjamin Cluff Jr. introduced athletics to the school, they were rejected by those who made final decisions and cancelled. Some who were concerned about making it a university instead of remain an academy, including Elder Anthon H. Lund, didn’t think it would be successful. A huge argument about allowing the teaching of evolution ended with, at least for a time, a rejection of the subject in the school. Concerns were expressed that land bought from Provo for the school would be used for other purposes. It wasn’t until the 1920s that any accreditation organizations recognized it as an acceptable university. From almost the start the academic and spiritual mission of the school seemed to be at odds, or seriously questioned.

At a founding day event on October 16, 1891, the presiding BYU President Karl G. Maeser said about the reason the school existed and its mission:

A glance over the conditions of mankind in this our day with its misery, discontent, and corruption, and disintegration of the social, religious, and philosophic fabrics, shows that this generation has been put into the balance and has been found wanting. A following, therefore, in the old grooves, would simply lead to the same results, and that is what the Lord has designed shall be avoided in Zion. President Brigham Young felt it in his heart that an educational system ought to be inaugurated in Zion in which, as he put it in his terse way of saying things, neither the alphabet nor the multiplication table should be taught without the Spirit of God.

More than ever the dual purpose of education and spiritual development at BYU has become challenged. Those who should be the stewards have largely become offenders. It would be preferable if the spiritual side of an LDS owned university overshadowed the academic, but that isn’t the case. Too much of the world has overtaken to the point that the spiritual is often ignored and even mocked. The secular false gospel of “woke” has displaced the saving truth of the Gospel of Jesus Christ. Unless changes are quickly made, BYU will become fully nothing more than just another secular educational institution hostile to its original religious purpose.

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Reviewing the New LDS History Results

From the founding of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, writing and collecting history has been considered a sacred duty. The founding document of scripture, The Book of Mormon, claims to be an historical document of the ancient Americas. Letters and revelations very early on formed foundational material for spreading the Gospel of the Restoration. Soon after the organization of the LDS Church the position of Church Historian was given as a formal calling. General Authorities were assigned the calling for over a hundred years. Two of the most well known Church Historians would be the prolific B.H. Roberts of the Seventy and Joseph Fielding Smith who would serve for over 40 years in the position before becoming Prophet. These two among others spent years collecting, protecting, and writing historical and doctrinal documents. Some of their works have become classics of great importance, although falling out of favor among academics.

Decades ago a new approach to history was introduced to the LDS Church, but with at best questionable results. For an unknown reason a professional historian, Leonard J. Arrington, was assigned as LDS Church Historian instead of the usual General Authority. There is even a question if he was called or hired, or both. Either way, his approach was far less about defending the LDS Church and spreading the Gospel than conforming to worldly standards. Along with those worldly standards of historical academics came a de-emphasis on miracles and truth claims. Instead it was about economic and social forces, with “objective” consideration of source documents. Almost ten years after the appointment, he was quietly fired and placed as a BYU teacher. Unfortunately the damage was already done and continued with acceleration in the halls of the school. Academia entrenched itself into LDS Church culture, publications, and manuals.

Perhaps the academic and the spiritual narratives of history could co-exist, but the differences became too stark. The academic side wanted desperately to take over. They sought, and in many ways succeeded after a thirty year program, to banish the traditional historians. Among those who were once respected for their work, but now hardly mentioned include B.H. Roberts, George Q. Cannon, Preston Nibley, Bruce R. McConkie, Joseph Fielding Smith, Hugh Nibley, and Gordon B. Hinkley. Replacing them is a large group of academics seeking to “re-educate” the members of the LDS Church by purging the traditional understanding of historical events and doctrines. Those who challenge the new history and doctrine gatekeepers are denounced as without “mature faith,” simple minded ignoramuses, and stuck in the past.

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Taking the Stone Out of the Hat, Part III: Rescuing the Urim and Thummim

The history behind The Book of Mormon translation is based on written records. Who writes the history and what they have to say has a strong impact on how the events are understood. It is assumed that history comes fully formed in a textbook or what was written by an author who did the studies. For the modern historian, no history exists unless it is written down and somehow explained. Some physical evidence can be used to corroborate or refute the written record, but only words explain human thoughts and experience. People can only write from their perspective, and sometimes they lie or remember incorrectly. The Urim and Thummim found with the gold plates has a lot of evidence, while the stone in a hat a few strong statements. What can be known about the translation of the Book of Mormon depends on who and what to believe.

Remember that no one other than Joseph Smith was allowed to see, save perhaps Oliver Cowdery, the gold plates or Urim and Thummim before the translation was finished. The Lord had warned that anyone who saw them before given explicit permission would be destroyed. A warning of destruction applied to Joseph Smith if he showed them to anyone. To protect against this he always had the items covered or placed in a safe place, unless in use. After the translation the Lord gave permission to show the holy items to a select few. When the Book of Mormon was published, it contained the testimony of Three Witnesses that an angel showed them the gold plates. It also contained the testimony of eight other witnesses that they handled the plates. All official copies of the Book of Mormon through to the most recent contain the witness signed declarations. None of them ever denied the printed testimonies. On the contrary, the Three Witnesses later testified independently they saw the gold plates, the Interpreters, and other items.

How the translation was accomplished is a complete mystery known only to God, Joseph Smith, and possibly Oliver Cowdery when he was once given permission by revelation to try. Any statements about what Joseph Smith did or saw to translate the gold plates come second hand. None of them claim to be direct quotes from the Prophet, although they sometimes say that is where they got the information. Almost all of the descriptions are of a rigid reading. Mistakes found in the original manuscript pages that have survived refute such exact renderings; except for proper names and places. Whenever Joseph Smith does explain the translation in his own words, it is in the vaguest of terms. He does make it clear that the translation was from the plates using the Urim and Thummim that came with them by the Power of God. This implies having both together was essential to the translation work. Either he is absolutely truthful in his descriptions or he deliberately left out the stone in a hat portion of the process.

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Taking the Stone Out of the Hat, Part II: Motives and Trust

Challenging the stone in the hat translation story can be difficult for those unfamiliar with the documents. For every quote supporting the Urim and Thummim as the only instrument used to translate the golden plates, some other quote will be used to justify the stone as at least a companion tool. Anyone with access to the documents will, with time, realize how confusing the whole becomes. These aren’t complimentary recitations that can be reconciled. They are at odds with each other; sometimes within the same sources or interviews. Important evidence needs to be examined for who wrote it and why, comparing it to others.

Most of those who add the stone in a hat to the narrative selectively quote. They will grab something David Whitmer said out of context to the rest of the interview, and include it with little comment. The same goes with Martin Harris and Emma Smith who have interesting anecdotes that make for good story telling. Collectively they can be a powerful witness, but that is only when snippets of one or the other are joined. When the quotes are put into context of the documents, and then compared to each other, a different picture forms. It might be a little too much to say they are in collusion. Nonetheless, their reasoning for talking about the translation the way they do has similarities.

Considering all the early information (especially from the Prophet Joseph Smith himself) that puts the Urim and Thummim as the principle translation device, it might be surprising how prominent for modern Latter-day Saints the stone in a hat has become. Previously it was considered a peculiarity that might have some authentication, but not enough for anything more than passing comment. Articles specifically talking about the translation might include a section with supporting quotes. They are rare exceptions. A majority skip it altogether; General Conference perhaps most of all.

Artwork, the most powerful tool for popularization, was singled out as historically wrong. LDS Church wide depictions stuck with the Joseph Smith and Oliver Cowdery version of translation. It must be admitted they were far from perfect representations. Often Joseph Smith was shown, usually behind a curtain, reading directly off the gold plates with no translation device. Instead of correcting by including Joseph Smith using the Urim and Thummim, the images of him reading the plates at all are discarded. One version of the Urim and Thummim is routinely published, while a whole bundle of stone in a hat has taken over visuals. To wipe out those inaccurate versions of the translation and replace them with even more questionable versions is revisionist history; not sound doctrine. The same goes with the translation history.

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Taking the Stone Out of the Hat, Part I: Witness and Warning

For over a century leadership of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints have taught the Book of Mormon was translated by the Prophet Joseph Smith using the gift and power of God through the Urim and Thummim found with the gold plates. This is the same as taught, without deviation, by Joseph Smith throughout his life. His second scribe Oliver Cowdery who wrote for the Prophet, helping to produce almost all of the current text, taught this throughout his life as well. After the conclusion of the gold plates translation, three men (Oliver Cowdery, David Whitmer, and the first scribe Martin Harris) were privileged to witness and testify of the gold plates, Urim and Thummim, and other holy objects. There names are attached to the Book of Mormon publication.

Recently this narrative has seen a challenge by none other than Mormon academics who think they know better. Instead of a divinely delivered Urim and Thummim found with the gold plates for their translation, it is now at least part of the time translated by a common rock found in a well put into a hat. Despite sophisticated words attached to research of primary sources, the new narrative is wrong. Taking Joseph Smith and Oliver Cowdery seriously, with a closer look at the primary sources, supports the traditional translation teachings. The ancient Interpreters placed with the gold plates was the only instrument that Joseph Smith used to translate the Book of Mormon.

Placing the stone in a hat as a major translation tool wasn’t seriously considered by members of the LDS Church until the turn of the 20th Century. No less than B.H.Roberts included a discussion of the seer stone in his landmark A Comprehensive History of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (pg. 137-133) with very little said about the Urim and Thummim. There was no more discussion of the seer stone until the “New Mormon History” movement began by Leonard Arrington sought to take seriously all sources, at the expense of the “traditional” history. Joseph Smith went from a Prophet called of God to translate the Book of Mormon and restore the ancient Church, to the local magician who just happened to become a Prophet. They basically accepted the position of anti-Mormon critics, with the seer stone in a hat the connecting issue. This isn’t even a “liberal” against an “orthodox” Mormon debate. In the book From Darkness Unto Light by MacKay and Dirkmaat, and sold by LDS distributor Deseret Book, the seer stone in a hat is said to be a major part of the translation. The newest approved history Saints has the seer stone in a hat and the Urim and Thummim almost on equal ground. An article in the October 2015 Ensign has an extensive discussion of both the Urim and Thummim and the seer stone, although not the first time in the magazine. It seems the stone in a hat is now found everywhere, when it used to be a speculated side note.

Including the stone in a hat as part of the translation is more than academically questionable, but comes with spiritual problems. Consider that Richard Bushman in his Joseph Smith biography Rough Stone Rolling denies that Joseph Smith told the truth about his using the seer stone, trying to hide his occultic past. He isn’t the only one who questions Joseph Smith’s words, as pseudo-official apologists FARMS, FAIR, and the Interpreter contributors also keep the Prophet out of the process. They hold strongly to and defend the stone in a hat translation method; even insisting that was the primary tool. Some may wonder why it is important to establish that Joseph Smith and Oliver Cowdery used the Urim and Thummin for the translation exactly as they always explained, and not a seer stone in a hat. Consider the scholar Royal Skousen in his preview book Volume III: The History of the Text of the Book of Mormon, pg. 22, where he writes Joseph Smith’s translation claims are “only partially true” and Oliver Cowdery “appear[s] to be intentionally misleading” even though they are the ones directly involved with the translation. Yet, that seems to be the only way a person can accept the stone in a hat narrative. Academics who hold to the stone in a hat seem to believe Joseph Smith and Oliver Cowdery were untruthful, the Urim and Thummim were not very important, the gold plates had no practical use, and some mysterious entity actually wrote the English words. Descriptions of the gift and power of God to translate has changed into accusations against the Prophet Joseph Smith and his scribe. If one is to “test the spirits” (1 John 4:1) then the stone in a hat comes up short, along with its history.

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