I have left the cave
On Damage and Danger

Letter to my Kids, part 4

In this installment I continue discussion of Mormon issues with the Book of Abraham and Joseph Smith.

The Book of Abraham

The Book of Abraham is another of the books of the LDS canon that has an interesting origin and has been the subject of considerable controversy, at least within circles of the "intellectual" and critical Mormon community. Many members of the church are not aware of its origin or why there would even be issues concerning its provenance (proof-of-origin). As stated in the introduction to the book, it is alleged to be a translation of the writings of the Old Testament prophet Abraham that "have fallen into our hands from the catacombs of Egypt." This is a reference to two scrolls that Joseph Smith bought, along with two mummies, from a travelling show being run by a man named Michael Chandler. They were purchased for the sum of $2400 on July 16, 1835, in Kirtland, Ohio. Joseph told his followers that these scrolls contained the writings of Abraham and Joseph, as evidenced by this passage from the official History of the Church:

"...with W.W. Phelps and Oliver Cowdery as scribes, I commenced the translation of some of the characters or hieroglyphics, and much to our joy found that one of the rolls contained the writings of Abraham, another the writings of Joseph of Egypt, etc., — a more full account of which will appear in its place, as I proceed to examine or unfold them. Truly we can say, the Lord is beginning to reveal the abundance of peace and truth." (Vol 2, pg 236).

Joseph mentions in his journals a number of times that he is working on the translation of at least one of the scrolls. Eventually said translation was completed, and is now included as part of the Pearl of Great Price. The fragments of papyrus stayed with the Smith family after this, first with his mother Lucy until her death, then going to Emma. Emma (by then married to Bidemon) eventually sold all of them, including the mummies, to the Wood Museum in Chicago. It was assumed that they were destroyed in the Great Chicago Fire of 1871 (A Guide To The Joseph Smith Papyri, by John Gee, publ. F.A.R.M.S., p. 9).

The papyrus was "re-discovered" in the New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art in 1966 - apparently it had not actually been destroyed - and was returned to the posession of the Salt Lake City LDS church. The original scrolls had been cut up into pieces and pasted onto paper of 19th century origin, which had on the backs of them drawings of the Kirtland Temple, maps of Ohio, and the like, as well as the bill of sale from Emma (Smith) Bidemon. The origin of these papyrus fragments was quite clear. The fragments also contain the "Facsimiles" included in the Book of Abraham. What is not so clear, however, is the interpretation of the contents given by Joseph Smith.

Egyptologists (including those employed at BYU) have examined the fragments and determined that they are a common funeral document, known as the "Breathing Permit of Hor." The Facsimile 1 is not Abraham being sacrificed, but an embalming scene with reference to the Osiris myth. The head of the figure holding the knife in the original documents is actually missing, and was drawn in by one of Joseph's associates as a man's head. Egyptologists have identified this figure as the Egyptian god Anubis, which has the head of a jackal in all other depictions. Joseph also labeled the various figures and objects in the picture and gave translations for them, such as "Angel of the Lord," "Abraham fastened on the Alter," and so forth. Egyptologists have also given translations for the objects in the picture, and none agree with what Joseph Smith claimed them to be. At the time Joseph wrote the Book of Abraham, no known translation of ancient Egyptian existed. Since then, Egyptologists have made numerous discoveries that allow for the consistent translation of ancient Egyptian with a high degree of certainty. None validate what was claimed in any of the facsimiles presented in the Book of Abraham.

A translation of the text of the Breathing Permit of Hor also does not match what is put forth in the Book of Abraham. One possible explanation for this is that perhaps the actual pieces of papyrus that Joseph used have been lost, since there were at least two scrolls that were originally bought from Michael Chandler. However, there is one more piece of the puzzle that ties the document to the translation process. While in Kirtland, Joseph and his associates attempted to create an "Alphabet and Grammar" for the ancient Egyptian language, for the purpose of creating a general purpose translation manuscript (recall that at the time none existed - to create one would have been an extrordinary academic achievement). These documents are part of a collection called the "Joseph Smith Egyptian Papers" (JSEP) and contain what appears to be an attempt to create a translation between ancient Egyptian and English. These documents are currently in the LDS church archives. Egyptian characters appear on the left column, and matching English verses appear on the right. The Egyptian characters do come from the Breathing Permit of Hor, in the same order, and the English text matches that in the Book of Abraham. Apologists may argue that Joseph was only involved in this Alphabet and Grammar project peripherally, but it is quite clear that the men involved in this project really believed that the Book of Abraham was a translation of the Breathing Permit of Hor. In time, the project was given up, but it clearly ties the papyrus to the published Book of Abraham.

So, does it matter that the papyrus does not match the Book of Abraham? The credibility of Joseph Smith is very important when evaluating his truth-claims about religious matters. Given that he himself claimed that the book is a translation, and the recovered papyrus documents have been clearly linked to him and the translation work (via the JSEP), it is difficult to come to a conclusion that is favorable to him. Some have said that Joseph simply used the papyrus as a "catalyst" and he actually received the book via direct revalation. This is an un-testable hypothysis, and falls into the "ad-hoc" camp. Also, it is directly contradicted by what Joseph himself claims to have done.

Joseph Smith

Joseph Smith is a controversial figure; no question about that. It is difficult to look at him without bias because of all the competing claims about what he did or did not do. He certainly had an impact on American Society, and his legacy lives on today. Faithful LDS understandably want to portray him in the best light possible, while others may wish to villify him in the worst way. The actual man was, in my opinion, much more complex than either the completely pious version or the villain. Great people are capable of indiscretion and significant mistakes, while even the worst are capable of the occasional kindness. You should by now be familiar with the version of Joseph portrayed in standard church history lessons and in such movies as "The Work and the Glory." So it would be redundant for me to reiterate the LDS position. However, for balance I will tell you what facts I have learned about his life that others may wish to ignore or gloss over when studying him.

Bainbridge "Glass Looking" Trial

One of the first known public documents about Joseph Smith is actually a bill for the court costs of a trial involving him and a group of "treasure seekers." This group is actually mentioned in the Pearl of Great Price: Joseph Smith History where it mentions briefly his being hired by Josiah Stoal (in other places spelled "Stowel") to look for a silver mine (JSH:1:56). However, he was actually more significantly involved with the operation than just being a hired hand. He had gained a reputation as a "glass looker," one who used a seer-stone to find buried treasure. The court bill contains the inscription "The People vs. Joseph Smith the Glass Looker, March 20, 1826" and he was being tried on charge of being a disorderly person and an imposter. Note that this takes place before Joseph's involvement with the Book of Mormon or the establishment of the original church, so it's difficult to assert that he is being tried in court to "persecute" him for his faith. Joseph's future father-in-law, Isaac Hale, had this to say about Joseph at that time:

"His appearance at this time, was that of a careless young man - not very well educated, and very saucy and insolent to his father...Young Smith gave the 'money-diggers' great encouragement, at first, but when they arrived in digging to near the place where he had stated an immense treasure would be found - he said the enchantment was so powerful that he could not see. They then became discouraged, and soon after dispersed. This took place about the 17th of November, 1825."

Witnesses testified at the trial of Joseph's alleged ability to see things with his stone, and that he was supposed to lead them to buried treasure. Here is a report of the proceedings of the court:

"Prisoner brought before Court March 20,1826, Prisoner examined: says that he came from the town of Palmyra, and had been at the house of Josiah Stowel in Bainbridge most of time since; had small part of time been employed in looking for mines, but the major part had been employed by said Stowel on his farm, and going to school. That he had a certain stone which he had occasionally looked at to determine where hidden treasures in the bowels of the earth were; that he professed to tell in this manner where gold mines were a distance under ground, and had looked for Mr. Stowel several times, and had informed him where he could find these treasures, and Mr. Stowel had been engaged in digging for them. That at Palmyra he pretended to tell by looking at this stone where coined money was buried in Pennsylvania, and while at Palmyra had frequently ascertained in that way where lost property was of various kinds; that he had occasionally been in the habit of looking through this stone to find lost property for three years, but of late had pretty much given it up on account of its injuring his health, especially his eyes, making them sore; that he did not solicit business of this kind, and had always rather declined having anything to do with this business." (Fraser's Magazine, Feb. 1873, p. 229)

It is significant that Joseph was not just a hired hand used to dig for the gold, but had been employed to use his stone to "see" where the treasure was hidden. The result of the court procedure (which was more of a preliminary hearing with witnesses than a full trial) was that Joseph was found guilty, but was given "leg bail," which basically means he was to stop his behavior and leave town. The Joseph Smith History account in the Pearl of Greate Price is a prime example of how church documents have been written to present Joseph in the most favorable light possible, while leaving out details that might cause followers to doubt his credibility.

Remnants of Joseph's treasure seeking are also recorded in the Doctrine and Covenents section 111, where it talks about Joseph going to Salem, MA seeking a large sum of money. When none was found, he claims that the "treasure" is spiritual in nature, but eventually they will also get their wealth of gold and silver from the city as well (D&C 111:5).

The First Vision

Most LDS know the account of Joseph Smith praying in the sacred grove quite well - the official account is published in the Pearl of Great Price in Joseph Smith History. What most don't know is that there were a number of other recorded versions that contain a number of differences. While many church supporters will downplay the differences as insignificant or taylored to a particular audience, I think you should judge for yourself. The first known version was recorded by Joseph himself in 1832, nearly 12 years after the alleged occurance. While it is reasonable to assume that memory fades over time, and some details may be overlooked or mis-remembered, one should keep in mind that this wouldn't be just a day like any other day - subject to blend into all the other similar days. This was a visit from God himself, and I would expect to have an astounding impact on one's mind. I would like to present a few of the known accounts of Joseph's vision and let you decide whether the differences are significant or not.

First, the canonized account (in the Pearl of Great Price, Joseph Smith History) has a number of salient elements: (1) The time was about 1820, and Joseph had seen a number of fervent religious revivals in the area. (2) He went to the woods for the purpose of determining which church to join. (3) He was nearly overcome by some dark power. (4) He saw a pillar of light with two distinct personages in it (God and Jesus). (5) They told him to join no church since their doctrines were an abomination. (6) He told afterwards some ministers and others and immediately began to be persecuted because of his claim.

The canonized account was first written in 1838 by Joseph's secretary, but was not published until 1842 in the church newspaper "Times and Seasons" - March 15, 1842. However, Joseph himself wrote an earlier version in 1832 as part of an attempt to create an official church history, but it was never officially published. The document was actually "re-discovered" by a BYU graduate student named Paul Cheesman and published in his master's thesis. It came from a document called "History: Joseph Smith Letterbook 1," pp2-3 and can be found reproduced in The Personal Writings of Joseph Smith, compiled by Dean Jessee, Deseret Book, 1984, pp. 5-6.

Here is the primary segment of this account:

"… thus from the age of twelve years to fifteen I pondered many things in my heart concerning the situation of the world of mankind the contentions and divi[si]ons the wicke[d]ness and abominations and the darkness which pervaded the of the minds of mankind my mind become exceedingly distressed for I become convicted of my sins and by searching the scriptures I found that <mankind> did not come unto the Lord but that they had apostatised from the true and living faith and there was no society or denomination that built upon the gospel of Jesus Christ "

"...therefore I cried unto the Lord for mercy for there was none else to whom I could go and to obtain mercy and the Lord heard my cry in the wilderness and while in (the) attitude of calling upon the Lord (in the 16th year of my age) a piller of fire light above the brightness of the sun at noon day come down from above and rested upon me and I was filled with the spirit of god and the (Lord) opened the heavens upon me and I saw the Lord and he spake unto me saying Joseph (my son) thy sins are forgiven thee. go thy (way) walk in my statutes and keep my commandments behold I am the Lord of glory I was crucifyed for the world that all those who believe on my name may have Eternal life (behold) the world lieth in sin and at this time and none doeth good no not one they have turned asside from the gospel and keep not (my) commandments they draw near to me with their lips while their hearts are far from me and mine anger is kindling against the inhabitants of the earth to visit them acording to th[e]ir ungodliness and to bring to pass that which (hath) been spoken by the mouth of the prophets and Ap[o]stles behold and lo I come quickly as it [is] written of me in the cloud (clothed) in the glory of my Father and my soul was filled with love and for many days I could rejoice with great Joy and the Lord was with me but [I] could find none that would believe the hevnly vision nevertheless I pondered these things in my heart …"

There are a few things to consider from this account that differs from the "official" version:

(1) Joseph became convinced that all churches had apostatized from the truth before going to pray

(2) Joseph's purpose in praying was to "obtain mercy"

(3) The "Lord" appeared to him (no mention of a second being)

(4) He is forgiven of his sins

(5) He ponders these things in his heart (remeniscent of the story of Mary after she became pregnant with Jesus) - no mention of telling anyone.

While one may argue that these are not necessarily "substantial" differences, it is fairly clear from the documents these accounts come from that both are intended to be consumed by a general audience interested in the history of the LDS church. One should also consider the evolving nature of Joseph's theology concerning the Godhead over the time in question, from a basically "one God" perspective (similar to many other protestant religions) to the "God and Jesus are seperate beings" perspective. I will talk more about this evolution later. One should also consider the fact that there is no independent corroboration of Joseph's claim of persecution. The early church members themselves never mention Joseph's visit by God and Jesus, though they did talk on many occasions about his visit from the angel Moroni (which was also noted on several occasions as being "Nephi" rather than Moroni). I find this lack of corroborative evidence for Joseph's claim (both of the vision and persecution) problematic.

Additionally, the claim is often made that Joseph Smith's experience was unique, extraordinary, and even unprecedented. However, reports of heavenly visitations at that time were not uncommon, and several had been published in newspapers and books then available. I will present two examples that serve to illustrate this point. Elias Smith (not related to Joseph) published an account in 1816 of his experience as a young man seeing a vision of the Lord:

"My mind was greatly distressed by considering myself a sinner, justly condemned to die. . . . Every wrong ever committed, whether in thought, word, or deed, appeared before me, and things which before appeared small, now rose like mountains between me and my Creator. It appeared to me that I was a criminal brought to the bar, and proved guilty, and deserving death, without one plea in his own behalf." With such thoughts pressing on his mind, this youth slipped while carrying a piece of timber. He was pinned on the ground next to a log: "While in this situation, a light appeared to shine from heaven, not only into my head, but into my heart. This was something very strange to me, and what I had never experienced before. My mind seemed to rise in that light to the throne of God and the Lamb. . . . The Lamb once slain appeared to my understanding, and while viewing him, I felt such love to him as I never felt to any thing earthly. My mind was calm and at peace with God through the Lamb of God, that taketh away the sin of the world. The view of the Lamb on mount Sion gave me joy unspeakable and full of glory." (From "The Life, Conversion, Preaching, Travels, and Sufferings of Elias Smith", 1:56, 59, quoted from "Inventing Mormonism", Marquardt & Walters, p 51.)

In 1825 Billy Hibbard also published an account of his spiritual vision.

"I found to my unspeakable grief and dismay, that I was altogether unholy in my nature; my sins had corrupted every part, so that there was nothing in me that was good; I was a complete sink of sin and iniquity; I looked to see if there was no way to escape, if God could not be just and have mercy on me: but no . . . all my hopes of obtaining mercy and getting to Heaven at last, are gone, and gone forever!"

He also "had an impression to go in secret and pray," and thus:

"when I came to the place of prayer, had kneeled down, and closed my eyes, with my hands uplifted toward the heavens, I saw Jesus Christ at the right hand of God looking down upon me, and God the Father looking upon him. The look of Jesus on me removed the burden of my sins, while he spoke these words, "Be faithful until death and this shall be thy place of rest. ... I never had seen Jesus Christ before, nor heard his voice, nor ever had a sense of his intercession at the right hand of God for me till now; and now I could see the justice of God in shewing mercy to me for the sake of his Son Jesus Christ; and not only to me, but to all that would come to him forsaking their sins, and believing that his death and suffering were the only satisfactory sacrifice for sin." (From "Memoirs of the Life and Travels of B. Hibbard," published by the author, 1825, p 22-24)

Do Mormons accept these other "visions" as authentic? Why or why not?

Joseph's "Martyrdom"

The death of Joseph Smith is talked about in the LDS church with near mythic reverence. He is said to have given his life willingly to seal his testimony of the truth with his blood. Again, it is difficult (if not impossible) to tell what he was thinking, but there are a number of facts about this episode of LDS church history that are not commonly discussed. He was murdered, no question about that. I do not in any way excuse the mob that broke in and shot him and his brother. But the circumstances of the event are much more nuanced than is typically presented.

First of all, why was Joseph in Carthage Jail to begin with? Was it simple religious persecution? At this time, Joseph held a number of official positions in the town of Nauvoo, including Mayor and Commander of the Nauvoo Legion, in addition to his church position as president and prophet. He held a great deal of responsibility for the town and what occured there and wielded considerable influence. At that time, one of his counselors in the First Presidency of the church was a man named William Law. William is now villified in LDS history since he disagreed with Joseph and was excommunicated from the church. The primary issue that caused the split between Law and Smith was polygamy. As I've discussed before, Joseph was taking many wives, of varying ages and marital status; when Law discovered this fact, he was incensed. To him the practice was immoral and disgusting, and it was also reported that Smith had propositioned Law's wife (as he had Vilate Kimball, wife of apostle Heber C. Kimball). Law said years later that at that time his friends advised him to simply sell his property and leave town; but he felt compelled to expose what was going on. So he started a newspaper called the "Nauvoo Expositor" to publicize the illegal practice of polygamy.

The first issue of the Nauvoo Expositor did talk about Joseph's practice of plural marriage. It also had articles on a number of other subjects, but frankly, having read it myself, I find that Law was rather measured in his response, given what he could have said. However, Joseph knew this was a powder keg, and to have a close associate verify what had been rumoured for some time could cause him serious repercusions. The majority of the rank-and-file members of the church was not aware of what was going on, and it could lead to dissension and loss of followers, and even physical danger to himself. At a meeting of the Nauvoo city counsel, Joseph argued for destruction of the Expositor as a public nuesance, and after some heated debate, the motion was passed. It is somewhat doubtful that the the Expositor posed a "public" nuesance - the question is, who would be endangered by its continued publication? The answer to that question is unquestionably Joseph Smith. So one should ask whether the order to declare the Expositor a "public nuesance" was more to protect the public or to protect Joseph. Regardless, the order was carried out, and the Expositor offices were broken into and ransacked, with the printing press and type thrown out into the street.

Of course, William Law did not take kindly to this and reported the incident to authorities in Illinois. An arrest warrant was issued for Joseph Smith, and he was taken to Carthage (yes, I'm skipping a number of details about how he finally got there). A couple of interesting things happened while in the jail: (1) A gun was smuggled in to him by one of his associates (a 6-shooter "pepperbox"). It wasn't much of a weapon, but he wasn't totally defenseless. (2) They gave money to the guards to bring he and his fellow prisoners food, wine, and tobacco. Yes, Joseph Smith drank and smoked - the Word of Wisdom was not necessarily a "commandment" at that time, though people were excommunicated at that time with "violating the Word of Wisdom" given as one of the reasons (see examples in the History of the Church). This is yet another example of the church attempting to present a sanitized version of Joseph Smith that is more in accordance with today's practice of Mormonism, rather than what actually occured. Here is the quote from John Taylor, second prophet of the church: "Sometime after dinner we sent for some wine. It has been reported by some that this was taken as a sacrament. It was no such thing; our spirits were generally dull and heavy, and it was sent for to revive us.... I believe we all drank of the wine, and gave some to one or two of the prison guards." (John Taylor, in History of the Church, Vol. 7, page 101)

(3) Joseph sent a message to the Nauvoo Legion asking/ordering them to come and free him from jail. The acting commander in Joseph's absense, Jonathan Dunham, refused to come to his rescue. He was (justfiably) afraid that such action would result in armed conflict with the legion in Carthage, with resulting significant injury and loss of life. He refused to follow the command. When the mob actually came to the jail, it was reported that initially Joseph said not to worry about them, because he thought it was the Nauvoo Legion come to rescue him.

(4) When the mob did break into the jail, Joseph fired at them with his gun. John Taylor claimed that Joseph killed two of the attackers, though that claim was not independantly verified. This was certainly not a fair fight - Joseph and his friends were overwhelmed by a mob with rifles, and he and his brother were murdered. But why does the church see the need to leave out these details to make him seem more heroic and pure? He was let down by the leadership of Illinois that promised to protect him; but he was in jail to face real charges of the destruction of someone's property, mainly because they printed the truth about him.


john f.

It might also be worth including Elder Oaks's recent brief explanation of his view of the public nuisance issue in the destruction of the Expositor from his interview (transcript available at www.lds.org/ldsnewsroom) for PBS's documentary The Mormons:


HW: Joseph’s death (I’ve asked very few people to recount the events of the death). I sense it’s a powerful moment for you. I have some questions about it. I’d love it if you could just briefly tell the events leading up to his death. This is a powerful story. The night of his death he was with his friends.

DHO: The week that culminated in Joseph Smith’s death was a time of great stress for the Mormons in the city of Nauvoo. The governor had activated militia units; they were threatening to march on Nauvoo, and war, great loss of life, was in prospect. The Prophet Joseph Smith was seeking ways to take the steam out of this kettle. He agreed to surrender himself at the county seat of Carthage, some 20 miles from Nauvoo. He knew that his life would be in danger by doing that. His friends counseled him not to do it. He did it nevertheless in order to save his people. He surrendered himself on a charge of riot for the destruction of an opposition newspaper in Nauvoo. That was a relatively trivial charge, and he immediately had a hearing and was discharged. But in order to keep him in custody, the enemies charged him with treason, which was not a bailable offense so that the charge of treason, however frivolous it was, kept him in confinement.

While he was in the Carthage Jail for several days, plans were laid to murder him. The governor, whether he was part of the plan or not, facilitated the plan by discharging from state discipline the Warsaw militia. They were close enough to Carthage that when they were discharged from military discipline they simply took their militia arms and put their wet hands in a powder keg, blackening their faces so that it would make it difficult to recognize them, and went to Carthage. Some 100-plus stormed the jail and murdered Joseph Smith. Their leaders were subsequently charged but acquitted of the crime. Later, their counsel argued that the jury should not convict them because they had simply done what the people wanted them to do, and the people were sovereign. It was an argument later used in civil rights cases in the southern United States, in circumstances better known to this audience, but it originated in what an associate and I call “the Carthage Conspiracy.”

HW: Any details of his last hours?

DHO: He was in jail with his brother Hyrum with several other leaders of the Church. It’s hot in Illinois late in June. They were in a second-floor cell, more of a room than a cell. They had forebodings of death, and it was a very poignant time for men who, I think, assumed that their death was imminent. At one point in the afternoon Joseph asked associate John Taylor to sing the song “A Poor Wayfaring Man of Grief,” which is a ballad that tells of a person who encounters people in various extreme circumstances, starving or in jail or in persecution, who ministers to their needs and then later in a vision realizes that he’s ministered to the Savior Himself. And He said unto him, “Fear not, if ye have done it unto the least of these, ye have done it unto Me,” an essential biblical message. It’s a poignant kind of story and a fitting conclusion to a life of service in ministering to the needs of people in extreme circumstances and an affirmation that he had the benediction of his Savior on his life.

HW: Contrary to a range of people’s views about the destruction of that press, you’ve felt strongly Joseph was well within his rights to destroy that press.

DHO: A triggering circumstance that led to the death of Joseph Smith was the so-called riot in the destruction of the Nauvoo Expositor. It was the charge of riot that took him to Carthage. The Nauvoo Expositor was a newspaper that published only one issue. It was published in Nauvoo by disaffected Mormons and enemies of Joseph Smith. It made a lot of charges that were very inflammatory about sexual behavior, about political repression, a variety of things. The city council of Nauvoo was very concerned about that press and felt that it would raise mobs to come to Nauvoo and destroy the city and murder the inhabitants. They, as government officials, had a very legitimate concern. They debated what to do about it. They read Blackstone, which was a major source of law on the frontier. In Blackstone’s commentaries on law, it says that the government officials had authority to destroy a nuisance. And they felt that the press was a nuisance. After two days of debate (this was not a sudden thing, and opposition was heard in the council), they finally decided to abate, which is to destroy, a nuisance.

A nuisance is something like a stinking carcass or a chemical spill, something of this sort that poses a danger to the health and welfare of society. They gave an order to the city marshal to abate the nuisance. He went out and took the press and removed the type and threw it to the four winds, and destroyed the remaining copies, though there were many of them circulated. That was the suppression of the Nauvoo Expositor. I’ll now talk about the legal side of it.

Mormons have generally apologized — including official Mormon historians — for the destruction of the newspaper, deeming it an interference with freedom of the press, a sacred American Constitutional right. The problem with that, I found as I researched this according to the law of Illinois and the United States in 1844 (the year this took place), was that the freedom of the press in the First Amendment did not apply to state action or to city action at that period. It only came to apply to state action or city action by the amendments adopted after the Civil War, the 14th Amendment, and it was so declared by the United States Supreme Court in the 1930s in a 5-4 decision. Well, if it took the United States Supreme Court 100 years to declare that the freedom of the press protected the press against city or state action, [I can easily sympathize with] the people that struggled with that issue in 1844 in Illinois, a time when history shows us a lot of newspapers were destroyed on the frontier, mostly along abolitionist issues, pro-slavery or anti-slavery. It seems to me like it’s pretty extreme to say that Joseph Smith and his associates were violating the freedom of the press by what they did. They debated for two days, they fell back on Blackstone, they had no other precedents, and they thought it was legitimate to abate a nuisance, including a newspaper that they thought could bring death and destruction upon their city.

It’s hard for us to imagine [sympathy] today, but I don’t think it’s fair to judge the 1844 city officials — including Joseph Smith — by our refined notions of law and public policy in this day.

HW: Leaving legality aside, was it wise for him to do that? It led directly to his death.

DHO: It’s hard to judge the wisdom of what he did without being in the circumstances he was in without the benefit of the hindsight. I assume he didn’t know it would lead directly to his death. I assume that before him was the possibility that mobs and militia would, as a result of the newspaper, come into Nauvoo and many would die, perhaps including him, but he was concerned about his people. And so it’s hard for us with the benefit of hindsight to make a clear judgment on what he should have done with the circumstances visible to him.


Your children might be interested in reading this brief analysis of that issue particularly given Elder Oaks's background as a former law professor and state supreme court justice.


Oaks seems to have great command of the details surrounding Joseph's last hours, down to what songs were sung. Funny he doesn't mention Joseph taking off his garments, drinking wine, and smoking for pleasure with his cellmates, or the fact that Joseph had a gun, which he discharged, wounding (and perhaps killing) at least two men. Can't imagine why those details didn't make it into Oaks' summary of what happened.

john f.

Are those details relevant to the point that they must be mentioned everytime that anyone mentions the murder of Joseph Smith?

Are you suggesting that those points negate some or all of Mormonism's truth claims and therefore Elder Oaks didn't mention them in a disingenuous and subversive effort to conceal facts of history?


Facts are precisely what there are not, only interpretations.

-Friedrich Nietzsche, The Will to Power

Put this as Exhibit 'A' to the above statement. There is no such thing as objective history. Both the letter and the Dallin H. Oaks articles are replete with conclusions that masquerade as facts. Instead of causing his children to wade through the myriad of facts, perhaps the writer of the post should just supply a college education focused on the matters raised.


John F - I have read Oake's analysis of the legality of the action against the Expositor before. It should be obvious that the intention of my letter is not to be an apologetic vehicle for the church. As I stated in my introduction, my intent is to give them a set of facts about church history and society that they probably don't know, and often reflect negatively on the organization and its founders. I would be more than happy to have them read Oakes interview, too, but its outside the scope of what I'm doing here. Oakes writing is meant to justify Joseph Smith's behavior under a particular interpretation of the law. That does not mean it was moral or even very smart. The Expositor is treated by Oakes (and church sources in general) as some scurilous rag that comes out of left field with a load of inflammatory lies made up by people with unjustified grievences against Joseph. I would challenge those making that claim to read it themselves, and the discovery that a good share of the accusations against Joseph are actually true should influence to a significant degree how we judge Joseph's behavior in the aftermath. Was he really trying to protect the public interest, or was he just trying to protect Joseph?


fh451: But the purpose you state above contradicts your introductory portion of the letter that goes into great detail about bias and logical fallacies and discovering the truth, etc., etc. Wouldn't it be better to give all sides to your kids and let them decide for themselves without censoring points of view that may support the church's point of view. I'm sure that the legal analysis that Elder Oaks provides is not something that kids here in seminary or Sunday school. Isn't it your complaint that the church leaves out relevant information to distort the facts of history? If you do the same thing, aren't you trying to proselytize your children to a certain point of view, instead of letting them hear all the facts and making an informed decision on their own?


DPC - that is exactly the point! My kids have received one side of the story for their entire lives. My purpose here is to fill out the "untold story" as I see it, not to give balanced point-counterpoint. After this I hope they will then be able to make a more balanced decision, or even better, do more research on their own wherever their interest may lie. Also, I don't include every negative detail that I know of; I tried to winnow it down to a set of what I consider to be "important" facts and issues (and it's still very long!). So to expect me to also include some set of apologistic information, even if they haven't heard of it in Sunday School, would be rather ponderous.

I think I know what you are trying to do, DCP, which is accuse me of being hypocritical because I'm commiting the same "sin" that I accuse the church of; i.e., "whitewashing" my presentation. I am at least being up front with them - I said I would present information that would be negative about the church, but are facts nonetheless as best as I could determine. I also said they had already heard the church's side of the issues for the most part, so I wouldn't re-iterate those points. They know I do not believe in the church. I am not presenting under the guise of "Let me tell you the whole and complete story of the LDS church, and there's nothing else you need to worry yourselves about." I believe that in giving them the information in this letter I am in fact making it possible for them to make an "informed decision," instead of one based only on what they've heard from the pro-church camp. Of course I hope they will come to similar conclusions that I have, but it's not a requirement for my love and support.


john f. wrote:

"Your children might be interested in reading this brief analysis of that issue particularly given Elder Oaks's background as a former law professor and state supreme court justice."

You weren't addressing me with this, john f., but I read your cut-and-paste of Oaks' analysis, and I would definitely present it to my children. In reading Elder Oaks' analysis of the issue, however, it will be important for my children to understand that while it is an interesting piece of legal trivia, Oaks makes the error of equating legality with morality, and his analysis is therefore meaningless as a justification of the moral issue, which seems to be what matters most for non-apologists: Joseph Smith silenced dissenters with force. Oaks is merely telling us that it was very difficult at that time to hold Joseph Smith accountable for his actions.

Oaks warns against using today's "refined notions of law and public policy" to judge Joseph Smith, implying that destroying a printing press to silence criticism of the government was kind of a gray area for the people of 1844 Nauvoo. One look at the arguments made in the Nauvoo Expositor makes it clear that their sensibilities with regard to freedom of the press were exactly the same as ours. In fact, state-sponsored censorship--in the form of sneaky "taxes on knowledge"--was one of the issues that sparked the Revolutionary War; I could be wrong, but I don't think the King of England or his colonial governors were ever bold enough to actually obliterate a dissenting printing press. The need for a free press to protect citizens from tyranny has been a major part of the American legal conversation from the beginning. The Nauvoo City Council and Joseph Smith understood in the same way that we do (and the Nauvoo Expositor took great pains to remind them) what it meant to destroy a printing press.


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