Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Insider's Take on Grant Palmer

Grant H. Palmer.  An Insider's View of Mormon Origins.  Salt Lake City: Signature, 2002.  ISBN 1560851570.

This book offers a thoughtful critique of the version of Mormon history that is taught by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in missionary discussions and CES classrooms.  While I do not always see eye to eye with the author, I think his approach represents a healthy corrective to the naive equation of myth and history that dominates orthodox LDS understanding of the Mormon story.  As more and more people become aware of the serious discrepancies that separate LDS myth from Mormon history, "inside" attempts like Palmer's will be needed if the church is to remain honest and relevant.  Those LDS who dismiss Palmer reflexively as "just another anti" fail to do justice to the man: he has dedicated his entire life (professional and confessional) to the church, and his book treats the church very seriously and sensitively.  He strikes an essential balance between bearing testimony and acknowledging facts, a balance that has been very hard to find in most LDS apologetic literature, which is typically almost entirely polemical.

Doubting Joseph Smith.  Without attacking the moral integrity of the Prophet, Palmer documents the gap between his history and the mythology that has grown up around him in the LDS church.  Examining accounts of the Book of Mormon, Palmer deconstructs the "translation" process: repeated testimony from the Prophet's scribes shows that this involved Joseph looking at a peep-stone in a hat; the plates were just an accessory, and were often not even on hand while Joseph dictated.  Palmer also discusses Joseph's attempts to translate (1) "the Book of Abraham," (2) the Kinderhook plates, and (3) Henry Caswall's Greek psalter, acknowledging that the Prophet showed no special ability with ancient languages: in the case of the "Book of Abraham," the rediscovery of actual documents used in Joseph's "translation" shows that the Prophet could not read ancient Egyptian.  This is all territory that has been covered before, but Palmer's book is as good a summary as I have ever seen, with ample footnotes (so much better than endnotes), and his presentation of the evidence avoids emotional fireworks.

Understanding Joseph Smith.   It is not enough to question the historical validity of current LDS mythology; the skeptic needs to construct a coherent alternative narrative to explain the origins of the Book of Mormon and the church.  Palmer makes important strides in this area.  He provides considerable evidence supporting a nineteenth-century, American Protestant origin for the Book of Mormon and deconstructs the traditional LDS narratives of the First Vision and priesthood restoration.  Against the argument of LDS apologists that Joseph was a country boy without the education necessary to compose something like the Book of Mormon, Palmer cites the Prophet's early immersion in American evangelical Protestantism and documents the heavy presence of that religious culture in the Book of Mormon (in the form of extensive Biblical quotations from extant printings of the KJV, complete with spelling mistakes, and dramatic stories of personal conversion occurring in the context of spirited public preaching and heavenly visions).  He documents the evolution of Joseph's accounts of priesthood restoration and the First Vision, showing that the original versions of both events read more like ordinary evangelical conversion stories typical of the period.  Like those stories, they make no claims to exclusive authority or revelation; these claims appear later in Mormon history, when they are introduced to confute growing numbers of apostates (e.g. during what Palmer calls "the leadership crisis of 1838," when the version of the First Vision currently endorsed by the LDS church was composed). 

Book of Mormon.  In discussing the nature of the Book of Mormon, Palmer is careful to avoid the trap that has caught many skeptics before him.  Instead of identifying specific literary sources (apart from the KJV) from which Joseph might somehow have lifted the Book, he adduces narratives reminiscent of the Book that circulated in early nineteenth-century America, focusing on View of the Hebrews by Ethan Smith and E. T. A. Hoffmann's fairytale "The Golden Pot", and shows how the story Joseph tells in the Book merges narrative elements common to his cultural background (from Bible stories, nineteenth-century Protestant conversion narratives, and legends of hidden treasure protected by otherworldly guardians) with pieces of the Smith family's unique history.  Seen through this lens, the Book of Mormon looks very much at home in the cultural milieu of nineteenth-century New York, and its failure to find any similar purchase in what we know of the earlier Native American cultures it supposedly documents becomes even more striking.  Palmer drives home the wall of separation between the world of nineteenth-century Mormonism and modern-day LDS by deconstructing the testimony of the witnesses to the Book of Mormon.  On their own account, they all saw and handled the records alleged as the source of the Book in a "spiritual" context, outside the bounds of ordinary time and space where the LDS church lives today.  Their visions of the plates, which on some occasions included visits to undiscovered caves in New York filled with records and treasures, occurred outside material, historical reality as we understand it now, just as Joseph Smith's usage of the term "translation" to describe his composition of the Book of Mormon and other texts lies outside the semantic range of that word as it is used today.

Evolutionary Perspective.  Like all the best historians (running the gamut from D. Michael Quinn to Richard Bushman), Palmer does not try to reduce the manifold revelations of Joseph Smith to a single, coherent system of thought.  Rather, he is careful to notice disagreement between early documents (like the Book of Mormon) and later ones (like the Book of Abraham).  His discussion of the development of the materialist, polytheist theology of the Book of Abraham (in contrast to the traditional, trinitarian theology of the Book of Mormon) was particularly interesting to me, since I was not well acquainted with Thomas Taylor's Six Books of Proclus on the Theology of Plato (published in 2 volumes in 1816) or Thomas Dick's Philosophy of a Future State (published in a second edition in 1830 and owned by Joseph Smith), both of which contain material reminiscent of the astronomy and cosmology of the Book of Abraham.  Palmer represents the Book of Abraham as a nineteenth-century, Protestant attempt to assimilate new information (modern neo-Platonic philosophy and Newtonian cosmology) into the faith tradition already started with the Book of Mormon (which itself assimilates the Smith family's life on the American frontier in nineteenth-century, Protestant America to the faith tradition preserved in the Bible).  This kind of layered view of Mormon origins provides a realistic, believable picture of how the private lore of the Smith family ultimately came to lay the groundwork for many churches (not just the modern LDS, whose idiosyncratic understanding of the Prophet Joseph has a tendency to ignore the place of radical development and change in the larger Mormon movement).

Fallout.  Perhaps the most interesting part of Palmer's book is the conclusion, where he discusses the focus of his personal faith in the wake of discovering that the Joseph Smith of modern LDS mythology cannot stand up to historical scrutiny.  He does not renounce the LDS faith.  Instead, he advocates a return to the ethics of traditional Christianity as taught in the Sermon on the Mount (and 3 Nephi).  He enumerates doctrines of the modern LDS (and Joseph Smith) that he finds comforting (including the plan of salvation and eternal marriage), and suggests that the LDS church learn from the example of other Christian movements (specifically the Christian Scientists and the Community of Christ, formerly known as RLDS) that have had to adjust their historical claims in light of new evidence and changing paradigms.  I find this a compelling call to repentance, since it rings true to my own feeling that myth (and history, for that matter) is ultimately only a servant to ethics.  The Book of Mormon does not have to be a true history of pre-Columbian Americans in order to teach correct ethical principles (any more than the Bible or the Iliad or Aesop's fables have to be historical accounts in order to do what they do).  I hope we LDS can separate the actual ethics that define our lives from the stories that we tell to inculcate and illustrate those ethics: Mormon Christian ethics (and our association as brothers and sisters in Christ) do not have to be abandoned merely because our stories are not historically true (pace prominent LDS church leaders who have gone on record saying otherwise).  I am grateful for Palmer's perspective on Mormon origins, and can only hope that it will find sympathetic readers among the LDS community to which I belong.  So far, printed LDS reactions have not been very kind (see the collection of character assassinations at the Maxwell Institute), but that is to be expected.  Only time will tell how the LDS community decides to deal with its past in confronting the present and building a viable future.

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