Category Archives: Book reviews

The Joseph Smith Papers: Administrative Records: Council of Fifty, Minutes, March 1844-January 1846

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[For more information on the Council of Fifty, see Matthew J. Grow’s 2016 FairMormon Conference presentation.]

In September 2013, it was announced that the minutes from the Council of Fifty would be published as part of the Joseph Smith Papers project. This was significant because they had not been available for research, and so most of what was known of the council had been gleaned from journal entries of members and rumors spread by publications such as the Nauvoo Expositor, which were repeated over the years by each generation of critics. Besides being able to put these hyperbolic claims to rest, we now have new information about what happened during the Nauvoo period, and some new statements made by Joseph Smith and other early members of the Church.

The Council of Fifty was a secret organization formed in Nauvoo, made up of the leaders of the Church, as well as other men, including some nonmembers, with Joseph Smith at the head. Their purpose was to do civil business, separate from the ecclesiastical business done elsewhere. Under Joseph Smith, the three major functions involved Joseph’s presidential campaign, planning a “theodemocracy [that] would protect liberty and freedom ‘for the benefit of ALL’” [page xxxvi], and to find a place of refuge away from the government of the United States, which had failed them.

After the death of Joseph Smith the council was reconvened under Brigham Young, and dealt with the repeal of the Nauvoo charter, completing the temple, and finding a new place to settle. It was later reconvened in 1848, after settling in Salt Lake City, and functioned off and on until 1885. This book contains the minutes through January, 1846, and there are currently no plans to publish the rest, which would be beyond the scope of the Joseph Smith Papers. Continue reading

Book Review: Joseph Smith’s Seer Stones

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Joseph Smith's Seer StonesIn September 2015, photographs of one of Joseph Smith’s seer stones were published in the Joseph Smith Papers: Revelations and Translations: Volume 3.To go along with this, an article was published in the October 2015 Ensign [1] that gave a brief overview of seers, seer stones, and the translation of the Book of Mormon, and also included one of the photographs. This was significant because prior to that, it had been unseen, locked away in the First Presidency’s vault. As it turns out, there were many that were unaware that a seer stone had been used in the translation of the Book of Mormon, and for some this caused some surprise and confusion.

This book goes much further than the Ensign article to “provide a friendly introduction to seer stones,” as well as to “provid[e] an introduction to the historical sources in an accessible style for Latter-day Saints and others.” [2] In doing so, they include sources both friendly and unfriendly to the church (but unfortunately do not always differentiate between them for readers that may not be familiar with some of them). This is an important book in that it is the first fully devoted to the topic.

The introduction talks about “Mormon Paradigm Shifts.” This is for those that were taken by surprise to find out about seer stones, in spite of a multitude of references in church literature throughout the years. “WIth so many Latter-day Saint scholars acknowledging and studying Joseph Smith’s use of seer stones, it is clear the the Church has not been hiding this information. And yet, as with many historically specific topics, without direct references provided in Church teaching materials and curriculum, the average Latter-day Saint would not necessarily encounter the seer stones in the course of their devotional study. …That is why the latest appearance of the topic in the October 2015 Ensign (and Liahona) was so important: it underscores how, even while keeping a sacred relic private, the Church continues to be open about the miraculous process of the translation of the Book of Mormon.” [3] Continue reading

Book Review: A Reason for Faith: Navigating LDS Doctrine & Church History

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Available from the FairMormon bookstore at 20% off

Available from the FairMormon bookstore at 20% off

In the prologue of A Reason for Faith, the editor, Laura Hales, lays out the purpose of the book. Members of the church sometimes come across new information in an unfriendly setting that damages their faith. This book is a compilation of articles about many of the topics that are not often discussed in a church or family setting, and can be difficult to understand. They are laid out by scholars in an honest but faithful manner, and while they can’t possibly cover the topics completely in the amount of space given, they are meant to be a springboard for further study where necessary.

The first chapter is by Richard Bushman, on “Joseph Smith and Money Digging.” He recounts the history of scholarship in this area, where it was originally denied by those inside the church due to being based on accounts thought to be unreliable published by critics of the church. As he began his own research, he found evidence that convinced him that Joseph was indeed involved with folk magic and seer stones, and that these things were too common in the 19th century to invalidate Joseph’s prophetic claims or be scandalous. Continue reading

The Probability of Mormonism as Divine

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FAIRMormon welcomes Paul Brooks as a guest blogger.

Paul is from the United Kingdom, runs the website reasonablemormon.com and volunteers at Book of Mormon Central. For a good example of the use of Bayesian analysis in apologetics see G. Bruce Schaalje.

The Probability of Mormonism as Divine

A review

Introduction

“The Probability of Mormonism as Divine” (authored by R. Keith Widdowson and published by CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform) uses the Bayesian probability theory to mathematically assess the hypothesis “Mormonism is divine.” The book concludes that the primary hypothesis has a 30% probability of being true.

The first thing to note is that this level of probability is described as not being worthy of abandoning belief:

According to my findings, given our current state of knowledge, it would be reasonable to be a Mormon believer (1).

Naturally when using Bayes’ Theorem, there is a huge amount of subjective scoring involved. Over the course of the methodology used in the book, over 400 individual scores/decisions are made which all contribute to the final probability.

The two-stage mathematical process used to arrive at the conclusion is well documented and the calculations are all correct, but unfortunately I found the final probability was made quite unreliable due to:

  1. The sub-hypotheses selected
  2. The scoring criteria selected
  3. The evidence selected and conclusions drawn
  4. The characteristics of God selected

Each of these will be discussed below. Continue reading

Book Review: The Joseph Smith Papers: Documents Volume 4, April 1834 – September 1835

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Available from the FairMormon bookstore at 20% off

Available from the FairMormon bookstore at 20% off

This is the fourth in a projected twelve volumes in the Documents series of the Joseph Smith Papers. The Documents series is the core of the JSP project, containing documents that Joseph Smith was personally involved in producing in chronological order. The documents in the book are also available online, but the annotations and introductions – which are very valuable in understanding the documents – are not put online until 18 months after each volume is published.

The main events covered in this volume are Zion’s Camp; the publication of the first edition of the Doctrine and Covenants; financial difficulties (particularly those related to publishing and the building of the Kirtland Temple); the formation and operation of the Kirtland high council; the call of Joseph Smith, Sr., to patriarch, and the calling of 12 apostles; and the beginning of the writing of the early history of the church.

The main body of the book consists of documents directly involving Joseph Smith, and then there are a series of appendices with documents for which Joseph Smith’s involvement is questionable. Such documents include the first Lecture on Faith, “Letter to the Saints Scattered Abroad”, “Statement on Marriage”, “Declaration on Government and Law”, and patriarchal blessings given to Joseph Smith Sr. and Lucy Mack Smith, Hyrum Smith, Samuel Smith, and William Smith. Continue reading

The CES Letter 50 to 65 Three Witnesses

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In Video Four of the FairMormon series: “The CES Letter, A Closer Look” Brian Hales examines claims published by Jeremy Runnells in his “Letter to a CES Director”. Installments in the series run every Monday and can also be found on the FairMormon youtube channel.

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The CES Letter spends 15 pages discussing the witnesses of the Book of Mormon. The strategy is straightforward: discredit the witnesses and ignore what they say. This video also rebuts Dan Vogel who alleges that Joseph Smith hypnotized them and examines the witnesses’ reputations showing they were credible and respected men. It demonstrates that The CES Letter misrepresents their declarations to create the appearance of contradiction. It also analyzes the theory that Joseph Smith might have used hypnosis to induce a complex hallucination they later recalled as their encounter with the angel and the plates.

Brian C. Hales is the author of The CES Letter: A Closer Look, as well as seven books dealing with Mormon polygamy—most notably the three-volume, Joseph Smith’s Polygamy: History and Theology (Greg Kofford Books, 2013). His Modern Polygamy and Mormon Fundamentalism: The Generations after the Manifesto received the “Best Book of 2007 Award” from the John Whitmer Historical Association. He has presented at numerous meetings and symposia and published articles in the Journal of Mormon History, Mormon Historical Studies, Dialogue, as well as contributing chapters to The Persistence of Polygamy series. Much of his research materials are available at  www.MormonPolygamyDocuments.org.Theology (Greg Kofford Books, 2013). His Modern Polygamy and Mormon Fundamentalism: The Generations after the Manifesto received the “Best Book of 2007 Award” from the John Whitmer Historical Association. He has presented at numerous meetings and symposia and published articles in the Journal of Mormon History, Mormon Historical Studies, Dialogue, as well as contributing chapters to The Persistence of Polygamy series. Much of his research materials are available at  www.MormonPolygamyDocuments.org.

Book Review: Approaching Antiquity: Joseph Smith and the Ancient World

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Available from the FairMormon Bookstore at 15% off

Available from the FairMormon Bookstore at 15% off

This book is from the 2013 BYU Church History Symposium, held March 7–8, 2013. The Church History Symposium is a nearly annual (there apparently wasn’t one held in 2015) event that draws speakers from places such as Brigham Young University, other universities, the LDS Church History Department, and often LDS general authorities as well. The book contains many of the papers that were presented, but unfortunately there are a few missing, such as Steven C. Harper’s presentation on masonry. However, that and most of the other papers that were given (including all but one that is in the book) are available to view here, although the video presentations are generally abbreviated versions of what is in the book.

The conference spanned two days. The first day was held at BYU and the second was at the Conference Center in Salt Lake City. I was only able to attend the first day, which is one of the reasons I was interested in this book. The keynote address was given by Richard L. Bushman, and it was very crowded, which left many of us without seats until after he was done (apparently there were many students that had come just to hear Bushman).

The preface of the book states that the theme for the conference came out of a professional development training trip taken by new faculty from the BYU departments of Ancient Scripture and Church History and Doctrine to church history sites in Palmyra, Kirtland, and Nauvoo. As they visited these sites, they “were impressed as the extraordinary range of Joseph’s encounters with antiquity became increasingly apparent” (page xiii) and “deeper reflection upon these issues convinced us that there was an important, dynamic, and under-explored relationship between Joseph Smith’s personal interactions with ancient material and many of his unfolding revelations” (page xiv). Continue reading

Book Review: The First Fifty Years of Relief Society: Key Documents in Latter-day Saint Women’s History

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Available from the FairMormon Bookstore at 15% off

Available from the FairMormon Bookstore at 15% off

This is the first publication from The Church Historian’s Press other than the Joseph Smith Papers. It is a collection of documents brought together for the first time that cover the first fifty years of the Relief Society, starting in Nauvoo, restarting in Utah, and then spreading throughout LDS settlements as far away as Canada. The book format and production procedures (transcription, verification, etc.) are very similar to how the Joseph Smith Papers are being done, and at least some of the staff (including editor Matthew J. Grow) are involved in both. And as with the JSP project, much of the book is available for free online. It is accessible at https://www.churchhistorianspress.org/the-first-fifty-years-of-relief-society

The book contains a general table of contents, then a Detailed Contents listing each document, followed by a list of illustrations, a general introduction, and a description of the editorial method. The main section is split into four parts, covering the time periods of 1830 and 1942 to 1845, then 1854 to 1866, 1867 to 1879, and finally 1880 to 1892. The end matter contains reference material including lists of the different Relief Society, Young Ladies’ Mutual Improvement Association, and Primary Association presidencies from 1842 to 1892, a biographical directory, works cited, acknowledgments, and then a pretty thorough index spanning 50 pages.

The main feature of this book is the Nauvoo Relief Society Minute Book, which was kept by Eliza R. Snow and then brought to Utah by her, where it was used in getting the Relief Society going again. This is the first time it has appeared in print, although it was included in the Selected Collections DVD set published in 2002, and more recently has been included in the online documents for the JSP project. Among other things, it has the only sermons given by Joseph Smith to the women of the church.

In one of these sermons, on April 28, 1842, Joseph Smith addressed speaking in tongues and administering to the sick: Continue reading

Book Review: “The Joseph Smith Papers: Journals: Volume 3: May 1843 – June 1844”

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Available from the FairMormon Bookstore at 15% off

In 1992, the second volume of Dean C. Jesse’s “The Papers of Joseph Smith” was published, containing the journal entries of 1832-1842. Many of us waited for years for the third volume, which would cover the remainder of Joseph’s life, before finally finding out that Jesse’s work was being expanded into the Joseph Smith Papers Project. Finally, with the recent release of volume 3 of the Journals series, the journals have all been published.

The volume begins with a timeline of Joseph Smith’s life, maps, an introduction that outlines the events of the last year of a very busy life, and the usual explanation of the editorial method being used for the Joseph Smith Papers Project. It then contains the text of the journals followed by three appendixes which are relevant excerpts from journals kept by Willard Richards and William Clayton detailing Joseph Smith’s activities during this time period. There is also a section of reference materials containing things like a chronology, pedigree chart, glossary, and organizational charts of the church and Nauvoo. There is a full index of all three volumes in the Journals series. (Previous volumes didn’t contain an index due to this planned combined index, but individual indexes can be found online and were provided in print on request.) There are also photos scattered throughout of things like the actual journals, the Kinderhook plates, the first issue of the Nuavoo Neighbor, a list of marriages and sealings that was added at the end of one of the journals later, and the guns in the possession of Joseph and Hyrum Smith at Carthage Jail.

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Book Review: “The Coming Forth of the Book of Mormon: A Marvelous Work and a Wonder”

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The Coming Forth of the Book of Mormon: A Marvelous Work and a Wonder

Available from the FairMormon Bookstore at 15% off

This book contains the papers from the 44th Annual Brigham Young University Sidney B. Sperry Symposium, held in October, 2015. The Sperry Symposium is held annually, and draws most of its speakers from the Church Educational System. Each year’s theme is usually based on the book of scripture that will be studied by LDS adults in the coming year, and this volume fits right in with this year’s Gospel Doctrine study of the Book of Mormon.

The first paper in the book is by Elder Merrill J. Bateman. He gave the keynote speech on “The Coming Forth of Plain and Precious Truths.” He describes many aspects of the gospel that may be only vaguely mentioned in the Bible, but for which we learn much more from the Book of Mormon. Some examples are the plan of salvation, the premortal life, the fall of Adam, the atonement and resurrection, and specific doctrines taught by Christ.

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