The Sin Of Apologetics

There is a mistake that I feel like a lot of apologists make and I almost made it.

A critic will say, “Joseph Smith couldn’t have done this because of this,” or “the church can’t be true because of this”, and then the apologist responds with “well actually the church is true because of this physical evidence or because of thing that happened that contradicts your claim”.

For example, a critic might say, Joseph Smith just made up the Book of Mormon, he’s a savant and was just able to dictate it on the fly. And then in order to refute that the apologists have to say, “Oh no that’s not true, look Emma said he couldn’t even write a well worded letter, he was a moron, he couldn’t have made it up.”

First of all, rude. But also, what if it isn’t true?

What if it’s a tradition that we keep passing on from one generation to the next to help convince ourselves that Joseph Smith couldn’t possibly have made up the Book of Mormon. I understand that we believe in the fallibility of prophets, I understand that prophets are just humans, I recognize that we idolize historical figures and forget that they weren’t untouchable paragons of wisdom and virtue, but I also feel like lately the opposite has become true of Joseph Smith1. So much of the rational I have heard lately for the Book of Abraham, or Zelph’s Mound, or other seemingly outlandish claims Joseph Smith made, seem to rely a lot on him being an excitable unintelligent person that was very happy to play loose and wild with facts and archeology, and that excitement was the catalyst that caused the Lord to say, “Well Joseph, I know you are excited about this, and you don’t have it quite right, but you’re so cute when you look at mummies and pretend that they are relatives of Abraham that I’m going to throw you a bone and give you a revelation that has nothing to do with the artifacts you have in front of you.”

And maybe that is true, but I would rather remember Joseph Smith for the great things he said and did, and not for his alleged idiosyncrasies.

It’s like Plutarch said, "Since it is difficult, or rather impossible, to represent a man’s life as entirely spotless and free from blame, we should use the best chapters in it to build up the most complete picture and regard this as the true likeness. Any errors or crimes, on the other hand, which may tarnish a man’s career and may have been committed out of passion or political necessity, we should regard rather as a lapse from a particular virtue than as the products of some innate vice. We must not dwell on them too emphatically in our history, but should rather show indulgence to human nature for its inability to produce a character which is absolutely good and uncompromisingly dedicated to virtue." (Life of Cimon)

So how do we defend the truth without attacking our own prophet? The solution: Rely on the fact that the church is true is because God says so.

The fact of the matter is, it doesn’t matter if Joseph Smith was smart or dumb. It doesn’t matter if he knew about Hebraisms, if he knew about ancient American culture, or if had read A View of the Hebrews. We don’t need to argue that stuff because the real reason that we know Joseph Smith didn’t make up the Book of Mormon is because we know that he translated it by the gift and power of God, and we know that because the Spirit has testified to us that that is true. All the other stuff might be interesting but ultimately unimportant.

With all of that being said I do enjoy looking at the physical evidence. I enjoy reading the history and seeing what went on in the early church. I love exploring the intricate details in the Book of Mormon. I love speculating about the actual physical locations of the cities in the Book of Mormon. I love trying to mount a good defense for the church especially in the face of what I feel are outlandish claims against it. And that’s how I almost made my mistake.

As I have been engaging with church history, I keep finding critics complaining about the church hiding stuff from its members and the world in general. I find this ridiculous because I feel like especially in recent years the church has taken steps to very emphatically not hide the things they are accused of hiding. At this point my wife points out that until the church comes out and says “You’re right, we were making it up” that the church will never be transparent enough for some of them.

So I was working on an essay to answer the question, “Is the church hiding it’s history.” Hopefully I’ll finish that soon and get it posted, but it will need some reworking because my answer was a resounding “No!” And maybe that’s not the right answer. Well, the more I look at it, it seems like it is almost certainly not the right answer. And that’s the point. I was so defensive about it that I almost committed myself to that belief.

I need to change my answer to the question, “Is the church hiding stuff?”

The answer is: it doesn’t matter.

What matters is the question “Is the church hiding stuff that would reveal that the church is a fraud?” The answer is no. Not because they are or are not taking actions to that effect, but because they cannot take action to that effect because there cannot be evidence that the church is a fraud because the church is not a fraud, because the Church is true Joseph Smith was a prophet and Brigham Young was his authorized successor. I know that because the Spirit testified to me that it was true, so any evidence that arises to the contrary, must have a logical explanation, or be a complete fraud or mistake.

Could the church be hiding stuff? Sure, it actually has a long history of hiding stuff.

To this day the church hides parts of the sacred covenants that are made in the temple. They are not hidden from the everyone but hidden from the secular world, following the admonition of Christ in the Sermon on the mount (Matthew 7:6).

Joseph Smith had to keep the Gold Plates and the Urim and Thummim a secret from everyone and according to Jonathan Neville it was that plus bad apologetics that lead to the proliferation of the SITH model today.2

Further back the Levite priests had to conceal the ark of the covenant.3

According to Don Bradley the church to this day still has a restricted section of the church archives where they conceal, not scandalous events in church history, but sacred things that are not meant to be shared with the world.4

In the Pearl of Great Price First Vision account, Joseph Smith says that there were “many other things did [Christ said] unto me, which I cannot write at this time.” (JS-H 1:20)

Nephi had a vision that he couldn’t share with the world. The Brother of Jared had a similar vision that he couldn’t share and to this day remains in the sealed portion of the Book of Mormon.

Alma showed to his son Helaman the secret combinations and prophecies of the destruction of the people and commanded Helaman to keep them hidden from the Nephites.

So yeah, the church has kind of a long history of keeping secrets.

So, I almost committed the apologetic sin of saying something false about the church in order to defend the church. It turns out, the church is keeping secrets, just not the secrets that critics think.

Now, with all that being said, am I going to engage in apologetics in this blog? Yeah probably. I like how James Lucas and Jonathan Neville put it, “While there will always be a core of believers whose spiritual witness of [the Church] is so strong that these questions do not affect them, those within the LDS faith community who have questions… deserve plausible explanations that corroborate the traditional teachings.” (By Means of the Urim and Thummim)

I have had my share of faith crises and reading apologetics has helped while I was waiting for my faith to grow, so I’ll probably end up doing a lot of it here. But I am hoping to avoid committing the sin of apologetics. I don’t want to overly rely on physical evidence to prove the church is true, and I especially don’t want to unintentionally perpetuate lies or misunderstandings in the defense of truth. The truth is, God is behind this work. The truth is strong: it can defend itself.

 

  1. I also understand that it’s difficult to focus on only the good things because arguably that’s what led us to this point where people feel like they read about Joseph Smith’s warts and feel like they have been betrayed. I don’t know how to fix that yet, but I hope we can find a way to do it without dragging Joseph Smith and Brigham Young through the mud for making the mistake of being fallible mortal men.
  2. Or at least that's what I got from his book "A Man That Can Translate". I really enjoyed the book. Basically the idea goes If the early apologists had focus on “Joseph Smith didn’t use the Spaulding manuscript he used the power of God” then they wouldn’t have had to emphasize that Joseph Smith couldn’t have read the Spaulding manuscript because he had his face in a hat. When the critics say “There was a curtain separating Joseph from his scribe so he probably had the Spaulding manuscript and was reading off of it,” then the misguided apologists say “There wasn’t a curtain at all… there was nothing between Joseph and the scribe. They were sitting next to each other and Joseph had his face in his hat, it was a dark as Egypt, he couldn’t have been reading anything besides what was dictated from heaven.” But there was a screen for at least part of it. So what then?
  3. In Numbers 4:5-6, the process of covering the Ark is described: "When the camp is to set out, Aaron and his sons shall go in and take down the veil of the screen and cover the ark of the testimony with it. Then they shall put on it a covering of goatskin and spread on top of that a cloth all of blue, and shall put in its poles." The Ark of the Covenant was considered holy and was to be handled with reverence and care. The veil, goatskin covering, and blue cloth were meant to protect it from damage and to preserve its sanctity during transportation.
  4. He said it in either this video https://youtu.be/WxYmqifWtMI or this video https://youtu.be/4LDtZde-kEQ I can’t remember which and I want to finish this up. I bet I can publish this, go back and listen to both of them, find the right part, properly cite it, and edit this footnote before anyone can call me out on it. If not, congratulations, please listen to both of those interviews, they are great, and post the correct link with a time stamp and you’ll get bragging rights :)
  5. UPDATE: I just read a passage from By Means of the Urim & Thummim that is an excellent companion to my thoughts, it is in fact a better, more coherent version of the same "what if Joseph Smith was smart?" scenario I explored above. The whole section (1D) is worth a read but here is the most relevant part of it "Perhaps even more odd is what becomes of Joseph himself in contemporary discussions. Having surrendered the plates and the interpreters as irrelevant to the production of the Book of Mormon, LDS scholars are now also diminishing Joseph for apologetic reasons... By presenting Joseph as nothing more than a reading automaton reciting some supernatural translator's English, LDS scholars have emphasized an image of Joseph as a near-illiterate who could not possibly have contributed anything to the Book... We believe the LDS scholars who advance these arguments have put themselves (and Latter-day Saints who follow their views) into an impossible corner, where any evidence that Joseph was actually a bright fellow... become hard arguments against [The Book of Mormon's] authenticity."


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