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What I Know and Don’t Know

In 1985 Mark Hofmann killed two innocent people and nearly himself trying to cover his string of forged documents, many of which were calculated to cast church history in a suspicious, less than faithful light. Earlier that year (May 1985) the church published one of the forged documents in the Church News, a purported letter from Joseph to Josiah Stowell about using a fresh hazel rod to find buried treasure guarded by a clever spirit. At age fourteen, I read the letter in the Church News at the breakfast table and asked my father flippantly why they weren’t teaching me that at church. “I don’t know, “ he said. He explained that he didn’t understand the letter. He made no pretense to understand it. He then explained to me that he knew that the Book of Mormon was true because of his experience with it and with the Holy Ghost. It would be many years before I could understand that my father had given me a most effective epistemology for breakfast.

At the time of the bombings, Hofmann had rumored that he could acquire documents created by controversial early apostle William McLellin if he could get funding. In June 1985, as part of his plot to defraud, Hofmann offered to donate the collection to the church. Ironically, the church had acquired many of McLellin’s papers in 1908. Leaders and archivists who knew of the acquisition had passed away and the church had lost consciousness of the documents. In March 1986, in the legal fallout following the bombings, archivists discovered letters that mentioned acquisition of McLellin’s papers, which led to the discovery of the papers. Rumors spread, meanwhile, that the church would suppress the McLellin documents. Instead, church leaders invited Jan Shipps, a renowned non-Mormon scholar of the Saints, to edit McLellin’s papers for publication by an academic press. She in turn collaborated with John W. Welch, editor-in-chief of BYU Studies, where I was working as an editorial assistant. I was assigned to help the editors compare McLellin’s original holograph journals to typescripts to ensure the accuracy of The Journals of William E. McLellin, 1831-1836. I read those journals closely. They are evidence for Richard Bushman’s informed observation: “The closer you get to Joseph Smith in the sources, the stronger he will appear, rather than the reverse, as is so often assumed by critics.” That is my experience.

I have held the first vision accounts in my hands and studied them very much. I know what they say and how they say it. A historian cannot prove or disprove whether the vision they describe was historical. I don’t know that the vision happened because the documents say it did. Rather, I find no reason in the historical record to disbelieve in the vision. I believe that it happened because I find the documents authentic. They speak to me spiritually. I don’t find the same inconsistencies or anachronisms or conspiracy in them that unbelievers have. Indeed, I recently read the journals of Benajah Williams, a Methodist itinerant in Mendon, NY, not far from Joseph’s Manchester, who documented a religious scene perfectly compatible to the one Joseph described.

I have examined the Book of Mormon manuscripts and studied the extensive and complex historical record of its translation. The evidence is conclusive that Joseph produced the Book of Mormon between April and June 1829. Moreover, the historical record evidences that those who knew Joseph best in this period believed him most when he declared that he translated by the power of God. But I know that the Book of Mormon is true because I feel the Holy Spirit when I read it and abide by its precepts. The Book of Mormon makes me a better father and husband, a better follower of Jesus Christ. I know that about it.

I am a student of Joseph’s revelation manuscripts. I was one of the editors of his revelation manuscript books. Joseph didn’t assume that his revelation texts were faxed from heaven. I don’t either. I share his sense that God spoke to Joseph in his language, which Joseph described as crooked, broken, scattered, and imperfect. In any communication the encoder sends signals to a decoder, the recipient. In the process there is always “noise” that impedes full and flawless receipt of the message communicated. I understand Joseph’s revelations as messages communicated by a divine encoder but received by a decoder or recipient limited by crooked, broken, scattered, and imperfect mediums. In this way of thinking, Joseph neither received the messages flawlessly nor had the power to re-communicate them perfectly, as he and other revelators have acknowledged. My faith in Joseph’s revelations rests on this understanding, and on the compelling evidence that those who knew Joseph best believed his revelations, that he could not produce them on demand, that he marveled at some of them, and that he sometimes confessed to having intentions and aspirations that differed, sometimes significantly, from what his revelations commanded him and others to do.

I know the early reception history of Joseph’s revelation manuscripts. Those who were best positioned to know—the ones with whom he counseled, the ones who wrote as he dictated, the ones whose convenience and reputations were at stake, testified that they were “given by inspiration of God & are profitable for all men & are verily true” (Book of Commandments and Revelations, page 121). I know that the so-called Kirtland Egyptian Papers are not what critics have claimed them to be, and that critical explanations of the Book of Abraham obfuscate the historical evidence rather than rely on it.

There is much that I do not know. I do not know how to understand plural marriage. I have studied the complicated historical record of it diligently and there is very much that remains unclear. I don’t know exactly how to understand D&C section 132. I don’t know what to make of the problematic letter purportedly from Joseph Smith to Nancy Rigdon. I recently gave a talk at a leadership meeting. My topic was historical issues with which Saints sometimes struggle. I catalogued the historical problems, briefly describing each. While describing the received wisdom on plural marriage, I had a distinct and undeniable thought that came from outside me. “You do not know what you are talking about,” it said. It was right. I do not know how to think about plural marriage. I continue to thoroughly examine the historical record, seeking light and truth by study and also by faith. I do know, as a result of that process, that Helen Kimball and Lucy Walker both left testimonies that Joseph did not exploit them, and that they both testified that they received their own revelations, as Joseph invited them to do, before being sealed to him. In other words, I know that the historical record created by witnesses and participants does not match the sensational books and online material created by people who know less than I do. And I know that I don’t know.

I am deeply saddened by reports of Saints losing their faith after becoming conscious of one or more controversial issues of the Mormon past. I wish I could give each of them the experiences I have had and help to educate their expectations and identify their assumptions and discern the difference between their interpretations of evidence and the evidence itself. Obviously, the historical evidence is not the determinant of belief or disbelief. Those who knew Joseph best believed him most. The historians who edit the Prophet’s papers believe. Many of the historians who know the historical record best are firm in the faith. They believe.

I believe. I choose to believe and have not been disappointed as many have. I think that my resilience to the forces that have eroded the faith of so many was forged in my early, formative experiences with the historical record and a faithful father who handed me his epistemology—his way of knowing and coping with not knowing.

I empathize with those whose experiences differ from mine and leave them feeling unable to believe. Stephen Burnett typifies many such individuals. He felt the Holy Spirit and a desire to take the gospel to his relatives. He led his parents into the church and responded successfully to mission calls. But by 1838 Stephen felt completely disillusioned. He tried but failed to regain the Holy Spirit. Finally he “proclaimed all revelation lies” and left the church. Stephen wrote candidly to Lyman Johnson, explaining his decisions. “My heart is sickened within me when I reflect upon the manner in which we with many of this Church have been led & the losses which we have sustained all by means of two men in whom we place implicit confidence,” Stephen wrote, referring to Joseph Smith and Sidney Rigdon. He said that the foundation of his faith failed and the entire structure fell in “a heap of ruins” when he interpreted a statement by Martin Harris to mean that Martin and the other Book of Mormon witnesses had not really seen the plates.

Stephen Burnett gave us a rich metaphor by describing his faith as a building whose foundation had been shattered, leaving only a heap of ruins. Those who share his experience know what he means. There are many coping strategies such souls adopt. Stephen chose to acknowledge that “Harris and others still believe the Book of Mormon,” but that he was “well satisfied for myself that if the witnesses whose names are attached to the Book of Mormon never saw the plates as Martin admits that there can be nothing brought to prove that any such thing ever existed for it is said on page 171 of the book of Covenants [D&C 17:5] that the three should testify that they had seen the plates even as J[oseph] S[mith] Jr & if they only saw them spiritually or in vision with their eyes shut—JS Jr never saw them in any other light way & if so the plates were only visionary.”

I am struck by the three instances of if in Stephen Burnett’s statement. He built his interpretation of the witnesses on hypotheticals: if the witnesses never saw that plates as he believed Martin Harris had said, and if Joseph never saw them then they were only visionary. Hearing that train of thought, Martin asserted that the plates were not visionary. He did not wish to be understood as Stephen Burnett understood him. But Stephen had chosen to disbelieve and Martin’s testimony did not affect him. Evidence of an eyewitness was not the determinant of his faith. Rather, Stephen’s faith, or lack thereof, determined the way he interpreted the evidence of the eyewitness.

I empathize with Stephen. Indeed my heart aches for him. But I do not see as he saw. The historical method I practice professionally and the spiritual life I enjoy have long since combined into a most blessed inheritance: my father’s confidence to choose faith precisely because of the mixture of what he knew and didn’t know.

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Steven C. Harper (M.A., Utah State University; Ph.D., Lehigh University) is an Associate Professor in the Department of Church History and Doctrine at Brigham Young University and a volume editor in the Joseph Smith Papers project. He previously taught at Brigham Young University-Hawaii, and among the honors he has received are the Juanita Brooks Award for Best Graduate Student Paper and the 1999 T. Edgar Lyon Award for the Best Article of the Year, both given by the Mormon History Association.

Posted December 2010