The following letter was sent by the Europe Area Presidency of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints to its Stake Presidents and Bishops, and various other leaders in April 2012. It was sent in response to the increase in levels of disaffection of members who were encountering the problematic history of the church through the medium of the internet. The letter was soon afterwards leaked to rank and file members and ex-members, and became a public document. It is here reproduced, together with my response in the form of an open letter to the Europe Area Presidency:
Dear Europe Area Presidency, While your letter to local leaders of the church, dated 10th April 2012, was not originally intended for public dissemination, “the technology and modern communication tools of our day”, as you refer to them in that letter, have swiftly rendered this a widely read public document.
As such it is clearly deserving of a constructive response from the intended end-beneficiaries, and I, (being one of a rising tide of long established members who have in recent years been deeply affected by an array of distressing historical disclosures), now offer the following thoughts in the hope that the sense of wounded trust may be positively addressed.
Firstly, I applaud the encouragement you have given to local leaders to “work patiently and lovingly” with those of us who, more often than not through devotion to the church and its history, have had our eyes opened to challenging historical facts. How much better and in tune this is than certain regrettable past attitudes, which sometimes labelled those who had discovered uncomfortable historical facts as “unrighteous”, or as “having lost the spirit”, or worse still as “anti-Mormon”.
Whenever the term “anti-Mormon” is employed in an attempt to disqualify those whose avowed purpose is “pro-truth” and “pro-history”, then surely the church is upon very uncertain moral ground. Please, therefore, may I ask you to discourage that kind of name calling which can only cause further damage, and please do what you are able to reignite among the membership that same spirit of enquiry and quest for truth which a couple of generations ago was so aptly articulated by President J. Reuben Clark when he stated: ‘If we have the truth, it cannot be harmed by investigation. If we have not the truth, it ought to be harmed.’
Perhaps also we could have clarification about whether we, as Latter-day Saints still believe, (as I was taught and believed when I was converted to the church over forty years ago), that truth is better than riches because it will set us free? Do we still place value upon the title Truth which the Saviour took to himself? Can it justifiably still be claimed that truth is the common currency of the LDS church in 2012? If so, then surely there must be a respectable place within the LDS church for those of us who love transparency enough to speak it, and share it, and stand for it, even though some of us have hitherto been despised and misunderstood for doing so.
Sadly, too many faithful advocates of historical truth have been shunned and discarded over the years, simply because they cared enough to question that which, although not of their own making or choosing, was nevertheless right there before them. What else could they do if they valued their integrity? It has long been a puzzle to me how we, as a church, might teach that the glory of God is intelligence, while, at the same time promoting the idea that when it comes to historical realities, ignorance is accounted a virtue. This, surely, is a contradiction which needs to be reconciled in the eyes of a quizzical world.
The concern extends beyond routine circumvention of intellectual discomfort however, to the weightier matter of commissioned institutional misrepresentation. The charge we, as Latter-day Saints of all levels of understanding, must confront is that the church has actively sought to replace authentic narratives of its history with deceitful mythologies.
For example, all of the contemporary accounts of the translation of the Book of Mormon refer to Joseph Smith using a seer- or peep-stone nestled inside his hat, into which he gazed for inspiration as he dictated the text, while the plates themselves were typically not present in the room. This process was of course an obvious extension of Joseph’s previous occultist practice of “scrying” during his treasure hunting days, (or “glass-looking” as the court papers referred to it when he was convicted of that misdemeanour in 1826). We have very detailed and reliable accounts of the actual translation process followed, and so a growing number of historically informed members feel concern that the church attempts in its publications to promote a different story without foundation in historical reality; these show Joseph apparently translating the gold plates by studying and touching them. Is this portrayal not disingenuous, given that we have a clear knowledge of how the text was actually produced, and also a tacit admission that the real history is perceived by church leaders to be an embarrassment?
It is disconcerting when our children alert us to the true facts of this crucial event in Mormon history after watching an episode of South Park. The discovery that the creators of South Park place a higher value on historical authenticity than do the Brethren creates spiritual shock-waves from which some members never recover. And may I state the obvious here? This faith-shaking disparity between what the missionaries are trained to teach, and what the world already knows about our spiritual heritage, can hardly be blamed upon those members who accidentally stumble upon it, or on their children, or on the creators of South Park; the burden of responsibility for the misrepresentation rests firmly upon the shoulders of the Brethren, who allowed, and apparently encouraged it to be introduced into LDS popular culture. It is a sin of commission no less. Furthermore it is most distasteful to suggest, as some do, that because the sin was committed by the Brethren, it is authorised by Jesus Christ, unless of course they are suggesting that the Saviour is a deceiver.
Is it not sadly ironic therefore that your letter advises local leaders that “some choose to dwell on half-truths or inaccurate information regarding the church, its history, or its leaders”? That statement is undoubtedly true, but the accusing finger is readily shown by numerous examples, such as the one already mentioned, to be pointing in quite the wrong direction. Nor is it enough to assert, as you have, that the church does not hide historical facts, when it may so easily be demonstrated that it has done so in the past, and continues to do so even today. To make such a claim is just adding a further layer of untruth to that which already exists, and will not accomplish any honourable purpose. How is this practice worthy of God’s servants?
Might I humbly suggest that some soul searching and realignment with reality is urgently needed? It is certain that the regaining of spiritual equilibrium, which your letter laudably aims to accomplish, is going to take a great deal of constrained dialogue, empathy, understanding, and, where necessary, concession. Only when truth is acknowledged as sovereign will equilibrium ever be regained. Inclusiveness is a very positive first step in this vital process though, so thank you for offering some hope in that respect. May I comment, that my own Stake President has to date been commendable in his sensitive attempts to understand and handle my case? It is a pity that others in a similar position, I am informed, have done rather less well in dealing with these challenges.
We may of course ascribe much of the present situation to human failing. We might ask: is it wrong to fail if we acknowledge failure, and try again? Do we ever truly repent and learn when we cover our sin? It seems to me that we do not, and what applies to the individual, also applies to the institution.
Many wrestle in their spiritual progress with the behavioural problems of past leaders. They cannot understand why it was necessary, for example, for Joseph Smith and Brigham Young to marry and have relations with other men’s wives, particularly, (in the case of Joseph), when his own wife was not even aware of several such relationships. They also baulk at the idea of an angel threatening Joseph with a sword if he did not enter into clandestine polygamous unions with numerous women, and they cannot begin to see the relevance of his secret marriage unions with teenage girls, some as young as fourteen. That kind of behaviour just does not resonate with their concept of what a prophet is, or ever has been. If you insist, as your letter does, that Joseph Smith was not a fallen prophet, then those who have become disillusioned and deeply offended by such disturbing disclosures, will need a full and honest explanation from you, which goes a long way beyond counsel to read the scriptures and pray. Perhaps the Brethren might follow that counsel themselves and seek the necessary inspiration about how the membership may be taught the historical truths, contextualising Joseph’s own fallibility. Nothing less will begin to win back a good number of members who presently feel disaffected for this reason.
However, even the behavioural anomalies of past leaders, is not the most serious concern causing disaffection. For some years I for one have taken the view that it matters far more what God did than what Joseph is recorded as having done. That Joseph was fallible, fallen even, is ultimately acceptable to the believer, for he was a man; however the scriptures, or Standard Works, are at the very foundation of LDS doctrine and practice. We, as members, are duty bound to acknowledge them as the mind and will of God, and as the means available to us for measuring spiritual truth. I ask you in all sincerity therefore to explain publicly an anomaly which apparently undermines the very authority of the LDS scriptures in the minds of many. The reason I ask for a public explanation is so that all may learn where the half-truths as well as the untruths may be identified in this matter.
I refer principally to the deeply disturbing anomalies encountered in the Book of Abraham, for they above all else have caused my own uncritical acceptance of LDS authority to unravel. I wish it had not been so, but nevertheless that is how it was for me, and once again, please remember that the circumstances were not of my choosing. In fact, like many others, I only became aware of the problem because I was attempting to defend, not attack, the position of the church. I and thousands like me now need a credible explanation from the Brethren if any degree of our support is to be regained.
You are probably already familiar with the concerns I shall raise, and also perhaps with some of the unconvincing apologetic responses which have been offered. In brief however, those concerns may be summed up as follows:
- The Book of Abraham was, (according to official documentation), in 1835 translated by the prophetic powers of Joseph Smith, from Egyptian papyri which Joseph Smith said contained a record of Abraham, and also one of Joseph who was sold into Egypt.
- The resulting text of the Book of Abraham states that the record was made by Abraham’s own hand upon papyrus. This would presumably have been c 1900 BC. The papyrus actually dates to the first century BC.
- When it is translated by modern Egyptologists, no mention at all of Abraham is found in the text. The papyrus from which the Book of Abraham was produced, is in fact a late copy, (Ptolemaic), of The Book of Breathings, a regular funerary text, which maps pagan Egyptian beliefs concerning the state of the soul after death.
- The Book of Abraham produced by Joseph Smith from this papyrus refers in the text to associated “Facsimiles”, which also constitute part of LDS canon. Facsimile 1, (see below), for example allegedly shows Abraham fixed to an altar about to be sacrificed by the priest of the pagan god Elkenah, before being saved from this fate by an angel of the Lord. The official church website dramatically portrays this event in the “Gospel Art Picture Kit” with the following illustration:
- Note in both illustrations the inclusion of the lion-headed couch, and the presence of tell-tale canopic jars, which were routinely used by ancient Egyptians during the process of embalming. These formed part of the pagan funerary rites, and the same motifs may be found on the chamber walls of later pyramids, as for example:
- This well-known scene actually depicts the mythical embalming and resurrection of Osiris, the Egyptian god of the underworld, by his son Anubis, the jackal-headed god.
- There are differences certainly between Facsimile 1 and the images found in Egyptian burial chambers, but they are only the consequence of Joseph Smith incorrectly having guessed what had originally been recorded in the gaps where the papyrus was damaged. Fortunately, we are able to assess from the original papyrus the areas where Joseph employed his faulty guesswork, as the following photograph illustrates:
- The damaged and missing portion of the papyrus explains perfectly why the jackal-headed Anubis was absent from Facsimile 1, and in his place the otherwise unknown (to historians) priest of Elkenah was inserted by Joseph Smith. Creative though this idea may have been in 1835, according to the best scholarship presently available, it was wide of the mark.
- It is also very apparent that Joseph Smith had a misinformed idea about the original use of hieroglyphs. By comparing the glyphs on the papyri with an “Egyptian grammar” which was prepared under Joseph’s direction in 1835, it is apparent that Joseph considered that each glyph represented whole, complex sentences, rather than simple sounds or concepts. Accordingly we find one particular glyph, which resembles a reversed capital E, and which we now know means “water”, rendered by Joseph as: “It was made after the form of a bedstead, such as was had among the Chaldeans, and it stood before the gods of Elkenah, Libnah, Mahmackrah, Korash, and also a god like unto that of Pharaoh, king of Egypt. That you may have an understanding of these gods, I have given you the fashion of them in the figures at the beginning, which manner of figures is called by the Chaldeans Rahleenos”
Even overlooking the anomaly, upon which historians are agreed, that the Chaldeans did not exist in the time of Abraham, or for several hundred years afterwards, how can such a mis-reading of one simple glyph leave any margin for doubt that Joseph Smith got it all very wrong in this case? Does it not take wilful blindness, and a high degree of spiritual contortionism to overcome plain common sense and believe otherwise? Are we really expected to believe that God, who gave each of us sufficient intelligence to reason and make sense of our environment, would require us in this instance not to use that same intelligence? In order to demonstrate faith, is it really necessary to practice such denial, or have faith and denial become one and the same?
For those of us who utilised native intelligence to renounce as hypocrisy those worldly systems and values around us when we turned our backs as converts on the world, and joined the LDS church, is it now reasonable to expect us to lay aside those same powers in considering this issue? Is it not more authentic, and pleasing to God, just to acknowledge the simple conclusion that Joseph may have tried but he failed? For me and for many others there is far greater peace in that course of action than in any amount of dissembling in a vain attempt to defend what is, and always will be indefensible. Can you or anyone, in the full glare of reason and reality, say I and others are wrong to feel as we do?
Brethren, where are the half-truths? Where are the falsehoods, and the false claims when the facts are properly and fairly illuminated?
It appears to me an impossibility in the light of the foregoing to disagree with the conclusion of one Egyptologist who remarked concerning the papyri: “Joseph Smith’s interpretation of them as part of a unique revelation through Abraham, therefore, very clearly demonstrates that he was totally unacquainted with the significance of these documents and absolutely ignorant of the simplest facts of Egyptian writing and civilization.” (James H. Breasted, Ph.D., Haskell Oriental Museum, University of Chicago)
I have not mentioned Joseph Smith’s interpretations of the other two Facsimiles, which are just as profoundly flawed; nor have I touched here upon any of the other scriptures revealed by him, but for now this one example will suffice. Please explain, with reference to the Book of Abraham, and the detailed evidence we now have concerning its provenance, how one may remain in harmony with Truth, and at the same time continue to believe that Joseph Smith was inspired.
You speak in your letter of providing the best possible answers. That is good, because those answers are what I and the rest of mankind deserve to hear, and we sincerely look forward to your response.
Please do not exclude me or others because we cannot agree with the position you feel forced to defend by virtue of your callings. Please accept us as those who wish for truth, wherever it may be found, to be upheld in the end as victorious over error. I agree with you that faith, (in truth at least), will always be a conscious choice, which is why I care enough to write and invite you to demonstrate the truthfulness of this matter to the world. Faith in that which is shown to be untrue however, is not worthy of the name. The apostle Orson Pratt, (writing with concern to the Book of Mormon, but his words may equally be applied to the case of the Book of Abraham), stated it well:
“If, after a rigid examination, it be found an imposition, it should be extensively published to the world as such; the evidences and arguments upon which the imposture was detected, should be clearly and logically stated, that those who have been sincerely yet unfortunately deceived, may perceive the nature of the deception, and be reclaimed, and that those who continue to publish the delusion, may be exposed and silenced, not by physical force, neither by persecutions, bare assertions, nor ridicule, but by strong and powerful arguments–by evidences adduced from scripture and reason. Such, and such only, should be the weapons employed to detect and overthrow false doctrines–to reclaim mankind from their errors, to expose religious enthusiasm, and put to silence base and wicked impostors.”
So, please provide your best answers, (even if those answers convey a sentiment of doubt), and please extend an honest hand of friendship to me and the many in my position, opening up a constructive dialogue with us, so that all may see that we are able to work together from here onwards in promoting truth and discarding past errors.
Sincerely and faithfully,