October 7, 2009

Elder Holland on the Book of Mormon (with Helen Whitney)

Jeffrey R. Holland's recent General Conference address  created a stir at various online communities. When Elder Holland was interviewed by Helen Whitney for the PBS documentary "The Mormons" they discussed the historicity of the Book of Mormon. Here is an excerpt of that interview. The ellipses are in the original, the photo is from pbs.org.

Helen Whitney: The origins of the Book of Mormon have been criticized. There have been counterclaims to its origins. ... What are the counterclaims that you've taken seriously?

Jeffrey R. Holland: ... The Book of Mormon is ... a matter of faith, but it's there. It's readable. It sits on the table, and it won't go away. ... For me it is ... another testament of the divinity of the Lord Jesus Christ and the single most [important] piece of evidence, the declaration that Joseph Smith was a prophet. ...

I've thought about it a lot, read it often. ... I wrote a book about the Book of Mormon, partly just because I wanted my own conviction, my testimony, to be in print, even if only for my children's sake. I dismiss out of hand the early criticism that somehow this was a book that Joseph Smith wrote. The only thing more miraculous than an angel providing him with those plates and him translating them by divine inspiration would be that he sat down and wrote it with a ballpoint pen and a spiral notebook. There is no way, in my mind, with my understanding of his circumstances, his education, ... [he] could have written that book. My fourth great-grandfather -- this goes back to my mother's pioneer side of the family -- said when he heard of the Book of Mormon in England, he walked away from the service saying no good man would have written that, and no bad man could have written it. And for me, that's still the position.

So I disregard the idea that Joseph Smith could have written it. I certainly disregard that somebody more articulate or more experienced in ecclesiastical matters could have written it, like [Smith's close friend and adviser] Sidney Rigdon. Rigdon doesn't even come to the church until the Book of Mormon is out and in circulation for eight or nine months. ...

Now, in terms of more modern theories, there are those who say it's more mythical literature and spiritual, and not literal. That doesn't work for me. I don't understand that, and I can't go very far with that, because Joseph Smith said there were plates, and he said there was an angel. And if there weren't plates and there wasn't an angel, I have a bigger problem than whether the Book of Mormon is rich literature. ... I have to go with what the prophet said about the book, about its origins, about the literalness of the plates, the literalness of the vision -- and then the product speaks for itself.

I don't think we're through examining the depth, the richness, the profundity, the complexity, all of the literary and historical and religious issues that go into that book. I think we're still young at doing that. But the origins for me are the origins that the prophet Joseph said: a set of plates, given by an angel, translated by the gift and power of God. ...

[You say] there are stark choices in beliefs about the origins of the book. Explain why there's no middle way.

... If someone can find something in the Book of Mormon, anything that they love or respond to or find dear, I applaud that and say more power to you. That's what I find, too. And that should not in any way discount somebody's liking a passage here or a passage there or the whole idea of the book, but not agreeing to its origin, its divinity. ...

I think you'd be as aware as I am that that we have many people who are members of the church who do not have some burning conviction as to its origins, who have some other feeling about it that is not as committed to foundational statements and the premises of Mormonism. But we're not going to invite somebody out of the church over that any more than we would anything else about degrees of belief or steps of hope or steps of conviction. ... We would say: "This is the way I see it, and this is the faith I have; this is the foundation on which I'm going forward. If I can help you work toward that I'd be glad to, but I don't love you less; I don't distance you more; I don't say you're unacceptable to me as a person or even as a Latter-day Saint if you can't make that step or move to the beat of that drum." ... We really don't want to sound smug. We don't want to seem uncompromising and insensitive.

... There are some things we can't give away. There are some foundational stones. If you don't have those, you don't have anything. So the First Vision, the Book of Mormon, those are pretty basic things. ...

Was there one evening [on your mission when you felt your faith deepen]?

I can tell you that evening, and probably with any review of my ... missionary journal I could tell you the date. I can picture the night in Guildford, Surrey, England. Late -- probably should have been in bed. I was a good missionary, and I tried to keep the rules. You get up on time, and you go do your work, and you stay healthy. But I was reading later that night. It was early in my mission, and I can picture it. I can picture my room. ... It was pretty spare. But I can remember ... having just been studying the Book of Mormon. I can remember closing the book and sobbing. I absolutely sobbed. I wept. The front of my shirt was wet. My tie was wet. I was still dressed, still in missionary attire.

But I wept. I could not stop. And it wasn't homesickness. I've known homesickness. It wasn't the euphoria of the moment. I'd known euphoria and despair. ... It wasn't that. I'd had all those experiences. It was a declaration to my soul that this book was divine; that this was true; that God lived and loved us, and Jesus was the Christ, and prophets really were prophets, and it really did matter what you did in life, and heaven really did care. And I just wept. ...

There have been a number of people in your church who have been disciplined or excommunicated for stepping over some line[...]What about people who question the history of the Book of Mormon?

There are plenty of people who question the historicity of the Book of Mormon, and they are firmly in this church -- firmly, in their mind, in this church -- and the church isn't going to take action against that. [The church] probably will be genuinely disappointed, but there isn't going to be action against that, not until it starts to be advocacy: "Not only do I disbelieve in the authenticity of the Book of Mormon, I want you to disbelieve." At that point, we're going to have a conversation. A little of that is more tolerated than I think a lot of people think it should be. But I think we want to be tolerant any way we can. ... "Patient" maybe is a better word than "tolerant." We want to be patient and charitable to the extent that we can, but there is a degree beyond which we can't go. ...

October 5, 2009

A few comments on Elder Holland's conference address

Elder Jeffrey R. Holland's Fall 2009 conference address on the Book of Mormon was stirring. Right after he concluded I received a text message from my mom, "Are you applauding?" His delivery reminded me of an experience related by Parley P. Pratt when he witnessed a similarly-powerful testimony of the book's divine origin:

"A very large church was opened for [Joseph Smith] to preach in, and about three thousand people assembled to hear him. Brother [Sidney] Rigdon spoke first, and dwelt on the Gospel, illustrating his doctrine by the Bible. When he was through, brother Joseph arose like a lion about to roar; and being full of the Holy Ghost, spoke in great power, bearing testimony of the visions he had seen, the ministering of angels which he had enjoyed; and how he had found the plates of the Book of Mormon, and translated them by the gift and power of God. He commenced by saying: 'If nobody else had the courage to testify of so glorious a message from Heaven, and of the finding of so glorious a record, he felt to do it in justice to the people, and leave the event with God.'"1
Elder Holland has been a longtime preacher of the Book of Mormon. His 1966 Master of Arts thesis at Brigham Young University focused on the Book of Mormon2 and in 1997 Deseret Book published his devotional analysis of the scripture.3

In his conference address, Holland noted several other theories critics of the Book of Mormon have advanced:
"For 179 years this book has been examined, and attacked. Denied and deconstructed. Targeted and torn apart, like perhaps no other book in modern religious history. Perhaps like no other book in any religious history; and still, it stands. Failed theories about its origins have been born, parroted and died. From Ethan Smith to Solomon Spalding, to deranged paranoid, to cunning genius. None of these frankly pathetic answers for this book has ever withstood examination, because there is no other answer than the one Joseph gave as its young, unlearned translator."
More about Solomon Spalding and Ethan Smith can be found at the FAIR wiki and elsewhere.4 Elder Holland declared his testimony that the Book of Mormon is of divine origin and was translated by Joseph Smith just as he claimed. He added his testimony to that of his great grandfather, George Cannon, who read the Book of Mormon twice through before exclaiming that the book was of God, for "no wicked man could write such a book as this; and no good man would write it, unless it were true and he were commanded of God to do so.” George Cannon was the father of George Q. Cannon, a member of the First Presidency under four Church presidents.5

Elder Holland also related a story many members might be surprised to find in the Doctrine and Covenants, when Hyrum Smith read from the Book of Mormon on the day the brothers left for Carthage Illinois as described by John Taylor:
"The same morning, after Hyrum had made ready to go...he read the following paragraph, near the close of the twelfth chapter of Ether, in the Book of Mormon, and turned down the leaf upon it: 'And it came to pass that I prayed unto the Lord that he would give unto the Gentiles grace, that they might have charity. And it came to pass that the Lord said unto me: If they have not charity it mattereth not unto thee, thou hast been faithful; wherefore thy garments shall be made clean. And because thou hast seen thy weakness, thou shalt be made strong, even unto the sitting down in the place which I have prepared in the mansions of my Father. And now I…bid farewell unto the Gentiles; yea, and also unto my brethren whom I love, until we shall meet before the judgment-seat of Christ, where all men shall know that my garments are not spotted with your blood.' The testators are now dead, and their testament is in force."6

Elder Holland said he was holding the very copy from which Hyrum had read—a somewhat unfamiliar printing with a black cover and gold gilding. It is a copy of the 1841 English edition commissioned by Brigham Young, Heber C. Kimball, and Parley P. Pratt—4,500 copies of which were printed by J. Tompkins at Liverpool, England. According to Royal Skousen, this edition was the first European edition of the Book of Mormon and "it is essentially a reprinting of the 1837 edition with British spellings."7

Elder Holland closed with a powerful personal witness and although the mp3 is already available at LDS.org,8 I look forward to reading the full talk when it becomes available:
"But my testimony of this record, and the peace it brings to the human heart, is as binding and unequivocal as was theirs. Like them, I give my name unto the world, to witness unto the world that that which I have seen, and like them, I lie not, God bearing witness of it. I ask that my testimony of the Book of Mormon and all that it implies, given today under my oath and my office, be recorded by men on earth and angels in heaven. I hope I have a few years left in my “last days,” but whether I do or do not, I want it absolutely clear, when I stand before the judgment bar of God, that I declared to the world, in the most straightforward language I could summon, that the Book of Mormon is true. That it came forth the way Joseph said it came forth, and was given to bring happiness and hope to the faithful in the travail of the last days."

Did you really like the address? Go read the Book of Mormon.

Parley P. Pratt, Autobiography of Parley P. Pratt, Deseret Book Co. (1938), pp. 298-99.

Jeffrey R. Holland, "An Analysis of Selected Changes in Major Book of Mormon Editions 1830-1920," Brigham Young University, 1966.

Jeffrey R. Holland, Christ and the New Covenant: The Messianic Message of the Book of Mormon, Deseret Book (1997).

See also John W. Welch, "View of the Hebrews: "An Unparallel"," in Reexploring the Book of Mormon, edited by John W. Welch, (Provo, Utah: FARMS, 1992), 83–87; Matthew Roper, "The Mythical "Manuscript Found" (Review of: Who Really Wrote the Book of Mormon? The Spalding Enigma)," FARMS Review 17/2 (2005): 7–140.

The original account is from Andrew Jenson, Latter-day Saint Biographical Encyclopedia, 4 vols. (Salt Lake City: Andrew Jenson History Company, 1901–36), 1:44. See also Susan Easton Black, ed., Stories from the Early Saints: Converted by the Book of Mormon, Bookcraft (1992) p. 26.

Doctrine & Covenants 135:4-5.The Book of Mormon references is Ether 12:36–38 in the current (1981) edition.

Royal Skousen, "Book of Mormon Editions (1030-1981)," Encyclopedia of Mormonism, Macmillan (1992), p. 175. The image of the actual copy Elder Holland displayed is from the BYU Religious Education Image Archive, photo by Kenneth R. Mays. For more click here. There is another claimant for this book. A same-edition copy owned by Bathsheba W. Smith was donated to the Church archives in 2007. Those making the donation showed a similar page fold and the Church News article seems to claim it was that edition from which Hyrum Smith read as described in D&C 135. A photo caption, however, notes that the leaf on the page was turned down, "perhaps in honor of Hyrum Smith." See John L. Hart, "Fabric of history: Geo. A. and Bathsheba Smith artifacts donated to Church," Church News, 5 May 2007. The copy previously owned by the Church and displayed by Elder Holland belonged to Joseph F. Smith, Hyrum's son. I favor it as being the more likely candidate as opposed to the copy owned by Hyrum's cousin's wife. Richard Turley, Assistant Church historian, clarified as follows: "One book descends from Mercy Fielding Smith and is the one Hyrum took from the shelf and marked before leaving for Carthage. It has a provenance statement in it written by Hyrum’s son Joseph F. Smith on December 25, 1898. It is housed in the Church History Library and is the volume held up by Elder Holland. Another recently donated copy is quite similar and descends from Bathsheba Smith. The same page is marked, but in our reasoned opinion, the person who marked that page was merely indicating the spot Hyrum marked. We don’t believe this is the volume Hyrum removed that day" (personal e-mail in my possession, 7 October, 2009). For more about the book see Emiley Morgan, "'A chain of testimony': 1841 copy of Book of Mormon stays preserved," Deseret News, 8 October 2009

The download is available at "179th Semiannual General Conference, October 2009," LDS.org.