Interpreter Peer Reviewed

Interpreter Peer Reviewed

Saturday, August 22, 2015

War of Words and Tumult of Opinions


“War of Words and Tumult of Opinions”: The Battle for Joseph Smith’s Words in Book of Mormon Geography

Neal Rappleye’s article“War of Words and Tumult of Opinions”: The Battle for Joseph Smith’s Words in Book of Mormon Geography (2014), is a review of John L. Lund’s book Joseph Smith and the Geography of the Book of Mormon. Rappleye extends his piece beyond a book review as he addresses the ongoing debate between Rod Meldrum and John Lund, as well as the stylometric or “wordprint” studies of Roper, et al., published by the Maxwell Institute in 2013 under the title, Joseph Smith, The Times and Seasons, and Central American Ruins. Roper assessed a “composite Central America text” (a compilation of the three unsigned comments totaling 906 words from the 9/15 and 10/1 T&S). Throughout this article, I will refer to these editorials using Roper’s term.

At the outset, I observe that Rappleye is an effective writer and researcher. My criticism is intended to offer suggestions for improvement, particularly in analytical approach. It appears that Rappleye has been co-opted by the citation cartel and has chosen to accept the work of other members of the cartel at face value. The more he becomes aware of this, the better his work will be.

Rappleye concludes that “the battle for Joseph Smith’s words is just tangential skirmish. The crucial battlefield is over what the Book of Mormon actually says about its own geography, and the Mesoamericanists have been winning on that front all along.” His conclusion, though, is based on his prior determination that, “[i]n light of present evidence, it seems impossible to insist that Joseph Smith had any revelatory knowledge that limited the lands of the Book of Mormon to the United States.”

In my view, Rappleye’s assertion is a red herring. Neither theory “limits” the Book of Mormon lands, whether to the “United States” or Mesoamerica. Indeed, that is the thrust of Wright’s article about the Hinterlands.

Worse, Rappleye’s claim that the battle is over what the book says about its own geography overlooks the fact that, even creating an “internal map” based on the book’s geographical hints, researchers derive different locales. Furthermore, the Mesoamerican theory is premised on the book’s internal directional system being wrong, or at best misleading to modern readers; i.e., north is not north. Instead, Sorenson (who, according to Rappleye, is the only one who has “fully practiced” a “comprehensive” internal map) claims cardinal directions are determined by reference to the coastline. Others use vague notions derived from Mayan mythology to define “north” as any direction within a range of west northwest to east northeast.

Most importantly, Rappleye glosses over the irony that such post hoc rationalization is driven by the very words in the T&S that he now finds irrelevant.


Noting Errors

Throughout his piece, Rappleye does a good job noting the mistakes of Lund and Meldrum in their respective works, but he accepts the work of Roper and Sorenson without question. This inconsistent scrutiny has led him to make numerous mistakes and, ultimately, to an erroneous conclusion.

Here are some examples of mistakes in historical details. Rappleye writes that the Times and Seasons was a "bi-weekly" paper (it was semimonthly). He claims the editorship of the paper was "somewhat turbulent" during its first "couple of years." In fact, Don Carlos was the editor from 1839 until his death in August 1841, after which E. Robinson took over until Joseph Smith became editor in March 1842 (technically, Feb 15 1842). What Rappleye characterizes as "turbulence" was E. Robinson co-editing for a year (1839-1840) and Robert B. Thompson co-editing from May 1841 until his death in September 1841. Behind the scenes, the real turbulence started in April 1842, when William Smith started the Waspand gradually took over the Times and Seasons.
This is an example of how Rappleye errs by quoting and citing Matthew Roper's article, "Joseph Smith, Revelation, and Book of Mormon Geography" which is deeply flawed on multiple levels.

Rappleye does a good job critiquing the work of Lund and Meldrum here, but he accepts without question the work of Sorenson and Roper. Hopefully in the future Rappleye will apply his analytical skills in a more objective manner and avoid the outcome-oriented research (confirmation bias) that characterizes the work of Sorenson and Roper.

Here are some observations:

1. Rappleye quotes Joseph's T&S statement, published March 1, 1842: "This paper commences my editorial career, I alone stand responsible for it, and shall do for all papers having my signature henceforward. I am not responsible for the publication, or arrangement of the former paper; the matter did not come under my supervision." Like most others citing this statement, Rappleye ignores the actual context; i.e., Joseph was distancing himself from the salacious wedding announcement that appeared in the previous issue and caused an uproar in nearby newspapers. Then he cites the boilerplate identifying Joseph as editor and claims Joseph's prospective intentions are confirmed by that boilerplate. There are two major problems with this approach. First, I've shown elsewhere that such boilerplate was used when the named editor was nowhere present (as even Rappleye admits later in this piece). Second, intentions for the future are not evidence of what actually took place in the future. Just as Joseph intended to "stand for" future papers, he also intended to translate and publish more of the Book of Abraham. Rappleye's approach would require that Joseph did, in fact, translate and publish more of the Book of Abraham, although there is no evidence that he actually did. The absurdity of that proposition is self-evident; isn't the absurdity of the proposition that Joseph edited and/or "stood for" every future paper equally self-evident? There is no more evidence that Joseph edited or "stood for" the Times and Seasons after May 1842 than there is that he translated and published more of the Book of Abraham.

2. Rappleye quotes Lund: "There were no objections by Joseph to any of the several editorials that specifically mention Stephens and Catherwood before, during, or after his editorship." I've addressed this at length elsewhere, including in my book, but the fallacy of this argument is apparent on its face. There is no way to know Joseph had "no objections" unless he affirmatively said so, and there is no evidence that he ever did say that. Nor is there evidence that he ever said he objected. So we're left with inferences from the evidence we do have and a burden of proof.

Given the irrationality and falsehoods in the 3 articles, should the burden of proof be on those who seek to attribute those articles to Joseph Smith or on those who seek to distance the articles from Joseph? Joseph's critics would likely place the burden on those seeking to distance him from the articles; i.e., they would prefer to assume Joseph was the author since the buildings described in the Stephens book don't date to Book of Mormon times, since Quirigua doesn't match the Book of Mormon descriptions of Zarahemla, and since no new discoveries were made between Sept 15 and Oct 1 1842 as the Zarahemla article claimed. Attributing these articles to Joseph makes him appear ignorant, speculative, duped--anything other than prophetic and knowledgeable. By contrast, one would think that those who support Joseph as a Prophet would seek to distance him from these editorials. This is what makes Rappleye's argument so puzzling. He cites Matt Roper's article that essentially proved Joseph did not write the editorials, but then adopts Roper's equally bizarre argument that this data shows Joseph did write, or at least approve of, the articles.

I can't figure out why Rappleye snatches defeat from the jaws of victory here--except that he wants to support the Mesoamerican geography theory at any cost. Proving Joseph didn't write these ridiculous editorials is a victory for Joseph as Prophet. But the evidence is not limited to Roper's wordprint study. Joseph responded to the Zarahemla article with the notice in the next issue of the Times and Seasons. He also took two specific actions: 1) fired William as editor of the Wasp (and Times and Seasons) and 2) removed Winchester as Branch President in Philadelphia. [Anyone interested in the details can read my book, which also examines the good reasons why Joseph didn't explicitly retract the Mesoamerican articles.]

Rappleye seeks to support the Mesoamerican theory by noting the Stephens extract published in the Times and Seasons in 1841, but that was provided by Winchester. He notes the 5 articles during 1842, but the first two were consistent with the North American setting. The only problematic articles were those published on Sept. 15 and Oct. 1, 1842. Those are the articles Joseph responded to once he found out about them.

3. To refute the argument that Joseph was in hiding when these 3 articles were published, Rappleye writes, "Joseph Smith's life, in the words of one historian, is a 'biographer's dream.' It is well documented by primary sources, many of which are first-hand." Then he cites Lund's insistence that Joseph was "home from August 20, 1842, until October 7, 1842." In doing so, Rappleye and Lund prove too much.

The only time the extensive and detailed record shows Joseph doing any editing of theTimes and Seasons is in March 1842, or arguably maybe through May 1842. After that, there is zero evidence of him editing or writing for the Times and Seasons, except for official, signed documents including the letters that became D&C 127 and 128. But note:Joseph sent those letters to the Times and Seasons for publication! He did not publish them himself. He didn't even go to the printing office.

For inexplicable reasons, Lund and Rappleye insist we know where Joseph was and what he was doing, yet they don't recognize that the record shows he was not editing (or writing for) the Times and Seasons.

Rappleye goes on adopt Lund's explanation that Woodruff and Taylor were not available when the September 15 articles were published. Instead of reaching the obvious conclusion that someone else was involved, they concluded that "Joseph Smith alone was handling the editorial responsibilities." They apparently believe Joseph was sending his letters to himself for publication, and that the "biographer's dream" went into hiatus during this period because there is zero mention of him working on the Times and Seasons. (Rappleye claims that "Joseph met multiple times with Taylor" in late September. Actually, it was twice, at Joseph's home, and it had nothing to do with the editorial content of the paper.)

4. A year later, the Times and Seasons did publish another piece on the Stephens book, but it is a far cry from the Sept/Oct 1842 articles. At most, it supports the "Mesoamerica as hinterlands" approach. When Rappleye refers to the correspondence between William Smith and W. W. Phelps in the December 15, 1844, Times and Seasons, he makes this serious historical error:

"In the letter, dated November 10, 1844, William calls the Times and Seasons “the columns of the Prophet,” despite the fact that Joseph Smith had been dead for over four months and had not been the editor of the paper for two whole years. This suggests that the paper was nonetheless closely associated with the prophet, and views expressed in the paper were likely taken as representative of his own even after he was no longer the editor of the paper. More to the point, in this same letter, William Smith frequently and freely connects the ruins explored by Stephens and Catherwood with the Book of Mormon."

Rappleye doesn't realize Smith's reference to the "columns of the Prophet" refer to the New York newspaper he edited. This error leads Rappleye to make a preposterous assertion that the views expressed in the Times and Seasons, even after Joseph's death, reflected Joseph's own views. Worse, Rappleye doesn't realize that William Smith and W.W. Phelps (in connection with Benjamin Winchester) were merely continuing their discussion about Stephens and Catherwood--the one they published in September and October of 1842 in the Times and Seasons.

5. One would think that, given Rappleye's sharp criticism of Meldrum, that he would have noticed at least a few of these errors. Instead, he perpetrates more.

First, he adopts Matt Roper's erroneous assumption that the author of the articles could only have been Joseph Smith, Wilford Woodruff, or John Taylor. He overlooks (or ignores) Joseph's statement about John Taylor as editor; i.e. that Taylor was the only one he could trust, and barely that with all the mistakes Taylor made. I've yet to see anyone find mistakes Taylor made apart from the Mesoamerican material.

Second, Rappleye cites Joseph's "Valedictory" in which he notes the Nov. 15, 1842, issue of the Times and Seasons "commences his [Taylor's] editorial career." If Taylor had been editing since the previous March, how could the November issue constitute thecommencement of his editing career? It would have been the continuation of his editing career, or an advancement in his editing career, not the commencement.

Rappleye brings up the Bernhisel letter, ignoring its generic nature and the fact that, according to the Joseph Smith Papers, the handwriting is unidentified (not John Taylor). There's no evidence Joseph ever even saw this letter.

Rappleye makes an amazing admission on p. 55: "Until Joseph Smith is definitively ruled out as author of these editorials, such a position cannot be maintained." But then he spends considerable space demonstrating the flaws of Lund's analysis (a useful critique), while embracing Roper's inverted conclusion from his own wordprint studies that show Joseph did not write these editorials!

I've discussed Roper's study before, but anyone can see from his published charts (Roper provides hardly any information about his data or methodology) that none of the three candidates could have written these editorials. Roper tested 3 people and his results exclude all three; so far, Roper refuses to test any alternative potential authors. But Rappleye doesn't seem to notice this.

Despite the serious flaws in Lund and Roper, Rappleye asserts that two wrongs make a right: "While the Roper et al. study stands on its own, it helps to have complimentary [sic] work, conducted independently, corroborating their finds."

6. Next, Rappleye starts in on Meldrum. "Meldrum should take the evidence from both Lund and Roper for Joseph Smith’s authorship of these editorials seriously and, if he can, engage it with his own scholarly analysis." In my view, Rappleye himself should engage Lund and Roper with a more critical scholarly analysis. If he had, he wouldn't have given Roper's conclusions such unwarranted deference.

Rappleye does a good job outlining the various approaches to Book of Mormon geography, but he doesn't apply his own criteria evenly. For example, he writes:

"Thus, the logical and appropriate thing to do if you want to understand the physical setting of Book of Mormon events is to look at the way the Book of Mormon authors described that setting, for those details were most likely given for the very purpose of helping the reader understand the geographical surroundings. If geography is the purpose for going to the text, then the only logical thing to do would be to read the geographical content."

I agree with this completely. As I do with this: "“It will do no good to find evidences in Alaska for the Nephites,” John Sorenson explains, “if the Nephites were not in Alaska, anymore than to find evidence in Tibet. We need to be in the right place and in the right time period if we are going to use… archaeological evidences, or linguistic evidence.”102 The logical absurdity of having any other form of evidence “supersede any geographical passage,” as Meldrum put it, is that you can end up with a geography that contradicts the physical setting described by Nephi, Mormon, and Moroni, and other writers—the only ones who truly and undeniably knew what the physical environment of the Nephites was like.... Absent a solid geographic setting, cultural details can easily be cherry-picked from anywhere in a way that makes them seem to fit the text. We must first have a location."

Yet Rappleye appears blind to the fundamental problem that Mesoamerica is not the right place. Every shred of "evidence" cited by Mesoamerican advocates has been "cherry-picked." But even then, Mesoamerican advocates consistently rely on their alternative translations of Book of Mormon terms to make the cherry-picked evidence fit. Rappleye, Roper, Sorenson, et al, insist on Mesoamerica solely because of these ridiculous Times and Seasons articles. What Rappleye characterizes as a geographical priority is anything but; Mesoamerican proponents contort the text to fit the geography, anthropology and history of Mesoamerica.

Rappleye claims, "Second, strictly speaking, the use of a comprehensive “hypothetical map,” or “internal map,” to correlate the text to the land has only been fully practiced and published by Sorenson, with Clark and Gardner echoing him on this matter. Hence, such a method has, quite successfully, led to only one model."

But Sorenson's internal map is imaginary, not based on the text but on his substitutions for the text's language (such as "headwaters" instead of "head" of Sidon, changing of cardinal directions, inventing new plants and animals, etc.).

7. Rappleye also seems oblivious to his own biases when he writes, "All major theorists using geographic priority methods have converged on Mesoamerica as the only location that fits the criteria in the text, though most do not form an independent 'internal map.'" IOW, according to Rappleye, anyone who does not "converge" on Mesoamerica is not a "major theorist."

8. In his conclusion, Rappleye asserts that Lund's "thorough documentation of Joseph Smith’s whereabouts settles, definitively, whether Joseph Smith was around Nauvoo to write the editorials or not. He was, and there is evidence to confirm he was involved with the editing and printing of the paper during that period."

I agree that Joseph was "around Nauvoo" and that he wrote Sections 127 and 128. But he sent those to the Times and Seasons for publication, demonstrating he was not involved with the paper. Neither Lund nor Rappleye (nor Roper) have provided a single piece of evidence to show Joseph was involved with the editing and printing of the paper during September, when the Mesoamerican articles were published. And Roper's own data demonstrates Joseph was not the author.

In summary, I agree with Rappleye's criticisms of Lund's textual analysis and with his criticisms of Meldrum's position on Joseph's whereabouts. But the rest of Rappleye's arguments defy his own assertions and criteria. This is what happens when one accepts Roper's conclusions, and the dogma of the Mesoamerican theorists, without independent, objective and critical examination.

Hopefully in the future Rappleye will apply his analytical skills in a more balanced manner.

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