Interpreter Peer Reviewed

Interpreter Peer Reviewed

Thursday, October 1, 2015

Roper's Bernhisel argument: a trifecta of error

As I mentioned in my summary of their JWHA presentation, Roper/Fields/Bassist have latched onto the Bernhisel letter from Nov. 1841. In their original article, they claimed John Taylor wrote the letter. I'm not sure whether they've abandoned that claim yet, but it was false when they made it, as the note in the Joseph Smith Papers shows. No one has identified the handwriting in the Bernhisel note.

I have an entire chapter on the Bernhisel letter in the second edition of the Zarahemla book that looks at this issue in depth. In my view, the letter is a perfunctory thank-you note that reflects Wilford Woodruff's thinking, not Joseph's. Maybe if we ever figure out who wrote the note, we'll have a better idea.

Nevertheless, Roper/Fields continue to claim Joseph Smith wrote or dictated the note. They've even included it in their corpus of Joseph Smith's writings for purposes of analysis.


In this post, I'm going to focus on just two paragraphs from the Roper/Fields/Bassist article. The Roper/Fields/Bassist are in black below, with my comments in red.

As we discussed in “Joseph Smith, the Times and Seasons, and Central American Ruins,” there are sound reasons to consider Joseph Smith, John Taylor, and Wilford Woodruff as potential candidate authors of the unsigned material on Central America and the Book of Mormon. All three men were in Nauvoo during the time of publication, they were responsible for the publication of the Times and Seasons, and they were all familiar with Stephens and Catherwood’s work. As Roper shows in the second article of this series, Joseph Smith’s letter to John Bernhisel shows that Joseph Smith shared the enthusiasm of his companions about [Page 16]the correspondences between Central American history, Stephens and Catherwood’s discoveries, and the Book of Mormon.
[All of the precedent paragraph is based on fantasy. Roper’s initial article falsely claimed that John Taylor wrote the Bernhisel letter. He knows that’s not true but he doesn't correct the error here. There is no evidence that anyone in Nauvoo other than Woodruff knew or cared about Stephens, and Woodruff was ill and absent in the months leading up to the 15 Sept publication of the first two editorials. Besides, Roper himself already excluded Woodruff as a candidate. A potential author's physical presence in Nauvoo is irrelevant; most of the material that appears in the Times and Seasons was mailed in. And not only is there no evidence that Taylor and Woodruff were working at the Times and Seasons prior to the 15 September issue, there is strong evidence that they were not doing so.]


The Prophet also placed Incidents of Travel in Central America, Chiapas, and Yucatan in the Nauvoo Library and Literary Institute — a strange decision if he disapproved of the use of the books by John Taylor, Wilford Woodruff, and others.10

Roper’s argument here is important to assess because it is typical of his approach in his other work. Here, in one sentence, Roper offers a trifecta of the  type of poorly reasoned arguments that fill his papers.

First, Roper adopts the Michael D. Quinn argument from Early Mormonism and the Magic World View; i.e., Roper, like Quinn, claims that Joseph read every book he owned or had access too. (Note: this is not the only anti-Mormon argument Roper helps facilitate.) I disagree with both Quinn and Roper. There is little evidence Joseph read much other than the scriptures. In 1841-2, the only book his journal shows him reading is the Book of Mormon.

Second, Roper often (I think usually) leaves out key facts. Whenever you read something Roper has written, be sure to check his sources (as Earl Wunderli pointed on with respect to Roper's review of his book). This is one of the reasons I don’t think Roper's work is peer reviewed, except by his friends who are pre-disposed to endorse his beliefs regardlessand often in spite ofthe evidence. Roper finds just enough evidence to support his preconceptions and then he stops looking.

Here, Roper points out that Joseph donated the Stephens books to the Nauvoo Library. That's an indisputable historical fact. But Roper doesn’t tell his readers that the Stephens books were just two of many Joseph donated. Along with the Stephens books, here are the other books Joseph Smith donated at the same time to the Nauvoo Library: 

Review of Edwards on the Will
Life of Tecumseh
Whepleys Compend
Scotts Poetical Works in 5 vols
Gillmores Lectures
Merrills Harmony
Krumanachers Works
Catholic Piety
Home Physician
Apochryphal Testament
Bruns’ Travels
Rebel & other Travels 
Browns’ Appeal. gram
Browns English Syntascope
Studies in Poetry & Prose 
Old World & the New – Vol 1st
Voyage & Travels of Ross Perry & others
Bennetts Book Keeping 2 Copies
Incidents of Travel in Yucatan by Stephens 2 Vo
Stephens Travels in Central America 2 Vo
Mosheims Church History 1 Vol 1.50
Times & Seasons 1 2 & 3 Vol also Vol 1 & 2
Dick’s Philosophy
Millenium & other Poems
Beaumonts Experiments
Dictionary of the Holy Bible
Parkers Lectures on Universalism
Sanders Discourse
Goodrich’s History of the United States
Doddridges Sermons
Catholic Manuel
Whelpleys Compend
Herveys Meditations
Historia de Charles
Rollin 2 Vol
Book of Mormon

By Roper’s logic, Joseph was a well-read librarian. Roper offers zero historical evidence to support his view. By contrast, we do have a detailed record of his reading habits in this time frame. Wilford Woodruff’s journal notes that Joseph started reading the Book of Mormon on 5 December 1841. On 15 January, 1842, Joseph’s journal notes he had reached page 54. That is 54 pages over 41 days, or about 1.3 pages/day. At his rate, it would have taken Joseph nearly two years to read the Stephens books alone (not to mention all the other books he donated to the Nauvoo library). Roper ignores this actual data in favor of his unsupported assumption that Joseph read the Stephens books in six weeks or less (based on the time between Woodruff's arrival in Nauvoo and the date of the Bernhisel note). And all of this took place without anyone else commenting on Joseph’s sudden interest in Central America or his newand temporaryspeedreading skill.

Furthermore, Roper’s argument requires that Joseph must have not only read all these books, but approved “the use of the books by John Taylor, Wilford Woodruff, and others.” I’d be interested in whatever evidence Roper can produce of Taylor, Woodruff, or anyone else using the Catholic Manuel or Catholic Piety, or of Joseph Smith approving such use. 

Bottom line, Joseph's donation of the Stephens books puts them in the same category as Catholic Piety. The donation has zero evidentiary value regarding his supposed enthusiasm for them as proof that the Book of Mormon cities were in Central America.

Now for the third part of Roper’s trifecta. 

He assumes his theory is fact (i.e., that Taylor, Woodruff and others “used” the Stephens book, when the only evidence is that Woodruff read them and an anonymous person used them in unsigned editorials). Then he uses his unsupported theory to form a straw-man argument by turning my argument inside out. Nowhere have I written or suggested that Joseph Smith disapproved of these books. In my view, there is no evidence he cared about them at all, any more than he cared about Catholic Piety

In addition, it is not inconsistent with what Joseph actually said and wrote to consider post-Book of Mormon ruins in Central America as evidence of post-Book of Mormon people who may have included migrants from Lamanite territory. In fact, the Aztalan article in the Times and Seasons makes that argument. Thus, there is no problem with people citing Stephens as general evidence of the Book of Mormon; the problem is claiming the text says Lehi landed there and that Zarahemla is in Quirigua (or nearby), which is the unique feature of the anonymous editorials published on Sept. 15 and Oct. 1. 

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