Interpreter Peer Reviewed

Interpreter Peer Reviewed

Wednesday, September 1, 2021

Royal Skousen on the witnesses of the Book of Mormon, part 1

Recently the Interpreter posted a preliminary version of Royal Skousen's volume on the witnesses.

I don't write this review to be critical but to offer suggestions for improvement. 

This is one of the awesome services that the Interpreter provides and is another example of the potential of that journal/web page. Nevertheless, we have to recognize that potential is squandered by editors who are part of the M2C and SITH citation cartels that perpetuate and allow only material that supports and corroborates their M2C/SITH editorial positions. 

This volume is a good example. Not only does Brother Skousen strongly endorse SITH, but he concludes that Oliver and Joseph gave statements that were “only partially true” and appear to be “intentionally misleading.” 

That is standard framing for both M2C and SITH. Modern LDS scholars, particularly those at the Interpreter, readily reject what Joseph and Oliver taught on both topics.

I wouldn't care what the scholars say except that we have seen how the academic cycle works. LDS scholars, by virtue of their positions of trust and influence, are able to promote their theories to unsuspecting students who rarely push back with critical thinking. The scholars reinforce their theories through the M2C and SITH citation cartels, the potemkin village structure that offers superficial peer review that is really peer approval. Their theories then permeate the Church educational system, and through the academic cycle (as their students become teachers and leaders themselves), eventually become widely, if not universally, accepted. We saw this happen with M2C, then with SITH.

Now comes this volume that provides details that most readers will probably accept as evidence of SITH.

Because I think Skousen's analysis is deeply flawed, and because I have no reason to believe anyone in the citation cartels will offer a critical analysis, I offer my suggestions in the hope that we can avoid yet another digression away from what Joseph and Oliver taught.


As always, Brother Skousen shares outstanding and detailed research. However, he makes some underlying assumptions that are questionable at best.

Given the profound influence Skousen's work has on other LDS scholars and their followers, it's important to understand both 

(i) what his evidence shows and 

(ii) what assumptions underlie his conclusions. 

The overriding issue regarding the translation is how to reconcile stone-in-the-hat (SITH) accounts with Urim and Thummim (U&T) accounts. 

1. One way is to value one set of accounts above the other set by applying different burdens of proof according to one's bias. In this volume, Skousen rejects U&T accounts for irrational reasons while accepting SITH accounts on their face with little critical analysis beyond pointing out discrepancies among them. Other authors do the opposite, concluding that the SITH accounts are all lies. I consider this approach, regardless of which bias you adopt, both unproductive and unpersuasive, as well as misleading at best.  

2. Another way is to conflate the U&T accounts with the SITH accounts by simply defining "Urim and Thummim" to include both the Nephite interpreters and SITH. The Gospel Topics Essay on Translation does this, for example. Such word thinking contradicts the plain historical record, not only because the 1834 book Mormonism Unvailed clearly distinguished between the two but because, as Skousen's examples show, the witnesses themselves made a unambiguous distinction.

3. Yet another way is to avoid the issue by saying "it doesn't matter because the Book of Mormon is true regardless of how it was produced." This may be the most common approach taken by believers who don't have the time or interest to delve into the evidence, but it's by far the least persuasive. Every religion has a core of believers who are impervious to evidence and analysis, and that's fine so far as it goes, but that's not a firm foundation for a missionary-minded Church--particularly when Joseph himself emphasized that he translated the plates by means of the U&T. Dismissing the issue as unimportant undermines Joseph's own credibility.

4. A final way to reconcile the evidence is to apply the same standard of proof to all the evidence, rejecting nothing but also assessing witness reliability and credibility. This approach has led me to the conclusion that Joseph translated the plates with the Urim and Thummim, but also conducted open demonstrations using SITH to explain the process and satisfy the curiosity of his supporters. Over time, SITH became the standard defense to the Spalding theory. Every witness statement provided by Skousen fits within this scenario, yet Skousen never mentions it as a possibility.


As I've explained before, I cherish Skousen's research and the evidence he has developed, but I question his assumptions. I've discussed these issues regarding his work on Early Modern English and the King James quotations in the text. For example, he simply assumes that the King James language came from the Bible, when evidence suggests a more likely source for much of that language is the writing of Christian authors that was easily accessible in Joseph's environment. Those sources explain most of the nonbiblical intertextuality as well, as I've described in detail.

In terms of research, as always with Skousen, the book is exemplary. Skousen lists three primary sources for witness statements, including Cook's David Whitmer Interviews, Vogel's Early Mormon Documents, and Jack Welch's Opening the Heavens. He complains a little that Opening the Heavens abbreviates the accounts, a problem I've noted before, but ironically so does Skousen, as we'll see. 


Here is my preliminary peer review (since they're not asking for my input, which I would happily provide). No doubt Brother Skousen will greatly improve his material before final publication.

Hopefully he will address the points I make here, whether or not he sees my review, but if past experience is a guide, his "peer reviewers" will not point out these basic problems because they each already share his SITH bias. I tried, once, to offer suggestions to Brother Skousen on an earlier project, but let's just say he was not receptive to my observations.

I am using screen shots to comment so there is no question about the accuracy of the material I'm assessing. 


My first comment may appear overly critical, but I include it because of what it portends in the rest of the book.

We'll discuss Mary Whitmer below, but here I note that witnesses who felt, hefted (or weighed) the plates are not secondhand witnesses; they are direct witnesses because they testified about what they personally experienced. "Secondhand" refers to testimony, information or knowledge that is not from the original source; i.e. hearsay. A witness who says the plates weighed x pounds, but who did not personally heft or weigh them, would be a secondhand witness. 

We understand what Skousen was trying to say. He means that those who felt or hefted the plates did not personally see the plates. But that does not make them secondhand witnesses. They are first-hand witnesses of what they felt or hefted.

As we'll see throughout this review, many historians and scholars seem oblivious to the nature of evidence that most lawyers spot immediately. 


The next paragraph is another example of the witness problem.

As we'll see, not one of these witnesses explained what, exactly, Joseph dictated during these events. Historians have simply assumed that the witnesses were observing the translation process and that whatever Joseph dictated during these sessions is found in the text of the Book of Mormon. It's amazing, really, that such a basic assumption has remained unchallenged and untested.

Furthermore, not one of these witnesses related specifics about time and place. Their testimony is vague and inconsistent. It is largely hearsay. A basic cross examination could have clarified their testimony, but no one seems to have inquired about details, and the witnesses volunteered none. Later in this post I'll suggest why that may have been the case, but the point here is that when we analyze what the witnesses actually said, as opposed to what we think or infer they said, their testimony is not what it seems.

Next, Skousen sets out five conclusions that we'll discuss in the context of the specific witnesses. All of these conclusions are based on Skousen's premise that Joseph didn't really translate anything, but instead merely read words that appeared on the stone in the hat (SITH). The evidence supports an alternative scenario, specifically, that Joseph actually translated the engravings on the plates, but Skousen does not mention (let alone discuss) this possibility.

But he ends on a very important point.

This is such a key point that it bears repeating. A major claim of the witnesses is directly contradicted by the manuscript evidence.

With that being the case, why wouldn't we also at least challenge the other claims of the witnesses, particularly when their claims contradict what Joseph and Oliver said about the translation?

We should, even though it means challenging the SITH narrative.


Skousen explains his standard for assessing witness statements:

Prompt firsthand accounts in a witness' own hand are ideal, but most Latter-day Saints can see the problem here. The earliest account we have of Joseph's life story was written by Joseph himself, in his own hand, in 1832. But it is more vague than his later 1838 history (the one canonized in Joseph Smith-History), and it differs in some details. Were we to apply Skousen's priority, we would largely reject the 1838 history (as many critics do). 

People often assume that earlier accounts are more accurate than later accounts because we all experience our memories "fading" over time, but there are many factors that turn that assumption upside down, including the purpose for the account, the intended audience, the time available to reflect and record, etc. Memory is fluid as well. After all, Joseph's 1832 history related events from as many as 12 years earlier (depending on whether one accepts the 1820 date given in the 1838 version). It's not uncommon for a witnesses to remember something more accurately later, especially when memory is refreshed by documentary or other extrinsic evidence.

Stephen Harper's book First Vision: Memory and Mormon Origins, explains how memories are shaped and reassembled to align with life experience and preferred narratives.

The clam that "the most reliable accounts" are supported by multiple witnesses and are consistent is fact-dependent. Witnesses collude all the time. A basic investigative technique is to separate witnesses to get independent statements. Testimony tends to converge with time, especially among like-minded witnesses. Consistency can therefore be evidence of collusion, not accuracy.


Next, Skousen turns to the witnesses of the plates.

Here we see a common problem: Skousen is relating hearsay. He was not there. He is not writing from personal experience. Yet he states as facts what he thinks someone else said. This is a major problem with Richard Bushman's Rough Stone Rolling, in which he also relates as fact his own interpretation of what witnesses said.

While this technique may be effective for promoting one's own interpretation and agenda, and it may be more practical than getting into the details of who said what, it is highly misleading to readers who do not recognize or understand the technique.

For example, all three of the witnesses at some point in their lives said they handled the plates. When would that have occurred if not during the "Three Witness" event? 

Martin Harris had a separate experience and never related what happened other than that he saw the angel and the plates. He never related the experience about the table or the claim that the book had been correctly translated.

Nor, for that matter, did Oliver say there was a table.

The table narrative came only from David Whitmer, much later in life, and is just as vague and ambiguous as his other statements. None of the witnesses specified when and where this event occurred.

It's a little surprising to see Skousen relate hearsay this way. I'll assume it's merely rhetorical shorthand that he will clarify in his final edit of the manuscript.

Next we have the Mary Whitmer saga.

Here again we have the shorthand hearsay technique, but worse, we have the fake version of the Mary Whitmer story.

Skousen lists David Whitmer as one of the sources for the story, but incredibly, he omits David's statement that Joseph identified the messenger as one of the Nephites.

I can't tell what to make of this. For as thorough a scholar as Brother Skousen is, and with all his student assistants and scholarly peers, he continues to pretend that evidence contrary to his theory doesn't exist.

Here's the account I'm referring to, from Edward Stevenson.

While on the return journey from Palmyra, David noticed a somewhat aged-looking man who approached them on the road. He had a very pleasant face, about which, however, there seemed something peculiar, and he carried a knapsack on his back fastened with straps which crossed his breast. David asked him to take a ride, but he declined, saying: “I am going over to Cumorah,” and then disappeared very suddenly, though there was no chance for him to secrete himself in the open country through which the party was then passing. All felt very strange concerning this personage and the Prophet was besought to inquire of the Lord concerning him. Shortly afterwards, David relates, the Prophet looked very white but with a heavenly appearance and said their visitor was one of the three Nephites to whom the Savior gave the promise of life on earth until He should come in power. After arriving home, David again saw this personage, and mother Whitmer, who was very kind to Joseph Smith, is said to have seen not only this Nephite, but to have also been shown by him the sealed and unsealed portions of the plates from which the Book of Mormon was translated.

Another version, from Edward Stevenson's journal:

Smileing very Pleasant David asked him to ride and he replied I am going across to the hill Cumorah. Soon after they Passed they felt Strangeley and Stoped, but could see nothing of him all around was clean and they asked the Lord about it. He Said that the Prophet Looked as White as a Sheet & Said that it was one of the Nephites & that he had the plates."*

Later in his analysis, Skousen quotes from Edward Stevenson's journal but not this passage set out above.

Never mentioned in any of this is the fact that David Whitmer was the one person who related conversations with both Moroni (the angel who showed him the plates) and the messenger he met on the road to Fayette. If anyone know the difference, it was David.

Yet Skousen continues to relate hearsay from the grandson of Mary Whitmer, who insisted his own grandmother was wrong!

It's really astonishing. This is academic malpractice. The only conceivable explanation is M2C; i.e., the M2C scholars who support Skousen's work financially are obsessed with rejecting the New York Cumorah, so they seek to suppress and erase all evidence that supports the New York Cumorah. Obviously, if the messenger was taking the abridged plates from Harmony to Cumorah, and then brought the plates of Nephi to Fayette for Joseph to translate, that's a major problem for M2C.

There's a detail in one Stevenson account that is compound hearsay. "Mother Whitmer... is said to have seen not only this Nephite, but to have also been shown by him the sealed and unsealed portions of the plates from which the Book of Mormon was translated.

If that statement is accurate, then the messenger showed her the abridged plates, either together with or in lieu of the plates of Nephi. That's not a problem for me, actually; whether or not the messenger brought to Fayette the abridged plates along with the plates of Nephi he picked up at the repository in Cumorah doesn't really matter, and it makes sense because the Three Witnesses saw the abridged plates, as we can tell because according to David they saw part of it was sealed (or so we interpret what he said).

However, Stevenson doesn't attribute the part about the sealed portion to either David or Mary Whitmer. He uses the passive voice, "is said to have seen," which fails to attribute the claim to anyone. It's merely a rumor. 

Regardless of which set of plates Mary Whitmer saw, it's unambiguous that David related it was one of the Three Nephites, that he learned that from Joseph Smith, and that Mary said the messenger identified himself as Brother Nephi.

Plus, there is the logical/doctrinal problem of having Moroni, a resurrected being, change his appearance, size, and age from the tall, glorious being that appeared to Joseph into the portly, aged old man walking through the countryside with the plates in a knapsack.

Skousen does note that John C. Whitmer identified the man as Moroni, contrary to his grandmother's identification, but he writes merely that "there is some issue about the identity of the angel." There is no issue; John C. Whitmer clarifies that he assumed his grandmother was wrong because he assumed it had to be Moroni. That is not evidence in any way, shape or form.

Next, Skousen relates the 1958 recollection by the grandson of a niece of Christian Whitmer's widow's second husband, circa 1900. Note: Christian Whitmer died in 1835, so the niece could not possibly have had contemporary first-hand knowledge of the event. At best, she could have heard it from her uncle's wife's mother at some unspecified, unknown time. 

The grandson claimed he heard his grandmother (the niece) relate a story about the short, heavy-set, gray-haired messenger meeting Mary Whitmer by saying "My name is Moroni." 

It's difficult to imagine a less credible, reliable witness statement than that. And yet, Skousen devotes nearly three pages to this account, while blatantly omitting the more relevant and credible accounts from David Whitmer about this messenger.

Worse, throughout his narrative, Skousen adopts the unbelievable Moroni identity in lieu of the well-supported Nephi identity.

Again, it's simply inexplicable, other than the influence of the M2C citation cartel.

Next, Skousen discusses the witnesses who felt or hefted the covered plates. It's great to have these all in one place like this. 

In one place, we see the effect of an assumption not supported by the evidence.

Skousen wonders how Joseph's father transferred the plates from the tow frock to the pillow case, but that's not what William said happened. William never said his father unwrapped the plates before putting them in the tow frock. The common sense interpretation is that his father put the wrapped plates in a pillow case, presumably because it was large enough and easier to handle than a loose wrapping. 

There would be no need to avert his eyes. And if he did it outside the presence of others, then William couldn't have observed what he did. 

The next section is the most important: Two different methods of translating the Book of Mormon. I'll discuss that in a second post.

The end of part 1.


1 comment:

  1. I have read some of Royal Skousen's work and there are a lot of problems with his assumptions. Any interview that doesn't agree with his idea of the translation is disregarded. And each and every one of them, for the slightest of reasons, happen to support the Urim and Thummim method. Almost all the stone in the hat stories are accepted without question - even when he points out the same exact problems.