Elder M. Russell Ballard recently spoke to CES (Church Education System) teachers about how they need to “inoculate” their students with information from the “less-known or controversial” topics found in the lds.org Gospel Topics Essays (my own emphasis added):
You should be among the first outside your student’s families to introduce authoritative sources on topics that will be less well-known or controversial, so your students will measure whatever they hear or read later against what you have already taught them.
You know, we give medical inoculations to our precious missionaries before sending them into the mission field, so they will be protected against disease that can harm and even kill them. In a similar fashion, please, before you send them into the world, inoculate your students by providing faithful, thoughtful and accurate interpretations of gospel doctrine, the scriptures and our history, and those topics that are sometimes misunderstood.
To name a few of such topics that are less-known or controversial, I’m talking about polygamy, of seer stones, different accounts of the First Vision, the process of translation of the Book of Mormon, of the Book of Abraham, gender issues, race and the priesthood, or a Heavenly Mother. The efforts to inoculate our young people will often fall to you CES teachers.
Church leaders today are fully conscious of the unlimited access to information. We’re making extraordinary efforts to provide accurate context and understanding of teachings of the restoration. A prime example of this effort is the 11 gospel topics essays on lds.org that provide balanced and reliable interpretations of the facts for controversial and unfamiliar church related subjects.
It is important that you know the content in these essays like you know the back of your hand. If you have questions about them, then please ask someone who has studied them and understands them. In other words, seek learning even by study and also by faith as you master the content of these essays.
Knowing the content of these essays “like you know the back of your hand” isn’t easy because there’s a lot to them, including lengthy footnotes that sometimes contain even more controversial information. But as a public service, I will list some key points from the essays that Elder Ballard mentioned. You’re welcome!
Key points: Joseph Smith translated the Book of Mormon by burying his head in a hat and looking at a seer stone. He used this same seer stone to look for buried treasure and lost objects before he became a prophet. Also, the plates were covered up while he translated.
Key essay excerpt: “Joseph’s wife Emma explained that she “frequently wrote day after day” at a small table in their house in Harmony, Pennsylvania. She described Joseph “sitting with his face buried in his hat, with the stone in it, and dictating hour after hour with nothing between us.” According to Emma, the plates “often lay on the table without any attempt at concealment, wrapped in a small linen table cloth.”
Why this is controversial: People can be shocked to find out South Park more accurately depicted how Joseph Smith translated the plates than what they learned in church or seminary. Also, how did the seer stone never find buried treasure, but then somehow was able to translate the plates? If the plates were covered up, why did Joseph Smith even need the plates? Why did Book of Mormon prophets bother to engrave on plates if the engravings weren’t necessary for translation?
Key points: The existing papyri that was translated by Joseph Smith for the Book of Abraham never even mentions Abraham by name. Egyptologists say the papyri are ordinary funerary documents that were commonly buried with Egyptian mummies.
Key essay excerpt: “None of the characters on the papyrus fragments mentioned Abraham’s name or any of the events recorded in the book of Abraham. Mormon and non-Mormon Egyptologists agree that the characters on the fragments do not match the translation given in the book of Abraham, though there is not unanimity, even among non-Mormon scholars, about the proper interpretation of the vignettes on these fragments. Scholars have identified the papyrus fragments as parts of standard funerary texts that were deposited with mummified bodies. These fragments date to between the third century B.C.E. and the first century C.E., long after Abraham lived.
“Alternatively, Joseph’s study of the papyri may have led to a revelation about key events and teachings in the life of Abraham, much as he had earlier received a revelation about the life of Moses while studying the Bible. This view assumes a broader definition of the words translator and translation. According to this view, Joseph’s translation was not a literal rendering of the papyri as a conventional translation would be.”
Why this is controversial: Joseph Smith’s translation gets nothing right when compared to the actual scholarly translation of the papyri. The best the church can do is claim maybe we’re missing some fragments that had the real translation on them, but this has been debunked by Egyptologists who have studied the history of the papyri. Additionally, we have the copies of the facsimiles and Joseph Smith’s translation of them in the published Book of Abraham. Egyptologists can verify beyond any doubt that Joseph Smith was completely wrong with how he interpreted them. So then the church claims that maybe “translation” doesn’t really mean “translation”. This reminds me when Bill Clinton said “It depends on what the meaning of the word ‘is’ is.” If it’s so easy to prove Joseph Smith’s Book of Abraham translation doesn’t accurately reflect the source papyri, what does that mean for the translation of the Book of Mormon, where we can’t see the source material?
If you would like to learn more about this topic, Dr. Robert Ritner, a professor of Egyptology in the Oriental Institute at the University of Chicago, wrote a fascinating essay about it: A Response to “Translation and Historicity of the Book of Abraham”
Key points: Joseph Smith gave differing accounts of the First Vision over many years.
Key essay excerpt: “The various accounts of the First Vision tell a consistent story, though naturally they differ in emphasis and detail. Historians expect that when an individual retells an experience in multiple settings to different audiences over many years, each account will emphasize various aspects of the experience and contain unique details. Indeed, differences similar to those in the First Vision accounts exist in the multiple scriptural accounts of Paul’s vision on the road to Damascus and the Apostles’ experience on the Mount of Transfiguration. Yet despite the differences, a basic consistency remains across all the accounts of the First Vision. Some have mistakenly argued that any variation in the retelling of the story is evidence of fabrication. To the contrary, the rich historical record enables us to learn more about this remarkable event than we could if it were less well documented.”
Why this is controversial: The church claims the accounts are consistent, but there are some startling discrepancies. What stands out the most is that the original 1832 version, the only one written in Joseph Smith’s own handwriting, doesn’t mention two personages, only “the Lord.” If Joseph Smith had seen both Jesus and God the Father at the same time, wouldn’t that have been worth mentioning? Not until 1835 does Joseph Smith indicate there were two personages.
Key points: Joseph Smith married between 30 and 40 women, including some who were already married to other men, and others who were as young as 14-years-old. Some of these marriages included sexual relations, but we don’t know how many. Emma didn’t know about all of these sealings.
Key essay excerpt: “When God commands a difficult task, He sometimes sends additional messengers to encourage His people to obey. Consistent with this pattern, Joseph told associates that an angel appeared to him three times between 1834 and 1842 and commanded him to proceed with plural marriage when he hesitated to move forward. During the third and final appearance, the angel came with a drawn sword, threatening Joseph with destruction unless he went forward and obeyed the commandment fully.”
Why this is controversial: Most members know the LDS church practiced polygamy early in its history, but most are unaware how many women Joseph Smith married, how he was involved with polyandry (marrying women who already had a legal husband), how some of the women were very young, and that Emma didn’t know about most of his marriages. Most members are also unaware that Joseph Smith claimed an angel with a drawn sword (sometimes reported as a flaming sword) would kill him if he didn’t take more wives than he already had. More than once he told a prospective plural wife about this fact to gain her sympathy and agreement to marry him.
Key points: The church did not allow black men to be ordained to the priesthood, or allow black men or women to participate in the temple, until 1978. Leaders of the LDS church were influenced by the racist world they lived in. The church now disavows any theories that black skin shows disfavor with God, or that mixed-race marriages are a sin.
Key essay excerpt: “Today, the Church disavows the theories advanced in the past that black skin is a sign of divine disfavor or curse, or that it reflects unrighteous actions in a premortal life; that mixed-race marriages are a sin; or that blacks or people of any other race or ethnicity are inferior in any way to anyone else. Church leaders today unequivocally condemn all racism, past and present, in any form.”
Why this is controversial: So if the church disavows the prophets’ teachings for over 100 years that explained why blacks could not receive the priesthood or participate in the endowment, what are the real reasons they were not able to participate in saving ordinances until 1978? And what about the racism that still exists in the Book of Mormon that explains why Native Americans have dark skin? If the prophets could be wrong about a key doctrine for so long, what might they be wrong about today? Why did God think it was important enough to send an angel with a flaming sword to get Joseph Smith to marry more women, but was able to communicate clearly with Brigham Young and his predecessors in order to let them know they should quit being racist?
Key points: The majority of Native Americans have largely Asian DNA. There might be scientific explanations why we can’t find DNA evidence of Book of Mormon peoples in Native Americans.
Key essay excerpt: “Basic principles of population genetics suggest the need for a more careful approach to the data. The conclusions of genetics, like those of any science, are tentative, and much work remains to be done to fully understand the origins of the native populations of the Americas. Nothing is known about the DNA of Book of Mormon peoples, and even if their genetic profile were known, there are sound scientific reasons that it might remain undetected. For these same reasons, arguments that some defenders of the Book of Mormon make based on DNA studies are also speculative. In short, DNA studies cannot be used decisively to either affirm or reject the historical authenticity of the Book of Mormon.”
Why this is controversial: When I was a youth, the church taught all Native Americans, from Canada to the United States to Central and South America were the “children of Lehi.” The introduction to the Book of Mormon used to say “the Lamanites…are the principal ancestors of the American Indians.” In the latest printing it says “they are among the ancestors of the American Indians.” It used to be the church could point to millions of people and say they were descendants of Lamanites. Now they can’t point to even a single person with certainty and say he or she is a Lamanite descendent. And while the Book of Mormon claims to have been written for them, we don’t have any idea where to find a single Lamanite.
Finally, all of these essays provide a great deal of spin. If you deep-dive into any of these topics you will find information that is even more damaging to the church’s truth claims. If you want to learn more, I would suggest the links to MormonThink below. Some Mormons might consider MormonThink to be “anti-Mormon” but they do show both the church’s views on these subjects and the critics’ as well. I believe we’ve all been blessed with an independent intellect, which can allow us to research these topics and come to our own conclusions.