Recently Menachem Wecker contacted FAIR, at the referral of the Church’s PR department, for a reaction to a blog that has re-envisioned scenes from Church history through a critical lens. A lens that focuses on the sensational and weird under the self-justifying guise of correcting mistakes that have cropped up in Church published art. Scott Gordon, myself, and others provided Wecker with our individual takes on the revisionist blog’s artwork. Greg Smith created an illustrated wiki article that combined the contributions of FAIR members and his own to treat the subject with much more clarity than my own response to Wecker**, a portion of which is included below. First let me note that Blake Ostler and I (more Blake than me) addressed this topic on the Mormon Stories blog as well.
**Update 2/26/’08: See Greg Smith’s comment below. My original wording is in error. Greg had already had most of his article independently conceived/written to respond to general art-based criticism levied much before being aware of the art blog in Wecker’s article.
The prime example that critics use to complain that the LDS Church’s art misrepresents historical facts are pictures that show Joseph Smith translating the Book of Mormon with the golden plates present, rather than placing his face in a hat to limit outside light from interfering with revelation received from a seer stone.
I suspect there are two main reasons for this. First, I do not think the artists were aware of the historical accounts that report the seer stone in a hat method, although those accounts have appeared in church publications. Second, the accounts show that the translation process did not always occur the same way. Joseph translated the Book of Mormon in two locations: first Harmony, PA and second Fayette, NY. Witnesses to the Fayette process all report the seer stone in the hat method, while most witnesses in Harmony report there being a curtain between Joseph Smith and his scribe, with the golden plates being present. One of Smith’s first scribes, Martin Harris, reported that Joseph switched processes, hence he would have likely done so before Oliver Cowdery took over as a scribe in Harmony. Since the translation pictures in church publications usually portray Joseph and Oliver together, they mix and match elements from different translation periods.
None of the historical accounts have Joseph Smith sitting on stairs while translating, so that blog is taking some artistic liberties.
Given that church historians were aware of the various accounts it is a puzzle that the art made it into church publications. However, an interview of one scholar, Robert J. Matthews, on a related topic shows how that might have happened:
“JBMS: Do you think there are things that artists could do in portraying the Book of Mormon?
RJM: Possibly. To me it would be particularly helpful if they could illustrate what scholars have done. When I was on the Correlation Committee [of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints], there were groups producing scripture films. They would send to us for approval the text of the words that were to be spoken. We would read the text and decide whether we liked it or not. They would never send us the artwork for clearance. But when you see the artwork, that makes all the difference in the world. It was always too late then. I decided at that point that it is so difficult to create a motion picture, or any illustration, and not convey more than should be conveyed. If you paint a man or woman, they have to have clothes on. And the minute you paint that clothing, you have said something either right or wrong. It would be a marvelous help if there were artists who could illustrate things that researchers and archaeologists had discovered.”