Several years ago I began making a trip every General Conference to Temple Square in Salt Lake City to discuss with whichever anti-Mormon would speak with me on why they were there preaching against the Church. I found quickly that most of the anti-Mormons were generally ignorant of real LDS beliefs and history. Moreover, while they distrusted everything from the LDS Church or its members, they practically worshipped at the altar of anti-Mormons such as Gerald and Sandra Tanner. Shortly thereafter I determined that the best way to ease these less-informed anti-Mormons away from these idolatrous altars of worship would be to provide them clear-cut examples of blatantly false statements. I would first let them evaluate an edited statement by the Tanners, then give them the whole statement in its original and correct context.
I selected a statement on page 81 of Mormonism–Shadow or Reality?, by Gerald and Sandra Tanner. In their use of the quote they removed a key portion of the original (shown below), making the inspired stories of the Prophet seem like little anecdotes that he had invented. In 1996 I showed the sample to a young couple standing outside Temple Square handing out tracts, and the husband expressed that he did not know why she would write such a thing, but he would ask Sandra Tanner, whom he said he knew.
In July 1999 I had another encounter with this man, and showed him the sample again. He noted that while he still could not explain the statement, he had in fact asked Ms. Tanner about it. She had explained it, so he did not care. He suggested I ask her myself. So I took him up on the suggestion. In order to avoid any confusion about the exchange, I carried out the conversation entirely via the Internet. My first correspondence was as follows:1
At 01:22 PM 7/25/99:
I have been in to your bookstore a few times, but in2 the last few years the one time I came in the store you were not in. Several years ago I was struck by the following passage on page 81:
Origin Of Indians
The fact that Joseph Smith had a great interest in the ancient inhabitants of the land prior to his “translation” of the Book of Mormon is no secret to those who have read the History of Joseph Smith by his Mother. Mrs. Smith said: “I presume our family presented an aspect as singular as any that ever lived upon the face of the earth–all seated in a circle, father, mother, sons and daughters, and giving the most profound attention to a boy, eighteen years of age, …During our evening conversations, JOSEPH would occasionally give us some of the most amusing recitals that could be imagined. He would describe the ANCIENT INHABITANTS of this continent, their dress, mode of traveling, and the animals upon which they rode; their cities, their buildings, with every particular; their mode of warfare; and also their religious worship. This he would do with EASE, seemingly, as if he had spent his whole life among them.” (History of Joseph Smith by His Mother, 1954 Edition, pages 82-83)3
The complete unedited passage reads as follows:
From this time forth, Joseph continued to receive instructions from the Lord, and we continued to get the children together every evening, for the purpose of listening while he gave us a relation of the same. I presume our family presented an aspect as singular as any that ever lived upon the face of the earth, all seated in a circle, father, mother, sons, and daughters, and giving the most profound attention to a boy, eighteen years of age, who had never read the Bible through in his life: he seemed much less inclined to the perusal of books than any of the rest of our children, but far more given to meditation and deep study. We were now confirmed in the opinion that God was about to bring to light something upon which we could stay our minds, or that would give us a more perfect knowledge of the plan of salvation and the redemption of the human family. This caused us greatly to rejoice, the sweetest union and happiness pervaded our house, and tranquillity reigned in our midst. [p.85] During our evening conversations, Joseph would occasionally give us some of the most amusing recitals that could be imagined. He would describe the ancient inhabitants of this continent, their dress, mode of travelling, and the animals upon which they rode; their cities, their buildings, with every particular; their mode of warfare; and also their religious worship. This he would do with as much ease, seemingly, as if he had spent his whole life with them.(I copied this from the concordances webpage you listed at your webpage.)
I had presented this to John Doe at Temple Square once, letting him read your version first, explaining to me what he felt Lucy was trying to explain, and then I had him read the original4 version. He could not then nor as of this past Friday can he present a cogent defense of why you edit[ed] a passage where Lucy was saying that Joseph was receiving knowledge from Moroni, into a passage implying that it was well known [that] Joseph was [just] a story teller about the American inhabitants. Lucy’s statements firmly substantiate the divine origin of the book of Mormon and where Joseph was getting his information.
John Doe said he remembered [that] you said you were trying to make a point, but he couldn’t remember what the point was. So, regarding this passage, what is the purpose for you[r] changing a passage support[ing] the divinity of the Book of Mormon and turning it into some evidence against it, through the means of editing? I am interested in being fair, and I can’t see any point.
South Jordan, UT
Ms. Tanner was prompt to respond:
Am I to assume that “Nephi/Moroni” stood around reciting amusing stories of the Indians to Joseph so he could entertain the family? What Lucy describes as their evening story time does not sound like serious messages from the Lord. Remember, according to his story he had not seen or read the plates at this time.
Of course her statement about Nephi/Moroni is a gross mischaracterization of Lucy’s statement. We know at a minimum Ms. Tanner read the passages in Lucy’s book pertaining to Joseph’s nightly discussions with the family, and so it seems odd she would backhandedly cite the Lucy account, yet fail to note how Lucy characterized the discussions as serious, and only occasionally amusing. I responded as follows:
Thank you for your taking the time to respond. Actually, according to the previous page from Lucy’s History which you quote, Joseph was shown the plates prior to even the first conversation with his family, though you are correct in that he had not read them. The historical record is clear in saying that Joseph was tutored by the Heavenly messengers long before the translation began. Furthermore, she says he would “occasionally” relate the amusing events, which would not indicate that Nephi/Moroni were only doing stand-up comedy during their meetings. In fact, Lucy states that the typical conversations at dinner were serious and regarded the serious mission which was forth coming. So, if you are going to believe these conversations took place regularly at the Smith Family dinner table, as you promote in your book, then you must also accept what the stated content of the conversations was, which Lucy unflinchingly states supported Joseph Smith and his calling as a prophet.
Still, my question was why would you edit the passage to the point where it looks like Joseph was simply telling stories of his own fancy, when the passage clearly states that Joseph was relating information given him by Heavenly Messengers? I regularly show your editing to my friends and to the people handing out tracts at Temple Square, much as I reported in the first e-mail, and everyone comes away with the impression from your editing that Lucy was stating that Joseph made up stories about the inhabitants of America prior to his having any knowledge of the Book of Mormon. They are either comforted or dumbfounded when shown the complete passage from Lucy’s history, and much as John Doe, left unable to create a credible defense (paraphrasing John’s own response) of the edits. I am honestly wondering if I have missed something in your writing which explains the editing which changes the fundamental meaning of the passage, at least in the opinion of everyone I have ever shown the passage to. And that is my question, what was the rationale for the editing?
On July 28, 1999 Ms. Tanner wrote:
I still maintain that what Lucy describes is beyond the bounds of Smith’s supposedly yearly contact with the angel.
This is an interesting comment. First of all, Lucy’s description of what was discussed in those evening family meetings follows these lines:
- Joseph received instructions from the Lord;
- Joseph communicated this information to his family;
- Occasionally the information was about the lifestyle and religious practices of the people, but was usually of a very serious nature.
I am at a loss to find any information as to how what transpired in those evening meetings conflicts with any other existing statements about what happened in Joseph’s meetings with the angels. Ms. Tanner starts on a false premise, ignoring what statements are available. In addition to the annual visits, there were other angelic messengers during this time.
Practically all accounts say the annual visits were specifically about the contents of the Book of Mormon and the people of the New World. In 1842, Joseph Smith related in the Wentworth Letter that he had received many angels after Moroni’s initial visit, and was told about the “aboriginal inhabitants of this country,” as well as a “brief sketch of their origin, progress, civilization, laws…” etc.5 His sister, Katherine Salisbury, reported basically the same story.6 Joseph’s 1838 version records the same events. There is an error in the 1842 History of the Church citing Nephi instead of Moroni being the angel, but as noted earlier, Joseph declared that many angels visited him between 1823 and 1827. Still, it seems to have no bearing on whether Joseph Smith shared information with the family. Joseph’s 1832 account is silent about specific tutoring during the period from Moroni’s first visit until he received the plates in September 1827. He only says that he was “diligent” to obtain the plates. Oliver Cowdery’s 1834 History remarks that Joseph was shown many of the details Lucy mentions.7
Returning to the email exchange, I wrote back on July 28, 1999, as follows:
I can see your point, but not to be too annoying, I still am looking for an explanation of your editing of Lucy’s text. Now, am I being dense, and what your meaning is that you edited it to illustrate that limited contact? Like I said, I don’t mean to annoy over this, but I am trying to understand. Thanks for your patience.
Ms. Tanner then wrote the following sometime before August 2, 1999, though the exact date is uncertain due to my e-mail travails:
Since every thing we had read about what the angel was supposed to tell Smith in that 1823 visit didn’t fit with what Lucy was discribing [sic] it seemed errelavent [sic]. By the way, B.H. Roberts used the same quote in about the same way in his Studies of the Book of Mormon, p. 243-4. You should read it.
PS–I believe we use longer quotes than just about any LDS writer.
On August 2, 1999 I wrote the following to end the correspondence:
Thank you for the information.
This is where the Tanner’s credibility as serious historians is totally destroyed by themselves. They don’t like what Lucy wrote because it clashed with their theory of this episode of Church history, so they edited the text so it said something different. I do not follow the Tanners closely enough to know if they have produced any scholarly work addressing the conflicts between Lucy’s narrative and other known and accepted writings on the subject. I am unaware of any source that seriously contradicts Lucy, allowing for the different audiences for whom the various primary authorities write. I also do not pretend to have performed an exhaustive study of this subject, as I am not a professional historian nor do I have the time. But the Tanners never let on that they deliberately edited Lucy to change the intention of Lucy’s text.
Instead, it took a persistent e-mail exchange to get to the bottom of their changes: the truth was irrelevant. It did not serve their agenda, which is further elaborated on in the chapter where this redaction takes place.
I would also point out that while my question was fairly narrow in what was asked, each time Ms. Tanner responded she deflected her response into unrelated tangential issues. Even in her final correspondence, after finally explaining why she edited Lucy Mack Smith’s writings as she did, she tries to go into a discussion of B.H. Roberts’ use of the same material. Of course, Brother Roberts used the material in the manner he did to show how critics of the LDS Church could twist history in an attempt to baselessly attack the Church. He also does not edit Lucy to take out the visitation of the angel. Instead he asked how could Joseph get so much information so quickly. Remember, he was playing “devil’s advocate,” and there are relevant answers. Finally, she points out in the Post Script how she uses longer quotes than “just about any LDS writer.” I find this statement, as well as her diversion to B.H. Roberts, irrelevant to my question. No matter how long a quotation is, if it is edited in a manner to contradict the original intent of the author, it is still deceptive.
This is a rare gem of an exchange. It provides insight into the reasoning and moral justifications made by highly recognizable critics of the LDS Church in their own words. It shows normal standards of historical review, such as acknowledging a source is being used to establish the fact of an event, while ignoring and not accepting the opinions expressed by the source. The difference between many of the “faithful histories” by Latter-day Saint authors and the Tanners is precisely this lack of willingness to actually address the corpus of evidence and to present plausible conclusions based on the evidence. The LDS authors are sometimes guilty of over simplification, but the most serious scholarly works on LDS history are by highly credentialed historians who go to great lengths to present all the evidence, and then analyze it accordingly. As long as the Tanners continue to make such gross changes without acknowledgement of the impact of their changes on the intent of the original documents, they cannot be taken seriously as a reliable source of information on LDS origins.
1 The name of my contact has been changed to John Doe, as well as some format changes for the purpose of this paper. There was also one spelling error I corrected in this document due to cutting and pasting from a Web page into my original correspondence.
2 My original correspondence originally erroneously contained the word “have” instead of “in.” Other corrections to spelling and syntax have been placed in brackets.
3 The capitalization was in the Tanners’ Mormonism-Shadow or Reality?, without attribution that it was not in the original by Lucy Smith.
4 This was another misspelling on my part, as the original text redundantly said “your version.”
5 Joseph Smith, “Church History,” Times And Seasons 3 (March 1842): 707.
6 Katherine Salisbury to “Dear Sister” in The Saints Herald 33 (May 1, 1886): 260, as quoted in Milton V. Backman, Jr., Eyewitness Accounts of the Restoration (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1986), 53.
7 See The Papers of Joseph Smith, edited by Dean C. Jesse (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1989), 51-91 for the letters sent to W.W. Phelps for inclusion in the Messenger and Advocate.
8 By the way, John Doe, an evangelical anti-Mormon often found at the gates to Temple Square, when confronted with this exchange and Ms. Tanner’s conclusions, responded by asking me to stop sending him e-mail, and that I was being unfair to the Tanners. You can conclude for yourself what the real intentions are of some of those “truth seekers.”