Richard Van Wagoner on LDS Mythmaking

Richard Van Wagoner on LDS Mythmaking

Richard Van Wagoner’s The Making of a Mormon Myth from Dialogue Winter 1995

This is the story of how the myth of Brigham Young transforming into Joseph Smith was created. Van Wagoner details the evolving story showing how the myth of Brigham Young transforming into Joseph Smith was created. Van Wagoner uses the original diaries of the people in attendence at the meeting on August 8, 1844 providing evidence that those there neglected to note the miracle that occurred before their eyes, but later in life the Utah Mormons (including many that weren’t even in attendence) describe the transfiguration they supposedly witnessed first hand in great detail. This is a wonderful illustration of how many of the religious myths were/are started. The nice thing about Mormonism is that it is a recent enough religion that by studying it, you can see how the myths in basically all religions are formulated.

Another excellent essay on the subject can be found in the Fall 1996 ‘Journal of Mormon History’. The author is Reid L. Harper and the title is The Mantle of Joseph Smith.

I was rather amazed when I picked up my August 1996 issue of the Ensign to find in the article beginning on page 22 that the church (or at least a couple of BYU religion teachers) are attempting to resurrect this myth less than a year after it was laid to rest. The article suffers from other serious scholarly errors as well, but I guess that can be expected from an organization that continues to re-write its history with each generation to make it more palatable for the masses. I suppose in the church’s mind honesty isn’t important if it means the story becomes less faith promoting.

The following is from a mailing list regarding the Ensign article mentioned above…

The new Ensign (Aug. 96) has another piece of history falsification by the Church’s propaganda mill. I refer to the article starting on p. 22 about succession in the presidency.

On one reading, I found these errors:

1) They quote from early church leaders’ journals, without giving the published sources. Why? I suspect it’s because they are published by Signature Press. Heavens, wouldn’t want the saints actually *reading* source material if it’s published by Satan’s own press.

2) They knowingly quote the retroactively altered statement attributed to Joseph Smith: “Where I am not there is no first presidency over the 12.” Joseph Smith never said this, and the authors obviously know it. They acknowledge in a footnote that this is not the original, but justify using it since the emendation was done by people who either might have been there or could ask those who were. They fail to consider the fallibility of memory. It is not historically plausible to amend a statement 20 years after it was made, considering all the events that had transpired in the interim, and expect the result to approximate the original. This is sheer historical dishonesty. They falsely conclude from this that the other counselors in the First Presidency were automatically released upon the death of Joseph Smith, without mentioning that this modern principle was entirely unknown in 1844.

3) They suggest that Sidney Rigdon effectively abdicated his calling as a member of the First Presidency by leaving Nauvoo for Pennsylvania in spring 1844. They conveniently fail to mention that he was called on this mission by Joseph Smith, and in doing so fulfilled a revelation that Joseph Smith himself had earlier made. This, too, is sheer dishonesty by omission. [Apostle Orson Hyde said that Joseph Smith had a specific revelation in spring of 1844 commanding Rigdon to go to Pennsylvania]

4) They also criticize Sidney Rigdon for his “lack of loyalty to the Prophet”, and cite the 1843 conference [from the heavily revised by Brigham Young Documentary History of the Church] where Joseph Smith [supposedly*] wanted him released. They conveniently neglect to mention the heartwarming and complete reconciliation that Sidney Rigdon and Joseph Smith had just a month or so later, which bond was never again broken. They neglect to point out that Sidney Rigdon was subsequently admitted to the Anointed Quorum and the Council of 50, and chosen to be Joseph Smith’s vice-presidential running mate, hardly the marks of Joseph Smith having lost faith in him.

[* Samuel Taylor, in 1989, notes that the contemporary account [of the 1843 conference] in the Times and Seasons, the Church paper at Nauvoo [at the time],… says, “President Joseph Smith arose and satisfactorily explained to the congregation the supposed treacherous correspondence with ex-Governor Carlin, which wholly removed suspicion from Elder Sidney Rigdon, and from every other person. He expressed entire willingness to have Sidney Rigdon retain his station.” [In other words, Smith didn’t want Rigdon released, but Brigham Young, later, made it look in the official records as if he did to shore up his claim to the presidency.] Quite obviously, the Documentary History of the Church version is ante-dated.]

5) They present again the “miraculous” stories of the transformation of Brigham Young into Joseph Smith, conveniently forgetting to mention that dozens of diligent journal keepers present all happened not to record this until years later, when it became fashionable to say “I saw it, too.”

6) They fail to note that we don’t have very good records of the events of that historical meeting because the minutes are off-limits to historians, by order of the Quroum of the 12.

7) They conveniently neglect to discuss the thorny issue of Joseph Smith ordaining others, including Joseph Smith III, to be his successors.

This is exactly the kind of history you (referring to the orthodox Mormon being replied to) have advocated: it is “faith-promoting” (in the way that term is usually used in the church, meaning that it doesn’t disrupt cherished ideas, no matter how wrong they may be). Who gives a damn if it is slanted, full of half-truths, and dishonest?

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