A Remarkable Story – But is it Exaggerated?

Bruce Nielson Culture, historicity, history, LDS, Mormon 27 Comments

While reading History of the Church I came across an incredible story as told by Elder Theodore Turley which I wish to share.

On April 5th, 1839, not long after the Mormons had been forcibly removed from Missouri on the authority of Govern Bogg’s extermination order, Theodore Turley, a faithful Mormon, returned Far West with Elder Kimball on a mission to visit the governor and to visit the prisoners in Liberty jail.

As Elder Turley tells the tale, he was at Far West when eight men presented him with the revelation of Joseph Smith given on July 8, 1838 (D&C 118) that stated that the Twelve would “take their leave of the Saints Far West on the building site of the Lord’s House on the 26th of April” (p. 306, vol 3).

This group’s purpose was to assure Elder Turley that there was no possibility that this “prophecy” would come true because if the Twelve returned to fulfill it they’d be killed. (p. 307) Of course Turley defended the prophecy and told the men it would be fulfilled nonetheless. [1]

Amongst this mini-mob was a former member of the Church named John Whitmer. Indeed, he was one of the eight witnesses. The mob then told Elder Turley he should deny the faith even as a former member, John Corrill, was now doing by writing a book against the Church.

According to History of the Church Elder Turley, recognizing John Whitmer’s presence with the group, then tells the following tale: [2]

Turley said, “Gentlemen, I presume there are men here who have heard Corrill say, that ‘Mormonism’ was true, that Joseph Smith was a prophet, and inspired of God. I now call upon you, John Whitmer: you say Corrill is a moral and good man; do you believe him when he says the Book of Mormon is true, or when he says it is not true? There are many things published that they say are true, and again turn around and they are false?”

Whitmer asked, “Do you hint at me?”

Turley replied, “If the cap fits you, wear it; all I know is that you have published to the world that an angel did present those plates to Joseph Smith.”

Whitmer replied: “I now say, I handled those plates; there were fine engravings on both sides. I handled them;” and he described how they were hung, and “they were shown to me by a supernatural power;” he acknowledged all.

Turley asked him, “Why is not the translation now true?”

He [Whitmer] said, “I could not read it [in the original] and I do not know either it [i.e. the translation] is true or not.”

Whitmer testified all this in the presence of eight men.

This is a great story. It’s a so-good-it-gives-you-chills kind of story. Here is one of the eight witnesses in the presence of a mob, that he is now part of, testifying of the truthfulness of having seen and handled the plates as one of the eight witnesses. And the best explanation he can come up with to explain the inconsistency of his own actions is the rather lame excuse that he doesn’t know if the Book of Mormon was translated correctly or not.

But as I read this story in History of the Church, my natural skepticism kicked in. I know from my own experience that I can’t trust one side of a story. Heck, I can’t trust two sides of a story!

Here in lines the problem, there is virtually no chance that this event unfolded exactly the way Elder Turley remembered it. Think about how succinct this whole conversation is compare to the way it would have evolved in real life.

If it really happened exactly the way Elder Turley tells the tale, why didn’t the mobbers all ask for baptism, or at least tar and feather John Whitmer?

The Other Side of the Story

In my mind, I pretended like I had just found a document written by a member of the mob that told his view of the same event:

I, M. Mobocrat, having been born of badly parents, do hereby testify that today I saw a man named Theodore Turley confront John Whitmer today about the Book of Mormon. Whitmer really put Turley in his place by pointing out that just because Joe Smith shows off a bunch of plates that this doesn’t prove that his ‘translation’ of it was from God. Whitmer sure did make Turley look stupid.

Now of course we don’t actually have an alternate account of this event. But if we did, it wouldn’t surprise me at all if it said something just like this. Of course DAMUs and anti-Mormons would be thrilled and would accuse old Elder Turley of lying through his teeth. They’d probably even claim this was tantamount to John Whitmer denying his original testimony. But in real life, both of these accounts could be 100% truthful at the same time. How?

It has to do with the way the human brain works.

A Possible Scenario

Pretend with me, just for a moment, that we travel back in time and hid a video recorder in the same room. Safely back in the 21st century, we play the video recorder and this is what we hear:

Mob Person 1: “Yeah, Turley, you should deny your faith and get out of the Mormon Church just like John Corrill did. Hey, you can write a book against the Church like he is doing.

Turley: [Noticing John Whitmer in their ranks] Well, gentlemen, sometimes people say something is true and then later recant their testimony. Didn’t John Corrill once say the Book of Mormon was true and then later deny it? When was he being more truthful?

Mob Person 2: He was being more truthful when he came to his senses and stopped believing in something as ridiculous as the Book of Mormon and stopped worshiping Joe Smith.

Mob Group: [Snickers and chuckles]

Mob Person 3: Pardon me Turley, but obviously Corrill thought it was true at one time because he was hoodwinked by that imposter, Joe Smith. Then he realized that God wasn’t with Smith when we kicked you all out of Missouri to defend ourselves.

John Whitmer: I think he’s actually talking about me, boys.

Mob Group: [Turning to look at Whitmer.]

John Whitmer: Is that what you are hinting at, Turley?

Turley: Yes, John, tell me which is more true, when Corrill said the Book of Mormon was true and went on record or when he said it wasn’t true.

John Whitmer: You want to know about my own testimony as one of the eight witnesses, don’t you?

Turley: If the cap fits… You once testified that Joseph Smith received the Book of Mormon from an angel. Your testimony is still printed in that book!

Mob Person 1: I’ve heard enough of this. We’ve delivered our message, let’s go.

John Whitmer: Very well, I’ll tell all. Yes, I did sign that affidavit as one of the eight witnesses, though I never said I saw an angel deliver it to Smith. And I don’t regret my testimony. But I also don’t regret leaving the Church. Joseph Smith is a fallen prophet, or maybe was never one to begin with!

Turley: [Getting upset] How can you say that? No one was able to see those plates except a select few who God allowed to see them. You were one of, what, twelve people, that God allowed to see the plates? What a privilege from God that you are squandering.

John Whitmer: Calm down, Turley, there is nothing mysterious about what I did. Joseph Smith told my brothers and me that we’d get to see the plates. All I ever did was claim to have seen them. That’s it. That doesn’t mean that I have to believe Joseph was or still is a prophet sent from God.

Turley: [Losing his cool and a little worried about his own testimony] I don’t get you, Whitmer! You don’t mind signing a document saying that God allowed you to see the plates but then you don’t mind turning your back on God like this!

Whitmer: You say I was shown these plates by God? Well, I admit it seems unlikely that Smith could have forged them, though to be frank I’m not sure if they were gold or copper. So, yeah, maybe something supernatural was involved. But did you ever consider the possibility that it wasn’t from God? What if the devil led Smith to some plates in the ground, what then?

But even if it had originally come from God, how could we possibly know if Smith continued in that charge and didn’t take advantage of the situation? We all know how poor he was and even he admits the temptation to profit from it. Maybe even back then Joe Smith was a fallen prophet — called by God but it’s him that turned his back on God!

Turley: [Losing his cool now] You saw the plates! God never let me see them. But I believe in the Book of Mormon and you don’t. Explain that!

Whitmer: [Shaking his head] You just don’t get it, do you, Turley? Seeing the plates doesn’t mean the Book of Mormon is “true” as you say. Yeah, I saw the plates. I handled them and I saw engravings on them. They were strange workmanship. So maybe that does mean the plates themselves came from a supernatural source – one way or another.

But what does that mean about the Book of Mormon? Nothing. It just means that there was once some plates. The Book of Mormon itself may have no relation to the plates at all! Joseph may have made that part up entirely out of his mind. I have to say, Turley, I’m not ready to go charging after Joseph Smith every way he takes us with unquestioning loyalty when I have no idea if he’s really doing God’s will or not. I think he once was most likely, but he took off in his own direction. Now were dealing with paramilitary groups, threats of violence against apostates, threats of violence against their neighbors, and it never ends! So let me ask you, Turley, how can you still believe in Joseph Smith? He’s rotting in jail right now and there he’ll stay! Some prophet of the Lord!

Mob Group: “Good one Whitmer.” “You sure showed him.” “Put that Mormon in his place!”

Turley: [Smiling to himself] Well, I can see that we’ve said enough, so I’ll take my leave gentleman. Whitmer, I enjoyed this conversation immensely.

Conclusions

Now obviously this is all just coming out of my imagination. But it’s easy to see that the real conversation might have been far more nuanced then how Elder Turley tells us. And it’s easy to see how a believer like Turley and an unbeliever both present in the same conversation would focus in on entirely different aspects of that conversation.

This is how history works, I’m afraid. All too often we quote someone like Elder Turley, or his unbelieving equivalent, and don’t realize just how different the original conversation they are reporting might have been compared to the way they sincerely remember it.

Yet what alternative do we have? History is nothing more then, as one of my history professors put it, professionally reading a lot of old gossip.

The Challenge

So here is the question: Is it okay to share a story like Elder Turley’s in Sunday School without a critical examination of how it’s natural for someone like Elder Turley to exaggerate? Bear in mind that we have no way of knowing if he did or didn’t, we’re just guessing he did because that’s normal, natural, and unconscious.

I feel that history is the stories themselves, myths and all. I have my doubts that historians’ have the ability to reconstruct “what really happened.” Indeed, I believe that approach is often a much bigger lie than just telling the stories as is.

Because of these feelings/beliefs I have, I, for one, would not hesitate to tell this story in Sunday School even though I have my suspicions of exaggeration.

On the other hand, I wouldn’t be against mentioning my suspicions of exaggeration, but it would depend on the context and setting. I doubt Sunday School would be the right place to bring them up. The Bloggernacle would be a much better setting to mention something like that.

So how do you feel about telling a story lsuch as this exactly as it’s presently recorded in a Sunday School setting? Oh, and if you disagree with me, please explain how you can do so while maintaining consistency – that is to say fair treatment of others — in all aspects of your own life since telling one side of a story is a human foible that I guarantee we’re all guilty of in large amounts. [3]

Notes:

[1] As I’m sure you all know, the Twelve sneaked in a night and fulfilled the charge.

[2] History of the Church, vol 3, p. 307-308. I’m sure most of you know that History of the Church is actually a second hand source culled together out of other people’s journals and testimonies and then rewritten as if Joseph Smith was telling the tale. The antis have made much over the fact that it seems like a primary source but is actually a secondary source. But of course they are just unfairly holding record keepers of that day to the modern standards of historians today. And besides, let’s admit that a secondary source put together by scribes that lived through all these events using the primary sources available to them has value in and of itself.

[3] A fair question would be how I feel about anti-Mormons that pass along what I feel are exaggerated stories against the LDS church? Would I still feel this is fair? Answer: Yes. Regardless of what faith you are trying to build up through your myth telling, I feel passing along historical stories “as is” is always a fair tactic.

That being said, I get a good laugh out of how often the story being told is then passed along to someone of another faith, say an anti-Mormon telling a story to a Mormon (or vice versa), with the naive expectation that this somehow proves something. I feel we could all do with a more realistic view of what history really is, especially when dealing with others of a different faith then our own.

Comments

comments

Comments 27

  1. So here is the question: Is it okay to share a story like Elder Turley’s in Sunday School without a critical examination of how it’s natural for someone like Elder Turley to exaggerate?

    If you get into an examination of its authenticity, don’t you inadvertently distract from the main points of the lesson? You start getting on a tangent that takes away from the spirit of the original lesson. I wouldn’t use this story, but I’m a skeptic at heart. There are other good stories to tell that are more authentic.

  2. There are two types of history: the subjective internal history where everyone has their own version, which alters as memory sees fit, and the objective external version, the generally-accepted canon which is still a matter of faith. Sharing an event from the internal history of your own life, even if it didn’t happen that way, but you now believe that it did, is legitimate, in my view.

  3. Neal, that is an important distinction to make. There is a HUGE difference between making up a story for emotional effect (like the myriad inspirational but fictional stories that swirl around the internet, being chain-passed all over the world and taking on a life of their own) and subconsciously selective memory (simply mis-remembering something that actually happened).

    Excellent post and questions, Bruce. I agree with just about everything you wrote – at least the points you made. Just to nit-pick:

    The following statement is a bit of a stretch –

    “If it really happened exactly the way Elder Turley tells the tale, why didn’t the mobbers all ask for baptism, or at least tar and feather John Whitmer?”

    I don’t see either of those reactions as real possibilities. If John Whitmer was willing to deny the truthfulness of the Church organization, while holding on to his testimony of the existence of plates (particularly with writing he couldn’t read), I don’t see how his associates would have felt any desire to be baptized OR punish John Whitmer. Likely, they simply would discount his testimony and give weight to his rejection of Joseph as a prophet.

    Also – [Losing his cool and a little worried about his own testimony]

    I think it is also stretching hypotheticals to add the last half of that statement. I don’t read anything in any account that justifies such an insertion, and I think it weakens the overall point just a little.

    Those are small things compared to the overall points you made.

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    Good points, everyone. I agree with your distinction, Neal.

    “Likely, they simply would discount his testimony and give weight to his rejection of Joseph as a prophet.” and ” think it is also stretching hypotheticals to add the last half of that statement”

    You’re right, of course, Ray. My real point was that it was a bit too good to be true and I having fun when I wrote it. Guess this proves you actually read the whole post. 🙂 One of these days I’m going to slip in a statement about owing anyone that reads this line $10 if they email me to see how many people actually read really long posts like this.

  5. Now that it’s in writing, Bruce, you have no excuse for changing it in the future. It now has been written; so let it be done. (Technically, however, the parser in me must point out that there was no time frame attached to this promise, and since Bruce is younger and generally healthier than I, there is no chance for me to hold him to fulfilling this promise in my lifetime.) 🙂

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    “If you get into an examination of its authenticity, don’t you inadvertently distract from the main points of the lesson?”

    Dan, I agree with this point. Herein lies the problem. History is primarily about the present, not the past, especially when we are passing along inspirational stories to understand ourselves better. Sunday school, in my opinion, is not a good place to start talking about how iffy historical sources really are. Sunday school is a place to be inspired by a “true” story (“true” at least in the sense that it was really told this way and they claimed it was true).

    Thanks for commenting.

  8. I think the story illustrates a bigger and overarching point: Physical evidence doesn’t really prove anything or make converts.

    The Antis today even clamor “Show us the plates! Show us the plates! Or any archeaological evidence, and then we’ll believe.”

    Seeing the plates didn’t work in the past, and it won’t work in the future.

    And there are dozens, well over 100, archeaological and historical discoveries that lend credence to the Book of Mormon, yet they are all discounted and disbelieved.

    The “silly faux-Jewish/Hebrew” names in the Book of Mormon have turned out to be real Jewish names that no one knew about, and were only discovered relatively recently in the Old World. The discoveries of pallisades and moats around ancient New World cities.

    ————

    I tell a lot of stories about my encounters on my blog. Isn’t it obvious, and doesn’t it go without saying that I’m only telling my side of it? Wouldn’t the people I encounter have a different viewpoint or take on the very same event?

    I remember one encounter that I wrote about, where the other guy said first that he wanted to visit our church. Yet, later on as he told of the enounter to someone else, he said that I invited him to church.

    If I were to give every little detail, it would go more like this:

    He: Where’s your church? I’ll ride my bike there.

    Me: Here’s the address (on the flyer inside the book). But, it’s a bit far to ride a bike from here. Would you like me to give you a ride?

    He asked for the address and expressed his desire to visit before I offered him a ride. So did I invite him, or did he invite himself?

    And even my quotes above are a paraphrase, as I remember them, and not verbatim. The question is, now does one summarize? How do you create a “small plates” version of the actual events. How do you take the halting, informal and incomplete sentences that we use in normal conversation, plus the body-english, inflections, and tone of voice, and convert it all to printed readable English ? Aye, there’s the rub.

  9. What is interesting is that Whitmer again is reported to claim he saw and handled by plates supernaturally. This accords very closely with the original wording of the Witnesses’ statement that they beheld “with spiritual eyes”. Turley didn’t appear to question what kind of existence the plates “really” had.

    This speaks to quite a difference in the modern world-view that, from both a believing and critical POV, prefers to present or evaluate the experience from a more physically-grounded-time-and-space.

  10. The reaction of the mobber vs. the reaction of Turley follows the sentiments of modern ex-Mormons vs. Mormon apologists so closely it’s eerie. Each side comes away thinking the other has egg on his face. Happens every time almost.

  11. Not to threadjack, as I believe the following question is closely related to the subject of this post, but what do you do with stories from the correlated lesson manuals that cite no historical source? I’m talking about Johnny, who wonders about sneaking cookies from his neighbor’s kitchen without asking, or Suzy who feels a burning in her bosom after doing a good turn or after standing up for the prophet/book of mormon/restored gospel to her friends/non-member family/teacher/boss. They illustrate a point, sure, and hit close to home because they are usually rather mundane, domestic situations we all find ourselves in. But if they never really happened, how is faith increased by a fictional character’s growth of testimony or witness of the spirit?

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    Bookslinger,

    Excellent example. It’s so easy to come away with such different understandings.

    Carlos U,

    No worries, this post may not be for you.

    But it had to be hypothetical for the point to be made. This post isn’t about a certain historical event, it’s about history itself and why it’s difficult to draw conclusions from it and how that affects telling stories like this for inspirational reasons.

  13. Seth R. always has something sensible to say.

    In answer to your question, Bruce, when I teach RS, I do like to bring up these alternate viewpoints, and I do so all the time by talking about how “believers” or “we” view these things, and then how others have viewed them. The reason I like this approach is that it helps people start to understand better where people are coming from and to empathize (a little bit) rather than to just judge. I find that reinforces faith.

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    SteveS,

    You pose a good question. The problem is that you don’t normally quote a source in a story of the nature you are talking about because the source is “private conversation with Johnny” which doesn’t really help much.

    What do other’s think of sharing such stories? Again, I have no issues with them. If I know them to be false, of course I’m against sharing them. But if they are honestly believed to be true by the speaker to the best of their knowledge, I have no issues. How could you share anything if you had to have 10 eye witnesses and a notary public before you were allowed to say it?

    A related question is “what about those movies the Church makes where they use actors to portray converts.” I was interested in finding out that the people in the movie that actually testify are always slotted to be believing Mormons. The actors (who aren’t Mormon) are always written to not bear testimony.

  15. Bruce,

    As far as Sunday School, I think it would be helpful the first Sunday of the year to have a brief discussion about the trickiness involved in historical sources, from everyone’s point of view. That way it wouldn’t need to be addressed every Sunday, but a good teacher should lay a good foundation, I think.

  16. Telling faith stories has as much to say about our humanity as it does about what it teaches. I have some of this same attitude toward the Bible. Yet since it is the most sacred collection of faith stories for Christians, I think we should try to use them as we frame our common, informal “principles transmission” stories. Where these stories fail is when they become elevated to informal myth, and scripture remains unstudied and unmined for context.

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    “As far as Sunday School, I think it would be helpful the first Sunday of the year to have a brief discussion about the trickiness involved in historical sources, from everyone’s point of view.”

    Not a bad idea, John. On the other hand, I think this should be done in the classroom at all phases of teaching history too and it’s not done there either, or at least was never done for me. I think this is a serious short coming with the way we teach history all the way up to the college level (for general ed anyhow).

    Hawkgrrl,

    I like your approach of letting them form their own alternative narratives rather than making up a fictional one like I did here.

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    “Where these stories fail is when they become elevated to informal myth, and scripture remains unstudied and unmined for context.”

    JFQ,

    What do you mean by “informational myth?” Are you talking about, say, deciding the earth is only 6,000 years old or the like?

  19. Bruce: I think the function of myth is powerful, and no, I don’t use that word as a put-down because I’m not a die-hard biblical literalist. What I meant is that I see some Christian believers (not just LDS) who, truly, elevate such informal stories and spiritual experience to mythic level in the way it shapes their faith, even unwittingly. The mythic level of the Bible, beyond how it informs faith practice, is broad and deep, and has transcended time because of that power. Part of that power is the stories of sadness, defeat, humiliation and debasement — which is ultimately one of the great powers of the Cross to inspire and shape discipleship. Our common spiritual stories don’t usually encompass this dark side — and is one reason, I think, for why we see crazy things arise like the “Prosperity Gospel.”

    I think we strengthen our faith and the transmutive power of one’s faith community to stay relevant to new generations by keeping ourselves always firmly rooted in Bible myth to provide context, both powerfully positive and powerfully defeatist, for our spiritual experiences and stories. Does that make sense?

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    JFQ,

    the real issues was that I read you wrong. You actually said: “informal myth” and I read (and typed back) “informational myth”.

    Reading your response confused me so I went back and re-read without my dyslexia this time and what you said made sense the 2nd time around. Thanks for the further explanation. Guess I won’t be winning my own $10 any time soon. 😛

  21. JFQ (#21): very insightful comment. I think there are cautionary tales in great abundance that include features of sadness, defeat, humiliation, etc., but almost exclusively in the context of straying from the path. I think you’re right that we don’t hear very much about faithful failure, etc.

  22. I don’t like “glurges” or made-up stories that are told to illustrate a point.

    The truth of actual events can often be so outlandish, that no fiction is needed.

    In fact, the prophets wrote in the scriptures, and Joseph Smith reiterated, that there is much more truth, and many more mysteries that God wants to reveal to us, but

    a) we aren’t living up to the truths that have been revealed so far, and
    b) we just aren’t ready to receive more, as evidenced by our frequent whining and excuse-making about how our personal situations exempt us from prophetic pronouncements.

    I’ve done plenty of both a) and b).

    I think there’s _relatively_ little that the Lord gives to the modern church as a whole. What is given to the church as a whole might be a least-common-denominator thing, tailored “to the weakest of the saints.”

    I think the “higher mysteries” are given by the Spirit on a one-on-one and one-by-one basis.

  23. “Seth R. always has something sensible to say.”

    Obviously, you haven’t read enough of my stuff. I say insensible, and often incomprehensible things all the time.

  24. Pingback: Two histories « Radio Beloved

  25. Mormons aren’t the only ones guilty of “glurges” or faith-promoting stories.

    Just check out http://www.snopes.com for glurges.

    Here’s one of my favorite heart-tugging and faith-promoting stories, which I think is actually true, by female evangelical minister Beth Moore:

    http://www.proclaimhisglory.org/html/lesson_with_a_hairbrush.html

    Some may call it a glurge, but it is also so “mormon-y”. And I take her at her word in relating that story. From my experience, such things are very plausible.

    Seth R: “I say insensible, and often incomprehensible things all the time.”

    After all, that’s your job, what you get paid to do.

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