“A Simple Explanation Works Best for the Restoration,” with a Marginally-Related Anecdote about Church Art

Here is the column of mine that appeared in the Deseret News on Thursday.

I’ve just scrolled quickly through the comments, and found, to my amusement, that several of them simply reassert the Spalding theory (despite what I said about it) and complained that I offered no references (when, in fact, I did).  Truly, the Spalding theory is very much like a zombie: Shoot it between the eyes and it just keeps on coming.  Why?  Because it has no brain.

I’ll probably blog about relevant readings within the next day or two.

Herewith, though, a few observations in connection with the painting, above, that accompanied my article:

1.  It was fun to have Dr. Reid Neilson, the Managing Director of the Church History Department of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, along on our just-completed tour in Israel.  At one point, he made a comment about how paintings often influence our perception of events in Church history.

This is absolutely true, and, since my wife and I are habitual visitors to art museums wherever we travel, we’ve often observed it.

For instance, paintings of the flight of the Holy Family into Egypt often make the road between Palestine and the Nile look rather like Flanders or the Alps, and dress Joseph and Mary as Renaissance nobility or even Ottoman Turkish grandees (which, the Bible suggests, they were . . . um, not).

Here’s a photo taken on the real Israel/Egypt border:

Here, though, are some artistic representations of the journey of Mary and Joseph and the Baby Jesus from Bethlehem to wherever they went in the Nile Valley or Nile Delta:

Note the snow covered mountain in the distance.

Gabriel’s Annunciation to Mary is frequently depicted against a distinctly Gothic background:

Pietro Perugino has Jesus bestowing the keys of authority upon Peter in an idealized Renaissance piazza in Florence:

Two of my favorite examples of artistic license are the cover illustrations for my first paperback copies of C. S. Lewis’s novels Out of the Silent Planet and Perelandra:

I have no idea what the bubble-like globes are in the painting above; no such things are mentioned in the novel.  The spherical spacecraft is true to the text, but the little figure in a space suit to its left is completely foreign to the story, which features no space suits.  And, while there is a brief portion of the novel set in the lunar-surface-like Martian highlands, most of the tale takes place in the populated and relatively lush Martian canals, and that is where the spacecraft sits during its entire sojourn on the planet.

Similarly, with Perelandra, while temptation is a central feature of the plot, it most definitely doesn’t involve an apple.  And the surface of the planet in question, Perelandra or Venus, is almost entirely covered by water.  There is no lunar desert in the book.

My point — examples could be multiplied indefinitely — is that one should probably not rely upon artists or illustrators for an understanding of history or of texts.  And it’s probably a waste of time to fault illustrators for altering things a bit.  They tend to portray what they know and expect, and may or may not be familiar with the details of what it is they’re illustrating.

The enormous cyclopean wall depicted by Arnold Friberg in his painting of Samuel the Lamanite, for instance, is utterly unlike anything described in the Book of Mormon and completely without precedent in the relevant pre-Columbian archaeology (thus needlessly creating a pseudo-problem for defenders of the book’s historical authenticity), though it would certainly account for the fact that, after he leaps from the wall, we hear nothing more from or about Samuel, one of the greatest of Book of Mormon prophets:  Plainly, the fall killed him instantly.

This sort of illustration of Joseph Smith and the plates, from the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, has sometimes been harshly accused, by critics of flat-out dishonesty, because there is little or no evidence to indicate that Joseph sat there translating with furrowed brow and with the plates directly in front of him.  Rather, he used the Urim and Thummim or a seer stone, and the plates weren’t generally even in the room.

Some years ago, I was attacked for dishonesty by certain critics when the illustrations accompanying an article that I had written for the Ensign on the Book of Abraham turned out to have some problems (the nature of which I can’t now recall).  But I hadn’t even seen the illustrations until the magazine arrived in my mailbox.  (I didn’t choose the illustration that accompanied my Deseret News article, either — though I don’t really mind it much.)

Emmanuel Gottlieb Leutze’s famous painting of Washington Crossing the Delaware, inspiring though it is, contains numerous historical inaccuracies.  For instance, the boat is of the wrong model, and is plainly too small for the number of people in it.  The stars-and-stripes flag didn’t yet exist on Christmas Eve, 1776.  The crossing actually occurred in the dead of a very dark night.  The river is too wide, and the chunks of ice in it were modeled on Leutze’s familiar Rhine rather than on the Delaware, in which they rarely if ever occur.  The continental soldiers didn’t ferry horses across in boats.  Washington probably couldn’t have maintained his stance without falling into the water.  And so forth.

It’s simply unrealistic to demand that artists get all the historical details right.  I could wish that they did, but they very seldom have, and this is scarcely unique to Mormonism.

But now, finally, an anecdote relating to the painting of the Eight Witnesses to the Book of Mormon with which I began this post:

Years ago, I was exchanging emails with a certain ex-Mormon, a colleague and ally and (certainly in this respect) a fellow-traveler of the much more accomplished Dan Vogel.  Like Vogel, he maintains that the experience of the Eight Witnesses was visionary and subjective, not real.  By contrast, I argue that the evidence overwhelming demonstrates their encounter with the plates to have been mundane, matter-of-fact, and lacking any significant element of the supernatural.

They went out into a grove of trees, I said, at about one o’clock on an ordinary afternoon, and there were the plates, sitting on a tree stump.

“There was no tree stump,” he countered.

“Yes there was,” I said. somewhat surprised at his insistence on a very peripheral issue.

“Show me the evidence,” he demanded.

I told him that I certainly would, but suggested a bit cheekily that I was entirely willing to allow him the absence of a tree stump if he would grant me the existence of the plates.

He declined my offer.

I began to look for an account of the Eight Witness story including a tree stump.  Such an account would, I thought, be very easy to find.  I thought I remembered reading at least one.  But time passed and I found none.

So I called Richard Lloyd Anderson, a good friend and, by many light years, the foremost authority (ever) on the Witnesses to the Book of Mormon.

Not a problem, he said.  He’d get right back to me with a good reference to a tree stump featuring in the experience of the Eight Witnesses.

After a few days, he called me and acknowledged that he couldn’t actually find such a reference.  And, as we pondered the situation, we decided that we had been influenced by the bit of Church illustration that appears at the top of this entry.  There may well have been a tree stump, but no account mentions it, and we simply assumed it.

Artistic representations do absolutely affect our imaginations and expectations, and we need to be wary about allowing them to mislead us.

The sources are emphatic, however, that there were plates, and it still seems to me beyond reasonable dispute that the experience of the Eight Witnesses, even unaccompanied by that tree stump, was prosaic, objectively real, and entirely empirical.

Next month in Jerusalem?
New Testament 93
“‘Woven into the fabric of our country’: Islam in early America”
Volcanic Lightning and the Book of Mormon