Trust and Prior Assumptions



A few months ago,  a short little article of mine, entitled “Books to Build Faith,” appeared in the  Insights newsletter ([2012] 32/1) of Brigham Young University’s Neal A. Maxwell Institute for Religious Scholarship.  (It now seems, to my astonished sorrow, likely to be the last thing that I’ll ever publish with the Institute.)


The article was actually intended for a Maxwell Institute blog that we intended to launch, but that blog has been delayed for unknown reasons and may well never actually see the light of day.)  Here, now, is the article that I wrote as a follow-up piece:




In my immediately previous blog post, I named four books that I recommend as a kind of “basic  packet” for people struggling with their testimonies, and I explained that I thought it important to strengthen faith as well as to fend off attacks, criticisms, or doubts.


Let me explain a little bit of what I have in mind:


Suppose that, one day, you hear a shockingly negative report about someone.  What effect will the report have upon your opinion of that person?


Phrased in such a way, the question is essentially unanswerable.  Why?  Because it matters very, very much whether you’ve had any other prior experience or knowledge about the person in question, and, if so, what kind of experience or knowledge that was.


Suppose that this report is the first thing you’ve ever heard about him.  In that case, the report will almost inevitably color your opinion of him in a fundamental way, because it’s the only “color” you have for him, the only information that you possess about him.


Suppose, as an alternative scenario, that you’ve known him to be a bad sort for a very long time.  You’re not surprised to hear this latest account, and it fits right into the picture of him that you’ve had in your mind for years.  It’s not going to take a lot of additional evidence to persuade you that the report is true.  The new report doesn’t fundamentally transform your opinion of the person, but it does reinforce your pre-existing opinion.


Now suppose, though, that this person has, instead, been a friend of yours for decades.  You’ve always known him to be good, honorable, reliable, and kind.  The report that you’ve just heard about him doesn’t fit with the man you know, doesn’t seem consistent with his character as you’ve observed it over the years.  You don’t necessarily pronounce the report a lie, but you’re certainly more inclined to withhold judgment, to give him the benefit of the doubt, to suspend your verdict until you can get his side of the story.  It’s going to take quite a bit of solid evidence to persuade you to revise your long-standing opinion of your friend.


Now, I think that this parable, if you will, can be applied to both Joseph Smith and the Book of Mormon.


If someone runs into an argument against the Book of Mormon, the weight that she is going to give to that argument will depend, to a significant degree, upon her general evaluation of the Book of Mormon.  If she’s studied it and found it rich with spiritual treasures, she’ll be more inclined to minimize the argument’s force than if she doesn’t know the Book of Mormon very well and doesn’t value it, let alone if she already holds the book in contempt or derision.  But she will also be more resistant to this argument against the Book of Mormon, in my view, if, having read Richard Anderson’s Investigating the Book of Mormon Witnesses, she is persuaded that the Witnesses were telling the truth about the plates and the angel and the confirming voice of God.  And, likewise, if she’s read Grant Hardy’s Understanding the Book of Mormon and is convinced that Nephi, Mormon, and Moroni were distinct historical individuals, it’s going to be much more difficult for her to be won over to the view that Joseph Smith just made it up.


In a similar fashion, imagine that a Church member runs into claims about Joseph Smith and early Mormon plural marriage that disturb him.  (This rather murky topic is, perhaps, the single most difficult, most challenging, Latter-day Saint historical issue.)


There are some excellent scholarly resources on the question — most recently, Gregory L. Smith’s review “George Smith’s Nauvoo Polygamy,” in the now defunct FARMS Review 20/2 (2008): 37-123 (still available on line at, and the anthology, edited by Newell G. Bringhurst and Craig L. Foster, entitled The Persistence of Polygamy: Joseph Smith and the Origins of Mormon Polygamy.  (I find three essays — Don Bradley, “Mormon Polygamy before Nauvoo? The Relationship of Joseph Smith and Fanny Alger”; Brian C. Hales, “Joseph Smith and the Puzzlement of ‘Polyandry,’”; and Craig L. Foster, David Keller, and Gregory L. Smith, “The Age of Joseph Smith’s Plural Wives in Social and Demographic Context” — especially useful.)


But the nature of the sources is such that it probably isn’t enough merely to fight a rearguard action on this issue — particularly in our society, which tends, for very good reason, to be deeply cynical about sexual matters.  We’ve seen far too many philandering preachers, far too many hypocritical “family values” politicians.  What needs to be done is to examine carefully the question of Joseph Smith’s general character.  Is he the kind of man who, when difficult and seemingly irresolvable issues arise, should be given the benefit of the doubt?


Mark McConkie’s impressive collection of eyewitness testimonials (Remembering Joseph Smith) argues powerfully that he was a good, honorable, reliable, and kind man whose character does, indeed, merit that kind of trust.  And John Welch’s anthology of articles (Opening the Heavens), along with the Anderson and Hardy books, supplies strong evidence that he did genuinely receive divine revelation.


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  • Fred Kratz

    Dr. Richard Mouw and Dr. Robert Millet dialogued with journalists and scholars at a May 2012 Faith Angle Forum in Miami. One journalist asked Dr. Millet about importance of historical/archeological accuracy of the Book of Mormon and whether it would be necessary to find proof in order to move the CJCLDS forward. Dr. Millet responded that most of the work was going on in Central America but was in its infancy and it could take years to reach any conclusions but felt that significant information would eventually be forthcoming . He was referring to the “limited geography theory”. He also explained that this was not a focus of the church and that faith was the driving mechanism.

    I recently read a part of Wilford Woodruff’s journal from which this quote is taken:

    May 1834: While on Zion’s Camp, we visited many of the mounds which were flung
    up by the ancient inhabitants of this continent, probably by the Nephites and
    Lamanites. We visited one of these mounds and several of the brethren dug into
    it and took from it the bones of a man. Brother Joseph had a vision respecting
    the person; he said he was a white Lamanite. The curse was taken from him or
    at least in part. He was killed in battle with an arrow–the arrow was found
    among his ribs. One of his thigh bones was broken; this was done by a stone
    flung from a sling in battle years before his death. His name was Zelph. Some
    of his bones were brought into the camp and the thigh bone which was broken
    was put into my wagon and I carried it to Missouri. Zelph was a large thick
    set man and a man of God. He was a warrior under the great prophet Onandagus
    that was known from the Hill Cumorah or east sea to the Rocky Mountains. The
    above knowledge Joseph received in a vision.

    If the prophet Joseph Smith had visions of Lamanites unearthed from a mound in Missouri, it seems fairly obvious that this was where the tribes existed. Why the “limited geography theory”?

  • Stephen Smoot

    Fred -
    Matthew Roper has a really interesting article on the Limited Geography Theory, and specifically discusses issues such as Zelph and the Zion’s Camp march.
    The short answer, as I see it, is that things such as Zelph do not inherently disqualify the Limited Geography Theory. The LGT can easily accommodate things such as Zelph, as Roper explains in the above article and his other treatments on the LGT, which you can read on the Maxwell Institute website.

  • danpeterson

    A good answer to the question “Why the ‘limited geography theory’?” is set forth in the opening pages of John Sorenson’s book “An Ancient American Setting for the Book of Mormon.”