Ask no man

No More Contention is the pursuit of clarity, charity and understanding. Contention arises from the compulsion to have others agree with us. Seeking understanding in an environment of clarity and charity produces no more contention. As Joseph Smith said, "I will ask no man to believe as I do."

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Three broad categories

In a sense, contention is inevitable and unavoidable because every individual is unique, and no two people agree on everything.  Ideally, we...

Wednesday, November 22, 2023

Disagreeing better

Governor Cox of Utah is the Chair of the National Governor's Association. Governor Polis of Colorado is the Vice Chair. Cox is a Republican, and Polis is a Democrat. Together they are promoting an initiative called Disagree Better.

I absolutely love what they're doing in the political realm.

They tweeted about how to have a pleasant Thanksgiving dinner despite political differences.

It is refreshing to see politicians modeling a way to disagree without being disagreeable.


We can apply similar principles to discussions/debates within the context of the Restoration. Critics and believers, as well as believers who have different opinions and interpretations, can all get along by pursuing the objectives of clarity, charity, and understanding.

Here's a comment someone sent me recently that epitomizes the problem of Latter-day Saints criticizing one another on a personal level and insisting on their own beliefs without the spirit of clarity, charity and understanding.

"My wife is not a member and as she has observed the people in the church in my life, she has decided not to explore the church anymore. She has told me on a couple occasions that if my parents had been her first encounter with lds people that she would have stayed away from the church altogether because of their pushiness and being unable to accept other peoples' views. It makes me sad when members of the church get excited to preach missionary work trying to convert instead of living the gospel and letting their lives be the teaching tool instead."

Whenever you watch a video, listen to a podcast, or read an article or book, ask yourself if the content promotes clarity, charity and understanding.

Monday, November 20, 2023

Link arms across the aisle


Church News
Across The Isle During the summer of 2017, Elder Matthew S. Holland, now a General Authority Seventy in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, took a sabbatical to Oxford University in England. There he met the Rev. Dr. Andrew Teal — a chaplain and theologian specializing in Christian church history at Oxford’s Pembroke College. “There was something in terms of our just personal friendship that linked us, and it felt like something that was not new,” said Elder Holland. The Rev. Dr. Teal said, “And that was the beginning of a beautiful friendship.” This Church News video, titled “Across the Isle,” features Elder Holland and the Rev. Dr. Teal talking about the friendship and the discussions they shared about their disciplines and perspectives. “We need to link arms across the isle,” said the Rev. Dr. Teal. “We can't be a part of this culture which just writes people off if they're different from us.”

Monday, November 13, 2023

Monday, November 6, 2023

Interpreting the Book of Mormon

In the pursuit of clarity, charity, and understanding, this post reviews some principles of interpretation. 

We seek clarity not because it leads to only one possible interpretation, but instead because it helps us understand the range of possible interpretations and how they are derived.

We embrace charity because we assume everyone acts in good faith.

And we seek understanding, not persuasion, coercion, or conversion, because we trust everyone to make informed decisions once they have all available, relevant information.


My first job out of law school was as a law clerk to the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of New Mexico. I was responsible to analyze the appellate briefs from both sides, suggest questions for the Justices to ask during oral argument, and then draft the Court's opinions. In some cases, the Justices adopted my drafts with few if any edits; other times they changed them completely.

In most cases, both sides of every controversy made good arguments. They cited prior cases to support their positions. They cited facts and definitions and policies. The Supreme Court had the responsibility to decide between the two parties. Sometimes the Justices disagreed, in which case the majority prevailed.

Appellate cases often involve statutory construction (interpretation), which follows basic principles, including these (although there are many nuances and different philosophies of interpretation):

- interpretations should follow the plain meaning of the law (if it is plain)

- interpretations should be consistent with precedent, common law, and the Constitution 

- interpretations should be harmonious with other laws and the statutory scheme

- interpretations should be consistent with clear legislative intent


Interpreting statutes in an appellate context is obviously different from interpreting the text of the Book of Mormon, but there are similarities.

The question for us is, are there any parameters to guide our interpretation?

I think there are. In my view, the text doesn't, and cannot, speak for itself. That's why we rely on the teachings of the prophets. I think interpretations of the text should be consistent with the teachings of the prophets.

Others disagree. Which is fine, of course, but we should all be crystal clear about our assumptions, inferences, etc.

IOW, we can follow the FAITH model to achieve clarity. We all start with the FACTS we can agree upon. In this case, the FACTS are the words of the text and the teachings of the prophets related to the text.

Next we look at our ASSUMPTIONS, INFERENCES, and THEORIES to reach our overall HYPOTHESIS.


Many people claim they interpret the text as it stands, without reference to externalities. That claim is ignorant, delusional or dishonest because every interpretation involves making assumptions that are not in the text. 

People disagree about even the meaning of words themselves. Some people apply modern definitions of terms, while others refer to the 1828 Webster's dictionary or other contemporary usage of terms, while others look to Early Modern English, all of which lead to a range of rational possibilities for interpretation, depending on what assumptions and inferences we make.

Years ago when I was working in Korea I had access to a translator's edition of the Book of Mormon, which includes a large appendix that defined English terminology to aid the translator. Despite this extensive guidance, I've shown in previous posts how in many cases, translations do not adhere closely to the English text but instead incorporate external ideas and concepts that mislead readers.

Separate from defining terms, people make contextual assumptions. We've seen, for example, how M2Cers simply assume there are no "double definitions" (meaning no two separate locations with the same name). Paradoxically, they also simply assume that different terms refer to identical locations (such as narrow neck, small neck of land, and narrow neck of land all refer to one place).

Those assumptions are not irrational, but they are also not mandatory. Alternative interpretations are also rational. We choose among rational alternatives according to our respective values, preferences, worldviews, etc.


When I read the text of the Book of Mormon, it seems obvious that the text itself asks us to refer to outside sources for understanding. This involves intertextuality.

For example, the text refers to the law of Moses 43 times, but never defines or explains the law of Moses beyond alluding to offering sacrifice and burnt offerings. (The Bible refers to the law of Moses only 22 times but sets it out in detail.) A Book of Mormon reader unfamiliar with the Bible would have no idea what the law of Moses involved.

Another example: the Book of Mormon refers to the children of Israel and some of their experiences without explaining them. Readers must consult the Bible to understand these passages.

It is well known that much of the Book of Mormon incorporates language and concepts from the King James Version (KJV) of the Bible. Cross references in the text help readers compare and understand the meaning of terminology, but you have to actually read the biblical references to appreciate their significance and relevance. 

In my view, most of the non-KJV language in the text was influenced by Joseph Smith's familiarity with the work of Jonathan Edwards. Comparing this language to Edwards' work offers insights comparable to comparisons with the KJV. For examples, see

The variety of rational interpretations leaves the text susceptible to private interpretation, placing us in the same position as those who believe in the Bible. 

Without the assistance of guidance from modern prophets, Christians have devised innumerable variations of interpreting the Bible, leading to mass confusion and even contention.

Beyond intertextuality and ordinary principles of interpretation, the text also leaves us without specific guidance on the basic issues of its origin and setting. The origin and setting of the Book of Mormon are important keys for understanding the text, and modern prophets have given us specific guidance on these issues.

Ignoring the teachings of the prophets about the origin and setting of the Book of Mormon has led to similar confusion and contention among Latter-day Saints and other believers in the Book of Mormon.


Here are some examples of how the text is not self-fulfilling. 

Moroni wrote instructions to the future translator of the abridged plates but did not identify the translator:

4 Therefore I do not write those things which transpired from the days of Adam until that time; but they are had upon the plates; and whoso findeth them, the same will have power that he may get the full account. (Ether 1:4)

Moroni explained that the text and its interpretation would be sealed but did not explain who would be allowed to use the interpreters.

5 Wherefore the Lord hath commanded me to write them; and I have written them. And he commanded me that I should seal them up; and he also hath commanded that I should seal up the interpretation thereof; wherefore I have sealed up the interpreters, according to the commandment of the Lord. (Ether 4:5)

Moroni told the unnamed, unidentified future translator not to touch the sealed portion and explained about witnesses:

1 And now I, Moroni, have written the words which were commanded me, according to my memory; and I have told you the things which I have sealed up; therefore touch them not in order that ye may translate; for that thing is forbidden you, except by and by it shall be wisdom in God.
2 And behold, ye may be privileged that ye may show the plates unto those who shall assist to bring forth this work;
3 And unto three shall they be shown by the power of God; wherefore they shall know of a surety that these things are true. (Ether 5:1–3)

The text is incomplete without the additional information provided by Joseph Smith (and Oliver Cowdery). Once we learn that Joseph was the one Moroni identified, we come to understand the origin of the Book of Mormon. We see that Moroni explained where the text was written and how it was to be translated and brought forth.

When he first met Joseph Smith, after describing the content of the record, Moroni explained to Joseph that the record had been "written and deposited not far from" Joseph's home near Palmyra, New York, and that he, Joseph, had the "privilege, if obedient to the commandments of the Lord, to obtain and translate the same by the means of the Urim and Thummim, which were deposited for that purpose with the record."

Moroni told Joseph that "the record is on a side hill on the Hill of Cumorah 3 miles from this place remove the Grass and moss and you will find a large flat stone pry that up and you will find the record under it laying on 4 pillars <​of cement​>."

Because we have the information from Joseph Smith, we know who found the plates and translated them. Still, questions persisted. Joseph answered these questions about the origin of the Book of Mormon in plain words:

Question 4th. How, and where did you obtain the book of Mormon?
Answer. Moroni, the person who deposited the plates, from whence the book of Mormon was translated, in a hill in Manchester, Ontario County New York, being dead; and raised again therefrom, appeared unto me, and told me where they were; and gave me directions how to obtain them. I obtained them, and the Urim and Thummim with them; by the means of which, I translated the plates; and thus came the book of Mormon. 

Oliver Cowdery corroborated Joseph's account when he explained that 

Day after day I continued, uninterrupted, to write from his mouth, as he translated with the Urim and Thummim, or, as the Nephites would have said, ‘Interpreters,’ the history or record called ‘The Book of Mormon.' (Joseph Smith—History, Note, 1)

We might think these declarations are clear and unambiguous. And, in my view, they are. 

Nevertheless, many people, including both faithful believers and disbelieving critics, claim Joseph and Oliver misled everyone about the origin of the Book of Mormon. They say that instead of translating the plates by means of the Urim and Thummim that came with the plates, he actually just read words that appeared on a stone he placed into a hat. This is the stone-in-the-hat theory, aka SITH.

People can believe whatever they want, but it makes a big difference in interpreting the text if the text came directly from a supernatural stone in a hat, or if Joseph actually translated the engravings on the plates "after the manner of his language." 

Claims of anachronisms and errors are difficult to refute if each word in the text was provided by SITH. But if Joseph actually translated the engravings as he claimed, we would expect to see exactly what we do see in the text, given Joseph's background, environment, and preparation.

Joseph later carefully revised the text, which makes sense if he was the actual translator but doesn't make sense if the original text was provided by SITH.

This is all very simple. 

- If we accept what Joseph and Oliver claimed, the origins of the Book of Mormon are solid, rational, and easily understood. In that context, we can interpret the text with more confidence and clarity.

- If we reject what Joseph and Oliver claimed, then there are all kinds of arguments against the divine authenticity of the text. Even faithful interpretations based on SITH require complicated explanations based on speculation.


The setting of the Book of Mormon implicates similar issues.

In terms of FACTS, everyone can see that Oliver explained it was a fact that the Hill Cumorah/Ramah is the very hill in western New York from which Joseph obtained the plates.

When describing that hill, Oliver wrote,

At about one mile west rises another ridge of less height, running parallel with the former, leaving a beautiful vale between. The soil is of the first quality for the country, and under a state of cultivation, which gives a prospect at once imposing, when one reflects on the fact, that here, between these hills, the entire power and national strength of both the Jaredites and Nephites were destroyed.

In 1842, Joseph explicitly invoked his first meeting with Moroni in 1823, four years before the record actually came forth, when he wrote, "And again, what do we hear? Glad tidings from Cumorah! Moroni, an angel from heaven, declaring the fulfilment of the prophets—the book to be revealed." (Doctrine and Covenants 128:20)

The contemporaries and successors to Joseph and Oliver repeatedly and consistently corroborated the New York setting of Cumorah as the one touchstone between the ancient and modern worlds.

Accepting these teachings of the prophets should inform our interpretations of the text, just as accepting their teachings about the origin of the text should. With Cumorah as a pin in the map, its easy to see how the geographical references in the text corroborate the teachings of the prophets--so long as we don't force an interpretation that conforms only to a Mesoamerican setting.

Furthermore, during his lifetime, Joseph explored what are now called Hopewell earthworks in Ohio, Indiana and Illinois (which he called "the plains of the Nephites") and described "roving over the mounds of that once beloved people of the Lord, picking up their skulls & their bones, as a proof of its divine authenticity." In the area around Nauvoo, he identified as Jaredite a burial site now referred to as an Adena site. 

It's all very simple. 

And, as always, we are fine with other people promoting different hypotheses pursuant to clarity, charity, and understanding.

In any judicial system, arbitrary interpretations of the law that are not bounded by precedent, constitutions, or other constraints always lead to confusion and contention in society. The US Constitution was established to prevent such unjust and unequal application of the law by providing parameters for interpreting the law.

In the context of the Book of Mormon, the teachings of the modern prophets should provide parameters for interpretation. Such parameters avoid confusion and contention.

Those who jettison the teachings of the prophets because they disagree are obviously free to do so, but they owe it to their followers to clearly explain why they do so.

And the rest of us are equally free to embrace the teachings of the prophets and interpret the text accordingly.

Wednesday, November 1, 2023

Ask no one to believe as we do

Joseph Smith explained his approach to multiple working hypotheses, as reported by Willard Richards:

The enquiry is frequently made of me,​ “Wherein do you differ from others in your religious views?” 

In reality and essence we do not differ so far in our religious views but that we could all drink into one principle of love. One of the grand fundamental principles of Mormonism is to receive truth, let it come from whence it may. We believe in the great Eloheim, who sits enthroned in yonder heavens: so do the Presbyterians. If as a skilful Mechanic, in taking a welding heat, I use borax, and alum &c, & succeeds in welding together iron or steel more perfectly than any other mechanic, is he not deserving of praise?​> 

and ​if by the principles of truth I​ succeed in welding <​uniting​> you all <​denominations​> together <​into one family of <​in the bonds of love​>​> shall I not have attained a good object?

If I esteem mankind to be in error, shall I bear them down? 

No; I will lift them up, and in his <​their​> own way too if I cannot persuade him <​them​> my way is better; and I will <​not seek to compel any​> ask no man to believe as I do, only by the force of reasoning; for truth will cut its own way.

The original version:

one [of] the grand fundamental principles of Mormonism <​is​> to receivee thruth [truth] letit come from where it may.—

we beli[e]ve in the great Eloheem. who—sits enthrond in yonder heavens.— so do the presbyterian. If as a skillful mechanic In taking a weldi[n]g heat I use a borax & allum. &c—— an[d] succe[e]d in welding you all together shall I not have attaind a good object.

if I esteem mankind to be in error shall I bear them down? no! 

I will will lift them up.— & in his own way if I cannot persuade him my way is better? 

& I will ask no man to believe as I do.