Thursday, July 30, 2015

The One Dynasty Wonder

For those of you that don't know, Phillip Jenkins, an Evangelical scholar  from Baylor University and William Hamblin from FARMS and BYU have been exchanging messages in a long debate. Even before that started Jenkins started several threads that essentially parroted anti Mormon talking points against the Book of Mormon. I've stayed out of the debate for a few reasons. Their arguments have reached about 30 blog posts each, and thats not including the posts from Jenkins that had over 500 comments and replies.  To use a technical term, Jenkins is a total dick and anybody basically familiar with the Book of Mormon can see the flaws in his arguments, but he refuses to read evidence which supports the text because he says there is none.

In the course of providing evidence Hamblin asked Jenkins if he would accept a name from the Book of Mormon that is also seen in the Mayan kings lists. Hamblin showed that the Jaredite king Akish is is listed on the king list of Palenque as U-Kix.

Jenkins of course discounted this and so did many of the critics following this debate. In response, a poster named Runtu argued that Akish was a one dynasty wonder that couldn't possibly have been cited thousands of years later.   He details how Akish was not in the king list in Ether 1, and chapters 8 and 9 show how Akish rebelled against Omer, and did fairly well for a bit. But eventually Omer regained the kingdom. Thus this is a rather "problematic" comparison.

Since I was only sort of following the argument I didn't come up with a response, until I read it again on Mormon Dialogue, and noticed how Akish is the first to introduce secret combinations in the text. My answer discussed the role that role that Gadianton Robbers played in history, the nature of "history" in the Book of Mormon, and the role of historical memory.

I don't include much of the words of my interlocutor but you do have the link where the discussion took place. Mainly he ignored my arguments, which is why its repeated twice, and made the ridiculous assertion that my argument isn't supported by the text.  I'm amazed at critics that superficially read the text based on faulty, unexamined assumptions, (and the person on Mormon dialogue didn't even come up with the argument),but then they ignore interpretations that offer in depth analysis based on a thorough knowledge of history and historical methods. And yet I'm the apologist crank for doing so.  

Since it originated on a discussion board, it isn't as polished or organized as it normally is, but was a remarkably fun and I think pretty good impromptu analysis of the text that critics fail to do.

I might consider how much we don't know about the Jaredite Civil Wars, and the place of rulers in the historical memories of the people who came after them. The account of the Jaredite destruction for example, actually follows Coriantumr when he isn't in power, Ether 13:23-24, 14:7.  The Book of Ether almost completely ignores the ruler in power at the time except for his battles with Coriantumr. It seems like a good choice considering Ether's purpose in describing the fulfillment of the Lord's prophecy to Coriantumr. But its makes for rather strange history compared to what we are used to and see in other historical accounts.

Might I tentatively suggest, that if Akish is really the same as U-Kix, then its possible we don't have the entire history of Akish and the reason why he is important to Mayans a thousand year later. It might have something to do with the secret combinations he introduced, which were also active during the Jaredite denouement, Ether 13:25, 14:8, and of course active through much of Nephite history as well. The Gadianton Robbers were even a political power during the end of Nephite history, to the point that the Nephites concluded a treaty with them and ceded territory. Mormon 2:28. So you can see traces of Akish's influence over a long period if you count Gadianton Robbers.   Critics might argue this is a very weak post hoc explanation. I would say in return, that the evidence which matters is the Akish- U-kix connection.  And the rest is the educated filling in the blanks that historians normally do when they only get a couple pieces in a 1000 year puzzle. 

Thanks for the response.  I thought I made myself pretty clear in a variety of ways. I was pretty clear the the Book of Ether was written with a specific purpose, which didn't include a history of Akish.  I showed specific verses which detailed how much of the last few chapters for example focused on Coriantumr and were not a typical dynastic history. And you could show the same thing with the rest of the book as a message about the rise and fall of the Jaredites, not the influence of Akish. Moreover, I talked about the Gadianton Robbers, which you seem to think is a rather paltry connection.  The band Akish formed was enough to fight for the kingdom. The bands at the end of the Jaredite nation were enough to support an incredibly bloody and long lasting civil war.  The ones in the middle of Nephite history were enough to almost cause their entire destruction. (See 3 Nephi 3 and 4.)  And they were strong enough to force the Nephites into ceding their ancestral lands at the end of Nephite history. Thats pretty much covers every period of the BoM.  Imagine how much information we might have if the Nephites weren't specifically forbidden to talk about it! Alma 37:29. You can also make the case, as I do in my second chapter of my book, Bleached Bones and Wicked Serpents, that the Gaidanton Robbers were ethnic others. As such they would be specifically excluded from a lineage history of Nephites and the ethnic chauvinism that every ancient writers possessed. So in case I wasn't clear enough, I think you can make an argument, gleaned on whats included and specifically excluded in the text, using a keen analysis that historians make upon texts, that there is much more to Akish than a one generation "dynasty." In fact, there is a certain degree of importance and longevity that would be worth including in a king history...

There is a also a great deal about historical memory we don't know.  Besides kind of knowing the Kings name, what do we know about U-Kix of Palenque and why was he important to them  1500 years later?  Just like the Jaredites influenced the Nephites, I'm not going to summarize the literature that says so, but you can look at things items of continuity such as place and people names, the Olmecs also influenced the Mayans. The 1500 year later argument isn't even serious for me.  Lots of groups have founding myths that are based upon historical people, or semi historical people with mythical elements, or what historians believe are completely mythical people.  For example, Sargon the Great and the Yellow Emperor are two figures that go so far back in time they are semi mythical or the details incredibly spotty and debated. Sargon's name actually meant "the true king" so its possible he was invoked by leaders thousands of years later not because his dynasty lasted uninterrupted,  but because he would add legitimacy to current rulers. There is a robust history about nobles changing genealogies to gain legitimacy. Any usurping king could easily manipulate his king list to include, if we accept my reassessment of Ether, somebody like Akish.

Several times I expressed the tentative nature of my ideas, but this makes perfect sense to me. From the lack of any substantial history about Palenque before the classic period, as well as the limited history of the Book of Ether, I thought this was reasonable, albeit tentative and speculative suggestion based on the BoM, what I know about historical documents and memory, and Mayan history. To be extra clear, this means I think Akish is more important than you suggest, there is more continuity between Jaredites and Nephites and Olmec Maya than given, and plenty of space for him in Mayan historical memory.

Tuesday, July 7, 2015

Rethinking Mosiah 26 and the Conduct of Nephite Priests

              [To strengthen my reading comprehension I've been reading the Book of Mormon in Chinese. I came across Mosiah 26 and thought a re assessment of the chapter would aid my ideas that perhaps we might be getting a slightly white washed view of history from Nephite priests.  
             This applies to the paper I wrote about Gideon, which is now the first chapter of my second book. I'm also still annoyed at the anonymous peer reviewer that dismissed my argument out of hand, didn't like anything I wrote, and basically tossed my paper in the garbage. I think my argument is a good one that reassess the text, and I'm happy to provide additional support. Its still a work in progress so I welcome any comments, particular those that help me refine my main points.]   
             The idea that what was recorded, Gideon’s innocent death by Nehor, might be suspect is increasingly support by research and a careful reading of Mosiah. Noel Reynolds argued that Nephi’s text had political overtones designed to strengthen his claim to leadership.[1]  And Biblical scholar David Bokovoy went a step further and argued that Nephi’s account is propaganda that read like a classic Hebrew folktale designed to make him look like a hero. (And conversely, presented Laman and his descendants as villains.)[2]   
                Mosiah 26 in particular gives an account that could easily have been manipulated by record keepers or rulers to enhance their political power. Verse one details those that were two young to have heard and understood King Benjamin’s words. As King Benjamin was the one to initiate the covenant with his people and act as a mediator between them and God, their refusing to listen represents a break with this covenant.  They are then portrayed as a villainous other in verse six, since they flatter, deceive, and draw the people into wickedness. The political importance is first revealed in verse 10, where Alma is hesitant to use his power as High Priest. He is so hesitant and troubled at the thought of using his power (v.10), that he refers the case to King Mosiah, who again sends it back to Alma (v. 12). Alma then receives a long answer to his prayer that blesses him, recounts their foundational narrative at the Waters of Mormon and captivity, and God gives him authority to expel those from the church (v.15-20). Alma wrote this down, creating a new precedent for later generations, and “went and judged” those sinners (v. 32-33).
                At first reading this sounds like a heartwarming story of somebody who leads the church with such humility that he delays punishment as much as possible. While Alma the Elder and other Nephite leaders may indeed have been sincere, the account in Mosiah 26 is ripe for abuse. In less than ten years for example, Alma the Younger said the people of Zarahemla were in an “awful dilemma” (Alma 7:3). And this doesn’t include the almost complete wickedness seen increasingly in the books of Helaman and 3 Nephi. Those that wished to expel their brethren for political or financial gain could point to the precedent established by Alma in Mosiah 26. With that text in hand they could claim to be conscientious of God’s will, reluctant to use its power, but forced to expel them from the church (and its associated political and financial privileges in being among the Nephite elite.) Few people in history willingly usurp power, it is always done humbly and with great reluctance.  Reading Julius Ceasar’s account for example, we are forced to conclude that if only certain senators (who just happened to be his opponents) left him alone, he wouldn’t have had to illegally cross the Rubicon and make himself emperor. 
                To cite another example, the Venetians in the Fourth Crusade had prepared a large fleet to sail to the Middle East. Yet they hadn’t been paid and faced a difficult bind. If they disbanded the coalition army in Venice they faced significant economic disruption and hostile intent. They attacked the port of Zara which was on their way, a convenient hold over for the winter away from Venice, and economically beneficially to them (since it flanked their trade routes.). But the ruler of Hungary had given lip service to the same crusade, wasn’t doing anything to fight in it, but managed to get the Venetians excommunicated for their conduct in actual fulfillment of the crusade.  Not to mention that the crusades themselves were often done for power and money as much as spiritual enlightenment. Hence, religion is often intertwined with politics, strategy, and money. 
                Going back to Gideon’s dispute with Nehor.  Power, even reluctantly procured, is very dangerous and often justified after the fact and its often used inappropriately for political and financial reasons. Its possible that church leaders were not as innocent as claimed, but that they sometimes abused their authority (perhaps the awful dilemma that Alma cited), and acted violently (Gideon against King Noah and possibly Nehor), or encouraged political leaders to incite violence (Moroni’s Title of Liberty- see below), all of which makes us pause and reassess the text as written.

[1] Noel Reynolds, “Nephi’s Political Testament,” in John Sorenson and Melvin Thorne, eds., Rediscovering the Book of Mormon (Salt Lake City, Utah: Deseret Book and FARMS, 1991) 220-230.
[2] David Bokovoy, “1 Nephi as Propaganda”, When Gods Were Men, February, 6th 2015. (Accessed July 8th, 2015.) 

Wednesday, July 1, 2015

Book Review: War: A Book of Mormon Perspective

As a military historian with an interest in the Book of Mormon I enjoy staying aware of current research in the field. I recently read the book, War: A Book of Mormon Perspective: How the War Chapters of the Book of Mormon Warn Against Wars of Aggression and the Warfare State. Unfortunately, the torturous title isn’t the only problem as Kendal Anderson’s book suffers from weak scholarly arguments, lack of research, and shallow research into the Book of Mormon. Moreover, Anderson’s work suffered from clichés,[1] sloppy typos, vague descriptions of historical events, lack of proper academic tone,[2] anti-intellectualism,[3] and slight engagement with scholarship.  This review will examine 4 brief examples from the many possible which underscore these serious flaws.

Civil War

                Anderson’s weaknesses are shown through several areas, and this was one of the most prominent. As part of his over reliance on marginal scholars he argued that the only just wars are the Revolutionary War and the South’s failed attempt to secede.  This was Anderson’s attempt to describe a form of defensive or just war combined with a thin veneer of cherry picked scriptures and simplistic analysis.

                Anderson failed to consider the moral cost of the South’s victory. The immoral practice would not have been abolished by the anarchist capitalism positions of ridiculous libertarians.  Anderson faces the same problem is his criticism of World War II.  As I pointed out in my criticisms of J. Reuben Clark, Anderson’s decisions would have left millions in slavery and millions more killed in genocide.  That is hardly just, and doesn’t take into account clear verses in the Book of Mormon that support a variety of military action.[4]

                The author also turned into a Southern apologist for slavery and states’ rights.  This is a trope brought out by those that deny the Civil War was fought over slavery, but proponents of the discredited “lost cause” school of thought don’t realize that the only right of states in question was the right to practice slavery. Vice President of the Confederacy, Alexander Stephens, said in his Corner Stone Speech said that the “corner stone” of their new country was the fundamental truth that blacks were inferior to whites and slavery guaranteed. The state secession conventions echoed this sentiment as well.  Anderson seemed so narrowly focused on the principle of coercion in the North’s fight against the South that he failed to realize the cost of inaction and the moral power of the Northern position; he also echoes those that supported and defended slavery.  Of course government conduct during war is often contemptible, but there is an importance difference between the moral cause of the war and immoral conduct during the war.  This difference failed to appear in Anderson’s contribution to the libertarian echo chamber.[5] 

                Another debate is the role that Lincoln played during the war. I often ask my students the ways in which Lincoln was a dictator.[6] But I ask those questions to illustrate the seeming contradiction that Lincoln had to bend the constitution in order to save it.  Again, this is part of the debate that real academics and serious student have as they grapple with questions that contain no easy answers and seeming contradictions within history.  It also supports the idea of a constant tension between security and freedom, and how the pendulum often swings between the two.  Libertarians dogmatically focused on a radical ideology fail to have this kind of comprehensive and nuanced awareness of the wider debate. After all, Anderson admitted that he didn’t care for school or pay attention, nor did he like reading obscure texts (8).   

Lost (About) China

                Again relying upon a handful of fringe and conspiratorial scholars, Anderson revealed a woeful ignorance of Chinese history and American foreign policy. Anderson stated that the Chinese Civil War started in 1931.  But only the Nationalist counter insurgency campaign started in 1931. The Communist insurgency really started with the failed uprising at Nanchang in 1927. Anderson also said they were in the “northwest” (149) but that didn’t happen until after the Long March of 1934.
Even worse than factual errors, Anderson presented a very tendentious history of the region.  For example, he presented Chiang-Kai Shek as a democratic reformer. Unfortunately, Chiang wasn’t nearly as good at reforming as he sounded.  Chiang’s strongest military forces were shattered during the Battle of Shanghai (1937) and he had to rely heavily upon warlord troops for the rest of the war.  Reforms were very difficult to implement due to this reliance, and of course a total war of survival against a vastly superior Japanese army.  The Communists, moreover, followed 3 Main Rules and 8 Points of Discipline that deliberately set them apart from the Nationalists and won the favor of peasants. They were much more adept at guerrilla warfare and highlighting their successes which further enhanced their prestige with the masses.[7]  After World War II the U.S. believed in a largely hands off policy that tried to broker a united front between the Nationalists and Communists similar to the 1920s and early period of the war with Japan from 1937 until the New Fourth Army incident of 1941.  In contrast to Anderson’s attacks that simply parroted other scholars, instead of “meddling”(150)the U.S. was too interested in peace, and as result they didn’t do enough immediately after World War II.
Thus Anderson is woefully ignorant of the history in this region. He relied upon a narrow group of scholars from the dated and tendentious Naked Communist of Cleon Skousen to the admittedly conspiratorial Jack Monett (134).   Its also a bit odd how Anderson argued in the rest of his book that America was immoral for intervening in world affairs, such as having bases in 130 countries (38), except in his (ignorant) view of China, where America should have picked sides in a 20 year long civil war to support Chiang Kai-Shek. 

Paranoid Style

                As an undergraduate I was a Marshall Scholar who had the opportunity to examine the archives at the George C. Marshall foundation at the Virginia Military Institute.  My award winning paper examined the confirmation of Marshall as Secretary of Defense during 1950. I bring this up because the fiercest critics of Marshall were isolationist Republicans such as William Jenner and Joseph McCarthy. During an epic rant on the senate floor Jenner invoked a long list of conspiracy theories ranging from FDR’s recognition of the Soviet Union, to the betrayal at Yalta, the loss of China, and finally the 1950 invasion of South Korea.
During my research I noticed that those like Jenner used what Richard Hofstadter called the paranoid style of American politics to attack Marshall and the loss of China as part of some wide spread conspiracy to aid Communism. Hofstadter used this theory to discuss right wing isolationists and how “no other word adequately evokes the sense of heated exaggeration, suspiciousness, and conspiratorial fantasy” that they used to argue.[8] 

This summary of the paranoid style was somewhat discursive but its important because I wanted to show how perfectly it describes Anderson’s approach. He admitted to using conspiratorial authors. He used heated exaggerations throughout the book but especially the chapter on World War II.  He echoed the arguments of radical right wing politicians that accused Democrats of secretly aiding communism from FDR’s recognition of the Soviet Union, to the betrayal at Yalta, loss of China, and dereliction of duty that led to the invasion of South Korea. Not every historian is expected to know every facet of every time period.  But Anderson shows such a stunning ignorance of history that he ended up mirroring the paranoid style of McCarthyites, sometimes almost word for word, without a trace of self-awareness.

Book of Mormon

                Anderson showed little awareness for items in the Book of Mormon, which is most grievous considering the title of his book.  Half his book was devoted to reprinting the works of various libertarians in very long appendices; the substance of his book relied far too heavily on shallow and paranoid summaries of history.  When he did get around to discussing the Book of Mormon, he confessed to only studying for “several months”(9) and his analysis was both superficial and scant. To cite a few examples, he claimed its unethical to perform seek and destroy missions (11), but didn’t notice the Book of Mormon says the Nephites “searched and destroyed’ without negative editorial comment (Helaman 11:28). He attacked Lincoln for his indefinite detention of prisoners (32),(as he typically did so using a block quote from a questionable scholar), yet failed to notice Moroni did the same (Alma 51:19; Alma 62:4).[9] He argued that the Nephite system of judges was “not unlike our constitutional system” (45). This statement is made in ignorance of the excellent article from Richard Bushman who explained, among other items, that early Americans would have balked at monarchal qualities such as life long tenure of chief judges and the seemingly hereditary nature of the position.[10]

Anderson asserted that “the fruits of the Nephite war of defense against the Lamanites were peace, liberty, freedom of religion, the mass conversion of Lamanite POWs, and the restoration of Nephite lands and property (144).” This is stunningly ignorant of the text. As soon as a single chapter after the war ended the Nephites lost their capital to the Lamanites. By Helaman 4, Moroni’s son could only regain half the land. And the Book of Helaman is replete with wicked chief judges, the constant quest for money (Helaman 6:7, 18; 7:5, 21), and Lamanites that were more righteous than the Nephites (Helaman 6:1). This is hardly the golden age of peace and liberty that Anderson claimed.  My new book shows how the reforms of Moroni such as heavier armor and more fortifications changed Nephite strategy and tactics for the worse, allowed the robbers to flourish, likely required rapacious taxation, and probably fueled the insurgency.

                Everybody has different opinions about warfare but the strongest opinions are based upon diligent study, careful reading of primary sources, solid analysis, and rational arguments.  I chose these four topics because they respectively represent research done for my Master’s thesis, Marshall award, research grant, and critically acclaimed book.   In contrast, War: A Book of Mormon Perspective does not even show an awareness of many crucial sources, let alone a thorough study and sound assessment of them.  Anderson showed a dilettantish approach as he relied upon a small group of fringe scholars and tried to squeeze the round Book of Mormon into the square hole of libertarianism.[11]  I cannot recommend this book except to provide examples of how to have an appearance of scholarship while denying the power thereof. 

Anderson justified quitting college in part because he didn’t want to read “obscure texts.” Some texts are obscure because we are still learning and haven’t come across them yet; or because we are simply too lazy to obtain, read, and reflect upon them.  Others are obscure because they are justifiably relegated by the larger academic community to the dusty margins of book shelves occupied by inconsequential, fringe pseudo scholars.  Anderson’s book will remain obscure for the second reason.


[1] See pg. 13 for Satayana’s cliché about repeating history if you don’t remember it. On pg. 25 he cites the cliché about the winners writing history. pg. 75 contains the clichéd Ad Hiterlum fallacy. See pg. 83 where he used Lord Acton’s cliché about absolute power corrupting absolutely, misspelling Acton’s name in the process.  And on pg. 157 he cites Ben Franklin's cliché  that those who give up liberty for security deserve neither.     
[2] See for example, pgs. 41-42, 163, and 166.
[3] See pg. 8 where he “shirked college study” because it was riddled with “pap” (8), also see pg. 69.
[4] See Duane Boyce, Even Unto Bloodshed: An LDS Perspective on War (Salt Lake City: Greg Kofford Books, 2015) and my forthcoming review for Interpreter: A Journal of Mormon Scripture for an example of a serious and comprehensive discussion of LDS scriptures on war.  
[5] He gives lip service to the distinction but his only comments concerning misconduct in war served to condemn all war outside of the two approved by libertarians.  He never mentioned the idea that wars can be just even if unjust actions occur during them. For example, in graduate school I read arguments regarding the “first war of war” that arose because the widespread and common practice of frontier warfare during the colonial era which deliberately targeted civilians and destroyed villages.
[7] See for example, Yang Kuisong, “Nationalist and Communist Guerrilla Warfare in North China,” in The Battle for China: Essays on the Military History of the Sino-Japanese War of 1937-1945, Mark Peattie, Edward Drea, Hans Van De Ven eds, (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2011), 308-327.
[8] Hofstadter, Richard (November 1964). "The Paranoid Style in American Politics". Harper's Magazine.
[9] He somewhat acknowledged this later in his book, but still said that Moroni did not exercise “the slightest degree of unrighteous dominion” (174).
[10] Richard L. Bushman, “The Book of Mormon and the American Revolution,” in Book of Mormon Authorship: New Light on Ancient Origins, ed. Noel B. Reynolds (Provo, UT: Religious Studies Center, Brigham Young University, 1982), 189–212.
[11] He acknowledged in the first paragraph that he spent a long time trying to “reconcile my Mormon theology with secular libertarianism”(8). An honest and fearless researcher will spend years allowing the text to challenge and even change his beliefs as they try to move past their superficial understanding of it. Not spend months trying to see his favored philosophy within the text.