August 20, 2009

Royal Skousen's Critical Text Project and The Book of Mormon

The most important critical project on the text of the Book of Mormon to date is close to completion. Professor Royal Skousen's continuing study of the textual history of the Book of Mormon will be completed soon with the publication of Part Six of Analysis of Textual Variants of the Book of Mormon, covering 3 Nephi 19 to Moroni 10, with addenda.1

What is a "critical edition"? Skousen defined it as follows:
Simply put, a critical edition is composed of two main parts, the critical text itself and an apparatus (consisting of notes at the bottom of the page, below the critical text). Usually, the critical text attempts to represent the original form of the text, while the apparatus shows the textual variants and their sources. The editors of the critical edition decide which textual variant best represents the original and put that in the critical text. The apparatus shows all the (significant) variants of the text and the sources for those variants (manuscripts,  published texts, and conjectures). The apparatus thus allows the reader to evaluate the decisions of the editors.2
In short: Skousen is looking at the available manuscripts for the Book of Mormon along with the earliest editions and publishing their exact contents so they can be evaluated. For anyone interested in what this watershed project is all about, here are some sources to check out:3

During the 80s FARMS got the critical text ball rolling by publishing the Book of Mormon Critical Text. It was used for some wordprint studies, and Skousen applauded its publication. However, he also described important problems with the publication and proposed a better project which he has been working on for almost 19 years. after this BYU Studies article. This article is an interesting introduction.

In this brief chapter Skousen talks about the available manuscripts he studied for the project, the partial original manuscript (O) and the almost-completly extant printer's manuscript (P) which was copied from the original by Oliver Cowdery and a few others. 

In these articles Skousen discusses various translation theories including "loose," "tight," and "iron-clad." Though witnesses to the translation process itself (like Emma Smith, Oliver Cowdery, Martin Harris and David Whitmer) appear to favor something like an iron-clad method, Skousen posits a "tight control," based on their statements in addition to evidence from the Book of Mormon manuscripts and editions themselves. These articles show what kind of work can result from the critical text project. The volumes of the project can be intimidating and difficult to read with all the technical emendations and explanations. Fortunately, Skousen's upcoming publication trims the fat and gives his conclusions all in one small volume:

As this publication shows, the critical text project is already yielding fruit aside from various articles and essays. Yale University Press is releasing Skousen's version of the "earliest text" on September 22, 2009. According to the introduction by Grant Hardy:
Royal Skousen has single-handedly brought the textual analysis of the Book of Mormon to a professional level on par with the finest classical and biblical scholarship. This volume is the culmination of his labors, and it is the most textually significant edition since Joseph Smith's work was first published in 1830. It takes us back to the original manuscript (as best we can reconstruct it) and sometimes beyond, to the very words that were first spoken by Joseph Smith to his scribes.4
In a 2006 review of earlier volumes of Skousen's critical text project Kevin Barney said he "would still like to see an actual critical edition in print at the conclusion of the critical text project, preferably in a smaller format than the large volumes."5 At the time Barney feared Skousen would not provide such an edition. This fear has been allayed and I look forward to checking out the "earliest text." Barney also gave an overview of some of Skousen's already-published work and disagreed with a few conclusions Skousen extracts from his data. Thus, Barney's article gives some needed perspective.

It is important to remember that Skousen's work comes in at least three varieties or approaches:6

1. His critical text project itself (which is, for the most part, strictly observable data, namely: writing in a technical form what the handwriting on the available manuscripts actually says. This is the most "objective" aspect of the process, though Skousen admits there is a subjective element here. The results can't be perfect, based on the available materials alone, as discussed in number 2 below).

2. His extrapolation of the data into the most persuasive readings (Skousen analyzes manuscript variants, spelling errors, transcribing errors, phonetic mishearings and so forth to determine the most likely and earliest text. This is more subjective though there are technical procedures employed. Skousen's Earliest Text is the easily-readable fruit of his labors. The longer volumes published by FARMS detail his reasoning).

3. His theory of the translation process as being "tight" (Based on data from the earliest text and manuscript evidence Skousen posits a translation theory).

Again, these comprise at least three separate but related areas, each more subjective than the last. In the first (more objective) area, Skousen presents "documents as direct indicators."7 Information is virtually uninterpreted, only insofar as Skousen (in a mix of part 1 and 2 above) includes footnotes and explanations which prefer one particular reading over another when handwriting is ambiguous or a phonetic mistake can be detected. Still, his work attempts to present all possible variants to track the changes over time, thus making the thrust of the entire publication a "direct indicator" piece of evidence. The data speaks for itself, literally. "What does the manuscript say?" There are arguable cases regarding some readings, but the project seeks to be as completely accurate and prima facie as possible.

In the second and third (more subjective) areas, Skousen more fully employs "documents as correlates."8 Skousen takes the data from the critical text, considers witness statements and internal textual evidence (like Hebraisms, etc.) and posits theories of translation, arguing for a "tight control" theory.9

It is important to remember that data from the first area can be utilized and interpreted differently by different people and Skousen's second area work does not contain inevitable conclusions, though they deserve close attention. Brant Gardner, for example, calls into question some of Skousen's conclusions in the second area, though he makes much use of Skousen's first area in his commentary on the Book of Mormon, Second Witness.10


The image combines the cover of Skousen's forthcoming book with the Title Page of the first edition of the Book of Mormon. The scan of the original page comes from John Hajicek's high-resolution full scan of a first edition found at I think the absence of such a rigorous text until now single-handedly calls into question the validity of wordprint studies (those that argue for and against "ancient" and/or multiple authorship of the Book of Mormon. A good primer on such studies is John B. Archer, John L. Hilton, and G. Bruce Schaalje, "Comparative Power of Three Author-Attribution Techniques for Differentiating Authors," Journal of Book of Mormon Studies, 6:1. See also BHodges, "A New Book of Mormon Wordprint Analysis,", Dec. 8, 2008. The authors of the most recent wordprint study didn't mention Skousen or make use of the critical text he's been publishing with FARMS.

See Royal Skousen, "Towards a Critical Edition of the Book of Mormon," BYU Studies 30:1 (1990), 41. For a great interview with Skousen after he began the project see "12 Answers From Royal Skousen,", Oct. 13, 2004.

These articles are not the only ones in which Skousen discusses his work on the critical text project, or various discoveries therein. Moreover, other articles by other authors regarding the translation process should be taken into consideration. I am currently working on a project called "TWA," or the "Translation Witness Accounts" project. We are seeking to compile into one source all known witness statements of the translation of the Book of Mormon. As a corollary I have been researching as many different translation theories as I can discover.

See the blurb on

Kevin Barney, "Seeking Joseph Smith's Voice," Journal of Book of Mormon Studies 15:1, pp. 54-59.

Skousen may explain the difference differently, I haven't seem him parse the differences but haven't checked the intro to the published critical text project volumes. This is a rather simple way of differentiating between what I view as two related but different aspects of historical inquiry.

See Vernon K. Dibble, "Four Types of Inference From Documents to Events," History and Theory, Vol. 3 No. 2 (1963), pp. 213. In this article Dibble is more particularly discussing how historians make inferences from documents to events. 

Ibid., p. 210. This calls for further analysis I have not yet performed.

Some readers may believe that Skousen is sounding the "death knell" for people who believe in anything but a "tight" translation theory. However, Skousen's conclusions on the translation theory deserve consideration but need not be accepted as "granted" merely from Skousen's data, analysis, and opinions. There is a level of subjectivity in each step of his project, but it increases when Skousen starts to interpolate, or use documents as correlates.

See Brant Gardner, Second Witness: Analytical & Contextual Commentary on the Book of Mormon, (Kofford, 2007-2008).

August 19, 2009

"I would not give up trusting God"

"Consecrate Your Brain," part 1
Continuing series with Greg Smith.
See also the Introduction, and parts 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, and 7.

In this installment, Greg more fully describes what he means by 
"consecrating his brain" and how it interacts with his 
scholarship. Greg also discusses how his skepticism 
interacts with his faith in the gospel.  

LifeOnGoldPlates: Talk a little bit about what it means to you to "consecrate" your brain. Where did you get the idea, what does it mean, how does it affect your research?

Greg Smith: The name for the concept just came to me.1 I thought it was kind of a crude way of putting what I was trying to describe, and tried to think of a more elegant label, but couldn't. But it seems to have a certain resonance with others that I hadn't intended.

To consecrate anything, to me, means to be willing to give it up. One hands it back to God, and one must regard it as really, truly gone. To consecrate anything is to cease clinging to it, to cease regarding it as "mine."  If I get to keep it, it is only on God's sufferance. It's his, and he can call for it at any time.2

So, in the case of plural marriage, when I say I decided to "consecrate my brain," what I mean is that I was willing to give up my need for answers. I was willing to go on and do what I'd covenanted to do without answers, without a resolution to my concern(s) in an intellectual sense. I wasn't willing to walk out on my relationship with God and Christ over the issue.

LoGP: Some might say such an approach means you have decided up front to excuse Joseph Smith or the Church from any "evil."

GS: No, that's precisely the point. The "consecration" of the brain was not a decision to refuse to accept a negative answer. It was, rather, to acknowledge—as I felt I had to do at the outset—that there might well be no good answer, or that Joseph might have made a terrible mistake through either good motives or bad. To consecrate my brain was, for me, to tell God that such things didn't matter, and that I was willing to be thought foolish, misguided, ill-informed, unable to 'handle the truth,' etc. It was a renouncing of the need of an answer—ever. I would give up trusting Joseph if I had to, but I would not give up trusting God.

I hasten to point out, though, that I didn't really think all this through at the time, so what you're getting here is a more reflective, clean-cut version of a decision which I regard as a gift of grace.

LoGP: How do you deal with difficult issues without covering up or misrepresenting information, especially considering you have already "consecrated" your mind?

GS: As I've noted above, the decision to consecrate was essentially a decision to forgo the research and intellectual approach on this topic altogether and forever, if necessary.

Well, to my surprise, I was told very clearly that I didn't need to worry about what I would find or conclude, and to go ahead.  (I was not told what I would find.)  I set out with the idea that there were probably grave mistakes with plural marriage--I've since decided that this wasn't the case, by and large. (I don't regard my experiences as some sort of divine approval of my conclusions—they could all be wrong. I was simply told not to worry that this effort would cost me my relationship with God.)

It was the risk you describe, and my own fear of potentially misreading or misrepresenting (for my own purposes or peace of mind) the truth, that led me into the consecration scenario. Ironically, by the decision to consecrate, I got back what I wanted, and got it in a better way. Because I was assured that whatever I found or decided wouldn't threaten my spiritual well-being, it made me far more fearless than I think I would have been. The biggest thing at stake was no longer my spiritual well-being or commitment; at best the only thing at risk was my ability to understand what was going on. But, I'd already renounced any claim on understanding anyway—so that was no longer a particularly scary thing.

I'm sure I still have my biases, as we all do, but the fact that I've reached conclusions at variance with my initial biases suggests to me that I've controlled for them as well as I can. Beyond that, others will have to judge if I have anything to offer.

This is a long, round-about way of saying that the decision to "consecrate my brain" made me much less likely to misrepresent or cover-up, because the material—whatever it said—was no longer a threat.

So, I got what I would have most wanted out of it—but, to get it, I see now that I had to give it away and mean it.

LoGP: You call yourself a skeptic of sorts. so how does that play into your faith claims about revelation, etc.?

GS: Many of my encounters with God—especially the first ones—have been driven by skepticism. That is, by a realization that what is being claimed is pretty incredible, even implausible. Angels? Gold plates? God talking to farm boys?

As far as I can tell, I've approached those questions and issues with enough intellectual integrity to say, "This could very well not be true. And, if it isn't, I'm going to have to adjust my life accordingly."

But, it has been repeatedly amazing and humbling to me that God seems to know what it will take to convince me, and he gives it to me when necessary. The only thing that I can say to my credit about that is that my skepticism cuts both ways—I realized it could well be false, and I'd have to change my life if it was. But, I was also willing to do whatever I was told to do if it was true. Its a humbling thing and I don't discuss the details much simply because it might seem like bragging, which is the very last thing it is. C.S. Lewis had a line that always resonated with me on this type of thing:
[God] and you are two things of such a kind that if you really get into any kind of touch with Him you will, in fact, be humble—delightedly humble, feeling the infinite relief of having for once got rid of all the silly nonsense about your own dignity which has made you restless and unhappy all your life. He is trying to make you humble in order to make this moment possible: trying to take off a lot of silly, ugly, fancy-dress in which we have all got ourselves up and are strutting about like the little idiots we are. I wish I had got a bit further with humility myself: if I had, I could probably tell you more about the relief, the comfort, of taking the fancy-dress off—getting rid of the false self, with all its "Look at me" and "Aren't I a good boy?" and all its posing and posturing. To get even near it, even for a moment, is like a drink of cold water to man in a desert.3
Quite simply, God burned the truth of the Book of Mormon and his existence into my doubting heart and rationalist soul. After I was recovering from that experience, I asked God, "Why me? Why did you tell me?" Now, this may sound strange, but I swear he laughed. Out and out laughed. Sort of an affectionate chuckle. And, the thought came into my mind as powerfully as if someone had spoken it: "Don't you understand yet? If I'll tell you, then I'll tell anyone."

So, the only attitude revelation has given me toward other people is a conviction that it really is there for the asking. When people tell me they've tried and haven't gotten it, I don't have an explanation for that. All I can suggest is that you be certain that you are truly committed to doing everything and anything he tells you to do if you get an answer. You may have to, as Jesus said, count the cost and be sure you are willing to pay it.4 And, I try to offer whatever comfort and hope I can by saying that I have it on very good authority that if God answers me, he'll answer anyone.

To bring the question full circle, though, I see now that the decision to "consecrate my brain" was a spiritual step, so to speak. It is one thing to be a skeptic and to get answers that are utterly convincing. It is another thing to say, "Even if I don't get them—ever—I will trust the relationship built on what has gone before."

Which is again a long way of saying that unless one's skepticism insists that there cannot be revelation, then it is impossible to be skeptical about it when one receives it and it is utterly unexpected and utterly beyond what I had thought it might be. This will likely persuade no one else, but it did persuade me.

Nephi's vision of the tree of life has always spoke to me in this regard.5There's plenty of pointing, laughing, jeering, and philosophizing going on in the building across from the tree. They have lots of reasons why I might be mistaken about the value of the fruit or the tree--even some very plausible-sounding ones. Except for one thing--I'm standing here with its flesh in my mouth, and the juice running down my chin, and its like nothing in this world.  If Descartes couldn't doubt his own existence because he was in the act of thinking,6 I can't doubt God's existence in the act of tasting. To do so would be absurd. The cries of "Spit it out!  It's poison!" ring pretty hollow. I can see why they might think so. I can't see why I would agree.


In the next installment we will further discuss 
scholarship and faith, also addressing doubt, 
fear, and hard doctrine. If you have a comment 
or question for Greg, please leave a comment.  


Greg Smith peripherally discussed "mind consecration" (so to speak) during his 2009 FAIR conference presentation regarding plural marriage. See "Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Plural Marriage (but were afraid to ask)" at The image is adapted from Fritz Kahn (1888-1968), Der Mensch als Industriepalast (Man as Industrial Palace), Stuttgart, 1926. Chromolithograph. National Library of Medicine,

"Consecration" in LDS thought can refer to a sacrificial offering to God of one's time, talent, or possessions. It means dedicating, offering, or setting something apart for God. Elder Neal A. Maxwell defined "ultimate consecration" as "the yielding up of oneself to God," (See Neal A. Maxwell, “Consecrate Thy Performance,” Ensign, May 2002, 36).

Greg is citing C.S. Lewis, Mere Christianity, (HarperCollins 2001) pp. 127-128.

See Luke 14:28-33.

See 1 Nephi 8:26-27.

The French philosopher Rene Descartes (1596-1650) coined the phrase "Cogito ergo sum" ("I think, therefore I am," or "I am thinking, therefore I exist") in his Principles of Philosophy (1644), Part 1, article 7.

August 17, 2009

Introduction to "Consecrate Your Brain"

Consecrate Your Brain, Introduction
A seven-part series with Greg Smith.
See also parts 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, and 7.

One of the aspects of FAIR conferences I like most is the willingness of some presenters to talk about the implications of their own research in more intimate terms. In a more strict academic setting it can be inappropriate to delve into personal details and feelings. At FAIR, presenters have been known to discuss testimony, struggles, and research methods quite openly.1

Along those lines, a highlight of the 2009 FAIR conference was Greg Smith's discussion of plural marriage.2 The final section of Smith's presentation included his personal story of study and faith. "I did not set out to be the person people ask about plural marriage," he said. Nevertheless, he has become somewhat of an expert on the practice, though it wasn't always so.

Smith grew up knowing abut the practice but when he began a more in-depth study he encountered Richard Van Wagoner's Mormon Polygamy: A History. After only a few pages the "womanizing claims" caused him to pause because he hadn't "done the legwork" needed to responsibly engage the information. He felt Van Wagoner had dumped some information in his lap he wasn't fully prepared for.

Latter-day Saints who struggle with difficult historical information regarding the Church may be interested in his reaction and approach. Whereas some are content to rely on the research of others, Smith knew in order to fully understand the issue that troubled him he must dive in to the historical record himself. At the outset he said he knew three things:
1. I knew that I didn't know enough to answer the questions that this was going to bring up.

2. I knew that finding the answers, if there were any, was going to take a lot of time and a lot of work.

3. I knew that I might not be intellectually or spiritually up to the challenge of finding those answers or recognizing the answers or being satisfied with the answers. And I knew that answers might not exist.
So, while he believed the best way to handle the issue was by a full investigation, he also knew he couldn't put his spiritual life "on hold" in the meantime. Smith decided to pray about the problem, expecting to have a long and repeated wrestle with God: "[M]y spiritual life did not have four or five years, which is how long I've been doing this now, to sit in the church archives," Smith explained. He needed to know up front if a full investigation was right. Instead of a repeated wrestle on that question he came away knowing he could investigate plural marriage completely and come away with faith in God intact.

Smith has since spent several years studying the subject and in retrospect he explained:
And for me, ultimately, the question (I see now) had nothing to do with plural marriage at all. Plural marriage was only the catalyst for a much more fundamental question and that question was, "Do I trust Father?" And I see now, by the grace of God, that my instinctive reaction was to do that, to express my trust and, amazingly, to mean it. I did not realize it at the time, but what I effectively chose to do, if I can put it crudely, is I chose to "consecrate my brain." 

I value my brain—we all do—nobody likes to be thought foolish or naive or ill-informed or duped or cognitively dissonant or any of the other labels people can put upon us. I'm a doctor, I'm regarded as a reasonably smart person, I love science, I love evidence, I'm a skeptic, I'm a rationalist. I say all this about myself—I am all those things, that's part of how I conceive of myself.

I could have gone before God and I could have demanded answers, I could've told him I want the evidence and I want it now, I want closure. I could've issued him ultimatums. I could've told him that if this didn't work out, I was quitting. But, I chose instead, to consecrate my brain. I was willing to sacrifice my self-image, my years of learning, my intellectual effort and my social respectability on the internet (which I'm sure is crashing as I speak!) because I trusted Father.
I wanted to know more about the implications of "consecrating one's brain," so I contacted Smith and he accepted the invitation to participate in this short blog series.

In the next few posts we will talk about academics, research, apologetics, faith, cognitive dissonance, whitewashing, and other related issues. If you have a question along these lines, leave a comment to this post and we'll see about bringing it up. My purpose isn't to talk about plural marriage, but about how difficult issues in general are dealt with in a faithful and an academic context.

Smith received a degree in medical school after also studying physiology and English at the University of Alberta. He completed his medical residency in Montréal, Québec before becoming an "old-style country doctor" in rural Alberta with interests in internal medicine and psychiatry. Due to his research interest in plural marriage he has spoken to the Miller-Eccles study group and published articles in the FARMS Review.3 He also volunteers for FAIR and has written many FAIRwiki pieces.


Some academically-minded members of the Church seem more reluctant to share expressions of faith and desire to "stick to the facts" so to speak. On the other hand, some LDS scholars have discussed more personal aspects of their research, including Richard Bushman (On the Road With Joseph Smith: An Author's Diary), Ronald W. Walker (“Joseph Smith, The Palmyra Seer"), Eugene England ("Enduring"), Leonard Arrington (Adventures of a Church Historian), Davis Bitton ("I Don't Have a Testimony of the History of the Church"), and Richard D. Poll (History & Faith: Reflections of a Mormon Historian).   

See Greg Smith, "Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Plural Marriage (but were afraid to ask)," Presented at the eleventh annual FAIR Conference, 7 August 2009. Smith's quotes in this post are from the transcript of Smith's presentation here.

See Gregory L. Smith, "'Days of Miracle and Wonder': The Faith of Sam Harris and the End of Religion," FARMS Review 20:1 and "George D. Smith's Nauvoo Polygamy," FARMS Review 20:2.