Discussions of Mormons and Mormon life, Book of Mormon issues and evidences, and other Latter-day Saint (LDS) topics.

Monday, April 13, 2015

"Why Marriage, Why Family"--A Highlight from the 2015 LDS Conference

For those struggling with questions about the Church's emphasis on marriage, and the sanctity of marriage between a man and woman, a thoughtful talk from the recent General Conference might be of help. "Why Marriage, Why Family" by Elder D. Todd Christofferson of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles begins with a spiritual insight from a great man of another Christian faith:
Above the Great West Door of the renowned Westminster Abbey in London, England, stand the statues of 10 Christian martyrs of the 20th century. Included among them is Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a brilliant German theologian born in 1906. Bonhoeffer became a vocal critic of the Nazi dictatorship and its treatment of Jews and others. He was imprisoned for his active opposition and finally executed in a concentration camp. Bonhoeffer was a prolific writer, and some of his best-known pieces are letters that sympathetic guards helped him smuggle out of prison, later published as Letters and Papers from Prison.

One of those letters was to his niece before her wedding. It included these significant insights: “Marriage is more than your love for each other.... In your love you see only your two selves in the world, but in marriage you are a link in the chain of the generations, which God causes to come and to pass away to his glory, and calls into his kingdom. In your love you see only the heaven of your own happiness, but in marriage you are placed at a post of responsibility towards the world and mankind. Your love is your own private possession, but marriage is more than something personal—it is a status, an office. Just as it is the crown, and not merely the will to rule, that makes the king, so it is marriage, and not merely your love for each other, that joins you together in the sight of God and man. … So love comes from you, but marriage from above, from God.”  [Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Letters and Papers from Prison, ed. Eberhard Bethge (1953), 42–43.]
I like that expression: "love comes from you, but marriage from above, from God." Marriage is not just about us. It is about our responsibilities to others and before God. It is "a post of responsibility towards the world and mankind." Elder Christofferson goes on to explain why that it is the case. He reviews the work of God and the Plan of Salvation, in which a critical aspect is our role in raising and nurturing children that other sons and daughters of God might also be able to participate in God's plan for us that includes this brief mortal phase where we receive the miraculous gift of physical bodies accompanied by, in many cases, the ability to bear and raise children.

Christofferson explains the divine responsibilities that comes with such gifts:
A family built on the marriage of a man and woman supplies the best setting for God’s plan to thrive—the setting for the birth of children, who come in purity and innocence from God, and the environment for the learning and preparation they will need for a successful mortal life and eternal life in the world to come. A critical mass of families built on such marriages is vital for societies to survive and flourish. That is why communities and nations generally have encouraged and protected marriage and the family as privileged institutions. It has never been just about the love and happiness of adults.

The social science case for marriage and for families headed by a married man and woman is compelling.19 And so “we warn that the disintegration of the family will bring upon individuals, communities, and nations the calamities foretold by ancient and modern prophets.”20 But our claims for the role of marriage and family rest not on social science but on the truth that they are God’s creation. It is He who in the beginning created Adam and Eve in His image, male and female, and joined them as husband and wife to become “one flesh” and to multiply and replenish the earth.21 Each individual carries the divine image, but it is in the matrimonial union of male and female as one that we attain perhaps the most complete meaning of our having been made in the image of God—male and female. Neither we nor any other mortal can alter this divine order of matrimony. It is not a human invention. Such marriage is indeed “from above, from God” and is as much a part of the plan of happiness as the Fall and the Atonement.
I also appreciate Elder Christofferson's recognition of the many exceptions among us who are not experiencing the blessings of being in a happy marriage with the opportunity to raise children:
To declare the fundamental truths relative to marriage and family is not to overlook or diminish the sacrifices and successes of those for whom the ideal is not a present reality. Some of you are denied the blessing of marriage for reasons including a lack of viable prospects, same-sex attraction, physical or mental impairments, or simply a fear of failure that, for the moment at least, overshadows faith. Or you may have married, but that marriage ended, and you are left to manage alone what two together can barely sustain. Some of you who are married cannot bear children despite overwhelming desires and pleading prayers.

Even so, everyone has gifts; everyone has talents; everyone can contribute to the unfolding of the divine plan in each generation. Much that is good, much that is essential—even sometimes all that is necessary for now—can be achieved in less than ideal circumstances. So many of you are doing your very best. And when you who bear the heaviest burdens of mortality stand up in defense of God’s plan to exalt His children, we are all ready to march. With confidence we testify that the Atonement of Jesus Christ has anticipated and, in the end, will compensate all deprivation and loss for those who turn to Him. No one is predestined to receive less than all that the Father has for His children.
Marriage is a blessing, but also a great challenge. It can test us and try us as it rarely turns out to be all that we hope. For some, it is a blessing never experienced in this life, testing us through its absence or unavailability. But whatever the burdens we face, if we turn to God and rely on the power of the Atonement, the full blessings of God will become available to us, with all the joy and endless potential that He offers. Here in mortality and afterwards, marriage matters. It is not just for our benefit and enjoyment. It is a divine post with great responsibility. May we cherish it and protect it in a world that is increasingly hostile toward one of the great elements of God's plans and one of the roots of human society and civilization.

Sunday, April 12, 2015

Satan's Got Your Metadata

Here in China, privacy is something that is a little different than what Americans might be used to. One notices this when shopping for tailor-made clothes at the most popular fabric markets, where the fitting room is a piece of cloth an employee will hold up for you as you change in a corner of the shop or in the hallway. One notices this in the men's room at the beautiful place where we meet for church in Shanghai, where there is a floor-to-ceiling window just right next to the urinals. Privacy is also an issue in phone calls, emails, and other communications, where we recognize that active surveillance is a possible. In this regard, America and China are becoming much more similar, though many Americans don't seem to be paying attention. There is much America needs to learn from China and much I wish America would emulate, but reducing personal privacy isn't on that wish list of mine.

I've been big on privacy ever since I was a teenager and maybe before. As a teenager, I took great comfort in Doctrine and Covenants 6:16, where we read that "there is none else save God that knowest thy thoughts and intents of thy heart." Whew, what a relief! No matter what, my personal, silent prayers would be private between me and God. No one could snoop. Satan, our sly Adversary, could not know my thoughts and could be excluded from my prayers. Privacy from that most sinister enemy. Whew!

Sadly, years later, some of that comfort has evaporated. Now, in light of certain modern revelations (from non-LDS sources) I am once again nervous about what the Adversary can know and do. Satan doesn't have to be a mind-reader to totally invade my privacy, because at a minimum, Satan's got my metadata.

Metadata has become a more important term in our vocabulary since Edward Snowden revealed just how much snooping the US government is doing on its own citizens. The US government has defended its invasion, claiming that we still have our privacy because they aren't usually actually listening in on our conversations, just getting "metadata" about who we talk to, when, and for how long. Just data about the conversation, not the actual contents. Metadata. So it's nothing to worry about, right? And when it comes to our thoughts, our wishes, and our secret prayers, that's all Satan has to go on, too. Just metadata.

Turns out that metadata is something that Americans should want to protect if they value personal privacy. Metadatter matters. Joe Mornin at Mornin.org has an essay, "Why Metadata Matters," that explains just how little privacy we have left when a powerful agency (or demonic being, for that matter) has access to our metadata. He also has provided valuable legal analysis on metadata and the Fourth Amendment in the Berkeley Technology Law Journal. Also look at a related article at Wired. Something to consider.

So Americans, I think it's time to be a little more worried about your personal privacy. Should you be worried that Satan has your metadata? Yes. But why? If you don't believe in the Satan of biblical lore, is there any problem? Yes, there is, but it depends on which Satan you mean. There's the demonic being that may or may not be purely mythical, and then there's S.A.T.A.N., the Security Administration That Answers to Nobody. I don't trust either of them. 

Monday, April 06, 2015

Two Starting Points for Exploring the Unexplained Book of Mormon

For critics, the Book of Mormon is ridiculously easy to explain, as I've learned from my years of interaction with them. Many seem to gravitate toward theories of Joseph as a lazy plagiarist. Too lazy to come up with his own words, he just found scattered phrases in the Bible and some other sources and used them over and over in a clumsy imitation of Biblical language to deal with some popular issues of the day like the origins of the American Indians and the intrigues of Masonry. Then grab a few friends and cajole them into thinking they had magically imagined seeing some gold plates, and bingo, the Book of Mormon and the Church was born.

For those who are willing to recognize the complexity and sophistication of the Book of Mormon text, it can be useful to add a shadowy figure or two to Joseph's frontier conspiracy, maybe Solomon Spaulding or Sidney Rigdon and associates, someone who may have had the scholarship to imitate Hebraisms and chiasmus, while developing an intricate story line and imaginary geography with the internal consistency needed for a good work of fiction.

The theories of plagiarism immediately satisfy their proponents, but leave a wealth of details quite unaccounted for. As in science, a good theory may begin with some gaps and puzzles, but over time, these should steadily be resolved and the theory, if sound, should increasingly explain the data and be able to account for future discoveries. The ability to explain and resolve should grow with time. When theories are inadequate, the gaps increase with time.

The trend with Book of Mormon data over time is one that I'd like to call attention to. For those of any faith interested in the details and especially the origins of the Book of Mormon, let me point to recent areas of investigation that have yielded many surprises that need to be explained, somehow, if we are to account for what the Book of Mormon actually is, not just what we imagine and hope that it is.

Some of the most important data related to the Book of Mormon is the external tangible data and evidence related to the first book, First Nephi, where we have a clear and specific description of a journey with a known starting point and specific directions and geographical features. Until about 20 or 30 years ago, it was all rather laughable to our scholarly critics who knew that places like Bountiful in the Arabian Peninsula or the River Laman simply did not exist. Now we have a wealth of data confirming the plausibility of the voyage and the places visited. There are plausible candidates for the River Laman, the Valley Lemuel, the south-southwest path, the place Shazer, the ancient burial place Nahom (including an ancient burial place of a similar name in the precise area that fits the text, and 7th-century B.C. archaeological finds confirming a tribe of a similar name inhabited that area--bingo, bingo, bingo), a plausible eastward path from Nahom to the sea, and two nearby competing candidates for the actual place Bountiful itself, with the primary candidate (in my opinion) being Khor Kharfot. It's not just a surprisingly green spot on the coast of Oman, but one that appears to fit numerous details in the text, even down to the level of being a rare source of iron ore near the surface that plausibly could have been used by Nephi to make tools for the ship he built.

The Arabian Peninsula, including Khor Kharfot, is a physical starting place for better understanding the Book of Mormon. Research at Khor Kharfot in particular is desperately needed to better understand this rare gem that is facing environmental degradation and loss in several ways. Before it is too late, its unique ecosystem and its ancient treasures need to be studied, documented, and preserved. This is a prime starting point for gaining more understanding related to the Book of Mormon. Fortunately, there is an international team of mostly non-LDS scholars and lovers of knowledge and the environment who are joining forces to explore and preserve. I salute the newly formed Khor Kharfot Foundation and encourage all of us to consider making a donation to support their work.

Here is a photo of the Khor Kharfot Foundation team. What a great looking group!

There is another starting place I'd like to suggest. Some of the most interesting and puzzling data related to Book of Mormon origins is coming from extensive scholarly investigation into the dictated text itself, the original Book of Mormon manuscript. This has culminated in the Yale Edition of the Book of Mormon, which now serves as the best we have for a critical text for the original Book of Mormon. It's what we need to be using for scholarly analysis of the text if we are interested in exploring its origins and the translation process.

The details uncovered by Royal Skousen provide strong confirmation that the text was dictated and written line by line by a scribe based on what he heard dictated, often showing the kind of mistakes and corrections consistent with a dictation process. But there is far more interesting evidence coming from the language itself as dictated. What once was thought to be a lot of hick grammar actually is good grammar, but from several decades before the rise of the King James Bible. The work of Royal Skousen and Stanford Carmack provide a rich body of new data that we need to understand and account for, somehow, wherever that leads. This is one of the new frontiers for Book of Mormon research. I'll discuss why I think it is especially important in a future post.

Sunday, April 05, 2015

Easter Musings

It's Easter Morning here in China. I'd like to share a few recent scattered thoughts as I begin listening to LDS General Conference.

I'm listening to the Priesthood Session live as I begin this post. President Henry B. Eyring's talk reminds us of how much we need to rely on personal revelation to meet the challenges of our callings and our lives. There are great risks, great opportunities for good that can be missed, and abundant opportunities for our own failure and destruction. Daily guidance from the Holy Ghost is needed, and this requires "more than casual listening and reading." Serious study, reflection, and seeking the Spirit must be a part of our lives and ministries. His stories are touching and instructive. He's one of my favorite speakers.

I really appreciate Elder Russell M. Ballard's call for the greatest generation of young adults. When I was young they told me that we were the greatest generation, but I think this would be a good time for the real greatest generation to step up and rise to the increased challenges of our era. I really admire so many of the young people I see in the Church today, and hope they will take on the challenge. (I'm back now from our fast & testimony meeting in Shanghai, where the young people of our ward really wowed me and many other adults. Most of the meeting involved teenagers and pre-teens coming up on their own and sharing sincere observations about their faith and living the Gospel. Quite inspiring! The future is in good hands, at least in some sectors.)

In another talk, Elder Dale G. Renlund of the Seventy reminded us of an important truth: “God cares a lot more about who we are, and who we are becoming, than about who we once were.... He cares that we keep on trying.” Exactly. Whatever messes we've made of our lives, God is anxious to welcome us back and move us in surprisingly better new directions, if we'll let Him.

It came as a surprise for me that Elder Michael T. Ringwood of the Seventy selected the easy-to-overlook Book of Mormon character Shiblon as his personal hero from the Book of Mormon. Shiblon is an example of someone who wanted to serve rather than have fame and dominion, and quietly went about doing what was most important. Good observation on his part.

Look out, I sense a tangent coming....

The name Shiblon, by the way, is also a unit of weight (not coinage!) in the Book of Mormon, according to Alma 11:15. This name may be related to a Jaredite king's name, Shiblom, one of a number of Jaredite names that crop in Nephite culture, consistent with the persistence of Jaredite influence among the later Nephites, (e.g., Corianton, Noah, Korihor/Corihor, and Nehor). There is also a Nephite unit of weight called a shiblon, "for a half measure of barley." According to the entry for Shiblon in the online Book of Mormon Onomasticon, a terrific resource to explore possible meanings and connections for Book of Mormon names, this usage of shiblon might derive from Hebrew šibbolet, "ear of grain."

LDS folks have long assumed shiblon was related to the next unit of weight mentioned in Alma 11:16, the shiblum. But the detective work of Royal Skousen leading the Critical Text of the Book of Mormon shows that what Joseph dictated in his translation was actually shilum, and that is what the Yale Edition of the Book of Mormon now has. The Book of Mormon Onomasticon's entry for shiblum explains what happened:
SHIBLUM has been the reading in Alma 11:16, 17 since the 1830 edition. It was written down as SHIBLUM in the original manuscript by Oliver Cowdery (probably based on the reading of the word SHIBLON in Alma 11:15, 16. O [the original manuscript] was then corrected by him to SHILLUM by overwriting the b with an l. Then (possibly with the assistance of Joseph Smith) he crossed off the overwritten l to produce SHILUM. In the printer's manuscript it appears only as SHILUM. The 1830 typesetter erroneously set shiblum (in what is now verse 16), which it has remained through the current edition of the Book of Mormon. In verse 17 both O and P [the printer's manuscript] have only shilum, but the typesetter repeated the mistake of verse 16 by setting shiblum, the reading in 1830-2013.[1] While the derivation of shiblum from ancient HEBREW is somewhat problematical, shilum is not. Its derivation from the HEBREW shillum, "reward, payment, compensation" is found in Micah 7:3 in the context of bribing judges.[2] According to Hoftijzer, in Northwest Semitic inscriptions slm has the meaning "to be paid, repaid."[3]
  1. Royal Skousen, Analysis of Textual Variants of the Book of Mormon. vol. 3. (Provo, UT: FARMS, 2004), 1810-11.
  2. Ludwig Koehler and Walter Baumgartner, eds. The Hebrew & Aramaic Lexicon of the Old Testament, vol. 4. (Leiden: Brill, 1995), 1511.
  3. Jacob Hoftijzer, Dictionary of North-west Semitic Inscriptions [Leiden: Brill, 1995], 2:1145.
If you don't have the Yale Edition of the Book of Mormon, you might want to mark your printed or electronic Book of Mormon in Alma 11 with a note explaining that shiblum should be shilum, meaning "reward, payment" in Hebrew. This is one of numerous examples of Hebraic influence that Joseph probably could not have appreciated since he didn't study Hebrew until around 1835. Without the recent investigation of Skousen into the original Book of Mormon text, it's something we probably would not appreciate today.

The issues around this one word provide one more glimpse into how the Book of Mormon was produced that is consistent with the accounts from witnesses, consistent with some degree of tight control in the translation process, and consistent with ancient Hebraic influences in the text. At the same time, it reminds us of the certainty of human influence and error in the printed product, as is the case with any scripture that goes through human hands, thus pointing to the need for the kind of investigation that Royal Skousen has done in his many years of work leading to the Critical Text of the Book of Mormon.

I look forward to learning more from General Conference. Next weekend is when it is rebroadcast for audiences in Asia (the time difference between Asia and the US can be so annoying), but I've enjoyed getting a slight head start on some of the talks today.

Finally, this is Easter. Let me say that I believe in Jesus Christ as my Savior, my Redeemer, and the author of all hope and salvation. In spite of all its beauty and wonder, this world would ultimately be depressing without the love and hope He offers through the Atonement. Our mistakes can be cleansed, our suffering and death can end in triumph, and anguish can become joy, and with His power, we can have strength to change our crudeness and selfishness into the power to love, to do good, and to help others and ourselves find joy.

I marvel in His creations. I marvel that it was even possible to find the solutions that enabled stars (balanced on the precipice between black holes consumed by gravity and massive explosions into nothingness from the fury of fusion and electromagnetic forces) to not only exist but provide engines for creating carbon, iron, and the elements we need for earth and life itself. I marvel at the beauty of DNA and how much structure, instinct, and machinery can be encoded. I marvel at the joys of human life and our abilities to appreciate art, music, literature, fine cuisine, family life, romance, and philosophy.

There is so much more to our life, so much more beauty and potential, than random chemical accidents creating genetic memes that compete to reproduce for no purpose at all. There is glory, beauty, and wonder in this life, especially when considered in light of God's majesty and His purposes for us. Our lives do have purpose and meaning, in spite of all that we suffer, and that meaning is found most fully by recognizing and kneeling at the feet of Jesus Christ, who personally knows our pain, takes it upon Him, and offers us freedom and joy. How wondrous Easter is!

Wednesday, April 01, 2015

Shanghai International District and Our Tradition for Young Single Adult Events at District Conference

For those who work with Young Single Adults (YSAs), I thought I'd share some of the experiences we've had in the Shanghai International District. Some things that worked for us might be helpful to others in the future, especially in places with scattered single adults over a large geographical area.

Shortly after my wife and I moved to China, my wife and I were asked to serve as co-chairs of the District's Single Adult Committee, one my duties in the District Council. (Best calling ever! Love these enthusiastic young people, and a calling where husband and wife get to work and travel together is a dream calling indeed--for those of us who enjoy being married.) Our district has waves of YSAs come in twice a year, with roughly 100 or so LDS YSAs at peak times. Most come here for just a few months to teach English or to study for a semester. The biggest groups are in the Nanjing Branch (4-hour drive from Shanghai, or 90-minute by train), where they are dispersed across several cities over a large area, and in the Suzhou Branch, also scattered over several cities like Suzhou and Changzhou. Changzhou is one of those tiny Chinese cities you probably never heard of since it only has 5 million people, not quite twice the size of Chicago. Shanghai and Hangzhou also have groups of YSAs.

Our initial challenge when we were asked to work with the YSAs was to look for some way to bring YSAs together for our District Conference held twice a year on a Saturday and Sunday. Previously the District YSA leaders had tried arranging Saturday service projects but meaningful group service projects pose unique challenges in China and may require complex approvals that have sometimes been withdrawn at the last minute. We took a slightly different route. Recognizing that many of our YSAs were not making much money and didn't have much time off, giving up a free weekend and a big chunk of change to come attend church meetings was not all that big of a draw. We wanted to make District Conference more appealing and valuable to them. Since many of the District's YSAs have not seen much of Shanghai, we decided to offer group tours of Shanghai for YSAs. We would also continue the tradition of providing free housing for YSAs coming to town, with the help of LDS members (foreign members) in Shanghai.

We quickly found that the idea of organized tours to see Shanghai was quite appealing. We initially offered a variety of tours that people could sign up for, and then we would offer the three or so most popular ones. Developing the itineraries and getting support to run the tours was an exhausting challenge, especially since we were also struggling just to find,  reach, and provide housing for the flood of new people who had just come to China in time for the Conference. Way too much work.

As things have evolved, we now have the Shanghai YSA liaisons kindly running the housing end of things. They take the names of the YSAs as we get their information and work with them and the Shanghai members to arrange housing. As for the tours, we now offer just two. The first is a "Main Attractions" tour of Shanghai that hits some of the most famous and interesting sites (People's Square, nearby People's Park to see the amazing matchmaking market, East Nanjing Road, Yu Garden and the adjacent old city (we go into the Ming Dynasty era garden), the Bund, the Huangpu River ferry, the skyscrapers of Pudong, and Lujiazui.

The other tour is the Qibao Ancient Water City tour, where we go to see a beautiful region with a crowded pedestrian street, lots of crazy shops, unique little museums, and some beautiful views on a canal. The Qibao tour is popular with those who are already familiar with the basics of Shanghai. It's one of my favorite places, but very few foreigners ever go there. Both tours end by bringing people to our LDS meeting place (Yongda Center at the corner of Longyang Road and Fangdian Road in Pudong) in time for our 3:30 PM Saturday afternoon session of District Conference, where we hope our YSAs will be fed spiritually.

Speaking of food, those on the tours buy their own lunch on Saturday. Good meals are possible for around 30-40 RMB ($5). They can also buy their own dinner above the Longyang Subway station near our LDS meeting place for about the same amount.

Since 2011 when we started this, my wife and I with some other volunteers ran the tours, and we ran ourselves rather weary in doing that. We found that not a lot of other members knew the heart of the city the way we do, and it was quite a chore trying to guide the groups and manage all the logistics. This year we made a change to simplify the tours to make it easier to hand over to someone else: we hired professional tour guides to take groups of people on the Main Attractions tour. Four excellent, English-speaking tour guides took groups of about 15 people each on the route we selected, managing the time well and providing lots of interesting information about this incredible city to help participants really enjoy it. We had the guides take groups as they showed up so we didn't have to wait around for stragglers, as in the past. The last group had the lest ones to show up. And since we weren't chasing everyone down and worrying about where everyone was and where they were going, we could just relax and really enjoy the tours and our time with these terrific young people. Much better. More expensive, but well worth it. This was my wife's inspired idea that really made life so much better this time around. 

In our first couple of years, we had also offered an evening tour that involved lots of walking and seeing some of the cool evening sites. But the past several conferences we have instead provided an evening dance which has proven to be a lot of fun. Using the facilities at the Yongda Center, we've managed to tap iPhones or computers into the sound system and play dance music. Part of the fun is that our YSA liaison in Shanghai is a dance enthusiast who is excellent in teaching some popular dances, and this year one of the YSA men is a skilled dance instructor who led the group in some fun line dancing and taught some fun swing moves.

The dance ends at 9 PM, giving people time to get home and perhaps see a little of the town on the way. They they come back in the morning for the General Session at 10:00 AM (plus there is typically but not always a Priesthood Session at 8:30 AM). At noon after the main session ends, we once again rely on the generosity of our Shanghai area members in 3 branches (Shanghai Branch, Hongqiao Branch, and the Jinqiao Branch) to provide a warm meal for the YSAs. My wife organizes the food and works with the branches to make sure we have a good mix of foods (especially things that go well on rice, plus deserts, salads, etc.). We have some wonderful cooks in this area with a great mix of international cuisines. Good food, including home made cookies and lemon bars that my wife and others prepare for the dance, is part of the recipe for success.

After the meal, there is a devotional for the single adults at 1:00 PM. It last for just an hour, leaving plenty of time for travelers to catch their train and get home.

We think the combination of fun tours, a dance,  good food, free housing, and chance to get together with other YSAs adds incentives for people to make the sacrifice and come to District Conference. Some would come anyway, just knowing that it's District Conference, but since it's so easy to drift into obscurity in this big, complex country far from familiar friends and support networks, we think the added incentives are important. We've heard from quite a few people that they weren't planning to come until they learned about the events, the fun, and the free housing. We've also seen our numbers grow rapidly once we got the system established. The numbers of YSAs in the District are down slightly right now compared to last year, but the turnout was surprisingly high. We had 83 YSAs join us for the tours, and 81 YSAs still with us at the devotional on Sunday. We think nearly 100 came to Shanghai for District Conference (not all went on the tours and not all made it to Sunday meetings).

The devotionals and the other District Conference meetings have generally been highly uplifting, spiritual, interesting sessions. Our District President, Stephen R. Dyer, does a great job as a speaker and in selecting other speakers. These are outstanding meetings. 

We are now looking at working with other Districts in China to coordinate our future events and invite their YSAs to join us and visa versa, but our emphasis will definitely be on those in our District.

In preparing for District Conference, my wife and I go out to Suzhou and Nanjing right after the arrival of the new wave of YSAs  and, with the support of the Branch Presidents, start preparing the YSAs with info about District Conference and our YSA events. We collect contact info to keep them informed, and the branch leaders also send us contact info and work to invite them all to come participate at District Conference. We also sign up those with musical talents for special musical numbers or to serve as the pianist or chorister in the devotional, and we get help on the music for the dance. We feel that going out and visiting the biggest population groups of YSA is important. There is not enough time to visit every branch between the wave of incoming YSAs and Conference, but we see quite a few and help get the word out.

YSAs in foreign lands are a unique group of bold, adventuresome, and fun people. But there are also many who are lonely, frustrated, and drifting. The support and spiritual feeding that occurs through attending District Conference is important, in my opinion. Now we need to look at some additional events to better meet their needs.

We hope some of these ideas might be helpful to others dealing with YSAs under unusual circumstances, though I'm not quite sure how it might help. Let me know if you have any questions.

Here are some photos from our latest event in March:

Tuesday, March 31, 2015

New Podcast with Stanford Carmack on Textual Analysis of the Book of Mormon

Over on the FAIRMormon blog, you can listen to "Syntax and Book of Mormon Authorship – Interview with Stanford Carmack." This new podcast lets Stanford share more about the strong evidence from the original Book of Mormon text that it is frequently not really KJV language, nor what a modern fabricator would be able to make up by imitating the KJV, but uses subtle syntax more characteristic of Early Modern English, several decades before the KJV. As he explains, it uses now archaic structures with the natural kind of variation typical of Early Modern English that the KJV translators made a point to eliminate as they imposed a good deal of uniformity in the grammar and language.

To me, these findings are still preliminary, being led by the data and not by preconceived notions about the translation process. The data, though, are pushing for a paradigm shift in how the translation was done, suggesting that there is an unexpected 16th-century imprint in the language. For those who believe Joseph wrote the text himself, or with the help of a friend, the apparent mastery of Early Modern English patterns poses a great challenge for previously proffered hypotheses.  For those who believe that there were gold plates translated by the gift of God, but given in Joseph Smith's language plus a dose of KJV verbiage, Carmack's work may suggest that the text was delivered deliberately with an Early Modern English accent in numerous subtle patterns that would be exceedingly difficult to mimic without a great deal of research--but why and how? Was there a pre-translation into Early Modern English? Deliberate tight control to impose a pre-KJV influence? And if the many archaic Early Modern English structures that now seem like bad grammar to us were important, why were so many removed from the text to fix or update the bad grammar? Was it important to be dictated originally for some reason, but OK to wipe out many of the "fingerprints" for modern readers?

Perhaps the point was to provide a subtle fingerprint in the originally dictated text that would only become apparent and useful to us much later, in a time--perhaps right when we really needed it-- when there would be the modern tools were have to examine Early Modern English texts, conduct statistical analysis for large bodies of text, and have the Critical Edition of the Book of Mormon to look at. I don't know, but if the analyses of Royal Skousen and Stanford Carmack hold up (as appears to be the case so far), then we may have something highly quantifiable and very difficult to fake, even if one were smart enough to try to fake it, that greatly weakens any theory of Joseph Smith or an associate of his being the author. But the details seem to leave very little room for just blind luck in imitating the KJV or other texts Joseph had access to. Something far more sophisticated is showing up in the syntax of the original Book of Mormon. Something really strange, almost like the ghostly voice of a a "familiar spirit" speaking from the dust.

Let me know what you think about his podcast and his previous articles at Mormon Interpreter on this topic.  If you are in a hurry but want to get some highlights fast, take a look at "English in the Book of Mormon" at the Book of Mormon Resources Blog  to see a summary of Stanford's recent talk on this topic given at a conference sponsored by Mormon Interpreter. Interesting findings.

Friday, March 20, 2015

Great Literature You May Have Missed: Joseph Smith's First Vision, Explained by Dr. Arthur Henry King

One of the most impressive figures on the BYU campus when I was a student was Dr. Arthur Henry King (1910-2000). He was a graduate of Cambridge in 1931 and then earned a  Doctor of Literature in stylistics from the University of Lund in Sweden. He taught English and English literature for fourteen years at the universities in Lund and Stockholm and was for many years on the British Council, which deals with educational and cultural affairs for the British government. He was twice decorated by Queen Elizabeth II for this work. He also served as Assistant Director-General in charge of Education in England.

With his deep foundation in literature, you may be surprised to learn that it was the literary power of Joseph Smith's First Vision account that captured his attention when he encountered the Church. This happened when he was as a mature, respected, active man with a lot to lose by joining the Church, as he did in 1966. Five years later, he would join the faculty of Brigham Young University, where he fascinated, challenged and sometimes overwhelmed many students.

Mormon Scholars Testify has an entry from him. I'd like to share a portion of that as he discusses his reaction to a piece of great literature whose literary value we Mormons often overlook. I'm glad he was paying attention and had the skills to recognize its value.

When I was first brought to read Joseph Smith’s story, I was deeply impressed. I wasn’t inclined to be impressed. As a stylistician, I have spent my life being disinclined to be impressed. So when I read his story, I thought to myself, this is an extraordinary thing. This is an astonishingly matter-of-fact and cool account. This man is not trying to persuade me of anything. He doesn’t feel the need to. He is stating what happened to him, and he is stating it, not enthusiastically, but in quite a matter-of-fact way. He is not trying to make me cry or feel ecstatic. That struck me, and that began to build my testimony, for I could see that this man was telling the truth.

Joseph Smith begins his story in his matter-of-fact way, setting out carefully the reason that he is writing this history and the facts about his birth and family. Then he moves from the matter-of-fact to the ironical, even the satirical, as he describes the state of religion at the time—the behavior of the New England clergy in trying to draw people into their congregations. He tells about reading the Epistle of James. He doesn’t try to express his feelings. He gives a description of his feelings instead, which is a very different thing. Look at verse 12:
Never did any passage of scripture come with more power to the heart of man than this did at this time to mine. It seemed to enter with great force into every feeling of my heart. I reflected on it again and again, knowing that if any person needed wisdom from God, I did; for how to act I did not know, and unless I could get more wisdom than I then had, I would never know; for the teachers of religion of the different sects understood the same passages of scripture so differently as to destroy all confidence in settling the question by an appeal to the Bible. (JS—H 1:12)
I am not good enough to write a passage as good as that. That is beautiful, well-balanced prose. And it isn’t the prose of someone who is trying to work it out and make it nice. It is the prose of someone who is trying to tell it like it is, who is bending all his faculties to expressing the truth and not thinking about anything else—and above all, though writing about Joseph Smith, not thinking about Joseph Smith, not thinking about the effect he is going to have on others, not posturing, not posing, but just being himself. The passage continues as follows:
At length I came to the conclusion that I must either remain in darkness and confusion, or else I must do as James directs, that is, ask of God. (JS—H 1:13)
Notice the coolness: “At length I came to the conclusion.”
I at length came to the determination to “ask of God,” concluding that if he gave wisdom to them that lacked wisdom, and would give liberally, and not upbraid, I might venture. (JS—H 1:13)
Notice the rationality of it, the humility of it, the perfectly good manners of it.
So, in accordance with this, my determination to ask of God, I retired to the woods to make the attempt. (JS—H 1:14)
Just imagine what a TV commentator would make of this sort of thing.
It was on the morning of a beautiful, clear day, early in the spring of eighteen hundred and twenty. It was the first time in my life that I had made such an attempt, for amidst all my anxieties I had never as yet made the attempt to pray vocally. (JS—H 1:14)
Do you see how the tone is kept down, how matter-of-fact it is? Notice the effect of a phrase like “to pray vocally.”
After I had retired to the place where I had previously designed to go, having looked around me, and finding myself alone, I kneeled down and began to offer up the desires of my heart to God. (JS—H 1:15)
Plain, matter-of-fact, truthful, simple statements in well-mannered prose. This is no posture. We are not thinking of Joseph Smith; we are just waiting, waiting, waiting to hear. Do you see how beautifully this is built up, how the tension is built up by his being so modest, so well mannered?
I had scarcely done so, when immediately I was seized upon by some power which entirely overcame me, and had such an astonishing influence over me as to bind my tongue so that I could not speak. (JS—H 1:15)
He is telling us about something terrible. But he is not trying to make us feel HOW TERRIBLE THIS IS. He is telling us that it happened.
Thick darkness gathered around me, and it seemed to me for a time as if I were doomed to sudden destruction. (JS—H 1:15)
He felt he was going to be killed. But there is no excitement, no hysteria about this. He just tells us. Notice in particular the coolness of the phrase “for a time.”
But, exerting all my powers to call upon God to deliver me out of the power of this enemy which had seized upon me, and at the very moment when I was ready to sink into despair and abandon myself to destruction—not to an imaginary ruin, but to the power of some actual being from the unseen world, who had such marvelous power as I had never before felt in any being—just at this moment of great alarm . . . (JS—H 1:16)
Notice the expression “of great alarm.” What would a posing sensationalist do with that? What kind of explosion would he devise, I wonder?
I saw a pillar of light exactly over my head, above the brightness of the sun, which descended gradually until it fell upon me. (JS—H 1:16)
“A pillar of light exactly over my head,” “above the brightness of the sun,” “descended gradually”—note the modifiers, the exactness. What he is trying to do is tell us what happened. He goes on in the same tone. He doesn’t get ecstatic. He doesn’t run over. He just goes on telling us just what happened in this astonishingly cool, and at the same time reverential, way. This is a visit of God the Father and God the Son to a boy of fourteen. But he is not in undue awe. He doesn’t stare. He is not frightened. He was perhaps terrorized by what happened before, but he is not frightened of this. He doesn’t lose his self-confidence, and at the same time, he is modest.
And then the humor: he returns home, leans up against the fireplace, and his mother asks him what is wrong. He answers, “I have learned for myself that Presbyterianism is not true” (JS—H 1:20). We have to remember that his mother had joined the Presbyterian Church shortly before this. How do you assess that as a conversation between a fourteen-year-old and his mother? All mothers know that sort of thing really happens to them with their teenagers.
As a former teenager, as a parent of four former teenagers, and in my roles as a leader over teenagers, that incredible understatement is so hilarious and yet natural, and speaks to the simple sincerity of Joseph's account.

Dr. King goes on to further assess what Joseph gave us, and classifies it as great literature.

Thank you, Dr. King, for helping us to better appreciate the power and pure sincerity of what Joseph Smith wrote to describe his scared experience. It is truly an example of great literature.

Saturday, March 14, 2015

Did the Exodus Happen? A Case Where Evidence of "Plagiarism" May Be Evidence of Authenticity in the Biblical Record

Here's a case in which evidence of "plagiarism" in the Bible may actually be evidence for the authenticity of the record of the Exodus. Fascinating story. See Joshua Berman, "Was There an Exodus?," Mosaic, March 2, 2015, at Mosaicmagazine.com.

Given the "sustained absence of evidence" for the biblical Exodus (no Egyptian records confirming it, no obvious evidence from the Sinai, etc.), many scholars now question whether it ever really happened. But as Berman points out, once we recognize that the translation of numbers in the Old Testament pose many opportunities for inflation, the absence of evidence is less problematic. Why would the Egyptians advertize the fact that they failed to control a batch of slaves who escaped?

Berman also notes that there are some lines of evidence that support the plausibility of several parts of the account, but still, we have been without clear, direct evidence for the Exodus itself. However, Berman offers new evidence for the authenticity of the Exodus account, based on what one might call evidence of plagiarism from an Egyptian account, the Kadesh poem about Ramses II. The Hebrew text appears to incorporate numerous unique elements from the Egpytian source, but using it to tell the story of God's victory rather than Pharaoh's. Incorporating these details required knowledge of Egyptian lore and culture that would not likely have been accessible to a later Hebrew author. With these newly recognized details before us, the origins of the Exodus account are consistent with Hebrews in captivity in Egypt who came to Israel. Berman sums it up this way:
[T]he evidence adduced here can be reasonably taken as indicating that the poem was transmitted during the period of its greatest diffusion, which is the only period when anyone in Egypt seems to have paid much attention to it: namely, during the reign of Ramesses II himself. In my view, the evidence suggests that the Exodus text preserves the memory of a moment when the earliest Israelites reached for language with which to extol the mighty virtues of God, and found the raw material in the terms and tropes of an Egyptian text well-known to them. In appropriating and “transvaluing” that material, they put forward the claim that the God of Israel had far outdone the greatest achievement of the greatest earthly potentate.
When Jews around the world gather on the night of Passover to celebrate the exodus and liberation from Egyptian oppression, they can speak the words of the Haggadah, “We were slaves to a pharaoh in Egypt,” with confidence and integrity, without recourse to an enormous leap of faith and with no need to construe those words as mere metaphor. A plausible reading of the evidence is on their side.
Berman properly recognizes that parallels can occur in many unrelated works, something we see frequently among critics trying to find evidence of Book of Mormon plagiarism from a list of sources that grows longer every few months. However, Berman points to a totality of many unique details that make a strong case for a relationship between the Exodus account and Egyptian sources. This is a case where apparent "plagiarism" in a scriptural text actually provides evidence supporting its authenticity. With Passover nearing, this is food for thought as we contemplate the Exodus and its intricate role in the Bible and the Book of Mormon. It's a story that I believe goes beyond metaphor, but is reflected in ancient reality.

Special thanks to Jared A. (twitter.com/JaredAllebest) for calling this article to my attention.

Thursday, March 12, 2015

BYU Event on Saturday, March 14, Exploring Early Modern English and Other Complexities in Book of Mormon Language

Wish I could be in Provo Saturday for an interesting event on some of the complex and controversial aspects of the English language in the Book of Mormon text, especially the original text. The event is "Exploring the Complexities in the English Language of the Book of Mormon," sponsored by BYU Studies and the Interpreter Foundation.

By the way, if you think it's valuable to have this kind of discussion and enjoy the insights coming from the Interpreter Foundation, why not make a donation to keep their work moving along?

Here is the program, quoting from the announcement at MormonInterpreter.com:

On Saturday, March 14, 2015, a conference will be held in 251 Tanner Building on the BYU Campus in Provo, Utah, to report and discuss the latest investigations into a wide range of linguistic elements in the Book of Mormon, including expressions that do not appear to have been in use in the nineteenth century. As a result of twenty-seven years of investigations by Royal Skousen into the original English-language text of the Book of Mormon, these curiously archaic expressions have raised fascinating questions and discussions regarding the origins of this wondrous scripture.

The program will run from 9:00 a.m. to 1:00 p.m. The public is invited and admission is free.

The conference will be filmed, and videos of the presentations will be made available online in the weeks following.

This conference is sponsored by BYU Studies and the Interpreter Foundation.

9 a.m.

Welcome by Daniel C. Peterson, Professor of Arabic and Islamic Studies, BYU; and President of the Interpreter Foundation

9:15 a.m.
Stanford Carmack, JD, Stanford University; PhD, University of California at Santa Barbara (historical syntax); independent scholar

Exploding the Myth of Unruly Book of Mormon Grammar: A Look at the Excellent Match with Early Modern English
The grammar of the Book of Mormon has been naively criticized since its publication in 1830. The supposedly bad grammar is a match with language found in the Early Modern English textual record. Syntactic usage, especially past tense with did and the command construction, points only to that era. Book of Mormon language exhibits well-formed variation typical of the 16th and 17th centuries.
10 a.m.
Jan J. Martin, Assistant Visiting Professor of Ancient Scripture, BYU

Charity, Priest, and Church versus Love, Elder, and Congregation: The Book of Mormon’s connection to the debate between William Tyndale and Thomas More
Thomas More and William Tyndale were staunch opponents but they did agree on two things: (1) that language and theology were inseparable, and (2) that errors of language could lead to serious errors in theology. These two commonalities fueled their famous debate about Tyndale’s translation of the Greek words presbuteros, ekklēsia, and agapē into English as elder, congregation, and love. Though three centuries separate the Book of Mormon from More and Tyndale, that gap will be closed as the Book of Mormon’s use of charity/love, priest/elder, and congregation/church are analyzed within a sixteenth-century context.
10:45 a.m. 15-minute break

11:00 a.m.

Nick Frederick, Assistant Professor of Ancient Scripture, BYU

“Full of grace, mercy, and truth”: Exploring the Complexities of the Presence of the New Testament within the Book of Mormon
While it has often been observed that the language of the New Testament plays a key role in the English text of the Book of Mormon, how the New Testament appears in the Book of Mormon has not been thoroughly explored. This presentation will offer some preliminary suggestions on how we can adequately identify New Testament passages within the Book of Mormon, as well as examining the variety of ways the New Testament text is woven throughout the pages of the Book of Mormon.
11:45 a.m.

Royal Skousen, Professor of Linguistics and English Language, BYU; and editor of the Book of Mormon critical text project, 1988 – present
“A theory! A theory! We have already got a theory, and there cannot be any more theories!”
Three common views regarding the translation of the Book of Mormon, still held by some, can be summarized as follows: (1) as Joseph Smith translated, ideas came to his mind and he expressed those ideas in his own language and phraseology; (2) as a result, the original English language of the Book of Mormon is based on Joseph’s upstate New York dialect, intermixed with his own style of biblical English; and (3) the Book of Mormon deals with the religious and political issues of Joseph’s own time. In this paper I will draw upon the work of the Book of Mormon critical text project to argue that all of these views are essentially misguided and are based on a firm determination to hold to preconceived notions, no matter what the evidence.
12:45 p.m.

Concluding remarks by John W. Welch, Robert K. Thomas University Professor of Law, BYU; and Editor in Chief, BYU Studies

Sunday, March 08, 2015

From The Truth, The Way, and the Life: The Truth About the Way B.H. Roberts Viewed the Book of Mormon at the End of His Life

Critics often claim that a famous LDS General Authority, intellectual, and prolific defender of the faith, B.H. Roberts, lost his testimony of the Book of Mormon after investigating its weaknesses, including evidence that it was a modern creation based on other works available in Joseph Smith's day. This conclusion is based on writings from the early 1920s in which he explored the arguments that critics might make. Though incisively written and developed at length, he clearly explained that this was a case of playing devil's advocate to help the Church prepare for future challenges and did not reflect his personal beliefs:
Let me say once and for all, so as to avoid what might otherwise call for repeated explanation, that what is herein set forth does not represent any conclusions of mine. This report herewith submitted is what it purports to be, namely a ‘study of Book of Mormon origins’ for the information of those who ought to know everything about it pro et con, as well as that which has been produced against it, and that which may be produced against it. I am taking the position that our faith is not only unshaken but unshakable in the Book of Mormon, and therefore we can look without fear upon all that can be said against it.  (Letter to President Heber J. Grant dated March 15, 1922, as cited by McKay V. Jones, "Evasive Ignorance: Anti-Mormon Claims that B.H. Roberts Lost His Testimony," FAIRMormon.org, emphasis by M.V. Jones.)
His personal beliefs after that exercise can most accurately be gauged by his magnum opus, The Truth, The Way, the Life, a book which he spent many years preparing and which summarized his lifetime of learning and experience in matters of faith and theology. This book was unpublished at his death because he refused to tone down some sections related to evolution (the existence of "pre-Adamites") that worried other leaders in the Church.

Now that the book has been published, though, we can evaluate where he stood on the Book of Mormon, and the result is unquestionable and undeniable: he firmly believed it was an ancient record of a real people in the ancient Americas, preserved on gold plates, delivered to Joseph Smith through the ministry of an angel, and translated by the power of God by a true and living prophet. The Book of Mormon in his view was a powerful witness of the reality of Jesus Christ and contained a powerful, "thrilling" account of his visit to the ancient Americas. Those who claim B.H. Roberts secretly lost his testimony do not know B.H. Roberts and have ignored his statements about his devil's advocate Studies of the Book of Mormon, and more importantly, have ignored his subsequent magnum opus. To perpetuate the claim that he lost his testimony is now inexcusable.

Here are some excerpts from Robert's crowning work, The Truth, The Way, The Life: An Elementary Treatise on Theology, ed. John W. Welch, 2nd ed. (Provo, UT: BYU Studies, 1996). From my perch here in China, I only have access to the Kindle edition and so my reference to page numbers is problematic. Where page numbers are given, I have found statements from others citing the passages; please let me know if any are in error.

Excerpts from B.H. Roberts, The Truth, The Way, The Life

In Chapter 47, "Renewal of 'The Way," Roberts examines various witnesses, ancient and modern, of the Restoration. He treats the Book of Mormon as a genuine witness from an ancient people, with no hint of a decayed testimony. (On Kindle, this section begins about 64% through the book; p. 469 ff.)
The second vision of the New Dispensation: The Book of Mormon revealed. Three years after this first revelation an angel of God named Moroni was sent to the Prophet to reveal the existence of an ancient volume of scripture known as the Book of Mormon, a book which gives an account of the hand-dealings of God with the people whom he brought to the continents of America from what we now call the “Old World.”
(a) The Jaredites. The first colony came from the tower of Babel at the time of the dispersion of the people from the Euphrates Valley; they were called Jaredites, after their leader, named Jared. They occupied the land located in the southern part of Central America and founded a nation which existed for about sixteen centuries, and then were overwhelmed at last in a series of wars which ended in their complete destruction, on account of their great wickedness. This about 600 b.c.
(b) The Nephite colony. It was about the time of the destruction of the Jaredites that a small colony was led from Jerusalem, under divine guidance, to the western continents, where they too developed into a great people and into national life. This colony was made up of Israelites of the tribes of Ephraim and Manasseh, and later augmented by a second small colony made up of Jews. They continued in occupancy of the land—chiefly in North America—until about 400 a.d. Then came their destruction because of their rebellion and wickedness against God. They lost touch with faith and righteousness until their civilization was overthrown, and they survived only in the tribal relations such as existed at the advent of the Europeans.
(c) Summary of the book and its translation. This record discloses the hand-dealings of God with these ancient people through the prophets and teachers God sent unto them, and also gives the account of the visits of the risen Christ to them, the introduction of the fulness of the gospel by his ministry, which established a true church of Christ in the western world, with all the principles and the ordinances of the gospel necessary to salvation. Therefore it contains the fulness of the gospel. In this record God has brought forth a new witness to the truth of the things whereof the Hebrew scriptures, the Old Testament and the New also bear witness. Thus an angel came bringing the everlasting gospel which is to be preached to every nation, kindred, tongue, and people. This American volume of scripture, God’s new witness to the old truths of the everlasting gospel, Joseph Smith was commanded to translate, and was given the power and means by which he could translate the unknown language of these ancient American peoples. The “means” provided was a “Urim and Thummim.” This consisted of two transparent stones set in the rim of a bow, a divine instrument used in ancient times for obtaining knowledge from God. This instrument for translation was found with the gold plates on which the above record was engraven. Joseph Smith translated the Book of Mormon, and through a century now, it has been published to the world. In It is translated into fifteen of the world’s languages.
Here Roberts is unequivocal. There is no struggle to find faithful words to spin something he doesn't believe in. There is no trace of vague statements about what Joseph "felt" or "imagined" his writings might reflect, no suggestion that he applied his imagination to craft inspiring stories, no equivocation about finding uplifting power in inspired fiction. Joseph was visited by a real angel, was given a genuine record from an ancient people, and was given divine power to translate. The result is scripture, authentic ancient scripture from ancient prophets and a powerful witness of Christ.

Earlier in the text, Roberts has this to say about the Boo of Mormon's witness of Christ (about 54% through, according to Kindle; p. 395):
The testimony of the Book of Mormon. Also in the Book of Mormon is given a most dramatic and soul-thrilling testimony to the resurrection of the Christ by the appearance of the risen Redeemer to a multitude of people in America, shortly after the resurrection of the Christ; for to the people of America, no less than to the people of the Eastern hemisphere, did God give assurances through their ancient prophets from time to time of the existence of his gospel and of its power unto salvation; and lastly the risen Christ came to them to assure them of the verities of the plan of salvation and especially of this feature of it, the resurrection from the dead, by his own glorious appearance among them, and his quite extended ministry among them. Here the resurrected Christ according to the Nephite record, descended out of heaven and appeared to the multitude, proclaiming himself to be the Son of God, the Redeemer of the world; and the multitude blessed the name of “the Most High God,” “And they did fall down at the feet of Jesus, and did worship him” (3 Ne. 11:17).
Assurance of the resurrection. No incident in the gospel history is more emphatically proven than this great truth, the resurrection of the Son of God, and the promise of the resurrection of all men.
The Nephite record is part of the evidence that makes the resurrection of Christ one of the most "emphatically proven" truths in the scriptures. This is not the thing that a closet doubter would write, especially a frank and strong-willed man like B.H. Roberts.

Other statements from Roberts again support his appreciation of the Book of Mormon. For example, regarding the sacrament prayers in the Book of Mormon, he writes (53% through the book):
These prayers of consecration, are the most perfect forms of sacred literature to be found. So perfect they are that one may not add to them or take ought from them without marring them.
He then explores at length the meaning and the power of the sacrament prayers. Clearly, he finds the literary value of these items in the Book of Mormon to be extraordinary. His previous ramblings about the weak-minded author of the poorly crafter Book of Mormon fraud have no place in his personal beliefs. This is a man who finds intellectually satisfying beauty in the Book of Mormon, a man who shows no doubt when he declares: "More consistent is it with right reason --which is but intelligence in action--to accept the light-giving and inspiring thought of the ancient American Scripture--the Book of Mormon..." (23% through; p. 165).

Further insights can be found in the editor's remarks from John W. Welch (emphasis mine):
Indeed, not knowing what we as editors would encounter in the manuscripts of TWL [The Truth, the Way, the Life], I was surprised to find that TWL pointedly and repeatedly asserts the antiquity of the Book of Mormon. While such affirmative statements may seem unremarkable, it is precisely their routine orthodoxy that makes them so notable. Coming from one of the great intellects of the Church, whose views about the Book of Mormon supposedly became more intellectually sophisticated in his last years, these unequivocal statements will disappoint anyone who has imagined Roberts as a closet doubter or late-in-life skeptic. TWL especially reveals how Roberts felt about the Book of Mormon after he wrote his “Book of Mormon Study” in 1922. That work identified several Book of Mormon problems and called urgently for further study. Some have seen “Book of Mormon Study” as evidence that Roberts had changed his views on the historicity of the Book of Mormon, but readers can now determine that Roberts did not waver in his belief because of that study. In TWL, Roberts describes the miraculous coming forth of the Book of Mormon in strong, straightforward, traditional terms. For example, he says:
Three years after this first revelation an angel of God named Moroni was sent to the prophet to reveal the existence of an ancient volume of scripture known as the Book of Mormon, a book which gives an account of the hand-dealings of God with the people whom he brought to the continents of America from what we now call the “Old World.” (469)
In addition Roberts affirms that “Joseph Smith was commanded to translate, and was given the power and means by which he could translate the unknown language of these ancient American peoples” (470). TWL contains several statements that necessarily assume the antiquity and literal truthfulness of this ancient American scripture. For example, Roberts speaks literally of the words that the resurrected Jesus spoke “to the assembled Nephites to whom he appeared on the Western Continent” (482–83; compare 388, 389). Indeed, Roberts believed that “no incident in the gospel history is more emphatically proven than this great truth, the resurrection of the Son of God” (395), and he used as his key witness the appearance of the resurrected Christ to the Nephites (395).
TWL often identifies Book of Mormon prophets by the centuries in which they lived. Lehi, Roberts says, lived “before the birth of Christ, early in the fifth [sic] century, b.c.” (401). Roberts identifies a prophecy in the book of Alma as “one written near the close of the second century b.c.” (401). Moreover, Roberts goes out of his way to describe the book’s authors as “ancient.” He calls Lehi “an ancient American Prophet” (75). He cites “revelations of God to the ancient inhabitants of America” (275). He calls the book “the American volume of Scripture,” written by “the old prophets of the ancient American race” (259; see also 21, 152, 263, 275, 427, 445). He also treats many Book of Mormon passages as the unique, authoritative source of revealed knowledge on important topics. He takes joy in drawing attention to doctrines “derived almost wholly from the teachings of the Book of Mormon” (444). He extols it as a masterful work. Of a Book of Mormon reading he exclaims, “how beautifully clear this principle of purity in thought is set forth” (501).
There is more to say about the relevance of Ethan Smith as a modern source for the Book of Mormon and the other arguments that Roberts considered, but there is one thing we can say with confidence: he did not lose his testimony of the Restoration and the Book of Mormon through his brief investigation into areas of potential weakness in the test.

However, in 1933, Wesley P. Lloyd met with B.H. Roberts, who was Lloyd's former mission president, and then wrote a lengthy journal entry that critics use to argue that Roberts felt the Book of Mormon was not historic and that the plates were just a "subjective" creation of Joseph Smith. The critics' use of this journal entry is unjustified, as McKay V. Jones explains in detail in "Evasive Ignorance: Anti-Mormon Claims that B.H. Roberts Lost His Testimony," FAIRMormon.org.

The Wesley Lloyd Journal entry appears to be summarizing what Roberts had argued in playing devil's advocate, calling attention to weaknesses in need of more buttressing. Roberts had expressly rejected the subjective theory before and there is no evidence that he had now been swayed by it. If Roberts actually mentioned it in that conversation, it would have been in the context of restating the challenges yet to be faced in defending the Book of Mormon--and his position was clearly and long had been that of one that believed in Joseph Smith as a prophet.

Lloyd shows no indication then or later of worrying that Roberts had lost his testimony. Roberts, like many of us apologists, recognized that there are weaknesses and points of attack that demand attention and defense. Calling for further research, analysis, and even revelation to resolve a current apparent problem is not the same as abandoning faith. Roberts certainly did not abandon the Book of Mormon, and turned to it as an authentic ancient record translated by a real prophet of God when he prepared his great final work on theology, The Truth, the Way, the Life.

Friday, February 27, 2015

How Did Joseph Do What He Did in Translating the Book of Mormon? Further Evidence for Early Modern English Influence

The mystery of Early Modern English (EModE) grammar in the original text of the Book of Mormon just became more interesting with Stanford Carmack's latest in-depth analysis, "The Implications of Past-Tense Syntax in the Book of Mormon" at MormonInterpreter.com.

Here Stanford explores the pervasive and archaic use of "did" in the Book of Mormon, particularly the "affirmative declarative periphrastic" did, or ADP did. Brace yourselves for some intense grammar and loads of intriguing data showing that the unusual usage of this grammatical form in the Book of Mormon strongly differs from the King James Bible and other books available to Joseph Smith, and differs strongly from the English of Joseph Smith's day, but is consistent with EModE patterns a few decades before the KJV was produced. There is a remarkable fingerprint in the Book of Mormon that defies common efforts to ascribe the Book of Mormon to Joseph Smith's authorship.

Here is Stanford's abstract:
Abstract: In the middle of the 16th century there was a short-lived surge in the use of the auxiliary did to express the affirmative past tense in English, as in Moroni «did arrive» with his army to the land of Bountiful (Alma 52:18). The 1829 Book of Mormon contains nearly 2,000 instances of this particular syntax, using it 27% of the time in past-tense contexts. The 1611 King James Bible — which borrowed heavily from Tyndale’s biblical translations of the 1520s and ’30s — employs this syntax less than 2% of the time. While the Book of Mormon’s rate is significantly higher than the Bible’s, it is close to what is found in other English-language texts written mainly in the mid- to late 1500s. And the usage died out in the 1700s. So the Book of Mormon is unique for its time — this is especially apparent when features of adjacency, inversion, and intervening adverbial use are considered. Textual evidence and syntactic analysis argue strongly against both 19th-century composition and an imitative effort based on King James English. Book of Mormon past-tense syntax could have been achieved only by following the use of largely inaccessible 16th-century writings. But mimicry of lost syntax is difficult if not impossible, and so later writers who consciously sought to imitate biblical style failed to match its did-usage at a deep, systematic level. This includes Ethan Smith who in 1823 wrote View of the Hebrews, a text very different from both the Bible and the Book of Mormon in this respect. The same may be said about Hunt’s The Late War and Snowden’s The American Revolution.
The fingerprint of EModE in the original text is fascinating and ably documented in this and Carmack's other works, and yet there are times when the translation may have been loose. See Brant Gardner’s 2011 book, The Gift and the Power. Gardner’s work on this topic has some weaknesses, as David Bokovoy has pointed out, but one example I find especially interesting is the reference to the “five Books of Moses” in the BOM text, which most likely were not a set of five books in Nephi’s day. I think the original text may have made a reference to the Torah or the books of Moses, and Joseph modified it in the translation process to refer to the five books of Moses as we know them. That’s a moment of loose translation.

I think the debate over tight and loose translation is a bit like the tension between the wave and particle properties of matter. Perhaps the translation process involves both to varying degrees, with the delivery of information to Joseph being provided with initial tight control that he then sometimes adjusted in his role as translator, resulting at times in loose control. When I see translations of Chinese, there are often parts where I feel there is "tight control" and parts where things are rather loose. I can imagine both occurring for a variety of reasons in a divinely inspired Book of Mormon with a tightly controlled pre-translation being available for Joseph to access and apply. But that's just my speculation.

I’d love to have a day-long panel discussion with Stanford Carmack, Brant Gardner, Royal Skousen, David Bokovoy, and maybe someone like Daniel Peterson, John Tvedtnes, and Bill Hamblin, etc., to discuss the ins and outs of tight vs. loose control and the implications of EModE. Who else would you like to see on such a panel?

Wednesday, February 25, 2015

Connecting Some Scattered Book of Mormon Dots

Those who enjoy puzzles, mysteries, and conspiracy theories might find some aspects of the Book of Mormon to be more rewarding than The Da Vinci Code or other modern thrillers. With a complex web of internal and external clues to decode, the mystery of Book of Mormon evidences can yield impressive results when one does the work to connect the many dots before us.
Here's an example of some recent random dots mostly linked to Alma 17-19 that I considered recently. There may be interesting connections, though not all of the leads end up being meaningful.

Let me begin with an exciting breakthrough just announced at the Book of Mormon Archaelogical Forum, BMAF.org. See "Excerpts from the 400-page book Exploring the Explanatory Power of Egyptian and Semitic in Uto-Aztecan." Linguist Brian Stubbs has greatly extended his early work that identified connections between Hebrew and Uto-Aztecan languages, a family of New World languages that extend from the Western United States down into southern Mexico and El Salvador (Mayan, by the way, is not part of that family). Now Stubbs has produced a new book with numerous correlations between Uto-Aztecan and three Old World languages, Hebrew, Aramaic, and Egyptian. (The book will be available on Amazon shortly.) For each of these languages, he offers several hundred correlations.

While false cognates can occur between any two languages just due to chance, significant numbers of apparently related words can be used by linguists (not necessarily amateurs) to identify language groups. Stubbs points out that many Native American language groups were established with around 100 or so correlations, so the finding of 400 to 700 correlations each for three Old World languages in Stubbs' latest work should merit attention. Stubbs recognizes that some of the proposed correlations may be a stretch, but the majority appear noteworthy.

The linkage to three different Semitic languages could have come from two or more infusions from the Old World, such as one migration from Israel with speakers of a Phoenician-like Northwest Semitic and an Aramaic-like Northwest Semitic, with one or both groups of speakers also bringing some knowledge of Egyptian. If Stubbs' work withstands further scrutiny and leads to even more insights and solved mysteries when applied by other scholars, it could prove to be a monumental advance in Book of Mormon studies. Of course, demonstrating strong Middle Eastern influences in New World languages does not prove anything divine in the Book of Mormon, but rather increases the case for plausibility and may help overcome some common objections.

Stubbs' earlier work has received the attention of other non-LDS scholars. For example, Roger Williams Westcott, Professor Emeritus of Anthropology and Linguistics at Drew University, New Jersey (Ph.D. in linguistics from Princeton, a Rhodes scholar, founder of Drew's anthropology program and author of 500 publications, including 40 books, and past president of the Linguistic Association of Canada and the United States) speaks positively of Stubbs' work in his article, "Early Eurasian Linguistic Links with North America" in Across Before Columbus?, ed. by Donald Y. Gilmore and Linda S. McElroy, Laconia, New Hampshire: New England Antiquities Research Association (NEARA), 1998, pp. 193-197. Dr. Westcott writes:
Perhaps the most surprising of all Eurasian-American linguistic connections, at least in geographic terms, is that proposed by Brian Stubbs: a strong link between the Uto-Aztecan and Afro-Asiatic (or Hamito-Semitic) languages. The Uto-Aztecan languages are, or have been, spoken in western North America from Idaho to El Salvador. One would expect that, if Semites or their linguistic kinsmen from northern Africa were to reach the New World by water, their route would be trans-Altantic. Indeed, what graphonomic evidence there is indicates exactly that: Canaanite inscriptions are found in Georgia and Tennessee as well as in Brazil; and Mediterranean coins, some Hebrew and Moroccan Arabic, are found in Kentucky as well as Venezuela [citing Cyrus Gordon].

But we must follow the evidence wherever it leads. And lexically, at least, it points to the Pacific rather than the Atlantic coast. Stubbs finds Semitic and (more rarely) Egyptian vocabulary in about 20 of 25 extant Uto-Aztecan languages. Of the word-bases in these vernaculars, he finds about 40 percent to be derivable from nearly 500 triliteral Semitic stems. Despite this striking proportion, however, he does not regard Uto-Aztecan as a branch of Semitic or Afro-Asiatic. Indeed, he treats Uto-Aztecan Semitisms as borrowings. But, because these borrowings are at once so numerous and so well "nativized," he prefers to regard them as an example of linguistic creolization - that is, of massive lexical adaptation of one language group to another. (By way of analogy, . . . historical linguists regard the heavy importation of French vocabulary into Middle English as a process of creolization.)

Of the various Afro-Asiatic languages represented in Uto-Aztecan vocabulary, the following occur in descending order of frequency:
  1. Canaanite (cited in its Hebrew form)
  2. Aramaic
  3. Arabic
  4. Ethiopic
  5. Akkadian (usually in its Assyrian form)
  6. Ancient Egyptian
Among the many Semitic loan-words in Uto-Aztecan, the following, listed by Stubbs, seems unexceptionable as regards both form and meaning:

Hebrewbaraqlightning> Papagoberoklightning
Aramaickatpashoulder> Papagokotvashoulder
Hebrewhiskalbe prudent> Nahuaiskalbe prudent
Hebrewyesïvähsitting> Hopiyesivacamp

Lest sceptics should attribute these correspondences to coincidence, however, Stubbs takes care to note that there are systematic sound-shifts, analogous to those covered in Indo-European by Grimm's Law, which recur consistently in loans from Afro-Asiatic to Uto-Aztecan. One of these is the unvoicing of voiced stops in the more southerly receiving languages. Another is the velarization of voiced labial stops and glides in the same languages.
One of the examples showing possible links to Egyptian involves the crocodile: Egyptian sbk / *subak "crocodile" appears related to Uto-Atecan *supak / *sipak "crocodile." (The asterisk "marks a proto-form or original sound or word as reconstructed by linguists.) This example follows a pattern seen in many apparent Hebrew-UA connections in which the Hebrew b is changed to a p in UA). Many of you seeing Egyptian sbk/subak might immediately think of the Egyptian crocodile god Sobek, which I discussed in my previous post "Of Crocodiles and Kings."

Sobek is of interest in the Book of Abraham since Joseph Smith's identification of a crocodile in Facs. 1 as the "idolatrous god of Pharaoh" can be considered as one of the many interesting evidences of authenticity for that work. When I saw that this Egyptian root had a cognate in UA, I wondered if the name Sebus in the Book of Mormon, as in the waters of Sebus, might be related to the crocodile. Could there have been a crocodile infested watering hole? But that conjecture is easy to dismiss since the final "s" really doesn't fit the "k" of Sobek and I don't think final "k" sounds are likely to morph into aspirants.

Though the crocodile-Sebus hypothesis was a false lead, my question led me to a new tangent and more dots to connect as I reviewed review some valuable work from others related to the place named the waters of Sebus.

By way of background, one of my favorite scenes in the Book of Mormon involves Ammon defending a Lamanite king's flocks at the waters of Sebus. The king's name is Lamoni, a name which corresponds well (yes, here's another tangent) with one of the few ancient place names in Mesoamerica whose ancient pronunciation has survived. Most ancient sites in the region are known by Spanish names like La Venta, with little to go on regarding how the name was known anciently. But in Belize, the ancient place name Lamanai has been preserved. This is an ancient city with impressive fortifications around it, similar to those described in the Book of Mormon.

You can learn more about the ancient Mayan city of Lamanai in a Youtube video. You might also enjoy the video that refers to the ancient Mayan city Pan cha'lib', which literally means "Bountiful." This may be a coincidence, but it's possible that the city was named after the ancient New World place called Bountiful in the Book of Mormon (which may have been named after the Old World Bountiful discussed above). Watch the text call-outs on the video in the first couple of minutes. The video is a re-enactment of an ancient ritual related to one that told of a warrior who visited Bountiful (Pan cha'lib').

The name Sebus is somewhat unusual for both Book of Mormon and Hebrew names, which usually don't begin and end with the same letter. It's the only example of such a name in the Book of Mormon. Paul Hoskisson in "What’s in a Name? Sebus" in the Maxwell Institute's Insights, vol. 32, no. 1 (2012), p. 3, explores some possible Semitic connections. He finds a plausible fit with an ancient Semitic root that could give this word the meaning of "to be gathered," which would be an appropriate name for a watering hole where animals are gathered. The potential for Semitic wordplay is then present in Alma 17:26, where we learn that Sebus is where the Lamanites drove their flocks (i.e., gathered or assembled them). Naturally, there is the contrast with the scattering that routinely occurred there as Lamanite troublemakers scattered the king's flocks--and seemed to get away with it time and again. Relying on divine power and some great combat skills, Ammon tells his fellow servants not to lose heart regarding the scattered flocks, for "we will gather them together and bring them back unto the place of water" (Alma 17:31). The waters of Sebus is mentioned twice more in Alma 19, verses 20 and 21, and in both cases that name is juxtaposed with the word "scattered."

It's fascinating how many times Semitic wordplays occur in the Book of Mormon. Not bad for a book allegedly fabricated by an unschooled conman years before he had a chance to actually study Hebrew.

One of the most recently discovered apparent wordplays involves the name Abish, a Lamanite servant woman who plays a role in the aftermath of Ammon's victory and successful gathering (both of flocks and arms) at the waters of Sebus, which resulted in the gathering in of many Lamanites to the fold of believers. See Matthew Bowen, "Father is a Man: The Remarkable Mention of the name Abish in Alma 19:16 and Its Narrative Context," Interpreter: A Journal of Mormon Scripture, 14 (2015): 77-93. And brace yourself for another tangent.

In a text that rarely reports woman's names, rarely reports Lamanite names, and almost never reports the names of servants, to have the name of a female Lamanite servant given is highly unusual. Yet Bowen points out how well the name fits the context and reinforces important themes in addition to providing a classic Hebrew wordplay. The name can be interpreted as Hebrew for "Father is a man," which relates well to Abish's status as a believer in God due to a "a remarkable vision of her father" (Alma 19:16). Bowen's abstract suffices for this tangent, but his case is greatly strengthened by the details he explores in his thorough article:
As a Hebrew/Lehite name, “Abish” suggests the meaning “Father is a man,” the midrashic components ʾab- (“father”) and ʾîš(“man”) being phonologically evident. Thus, the immediate juxtaposition of the name “Abish” with the terms “her father” and “women” raises the possibility of wordplay on her name in the underlying text. Since ʾab-names were frequently theophoric — i.e., they had reference to a divine Father (or could be so understood) — the mention of “Abish” (“Father is a man”) takes on additional theological significance in the context of Lamoni’s vision of the Redeemer being “born of a woman and … redeem[ing] all mankind” (Alma 19:13). The wordplay on “Abish” thus contributes thematically to the narrative’s presentation of Ammon’s typological ministrations among the Lamanites as a “man” endowed with great power, which helped the Lamanites understand the concept of “the Great Spirit” (Yahweh) becoming “man.” Moreover, this wordplay accords with the consistent Book of Mormon doctrine that the “very Eternal Father” would (and did) condescend to become “man” and Suffering Servant.
OK, the potential Semitic wordplay is cool, but what's going on with a king who couldn't stop a persistent threat at the waters of Sebus? And how can several of the surviving bad guys, drawn in by news from Abish in her attempt to get others to be witnesses of the miracle taking place with Ammon, the king, and the queen, dare to show up in the king's court and even attempt to slay the unconscious Ammon (see Alma 19)? It's the kind of security gap and cluelessness that might be par for the course for certain modern governments, but would seem to be a stretch in the presumably more sane ancient world. Brant Gardner has shown that the many seemingly ridiculous elements in the story of Ammon become quite plausible once we important Mesoamerican culture into the background. See his presentation at the 2004 FAIRMormon Conference, "The Case for Historicity: Discerning the Book of Mormon’s Production Culture."

Gardner explains that we may be looking at a family feud in which one Mesoamerican family is at odds with another powerful group, and can't simply kill off the trouble makers who roam his courts and slay his animals. To save face, he makes servants take the blame, and to upset the balance of power, he cleverly throws in a Nephite wild card with surprising results. This is one of many examples in the Book of Mormon where a knowledge of Mesoamerica helps fill in mysteries in the text. (Also see the related discussion of Gardner's hypothesis at Book of Mormon Notes, Feb. 2010).

Looking to Mesoamerica culture helps us appreciate what's happening in the Book of Mormon.

Interestingly, at least part of Abish's name, the Hebrew word for man, may be found in Uto-Aztecan. One of the finds reported by Brian Stubbs in his latest work, is correlation #572: Hebrew ’iiš "man, person" > UA *wïsi "person". But I'm not aware of "ab" or "abba" from Hebrew being proposed as a source for anything in UA. If Brother Stubbs sees this, perhaps he might have something more to say on the topic of possible linkages between Old World and New World names.

Coming back to the waters of Sebus, we've looked at the name Sebus and its role in a possible Semitic wordplay, the ensuing court scene and the whole scenario as a Mesoamerican intrigue, and interesting linguistic issues involving the name Abish. Now what about the "waters" aspect of the waters of Sebus?

The Book of Mormon Resources blog examines the many uses of the term "waters" in the Book of Mormon, and finds remarkable consistency with the way that term was used in--here we go again--Early Modern English (EModE).

By way of background, one of the most perplexing but data-rich and evidence-driven discoveries about the original Book of Mormon text is that much of what we thought was just bad grammar or imitation of KJV language is actually good English that predates the KJV substantially. There appears to be a strong current of obsolete grammatical patterns in the Book of Mormon that derive from roughly a century before the KJV was begun, adding a perplexing factor to Book of Mormon studies that at least helps us demonstrate that the Book of Mormon cannot be readily explained as a product based on copying KJV language and plagiarizing from contemporary sources or even relying on secret teams of contemporary writers trying to imitate KJV language. It's not clear why this would be the case and what mechanism would lead to the results, but the data demand to be considered and not just dismissed with an eye roll, or with mere assumptions about pockets of archaic grammar persisting as the frontier language of Joseph Smith's community. Something more than just bad grammar from Joseph himself is going on here, and Carmack offers abundant data to support that claim.

The discoveries in this vein began when Royal Skousen, the scholar most familiar with the intricate details of the earliest Book of Mormon text, noted that some of the grammatical structures in the early Book of Mormon manuscripts that looked like bad grammar and often were corrected out of the Book of Mormon actually were good grammar in Early Modern English from around 1500 AD. See Royal Skousen, "The Archaic Vocabulary of the Book of Mormon," Insights 25/5 (2005). The initial discovery came after Christian Gellinek suggested to Royal Skousen in 2003 that "pleading bar" may be a good reading for the problematic "pleasing bar" in Jacob 6:13. "Pleading bar" is not found in the KJV and is obsolete in modern English, but was a term used in EModE. This surprising observation led Royal Skousen to open-mindedly examine other aspects of the text, connecting more dots and pursuing more puzzles, until he came to the conclusion that EModE somehow played an important role in the original text. (Also see "Early Modern English" at the Book of Mormon Resources blog, Sept. 2014.)

Skousen's observations and discoveries were greatly strengthened by a linguist, Stanford Carmack, who has provided extensive data and statistics for certain aspects of the Book of Mormon further strengthening the case for EModE influence in the dictated text from Joseph Smith--an impossible feat for Joseph Smith on his own or I think anyone he had access to. See "A Look at Some 'Nonstandard' Book of Mormon Grammar" in Interpreter: A Journal of Mormon Scripture, vol. 11 (2014): 209-262, and "What Command Syntax Tells Us About Book of Mormon Authorship," Interpreter: A Journal of Mormon Scripture, vol. 13 (2015): 175-217. A third article on this topic should be published any day now (possibly this Friday) at MormonInterpreter.com. I look forward to digesting that new contribution, and congratulate Stanford Carmack for his detailed analysis and investigative work. This is a vein rich in data and filled with surprises.

I think it's hard to argue that Joseph Smith was deliberately trying to add EModE elements to impress anyone (what, nearly two centuries later, when we finally noticed?) since he took pains to edit out some of the awkward sounding phraseology that resulted.

Now, coming back to the waters of Sebus, Book of Mormon Resources in Sept. 2014 had this to say about an EModE connection, after listing the many verses using the plural "waters" in the Book of Mormon:
These passages show the pervasive Book of Mormon characteristic of duality. Waters are either associated with life, peace, righteousness and deliverance or they connote death, peril, sin and captivity. All of these ideas are found commingled in the single verse 1 Nephi 4:2.

All unambiguous passages refer to either a) a salt water ocean b) a flowing stream or c) symbolic spirituality, life and healing. The OED [Oxford English Dictionary] confirms that during the Early Modern English era (see the blog article "Early Modern English") "waters" plural referred either to a) water moving in waves [the ocean], b) flowing water [rivers] or c) healing water from medicinal, thermal or therapeutic springs. In this case, the OED strikingly corroborates what we find in the text….

So, evidence from the text and the OED suggests the waters of Mormon, Sebus and Ripliancum are all streams or rivers as in Joshua 3:13. Fountains are generally considered springs as in Deuteronomy 8:7. The fountain mentioned in Mosiah 18:5 is almost certainly a spring feeding a flowing stream. Trees grow along stream beds as in Numbers 24:6 which explains the thicket near the water in Mosiah 18:5. The fountain/tree connection was part of the Nephite worldview 1 Nephi 11:25. The image of waters that flow and gush associated with the actions of a prophet is attested in the text 1 Nephi 20:21 citing Isaiah 48:21. River Jordan was the quintessential baptistery in the New Testament Matthew 3:6, Mark 1:5. The most noted baptistery in the Book of Mormon is probably a flowing stream as well. In the land of Zarahemla, Alma1 probably baptized in the river Sidon as his son did decades later Alma 4:4. Alma1's baptisms in Zarahemla were expressly "after the manner" of his iconic baptisms earlier in the waters of Mormon Mosiah 25:18.

Most LDS Mesoamericanists who deal with the Book of Mormon correlate the waters of Ripliancum with the extensive wetlands at the mouth of the Papaloapan River in Veracruz. Our analysis confirms this correlation as highly likely. [The author then explores several geographical correspondences with the Book of Mormon and offers further examples from EModE texts.]

We know the "waters of Sidon" refers to a large river. The "waters of Ripliancum" probably refers to a large river. The "many waters" in land Ramah-Cumorah probably refer to multiple rivers. This makes it likely the "waters of Mormon" refers to a flowing stream of water since as Royal Skousen frequently reminds us, the original text is very consistent in its usage patterns (See the Editor's Preface to the Yale Edition, page xxxix). In the 1981 LDS edition, Mosiah 18:8 reads "here are the waters of Mormon" which in modern English could potentially refer to any body of water. The Yale edition restores this phrase to its original "here is the waters of Mormon" which in Early Modern English implied a flowing stream.
So what of the waters of Sebus? Perhaps it was a watering hole that was part of a stream or river. Nothing too surprising there, but I do like the way Book of Mormon usage of "waters" fits well with EModE usage. However, I'm not sure that treating "waters" as a singular noun was common in EModE or signals a pre-KJV connection. While the consistency in meanings for "waters" between the Book of Mormon and early English is interesting, I don't think any of those meanings are obsolete today, making this less interesting than the highlights of Carmack's and Skousen's finds.

Finally, turning back to Brant Gardner's insights about Mesoamerican culture and royal intrigues in the story of Ammon, I am interested in the Book of Mormon insights we may obtain from examination of ancient Mesoamerican royal courts. The Book of Mormon's brief information about kings and royal households among the Lamanites in the story of Ammon and the sons of Mosiah shows a hierarchical system of kings under a top king. We also learn of royal household and courts that appear to offer broad public access. Compare that to the following information from Wikipedia's entry, "Maya Civilization" under the section on "King and Court":
A typical Classic Maya polity was a small hierarchical state (ajawil, ajawlel, or ajawlil) headed by a hereditary ruler known as an ajaw (later k’uhul ajaw). Such kingdoms were usually no more than a capital city with its neighborhood and several lesser towns, although there were greater kingdoms, which controlled larger territories and extended patronage over smaller polities. Each kingdom had a name that did not necessarily correspond to any locality within its territory. Its identity was that of a political unit associated with a particular ruling dynasty….
Mayanists have been increasingly accepting a "court paradigm" of Classic Maya societies which puts the emphasis on the centrality of the royal household and especially the person of the king. This approach focuses on Maya monumental spaces as the embodiment of the diverse activities of the royal household. It considers the role of places and spaces (including dwellings of royalty and nobles, throne rooms, temples, halls and plazas for public ceremonies) in establishing power and social hierarchy, and also in projecting aesthetic and moral values to define the wider social realm.
Spanish sources invariably describe even the largest Maya settlements as dispersed collections of dwellings grouped around the temples and palaces of the ruling dynasty and lesser nobles. None of the Classic Maya cities shows evidence of economic specialization and commerce of the scale of Mexican Tenochtitlan. Instead, Maya cities could be seen as enormous royal households, the locales of the administrative and ritual activities of the royal court. They were the places where privileged nobles could approach the holy ruler, where aesthetic values of the high culture were formulated and disseminated and where aesthetic items were consumed. They were the self-proclaimed centers and the sources of social, moral, and cosmic order. The fall of a royal court as in the well-documented cases of Piedras Negras or Copan would cause the inevitable "death" of the associated settlement.
To me, the passage of time since Joseph Smith's day has made the Book of Mormon far more plausible, when placed in a Mesoamerican setting, than it was in light of common knowledge about Native Americans in Joseph's day. Looking for Mesoamerican cultural clues, linguistic clues, and other internal and external clues in the text can point us to many rich and long-buried treasures in this precious volume. There are many more dots to connect and puzzles to solve or resolve. Keep on sleuthing!

Update, Feb. 26: As I rushed to prepare this post, I had the persistent feeling that I needed to find and add one more interesting connection to these meanderings around Alma 17, so I wondered if the Mayan word for crocodile might be relevant. That was actually the question on my mind as I awoke early this morning after returning to China from the U.S. last night, but the online resources I found did not include crocodile or alligator. Out of time, I posted this, but then moments later heard back from Kathy Kidd, editor of the Nauvoo Times where I am cross-posting this. She mentioned that a Mesoamerican tour guide had told her that Lamanai means crocodile in Mayan. OK, there's my missing connection, and it has slightly more authority than hearsay since I just noticed Wikipedia identifies the ancient place name Lamanai as meaning "submerged crocodile" in Yucatan Mayan. Of crocodiles and kings indeed!