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The Truth Is Pulling Its Boots On

By: Ardis E. Parshall - February 08, 2011

There’s an old saying, usually (but probably wrongly) attributed to Mark Twain that “a lie will go ’round the world while truth is pulling its boots on.” Lies – or mistakes, or misunderstandings, or rumors; for purposes of this post it doesn’t matter what motivates an error – as well as some truth about the prophets and people of the Restoration have been printed in the world’s newspapers since our earliest days.

Even as far away as New Zealand, we were known very early on. An editorial in the Wellington Gazette, regarding some religious turmoil in that country, referred its readers to the fine example of the United States, where

… there is presented the spectacle of a great people, comprising in its numbers persons of almost every shade of religious opinion from the Romanist to the Mormonite … but all living in harmony, associating for the attainment of their common objects, whether religious or secular, without sacrificing or compromising their distinctive tenets.

The irony of that particular paragraph is that it was published on July 31, 1844, a month following the murders of Joseph and Hyrum Smith (an event yet unknown, of course, in Wellington).

Reports of those murders make an interesting study of the treatment of Mormon subjects in the press. A report from Quincy, Illinois, printed within days of the martyrdom in St. Louis and New Orleans and elsewhere, presents the news this way:

The “Carthage Greys,” a volunteer company, were placed as a guard around the Jail. About 6 o’clock, last evening, an attempt was made by the Mormons on the outside to rescue the Mormon prisoners from the custody of the guard. A youth, about nineteen years of age. (a Mormon,) began the fray, by shooting the sentinel at the door, wounding him severely in the shoulder. Simultaneously with this attempt, the Mormons on the inside of the jail, including the Smiths, presented pistols through the windows and doors of the jail, and fired upon the guard without; wounding, it is supposed, mortally, four of the old citizens of Hancock! It is unnecessary to say that this bloodthirsty attempt, on the part of the Mormons, was the signal for certain and sure vengeance. The lives of the two Smiths, and Richards, were quickly taken, and we believe no others.

With the news that twisted so close to home, you might think the distortions would be enlarged the farther the story traveled. Not so. The news reached New Zealand by the end of the year, and was reported this way:

The Mormon prophet, Joe Smith, and his brother, Hiram Smith, are both dead. They were murdered in the debtors’ prison at Carthage, on or about the 25th of June. …

The circumstances attending the death of these men are very differently represented by the parties for and against them. It is said by their enemies, that the Smiths, while within the prison, fired with pistols upon the guard, and then attempted to escape, whereupon the guard returned the fire, and that they were then both slain. I have taken some trouble to ascertain the facts, and I have come to the conclusion that the following statement is as near the truth as anything that has yet appeared in print, but I may be mistaken.

On a solemn pledge given by Governor Ford, of Illinois, that their persons would be protected from injury by a mob, Joe and Hiram Smith, with others, suffered themselves to be arrested, and were removed to the gaol at Carthage, there to await a trial for any crime they might be charged with having committed. Everything appearing to be peaceful, only a small guard was left to protect the prisoners from being injured or from escaping.

On or about the 25th of June, a mob, consisting of sixty or seventy armed men, all disguised, rushed past the guard, in strength numbering only six or eight, into the gaol, and immediately commenced firing through the door of the room in which the prisoners were confined, wounding the Prophet; whereupon he and his brother fled to a window, and were in the act of jumping out, when Joe received three balls in his body and fell dead upon the ground. Hiram fell inside of the prison, having received ten or twelve balls through his body. these were the only Mormons killed. One or two others were wounded. The dead bodies were removed to Nauvoo (“the holy city”) to be interred with great solemnity. The followers of smith were greatly exasperated, but kept in subjection by their leaders. Smith’s mother is said to possess a controlling influence, which was exerted in the preservation of order, and the suppression of violence. At the last accounts every thing was tranquil.

Not perfect, but not bad, either. Even though the lies ran more swiftly, the truth managed to pull its boots on and get started eventually.

Today the truth has its boots on, all right, but sometimes it seems to be slogging along in those boots while the lies are wearing the latest technologically enhanced racing shoes. That seemed true last week when I read about the Wiki Wars , the tug-o’-war between supporters and detractors for the right to define Mormonism on Wikipedia. I heard from friends about their experiences in correcting factual errors and the antagonistic spins of Mormon doctrine and history: No matter how carefully they write, no matter how heavily they bolster their arguments with evidence, no matter how rationally they appeal for fairness, there are people who fear and hate Mormonism so badly that every alteration is reverted – switched back to its previous erroneous or unfair state – within moments of corrections being posted. There are people, it seems, who have dedicated their lives to keeping those track shoes snugly on the feet of the lies, who have chosen Wikipedia to make their stand.

That’s to be regretted, of course, since so many people innocently use Wikipedia as their default source for all kinds of topics. I use it myself, almost daily. We depend on the claim that articles are reliable because they have been vetted and corrected and adjusted and defended by editors of every imaginable background. (Insert your own sermonette here about the “honorable men of the earth, who were blinded by the craftiness of men,” and those “who are only kept from the truth because they know not where to find it.”)

I can’t blame anyone who has given up in the Wiki Wars; I don’t have the patience or the temperament to fight that battle, either. There are far more productive uses for my time.

I can’t erase the error that’s out there by trying to stomp it out – even if I succeeded in stomping it out from one corner, it would burst out in another. In the simile often used in pioneer Utah, that would be like the man who saw a mustard plant gone to seed in his field and became so angry that he kicked the plant all over the field, succeeding only in sowing mustard plants everywhere.

What I can do – what we all can do – is to put the truth out there, for honest men and women to find when they are sincerely looking. While Keepa’s regular readers are generally people who already love the truth, the stories of faithful men and women, the evidence of people who believe(d) and love(d) and support(ed) the faith, are posted where they can be found by anybody, among many other voices bearing witness to the same truth. Your supportive comments give that much more weight to Keepa’s testimony – thank you for your participation.

If we can’t halt the errors, we don’t have to fear the ultimate outcome. As Joseph said,

The Standard of Truth has been erected; no unhallowed hand can stop the work from progressing; persecutions may rage, mobs may combine, armies may assemble, calumny may defame, but the truth of God will go forth boldly, nobly, and independent, till it has penetrated every continent, visited every clime, swept every country, and sounded in every ear, till the purposes of God shall be accomplished, and the Great Jehovah shall say the work is done.

And we can have a whole lot of fun here while we’re at it.



14 Comments »

  1. Excellent. In a course I took on internet business, the instructor believed the best path was to establish yourself as the expert on a subject (in his case corporate training) by giving it away for free. He posted daily articles on his area of expertise and getting them to come up prominently in the search engines.
    What you have done in Mormon history is just that. Keepa shows up in nearly every search of Mormon history I have done.

    Comment by Bruce Crow — February 8, 2011 @ 8:17 am

  2. As Brigham Young said: “Every time you kick ‘Mormonism’ you kick it up stairs; you never kick it down stairs. The Lord Almighty so orders it.” Discourses of Brigham Young, page 351, in the printed edition.

    http://www.journalofdiscourses.org/volume-7/

    (page 145 according to the blue page notes, page 187 on the electronic reader’s pages)

    and

    http://www.lds.org/ldsorg/v/index.jsp?vgnextoid=2354fccf2b7db010VgnVCM1000004d82620aRCRD&locale=0&sourceId=cdebaeca0ea6b010VgnVCM1000004d82620a____&hideNav=1

    in an article by Carlos Asay.

    I love that quote.

    Comment by Bookslinger — February 8, 2011 @ 9:38 am

  3. Very interesting. And I like Bruce Crow’s comment about Keepa appearing in Mormon history search results.

    Comment by David Y. — February 8, 2011 @ 9:55 am

  4. Amen.

    Comment by J. Stapley — February 8, 2011 @ 9:58 am

  5. And Amen.

    Comment by Paul — February 8, 2011 @ 10:20 am

  6. (Adds his emphatic “Amen!” to the chorus of amens rumbling through the bloggernacle)

    I like your admonition to “Put the truth out there”. I recently read Peter Hoffer’s (U of Georgia) short book about truth in history, The Historian’s Paradox. It was for me as an aspiring amateur in history an eye opening lesson on objectivity, the elusive nature of historical truth, and the common logical fallacies of bad history or intentional distortion and misinformation.

    However, all the good intentions and hard research and careful scholarship always seems to be chasing those individuals with a predetermined agenda and a seemingly endless amount of time and energy who want to defame or discredit someone (or in this case, the LDS church), and don’t much care for the truth.

    Maybe we could call the Keepaninnies the “Truth-Boot Squad”. Keep your bootlaces tied and your socks dry!

    Comment by kevinf — February 8, 2011 @ 11:13 am

  7. When you write of “putting the truth out there,” I am reminded of your Mormon marijuana post, which people still do seem to stumble across occasionally.

    I think it’s interesting that those who scream the loudest about our “whitewashed” history seldom are any better in getting the story right. I’ve seen people tout the South Park version of Mormon history as obviously better than anything written by Mormons, despite the garbling of the Martin Harris story, obviously spun to promote a particular (inaccurate) interpretation of events.

    I’ve read endless bellyaching about the infamous Brigham Young manual, claiming that all references to polygamy were dishonestly edited out without any notation of missing material. I personally compared the passages in question with the Journal of Discourses and found that in some instances they did go a bit overboard on the editing, but without exception, every alteration was indicated by square brackets or ellipses. But it just makes a better story to say that editing was hidden by not using standard editorial notations. Some even claim (falsely) that none of the Church Presidents manuals mention polygamy. And so the faith-promoting (or demoting) stories get propagated.

    Comment by Left Field — February 8, 2011 @ 11:41 am

  8. The problem, of course, is that in any attempt to get at historical truth, what counts as compelling evidence depends largely on your assumptions going in. (It’s always possible those assumptions will be changed by what’s found along the way, but let’s be honest—that’s rarer than one might hope.)

    Consider the Kent State shootings in 1970, which offer a good parallel to the differing accounts of the assassination of Joseph and Hyrum Smith given above. Some of the initial reports claimed that the National Guard troops were fired on first; that’s generally considered to be incorrect now. However, i know a number of people who heard that report first, and insist that it was true but whitewashed out of the history, because (a) that was the first report they heard, and therefore closer in time to the actual events, and (b) it squares well with some of their assumptions about anti-war protests of that time.

    Who’s right? I wasn’t around to see it, so i have to rely on what i see as the weight of the evidence rather than personal experience (and memory’s pretty slippery, anyway). But clearly, some people i know, including people i think are pretty rational types, opt to go with other sources. What should be on Wikipedia’s page on it? I know my preference, but i can pretty well guess theirs.

    Another specific example, but more topical: Reports by those close to the action claim that Brigham Young ordered the Mountain Meadows Massacre, and and others claim that he tried to stop it. Further, (at least some of) the claims are mutually exclusive. I know which ones i believe and why, but simply presenting that side and my reasons for it isn’t going to be all that convincing to someone who opts to believe the reports i’ve chosen not to.

    (Longer than i intended. Sorry.)

    Comment by David B — February 8, 2011 @ 1:12 pm

  9. You’ve pretty much spelled out, David, why I don’t much enjoy debates on any subject anywhere, and seldom get involved in any attempts to persuade people to change opinions — “a man convinced against his will is of the same opinion still.” It’s also why I don’t welcome and virtually never allow ex- or non-Mormons to argue for their points of view here. Keepa is not Wikipedia; Keepa’s partisanship is openly disclosed.

    Aside from a small handful of clearly identifiable “debunking” posts — ones targeting supposed Joseph Smith daguerreotypes, or Moroni’s purported dedication of the Manti Temple site, or the origin of George Washington’s “prophecy” — I can’t think of much I have written to convince anyone to change beliefs. That’s not my schtick. Rather, I simply tell stories or present artifacts that represent the Mormon past as I believe it to have been, informed both by my general worldview and by the highest standards of scholarship of which I am capable (within the time and economic limitations of this medium).

    That’s what I mean by “putting the truth out there.” My method is not to argue for truth against error by opening pitting them against each other, but to offer truth, to make it available, to take it out of the dusty records and put it in public view where readers can take it or leave it.

    That’s a very different thing from attempting to convince or persuade, and a very different thing from silencing alternate voices in a forum like Wikipedia which pretends to arrive at truth by the negotiation of all viewpoints.

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — February 8, 2011 @ 2:06 pm

  10. Wikipedia can be an absolutely amazing resource. I like looking up biographies and mathematical terms. Looking at my browsing history, I see that in the past week I have looked at a wide variety of articles with subjects ranging from high-density lipoprotein and Mount Ida (Crete) to Edward Tullidge and Royden G. Derrick.

    But I agree that there are articles that can create some real disputes in a community, including the article on hypoplastic left heart syndrome (HLHS). Statistics and treatment options can be overstated or understated. Some people interested in the condition may feel that compassionate care (letting a baby die) rather than the use of extreme amounts of medical intervention to palliate the condition should be stated as on option while other people may find that option unethical since the treatment options can save the lives of 7 to 9 out of 10 children.

    Looking at that article right now, I see problems with the writing style, citations, summaries, conclusions, links, history, and the random smattering of unnecessary details.

    So, I guess if you take some of the behind-the-scenes discussions on an article like the one on HLHS, and increase the interested audience to millions, potentially, rather than thousands, I can understand how the article on Joseph Smith can be so very polarizing.

    Well, this is a long comment! All I really mean to say is that we do appreciate you, Ardis, and all your efforts to provide a place on the internet for accurate and well-researched Mormon history, and particularly all the beautiful stories about the lives of members of the church.

    Comment by Researcher — February 8, 2011 @ 2:59 pm

  11. Amen to all said, and a BIG THANK YOU to you Ardis for this blog and all your hard work to help people to want to think!

    Comment by Cliff — February 8, 2011 @ 3:08 pm

  12. Once again, an excellent post. I know it’s easy for me to get caught up in an argument, and thus, waste valuable time and energy which could have spent in a better endeavor.

    Comment by Gdub — February 8, 2011 @ 5:15 pm

  13. I agree with Bruce Crow’s post #1.

    Comment by Maurine Ward — February 8, 2011 @ 8:56 pm

  14. Cliff’s post-#11-says it for me.

    Comment by Steve — February 9, 2011 @ 10:40 am

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