This post supplements yesterday’s post evaluating William W. Phelps’ account of a dream he claimed to have heard from Joseph Smith in the last day’s of Joseph’s life. Rather than burying this in a comment there, I’m posting it separately in hopes of drawing the attention of all those who read the original post.
Update: In addition to this addendum, please also see the short biography of Paul Thomas Smith posted by Seth on his website, which should also be a part of this whole story.
In that post, I discussed some of the ways in which a historian might evaluate the reliability of such a document. The questions and considerations raised there are the same kinds of points I raise for myself when I find an interesting account that I consider posting on Keepa: although for a casual medium like blogging I can’t always invest the same time and effort that I would put into a more formal publication (I can and do correct a posted story if I later discover that I got a date wrong or mistranscribed a place name), I aim for accuracy as well as catching your interest or sharing my admiration for an early Saint’s faithful life.
That post confirmed much of the background of the published dream claimed by Seth Adam Smith on his blog post introducing his new video; it also noted some problems with the account and Phelps’ credibility that would have caused me to choose not to post the dream on Keepa, at least not without alerting readers to the difficulties.
I also noted what I called “points of order,” a term I chose deliberately to flag a few questions as easily correctable procedural matters, just as someone might call the attention of a meeting’s chair to the fact that a motion had not yet been formally seconded. I didn’t consider those “points of order” in the same class as questions concerning the authenticity of Phelps’ account, but only as glitches in the presentation of Seth’s material.
Not only did Seth publicly accept my questioning of the document that forms the basis of his video, he did so cheerfully and graciously and professionally. His conduct will serve as a model for me when people challenge my claims in the future, and I hope I can do as well as Seth has done. Thank you, Seth, for all of that.
He also immediately began to revise his webpage to note the questions raised in my post. He may not have yet made all the revisions he intends to make, he may plan on polishing the changes he has already made. Keepa readers should take another look at what he has done and plan on visiting again after he has had time to consider any other adjustments he may make.
Seth has been quick to note the places where I challenged Phelps’ reliability. He has not yet, however, taken advantage of points in my post that support his background:
- The citation to History of the Church lets readers know the source of Seth’s reconstruction of the time when Joseph could have told Phelps about his dream.
- Joseph had a longstanding intimacy with Phelps – so close that according to the cited HC account, Joseph trusted Phelps to carry messages to Emma and to get his family safely away from Nauvoo had Joseph’s plan to flee to the West been carried through. This intimacy supports the likelihood that Joseph would have confided his dream to Phelps.
- Justin’s comment and included links provide additional evidence that Phelps did in fact accompany Joseph to Carthage, as Phelps claims in his account of the dream.
All of that, in some measure, supports at least the possibility of a factual basis to Phelps’ aging memory. Don’t be shy, Seth, about using positive points as willingly as you accept the cautions. Historical evaluation isn’t all about debunking – it confirms, too.
After alerting his readers to the potential problems with Phelps’ account, Seth explains again that his intent in producing the video was to share a story that had moved him and to inspire his viewers with the realization that Joseph’s martyrdom was not wholly a tragedy, because the closing of Joseph’s mission in this world meant that he was returning to the presence of God and the Savior. I recognize that as Seth’s goal from the beginning, and I share his testimony both of Joseph Smith and of the love of the Savior. These points are beyond the reach of historical evidence and rely on another kind of witness than anything William W. Phelps reports, or that my questions about his document can touch.
Seth concludes, however, that “whether or not it’s true shouldn’t make much of a difference.” And that’s where he and I will have to part company. I think it matters very much whether Phelps’ account of the dream is true (that is, reliable, accurate, reflecting what Joseph may have told him, in substance if not in word). It absolutely matters in history, and it matters when I cross over to spiritual matters — things that are not true cannot support true faith; untrue things, no matter how faith promoting on the surface, are substitutes, or counterfeits, or weak things that cannot bear scrutiny. Before I can accept something as support for any part of my faith, I have to have reasonable confidence in the truthfulness of that thing. Yes, I have successfully negotiated amendments to my testimony when something I had previously accepted turns out not to have been quite right, but other people have not been so successful. We hear the claim all the time around the Mormon and ex-Mormon blogs that people’s faith has been shaken, and that some have given up on the Church and its doctrines altogether, because they found out that this or that or something else was not just what they had been taught in Primary or Seminary. If we do our utmost to ensure the veracity of what we teach (and we are teaching by blogging and making videos), and if we avoid or at least clearly mark those things that are questionable, not only might we spare someone the experience of disillusionment, but we also clear ourselves of the responsibility for being a stumbling block to someone else. I know I’m not completely free of this, but I try.
Seth’s medium is one with the potential of reaching far more people than my own medium of blogging. His audience is sophisticated in many ways but may often be less experienced in evaluating historical claims. The emotional music and eye-catching images, the dramatic reading of skillful narrators in his videos, combine to capture and hold the interest of an audience far broader than sober text can often do. And Seth is very good at what he does – the elements of “Joseph Smith’s Last Dream” blend with each other perfectly, in my opinion. His intentions are ones I can fully support, too, when they involve sharing an appreciation of Joseph Smith and his mission. That ability to reach an audience and to touch them in lasting ways carries with it a responsibility to make things as “honest, true, … benevolent, virtuous, and … good to all men” as we possibly can make it. (Yeah, yeah, yeah. I’m getting all serious and preachy. But while both Seth and I try to be entertaining, we both have additional goals, too. So sue me. Us. Whoever.)
Our two bodies of work will probably always be at some tension, because his medium necessarily reaches for the dramatic and appeals to the emotional, whereas I find comfort and beauty and feel the Spirit by trying to get ever closer to the lived reality of the past through detailed study of records – to me, God manifests himself most visibly in the lives of people, and it is in the lives of people of the past that I can most easily find his presence. In that case, “whether or not it’s true” does make a great difference.
(Note: I’ll be away from the internet much of the day and there will be a considerable delay in responding to any comments. Apologies for that.)