Updates: After reading this post, please read the Addendum, especially if you don’t plow through all the comments on this post. Readers need to be aware of how quickly and how well Seth Adam Smith worked to revise his blog and video to reflect his growing understanding of the complexities of history. Also, perhaps partly in response to my unfamiliarity with Paul Thomas Smith, who had kindly offered his assistance to Seth, Seth has posted a short biography of Paul Thomas Smith which should also be a part of this whole story. Although I have edited my own attempt in this post to identify Brother Smith and his work, I have left some of those original lines intact; had I removed them completely, too much discussion by commenters would have been unintelligible. Thanks to all of you who have made positive contributions to the discussion, and especially to Seth for, well, everything he has done and said since this post was published.
[This post, originally published on the morning of 27 June 2011, is being republished on 30 June 2011 in an effort to draw attention to the above updates. Other than the addition of these update paragraphs and the deletion of a few lines regarding Paul Thomas Smith, nothing has been changed since that original posting.]
Seth Adam Smith’s devotional video entitled “Joseph Smith’s Last Dream” has been consuming considerable bandwidth since it was posted last week. Since the video’s launch, it has been promoted through countless Facebook links, in last Friday’s Today in the Bloggernacle feature, by LDS Media Talk, at Meridian Magazine, and on who-knows-how-many other blogs. Links to the videographer’s YouTube posting have reached my email box through mass email forwards.
Without exception, comments are enthusiastic, almost adulatory. LDS viewers are touched, and some repeat Seth’s own experience: “The first time I read it, I wept.”
This is not the sort of production I would ordinarily review. However, the unreserved comments, combined with a brief exchange between Seth and me on a friend’s Facebook link to the video, pushed my historian’s button. The reported dream that is narrated and illustrated on Seth’s video serves as an excellent lesson in how we evaluate historical documents. That evaluation – not the undisputed quality of Seth’s video, or its devotional purpose – is the subject of this post.
The sole historical source for the reported dream of Joseph Smith is a brief article in an 1863 almanac published (in 1862) by William W. Phelps. You can read the full text for yourself on pp. 26-27 of the almanac, scanned and posted here on the Internet Archives site. William W. Phelps, longtime associate of Joseph Smith, printer of many of the Church’s earliest texts, and author of some of our favorite early anthems, wrote that
In June, 1844, when Joseph Smith went to Carthage and delivered himself up to Gov. Ford, I accompanied him, and while on the way thither, he related to me and his brother Hyrum the following dream: … I will say that Joseph never told this dream again, as he was martyred about two days after. I relate from recollection as nearly as I can.
Seth writes that “While working for Church Historian Paul Thomas Smith in the summer of 2007, I came across this little-known dream of Joseph Smith. Few pieces of literature have ever touched my mind and soul as deeply as this has and I’ve longed to share this dream with others.” His preparation included discussing the dream with Paul Thomas Smith, commissioning a painting of the event from Jon McNaughton, and arranging for suitable music and professional narration, which he has combined to make his video.
That video is supplemented by a second video entitled “The Validity of the Dream.” Seth’s comment to me during our Facebook exchange was, “If you go to my blog you’ll see I took great pains to confirm the validity of the dream.”
That’s a problematic word, at least in the way it is used here.
Strictly speaking, “validity” has no meaning in the context of the 1863 document or the 2011 video. “Validity” means legal authenticity or force, or that conclusions follow logically from given premises. Neither applies here. I suppose that by “validity,” Seth means accuracy, or authenticity, or historical reality, or truth, or genuineness, and I proceed on that assumption.
But what could it mean to confirm the authenticity or truth of a dream?
1. It might mean confirming the authenticity of the report of the dream.
2. It might mean confirming the historical reality of the event (i.e.,, that Joseph Smith did have such a dream).
3. Or it might mean confirming that the dream had an authentic, prophetic content, that it was spiritually meaningful, a dream given by God to his prophet to convey spiritual truth or reveal future events.
Option 3 is entirely outside the realm of what can be established by human effort. Absent a divine revelation, nothing of the kind can be known. Even then, I could bear my testimony of that revelation to you, but unless you receive a confirming authentic witness of the Spirit, there’s really nothing more to discuss. You can’t validate my spiritual experience, Seth can’t validate Joseph Smith’s.
Option 2 is likewise outside the scope of consideration. Only Joseph Smith knows whether he did in fact have such a dream. You and I can neither confirm nor disprove a secondhand report.
Option 1 is the only practical meaning of confirming the “validity of the dream,” and historical skills are very much called for in this case. Historical evaluation is pertinent to establishing the authenticity of the document (that is, demonstrating that it really did come from its purported author and is not a forgery); to evaluating the document’s accuracy by considering the reliability of the author (was he in fact in Joseph’s company during his last days; was he a competent witness in other ways); to considering the reception of the document by others qualified to judge the report’s reliability; and perhaps to subjecting the claim to other tests common to historical scholarship.
On the surface, at least, Option 1 seems to be what Seth intends by establishing validity: he interviews a trusted mentor for that man’s opinion of the dream’s authenticity, and he makes a stab at confirming that Phelps was with Joseph at the time Phelps claims to have heard Joseph relate the dream. Both of these efforts fall within the bounds of historical evaluation.
So let’s evaluate:
There is no question that the 1863 almanac is genuine: Phelps published a series of almanacs over many years; multiple copies of this one exist and have been continuously known to history. In that sense, at least, the dream is “valid” – it appears in a printed document that is what it (the document, if not necessarily its content) claims to be.
Historians can also evaluate the known events of the hours around the reported dream, to evaluate Phelps’ claim to having been present to have heard Joseph describe a dream. Seth doesn’t cite his source for his reconstruction of that day; however, he seems to be relying on History of the Church. Period I, 6:547-48. Between 9 and 10 p.m., June 22, 1844, Joseph and Hyrum, waiting on the banks of the Mississippi for a boat to take them across, “sent for William W. Phelps” and gave him instructions concerning their families. It does not appear from that source, however, that Phelps spent the night with the Smiths or that he was present the next morning – Joseph’s instructions sent Phelps away from them:
Joseph then said: “Go to our wives, and tell them what we have concluded to do, and [carry further messages to Emma]. If you ascertain by tomorrow morning that there is anything wrong, come over the river to Montrose, to the house of Captain John Killien, and there you will learn where we are.”
I’m no expert on the details of these hours and am taking the HC account at face value. If Phelps followed Joseph’s instructions, he was not present at William Jordan’s house while Joseph was there between sunrise and 9 o’clock the following morning (the brief window which Seth describes as “enough time to sleep and have the dream”). Phelps may very well have tracked down the Smith party at Jordan’s house sometime that morning and accompanied Joseph to Carthage. Although Phelps is not named in the HC as a member of the accompanying party (that source gives the names of eight men who traveled to Carthage with Joseph and Hyrum, not including Phelps), it is possible that Phelps was one of the unnamed “several other brethren” mentioned in that account. (I haven’t invested serious research time into this point – perhaps a reader can cite a source that would confirm definitively that Phelps was with Joseph on that occasion, or that he was elsewhere. [Update: See this comment by Justin providing links to the HC pages confirming that Phelps did indeed accompany Joseph to Carthage.) And although I cannot confirm at the moment that Phelps was indeed there, neither do I have any particular reason to doubt his claim. I merely point this out as one of the questions which historians can investigate and contribute to an evaluation of the “validity” of the dream.
Seth’s chief evidence for having authenticated the dream is a brief recorded interview with Paul Thomas Smith.
Point of order: Seth describes him as “Church Historian Paul Thomas Smith.” “Church Historian,” capitalized and immediately preceding a personal name this way, is a title that belongs to Elder Marlin K. Jensen. Every time I see the title applied to Seth’s beloved mentor, I find it jarring. I cannot account for the misuse of that institutional title other than by choosing between ignorance or a deliberate attempt to mislead. Either way, it lends a false authority to the man’s opinion.
Second point of order: Brother Smith (I don’t know his academic title and would use that title as a courtesy if I knew it) was unknown to me before this video was posted. From what I can find from searching for his publications and other appearances in the press, I would choose a term other than “historian” to describe his scholarship – except for a few short pieces of John Taylor biography, his published work seems focused on New Testament themes and on devotional aspects of Mormonism (symbolism, prophecy) rather than on history. I do not mean to disparage Brother Smith by questioning the applicability of the label “historian” – I do so only because I’m evaluating this video with different tools than those seemingly used by him.
Brother Smith first identifies Phelps for viewers who may be unfamiliar with him: he lists several of Phelps’ contributions to the Church during Joseph’s lifetime, which also serves to establish that Phelps was in fact an intimate of Joseph, someone to whom he might well have felt comfortable telling his dreams. In evaluating the reliability of Phelps’ account, he says:
How reliable are memories? Well, it is what it is. People sometimes are dismissive of the memories of individuals who say, well, they heard the prophet Joseph say thus and so. I am inclined, though, to believe that the essence of what William Phelps said about this experience in part because there is another dream that has been recorded elsewhere that has some similarities involving a steamboat, involving people who were not obedient, involving Samuel Smith. There is nothing in the dream in the experience that does not ring true with Joseph and Hyrum being in a position of great danger, having to flee that danger, having their enemies destroyed and the walking on water resonates so beautifully. It is not strange to me at all this idea. [He then gives his devotional interpretation of elements of the dream.] It’s all in harmony with things we understand and know. So if Phelps got some minutiae wrong, it doesn’t invalidate the story at all for me. I think the essence is truth.
It is difficult for me to evaluate the usefulness of his testimony – and [religious] testimony it is. Brother Smith mentions another dream by which he measures this one, but does not reference it in a way that any viewer could identify and compare it to the dream under discussion to judge its merits as a yardstick. He does not analyze why he believes Phelps’ report to be accurate other than that it doesn’t not “ring true” to him, that it “resonates beautifully.” This testimony cannot be evaluated by any historian. It crosses over into my Option 3 – it asserts a truthfulness that is entirely dependent upon a spiritual impression. His audience is dependent upon receiving their own spiritual witnesses of the truthfulness of this dream to confirm Brother Smith’s testimony, and that is outside the realm of an historian.
(Please don’t misunderstand me. I am a believing Mormon who believes in the prophetic calling of Joseph Smith and in the witness of the Holy Ghost. I am not at all disparaging testimony in the spiritual sense. I simply note that the tools for evaluating spiritual testimony – a spiritual witness of one’s own, primarily – are entirely different from the tools of scholarship. I have received no such spiritual witness of my own in this case, and even if I had, it wouldn’t go far toward proving the “validity” of this dream to you, unless you sought and received your own witness.)
These two pieces of evidence – a partially supported presumption that Phelps was in Joseph’s company just prior to his imprisonment, and a devotional testimony by Seth’s professor that the dream “resonates beautifully” for him – are the sum total of Seth’s reported “great pains to confirm the validity of the dream.”
I suggest two ideas that should also be considered in the evaluation of the credibility of Phelps’ report:
First is the credibility of Phelps himself in 1862.
This means in part the reliability of his memory. He reports a dream that he heard once only, some 18 years before he published it, presumably while jogging along a rough road on horseback. As quoted above, Phelps writes from recollection only, not with the aid of any diary or other writing to prompt his memory and keep it on the right path. No living witness can confirm or correct his account. Paul Thomas Smith mentions people who are dismissive of very old memories, but he gives no reason why we shouldn’t question memory. People’s memories do fade, people unintentionally create false or wishful memories, or interpret earlier memories in light of later events, and memory plays tricks in other ways, causing people to “remember” things in ways that don’t jibe with reality.
I would have far more confidence in Phelps’ reported memory if his account were not so explicit, if he had sketched the general outline of the dream without relating so very many precise details, and especially if he hadn’t couched his report as if it were in the words of Joseph Smith himself (although to be fair to Phelps, it was a common 19th century practice to recast one’s own words as the direct quotations of people involved in the events). I can easily believe that Phelps could remember broad outlines of an impressive dream; pretending to recall any of Joseph’s actual dialogue, though, under these conditions and after so many years have passed, seriously damages my capacity to accept his account at face value. Any of us can recall the gist of a conversation we had at lunch today, but if our report could be compared to a verbatim recording of the conversation, we would be startled by how little of the dialogue was accurately recalled (this is a standard memory test and a well–known phenomenon). Multiply that effect by the passage of 18 years. Can we legitimately limit the veritable certainty of errors to mere “minutiae”?
Another aspect of Phelps’ credibility is his state of mind in the 1860s. Phelps was 70 at the time he wrote this report, aging poorly, and his grasp on reality was not always strong. His letters, although still brilliantly poetic in their language, are barely coherent. In an 1863 letter to Brigham Young, for example, Phelps reminded Brigham that he (Phelps) had been appointed printer to the church in 1831 (D&C 57:11), and he wondered when the Utah paper mills would finally turn out enough paper that he could resume his office; presumably he felt himself qualified to take over printing of the Deseret News or the book publication work being done in Liverpool, neither of which he was in any way capable of undertaking at that point.
In the same letter (Phelps to Young, 12 October 1863, Brigham Young Papers, Box 40, Folder 28, Church History Library), he claimed to have been anointed and ordained by Joseph Smith as “King’s Jester and Devil” and to be the successor to AEsop in the writing of fables.
A sample of his fables:
A lion, one beautiful morning, saw a honey bee, buzzing among the flowers, and inquired of the bee, how he knew which flower had bee bread and which had honey? The honey bee wisely asked the lion if he knew why a bar of iron or steel, lying horizontally on the ground would rust away and never gather any magnetism, while a bar of iron or steel, or even the shovel and tongs, standing perpendicular would soon gather magnetic power enough to attract a compass, or lift a needle? The lion, studying a while, answered, No. The honey bee then asked the lion, why a honey bee was better than a lion. The lion said he did not know, and asked the bee if he could tell. Says the bee very cautiously, Can you keep a secret? O most sacredly, re[s]ponded the lion. So can I says the bee.
And the “simple, philosophic answer” to that fable, Phelps wrote, was this:
Like a pair of shears that’s very keen,
Will never cut ourselves – but what’s between.
Any number of examples of Phelps’ failing mental capacity could be given, and should be considered in an evaluation of anything he wrote during his declining years.
A second idea relevant to evaluating the credibility of Phelps’ report is its reception by others at the time of its publication. Others, after all, were then living who had known Joseph Smith, and who knew Phelps. They surely were aware of the published account – it was the only locally- (Utah-) produced almanac, and copies have been part of the Church Historian’s collection from its publication (the copy scanned at Internet Archives comes from the Church’s library). How did witnesses of Joseph Smith, and historians of the Church, greet Phelps’ account?
I don’t know. They should have expressed some interest in it if they considered it authentic. They didn’t notice it, officially.
I say that they should have expressed some interest in it because the Church Historian’s Office was collecting and soliciting memories of Joseph Smith and recollections of early Church events. The letterpress copybooks of the Historian’s Office, available for research to anyone who visits the Church History Library, preserve letter after letter written by George A. Smith and Wilford Woodruff and others, to early Latter-day Saints (some still connected with the Church, others long gone) and to non-Mormons who had interacted with the Saints. These men were explicitly acting in their offices as Church historians and were soliciting facts and memories to be included in the history of Joseph Smith that had long been in preparation (parts of which were published by Phelps himself in the 1830s) and which would eventually appear as the History of the Church. Period I.
These men included reports of dreams in their history – they even included a dream reported by Joseph Smith in Carthage Jail. (I am writing this at home over the weekend without resources to check the original source of the dream recorded in HC 6:609-610, but whatever the source, its presence in the HC conclusively proves that the compilers believed it to be authentic.)
These historians were actively working on Joseph Smith’s history at the time Phelps published his almanac. Yet these men who were scouring the continent for memories and facts concerning Joseph Smith didn’t make Phelps’ published record part of their history. That to me is very telling. I cannot know exactly why they discounted this report, but that is what they evidently did.
So why have I spent so much time today on a long (and quite possibly very boring) post evaluating a pleasant, 3-1/2 minute video? Not because I bear any ill will toward Seth, or toward his video. It is professionally done. Seth found something that interested him, and he explored the dream’s authenticity to the best of his ability.
What does concern me, though, is the way in which this reported dream is being received. Without exception, the comments I have seen are filled with uncritical acceptance. Comments are highly emotional, without the evident use of reason or even measured spiritual reflection. Tears are taken as proof of the divinity of the dream, and no one is concerned about provenance. (That word again.)
I am wary of appeals to emotion (as Seth’s video, with its powerful music and dramatic narration, certainly is) that replace rational thought and prayerful consideration. I am wary of people’s uncritical acceptance of old documents produced as the latest new thing and presented without adequate study. I am wary of ambiguous, nebulous claims of “validity” that seem to be based on one thing (scholarly study and authoritative opinion) but which blatantly appeal to another thing (spiritual credulity). I am wary of long-delayed reports of Joseph Smith’s words – after more than a century, we’re still dealing with the ridicule and charges of false prophecy that arose from Oliver B. Huntington’s assertion of Joseph’s belief in six-foot tall men dressed as Quakers who lived for a thousand years and inhabited Earth’s moon.
We need to be careful of what we accept and don’t accept as having come from Joseph Smith. Too many people are responding emotionally first, and thoughtfully later, if at all. That’s what makes me wary of “Joseph Smith’s Last Dream,” and hasty, exaggerated assertions of “validity.”