Colonel Dan and Brother Joseph (Part Two)

Though I can no longer believe any of Colonel Dan’s tales, I am still haunted from time to time over what I discovered in my research related to the Kennedy assassination. Too many questions remain unanswered and some very disturbing answers seem much too plausible.

After having lived too long in the world of deep, dark secrets, I moved on to other studies. In 2007 I was pondering  Mormon doctrine and particularly the recurrent use of a stone to symbolize revelation from God. The Revelation of St. John refers to a “white stone” with a “new name” written in it that will be given to “him that  overcometh.” When Jesus gave the nickname “Peter” (petros, stone) to Simon, he said that “upon this rock I will build my church.” Mormons understand this statement to include the meaning that revelation from God is a cornerstone of the church. Joseph Smith is said to have used “seer stones” to receive such revelations.  Given all of these associations between “stone” and “revelation,” I wanted to know when and where this association came from. Was it a Mormon innovation? Was it a Hebrew or early Christian idea?

I researched the idea on the internet, making the naïve move of not restricting myself to official church publications. I dug deep into the story of Joseph Smith and his seer stones, and very quickly found that there were aspects of this story that were very troubling.  As a young missionary, I had of course encountered criticism of Mormonism and of its founder before, but it had been far from convincing. Mostly it came from evangelical sources who were trying to sell something at least as ridiculous, arguing that Mormons didn’t really believe in Jesus and were going to hell. But now thanks to the internet I had access to sources who were to varying degrees still sympathetic to Mormonism but who saw huge contradictions or falsehoods in it. It was these criticisms which I found most compelling.

The single most devastating book I read was by Dr. William Morain and called “The Sword of Laban: Joseph Smith, Jr., and the Dissociated Mind.” I checked it out from my local public library expecting it to be worthy of contempt, but soon found myself drawn in. Every Mormon child knows the story of the boy Joseph’s leg infection and his refusal to take alcohol to numb the pain of the operation he had to endure. Morain takes the recorded facts of that story and adds to them an examination of what that operation would have been like at that time and place in history, and what effect it would be likely to have on the mind of a boy of that age and in those circumstances. He convincingly argues that a particular type of psychological damage would not have been unlikely as an outcome, and then discusses the evidence in Smith’s life and writings of just such damage. According to Morain, the “Sword of Laban” which Joseph Smith introduced into Mormon mythology is likely a representation of the amputation knife which the attending surgeon had brought with him. There is nothing subtle in Joseph’s interpretation of an Egyptian funeral papyrus which shows a figure lying face-up on a table with another figure holding a knife over him. To the Egyptologist, this is a depiction of an embalming; the knife will remove the deceased’s internal organs and store them in the jars seen below the table. To Joseph, this scene depicts Abraham, about to be sacrificed to idolatrous gods (represented by the jars) by his own father.

Morain’s analysis finally made clear several specific peculiarities I had noticed in the “prophet’s” writings. What was even more convincing about his analysis was that I could successfully use it to explain other peculiarities which Morain had not specifically mentioned. One example is this: In his description of  the visitation of the Angel Moroni, I had always found it peculiar that Smith had taken pains to point out that Moroni’s hands were bare a little above the wrists and that his feet and ankles were also bare. After reading Morain, I could easily see how a boy who had been strapped down to his bed – by his wrists and ankles – for a terrifying surgery might later imagine himself in that same bed seeing  a heavenly messenger whose wrists and ankles were explicitly not bound.

As well as recognizing great value in Morain’s thesis, I immediately saw parallels between Joseph Smith’s dysfunction and Dan Marvin’s.  Both had a great sense of “mission,” if not to say delusions of grandeur, believing that God was beside them and a vast evil conspiracy was arrayed against them.  They were quick both to embrace new allies and to chastise or speak ill of those whom they felt had failed them or turned against them. As I review the collection of Marvin’s letters in my possession, I am struck by how focused he was on inventorying those who were with or against him. Both Smith and Marvin told tales which grew grander and more detailed with time, perhaps in both cases being fully believed by themselves. My experience with Colonel Dan was highly influential in my willingness to believe that Brother Joseph was delusional.

Though I had always been biased in favor of my faith, I had always considered myself a rational person and viewed my faith as more rational than any alternative. I had simply lacked the experience or imagination to suppose how the Book of Mormon could not be authentic (as obvious as the forgery  is in some respects, it does contain many extremely clever ideas to make one entertain the idea of its authenticity). Morain and others gave me far more satisfactory explanations than the church did for many, many things.  It did not take me long to change my mind; indeed, I could not help myself no matter the cost to my social and family life. Little more than a year later I had resigned my position as an adult Sunday School teacher and left the church; within another year I was a divorced existential nihilist, as I am today. It has been a bittersweet transition.

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