On Thursday, Benjamin Pykles gave the annual Leonard J. Arrington Mormon History Lecture at Utah State University. Before he became Historic Sites director for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, he was my branch president in northern New York. Both he and his successor had moved there from California. I could understand why they left California, but not why they moved to northern New York. Dr. Pykles taught archaeology at the local community college. Once he accompanied the youth on a bus trip to the Palmyra Temple and nearby church history sites, and we stayed at the Palmyra Inn, which had an exhibit that was basically like "We found these arrowheads nearby and that proves the Book of Mormon is true." He explained to us all of the methodological problems with the exhibit and concluded with something to the effect of "But my faith is my faith and doesn't depend on archaeological evidence." His integrity and his faith both impressed me.
He was my branch president at the time I stumbled upon an "anti-Mormon" website and had my first faith crisis because of all the things the church hadn't taught me. I didn't talk to him about it because I didn't want to threaten his testimony. My instincts were spot on insofar as bishops and branch presidents received no training on this sort of thing and most of them would have been as clueless as I was. Dr. Pykles, however, would have been more qualified to help me than most. One day I overheard him telling someone else that another youth had come to him with questions about stuff on the internet. He lamented that the church didn't offer any guidance or resources for such questions. So then I emailed him and shared my own experience and the unofficial apologetics website FAIR that I had found in the meantime. The other night when I talked to him and his family for the first time in over a decade, he reminded me of that and said he had subsequently gone to a leadership meeting with apostle Richard G. Scott, where he brought up this problem and my email. So now he said that maybe the credit for the Saints books should be laid at my feet. Of course there was a lot more going on but I guess I did contribute in a small way to making this problem too big for the top church leadership to ignore.
Dr. Pykles welcomed the shift toward greater transparency, and so did I, but for me it came too late. Although I stayed in the church for almost another twelve years after my first faith crisis, it had broken my trust, and that trust was never fully repaired. I was never satisfied with the excuses people made for its lack of transparency (when they weren't lying that it had always been transparent and victim-blaming people like me for not having read everything it had ever published, that is). I could never be convinced that there was a legitimate reason for me to be raised in the church for seventeen years without knowing that Joseph Smith had more than one wife. In addition to my ethical concerns about it, the lack of transparency sure seems to demonstrate a profound lack of inspiration from the supposed prophets, seers, and revelators, since it caused them a lot of almost entirely self-inflicted problems when the internet was invented. (Not to mention the considerable suffering in the lives of the people who actually have the faith crises.) Elder Scott shouldn't have needed to hear about my email before he could take action. He and the others should have been inspired to be transparent before they had no choice.
I didn't want to put a damper on our reunion, so I didn't mention that I'd left, though I would have if it had come up. He asked if I'm still interested in Mormon history and I said yes and that was true. I bought his book the next morning and got it autographed, and I'm interested to read it because regardless of how I feel about the church's truth claims or values, it was a real historical phenomenon and Nauvoo was a real place with real people including some of my real ancestors. I thought I was supporting him by buying the book, but he said he it probably hasn't made him more than $300 in the twelve years since its publication. Ouch.
His specialization is historical archaeology, dealing with anywhere from fifty to five hundred years ago. The more recent it gets, the more documentation of history we already have from documents and photographs, so that some people think it's a waste of time to dig through historic trash too. In his presentation, Dr. Pykles of course disagreed and suggested that historical archaeology fills four (non-exclusive) functions: it confirms, completes, corrects, and/or confuses what we already know. Chicken bones and broken plates found in the basement of the Provo Tabernacle confirmed a 1908 newspaper ads for chicken dinners in the basement of the Provo Tabernacle. Excavation of the remains of the old Nauvoo Temple completed journal accounts of the patterns on its walls and floors by showing their actual colors. Comparing the ages of two different artifact troves corrected the presumed location of the Whitmer farm by revealing that the artifacts found in the current reconstruction's location are from too late in the nineteenth century. And most interestingly, multiple historical accounts of a cemetery in Far West, Missouri were confused by archaeologists' failure to find any human remains in that spot with any of the tools at their disposal. *Cue Twilight Zone music*
He also talked about his work at the former Hawaiian settlement at Ioseppa, Utah, and how talking to the settlers' descendants corrected the Eurocentric assumptions he had applied to their artifacts. (They had really nice plates, which Euro-Americans or Europeans would have used to show off to guests, but which Hawaiians would have used to honor their guests and demonstrate equality.) There are still a bunch of Hawaiian petroglyphs up on a mountain somewhere, but he hesitated to say exactly where because he doesn't want someone carving one off to stick on their mantlepiece. And he reaffirmed that in writing the history of Ioseppa it's important not to sugarcoat things or gloss over the bad parts of history, but to just tell it like it is. Of course, no one knows exactly how it is, because all the documents and artifacts and oral histories we have only allow us to reconstruct an estimate of what we think history looked like, and it will always have gaps that must be filled with interpretation and guesswork, which is why there can be three hundred books about Abraham Lincoln. Also, the church has altered the Hill Cumorah so much over the decades of its pageant that examining it and trying to determine where the golden plates were buried would be futile. His presentation was very good and well-received, but I'd bore everyone's pants off if I attempted to remember and summarize everything (insert your own quip about all my posts boring everyone's pants off here) so I won't.
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About the Author
C. Randall Nicholson is a white cisgender Christian male, so you can hate him without guilt, but he's also autistic and asexual, so you can't, unless you're an anti-vaxxer, in which case the feeling is mutual. This blog is where he periodically rants about life, the universe, and/or everything.