Mormon origins have long been a center of public curiosity. So an LDS press conference this week, unveiling an early edition of the book -- with photos of the "seer stone" that the church says Joseph Smith used to translate the Book of Mormon -- drew a lot of coverage.
Unfortunately, with the opinion-laden text that infects mainstream media, attitude makes all the difference. Let's compare two: from the Associated Press and the Daily Beast.
The press conference was actually on the printer's manuscript of the Book of Mormon, an interesting artifact in itself. But the book's photos of the stone, a solid object dating to the birth of the faith, were a natural emphasis in the stories.
The AP account, run by Huffington Post and others, plays it fairly straight. Despite its taste for breathless, 40-word sentences, the wire service writes a good lede, with outline, a couple of details and a hint of context:
The Mormon church's push toward transparency about its roots and beliefs took another step forward Tuesday with the first published pictures of a small sacred stone it believes founder Joseph Smith used to help translate a story that became the basis of the religion.
The pictures of the smooth, brown, egg-sized rock are part of a new book that also contains photos of the first printer's manuscript of the Book of Mormon. Officials with The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints unveiled the photos at a news conference in Salt Lake City.
The religion's drive in recent years to open its vaults and clarify sensitive beliefs is aimed at filling a void on the Internet for accurate information as curiosity and scrutiny increased as church membership tripled over the last three decades, Mormon scholars said.
The 800-word story adds background on the fate of the stone, indeed of the manuscript -- which is the property of the Community of Christ, which split off when the main group trekked to Salt Lake City in the mid-1800s. AP notes that leaders of both bodies were at the press conference, indicating that "the two faiths have moved on" -- though I wouldn't have used the term "past squabbles," as the article did.
AP quotes a satisfying four scholars for the story. One of them, Terry Givens of the University of Richmond, offers this observation:
As an American-born religion much younger than most world religions, the origins of Mormonism have come under greater scrutiny and put pressure on the church to prove their stories, Givens said.
"The other churches' origins are concealed by the mist of history," Givens said. "Mormonism is the first world religion in which the origins were exposed to public view, to documentation, to journalists and newspaper reporting."
But Givens seems to go further on a limb in saying that such press conferences seem aimed at "preventing current members from leaving." He doesn't offer any numbers supporting this. Nor, apparently, does AP ask.
I was surprised also when the story said the LDS church has produced a series of in-depth articles that "explain or clarify some of the more sensitive parts of its history that it once sidestepped, such as the faith's past ban on black men in the lay clergy and its early history of polygamy." AP makes it sound like a recent development, as if the online Mormon Newsroom hasn't been around for years.
But the AP piece is a model of fairness compared to the Daily Beast's version. Written by author Jay Michaelson, it's apparently one of those hybrid news blogs, which allow writers to take off the gloves.
And this one starts right in the headline -- "Mormons: Come Look at Our Secret Stone."
Michaelson's piece isn't totally scornful, but he does lead with it: "As part of its reluctant campaign to be more ‘transparent’ about Mormon teaching, the LDS Church highlights one of its weirder—but also more innovative—elements."
If snarks were sticky notes, this article would be covered in them. Michaelson calls the stone a "bizarre, superstitious aspect" of the Mormons. He says Joseph Smith used the stone by placing it in a white stovepipe hat, "a bit like the kind Professor Marvel wears in The Wizard of Oz." And he says Smith was one of those "spiritual eccentrics and hucksterers" of the 19th century.
Then there's this paragraph:
All of these doctrines, reluctantly disclosed by the LDS Church, seem ridiculous today. Contrary to the best efforts of the Church to appear normatively Christian, they seem foreign to the sorts of spiritual things religion is supposed to be about. They’re more like bad, discredited superstition. The seer stone in particular seems like a curiosity that undermines Mormon claims to rationality. It’s easy (and perhaps appropriate) to ridicule the magical rock, not to mention those who believe that Joseph Smith used it to “reveal” a scripture that is, in significant part, a bad parody of the King James Bible, phony Hebraic names and all.
How does he know all this? He cites no sources and quotes no one. That's right -- this 1,000-word piece quotes no scholars, as does AP.
The writer does offer some links in support of his contention that objects like the seer stone were used in Smith's time "to find water, gold, and treasure, often for hire. Smith himself used his seer stones in this way." Unfortunately, the link doesn't spell that out. And the website FairMormon.org has a lively conversation on the nature of seeing stones -- a conversation that isn't reflected in the Daily Beast article.
Again, the problem is not the focus on the stone. Even Godbeat veteran Peggy Fletcher Stack led with the object in her story for the Salt Lake Tribune. The problem is the volley of guffaws on how stupid Mormons sound. It tells us nothing except what the writer thinks of it all.
Michaelson shifts tone somewhat in the last 400 words of his piece. He says Mormons have a tactical advantage over traditional Christianity in teaching material things, like the physical body of God, a literal Garden of Eden and "worldly, financial success." Where did they get those ideas? From freemasonry, the article says: "the branch of Western Esotericism which was an obvious doctrinal source for Mormonism, operated in the realm of the natural. The magical-natural, yes—a world filled with occult forces and esoteric secrets—but a material, even scientific, world nonetheless."
But the above link is another blind alley: Click it, and you'll only get a story in The Forward about the 18th century heretic Jacob Frank. It has little on esotericism and no attempt to trace the Mormons to the Frankists, or, for that matter, to freemasonry.
I could go on, but let's wrap up. Sure, Mormon beliefs sound odd to outsiders. You could say the same of Jewish Kabbalah. Or Catholic transubstantiation. Or Pentecostal "tongues." Or Tibetan Buddhist divination. If everyone believed the same, we wouldn't have different religions.
Rather than adding sticky notes, how about sticking to facts?