Important Miraculous Faith Promoting Stories in Mormon History
In this section we want to briefly highlight a few of the more well known miraculous faith promoting stories told in the LDS church and examine what the historical records say about their authenticity. These are important to examine because so much of the church relies on the belief that Joseph Smith experienced the First Vision as stated in the 1838 account, that the priesthood restoration happened as Joseph Smith later changed the story to, or that an angel with a drawn sword really did command him to engage in polygamous marriages. As we have found with many important historical questions about Joseph Smith, the answers do not match what is still being taught in church today, so it is important to see if other faith promoting stories stand up to what we now know about the true history.
1. The Transfiguration of Brigham Young
After Joseph Smith died, there was no clear succession plan left behind to proclaim the next prophet. Thus a meeting was setup as both Sidney Rigdon and Brigham Young both felt they should lead the church moving forward (Rigdon as the prophet, Young as the leader of the twelve). As told in LDS history, the following happened: "Brigham Young, a man fiercely loyal to the Prophet Joseph Smith, current President of the Twelve and later to become known as the “Lion of the Lord”, takes the stand. Suddenly, the people arise “en-masse to their feet astonished.” One eyewitness later remembered, “it appeared that Joseph had returned and was speaking to the people.” As Brigham Young commences speaking, hundreds in the audience believe “in every possible degree it [is] Joseph’s voice, and his person, in look, attitude, dress and appearance [it is] Joseph himself, personified."” (ldsanswers.org) This is a crucial moment in LDS history, because the church split off into many factions following Joseph's death, with all of the living witnesses following Emma Smith to form the Reorganized LDS church due to their belief that polygamy was not from God. This moment is used to explain why Brigham Young was truly chosen by God to lead this church, and why this is the true and living branch of God's church, and that Brigham Young was truly a man of God.
What History Tells Us:
This story suffers from the same problems that Joseph Smith's First Vision, priesthood restoration, polygamy revelation, and so many others do: Nothing was written down about it happening at the time. With regards to Brigham Young, this is even more problematic because we have so many letters and journals from the day the meeting took place not to mention newspapers and church records from leaders. And yet not a single mention of this miraculous event until 13 years later, when Albert Carrington made the claim during a speech to a gathering of LDS members.
Richard Van Wagoner discussed this evolution in an article for Dialogue, as he documented that journals from the days surrounding the meeting discuss the event, yet fail to mention the transfiguration on every instance. He notes that "the legend is now unsurpassed in Mormon lore, second only to Joseph Smith’s own account of angelic ministrations and his “first vision" and that "when 8 August 1844 is stripped of emotional overlay, there is not a shred of irrefutable contemporary evidence to support the occurrence of a mystical event either in the morning or afternoon gatherings of that day." (Dialogue, A Journal of Mormon Thought, Volume 28, No. 4, Winter 1995)
Van Wagoner continues in this research to note that "the paramount dilemma with retrospective transfiguration recountings is why so many otherwise honorable, pious people recalled experiencing something they probably did not. A rational and likely explanation for this faulty group memory is that a “contagious” thought can spread through the populace to create a “collective mind." This is a very important point to remember when reading about Joseph Smith and the witnesses, who have details evolve over time and tend to fall in line with the "collective mind" as they got older.
LDS Answers argues that "within a year of the “transfiguration” the miracle had been referred to several times" although they provide no sources. Again, this was covered in both Nauvoo newspapers along with notes from many leaders of the church. The idea that they missed such a miraculous event is requiring you to suspend all common sense. If they had proof that it was recorded, they would not only present it, but it would be front and center in every lesson that explains why Brigham Young was the chosen successor to Joseph Smith.
Wilford Woodruff wrote seven pages in his journal on this day, and not a single mention of any transfiguration, change in voice,or any other miraculous event. Parley P. Pratt wrote about the day in his autobiography which was finished in 1856 and not a single mention of anything miraculous happening. In addition, there are writings from that day from Brigham Young, Heber C. Kimball, and Willard Richards, with not a single mention of any miraculous event.
One diary has been used by LDS scholars to prove it was mentioned at the time - this one by George Laub. But as Van Wagoner discovers, “This small tan-colored leather diary, which has misled many scholars, has now been determined to be a copy of the original by Laub himself, with additions.” In addition, they have since found the original diary, and it contains no references whatsoever to the transfiguration of Brigham Young.
In a talk during General Conference in 1869, Apostle Orson Hyde said that the moment Brigham Young opened his mouth "his words went through me like electricity…This is my testimony; it was not only the voice of Joseph, but there were the features, the gestures and even the stature of Joseph before us in the person of Brigham.” (Journal of Discourse 13:181)
The problem, of course, is that Orson Hyde wasn't in Nauvoo that day - he arrived five days later as confirmed by the journal of Wilford Woodruff. Hyde's account has been used in church lessons often, even though the history has been available for decades that it could not have possibly happened, which again makes us wonder what can we trust from church history when so many critical events can not stand up to basic scrutiny, yet continue to make their way into lessons year after year.
Why It Matters:
The transfiguration of Brigham Young is the central story of why Brigham Young was chosen to lead after Joseph Smith's death. Even LDS Answers concedes that point: "If the Lord miraculously transfigured Brigham Young’s appearance, Brigham Young was divinely sanctioned as Joseph Smith’s successor. If this transfiguration never took place, the very foundations of our LDS faith and history are weakened."
As with so many other issues we have documented here in the essays, priesthood, or scriptures, the history just does not back up the claims that make up the foundations of the LDS church. The bottom line is that the First Vision was not released to members until 20 years after it supposedly happened, the priesthood restoration was rewritten to add John the Baptist in years after it happened, Joseph Smith never used the gold plates during the translation, the Lamanites are not Native Americans as proven by DNA analysis, and Brigham Young never transformed into Joseph Smith in front of the members who arrived to determine the next prophet of the church.
Furthermore, as with these other topics the church is well aware of the historical facts surrounding these issues, yet continue to teach a false narrative. This story is even included in the recent Saints book, even after that carefully dance around this not being written about at the time. As we've stated in our essays repeatedly, the most obvious reason for this is because they did not happen as we have been told, and the narrative of Joseph Smith and the church as a whole is untrue. Faith is about believing in things that we can not see, but it is not about believing things in spite of what we can see.
This is a pivotal story in LDS history, and it is not backed up by even a single shred of evidence. We even have leaders such as Orson Hyde lying about being there, which only casts further doubt on other miraculous stories from the early days of the church. As Van Wagoner sums up in his article, "since these things are myth and our Church has permitted them to be perpetuated … might not the other fundamentals to the actual story of the Church, the things in which it had its origin, might they not all be lies and nothing but lies.”
2. The Miracle of the Gulls
From Wikipedia: The 'miracle of the gulls' is often credited by Latter-day Saints ("Mormons") for saving the Mormon pioneers' first harvest in Utah. According to Mormon folklore, seagulls miraculously saved the 1848 crops by eating thousands of insects that were devouring their fields.
After arriving in Utah, Mormons had begun planting crops and had relatively good luck from the weather being mild enough to not decimate their crops. However, soon after swarms of insects arrived and begun decimating the crops. These insects are now known as "Mormon crickets" have wings yet are unable to fly, but travel in hordes devouring anything in their path. Soon after, seagulls arrived and began eating these insects, regurgitating them up, and eating more.
The story has been retold by many leaders over the years, and the seagull is now the state bird of Utah. In addition, a monument to the gulls resides in Utah to commemorate this miraculous even that saved the crops of the saints in 1848.
What History Tells Us:
This story, just like the transfiguration story, was not cited during the time it happened. Utah archaeologist David Madsen recalls that his father, Utah historian Brigham Madsen, had spent time researching the founding of the seagulls story. ""He started looking into it," David recalls, "and he couldn't find hardly any written evidence that there was anything like what was claimed to be this seagull miracle." While he did come across utterances of cricket infestations from Mormon diarists, Brigham didn't find quite the same desperation and despair over crickets that the typical, modern-day seagull story describes. Moreover, there was very little evidence that seagulls played a significant role in resolving any cricket problem. Though there are accounts of seagulls and other birds eating the crickets, many journals from the time didn't even mention seagulls." (Salt Lake City Weekly)
Orson Hyde, one of the most prominent figures in spreading the transfiguration of Brigham Young story even though he wasn't there, was one of the first to tell this story as well. During the 1853 General Conference, Hyde spoke that "The hand of Providence prepared agents, and sent them to destroy the destroyer; a circumstance that was rare, one that was never known to exist before, and never since to any extent." It should be noted that Orson Hyde was on a mission in Europe when this event happened, yet as with the transfiguration of Brigham Young, told it as if he was there.
A BYU history professor, William G. Hartley, wrote about this in chapter 8 of a New Mormon History entitled "Mormons, Crickets, and Gulls: a New Look at an Old Story." Harley notes that the seagulls were in the area commonly, and that they always eat the insects and regurgitate the hard shells that they can not digest. He also notes that they arrived only after severe damage to the crops occurred, and that the combination of frost, drought, and the insects all contributed to the damages that year. Furthermore, Hartley concludes along with Madsen that the "miraculousness" of the event was not covered in any clear way by journals, newspapers, or official church correspondence until years later.
Why It Matters:
The seagulls story on the surface is a pretty meaningless story that is intended to promote faith, but the pattern in which these stories are told as truth is troubling. As with the transfiguration story, the First Vision accounts, the changes to the priesthood restoration, the translation of the Book of Mormon, and others we will outline below, we have lesson after lesson being told in church that is just not backed up by history. As we have been saying all along, the obvious takeaway here is that these stories did not happen, which again calls into question the credibility of all of the stories being told by early church leaders.
3. Wilford Woodruff's Vision of the Founding Fathers
In September 1877, Wilford Woodruff revealed a vision he had of the Founding Fathers visiting him in the Salt Lake City Tabernacle. "I will here say, before closing, that two weeks before I left St. George, the spirits of the dead gathered around me, wanting to know why we did not redeem them. Said they, “You have had the use of the Endowment House for a number of years, and yet nothing has ever been done for us. We laid the foundation of the government you now enjoy, and we never apostatized from it, but we remained true to it and were faithful to God.” These were the signers of the Declaration of Independence, and they waited on me for two days and two nights. I thought it very singular, that notwithstanding so much work had been done, and yet nothing had been done for them. The thought never entered my heart, from the fact, I suppose, that heretofore our minds were reaching after our more immediate friends and relatives. I straightway went into the baptismal font and called upon Brother McCallister to baptize me for the signers of the Declaration of Independence, and fifty other eminent men, making one hundred in all, including John Wesley, Columbus, and others. I then baptized him for every President of the United States, except three; and when their cause is just, somebody will do the work for them." (Journal of Discourses, Vol. XIX, pg 229)
What History Tells Us:
This story, just as the others, highlights a problem for the leaders of the church: It just does not hold up against basic facts. In a book of published essays entitled Dimensions of Faith: A Mormon Studies Reader, Brian H. Stuy reveals that baptisms for the signers had already been performed by Haden Wells Church and John M. Bernhisel as recently as a year before Woodruff says those men appeared to him in the St. George temple. In addition, many of the Founding Fathers had been baptized multiple times already, especially given that 1876 was the centennial of the Declaration of Independence, so the thoughts of the founders were on the minds of many early members in that year.
Some LDS apologists have since said that the founders were not talking about baptisms, but about temple ordinances for the dead. There are three major problems with this, however. First, the quote above says "nothing had been done for them." That is clearly not true as they already had baptisms performed for them. Second, Woodruff himself says "I straightway went into the baptismal font and called upon Brother McCallister to baptize me for the signers of the Declaration of Independence" which makes it plenty clear he was referring to baptisms. Third, as Stuy points out in his essay, "why would they need to urge Wilford Woodruff to repeat the same ordinances? They could not have been referring to endowments since these were not performed for the dead in the endowment house." It is also important to note that Woodruff told this story three times, so it can not be dismissed as incorrectly recorded that he rushed to baptize them after having this vision.
Why It Matters:
This story from Woodruff further highlights how unreliable the stories of miracles from early church leaders are. While some of the 'neo-apologists' will claim that the truth is not as important as the lesson, this is yet another instance where early history just can not be backed up by the facts we have available to us now. Why is it that Woodruff had a vision where the Founders were asking him to complete baptisms that had already been done? There are no good answers here, and continues a pattern of miraculous instances from First Vision, transfiguration of Brigham Young, priesthood restoration, etc that just do not match what we know from historical documents.
4. Lorenzo Snow's Visit From Jesus
Lorenzo Snow told his granddaughter that after the death of Wilford Woodruff, he was personally visited with a revelation from Jesus in the temple. From LDS's Friend Magazine: President Snow suddenly stopped and said, “Wait a moment, Allie. I want to tell you something.” Allie listened intently as her grandfather told her of an unforgettable experience he had once had at that place in the temple: “It was right here that the Lord Jesus Christ appeared to me at the time of the death of President Woodruff. He instructed me to go right ahead and reorganize the First Presidency of the Church at once and not wait as had been done after the death of the previous presidents, and that I was to succeed President Woodruff [as President of the Church].”
President Snow held out his left hand and said, “He stood right here, about three feet above the floor. It looked as though he stood on a plate of solid gold.”
Still speaking in hushed, reverent tones, President Snow told Allie that the Savior’s appearance was so glorious and bright that he could hardly look at Him.
President Snow put his right hand on Allie’s head and said, “Now granddaughter, I want you to remember that this is the testimony of your grandfather, that he told you with his own lips that he actually saw the Savior, here in the temple, and talked with him face to face.” (Friend Magazine, August 1993)
What History Tells Us:
There is no way to know if this vision happened or not, of course, but what we do know is that Lorenzo Snow did not tell anyone about this visit until he told his granddaughter Allie. This amazing, miraculous event was not reported for thirty five years in any church publication until the Improvement Era reported the story in September 1933. And in this issue the story of Lorenzo Snow meeting was Jesus was not only absent from the cover - it wasn't even listed in the table of contents!
Just like the First Vision, one of the greatest moments in human history went untold for decades, which seems even more incredible considering that Lorenzo Snow was an apostle for fifty two years and likely gave numerous talks to members who would have loved to know that Jesus personally visited him in the temple.
In addition, we are now relying on the memory of his granddaughter, which is a second hand account from a journal. It makes it very difficult to even ascertain the accuracy of what was written down, let alone why Lorenzo Snow would not tell the world about his personal meeting with Jesus. Not only did he not tell anyone about this meeting while he was alive, he never even wrote about it. It defies all reason and logic to conclude that an even of this magnitude would go completely undocumented by Snow during his lifetime.
Why It Matters:
One of the central foundations of Mormonism is the concept of a living prophet, and this story is used to illustrate that the prophets recive continual revelation from Jesus. The problem, however, is that this story was never told by Lorenzo Snow during his lifetime and was not even written in his journals. How could he live his entire life without telling anyone besides his granddaughter about this miraculous event? How could Joseph Smith wait decades to tell church members about the first vision? Why did it take over a decade for the transfiguration of Brigham Young to become a story to promote the idea that Brigham Young was actually a prophet of God?
These stories are designed to promote faith within the LDS church, but the problem is that none of them stand up to history. As we have documented through the annotated essays, the priesthood restoration issues, the problems with the Deutero-Isaiah, anachronisms, and King James errors in the Book of Mormon, there are just too many issues to overlook. The question that must be asked after reading all of these issues is: How many times can stories/scripture/events be proven false before an unmistakable pattern becomes clear that this church is not what it claims to be?