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Thursday, October 12, 2017

"The Critics Claim..." A Rebuttal to Tad Callister's General Conference Talk on the Historicity of the Book of Mormon

On October 1, 2017, Tad Callister, the General President of the Sunday School of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, delivered a talk during the church's General Conference meeting that is likely to stir debate in certain circles.  In a nutshell, Callister's talk focused on how the Book of Mormon is a historical document and Joseph Smith's divine role as translator of the ancient record.  Callister took clear aim at critics who have questioned the historicity of the Book of Mormon or the claims made by Joseph Smith.  His talk perpetuated the all-or-nothing, black and white, it's either all true or all false mentality that has become a common theme for many Mormon apologists.

As a member of the LDS Church I proudly declare my love and appreciation for the Book of Mormon.  I have read the book many times (in both Spanish and English).  It has enriched my life in many ways.  I have seen the Book of Mormon change lives during my time as a missionary.  In short, I believe the Book of Mormon is a valuable book of scripture that convinces the reader "that Jesus is the Christ, the Eternal God" as its title page states

But I DO NOT believe the Book of Mormon is a historical record of an ancient people.  Far from it.

I realize such a declaration will be hard for many devout Mormons to hear and understand.  After all, we are taught since our days as Primary children that the Book of Mormon is BOTH history and scripture.  To separate the two smells of blasphemy.  I understand that perspective.  As recently as a decade ago I espoused and defended such a belief.  But my training as a student of history (I received a Bachelor of Arts in History in 2006 and a Master of Arts in History in 2008) persuaded me that such a belief is simply untenable.

It is not my intention to destroy faith or attack LDS beliefs, nor do I have any desire to belittle Brother Callister or his perspective.  I simply disagree with his conclusions.  In addition, I believe that insisting upon the absolute historical legitimacy of the Book of Mormon as a fundamental article of faith for any believing Latter-day Saint can be potentially destructive to those who do not see the world on such all or nothing terms.

In my opinion, Mormonism should be a "big tent" faith.  We should make room for those who do not share the absolutist mentality that seems to permeate mainstream Mormon thought.  As President Deiter F. Uchtdorf stated in a 2013 General Conference talk:
If you could see into our hearts, you would probably find that you fit in better than you suppose.  You might be surprised to find that we have yearnings and struggles and hopes similar to yours.  Your background or upbringing might seem different from what you perceive in many Latter-day Saints, but that could be a blessing.  Brothers and sisters, dear friends, we need your unique talents and perspectives.  The diversity of persons and peoples all around the globe is a strength of this church.
If these are your desires, then regardless of your circumstances, your personal history, or the strength of your testimony, there is room for you in this church.  Come, join with us!
I say all of this as a disclaimer to the reader.  If you are of the opinion that the Book of Mormon is an absolute historical account of a real people then what follows probably isn't for you.  If, however, you have a more nuanced view of many Mormon truth claims or have struggled with certain aspects of Mormon history/doctrine, particularly as they relate to the BoM, then I invite you to keep reading.  My intention is, as President Uchtdorf states in the quote above, "to [make] room for you in this church."  You do NOT have to share Brother Callister's perspective in order to call yourself a Mormon!

So, without further delay, I offer my rebuttal to Brother Callister's General Conference talk on the Book of Mormon (his full talk can be found by clicking here).  I have copied Brother Callister's comments in blue below with my subsequent rebuttal to those claims.



Brother Callister opens with his first assertion:
Claim #1: First, the critics must explain how Joseph Smith, a 23-year-old farm boy with limited education, created a book with hundreds of unique names and places, as well as detailed stories and events. Accordingly, many critics propose that he was a creative genius who relied upon numerous books and other local resources to create the historical content of the Book of Mormon. But contrary to their assertion, there is not a solitary witness who claims to have seen Joseph with any of these alleged resources before the translation began.

Even if this argument were true, it is woefully insufficient to explain the Book of Mormon’s existence. One must also answer the question: how did Joseph read all of these alleged resources, winnow out the irrelevant, keep the intricate facts straight as to who was in what place and when, and then dictate it by perfect memory?
Let me begin by stating that the people whom Brother Callister labels as "critics" are, by and large, professional historians, archaeologists, linguists, botanists, geneticists, anthropologists, etc. who comprise the overwhelming majority consensus of the scholarly world as it relates to the historicity of the BoM.  Based on the research in their respective fields of expertise, the overwhelming majority of these same "critics" have concluded that the BoM is not a historical document.  Brother Callister's generic label of "critics" makes light of the sincere, professional study that many have given to the historicity of the BoM.

But let us dive into the specific arguments Callister makes.  He begins by appealing to a common claim made by Mormon apologists which in a nutshell states, "Joseph Smith was an ignorant farm boy who was too uneducated to possibly have created the Book of Mormon."  This assertion is not only false but is also irrelevant.  It assumes that the only possible way to become sufficiently educated is through formal schooling (19th century formal schooling, BTW).  This assertion is baseless since we know of many intelligent figures from the 19th century who had little to no formal schooling.  For example:

Mary Shelley, author of Frankenstein: 6 months of formal schooling.
Abraham Lincoln (before law school): 1 year of formal schooling (typical of the era).
Walt Whitman, renowned poet: 3 years of formal schooling.
Mark Twain, author of Huckleberry Finn: 4 years of formal schooling
Herman Melville, author of Moby Dick: 5 years of formal schooling
James J. Strang, Mormon leader and author of numerous books (one he claimed to translate from gold plates): 6 months of formal schooling.

And there are MANY other examples.

As for Joseph's imaginative abilities, I would simply refer the reader to the words of Joseph's own mother, Lucy Smith, who stated of her son:
In the course of our evening conversations Joseph would give us some of the most amusing recitals which could be imagined he would describe the ancient inhabitants of this continent their dress their manner of traveling the animals which they rode The cities that were built by them the structure of their buildings with every particular of their mode of warfare their religious worship-as particularly as though he had spent his life with them. 
As for the "alleged resources" Brother Callister references, I will both agree and disagree.  I side with Callister's rejection of sources like "View of the Hebrews" and "The Great War" but disagree when he states "not a solitary witness" saw him with any source material.  Case in point, at least 25% of the BoM's text is either a direct or nearly direct copy of Biblical texts, to include a number of significant King James errors that are unique to those editions.  One has to wonder why those same errors would appear in a supposedly ancient record like the BoM?  In addition, there were numerous witness accounts of Joseph Smith devoting serious time and study to the Bible.  Heck, Smith would eventually complete his own "translation" of the Bible.  How can anyone argue that he wasn't familiar with Biblical texts?  When speaking of his own education and study of the Bible, Joseph Smith himself stated:
At about the age of twelve years my mind became seriously impressed with regard to all the important concerns for the welfare of my immortal soul, which led me to searching the scriptures believing as I was taught, that they contained the world of God, thus applying myself to them...thus from the age of twelve to fifteen I pondered many things in my heard concerning the situation of the world of mankind the contentions and divisions the wickedness and abominations and the darkness which pervaded the minds of mankind my mind became exceedingly distressed for I became convinced of my sins and by searching the scriptures I found that mankind did not come unto the Lord but they had apostatized from the true and living faith and there was no society or denomination that built upon the gospel of Jesus Christ as recorded in the New Testament and I felt to mourn for my own sins and for the sins of the world. 
These are not the musings of some ignorant hick farmer but the mind of a deep thinker who devoted himself to intense study, particularly intense Bible study.  At a very young age Joseph Smith had developed a true understanding of Christian scriptures and had arrived at many of the same conclusions as Martin Luther, John Calvin and other prominent thinkers of the Protestant Reformation.  And we are seriously going to continue to label this man as "uneducated" or "ignorant?"

Claim #2: How did Joseph produce a book that radiates with the Spirit, and where did he get such profound doctrine, much of which clarifies or contradicts the Christian beliefs of his time? For example, the Book of Mormon teaches, contrary to most Christian beliefs, that the Fall of Adam was a positive step forward. It reveals the covenants made at baptism, which are not addressed in the Bible.

In addition, one might ask: where did Joseph get the powerful insight that because of Christ’s Atonement, He can not only cleanse us but also perfect us? Where did he get the stunning sermon on faith in Alma 32? Or King Benjamin’s sermon on the Savior’s Atonement, perhaps the most remarkable sermon on this subject in all scripture? Or the allegory of the olive tree with all its complexity and doctrinal richness?
This comment, probably more than any other, reveals how little Brother Callister understands about the history of 19th century religious America.  The fact of the matter is most of Joseph's teachings, along with most of the teachings found in the Book of Mormon, reflect exactly what was being preached in 19th century America by Christians of various denominations.

Joseph Smith grew up smack dab in the middle of what Preacher Charles Finney call "the Burned Over District," due to the extraordinary (even for the Second Great Awakening) religious fervor that captivated much of western New York.  Large camp meeting revivals were a common occurrence throughout the region.  The revivals were so popular that it wasn't uncommon for thousands to gather in an open area where they could pitch tents with their door facing the preacher, so they could remain inside the shelter while they heard the message.  Singing, worship and dramatic public confessions to Christ were common throughout the camp.  Oftentimes the revivals were so large that the preachers found it necessary to construct large wooden platforms so the speaker could be seen and heard by the large crowd.  The pastors would even ask that their sermons be written down so others (either not in attendance or too far away to hear) could benefit from the message.

The aforementioned description should ring familiar to anyone who has read the King Benjamin account in the BoM.  What Callister calls "the most remarkable sermon" on Christ's atonement is also the best example of 19th century Evangelical fervor finding its way into a supposedly ancient record. See for yourself.  From Mosiah, chapter 2 (the beginning of King Benjamin's address):
6 And they pitched their tents round about the temple, every man having his tent with the door thereof towards the temple, that thereby they might remain in their tents and hear the words which king Benjamin should speak unto them;
7 For the multitude being so great that king Benjamin could not teach them all within the walls of the temple, therefore he caused a tower to be erected, that thereby his people might hear the words which he should speak unto them.
8 And it came to pass that he began to speak to his people from the tower; and they could not all hear his words because of the greatness of the multitude; therefore he caused that the words which he spake should be written and sent forth among those that were not under the sound of his voice, that they might also receive his words.

*Comparing the artistic representations of 19th century revival camp meetings (right and left) with the King Benjamin sermon found in the Book of Mormon (below).

In addition to these similarities, it is worth pointing out how in common the teachings of the BoM are with the sermons/messages being taught in 19th century frontier America by Christians of all types.  For example, John Wesley's famous sermon on the Trinity bears many striking similarities to what became Joseph Smith's evolving doctrine on the Trinity (and yes, that doctrine did evolve).  It also illustrates just how common these types of issues were in 19th century America.  Preachers like Charles Finney, George Whitefield, John Wesley, Jonathan Edwards and MANY others were already dissecting the very issues Joseph Smith would wrestle with in his own lifetime.  My guess is Callister is simply more familiar with Joseph's take on the matter than he is with these other theologians.

The part in which Callister mentions Adam and Eve is unique.  I will give him that.  I have long argued that the most simple yet beautiful teaching in the Book of Mormon (and my favorite BoM verse) is 2 Nephi 2:25, which states, "Adam fell that men might be; and men are, that they might have joy."  Yet this verse, though beautifully simple and profound, does not necessarily negate the critics. There is ample evidence to prove FAR beyond a reasonable doubt that the Adam and Eve story is just that: a story.  Genetics, archaeology, etc. have conclusively shown that humans originated LONG before the Adam and Eve story.  Having said that, I do concede that Joseph's take on Adam and Eve is unique and quite appealing to that of traditional Christians. 
Claim #3: If Joseph were not a prophet, then in order to account for these and many other remarkable doctrinal insights, the critics must make the argument that he was also a theological genius. But if that were the case, one might ask: why was Joseph the only one in the 1,800 years following Christ’s ministry to produce such a breadth of unique and clarifying doctrines? Because it was revelation, not brilliance, that was the source of this book.
He was a theological genius, Brother Callister, but no, he wasn't "the only one in the 1800 years after Christ" to produce such "unique and clarifying doctrines."  Far from it.  Perhaps Brother Callister has never heard of Polycarp, St. Clement, Augustine of Hippo, Athanasius of Alexandria, St. Jerome, Thomas Aquinas, John Milton, Francis if Assisi, John Wycliffe, Martin Luther, John Calvin, John Knox, Richard Hooker, Jonathan Edwards, John Wesley, George Whitefield, Ellen White and MANY others.  I'm not suggesting that Joseph Smith didn't make real and dramatic contributions to Christianity (he absolutely did) but to say that Joseph was "the only one in the 1800 years following Christ's ministry to produce such a breadth of unique and clarifying doctrines" is WOEFULLY incorrect and negates the many incredible contributions (equal to or greater than Smith himself) made by many others.  
Claim #4: To explain the Book of Mormon’s existence, the critics must also make the claim that Joseph was a naturally gifted writer at age 23. Otherwise, how did he interweave scores of names, places, and events into a harmonious whole without inconsistencies? How did he pen detailed war strategies, compose eloquent sermons, and coin phrases that are highlighted, memorized, quoted, and placed on refrigerator doors by millions of people, phrases such as, “When ye are in the service of your fellow beings ye are only in the service of your God” (Mosiah 2:17) or “Men are, that they might have joy” (2 Nephi 2:25). These are messages with a heartbeat—messages that live and breathe and inspire. To suggest that Joseph Smith at age 23 possessed the skills necessary to write this monumental work in a single draft in approximately 65 working days is simply counter to the realities of life.
How did J.R.R. Tolkien, author of The Lord of the Rings, create such a complex story with hundreds of characters, geographic locations, plot twists and even an elvish language?  How did George Lucas, creator of Star Wars, interweave scores of names, places and events into a harmonious whole without inconsistencies?  How did Gene Roddenberry, creator of Star Trek, pen detailed war strategies, compose eloquent dialogues for Captain Kirk and Spock and coin phrases that are highlighted, memorized and quoted ("Live long and prosper")?  How did Walt Disney come up with his ingenious creations?  How did Mary Shelley, author of Frankenstein (already mentioned earlier) come up with her story by age 19?  How did Helen Keller author her first autobiography, while blind and deaf, at the age of 22?  How did S.E. Hinton create her novel, The Outsiders at age 18?  How did Stephen Crane write The Red Badge of Courage at age 23?  How did Jack London write The Call of the Wild at age 27?  How did Ken Kesey write One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest at age 26?  How did Douglas Adams write The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy at age 27?  How did Charles Dickens write The Pickwick Papers at age 25?  How did Jane Austen write Sense and Sensibility at age 19? How did F. Scott Fitzgerald write This Side of Paradise at age 23?  How did Ernest Hemingway write The Sun Also Rises at age 26?  How did J.K. Rowling create her initial drafts and story lines for what would become Harry Potter at age 24?   The answer is found in the creative minds of humanity.  Our ability to dream and imagine is one of the most amazing and impressive qualities of being human.  The following video clip illustrates how easy it is for all of us to believe that a holy book couldn't possibly be written by the hand of man:

As for the claim that Joseph Smith wrote the BoM in 65 working days, I will refer the reader to the  
numerous refutations of this claim that can be found from a simple search (you can find a few here, here, here and here).
Claim #5 Even if one accepts all of the foregoing arguments, dubious as they may be, the critics still face another looming obstacle. Joseph claimed that the Book of Mormon was written on golden plates. This claim received unrelenting criticism in his day—for “everyone” knew that ancient histories were written on papyrus or parchment, until years later, when metal plates with ancient writings were discovered. In addition, the critics claimed that the use of cement, as described in the Book of Mormon, was beyond the technical expertise of these early Americans—until cement structures were found in ancient America. How do the critics now account for these and similar unlikely discoveries? Joseph, you see, must also have been a very, very lucky guesser. Somehow, in spite of all the odds against him, against all existing scientific and academic knowledge, he guessed right when all the others were wrong.
I don't think Callister realizes that the gold plates argument STILL receives criticism even today.  Have golden plates from antiquity been found with writing on them?  Yes, but that is only half the story.  The plates we do have from ancient times are rarely made of gold (since gold was incredibly valuable).  In addition, these ancient plates are usually few in number (again, since gold was quite valuable).  Usually there would be a plate or two, but to have a golden record from antiquity that contained a history which would eventually yield over 500 pages of English text is simply unprecedented.  Also keep in mind that gold, though quite heavy, is also a soft metal.  If you wanted to preserve a record for a long time then writing on gold would not be the best choice, since the weight of gold (combined with softness of the metal) would, over time, press all engravings flat, leaving nothing but flat gold behind. 

Simply put, the idea of a mass collection of gold plates being used to preserve a very lengthy ancient text is without historical precedent.  And even if we were to concede Callister's claim, one must ask why Joseph Smith didn't reference the golden plates during the translation process of the BoM but instead simply looked at a seer stone he placed in a hat (the plates oftentimes not even being in the same room).  Even the church's own published essay on the translation of the Book of Mormon confirms that Joseph used a seer stone and not the plates.  And what do we make of the fact that "reformed Egyptian" or something of the like has never been discovered?

Yes, the ancient Maya used cement, which I suppose leads Callister to believe the BoM story took place in Mezoamerica?  And even if we concede his point about cement, I question why Callister omitted mentioning the plethora of other archaeological and historical problems surrounding the BoM.  For instance, how do we explain the complete lack of evidence for swine, horses, wheat, barley, silk and cattle (all of which are referenced in the BoM)?  Why have we yet to find any of the metal swords from the numerous battles (some numbering in the thousands if not millions) yet archaeologists regularly make such discoveries in Europe.  Where are the chariots?  The wheels?  The Nephite coinage?  The references to Native peoples following a 7-day week calendar?  Or as renowned archaeologists Michael Coe has aptly pointed out, what we would expect to find in an ancient American record (references to items like potatoes, tomatoes, corn, buffalo, etc.) are nowhere in the BoM, whereas what we would NOT expect to find (references to cattle, horses, wheat, chariots, etc.) are referenced many times in the BoM.  Thomas Ferguson, an LDS member who was funded by the church to conduct archaeological research has stated, "The first myth we need to eliminate is that Book of Mormon archaeology exists...I should say -- what is in the ground will never conform to what is in the book."  Both the National Geographic Society and the Smithsonian Institution Department of Anthropology have gone on record stating there is no historical, scientific or archaeological evidence to support the historicity of the BoM. 

I guess Joseph wasn't a "lucky guesser" after all.   
Claim #6: One of my good and bright friends left the Church for a time. He recently wrote to me of his return: “Initially, I wanted the Book of Mormon to be proven to me historically, geographically, linguistically, and culturally. But when I changed my focus to what it teaches about the gospel of Jesus Christ and His saving mission, I began to gain a testimony of its truthfulness. One day while reading the Book of Mormon in my room, I paused, knelt down, and gave a heartfelt prayer and felt resoundingly that Heavenly Father whispered to my spirit that the Church and the Book of Mormon were definitely true. My three-and-a-half-year period of re-investigating the Church led me back wholeheartedly and convincingly to its truthfulness.”
This claim is a tough one because fundamentally I agree with what Callister is trying to say here.  The BoM IS an inspiring record that teaches of Jesus Christ and his mission as the Savior of mankind.  Callister won't receive any criticism from me on this.  Where I think he goes wrong is in quoting his friend who stated, "I wanted the BoM to be proven...but when I changed my focus to what it teaches about the gospel of Jesus Christ...I began to gain a testimony."  Brother Callister, why couldn't your talk simply focus on that?  You just spent the first 8 minutes of your sermon trying to prove (historically, geographically, linguistically, etc.) how the BoM is true, only to reference your friend who ultimately gained a testimony by ignoring such things.  Why can't that be the central argument of the Book of Mormon's value?  President Russell M. Nelson, in the same General Conference, gave a sermon on the BoM that almost exclusively focused on the book's spiritual value/significance.  Why muddy the waters with conjecture and highly questionable "evidence" that is rejected by the overwhelming majority of the scholastic world?

Speaking personally, I cannot embrace the BoM as being "true" if we are to rely on history, science, etc.  The evidence is simply overwhelming to the contrary.  If, however, we can say the BoM is "true" based on its religious teachings and its emphasis on Jesus' divine role then I am 100% behind such a claim, but we cannot have it both ways.

Why do I care so much about making this distinction?  Two reasons:

1.) We need to recognize that the study of scripture and the study of history, science, etc. are VERY different pursuits.  They are rarely if ever tied together.  Sure, scripture may occasionally bleed over into history or science but usually this is an exception to the rule.  Just as a wall separating church from state (with occasional bleed-over) is necessary for society, so is a wall between scripture and academia a necessity.  Scripture is terribly equipped to take the place of history, science, etc., just as history/science will never be able to do the job of scripture.  When we feel the need to link these separate spheres in order to add legitimacy to the claims of religion we do ourselves a terrible disservice.

Which brings me to my second reason.

2.) The increasing number of people who discover troubling material that discredits many truth claims of the church are not helped when leaders insist on perpetuating the same worn out, disproved assertions, like the BoM being an absolute historical record.  When we force members to accept or reject the whole without looking at things objectively we place ourselves in a tough spot.  Instead of pretending to be historians and archaeologists, I believe our leadership is most successful when they act like pastors and theologians.

The BoM's strength lies in its knowable spiritual teachings, not its unknowable physical geography.  The BoM is more sermon than history, more performance than proof.  It relies more on inspiration than evidence.  It's a sermon as opposed to a record.  It mirrors Joseph Smith and his time more than it sheds light on Nephites/Lamanites and antiquity.

In conclusion, I completely agree with Brother Callister on one issue: the Book of Mormon is what it claims to be: "a volume of holy scripture comparable to the Bible."  Where I disagree is when Brother Callister attempts to make the BoM a record of history.  It is not.  To my fellow Mormons who find this declaration difficult to digest consider the following:

The Bible is full of pseudepigraphic (records attributed to ancient prophets but not actually written by ancient prophets) books such as Genesis, Exodus, etc. which are full of stories lacking any historical veracity.  Virtually no scholars affirm the legitimacy of Adam and Eve, the Noah story, the Exodus story, the story of Job and many others.  Even Jesus taught in parables.  If we are able to glean moral life lessons from obvious Bible fables why can't we do the same with the Book of Mormon?  Is the Book of Mormon's value really that dependent upon its historical veracity?  When asked about this very issue, Jeffrey R. Holland of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles stated:
If someone can find something in the Book of Mormon, anything that they love or respond to or find dear, I applaud that and say more power to you. That's what I find, too. And that should not in any way discount somebody's liking a passage here or a passage there or the whole idea of the book...

I think you'd be as aware as I am that that we have many people who are members of the church who do not have some burning conviction as to its origins, who have some other feeling about it that is not as committed to foundational statements and the premises of Mormonism. But we're not going to invite somebody out of the church over that any more than we would anything else about degrees of belief or steps of hope or steps of conviction...We would say: "This is the way I see it, and this is the faith I have; this is the foundation on which I'm going forward. If I can help you work toward that I'd be glad to, but I don't love you less; I don't distance you more; I don't say you're unacceptable to me as a person or even as a Latter-day Saint if you can't make that step or move to the beat of that drum."
So if anyone tells you it's wrong to not believe in the historicity of the BoM tell them to take the matter up with Elder Holland!  Ultimately this is a personal question and I am happy to let each person decide for him/herself.  For me, the evidence is quite clear; the Book of Mormon is scripture but NOT historical.  Regardless of how you choose to answer, it is my hope that Mormonism can be that "big tent" faith where a diversity of opinion on this and other issues are free and welcomed.  After all, that is the religion Joseph Smith himself envisioned...

...or so the critics claim...      

Sunday, August 13, 2017

Book Review: The Ghost Ship of Brooklyn

The Ghost Ship of Brooklyn: An Untold Story of the American Revolution.  By Robert P. Watson.  (Da Capo Press., August 31, 2017.  Pp. 256).   

The history of the American Revolution is a field that has been thoroughly plowed, on multiple occasions, by historians of every generation.  To find a unique parcel of this fascinating era of history that hasn’t already been cultivated is a chore to say the least.  Robert Watson’s The Ghost Ship of Brooklyn is one of those rare instances when a historian stumbles upon this rare piece of uncharted land. 

Watson’s book is focused almost exclusively on a British prisoner of war ship called the HMS Jersey.  On this boat, thousands of American prisoners of war (or those accused of disloyalty to the British crown) were confined in the dark, wet and disease-ridden hull of the Jersey. Food was scarce while sanitation was almost completely absent.  Watson points out how such conditions led to a death toll that rivaled that of combat fatalities during the war.

Due to these intolerable conditions, the Jersey developed a reputation throughout the American colonies (more specifically throughout New York).  In fact, the ship became a symbol of British tyranny and oppression, which galvanized the American rebels to support the cause of independence. 

The depth of Watson’s research is clearly evident in the book.  He regularly references the first-hand accounts of American colonists who had experienced confinement on the Jersey.  In addition, Watson relies on the records of the British themselves, who kept a detailed account of all prisoners incarcerated.  Watson’s attention to these sources adds credence to his claim that British prisoner ships did just as much (if not more) to bolster the cause of American independence as events like the Boston Massacre. 

The book’s prose has a pleasant flow that is easy for the reader to follow though the depth of Watson’s research may prove daunting for some (the book does, at times, repeat itself).  Watson presents the history in an entertaining manner, which makes the book feel more like an engaging story than a textbook.  Watson’s ability to frame the history in a compelling narrative will increase the appeal of this work to not only history enthusiasts but to a broader readership.

Overall, I found The Ghost Ship of Brooklyn to be an enjoyable and enlightening read.  Its unique contribution to the history of the American Revolution should not go overlooked.  My overall grade: B+

Thursday, July 13, 2017

The Star-Spangled Fiction: Guarding Against Pretended Patriotism

"Guard against the impostures of pretended patriotism." -George Washington

Patriotism is a wonderful thing.  It inspires citizens of every nation to take pride in the best parts of their respective motherland.  Patriotism is what motivates the bravest among us.  It causes soldiers to willingly take up arms, fight and even die for their country.  Yes, patriotism is one of the most cherished commodities of any nation, which is why we all must, as the great American George Washington reminded us so long ago, “guard against the impostures of pretended patriotism.”

It is the topic of “pretended patriotism” that I wish to address today.  Over the past few years, I have (on various Facebook posts from friends) come across a popular YouTube video on the origins of “The Star-Spangled Banner.”  The video, in various forms, has received over 5 million hits.

As you can see for yourself, the narrator of this video (a Baptist pastor by the name of David C. Gibbs) creates for his audience a solemn, even sacred atmosphere in which pure reverence for Francis Scott Key and the brave men who defended “Fort Henry” swells in the heart of the listener.  So why am I complaining about it, you ask?  The video is almost complete nonsense and Pastor Gibbs is either a liar or so historically illiterate that he has no business speaking about this or any other matter of American history!  His errors are many, his embellishments aplenty.  Let’s dissect them one-by-one shall we.

1.) At the beginning of the video, Gibbs states that Francis Scott Key wrote a song “called the National Anthem.”  I’m guessing this was just a mishap on his part but he’s still technically wrong.  The song (actually a poem) was originally called, The Defense of Fort McHenry and was later changed to The Star-Spangled Banner.   Key’s poem was later put to the music of, To Anacreon in Heaven, a popular 18th century British drinking song by John Stafford Smith, and finally emerged as the National Anthem of the United States in 1931.

2.) At the 0.50 mark Gibbs states, “The colonies were engaged in vicious conflict with the mother country, Britain.”  This is a MASSIVE historical faux pas on the part of Gibbs and reveals (right from the start) that he has absolutely no idea what he’s talking about.  “The colonies” hadn’t been “the colonies” for AT LEAST 30 years!  The 1783 Treaty of Paris (signed by Great Britain) secured American independence.  Those “colonies” had been states for at least 31 years!  Even more if you trace their genesis to the 1776 Declaration of Independence.  Gibbs doesn’t seem to realize that the War of 1812 was a completely different war than the American Revolution.  In fact, it was the United States that declared war on Great Britain during the War of 1812, not the other way around.
3.) At 1:09 Gibbs begins to describe a fictional situation in which “both sides” (the Americans and the British) had accumulated “prisoners.”  Gibbs then states the American government negotiated to exchange those prisoners and that Francis Scott Key was to act as chief negotiator.  Gibbs states that Key made his way to the British war ships via a “row boat” (Key was actually in a truce vessel, not a row boat) where he began negotiations for the release of American prisoners being held on British war ships.  This claim is ABSOLUTELY FALSE!!!  First, the British were not holding any American prisoners.  Second, Francis Scott Key was not sent by the American government to negotiate for the release of prisoners.  He was actually attempting to secure the release of just one man, Dr. William Beanes, who was a friend of F. S. Key.  Dr. Beans was an elderly non-combatant who had been taken prisoner outside of Washington D.C. after the British burned the White House (and much of the city).  Dr. Beans had not been mistreated in any way during his “captivity” with the British.  In reality, both Dr. Beans and Key were considered "guests" on board a British command frigate, where they dined with other British "gentleman." From the Library of Congress website:

When the British invaded Washington in 1814, Ross and Cockburn with their staff officers made their headquarters in Upper Marlboro, Md., at the residence of a planter, Dr. William Beanes, whom they subsequently seized as a prisoner. Upon hearing of his friend's capture, Key resolved to release him, and was aided by President Madison, who ordered that a vessel that had been used as a cartel should be placed at his service, and that John S. Skinner, agent for the exchange of prisoners, should accompany him. Gen. Ross finally consented to Dr. Beanes's release, but said that the party must be detained during the attack on Baltimore.

Key and Skinner were transferred to the frigate "Surprise," commanded by the admiral's son, Sir Thomas Cockburn, and soon afterward returned under guard of British sailors to their own vessel, whence they witnessed the engagement.

The notion that Key was sent to rescue “hundreds” of men, being kept in “chains” is completely bogus.  Pastor Gibbs should know better. 

4.) At the 2:30 mark Gibbs makes reference to “an ultimatum” that had been issued by the British to the soldiers at “Fort Henry” (the fort is actually called Fort McHenry).  According to Gibbs, the British demanded that the American flag be lowered, thereby signifying the surrender of the fort.  If they refused, the British intended to annihilate the fort.  Again, this is completely and utterly false! There was no ultimatum issued by the British, nor did they have any intention (or capacity frankly) to destroy Ft. McHenry.   

5.) At 2:55 Gibbs states that “the entire British fleet” consisting of “hundreds of war ships” were approaching and preparing to attack Fort McHenry.  This is another outright falsehood. The British only had 19 ships at Baltimore, nothing more. In addition, only 8 or 9 of those ships actually fired on the fort, since the other ships didn't have the guns capable of reaching the shore.  Also, it is important to note that Admiral Cochrane (the man in charge of the British fleet) had sent a landing party of British soldiers to attempt to gain intelligence. Cochrane then ordered his ships to pull back and only attack the redoubts of the fort. He clearly didn't want to destroy the fort or inadvertently kill his own men.  In addition, it is worth mentioning that Great Britain was involved in a war with Napoleon and France in Europe at this same time.  The overwhelming majority of their forces were being deployed in that theater, not in America, so the claim that the “entire British fleet” was coming to attack Ft. McHenry is idiotic at best.  In addition, the area of the Chesapeake Bay that meets the mouth of the Patapsco River where the British ships were located, when F. S. Key was with them, is nowhere near the sea. You'd have to go over 130 miles south to get a view of the Atlantic Ocean. So Key could not have "scanned the horizon of the sea" to see "hundreds of little dots" aka "the entire British war fleet.”  Another lie by Pastor Gibbs!

6.) In that same nonsensical rant, Gibbs states that this attack on Fort McHenry would “end the war.” NOT SO!  In fact, negotiations between the British and the Americans were already underway in the Netherland city of Ghent.  Even if the British had somehow destroyed and/or conquered Ft. McHenry it would have had little to no bearing on the outcome of the war.  As stated above, Britain was involved in a far more serious conflict with Napoleon in Europe.  The War of 1812 in America was a mere distraction that the British wanted to resolve as soon as possible.  This is why, despite the destruction of many key cities (including Washington D.C.), the United States escaped from the War of 1812 relatively unscathed.  The Treaty of Ghent, which ended the war, established what became known as Status Quo Antebellum, or in other words, America and Britain simply went back to the way things were before the war ever started.  No land was lost, no demands were made.  Britain washed its hands and moved on to the bigger Napoleon fish to fry.  If we owe anyone a debt of gratitude for getting us out of the War of 1812 it isn’t Andrew Jackson, James Madison, Francis Scott Key or any other American.  Our thanks should go to French General Bonaparte.

7.) At 3:18 Gibbs states that Fort McHenry was “full of women and children” and that it was “not a military fort.”  Both of these claims are completely inaccurate.  Fort McHenry was a very strategic stronghold that protected Baltimore and other neighboring areas.  It garrisoned 1,000 soldiers who were under the command of Major George Armistead.  It was most certainly a military fort!  Why else would the British want to attack it?

8.) At 3:35 Gibbs states that the British stated to Key, “Do you see that flag way up on the rampart?  If they will lower that flag the shelling will stop, we will know they have surrendered and you will be under British rule.”  There is a lot of nonsense here to unpack so take a breath.  First, the mythology about the flag at Fort McHenry has grown to legendary proportions.  In fact, you can visit the Museum of American History in Washington D.C. and see it for yourself.  It is a behemoth flag, measuring 30 X 42 feet.  But this wasn’t the flag that flew during the battle.  In fact, the soldiers at Fort McHenry had made a tradition of hoisting the oversized flag (made by Baltimore local Mary Pickersgill and her 13-year-old daughter), every day as a part of their morning reveille.  Second, as stated in a previous comment (#6), the destruction/defeat of Ft. McHenry would have had little to no bearing on the outcome of the War of 1812.  The United States was not going to be “under British rule” in any way, shape or form.  Gibbs is simply piling horseshit on top of dogshit. 

9.) At 4:40 Gibbs states that “the prisoners” kept asking Francis Scott Key, “Tell us where the flag is?”  As stated earlier, there were no prisoners on these boats, and Key wasn’t even watching the attack from a British ship!  The story is completely bogus.  Let’s move on.  
10.) At 5:30 Gibbs states that Francis Scott Key quoted George Washington, who allegedly said, “The thing that sets the American Christian from every other person on earth is the fact that he would rather die on his feet, than live on his knees!"  Washington never said this!   In fact, the quote actually comes from Jose Marti, a Cuban freedom fighter.  His words were later made famous by a man named Emiliano Zapata (1879-1919), who was a leading figure in the Mexican Revolution.  For whatever reason, the quote has been associated with George Washington, a laughable lie for anyone who knows anything about Washington’s true religious beliefs.

At the 6:00 mark Gibbs states that the British became upset at the fact that the flag had been “hit many times” but was still standing.  As a result, the British focused all their guns on that one point in an effort to bring down the flag.  In response, all the American “prisoners” (who weren’t there to begin with) joined Key in prayer that the flag would remain.  Images of George Washington in prayer overlay the scenes of Fort McHenry’s bombardment.  Morning comes…the flag is at a crooked angle…but it STILL REMAINS!!!  This is the climax moment of Pastor Gibbs’ bullshit speech, and unfortunately for him is complete fiction.  The British were not fixed on the flag.  They didn’t even have the capacity to do such a thing!  In addition, George Washington never prayed at Valley Forge!  Oh, and the bombardment didn’t begin at nightfall.  It started in the morning. 

At 7:10 Gibbs drops his biggest lie of all.  He states that Key made his way to “Fort Henry” (again, it’s called Fort McHenry) where he beheld scenes of utter carnage and devastation.  The flag had received multiple direct hits and had almost fallen, but hundreds of patriots gave their lives to ensure that the flag remained.  One can almost hear the tears of those who heard this stupid presentation live!  The true historical record, however, tells us that the flag wasn’t destroyed or in any danger of being destroyed.  And even more important, hundreds of men were not killed trying to hold up the flag.  In fact, the most reliable sources tell us that no more than 4 or 5 men were killed during the bombardment of Fort McHenry!  The image of hundreds of dead patriots, huddled around a bent and broken flag pole, is a made up fiction spewed by a man who clearly needs to go back to middle school and get a refresher course on American history.  

In conclusion, I would like to repeat George Washington’s admonition:


I’m not going to question Pastor Gibbs’ patriotism.  I’m sure he loves his country.  I am, however, happy to call him out on his nonsense.  On the off chance that you one day Google your name and run across my blog, Pastor Gibbs, let me simply say this: your attempt to inspire through historical fiction doesn’t help your cause.  Lying and embellishing the truth (and yes, I believe you are guilty of both) cannot be justified, even if it creates an inspiring, patriotic myth.  Yes, you are far from being the first person to play fast and loose with the truth in order to bolster your cause, but take the high road, sir!  I’m sure it’s nice having several YouTube videos with over 6 million views but was it worth the deception?  Can you invoke the words of Francis Scott Key (“the home of the brave”) when you cowardly lie about the past? 

I think these are fair questions for you to ponder, Pastor Gibbs…along with the rest of us.