Mormon Studies and Moroni’s Toenails

There’s been some discussion in my circles about the inadvisability of bringing personal judgment into Mormon studies. An historian’s status in or out of the Church could very well affect the tone of their piece, however one should address the arguments presented on their own merits. To accept or discount the work on the basis of whether a writer is member or non-member, active or inactive, correlated or uncorrelated is generally unprofessional and unhelpful. But moving past this, I’d like to discuss another tactic in Mormon studies that I have come to feel is objectionable. Let’s call it the “Moroni’s Toenails” approach.

The term comes from a FARMS book review from many many years ago of David Buerger’s The Mysteries of Godliness. The author accused Buerger of fabricating evidence, and his sole and only support for this conclusion was the following:

The caption under the fifth picture in the illustrations section of The Mysteries of Godliness is problematic. The picture shows an architectural drawing by William Weeks of the Nauvoo Temple’s weather vane and depicts a horizontal angel, holding a trumpet in one hand and an open book in the other. The angel is wearing a round cap and a long, flowing robe. According to the caption, the angel is also wearing slippers. This is simply not true. I have seen the original drawing in the LDS Church Archives, and the angel is plainly barefoot. If one looks closely enough at the picture in Buerger’s book, one can see the angel’s toenails. This example of “seeing things” should alert readers to the possibility that the author, or others who may have contributed to this book, might be seeing other things as well.

Now, I don’t think it was wrong to point out Moroni’s toenails. Historians adore discussing minutia, and I’m no exception. We need to get the details right, after all. I went to the architectural drawing and it’s obvious to me that he is not wearing slippers. (Sorry, I really can’t see the toenails.) Be that as it may, the angel is wearing a cap and robe which greatly resemble temple clothing. The detail of the slippers does not invalidate Buerger’s point. And it shouldn’t be used to invalidate any of the other conclusions that he makes in his book.

Mormon studies scholars, have you seen recent examples of this in our field?

In approaching to Mormon studies, do authors and critics focus on “Moroni’s toenails” when evaluating the work of colleagues, especially those with whom we disagree? It’s probably a step up from calling their Mormon credentials, or their scholarly chops into question. But how can we improve on this? How can we modify our tone to remain respectful and decent while discussing a subject around which there are so many emotions and deeply held convictions? How can we move past petty grievances to build on each others’ work and broaden our understanding of this fascinating subject?

Quiz time: Is Joseph wearing slippers in the pic below? Be a good little Mormon studies scholar and share your reasoning!


Mormon Studies and Moroni’s Toenails — 21 Comments

  1. I fully agree that such methodological critiques–ignoring broader issues while straining at nats–are unfortunate, and are probably the result of the nuts-and-bolts focus of New Mormon History, that was in turn influenced by the New Social History in the 1960s and 70s. That said, though, has this ever been a problem outside of the absolute fringes of the field: the outright critiques and outright apologists? Things like FARMS reviews like this, and the commensurate critics that wage battle with them, are so peripheral to Mormon studies that they hardly deserve mention, methinks.

  2. Also, for what it’s worthy, I wrote about a similar problem in my most recent JMH article. When dealing with a similar argument over “facts”–in this case, the question of whether Joseph Smith was “influenced” by Thomas Dick–the parochial and limiting framework of past generations are giving way to a new age of scholarship that focuses more on the broader, and more important, issues.

  3. Thanks for the link, Ben.. I hadn’t read your article. I’m thinking that it’s really unfortunate to give movements names like “New Mormon History.” Where do you go from there, when the “new” Mormon history is no longer au courant? You’re going to end up with something like “anti-Nephi-Lehi Mormon history.”

  4. Names for movements can be problematic, but they are still often necessary when discussing historiographical trends. Quite common in academia.

  5. Cheryl and Ben are right. Much too much straining, and not enough of the big picture. I know some historians who are perhaps not as good as others at identifying specific trees, but boy can they see the forest! (By the way, slippers? Hard to tell for certain. Stockings? Definitely.)

  6. Mapman, WOW! Loved the architectural drawings, and on, no less. Who knew? I finally saw the toenails.

    ps. Why do you think William Weeks drew sailboats on his temple plans? Inspiration? Doodles?

  7. I see what looks like a toenail in the William Weeks drawing, but only after sufficient magnification. I always assumed the angel was wearing stockings or stocking-like slippers. After looking at the magnified image, I’m still not convinced he’s barefoot. Are those stylized ankles? Or the kind of set in closure found in tight fitting 19thC lady’s gloves? If stylized, why are the feet more stylized than the more realistic hands? I confess I don’t know enough about William Weeks or the history of the first Moroni design to feel very conclusive. Was Week’s following a particular kind of “folk” style?

    As for Joseph-Smith-as-Nauvoo-Moroni, there’s some definite anklet action going on. If the artist is specifically referencing the Weeks’ angel, then doesn’t it seem like he (or she) read that image as slipper sock-wearing?

    And to your larger point, Cheryl, I think that the emergence of Mormon Studies as a serious scholarly discipline or area will encourage a more pedicured Mormon apologetics, if not clip those toenails once and for all.

  8. For me, the question is what we are trying to do. FARMS is not so much engaging in Mormon Studies as it is in defending the LDS church against perceived enemies. The toenails issue is important for the FARMS author because he/she is looking for reasons to discredit the author. If I read something, I don’t want to start out with the premise that the article or book is “wrong” and thus look for things to nitpick. Start with giving the author the benefit, and you’re less likely to get hung up on toenails.

  9. Runtu, I agree with your assessment of FARMS. But in my mind I like to include apologetics in Mormon studies. It’s just that, like Mina, I like to think “that the emergence of Mormon Studies as a serious scholarly discipline or area will encourage a more pedicured Mormon apologetics.”

    Tell me why I’m wrong.

  10. I think we’re seeing the swan song of the old-guard, hostile FARMS crowd, and I hope (perhaps naively) that Gerald Bradford is determined to move apologetics out of polemics and into serious scholarship. At least I hope that’s what will happen. I do not consider old-guard FARMS apologetics to be scholarship.

  11. But when are you going to tell us what footwear Joseph Moroni is really sporting, Cheryl?

  12. Not sure, but I think I see Joseph’s toenails on his bottom foot.


    I Love,love,LOVE this thread.

  13. Well, Mina, I have no definitive answer, but here is my opinion: there are some threads going around Joseph’s ankle, but they could possibly be ties at the bottom of his garment legs, and not ties for slippers. I can see the toes, so I would say that he was barefoot, but his feet are white, unlike his hands and face. So perhaps he does have on a pair of hose, or some kind of sheer stockings. I doubt back then there was anything that sheer, so I am open to other interpretations.

    I would not base my assessment of an author’s work on his opinion on this matter. 🙂

  14. The bottom picture says that the 143 pioneers brought a cannon but only 3 women. Seems like mixed up priorities. I don’t care how long you defend the town with that cannon, if you limit the number of children you have by leaving behind almost all the women, then your town will not last.

  15. runtu,

    I have to wonder how much of the critique about FARMS is based on “attack pieces” that were either anomalies in the overall span of FARMS Review, or simply pieces from so long ago that you can’t really describe what the journal currently is based on them.

  16. While I’m all for categorizing Mormon apologetics as a branch of Mormon studies, I do feel like this kind of problem (i. e. using minor errors or quibbles in/with a work to suggest that the entire work is questionable) is much more common in apologetics specifically than it is in Mormon studies as a whole.

  17. Seth,

    I’ve been a pretty regular reader of the FARMS Review of Books for a few years now. I still see some of the attack-dog style. For example, the recent (2012) John Gee piece on the scroll lengths of the Book of Abraham papyri takes a few cheap shots at Chris Smith and Andrew Cook and accuses them of being “bent” on discrediting the Book of Abraham, thus invalidating their scholarship. So, as far as I’m concerned, things haven’t changed that much.

  18. For the record, I agree with categorizing apologetics as a branch of Mormon Studies. My point was that I don’t consider the aggressive, hostile style of apologetics to be much of a contribution to Mormon Studies. My hope is that the Maxwell Institute is putting that behind them.

  19. Hibernia, I just think it’s fascinating that they brought a boat! Who needs a boat in the middle of the desert? To me, this supports the view that that first company originally planned to go all the way to California/Oregon.