This article is a summarized version of a longer article “Mormonism and Wikipedia: The Church History That “Anyone Can Edit”,” Interpreter: A Journal of Mormon Scripture, Vol. 1 (2012), pp. 151-190

 word wiki

“The fact that this [Wikipedia] article has been stable for months suggests that other Mormons have found the evidence unassailable.”[1]

What is Wikipedia?

Wikipedia is a free online encyclopedia that “anyone can edit.” [2] Quite literally, anyone who has a connection to the internet may choose to create or edit any article contained within Wikipedia’s vast collection of thousands of articles. So powerful is the lure of editing a popular encyclopedia that it has the ability to “induce people to work for free.” [3] Wikipedia addresses just about any subject imaginable, from the mundane and obscure to the topical and controversial. Self-proclaimed editors from all over the world voluntarily work together to shape and craft an article until it is acceptable to the majority. This process is known as collaborative editing.

Popular thinking dictates that if enough different people collaborate together on an article, that it will eventually approach a balanced and neutral state. In general, this philosophy tends to be effective on many Wikipedia articles. Errors which bring an article out of balance tend to be corrected given sufficient time, and the article naturally progresses toward a stable and neutral state. However, articles dealing with highly controversial subjects, such as the First Vision or polygamy, do not naturally tend to stabilize themselves over time. These types of articles become magnets for editors who have an agenda to push. Wikipedia becomes an attractive way for such editors to “publish” their opinions with immediate world-wide visibility.

Are Wikipedia Articles Neutral?

The goal of any Wikipedia article is to achieve a state of “neutral point-of-view” (NPOV) in each and every article. Neutrality, however, tends to reside in the eyes of the beholder. One editor’s view of “neutrality” may be appear to be blatant bias in the eyes of another editor.

Controversial subjects present a challenge to Wikipedia’s goal of “NPOV.” When believers and critics come together to craft an article about Joseph Smith, Jr., who ultimately defines what is “neutral?” Editors with polarized points-of-view sometimes attempt to impose their way of seeing things on an article by making controversial changes without consulting other editors first. The extended arguments that can take place over the wording in these articles can turn into what is known in Wikipedia as an “edit war.” A Wikipedia editor who wishes to deal with controversial subjects must have sufficient time and determination to persist in order to outlast their opponents.

Mormonism and Wikipedia

When one types “Joseph Smith” into Google, the first site to appear is the Church’s josephsmith.net website. The next result is Wikipedia’s “Joseph Smith” article. However, if one types in “Martin Harris,” “Oliver Cowdery,” “Golden plates,” or “First Vision,” the number one result is the Wikipedia article about these individuals. Thus whatever Wikipedia has to say about these subjects becomes the first thing that anyone is likely to read. This quality makes Wikipedia extremely attractive to both believers and critics who wish to promote their particular point-of-view in a forum that is highly likely to be seen by many. How often can an unpublished amateur guarantee that whatever they write will immediately be visible to thousands of people all over the world? It is as simple as adding your work to the Wikipedia article on the subject.

Unfortunately, such open access also encourages vandals to modify controversial articles. Anonymous editors posting from IP addresses regularly attack articles such as “Joseph Smith” in order to add ridiculous or profane modifications. Such vandalism is usually quickly spotted and corrected by other editors who monitor the article on their own Wikipedia “watch list.”Vandalism occurs with depressing regularity on articles such as “Book of Mormon,” “Mormon,” or “Joseph Smith,” with the zealous vandal often modifying the article to declare that Latter-day Saints are practitioners of a false religion, or that Joseph Smith was a “convicted con-man.” [4]

Wikipedia as a Credible Source

Given the diverse nature of the types of editors who may choose to work on an article, how credible might a Wikipedia article be? One never knows if an article is being edited by a scholarly expert on the subject, or by a young teenager in high school.

The inclusion of a subject in Wikipedia depends upon whether or not that subject is considered “notable.” And who defines the standard of notability? The very editors who come together to create the article in the first place.

However, for non-controversial subjects, Wikipedia can be surprisingly accurate and complete. Wikipedia is an extremely valuable resource for looking up references on a wide variety of subjects. Its uncontrolled nature, however, has caused it to be banned as a reference work by many academic institutions.

Collaborative Editing Between Believers and Critics

For subjects related to Mormonism, Wikipedia provides a unique environment in which believers, critics and impartial editors must collaborate with the goal of producing a written article. The discussions involved in these negotiations is a spirited and engaging as any found on a online message board in which critics and believers interact. Negotiation over the construction of a single sentence, or even the use of a single word, can take days to resolve. Edit wars can last for months, depending upon the tenacity of the individual editors involved. Often a consensus can be reached if all of the editors involved are willing to compromise. Sometimes, however, the “winner” of such battles is the editor who has the persistence to outlast the others.

One might assume that believers could simply add supporting references from LDS scholars to balance out critical ones. Unfortunately, LDS scholars are often reclassified as “LDS apologists” by critical editors. Sources such as the Maxwell Institute and any Church-sponsored publication are often classified by the Wikipedia community as “biased” and unacceptable by Wikipedia standards. Even when LDS sources are employed, critics will sometimes “cherry pick” citations which can be used to cast the Church in an unflattering light. Richard L. Bushman, whose own work Rough Stone Rolling is heavily employed as a Wikipedia reference in the “Joseph Smith” article, notes that the article “picks its way along from one little fact to another little fact, all of them ending up making Joseph Smith an ignoble character of some kind.” [5]

Despite Wikipedia’s standing rule that all articles should display a “neutral point-of-view,” those who are willing to devote a substantial amount of their time to editing and maintaining Wikipedia articles will persist in having their particular point-of-view dominate the articles in which they are interested. This is demonstrated on the Wikipedia article “Three Witnesses,” which clearly reflects the opinion of the dominant editor, an evangelical Christian professor of history. The article is structured and referenced in such a way as to discredit the witnesses. Most of the numerous positive references to the witnesses’ experience are minimized and ignored, while the opinions of critics are given precedence. This is ostensibly done to reflect “majority opinion” – the thinking being that if the majority of humanity is not Latter-day Saint, that any article should give precedence to the opinion of that majority. In the case of the Three Witnesses, however, the majority are not even aware of these events.


Thus the article simply reflects the opinion of evangelical Christians regarding the witnesses to the Book of Mormon-one that is predictably negative in tone.

No Original Research

Wikipedia articles are required to rely “mainly on published reliable secondary sources and, to a lesser extent, on tertiary sources. All interpretive claims, analyses, or synthetic claims about primary sources must be referenced to a secondary source, rather than original analysis of the primary source material by Wikipedia editors.”[6] Wikipedia is intended to summarize the work of others, rather than act as a forum for creating new original works. In the case of contentious articles such as “First Vision” or “Golden Plates,” it is extremely tempting to take advantage of the “immediate publication” of material in order to create new interpretive material. The “no original research” rule is often ignored. This can lead to situations in which the wiki editor’s own thinking is reflected in the article. Consider this example, which appears in wiki article “First Vision” as of 18 October 2011,

However, when in October 1830 the author Peter Bauder interviewed Smith for a religious book he was writing, he said Smith was unable to recount a Christian experience.’

There are a couple of issues with this statement. It does correctly represent the source, which was an interview between Peter Bauder and Joseph Smith. Bauder was attempting to expose false religions, and notes that “among these imposters there has one arisen by the name of Joseph Smith, Jr.”[7] The wiki editor introduces the quote by stating “however,” thus implying that this statement is a possible disqualifier for the validity of the First Vision. Nowhere in the wiki article is it noted that Bauder was a strong critic of Joseph Smith, and that Joseph may not have desired to share the experience of his vision with such an interviewer.

Qualifying the Sources

Talk page collaboration between critics and believers can lead to some rather oddly constructed prose, as the critic attempts to “label” believing sources in such a manner as to cast doubt on their credibility. Thus we find the Wikipedia article filled with awkward qualifiers that would not normally appear in any other encyclopedia.

  • LDS member and Columbia University Professor Richard Bushman wrote that…
  • LDS apologist Milton Backman wrote that…
  • In the opinion of non-Mormon author Wesley Walters, apologists for the Mormon position treat Smith’s reference to the “whole district of country” as if…
  • As the sympathetic but non-Mormon historian Jan Shipps has written… [8]

Yet, there is selectivity in the application of these qualifiers. Note the lack of a qualifier in the earlier reference to Peter Bauder, “when in October 1830 the author Peter Bauder interviewed Smith for a religious book he was writing.” The prose offers no hint of whether Bauder was a believer or a critic. If Bauder were treated in the article as believing authors are treated, the sentence ought to have read “non-Mormon critic and author Peter Bauder interviewed Smith…”, which then would have placed his comment about Smith being “unable to recount a Christian experience'” in proper perspective. Instead, Bauder is simply granted the status of “author,” with its implications of neutrality.

“Fact” Creation in LDS Wikipedia Articles

Among all LDS Wikipedia articles, the article “First Vision” has experienced some of the most intense and long-running edit wars. The overall emphasis of the article tends toward discounting and discrediting the vision, and this becomes apparent when one examines how the sources are used. It is very easy for a Wikipedia editor to represent an author’s opinion as an established “fact.” Consider this statement from the Wikipedia article “First Vision,”

No members of the Smith family were church members in 1820, the reported date of the First Vision.

Wikipedia’s inference is that Joseph Smith lied about his family becoming associated with the Presbyterians in the 1820 timeframe. Note that Joseph Smith’s own words regarding this issue are not represented. The casual reader simply incorporates this into their thinking and moves on, accepting this “encyclopedic fact.” However, Latter-day Saints familiar with Joseph Smith’s history will immediately notice that this contradicts Joseph’s own statement that members of his family became associated with the Presbyterians around the time of the religious excitement in 1820. How does Wikipedia support such a clear and definitive claim? We refer to the source used to support the assertion, D. Michael Quinn’s Early Mormonism and the Magic World View.

Quinn calls the Smiths “unchurched Christians” who “possessed seer stones, a dagger for drawing the required circles, as well as magic parchments to ward off thieves and communicate with good spirits to help find treasures.” [9]

The editor synthesizes a conclusion that is not explicitly in the supporting source in order to diminish the Smith family’s Christianity and emphasize “magic.” The Wikipedia article neglects to mention that Lucy Mack Smith sought out baptism without wanting to be formally associated with a particular congregation sometime prior to her son Alvin reaching his “twenty-second year,” which would place the baptism prior to 11 February 1820. Lucy describes attending a sermon at the Presbyterian Church and being disappointed that the sermon “did not fill the aching void within nor satisfy the craving hunger of the soul.” After her baptism, Lucy relied on her Bible for spiritual support. [10]

Another instance of synthesis of new “facts” is based upon the apparent lack of sources. Wikipedia’s “First Vision” article makes the following assertion,

“In the Palmyra area itself, the only large multi-denominational revivals occurred in 1816-1817 and 1824-1825.” [11]

Two sources are used to support the synthesized conclusion that no “revival” occurred in 1820.

Source 1: “The great revival of 1816 and 1817, which nearly doubled the number of Palmyra Presbyterians, was in progress when the Smiths arrived.” (Bushman, Rough Stone Rolling,2005, p. 36, 46)

Source 2: “Indeed, it was the revival of 1824-25… rather than the revival of 1817 or the one he ‘remembered’ for 1820.” (Vogel, 2004, pp. 26, 58-60)

Bushman’s and Vogel’s opinions are used to establish the statement that since there were recorded revivals in the two timeframes specified, that there was no “revival” during 1820. This ignores the fact that Joseph never even claimed that there was a “revival” in the Palmyra area: he stated that there was “an unusual excitement on the subject of religion.” There is, in fact, evidence that Methodist camp meetings did occur in the area that did not normally receive newspaper coverage, with one 1820 camp meeting only making it into the news as the result of a death that appeared to be associated with it.[12]

Wikipedia does not specifically discuss the 1820 camp meeting, even though it is the topic of a referenced secondary source from D. Michael Quinn. Wikipedia only mentions that “D. Michael Quinn notes a Methodist camp meeting in Palmyra in June 1818.” However, the source used to support this statement is “Joseph Smith’s Experience of a Methodist “Camp-Meeting” in 1820, by D. Michael Quinn, 20 December 2006. Note that Wikipedia only utilizes the Quinn essay to discuss the 1818 revival, and completely ignores any discussion of the 1820 camp meeting. This effort by critics to ignore the possible significance of the 1820 meeting in favor of the 1818 revival is, ironically, the very focus Quinn’s essay.


[13]

Reinventing John Taylor

Wikipedia portrays John Taylor’s understanding of the First Vision based upon popular critical views. Note the following passage from the October 18, 2011 version of the Wikipedia article “First Vision,” which represents a classic critical attempt to discredit the importance of the vision to the early Saints,

The canonical First Vision story was not emphasized in the sermons of Smith’s immediate successors Brigham Young and John Taylor…John Taylor gave a complete account of the First Vision story in an 1850 letter written as he began missionary work in France, and he may have alluded to it in a discourse given in 1859. However, when Taylor discussed the origins of Mormonism in 1863, he did so without alluding to the canonical First Vision story, and in 1879, he referred to Joseph Smith having asked “the angel” which of the sects was correct.[14]

The key turning point in this paragraph is the word “however,” which is designed to make a point that later in Taylor’s life that he deemphasized and perhaps even forgot details of the First Vision by noting that “in 1879, he referred to Joseph Smith having asked “the angel” which of the sects was correct.” The selection of this particular citation is very informative, since there are two discourses by John Taylor recorded for 2 March 1879. In each Taylor refers to the First Vision.

“None of them was right, just as it was when the Prophet Joseph asked the angel which of the sects was right that he might join it.” Journal of Discourses 20:167 (2 March 1879)

“When the Father and the Son and Moroni and others came to Joseph Smith…”
John Taylor, Journal of Discourses 20:257. (2 March 1879)

Both references are taken from the Journal of Discourses, and both record sermons by Taylor made the very same day. Both reference the First Vision. So why is the sermon mentioning an “angel” included in the Wikipedia article while the other mentioning the Father and the Son is not? This is done so that the wiki editors can portray Taylor as being “confused” about the details of the vision, and they wish to demonstrate that the event held little importance in his mind. Rather than explore the historical fact that early Church leaders sometimes referred to visits by deity as “angelic” visitations, the wiki editors simply choose to apply their own logic in order to make a factual assertion that Taylor didn’t know what he was talking about.

The choice of John Taylor as the subject of this demonstration is ironic. There are numerous references by Taylor to the visit of the Father and the Son in letters and in sermons recorded in the Journal of Discourses.[15]John Taylor not only fully understood the significance of the First Vision, he repeatedly promoted it over the pulpit and in his writings.

How Should Latter-day Saints Treat Wikipedia?

This is not a “call to arms” for massive numbers of Latter-day Saints to go and attempt to edit Wikipedia articles about the Church. The nature of Wikipedia is such that a LDS-themed article will never be considered “faith promoting.” What is needed is for intelligent and well-read Church members to calmly participate in the editing process on these articles. In fact, a number of such LDS editors already participate heavily in this process. Editing LDS articles requires a significant investment of time and patience, particularly when dealing with editors who do not demonstrate any amount of respect for Mormonism. A cool head coupled with a fair dose of patience is always best. LDS editors should behave with civility, even in the face of mockery.

Equally important is to be educated on the subject being edited. Acquiring a thorough knowledge of the available sources is the key to success on Wikipedia. Editors’ own opinions should not remain in Wikipedia articles, but cited facts will stand a much better chance of remaining. One should not remove citations, even if they appear disagreeable to the editor, unless the source used is obviously in violation of Wikipedia policy. An editor who consistently behaves in a civil manner toward others, and patiently works to achieve consensus with those editors with whom he or she may disagree, will build a solid reputation within the Wikipedia community. Over time, misrepresentations about our faith can be corrected.

 

This article is a summarized version of a longer article “Mormonism and Wikipedia: The Church History That “Anyone Can Edit”,” Interpreter: A Journal of Mormon Scripture, Vol. 1 (2012), pp. 151-190

__________________________________________

[1] Comment posted by Wikipedia editor “John Foxe,” responding to an LDS editor at “Three Witnesses” Wikipedia Talk Page, 27 January 2009.

[2] Quote found on the Wikipedia Main Page.

[3] Seth Finkelstein, “I’m on Wikipedia, get me out of here,” The Guardian, 27 September 2006.

[4] For example, on 12 October 2011, an anonymous editor modified the Wikipedia article “Early life of Joseph Smith” to read “Joseph Smith, Jr. was a convicted con-man and the founder and principal prophet of the Latter Day Saint movement.” The vandalism was reverted by editor “John Foxe” 69 minutes later. On 7 September 2001, an anonymous editor modified the introductory line of the Wikipedia article “Book of Mormon” to read “The Book of Mormon is a fictional sacred text” The vandalism was reverted within 60 seconds. On 3 April 2011, an anonymous editor added “cocaine distributor” to Joseph Smith’s list of accomplishments in the “Joseph Smith” article. This vandalism was reverted within two minutes. Generally, vandalism such as this on high profile articles is quickly taken care of by regular editors who keep articles of interest on their Wikipedia”watch list.”

[5] Richard L. Bushman, quoted in Michael DeGroote, “Wiki Wars: In battle to define beliefs, Mormons and foes wage battle on Wikipedia,” Deseret News, 30 January 2011.

[6] Statement from Wikipedia policy “No Original Research.”

[7]Peter Bauder, The Kingdom and Gospel of Jesus Christ: Contrasted with That of Anti-Christ. A Brief Review of Some of the Most Interesting Circumstances, Which Have Transpired Since the Institution of the Gospel of Christ, from the Days of the Apostles, Canajoharie, New York: Printed by A. H. Calhoun, 1834; Republished in: Dan Vogel, Early Mormon Documents, vol. 1, Salt Lake City: Signature Books, pp. 16-17.

[8] All examples listed are from Wikipedia article “First Vision” as of 18 October 2011.

[9] Quinn, D. Michael, Early Mormonism and the Magic World View (2d ed.), Signature Books (1998), p. 322. The source reference is present in the Wikipedia article “First Vision” as of 16 October 2011.

[10] Lucy Mack Smith, “Lucy Smith History, 1845″ quoted in Dan Vogel, Early Mormon Documents 1:242. Vogel notes that “Alvin became twenty-two on 11 February 1820. However, Lucy misdates Alvin’s birth to 1799, rather than 1798, and his death to 1824, instead of 1823. Later she states that she joined the Presbyterian church after Alvin’s death.


[11] Statement from Wikipedia article “First Vision,” accessed 16 October 2011.

[12]Palmyra Register, July 5, 1820: 2. The Methodists objected to the newspaper’s implication that the death of James Couser was associated with their meeting at the “camp-ground.” The newspaper issued a correction, stating, “we committed an error in point of fact,’ in saying the Couser obtained his liquor at the camp-ground.’ By this expression we did not mean to insinuate, that he obtained it within the enclosure of their place of worship, or that he procured it of them, but at the grog-shops that were established at, or near if you please, their camp-ground. It was far from our intention to charge the Methodists with retailing ardent spirits while professedly met for worship of their God.” This indirectly establishes that the Methodists held at least one meeting at the “camp-ground” in June of 1820.

[13] Quinn, D. Michael, “Joseph Smith’s Experience of a Methodist “Camp-Meeting” in 1820,” Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought, Dialogue Paperless: E-Paper #3, 20 December 2006, p. 4. Regarding the 1820 camp meeting, Quinn notes that “Palmyra’s weekly newspaper…edition of 28 June 1820 referred to out-of town visitor James Couser, who died on June 26th, the day after he drunkenly left the Campground’ following the evening services of a camp-meeting which was held in this vicinity.’ The Palmyra Register’s next edition denied that its editor intended to charge the Methodists’ with selling alcohol at their camp-ground’ while they professedly met for the worship of their God.'”

[14] Internal citation numbers removed for clarity. Wikipedia article “First Vision,” access 18 October 2011.

[15]John Taylor made numerous references to the Father and Son in the context of Joseph Smith’s First Vision. 25 February 1879: “God Himself, accompanied by the Savior, appeared to Joseph….” John Taylor letter to A. K. Thurber at Richfield, Utah (25 February 1879). 28 November 1879: “He came himself, accompanied by his Son Jesus, to the Prophet Joseph Smith.” John Taylor, Journal of Discourses 21:116; 7 December 1879: “…the Lord revealed himself to him together with his Son Jesus, and, pointing to the latter, said: “This is my beloved Son, hear him.” John Taylor, Journal of Discourses 21:161; 4 January 1880: “…the Lord appeared unto Joseph Smith, both the Father and the Son, the Father pointing to the Son said “this is my beloved Son in whom I am well pleased, hear ye him.” John Taylor, Journal of Discourses 21:65; 27 June 1881: “And hence when the heavens were opened and the Father and Son appeared and revealed unto Joseph the principles of the Gospel…”; John Taylor, Journal of Discourses 22:218; 28 August 1881: “…the Father and the Son appeared to the youth Joseph Smith to introduce the great work of the latter days.”; John Taylor, Journal of Discourses 22:299; 20 October 1881: “In the commencement of the work, the Father and the Son appeared to Joseph Smith. And when they appeared to him, the Father, pointing to the Son, said, “This is my beloved Son, hear him.”; John Taylor, Journal of Discourses 26:106-107; 1882: John Taylor, Mediation and Atonement (Salt Lake City, Utah: Deseret News Company, 1882; Photo lithographic reprint, Salt Lake City, 1964), 138; 5 March 1882: “After the Lord had spoken to Joseph Smith, and Jesus had manifested himself to him…” John Taylor, Journal of Discourses 23:32; 29 May 1882: “God the Father, and God the Son, both appeared to him; and the Father, pointing, said, this is my beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased, hear ye him.” John Taylor, Millennial Star 44 no. 22 (29 May 1882), 337-338; 23 November 1882: “It is true that God appeared to Joseph Smith, and that His Son Jesus did;” John Taylor, Journal of Discourses 23:323; 18 May 1884: “When our Heavenly Father appeared unto Joseph Smith, the Prophet, He pointed to the Savior who was with him, (and who, it is said, is the brightness of the Father’s glory and the express image of His person) and said: “This is my beloved Son, hear Him.” John Taylor, Journal of Discourses 25:177-178; 1892: “God revealed Himself, as also the Lord Jesus Christ, unto His servant the Prophet Joseph Smith, when the Father pointed to the Son and said: This is my beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased, hear ye Him.'” John Taylor, cited in B. H. Roberts, Life of John Taylor (1989; 1st published 1892), 394.