Mormons and Scripture
We started this series looking at the Mormon kingdom “Behind the Zion Curtain” and went on to see that the political, social and historical issues preoccupying Mormons there are not the key issues “Beyond the Zion Curtain.” Last time we looked at some basic ground rules that help us focus on those issues that do matter as we compare Mormonism and biblical Christianity.
The Mormon doesn’t value the Scripture as does the Evangelical believer, neither do they know or understand it. Mormons don’t simply understand the Bible differently; they don’t understand it at all. They lay no great store by what it says and simply use it to go quote-mining, or proof-texting to justify what they have already decided to believe.
To better understand the ambiguous relationship Mormons have with Scripture we will look at the founding book of Scripture in the Mormon canon. The first time we meet Mormonism we usually encounter the Book of Mormon, “a volume of holy Scripture comparable to the Bible” (BOM Introduction).
The eighth article of faith of the Mormon Church tells us the comparative worth placed on the Bible and the Book of Mormon. “We believe the Bible to be the word of God as far as it is translated correctly; we also believe the Book of Mormon to be the word of God.” The Book of Mormon, then, takes precedence, as is confirmed by the following statement from Joseph Smith.
“I told the brethren that the Book of Mormon was the most correct of any book on earth, and the keystone of our religion, and a man would get nearer to God by abiding by its precepts, than by any other book.” (History of the Church Vol.4, p.461 (1841)
A remarkable book, then, that it should be more reliable than the Bible, more correct than any other, and that it should be man’s surest way to God.
Correcting the “Most Correct Book”
It is common knowledge that there have been upwards of 4,000 changes made to the text of the Book of Mormon. Most have been grammar, punctuation, spelling etc but some much more significant changes have been made. It does call into question the boasting of Joseph Smith in 1841, especially in light of the account of the translation work given by Joseph’s scribes. In 1848 Oliver Cowdrey, chief scribe for the Book of Mormon, testified:
“I wrote with my own pen the entire Book of Mormon (save a few pages) as it fell from the lips of the Prophet as he translated it by the gift and power of God by means of the Urim and Thummim, or as it is called by that book, holy interpreters. I beheld with my eyes and handled with my hands the gold plates from which it was translated. I also beheld the Interpreters. That book is true. … I wrote it myself as it fell from the lips of the Prophet.” (“Journal of Reuben Miller,” 21 Oct. 1848, quoted in “By the Gift and Power of God,” Ensign, Sept. 1977, 79)
In a letter to the Deseret News, Edward Stevenson, who is regarded as “the person who best reflects Martin Harris”, wrote:
“Martin Harris related an instance that occurred during the time he wrote that portion of the translation of the Book of Mormon which he was favored to write direct from the mouth of the Prophet Joseph Smith. He said that the prophet possessed a seer stone by which he was enabled to translate as follows: By aid of the seer stone , sentences would appear and were read by the prophet and written by Martin, and when finished he would say, ‘Written,’ and if correctly written, that sentence would disappear and another appear in its place, but if not written correctly it remained until corrected, so that that the translation was just as it was engraven on the plates precisely in the language then used.”
A book “translated by the gift and power of God”; a book not considered written until every sentence was confirmed as correctly transcribed so that “the translation was just as it was engraven on the plates precisely in the language then used”.
Faced with all the changes made in the text, however, Mormon “scholars” have come up with a rather different account of how the translation work was done. They quote Doctrine and Covenants 1:24,
“These commandments are of me, and were given unto my servants in their weakness, after the manner of their language, that they might come to understanding.”
It is argued that God showed Joseph the meaning of the text and Joseph had to cast about within his own vocabulary, and whatever resources he had about him, to find a way of expressing this meaning “after the manner of their language”. This, it is argued, is why we find in the Book of Mormon excerpts from the Westminster Confession and Shakespeare, as well popular books and the local press of the time.
Incidentally, this seems to contradict the popular and official Mormon story that Smith was "”a poor ignorant farm boy”. His access to these publications is explained by the fact that the literacy rate in North America in the 19th Century was remarkably high for the time, with 89% of of white Americans literate by 1860 (Rodney Stark, The Victory of Reason, p. 229, Random House, 2006) Smith’s father was a schoolmaster so educational standards were high, both in the United States, as well as in the Smith household.
When, at the beginning of the Book of Mormon narrative, Lehi and his family fled Jerusalem, we are told, they took with them Laban’s brass plates, which contained “the record of the Jews” (1 Nephi 3:3-4) It is from these the Book of Mormon people quote, thus explaining the presence of so many lengthy Bible texts in the book. There are over 400 verses in which the Nephite prophets quote from Isaiah, and half of these appear precisely as the King James Version renders them. Daniel H Ludlow explains this as follows:
“There appears to be only one answer to explain the word-for-word similarities between the verses of Isaiah in the Bible and the same verses in the Book of Mormon…if his translation was essentially the same as that of the King James Version, he apparently quoted the verse from the Bible.” (Daniel H. Ludlow, A Companion to Your Study of the Book of Mormon (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1976), p. 141)
Commenting on this in the Ensign magazine, Richard Lloyd Anderson wrote:
“Thus the Old Testament passages from Isaiah display a particular choice of phraseology that suggests Joseph Smith’s general freedom throughout the Book of Mormon for optional wording.” (“By the Gift and Power of God,” Ensign, Sept. 1977, 79)
There are, in other words, two conflicting accounts of how the Book of Mormon came to be translated. It was either a word-for-word “translation”, correct in every part, or it was a paraphrase “made after the manner of [Joseph’s] language”. Do we rely upon the accounts of those best placed to tell us what happened, or do we depend upon Mormon scholars to later “interpret” events in light of later developments?
Of course, given the growing distance in time, Mormon scholars are more able to put this disparity of accounts down to poor reporting on the part of those who acted as scribes to the prophet. However, since the scribes quoted above were also two of the three key witnesses to the Book of Mormon, it does not help the Mormon scholars to impugn their trustworthiness.
In Their Weakness
It is a curious phrase to find in a work purporting to be Scripture, “in their weakness”. Curious to a Christian certainly since it suggests room for error, allowance for human failings, man frustrating the work of God. There is a similar phrase in the title page of the Book of Mormon:
“And now, if there are faults they are the mistakes of men; wherefore, condemn not the things of God, that ye may be found spotless at the judgement seat of Christ.”
It seems that Joseph Smith allowed for every eventuality in publishing “the most correct of any book on earth” - just in case.
Just as well! It has been observed that there can hardly be any book published in the nineteenth century that has had as many changes made to it as the Book of Mormon. There cannot be many anyway. If there are you will probably find in them a publishing history showing that what you have in your hand is not the original but a revised edition. You will find no such candid admission in the front of the Book of Mormon.
The unsuspecting “investigator” will be led to believe that this is what came “from the lips of the Prophet as he translated it by the gift and power of God by means of the Urim and Thummim”. Such disingenuousness shows why Mormon scholars are necessary to “explain” the Mormon message when Mormon prophets are meant to be bringing the plain meaning of the gospel claimed to have been restored by Joseph Smith.
We begin to understand why Mormons know nothing of what it means to submit to the authority of Scripture. The Mormons think the Book of Mormon "the most correct of any book on earth"'; that is, not completely correct but most correct by comparison, because "if there are faults they are the mistakes of men". How does this compare with the Bible?
"All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness, so that the man of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work" (2 Timothy 3:16)
A Christian sees in the Bible God's all-sufficient provision for equipping thoroughly every Christian for kingdom living. Mormons, on the other hand, seem to be full of excuses for their not-altogether-reliable modern revelation, ready to admit faults and declare their Scriptures correct only by comparison, i.e. "most correct" rather than thoroughly reliable because "God-breathed".
A good example and witness to a Mormon, then, includes as essential a high view of the Bible, a reverence for God’s Word, and a readiness to appeal and submit to it in all matters of faith and doctrine. After all, “These things were written that you might believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God; and that believing you might have life through his name” (John 20:28)