Monday, 28 April 2014

Book of Mormon Origins – If Not Angels Then Who?

Book of Mormon

This post appeared originally on Mormonism Investigated UK

Anyone who has expressed doubts regarding the story of the Book of Mormon will probably have been met with the question, "Well if Joseph didn't get it from the angel how do you explain the Book of Mormon?"

Today the Book of Mormon does seem an unusual book that appears to have sprung from nowhere. Certainly the Mormon Church likes to present it as such, insisting that it could only have the history claimed for it because there is no other credible explanation.

In my last post we looked at the Bible as a major source for the Book of Mormon. Large sections of the Bible are quoted in the Book of Mormon, including over eighteen chapters of Isaiah. Even the Apocrypha is pressed into service, providing names, concepts and story lines. Beyond the Bible there was ample material on which Joseph Smith could draw to build his stories of the Ancient Americas; but could a simple farm boy have produced such a book?

Joseph Smith - Ignorant Farm Boy?

LeGrand Richards, in his book A Marvellous Work and A Wonder, after listing “42 great truths revealed through Joseph Smith,” makes this comment:

“Joseph Smith, or any other man, could not have obtained all this information by reading the Bible or studying all the books that have ever been written. It came from God.” (p.411)

At the beginning of his book LeGrand Richards quotes Jesus' words about putting new wine into new wineskins (Mark 2:21-22) to explain why God would choose an uneducated lad - so that He could teach the lad the way He wanted, without any traditions or prejudices to get in the way. Joseph is often cast in the role of ignorant farm boy, thoroughly incapable of writing the Book of Mormon.First Vision 2

This picture of an uneducated lad is misleading. Although he had little formal schooling, he was an imaginative and bright child. His imagination led him into divination and treasure seeking in his teens. Further, Joseph Smith’s parents, far from being the poor country hicks often imagined, were downwardly mobile gentry from Vermont, who moved to Palmyra in 1817, and struggled with a mortgage, debts, and poor crops. His father worked the land in the season and, during the winter, was a school teacher, so there was education in the home.

Even so, the only way the question of an “uneducated lad” innocently seeking truth could possibly arise in the first place is if the story is plausible. But there is no evidence to show that a fourteen-year-old Joseph Smith sought God, went into a grove to pray, saw visions, or was led by an angel to the hidden repository of gold plates.

Joseph, in his later telling of the story, relates how he shared his experience with a local Methodist preacher and was treated with contempt and subjected to ‘the most bitter persecution and reviling’ by ‘the great ones of the most popular sects of the day.’  And yet no account has been found of the vision in any records of the time, or for almost twenty years after. This at a time when newspapers, fighting for circulation, reported regularly the lively tales based on folk-lore and superstition that prevailed at the time.

Fawn M. Brodie, who published a biography of Joseph Smith, No Man Knows My History, was one of the first to cast doubt upon the authenticity of the story:

“Joseph's own description of the first vision was not published until 1842, twenty-two years after the memorable event.

If something happened that spring morning in 1820, it passed totally unnoticed in Joseph's home town, and apparently did not even fix itself in the minds of members of his own family. The awesome vision he described in later years may have been the elaboration of some half-remembered dream stimulated by the early revival excitement and reinforced by the rich folklore of visions circulating in his neighborhood. Or it may have been sheer invention, created some time after 1834 when the need arose for a magnificent tradition to cancel out the stories of his fortune-telling and money-digging.”

James B. Allen, Professor Emeritus of History at Brigham Young University, admits that “none of the available contemporary writings about Joseph Smith in the 1830's, none of the publications of the Church in that decade, and no contemporary journal or correspondence yet discovered mentions the story of the first vision.” Dr. Allen goes on to state that in the 1830's, “…the general membership of the Church knew little, if anything, about it.”

This being the case, the Book of Mormon can only be the product of an older, more mature Joseph Smith, whatever its true origins. The “uneducated lad” was yet to discover his destiny at the age of fourteen and knew nothing of angels, dreams, and gold plates. Joseph Smith

Back in the Day…

In fact, many of Joseph's ideas can be traced to the people around him and the speculations of the day:

Official Mormon Church history tells us that Joseph’s father believed in dreams and visions and as early as 1811, when Joseph was only 6, contended for a return to the original church established by Jesus Christ and his apostles. His parents were both, purportedly, independent religious thinkers, his mother believing that all the Christian creeds were wrong – as did many people in that place back in the day.

In fact, in 1809, Alexander Campbell had come out against all Christian creeds and began his own sect (the Disciples of Christ), attempting to return to the early church. Also known as the Campbellites, they were prevalent along that part of the frontier and many later became Mormons because of the similarity in their beliefs.

Even the account of Joseph's so-called First Vision is remarkably similar to accounts of spectacular conversion stories published in that period. In 1816 Elias Smith, a minister, claimed to have seen "The Lamb once slain" in a vision in the woods. Joseph's local newspaper published a similar story in October 1823. Alexander Campbell himself wrote in 1824 about a revival in New York during which people had had visions, heard a voice in the woods, or seen the Saviour descending to the tops of the trees.

To people today, the idea of the Urim and Thummim stones, which enabled Joseph to translate the golden plates, is strange, but peep stones were common back in the day. In March 1826 Joseph was charged with being "a disorderly person and an impostor." He admitted in court that he used a peep stone to discover hidden treasures in the earth. He actually had several, including a dark stone he looked at in his hat, and a clear stone he held up to a candle or the sun.

Joseph's mother testified to the inventive nature of his mind:

“During our evening conversations, Joseph would occasionally give us some of the most amusing recitals that could be imagined. He would describe the ancient inhabitants of this continent, their dress, mode of travelling, and the animals upon which they rode; their cities, their buildings, with every particular; their mode of warfare; and also their religious worship. This he would do with as much ease, seemingly, as if he had spent his whole life with them.” (Quoted in No Man Knows My History, Fawn Brodie, p.35)

The Book Of Mormon - Couldn't Have Been Written By A Man?

In view of the above it would seem that Joseph had plenty of material on which to draw for such a book. Added to which, local speculation was rife about a highly civilised race that had been wiped out in a great battle and buried in mounds locally.

A local Congregationalist minister, Ethan Smith, published a book in 1823 called View of the Hebrews; or the Ten Tribes of Israel in America. In it he argues that Native Americans are descended from the ten lost tribes of Israel, a view commonly held back in the day. It sounds familiar, doesn’t it?

The Mormon Church asserts that Joseph could not have written such a complete book in the 60 days in which the translation took place. Yet those who acted as his scribes never actually saw him translate. It is known that there was a curtain between them and Joseph, and they never saw the plates as he translated.

They also testify that his translation was fluent and he never corrected. Since even the best linguists sometimes have to rephrase their translation, Joseph must have been directly inspired by God. Another possibility, of course, is that he was reading from a previously prepared manuscript, or even from memory, considering his unique ability to "tell tales" as witnessed to by his mother. And remember almost one third of the Book of Mormon is lifted from the Bible.

It is impossible to consider the origin of the Book of Mormon without considering Joseph Smith and the background against which he lived. The book can be explained by Joseph's fertile mind, mastery of language, native cunning, and responsiveness to the tittle-tattle, speculations, and opinions around him.

The Book Of Mormon - An Ancient Document?

In 1831 Alexander Campbell wrote concerning the Book of Mormon:

“This prophet his Book of Mormon every error and almost every truth discussed in New York for the last ten years. He decides all the great controversies; -infant baptism, ordination, the trinity, regeneration, repentance, justification, the fall of man, the atonement, transubstantiation, fasting, penance, church government, religious experience, the call to the ministry, the general resurrection, eternal punishment, who may baptize, and even the question of free masonry [sic], republican government, and the rights of man” (Millennial Harbinger, Feb.1831, p.93)

Not only does Joseph Smith tackle these great nineteenth century controversies in his Book of Mormon, but uses material from publications not in existence at the time of the Nephites.

There are marked parallels between the Book of Mormon and the Westminster Confession and Catechisms. Joseph also appears to have drawn from popular books of his day, and even the local newspaper, to create his theological masterpiece.

Even Shakespeare is paraphrased by Lehi, the father of Nephi,  “hear the words of a trembling parent, whose limbs you must soon lay down in the cold and silent grave, from whence no traveller can return (2 Nephi 1:14). Hamlet, act 3, scene 1, contain the words "from whose bourn no traveller returns..." Famously, the last word in the Book of Jacob is not "Reformed Egyptian" but French, “I bid farewell, hoping that many of my brethren may read my words. Brethren adieu” (Jacob 7:27)

Not a Shard…

We began with the challenge to account for the Book of Mormon if the official story is questioned. The Book of Mormon is very much a product of its age and fits neatly into the background of the early 19th Century. It is not for us to prove anything, however, but for the Mormon Church to account for the origins of the Book of Mormon.

Mormons argue that they have a prophet and modern revelation, while those who cling to the wreckage of traditional and apostate Christianity have the heavens closed to us - but who has the evidence? Who can "walk Bible lands", while Mormons pay top dollar to tour guides to take them through non-existent "Book of Mormon lands", point to Inca and Maya ruins and declare "it might have been something like this"?

Who can walk in the footsteps of Abraham as he travelled from Ur to Haran and Lower Egypt and to Beersheba; or of Israel as they travelled from Egypt, across the wilderness, to the promised land; or of St Paul if they wish, to Seleucia, Lystra, Philippi, Corinth, Athens, Galatia and Rome; or follow in the steps of Jesus himself as he walked the shores of Galilee or the streets of Capernaeum and Jerusalem?

But no one can tell us where Nephi walked, where Mosiah reigned as king, where Alma, son of Alma was judge over his people and high priest over the church, where the wars recorded by Helaman took place and many Lamanites were converted; not even where Jesus walked when he supposedly "walked the Americas". Joseph Smith could lift his stories from the Bible but the archaeology has stayed stubbornly in Bible lands.

New World archaeology has not turned up a coin, not a pot, not a shard, not a brick, a name, a hill or mountain, a valley or river, not a city, town or village to support Mormon claims for the Book of Mormon. If the places and people didn't exist then the events cannot have taken place.

It is the Mormon Church that is making great claims for the Book of Mormon and if it can be shown to be false it is for the Mormon Church, and not us, to account for it.

Saturday, 12 April 2014

General Conference, April 2014 – Saturday Morning

General Conference image

(This was originally a guest post on the Mormonism Investigated site where you will find a team of writers producing commentary on all the proceedings of the conference weekend)

This session was presided over by Thomas S Monson and conducted by Dieter Uchtdorf, affectionately dubbed 'the silver fox' by some, and second counsellor in the first presidency. Boyd K Packer of the twelve apostles is, not so affectionately, nicknamed 'Darth Packer' and 'Boyd KKK Packer,' by critics both inside and outside the church for his unreconstructed Mormon outlook. I point this out only to say the two men represent for many the passing of the 'old guard' (Packer) and the coming of a softer, more acceptable face of Mormonism (Uchtdorf). Yet it might be said of Mormonism, the more things change, the more they remain the same.

In a world where many are struggling to define themselves, to identify which “tribe” they belong to, where Western Europeans (my perspective) are asking whether theirs is a local, regional, national or European identity, Mormons see themselves as a people group with clear distinctives of which they are unashamed. The Mormon Tabernacle Choir sang beautifully looking splendid in their matching outfits, plum coloured two piece for the women, conservative suits, white shirts, and ties for the men, and all obviously enjoying themselves.

This uniformity extends to all true-believing-Mormon attendees, as you will see from the pictures in the May Ensign magazine; it struck me as a key theme in the conference. There is apparent change, i.e. from Packer to Uchtdorf, yet there is also obvious uniformity. At a time when even Mormons are asking themselves who exactly is making doctrine for the church these days, the General Authorities or church lawyers and members of the BYU faculty, conference is where Mormons get reassuring answers. This where the Mormon world, troubled by a clear shift in the tectonic plates of their faith, find apparent continuity, a squaring of the circle, a reconciling of the old (Packer) with the new (Uchtdorf).

This uniformity, which Mormons mistake for unity, sometimes works, as in the case of Linda S Reeve, president of the Relief Society, who gave an impassioned and earnest plea for people to face up to the problem of pornography. I found myself nodding enthusiastically as she spoke reason and faith on a subject that should concern us all, and I noted how comfortable Mormons would have been with a female leader that fitted the mould of generations of Relief Society presidents.

On the other hand, Carlos Amado, originally from Guatemala City, and of the first quorum of the seventy, appeared to struggle not so much with speaking English, which he handled well enough as a second language, as with the peculiar idiom of Mormon leadership. I don't write this to in any way denigrate the man but I considered, if he came and spoke in my church we would not expect such a performance from him and he would have been encouraged to be his native self and share his message in his own words.

He had to wrestle with the Jacobean English in the King James Bible that Mormons insist on using, but he further struggled to sound like a General Authority, mimicking tones and inflections, phrases and terminology clearly designed to give the impression of solemnity and reverence, nevertheless language that has no place in the modern world and that would trip up anyone using English as a second language. But that image of unity and continuity was achieved as he met the demands of being a General Authority, speaking Mormonese to the conference.

President Monson came out with the expected anecdote to illustrate his theme, “Live true to the Faith.” This is a Mormon trope designed to reassure people that what they are about to hear is consistent with the faith of their fathers. It is a package, and the whole package must be embraced, from Henry B Eyring (crying Eyring) and his typically tearful account of his forebears and the importance of genealogy, to Jeffrey R Holland's call to “suffer the shame of the world,” for the Mormon faith.

So lets tick some boxes and see what Mormonism teaches because the Mormon Church has apparently shifted its position on many issues in recent times:

Added Upon

It was Henry B Eyring who, speaking of covenants, reminded listeners that blessings are predicated upon their keeping those covenants. He spoke of our having had a life before this one with God in a pre-mortal state, which Mormons call the first estate, and as literal children of God. We are, according to Mormonism, the same species as God, gods in embryo and, as Mormonism has always taught, God is an exalted man. It is on this very site that a Mormon insisted that this is but a speculation about God's nature. In this conference we can lay speculation aside and identify Mormon 'truth.'

Here on earth we are in our second estate, Eyring insists, and we got here by being obedient in our first estate. Our eternal destiny is dependent on our continuing to keep covenants, from baptism to temple, till death.

President Eyring quotes the Mormon Book of Abraham:

And they who keep their first estate shall be added upon; and they who keep not their first estate shall not have glory in the same kingdom with those who keep their first estate; and they who keep their second estate shall have glory added upon their heads for ever and ever.” (Abraham 3:26)

The Mormon 'scripture' declares:

There is a law irrevocably decreed in heaven before the foundation of this world, upon which all blessings are predicated-

And when we obtain any blessing from God, it is by obedience to that law upon which it is predicated.(Doctrine and Covenants 130:20-21)

God's 'Plan of Happiness'

It was Neil L Anderson who, speaking of building a foundation on Christ, came up with the statement that has all the Mormon world buzzing. After much effort in the recent past to reach out to the gay community, he states clearly that civil law cannot change moral law – something with which we would agree – and that marriage is between one man and one woman – something else with which we would agree, although I question whether Joseph Smith and Brigham Young would.

His reason for insisting on this male/female partnership is the fulfilment of God's great plan of happiness, the creator's plan for his children to go through this testing second estate and prove worthy. You don't hear so much these days about the 'duty' of having children to bring people from the spirit world (the first estate) to this (the second estate), with even Mormons being given licence to limit their family size, yet this is what is in view here. So we have a pre-mortal existence where we are literally spirit children of God, and a testing ground (this world) in which we prove ourselves fit and worthy to go on to receive glory for eternity.


It was the aforementioned Carlos Amado who spoke movingly of Jesus going “to face his most demanding trial, in the Garden of Gethsemane, in all the loneliness he suffered the most intense agony, bleeding from every pore, in total submission to his Father he atoned for our sins...”

But it was in Gethsemane that Jesus, comforted by an angel, prepared for his most demanding trial on the cross. Remarkably, Mormons don't lay great store by the cross of Christ. In a special broadcast in 2001 entitled Special Witnesses of Christ, in which Mormon 'apostles and prophets' testify to their faith, the cross is absent as the story leaps from the Garden to the tomb. You can read about this peculiar treatment of a key Christian and biblical doctrine on The Mormon Chapbook Nevertheless, the atonement achieves for everyone a general resurrection, which Mormons call 'salvation,' but what Christians call eternal life Mormons achieve by obedience not faith.

Carlos Amado goes on to describe Christ as spending three days setting up missionary work among the dead so that those who did not hear the Mormon 'gospel' in this life might have a chance to hear and accept it there. This raises, of course, the question of original sin and whether we are saved by the grace of God from a just but terrible punishment, or saved by hearing and having the sense to accept a message.

This is an issue with which some Christians struggle but lets be clear, we are not in a neutral place, innocents, until we accept or reject the Christian message, we are sinners bound for condemnation unless someone steps in and, by his grace, saves us. It is that saving that is the message, not some system of eternal attainment. Faith in Mormonism appears to be, not the Christian settled trust in the finished work of Christ on the cross, but a determined conviction that these Mormon teachings are true and should be acted upon in order to obtain blessing and glory.


There are now apparently 142 operating Mormon temples across the world we are informed. When all planned temples are completed that number will rise to 170. President Monson insists that Mormons are a temple-building people. Later it is Neil L Anderson who reminds us that it is in these “holy places” faithful Mormons are to stand and he celebrates the proliferation of temples since his youth. “The Lord has given this generation greater access to temples than any generation in the history of the world.” Both men overlook the fact that, in the history of the Bible, the only temple-building people of the sort described are the builders of the ziggurats on the plains of ancient Mesopotamia, out of which Abraham was called.


Finally, we are reminded by Jeffrey R Holland that Mormons have prophets to guide and inspire. Referring to the spirit of this age he speaks of prophets that say pleasing things, that “not only don't rock the boat, they don't even row the boat,” the irony of which obviously escaped him. Mormon prophets these days appear to have a great deal of time on their hands – perhaps to open temples and shopping malls - as BYU and amateur Mormon apologists do most of the doctrinal heavy lifting.

Nevertheless, Mormons attend and/or listen to conference twice a year to gain the reassurance that, despite the fact their prophets don't actually prophecy any more (don't rock or row the boat), nevertheless they have prophets; that despite more recent public prevarication on the issue they can look forward to godhood as did their forebears; that regardless of more recent obfuscation on the subject they are of the same species as God, and God is an exalted man; that they have already proved 'worthy' as evidenced by their presence in this 'second estate'; that by their obedience they can be entitled to blessings; that they can attain an eternity with God, not because of God's undeserved grace, but because they have passed the test set for them by the one who was their literal father in the first place.


In all this, of course, one wonders what room there is for the grace of God. What significance has the sacrifice of Christ in a system where he conquers death without conquering for us the sin that brought death into the world. Where the problem is not our slavery to sin but the prospect of a test.

The Mormon answer is, once again, the squaring of a circle. In Mormon thought “We believe that through the Atonement of Christ, we are saved by obedience to the laws and ordinances of the gospel” (third Article of Faith)

What is the point of the atonement if we are “saved by [our own] obedience?”

Mike Thomas was a Mormon for 14 years, became a Christian in 1986 and for many years worked with Reachout Trust speaking and writing about Mormonism. He still researches Mormonism and occasionally posts his thoughts on Mormon issues at The Mormon Chapbook