The Book of Mormon must be read as an ancient, not as a modern book. Its mission, as described by the book itself, depends in great measure for its efficacy on its genuine antiquity. —Hugh Nibley1
To many non-Mormon readers, the Book of Mormon’s insistence on its historicity is troublesome. Modern scholars are quite comfortable in safely doting over quaint and long-forgotten religious texts that are considered neither genuinely historical nor scriptural by modern believers. The Book of Mormon, by contrast, claims to be “an abridgment of the record of the people of Nephi, and also of the Lamanites . . . [and] an abridgment of the Book of Ether,” that was “written by way of commandment, and also by the spirit of prophecy and of revelation” (Book of Mormon Title Page). This has created an extremely awkward situation for religious historians who, in the words of Terryl Givens, “want to salvage Joseph Smith’s prophetic role . . . by avoiding what they see as the embarrassing ramifications of his naked prose or the fragility of the book’s historical claims.” This awkwardness makes these uncomfortable historians “hard-pressed to devise nonliteral readings” of the Book of Mormon. Why so? “Joseph’s prophetic writings [are] grounded in artifactual reality, not the world of psychic meanderings. It is hard to allegorize—and profoundly presumptuous to edit down—a sacred record that purports to be a transcription of tangible records hand-delivered by an angel.”2
Converging with the sentiments of Terryl Givens above is Richard Bushman, who in 1984 drew a similar conclusion for LDS scripture:
The greatest error would be to mistake these narratives from ancient times as mere objects of curiosity, revealing a Mormon taste with the mysteries of antiquity. . . . Joseph Smith’s revelations . . . made new sacred narratives that were themselves the foundation for belief. . . . The Book of Mormon throughout is composed of happenings wherein God directed, reproved, punished, and redeemed his people. What distinguished Mormonism was not so much the gospel Mormons taught . . . but what they believed had happened—to Joseph Smith, to Book of Mormon characters, and to Moses and Enoch. . . . The core of Mormon belief was a conviction about actual events. . . . Mormonism was history, not philosophy. . . . The strength of the church, the vigor of the Mormon missionary movement, and the staying power of the Latter-day Saints from 1830 to the present rest on the belief in the reality of these events.3
This observation is true for the events narrated in the Book of Mormon, and also of the foundational stories of the Restoration. As Louis Midgley has often reminded us, it is not theology, philosophy, or creeds that primarily distinguishes Mormonism from other Christian denominations.4 Parallels between Mormon theology and both ancient and contemporary Christian and Jewish theologies can easily be drawn.5 Rather, it is its claim of being a continuation of ancient covenantal history and a restoration of biblical, patriarchal religion by the ministry of angels that has invigorated Mormonism (see for example Doctrine & Covenants 110; 128:20–23) and has set it apart from the myriad Christian denominations scattered throughout the globe today.
Grant Hardy, in his recent treatment on the Book of Mormon, agrees both with Givens and Bushman in emphasizing the significance of the historical claims of the Book of Mormon. Although he approaches the Book of Mormon from a literary perspective, and brackets the question of the book’s historicity in his study for the sake of maintaining the aim of his literary analysis (a perfectly legitimate and fruitful undertaking so long as one acknowledges from the start what one is doing, and thereby does not allow a literary analysis to overshadow its doctrine or historical claims), he nevertheless sums up perfectly the predicament faced by any reader of the book.
Joseph and his associates insisted from the beginning that the Book of Mormon was a translation from an authentic ancient document written in “Reformed Egyptian” on metal plates and buried by the last ancient author about AD 421. . . . The strong historical assertions of the book seem to allow for only three possible origins: as a miraculously translated historical document, as a fraud (perhaps a pious one) written by Joseph Smith, or as a delusion (perhaps sincerely believed) that originated in Smith’s subconscious.6
Paul Hoskisson points to another specific reason for insisting on the importance of the historicity of the Book of Mormon (as well as other scripture):
If God expects us in the time and space of this world to submit to ordinances and other physical requirements, then the scriptural passages which exemplify and instruct us concerning those actions must be historical.7
These and similar observations, as well as a careful look at the statements made by Joseph Smith and the Book of Mormon itself, have lead me to the following conclusion: the historicity of the Book of Mormon is an imperative for Mormonism. The book not only must be read as history, but also must actually be history for it to carry meaningful theological legitimacy—that is, a real meaning for the faithful Latter-day Saint.
The “Inspired Fiction” Theory of the Book of Mormon
In response to what they see as overwhelming evidence against the Book of Mormon’s historical authenticity, but in a wish to maintain that the book might still be “inspiring,” a number of readers have composed a theory that the Book of Mormon may not be historical, but is yet somehow still “inspired” or even in some sense “revelatory.” For the sake of convenience, I will call this the “Inspired Fiction” theory of the Book of Mormon.
One proponent of the Inspired Fiction theory is Anthony A. Hutchinson.8 Hutchinson begins with a plea:
Members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints should confess in faith that the Book of Mormon is the word of God but also abandon claims that it is a historical record of the ancient peoples of the Americas. We should accept that it is a work of scripture inspired by God in the same way that the Bible is inspired, but one that has as its human author Joseph Smith, Jr.9
What follows is Hutchinson’s rationalization for this credo. For Hutchinson, there can be no question that the Book of Mormon is not a genuine historical text. He dismisses the work of Hugh Nibley, John Sorenson, and other LDS scholars, and sighs with resignation that he cannot see any redeeming argument for the Book of Mormon’s historicity.10 He likewise voices his suspicion concerning the literalness of the accounts given by Joseph Smith and his closest associates (such as the Three and Eight Witnesses) of the coming forth of the Book of Mormon.11
Given what he sees is the unimpressive evidence for its historicity and the “visionary character”12 of Joseph Smith’s account of the coming forth of the Book of Mormon, Hutchinson rejects the historicity of the Book of Mormon in toto. There were no real Nephites, golden plates, or angels outside of the fruitful imagination of an impressionable young Joseph Smith. But despite his insistence on the Book of Mormon’s unhistorical nature, in 1993 Hutchinson did not feel it necessary to totally abandon the book’s spiritual power: “I believe the Book of Mormon to be the word of God because I am moved by its story and the story of its author, Joseph Smith the prophet, and the story of people brought together by its coming forth.”13 All that is therefore needed to accept the Book of Mormon as scripture is to confess faith in a compelling story, regardless of whether that story actually ever really happened.
Hutchinson is by no means alone in promulgating the Inspired Fiction theory. Robert M. Price picks up this line of thought in an essay that implores the reader to view Joseph Smith as the “inspired author” of the Book of Mormon.14 “If Joseph Smith is to be considered not the excavator and translator but the author of the Book of Mormon,” Price reasons, “the situation is far removed from that of some crude hoax or practical joke.”15
As with Hutchinson, Price operates with the a priori assumption of a non-historical Book of Mormon. But the non-historicity of the Book of Mormon doesn’t matter to Price, who feels it entirely proper to count the Book of Mormon as “scriptural” and Joseph Smith as “inspired” for no other reason than the noble intentions behind the entire scheme.
Joseph Smith, disillusioned by the strife and confusion of rival Christian sects, each of which claimed the authority of the Bible for its distinctive teachings, finally decided to cut the Gordian Knot of Bible exegesis by creating a new scripture that would undercut the debating of the denominations and render them superfluous.16
Far from the conniving charlatan of the anti-Mormon polemics of yore, Joseph Smith, in this re-envisioning, was acting out of pure intentions. He meant well in fabricating new scripture, and, as such, can only be lauded. What’s more, the fact that Joseph Smith took the Bible as his prime source for fabricating new scripture only further shows his holy intentions.
Smith’s apparent, fundamental source material still survives: the Bible. Like the Gospel writers . . . Joseph Smith seems to have created new holy fictions by running the old ones through the shredder and reassembling the shreds in wholly new combinations. His method appears to be precisely that of the old rabbis and of the New Testament evangelists. So, not only did Smith do the same sort of thing biblical writers themselves did to produce new Bible text, he even did it the same way.17
Price feels no constraint in rhapsodizing with gushing effusion on the Book of Mormon as “inspired” pseudepigrapha and Joseph Smith as its “inspired” author. This, Price insists, frees us from the discomfiture inherent in an obviously unhistorical Book of Mormon being held up as historical by decades of Mormon dogma, and opens up new vistas of scriptural exploration. Now the Book of Mormon can be read the way it was meant to be read all along: as non-literal, unhistorical, and fictitious.
Then there is Scott Dunn, who makes a case for the Book of Mormon as “automatic writing.” In this scenario, we are to understand Joseph Smith as psychotic: one who is psychologically detached from reality, but still somehow in communication with divinity.18 Accordingly, “God use[d] automatic writing to help his prophets produce latter-day scripture.”19
If we see the Book of Mormon as the result of Joseph Smith’s psychosis, Dunn argues, then we can safely put it next to other wondrous books that were likewise purportedly the result, at least to some extent, of automatic dictation, including A Course in Miracles by Helen Cohn Schucman, Jane Eyre by Charlotte Brontë and Jerusalem by William Blake. (What a flattering compliment to have Joseph Smith included in the pantheon of western authors next to one of the Brontë sisters and Blake!)
But what, exactly, leads Dunn to conclude that Joseph Smith was psychotic, and that the Book of Mormon is a product of something called automatic dictation? Nothing less than a commanding “number of parallels . . . between Joseph Smith’s production of scripture and instances of automatic writing.”20 These parallels include
multiple authorship, use of archaic language, accounts of bygone historical figures, accurate descriptions of times and places apparently unfamiliar to the writer, narratives with well-developed characters and plot, accounts of various ministries of Jesus Christ, poetics, occasionally impressive literary quality, doctrinal, theological, and cosmological discussions, and even discourses by deity.21
Equally telling for Dunn is the manner in which Joseph Smith created the Book of Mormon. In a trance-like state Joseph Smith dictated page after page of text without referencing notes or making corrections. The breathtakingly fast pace of the flawless dictation and Joseph Smith’s use of a “crystal or stone”22 in his dictation are unmistakable characteristics of “automatic dictation,” according to Dunn. With this in mind, Dunn safely concludes that “automatic writing . . . provides a simple explanation of these circumstances.”23
But, as with Hutchinson and Price, Dunn believes his theory renders moot the question of the Book of Mormon’s contested origins. This is because Dunn believes “automatic writing” can account for things such as “Smith’s scriptural productions repeating things he may have heard or overheard in conversation, camp meetings, or other [19th century] settings without any concerted study of the issues,” as well as the assertion by apologists “that Smith was too ignorant and uneducated to create a book of such complex construction and profound teachings.”24
In other words, there is no need to debate whether Joseph Smith pilfered from View of the Hebrews (a favorite candidate of Joseph Smith’s alleged plagiarism for those seeking a naturalistic explanation for the origins of the Book of Mormon) or had at his disposal a copy of the Bible during the production of the Book of Mormon, since “automatic writing” somehow allows the author to unconsciously “channel” previously retained information. Nor is it necessary to argue for the Book of Mormon’s complexity or ancient authenticity, since “automatic writing” has also allegedly produced works that exhibit complexity and marks of antiquity. Dunn observes that “some apologists have claimed that evidence for the Book of Mormon’s ancient character ‘proves’ or validates its doctrinal teachings.” “Such claims,” he continues,
are clearly made in ignorance of automatic texts, many of which evidence historical and philosophical knowledge beyond that of the writer. Since the theologies of these other writings clash with the Book of Mormon and with each other, it is fallacious to suggest a connection between doctrinal claims of a book and the miraculous aspects of its contents.25
So we need to stop fretting over the historicity of the Book of Mormon, or whether it has 19th century or ancient characteristics. What matters is solely the “inspiration” of the book, which, like other works written under similar circumstances, was produced through the “inspiration” of “automatic writing.”
After surveying these arguments, the commonalities between these and other manifestations of the Inspired Fiction reading of the Book of Mormon become readily apparent. First, in each recasting of this theory, Joseph Smith was never in the possession of real gold plates, or real interpreters (aka the Urim and Thummim), or a real sword of Laban, or a real breastplate. These artifacts, presumably, were either faked/fabricated or imagined. Second, nothing in the Book of Mormon corresponds to historical reality. Nephites, Lamanites, Zarahemla, Bountiful, Lehi, Nephi, Helaman, Moroni, etc., never existed outside the pages of Joseph Smith’s novel. Third, the historicity of the Book of Mormon is irrelevant with regard to whether the book is “inspired.” Scripture does not need to be historically real to be from God.
The Flaws of an Inspired Fiction Reading of the Book of Mormon
No matter how ingenious, or sympathetic, these attempts to deny the Book of Mormon’s historicity and yet maintain its “inspiration” may be, they simply don’t work. The logical flaws in any Inspired Fiction reading of the Book of Mormon are not only too numerous and fail to account for the historical evidence concerning the coming forth of the Book of Mormon, but also grotesquely deform the Book of Mormon into something neither it nor its millions of faithful adherents ever claimed it to be. “For a variety of reasons,” Givens succinctly explains, “such efforts [to read the Book of Mormon as inspired fiction] may be well intentioned, but they are untenable.”26
The first of the variety of reasons why the Inspired Fiction theory is untenable is that it begs the question of the Book of Mormon’s non-historical nature. In other words, proponents of the Inspired Fiction theory must first assume that the Book of Mormon is not historical before they can proceed any further; which assumption is far from certain and highly debatable. If the work of Mormon scholars in the past 50 years has proven anything, it is that a rigorous defense of the Book of Mormon’s historicity can and has been made in such a compelling manner that one must confront this body of scholarship and adequately account for it before one can propose any Inspired Fiction reading.
This is, however, precisely what proponents of the Inspired Fiction theory have not done. They have not adequately responded to the work of Mormon scholars on behalf of the Book of Mormon’s historicity. With few exceptions, they have merely assumed or uncritically accepted the conclusion that the Book of Mormon is not historical. This conclusion has not only been vigorously challenged by many scholars, but has also not been adequately sustained by those advocating the non-historical nature of the Book of Mormon. The Inspired Fiction theory, therefore, is little more than a refuge for those who have merely assumed that the Book of Mormon cannot possibly be an authentic ancient text.
William Hamblin has succinctly summarized an even more problematic logical inconsistency in the Inspired Fiction theory.
1. Joseph Smith claimed to have had possession of golden plates written by the Nephites, and to have been visited by Moroni, a resurrected Nephite. 2. If the Book of Mormon is not an ancient document, there were no Nephites. 3. If there were no Nephites, there were no golden plates written by Nephites; and there was no Nephite named Moroni. 4. If there was no Moroni and no golden plates, then Joseph did not tell the truth when he claimed to possess and translate these nonexistent plates, and to have been visited by a resurrected man. 5. Hence, Joseph was either lying (he knew there were no plates or angelic visitations, but was trying to convince others that there were), or he was insane or deluded (he believed there were golden plates and angelic visitations which in fact did not exist).27
The case against the Inspired Fiction theory can be elucidated with this simple question, which proponents of the Inspired Fiction theory must answer: if the Book of Mormon isn’t historical, then was Joseph Smith a deliberate liar when he said he had golden plates, and was visited by an ancient Nephite prophet, or was he merely delusional? Or was he perhaps a sincere liar, in that he came to believe in his own delusions? To these interrogatories a follow-up question may be asked: why would God choose a liar or a lunatic to bring about the Restoration? As Hamblin remarks,
If [those who read the Book of Mormon as inspired fiction] wish to maintain that the Book of Mormon is not an ancient document, but that Joseph Smith was somehow still a prophet, they must present some cogent explanation for Joseph’s wild claims of possessing nonexistent golden plates and being visited by nonexistent angels.28
What’s more, as Kent Jackson, who puts an even finer point on this question, explains,
relegating the Book of Mormon to inspired parable or morally uplifting allegory presents serious problems of logic. The book itself announces its historicity repeatedly. Can it really be true in any sense if it consistently misrepresents its origin? Joseph Smith also was consistent in maintaining that the book describes real events and real people. . . . Can these sources be relied on for anything if they unfailingly misrepresent the nature of the “keystone” of the Latter-day Saint faith?29
Joseph Smith’s insistence on the historicity of the Book of Mormon was constant throughout his ministry. To ignore this fact is to unjustifiably wink at a crucial piece of evidence in assessing the nature of the Book of Mormon and how the Latter-day Saints have viewed it since 1830. The well-documented statements of Joseph Smith consistently affirming the Book of Mormon as historical must be dealt with by the proponents of the Inspired Fiction theory.30
Even if we grant that Joseph Smith was the author, even the “inspired author” of the Book of Mormon, we must still ask why he would perpetuate falsehoods throughout his life concerning the coming forth and historicity of the Book of Mormon. Why would he keep up the ruse if he knew he was the author and not the prophetic translator of the Book of Mormon? Or perhaps, as mentioned above, Joseph Smith came to believe his own delusions. This is essentially what Fawn Brodie and Dan Vogel have argued in their biographies of the Prophet.31 But is a deluded, though sincere, mountebank someone we really wish to see as a prophet? And should his ruse really be treated as the word of God?
After a thorough look at not only the statements of Joseph Smith’s, but also statements in the Doctrine and Covenants and the Book of Mormon itself (more on this later), Jackson asks the hard questions which those who opt for the Inspired Fiction theory routinely neglect:
Can the Book of Mormon indeed be “true,” in any sense, if it lies repeatedly, explicitly, and deliberately regarding its own historicity? Can Joseph Smith be viewed with any level of credibility if he repeatedly, explicitly, and deliberately lied concerning the historicity of the book? Can we have any degree of confidence in what are presented as the words of God in the Doctrine and Covenants if they repeatedly, explicitly, and deliberately lie by asserting the historicity of the Book of Mormon? If the Book of Mormon is not what it claims to be, what possible cause would anyone have to accept anything of the work of Joseph Smith and The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints given the consistent assertions that the Book of Mormon is an ancient text that describes ancient events?32
Hutchinson actually attempts to circumvent the claims of Joseph Smith concerning the coming forth of the Book of Mormon. He insists that the involvement of seer stones, angels, and visions in the claims of Joseph Smith preclude any possibility of the gold plates being real.33 Unfortunately though, Hutchinson’s arguments lack engagement with what was actually claimed by those involved in the coming forth of the Book of Mormon.
For instance, the testimony of the Eight Witnesses is an obstacle that those who wish to read the Book of Mormon as inspired fiction must overcome. Although revisionists, including Hutchinson, have tried to dismiss the experience of the Eight Witnesses as nothing more than subjective, or visionary, Richard Lloyd Anderson (both before and after the publication of Hutchinson’s article) has convincingly challenged this tactic.34 The experience of the Eight Witnesses compliments the more remarkable experience of the Three Witnesses, and lends credibility to the claim, contra Hutchinson, that some sort of physical set of plates (whether ancient or modern) actually existed.35
Hutchinson has not gone unchallenged in his abandonment of the Book of Mormon’s historicity (while still speaking of its “inspiration”). Louis Midgley, who is critical of the Inspired Fiction theory of the Book of Mormon, has given specific attention to Hutchinson’s theory. Midgley challenges or qualifies almost every aspect of Hutchinson’s thesis.36 Midgley’s rebuttal of Hutchinson (as well as his other counter-arguments to the Inspired Fiction theory) is substantive, and not to be passed over lightly by those who advocate an Inspired Fiction theory.37
Turning to Price’s contention that Joseph Smith was the “inspired author” of the Book of Mormon, the question of whether God would actually inspire a liar is a non-issue for Price, who is an avowed atheist.38 Indeed, Price seems to see the “inspiration” of the Book of Mormon in the same sense that one would see “inspiration” in the works of Shakespeare or Homer, i.e., nothing more than an excellent literary quality. Because there is no God, Price’s “inspiration” means anything except actual revelation. This has not stopped Price from arguing that the Book of Mormon is no more a hoax than are the fictional works of other great authors. “We ought to realize,” Price opines, “that for Joseph Smith to be the author of the Book of Mormon, with Moroni and Mormon as narrators, makes moot the old debates over whether Smith was a hoaxer or charlatan.”39 By way of comparison, Price asks if Herman Melville and Shakespeare should also be considered hoaxers because they too wrote their fictional narratives in first person, introducing new fictional characters in the process.40
This argument falls flat as soon as one realizes that Joseph Smith never claimed the Book of Mormon was fiction like the works of Melville or Shakespeare. He claimed to have translated by miraculous means an ancient record written on real, tangible, physical golden plates given to him by an angel who was once an ancient Nephite prophet and one of the principle authors of the very book Joseph Smith translated. “[T]o my knowledge,” Hamblin quips in response to Price, “Shakespeare never said that the resurrected Hamlet appeared to him in a dream and gave him a prewritten play Hamlet on golden plates. Shakespeare also never claimed to have been resurrected and ascended into heaven. Frankly, the two examples are not even slightly analogous.”41
To insist on such mercurial definitions of “scripture” and “inspiration” is to make these crucial concepts meaningless, since anything that strikes one’s fancy could be qualified as “scripture” or “inspired,” if one followed Price’s opinion. Or, to paraphrase Robert Alter, “[this] concept of [scripture] becomes so elastic that it threatens to lose descriptive value.”42 Within the understanding of the Latter-day Saints, what gives a text “inspiration” and makes it “scripture” is not its literary merit, but rather when the text is created under the influence of the Holy Ghost (see Doctrine and Covenants 68:4). Price may call any work of literary excellence “scripture” if he likes, but for him to call the Book of Mormon “scripture” while denying that it comes from God is to introduce a concept totally alien to the faith of the Saints.
This is not to deny that works outside the modern canon can be beneficial or enlightening, or even, in Price’s sense, “scriptural,” in that they can contain ideas and concepts that, from a Latter-day Saint perspective, are true and in harmony with what God has revealed. Indeed, there is a richness of truth and beauty to be found in works of art, literature, music, and film from multiple cultures and religious traditions. When Doctrine and Covenants 88:118 directs us to seek “words of wisdom” out of “the best books” it doesn’t restrict these books to only the standard works of the Church. I am therefore not by any means an exclusionist. As a student of German literature, for instance, my soul resonates with many of the writings of the great German Romantics such as Goethe and Schiller. I’d even venture to say that, in some instances, they were genuinely inspired and produced works that comfortably compliment many aspects of my own faith.
However, I do not read Die Leiden des jungen Werthers (which actually happens to be one of my favorite books) or the numerous poems of Schiller in the same way that I read the Book of Mormon or the Doctrine and Covenants. While I find many aspects of the works of Goethe and Schiller (as well as other authors) profound, I do not believe Goethe and Schiller were prophets in the same sense that I believe Joseph Smith was a prophet. I am confident that other Latter-day Saints have a similar opinion.
The difference should be plainly obvious. From an LDS perspective Joseph Smith not only communed with God through actual heavenly encounters, but also, with the Book of Mormon, provided tangible evidence for God’s existence. As far as I am aware, neither Goethe nor Schiller claimed to have spoken face-to-face with God and Jesus Christ. To adapt Hamblin’s criticism of Price, Goethe never claimed that the studious Faust was a real individual or that the machinations of Mephistopheles actually happened. Nor did Schiller ever claim that a resurrected Albrecht von Wallenstein (who died in 1634) delivered to him the manuscript of his (Schiller’s) fictional dramatic trilogy Wallensteins Lager/Die Piccolomini/Wallensteins Tod.43
Dunn doesn’t escape unscathed from criticisms of his thesis either. Both Robert Rees and Richard Williams provide well-argued criticisms of Dunn’s hypothesis that the Book of Mormon is the product of automatic writing.44 Rees criticizes Dunn’s double standard in uncritically accepting the accounts of other automatic scribes, while simultaneously questioning Joseph Smith’s own account.
It is surprising that Dunn seems to take at face value the claims of other automatic scribes about the source of their manuscripts but doesn’t seem to accept Joseph Smith’s own account of his sources as valid. That is, if Dunn uncritically accepts the witness of writers of automatic texts regarding the processes by which they received their material, why question the source Joseph Smith claimed for the Book of Mormon?45
For Dunn’s hypothesis to work, one must unquestioningly accept the claims of others who produced texts by “automatic writing,” but also unquestioningly reject Joseph Smith’s own claims concerning the coming forth of the Book of Mormon. Why such an inconsistency is warranted is left unexplained by Dunn. But even worse for Dunn are the numerous ways in which the Book of Mormon does not exhibit the characteristics of automatic writing, including not just the actual verification of some of its historical claims, but also the nature of the experience of Joseph Smith and the others involved in the coming forth of the Book of Mormon.46
Williams argues that the parallels offered by Dunn are not real parallels at all.
Joseph Smith never invoked traditional spiritualist experiences or explanations, unlike spiritualists of the nineteenth century. When I was first contemplating writing this essay, I contacted a professional colleague of mine whose expertise is in the psychology of religion and who is well qualified in matters of spirituality and spiritualism in the history of religion. His initial response to the automaticity hypothesis was that it seemed odd since Joseph Smith, unlike mediums and spiritualists of the nineteenth century, never invoked spiritualism as a source or influence. For most spiritualists, the channeling or mediumship is the crucial issue, but Joseph never made such claims. Rather, he consistently reported that the source of the message was the metal plates and that his own translation occurred by the gift and power of God; he was able to show the plates to several credible witnesses who testified of their existence.47
Interestingly, this is not the first time Joseph Smith’s alleged mental instability has been used to explain the origin of the Book of Mormon. As early as 1903, B. H. Roberts responded to I. Woodbridge Riley’s hypothesis that Joseph Smith was an epileptic,48 a bizarre theory that has from time to time subsequently resurfaced.
Historicity as a Necessity for the Theological Vitality of the Book of Mormon
What is the purpose of the Book of Mormon? There is no better place to begin than the title page of the Book of Mormon, which Joseph Smith insisted was translated from the plates, and was not a modern composition.49 According to the title page, the purpose of the Book of Mormon is three-fold: 1) “to show unto the remnant of the house of Israel what great things the Lord hath done for their fathers”; 2) “that they may know the covenants of the Lord, that they are not cast off forever”; and 3) “to the convincing of the Jew and Gentile that Jesus is the Christ, the Eternal God, manifesting himself unto all nations.”
“To this list,” according to Elder Jay E. Jensen, “we might add Moroni’s last words on the title page, ‘That ye may be found spotless at the judgment-seat of Christ,’ a vital part of the Book of Mormon’s purpose.”50 But does the Book of Mormon have a primary purpose, for which its historicity is so crucial? Elder Jeffrey R. Holland answers in the affirmative:
From the title page to the book’s final declaration, this testament reveals, examines, underscores, and illuminates the divine mission of Jesus Christ as recorded in the sacred accounts of two New World dispensations (Jaredite and Lehite) written for the benefit of a third dispensation, the dispensation of the fulness of times. The Book of Mormon has many purposes, but this one transcends all others.51
Brant Gardner explains that the Book of Mormon “emphasizes the Atoning Messiah’s mission. The structure of Mormon’s work emphasizes the Messiah, and at the end we have Moroni affirming that the purpose of the Nephite preaching and particularly their records, has been to declare this supremely important message.”52
There is thus a fundamental difference between the Book of Mormon and other writings about Jesus, such as Ben-Hur or The Last Temptation of Christ. In the case of the Book of Mormon, the theological power of the text comes from its insistence that what it describes actually happened. When a resurrected, deified Christ is purported to have actually appeared to an assembly of ancient descendants of Israel on the American continent, the account is not to be treated with the same sort of perfunctory curiosity or amusement that one would expend on The Da Vinci Code or any other modern fictional account about Jesus. Ben-Hur and The Last Temptation of Christ never profess to be anything more than fictional accounts of the life and teachings of Jesus, even if they are based, in part, on the Gospel accounts of the life of Jesus. (Historical fiction is still fiction.) Whatever principles they may convey, they pale in comparison to what the Book of Mormon testifies about Christ. It is all fine and good to read what a modern writer may imagine about Jesus. I am by no means disparaging the work of Lew Wallace or Nikos Kazantzakis. But it is an entirely different matter to read an account that purports to give a real history of Jesus’ actions and teachings.
Consider this example given by B. H. Roberts in 1909. In his important three-volume work defending the Restoration, Roberts quotes the following from John Watson.
Were a parchment discovered in an Egyptian mound, six inches square, containing fifty words which were certainly spoken by Jesus, this utterance would count more than all the books which have been published since the first century. If a veritable picture of the Lord could be unearthed from a catacomb, and the world could see with its own eyes what like he was . . . that picture would have at once a solitary place amid the treasures of art.
I can’t think of any New Testament scholar, or any historian of Christianity, or any faithful Christian, for that matter, who wouldn’t pay a high price to find authentic extra-biblical sayings of Jesus. Roberts likewise sees the significance of this:
If [Watson’s observation] be true, and I think no one will question it, then how valuable indeed must be . . . the Book of Mormon! Containing not fifty, but many hundreds of words spoken by Jesus . . . [and] the account of Messiah’s appearance and ministry among the people, his very words repeated . . . that we may better understand . . . his teachings. . . . It was mainly for this purpose that the Nephite records were written, preserved, and finally brought forth to the world.53
But the crucial thing Roberts demonstrates is that it is its claimed historical authenticity that makes the Book of Mormon’s testimony of Jesus so significant. That, to Roberts, is what makes the Book of Mormon a “new witness” for God. For if the Book of Mormon is historically authentic, then it contains historically authentic sayings of Jesus outside of the Gospels, something that would have hugely significant ramifications for the study of the New Testament and the life and teachings of Jesus. The debate over the historicity of Jesus delivering the Sermon on the Mount, for instance, is suddenly cast in an entirely new light if Jesus actually delivered a similar version of such to a group of Nephites in circa AD 33, as recorded by the Book of Mormon.54
The ultimate purpose of the Book of Mormon—to prove unto all nations that Jesus is the Eternal God and has performed an infinite atonement—is frustrated if its story about him is not authentically history. “Jesus Christ did show himself unto the people of Nephi, as the multitude were gathered together in the land Bountiful, and did minister unto them; and on this wise did he show himself unto them.” So says Mormon in his editorial introduction to the narrative in 3 Nephi 11–30. But if a resurrected Jesus’ wounds were never really felt by a real group of ancient people (3 Nephi 11:14–15), and if he really didn’t lay his hands on twelve Nephites and give them authority to administer real ordinances (3 Nephi 18–19), or actually declare what the fundamental principles of his Gospel were (3 Nephi 11:31–41; 27:13–22), then the primary witness of the Book of Mormon has absolutely none of the efficacy it proclaims to have.
Those spoken of in the Book of Mormon are portrayed as real individuals who reaped the real blessings of exercising faith in Christ and his atonement. Their stories are never presented as pious fiction, but as fact. What’s all the more exciting for us as modern readers is that the same blessings received by these ancient disciples are promised to be bestowed on us in modern times if we follow the same path.
God has not ceased to be a God of miracles. Behold, are not the things that God hath wrought marvelous in our eyes? Yea, and who can comprehend the marvelous works of God?. . . And who shall say that Jesus Christ did not do many mighty miracles? And there were many mighty miracles wrought by the hands of the apostles. And if there were miracles wrought then, why has God ceased to be a God of miracles and yet be an unchangeable Being? And behold, I say unto you he changeth not; if so he would cease to be God; and he ceaseth not to be God, and is a God of miracles. (Moroni 9:15–19)
Marvelous indeed are these phony miracles if they never happened! Moroni implores us to not abandon faith in a constant God whose miracles and power may continue in our own lives. But if the miracles reported in the Book of Mormon never occurred, then not only is a fictional Moroni a liar, but so too is Joseph Smith, who (either consciously or unconsciously) fabricated stories of fake miracles spoken of in the Book of Mormon.
Likewise, the dire warning given by Nephi at the end of 2 Nephi becomes toothless if Nephi did not actually exist, or if his testimony is nothing more than the product of Joseph Smith’s imagination.
And now, my beloved brethren . . . Christ will show unto you, with power and great glory, that they are his words, at the last day; and you and I shall stand face to face before his bar; and ye shall know that I have been commanded of him to write these things, notwithstanding my weakness. . . . And now, my beloved brethren, all those who are of the house of Israel, and all ye ends of the earth, I speak unto you as the voice of one crying from the dust: Farewell until that great day shall come. And you that will not partake of the goodness of God, and respect the words of the Jews, and also my words, and the words which shall proceed forth out of the mouth of the Lamb of God, behold, I bid you an everlasting farewell, for these words shall condemn you at the last day. For what I seal on earth, shall be brought against you at the judgment bar; for thus hath the Lord commanded me, and I must obey. Amen. (2 Nephi 33:10––15)
This impassioned plea from Nephi to remember and keep the words of Christ in the Book of Mormon mean nothing if a real Nephi never said these words. For, if a real Nephi never existed, then a real Nephi will never meet us at the judgment bar of God as he proclaimed would happen, and his imaginary words will not condemn us at the judgment of God, because they were never actually spoken.
The same goes for Moroni’s similar insistence that “we shall meet before the judgment-seat of Christ, where all men shall know that my garments are not spotted with your blood. And then shall ye know that I have seen Jesus, and that he hath talked with me face to face, and that he told me in plain humility, even as a man telleth another in mine own language, concerning these things” (Ether 12:38–39), as well as his concluding remarks at the end of the Book of Mormon.
And I exhort you to remember these things; for the time speedily cometh that ye shall know that I lie not, for ye shall see me at the bar of God; and the Lord God will say unto you: Did I not declare my words unto you, which were written by this man, like as one crying from the dead, yea, even as one speaking out of the dust? I declare these things unto the fulfilling of the prophecies. And behold, they shall proceed forth out of the mouth of the everlasting God; and his word shall hiss forth from generation to generation. And God shall show unto you, that that which I have written is true. (Moroni 10:27–29)
If Moroni never existed, then these pronouncements become meaningless, for if the Book of Mormon is fictional, then we will no sooner meet a fictional Moroni at the judgment-seat of Christ than the orphan Oliver Twist, Captain Ahab of the Pequod, or the adulteress Hester Prynne.
Elsewhere Moroni writes, “Behold, I speak unto you as if ye were present, and yet ye are not. But behold, Jesus Christ hath shown you unto me, and I know your doing” (Mormon 8:35). Moroni then proceeds to detail an unflattering litany of sins and malfeasances he claims to have been shown in vision several centuries before their manifestation among the latter-day children of men: pride, greed, lust, pollution, unfaithfulness, and other vices. Moroni, after chastising his future readers for their transgressions, ends his woeful prognostications with a dreadful pronouncement: “Behold, the sword of vengeance hangeth over you” (Mormon 8:41). The entire chapter is a humbling read, which includes an earnest plea for us, the modern readers of the Book of Mormon, to repent and return to Christ.
What a sham this warning is if a real Moroni was not shown a real vision of what was to transpire in the last days. Moroni’s own divine sword of Damocles, which hangs over modern society’s collective head, is no more threatening to us than the plastic swords used by children to fight imaginary dragons. Any power, gravity or urgency captured in this chapter—directed by a pleading prophet to a morally decaying people—is swept away if it is fictional, and becomes so worthless that I cannot see how anyone would deign to give it an ounce of credibility.
If what the Book of Mormon reports about Jesus and these other prophets is nothing more than fiction, then the Book of Mormon’s witness of Christ is no more a witness for Christ than any other fictional work. To view the Book of Mormon as nothing more than “inspiring” fiction like any other book would not only destroy the power of the Book of Mormon, but, as explained before, would also cast Joseph Smith in a highly unflattering light: that of a liar (conscious or otherwise) or a raving lunatic. Elder Holland recognized the implications of such, and forcefully admonished that
one has to take a do-or-die stand regarding the restoration of the gospel of Jesus Christ and the divine origins of the Book of Mormon. Reason and righteousness require it. Joseph Smith must be accepted either as a prophet of God or else as a charlatan of the first order, but no one should tolerate any ludicrous, even laughable middle ground about the wonderful contours of a young boy’s imagination or his remarkable facility for turning a literary phrase. That is an unacceptable position to take––morally, literarily, historically, or theologically.55
Many have dismissed this stance as overly melodramatic and the pontifications of a dogmatic fundamentalist who lacks the prudence to read the Book of Mormon stripped of the crass literalism that shackled earlier Mormon exegetes to a hermeneutic of naïveté and credulity. But the fact that lively debate about the authenticity of the Book of Mormon has persisted for nearly two centuries should indicate that many more like Elder Holland have recognized the serious implications attending the book’s fraudulence or authenticity.
If we could indeed just read the Book of Mormon as “inspired” fiction, then one wonders why every criticism imaginable has been leveled against it since its publication. Why is this book so threatening? What is so scandalous about this book that writers of many philosophical and religious persuasions have mercilessly rained their rage and fury down upon it? If it is just another nice, “inspiring” fictional book about Jesus, then why the acrimonious denouncements of the Book of Mormon as a vile imposition? Why is the Book of Mormon currently opposed by an army of authorities who feel it a moral imperative and their solemn duty to God or their own inflated sense of reasonableness to expose the Book of Mormon for what it really is?
Perhaps Elder Holland has hit a tender nerve when it comes to all of this, namely, that the Book of Mormon forces us to ask the hard questions: is this book real history? Did the stories it records actually happen? Did it come forth the way Joseph Smith said it did, or by some other fraudulent means? And, depending on how one answers these questions, what are the ramifications for the lives of millions of Latter-day Saints throughout the globe, besides the many non-members investigating Mormonism joining the Church of Jesus Christ on the grounds of the authenticity of the Book of Mormon?
The Book of Mormon’s Role in the Restoration
The crucial concept of the restoration of the gospel suffers at the hand of the Inspired Fiction theory. A careful look at the role of the Book of Mormon in the Restoration makes this clear. The Book of Mormon itself foretells its own crucial role in the Restoration. Nephi prophesied of the destruction of his seed after their apostasy from God’s covenant. But, thankfully, Nephi is shown the restoration of the remnant of his seed in the latter days. How, at least in part, is this restoration to come about?
Nephi speaks of seeing “other books, which came forth by the power of the Lamb, from the Gentiles unto them, unto the convincing of the Gentiles and the remnant of the seed of my brethren, and also the Jews who were scattered upon all the face of the earth, that the records of the prophets and of the twelve apostles of the Lamb are true” (1 Nephi 13:39). Nephi then reports how his angelic guide informs him of a future time when these scriptural records shall come forth and spread among the remnant of his seed and “unto all nations” (1 Nephi 13:42), in order to convince them all that “the Lamb of God is the Son of the Eternal Father, and the Savior of the world; and that all men must come unto him, or they cannot be saved” (1 Nephi 13:40). The scripture to come forth to convince the people of the earth of the truthfulness of the Bible and restore the plain and precious truths lost to the apostasy is the Book of Mormon.
Sometime after Nephi’s vision, Lehi himself prophesies of the future ministry of Joseph Smith. In speaking with his own son named Joseph, Lehi tells of a promise given by the Lord to Joseph of Egypt that he would raise up a “choice seer . . . out of the fruit of thy loins; and he shall be esteemed highly among the fruit of thy loins. And unto him will I give commandment that he shall do a work for the fruit of thy loins, his brethren, which shall be of great worth unto them, even to the bringing of them to the knowledge of the covenants which I have made with thy fathers” (2 Nephi 3:7). This “choice seer,” who was to be named after “the name of his father” (2 Nephi 3:15), would be given “power to bring forth my word unto the seed of thy loins—–and not to the bringing forth my word only, saith the Lord, but to the convincing them of my word, which shall have already gone forth among them” (2 Nephi 3:11).
Speaking of the Book of Mormon as a “sign” to the latter day “remnant of the house of Jacob” (3 Nephi 21:1–2), a resurrected Jesus prophesied that “these works and the works which shall be wrought among you hereafter [as recorded in the Book of Mormon] shall come forth from the Gentiles, unto your seed which shall dwindle in unbelief because of iniquity” (3 Nephi 21:5). The Book of Mormon “shall be a sign unto them,” Jesus continues in his discourse, “that they may know that the work of the Father hath already commenced unto the fulfilling of the covenant which he hath made unto the people who are of the house of Israel” (3 Nephi 21:7). One of the purposes of the coming forth of the Book of Mormon, therefore, according to the Savior, is to show the remnant of the seed of Israel scattered throughout the Americas the nature and importance of both the covenants they are to enter into with him, as well as the covenants made by their forefathers.
Mormon offers important clarification as to why he hid his record up to come forth in a later day. “[T]hey are to be hid up unto the Lord,” Mormon writes, “that they may come forth in his own due time.”
And behold, they shall go unto the unbelieving of the Jews; and for this intent shall they go—that they may be persuaded that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of the living God; that the Father may bring about, through his most Beloved, his great and eternal purpose, in restoring the Jews, or all the house of Israel, to the land of their inheritance, which the Lord their God hath given them, unto the fulfilling of his covenant. (Mormon 5:12, 14)
Thus, Mormon explains that the Book of Mormon, as taught earlier by Jesus in 3 Nephi, is to act as a witness for Christ and the ancient covenants he made with the house of Israel, that modern Jews may fulfill this covenant and enjoy the blessings thereof.
But how could the Book of Mormon possibly convince others of the truthfulness of biblical teachings if it is fraudulent? And why would God use a book created under false pretenses to serve as the star witness of his existence in the latter days? What are we to think of these prophecies concerning the coming forth of the Book of Mormon if they were penned no earlier than 1829, and if the genesis of their content is not with Joseph of Egypt, Lehi, or a resurrected Jesus, but instead Joseph Smith? Are we to give God credibility or exhibit any faith in his powers if these passages amount to nothing more than language penned by Joseph Smith about himself? Furthermore, how is a supposedly fictional historical account in the Book of Mormon supposed to convince latter day Jews, Gentiles and the remnant of the house of Israel that Jesus is the Christ, and has made ancient covenants with their forefathers which are to be fulfilled in the last days?56
From what we learn in the Doctrine and Covenants, the primary instrument of the Restoration in testifying of the divinity of Christ and explaining the fullness of his gospel is the Book of Mormon. “My work shall go forth,” the Lord declared in a revelation to Joseph Smith in 1828,
to the Nephites, and the Jacobites, and the Josephites, and the Zoramites, through the testimony of their fathers [the Book of Mormon]. And this testimony shall come to the knowledge of the Lamanites, and the Lemuelites, and the Ishmaelites, who dwindled in unbelief because of the iniquity of their fathers, whom the Lord has suffered to destroy their brethren the Nephites, because of their iniquities and their abominations. For this very purpose are these plates preserved, which contain these records—that the promises of the Lord might be fulfilled, which he made to his people. [T]hat the Lamanites might come to the knowledge of their fathers, and that they might know the promises of the Lord, and that they may believe the gospel and rely upon the merits of Jesus Christ. (D&C 3:16–20)
A year later, in the summer of 1829, the Lord gave a revelation to the Three Witnesses concerning their calling to testify of the truthfulness of the Book of Mormon:
You shall have a view of the plates, and also of the breastplate, the sword of Laban, the Urim and Thummim, which were given to the brother of Jared upon the mount, when he talked with the Lord face to face, and the miraculous directors which were given to Lehi while in the wilderness, on the borders of the Red Sea. . . . And after that you have obtained faith, and have seen them with your eyes, you shall testify of them, by the power of God. And ye shall testify that you have seen them, even as my servant Joseph Smith, Jun., has seen them; for it is by my power that he has seen them, and it is because he had faith. And he has translated the book, even that part which I have commanded him, and as your Lord and your God liveth it is true. (D&C 17:1–7)
Shortly before the founding of the Church of Christ in April 1830, Martin Harris was commanded to “not covet thine own property, but impart it freely to the printing of the Book of Mormon, which contains the truth and the word of God—Which is my word to the Gentile, that soon it may go to the Jew, of whom the Lamanites are a remnant, that they may believe the gospel, and look not for a Messiah to come who has already come” (D&C 19:26–27).
Section 20 of the Doctrine and Covenants, received by revelation in April 1830, speaks, among other things, on the importance of the Book of Mormon in the Restoration, specifically on Joseph Smith’s role in its coming forth.
But after repenting, and humbling himself sincerely, through faith, God ministered unto him by an holy angel, whose countenance was as lightning, and whose garments were pure and white above all other whiteness; And gave unto him commandments which inspired him; And gave him power from on high, by the means which were before prepared, to translate the Book of Mormon; Which contains a record of a fallen people, and the fulness of the gospel of Jesus Christ to the Gentiles and to the Jews also; Which was given by inspiration, and is confirmed to others by the ministering of angels, and is declared unto the world by them—Proving to the world that the holy scriptures are true, and that God does inspire men and call them to his holy work in this age and generation, as well as in generations of old; Thereby showing that he is the same God yesterday, today, and forever. Amen. (D&C 20: 6––12)
After looking at these teachings in the Doctrine and Covenants, we now ask proponents of the Inspired Fiction theory to answer the following questions:
- How did the Lord intend to take his gospel to fictional groups who never existed outside the imagination of the Joseph Smith?
- How precisely were the Witnesses supposed to see nonexistent Nephite relics? Furthermore, what good would testifying of seeing nonexistent Nephite relics do in proving the truthfulness of the Book of Mormon?
- Why would the Lord speak of the Lamanites as being a real group of people if in fact they weren’t?
- Why would God speak of Joseph Smith being given power to translate a non-existent book given to him by a non-existent angel Moroni?
- How does a fictional Book of Mormon prove that God calls prophets both today as well as in ancient times?
- How does a fictional Book of Mormon prove the truthfulness of the Bible?
Terryl Givens has looked closely at the role of the Book of Mormon in the Restoration, and concludes that
the history of the Book of Mormon’s place in Mormonism and American religion generally has always been more connected to its status as signifier than signified, or its role as a sacred sign rather than its function as persuasive theology. The Book of Mormon is preeminently a concrete manifestation of sacred utterance, and thus an evidence of divine presence, before it is a repository of theological claims.57
Or, as Givens writes elsewhere, what outrages rival Christian denominations to this day isn’t so much “the content [of the Book of Mormon],” which sincere Christians could hardly object to, “but rather its manner of appearing; its has typically been judged not on the merits of what it says, but what it enacts.”58 For the Book of Mormon is undoubtedly the primary evidence for Joseph Smith’s divine call. What more could a skeptical world ask for in the way of proof of a genuine prophet than an unlearned New England farm boy “[finding] through the ministration of an holy angel, and translat[ing] into our own language by the gift and power of God”59 an ancient record written in “hieroglyphics, the knowledge of which was lost to the world”?60 Perceptive scholars like Paul C. Gutjahr recognize this clearly. “The presence of a new sacred text testified to the special status and powers of Joseph, who had translated it, and in turn Joseph testified to the truth of the book through his continuing revelations from God” writes Gutjahr in a refreshingly honest and evenhanded non-Mormon treatment of the Book of Mormon. “Neither the Prophet nor the book would, without the other, wield the oracular power each enjoyed.”61
It is therefore upon the Book of Mormon that Latter-day Saints build their confidence in not only Joseph Smith as a prophet, but the divinity of Christ and his Church. President Ezra Taft Benson taught that
the Church stand[s] or fall[s] with the truthfulness of the Book of Mormon. The enemies of the Church understand this clearly. This is why they go to such great lengths to try and disprove the Book of Mormon, for if it can be discredited, the Prophet Joseph Smith goes with it. So does our claim to priesthood keys, and revelation, and the restored Church. But in like manner, if the Book of Mormon is true . . . then one must accept the claims of the Restoration and all that accompanies it.62
Without the historicity of the Book of Mormon, Joseph Smith has no genuine prophetic qualifications. When the historicity of the Book of Mormon, and by implication the historicity of the Restoration, is sacrificed on the altar of the Inspired Fiction theory, Joseph Smith goes in an instant from being a “choice seer” (2 Nephi 3:7) chosen by God to reveal a new dispensation of the gospel to just another sad example of the type of religious imposter well known throughout history. At best he becomes a well meaning but deluded quack, and at worst a pathological liar. “It should be obvious,” writes Daniel C. Peterson, “that, if the Book of Mormon were false, little or nothing that is distinctive to our faith would stand. Joseph Smith’s prophetic mission and all of the other revelations that came through him would be called into question.”63 It should be obvious, but for some inexplicable reason this simple point seems to elude proponents of the Inspired Fiction theory.
The legitimacy of the most important theological claims of the Book of Mormon hinges on whether the attending story that conveys the doctrine actually happened. Its supremely important purpose, to testify that Jesus is the Eternal God and has performed an eternal and infinite atonement, relies entirely on whether the historical testimony of him is authentic. Quite unlike the Psalms or the Proverbs of the Hebrew Bible, or the parables of Jesus in the New Testament, which make absolutely no claim to historicity, the Book of Mormon does nothing but give story after story of claimed historicity to prove the theological validity of the fullness of the doctrine of Christ being expounded within its pages.
The Book of Mormon must be historical and read as history in order for it to really contain the fullness of the theological power it claims to have. If the Book of Mormon is not historical, and if it is read only as fiction, then any pretense to it being an additional witness for the divinity of Jesus in any worthwhile sense is obliterated. The Book of Mormon does not proclaim itself to be fiction. It uncompromisingly proclaims itself, and its message about Christ, to be historical fact. Although fiction about Jesus, including a hypothetically fictional Book of Mormon, may indeed be “inspiring” in a limited literary sense, such is not necessarily the same as it being inspired in a divine sense.
The Inspired Fiction theory is little more than a smokescreen that distracts us from the fact that Joseph Smith’s prophetic authenticity is entirely dependent on the historicity of the Book of Mormon and the story of its coming forth. Joseph Smith never proclaimed the Book of Mormon to be fiction. The moment Joseph Smith claimed to not only be in the possession of physical golden plates given to him by a resurrected Nephite, but to also have shown these plates to eleven other witnesses, is the moment he allowed himself no comfortable middle ground wherein we can divorce the historicity of the Book of Mormon from either its or Joseph Smith’s genuineness. To abandon faith in the historicity of the Book of Mormon is thus to abandon faith in Joseph Smith’s sanity and honesty, even his very prophetic credibility.
What are the consequences for the faith of the Saints attending the abandonment of the historicity of the Book of Mormon? What do proponents of the Inspired Fiction reading of the Book of Mormon really ask Latter-day Saints to concede to their half-baked theories? First, it must be conceded, no matter how much he’s desperately masked with trivialized adjectives like “inspired” or “pious,” that, whatever else he was, Joseph Smith was a liar. Regardless of whether he was conscious of it or not, he was a liar whose fraud has misled millions into sincerely believing the Book of Mormon to be ancient, when in fact its history goes no further back than the 19th century. He either lied or was deluded in claiming that the angel Moroni delivered real golden plates for him to translate. As such, it must be thus also conceded that if such is the case, then the Book of Mormon is not what it claims itself to be. Nephi, Lehi, Alma, Mormon, Moroni never existed in history, and thus are no more real than any other fictional characters in any other fictional novel. They weren’t real prophets who gave real testimonies of Jesus to the world. They were entirely the products of Joseph Smith’s imagination. Latter-day Saints should read the stories of the Book of Mormon as fiction, thus reducing their nature to that of an inspiring fairytale, and nothing more.
For any Latter-day Saint who takes the truth claims of the Church seriously, these concessions should be totally unacceptable, and vigorously rejected. For what the Inspired Fiction reading of the Book of Mormon asks to concede is nothing less than the very heart and soul of the Church of Jesus Christ. Joseph Smith did not call the Book of Mormon the “keystone of our religion” for no reason.64 He knew, as do millions of Saints throughout the world, that to concede the truthfulness of the Book of Mormon is to see the arch of Mormonism come tumbling down in a spectacular crash. Gary Novak puts it bluntly:
If the Book of Mormon is true, if it is authentic history brought forth in the last days for the wise purposes of God, then the Saints have good reason for faith and genuine hope for a trust in God. If the Book of Mormon is the product of deliberate deception or the sincere psychological delusion caused by severe stress, the Saints have no reason for faith or for hope.65
To read the Book of Mormon as inspired fiction is not only to violently wrest it out of both its ancient and modern Sitz im Leben, but is also to effectively neuter its theology. The grounding of Latter-day Saint faith and practice rests, in an inextricable measure, on the historicity of the Book of Mormon and the attending events surrounding the Restoration. What Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger (Pope Benedict XVI) argued about the Bible certainly holds true for the Book of Mormon:
It is of the very essence of biblical [or Mormon] faith to be about real historical events. It does not tell stories symbolizing suprahistorical truths, but is based on history, history that took place here on this earth. The factum historicum (historical fact) is not an interchangeable symbolic cipher for biblical [or Mormon] faith, but the foundation on which it stands: Et incarnatus est––when we say these words, we acknowledge God’s actual entry into real history.66
I conclude with the simple, sobering declaration of Joseph Smith himself: “Take away the Book of Mormon and the revelations and where is our religion? We have none.”67
- Hugh Nibley, An Approach to the Book of Mormon, 3rd ed. (Provo, Utah: Foundation for Ancient Research and Mormon Studies, 1988), 3. ↩
- Terryl Givens, By the Hand of Mormon: The American Scripture that Launched a New World Religion (New York, N.Y.: Oxford University Press, 2002), 80. Givens has reiterated this point elsewhere. “In a particularly pronounced way, the meaning and value of the Book of Mormon as a religious text are tied to a specific set of historical claims.” Terryl Givens, “Foreword,” in John L. Sorenson, Mormon’s Codex: An Ancient American Book (Provo, Utah: Neal A. Maxwell Institute for Religious Scholarship, 2013), xiv. ↩
- Richard Bushman, Joseph Smith and the Beginnings of Mormonism (Urbana, Ill.: University of Illinois Press, 1984), 187–88. ↩
- See Louis C. Midgley, “The First Steps,” FARMS Review 17/1 (2005): xi–xiv; “Two Stories–One Faith,” FARMS Review 19/1 (2007): 55–79; “Remembrance and the Past,” FARMS Review 19/2 (2007): 37–65; “Debating Evangelicals,” FARMS Review 20/2 (2008): xxiii–xxvi. ↩
- For an example of such, see Truman G. Madsen, ed., Reflections on Mormonism: Judaeo-Christian Parallels (Provo, Utah: Religious Studies Center at Brigham Young University, 1978). ↩
- Grant Hardy, Understanding the Book of Mormon: A Reader’s Guide (New York, N.Y.: Oxford University Press, 2010), 6. ↩
- Paul Y. Hoskisson, “The Need for Historicity: Why Banishing God from History Removes Historical Obligation,” in Historicity and the Latter-day Saint Scriptures, ed. Paul Y. Hoskisson (Provo, Utah: Religious Studies Center at Brigham Young University, 2001), 113. Hoskisson’s entire article is an important treatment on this subject. ↩
- See Anthony A. Hutchinson, “The Word of God Is Enough: The Book of Mormon as Nineteenth-Century Scripture,” in New Approaches to the Book of Mormon: Explorations in Critical Methodology, ed. Brent Lee Metcalfe (Salt Lake City, Utah: Signature Books, 1993), 1–19. ↩
- Hutchinson, “The Word of God Is Enough,” 1. ↩
- Hutchinson, “The Word of God Is Enough,” 8–16. ↩
- Hutchinson, “The Word of God Is Enough,” 3–7. ↩
- Hutchinson, “The Word of God Is Enough,” 7. ↩
- Hutchinson, “The Word of God Is Enough,” 7. ↩
- Robert M. Price, “Joseph Smith: Inspired Author of the Book of Mormon,” in American Apocrypha: Essays on the Book of Mormon, ed. Dan Vogel and Brent Lee Metcalfe (Salt Lake City, Utah: Signature Books, 2002), 321–366. ↩
- Price, “Joseph Smith: Inspired Author,” 326. Before critics accuse me of creating a false dilemma in this article, the reader should note carefully Price’s own false dilemma that unless we adopt his theory the Book of Mormon can only be a “crude hoax or practical joke.” ↩
- Price, “Joseph Smith: Inspired Author,” 333. ↩
- Price, “Joseph Smith: Inspired Author,” 347. ↩
- Scott C. Dunn, “Automaticity and the Book of Mormon,” in American Apocrypha, 17–46. ↩
- Dunn, “Automaticity,” 36. ↩
- Dunn, “Automaticity,” 26. ↩
- Dunn, “Automaticity,” 30. ↩
- Dunn, “Automaticity,” 31. ↩
- Dunn, “Automaticity,” 34. ↩
- Dunn, “Automaticity,” 35. ↩
- Dunn, “Automaticity,” 35. ↩
- Givens, “Foreword,” in Sorenson, Mormon’s Codex, xiv. ↩
- William J. Hamblin, “An Apologist for the Critics: Brent Lee Metcalfe’s Assumptions and Methodologies,” FARMS Review of Books on the Book of Mormon 6/1 (1994), 452–53. ↩
- Hamblin, “An Apologist for the Critics,” 453. ↩
- Kent P. Jackson, “Joseph Smith and the Historicity of the Book of Mormon,” in Historicity and the Latter-day Saint Scriptures, 123. Givens agrees with Hamblin and Jackson. “The book’s unambiguous account of its own construction, as well as the historically defined reciprocity between Joseph Smith’s own moral authority as a religious leader and the sacred status of the book inseparably wedded to his claims and career, admits of no simple divorce [between the Book of Mormon’s authenticity and its historicity].” Givens, “Foreword,” in Sorenson, Mormon’s Codex, xiv. ↩
- For a collection of Joseph Smith’s statements on the historicity of the Book of Mormon, see Jackson, “Joseph Smith and the Historicity of the Book of Mormon,” 127–133. ↩
- Fawn M. Brodie, No Man Knows My History: The Life of Joseph Smith, the Mormon Prophet, 2nd ed. (New York, N.Y.: Alfred A. Knopf, 1971); Dan Vogel, Joseph Smith: The Making of a Prophet (Salt Lake City, Utah: Signature Books, 2004). ↩
- Jackson, “Joseph Smith and the Historicity of the Book of Mormon,” 137–38, emphasis in original. ↩
- Hutchinson, “The Word of God is Enough,” 6–7. ↩
- Richard Lloyd Anderson, Investigating the Book of Mormon Witnesses (Salt Lake City, Utah: Deseret Book, 1981), esp. 123–179; “Attempts to Redefine the Experience of the Eight Witnesses,” Journal of Book of Mormon Studies 14/1 (2005): 18–31. ↩
- For more on the Book of Mormon Witnesses, see Steven C. Harper, “Evaluating the Book of Mormon Witnesses,” The Religious Educator 11/ 2 (2010): 37–49; Richard Bushman, Joseph Smith: Rough Stone Rolling (New York, N.Y.: Alfred A. Knopf, 2005), 76–80; Gale Yancey Anderson, “Eleven Witnesses Behold the Plates,” The Journal of Mormon History 38/2 (Spring 2012): 145–162. ↩
- Louis C. Midgley, “The Current Battle over the Book of Mormon: ‘Is Modernity Itself Somehow Canonical?’” FARMS Review of Books on the Book of Mormon 6/1 (1994): 200–254. ↩
- Louis Midgley, “‘Inspiring’ but Not True: An Added Glimpse of the RLDS Stance on the Book of Mormon,” Journal of Book of Mormon Studies 6/2 (1997): 218–228; “‘To Remember and Keep’: On the Book of Mormon as an Ancient Book,” in The Disciple as Scholar: Essays on Scripture and the Ancient World in Honor of Richard Lloyd Anderson, ed. Stephen D. Ricks, Donald W. Parry, and Andrew W. Hedges (Provo, Utah: Foundation for Ancient Research and Mormon Studies, 2000), 95–137; “No Middle Ground: The Debate over the Authenticity of the Book of Mormon,” in Historicity and the Latter-day Saint Scriptures, 149–170. ↩
- Louis C. Midgley, “Atheist Piety: A Religion of Dogmatic Dubiety,” Interpreter: A Journal of Mormon Scripture 1 (2012): 123–130. ↩
- Robert M. Price, “Prophecy and Palimpsest,” Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought 35/3 (2002): 69. ↩
- Price, “Prophecy and Palimpsest,” 68–69. ↩
- William J. Hamblin, “Priced to Sell,” FARMS Review 16/1 (2004): 44–47, 45. ↩
- Robert Alter, The Art of Biblical Narrative (New York, N.Y.: Basic Books, 1981), 15. ↩
- My views on the nature of prophets, compared to other great mystics, sages, and poets, have been significantly influenced by Hugh Nibley, The World and the Prophets, 3rd ed. (Provo, Utah: Foundation for Ancient Research and Mormon Studies, 1987), and Terryl and Fiona Givens, The God Who Weeps: How Mormonism Makes Sense of Life (Salt Lake City, Utah: Ensign Peak, 2012). ↩
- Robert A. Rees, “The Book of Mormon and Automatic Writing,” Journal of Book of Mormon Studies 15/1 (2006): 4–17; Richard N. Williams, “The Book of Mormon as Automatic Writing: Beware the Virtus Dormitiva,” FARMS Review 19/1 (2007): 23–29. ↩
- Rees, “The Book of Mormon and Automatic Writing,” 9. ↩
- Discussed in Rees, “The Book of Mormon and Automatic Writing,” 12–15. ↩
- Williams, “The Book of Mormon as Automatic Writing,” 27. ↩
- B. H. Roberts, Defense of the Faith and the Saints (Salt Lake City, Utah: Deseret Book, 1907), 1:42–55. ↩
- B. H. Roberts, ed., History of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, 2nd ed. rev. (Salt Lake City, Utah: Deseret Book, 1974), 1:71. ↩
- Jay E. Jensen, “The Precise Purposes of the Book of Mormon,” in By Study and by Faith: Selections from the Religious Educator, ed. Richard Neitzel Holzapfel and Kent P. Jackson (Provo, Utah: Religious Studies Center at Brigham Young University, 2009), 26. ↩
- Jeffrey R. Holland, Christ and the New Covenant: The Messianic Message of the Book of Mormon (Salt Lake City, Utah: Deseret Book, 1997), 4. ↩
- Brant Gardner, Second Witness: Analytical and Contextual Commentary on the Book of Mormon (Salt Lake City, Utah: Greg Kofford Books, 2007), 1:55. ↩
- B. H. Roberts, New Witnesses for God, 3 vols. (Salt Lake City, Utah: Deseret Book, 1909), 2:58–59. ↩
- For commentary on this topic, see John W. Welch, Illuminating the Sermon at the Temple & the Sermon on the Mount (Provo, Utah: Foundation for Ancient Research and Mormon Studies, 1999); Gardner, Second Witness, 5:396–472. ↩
- Holland, Christ and the New Covenant, 345-46. ↩
- For commentary on this and related subjects, see Clyde J. Williams, “Book of Mormon, what it says about itself,” in Book of Mormon Reference Companion, ed. Dennis L. Largey (Salt Lake City, Utah: Deseret Book, 2003), 163–66. ↩
- Givens, By the Hand of Mormon, 64, emphasis in original. ↩
- Terryl Givens, The Book of Mormon: A Very Short Introduction (New York, N. Y.: Oxford University Press, 2009), 105, emphasis in original. ↩
- Roberts, History of the Church, 1:315. ↩
- Roberts, History of the Church, 6:74. ↩
- Paul C. Gutjahr, The Book of Mormon: A Biography (Princeton, N. J.: Princeton University Press, 2012), 61. ↩
- Ezra Taft Benson, A Witness and a Warning (Salt Lake City, Utah: Deseret Book, 1988), 18–19. ↩
- Daniel C. Peterson, “The Keystone of Our Religion,” online at http://maxwellinstitute.byu.edu/publications/transcripts/?id=25 (Accessed 18 February, 2013). ↩
- Roberts, History of the Church, 4:461. ↩
- Gary F. Novak, “Naturalistic Assumptions and the Book of Mormon,” BYU Studies 30/3 (Summer 1990): 35. ↩
- Joseph Ratzinger (Pope Benedict XVI), Jesus of Nazareth (New York, N.Y.: Doubleday, 2007), xv. ↩
- Roberts, History of the Church, 2:52. ↩
Stephen: In light of Grant Hardy’s recent FairMormon address, I think it’s worth revisiting our exchange about what Hardy may have meant in his discussion of bracketing in Understanding the Book of Mormon. His talk, which can be found on FairMormon’s web site
includes this choice statement:
“When people talk about ‘inspired fiction,’ it’s worth thinking harder about what they might mean. Perhaps that the Book of Mormon is a product of human genius, like other literary or religious works. Or it may be the product of general revelation, in which God or some higher power makes himself known to humans, who then communicate that encounter with the Divine though various scriptures such as Buddhist sutras or the Daodejing or the Bhagavad Gita or the Qur’an. Or there may be special revelation in which God inspired Joseph to create the Book of Mormon in such a way that it exemplifies specific truths of unique importance. In any case, however, we might ask, ‘Can faith in the Book of Mormon as inspired fiction be a saving faith?’ My answer is, ‘Absolutely!’ I believe that if someone, at the judgment bar, were to say to God, ‘I couldn’t make sense of the Book of Mormon as an ancient American codex, given the available evidence, but I loved that book, I heard your voice in it, and I tried to live by its precepts as best I could,’ then God will respond, ‘Well done, my good and faithful servant.'”
Apparently Hardy does not agree with your claim that it is imperative to believe in BoM historicity, though he does acknowledge that he personally believes in Book of Mormon historicity.
Stephen Smoot: “But how could the Book of Mormon possibly convince others of the truthfulness of biblical teachings if it is fraudulent?”
There are several iterations of this argument throughout the article, and they inspire the question: what is religious fraud? Let me alter the phrasing to highlight the epistemic problem: “How could the Koran possibly convince others of the truthfulness of its divine testimony if it is fraudulent?” Or: “How could L. Ron Hubbard’s Dianetics possibly convince so many of the truthfulness of its cosmic inspirations and spiritual claims if it is fraudulent?”
The assumption that just because thousands or hundreds of millions of people believe something to be true, ergo it must, its very strange logic. More people on this earth accept the divine inspiration of the Koran than the BoM. Does that mean that you are bound to accept its truth claims?
I totally agree with you Stephen. One of the most important aspects of The Book of Mormon is that it is “Another Testament of Jesus Christ”. Elder Oaks gave this reply:
He brings up a good point that The Book of Mormon’s claim to be “Another Testament of Jesus Christ” is of no value if there were not actually people there to touch his scars, listen to his teachings, and testify that he lives.
I thoroughly enjoyed the article followed by the plethora of comments.
Part of the difficulty for those of us who believe in an historical Book of Mormon is coming to an understanding of exactly what those who do not believe in a historical Book of Mormon want to establish or promulgate. I personally am leery of those who appear to me as a sheep, but wear an outer cloak only. My faith and my beliefs are far to important to me to render these beliefs to a “watered-down” version which is somehow both fluid and solvent with the mores of man.
It almost seems to me to appear that there is a subtle attempt by those who do not believe in an historical Book of Mormon to somehow belittle or negate the firm belief of those of us who do believe in an historical Book of Mormon. Although I sense that is not always the case with some of the posters. For some, it seems they want an inclusiveness which allows for a semi-mythical Book of Mormon: which book would somehow continue to carry sufficient weight to help lead men unto salvation. In my opinion, if a book is mythical or semi-mythical, then my ability to trust in its concepts and precepts is weakened if not entirely undermined due to its supposed mythological nature. Especially when the precepts outlined within said book are rarely equivocating, but oppositely nearly universally exacting.
In a day of everything supposedly being “shades of gray”, it seems to me that some things are just black or white but not both. In order for the Book of Mormon to be empowered unto the convincing of Jew and Gentile that Jesus is the Christ it would be a difficult task to accomplish if it were built upon mythology. In order to accomplish its stated task, it has to be what it says it is, otherwise it bears very little effectiveness to its stated goals and outcomes.
I understand the theological importance of belief in the Book of Mormon as historical. However, that is not the same as it being actually historical. It is only important to be understood as such. God confessed to Joseph Smith that He misled prophets of old that hell was an eternal place of fire and brimstone. God gave them that narrative so “it would be more express upon their minds.” Likewise, a historical understanding of the Book of Mormon makes it “more express upon the minds” of those who believe it to be history. That belief is important, because it is hard for us to understand things in ways that are non-physical. The physicality of Mormonism is the source of it’s powerful faith. But that still doesn’t mean that the history is scientifically verifiable fact. The faith is real and divine, but the history may not be. History is intransient and meaningless. It is only present understandings and interpretations that have any significance or meaning. And those understandings need not be connected to anything verifiable.
It also seems that it was important to God that the Book of Mormon be absurd and implausible, with Gold Plates conveniently taken to heaven, Jaredite barges, mythical missionaries who chop off arms by the dozens. God could have made it rational if He wanted to, and He could have put the plates in a museum for scholars to ponder and admire Joseph’s miraculous translation. Rather, the built-in absurdity of the Book of Mormon, together with God’s insistance that it is historical, represents the perfect trial of faith. We must embrace the foolishness of God, and reject the wisdom of men.
Both apologists for the Book of Mormon, and promoters of “inspired fiction” theories err. They are both using the wisdom of men to try to rationalize their faith. But the Book of Mormon is not rational. Pondering its reality is supposed to take us out of the realm of scientific and historical certainty, and into the realm of faith, trust, and childlike wonder.
“There are over 20,000 universities and institutions of higher learning in the world. 1,500,000 students and professors trained in archeology, world language, writings, cultures, geography, history of the world, space, science and on and on…they come from every background, country, religious setting, atheist, non-belief, etc. They could care less what religion someone may be. They want to find new facts for the world. Here’s what is amazing to me…NONE of any of the students or professors say the BoM is History except four or five of your scholars who are on BYU’s payroll.”
Many of them (those millions of students and professors) say the Bible is historically unsupportable. Many of them say that Jesus was just a man with no special Godlike attributes or even a completely fictional character — and that folks like you and I who believe in Him are toothless knuckle dragging ignoramuses. But we know they’re wrong.
“Therefore, behold, I will proceed to do a marvellous work among this people, even a marvellous work and a wonder: for the wisdom of their wise men shall perish, and the understanding of their prudent men shall be hid.” (Isaiah 29:14)
I would like to add another thought to what I wrote above, on November 2, 2013 at 6:52 am, regarding there being no equivalency between the search for Bible geographies and the search for Book of Mormon geographies. Another factor that compounds the problem is that the Nephites built their cities primarily of mounds of earth that erode easily and timbers that decay rapidly (Alma 50:1-6; Alma 53:4; Helaman 3:9 ), whereas in biblical lands they built primarily with cut stone that endures.
You all are awesome. Thank you as always for your comments.
#1. Michael D. Coe. John Dehlin, Mormon Stories had Michael on as a guest. Listen to it and comment.
#2. What does the Smithsonian Institution say officially about the BoM? Read it and reply.
#3. I cited at least 20 sources above including Joseph Smith, the Three Witnesses and Brigham Young. They all said Western N.Y.
The Bishops letter in 1960 is on LDS Letterhead.
#4. Above I have listed official Prophets, Seers and Revolators of the LDS Church who have said Western N.Y. Look it up and read what they said.
Doesn’t what Joseph Smith said where the BoM took place count.
What I’m looking for is actual, physical proof of the BoM. The Bible has proof it existed. Michael D. Coe and thousands of other world scholars could care less about what religion someone is. They simply say that outside Mormon Scholarship, the is no credible evidence of the BoM history.
Can you name me any BoM scholars who have won national or world honors such as the Nobel Prize, Peabody Award, etc.?
Kirk, I love you my brother. I believe you are a really good person. I love all of you.
Your story was about the BoM being used as religious reading only and not as a history of events. According to worldly scholarship, it has to be used as reading and faith only. And there’s nothing wrong with that.
My GodJesus continue to soften your hearts in love of HIM. We live in a beautiful loving world that Jesus created for us, with beautiful loving people in it all over the world.
Kirk, let’s go fly fishing together. We would have fun.
In GodJesus love my brothers,
Kirk, yikes…You say I’m anti-Mormon. No I’m not my brother.
Everything I’ve named, cited and shown are directly from Mormon sources, Church History, Prophet quotes, Three Witness Quotes, Journal Of Discourse, Mormon Stories, the Bible, The BoM. I have not used one other source.
I’ve been totally honest and truthful. Anyone who cares to, can go to anything I’ve sourced and read it for themselves.
I love the Mormon people. My family who won’t have anything to do with me or my immediate family are ALL generational polygamy families. Stephen, believe it or not, my wife is from Abraham Owen Smoot. I’m from the Henry Eastman Day Draper, Utah family.
I love Jesus Christ and HIS loving GRACE more than man!
LDS.org and Mormon.org lead with the Bible!
Go check it out. The Bible can be trusted as the Word of God.
Read the Bible from cover to cover. It is simple, loving and beautiful. Thank God for sorting your leaderships hearts and moving back to Gods Word in the Grace of ChristGod.
I’m on to you, brother. Thanks for the entertainment.
You didn’t leave me a reply opportunity on your last comment.
So maybe you’ll see this.
You are emphatic that you could care less what anyone or institution says about the BoM being literal HISTORY.
You only believe what BYU, “Gods University”, says.
There are over 20,000 universities and institutions of higher learning in the world. 1,500,000 students and professors trained in archeology, world language, writings, cultures, geography, history of the world, space, science and on and on…they come from every background, country, religious setting, atheist, non-belief, etc. They could care less what religion someone may be. They want to find new facts for the world. Here’s what is amazing to me…NONE of any of the students or professors say the BoM is History except four or five of your scholars who are on BYU’s payroll.
Is it really possible the rest of the science world is wrong…
Also, if the BoM is History, why are the absolutely ZERO
Jewish scientists, archeologists, ancestry, or the Jewish people themselves flocking to BYU to look at Joseph’s papyrus of the BoAbraham. Abraham is the same to the Jewish as Lehi is to Mormons. The father.
With 300,000,000 plus Jewish people in the BoM, you’d think it would be of upmost importance for such a passionate people of their ancestry to flock to BYU, the way millions of people flock to see the Dead Sea Scrolls. Know one, not even your own members goes to see the papyrus written by the hand of Abraham.
I’m glad All of science does not share your tiny limited view of world scholarship…we’d just be coming out of caves…
I have more later my brother in Christ.
Bob, you are becoming repetitive and not engaging with anyone. Repeating your statements without considering responses doesn’t constitute the kind of discussion we hope to foster. Your argument about professors is akin to noting that there are no atheists who believe in the divine message of the Bible. It does not engage actual discussions, particularly since the vast majority of those you reference know very little about the Book of Mormon. Shall we appeal our understanding of physics to the thousands of professors trained in literature?
I am afraid that this response of yours is not helpful in forwarding this discussion. It has become clear to me, as well, that you’re probably not interested in actually engaging my thoughts. As such, I will forgo any further discussion with you until you show signs of being willing to engage my main points in a substantive manner.
There is no equivalency in the search for Bible and Book of Mormon geography. There has been continuous historical habitation in the lands of the Bible, but the Nephite Civilization was destroyed 1600 years ago. Jerusalem, Nazareth, Hebron, Bethlehem, Jericho, Damascus, Beersheba, etc., have retained the same names since antiquity. Egypt and Lebanon are still the same. There are secular histories of the biblical lands from the Romans, Greeks, Josephus, the Talmud, etc. The only known location from Book of Mormon times is Cumorah. It is like searching for all Bible locations from the just the text of the Bible if all you knew for sure was the location of Mount Sinai (which we don’t).
Thanks to all of you for your responses.
You don’t need to respond. No one ever answered specifically themselves about what Joseph Smith said about where the Hill Cumorah is. Joseph Smith said it is in Western N.Y. That is why the LDS Church doesn’t officially endorse ANY other theory. They and you can’t. There is a temple question that asks something about believing in Joseph Smith and everything he said. I respect your faith and efforts to stay away from questioning Joseph Smith directly.
Also, that is why, when I asked for a specific quote from official LDS Church cannon on where the Hill Cumorah is out side of Western N.Y., you can’t do it. LDS Church cannon is Western N.Y.
This is awesome. I’ve learned a ton from each of you. Your faith is amazing. Keep it strong. I love the LDS faithful. You should be very proud of your commitment to it.
I love each of you in our Lord, God, Savior and King Jesus Christ.
I’ll see you soon…DNA anybody? 😉
Bob, you seem to be under some misperceptions. Historians cannot place the identification of the name Cumorah with the NY hill with Joseph. Other’s made the identification and Joseph used it later. However, the best historical information indicates that someone else made the connection and it didn’t come from Joseph. It certainly became tradition, but your assumption that ultimate tradition indicates causation is quite mistaken.
I have never been requested to believe anything and everthing that Joseph said, so I can easily disconfirm that particular statement.
As for a canonized statement that says where Cumorah is, you are correct that there isn’t one, but that includes a canonized statement about the NY Hill. However, you are correct that it was the assumption for a very long time, and one repeated by apostles. The only official statement about any Book of Mormon geography is that there is no official statement. That appears to include Cumorah, a fact much more evident in recent history that in earlier.
As for DNA, I suspect that your information on that topic may also suffer from mispercetions.
With all due respect here, I know you try to keep things civil, but Bob is an anti-Mormon troll who cloaks himself in the thinly veiled robes of “sincerity” and “brotherly love in Christ Jesus”, in order to entrap sincere but unaware LDS into mind-numbing endless roundabouts over pet peeves. These guys revel in tossing out “unanswerable” questions and watching everyone rush around to respond. There is NO RESPONSE to Bob that will ever satisfy him. I’ve seen this before and it never changes.
That is not surprising, given his responses. However, I have found that much of what happens in these discussions if for the reader rather than the participant. Allowing questions to be asked, and then answered, has value–even when the questioner has no intention of understanding the answers.
You wrote,”Historians cannot place the identification of the name Cumorah with the NY hill with Joseph.” The “historians” are ignoring the all the documentary evidence. Do I need to go over it again?
As I remember, we disagree on this point–so you are correct that there is no need to bring it up again. It is a question of what kind of evidence one elects to accept.
Yes, you are right. However, the rules of evidence in favor of the New York Cumorah have been applied far more strictly than the rules of evidence against it. There has been a definite double standard.
Can you comment on D&C 128:20.
It seems to me God’s revelation to Joseph Smith in this verse, it’s pretty clear Cumorah is in Western NY.
Brant, do you believe that the three witnesses, Oliver Cowdrey, David Whitmer and Martin Harris saw the BoM? If so, and they ALL specifically said the golden plates and Hill Cumorah were in Western NY, why would you not believe them.
Do you Believe Brigham Young to be a prophet. He is a witness and declares the Hill Cumorah to be in Western NY.
Look up the Bishops letter: The Messenger. July 1960
I don’t understand why everyone is upset with me regarding statements I’ve presented. Everyone of them are LDS Church sources. None of which have been refuted by leaders that I can find.
I’m just trying to get honest answers and not just theories or opinions.
You are awesome my friend.
Bob, you would do well to understand more of the manuscript histories behind some of the printed versions. Cumorah was inserted after the fact. I haven’t suggested at all that Cumorah in New York did not early become the popular ascription. What cannot be done is tie that connection to Joseph. There are lots of very good reasons that the early Saints would have made that assumption, and when it was repeated by important leaders, it became the tradition you are also citing.
That still doesn’t mean that the text of the Book of Mormon requires it. It still doesn’t mean that the association came from Joseph (he appears to come to use the association only after many others did).
Speaking of a double standard in applying the rules of evidence, what documentary evidence can you provide to support your stated suppositions?
I am traveling this week and may not be able to give you the article until I return. I am referencing work done by historians familiar with church history and the documentary trail. It certainly isn’t my research.
Oliver Cowdery wrote with his own hand about Cumorah in “History, 1834-1836,” writing the word “cumorah” 13 times between pages 90 and 105, with nothing inserted or changed later. In these pages Oliver is very specific that the hill in Palmyra is the hill Cumorah of the Book of Mormon.
In addition, Orson Pratt wrote:
“At length, the Nephites were driven before their enemies, a great distance to the north, and north-east; and having gathered their whole nation together, both men, women, and children, they en camped on, and round about the hill Cumorah, where the records were found, which is in the State of New York, about two hundred miles west of the city of Albany…Mormon had made an abridgement, from the records of his forefathers, upon plates, which abridgement he entitled the “Book of Mormon;” and, (being commanded of God,) he hid up in the hill Cumorah, all the sacred records of his forefathers which were in his possession, except the abridge ment called the “Book of Mormon,” which he gave to his son Moroni to finish…He continued the history until the four hundred and twentieth year of the Christian era, when, (by the commandment of God,) he hid up the records in the hill Cumorah, where they remained concealed, until by the ministry of an angel they were discovered to Mr Smith, who, by the gift and power of God, translated them into the English language, by the means of the Urim and Thummim, as stated in the foregoing.”
(Orson Pratt, Appendix: A[n] Interesting Account of Several Remarkable Visions, 1840)
The evidence is compelling that Joseph Smith and those closest to him believed and had no doubts that the hill in Palmyra was the Cumorah of the Book of Mormon, and there is no evidence that it isn’t.
I agree that Oliver was one of those who used the name Cumorah. That isn’t in question.
Reeve, Rex C., Jr., and Richard O. Cowan. “The Hill Called Cumorah.” In Regional Studies in LDS History: New York and Pennsylvania, edited by Larry C. Porter, Milton V. Backman Jr., and Susan Easton Black. Provo, Utah: BYU Department of Church History and Doctrine, 1992, 73–74.
There is no question that there was an early association between the NY hill and the Book of Mormon Cumorah. The historical question is trying to find the source. It does not appear to have been Joseph. It could easily be a misreading of Mormon 6:6.
While it is certain that the tradition began early, it cannot be linked to the text of the Book of Mormon, and cannot be linked to Joseph (who did not use that designation until later than those around him did). Therefore, the historical data appear to suggest that someone made the association and started using it and it caught on. Eventually, even Joseph used the designation. That process can be seen in the way that the interpreters became known as the urim and thummim, which has a more certain origin point (not Joseph) and where Joseph did not use the term for quite a while, but eventually did. We know that the process worked in the way things were identified, and therefore it makes the case stronger that someone other than Joseph made the first association.
What you have presented above is not evidence that the hill in Palmyra was not the Cumorah of the Book of Mormon, but only unsubstantiated hypotheses that it might not be.
Twenty years ago, when the above quoted historians wrote, “At what point in modern times this New York hill was first called Cumorah is difficult to determine,” they did not have the benefit of access to the Joseph Smith Papers from which source documents are available and clear that Moroni, on his first visit to Joseph Smith, identified the hill in Palmyra as Cumorah (see interpreterfoundation.org/why-should-we-be-concerned-with-book-of-mormon-geography/#comment-6173 . They could not write that statement today. The fact that there is only one document of Joseph Smith using the name Cumorah is not evidence that he didn’t know it was anciently called Cumorah. What is relevant is that this one document is canonized as scripture and in it Joseph implies that the name of the hill was known as Cumorah before “the book” was revealed. Also, the suggestion that Joseph Smith and his close associates misunderstood the simplicity and clarity of Mormon 6:6 is insulting and denigrating to them. This supposition is made from whole cloth with no evidence to support it.
“Is the hill in Palmyra, New York, the hill Cumorah of the Book of Mormon,” is a very pertinent and valid question for any member of the Church to ask of God. If you, Brant, and anyone else reading this sincerely want to know the answer, I suggest you take this question to the House of the Lord and learn for yourselves. If you ask with “real intent” He will make the truth of it manifest to you.
You misunderstand the point. There are only two ways we have of determining whether the hill in New York is the Book of Mormon Cumorah. The first is from the text and the second is revelation. Any designation that came from human speculation is interesting, but cannot be used as a priori demonstration of the correlation, no matter how early. In this case, no matter how many of Joseph’s associates called it Cumorah, the fact that Joseph didn’t diminishes the possibility that Joseph had it revealed to him.
Without a sure connection to revelation, we are left with the text. That is a discussion for a different time, but the problem with geographies that anchor themselves on the identification of the New York hill as Cumorah is that they slant all geography against an identification made from extra-textual information. Thus, any geography that assumes Cumorah in New York cannot be used as specific evidence that it must be in New York. That constitutes circular reasoning.
There is no indication that there is revelation behind the identification.
The text actually says that the plates Joseph received were not buried in Cumorah, so the fact that the plates came from there doesn’t tell us that the New York hill was the Book of Mormon hill.
There is every reason to believe that Joseph’s associates were actively interpreting the elements of the coming forth of the Book of Mormon. With Joseph coming late to the use of Cumorah for the New York hill, it is therefore more likely that it was an identification based on where the plates came from, a lack of familiarity with the actual textual evidence, and known processes that also led to a common use of urim and thummim for both the interpreters and the seer stone.
Unfortunately the internal geography of the Book of Mormon isn’t clear on how far from other events Cumorah would have been. However, Moroni’s suggestion that the Nephite Cumorah was the Jaredite Ramah strongly suggests that Moroni believed that it was in a geography that had been known from earlier times.
The descriptions from the text that tell us about Cumorah do not mesh with the features of the New York hill. The archaeology of the area also tells us that it was not the site of any major developments during the time when the Book of Mormon describes the final battle there.
None of that constitutes proof, but it does constitute coherent evidence that the historical assumption that the Book of Mormon Cumorah was in New York is the product of tradition rather than internal geography or revelation. It is certainly a strong tradition, but it isn’t any stronger than tradition.
I agree with you that the text must match the geography and the archaeology. When the text and the archaeology are both properly understood the hill Cumorah in New York fits perfectly. The text describes a saga that runs from Cost Rica to Cumorah in what is now the State of New York. You are also right that Moroni believed that Cumorah was previously Jaredite territory. The text describes in detail the journey of the Jaredites from Babel and across the North Atlantic to what is now North-Eastern United States.
Brant, You wrote:
“Thus, any geography that assumes Cumorah in New York cannot be used as specific evidence that it must be in New York. That constitutes circular reasoning.”
The only evidence against a New York Cumorah is that the Limited Mesoamerica theory assumes that it cannot be there. This is also circular reasoning.
Brant, you wrote:
“There are only two ways we have of determining whether the hill in New York is the Book of Mormon Cumorah. The first is from the text and the second is revelation.”
There are five synoptic source documents agreeing that Moroni, on his first visit, told Joseph Smith that the hill in Palmyra was called Cumorah. Does not information coming from a resurrected being constitute revelation?
May I add that almost all of the revelations we have from Joseph Smith, including the entire Book of Mormon, did not come from his own pen. He told others what he heard or saw and they wrote it down.
Brant, you wrote:
“The text actually says that the plates Joseph received were not buried in Cumorah…”
No, the text does not say that the plates “were not buried in Cumorah!” The text says that Mormon gave the plates to his son, Moroni. It simply does not say where Moroni hid them, and how could it, after he hid them? There is nothing in the text that would preclude Moroni from burying the plates in Cumorah.
“I made this record out of the plates of Nephi, and hid up in the hill Cumorah all the records which had been entrusted to me by the hand of the Lord, save it were these few plates which I gave unto my son Moroni.” (Mormon 6:6)
You are correct that we never hear the final resting place of the plates. All we can say is that Mormon says that of all the records buried in Cumorah, the plates Moroni gave to Joseph were not among them. Perhaps Moroni later returned to bury them in Cumorah as well, but the text never tells us that.
Once again, we are relying upon the tradition to suggest that the plates came out of Cumorah.
Brant, you wrote:
“All we can say is that Mormon says that of all the records buried in Cumorah, the plates Moroni gave to Joseph were not among them.”
No, what you have written is still incorrect. Of all the records that MORMON buried in Cumorah, the plates Moroni gave to Joseph were not among them.
Brant, you wrote:
“Once again, we are relying upon the tradition to suggest that the plates came out of Cumorah.”
No, we are relying on documented evidence that it was Moroni who told Joseph Smith that the hill in Palmyra was called Cumorah. (see https://interpreterfoundation.org/why-should-we-be-concerned-with-book-of-mormon-geography/#comment-6173 )
Let me take a minute or two to address some of your questions.
(1) You: “I forgot to ask each of you, Kirk, Stephen, Theodore or anyone else to comment on the 1879 edition of the BoM. I don’t believe I saw any responses to that source.”
What is there to comment on? Elder Orson Pratt included some speculative geographical notes in this edition of the Book of Mormon which were eventually (in the 1920s, if I remember correctly) excised. There’s not much more to say beyond that, other than that Elder Pratt evidently held to a so-called “Hemispheric Model” for Book of Mormon geography.
(2) You: “What I’m asking is what happened to Tom specifically after 20 years of study in mesoamerica?”
(3) You: “Can anyone comment on Michael D. Coe, Yale University, Peabody Museum of Natural History, world renowned scholar, considered in worldly scholarship to be one of the foremost experts of mesoamerica. Scholar of dozens of books over 50 years of study in mesoamerica.”
Dr. Coe is a great Mayanist, but a lousy Book of Mormon scholar. He hasn’t kept up with the relevant Book of Mormon scholarship, and, as such, his opinions on this point must be accepted with great caution.
(4) You: “oh, and Elder Tom Perry in 2012.”
Would you please give me a specific citation? Otherwise I have nothing to go off of.
(5) You: “However, as I stated above and cited hundreds of years of comments by your leaders, especially Joseph Smith, the BoM took place in wester NY. There are no other Official statements anywhere that say one word about mesoamerica”
Mmm… not exactly.
(6) You: “Is John Sorensen endorsed officially by the LDS Church Leadership?”
Not that I know of. But he did publish some of his views on Book of Mormon geography back in the 1980s in the Church’s magazine:
(7) You: “At the bottom of every FAIR, FARM, FIRM, Interperter, etc., they all have disclaimers that it does NOT represent the official opinion of the LDS Church.
Therefore these comments are simply opinions by all.”
But that doesn’t mean these opinions are not based on evidence and good reasoning (well, with the exception of FIRM, in my opinion). Instead of worrying over whether their views are “official” or not, maybe you should worry about whether their views are supported by evidence and reason.
(8) You: “With so many different directions to go, it does become problematic.”
Same could be said about Christianity. Should I be Protestant, or Catholic, or Orthodox, or Restorationist, or Gnostic, etc., etc.? I’d be careful if I were you. If we Mormons are in trouble because there isn’t a universal consensus on Book of Mormon geography, then what does that say about the lack of a universal consensus on how to understand the Bible, even amongst self-professing Christians?
A lack of consensus does not, in and of itself, prove something is false. Otherwise, we Mormon apologists have been wasting a lot time trying to refute our critics, since even critics of Mormonism can’t decide altogether on how to explain the Book of Mormon. (Was it cobbled together from different sources, did Joseph Smith just write it, was he inspired by Satan, did he plagiarize Ethan Smith or Solomon Spaulding, etc.?)
(9) You: “To people wanting to join your church, don’t you think arguing amongst yourselves creates confusion?”
Heavens no. I would say 99% of converts don’t have a clue what the difference is between John Sorenson’s vs. Rod Meldrum’s Book of Mormon geography theories. Most of them, I’d wager, are happy to join the Church, make covenants with God, and live Christ-like lives without worrying whatsoever over these sort of silly questions.
Hope that helps.
I noticed that you quoted the great Mormon apologist Hugh Nibley at the start of your paper!
What do you think about Hugh Nibley’s quote In his book The Myth Makers, about allegations against Joseph Smith treasure digging activities with his face in a hat looking at peep stones to find buried gold. And Joseph Smith being arrested and brought to trial and convicted for magical glass looking. Duping people out of their money. Nibley “if this court record is authentic It is the most damning evidence against Joseph Smith” and his divine claims.
Before this evidence was found, apologists firmly denied Joseph Smith did such a thing.
See this link:
Make sure you read the whole thing, including the part addressing the Nibley quote that has been taken out of context.
I read the entire source on the website. My family used to discuss this topic when I young. We were all taught that Joseph Smith was perfect and Joseph being brought to trial for glass looking was a lie. Nibley included. My family used to quote Nibley’s statement above. In your opinion the quote is taken out of context. In the world view it means what it says.
Also, the site you directed me to has a disclaimer that the LDS Church does not endorse that site.
Stephen, as a scholar, do you ever go outside of Mormon scholarship?
I’ve noticed that you have still not commented on The Smithsonian, LDS.org leading with the Bible.
What are your thoughts about the Bible Scriptures:
Also, are you and Susan Smoot Francis related through Abraham O. Smoot?
Jesus Christ is our loving God.
I appreciate you too my brother.
You write: “We were all taught that Joseph Smith was perfect” Whoever taught you that? Surely not Joseph Smith, since he disclaimed any perfection on numerous occasions. He taught only the Savior was perfect, and never claimed to be anything more than his prophet. I’m sorry if somebody misled you into thinking Joseph Smith was perfect.
You write: “In your opinion the quote is taken out of context.” No, it’s not just “my opinion.” You’ve misread Nibley. Go re-read it. There’s no excusing yourself for poorly reading someone. Just acknowledge such and then move on.
You write: “Also, the site you directed me to has a disclaimer that the LDS Church does not endorse that site.” So what? What does that have to do with anything? This is a common trick used by people who don’t want to actually deal with the issues, and instead want to run around them. But it’s not convincing. Address the article if you can. If you can’t, then just say so and move on.
You ask: “Stephen, as a scholar, do you ever go outside of Mormon scholarship?” What do you mean by this? Do you mean to ask if I read, cite or otherwise engage with non-Mormon scholarship? If so, then yes. Very frequently. Do you mean to ask if I have ever published or presented anything in any non-Mormon venue? If so, then no. Not really. As an undergrad at BYU the venue’s I’ve presented at or published with are LDS ones.
You write: “I’ve noticed that you have still not commented on The Smithsonian, LDS.org leading with the Bible.” I don’t really understand, nor really care, to be honest, what your objection is about “LDS.org leading with the Bible.” What does this even mean? What are you even getting at? If you are implying that the Church is some manner prefers the Bible, or trusts the Bible, more than the Book of Mormon, Doctrine and Covenants, and Pearl of Great Price, then you’re mistaken. It’s just a list of our scriptures. You have to start with something in a list. Might as well be the Bible.
As for the Smithsonian statement, I honestly, again, don’t really care. So what if the Smithsonian doesn’t use the Book of Mormon as some kind of archaeological tour book? That doesn’t bother me one iota, as it says positively nothing about the impressive academic work done in the past half-century on the Book of Mormon. I’d recommend you stop worrying about the ex cathedra pronouncements of some critics that whatever “The Smithsonian” says, as if “The Smithsonian” is some omnipotent god ruling over the academic cosmos, is the final say on the historicity of the Book of Mormon.
Go pick up Sorenson, Clark, Wright, Gardner et al. and then come back when you feel ready to talk about serious Book of Mormon scholarship.
You ask: “What are your thoughts about the Bible Scriptures:
My thoughts are that the author(s) of these passages evidently did not approve of necromancy or other “magical” practices, a topic I actually recently published a short article on for the Student Review.
You ask: “Also, are you and Susan Smoot Francis related through Abraham O. Smoot? ”
Don’t know anything about Susan Smoot Francis, but Abraham O. Smoot is my third-great-grandfather. In fact, we share a middle name (“Owen”).
For some reason it won’t let me reply to you direct. But no worries. Here’s just a few quick thoughts.
(1). Your claim that “every year that goes by, the BoM being considered being an actual history becomes more and more problematic,” is, I believe, highly questionable. In fact, the precise opposite is the case, in my opinion. As time has passed, the Book of Mormon has looked better and better.
You can read this article by archaeologist John Clark, for example, to get an idea of what I mean: https://byustudies.byu.edu/showtitle.aspx?title=7142
See also the chart here: http://en.fairmormon.org/Book_of_Mormon/Anachronisms
(2) If I were you, I’d be very careful in arguing that we can trust the Bible as a historical document because archaeology has supposedly verified it’s historicity, whereas we cannot trust the Book of Mormon because archaeology has not done the same for it. If you think the Bible’s historicity has been proven beyond any controversy, then you have something else coming your way. As it is, actually, the current archaeological trends of Syro-Palestine not only have not “proven” the historicity of many of the Bible’s narratives, but have even directly challenged them. For example, the historicity of the conquest of Canaan depicted in the book of Joshua is on very thin ice when we compare what the text says to what archaeological evidence tells us of the Levant during Iron Age I. The problems, for example, include not just the absence of evidence for mass destruction of certain cities at the time the book of Joshua depicts, but also even the absence of evidence of a population in certain cities at the time when the book of Joshua talks about there being people in this or that city, etc.
Pick up any standard textbook or work on Syro-Palestinian archaeology and you’ll see this is pretty much the status quo for many, if not most, of the Bible’s narratives (e.g. the Patriarchal Narratives, the Exodus, the aforementioned conquest, the united monarchy, the divided monarchy, etc.)
I say this not to disparage belief in the Bible (except, perhaps, belief in a fundamentalist reading of the Bible), but rather to urge caution because you are, unfortunately, creating something of a double standard.
I read John’s book yesterday. Nice.
In fairness I looked up LDS Church History and found on LDS
The Hill Cumorah, Golden Plates, Angel Moroni additional plates, swords, The Great Final Battle of some 300,000 worriers, etc., all occurred in Palmyra, N.Y., on the Hill Cumorah.
Witnesses include the following:
Lucy m. Smith
Gordon B. Hinckley
Mark E. Peterson
George A. Smith
Joseph F. Smith
Bruce R. McConkie
James E. Talmage
Anthony W. Ivins
Official Church History
Marion G. Romney
Brent G. Yorgason
Bishops Letter on Hill Location
Watson Letter on Hill Location
1879 BOOK OF MORMON
Every one of these are Credible Sources. They all say Western N.Y.
What Does John Clark know the All of the Prophets who speak directly with God don’t know? Very confusing. Did God lie to all of the above?
Also, now the is a movement lead by Rod Meldrom, Steven Smoot and endorsed by former RS President MaryEllen Smoot and many others, the BoM took place in The Great Lakes Area: The Lost Civilizations of North America.
Endorsed and quote from Elder Tom Perry, the BoM took place in The United States.
Help me to understand…
I will only briefly respond to some of your questions, as time does not permit me to get drawn into this discussion.
(1) I don’t believe God “lies” to people, but I do believe he allows us to think for ourselves and reason things out on our own. That includes prophets and apostles. Prophets and apostles and Church members high and low are allowed to have their own opinions or views on historical or scriptural matters without us having to jump to the conclusion that God “lies” to people if it turns out some of those views are either incorrect or debatable, etc.
(2) The Journal of Book of Mormon Studies 13, no. 1–2 (2004) is an entire issue dedicated to the Hill Cumorah. I suggest you take a look at it if you haven’t already.
(3) The so-called “Heartland” geography (please note that I am NOT the Steven Smoot associated with it) is it’s own deal. It has never been endorsed as official Church doctrine. I do not accept the “Heartland” theory for a number of reasons, which I will not get into here. If you want some of the reasons why I agree it’s a highly questionable theory, see Gregory Smith and Matthew Roper’s writings/critiques of Meldrum.
As such, please do not misconstrue this “Heartland” movement as any sort of official Church position.
I’ll let others discuss these issues with you more in-depth if they feel so inclined.
If no one else wants to answer Bob on this issue then I will attempt to do so.
Bob, the authorities you cited are correct that the Hill Cumorah in New York is the Cumorah of the Book of Mormon. At their first meeting Moroni told Joseph Smith that hill in Palmyra was called Cumorah by the ancients. John Clark & Company are also correct in that there is a plethora of evidence for the Book of Mormon in Mesoamerica. The problem arises in trying to limit the events of the Book of Mormon to either the North or the South.
These limited geography theories are based primarily on two errors in the reading of the text:
1. The speed of travel of Alma’s party when they were fleeing from the war parties of King Noah and then the Lamanites, while being strengthened by the Lord to keep ahead of them. John Sorenson estimated they would travel at a rate of eleven miles per day or about 200 miles, when in actuality it would have been at least 3 times that fast or about 600 miles.
2. The city they left was called Lehi-Nephi and the erroneous assumption has been that it was the original city of Nephi, even though the Nephites had been decimated and driven by the Lamanites for over 400 years.
When this is understood the geographical area limitation is removed. The text of the Book of Mormon actually requires a continent wide geography. If you are sincerely looking for an answer to your question I recommend you ponder “A North American Setting for the Book of Mormon” at http://brandley.poulsenll.org/
Stephen, Kirk and Bradley, all of your comments are right on. Your own personal beliefs to make the BoM work for your own testimony. This is what you should do. However, as I stated above and cited hundreds of years of comments by your leaders, especially Joseph Smith, the BoM took place in wester NY. There are no other Official statements anywhere that say one word about mesoamerica.
Is John Sorensen endorsed officially by the LDS Church Leadership?
At the bottom of every FAIR, FARM, FIRM, Interperter, etc., they all have disclaimers that it does NOT represent the official opinion of the LDS Church.
Therefore these comments are simply opinions by all.
With so many different directions to go, it does become problematic. So who’s right, Sorensen or Meldrom? Your church allows both…
To people wanting to join your church, don’t you think arguing amongst yourselves creates confusion?
The Smithsonian Institute doesn’t endorse the BoM as historical.
When each of you have time,
can you comment on what happened to Thomas S. ferguson.
Also, when you have time, I’d really like to comment on Joseph Smith, Oliver Cowdrey, Brigham Young, Parley and Orson Pratts statements…oh, and Elder Tom Perry in 2012.
Lastly, the above said the Hill opened up and it was full of plates and records, swords, breastplates etc. If Moroni traveled 2 mph or what ever the rate was, how did all of those other artifacts get to the Hill Cumorah?
I hope everyone had a fun, Happy Halloween. I sure did. Does anyone have any bail money? LOL. I really do love all of you. In God’s love.
This will be my last post on this subject, and I want to be brief, or at least succinct in my response. As of this moment, I have not seen any reply from you to my challenge from earlier today that you answer and account for the things I listed in my post.
You had asked for real-world “evidence” connecting the Book of Mormon to actual locations here on planet earth. I gave you a simple one to consider, and suggested you provide a plausible explanation OTHER than that of a divine origen for the Book of Mormon.
Once you do so, I will be more than willing to re-engage. For the record, the issues you’ve raised with respect to Cumorah have all been answered multiple times. What would be novel and enlightening (unprecidented?) would be for your side to confront the evidence which we’ve presented on its own merits. Until then, adieu!
In reply to a request concerning Thomas S. Ferguson, a long time ago I read something by John Sorensen. Have you had a chance to read here: http://en.fairmormon.org/Book_of_Mormon/Archaeology/Thomas_Stuart_Ferguson.
I just checked out your site. Wow! I really do like it. What kind of following is it getting?
So on your site and your book, I can go directly to Zarahemla today!
So everyone. Here is what I have right now.
#1. The OFFICIAL LDS church position on BoM is
#2. Sorensen, Clark and Smoot are MesoAmerica.
#3. Meldrom, Smoot are Great Lakes Area.
#4. Brandley, Missouri Area.
#5. Joseph Smith, Brigham Young, Pratts, Oliver Cowdrey, etc., cited above Western NY.
#6. Elder Tom Perry, the United States.
#7. Joseph Smith, Zions Camp members, Griggsville, Illinois. Zelph.
Can anyone comment on Michael D. Coe, Yale University, Peabody Museum of Natural History, world renowned scholar, considered in worldly scholarship to be one of the foremost experts of mesoamerica. Scholar of dozens of books over 50 years of study in mesoamerica.
We all are so blessed by Jesus to live in such a beautiful glorious world. He has given all of us too much. I love Jesus and I’m so thankful for his loving grace.
I forgot to ask each of you, Kirk, Stephen, Theodore or anyone else to comment on the 1879 edition of the BoM. I don’t believe I saw any responses to that source.
Kirk, you did say something about Ferguson. What I’m asking is what happened to Tom specifically after 20 years of study in mesoamerica? I’ve read his letters that Tom personally wrote. I believe he was a very faithful person to his religion and true to himself.
In Christ’s love.
The lack of geographical consensus has been mentioned several times in this discussion as a contributing factor to doubt in the historicity of the Book of Mormon. After three years of research in matching the text of the book to the facts on the ground I have no such doubts. I don’t have to take a jet plane to visit the city of Bountiful where the resurrected Jesus Christ appeared to the Nephites, I drive there a two or three times a year and read 3rd Nephi on the location where Jesus taught. About once a year I drive to Zarahemla and read King Benjamin’s address from the top of his tower. I also know what it feels like to read of the resurrection of Jesus at the Garden Tomb in Jerusalem and have the Spirit of God testify that it is true and that is where it happened. I receive the same Spirit in my Bountiful and my Zarahemla as I do in Jerusalem.
In reading the article by Stephen, and all your comments regarding how to view the BoM, doesn’t it come down to one thing? It’s either true or it isn’t.
As one who has long left the LDS Church behind, I started reading Mormon history when the Internet made it possible. I was shocked to read the truth of it’s history. I was amazed to see a much different truth than what I was taught in the 60’s and 70’s.
The LDS Church has excommunicated hundreds of faithful members and facility into the 90’s for being intellectual as you are today.
Most family and friends I know have mentioned they know of the problems of the BoM. However, they plow forward. The people who will discuss these topics feel hurt and betrayed for the withholding of information. People are leaving the LDS Church. It is over Truth. You can talk about the why’s, the maybe’s and so on, but at the end of the day it’s either true or it isn’t.
People leaving tells me they want Truth.
With all due respect, you did not “long (ago) leave the LDS Church behind” or you wouldn’t be blogging here. You can’t leave it alone. We’ve seen it many times.
And as for those leaving the Church out of some pure desire for “Truth” my experience is that they have no greater or more pure desire for “Truth” in some objective sense than anyone else. After all, who among us wants to consciously be deceived?
I grew up during the 60’s and 70’s in a part-member family with a father who intellectualized away many aspects of Mormonism for many years. His lack of faith tested and ultimately strengthened my own. It forced me to search, to study, and to test my assumptions. It ultimately led me to a good and faithful place. He’s now there as well, but it took a long time.
I often hear former members lamenting that they discovered all these “secret Mormon facts” that had somehow been withheld from them for their entire lives in the Church. To them and you I say–“Shame on you all then for being superficial, narrow-minded Mormons who failed to search deeply the things of your faith.”
ALL of the so-called “Mormon secret history” or doctrines have been available to anyone who cared to look. I know, because I did, and when I did I also looked for answers. And what I found were almost always good and satisfying answers that strengthened by faith. You could have too. Nobody stopped you. No one stopped me.
And frankly, I am weary of people who toss about certain assertions as if they were fact, such as the notion that people are leaving the Church because of “problems with the Book of Mormon” or that noble people are “leaving over Truth” because “things have been withheld from them”. If anyone in this day and age leaves the Church because he/she cannot get past certain “problems” with the Book of Mormon, they do so in blissful ignorance of so much that is now available for them to know. If they truly desired “Truth” they could find it right in their own backyard and within the context of faithful membership. Intellectual ascent to a place of faith in an historical Book of Mormon is easier, far easier, today than at anytime since 1830. The weight of evidence is flowing in favor of an historical view, not against it. And the flow is more of a tsunami than a trickle. Sorry to have to inform you of that now, but it is what it is I’m afraid. Might want to reconsider.
This one is too easy. We are not discussing faith. I could care less what your faith is or what you believe. I’m glad you have faith. Good for you. I have faith too. I have faith that I can get on a jet and travel to Jerusalem, walk where Christ walked. Go to over 300 cities, see rivers, mountains, lakes, Rome and thousands of artifacts listed in the Bible. I have faith God-Christ gave us his Word. Christ was our last great High Priest.
I know for a fact that you or I nor anyone else is going to get on a jet today and fly to Zarahemla and walk where Christ was supposed to have taught in the Americas.
You can be bored and tired of people like me. I’m so happy for you. Tell me about Joe’s sixth version of the first vision where he said God said, “all creeds are an abomination in His sight and they were all wrong!”. Your prophets said the Catholic Church “was the whore of the earth”.
I’m so thankful you are bored and your faith is so strong. You choose to see what you want to see. Good for you.
I’m so glad your faith is sooo strong. You are the best. However, you keep being strong. People are leaving because they are BORED with people like you and your great faith that cannot be backed by even one single shred of evidence. I had faith in Santa and the tooth fairy too. Love ya brother. Keep the faith and people seeking truth will keep leaving.
Kirk and Bob, please tone it down. I have approved these to be fair, but would rather than they had been rewritten to be a little less self-righteous on both sides.
Bob, I understand that you think you have found your answers. Others have found very different ones. Let’s go heavier on mutual respect rather than mutual disdain, please.
In Stephen’s article and the numerous comments I’m hearing discussions that the BoM is mostly studied as literal history of the native people of the American continent and a segment of their lives. I read where some of the discussion is around the BoM being inspired and can it be used without it being historical.
In my opinion, the BoM has to become inspired and should not be considered historical without any physical evidence to support any of it’s claims.
It sounds like the BoM to useful at all in a religion should go the way of the Church of Christ (formally The RLDS) to be used as a good faith promoting book vs a Historical document. An historical book that is factual needs to have something physical that can show it’s not simply a story.
The Church of Christ made the decision to lead with the Bible. It caused a ton of defection, however in the long run it will payoff for them. Every year that goes by, the BoM being considered being an actual history becomes more and more problematic. Most people are very smart. They know how to study information.
How many times a day do all of us google to verify something we’ve been told or asked.
I am on this blog and every other LDS site reading and studying everything that is said and printed by Prophets, Apostles, GA’s, 70’s, FAIR, etc. I want to know truth. In turn I read and study everything written and said that others point out as truth. The most interesting thing I’ve discovered, is that the authors of the 30 or so books Ive read are authored by former LDS faithful who went on to prove the BoM is the most correct book on earth, but in seeking factual, intellectual truth, couldn’t be true to themselves based on truth. Like them, truth was more important than anything to me. Like most who are from generational LDS families, I have been pretty much shunned and discredited. Most won’t even speak to me at all. No worries, my wife and I are blessed beyond anything we could ever have dreamed of. We are lucky and loved. We are sinners and fall at the feet and mercy of ChristGod. We are grateful to our Great, Loving Merciful God who loved us so much he bled, suffered and died for a wretch like me on the sacred cross. I love and know ChristGod. He is my God, Lord, King and Savior. Best to all.
Bob, I would strongly disagree that there is no support for the Book of Mormon. I do hear that statement often, and when I am in a discussion with anyone who has made the statement, it is clear that they don’t understand enough about what archaeology does in general, and Mesoamerican archaeology in particular. There is a significant amount of correspondence between the Book of Mormon and known history. There are direct correlations to actions and population movements that connect to the known religious and political forces and population movements at those times. Reading the text in that background actually explains the text where it might otherwise be confusing.
I have no idea where you got the idea that there was no support for the historicity of the Book of Mormon. If it was from the Internet, there are reasons that people are cautioned about accepting too much that happens on the Internet.
Let’s try this again, and this time with a little more aplomb on my part. I didn’t mean to convey a sense of superiority or contempt for your point of view, but I recognize that it came off that way.
My main point was simply that over the past 60 years or so there have been many discoveries, many direct links, and hundreds of Book of Mormon dots that have been connected by scholars from a number of different fields. This favorable wave of scholarship occasioned some rather unprecedented admissions from the camp of certain harsh critics, who were panic-stricken at the thought that the tide had turned in favor of the Mormon positions. See “Mormon Scholarship, Apologetics, and Evangelical Neglect: Losing the Battle and Not Knowing It?” by Carl Mosser and Paul Owen, published in the Trinity Journal (Volume 19NS, 1998, pp. 179-205)
In light of so much scholarly, tangible, real-world support for the historicity of the Book of Mormon, it just seemed to me disingenuous for anyone to claim such things did not exist, even though they’d been diligently searching. However, I do recognize that there is always room for different interpretations of the same data, and what some of us see as confirming “evidence” others may see as less than convincing.
And if there were only one or two minor “coincidences” then I think your point of view might be more tenable. But there are now hundreds of corresponding points of reference connecting the Book of Mormon to antiquity, in both the Old and New Worlds. Take a look at Jeff Lindsay’s user-friendly website and you’ll get a sense of what I’m talking about. http://www.jefflindsay.com/LDS
You say you know for a fact that no one will ever fly to Zarahemla and walk where Jesus walked. With all due respect, Bob, you don’t know that. Over the past 25 years or so, LDS scholars have pieced together some remarkable correlations between geographical references in the Book of Mormon and actual ancient ruins in Mesoamerica. Much work remains to be done, but again, the weight of the evidence is falling in favor of the Book of Mormon as an actual historical record than against.
When someday they pinpoint Zarahemla, perhaps you and I can meet there and take a walk around. I’d like that very much, and I promise not to gloat. And if they never find Zarahemla, then we’ll have to meet at Lake Atitlan, (proposed site for the Waters of Mormon) where they’ve recently discovered a sunken city under the water, just as the Book of Mormon said. (See Mormon’s Codex, John Sorenson, 2013) Again, one of hundreds of points of connection to reality that we could point to, but just to illustrate that they’re there if you choose to look.
Your comments are awesome and you know I love ya. Thank you.
Can you comment on Thomas Stewart Ferguson’s work and financial support in mesoamerica, Guatemala, etc., he and his expeditions received from from David O. McKay and J. Willard Marriott.
My reading shows that Mr. Ferguson started his expeditions in the early 50’s and by the early 70’s after some 20 years he had found nothing.
Can you comment on what has been found or changed in the past 60 years that is recognized today in world scholarship?
Atlantis is a fascinating story. There have been books written, movies, tv documentaries, etc., however, without any physical proof, my opinion, I don’t believe very many people take it literally. But it is a fun story.
While the Bible does contain some questionable things, there are over 300 cities, rivers, mountains, seas, etc., and thousands of artifacts that prove it existed then as it does today.
Jewish people in the numbers described in the BoM who existed for nearly 3600 years simply could not just vanish.
I love ya like a brother. I praise Christ my God.
Years ago a non-LDS group of German archaeologists discovered a temple complex buried in the sands of southwestern Arabia. On the altars of this temple was found an inscription naming the place NHM, which could be read as Nehem, Nahem, Nahom, or other englishized renditions. The site was shown to be an ancient burial site. It’s location was precisely where the Book of Mormon said it was. Nephi wrote that after they buried Ishmael at Nahom, their troop turned to the east, and thereafter landed in a lush green place along the coast which they called Bountiful. There they presumably found iron ore, large trees, resources to construct a rather large ship, and more. There is no other such site anywhere in Arabia that meets all the criteria set forth in Nephi’s narrative. Yet THERE IT IS, DUE EAST OF NHM (Nahom) right where the book requires it.
In 1829, Bob, no one in America knew of any such
place anywhere in Arabia. There were no published maps of Arabia (ancient or modern) showing the existence of the ruins at NHM either.
So you demand proof. There it is. A tangible site discovered and documented by non-LDS scientists right where we expect it to be as we follow the route described in the Book of Mormon. And then, as further corroboration, we can triangulate between the known locations of Jerusalem, travel by Lehi’s family in a “south southeasterly” direction to the temple/burial complex at NHM, and from there “eastwardly” to a lone patch of greenery along the seacoast of Oman that just happens to correspond in every particular to Nephi’s description of Bountiful.
My brief description here does not do justice to this theme, but it suffices to make my point–that there are tangible, verifiable real-world links that have been made and continue to come forth between what the Book of Mormon says and what the evidence shows.
I have sited but one small example here. There are many more correspondences and ‘direct hits’ that we could also point to, in both the Old World and the New.
Not sure why Ferguson’s expeditions matter any more than Henry Ford’s three bankruptcies prior to finally getting it right. Just because there were multiple failed attempts to explore Mesoamerica and look for Book of Mormon “stuff” doesn’t mean anything. Today we know so much more, and the more we know, the better the Book of Mormon looks. It took archaeologists 115 years after the BoM was published to finally acknowledge the Olmec civilization as a separate society predating the Mayan, and originating in the same time and place in Mesoamerica as the Jaredites. Prior to about 1943 the Book of Mormon rendition of there being such a people was laughed to scorn by our critics. Funny thing that we don’t hear much from them on this here lately. And so it goes…
So Bob, account for NHM. Account for Bountiful. Account for the geographic relationship between the two and the corresponding account in the Book of Mormon. Account for Jaredites being discovered precisely where they should be relative to other specifically referenced sites in the Book of Mormon. Account for the BoM names found inscribed at Palenque and elsewhere. Account for the more than 420 geographical correspondences detailed out by John Sorenson, James Allen, and others. Account for the recent finding of a sunken city under the waters of Lake Atitlan, a site many believe to be the Waters of Mormon, right where the BoM tells us we should find it. I could go on Bob. We could talk about Chiasmus. We could talk about word print studies that confirm multiple authorship. We could talk about linguistic, literary, cultural, legal, and many other forms of linkage to real-world civilizations that today we know about and that in 1829 we didn’t.
As Mosser and Owen (two evangelical critics) begrudgingly admitted 15 years ago, the Mormons are winning the battle in proving out our positions, while the vast majority of critics carry on in their own myopic hubris–self-assured, but ignorant of so very much that has been brought to light. We’ve done our work. It’s scholarly, rigorous, and highly respected in academic circles. It’s out there for all to see who care to look. We’re not talking Atlantis here, Bob. That analogy fails on so many levels.
I wish you well in your search.
Thanks Kevin and Carl for your responses to my posts.
Kevin, I find these models to be fascinating. I listened to the article on Sophic Box and Mantic Vista as a podcast while commuting, as I did this article. (That is what 2-3 hours of commuting each gets me). In fact, the two articles relate to each other. I had not connected that you were the author of both.
Carl, the Community of Christ is an interesting case. It has had several splits in the past 20 years, with new “Reconstruction LDS” and other variants emerging because these splinters believe their Church has swerved too much from the path they believed.
We had a ward party tonight and afterwards I took one of our sets of missionaries home. We were talking about an investigator that showed up at the party–a surprise to the missionaries. I had talked with her, a sweet and spiritual grandmother whose brother is the pastor of large and growing church. As I drove the missionaries, we talked about churches that are growing and those that are shrinking. There is one pattern that stands out in this dynamic. Those churches that stand for something, for the most part, are growing. Those that decide to be inclusive and don’t stand for anything–some don’t even stand for the resurrection of Jesus (and I am talking Protestant denominations)–are shrinking. I mentioned the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. About 10 years ago, the ELCA and the LDS Church had about the same memberships (around 5 million) in the US and about the same number of congregations. Today, the LDS Church has more than 6 million members and the ELCA has less than 4 million in the US. The LDS Church has about 50% more congregations. The ELCA publishes detailed membership and activity rates by congregation, synod, and the entire church on line. They averaged 28% attendance last year. You can look at 10 years of data online and the ELCA has been declining pretty consistently in all stats. In the Richmond area, a large ELCA congregation recently voted to leave the denomination. There is a court battle over ownership of the building, but the congregation has conceded it won’t win and has leased another building, and the ELCA now has a large closed building. People have been leaving the ELCA for years now because it refuses to stand for anything except being inclusive of all viewpoints. All seven of the large mainline protestant denominations, are declining in membership and all have taken this same inclusive tact. Those denominations that stand for something are, for the most part, growing. Those that talk about being inclusive are shrinking. Why? Because “let’s be inclusive” is driving away those that believe in something that is no longer getting that sustained by their church.
The LDS Church may function differently. It may grow if we simply become more inclusive as some here advocate. To some extent, I do think we need to be more inclusive. We need to appreciate where people are coming from. Faith is about committing, even when belief is partial. We need to support those who are whiling to commit, especially in those situations. But, generally the demand to be inclusive turns off a lot of people who feel that the demand is to be inclusive of other’s beliefs, but in turn denigrates their own.
Kevin writes an article about 3 authors that have put forward an idea that the Book of Mormon is not historical. These authors are basically are telling everybody who believe it is historical that they are wrong. And yet the arguments about being inclusive are directed at Kevin for pointing out the logical fallacies in their arguments, and not at those authors that telling most of the membership of the Church that they are wrong.
Now, I do not have a problem with somebody having or expressing doubts about the historicity of the Book of Mormon. I don’t have a problem with somebody jettisoning historicity and holding fast to what they must to have their testimony survive. I certainly believe that they would be well served–like all of us are–by continuing to strive in the Church. I believe they could and should serve in all kinds of leadership and teaching assignments. But, I do have a problem when they start teaching that fundamental teachings of the Church are false. They are free to have and express such opinions, but I claim the same freedom to reject those opinions.
Pointing out logical fallacies in a theory, is not the same thing as saying historicity is necessary to be a good member of the Church or anything else.
However, I think the real importance of Kevin’s article is not in convincing those that have taken the point of view that the Book of Mormon is not historical, but still scripture, but rather to help others who want to believe the Book of Mormon is historical, but are faced with arguments like those in the three books Kevin reviewed, and don’t know how to deal with those author’s demand that all of us stop believing in the idea that the Book of Mormon is historical.
“Those churches that stand for something, for the most part, are growing. Those that decide to be inclusive and don’t stand for anything–some don’t even stand for the resurrection of Jesus (and I am talking Protestant denominations)–are shrinking.”
I think this is a hasty generalization and that each denomination needs to be addressed individually. The first point I would make, though, is that the LDS Church isn’t necessarily growing very much, if at all. Emeritus Bishop H. David Burton, speaking at an Amasa Lyman family reunion on 10 Aug 2013, said that the current LDS activity rate among 14 million members is 36%. The current rate of Temple endowed members is 20% (of the total membership). “Active” here is defined as those who attend sacrament meeting at least once a month. Because the Church only publishes annual baptisms and not activity rates, it’s not clear what the growth rate is, but most experts claim that the Church is growing at a rate that is roughly equal to the rate of the overall world population growth. In other words, it is treading water, but not clearly growing. And it is largely baptisms of children born to multi-generational LDS families in the Mormon corridor that are maintaining this growth. But the kids born to these strong Mormon families are falling away more than ever, which poses a significant threat to the Church’s ability to keep treading water. Elder Marlin K. Jensen has said that the Church is experiencing a level of disaffection unseen “since the days of Kirtland.” I believe this has a lot to do with a weakness in dealing with the increased availability of information that challenges the traditional narratives, and that the Church would benefit from more sophisticated responses such as the ones I’m suggesting, rather than doubling down on the love-it-or-leave-it all-or-nothing style of rhetoric. Many youth are coming to the conclusion that they must choose between their faith and the things they learn during their education, due to false dichotomies that are thrust on them by well-intentioned but uninformed members and leaders.
“Kevin writes an article about 3 authors that have put forward an idea that the Book of Mormon is not historical. These authors are basically are telling everybody who believe it is historical that they are wrong. And yet the arguments about being inclusive are directed at Kevin for pointing out the logical fallacies in their arguments, and not at those authors that telling most of the membership of the Church that they are wrong.”
I wasn’t responding to Kevin at all. I don’t know anything about an article by Kevin. I was responding to Stephen’s article, which is at the top of this page. Did you mean Stephen?
“But, I do have a problem when they start teaching that fundamental teachings of the Church are false. They are free to have and express such opinions, but I claim the same freedom to reject those opinions.”
I don’t think anyone here would disagree with you.
“Pointing out logical fallacies in a theory, is not the same thing as saying historicity is necessary to be a good member of the Church or anything else.”
I think you are equivocating here. The title of the article above (written by Stephen Smoot) is “The Imperative for a Historical Book of Mormon.” It is asserting that it is necessary for Mormons to believe in BoM historicity—that the alternatives are untenable.
“However, I think the real importance of Kevin’s article is not in convincing those that have taken the point of view that the Book of Mormon is not historical, but still scripture, but rather to help others who want to believe the Book of Mormon is historical, but are faced with arguments like those in the three books Kevin reviewed, and don’t know how to deal with those author’s demand that all of us stop believing in the idea that the Book of Mormon is historical.”
I can only assume that you’ve mistakenly referred to the wrong author but that you meant Stephen Smoot’s article. Forgive me if I’m wrong. It seems fairly clear in the article above that Stephen was not criticizing these alternative theories because they were demanding that other Mormons must believe in them. Indeed, they made no such demands. Rather, he was attempting to demonstrate that their claims are unreasonable and that the only three logical choices are that Joseph’s claims are true, or that he was a liar, or that he was insane.
My responses attempted to demonstrate that these three options are not clear logical disjuncts, that there are other reasonable stances to take, and that there remain some problems in Stephen’s thesis. He argues for the necessity of historicity while citing Hardy (who asserts its non-necessity) and he claims it’s OK to bracket historicity without seeming to recognize that bracketing itself introduces the notion that there are contexts in which historicity is non-essential.
“[Stephen] claims it’s OK to bracket historicity without seeming to recognize that bracketing itself introduces the notion that there are contexts in which historicity is non-essential.”
I think Stephen recognizes this — we do this all the time in church when talking about precepts and principles in our Sunday school classes, for instance. But, with regard to the truth claims of the Book of Mormon, some of them become meaningless when withdrawn from their historical context. What, for example, does it mean to us (today) that the Book of Mormon came forth as a fulfillment of prophecy as found within its own pages if that prophecy was never truly revealed to anyone within the context of its (the BoM’s) own history? It’s not prophecy at all! And therefore has no intrinsic meaning — even in an allegorical sense — and therefore no power to call individuals to the kind of action the gospel requires as found with in its own pages.
“I think Stephen recognizes this — we do this all the time in church when talking about precepts and principles in our Sunday school classes, for instance.”
On balance, I agree that there is some acknowledgement of this. I think I’m saying there is not enough. I think the contexts in which bracketing is helpful are far more than we realize. That is Grant Hardy’s position also. He’s saying that most of the scriptural functions of the Book of Mormon remain intact, nay, are even strengthened by bracketing, because it pulls us away from proof texting to real Christianity.
“What, for example, does it mean to us (today) that the Book of Mormon came forth as a fulfillment of prophecy as found within its own pages if that prophecy was never truly revealed to anyone within the context of its (the BoM’s) own history? It’s not prophecy at all!”
I think your definition of prophecy is too narrow. But let’s accept momentarily that a non-historical BoM would mean that some prophecies could no longer be called such.
“…And therefore has no intrinsic meaning — even in an allegorical sense — and therefore no power to call individuals to the kind of action the gospel requires as found with in its own pages.”
Here is where I disagree. This “therefore” does not logically follow. Just because something is not historical does not mean that it has no meaning, and certainly not no power. The one does not logically follow from the other. Some of humanity’s most powerful and inspiring works are fictitious, even works that previously were accepted as historical. For example, we preserve the Garden and fall narrative, as Richard Holloway, has said, “not because it is bad history, but because it is good poetry, because it provides us with a powerful shorthand for complex human experiences of alienation and regret.”
Whatsoever is spoken (or written) when moved upon by the Holy Spirit is scripture, regardless of whether what is written can be placed in history or not. Whether or not words are historical does not strongly affect their ability to impact those who read them.
As the prophet-poet Kahlil Gibran wrote, “Half of what I say is meaningless; but I say it so that the other half may reach you.” The word has power. Or as Jesus said, “It is the spirit that quickeneth; the flesh profiteth nothing: the words that I speak unto you, they are spirit, and they are life.” (John 6:63)
I don’t think that there should be any issue about whether or not the Book of Mormon can be profitably read ahistorically. The vast majority of its readers do just that. The spiritual value derived has nothing to do with issues of historicity.
The issue of historicity isn’t whether nor not one might get value from the text without it, but whether the text itself requires its historicity. On that point, I agree with Stephen that it does. How it might do that is always an interesting debate.
Can one be a good Mormon and not be concerned with historicity? Of course.
Can one be a good Mormon and declare that the Book of Mormon couldn’t possibly be historical? That is a more difficult question. Fortunately, the official word is that the church accepts all of us. It is difficult because the text itself and everthing about its translation and presentation to the world is couched in terms of a translation of an actual historical text.
“The issue of historicity isn’t whether nor not one might get value from the text without it, but whether the text itself requires its historicity. On that point, I agree with Stephen that it does. How it might do that is always an interesting debate.”
Brant, I’m not sure what it really means to say that the text “requires its historicity.” If you mean that the text narrates events in the way that a history would, I agree. But many fictitious texts do the same. If you mean that the text makes explicit requirements of its its readers that they accept it as history, or that the text becomes incoherent without accepting its historicity, there I’m not so sure. One could accept all these narratives as parables or moral lessons and still derive the same spiritual benefits from them. They could even still be seen as “true,” that is, as conveyers of truth.
“Can one be a good Mormon and not be concerned with historicity? Of course. Can one be a good Mormon and declare that the Book of Mormon couldn’t possibly be historical? That is a more difficult question.”
The funny thing about this question is that I know hardly anyone who does this. Even those who propose inspired fiction interpretations generally don’t state their theories in exclusive ways. Everyone I’ve ever known who subscribed to the inspired fiction camp or some other camp stated their views as personal and assumed that it was each individual’s responsibility to come to their own conclusions about the BoM. So I think it is misleading the way you and some others in this conversation have characterized opposing positions in this way. It seems like you’re overstating the opposing position so that your critique of it seems more reasonable.
Perhaps my experience with the inspired fiction camp comes from those who are heavier on the fiction than the inspired. I do see a difference between ahistory and nonhistory, and for the church, that does make a difference. One can read the Book of Mormon ahistorically. One will have a problem if the figure of Moroni is not only ahistorical, but an inspired fiction. Too much of the foundation of the church stands on a historical Moroni, whether the version from the Book of Mormon times or Joseph’s.
Let me hasten to add, Brant, that I’m grateful for your charitable approach to this discussion. I feel that you’ve been good at keeping the discussion friendly and respectfully describing others’ views.
Carl: “Just because something is not historical does not mean that it has no meaning, and certainly not no power.”
I agree — though I think the message of the BoM ultimately fails if it is not rooted in history. IMO, the kind of sacrifice and devotion the gospel requires to lead one to salvation must be built upon knowledge of a living God. And if that knowledge is dampened by a lack of historicity — IOW — if a living God’s interactions with His children are reduced to fiction then it messes with our sense of who and what He really is in the present.
Brant: “I don’t think that there should be any issue about whether or not the Book of Mormon can be profitably read ahistorically. The vast majority of its readers do just that. The spiritual value derived has nothing to do with issues of historicity.”
The BoM certainly can be profitable when read as fiction, but not profitable enough to fulfill its own purpose, IMO. Also, I disagree that its spiritual value has nothing to do with its historicity. I think most LDS simply take the Book of Mormon’s historicity for granted.
Steve’s essay is The Imperative for a Historical Book of Mormon.
My essay (I’m Kevin Christensen), Sophic Box and Mantic Vista: A Review of Deconstructing Mormonism, was published a few weeks ago in the Interpreter. Carl might be interested to observe that my essay does make both a case and a method for leaving aside an “all-or-nothing” approach to Mormon, or any other, faith. I personally accept and frequently argue for a historical Book of Mormon, but I don’t think that “all-or-nothing” thinking is either necessary or desirable. It’s too easy jump to a wrong decision based on limited information. Over the years I’ve responded to different assessments of the Book of Mormon that justified the authors’ views in the direction of nothing. Time passed, more information came to light, and yet the authors I’m thinking of missed out in consequence of having chosen to think of the Book as offering nothing. Having left both the faith and ongoing discussions about the Book of Mormon, they weren’t around to learn information that makes a difference to the arguments they made. I do think the historicity of the Book of Mormon is what defines and binds the community. But my essay argues that the kinds of the experience that provide what Alma 32 calls “cause to believe” are not restricted to Book of Mormon historicity.
I need to apologize to Stephen and Kevin. No wonder I didn’t connect a common authorship of the two pieces. Both have well thought ought essays. Both deal with writings by people who have chosen a different approach to what they once believed and now claim that those who take the previously held view are wrong. But, I feel embarrassed combining the two.
A good test is whether something helps with eternal life. I don’t think there will be a question on the “final exam” in front of Jesus on whether we believed the Book of Mormon was historical. However, in my opinion, it is simply hard to sustain a belief that the Book of Mormon is scripture when you are convinced that the stories it tells didn’t happen. If it helps one retain a testimony of the Book of Mormon as scripture, than I would say it is better to discard historicity, rather than fall victim to the either it is all correct or all wrong dualism couple with difficulty reconciling issues about historicity.
One of the participants in the debate about the historicity of the Book of Mormon in these comments referenced the Community of Christ and a denial of its historicity. Relevant statements by the CoC (http://www.cofchrist.org/ourfaith/scripture.asp) follow:
Scripture is a library of books that speaks in many voices. These books were written in diverse times and places, and reflect the languages, cultures, and conditions under which they were written. God’s revelation through scripture does not come to us apart from the humanity of the writers, but in and through that humanity. In the earthen vessels of scripture we have been given the treasure of divine love and grace (2 Corinthians 4:7).
Scripture is vital and essential to the church, but not because it is inerrant (in the sense that every detail is historically or scientifically correct). Scripture makes no such claim for itself. Rather, generations of Christians have found scripture simply to be trustworthy in keeping them anchored in revelation, in promoting faith in Christ, and in nurturing the life of discipleship. For these purposes, scripture is unfailingly reliable.[/quote]
It seems to me that the reference to denying historicity is found in Affirmation 5, but only in the sense that it denies that every detail is historically or scientifically correct. I don’t think Mr. Smoot is arguing that every detail in the Book of Mormon is historically or scientifically correct. The Book of Mormon itself indicates that there could be errors. Instead, it is the general proposition that a civilization lived anciently, somewhere in the Americas, tried to follow God’s teachings (sometimes not very), interacted with Jesus, wrote scripture through their own understanding, and transferred that scripture to a modern prophet to translate. In other words, there is a spectrum of potential belief from inerrant to inspired to fraud. I can’t help but think each side of the debate is projecting an absolute position on the other side, while trying to claim that its own view is that it is inspired and very useful to us.
I did find it quite interesting that an appeal was made to the Community of Christ teaching in this debate. But, I also think the argument took that teaching farther than the CoC’s official web site seems to allow.
Mike, thanks for this great response. And thanks for bringing in the CoC affirmation. I had read it before, but that was a good reminder. My response, in brief, is that I am also not denying BoM historicity. I’m merely denying its necessity, as well as suggesting that we would do better to de-emphasize scripture’s historicity and focus more on its “[trustworthiness] in keeping [us] anchored in revelation, in promoting faith in Christ, and in nurturing the life of discipleship.”
I would add that your own interpretation of the extent to which the CoC accepts BoM historicity is not necessarily correct. Nothing in their affirmation definitively supports the book’s general historicity. Read this Q&A with David Howlett, a PhD student in the Department of Religious Studies at the University of Iowa and a lifelong member of the CoC for much more detail about how the CoC views BoM historicity:
How is the Book of Mormon used and thought of in the CofC?
“I am asked this question a lot by LDS people. Inevitably, they say, ‘I have heard that the CofC no longer uses the Book of Mormon.’ Yes and no. Some no longer use it as frequently as they did in past decades; a North American congregation may or may not use the Book of Mormon in worship services on any given Sunday. Tens of thousands of CofC members have never used the Book of Mormon, such as members in Haiti or most in Africa. These people joined our community for other reasons (the worth of persons as an ideal, lay ministry, respect for indigenous expressions of the gospel, peace and justice advocacy, or
belief in spiritual gifts, etc.) but not for the Book of Mormon. However, the Community of Christ officially recognizes the Book of Mormon as an additional Scriptural witness that supports the Bible’s testimony of Jesus Christ. The Community of Christ lectionary includes Book of Mormon references along with Bible and Doctrine and Covenants references. Use of the Book of Mormon varies by region, congregation, and individual.
“Members think of the Book of Mormon in various ways. No one is required to believe in the Book of Mormon to be a member of the Community of Christ; only Jesus is seen as worthy of ‘belief in,’ as one of my CofC theologian friends reminds me constantly. In addition, the CofC First Presidency does not require that members hold a certain belief about the Book of Mormon’s historicity. We officially take positions on doctrine, but not on historical issues (well…sort of). Some members see the Book of Mormon as a history of ancient American peoples. A few see it as an ancient record phrased in the idioms of nineteenth-century America. Others see it as a nineteenth-century Scriptural parable that offers inspired counsel to those with ears to hear. Still others see it as not very important at all–but not as something evil. While there is no poll out, I personally think that most Community of Christ leaders fall into the last three categories. How does the Book of Mormon impact the Community of Christ today? Almost everyone embraces the Book of Mormon’s doctrines of believer’s baptism, emphasis on personal agency in salvation, emphasis on personal sanctification, and communion (sacrament) prayers–whether or not they directly use the Book of Mormon. In addition, the fact that we still officially use the Book of Mormon opens us to constant criticism from evangelicals and orthodox Christians that we meet in our ecumenical activities. This is not going to be overcome anytime soon, too. Personally, I love the Book of Mormon and have read it cover to cover seven times. I am convinced that it is Scripture that arose from Joseph Smith’s creative interaction with nineteenth-century evangelical America; I can respect other viewpoints, too. In my congregation and family, there are divergent beliefs about the Book of Mormon.
“So…use of the Book of Mormon is very, very complicated in the Community of Christ.”
Thank you for this well thought out article. I fully agree that a middle road between the Book of Mormon being a true historical account of God’s dealings with some of his children and claims that the Book of Mormon is a fraud cannot be sustained in a logical discussion. This is similar to the role of the Savior. Either He is what he claimed–Son of God, member of the Godhead, Redeemer, Creator, etc.–or he is a liar. Logically, He can’t be something in between. Similarly with the Bible–it is either the Word of God and a record of God’s dealings with some of his children or it is a compilation of fables. And yet hundreds of millions of Christians adopt the view that Christ is not divine, but a wise teacher, and that the Bible is simply a source to inspire us without a real historical basis. They take the middle road, even though logic demonstrates the inconsistency of doing so.
“It should be obvious, but for some inexplicable reason this simple point seems to elude proponents of the Inspired Fiction theory.”
I think the issue isn’t about logic, but rather about psychological need. When people transition from Fowler’s 3rd stage for faith to his 4th stage, their previous dualistic views (some things are true and some are false sustained by statements of authorities) are challenged by relativism in ways they cannot deal with. To move on to the 5th stage they must eventually commit to something, but aren’t necessarily equipped to commit to everything. This is similar to what is in the Perry scheme, where Perry described students moving through 9 distinct positions in three broad categories–dualism to relativism to commitment. When one goes through these processes, in Fowler’s 4th stage and in Perry’s relativism, and the previously held dualism is strongly challenged, it is painful and confusing. In both Fowler’s 3rd stage and in Perry’s dualism, individuals look to authorities to define what is true and what is false. When they get to the 4th stage or to relativism, they often feel betrayed by those authorities. But, eventually people need to commit to something to move on in either framework. Neither Fowler nor Perry are members of the LDS Church. Both are/were university professors. Fowler was Methodist and a
What I see happening with advocates of some variant of “inspired fiction” when it comes to the Book of Mormon is that people chose to commit to what was real to them–that the Book of Mormon provides answers and comfort to them–even when they cannot commit to other things less relevant to them personally, such as historicity–they cannot easily dismiss certain charges and thinking about them causes pain. They discard what they are unable to defend, to hold on to what has had a positive impact on their life. This can allow them to move forward with a commitment. It is like a drowning man grabbing on to a life rope and letting go of anything perceived to be holding them back. If told they need to hold on to all, they may discard all.
Once they establish themselves in Fowler’s 5th stage or in Perry’s model of commitment to something and recover from the experiences in faith crisis of relativism or the 4th stage, they will likely be able, over time, to add in more to which they can commit. But, as individuals emerge from the trial, I have no problem letting them hold fast to what they can. I read about Fowler and Perry long after I went through the crucible myself. They helped me understand my own experiences and those of others.
Did you notice that I made comparisons between the later stages of the Perry Scheme and various passages in the Book of Mormon in my review essay, Sophic Box and Mantic Vista?
Bethel Park, PA
Thank you for a wonderful article. If the ordinances necessary for salvation rest in a Church whose original prophet claimed falsely, whether intentional or in delusion, that he had met an angel of a God, received golden plates, and translated the contents of those plates by God’s power, well, what confidence may I have that those ordinances are acceptable to God? For it is the same person who translated those plates that restored the authority to administer those ordinances. If the gold plates are a hoax, I must look elsewhere. The book may have wonderful truths, but I seek more than wonderful truths. I seek salvation. One other note, those who claim the book to be inspired fiction are not just the cast mentioned in the article. They must include, must they not, persons like Harold Bloom who label Joseph a religious genius? This is another form of saying, great book, wonderful product, it took a genius to do it, yes?
It is difficult for me to imagine a religion that is more audacious than our own. I suspect that it is the same brazen qualities of the church that makes some uncomfortable. Do we really believe this? After all, we are claiming to have access to a history of a civilization that the rest of the world fails to acknowledge ever even existed, and we hold to this claim while maintaining a straight face. Further, the audacity of this claim is exponentially exploited by the analytical scrutiny that is undertaken in the Book of Mormon. People with PhD’s from prestigious universities are dedicating their lives to this. This is crazy, folks!
But hey, it turns out that when I attended primary in the rural farming community of Idaho, my Sunday school teacher (a farmer’s daughter who milked cows and taught me and my brothers piano lessons on the side) was right all along when she testified with simplicity that the Book of Mormon is true. It would be a tragic mistake to downgrade our own very special diamond in rough.
Excellent article, Mr. Smoot.
You have made a great case for why it is an absolute theological necessity for the Book of Mormon to be read and regarded as historical. You also conclude by adapting a great quote from Pope Benedict about the necessity of biblical historicity, applying it as well the Book of Mormon. It seems you accept this quote as originally applied to the Bible, though just above you understandably exclude some explicitly non-historical biblical literary genres from being necessarily historical because they “make absolutely no claim to historicity.” Otherwise, though, must we not accept that biblical narratives are historical accounts under the same theological necessity of being defended as strictly historical as is the Book of Mormon?
I think that has to be the case. And it shows how much some modern science (e.g. evolution), archeology, historical and literary studies, etc., on the Bible are fundamentally incompatible with a Mormon view of the Bible. I don’t know why Mormon biblical scholars do not defend the historicity of the Bible from secular scholarship as vigorously as they do restoration scripture. It’s like they’re afraid of being called biblical “fundamentalists” while we’re unashamed of our (let’s own it!) fundamentalist stance towards Book of Mormon historicity. Why is that?
The point of my quote from the emeritus Pope Benedict was to apply his thoughts to the Book of Mormon. I agree with the former Pope’s thoughts in general, though my views on the historicity of some of the early narratives of the Hebrew Bible, such as the Primeval History, the Patriarchal narratives, or the Exodus narrative, are somewhat more nuanced. I do not totally deny their historicity, like many modern academics do, though I think we must be careful in evaluating their value as historical narratives. I also do not think, personally, that the necessity for the historicity of the Hebrew Bible is as important as the necessity for the historicity of the Book of Mormon, though it is important and it does deserve our attention.
If I had time I could more fully articulate my thoughts on this, but, as it is, I do not. Let me just say that I think it is possible to harmonize belief in the historicity of the early narratives of the Hebrew Bible with evolution, archaeology, etc., even though that might mean relinquishing certain assumptions about how to read these narratives both as history and as “myth.”
Thanks for your comment.
At bare minimum, and perhaps the least debatable issue here, is that those who align themselves with an “inspired fiction” theory, must somehow reconcile the fact that they believe contrary to all General Authorities on this subject. They must reject General Authority teachings in favor of their own concocted views. They must argue that the General Authorities, those who are entitled to receive revelation for the Church, are dead wrong, while they themselves are right.
“I know with undeniable, unshakable certainty that the Book of Mormon is a record of ancient origin, written by Israelites called of God to do so, protected and delivered by the angels of heaven and translated in our time by a modern prophet, seer, and revelator, Joseph Smith, Jr. I know that he translated it as he said he did—”by the gift and power of God”—for such a book could not have been translated any other way.
“The truthfulness of the Book of Mormon—its origins, its doctrines, and the circumstances of its coming forth—is central to the truthfulness of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. The integrity of this church and more than 165 years of its restoration experience stand or fall with the veracity or falsity of the Book of Mormon.
“Not everything in life is so black and white, but the authenticity of the Book of Mormon and its keystone role in our religion seem to be exactly that. Either Joseph Smith was the prophet he said he was, a prophet who, after seeing the Father and the Son, later beheld the angel Moroni, repeatedly heard counsel from Moroni’s lips, and eventually received at his hands a set of ancient gold plates that he then translated by the gift and power of God, or else he did not.
“I am suggesting that one has to take something of a do-or-die stand regarding the restoration of the gospel of Jesus Christ and the divine origins of the Book of Mormon. Reason and righteousness require it. Joseph Smith must be accepted either as a prophet of God or else as a charlatan of the first order, but no one should tolerate any ludicrous, even laughable middle ground about the wonderful contours of a young boy’s imagination or his remarkable facility for turning a literary phrase. That is an unacceptable position to take—morally, literarily, historically, or theologically.”
– Jeffrey R. Holland, Christ and the New Covenant (chapter 17)
Similar quotations could be provided by any number of General Authorities – for another example, see Elder Dallin H. Oaks, “The Historicity of the Book of Mormon,” in Historicity and the Latter-day Saint Scriptures, ed. Paul Y. Hoskisson (Provo, UT: Religious Studies Center, Brigham Young University, 2001), 237-248 available online:
I believe in a historical BofM. But your argument about the General Authorities is not perfect, because they are not perfect. I love listening to the GA’s speak, but to say that they are always correct is not a good argument. “Live by the sword, die by the sword”. I believe Joseph Smith, and I believe the Spirit. Therefore, I believe the BofM as a historical record. In addition, it is easy to see, based on additional research of similar ancient documents, that it is indeed ancient and not form the imaginative mind of a young farm boy.
General Authorities do not set doctrine. They speak on it. Rarely do we ever get new doctrine from even the First Presidency. We are left to the scriptures, prayer, our minds and hearts, and the support of the priesthood and the church.
Joseph F. Smith claimed that the earth was created in 7,000 years. I do not believe it. Why? Because he did not speak it as a prophet, he did not have the support of the First Presidency, and it was simply his opinion. Yet you can read it in Doctrines of Salvation. There hundreds of such examples. The truth is slippery. I believe we should rely on our relationship with the Spirit and with God. The General Authorities are there to support that as best they can.
If the subject under discussion were an issue where various General Authorities held conflicting viewpoints (age of the earth, evolution, etc.), you might have a point. The problem is that the General Authorities are unified on this subject, so far as anything has ever been put forth. They testify by revelation that the Joseph Smith story is true, and that the records are based in antiquity. So to throw out this argument because of imperfections in General Authorities is an extreme argument on the other end of the spectrum, one in which all doctrines and revelations must be put on the table for compromise. I reject such a notion.
I do not support such a notion either. You have a valid point of “unanimous teaching” among the GAs opposed to teachings from individual GAs, but the point that GAs do not set doctrine and should not be the basis for doctrinal absolutism, even the veracity of the BofM still stands I believe. Testimonies are personal as is our relationship with all truth. We know the BofM to be historic because you and I have studied it, prayed about it, used its principles, felt the Spirit, and had confirming experiences of the mind and the heart.
Obviously it is the Lord who declares doctrine, but it comes through the General Authorities. In terms of “doctrinal absolutism” where else do you suppose it can come from, if not from the Lord’s anointed?
I was not given a “Reply” box for your last comment, so I willl reply here-
First of all, anyone who has been through the temple is the “Lord’s anointed”. There is no separate anointing for General Authorities. I never did like that reference. I think it is usually misinterpreted. Second, doctrine comes primarily through the prophets of the restoration of each dispensation when the fullness of the gospel is dispensed. Therefore, I rely most heavily on Joseph Smith and everything he revealed, including the BofM, PofGP, D&C and JST, and the restoration of the Melchizedek Priesthood which bestows the Gift of the Holy Ghost (possibly Lectures on Faith but some believe it may have been written by Rigdon, though it would have had to be approved by JS. In fact it is the “Doctrine” of Doctrine & Covenants and was removed from the book in the early 20th century). All other General Authorities, including prophets, are a sequential line of priesthood authority that primarily carry out and teach the saving ordinances and doctrines of the gospel/church restored by Joseph Smith. Again, it is very rare to have a president of the church or First Presidency declare doctrine. Examples would be the Proclamation on the Family, The Testimony of the 12, and the Proclamations found in the D&C.
The gospel was fully dispensed to Abraham, but Isaac and Jacob also made a covenant in person with God. That is why we say, “The God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob”, and not just “The God of Abraham”. In our dispensation, I could just as easily say that I believe in, “The God of Joseph Smith” and I believe that all prophets since would say the same thing.
Truth to me is personal. I do not rely primarily on the GAs for doctrine. They are teaching and supporting what has already been revealed. In other words, they have sources; the scriptures, Joseph Smith, and the Spirit. Those are my sources as well. My faith can be strengthened by the GAs, but not founded upon them. The same goes with doctrine.Those sources are where I find “doctrinal absolutism”.
And yet D&C 138 was received by Joseph F. Smith and was canonized, taking its place as official doctrine, although it wasn’t revealed in full to Joseph Smith, or previous prophets, or in previous scripture.
I think at this point we simply have to agree to disagree. You see General Authorities as administrators, I see them as the Lord’s anointed, and His mouthpiece(s). I align myself with the Fourteen Fundamentals:
In terms of “Lord’s anointed” I’ll just say that I disagree with your interpretation, but it isn’t worth going on a tangent about something else unrelated to the original discussion.
D&C 138 goes to my point as an example of rare revelation of new doctrine.
I do not see the GAs as just administrators. That is not what I said. I believe they are responsible for the four missions of the church and as a whole, the greatest body of goodness on earth, working and sacrificing for the salvation of mankind, strengthening testimonies, giving insight, bringing the Spirit, teaching, giving ordinances, and yes, administering and operating the church.
I also try to follow the “Fourteen Fundamentals”. The living prophet IS more important than a dead prophet for us today, but that doesn’t mean that he is the primary source of doctrine. He still uses “the sources”. The same goes for the second fundamental. You are an intelligent man. As you said, we will agree to disagree brother.
It’s worth mentioning that according to Ed Kimball, son of President Spencer W. Kimball in his biography of his father, Lengthen Your Stride, his father was upset by Elder Benson’s “Fourteen Fundamentals” because he wanted “to protect the church against being misunderstood as …espousing an unthinking ‘follow the leader’ mentality,” and he required him to formally apologize to the Twelve for it. It also compelled them to issue corrections in the press about the Church’s political neutrality, since the talk claimed the right of the prophet to speak and act politically. Some members of the Twelve were not satisfied with his apology, and he was later asked to explain himself before a combined meeting of all the general authorities.
I believe the fact that this talk was scorned and repudiated to some degree by the then-president and other leaders of the Church should give us pause when using it as a guide.
Tim, the fact that the Authorities are united at a given point in time does not mean that they will always be united about an issue. So I’d say that ImhotepKaph does have a point. But I would extend that point to everything ever uttered by a prophet.
“I don’t think you understood me. I’m merely pointing to the fact that miracles do not cause faith or righteousness and are not, strictly speaking, necessary for salvation. This is corroborated by the Book of Mormon itself.”
I think I understood you fine. No, miracles don’t cause faith or righteousness – but the Book of Mormon does not corrobate your view that such things are unnecessary for salvation: “Behold I say unto you, Nay; for it is by faith that miracles are wrought; and it is by faith that angels appear and minister unto men; wherefore, if these things have ceased wo be unto the children of men, for it is because of unbelief, and all is vain. For no man can be saved, according to the words of Christ, save they shall have faith in his name; wherefore, if these things have ceased, then has faith ceased also; and awful is the state of man, for they are as though there had been no redemption made.” (Moroni 7:37-38)
“One could also add, parenthetically, that Mormons believe that miracles are merely events that are beyond our present capacity to explain and are not supernatural.”
*Some* Mormons have expressed this view. It is not doctrine, not contained in the standard works, and I believe inconsistent with D&C 88.
“It is not necessary for the BoM to be historical for it to contain truth.”
Which fails to address my point about Book of Mormon prophecy. If the Lamanites never existed, Book of Mormon prophecies about their future restoration as part of the House of Israel, and to a knowledge of their forefathers cannot be other than untrue.
“This applies to any book out there. The Book of Mormon itself has a much broader and more magnanimous attitude towards prophecy and revelation than the standard that you would seem to impose upon it.”
This is a misreading of 2 Nephi 29, which doesn’t claim that all books are scripture, and indeed is primarily speaking about the scriptures of the Jews, the Nephites and the lost tribes of Israel. Other works may be inspired to a degree – but where truly inspired will not contradict. The previous chapter warns extensively of false doctrine after all. One purpose of the Book of Mormon, in conjunction with the Bible, is to confound false doctrines (2 Nephi 3:12).
“Stephen barely mentions the possibility that JS thought the BoM was historical and yet was mistaken. I see no reason why this possibility is so obviously untenable.”
Stephen’s answered that himself, but the key difficulty comes with the actual plates and the actual angel Moroni. If the reality of such events (the term I prefer to historicity, since the fact they happened in the past is less relevant than them happening at all, and the present importance of that) is untrue, then Joseph Smith was either lying or delusional. If he wasn’t, that makes *God* the liar. Terryl Givens covers this topic very well in ‘By the Hand of Mormon’.
“*Some* Mormons have expressed this view. It is not doctrine, not contained in the standard works, and I believe inconsistent with D&C 88.”
Specifically, James E. Talmage and John A. Widtsoe.
“This is a misreading of 2 Nephi 29, which doesn’t claim that all books are scripture, and indeed is primarily speaking about the scriptures of the Jews, the Nephites and the lost tribes of Israel.”
2 Ne. 2:29 specifically says “all nations of the earth.” That is far more than just the peoples you mention.
I would also add that this position on miracles not being against natural law is definitely in the scriptures. It is all over the D&C. It talks about there being no such thing as immaterial matter and how all spirit is matter, as well as how all kingdoms are governed by law and there is no space in which there is no kingdom.
I just returned with our traveling party of about 25 people from what is — to my knowledge — the only “continually running” stream of water in Arabia, and it empties into the northeast protusion of the Red Sea. It is located about 75 miles (a 3-day camel ride) south of Judea into the wilderness of northern Arabia. About 300 miles south-southeast of there we also visited the site of what some archeologists (not LDS) believe to be a temple complex, including a large baptismal basin (partially below ground), in the very fertile Al Ula, Saudi Arabia. It was created about 500 BCE by a group of people who called themselves “Lehyanites.” “Proof” of the book’s historicity? No, I suppose not. But these and other “coincidences” certainly militate against any suspension of belief on my part.
Your geographical argument is off-base. Read carefully again 1 Nephi 2:5-6. I am not saying that your “Red Sea valley” is not the Valley of Lemuel (I’m guessing that this tour was by, or based off of Potter’s research), but the “3 days” travel are not from the land of Jerusalem.
All these arguments do is sow discord, something that our Saviour warned us against. It is up to each individual within the church to search for themselves as to whether the Joseph Smith was a prophet called of God, and whether he was tasked with the bringing forth of a preserved historical witness of the coming to a group of people on the American continent of a resurrected Christ. That is basic to our faith. If you accept these facts, then everything else falls into place. When I joined the Church, I accepted Moroni’s challenge, and I received my answer, and despite all I have read, for or against the Church, my faith in Joseph and this Gospel has never wavered. Are some of us trying to see beyond the mark, instead of accepting this wonderful gift from our Father, and his Son?
Well, there’s times when maybe it’s important to speak up and at least clearly enunciate particular views, particularly when there’s loud voices suggesting that members *shouldn’t* believe the Book of Mormon in particular ways.
But you are quite right about avoiding contention and about the necessity of a spiritual witness. I remember having a whole bunch of questions that I couldn’t answer as a teenager that caused me serious issues for a while, and it was only getting a spiritual witness that gave me the faith and patience to await those answers in due time. Thank you.
Thank you for this insightful article. “Interpreter” is turning out even better than I had hoped.
In your defense, Stephen, the article never seems to me to question the faith or motives of anyone. Indeed, you write explicitly that reading the Book of Mormon as inspired fiction “may be well intentioned” (quoting Terryl Givens), and quote at length the authors supporting this kind of reading. A more generous reading of their arguments is difficult to imagine.
Finally, several commentators here suggest that this publishing kind of article is harmful because it damages the already fragile faith of some Latter-day Saints. Nonsense. If this is the case, virtually nothing at all could be published: someone, somewhere, is bound to be offended. Open, vigorous discussion sharpens the mind. If done in the proper spirit, as in this article, it can build faith. It is unpleasant to have our errors pointed out, but if our goal is to know the truth, then the sting of correction can be swallowed up in the joy of learning.
Ideas must stand or fall on their own merits. It does real damage to leave untenable arguments unopposed, particularly to the people holding those ideas. It can and must be done with charity and humility, as “Interpreter” has done consistently and well.
Excellent article with which I concur completely. At the beginning of the Book of Mormon Nephi testifies that, “the things which I have written are true. And thus it is. Amen” (1 Nephi 14:30). At the end of the book of Mormon Moroni testifies that the Book of Mormon is true and challenges everyone to confirm it for themselves by the Spirit of the Holy Ghost (Moroni 10:4). The word “true” means factual, real, correct, accurate, exact, or genuine. If it is not true then it is false, even though it may contain much faith promoting fiction. If the Book of Mormon is not factual and historically correct, then as Joseph Smith stated, and as Stephen quoted in the last sentence of his article, “we have [no religion].” However, it is TRUE and we do have the only true and living church upon the face of the whole earth, with which the Lord is well pleased (D&C 1:30).
I also agree with Garth Norman that one of the things that distracts from the knowledge of the historicity of this testament is that there is no consensus as to where it occurred. It did transpire on real geography and Mormon filled his work with ample geographical descriptions for us to find it. He intended for us to know where his great chronicle occurred as further confirmation of its veracity.
“Stephen barely mentions the possibility that JS thought the BoM was historical and yet was mistaken. I see no reason why this possibility is so obviously untenable. God could still accomplish a great work through an imperfect human being. In fact, he has no other alternative.”
Sure I have. I made it clear that the scenario you just described makes Joseph Smith out to be a lunatic. He sincerely thought that an angel brought him ancient plates from a now extinct people, when in fact no such plates ever existed, and no such ancient people ever walked the earth.
Or better yet, Joseph Smith did have ancient plates (something which Inspired Fiction theorists deny to begin with) but his translation doesn’t in any way correspond to what was written on the plates.
So, in other words, God inspired Joseph Smith, who totally botched the translation and gave us some fictional novel instead of an authentic historical record.
How does that scenario not make Joseph Smith a lunatic or otherwise totally untrustworthy?
And we’re not talking about Joseph Smith being imperfect in that he had some sort of character flaws like a short temper. I readily concede that he wasn’t perfect. No, the magnitude of Joseph Smith saying the Book of Mormon was an ancient record given to him by an ancient Nephite prophet when it really was nothing more than his fantasy is on the scale of lunacy, not the slight imperfections that befall everyday human beings.
Let me illustrate it for you this way.
Joseph Smith: Hey, everyone! I have this new book!
Everyone: Oh? What is it?
Joseph: The Book of Mormon.
Everyone: How did you get it?
Joseph: I translated it from some ancient plates that an angel gave me.
Everyone: Is that so? And what is this book about?
Joseph: It talks about how there were these ancient Israelites that sailed to the New World and established a civilization. They had prophets that wrote records, including a record about Jesus coming and visiting them after his resurrection. Eventually this dude named Mormon abridged these records, and his son, Moroni, as an angel, gave me the records, which I translated.
Everyone: So this isn’t just some novel you wrote?
Joseph: Nope. I translated some Egyptian characters written on golden plates. You see, the angel came to me and told me that the plates were hidden in a nearby hill. Eventually he led me to the plates, but not being able to really translate on my own I had some of these characters copied and taken to some scholars back in New York to be translated. I came to learn, however, that I needed to use the ancient spectacles that came with the plates, but eventually I just started using this seer stone of mine for convenience.
Everyone: Did all of this really happen like you say it did? Seems rather fishy.
Joseph: Sure did. I even showed the record to these 11 other bros of mine who will tell you all about it. Oh, and P.S., you should join this Church I’m starting because Jesus also told me in a vision that modern Christianity is corrupt and I’m a prophet whose job it is to fix what went wrong. This dude named Nephi, a Jew living in the 6th century BC, prophesied that all of this stuff would go down, based on some writings he got from Joseph of Egypt. Neat stuff!
In what universe, Carl, does Joseph Smith come out looking good if the above is not in some way factual?
I don’t think the alternatives are as stark as you’re making them out to be, but I do agree that they impugn the heroic image that many Mormons have of JS. However, I don’t think they make him completely irredeemable, no more than you or I are irredeemable. I’ll grant you that some possibilities are certainly more plausible than others. As I said, I personally find the expansion theory or the pious fraud more plausible options, but I still feel compelled to admit that good things can and have developed from these apparently humble beginnings. I feel compelled to paraphrase JS here: “What do we care where we end up, so long as the company be good? If we end up going to hell, we’ll send the devils out of doors and make a heaven of it.”
Amen, brother Joseph! 🙂
Log. The liberal view you attribute to Joseph Smith in your quote is taken out of context. He was defending a brother from being taken into a priesthood court and censored for a mistaken interpretation of a passage on the beasts in the Book of Revelations when he was debating with a Protestant minister.
This essay and the discussion fascinates me, except for one thing. We have to get past philosophizing ourselves into opposing corners. The overriding assumption that their is no tangible historic place or artifact evidences developing to sustain the historicity of the Book of Mormon, and that we must be inescapably locked into the world of apologetics in its defense, is nonsense. The Book of Mormon is what Joseph Smith claimed, and all the eye witnesses testified. The Church’s Melchizedek Priesthood Quorums manual of instruction in 1957, commissioned and endorsed by President David O. Mckay, the First Presidency, and Quorum of Twelve Apostles, made a startling prediction on the concluding page. “It is our conviction that proof of the Book of Mormon does lie in Central America” (where Joseph Smith pointed in the Times & Seasons, 1 October 1842) and that “the decisive evidence for the Book of Mormon will in the end come from the New World.” (Hugh Nibley, An Approach to the Book of Mormon, 1957, p. 376). This manual came at the time the Church began funding the archaeological explorations of the New World Archaeological Foundation in southern Mexico and Central America (still ongoing) to reconstruct the early ancient history of Mesoamerican civilization during the time period of the Book of Mormon.
Patience brethren. Just a little longer. Proof comes after a trial of your faith.
I’ll put your comments in quotes to facilitate my response.
“No, actually we aren’t even close to that situation”
And yet here I am being compared to apostate Nephites who persecute those who believe differently. Strange world.
“On the other hand, it is extremely common for modern readers to misunderstand the intent and purpose of ancient scripture.”
Very true. And this is exactly what I see proponents of the Inspired Fiction theory doing with the Book of Mormon. Routinely, and for ideological purposes.
“Even purportedly historical texts should not be interpreted in exclusively historical ways”
Also true. I have not said that Book of Mormon needs to be interpreter exclusively in historical ways. See my comments above about Jacob 5, etc. What I have said that those who wish to relegate the Book of Mormon entirely to the realm of fiction, and yet still somehow maintain its inspiration, face insurmountable logical problems.
“Hardy’s thesis is that we have failed to properly assess the book’s value precisely because we have confined ourselves to the superficial aspects that you claim are its essence. He insists that it is still possible to benefit tremendously from a literary analysis of the BoM without accepting its historicity.”
Right, but there’s a difference. Hardy is bracketing the historicity of the Book of Mormon for the sake of his literary analysis. He does this because he thinks that there are appropriate academic situations in which it is necessary to do such. I’m totally fine with this, as I said in my article. There are times when it is necessary to bracket the Book of Mormon’s historicity.
However, Hardy’s urge to bracket historicity for the sake of certain academic ventures, like literary criticism of the Book of Mormon, is not the same as totally rejecting historicity, and then still maintaining that somehow Joseph Smith and the Book of Mormon is still “inspired.”
So, to reiterate: I am not opposed to bracketing historicity to maintain certain academic approaches to the Book of Mormon (although I am weary of going overboard with bracketing, but that’s another issue). What I am opposed to is the Inspired Fiction theory, which is not the same thing.
And, as Hardy says, per my citation, if you really push this issue into a corner there seem to be only three viable possible outcomes from Joseph Smith: prophet, liar, or lunatic.
“To distill our point of disagreement: you seem to be claiming that the book has no value if it is not historical.”
Close. I am saying that the core or foundational value of the Book of Mormon has little to no value if it’s not historical. As I make clear in my paper, those core claims are, per the Book of Mormon’s title page: (1) to show modern descendants of the house of Israel the covenants God made with their forefathers, and (2) to testify that Jesus is God.
And how exactly, Carl, does the Book of Mormon go about trying to establish the truthfulness of these two points? By recounting purported historical events that involved, among other things, a resurrected, deified Jesus telling the Nephites what his Gospel is, and what the covenants are that he has made with the House of Israel!
There are other teachings in the Book of Mormon that I don’t think are really dependent on its historicity, such as King Benjamin’s sermon on taking care of the poor, Moroni on faith, hope, and charity, etc. But these teachings are worlds apart in importance and significance than the central teachings of the Book of Mormon, which I discuss in my article.
“Just to cite one brief example, your paper didn’t adequately address Ostler’s expansion theory, which argues that the book has some historical aspects interspersed with additions from Joseph Smith.”
The reason I didn’t engage with Ostler is because Ostler doesn’t argue for an Inspired Fiction theory. I have a specific mentality in mind when I say “Inspired Fiction Theory,” and Ostler’s views do not meet my definition’s scope.
As it is, I actually think Ostler (and, to some extent, Brant Gardner) actually have some good points about this “expansionist” view. I think, for example, that Gardner has some good points about “translator’s anachronisms” being introduced to the Book of Mormon via Joseph’s use of idiomatic 19th century English in his translation.
But, again, this is NOT the same as the Inspired Fiction theory, since Gardner and Ostler both posit at least some ancient source material. The Inspired Fiction theorists deny ANY ancient or historical source material outside of Joseph Smith’s head. That’s the difference.
“This is essentially the same as saying that the Church cannot peacefully coexist with those who reject BoM historicity”
Rubbish. As I said, if you can hold a calling, stay true to your covenants, live the commandments, etc., and still believe in the Inspired Fiction theory, then fine. If you can somehow deal with the cognitive dissonance I think is inherent in such a position, then great. I’m not about to rat you out to your bishop. But don’t expect me to just sit back and let the alarming problems with this belief go uncriticized.
By the way, this goes both ways. I am an equal opportunity critic. I if I held any beliefs that were untenable or questionable, I would welcome people criticizing them. If I were, for example, to ever believe the earth is only 6,000 years old (which I don’t) I would hope someone would, at some point, tell me why I should reconsider my beliefs.
That’s one of the reasons why I continue to read literature that directly argues that my beliefs as a Latter-day Saint are false (what one may even, at times, call “anti-Mormon” literature). If there are good arguments against my beliefs, I want to be aware of them and deal with them.
“This is an unfair caricature. You are not adequately acknowledging the complexity and diversity of viewpoints regarding JS and other foundational claims, and you uncharitably characterize the motivations of those who hold them. They aren’t doing these things to be fashionable, but to try to come to meaningful and beneficial interpretations that take full advantage of all available information. Opinions about the optimality of each interpretation are bound to differ. I believe this is a good thing, and that it is possible (and desirable) for active members to be able to espouse different opinions about these and other matters without feeling condemned by their fellow saints.”
Well, my comment was somewhat tongue-in-cheek. Nevertheless, I have seen this mentality frequently, especially with people online. Just the other day on Dan Peterson’s blog a poster asked, apparently in all seriousness, why it mattered at all whether Joseph Smith’s claims are true, and stressed that there are more pressing issues in Mormonism than whether the Church’s foundational, core beliefs are true or false. You know, silly things like that.
Pardon my frankness, but this mentality is totally mindboggling to me. Call me a fundamentalist if you like (which I understand people on Facebook are doing at this moment), but I take Joseph Smith’s claims seriously, and if he wasn’t what he claimed to be, then that’s a cause of great concern.
I will also say this, Carl. I’d very much appreciate you elucidating a plausible scenario in which Joseph Smith did not possess golden plates, and was not visited by a resurrected Nephite prophet, and did not translate an ancient record by the gift and power of God, as he said he did, and is neither a liar for fabricating a cockamamie story, nor a lunatic for believing in things that never existed outside of his head. In other words, please “demythologize” the foundational claims of the Restoration in such a way that I don’t come away thinking Joseph Smith was either a monumental fraud or a pitiable basket case.
“And yet here I am being compared to apostate Nephites who persecute those who believe differently. Strange world.”
Please do not conflate my responses with Log’s. I made no such comparison.
“…this is exactly what I see proponents of the Inspired Fiction theory doing with the Book of Mormon. Routinely, and for ideological purposes.”
People who reject historicity completely or partially do it for many reasons, only some of which you have mentioned. It is unreasonable and uncharitable to imply that you know why they do it or that you understand their position perfectly.
“However, Hardy’s urge to bracket historicity for the sake of certain academic ventures, like literary criticism of the Book of Mormon, is not the same as totally rejecting historicity, and then still maintaining that somehow Joseph Smith and the Book of Mormon is still ‘inspired.'”
This is not an accurate representation of Hardy’s position. He brackets the historicity debate precisely to demonstrate that there is much value in the book regardless of whether or not one accepts its historicity.
“And, as Hardy says, per my citation, if you really push this issue into a corner there seem to be only three viable possible outcomes from Joseph Smith: prophet, liar, or lunatic.”
This description, while succinct, is much starker than what would be warranted by a more realistic and honest assessment. It’s possible that Joseph received genuine inspiration but exaggerated some things. It’s possible that he received inspiration but was mistaken about some things. It’s possible he had an ancient record but partially misunderstood it. This doesn’t fit neatly into any of your three categories. He could still be inspired and yet make honest mistakes about the meaning of the records. This would not be lunacy, but mere humanness. There are many different possibilities and there could be many different combinations of these things. He could even have had a historical record but made additional interpolations of his own as he felt inspired by the Spirit (a la the expansion theory). There are so many different possibilities I think it is overly simplistic and ultimately fallacious to claim that each of these three options you mention are mutually exclusive logical disjuncts. If they are not disjuncts, then the sharp categories you use no longer accurately describe what is happening.
We already have a very specific example of a living apostle who expressly admitted and sanctioned the possibility that JS misunderstood the records he had. In his interview with BBC reporter John Sweeney, Elder Holland specifically admits the possibility that JS incorrectly interpreted some hieroglyphs in the Book of Abraham facsimiles, but says that the papyrus may still have served as a vehicle for revelation. We have right there an apostle sanctioning the possibility that JS misunderstood some of the records he received and yet was an inspired prophet.
“There are other teachings in the Book of Mormon that I don’t think are really dependent on its historicity, such as King Benjamin’s sermon on taking care of the poor, Moroni on faith, hope, and charity, etc. But these teachings are worlds apart in importance and significance than the central teachings of the Book of Mormon, which I discuss in my article.”
Thanks for the clarification. I appreciate that you are at least willing to make some minor concessions here. I want to make it clear that I don’t deny that rejecting in part or completely BoM historicity is problematic. But I don’t think the options and consequences of accepting one of these options are as cut and dried as you claim.
“As it is, I actually think Ostler (and, to some extent, Brant Gardner) actually have some good points about this “expansionist” view. I think, for example, that Gardner has some good points about “translator’s anachronisms” being introduced to the Book of Mormon via Joseph’s use of idiomatic 19th century English in his translation.
“But, again, this is NOT the same as the Inspired Fiction theory, since Gardner and Ostler both posit at least some ancient source material. The Inspired Fiction theorists deny ANY ancient or historical source material outside of Joseph Smith’s head. That’s the difference.”
I believe that the points you make here signficantly alter the position you express in the paper. I think they weaken your case by demonstrating that the categories are more complex than you let on.
(Me) “This is essentially the same as saying that the Church cannot peacefully coexist with those who reject BoM historicity”
“Rubbish. As I said, if you can hold a calling, stay true to your covenants, live the commandments, etc., and still believe in the Inspired Fiction theory, then fine. If you can somehow deal with the cognitive dissonance I think is inherent in such a position, then great. I’m not about to rat you out to your bishop. But don’t expect me to just sit back and let the alarming problems with this belief go uncriticized.”
It is not necessary for you to “rat [someone] out” for your article to foment intolerance. Ideas have consequences. I maintain that this article fosters an environment of animosity towards those who express doubt in BoM historicity that could result in real harm to the church and its members.
Let me hasten to add that I’m not saying that critiques like yours shouldn’t be made. On the contrary, these are challenges and issues that are important to discuss. But I think that the way you express your position and the extremeness of your position has the potential to do a good deal of harm. I think it is possible to assert something similar to your position in a less harsh way.
“Well, my comment was somewhat tongue-in-cheek.”
Honestly I think it’s OK to use a little humor when debating a subject like this but crossing into sarcasm has a tendency to sound quite demeaning and belittling. I think it’s much more effective to at least try to interpret your opponent’s position as charitably as possible, in a way with which he or she would agree. If you can’t express your opponent’s position in a way that he or she would agree with, then you can hardly even begin to have a profitable dialogue.
“Pardon my frankness, but this mentality is totally mindboggling to me. Call me a fundamentalist if you like (which I understand people on Facebook are doing at this moment), but I take Joseph Smith’s claims seriously, and if he wasn’t what he claimed to be, then that’s a cause of great concern.”
I think those who reject BoM historicity take JS very seriously too, but they still have difficulty fitting all the pieces together based on their own assessment of the documentary evidence. I think it behooves us all to realize that it is possible for intelligent and good people to find themselves on many different sides of this debate.
“In other words, please “demythologize” the foundational claims of the Restoration in such a way that I don’t come away thinking Joseph Smith was either a monumental fraud or a pitiable basket case.”
Let me first state that I hope you’ll read my paper, “Demythologizing Mormonism,” if you haven’t already done so, as I believe it helps explain the importance of narrative interpretations even if historicity is not rejected. (Please Google for it. It is linked to on the youtube video of my presentation. I can’t include the link here because apparently links to alternative views are generally not allowed by the moderators.)
As far as my ability to answer your question, I’m not sure I can. What is a satisfactory explanation for one person often doesn’t cut it for another. All I can say is that I find both the expansion theory and some combination of the pious fraud / mistaken translator theories plausible. I think God could still work with such a person, just as I see him continue to work all sorts of people, present company included. In fact, I reject traditional absolutist conceptions of deity, so I think it’s problematic to think of God as an entirely external entity who “works with” humanity. I wouldn’t call JS’s experiences insanity regardless, as visions like the ones he described were actually quite common during the Second Great Awakening.
Similar doubts could be expressed about the historical foundations of Christianity, based on the documentary evidence that biblical scholars have been able to collect. But regardless of how these things came about, I believe that the movements that emerged from these divine/human encounters have changed the world and have a great ongoing potential for redeeming and transforming humanity and for establishing a zion-like community. I prefer to continue to build on these foundations rather than try to throw them out. The truth is that despite the inherent messiness that is involved in the development of any religion, I have yet to see that it is possible to do things any other way.
I hope that you’ll continue to be tolerant of members like me in church and help make it possible for those of us who wish to to stay members despite our differences. Thanks for being willing to discuss this topic.
One more quote that I believe is relevant:
“When God speaks to the people, he does it in a manner to suit their circumstances and capacities…. Should the Lord Almighty send an angel to re-write the Bible, it would in many places be very different from what it now is. And I will even venture to say that if the Book of Mormon were now to be re-written, in many instances it would materially differ from the present translation. According as people are willing to receive the things of God, so the heavens send forth their blessings.” (Brigham Young, JD 9:311)
I would also like to point to the Community of Christ as an example of an institution that still claims succession from Joseph Smith without insisting on BoM historicity. Though it was never as numerous as the group that followed Brigham Young, it is nevertheless a significant branch of Mormonism that remains active today. There are hundreds of thousands of people who value the legacy of Joseph Smith without necessarily believing in BoM historicity, who think God worked with him even if he was a fraud or mistaken or a little bit of both, or an inspired man who later went astray, or a host of other things.
Finally, even if Joseph were a deceiver, whatever he was, I think we all agree that the movement he founded has resulted in much good. Those who struggle to accept BoM historicity but stay in Mormonism often do so because they acknowledge that the fruits are good, regardless of what its origins were. They care about being a part of a religious community that is making a difference now more than they care about the historical details.
With all due respect, Carl, this is a cop out. You might as well be Buddhist or any other religion, so long as it produces some good fruit. Either Joseph Smith saw Moroni or he didn’t. Either he physically had plates or he didn’t. You can’t have your cake and eat it too. While we might have a pretty good relationship with the Community of Christ right now compared to times past, it is by no means due to a similar outlook on these issues, which the General Authorities since Joseph Smith’s day have demonstrably defined as an imperative foundation of our faith. Stop trying to redefine the narrative. There isn’t any wiggle room on these core tenets any more than there is in arguing for an unhistorical Christ, or inefficacy of the atonement. Arguing that compromise found in derivatives of the religion’s origins somehow justify a compromise in the LDS Church’s tenets is unwarranted.
“With all due respect, Carl, this is a cop out. You might as well be Buddhist or any other religion…”
So Tim, if I (or anyone else) am not convinced about BoM historicity, I should leave, right? Is that what you’re saying? I happen to have been raised in the church and done a lot of service in it. I’ve always paid tithing and a generous fast. I’ve served in several leadership positions and currently serve in a bishopric. I’m getting a lot of needed work done on the ground. I’m making lives better. I’m trying to love others as Christ would. I’m flourishing where I was planted. Forgive me if I misunderstood you, but it sounds to me like you’re saying that none of this ultimately matters if I can’t accept BoM historicity. Am I reading you right?
I have generally been letting this thread run its course. I really appreciate the way you are engaging the issue calmly and respectfully.
I would urge all of use to use that model of discourse. These are issues that we can discuss, but we must back away from making assumptions about anyone’s worthiness or faithfulness. We are in no position to make those decisions. Please, for those who will continue to respond, use Carl’s example of moderation in tone.
I’m not suggesting that you should leave the church, or that your membership should be tried by any means. I apologize if that was inferred. I agree with President Uchtdorf that people shouldn’t be out of the church for holding various perspectives. I am more concerned about how those perspectives, especially those in contrast with church leaders, are vocalized or otherwise disseminated. What I am suggesting is three things:
1) based on your assertions, as I understand what you seem to be implying, Mormonism is really no better than any other Christian or non-Christian religion so long as it brings forth positive fruit. Please correct me where I misrepresent your position. My argument is that if the authenticity of the religion is invalid, then what difference does it make which church you belong to? I’m not asking rhetorically, I’m really at a loss to see how you reconcile this position with what the authorities of the Church have defined as essential for the Church’s truth claims.
2) I am suggesting that if you hold positions contra to the general authorities, it isn’t your jurisdiction to try and change the narrative. You seem to be pushing for more than just tolerance here, you seem to be pushing for an acceptance of a non-historical BoM (and perhaps other scriptures?). I see this as subversive because it it stands in opposition to the leaders of the Church, whom I presume you sustain.
3) If you do have a testimony regarding the restoration and President Monson holding and righteously administering the keys of the priesthood, than I’m suggesting that your doubts and concerns should be tabled and that greater faith should be exercised in the unanimous position of the General Authorities.
Lastly, I apologize for my poor tact in previous responses.
Thanks for your apology Tim.
“based on your assertions, as I understand what you seem to be implying, Mormonism is really no better than any other Christian or non-Christian religion so long as it brings forth positive fruit.”
I wouldn’t put it that way. I personally value Mormonism over many other religions and find many doctrines and practices in it that are fairly unique and inspiring. But I think Mormonism is at its best when it is ecumenical and not exclusivist. I find appeals to the goodness of the Mormon community more compelling than appeals to its doctrinal purity or priesthood authority. For me, spiritual power comes more from adhering to the principles set forth in D&C 121 than from a specific style of administration or unbroken lineage, but I accept and adhere to the practices and traditions that have been handed down to me.
I also believe Jesus prioritizes charity over belonging to the correct religion in such parables as the good Samaritan and the parable of the sheep and the goats (“when saw we thee an hungred…”, Matt 25). Even our own teachings on saving ordinances is that these will eventually be performed on behalf of all humanity, which means that not a single person who has ever lived will fail to be offered all necessary steps for salvation. So these can essentially be taken for granted. Not to downplay the sacrifice of those who are doing them–just to say that they will happen sooner or later. What it boils down to then is what type of life we have lived–whether we acted in love towards our fellow man or hatred, service or selfishness. In this sense, members are not in the long term on any better footing for salvation than non-members, only to the extent that the Church helps them to live a more Christlike life.
“I am suggesting that if you hold positions contra to the general authorities, it isn’t your jurisdiction to try and change the narrative. You seem to be pushing for more than just tolerance here, you seem to be pushing for an acceptance of a non-historical BoM (and perhaps other scriptures?). I see this as subversive because it it stands in opposition to the leaders of the Church, whom I presume you sustain.”
I’m not asking for people to change their beliefs, just to grant a little breathing room to those who believe differently. Also, I don’t think the Church is or should be as hierarchical as you make it out to be. It’s just as much my church as it is anyone else’s. We’re all in this together. We all belong to the body of Christ. We sustain and support those who are in authority and treat them just as any other brother or sister should be treated. We accept their counsel in patience and defer to their authority, so long as it is exercised righteously. But we are not required always to agree and we can, in respectful and tactful ways, express differences of opinion.
“If you do have a testimony regarding the restoration and President Monson holding and righteously administering the keys of the priesthood, than I’m suggesting that your doubts and concerns should be tabled and that greater faith should be exercised in the unanimous position of the General Authorities.”
While I agree that positions of authority should be respected, I don’t agree that that means there should be no differences of opinion, nor do I agree that there is as much unanimity as you imply there is among the Twelve. I think the Church’s power rests much more in the goodness of its members than in its priesthood lineage, for “God is able of these stones to raise up children unto Abraham” (Matt 3:8).
The bottom line for me is that our bona fides come much more from the pragmatic outcomes of our beliefs put into action–who we actually are, rather than our pedigree.
I’m not sure I can say much more here that I haven’t already said in the body of my paper and my comments, so I will only respond to a few of your points.
“Please do not conflate my responses with Log’s. I made no such comparison”
I did not mean to. My apologies if I was unclear.
“This is not an accurate representation of Hardy’s position. He brackets the historicity debate precisely to demonstrate that there is much value in the book regardless of whether or not one accepts its historicity.”
But this is still not the same as what proponents (including those discussed in my paper) of the Inspired Fiction theory are doing or saying. Like I said, Hardy is bracketing historicity for academic purposes. He never explicitly denies historicity. Proponents of the Inspired Fiction theory are totally denying historicity for ideological or theological constructions. The difference is Hardy is saying, “Let’s forego the question of historicity for the sake of literary or narrative criticism of the Book of Mormon.” He’s also saying that, as literature, the Book of Mormon can be read as fiction and still be engaging. The proponents of the Inspired Fiction theory are saying, “Let’s entirely reject the historicity of the Book of Mormon once and for all and just read it as inspired, fictional scripture from here on out.” I do not have a problem with the former, but I have major problems with the latter. So the two are not the same, and I still insist that I am not misusing Hardy. My brief quote from his introduction speaks for itself.
“We already have a very specific example of a living apostle who expressly admitted and sanctioned the possibility that JS misunderstood the records he had. In his interview with BBC reporter John Sweeney, Elder Holland specifically admits the possibility that JS incorrectly interpreted some hieroglyphs in the Book of Abraham facsimiles, but says that the papyrus may still have served as a vehicle for revelation. We have right there an apostle sanctioning the possibility that JS misunderstood some of the records he received and yet was an inspired prophet.”
I don’t think Elder Holland said what you attribute to him. All he said during that ambush by John Sweeney and the BBC was “that what got translated got translated into the word of God, the vehicle for that, I do not understand, I don’t claim to know, I know no Egyptian.” All I see Elder Holland saying was that he doesn’t know the precise mechanism of the translation of the Book of Abraham. But I don’t see him anywhere say Joseph Smith “incorrectly interpreted some hieroglyphs in the Book of Abraham facsimiles.” So this example doesn’t help your point.
Finally, I looked at your paper, and thought it offered some good points to ponder and consider. I don’t have time now to discuss it in depth, but I appreciate you bringing it to my attention.
I’m also glad for the chat, if only since you did a good job keeping on my toes defending my thesis! Although I still remain largely unconvinced of your arguments, I thank you for your thoughts, as well as for your candor and honesty.
Me: “Please do not conflate my responses with Log’s. I made no such comparison”
You: “I did not mean to. My apologies if I was unclear.”
You defended a claim that orthodoxy is becoming unpopular (a claim which I disputed) by pointing to Log’s accusation. I don’t find this evidence very convincing. Orthodoxy is more popular than ever in the Church. For example, in 1935 a survey of the BYU student body revealed that only 38% of them believed in a personal devil, while in 1973 that number had risen to 95%. I suspect it would be similarly high today.
You: “But this is still not the same as what proponents (including those discussed in my paper) of the Inspired Fiction theory are doing or saying. Like I said, Hardy is bracketing historicity for academic purposes. He never explicitly denies historicity.”
Neither did I. I just said that the BoM is still valuable regardless of its historicity. Notice I didn’t say it wasn’t historical. I’m disputing the claim that historicity is necessary for the book to be of value. I believe this highlights a point of tension in your thesis that deserves further exploration. You seem to be subtly shifting the boundaries under dispute at times. You claim that belief in historicity is essential (the title of your paper states as much), but you support that claim in part with sources that assert that its relevance is conditional, not universal. Hardy claims that there are many things of value in the book that are completely independent of its historicity. He states in the beginning that his main intent in bracketing is to show that the book hasn’t been taken seriously enough by either the apologists or the critics, because they are both too focused on its historicity.
I want to be clear that this is my argument also. I’m not arguing for the IF position. I’m arguing against the necessity of historicity. The difference is important. I find compelling evidence on both sides of the historicity debate, but I revere the Book of Mormon as scripture for practical and spiritual reasons, independent of the question of its historicity. My argument is that the book’s historicity is not the most important factor. I think its function as scripture is more important than its function as a proof-text for the restoration.
You: “The proponents of the Inspired Fiction theory are saying, ‘Let’s entirely reject the historicity of the Book of Mormon once and for all and just read it as inspired, fictional scripture from here on out.'”
I don’t think this is quite right. Some IF supporters are merely bracketing, agnostic about historicity and proposing IF as one of many possibilities. Many people I know who care about this issue would prefer to de-emphasize the book’s historicity, not because they deny it but because they think the issue is a distraction from more important ones.
Me: “We already have a very specific example of a living apostle who expressly admitted and sanctioned the possibility that JS misunderstood the records he had. In his interview with BBC reporter John Sweeney, Elder Holland specifically admits the possibility that JS incorrectly interpreted some hieroglyphs in the Book of Abraham facsimiles, but says that the papyrus may still have served as a vehicle for revelation. We have right there an apostle sanctioning the possibility that JS misunderstood some of the records he received and yet was an inspired prophet.”
You: “I don’t think Elder Holland said what you attribute to him. All he said during that ambush by John Sweeney and the BBC was ‘that what got translated got translated into the word of God, the vehicle for that, I do not understand, I don’t claim to know, I know no Egyptian.’ All I see Elder Holland saying was that he doesn’t know the precise mechanism of the translation of the Book of Abraham. But I don’t see him anywhere say Joseph Smith ‘incorrectly interpreted some hieroglyphs in the Book of Abraham facsimiles.’ So this example doesn’t help your point.”
You didn’t state my position correctly here. I didn’t say Elder Holland said JS “incorrectly interpreted some hieroglyphs in the Book of Abraham facsimiles.” I said he acknowledged the possibility. By responding to a claim that the facsimile translations were incorrect, he said he didn’t know anything about the translation process but said that the book was God’s word regardless. That is, he is asserting that whether or not the Egyptian matches the text, the outcome was scripture. The logical conclusion from this assertion is clear: even if the Egyptian wasn’t translated correctly, the result was scripture. Hence my claim that Holland endorsed the possibility that at least some of JS’ translations were incorrect.
“Finally, I looked at your paper, and thought it offered some good points to ponder and consider. I don’t have time now to discuss it in depth, but I appreciate you bringing it to my attention.”
“I’m also glad for the chat, if only since you did a good job keeping on my toes defending my thesis! Although I still remain largely unconvinced of your arguments, I thank you for your thoughts, as well as for your candor and honesty.”
Thanks Stephen. I too appreciate your willingness to discuss this with me.
Stephen, revisiting this topic, we now have clear corroboration for the validity of the claim that Joseph Smith “incorrectly interpreted some hieroglyphs in the Book of Abraham facsimiles” in the Church’s recent publication on this topic.
I am confused. The language you quoted in your post is not found in the new essay “Translation and Historicity of the Book of Abraham.” Could you please clarify precisely how the new essay establishes this? Thanks.
I put quotes around that claim because it was one that I had made earlier in this conversation that you had quibbled with, not because it came from the Church’s article (obviously). This is the key paragraph from the Church’s article:
“None of the characters on the papyrus fragments mentioned Abraham’s name or any of the events recorded in the book of Abraham. Mormon and non-Mormon Egyptologists agree that the characters on the fragments do not match the translation given in the book of Abraham, though there is not unanimity, even among non-Mormon scholars, about the proper interpretation of the vignettes on these fragments. Scholars have identified the papyrus fragments as parts of standard funerary texts that were deposited with mummified bodies. These fragments date to between the third century B.C.E. and the first century C.E., long after Abraham lived.”
The translation Joseph Smith gave was not what was on the papyrus. You claimed that Elder Holland didn’t go this far. I’m merely saying that this latest essay goes this far, whether or not Holland did.
It’s important to understand the limits of my claim. I’m not saying that the Book of Abraham is not scripture. I’m just saying that it is not a literal translation of the contents of the papyrus.
Hello again Carl,
I can’t, for some reason, respond to your last post, so I’ll just respond to this one.
Thanks for the clarification. I still don’t see the essay going as far as you do, though, mainly because of this paragraph following the one you quote:
“It is likely futile to assess Joseph’s ability to translate papyri when we now have only a fraction of the papyri he had in his possession. Eyewitnesses spoke of ‘a long roll’ or multiple ‘rolls’ of papyrus. Since only fragments survive, it is likely that much of the papyri accessible to Joseph when he translated the book of Abraham is not among these fragments. The loss of a significant portion of the papyri means the relationship of the papyri to the published text cannot be settled conclusively by reference to the papyri.”
Of course, the next paragraph is the one articulating the so-called “catalyst theory,” so I’m not claiming that the more “traditional” missing papyrus theory is being held up as a final answer. However, I see this as a clear follow up explaining one potential reason why the papyri doesn’t match the Book of Abraham text, as well as why this may not be so problematic for the Book of Abraham as many have thought. For this reason I don’t think the essay is saying exactly what you say it is.
The comment engine is designed to limit threading depth on purpose. You have to just keep replying to the same post after you reach a certain depth.
I believe there are enough problems in the paragraph I mentioned to give pause to any sincere investigator trying to weigh the evidence for a literal translation.
Furthermore, as you are probably well aware, calculations about the length of the scroll based on its diameter when rolled up (when the math is done correctly) show that we most likely have most of the scroll. A paper published by Smith and Cook in 2010 demonstrated mathematically that the missing portion of the scroll could not have been longer than 56cm. The paragraph you quote should not have been included without mentioning this research done about scroll length, as it gives the false impression that there is much more missing material that Joseph could have translated from.
Finally, there is the direct evidence we have of numerous incorrect translations of portions of the facsimiles that are included in the Book of Abraham, as attested by egyptologists, both Mormon and non-.
I would highly recommend watching a youtube video that summarizes all the supporting and contrary evidence for a literal translation. It is very well done, academic in style and not prone to exaggeration or hyperbole. It lays things out pretty well. Since I cannot include links here, [reference removed – it isn’t that links cannot be entered, but that we do not always link to outside sites.]
Stephen, one more thing. I discussed the Book of Abraham specifically because it is relevant to your essay about the imperative for a historical Book of Mormon. I believe the mere fact that the Church is proposing the catalyst theory as a possibility weakens your claim that historicity is “imperative.” The Church is now admitting the possibility of a theory that you previously felt the need to refute. I think this should give you pause. Hardline arguments like yours leave people will little ground to retreat to when the game changes.
Even if it were possible to prove definitively that the events described in the Book of Mormon did not actually take place as described, I would still hesitate to judge Joseph as a quack or a pathological liar. God and the human psyche work in mysterious ways.
The honest struggle that many people have dealing with various challenges to Book of Mormon historicity seems similar to the difficulty that many members of the Church have faced trying to reconcile the fossil record with insistence by various prophets that our theology hinges on Adam having introduced death into the world. A bit more humility would have served as well on this issue.
Seems to me that those who adhere to the Inspired Fiction theory want it both ways. They want to hold on to some of the fairytale egalitarian “goodness” of the Book of Mormon and even Joseph Smith, without having to confront the real-world implications of their narratives.
One point that I kept expecting to see in the article was some mention of the parallel to New Testament accounts, repleat with witnesses, of the Resurrection. How are we to understand them? Are they too the product of a frenzied mind? What implications for Christianity are there if such accounts are nothing more than “inspired fiction”? If Christ never really rose from the dead in a literal sense, does it matter?
Of course it does. And if the historicity of that seminal event matters to the core of Christian belief, then why doesn’t the literal reality of the Book of Mormon narrative matter at least as much to Mormons (and everyone else, for that matter)? A Messiah who never actually rose from the grave nor appeared in bodily form to Mary and his disciples fades rapidly from view in the historical record, having no power himself over death and thus no power to redeem others. In the absence of the reality of that event, Jesus of Nazareth is reduced to yet another itinerant Jewis Rabbi of his time with messianic aspirations. Nothing more.
And further, what are the more global implications for not only Christians, but Jews, and Muslims and every other sect on the planet IF the Book of Mormon account in 3 Nephi is actual historical fact? And if an objective fact, could it be then that that very same Jesus who the Jews rejected, and the Muslims wrote off, and the rest of the world ignored actually was in fact who he first claimed to be on the shores of Galilee? What greater witness could there be of the absolute requirement that we regard the Book of Mormon narrative as true, authentic history of actual events that took place right here on this planet? If that same Jesus who died and resurrected in Jerusalem later actually appeared to ancient Americans, what then? Everything gets reassessed–Judaism, Islam, Buddhism, you name it–even Christianity gets rewritten if Bountiful happened in 34 AD. Much depends on historical reality.
Same for Joseph Smith. Remove the plates and the spectacles. Dismiss or discredit the eyewitness accounts. Take away the tangible dynamic of his narrative. Relegate the Book of Mormon to mere literature. Make it’s appearance seem common. Disconnect it from a specific place in time and an actual place on a map. Do all of these things and what are we left with? Much ado about nothing, in my view. I’m no longer interested, frankly. The power of the Book has been drained away. Who cares? I don’t. Nobody ever emigrated halfway around the world and endured the pain and trials that our pioneer forefathers endured because of any Shakespearean play. And none would have done so for a piece of “inspired fiction”. Get over it. And embrace it.
Yes and no. Stephen, you may be unintentionally placing a hermeneutical theory where only the Holy Spirit is licensed to do so.
Wonderful essay! The BoM is meaningless if it’s not based in real history. It’s power to call people to righteous action stems from its historicity and not from some cool precepts that one might glean from it as fiction.
An excellent article. I have been very struck recently that much of the power of the Book of Mormon depends on its reality. It cannot serve as a prophetic warning, as an additional witness to Christ or as a tool to gather lost Israel if those prophecies, witnesses or covenant people are ultimately fictional.
I wonder if we should likewise hold LDS evolutionists’ feet to the fire about D&C 77:6. After all, it’s duly canonized, perfectly straightforward in its literal meaning, and the inverse of “temporal” is “eternal.”
Or is there room enough in the LDS tent for them who don’t believe the scriptures according to our whims (Alma 4:8)?
What a curious comment. Do you mean to suggest that me highlighting what I see is the fallaciousness of the Inspired Fiction theory is the same as persecuting people who disagree with me, per your citation of Alma 4:8? Do you mean to suggest that me reiterating what prophets and apostles since Joseph Smith (not to mention the Book of Mormon itself) have clearly taught concerning the nature of the Book of Mormon, and the importance of its historicity, is the same as being “scornful” towards others for merely not believing as I do?
More to the point, I never say in my article that members who might happen to subscribe to the Inspired Fiction theory should be chased out of the Church. If you’re (not speaking to you specifically, Log, but in general) an active member holding a calling, keeping your covenants, etc., and happen to hold to the Inspired Fiction theory, then fine. I’m not telling you to leave the Church, nor am I belittling you for believing differently. Instead, I’m highlighting both the major historical and logical problems with the theory, as well as its troubling implications, and am earnestly suggesting that you re-think your beliefs.
Surely I’m at least allowed to do at least that.
As for the D&C 77 issue, I’m not particularly interested at this time to get into a discussion of the finer points of the relationship between science and the scriptures, so instead I’ll simply post this from FairMormon: http://en.fairmormon.org/Mormonism_and_science/Age_of_the_Earth
Stephen, I do think Log points out some important implications of your position. More than merely pointing out supposed logical inconsistencies in “inspired fiction” camp, you have described your opponents in such a way that you have left very little room for them to continue to feel welcome in the church, if most of the members of their ward were of the same opinion as yourself.
I hope to find time to respond to your paper in more detail soon. I will try to post a Google doc with a more detailed response. I feel that you are engaging in a form of procrusteanism by imposing unnecessarily strict requirements for orthodoxy and not recognizing ways in which the scriptures themselves are not as logically consistent or historically sound as you claim.
Your strategy seems to be to prove that there is no viable alternative to literalism. In my opinion, this leaves you with a very unstable foundation. My personal preference is to try to build a foundation upon which my personal relationships, values, achievements and worldview can remain intact despite challenges to the historicity or literalness of some of my faith claims. I think you paint yourself and others into a corner by promoting all-or-nothing arguments that assert the complete worthlessness of Mormonism (or any other religion) outside of their literal claims.
I struggle to see how worldview can be unaffected by these issues. A worldview that is unaffected by the reality of miracles or correctness of future prophecy (both tied to these sorts of things) is one that never took them seriously in the first place.
David, it is not necessary to disbelieve in miracles or prophecy in order to reject the historicity of the Book of Mormon. They are not mutually exclusive. I see miracles as a nice bonus but I don’t depend on them for living a Christlike life. In fact, I agree with C.S. Lewis that a person is closer to God precisely when he does right even without any assistance (or apparent assistance) from a higher power.
Carl, since the Book of Mormorn characterizes miracles as far more than “a nice bonus”, your response arguably makes my point. As to prophecy, it is difficult to see how one could reject the Book of Mormon’s historicity, and then accept its prophecies about said people as true.
“Carl, since the Book of Mormorn characterizes miracles as far more than ‘a nice bonus’, your response arguably makes my point.”
I don’t think you understood me. I’m merely pointing to the fact that miracles do not cause faith or righteousness and are not, strictly speaking, necessary for salvation. This is corroborated by the Book of Mormon itself. One could also add, parenthetically, that Mormons believe that miracles are merely events that are beyond our present capacity to explain and are not supernatural.
“As to prophecy, it is difficult to see how one could reject the Book of Mormon’s historicity, and then accept its prophecies about said people as true.”
It is not necessary for the BoM to be historical for it to contain truth. This applies to any book out there. The Book of Mormon itself has a much broader and more magnanimous attitude towards prophecy and revelation than the standard that you would seem to impose upon it. It says that the Lord will “speak unto all nations of the earth, and they shall write it” (2 Ne 29:12), which means that even many books that Mormons don’t recognize in their canon are inspired and worthy of our attention, despite discrepancies between their teachings and Mormon doctrine and even despite their historicity or lack thereof.
Stephen barely mentions the possibility that JS thought the BoM was historical and yet was mistaken. I see no reason why this possibility is so obviously untenable. God could still accomplish a great work through an imperfect human being. In fact, he has no other alternative.
“which means that even many books that Mormons don’t recognize in their canon are inspired and worthy of our attention, despite discrepancies between their teachings and Mormon doctrine and even despite their historicity or lack thereof”
It can also mean that Jesus visited other nations but we do not yet know of their record of it, assuming they still exist.
“Stephen barely mentions the possibility that JS thought the BoM was historical and yet was mistaken. I see no reason why this possibility is so obviously untenable. God could still accomplish a great work through an imperfect human being. In fact, he has no other alternative.”
God accomplishes His purposes through Him who was perfect in all things and it is through that perfect person by which we i perfect humans accomplishe God’s purposes. It would be a bit of a let down if the account of that perfect person did not really happen, despite being inspired by it.
You’re reading into my article more than there is. As I told Log, I have said positively nothing about what individual members who may adhere to the Inspired Fiction should or shouldn’t do vis-à-vis their membership in the Church. I have cast no moral or ecclesiastical judgment on adherents to the Inspired Fiction theory, Log’s comments about me being comparable to Nephite apostates who persecute other Church members for not believing as they do notwithstanding. I have highlighted the glaring problems with this particular theory, and have strenuously argued that those who hold to such theories should reconsider their opinions. Your comments about me allegedly “describ[ing] my opponents in such a way that you have left very little room for them to continue to feel welcome in the church” are questionable extrapolations on your part that are not based on anything found in my paper.
But here’s a question: are we really at a point in the Church where one is not allowed to challenge what one perceives are fallacious beliefs or ideas inside the Church? Are we really at the point where we’re obliged to just let anything go in the way of beliefs or ideas in the Church? If so, then do you think there is a rather obvious double standard that marginal or cultural Mormons are given a pass to criticize more orthodox beliefs, but not the other way around?
I object to your characterization of my paper as saying “that there is no viable alternative to literalism.” I have said nothing of “literalism” in the scriptures, as Bryce above perceptively noticed. Instead, I have focused my comments on the foundational claims of Joseph Smith and the Book of Mormon. I do not, for example, expect anyone to take the allegory in Jacob 5 as “literal.” Nor do I expect, as I said in my paper, for anyone to take the parables of Jesus or the Proverbs of the Hebrew Bible “literally.” So your comments on this point are founded on what I can only say is a poor understanding of what I’m claiming in my paper.
There is a concept in scriptural exegesis that one of my professors calls “literary competence,” which is the ability to correctly define and understand the genre of this or that scriptural work, and engage the work accordingly. For example, it would be fallacious to treat the text of 1–2 Kings the same as one would treat the text of the Psalms, since the two books are not in the same genre; one is historical narrative, the other a collection of hymns and poetry. Likewise, I believe it is fallacious to treat the Book of Mormon, which professes to be historical narrative, as one would treat a mythological text such as, say, the Enuma Elish. But this is not to say that all scripture must be interpreted “literally.” I have never claimed this. Instead I have claimed that we should treat the Book of Mormon as the sort of text it proclaims to be, and to insist on doing otherwise is problematic.
You also say, “I think you paint yourself and others into a corner by promoting all-or-nothing arguments that assert the complete worthlessness of Mormonism (or any other religion) outside of their literal claims.” Again, though, I’m not saying this. What I am saying is that the foundational claims of the Church, including Joseph Smith’s claims of being a prophet, are severely, even fatally, undermined with the Inspired Fiction theory, and that, as such, this should be a cause of great concern.
I appreciate that it has become fashionable these days to just ignore the importance of whether or not Joseph Smith was telling the truth when he said an angel gave him ancient golden plates, and that he translated said plates by the gift and power of God into what we now call the Book of Mormon, and instead to just read the Book of Mormon as an inspiring account, fictional or otherwise. I also appreciate that in our post-modernist culture it is passé to argue for the legitimacy of one view or opinion over another. Nevertheless, I cannot overlook the glaring problems with what I have called the Inspire Fiction theory. For the reasons outlined in my paper, I must insist that the question of the Book of Mormon’s historicity, as well as the historicity of the foundational claims of Joseph Smith, is of the utmost importance in maintaining the credibility and veracity of the truth claims of the Church.
“But here’s a question: are we really at a point in the Church where one is not allowed to challenge what one perceives are fallacious beliefs or ideas inside the Church? Are we really at the point where we’re obliged to just let anything go in the way of beliefs or ideas in the Church? If so, then do you think there is a rather obvious double standard that marginal or cultural Mormons are given a pass to criticize more orthodox beliefs, but not the other way around?”
No, actually we aren’t even close to that situation. On the contrary, Mormons who wish to remain active but reject (partially or completely) BoM historicity must be extremely careful about how they express themselves at church if they wish to remain in full fellowship. For the most part, people of your persuasion are the vast majority in a typical ward and those who struggle to accept BoM historicity feel compelled to leave. It’s pretty rare to find people who continue to participate for the goodness they see in Mormonism despite their doubts about some foundational claims. Any degree of doubt or uncertainty expressed in a testimony generally garners negative reactions or subtle forms of ostracism at church. I would like this to improve. I would like it to be possible for less orthodox Mormons to be able to participate in church without being ostracized or barred from full fellowship as many of them currently are.
To the extent my use of the word “literalism” wasn’t precise enough, I apologize. I understand the distinction you’re drawing between different types of literature and what their intended purpose is. On the other hand, it is extremely common for modern readers to misunderstand the intent and purpose of ancient scripture. There are even instances in our own modern scriptures where Joseph Smith himself clearly misunderstood certain scriptures and where his interpretations differ significantly from those of modern biblical scholars with a deeper understanding of the historical context. Furthermore, modern audiences frequently apply a degree of precision to ancient texts that was never intended by their authors, who, despite being masters of narrative, were not the beneficiaries of enlightenment reasoning and the scientific method. Ironically, the fundamentalist mindset applies to ancient scripture the scientific precision that he has learned from the secular paradigm, and in so doing completely misunderstands scripture.
There is much more that could be said about literalism in general, but I’ll confine myself to one particular point. Even purportedly historical texts should not be interpreted in exclusively historical ways. In fact, one of the main points of Grant Hardy’s book, whose introduction you briefly quote, is that we have hardly scratched the surface of the inspiring lessons that could be learned from a narrative analysis of the BoM. Contrary to your proviso that such an undertaking is only “legitimate and fruitful” if “one . . . does not allow a literary analysis to overshadow its doctrine or historical claims,” Hardy’s thesis is that we have failed to properly assess the book’s value precisely because we have confined ourselves to the superficial aspects that you claim are its essence. He insists that it is still possible to benefit tremendously from a literary analysis of the BoM without accepting its historicity.
To distill our point of disagreement: you seem to be claiming that the book has no value if it is not historical. I and others claim it still has value even if it isn’t historical. In fact, I claim that its main value is not in its historicity, but in its narrative qualities and its ability to inspire people.
There is a lot more that could be said, though I presently lack the time. Just to cite one brief example, your paper didn’t adequately address Ostler’s expansion theory, which argues that the book has some historical aspects interspersed with additions from Joseph Smith. The very existence of a theory like Ostler’s demonstrates that there is clearly much that others consider to be of value in the book beyond its historical claims, and raises the prospect that interpolations can be both ahistorical and yet beneficial.
“What I am saying is that the foundational claims of the Church, including Joseph Smith’s claims of being a prophet, are severely, even fatally, undermined with the Inspired Fiction theory, and that, as such, this should be a cause of great concern.”
This is essentially the same as saying that the Church cannot peacefully coexist with those who reject BoM historicity, because their position “fatally undermine[s]” “the foundational claims of the Church.” I assert that your position is, by its very nature, highly opposed to any active church member who does not support it, and is therefore bound to promote intolerance of those who reject the necessity of BoM historicity.
“I appreciate that it has become fashionable these days to just ignore the importance of whether or not Joseph Smith was telling the truth [and] that in our post-modernist culture it is passé to argue for the legitimacy of one view or opinion over another.”
This is an unfair caricature. You are not adequately acknowledging the complexity and diversity of viewpoints regarding JS and other foundational claims, and you uncharitably characterize the motivations of those who hold them. They aren’t doing these things to be fashionable, but to try to come to meaningful and beneficial interpretations that take full advantage of all available information. Opinions about the optimality of each interpretation are bound to differ. I believe this is a good thing, and that it is possible (and desirable) for active members to be able to espouse different opinions about these and other matters without feeling condemned by their fellow saints.
“I assert that your position is, by its very nature, highly opposed to any active church member who does not support it, and is therefore bound to promote intolerance of those who reject the necessity of BoM historicity.”
And yet it is you explicitly intolerant of Smoot’s position. How do you correlate your claim of Smoot being intolerant and promoting rejection of others at the same time being intolerant of Smoot’s position and rejecting it? If Smoot’s argument is somehow morally bad how is yours somehow morally good?
Darren said: “God accomplishes His purposes through Him who was perfect in all things and it is through that perfect person by which we i perfect humans accomplishe God’s purposes. It would be a bit of a let down if the account of that perfect person did not really happen, despite being inspired by it.”
President Spencer W. Kimball said, “God does notice us, and he watches over us. But it is usually through another person that he meets our needs. Therefore, it is vital that we serve each other in the kingdom.” Would you dispute this claim?
Even if a perfect being is orchestrating things, he must still work through other human beings. According to Mormon teachings, God’s purpose is to “bring to pass the immortality and eternal life of [humanity].” This can’t happen unless people actually achieve eternal life, which cannot be achieved without voluntarily choosing to do the works of Christ. Therefore, God’s purposes cannot be achieved without the cooperation of imperfect human beings.
What’s more, even _if_ the accounts of Jesus didn’t all actually happen precisely as they claim, they have caused humans to become converted to doing the works of Christ, to the extent that the “body of Christ” actually currently inhabits this earth in very deed. This is more proof of Christ and the efficacy of his gospel than any individual performing miracles ever could be. All the miracles in the world would be for naught if they didn’t result in the conversion of humanity into the body of Christ, that is, into a community of beings who interact with one another virtuously and harmoniously.
“It is not necessary for the BoM to be historical for it to contain truth.”
True but if you wrote, “I made sure to tell my wife everyday last week, ‘I love you'”, and you actually didn’t is it true? People can be inspired by it but would it not be a bit of a let down if they were to fibd out you did not really do what you wrote you did? I’d be a bit let down if Jesus did not actually come to the ancient Americas and set up His gospel here (on obe of the two american continents) despite beininspired by what
I read in the Book of Mormon.
Darren said: “And yet it is you explicitly intolerant of Smoot’s position. How do you correlate your claim of Smoot being intolerant and promoting rejection of others at the same time being intolerant of Smoot’s position and rejecting it? If Smoot’s argument is somehow morally bad how is yours somehow morally good?”
You misunderstand my position. I’m not opposing BoM historicity. I’m opposing those who would ostracize or shun others for rejecting it or for expressing skepticism about it. The vast majority of active Mormons accept BoM historicity. Their opinions are accepted, favored, and rewarded in church. But I believe we haven’t done a good enough job of welcoming and fellowshipping those who struggle with the legitimate challenges to the traditional narrative, the general awareness of which is increasing rapidly. If we don’t learn how to make a little more room for those whose views on this issue differ (many of whom are still faithful Latter-day Saints), the rate of disaffection will increase even more than it already has.
Darren wrote, “True but if you wrote, “I made sure to tell my wife everyday last week, ‘I love you’”, and you actually didn’t is it true? People can be inspired by it but would it not be a bit of a let down if they were to fibd out you did not really do what you wrote you did? I’d be a bit let down if Jesus did not actually come to the ancient Americas and set up His gospel here (on obe of the two american continents) despite beininspired by what
I read in the Book of Mormon.”
That is an inadequate metaphor for the kind of truth I’m talking about. A more apt metaphor was expressed by John Dominic Crossan. During a recent visit to Utah, he said, “Instead of arguing over whether one should interpret the Bible and its characters literally or metaphorically, we should discuss what our beliefs cause us to do. … You argue that I would never die for a metaphor. I argue that that is in fact the only thing I would actually die for. I would not die for a piece of real estate that spans from the Mexican to the Canadian border, but I would die for my country.”
Another appropriate example of the difference between literalism and narrative would be to have someone argue that a man did not love his wife because he did not buy her a diamond ring, despite his having shown his love for her daily through obvious self-sacrifice.
Your very example of Jesus’ visit to the Americas demonstrates the deficiency of an exclusively literalist approach. Insisting that the only or main value of the story is the historical claim fails to recognize how Christ has actually visited the Americas already, in word and deed, at least to the extent that his followers (who are, as Paul claims, “the body of Christ”) have visited the Americas and preached his gospel in every clime. Jesus the individual may also have visited the Americas bodily, as the BoM claims, but to focus exclusively on the book’s historical claims causes one to overlook the other important manifestations of his coming, manifestations that are perhaps far more impactful than an individual bodily visit ever could be. Literalism causes you to miss the forest for the trees.
Log, nowhere did I read Stephen say that we should take all scripture literally.
Regarding D&C 77:6, here is some of my commentary on how we might begin to understand this verse: http://www.templestudy.com/2012/09/24/age-earth-impressions/
The a-historical theory of the Book of Mormon has been crafted because some believe, in their heart of hearts, due to whatever evidence (but usually “scientific,” from what I have seen), that the Book of Mormon cannot possibly be literally true, but they want to remain believers, possibly because at some point in time the Spirit moved upon them to witness of something that was of God in the LDS faith.
If I were to believe in such a theory, and run across your article, I believe I would not see persuasion, long-suffering, gentleness, meekness, unfeigned love, kindness, and pure knowledge in it. I believe in this article I would see a direct challenge to my flagging beliefs, with a subtextual charge of faithlessness, and yes, the rhetoric you’ve deployed certainly trends, in my eye, towards scorn.
This is similar, in its essential respects, to how people appeal to alternative interpretations or other so-called authorities to reconcile their trust in the philosophies of men, mingled with fossils, with a claim to believe the scriptures, with which they simply aren’t compatible, for the sake of remaining believers, which is something laudable. It would be cruel, I think, for me to force that issue, since I believe many, if pressed, would choose to abandon the faith in favor of what is falsely called science.
I’m sorry – if it wasn’t clear, I accept D&C 77:6 at face value. But I’m not inclined to force the issue, for the reasons I outlined above.
Don’t be silly. I’ve not questioned anybody’s faithfulness. Never do I say in my article, “If you don’t believe the historicity of the Book of Mormon you can’t hold a temple recommend, or serve in the Church, or do home teaching, or be a good person,” etc.
I’ve instead questioned the reasoning behind the beliefs or opinions of those who opt for the Inspired Fiction theory, and have insisted that the implications of the Inspired Fiction theory are more serious than perhaps proponents of such are willing to admit. The two are not remotely the same.
As for this business about my article lacking charity, long-suffering, etc., all I can say is that this is a subjective claim, and ultimately I can’t say anything to rebut it if that’s your perception.
Should the Church’s liberality extend to all positions across the spectrum? If somebody held to the position that Joseph Smith was not a prophet, nor were the priesthood and its keys restored, nor did the Book of Mormon have any tangible reality, or that Christ literally atoned for our sins, and was literally resurrected, etc., does this person have a place in church? Yes, in so far as believers and non-believers alike are welcome in church; but it would be absolutely absurd to suggest that they are Mormon by any standard. Liking the LDS church because it produces good families or because it teaches morality, or provides a social life, or whatever reason a non-believer has to associate with the church has abosutely nothing to do with whether the church is actually true and its claims authentic.
To argue for the inspired fiction theory amounts to the same position. It runs contra to everything that church is founded upon and has taught for 180+ years. How can anybody possibly claim that this church is true, and then deny the reality of the Book of Mormon plates, or the angelic ministration of Moroni? It baffles me. You can’t argue that any range of positions is acceptable to be considered LDS, otherwise there is no stakes, and there is no LDS church.
You might find my comments to be unsensitive, but with all due respect, I’d suggest you need to quit being so sensitive. I wouldn’t consider myself a Catholic just because I might attend that church while not believing anything from the Pope, nor their line of authority, nor their canon, etc., nor would I consider myself Christian if I didn’t actually believe their was efficacy in the atonement. At some point, you just have to exercise a little bit more faith. If you believe Joseph Smith was a prophet, then you need to have faith in his experiences and the assertions he put forth, otherwise, you aren’t actually believing Joseph Smith to be a prophet.
Should the Church’s liberality extend to all positions across the spectrum?
I believe Joseph had a word to say concerning that.
I would not be very swift to blame or strive against others for their unbelief, especially if I knew the same judgement could be justly rendered against me (re: D&C 77:6), to the same effect.
“As ye judge, so shall ye be judged.”
I think the proper approach is to do what was done before – remove the grounds for unbelief in the historicity of the Book of Mormon. For example, if purported DNA evidence contradicts long-held cultural assumptions about the content of the book? Show that the DNA evidence doesn’t mean what is claimed, and show that the book doesn’t say what the traditional view imputes to it.
Without a reason to believe the Book of Mormon is ahistorical, then it will truly come down to searching in the light of Christ, as each man must, for themselves. I don’t see that sitting in judgement of one’s “Mormon-ness” benefits anyone; it seems to gratify the pride of the accuser, and offers genuine insult to the accused.
The problem with your position is that it is running counter to Joseph Smith, contra your assertion. Joseph Smith talked about believing too much – believing beyond the bounds set by creeds. Your position is actually a step in the opposite direction – a disbelief in that which Joseph believed. I’m not talking about kicking people out of the Church, I’m talking about defining the religion consistent with those who have authority to do so, which you seem to be trying to redine in making anything and everything acceptable under the Mormon umbrella, which is Universalism, not Mormonism.
I agree with your general point as to liberality in the church. This discussion always seems to be the same, like political arguments over conservative and liberal points of view. The truth is that there is truth in both and those that hold one of the two views closely, would hopefully open their hearts and minds to others’ points of view.
I do have one question however in regards to the fictional theory of the BofM- How do you explain Moroni? JS clearly claims that the angel appeared to him, taught him and showed where the gold plates were. He also stated that the plates were an ancient record of an ancient people (according to JS). It seems to me, that you would have to say that Joseph was lying about Moroni and the golden plates in order to make the fictional theory claim. What are your thoughts?
I would let each man figure it out for himself. I would testify when appropriate, and present the reasons I have for the hope that dwelleth in me.
I’m a scriptural literalist. I don’t have these problems. But I got to this point at a very high price, and I am inclined to have mercy upon them who find value in the Book of Mormon, and are following these teachings.
That is what I perceive someone such as Carl is doing.
Why therefore would anyone try to uproot the word from the soil of faith in Carl’s heart?
Would not the charitable thing to do be to debunk bad arguments whose conclusions would be that the Book of Mormon cannot possibly be literally true, and present evidence-based arguments that it can be true? In so doing, you cast rocks out of the soil of faith, and fertilize it.
But to seek to uproot the word in whatever form it has sprung up in someone like Carl’s heart seems to me to, at the least, demonstrate the impatience illustrated here.
Log, I just wanted to say I appreciate your thoughtfulness and support in this discussion. I agree that it is important to approach all sides of this discussion with compassion and avoid divisiveness or try to enforce an exclusive level of orthodoxy.
I also appreciate inclusive voices like Log’s and Carl’s. A fascinating paradox of mainstream Mormonism is the way we often stress the importance of exercising faith in things that don’t currently make sense to us, while at the same time revering the courage of Joseph Smith in pursuing a rational theology, despite the opposition from those calling for faith in theological contradictions accepted as unknowable mysteries. True Mormonism, as I prefer to think of it, is not a set of fixed doctrines, but the honest pursuit of truth and virtue.