Anyone who has expressed doubts regarding the story of the Book of Mormon will probably have been met with the question, “Well if Joseph didn’t get it from the angel how do you explain the Book of Mormon?”
Today the Book of Mormon does seem an unusual book that appears to have sprung from nowhere. Certainly the Mormon Church likes to present it as such, insisting that it could only have the history claimed for it because there is no other credible explanation.
In my last post we looked at the Bible as a major source for the Book of Mormon. Large sections of the Bible are quoted in the Book of Mormon, including over eighteen chapters of Isaiah. Even the Apocrypha is pressed into service, providing names, concepts and story lines. Beyond the Bible there was ample material on which Joseph Smith could draw to build his stories of the Ancient Americas; but could a simple farm boy have produced such a book?
Joseph Smith – Ignorant Farm Boy?
LeGrand Richards, in his book A Marvellous Work and A Wonder, after listing “42 great truths revealed through Joseph Smith,” makes this comment:
“Joseph Smith, or any other man, could not have obtained all this information by reading the Bible or studying all the books that have ever been written. It came from God.” (p.411)
At the beginning of his book LeGrand Richards quotes Jesus’ words about putting new wine into new wineskins (Mark 2:21-22) to explain why God would choose an uneducated lad – so that He could teach the lad the way He wanted, without any traditions or prejudices to get in the way. Joseph is often cast in the role of ignorant farm boy, thoroughly incapable of writing the Book of Mormon.
This picture of an uneducated lad is misleading. Although he had little formal schooling, he was an imaginative and bright child. His imagination led him into divination and treasure seeking in his teens. Further, Joseph Smith’s parents, far from being the poor country hicks often imagined, were downwardly mobile gentry from Vermont, who moved to Palmyra in 1817, and struggled with a mortgage, debts, and poor crops. His father worked the land in the season and, during the winter, was a school teacher, so there was education in the home.
Even so, the only way the question of an “uneducated lad” innocently seeking truth could possibly arise in the first place is if the story is plausible. But there is no evidence to show that a fourteen-year-old Joseph Smith sought God, went into a grove to pray, saw visions, or was led by an angel to the hidden repository of gold plates.
Joseph, in his later telling of the story, relates how he shared his experience with a local Methodist preacher and was treated with contempt and subjected to ‘the most bitter persecution and reviling’ by ‘the great ones of the most popular sects of the day.’ And yet no account has been found of the vision in any records of the time, or for almost twenty years after. This at a time when newspapers, fighting for circulation, reported regularly the lively tales based on folk-lore and superstition that prevailed at the time.
Fawn M. Brodie, who published a biography of Joseph Smith, No Man Knows My History, was one of the first to cast doubt upon the authenticity of the story:
“Joseph’s own description of the first vision was not published until 1842, twenty-two years after the memorable event.
If something happened that spring morning in 1820, it passed totally unnoticed in Joseph’s home town, and apparently did not even fix itself in the minds of members of his own family. The awesome vision he described in later years may have been the elaboration of some half-remembered dream stimulated by the early revival excitement and reinforced by the rich folklore of visions circulating in his neighborhood. Or it may have been sheer invention, created some time after 1834 when the need arose for a magnificent tradition to cancel out the stories of his fortune-telling and money-digging.”
James B. Allen, Professor Emeritus of History at Brigham Young University, admits that “none of the available contemporary writings about Joseph Smith in the 1830’s, none of the publications of the Church in that decade, and no contemporary journal or correspondence yet discovered mentions the story of the first vision.” Dr. Allen goes on to state that in the 1830’s, “…the general membership of the Church knew little, if anything, about it.”
This being the case, the Book of Mormon can only be the product of an older, more mature Joseph Smith, whatever its true origins. The “uneducated lad” was yet to discover his destiny at the age of fourteen and knew nothing of angels, dreams, and gold plates.
Back in the Day…
In fact, many of Joseph’s ideas can be traced to the people around him and the speculations of the day:
Official Mormon Church history tells us that Joseph’s father believed in dreams and visions and as early as 1811, when Joseph was only 6, contended for a return to the original church established by Jesus Christ and his apostles. His parents were both, purportedly, independent religious thinkers, his mother believing that all the Christian creeds were wrong – as did many people in that place back in the day.
In fact, in 1809, Alexander Campbell had come out against all Christian creeds and began his own sect (the Disciples of Christ), attempting to return to the early church. Also known as the Campbellites, they were prevalent along that part of the frontier and many later became Mormons because of the similarity in their beliefs.
Even the account of Joseph’s so-called First Vision is remarkably similar to accounts of spectacular conversion stories published in that period. In 1816 Elias Smith, a minister, claimed to have seen “The Lamb once slain” in a vision in the woods. Joseph’s local newspaper published a similar story in October 1823. Alexander Campbell himself wrote in 1824 about a revival in New York during which people had had visions, heard a voice in the woods, or seen the Saviour descending to the tops of the trees.
To people today, the idea of the Urim and Thummim stones, which enabled Joseph to translate the golden plates, is strange, but peep stones were common back in the day. In March 1826 Joseph was charged with being “a disorderly person and an impostor.” He admitted in court that he used a peep stone to discover hidden treasures in the earth. He actually had several, including a dark stone he looked at in his hat, and a clear stone he held up to a candle or the sun.
Joseph’s mother testified to the inventive nature of his mind:
“During our evening conversations, Joseph would occasionally give us some of the most amusing recitals that could be imagined. He would describe the ancient inhabitants of this continent, their dress, mode of travelling, and the animals upon which they rode; their cities, their buildings, with every particular; their mode of warfare; and also their religious worship. This he would do with as much ease, seemingly, as if he had spent his whole life with them.” (Quoted in No Man Knows My History, Fawn Brodie, p.35)
The Book Of Mormon – Couldn’t Have Been Written By A Man?
In view of the above it would seem that Joseph had plenty of material on which to draw for such a book. Added to which, local speculation was rife about a highly civilised race that had been wiped out in a great battle and buried in mounds locally.
A local Congregationalist minister, Ethan Smith, published a book in 1823 called View of the Hebrews; or the Ten Tribes of Israel in America. In it he argues that Native Americans are descended from the ten lost tribes of Israel, a view commonly held back in the day. It sounds familiar, doesn’t it?
The Mormon Church asserts that Joseph could not have written such a complete book in the 60 days in which the translation took place. Yet those who acted as his scribes never actually saw him translate. It is known that there was a curtain between them and Joseph, and they never saw the plates as he translated.
They also testify that his translation was fluent and he never corrected. Since even the best linguists sometimes have to rephrase their translation, Joseph must have been directly inspired by God. Another possibility, of course, is that he was reading from a previously prepared manuscript, or even from memory, considering his unique ability to “tell tales” as witnessed to by his mother. And remember almost one third of the Book of Mormon is lifted from the Bible.
It is impossible to consider the origin of the Book of Mormon without considering Joseph Smith and the background against which he lived. The book can be explained by Joseph’s fertile mind, mastery of language, native cunning, and responsiveness to the tittle-tattle, speculations, and opinions around him.
The Book Of Mormon – An Ancient Document?
In 1831 Alexander Campbell wrote concerning the Book of Mormon:
“This prophet Smith…wrote…in his Book of Mormon every error and almost every truth discussed in New York for the last ten years. He decides all the great controversies; -infant baptism, ordination, the trinity, regeneration, repentance, justification, the fall of man, the atonement, transubstantiation, fasting, penance, church government, religious experience, the call to the ministry, the general resurrection, eternal punishment, who may baptize, and even the question of free masonry [sic], republican government, and the rights of man” (Millennial Harbinger, Feb.1831, p.93)
Not only does Joseph Smith tackle these great nineteenth century controversies in his Book of Mormon, but uses material from publications not in existence at the time of the Nephites.
There are marked parallels between the Book of Mormon and the Westminster Confession and Catechisms. Joseph also appears to have drawn from popular books of his day, and even the local newspaper, to create his theological masterpiece.
Even Shakespeare is paraphrased by Lehi, the father of Nephi, “hear the words of a trembling parent, whose limbs you must soon lay down in the cold and silent grave, from whence no traveller can return” (2 Nephi 1:14). Hamlet, act 3, scene 1, contain the words “from whose bourn no traveller returns…” Famously, the last word in the Book of Jacob is not “Reformed Egyptian” but French, “I bid farewell, hoping that many of my brethren may read my words. Brethren adieu” (Jacob 7:27)
Not a Shard…
We began with the challenge to account for the Book of Mormon if the official story is questioned. The Book of Mormon is very much a product of its age and fits neatly into the background of the early 19th Century. It is not for us to prove anything, however, but for the Mormon Church to account for the origins of the Book of Mormon.
Mormons argue that they have a prophet and modern revelation, while those who cling to the wreckage of traditional and apostate Christianity have the heavens closed to us – but who has the evidence? Who can “walk Bible lands”, while Mormons pay top dollar to tour guides to take them through non-existent “Book of Mormon lands”, point to Inca and Maya ruins and declare “it might have been something like this”?
Who can walk in the footsteps of Abraham as he travelled from Ur to Haran and Lower Egypt and to Beersheba; or of Israel as they travelled from Egypt, across the wilderness, to the promised land; or of St Paul if they wish, to Seleucia, Lystra, Philippi, Corinth, Athens, Galatia and Rome; or follow in the steps of Jesus himself as he walked the shores of Galilee or the streets of Capernaeum and Jerusalem?
But no one can tell us where Nephi walked, where Mosiah reigned as king, where Alma, son of Alma was judge over his people and high priest over the church, where the wars recorded by Helaman took place and many Lamanites were converted; not even where Jesus walked when he supposedly “walked the Americas”. Joseph Smith could lift his stories from the Bible but the archaeology has stayed stubbornly in Bible lands.
New World archaeology has not turned up a coin, not a pot, not a shard, not a brick, a name, a hill or mountain, a valley or river, not a city, town or village to support Mormon claims for the Book of Mormon. If the places and people didn’t exist then the events cannot have taken place.
It is the Mormon Church that is making great claims for the Book of Mormon and if it can be shown to be false it is for the Mormon Church, and not us, to account for it.
Mike Thomas was a Mormon for 14 years, became a Christian in 1986 and for many years worked with Reachout Trust speaking and writing about Mormonism. He still researches Mormonism and occasionally posts his thoughts on Mormon issues at The Mormon Chapbook