Was He An Early Adopter Of The “Inspired But Not Historical” Approach To The Book Of Mormon?
Ever since BH Robert’s writings about challenges facing the Book of Mormon were finally published in 1985, people have argued about whether or not he had “lost faith.” I think that is the wrong question. It tries to force him into black and white categories and ignores all the possibilities in-between. I would suggest that he seems to have kept his faith in the church, but that his faith may have been quite unorthodox. Is it possible that he “kept faith” in the church and believed the Book of Mormon was inspired or valuable while at the same time believing or suspecting that the Book of Mormon was not really historical?
As crazy as such a position may seem to most orthodox Mormons today (and I must admit that it does not work for me), it is not as unheard of as you might think. Anthony Hutchinson argued for this view decades ago. The RLDS/Community of Christ church dealt with the difficult information as a community decades ago, and has made room for the many in its congregation who take this sort of approach. Richard Bushman and Grant Hardy have been very sympathetic to such views without officially taking a position. Randall Bowen has been providing some great blog posts that support such a view. I don’t claim perfect knowledge of BH Robert’s thoughts by the end of his life. I can only present the information and let you decide for yourself. I will first provide a small taste of Robert’s writings about the subject, and then I’ll provide a brief history of the context from which these writings came about. If you want to more fully understand some of the types of concerns that Roberts is alluding to in these quotes below, you can see the writings I’ve begun to compile in my Book of Mormon post HERE.
A VERY SMALL TASTE OF BH ROBERT’S WRITINGS ABOUT CHALLENGES FACING THE BOOK OF MORMON:
“At the time I made for my New Witness the survey of the literature on American antiquities, traditions, origins, etc., available to Joseph Smith and his associates (note: Roberts is referring to an earlier book he’d written about the Book of Mormon), this work of Priest’s was unknown to me; as was also the work of Ethan Smith, View of the Hebrews — except by report of it, and as being in my hands but a few minutes … it is altogether probable that these two books … were either possessed by Joseph Smith or certainly known by him …
Moreover, on subjects widely discussed, and that deal in matters of widespread public interest, there is built up in the course of years, a community of knowledge of such subjects, usually referred to as ‘matters of common knowledge’ … Such ‘common knowledge’ existed throughout New England and New York in relation to American Indian origins and cultures…and a person of vivid and constructive imaginative power in contact with it, there is little room for doubt that it might be possible for Joseph Smith to construct a theory of origin for his Book of Mormon in harmony with these prevailing notions; and more especially since this ‘common knowledge’ is set forth in almost handbook form in the little work of Ethan Smith … It will appear in what is to follow that such ‘common knowledge’ did exist in New England, that Joseph Smith was in contact with it; that one book, at least, with which he was most likely acquainted, could well have furnished structural outlines for the Book of Mormon; and that Joseph Smith was possessed of such creative imaginative powers as would make it quite within the lines of possibility that the Book of Mormon could have been produced in that way.” (Studies of the Book of Mormon, pages 152-54)
[Roberts quotes View of the Hebrews here]: “It is highly probable that the more civilized part of the tribes of Israel, after they settled in America, became wholly separated from the hunting and savage tribes of their brethren; that the latter lost the knowledge of their having descended from the same family with themselves; that the more civilized part continued for many centuries; that tremendous wars were frequent between them and their savage brethren, till the former became extinct…These partially civilized people became extinct. What account can be given of this, but that the savages extirpated them after long and dismal wars?”
“Could an investigator of the Book of Mormon be much blamed if he were to decide that Ethan Smith’s book with its suggestion as to the division of his Israelites into two peoples; with its suggestion of ‘tremendous wars between them’; and of the savages overcoming the civilized division led to the fashioning of chiefly these same things in the Book of Mormon?”
“the likelihood of Joseph Smith coming in contact with Ethan Smith’s book is not only very great, but amounts to a very close certainty” (page 235).
“Did Ethan Smith’s View of the Hebrews furnish structural material for Joseph Smith’s Book of Mormon? It has been pointed out in these pages that there are many things in the former book that might well have suggested many major things in the other. Not a few things merely, one or two, or a half dozen, but many; and it is this fact of many things of similarity and the cumulative force of them that makes them so serious a menace to Joseph Smith’s story of the Book of Mormon’s origin.” (Studies of the Book of Mormon, pg. 240)
“The material in Ethan Smith’s book is of a character and quantity to make a ground plan for the Book of Mormon …Can such numerous and startling points of resemblance and suggestive contact be merely coincidence?” (pg 242)
“One other subject remains to be considered in this division … viz., — was Joseph Smith possessed of a sufficiently vivid and creative imagination as to produce such a work as the Book of Mormon from such materials as have been indicated in the preceding chapters . . . That such power of imagination would have to be of a high order is conceded; that Joseph Smith possessed such a gift of mind there can be no question ….” (pg 243)
“In light of this evidence, there can be no doubt as to the possession of a vividly strong, creative imagination by Joseph Smith, the Prophet, an imagination, it could with reason be urged, which, given the suggestions that are to be found in the ‘common knowledge’ of accepted American antiquities of the times, supplemented by such a work, as Ethan Smith’s View of the Hebrews, would make it possible for him to create a book such as the Book of Mormon is.” (pg 250)
“If from all that has gone before in Part 1, the view be taken that the Book of Mormon is merely of human origin…if it be assumed that he is the author of it, then it could be said there is much internal evidence in the book itself to sustain such a view.
In the first place there is a certain lack of perspective in the things the book relates as history that points quite clearly to an underdeveloped mind as their origin. The narrative proceeds in characteristic disregard of conditions necessary to its reasonableness, as if it were a tale told by a child, with utter disregard for consistency.” (Studies of the Book of Mormon, pg 251)
“But in addition to the striking parallelism in these incidents of Anti-Christs of the Book of Mormon, with the strong implication that they have their origin in one mind, I call attention again to the fact of “rawness” in dealing with this question of unbelief, the evidence of “amateurishness” increasingly evident in this story of Korihor. Does it not carry with it proof that it is the work of a pious youth dealing with the very commonplace stock arguments clumsily put together for the belief in the existence of God . . . rather than an adult appeal and argument on the great questions involved? .. . And is not the vindication of God and his truth by a vindictive miracle on the person of the ranting blasphemer, rather the dream of a pious boy of what might very well have happened, rather than a matter of actual experience?
There were other Anti-Christs among the Nephites, but they were more military leaders than religious innovators … they are all of one breed and brand; so nearly alike that one mind is the author of them, and that a young and undeveloped, but piously inclined mind. The evidence I sorrowfully submit, points to Joseph Smith as their creator. It is difficult to believe that they are the product of history, that they come upon the scene separated by long periods of time, and among a race which was the ancestral race of the red man of America.” (pg 271)
“In all this war of extinction, and destruction there is only one important variation, and that is that in the case of the Jaredites, the annihilation was complete for both sides down to the last man; in the case of the Nephites and Lamanites only the Nephites were wholly annihilated; …And now, I doubt not, at the conclusion of this review of the Nephite and Jaredite wars of extinction (both of which coincidentally centered around the same militarily insignificant hill in Joseph Smith’s New York neighborhood), some will be led to exclaim—and I will set it down for them—“Is all this sober history inspired written and true, representing things that actually happened? Or is it a wonder-tale of human credulity when asking men to accept his narrative as solemn history?” (pg 279-283)
“Jaredite barges had neither sails nor means of steering, but evidently were to wallow their way through the sea, sometimes submerged and sometimes atop of the sea….Do we have here a great historical document, or only a wonder tale, told by an undeveloped mind, living in a period and in an environment where the miraculous in ‘history’ is accepted without limitations and is supposed to account for all inconsistencies and lapses that challenge human credulity in the thought and in the easy philosophy that all things are possible with God?” (pg 355-358)
A BRIEF HISTORY OF BH ROBERT’S CONCERNS AND WRITINGS ABOUT THE BOOK OF MORMON:
1909: Roberts writes a defense of the Book of Mormon called “New Witness.” He later says Ethan Smith’s “View of the Hebrews” was not available to him at this time.
Late 1921: A guy named Couch submits 5 questions to James Talmage challenging the Book of Mormon on the basis of issues like languages, horses, steel, scimeters, and silk. Talmage refers the questions to Roberts whom he felt was better versed in these areas of study. Roberts isn’t happy with the brief answers he can provide, and ends up creating a document called “Book of Mormon Difficulties.”
Jan 1922: Roberts presents his “Difficulties” document to President Heber J. Grant, the apostles, and the seventy. He hopes to inform them of the severity of the challenges facing traditional claims about the book’s origins, and he hoped that “from the collective wisdom of the brethren addressed, or from the inspiration of the Lord…we might find a solution of the problems presented.” He is given 3 days (Jan 4, 5, and 26th) to present these “difficulties” to the church leadership.
Soon afterward, he writes Heber J. Grant and tells him how disappointed he was in the conference (some quotes from this letter are provided at the end of this document if you’re interested). In a later interview he reveals that the leaders basically just shared their testimonies of the book, but that nobody really had anything to say that was actually relevant to the challenges, and later in his life he even said they weren’t in a “studious mood.” He very strongly reiterates to Grant how bad things look, and that the church’s traditional claims are facing “grave difficulties,” and that the “new knowledge seems to be against us.” He was extremely concerned about how these things would affect the church now and in the future if left unanswered, and even hoped they might seek revelation on the matters and come up with answers.
February through May 1922: During the four months Roberts has before leaving to serve as president of the Eastern States Mission for 5 years, he feels a need to dive deeper into his studies of the origins of the Book of Mormon and outlines issues that are–in my view–more troubling than the previous issues he’d tried to address. He produces a new work titled “Book of Mormon Study.” He now addresses Ethan Smith’s View of the Hebrews, and identifies how its numerous parallels with the BOM as well as the popular beliefs about Native Americans at the time are “so serious a menace to Joseph Smith’s story of the Book of Mormon’s origin.” He argues that Joseph’s creative mind could have done it, and that there is much internal evidence of human origin. As evidence he cites things such as several unrealistic historical claims, the various “anti-Christs” seeming contrived, the similarity of conversion experiences to Joseph’s time and location, and so on…
Unlike the previous study, this newer one doesn’t seem to have ever been sent to the church leaders—at least not before the end of his mission in 1927. He had definitely once planned on sending it, because a letter to the church leadership was found with the documents that was apparently not sent (unless a copy was made?). This letter introduced the document. It had an important disclaimer that outlined his intent. He stated that he was simply investigating with an “open mind” the evidence “pro et con,” surrounding “Book of Mormon origin and authorship.” He says he’s basically just presenting the data, and not his conclusions. He says his conclusions are “undrawn.” He is clear that he’s still approaching the issue with faith, trusting that their “faith is not only unshaken but unshakable in the Book of Mormon, and therefore we can look without fear upon all that can be said against it.”
May 29, 1922 through 1927: Roberts serves as mission president of the Eastern States Mission.
Oct 24, 1927: Although I’m not sure whether “Book of Mormon Study” in its entirety was ever submitted to the church leaders, we do know that Roberts at least made them aware of the View of the Hebrews issue. On this date Roberts writes a letter to Apostle Richard R. Lyman saying: “I thought I would submit in sort of tabloid form a few pages of matter pointing out a possible theory of the Origin of the Book of Mormon that is quite unique and never seems to have occurred to anyone to employ, largely on account of the obscurity of the material on which it might be based, but which in the hands of a skilled opponent could be made, in my judgment, very embarrassing….. it could be urged that the [Smith] family doubtless had [View of the Hebrews] in their possession…” Roberts noted that the issue of View of the Hebrews influencing Book of Mormon content and structure “may possibly arise some day, and if it does, it would be greatly to the advantage of our future Defenders of the Faith if they had in hand a thorough digest of the subject matter… Let me say also, that the Parallel that I send to you is not one fourth part of what can be presented in this form, and the unpresented part is quite as striking as this that I submit. (Studies 59-60, letter dated Oct 24th 1927 to Apostle Richard R. Lyman)
1927 through 1928: We get some info from Mark Allen who served as a secretary for Roberts in New York in 1927 and 1928. Truman G. Madsen summed up Allen’s reports: “Roberts frequently spoke…of problems with the Book of Mormon. He especially quoted the many parallels between the new scriptures and the Bible, and also he discussed the strenuous process of translating and the possibility of errors in vernacular expressions…” A few direct quotes from Mark Allen: “I received the impression that he was gallantly attempting to ‘save’ the book…His faith in the divinity of the book was strong, but he agonized over the intellectual problems in justifying it. His fervent expression was, ‘ O Brother Allen, we have many serious problems with the Book of Mormon.” Allen also reported that Roberts had shifted his approach in defending the Book of Mormon. Unlike in his early work “New Witness,” he had become “uneasy with attempts to build a case out of trivial coincidence and gratuitous parallels.” He instead focused on “searching out the deeper spiritual and moral meaning.” Truman Madsen noted that after his study Roberts took “less interest in archeology, and placed more emphasis on the doctrinal and philosophical strengths of the Book.”
August 1933 (6 weeks before Roberts death): Roberts has a 3.5 hour interview with Wesley Lloyd—which is recorded in Lloyd’s journal. Roberts had been Lloyd’s mission president. Lloyd reviews the history of Robert’s writings and his meetings with the church leadership after writing his “Difficulties” document. He then discusses Robert’s “Book of Mormon Study,” which he seems to believe actually was sent to Heber J. Grant. The rest of this paragraph is a section from Lloyd’s journal: “Roberts…set forth a revolutionary article on the origin of the Book of Mormon and sent it to Pres. Grant. It’s an article far too strong for the average Church member but for the intellectual group he considers it a contribution to assist in explaining Mormonism. He swings to a psychological explanation of the Book of Mormon and shows that the plates were not objective but subjective with Joseph Smith. That his exceptional imagination qualified him psychologically for the experience which he had in presenting to the world the Book of Mormon and that the plates with the Urim and Thummim were not objective….. He explained certain literary difficulties in the Book…These are some of the things which have made Bro Roberts shift his base on the Book of Mormon. Instead of regarding it as the strongest evidence we have of the Church Divinity, he regards it as the one which needs the more bolstering. His greatest claim for the divinity of the Prophet Joseph lies in the Doctrine and Covenants.”
I think both sides have often overstated the evidence and tried to look at the situation in a much too “black and white” manner. I think it is misleading and wrong to just say that Roberts “lost faith,” but it is just as misleading and wrong to act like Roberts was only “playing devil’s advocate” and to refuse to acknowledge that there is very good reason to believe that Roberts was deeply bothered by many of these issues, and that they may have caused him to approach and view the book differently. Knowing definitively what was in his mind isn’t possible, but in my view there is very good reason to suspect Roberts did not believe (or at least severely doubted) that the Book of Mormon was truly based on a historical record.
It is interesting to look at what has happened in the RLDS/Community of Christ church, and to think how things could have gone differently for the LDS church given different leadership. In the 1920’s when Roberts presented his writings to the church leadership, both communities probably would have responded similarly (by essentially ignoring and brushing these concerns under the rug). But beginning 4-5 decades ago, the RLDS/Community of Christ faced a situation where some of its own scholars presented their own documents regarding some “Book of Mormon Difficulties.” Instead of brushing them under the rug and denying their legitimacy, they dealt with the issues as a community and ultimately acknowledged that given the evidence it is reasonable to conclude that the Book of Mormon isn’t historical, and wasn’t created in the way it has been traditionally understood to have been created. They have since made room for people all across the spectrum to be comfortable in the church. The LDS church has instead dug themselves into a trench which they will defend at all costs, and has continued to deny the legitimacy of any of these types of issues while more and more people find that they are quite legitimate. Had it been up to BH Roberts, what might the LDS church look like today?
FOR THOSE INTERESTED IN ADDITIONAL INFORMATION, HERE IS SOME OF ROBERT’S CORRESPONDENCE WITH THE CHURCH LEADERSHIP ABOUT THESE ISSUES:
From a Dec 29th, 1921 letter to Heber J. Grant requesting to present the information in “Difficulties” to the leadership:
“I assure you that I am most thoroughly convinced of the necessity of all the brethren herein addressed becoming familiar with these Book of Mormon problems, and finding the answer for them, as it is a matter that will concern the faith of the Youth of the Church now as also in the future, as well as such casual inquirers as may come to us from the outside world.”
From correspondence Roberts sent to Heber J. Grant after the conclusion of his three days presenting “Difficulties” to the leadership:
“I just wanted the brethren to know that I was quite disappointed in the results of our conference, but not withstanding I shall be most earnestly alert upon the subject of Book of Mormon difficulties, hoping for the development of new knowledge, and for new light to fall upon what has already been learned, to the vindication of what God has revealed in the Book of Mormon; but I cannot be other than painfully conscious of the fact that our means of defense, should we be vigorously attacked along the lines of [these] questions, are very inadequate.”
“We place our revealed truths in the Book of Mormon against the alleged facts resulting from the investigations of Ethnologists and Philologists and the deductions of their science, and calmly await the vindication we feel sure that time will bring to the Book of Mormon. Much could be said for the boldness and perhaps for the honesty of such an answer, but is the reasonableness or wisdom of such an answer equally apparent? It would certainly have no effect upon the educated class throughout the world. It would only excite ridicule and contempt in them. It would be the answer of fanatics prompted by, and only possible because of ignorance, they would say. What would be the effect of such an answer upon the minds of our youth? Our youth, already so willing to follow in so many other branches of learning the deductions of the sciences in their high school and college courses. Is silence the best answer? Is silence possible in such a questioning age as ours—-such an age of free inquiry? May the questions propounded to us be ignored? Would not silence be looked upon as a confession of inability to make an effective answer? Would not silence be a confession of defeat?
What shall be our answer then? Shall we boldly acknowledge the difficulties in the case, confess that the evidences and conclusions of the authorities are against us, but notwithstanding that, we take our position on the Book of Mormon and place its revealed truths against the declarations of men, however learned, and await the vindication of the revealed truth?…What will the effect be upon our youth of such a confession of inability to give a more reasonable answer to the questions submitted and the awaiting of proof for final vindication? Will not the hoped for proof deferred indeed make the heart sick? …Again I ask, is silence our best answer? These questions are put by me…to bring to the consciousness of myself and my brethren that we face grave difficulties in all these matters, and that if there is any way by which we may “find wisdom, and great treasures of knowledge, even hidden treasures”—for I am sure that neither an appeal to the books written by men, nor even to the books of scripture now in our possession, will solve our present difficulties—then a most earnest appeal should be made…”
If we cannot, what is to be the effect of it all upon the minds of our youth? What is to be our general standing before the enlightened opinion of mankind? Is silence to be our answer? Again will occur to thoughtful minds the difficulties attendant upon silence. In the last analysis of things silence would be acknowledgement of defeat. Silence in an age of free inquiry is impossible. An appeal to the old writers is of little value. The recent accepted authoritative writers leave us, so far as I can at present see, no ground of appeal or defense—the new knowledge seems to be against us. To stand up and say to the modern world we place our revealed truth against all the evidence and deductions of your science, and await the vindication of new evidence yet to be discovered, is heroic; but is it, and will it be convincing? Most humbly, but also most anxiously, I await the further development of knowledge that will make it possible for us to give a reasonable answer to those who question us concerning the matters herein discussed.”
From the apparently unsent letter introducing “A Book of Mormon Study” which was written after presenting “Difficulties” to the leadership:
“My answer was, however, that it was my intention to go on with the consideration to the last analysis. Accordingly, since the matter was already so far under my hands, I continued my studies, and submit herewith the record of them. I do not say my conclusions, for they are undrawn. In writing out this my report to you of those studies, I have written it from the viewpoint of an open mind, investigating the facts of the Book of Mormon origin and authorship. Let me say once and for all, so as to avoid what might otherwise call for repeated explanation, that what is herein set forth does not represent any conclusions of mine. This report herewith submitted is what it purports to be, namely a ‘study of Book of Mormon origins’ for the information of those who ought to know everything about it pro et con, as well as that which has been produced against it, and that which may be produced against it. I am taking the position that our faith is not only unshaken but unshakable in the Book of Mormon, and therefore we can look without fear upon all that can be said against it.”