INTRODUCTION: APPROACHES TO THE BOOK OF MORMON
HOW THE CIRCUMSTANCES OF THE BOOK’S EMERGENCE RAISE RED FLAGS ABOUT JOSEPH’S CLAIMS AND ANSWER QUESTIONS REGARDING THE BOOK OF MORMON WITNESSES
ACCOUNTING FOR THE CREATION/TRANSLATION OF THE BOOK OF MORMON
PROPOSED “HEBRAISMS” OR “SEMITISMS” IN THE BOOK OF MORMON
FOUR MAJOR OBSTACLES TO VIEWING THE BOOK OF MORMON AS AN AUTHENTIC HISTORICAL RECORD
#1) At a Foundational Level the Book Follows Distinct Early 19th Century Ideas About The Native Americans that were Ultimately Disproven and Abandoned
Although it was eventually disproven by DNA (and abandoned for a myriad of other reasons long before that), it was very common in Joseph’s day to identify the Native Americans as “lost Israelites” who needed to be “gathered” and Christianized. It made perfect sense to them due to their belief in a literal flood, as well as their biblical interpretations regarding “scattered Israel.” Lots of books were written about this subject in that time period, claiming all sorts of evidences of Hebrew beliefs and customs among the Natives (many quoting James Adair’s “History of the American Indians” for evidences), and trying to awaken people to their duty to “gather” and “Christianize” them. I’m trying to keep this post brief, but you can see my post HERE to begin to get a feel for how commonly held and discussed these ideas were.
In Joseph’s day it was also “common knowledge” that there must have previously been another more civilized (and most also believed more “white”) group of Native Americans who had been exterminated by the supposedly “savage,” “lazy,” and “dumb” natives who remained. For them it was the only way they could explain the impressive “Indian Mounds” and other complex works being discovered in the Americas. Again, I’m trying to keep this post brief, but if you want to truly begin to appreciate this issue I highly recommend seeing my post HERE to get a feel for just how prevalent these ideas were, and how they tie in with the Book of Mormon. As an introduction I’ll provide just two examples here that are representative of the commonly expressed viewpoint:
In the 1816 Philadelphia Port Folio (a magazine) John P. Campbell noted:
“It is a very general opinion, prevailing in the western country, that there is ample proof that the country in general was once inhabited by a civilized and agricultural people… Again, it is the current opinion, that the first inhabitants of the western country were white people, and therefore cannot be denominated Indians…. It is hence not indispensable that the Aborigines should be a white people, strictly speaking, in order to account for their improvements, or their knowledge of the arts. The Indians universally disclaim these ancient works and monuments… and allege that they were erected by white people.”
As John Yates and Joseph Moulton put it in their 1824 book “History of the State of New York”:
“An exterminating war appears to have taken place between the barbarous natives… and their more refined and civilized neighbors, ending in nearly the total destruction of the latter.”
Of course, the “Mound Builder Myth” of a “lost race” was debunked by about 1890 when archeologists found that it was in fact the Indians who had built the Indian Mounds. It was about that time when John Wesley Powell wrote a piece called “The Indians Are The Moundbuilders.” But of course this false “common knowledge” of Joseph’s time fits quite nicely with the concepts of the Nephites and Lamanites—and it is notable that Joseph once recounted in a letter to Emma that he was…
“…wandering over the plains of the Nephites, recounting occasionally the history of the Book of Mormon, roving over the mounds of that once beloved people of the Lord.”
But if the “Mound Builder Myth” didn’t spell out the foundational (but false) concepts of the Book of Mormon clearly enough, a popular book by Oliver Cowdery’s own pastor does it more explicitly. Ethan Hunt’s book “View of the Hebrews” isn’t important because anybody was directly “plagiarizing” its words (though I do suspect that it directly “influenced” the Book of Mormon). Rather, it is important primarily because it so aptly shows that the Book of Mormon was based on the popular (but false) ideas of the time. Some quotes from the book…
“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? …. No other hypothesis occurs to mind, which appears by any means so probable. The degrees of improvement, demonstrated to have existed among the authors of these works, and relics, who have ceased to exist, far exceed all that could have been furnished from the north-east of Asia, in those ancient times. But however vindictive the savages must have been; however cruel and horrid in extirpating their more civilized brethren; yet it is a fact that there are many excellent traits in their original character. There is in the minds of the native Americans a quality far superior to what is found in the minds of most other heathen on earth; and such as might have been expected from the descendants of the ancient Israel of God…”
“…Israel brought into this new continent a considerable degree of civilization; and the better part of them long labored to maintain it. But others fell into the hunting and consequent savage state; whose barbarous hordes invaded their more civilized brethren, and eventually annihilated most of them, and all in these northern regions!” (note: the final battles in the Book of Mormon also took place in “the land Northward”)
“But the savage tribes prevailed; and in time their savage jealousies and rage annihilated their more civilized brethren.”
“Of some of these I shall give a concise view, as additional arguments in favor of my theory, that some of the people of Israel who came into the western continent maintained some degree of civilization for a long time; but that the better part of the outcast tribes of Israel here finally became extinct, at least in North America, under the rage of their more numerous savage brethren.”
“Look at the origin of those degraded natives of your continent, and fly to their relief…Teach them the story of their ancestors; the economy of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob….showing them what has been done for their nation; and what is yet to be done by the God of their fathers, in the line of his promise. Teach them their ancient history; their former blessings; their being cast away… and the promise of their return….”
There are many other significant parallels with Ethan Smith’s book “View of the Hebrews” that can be explored in my document HERE. I’ll list a few examples here: The book suggests that the Indians had a device “in resemblance of the Urim and Thummin,” which included a “breast plate.” It references the legend of Quetzalcoatl—whom the text claims was given control of the government, teaches peace, fasting, no more sacrifices except firstfruits, and promises to come back and rule again. It suggests evidence that the gospel had once been preached in America. It makes multiple references to the “two sticks” in Ezekiel 37:15-17, and suggests that the lost 10 tribes (of whom the Natives were said to be a part) were the “stick of Ephraim.” It reviews the concept of a great “apostasy”—referencing key LDS scriptures like Amos 8:11-12 and 2 Thess 2:3. It references “the Great Spirit” more times than I could count (possibly an inspiration for the same in Alma 18, 19, and 22?). It is extremely heavy on the theme of the prophesied “literal gathering” or “restoration” of the lost tribes in the “last days”—including those on the “isles of the sea” (see 2 Nephi 10:20). Like other sources of the time it describes Native American fortifications very similarly to those in the Book of Mormon. In general, it recounts countless supposed “evidences” of Israelite customs imagined to be among the Native Americans. For example, it suggests that the Natives had anointing ceremonies like that of the High Priests of Israel—where “the holy garments are put upon him, bear’s oil is poured on his head.”
With that background (and it’s truly just a brief introduction), perhaps one is equipped to at least begin to understand why even prominent LDS leader and thinker BH Roberts said all of the following so many years ago:
“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):
“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)
The issue of whether or not Joseph was inspired specifically by View of the Hebrews is very much secondary to the fact that the book serves as a potent representation of how the Book of Mormon happens to have followed the popular ideas of the day. The Book of Mormon happens to be just the sort of thing one would expect to come out of that time period. The fact that these popular ideas all turned out to be false and were ultimately abandoned makes it all the more difficult to claim that these parallels could be “merely coincidence.” And the fact that they are so foundational to the book’s very self-conception make it pretty tough to identify them as products of a “loose translation” or modern “expansion” during translation.
#2) DNA Issues, and Major Problems Facing The Apologetics
A massive shift has taken place in the interpretation of the Book of Mormon. Until 2006 it was stated in the book’s introduction (and was the norm in LDS teaching) that the Lehites were the “principal ancestors” of the Native Americans. At this point the defense of the book’s historicity depends on arguing essentially the exact opposite. It is now argued that the Lehites were such a tiny group entering into such a massive existing population of Natives that we really shouldn’t expect to find any DNA evidence of their existence. The book’s introduction now says that the Lamanites were simply “among” the ancestors of the Native Americans. But to state it more plainly, the book’s historicity is now defended by saying that any Lamanite ancestry that Native Americans have is admittedly so minuscule that we can’t even expect to trace it.
Now, the claim that we wouldn’t be able to trace that DNA is controversial to say the least. But I don’t suspect that arguing that point will change any minds anyway because most of us aren’t geneticists. So let me come at it another way. Let me propose to you that these newly required and drastically different interpretations of the Book of Mormon are dead on arrival anyway because they contradict not only some explicit revelatory claims of Joseph Smith, but also the text of the book itself—both of which indicate that the Lehites were in fact supposed to be the “principal ancestors” of the Native Americans. In summary:
The Book of Mormon and the D&C both repeatedly claim that the Book of Mormon is supposed to come forth to the “remnant of our seed” so they’ll “be restored unto the knowledge of their forefathers,” and “know that they are of the house of Israel,” and know that they are “descendants of the Jews.” It says they are a “remnant of the house of Joseph.” It says “so that the Lamanites might come to the knowledge of their fathers.” (2 Ne 30:3-6; 1 Ne 15:14; D&C 3:16-20)
I think it’s a tough case to make that these verses can reasonably refer to people whose Lehite ancestry is admittedly so minuscule as to be untraceable. For me the implication that they are supposed to be the “principal ancestors” is clear. And even if there was a time in the Book of Mormon when “Lamanite” could refer to anyone who wasn’t politically a Nephite, it doesn’t change the fact that these verses have very clear genetic or ancestral implications.
Another issue is that Joseph’s revelatory claims (not just opinions) seem to indicate “principal ancestry.” He says Moroni told him directly that the “indians were the literal descendants of Abraham.” He said Moroni “informed him of the aboriginal inhabitants of this country…and from whence they came.” He said Moroni told him directly that the Book of Mormon gave an account of “the former inhabitants of this continent, and the source from which they sprang.” (see Joseph’s Diary / Wentworth Letter / JS History)
I suppose one can propose that he was putting words in Moroni’s mouth, but I think those claims clearly indicate “principal ancestry.”
The book suggests that the flood wiped everyone out just 4,000 years ago, and that the land was then “preserved for a righteous people.” Given that Native American origins trace back about 15,000 years, it’s a problem if they’re wiped out 4000 years ago. One could argue an ancient writer just incorrectly bought into the myth as being literal—but it is worth noting that the writer seems to have thought there was nobody else here when the Jaredites arrived.
It’s worth noting that the Book of Mormon doesn’t mention any encounters with these huge populations of existing natives that would have to have been here. In fact, oddly enough, both times they DO encounter outside groups they actually turn out to be Israelites (Jaredites/Mulekites)!!! Honestly, what are the odds? When both groups encountered happen to be Israelites, it certainly seems to suggest that the America’s were supposed to be inhabited “principally” by Israelites whom God brought here.
Finally, there is the issue of the prophecies of the Book of Mormon not being fulfilled. Who are the “Lamanites” the book is going to? Who are coming to the knowledge of their forefathers, and realizing they are Israelites? Blossoming as a rose? Are we proposing it’s okay to call all Native Americans Israelites/Lamanites on the imagined premise that they have some tiny bit of Lamanite ancestry that is admittedly so minuscule that it can’t be traced? Can we reasonably say that anyone is coming to the “knowledge of their forefathers” if we now say that any Lehite ancestry they have is so tiny as to be untraceable?
#3) Source Criticism: How The Book Utilizes and Relies On Scripture That Wouldn’t Have Existed At The Time The Material Is Supposed To Have Been Authored
The field of “source criticism” deals with looking at the evidence that an author was utilizing or in some way depending on another text during creation of their own text. For example, there are many clear indicators that the authors of Matthew and Luke utilized the earlier gospel of Mark while creating their own gospels, and thus were later creations. If powerful evidence exists that the creator of the Book of Mormon (or Book of Abraham) was utilizing texts that didn’t exist when the Book of Mormon is supposed to have been written, this could be problematic and could indicate a 19th century creation. Obviously the strength of each particular example will vary. Although we have accounts that Joseph simply read word for word what was shown him on a stone in a hat, some apologists suggest that at least some of these challenges can be accounted for by suggesting a “loose translation” or “expansion” process of translation (for example, saying that exact New Testament phrasing was borrowed if a reasonably similar message was expressed on the plate text). But even if this view is taken, it cannot account for all problems—some of which run much deeper. We’ll note just a few significant examples here:
The Book of Mormon includes much of the book of Isaiah with the claim that it was on the “brass plates” that were in the possession of the Lehites. It extensively quotes chapters from Isaiah 1-14, and Isaiah 48-53. The trouble is that chapters 48-53 would not have existed yet at the time the Lehites left Jerusalem. LDS scholar David Bokovoy—apparently frustrated by LDS apologists whom he felt were drastically misrepresenting and understating the power of the evidence on the issue—said the following: “Since the 20th century, all mainstream scholars have held the position that chapters 40-66 were written after the Jewish exile into Babylon (c.a. 586 BCE).” He added that he finds “the evidence that Isaiah 40-55 is exilic material written by later authors rather than the historical Isaiah irrefutable” (see HERE). Of course, the creator of the Book of Mormon could not have known this at the time, but the use of Deutero-Isaiah serves as a strong data point suggesting modern creation.
A related issue is that many Isaiah chapters in the Book of Mormon contain the same translation errors that were in the 1769 KJV Bible—indicating that even though many have assumed or claimed that these Isaiah chapters reflect a more ancient and more accurate version of Isaiah, they were actually just a modern reworking of the 1769 KJV chapters. In fact, given that it has been demonstrated that Joseph used Adam Clarke’s biblical commentary while doing his Bible translation (study at BYU and more discussion HERE), it is very possible that some of the interesting differences between Book of Mormon chapters and KJV chapters came about through consultation of biblical commentaries or family bible footnotes. I hope more exploration will be done on this issue but in my document HERE I’ve noted some strong possibilities in this regard.
The Book of Mormon gives a detailed narrative where Nephi describes a vision he is given of John the Apostle writing the book of Revelation (1 Ne 14:20-27). Of course, in Joseph’s day it it would have been assumed that it was John the apostle who wrote Revelation, but this is now thoroughly rejected by biblical scholars. This suggests that this narrative of this vision was a fabrication by the creator of the Book of Mormon. And if a narrative like this was invented, it is fair to ask what else was invented, and to take note of the creativity that is at play.
3 Nephi contains a rather obvious and intentional reworking of Matthew 5. Most of it is taken word for word from the KJV. So from the start this text asks us to believe that the Sermon on the Mount was a cohesive sermon recorded accurately almost word for word by an early follower of Jesus even though scholars suggest Matt 5 likely began as a collection of remembered “sayings” of Jesus, which were only later arranged into a cohesive sermon. But setting all that aside, it’s interesting to observe how 3 Nephi makes the rather obvious needed edits to Matthew 5 (e.g. changing “farthing” to “senine,” and removing references to Scribes, Pharisees, Publicans, and to “swearing by Jerusalem”). But the Book of Mormon author failed to edit out some other less obvious references that were specific to the “Old World,” and wouldn’t have made sense to a Nephite. For example, Jesus’ reference to “go with him twain” was specifically referencing an issue faced by Jews wherein a Roman soldier could force them to carry their things for one mile. Or in 3 Nephi 12:22 the term “raca” is used even though it is an Aramaic term (not Hebrew or Egyptian), and even though it was a term that only had meaning in first century Jerusalem (being used to refer to someone “being in danger of the council”—or the judgement of the Sanhedrin. It is hard to believe Jesus’ message wasn’t more personalized, and when all evidence is considered, I don’t think it can be denied that the 3 Nephi shows direct literary dependance on Matthew 5, which was intentionally reworked during the creation of the Book of Mormon. Further exploration of the issue HERE. Side by side comparison of the texts HERE.
Mormon 9:22-24 quotes Mark 16:15-18 almost word for word even though scholars broadly agree that it wasn’t even originally in Mark. Loads of other NT verses are quoted word for word (in perfect KJV form) despite not existing yet. (Examples: Matthew 3:10 and Alma 5:52; Corinthians 15:53 and Mosiah 16:10; Romans 8:6 and 2 Nephi 9:39; Corinthians 15:58 and Mosiah 15:15; Corinthians 11:29 and 3 Nephi 18:29).
There are many other examples where the text is not quoting whole verses as we see in the examples above, but where the Book of Mormon narrative is clearly coming about as a result of “expounding” on or borrowing from New Testament verses and concepts that didn’t exist yet. Sometimes it is just a borrowed phrase peppered into the narrative here or there, but in other cases it is more involved and extensive. Consider as an example my document HERE that shows side by side comparisons of some parts of Hebrews 3 and Alma 12, and Hebrews 7 and Alma 13. Did an ancient American prophet truly share essentially the same message with so much of the same wording as the writer of Hebrews? At a minimum this suggests that the translation was a very “loose” process, and not something that closely reflected the actual words of these ancient American prophets. But even if we take a “loose translation” approach, one can’t help wondering how much the original message given by these ancient people could have truly resembled that which we now have in the Book of Mormon. In my view this suggests the translation was a creative process often drawing on biblical passages for inspiration and content. Further analysis of this particular example can be found HERE and HERE.
#4) Motif Criticism: How the Book Is Not Only Filled With Anachronistic Theology, But Also With Distinct Early 19th Century Concerns
In religious studies the scholarly field of “Motif Criticism” can give us clues about the authorship and the date of creation of a particular text by looking at the themes or theological ideas within the text, and comparing with what we know about the historical development of these ideas. If a text contains specific practices, concepts, or motifs that we know developed for particular reasons at a particular time in history, then it can suggest to us that the text was created after that date.
Like those in other popular “Restoration Movements” of the day, Joseph Smith hoped to restore the early Christian church. However—no doubt influenced by Sidney Rigdon—he clearly felt that as he attempted to restore Christ’s church he would also be restoring the true teachings and practices of the more ancient prophets. For example, his Book of Moses asks us to believe that Adam, Enoch, Noah, and Moses were basically all ancient Christians who knew of all three members of the “Godhead,” and preached and baptized in Jesus’ name for the remission of sins. They had the whole plan of salvation—including divine judgement, resurrection, etc. And of course, Book of Mormon prophets have all the same knowledge.
I do realize that for folks who believe strongly in concepts of “dispensations,” “apostasy,” “restoration,” and “revelation,” this can all seem completely plausible. But I would suggest that when significant time is taken to explore the development of Israelite and Christian theology throughout history it becomes harder and harder to try to retroject all of these things back onto ancient Israelites—even if we do play the “revelation” trump card. Perhaps if you explore some of the examples given at the end of this section you’ll begin to understand what I mean.
As with the last section, the strength of each example of these issues will vary. It is difficult enough to try to retroject numerous Christian concepts back onto ancient Israelites when they are completely absent from all Israelite records. It is even more difficult when these concepts weren’t even fully developed among the early Christians. And even more difficult to explain why the Book of Mormon contains so many concepts and controversies that are so specific to the early 19th century—asking us to believe that ancient Americans happen to have had so many of the same theological concerns and debates as 19th century Christians. More importantly, we’re asked to believe that ancient Americans happen to have used and expounded upon very specific theological framings that had required the previous hundreds of years prior to Joseph’s time to develop and have meaning. As Randall Bowen put it in a post that I’ll link to below: “it’s very difficult to assert that these Book of Mormon phrases and ideas could have come anciently and independently, without the body of work of centuries of Christian theologians to build upon.”
This is a massively broad topic. Impossible to do it justice here. However, my hope is that by exploring the few sources I’ll provide below you will at least begin to understand how much in the book is of an early 19th century nature. Perhaps you’ll begin to understand why Alexander Campbell—who actually helped spark the “Restoration Movement” during Joseph Smith’s childhood—had the following reaction after reading the Book of Mormon:
“Joseph Smith, through his stone spectacles, wrote on the plates of Nephi, in his Book of Mormon, every error and almost every truth discovered in N. 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 freemasonry, the republican government, and the rights of man. All these topics are repeatedly alluded to.” (Delusions. An Analysis of the Book of Mormon. pg. 13)
Perhaps you’ll also understand why prominent LDS historian Richard Bushman said in an interview:
“…there is phrasing everywhere—long phrases that if you google them you will find them in 19th century writings. The theology of the Book of Mormon is very much 19th century theology, and it reads like a 19th century understanding of the Hebrew Bible as an Old Testament.”
Consider first the example we gave at the start of this document. Although I felt it was worthy of its own section, we’ve already engaged in “Motif Criticism” as we explored how the Book of Mormon’s foundational narrative happens to align quite a bit too well with popular (and false) early 19th century ideas about the Native Americans.
To begin to understand why people speak of anachronistic doctrine and theology in the book, consider a collection of quotes I’ve compiled from Blake Ostler’s well known 1987 article about an “expansion theory” of Book of Mormon translation. See that collection HERE to understand why this believing member states that “Many Book of Mormon doctrines are best explained by the nineteenth-century theological milieu. . . . Some doctrines in the book’s pre-Christian sections are simply too developed and too characteristic of the nineteenth century to explain as pre-exilic ideas.”
Consider Alma 42 as a powerful example of theological framings that are very specifically representative of popular ideas and debates of Joseph’s day. As our example here we will take teachings from Jonathan Edwards, Jr (1745-1801)—a very well known theologian of the time period. See my document HERE.
Consider 2 Nephi 9, and how its teachings about the need for an “infinite atonement” are based on a very specific theological debate that just happens to have been occurring in Joseph’s day, and how it uses essentially the same “voice” as theologians of the period. Active member Randall Bowen provides a great series of quotes from sources in Joseph’s day that demonstrate this in his post about “Anachronistic Doctrine in the Book of Mormon.” He also shows how the Book of Mormon author is stringing together New Testament passages. See his post HERE.
Consider Gilbert Hunt’s very popular 1816 book “The Late War” as an example of early 19th century war rhetoric in the Book of Mormon. Also, as a possible source of “inspiration” (not plagiarization) for the writing style and some specific themes and stories in the Book of Mormon. See my document HERE.
Consider Dan Vogel’s great work demonstrating how Book of Mormon prophets happen to have had the same concerns about Universal Salvation or Universalism that happen to have been very specific controversies and subjects of debate in Joseph Smith’s time period. See video HERE.
HOW THE CIRCUMSTANCES OF THE BOOK’S EMERGENCE RAISE RED FLAGS ABOUT JOSEPH’S CLAIMS AND ANSWER QUESTIONS REGARDING THE BOOK OF MORMON WITNESSES
Although this section doesn’t deal directly with the text as the previous sections do, the text can’t be divorced from the circumstances of its emergence, or the people involved in its emergence. I would suggest that it is due to “presentism” that many believers can’t fathom how the witnesses could have made the statements they did if these things were not real. When we understand the culture and environment that all of this evolved from we find many answers and puzzle pieces presenting themselves to us.
First, this was a time of “Charismatic Christianity.” Claims of visions, dreams, and other dramatic spiritual manifestations were a dime a dozen. I’ll give just three examples to try to convey what sort of environment we’re dealing with. First, consider how common it was to claim experiences like Joseph’s “first vision.” I highly recommend skimming through the examples HERE to gain some perspective. Second, consider the witness of eight Quaker women who all claimed to have seen an angel standing on a house holding their sacred book (HERE). Third, consider the story of James Strang. After Joseph Smith died Strang had little trouble convincing most of the Smith family, several apostles, John and David Whitmer, Martin Harris, Hiram Page, and about 12,000 others that he’d been called and ordained by an angel, and translated multiple ancient records from metal plates.
This raises many questions. If so many people at this time period claimed “visions” of God or angels, and yet so few people today claim such things, shouldn’t this give us reason to believe that there was some cultural difference that accounts for this? Shouldn’t it suggest to us to that a “vision” to these people may have constituted something different than what people today might assume? Perhaps at this time when “second sight” (more on this later) was part of their culture, a vision could often be something as simple as imagining something in the mind in a sort of dissociative or meditative state? Perhaps many people of this time assigned significant meaning to such things even though people today wouldn’t be so impressed? In any case, the fact that these types of experiences were so uniquely common at this time period understandably causes many to question their legitimacy.
TREASURE DIGGING, FOLK MAGIC, AND SECOND SIGHT
Although becoming increasingly controversial and soon beginning to fade, the early history of the church occurred at a time when the very unique “treasure digging” and “folk magic” cultures still thrived among certain portions of the population. I don’t think anyone can be blamed for feeling that it was no coincidence that Joseph, his family, and every one of the “witnesses” all happen to have been heavily involved with the controversial “treasure digging” and “folk magic” cultures of the day. My experience was that it was easy to dismiss the significance of these things until I really learned more about them and their connections to the early history. Many are under the impression that the primary concern surrounding these issues is the “weirdness” of it all. For example, the “weirdness” of translating from a seer stone. Whether or not believers ultimately find these things concerning, there are many elephants in the room with implications that go far beyond “weirdness.” These elephants need to be acknowledged, but let’s first introduce the basic culture and practices in question:
Many at the time would seek after fabled treasures of various kinds that were believed to have been lost by Native Americans, Spaniards, Pirates, etc. However, folk magic traditions were heavily involved. Various individuals or “community seers” would claim to know the location of such things as a result of dreams. Others claimed to have the gift of “second sight” whereby they could see treasures or lost objects in “peep stones” or “seer stones” (a form of “glass looking” or “scrying”)—usually with the stone placed into a hat. Astrology was often consulted when planning the timing of such excursions, as many of the treasures would only be accessible during various astrological events (equinoxes, etc). They believed in and often claimed to encounter mystical “treasure guardians” of various kinds (deceased Native Americans, Pirates etc). They believed that special instructions had to be carefully followed to “circumvent” the treasure guardians and obtain the treasure (they might draw circles around the treasure to break the enchantment, or sacrifice an animal, or recite necessary incantations). But if any mistakes were made, or if they were somehow outsmarted by the treasure guardians (for example, if the treasure guardian tricked them into breaking the required silence), then the treasure would spontaneously move out of reach or sink further into the earth. For more info about these issues see HERE or my summary HERE. With that very brief background, lets acknowledge the many elephants in the room. First those regarding Joseph Smith, and then those regarding the Witnesses.
RED FLAGS SURROUNDING JOSEPH SMITH
The first “elephant in the room” that we must acknowledge is that the role Joseph played in these matters raises perfectly reasonable questions regarding his honesty and integrity. It is one thing to be a participant in such things, or to be convinced by or playing along with others who claim a much more intimate connection to them. It is quite another thing to be the guy who is leading these things, and claiming special knowledge and visions of them. Despite his official 1838 history leaving most with the false impression that the treasure digging “stories” arose from a one time event where he was basically a hired shovel for Josiah Stowell, loads of evidence suggests that Joseph functioned as a community “treasure seer” and “finder of lost objects” for at least three years. There are numerous accounts of the Smith’s involvement with such things (LINK). So the question must be asked. Doesn’t it seem to imply willful dishonesty on Joseph’s part when he claims to see lost objects or treasures in his stone? If not dishonesty, then at least a much more significant degree of delusion than that which was demonstrated by other participants? It is fair to ask, do you believe he could actually see lost objects or treasures in his stone? Since it is the most prominent and best documented case, lets take the Stowell situation as an example (we not only have eyewitness statements, but also a court record regarding the ordeal). Emma Smith’s brother stated that “Joe Smith never handled one shovel full of earth in those diggings. All that Smith did was to peep with stone and hat, and give directions where and how to dig, and when and where the enchantment moved the treasure.” So I ask, did this enchanted treasure truly exist? If not, why was Joseph claiming to be able to see it in his peep stone? Can people be blamed for feeling this suggests a history of willful dishonesty, fanciful claims, and perhaps even “con” behavior? If a man seems to have history of convincing people to believe he sees things that are not real, then doesn’t this create understandable reasons to doubt his other incredible claims? Especially when we have other examples of brazen dishonesty, like when he aggressively denied having more than one wife? And when we have strong evidences that his narratives changed and developed over time as he needed them to (like the first vision narrative, or discrepancies in his canonized history).
The second “elephant in the room” where Joseph is concerned is that the these issues are intimately tied in with the early narratives of the coming forth of the Book of Mormon. It is one thing for Joseph and others to have believed in “weird” or unfounded disciplines of the time such as “water witching” or “astrology.” No big deal. Humans, amirite? But can we admit that it’s quite another situation when people who happen to have a history of claiming to see enchanted “treasures” just happen to be making claims about “gold plates?” There is an obvious (but rarely acknowledged) “tie in” here that makes this much more significant than just “weirdness.” Especially because the early historical narratives and accounts (not the later 1838 official history that is very much cleaned up) surrounding the coming forth of this book contain many strong and direct connections with treasure digging culture! Consider the following:
The angel Moroni fits the “treasure guardian” concept a bit too well. Treasure digs often began with seers claiming dreams coming in sets of three, and Joseph was visited by this “messenger” 3 times. Astrology was a core part of treasure digging, with the best time for digs being full moons, especially at various events such as equinoxes. Joseph’s claimed 1823 encounter with this messenger occurred on a full moon just prior to the autumnal equinox—and each yearly meeting with the messenger occurred at the equinox. Just as treasure diggers had to precisely follow a particular set of instructions to bypass a treasure guardian and obtain a treasure, early accounts give various seemingly arbitrary reasons that Joseph wasn’t yet able to obtain the gold plates each year for 4 years. For example, one recurring problem was that he had to bring with him the right person, but apparently wasn’t certain who it was—almost like a riddle he had to solve (more HERE). In one case Joseph makes the mistake of setting the plates down in order to close the stone box, and the plates suddenly disappeared and were moved back in the box (moving treasures were a common theme of treasure digging). He then tried again to get them from the box but the treasure guardian knocked him on his back—telling him that he hadn’t followed instructions to not let the plates out of his hands (attacks by treasure guardians were a common theme in treasure digging). When Joseph did finally claim to have succeeded in obtaining the plates it was in the middle of the night—which was consistent with treasure digging practices. Unusual hills were common targets for treasure diggers, and the Hill Cumorah (a glacial drumlin) had been a treasure digging target both before and after Joseph obtained the plates. Consistent with treasure digging lore, Palmyra neighbors claimed that the Smith family spoke of large gold bars and silver plates hidden within caverns in the prehistoric man made mounds in the area, and Brigham Young claims that Oliver Cowdery told him a story of seeing a cave of this kind in the Hill Cumorah with Joseph (HERE). 6 years later when the “translation” occurs, Joseph translates using the same technique he used to tell people of imaginary treasures in the earth (peep stone in a hat).
For a more full review of the connections between the early narratives about the coming forth of this book, and the treasure digging culture of the time, see HERE or HERE. Can one be blamed for wondering if any of this was any more real than the enchanted treasures these folks claimed to see? I find it absurd and even disrespectful when people so commonly act as if this is just about people being concerned about Joseph’s involvement with “weird” things. It is far more foundational than that.
ACCOUNTING FOR THE EXPERIENCES OF THE BOOK OF MORMON WITNESSES
First, if Joseph and all of the “witnesses” who testified of the reality of the gold plates just happen to have been deeply involved in practices wherein it was normal and common to either believe in or claim to see things that clearly didn’t exist (sinking treasures, treasure guardians, etc), then I propose it is natural for people to be more skeptical about the reality of the gold plates (especially in a situation where nobody else was allowed to see them except this select group of people who ALL happen to have been involved in those practices, and almost all of whom came from the Smith or Whitmer families).
Second, if treasure diggers believed in a concept of “second sight” where seeing or experiencing something only in one’s “minds eye” or with “spiritual eyes” could be considered to be very real, then isn’t it reasonable for people to wonder if the gold plates were only seen and experienced by the witnesses in the same sense that Joseph would experience imagined treasures while looking at a stone in a hat? Although this proposal may seem crazy to believers given that some accounts from Book of Mormon witnesses sound like very physical experiences, consider the following before discounting the possibility…
THE THREE WITNESSES
It isn’t disputed that the experience of the “3 witnesses” was “visionary” in nature. For believers that is okay, but for people who already have significant doubts weighing on them this becomes significant. I understand the theory behind why some things may need to be seen “in vision,” but this was a physical object! Why not just set it on the table? Instead, they have to have “faith” to see it, and they pray until they have a visionary experience. Very interestingly, Martin doesn’t get the vision at the same time the other two do (strongly suggesting that this is all only in the mind, and not something appearing before their eyes). Finally, later on, he gets something that leads him to say “it is enough.” D&C 5 is very significant here. It suggests that Joseph feared that Martin might not be fully satisfied with the non physical nature of this witness, and might say too much to others about the nature of this witness. Thus, D&C 5 kind of laughably tells Martin exactly what he’s allowed to say, and that he’s not allowed to say anything more! Verse 26:
“And I the Lord command him, my servant Martin Harris, that he shall say no more unto them concerning these things, except he shall say: I have seen them, and they have been shown unto me by the power of God; and these are the words which he shall say.”
He then basically threatens Martin with divine condemnation if he ever denies, which seems a bit coercive. Verse 27:
“But if he deny this he will break the covenant which he has before covenanted with me, and behold, he is condemned.”
He also puts a lot of pressure on Martin to receive this “witness” by prophesying that if he doesn’t he will fall into transgression, and saying that if he doesn’t it is because he hasn’t been humble enough (verse 32). That is a lot of motivation for a person to really try to force an experience of some kind even if they initially aren’t getting anything. We also can’t overstate the importance of the fact that according to two independent witnesses, Martin did in fact one day sheepishly admit that his experience with the plates was only “in vision or imagination,” which is further qualified by saying “as a city is seen through a mountain” (see statements HERE).
So what sort of experience do I propose that these 3 men had? I propose it was a sort of “guided vision,” and that in this culture of “second sight” this was something they could consider to be just as real as the imaginary treasure Joseph claimed to see in his seer stone. I propose that the history behind the revelation in D&C 76 gives us a perfect example of the sort of thing that may have occurred. Philo Dibble gave an account of being in the room when Joseph and Sidney received the “vision” in D&C 76 (see HERE). Dibble reports the following:
“Joseph would, at intervals, say: ‘What do I see?’ as one might say while looking out the window and beholding what all in the room could not see. Then he would relate what he had seen or what he was looking at. Then Sidney replied, ‘I see the same.’ Presently Sidney would say ‘what do I see?’ and would repeat what he had seen or was seeing, and Joseph would reply, ‘I see the same.’”
I propose that the experience of the 3 witnesses went similarly. Perhaps much like he did when he acted as a treasure seer I picture Joseph describing for them a detailed picture of what he is “seeing” in his mind, and the others creating the picture in their own minds and then essentially saying “I see the same.” For Oliver and Whitmer, this was apparently enough. Martin seems to have been expecting something more, but finally declared “it is enough.”
THE EIGHT WITNESSES
The “eight witnesses” are generally believed to have had a very physical or non-visionary experience—but there are very good reasons to doubt this. First, we have the multiple independent accounts of Martin Harris claiming that none of the witnesses ever saw the gold plates with their “natural eyes” but “only in vision or imagination” (which he qualifies by saying “as a city is seen through a mountain”), and claiming that the eight witnesses “hesitated to sign” the witness statement for that reason but were “persuaded to do it.” All of this is said while Martin is still simultaneously declaring his full belief in the authenticity of the Book of Mormon. This, along with the fact that even the three witnesses (whose experience was visionary) describe their experiences in very physical sounding terms, further attests that the culture of these people allowed them describe experiences in a very real and tangible way even if seen “only in vision or imagination” (again, the accounts of Martin’s statements are HERE).
In addition to these accounts of Harris, it’s fair to point out that if Joseph needed a group of people to sign a statement despite not having real physical gold plates, this truly was the perfect group of candidates. Two were from Smith’s immediate family, and all the rest were from the Whitmer family—all of whom were deeply involved in the treasure digging and folk magic cultures of the time. As Mark Twain once joked: “I could not feel more satisfied and at rest if the entire Whitmer family had testified.” Note that they didn’t write the statement themselves! They just had to be convinced to sign their names to it (and if the multiple accounts of Martin’s statements are true, then they actually hesitated to do so). This was a group that could have been easy enough to convince with some crudely made fake plates, but if they could claim to see imaginary occurrences during treasure digging it suggests that fake plates may not have even been necessary. Perhaps they too were convinced to sign such a statement simply after being walked through a sort of “guided vision”—and being part of a culture where experiencing such things in their “mind’s eye” could be interpreted by them as a very real experience. Though this may seem very strange and unfathomable, it is no more strange or unfathomable than the “treasure digging” or “Charismatic Christianity” cultures of the time, and the things they claimed to experience in very real ways. For more on how the witness statements can be accounted for see HERE and HERE.