I heard the teacher in Elders Quorum bear testimony of its truthfulness the other day. He said some things you often hear in such testimonies…
“I know there is no way JS could have written the Book of Mormon on his own. Years have past since Joseph Smith and still there is no reliable evidence against the Book of Mormon.”
Actually both of these are not true. There IS a possibility that Joseph Smith wrote the book on his own and he had several years to think about it not the limited days that the church claims. He also had a variety of resources to use as sources. Obviously the hoaxes of Joseph Smith mentioned earlier cast doubt upon his trustworthiness as a translator. So, how about the evidence? Here is what I discovered. Although I’d been a member all my life, I never heard any of these things discussed in my years of seminary or Sunday School.
While the church always refers to Joseph Smith as a “translator, “ the truth is he really didn’t translate in the true sense of the word. What he actually did was read. He also didn’t do it as is often portrayed in LDS art or film by studying the plates and giving the translation to a scribe on the other side of a sheet or barrier. What he actually did for most of the translation process was place his seer stone in his hat and then bury his face in the hat to read the words God placed on his stone to reflect what was written on the Golden Plates. The plates apparently didn’t even need to be in the same room according to reports. (An Insider’s View of Mormon Origins, Grant H. Palmer, pp1-6)
“I will now give you a description of the manner in which the Book of Mormon was translated. Joseph Smith would put the seer stone into a hat, and put his face in the hat, drawing it closely around his face to exclude the light; and in the darkness the spiritual light would shine. A piece of something resembling parchment would appear, and on that appeared the writing. One character at a time would appear, and under it was the interpretation in English. Brother Joseph would read off the English to Oliver Cowdery who was his principal scribe, and when it was written down and repeated to Brother Joseph to see if it was correct, then it would disappear, and another character with the interpretation would appear. Thus the Book of Mormon was translated by the gift and power of God, and not by any power of man.” (David Whitmer, An Address to All Believers in Christ, 1887, p. 12)
This is significant because it means that what was originally written in the Book of Mormon was given to Joseph Smith by God. According to the story, Joseph Smith merely related what God gave him. He wasn’t looking at ancient writings and interpreting them himself. He was looking at English displayed on his seer stone and reading God’s words to his scribe. One would expect God to make very few mistakes, if any.
This is also significant because it is not the story that the church teaches. I had never heard about a “seer stone” in a hat. Apparently the method of translation that the church teaches was used early on in the process until the 116 pages of the Book of Mormon were lost. From then on the rock in the hat became the method of choice.
The issue of changes made to the Book of Mormon was something I had heard about on my mission. At the time I easily laughed it away. Anti-Mormons were upset that the LDS church had changed the Book of Mormon since its first publication. The LDS reply that they were just misspellings or corrections to earlier typos is easily believable and reasonable until you look at what these changes actually are.
Bear in mind that the story is that Joseph Smith was “given” the words to utter to his scribe by God.
The original text of I Nephi 12:18 reads:
“…yea, even the word of the justice of the Eternal God, and Jesus Christ, which is the Lamb of God…”
The problem here is that the name ‘Jesus Christ’ was not revealed to the Nephites until II Nephi 10:3
“Wherefore, as I said unto you, it must needs be expedient that Christ – for in the last night the angel spake unto me that this should be his name – should come among the Jews…”
In order to correct this contradiction, the text of I Nephi 12:18 was changed to read Messiah instead of Jesus Christ.
As another more recent example, the church quietly changed the term white and delightsome from 2 Nephi 30:6 to pure and delightsome in 1981. This, despite prophetic statements such as:
“[The Indians] are fast becoming a white and delightsome people…The [Indian] children in the home placement program in Utah are often lighter than their brothers and sisters in the hogans on the reservation.”
During the same message President Kimball referred to a 16-year-old Indian girl who was both LDS and “several shades lighter than her parents…” He went on to say:
“These young members of the Church are changing to whiteness and to delightsomeness. One white elder jokingly said that he and his companion were donating blood regularly to the hospital in the hope that the process might be accelerated.” (Spencer W. Kimball, Improvement Era, December 1960, pp. 922-923)
The part that is even more odd to me about these changes is that the church denies making them:
…enemies of the Church…have made the statement that there have been one or two or more thousand changes in the Book of Mormon since the first edition was published. Well, of course, there is no truth in that statement.” (The Improvement Era, December, 1961, pg. 924)
When Joseph Smith declared the Book of Mormon to be the “most correct book on the earth” (History of the Church, 4:461.) he did so BEFORE these changes that affect the meaning of the book were made. Why are there changes and mistakes in something that was received in the manner Joseph Smith and others claimed it was? If the mistakes are due to human error, how can we be sure that some of the doctrine and principles contained therein aren’t also inaccurate and the mistakes of men?
It appears, according to witnesses that Joseph didn’t have much freedom of word choice or phraseology. Therefore, it seems this was a perfect time for God to correct the mistakes that were made in the transmission of the bible. The church has often claimed that the Bible has not been translated correctly and that the Book of Mormon restores the authentic teachings of the Bible. Many of the mistakes particular to the King James Version (KJV), however, are unchanged when they are quoted in the Book of Mormon.
The brass plates were also said to contain many of the writings of Jeremiah. Nephi also talks about Jeremiah already being thrown into prison (1 Nephi 7:14), when this did not occur until the tenth year of the reign of Zedekiah, years after Lehi’s family were said to have left Jerusalem. If the dates are merely a little off, what else is a little off in the book?
Joseph Smith made heavy use of the KJV while creating the Book of Mormon, quoting extensively from Isaiah in various places, and the New Testament in others. The Book of Mormon perpetuates many translation errors that have now been clearly shown to exist in the KJV.
This suggests that these passages were read directly from the Bible and not from any divine source. Even if Joseph Smith encountered passages in his translation from the plates that matched Bible verses and then decided to consult the Bible, why wasn’t he inspired to correct those things that were translated incorrectly in the KJV?
Some have claimed that these errors are doctrinally inconsequential, but that’s not the point. It is not about the doctrine – it is the fact that the book contains errors unique to the KJV, which suggests the Book of Mormon was written after 1611.
2 Nephi 5:15 “And I did teach my people to build buildings, and to work in all manner of wood, and of iron, and of copper, and of brass, and of steel, and of gold, and of silver, and of precious ores, which were in great abundance.”
Archaeologists have not found steel, smelted iron, or brass in the New World. With all the wars and swords used by tens of thousands of soldiers up to Moroni’s time why can’t archeologists find one sword especially near the Hill Cumorah? The process to create steel or iron objects leaves obvious residue that has eluded archaeologists in the new world. Additionally, Nephi and his brother procured the brass plates from Laban in Jerusalem but there is no record of brass existing in Egypt or Palestine until Roman times.
The Smithsonian Institute says that there was no wheat, barley, oats, millet, rice, cattle pigs, chickens, horses, donkeys, goats, elephants or camels before 1492 in America. These are all mentioned in the Book of Mormon. It seems odd that we can’t find evidence of horses (or chariots for that matter) while they are mentioned several times in the Book of Mormon. If it was actually a different animal, then why didn’t Joseph Smith just give it a new name like he did with “cureloms and cumoms” in Ether 9:19?
The Book of Mormon also does not describe food that we know that ancient Americans did have – chocolate, lima beans, avocado, squash and potatoes.
For the Book of Mormon to be correct, the Americas would be the only place in the world to have a large civilization raising pigs, goats and cattle that left no evidence that they had these animals (Ether 9:18). Ancient Americans did leave us with a great deal of artwork depicting their lives and none of it depicts sheep, pigs, horses or cattle. Granted, Moroni or JS could have written “horse” when he meant “deer” or “llama” which would be possible. But JS surely knew what a deer was and, as mentioned previously, he had no problems giving us the native name for animals such as “cumoms” so why say “horses” when it wasn’t a horse?
Thomas Ferguson, archaeologist, noted defender of the Book of Mormon, and founder of the New World Archaeological Foundation at BYU stated:
“Evidence of the foregoing animals has not appeared in any form — ceramic representations, bones or skeletal remains, mural art, sculptured art or any other form. However… evidence has been found in several forms of the presence in the Book-of-Mormon times of other animals–deer, jaguars, dogs, turkeys etc. The zero score presents a problem that will not go away with the ignoring of it. Non-LDS scholars of first magnitude, some who want to be our friends, think we have real trouble here. That evidence of the ancient existence of these animals is not elusive is found in the fact that proof of their existence in the ancient old-world is abundant. The absence of such evidence…is distressing and significant, in my view.” (Tom Ferguson, Written Symposium on Book-of-Mormon Geography, 1978).
Yale scholar and renowned Mesoamerica archaeologist Michael Coe said:
“The bare facts of the matter are that nothing, absolutely nothing, has ever turned up in any New World excavation which would suggest to a dispassionate observer that the Book of Mormon, as claimed by Joseph Smith, is a historical document relating to the history of the early immigrants to our hemisphere.” (Dialogue, Summer 1973, pp.46)
Twenty years later Coe again stated:
“I have seen no archaeological evidence before or since that date which would convince me that it is anything but a fanciful creation by an unusually gifted individual living in upstate New York in the early nineteenth century.” (Larson, The Quest for the Gold Plates, pp.70)
Why have linguists been unable to link any Native American language with Hebrew or Egyptian? Languages evolve rather slowly in the scheme of things and so one would expect to find significant similarities between languages that have the same root or family up to 1600 years ago. Yet, there is little to no resemblance between languages in the Middle East and languages found among tribes in America.
Interestingly, B.H. Roberts, an LDS General Authority, brought up the language problem to the First Presidency and the Quorum of the Twelve clear back in the 1920’s (Studies of the Book of Mormon, B.H. Roberts). His concerns were just dismissed.
Using English as an example, if we go back 1100 years, we don’t find ourselves speaking another language, we find ourselves speaking the dialect of Middle English.
Even LDS apologists admit to the following:
“Latter-day Saint students of the Book of Mormon should understand that long prior to Lehi’s day, Mesoamerica was already linguistically complex. Moreover, many archaeological sites were occupied continuously, or so it appears, for thousands of years without clear evidence in the material remains of any replacement of the culture of the inhabitants. That continuity suggests, although it does not prove, that many of those people probably did not change their tongues.”
“All this means that the old supposition by some Latter-day Saints that the Hebrew tongue used by Lehi’s and Mulek’s immigrant parties became foundational for all ancient American languages is impossible.”
“When we examine the social and cultural implications of what the Book of Mormon record tells us, we discover that it cannot possibly be a “history of the American Indians.” (Before DNA, John L. Sorenson and Matthew Roper, pp 17-18, http://www.lds.org/newsroom/files/Sorenson_Roper_DNA.pdf )
Why is that still missing from my Sunday School manual? It’s ironic that these scholars need to contradict modern day prophets who say otherwise in order to reformulate a belief in the Book of Mormon.
Several Possible Sources
Again, no one can prove with certainty that Joseph Smith plagiarized the Book of Mormon. It is, however, fairly simple to dispel the common LDS myth that the Book of Mormon contained dramatically new information for the 19th century and was something Joseph Smith would have been incapable of producing on his own.
View of the Hebrews
“A View of the Hebrews” authored by Ethan Smith (incidentally, Ethan Smith was an acquaintance of Oliver Cowdery’s father) is one of the pieces of evidence that Elder B.H. Roberts found disturbing during his investigation of the Book of Mormon. This book clearly shows that many of the ideas presented in the Book of Mormon were common themes and ideas accessible to Joseph Smith at the time the Book of Mormon was being produced.
The Spaulding Manuscript
As the story goes, a retired Congregationalist minister, Solomon Spalding (1761-1816), wrote a biblically styled novel called The Manuscript Found. The Rev. Solomon Spalding was a lapsed Calvinist clergyman, a failed businessman, and the would-be author of a pre-historic American epic story explaining the lost civilization of the “Mound Builders.” Since as early as 1833 he has been credited by some writers as being the original author of a portion of The Book of Mormon.
Spaulding’s neighbors were the first ones to recognize the similarities. Later, LDS and Non-LDS scholars have argued the Spaulding authorship theories back and forth and each has presented scant facts in the case. While there’s not a lot of reason to believe the that Joseph Smith simply used The Manuscript Found as THE source for the Book of Mormon there is ample proof that the manuscript existed and was available while Joseph was translating the Book of Mormon.
Therefore, the idea of creating an epic story to explain the heritage of the American Indians was not a novel concept at that time.
As mentioned earlier, Joseph borrowed liberally from the Bible in creating the Book of Mormon. Approximately 25,000 words in the Book of Mormon consist of passages from the Old Testament, mainly the same chapters from Isaiah that Ethan Smith mentioned in View of the Hebrews. Another 2,000 words were taken from the New Testament. (Fawn Brodie, No Man Knows My History, p. 58)
Joseph even appears to have plagiarized his father. For many years his mother cherished the details of several of her husband’s dreams, and one of these was incorporated wholesale into the Book of Mormon as a vision by Lehi, the father of Nephi.
Joseph Smith’s nineteenth century environment provided ample substance for use in writing a religious book. Alexander Campbell observed in 1831 that the book’s author was “skilled in the controversies of New York.” Jason Whitman likewise noted in 1834 that the Book of Mormon contained “artful adaptions” of popular western New York prejudices “against fine clothing,” a paid “regular ministry,” and “the institution of Masonry.” He further reported that the book followed (1) “the camp-meeting ground” and (2) the evangelical style of preaching,” (3) “conversion,” (4) “dissent,” and (5) that the “exhortations are strongly tinctured with the doctrines of modern [Protestant] Orthodoxy.” (An Insiders View of Mormon Origins, Grant Palmer, pp 95-96)
There is a lot of precedent for relatively uneducated people suddenly being seized by some kind of “spirit” and writing down large amounts of sophisticated literature, some of it religious and others not. This is called “automatic writing” by psychologists. They can’t explain how it works, but it clearly does. Perhaps Joseph Smith was in this category of people, as was Mohamed and other popular religious figures.
A study of how Mohammed received his inspired message provides many interesting parallels to Joseph’s experience. Some are even more dramatic; he was uneducated as Joseph was and yet his religious writings are considered, even by non-Muslims, to be literary masterpieces.
Many other persons are documented to have experienced similar phenomena. Joseph’s experience fits comfortably into this genre. Automatic writing, based on things he was familiar with (such as the things noted previously) could easily combine to produce the book and would account for even most of the inaccuracies.
Does any of this prove that Joseph Smith wrote the Book of Mormon himself or plagiarized other material? Perhaps none of these individual pieces of information do but I think taken as a whole, they cast deep doubt into Joseph’s claims. It at least contradicts the belief that the concepts contained in the Book of Mormon and the events surrounding the discovery of the book were new, unknown to Joseph Smith or unique to his time and place.
It shows that the common Mormon claim that “there’s no way he could have written that book on his own” is untrue; for others such as Mohamed have done it. How could Tolstoy become the world’s greatest novelist, yet never have studied writing? How could Tom Paine have written Common Sense and sparked the American Revolution, when he too was an uneducated man who spent most of his time in alehouses? How could Paul McCartney write all those hits, with no formal musical education? Homer wrote epics, but according to tradition, was blind, and therefore illiterate.
The Church claims that the 23 year old Joseph Smith, who had become a “passable exhorter” in the Methodist faith, and was the family storyteller by his mother’s own account, could not have written a book like the Book of Mormon are just ludicrous especially if you read that first edition. Even B. H. Roberts, a general authority conceded this.
The creation of the book could also have started as early as 1823 when Joseph reportedly received his first visitation from Moroni giving him years, not months, to formulate story lines and concepts in his head or on paper from experiences he was having at the time.
Putting myself in the position of an honest investigator of the Book of Mormon, I’d want to know these facts before praying. I’d want to know of Joseph Smith’s prior history of claiming to “see” treasure in the local hills and having none ever turn up. I think it is relevant to know the probability of his claims being true and the truth of the events surrounding the claims. Hiding those issues is dishonest.
The Kinderhook plates
On April 23, 1843 a set of brass plates was discovered in an Indian mound near Kinderhook, Illinois. When presented to Joseph, he pronounced them to be authentic ancient records:
I have translated a portion of them and find they contain the history of the person with whom they were found. He was a descendant of Ham, through the loins of Pharaoh, king of Egypt, and that he received his kingdom from the ruler of heaven and earth.” (History of the Church, Vol. 5, p. 372)
Also note this source entry from the diary of William Clayton, Joseph’s private secretary and scribe:
“I have seen 6 brass plates…covered with ancient characters of language containing from 30 to 40 on each side of the plates. Prest J. has translated a portion and says they contain the history of the person with whom they were found and he was a descendant of Ham through the loins of Pharaoh king of Egypt, and that he received his kingdom from the ruler of heaven and earth.” (William Clayton’s Journal, May 1, 1843, as cited in Trials of Discipleship – The Story of William Clayton, a Mormon, p. 117)
Unfortunately for the Mormon position, it was later revealed that the plates were forgeries. On April 25, 1856, W. P. Harris, who was one of the nine witnesses to the discovery of the plates, wrote a letter in which he stated that the plates were not genuine:
“…I was present with a number at or near Kinderhook and helped to dig at the time the plates were found…[I] made an honest affidavit to the same…since that time, Bridge Whitten said to me that he cut and prepared the plates and he…and R. Wiley engraved them themselves…Wilbourn Fugit appeared to be the chief, with R. Wiley and B. Whitten.” (The Book of Mormon?, by James D. Bales, pp. 95-96)
It was all part of a trick to expose the prophet’s pretended translations. Joseph Smith fell for it
For nearly 140 years, the LDS church defended Joseph’s partial translation of the Kinderhook plates (in fact there are several pages dedicated to the story of the Kinderhook plates in the 7-volume History of the Church) but as soon as they discovered beyond any reasonable doubt that the Kinderhook plates were fake (by means of scientific testing), they tried to distance themselves from the whole situation by claiming
“…there is no evidence that Joseph Smith ever concluded the plates were genuine…”(Ensign, August 1981, pp. 66-70).
Apparently a partial translation of them as recorded by Joseph’s personal secretary and witnessed by several Mormon Elders was plenty of evidence for the nearly 140 years in which the LDS church defended Joseph’s translation of the plates.
Apologists claim that Joseph was not fooled and had no intention of translating the plates. However, if he had not been murdered in June 1844, it is very possible that he would have published a complete “translation” of these bogus plates. Just a month before his death it was reported that he was
“busy in translating them. The new work…will be nothing more nor less than a sequel to The Book of Mormon…” (Warsaw Signal, May 22, 1844)
A broadside published by the Mormon newspaper, The Nauvoo Neighbor, in June 1843, verifies the fact that Joseph was actually preparing to print a translation of the plates. On this broadside, containing facsimiles of the plates, we find the following:
“The contents of the Plates, together with a Fact-Simile of the same, will be published in the Times and Seasons, as soon as the translation is completed.”
If, as apologists have suggested, I should believe that the totally loyal William Clayton may have entered comments in his diary that were totally unrepresentative of reality, on what grounds should I believe anything he put in his diary? And by extension, why should I believe any of the stuff in the Official History of the Church which came from Clayton’s diary?
The evidence is clear that Joseph did attempt a translation of the Kinderhook plates, and proclaimed them to be authentic ancient records. The LDS church believed the plates to be authentic as their own published accounts in History of the Church prove. They later tried to wiggle out of that claim when the hoax became obvious – or in other words, when science proved otherwise. (Stanley B. Kimball, “Kinderhook Plates Brought to Joseph Smith Appear to Be a Nineteenth-Century Hoax,” Ensign, Aug. 1981, 66)
Another false translation is provided by Joseph Smith’s encounter with Henry Caswell, who had in his possession a document he believed to be a Greek Psalter and that was later confirmed to be such. He presented it to JS, said he thought it was a Greek Psalter, and asked JS for his opinion. After consideration, JS pronounced it to be, without doubt, a dictionary of Egyptian hieroglyphics. Later after verifying through other means the document to be a Greek Psalter, Caswell said the following in response to Dr. Willard Richard’s assertion that, “Sometime Mr. Smith speaks as a prophet, and sometimes as a mere man”:
“Whether he spoke as a prophet or as a mere man, he has committed himself, for he has said what is not true. If he spoke as a prophet, therefore, he is a false prophet. If he spoke as a mere man, he cannot be trusted, for he spoke positively and like an oracle respecting that of which he knew nothing.” (Grant H. Palmer, “An Insider’s View of Mormon Origins”, pp. 34 – 36)
And therein lies the problem with Joseph Smith for anyone who continues to accept him as a reliable source of information on the basis of which to make important life decisions. Given his history of confident declaration of inaccuracies, it is not wise to believe what he said on any topic unless it can be independently verified. Any one of these pretend translations, when viewed in isolation, might be easy for a believer to dismiss. People were trying to trap Joseph, of course. But they succeeded, didn’t they?
And then, when you look back at the Book of Abraham evidence there really is no reasonable explanation other than Joseph Smith claimed to be able to do something that he couldn’t.
*See the “Why I Left Mormonism” link in the menu above for the rest of the story.