In their “Editors’ Introduction” to the recently published anthology entitled American Apocrypha, Dan Vogel and Brent Metcalfe declare, “Had the Book of Mormon been what Joseph Smith said-not an allegory with spiritual import but a literal history of Hebrew immigrants to America-this should have been verified by now.”1
It is a strange statement. For example, one wonders when, exactly, the deadline for verification passed. Was it in 2000? 1990? 1950? 1880? How was the date chosen? Who set it? In what would “verification” consist?
Perhaps more significantly, though, one wonders why the statement could not just as easily be turned on its head: “Were the Book of Mormon false, this should have been verified by now.” One could, with at least equal justification, announce that “Had the Book of Mormon been a fraud, its critics should by now have been able to agree on an explanation as to how, why, and by whom it was created.” That they have not seems to me powerful evidence that it is not, in fact, fraudulent, and that its dedicated enemies, who have devoted immense amounts of energy to their enterprise for the better part, now, of two centuries, have signally failed.
The fact is, the falsehood of the Book has no more been demonstrated to the satisfaction of all serious observers than has its truth. But what is even more striking is that critics of the Book of Mormon have not yet been able even to formulate a coherent counterexplanation, a unified global theory, with which to challenge the traditional story of the book’s origins. John A. Widstoe remarked in his 1951 preface to the second volume of Francis Kirkham’s New Witness for Christ in America, “Unbelievers in Joseph Smith’s story have not been able to agree on any one explanation. It has even been necessary by some writers to change the explanation they first proposed. This unsuccessful, changing search is of itself an evidence of the truth of the Prophet’s own story.”2
The First Theory
At first, Joseph Smith was regarded as wholly responsible for the production of the Book of Mormon. This was the explanation that completely dominated skeptical discourse until roughly four years after the publication of the book. But it arose before the book even appeared. Since Joseph was a superstitious and ignorant peasant, the Book of Mormon would naturally be beneath serious notice. He was “an ignoramus,” said The Gem of Rochester for 15 May 1830. “That spindle shanked ignoramus Jo Smith,” echoed the Palmyra Reflector for 30 June 1830.3 An “ignoramus” who “can neither read nor write,” said Obediah Dogberry in the same newspaper, on 7 July 1830.4 As the Palmyra Freeman noted in 1829, “The subject was almost invariably treated as it should have been-with contempt.”5 “This most clumsy of all impositions,” Dogberry characterized the Book of Mormon in January 1831.6
In February, Dogberry offered a more extended estimation of Joseph Smith and his family. The Prophet had “but little expression of countenance, other than that of dullness; his mental powers appear to be extremely limited, and from the small opportunity he had had in school, he made little or no proficiencyÖ We have never been able to learn that any of the family were ever noted for much else than ignorance and stupidity.”7
The Rev. Thomas Campbell, in a February 1831 letter to his former colleague Sidney Rigdon, dismissed the Book of Mormon as “a production beneath contempt, and utterly unworthy the reception of a schoolboy.”8 During the same month, Thomas Campbell’s illustrious preacher-son Alexander told the readers of his famous jeremiad against the Book of Mormon, entitled “Delusions,” that Joseph Smith was “as ignorant and as impudent a knave as ever wrote a book,” an “ignorant and impudent liar.”
The book professes to be written at intervals and by different persons during the long period of 1020 years. And yet for uniformity of style, there never was a book more evidently written by one set of fingers, nor more certainly conceived in one cranium since the first book appeared, in human language, than this same book. If I could swear to any man’s voice, face, or person, assuming different names, I could swear that this book was written by one man. And as Joseph Smith is a very ignorant man and is called the author on the title page, I cannot doubt for a single moment but that he is the sole author and proprietor of it.
The Book of Mormon, Campbell said, “is, without exaggeration, the meanest book in the English language.”9 “As ignorant as too many of the people are,” said a March 1831 letter to the Palmyra Reflector, “it is hardly possible that so clumsy an imposition can spread to any considerable extent.”10 Also in March 1831, David I. Burnett, editor of the Evangelical Inquirer, described Joseph Smith as “a perfect ignoramus,” though Burnett was unable to be more precise about the length of the Book of Mormon than to say that it was “from 500 to 1000 pages,” since, he confessed, “when I saw it I did not notice the number.”11
The Second Theory
The fact was, however, that the “perfect ignoramus” Joe Smith had actually produced a substantial and complex book. Moreover, he and his book were acquiring a solid and numerous following. How could this be accounted for? How could someone whose “mental powers” were “extremely limited” have produced a lengthy book and founded a growing new religious faith?
Of course, the Book of Mormon was still beneath contempt. Daniel Kidder’s 1842 exposÈ found it “nothing but a medley of incoherent absurdities.”12 “A bundle of gibberish,” wrote J. B. Turner in 1842.13 Those, therefore, who were convinced by it must necessarily themselves be beneath contempt. Speculating in the utter absence of any evidence that Sidney Rigdon and Parley Pratt had converted to Mormonism on the basis of “a jerk, or a twitch, or a swoon,” Turner proceeds to comment that “it is indeed difficult to see how any man, especially of a nervous temperament, could read Smith’s book through without being thrown into some sort of hysterics. The marvel is, that it should ever have happened otherwise.”14 It “is, unquestionably one of the most unreasonable disgusting works in the English or any other language,” declared an 1844 refutation.
It is less interesting than any thing we have ever seenÖfilled with such idle vagaries as would disgrace a common scribblerÖthe most contemptible piece of presumption that has ever come under our own observation, and as an admixture of black-guardism and nonsense we will poise it against the world. It won’t bear examination in any point, yet we will proceed in detail.15
Time and again, authors of lengthy exposÈs and refutations feel they need to apologize for wasting their own and their readers’ time on so palpably ludicrous a subject. Alexander Campbell at first
thought [it] best not to take public notice of itÖas the system was so unreasonable and ridiculous, that no person of good common sense would believe it. But having witnessed the progress of the delusion among some of our respectable citizens, some of whom were considered worthy members of the religious societies to which they belonged, I have felt it my indispensable duty, to use my exertion against its spreading and contaminating influence.16
“I would have asked forgiveness from all my readers” for even “noticing” the Book of Mormon, Campbell continues, “had not several hundred persons of different denominations believed in it.”17 “To make an earnest attack on Mormonism, as if it had any plausible pretensions to credibility,” wrote Origen Bacheler in the opening of his earnest 1838 attack on Mormonism, entitled Mormonism Exposed, “would argue great want of discernment and good sense on the part of one who might thus assail it. It would be somewhat like a labored attempt to disprove the story of Tom Thumb, or like the attack of Don Quixote on the windmill.”18 The Book of Mormon was, he said, “the most gross, the most ridiculous, the most imbecile, the most contemptible concern that was ever admitted to be pawned off upon society as a revelation. It has no merit even as a forgery.” Its author was a “blockhead.”19
Still, even if Joseph Smith was nothing but a “blockhead,” the Book of Mormon existed, and it grounded a movement that was attracting troubling numbers of converts. Clearly, Joseph must have had help. On this, believing Latter-day Saints and their critics could agree. “The gross ignorance of this man,” wrote James Hunt in an 1844 exposÈ of Mormonism, “was looked upon, by his early followers, as his greatest merit, and as furnishing the most incontestable proofs of his Divine mission.”20 And, gradually, the skeptics realized that their own first explanation had to be jettisoned, as simply implausible. But believers and critics parted company on the identity of the helper or helpers.
While most critics suddenly became willing to imagine a conspiracy of considerable size that may or may not have included Oliver Cowdery and David Whitmer and Parley Pratt, Sidney Rigdon, an experienced clergyman and Bible student, a Campbellite preacher before his conversion to Mormonism, was the favored candidate for the role of chief facilitator of what they devoutly believed to be a fraud. The hypothesis received its debut in the granddaddy of all anti-Mormon books, Eber D. Howe’s 1834 cult classic, Mormonism Unvailed. But Rigdon was not the absolute author of the Book of Mormon, according to this explanation. He was merely “the Iago, the prime mover, of the whole conspiracy”21-the transmitter, to Joseph Smith, of a manuscript originally authored by one Solomon Spaulding, a Dartmouth College educated former clergyman who had expressly declared his disbelief in the Bible before his death in 1816.
Howe described the Book of Mormon as
unquestionably one of the meanest in the English, or any other language. It is more devoid of interest than any we have ever seen. It must have been written by an atheist, to make an experiment upon the human understanding and credulity. The author, although evidently a man of learning, studied barrenness of style and expression, without an equal. Ö The real author, notwithstanding his studied ignorance, was well acquainted with the classicsÖ The sameness is such, and the tautology of phrases from the beginning to the end of the work, that no one can be left in doubt in identifying the whole with one individual author.
But that author, of course, was no longer “that spindle shanked ignoramus Jo Smith.” Now it was the classically educated Solomon Spalding. Howe thought he might even be able to discern in the Book of Mormon the hand of “a fearless infidel” who had “attempted a ridicule upon the Holy Bible,” perhaps in a bid “to bring down contempt upon the inspired writers, and the religion of Jesus Christ.”22
Howe seems to have been aware, however, that he did not have in his possession the evidence that would establish his case beyond reasonable doubt. So he hedged his bets. “That there has been, from the beginning of the imposture, a more talented knave behind the curtain, is evident to our mind, at least; but whether he will ever be clearly, fully and positively unveiled and brought into open day-light, may of course be doubted.”23 His modesty was compelled by the striking lack of evidence that, today, has led most critics ultimately to drop the Spalding manuscript theory of Book of Mormon origins.
None of this stopped some critics from actually manufacturing ersatz evidence. In his 1855 book The Prophets; or Mormonism Unvailed, O.S. Belisle is able to furnish his readers with the transcript of the conversation in which the Book of Mormon plot was hatched. Permit me to read from this invaluable document:
A conversation between Joseph Smith and Sidney Rigdon in which they decided upon a plan to print the “Book of Mormon.”
“Easily obviated,” returned Smith coolly [using the kind of vocabulary, no doubt, that had lead everyone around him to regard him as an illiterate blockhead and ignoramus]. “You know I have the ‘seer stones,’ and I can make them believe I divined it by them, or what is better still, say a ‘urium and thumin’ of which Spaulding speaks, was discovered with it.’
RIGDON: “Nothing could be better, if we could evade discovery. Spaulding, Patterson and I, have read it to numbers of different people, and I am almost sure they would detect us.”
SMITH: “You tell me Spaulding and Patterson are both dead, as well as several others who saw it in their possession?”
RIGDON: “Yes, but Spaulding’s wife still lives, and she knew its contents perfectly, she could not be deceived.”
SMITH: “Perhaps she might,” returned the Prophet musingly. “I tell you, Rigdon, the more I think of it, the more possible it appears. We must be cautious, but vigorous and I am sure we shall at least create an excitement that will fill our pockets at last, and raise us above those who have scorned us all our lives.”
RIGDON: “Here is the manuscript, but use it carefully, and as you value the success of our schemes let no one see it or know it was ever in your or my possession. And be wary, and not have a vision too often, or you will, by your over zeal, drawn down contempt from even the most ignorant.”
Long these two worthies communed over this scheme for deception, and when the hours had waned and they had set on a firm basis a train of duplicity that should startle the world, even then, from the depth of their corrupted hearts, gloated over the consternation one day’s work had done at their impious fraudÖ Their only object at that time was to play upon the credulous, earn applause from the debased, and extort money from the simple, under the plea of a divine mission, and thus deceive and rob in a mode of which no law could arraign them for the offense. Pride, ambition and an overweening thirst for power led Smith to concoct the scheme while the most consummate hypocrisy which he had played off on several denominations of Christians, with the hope of rising with the tide, was Rigdon’s motive. Honor, integrity and all the nobler passions of the human heart, had been stilled in the breasts of both and now nought remained to stem the new-born crime which should drag their own names to the depths of infamy and enslave in vice thousands of their fellows.24
Clearly, we’ve come some distance from the Joseph Smith whose only expression was one of “dullness,” whose mental capacities were “extremely limited,” whose family was known only for their general “stupidity.” Now, he is a consummate schemer, a fiendishly clever deviser of hellish plots.
The Hurlbut-Howe-Spalding theory dominated skeptical explanations of the Book of Mormon for fifty years, from the publication of Mormonism Unvailed in 1834 until 1884. Even the Rev. Alexander Campbell, he who had proclaimed the obvious fact that the book had been composed in one ignorant cranium, soon proclaimed the obvious fact that Spalding of Dartmouth was the author. The theory was not always consistently held, of course. J. B. Turner, for example, wrote that the Book of Mormon was characterized by “uniformity of styleÖin the highest degree. It is all Joe Smith, from preface to finis, testimonials and all. Joe Smith is sole author and proprietor, as he himself claimed on the title-page of the first edition.”25 Within just a few paragraphs, however, Turner remarks that “Although any blunderhead, with the Bible at his side, might have written the book, and the greater the blunderhead the better, still there are some reasons to believe that Smith is not the original author even of the gibberish that constitutes the plot of the comedy.”26
That U-turn was too blatant even for Turner’s fellow anti-Mormon Daniel Kidder. “It appears to us,” Kidder wrote, “that Professor T. has involved himself in a species of self-contradiction, by maintaining that Joe Smith is the real and sole author of the Book of Mormon, while, at the same time, he proves the identity of that book with the Spaulding manuscript.” Moreover, he commented, in direct contradiction to both Professor Turner and the Rev. Alexander Campbell,
We areÖfar from assenting to the position that unity, either of style or sentiment, prevail throughout the Mormon Bible. Those who had seen Spaulding’s MANUSCRIPT say that the religious parts of the Book of Mormon have been added. [Mary Zingleman and Richard Feynman story.] Now, these parts bear a distinctive character, (that of Campbellism,) which Smith was utterly unqualified to give them until after his connection with Rigdon. This shows that there were at least three parties to the real authorship; and we think it would be sheer injustice not to put Oliver Cowdery, the schoolmaster, upon as good (literary) footing as his more ambitious pupil, Joseph Smith, Jr.27
That no copy of Spalding’s manuscript was available for inspection did no more to dampen enthusiasm for the theory than did such inconsistencies. After all, there seemed no alternative that was both realistic and palatable. The manuscript, devotees of the theory said, had been lost. Or it had been destroyed. Or it had been purchased by the Mormons and suppressed-a plot motif that is still very popular among certain critics today. (Think of the Salt Lake Tribune, which, I’m told, disappeared into the First Presidency vault almost two weeks ago, and will never be seen again.) That Spalding’s manuscript was said to have contained a secular romance, designed merely to entertain and perhaps to make a little money, while the Book of Mormon purported to be a solemn religious history, was also dismissed as a trifle. Perhaps Sidney Rigdon, the Campbellite scriptorian, had been more than just a conveyor. It scarcely mattered. If it had to be so, it must have been so.
Unfortunately for the advocates of the Spalding Theory, his Manuscript Story was recovered from a steamer trunk in Honolulu in 1884. It turned out to be a relatively short yarn-roughly 125 pages long-about a group of Romans who set sail for Britain but were driven onto the coast of America by storms at sea. L. L. Rice, the rather surprised owner of the steamer trunk, remarked of the Manuscript Story and the Book of Mormon that “There is no identity of names, of persons, or places, and there is no similarity of style between themÖ I should as soon think the Book of Revelations [sic] was written by the author of Don Quixote, as that the writer of this Manuscript was the author of the Book of Mormon.”28
Faithful adherents of the Spaulding Theory now claimed that a second work, Manuscript Found, was the real source of the Book of Mormon. Fortunately or unfortunately, it could not be examined because nobody knew where it was. Nor whether it ever was.
Fawn M. Brodie, though a devout disbeliever in the Book of Mormon and the claims of Joseph Smith, effectively sounded the death knell of the Spalding Theory in her 1945 biography of the Prophet, entitled No Man Knows My History. She argued, instead, that Joseph Smith was the consciously fraudulent author of the book, which reflected his own personality and environment. The dull village idiot was now “a mythmaker of prodigious talents.” She was, of course, following more or less in the footsteps of I. Woodbridge Riley, whose 1902 profile of The Founder of Mormonism explained the Book of Mormon on the basis of a psychological analysis of Joseph Smith, who was, he said, subject to epileptic fits that somehow were supposed to account for his “visions.” But Brodie and most everybody else discounted the claim of epilepsy. The trail had also been blazed for her by Harry M. Beardsley’s 1931 Joseph Smith and His Mormon Empire, in which Joseph was a paranoiac. In 1948, the Reverend James Black also explained Joseph Smith as mentally ill, a “dissociated personality.”
“Thus,” says F. W. Kirkham, surveying the scene in the early 1950s, “Joseph Smith is first a money digger, then an ignoramus, then a deluded fanatic, then a vile deceiver, a fraud, then an epileptic, a paranoiac, then a myth maker of prodigious talents. Finally he is not an ignoramus, he is not a deceiver, rather a person with a dissociated personality.”29
Kirkham predicted that, in an age of greater ecumenism and-though he could not have used the phrase-of “political correctness,” the hateful assaults on Joseph Smith that had been so acceptable in the nineteenth century would virtually disappear from favor among mainstream critics. The growing respectability of Mormonism would lead to a more civil, though no less determined critique. And the collapse of the Spalding Theory would bring explanations full circle, back to Joseph Smith as sole or primary author of the Book of Mormon.
The personality of Joseph Smith, his learning, his environment, will be assumed and described by various writers to meet the requirements of his ability to produce the book and to organize the Church. Historical facts that must be accepted in the actual writing and printing of the Book of Mormon will be interpreted by the coming writers to meet their various theses explaining the contents of the Book of Mormon. These writers will disagree concerning important assumed facts but they will all deny the possibility of divine aid in the translation of the ancient record.30
Kirkham has been proven correct. Of course, some extreme anti-Mormons invoke demonic inspiration to account for the Book of Mormon. But among serious writers, the pendulum has clearly swung back to Joseph Smith as the author. In his 1980 Mormon Answer to Skepticism: Why Joseph Smith Wrote the Book of Mormon, republished in 1992 by Signature Books, Robert Hullinger depicts Joseph as “a defender of GodÖmotivated by the noble desire to defend revealed religion” against the inroads of Deism.31 (Gone is the once-obvious fact that the author of the book was a Christianity-mocking atheist.) Hullinger explicitly acknowledges that he is turning his back upon the theories of his own mentor, George Arbaugh, whose 1932 Revelation in Mormonism, published by the academically prestigious University of Chicago Press, had confidently divided the text of the Book of Mormon into portions written by either Solomon Spalding, Sidney Rigdon, or Joseph Smith. John Brooke, in his immensely enjoyable Cambridge University Press book The Refiner’s Fire, presents a Joseph Smith who was a late exemplar of Renaissance hermeticism and various occultic traditions. Jan Shipps and at least the early Dan Vogel emphasize Joseph’s supposed fascination with explaining Indian mounds. Robert Anderson’s Inside the Mind of Joseph Smith reads the Book of Mormon psychobiographically, claiming to see Joseph working out his own interior problems in the text. A similar approach is William Morain’s The Sword of Laban: Joseph Smith, Jr., and the Dissociated Mind. The famous Yale literary critic Harold Bloom, failing to notice that Joseph Smith was nothing more than a typical “blunderhead,” calls him a religious genius and places him in the American pantheon alongside Ralph Waldo Emerson and Walt Whitman. On the other hand, an anonymous critic of Joseph Smith with whom I corresponded over the space of several months posits an anonymous individual or group of considerable learning-familiar, for example, with rare maps of inner Arabia, acquainted with Semitic languages, well-read in classical Arabic literature and jurisprudence -who somewhere, sometime, wrote the Book of Mormon for unknown motives and then for some undiscoverable reason permitted Joseph Smith to publish it as his own. (Bill Hamblin and I call this mysterious group “The Illuminati,” in honor of their remarkable capacity to be everywhere, to do and know everything, while remaining entirely invisible.) One faction is still working away to resurrect the Spalding theory. The venerable John L. Smith, of Marlow, Oklahoma, continues to labor at a manuscript that will demonstrate Sidney Rigdon to be the real author of the Book of Mormon.
The recent American Apocrypha further illustrates the apparent inability of Book of Mormon critics to agree on much of anything except that the Book of Mormon is false. Only a few months ago, in fact, one of the editors of American Apocrypha explicitly, huffily, and repeatedly refused to answer a simple question as to whether Joseph Smith believed that he possessed metal plates or knew that he did not-which seems the kind of question that any skeptic’s fundamental theory of Book of Mormon origins must answer very early on. He would not, he said, lower himself to thinking in such simple-minded categories.
His approach is manifest in the book he edited. While the authors all seem to agree, broadly, that Joseph Smith was the sole or principal author of the Book of Mormon, there are notable disagreements about the how and the why.
Edwin Firmage’s essay, for example, depicts Joseph Smith as a rather cunning and deliberate fraud, making it all up on the fly, with major plot elements seemingly created on the basis of virtually sudden whims, resulting in serious inconsistencies in the book itself. Susan Staker also offers a Joseph Smith who creates the Book of Mormon rapidly, on the basis of swiftly mutating ideas whose evolution-driven by his own changing circumstances-is apparent within the text itself. George D. Smith partially seems to agree. He uses a highly debatable reading of B. H. Roberts to argue, indirectly, that Joseph drew upon Ethan Smith’s View of the Hebrews in order to compose the Book of Mormon-a method that seems to demand more careful plotting than Firmage and Staker allow. David Wright, in what is by far the most academically rigorous essay in the book, likewise posits a careful and wholly conscious Joseph Smith, but one who, in this instance, bases at least a substantial part of his Book of Mormon on a close but misguided reading of King James Isaiah. Dan Vogel’s second essay presents Joseph as composing an anti-Masonic tract, attuned to the controversy that ensued upon the murder of Captain William Morgan in 1826. He is every bit as confident in this assertion as Eber D. Howe was in his earlier explanation, according to which Solomon Spalding, who died in 1816, was said by Howe, who heard it from Doctor Philastus Hurlbut, who claimed to have heard it from Spalding’s widow nearly two decades after Spalding’s death, that Spalding didn’t like Freemasonry. Howe concluded that this explains the Book of Mormon’s references to the Gadianton Robbers and other “secret combinations.”32
All of these depictions of the Book of Mormon as a work of fiction directly collide with the testimony of the Three and Eight Witnesses. Accordingly, they must be destroyed. So, in his first essay in American Apocrypha, although Dan Vogel grants their honesty, he seeks (rather desperately, in my opinion) to explain them away. Their experiences were merely subjective, internal, hallucinatory. Joseph Smith was a hypnotist. A very fortunate one in the fact that, although only a relatively small proportion of the general populace is susceptible to hypnosis, all of his Witnesses were easy marks. But perhaps, Vogel suggests, Joseph also created some tin plates with which to dazzle the yokels. (The invocation of this secondary prop may indicate that Vogel himself, to his credit, is not entirely persuaded by his “subjective hallucination” thesis.) But once we’ve posited a previously unnoticed Custom Design Metal Foundry under Joseph’s management, it also needs to produce the breastplate seen by various witnesses, as well as the brass plates, the Urim and Thummim, the Sword of Laban, and the Liahona. One wonders how many skilled metallurgists and craftsmen were available in the area at the time, and what the local wage scale was.
But then we read Scott Dunn’s essay, according to which Joseph Smith created the Book of Mormon by a process of automatic writing. It just flowed out of him. Joseph was dissociative but sincere, and Dunn vigorously denies that “conscious fraud” was involved. In fact, the dictation process was probably scarcely “conscious” at all, in any normal sense of the word.
If Dunn is right, Firmage and Vogel are wrong. Mutually contradictory accounts are not mutually reinforcing. Quite the contrary. They weaken each other.
Imagine a murder case in which one witness for the prosecution definitively states that he clearly saw the defendant, Mr. John Jones, who was wearing his characteristic Stetson cowboy hat, empty a six-shooter into the head of the victim, Miss Roberta Smith, at point-blank range, as she stood by the hot dog stand on the beach. A second prosecution witness declares that he saw the defendant, Mrs. Joanna Jones, striding briskly out of the twenty-seventh floor restaurant where the murder took place, with a fashionable black beret on her head. The prosecution’s forensic pathologist, meanwhile, announces his expert verdict that, from the marks on Mr. Robert Smith’s throat, the victim died of strangulation.
With evidence of that character, the prosecution wouldn’t even bother to seek an indictment, and could never even in its remotest fantasies dream of conviction.
Many years ago, Albert Schweitzer published a classic work entitled, in English, The Quest for the Historical Jesus, in which he demonstrated, among other things, that the various portraits of Jesus that had been offered up to his time by scholars of Christian origins most commonly said more about their authors than about the historical Jesus.
What we see in the various attempts that have been offered thus far to explain the Book of Mormon away might, I think, be labeled The Quest for the Historical Joseph. Early critics, absolutely unwilling to grant that God might have had a hand in the production of the Book of Mormon, sought its author in Joseph Smith, Sidney Rigdon, Parley Pratt, Oliver Cowdery, or anywhere else that could serve as a refuge against the book’s own claims. “How often have I said to you,” remarked Holmes to Watson, “that when you have eliminated the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth?” The Book of Mormon’s claims for itself were, to many minds, simply unendurable, and so other theories have necessarily prospered.
It is so still today. Only, now, the most serious criticisms of the Book of Mormon tend to come not from self-proclaimed orthodox Christians, but from self-identified atheistic materialists. The historian Dale Morgan, much admired in certain contemporary circles, wrote a 1945 letter to the believing Latter-day Saint historian Juanita Brooks. He states the fundamental issue with unusual frankness and candor:
With my point of view on God, I am incapable of accepting the claims of Joseph Smith and the Mormons, be they however so convincing. If God does not exist, how can Joseph Smith’s story have any possible validity? I will look everywhere for explanations except to the ONE explanation that is the position of the church.33
Regarding the Book of Mormon, the editors of American Apocrypha acknowledge “the book’s interesting and impressive literary, theological, psychological, and spiritual qualities that have had such a profound impact on people.” It is refreshing to find some critics now acknowledging the Book of Mormon’s once universally denied merits. Nonetheless, they deny the factual truth of its narrative,
Is the Book of Mormon pseudonymous? We think so. Apocryphal? Yes. Is it therefore less able to touch people’s hearts? No. Our position is that the scriptural tradition includes fiction-parables, poetry, hyperbole, psalms, historical verisimilitude, and other genres-and that such writing can be as powerful in providing people with spiritual guidance as non-fiction. To acknowledge the obvious fictional quality of the Book of Mormon is not to detract from the beauty and brilliance of the sermons, visions, and other imagery. 34
One is tempted, though, to ask how much spiritual guidance the editors themselves actually find in the book. (One of them has expressly declared his atheism; the other just Thursday night explicitly denied the existence of any spiritual realities and proclaimed himself a thorough-going materialist.) After all, it seems that much if not all of the Book’s supposed spiritual power is available only to those who believe its claims about itself and act on that basis. And, on the point of view offered up by American Apocrypha, those who do so are, quite literally, fools.
The muse descended on a local poet not long ago, inspiring him to pen new lyrics to the tune of the popular Primary song “The Golden Plates Lay Hidden.” The resulting poem serves nicely, I think, to summarize the position at least assumed by the editors and authors of American Apocrypha, when they’re not speculating about the manufacture of tin plates to bedazzle the local peasants:
No golden plates existed
Outside of Joseph’s mind
And eleven other lunatics
In whom he could confide
The record made by Joseph–
A nineteenth century fraud–
Still makes for pious reading.
Let’s pretend it came from God.
1 “Editors’ Introduction,” American Apocrypha: Essays on the Book of Mormon, edited by Dan Vogel and Brent Lee Metcalfe (Salt Lake City: Signature Books, 2002), vii.
2 John A. Widtsoe, “Preface,” A New Witness for Christ in America, 2:v-vi.
3 Given at New Witness, 2:56.
4 Given at New Witness, 2:53-54.
5 Given at New Witness, 2:31.
6 Given at New Witness, 2:64.
7 Given at New Witness, 2:64.
8 Given at New Witness, 2:94.
9 Given at New Witness, 2:105-106.
10 Given at New Witness, 2:99.
11 Given at New Witness, 2:112.
12 New Witness, 2:199.
13 New Witness, 2:186.
14 New Witness, 2:188.
15 New Witness 2:183.
16 New Witness, 2:102-103.
17 New Witness, 2:105.
18 New Witness, 2:159.
19 See New Witness, 2:160.
20 New Witness, 2:182.
21 See New Witness 2:150.
22 See New Witness 2:128-129.
23 See New Witness 2:141.
24 New Witness, 2:202-203.
25 New Witness, 2:189.
26 New Witness, 2:190.
27 New Witness, 2:200.
28 New Witness, 2:210.
29 New Witness, 2:232.
30 New Witness, 2:252-253.
31 Hullinger, Mormon Answer to Skepticism, xi.
32 See New Witness 2:142.
33 Dale Morgan to Juanita Brooks, dated 15 December 1945 at Arlington, Virginia. Transcribed in John Phillip Walker, ed., Dale Morgan on Early Mormonism: Correspondence and a New History (Salt Lake City: Signature Books, 1986), 84-91. The quoted passage occurs on page 87.
34 “Editors’ Introduction,” ix.