A Staff Report from the Straight Dope Science Advisory Board

What's up with Mormonism?

April 5, 2005

Dear Straight Dope:

Can you deliver the straight dope on Mormonism? Do their claims hold water or not? Who wrote the Book of Mormon?

First off, a disclaimer. I'm a former Mormon and a returned Mormon missionary, and consider myself well versed in the religion even though I am no longer a member. I'll attempt to present both sides as objectively as possible.

We'll start with the version told by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints (LDS), as the Mormon religion is formally known.  The church's founder, Joseph Smith, was born in 1805 in Vermont. His father was an impoverished farmer, but his mother, Lucy Mack Smith, managed to instruct him in reading, writing, and the ground rules of arithmetic.

After moving from Vermont around 1816, the Smiths first settled in the town (township) of Palmyra in Wayne county, western New York, and lived there about four years. Then they moved a few miles south of Palmyra village to the town of Farmington in Ontario county. The part of Farmington where they lived, called even then Manchester, has since become a separate town, still in Ontario county. Palmyra remained the nearest settlement of any size to their new home.

In 1820, according to Smith, there was a great religious revival in his area. He couldn't decide which of the many sects was right, so after reading the biblical instruction that any who lacked wisdom should "ask of God" (James 1:5), he retired to a nearby grove to pray. While thus engaged he was visited by two personages who identified themselves as God the Father and Jesus Christ. They told him to not join any of the religions because "they were all wrong; and the Personage who addressed me said that all their creeds were an abomination in his sight; that those professors were all corrupt; that they draw near to me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me, they teach for doctrines the commandments of men, having a form of godliness, but they deny the power thereof" (Pearl of Great Price, Joseph Smith--History, 1:19).

According to Smith, on September 21, 1823 he was visited by an angel named Moroni (more-OH-nigh), who told him about a book of gold plates hidden by former inhabitants of the American continent. Moroni said it was Smith's duty to translate the plates using a special breastplate with "two stones fastened to a silver bow" called the Urim and Thummin and reveal their message to the world. Moroni appeared before Smith twice more that night, giving him the same message.

Moroni led Smith to the plates near the top of a hill in New York called Cumorah. Smith was forbidden to take the plates for four years, but finally obtained them in 1827 and commenced translation. This consisted of Smith dictating in English to a "scribe," usually his wife Emma or Oliver Cowdery, a family friend, from the other side of a curtain. Smith said the plates were written in a language called "Reformed Egyptian" that he was able to decipher using the special stones on the breastplate. 

The resulting work we know today as the Book of Mormon. Purportedly the original authors were members of the aforementioned ancient civilization. Among the contributors were individuals named Nephi, Alma, Mormon, and the angel Moroni.

Now we turn to the non-LDS version. Opponents of Mormonism say there's definitive proof that Smith wrote the Book of Mormon himself and didn't translate it as he claimed.

First, there are three distinct and separate versions of Smith's "first vision." The one cited above was written by Smith in 1838 after the founding of the church. But two other versions exist, according to noted anti-Mormon authors Jerald and Sandra Tanner. In their book, Mormonism--Shadow or Reality (1987), the Tanners state:

In Smith's original 1832 account of his "first vision," he didn't even mention a revival spurring him to inquire about religion.

In his later "official version," Smith claimed that he had been "persecuted" for telling ministers and others about his 1820 vision; but even though there exist more than 100 affidavits and accounts from people who knew Smith and his family intimately in the 1820's, not a single one of them related a word about Smith claiming to have a vision circa 1820, nor anything about "persecution."

There was no religious revival, as Smith claimed, in New York in 1820. There were revivals in 1816-1817 and again in 1823-1824, according to town records.

Smith was a notorious figure in town. He had a strong interest and belief in the supernatural and had obtained a "seer stone," which allegedly allowed him to look into the spirit world and see where treasures were buried. On March 20, 1826, Smith was arrested and charged with the crime of "fortune telling" using the seer stone, and was fined $2.86 while being referred to in the judge's transcript as "Joseph Smith the Glass Looker."

According to his contemporaries, Smith used this same stone to translate the Book of Mormon. In his book An Address to All Believers in Christ, David Whitmer, one of the "three witnesses" to the Book of Mormon, writes:

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 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. 

The plates apparently were nearby, covered up and inaccessible while the translation was taking place. 

There were eleven witnesses to the plates besides Smith. Oliver Cowdery, David Whitmer, and Martin Harris, in a statement published in The Book of Mormon, state that an angel of God showed them the plates, and the voice of God testified to them that the translation was true and correct. Also in the Book of Mormon is a statement by eight other witnesses testifying that Joseph Smith personally showed them the plates: Christian Whitmer; Jacob Whitmer; Peter Whitmer, junior; John Whitmer, Hiram Page; Joseph Smith, senior; Hyrum Smith; and Samuel H. Smith.

The non-LDS crowd points out that while there are eleven witnesses, only five families with lots of relatives are involved: five Whitmers, three Smiths, and one each of Harris, Cowdery, and Page. Several of the witnesses were eventually excommunicated from the new religion, and went on to join other religions. Recently discovered writings of some of the witnesses seem to say they were shown the plates only in a vision, not with their natural eyes.

The current whereabouts of the plates are unknown. The official church version is that the angel Moroni collected them after the translation and removed them to heaven.

Several alternative theories about the origin of the Book of Mormon have been advanced. One is that Smith was inspired to write the work by an 1823 book called View Of The Hebrews by Ethan Smith, the pastor of Oliver Cowdery's church. 

In the Old Testament book of Exodus, Urim and Thummin are the Hebrew words for two objects used by the high priest, Aaron, and his descendants to understand divine will. They're not described, so there is much speculation, but they were connected to the breastplate worn by the high priest and presumably lost in the destruction of the first temple, around 600 BC. That implies that Smith was fairly well versed in the Bible, which is extensively used as a source for the Book of Mormon, particularly the book of Isaiah. Many chapters of the Book of Mormon are copied word for word from the King James version of the Bible.

Do LDS claims hold water? Did Smith translate the plates, or was the Book of Mormon a product of his imagination bolstered with cribbings from the Bible? Was he inspired by God or an obscure book by Ethan Smith? Many outside the church take a skeptical and often downright hostile view--one recent account in this vein is Jon Krakauer's Under the Banner of Heaven: A Story of Violent Faith (2003). Adherents, meanwhile, give the answer the faithful have always given: If you believe it, it's so. For the record, no archaeological evidence has been found anywhere in the Americas to support the existence of an ancient civilization such as that described in the Book of Mormon. On the other hand, claims about the origin of the Mormon church aren't inherently more implausible than those of world religions such as Christianity and Islam--it's just that that the history of the church and its teachings are within the range of modern history, and therefore can be independently studied. I leave it to readers to decide for themselves.  

Special thanks to supermod bibliophage for the local New York/Vermont information contained in this article.

Sources:

Smith, Joseph. The Pearl of Great Price, available online at scriptures.lds.org/pgp/contents
www.lds.org
www.pbs.org/americanprophet/
www.irr.org/mit/neely2.html
www.mrm.org/multimedia/text/see r-stone.html
www.lds-mormon.com/voh.shtml 

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