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An Insider's View of Mormon Origins

An Insider's View of Mormon Origins

3.2 5
by Grant Palmer, Kurt Gray (Illustrator)

Over the past thirty years, an enormous amount of research has been conducted into Mormon origins—Joseph Smith’s early life, the Book of Mormon, the prophet’s visions, and the restoration of priesthood authority. Longtime LDS educator Grant H. Palmer suggests that most Latter-day Saints remain unaware of the significance of these discoveries, and


Over the past thirty years, an enormous amount of research has been conducted into Mormon origins—Joseph Smith’s early life, the Book of Mormon, the prophet’s visions, and the restoration of priesthood authority. Longtime LDS educator Grant H. Palmer suggests that most Latter-day Saints remain unaware of the significance of these discoveries, and he gives a brief survey for anyone who has ever wanted to know more about these issues.
He finds that much of what we take for granted as literal history has been tailored over the years—slightly modified, added to, one aspect emphasized over another—to the point that the original narratives have been nearly lost. What was experienced as a spiritual or metaphysical event, something from a different dimension, often has been refashioned as if it were a physical, objective occurrence. This is not how the first Saints interpreted these events. Historians who have looked closer at the foundational stories and source documents have restored elements, including a nineteenth-century world view, that have been misunderstood, if not forgotten.  

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Signature Books, Incorporated
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Read an Excerpt


For thirty-four years I was primarily an Institute director for the Church Educational System (CES) of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. There is much to like about the college-level discussions that sometimes occur in the Institute setting. Unfortunately, our adult lessons and discussions at church rarely rise above the seminary level, even though many of our members are well educated. Our discussions are usually an inch deep and a mile wide as they say. We seem to have a lingering desire for simple religion. We like to hear confirmations that everything is as we assumed it was: our pioneer ancestors were heroic and inspired and the Bible and Book of Mormon are in perfect harmony, for instance. We never learn in church that the Book of Abraham papyri were discovered and translated by Egyptologists or that researchers have studied Native American genes and what the implications are for the Book of Mormon. Questions about such topics are discouraged because they create tension; they are considered inappropriate or even heretical. This approach has isolated many of us from the rest of the world or from reality itself in those instances when we insist on things that are simply untrue.

All the while, such remarkable research has been conducted over the past thirty years into Mormon origins. It is exciting to see what has been done collaboratively by church historians-the faculty of the Joseph Fielding Smith Institute for Church History at Brigham Young University, BYU history and religion professors and scholars from other disciplines and other church schools, and seminary and institute faculty-and by unaffiliated scholars. Together, they have painstakingly collated and compared accounts of the most important events in church history from the original minutes and diaries; gathered data from the environment to better understand the circumstances under which activities occurred; studied the language of the revelations and scriptures and compared it to the general idiom and to literary expressions; excavated and restored sites; scoured archives; translated documents; gathered genealogical records and pursued traces of people’s lives for additional testaments. They have published, critiqued, and re-evaluated a veritable mountain of evidence. Too much of this escapes the view of the rank-and-file in the church.

There was a day when Latter-day Saint history was considered unworthy of this kind of attention by professional historians. In large part, due to the Mormon History Association and the involvement by LDS scholars in other professional groups, this is no longer the case. Today, publishers, both academic and general interest presses, accept and publish Mormon topics on a regular basis. Yet the relatively modest print runs these books usually receive indicate that they sell mostly to other professionals rather than to the LDS public at large. There is a lingering distrust of anything that hasn’t come directly from, or with an endorsement by, the church leadership.

Some of this research has been conducted by critics of the church. Some of it contains distortions and is unreliable. But much of what even the critics have written is backed by solid investigation and sound reasoning and should not be dismissed. Your friends don’t always tell you what you need to hear. Furthermore, it is untrue that non-Mormons who write about the church are de facto anti-Mormon. Many outside historians are good friends and supporters of the church, and many find the topics interesting for their own sake without any agenda.

About a decade and a half ago, there was some consternation and confusion over Mark Hofmann’s forgeries and murders. In fact, it has taken a while to sort through and correct the damage he caused. Ironically, while the LDS church supported the forgeries, two of the church’s most visible critics never accepted their validity. Despite the setback to history caused by Hofmann, the ranks of honest and earnest historians have continued their research and writing.

Over the years, scholars of all stripes have made contributions and counterbalanced each other by critiquing each other’s works. We now have a body of authentic, reliable documents and a near-consensus on many of the details. From this base, the overall picture of Mormon origins begins to unfold. This picture is much different from what we hear in the modified versions that are taught in Sunday school. But de-mythologized-placed in its original time and place, amid all the twists and turns that exist in the real world-it rings true. There has not been an attempt to eliminate the spiritual from the secular. Far from that, the foundational stories are in many cases more spiritual, less temporal, and more stirring. Whatever else, they are also fascinating. To know the personalities involved in these events and to hear them tell their experiences in their own original words before everything was recast for hierarchical and proselyting purposes is to see it all in an entirely new and exciting perspective.

That said, I have wondered how I should introduce my work. How should I convey what I feel in my soul? First, this book is not intended for children or investigators. So much of our attention is directed toward children and potential converts that long-standing adult members rarely have an opportunity to speak freely to each other. We worry that tender ears may overhear. I am a fourth-generation Mormon, and I want to address this discussion to other second-, third-, and fourth-generation Mormons who will better understand where I am coming from. Lest there be any question, let me say that my intent is to increase faith, not to diminish it. Still, faith needs to be built on truth-what is, in fact, true and believable. After that comes the great leap. We too often confuse faith with knowledge. Faith has to do with the unknown, not about what can be proven or can be shown to be reasonably based on the evidence. I have always thought that an unwillingness to submit one’s beliefs to rigorous scrutiny is a manifestation of weakness of faith. Otherwise, everything becomes a matter of orthodoxy rather than truth.

These are matters that I wrestled with for years. As a young man, I became involved in CES because of my commitment to the gospel and my love of the scriptures and also because of my passion for church history. These remain priorities today. I see a number of things differently now than I did before I embarked on this lifelong study of, and service to, the church. I volunteered toward the end of my career to be the LDS Institute director at the Salt Lake County jail. I looked forward to focusing on basic Bible teachings and doing some counseling. I also hoped that I might resolve some of my own questions in an atmosphere where I could freely contemplate them. Now that I am retired, I find myself compelled to discuss in public what I pondered mostly in private at that time.

I have two purposes in writing. One is to introduce church members who have not followed the developments in church history during the last thirty years to issues that are central to the topic of Mormon origins. I hope my survey will be enlightening and useful to anyone who has wanted to understand what has been termed the New Mormon History.

Second, I would like church members to understand historians and religion teachers like myself. When I or my colleagues talk or write about the LDS past, we tend to avoid superlatives that members expect when hearing a recital of our history. Their ears finely tuned to the nuances of such parlance, they assume that we have secularized the story, that we are intentionally obtuse, or that we split hairs. They have heard that we are revisionists, and by this they understand that we are rewriting history in a way that was never intended. In truth, we are salvaging the earliest, authentic versions of these stories from the ravages of well-meaning censors who have abridged and polished them for institutional purposes.

Wallace B. Smith, president-emeritus of the RLDS church (now the Community of Christ), writing about “the foundation experiences” of Mormonism, observed: “One thing is clear. The genie is out of the bottle and it cannot be put back. Facts uncovered and the questions raised by the new Mormon historians will not go away. They will have to be dealt with if we are to maintain a position of honesty and integrity in our dealings with our own members as well as our friends in the larger religious community.”1 I find this position to be both refreshing and healthy. I also agree with Thomas Jefferson who taught that however discomfiting a free exchange may be, truth will ultimately emerge the victor.2 President Hugh B. Brown, a counselor in the LDS presidency during the 1960s, echoed on behalf of the church:

I admire men and women who have developed the questing spirit, who are unafraid of new ideas as stepping stones to progress. We should, of course, respect the opinions of others, but we should also be unafraid to dissent-if we are informed. Thoughts and expressions compete in the marketplace of thought, and in that competition truth emerges triumphant. Only error fears freedom of expression … This free exchange of ideas is not to be deplored as long as men and women remain humble and teachable. Neither fear of consequence or any kind of coercion should ever be used to secure uniformity of thought in the church. People should express their problems and opinions and be unafraid to think without fear of ill consequences. … We must preserve freedom of the mind in the church and resist all efforts to suppress it.3

These and similar sentiments motivate me in my current endeavor. I do not believe that what I have written is flawless, but I lay out the evidence and state the implications of what I see as clearly as possible. My years of teaching have taught me that if I am not direct, my point is missed. However, there is also a downside to such straightforwardness. If I seem provocative or insensitive, or if I offend, it is not my intention. These are issues that are deeply important to me. I do not treat them lightly, whatever the shortcomings of my prose. Yet, I feel good that I do not cloak the issues in ambiguities, with an overdose of qualifiers and disclaimers. I find these matters to be so engaging that, for me, they bring church history to life for the first time. If nothing else, the reader may sense my enthusiasm, which can be boundless, I admit.

Perhaps the reader is already puzzled by this lengthy dialogue on historiography and freedom of belief. If so, let me state clearly what can be expected from this book. I, along with colleagues, and drawing from years of research, find the evidence employed to support many traditional claims about the church to be either nonexistent or problematic. In other words, it didn’t all happen the way we’ve been told. For the sake of accuracy and honesty, I think we need to address and ultimately correct this disparity between historical narratives and the inspirational stories that are told in church. Hopefully my book will be received in the spirit in which it is intended. As English philosopher John Stuart Mill said, any attempt to resist another opinion is a “peculiar evil.” If the opinion is right, we are robbed of the “opportunity of exchanging error for truth.” If it is wrong, we are deprived of a deeper understanding of the truth in “its collision with error.”4

On 4-5 January 1922, B. H. Roberts, senior president of the church’s seven presidents of the seventy, presented to ranking church leaders what he called “Book of Mormon Difficulties” discussed in chapter two of this book. Elder Roberts said: “In a church which claimed continuous revelation, a crisis had arisen where revelation was necessary.” He hoped his brethren would bring “the inspiration of the Lord” to solve these problems. However, after his presentations, his colleagues reaffirmed their testimonies of the Book of Mormon and offered no solutions.5

I would like to renew Elder Roberts’s call for a more candid discussion of the foundations of the church beginning with the Book of Mormon. I discuss these issues in eight chapters, the first of which evaluates Joseph Smith’s efforts at translation. Chapters 2-4 examine Joseph’s intellectual environment, including the King James Bible, evangelical religion, and American antiquities, all of which influenced the content of the Book of Mormon. Chapter 4 also discusses religious feelings and the Holy Ghost. Chapters 5-6 reveal the impact of folk beliefs on two early claims of Mormonism. Chapters 7-8 investigate priesthood restoration and Joseph’s first vision, detailing the developments and what precipitated the changes in the history of these two experiences.

I wish to thank my friends and colleagues who agreed to be readers of my first and subsequent drafts for their many helpful suggestions and encouragement. It is good to have critics, but it is also good to have such reassuring friends.

Meet the Author

 Grant H. Palmer (M.A., American history, Brigham Young University) is a three-time director of LDS Institutes of Religion in California and Utah, a former instructor at the Church College of New Zealand, and an LDS seminary teacher at two Utah locations. He has been active in the Mormon History Association and on the board of directors of the Salt Lake Legal Defenders Association. He is the author of An Insider’s View of Mormon Origins and The Incomparable Jesus. Now retired, his hobby is pigeon fancying. He has four children and eight grandchildren. He and his wife live in Sandy, Utah.

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An Insider's View of Mormon Origins 3.2 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 5 reviews.
SunKid More than 1 year ago
This book is extremely informative and well documented. Though it contains information that faithful Mormons may find surprising, it contains an accurate history and significant scientific evidence concerning the Book of Mormon and the Book of Abraham in the Pearl of Great Price. There is only one section of the book that i am not impressed with; the chapter on "The Golden Pot". Though there are several correlations to the story Joseph Smith tells about bringing forth the BM, they are rather weak. I recommend skipping the entire chapter. My background: I was Born in the LDS church, served as a missionary and have been an active member for 48 years. I have verified from other sources much of the information Mr. Palmer has included.
Guest More than 1 year ago
This is an outstanding book and I strongly recommend it to anyone looking into the history of the LDS church. The author has been disfellowshipped, which is truly a shame as the book is not written from a ¿LDS bashing¿ standpoint just to be an accurate, objective, account of Mormon history. But it's not the first time the church has silenced those who¿s views are in conflict with theirs (The September of 1993 Sanctions) In my humble opinion continuing to reprimanding those who don't agree with or accept all of what the Mormon church has to say will do the church more harm than if they¿d just let these people be in the first place. But oh well, still a magnificent book, all claims in the book are backed up with a plethora of documents and evidence and is a great read.
Guest More than 1 year ago
It is sad, but not entirely unexpected that the LDS (Mormon) church has not learned the 400-year-old embarrassing lesson of the Catholic Church's persecution of Galileo Galilei in the early 1600s. In this book the author attempts to explore the origins of the Mormon Church and seek out truth. He attempts to catalyze an open exchange of ideas while remaining loyal to his faith; culminating in the Mormon Church inflicting disciplinary actions upon the author, in effect amounting to censorship. Indeed this work supports the doubts cast upon the book of Mormon, which is written in King James style English, rather than the English of the times, which would be more akin to Mark Twain's English. Truth stands on its own and need not be cloaked in the pseudolanguage that is perceived by many to be religious.
Guest More than 1 year ago
Just over the top. Very disappointing. Its easy to put a spin on any information, and lable it the truth without it being so. Just more proof you can't always believe everything you read in print whether or not it does have a so called 'plethora of substantiating information.' I mean look at how the white house spun the info, so that we could go to war in Iraq. Disappointing.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
If you prefer to get biased, twisted historical facts from people who are no longer part of a church, this is great! If I were interested in the Catholic church, I would go to active believers who have no reason to spin the facts. Sour grapes from someone who fell away and was excommunicated. Never a reliable resource.