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.