Joseph was a poor, uneducated 24-year-old farm boy. Witnesses say that he dictated the entire book without any notes or aids and yet it is incredibly complex and inspiring to millions of people. How could he have done that without inspiration from God?
— Believing Mormons
A very friendly, Mormon commenter recently asked me essentially the same question in this way:
“…what do you consider to be the origin of the Book of Mormon?
…your careful consideration of multiple historical sources on so many aspects of church history would lead me to think you would want concrete evidence to counter the fanciful claims of the ‘miraculous’ Book of Mormon origin believed by myself and so many others.”1
In other words: if the Book of Mormon didn’t come about the way Joseph said it did, how else do you explain it? If you can’t explain it, then it’s got to be of God, right?
Can you imagine where our world would be if we attributed everything that can’t be immediately explained to a supernatural power?
For example, if I see something incredible happen – say someone is healed by a preacher, or he knows intimate details about someone’s life, or a fortune teller accurately predicts events, or a magician makes the statue of liberty disappear. Just because I don’t know how to explain it, doesn’t mean that I jump to fanciful conclusions like “it must be God’s power” or “it must be magic”.
That was the prevailing thinking in medieval times. Aren’t you glad that society has progressed past that type of thinking?
This perspective applies to the Book of Mormon. I have heard some very interesting theories of the true origin of the Book of Mormon. All of them are infinitely more likely than Joseph’s claim, but they are entirely unnecessary for me to conclude that Joseph’s story was bogus. But just because I don’t have a concrete origin story for the Book of Mormon doesn’t mean that I jump to the conclusion that “it must be of God.”
I don’t do that with these questions:
- “How do you explain the Quran other than it is inspired by God?”
- “How could the Urantia Book have come from any other source than from God?”
- “How could an ordinary man write the Mentinah Archives?”
- “How could Nostradamus make so many accurate predictions?”
- “How do you explain that millions of people’s lives are changed by the book, Dianetics?”
So, I don’t do that with the Book of Mormon either2.
I have an invisible dragon in my closet. Prove me wrong.
My reasoning with regard to the origin of the Book of Mormon (and all other fanciful claims for that matter) is actually the opposite of what you stated. I don’t need concrete evidence to counter fanciful claims. It’s the fanciful claims that require concrete evidence. (No, your belief that God told you so, isn’t concrete evidence.)
But, you might say, That gives no room for faith. I disagree. Belief in things that are unknown is faith. Belief in things that have been thoroughly disproven is not faith. That’s fanaticism.
When I believed in the Book of Mormon, I put my faith in the traditional origin story because I no reason to question it. I had a deep, active faith in the angels, the Urim and Thummim, the revelation from God, etc. The story that I was given sounded incredible but I didn’t have anything to refute it, so I decided to trust my feelings as to whether or not the stories are true. I felt very strong, positive feelings when I studied it, prayed about it, and shared it. Everyone around me said that that was God’s voice telling me it was true. I didn’t hesitate to believe them because I was placing my faith in an unknown.
Then I discovered that the origin story I was told had huge problems:
- Joseph Smith had a long history of lying and cheating about fake, buried treasure3
- His earliest accounts of finding the golden plates sound a lot like his treasure digging and divining that was happening at the same time that he claims to have found out about the plates4. There’s even an early account where a toad-like creature showed him the plates – not an angel named Moroni.
- There were no spectacles in a bow until another fake seer said that he saw them under the ground with the plates; Joseph said that there were no spectacles; but when the fake seer persisted, Joseph finally said he saw them too (presumably to get another witness of the existence of the plates)
- Accounts of the “translation” say he used the same magic rock that was used to con people many times before
- He didn’t “translate” one page of the Book of Mormon with the Urim and Thummim (that was added later by Joseph)
- The plates were never in the room while he “translated” (why the need for the plates then?)
- The three and eight witnesses saw the plates with their “spiritual eyes” only5
- Many of the witnesses were uncomfortable with the wording of the witness document
- There’s no evidence that any of the witnesses signed the testimony – Oliver Cowdery’s handwriting is the only one on the document
That’s just a summary – things only got worse, the deeper I looked and the fact my Church whitewashed all of this stuff (and continues to do so) doesn’t help. To say that the fanciful origin story had major problems with it was a huge understatement. It is demonstrably false.
Now that I know the facts surrounding the origin of the true Book of Mormon, placing faith in it would require me to obliterate reason. That would be dangerous. History is replete with people who justified horrible things because they were willing to override reason to make room for their faith.
So, in summary: I don’t need another concrete origin story of the Book of Mormon to disprove Joseph’s claims about it. The history of the Book, and of Joseph himself, and the Mormon Church’s continued coverup, and the contents of the book itself, utterly destroy Joseph’s claims in my eyes. Even if his claims could withstand history, I should be careful to jump to “how else can I explain it?” because that “logic” has been abused throughout history to false and sometimes unsavory ends. If I did use that “logic”, I’d have to apply it to other “unexplainable” books and claims and conclude that they were also “true”.
- I love to get questions like these! This person is the second believing Mormon in seven years to ask me real questions about Mormonism. I hesitated to highlight his question because I don’t want to discourage other believing Mormons from asking questions. But in this case, I thought that the answer was important enough to share, and since the author’s response is already public, I thought it would be okay.
- This is completely unnecessary to mention but the argument that Joseph Smith wasn’t smart enough to do all that he did on his own doesn’t hold water. There are many friendly accounts that praise Joseph as an incredible mind. For example, he frequently would say things like this to demonstrate his linguistic prowess: “Were I a Chaldean I would exclaim, Keed’nauh to-me-roon lehoam elauhayauh dey – ahemayana veh aur’hau lau gnaubadoo, yabadoo ma-ar’gnau comeen tehoat sheamyauh allah (Thus shall ye say unto them: The gods that have not made the heaven and the earth, they shall perish from the earth, and from these heavens.) An Egyptian, Su-e-eh-ni (What other persons are those?) A Grecian, Diabolos basileuei (The Devil reigns.) A Frenchman, Messieurs sans Dieu (Gentlemen without God.)” (Larson, Charles M. By His Own Hand upon Papyrus: a New Look at the Joseph Smith Papyri. Inst For Religious, 1992.) Of course, he only ever demonstrated a few phrases, the Egyptian was made up, and the Chaldean is actually Hebrew, but the point is that he fooled people into thinking he was an expert in languages. That takes a smart person.
- The renowned historian, Dan Vogel, summarizes this well in this video. I recommend that you follow up on as many sources as you can on your own.
- I recommend another video by Dan Vogel: Joseph Smith Brings the Plates Home
- For example when Martin Harris was asked, “Martin, did you see those plates with your naked eyes?” he replied, “No, I saw them with a spiritual eye.” He also said that “he never saw them only as he saw a city through a mountain” josephsmithpapers.org Lds.org explains it this way: “One of Joseph Smith’s early revelations affirmed similarly that humans cannot see God with their ‘natural eyes’ without being consumed. They could, however, witness his glory with ‘spiritual eyes’ if they were changed or ‘quickened by the spirit of God.’ Martin Harris considered the witnesses’ experience with the angel and the ancient record to be just such an encounter with the divine, similar to Joseph Smith’s visions.” (lds.org)