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The Wacky World of Joseph Smith

Editor’s note: This is the second part of a two-part article.

The origins of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints’ “Bible”—the Book of Mormon—are open to devastating criticism. One would think, for instance, that if part of the miraculous translation from the golden plates was lost in the initial stage, it should not have been too difficult for a genuine “seer” to translate the missing portion again as long as he still had the plates and the miraculous translation stones (the “Urim and Thummin”) in his possession. The following incident alone should be sufficient to persuade all but the most credulous that there was something fishy about the whole business.

As Mormon historian Ivan J. Barrett recounts it, the first 116 pages of English transcript, taken down by the scribe Martin Harris at Smith’s dictation, were lost irretrievably after Harris took them home to show to his skeptical wife. Mrs. Harris apparently lost, destroyed, or concealed the manuscript. She refused to disclose what had happened to it, and Harris returned empty-handed to the furious prophet. Smith’s behavior in the face of this setback is exactly what we should expect from a none-too-subtle hoaxer who has claimed loudly to possess an infallible, supernatural translating technique and now sees that he risks exposure by being unable to reproduce the original translation.

Does he start all over again, humbly trusting in the power of God to vindicate the truth of his claims? Not at all. He receives yet another “revelation” from God commanding him not to retranslate the first part, because “Satan” has inspired “thieves” to alter the stolen manuscript. If he produces another true and identical version of the first l 16 pages, they will publish their “altered” version as the original in order to discredit him.

Fortunately, it turns out that the missing portion can be dispensed with anyway: The Lord “reveals” that it is only an “abridgement” by the ancient historian Mormon of a fuller narrative written by the still-earlier patriarch Nephi. Nephi’s plates are also conveniently there in Joseph’s collection, so he translates them instead (Barrett, Joseph Smith and the Restoration: A History of the Church to 1846, pp.84–87).

If Smith had been sincere in claiming the ability to produce another identical translation of “Mormon’s abridgement,” he would not have been frightened to do so. To succeed in discrediting a genuine revelation, his enemies would obviously have needed to produce the original 116 pages for public inspection, and to alter it with such consummate skills that impartial scrutinizers would be unable to detect the slightest signs of erasure, thinning of paper, or difference in handwriting.

Perhaps the most irrefutable evidence for the fraudulent character of the Book of Mormon came to light in the mid-1970s through the research of three young Americans, Wayne Cowdrey, Howard Davis, and Donald Scales.

From a very early date, the relatives and acquaintances of a retired Congregationalist minister, Rev. Solomon Spalding, who died in 1816, had complained against the Latter-Day Saints that the Book of Mormon was really a plagiarized version of an unpublished novel, Manuscript Found, which the deceased clergyman had written and circulated among his friends. A number of affidavits were sworn to this effect, but their publication and propagation was sporadic and poorly organized. The LDS church launched a massive counterattack that capitalized on the fact that the original draft of Manuscript Found could not be produced to verify the affidavits.

Naturally, the Mormons claimed that these were malicious, satanically inspired falsehoods. All that remained was an earlier Spalding novel, Manuscript Story, which shows some definite stylistic similarities to the Book of Mormon but also some marked differences. Eventually, most anti-Mormon writers stopped appealing to the Spalding theory as an explanation for the Book of Mormon because the available evidence seemed incapable of being substantiated.

But Cowdrey, Davis, and Scales pieced together a long chain of events connecting Smith and Spalding. The chief link in the chain was an itinerant evangelist named Sidney Rigdon, who had a close friend who worked at the print shop in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, from which Spalding’s second manuscript disappeared. A Dr. Winter later claimed to have been shown the manuscript by Rigdon in 1822.

Rigdon was eventually baptized into the Mormon Church in November 1830 and always claimed that he had known nothing of Smith or Mormonism until late that year. Cowdrey et al found at least ten people who testified that they had seen Smith and Rigdon together a number of times from 1827 onwards—the very period when Smith was preparing the Book of Mormon.

The climax came in 1976 when Cowdrey and his friends were examining some old manuscripts in an LDS church library. They came across a few pages from the Book of Mormon in handwriting no one had been able to identify. But before this the researchers had managed to track down some undisputed samples of Spalding’s handwriting at Oberlin College in Ohio, including a deed from January 1811 bearing his signature.

There, amid the quiet and rather dull surroundings of paper and bookshelves, the awesome truth dawned on them: These harmless-looking scraps of aging paper had the potential to shatter once and for all the myth of Joseph Smith the saint and prophet—a great, historic, American myth for which men and women had lived and died and suffered and killed; a myth that had pioneered part of the Wild West, built the state of Utah, and now ruled the hearts and lives and fortunes of millions round the world.

This extract from the Book of Mormon (“translated” from “golden plates” in 1828) was in the handwriting of Solomon Spalding (died 1816)! What the young men had stumbled on was part of the long-lost manuscript of Spalding’s second novel—crushing evidence of Smith’s plagiarism and deceit that had been preserved by the unsuspecting Mormons themselves.

The three men proceeded to write a book detailing the results of their research (Who Really Wrote the Book of Mormon? Vision House Publishers, 1977). The LDS Church issued denials of the identification and prohibited any further examination of the relevant manuscript. But the detailed testimonies of two independent handwriting experts, William Kaye and Henry Silver, are photographically reproduced for all to see: the unquestioned Spalding documents and the supposed Book of Mormon extract are judged professionally to be definitely in the same hand (Walter Martin, The Maze of Mormonism, pp.62–64).

The “Book of Abraham”

As if this were not sufficient indication of the true character of Joseph Smith, in subsequent years further evidence has come to light in connection with the so-called Book of Abraham. This is another “translation” produced by Smith and included in the volume Pearl of Great Price as inspired Mormon scripture.

In 1835, Smith acquired some ancient Egyptian papyri, and, with the help of Oliver Cowdery and (supposedly) the miraculous “Urim and Thummim,” he “translated” the documents, making the astounding announcement that they were none other than the story of the patriarch Abraham, written the best part of 4,000 years ago.

The papyri were lost for well over a century but came to light again in 1967 at the Metropolitan Museum in New York City. Identified beyond dispute as those actually used by Smith, they were accepted enthusiastically by the LDS church in Utah as a golden opportunity to vindicate the divine inspiration of their prophet. The Church’s only well-qualified Egyptologist, Dee Jay Nelson, was asked to translate the papyri into English. He did so, and, within the next few years, several of the world’s leading Egyptologists verified that his translation was an accurate one.

He and the other experts verified conclusively that the so-called Book of Abraham is an ordinary pagan Egyptian funeral text, dating from between B.C. 200 and A.D. 100, at least 1,500 years after the time of Abraham. Its contents have nothing to do with the biblical patriarch and bear no relation to Smith’s English “translation,” published as the “Word of God” in the Pearl of Great Price.

Nelson and his family resigned from the Mormon Church in 1975, a decision that must have been painful indeed for former devout followers of Joseph Smith. Since then, LDS Church leaders have kept as quiet as possible about the whole issue, no doubt hoping that some miracle will occur eventually to vindicate in some unimaginable way the veracity of their founder. (Detailed documentation on this affair, including reproductions of relevant correspondence, can be found in Barrett, pp.150–170).

The Witnesses to the Golden Plates

The evidence against Joseph Smith’s own credibility is so overwhelming that corroboration of his testimony even by persons of otherwise unquestioned reliability could scarcely restore any real confidence in his “revelations.” Smith’s associates scarcely seem to fall into that category, even by Mormon standards. The principal witnesses, Oliver Cowdery, David Whitmer, and Martin Harris, always stuck to their story of having seen the plates in the presence of an angel, but all three subsequently left the LDS church.

For a man who allegedly believed in Smith as a prophet of God, Cowdery showed a strange lack of faith in his leader. Mormon historian Barrett relates how Cowdery was excommunicated in 1838 for (among other things) attempting to “destroy the character of President Joseph Smith,” for selling his own land in defiance of one of Smith’s down-to-earth “revelations,” and for disgracing the church by his dishonest business practices (Barrett, p.370).

The church council also accused David Whitmer of defaming Smith, of neglecting his duties as a Church official, and of disobeying the “Word of Wisdom” (another of Smith’s “revelations” forbidding the use of tobacco, alcohol, and “hot drinks”).

Harris appears to have been a credulous man. On other occasions he reported that he had seen and talked to Jesus in the form of a deer, and had seen the devil, who resembled a “jackass with short, smooth hair, like a mouse” (Fawn M. Brodie, No One Knows My History, p.81). Although he swore to having seen the golden plates, Harris later admitted under cross-examination that he only saw them “with the eye of faith”—whatever that might mean.

“I did not see them as I do that pencil case”, he said, “[but] I saw them just as distinctly as I see anything around me—although at the time they were covered with a cloth” (William J. Whalen, The Latter-Day Saints in the Modern World, p. 32). Finally, of the eight further witnesses who claimed to have seen and handled the plates (but without any angels) in June 1829, three subsequently abandoned the LDS church.

What can we deduce about the trustworthiness of the men on whose testimony of plates and angels and marvelous stones and silver bows the entire Mormon religion depends absolutely? The exact details will probably never be known, but it is clear that Joseph Smith was certainly dishonest and probably superstitious. The Spalding manuscript; the connivance of Sidney Rigdon and possibly others; the possible fabrication of some bogus “plates” to lend credence to the story; Smith’s superstitious interest in crystal-gazing, which may have resulted in a partly genuine belief that he possessed a secret key to knowledge; and a number of ill-educated and not very saintly associates—these now appear as the main ingredients in the original Mormon recipe.

Some Catholics are aware of the demonic dimension of reality and of the extensive, well-documented evidence of strange preternatural phenomena that sometimes occur in connection with dabbling in the occult. They will not need to insist that the whole phenomenon must necessarily be explained in entirely “natural” terms.

The Scriptures predict the arrival of false prophets with deceptive “signs and wonders,” and testify to Satan’s ability to disguise himself as an “angel of light” (2 Cor. 11). If there were indeed some extraordinary phenomena—visions, voices, automatic writing or whatever—this could help to explain the early growth of the Mormon Church. Such phenomena, coupled with the success of the movement and the adulation of ever-growing crowds of converts, may well have led Smith to believe increasingly in his own divine mission, regardless of his duplicity. Such self-deception seems to be a fairly common psychological phenomenon amongst cult leaders.

Mormon Theology

I argued last month that the credentials of a self-styled messenger from God may often be the crucial factor in deciding whether or not we should believe him, quite independently of the actual doctrines he asks us to believe. I put it to the fair-minded reader of any religion or none that the evidence we have adduced regarding the credentials and character of the founding fathers of Mormonism should convince us that it would be foolish to accept anything on their say-so—and especially on Joseph Smith’s say-so. To put it bluntly, I would not buy a used religion from this man (much less a brand new one) even should it turn out to offer an internally consistent and plausible-sounding theology, or perhaps certain Bible verses that seem to lend support to its distinctive doctrines.

Whether or not the LDS gospel does in fact sound consistent and appealing readers can now judge for themselves. We shall conclude our little survey of the Mormons and their church by setting out the main distinguishing features of their creed and how this differs from Catholic teaching.

The Book of Mormons’ Message

Smith’s new “Bible” tells how ancient peoples from the Near East migrated to America and were visited by Jesus Christ after his Resurrection. They are believed to be God’s true people. But the civilization, great cities, advanced metallurgical technology, and agricultural resources that it attributes to the “Nephites,” “Jaredites,” and other alleged ancient Americans are incompatible with what archaeologists have discovered. By sharp contrast, excavations in the Near East are found frequently to corroborate the genuine antiquity and authenticity of the historical narratives in the Bible.

Also we cannot help wondering why a book that was supposed to have been miraculously translated word for word should have undergone more than 2,000 textual changes between the original edition and the ones in use today (William Whalen, The Latter Saints in the Modern World, p. 49). In 1 Nephi 11:21, for instance, the original edition says that the “Lamb of God” is “the eternal Father,” while the same verse in today’s version equates the “Lamb of God” with “the Son of the Eternal Father.”

There are many anachronisms in the Book of Mormon, large slabs of which (about 27,000 words in all) are direct quotations from the King James Bible of 1611. It perpetuates some of the errors of that translation, such as the word torn instead of refuse or offal as a translation of the Hebrew suchah in Isaiah 5:25. In some places we find really astonishing reports: In Ether 15:31 we read of a gentleman named Shiz who “struggles for breath” after his head has been cut off and then finally dies. (For more extensive criticism of the Book of Mormon, see Isaiah Bennett, Inside Mormonism (Catholic Answers), pp. 432–449.)

God and Creation

The first article of the Christian creed is held in common with all great monotheistic religions: God is One; he is infinite, self-subsistent Spirit, the almighty “Creator of heaven and earth.” All limited and finite beings depend utterly on him for their existence.

LDS doctrine denies this fundamental theistic premise. The “inspired” Doctrine and Covenants states that the “elements are eternal” and indestructible (DC 93:3). The things we see were not created out of nothing but only “framed” or “organized” out of preexisting matter (DC 20:17). The Mormon worldview is materialistic because it makes the mistake of assuming that if something is real we ought to be able to make a mental “picture” or image of it. This leaves no room for truly spiritual being. Mormon “revelation” asserts that “all spirit is matter, but it is more fine or pure, and can only be discerned by purer eyes” (DC 131:7).

For Mormons, therefore, God is a material being in time and space who is only partly responsible for our existence. From a Catholic viewpoint, this reduces him to an idol, unworthy of human worship and adoration. Although at times he is said to be “unchangeable” in some sense (DC 20:17), he is in fact believed to be capable of “growth” and “maturation.” In fact, he was once a quite lowly figure, as we are, and has now taken on a celestial body: “The Father has a body of flesh and bones as tangible as man’s” (DC 130:22). Because the Bible tells us that God made man “in his own image” (Gen. 1:26–7), Latter-Day Saints conclude that he must fully share our nature. (If such reasoning were valid, then the image I see in the bathroom mirror must also be a three-dimensional being, composed of flesh and bones.)

The prophet Joseph proclaimed, “God himself was once as we are now and is an exalted man and sits enthroned in yonder heavens! I am going to tell you how God came to be God. We have imagined and supposed that God was God from all eternity. I will refute that idea, and take away the veil . . . yea, God himself, the Father of us all, dwelt on an earth, the same as Jesus Christ himself did ” (History of the Church 6:305–306).

Brigham Young—who, like all Smith’s successors as president, prophet, seer, and revelator of the LDS Church, is supposed to enjoy infallibility—declared on many occasions as “revelation” that the earth where God once lived was in fact this earth and that he and Adam are one and the same person. Modern Mormons do not accept this generally and try to argue that Young was not speaking ex cathedra, so to speak—not with his full authority.

“Gods” and Men—Essentially the Same

Although Mormons commonly talk about “God” in a way that might create an impression of the unique Being of orthodox Christianity, they believe in the existence of many “Gods” ruling the many worlds scattered throughout the universe. Whether one or more of these is supreme over the rest seems rather obscure. In any case, we are to worship our “Heavenly Father,” the God of this world, who “organized” it into its present condition. Smith asserted, “The heads of the Gods appointed one God for us” (History of the Church 6:475). Thus, by their own admission, Mormons worship a being who is not necessarily the Supreme Being; he is merely our local deity.

On the basis of certain biblical texts that speak of various “gods” (understood by Catholics to mean either false gods or lesser spiritual beings), the Latter-Day Saints’ polytheistic gospel proclaims a whole race or “species” of divine beings of which “Heavenly Father” is only one member. Unable to form a clear picture in their minds of the Christian mystery of three Persons in one God, Mormons reject this doctrine and reinterpret the Trinity in a way that posits three separate members of the God-species who happen to be of particular importance to us on planet Earth.

Joseph Smith declared, “I will preach on the plurality of Gods. . . . I have always declared God to be a distinct personage, Jesus Christ a separate and distinct personage from God the Father, and that the Holy Ghost was a distinct personage and a Spirit: and that these three constitute three distinct personages and three Gods” (History of the Church 6:474).

Our Father in heaven is married to at least one female deity, and together they procreated all the billions of human beings as “spirit children.” All of us are claimed to have lived in heaven as spirits before entering a body here on earth. Devout “saints” sing a hymn written by one of Smith’s widows, Eliza Snow:

“In the heavens are parents single?
No; the thought makes reason stare!
Truth is reason, truth eternal tells
me I’ve a mother there.”

Some of these spirit children rebelled and became the devil and his angels. Their punishment is that they are eternally denied the opportunity of progress. If we accept the Mormon gospel and live virtuously, we shall not only rise again physically along with all mankind but will keep on developing until we ourselves are Gods. If not, we will reach only a lower “kingdom” in the future life. (Heaven consists of a hierarchy of three “kingdoms”—celestial, terrestrial, and telestial; few if any of us will join the devils in hell, or the “Second Death.”)

The essence of the Mormon gospel is summed up very clearly by the contemporary LDS theologian Glenn L. Pearson: “The truth we have found to be that gods, angels, devils, and men are of a common parentage. They are the same in physical appearance and original potentiality. Gods are those members of the divine race who have reached the status that might be called perfect maturation, or realization of the maximum potential” (Know Your Religion, p. 24).

Still more succinctly, another Mormon leader, Lorenzo Snow, summed up the “restored and everlasting gospel” in a widely quoted aphorism: “As man is, God once was, and as God is, man may become.” Catholics, on the other hand, believe that by grace we will be transformed into more perfect images of God in the Mystical Body of Christ and live forever in his direct presence. The suggestion that any human creature might eventually rise to equality with his Creator would be seen as absurd and b.asphemous.

The Mormon Idea of Christ

How does Jesus Christ fit into the LDS theological scheme? In common with orthodox Christians, Mormons believe that Christ by his suffering, death, and resurrection is our Savior and made possible our “exaltation.” (By this “exaltation,” of course, they mean the un-Christian notion of becoming equal with God). Since Mormons believe that we, no less than Jesus, were begotten in a very literal way in the spirit world by two heavenly parents, a problem arises for them. A recent Mormon catechetical text, glossy and profusely illustrated, deals with it under the heading, “Jenny’s Question”:

“The Markham family had been to Sunday school and was driving home. Brother Markham asked each of his four children what they had learned that day. . . . When Jenny was asked what she had learned, she replied, “Daddy, I’m confused. The teacher talked about Jesus being God’s only son. I thought all of us were God’s children.” The lesson goes on to suggest that “Jenny’s Question” is answered well in the words of a “modern prophet,” Joseph Fielding Smith, president of the LDS Church in the early twentieth century:

“I want the little folks to hear what I am going to tell you. . . . Now, we are told in scriptures that Jesus Christ is the only begotten Son of God in the flesh. Well, now for the benefit of the older ones, how are children begotten? I answer just as Jesus Christ was begotten of his father. The difference between Jesus Christ and other men is this: Our fathers in the flesh are mortal men who are subject unto death: But the Father of Jesus Christ in the flesh is the God of Heaven. . . . Mary, the virgin girl, who had never known mortal man, was his mother. God by her begot his son Jesus Christ, and he was born into the world with power and intelligence like that of His Father” (Family Home Evening, pp.125-126).

Brigham Young denied emphatically that Jesus was conceived by the Holy Ghost (Journal of Discourses 1:511). Mormon doctrine is really a denial of Jesus’ virginal conception, as we can see from above: “Older ones” know how children are begotten, and that is just how Jesus was begotten—so we are told. God himself—a God of “flesh and bones”—is the father “in the flesh” of Jesus rather than a “mortal” man. In plain language, Mormons believe that God the Father appeared at Nazareth and had sexual intercourse with Mary. Such was the “miraculous” conception of Jesus, in Mormon theology.

Marriage Polygamous and Eternal

Orthodox Christians believe that the union of one man and one woman, for the duration of this earthly life, is God’s true and original plan for the family (although polygamy, having more than one wife, was tolerated for a time among the ancient Hebrews). The Book of Mormon itself is severely opposed to polygamy, stating that David’s and Solomon’s plural marriages were “abominable” before the Lord, who explicitly commands his people to practice monogamy (Jacob 2:24, 27).

This did not prevent Smith from taking a keen interest in women other than his wife, Emma, who was most unhappy about her husband’s behavior. Eventually, on July 12,1843, Smith received the divine seal of approval in the form of a new revelation to the effect that polygamy was now commanded by the Lord: “And let mine handmaid, Emma Smith, receive all those that have been given unto my servant Joseph, and who are virtuous and pure before me.” This “new and everlasting covenant” had to be practiced by all Mormons, as far as possible, on pain of eternal damnation (DC 52:132).

The “covenant” was certainly “new” but not quite “everlasting.” During the next few decades, leaders such as Smith, Young, and Heber C. Kimball took dozens of wives each, but there were not enough women available for most LDS men to take more than one wife, two or three at the most. At length, when the U.S. government threatened to confiscate Mormon property and deny statehood to Utah, the danger of eternal damnation for refusing to practice polygamy faded away. In a Manifesto issued September 1890, president Wilford Woodruff instructed Mormons to “refrain from contracting any marriage forbidden by the law of the land.”

Monogamy is regarded still as an evil to be tolerated only because of unjust civil laws. Polygamy is still seen as the theoretical norm, and Mormons believe it will be practiced in the next life. (LDS “fundamentalists” still practice it quietly in pockets of Utah.)

Respected LDS theological opinion surmises that Jesus himself married Mary Magdalene, Martha, and possibly others and naturally appeared first to “his own dear wives” after the Resurrection (Whalen, p. 123).

Jesus taught that there is no marriage in heaven (Matt. 22:30), but Mormons “seal” their marriages for eternity, where they believe they will go on procreating more and more spirit children forever in order to populate more and more worlds. Indeed, they believe that this “celestial marriage” is essential in order to reach the “celestial kingdom”—the supreme level of heavenly glory. Women can enter there only by virtue of the priesthood of their husbands. There is a complex Mormon hierarchy, headed by a council of twelve “apostles.” Virtually all LDS men are priests of one rank or another in either the “Aaronic” or “Melchisedek” priesthood.

Facing the Facts

I have argued that, although it is unreasonable to demand absolute proof in this life for the validity of religious faith, faith must be rationally defensible and grounded in some strong and objective evidence. From a Catholic viewpoint, the Mormon faith does not pass this test. It is unworthy of any honest and rational person, for instance, to keep trusting in the divine inspiration of Joseph Smith’s Book of Abraham—after Dee Jay Nelson and other Egyptologists have exposed its fraudulence—simply because he “feels his heart burning within him” when he reads that book. (This poignant plea was urged by a devout Mormon elder who wrote to Professor Nelson, begging him to return to the LDS Church. See Martin, p. 161).

Catholicism need not depend for its credibility only on subjective inward experiences, no matter how comforting or uplifting. It makes good sense to explain the existence of the vast number of composite, limited, and changeable beings in the universe by the appeal to traditional theism, belief in one creator God. It does not make sense to “explain” them (as Mormonism does) by postulating a multiplicity of finite “Gods” basically similar in nature to ourselves, whose existence cries out for explanation as much as ours does.

It makes sense to believe that if the Son of God himself organized the nucleus of a community that was to carry on his teaching in perpetuity, he would then assist this community always to remain faithful—as indeed he promised it would (Matt. 16:18). It does not make sense to maintain that while Christ’s original Church was not only fallible but in fact became totally corrupt and apostate for 15 centuries or more (in spite of Christ’s promise to the contrary), a brand new Church, “restored” by a patently dishonest “prophet,” is to be trusted as an infallible interpreter of the original revelation—especially when its new “revelations” sometimes contradict each other.

It makes sense to believe that the constant and unrivaled stream of well-testified miracles over two millennia, often in association with men and women of great holiness of life (think of Lourdes, of Fatima, of the inexplicable picture at Guadalupe, of the dozens of marvelously incorrupt bodies of saints) is a pointer to the authenticity of the Catholic Church. It does not make sense to ignore all of this, and to brand all of these saints hypocrites who worshiped God only “with their lips,” in favor of a few “visions” and other unusual phenomena reported over a limited time and in a limited locality by persons who for the most part were not noted either for consistency or for sanctity.

The Latter-Day Saints are generally good and devoted people, whom many Catholics could do well to emulate in their zeal and spirit of sacrifice, in their concern to build loving Christian communities, and in their positive approach towards family values and the sanctity of life. Nevertheless, their “gospel” is a sad travesty of Christ’s gospel. If this article can assist some Catholics to be more aware of this, and perhaps help some Mormons to find the painful yet joyful path to the true home of all Jesus’ followers, it will have served its purpose.

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