“The Keystone of Our Religion”
LDS manual: here
To question the credibility of the Book of Mormon
This year we embark on a study of the Book of Mormon, which is a collection of fabrications, plagiarisms, and exhortations that Latter-day Saints think is a volume of scripture.
When I was in the process of deconversion, my Stake President asked to meet. We spent an hour or so in his office, during which I explained that I no longer believed in the truth claims of the church, as they lacked any evidentiary basis. Toward the end of our visit, he pulled out his trump card: “How do you explain the Book of Mormon?”
Now that’s a strange question, isn’t it? But the strangeness isn’t obvious to someone who thinks (as nearly all Mormons seem to) that the Book of Mormon is totes amazing. Dictated in a very short period of time (not necessarily true) by an illiterate farm boy (Smith wasn’t) from gold plates (that no one ever saw).
So how did I explain the Book of Mormon? I told my Stake President, “I think somebody sat down and wrote it.”
It really is as simple as that. People do write amazing books, you know. And they can do it pretty fast, too. Every November during NaNoWriMo, people write 50,000-word novels in a month. The Book of Mormon checks in at 268,033 words, but we could get up to that pretty quickly if we add “it came to pass” 1,353 times (yes, seriously), plagiarise the Bible for a few chapters, and take inspiration from books that are floating around.
I’d suggest a better question: what is it about the Book of Mormon that needs explaining? To me, the book seems not only unremarkable, but also quite wrong in every particular. It’s one of many treatments of the idea that the Native Americans were of Hebraic origin — an idea that was popular in Joseph Smith’s day, but which hasn’t panned out. It contains lists of things that do not appear in the New World (sheep, horses, barley), and omits things that do (avacados, tapirs). On page after page, the Book of Mormon shows the evidence of its all-too-human origins.
Mormons are repeatedly told that the Book of Mormon is “the most correct book” on the earth, when in fact, it is not even a correct book.
Side note: The Book of Mormon is the inspiration for these nerfballs.
Jeez, how sad is that. People need to know about the Book of Mormon if only so they know that it turns you into this.
Main ideas for this lesson
The entire church fails if the Book of Mormon is not true
Read this quote from the LDS manual.
Why do you think Joseph Smith called the Book of Mormon the keystone of our religion?
President Ezra Taft Benson explained, “Just as the arch crumbles if the keystone is removed, so does all the Church stand or fall with the truthfulness of the Book of Mormon” (in Conference Report, Oct. 1986, 5; or Ensign, Nov. 1986, 6).
This is actually good to see. It annoys me when people are namby-pamby about religious claims. When you say that a thing is true, and then it turns out not to be, too often people say that it’s “intended metaphorically”. So it’s good to see that the church is walling off that kind of dodge. Either it’s true or it’s not. And if the Book of Mormon is not true, the church isn’t.
Except hold on. A shift happened in the last decade. The church is backing away from the view that the Book of Mormon is a historical document, instead describing it a spiritual document.
James Faust: It is important to know what the Book of Mormon is not. It is not primarily a history, although much of what it contains is historical.
The test for understanding this sacred book is preeminently spiritual. An obsession with secular knowledge rather than spiritual understanding will make its pages difficult to unlock.
Ask: Why would Latter-day Saints describe the Book of Mormon as a primarily spiritual document, rather than a primarily historical one?
Mormons in times past had no problem describing the Book of Mormon as historically true. But this view is now less and less defensible, as details from the Book of Mormons are either failing to be confirmed — or are disconfirmed — by findings in archaeology, genetics, linguistics, and so on. In response, the church is kicking the Book of Mormon one rung up the ladder of abstraction so it can’t be disconfirmed on a literal level. This is a very common tactic for religious apologists.
The Book of Mormon is not reflective of LDS doctrine
From the LDS manual:
Write on the chalkboard Doctrine.
• In what ways is the Book of Mormon the “keystone of our doctrine”? (See D&C 10:45–46; 20:8–12.)
This is a tricky one. The Book of Mormon contains no mention of many LDS doctrines, including three degrees of glory, temple worship, and the corporeal nature of the Godhead.
The Book of Mormon is really Mormonism v1.
In light of this, many Latter-day Saints view the Book of Mormon, not as a source of doctrine, but as a kind of talisman that proved that Joseph Smith had God’s phone number.
This view is a little silly. God writes a book to restore his church. Here’s his chance to reveal his knowledge to humans for the first time in millennia, and he only includes doctrines that pertain to an early phase of Mormonism that (coincidentally) mirrors the exact time of the book’s publication?
Ask: Why would God hold back on his doctrines?
Possible answer: The world wouldn’t have been ready to accept his deeper doctrines at first.
Ask: Would an all-powerful God have been able to think of a way to express his deeper doctrines in a way that people would have accepted?
- If so, why didn’t he?
- If not, he’s not all-powerful.
The Witnesses were not witnesses
The Book of Mormon, the story goes, was written on gold plates — improbably light ones, it would seem — and these plates were allegedly seen by three — and later eight — witnesses. Mormons are fond of saying that none of the witnesses ever denied their testimony.
Have the assigned class members present their summaries of the Testimony of the Three Witnesses and the Testimony of the Eight Witnesses.
• Why was it important to have witnesses of the gold plates? (See Ether 5:2–4.) How do you think having additional witnesses helped the Prophet Joseph Smith?
Ask: Does it matter if eleven witnesses claim to have seen some gold plates, if they’re not publicly available?
Imagine that I’m presenting a paper at a conference. During question time, a member of the audience asks if they can see my data. In response, I say, “I’m sorry, but I can’t show you that. Instead, I’ve shown it to eleven other people, and they promise it’s true.”
While it’s not unheard of to restrict access to data, there has to be a good reason (for example, if it will reveal the identity of an subject). Absent that, refusal to show data is a bit of a red flag. That’s how you catch fabrication.
Evidence must be publicly available to be credible.
Let’s look at some of the problems with the witnesses.
• There’s reason to believe that the witnesses never saw the plates.
The evidence is extremely contradictory in this area, but there is a possibility that the three witnesses saw the plates in vision only, for Stephen Burnett in a letter written in 1838, a few weeks after the event, described Martin Harris’ testimony to this effect: ‘When I came to hear Martin Harris state in public that he never saw the plates with his natural eyes only in vision or imagination, neither Oliver nor David . . . the last pedestal gave way, in my view our foundations.'”
Several LDS sources give the eleven men who bore their testimony to the authenticity of the Book of Mormon the special title of eyewitness; however, it appears doubtful that any of them actually saw the plates apart from a supernatural and subjective experience. While they all claimed to have handled what they were told were ancient plates, they did so while the plates were covered up and not visible.
See also: curious_mormon’s excellent post.
• The witnesses joined other religions, and testified of them just as much.
Phineas Young wrote to his older brother Brigham Young on December 31, 1841, from Kirtland, Ohio: “There are in this place all kinds of teaching; Martin Harris is a firm believer in Shakerism, says his testimony is greater than it was for the Book of Mormon” (Martin Harris – Witness and Benefactor of the Book of Mormon, 1955, p. 52)
During the summer of 1837, while in Kirtland, David Whitmer pledged his new loyalty to a prophetess (as did Martin and Oliver) who used a black seer stone and danced herself into ‘trances.'(Biographical Sketches, Lucy Smith, pp. 211-213)
• Some of the witnesses (Martin Harris in particular) had a lot invested in the scheme, and had much to gain if it succeeded.
• It’s difficult to retract a really big lie.
If you were in on a big religious fraud, would be able to take it back? How would that affect others’ confidence in you? Wouldn’t it be easier to just let it ride?
Additional lesson ideas
Another snippet from the manual:
3. The Book of Mormon was written for our day.
Point out that although the Book of Mormon is an ancient document, it was written and preserved for our day (2 Nephi 25:21–22; 27:22; Mormon 8:34–35; Moroni 1:4).
More like in our day, amirite?
Gospel Doctrine teachers are given this teaching suggestion:
• Read with class members Mormon 8:26–41. Explain that these verses contain a prophecy about the coming forth of the Book of Mormon. What conditions did Moroni foresee would exist in the world when the Book of Mormon was again brought forth? (Write class members’ responses on the chalkboard. Answers may include those in the list below.) How are these conditions evident in the world today?
a. “The power of God shall be denied” (verse 28).
b. “There shall be great pollutions upon the face of the earth” (verse 31).
c. People will “lift themselves up in the pride of their hearts” (verse 36).
d. People will “love money . . . more than [they] love the poor and the needy”
e. People will be “ashamed to take upon [themselves] the name of Christ”
In other words, the Book of Mormon says that, in the days of its publication, people will be awful… and it was right! Prophecy fulfilled.
Ask: What problems are there with using these Book of Mormon verses as a prediction?
- This applies to all times and all places. There’s literally no time in history when some people weren’t awful.
- The opposite of the prophecy is also true, which means that it’s meaningless. The writer could have said that the book would come forward at a time when people were nice, and that would be true, too.
But as a missionary, oh, did I ever lean hard on verse 31 and the “pollutions”. It worked on one of my investigators. (Sorry, Mark, if you’re out there.)
Next week, we’ll get into the actual reading. Great to be back, and see you next week.