Gospel Doctrine for the Godless

An ex-Mormon take on LDS Sunday School lessons

Category: linguistics (page 1 of 2)

BoM Lesson 32 (Stripling Warriors)

“They Did Obey . . . Every Word of Command with Exactness”

Alma 53–63

LDS manual: here


To encourage readers to throw off intellectual docility and employ critical thinking.


We’re finally to the end of Alma!

Gaston bom

For this reading, we continue with the Lamanite/Nephite wars. But now we get a new set of characters: 2,000 young men who were descended from the pacifist Ammonites, but who had never taken an oath of pacifism themselves. That’s right folks: it’s the Stripling Warriors!

Alma 53:22 And now it came to pass that Helaman did march at the head of his two thousand stripling soldiers, to the support of the people in the borders of the land on the south by the west sea.

“Stripling”? I don’t think I’ve ever strippled in my life.

But of course this is an old word.

stripling (n.)
“a youth,” late 14c., of uncertain origin, possibly from strip (n.1) “long, narrow piece,” on the notion of “one who is slender as a strip, whose figure is not yet filled out” + -ling.

Curiously, the phrase “stripling warrior” never occurs in the Book of Mormon. It’s only “stripling soldiers” (as in the above instance), and “stripling Ammonites”:

Alma 56:57 And as we had no place for our prisoners, that we could guard them to keep them from the armies of the Lamanites, therefore we sent them to the land of Zarahemla, and a part of those men who were not slain of Antipus, with them; and the remainder I took and joined them to my stripling Ammonites, and took our march back to the city of Judea.

No, not those Ammonites.


Anyway, these young soldiers did very well, and how could they not, when they’re buffed up like this?


Nothing homoerotic about that.

There’s a lot of back and forth with taking cities and whatnot. I thought it was interesting that wine doesn’t seem to be a problem for the righteous Nephites. They’re happy to imbibe — as long as a Lamanite tests it first for poison.

Alma 55:28 And it came to pass that the Nephites began again to be victorious, and to reclaim their rights and their privileges.
55:29 Many time did the Lamanites attempt to encircle them about by night, but in these attempts they did lose many prisoners.
55:30 And many times did they attempt to administer of their wine to the Nephites, that they might destroy them with poison or with drunkenness.
55:31 But behold, the Nephites were not slow to remember the Lord their God in this their time of affliction. They could not be taken in their snares; yea, they would not partake of their wine, save they had first given to some of the Lamanite prisoners.
55:32 And they were thus cautious that no poison should be administered among them; for if their wine would poison a Lamanite it would also poison a Nephite; and thus they did try all their liquors.

There’s some pathetic Paulean plagiarism.

Alma 58:40 But behold, they have received many wounds; nevertheless they stand fast in that liberty wherewith God has made them free; and they are strict to remember the Lord their God from day to day; yea, they do observe to keep his statutes, and his judgments, and his commandments continually; and their faith is strong in the prophecies concerning that which is to come.


Galatians 5:1 Stand fast therefore in the liberty wherewith Christ hath made us free, and be not entangled again with the yoke of bondage.


And then there’s this story about a curious man called Hagoth.

Alma 63:5 And it came to pass that Hagoth, he being an exceedingly curious man, therefore he went forth and built him an exceedingly large ship, on the borders of the land Bountiful, by the land Desolation, and launched it forth into the west sea, by the narrow neck which led into the land northward.
63:6 And behold, there were many of the Nephites who did enter therein and did sail forth with much provisions, and also many women and children; and they took their course northward. And thus ended the thirty and seventh year.
63:7 And in the thirty and eighth year, this man built other ships. And the first ship did also return, and many more people did enter into it; and they also took much provisions, and set out again to the land northward.
63:8 And it came to pass that they were never heard of more. And we suppose that they were drowned in the depths of the sea. And it came to pass that one other ship also did sail forth; and whither she did go we know not.

Hagoth never appears in the narrative again, but Mormon tradition holds that he and his crew made it to the Pacific islands, and became the ancestors of the Polynesians.

The idea was taught by President Joseph F. Smith, who told a group of New Zealand Maoris:

“I would like to say to you brothers and sisters… you are some of Hagoth’s people, and there is NO PERHAPS about it!”

And also:

In the April General Conference of 1962, Elder Mark E. Petersen of the Council of the Twelve said, “As Latter-day Saints, we have always believed that the Polynesians are descendants of Lehi and blood relatives of the American Indians, despite the contrary theories of other men.”

However, this view has been flatly contradicted by advances in genetics.

In an analysis of the DNA of 1,000 individuals from 41 Pacific populations, an international team of scientists found strong evidence showing that Polynesians and Micronesians in the central and eastern islands had almost no genetic relationship to Melanesians, in the western islands like Papua New Guinea and the Bismarck and Solomons archipelagos.

The researchers also concluded that the genetic data showed that the Polynesians and Micronesians were most closely related to Taiwan Aborigines and East Asians. They said this supported the view that these migrating seafarers originated in Taiwan and coastal China at least 3,500 years ago.

Simon Southerton’s been doing great work in this area.

Polynesians trace their molecular roots back to Asia. The first survey of Polynesian mitochondrial DNA found that most of the people they surveyed (90%) from the islands of Samoa, New Zealand, Niue, the Cook Islands, and Tonga had mitochondrial DNA belonging to the B lineage, which is common among Southeast Asians (Hertzberg et al. 1989).


What does this mean for the average Mormon?

I remember how, on my mission, many Samoan and Maori missionaries told great stories of how Hagoth dovetailed into the origin stories of their people, and this proved the Book of Mormon was true.

I wonder how they feel upon learning that they’d been sold a bizarro-world alternative narrative about their heritage.

Probably not great.

As a Māori woman I’m called upon to carefully navigate the terrain of my religion, my intellectual pursuits, and my cultural identity and none of them are a neat fit. As I resist the popular representations of my religious tradition I risk rendering myself a ‘spiritual’ outsider by neglecting or even challenging what has become a sacred and beloved account of my origins. The hardest part of this is that the centre is oblivious to the tensions their historical pronouncements have created. Nobody can hold them to account for the pronouncements and they simply don’t have a ‘those guys were wrong’ or ‘perhaps they spoke hastily’ in their religious vernacular.

Main ideas for this lesson


Mormonism is a very demanding religion. There’s a lot to do (especially as wards *ahem* empty out). And take a look at how the church uses the Book of Mormon to pile on. This one’s from the Gospel Doctrine manual.

• How did the young Ammonites respond to the commands they received? (See Alma 57:21. Write on the chalkboard Follow the prophet “with exactness.”) Why is it important to be exactly obedient to the teachings of the Lord’s prophet? (See the quotation on the next page.) What are some specific things we must do today to follow the prophet “with exactness”?

My heart sinks when I read something like this, because I remember the pressure of having to do everything “with exactness”. You can try your hardest to be exact, but you can always be exacter.

Ask: What function might this have for the church?

I can think of two possible answers:

1. Being scrupulous in religious practice is very time-consuming! So demanding exactness from members can be a way of keeping them so busy that they don’t have time to think about what they’re doing.

2. With intense effort comes the expectation of some kind of benefit. But the promised blessings of the Mormon gospel are empty. So how could one explain the failure of promised blessings to eventuate? Simple: you weren’t exact enough.

The demand for exactness is actually an out-clause for failed promises of blessings. How many times has this conversation happened?

Member: Bishop, I’m just not getting anything in my spiritual life.
Bishop: Well, are you reading the scriptures? Paying tithing? Serving in your callings?
Member: Yes, all those things.
Bishop: Saying prayers? Having Family Home Evening?
Member: Yes.
Bishop: Home teaching?
Member: I could be doing better on home teaching.
Bishop: Well, there you have it.

And if it weren’t home teaching, it could be any other of a number of things one isn’t doing “with exactness”. This is especially difficult when doctrines are unclear or ambiguous.

Ask: What psychological effect does this demand for exactness have on members?

There are a lot of ex-Mormon boards that treat this topic, but we don’t even have to go that far. Check out the Amazon reviews for a horrendous little book called The Not Even Once Club.

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It actually gets worse. Here’s another quote from the Gospel Doctrine manual.

President Harold B. Lee taught:
“The power of Satan will increase; we see it in evidence on every hand. . . .
“Now the only safety we have as members of this church is to do exactly what the Lord said to the Church in that day when the Church was organized. We must learn to give heed to the words and commandments that the Lord shall give through his prophet, ‘as he receiveth them, walking in all holiness before me; . . . as if from mine own mouth, in all patience and faith.’ (D&C 21:4–5.) There will be some things that take patience and faith. You may not like what comes from the authority of the Church. It may contradict your political views. It may contradict your social views. It may interfere with some of your social life. But if you listen to these things, as if from the mouth of the Lord himself, with patience and faith, the promise is that ‘the gates of hell shall not prevail against you; yea, and the Lord God will disperse the powers of darkness from before you, and cause the heavens to shake for your good, and his name’s glory.’ (D&C 21:6.)” (in Conference Report, Oct. 1970, 152; or Improvement Era, Dec. 1970, 126).

Ask: According to President Lee, what should you do if there’s a conflict between your political or social views, and those held by elderly men in Salt Lake City?

Ask: Is it right for someone to tell us what to think? If someone claims this right over you, how should you respond?

Benign misogyny

Whenever there’s a discussion of the “stripling soldiers” in Alma, the topic of motherhood comes up. That’s because of this scripture:

Alma 56:47 Now they never had fought, yet they did not fear death; and they did think more upon the liberty of their fathers than they did upon their lives; yea, they had been taught by their mothers, that if they did not doubt, God would deliver them.
56:48 And they rehearsed unto me the words of their mothers, saying: We do not doubt our mothers knew it.

That’s right — these soldiers learned it from their mothers. And that means — according to elderly men in Utah — that mothers should be primarily responsible for the home, and not taking an equal role in the workplace or the church or anything.

To emphasize the influence that mothers can have on their children, you may want to read the following statement by President Spencer W. Kimball:
“To be a righteous woman during the winding-up scenes on this earth, before the Second Coming of our Savior, is an especially noble calling. The righteous woman’s strength and influence today can be tenfold what it might be in more tranquil times. She has been placed here to help to enrich, to protect, and to guard the home—which is society’s basic and most noble institution. Other institutions in society may falter and even fail, but the righteous woman can help to save the home, which may be the last and only sanctuary some mortals know in the midst of storm and strife” (The Teachings of Spencer W. Kimball, ed. Edward L. Kimball [1982], 326–27).

Ask: If you were a female in the LDS Church, were you advised to stay in the home, and define yourselves mostly in relation to men? Did this factor into your life’s choices? How do you feel about this now? Please let us know in comments.

Again, from the lesson manual:

• The young soldiers did not doubt their mothers’ testimonies (Alma 56:48). Why is it important for children to know the strength and certainty of their parents’ testimonies? In what ways can parents share their testimonies with their children?

I don’t know about you, but I’m not encouraging my kids to simply believe anything I say! After all, I could be wrong. (And I tell them this.) Instead, I encourage them to find out new things, tell me about them, and then we can evaluate them together using principles of rationality.

Little death ray of truth

Ask: What traits are encouraged when we place value on belief without evidence?

Answers: Intellectual docility, subservience to authority, reliance on others.

Ask: Why is it important to doubt the testimony of others?

Answer: Testimonial evidence is among the worst kinds of evidence.

This also goes for anecdotal evidence.


But in reality…



There’s something altogether dark going on in the Nephite world. There are two factions: the so-called “king-men” led by Pachus, and the so-called “free-men” led by Moroni.

In most political conflicts, no side is completely right or wrong. But we work together to achieve consensus through debate and negotiation.

War has a way of changing that, though. When there’s a crisis, clear thinking is the first thing to go. Here’s what happens in this instance.

Alma 62:7 And it came to pass that Moroni and Pahoran went down with their armies into the land of Zarahemla, and went forth against the city, and did meet the men of Pachus, insomuch that they did come to battle.
62:8 And behold, Pachus was slain and his men were taken prisoners, and Pahoran was restored to his judgment-seat.
62:9 And the men of Pachus received their trial, according to the law, and also those king-men who had been taken and cast into prison; and they were executed according to the law; yea, those men of Pachus and those king-men, whosoever would not take up arms in the defence of their country, but would fight against it, were put to death.
62:10 And thus it became expedient that this law should be strictly observed for the safety of their country; yea, and whosoever was found denying their freedom was speedily executed according to the law.
62:11 And thus ended the thirtieth year of the reign of the judges over the people of Nephi; Moroni and Pahoran having restored peace to the land of Zarahemla, among their own people, having inflicted death upon all those who were not true to the cause of freedom.

This may have been a case of sedition — or it could have been an opportunity for Moroni to murder his political opponents.

What’s really worrying is that this episode of state-sanctioned murder comes from a character who, for Mormons, is a spiritual hero. How are Latter-day Saints to hold the political ideas of others in any regard, when political discourse is reduced to such black-and-white terms?

Additional lesson ideas

Pronouns in the Book of Mormon

Latter-day Saints say that the Book of Mormon is “the most correct book” of any. In fact, it is not even a correct book. It gets so many things wrong. This is very clear in its use of language.

Joseph Smith (or whoever wrote the Book of Mormon) opted for an archaic way of speaking that hadn’t been in common use for over a hundred years. This means that Smith (or whoever) was writing pronouns that he wasn’t familiar with.

Pronouns are a shorter way to refer to people or things. I don’t have to say Daniel every time Daniel wants to refer to Daniel. I can just say I or me.

But enough about me; let’s talk about you. Or rather, thou.

Thou is a pronoun that’s changed a lot. In Old English days, before 1066, there were two ways of referring to you: you could use thou for one person, and you for more than one.

However, from about 1450 to 1650, thou was reanalysed as a familiar pronoun. You was formal and polite.

Then by about 1650, people simply stopped saying thou. Its use seemed antiquated, and people came to think of it as formal, as we do today.

So what about you and ye?

In Shakespeare’s time, in the early 1600s, ye was for the subjects of sentences and you was for objects. So it was correct to say:

Ye shall know the truth and the truth shall make you free.

But this usage evaporated at about the same time that thou didst. Er… did.

Just to make things even more confusing, ye has at times been plural for you, but let’s keep it simple for now.

All of this would have been lost on someone from Joseph Smith’s time, where thou had mostly disappeared, and the you/ye distinction was no longer a thing. And that means that whoever wrote the Book of Mormon made a terrible hash of the pronouns. Let’s take a look at scriptures from this lesson. I’ll put a or a after each on to show the correct or incorrect usage.

Alma 54:5 Behold, Ammoron, I have written unto you ✔ somewhat concerning this war which ye ✔ have waged against my people, or rather which thy ? brother hath waged against them, and which ye ✔ are still determined to carry on after his death.

Here, ye and you are in place, but why did Moroni switch from you to thou? Did he think your brother didn’t sound as good as thy brother?

Alma 54:8 But as ye ✔ have once rejected these things, and have fought against the people of the Lord, even so I may expect you ✘ will do it again.

Whoops — wrong you!

Alma 54:10 But, as the Lord liveth, our armies shall come upon you except ye ✔ withdraw, and ye ✔ shall soon be visited with death, for we will retain our cities and our lands; yea, and we will maintain our religion and the cause of our God.
54:11 But behold, it supposeth me that I talk to you ✔ concerning these things in vain; or it supposeth me that thou ? art a child of hell; therefore I will close my epistle by telling you ✔ that I will not exchange prisoners, save it be on conditions that ye ✔ will deliver up a man and his wife and his children, for one prisoner; if this be the case that ye ✔ will do it, I will exchange.

Again, why the switch to thou?

Alma 56:4 Now I need not rehearse unto you ✔ concerning their traditions or their unbelief, for thou ? knowest concerning all these things —

Another inexplicable switch to thou.

There’s a lot more here in this Reddit thread.

All of this is understandable if the Book of Mormon was simply written in the 1800s. However, if someone believes that the words in the Book of Mormon were dictated word for word by reading off of a stone in a hat, they have some explaining to do.

There are other examples of inaccurate grammar elsewhere in the Book of Mormon.

Jacobean English in Book of Mormon

And that’s not even mentioning the odd grammar for our time.

Jacobean English 2

The scriptures tell us that the Lord speaks after the manner of our understanding. Unfortunately, even his understanding of our language is wonky. He doesn’t speak after the manner of our language; he speaks in a stilted and inaccurate form of Jacobean English.


And what’s more absurd, he expects US to use it back. Dallin Oaks made a big deal about using the “special language of prayer”.

Modern English has no special verbs or pronouns that are intimate, familiar, or honorific. When we address prayers to our Heavenly Father in English, our only available alternatives are the common words of speech like you and your or the dignified but uncommon words like thee, thou, and thy which were used in the King James Version of the Bible almost five hundred years ago. Latter-day Saints, of course, prefer the latter. In our prayers we use language that is dignified and different, even archaic.

Brothers and sisters, the special language of prayer is much more than an artifact of the translation of the scriptures into English. Its use serves an important, current purpose. We know this because of modern revelations and because of the teachings and examples of modern prophets. The way we pray is important.

Surely if there is a god who’s concerned with humanity, he has better things to do than expect us to speak to him in English archaisms.

BoM Lesson 18 (Abinadi)

“God Himself . . . Shall Redeem His People”

Mosiah 12–17

LDS manual: here


To show that ex-Mormons behave with much greater courage and strength of conviction than LDS leaders.


At the tail end of our last reading, a character named Abinadi popped up. He was a bit of a scold, but a plucky one. This lesson’s about him.

It seems that King Noah (invariably portrayed as obese) is wicked, and we know he’s wicked because he does the one thing you’re never supposed to do:

Mosiah 11:1 And now it came to pass that Zeniff conferred the kingdom upon Noah, one of his sons; therefore Noah began to reign in his stead; and he did not walk in the ways of his father.
11:2 For behold, he did not keep the commandments of God, but he did walk after the desires of his own heart….

Ooo — bad move! Remember, what you want is either evil or inconsequential because of that whole “natural man” thing.

What else does this wicked king do?

Mosiah 11:2And he had many wives and concubines. And he did cause his people to commit sin, and do that which was abominable in the sight of the Lord. Yea, and they did commit whoredoms and all manner of wickedness.

Wow, the Book of Mormon is really anti-polygamy. It’s amazing that early LDS people were able to accommodate both. What else?

Mosiah 11:3 And he laid a tax of one fifth part of all they possessed, a fifth part of their gold and of their silver, and a fifth part of their ziff, and of their copper, and of their brass and their iron; and a fifth part of their fatlings; and also a fifth part of all their grain.

Taxing their ziff? NOW HANG ON

This passage feeds into a lot of anti-taxation sentiment running about in the USA. I’m not a taxation specialist, but it seems to me that 20% is on the low side, as far as things go. It tends to run in the thirties for the USA, and they hardly cover anything.

That’s for individuals. For corporations, the tax rate is effectively zero, even in a socialist country like Australia. And churches? Pffft. They’re tax-exempt, and this is costing all of us.

Bottom line: Churches have a lot of nerve incorporating anti-tax sentiment into their theology.

Mosiah 11:8 And it came to pass that king Noah built many elegant and spacious buildings; and he ornamented them with fine work of wood, and of all manner of precious things, of gold, and of silver, and of iron, and of brass, and of ziff, and of copper;
11:9 And he also built him a spacious palace, and a throne in the midst thereof, all of which was of fine wood and was ornamented with gold and silver and with precious things.

Buildings and thrones that no one can find.

And we do keep finding artefacts from other civilisations. Here’s a team that found a 9,200 year-old settlement in Sweden. They were able to find fermented fish. Think about that. Archaeologists are able to find 10,000-year-old fish, but they can’t find enormous gold and silver buildings? (To say nothing of the ziff.) A civilisation capable of producing this would have left mountains of evidence, but no one can find anything. And Joseph Smith practically gave them the address of the Guatemalan neighbourhood it all took place in! Once again: fictional people don’t leave traces.

Mosiah 11:20 And it came to pass that there was a man among them whose name was Abinadi; and he went forth among them, and began to prophesy, saying: Behold, thus saith the Lord, and thus hath he commanded me, saying, Go forth, and say unto this people, thus saith the Lord — Wo be unto this people, for I have seen their abominations, and their wickedness, and their whoredoms; and except they repent I will visit them in mine anger.

After talking some trash, Abinadi gets away.

Mosiah 11:26 Now it came to pass that when Abinadi had spoken these words unto them they were wroth with him, and sought to take away his life; but the Lord delivered him out of their hands.

But two years later, he comes back in disguise.

Mosiah 12:1 And it came to pass that after the space of two years that Abinadi came among them in disguise, that they knew him not, and began to prophesy among them, saying: Thus has the Lord commanded me, saying — Abinadi…,

Well, you just blew your cover there, didn’t you? I mean, all you had to do was not say your damn name.

I don’t care how many people have pointed this out — it never gets any less hilarious.

Mosiah 12:1 …go and prophesy unto this my people, for they have hardened their hearts against my words; they have repented not of their evil doings; therefore, I will visit them in my anger, yea, in my fierce anger will I visit them in their iniquities and abominations.

12:3 And it shall come to pass that the life of king Noah shall be valued even as a garment in a hot furnace; for he shall know that I am the Lord.
12:4 And it shall come to pass that I will smite this my people with sore afflictions, yea, with famine and with pestilence; and I will cause that they shall howl all the day long.
12:5 Yea, and I will cause that they shall have burdens lashed upon their backs; and they shall be driven before like a dumb ass.

Let’s just take a second and consider that the god of the Book of Mormon will kill people for not doing what he wants. Again, it seems that we have a god who kills people to get his way. Good old Jehovah.

Ask the class:

  • How does this relate to free agency?
  • Mormons (and theists) often argue that God can’t prevent people from doing evil things, because that would curtail their agency.
  • If agency is so important, why does God then kill people for exercising it?
  • How plausible is God’s punishment for the wicked, in a world where people routinely commit evil acts?

Abinadi is captured and hauled up before the king and his priests. Obviously the first thing they would do is… grill him about Old Testament scriptures!

(Sorry; I didn’t mean to say grill him. Poor choice of words. #toosoon)

Mosiah 12:20 And it came to pass that one of them said unto him: What meaneth the words which are written, and which have been taught by our fathers, saying:
12:21 How beautiful upon the mountains are the feet of him that bringeth good tidings; that publisheth peace; that bringeth good tidings of good; that publisheth salvation; that saith unto Zion, Thy God reigneth;

There follows quite a discussion of feet. But the striking thing is that the discussion centres around a passage from Isaiah 53, which — you guessed it — wouldn’t have been available to the Nephites. It was written by Deutero-Isaiah, some hundred years after Lehi supposedly left Jerusalem.

Sadly, fictional Abinadi is put to death.

Mosiah 17:1 And now it came to pass that when Abinadi had finished these sayings, that the king commanded that the priests should take him and cause that he should be put to death.
17:2 But there was one among them whose name was Alma, he also being a descendant of Nephi. And he was a young man, and he believed the words which Abinadi had spoken, for he knew concerning the iniquity which Abinadi has testified against them; therefore he began to plead with the king that he would not be angry with Abinadi, but suffer that he might depart in peace.
17:4 But he fled from before them and hid himself that they found him not. And he being concealed for many days did write all the words which Abinadi had spoken.
17:5 And it came to pass that the king caused that his guards should surround Abinadi and take him; and they bound him and cast him into prison.

17:13 And it came to pass that they took him and bound him, and scourged his skin with faggots, yea, even unto death.
17:14 And now when the flames began to scorch him, he cried unto them, saying:
17:15 Behold, even as ye have done unto me, so shall it come to pass that thy seed shall cause that many shall suffer the pains that I do suffer, even the pains of death by fire; and this because they believe in the salvation of the Lord their God.

17:20 And now, when Abinadi had said these words, he fell, having suffered death by fire; yea, having been put to death because he would not deny the commandments of God, having sealed the truth of his words by his death.

We’ll see more about that Alma later.

Just to close out our discussion of Abinadi’s story: people make a big deal out of dying for their beliefs. It’s considered to be some kind of final statement that verifies their view. But I don’t think dying for a belief is worth much if your beliefs are nonsense. To me, that seems more like a fatal case of mental inflexibility. I respect someone who changes their beliefs in the face of evidence a hell of a lot more.

Main ideas for this lesson

Who is the Lord?

When Abinadi escapes the first time, he leaves King Noah with a lingering question.

Mosiah 11:27 Now when king Noah had heard of the words which Abinadi had spoken unto the people, he was also wroth; and he said: Who is Abinadi, that I and my people should be judged of him, or who is the Lord, that shall bring upon my people such great affliction?

That’s supposed to be a horrifying question: “Who is the Lord?” Why would I worship him? What right does he have to tell me how to live?

You’re just not supposed to ask those things. But really, if someone is demanding your worship, then asking who he is is a perfectly reasonable question!

If I came to you and told you that you ought to worship Burunfa, you’d be perfectly within your rights to ask who that is. As it turns out, Burunfa is a god that my six-year-old son invented. He has the form of a dog, and he pooped out the universe. If I told you that this was an insignificant detail, and you should worship him without knowing any of that — well, you might be justified in thinking that I was a bit embarrassed about those details, and I was trying to shut you down.

If I told you that you should worship Jehovah, but I didn’t want you to know that he’s a genocidal sexist homophobe, then I might not like it if you asked to know his true character, but that’s a question you should ask all the same.

Prophets v apostates

There’s something stirring about the story of Abinadi. It’s one man, up against those in power. Like the painting by Arnold Friberg.


It’s a very inspiring scene, even if it is a bit crowded in there. There’s barely any space to put the leopards. No wonder they’re testy.

That’s how we picture prophets. Boldly testifying of the truth.

So why is it that when you take a modern LDS prophet, and you question them, they turn into mice?

Check out the well-known interview with Gordon Hinckley, in which he goes all funny when asked if he’s a prophet.

Q: You are the president, prophet, seer and revelator of the Mormon Church?
A: I am so sustained, yes.

“I am so sustained”?

Why not “Yes”?

Essentially he’s saying, “That’s what they say.” Yes, but what do you say? Now’s your chance to testify of your power. “That is what I am, and the world should be paying attention because I am the Lord’s mouthpiece.” But instead we get this funny little dance.

Hinckley’s not the only one who’s done this. Have a look at this transcript of a 1904 congressional hearing involving the president of the church, Joseph F. Smith.

Mr. TAYLER. What official position do you now hold in the church?
Mr. SMITH. I am now the president of the church.
Mr. TAYLER. Is there any other description of your title than mere president?
Mr. SMITH. No, sir; not that I know of.
Mr. TAYLER. Are you prophet, seer, and revelator?
Mr. SMITH. I am so sustained and upheld by my people.
Mr. TAYLER. Do you get that title by reason of being president or by reason of having been an apostle?
Mr. SMITH. By reason of being president.
Mr. TAYLER. Are not all the apostles also prophets, seers, and revelators?
Mr. SMITH. They are sustained as such at our conferences.
Mr. TAYLER. They all have that title now, have they not?
Mr. SMITH. Well, they are so sustained at the conferences.
Mr. TAYLER. I want to know if they do not have that title now.
Mr. SMITH. I suppose if they are sustained they must have that title.
Mr. TAYLER. Are they sustained as such now?
Mr. SMITH. I have said so twice, sir.
Mr. TAYLER. Who were your predecessors in office as president of the church?
Mr. SMITH. My immediate predecessor was Lorenzo Snow.
Mr. TAYLER. And his predecessor?
Mr. SMITH. Wilford Woodruff.
Mr. TAYLER. And his?
Mr. SMITH. John Taylor.
Mr. TAYLER. Yes; go on back through the line.
Mr. SMITH. Brigham Young.
Mr. TAYLER. Yes.
Mr. SMITH. And Joseph Smith.
Mr. TAYLER. You are possessed of the same powers that they were possessed of?
Mr. SMITH. Yes, I am supposed to be possessed of the same authority that they were.
Mr. TAYLER. You believe yourself to be, do you not?
Mr. SMITH. I think I do believe so.
Mr. TAYLER. I do not know that there is any significance in your use of the word “think,” Mr. Smith, but one hardly thinks that he has a belief. He either knows or does not know that he has a belief.
Mr. SMITH. I think I do.
Mr. TAYLER. According to the doctrine of your church, you have become the successor of your several predecessors as the head of the church?
Mr. SMITH. Yes, sir.
Mr. TAYLER. And are supposed to be endowed with all the powers that they were possessed of?
Mr. SMITH. That is my understanding.

It’s infuriating! You want to grab him by his old-fashioned collar and say “Are you a prophet or aren’t you‽” Why is he playing coy?

See more examples in this astounding thread.

Same deal when Tom Phillips tried to haul Thomas Monson into court for fraud. No way did Monson go to testify on his own behalf. Instead, he was represented by a very un-prophetic legal team (who couldn’t get the name of the church right).

If there’s a model for how modern prophets behave, it’s not Abinadi. Abinadi represented himself in person, took the fight straight to his accusers, and made no apologies for what he was saying.

On the contrary; modern prophets use legal teams and PR flacks, instead of acting on their own behalf. They give comfy speeches in General Conferences for receptive audiences, but when it’s time to answer the tough questions, they hide behind anonymous undated essays. They’ve (allegedly) funded apologetics groups to make up excuses for them. President Newsroom seems to have more power than the Q15 themselves. And all of this architecture is to protect the leadership from having to say anything they can later be pinned down on. It’s all to maintain plausible deniability and to say as little as possible.

You know who speaks out boldly on their own behalf? Apostates.

In the last couple of years, members of the church — including Kate Kelly and John Dehlin (mp3 of John speaking at the Exmormon Foundation)— have been called into excommunication hearings for the sin of making themselves heard. Of all these, the one that seems most like Abinadi is Jeremy Runnels, creator of the CES Letter.

The proceedings of his excommunication hearing are a must read, and Zelph on the Shelf has all the info you need.

Jeremy: Cool, Thank you very much. Um, Okay, Uh, President Ivins can you read the rest of the apostasy definition? Like you read the definition, but there’s more to it.
Ivins: I’d like you to make a statement.
Jeremy: Okay, you’re not going to answer that?
Ivins: No, I’m not.
Jeremy: K, um, my experience with President Ivins unfortunately the past year and a half, is that he has never answered my questions. Not a single question. I’ve asked you three questions over and over and over and over and over and over and over 28 times and a specific question that I asked you is, What errors or mistakes in the CES letter or in the website is incorrect so that I can publically correct it? The second question I asked you is, if there are no errors or mistakes, why am I being punished for speaking and sharing the truth? Now the third question I asked you is, What question am I being punished for? And you have not answered a single one of them. Can I ask you why you are not answering them?
Ivins: You’re gonna make a statement.
Jeremy: So you’re not going to answer any questions this evening.
Ivins: I’m not. No. I’ve stated my evidence, you make a statement.
Jeremy: Okay. So do I have here, would you agree that I
Ivins: You make a statement Jeremy.
Jeremy: Why are you not answering any questions?
Ivins: This is not the time for that.
Jeremy: When is the time?
Ivins: We’re not going to get into a debate. You’re going to make a statement. Period.
Jeremy: I’m just going to make a statement. Why won’t you answer my questions? I’ve asked and they’re very reasonable questions that I’ve asked over and over. Like I don’t know what, if there are errors or mistakes, I want to correct them. I don’t understand why you are spiritually executing me over something, I don’t know what’s wrong. You claim I’m in opposition to the church. The church’s essays are in public opposition to the church. Out of curiosity, by a show of hands, how many of you have read the church’s essays? Nobody here? Okay, um. By the show of hands, how many of you have read the CES letter? Nobody here tonight has read the CES letter? Wow. And by the show of hands, has president Ivins prepared you tonight for this council by reading the CES letter carefully?
Ivins: Jeremy, make a statement.

When I read this, I picture someone fronting up against a bunch of silent priests. And the one in the centre, taking up the spot held by Abinadi, isn’t the stake president. It’s Jeremy.

Apostates act far more like Old Testament prophets than church leaders do. But this is the nature of calcified institutional religion.

Additional lesson ideas

Tense error

If you were sitting in the middle of the 19th century, and you’re telling a big story about the past, you might be expected to make a mistake in tense once in a while — especially if the events you were describing happened before your time, but after the time of your characters.

Jospeh Smith (or whoever) has exactly this problem when writing for Abinadi.

Mosiah 16:6 And now if Christ had not come into the world, speaking of things to come as though they had already come, there could have been no redemption.

Whoops! Nice save there.

Seriously, though, what do you do when you’re talking about a counterfactual hypothetical for something that hasn’t happened yet, but that you’re sure will happen eventually? English isn’t really set up for this. Clearly, this is a linguistic situation crying out for a solution.

Well, as a linguist, I can help. Ladies and gentlemen, the expectant future pluperfect.

And now if Christ will not be to have come into the world

You’re welcome. But the fraudulent prophet stuff — I can’t really help with that.

BoM Lesson 15 (King Benjamin 1)

“Eternally Indebted to Your Heavenly Father”

Mosiah 1–3

LDS manual: here


To show how the gospel sets up impossible, confusing, and damaging expectations for people


From all my years of teaching Gospel Doctrine (either here or in church), there’s a principle I’ve learned about prophecy:

It’s crap.

Wait, that wasn’t the principle! The principle is this:

All prophecies either

  • turn out false (but become plausible if reinterpreted creatively enough)
  • turn out true, but in ways that anyone could have known at the time
  • turn out true, because they were written after the thing happened.

All the stuff about Jesus in the Book of Mormon is in the latter category. The Old Testament (contra Jacob) doesn’t mention Jesus at all. It’s so vague about him that the people who knew the scriptures best resisted him the most. But how about the Book of Mormon, which was written after people had heard of Jesus? Suddenly it’s all about teh Jesus! They can’t stop talking about Jesus. How about that?

Mosiah 3:5 For behold, the time cometh, and is not far distant, that with power, the Lord Omnipotent who reigneth, who was, and is from all eternity to all eternity, shall come down from heaven among the children of men, and shall dwell in a tabernacle of clay, and shall go forth amongst men, working mighty miracles, such as healing the sick, raising the dead, causing the lame to walk, the blind to receive their sight, and the deaf to hear, and curing all manner of diseases.
3:6 And he shall cast out devils, or the evil spirits which dwell in the hearts of the children of men.
3:7 And lo, he shall suffer temptations, and pain of body, hunger, thirst, and fatigue, even more than man can suffer, except it be unto death; for behold, blood cometh from every pore, so great shall be his anguish for the wickedness and the abominations of his people.
3:8 And he shall be called Jesus Christ, the Son of God, the Father of heaven and earth, the Creator of all things from the beginning; and his mother shall be called Mary.

I mean, check that out — the Book of Mormon writers practically had his damn mobile number. They’re calling him by name, they’re calling themselves Christians — and strangely, they’re still living the Law of Moses, so that must have been confusing.

“Why are we sacrificing animals again?”
“Just do it; don’t worry about it.”
“But this won’t matter in a few years.”
“That’s why we’re not writing any details down in the Gold Plates.”

What’s more likely: that Book of Mormon prophets were so amazing that they knew stuff that other Bible prophets didn’t know — or that someone in the 1820s sat down and wrote it?

It’s not just the knowledge of Jesus that marks the Book of Mormon as a 19th century document. It’s the subject matter that the Book of Mormon presents. Check out this odd reference to the status of infants, which preoccupied theologians in the 1800s, and precisely no one in Biblical times:

Mosiah 3:17 And moreover, I say unto you, that there shall be no other name given nor any other way nor means whereby salvation can come unto the children of men, only in and through the name of Christ, the Lord Omnipotent.
3:18 For behold he judgeth, and his judgment is just; and the infant perisheth not that dieth in his infancy; but men drink damnation to their own souls except they humble themselves and become as little children, and believe that salvation was, and is, and is to come, in and through the atoning blood of Christ, the Lord Omnipotent.

Isn’t that kind of a 1830s thing?

When I was at the dear old Brigham Young U, I found that you could read forbidden documents at the library. Well, they weren’t forbidden; you could give your student ID to someone in the Special Documents collection, and while they were sending your details to the Strengthing the Members Committee in Salt Lake, you could read the documents there.

I decided to check out the “Position Papers”, a set of documents generated by the Reorganised Church of JCoLDS when they were making their break from traditional Mormon theology in the 1960s. For some reason, I was interested in Chapter 11, about their reasons from shifting away from the Book of Mormon.

As we examine the Book of Mormon, shorn of any intention solely to amass data in support of preconceived notions about it, we must honestly admit that there arises an awareness of certain problems concerning traditional understandings of the Book. The problems include:

3. Its propensity for reflecting in detail the religious concerns of the American frontier. Alexander Campbell in 1832 pointed out that every major theological question of the frontier was covered in the Book of Mormon, including infant baptism, ordination and ministerial authority, the Trinity, regeneration, the fall of man, the atonement, transubstantiation, fasting, penance, church government, religious experience, the general resurrection, eternal punishment, and even the burning questions of Freemasonry, republican government and the rights of man.

It certainly did seem to me as though the Book of Mormon did have a preoccupation with issues as they were in the 1800s. It seems that what they say in General Conference is true: the Book of Mormon is “written for our day” — but this is because it was written in our day.

Main ideas for this lesson

Unprofitable servants

King Benjamin is giving his great address to an improbably large crowd.

Mosiah 2:19 And behold also, if I, whom ye call your king, who has spent his days in your service, and yet has been in the service of God, do merit any thanks from you, O how you ought to thank your heavenly King!
2:20 I say unto you, my brethren, that if you should render all the thanks and praise which your whole soul has power to possess, to that God who has created you, and has kept and preserved you, and has caused that ye should rejoice, and has granted that ye should live in peace one with another —
2:21 I say unto you that if ye should serve him who has created you from the beginning, and is preserving you from day to day, by lending you breath, that ye may live and move and do according to your own will, and even supporting you from one moment to another — I say, if ye should serve him with all your whole souls yet ye would be unprofitable servants.

I’m remembering back to my LDS days, and thinking about all the effort the church took. Three hours every Sunday is just a start. For many, there are extra meetings during the week, including ward and stake leadership meetings and Seminary. Then there’s temple attendance. Oh, and cleaning the buildings.

Not to mention going on a two-year mission, and giving 10% of your income for the whole of your life. There’s more, but it all works toward the same point: The LDS Church has a really high bar to be considered basically active.

But even after all of this, what this scripture tells us is that no matter what you do, you’re still unprofitable.

Ask: How does this make someone feel, if they’re trying to do their best in the church?

It’s such a glaring scripture, and I think it calls for some kind of explanation. What is it doing here? What kind of function does this idea serve?

You could argue that it’s designed to motivate people who aren’t doing all they can. But what about people who are knocking themselves out, and get so little in return?


I think it goes beyond the motivational. I see this as an out-clause. Here’s how:

Religion is a con. It makes phoney promises that fail. And when those promises fail, there has to be a way of getting the mark (the person being conned) from blaming the religion. How to divert their disappointment? By setting up impossible conditions for success.

“Oh, you’re not feeling fulfilled? Bad things happening anyway? Well, have you been you coming to church? You have?

“Have you been praying? Oh.

“How about reading the scriptures? Attending the temple? Having Family Home Evening…?

“How’s your home teaching? Aha… home teaching a little spotty? That was probably it. Bring those stats up, and I’ll bet you’ll be in line for some blessings pret…ty soon.”

It’s a fantastic way of explaining away failures — it’s not the church’s fault; it’s yours, you unprofitable servant, you.

And of course there’s the usual benefit: if the church asks for more, it gets more. And the investment fallacy means that members who have given their all will be less likely to question their belief — you must believe it, or you wouldn’t have given so much, right? And if you walk away, you’ll lose everything you’ve invested!

Mosiah 2:22 And behold, all that he requires of you is to keep his commandments; and he has promised you that if ye would keep his commandments ye should prosper in the land; and he never doth vary from that which he hath said; therefore, if ye do keep his commandments he doth bless you and prosper you.
2:23 And now, in the first place, he hath created you, and granted unto you your lives, for which ye are indebted unto him.
2:24 And secondly, he doth require that ye should do as he hath commanded you; for which if ye do, he doth immediately bless you; and therefore he hath paid you. And ye are still indebted unto him, and are, and will be, forever and ever; therefore, of what have ye to boast?

Again, the church doesn’t want just some of your time and attention. It claims the right to have it all. Forever and ever.

Mosiah 2:25 And now I ask, can ye say aught of yourselves? I answer you, Nay. Ye cannot say that ye are even as much as the dust of the earth; yet ye were created of the dust of the earth; but behold, it belongeth to him who created you.

No matter what you do, you’ll never be worthwhile under this system. You are less than the dust of the earth.


But of course, if you’re running a church, you can’t just heap this kind of abuse on people all the time. That’s why there’s a parallel narrative: I am a child of God. You’re a chosen people, a special generation held in reserve, etc. The church can pull out this story when it needs to, and this makes people feel bonded to the organisation. But if people feel too special, the church can remind them of the “dangers of pride” (which is only really dangerous to the church itself), and it can hit them with the “less than the dust of the earth” story. It can switch between these two stories whenever it needs to.

Seen this way, the church resembles nothing more than an abusive and narcissistic partner, for whom this hot-and-cold tactic is typical (see point 3 on that link). The abuser builds you up if you do what they tell you, but they also remind you that you’ll never be good enough.

Benjamin continues by talking about the “natural man”. Repeat it with me, if you remember it.

Mosiah 3:19 For the natural man is an enemy to God, and has been from the fall of Adam, and will be, forever and ever, unless he yields to the enticings of the Holy Spirit, and putteth off the natural man and becometh a saint through the atonement of Christ the Lord, and becometh as a child, submissive, meek, humble, patient, full of love, willing to submit to all things which the Lord seeth fit to inflict upon him, even as a child doth submit to his father.


  • What has the Lord inflicted upon you?
  • Why does Benjamin think it’s okay for the Lord to “inflict” things upon us?
  • Why is it important for us to feel helpless like a child in this situation?

Have a read of this commentary from the LDS Lesson Manual:

Elder Bruce R. McConkie said: “After the fall of Adam, man became carnal, sensual, and devilish by nature; he became fallen man. . . . All accountable persons on earth inherit this fallen state, this probationary state, this state in which worldly things seem desirable to the carnal nature. Being in this state, ‘the natural man is an enemy to God,’ until he conforms to the great plan of redemption and is born again to righteousness. (Mosiah 3:19.) Thus all mankind would remain lost and fallen forever were it not for the atonement of our Lord. (Alma 42:4–14.)” (Mormon Doctrine, 2nd ed. [1966], 267–68).
How can we “[put] off the natural man”? (See Mosiah 3:19. Discuss answers as shown below.)
a. Yield to “the enticings of the Holy Spirit.” How does this help us “[put] off the natural man”? (See 2 Nephi 32:5; Mosiah 5:2; 3 Nephi 28:11.)

What Benjamin is telling us is that the way you are is wrong, and if you want to be saved, you have to act other than the way you are.

Now I agree that sometimes, I am a bag of slop. Like everyone, I can gravitate to a level that isn’t the best for me. I eat too many Doritos, I can be self-absorbed, and if I want to be my best self, I have to exert some energy and overcome some of my slouchy bad habits.

But there’s a difference between saying, “Sometimes I’m a bit lazy or uncaring, and I need to work on that,” and saying “The way that I am is essentially broken, and I need someone else to make me whole.” The first one points to, and enables, self-improvement. The second one instills a sense of permanent inferiority that offers the church as a solution. It is not a way to build self-reliant people. It’s a way to build broken people.

Why the Gospel is terrible

Now we’ve seen enough of the gospel’s program to understand why the gospel does not work. Just for a reminder, according to the church’s “plan of salvation”, we are here on earth in a kind of probationary state. Our ability to return to God depends on the choices we make here.

But this plan is stacked against us at every turn.

1. We have been created with an inbuilt tendency to sin.

As King Benjamin says, “the natural man is an enemy to God.” God inexplicably made us want to sin.

But God could have made it so that we wouldn’t want to do anything wrong. This wouldn’t have involved a curtailment of our agency. He had to make us some way or another, and it would have been just as simple to make us in a way that didn’t involve a preoccupation with things he doesn’t like. For example, I have never been curious about alcohol or drugs — not that I think those are wrong anymore, but trying those things out has never been a part of my nature. I still have agency; I’m just not interested in them.

It would have been possible for a super-smart God to think of a way to make humans that aren’t interested in sin, without curtailing their agency. Why didn’t he? Why did he make a decision to stack the deck against us?

2. We can’t trust our own moral compass.

Having given us a tendency to want to sin, God also created us with faulty moral intuition. Not only is the “natural man” an enemy to God, but he tells us that we can’t trust the answers we get from our own moral reasoning.

Isaiah 55:8 For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways, saith the LORD.

Let’s think through this, because this one thing unhinges the entire contraption.

My ability to return to God relies on me making good choices. But God gave me a brain that provides faulty moral intuitions. If I can’t trust my own ideas of what’s right and wrong, then I have no way of knowing what “good choices” are.

You could say, “That’s the point. You’re not supposed to trust your own moral instincts. You’re supposed to obey God and ‘yield to the enticings of the Holy Spirit.'”

But if I can’t trust my own moral compass, then I can’t even be sure if that’s the right thing to do. If God gives us a faulty ethical lens and says “Go to it”, then the whole thing stops right there. How could I even tell the difference between good and bad choices if I can’t trust my own ethical filter? Unless I have a reliable moral compass, the whole task becomes impossible.

3. Satan

On top of all this, God allows a perfectly evil being to tempt us. If I knew of an evil being, I would keep them far away from my kids, but God’s like “Go for it,” which is another way that he’s a terrible parent. To help us, the Holy Spirit gives us signals that are indistinguishable from emotions, impressions, or dyspepsia. (That’s if we don’t offend him, in which case, he buggers off.)


Even prophets get it wrong in this process, so what chance do the rest of us have?


Ask: Could you convict even the worst criminal under this system?

4. Self-esteem sniping

And after all this — a sinful nature, a broken compass, and access to bad influences — our self-efficacy is constantly being undermined and belittled by the gospel itself. We’re reminded that we’re less than the dust of the earth, that we owe God everything, and that there’s nothing we can do to be considered worthy.

Ladies, gentlemen, and everyone: the gospel is a terrible system. It’s a set up. God could have made it any way he wanted, but he chose to put us in a situation with impossible, contradictory, confusing, and demeaning expectations. This contemptible god belittles us, and expects us to praise him in return.

The appropriate response is the same as it should be for any abuser: we must cut him off entirely, and work within a loving and supportive community to build our own lasting self-respect. Our morality isn’t perfect, but we can work to improve it without the petty sniping of a demanding and jealous father figure.

Additional lesson ideas

Every pore?

Now here’s a linguistic curiosity. When Jesus (allegedly) prayed in Gesthemane,

Luke 22:44 And being in an agony he prayed more earnestly: and his sweat was as it were great drops of blood falling down to the ground.

Was there really any blood? The wording is “as it were”, which usually signals a turn of phrase, not a fact.

But fast-forward a couple thousand years, and Mormons will tell you that Jesus bled “from every pore”. This wording appears in our reading.

Mosiah 3:7 And lo, he shall suffer temptations, and pain of body, hunger, thirst, and fatigue, even more than man can suffer, except it be unto death; for behold, blood cometh from every pore, so great shall be his anguish for the wickedness and the abominations of his people.

I seem to remember many church talks where the speaker solemnly asserted that if you were in extreme agony, you might bleed from one pore, but Jesus bled from all of them.

I guess there’s a condition where people bleed from their pores, but I got curious as to whether this might be a linguistic artefact. What I mean is that the wording “he bled from every pore” seems to roll off the tongue very easily. Could it be that it was just a phrase that people were accustomed to saying, and Joseph Smith (or whoever) simply wrote the well-known idiom into his book, which Mormons then took as gospel?

If the phrase “bleed * every pore” were in common usage around Smith’s time, this would explain how it worked it way into the Book of Mormon, and why Mormons now think Jesus had a particularly gory night of it in a garden.

In fact, this is exactly what we see if we look up “bleed * every pore” in Google’s Ngram Viewer.

Follow the link at the bottom to ‘bleed at every pore’ from 1768 – 1832, and you’ll find lots of examples, some of which I’ve copied and pasted here. Note that these examples use the idiom ‘bleed at every pore’ even when no actual bleeding is going on, which confirms that this was an idiom that people were accustomed to using in various situations.

1821: And, when they sicken and die, the hearts of their parents bleed at every pore.

1796: still there are circumstances in his situation wHich cause the heart of humanity to bleed at every pore.

1820: Thus this unhappy nation, by a miserable and mistaken policy, is doomed to bleed at every pore

1812: whether we stand by them, or whether we forsake them, those gallant nations will still continue to bleed at every pore.

1815: without reviving the ferocious and appalling doctrine of constructive treason, which once made England bleed at every pore

Screen Shot 2016-04-17 at 3.45.12 PM

And that’s how (I suspect) a common expression worked its way into Mormon doctrine. A metaphorical statement graduated into a literal belief.

This is something of a one-off in my experience. We already know that believers re-interpret literal statements as metaphorical ones when they’re deemed implausible. This is the only case I can think of where a belief went the other way.

EDIT: Redditor Elijah_Unabel made a point that was too good not to share: there simply isn’t enough blood in a human body to bleed from every pore.

Yesterday my young son asked me how many pores are in the human body. I wasn’t sure off-hand, but the most common answers on Google are 2 billion or 3 trillion (although 3 trillion pores seems pretty high given that there are 37.2 trillion cells in the entire body). I asked my son why he was interested, and he referred to Jesus bleeding from every pore. From that aspect, we might just include sweat glands, of which there are about 2 million. My son and I then ran the math and came up with the following.

We can assume there are about 90,000 drops are in a gallon (about 20 drops per ml). At the extreme of 3 trillion pores, this gives us over 33 million gallons of blood. That’s going to be a bit messy. If we go with 2 billion pores, we get about 22,000 gallons, still enough to fill a couple backyard swimming pools.

Finally, if we just count sweat glands, we get 22 gallons. Not nearly as impressive as the numbers above. However, the average person only has about 1.5 gallons of blood, so bleeding out 22 gallons is still a pretty impressive trick.

BoM Lesson 14 (The Small Chapters)

“For a Wise Purpose”

Enos, Jarom, Omni, Words of Mormon

LDS manual: here


To show how the Book of Mormon gets it wrong.


There’s a little problem with the Book of Mormon. Actually, kind of a big problem.

You’re the writer. You want to start bringing lots of characters into your narrative. Maybe have some crowd scenes, with masses of people. But you’re only a generation or two removed from the original group of thirty-or-so characters. That means any new characters will be related, and you can’t have everyone asking: Hey, aren’t you Jacob’s grandson? And you’re going to have a population bottleneck anyway; people don’t reproduce that fast. But writing five or six generations’ worth of characters takes a lot of effort for a lazy scammer with a criminal record (Joseph Smith), and you’re hitting writer’s block anyway, ever since someone stole your 116-page rough draft.

Solution: Time to fast-forward. Just skim the next two hundred years, and pick it up again when things get interesting.

Jarom 5 And now, behold, two hundred years had passed away, and the people of Nephi had waxed strong in the land….

There, that ought to do it.

So that’s what this reading is about. But don’t worry — there’s enough here for a full lesson.

Book of Mormon structure

Let’s talk for a bit about how the parts of the Book of Mormon interlock.

Up to now, the Book of Mormon has mostly concerned the story of Nephi. It’s a ripping read (at least at first) because this was the writer’s second go at it. The first draft was destroyed when Joseph Smith let Martin Harris (who was after all providing the money for this, the sucker) borrow it to show his wife, who presumably burned it. You never let your first draft get out of your hands without photocopying it!

But the second draft was a keeper. A good argument for rewriting.

Now a few of the story threads are combining. Smith (or whoever) wrote an earlier migration into his story — a group that came from the supposed Tower of Babel. The last character alive from that group was called Coriantumr, and his story comes later, in the Book of Ether. But check it out — he makes a special guest appearance here! It brings the two groups together. What a great device.

Omni 20 And it came to pass in the days of Mosiah, there was a large stone brought unto him with engravings on it; and he did interpret the engravings by the gift and power of God.
21 And they gave an account of one Coriantumr, and the slain of his people. And Coriantumr was discovered by the people of Zarahemla; and he dwelt with them for the space of nine moons.
22 It also spake a few words concerning his fathers. And his first parents came out from the tower, at the time the Lord confounded the language of the people; and the severity of the Lord fell upon them according to his judgments, which are just; and their bones lay scattered in the land northward.

So there are some very cool things happening in this reading.

“For a wise purpose”

Also something that’s kind of dumb. We also have a compiler character, Mormon, breaking in to tell us what he’s doing.

Words of Mormon 3 And now, I speak somewhat concerning that which I have written; for after I had made an abridgment from the plates of Nephi, down to the reign of this king Benjamin, of whom Amaleki spake, I searched among the records which had been delivered into my hands, and I found these plates, which contained this small account of the prophets, from Jacob down to the reign of this king Benjamin, and also many of the words of Nephi.
4 And the things which are upon these plates pleasing me, because of the prophecies of the coming of Christ; and my fathers knowing that many of them have been fulfilled; yea, and I also know that as many things as have been prophesied concerning us down to this day have been fulfilled, and as many as go beyond this day must surely come to pass —
5 Wherefore, I chose these things, to finish my record upon them, which remainder of my record I shall take from the plates of Nephi; and I cannot write the hundredth part of the things of my people.
6 But behold, I shall take these plates, which contain these prophesyings and revelations, and put them with the remainder of my record, for they are choice unto me; and I know they will be choice unto my brethren.
7 And I do this for a wise purpose; for thus it whispereth me, according to the workings of the Spirit of the Lord which is in me. And now, I do not know all things; but the Lord knoweth all things which are to come; wherefore, he worketh in me to do according to his will.

In other words, Mormon is writing Nephi’s bit again, but doesn’t know why. But we do — the 116-page first draft got stolen.

So… God was able to preserve the gold plates, but he was unable to prevent someone from taking the manuscript of Nephi’s story, once it got translated into English. And God couldn’t just have it be translated again. So instead of doing any of those things, he decided to — hundreds of years ahead of time — get Mormon to etch out Nephi’s story again, when space on the plates was at a premium.

I can think of about 11 better ways that God could have recovered from the lost-116-pages problem, just off the top of my head.

  1. Tell Smith who took the 116 pages, and where they put them. Then get them back.
  2. Give whoever took the manuscript a heart attack before they could take it, like Uzzah and the ark.
  3. Send an angel with a sword to prevent Smith from giving Harris the rough draft, just like the angel that told Smith to marry teenagers.
  4. Send the angel with the sword to whoever took the 116 pages, and threaten them if they don’t give them back.
  5. Cause whoever took the 116 pages to not want to take them, like how God changed Pharaoh’s heart.
  6. Turn whoever took the 116 pages into an ally by appearing to them personally and explaining why the pages are so important.
  7. Get Smith to translate the 116 pages again from the plates that he still had. Come on, God, don’t be such a wuss. You can outsmart those bad guys.
  8. Simply inspire Smith to write Nephi’s section again, without the plates.
  9. Have an angel deliver the pages to Smith.
  10. Have the 116 pages magically appear on Smith’s desk. (“In his hat” says redditor shipl14. Impressive snark there!)
  11. Tell the post-mortal Nephi to go down and tell his story to Smith, Q-and-A style. An intimate interview with Nephi! Who wouldn’t go for that?

And that’s just off the top of my head! Throughout the church’s history, there have been so many ways that God could have not made Joseph Smith look like a total bullshitter, and he just didn’t do any of them. Instead, God decided to use a Rube God-berg solution — one that looks exactly like humans who don’t know what they’re doing.

Main ideas for this lesson


Enos was spending some time alone. He was used to doing this, as he got teased a lot about his name. Eeeeenos.

Enos 2 And I will tell you of the wrestle which I had before God, before I received a remission of my sins.
3 Behold, I went to hunt beasts in the forests; and the words which I had often heard my father speak concerning eternal life, and the joy of the saints, sunk deep into my heart.
4 And my soul hungered; and I kneeled down before my Maker, and I cried unto him in mighty prayer and supplication for mine own soul; and all the day long did I cry unto him; yea, and when the night came I did still raise my voice high that it reached the heavens.
5 And there came a voice unto me, saying: Enos, thy sins are forgiven thee, and thou shalt be blessed.
6 And I, Enos, knew that God could not lie; wherefore, my guilt was swept away.

I tried this once as a young bloke. I suppose I was impressed by the story. I prayed for as long as I could, but nothing happened. Either I stopped too soon, or God’s imaginary. Maybe a bit of both.


Here’s Enos’s description of the Lamanites.

Enos 20 And I bear record that the people of Nephi did seek diligently to restore the Lamanites unto the true faith in God. But our labors were vain; their hatred was fixed, and they were led by their evil nature that they became wild, and ferocious, and a bloodthirsty people, full of idolatry and filthiness; feeding upon beasts of prey; dwelling in tents, and wandering about in the wilderness with a short skin girdle about their loins and their heads shaven; and their skill was in the bow, and in the cimeter, and the ax. And many of them did eat nothing save it was raw meat; and they were continually seeking to destroy us.


But cimeters and axes? Did they exist in the Americas during this time?

According to the Oxford Handbook of Mesoamerican Archaeology, no. Metal working wouldn’t happen until the Late Classical Period (600–900 AD), and cimeters and axes wouldn’t be a part of it.


See page 123 for more.

Who is a Lamanite?

Jarom writes that the Book of Mormon was written “for the intent of the benefit of our brethren the Lamanites”.

Jarom 2 And as these plates are small, and as these things are written for the intent of the benefit of our brethren the Lamanites, wherefore, it must needs be that I write a little; but I shall not write the things of my prophesying, nor of my revelations. For what could I write more than my fathers have written? For have not they revealed the plan of salvation? I say unto you, Yea; and this sufficeth me.

So who’s a Lamanite?

According to Joseph Smith and all the early brethren, the Lamanites were Native Americans. When they were called to teach the gospel to the Lamanites, where did they go? Straight to the Native Americans. There was no thought of going anywhere else.

This view persisted into the 1970s and 80s. Here’s an article in the Ensign, written by my own uncle, Dallas Burnett! Small world.

The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is unique in its theological and philosophical understanding of the peoples in the Americas known as Indians and of the inhabitants of the Pacific islands. These people are a remnant of the House of Jacob and descendants of Lehi, an Israelite who left Jerusalem and came to the Americas around 600 B.C. Found in the Book of Mormon, a record of revelations received by these ancient peoples, are great promises for the Lamanites.

These prophetic promises prompted Joseph Smith, who translated and published the Book of Mormon in 1830, to carry the gospel to the Lamanites in the very early days of the Church’s existence. And from that day until this the gospel has been preached to those who are identified as Lamanites.

And Spencer Kimball, then President of the Quorum of the Twelve, said the same.

With pride I tell those who come to my office that a Lamanite is a descendant of one Lehi who left Jerusalem six hundred years before Christ and with his family crossed the mighty deep and landed in America. And Lehi and his family became the ancestors of all of the Indian and Mestizo tribes in North and South and Central America and in the islands of the sea, for in the middle of their history there were those who left America in ships of their making and went to the islands of the sea.

Not until the revelations of Joseph Smith, bringing forth the Book of Mormon, did any one know of these migrants. It was not known before, but now the question is fully answered. Now the Lamanites number about sixty million; they are in all of the states of America from Tierra del Fuego all the way up to Point Barrows, and they are in nearly all the islands of the sea from Hawaii south to southern New Zealand. The Church is deeply interested in all Lamanites because of these revelations and because of this great Book of Mormon, their history that was written on plates of gold and deposited in the hill.

Find more sources here:


But research into DNA has falsified that claim. Native Americans are not Hebrews; they’re Asians.

There’s a lot of information (and disinformation) on this, but as a starting point, check out the blog of Simon Southerton, a biologist and former bishop.

Native American DNA reveals they are descended from Asian ancestors

Scientists studying Native American populations see no cultural or genetic connection between Old and New World populations. There is a broad consensus view among archaeologists, geologists and biologists, based on more than a century of excavating thousands of archaeological sites, that the New World was first populated at least fifteen thousand years ago, and possibly as early as twenty thousand years ago, by migrants from Asia. These people entered the Americas via a wide expanse of land—called Beringia—which connected northeastern Asia with northwestern North America during ice ages when sea levels were lower. These small groups of migrants soon exploited the richness of the “new world,” and their populations grew quickly and expanded across the North and South American continents over a few thousand years. There is widespread agreement among archaeologists that there is no evidence that the cultural developments unveiled in the archaeological record in the New World were in any way inspired by visitors or migrants from Africa, Europe, or Asia.

Simon’s interviews on Mormon Stories is worth a listen, as well.

So this is a problem. If you’re looking for an honest-to-goodness Lamanite — a descendent of Laman or Lemuel — there’s literally no one you can point to. Yet the Book of Mormon was meant to benefit the Lamanites. Suddenly it’s a book without its primary intended audience. So who was this all for again?

Apologists like Mike Ash argue that the term ‘Lamanite’ is actually a cultural term, and not necessarily a genetic one.

As discussed in an article earlier this year, the term “Lamanite” has at least three ways in which it can be understood: by genetics, by culture or through genealogy. My earlier articles on DNA and the Book of Mormon demonstrated that not all of one’s descendants will end up with the DNA genetic markers of one’s ancestors. So while the Native Americans of Joseph Smith’s local vicinity may be genetically descended from the Lehites, there is currently no way to demonstrate this link or the lack thereof.

My response: Thank goodness God sent us Mike Ash to sort Joseph Smith out. Funny how Smith got it so wrong, only being a prophet.

Geneticists have rejected Ash’s explanation.


Was there steel in the ancient Americas? The Book of Mormon says so.

Jarom 8 And we multiplied exceedingly, and spread upon the face of the land, and became exceedingly rich in gold, and in silver, and in precious things, and in fine workmanship of wood, in buildings, and in machinery, and also in iron and copper, and brass and steel, making all manner of tools of every kind to till the ground, and weapons of war — yea, the sharp pointed arrow, and the quiver, and the dart, and the javelin, and all preparations for war.

But, as before, there’s no evidence of metallurgy during this period.

I got curious as to how you could make your own steel at home, and I found this page:

DIY Blacksmithing: Forge Your Own Steel at Home!

It looks pretty cool! Or hot, actually. It uses modern tools, and I’m not sure how it would work if you tried to substitute that kinds of tools you’d have around 300 BCE. And I’m no archaeologist, but I’m pretty sure that this would leave a small mountain of archaeological artifacts. Naturally, no such steel smelting site has been found.

Does language degenerate?

In the book of Omni, we find the earlier group of Hebrews. Notice what it says about language.

Omni 15 Behold, it came to pass that Mosiah discovered that the people of Zarahemla came out from Jerusalem at the time that Zedekiah, king of Judah, was carried away captive into Babylon.
16 And they journeyed in the wilderness, and were brought by the hand of the Lord across the great waters, into the land where Mosiah discovered them; and they had dwelt there from that time forth.
17 And at the time that Mosiah discovered them, they had become exceedingly numerous. Nevertheless, they had had many wars and serious contentions, and had fallen by the sword from time to time; and their language had become corrupted; and they had brought no records with them; and they denied the being of their Creator; and Mosiah, nor the people of Mosiah, could understand them.

From the LDS manual:

Explain that the second half of the book of Omni, written by Amaleki, illustrates the importance of preserving the records by showing what happened to a people that had not preserved its records.
• Why were the people of Zarahemla (the Mulekites) so happy to see Mosiah and his followers? (See Omni 1:14.) What consequences did Amaleki imply had come to the Mulekites because they did not bring any records with them when they left Jerusalem? (See Omni 1:17. Their language had degenerated and they had lost the knowledge of Jesus Christ and His teachings.) How might we be affected if we did not have the scriptures? (See Mosiah 1:3–5.) How are we affected when we have the scriptures but do not study them?

So let’s look at the implications.

  • The people didn’t have written records.
  • As a result, their language “degenerated”.

As a linguist, I see a problem here. What does it mean for a language to “degenerate”? People sometimes talk about a language becoming “corrupted” or “bastardised”, but this is not a linguistically sound judgment. Languages change, but this process is neither good nor bad.

Also, even if they’d had written records, that wouldn’t stop language from changing. English has changed over a thousand years, despite having written records. What happens is that language changes, and then we change our writing system. Consider also Latin, and how it evolved into the Romance languages, despite their writing system. Language change is not something that can be halted, and in the very long term, everything is on the table.

This is another area where the Book of Mormon gets it wrong. Any being that would qualify as a god would have known this.

BoM Lesson 11 (Goodbye, Nephi)

“Press Forward with a Steadfastness in Christ”

2 Nephi 31–33

LDS manual: here


To point out the way in which believers disparage and threaten non-believers


This is the last reading from the putative Nephi. After this reading, it’s Jacob, Omni, Himner, and Just-Make-Uppa-Name-from-Local-Geography.

I’ll say this: Nephi was a self-righteous pain in the ass, but he knew how to tell a good story. In this, he was quite unlike other Book of Mormon writers. So let’s us unbelievers send him off — not with the same finger he gives us in this reading — but with a vote of thanks. All those in favour signify with the uplifted hand.

All those opposed.

Hey, you’re not supposed to oppose.

Main ideas for this lesson

Why does God use language?

God, if he exists, has all power. He can do anything. He can communicate through our thoughts and our emotions.

But when it’s time to officially convey his perfect message to humankind in a book that could never be mistaken as something that a regular person would say, what does he use? Human language, just like a regular person of the the time would say. Nephi explains.

2 Nephi 31:3 For my soul delighteth in plainness; for after this manner doth the Lord God work among the children of men. For the Lord God giveth light unto the understanding; for he speaketh unto men according to their language, unto their understanding.

That’s right — God could communicate clearly, but when it’s time to write the Book of Mormon, God decided to use a stilted form of Jacobean English — just like a person of the time. Because he communicates to us after our manner of understanding.

This is kind of stupid. With all the tools at his disposal, why would a god use human language? Don’t get me wrong — it’s a great tool. But it’s ambiguous and imprecise. It changes meaning with time, and the problem gets even worse over long distances. In either case, you need people to translate and interpret the holy writings, and that introduces more ambiguity. And some things will be incomprehensible anyway, to people who don’t share the context.

Let’s also remember: this is a god who cares so much about being clear to us — and yet when we ask believers why he allows evil, they tell us how incomprehensible his ways are.

Okay, the believer might respond, but what else could an all-powerful God use to communicate, if not language? Possibly telepathy. Maybe something else. I don’t know. But an all-knowing god would know, and yet he chooses to communicate poorly, vaguely, and ambiguously to humans.

Again, I love language, but this is not evidence of a transcendent being. This is a being that is indistinguishable from people. And a god that’s indistinguishable from a person is probably a person.


Isn’t baptism kind of weird? Dunking yourself in water to join a group. Does it actually do anything cosmic? Or is it just to show that you’ll do something foolish to show the group that you’re a member?

Nephi says it’ll help you to speak other languages.

2 Nephi 31:11 And the Father said: Repent ye, repent ye, and be baptized in the name of my Beloved Son.
31:12 And also, the voice of the Son came unto me, saying: He that is baptized in my name, to him will the Father give the Holy Ghost, like unto me; wherefore, follow me, and do the things which ye have seen me do.
31:13 Wherefore, my beloved brethren, I know that if ye shall follow the Son, with full purpose of heart, acting no hypocrisy and no deception before God, but with real intent, repenting of your sins, witnessing unto the Father that ye are willing to take upon you the name of Christ, by baptism — yea, by following your Lord and your Savior down into the water, according to his word, behold, then shall ye receive the Holy Ghost; yea, then cometh the baptism of fire and of the Holy Ghost; and then can ye speak with the tongue of angels, and shout praises unto the Holy One of Israel.

Sounds a bit like that speaking in tongues to me.

But there’s a catch. If you join, don’t ever leave.

2 Nephi 31:14 But, behold, my beloved brethren, thus came the voice of the Son unto me, saying: After ye have repented of your sins, and witnessed unto the Father that ye are willing to keep my commandments, by the baptism of water, and have received the baptism of fire and of the Holy Ghost, and can speak with a new tongue, yea, even with the tongue of angels, and after this should deny me, it would have been better for you that ye had not known me.

I’d put it a bit differently: After you’ve been a member, and done the secret handshakes and all that jazz, it’s better to get out immediately than to waste five more minutes in that silly group.

But members HATE that! They’ve got to make it so that being an ex-member is worse than being a non-member.

Ask: Why do members fear ex-members so much?

Possible answers:

  • For occult religions (occult meaning “having hidden doctrines that are only revealed to initiates”), ex-members are sources of inside information about the inner workings.
  • Non-members may have no particular knowledge about the church, but ex-members do.
  • When you know the game, it’s easy to explain the problems.

Keep on grinding

But for Nephi, baptism isn’t all.

2 Nephi 31:19 And now, my beloved brethren, after ye have gotten into this strait and narrow path, I would ask if all is done? Behold, I say unto you, Nay; for ye have not come thus far save it were by the word of Christ with unshaken faith in him, relying wholly upon the merits of him who is mighty to save.
31:20 Wherefore, ye must press forward with a steadfastness in Christ, having a perfect brightness of hope, and a love of God and of all men. Wherefore, if ye shall press forward, feasting upon the word of Christ, and endure to the end, behold, thus saith the Father: Ye shall have eternal life.

“Enduring to the end”, or timing your church burnout to coincide with your death, is a priority for church members. But the use of the word endure does raise some eyebrows. It’s not the most appealing way to describe church activity, is it?

Even some church leaders have taken issue with the use of the word endure.

This was something going around my stake just before my deconversion. My stake leaders (great men, some of them) recognised that the call to simply “endure” church membership was not very appealing, and they encouraged us to “enjoy to the end!”

Somehow this was not very convincing. Enjoy hours of repetitive meetings? Enjoy hours of arcane and repetitive temple sessions? Enjoy needless behavioural restrictions? Enjoy unnecessary sexual guilt? Enjoy ugly and dehumanising underwear? Enjoy forcing family members into an unrealistic structure? Enjoy misogyny? homophobia? cleaning the buildings for a church that bills you 10% for the pleasure?

Enjoy the cognitive dissonance of having to believe things that were manifestly untrue?

What exactly was the enjoyable bit again?

No, I think the word endure was well-chosen. Enduring is what long-term members have to do, if they’re going to stay in it.

And the way that members speak about this is rather strange. I have heard people say, “Hang on to your testimony! Don’t let it fade!”

But when something is true, you don’t need to keep pumping yourself up to keep believing it.


Activity: Think of a scientific idea that you learned once — perhaps something you studied in school — but that you haven’t thought about for a long time. Do you still believe it? How is this different from a religious idea that you haven’t thought about for a long time?

For me, I haven’t thought of continental drift for a long time. It’s been literally decades since I studied it. Yet I still believe it’s true. My belief in this idea has not faded with time. How can that be?

Well, it’s simple — continental drift is supported by evidence (the last I heard), and I haven’t heard a better theory, so I still believe it. And if I wanted to pick it up again and remember more about it, I could do so — but this wouldn’t make me any more devoted to the idea.

Contrast this with religious ideas which have no evidentiary basis. If I ignore them, they become less credible because either contrary evidence pushes in, or the artificial pumping-up of faith loses its effect. Good! That’s what should happen.

Ideas need advocates, but only fake ideas need constant propping up against the tide of reality.

Distinguish Reality From Fiction

What Nephi says about unbelievers

I’ve given some answers as to why people stop believing. But Nephi has some different answers. Instead of blaming the bad ideas (like I’ve done), he puts the blame on the unbelievers. And the way he does this looks a lot like what Latter-day Saints say about unbelievers.

They don’t ask sincerely.

2 Nephi 32:4 Wherefore, now after I have spoken these words, if ye cannot understand them it will be because ye ask not, neither do ye knock; wherefore, ye are not brought into the light, but must perish in the dark.
32:5 For behold, again I say unto you that if ye will enter in by the way, and receive the Holy Ghost, it will show unto you all things what ye should do.

Once there was a guy named Jeremy. He had questions about the church, and he decided to ask them to an authority in the Church Education System. But he didn’t just ask them in private. He turned his questions into an open letter. It’s informally called the CES Letter.

Since then, many people have read the CES Letter, and have decided to make the break from the LDS Church. And Jeremy has been threatened with excommunication. (The hearing has been indefinitely postponed.)

Think about this for a second. Jeremy asked, and got no answers. He got threatened instead.

A member could raise the objection — as the fictional Nephi might have — that in putting together his letter, Jeremy wasn’t asking sincerely, and was just trying to make the church look bad. I’m not a mind-reader, so I don’t know. But consider this: the church could have stopped the CES Letter in its tracks by providing answers to his questions. Instead, they chose to threaten him. Which suggests to me that they have no answers.

They don’t pray

2 Nephi 32:8 And now, my beloved brethren, I perceive that ye ponder still in your hearts; and it grieveth me that I must speak concerning this thing. For if ye would hearken unto the Spirit which teacheth a man to pray ye would know that ye must pray; for the evil spirit teacheth not a man to pray, but teacheth him that he must not pray.
32:9 But behold, I say unto you that ye must pray always, and not faint; that ye must not perform any thing unto the Lord save in the first place ye shall pray unto the Father in the name of Christ, that he will consecrate thy performance unto thee, that thy performance may be for the welfare of thy soul.

As I’ve said in an earlier lesson, prayer does nothing. Is an evil spirit telling me this? Or is it just long years of mumbling to the ceiling?

They have hard hearts

2 Nephi 33:1 And now I, Nephi, cannot write all the things which were taught among my people; neither am I mighty in writing, like unto speaking; for when a man speaketh by the power of the Holy Ghost the power of the Holy Ghost carrieth it unto the hearts of the children of men.
33:2 But behold, there are many that harden their hearts against the Holy Spirit, that it hath no place in them; wherefore, they cast many things away which are written and esteem them as things of naught.

This is blaming the listener when the speaker doesn’t make any sense.

So what to do with unbelievers? Predictably, threaten them.

2 Nephi 33:10 And now, my beloved brethren, and also Jew, and all ye ends of the earth, hearken unto these words and believe in Christ; and if ye believe not in these words believe in Christ. And if ye shall believe in Christ ye will believe in these words, for they are the words of Christ, and he hath given them unto me; and they teach all men that they should do good.

I don’t think these words are from anyone called Christ. I think someone sat down and wrote them. What evidence can someone give?

2 Nephi 33:11 And if they are not the words of Christ, judge ye — for Christ will show unto you, with power and great glory, that they are his words, at the last day; and you and I shall stand face to face before his bar; and ye shall know that I have been commanded of him to write these things, notwithstanding my weakness.

Boy, then you’ll be sorry!

This is known as the argumentum ad baculum, or argument from threat.

I love this one! Members use it all the time. “You’re going to be in big trouble if you don’t mend your ways,” said a long-standing member to me.

“I don’t like being threatened,” I said.

“It’s not a threat,” he responded. “It’s just a simple statement of what’s going to happen.”

Get that? I’m not threatening you; I’m just telling you what my invisible friend is going to do to you if you don’t believe like I do.

It’s a threat all the same.

Additional lesson ideas

Inadvertent trinity

We’ve seen that the author of the Book of Mormon was a pretty solid trinitarian, and here’s another scripture where he steps in it.

2 Nephi 31:21 And now, behold, my beloved brethren, this is the way; and there is none other way nor name given under heaven whereby man can be saved in the kingdom of God. And now, behold, this is the doctrine of Christ, and the only and true doctrine of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost, which is one God, without end. Amen.

One in purpose! Harrumph, harrumph.

See you next week.

BoM Lesson 1 (Keystone)

“The Keystone of Our Religion”

Scripture: None

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.'”

From mormonthink.com

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

Bogus prophecy

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”
(verse 37).
e. People will be “ashamed to take upon [themselves] the name of Christ”
(verse 38).

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.

NT Lesson 40 (Slavery)

“I Can Do All Things through Christ”

Philippians; Colossians; Philemon

LDS manual: here


To encourage readers to emancipate themselves from spiritual slavery


This lesson deals with three Pauline epistles — Philippians, Colossians, and Philemon — only two of which were written by Paul.

That’s right, Paul didn’t write one of them: Colossians. But how do we know?

The words we use are unique to us, like a fingerprint. We can’t really change our style. That means our word patterns can identify us. So for instance, we could arrange someone’s words into a kind of “top ten most common” list, and see if a new text’s top ten word list matches up.

Or, as Bart Ehrman points out, we could look at unusual words and phrases.

As with every instance of forgery, the case of Colossians is cumulative, involving multiple factors. None has proved more decisive over the past thirty years than the question of writing style. The case was made most effectively in 1973 by Walter Bujard, in a study both exhaustive and exhausting, widely thought to be unanswerable.

Bujard compares the writing style of Colossians to the other Pauline letters, focusing especially on those of comparable length (Galatians, Philippians, and 1 Thessalonians), and looking at an inordinately wide range of stylistic features: the use of conjunctions (of all kinds); infinitives; participles, relative clauses; repetitions of words and word groups; use of antithetical statements; parallel constructions; the use of preposition ἐν; the piling up of genitives; and on and on. In case after case, Colossians stands apart from Paul’s letters.

Sorry, Not-Paul. You were a good Paul impersonator, but you were detected by science.

My theme for this lesson is slavery. There are many kinds of slavery, even today. I don’t mean to trivialise the really awful kinds. But belonging to the church is a kind of voluntary slavery — and in some cases, it’s not even voluntary. Not only should we not put up with slavery advocates like Paul, we should free ourselves when possible.

Main ideas for this lesson

Real soon!

As we’ve mentioned, Jesus taught that he’d come back within the lifetimes of those living, and Paul appears to have believed this as well. Here he is, telling the members to hang tight until Jesus comes again

Phillipians 1:9 And this I pray, that your love may abound yet more and more in knowledge and in all judgment;
1:10 That ye may approve things that are excellent; that ye may be sincere and without offence till the day of Christ.

That’s right, folks… any day now. And again:

Phillipians 4:5 Let your moderation be known unto all men. The Lord is at hand.

Paul devalues our lives and our bodies

The LDS Church is a religion that demands of its members their time, talents, and everything they possess. And so, not surprisingly, the LDS manual phrases things in terms of sacrifices.

• Paul told the Philippians that he had sacrificed all things for Christ (Philippians 3:7–8). What had Paul sacrificed? Why is it important that we make sacrifices for Christ? (See Philippians 3:9–12.)

Ask: Why does the LDS Church demand so much from its members?
Answer: There are low-commitment religions and high-commitment religions. You might think that the low-commitment religions would have an edge, since one can belong to them, and barely have to do anything — or indeed believe anything. And in fact, these religions make up the bulk of Christianity.

But there’s a hidden tool that the high-commitment religions have: investment bias (which we’ve mentioned before in terms of the sunk-cost fallacy). It’s hard to get someone to devote their lives to a cause, but if you can get them started on an ever-escalating treadmill of obligations — come to church, stop drinking coffee, pay tithing, home and visiting teaching, and so on — then it becomes more likely that they’ll continue. After all, stopping the commitments would mean admitting that you wasted your time and money, and no one wants to do that after investing so much.

Joseph Smith was well aware of this. From the LDS Gospel Doctrine Manual:

The Prophet Joseph Smith taught: “A religion that does not require the sacrifice of all things never has power sufficient to produce the faith necessary unto life and salvation; for, from the first existence of man, the faith necessary unto the enjoyment of life and salvation never could be obtained without the sacrifice of all earthly things” (Lectures on Faith [1985], 69).

In other words, demand everything from them, and you’ve got them.

There are only a few things that we can say that we truly own. One is our body. Another is our life. If you’re going to own someone — in slavelike fashion — you have to attack their autonomy in both of these areas. In this lesson, Paul does just that.

First, he argues that life isn’t much, really. He’s only sticking around for his fans.

Phillipians 1:21 For to me to live is Christ, and to die is gain.
1:22 But if I live in the flesh, this is the fruit of my labour: yet what I shall choose I wot not.
1:23 For I am in a strait betwixt two, having a desire to depart, and to be with Christ; which is far better:
1:24 Nevertheless to abide in the flesh is more needful for you.

And Not-Paul points out that believers are dead anyway.

Colossians 3:1 If ye then be risen with Christ, seek those things which are above, where Christ sitteth on the right hand of God.
3:2 Set your affection on things above, not on things on the earth.
3:3 For ye are dead, and your life is hid with Christ in God.

Death cults are so creepy!

Then, as he does from time to time, Paul talks about how terrible and debased our bodies are. Bodies always want what’s wrong, and they’re kind of vile.

Phillipians 3:20 For our conversation is in heaven; from whence also we look for the Saviour, the Lord Jesus Christ:
3:21 Who shall change our vile body, that it may be fashioned like unto his glorious body, according to the working whereby he is able even to subdue all things unto himself.

(Don’t forget that in 1 Corinthians, Paul argues that even our body isn’t our own.)

There’s a purpose behind this kind of talk. To get someone to hand their bodies and their lives over to you, you have to lower the cost of forfeiture — to convince them that it isn’t anything really very much.

This is dangerous territory. As I write this, religiously-motivated terrorists around the world have murdered people in Beirut and Paris, blowing themselves up in the process. Who would do this, unless they were certain that they were doing it for a higher purpose, just like the one Paul is offering? Other things contribute — military aggression, a persecution narrative, socio-economic inequality — but religion, with its promise of an afterlife, is a uniquely enabling contributor. Many things may be the fuel, but religion is the fuse.

More misogyny

Christians aren’t just slaves to God — Not-Paul thinks women should be slaves to men.

Colossians 3:18 Wives, submit yourselves unto your own husbands, as it is fit in the Lord.
3:19 Husbands, love your wives, and be not bitter against them.

Note that husbands are not under any obligation to submit to their wives. Christian marriage comes with a built-in power imbalance.

Every knee shall bow

Not only does Christianity encourage a kind of slavery, but it looks forward to the day when everyone will be subservient to it.

Phillipians 2:10 That at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, of things in heaven, and things in earth, and things under the earth;
2:11 And that every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.


So it’s no wonder that Paul didn’t think actual slavery was any big deal. Onesimus was a runaway slave who became a Christian. Paul sent him back.

Philemon 10 I beseech thee for my son Onesimus, whom I have begotten in my bonds:
11 Which in time past was to thee unprofitable, but now profitable to thee and to me:
12 Whom I have sent again: thou therefore receive him, that is, mine own bowels:

But why? Not-Paul explains that servants should be obedient.

Colossians 3:22 Servants, obey in all things your masters according to the flesh; not with eyeservice, as menpleasers; but in singleness of heart, fearing God

There aren’t many moral decisions easier than whether it’s all right to own people, and Bible whiffs it. Dan Savage points this out.


There’s hope for those in spiritual slavery. This weekend was the scene of yet another Mass Resignation in Temple Square.

Being in Australia, I wasn’t there, but those who were say that there was a great vibe there. Over 2,000 people submitted their resignations over the Church’s surprisingly punitive and harsh policy banning the children of LGBT members from joining the church without denouncing their gay parents.

Getting slightly less press: the LDS Church also defined LGBT people as ‘apostates’. Which led to an interesting observation:

Etymologically, the word comes from Greek: apo– “away from” + stenai “to stand.” But Oxford Dictionaries and Vocabulary.com both point out the “runaway slave” connection.

I think it’s fitting, don’t you? In a sense, those of us who have stopped supporting the church have escaped the slavery we were in. We have emancipated ourselves from a church that used our time, talents, money, and lives for its own benefit and survival. Well done, everyone.

NT Lesson 9 (Sermon on the Mount 2)

“Seek Ye First the Kingdom of God”

Matthew 6–7

LDS manual: here


To show that Christians and Mormons ignore the good advice in the Sermon of the Mount, and that it was assembled long after Jesus would have existed.


For this lesson, we continue our discussion of Jesus’ signature teaching: the Sermon on the Mount.

Before we do, though, here’s a helpful suggestion from the LDS New Testament Lesson Manual:

Suggestion for teaching: Stories can illustrate gospel principles and keep class members’ attention as few other teaching methods can…. When you tell a story, be sure class members understand whether it is a true account or a fictional story you have created to make a point.

That’s ironic, considering that the entire Sermon on the Mount was probably entirely made up decades later, but passed off as a true account. We’ll see some evidence for that in this lesson.

Main ideas for this lesson

Giving alms

Jesus had some pretty good advice about how to go about doing good works.

Matthew 6:1 Take heed that ye do not your alms before men, to be seen of them: otherwise ye have no reward of your Father which is in heaven.
6:2 Therefore when thou doest thine alms, do not sound a trumpet before thee, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets, that they may have glory of men. Verily I say unto you, They have their reward.

Here are some Latter-day Saints ignoring Jesus’ advice and turning their humanitarian aid into a PR opportunity.

Not to carp too much; I’d rather they do good stuff than not. But according to Jesus, they have their reward, and it’s a yellow t-shirt. No one looks good in yellow.

Pray in closets

Back in my Utah days, my ward had a Gospel Doctrine teacher who thought that school prayer was the number one issue to help lift America out of its spiritual malaise. Young people aren’t praying to the Christian god? Give them a little inducement. Train up a child, etc.

Wonder how he thought that, given this scripture:

Matthew 6:5 And when thou prayest, thou shalt not be as the hypocrites are: for they love to pray standing in the synagogues and in the corners of the streets, that they may be seen of men. Verily I say unto you, They have their reward.
6:6 But thou, when thou prayest, enter into thy closet, and when thou hast shut thy door, pray to thy Father which is in secret; and thy Father which seeth in secret shall reward thee openly.

Whoops — this text is evidence that the Sermon on the Mount was written much later. People wouldn’t have been praying in the synagogues, because they weren’t used as houses of prayer until after the destruction of the temple in 70 CE.

And there’s another angle here: In the US Constitution, the Establishment Clause says that the government isn’t allowed to promote one religion over another. And that means that if Christians get to pray to their god in a government forum, then so does everybody else. Ceremonial deism cuts both ways.

But Christians haven’t been good at passing the mic. They’ve interrupted a Hindu priest,

a Muslim speaker,

and even an atheist invocation.

If only they’d believed their own Bible, they wouldn’t have opened this can of worms.

My favourite group, though, is the Satanic Temple. When Christians handed out Bibles in Florida high schools, they handed out the Satanic Children’s Big Book of Activities. (PDF)

I can’t put it better than this:

According to Satanic Temple spokesperson Lucien Greaves, the organization “would never seek to establish a precedent of disseminating our religious materials in public schools because we believe our constitutional values are better served by respecting a strong separation of Church and State.”
That being said, “if a public school board is going to allow religious pamphlets and full Bibles to be distributed to students—as is the case in Orange County, Florida—we think the responsible thing to do is to ensure that these students are given access to a variety of differing religious opinions, as opposed to standing idly by while one religious voice dominates the discourse and delivers propaganda to youth,” he added.

And when there are Ten Commandments monuments on public land, they’re there to erect a statue to the god Baphomet. Won’t this look grand?

What I love about this is that it’s surgical. The only people who will be freaked out by this are those who are the intended target; everyone else will laugh up their sleeve. I don’t care much for Satanism, but I’m happy to throw them some dough if they’ll keep up their antics. Why don’t you? The membership cards are very becoming.

I’m not holding the card in this photo because IT BURNZ

Lord’s Prayer

One of my favourite callings was conducting the Stake Choir. Once we did Duruflé’s Notre Père. (We may not have sounded as good as this choir.)

But some members were surprised that the text stopped here:

Et ne nous soumets pas à la tentation,
mais délivre-nous du mal.

And lead us not into temptation,
but deliver us from evil.

One member asked, “What happened to ‘for thine is the kingdom, and the power, and the glory’?”

“Well,” I had to explain, “it appears that that part wasn’t in the original. It was added later.” Many members of the choir adopted grave looks, while a couple of others nodded reluctantly.

For so it would appear. The part of the Lord’s Prayer known as the Doxology does not appear in the earliest copies of the text. In fact, it’s the view of some writers that the entire Sermon was cobbled together from Jewish wisdom after the fact.

Consider the lilies

Here’s some really terrible advice: Don’t worry about your life.

Matthew 6:25 Therefore I say unto you, Take no thought for your life, what ye shall eat, or what ye shall drink; nor yet for your body, what ye shall put on. Is not the life more than meat, and the body than raiment?
6:26 Behold the fowls of the air: for they sow not, neither do they reap, nor gather into barns; yet your heavenly Father feedeth them. Are ye not much better than they?
6:27 Which of you by taking thought can add one cubit unto his stature?
6:28 And why take ye thought for raiment? Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow; they toil not, neither do they spin:
6:29 And yet I say unto you, That even Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these.
6:30 Wherefore, if God so clothe the grass of the field, which to day is, and to morrow is cast into the oven, shall he not much more clothe you, O ye of little faith?
6:31 Therefore take no thought, saying, What shall we eat? or, What shall we drink? or, Wherewithal shall we be clothed?
6:32 (For after all these things do the Gentiles seek:) for your heavenly Father knoweth that ye have need of all these things.

He’s having a go at the flowers now!

This scripture explains why Christians weren’t very popular in the early days; they were a bunch of starving nudists. Nobody likes it when a naked guy is hanging over your shoulder asking, “Hey, are you going to eat that?”

This scripture makes absolutely no sense in terms of how people should live their lives…

…but it makes a lot of sense if Jesus was a cult leader who taught that the world was going to end within the lifetimes of the people listening to him, which appears to be the case. We’ll be highlighting more examples throughout the New Testament.

And of course, this scripture contains another iteration of the worst advice in religion:

Matthew 6:33 But seek ye first the kingdom of God, and his righteousness; and all these things shall be added unto you.

Here again, religion claims its right to place itself first over family, over your life plans and goals, over your own thoughts, over everything. It’s obscene that some people accept this dominance.

The strait and narrow

Jesus admits that his mission is going to be a failure in numerical terms.

Matthew 7:13 Enter ye in at the strait gate: for wide is the gate, and broad is the way, that leadeth to destruction, and many there be which go in thereat:
7:14 Because strait is the gate, and narrow is the way, which leadeth unto life, and few there be that find it.

Every unpopular movement needs to explain its unpopularity. (Think conspiracy theorists or 21st century Marxists.) If what they’re doing is so obviously true, then why isn’t it obvious to everyone? The typical strategy is to blame people — or is that sheeple?

This ‘broad and narrow gates’ explanation is Christianity’s way of explaining its (then) unpopularity. That changed a bit when Christianity really took off, but the scripture is still there, and can now be used by unpopular Christian fringe movements (like Mormonism) as a way of making theselves feel better.

Ask: If God knew that most people would find destruction, and that all but a few people wouldn’t find life eternal, why did he create them?
Ask: Could he have created only the people that he knew in advance would make it, so that the rest wouldn’t be condemned to eternal isolation and/or torment? If so, why didn’t he?

Additional lesson ideas

The Lord’s Prayer as a linguistic tool

The Lord’s Prayer is fantastically useful to linguists. Because it’s been copied and translated so many times, it’s often used to compare languages, and track how they change over time. Here are some examples from English. And here’s how it probably sounded in Old English in the 11th century.

Ask: Can you recognise any of this text?

Even though it’s from over 1,000 years ago, there are times when you can still understand it, particularly if you know the text well in Modern English. Notice also how “give us this day” becomes “syle us to dæg”. The word syle would eventually become sell, but its meaning would change.

Vain repetition

This scripture concerns the language of prayer.

Matthew 6:7 But when ye pray, use not vain repetitions, as the heathen do: for they think that they shall be heard for their much speaking.

Ask: What phrases are you aware of that get repeated endlessly in LDS prayers?
Possible answers:

  • Our dear Heavenly Father — specifically “dear”
  • That food may “nourish and strengthen our bodies” and “do us the good that we need”
  • “Moisture”

Even Mormons are aware of these patterns. They’re not really a problem; they’re just cultural buildup that happens naturally as communities of humans share verbal behaviour.

The special language of prayer

The LDS Lesson Manual refers to a talk in which Dallin Oaks goes full linguistic prescriptivist.

Elder Dallin H. Oaks commented on the kind of language we should use when we pray: “The special language of prayer follows different forms in different languages, but the principle is always the same. We should address prayers to our Heavenly Father in words which speakers of that language associate with love and respect and reverence and closeness. . . . Men and women who wish to show respect will take the time to learn the special language of prayer”
(in Conference Report, Apr. 1993, 17, 20; or Ensign, May 1993, 16, 18).

Okay, so what kind of language is he recommending? Following the link to the conference talk, we see that God wants us to mimic obsolete 17th century Jacobean English, complete with thee, thou, thy, and thine.

Modern English has no special verbs or pronouns that are intimate, familiar, or honorific. When we address prayers to our Heavenly Father in English, our only available alternatives are the common words of speech like you and your or the dignified but uncommon words like thee, thou, and thy which were used in the King James Version of the Bible almost five hundred years ago. Latter-day Saints, of course, prefer the latter. In our prayers we use language that is dignified and different, even archaic.
The men whom we sustain as prophets, seers, and revelators have consistently taught and urged English-speaking members of our Church to phrase their petitions to the Almighty in the special language of prayer.

Wait; is Oaks unaware that the thee and thou forms weren’t historically formal — that they used to be informal, and they’ve only recently been reanalysed as formal? No, he’s aware.

The special language of prayer that Latter-day Saints use in English has sometimes been explained by reference to the history of the English language. It has been suggested that thee, thou, thy, and thine are simply holdovers from forms of address once used to signify respect for persons of higher rank. But more careful scholarship shows that the words we now use in the language of prayer were once commonly used by persons of rank in addressing persons of inferior position. These same English words were also used in communications between persons in an intimate relationship. There are many instances where usages of English words have changed over the centuries. But the history of English usage is not the point.
Scholarship can contradict mortal explanations, but it cannot rescind divine commands or inspired counsel.
In our day the English words thee, thou, thy, and thine are suitable for the language of prayer, not because of how they were used anciently but because they are currently obsolete in common English discourse.

See there? Fancy-pants linguists can’t tell Oaks anything.

I watched this talk at the time, and I’d even done some linguistics. I watched open-mouthed as this guy made such a big deal about pronouns, and I thought: God has got to be bigger than this.

Ask: What issues might be more pressing in the church and in the world than the pronouns people use?

Consider: Latter-day Saints went to conference that day to listen to men who were uniquely in contact with a god. This god has all knowledge, and would be uniquely qualified to give insight on, and solutions to, pressing world problems. And when Mormons went to these oracles, what did they learn? The pronouns God wants people to use for him. How much more trivial could this be?

Consider also: This is a god who seems unconcerned when viruses mutate and flourish; when tsunamis, floods, and earthquakes kill thousands; when fundamentalists use his name to murder entire communities; when children are struck down with cancers — but you’d better mind your pronouns around him because that’s the kind of thing he really gives a shit about.

Ask: What function might this use of language serve?
Answer: Communities can mark themselves off as different by adopting idiosyncratic norms in dress, diet, and language. You can’t form a sense of difference by doing normal things — reality is equally available to everyone — so this is how they forge a common identity. Mormons’ insistence on antiquated language is the linguistic equivalent of everyone wearing old-style clothing or hats, and is one more example of religion’s typical conservatism.

It should also be noted that the moral sense of a religion is also antiquated, behind the times, and just generally stuck. Religions are not at the forefront of progress, whether ethical, linguistic, or sartorial. They trail, and must be dragged painfully along to be viable.

NT Lesson 5 (Born Again)

“Born Again”

John 3–4

LDS manual: here


To show that stories about Jesus are fictional, and to encourage the reader to take control of their life, without the need for supernatural assistance.


There are two stories covered in this lesson:

  • Jesus tells Nicodemus that you must be “born again”
  • Jesus teaches the woman at the well

Both are marred by linguistic implausibility and biblical contradiction. Let’s get to them.

Main ideas for this lesson

Linguistic evidence: Nicodemus story implausible

So the first part of this story concerns a clandestine visit to Jesus, by the first Irishman recorded in the Bible: Nick O’Deamus. (Dad joke alert.)

John 3:1 There was a man of the Pharisees, named Nicodemus, a ruler of the Jews:
3:2 The same came to Jesus by night, and said unto him, Rabbi, we know that thou art a teacher come from God: for no man can do these miracles that thou doest, except God be with him.
3:3 Jesus answered and said unto him, Verily, verily, I say unto thee, Except a man be born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God.
3:4 Nicodemus saith unto him, How can a man be born when he is old? can he enter the second time into his mother’s womb, and be born?
3:5 Jesus answered, Verily, verily, I say unto thee, Except a man be born of water and of the Spirit, he cannot enter into the kingdom of God.

As a believer, the most puzzling thing about the Nicodemus story is how thick he was. Was he really that literal-minded? Didn’t he understand allusion and metaphor? What a dumb-ass. Especially since he would have been raised in a culture steeped in scriptural allegory.

Maybe he was a bit thick — nobody seems to understand anything Jesus says in this entire reading — or maybe there’s another explanation.

Bart Ehrman, in his book Did Jesus Exist?, points out that the Greek word used for again is anothen: You must be born anothen. This Greek word means again, but it also means from above.

This reading makes sense: Jesus says that someone must be born “spiritually”. Nicodemus is confused — not because he’s stupid — but because of the double meaning. Or maybe he’s being clever and he’s playing on the double meaning. Either way, Jesus then has to reiterate the spiritual aspect of the thing.

Reading it this way makes the story work, and gives Nicodemus some credit. But here comes Ehrman’s point: this double meaning only works in Greek. It doesn’t work in Aramaic, which is the language Jesus and Nicodemus would have been speaking. Which means that this exchange couldn’t have happened at the time; it would have been made up by the Bible’s Greek-speaking author. This makes sense when we consider that the gospels were written long after the alleged events.

Thanks to David Austin for this tip. And feel free to send me your biblical implausibilities.

On being “born again”

One of my favourite daydreams is that I’m young again, but with the intellect and insight that I have now. In my imagination, I’m able to rerun the situations I bollixed up in my life, and redo them better this time. My new improved younger self has done some amazing things: been nicer to the picked-on kids in my school, told Mormons they were full of it, stopped dating certain people, and ditched the mission, going instead to my wife’s house to introduce myself.

Unfortunately, life doesn’t often give us do-overs, and you don’t get to have the insight and knowledge you have without the experience gained from the bad choices you made. Darn!

So I can see how being “born again” would have some appeal, and it would be especially appealing for people who are at a dead end in their lives. People who want to start over. That’s what Christianity pretends to offer — another chance. And who doesn’t love a second-chance story?

Have you noticed, though — and I can’t find the quote that gave me this idea — Christianity doesn’t have much to offer people who are happy and well-adjusted? They were never the people I taught on my mission; the most receptive people were the ones who were having a tough time, at the end of their rope, and looking for a break. And this is why Christians argue that life without Jesus is meaningless: they need you to feel like your godless life is meaningless, just so you’ll buy what they’re selling.

Because Christianity makes most of its gains when people are suffering, we can predict that Christianity would prosper most by increasing and manufacturing human misery.

Ask: How does Christianity increase human misery?
Possible answers:

  • It shames its adherents with sexual guilt.
  • It gives people wrong information, which they then use to make bad life choices.
  • In some cases, it opposes a social safety net that would make people more secure and less needy.

People sometimes talk about how Christianity provides comfort, with its talk of an afterlife and a life with a loving god for eternity. Atheism doesn’t offer such fluffy fairy tales. On the other hand, we don’t suffer from artificial guilt and artificial dependency engendered by the fictional concept of sin. In the words of Sam Harris: Atheism is just a way of clearing the space for better conversations. We don’t need to retreat to some kind of womb and be born again. We need to move forward with the experience we’ve got, face the problems we have, and create the kind of life we want.

Additional lesson ideas

He’s still Jehovah

Many people are of the impression that the god of the Old Testament is brutal and punitive, and then in the New Testament, he became Jesus and chilled out. But some NT scriptures remind us that it’s still the same guy, same story.

Jesus tells Nicodemus about salvation — which sounds great — but no one seems to notice the implied threat:

John 3:36 He that believeth on the Son hath everlasting life: and he that believeth not the Son shall not see life; but the wrath of God abideth on him.

It all sounds a bit like “Kissing Hank’s Ass“: if you kiss his ass, you get a million dollars, and if you don’t, he’ll kick the shit out of you.

Watch whichever version you find more appealing.


In the story of the Samarian woman at the well — kind of a funny story actually — there’s a discrepancy. Do the Samarians accept Jesus, or not?

In one version, they do:

John 4:39 And many of the Samaritans of that city believed on him for the saying of the woman, which testified, He told me all that ever I did.

Later on in the same book, they don’t.

John 9:52 And sent messengers before his face: and they went, and entered into a village of the Samaritans, to make ready for him.
9:53 And they did not receive him, because his face was as though he would go to Jerusalem.

Strange, if he had so many followers. Well, it’s difficult to keep things straight from chapter to chapter.

Brodie awards

It’s Brodie season, and GDG has been nominated for two categories! So check out all the great ex-Mormonness over the year, and vote for GDG if you feel like. Thanks.

NT Lesson 4 (Jesus: Early ministry)

“Prepare Ye the Way of the Lord”

Matthew 3–4; John 1:35–51

LDS manual: here


For this reading, Jesus is getting started on his ministry. He’s about 30 years old, which means that for the last 18 years, he’s been doing things that Christians have tried hard to hush up. (Mormons aren’t the only ones who can sanitise a history, you know.)

This lesson covers the following:

  • Baptism of Jesus
  • The temptation of Jesus
  • The marriage at Cana
  • Driving the money-changers from the tample

Main ideas for this lesson

John the Baptist

John the Baptist is a prophet from the Old Testament tradition. Those guys were great. They’d get naked and prophesy, they’d cook bread on a fire made from their own dung. John would have fit right in; he wears hairy clothes, and eats locusts and honey.

So John baptises Jesus, and then God speaks from heaven, and the Holy Ghost comes down in Bird Mode.

Matt. 3:16 And Jesus, when he was baptized, went up straightway out of the water: and, lo, the heavens were opened unto him, and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove, and lighting upon him:
3:17 And lo a voice from heaven, saying, This is my beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased.

But Jesus is not unique in that regard. The same thing happened to Robert Plant. God was a huge Zep fan back in the day.

Little known fact: Space Moose was also there.

(Disclaimer: No one should read Space Moose comics. They are terribly offensive and weird.)

This experience seems to have made quite an impression on John,

John 1:36 And looking upon Jesus as he walked, he saith, Behold the Lamb of God!

but later on when he’s in prison, he doesn’t seem so sure. He sends a couple of his disciples to ask Jesus if he really is the Lamb of God.

Matt. 11:2 Now when John had heard in the prison the works of Christ, he sent two of his disciples,
11:3 And said unto him, Art thou he that should come, or do we look for another?

I’ve heard people explain this away by saying that John knew Jesus was the Messiah, but he wanted his disciples to meet Jesus in person. That’s a bit silly; lots of people met Jesus, and not everyone was into him. Actually, people went hot and cold on Jesus in amazingly short periods of time, depending on where in the story we are. But more on that later.


There’s something interesting here: Satan, who hasn’t been seen since Job, is back, and he’s here to tempt Jesus three times, for a few minutes. This is in contrast to the rest of us, who Satan is apparently working on more or less full time.

There’s a contradiction in the two versions of this story. Notice the verse numbers. The two parts of the story are flipped.

Matthew 4:5–10 Luke 4:5–12
Satan takes Jesus to the top of the temple 4:5 Then the devil taketh him up into the holy city, and setteth him on a pinnacle of the temple,
4:6 And saith unto him, If thou be the Son of God, cast thyself down: for it is written, He shall give his angels charge concerning thee: and in their hands they shall bear thee up, lest at any time thou dash thy foot against a stone.
4:7 Jesus said unto him, It is written again, Thou shalt not tempt the Lord thy God.
4:9 And he brought him to Jerusalem, and set him on a pinnacle of the temple, and said unto him, If thou be the Son of God, cast thyself down from hence:
4:10 For it is written, He shall give his angels charge over thee, to keep thee:
4:11 And in their hands they shall bear thee up, lest at any time thou dash thy foot against a stone.
4:12 And Jesus answering said unto him, It is said, Thou shalt not tempt the Lord thy God.
Satan takes Jesus to the top of the mountain 4:8 Again, the devil taketh him up into an exceeding high mountain, and sheweth him all the kingdoms of the world, and the glory of them;
4:9 And saith unto him, All these things will I give thee, if thou wilt fall down and worship me.
4:10 Then saith Jesus unto him, Get thee hence, Satan: for it is written, Thou shalt worship the Lord thy God, and him only shalt thou serve.
4:5 And the devil, taking him up into an high mountain, shewed unto him all the kingdoms of the world in a moment of time.
4:6 And the devil said unto him, All this power will I give thee, and the glory of them: for that is delivered unto me; and to whomsoever I will I give it.
4:7 If thou therefore wilt worship me, all shall be thine.

The supposed existence of Satan in the world is a bit of a puzzle. What in the world is Satan doing roaming about? As parents, we try as hard as we can to reduce our children’s exposure to harm. God’s just the opposite; he’s like, “Go for it, Satan!”

Why is God allowing this? Apparently it’s so that we can have agency. He is truly a kind and wise creator.

Actually, Satan isn’t all bad. He was really just trying to help.

Turning water into wine

At a wedding in Cana — plot twist: apostle Orson Hyde taught that the wedding was Jesus’ own! — Jesus performs his first conjuring trick / miracle: turning water into wine. That’s kind of an old one. Dionysus was supposed to have done it, and devotees of Sai Baba say he once turned water into petrol. (One would suppose that with that power, it might be incumbent on one to solve problems related to the world energy supply, but I digress.)

Wine: Was it just grape juice?

With the Mormon prohibition on alcohol, members have a hard time accepting that Jesus drank wine. Some go so far as to insist that the ‘wine’ Jesus drank at various periods was nothing but non-alcoholic grape juice.

I remember this bit from a terrible book called Day of Defense (PDF), which was handed around my mission, and was my introduction to proof-texting and quote-mining. Such legalistic line-by-line cherry-picking — done not to find out what’s true, but solely to establish one’s own pre-conceived view — is the stock in trade for so much apologetics. It was this approach that helped me to see that religious reasoning was not an honest way of getting answers to questions, for which I’m very grateful.

Here’s what Day of Defense says about wine:

The wine used in the Lord’s Supper was nothing more than grape juice, or as the scriptures stated it “fruit of the vine”.

Womp womp. As discussed in this Reddit thread, grape juice starts to ferment almost immediately, and it wasn’t until 1869 that Thomas Welch figured out how to pasteurise grape juice to stop the fermentation. Unfermented grape juice wouldn’t have been possible in Jesus’ day.

Anyway, the Bible has people calling Jesus a ‘wine-bibber‘, which seems unlikely in the absence of wine.

Activity for readers stuck in a real Gospel Doctrine class: See if anyone tries the ‘grape juice gambit’. Do they resist the facts when you point them out? Put your experiences in comments!

Flipping tables in the temple

I always liked the story of Jesus driving out the money-changers.

John 2:13 And the Jews’ passover was at hand, and Jesus went up to Jerusalem.
2:14 And found in the temple those that sold oxen and sheep and doves, and the changers of money sitting:
2:15 And when he had made a scourge of small cords, he drove them all out of the temple, and the sheep, and the oxen; and poured out the changers’ money, and overthrew the tables;
2:16 And said unto them that sold doves, Take these things hence; make not my Father’s house an house of merchandise.

It puts a new spin on an old acronym. Who would Jesus lash?

On the other hand, it doesn’t make him much of a “job creator“.

Additional lesson ideas

40 days and 40 nights = Hebrew idiom for “a long time”?

There are a lot of examples of things happening for “40 days and 40 nights”, including the Flood and the starvation of Jesus. The repeated appearance of this number, combined with the fact that it’s not really possible to survive 40 days without water, has made people suppose that “40 days and 40 nights” is some kind of idiom for “a long time”. I haven’t found anything conclusive, although some writers agree.

At a late stage in my deconversion, I was talking to one of the counsellors in the Stake Presidency — a good guy, BTW — and he told me that he thought it was just an idiom. I must have assumed that everyone was as literal-minded about the scriptures as I was, because this came as kind of a surprise to me.

“Doesn’t this weaken the claims of the Bible for you?” I asked.

“The Holy Ghost tells me what to believe,” he replied.

Partial credit to him, I guess, for moderating the amount of nonsense he was willing to swallow, but it seemed to me — both then and now — that if one is willing to take this view, it makes the job of understanding the scriptures well-nigh impossible. Everyone can have their own view because every every every detail can be understood multiple ways. God is the author of confusion.

Jesus abuses his mum

Jesus has this bad habit of giving his mother some sass. Here he is at the wedding of Cana.

John 2:3 And when they wanted wine, the mother of Jesus saith unto him, They have no wine.
2:4 Jesus saith unto her, Woman, what have I to do with thee? mine hour is not yet come.

Joseph Smith tries to save the situation, unconvincingly.

“What wilt thou have me do for thee? that will I do” (Joseph Smith Translation, John 2:4)

The LDS manual has this under the heading: “Jesus shows respect and love for his mother”. Way to turn it around, chaps. But no, Jesus is being kind of a dick again.

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