2—How it all began: teenagers looking for religion.
9—‘Mormon History—Revisited’: the authorship of the Book of Mormon. Despite my critical approach, I believe it to be from God.
Mark Twain said: “All men have heard of the Mormon Bible, but few [have] taken the trouble to read it. The book is a curiosity to me. It is such a pretentious affair and yet so slow, so sleepy…” ¹
The author was wrong to call it the ‘Mormon Bible’. Mormons use the Bible too. It is a collection of sacred books spanning a millennium. However, it retains the same form of narrative from cover to cover and lacks the colourful and epic drama of the Bible.
What Mr. Twain failed to realise is that the Book of Mormon contains “the fulness of the everlasting Gospel.” It settles a number of doctrines other denominations are unsure of, giving Mormons a confidence often interpreted as arrogance.
The Bible and the doctrines of Christ had suffered at the hands of men but the Book of Mormon had remained untouched throughout the centuries. From the onset, this was (and remains) a strong selling point—provided the golden plates did exist and that their translation was accurate.
There is a total of 11 men—excluding Joseph—who allegedly saw the plates. The first pages of the Book of Mormon feature The Testimony of Three Witnesses and The Testimony of Eight Witnesses. When I was LDS I was remonstrated for pointing out to investigators that even those who later left the Church never denied that testimony. I believed this was a strong case for their veracity. So, anti-Mormons decided to call these men “unstable in their religious lives” and “rather credulous.” They also point out that Joseph—and presumably God—condemned their “wickedness”—although that happened years later. ²
More serious is the claim that the witnesses never actually saw the plates—only in ‘vision.’ There are accounts of Emma Smith and William Smith who both handled them and described their weight, size and texture but anti-Mormon retort that it was possible Joseph had some plates made to deceive them. The fact that he claimed he gave the plates back to the angel settles the case for most.
With regards the text itself, Alexander Campbell pointed out right after its publication that it contained “every error and almost every truth discussed in New York for the last 10 years. He [Smith] decides all the great controversies;—infant baptism, ordination, the trinity, regeneration, repentance, justification, the fall of man, the atonement, transubstantiation, fasting, penance, church government, religious experience, the call to the ministry, the general resurrection, who may baptize, and even the question of free masonry, republican government and the rights of man.” ²
What’s more, revivals and their effects on Joseph’s contemporaries are found in the Book of Mormon, along with the notion that the Protestant Reformation was an on-going process and that the ‘end product’—which ought to be called ‘the Church of Christ’ —was still to be restored. The origin of native Americans—identified as the descendants of Israelites—was another hot topic back then and it had occupied Joseph’s imagination too.
I understand those who see the Book of Mormon as the original work of Joseph Smith.
So, is Joseph the author of the Book of Mormon? The LDS Church insists is that “Truth is eternal” and that religious controversies must have been the same in the past as they are today. Yet controversies such as infant baptism and paid ministry—both vehemently denounced—appeared in several articles and books written at the time but those are no longer debated. Likewise, the Church of the Devil is described in no equivocal terms as the Catholic Church, even though it includes all systems that are not of Christ.
I can understand those who see the Book of Mormon as the original work of Joseph Smith… Or maybe ‘original’ isn’t the right word since there have been claims that his work is plagiarism: The Westminster Confession of Faith—which would have been in the Smith household since several family members joined the Presbyterians—does parallel Alma 40. Besides, Joseph had been searching the Scriptures before his First Vision and parts of the Old and New Testament, as well as the Apocrypha, are reproduced verbatim in several passages.
Would anti-Mormons be happier if the Book of Mormon was unbiblical and unchristian? Every page carries the shadow of Christ—the narrator either looking forward or looking back to his coming in the flesh “in the Meridian of time.” To the point that 3 Nephi 20:23-26 (in Old Testament time) paraphrases Peter in the (New Testament time) Book of Acts 3:22-25. In 3 Nephi 9:18, Jesus quotes part of Revelation 21:6 (written long after his death). The anachronisms are more serious than Stranger Things (set in the 80s) having a song on the radio a year before its actual release.
Still… I believe in the divinity of the Book of Mormon. I also believe Joseph Smith authored the Book of Mormon. Joseph was the author—like he himself had it printed on the front page of the first edition. Because he was the translator, not of what God Himself was telling him but of what he saw when he looked at a seer stone in his hat to dictate to scribes for 2 and a half years. Instead of ‘translation’ as we understand it today, we could talk about ‘inspiration.’
Would anti-Mormons be happier if the Book of Mormon was unbiblical and unchristian?
Regardless of the method and its efficiency, Joseph put a lot of himself and of his environment in his work. He used his era’s language and he extrapolated—all common mistakes of the untrained translator. However, this does not mean he did not also convey the pure essence of the text or that he did not get it 100% right at times.
As the Articles of Faith say: “We believe the Bible to be the word of God as far as it is translated correctly…” There are errors in the Scriptures—those of men. With the Book of Mormon, perhaps some of the blame could fall on Mormon, who abridged the original plates and might have made mistakes and inserted anachronisms.
In any cases, God is said to have accepted the ‘translation’ as perfect. So, perhaps God wanted Joseph to make ‘mistakes’. What if God decided that Joseph’s audience would not relate or understand the teachings and wisdom of ancient plates and instead rebooted the drama for a modern audience—like the new Dynasty on CW? Maybe Joseph dictated “the fulness of the everlasting Gospel” edited for the latter-days.
Is it not what Christians do whenever they issue a new translation of the Bible? Think about the several major differences between the KJV and the NIV, for example. ³ They will say it is different; that the Bible was revealed word by word; that it starts with Genesis and finishes with Revelations; that it is complete and final; that three passages forbid to add anything to the Word of God. ² However, the last passage was written centuries after the first two. The meaning was not to add to the teachings of the book in question—not the Bible, which had not been put together yet.
In the Bible we find various genres, various authors. Sometimes laws were recorded verbatim, sometimes events were reported under inspiration, sometimes King David was moved to write poetry. The collection was bound centuries after the death of Jesus and his Apostles—and after much debate on which books should be included or not. It is therefore possible—and even logical—to accept that other records of God exist.
Finally, I remember someone say, “the Bible is not the word of God but the word of God is in the Bible.” I will go further and say that what is true is from God (and is often Scripture), no matter what its source is.
The Book of Mormon covers the doctrines and practices I believe in, from the correct manner of baptism—by immersion—to an explanation of the Fall—a necessary and voluntary act by our first parents to enable mankind to be, so we could progress as only embodied spirits can.
I actually have a stronger belief in the Book of Mormon today than I did 22 years ago when I converted.
² This account and all the quotations in this post are taken from numerous original sources quoted in Mormonism, Shadow or Reality? 5th Edition, pp. 50-88, unless otherwise stated.
Alexander Campbell’s quotation can be found in Millennial Harbinger, February 1831, page 93
The three passages that forbid to add to the Word of God are found in Deuteronomy 4:2 & 12:32 and in Revelation 22:18