An Insider’s View of Mormon Origins by Grant Palmer is two important things. First, it is an accessible account of a large number of often unfamiliar historical facts regarding the foundational stories of Mormonism. These include difficulties in understanding what Joseph Smith meant when he said he ‘translated’ ancient documents, large numbers of 19th century parallels discoverable in the ancient ‘translations’, and a possible pattern of elaboration and exaggeration in Joseph Smith’s foundational visionary experiences. The second thing An Insider’s View is, is a narrative around these observations that ultimately paints Joseph Smith as an inspiring, and possibly inspired, fraud who is yet worthy of praise because of how successfully he has brought a community of people to faith in Jesus Christ.

In this review, I hope to accomplish four things. First, I hope to alert the reader of An Insider’s View to a fact that Palmer doesn’t hide, but that is easily overlooked because of rhetorical choices made by the author; namely, that the history presented is a popular summary and consciously removes many real ambiguities in the historical record. Thus, Palmer’s book should only be a starting place for the interested new student of Mormon history. Second, the narrative created by Palmer, and supported through his rhetorical choices, is plausible, but not mandated by the evidence. Alternative narratives exist which account for all of the evidence presented by Palmer. This leads to my third goal. I will sketch (only sketch) my personal narrative incorporating Palmer’s evidences, and suggest a few resources which discuss the topics covered in Palmer’s book while arriving at different conclusions. Lastly, I want to just add some words to those who feel betrayed by the LDS Church’s portrayal of history.

Contents

  1. Why I’m writing this
  2. Removal of Ambiguities and Alternative Narratives
  3. My personal narrative
  4. To the Betrayed
  5. Summary of Conclusions
  6. Chapter by chapter resources

1. Why I’m writing this

I did a little background work before beginning this review. I read the reviews on the Signature Books website. I skimmed a couple of apologetic reviews that had been criticized as attacking Palmer rather than addressing the content of his book. I had to agree that they did too much of that (although they addressed more content than I had been led to believe). I went to the MormonThink page about the Golden Pot, and found it lengthy and detailed. I had been told that this book really messed with some people’s testimonies, and a review which respectfully disagreed with the narrative of the book–and not with Palmer’s person–really could be helpful.

While waiting for the book to arrive, I looked up the Mormon Stories podcasts with Grant Palmer (I love Mormon Stories podcasts). The first one was really enjoyable. I liked the sincere young man that was willing to do good, and willing to refuse to do morally questionable things that his mission president was encouraging. I liked the older man who continued to study Mormon history. I admired the man who was upfront about his faith crisis as regards the standard Mormon origins narrative. I admired his continued, and possibly increased, faith in Christ as he moved from teaching Institute courses to teaching non-denominational Bible courses in the state prison. I was pleased that his supervisors recognized his goodness and commitment and didn’t take away his livelihood of 20+ years. I liked this guy. I was excited to read his book, even though I was pretty sure I would question his conclusions. Then he started talking about his book.

Frankly, not very many facts he presented were new to me, so that was a little dry. And then he presented conclusions with great confidence, as if the evidence compelled him to arrive there. I wasn’t so excited to read his book, but I thought, he’s summarizing stuff that takes lots of pages to discuss, so I should hold off and read the book.

When the book arrived, I got out my highlighter and pencil and started right in. I read and marked the preface and the first two chapters by the time I left for work the next morning. I’ve since worked through the rest of the book. Here are some of my thoughts.

2. Removal of Ambiguities and Existence of Plausible Alternative Narratives

Preface

Palmer reveals himself quite well in the Preface, as seems to have been his intent:

“We now have a body of authentic, reliable documents and a near-consensus on many of the details. From this base, the overall picture of Mormon origins begins to unfold. This picture is much different from what we hear in the modified versions that are taught in Sunday school.”

I’m with him this far, although these sentences have already begun to shape our biases toward the material that is about to be presented. Continuing:

“But demythologized–placed in its original time and place, amid all the twists and turns that exist in the real word–it rings true.”

So Palmer plans to present a story that rings true, historically. Here’s some more about Palmer’s intent and approach:

“I lay out the evidence and state the implications of what I see as clearly as possible.”

And:

“I feel good that I do not cloak the issues in ambiguities, with an overdose of qualifiers and disclaimers.”

“I . . . find the evidence employed to support many traditional claims about the church to be either nonexistent or problematic. . . . For the sake of accuracy and honesty, I think we need to address and ultimately correct this disparity between historical narratives and the inspirational stories that are told in church.”

He then quotes B. H. Roberts’s call to more rigorous discussion of apparent historical problems, and says:

“I would like to renew Elder Roberts’s call for a more candid discussion of the foundations of the church beginning with the Book of Mormon.”

Superficially, I don’t see how anyone could fault these objectives or methods. I believe Palmer has, in fact, done in one possible way the things he set out to do in his preface. I also think that to arrive at his conclusions he has read into the historical data a kind of ‘psychological’ history that is often not warranted, and is to my mind contradicted, at times, by other data available to us. I will only highlight a few details in the first couple of chapters. I will do this to give the reader a sense of how I approach a secondary historical source of this kind. If anyone is committed to going through the book in detail, I am willing to discuss specifics with them, upon request. I have made many marginal notes and if you are willing to work as hard as I will at understanding the chosen topics, I’m game. Otherwise, here is a taste of my thoughts.

Chapter 1: Joseph Smith as Translator/Revelator

Erasing Ambiguities

Joseph Smith didn’t look at the plates to dictate the Book of Mormon–at least not after the very first efforts, and possibly not even then. As Palmer puts it:

“. . . the eyewitnesses reported that Joseph read the English text as it appeared, word for word, in the seer stone, sometimes called “the interpreters,” which he placed in his hat, his face over the hat’s opening to shut out the light. Those who reported this include Emma Hale Smith (Joseph’s wife), Isaac Hale (Joseph’s father-in-law), Michael Morse (brother-in-law), Martin Harris, and Joseph Knight Sr.”

I happen to have read a little about this issue, and find Palmer’s removal of ambiguities problematic. This statement appears to imply that all of these individuals each reported all of these facts: that Joseph looked in his hat with a seer stone in it, and that he saw the words to speak word for word in the stones. The quotes that follow do support the stone and face in hat picture. We can be quite confident of this fact. What Joseph saw in the stones turns out to be highly ambiguous, historically. I think ambiguities, like this one at the very beginning, ultimately make Palmer’s conclusions regarding Joseph Smith as a translator/revelator much weaker than Palmer’s confident narrative would lead a reader to believe. Instead of glossing over the ambiguities, this brief article examines some ambiguities of translation and the quality of the historical evidence in greater detail, and arrives at a different picture than Palmer. Unfortunately, the evidence is ambiguous, contradictory, and open to a variety of interpretations. I would find this less disturbing if Palmer’s tone hadn’t set us up to believe that he was going to present: “reliable documents and a near-consensus on many of the details” (from the Preface).

It appears to me that through the entire book Palmer avoids ambiguities that would weaken his narrative. He even warned us in the Preface that he would do so. However, it colors the narrative in ways that are at least not mandated by the evidence, and at worst inconsistent (or only partially consistent) with the evidence. This does not imply that any specific assertion made in An Insider’s View is incorrect. I only want to encourage the reader to remain aware of this fact, and to seek out more in depth treatments of any topics that interest you.

Palmer’s footnotes can be really useful in this regard. For example, most of Palmer’s quotes regarding the mechanics of Book of Mormon translation can be found free, and online, in the article he cites from Richard S. Van Wagoner and Steven C. Walker in Dialogue: “Joseph Smith: ‘The Gift of Seeing'”. Academic authors are generally allowed to make their own interpretations, and it isn’t considered unprofessional. What is unprofessional is to not cite relevant sources, or provide people with resources to find out more about contested topics. As far as I can tell, Palmer cites many useful secondary sources, and can be used effectively as a starting point for a new student of Mormon history.

One thing that would have improved my enjoyment of An Insider’s View, and would have increased Palmer’s credibility in my mind, is if he had used citations even more helpfully. Knowing that he is discussing topics which bear on people’s faith (they changed his own, drastically), Palmer could have pointed readers to secondary sources that argue competing, scholarly viewpoints on various topics. As it stands, this lack, together with the implications of the Preface that there is near consensus on the issues discussed in this book, leads to an exaggerated confidence in Palmer’s conclusions. This exaggerated confidence may, perhaps, be the biggest flaw with An Insider’s View, since one consequence of removing ambiguities is to polarize discussion. By making effectively polarized conclusions, Palmer is hurting his ability to invite believing Latter-day Saints into a reasoned discussion. This ‘mature’ discussion is one I would very much like to have more publicly in Mormonism, so I’m a little disappointed Palmer missed an opportunity to invite more people to it. Alternatively, he may have succeeded in forwarding this discussion exactly because his book is polarizing. Unfortunately, that makes Palmer’s book more an advertizement for the discussion rather than a substantial contributor.

‘Psychological’ history.

I think Palmer is safe in claiming LDS church correlation has edited and selected Mormon history much less informatively than he has, and that this needs to be changed. I’m not convinced he has identified the meaning and intent behind various historical facts any better than some more literal LDS narratives. As is nearly essential in learning messages from history, the historian must engage in some amount of reading between the lines. One example of this is Palmer’s discussion of the translation of the lost 116 pages. He dismisses, in the following way, Joseph’s claim in Doctrine and Covenants 10:17-18,31, that those who stole the pages would alter them to prove Joseph a fraud:

“This is problematic. If these critics had “altered the words,” as Joseph divined they had, and produced the original manuscript to discredit him, the alterations in a different handwriting would have been readily apparent. Aside from that, there is an assumption that was unchallenged by Joseph Smith that a second translation would be identical to the first. This confirms the view that the English text existed in some kind of unalterable, spiritual form rather than that someone had to think through difficult conceptual issues and idioms, always resulting in variants in any translation.” (emphasis added)

First, this leaves unanswered the problem of why anyone took the 116 pages. Or if no one took them, why Martin Harris said someone did, and couldn’t produce them for Joseph. It also assumes that someone wanting to show Joseph a fraud wouldn’t be smart enough to think about forging. How good of a forgery would they have needed to convince people that wanted to disbelieve Joseph? How many people would actually ever see the original documents to compare handwriting? How many, instead, would only hear reports produced in newspapers, or by word of mouth, like they did with the stolen preprints prior to publication of the Book of Mormon? Palmer is imposing assumptions on the situation that may or may not be true. What is true is that there are ambiguities and multiple possibilities consistent with the known facts–including at least one that matches the assertions of Joseph Smith. Of course, my pointing this out is “cloak[ing] the issues in ambiguities, with an overdose of qualifiers and disclaimers.” I don’t fault Palmer, rhetorically, for making this choice. I do warn the reader to once again remember that Palmer has made this choice. This is more evident in his second bit of ‘psychological’ history.

Palmer emphasizes the existence of the English text of the Book of Mormon in “spiritual form”. This seems a completely unnecessary insertion. Simply calling it some kind of unalterable form would have been sufficient, and all that is really implied by Joseph Smith’s tacit assumptions. But Palmer’s story almost requires this insertion. You see, Palmer is going to go on to claim that none of the Book of Mormon witnesses physically saw the plates. They only saw them ‘spiritually’, with the ‘eyes of their understanding.’ He will argue that the various foundational visions of Mormonism were ‘spiritual’, and interpret this to mean that they had no connection to a temporal reality outside of the minds of the various participants. He warned us of this in his preface:

“ . . .the foundational stories are in many cases more spiritual [in the mind], less temporal [in the body]. . .” after examining the facts.

3. A sketch of my personal, alternative narrative

I’m going to quit, here. I have a lot more notes in my copy of the book. I agree with Palmer’s choice of issues. Translation–specifically the Book of Abraham and the Kinderhook Plates–is among the most problematic issues to be dealt with in Mormon history. The foundational vision stories seem less so, to me, but I understand how others feel differently with the great emphasis the modern church places on these accounts. I struggle much more with issues that cause pain to people living, today, than to issues that are in my mind largely matters of historical debate. As to the translation problems, I agree that much from the 19th century environment of Joseph Smith can be found in the Book of Mormon. I don’t find this particularly troubling. Here’s why.

After changing my view of translation from Joseph reading symbols on metal plates to Joseph looking in a hat at a stone and dictating, many possibilities opened up for the mechanics of the process. I don’t know which is correct. I don’t think there is sufficient historical evidence to decide among them. Thus, a kind of tentative agnosticism regarding the mechanism of translation seems to be what is mandated by historical scholarship. Then, there is the teaching in Alma that God speaks to us according to our language and understanding. This idea explains, for me, most (possibly all), of the 19th century parallels and insertions. That was the language Joseph Smith and his contemporaries understood. On the other hand, 19th-century-only explanations of the Book of Mormon fail to explain numerous ancient elements I believe are increasingly evident.

While 19th century explanations sometimes appear quite detailed and thorough, Palmer estimates in his podcast interview that about 20% of the Book of Mormon didn’t come from any of the proposed sources. He attributes that 20% to Joseph’s imagination. Whether I agree with Palmer’s number or not, he’s got a gap of 100 pages without a documented, 19th century explanation. Whether I believe other models or not, Blake Ostler’s expansionist model of translation and Brandt Gardner’s integrative translation model both avoid this problem of an unexplained 20%. I even think Royal Skousen’s version of tightly controlled translation allows for the 19th century elements, although I don’t believe Skousen has presented a standalone theory of ‘translation’. So there are two or three alternative narratives which may account for 20% more of the Book of Mormon text than Palmer’s proposed narrative.

As to the foundational vision stories, Palmer has identified a potentially real pattern–from spiritual only to temporally physical. Maybe he is right. I find Palmer’s evidence too incomplete to compel me to more than a guarded agnosticism regarding the foundational claims. I’m too aware of the many reasons people tell stories differently to put much stock in any interpretation that claims to know absolutely why a given story changed. I’m also too aware of the immensely powerful human ability to find patterns–whether they are there or not–to put overly much stock in the absolute reality of Palmer’s ‘spiritual-to-temporal’ pattern. Beyond this, accepting Palmer’s hypothesis requires viewing Joseph Smith as some kind of fraud, because it is Joseph Smith himself who made the changes to many of the stories. You can’t just assign the blame for exaggerating to people who followed after. Palmer’s is an intriguing hypothesis that may merit further exploration. Maybe some younger, smart, and informed person will pursue it. Maybe it will be a dead end. I, personally, will turn to other sources of evidence to test my Mormon beliefs. History gets me part way to where I want to be, but only part way.

4. To the Betrayed

For many people, it really doesn’t matter if Palmer’s narrative is right. It is enough that he is able to point out so many historical facts which the LDS church never told them about. I want to speak a little to those of you who feel betrayed. I think you are justified in feeling upset. That’s all. I’m sorry. I hope you are a better and stronger person when you get through your grieving. I hope you don’t lose or hurt important relationships in the process, but sometimes you can’t do anything about that. I think there are good reasons for leaving the LDS church. I will be sad if you go, but I will be praying for your happiness and for a future when Mormons will no longer feel this kind of betrayal over our history.

To those of you who feel betrayed and would like a resolution that leads you back to trust in the LDS church, I would suggest a few kinds of questions I’ve picked up from literary theory, postmodern thought, and economics. A warning, I’m not an expert in any of these and so likely to be misapplying them.

  • What is the purpose of the history being taught (there may be many)?

  • What are the alternatives to how it is being taught (take the time to think of more than a couple)?

  • How would each of these alternatives contribute to or detract from the purposes?

  • Is it necessary that all of the changes come at the institutional level?

  • How long am I willing to wait for the institution to change?

  • What signs can I find that the institution is changing?

  • Does my view of Prophets match the present and historical reality?

  • Are my unrealistic expectations one piece of my feelings of betrayal?

  • Is Mormonism mine, or does it belong to the General Authorities?

Not all of these questions will help everyone. I think many of them have complex answers, and the same answer may lead one person toward the church and another away. But if the present is this messy, why should I expect history to be clear cut?

5. Summary of my conclusions

  • Palmer is as much of an ‘insider’ of Mormonism as anyone I know. Nobody living now was in on the events of Mormon origins, so it’s silly to pick on the title.

  • The book is sincere, and it is intended to increase faith in Christ. Palmer apparently believes this can be done within Mormonism while at the same time painting Joseph Smith as an imaginative genius and a pious fraud.

  • The historical references in An Insider’s View are real references that no one is contesting. The only issues I have with the book are in the selection and presentation of sources, and in the conclusions drawn from those sources.

  • An Insider’s View contains many authentic historical facts that are interesting and unfamiliar to many Latter-day Saints. The topics addressed are worthy of discussion among us, and have the power to enrich and enlighten our understanding of God and His interactions with humanity.

  • Palmer has effectively popularized many historical findings. This type of popularization of Mormon history is sorely needed if we are to become a more historically informed culture. In this regard, Palmer’s book is an important milestone. Rather than complaining about the problems with An Insider’s View, it seems to me a worthwhile project for a believing student of Mormon history to write alternative popularizations that deal with many of these same issues. You would have to give up the apologetic approach that implies that everything about our history was inspired and peachy. And don’t do it as a response to Palmer. Tell your own story.

  • Palmer consciously removes many ambiguities from the historical narrative, and relies heavily on second hand reports from individuals and sources known to be antagonistic to Joseph Smith. In doing so, he shapes a narrative that I find uncompelling. The fact that it gets closer to accounting for historical data than our standard, correlated narrative doesn’t do much for me. I think ambiguity is the reality of historical knowledge, and that Palmer’s seeming search for certitude is not demanded by the evidence. The evidence demands at most a tentative agnosticism regarding the nature and meaning of various events in church history.

  • This book is one possible starting place to learn about the issues discussed. I don’t think Palmer even wants you to stop with this book. He wants you to grow closer to Christ through focusing on living Christ’s teachings. I want you to grow closer to Christ, too, but I still think Mormon history can help you on your way. I’m not sure how much Palmer’s narrative can help you.

6. Additional Chapter by Chapter Resources

I must admit that most of my reading on church history has come piecemeal through articles–usually after hearing about a topic on a podcast or a blog post. So I’m listing resources I may not have read, although I’ve usually read articles by the authors. Those I haven’t read come highly recommended.

Chapter 1 Joseph Smith as a Translator/Revelator

Brandt Gardner is an LDS, Book of Mormon, and Mesoamerican scholar who is sympathetic to the views of 19th century origins for much of the Book of Mormon. I haven’t read his books, but he has some really nice interviews on Mormon Stories. There is an interesting review of one of his books on ‘translation’ on bycommonconsent. His work addresses the same topics as found in chapters 1-4, attempting to incorporate the historical and contextual ambiguities into a coherent picture.

Chapter 2 Authorship of the Book of Mormon

As I hinted at, above, how we got the scriptural texts seems ambiguous to me, and much less relevant to determining their ancient or modern origins than what is in the texts. It’s hard for me to recommend just a few readings that capture my views on the Book of Mormon and the Book of Abraham, but here are a couple of books well worth reading, even if they can be difficult to understand, at times.

Grant Hardy, Understanding the Book of Mormon: A Reader’s Guide (New York: Oxford University Press, 2010)

Terryl L. Givens, By the Hand of Mormon: the American scripture that launched a New World religion (New York: Oxford University Press, 2002)

Chapter 3 The Bible in the Book of Mormon

An alternative approach to Palmer’s historical approach to finding the Bible in the Book of Mormon is to see what increased understanding we can gain from having variants on the KJV Bible in the Book of Mormon. This is the approach taken by John W. Welch in understanding the Sermon on the Mount and at the Temple, and I feel it is much more constructive and useful than Palmer’s kind of historical/critical approach. It does not ignore history, but tries to build with it rather than pick at it.

The Bible in the Book of Mormon appears to be an area of ongoing interest. Articles on various topics can be found here and there, but I am unaware of any must-reads. I expect more will be forthcoming on this topic over the next several years. I found this article by Kevin L. Barney, on the Documentary Hypothesis of Biblical authorship, quite helpful in thinking about bible passages which appear in the Book of Mormon. The article is more about giving perspective than giving answers, however.

Philip Barlow has written a book on Mormons and the Bible. He also gave a delightful interview on Mormon Stories, although on a different topic.

Chapter 4 Evangelical Protestantism in the Book of Mormon

A couple of articles addressing this topic can be found on the Dialogue topics page for Book of Mormon Studies. Blake Ostler’s expansionist model of Book of Mormon translation can be found through this page, as well as the Van Wagoner and Walker paper cited by Palmer on “The Gift of Seeing”. Also included are some other interesting historical articles on the Book of Mormon and Book of Mormon scholarship, a discussion of Isaiah in the Book of Mormon, and a statistically illiterate critique of Chiasm in the Book of Mormon.

I’m going to add John Sorenson’s, Mormon’s Codex: An Ancient American Book (Salt Lake City: Desert Book, 2013). It is long, but written in an engaging style. It is also quite easy to pick a topic and read small sections relevant to your interests, although that might not give you a sense of the scope and quality of the evidence. This book is much more apologetic than Hardy’s, or even Givens’s, books, but if you are sincere about examining the evidence for ancient versus 19th century origins of the Book of Mormon, you can’t stop with examining the 19th century evidence. Sorenson’s book contains a wealth of references to non-LDS archaeological literature supporting ancient origins for many elements of the Book of Mormon. It varies in strength, but this is the kind of evidence anyone wanting to maintain purely 19th century origins for the Book of Mormon needs to explain.

Chapter 5 Moroni and “The Golden Pot”

Palmer uses “The Golden Pot” only to show that stories with some similarities to the foundational vision stories were around in Joseph Smith’s time. He makes a very tenuous historical connection between Joseph Smith and someone who may have read “The Golden Pot” in French, or heard about it. He also makes a long list of similarities which could be evidence for a few different historical narratives, or none at all. I find them superficial and uninteresting. Apparently translations of “The Golden Pot” are cheaply available for anyone who desires a more profound personal exploration.

Chapter 6 Witnesses to the Golden Plates

Richard Lloyd Anderson, Investigating the Book of Mormon Witnesses (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1981). This book paints a very different picture than Palmer’s. If you are wondering about Anderson’s credentials, He graduated from Harvard law school and then got a PhD in ancient history from Berkeley. Some freely available articles he has written on the topic include: “Attempts to Redefine the Experience of the Eight Witnesses,” Journal of Book of Mormon Studies 14/1 (2005): 18–31; “Personal Writings of the Book of Mormon Witnesses,” in Book of Mormon Authorship Revisited: The Evidence for Ancient Origins, ed. Noel B. Reynolds (Provo, UT: FARMS, 1997), 39–60; and “The Credibility of the Book of the Mormon Translators,” in Book of Mormon Authorship: New Light on Ancient Origins, ed. Noel B. Reynolds and Charles D. Tate (Provo, UT: BYU Religious Studies Center, 1982), 213–37. These articles can be found through the Maxwell Institute Website.

Chapters 7 and 8. Priesthood Restoration and The First Vision

John W. Welch, ed., Opening the Heavens: Accounts of Divine Manifestations, 1820–1844 (Provo, UT: Brigham Young University Press, 2005).  This book contains a collection of approximately 200 original documents relating to six foundational topics in Mormon history: (1) the first vision, (2) the coming forth of the Book of Mormon, (3) the restoration of the priesthood, (4) Joseph Smith’s visionary experiences generally, (5) the restoration of temple keys, and (6) succession in the presidency (specifically the “transfiguration” of Brigham Young in Nauvoo). From this collection, you can evaluate Palmer’s narrative more fully and maybe arrive at one of your own.

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Jonathan lives in rural Georgia with his wife and three boys, teaching Chemistry and enjoying the good people of his community. He studied Molecular Biology at Brigham Young University, and Biophysics at the University of Wisconsin, Madison. Jonathan is passionate about fatherhood, teaching and learning, Mormonism, and dance (he's much better at the first three), and dabbles in home repairs, various crafts, poetry, music, gardening, and Transhumanism. He has enjoyed many years working in Primary, with Young Adults and Ward Missions in various capacities. He currently enjoys serving in his ward and community however he is able. He posts on whatever interests him at the moment at http://jonathan.metacannon.net/

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