While critics and apologists of Mormonism disagree with each other on just about every issue, there is one matter in which they often share a moment of agreement –Mormonism rises or falls on the historicity of the Book of Mormon. As Elder Holland proclaimed in a 1994 CES conference at BYU:
Not everything in life is so black and white, but it seems the authenticity of the Book of Mormon and its keystone role in our belief is exactly that. Either Joseph Smith was the prophet he said he was, who, after seeing the Father and the Son, later beheld the angel Moroni, repeatedly heard counsel from his lips, eventually receiving at his hands a set of ancient gold plates which he then translated according to the gift and power of God—or else he did not. And if he did not, in the spirit of President Benson’s comment, he is not entitled to retain even the reputation of New England folk hero or well-meaning young man or writer of remarkable fiction. No, and he is not entitled to be considered a great teacher or a quintessential American prophet or the creator of great wisdom literature. If he lied about the coming forth of the Book of Mormon, he is certainly none of those.[i]
Similar arguments are echoed by Mormon critics who, believing that the historical, linguistic, and archeological evidence disproves Book of Mormon historicity, conclude that the LDS Church is false. However, among those who believe that the evidence strongly points to a non-historical Book of Mormon are those who believe that the book’s ability to be divinely inspired does not necessarily hinge on its historicity. Those who find themselves doubting the Book of Mormon’s historical claims have to reconcile prior insightful and profound experiences that occurred while studying the book. Some are at peace explaining away past spiritual experiences with the Book of Mormon as the product of wishful thinking, cultural conditioning, confused emotions, or self-delusions sparked by desperation. Others, who are unwilling to disregard their meaningful experiences with the book, often try to create a space in the middle ground. Regarding this middle ground, Elder Holland continued:
Accept Joseph Smith as a prophet and the book as the miraculously revealed and revered word of the Lord it is or else consign both man and book to Hades for the devastating deception of it all, but let’s not have any bizarre middle ground about the wonderful contours of a young boy’s imagination or his remarkable facility for turning a literary phrase. That is an unacceptable position to take—morally, literarily, historically, or theologically.
What has come to be known as the Inspired Fiction theory has come under additional scrutiny in an article posted on The Interpreter’s website entitled “The Imperative for a Historical Book of Mormon.” In it Stephen Smoot argues that the problem with the Inspired Fiction theory is that “no matter how much he’s desperately masked with trivialized adjectives like ‘inspired’ or ‘pious’, that, whatever else he was, Joseph Smith was a liar. Regardless of whether he was conscious of it or not, he was a liar whose fraud has misled millions into sincerely believing the Book of Mormon to be ancient, when, in fact, its history goes no further back than the 19th century. He either lied or was deluded in claiming that the angel Moroni delivered real golden plates for him to translate.” [ii] The rationale behind Smoot’s argument is that if there were no Nephites, then there would be no Moroni. If there were no Moroni, then there would be no gold plates. If there were no gold plates, then Joseph Smith was lying. Even if Joseph Smith had pure intentions behind his lie or even if he believed the lies himself he was committing a fraud.
An examination of the historicity of the Book of Mormon is beyond the scope of this analysis. Instead, I seek to flesh out some of the historical and theological possibilities of the Inspired Fiction theory and the associated implications and difficulties. While I do not necessarily believe in the possibilities that I hereafter present, I do intend to show that that they are not quite as irrational as various apologists and critics claim.
A God that is willing to work according to people’s language and understanding
According to 2 Nephi 31:3 “the Lord God giveth light unto the understanding; for he speaketh unto men according to their own language, unto their own understanding.” This scripture is often used as a justification for a pseudo universalistic view of religions outside of Mormonism. A 1978 First Presidency statement regarding God’s love for all mankind states that “the great religious leaders of the world such as Mohammed, Confucius, and the Reformers, as well as philosophers including Socrates, Plato, and others, received a portion of God’s light. Moral truths were given to them by God to enlighten whole nations and to bring a higher level of understanding to individuals.”[iii] B. H. Roberts takes the universalism even further.
Mormonism holds then that all the great teachers among all nations and in all ages are servants of God. They are inspired men appointed to instruct God’s children according to the conditions in the midst of which He finds them. Hence it is not obnoxious to Mormonism to regard Confucius the great Chinese philosopher and moralist as a servant of God inspired to a certain degree by Him to teach those great moral maxims which have governed those millions of God’s children for lo these many centuries. It is willing to regard Gautama Buddha as an inspired servant of God teaching a measure of the truth at least giving to these people that twilight of truth by which they may somewhat see their way. So with the Arabian prophet, that wild spirit that turned the Arabians from worshipping idols to a conception of the Creator of heaven and earth that was more excellent than their previous conception of Deity. And so the sages of Greece and Rome. So [with] the reformers of early Protestant times.[iv]
While B.H. Roberts and other LDS leaders who espoused pseudo universalistic views would acknowledge that other religious leaders have had access to divine inspiration, they would still elevate Mormonism above the rest; others would receive a portion of God’s word, but the LDS church would have the fullness. While other religious groups likewise proclaim that they are in fact the ones who see the full picture, these claims of grandeur do not seem to disqualify them from receiving inspiration and some form of revelation in the eyes of B. H. Roberts and other LDS leaders.
Latter-day Saints have displayed a great amount of nuance when it comes to other religious leaders. They do not proclaim all or nothing, black or white views about the teachings of Muhammad, Christian reformers, or other great religious leaders. They are willing to accept that God can reveal truth to an influential well intentioned leader without giving a stamp of approval on all of their theological and historical claims. However, when the same nuance is applied to the LDS church by members who believe in a non-historical Book of Mormon, they are often told that their position is logically untenable and unacceptable. The reasoning being that if the gold plates did not exist, Joseph Smith would have to be a liar and a fraud, and God would not work through a liar and a fraud. Of course, one could point out that Muhammad claimed that he received the words of the Quran from an angel. The Quran has many teachings that are in direct contradiction with Mormonism, including the disavowing of the divinity of Christ. However, the ambiguity associated with distant history, especially before the wide use of the printing press, provide some with enough wiggle room to believe that the claims of Muhammad (including the angelic visions) and the text in the Quran have been exaggerated over time. However, since Mormonism’s inception occurred comfortably after printing press technology became widespread and accessible, the same historical ambiguity is not afforded to the claims of Joseph Smith and the Book of Mormon. However, if Muhammad or other religious leaders did in fact lie about the authors and miraculous origins of their writings, the question then becomes “Is God unwilling to impart inspiration through seemingly fraudulent pseudepigrapha?”
The plates as a catalyst
It is difficult to nuance Joseph Smith’s claims about the physicality of the Golden Plates; either he had the physical plates or he did not. If he did not, he was either lying or delusional about his possession of the plates. If he had them, then the historicity of the translated Book of Mormon is often assumed. However, the existence of the plates does not necessitate the historicity of the narrative presented in the Book of Mormon.
The Egyptian scrolls, which Joseph Smith used to write the Book of Abraham, have been identified as ordinary funerary text that are unrelated Abraham. While some apologists believe that we are still missing fragments of the Egyptian scrolls, many in the Church have allowed for the possibility that the scrolls merely functioned as a physical catalyst for Joseph Smith to receive the text of the Book of Abraham via a revelatory process.[v]
In defenses of the possibility that the Book of Abraham is unrelated to the content of Egyptian scrolls, many Latter-Day Saints are willing to accept that Joseph Smith did not understand the mechanisms of translation.[vi] While Smith clearly believed that he was actually translating what was written on the scrolls, the contrary does not necessitate him as a liar. As the wise George Costanza once pontificated, “It is not a lie if you believe it.” If Joseph Smith himself did not understand the translation processes, then it seems indefensible that many Latter-day Saints would be unwilling to consider the possibility of a non-historical Book of Abraham. It could very well be that the translation processes works within the mythical narratives already present in the mind of the translator to teach principles. Objects like the Egyptian scrolls may have acted as a catalyst to spark Smith’s vivid imagination, an imagination in which God may have been willing to work through to give divine guidance to a group of people according to their own language and understanding.
The same rational used with the Egyptian scrolls can be used to detach the gold plates from the historicity of the Book of Mormon. Understanding the catalytic power of physical objects, God may have used a set of plates, unrelated to the narrative found in the Book of Mormon, to spark the imagination of a young man and create a narrative framework for inspired teachings. Knowing that plates would allow Smith’s imagination to flourish and also understanding effectiveness of narrative when instructing humans, God could have used the narrative’s fertile grounds to teach mankind important truths. It would be no surprise then that the narrative of the Book of Mormon reflects a popular 19th century myth about the origins of the Native Americans. This theory does not require all of the Book of Mormon to be inspired, but allows for the possibility of God inspiring Smith at certain points as he was reading subconscious projections in the seer stone.
Blake Ostler’s Expansionist theory argues that the Book of Mormon is a modern expansion of an ancient source.[vii] The benefit of the Expansionist theory is that it explains the 19th century content while still accepting the historicity of the Book of Mormon. The difficulty with Ostler’s approach is that it is not clear when the claims in the Book of Mormon are a modern expansion and when the claims are historically accurate. The Catalyst theory takes the Expansionist theory to the extreme and suggests that even the historical claims in the Book of Mormon are modern expansions that draw from 19th century myths and historical understandings.
Of course, the angelic visitation of Moroni as recalled by Joseph Smith validated the historicity of the Book of Mormon. However, the unreliability of memory would allow some to dismiss Smith’s recollections of what the angel Moroni actually said. People often remember and aggrandize events in ways that confirm their current views. Furthermore, unlike Joseph Smith’s claims about the physicality of the gold plates, the angelic visitations could possibly be seen as internal non-physical manifestations. Smith’s most prominent experience with the angel Moroni occurred in the middle of the night while he was in bed. If this angelic visitation came to him as a dream, is it not difficult to imagine that Smith’s subconscious, filled with 19th century myths about the Native Americans, may have played a role in the visionary experience. While visitations by Moroni did not always occur at night, it is not necessary that the experiences were completely detached from Smith’s mind and subconscious. Unlike the claims regarding the plates, the possibility that the angelic visitations were internal allow for more flexibility and subjectivity.
Joseph Smith as delusional
If the plates did not exist, it is possible that Joseph Smith was delusional. Since Smith’s character was respected by many, this possibility would require Smith to be consistently susceptible to delusions while also being high functioning and well composed. However, critics of Mormonism might suggest that this position is untenable. To many, it seems as if Smith was fully aware that there were no plates. Not allowing people to look at the plates during the translation process and the threats that God would strike dead anyone who peaked at the plates[viii] lead many critics to believe that Smith was fully aware that there were no plates. On the other hand, Mormon apologists point out that eleven witnesses also claimed to have seen the plates. Unless delusions are contagious, this seems to eliminate the possibility that Joseph Smith was completely insane. Perhaps a convoluted sense of reality and morality would allow Smith to feel justified acting in ways to perpetuate his delusions, whether it was discouraging people from peaking under the blanket or constructing plates out of tin for the Eleven Witnesses.
If the plates were a delusion, would God be willing to impart inspiration to Joseph as he acted through his delusions? The assumption often made is that God would not be willing to lend legitimacy to the claims of delusional man. However, LDS theology allows for inspiration to come to people according to their understanding. With God’s foresight, Joseph’s unique blend of charismatic, eccentric, and visionary qualities could have been seen as an effective tool in revealing and disseminating various truths. Modern prophets have the image of professional, composed, and well-dressed business executives who are conservative in demeanor. On the other hand, Old Testament prophets could be eccentric, often in strange and unbecoming ways. If one subscribes to the prophets in the Old Testament, then it is plausible that the same God is willing to work though someone susceptible to delusions, especially when the delusions are robust enough to create a meaningful narrative.
Joseph Smith as a liar
If the plates did not physically exist, another possibility is that Joseph Smith lied. Many believe that Smith’s actions indicate that he was a pious fraud. Smith did not seem to take the theology presented in the Book of Mormon very seriously and he was often willing to deviate from the doctrinal simplicity outlined in the Book of Mormon. When Christ appeared after his resurrection to the peoples in America he taught repentance and baptism “And whoso shall declare more or less than this, and establish it for my doctrine, the same cometh of evil” [3 Nephi 11:38-40]. While Smith would often quote from the Bible, he seldom would refer to the Book of Mormon. Terryl Givens points out that of the hundreds of papers of recorded sermons done by Smith during the time he was in Nauvoo, there were only a few brief references to the Book of Mormon, none of which contained any doctrinal content.[ix] Smith’s willingness to change a few doctrinal components of the Book of Mormon in 1837 to help it maintain some consistency with his ever changing theology raises questions about the book status as “the most correct book on Earth”.[x] These 1837 doctrinal changes to the text also raise questions about the accuracy of the words that Smith claimed he saw in the seer stones during the translation process. Even though Smith professed the Book of Mormon exceeded the Bible in accuracy, in practice he did not seem to treat it as such. To some this suggests that Smith knew that the Book of Mormon was not what he claimed.
In Nauvoo, Joseph Smith was willing to use deceitful language regarding his practice of polygamy.[xi] He likely felt that the lie was justifiable, either to avoid casting pearls before swine or to protect the Church and himself and the Church from the fallout that would occur. In an alleged letter written to Sidney Rigdon to justify his marriage proposal to Sidney’s 19 year old daughter, Joseph gave great insights into his theological ethics:
That which is wrong under one circumstance, may be, and often is, right under another. God said, ‘Thou shalt not kill’; at another time He said, ‘Thou shalt utterly destroy.’ This is the principle on which the government of heaven is conducted—by revelation adapted to the circumstances in which the children of the kingdom are placed. Whatever God requires is right, no matter what it is, although we may not see the reason thereof till long after the events transpire.[xii]
As expressed by Elder Holland, if the plates were not real, then Joseph Smith was a liar and a fraud. However, according to the situational ethics expressed by Smith, if God commands something, even if it seems to go against the commandments, it is right. The Book of Abraham applies this type of ethics to lying when God instructs Abraham to lie in order to protect Sarai from the Egyptians [Abraham 2:24]. Perhaps Smith believed that God inspired him to make up the Book of Mormon for the greater good.
John Hamer, a Mormon Historian and member of the Community of Christ, presented a case in a recent podcast for Joseph Smith as a pious fraud. Hamer points out that according to the title page, the purpose of the Book of Mormon is to:
- “..show unto the remnant of the house of Israel (the Native Americans) what great things the Lord hath done for their fathers; and that they may know the covenants of the Lord, that they are not cast off forever”
- “And also to the convincing of the Jew and Gentile that Jesus is the Christ, the Eternal God, manifesting himself unto all nations”
John Hamer explained that Joseph Smith and others in his time viewed the Native Americans as heathens. Smith, with the understandable intention of wanting to bring Christ into the lives of the Native Americans, possibility felt justified in creating a story that would help accomplish what he felt was an honorable end. As inspiration for this story, Smith used a popular 19th century myth regarding the origins of the Native Americans. Hamer then pointed out that Smith possibly used the story of Nephi slaying Laban to justify lying about the gold plates. Smith, like Nephi, was willing to go against traditional rules of morality rather than a “whole nation dwindle in unbelief”. Whereas Nephi killed and unarmed, unconscious man because he was prompted to by the spirit, Smith may have felt inspired to lie so that the Native Americans would come to know Christ.[xiii]
While claiming that he had the plates in his possession would clearly be a lie if Smith did not actually possess the plates, it is possible that Smith believed that the book he was translating was nevertheless true. The nature of the Book of Mormon “translation” allows for Joseph Smith to sincerely believe that he was translating an ancient “spiritual” record that was not in his possession. The “translation” process did not require the presence of the plates, which would allegedly be hidden under a blanket or at a different location. According to witnesses of the translation, Smith did not translate the book by looking at the characters on the plates and dictating the meaning to his scribe. Instead, he would look into a special seer stone inside of a hat. He would then see words appear in the stone which he would then dictate to his scribe[xiv]. However, textual problems, doctrinal errors, and 19th centenary cultural references present in the Book of Mormon suggest that the words that appeared in the stone were not completely detached from Smith’s mind and subconscious. Apologists often avoid issues of textual and historical anachronisms by appealing to a “loose” translation of the book. While a “loose” translation may seem untenable if Smith were actually reading words in the stone that came directly from God, allowing for Smith’s mind and understanding to influence what was seen in the stones provides some flexibility. According to Terryl Givens, the translation processes was more than just reading words that appeared in the stone.
“Later, when Cowdery attempted to translate, he failed, and was chastised in a revelation for presuming to merely ask rather than to ‘study it out in [his] mind’ (Doctrine and Covenants 9:7-8). So clearly something more than visual observation was involved.”[xv]
The process described by witnesses does not generally align with traditional definitions of “translate”. A more appropriate description of Smith’s role is that of a clairvoyant. Many shy away from describing the process as clairvoyance for two reasons: magical connotations and the subjectivity associated with internal spiritual manifestations. Acting as a clairvoyant, it is possible that Smith sincerely believed in what he was dictating but felt that others would only believe him if he possessed the physical plates. To help convince others of the truthfulness of the Book of Mormon, Smith may have felt justified lying about his possession of the plates. Convincing the Native Americans and others of the divinity of Jesus Christ through the Book of Mormon may have only seemed possible to Smith if he had an artifact that he could use to convince others that the Book of Mormon existed physically. This would require Smith to construct a prop to represent the hidden plates that he believed existed elsewhere.
The process of translating a book that existed elsewhere (or no longer existed) is similar in concept to the translation of the Book of Moses. While performing his translation of the Bible, Smith deviated significantly from the content of Genesis. The portions of the biblical translation that became known as the Book of Moses introduced story lines that did not have biblical parallels. The process of translating the Book of Moses, unlike the Book of Mormon, did not involve looking into peep stones. According to Orson Pratt, Joseph was no longer reliant on the seer stones to receive revelation.[xvi] Unlike the Book of Mormon, it is possible that Joseph did not feel the need to construct an artifact to convince others of this translation since it was couched as a translation of the Bible.
While Joseph Smith may have felt justified in lying for the greater good, would God be willing to work through his lies or clairvoyant experiences to inspire and instruct others? Some may point to the questionable historicity of Job or Deuteronomy and ask if their historicity is tied to their status as scripture. However, Givens argues that the Book of Mormon’s intimate connection with Smith disallows one from accepting the book as inspired while rejecting Smith’s claims about the gold plates.
“Joseph’s Story [about the gold plates] simply cannot be divorced from the Book of Mormon’s scriptural status. To put it differently, Helaman’s miraculous story of the Stripling Warriors, like the Book of Job to many Christians, could be considered fanciful but inspiring mythology to Mormons. But the stories of the gold plates could not be fanciful mythology and the Book of Mormon still be scripture.”[xvii]
Givens and other apologists seem to assume that God would not be willing to impart inspiration and scriptural guidance through a book that was created under false or delusional pretenses. At a superficial level, the refusal to lend legitimacy to a fraud may seem to align with the characteristics of the God of Mormonism. However, further examinations of the situational ethics presented in the Book of Mormon and Old Testament allows for more flexibility as seen with Nephi slaying Laban.
If God is an ends-justifies-the-means utilitarian it is understandable that God would be willing to inspire a pious fraud so that the eventual followers would not be in spiritual darkness. In that case, it is understandable that an all loving God would not allow the well-meaning lies of one man to get in the way of having meaningful relationships with his children. If people are to be accountable for their own sins and not other’s transgressions, it is logical that God would not punish Smith’s followers for Smith’s deception. Understanding Smith’s ability for great influence and the potential power of myth, God may have decided to use the well intentioned lies of an eccentric man for the greater good. This allows for the possibility that the narrative created by Smith was used as a vehicle to disseminate powerful and inspired truths.
God as a deceiver
If the gold plates did in fact physically exist, there is another possibility; one that many do not like considering, but nevertheless is worth investigation. It is possible that Joseph Smith was telling the truth about his experiences but it was God who was deceiving Smith. This possibility can be jarring and disorienting. If God can lie (and in such big ways), how can we trust anything revealed to us or our leaders? If this is truly a possibility, then orthodox Mormonism loses all of its bearings.
Questioning God’s ability to lie can often lead to questioning God’s other often assumed qualities such as being omniscient, omnipotent, and omnibenevolent. However, a god that is willing to lie for the greater good does not necessarily mean that God is not all loving, all powerful, and all knowing.
As we have seen with Nephi killing Laban rather than a “nation should dwindle and perish in unbelief”, according to Mormonism, God can break the traditional moral code if the ends justify the means. If someone believes the Book of Mormon to be the word of God, then they must also believe in a God that is willing to break previously revealed commandments to perpetuate belief.
Situational ethics do not only occur in the Book of Mormon, but are scattered throughout the Old Testament as well. Some of the instructions in the Mosaic Law seem unethical and immoral by today’s standards. Latter-Day Saints often avoid the difficulties associated with the ethical problems in the Mosaic Law by appealing to the new law under Christ. However, if God has always been perfect and just, and if the Mosiac Law accurately represents God’s dealings with the Israelites, then it seems as if God’s standard of right and wrong does not always follow humankind’s understanding of morality. As Isaiah 55:8 states, “My thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are my ways you ways.” The god that is presented in the Old Testament is one that approves of genocide if it served the greater purpose of providing lands to the Israelites. While I am in no way justifying these acts, it is clear that the God of the Old Testament and by extension the God of Mormonism have a precedence of doing and commanding seemingly horrific acts in the name of good. If one can accept the possibility that man’s limited knowledge disallows us from condemning such acts in the Old Testament, then the same can be said for a god who created a set of plates containing a fictional history for Joseph Smith to find.
In Doctrine and Covenants 19:6-7 the Lord explains why he uses the phase “endless torment” when in fact there is an end to the punishment and torment given to sinners who do not repent in LDS theology.
“Nevertheless, it is not written that there shall be no end to this torment, but it is written endless torment. Again, it is written eternal damnation; wherefore it is more express than other scriptures, that it might work upon the hearts of the children of men, altogether for my name’s glory.”
The justification provided for God’s use of the term “endless torment” reveals that the god within Mormonism is willing to using misleading and deceptive language in order to increase the emotional impact of the consequences of sin. Knowing that fear often inspires influence upon the human heart which often leads to action, God in this circumstance is willing to engage in a form of deception to reach his desired ends. While this tactic may be manipulative, loving parents often engage in similar methods when trying to protect their young children from danger or to encourage them to make good choices. As a young boy, there was a time in which I literally believed that the tip of my finger would be bitten off if picked my nose too much. This was due to a story that my parents told me in a light hearted manner but was nevertheless presented as truth. By my reaction I am sure that my parents where fully aware that I believed this story to be true. However, they likely did not see an ethical dilemma in teaching such stories to their children if it encouraged good behavior. Similar justifications are often used by parents when telling stories about Santa Claus. These stories are usually presented as reality. Parents often reinforce the literalness of these stories by dressing up as Santa Claus, claiming they hear reindeer on the roof, and setting out cookies out for Santa to eat. On its face value, these actions are dishonest and deceptive. By participating in these actions adults are perpetuating falsehoods and taking advantage of the gullible nature of children in order to accomplish the desired ends. However, most parents to not struggle with the ethical questions raised by such actions. Generally, it is seen as a method of encouraging good behavior in a fun and whimsical way that engages the vibrant imagination of children. The Santa Claus narrative demonstrates the power of myth, even if the myth’s only basis in reality is on a metaphorical level. Parents often cherish the beliefs they once had in Santa Claus and the meaning that the myth provided them as young children.
Likewise, according to Mormon theology, humans are literally the children of God. The intelligence and understanding of an omniscience god would surpass the mental capacities of humankind much like a human parent’s capacity of understanding is on a completely different level than that of a child. People often assume that as children grow into adults they become too rational and lose their ability to believe in “silly” myths such as Santa Claus. However, it seems as if humankind is hardwired for belief. While people may abandon the Santa Claus myth as they move into adolescence, mythical beliefs often take on different forms and increase in complexity. With this in mind, it is may be that God is willing to use non historical myths and present them as reality in order to inspire humankind.
While being deceptive about the Book of Mormon may seem like a convoluted way of inspiring humans, it is possible that God knew how productive Mormonism would become and he was willing to create a myth and present it as reality for the greater good. God’s foresight may have shown that the Book of Mormon would make culturally and geographically distant stories about Christ more personal and relevant to the inhabitants of the Americas.
The Power of the Book of Mormon rests in its historical claims
Critics of the Inspired Fiction theory point out that the Book of Mormon treats itself as historical and much of the power of the book comes from the knowledge gain from its historical claims. Steven Smoot explains that “In the case of the Book of Mormon, the theological power of the text comes from its insistence that what it describes actually happened.”[xviii] However, this objection seems to miss the point of those who subscribe to the Inspired Fiction theory. Many proponents of the Inspired Fiction theory would agree that if the book was actually historical, then its historical assertions would carry much more weight. However, since they do not subscribe to the book as historical, the power and inspiration they find in the book must come from the strength of its ideas and ethical expositions.
The Eleven Witnesses
Another criticism of the Inspired Fiction theory is that it would also require the Eleven Witnesses if the Book of Mormon to be liars. However, if one allows for the possibility of a god that is willing to lie for the greater good or that the plates were merely used as physical catalysts for an inspired myth, then the testimonies of the witnesses do not threaten the Inspired Fiction theory. On the other hand, if a proponent of the Inspired Fiction theory believes that Joseph Smith was either delusional or lying about physical plates, the witnesses present a significant obstacle.
Critics of the witnesses’ testimonies point out that the witnesses did not write the testimonies themselves, they all seemed to share Joseph Smith’s magical worldview, they all had close ties with the Smith family, some had financial gains tied to the success of the book, and they seemed gullible and eager to believe. For some, these reasons are enough to be skeptical about the witnesses’ testimonies. While the witnessing procedures may seem questionable to some, there is little evidence that suggests that the witnesses ever refuted their experiences, even though many of the witnesses eventually believed that Joseph Smith was a fallen prophet.[xix] If Joseph Smith was delusional or lying about the plates, the eleven witnesses did not seem to realize it. It is possible that some of the witnesses were willing to stretch the truth because they believed the plates existed “spiritually” or because they may have believed that the ends justify the means. However, it is difficult to assume that all of the witnesses were “in on it”. As more people are involved in a conspiracy, the ability to keep the story straight becomes exponentially more difficult. With all of the excommunications and dissent eventually experienced by the witnesses, there were more than enough opportunities for accusations of Smith lying about the plates to occur. This seems to suggest that at the very least, the Eleven Witnesses believed, to some extent, what their testimonies claimed.
Those who subscribe to the Inspired Fiction theory and believe that there were no gold plates often explain the Three and Eight Witnesses’ experiences separately. The visionary nature of the Three Witnesses’ experience allows critics such as Dan Vogal to suggest that the experience was spiritual in nature and not physical and therefore “internal and subjective”. While many recollections of the Three Witnesses suggest that the experience was physical, according to some recollections, Martin Harris would often describe seeing the plates with his “spiritual eyes”. [xx] Vogal further suggests that Joseph’s strong power of suggestion, mixed with the tendency of those with wild imaginations to coagulate, created a unique group of people with inclinations to believe the supernatural. This group of people may have been willing to believe that what their imaginations produced under the direction of a charismatic leader was in fact real. Each of the Three Witnesses had a history of visionary experiences prior to their encounter with the plates and may have been selected as witnesses for their visionary qualities.[xxi] John Hamer points out that 1832 Kingdoms of Glory vision indicates how the power of suggestion and the willingness to believe can produce vivid spiritual experiences that are not physically occurring. [xxii] Elder Philo Dibble recounted that during this event:
Joseph would, at intervals, say: “What do I see?” as one might say while looking out the window and beholding what all in the room could not see. Then he would relate what he had seen or what he was looking at. Then Sidney replied, “I see the same.” Presently Sidney would say “what do I see?” and would repeat what he had seen or was seeing, and Joseph would reply, “I see the same.”[xxiii]
Many believing Latter-day Saints would agree that the Kirkland experience was of a spiritual, not physical, nature. Likewise, the experience of the Three Witnesses allows some to believe that it was an internal visionary experience. This would provide some level of subjectivity and much more flexibility in interpretation than a purely physical experience with the gold plates.
While the somewhat spiritual nature of the Three Witnesses may allow some to dismiss the physicality of their claims, the accounts of the Eight Witnesses describe a more physical experience. However, many critics do not see a need to “spiritualize” the experience of the Eight Witnesses. It is possible that Smith constructed a prop out of available materials. As the Kinderhook Plates and Book of the Law of the Lord later demonstrated, with a little bit of creativity it was possible to construct metal plates and forge ancient looking writing with the tools available in rural 19th century America. If Joseph did construct an artifact, it is understandable why only a few were allowed to see the plates. As more people would see the prop, the likelihood of someone discovering problems with the prop’s antiquity would increase. Dan Vogal alternatively proposes that the Eight Witnesses may have seen the plates in a visionary manner similar to that of the Three Witnesses and felt the constructed plates with their hands as they were concealed in a box or under a cloth.[xxiv]
The Inspired Fiction theory is incompatible with the LDS Church’s central claims
Theology that is unique to the LDS Church is largely independent of the Book of Mormon’s content. As pointed out previously, the theology presented in the Book of Mormon was not used to outline or develop unique LDS doctrines such as eternal marriage, baptisms for the dead, the pre-existence, the endowment, the Aaronic and Melchizedek priesthoods, and the degrees of glory[xxv]. While some Book of Mormon theology such as non-infant baptisms and the necessity of the fall were adopted by the early Church, those teachings are not uniquely Mormon and do not depend on the historicity of the book to be true. Terryl Givens points out that throughout Mormon history the Book of Mormon has been used for “its role as a sacred sign rather than its function as persuasive theology.”[xxvi] To the orthodox within the LDS Church, the value of a historical Book of Mormon is not so much in it theological expositions but in the book’s proof of the restoration. The book’s “keystone” status is less related to its content and more related to the implications of its miraculous origins which are used to establish Joseph Smith’s claims of exclusivity and authority.
The title of Stephen Smoot’s article refuting the Inspired Fiction theory, “The Imperative for a Historical Book of Mormon”, succinctly expresses the thesis of his article and the general problem that many apologists have with the Inspired Fiction theory. Namely, in order to make the Inspired Fiction theory work, a major deconstruction of many core LDS beliefs is required. I would, however, suggest one change to this thesis. A historical Book of Mormon is imperative to orthodoxy within the LDS church. The reality is that it is difficult to view the LDS Church through the orthodox lens while subscribing to the Inspired Fiction theory. If the book is not historical, then the literal claims and exclusive authority that orthodox Mormonism has tied itself to are largely undermined and fall apart. Orthodox LDS Mormonism in its current form is literalistic about its historical and theological claims. In order to believe in the Inspired Fiction theory, Mormonism has to be reconstructed with universalistic flavors and nuanced metaphorical views of scripture. Traditional understandings of authority and prophethood would have to be reinterpreted in ways that allow for more human error and influence. God’s character would have to be viewed as one that is less concerned with the historical accuracy of the religious stories in Mormonism and more concerned with the greater principles at which the stories point. While many who no longer believe in the historical Book of Mormon do not think that the book is robust enough to be compelling without its literal claims, those who see the book as inspired fiction find enough value within the Book of Mormon outside of its historical claims to still see the fingerprints of the divine.
Indeed the conflict between orthodoxy and the Inspired Fiction theory is very real. Because some level of orthodoxy deconstruction is needed to believe in the Inspired Fiction theory, it is understandable why the LDS Church does not promote or encourage non literal views of Book of Mormon historicity. However it may be more productive from an orthodox LDS perspective to avoid pronouncing that it is unacceptable for Latter-day Saint to subscribe to the Inspired Fiction theory. Those who subscribe to this theory have generally already concluded that the Book of Mormon is not historical. To delegitimize their reinterpretation of Mormonism by saying their views are unacceptable as an effort to promote orthodoxy more often than not pushes those who are scrambling to stay within the Church out of the fold. While the Inspired Fiction theory should be open to criticism, apologists should be careful when assuming that their view on historicity is only acceptable way to interpret Mormonism.
The possibilities for an inspired non historical Book of Mormon often transcend the assumptions made by apologists and critics. A god who is willing to work within a culture’s myths, even those that were created under false pretenses, is understandable if one believes that God’s desire to inspire humankind exceeds God’s distaste for the questionable origins of the myths. Furthermore, if one believes that “what is wrong in one circumstance may be right in another” then this allows for the possibility that God may be willing to bend the rules of traditional morality to participate in the creation of a myth that could be used as a vehicle for inspiration. While the possibilities for the Inspired Fiction theory are numerous, the literal nature of orthodox LDS beliefs largely requires those who believe in a non-historical Book of Mormon to reconstruct their interpretation of Mormonism and scripture. Lastly, labeling the Inspired Fiction theory as unacceptable is counterproductive for the apologist. Deeming the reconstructed faith of those who are unable to believe in the historicity of the Book of Mormon as unacceptable does little to convince people to believe once again in a historical Book of Mormon. Instead, it has the unintended consequence of dismissing those with unorthodox views from the fold.
[i] Jeffrey R. Holland, “A Standard unto My People,” CES Book of Mormon Symposium (1994), BYU Marriott Center.
[ii] Stephen O. Smoot , “The Imperative for a Historical Book of Mormon,” The Interpreter, Retrieved Jan 21, 2014, from Interpreter: http://www.mormoninterpreter.com/the-imperative-for-a-historical-book-of-mormon/
[iii]“God’s Love for All Mankind,” First Presidency Statement, (1978, Feb. 15).
[iv] B.H. Roberts, Defense of the Faith and the Saints (Salt Lake City, UT: Deseret News, 1994), 512-513. [empasis mine]
[v] For a brief overview of the Catalyst theory see Kevin Barney’s post at http://bycommonconsent.com/2013/06/27/the-book-of-abraham/
[vi] In a 2012 BBC interview, Elder Jeffery R. Holland responded to criticisms of the Book of Abraham translations by saying “…that what got translated, got translated into the word of God. The vehicle for that —- I do not understand.” See Jeffery R Holland, Interviewed by John Sweeney, This World, BBC Two (2012, Mar. 27).
[vii] Blake Ostler, “The Book of Mormon as a Modern Expansion of an Ancient Source,” Dialogue 20:1 (Spring 1987) 66-123.
[viii] In an interview with Anthony Metcalf, Martin Harris described the translation experience by saying “I never saw the golden plates, only in a visionary or entranced state. I wrote a great deal of the Book of Mormon myself, as Joseph Smith translated or spelled the words out in English. Sometimes the plates would be on a table in the room in which Smith did the translating, covered over with a cloth. I was told by Smith that God would strike him dead if he attempted to look at them, and I believed it.” See Anthony Metcalf, Ten Years Before the Mast, n.d., microfilm copy, p. 70-71.
[ix] Terryl Givens, By the Hand of Mormon: The American Scripture that Launched a New World Religion (New York, N.Y.: Oxford University Press, 2002), 85.
[x] Charles R. Harrell, This is My Doctrine: The Development of Mormon Theology (Greg Kofford Books, 2011), 111.
[xi] Dallin H. Oaks, “Gospel Teachings About Lying,” BYU Fireside Address, 12 September 1993. Durring this address Elder Dallin H. Oaks stated, “The whole experience with polygamy was a fertile field for deception. It is not difficult for historians to quote LDS leaders and members in statements justifying, denying, or deploring deception in furtherance of this religious practice.” While Oaks made it clear in this address that he is not seeking to justify lying, he does point out that there are ambiguities when competing morals imperatives are at play. Ultimately, Oaks said that he will withhold judgment of LDS leaders and members who felt the need to lie about polygamy.[xii]
[xii] Sangamo Journal (1842, Aug 19). While the authenticity of this passage is debated, the situational ethics presented are generally accepted as accurately representing Joseph Smith’s views by both faithful and antagonistic sources.
[xiii] Interview with John Hamer, “Who Wrote the Book of Mormon – Part 1,” Infants on Thrones (2013, Sept 30), http://infantsonthrones.com/who-wrote-the-book-of-mormon-part-1/
[xiv]“Book of Mormon Translation” Gospel Topics (2013, Feb 1), accessed 2/16/2014, http://www.lds.org/topics/book-of-mormon-translation?lang=eng#26
[xv] Givens, By the Hand of Mormon, 32.
[xvi] Richard Bushman, Joseph Smith: Rough Stone Rolling (New York, N.Y.: Alfred A. Knopf, 2005), 142.
[xvii] Givens, By the Hand of Mormon, 178.
[xviii] Smoot, “The Imperative for a Historical Book of Mormon.”
[xix] Richard Lloyd Anderson, Investigating the Book of Mormon Witnesses (Salt Lake City, Utah: Deseret Book, 1981), 60, 74, 118, 129-133, 146-148. See also Richard Lloyd Anderson, “Attempts to Redefine the Experience of the Eight Witnesses”, Journal of Book of Mormon Studies, 14/1 (205)[xx] Dan Vogal, “The Validity of the Witness’s Testimonies,”
[xx] Dan Vogal, “The Validity of the Witness’s Testimonies,” American Apocrypha: Essays on the Book of Mormon, ed. Dan Vogel and Brent Lee Metcalfe (Salt Lake City, Utah: Signature Books, 2002), 86-90.
[xxi] Vogal, “The Validity of the Witness’s Testimonies,” 91-97.
[xxii] John Hamer, “Who Wrote the Book of Mormon – Part 1.”
[xxiii] Philo Dibble, “Recollections of the Prophet. Joseph Smith,” Juvenile Instructor 27 (1892, May 1), 303-304.
[xxiv] Vogal, “The Validity of the Witness’s Testimonies,” 103-105
[xxv] Harrell, thr Givens, By the Hand of Mormon, eternal marriage: 20-1, 318. baptisms for the dead: 360-1. The endowment 310-2, preexistence: 207-8, degrees of glory: 480-9. Priesthood: 381-3
[xxvi] Givens, By the Hand of Mormon, 65