Wednesday, 11 June 2014

Joseph Smith and the Book of Mormon - Part 1

"....[S]he saw that from this man's brain issued phantoms like pigeons.  They were neither Red Indians nor Israelites, yet they had something of each in their bearing.  And these poured like smoke from the head of this little man.  In his hand was a book, and he held it over his head.  And the book itself was guarded by an angelic figure whose face was extraordinarily stern and unbeautiful, but who scattered with wide hands the wealth of life, children, and corn, and gold.  And behind all these things was a great multitude; and about them were the symbolic forms of exile and death and every persecution, and the hideous laughter of triumphant enemies.  All this seemed to weigh heavily upon the little man that had created it; Iliel thought that he was seeking incarnation for the sake of its forgetfulness.  Yet the light in his eyes was so pure and noble and magnetic that it might have been that he saw in a new birth the chance to repair his error."

Such was the legendary occultist Aleister Crowley's fictionalised depiction of Joseph Smith, the founding prophet of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (the LDS or Mormon Church).  Smith is not the only prophet that America has given the world - Mary Baker Eddy, Edgar Cayce and L. Ron Hubbard are other examples.  But he is probably the most influential.

Assessments of Smith's life and work naturally vary.  For some, he was a true prophet, a seer and a revelator.  Mormons alone may believe this - it is a thesis argued with flair and scholarly erudition by the Mormon historian Richard Bushman in his monumental biography Joseph Smith: Rough Stone Rolling.  For others, the obvious alternatives are that Smith was a con man or that he suffered from psychiatric delusions.  The con man thesis is maintained by (amongst others) Grant Palmer, a former Mormon educator whose book An Insider's View of Mormon Origins ultimately led to him being forced out of the Church.  A more interesting thesis is that yes, he was a con man, but he was a con man who believed, or came to believe, his own con.  This interpretation of Smith's life can be traced back to his first scholarly biographer, Fawn Brodie, whose No Man Knows my History was published in 1945.  A version of it is found more recently in Dan Vogel's large and impressive study Joseph Smith: The Making of a Prophet.


Joseph Smith Jr (1805-1844) was a farm boy who grew up in upstate New York.  Early 19th century New England was an unfamiliar cultural world, a landscape haunted by gods and demons.  Conventional religion was strong, with repeated evangelical revivals of the classic American kind.  There was a constituency for apocalyptic, end-times beliefs, and for visions, voices and revelations like those experienced by the New Testament church.  These sentiments coexisted with popular occult-type beliefs in spirits, clairvoyance and divination.  Some people believed, for example, that there were stashes of buried treasure hidden beneath the earth, guarded by spirits, which could be found by psychic means.  The historian Jan Shipps wrote in her seminal 1974 article "The Prophet Puzzle":
As guides, contemporaries might follow Andrew Jackson Davis, the "Poughkeepsie Seer," and the amazing Fox Sisters into Spiritualism, or William Miller into Millennialism; they could make a more total commitment and move to Oneida to search for Perfection with John Humphrey Noyes; they could join the Shakers at New Lebanon or the Community of the Publik Universal Friend at Jerusalem in Yates County – or any of a host of lesser known groups that sought God with creeds embracing vegetarianism, sexual abstinence, communism, complex marriage, or some other equally esoteric doctrine.
Smith's family was religious, if not necessarily orthodox.  Even Mormons don't bother to deny that they were involved in folk magic and clairvoyant treasure-hunting.  Smith's father had prophetic dreams, one of which later reappeared in the Book of Mormon.  It is not clear how religiously observant Smith himself was as a child and a young man.  We know that he dabbled with Methodism, although he was a little fonder of alcohol than a good Methodist should be.  In adult life, he claimed that he had had a visitation from Jesus Christ as a teenager while praying in the woods.  Mormons refer to this as the "First Vision".  The story itself is actually relatively unremarkable - it was not uncommon for young men in Smith's day to go off to the woods and experience some kind of purported spiritual epiphany.  However, Smith only began to talk on the record about this experience years later, and he kept changing and embellishing his story.  So it is difficult to know what, if anything, really happened.

What is not in doubt is that Smith was heavily involved in less conventional spiritual practices.  He claimed to have a psychic gift for treasure-hunting, and he became a leader among the local money-diggers.  The accounts of this part of his life have an odour of dishonesty and fraud; at one point, his unorthodox activities landed him in court as a "disorderly person".  At any rate, he never found any treasure.  He had two "seer stones" as an aid to divination; he later used one of them to produce the Book of Mormon.

At some point, Smith began to move away from his money-digging activities and to talk about another sort of treasure guarded by a different kind of spirit - a book made of gold plates which contained an ancient scriptural text, guarded by an angel called Moroni.  Smith claimed that the plates were located in a nearby hill which was already rumoured to house buried treasure.  He began to tell this story publicly from around 1827, although there are indications that he had told it to his family and associates some time before that.

Smith duly appeared on the scene with a mysterious heavy metallic object.  He said that this was the book of gold plates, although he showed some reluctance in letting people see it in an uncovered state.  In order to deal with the obvious objections, he obtained statements from 11 witnesses testifying that they had personally seen the plates.  This testimony is problematic.  The problems arise not only from the fact that the witnesses were comprised of a close-knit group of Smith's own relatives and associates.  They are also engendered by the fact that the individuals concerned emerged from the same occultic, folk-magical subculture as Smith; and there is evidence that they fancied that they saw the plates with spiritual rather than physical eyes.

The gold plates became the Book of Mormon - a purported history of the ancient inhabitants of the American continent.  As noted, Smith produced the text of his magnum opus by looking into his seer stone, which he claimed allowed him to translate the "Reformed Egyptian" characters on the plates.  The translation process did not go entirely smoothly.  At one point, he lent the first 116 pages of the manuscript to Martin Harris, a local farmer and financial backer.  It seems that someone stole the pages from Harris in an attempt to prove that Smith would not be able to re-translate the same material.  Smith was distraught, and even seems to have briefly turned back to the Methodist Church.  In due course, however, he bounced back with a solution - he would replace the lost 116 pages not with a re-translation of the same text, but with a translation of a different, more spiritual part of the plates.


Theologically, Smith started out relatively conservative.  His first published prophetic revelations, which date from 1829-31, were collected into a "Book of Commandments".  The theology of the Book of Commandments is still pretty close to that of contemporary Evangelical Protestantism, albeit with a somewhat apocalyptic bent, emphasising the coming end of the world.

As a book of scripture, the content of the Book of Commandments is quite straightforward.  It is a body of direct revelations from God, a kind of American Qur'an.  The prose style is consistent throughout and very similar to that of the Book of Mormon; it is written in King James-type language which borrows heavily from biblical idioms.  Smith, however, was less stylistically accomplished than the biblical writers and James I's translators, and the volume is accordingly rather dull.  Interestingly, one of the revelations purports to be a translation of a parchment written by Jesus' apostle St John.  Smith was always keen on translations.

The Book of Commandments was republished in 1835 as the "Doctrine & Covenants".  This remains to this day one of the canonised scriptures of the LDS Church.  Already, Smith had changed a significant part of the content to keep pace with his rapidly evolving theological ideas.


The Book of Mormon too was essentially conservative; it clearly bears the stamp of the Evangelical Protestantism of 1820s America.  It is a notorious fact that the most distinctive and characteristic elements of Mormon theology are not found within its pages - indeed, they are contradicted by it.  The BoM was an early work of Smith, and his theological ideas evolved considerably in the ensuing years.  The BoM was his With the Beatles; his White Album was not to come until much later.  In stark contrast to later developments, the Book prohibited polygamy, denounced something that sounds like Freemasonry, and preached a mainstream Protestant doctrine of salvation combined with a particularly strict form of monotheism known as modalism (the modalist passages in the BoM were edited in later printings of the work).

The BoM as a whole is strikingly anachronistic.  It claims to describe the life and times of two American civilisations, the virtuous Nephites and the evil Lamanites, both of which originated from a group of Jews who sailed to America from Jerusalem in 600 BC (it also describes, much more briefly, two earlier civilisations which had migrated to America from the Middle East thousands of years previously).  Smith claimed that the Lamanites, who ended up exterminating the Nephites, were the ancestors of the modern-day American Indians.  Now, the BoM narrative is inconsistent with what is known of early American societies, but it does fit suspiciously well with Smith's own 19th century cultural context, even to the extent that it engages with contemporary religious debates and social issues such as concerns about Freemasonry.  To believe in the Book of Mormon is to believe that ancient America was inhabited by Semitic peoples who adhered to Protestant Christianity and knew the details of the life of Jesus Christ, down to his name and the exact year of his birth, in the sixth century BC.  They also knew about the voyage of Christopher Columbus, the American Revolution and the life of Joseph Smith himself.

Precisely how the Book of Mormon was produced remains unclear.  We can safely dismiss the idea that it was a genuine ancient text which Smith miraculously translated.  Recent research suggests that the book was influenced by other contemporary works which were written in a pseudo-biblical style.  In particular, computer analysis has identified striking stylistic similarities with such a book entitled The Late War Between the United States and Great Britain, which seems to have been used as a school textbook in New York in the 1820s.  One popular theory is that the BoM was passed to Smith by an eccentric clergyman called Sidney Rigdon (one of Smith's earliest followers), who had worked it up from an earlier unpublished novel by one Solomon Spalding.  There are some interesting pieces of evidence which point in this direction.  It is, however, no more than a theory, and most scholars are unpersuaded by it.

It is likely that the BoM was written by Smith himself.  It has just the naivety that one would expect from a twentysomething's first novel, as critics have repeatedly noted (and not just critics - a senior Mormon churchman, B.H.Roberts, wrote a private critique of the BoM in the same vein).  The plots are improbable and repetitive.  The characterisation is thin.  There is a taste for extravagance, as shown in a highly affected narrative of the coming of the risen Christ to America.  As noted, the historical knowledge is out of whack, but then no-one really knew much about the ancient history of the Americas in the 1820s, and lots of cleverer people than Smith thought that the American Indians really were descended from the ancient Israelites.

The shortcomings of the Book of Mormon have been recognised ever since its publication.  Some of the very earliest reviews of the work put forward arguments against its authenticity which still remain persuasive today (see, for example, herehere and here).  Leaving aside its religious message, it is not generally regarded in the secular world as a great piece of literature.  Eduard Meyer, the first world-class scholar to make a study of Mormonism, commented in his Ursprung und Geschichte der Mormonen (1912) that no-one but a believer could read the whole thing through.  Mark Twain famously called it "chroloform in print".  This may be why the book's purported ancient authors make a point of admitting and apologising for their lack of literary skill.

The book has various other strange quirks.  It accepts the Copernican model of the cosmos, which was only formulated in the 16th century.  It deals with distinctive pet concerns of Smith, such as miraculous translation and treasure-hunting lore.  Sometimes, a statement is followed immediately by an attempted explanation or justification in a manner which suggests that the text was dictated orally in a continuous stream (this is consistent with eyewitness accounts of Smith's "translation" process).  The text which Smith produced to make up the missing 116 pages is particularly suspicious.  It drags noticeably, and there are signs that the writer got increasingly bored and lacking in inspiration as he went along, even to the extent of incorporating extended quotations from the KJV translation of the book of Isaiah to fill up the space.  These quotations are acknowledged as such, but they include material which the Book of Mormon characters could not possibly have known about because it was composed back home in the Middle East only after the migration to America.

Orthodox Mormons would naturally dispute all of this (although some liberal Mormons are happy to regard the BoM as "inspired fiction").  Mormon scholars argue that the book is a work of considerable literary complexity, as well as possessing great spiritual power; these apologetics are strikingly similar to those used by Muslims to validate the Qur'an.  A whole industry of Book of Mormon scholarship, both professional and amateur, has grown up.  Some of this work is purely defensive, seeking to fend off hostile attacks on the BoM.  For example, research showing that the American Indians do not have Jewish DNA is countered with arguments that the Lamanites only formed one small element of the Indians' ancestry and that they only lived in a small area of Central America.  Other scholarship is more adventurous.  A succession of Mormon academics have sought to prove that the Book of Mormon has genuine parallels with ancient Semitic and Mesoamerican language and culture.  The patron saint of this approach was the late Prof. Hugh Nibley of Brigham Young University in Utah, who assiduously sought out endless parallels between Smith's work and genuine ancient texts.

Such work is remarkable for its industry and ingenuity.  For a non-Mormon, it teaches several lessons which have implications far beyond the boundaries of Mormon studies:
  • First, there is the rather banal point that even very clever men and women like Hugh Nibley can believe peculiar and unlikely things, to the extent of basing their lives and careers upon them.  This ought to lead us to some perhaps disturbing reflections on the limitations of the human intellect.
  • Second, faith-based Book of Mormon scholarship provides a striking illustration of how open to interpretation - and over-interpretation - any lengthy work of literature is.  The non-Mormon might be tempted to mock Mormon scholars for finding power and complexity in a second-rate piece of 19th century fiction.  He might pause, however, to reflect on how his own personal and cultural blind-spots might be affecting his own responses to literary texts, both sacred and secular.
  • Finally, the ingenious attempts to link aspects of the BoM to the evidential record from the ancient world serve as a valuable reminder of how conjectural the whole business of ancient history and archaeology is.  The very fact that Mormon scholars are even able to play this game - and to do so with a degree of plausibility - should make mainstream ancient historians careful about placing too much faith in their own attempts to reconstruct the past.

To be continued....