On November 1, 2016, Tad Callister, general president of the Sunday School and former General Authority, delivered a BYU Devotional entitled The Book of Mormon: Man-Made or God-Given? The talk is somewhat unique among recent addresses by general officers of the Church in that it addresses in scholarly fashion1 various theories about the creation of the Book of Mormon. Callister argues against these theories and then offers counter-evidence and argumentation supporting the orthodox LDS narrative. Shortly after, he gave a highly condensed and slightly modified version of the talk in general conference.2 More recently, he published a book on the topic, A Case for the Book of Mormon.
Although some responses were made to his conference address, very partial responses have been made to his book,3 and some responses have addressed portions of his devotional, none have yet responded to his arguments in full. Given that Callister carefully and emphatically lays out a case in defense of the orthodox LDS position, and given his status as a general officer of the Church and the forum where the address was delivered, it seems appropriate to offer up a detailed counter-response to Callister’s core arguments.4
Callister’s devotional is quoted in full except for the omission of a few relatively small chunks of text that are tangential to his primary thesis. Callister’s headings are duplicated below to help orient the reader.
To easily distinguish Callister’s voice from other block quotations and orient the reader, all Callister quotes are colored red and prefaced “[:
The Book of Mormon is the Keystone of our Religion (“Keystone”)
[Keystone:1–2] … Because the Book of Mormon is “the keystone of our religion,” as described by Joseph Smith, the Church rises or falls on the truth of it. (emphasis added)
[Keystone:3] As a result, if the Book of Mormon can be proved to be man-made, then the Church is man-made. On the other hand, if its origin is God-given, then Joseph Smith was a prophet, and if he was a prophet, then The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is true. It is that simple.
Most members and former members of the LDS Church agree on these points.5
[Keystone:4] Once we have a foundational testimony of the Book of Mormon, then any question or challenge we confront in life, however difficult it may seem, can be approached with faith, not doubt. Why? Because the keystone of our religion—the Book of Mormon and its witness of Jesus Christ—has also become the keystone of our testimony, which keystone holds our testimony securely in place.
Although other kinds of supernatural scenarios could account for the transmission of the Book of Mormon from an ancient source, it seems fairly reasonable to conclude that if the ancient model is correct, then the Book of Mormon is from God and some form of Mormonism is divinely inspired.
Still, because other faiths (e.g., FLDS, AUB) also hold the Book of Mormon to be the word of God, belief in the Book of Mormon alone does not seem sufficient to resolve questions of authority, for instance.
[Keystone:5] Thus the Book of Mormon has become the focal point of attack by many of our critics: disprove the Book of Mormon and you disprove the Church and undermine testimonies.
Although Callister paints work by scholars to support the modern origin theory and demonstrate flaws or contradictions in the ancient model an “attack”, if a person genuinely believes that the data best support a modern origin model, then it does seem reasonable to follow after Orson Pratt (emphasis added):
If, after a rigid examination, it [the Book of Mormon] be found an imposition, it should be extensively published to the world as such; the evidences and arguments upon which the imposture was detected, should be clearly and logically stated, that those who have been sincerely yet unfortunately deceived, may perceive the nature of the deception, and be reclaimed, - and that those who continue to publish the delusion, may be exposed and silenced, not by physical force, neither by persecutions, bare assertions, nor ridicule, but by strong and powerful arguments — by evidences adduced from scripture and reason.
Hence, many of those who research, discuss, and weigh these models—even if they do not subscribe to the ancient origin model—view such research, discussions, and publication an act of good-will.
[Keystone:6a] But this [disproving the historical Book of Mormon] is no easy task—in fact, it is impossible, because the Book of Mormon is true.
Callister is about to present evidence to bolster confidence in the Book of Mormon, but this kind of statement suggests that he began his investigation with a firm conclusion already in mind—“impossible” seems to suggest that no data or evidence could persuade him otherwise. However, what if the modern origin model is well-supported and can explain all or most of the data? Would Callister’s attitude close a person off to fairly evaluating another model?
[Keystone:6b] Eleven witnesses, in addition to Joseph Smith, saw the gold plates
Naturalist explanations for the witnesses’ experiences and statements also seem consistent with the data.6
[Keystone:6c] millions of believers have testified of its truthfulness,
Billions will testify of the truthfulness of the Quran. Millions will testify of the truthfulness of Ellen White’s revelations, millions the truthfulness of Dianetics, and there are many devout followers ready to swear by many other holy books (also consider these video testimonies, this analysis, and these resources on testimony and spiritual experiences).
[Keystone:6d] and the book is readily available for examination
Of course, almost all religious books (such as those mentioned above) are readily available for examination. Still, it should be noted that the Golden Plates, which could far more definitively settle issues of historical provenance, are unavailable for examination.
In two cases—the translation of Egyptian papyri to create the Book of Abraham and the Kinderhook plates—the original material which catalyzed a translation attempt have been recovered and fully analyzed. In both cases, the source material has been shown by LDS scholars to have, at face value, little or nothing to do with the translation Joseph produced.7
[Keystone:6e] Critics must either dismiss the Book of Mormon with a sheepish shrug or produce a viable alternative to Joseph Smith’s account; namely, that he translated it by the gift and power of God.
What follows are a few alternatives which are consistent with much of the historical data. After considering these alternative points of view, the reader is then better equipped to decide which model—modern or ancient—fits the data best.
Argument 1: Joseph Smith, Alleged to be an Ignorant Man, Wrote The Book Of Mormon
[Arg1:1–4] In 1831 a clergyman named Alexander Campbell proposed that Joseph Smith wrote rather than translated the Book of Mormon … the early critics concluded there must be some other explanation for the origin of the Book of Mormon than the unlikely possibility that Joseph wrote it.
As Callister alludes, it has been well over 150 years since anyone has subscribed to the theory that Joseph Smith—as an “ignorant … knave”—authored the Book of Mormon. However, we should not too hastily dismiss the “Joseph composed it” model: Joseph was a fairly educated, religiously and scripturally proficient young man. The model with Joseph as primary author will be considered in greater detail along with argument #5 below.
Argument 2: Someone else wrote it
[Arg2:1] Accordingly, some critics proposed the theory that Joseph Smith conspired with someone who had the education, intelligence, and skills to write the Book of Mormon. One candidate for its authorship was Oliver Cowdery. After all, he was a schoolteacher, a scribe, and later a lawyer. But a major problem arose for the critics: Oliver never claimed to have written any portion of the book; in fact, he testified to the contrary:
[Arg2:2] [Quoting Cowdery] I wrote, with my own pen, the entire Book of Mormon (save a few pages) as it fell from the lips of the Prophet Joseph Smith, as he translated it by the gift and power of God. … That book is true.
Callister’s first argument is problematic: if Oliver Cowdery were a conspirator, then we would expect him to lie about Joseph’s abilities, but if he were one of those fooled during the production of the book, then he would testify that it was true. So, Cowdery’s testimony is not difficult to reconcile with the modern origin hypothesis and is no strong evidence, by itself, for the ancient origin model.
The possibility that Cowdery was a co-conspirator may be considered:
First, Cowdery appears to have used the same kind of story of translation as Joseph used and not the mechanism that other witnesses observed. Several third party observers, including Emma, are adamant that Joseph used his seer-stone in a hat as the primary translation method (employed for nearly the entirety of the Book of Mormon as it exists today), but Cowdery always uses the same phrases as Joseph did and never mentions the seer stone or the hat. For instance, Cowdery testified under oath in 1831 that he “found with the plates, from which he translated his book, two transparent stones, resembling glass, set in silver bows. That by looking through these, he was able to read in English, the reformed Egyptian characters, which were engraved on the plates.” And in an interview in 1830 that the translation was performed with “two transparent stones in the form of spectacles thro which the translator looked on the engraving.” (See Welch for additional examples of Cowdery’s testimony).
Second, before the translation of the Book of Mormon was complete, Oliver Cowdery received a revelation which contained verbiage from the Book of Mormon (see footnotes). From the naturalist perspective, this argues that he was quite familiar with the manuscript of the Book of Mormon, even before its completion, and hence argues for possible collaboration in its creation (beyond that of mere scribe).
Or, if Cowdery were somehow being fooled during the translation process (e.g., Joseph hiding material in his hat or Joseph generating the text ad hoc), then we would expect him to testify of the truthfulness of the book, not necessarily realizing that he had been fooled.
[Arg2:3] Even though Oliver was excommunicated from the Church and it was some years before he returned, he remained true at all times to his testimony, even on his deathbed. As a result, this argument receives little acceptance today.
If Oliver were duped, then we would not expect him to deny his testimony, even if he were excommunicated. On the other hand, if it were a conspiracy, then blowing the whistle on the whole thing would also undermine his own credibility (i.e., he had been part of a conspiracy for many years) and arguably a person has much more to lose in blowing the whistle than they would have to gain. So, perhaps this argument underestimates the cost to a whistleblower who is in on a conspiracy?
[Arg2:4a] Another candidate for authorship of the Book of Mormon was Sidney Rigdon. He was a Protestant minister and theologian. The supreme irony of this argument, however, is that he was converted by the very book he was supposed to have written. Parley P. Pratt, a former member of Rigdon’s congregation, introduced him to the Book of Mormon in October 1830—about six months after the Book of Mormon had already been published.
Were Rigdon and Smith conspiring together to produce the Book of Mormon it would undermine their plan to be seen together, so it is not unreasonable that the two would make efforts to avoid being seen together. Still, a reasonable amount of historical evidence links Rigdon to the Book of Mormon before 1830, so this still seems to be a model worth some consideration even if most modern origin models do not require Rigdon’s involvement.
[Arg2:4b] Do we have any witnesses that this is how Sidney Rigdon was converted? We do. In fact, the historical evidence is compelling.
To be clear, only one of the several modern origin models necessitates Rigdon as co-author. Still, it seems worth examining the evidence Callister presents that argues against Rigdon’s participation. Footnote nine of Callister’s address points to an interview of Emma Smith by her son Joseph Smith III where she states that the Book of Mormon had already been published “some time before” she knew Sidney Rigdon or had heard of him. Is there any reason to doubt her testimony?
If Rigdon were involved, two possibilities might account for her statement about Rigdon: Emma was in on the production of the Book of Mormon (a co-conspirator to some extent), or she was being fooled by Joseph Smith, too (i.e., he kept his association with Rigdon hidden from her until after publication). Problems with Emma’s testimony are detailed here.
[Arg2:5] First, Sidney Rigdon’s daughter, Nancy Rigdon Ellis, was eight years old when Parley P. Pratt and Oliver Cowdery presented her father with a copy of the Book of Mormon in their home. She said that she recalled the event because of the conflict that arose:
[Arg2:6] [Quoting Rigdon’s daughter] I saw them hand [my father] the book, and I am as positive as can be that he never saw it before. He read it and examined it for about an hour and then threw it down and said he did not believe a word in it.
[Arg2:7] Later, however, he did accept the Book of Mormon, joined the Church, and became one of its leaders.
If Rigdon were co-conspiring with Joseph, how would his daughter know what manuscripts Rigdon was reading or working on? First off, she would have been 6 or 7 during the manuscript creation process, and secondly, the manuscript would not have been bound in book form. How many 6 or 7 year olds would know the provenance of unmarked documents their preacher father is reading or writing? Thirdly, if Rigdon were willing to co-conspire to create the Book of Mormon, then it makes sense that he would have wanted to misdirect those around him into thinking he was encountering the book for the first time when it was presented to him. Again, we should note that only one of several modern origin theories requires Rigdon’s involvment.
[Arg2:7] Second, Sidney Rigdon’s son John spoke to his father as he lay on his deathbed: “[Father], you owe it to me and to your family to tell [the truth about the Book of Mormon].”
[Arg2:8] In other words, this is the day of reckoning; be totally honest before you go to the judgment bar.
[Arg2:9] The son then recounted his father’s response: “My father looked at me a moment, raised his hand above his head and slowly said, with tears glistening in his eyes: ‘My son, I can swear before high heaven that what I have told you about the origin of that book is true.’”
[Arg2:10] After this tender moment, the son said, “I believed him.”
[Arg2:11] Later, John joined the Church, and thus another argument fell by the wayside.
This statement must be balanced by the fact that Ridgon instructed his wife to burn all of his writings upon his death. If Rigdon had nothing to hide, then why have his writings all burned? Also, a co-conspirator stands to lose much by admitting to being part of a significant conspiracy, even on their death-bed (we are creatures who seek meaning, so admitting to a lie on one’s deathbed may be seen as undermining the very meaning behind one’s life).
In any case, Rigdon is not an essential component of the model defended by most non-LDS scholars (Joseph composed the book orally), so even if he were definitively shown to have not been part of the creation of the Book of Mormon, that still would not undermine the modern origin theory, generally.
Argument 3: The Book Of Mormon Was Plagiarized From Other Books
[Arg3:1a] Other critics offered a different line of attack; namely, that Joseph Smith plagiarized the Book of Mormon (at least its historical content) from other existing books.
Callister is about to focus discussion on “Manuscript Found”, by Solomon Spaulding, and View of the Hebrews, by Ethan Smith. To be sure, virtually no scholars today assert direct influence between “Manuscript Found” and the Book of Mormon. And neither do scholars assert that the Book of Mormon necessarily was plagiarized from View of the Hebrews—rather they view the book as indicative of the kinds of origin stories about the Native Americans that were flowing through the early 1800s cultural milieu and which seem likely to have informed the creation of the Book of Mormon (directly or indirectly).
In general, most researchers today hypothesize that the Book of Mormon was a remix of ideas (à la compenential creativity theory) from the early 1800s cultural milieu rather than an act of direct plagiarism.
Still, we should not completey ignore the ways in which Book of Mormon data exhibits potential literary dependence on existing works from that time. For instance:
As Joseph was translating the text of the Book of Mormon, he would find himself translating something that he recognized as being roughly similar to texts from the Bible. … Instead of translating Nephi’s quotations of Isaiah, Joseph deferred to the KJV translation of those chapters. This may have been done to save time and to respect the quality of the KJV Bible. … The version of Isaiah 48-52 that we have now in the Book of Mormon is not taken from Nephi’s plates, but rather copied from the KJV Bible for reasons suggested above.
Specific translation errors (or at least idiosyncrasies) preserved in the 1769 King James Bible suggest that the Book of Mormon’s author was consulting the 1769 King James Bible and not an ancient source (which likely would have conveyed the concepts differently).
The inclusion of a chunk of Mark 16 that follows after the 1769 King James bible that had a dubious, later origin in the New Testament tradition. (short-analysis)
[Arg3:1b] One such theory alleged that Joseph Smith copied from the Solomon Spaulding manuscript—an unpublished manuscript written about 1812 by a man named Solomon Spaulding, who had once been a Protestant minister. It is a fictional account of ancient Romans who were sailing for England but were blown off course and landed in North America. When the critics were asked to produce the manuscript for comparison with the Book of Mormon, they conveniently claimed it was lost.
Callister pokes at the convenience of a missing manuscript in older Spaulding theories. However, since we are comparing models, it is worth noting that if Joseph were using the seer stone in the hat process for translation, then it would have been trivial for him to duplicate the lost 116 pages or merely gaze into the stone and have God reveal to him the location of the lost 116 pages so they could be retrieved.
[Arg3:2] However, with the passage of time, the manuscript was found in 1884 by a Mr. L. L. Rice. He found the alleged smoking gun in the personal historical papers of one of the very critics who had claimed the manuscript was lost. Knowing of its alleged connection to the Book of Mormon, Mr. Rice, Mr. James Fairchild, and others (none of whom were members of the LDS Church), reviewed it and concluded, “[We] compared it with the Book of Mormon and could detect no resemblance between the two, in general or in detail.
[Arg3:3] When I was in my twenties, I saw a notice from the Church History Department that stated that a copy of the Solomon Spaulding manuscript could be purchased for a dollar. I ordered a copy and likewise found no meaningful relationship whatsoever between the two books.
Manuscript Story probably did not correspond with “Manuscript Found”. Also, search “Manuscript Found” in Criddle’s essay. Other hypotheses (i.e., the Lucy Code) do not rely on any Spaulding manuscript.
[Arg3:4] With the demise of this argument, critics alleged that the supposed source for the Book of Mormon was another book titled View of the Hebrews, written by Ethan Smith in 1823. This book was an attempt to prove that the Native Americans were descendants of the lost ten tribes of Israel. In essence, the critics claimed that this was the historical basis for the Book of Mormon.
[Arg3:5a] There is a simple test to determine if the Book of Mormon was copied from View of the Hebrews: simply compare the two books and decide for yourself.
No modern scholars argue that the Book of Mormon was “copied from” the View of the Hebrews (VOH), even though most believe the similarities in certain themes are self-evident.
The reader may access View of the Hebrews here. Please note the following similarities (image from pgs. 17–20 of the CES Letter, version 2.0). Regardless of B.H. Roberts’ ultimate conclusion and belief (which is debated by scholars10), the similarities were enough for Roberts to note (emphasis added):
Did Ethan Smith’s View of the Hebrews furnish structural material for Joseph Smith’s Book of Mormon? It has been pointed out in these pages that there are many things in the former book that might well have suggested many major things in the other. Not a few things merely, one or two, or a half dozen, but many; and it is this fact of many things of similarity and the cumulative force of them that makes them so serious a menace to Joseph Smith’s story of the Book of Mormon’s origin. (page 240 of Studies of the Book of Mormon).
[Arg3:5b] With complete academic honesty, B. H. Roberts, one of the leading scholars of the Church, listed some possible parallels between the two books,
Roberts indeed seems to have been academically honest, but it seems fair to note that Church leadership failed to ever publish his work for consideration by the public or Church members. Rather, decades later after Roberts’ family donated his writings to the University of Utah and it was compiled for publication, it is alleged the Church attempted to suppress its publication.11
[Arg3:5c] but he then reached this conclusion: “I am taking the position that our faith is not only unshaken but unshakable in the Book of Mormon, and therefore we can look without fear upon all that can be said against it.” Shortly before his death, Roberts further declared, “Ethan Smith played no part in the formation of the Book of Mormon.”
Regardless of the conclusions Roberts ended his life supporting, the historical record clearly suggests that Roberts struggled with the implications of his studies on potential criticism of the Book of Mormon (see Brigham Madsen’s work here and here).
[Arg3:6a] I too have read View of the Hebrews and the Book of Mormon. Suffice it to say, these two books have totally different objectives and writing styles. For example, the Book of Mormon’s principal focus is to testify of Jesus Christ and His doctrine. Accordingly, the historical setting is not the focus, but it is rather the background music that gives context and emphasis to the doctrine. The principal focus, however, for View of the Hebrews is to historically connect the Native Americans to the ancient Hebrews. In addition, View of the Hebrews is a series of independent quotes and purported evidences to prove its theory. On the other hand, the Book of Mormon is a cohesive narrative—a story of families and prophets who struggled to live God’s word. The purpose and style of these two books is most disparate.
It should be self-evident from the manner in which influence spreads among works of literature that a work may show possible influence from ideas in other books without necessarily duplicating the style, the purpose, or even significant sections of a book that is still highly influential. For instance, numerous literary works are thought to have influenced Tolkien, but few of his books are mere copies of the influential works.
[Arg3:6b] Any honest reader can determine that for himself.
The implication here is that those who still see a potential influence of View of the Hebrews in the Book of Mormon, even though they acknowledge differences in purpose of style, lack honesty. Given the number of similarities and B.H. Roberts’ observations noted above, such insinuation seems hasty.
Argument 4: Joseph Suffered From A Mental Illness
[Arg4:1–5] [essence summarized in the last paragraph directly below]
[Arg4:6] … As you would expect, these arguments that Joseph Smith suffered from a mental illness never got much traction.
Argument 4 is nearly 100 years old at this point, so we both agree it is irrelevant at this point.
Argument 5: Joseph Smith Was A Creative Genius Who, Shaped By His Environment, Wrote The Book Of Mormon
[Arg5:1a] This argument has become a principal one used by many if not most critics today.
Is the Book of Mormon English translation a literal translation of what was on the plates?
It appears once more that the answer is no. The blending in of specific King James phraseology, from the New Testament as well as the Old Testament, tells us otherwise. The Book of Mormon is a creative translation that involves considerable intervention by the translator (or shall we say translators, since we’re in a speculative mood). There is also evidence that the Book of Mormon is a cultural translation. Consider, for instance, the interesting case of the anachronistic use in the Book of Mormon of the noun bar, which consistently refers to the bar of judgment that we will stand in front of (and hold on to) on the day of judgment. The judgment bar is not a biblical or ancient term, but instead dates from medieval times. …
[Arg5:1b] It is a 180-degree turnabout from the premise of earlier critics; namely, that Joseph was illiterate, ignorant, and incapable of writing such a work on his own. In fact, we have come full circle, back to the same argument originally made by Alexander Campbell in 1831, except that now Joseph Smith is considered brilliant rather than ignorant.
How much data was available to Campbell in 1831 when forming his first theory about the creation of the Book of Mormon?
[Arg5:2] Fawn Brodie, perhaps the chief proponent of this argument, opined that Joseph Smith, the unschooled farm boy, was a creative genius who, fashioned by his environment and the influence of local history books and resources, personally wrote the Book of Mormon. Remarkably, Fawn Brodie wrote:
[Arg5:3] Never having written a line of fiction, [Joseph Smith] laid out for himself a task that would have given the most experienced novelist pause. But possibly because of this very inexperience he plunged into the story.
[Arg5:4] When one contemplates that assertion, it is nothing short of mind-boggling. Was it this same inexperience that helped him create hundreds of names, weave them into the most complex set of events, and then thread them together in a harmonious story resplendent with profound doctrinal insights? By her very acknowledgment of Joseph’s inexperience, she has magnified the improbability of Joseph writing this monumental work on his own.
The historical data suggests that Joseph was both intellectually and educationally capable of producing the Book of Mormon. In addition, the timeline for the creation of the Book of Mormon leaves Joseph at least four years of preparation before the actual dictation event. Finally, consider the case of Andrew Jackson Davis and his trance performance of The Principles of Nature (discussed by Bill Davis) and others who were able to perform incredible feats of authorship during automatic writing. These examples suggest that the model having Joseph as primary composer does not necessarily exceed the realm of naturalistic possibility (see Hales for counterarguments).
[Arg5:5a] Nonetheless, others have bought into this argument—lock, stock, and barrel. Why? Because they have nowhere else to go except to admit that Joseph translated the Book of Mormon by the gift and power of God—a place they desperately do not want to go.
This statement overstates the tightness of the case for the orthodox narrative of the coming forth of the Book of Mormon and ignores the strong case for a modern origin (which will be discussed in more depth below). In addition, this assumes that those who reject the Book of Mormon do so for some ulterior motive besides the fact that the Book of Mormon does not seem to them to have been derived from an ancient document. Does Callister reject the authenticity of the Quran, the Bhagavad Gita, Dianetics, The Urantia Book, of The Book of Jaranek out of desperation, even though he likely has no other theory in mind for their creation than that the authors somehow made it up?
[Arg5:5b] These latter critics have added one more ingredient to the mix. Joseph Smith, they said, besides being a genius, was suffering from narcissistic personality disorder or dissociative disorder or depression. Here we are back again to the mental disorder theories that proved so ineffective in the past.
I’m not sure these are especially relevant to this analysis, but it is interesting that others have argued that Ellen White, another visionary in Joseph’s relative time and vicinity, may have also suffered from some similar symptoms. Callister apparently wants us to view these ideas as indicative of desperation, but perhaps they are merely naturalists covering potential explanatory ground. Naturalists seem to have little problem dropping theories if the data poorly support them, and it seems to be to their credit that they are willing to genuinely consider the merit of various possibilities.
[Arg5:6a] In order to account for the history of the Book of Mormon, these critics claim that Joseph must have read or been conversant with a staggering number of books or ideas related to them. In fact, one author has suggested that Joseph may have read or gleaned information from more than thirty books in nearby libraries in order to gather necessary information about the early Americans.
In the emboldened text above, Callister is citing (#27) Vogel’s Indian Origins and the Book of Mormon, but he may have failed to read Vogel’s introduction where he explains how he views the relationship of the various sources with Joseph Smith. Vogel writes (emphasis added):
… For the most part I have explored two broad categories of writings: books motivated by theological issues—as is obviously the case with Ethan Smith’s View of the Hebrews (1823 and 1825)—and those motivated by concerns more antiquarian than religious—such as John Yates’s and Joseph Moulton’s History of the State of New York (1824). I have looked in these sources for arguments, stories, and questions which persisted over time and were thus picked up and repeatedly reworked. I have also explored those sources which reached a broad audience–books reprinted again and again, for example, or excerpted or written about in popular periodicals and newspapers.
I have, of course, tried to include all sources which would have been available in the area where Joseph Smith grew up and later worked. These sources do not prove but merely suggest Joseph’s exposure to the subject. Palmyra, where he grew up, was booming in the 1820s. In 1822 a section of the Erie Canal was completed between Rochester and Utica. The canal, which ran through the north end of the village of Palmyra, increased commerce and attracted many people to the area. Historian Horatio Gates Spafford wrote in 1824 that Palmyra “has long been a place of very considerable business, and is the third in rank in this [western] Country, and increasing rapidly.” With a population of nearly 4,000, Palmyra had its own newspaper, the Palmyra Register, from 1817 to 1823, and the Wayne Sentinel thereafter. Palmyra had its own library after 1823, and nearby Manchester had had one since 1817. Several bookstores in Palmyra and vicinity sold a variety of publications at reasonable prices.
Books, of course, were not the only sources of information. Many things can be learned by word of mouth, what Mormon historian B. H. Roberts once called the fund of “common knowledge” inherited by individuals living in the same cultural setting. Joseph Smith certainly inherited some of his attitudes and beliefs about the Indians from his ancestors–many of them leading citizens in New England’s Puritan community and members of the Congregational church. His maternal grandfather, Solomon Mack, fought against the Indians in the French and Indian Wars. Moreover, Joseph may have learned about Indian origin  problems through popular channels of information such as circuit preachers, traveling lecturers, or community talk circulating in the country store, post office, and other public gathering places.
Vogel’s main point is that these ideas had heavily penetrated the psyche of Joseph Smith’s time and place. To suggest that Joseph must have directly read all of these these books seems to miss the thrust of the argument.
[Arg5:6b] The claim is then made that these books—or discussions of the same in newspapers or conversations—became the basis for the historical narrative in the Book of Mormon.
Callister’s footnote 28 reads:
Joseph Smith referred to View of the Hebrews in Times and Seasons in June 1842 (twelve years after the Book of Mormon was published); see Joseph Smith, “From Priest’s American Antiquities,” Times and Seasons 3, no. 15 (1 June 1842): 814.
The fact that Joseph referred to View of the Hebrews in 1842 merely confirms that these ideas were penetrating that environment. No modern origin theory requires Joseph (or any other potential contributor) to have had direct contact with View of the Hebrews.
[Arg5:7] How might one counter this argument? Here is a list of questions that an honest seeker of truth might raise:
[Arg5:8] • Is there a single reference—just one—in Joseph’s journals or written correspondence suggesting he might have read or had conversations concerning any of these historical sources before translating the Book of Mormon? No.
[Arg5:9] • Is there any evidence he visited the libraries where these books were supposedly located? No.
[Arg5:10] • Did Emma Smith, who was married to him, ever comment that he referred to any of these books before the Book of Mormon was translated? No.
[Arg5:11] • Is there any record that he had any of these books present when he translated the Book of Mormon? No.
Adam Clarke’s Commentary on the Bible was published originally in eight volumes between 1810 and 1826 and had an “extensive circulation”. BYU Scholars recently concluded that Clarke’s commentary was copied from in the creation of Joseph Smith’s Inspired Translation (aka, the JST). We can ask the above questions about Clarke’s commentary, knowing that it was a source used in the production of the JST.
• Is there a single reference—just one—in Joseph’s journals or written correspondence suggesting he might have read or had conversations concerning Clarke’s Commentary before working on the JST? No.12
• Is there any evidence he visited the libraries where Clarke’s commentary was supposedly located? No.
• Did [any … scribe who helped with the JST] ever comment that he referred to Clarke’s commentary before or during the production of the JST? No.
• Is there any record that he had Clarke’s commentary present when he produced the JST? No.
This exercise with Adam Clarke’s commentary and the JST demonstrates that sources may be consulted without leaving the kind of record Callister demands. It suggests that the historical record is sometimes sparse pertaining to what people were reading and consulting and says little about the likelihood that individuals at the time were reading various books and engaging in various discussions on topics of relevance.
The historical record strongly suggests that Palmyra and its immediate vicinity were rich in available literature on the kinds of topics (e.g., indians, war and liberty, and religion) that may have influenced Joseph Smith or other potential authors.
Especially as it pertains to theological matters, we should remember that Joseph Smith himself states that as a young teenager he was attending “their several meetings as often as occasion would permit” and studying the Bible, and then bold enough to converse with the local preachers about religion (“I happened to be in company with one of the Methodist preachers, who was very active in the before mentioned religious excitement; and, conversing with him on the subject of religion”). How much could Joseph have gleaned on the topic of religion had he maintained such a trajectory over the next decade, particularly if he began reading other sources besides the Bible?
[Arg5:12] How many “no”s does it take to expose the critics’ arguments as pure speculation—nothing more than sand castles that come crashing down when the first waves of honest questions appear on the scene.
As outlined, there seem to be some good reasons why “no”s to these questions would not immediately cause an honest investigator to adopt the ancient origin theory.
[Arg5:13a] Do the critics expect us to believe that Joseph searched out and studied all these resources on Native American life; inhaled the related conversations on the topic;
As Vogel has demonstrated, many of these ideas saturated that environment. It seems more unbelievable to suggest that Smith (or other potential authors) somehow remained unexposed to these ideas given their level of saturation.
[Arg5:13b] … winnowed out the irrelevant; organized the remainder into an intricate story involving hundreds of characters, numerous locations, and detailed war strategies; …
As noted before, were Joseph the author, he had at least four years to develop some kind of proto-manuscript. And, a typical feat by human authors is to generate intricate storylines, invent characters and locations, and even war strategies, and much of the Book of Mormon storyline is fairly modular (i.e., many stories and characters begin and end without additional reference).
We also know from Oliver Cowdery’s revelation mentioned above that he (and Joseph) were going back and consulting the manuscript before its completion. It is much easier to maintain consistent characters and story if the developing manuscript were being consulted between sessions.
[Arg5:13c] … and then dictated it with perfect recollection, without any notes whatsoever—no outline, no three-by-five cards, nothing—a fact acknowledged even among the critics?
There are a few ways to deal with the composition event:
- Joseph demonstrated significant oral compositional capability. We know, for instance, that he extemporaneously delivered many of the revelations in the Doctrine and Covenants (consider [D&C 132:7]). The modern origin theory also fits with what seem like extemporaneous material created to account for the lost 116 pages (e.g., Words of Mormon 1:3–9). Finally, most of us were raised to organize our thoughts via writing, so it is difficult to imagine others composing extensive structure primarily in their minds, but this was not an uncommon ability in that era (e.g., regularly demonstrated among preachers).
- Witnesses who observed the translation process may not have been present when sources were being consulted.
- Perhaps Joseph hid notes in his hat, as explained here.
- Cowdery, a schoolteacher, may have been a co-conspirator, as discussed above.
[Arg5:13d] And during it all, no one remembered him going to these libraries, bringing any such books home, …
As discussed with the Adam Clarke commentary and its ubiquitous insertion into the JST, it is clearly possible for sources to be utitilized without mention. In addition, if family members were contributors, they would have good reason to downplay such activities.
Regarless, as we have already demonstrated:
- Palmyra was rich in books.
- Joseph Smith lived in an educationally and religiously rich environment.
- Other potential authors or co-authors (if we look outside of Joseph’s capabilities) were well-equipped with the kind of exposure necessary to write such a book, as discussed above.
So, exposure to such material (e.g., John Smith lectures) may not have been noteworthy in such an environment.
[Arg5:13e] … having any conversations concerning this research, …
In fact, during the four years when Joseph might have been preparing ideas and/or a proto-manuscript, Lucy Smith recalls just such recitals.
[Arg5:13f] … or making any diary entries to the same. …
Joseph did not start writing in a diary until after the publication of the Book of Mormon. In any event, we do not necessarily expect conspirators to chronicle their conspiracy. Finally, as discussed above, we find no similar record of Joseph consulting Clarke’s commentary in the production of the JST, so we do not necessarily require such evidence to have a reasonable expectation that such consultations may have been occurring.
[Arg5:13g] … Where, I ask you, is the hard evidence?
It seems that Joseph was capable of generating scripture ad hoc (e.g., the Book of Abraham, the Book of Moses, and the Doctrine and Covenants), and so we do not necessarily expect to see a trail during the generative process (see this discussion on compenential creativity theory). And, as previously discussed, Joseph consulted and inserted significant material from Clarke’s commentary into the Joseph Smith Translation without leaving a single historical trace of such insertion—we only know that it happened via textual inference.
Hard data also seems inherently difficult to come by for conspiracies because—by definition—those involved in a conspiracy are working to hide and obfuscate data that might expose the fraud. We see a parallel to this in Joseph Smith’s polygamy where he instructs the recipients of a letter to “burn this letter as soon as you read it.” Hence, Joseph was not necessarily adverse to destroying evidence that he wished to hide from others.
Finally—and most importantly—there is ample textual evidence to demonstrate that the Book of Mormon came from the mind of someone in the early 1800s, as will be demonstrated in the next section on doctrine.
Where Did Joseph Get The Doctrine? (“Doctrine”)
[Doctrine:1a] Even if Joseph had obtained historical facts from local libraries or community conversations—for which there is no substantiating evidence—the real issue still remains: Where did he get the deep and expansive doctrine taught in the Book of Mormon—much of which is contrary to the religious beliefs of his time?
The vast majority of the doctrine taught in the Book of Mormon appears to have had close precursors, variants, or a deep foundation in, the theology and thought of the early 1800s (see Book of Mormon parallels to 1800s thought). Specific responses to the doctrines Callister advances below will help demonstrate how these purportedly unique doctrines may be found represented in the early 1800s cultural milieu.
[Doctrine:1b] For example, contemporary Christianity taught that the Fall was a negative, not a positive, step forward, as taught in the Book of Mormon (see 2 Nephi 2).
The concept of felix culpa was widely taught and expressed by many Christian thinkers including Ambrose, Augustine, Aquinas, Wycliffe, Leibniz, and John Milton long before and also closely preceding the time of Joseph Smith.
[Doctrine:2a] Likewise, contrary to contemporary beliefs, the Book of Mormon refers to a premortal existence in Alma 13 (see Alma 13:1–11)
The author of the Book of Mormon refers to the premortal existence in almost exactly the same fashion as preachers from that time.
[Doctrine:2b] … and to a postmortal spirit world in Alma 40 (see Alma 40:11–14).
Matthias Earbery discussed the spirit world using very similar verbiage and reasoning as Alma 40.
[Doctrine:2c] Where did Joseph Smith get these profound doctrinal truths that were in fact contrary to the prevailing doctrinal teachings of his time?
As demonstrated above, the doctrines Callister points to are represented in sermons and literature of the early 1800s. On each of these points, the Book of Mormon reads precisely as if it were produced from that theological milieu.
[Doctrine:2d] Where did he get the stunning sermon on faith in Alma 32?
The doctrine on faith in Alma 32 appears to mostly be an extension of the parable of the sower found in Matthew 13:
Matthew 13:6 And when the sun was up, they were scorched; and because they had no root, they withered away.
Alma 32:38 … and when the heat of the sun cometh and scorcheth it, because it hath no root it withers away, and ye pluck it up and cast it out.
And, if the sermon were of ancient origin, we are left wondering why the author of frequently quotes New Testament verses and phrases but not Old Testament verses and phrases (see book of mormon origins project on Alma 32).
[Doctrine:2e] Or one of the greatest sermons ever recorded in all scripture on the Savior’s Atonement as delivered by King Benjamin (see Mosiah 2–5)?
This sermon is rich with similarities to works of its time. For instance, King Benjamin talks about actual blood coming from Jesus’s pores, but that idea was common in Joseph’s time (see, for instance, A Selection of Hymns and Spiritual Songs. 1817. New York.).
Also, the description King Benjamin gives of Christ’s suffering is similar to other works from the early 1800s. The Book of Wonders, Marvellous and True. 1813. London. states:
I became flesh and blood to dwell with men; and like man I became an infant of days, to be born of the woman. Here I became in all things like man, to suffer temptations, to suffer persecution; to resemble man’s weakness, by hiding myself. All this I have done, to be a judge of the infirmities of man, that 1 might be a judge of what man had to go through, and a clear judge of the different conduct in mankind.
In general, King Benjamin’s speech may be viewed as typical of revival conference speeches from the early 1800s, and it is full of ideas permeating Smith’s milieu.
[Doctrine:2f] Or the allegory of the olive tree with all its complexity and doctrinal richness (see Jacob 5)? When I read that allegory, I have to map it out to follow its intricacies.
The parable of the Olive Tree may be viewed primarily as an amalgamation and embellishment of Romans 11 and Isaiah 5. Paul, in Romans 11, uses an olive tree as a metaphor and Isaiah uses a vinyard. They are similar, but also somewhat distinct, and the slight difference is apparent in Jacob 5—in fact the patchwork is still evident.
Halfway through the parable, the Jacob 5 author shifts from a focus on the olive tree to a focus on the whole vineyard (in Jacob 5:41). As Curt van den Heuvel has pointed out “the break appears at the same point that the Book of Mormon quotes a passage from Isaiah.” From then on, the the author of Jacob 5 “refers exclusively to the ‘fruit of the vineyard’, apparently forgetting that vineyards yield grapes, not olives.” (see Curt van den Heuvel, here, and here).
Consider other possible influences and sources for Jacob 5 discussed here.
[Doctrine:2g] Are we supposed to believe that Joseph Smith just dictated these sermons off the top of his head with no notes whatsoever?
As discussed above, these sermons in the Book of Mormon were drawing upon ideas which were present in that cultural milieu. And, throughout his life, Joseph demonstrated a capacity for extemporaneously delivering rich theological sermons (particularly if we assume Joseph generated the scripture found in the Doctrine and Covenants), so the fact that these occur in the Book of Mormon is consistent with the modern origin hypothesis.
[Doctrine:3] The doctrinal truths taught in the Book of Mormon are overwhelming evidence of its divine authenticity. Nephi prophesied that in our day an exceeding great many would stumble in finding the truth. Why? “Because of the many plain and precious things which have been taken out of the [Bible]” (1 Nephi 13:29). Here are but two examples of plain and precious doctrinal truths that were clarified or restored in the Book of Mormon:
[Doctrine:4] 1. Baptism. Much of the Christian world debates whether or not baptism is essential for salvation; they stumble over this issue. Let me read just one of many scriptures on this subject from the Book of Mormon: “[God] commandeth all men that they must repent, and be baptized in his name, . . . or they cannot be saved in the kingdom of God” (2 Nephi 9:23). Should there be any debate about the necessity of baptism after that scripture? The Book of Mormon makes clear that which is unclear to much of the Christian world.
This kind of clear stance on the necessity of baptism was pronounced in many sects from that time. Here’s one example from New York, 1825 (emphasis added):
Baptism is not required of any who have never heard the Gospel. But those who hear the Gospel preached by them whom Christ has commissioned, viz: his Apostles and their successors to the end of the world, must be baptised with water (unto repentance for the remission of sins) in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost: or they are left without excuse, as having wilfully neglected the first duty incumbent on them as a mark of their obedience.
[Doctrine:5a] The majority of the Christian world embraces sprinkling and pouring as legitimate modes of baptism. The Savior Himself addressed this issue in the Book of Mormon: “Then shall ye immerse them in the water, and come forth again out of the water” (3 Nephi 11:26; emphasis added). What is ambiguous for many is crystal clear in the Book of Mormon.
Whether baptism required immersion was hotly debated at that time. Consider this lengthy exchange from 1805 in Massachussetts.
[Doctrine:5b] Must one be baptized by authority, or is sincerity sufficient?
After a discussion on the evils of infant baptism, Stephen Blanchard, in an letter published in 1817 to Ethan Smith (the congregationalist minister in Hopkinton, NH), states:
There is no doubt, but that the order of the gospel was much perverted in the dark ages; and it is not probable, that, since the reformation, the true apostolic order is restored in any of the Protestant churches. Therefore we may conclude, that the visible church is in an imperfect state.
[Doctrine:5c] Do we make covenants at the time of baptism, and, if so, what are those covenants?
The idea that baptism constituted a covenant was common in that era. For instance, in a work published in Albany, New York in 1815, the Reverend Thomas Gouge taught (pg 470):
Though baptism once administered be not to be repeated, yet the baptismal covenant ought to be renewed.
Consider therefore thy baptismal covenant, and examine thine own heart, whether thou art resolved to stand to that covenant; whether thou find a willingness in thyself to renounce the service of the devil, the world, and the flesh, and to resign up thyself to God and his service: and if this be thy mind in earnest then, renew thy covenant with God.
And whereas there is a two fold covenanting with God,
1. ‘One inward in the soul;’ which consisteth in a sincere closing with God, and hearty devoting ourselves to him and his service.
2. ‘The other outward, with the tongue and hand:’ When having written down thy covenant thou dost with all seriousness and sincerity on thy bended knees, read it as in the presence of God, and then subscribe thy name thereunto. This latter way of express covenanting, I would commend unto you.
And covenants similar to that found in Mosiah 18 were tied to baptism for many early settlers. Bushman writes:
At eighteen Asael was assigned a seat in the meetinghouse, and in 1772 husband and wife owned the convenant. Owning the convenant did not make them full members of the church. One had to show evidence of supernatural grace and have an assurance of salvation before becoming a voting member. Owning the church covenant meant that they believed the doctrines outlined in the covenant and promised to live an upright and moral life. That degree of commitment allowed them to present Jesse, Joseph, and Priscilla for baptism.
[Doctrine:5d] Should infants be baptized?
The idea that infant baptism was an abomination was being discussed widely at that time. For instance, Stephen Blanchard, in a letter to Ethan Smith, the congregationalist minister in Hopkinton NH where Oliver Cowdery may have attended Church, argues:
To me it seems strange, that you can see … absurdities in the Episcopal plan relative to infant baptism and confirmation … and not see, that the doctrine of infant baptism itself is the very foundation of all those inconsistencies … I contend, that no one can have a right to the outward and visible sign, unless he possess the inward and spiritual grace.
And, in the course of his writing on the topic, Blanchard gives an informal bibliography of all those writing against infant baptism at the time:
Without going into the elaborate productions of Dr. Gill against Clarke, Booth’s pedo-baptism examined, Baldwin against Worcester, or Merrill’s seven sermons; if we take a candid survey of Foot’s letters to bishop Hoadly, P. Chapin’s letter to N. Worcester, and Baldwin’s letter to a Friend; we find, these short essays contain the sum of the arguments, and are sufficient to convince every rational and unprejudiced enquirer of the futility of all, that has been said in favor of infant sprinkling And these had been entirely unnecessary, if nothing had been published attempting to establish that, which is not found in the bible.
One additional example: in the introduction to Four Sermons: On the Mode and Subjects of Christian Baptism, published in 1811 in Utica, New York, Joseph Buckminster, a pastor in New Hampshire, wrote to defend infant baptism “at a time when it is not only said, but preached; and not only preached, but printed, that infant baptism is an abomination to the Lord…”
[Doctrine:6] Again and again the Book of Mormon comes to the rescue, giving answers and restoring many plain and precious truths about baptism that were distorted or lost during the Apostasy. How did Joseph Smith know all these answers when the rest of the Christian world was so confused? Because he received them by revelation from God as he translated the Book of Mormon.
As has already been demonstrated, Joseph Smith was immersed in the religious discussions of his day, and perhaps the author of the Book of Mormon merely had strong opinions on the correct mode and manner of baptism just like so many other religious participants of that time? It seems far more striking to think that ancient Israelites, after migrating to the Americans, would have been obssessed with exactly the same doctrinal minutia regarding ordinances like baptism as American settlers in the early 1800s.
[Doctrine:7] 2. What about Christ’s Atonement—the central doctrine of all Christianity? The clarity and expansiveness of this doctrine as taught in the Book of Mormon is beyond honest dispute. The Old and New Testaments have some scattered doctrinal gems on the Atonement (which we greatly appreciate and benefit from), but the Book of Mormon has numerous sermons—entire masterpiece—on the subject. For example:
[Doctrine:8a] 2a. 2 Nephi 2 is a mind-expanding sermon on the relationship between the Fall and Christ’s Atonement.
2 Nephi 2 follows very closely the anti-Pelagian arc of thought among Protestants of his time and echoed a common, positive view of the Fall of Adam and Eve.
Less than three decades from the publication of the Book of Mormon, Darwin would publish The Origin of Species. The theory of evolution and common descent both imply that humans came to be through evolutionary processes. The Book of Mormon deals with the Fall in very literal terms and even suggests that had Adam and Eve remained in the Garden of Eden that they would have had no children and remained in a state of innocence. These two ideas are at some odds.
[Doctrine:8b] While the rest of the Christian world believes that the Fall was a step backward in man’s progress, Lehi taught us the truth—that the Fall coupled with the Atonement is a giant step forward.
As discussed above, the concept of felix culpa was widely taught and expressed by many Christian thinkers preceding the creation of the Book of Mormon
[Doctrine:9] b. 2 Nephi 9:7 introduces for the first time the phrase “an infinite atonement,” revealing the expansiveness, scope, and depth of Christ’s saving power.
The phrase “infinite atonement” was at least somewhat commonplace as were discussions similar to those found in the Book of Mormon on the nature of the atonement.
In Joseph Smith’s day, we see a very mature dialogue on Christian subjects. We have centuries of prior debate on topics such as original sin, free agency, infinite or finite nature of sin, infinite or finite nature of sacrifice of Jesus Christ, depravity of man, predestination, irresistible grace. This discussion came naturally, with arguments being founded in the New Testament, and then added on. Then someone adds on that. Then someone combines a few different theories and adds something unique to it. This is how ideas evolve. We can trace ideas back through time to see the progression. The Book of Mormon is beautiful in the sense that it distills these arguments in a masterful and logical way, taking the best of what was available and adding a few original concepts. But it’s very difficult to assert that these Book of Mormon phrases and ideas could have come anciently and independently, without the body of work of centuries of Christian theologians to build upon.
Here are some good examples of the discussion occuring just previous to the Book of Mormon (see here for more examples):
The inference that you draw from my saying, that “I did not believe an infinite atonement necessary in order for God to be just in the pardon of sin,” I think, wants propriety. If it be my belief that the Son of God is not the eternal infinite God, still I think you have no right to declare it from any thing that I have written to you. You say, “that in order to support” my “favourite system,” I “find it necessary.” How so? If it require an infinite atonement made by an infinite God to save a part of the human family is it necessary to have a finite atonement by a finite person to save the whole? (A Correspondence, by letters, between Samuel C. Loveland, Preacher of the Doctrine of Universal Salvation, and Rev. Joseph Laberee, Pastor of the Congregational Church and Society in Jerico, Vermont. 1818. Windsor, Vermont. pg 51)
I do not consider the necessity of an atonement as arising from the number of sins, but from the nature of them. As the same sun which is necessary to enlighten the present inhabitants of the earth is sufficient to enlighten many millions more; and as the same perfect obedience of Christ which was necessary for the justification of one sinner, is sufficient to justify the millions that are saved; so, I apprehend the same infinite atonement would have been necessary for the salvation of one soul, consistently with justice, as for the salvation of a world. (The Works of the Rev. Andrew Fuller, vol I. 1820. Philadelphi. pg 391)
We maintain, that man is not created in a condition which makes an infinite atonement necessary; nor do we believe that any creature can fail into a condition, from which God may not deliver him, without this rigid expedient. The Christian Pioneer. 1827. Glasgow
But say the advocates of this doctrine, Jesus must be God and have made an infinite atonement for our sins, or our case is hopeless. Why, what need for an infinite atonement? If the sin of one man requires an infinite sacrifice, then there will be needed, just as many infinite atonements as there have been, or shall be sinners in the world; and just as many infinite Gods must become incarnate, and suffer in man’s stead, as there will be sinners saved from infinite and endless wrath!! Moreover if Christ have made an infinite atonement for the satisfaction of Divine justice, why will not all be saved? Will God be unjust to himself? Can he punish himself for no purpose? O ye christians, when will ye admit the understanding God has given you, to vindicate the Divine character from such unhallowed aspersions? A Course of Critical Lectures: Or, Systematical Theology, in Four Parts. John Samuel Thompson. 1825. Rochester, NY
[Doctrine:10a] c. Mosiah 2–5 is King Benjamin’s sermon. It gives insights about the depth of Christ’s suffering …
King Benjamin talks about actual blood coming from Jesus’s pores, but that idea was common in Joseph’s time. Also note that the authenticity of the verses from Luke that seem to imply Jesus sweat blood is contested by scholars today (see Blumell and Ehrman & Plunkett).
[Doctrine:10b] [King Benjamin’s sermon gives insights about] the retroactive as well as prospective nature of Christ’s Atonement …
Discussion on the scope of the atonement seems to have been ever-present during the centuries and decades preceding the publication of the Book of Mormon, as evidenced by and discussed in James Willson’s Historical Sketch of Opinions on the Atonement, published in Philadelphia in 1817.
Consider how Willson discusses the scope of the atonement when referring to Justin Martyr’s writings:
Here the father plainly maintains the doctrine of the atonement. When he asserts that expiation is not now made by the offering of victims, such as were sacrificed under the Jewish economy, and that the object of Christ’s death and sufferings was to make expiation, he must necessarily include the atonement, which is embraced in expiation. He elsewhere * clearly asserts that the curse due to sinners was laid upon Christ. “If therefore,” says he, “God the father of the families of the universe, appointed his son to take upon himself the curse of the whole human family, knowing that crucified and dead, he would raise him up, &c.” The curse is used in this place, by a common figure of speech for the effects of the curse. The expression, “whole human family,” which this, and other fathers use when treating of the atonement, is explained by themselves in other places to mean, that “Christ died sufficiently for all men, and efficiently, for the elect.” This still is an obscure mode of stating their views relative to the extent of the atonement. I understand them to mean; that had God destined the death of Christ for the salvation of every individual of the human family, its value was adequate to such an extensive object; but that however valuable the atonement of Christ may be, yet the elect only will be saved by it, as God has limited its efficiency to them.
[Doctrine:10c] [King Benjamin’s sermon gives insights about] the power of the Atonement to remove our guilt as well as our sins …
The interplay between obedience, devotion and guilt seems to have been a topic of interest at the time. For instance, consider John Gother’s Instructions and Devotions for the Afflicted and Sick (pg 49):
In this one Point consists the Sum of Christian Perfection, to receive whatever happens with a peaceable Mind, as coming from the Hand of God; to cast all our Care on him, because he watches over us, and nothing befalls us but according to his Appointment. In this Will of God is grounded all the Quiet and Peace of a Christian. And tho’ it be Sin from ourselves and not from him, yet in our Repentance ought we to be very careful not to fall into any Anxiety or Disquiet of Mind. We are to be heartily sorry indeed for having offended our God, and even with Tears strive to wash away our Guilt, but this Sorrow must not destroy our inward Peace; we must earnestly beg God’s Mercy, who has permitted us to fall that so we might be sensible of our Weakness, that so we may ever go on with Fear, and not deceive ourselves in taking that to be ours which is only the Gift of God. We must wait with Patience, and a contrite Heart, the Grace of Amendment;for he is our Lord, and will come when he pleases. The faithful and prudent Servant desires nothing, but the Will of his Master; and in every thing that happens he says from his Heart, It is so, Father, because thus it has seemed good to thee: Thy will be done. I am ready to submit to all thy Decrees: Wilt thou that I be in Health, or in Sickness? Wilt thou refresh me with thy Comforts, or cover me with Darkness? Wilt thou that I abound, or be in Want? What thou wilt, that I will: Do with me as thou pleasest: This is the Temper of a Mind indifferent to all the Appointments of God, that makes a Christian ever cheerful and constant, and secures him against all Disquiets.
Let my Soul be subject to my God; for who is there that resists him, and has Peace within? If I am to keep Peace with all, let me in the first Place study to preserve my Peace with God; for I am but Dust and Ashes, and what can be sufficient to make me rebel against my Maker? Be thou my Help, O my God, and my Strength; support me in all Evils, and give me Patience; direct me in my Repentance, and whil I distrust myself, let me ever confide in thee; for thus only can I preserve my Peace with God.
In a collection of prayers published in London in 1824 we read:
… Wash away our guilt with the precious blood of they dear Son …
And The Assistant of Education: Religious and Literary, vol2, also published in London in 1824, we read a hymn containing the lines:
By faith we wash away our guilt in Jesu’s precious blood …
[Doctrine:11] d. Alma 7 explains that the Savior suffered not only for our sins but also for our “pains and afflictions and temptations of every kind” (Alma 7:11).
The Book of Wonders, Marvellous and True, published in London in 1813, states:
I became flesh and blood to dwell with men; and like man I became an infant of days, to be born of the woman. Here I became in all things like man, to suffer temptations, to suffer persecution; to resemble man’s weakness, by hiding myself. All this I have done, to be a judge of the infirmities of man, that I might be a judge of what man had to go through, and a clear judge of the different conduct in mankind.
[Doctrine:12] e. 3 Nephi 11 is the most powerful witness we have of the resurrected Lord, as 2,500 believers, consisting of men, women, and children (see 3 Nephi 17:25) came forth and “thrust their hands into his side,” felt “the prints of the nails in his hands and in his feet,” and “did know of a surety and did bear record” (3 Nephi 11:15) that He was the Son of God. Who can read that account and not feel the witness of the Spirit testifying of its truthfulness?
Stories have been demonstrated to evoke powerful, confirmatory feelings, but which were later discovered to be almost completely fabricated. For instance, Elder Holland shared “the missionary speech of all time” at a New Mission President Seminar. It was shared by many others,13 who also found it to be very powerful. Ultimately, key parts of the story were found to be in error, calling into question the validity of the entire story. Why did people report feeling so touched (e.g., “the most powerful message to my heart…”) by a story that was deeply flawed factually? With an understanding that the propositional value of a story does not necessarily correspond to the kinds of spiritual experiences a person might have listening to it, perhaps it is equally likely that a story like 3 Nephi 11 could evoke powerful and transcendent feelings in a listener but still remain a modern invention?
[Doctrine:13] f. The Bible teaches us that, through the Atonement, Christ can make us clean; the Book of Mormon teaches us that, through the Atonement, Christ can also make us perfect (see Moroni 10:32–33).
As documented here, “Human Nature in its Fourfold State,” published originally in Scotland in 1787, deals with the same themes as Moroni 10:32–33 in very similar fashion, arguing for a similar interplay between our own efforts and Christ’s enabling atonement.
[Doctrine:14] Does anyone honestly believe that Joseph Smith somehow invented these profound doctrines with their compelling powers of reason, their mind-expanding insights, and their language, which is divinely eloquent? If these doctrines were the product of Joseph’s creative mind, one might ask, “Were there no other creative geniuses in the 1,800 years following Christ’s ministry who could produce similar doctrines?”
As demonstrated above, the doctrines found in the Book of Mormon appear to be fairly well-represented in the early 1800s milieu.
Further, the well-known Book of Mormon scholar Royal Skousen argues that many concerns in the Book of Mormon are resonant with Protestant concerns from the few centuries preceding Joseph Smith’s time:
… if one looks at the text from the perspective of Early Modern English and Reformed Protestantism (including what has been called Radical Protestantism, that is, a Protestantism that attempts to restore an original Christianity based solely upon New Testament practice), there are numerous issues which show that the Book of Mormon is concerned with what the Protestants dealt with and argued over during the 1500s and 1600s:
- People are burnt at the stake for heresy (especially in the 1530s and the 1550s in England). There is also evidence for burning their scriptures (especially in the 1520s in England).
- Judgment day will occur at the bar of God (each person will stand at the bar when their case is tried before the Lord). There is no bar of justice in the New Testament. Rather, the judicial bar dates from medieval times. Moreover, we have the term pleading bar dating from the 1600s (the bar at which a person makes their pleading or plea). On the other hand, there is no independent evidence for “the pleasing bar of God”.
- The term secret combinations is used to refer to secret conspiracies against the government and the state church throughout the 1600s and the 1700s. The earliest citation for secret combination(s) dates from 1602. Shortly thereafter, the phrase was commonly used in reference to the 1605 attempt by Guy Faux and other Catholics to blow up Parliament. The first reference of secret combination(s) to masons dates from 1796, but this refers to a union of brick layers attempting to control the price of labor.
- There are four pairs of ecclesiastical words that William Tyndale and Thomas More debated in the late 1520s (congregation versus church; elder versus priest; love versus charity; and repent versus do penance); translators of the English Bible from 1526 to 1611 were forced to deal with these terms in their biblical translations. The Book of Mormon text is informed by this debate: church is used with its dual meaning (the word congregation is ignored except in biblical phraseology); the church has both elders and priests; the word charity means ‘love’; and the word penance is completely ignored since the practice does not occur in the Book of Mormon.
- The true church does not permit child and infant baptism, thus accepting the position of the Anabaptists (who were considered radical and were murdered by both Catholics and Reformed Protestants). The prophet Mormon provides a very strong discourse against child baptism. Note his severe condemnation of those who advocated or even believed in child baptism (Moroni 8:14–16).
- There is a strong preference for piety in living and worship (the Puritan lifestyle).
- The Lord’s sacrament is “a symbolic memorial” (Zwingli, 1484–1531) but includes a spiritual renewal (Bullinger, 1504–1575). These two concepts characterize the essence of the sacrament prayers, first given by Jesus in 3 Nephi 18:11 and 20:8–9 and then later by Moroni in Moroni 4–5. Any question of transubstantiation or any variant of it, such as consubstantiation, is ignored. There is also a secondary issue relating to the sacrament, the reference in Moroni 4:2 to the congregation kneeling down with the elder or priest when he blesses the sacrament. In 1552, during the reprinting of the Book of Common Prayer under King Edward VI, the issue of the church kneeling with the priest was resolved in favor of the traditional kneeling. This practice had been criticized by the Presbyterian John Knox as an unnecessary Catholic practice that the Church of England had continued using.
- The Catholic practice of secret confession to church leaders and required works of penance never shows up in the text. Only once does the Book of Mormon refer to people going to an ecclesiastical authority (in Helaman 16:1, when Nephites converted by the preaching of Samuel the Lamanite go to Nephi for confession of sins and then baptism). In every case, repentance before God is required, and repentant souls must always be willing to publicly declare their repentance.
- The Trinitarianism of the Book of Mormon is most clearly expressed by Abinadi in Mosiah 15 and best matches the Trinitarianism found in the Gospel of John. God will come down among the children of men and take upon himself a body of flesh and be sacrificed for mankind. This was the heresy that led to the death of Abinadi (or at least it was the official accusation against him, described in Mosiah 17:7–8). This characterization of the Trinity is not the current LDS view of the Godhead.
- The church is separated from the state and will act independently in dealing with questions of church discipline and excommunication. In Mosiah 26, King Mosiah refuses, as the secular leader of the state, to intervene in the disciplining of church members and leaves that to Alma, the leader of the church. The Lord then instructs Alma that he is limited in his disciplining of church members to excommunicating them rather than physically punishing them. The separation of the church from governmental control is more significant than replacing hereditary kings with elected judges since in the Book of Mormon those judges end up acting much like kings. Ultimately, Campbell is wrong to assume that Mosiah’s change in governance was a good example of republican government. It should also be noted that the issue of separation of church and state is an important one in the development of American constitutional law, but it also played a significant role in debates between Reformed and Radical Protestants in Europe in the mid-1500s.
And a vast number of themes and doctrines found in the Book of Mormon find close analogues to the sermons and writings of the early 1800s:
Compare 2 Nephi 2:11 with Jonathon Edwards sermon The Necessity of Belief of Christianity delivered in Hartford Connecticut in 1794: “If there be moral good in any of those tempers or actions, there must be moral evil in the directly opposite.”
Compare Alma 13:27 with A Treatise on The Millennium, or LatterDay Glory of the Church …, published in Providence, RI, 1824: “So we see the folly of procrastinating the day of repentance and of turning to the Lord. The present time and opportunity should be most diligently improved.”
Compare Mosiah 15:8–9 with The Christian Observer, Vol 15, published in Boston in 1816: “To satisfy the demands of justice, it pleased the Father to send his own Son in the likeness of sinful man, to take upon him our nature, and to suffer in our stead.”
Compare this exact 10-gram match from Alma 45:16 with A compendium of the travels of the children of Israel published in Albany, NY 1823: “when he looks forward, he beholds an angry God that cannot look upon sin with the least degree of allowance”
[Doctrine:15a] The argument that Joseph Smith wrote the Book of Mormon is simply counter to the realities of life. It is one thing to have creative ideas; it is quite another to put them into a complex but coherent and harmonious whole, inundated with majestic doctrinal truths and all done in a single draft in less than ninety days.
Humans write an extraordinary number of complex, coherent books every single year. Many complex books are composed in less time than it took the Book of Mormon to be created. Many notable books are composed by those who are young (many far younger than Joseph Smith). And, as demonstrated above, the doctrine found in the Book of Mormon was rather typical for its time.
See How could Joseph Smith have composed the Book of Mormon? for a simple model of how Joseph could have orally composed the Book of Mormon.
Joseph Smith’s wife, Emma, the person who knew him better than any other, confirmed this conclusion: “Joseph Smith [as a young man] could neither write nor dictate a coherent and well-worded letter; let alone dictat[e] a book like the Book of Mormon.”
There are good reasons to question Emma’s testimony of these events, and first hand primary documentation refutes her characterization of Joseph’s literary abilities, as discussed here.
A Parable That Counters The Arguments Proposed By Critics (“Parable”)
[Parable:1] In response to critics’ arguments as to the origin of the Book of Mormon, Hugh Nibley published the following parable:
[Parable:2] A young man once long ago claimed he had found a large diamond in his field as he was ploughing. He put the stone on display to the public free of charge, and everyone took sides. A psychologist showed, by citing some famous case studies, that the young man was suffering from a well-known form of delusion. An historian showed that other men have also claimed to have found diamonds in fields and been deceived. A geologist proved that there were no diamonds in the area but only quartz. … When asked to inspect the stone itself, the geologist declined with a weary, tolerant smile and a kindly shake of the head. … A sociologist showed that only three out of 177 florists’ assistants in four major cities believed the stone was genuine. A clergyman wrote a book to show that it was not the young man but someone else who had found the stone.
[Parable:3] Finally an indigent jeweler … pointed out that since the stone was still available for examination the answer to the question of whether it was a diamond or not had absolutely nothing to do with who found it, or whether the finder was honest or sane, or who believed him, or whether he would know a diamond from a brick … , but was to be answered simply and solely by putting the stone to certain well-known tests for diamonds. Experts on diamonds were called in. Some of them declared it genuine. The others made nervous jokes about it and declared that they could not very well jeopardize their dignity and reputations by appearing to take the thing too seriously. To hide the bad impression thus made, someone came out with the theory that the stone was really a synthetic diamond, very skillfully made, but a fake just the same. The objection to this is that the production of a good synthetic diamond [in that day and age] would have been an even more remarkable feat than the finding of a real one.
[Parable:4] To suggest that Joseph Smith, a farm boy with little formal education, produced a synthetic work of God in 1829 that has baffled the brightest of critics for almost two centuries would be a more remarkable feat than the simple fact that he obtained the gold plates from an angel of God and translated them by the gift and power of God.
One reasonable response to this parable is to simply extend the analogy: Imagine that we know that the farmer in the story, Joseph Smith, was prone to “finding” artifacts in his field:
- We know that he would frequently claim to find treasure but its existence was never verified (see discussions here and here).
- We know that he could synthesize rubies from other material (consider these LDS scholars discussing how Joseph generated the Book of Abraham text from Egyptian papyri).
- We know he was capable of synthesizing emeralds.
Finally, we find out that a number of researchers actually have carefully analyzed the diamond, and they find that it contains the exact same kinds of contaminants as diamonds from the next county over. The farmer stood to gain much from convincing others his diamond was naturally produced in his field, since others would then buy the land from him in search of diamonds.
It comes as no suprise that those who had lost their fortune buying land from the farmer refused to acknowledge the careful research of those who had presented copious evidence that the diamond was a fake. Those who had invested in the land tried to discredit and belittle the researchers, and they warned others to avoid their work because if it were true it would only bring the investors feelings of darkness and gloom to think of all they had lost by trading their fortunes for synthetic diamonds of no special market value.
Other Evidences That The Book Of Mormon Is Not Man-Made (“OtherEvidences”)
[OtherEvidences:1] What other evidence do we have that the Book of Mormon was a God-given translation and not a man-made creation? There are many evidences, but for the sake of time I refer to but one, because it is personal to me. Emma Smith gave the following testimony, as reported by her son Joseph Smith III:
[OtherEvidences:2] My belief is that the Book of Mormon is of divine authenticity—I have not the slightest doubt of it. I am satisfied that no man could have dictated the writing of the manuscripts unless he was inspired; for, when acting as his scribe, your father would dictate to me hour after hour; and when returning after meals, or after interruptions, he would at once begin where he had left off, without either seeing the manuscript or having any portion of it read to him. This was a usual thing for him to do. It would have been improbable that a learned man could do this; and, for one so ignorant and unlearned as he was, it was simply impossible.
[OtherEvidences:3] This may seem insignificant to some, but to me it is astounding. For thirty-four years, as a lawyer, I regularly dictated to my secretary. As I did so, I was often interrupted by a phone call or a question. After such interruptions I would invariably ask my secretary, “Where was I?”
[OtherEvidences:4] But Joseph was not dictating or writing a new work; he was receiving revelation by the power of God and therefore did not need to ask, “Where was I?”
We have reason to be skeptical of Emma’s testimony, especially as it relates to production of the Book of Mormon pages, and internal evidence in the Book of Mormon itself suggests that the narrator often lost track of their position.
[OtherEvidences:5] When all is said and done, Joseph Smith’s explanation of the coming forth of the Book of Mormon is the only viable option on the table. Why? Because it is as true as true can be.
In almost every way we can test the book it matches our expectations of being produced in the early 1800s, and even mainstream LDS scholars independently observe data which collectively supports a modern origin:
How We Can Discover The Truth Of A Divine Work (“Discover”)
[Discover:1] If I were to ask my good Christian friends how they unquestionably know the Bible is the word of God, I do not believe they would cite archaeological discoveries or linguistic connections with ancient Hebrew or Greek as their prime evidence; rather, they would make reference to the Spirit. It always comes back to the Spirit. The Spirit that helps me know the Bible is true is the very same Spirit that helps me know the Book of Mormon is true.
[Discover:2] The Spirit is the decisive, determining factor—not archaeology, not linguistics, not DNA, and certainly not the theories of man. The Spirit is the only witness that is sure and certain and infallible.
There are good reasons to doubt the reliability of spiritual feelings and impressions as explained in the essay Testimony, spiritual experiences, and truth: A careful examination and more comprehensively in this collection of resources on faith, spiritual witnesses, and epistemology.
[Discover:3] As a boy of about fifteen or sixteen, I was reading the story of the 2,000 sons of Helaman. I marveled at their bravery and the Lord’s protecting hand. Then a voice came to my mind: “That story is true.” Since then, other confirmations have come.
As discussed earlier, stories have been demonstrated to evoke powerful, confirmatory feelings even though some of these were later discovered to be almost completely fabricated. For instance, Elder Holland shared “the missionary speech of all time” at a New Mission President Seminar. It was shared by many others,13 who also found it to be very powerful. Ultimately, key parts of the story were found to be in error, calling into question the validity of the entire story. Why did people report feeling so touched (e.g., “the most powerful message to my heart…”) by a story that was deeply flawed factually? Given this, might a person be impacted by the transcendent and uplifting aspects of a story like the 2,000 sons of Helaman but the story not be grounded in actual fact?
[Discover:4] Why is it so important for you individually to gain a testimony of the Book of Mormon? Because if you do, it will become your personal iron rod. The mists of darkness may come and the unanswered questions may arise, but through it all you will have your iron rod to cling to—to keep you on the straight and narrow path that leads to eternal life.
[Discover:5] The Lord has promised that if we pray “with a sincere heart, with real intent, having faith in Christ, he will manifest the truth of it unto [us], by the power of the Holy Ghost” (Moroni 10:4). If we want the truth that badly, if we are willing to pay that price and be unrelenting in that quest, the answer will eventually come.
Moroni’s promise is one of several “hermetically sealed” epistemological systems in LDS thought (see diagram #4 in Hermetically Sealed Systems in LDS Thought): a person can only ever receive a positive answer by applying the promise, and the same outcome could be expected were a person to apply the procedure to any inspiring book.
[Discover:6] By that promised power of the Holy Ghost I bear my personal witness that the Book of Mormon is God-given and that it is all it claims to be—a pure and powerful witness of Jesus Christ, His divinity, and His doctrine. In the name of Jesus Christ, amen.
The author appreciates Elder Callister’s witness while also questioning whether these experiences are sufficient reason to draw the firm conclusions from them that he has.
Callister insists that divine intervention is the only way to explain the creation of the Book of Mormon; however, as has been demonstrated, when Callister’s specific claims about the production of the book and its content are closely examined there appears to be adequate room to account for the Book of Mormon through standard human creative processes, and the book fits comfortably within the early 1800s theological and cultural milieu.
- The Book of Mormon and the Limits of Naturalistic Criteria: Comparing Joseph Smith and Andrew Jackson Davis (Bill Davis)
- Visions in a Seer Stone
- Theories and Assumptions: A Review of William L. Davis’s Visions in a Seer Stone (review by Brian Hales)
- Oral Creation and the Dictation of the Book of Mormon (review by Brant Gardner)
- Dialogue Book Review Roundtable: Visions in a Seer Stone: Joseph Smith and the Making of the Book of Mormon by William Davis
- Author Response to Dialogue Book Review Roundtable: Visions in a Seer Stone: Joseph Smith and the Making of the Book of Mormon by William Davis
- Curiously Unique: Joseph Smith as Author of the Book of Mormon (Brian Hales)
Responses to Callister’s similar General Conference talk
Rebuttals to the responses
- Believing member rebuttal to Christian apologist response
Partial responses to Callister’s BYU Speech
- Response to The Book of Mormon: Man-Made or God-Given (by /u/animatorcollin)
- churchistrue response
- Robert John Stevens response
Partial response to Callister’s book
issues concerned B.H. Roberts.
Callister’s devotional was published with 37 footnotes, some of which are fairly extensive. ↩
Callister followed up his devotion with an October 2017 conference address, God’s Compelling Witness: The Book of Mormon which was mostly an abridgement of the arguments presented in his 2016 Devotional. ↩
The majority of this response was written before Callister published his book. I also do not yet own a copy of the book. If the arguments in the book survived scrutiny in a way that the devotional does not, then I would consider writing a response to the book (assuming a good response could be offered). ↩
Although the testimony of the 3 and 8 witnesses does lend significant support to aspects of the orthodox narrative for the creation of the Book of Mormon there are good reasons to question at least aspects of that testimony. See chapter 3 of Letter for My Wife, Book of Mormon Witnesses page at MormonThink, and Witnesses summary page at the Mormon Stories essays. Note that the argument about Cowdery potentially forging the signatures of the witnesses since the signatures are all in his handwriting is unsound (see point #3 here). ↩
Despite the fact that the Church taught that the Kinderhook plates and Joseph Smith’s translation of them were geniune (see Joseph Smith Papers footnote on the Kinderhook plates and this analysis), an examination of the plates themselves in 1981 demonstrated them to be a hoax. And, because we have recovered the original papyri related to the Book of Abraham, LDS scholars have translated the original Egyptian (see Joseph Smith Papers Book of Abraham and Related Manuscripts and other Book of Abraham resources). As the LDS essay on the Book of Abraham summarizes: “None of the characters on the papyrus fragments mentioned Abraham’s name or any of the events recorded in the book of Abraham. Mormon and non-Mormon Egyptologists agree that the characters on the fragments do not match the translation given in the book of Abraham …” ↩
See transcript of Frederick discussing parallels between the Book of Mormon and the New Testament here. See a comprehensive list of Bible verses that share significant similarity with Book of Mormon verses here and some individual examples: Paul vs. Moroni and Matthew vs. Ether. ↩
There is very good evidence suggesting that the deutero Isaiah found in the Book of Mormon (Isaiah chapters 48–52) was written after Lehi left Jerusalem. Some scholars have hypothesized that deutero-Isaiah was based on some kind of proto-text, and Latter-day Saints have latched onto this possibility. At the very least, it is likely that the deutero-Isaiah chapters in the Book of Mormon were not equivalent to modern versions, such as that from the King James Bible. LDS scholar Grant Hardy summarizes and also points to the fact that the Proto-Isaiah text would not have looked similar to what is preserved in the modern Bible (source):
Latter-day Saints sometimes brush such criticism aside [that “scholarly consensus for more than a century has attributed (Isa. 40–55) to the time of the Exile or even later”], asserting that such interpretations are simply the work of academics who do not believe in prophecy, but this is clearly an inadequate (and inaccurate) response to a significant body of detailed historical and literary analysis. … Recent Isaiah scholarship has moved away from the strict differentiation of the work of First and Second Isaiah (though still holding to the idea of multiple authorship) in favor of seeing the book of Isaiah as the product of several centuries of intensive redaction and accretion. In other words, even Isaiah 2–14 would have looked very different in Nephi’s time than it did four hundred years later at the time of the Dead Sea Scrolls, when it was quite similar to what we have today.
Sterling McMurrin, a liberal Mormon and University of Utah professor, wrote a biographical chapter for B.H. Roberts’ Studies of the Book of Mormon. He alleged that (quoting Joan and Richard Ostlund) “there was an unsuccessful effort [presumably by the LDS Church?] to have the University of Illinois Press suppress publication of the study.” (Joan and Richard Ostling’s book Mormon America: the power and the promise, pg 276) ↩
There is one oblique reference to Joseph Smith and Clarke’s commentary, but it does not suggest that Joseph even read the work, much less had it in his possession. ↩