Three Strikes, You're Out!--The Quick and Dirty Case Against Mormonism
The Mormon religion was built on a 19th century American-Christian foundation. Thus, Mormons share many Christian convictions, such as a belief in the divinity of Jesus, and a reverence for the Christian Bible as a sacred text. To be sure, Mormon doctrine has enough theological peculiarities to put it outside of the pale of what many would consider "orthodox" or "mainstream" Christianity, but perhaps not more so than dozens of other Christian sects. In any case, due to its Christian basis, the same general arguments can be made against Mormonism as can be offered in opposition to Christianity. However, Mormonism has one particularly unique feature, which sets it apart, and opens it to the charge of demonstrable falsehood: The Book of Mormon (BoM).
Mormonism's founder and first "prophet," Joseph Smith, was purportedly visited by an angel named Moroni on the night of September 21, 1823 in Palmyra, New York. Moroni informed Joseph that he was chosen to do God's work, and directed him to unearth a set of "golden plates" from a nearby hill. Upon the plates was recorded an ancient history of the American Indians. Apparently due to a lack of purity, Joseph was not allowed to recover the plates until four years later, at which point he began to "translate" them. According to Joseph, they were written in a hieroglyphic language known as "reformed Egyptian." His method of "translation" was to stare into a set of "seer stones"; an action which was followed by the appearance of the text in Joseph's mind, conveniently translated into King James-style English. Joseph could then dictate to his scribe who sat on the other side of a curtain, behind which the scribe was forbidden to peek. In this way, the BoM was produced. After the book was published in 1830, the plates were whisked away to heaven by the angel Moroni.
To those unfamiliar with Mormonism, this story may appear so preposterous on its face that no further argument need be proffered. Yet, most Mormons are quite familiar with the details of their book's curious origin, and it doesn't cause them to lose a wink of sleep. This startling lack of skepticism enables Mormonism to exist. After all, the BoM is the foundation of Mormon faith. Joseph Smith himself said, "the Book of Mormon was the most correct of any book on earth, and the keystone of our religion ..." If Joseph invented the BoM from whole cloth, it stands to reason that he was not a genuine prophet of God, and his whole church rests on an elaborate hoax. Take away the BoM and the entire Mormon edifice comes crumbling down.
In an effort to discredit the BoM, one could point to any number of its features. For instance, the book includes several stories that have sharp parallels in the Bible (Alma is converted in the precise fashion of St. Paul, Ammon slays six sheep rustlers--who are standing in for Goliath--with his sling, etc), and, in fact, 27,000 words are lifted directly from the Bible, including large sections of Isaiah and the New Testament. The book's style is a bland and witless prose of exactly the sort one would expect an uneducated farm boy to produce if he were narrating a story extemporaneously. Along these lines, the phrase, "And so it came to pass ..." appears at least two thousand times. And, with some research, one can uncover fairly obvious sources for all of the BoM's ideas. For example, the theory that the American Indians were descendants of the Ten Lost Tribes of Israel was popularly believed in Joseph's day and espoused by famous Christian preachers such as Cotton Mather and Jonathon Edwards. More to the point, a rabbi named M. M. Noah had summarized the case for Hebraic origin in a speech that was republished in Joseph's hometown newspaper, The Wayne Sentinel; a paper to which Joseph's father was subscribed. The speech appeared on October 11, 1825--two years before Joseph began "translating" the plates. As well, books discussing this theory were circulated in Joseph's area during the years immediately prior to his "translation." Ethan Smith, the author of one such book titled View of the Hebrews, even visited Joseph's hometown in 1826, possibly on a promotional book tour. There is a long list of suspicious "red flags" of this sort, many of which are well documented in Fawn Brodie's No Man Knows My History. And while the collective weight of these concerns is quite damning for the BoM, it isn't a definitive refutation of the kind one might desire.
So then, how to effectively dismantle the BoM? Whenever one wants to decisively prove a claim, the ideal situation involves conducting a test. In order to meet proper evidential standards, a claim should be tested for empirical verification, reproducibility, and corroboration by third parties. Unfortunately, history does not often hand us claims that can be tested against all of these criteria (and sometimes claims cannot be tested against any of them). However, the BoM is a rare exception. Indeed, the book has met with three distinct tests of its authenticity--and failed miserably each time.
No, Sir, That's Not History
Many of the historical claims made by religious books are of the supernatural variety. A classic example is the resurrection of Jesus. For events such as these, there is generally no empirical evidence to examine, and one must rely on written reports. The same is true of supernatural events in the BoM. Yet, the BoM makes many mundane claims as well, and these fall into spheres such as archaeology, anthropology, biology and linguistics, which are the province of empirical investigation The BoM is essentially a thousand year history of peoples on the American continent, and as such it was bound to include various details of their lives, culture and civilization. Naturally, a legitimate historical record would have gotten these details correct, whereas a fanciful tale spun by a relatively uneducated frontiersman would be prone to numerous errors. As it happens, the BoM bears almost no resemblance to the actual historical record from the Mesoamerican times it purports to describe (600 BC-400 AD). The number of errors in this regard are too plentiful to list in their entirety, so I will merely highlight some of the more egregious cases.
The BoM makes mention of various technological products which were unknown to Mesoamerica. These include chariots (Alma 18:9) when there were no wheeled vehicles of any kind, steel swords (Ether 7:9) when there was neither steel nor swords, bellows for blacksmithing (1 Nephi 17:11), and silk (Alma 1:29). The BoM describes a vast civilization of millions who inhabited cities for hundreds of years, yet no ruins from even a single BoM city have ever been identified. No BoM place-names were in use when Europeans arrived in the New World.
The culture described in the BoM conflicts radically with that of the actual inhabitants of Mesoamerica. The BoM peoples had a seven-day week (Mosiah 13:18), but no Mesoamerican calendar matches this. And Nephi, who came to the New World from Jerusalem, never bothers to contrast these strikingly different places. Most stunning of all, the BoM never once indicates that the American continent was anything but uninhabited when the refugees from Jerusalem arrived. Of course, there were actually millions of Native Americans occupying the land from one coast to the other.
The BoM refers to a host of animals that did not exist in the pre-Columbian Americas or had been extinct in that region for thousands of years preceding the period described in the book. These include the ass, bull, calf, cattle, cow, domestic goat, horse, ox, domestic sheep, sow, swine and elephants. Several common animals that actually existed in Mesoamerica (deer, jaguars, tapir, monkeys, sloths, turkeys, llamas, alpacas, guinea pigs) are never mentioned. Also described are crops that didn't exist, such as wheat (Mosiah 9:9) and barley (Alma 11:7) Indeed, the agricultural techniques required to produce those crops didn't exist either. Once again, crops that were commonly known to Mesoamerica (chocolate, lima beans, squash, potatoes, tomatoes, manioc) are not referenced. Perhaps the gravest blunder of all is the BoM's assertion of a Hebraic origin for the American Indians. In Joseph's Smith's day, the now firmly-established Asiatic origin for Native Americans was known only in some scholarly circles.
There are no examples of "reformed Egyptian" (the language Joseph claimed was written on the plates) in Mesoamerican history. And no Native American language is related to either ancient Egyptian or Hebrew, whereas a relationship does exist between Native American languages and Asian (Siberian) languages. Furthermore, no BoM proper names (Nephi, Laman, Zarahemla) appear in any of the many Mesoamerican writings that have been discovered. And speaking of proper names, Greek names such as Lachoneus, Timothy and Jonas appear in the BoM, but Nephi and his family left Jerusalem in 600 BC, long before Greek culture would have had any impact on the Hebrews.
As one can see, there are nearly unlimited opportunities to put the BoM to the test with regards to empirical verification, and the BoM flunks again and again. This is truly failure on an epic scale. Strike one!
It Takes a Thief ...
While there were apparently not nearly enough skeptics surrounding Joseph Smith, there were a few. One of them was a woman named Lucy Harris. Lucy was wife to Martin Harris, who was one of Joseph's most devoted followers, and the scribe for a large portion of the BoM. Martin was moderately prosperous, whereas Joseph was desperately poor, so Martin helped Joseph financially while he completed his "translation." However, Lucy had Joseph pegged as swindler and chastised her husband for throwing away their money on a "Golden Bible."
Not unreasonably, she demanded to actually see the golden plates, and verify their existence, but Joseph steadfastly refused. Undeterred, she proceeded to ransack the Smith home in an effort to unearth the record, but to no avail. After 116 pages of the "translated" manuscript had been completed, Martin pleaded with Joseph to allow him to show them to Lucy, thinking this would convince her of Joseph's legitimacy. Joseph was opposed to the idea, but eventually allowed himself to be talked into it, and thus unwittingly set up the second serious test of the BoM. For Lucy proceeded with the obvious step of hiding the manuscript from her husband and noting with cool logic that, "If this be a divine communication, the same being that revealed it to you can easily replace it."
Of course, she was correct, and if Joseph had been able to reproduce the manuscript word for word, it would have been exceedingly difficult to doubt his paranormal abilities. Not surprisingly, Joseph did not even attempt such a feat. For a while, it seemed that he despaired of finding a way out of this neatly set trap. But then came the predictable solution. Joseph asked the Lord for a revelation, and God forbade him to retranslate the first part of the plates because the devil wanted to thwart God's plans, and would see to it that the stolen version was published in "altered" form. Naturally, in God's omniscience, he had foreseen this snafu, and so he had conveniently provided a set of small plates, called the plates of Nephi, that happened to cover the exact period of history as the stolen manuscript--only from a different point of view. I should hope it's not too bold to recognize this as a total cop-out. Strike two!
Lost in Translation
Martin Harris may have been satisfied with being forbidden from seeing the actual plates, but he at least demanded to witness a copy of the engraved characters. He wished to verify with New York City scholars that they were truly Hebrew. Joseph Smith eventually gave in to Martin's petitions, but when Joseph furnished him with a copy of the characters he informed Martin that they were not Hebrew, but rather "reformed Egyptian," a language used for its efficiency on the cumbersome plates. Joseph's choice of "reformed Egyptian" was a calculated move. At the time, Egyptian was generally believed to be indecipherable, as the grammar worked out from the Rosetta Stone would not be published until 1837. Therefore, who was to say Joseph's Egyptian characters were not accurate?
Harris visited two scholars with the characters. The first was Samuel L. Mitchell, vice president of Rutgers Medical College. Mitchell was not impressed by the characters, but sent Harris to another scholar named Charles Anthon, a professor of Greek and Latin at Columbia College. When Harris returned from his interview with Anthon, he claimed that Anthon had verified the characters as genuine Egyptian, and had even given this opinion in writing! Most unfortunately, Harris said, once Anthon heard the story of the angel and the golden plates, he tore up his written statement. Of course, this lack of evidence didn't stop them from advertising Anthon's endorsement of the BoM's authenticity. Once Anthon learned of this, he wrote an unequivocal denial, stating "The whole story of my having pronounced the Mormonite inscription to be 'reformed Egyptian hieroglyphics' is perfectly false." Rather, he said the whole story of the Golden Bible was either "a hoax upon the learned" or "a scheme to cheat the farmer of his money."
As one might expect, Mormons insist that Anthon was lying out of fear of being associated with a crackpot religious project. This makes little sense, considering that if Anthon believed the characters to be genuine, he would likely think the project to be of great value. Nevertheless, it is not out of the realm of possibility that Anthon was lying, for whatever reasons. Thus, a more definitive test of Joseph's ability to translate Egyptian characters is needed. As fate would have it, Joseph himself has provided us with what could scarcely be a better test.
By 1835, Joseph's reputation as a miraculous translator had spread, and it attracted one Michael Chandler, who had been touring the country with four Egyptian mummies and some papyri. Joseph ended up buying the mummies and the papyri, and then he set out to "translate" them. Amazingly, it turned out that the author of some of the papyri writings had been none other than the biblical Abraham himself. This "Book of Abraham" was eventually published in 1842 and is now commonly packaged with the BoM in the Pearl of Great Price. Shortly after Joseph's original "translation," the Rosetta Stone grammar was published, but it would be some time before the newfound ability to decipher Egyptian was well-known, and the papyri escaped scholarly eyes in Joseph Smith's lifetime. In fact, they might have escaped them forever, as the papyri were sold after Joseph's death to the Wood museum, and were thought to have perished in the great Chicago fire. But Joseph assured himself the derision of future scholars by publishing three facsimiles of the papyri with the "translated" text of the Book of Abraham. Many Egyptologists have now examined the facsimiles and determined Joseph's interpretation to be, in the words of one scholar, "a farrago of nonsense from beginning to end." Indeed, the scholars agree that the facsimiles are ordinary funeral documents of whose like can be found on thousands of Egyptian graves.
That ought to have put an end to things, but Mormons lamely protested that the facsimiles must have been from a different part of the papyri than the portion "translated" as the Book of Abraham. If only that darn papyri hadn't burned! Well, it turned out that eleven fragments of the papyri survived the fire and found their way to the New York Metropolitan Museum of Art, where they were discovered in 1967. Unfortunately for the Mormons, scholars quickly determined that these were more of the same funeral documents. Now, the Mormon story is that either the actual Book of Abraham papyri is still missing, or alternatively, while the papyri may be literally read as funeral documents, Joseph was somehow able to discern a "spiritual meaning" beyond the actual words. Two more absurd and tortuous excuses were probably never invented. I believe one can safely call "strike three!"
The Game Is Up
The BoM has had ample opportunity to prove its worth. If it had accurately depicted Mesoamerican civilization; if Joseph Smith had reproduced the stolen manuscript verbatim; and if Egyptologists had corroborated Joseph's translation of the Book of Abraham, then it would be impossible to escape the conclusion that a supernatural power had been at work. But, as one can see, every time the BoM has met a true challenge, the result has been nothing short of colossal failure.
Mormonism is a uniquely American religion, so it seems fitting to have invoked the trappings of America's pastime as I have played umpire to a posthumous Joseph Smith. Sorry Joseph, but everyone knows what happens after three strikes.
 Joseph Smith, Pearl of Great Price (Liverpool, England, 1851), Joseph Smith-History (1:29).
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