A Mormon Odyssey: Part II

Mormonism is one of the faster growing religious bodies in the United States today as a result of active and constant proselytizing. Nonetheless, the sect continues to arouse suspicion, not the least because of its insistence that it is the only true and valid expression of Christianity. To answer this rather exalted claim one must investigate whether the primary supplemental scripture underpinning Mormon beliefs, i.e. the Book of Mormon, is a credible document.

Mormons tend to be aggressively evangelistic in expounding their unusual doctrines and to understand those doctrines one must carefully scrutinize the Book of Mormon and its origins. The basic premise of Mormonism is that Jesus Christ independently established a parallel Christianity in the Americas shortly after his Resurrection. He ostensibly appeared to two groups of exilic Jews called the Nephites and Lamanites who had migrated to the New World around the time of the Babylonian exile, that is around 600 BC. Later, Christians on both sides of the Atlantic Ocean supposedly corrupted and fell into irreversible apostasy so that, by the year 431 AD, the true Christian religion had virtually ceased to exist. Before the final demise of Christianity, however, a New World prophet named Mormon (hence that church’s commonly used appellation), collected and transcribed a complete history of the Nephites and Lamanites plus a much earlier group, long since vanished, called the Jaredites. Mormon or his son then buried those various plates in a hill located near today’s Rochester, New York. There they remained hidden for 14 centuries.

Some time later, in the early 1820s, a young treasure hunter named Joseph Smith claims to have unearthed those buried plates, translating them into English with the help of “seer stones” called the Urim and Thummim. Claiming to be a prophet of God, Smith undertook the task of restoring the long forgotten Christian Gospel. (For some unexplained reason the original Bible had managed to remain in common usage throughout those 14 dark centuries of supposed apostasy.) Thanks to Smith, the traditional Old and New Testaments were now addended and updated with his newly discovered gospel, the Book of Mormon, which proudly bills itself as “another Testament of Jesus Christ.”

This third Testament contains 15 books of which one, the Book of Ether, is a history of the Jaredites, a people said to have migrated to America around the time of the Tower of Babel (well before God’s earliest communications to Abraham). These Jaredites supposedly built many cities, smelted iron and brass, and had silks and fine linens before finally being destroyed. Such a time frame would place them here in the Americas well before 2,000 BC. Yet even at that early date, Christ supposedly appeared to the brother of Jared in his “spirit body” announcing somewhat confusingly, “Behold I am Jesus Christ. I am the Father and the Son.” (Ether 3:14) Again God admonishes the Jaredites (still many centuries before his historical Incarnation) to “serve the God of the land, who is Jesus Christ.” (Ether 2:12) Apparently, such astonishing pre-Hebraic revelations were to yield few positive results because the entire Jaredite nation was wiped out in a great battle near the hill called Cumorah in today’s upstate New York.

Many centuries later, around 600 BC, the Nephites arrived in the Americas, barely escaping Jerusalem before its destruction by the Babylonians. The remaining 14 books in the Book of Mormon outline in excruciating detail the Nephite history and that of their mortal antagonists the Lamanites. This all transpires during that millennium from the 6th century BC into the 5th century AD. Again we find numerous explicit references to Christ by name, and even to Mary his mother (Mosiah 3:8). Remember, this is still centuries before his actual nativity in Bethlehem, and two continents removed. The Nephites prospered and apparently built a great city called Zarahemla somewhere in North America.

Later, a resurrected Christ comes to visit the Nephites proclaiming baptism and salvation, basically establishing a parallel church in the Americas under the authority of Nephi son of Helaman who becomes one of twelve (alternate) New World apostles who are commissioned to baptize. (3 Nephi 12:1) But within four centuries this nascent church falls apart and, in the end, the Nephites and Lamanites murder and destroy one another until those few who remain wander off into historical oblivion to supposedly become ancestors of many Native American Indians. Moroni, the son of Mormon and sole remaining disciple of Christ, then records and seals up this bizarre history on metal plates which he then buries on the hill of Cumorah.

This fantastic tale of parallel prophets, churches, and apostles has in fact become the basis of religious belief for some 10 million adherents of Mormonism today. It only seems reasonable then to ask whether the writings and claims of Joseph Smith stand up to historical or archaeological scrutiny. This debate has raged for nearly 200 years now during which time Mormon scholars have yet to produce any scientific or archaeological evidence substantiating the record outlined in the Book of Mormon. For instance,the Book of Ether 9:23 states that “Coriantum… did build many mighty cities,” yet no archaeological remains of such a sophisticated urban culture from that period of time are known to exist in the Americas. Hopewell culture built a few mounds in the Ohio valleys from perhaps the first through fifth centuries. Later Mississippian cultures built a substantial city at Cahokia, IL about 1,000 AD and yet both of these cultures are centuries too late to have had Jaredite or Nephite connection. Nor are there any extensive stone-works present at these sites. Various Meso-American cultures also flourished in Central America and Mexico from 100 AD until the time of European contact around 1500. Again, these ruins are dated much too late to be connected with any supposed Lamanite or Nephite cultures which flourished well before the time of Christ and were defunct by the year 431 AD according to Joseph Smith.

Further inconsistencies abound. Silks were unknown in pre-Columbian America, as were horses, iron, glass, or bronze. (Even in the Old World, iron smelting was still centuries away in 2,000 BC.) America’s early Indians were unfamiliar with wheat, barley, rice, cattle, pigs, or chickens and yet all these were supposedly transported from the Ancient World to the New when Jaredites and later the Nephites crossed great oceans to land here. Did all those various animal species and food crops fail to thrive in the New World initially, only to be re-introduced successfully much later? Another problem concerns the wheel, which even the highest New World civilizations of Central America lacked despite its longtime use in Old World cultures. Yet the Book of Alma 18:10 relates that, “when king Lamoni heard that Ammon was preparing his horses and chariots he was more than astonished,” and we should also be astonished considering the lack of evidence for the presence of either horses or chariots pre-Columbian America. Perhaps their unlucky descendants utterly forget about such a useful invention as the wheel after they had slaughtered the last known horse for food.

Latter Day Saints scholars have admittedly failed to uncover any credible evidence for the fantastic stories narrated in the Book of Mormon. An early Mormon apologist, B.H. Roberts, found a disheartening dearth of evidence for presumed Mormon archaeological sites. In 1928 church elder Levi Edgar Young admitted, “Not yet have scholars found definite remains or ruins that coincide with the Book of Mormon.” More recently Mormon apologist, Dr. Hugh Nibley, openly admitted, “If you want proof of the Book of Mormon you must go to the Old World. You won’t find it in the New World.” Of course, Dr. Nibley’s re-directing the search to the Old World totally begs the question of authenticity because the vast majority of the history recorded in the Book of Mormon is supposedly New World history. Even the renowned Smithsonian Institute released a statement in 1979 denying any connection between the Book of Mormon and Western Hemisphere archaeology.

Then there is the complete lack of linguistic and genetic evidence when attempting to connect Native American Indians to any of the ancient peoples described in the Book of Mormon. What Semitic traits are evident today in the indigenous Native Americans who are supposedly descendants of ancient Semites? And how is it that archaeologist have found surviving artifacts from hunter-gatherer cultures going as far back as 11,000 to 13,000 years in the Americas, and yet they are unable to discover any trace of those supposedly immense cities and highly developed cultures which would have been abandoned as recently as 1,600 years ago? Such facts strongly suggest that the stories related in the Book of Mormon are no more than fictional accounts devised by a very fertile mind, a world of fantasy with no more basis in reality than George Lucas’ Star Wars. Entertaining copy, to be sure, but hardly a narrative worthy of religious faith.

One of the more amusing aspects of the Book of Mormon is the language itself, a supposed translation from a dialect Joseph Smith described as “reformed Egyptian.” Of course, no credible Egyptologist has ever lent credence to the existence of such a dialect. Furthermore, no physical evidence survives of any metal plates from which those mythical hieroglyphics were supposedly transcribed. Nonetheless, Smith’s text faithfully exhibits a prosaic King James vernacular throughout. For instance, endless reiterations of phrases like, “And it came to pass,” begin to mesmerize the weary reader. Considering that all of the pseudo-history recorded therein dates from various sources and periods, and was ostensibly compiled before 400 AD, its linguistic style, patterns, and figures of speech, etc. are remarkably 17th century Jacobean.

The racial attitudes reflected in Book of Mormon further belie the book’s 19th century American etymology. In 2Nephi 5:21 we learn that the Lamanites were cursed when, “the Lord God did cause a skin of blackness to come upon them.” In the following verses we read, “they shall be loathsome unto thy people… and cursed shall be the seed of him that mixeth with their seed.” This particular text surely reflects the horror with which many Americans in 1830 regarded miscegenation (inter-racial sexual relations and propagation). Later we learn that certain Lamanites who supported the Nephites during a war were rewarded by again being restored to “white” society. “And their curse was taken from them, and their skin became white like unto the Nephites.” (3Nephi 2:15) Here, Joseph Smith openly displays his own culturally ingrained prejudices, which clearly reflect the prevailing attitudes common to many 19th century Americans toward the Negro race. This is one passage that surely was not inspired by the King James Bible.

Finally there is the great debate about the prohibition of polygamy in the Book of Mormon as set against Joseph Smith’s own secretive plural marriages, beginning in the mid to late 1830s. We read in Jacob 2:27, “For there shall not any man among you have save it be one wife; and concubines he shall have none.” Of course when he wrote and published those words in 1830 Joseph Smith did have but one wife. Only later, when he had attained power and a substantial following, did the Prophet Smith begin taking more wives. At that point he claimed a new revelation which superseded the former scriptures. Self-serving revelations should always be considered as suspect.

Certainly by 1840 Smith had developed a personal interest in polygamy along with other elite members of the Mormon hierarchy like Brigham Young. Even then, this new dispensation was held secretively by the Mormon leaders. Polygamy was not openly proclaimed until 7 years after Smith’s death. Then, for half a century, plural marriage remained one of the most contentious Mormon doctrines, even among Mormons themselves. Ultimately it threatened the very survival of the church. Only by rescinding polygamy, by virtue of another “timely” divine revelation in 1890, was the Mormon religion to finally gain acceptance in American society. But ask yourself, if Mormonism is truly the revived remnant of a lost Christianity as it claims to be, would God have subjected his neophyte church to such a deplorable practice, one that nearly destroyed it in its formative stages?

Recall that the 19th century was a true “golden age” of hoaxes in American history and then consider that Joseph Smith was himself a product of those free-spirited times. American individualism strongly influenced religious attitudes because this was the land of unlimited possibilities, even in what one chose to believe. In such an environment religious pluralism became the only real orthodoxy, attested by the countless religious experiments that this colorful century produced. But such careless religious attitudes back then certainly have played a part in contributing to the current religious landscape of skepticism. If society has turned decidedly secular in its drift, this is a reaction which could well be expected from an excess of free-wheeling religious experimentation. Religion in the 21st century now suffers from a multitude of critics who accuse it of being no more than myths and fables, a criticism which the Book of Mormon cannot help but reinforce.

True religious faith is respectful of reason, which does not mean that every religious doctrine can or needs to be proven. Faith by its very nature need not be based on proofs. But religious faith must still be in accord with reason if it is to be believable. Furthermore, it should be able to withstand the scrutiny of reason by not making absurd claims that can be easily disproved. The Book of Mormon surely fails this basic test by purporting to be a historical record from antiquity when, clearly, it is of very recent origin.

Bible scholars have long understood the story of creation in the Bible to be allegorical, for instance ─ it does not pretend to be historical except in the broadest sense, i.e. that God is responsible for man’s existence and that man fell from God’s favor by sinning. But those extensive parts of the Bible that are understood to be historical ─ events relating to the history of Israel, Jesus of Nazareth, and his apostles ─ are told in the context of much larger ancient civilizations: Egypt, Assyria, Persia, Rome, etc. There are verifiable persons and events recorded in that history that can be corroborated by extra-Biblical sources. In that sense, the Bible is quasi-historical even as it is allegorical at times.

By contrast, the Book of Mormon is not supported by a shred of evidence yet uncovered by modern scholars, particularly in the Americas where the vast majority of the events described therein are said to have occurred. This does a great disservice to all religion in a world which is already militantly secular and skeptical. Fantasy does not lend itself to faith, even though we may find it to be enjoyable in the theater. Faith must have some basis in reality if it is to endure and truly turn people’s hearts towards God.

The historical Joseph Smith was a shrewd, charismatic figure who employed a Biblical vernacular in composing the Book of Mormon as a supposedly unimpeachable “source document” for his followers. The patently pseudo-historical nature of that text represents an obvious attempt by Smith to legitimize his particular heterodox religious beliefs. Furthermore, by setting himself forth as an erstwhile “prophet” he also left the door open to re-interpreting those doctrines as convenience dictated. Despite his acquiring a large following, neither science nor history has been kind to his efforts to re-invent Sacred Scripture. The fact that none of his stories can be corroborated by any physical evidence, even after nearly 200 years of intense effort, should say something about its veracity.

St. Paul had clearly foreseen the rise of various “fantasy religions” when he wrote, “For the time will come when they will not endure sound doctrine but, with itching ears, will follow after their own desires. And they shall turn their ears away from the truth, and shall be turned unto fables.” (2Tim. 4:3,4) Yet so long as “truth” can be relegated to the subjective mind of the believer, Mormonism will succeed in peddling its own version of “Fantasy as Faith” to millions. It will happily prey on religiously illiterate Christians by offering strong social bonds as a substitute for true doctrine. The tragedy is that millions of otherwise good and upstanding people are being deceived about the most fundamental spiritual truths which Christ revealed, not to Joseph Smith, but to his One Apostolic Church for all times.

Francis J. Pierson  + a.m.d.g.

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