Do You Really Believe That? (The Missing Pages)

Of all the major faiths in the world today, few surpass the bizarreness of Mormonism. The church was founded in the 1830s by Joseph Smith, Jr., who claimed to have been guided by an angel to a set of buried golden plates which he miraculously gained the ability to translate. These plates, supposedly, were the records of a lost American civilization, descended from a family of ancient Jews who had sailed across the Atlantic Ocean and founded a large, advanced society in the New World. After disobeying the word of God, this civilization eventually tore itself apart in warfare and fell into ruin; the Native Americans are believed by Mormons to be their descendants.

This fantastic story, unsupported by archaeological or genetic evidence and contradicted by much of what archaeologists do know about pre-Columbian America, would provide material for many installments in this series all by itself. But today, I want to talk about something different: the process by which the Book of Mormon came into existence, and one of the most embarrassing events in the course of its composition.

One of Joseph Smith’s earliest converts was a farmer named Martin Harris. Harris gave money to Smith to finance his translation of the golden plates (he would later mortgage his farm to pay for the first translation of the Book of Mormon, and lost it when the book was not a success). Harris also acted as Smith’s scribe while the book was being written. With the two of them separated by a curtain, Smith would peer into a hat, which supposedly contained “seer stones” that gave him visions of the translated text, and dictate what he saw. (The physical presence of the golden plates was apparently not necessary.)

The incident in question came several months into the “translation,” when Smith had produced about 116 pages of text. Harris’ wife Lucy had grown skeptical of Smith and suspected that he was a con man seeking to defraud her husband. In an attempt to reassure her, Harris asked Smith for permission to take the pages home to show to her and other close friends. After several demurrals, Smith finally gave in and gave the pages to Harris.

Both skeptical historians and Mormon believers agree on the events so far. And they also agree on what happened next: when Joseph Smith finally asked for the pages back, Martin Harris confessed that he had lost them.

What exactly happened to those pages is not clear. In her definitive biography of Joseph Smith, No Man Knows My History, the skeptical historian of Mormonism Fawn Brodie argues that Lucy Harris stole and destroyed the pages. According to Brodie, she also taunted Smith: “If this be a divine communication, the same being who revealed it to you can easily replace it.”

And indeed, she had a point. After all, Mormon theology is adamant that Smith was not inventing, but merely translating by the gift of God. What would be so difficult about returning to the same place in the tablets and retranslating the parts that had been lost? A word-for-word reproduction of the 116 missing pages would have been powerful verification that Smith was actually receiving divine guidance and basing his work off of an actual text. He should have viewed the loss of the pages as, at most, a minor setback.

But this is not what happened. Instead, according to skeptical and believing histories alike, Joseph Smith went into an inconsolable frenzy, moaning that he had brought disaster on himself. Finally, sorrowfully, he announced that he had sinned by giving away the pages, and that God was going to punish him – although, according to the church’s own history, it was God who granted Smith permission to give them to Harris. What was to be Smith’s punishment? He would, he said, be forbidden to translate that section of the text again. Instead, he would translate a different section of the plates – one that chronicled the same events but was written by a different author, so the basic storyline would be the same but the wording would be different.

If you’ve just fallen over laughing, believe me, you’re not alone. That was my reaction the first time I heard about this as well. What clearer proof could be imagined that Smith was just making up the Book of Mormon out of his own head? Possessed of only a normal human memory, he was unable to reproduce the story exactly as he first dictated it. Instead, he resorted to re-writing it from scratch and coming up with a contrived excuse for why it was different the second time.

Mormons who reject this most obvious of explanations are forced to believe that, regardless of whether Smith sinned or not, God passed up a perfect opportunity to prove his involvement with this new religion to the world, and instead forced his prophet to do the exact thing a fraud would be forced to do in that situation. That convoluted and contrived story is far less parsimonious than the alternative – that Smith was a swindler, and the Book of Mormon his own invention – which is why I ask Mormons: Do you really believe that?

Other posts in this series:

About Adam Lee

Adam Lee is an atheist writer and speaker living in New York City. His new novel, Broken Ring, is available in paperback and e-book. Read his full bio, or follow him on Twitter.

  • Shawn Smith

    And of course, this post can’t go on without mentioning that South Park parodied this exact story. It punctuated the story with a bunch of “dum-de-dum-de-dum-de-dum” choruses. When it introduces Lucy’s challenge, it used a “smart-smart-smart-smart-smart-smart” chorus. Quite entertaining.

  • mike

    I only found out about Lucy Harris very recently, but she is already one of my new favorite skeptics.

    I also recommend the quick & dirty case against Mormonism for more entertaining John Smith stories. Apparently he also “translated” an actual Egyptian papyrus that he had bought (remember, the golden tablets were written in “reformed Egyptian”) as the Book of Abraham. Too bad for him that Egyptian hieroglyphics were deciphered shortly thereafter, and the papyrus turned out to be a boring, run-of-the-mill funeral document.

  • Chris Parra

    You know, I saw the animated cartoon history of the Mormons on YouTube, and one thing that stuck out to me was, when Joseph Smith comes into the story, they casually mention that he was known for telling “tall tales”. After that, every time I heard some claim made by him about history, or himself or anything, my first reaction is to say “but he’s a known liar!” When he says an angel showed him where to find the golden plates—”but he’s a known liar!”—when he claimed to be God’s prophet—”but he’s a known liar!”—when he claimed he was more important than Jesus and Moses put together—”but he’s a known liar!” In fact, anytime I hear any claim attributed to Joseph Smith Jr., my reaction is “but he’s a known liar!”

  • http://wilybadger.wordpress.com Chris Swanson

    Like Shawn Smith I first came across this fascinating bit of theology in the South Park episode “All About Mormons”. If you haven’t seen it, you should.

  • Thaddeus

    As a former Mormon I can attest that yes, mormons do believe that. Viewing things through the goggles of mormonism however, you see it differently. If God wanted Joe Smith to translate this book then obviously the devil would have a big problem with this. It follows then that evil men under the influence of Satan came across the transcript in order to foil the work of God.

    Even if old Joe could reproduce the 116 pages word for word, the evil men would just rewrite the original in order to accuse Joseph of fraud. But God had forseen this setback and provided some extra chapters of the same story, but a different author.

    I admit, it lends the story no credibility whatsoever, but I have had little success in convincing my friends and family that the whole story is, in fact, ridiculous. After all, if you can believe that god is a polygamist, used to be a human on another planet, and that the only way to get to heaven is to learn the secret handshakes, then this will hardly make you blink an eye.

  • http://bridgingschisms.org Eshu

    I was shown that South Park episode by an ex-Mormon (now liberal Christian) friend of mine, during which we both laughed hysterically. It is especially funny because it’s true. I’ll point my friend in this direction.

  • velkyn

    this about as good as Xenu and the magic DC-9s. Didn’t Smith also have to have a pair of magic glasses to read the gold plates?

  • fh451

    The short answer to this question is, “Yes, they really do believe that!” I know because I was one for nearly 40 years before (finally!) having an epiphany. This is only one of a long parade of beliefs and historical oddities that really should make one go “Huh?”, but when you have been indoctrinated since birth, it’s amazing how hard it is to break the bubble. In this case, the explanation that “God was way ahead of that evil woman” sounds perfectly plausible when you’ve been trained to accept it. After all, God can do anything, and in this case he simply planned more than 2400 years in advance to have one of the Book of Mormon writers make a duplicate record of their history (that just happen to cover the exact time period that was lost). Never mind that they were allegedly writing on metal plates that were extremely difficult to manufacture and write on. Never mind that this duplicate set of plates had to be hauled around and protected for nearly 1000 years (according to the story) before being buried in a stone box for another 1400 years. That’s way easier for God to show his power than to just tell Joseph Smith that he shouldn’t give the manuscript to Lucy Harris. Nah, God wouldn’t do that. When you believe so many other completely implausible tenets of a religion, that one isnt really a big stretch.

  • fh451

    Velkyn said:

    this about as good as Xenu and the magic DC-9s. Didn’t Smith also have to have a pair of magic glasses to read the gold plates?

    Sometimes it’s hard to differentiate the folk beliefs of church members from the documented history. Smith claimed to have a “Urim and Thumim,” which was said to be like a set of glasses attached to a breastplate of some kind. Allegedly these were taken away as part of his punishment for losing the 116 pages. But better documented statements were that he basically put a “seer stone” (nice shiny rock he found digging a well for Willard Chase) in his hat, put his face in the hat to exclude the light (or hide his notes, IMO) and then read off the Book of Mormon. The supposed plates were hidden somewhere in the woods at the same time. Yet another example of God’s amazing inefficiency – he could have just beamed the text onto the seer stone and not bother with plates at all. One more “WTF” moment for the believer (or not).

  • Bletchley Park

    It’s truly bizarre. When asked where the gold plates are (which Smith “translated”), he claims an angel took them away into the sky. No proof, and plenty of evidence to suggest he was a liar, cheat, and serial philanderer. But if a child is brought up to belief this Smith is second only to Jesus in wonderfulness; and if you hear silly, contrived explanations for the obvious flaws in Smith’s ever changing stories to his church and the public, she or he might fall for it.

    There are famous, and intelligent (!) Mormons out there. But this is an issue with which the individual members cannot come to grips. It’s too painful to admit that Smith made up the BoM–the entire structure of Mormonism collapses after that. You’d have to leave your social community, anger/sadden your family, and all the things atheists have always had to do. If a person has the courage to start with the premise that religious preachers starting a religion are Elmer Gantrys trying to get women, fame, and money (they’re all the same, aren’t they?), all the silliness of Mormonism falls into place, and you can see it for the freakshow it is.

  • Samuel Skinner

    Here is a good example of how immune Mormons are to attacks on their beliefs. It turns into a debate a couple pages in.
    http://bbs.stardestroyer.net/viewtopic.php?t=67775&postdays=0&postorder=asc&start=0

    On the bright side, if you like to see people arguing, using logic and reason and extreme levels of sarcasm, you will get a kick out of it :).

  • http://www.StephenNewport.com Stephen Newport

    great write. very to the point!

  • http://www.thewarfareismental.info cl

    CT Russell of Watchtower fame is also a great subject for similar critique. I especially enjoy the stories about “Miracle Wheat.” Basically, Russell’s pitch was that his consecrated bread was better for you. When pressed and tested in court, researchers determined Russell’s yeast was actually lower quality than standard wheat. And he was selling it to elderly folks.

    I wonder if he really believed it or if he was just a crook.

  • Adam

    I’m glad I am Catholic with 2000 years of solid teaching

  • Christian the Atheist

    Adam, even with an extra eighteen centuries or so to get their story straight, the Catholic version still sounds only marginally less silly than the Mormon one.

  • Brad

    Heh, solid enough for indulgences, three simultaneous popes, Vatican II two millenia after Jesus, and the doctrine of limbo. ;)

    It really boggles my mind why people can’t see through something like Mormonism. In my experience, Mormonism has had relatively little to offer potential converts in terms of even halfway-reasonable persuasion, and yet the religion continues to exist and even got a Republican presidential candidate. It’s kind of sad.

  • bestonnet

    velkyn:

    this about as good as Xenu and the magic DC-9s. Didn’t Smith also have to have a pair of magic glasses to read the gold plates?

    I thought they were propellerless DC-8′s that could get to orbit (maybe that’s why John Travolta got a 707).

    Adam:

    I’m glad I am Catholic with 2000 years of solid teaching

    When cults other than the Catholic church are criticised you might be but that feeling won’t last when we come after your cult.

  • Justin

    What I’ve wondered is why an omnipotent God would use a human scribe to write down any holy book in such an inefficient manner. Everybody knows the old saying, “If you want something done right, do it yourself.”

  • velkyn

    thanks, FH451!

    and the Xenu planes could be DC-8′s, could be that I remember them incorrectly :)

    and “2000 years of solid teaching”? ROFL! Sure, all that “adjustment” of what God really meant when it was convenient. Nothing like it!

  • StaceyJW

    Catholicism = A virgin birth, resurrection, pay as you go “purgatory”- is this really any worse than Mormonism? It’s just that we have had thousands of years to get use to hearing that set of ridiculous lies, and the history is further away.
    The Catholic dogma is NOT unchanged, its just that over such a long span of time, its easy to miss the contradiction- if you aren’t looking for them…..

    BOTH are laughable.

  • heliobates

    I’m glad I am Catholic with 2000 years of solid teaching

    [ring ring]“Hello Kettle? It’s pot…”

    Are you starting to get that the way you see Mormonism is how we see all religions?

  • Paul S

    Echoing StaceyJW,

    I don’t really see how Mormonism is any more ludicrous than other Christian sects or other religions. Joseph Smith had golden plates. Moses had stone tablets. I think we are quick to label Mormons as bizarre only because theirs is a relatively recent religion. Under the microscope of skepticism, I don’t find any difference from an LDS church or the Catholic/Baptist/Lutheran, etc. church down the street. Is it appropriate to look at Mormonism with more scrutiny than the other monotheistic religions just because those religions have been around longer?

  • Joffan

    And the point, of course, is that most people are not interested in theology, but in community. Mormonism and Scientology, like mainstream religions, offer an instant supportive group to belong to.

  • mikespeir

    And the point, of course, is that most people are not interested in theology, but in community. Mormonism and Scientology, like mainstream religions, offer an instant supportive group to belong to.

    And that, sadly, is where atheism fails. I don’t know what the answer is, but I refuse to believe that cohesion only comes of delusion.

  • Adam

    [ring ring]“Hello Kettle? It’s pot…”

    Are you starting to get that the way you see Mormonism is how we see all religions?

    That was really funny. I started cracking up when I read this. Nice work.

    As far as your comment, I am sorry that you see all religions as bad. I appriciate the way that mormon’s try and evangelizing, but it’s too bad they not Catholic’s with they type of fire…giving up (what is it 2 years??) of their life to spread their faith. That has merit.

  • fh451

    …giving up (what is it 2 years??) of their life to spread their faith. That has merit

    As one who has actually given up 1 1/2 * years of their life to do just that, I disagree. While it does have positive aspects (learning a foreign language and some self-discipline), the time could have been much better spent doing humanitarian work, volunteering, two more years of college, heck, just about anything but going door-to-door trying to convince people you’re not really as nutty as you sound!

    *Normally, it is 2 years, but I went in at a time they were having a program of shorter missions in the hope that more young people would be encouraged to go. It didn’t work – missionary numbers dropped proportionate to the length.

  • Juliana

    What, a post on Mormons and no mention of special underwear? That always gets laughs at my house. My irreligious sweetie, raised a Baptist, delights in teasing me about my papist upbringing, but not as much as he does my LDS conversion at age 19. (Yeah, I took the long way ’round to disbelief…)

    We BOTH dig the South Park Mormon episode.

  • http://whyihatejesus.blogspot.com/ OMGF

    As far as your comment, I am sorry that you see all religions as bad.

    More wrong actually.

    I appriciate the way that mormon’s try and evangelizing, but it’s too bad they not Catholic’s with they type of fire…giving up (what is it 2 years??) of their life to spread their faith.

    Yeah, it’s always a good thing to spread unsubstantiated tall tales as fact to people in their own homes. Y’know, because people love to have others knock on their door and try to convert them.

  • http://www.ateosmexicanos.com/portal/ Juan Felipe

    Great post Ebon, is really nice to see beliefs aside from mainstream’s Christianity being written about in this series. I think is the first time I read something related to mormonism in this blog.

    When cults other than the Catholic church are criticised you might be but that feeling won’t last when we come after your cult.

    Now, that sounded like a threat. Tough I would really like to see a belief related to the catholic branch of christianity. May I suggest the veneration of saints? Specially bizarre, it seems, is the belief that people in heaven can intercede for us and get a result that wouldn’t have been achieved if we had prayed to God only. Why does an omniscient deity needs such a kind of intermediaries

  • Jim Baerg

    Why does an omniscient deity needs such a kind of intermediaries?

    http://www.partiallyclips.com/index.php?id=1083

    ;^)

  • John

    Mikespeir,

    “And that, sadly, is where atheism fails. I don’t know what the answer is, but I refuse to believe that cohesion only comes of delusion.”

    Atheism fails at more than just that, but at least you understand that much.

  • Virginia

    Smith was just not fortunate enough to have whole band of scribes, priests (as in Judiaism) to collaborate with — otherwise he would not have looked as stupid!

  • heliobates

    Atheism fails at more than just that, but at least you understand that much.

    I’m starting to think that “leading with your chin” is your idea of strategy.

  • John

    Huh!

  • http://www.daylightatheism.org Ebonmuse

    Under the microscope of skepticism, I don’t find any difference from an LDS church or the Catholic/Baptist/Lutheran, etc. church down the street. Is it appropriate to look at Mormonism with more scrutiny than the other monotheistic religions just because those religions have been around longer?

    Not at all. I think that Christianity in general has plenty of truly bizarre beliefs. Mormonism tops them only because it starts with all the Christian beliefs and then adds even more on top of it all.

    Plus, as I noted in my post Smoothing Out the Rough Edges, many religions start with initially bizarre, wild doctrines that gradually get reinterpreted to appeal more to mainstream sensibilities. As a relatively new religion, Mormonism hasn’t gone through as many iterations of this process as other Christian sects. However, even with the LDS, the smoothing out has begun and is clearly visible: consider their pivots on polygamy or ordaining blacks in the priesthood. While researching this article, I also came across evidence that the LDS church is trying to downplay Joseph Smith’s use of “seer stones” to translate the BoM, and is now teaching that he simply received revelations of the book’s text without any external devices for assistance.

  • heliobates

    Huh!

    1: Are you sure you’re not a PERL script?
    2: How do you know?

  • bestonnet

    StaceyJW:

    Catholicism = A virgin birth, resurrection, pay as you go “purgatory”- is this really any worse than Mormonism? It’s just that we have had thousands of years to get use to hearing that set of ridiculous lies, and the history is further away.

    Not to mention that there are a lot more Catholics than there are Mormons and that the Catholic church was once dominant in the western world (which causes some of their bad ideas to still linger, even among those who are otherwise secular).

    Then of course there is their bantustan in Italy.

    Adam:

    As far as your comment, I am sorry that you see all religions as bad.

    If someone believes something that is wrong they’ll probably act on it anyway, that tends to have undesirable results. Presenting something that is wrong as though it were the truth and you can’t possibly question it is inherently bad, it also happens to be what religion does.

    How could that not be bad?

    Adam:

    I appriciate the way that mormon’s try and evangelizing, but it’s too bad they not Catholic’s with they type of fire…giving up (what is it 2 years??) of their life to spread their faith. That has merit.

    Religious people tend to waste a lot of their life on pointless things like going to church, and here we have people wasting even more of their life on a falsehood and you think that’s good?

    Juan Felipe:

    Me:
    Adam:
    I’m glad I am Catholic with 2000 years of solid teaching

    When cults other than the Catholic church are criticised you might be but that feeling won’t last when we come after your cult.

    Now, that sounded like a threat.

    Well it is, we will criticise the catholic cult just as much as any other and we will not hold back from showing that it is based on nonsense just because we don’t want to hurt the feeling of a billion people.

    John:

    Atheism fails at more than just that, but at least you understand that much.

    Such as?

  • mikespeir

    Atheism fails at more than just that, but at least you understand that much.

    I don’t think I’d take too much comfort from the fact that atheism, per se, doesn’t provide for much cohesion, John. We’re not expecting it to. (For that matter, raw theism wouldn’t, either.) On the other hand, philosophical systems are developing based upon atheism–or, at least, not based on theism–that will turn the trick.

    And I’d like to echo bestonnet and ask what is it about atheism that you think fails.

  • Scotlyn

    What an interesting site – speaking as the estranged daughter of Christian missionaries (estranged from the teachings, not the parents) I certainly appreciate the deconstruction of the Bible to show what it is really saying, and not saying.

    Sorry this comment is so late, but it is pertinent to this particular article. You may be interested in a bit of lore that has been floating about my family for years. It seems we have an ancestor born Molly Sabin, who married a Reverend Spalding. He was an aspiring part-time novellist, and wrote a meandering account of the wanderings of the ten “lost” tribes of Israel, with them ending up in America. He would apparently bore his relations with readings from it, although, apparently, it was less than riveting. Nevertheless, as he struggled to find a publisher, his manuscript would languish from time to time in the hands of one publisher or another, and on one of those occasions went missing. Apparently, when the Book of Mormon was published a few years later, Rev Spalding’s relations recognized it for an edited version of what they had been listening to for all those years.

    I have no way of confirming this story, but it is an interesting one. On the other hand, if J Smith was relying on a manuscript that was already written down, he should easily have been able to recover any lost pages…so this account is not easy to reconcile with your story. Very interesting, nevertheless, and one wonders what human agendas the original Biblical authors were actually trying to do/prove with their words. Perhaps some of it originated as pure entertainment, and was only later adapted for purposes of social control.

  • Ken Whiton

    “I knew an old lady who swallowed a fly. I don’t know why she swallowed a fly. Perhaps she’ll die. She swallowed a spider to catch the fly which wiggled and jiggled and tickled inside her but I don’t know why she swallowed the fly. I saw…”

    The fly represents the first hint of accepting even the tiniest bit of the notion of anything supernatural. Once that is swallowed each succeeding step gets easier and more outlandish. Swallowing the idea that the supernatural exists leads to gods, God, the Old Testament God, the New Testament Jesus, Islam, Mormonism, Jehovaha’s Witnesses, Scientology… Once begun, there is no telling how far one will go.

  • Ken Whiton

    I’m actually glad to hear Christians talk about “praying and fasting.” That means they will have less time and energy to bother the rest of us. I always encourage them to do more.


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