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: