Mormonism, Golden Plates, and Egyptian Papyri

This post is another excerpt from one of the draft chapters from my book beta-testing project.

In our tolerant, multicultural age, for a lot of people it’s not just their own religion they think highly of. Instead, they carry around in their heads a short list of religions that they see as the good religions. It seems to be based on what religions are familiar with, and maybe what religions were covered in their world religions class in high school. Typically this means Christianity, Judaism, Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism, maybe Confucianism, maybe Taoism.

But when they hear about a religion they’re not so familiar with, then they still think that’s crazy. This can also happen with unfamiliar parts of the familiar religion. Hinduism that’s all about yoga and reincarnation and karma is one thing, Hinduism with funny-looking gods and “Hare Krishna” is another. But here, to make this point as clearly as possible, I’m going to use Mormonism (a.k.a. the Church of Latter Day Saints or LDS) as my example.

Mormonism is an offshoot of Christianity that was founded in the early 19th century United States by a man named Joseph Smith. Now probably most people in the United States are aware of Mormonism. We’ve got a Mormon, Mitt Romney, running for president after all. But they’re still not aware of the details, which puts Mormonism in the strange and frankly weird column for them. So let’s talk about what Mormons believe.

Golden plates and Egyptian papyri

Mormonism got started when a young man named Joseph Smith, who was living in New York at the time, claimed that an angel named Moroni directed him to a hill where he dug up some golden plates with ancient writing on them. Smith claimed that along with the plates, he found the biblical “Urim and Thummim,” which in his version were stones that allowed him to supernaturally translate the writing on the plates. From the historical records we have of the time, it appears that Smith kept what he claimed were the plates wrapped in cloth and generally wouldn’t let other people see the unwrapped plates.

Smith dictated his “translation” to a friend of his named Martin Harris. Harris wanted to show the manuscript they were working on to his wife. Smith refused at  first, but eventually let agreed to. This led to the manuscript getting lost. At this point Smith got a new scribe, a man named Oliver Cowdery. For what happened next, I’m going to quote from a Mormon biographer of Smith named Richard Bushman:

By May 1829, Jospeh and Cowdery had not yet translated what are now the opening books of the Book of Mormon. After the loss of the 116 pages, Joseph did not begin again at the beginning. Joseph and Emma took up the translation where Joseph and Harris had broken off the previous June… In May he received a revelation telling him not to retranslate. Were he to bring out a new translation contradicting the first version, the people who had stolen the manuscript would say that “he has lied in his words, and that he has no gift,” and claim “that you have pretended to translate, but that you have contradicted your words.” Another component of the record, the plates of Nephi, the revelation said, covered the same period. Joseph was to translate them instead and publish them as the record of Nephi. In late May or June, probably after the rest of the book was done, he and Cowdery began work on I Nephi.

This is the point in the story of Joseph Smith where every non-Mormon who hears the story thinks “What the hell? If Joseph Smith was really translating these plates supernaturally, why didn’t he retranslate what he already translated, so that the consistency of the two translations would verify his claims?” The fact that Mormons don’t see it this way is a pretty good example of how far people can go in ignoring problems with their own religious beliefs.

This isn’t the only strong clue that Joseph Smith was a fraud. Later on, he got access to some Egyptian papyri (papyrus is a primitive form of paper), which he “translated” to produce the Book of Abraham, which the Mormon church claims as scripture to this day. But Egyptologists who’ve examined the papyri that Smith supposedly translated the Book of Abraham from have repeatedly declared Smith’s interpretation bogus.

This is an important way in which Mormonism isn’t an exact parallel for other major religions. The thing about Mormonism is that we have so much better historical records of its founding. You could never write as good of a biography for Moses or Jesus or Mohammed or the Buddha as you can for Joseph Smith. That’s why we have these embarrassing details about Smith’s life. We don’t have similar embarrassing details for those other founders, but that’s not because we have detailed historical records which never once cast doubt on the claims of the religions they founded. Rather, we don’t have good historical records of any kind. Cases like Mormonism, though, make you wonder what we would know if we did have such records.

Still, the parallels between what Mormons say in defense of Mormonism and what members of other religions say in defense of those religions is striking. For example, it’s popular among evangelical Christians in the US to claim that the resurrection of Jesus can be proven with historical evidence. And sometimes, when Christian apologists (defenders of the faith, the word comes from the Greek word for “defense” and has nothing to do with the modern English “apology”) are trying to defend this claim and they find themselves backed into a bit of a corner, the argument they’ll pull out is that “well, the Bible says Jesus rose from the dead, and skeptics can’t provide any evidence that he didn’t rise from the dead, so the objective historian must accept that Jesus rose from the dead.”

Similarly, Bushman argues, “Since the people who knew Joseph the best treat the plates as fact, a skeptical analysis lacks evidence. A series of surmises replaces a documented narrative” (p. 58). This is an argument that everyone who is not a Mormon can tell is completely ridiculous. And it’s just as convincing as the argument that Christians sometimes use about the resurrection of Jesus.

Or, in spite of the obviously suspicious circumstances around of the “discovery” of the Book of Mormon, Smith somehow managed to get Martin Harris, Oliver Cowdery, and a third man, David Whitmer, to sign a statement saying that an angel appeared to them to verify the truth of everything that Smith was telling them about the plates and his “translation” of them. Smith also got eight other men to sign a statement verifying that the plates existed. This is way better evidence than we have for any miracle associated with the founder of any other major religion, but of course this isn’t evidence that non-Mormons find very convincing, nor should they. Maybe Smith coerced those men into lying, maybe it was something else, who knows? If you can understand that, you should have no trouble understanding why atheists don’t find the “evidence” for the miracles of the founder of your religion convincing.

Then there’s the argument that holy book X could not possibly have been written without divine guidance. Here’s Bushman’s version of it. Bushman says that the idea that Joseph Smith made up the book of Mormon…

…is at odds with the Joseph Smith of the historical record. The accounts of the neighbors picture an unambitious, uneducated, treasure-seeking Joseph, who had never written anything and is not known to have read anything but the Bible and perhaps the newspaper… To account for the disjuncture between the Book of Mormon’s complexity and Joseph’s history as an uneducated rural visionary, the composition theory calls for a precocious genius of extraordinary powers who was voraciously consuming information without anyone knowing it (p. 72).

Once again (and I apologize if this is getting repetitious), this isn’t an argument that will convince non-Mormons. Many non-Mormons who’ve read the Book of Mormon say it reads like a bad imitation of the King James Bible—exactly what you would expect if it was written by someone who’d never read anything but the Bible.

Tweaking the “beta testing a book” project
Which is worse: Scientology or the Catholic Church?
Avoiding divorce doesn’t make you a traditionalist
Sources documenting what the Catholic Church has (and has not) defrocked priests for?
  • raven

    We have many examples of religions invented in the light of modern history.



    Moonie-ism. Jesus Christ II, aka as Rev. Sun Myung Moon is still alive.

    We know how these religions came about. Some guy just made a whole bunch of stuff up.

    Joseph Smith was a convicted conman before he got into the religion racket. He was a treasure hunter of some sort who defrauded a few people. His court records for fraud in New England still exist. IIRC, the courts transferred the records to the LDS church.

    • sosw

      We have many examples of religions invented in the light of modern history.

      We know how these religions came about. Some guy just made a whole bunch of stuff up.

      It doesn’t even always take someone with ambitions to be a cult leader to make up a new religion.

      Rastafarianism includes a belief in a living (up until relatively recently) “new incarnation of Christ”. Their living incarnation not only didn’t found but wasn’t even involved with or subscribe to the religion.

      • Jim Christensen

        I think an important distinction in that “religions” like Mormonism and Moonieism are not actually original, but derivative.

        I disinguish these of course from scientology, because if you study Ron Hubbards biography he as much as admitted that he was simply creating a new movement as a money making proposition.

        And of course people die for lies…Millions died for Marist Leninism…but they don’t generally die for something the KNOW is a lie.

        • sosw

          I wouldn’t attribute any single motive for Scientology. While money-making was obviously one goal and probably the primary original goal of Dianetics, by the time it transformed into Scientology it was also driven by L. Ron Hubbard’s mental health issues and need to protect his narcissistic ego. He certainly believed many of the things he taught in Scientology.

          Dianetics was typical of the kind of “self-help” woo that became popular around that time. Such schemes are still popular today, based on different kinds of woo (from the psychological woo of motivational speakers to the medical woo of the likes of Deepak Chopra), and are extremely profitable but seldom all that cultish.

  • patrick jlandis

    I heard that Martin Harris’ wife purposely hid the original manuscript, is that not an accepted part of the Mormon story?

    • vinnyjh57

      That’s the South Park version, but I haven’t seen any historians make that claim (although I have only read a handful of books that deal with that period in Mormon history).

  • Francisco Bacopa

    I always wondered about the golden plates.Gold bends and deforms easily, so the plates would have to be pretty thick to not get too beat up to read. So how many plates would we need to write the Book of Mormon? How much would they weigh? Would you need a super heavy wagon and a mule team to transport them? Two or more wagons? Didn’t people think of this problem back in the day?

    The most plausible answer to these issues is that the plates were actually some kind of digital media device similar to a Kindle or iPad. Oh, wait, that’s the second most plausible answer.

  • tommykey

    Another analogy between Mormonism and early Christianity is that Christian apologists declare that the early Christians would not have died for a lie. But the early Mormons frequently endured persecution and some were even murdered, including Joseph Smith himself. So either Mormonism is true or Joseph Smith did die for a lie, and if he could, so could the early Christians.

    • J. Quinton

      The analogy goes further. I think it was Rodney Stark’s analysis of the growth rate of early Christianity where he showed that it was similar to Mormonism’s growth rate. A lot of Christian apologists claim that Christianity’s growth rate was a miracle and that also validates the truth of Christianity. If that logic were so, it would also be true for Mormonism.

    • Aaron Ross

      The distinction is that Joseph Smith did not willingly lay down his life. He had a gun and tried to take people with him when the mob swarmed him.

  • Somite

    This is excellent. Thank you.

  • raven

    Another analogy between Mormonism and early Christianity is that Christian apologists declare that the early Christians would not have died for a lie.

    One of the dumber things the xians say.

    People die for lies every day. The current champions are the Moslem suicide bombers. Mohammed Atta and the 18 other 9/11 jet airplane hijackers are enjoying their 72 virgins each in heaven. Joined by uncountable suicide bombers since then.

    If dying is a criterion for truthiness, Islam is the truest of the True Religions.

    • mnb0
    • Sids

      If I can play devil’s advocate for a post… As Aaron Ross said above, the argument that Christians make is that the early Christians would have had to knowingly and willingly die for a lie. If the Islamist terrorists really believed their doctrine then it’s not surprising that they would off themselves. The difference is that the early Christians supposedly weren’t believing only because of indoctrination, but because they had seen the proof themselves.

      A good story teller might be able to convince someone to the point that they would kill themselves for it, but if the person was physically at the event and has seen that it didn’t happen,then they would know that it isn’t true and wouldn’t willingly allow themselves to be killed for it. That’s the idea anyway.

      The reasoning is silly enough already, there’s no reason to go beating up straw men.

  • San Ban

    But Jesus was born of a virgin! No other religion has a virgin giving birth to a god!

  • MrNirom

    You said: This is the point in the story of Joseph Smith where every non-Mormon who hears the story thinks “What the hell? If Joseph Smith was really translating these plates supernaturally, why didn’t he retranslate what he already translated, so that the consistency of the two translations would verify his claims?”

    Let me try to put it in better context for you.

    From the time that Joseph had first seen the plates… he was 17 years old. 4 years later he was finally given permission to remove the plates from the ground and take them into his possession. During that four year period of time, Joseph suffered much persecution and there were many to did what they could to obtain the plates before Joseph even had them. After getting the plates and translating the first 116 pages, he did indeed give the manuscript to Martin Harris after the Lord had already told him twice… no. The third time he asked the Lord gave him permission.

    After Martin returned without the manuscript, the Lord took away the plates and the translators therefore removing the gift from Joseph to translate. After a period of time and much repenting on Joseph’s part, the translation continued. Only Joseph received a revelation from God stating the following:

    And because you have delivered the writings into his hands, behold, wicked men have taken them from you.
    9 Therefore, you have delivered them up, yea, that which was sacred, unto wickedness.
    10 And, behold, Satan hath put it into their hearts to alter the words which you have caused to be written, or which you have translated, which have gone out of your hands.
    11 And behold, I say unto you, that because they have altered the words, they read contrary from that which you translated and caused to be written;
    12 And, on this wise, the devil has sought to lay a cunning plan, that he may destroy this work;
    13 For he hath put into their hearts to do this, that by lying they may say they have caught you in the words which you have pretended to translate.
    14 Verily, I say unto you, that I will not suffer that Satan shall accomplish his evil design in this thing.
    15 For behold, he has put it into their hearts to get thee to tempt the Lord thy God, in asking to translate it over again.
    16 And then, behold, they say and think in their hearts—We will see if God has given him power to translate; if so, he will also give him power again;
    17 And if God giveth him power again, or if he translates again, or, in other words, if he bringeth forth the same words, behold, we have the same with us, and we have altered them;
    18 Therefore they will not agree, and we will say that he has lied in his words, and that he has no gift, and that he has no power;
    19 Therefore we will destroy him, and also the work; and we will do this that we may not be ashamed in the end, and that we may get glory of the world.
    20 Verily, verily, I say unto you, that Satan has great hold upon their hearts; he stirreth them up to iniquity against that which is good;
    21 And their hearts are corrupt, and full of wickedness and abominations; and they love darkness rather than light, because their deeds are evil; therefore they will not ask of me.
    22 Satan stirreth them up, that he may lead their souls to destruction.
    23 And thus he has laid a cunning plan, thinking to destroy the work of God; but I will require this at their hands, and it shall turn to their shame and condemnation in the day of judgment.
    24 Yea, he stirreth up their hearts to anger against this work.
    25 Yea, he saith unto them: Deceive and lie in wait to catch, that ye may destroy; behold, this is no harm. And thus he flattereth them, and telleth them that it is no sin to lie that they may catch a man in a lie, that they may destroy him.
    26 And thus he flattereth them, and leadeth them along until he draggeth their souls down to hell; and thus he causeth them to catch themselves in their own snare.
    27 And thus he goeth up and down, to and fro in the earth, seeking to destroy the souls of men.
    28 Verily, verily, I say unto you, wo be unto him that lieth to deceive because he supposeth that another lieth to deceive, for such are not exempt from the justice of God.
    29 Now, behold, they have altered these words, because Satan saith unto them: He hath deceived you—and thus he flattereth them away to do iniquity, to get thee to tempt the Lord thy God.
    30 Behold, I say unto you, that you shall not translate again those words which have gone forth out of your hands;
    31 For, behold, they shall not accomplish their evil designs in lying against those words. For, behold, if you should bring forth the same words they will say that you have lied and that you have pretended to translate, but that you have contradicted yourself.
    32 And, behold, they will publish this, and Satan will harden the hearts of the people to stir them up to anger against you, that they will not believe my words.
    33 Thus Satan thinketh to overpower your testimony in this generation, that the work may not come forth in this generation.
    34 But behold, here is wisdom, and because I show unto you wisdom, and give you commandments concerning these things, what you shall do, show it not unto the world until you have accomplished the work of translation.

    So that is the main reason Joseph did not translate the same 116 pages… because the Lord told him not to.