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.

Sources documenting what the Catholic Church has (and has not) defrocked priests for?
Tweaking the "beta testing a book" project
Peter van Inwagen's argument for Christianity
Catholics: why aren't you Protestant?

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