They just keep on saying these things!

They just keep on saying these things! May 7, 2024

 

Baird artifacts
Twenty-first century re-creations of the golden plates, the Liahona, the Urim and Thummim, the sword of Laban, and the breastplate, made by David A. Baird, who also created the plates used in the Interpreter Foundation’s “Witnesses” film, which is now available on DVD and via streaming, as well as in the “Undaunted” docudrama and the associated short-feature videos.

A new self-published book advocating a novel theory for the origin of the Book of Mormon has recently appeared — the previous theories having, umm, not exactly swept the field before them.  It claims to have found the sources that were used to create the text of the  Book of Mormon.  Alas, though, this new theory seems itself to be meeting with an unenthusiastic reception, thus far.  And the doubts and criticisms aren’t coming from believing Latter-day Saints, who don’t yet seem to be paying it any attention (if, indeed, they ever will).  On the contrary: In my limited sampling, anyway, the book appears to be failing among disaffected former believers and those who hang out with them.  Some critics of the Church, of course, will accept it uncritically simply because it appears at first glance to cast doubt upon the claims of the Restoration.  The more thoughtful critics in my sample, though, have been making substantive arguments against it and are clearly unimpressed with it.

As of now, I’m disinclined to give the book any publicity here; I don’t think that it deserves attention.  Perhaps I’ll change my mind, but that’s where I currently come down.

I was struck, though, in reading some responses to the book to see one critic who said, in effect, “There’s no need for such elaborate theories as this one.  Joseph Smith wrote the book.  Period.  End of story.”

Now, that is certainly a position that can be argued.  And, over the past several decades, it has been argued.  What strikes me about this critic’s declaration, however, is not its content but, rather, the confident assurance with which he announces it — as if his position isn’t itself highly problematic and debatable, as if his decisive fiat actually accounted for all of the relevant historical data.

I won’t get into all of the evidences of genuine Semitic and pre-Columbian antiquity that many of us see in the Book of Mormon, and for which there exist literally thousands of pages of argumentation that have been generated since at least the 1950s.  I realize that those can be debated back and forth, or, as in the case of this particular critic, summarily dismissed by mere inattention.

I won’t mention here the amazing and multi-layered complexity of the Book of Mormon, which seems to evince a sophistication beyond the reach of the barely educated Joseph Smith in the latter half of the 1820s.  I won’t even mention the strong evidence for Joseph’s religious sincerity.

My focus here will simply be on the witnesses to the Book of Mormon, including not only the official Three Witnesses and the official Eight Witnesses but a handful of unofficial or informal witnesses who also offer powerful support to the narrative of the coming forth of the Book of Mormon given by Joseph Smith and taught since 1830 by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

These witnesses to the Book of Mormon take that narrative out the realm of pure subjectivity — limited to Joseph’s creative imagination or his possibly insane fantasy — and indicate that at least something “objective” seems to have occurred in connection with the emergence of the book.

Within the past week or two, I read an article about the origins of “Mormonism” in a British newspaper that confidently informed its readers that Joseph Smith was commanded to show his “plates” to absolutely nobody — the obvious insinuation being that such “plates” just never existed.  We are left to assume that they were figments of his imagination or the deliverance of hallucination, and very possibly part of a deliberate scam.

But this simply won’t do.

It’s flatly and lazily false that Joseph was commanded not to show his “plates” to anybody.  Here, for example, is a passage from the Book of Mormon itself:

12 Wherefore, at that day when the book shall be delivered unto the man of whom I have spoken, the book shall be hid from the eyes of the world, that the eyes of none shall behold it save it be that three witnesses shall behold it, by the power of God, besides him to whom the book shall be delivered; and they shall testify to the truth of the book and the things therein.

13 And there is none other which shall view it, save it be a few according to the will of God, to bear testimony of his word unto the children of men; for the Lord God hath said that the words of the faithful should speak as if it were from the dead.

14 Wherefore, the Lord God will proceed to bring forth the words of the book; and in the mouth of as many witnesses as seemeth him good will he establish his word; and wo be unto him that rejecteth the word of God!  (2 Nephi 27)

And here is a passage from a revelation that was given through Joseph Smith in Fayette, New York, sometime in June 1829:

1 Behold, I say unto you, that you must rely upon my word, which if you do with full purpose of heart, you shall have a view of the plates, and also of the breastplate, the sword of Laban, the Urim and Thummim, which were given to the brother of Jared upon the mount, when he talked with the Lord face to face, and the miraculous directors which were given to Lehi while in the wilderness, on the borders of the Red Sea.

2 And it is by your faith that you shall obtain a view of them, even by that faith which was had by the prophets of old.

3 And after that you have obtained faith, and have seen them with your eyes, you shall testify of them, by the power of God;

4 And this you shall do that my servant Joseph Smith, Jun., may not be destroyed, that I may bring about my righteous purposes unto the children of men in this work.

5 And ye shall testify that you have seen them, even as my servant Joseph Smith, Jun., has seen them; for it is by my power that he has seen them, and it is because he had faith.  (Doctrine and Covenants 17)

Moreover, as anybody who writes about this topic should know, Three Witnesses and an additional Eight Witnesses did indeed claim to have seen and/or to have “hefted” the plates of the Book of Mormon (and, in the case of the Three, to have seen each and every one of the objects enumerated above).  See here and here.

To write about the emergence of the Restoration while unaware of the claims of the Witnesses — and I’ve said nothing about the informal or unofficial additional witnesses, who are powerful and interesting in their own right — is, it seems to me, equivalent to dismissing early Christianity’s claim of Jesus’ resurrection from the dead on the grounds that nobody ever claimed to have seen him alive after his crucifixion, or to acknowledge that, yes, Japan attacked the American naval base at Pearl Harbor while expressing satisfaction that, fortunately, nobody was hurt during that attack.

And claiming that Joseph Smith wrote the Book of Mormon goes absolutely no distance toward explaining the fact that nearly twenty other people claimed to have seen the angel Moroni, seen the golden plates and other related artifacts, and/or heard the literal voice of God declaring it to be true.

Critics are certainly welcome to try to explain such claims away.  But to pretend that such claims were never made is surely either a gross offense against intellectual honesty or an illustration of disqualifying ignorance and incompetence.

The creation of the films Witnesses and Undaunted: Witnesses of the Book of Mormon and of the accompanying flotilla of short “Insights” videos was intended to make it more difficult for irresponsible writers and disingenuous critics to ignore the historical facts of the case.  We continue to hope that an ever-larger audience of Latter-day Saints and, yes, even of nonmembers of the Church will become familiar with these materials.  But we can’t do that by ourselves, so we welcome your help.  The films can be shown to family gatherings, neighborhood groups, and Church fireside audiences, used in classes,  If you enjoyed them, please share them.  And a whole new generation is arising that needs to see them, too.

P.S.  Another recent critic suggests that Joseph Smith depended heavily upon Adam Clarke’s biblical commentary.  Before buying into this idea, please see “Some Notes on Joseph Smith and Adam Clarke,” written by Kent P. Jackson and published in Interpreter: A Journal of Latter-day Saint Faith and Scholarship 40 (2020): 15-60.

 

 

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