Fourth Crack: Researching Church History

Part of a series about My Faith Journey.

Fair warning: If you consider yourself to be a true-believing Mormon and you don't want to read faith-challenging information, now would be a good time to stop reading.

So at this point, my faith in the modern day prophets and apostles was shot, but I thought to myself, at least the origins of the church are still sound, right? Well, at the beginning of March of 2016, I stumbled into some information about early church history that demolished the last strand of faith that I had left.

The Book of Abraham

One night while perusing YouTube, I stumbled across this video:

The Lost Book of Abraham

The BoA is purported to be a literal translation from ancient Egyptian papyri written by Abraham himself. It contains an account of the creation and an attempt on Abraham's life. The scroll, one believed to be destroyed, was found in the late 60's, and numerous scholarly translations have been made by both LDS and non-LDS scholars. It has been shown to be a common, Egyptian, funerary document written at the death of a priest named Hor(us). The scroll contains no mention of Abraham whatsoever. Carbon dating shows that the scroll was written 2000 years after Abraham's life.

There can be no doubt that it is the very scroll Joseph Smith used to "translate" from, as the reverse side contains Emma Smith's signature, and blueprints for the Kirtland temple. There are numerous portions (lacunae) missing from the facsimiles in the BoA, and someone made crude hand-drawings to complete the facsimiles. (For example, in Facsimile #1 the "idolatrous priest of Elkenah" attempting to kill Abraham is supposed to be the Egyptian god Anubis, a detail obvious to any Egyptologist.) On those occasions where Egyptian characters were missing in the lacunae, random characters were copied over from the Egyptian Book of Breathings. (Sometimes the characters were copied upside-down.)

The Book of Abraham is a "smoking gun" that exposes Joseph Smith as a fraud and puts the lie to his claimed translation abilities. (I later learned that this is not the only occasion where Joseph Smith's translation abilities have been exposed as fraudulent: the Kinderhook plates and the Greek Psalter incident are two other examples.)

Since the secular translations have been made, the church has been trying to sell a "catalyst" theory, claiming that the papyri were simply an aid that prompted Joseph to receive a revelation. This directly contradicts Joseph Smith's own claims (still present in the Pearl of Great Price) that it was "written by his [Abraham's] own hand, upon papyrus." As a side-note, church leaders have had over 50 years to ask for some revelation from God that would clear up these discrepancies, but during this time, no revelation has come forth.

I shared this information with my wife and she was a bit nonplussed about it. But I'm glad I shared this information early on to her rather than keeping things bottled up. During the time I battled with depression, I learned (the hard way) about the folly of bottling up my emotions & problems. Much better to get it out in the open.

Side note: I learned that the BoA papyrus is actually a funeral text for an Egyptian priest named "Osiris Hor" (being named partly after the Egyptian god). Interestingly, Osiris is usually described as the god of the dead / underworld / afterlife, but more broadly, Osiris, is the god of transition / resurrection / regeneration. The word "transition" leaps out at me. Sure enough, learning the truth of the BoA triggered my faith transition, so let's give Osiris credit for living up to his description.

The Book of Mormon

At this point, my mind was in a tailspin. I began to rationalize, telling myself things like "Okay, maybe Joseph Smith got the Book of Abraham wrong, but the Book of Mormon is still rock-solid, right?" So, I felt compelled to investigate the Book of Mormon.

I remember when I was a kid reading a challenge called "Could you write the Book of Mormon?" Apparently, this was part of a handout that Hugh Nibley would pass out to students on the first day of his Book of Mormon Studies class. I searched for something that could answer this challenge and I found this article at the Utah Lighthouse Ministry. (I later found this podcast episode which addresses the challenge as well.)

In short, the Book of Mormon does not meet the Book of Mormon challenge.

From there, it was a short hop to get to MormonThink where I learned numerous other problematic aspects of the Book of Mormon:

Joseph Smith

My head was really spinning now. I felt like the rug had been pulled out from underneath me and I was stumbling around trying to find my balance. At this point, I was seriously starting to question the character of this guy called Joseph Smith. All of my life, I had been taught that he was a truly righteous individual, who received divine gifts & authority directly from God. There's this statement recorded in LDS scripture that I often heard repeated at church that shows the level of respect that is given to Joseph Smith:

"Joseph Smith, the Prophet and Seer of the Lord, has done more, save Jesus only, for the salvation of men in this world, than any other man that ever lived in it. In the short space of twenty years, he has brought forth the Book of Mormon, which he translated by the gift and power of God, and has been the means of publishing it on two continents; has sent the fulness of the everlasting gospel, which it contained, to the four quarters of the earth; has brought forth the revelations and commandments which compose this book of Doctrine and Covenants, and many other wise documents and instructions for the benefit of the children of men; gathered many thousands of the Latter-day Saints, founded a great city, and left a fame and name that cannot be slain. He lived great, and he died great in the eyes of God and his people; and like most of the Lord’s anointed in ancient times, has sealed his mission and his works with his own blood; and so has his brother Hyrum. In life they were not divided, and in death they were not separated!" D&C 135:3

So, just how great was this guy, really...

First Vision Problems

I soon learned that there are numerous, conflicting accounts of the First Vision. They differ as to Joseph Smith's age when it occurred, the number of heavenly beings he claims to have seen, his motivation for praying, and the charge he received as a result.

The earliest First Vision account appears 12 years after it was purported to have occurred. The official First Vision account, currently contained in the Pearl of Great Price was published a full 22 years after it purportedly occurred.

In the 1832 account, Joseph said that before praying he knew that there was no true or living faith or denomination upon the earth as built by Jesus Christ in the New Testament. In the official 1838 account, Joseph said his "object in going to inquire of the Lord was to know which of all the sects was right, that I might know which to join"..."(for at this time it had never entered into my heart that all were wrong).” These two statements are in direct contradiction to each other.

In 1823, Joseph Smith recorded in one of his journals that he prayed to to learn "the all important information, if a Supreme being did exist". Why would he need to pray about this if he had seen one or more supreme beings three years earlier? Records show that in 1828, Joseph Smith attempted to join the Methodist church. Why would he do this if he had been told 8 years earlier (by God himself) that he should join none of the existing churches?

I also learned that "first vision" style accounts were very common during the early 19th century. Joseph Smith was likely mimicking a cultural meme of his time. There is even evidence which suggests that Joseph Smith might have plagiarized other people's "visionary" accounts.

Polygamy / Polyandry

Joseph Smith was married to at least 34 other women, 11 of whom were in their teens and 11 of whom were already married to other, living, men. All of this information is available on FamilySearch.org, the church's own website / genealogical database. I remember hearing about plenty of other polygamous early church leaders, but I never learned that Joseph Smith practiced it.

Worth noting: He didn't stay with any of those wives for very long. He didn't provide for them or support them. This raised a rather ugly question: Were these really "wives", or were they just affairs being dressed up in spiritual language?

Other Issues

Kirtland bank scandal.

Sending Danites to raid / burn / loot the property of apostates and enemies of the church.

Ordering that the Nauvoo Expositor be burned for publishing about JS's polygamy.

LDS Temple Ceremony

I learned just how much the temple ceremony has changed over the years. This was kind of alarming. This raises the question: if the temple ceremony was supposed to be part of the "restoration of all things", then why have church officials changed it so many times? Perhaps most disturbing was learning about the "penalties" that used to be in it, where people would pantomime their own gruesome deaths (throat slitting, having your heart cut out, and disembowelment).

I also learned that the handshakes, signs, tokens, and (former) penalties taught in the temple come 100% from Freemasonry. Joseph Smith came up with the Mormon temple ceremony a mere 7 weeks after being ordained as a Master Mason. The earliest origins of Masonry date to the 12th century A.D. The earliest 'making' of a Freemason occurs in the 17th century. Question: If God wanted to give us signs that we would need to give angels in order to enter heaven, why would he give those signs to a pagan organization in the middle of the Great Apostasy?

If the intent of the secret temple ceremony is to prevent unworthy people from entering heaven, it's been an abject failure. Every Freemason, every once-temple-endowed apostate, and for that matter, anyone with an Internet connection can learn about the signs and tokens. It is worthy of note that the "penalties" (wherein temple patrons pantomime gruesome ways of killing themselves) were removed from the Masonic temple ceremony in 1986. Four years later, the LDS church removed those penalties from their own temple ceremony. The Mormon church was copying the Masons back then, and they're still copying them now.

I've also learned that temple work has been done for some names up to ten times over. This seems woefully inefficient and bad bookkeeping, certainly not in keeping with a "house of order". In addition, I have learned that temple work has been performed for such despicable persons as Adolf Hitler and Eva Braun. This disgusts me.

I also asked myself this question: If someone (say, some sweet little old granny) had lived a good and charitable life, would God really deny their entry into heaven if they couldn't give him some secret handshakes? Similarly, would God allow an apostate entry to heaven who knows the handshakes but has lived a sinful life? that sounds like a very cruel and capricious God to me. Where is the scriptural backing for any of this?

Official Answers

I had read a fair amount of critical observations of the Mormon church, so I wanted to get some "official" answers. I learned about the word "apologetics": it doesn't mean "saying your sorry", it means "arguments in defense of a faith".

FAIR

I soon found FAIR. They claim to give "faithful answers to criticisms of the LDS church". The problem I had was that the answers they gave were... ludicrous. Horses are tapirs? The Book of Abraham scroll was a "source of inspiration"? There were other people here before the Nephites and Lamanites arrived? In many ways, these lousy apologetics hurt my testimony (much) more than they helped.

Another problem, these weren't "official" answers anyway. At the bottom of each page, they say "Any opinions expressed, implied, or included in or with the goods and services offered by FairMormon are solely those of FairMormon and not those of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints." How are their opinions better than any other crackpot on the Internet?

Church Essays

Shortly thereafter I found that the church had published a series of essays addressing these difficult issues. "Finally," I thought, "I can get some official answers!" I was hoping, more than anything, to read denials / refutations of the disturbing things I'd read.

To my horror, I discovered that the essays supported and legitimized everything I'd read from the so-called "anti" sites -- and the apologetic sites as well! Even more disturbing was the language used in the essays ("carefully worded denials", "a few months shy of her 15th birthday"). I felt like I was being "handled" or being given some sleazy sales pitch.  

Another question occurred to me: Where were these essays 10 years ago? Or 20? Or 50? Or 100? Why has the church not plainly taught its members (or investigators) the truth about their history since day one? Would the Church have ever published these essays if members weren't finding out about the truth from other non-LDS sources?

Moreover, in the past, the church dismissed these things as "anti-mormon lies". Now, the church acknowledges that these are historical facts. Well, if they were always facts, why did the church brand them as "anti-mormon lies" in the first place? This gave me some serious trust issues. I had to wonder what else the church was trying to hide.

I was upset that the church hasn't been more forthcoming about the facts of their history. Integrity is very important to me. Honesty is very important to me. I am of the belief that people should be consistent in what they think, what they say, and what they do, and that those things should all be truthful. The church has not been honest in how they present their history. They have dissembled, prevaricated, and outright lied about significant events that they claim have (and haven't) happened. Making matters worse, by hiding the unpleasant and embarrassing aspects of their history, the church has effectively left landmines for members to stumble upon (just as I did).

In the past, the church was able to hide their secrets pretty well, but in the information age, there are no secrets anymore. I have learned that my experience is not unique. I contacted some friends who I knew had left the church and learned that they had discovered the same disturbing facts years ago. I found the Mormon Stories podcast and learned about other people's faith crises. I learned that many people have unwittingly stumbled upon the seedier facts about church history and lost their faith as a result. It's happened to missionaries, bishops, stake presidents, CES (Church Education System) directors, and just ordinary Joe members like me. The path I had gone down was a very well-trodden one.

Up until now, I was thinking that maybe the church had started off as "good" and "divinely restored" and whatnot, and that the modern church had "fallen away" somehow. But now I knew that these disturbing facts were known by the modern church leaders, and every previous generation of church leaders as well. It was right then that I concluded that the leaders of the church have engaged in a systematic program of deception that extends all the way back to the founding years. My shelf crashed, my testimony was shattered, and my heart was broken. Words cannot express the sense of betrayal I felt.

At that moment, I thought I was done with the church for good, but there was still one, last, niggling, item: the spiritual witness I had obtained as a teen. What about that..?