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, once 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 on a bill of sale when she sold the scroll, and blueprints for the Kirtland temple.

There are numerous portions missing from the facsimiles (called lacunae) in the BoA, and someone made crude hand-drawings to fill in the missing parts. (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 the Dead. (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.)

And the thing that stunned me more than anything else was: The scrolls were rediscovered in 1966, which means that this information has been available for my entire life... and no one ever told me about it. I never heard it discussed in four and a half decades of dutiful church attendance.

I later learned that Joseph Smith's fraudulent translation was exposed way back in 1912 in the New York Times.

Since scholarly translations have been made, the church has admitted (or rather, been forced to admit) that the scrolls are not written by Abraham and that the text on the scroll does not yield the translation Joseph Smith produce. They are now trying to sell a "catalyst" theory, claiming that the papyri were simply an aid that prompted Joseph to receive a revelation. This 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.

See also:

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. Maybe he 'strayed from the true path', or lost his gift of translation, or something, 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 about numerous other problems with the Book of Mormon.

Bible concerns

The BoM contains translation errors in the Bible passages it quotes. These are errors that were present in the 1769 King James version of the Bible, the very version that the Smith family would have owned. The Isaiah portion of 2nd Nephi quotes passages that were not written until after Lehi's family left Jerusalem with the brass plates.

Anachronisms

The BoM describes a people that had steel weapons, chariots, horses, cattle, goats, swine, elephants, wheat, barley, coins, silk, honey bees, and a 7-day calendar. Archaeologists have found no trace of any of these things that date to pre-Colombian times. Conspicuously absent from the BoM, are various plants and animals that were native to Mesoamerica: tapirs, llamas, cocoa, lima beans, squash, guava, tamarinds, papaya, etc. The Lord told the Brother of Jared that the ships he built (~4000BC) could not have windows, for they would be dashed into pieces. Glass windows would not be invented until the 3rd century A.D. by the Romans (in a primitive form) and later in 11th century Germany (in a more modern form).

There are numerous other anachronisms in the Book of Mormon.

Names

Many of the names / places described in the BoM bear a striking resemblance to the names of cities and landmarks in upstate New York where Joseph lived.

This book (available in Joseph Smith's time) contains a bevy of names from the Bible & Apocrypha, many of which show up in the Book of Mormon.

DNA

On various occasions, the Book of Mormon asserts that the ancient inhabitants of the Americas are of Israelite descent. Some examples:

Alma 10:3 And Aminadi was a descendant of Nephi, who was the son of Lehi, who came out of the land of Jerusalem, who was a descendant of Manasseh, who was the son of Joseph who was sold into Egypt by the hands of his brethren.

Lehi is a descendant of Joseph, through Manasseh. It goes without saying that Joseph was one of the sons of Jacob/Israel.

Omni 1:14 And they discovered a people, who were called the people of Zarahemla. Now, there was great rejoicing among the people of Zarahemla; and also Zarahemla did rejoice exceedingly, because the Lord had sent the people of Mosiah with the plates of brass which contained the record of the Jews.

Omni 1:15 Behold, it came to pass that Mosiah discovered that the people of Zarahemla came out from Jerusalem at the time that Zedekiah, king of Judah, was carried away captive into Babylon.

Helaman 6:10 Now the land south was called Lehi, and the land north was called Mulek, which was after the son of Zedekiah; for the Lord did bring Mulek into the land north, and Lehi into the land south.

Helaman 8:21 And now will you dispute that Jerusalem was destroyed? Will ye say that the sons of Zedekiah were not slain, all except it were Mulek? Yea, and do ye not behold that the seed of Zedekiah are with us, and they were driven out of the land of Jerusalem? But behold, this is not all—

Mulek  is the only surviving son of Zedekiah, the last King of Judah, which would give the Mulekites Jewish ancestry.

3 Nephi 16:7 Behold, because of their belief in me, saith the Father, and because of the unbelief of you, O house of Israel, in the latter day shall the truth come unto the Gentiles, that the fulness of these things shall be made known unto them.

3 Nephi 16:8 But wo, saith the Father, unto the unbelieving of the Gentiles—for notwithstanding they have come forth upon the face of this land, and have scattered my people who are of the house of Israel; and my people who are of the house of Israel have been cast out from among them, and have been trodden under feet by them;

Jesus himself is speaking in these verses and proclaiming that the Nephites and Lamanites are of the house of Israel.

Mormon 7:1 And now, behold, I would speak somewhat unto the remnant of this people who are spared, if it so be that God may give unto them my words, that they may know of the things of their fathers; yea, I speak unto you, ye remnant of the house of Israel; and these are the words which I speak:

Mormon 7:2 Know ye that ye are of the house of Israel.

Mormon is clearly stating that the Lamanites / Native Americans are of the house of Israel.

Geneticists have performed numerous studies on the DNA of the native inhabitants of the Americas and have discovered that they all originate from Asia.(This supports the theory long-held by anthropologists that the Americas were populated by humans crossing the bering strait during the Ice Age.)  No Middle-Eastern DNA has ever been found. This is another "smoking gun" that thoroughly discredits a central claim of the BoM.

<< need the bit about the Lemba tribe here >>

<< also, Neanderthals >>

Following this DNA discovery, the church changed the text of the Introduction of the BoM from "After thousands of years, all were destroyed except the Lamanites, and they are the principal ancestors of the American Indians." to "they are among the ancestors of the American Indians." The Book of Mormon is supposed to be "the most correct book of any book on earth". If so, why did the Introduction need to be corrected? In addition, this correction contradicts the claims made by modern and past prophets and apostles -- not to mention the Book of Mormon itself -- that there were no other inhabitants in the Americas prior to Lehi's family.

Method of translation

For decades, the correlated narrative has been that Joseph Smith translated the characters off of the golden plates with the use of a Urim and Thummim. Similarly, official church artwork has depicted Joseph Smith studiously reading characters off the Golden Plates, running his fingertip along the engravings, while a nearby scribe writes what he says. However, over the years, rumors have circulated that Joseph Smith might have used a "peep stone" instead. These rumors have been roundly denied by church officials.

See this article:  The Process of Translating the Book of Mormon written by BYU professor Joseph Fielding McConkie in 2000 which argues against the "peepstone in a hat" method. (In other words, the author claims that that translation method was never used.)

Note also this quote from Joseph Fielding Smith:

"While the statement has been made by some writers that the Prophet Joseph Smith used a seer stone part of the time in his translating of the record, and information points to the fact that he did have in his possession such a stone, yet there is no authentic statement in the history of the Church which states that the use of such a stone was made in that translation. The information is all hearsay, and personally, I do not believe that this stone was used for this purpose." -- Joseph Fielding Smith, Doctrines of Salvation, 3:225–26.

<< I think there's one more quote from the guy that talked about meeting Mick Jagger on an airplane. >>

The TV show South Park introduced many people to the "peepstone in a hat" method of "translation". Numerous historians have poured through church historical documents and found eyewitness accounts of Joseph Smith's translation process, saying that he read the words of the Book of Mormon by shoving his face into a hat and looking at a peepstone at the bottom. The documents go on to say that while Joseph translated, the Golden Plates were nowhere to be seen. They were either in another room, or out in the woods somewhere.

Since the truth has come out and proven to be undeniable, the church has released an essay describing the real process used. They have even published photos of said peepstone.

This raises some troubling questions:

Language Issues

One other specious issue: Why did Joseph Smith translate the B of M into Elizabethan (King James-style) English? It doesn't make any sense. If I was to translate a document from another language into English, I would translate it into modern English, not Old English. During Joseph Smith's time, Elizabethan English was already archaic. There is no reason why he should've written it that way, unless he wanted to make it sound more "Biblical".

Sources used

In 1823, a preacher named Ethan Smith (no relation to Joseph) published a book called View of the Hebrews, which describes Jewish settlers sailing from Jerusalem to the New World, and establishing a colony which divided into two tribes: one industrious and God-fearing, the other savage and warlike. It also quotes extensively from Isaiah and depicts a man standing on a wall pronouncing God's judgement on a city while the inhabitants shoot arrows at him. It describes a society that changes from a monarchy to a republic, is visited by the Messiah, and is eventually destroyed when the warlike faction overpowers the civilized faction.

I vividly remember reading this synopsis of View of the Hebrews on MormonThink one night. I began seething with rage. I had to get up from my desk and walk around for a minute to calm myself. After awhile, I sat down again and re-read the synopsis to make sure of what I had read. Suddenly, it became apparent how the "miraculous translation" had been performed. I saw how the magic trick was done, and it wasn't magical anymore.

I further learned that the numerous parallels between View of the Hebrews and the Book of Mormon came to the attention of the First Presidency in the early 20th century and they commissioned B.H. Roberts (then the President of the First Council of the Seventy) to write a paper addressing these issues. He concluded that it would have been possible for Joseph Smith to write the BoM himself by cribbing ideas from View of the Hebrews. He asked (begged!) for revelation from the brethren to clear up these issues. He got none. Instead, they just bore their testimony of the Book of Mormon and quietly buried his report. Decades later, his report is finally

available for public consumption.

Other sources include: The Late War of 1812, The First Book of Napoleon, The Tyrant of the Earth (both of which provided source material for the chapters on wars); and of course, the King James Bible (including the Apocrypha where we find the names "Nephi", and "Laban").

Autobiographical elements

JS's dad had the same dream that Lehi had about the Tree of Life. << NEED LINK >>

Nephi is the most autobiographical character in the BoM. He & JS are both the third-born of four children. Both families had to take to the road and live on the lam to stay ahead of the folks that his dad (and later he) had swindled.

A local camp preacher gave a sermon nearly identical in content and setting to King Benjamin.

George Washington wrote a letter with language in it nearly identical to Captain Moroni and the Title of Liberty.

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 (also here). 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.

See this article which dissects The First Vision.

A Pattern of Deception

The "multiple First Vision accounts" problem provides us with an opportunity to see how church leaders deceive their members and investigators.

Somewhere around the 1930s (hard to know which date for sure), Joseph Fielding Smith found the 1832 First Vision account and thought it was so damaging that he cut it out of Joseph Smith's diary with a pen knife and hid it in his safe -- A clear case of trying to hide embarrassing / damaging historical facts. See this article.

In this talk from 1957, a General Authority flatly denies the existence of multiple First Vision accounts:

"I am concerned however with one item which has recently been called to my attention on this matter. There appears to be going about our communities some writing to the effect that the Prophet Joseph Smith evolved his doctrine from what might have been a vision, in which he is supposed to have said that he saw an angel, instead of the Father and Son. According to this theory, by the time he was inspired to write the occurrence in 1838, he had come to the conclusion that there were two Beings.

"This rather shocked me. I can see no reason why the Prophet, with his brilliant mind, would have failed to remember in sharp relief every detail of that eventful day. I can remember quite vividly that in 1915 I had a mere dream, and while the dream was prophetic in its nature, it was not startling. It has been long since fulfilled, but I can remember every detail of it as sharply and clearly as though it had happened yesterday. How then could any man conceive that the Prophet, receiving such a vision as he received, would not remember it and would fail to write it clearly, distinctly, and accurately?" Source: The First Vision Elder S. Dilworth Young Of the First Council of the Seventy S. Dilworth Young, Conference Report April 1957, pp. 118-120

In this Gospel Topics essay about First Vision Accounts published in 2013, the church openly admits that there were multiple, different, accounts of the First Vision. I don't think they ever wanted to publish this essay. Their hand was forced because they couldn't hide it or deny it any longer.

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.

See Wives of Joseph Smith for a full listing and brief biography of each of Joseph Smith's wives.

Worth noting: He didn't stay with any of those wives for very long. He didn't provide for them or support them. The states where he lived legally forbade the practice of polygamy, so he couldn't have been "legally or lawfully wed" to any of these women. This raises a rather ugly question: Were these really "wives", or were they just adulterous, extramarital, affairs being dressed up in religious 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.

One General Authority gave a conference talk where he urged members to "Give Brother Joseph a break". I wonder, if I engaged in the same behavior that JS engaged in and then asked for a Temple Recommend, would I be denied, or would they "Give me a break" and give it to me anyway? We are being asked to hold JS to a much lower standard than the church holds its members to.

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 way back when, 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 you're 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?

In three days time, I learned more about the church than I had learned in the previous 44 years of dutiful attendance every Sunday. On no occasion was I ever taught about Joseph Smith's polygamy, Adam-God, Blood Atonement, the discovery of the Book of Abraham papyri, or a host of other issues. Perhaps the most insulting were the apologists that answered this with: "Well, you should've been learning about this the whole time you were growing up in the church. It's your fault for not being better informed!" (blame reversal)

Here's the problem with that: The official exhortation from church leaders is that members are to read only church-approved sources and not veer off the path into the murky waters of non-approved sources. However, in order to learn the true history of the church, I had to read... non-approved sources. So in order to comply with the suggestion of the apologists, I would need to go against the admonition of the church leaders. But by following the church leaders, I was set up to have a faith crisis. Catch-22.

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 (and 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.

See: Fact-Checking Mormon History: Did the Church Lie about its Past?

The sense of betrayal sets in

I was upset that the church hadn'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 speak the truth and that their deeds should match their words. 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 ugly secrets, but in the information age, there are no secrets anymore. Throughout the 20th century, the church was able to control the narrative pretty tightly (via "correlation") with their official publications, but at the cusp of the 21st century, this thing called the Internet appeared, and suddenly members were learning uncorrelated (i.e. factual) versions of church history. How did these "prophets, seers, and revelators" not see the Internet coming?

I further learned that my experience was not unique. I contacted some friends who I knew had left the church and learned that they had discovered these 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 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 practice 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 all but done with the church, but there was still one, last, remaining, item: the spiritual witness I had obtained as a teen. What about that...?