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.)

And the thing that stunned me more than anything else was: The scrolls were rediscovered in the late 60's, which means that this information has been available for my entire life... and no one ever told me.

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

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 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, 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.

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

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 the historical claims of the BoM.

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

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

The church artwork deceptively depicts Joseph Smith studiously reading characters from the Golden Plates while a nearby scribe writes what he says. Church historical documents describe 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 church has since released photos of said peepstone.)

The same documents 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. This raises the question: Why would Moroni painstakingly record Nephite history onto golden plates and bury them in a hill, just so they could not be used for translation?

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 Mormon Think 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.

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.

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.

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?

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 raft 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 (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.

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 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. Throughout the 20th century, the church was able to control the narrative pretty tightly (via "correlation") with their official publications, but then 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 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 all but done with the church, but there was still one, last, niggling, item: the spiritual witness I had obtained as a teen. What about that...?