on 7 May 2010
Some day while you're sitting peaceably at home, two well-dressed, well-groomed, exceedingly polite young men will show up on your doorstep. If allowed, these missionaries will give you a message about God's extraordinary love, sin, repentance, and salvation. And they will also hand you a copy of one of the world's strangest books.
The Book of Mormon, written by Joseph Smith, purports to be a revelation from God on par with the Holy Bible. It is a narrative about a group of Jews who flee Jerusalem and found several large civilizations in the Americas. Most people who try reading it need only a few pages to see that it's a farce. A handful of intelligent, honest, ethical, well-read people instead find it to be so beautiful and moving that it can only be divinely inspired wisdom. Why the difference in opinion? Well, the best way to answer that is to read it for yourself.
The Book of Mormon begins with a Jewish man, Levi, fleeing the wrath of King Zedekiah in 600 B.C. Taking his family, they first camp by a river on the east shore of the Red Sea. After spending a time living richly by hunting and gathering fruit in that area, they travel to an uninhabited harbor called Bountiful on the south shore of Arabia. (At this point you may be asking questions such as: How could they flee Zedekiah in 600 B.C. when he didn't become king until years later? Why did they find that river when any map will confirm that there is no such river in that location? How did they hunt and gather in that region when it's a barren wilderness? And where did they find an empty harbor when the southern shore of Arabia was densely inhabited at that time in history? If you ask irritating questions like that, Mormonism probably isn't the religion for you.)
After sailing from Arabia to America in a small boat, Lehi's family wastes no time in spawning a thriving civilization. Soon they split into two groups, white-skinned Nephites and inferior Lamanites with dark skin. The bulk of the book is packed with events vaguely reminiscent of the Old Testament. Nations fall into sin and wickedness, God appoints prophets to rant and rave, battles are fought, and so forth. Near the end Jesus Christ drops in (literally) to repeat the Sermon on the Mount and appoint twelve disciples. After that, it seems as if the author got bored since he rushes through centuries of time in just a few pages, kills off the Nephites, and wraps the book up with a bizarre rant against infant baptism.
What to make of all this? I feel pretty confident that it's not a genuine revelation from God. Almost every page is stamped with some major mistake. First, much as defenders may hate to admit it, the book clearly says that the Nephite and Lamanite civilizations covered most of North and South America. As not even the slightest trace of either civilization has ever been found, that should wrap the question up right there. Further, Joseph Smith simply copied details from the Bible into his fictional accounts, where they don't fit at all. His civilizations raised flocks of sheep, goats, cattle, and horses, all of which were actually introduced to the Americas from Europe centuries later. The Book of Mormon mentions brass, bronze, iron, copper, and steel, yet none of those metals were mined in the ancient Americas. It mentions keys and locks, metal swords, suits of armor, ships, and anchors, which are also completely anachronistic. It has similar problems with food, drink, fabrics, tools, types of buildings, etc... At the same time, the Book of Mormon makes no mention of any distinctive animals, plants, buildings, or clothing that did exist in pre-Colombian America.
As literature, it is equally far off the mark. While a few parts ring with a certain poetic resonance, nothing really stands out. Certainly nothing comes close to matching the magnificent writing of the Bible. Joseph's Smith clearly set out to write prose in imitation of the King James Version, yet his poor grasp of the language produced often hilarious results. For example, not knowing that "it came to pass" indicates passage of time, he often has dialogues or speeches where every sentence starts with "it came to pass". Even worse, Smith uses the phrases "come in unto" and "go in unto" without knowing that these are biblical euphemisms for sex. Hence those who are fluent in Shakespearean may find themselves chuckling at lines like "The Queen desired that Ammon should come in unto her." [Alma 19:2]
The morality in the Book of Mormon is basically a match for the history. The ranting prophets pretty much take their cues from the Old Testament with spiels against murder, theft, adultery, and such. Missing is any trace of the true gospel message of radical, transforming love. While your missionaries will no doubt advice that you pray to God concerning the truthfulness of this book, that shouldn't be necessary for any thinking person. It is either true or false. History, literary analysis, and religion all clearly say false.
One thing is clear, that despite the notorious antics of their forefathers, today's Mormons are a very straight-laced bunch. Many Christians may see their principles and strong family values and wonder whether, despite the apparent loopiness, there is something in the Book of Mormon after all. If you're in that category, here are some important facts that the missionaries won't tell you.
1) The Book of Mormon that you get today is not the original. Joseph Smith's first version, despite its supposedly divine origins, was packed with errors in spelling, grammar, usage, logic, continuity, and chronology. Over the years the LDS Church has been forced to make thousands of changes to cover up these embarrassing mistakes.
2) While we can't double-check Smith's translation of the Book of Mormon because an angel conveniently retrieved the original to Heaven, we can double-check something else. Joseph Smith also wrote the Book of Abraham, allegedly translated from ancient Egyptian documents, which is also part of Mormon scripture. However, Egyptologists who have compared Smith's translation to the originals have found that it's a complete fraud.
3) Joseph Smith was a professional con artist. Both before and after writing the Book of Mormon, he bilked people with fake treasure hunts. He also ran a fraudulent bank, the Kirtland Safety Society Bank, that issued phony money. He was, in short, very good and deceiving and manipulating people.
4) In addition to receiving new scriptures, Joseph Smith also claimed to be a prophet who received many direct revelations from God. Among others divine revelations, he claimed that Solomon's Temple would be rebuilt in Missouri, that Christ would return by 1885, and that missionaries would bring his gospel to the moon and to a secret continent "beyond the North Pole". (His successor, Brigham Young, continued the space exploration theme by announcing that the sun and planets are inhabited.)
5) One of Smith's most important "revelations" is the Great Endowment Ceremony conducted in Mormon pemples. It involves donning special clothes, being washed in a special basin, watching a hokey play about God's "plan of salvation", and learning secret code words and handshakes that will supposedly allow you to reach the highest level of Heaven after death. In reality, Joseph Smith copied almost the entire ceremony from the freemasons, who he briefly joined in 1839. Since that time, the LDS Church has changed the ceremony by removing the more embarrassing parts.
6) During Joseph Smith's early life in Vermont and New York, the region was jam-packed with all manner of prophets, visionaries, and would-be messiahs, many of whom were making claims very similar to his own. Research names such as Isaac Bullard, Elias Smith, and Asa Wild and you'll see that Joseph Smith copied parts of the Book of Mormon and later revelations more or less directly from other sources.
7) But wait, there's more! If you want to know plenty of other things about Mormonism that the missionaries won't tell you just search on google for "concerns about Mormonism". Then you shall know the truth and the truth shall make you free.