Overview of Apologetic Responses Within Mormonism
Now we’re really in the final part of the overview project, with just a few left that in a lot of ways are going to serve as a recap of what has been covered in the previous 36 overviews along with a final recap to come that looks at “what now?”
Before I end this project, I wanted to do a quick look at apologetics in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Throughout the different topics I’ve tried to incorporate the church’s gospel topics essays because those provide what are the most acceptable and mainstream apologetics that the church is willing to share with members who are encountering these problems with church history.
In other overviews I also looked at apologetics from FAIR Mormon along with some of the other more well known “apologists” for the church because I wanted to explain why they simply do not work to answer these questions, especially if we are willing to apply the same logic as we would to any other religious leader, church, or organization.
Because I have covered many of these arguments in the sections on Joseph Smith, the Book of Mormon, and foundational events in Mormon history, I won’t rehash all of it here but just provide a few examples for each technique in apologetics to explain why it just doesn’t work to answer the problems they are addressing, and why many of the ways that apologetics are presented would never pass the church’s own definition of honesty. From the church’s Gospel Principles manual:
“We can also intentionally deceive others by a gesture or a look, by silence, or by telling only part of the truth. Whenever we lead people in any way to believe something that is not true, we are not being honest.” (Gospel Principles Manual)
I also want to state upfront that this overview will only scratch the surface. It would be easy to do an overview on every one of the examples below because these are common techniques that apologists use to keep members ‘in the boat,’ but further show that the church just cannot stand up against the overwhelming amount of evidence against their truth claims.
Defining the Idea of Apologetics
I suppose before we dive in I should briefly address how I view apologetics, because it is a term that is used somewhat loosely whether it’s religion, politics, or history. The technical definition of apologetics is the “reasoned arguments or writings in justification of something, typically a theory or religious doctrine.” (Oxford Dictionary)
For purposes of this overview, that’s a good definition to use. To me apologetics is making arguments to support the church, regardless of whether or not they would be acceptable to the consensus of the field of study at large. That distinction is important because it will play a role in the next overview, which will look at the basic question of “if Joseph Smith got it right, then who got it wrong?”
The word apologetics comes from the Greek language, and means to ‘speak in defense’ of something, and is why some apologists prefer the term ‘defenders of the faith’ rather than apologist because of the connotations that apologists are defending the indefensible. For the purposes of these overviews, the definition above from Oxford is how I tend to think of apologetics as a whole.
The Problems with Apologetics
Now that we’ve established a very generic definition of what apologetics are, I want to quickly go through some of the problematic ways that they are used in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, both formally through their essays and informally through outlets such as FAIR Mormon, which are not officially tied to the church although they have been indirectly funded by them through the More Good Foundation, handled by Deseret Trust.
What I want to do for this overview is to go through a handful of apologetic themes and then give a few examples of how these apologetics are used by the church, showing why they can be very deceptive in order to keep members from looking any deeper into these problematic areas.
The Past Is a Foreign Country
I wanted to start with this one because I haven’t addressed it much in the previous overviews. This is a common response by apologetics as a way to try and normalize the problems with church history by asserting that any critiques against the history and truth claims suffer from “presentism,” which is viewing the 1800s through the lens of our norms today.
This argument is a favorite of church apologists, because it allows us to excuse the really troubling problems by pulling the ‘presentism card’ whenever we question the terrible doctrines of the church such as polygamy, the racism in the scriptures (and priesthood/temple ban), and folk magic that is embedded in Mormonism. Yes I’m being a bit flippant here, but it’s an absurd argument that is constantly made by the church and apologists as a way to sidetrack legitimate problems with church history.
Before I detail these problems, I want to note that church historian Matt Grow used this line in a youth ‘face-to-face’ event with Elder Quentin Cook when promoting the Saints book:
“As a historian, I try to follow the advice of a British novelist. He said: “The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there” (L. P. Hartley, The Go-Between , prologue). That means when we visit the past, we don’t want to be an “ugly tourist.” We want to try to understand people within their own context and their own culture. We want to be patient with what we perceive as their faults. We want to be humble about the limits of our own knowledge. And we want to have a spirit of charity about the past.” (Church History: A Source of Strength and Inspiration)
Church historian Steven Harper also used this line in an interview for the church that sought to comfort those who have questions about church history, and there’s a great podcast by Radio Free Mormon that covers why this quote is not even being used correctly in the first place.
The problem with the quote, as Radio Free Mormon’s podcast noted, is that the quote is referring to a novel where the character is looking back at some of the terrible things he did as a teenager and knowing he would do things differently in the present. In other words, the past is a foreign county and they do things differently there because in the past he did things differently than he would today.
As Radio Free Mormon notes, this would be the equivalent of me looking back at my time talking to the missionaries who taught me that Joseph Smith translated the Book of Mormon using gold plates that were open on the table with the interpreters. Looking back now, I know the missionaries (through no fault of their own - they believed the narrative they were taught as well) were teaching me a history that is simply not true, so in the past I joined the church because I did things differently then, but now I know the church can be proven false and would make a different choice. In other words, the past is a foreign country because now I know so much more and cannot look back and judge my teenage self as if I knew then what I know now.
But even if we don’t even argue that the quote is being misused by apologists, it still is used to avoid acknowledging that some really bad things happened in church history by men who claimed to be directly led by God that were wrong then and look even more wrong now.
For example, Joseph Smith at the age of 38 married two 14 year old girls in polygamy under the promise of exaltation if they submitted to his proposal. Apologists would argue that we cannot judge those actions because marriage was different in the 1840s than it is today.
And, yes, of course marriage norms are not the exact same today than in the 1840s, but that in no way would have made what Joseph Smith did acceptable in the 1840s. In fact, studies have been done to look at the average age of marriage and it absolutely was not normal for a 38 year old man to marry teenage girls, let alone marrying dozens of them.
The chart on the left is from the US Census Bureau as they began tracking the average marriage age in 1890, and you can see that in no way is the gap as wide as the 24 year gap in Joseph’s two marriages to 14 year old girls. On the right is data from the UK which began tracking the information earlier and as you can see, again there is no significant change in the marriage gap from 1850 to today. Presentism just does not work to excuse what Joseph Smith did.
Furthermore, polygamy was illegal when Joseph Smith was marrying and having sex with these young women, and he did it anyway. And, last, using the promise of exaltation to get these women to marry and have sex with you was looked at so poorly in the 19th century that Joseph Smith had to lie about it not just to his wife, but to other members of the church. This is not “presentism” – this is simply looking at how Joseph Smith conducted himself even among his family and church.
So, yes, we can assess Joseph Smith’s actions in 2021 while still acknowledging what was legal, normal, and acceptable back in the 1840s. In addition, we can note that racism was of course rampant in Joseph Smith’s time and consider that when assessing the church’s truth claims while also noting that a lot of people did fight against slavery while Joseph Smith was using the Bible to justify it.
A good example of this is the Moundbuilder Myth. Part of the racism towards Native Americans was the belief that they had killed off an ancient, superior white race which just happened to become the main storyline of the Book of Mormon. In addition, the racism in the scriptures of Mormonism is supposed to be directly from God, so it doesn’t matter if we’re visiting a foreign country when we are taught that God is the same yesterday, today, and tomorrow.
As I’ve pointed out in some of the previous overviews, the church is always seeking to create an equation of “tails I win, heads you lose.” In this case they are looking to create an equation of ‘If we like what Joseph Smith did and feel that we can still defend it, then it’s a timeless doctrine. On the other hand, if it makes us feel uncomfortable, it’s only because you can’t understand what was acceptable in Joseph Smith’s time because “the past is a foreign country.”
I hope throughout these overviews I have made it clear that you can absolutely walk and chew gum at the same time. We can look at the truth claims of the church using all of the scholarship, science, and historical documents available in 2021 while also being careful to understand what was around Joseph Smith’s milieu in the 19th century.
It’s not being an “ugly tourist” to assess Joseph Smith’s truth claims as church history Matt Grow stated in the youth face-to-face event – it’s being someone who is honestly interested in seeking out the truth while evaluating the claims of the church. It often seems that the only ones who are unwilling to visit this “foreign country” are the ones telling us to dedicate our lives to it.
Follow the Footnotes
I’ve written about this before, but the church will sometimes use citations to resources that often contradict the point they are trying to make. In a write-up entitled “Follow the Footnotes,” I highlighted ten incidents from the gospel topics essays and Saints where the church uses a footnote that is misleading and/or intentionally dishonest.
If you would like to read all ten I’d recommend checking out that write-up, but for this overview I’ll highlight two of those misleading footnotes from the essays to give an idea of what I’m talking about:
Book of Abraham Essay – Carefully Citing a Letter that Exposes Joseph Smith as a Positive Source
In the church’s Book of Abraham essay, the church is forced to admit that the Egyptian papyri do not mention Abraham and that they date about 2,000 years after Abraham would have lived. Because of these massive problems, the church uses the essay to provide the common apologetics of the ‘lost scroll’ and ‘catalyst theory.’ In laying the groundwork for the catalyst theory, the church provides the following paragraph:
“Neither the Lord nor Joseph Smith explained the process of translation of the book of Abraham, but some insight can be gained from the Lord’s instructions to Joseph regarding translation. In April 1829, Joseph received a revelation for Oliver Cowdery that taught that both intellectual work and revelation were essential to translating sacred records. It was necessary to “study it out in your mind” and then seek spiritual confirmation. Records indicate that Joseph and others studied the papyri and that close observers also believed that the translation came by revelation. As John Whitmer observed, “Joseph the Seer saw these Record[s] and by the revelation of Jesus Christ could translate these records.””
The footnote here (#31) references a letter written by Warren Parrish, with the quote “I have set by his side and penned down the translation of the Egyptian Hieroglyphicks as he claimed to receive it by direct inspiration of Heaven.” Parrish was the former secretary of Joseph Smith who fell out of favor because of what he considered improper financial dealings by the prophet with the Kirtland Safety Society. In this letter Parrish was actually presenting evidence that Joseph was using things like the Book of Abraham and his doomed bank to take advantage of people.
In regards to Joseph Smith and Sidney Rigdon, Parrish says in this same letter that “their lives have been one continued scene of lying, deception and fraud, and that too, in the name of God.” (Warren Parrish, letter to the editor, Painesville Republican, Feb. 15, 1838)
The very quote from Parrish is sandwiched in-between lines detailing how Joseph Smith was misleading the members of the church through Zion’s Camp and the Kirtland Safety Society failed bank. Don’t take my word for it, please read the letter that the church cites as proof of the catalyst theory. (Warren Parrish letters - this is the second letter on the page)
Here is an example where the church is presenting a source to give readers the impression that there’s no reason to research these topics further, when in reality the citation is actually from someone who was very close to Joseph Smith trying to tell others that Joseph was deceiving his followers and was not a prophet of God. The very last sentence of the letter, written in 1838 by Parrish and signed by two other apostles and two seventies, says the following: "They lie by revelation, swindle by revelation, cheat and defraud by revelation, runaway by revelation, and if they do not mend their ways, I fear that they will at last be damned by revelation."
A second one I’ll note is from the church’s “Race and the Priesthood” essay, where they use a quote from Brigham Young to foreshadow the removal of the ban in 1978. What they don’t tell you, however, is that they’re leaving out parts of the quote that are both quite contradictory to their point they are making and incredibly racist:
Race and the Priesthood Essay – Leaving Out the Rest of Brigham Young’s Quote
In the church’s official essay on race and the priesthood, they discuss Brigham Young’s implementation of the ban on black members from the priesthood. The essay cites a quote from Brigham Young in order to try to both soften the ban as well as foreshadow the lifting of it about 130 years later.
From the church's official essay:
“At the same time, President Young said that at some future day, black Church members would “have [all] the privilege and more” enjoyed by other members.”
The problem with this footnote (#9) is that they leave out the context of the quote from Brigham Young. From their same citation of Brigham Young’s speech:
"Now I tell you what I know; when the mark was put upon Cain, Abels children was in all probability young; the Lord told Cain that he should not receive the blessings of the priesthood nor his seed, until the last of the posterity of Able had received the priesthood, until the redemption of the earth. If there never was a prophet, or apostle of Jesus Christ spoke it before, I tell you, this people that are commonly called Negroes are the children of old Cain. I know they are, I know that they cannot bear rule in the priesthood, for the curse on them was to remain upon them, until the residue of the posterity of Michal and his wife receive the blessings, the seed of Cain would have received had they not been cursed; and hold the keys of the priesthood, until the times of the restitution shall come, and the curse be wiped off from the earth, and from Michael's seed. Then Cain’s seed will be had in remembrance, and the time come when that curse should be wiped off." (Speech by Governor Brigham Young in Joint Session of the Legislature, Feb 5, 1852)
It is very obvious why the church does not want to use the rest of the quote, but it is beyond deceptive to use a carefully selected phrase from the speech to attempt reconciling Brigham Young’s statement with a future lifting of the ban.
Prophet Brigham Young makes it clear that the curse of dark skin would not be lifted “until the last of the posterity of Able had received the priesthood, until the redemption of the earth.” It goes without saying that this never happened, and as such the lifting of the ban contradicts what Prophet Brigham Young made clear in 1852.
Furthermore, the quote from Brigham Young makes clear that black skin is the curse, which is another area the church has worked hard to distance itself from. And as we covered in our overview about race in the scriptures of Mormonism, this idea from Brigham Young comes directly from the church’s unique scriptures about race and skin color.
This is without question one of the most intentionally deceptive citations in the church’s essays, and any quick reading of the footnote would lead members to discover that what Brigham Young actually said is vastly different than what is presented. Just reading Brigham Young’s talks on the topic of race is difficult even as someone who no longer believes in the church’s truth claims – they are truly abhorrent words from someone we are told had the spirit of God through him as a prophet. Just read the text of Prophet Brigham Young's speech that the church cites, and then ask yourself if that matches what the church is declaring in their essay.
Again, if you want to read all ten of these please check out the “Follow the Footnotes” page, because it shows that often times when the church adds citations to these difficult problems, they often don’t make the point that the church wants you to think they’re making.
From an apologetic standpoint this is a great tactic, because it relies on the reader not digging any deeper and, as a believing member, why would you? We’re conditioned to trust any source that is approved by the church and, more importantly, gives us a spiritual confirmation. On the other hand, it’s incredibly dishonest to present citations that these church historians know are highly problematic if the member bothers to read them.
Cherry Picking and Misusing Sources
The next one is an offshoot of ‘follow the footnotes,’ but it’s an issue where the church and apologists cherry pick sources or flat out misuse them in order to push a faith promoting narrative. I realize that apologists would argue that I also cherry pick sources in these overviews, but I’ve tried to give the church’s position on these topics using their essays, FAIR Mormon, etc. At no point have I been afraid to point out both sides of the argument to readers, and to me that is the big difference.
When I did the chapter-by-chapter review and fact check of Saints, I was floored at how the church cherry picked sources throughout. A good example of this is how Lucy Mack Smith is cited almost exclusively in the first chapter of Saints, even though her recollection is written down decades later. Ironically enough, Lucy Mack Smith is not referenced once in chapter two because that focuses on the First Vision, which Joseph Smith never told his family about until long after it supposedly occurred, but then is used a dozen times in chapter three.
Throughout Saints we are given faith promoting sources while every source that contradicts what Joseph Smith did is completely absent. Don’t get me wrong – I do not expect the church to actually give sources that do not promote faith, but I do have a problem with the church calling Saints the most honest history ever given of the church when they intentionally ignore all of the evidence that tells us that these events did not happen as we are taught, that Joseph Smith committed some really horrendous acts against young women in polygamy, or gloss over treasure digging, the problems with the Book of Abraham, etc.
Beyond just cherry picking sources, the church and apologists will often misuse quotes in order to promote faith and ignore the terrible beliefs that past prophets have taught. One of my favorite examples came in the 2020 Come Follow Me manual about the curse of dark skin. This caused a lot of controversy because the church acknowledged the curse of dark skin was actually skin in the printed manual, but then completely sugarcoated the curse in the digital edition.
Here is the quote that the Come Follow Me printed manual used from Joseph Fielding Smith:
"The dark skin was placed upon the Lamanites so that they could be distinguished from the Nephites and to keep the two peoples from mixing [see 2 Nephi 5:21-23; Alma 3:6-10]. The dark skin was the sign of the curse. The curse was the withdrawal of the Spirit of the Lord [see 2 Nephi 5:20]. ... Dark skin ... is no longer to be considered a sign of the curse” (Joseph Fielding Smith, “Answers to Gospel Questions,” comp. Joseph Fielding Smith Jr. , 3:122-23)
Here is the full quote of what Joseph Fielding Smith said that the printed manual carefully cuts around (I will highlight only the areas the church quotes from so you can see everything they left out):
"The dark skin was placed upon the Lamanites so that they could be distinguished from the Nephites and to keep the two peoples from mixing. The dark skin was the sign of the curse. The curse was the withdrawal of the Spirit of the Lord and the Lamanites becoming a "loathsome and filthy people, full of idleness and all manner of abominations." (I Nephi 12:23.) The Lord commanded the Nephites not to intermarry with them, for if they did they would partake of the curse.
At the time of the Savior's visit to the Nephites all of the people became united, and the curse and the dark skin which was its sign were removed. The two peoples became one and lived in full harmony and peace for about two hundred years.
There were no robbers, nor murderers, neither were there Lamanites, nor any manner of -ites; but they were in one, the children of Christ, and heirs to the kingdom of God. (IV Nephi, verse 17.)
EVIL BROUGHT RETURN OF DARK SKIN
After the people again forgot the Lord and dissensions arose, some of them took upon themselves the name Lamanites and the dark skin returned. When the Lamanites fully repent and sincerely receive the gospel, the Lord has promised to remove the dark skin. The Lord declared by revelation that, "before the great day of the Lord shall come, Jacob shall flourish in the wilderness, and the Lamanites shall blossom as the rose." (D. & C. 49:24.)
The dark skin of those who have come into the Church is no longer to be considered a sign of the curse. Many of these converts are delightsome and have the Spirit of the Lord. Perhaps there are some Lamanites today who are losing the dark pigment. Many of the members of the Church among the Catawba Indians of the South could readily pass as of the white race; also in other parts of the South."
Look at what the church cut out of this quote. They left out that the Lamanites became a "loathsome and filthy people, full of idleness and all manner of abominations" following the curse, that their skin was turned white when Jesus visited, but that their skin was again cursed afterwards. Most offensively, Joseph F. Smith concludes that members of the church who joined see their skin color go from dark to white, just as promised with a removal of the curse.
Even in the year 2020, the church is still using quotes in the most misleading of ways in order to gloss over their problematic and incorrect teachings. Another great example of this is the use of the following phrase from Joseph Smith by leaders of the church throughout its history:
“Happiness is the object and design of our existence; and will be the end thereof, if we pursue the path that leads to it; and this path is virtue, uprightness, faithfulness, holiness, and keeping all the commandments of God.”
What these leaders do not tell you is that the quote is from a letter that Joseph Smith sent to young Nancy Rigdon in an attempt to convince her that a polygamous relationship with him was from God, and is one of the most problematic documents of Joseph Smith’s time in my opinion. You can read our write-up of the Happiness Letter, because it shows how the church can use a teaching that is taken from an intro to a very coercive and deceptive letter.
In other words, when Joseph Smith says “Happiness is the object and design of our existence,” the important part is really the end of the sentence where he says “keeping all the commandments of God,” because what he will explain throughout the letter is that keeping the commandments of God, which will make Nancy happy, is to have sex with Joseph Smith. I’m not exaggerating here, and that is what makes the Happiness Letter so incredibly damning for Joseph Smith.
How Could Joseph Have Known?
One of the greatest tricks that apologists and the church use when it comes to troubling issues is to pick one point that they claim Joseph Smith got correct and then say “how could Joseph Smith possibly have known?”
The problem, of course, is that you have to ignore all of the misses to get to that one “hit,” and that’s just not how historians evaluate the truth claims of documents that are claimed to be ancient.
It would be like having an archery contest, taking twenty shots and then looking at the one that actually got near the target and having the judge of the contest say “how in the world could you be so accurate?” It just doesn’t work that way, but in the church that is exactly how apologetics are conducted.
For example, if you find a “bullseye” in the Book of Mormon, it does not explain all of the misses within the text that we outlined in our earlier overviews. In fact, in a text as large as the Book of Mormon it would be hard not to find a bullseye because as the famous saying makes clear, even a broken clock is right twice a day.
The reality is that these truth claims are not measured by bullseyes – there is no such thing as a bullseye because historians are looking for any fingerprints that show the text is not what it claims to be. You expect some details to be right, but when you see anachronisms, incorrect use of literal Bible stories such as Adam and Eve, the global flood, and the Tower of Babel, or events that happened in Joseph Smith’s time being put into ancient texts, you know it’s a 19th century production.
Nonetheless, apologists often take this “bullseye” approach in order to ignore the fact that Joseph Smith made mistakes in the Book of Mormon, Book of Abraham, Book of Moses, and his revelations that allow scholars to know without any question that they are not of an ancient origin.
A recent example of this was an article in the Interpreter called Joseph Smith: The World’s Greatest Guesser (A Bayesian Statistical Analysis of Positive and Negative Correspondences between the Book of Mormon and The Maya). In this article, it created an equation where the statistical possibility that Joseph Smith could’ve just guessed the text of the Book of Mormon at something like one in a billion.
The article made some waves because it takes direct aim at Dr. Michael Coe, one of the most prominent Mesoamerican scholars who had spoken out about the Book of Mormon’s historicity in a 1973 article in Dialogue along with two interviews on Mormon Stories:
Using Bayesian statistical analysis in the way that the Dale brothers did in the Interpreter is nothing more than creating an equation in order to confirm your own predetermined conclusion. I’ve pointed this out in previous overviews, but using this logic would allow you to prove any insane conspiracy theory whether it’s the existence of Bigfoot, that Elvis faked his death, or that 9/11 was an inside job.
This article was absolutely decimated by those who actually understand statistics and the games that the Dales (and Interpreter) played here. To make this super simple, I want to illustrate it this way:
If you were to a roll a standard, six sided dice and needed to roll a “six” ten times in a row, the odds of that would be 1 in 60,466,176. Those odds are astronomically terrible, right?
In the Interpreter article, they setup a bunch of criteria that they believe Joseph Smith could not have known, and they equate each one with rolling a 6 each time which statistically multiplies the odds as I mentioned above.
The problem is that the only way this works is if you ignore all of the things that Joseph Smith got wrong. Every time Joseph Smith gets something wrong, the stats have to reset because he’s not rolling a “six” at that point, but another number as the evidence says he got it wrong.
It’s effectively shooting 500 bows in archery, and then saying you hit the target 20 times in a row when in fact you go back after the fact and determine which 20 of the 500 shots you are going to count and simply set aside the other 480.
As someone who has spent their life in both research and statistics, I can tell you that this is an absolutely terrible way to create proof for the Book of Mormon, and is everything that is wrong not just with apologetics, but with wanting it to be true so badly that you’re willing to completely misrepresent statistical models to prove it.
When this article was published in 2019 there were a number of online discussions about it that just picked the entire methodology apart, explaining why this is just a terribly dishonest approach that the people at the Interpreter knew better than to publish.
It’s quite ironic that the editor of the Interpreter is Daniel C. Peterson, who wrote a book called “Offenders for a Word: How Anti-Mormons Play Word Games to Attack the Latter-day Saints,” when he is constantly involved in publications that use apologetic sleight of hands to bash critics by using dishonest arguments. I don’t want to get off topic, but just read Peterson’s article for the Deseret News about the First Vision accounts and then read our overview so you can understand how he uses the very tactics he accuses the critics of using.
Before we move on, I want to put the links here to some of the threads that discussed the article from the Dale brothers. Typically I wouldn’t post message board threads, but for this article no journal took it seriously enough to respond, and I want to give you links so you can see how badly the Interpreter misused statistical analysis to try and prove the Book of Mormon as a true, ancient text.
/Mormon subreddit: “Joseph Smith is the world's greatest guesser/ Dr Michael Coe gets thrown under a statistical bus.”
Mormon Discussions message board: The Interpreter; Bayes Theorem; Nephites and Mayans (note: This message board has since been moved to a new site, so if this link is not working you can read at least the first page archived)
When apologists ask “How could Joseph have known” or say that he was the “world’s greatest guesser,” you’ll realize they never actually address all of the many problems with the text, and there’s a reason for that. It’s about keeping your eyes focused on the things they can defend so that you don’t notice all of the underlying problems that completely undercut any possible claim of being an authentic, ancient text that I cover in the overviews on the Book of Mormon along with the overviews on biblical scholarship and the scriptures of Mormonism.
I’ve tried pointing out in these overviews how often the church and apologists have redefined the meaning of words in order to give Joseph Smith an out for a mistake he made or to soften the meaning of the scriptures he produced. The reality is that the moment you have to redefine words used in what we are told are “plain and precious truths,” your truth claims have a problem.
Because Joseph Smith got the translation of the Egyptian papyri that were the source material for the Book of Abraham completely wrong, the church has said that it wasn’t translation, but revelation. From the Book of Abraham essay:
“We do know some things about the translation process. The word translation typically assumes an expert knowledge of multiple languages.”
It is true that in order to translate you need an expert knowledge of multiple languages (how else could you translate), but this is why it is so important to recognize that Joseph Smith is claiming that the Egyptian language is being translated by God through Joseph. This is a problem further compounded by the heading to the Book of Abraham:
“A translation of some ancient records [...] purporting to be the writings of Abraham, while he was in Egypt, called the Book of Abraham, written by his own hand, upon papyrus.”
Had Joseph Smith actually translated the Egyptian scrolls correctly, the church’s essay wouldn’t be redefining the word translation, but celebrating that they had a prophet who could actually do it. Instead they are forced to redefine the word translation in order to keep members from realizing that Joseph Smith simply made it up. From the Book of Abraham essay:
“Alternatively, Joseph’s study of the papyri may have led to a revelation about key events and teachings in the life of Abraham, much as he had earlier received a revelation about the life of Moses while studying the Bible. This view assumes a broader definition of the words translator and translation.”
The same problems also applies to the Book of Mormon as the original narrative that Joseph Smith translated directly off the gold plates is no longer tenable for the church to use, as we now know Joseph Smith orally dictated the Book of Mormon by putting his head into his hat along with the same seer/peep stone that he claimed to see buried treasure with.
This has caused the church to again redefine what translation means, because Joseph Smith never used the gold plates to translate the Book of Mormon as we have it today, which means that he was not translating anything but orally dictating text that he claimed to see shining off of a rock.
I covered all of this in the Book of Mormon translation overview, but at the end of the day you can understand why the church needs to redefine the word translation, because his productions simply do not withstand the basic scrutiny of the church’s (and his own) narrative. More importantly, I wrote an overview that covers Joseph Smith’s translations as a whole, and when you look at them all at once it becomes clear that Joseph Smith lacked the ability to translate anything at all.
During Joseph Smith’s lifetime one of the biggest questions in his milieu was about why there were dark skinned ‘Indians’ in America that lived here before the ‘white and delightsome’ European settlers arrived. Joseph Smith answered that question in the Book of Mormon, using the ‘Moundbuilder Myth’ to explain that the Native Americans had killed off the more righteous and superior white people and were a savage race.
While this was a predominant view in Joseph Smith’s time, we now know that that Moundbuilder Myth is just that – a myth. It is not based in history, but was used by early settlers to try and make sense of what was going on around them, somehow like the etiological myths in Genesis or even the transfiguration of Brigham Young that I talked about in the last overview.
The problem is that because we know that the Moundbuilder Myth is completely fictional, it also shows that the entire premise was setup as a way to privilege the white settlers over the dark Native Americans, which also gave many settlers the perceived justification to wipe the Native Americans out and take their land.
This racism is stuck in the Book of Mormon, however, which has caused modern apologists to completely ditch the words of the prophets and leaders of the past that the curse of dark skin means “skin,” to now say that it means *skin.*
In other words, the modern church and its leaders now will say that Joseph Smith didn’t mean skin in the Book of Mormon, but rather the ‘clothes of skin’ in order to make them unattractive to the white and delightsome Nephites.
As I said in the overview on race in the scriptures of Mormonism, this argument is just not backed up by the text itself nor does it make any sense. From an article in the Salt Lake Tribune by Holly Richardson:
“What if our interpretation was a cultural artifact of the mid-1800s, when slavery was still legal in the United States? What if we have misunderstood words like “skin” and “black” and “dark”? Could there be another interpretation?” (Salt Lake Tribune)
You can read the overview again for more detail, but this is just not a tenable position if you take Joseph Smith and the Book of Mormon at face value. The idea that God cursed the clothing of the Lamanites is just silly, and I explained this in the overview:
“Furthermore it is insulting to tell members that God would "curse" the skins covering their loins as a way to "not be enticing" to the white and delightsome. Have you even found someone to not be attractive because they are wearing dark clothing? Are women not enticing in black clothing, because if so there is some serious issues with all of the black dresses and lingerie that is sold. This argument is silly and it is insulting to our common sense, lived experience, and teachings from this very church. And apologists know on some level how ridiculous this argument is, which is why even after this carefully selected text in the article, it is still called by Richardson as merely "a possibility." Just as we see with the Gospel Topics essays, they throw out a bunch of possibilities and hope members will settle on one and stop digging deeper.”
And if it's not clear enough that the Book of Mormon means literal skin, please just look at the Book of Mormon stories book that was published by the church in 1978 for little children learning about the Book of Mormon:
I realize apologists have no choice but to pretend that skin never meant skin, but as I’ve covered before the entire premise of the Book of Mormon was to convert the ‘Indians’ to Christ, and how did Joseph Smith identify the Lamanites through the voice of God? By going to the ‘Indians’ with dark skin. This just is not something you can deny and is confirmed not just by the Book of Mormon, but by the claimed revelations from God as well.
This is the problem with apologetics in general – in order to privilege the church’s truth claims you have to create solutions which, in turn, create new problems.
New and Everlasting Covenant
When Joseph Smith implemented polygamy, there was no doubt that the “new and everlasting covenant” was referring to polygamy/plural marriage. If you listen to the Year of Polygamy podcast this becomes abundantly clear, but you can also look at John Taylor’s 1886 revelation from God to know that there was no separation in the early church:
“Thus saith the Lord: All commandments that I give must be obeyed by those calling themselves by my name unless they are revoked by me or by my authority, and how can I revoke an everlasting covenant, for I the Lord am everlasting and my everlasting covenants cannot be abrogated nor done away with, but they stand forever…
And have I not commanded men that if they were Abraham’s seed and would enter into my glory, they must do the works of Abraham. I have not revoked this law, nor will I, for it is everlasting, and those who will enter into my glory must obey the conditions thereof; even so, Amen.”
You cannot read those verses from Taylor and think that polygamy/plural marriage was separate from the “new and everlasting covenant” because Taylor makes the connection inescapable by saying that we must do the works of Abraham (who was never actually commanded by God to enter polygamy in the first place, but Joseph Smith needed to rationalize polygamy) to gain exaltation.
Unfortunately for the church, polygamy would be revoked for this life (it’s still doctrine for the eternities), which forced the church to redefine the ‘new and everlasting covenant’ to temple/celestial marriage. If you bring up that the ‘new and everlasting covenant’ was originally meant to be polygamy, leaders today would scowl at you because correlated material has redefined that term for many decades now.
Another apologetic trick is similar to the “How Could Joseph Have Known” idea which is that our minds often look for parallels when we’re trying to prove something through motivated reasoning. With Mormonism, apologists will constantly look for parallels in the Book of Mormon that link to ancient times in order to prove that the text is truly of ancient origin even as the evidence is overwhelming that it is a 19th century production.
If you look at FAIR Mormon, they have a page that they call their “best evidences” for the Book of Mormon. When you look at some of the specific topics, you can see how they are just looking everywhere for parallels no matter how flimsy or out of context the connection might be. I want to highlight a few examples here just to illustrate that point:
Examples of Metal Plates
I covered this in the overview on gold plates, but I want to be clear that what FAIR Mormon uses as evidence for metal plates recording ancient text is misleading at best. Their main example of writing on ancient plates is the Pyrgi gold plates as they cite this quote from Hugh Nibley:
"it will not be long before men forget that in Joseph Smith's day the prophet was mocked and derided for his description of the plates more than anything else." (FAIR Mormon, Plates)
First, I want to note that Hugh Nibley, while considered prolific by many believing members, has had so many of his points disproven over time that I cringe when people cite him in 2021. Perhaps in the future we can do an overview on Hugh Nibley’s apologetics, but this quote above is not “prescient” as FAIR Mormon notes, but just as problematic today as when Nibley wrote it.
The bigger problem, however, is that FAIR Mormon shows two pictures of the Pyrgi gold plates without actually telling the reader how bad of a connection it is. Since they didn’t want to trust you with the information, I’ll help them out and let you know what they left out. From the overview on anachronisms in the Book of Mormon:
The Pyrgi tablets only contain about 200 words on the three plates/tables above. If you look at the images, you can see that the tablets/plates are packed with characters. Now understand that those three plates would need to have about 66,000 words for the math to work with the gold plates of the Book of Mormon.
This is a problem because the Book of Mormon includes the story of the brass plates, which were taken from Laban after Nephi killed him. These plates included very lengthy and detailed records. From the January 1988 Ensign:
“Although the information is sparse concerning the origin of the plates of brass, the Book of Mormon is quite detailed on what the plates contained. According to Nephi, the plates of brass contained the books of Moses and the Mosaic law (see 1 Ne. 4:15–16; 1 Ne. 5:11), tying the Nephites to their Old World kinsmen in both cultural practice and belief. They contained, in addition, a listing of Lehi’s fathers back through Joseph of old (see 1 Ne. 5:14), linking the Lehite colony genealogically with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, thereby perpetuating the patriarchal covenant—“the promises made to the fathers” (D&C 2:2; JS—H 1:39)—in a new hemisphere. Finally, the plates contained a more extensive account of Old Testament peoples and events than the Bible (see 1 Ne. 5:12–13; 1 Ne. 13:23), although only a few precious remnants of this account are found in the Book of Mormon.” (The Plates of Brass: A Witness of Christ, Engisn January 1988)
The problems here are numerous and are covered in more detail on our overview on anachronisms, but the point here about FAIR Mormon citing the Pyrgi tablets as proof for the Book of Mormon is that they are being deceptive at best. The Pyrgi tablets simply do not contain a history of any people, are not from the Americas, and only have about 200 words on three plates. If anything, these tablets show just how impossible the story of the gold plates for the Book of Mormon actually is when you consider what would need to happen for them to be real.
There’s a reason that FAIR Mormon leaves out this information about the Pyrgi plates, and it’s because they know that it’s not faith promoting. If they truly believed their claims that the Book of Mormon was authentic and can withstand scrutiny, why are they leaving out such important context of the example they are using as a “best evidence?”
The Book of Abraham
FAIR Mormon’s “best evidences” actually includes a page on the Book of Abraham, which is obviously important to address given how Joseph Smith’s translation is completely wrong and a key reason that members leave. It’s actually a great way though to illustrate how apologetics use parallelomania to search for anything that could be a bullseye in order to keep members from looking underneath the surface.
One evidence used by FAIR is that the Book of Abraham contains non-Biblical elements that have been confirmed by sources outside the Bible. They use the church’s Book of Abraham essay as the complete entry for this part, and I want to highlight the second paragraph they cite:
“Other details in the book of Abraham are found in ancient traditions located across the Near East. These include Terah, Abraham’s father, being an idolator; a famine striking Abraham’s homeland; Abraham’s familiarity with Egyptian idols; and Abraham’s being 62 years old when he left Haran, not 75 as the biblical account states. Some of these extrabiblical elements were available in apocryphal books or biblical commentaries in Joseph Smith’s lifetime, but others were confined to nonbiblical traditions inaccessible or unknown to 19th-century Americans.”
I covered this in my “follow the footnotes” page so this is a bit of a double whammy, but here the church is straining to find ancient parallels to the Book of Abraham to ignore that the translation is completely wrong, and yet FAIR here cites this as a “best evidence” for the church.
The problem here is that the church’s own footnote here is #46 which states:
“Some of these extrabiblical elements were available to Joseph Smith through the books of Jasher and Josephus. Joseph Smith was aware of these books, but it is unknown whether he utilized them.”
With this footnote the church’s own essay is forced to acknowledge that some of this ‘extrabiblical’ information actually WAS available to Joseph through the books of Jasher and Josephus—books we know he was familiar with because he talked about them or published references to them (which is why the church is forced to state that Joseph Smith was aware of them). Even beyond the sources of Jasher and Josephus, which the church admits Joseph Smith might have had access to in their own essay, he use of sources goes beyond that for their claims to ancient parallels. From our annotated essay on the Book of Abraham about Footnote #43, which claims the Book of Abraham is ancient because it talks about Abraham teaching astronomy:
“The footnote refers to “Excerpts from Eupolemus” but these statements are actually writings by Eusebius, who is quoting Alexander Polyhistor, who is summarizing pseudo-Eupolemus in the 1st Century BC. In the same passages Eusebius also quotes Josephus, one of Joseph Smith’s sources, who talks about Abraham teaching not astronomy but astrology to the Egyptians. Again, this is information that comes from thousands of years after Abraham and is found in Josephus, a book that Joesph Smith owned and talked about.”
So these footnotes directly negate the claims made in the body of the church’s essay in a significant way.
In other words, the church (and FAIR Mormon) is citing these non-Biblical elements as proof that Joseph Smith was a prophet while tucking into the footnote that these ideas were available to Joseph Smith. So not only do we have parallelomania going on to find any link to ancient text, but we have an example where the church is forced to insert a deceptive footnote to hide from the essay itself the fact that Joseph Smith was absolutely aware of at least some of those writings.
After this FAIR Mormon cites Joseph Smith’s talk about human sacrifice, the Egyptian god Elkeneh, and astrology as evidences that have parallels in the ancient world. I covered this in much more detail in our Book of Abraham overviews, but these parallels are absolutely decimated when put into their proper context which I want to very quickly outline here so you can understand just how deceptive the parallelomania can be when it comes to church truth claims:
I cover this in more detail on our overview on the text of the Book of Abraham, but Dr. Robert Ritner, one of the top Egyptologists in the world, talked about this at length because this claim is absolutely misleading.
First, this argument has been popularized by church-employed Egyptologist Kerry Muhlestein who admits that "I start out with an assumption that the Book of Abraham and the Book of Mormon, and anything else that we get from the restored gospel, is true... Therefore, any evidence I find, I will try to fit into that paradigm." (Deseret News)
From Dr. Ritner:
“Kerry wrote his dissertation on this very topic, and he was very careful to describe these as political executions rather than human sacrifices. So he walked a careful line that passed muster with Egyptologists. He did not prove that there was human sacrifice. He in fact, just pointed these out as being human, as being political execution…
It's a death penalty for committing a crime. This is not for failing to worship the gods or failing to respect a deity or a ritual. It's if you commit a crime, there will be capital punishment that is not sacrifice. And yet this is the kind of example they want to choose. This is like saying, ‘If you kill someone and we hang you for it, it's a human sacrifice.’ If that's the way you want to understand it, fine. Any execution could be taken in a religious way and given a connotation, and we execute people now. Is that human sacrifice? For some, you would say yes, but it's a question of ‘Is this how the Egyptians are understanding it?’ And the answer is certainly not…
So all of the examples that they like to point to, the so called recent ones, are in fact either criminal published punishment or military activity. It's not a question of human sacrifice on an altar. There's no altar that's been found at this site. In the Delta, there's no altar that is found in mere guesses. There is no altar found adjacent to the never Hotel Stella, so all of that is smoke and mirrors and confusion of terms and attempting to juggle anything in order to make it all makes sense. But the bigger question is so what if the Egyptians practiced human sacrifice? Would the Egyptians have practiced human sacrifice in north Syria, where they didn't have any physical control? Would they have looked like that on that illustration [Facsimile 1], which we know is doctored and therefore cannot be an illustration of it? So it's not a question of finding one little thing that might work. You have to make all the pieces fit. And that is the continual problem with the apologists is they find one small aspect which, if you squint your eyes and look, you know, slightly to the left, you can say, ‘Well, it sort of looks like this,’ but then it doesn't fit the entire picture because you're asked to ignore all of that, and you can't ignore all of it. If the story is true, then all parts of it have to be true. Not just one aspect of one picture or two lines.” (Dr. Robert Ritner, Mormon Stories Part Two)
I apologize for the long quote, but it’s really important to understanding how misleading the constant search for parallels can be. In this case, as Dr. Ritner notes, the context of the human sacrifice in the Book of Abraham begins with the illustration on Facsimile 1, which was altered/doctored by Joseph Smith incorrectly in the first place. As Dr. Ritner correctly states, “You have to make all the pieces fit.” Finding one parallel that might answer one problem but leaves the many other problems untouched is not proof of the church’s truth claims, but proof that the apologists can’t address the issues in context and still retain faith in the ‘plain and precious truths’ that we’re taught on Sundays.
This evidence runs into the same problems that the Olishem and Ulisum connection run into that many apologists cite as evidence for the Book of Abraham’s authenticity. These “modern scholars,” all of whom happen to be employed by the church and all of whom seem to be named or sourcing Daniel C. Peterson, make the unfounded assumption that Elkenah is a reference to the Canaanite god El, or possibly the use of the generic word El to signify any of a number ancient Near Eastern gods.
Elkenah is simply not a recognized name from anywhere in antiquity and is only mentioned the Book of Abraham. A very quick Google search will confirm this very important detail, because the church’s essay seeks to give the impression that scholars outside of the church have since found Elkenah to be an ancient evidence for the Book of Abraham where this clearly is none.
This claim is disingenuous and it is made on very shaky ground because if they want to tell the whole story they might also point out that Yahweh (Jehovah) made his first appearance as a pagan god in the pantheon of this same El.
There are many problems with the astrology in the Book of Abraham, as the Book of Abraham contradicts itself between the chapters that are reworkings of Genesis and the chapters that are unique text to the Book of Abraham. I highly recommend listening to biblical scholar Dr. David Bokovoy’s interview on these chapters, as they go into very specific details about how untenable this position is. (David Bokovoy Interview, Part 3)
Again, as Dr. Ritner points out about you have to look at all of this together – you can’t take the few points you want and put them in isolation while ignoring all the problems with the Book of Abraham.
One of the most commonly used ‘evidences’ cited by church apologists is the connection between Nahom in the Book of Mormon and the letters NHM being discovered as archaeological proof of the Book of Mormon’s claims to being an authentic, ancient text.
As historian of Mormonisn and one of the Seventies of the Church of Christ John Hamer pointed out, “One of the Books of the Bible is "Nahum" — the Bible is the source of Joseph Smith's connections to the ancient Semitic world. As a location in Lehi's journey, Nahom is totally irrelevant. It doesn't even rise to the level of coincidence. It's not noteworthy.”
I realize that apologetics go beyond just the name, and that the location is also cited as proof that Joseph Smith couldn’t have gotten this right if he had made it all up, but again it still leaves all of the other pieces of the puzzle out. For example, there are many ways that NHM could be used and the church here is insisting that it has to be Nahom because that fits the Book of Mormon.
This argument has been hashed out repeatedly, but I wanted to leave two threads that go over the Nahom issue. I realize that they are Reddit threads, but they are pretty quick to outline why this argument just does not hold up when you really dig into the Nahom/NHM circumstances. Feel free to ignore these due to being from Reddit, but I thought they had some information that was relevant to this debate.
Reddit Thread: Joseph Smith Didn't Understand How Languages Work
Reddit Thread: Budding Apologists Create Book of Mormon Nahom
Again, when you are focused only on finding parallels that prove your truth claims, you ignore all of the many evidences against it. This is why faith in the Mormon church has never been ‘belief in what cannot be seen in the flesh’, but a ‘disbelief in any alternative position.’
The church’s constant search for any parallel that might give its claims plausibility also makes it all the more ironic that FAIR Mormon responded to the CES Letter by claiming that Jeremy Runnells was using an “appeal to probability. This fallacy argues that because something is even remotely possible, it must be true.” That is literally what apologetics in Mormonism have becomes, as the Nahom/NHM connection illustrates perfectly.
Furthermore, apologists absolutely jump on any critic who points out a parallel when it doesn’t fit their narrative as being unfounded and irrelevant. A good case in point is the use of Meroni and Comore in a 1748 map of the Comoros island that Captain Kidd supposedly visited.
Apologists jump on this suggestion by stating that there’s no way to make the connection to Moroni and Cumorah, yet they would not accept that this kind of parallel is just as weak as the NHM/Nahom one. I personally think both examples are flimsy which is why you don’t see me making that claim in the overviews, but I’m also not going to dismiss one shaky parallel while using another as proof that the church is true or false.
I hope this at least gives a quick look at why the church’s hunt for parallels is often riddled with problems, and why I would again point out that these same apologists would never give this kind of room for another religious leader’s truth claims because they know that it just does not hold up when you look at the totality of the truth claims being made.
Creating Impossible Scenarios for Joseph Smith
I’m not sure how to label this critique, but effectively it is the way that the church creates an equation to prove that Joseph Smith was a prophet even against all of the evidence.
The easiest way to look at this is by looking at the creation of the Book of Mormon. For almost 200 years, the church continues to tell members that it would be impossible for an unlearned boy to create a text as long and consistent as the Book of Mormon including all of the names, locations, etc.
Prophet John Taylor: “Joseph Smith was . . . uneducated when he was a boy. . . . The Lord took him into His school, and He taught him things that I have seen puzzle many of the wisest scientists, profoundest thinkers, and the most learned men” (Deseret News, July 30, 1884, 435).
Elder Mark E. Petersen: "The Book of Mormon is a literary and a religious masterpiece, and is far beyond even the fondest hopes or abilities of any farm boy. It is a modern revelation from end to end. It is God-given.
Read, for example, some of the Savior’s beautiful sermons in that book. Note that the Lord quotes Bible prophets. Are we to say that the unlearned Joseph Smith had the audacity or the skill to rewrite the Savior’s sermons and insert King James Version passages in them, thinking to improve on what Jesus said?" (It Was a Miracle)
I left the second paragraph of Elder Petersen's remarks in there because it shows how apologists create a scenario that seems too difficult to overcome, but is actually quite ordinary. For example, it makes perfect sense that Joseph Smith used the King James Bible to lift material from because that was the only Bible he knew. It would've been more impressive had the Book of Mormon contained a translation of the Bible that mirrored the most widely accepted translations today (the King James Bible is considered an inferior translation in 2021, yet the Book of Mormon is tied to it).
I tried to illustrate this in the overview on how the Book of Mormon was composed, but it is not nearly as miraculous when you look at the details of production. Basic math tells us that Joseph Smith only needed to dictate for a few hours a day, and that he could spend the rest of the time thinking about what would come next, study the Bible, etc.
One of the greatest tricks about the amount of names and locations that Joseph Smith created is that most of them are disposed of as soon as they arrive because the story is always moving forward, so Joseph Smith could list off a string of names and locations, talk about the events in that year, and never mention them again. Again, I cover this in the overview on how Joseph Smith composed the Book of Mormon, because once you evaluate the text the same as you would any other literary text, the miraculous nature that we’ve been conditioned to belief fades away quickly.
Setting up Straw Man Arguments
I won’t spend much time here because this one is somewhat self-explanatory, but one trick that apologists use is to frame the issue in a way that can be more easily rebutted, but also leaves all of the evidence against their position untouched.
A good example of this kind of tactic is Tad Callister, who wrote the book “A Case For the Book of Mormon.” He has given presentations on why the Book of Mormon must be an ancient, authentic text and in doing so often creates straw man arguments to tear down the critics.
Last year I wrote about this and highlighted all of the ways that Callister distorts the argument by misrepresenting what the critics today say about how the Book of Mormon was composed. I would recommend reading the overview for a more detailed outline of this example, but here is how Tad Callister began his article in the Church News:
“The initial argument by the critics that the Book of Mormon was man-made was based on the premise that Joseph Smith was too unlearned and “ignorant” to write such a comprehensive work and therefore someone allegedly much more intelligent than he, such as Sidney Rigdon or Oliver Cowdery, must have authored it. Later, arguments arose that Joseph copied it from the Solomon Spaulding Manuscript or that he suffered from a mental disorder that somehow endowed him, an untrained writer, with superior writing skills. These arguments, however, have been so thoroughly discredited that they are seldom mentioned anymore.
So, the current argument being made is that Joseph Smith was a creative genius who read numerous books, such as “View of the Hebrews” and “The Late War Between the United States and Great Britain” and then copied ideas and stories from them. This, of course, is a total flip-flop, a 180-degree reversal from the original argument that Joseph was incapable, too ignorant to write such a book. Now, all of a sudden Joseph is a skilled, creative writer with genius intellect. Why the flip-flop? Because all the previous explanations for a man-made book had failed." (Church News)
The reality is that most critics today do not make that argument, but Callister knows that by framing it this way he can poison the well for members who might have questions as well as avoid the actual evidence that I’ve outlined which make it clear that not only could no one but Joseph Smith have written the Book of Mormon, but that he left his fingerprints all over the text itself.
To be fair, straw man arguments are used by all sides of every issue because it makes it a lot easier to make your case when you aren’t addressing the other side’s arguments, but they are used often in apologetics and it is a very deceptive tactic if you are a believing member who simply doesn’t know how to spot them.
'Lying For the Lord'
This topic is a bit of a charged one, but a phrase that is often used by critics is that leaders of the church (and their apologists) engage in “lying for the Lord.” This phrase originated after many leaders over the years have lied to promote faith in the church, with our last overview covering the Transfiguration of Brigham Young which included Apostle Orson Hyde talking about how miraculous it was to witness even though he wasn’t actually there.
We’ve outlined the many ways Joseph Smith lied to members of the church during his lifetime whether it was his history with treasure digging, foundational events that he used to claim authority over the church, and polygamy, but there has been a consistent pattern with the church itself to hide damaging evidence and disparage those who have spoken out against it.
In some cases, of course, the leaders were probably unaware that they were not telling the truth. I’m not saying that every leader has been an expert on church history, but it has been clear that leaders have lied about troubling problems such as the Book of Mormon translation, the 1832 account of the First Vision, and polygamy.
For polygamy, not only did Joseph Smith lie to members about it, but the church has also lied about it throughout their history. Today the church admits that after the initial polygamy manifesto that the church continued to perform polygamous sealings, but what members might not know is that Wilford Woodruff himself was almost certainly married to another woman after his own manifesto.
There’s a good list of topics that the church has misled members about at Mormon Think that have varying degrees of concreteness, and I would recommend checking that out if you’re unaware of all the ways that the church has distorted or lied about its history, because it is clear that the church has intentionally covered up the problems in order to provide a faith promoting narrative.
For example, when I was a convert to the church I was shown the artwork of Joseph Smith translating the Book of Mormon with the gold plates on the table, studying over them in a scholarly manner. Today the church admits that Joseph Smith actually used his seer/peep stone in a hat, which means that the narrative I was taught was a lie. I do not hold the missionaries responsible because they didn’t know better, but I do hold the church historians who did know better for teaching investigators a history that is not true.
Furthermore, there has been a coordinated effort by the church to teach their young, impressionable members a version of the church that does not line up with the historical record. In an address to church educators by Apostle Boyd K. Packer, he stated the following:
“Church history can be so interesting and so inspiring as to be a very powerful tool indeed for building faith. If not properly written or properly taught, it may be a faith destroyer. ..
There is a temptation for the writer or the teacher of Church history to want to tell everything, whether it is worthy or faith promoting or not. Some things that are true are not very useful…
One who chooses to follow the tenets of his profession, regardless of how they may injure the Church or destroy the faith of those not ready for “advanced history,” is himself in spiritual jeopardy. If that one is a member of the Church, he has broken his covenants and will be accountable. After all of the tomorrows of mortality have been finished, he will not stand where he might have stood.” (The Mantle Is Far, Far Greater Than the Intellect, Boyd K. Packer)
We can all speculate as to how much the leaders know, if they know they’re outright lying, or if they just feel that their duty is to protect the church at all costs, but they continue to tell CES instructors today that their responsibility is to maintain faith in the church for the youth. From Elder M. Russell Ballard’s address to CES instructors in 2016:
“Additionally more than at any in our history, students need to be blessed by learning doctrinal or historical content and context by study and faith accompanied by pure testimony, so they can experience a mature and lasting conversion to the gospel and lifelong commitment to Jesus Christ. Mature and lasting conversion means they will “stay in the boat and hold on” throughout their entire lives.
For you to understand the doctrinal and historical content and context of the scriptures and our history, you will need to study from the best books. As the lord directed, the best books include the scriptures, the teachings of modern prophets and apostles, and the best LDS scholarship available. Through your diligent effort to learn by study and faith, you’ll be able to help your students learn the skills and attitudes necessary to distinguish between reliable information that will lift them up and the half-truths and incorrect interpretations of doctrine, history, and practices that will bring them down. Teach them about the challenges they will face when relying on the internet to answer questions of eternal significance. Remind them that James did not say “if you lack wisdom, let him Google!”” (An Evening with Elder M. Russell Ballard)
As I mentioned with the Saints book, I do not expect the church to be out there publishing the many areas of scholarship that make clear the church is not true, but I also have a problem with the church telling educators that the only materials that have truth are the ones that the church has approved because they are faith promoting.
If you ask any linguist, they will tell you the Tower of Babel simply did not happen because we have multiple languages from before that time. If you ask any geneticist, they will tell you the Book of Mormon is false because Native Americans came from Asia. If you ask any Egyptologist (not employed by the church), they will tell you that Joseph Smith translating the Egyptian characters in Facsimile 3 wrong is a clear indicator that he was making it up.
This is not difficult, and Elder Ballard is telling educators of impressionable young students that they are not to use Google or outside sources, but only to look inward to the church for reliable information. That is not just controlling and manipulative, but it is dishonest. If the church had any confidence in their truth claims, they would be telling members at every General Conference to research the church’s truth claims because they held up exactly as Joseph Smith promised they would.
Instead we have church leaders who are instructing their educators to avoid outside information because they know it will cause young members to realize it is demonstrably untrue and walk away. That tells you all you need to know about their confidence in their truth claims, and what they believe the purpose of the Church Educational System (CES) really is.
Speaking/Acting As a Man – Give Joseph a Break
The final apologetic I want to cover is one that really bothers me because it is designed to excuse problems with the truth claims and, more importantly, excuse terrible behavior.
Often times when I point out something that Joseph Smith said that was awful, I will be told that Joseph Smith was acting as a man and that if Joseph Smith was perfect, how could they ever hope to be good enough in the eyes of God? This led to Neil L. Andersen stating the following at the 2015 General Conference:
"To those of faith who, looking through the colored glasses of the 21st century, honestly question events or statements of the Prophet Joseph from nearly 200 years ago, may I share some friendly advice: For now, give Brother Joseph a break!" (Faith is not by chance, but by choice)
This is one of the areas that is so depressing because it’s another instance where the church ties your identity to itself and makes you feel like your worth is measured solely by how the church views you.
First, no one expected Joseph Smith to be perfect as a prophet – that is again creating a strawman argument in order for the church to then diffuse the problem. We did, however, expect him to be honest, consistent, and to have his claims as prophet verified to be true just as he said they were.
For example, when we talk about how Joseph Smith sent Orson Hyde on a mission, married his wife Nancy, and then used Nancy to help recruit other polygamous brides for Joseph, we are told by apologists who are uncomfortable with these actions that he was acting as a man because God did not give him the specific instructions on how to implement polygamy. The reality is that D&C 132 is very specific with rules, and Joseph marrying a woman already married violated the very revelation Joseph Smith himself produced.
When Joseph Smith created the Kirtland Safety Society Anti-Banking Company, he took the life savings and money from early members in Kirtland and quickly squandered it. We have both those who left the church and those who remained faithful declare that Joseph Smith called the creation of this bank the will of the Lord, which again tells us that Joseph Smith was willing to speak in the voice of God when he needed members to obey and listen to his commands, and in this case Joseph’s proclamation that the bank was from God ended very poorly. (Mormon Think)
The bank was created by Joseph Smith and Sidney Rigdon as a way to get out of money troubles, when in reality it only enlarged those troubles because Joseph Smith was running what was effectively an illegal bank that caused legal problems upon its demise. Even as we have accounts that Joseph Smith was using revelation from God to create this bank, FAIR Mormon concludes that “Joseph insisted that a prophet was only a prophet when he was acting as such. The Kirtland Bank episode is a good example of fallible men doing their best to solve an intractable problem.”
Again, that entire statement is designed to give Joseph Smith an out when things either failed or go against our moral compass, and it simply is not a pass that FAIR would give any other religious leader that made similar errors such as David Koresh, Warren Jeffs, etc.
The reality is that the teachings of prophets did hurt people whether it was Joseph Smith’s proposals to young women who had to sacrifice a life of happiness to be just one of many wives to Joseph Smith, Brigham Young implementing the ban on black members for the priesthood and temple, or Russell M. Nelson declaring the November 2015 policy of exclusion on LGBT members the will of God.
Furthermore, we have teachings from the prophets, seers, and revelators of the church that are just flat out wrong, including the following:
Oliver B. Huntington wrote the following declaration from Joseph Smith: “The inhabitants of the moon are more of a uniform size than the inhabitants of the earth, being about 6 feet in height. They dress very much like the Quaker style and are quite general in style or the one fashion of dress. They live to be very old; coming generally, near a thousand years. This is the description of them as given by Joseph the Seer, and he could ‘See’ whatever he asked the Father in the name of Jesus to see” (The History of Oliver B. Huntington, p. 10, Marriott Library, University of Utah)
Brigham Young: “So it is with regard to the inhabitants of the sun. Do you think it is inhabited? I rather think it is. Do you think there is any life there? No question of it; it was not made in vain.” (Journal of Discourses 13:270)
Joseph Fielding Smith: “We will never get a man into space. This earth is man's sphere and it was never intended that he should get away from it. The moon is a superior planet to the earth and it was never intended that man should go there. You can write it down in your books that this will never happen.” (D. Michael Quinn, Elder statesman: A Biography of J. Reuben Clark (2002), 498)
Spencer W. Kimball: “They ]Native Americans] are not Orientals. They are from the Near East…it is not impossible that there could have seeped across the Bering Strait a little oriental blood as claimed by some people. But basically these Lamanites, including the Indian, are the descendants of Lehi, who left Jerusalem 600 years BC.” (The Lamanite: Their Burden, Our Burden)
Russell M. Nelson: “To think that man evolved from one species to another is, to me, incomprehensible. Man has always been man. Dogs have always been dogs. Monkeys have always been monkeys. It’s just the way genetics works.” (Pew Forum, Mormonism in Modern America)
We could go on all day, but you get the point that these men that are sustained as prophets, seers, and revelators are often wrong on very basic truths, and yet apologists will give them the constant excuse that these thoughts were given simply “as men” even though they will also tell us that current leaders must be obeyed and taken as prophets. It’s just not a consistent evaluation because these men are wrong just as much as the average person and if they are taken at face value would never been seen as true prophets of God.
Dismissing the authority in which these prophets implemented these doctrines and ideas as ‘acting like a man’ is not just dishonest, but undermines the entire idea that we should listen and obey the teachings and direction of the current prophets because we know that when the next leaders come in, the previous ones will be thrown under the bus which we saw the moment Russell M. Nelson took over and called using the name Mormon a “victory for Satan” after the previous two prophets both rebuffed Nelson’s lifelong mission to end the use of the name Mormon.
While we can all chuckle at the idea of Brigham Young saying that people lived on the sun, the fact is that the prophets, seers, and revelators got it wrong on crucial issues such as who the Native Americans were which were based on multiple, direct revelations from God beyond the Book of Mormon itself. The same can be said for the curse of dark skin, curse of Cain, and LGBT revelations.
Again, no one expects prophets to be perfect, but we do expect them to get it right when they speak about the most important issues of our times. The problem is that time after time they get it wrong, and no amount of brushing off these incorrect teachings (after these leaders are replaced) by saying they were simply “speaking as a man” cannot undo the fact that they are repeatedly showing us that they do not speak for God, and it’s important to remember that the current leaders will have their statements brushed aside once they have passed on just as every other leader has since the beginning of the church.
It might have been foolish to cover all of these issues with apologetics in one overview, but I believe this is a needed overview in order to outline why apologetics, while they have the best of intentions, are not honest approaches to the evidence.
I also realize that apologists might point at these overviews and state that I am trying to prove the church false by selectively choosing the “evidence” that I present, and to a certain extent they are correct in that I am obviously providing the material that I personally choose to include. The problem for apologists, however, is that I am presenting the church’s rebuttals on these issues and then explaining why they don’t work.
The reality is that between myself and the church, only one of us is presenting both sides of the issue and then explaining what the evidence says, and only one of us is telling you to research both sides thoroughly without any predetermined conclusions. While I have been open that I feel that you can prove that the church is not true and that Joseph Smith was not a prophet of God, I have also been consistent in explaining why that is and outlining the church’s response to these issues.
If you read or watch any youth face-to-face church devotional, listen for how leaders of the church will address those who leave the church. They will never tell you the specifics of why the members left, but they will give you vague descriptions such as ‘they had problems with the church’s history’ or ‘they read anti-church material’ and left.
My point is that in these overviews I have tried to give the church’s best rebuttals in the different overview topics and in any topic where there is a gospel topics essay, I cite their defenses because those are what the church has deemed their best defenses for the church. On the other hand, when they church holds youth devotionals with their most impressionable members, they will never give specifics as to why people leave because they know that telling the youth some of these problems will absolutely turn them off from the church before they’ve been in long enough to have solidified a testimony that will keep them hesitant or downright opposed to looking into church history.
FAIR Mormon has used the following phrase multiple times when attacking critics:
“When critics need an attack against the Church, any excuse will do, even if they are mutually self-contradictory. If one argument is true, the other cannot be.”
This is a pretty ironic statement because, as I’ve tried to outline throughout these overviews, the very apologetics used by the church to make these truth claims become even remotely plausible open up so many other problems that simply cannot be reconciled. In other words, they’ll use any possible parallel to prove the Book of Mormon could be true, even if that parallel also proves other areas of the church’s truth claims false. We see this in DNA, Book of Mormon translation, the Book of Abraham, and so many other areas of Joseph Smith’s productions where the inconsistencies prove to be fatal if you’re willing to look at all of these issues in totality.
There’ a great quote from historian of Mormonism and one of the Seventies of the Church of Christ John Hamer that really explains apologetics better than I ever could:
"Generally, you can avoid saying "well, this is a forest," if you spend all your time staring at bark through a microscope and telling yourself that the pattern in bark is similar to the pattern in an elephant's hide."
That really sums up the way that apologists approach the differing problems with Mormonism: By telling you that what you’re looking at isn’t what you think it is, because you need to drill deeper to the point where you completely lose sight of the context surrounding it.
In Dan Vogel’s recent book going over apologetics for the Book of Abraham, he said the following:
“Defenders of Smith’s Abraham try to overcome this evidence [that it is not a correct translation and is riddled with errors] by proposing demonstrably implausible, factually erroneous theories. Weak, nonsensical parallels should never be used to justify patently incorrect conclusions. History deserves better.” (Vogel, Book of Abraham Apologetics)
As I’ve said before, faith in the church is the belief in what cannot be seen in the flesh. At some point when you look at these issues, it becomes apparently that faith in Mormonism not only requires you to believe in things that we cannot see, but also to disbelieve in any other alternative. It’s not faith to believe the Book of Abraham is a correct translation against all of the evidence we can see with our own eyes, but a complete distrust of all scholarship, evidence, and history around us. That’s not faith, that’s our mind not being willing to accept the information that we would readily accept if it was not disproving a core belief, but instead disproving any other religious leader, church, or organization.
This is the 37th overview page in this project, and by now I feel confident in saying that we can prove the Book of Mormon is not an ancient text and that Joseph Smith was not a prophet who had direct revelations from God. That statement is backed up by scholars in almost every field of study along with just looking at the church’s own historical documents and scriptures.
I suppose that’s why apologetics bother me so much, because they are designed to defend the church’s truth claims no matter what the evidence tells us. There is a reason that so many apologists eventually leave the church – at some point you realize the evidence simply does not hold up and it becomes impossible to continue telling others hold on to a religion that you know cannot hold up to scrutiny and research.
Apologists will always be around to defend the church just as they are for every other religion, but I hope as you read these overviews you can understand the tactics that are used to gloss over the real problems and distract you from seeing the clear and unmistakable patterns that emerge within these issues with church history and Joseph Smith.
Again, I know this is difficult and I realize that as a believing member you might read this overview and think “this idiot is just projecting, because he’s guilty of everything he’s citing above.” What I would just again recommend is to read the overviews I have written, then go and read the church’s gospel topics essays along with FAIR Mormon and then read my overviews again.
That might sound a bit weird, but when I first read the CES Letter I was asked to read FAIR Mormon’s response because they had answers, and when I read FAIR’s reply the first time I thought “I don’t know that I can believe the church is true, but there are answers to these problems.”
Then I read the CES Letter’s rebuttal to FAIR before reading FAIR again, and then I started to see the tricks that FAIR was using whether it was cherry picking questionable sources, using misleading quotes while ignoring others, or simply telling us that what we can see with our own eyes isn’t real such as DNA studies and the source material for the Book of Abraham which is owned by the church today.
Once I read through both the CES Letter and FAIR multiple times I could see why apologetics are effective on the surface, but absolutely damning if you’re willing to really sit down and go deep into what they are providing. This is absolutely true with the gospel topics essays as well, which is why I made sure to point out the problems with their use of footnotes that often times contradict the very point they are trying to make.
Now I want to be clear that I don’t think the CES Letter is perfect – it’s a short document that was never meant to be an all-encompassing text and does have some areas that I disagree with to some degree, but I do believe on the whole that the CES Letter was doing the very thing that the church wanted us to do until the evidence proved it wrong which was to take Joseph Smith and the church’s truth claims at face value.
The moment that a religion, politician, or organization tells you that you can’t take their claims at face value but then also require you to promise your life and everything you have to them, it’s a problem. And while the apologetics within the church (many who are beholden to the church for their careers) tell you that you need to redefine words in order to maintain the slightest amount of plausibility, it is a major red flag that, again, you would identify easily if it was any religion, politician, or organization that you were not already dedicated to.
These are supposed to be the “plain and precious truths” being restored by Joseph Smith and the church as a whole, so what does it tell you that those truths are so clearly wrong that the church has to employ or fund a vast amount of people to write essays, give firesides, or write books to tell you how to redefine those “plain and precious truths” to make them plausible? I realize that’s a leading question, but after doing 37 different overview topics on Mormonism, I feel confident in saying that it’s not a leading question, but the question that so many in the church really work hard to avoid thinking about.
Next Overview Topic: If Joseph Got It Right, Who Got It Wrong?