LDS Discussions Blog
Elder Tad R. Callister: Straw Man Slayer (January 28, 2020)
On January 19, 2020, the church posted an article on their official site titled "Elder Tad R. Callister: The Book of Mormon - man-made or God-given?" which is written by Tad Callister.
For those who don't know, Elder Callister recently wrote a book that attempts to defend the Book of Mormon as a true historical work called A Case For the Book of Mormon. When his book was released, many people online noted how Callister used straw man arguments in order make his case in a way that avoided the real issues, and this article is a perfect example of how he does it. For those who are interested, there's a great podcast from Radio Free Mormon on Tad Callister's presentation from last August as well.
A very basic summary from Wikipedia is that "a straw man is a form of argument and an informal fallacy based on giving the impression of refuting an opponent's argument, while actually refuting an argument that was not presented by that opponent. One who engages in this fallacy is said to be "attacking a straw man.""
Now before we get into the article, I do want to note that on this site we tend not to use or cite "logical fallacies" much at all because they are overused by many apologists as well as frequently misused in order to make a point seem stronger to their readers than it actually is. For the purposes of looking at this article, I just want to point out where Callister purposefully misstates the critical position in order to slay that defenseless straw man he creates.
And now to the article:
"This year we will be studying the Book of Mormon as part of the “Come, Follow Me” curriculum. A natural question that arises at some point is whether or not this book is man-made or God-given.
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."
You can see how Callister immediately tries to poison the well here by focusing on critical arguments that not only aren't made by serious scholars now, but ignoring the many valid arguments that have been made against the Book of Mormon's and its truth claims since it was published.
Were there people who believed in the Spaulding manuscript theory? Sure, and there are ex-Mormons today that even bring it up from time to time, but no serious critics that I know of give it any weight whatsoever. This is a theory that apologists like to use to marginalize critics because the Spaulding theory is effectively a conspiracy theory based on old interviews with witnesses who claimed Joseph directly copied an old Spaulding manuscript that was stolen from the print shop, which makes critics look like they are grasping at straws to prove the Book of Mormon a 19th century work.
But the problem is that many initial arguments about the Book of Mormon focused on how heavily it relied on the Bible along with the 19th century ideas that Joseph Smith would have been familiar with. Tad Callister knows all of this, but he also knows that by using these caricatures of critical arguments, he can then try to slay that straw man to promote faith among the members reading this and wanting to be assured there that the critics are wrong. For example, Mark Twain had this to say in 1890 about the Book of Mormon:
“The book [Book of Mormon] seems to be merely a prosy detail of imaginary history, with the Old Testament for a model; followed by a tedious plagiarism of the New Testament. The author labored to give his words and phrases the quaint, old-fashioned sound and structure of our King James’s translation of the Scriptures; and the result is a mongrel—half modern glibness, and half ancient simplicity and gravity. The latter is awkward and constrained; the former natural, but grotesque by the contrast. Whenever he found his speech growing too modern—which was about every sentence or two—he ladled in a few such Scriptural phrases as “exceeding sore,” “and it came to pass,” etc., and made things satisfactory again. “And it came to pass” was his pet. If he had left that out, his Bible would have been only a pamphlet.” (Mark Twain, Roughing it, 1872)
While Elder Callister focuses on the idea of the Spaulding theory, he completely ignores the real problems that critics have had with the Book of Mormon from the beginning. Anachronisms were known of from early on, Joseph Smith's reliance on the King James Bible was noticed early on as Mark Twain illustrated, and the issues around the Book of Mormon translation narrative were a problem whether it was the Charles Anthon meeting or even the Lost 116 Pages.
Furthermore, the second argument that Callister claims as the current stance of critics is not an accurate framing either. The first chapter of the CES Letter links, unfortunately in my opinion, View of the Hebrews and The Late War to direct plagiarism claims, but again most scholars do not focus on these books as the main theories for the Book of Mormon or how Joseph Smith created it. From reading and listening to scholars and critics discuss the Book of Mormon, most will cite Joseph Smith's heavy reliance on the King James Bible as the greatest source for the Book of Mormon, which he then combined with stories he was familiar with and questions that those around him had in the 1820s to create the story.
To put another way, the point of citing View of the Hebrews and The Late War when discussing how Joseph Smith produced the Book of Mormon is to note that other people were writing about the very ideas that Joseph Smith brought into the Book of Mormon, and that Joseph Smith would have been familiar with both of thosee books, the King James writing style, and ideas of his milieu such as the Mound Builder Myth for Native Americans.
The problem here for Callister is that he can not bring up the issues that critics have with the Book of Mormon in any kind of specifics, because he does not want members to be exposed to problems with the Book of Mormon. We've written about a few of them, but just a few issues that apologists do not have evidence based answers for:
Why does the Book of Mormon include Deutero-Isaiah passages that were written after Lehi left? Joseph Smith did not know there were multiple authors of Isaiah, and neither did the author of the Book of Mormon.
The Book of Mormon is the record of ancestors of the Native Americans, but DNA has now shown that Native Americans came from Asia and not Israel. How did the Book of Mormon get this wrong, and why did Joseph Smith's revelations continue to get this wrong?
How can the Book of Mormon include Christian practices that took centuries to develop before Jesus Christ even appeared in the Americas? In other words, why is the author of the Book of Mormon including practices that would not be introduced or developed until well after Jesus' death, yet very familiar to those in the 1800s?
Why does the Book of Mormon include anachronisms not just of items (horses, steel, etc), but of concepts as well? The Book of Mormon is littered with 19th century ideas and language to the point that even LDS historian Richard Bushman concedes it is a 19th century production: "There is the fact that there is phrasing everywhere–long phrases that if you google them you will find them in 19th century writings. The theology of the Book of Mormon is very much 19th century theology, and it reads like a 19th century understanding of the Hebrew Bible as an Old Testament. That is, it has Christ in it the way Protestants saw Christ everywhere in the Old Testament. That’s why we now call it “Hebrew Bible” because the Jews never saw it quite that way. So, these are all problems we have to deal with." (Book Of Mormon Historicity, Mormon Discussions Podcast, ~8:28 m.m.)
We have access to so much more information, Biblical scholarship, and history now than we did in the 1800s. The fact that it becomes easier to prove that the Book of Mormon is a 19th century work is actually a problem for the Book of Mormon instead of an admission that critics got it wrong, which is why Callister casts using this new information as a "flip flop" in order to poison the well with members.
If a car mechanic originally thinks the car is stalling because of a faulty sensor but realizes after diagnostic tests that it's actually the fuel pump, does that make him a bad mechanic or imply that the car was fine all along? Of course not, it just means he tested what seemed to be the most likely cause and then his research led him to another conclusion.
It would be like writing "Critics at first argued that the the Kinderhook Plates were faked with one technique to make the metal plates look ancient, but then they later changed their mind and argued that the plates were actually faked by using a different method backed up by new advances in science. Therefore it becomes clear that the Kinderhook Plates are indeed real."
Last, Tad Callister is mocking critics for having different ideas today than they did in the 1830s, but he ignores that the church's own defenses and narratives have completely changed in the last 170 years as evidence has proven their claims to be untenable. For example:
I was told by the missionaries that Joseph Smith translated the Book of Mormon using the gold plates and urim and thummim. We now know he used a rock in a hat, and that the original narrative simply did not happen as taught.
We were told the Book of Abraham was a direct translation of papyrus, but now that we have the source material and know it has nothing to do with Abraham, the church has given a number of different explanations including redfining what the word translation actually means.
The Book of Mormon and Book of Abraham both teach that dark skin is a curse from God, but the church is now redefining the meaning of the word "skin" in order to avoid the racism that literally part of the foundation of the church.
Joseph Smith originally taught the trinitarian view, but later changed in the mid 1830s to Jesus and God being separate beings. He even changed the First Vision in order to retrofit this evolution in theology, along with the Book of Mormon.
I could go on all day as this same problem exists for Brigham Young teaching the Adam-God theory, Joseph Smith and why he entered into both polyandrous and polygamous marriages, how the church believed the Masons had the original endowment ceremony, why the church defended the Kinderhook Plates until the 1980s when science proved them a hoax, and so much more.
Why does Callister accuse critics of "flip flopping" when using new information and scientific advancements to assess the Book of Mormon while the church is given a pass for literally redefining words in order to paint a faith promoting narrative? Even LDS apologist Terryl Givens recently wrote about Joseph Smith using "bricolage" to write his scriptures, which is a scholarly way of saying that Joseph Smith cobbled ideas around him to produce scripture. Again, no apologist would present a theory so damning as that unless the evidence forced them to do so, so for Callister to mock critics for pointing out that Joseph Smith leaned heavily on ideas and materials near him to produce the Book of Mormon is grossly misstating both the critics while ignoring the reality of his own church's evolution.
Back to the article:
"Is there any evidence that Joseph was a good writer at age 23 when the Book of Mormon came forth and thus might have been its author? No. To the contrary, Emma Smith, his wife, noted: “Joseph Smith [as a young man] could neither write nor dictate a coherent and well-worded letter, let alone dictate a book like the Book of Mormon.”
This is staggering when you think about it — to claim that Joseph Smith, who could not write a coherent letter, wrote the Book of Mormon, with all of its historical complexity and profound doctrinal insights, in a single dictation draft in approximately 65 working days with no notes in front of him and with only minor changes — mostly grammatical."
First I want to note that the interview that Callister is noting here is from 1879, which was 50 years after the Book of Mormon was produced. Second, this interview (you can read the original here) was given by Emma shortly before her death, and in it she is painting Joseph Smith in the best possible light as this interview is being given to her son.
I don't want to belabor the point here, but in this same interview Emma Smith says that Joseph Smith never entered into polygamy, which we know is an outright lie. From the same interview about polygamy:
"Question. What about the revelation on polygamy? Did Joseph Smith have anything like it? What of spiritual wifery?
Answer. There was no revelation on either polygamy or spiritual wives. There were some rumors of something of the sort, of which I asked my husband. He assured me that all there was of it was, that, in a chat about plural wives, he had said, "Well, such a system might possibly be, if everybody was agreed to it, and would behave as they should; but they would not; and besides, it was contrary to the will of heaven." No such thing as polygamy or spiritual wifery was taught, publicly or privately, before my husband's death, that I have now, or ever had any knowledge of.
Question. Did he not have other wives than yourself?
Answer. He had no other wife but me; nor did he to my knowledge ever have.
Question. Did he not hold marital relations with women other than yourself?
Answer. He did not have improper relations with any woman that ever came to my knowledge.
Question. Was there nothing about spiritual wives that you recollect?
Answer. At one time my husband came to me and asked me if I had heard certain rumors about spiritual marriages, or anything of the kind; and assured me that if I had, that they were without foundation; that there was no such doctrine, and never should be with his knowledge or consent. I know that he had no other wife or wives than myself, in any sense, either spiritual or otherwise."
This was an interview that Emma gave to her son, so it is not a surprise that she would lie to make his father look better, but Callister carefully chooses that one line to make the reader think critics are crazy for thinking Joseph Smith produced the Book of Mormon.
And while the section on polygamy proves that Emma Smith is not a credible witness to what happened overall, this section about the Book of Mormon translation is particularly damning:
Question. Had he not a book or manuscript from which he read, or dictated to you?
Answer. He had neither manuscript nor book to read from.
Question. Could he not have had, and you not know it?
Answer. If he had had anything of the kind he could not have concealed it from me.
As we noted earlier, this is impossible to be true given how much material is taken directly from the King James Bible. Either Joseph Smith had a photographic memory and could remember long stretches of Isaiah word for word from the translation used in his time, or he was reading from the King James Bible when using those passages or other phrases and ideas from the New Testament. Again, Callister is careful not to mention this because it completely undercuts the message he wants to send to members and would expose members to just how often Joseph Smith borrows from a translation of the Bible that did not exist for about 1,200 years after Book of Mormon times.
Again, Callister is also making an argument here that doesn't exist. The Book of Mormon manuscipt would read nothing like the cleaned-up version of Book of Mormon we have today. It was full of run on sentences, grammatical errors, and has undergone over 4,000 changes to make it more readable over time. We do not have the original manuscript, but there is a faithful article about the study of the printer's manuscript with some photos that show how differently it read at the time. As many scholars have noted, the Book of Mormon reads like a dictated text, and as such you would not need to know how to literally write in order to produce it, but would need a good knowledge of the Bible and ideas around you.
In her history, Lucy Mack Smith noted that "During our evening conversations, Joseph would occasionally give us some of the most amusing recitals that could be imagined. He would describe the ancient inhabitants of this continent, their dress, mode of travelings, and the animals upon which they rode; their cities, their buildings, with every particular; their mode of warfare; and also their religious worship. This he would do with as much ease, seemingly, as if he had spent his whole life among them." (Lucy Mack Smith, Biographical Sketches of Joseph Smith the Prophet, and His Progenitors for Many Generations (Liverpool, S.W. Richards, 1853), 36-173)
The point here is that Joseph Smith was clearly a gifted storyteller and was telling his family Book of Mormon stories before he even claimed to have the plates. While Callister focuses on Joseph Smith's literal ability to write, he is completely misrepresenting both the critical arguments and the history behind the Book of Mormon production. Joseph Smith did not write anytihng - he dictated the story while his head was completely buried in a hat with a rock inside. In other words, Callister arguing that "This is staggering when you think about it — to claim that Joseph Smith, who could not write a coherent letter, wrote the Book of Mormon," is an stance that, once again, Callister is framing in order to slay the straw man by ignoring the actual evidence.
We cover this in much more detail in our annotated Gospel Topics Essay on the Book of Mormon Translation, but here is a letter that Joseph Smith wrote to Oliver Cowdery in 1829, which is the time frame that Emma is discussing earlier when she claims Joseph could not "write a coherant and well worded letter:"
“I would inform you that I arrived at home on sunday morning the 4th after having a prosperous Journey, and found all well. The people are all friendly to us except a few who are in opposition to everything, unless it is something that is exactly like themselves, and two of our most formidable persecutors are now under censure and are cited to a trial in the church for crimes which, if true, are worse than all the Gold Book business. We do not rejoice in the affliction of our enemies, but we shall be glad to have truth prevail. There begins to be a great call for our books in this country. The minds of the people are very much excited when they find that there is a copyright obtained, and that there is really book about to be printed…" (Joseph Smith Papers, Letter-to-oliver-cowdery-October-1829)
For that letter, the only changes we made were to clean up the spelling and correct some puncuation, which is exactly what happened with the Book of Mormon transcript. Does this letter seem like something that matches Emma Smith or Tad Callister's description of Joseph Smith?
Back to the article:
"When I recently finished writing a book about the Book of Mormon, my secretary unexpectedly asked me, “Do you know how many drafts you had?” I replied, “No.” To which she responded, “72.” I thought, “Wow. It took me two concentrated years of writing, and many previous years of thinking and collecting ideas, with multitudinous notes constantly in front of me, to write a book less than half the length of the Book of Mormon and far less meaningful, and 72 drafts to do so.”"
Writing a research book about the Book of Mormon is much different than dictating a book of stories as Tad knows, but again he frames the argument to make what Joseph Smith did seem impossible. In a lot of ways this is more of a reflection on Tad Callister than it is on Joseph Smith, as scholars such as David Bokovoy wrote their books detailing scripture in just weeks, and they are full of research and detailed commentary as well.
There's not much more to say here, except to once again point out that Tad Callister is making an argument that critics simply do not make. Back to the article:
"It reminds me of the observation of Hank Smith: “Someone with an experience is never at the mercy of someone with an opinion.” Accordingly, no one can ever convince me that Joseph Smith at age 23, trying to eke out a living on the edge of the frontier, with only primitive writing skills and no notes in front of him, wrote this historical and doctrinal masterpiece in a single draft in approximately 65 days, let alone in any time frame. It is beyond rational belief.
No wonder Emma Smith wrote: “My belief is that the Book of Mormon is of divine authenticity — I have not the slightest doubt of it. I am satisfied that no man could have dictated the writing of the manuscripts unless he was inspired.”"
At least as his article comes to an end, Elder Callister admits that no amount of evidence or reason will change his mind. While Callister claims it is"beyond rational belief," the truth is that it's much more rational to explain how Joseph Smith created the Book of Mormon than to believe the everchanging stories on the Book of Mormon translation along with the problems outlined above such as DNA and the Lamanites, Deutero-Isaiah, and Christian practices being used that would not be developed for hundreds of years after Book of Mormon times.
If we want to talk about rational belief, what makes more sense: That Joseph Smith translated a book of golden plates that were not even in the same house as him while he buried his head in a hat with a rock inside, or that Joseph Smith used sources around him to create a story that is full of 19th century ideas and King James Bible verses and text that would never have been accessible to the Book of Mormon people?
We covered the problems with Emma Smith's interview above, so we're not going to beat a dead horse here. I am just happy that Callister finally admitted that he is not open to evidence and research, because it explains why he deliberately misframes critical arguments in order to create a faith promoting answer. And now for the final paragraph from the article:
"Not only do history and reason confirm the truth of the Book of Mormon, but much more importantly, the power of the Spirit does. This witness of all witnesses bears powerful testimony to the honest in heart that this book is not man-made but God-given. And what a blessing it will be to feast upon and treasure up its inspired words during the coming year."
You'll notice that Callister makes the claim that "history and reason confirm the truth of the Book of Mormon," yet outside of an interview given by Emma Smith in 1876, he does not cite anything else. If history truly confirmed the truth of the Book of Mormon, Callister would cite DNA evidence showing Native Americans were from Israel, remains and artifacts from the millions that died in the battles of the Book of Mormon, and Biblical scholarship that shows Joseph Smith actually translated the Book of Mormon in ways the King James Bible errored. We have the Dead Sea Scrolls, so if Joseph Smith truly was translating directly from plates as claimed, he should have gotten the parts of Isaiah and the phrases from the New Testament that matched earlier scrolls and not the King James Bible version.
Instead we have the exact opposite as we outlined above. And unlike Tad Callister, we have citations for our claims and they are based in reason, research, and evidence. This article would not be so insulting if Callister admitted up front that nothing will ever change his mind and that his reasons are based in an emotional witness, but instead he spends the article mocking critics by misstating their arguments in order to slay the straw man for the members who need reassurance that the church has answers to the many problems with its history and doctrine.
I've asked this in other posts, but the only question you need to ask yourself is this: If the leaders of the LDS church really believe it is true, why are they so terrified of their members studying it for themselves outside of correlated materials? Why is Elder Callister spending so much time mocking critics and misrepresenting their claims instead of giving reasons the critics are wrong?
If the church was true, they wouldn't need to slay those defenseless straw men because the evidence would confirm the truth claims set forth by Joseph Smith on its own. Elder Callister knows this and surely has learned a lot about what issues are bothering members from being the Sunday School President for five years, but he also has a bigger goal as a leader of the church: to make sure the members never take the step of researching critical claims for themselves.
We've linked to a lot of our pages in this post, but please check them out if you're having doubts or struggles with the church. I hope it helps, and you can email us anytime at firstname.lastname@example.org and we can point you in the direction of more resources, podcasts, support groups, or anything else we can do to help.
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