Saints: The Standard of Truth?
Following the review of the new LDS book, Saints, we wanted to do a full blown annotation of the book to show where the LDS church still refuses to be honest with members about some difficult issues. However, due to this being an official book release we can not reproduce it here in its entirety, but we can review the book for factual problems and paint the picture of the discrepancies here.
Every day come back and we will review a new chapter -- we will do our best to point out where the church is being honest, where they are being fair, and where they are hiding and suppressing their difficult history as we've done in the LDS annotated essays.
Part One: My Servant Joseph (April 1815-April 1830)
Part Two: A House of Faith (April 1830-Aptil 1836)
Chapter Sixteen: Only a Prelude (Blacks and the Church, Tensions in Missouri, Mob Attacks; Added Oct 4)
Part Three: Cast Into the Deep (April 1836-Aptil 1839)
Part Four: Fullness of Times (April 1839-February 1846)
A Brief Introduction To Our Review of Saints:
As you read our review of Saints, please keep in mind that Saints is written less like a historical document and more like a fiction novel, with characters given life through narration and dialogue. That isn't to say that the church is being dishonest with the writing style, but that this book is not intended to be a deep dive into history as the church has advertised. From our first glance through Saints, it is clear that the purpose of the book is to inoculate members against the most troubling aspects of church history. In this format, the church can lightly touch the difficult issues while weaving an overall narrative about Joseph Smith's life and founding of the church. If you stick around and follow us as we review each chapter, we will point out exactly what we mean when we say this book is meant to inoculate members, because it is very important to understand the way it was crafted with regards to discussing historical problems.
I also found it interesting that the church used "The Standard of Truth" as the heading of the Saints book, as their other attempts to finally 'come clean' on history have fallen short as we've outlined on the many pages here. But this book took six years to finish, mostly due to the long approval process as stated by Kate Holbrook on the recent Face to Face event from Nauvoo. If this book took six years to complete because of the tedious and meticulous approval process, then surely this book must finally come clean on the many historical issues that have dogged the church for so long, right? There's only one way to find out...
Chapter One: Ask in Faith
The first chapter of Saints begins with a brief discussion about how a volcano (Tambora) in 1816 set off a chain of events worldwide that culminated with the Smith family's crops suffering from the weather impacts of Tambora. Since this is the first chapter, there is time spent introducing the readers to the Smith family members and, of course, Joseph Smith's early life. The church goes to great lengths early on to describe Joseph in the colorful ways that have been told before: that he refused to take brandy during the surgery (this story is often used when talking about the Word of Wisdom, although we know Joseph Smith drank alcohol through the end of his life, (History of the Church Vol 7)), that he was strong willed even when weakened by his limp, and that he was uneducated but soaked up all of the religious fervor surrounding them.
After the family arrives in Palmyra, the book describes how Joseph had taken notice of the revival meetings of religions in the area. "When Joseph was twelve, religious debates swept Palmyra. Although he read little, he liked to think deeply about ideas. He listened to preachers, hoping to learn more about his immortal soul, but their sermons often left him unsettled." This is an issue for the church's narrative on the First Vision, which we detail in our annotated First Vision essay. While Saints (and the church in general) puts the timing of the revival at about the time Joseph was 12, the history tells us that the great revivals in the area didn't occur until he was 18-19 years old (in 1824).
Lucy Mack Smith plays a prominent role in the first chapter, in large part because her history is the most cited source for the beginning of the book. Touching on the magical worldview of the Smith family, Saints references her own interaction with the Lord: "Lying awake all night, she prayed to God, promising Him that if He let her live, she would find the church of Jesus Christ. As she prayed, the voice of the Lord spoke to her, assuring her that if she would seek, she would find." This is important to understanding the Smith family, which we detail heavily in the Book of Mormon translation annotated essay.
This first chapter ends with Joseph Smith deciding to pray, which will of course lead us to the First Vision in chapter two. There are a number of problems with how the church presents the First Vision here that we will cover in greater detail in chapter two, but some of the differences between Joseph Smith's first account of the First Vision (and only one written directly by him) are ignored in this first chapter, which is peculiar if they are proclaiming to give an honest picture of their history. Again, those can all be found in our First Vision annotated essay and will be discussed further in chapter two.
A couple of observations about the footnotes/sources that the church uses in chapter one. There are 28 footnotes, with 22 of them occurring after the volcano. Of those 22 footnotes, Lucy Mack Smith's history is cited the most with 10 separate citations. This makes some sense considering this chapter is serving as a biographical chapter, but we will see in the next few chapters how heavily Saints relies on Lucy Mack Smith's history. There are a few problems with this:
1. Lucy Mack Smith did not have any of this information written down until 1844, which is decades after the First Vision and about 15 years after the church is formed.
2. During the time between the events taking place and Lucy Mack Smith writing down her history, the narrative of these events changed greatly. Because of that, the information becomes much more questionable for its accuracy. We cover a lot of the changes in the church's foundation story in our other pages (First Vision essay, changes to the Doctrine and Covenants, Book of Mormon translation, Polygamy, etc), but what we see with most accounts written down much later is that as the stories in the church change so do the accounts given long after the fact.
3. Lucy Mack Smith is going to present Joseph's story in the best possible light - she is his mother, after all. It accounts for why the descriptions of Joseph are so dramatic such as "He had stayed awake and alert the whole time, his face pale and dripping with sweat. His mother, who was usually so strong, had nearly fallen apart when she heard his screams. After that, she probably felt that she could bear anything."
As we discuss in the Book of Mormon translation essay, the Smith family is very into a magical worldview with ties to occult practices. When the overwhelming majority of the citations from the church in Saints are from the Joseph Smith papers and Lucy Mack Smith, they are leaving absolutely no room for alternate points of view. It is hard to call your work the "Standard of Truth" when you refuse to acknowledge or respond to the troubling problems with the narrative that have been pointed out by so many others, including those who were in the LDS church and later excommunicated for their works.
Chapter Two: Hear Him
The second chapter focuses entirely on the First Vision for Joseph Smith. While the First Vision essay speaks more to the multiple accounts of the First Vision, Saints sticks very closely to the "official" version as in the Pearl of Great Price. Considering that Saints is written in a narrative style, it is funny that they do not utilize the only account of the First Vision actually written by Joseph Smith himself. Nonetheless, this creates the problems of the differences between the First Vision accounts which are detailed in our annotated First Vision LDS essay. We won't highlight every difference again here, but it is important to understand just how different Joseph's original First Vision account is from the 1838 version that is currently used by the church. Considering the 1832 account is the only one written by Joseph, it would seem to be the one that should be given the most emphasis, but it can't because it doesn't fit the LDS theology soon after. Among the big differences:
"He asked for mercy and forgiveness and for wisdom to find answers to his questions. “O Lord,” he prayed, “what church shall I join?”" -- This doesn't happen in the 1832 version as Joseph Smith declared that he already knew all religions were wrong.
"As he prayed, his tongue seemed to swell until he could not speak... Suddenly, an unseen power seized him. He tried to speak again, but his tongue was still bound." -- In the 1832 version, there is no Satan that overpowers Joseph.
"Peering into the light, Joseph saw God the Father standing above him in the air." -- When Joseph wrote about the First Vision originally, he only saw Jesus, not God. In the 1838 version, Joseph claims that God was actually there too.
Again, please refer to our First Vision annotated essay for more detail about the other differences and why they are linked to the evolving LDS theology at the time. Chapter two then transitions into the reasons why Joseph never told anyone about the First Vision for well over a decade, which is from his history that was written well over a decade after the first vision. This is important because Joseph Smith never told anyone about the First Vision for over a decade after it supposedly happened, which makes his accounts of being persecuted for telling it all the more puzzling.
Saints tells us that the preacher Joseph told scolded him because "the days of visions and revelations had ceased long ago, he said, and they would never return." Yet Richard Bushman tells us in Rough Stone Rolling that visions were so common in Joseph Smith's time that telling people about them would not generate much of a response. Furthermore, we have no evidence that Joseph Smith was persecuted for his First Vision story, yet Saints spends time creating a narrative of a young boy forced to stay silent. "“Why persecute me for telling the truth?” he wanted to ask. “Why does the world think to make me deny what I have actually seen?”"
The last part of chapter two is perhaps the most egregious: the church finally addresses the multiple First Vision accounts but manage to blame the differences on scribes: "In the years that followed, he recounted the vision more publicly, drawing on scribes who could help him better express what defied all description."
That line of apologetics is given to gloss over the issue that there are such striking differences in the First Vision accounts by blaming the scribes for taking liberty with the story. This is why I claim that the purpose of Saints is to inoculate members -- they do not give specifics on what changed, but they do acknowledge there are differences so if members are presented with more information later, the church can claim they never hid the evidence.
We don't want to get too far ahead, but the next line is very reminiscent of the Lost 116 pages as Saints looks to brush off differences in the First Vision accounts by stating that Joseph "wrote less about his own search for forgiveness and more about the Savior’s universal message of truth and the need for a restoration of the gospel." In other words, the changes that we outlined above aren't actually that meaningful - it's just that Joseph changed the focus of the First Vision which is why the accounts vary.
Last, we need to point out that the First Vision was unknown to even the most important church leaders throughout Joseph's life. It was not talked about by almost anyone, and we have no record of Joseph Smith himself telling it to anyone until well over a decade after it happened. To make the point a bit clearer, here are the sources that never discussed the First Vision in a contemporary record:
Any local newspaper
John Whitmer's church history
Evening and Morning Star
LDS Messenger and Advocate
Mormonism Unveiled (first critical book on Mormonism)
Book of Commandments
Alexander Campbell (leader of the Campbelites where Sidney Rigdon came from; critical of Joseph Smith)
Sidney Rigdon (one of the most important early church leaders)
1839 History of the Church
In addition to all of the important sources that never mentioned the First Vision, we have many early church leader that only spoke of the First Vision as just an angelic visit in vision to Joseph. This is important because Joseph claimed to be visited by many figures (God, Jesus, John the Baptist, Moroni, Peter, James, etc), so it makes sense that many close to Joseph understood the First Vision to just be a visionary visit from angels. Among the church leaders that spoke of the First Vision only in terms of being an angelic vision: Oliver Cowdery, Martin Harris, Orson Hyde, Orson Pratt, Parley Pratt, William Smith, George A Smith, Heber Kimball, Lucy Mack Smith, Brigham Young, and Wilford Woodruff. Remember how Lucy Mack Smith was cited *ten* times in chapter one? She's not cited a single time in chapter two, because she was never aware of the First Vision in her lifetime, or at least never thought it was important enough to mention in a large volume of history.
This chapter of Saints does a disservice to the full history of the church by telling a glowing narrative of just one of the First Vision accounts, while using scribes as a scapegoat for the massive differences between them. Because this chapter is so heavily focused on the First Vision, I highly recommend any readers to check out our First Vision annotated essay, which goes into much more detail about this topic and why the changes matter more than apologists will admit.
Chapter Three: Plates of Gold
The third chapter of Saints focuses on the lead-up to Joseph receiving the "gold plates" and seeks to begin weaving the old church narrative of Joseph Smith translating the actual gold plates into the history that the church now accepts: Joseph Smith used a rock that he found while digging for a well, put it in a hat, and put his head in the hat to read the words. This method of translation was long denied by many leaders of the church, but as more history has come to light there is no denying that Joseph Smith "translated" the Book of Mormon not with ancient interpreters over golden plates, but with his head and "seer stone" in a hat. Before we get into the chapter, I highly recommend anyone reading our Saints project to read the annotated LDS essay of the Book of Mormon translation. It goes into these issues in so much more detail, which really highlights why even in 2018 the church still can not be honest about how the Book of Mormon came to be.
In the third paragraph, Saints really quickly glosses over a big problem in LDS history. "Like many people in the area, including his father, Joseph believed that God could reveal knowledge through objects like rods and stones, as He had done with Moses, Aaron, and others in the Bible." This sentence is necessary because the Smith family was heavily involved in magic, but Joseph wasn't the only one that used magical objects to claim revelation. Oliver Cowdery used a "divining rod" to get revelation, and a representation of how these rods were used is pictured below. In fact, the original revelation claimed in the Book of Commandments makes it clear that Oliver Cowdery used a divining rod and that Joseph believed it revealed information: "Now this is not all, for you have another gift, which is the gift of working with the rod: behold it has told you things: behold there is no other power save God, that can cause this rod of nature, to work in your hands." (Book of Commandments 7:3)
As this paragraph continues, Saints again glosses over some incredibly important elements of the story. "One day, while Joseph was helping a neighbor dig a well, he came across a small stone buried deep in the earth. Aware that people sometimes used special stones to search for lost objects or hidden treasure, Joseph wondered if he had found such a stone. Looking into it, he saw things invisible to the natural eye."
This chapter is preemptively setting up that Joseph Smith would soon use the stone for treasure digging, which is where the Smith family would sell their services to claim to find buried treasure using magical powers (usually through a "peep stone"), and then as soon as the diggers would get close to it, they would claim the ancient spirits had taken the treasure back. In these ceremonies, there were sometimes animal sacrifices done to locate the treasure, and other elements of the occult were used. (Early Mormon Documents, Vol. 2, pp.59-61) The point is that these treasure digs were abnormal even in the more magical worldview of the 1820s, which is why Saints wants to very carefully lay the foundation here before revealing that Joseph was a part of this in chapter four. Last, Joseph claimed to see "things invisible to the natural eye" long before he claimed to translate the Book of Mormon, which means he was already claiming this magical power before he claimed to be gifted it from God.
It is so important to understand the importance that folk magic and occult practices played in the Smith household. In our LDS annotated essay on the Book of Mormon translation, we go into this in much more detail, but it plays a role that is inexcusably ignored in Saints. "On September 21, 1823, seventeen-year-old Joseph lay awake in the loft bedroom he shared with his brothers... As Joseph prayed, a light appeared beside his bed and grew brighter until it filled the entire loft." What Saints does not mention here is that September 21 is the Autumnal equinox, when the spirits of the dead are purported to be more accessible to mortals, and when they are most easily convinced to reveal the locations of buried treasure. This concept is found in the writings of Heinrich Cornelius Agrippa and other occult authors who were popular in early 19th century America. But more significantly for the topic at hand, it is the date specifically encoded into magic parchments that were owned by the Joseph Smith Sr. family, and which they used to magically determine the best times for their treasure hunts.
One of the ways that the church tries to blur the real history of the translation of the Book of Mormon is by using the term Urim and Thummim. The Urim and Thummim in the Bible were not "interpreters" as the LDS church likes to claim, but more of a 'yes' or 'no' type response. Furthermore, the term 'Urim and Thummim' was not used to describe the Nephite interpreters or seer stone for years, and was adopted years after the translation to avoid talking about how Joseph Smith actually translated the Book of Mormon by putting a stone he found digging a well in a hat. (Michael Quinn's book, Early Mormonism and the Magical World View, is a great source on the magical worldview of the Smith family and the ties to the occult in treasure digging. Quinn was excommunicated for relaying information about the LDS church that he uncovered while studying history for the church.)
We see these lines being blurred when Saints describes the Nephite interpreters as seer stones in order to lessen the strangeness of Joseph's seer stone being used. "Buried with the plates, Moroni said, were two seer stones, which Joseph later called the Urim and Thummim, or interpreters. The Lord had prepared these stones to help Joseph translate the record. The clear stones were fastened together and attached to a breastplate."
Compare that phrasing from Saints with the footnote that they cite (Joseph Smith - History): "Also, that there were two stones in silver bows—and these stones, fastened to a breastplate, constituted what is called the Urim and Thummim—deposited with the plates; and the possession and use of these stones were what constituted “seers” in ancient or former times; and that God had prepared them for the purpose of translating the book."
To a certain degree we are splitting hairs, but the point needs to be made that the translation of the Book of Mormon as we have it was done entirely with Joseph's stone in a hat, but as we see here the LDS church is trying to lump that in with the Nephite interpreters that we have no record of Joseph ever using in the translation after the first 116 pages were lost. Further, Saints clearly says that Moroni mentions "seer stones," when their citation mentions that the constituted "seers" in ancient times. There's a reason that Saints took six years to get released, and these kinds of carefully worded phrases are a big reason why.
On a small side note, there are good reasons to believe there were never any "Nephite Interpreters" just based on the few descriptions we have of them. We will go over that in a future chapter, but the fact that Saints continually references them as if there is a solid consensus on them is deceptive as best.
A funny thing about Joseph Smith and the church is their use of things in threes, and of course in Joseph Smith's history he says that Moroni appeared three times. "He then departed, only to appear once more and deliver his message a third time." When Joseph Smith uses his story of the angel with a drawn sword to pressure women into entering polygamous marriages with him, he tells of the angel arriving three times to tell him to enter polygamy or be destroyed. We'll point out more of the "threes" as we go.
Saints pretends to be the "Standard of Truth," but again goes out of its way to inoculate readers about the practice of treasure digging. "He had heard tales of hidden treasures protected by guardian spirits, but Moroni and the plates he described were different from these stories." Joseph Smith himself was part of a family that believed in guardian spirits, so of course he had heard tales of hidden treasures protected by guardian spirits - he would soon sell these exact services to people claiming he could find them!
The story of his attempts to retrieve the plates continues in the style of a typical treasure dig, which again was all too familiar to Joseph Smith. "He reached for them—and felt a shock pulse through him. He jerked his hand back but then reached for the plates twice more and was shocked each time." Besides the repetition of three used there, Joseph Smith was unable to grab the treasure just as he would claim on treasure digs -- the spirits had called it back."
Night after night he captivated the family with talk of the gold plates and the people who wrote them." This line is important because it is referenced often by critics of Joseph Smith. This line is inspired by Lucy Mack Smith, as she talked about how Joseph would tell them stories about the characters from the Book of Mormon, which is a reason many critics contend that he was already thinking of the characters and plots before he even claimed to have the plates. It is not that the church is being dishonest here since they are using Lucy Mack Smith as their source here, but it is important to note that Joseph talking about the Book of Mormon stories before having the plates is why many believe Joseph is the true author of the Book of Mormon.
The third chapter tells of how Joseph's brother Alvin dies even after Moroni tells Joseph that he should come the following year (which seems like a failed prophecy, but we won't dive into that here), and then Joseph is told on the second visit he must come yet again. Moroni tells Joseph he must come the following year on September 22 (during the Autumnal equinox, again) to claim the plates.
This has been a longer chapter review than the first two, but it's important since it is setting up the foundation of the church and glosses over and blurs a lot of the difficult history that this book was supposed to tackle head on. The last thing I want to mention about this chapter is that it references Lucy Mack Smith's history 12 times out of the 32 footnotes. That history was written over 20 years after Joseph claimed to receive the vision about the plates. In that time the church history was evolving and the narrative shaped, which really makes the overuse of Lucy Mack Smith's history instead of other historians a big negative for the credibility of Saints. Joseph Smith's history from the Pearl of Great Price is cited about nine times, which again was written long after these events happened.
At the end of the day, it is hard to believe that Saints is the "Standard of Truth" as they claim it to be when they continue to rely almost entirely on sources that are written long after these pivotal events and when they're written almost exclusively by Joseph Smith himself or his mother. That might sound harsh, but this book was advertised as taking on the hard issues with a full picture, but as we've noted in this chapter there are a lot of problems that are carefully overlooked or blurred, which the church would be the first to criticize if it was the other way around.
Chapter Four: Be Watchful
Before picking up where chapter three left off, we take a quick detour to introduce Emma Hale to the story. What is interesting is how they wrap the Emma and Joseph love story around the fact that Joseph was a treasure digger who was paid by Josiah Stowell to help find buried treasure with his "seer stone." Saints offers this as the reason Stowell hired Joseph to locate the treasure: "Knowing Joseph had a gift for using seer stones, Josiah offered him good wages and a share of the findings if he would help in the search."
There is no evidence that Joseph Smith ever found anything with the stone. If Stowell had heard Joseph had a gift with this stone, it was because the Smith family was advertising it to the local community for hire, not because they had any actual success finding anything. It is insulting to the readers here to imply that Joseph Smith accomplished anything with this stone, because if he had found treasure with it, Saints would be sure to dive into the smallest details to tell us about it. This would not pass the LDS church's definition of honesty, and it shows just how damaging Joseph's treasure digging is to the credibility of the Book of Mormon: the stone he uses to defraud Stowell out of money is the exact same stone he is going to soon translate the Book of Mormon with out of a hat.
The chapter continues to develop the courtship of Joseph and Emma, which includes the discussion of how Emma's dad became very distrustful of Joseph as he got to know him. They also continue to drop hints that Joseph is an uneducated person by stating that "his grammar was uneven, and he sometimes used too many words to express himself, but he displayed a natural intelligence when he spoke."
Emma's dad Isaac began realizing that Joseph Smith's treasure digging was defrauding Stowell of his money, and "was suspicious of Joseph’s role in it. It did not seem to matter to Isaac Hale that Joseph had tried to convince Josiah Stowell to call the search off when it became clear nothing would come of it." It is from church history that Joseph "tried to convince Josiah Stowell to call the search off," because we know Joseph Smith took the money from Stowell since he was later charged with defrauding him.
Saints continues to inoculate members to the idea of using stones to find hidden treasure by stating without sources that "some of the older folks in town believed in seers, but many of their children and grandchildren did not." Using a stone found in a well to locate buried treasure was never considered a normal practice, but Saints needs it to seem normal in order to make Joseph Smith selling these services seem reasonable.
Briefly discussing Joseph's trial for "swindling" Josiah Stowell, the church claims that "the hearing produced no evidence that Joseph had deceived him, so the judge dismissed the charge." This is misleading because evidence was uncovered in 1873 that showed the fine Joseph Smith paid was for a guilty verdict. "And therefore the Court find the Defendant guilty. Costs: Warrant, 19c. Complaint upon oath, 25 1/2c. Seven witnesses, 87 1/2c. Recognisances, 25c. Mittimus, 19c. Recognisances of witnesses, 75c. Subpoena, 18c. - $2.68." (Fraser's Magazine, February, 1873, vol. VII, p. 229-230)
We are then told that Joseph was told by Moroni to bring someone with next year to get the plates, because he was rejected for his money digging ways. "Joseph sought the Lord’s direction through his seer stone. The right person, he learned, was Emma." What is interesting is that the source here is for Joseph Knight's "Reminiscences," but the actual quote is a bit trickier than what Saints portays: "Then he looked in his glass and found it was Emma Hale, Daughter of old Mr Hail of Pensylvany, a girl that he had seen Before, for he had Bin Down there Before with me." (Full Text)
If the authors of Saints believed that the real quote was believable or faith promoting, they would have used it. Instead of they paraphrase it in the fluffy narrative that they use throughout Saints in order to avoid tackling the tough issues while protecting the image of Joseph Smith.
After Joseph and Emma elope, the chapter quickly turns again to Joseph Smith retrieving the "gold plates." We are told that Joseph got the plates from Moroni, but then was allowed to hide them in a "hollow log" while he worked to get a lock box to put it in. This is in contradiction to a previous retrieval attempt where Moroni took the plates back because Joseph took his eye off the plates for a second, but now it is OK that he left them in a "hollow log" for days. Further, we are told that a group of men were plotting to steal the plates, but that Joseph Smith could look in on the plates with the Urim and Thummim (keep in mind that no one called it in the Urim and Thummim at this time). This is, of course, written by Lucy Mack Smith who lived in a magical worldview as we have described in these early chapters.
Next, Saints tells the tale of how Joseph Smith ran with the plates, knocking off treasure seekers along the way. Keep in mind that gold plates would weigh anywhere between 40 and 200 lbs, so running while also fighting off treasure seekers is beyond unlikely. (LDS article on the weight of the plates) "He ran for about half a mile when another man sprang from behind a tree and struck him with the butt of his gun. Joseph fought the man off and darted away, desperate to be out of the woods. But before he could get very far a third man attacked, landing a heavy blow that sent him reeling. Gathering his strength, Joseph hit the man hard and ran for home."
I work with boxes for a living, and I can tell you that running with an item that weighs between 40-200 lbs is beyond unlikely to begin with, but fighting off attackers while doing so would be impossible. Again, this is a story from Lucy Mack Smith written decades after the event supposedly happened, but it needs to be pointed out just how unrealistic this story is.
Joseph then returns home with the plates, and allows the family to feel them through a cloth as no one is allowed to see the plates or would die, according to Joseph. Saints then ends the chapter discussing Joseph Smith's injuries from the attackers, which again is so improbable in the first place.
We will be entering the translation stage of this book soon, which is going to be very interesting considering the liberties that Saints has already taken when it discusses the Urim and Thummim, which we are going to get into more details on in the following chapters. It also needs to be noted that once the Joseph elopes with Emma, there are 15 more citations in the chapter. Of those 15 citations, 13 of them are from Lucy Mack Smith's history. This history was written decades after the events supposedly happened, was written by Joseph's mother, and makes up almost the entirety of the sources about such an important event in church history. The fact that Saints did not bother to use more sources is more evidence that Saints is not "the Standard of Truth" as they claim, but just another attempt to inoculate members about the difficult and unbelievable parts of their history.
Chapter 5: All Is Lost
After receiving the gold plates, Joseph Smith needs to begin translating them. Saints begins by mentioning how "treasure seekers tried for weeks to steal them," and how Joseph had to continually move the plates around to avoid being stolen. Because of having to move the plates, Joseph does not have time to examine them with the "Urim and Thummim," which is something we need to briefly address here.
The term "Urim and Thummim" in Biblical sense did not reveal prophesies or translate language. The were used to get answers from God in a 'yes or no' sense, so they were thought of more like a Magic 8-Ball or Dice, where God would be asked about a specific question and the answer could come through as yes or no. This is important because as we will soon find out, the Biblical "Urim and Thummim" have completely different functions and abilities than the ones Joseph Smith claims to have. (Wikipedia article on Urim and Thummim)
Furthermore, the term "Urim and Thummim" was not used in any Mormon history until 1833, when W.W. Phelps first speculated that the "Nephite interpreters" could be the ancient Urim and Thummim when he said that Joseph translated the Book of Mormon "through the aid of a pair of Interpreters, or spectacles - (known perhaps, in ancient days as Teraphim, or Urim and Thummim)." (The Evening and Morning Star (Jan. 1833, Vol. 1, No. 8, p. 58)
From that point forward, the church has interchanged the term Urim and Thummim with 'seer stone' or even 'interpreters,' in large part because Urim and Thummim carries much more credibility in comparison to a seer stone in a hat. We have multiple accounts of what the Urim and Thummim looked like, but there are differences which is troubling for the credibility of the Urim and Thummim being a real item. From LDS Magazine: "Joseph Smith described the Nephite interpreters (which, over time, came to be known as the Urim and Thummim) as “two transparent stones set in the rim of a bow fastened to a breastplate.” Martin Harris said they “were about two inches in diameter, perfectly round, and about five-eighths of an inch thick at the center; but not so thick at the edges where they came into the bow.” He added that they were “white, like polished marble, with a few gray streaks.” John Whitmer called them “two crystals or glasses.” Lucy Mack Smith said they resembled “two large bright diamonds.”
LDS Magazine notes that Lucy Mack Smith even claimed to see and hold the breastplate: "It was concave on one side and convex on the other, and extended from the neck downwards as far as the center of the stomach of a man of extraordinary size. It had four straps of the same material for the purpose of fastening it to the breast, two of which ran back to go over the shoulders, and the other two were designed to fasten to the hips. They were just the width of two of my fingers (for I measured them), and they had holes in the end of them to be convenient in fastening." (ldsmag.com, February 2018)
Here's the problem: Joseph Smith's history explicitly states "I should not show them to any person; neither the breastplate with the Urim and Thummim; only to those to whom I should be commanded to show them; if I did I should be destroyed." (Joseph Smith-History 1:42) So this begs the question of why so many people claimed to see the Urim and Thummim (and breastplate) when that would lead to the destruction of Joseph Smith. That leaves us with varying accounts of what the Urim and Thummim looked like, and a history that claims no one could see them or else Joseph would be destroyed. That's a problem that goes unaddressed in Saints.
Sorry for the detour, but it seemed important to note as we dive into the translation process. From here Saints introduces Martin Harris and talks about how he becomes the financier behind the Book of Mormon. Where we take issues with this chapter is the discussion of Martin Harris visiting Charles Anthon to verify that the characters were truly "reformed Egyptian."
Charles Anthon was not an Egyptian scholar, which Saints acknowledges. This is important because they claim that Anthon "saw some similarities with Egyptian and told Martin the translation was correct." Saints continues to tell the well known story about Anthon writing a certificate to Martin Harris confirming the authenticity of the letters only to tear it up upon hearing how Joseph Smith received the book.
There are a lot of issues with this account. First, Charles Anthon tells a completely different story, which Saints does not bother to acknowledge in any way. In 1834 upon hearing that the Mormon church was telling members of his supposed endorsement of "reformed Egyptian," Anthon wrote a letter to the Telegraph Press in Ohio to give his account of the meeting. "The whole story about my having pronounced the Mormonite inscription to be 'reformed Egyptian hieroglyphics' is perfectly false... I soon came to the conclusion that it was all a trick, perhaps a hoax... [Harris] requested an opinion from me in writing, which of course I declined giving." Anthon stated in the letter that the story of his supposed authentication was false, that Anthon had identified the writings as a hoax, and that he had told Harris that the writings were part of "a scheme to cheat the farmer [Harris] of his money" (Painesville, Ohio: Telegraph Press, 1834.)
To be fair, Anthon gave a second account of this meeting in 1841 with contradictory details. In this account, Anthon claimed that "[Harris] requested me to give him my opinion in writing about the paper which he had shown to me. I did so without hesitation, partly for the man's sake, and partly to let the individual 'behind the curtain' see that his trick was discovered. The import of what I wrote was, as far as I can now recollect, simply this, that the marks in the paper appeared to be merely an imitation of various alphabetical characters, and had, in my opinion, no meaning at all connected with them." (Jerome J. Kniujet (2000). "The Anthon Affair")
The truth is that we will never know exactly what happened, but it is pretty clear that the Martin Harris account of what happened is highly disputed and yet Saints did not deem it fit to give any more perspective to the visit. It also appears that Martin Harris' account of the visit was altered to add the "I can not read a sealed book line," which has become a oft repeated phrase of this Mormon history:
One other thing that is important to note is that no one could translate Egyptian at this time. The Rosetta Stone was just a short time from being discovered, and so not even Egyptian scholars could translate an Egyptian book. This is part of why we know now the the characters that Joseph Smith had written down have no meaning, but at the time we did not have a full ability to compare to real Egyptian characters throughout history. For reference, here is a one of the copies of the "Caractors" that Martin Harris would have taken to Charles Anthon:
As you can see from the "reformed Egyptian" characters above, they do not resemble the Egyptian language in any way. There is not a single non-LDS scholar that will give a shred of credibility to them, and as we learn more and more about the civilizations that lived in the Americas (even before Book of Mormon times, as is pointed out in our DNA and the Book of Mormon annotated essay), we find that these characters simply do not fit anywhere. Finally, before we move on, it needs to be noted that many of the "caractors" above match English letters and numbers once they are rotated or flipped, which would be exactly what you would expect if someone was trying to create a new language to fool someone into financing their project. Take a look:
We're not trying to beat a dead horse here, but it is important to establish both the issues around the "Urim and Thummim" and "reformed Egyptian" before we dive into the translation efforts here. While Saints did not feel it was important to highlight these historical problems, we feel that as the "Standard of Truth" it is important to tackle them head on.
Saints continues with Emma Smith acting as Joseph's first scribe for the Book of Mormon, and they repeat the idea that Joseph Smith was too uneducated to know much about the scriptures, and then cite a famous interaction between Joseph and Emma. "One day, while he translated, Joseph suddenly grew pale. “Emma, did Jerusalem have a wall around it?” he asked. “Yes,” she said, recalling descriptions of it in the Bible. “Oh,” Joseph said with relief, “I was afraid I had been deceived.”"
There are a few issues here. First, this interaction was told by Emma Smith in 1879, which is over 50 years after this event occurred. Second, we know from earlier chapters that Joseph Smith studied the Bible constantly as a young teen, so it is very unlikely that Joseph was unaware of a wall being around Jerusalem. In fact, it is mentioned frequently in the Bible (I Kings, II Kings, II Chronicles, Ezra, Nehemiah, Isaiah, Daniel), and if Joseph was truly that ignorant it is highly unlikely that would have been such a shocking event that he would grow "pale." Last, in this same letter from Emma she denied that Joseph Smith had polygamous wives, which we know that Emma was aware was a lie. When asked if Joseph had wives or if she was aware of them, she said "he had no other wife but me; nor did he to my knowledge ever have." The point is that this letter was written 50 years after the event, the shocking fact was mentioned frequently in the Bible and is not really a shocking thing to read, and Emma was blatantly dishonest in this interview to make Joseph look good. (Last Testimony of Sister Emma)
In fact, Brigham Young during General Conference had this to say about Emma Smith in 1866: "To my certain knowledge, Emma Smith is one of the damnedest liars I know of on this earth... Not six months before the death of Joseph, he called his wife Emma into a secret council, and there he told her the truth, and called upon her to deny it if she could. He told her that the judgments of God would come upon her forthwith if she did not repent. He told her of the time she undertook to poison him, and he told her that she was a child of hell, and literally the most wicked woman on this earth, that there was not one more wicked than she." (6-8 Oct 1866, 36th Semi-Annual Conference, Bowery, G. S. L. City. [Deseret News Weekly 15:364, 10/10/66, p 4-5 and 15:372, 10/17/66, p 4-5; MS 28:764, 774])
After this interaction with Emma, Saints brings Martin Harris in to take over for Emma as scribe. What is funny to me is how Saints goes out of its way to set up Lucy Harris as a true villain in the story, and immediately turns to a more 'narrative' style novel approach to attack her. "After Joseph refused to show her the plates, she started searching the house, rifling through the family’s chests, cupboards, and trunks. Joseph had little choice but to hide the plates in the woods."
The narrative paragraphs here about Lucy Harris are all cited from Lucy Mack Smith, which as we've seen from the first few chapters is where Saints turns to for the fluffy, grandiose narrative material. It also needs to be noted here that this is the first time that Saints, even though indirectly, acknowledges that Joseph Smith translated the Book of Mormon without even using the "gold plates" after we are told he hid them in the woods. This is when Saints describes a 'tight translation' of the Book of Mormon, where Joseph would read words out of the stone in his hat, Martin would write them down, say "written," and if they were written correctly, the stone would move to the next words. We discuss why this is such an important part of the Book of Mormon's credibility on our tight vs loose translation page.
After some brief notes about the translation process, Saints moves to Martin Harris asking Joseph Smith if he can take the manuscript home to show Lucy so that she will stop being so suspicious of Martin selling property to finance it. Joseph prays to God, but is told no on two occasions. But because Martin continues to insist, Joseph prays to God a third time (power of three as we talked about earlier), and on this third attempt God changes His mind and allows Martin to take the manuscript.
While Martin is gone with the manuscript, Joseph and Emma grow weary about the safety of it being away. As Emma's health improves following their loss of their child shortly after birth, Joseph leaves to find Martin as he became "afraid that he had offended the Lord by not listening when He said not to let Martin take the manuscript." This statement feels odd because God gave them permission in the third prayer for Martin to take the manuscript, so why would Joseph be afraid that they offended Him?
Joseph then finds Martin and learns the news: the manuscript of the first 116 pages was gone. “Oh, my God, my God,” Joseph groaned, clenching his fists. “All is lost!” Martin then tells Joseph that “I have looked every place in the house. I have even ripped open beds and pillows, and I know it is not there.”
The chapter ends with Lucy Mack Smith comforting her son as Joseph feared telling Emma about what had happened. “Must I return to my wife with such a tale?” Joseph feared the news would kill her. “And how shall I appear before the Lord?”
This has been a long chapter review, so we'll make our closing comments brief. The final six citations are all Lucy Mack Smith again, which covers everything after Martin leaves with the manuscript. Lucy Mack Smith is cited 13 times in the 43 footnotes in this chapter, once again being the most used source to create a novel-style narrative of these characters. I understand that Saints is meant to be a narrative style novel, but in doing so they have also failed in their mission to be the "Standard of Truth" that tackles the hard church historical issues in a comprehensive way.
As we detailed here, there are many questions about what the "Urim and Thummim" were in terms of Mormon history, with many different accounts of what they looked like and Joseph Smith himself saying that if anyone saw them that he would be destroyed. We then covered the Charles Anthon visit and what "reformed Egyptian" looked like according to Joseph Smith's "Caractors," and also discussed why Emma Smith's over the top description of Joseph's translation process 50+ years after it happened might not be too reliable. None of those problems are addressed by Saints, which is further proof that this book is about inoculating members so that if they come across this kind of information on the internet, the church can say they've discussed it before. We'll leave it to you to be the judge on if they have addressed these topics in an honest way or not.
Chapter 6: The Gift and Power of God
After losing the first 116 pages of the Book of Mormon, chapter six of Saints picks up with Moroni taking the gold plates away from Joseph. Lucy Mack Smith notes that Moroni told Joseph that if he was humble, he would “receive them again on the twenty-second of September.” As we have noted repeatedly, September 22 falls during the Autumnal equinox, when the spirits of the dead are purported to be more accessible to mortals, and when they are most easily convinced to reveal the locations of buried treasure. This is a time that is of great important to treasure diggers and those who held magical worldview beliefs of the occult such as the Smith family. (Please refer to our Chapter 3 review for more info on the date or our Book of Mormon translation annotated LDS essay for even more detail)
After receiving the plates back from Moroni, Saints once again talks about how Lucy Harris attempted to stop the Book of Mormon, this time by filing "a complaint in court, claiming Joseph was a fraud who pretended to translate gold plates." Martin asks Joseph to bring proof of the Book of Mormon to court, because he had never seen the plates and Lucy Harris could not even find the plates at his house when she visited. Much of this part is cited from Lucy Mack Smith, which is again a huge problem for the credibility of the accuracy regarding these events, so we want to make two quick points about this subject.
First, does it make sense that Martin Harris would ask Joseph to bring proof back to Palmyra so soon after losing the 116 pages of manuscript? Second, Lucy Harris searched the entire house to view the gold plates and could not find them, which seems like an important note for an object that no one actually saw. Occam's razor is the idea that the most simple solution is usually the correct one, and in the case of the gold plates we constantly hear about Joseph Smith moving them just as someone is about to look for them. We don't want to get too bogged down here, but as they demonize Lucy Harris it is worth noting that she is one of the few people to read the first 116 pages and still believed that Joseph Smith was defrauding her husband. One would think that after reading the first 116 pages she would believe that the work was of God, but she instead filed a complaint in court to declare Joseph Smith a fraud.
Saints then moves to introduce Oliver Cowdery to the book, giving the basic introduction of how he came into the Smith family's lives, and how he was drawn to work with Joseph. They discuss how Oliver was shown a vision of the plates during prayer, and he then knew he was meant to help Joseph with the translation. We mention in our chapter three review how Oliver Cowdery was a believer in using a divining rod. This chapter discusses how Oliver is given a revelation that "Oliver’s rod worked by the power of God, like Aaron’s rod in the Old Testament." This is interesting because the original revelation did not mention Aaron, but was retrofitted into the revelation without explanation years later. Please see the initial revelation from the Book of Commandments below, with the changes made before it was republished in the Doctrine and Covenants noted (click to enlarge):
That is a trend we will discuss more in future chapters, but the church did not like mentioning the diving rod in their history because it was not accepted by most people as a way to receive direction in a magical worldview like Cowdery and the Smiths held. The chapter talks about how Oliver was told he could translate the Book of Mormon via his divining rod, but he ultimately failed to produce anything when using the rod. When Oliver became frustrated by his inability to use the rod to translate, Joseph Smith received a revelation for him. "The Lord instructed Oliver to be patient. “It is not expedient that you should translate now,” He said. “The work which you are called to do is to write for my servant Joseph.”"
One thing we discuss on our Summary page is how revelations always seemed to protect Joseph Smith's authority, and in this case it is interesting that God told Oliver he could translate, but when he tried to do it, God told him that he wasn't ready to do it now because it was meant for Joseph to do. Finally, when you think of how a divining rod was used, does it make any sense that it could possibly work to translate words? A picture of what using a divining rod looked like is below:
As Oliver and Joseph begin translating the Book of Mormon again, they are told not to translate the missing 116 pages again. "The Lord revealed that Satan had enticed wicked men to take the pages, alter their words, and use them to cast doubt on the translation. But the Lord assured Joseph that He had inspired the ancient prophets who prepared the plates to include another, fuller account of the lost material."
We discuss the issues with the lost 116 pages in our summary page, but it needs to be noted that this revelation does not make a lot of sense. First, if God wanted the world to know that Joseph Smith was a true prophet, having him translate the pages perfectly would prove that beyond a reasonable doubt. Second, if anyone altered the handwritten manuscript pages, it would be very obvious that alterations were made. And last, the idea that God knew the 116 pages would be lost so he had the record written in a different way thousands of years ago is a very difficult idea to believe. To be fair, I believed it for a long time because I just refused to think too much about it, but when you read our brief summary of the lost 116 pages, Occam's Razor is quite strong that things just do not add up here.
One other interesting part of this chapter is that Saints continues to interchange Joseph's seer stone with the "Urim and Thummim" even though there are no records to state that Joseph used the "Urim and Thummim" after he began translating following the lost 116 pages. "Sometimes Joseph translated by looking through the interpreters and reading in English the characters on the plates.
Often he found a single seer stone to be more convenient. He would put the seer stone in his hat, place his face into the hat to block out the light, and peer at the stone. Light from the stone would shine in the darkness, revealing words that Joseph dictated as Oliver rapidly copied them down."
Again, we go into much more detail about the translation process on the LDS annotated essay on the Book of Mormon translation, but the records and quotes we have are clear that Joseph Smith only used the seer stone to translate the Book of Mormon that we have today (i.e. following the lost 116 pages). In addition, we know that Joseph Smith also claimed revelation through the seer stone and not through the "Urim and Thummim," even though Saints claims that Joseph used the "Urim and Thummim" in receiving a revelation about Oliver Cowdery's doubt regarding the Book of Mormon. It might not seem like a huge deal to interchange the wording, but for a book that is trying to clear the misconceptions regarding church history, Saints appears to be purposefully muddying the waters regarding an event of such great importance as the translation of the Book of Mormon.
This is a slightly shorter review than the last chapter, mostly because there is a lot of time spent introducing Oliver Cowdery and discussing the return of the gold plates. We could spend a lot of time nitpicking those two events, but we really feel that the issues with the lost 116 pages, Joseph Smith changing the revelation regarding Oliver's use of the divining rod, and the method of translation (Urim and Thummim vs Joseph's seer stone) are far more important to the foundations of the church.
One last note: This chapter again uses Lucy Mack Smith's history continuously to create their narrative, citing her 19 times in the 33 footnotes. That is an incredibly high amount of coverage for a source that was written decades later by Joseph Smith's mother. This is all done while ignoring other source material that gives differing perspectives on the translation process, Oliver's role in the church, and the issues with the lost 116 pages. If Saints was not being hailed by church leaders as such a comprehensive view of church history this would not be as noteworthy, but it is beyond disingenuous to call this book "the Standard of Truth" when it leans so heavily on the central character's mother's recollections twenty years later. Ultimately it is up to you to decide if you feel the church is being truthful here, so let us know what you think by emailing us at or following us on Twitter at @ldsdiscussions and tweeting us your thoughts!
Chapter 7: Fellow Servants
The seventh chapter of Saints focuses on three parts: the priesthood restoration, introducing David Whitmer to finish the translation, and the witnesses to the Book of Mormon. One of the biggest problems I had when researching church history was the priesthood restoration, so I am glad we can look at how Saints handled it now. Here are three key paragraphs about this pivotal church event:
"As they prayed, the voice of the Redeemer spoke peace to them, and an angel appeared in a cloud of light. He introduced himself as John the Baptist and placed his hands on their heads. Joy filled their hearts as God’s love surrounded them.
“Upon you my fellow servants,” John declared, “in the name of Messiah I confer the Priesthood of Aaron, which holds the keys of the ministering of angels, and of the gospel of repentance, and of baptism by immersion for the remission of sins.”9
The angel’s voice was mild, but it seemed to pierce Joseph and Oliver to the core.10 He explained that the Aaronic Priesthood authorized them to perform baptisms, and he commanded them to baptize each other after he departed. He also said they would receive additional priesthood power later, which would give them authority to confer the gift of the Holy Ghost on each other and on those they baptized."
The problem here is that the history tells us that this just did not happen this way, unless Joseph Smith just happened to forget about John the Baptist and the "Priesthood of Aaron" in the revelation as originally written. We detail this problem in our priesthood timeline page, but there is absolutely no mention of Joseph being visited by John the Baptist until 1834. In addition, the historical records show that Joseph Smith was not even ordained to the priesthood (and even then it was still called simply the "high priesthood") until 1831, when Lyman Wight ordained him. (Rough Stone Rolling, p 157-158)
Not to continually harp on the overuse of Lucy Mack Smith's writings for Saints, but even she has no mention of this monumental event in her writings or letters, and no early church members have any mention of it happening. If John the Baptist came to Joseph and Oliver to ordain them to the priesthood, does it make any sense that they would not tell anyone as they launch the church in 1829? It fails every test of reason to think they would keep it to themselves, and the fact that the revelation is revised in 1834 to add John the Baptist being there is further evidence that Joseph's story does not add up here.
In 1833, the church published the Book of Commandments, which was the precursor to the Doctrine and Covenants, and was a collection of all revelations Joseph Smith had recorded through this time. Had the Aaronic priesthood been restored by John the Baptist in 1829, it would have been in the Book of Commandments, yet there is no mention of either in the entire book. Again, we encourage everyone reading this to read our priesthood restoration timeline to understand how this story fits with historical documents, and then check out our response to apologetics to understand why they do not answer these issues laid out here.
You can see how mentions of John the Baptist are retrofitted into the Doctrine and Covenants by looking at the original page from the Book of Commandments (click to enlarge):
After the priesthood restoration, Saints introduces David Whitmer. They discuss how Oliver knew David, and how Joseph moved the translation to the Whitmer's house as Joseph claimed there were men who threatened to attack them. Saints retells the legend of Mary Whitmer, David's mother, seeing Moroni as she was tired and frustrated from doing housework, and getting to view the gold plates as a way to strengthen her faith to continue in her work that was helping Joseph finish the Book of Mormon.
We're not going to spend a lot of time here, but it needs to be pointed out that the accounts of this story are from David Whitmer and John Whitmer, both given 49 years after it supposedly happened and 22 years after she passed away. It is also interesting that John Whitmer's account claims that Mary saw Nephi, which is notable because Joseph Smith in some of the earliest writings said he was visited by the angel Nephi instead of Moroni. (Mormonthink write-up on Joseph saying Nephi instead of Moroni)
In addition, in David Whitmer's sharing of this event, he also mentions that they saw Moroni as they were returning to Fayette with Joseh and Oliver. "While traveling along in a clear open place, a very pleasant, nice-looking old man suddenly appeared by the side of our wagon and saluted us with, "Good morning, it is very warm," at the same time wiping his face or forehead with his hand. We returned the salutation, and, by a sign from Joseph, I invited him to ride if he was going our way. But he said very pleasantly, "No, I am going to Cumorah." This name was something new to me, I did not know what Cumorah meant. We all gazed at him and at each other, and as I looked around inquiringly of Joseph, the old man instantly disappeared, so that I did not see him again." (Interview with David Whitmer [conducted 7–8 September 1878 in Richmond, Missouri], "Report of Elders Orson Pratt and Joseph F. Smith," Millennial Star 40 (9 December 1878)
Again, this is such a monumental event that it does not make sense why it would not be spoken of for almost 50 years after it happened, and why we only hear about it through second hand sources. There is not much more to say about this subject, other than to say many other 'faith promoting stories' in church history have been debunked once the contemporary sources are studied, and to us this feel very similar to some of the stories we highlighted on our faith promoting stories page.
Saints quickly references that Joseph "also uncovered passages about the latter days that prophesied of a chosen seer named Joseph, who would bring forth the Lord’s word and restore lost knowledge and covenants," which is from 2 Nephi. While this is often cited as proof by the church that Joseph was a true prophet, critics would argue that the person writing the Book of Mormon would surely put a prophecy about themselves in the book to claim authority. The Book of Mormon also talks about the power of seer stones, which again is interesting as it was 'translated' by a person using a seer stone. None of this can be proven by either side so we will not dig too deep here, but it just needs to be noted that if you are open to the possibility that Joseph Smith wrote the Book of Mormon, you would expect nothing less than Joseph writing himself in as a future prophet.
The last section of this chapter focuses on the witnesses seeing the gold plates. There have been so many write-ups of the witnesses and we do not want to go too deep into that here, but the witnesses have a whole lot of contradictions as well. While the statements of the three witnesses imply a physical experience, some quotes by the three witnesses and Joseph Smith himself tell of a visionary experience that was more common in that time:
Martin Harris was reported to have said ""he hefted the plates repeatedly in a box with only a tablecloth or a handkerchief over them, but he never saw them only as he saw a city through a mountain." (Letter from Stephen Burnett to “Br. Johnson,” April 15, 1838, in Joseph Smith Letter Book, p. 2) He also said in an interview that "While praying I passed into a state of entrancement, and in that state I saw the angel and the plates." ("Martin Harris Interview with Anthony Metcalf, Circa 1873-1874," in Vogel (ed.) Early Mormon Documents 2:346-347.)
David Whitmer was interviewed in 1880 and was asked to describe the angel that showed him the plates. Whitmer said the angel "had no appearance or shape.” When the interviewer asked how he then could bear testimony that he had seen and heard an angel, Whitmer replied, “Have you never had impressions?” To which the interviewer responded, “Then you had impressions as the Quaker when the spirit moves, or as a good Methodist in giving a happy experience, a feeling?” “Just so,” replied Whitmer. (Interview with John Murphy, June 1880, EMD 5:63)
In the Joseph Smith history, he states that “the same vision was opened to our view" when he began praying with Martin Harris, which is a clear indication that this experience was not physical but a mental, visionary event. This is something that some Mormon apologists have begun to concede (you can hear apologist Matt Grow concede the point in a Mormon Stories podcast where a doubter talks with Matt Grow and a member of the 70), but it is still presented as if it happened in a physical sense
In addition, the statement of the three witnesses strongly implies that all four men (Joseph Smith and the three witnesses) experienced this together, but as Saints acknowledges, Martin Harris had left the group when they did no experience the visitation and only saw it later with Joseph.
There is also the problem that almost every one of the 11 witnesses is related to Joseph Smith or friends with him. The eight witnesses were:
Samuel Smith - Brother of Joseph
Hyrum Smith - Brother of Joseph
Joseph Smith Sr - Father of Joseph
Hyrum Page - Brother-in-law to David Whitmer
John Whitmer - Brother of John Whitmer
Jacob Whitmer - Brother of John Whitmer
Peter Whitmer Jr - Brother of John Whitmer
Christian Whitmer - Brother of John Whitmer
In addition, the statements signed by both the three and eight witnesses were not actually signed by anyone except Oliver Cowdery. Apologists claim that this was so that the original documents could be kept instead of sending it to the printer, but we no longer have that original sheet to know if it ever existed. It seems curious that a book that relies on testimonies would not have original signatures of these sworn statements, and one has to wonder why Oliver Cowdery was the one person who signed for the other 10 in statements that we can not know were ever read or agreed to. We need to note that none of the witnesses ever declared being deceived by these statements, but we also have very few records of almost any of the eight witnesses as to what happened.
You can see the picture of the signatures below:
The last point I want to make about the witnesses is this: If we are to believe that God chose these witnesses so that others would feel open to believing that the Book of Mormon was true, it would not make sense that He would choose this particular group of people. If the true idea of showing the plates was to help us believe, the witnesses chosen would have included the following:
1. Witnesses that are not related to the "three witnesses" of the Book of Mormon. There is no reason with any of the eight witnesses should have a relationship to Joseph or David Whitmer, yet as shown above all eight of them are part of their families.
2. The witnesses should have included testimonies written by their own hands to give the varying details of what happened. What better way to prove the Book of Mormon plates existed than having some of these skeptics view the plates and then write down their testimonies of this grand event (or have them dictated)?
3. There should have been more details of this monumental event. By giving such a generic statement signed by the witnesses all together (in Oliver's handwriting), the statement opens itself up for more questions than answers. Why not give more details about what happened and how it moved the witnesses? There is no reason that the statement needs to be as vague and short as it is, and what better way to prove to the world of the authenticity of the Book of Mormon?
4. The witnesses should have given statements at the time of this event. This ties into #2, but there should have been outside writers/papers/etc that were given access to the witnesses at the time to record this important event in Mormon history. It makes no sense why we have almost no thoughts from the eight witnesses about what happened, and that we have so many contradictory details about if the event was visionary or physical and what items were shown by the angel.
5. The eight witnesses should have included skeptics. As we know from reading these early chapters of Saints, Joseph claims that people were constantly watching his every move with disbelief. Furthermore, what an unquestionable event it would be if Joseph included some local religious leaders to witness for themselves the restoration of the gospel?
With all the issues surrounding what exactly the witnesses saw, it would have been such an amazing opportunity for Joseph Smith to reveal this great restoration by choosing witnesses from different backgrounds, religions, and status. While Saints does not dive into exactly how the witnesses were chosen, it also carefully avoids discussing the contradictory claims or the issues outlined above.
In summary, this chapter focuses on a few massive events in Mormon history - the priesthood restoration and the witnesses. While there are evidences for both critics and apologists, it is important to note that Saints only focuses on the apologist arguments by using the sources that have been correlated into the church's official history. I encourage everyone with more questions to read the pages we referred to above: Priesthood restoration timelines, Response to apologetics on the priesthood restoration, and faith promoting stories. Those three are important to understanding how history can be rewritten long after events happened, and as Winston Churchill famously said, "History is written by the victors."
update 9/26: One thing I wanted to point out originally and forgot to do was this paragraph: "In the record, he learned that Nephi expanded on Isaiah’s prophecy about a sealed book that learned men could not read. As Joseph read the prophecy, he thought of Martin Harris’s interview with Professor Anthon. It affirmed that only God could bring forth the book out of the earth and establish the church of Christ in the last days."
What Saints does not mention is that the reference here was written on the paper after the event was originally recorded, as you can see below. Then pen was a different color ink, the text is above and below the other text, and it is difficult to tell if it is even written in the same handwriting.
We do not know what exactly to make of this addition to the initial record, but for a phrase that just happens to fulfill a prophecy, it definitely raises questions as to why it was added, when it was added, and who added it. Furthermore, the writers of Saints are well aware of this issue, yet continues to declare that this incident happened even though there is evidence that calls it into question.
Chapter 8: The Rise of the Church of God
The beginning of chapter eight focuses on the cost and difficulties of getting the Book of Mormon printed. Saints does not mention that originally the Book of Mormon was intended to be sold for $1.75 per copy (Wayne Sentinel, 1830), and that the reason that Grandin did not want to print it was his belief that the book would not sell. While Saints claims it is because Grandin believed the book to be a fraud (which he likely did), they neglect to mention that Grandin was telling Harris not to lose his farm over a book that would not sell. Grandin worked "to divert Harris from his persistent fanaticism in that losing speculation." (Tucker, Origin, Rise, and Progress of Mormonism, 4)
But even with Grandin's attempted to steer Harris from financing the Book of Mormon, he still agreed to produce the money. The problems, however, get compounded when Martin Harris has a difficult time finding anyone who will purchase the book. "The Books will not sell for no Body wants them," Harris told Joseph Smith. (Dean C. Jessee, "Joseph Knight's Recollection of Early Mormon History," BYU Studies 17/1 (1976): 36–37) Because of this, Harris struggled to finance the entirety of the Book of Mormon publishing cost, which leads Joseph Smith to 'seek a revelation' for Martin Harris. Saints then discusses how Martin Harris received a revelation to sell his property to pay for the Book of Mormon printing with only the following paragraph from D&C 19:
"“Thou shalt not covet thine own property,” the Lord said, “but impart it freely to the printing of the Book of Mormon.” The book contained the true word of God, the Lord assured Martin, and it would help others believe the gospel."
What Saints leaves out is that this revelation threatened Martin Harris directly if he did not pay for the Book of Mormon printing. "And misery thou shalt receive if thou wilt slight these counsels, yea, even the destruction of thyself and property." (D&C 19:33) This follows an earlier verse of the revelation where Martin Harris is told "Therefore I command you to repent—repent, lest I smite you by the rod of my mouth, and by my wrath, and by my anger, and your sufferings be sore—how sore you know not, how exquisite you know not, yea, how hard to bear you know not." (D&C 19:15) It is actually pretty incredible to read the specificity of the entire revelation to Martin Harris, especially verses such as "Impart a portion of thy property, yea, even part of thy lands, and all save the support of thy family"and "Pay the debt thou hast contracted with the printer. Release thyself from bondage." (Doctrine and Covenants 19)
One topic we discuss on our summary of church problems page is how convenient revelations to Joseph Smith tend to be. In this case, Joseph Smith could not come up with the money to print the Book of Mormon even after his revelation to sell the copyright to Canada failed, and knew Martin Harris was his only chance to secure the money. Martin Harris was hesitant to foot the entire bill though because his wife was suspicious of Joseph and the book was simply not selling, which led to a prompt revelation from God warning Martin to sell his property to pay the bill of face the destruction of both his property and himself. It is clear why Saints leaves out the failed Canada prophecy, but it is interesting how they cherry pick the verses of D&C 19 to make it sound like the revelation that Martin Harris received did not put Martin Harris under threat of harm if he did not sell his property.
Whenever there is over the top dialogue in Saints, you can be sure it is sourced from Lucy Mack Smith. On page 80, we hear of Abner Cole, who was printing excerpts of the Book of Mormon with sarcastic commentary. Since Joseph Smith had secured a copyright, he visits Cole to tell him that he needed to stop printing excerpts of the book. The dialogue that ensues seeks to make Cole out to be a bloodthirsty fighter against the calm, composed Joseph Smith. I am not saying that it didn't happen this way, but I am saying that sourcing this from Joseph's mom puts the credibility of the entire interaction into question. And since most readers will not bother to look at the footnotes, they will never know that the glowing description of this confrontation comes from Joseph's own mother.
From here, Saints transitions to new members who are known in church history including Thomas Marsh, who is a key figure in the "milk strippings story." But the interesting mention to me is Saints introducing Solomon Chamberlin, a man seeking those who believed in visions. This is important because Solomon Chamberlin had a vision that is remarkably similar to Joseph Smith's First Vision, and was documented long before Joseph Smith ever recorded or spoke of his own.
We cover this in more detail on our LDS annotated essay on the First Vision, but Richard Bushman cites Solomon Chamberlin's vision as being so similar to Joseph Smith's First Vision that he made a hypothesis in Rough Stone Rolling that the reason Joseph might not have talked about his vision wasn't because he would be persecuted for believing it would happen, but that no one would take notice because it was common in those days. In this instance it also needs to be stated that Richard Bushman is a faithful LDS historian and that Rough Stone Rolling is cited in Saints in various chapters.
In an article that Bushman wrote about this vision from Solomon Chamberlin:"Dissatisfied with the religions he had tried, Chamberlin prayed for further guidance, and in 1816, according to his account, "the Lord revealed to me in a vision of the night an angel," whom Chamberlin asked about the right way. The angel told him that the churches were corrupt and that God would soon raise up an apostolic church. Chamberlin printed up an account of his visions and was still distributing them and looking for the apostolic church when he stopped in Palmyra." (Meridian Magazine, archived by BYU studies)
We discuss Joseph Smith's ability to incorporate other material into the Mormon church as his own, and the fact that the Smith family was given this vision in 1829 is critical when thinking about Joseph Smith's accounts of the First Vision that would be written years later. On our summary page (#23), we detail many of the areas where Joseph Smith uses other sources available to him in creating such important LDS theology as the priesthood restoration, three tiers of heaven, temple ceremony, word of wisdom, Book of Abraham, and more. Because of the similarities in Chamberlin's vision to what Joseph would write a few years later, I am very surprised that Saints would introduce him in this chapter leaving themselves open to this comparison.
The final section of the chapter discusses the formal organization of the church, including Joseph receiving the Melchizedek priesthood. We discussed this in the last chapter, but this just did not happen as Saints claims. There is absolutely no mention of the Melchizedek priesthood until 5 years after this event is claimed to have occurred, and John the Baptist was put into the revelation years after it was originally recorded by Joseph Smith.
LDS historian B.H. Roberts concedes that "there is no definite account of the [Melchizedek Priesthood restoration] event in the history of the Prophet Joseph, or, for matter of that, in any of our annals," (History of the Church, Vol. 1, p. 40 footnote) and Richard Bushman says regarding the retrofitting of the priesthood revelation that “the late appearance of these accounts raises the possibility of later fabrication." (Rough Stone Rolling) While Bushman has a faith promoting outcome and does not believe he was fabricating the church, he does acknowledge that Joseph Smith was ordained into the priesthood in 1831 by Lyman Wight, which begs the question of what actually happened in 1829 if he needed to be ordained in 1831. (Rough Stone Rolling)
As we noted in the last chapter, we highly encourage anyone interested in the priesthood restoration issues to read both our priesthood restoration timeline and our response to common apologetics regarding the priesthood. Both pages detail how this revelation was changed years later to add the term Melchizedek priesthood along with the visitation from John the Baptist including pictures of the revelation from the Book of Commands with the changes marked on the page. The importance of the priesthood restoration to the history of the church can not be overstated, which makes the problems with the credibility of the priesthood restoration a huge problem for the authority of the church.
With chapter seven now complete, the church is organized, the Book of Mormon is printed, and we are beginning "Part 2" of Saints tomorrow which covers April 1830-April 1836. See you all then!