Reviews – An Insider’s View of Mormon Origins
Association for Mormon Letters, Jeffrey Needle
It was with some trepidation that I learned that I am nearing my 100th review for the Association for Mormon Letters. I was only marginally aware that I had read, and reviewed, so many books. This produced several real fears—among them, the certainty that folks would be tired of reading my reviews, and a suspicion that I was spending altogether too much time reading Mormon books.
The real fear, however, is that of repetition. How many reviews can a person write before he starts repeating himself, expressing the same views, sounding a bit like a broken record? And when I received this book from Signature Books, my fears rose to the surface. I have, after all, read and reviewed a few “debunking” books. And thinking back, I can’t remember that I had anything original or particularly interesting to say.
Palmer’s book gives me a genuine opportunity to break out of that mold. I hope this will become evident as you read this review. Palmer devoted 34 years of his life as an Institute Director for the Church Educational System (CES). As such, he has been responsible for the teaching of Church history and doctrine to the youth of the Church. Now retired, he has had a chance to look back at his vocation, his mission, and has come to question some of the things he formerly taught as truth.
But Palmer’s book is different from others that I’ve read. Typical of such books is a spirit of triumphalism, the feeling that the writer has gotten the better of the Church. “Aha! I found you out!” Such works have their merits, but such a spirit tends to diminish the value of the work as an objective effort to distill truth from the massive volume of evidence.
Instead, Palmer expresses the view of one who has put so much time and effort into teaching the history and doctrine of the Church, and then discovered that these needed some clarification. There is a profound sadness that undergirds the entire book. And Palmer, I think, wants to ensure that his readers are ready to grow beyond what they learned, perhaps, in his own Institute classes:
First, this book is not intended for children or investigators. So much of our attention is directed toward children and potential converts that long-standing adult members rarely have an opportunity to speak freely to each other. We worry that tender ears may overhear. I am a fourth-generation Mormon, and I want to addresses this discussion to other second-, third-, and fourth-generation Mormons who will better understand where I am coming from. Lest there be any question, let me say that my intent is to increase faith, not to diminish it. Still, faith needs to be built on truth—what is, in fact, true and believable. (p. ix)
This introductory statement is a bit perplexing. Palmer is certain that some of the founding stories are, in fact, not accurate, and yet he seems to be willing to allow children and investigators to be taught these stories. How can this make any sense? I’ll say more about this later.
But it occurs to me that, despite his hopes, he is a realist, and understands that the Church will continue to teach the stories of Mormon origins, as they constitute the corpus of knowledge as it has been passed from generation to generation. Is Palmer saying to children and investigators, in the finest Jack Nicholson style, “You can’t handle the truth!”? Or, more likely, does Palmer understand that any good that may be accomplished by exposing children and newbies to these studies will be overcome by the dissonance, and likely disengagement, of these people? One cannot build faith effectively while occupying the mind with the details of the stories. And, in his closing word, Palmer finally clarifies the whole issue by suggesting that the Church needs to re-direct its focus:
I cherish Joseph Smith’s teachings on many topics, such as the plan of salvation and his view that the marriage covenant extends beyond death. Many others could be enumerated. But when it comes to the founding events, I wonder if they are trustworthy as history. (p. 261)
In many sacrament meetings, the tendency remains to simply mention Jesus’ name and then talk about other matters rather than to discuss him and his ministry. In our Sunday classes, the Gospels are taught for several months once every four years; the lives and teachings of modern prophets are studied each year. As the apostle Paul, who was capable of speaking on a variety of religious subjects, said of the early church: “I determined not to know any thing among you, save Jesus Christ, and him crucified” (1 Cor. 2:2). I would hope for a greater focus on Jesus Christ in our Sunday meetings. (p. 263)
And so, we come to the end of the book and realize where it’s all headed—that the Church needs to change its focus, on a global and local level, from Joseph Smith to Jesus Christ. He acknowledges that the church as an institution has tried to put forth such an image, emphasizing that it is the church of “Jesus Christ,” but he also suggests that, on the local level, the wards haven’t quite caught up.
The motivation, then, seems curative, rather than merely critical. It allows for the continuation of the current teaching program of the church, while also making provision for seasoned students to delve more deeply into the mythos of Mormonism. Let’s look at the chapters themselves:
1. Joseph Smith as Translator/Revelator
What does the word “translator” really mean? Did Joseph Smith use the word as we use it today? There is abundant evidence that he did not, and that we can only understand the process of revelation vis a vis Joseph Smith as we come to understand how he “translated,” not just the plates of the Book of Mormon, but other artifacts. Palmer recounts some of the eyewitness testimony of those present at the creation of the Book of Mormon, the Book of Abraham, and other Mormon scriptures.
While a consistent story is difficult to put together, there is some evidence that Joseph “translated” the Book of Mormon without having the plates present at all. This, at the very least, stretches the concept of translation to say that the end product is not reliant on the text. Oddly, Palmer moves on to the translation of the Book of Abraham, showing how a direct translation of the text does not yield “The Book of Abraham,” but the Egyptian “Book of Breathings.” I wondered why, given his acknowledgement of textual independence in the “translation” process, this mattered. I’m still unsure.
2. Authorship of the Book of Mormon
Palmer moves on to the question, “Who wrote the Book of Mormon?” He rehearses much material that will be familiar to the seasoned student, drawing heavily from B.H. Roberts’s research. But Palmer moves beyond the standard arguments for and against authorship and zeroes in on intent, drawing a conclusion I found to be very healthy. Rather than condemning Joseph Smith as a visionary fraud, as some have done, he reads into Joseph’s history a passion for holiness early on, a sincere religious quest that he sought to satisfy via the narrative of the Book of Mormon.
What Joseph perceived as wickedness and spiritual alienation caused him deep distress. The Book of Mormon would help remedy the agnosticism and confusion that people of the day felt over religion. As found on the Book of Mormon’s title page, it was intended to convince “Jew and Gentile that Jesus is the Christ.” It was to promote piety by enhancing belief in the Bible. Mormon 7:9 states explicitly: “For behold, this is written for the intent that ye may believe [the Bible].” The Book of Mormon called a hypocritical Christian world to repentance. And perhaps more than any other volume except the Bible, it successfully motivated people to confront their sins and come to Christ. (p. 65)
I sense here a distinct voice in the reconstruction of Mormonism. It is a voice that wants the message of Joseph Smith and of the Book of Mormon to be heard, and taught, and believed. The content of the message is solid; it’s the packaging he perceives needs more study.
3. The Bible in the Book of Mormon
In a largely evidentiary chapter, “The Bible in the Book of Mormon” documents the astounding parallels between the Bible narratives and motifs and those of the Book of Mormon. In exquisite detail, Palmer compares and contrasts portions of the Bible and the Book of Mormon. An example: the exodus story compared to the story of Lehi and his family leaving Jerusalem and travelling to the Promised Land. By Palmer’s count, there are twenty points of convergence in the story, and he cites these with scriptural references. Other parallels are mentioned, most of them familiar and discussed at length by critics for many years.
4. Evangelical Protestantism in the Book of Mormon
To what degree did the religious situation of Joseph Smith’s time influence the content of the Book of Mormon? Palmer does a fine job of researching statements made by the evangelical preachers of Joseph’s time, along with accounts of camp meetings and revivals. He demonstrates similarities in the Book of Mormon, making a case for Joseph’s use, in the narrative, of surroundings and situations with which he would be familiar.
Much like chapter 3, this chapter is largely documentation. I found myself tiring of the reading about the middle of the chapter, and soon realized that this material, much like an encyclopedia, is more palatable taken in small bites. There is no question that the research is good, though. And his explorations of the relationship of the Book of Mormon’s theology and Christology to that of the evangelicals of his time are fascinating.
Of particular interest to me was the final part of this chapter, “Religious Feeling and Truth,” in which he finds some basis for “Moroni’s promise,” and which presents a challenge to Mormons:
Most of us have felt this spiritual feeling when reading the Book of Mormon or hearing about Joseph Smith’s epiphanies. What we interpret this to mean is that we have therefore encountered the truth, and we then base subsequent religious commitments on these feelings. The question I will pose is whether this is an unfailing guide to truth. Is something true because I and others find it edifying? Hundreds of thousands of people believe in the truthfulness of their own religion because of similar confirming experiences. As one example, many people, including myself, felt this confirming spirit when we heard the World War II stories of Utah Congressman Douglas R. Stringfellow. Stringfellow’s experiences were later revealed to be a complete hoax. (p. 132-133)
The reader is quick to note that Palmer does not deny experiencing the feelings promised in the Book of Mormon. He does, however, question whether these “feelings” are a basis for establishing objective truth. His example demonstrates the obvious answer.
5. Moroni and “The Golden Pot”
What, pray tell, is the “Golden Pot“?
People believed that forest and dale held spirits and hidden treasures that the spirits guarded. A pick and shovel would be insufficient to find and exhume such wonders. An example is found in a popular short story published in Germany in 1824, introduced to America in 1827. The author, E.T.A. Hoffmann … is best known today for “The Nutcracker and the Mouse King” and “The Sandman.” In his day, one of the most influential stories was “The Golden Pot,” notable for the fact that although it involved gold and money, the principle [sic] attraction was esoteric knowledge. For our purposes, its parallels to Joseph Smith’s experiences are of interest. (p. 136-7)
Palmer then narrates the various stages, “or vigils,” of the Hoffmann story, demonstrating the parallels to Joseph Smith’s own story. It is fascinating reading.
6. Witnesses to the Golden Plates
I will say little here, since the material in this chapter is mostly a rehash of information widely available. It calls into question the validity of the testimonies of the witnesses, and shows how other, non-canonical works, were likewise accompanied by such testimonies.
7. Priesthood Restoration
Central to the concept of the Restoration is the return of the priesthood keys to the earth with the advent of the prophetic ministry of Joseph Smith Jr. Angelic visitations, the laying on of hands, etc., are all familiar accounts to Latter-day Saints. Palmer, however, speculates on how much of the standard story is derivative, and how much is based in history. Citing widely from diaries and other contemporary accounts, Palmer shows how the accounts evolved over the years, finally coalescing into a faith-promoting narrative as it is taught today.
As in his accounts of an angel and the gold plates, Joseph was willing to expand on another foundational narrative. The events surrounding priesthood restoration were reinterpreted, one detail emphasized over another. A spiritually charged moment when participants felt that the veil between heaven and earth was thin became, in the retelling, an event with no veil at all. The first stories about how Joseph received his authority show that, like other prophets and religious founders throughout history, he and Oliver first received their callings in a metaphysical way. Within a few years, their accounts became more impressive, unique, and physical. (p. 232)
I must say that this explanation manifestly does not deny the reality of the restoration of the priesthood. And this is critical in understanding Palmer’s approach and deep beliefs. One may quarrel with his methodology, or with the conclusions he reaches, but he does not allow these to distance him from what he perceives is the heart of his faith, his Mormonism.
8. The First Vision
Finally, this chapter, much like Chapter 6, covers familiar territory. That there were several versions of the First Vision account is no secret. And it isn’t particularly scandalous. After all, Bookcraft published an entire volume on the subject some years ago. What sets Palmer’s account apart, in my opinion, is his belief that Joseph was motivated by a sincere desire for spiritual enlightenment, open to the moving of the Holy Spirit. So many critics are quick to attribute carnal motives to Joseph’s religious story, but Palmer will have none of it.
And so, this book is something of an enigma. It is written by a self-styled “insider,” and as a retired Institute Director, I suppose he qualifies. He has spent 34 years teaching things that he now confesses are not accurate. Or does he? His approach is cautionary. He supposes that it’s fine to teach the distilled versions of the stories to children. In that sense, he at once stifles critics who would accuse him of radical deconstruction, and at the same time provides some justification for the work of his
Much of the material is familiar; some of it was new to me and was welcome. This book will serve the new student of these new views of Mormon history very nicely. It is written on a popular level, and gives readers enough background material to enable them to decide the issues for themselves.
And, let it be known that Palmer remains a Latter-day Saint, honors and finds valuable the core values of his faith, and wants to dig ever deeper into the history and lore of his church. Much as a treasure hunter seeks gold in the ore, Palmer has set out to mine and explore the mountain of materials available to the Mormon historian. And in so doing, while he has journeyed from the simplicity of his CES teaching, he may be heading toward the Promised Land of clarity and truth. This book will be a good addition to your library.
Mormon-Library On-Line Forum, Mark Carter
I picked up the book, An Insiders View of Mormon Origins, by Grant H. Palmer yesterday at Benchmark. The book covers what the author feels is the real history of the origins of the church. His chapters are very plausible. In one he describes the book of Judith in the Apocrypha. Both Judith and Nephi have entered the city by night, find Holofernes/Laban drunk, and cut off their heads with the owner’s own sword. In another chapter Palmer discusses the short story, “The Golden Pot.” The story of “The Golden Pot” by E.T.A. Hoffmann is a true parallel to the visit of the angel Moroni to Joseph Smith.
The author wants to write of the real origins of the church vs what the church has put together for us. The book brings the ability of Joseph Smith to translate into better light and shows why the questions of the Kinderhook plates, the papyrus, etc., may have been Joseph’s own thoughts and not translation. The author is a retired CES instructor and his purpose is to explain many questions that the church does not seem to want to answer. I am enjoying this book.
Journal of M0rmon History, Richard Russell
Books about Joseph Smith and/or the Book of Mormon are automatically high-risk ventures, particularly in the LDS tradition (less so in the Community of Christ movement) if they end up drawing conclusions different from the orthodox position. Grant H. Palmer does not feel easy about that orthodox position, with the result that his book will make some readers uncomfortable while raising interesting questions and providing illuminating answers for others.
Palmer finds that much of what we take for granted is literal history went through tailoring and modification over the years, adding views that emphasized one aspect over another to the point that we have nearly lost the original narratives. What the principal people experienced as a spiritual or metaphysical event—something from a different dimension, he argues—was often made over into a more physical, objective occurrence. Early converts interpreted these events in the former way. Historians who have looked more closely at the foundational stories and source documents have restored elements, included a nineteenth-century worldview, that moderns have misunderstood, if not forgotten.
Palmer, a career Institute of Religion teacher, for his last thirteen years assigned as chaplain to the Salt Lake County Jail, is explicit about both his intention and his audience:
First, this book is not intended for children or investigators. So much of our attention is directed toward children and potential converts that long-standing adult members rarely have an opportunity to speak freely to each other. We worry that tender ears may overhear. I am a fourth-generation Mormon and I want to address this discussion to the other second-, third-, and fourth-generation Mormons who will better understand where I am coming from. Lest there be any question, let me say that my intent is to increase faith, not to diminish it. Still, faith needs to be built on truth—what is, in fact, true and believable. (ix)
Thus, Palmer does not give equal time to the history that insiders already know well, nor is this book designed for those seeking explicit confirmation of every event in the received historical accounts. “I cherish Joseph Smith’s teachings on many topics, such as the plan of salvation and his view that the marriage covenant extends beyond death,” he comments. “Many others could be enumerated. But when it comes to the founding events, I wonder if they are trustworthy as history” (261).
Insider’s View consists of eight chapters, four of them dealing with the translation of the Book of Mormon: Joseph as a translator, the authorship of the Book of Mormon, and strong nineteenth-century influences on its content. The last four treat the founding visions of the Restoration: Moroni’s visits, the testimony of the witnesses to the Book of Mormon, the restoration of the priesthood, and the First Vision.
Chapter 1 deals with Joseph Smith’s idiosyncratic use of translator, when referring to himself. Using the eyewitness accounts of those who observed the creation of the Book of Mormon, Book of Moses, Book of Abraham, and the Joseph Smith Translation of the Bible, Palmer constructs the noncontroversial case that Smith was not a translator in the usual sense of rendering into a target language the source words of an original document. With respect to the Book of Mormon, the source document was frequently absent during the translation. In the Joseph Smith Translation, the King James English translation was Joseph Smith’s only source. He did not consult earlier source documents in Hebrew or Greek. Modern Egyptologists working with the papyri constituting the Book of Abraham render the text as the Book of Breathings rather than the Book of Abraham.
In Chapter 2 on the authorship of the Book of Mormon, Palmer examines the claim that Joseph was an ignorant, near illiterate, farm boy. With numerous examples, he dismantles that image. Quoting B. H. Roberts’s appraisal of Joseph’s abilities, quoting examples of Smith’s written compositions, and identifying no fewer than twenty-five story-line parallels to the Bible and eight from Ethan Smith’s View of the Hebrews, Palmer makes plausible the idea that Joseph was capable of Book of Mormon authorship. Palmer further refers to Joseph’s personal philosophy, world view, and spiritual angst—the resolution of which, he argues, shows up in the pages of the Book of Mormon.
In Chapter 3, Palmer summarizes other studies documenting Joseph Smith’s pronounced use of biblical language and concepts in the Book of Mormon. Although it does not break new ground, this chapter assembles in one place information previously available only from disparate sources. The weighty influence of the 1769 edition of the KJV is difficult to overlook.
Chapter 4, “Evangelical Protestantism in the Book of Mormon,” was the most enlightening and satisfying chapter in the book. Although I am a student of Church history, I was unaware of the influence on the Book of Mormon. I learned where the book’s “revival” feel came from and where Smith could have found the wording that appears in many of the Book of Mormon’s most significant sermons—namely, in the camp meetings and style of Methodist preachers, their depiction of the conversation form so prevalent in the missionary stories in the Book of Mormon, and also a plausible source of the book’s primitive theology.
Chapter 5, “Moroni and The Golden Pot,” also raised an issue of which I was unaware. Palmer seems to be the first to systematically analyze the possible influence of the E. T. A Hoffmann’s fairy tale on Joseph’s Moroni narrative. Young Anselmus (Joseph?) Becomes a candidate to translate scrolls from the secret library of Archiverius or archivist (Moroni?), a powerful and mystical custodian of ancient Atlantian texts. Through an intricate series of trials (vigils), Anselmus qualifies for the job. The Signature Books website links to Palmer’s list of parallels between Joseph Smith’s Moroni account and Der Goldene Topf, and even lengthier list than he presents in this chapter.
The next chapter probes the testimony of the Three and Eight Witnesses. A magical world view permeated the culture, and seer stones were in the possession of many including the Whitmers, documents Palmer. James J. Strange, who broke off from the Nauvoo church in 1844, claimed to have found ancient writings on some plates that he identified as the plates of Laban and that he translated into the Book of the Law of the Lord. By 1846, notes Palmer, “all of the living signatories to the Book of Mormon, except possibly Cowdery, accepted Strang’s leadership, angelic call, metal plates, and his translation of these plates as authentic. This replication of an earlier pattern of belief confirms that it must have been relatively easy for the witnesses to accept Joseph’s golden plates as an ancient record. Appreciating their mindset helps us understand Mormon origins” (213).
In Chapter 7, dealing with priesthood restoration, Palmer presents a credible explanation for inconsistencies such as David Whitmer’s admission that he never heard of a priesthood restoration by angels until 1834. He had supposed, he said, that the authority came through prayer or the Urim and Thummim or “the spirit of the Lord.” Palmer also points out the absence of a documented date for the restoration of the Melchizedek Priesthood, let alone contemporary narratives describing it. These events, he proposes, began as metaphysical experiences and over time became more literal—a physical laying on of hands. Palmer finds this argument convincing in also explaining why the retrospective accounts contain many anachronisms.
The concluding chapter contains Palmer’s explanation, a plausible one I find, for why there are no contemporary accounts of the First Vision and why the extant accounts vary, becoming more elaborate and impressive with time. Moroni’s visit was the only account to which early documents referred as the foundational event. At times of crisis in the Church, when Joseph needed to consolidate authority and quash dissent, he reemphasized his call from God.
Many of these topics are standard fare for anti-Mormon writers, but Palmer’s tone places him squarely among the friendly writers. Richard Lloyd Anderson, another well-known historian working in the same period, observed, “In reality, attitude penetrates the judgments we make, whether in gathering the Hurlbut-Deming materials or in defending them.”1 Palmer’s tone is neither the cheerleading enthusiasm of an apologist nor the gleeful gloating of a carper. Rather, it seems to be the thoughtful presentation of a scholar who has examined troubling evidence, come to a reluctant conclusion, but is at peace with that conclusion. He communicates both regard for his audience and respect for the material.
Furthermore, far from dismissing Mormonism because of his disappointments with its history, he proposes a refocusing on the founder of the faith, Jesus Christ, as a way of regrouping on common ground: “In many sacrament meetings, the tendency remains to simply mention Jesus’ name and then talk about other matters rather than to discuss him and his ministry. In our Sunday classes, the Gospels are taught for several months once every four years; the lives and teachings of modern prophets are studied each year. As the apostle Paul, who was capable of speaking on a variety of religious subjects, said of the early church: ‘I determined not to know any thing among you, save Jesus Christ, and him crucified’ (1 Cor. 2:2). I would hope for a greater focus on Jesus Christ in our Sunday meetings” (263).
Serious scholars of LDS history will find only a few new ideas or concepts in this work, but Palmer has performed a service in collecting the known material and presenting it in such an accessible way. His analysis of E. T. A. Hoffmann’s Golden Pott story and its parallels to the Moroni saga is original.
1. Richard Lloyd Anderson, Review of Rodger I. Anderson, Joseph Smith’s New York Reputation Reexamined, FARMS Review of Books, 3 (1991): 80.
Journal of the John Whitmer Historical Association, William D. Russell
Latter Day Saints and non-Latter Day Saints who have enjoyed scholarly studies of Mormon origins often come to recognize that the primary documents lead to conclusions at considerable variance from the orthodox stories that have evolved during the founding prophet’s lifetime and that of his successors. For Latter Day Saints, the disconnect can be troubling. I for one have known the pain that comes from the uncomfortable conclusions of scholarship. For non-Mormons, the conclusions that the primary sources lead to, which I will refer to as the scholarly consensus, seem much more plausible than the stories told in Latter Day Saint classes and worship services.
For those employed by one of the Latter Day Saint churches, it can be especially painful to come to conclusions that make you seem to be a heretic and a denier of the faith of the church which pays your salary. I went through this difficult process in the 1960’s at Herald Publishing House and Graceland College.1
Grant Palmer received his master’s degree in history at Brigham Young University and then served thirty-four years teaching in the Church Educational System, much of it as an institute director. During that time he came to conclusions about Mormon origins that I regard as well within the consensus of those scholars outside the church as well as those inside the church who are open to alternative explanations to the orthodox faith story. Palmer published An Insider’s View of Mormon Origins shortly after he retired. He has since been disfellowshipped, and the fear remains that this could lead to excommunication from the church he loves and served for a lifetime. It is well that he published this book after he retired, as one presumes that he would have been fired.
I was fortunate that it gradually became clear by the end of the 1960s that many top-level RLDS Church leaders had arrived at conclusions similar to mine, albeit privately, for the most part. With men like Walter N. Johnson of the Presiding Bishopric, F. Henry Edwards, Maurice L. Draper, and Duane E. Couey of the First Presidency, and Apostles Clifford Cole and Charles Neff thinking similar thoughts, I didn’t feel alone and without at least modest support in high places. Then during the Wallace B. Smith presidency (1978-96) it was clear that the President/Prophet himself had come to similar conclusions.
Sadly, during his thirty-four years as an institute teacher, Grant Palmer did not see any support from the General Authorities for his revisionist views on Mormon origins. If any did come to revisionist conclusions on issues of Mormon origins, like B. H. Roberts did in the 1920’s, their thoughts remained private and of no comfort to Palmer or others.2 Yet Palmer’s conclusions are no surprise. They are consistent with the general consensus among independent scholars. The contents of the story of the first vision evolved in response to the circumstances facing the church and its leader, which is what a historian would expect, since our current circumstances color how we remember the past. The story of supernatural visits to the first Mormon prophet by John the Baptist and Peter, James, and John originated long after we assumed and grew in response to current needs of the church and its prophet at the time. Finally, the various “translations” the prophet attempted cannot be regarded as translations as we understand the term (254). The Book of Mormon “reflects the intellectual and cultural environment of Joseph’s own time and place” (259).
This book is not hostile to the Mormon Church or the Book of Mormon. Palmer sees the church as being harmed by the unrealistic faith story that has been created, as well as the expectation laid on church members to believe historical embellishments as a matter of faith. For those historically minded, having to choose between faith in church leaders and the natural desire to be faithful to the evidence wherever it leads brings considerable tension. Palmer supplies interpretations which make it more possible for scholarly saints to “believe” in the Book of Mormon on a new level, which may allow the book to be more meaningful as religious literature, rather than primarily a “proof” for the supremacy of a particular religious organization.
The resistance to Palmer is similar to that experienced by modernists in American denominations a century ago. Scholars noted that the supernatural element in the first gospel——Mark——was enlarged in the other gospels, and that the Pastoral Epistles (I and II Timothy and Titus) were written pseudonymously in the name of Paul, two generations later, to combat the Gnostic “heresy” in the second-century church. These and other revisionist conclusions of scholars greatly upset many orthodox members of various denominations. Heresy trials were held and some devout Christians were treated as infidels and banished from the household of faith. In hindsight it is clear to me that these defensive responses of conservative Christians were self-defeating. The same could be said for the elaborate criticisms of Palmer’s book by those who write those lengthy, hostile reviews for FARMS. Reading these reviews makes you wonder how secure the reviewers are in their own “testimony.”
Those who are interested in Mormonism, whether “inside the fold” or not, are indebted to Grant Palmer for producing a readable, well-documented survey of the critical historical problems related to the origins of Mormonism. I will be assigning it for my freshmen students in Latter Day Saint History this fall.
1. See my Mormon History Association Presidential Address, “History and the Mormon Scriptures,” Journal of Mormon History 10 (1983): 53-63.
2. Studies of the Book of Mormon, edited and with an introduction by Brigham H. Madsen (Salt Lake City: Signature Books, 1985).
Midwest Book Review
An Insider’s View of Mormon Origins by Grant H. Palmer (three-time director of LDS Institutes of Religion in California and Utah, former instructor at the Church College of New Zealand, an LDS seminary teacher at two Utah-based locations, and Mormon High Priest Group Instructor), is an informed, informative, and original study of the roots of the Mormon faith. Emphasizing that the core importance is how the first and founding members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints interpreted the great spiritual and metaphysical events of Mormon origins, and incorporating the transcribers nineteenth-century world-view to gain a more accurate picture of what they were truly saying, An Insider’s View of Mormon Origins is a thought-provoking, scholarly, well-written, and very highly recommended study of what today is one of the most rapidly growing of the Christian communities.
Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought, David P. Wright
This book is something of a watershed in the study of Mormon history and Mormon scripture. It is the first significant popularization of evidence by a writer within the Church indicating that Joseph Smith’s ancient scriptures are in fact not ancient and that some of Smith’s founding visionary experiences are to be understood differently from how they are taught in traditional contexts. While this volume lacks the depth to be the definitive introduction to these matters, it is a good starting place for the unfamiliar and even provides experts with observations of substance.
The focus of the book is the Book of Mormon (39-213, chaps. 2-6). The first chapter (1-38) discusses the issue of the translation of other presumed ancient works as it relates to the Book of Mormon. The last two chapters (215-58; chaps. 8-9) discuss Smith’s visionary experiences in connection with the priesthood restoration and the first vision. These chapters relate to visionary experiences connected with the Book of Mormon treated in previous chapters. There is thus a thematic logic to the work. The preface and conclusion (vii-xiii; 259-63) stress the need for honesty in confronting the evidence and outline a positive theological response to the disconcerting evidence discussed in the body of An Insider’s View.
The main question for me is how complete and convincing Palmer has been in presenting evidence for the Book of Mormon’s nineteenth-century origin. In my view, at least twelve categories of evidence demonstrate that the Book of Mormon is not an ancient work. I will summarize Palmer’s strengths and deficiencies in regard to each of these categories in what follows.
Palmer is most complete in presenting evidence having to do with (1) the background for the production of the Book of Mormon, (2) the technique used to produce the Book of Mormon, (3) anachronisms in the Book of Mormon (textual, ideational, and prophetic), (4) features of narrative content indicating that the Book of Mormon is fiction, (5) problems with the testimonies of the Book of Mormon witnesses, (6) the nineteenth-century matrix of Smith’s other “ancient” scriptural works, and (7) the problematic evidential value of spiritual witness.
As for the background, Palmer summarizes the work of B. H. Roberts and adds other observations showing that Smith could have been the book’s author (39-67). In regard to technique, he notes that the book was produced by looking at a seer stone in a hat, a procedure connected with Smith’s earlier treasure hunting (1-10; cf. 139-44). He notes that the plates did not need to be present for “translation.” This unverifiable and magical procedure throws doubt on the veracity of the product. Palmer provides several examples where the Book of Mormon anachronistically borrows from the later New Testament and Apocrypha, especially the King James Version (10, 48-56, 69-93, 114-16), and where the Book of Mormon reflects common nineteenth-century religious ideas (56-67, 70-74, 93-133). He also notes the suspicious precision of some of the Book of Mormon prophecies, evidence that they are written after the fact (78-81).
As for narrative content, he observes that the text displays homogeneity, especially in the widely distributed stories about religious questioners (125-30). Too, many of the stories are laden with unhistorical hyperbole (40-41, 90-93). The witness statements published in the Book of Mormon hide the complexity of their experiences (175-213). From other accounts and evidence, it appears that their experiences were more subjective and that they did not actually see physical plates.
Other works produced by Smith, such as the Book of Abraham and his “translation” of the (King James English) Bible are in fact not ancient (11-30, 37-38). Smith misjudged the antiquity of other texts as well, including the fraudulent Kinderhook Plates and a Greek psalter (30-36). Palmer notes, in addition, that spiritual experience does not constitute evidence of the text’s antiquity since the results from spiritual experience are imprecise, vague, and common in various religious traditions and that they differ from person to person (130-33).1
Within these first seven categories, I would like to have seen more discussion of prophetic anachronism. Modern academic scholars have come to realize that prophets do not clearly see the future.2 That the Book of Mormon knows the names of Jesus, Mary, John the apostle, Joseph [Smith Jr.] and his father, the discovery of America (implicitly by Columbus), the course of Jewish history even after the appearance of Jesus, and the persecution of Native Americans reveals the compositional horizon of the Book of Mormon. This horizon is even clearer now almost 200 years after the Book of Mormon’s publication. It does not contain any prophecies of events since its appearance that display the same degree of detail or precision. Palmer’s treatment of Smith’s other “ancient” works should have included a discussion of the nineteenth-century origins of the temple endowment.3
There are five other categories of evidence that Palmer leaves untouched or treats only in passing. Not all are grave deficiencies, but some are. Least serious is his omitting a discussion of objectionable ethical perspectives. For the Bible, problems in ethics (e.g., the advocacy of slavery; capital punishment for adultery, Sabbath breaking, or child rebellion; Jacob’s use of deceit to obtain a blessing; etc.) do not impair judgments about its antiquity, since these are simply the views of the human authors in antiquity.
In contrast, the supernatural method of production claimed for the Book of Mormon becomes a guarantor of the validity of its ethical (as well as historical) perspectives. Therefore the Book of Mormon’s explanation of Native American skin color as being the result of sin, the stereotypical description of Lamanites as being indolent and savage, the negative characterization of traditional Christianity and Jews, and story of the divine command to kill Laban to get a record impair traditional claims. (For ethical issues in critical study, see Wright, “Historical Criticism,” 35).
A useful addition to Palmer’s argument would be a discussion of the ninth category of evidence, the evolution of ideas in the Book of Mormon narrative corresponding to its unusual dictation order. Because of the loss of the first 116 pages of the Book of Mormon manuscript, the Book of Mosiah is the earliest portion of the work that we have. Only after Smith finished the rest of the book through Moroni did he produce the text beginning with 1 Nephi and ending with Words of Mormon.4
Scholars have observed an evolution of concepts from Mosiah through Moroni, then continuing on into 1 Nephi through Words of Mormon.5 This evolution fits a nineteenth-century origin for the book. While Palmer does not deal with this issue, he does discuss the problem of Smith’s explanation in the Doctrine and Covenants of the lost 116 pages (6-7). According to Palmer, altering the text to trap Smith would be exactly the thing adversaries would not do, especially since their alteration would be clear. But Palmer does not state the obvious conclusion forcefully enough: the Small Plates of Nephi were an after-the-fact fiction to solve the problem of Smith’s not being able to reproduce the 116 pages.
More visible to a general historian and even lay reader is the tenth category of evidence, the Book of Mormon’s omission of the weighty foundational doctrines that Smith would later teach, such as eternal marriage and temple sealing, the endowment, a distinct tritheistic view of the Godhead, three degrees of glory, clear teaching about the preexistence, the possibility of accepting the gospel after death, and a complex system of priesthood offices. Palmer addresses this sort of evidence only briefly, noting that the Book of Mormon’s theology is more like nineteenth-century Christian ideas and distinct from Smith’s later speculative theology (121-25) and also that changes in various editions of the Book of Mormon reflect Smith’s developing theology (9-10). He also observes that early descriptions of how Smith obtained priesthood authority follow the Book of Mormon model (authorization by God’s spirit), while later descriptions include the conferral of priesthood by angelic beings (220-32).
Further, Palmer does not deal sufficiently with the eleventh category: the lack of corroborating New World archaeological and anthropological evidence. He briefly mentions the recent hot issue of DNA and linguistic evidence that fails to support a Middle Eastern origin for Native Americans (56-57).6 But Palmer could have also noted that even scholars writing in conservative organs have cast doubt on some of the popular connections between New World evidence and the Book of Mormon.7 He could also have discussed Thomas Stewart Ferguson’s futile search for archaeological evidence.8
The most notable omission in Palmer’s book is not dealing in a significant way with the twelfth category of evidence: the weaknesses of apologetic scholarship. While here and there he makes brief mention of apologists’ views which he then refutes (e.g., 16, 83-84) and several of his discussions imply a response to apologetic arguments (e.g., 39-48, 175-213), he should have discussed this sizeable body of literature and given his estimate of its evidential force.
In an introductory work, one would like to have seen a critique of the limited geography hypothesis as put forward by John Sorenson (An Ancient American Setting for the Book of Mormon [Salt Lake City: Deseret Book/Provo, Utah: FARMS, 1985]). Palmer could have easily developed his own critique (many of its weaknesses are evident even to the casual reader) and drawn on published critiques.9
Palmer could have also included a critique of chiasmas as an evidence of Book of Mormon antiquity.10 Palmer might have also critiqued the method of the venerable apologist Hugh Nibley and questioned apologists’ rejection of the scientific method and a fully engaged critical perspective.11
Some evidence that Palmer raises is not probative, in my view, at least in the form he presents it, and really belongs to a discussion of the text after one has concluded that the Book of Mormon is in fact a nineteenth-century production. For example, the similarities between the story of Lehi and Nephi and the exodus from Egypt in the Bible (74-78) could conceivably have been developed in antiquity. Problematic also is drawing a connection between E. T. A. Hoffmann’s story “The Golden Pot” and the coming forth of the Book of Mormon (135-74). Many of the adduced parallels are imprecise and could be discounted. More problematic is comparing a delimited story with events culled from various texts. The net for finding similarities seems to be cast too wide here.12
Despite these qualifications, Palmer is on absolutely firm ground for his conclusion that the Book of Mormon is not an ancient work and, with this, according to his last two main chapters, that Smith’s visionary experiences were more subjective than tradition claims. This conclusion leads him to speculate about the theological content of a post-critical Mormonism. He calls for an emphasis on following and worshipping Jesus. He is not suggesting giving up all the unique doctrines of Mormonism. For example, he finds great value in the plan of salvation and eternal marriage (261), believes that the Book of Mormon is valuable in bringing people to Christ (133), and envisions the continued use of the sacrament prayers (part of the Book of Mormon text) and their value for Christian covenant (262).
My main concern as a historian is that such a revisioning not involve a retreat to biblical fundamentalism. A person could write–indeed, scholars have written–the same sort of book about the New and Old Testaments that Palmer has written about Smith’s scriptures. Instead of peeling layers off the onion to focus on the imagined true core of belief, it might be better (at least concomitantly) to adopt a more humanistic estimate of all religion and religious texts. One may be less certain about doctrine in this case, but one would be better able to appreciate and critique the contributions that all humans have made to the understanding of the world, whether they be mythical, artistic, scholarly, or scientific.
2. Anthony Hutchinson, “Prophetic Foreknowledge: Hope and Fulfillment in an Inspired Community,” Sunstone 11, no. 4 (July 1987): 13-20; reprinted in The Word of God, edited by Dan Vogel (Salt Lake City: Signature Books, 1990), 29-42.
3. Michael W. Homer, “Similarity of Priesthood in Masonry,” Dialogue 27, no. 3 (Fall 1994): 1-13; Edward P. Ashment, “The Temple,” Dialogue 27, no. 3 (Fall 1994): 289-98; David John Buerger, The Mysteries of Godliness (San Francisco: Smith Research Associates, 1994).
4. Brent L. Metcalfe, “The Priority of Mosiah,” in New Approaches to the Book of Mormon, edited by Brent L. Metcalfe (Salt Lake City: Signature Books, 1994], 395-444).
5. Edwin Firmage Jr., “Historical Criticism and the Book of Mormon: A Personal Encounter,” Sunstone 16 (July 1993): 58-64, reprinted in American Apocrypha, edited by Dan Vogel and Brent Metcalfe (Salt Lake City: Signature Books, 2002), 1-16; and esp. now Dan Vogel, Joseph Smith: The Making of a Prophet (Salt Lake City: Signature Books, 2004).
6. Thomas Murphy, “Simply Implausible: DNA and a Mesoamerican Setting for the Book of Mormon,” Dialogue 36, no. 4 (Winter 2003): 109-31; Brent Metcalfe, “Reinventing Lamanite Identity,” Sunstone No. 131 (March 2004): 20-25.
9. See, for example, Deanne Matheny, “Does the Shoe Fit?” in New Approaches, 269-328; Dan Vogel and Brent Metcalfe, “Editors’ Introduction,” in American Apocrypha, vii-xvii; Murphy, “Simply Implausible.”
10. Brent Metcalfe, “Apologetic and Critical Assumptions about Book of Mormon Historicity,” Dialogue 26, no. 3 (Fall 1993): 162-69; David Wright, “Isaiah in the Book of Mormon,” in American Apocrypha, 201-2; David Wright, “The Fallacies of Chiasmus: A Critique of Structures Proposed for the Covenant Collection (Exodus 20:22-23:19),” Zeitschrift für altorientalische une biblische Rechtsgeschichte 10 (2004).
12. For an example of the more precise type of comparative evidence necessary to establish genetic connections, see my “The Laws of Hammurabi as a Source for the Covenant Collection [Exodus 20:23-23:19],” Maarav 10 (2003): 11-87.