Guest Post: Reconciling a fictional Book of Mormon with Joseph Smith’s stated testimony

The following guest post comes from Mike Parker, a long-time  Bloggernacle commenter.

A small percentage of Latter-day Saints are aware that the historicity of the Book of Mormon has its detractors. Among those who are aware of the issues, there has been some discussion on this topic.

Actually, “discussion” is probably too polite a term.

The claim in question, briefly, is that the Book of Mormon represents an actual history of actual people and civilizations. Is the narrative of the Book of Mormon based on actual events, or is it a fictional—if still inspired—tale that came from the mind of Joseph Smith and/or persons close to him?

BYU’s Maxwell Institute (formerly known as FARMS) has been the best-known champion of Book of Mormon historicity, defending it in its publications and periodicals. For example, in 1993 Robert L. Millet argued, “…[I]t matters very much whether there is an actual event, an objective occurrence toward which we look and upon which we build our faith. One cannot exercise saving faith in something untrue (Alma 32:21) or that did not happen, no matter how sweet the story, how sincere the originator or author, or how committed the followers” (“The Book of Mormon, Historicity, and Faith,” Journal of Book of Mormon Studies 2/2, 9). BYU’s Religious Studies Center also published an entire book on the subject in 2001, with contributions by nine scholars and two general authorities.

Among the detractors of the Book of Mormon’s claim to be a historical record have been several publications from Signature Books, most notably the 1990 volume The Word of God: Essays on Mormon Scripture, edited by Dan Vogel, and 1993′s New Approaches to the Book of Mormon: Explorations in Critical Methodology, edited by Brent Metcalfe.

My personal belief is that the Book of Mormon is historical, as it claims to be, and that Joseph Smith miraculously translated it from actual ancient records. Having said that, I don’t personally have a problem with someone believing in the “historical fiction” theory and remaining an active, faithful Latter-day Saint. I think the Mormon tent is big enough to accommodate both beliefs.

However, I do question the “historical fiction” theory in that I don’t believe it’s coherent. And my biggest obstacle is Moroni.

Joseph Smith made very direct and specific claims to having been visited by Moroni, a resurrected being who was the final editor of the plates Joseph translated. How does one deal with Moroni if the Book of Mormon is fiction? I can only see three options:

1) Joseph lied. He was not visited by an angelic being, and did not have any plates (or had plates he made himself to fool the Witnesses). Perhaps he had good intentions, but he still deceived his followers into thinking the Book of Mormon was historical and that he had been visited by Moroni.

2) Joseph was insane. He believed he saw an angelic being who called himself Moroni, but he really didn’t.

3) Moroni deceived Joseph. There really was a supernatural being who visited Joseph Smith, but he didn’t tell the truth about his identity. Either God directed him to lie, or he was actually a demonic being.

I have been told several times by believers in a fictional Book of Mormon that there are other options that I’m missing. I’ve asked them what those options are, but I’ve never received a response.

So I’d like to ask—sincerely, without argument—if the Book of Mormon is “inspired fiction,” how do you deal with Moroni’s appearance to Joseph in a way that’s plausible, logical, and maintains the inspiration of an historical book that claims to be historical?

55 thoughts on “Guest Post: Reconciling a fictional Book of Mormon with Joseph Smith’s stated testimony

  1. Mike, thanks for this guest post and for raising this question. I will be interested to see if we get any answers.

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  3. I have no interest in defending the “inspired fiction” theory, but I find your list of possible explanations to be incomplete. Claims of angelic visitation are not that uncommon and I don’t think all of them can be filed under one of those three categories. Overactive imagination and nondisabling mental illness (as opposed to insanity, which is, by definition, disabling) spring to mind as other possibilities.

    Personally, I think the testimony of the 8 witnesses presents a much bigger challenge to the theory.

  4. Note, I have a firm testimony of Joseph, I’m just trying to help you see a possible #4. (Related to #2.) #4 being the idea he did not see this stuff but he wasn’t insane, just prone to supernatural beliefs like a good fraction of the members of the church.

    This is why many non-believers are so attached to Joseph being a “treasure seeker”. (Which he was, and people even testified in court he was good at it.) Joseph honestly thought he could see treasure with those stones. One theory is he was very susceptible to believing he could see/sense things supernaturally even if they wasn’t real. Joseph fooled himself for years into thinking he was seeing treasure with stones and perhaps this naturally evolved into him thinking he was seeing angels, the gold plates, etc…

    I’d be interested if anyone here thinks his ability to see buried treasure with stones is real, or a delusion? Bushman seems to claim in his book this supernatural tendency may have been important in preparing the way for what would come next.

    Now, why do I liken this to being no more insane than a good fraction of the church? I’ve met several people in the church who have claimed to have seen an angel, had a bizarre dream that they are convinced was true revelation or swear they have had a run in with one of the three Nephites, etc… Aren’t these people just as susceptible to believing they are having supernatural run-ins that may not really be happening?

    That said, and I need to interject this at this point: I again have a strong testimony of this work. It’s true that it is not based on some crazy supernatural experience with angels or visions like some of my LDS comrades, but is because of “by their fruits shall ye know them” and I believe I can see the good fruit. This church *is* a marvelous work and a wonder.

  5. As LL said, I think the 11 witnesses really provide an interesting dilemma for those trying to claim Joseph’s story is false. Also, an honest investigator must seriously consider the timelines involved in the writing of the Book of Mormon. I have written a 180-page work of fiction, and it took me a year. One of the unexpected things that happens as you write a book is by the time you reach page 50 you don’t remember what you wrote on page 3, and you don’t remember the names of characters, so you have to go back and double-check all kinds of things (place names, spellings, character names). I have no idea how people did this before the word processor, but it would have been literally impossible for Joseph to do this in the 1820s in two months while inventing a 500-plus page book.

    The other thing to consider is Joseph’s later behavior, which does not track well with somebody who is lying, insane or sick regarding the reality of his story and the BoM. He seemed incredibly self-assured until his death that his story was real and that he would face God with a clean conscience. History shows us this is not the behavior of a massive fraud.

    I know I am not really answering Mike original question, but I wanted to make sure that any answers deal with the real issues.

  6. There are other problems related to the “insane” or deluded by the supernatural (as Joseph notes): such as how does one explain the internal claims of the book?

    If Joseph Smith just imagined Moroni, then how does one explain chiasmus, Nahom, 40 correct ancient names not found in the Bible, etc? Did he just imagine such things, as well?

    Given that 3 others also saw Moroni, and that 11 others saw the plates, then we really get a problem with the historical fiction issue. Did God provide a fictional history mingled with historical facts?

    Would it not have been easier for God just to give Joseph a series of revelations teaching the same concepts, and not even bothering with the story of the angel and plates?

    Early Mormons did not focus on the First Vision, but on the visit of Moroni and the plates. If it were going to be a fiction, why go to such lengths? Why suffer through the 116 lost pages of fiction?

  7. Last Lemming and Joseph Smidt: Thank you both for your responses.

    Your fourth option — Joseph was sincere, and believed he encountered the supernatural even though he actually didn’t — doesn’t really solve the Moroni problem, though. Either he saw an angel or he didn’t. If he didn’t, then his testimony is false.

    Joseph’s description of Moroni’s four visits on September 21st and 22nd, 1823 are very specific. It wasn’t just an impression that there was someone in the room, or a dream. He gave very specific details about his appearance and his message.

    With regard to Joseph Smidt’s arguments: First of all, I think you’re overstating Joseph’s treasure-seeking background. What we do know is that his own family members claimed that he had an uncanny ability to find things that were lost. He tried applying this to treasure-seeking and wasn’t successful; he had to convince Josiah Stowell to give up looking for the Spanish gold. The other treasure-seeking accounts from the Hurlbut affidavits are certainly exaggerated or fabricated by people who had motivation to bring down Joseph Smith and his religion.

    Personally, I think Joseph had the ability to see hidden things, and that played a part in his role in translating the Book of Mormon. But hoping to find buried treasure is very different that specific, direct claims to having seen an angel.

    Certainly there have been “common people” who have claimed to have angelic visitations and dreams. I have no reason to doubt there are actual angelic visits from time to time. Dreams are not the same type experience Joseph Smith had with Moroni, so those don’t count. And have you ever actually met someone who claimed to see the Three Witnesses? Certainly there are a lot of “this happened to my uncle’s best friend’s sister’s former roommate”-type stories, but these represent the Mormon urban legend machine in action. And none of these are part of the foundational events of the Church.

    So, if Joseph was self-deluded, how does that materially differ from option 1 or 2? I don’t see that it does.

  8. Rameumptom:

    The only attempt I’ve seen to account for the testimony of the Three Witnesses (outside of “they lied”) is Dan Vogel’s claim that Joseph Smith hypnotized them.

    Vogel’s claim has the dual problem of misunderstanding how hypnosis works and dealing with the issue of Joseph’s motivations and honesty.

    My belief is that you can’t have it both ways: If Joseph Smith had to deceive people into believing the Book of Mormon and the foundational events, then there is something seriously wrong that calls into question the book’s inspiration.

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  10. Well, very interesting post and comments. Joseph Smith has been a very complex person for many to grapple with, and those who think they can explain him definitely have their work cut out.

    Yes the witnesses do make a powerful argument for the case of Joseph that is hard for many to explain.

    But to me, the *really* hard thing to explain is how an “incorrect” claim could lead to the marvelous work and a wonder we have seen grow from it. Those who believe that destroying Joseph or his story will hurt the church will end up like the man who penned at Joseph’s death “Thus ends Mormonism”. The reality is there is a power behind this work that transcends even Joseph Smith, and it is hard to imagine how that could be if the fundamental beliefs of this work are false.

  11. “One cannot exercise saving faith in something untrue”

    No one requires saving faith in a book. On the contrary, one needs faith in Jesus Christ. A faithful rendition of his teachings is secondary.

  12. Joseph Smidt:

    Are a real First Vision and appearance of Moroni are part of the “fundamental beliefs of this work”?

  13. Mark D.: But all we have are written accounts of what Jesus said and did. If those accounts are false in their core details or are fictional, then how can we exercise faith in Christ?

    This includes the account of his visit to the Nephites in the Book of Mormon. If it is fiction, then our faith in Christ is based on things that he did not do or say.

  14. He seemed incredibly self-assured until his death that his story was real and that he would face God with a clean conscience. History shows us this is not the behavior of a massive fraud.

    It is certainly not the behavior of someone who defrauds for material gain. People who sincerely believe that they are doing a divine work fall into a somewhat different category. That is not to say that Joseph Smith was among the latter, of course.

  15. Mike,
    I’ve read Dan’s hypothesis before. The problem is that he suggests this as a one time event. It isn’t. How does one explain others seeing the angels, etc., sometimes when Joseph wasn’t around? The Pentecostal experience at the Kirtland Temple becomes very vexing for a hypnosis claim, as there were people outside the temple who thought it was on fire, or saw beings in white walking on the roof.

    The problem with such simple claims to explain away a portion of the happenings, is that they must ignore other events. Those who dismiss Joseph Smith often ignore the witnesses; those who claim they were hypnotized ignore other memorable visions (Kirtland temple dedication, etc).

    Those who claim a fictional history or historical fiction, must ignore the internal text. Brant Gardner has shown that some strange BoM stories fit well within a Mayan context. Locations such as Nahom and the Arabian Bountiful have been found: how does that fit into fiction?

    Such things pretty much show that Joseph was not insane nor deluded by treasure seeking superstitions. It also shows that he was not just making it all up, as statistically it would be impossible for him to get so many things right. So, either it is historical, or Moroni lied to Joseph.

  16. I believe parts of the bible are probably fictional, or at least greatly exaggerated. Like Mike I can’t really figure out how the Book Of Mormon could be though. Maybe if Moroni wasn’t a character in the BOM, or if Joseph had said God had given him the plates. Then it might make more sense.

  17. For the purpose of argument, I think a vaguely viable inspired fiction theory must be something like the following:

    (1) JS discovers an actual record
    (2) JS is unable to translate the record verbatim, so he uses his best spiritual efforts to determine a combination of what is on the record and anything else as divinely directed.
    (3) God recognizes his sincerity and inspires JS to an enormous degree with respect to gospel principles and doctrines

  18. Mark D.:

    But your theory doesn’t explain Joseph Smith’s account of the First Vision or Moroni’s visit, nor does it explain the Three Witnesses, nor Oliver Cowdery’s separate account of the visitation of John the Baptist.

    If Joseph simply wanted to issue an inspired book, why go through all the bother of making up the miraculous visits? And how do we explain the testimony of others who had similar visits?

    That’s where the “inspired fiction” theory falls apart for me.

  19. And I completely agree with jjohnsen that the Bible and Book of Mormon can contain exaggerations or be ahistorical in parts. Ancient history was not written the way we write history today. But that doesn’t go so far as say there was no Nephi, Alma, or Moroni.

  20. I wouldn’t go so far as to claim this as “my theory”, but rather the best inspired fiction theory. Naturally, this variant must claim that all visitations of angels etc were theophanies, visions, dreams, strong spiritual impressions, etc. that were not necessarily accurate.

    What I am saying is that (for all their problems) there are two forms of inspired fiction theories: One where JS knew that he was writing a non-historical book and thought he was justified to claim that it was on the divine service theory, and one where he sincerely believed that all his inspiration, visions, writings etc. were substantially accurate even though some aspects were and others were not.

  21. I agree with Mike’s assessment. And I frankly don’t see the appeal of seeing the Book of Mormon as inspired fiction. We have mounting evidence of its historicity; we don’t need to hem and haw about it.

    Are they motivated by making our religion as intellectually appealing (and watered-down) as many other modern religions by removing supernatural elements? Is it a move to make it easier to discuss with academics? Do they believe in the literal resurrection of Jesus?

  22. I frankly don’t see the appeal of seeing the Book of Mormon as inspired fiction

    There is no appeal. It is the sort of thing that allows some people to take the Book of Mormon seriously at all, because of perceived problems with anachronicity, modern themes, missing archeological evidence, etc. Some of these concerns motivate the expansionist theory, which is that the BoM is more or less historically correct but doctrinally expansionist in spades.

  23. Along with the “hypnotized” hypothesis (“theory” is too generous a term) let’s not forget Dan Vogel’s other contribution on the witnesses: Joseph forged some (tin?) plates (and maybe other artifacts) to fool the witnesses with.

    Just think–Joseph was an expert metalworker and craftsman able to deceive people into thinking he had ancient artifacts, but rather than put that ability to work for gainful employment, he was doing such lucrative work as splitting rails and selling beer and cakes from a cart while his family lost their farm for inability to pay their last debt payment.

    Moroni and the witnesses are a stake in the heart of the “inspired fiction” theory–as, I suspect, they were intended to be. Like Mike, I’ve never heard a cogent reply to both in this context. I suspect there isn’t one.

  24. I also don’t get those who claim there is too much 19th century anachronism and no evidence! Just where do these people come from, who see no evidence? The Maxwell Institute/FARMS, FAIR, and many of us on this and other lists have documented hundreds of evidences: from valid BoM locations, to proper Egyptian names (unknown in Joseph’s day), to Hebraisms, to authentic ancient Year Rites, to Brant Gardner’s authentic “Mayanisms”, etc. Even such events as the servants of Lamoni taking the hands of Ammon’s victims to the king has ancient support in the Battle of Megiddo – where the soldiers brought the hands of their dead enemies to Pharaoh as proof of their conquest.

    Why would God go to such lengths to have Joseph write inspired fiction, when there were other easier and less controversial ways to convey the same information?

  25. Mike,

    Interesting post. Thank you.

    If I may inquire something related. I believe you’ve stated elsewhere that you believe many stories of the OT to be allegory or fiction, for instance The Fall. Can you tell me how you reconcile this as we modern-day revelation concerning Adam, Adam-ondi-ahman, etc., thru Joseph?

  26. Tim,

    Comparing Genesis chapters 1–10 with the Book of Mormon is a little difficult because of the differences between the time periods and the way the records were transmitted to our day.

    I think that D&C 107:53–56 and 116:1 commit us to believing that Adam was a historical individual. Did he do everything described in Genesis 1–3, interpreted to its most literal extent? I don’t have a problem seeing the Fall as allegorical, even though there was an individual named Adam with whom God covenanted.

    Likewise with Noah: A limited Flood would permit him to be historical and still not require a global deluge.

    I would see some comparisons in the Book of Mormon, especially with exaggerated sizes of populations and armies.

  27. Tim: Telling stories about Honest Abe that are cultural myth doesn’t mean that: (a) there was no real Abraham Lincoln; or (b) the story doesn’t capture some truths about Abraham Lincoln. The story in Genesis is rather self-consciously myth — the story of everyman (Adam=mankind and dust of earth) and of the mother of all (eve=life). Further, believing in Adam-ondi-Ahman doesn’t mean that Joseph Smith wasn’t influenced by 19th century versions of the Fall and of Adam. Nor does the fact that the Book of Mormon was written on plates and translated by the gift and power of God mean that the translation didn’t involve a lot of Joseph Smith making sense of the revelation of the text to him in terms he could understand and express.

    I think that Mark is right that the strongest inspired fiction view is one that views Joseph Smith as honestly believing he is doing good and that God deigned to use his dishonesty and self-deception to promulgate inspired truths. It doesn’t begin to explain the experiences of the plates, angels and so forth by others because their existence requires that Joseph is involved in intentional fraud and cover-up on a pretty large scale and not merely that he was a ne’er do well who fooled himself into thinking that he had plates — and imagine the multi-media presentation to create the angels on this view! If Joseph was involved in hypnotizing then he was able to create illusions on a pretty broad scale and hypnotize a lot of people at once. Not very convincing as far as I’m concerned.

    However, if everyone involved could believe that they were seeing things that weren’t really there and “hefting” heavy items that didn’t exist, then I suppose the theory could make some sense. There have been mass visions of the Mother Mary — but usually don’t involve things like gold plates. Let us not forget that not only did Joseph claim to show gold plates, he came up with a rather amazing book with genuine prophetic calls, covenant renewal festivals and hebrew legal procedures. That just isn’t easy to fake or fool one’s self into believing.

  28. What Blake said.

    The accounts we read in ancient scripture were not written by people who were concerned with historical accuracy in the way we are today. They were storytellers, and their stories were designed to teach moral and theological principles. There may have been a historical basis for many of these stories, but they were written according to the interpretations of the writers who were not above embellishing them or molding them to suit a pedagogical purpose.

    This sort of thing still goes on today in our culture. Most children have heard about George Washington and how, when he was a boy, he chopped down a cherry tree and then confessed to the crime. “I cannot tell a lie,” he reportedly said. Now, this story is pure myth—Washington never did or said any such thing. The point of the story is to turn the “father of our country” into a role model to demonstrate to children the importance of honesty. But no sane individual would claim, because there was no cherry tree incident, that therefore George Washington was a fictional character.

    So it is with ancient scripture: We can affirm that there was a historical Adam without having to literally accept everything the Bible says about him (that he was made from dirt, that God took a rib out of his side to make Eve, etc.).

  29. Another issue with the Creation is that we have various accounts that differ. Genesis 1 and 2 are very different accounts of the Creation, and each differs from the accounts in the Book of Moses, Book of Abraham, and the temple endowment to at least some extent.

    These differences clearly suggest allegory is involved in at least some of the Creation/Garden of Eden story. That Brigham Young and James Talmage could believe in Pre-Adamites also shows that apostles and prophets could consider such as allegory. In fact, Brigham Young considered the story of the Garden as “baby stories.” Elder Bruce R. McConkie concurred that Eve being made from Adam’s rib was allegorical.

    Yet, all consider Adam and Eve to be historical, especially since the Book of Mormon sees them as historical.

  30. Blake and Mike have expressed a very healthy way of looking at Biblical stories. I would like to point out that way too many people lose their faith because they rely on the Bible being literally true and spend all their energy trying to figure out how Noah got all those animals to fit on the ark or how Jonah lived three days inside a whale rather than concentrating on the greater messages of the stories. Jonah is a story of faith, listening to God, doing what he says and honoring and remembering Jehovah. Was there a historical character named Jonah? Maybe, maybe not, but if your faith relies on Jonah being literally true, you are going to be disappointed.

  31. If anything else, this just made me thing that people who faithfully believe and are active in the Church, yet think the BoM is fictional, are absolutely crazy. Not only did Joseph Smith claim to see an angel who purported to write upon these gold plates, but 3 other people did as well. Joseph hypnotized them? How is that even a legitimate theory? Joseph lied about it? But how did he get the 3 witnesses to lie about it?

    This is why I do NOT get why someone like Van Hale rejects the historicity of the BoM. I’m totally up for the ideas that some stories may be fabricated – men are not perfect, just look at the newspaper today, bias alone can distort the truth of an event – but the men who are written of were ACTUAL people.

    This is why I think the 3 and 8 witnesses is one of the most powerful evidences of the Church. It really is a remarkable thing if a con-man can make 3 people THINK they saw an angel. The only theory that holds any water (in my eyes) is that they were insane. They honestly hallucinated and thought it was real and of God. However, when you read the accounts of people that knew these people and their histories, you quickly learn these people were not insane.

    The 3 and 8 witnesses is one of the oft-most overlooked aspects of the Restored Gospel – by faithful members and critics. At least I think so. It truly is a POWERFUL testimony.

  32. Couldn’t you apply all these same questions to Muhammad and the Qur’an? Did Gabriel visit Muhammad? Did he lie? Was he sincerely deceived by a demon posing as Gabriel? Or perhaps Crone’s Hagarism is right and he did not exist!

  33. I believe a fourth option is what might be called the filtered history hypothesis. In this version of BOM exegesis, the main thrust of the events portrayed in the BOM are entirely accurate, as are the accompanying doctrines.

    What might not be accurate are the nitty gritty details. We know that Joseph sometimes “translated” the BOM without even looking at it. This suggests very strongly that the plates themselves were necessary on occasion, but at other times perhaps only acted as a catalyst for Joseph’s prophetic visions. Because the events were filtered through Joseph’s 19th century mind, it is possible that details that were completely irrelevant to the purpose of the book, (testifying of Christ and giving new doctrine) were ‘smudged’.

    To me, the historicity, while important, does not have to be bulletproof. My own studies in psychology have convinced me beyond any doubt that secular histories are rife with distortions and erroneous detail. If some historical details in the BOM are incorrect, I won’t lose any sleep over it. It can still be “the most correct book” and have historical inaccuracies. Its purpose is not to be a history, but to lead us back to God. In this respect, it has no equal.

    As a sidenote, modern forensic linguistic studies have shown without any doubt that Joseph didn’t write the BOM. Nor did any of his contemporaries. We cannot prove that the BOM is exactly what we claim, but the science conclusively shows that the BOM is not what its detractors claim either. There is no scientifically valid explanation that claims Joseph wrote the book.

  34. Joel,
    You could, but the answers are going to be different. Mohammed didn’t have any gold plates or witnesses thereof. Only Mohammed was involved in his revelations of Gabriel.
    For those who must explain away Joseph Smith, they must deal with witnesses of the Book of Mormon and of many other revelations. Oliver Cowdery and Sidney Rigdon both saw Christ with Joseph Smith, on two separate occasions. Others saw angels with Joseph. Then there’s the Kirtland Temple Pentecost, where hundreds spoke in tongues, prophesied, and saw angels and Christ.

    Mohammed’s experience is not in the same league for all of these reasons.

  35. Personally, I have no problem accepting that Mohammad received actual revelations and angelic visitations. And, apparently, neither does the First Presidency — they issued a letter on 15 February 1978, stating that

    The great religious leaders of the world such as Mohammed, Confucius, and the Reformers, as well as philosophers including Socrates, Plato, and others, received a portion of God’s light. Moral truths were given to them by God to enlighten whole nations and to bring a higher level of understanding to individuals.

    The article “A Latter-day Saint Perspective on Muhammad” in the August 2000 Ensign provides some good perspective on our relationship to Islam.

  36. Rameumptom – if we’re using reasoning like that, we could say, “Islam conquered vast swaths of the world within 2 centuries, therefore it is true.” Or, “Islam transformed pagan Arabs into monotheists, therefore it is true.” And really, you did not answer the question – did Gabriel reveal the Qur’an to Muhammad? How do you know?

    Mike- the Qur’an and the Book of Mormon are mutually exclusive documents, so I don’t know how you can hold that.

    “And behold! God will say: ‘Oh Jesus, the son of Mary! Did you say unto men, worship me and my mother as gods in derogation of God?’ He will say: ‘Glory to Thee! Never could I say what I had no right (to say). Had I said such a thing, You would indeed have known it. You know what is in my heart, though I know not what is in Yours. For You know in full all that is hidden. Never did I say to them anything except what You commanded me to say: ‘Worship God, my Lord and your Lord.’ And I was a witness over them while I lived among them. When You took me up, You were the Watcher over them, and You are a witness to all things’” (5:116-117).

    Most of the central ideas of the Restoration are anathema to Islam.

  37. Joel, you misunderstood my statements regarding the Quran and Mohammed. My point is that they cannot be truly compared to the Book of Mormon and Joseph Smith, because:

    1. The Quran was dictated by Gabriel to Mohammed. There were no gold plates, nor any other writings to compare nor witness.

    2. Mohammed was the only witness to his visitations. Meanwhile, Joseph Smith shared many of his experiences with others: the Three Witnesses, the 8 Witnesses, Sidney Rigdon, Oliver Cowdery, much of the membership during the Kirtland Temple Pentecost, etc.

    One just cannot compare the two, because there are such vast differences in what is going on in the two events. I’m not saying that the Quran is true or false, or whether Mohammed did or did not see Gabriel. I’m saying it is comparing apples to oranges.

    As for Mike’s statement, I agree with it. There isn’t a black and white world of revelation. There are a myriad of gray areas, where God reveals to all mankind the amount of light and truth they are ready to accept (Alma 29:8). So, Mohammed can receive an imperfect revelation for his people that improves their lives above worshiping the idols of North Africa; and Joseph Smith can receive imperfect revelations to prepare the way for the final restoration. Why do I call the revelations imperfect? Because even Joseph realized and commented on the concept that continual revelation meant continually updating old ideas with new and improved ones (and he did).

    For example, the Lectures on Faith held the Holy Spirit to be a power of God. Later revelation showed that the Holy Ghost was actually a personage, and one of the members of the Godhead (D&C 130).

  38. Word to Rameumptom’s description of imperfect revelation. I don’t consider the Qur’an to be authoritative in the same way I consider the Book of Mormon to be authoritative, but I do accept the inspiration behind it. Is it perfect or inerrant? Well, I don’t think any scripture is perfect or inerrant, including LDS scripture.

    The Qur’an contains great truths that brought greater light and knowledge to the people of the of Mohammad’s time. It also contains errors and things that are not true.

    Brigham Young taught something similar WRT the Bible:

    I have heard some make the broad assertion that every word within the lids of the Bible was the word of God. I have said to them, “You have never read the Bible, have you?” “O, yes, and I believe every word in it is the word of God.” Well, I believe that the Bible contains the word of God, and the words of good men and the words of bad men; the words of good angels and the words of bad angels and words of the devil; and also the words uttered by the ass when he rebuked the prophet in his madness. I believe the words of the Bible are just what they are; but aside from that I believe the doctrines concerning salvation contained in that book are true, and that their observance will elevate any people, nation or family that dwells on the face of the earth.
    Journal of Discourses 13:175

  39. It might be worth mentioning that within Jewish circles, Job is not considered a real person. My wife has long been bothered by the idea that God would allow the devil to ruin a man’s life just to make a point. But whether it’s a story of a real person, or an allegory, the message is the same.

    Having said that, I can’t think of anyplace in the Book of Mormon where a similar situation might exist. There’s no reason to suspect that one person in the small plates was allegorical while others were real (except for the allegory Jacob copied from Zenos about the olive tree, which is clearly identified as allegory). An allegorical character would be out of place in the content Mormon and Moroni edited; no one’s story told in those parts of the book exists in isolation, they all connect at some point. And that includes the account of the Jaredits, with their last king being first introduced when he’s met by the Mulekites.

    There are also those who doubt the historicity of Jesus, but still accept the truth of his teachings.

    My take (and I could have read this ideology wrong in some ways) is that viewing the Book of Mormon as historical fiction–with invented characters and events, but a true moral message–comes from an intellectualist attempt to have it both ways: they can still believe in what the book teaches without committing to the reality of its origins when the archaeological evidence affirming the record’s reality is not yet comprehensive. It seems nice at first blush, but as many have pointed out above, such an approach doesn’t take everything (most notably, Moroni as a real resurrected person) into account.

  40. Joel: “… the Qur’an and the Book of Mormon are mutually exclusive documents, so I don’t know how you can hold that.”

    I disagree. Some people who have been involved with the conversion of some Muslims to the restored gospel say that there is very little in the Quran that they have to reject.

    Your Quran quote in #34 is not in opposition to our doctrine. The only quibble is Jesus saying to Heavenly Father: “You know what is in my heart, though I know not what is in Yours.” That just needs to be modified with one word. “though I know not [all] what is in Yours.” (Example: Jesus doesn’t know the day of the 2nd coming.) Going to the other extreme would be to infer an unspoken modifier of “though I know not (anything of) what is in Yours”, which would be far more unjustified. Therefore, to charitably parse the sentence, hoping for the best resolution, I would like to infer the meaning of “not all” instead of “not any”.

    We say that Heavenly Father and Jesus “are of one mind”, but I can accept someone’s belief that Heavenly Father knows things that Jesus doesn’t. I see no conflict with LDS doctrine in the rest of that snippet.

    In Mohammed’s time, the Mary-worship of the Catholic church was well known, so it would be legitimate to speculate or hypothesize such a dialogue. The snippet begins in future tense, indicative of supposition or speculation, which further justifies a charitable parsing.

    However, going back to the OP, Mike’s 3 possible scenarios could be applied to Mohammed:

    1) Mohammed lied. He was not visited by an angelic being,

    2) Mohammed was insane (or whatever degree of “not right”) . He believed he saw an angelic being who called himself Gabriel, but he really didn’t.

    3) Gabriel deceived Mohammed. There really was a supernatural being who visited Mohammed, but he didn’t tell the truth about his identity. Either God directed him to lie, or he was actually a demonic being.

    Mohammed lived in a time when, as far as we know, the full gospel was not on the earth, and the priesthood had been withdrawn. Maybe, (I’m speculating here) God gave Mohammed some “lesser light” so people could be a little better off than otherwise (as others have speculated above.) And, (again speculation) maybe Islam itself became corrupted after Mohammed’s death. Today’s version of Islam may be as far removed from Mohammed’s Islam as was Pharisitical Judaism of Jesus’ day removed from the true religion of Moses; or as today’s mainstream christianity is removed from 1st Century christianity.

  41. Bookslinger: While I agree that God could have given Mohammed a lesser light, it seems to me that there is another possibility that has to be accounted for. (4)Mohammed was just mistaken that he Gabriel spoke with him. I’d add that there are several problems with taking the Quran at face value as an historical document.

  42. Excellent post.

    I agree there is a lack of logical coherence in the arguments of those that claim the Book of Mormon is ‘inspired’ ‘fiction.’

    If the Church ever took that stance, it would cease to exist because Chruch’s can’t survive blatant logical incorehence like that.

  43. If no one here considers the Book of Mormon to be “inspired fiction”, then I’d like to know what you make of D&C 19:6–10:

    6 Nevertheless, it is not written that there shall be no end to this torment, but it is written endless torment.
    7 Again, it is written eternal damnation; wherefore it is more express than other scriptures, that it might work upon the hearts of the children of men, altogether for my name’s glory.
    8 Wherefore, I will explain unto you this mystery, for it is meet unto you to know even as mine apostles.
    9 I speak unto you that are chosen in this thing, even as one, that you may enter into my rest.
    10 For, behold, the mystery of godliness, how great is it! For, behold, I am endless, and the punishment which is given from my hand is endless punishment, for Endless is my name.

    If the Book of Mormon was “more express” (i.e., exaggerating) in this regard, is there a limit to it? I don’t have any time for the Church, or even Mormonism itself, these days, and if nothing else “apologetics” seems to distance me even more. But 35 years after I first read the Book of Mormon (and I’m leaving historicity questions aside), I believe it has, in many parts anyway, very pertinent messages for us if we leave “historicity questions” aside. I guess that’s a real paradox to be caught in, but one that is impossible to deny. I recently re-read all of the Book of Mormon (as in Mormon the scribe-prophet, not the whole Book of Mormon), and in a way it seems to forewarn us of our own possible impending fate if we are not careful (with some “more express” clauses added, of course).

    I’m not satisfied with the “inspired fiction” label, because that implies that it’s entirely fictional. In that sense, one might also consider the Beatitudes “fictional”, but without relying on “historicity”, who in the last 2,000 years cannot see much merit in Jesus’ teachings? Are they “fictional”?

    (Sorry if I bungled with the html, but I’m not familiar with this site.)

  44. Ray: I find myself unable to understand your point. In no way am I trying to belittle you. I’m genuinely just not getting what relevance this D&C passage has to do with the possibility of inspired fiction in the BoM.

    Honestly, I think there are varying interpretations of the passage you quoted. In any case, what specific relevance are you seeing to this scripture from D&C (not the BoM) and the topic of the BoM being inspired fiction? I think you do have some underlying logic, but I would appreciate more clarification.

  45. Ryan,

    As I said, I don’t think the “inspired fiction” label adequately fits. It’s not as if the Book of Mormon is a fiction novel. The importation of many New Testament themes and ideas suggests to me that a wholly ancient context is untenable. And this is the real paradox for all serious students of the Book of Mormon, who see within its pages something more than mere whimsical 19th century fiction created by a pious mind. The usage of parable and story-telling does not mean that a text is necessarily a “fiction novel”. I take the Book of Mormon very seriously on many levels, and I do believe it has a very relevant message for our times. Where I’m different, I suppose, is that I do not believe that historicity is important to the message. I’m not suggesting that Joseph Smith whimsically created all of this, either, but I think I can accept it as a “modern revelation”, and not one dependent on “historicity”. If you will throw out the Book of Mormon because it’s “not historical”, then in my opinion you are also throwing out some incredibly insightful things, which have the potential to benefit all of us.

    The “historicity debates” have perhaps detracted from the real message of the Book of Mormon, which is one that speaks peace to all lovers of justice and mercy and fairness. That is why so many were initially attracted to it. Not because of whether there are one or two Cumorahs, or where it took place. If one’s “testimony” depends on such things, then it seems to me to be built upon a very sandy foundation. God will never be explained by logic and rational arguments, and it is left to the individual to decide when he or she feels “God is speaking”. I would suggest the Book of Mormon as a possible catalyst in such a very personal experience, and one that can never be measured in scientific laboratories.

  46. Ray,
    I think I understand your focus, and in large part I think many of us agree. The important issue is the doctrine within, not the history within the BoM.

    That said, Joseph Smith made some extreme claims: an angel visited him, the angel told him of gold plates containing a history of the ancient Americas, the angel was one of the prophets who wrote in those plates.

    It is because of these claims that it is incumbent on the Church or its members to seek to defend the BoM and the claims surrounding its discovery.

    It would be so much easier if Joseph would have said the angel Gabriel had dictated it to him. Suddenly there is no historicity requirements to it, simply that the story was dictated by an angel (as in the Quran). However, we have metal plates that were handled by 11 others, an angel who claimed to have been a mortal prophet within the book, etc. These are things our detractors attack constantly, and so it becomes necessary for some apologetics.

    Why would anyone desire to consider the BoM, if only the detractors had anything to say about its historicity, etc? We would look like fools, holding onto a book without any evidence whatsoever of claims made regarding the book by its founder.

    In fact, we would probably be forced to give up historicity claims and conclude that Joseph Smith was deluded or deceived regarding its historicity – much as the Community of Christ has basically done. The BoM’s relevance to the Church would be diminished, simply because such claims could not be sustained in any manner. Because of this, many in the CoC now consider the BoM to be optional scripture, which in my opinion separates them further and further away from their restorationist roots.

  47. The intriguing thing is that, for the first few generations of Mormons, the Book of Mormon was almost exactly what Ray laments in #43 — they didn’t really read it for doctrine or teaching, but instead saw it as an artifact that demonstrated the legitimacy of Joseph Smith’s calling. The sermons from Joseph and the early Utah period quote almost exclusively from the Bible. It’s only later that serious study of the Book of Mormon’s message comes into play in the Church (and that’s a good thing, IMHO).

    Rameumptom is right in #44: We need to accept the Book of Mormon in both aspects, content and historicity. An expansionist theory that has Joseph Smith incorporating 19th century and New Testament issues into the text is intriguing, but we can’t use it to artfully sidestep the Moroni problem.

    So, Art: How do you explain Moroni?

  48. Ray:

    I agree with both Rameumptom and Mike. However, I would like to comment more specifically on your view that the BoM’s style is more representative of the New Testament than the Old. You see this as a problem regarding its historicity. However, from a theological standpoint, it is necessary for it to resemble the New Testament. The OT’s hardline focus on obedience to concrete law is not in keeping with the modern dispensation’s focus on personal growth and expanding a personal connection with God. It is the difference between the Law of Moses and the New Law. If the BoM had fewer parables and more ‘thou shalts’ then it would not be a relevant modern scripture. If the BoM was written for the current generation, whether anciently or roughly 200 years ago, it must adopt the NT’s style or it cannot fulfill its stated purpose.

    If both the NT and the OT are inspired scripture, and both are historical (mostly anyway), then I see no reason why a God with foresight could inspire historical scripture to be written in the NT style in the New World that mostly predates the writing of the NT itself. The matter of precedent is moot from this perspective.

  49. Pardon me, I meant to say, “I see no reason why a God with foresight could not inspire historical scripture to be written in the NT style in the New World that mostly predates the writing of the NT itself. The matter of precedent is moot from this perspective.”

    The “not” in that sentence changes the meaning entirely. I apologize.

  50. To the point that the Book of Mormon is too much in the style of the New Testament rather than the old, I’m reminded of Hugh Nibley’s comments regarding some of the texts that have been discovered in the last couple of centuries regarding people like Enoch and Abraham. Jewish and Christian scholars are troubled by them because they’re “too Christian” to have come from their points of origin; some of the later Dead Sea Scrolls also have the problem of being “too Jewish” to have come from Christian writers.

    I’m not bothered by the idea that pre-Christian prophets knew more about Christian doctrines than we think they should have known, though I also think the distinctions between Judaic and Christian beliefs weren’t as sharp in past millennia as they are now. And given Nephi’s attitudes about Christ and Jewish culture, we shouldn’t be surprised that his descendants adopted a more Christian worldview than did their Jewish contemporaries on the other side of the world.

  51. I’ve never even heard of this theory before. As far as I can see, we shouldn’t be worrying about coming up with all the different ways the theory could be potentially upheld. Rather, the matter should be whether or not the Book of Mormon is fiction or non-fiction. And I know only one way to find that out. You can find it in Moroni 10:3–5. I know that God is completely serious when he promises us: “Ask, and ye shall receive. Knock, and it shall be opened unto you.” So if it’s really something you’re worried about, why not give it a shot?

  52. As a Non-Mormon woman, and growing up with NO religion of any kind.,…except spending a short time of my father’s military time in Utah, I was exposed to the Mormon/LDS Church, but never involved. Later in life, I decided to start reading the Bible to have faith that if I read the Bible….the right answers will naturally come to me. Well, the Bible has been great reading, but I noticed pockets of information was missing. When I learned the Bible was made up with some of the scripts/books left out…..it made sense. I was approached one day by a Momon Missionary., and I have great respect for their sincere commitment to the faith of God and Christ. I told them I grew up in Utah as a younger girl and I was familiar with the Mormon church and I had fun and fond memories of my child hood. I had questions now that I have read the Bible and I NEVER read the Book of Mormon. I wanted to understand as I want to understand other religions and I said I will take a copy of the Book of Mormon and I will read it to understand what this religion is based on. Well, to my surprise and amazement, it was a beautiful book…..so similar to the Bible. There was nothing weird, or any weird beliefs…. only a more focused stronger focus on Jesus Christ. I do not necessarily believe in the LDS or Mormon “Religion” , but I have no reason to doubt the Book of Mormon. Just like the Bible,…many religions have been born from the book. Then, I read the history of Joseph Smith on the LDS.org website…. this man seems to be honest, scared that he is seeing what he is seeing and he’s not claiming he is some kind of christ. Joseph didn’t claim to be anything, except a man who was confused about what christian religion to believe in ….and he prayed and he was shocked and uncomfortable with the visions he received. It makes it all more believable and credible. I now, keep the Bible and the Book of Mormon and I attend all Christian faith churches…don’t get too involved with putting a Priest or a Preacher in too much power. Oddly, I believe in the Christian King James Bible, The Book of Mormon,… but I’m not committed to any christian faith. I believe Joseph Smith’s account of what happened to him, but the religion that started with him….. has been diluted and changed throughout time…just like the Bible. So much good in both of these Books! Read them both!

  53. Friend of All: Thank You! I agree with you 100% and am so happy to read what you have said. Keep reading both books because they are both absolutely the truth! I don’t know if you pray.. but, either way, I would suggest adopting the same idea that Joseph Smith had. Pray and see what religion the Lord would have you join! By following one religion, you can narrow your focus and really delve into the truth. I understand that you don’t want to subscribe to the power of a clergyman… but take note that all LDS officials are somewhat volunteers, and that they don’t boast of any power. They only act in ways that their callings demand of them. Good luck and keep at it!

  54. Moroni is only one–if a major one–of the problems with the “historical fiction” theory. What about the gold plates? What about all the things that have been discovered since the Book of Mormon was published that support it? For example, the Book of Mormon said that there were horses in ancient America. That was unknown in Joseph’s day but is now know to be true. Also, the Book of Mormon said that there were elephants in ancient America. In Joseph’s day, that was thought to be wrong, but it has since been discovered to be true. The Book of Mormon said that ancient Americans could both read and write. Again, that was thought to be a silly mistake in Joseph’s day, but we now know that several different tribes had a written language. The Book of Mormon published many new names that had never been heard of before, but many of those names have since been verified to be legitimate Egyptian names. We could go on and on with a virtual mountain of such truths which were unknown when the Book of Mormon was published but which have since been discovered to be true. If the “historical fiction” theory is true, then why does this continually growing mountain of evidence continue to verify details of what is supposedly a fictional story?

  55. In my view, scriptures are more a commentary on history than an actual historical record, so while based on history, they aren’t really about the facts so much as they are about the meaning.

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