Discussions of Book of Mormon issues and evidences, plus other topics related to The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

Friday, March 20, 2015

Great Literature You May Have Missed: Joseph Smith's First Vision, Explained by Dr. Arthur Henry King

One of the most impressive figures on the BYU campus when I was a student was Dr. Arthur Henry King (1910-2000). He was a graduate of Cambridge in 1931 and then earned a  Doctor of Literature in stylistics from the University of Lund in Sweden. He taught English and English literature for fourteen years at the universities in Lund and Stockholm and was for many years on the British Council, which deals with educational and cultural affairs for the British government. He was twice decorated by Queen Elizabeth II for this work. He also served as Assistant Director-General in charge of Education in England.

With his deep foundation in literature, you may be surprised to learn that it was the literary power of Joseph Smith's First Vision account that captured his attention when he encountered the Church. This happened when he was as a mature, respected, active man with a lot to lose by joining the Church, as he did in 1966. Five years later, he would join the faculty of Brigham Young University, where he fascinated, challenged and sometimes overwhelmed many students.

Mormon Scholars Testify has an entry from him. I'd like to share a portion of that as he discusses his reaction to a piece of great literature whose literary value we Mormons often overlook. I'm glad he was paying attention and had the skills to recognize its value.

When I was first brought to read Joseph Smith’s story, I was deeply impressed. I wasn’t inclined to be impressed. As a stylistician, I have spent my life being disinclined to be impressed. So when I read his story, I thought to myself, this is an extraordinary thing. This is an astonishingly matter-of-fact and cool account. This man is not trying to persuade me of anything. He doesn’t feel the need to. He is stating what happened to him, and he is stating it, not enthusiastically, but in quite a matter-of-fact way. He is not trying to make me cry or feel ecstatic. That struck me, and that began to build my testimony, for I could see that this man was telling the truth.

Joseph Smith begins his story in his matter-of-fact way, setting out carefully the reason that he is writing this history and the facts about his birth and family. Then he moves from the matter-of-fact to the ironical, even the satirical, as he describes the state of religion at the time—the behavior of the New England clergy in trying to draw people into their congregations. He tells about reading the Epistle of James. He doesn’t try to express his feelings. He gives a description of his feelings instead, which is a very different thing. Look at verse 12:
Never did any passage of scripture come with more power to the heart of man than this did at this time to mine. It seemed to enter with great force into every feeling of my heart. I reflected on it again and again, knowing that if any person needed wisdom from God, I did; for how to act I did not know, and unless I could get more wisdom than I then had, I would never know; for the teachers of religion of the different sects understood the same passages of scripture so differently as to destroy all confidence in settling the question by an appeal to the Bible. (JS—H 1:12)
I am not good enough to write a passage as good as that. That is beautiful, well-balanced prose. And it isn’t the prose of someone who is trying to work it out and make it nice. It is the prose of someone who is trying to tell it like it is, who is bending all his faculties to expressing the truth and not thinking about anything else—and above all, though writing about Joseph Smith, not thinking about Joseph Smith, not thinking about the effect he is going to have on others, not posturing, not posing, but just being himself. The passage continues as follows:
At length I came to the conclusion that I must either remain in darkness and confusion, or else I must do as James directs, that is, ask of God. (JS—H 1:13)
Notice the coolness: “At length I came to the conclusion.”
I at length came to the determination to “ask of God,” concluding that if he gave wisdom to them that lacked wisdom, and would give liberally, and not upbraid, I might venture. (JS—H 1:13)
Notice the rationality of it, the humility of it, the perfectly good manners of it.
So, in accordance with this, my determination to ask of God, I retired to the woods to make the attempt. (JS—H 1:14)
Just imagine what a TV commentator would make of this sort of thing.
It was on the morning of a beautiful, clear day, early in the spring of eighteen hundred and twenty. It was the first time in my life that I had made such an attempt, for amidst all my anxieties I had never as yet made the attempt to pray vocally. (JS—H 1:14)
Do you see how the tone is kept down, how matter-of-fact it is? Notice the effect of a phrase like “to pray vocally.”
After I had retired to the place where I had previously designed to go, having looked around me, and finding myself alone, I kneeled down and began to offer up the desires of my heart to God. (JS—H 1:15)
Plain, matter-of-fact, truthful, simple statements in well-mannered prose. This is no posture. We are not thinking of Joseph Smith; we are just waiting, waiting, waiting to hear. Do you see how beautifully this is built up, how the tension is built up by his being so modest, so well mannered?
I had scarcely done so, when immediately I was seized upon by some power which entirely overcame me, and had such an astonishing influence over me as to bind my tongue so that I could not speak. (JS—H 1:15)
He is telling us about something terrible. But he is not trying to make us feel HOW TERRIBLE THIS IS. He is telling us that it happened.
Thick darkness gathered around me, and it seemed to me for a time as if I were doomed to sudden destruction. (JS—H 1:15)
He felt he was going to be killed. But there is no excitement, no hysteria about this. He just tells us. Notice in particular the coolness of the phrase “for a time.”
But, exerting all my powers to call upon God to deliver me out of the power of this enemy which had seized upon me, and at the very moment when I was ready to sink into despair and abandon myself to destruction—not to an imaginary ruin, but to the power of some actual being from the unseen world, who had such marvelous power as I had never before felt in any being—just at this moment of great alarm . . . (JS—H 1:16)
Notice the expression “of great alarm.” What would a posing sensationalist do with that? What kind of explosion would he devise, I wonder?
I saw a pillar of light exactly over my head, above the brightness of the sun, which descended gradually until it fell upon me. (JS—H 1:16)
“A pillar of light exactly over my head,” “above the brightness of the sun,” “descended gradually”—note the modifiers, the exactness. What he is trying to do is tell us what happened. He goes on in the same tone. He doesn’t get ecstatic. He doesn’t run over. He just goes on telling us just what happened in this astonishingly cool, and at the same time reverential, way. This is a visit of God the Father and God the Son to a boy of fourteen. But he is not in undue awe. He doesn’t stare. He is not frightened. He was perhaps terrorized by what happened before, but he is not frightened of this. He doesn’t lose his self-confidence, and at the same time, he is modest.
And then the humor: he returns home, leans up against the fireplace, and his mother asks him what is wrong. He answers, “I have learned for myself that Presbyterianism is not true” (JS—H 1:20). We have to remember that his mother had joined the Presbyterian Church shortly before this. How do you assess that as a conversation between a fourteen-year-old and his mother? All mothers know that sort of thing really happens to them with their teenagers.
As a former teenager, as a parent of four former teenagers, and in my roles as a leader over teenagers, that incredible understatement is so hilarious and yet natural, and speaks to the simple sincerity of Joseph's account.

Dr. King goes on to further assess what Joseph gave us, and classifies it as great literature.

Thank you, Dr. King, for helping us to better appreciate the power and pure sincerity of what Joseph Smith wrote to describe his scared experience. It is truly an example of great literature.


Anonymous said...

I was fortunate to have Dr. King for a couple of classes at BYU. He is one whom I admire more than most others, God rest his soul. He surprised me one day when we crossed paths on campus by pulling a paperback book out of his pocket and, calling me by name, invited me to take it and read it. It was science fiction, to my delight.

What he had to say about Joseph Smith's account of the first vision is spot on.

Anonymous said...

Luckily, Professor King didn't read the 1832 version first. It's not exactly great literature. I guess practice makes perfect.

Unknown said...

Dr. King goes on to further assess what Joseph gave us, and classifies it as great literature.

Quick question, Jeff: does this mean Dr. King classified the First Vision account as great literature, or some other writing that "Joseph gave us"? It's not quite clear.

FWIW, I wouldn't go so far as to call the First Vision account great literature, but it is good prose. You might want to compare it to the work of other early American religious writers, such as William Bradford, John Winthrop, Jonathan Edwards, and John Woolman.

I think it's notable that Smith could write well when he used his own voice rather than trying to mimic the language of the Bible, and when he wrote on the basis of his own experience rather than trying to inflate his stock of Indian yarns into a 500-page book. Presumably this is why the First Vision account is so markedly superior in style to the Book of Mormon.

Anonymous said...

Richard Bushman in Rough Stone Rolling kindly provides us with other "first vision" accounts, and not Smith's.

"In 1826 a preacher at the Palmyra Academy said he saw Christ 'descend in a glare of brightness, exceeding ten fold the brilliancy of the meridian Sun.' The Wayne Sentinel in 1823 reported Asa Wild's vision of Christ in Amsterdam, New York, telling him that all denominations were corrupt. ...Norris Stearns published an account in 1815 of two beings who appeared to him: "One was God, my Maker, almost in bodily shape like a man. His face was, as it were a flame of Fire, and his body, as it had been a Pillar and a Cloud...Below him stood Jesus Christ my Redeemer, in perfect shape like a man.'"

Rough Stone Rolling, page 41.

Considering Joseph Smith never even set pen to paper to write his account until 1832, I would suggest he was greatly influenced by these accounts.

Unknown said...

OMG -- I just read the Arthur Henry King entry at Mormon Scholars Testify.

Once I stopped laughing, I said to myself, "Now settle down, Orb. King apparently wrote this for BYU Studies, so you've got to expect a little pro-Mormon chauvinism...."

But still, can anyone really take King seriously when he says things like this? --

I am asked sometimes, “Why don’t we have any great literature now?” And we don’t, you know; we may kid ourselves or other people may try to kid us that we do, but we don’t. There were Homer, Virgil, Dante, Shakespeare, and Goethe; and there it seems to have stopped. There seems to have been no supreme figure since then. But I tell you there was one: Joseph Smith....

So, it's not enough for Smith to be a prophet of God? He's got to be Shakespeare, too?

Let's see. We've got "Homer, Virgil, Dante, Shakespeare, and Goethe," and we're racking our brains to see who else might belong in the literary pantheon, and what do we come up with?

Not Cervantes, but ... Joseph Smith!

Not Chaucer, but ... Joseph Smith!

Not Milton, but ... Joseph Smith!

Not George Eliot, but ... Joseph Smith!

Not James Joyce or W. B. Yeats, but ... Joseph Smith!

Sorry, Jeff -- King might have been a great scholar, but this is pure crackpottery.

Religion should sharpen one's judgment, not corrupt it.

James Anglin said...

I have to agree that 'great literature' is a bit over-the-top here, but I'll go as far as saying that the First Vision account on which King comments is pretty decent prose. The style is indeed sober and matter-of-fact, rather than enthusiastic.

I'm not sure that such a style really stood out as much in Smith's place and time as it would in ours or in King's. If the version King quoted really was Smith's own writing, though, I'd say it proves that Smith was an intelligent and articulate guy. Someone who wrote that clearly must also have thought clearly.

It's something to bear in mind when assessing how much Smith "could have known". Some people are smart enough that they can pick up things in passing which other people can only learn through years of formal instruction. There's not too much you can safely put past a person as freakishly smart as Joseph Smith might well have been.

I'm afraid, though, that I can't chalk up Smith's nonchalant answer to his mother as typical teenage bravado. If he had really just seen God Almighty, he might perhaps have spoken like that because he was stunned and babbling. Otherwise, though, that part just rings false to me.

Jeff Lindsay said...

Everything, Dr. King was impressed with the style of language Joseph used. The fact that others had described visions, dreams, or visitations of divine beings is nothing knew--the Bible is a far richer source than, say, Norris Stearn's relatively unknown account of what he felt he experienced while deliriously ill and sleeping. But even if such sources were known to Joseph and somehow "greatly influenced him" as you and some of our critics want to suggest, I don't think it adequately addresses the very issues that so touched and impressed Dr. King.

I hope that you might be willing to sense some notable differences in the style of language these other purported influencers used. Consider Norris Stearns, for example, as he describes how he felt after seeing God and Christ:

All was condescension, peace, and love! I was filled with the sacred flame, and the glory of God! I
thought one spark more in my soul would have destroyed this mortal frame ! ! I was happy ! ! ! happy ! ! ! happy ! ! ! I wanted ten thousand tongues to sing their sweet, their glorious praise ! ! It was a heaven here below for the space of half an hour ! !

A few subtle differences in style might be apparent even to those bent on seeing nothing valuable, original, or worthwhile in anything that Joseph Smith touched.

Jeff Lindsay said...

By "such sources" I mean modern sources that allegedly may have influenced Joseph.

Bookslinger said...

Jeff, be sure to add those authors that Everything mentioned to your catalog of Joseph's Vast Frontier Library.

Unknown said...

Jeff, be sure to add those authors that Everything mentioned to your catalog of Joseph's Vast Frontier Library.

Put them on the shelf next to those other well-known volumes, the Catalogue of North American Nephite Artifacts, Vol. I and the classic Natural History of the Curelom.



Glenn Thigpen said...

Orbiting Kolob said:
"I think it's notable that Smith could write well when he used his own voice rather than trying to mimic the language of the Bible,"

His writing ability certainly had improved from the time that he "could neither write nor dictate a coherent and well-worded letter", according to Emma Smith.


James Anglin said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
James Anglin said...

Arthur Henry King died in 2000, so it may be understandable that his current online presence is a bit thin. It's hard to find much trace of his life before his conversion to Mormonism, but the Wikipedia article on the 1958 Queen's Birthday Honours lists him as being made Officer of the Order of the British Empire (OBE). His Deseret News obituary claims he was later promoted to Commander of the Order (CBE), and I expect that's a plausible retirement award for an Assistant Director of the British Council. CBE is the third of five XBE grades; it's a fairly rare honor, just below knighthood. Apparently Eric Clapton and Sting are both CBE, and John Cleese was offered the honor but refused it.

Evidently King taught literature at BYU, but before that his expertise was in teaching English as a second language in non-English-speaking countries. So maybe he wasn't a world-class authority on literature, but he was clearly an eminently respectable guy whose judgements are worth hearing.

Anonymous said...

,@James Anglin:

(I attended school with a James Anglin.)

Thank you for your respectful and mature tone when commenting.

Certain comments on various blogs show how badly society has decayed. Very few people exhibit class anymore.

Allen Ford said...

I know from my sister and from a book of his that I read that King was an expert on Shakespeare. His bio says that he taught English and English literature for 14 years at universities in Lund and Stockholm. I have read some impressive English linguistics books written by Swedes and published in Sweden in the 1950s. They had to be quite familiar with historical English literature to write those. So it is likely that King was teaching typical university-level English literature courses in Sweden.

James Anglin said...

That's probably true, actually. If you study any foreign language at university level, you're studying literature, not grammar.

But if you take, say, German or French literature at a college in the US, you're mostly just not going to be working at quite the level of people studying German lit in Heidelberg or French lit in Paris. You may get a few geniuses or expatriate native speakers in your classes, who will be up to the native level as individuals, but the class as a whole is just going to be running in a slightly lower gear.

Working in a foreign language is a significant intellectual overhead cost. Even when you're fluent enough that everyone would say you speak the language perfectly, it's not as effortless as your mother tongue. I know this from both sides.

It says quite a bit for King's intellect that he was able to work as a faculty member in Sweden, since presumably he had to function a fair amount in Swedish. If most of his teaching was in English, however, then I have to say it can be dangerous to spend years being the only person in a group who is speaking their native language, while the others all have to work in a foreign one. You can get too used to being smarter than everyone else.

King of course went on to spend many years working in London, as well as traveling the world. I'm sure he kept things in perspective. I'm just pointing out that teaching undergraduate courses in a subject is not the same as being a scholarly specialist in it. King's opinions on literary quality have to be taken seriously, but they're probably not the last word.

On this kind of subjective subject, I don't really believe in authority, anyway. What King points out about Joseph Smith's prose style seems to me to be true. What he says about literary greatness does not. Your mileage may vary.

Bookslinger said...

@OK: I get (your attempt at a) joke, but it doesn't quite work. here's the explanation for the rest of the readers:

Joseph's "vast frontier library" is the collection of books and works that Joseph has been accused of plagiarizing from, and would have _had to have_ plagiarized from _if_ he were a fraud.

For each accusation, there are claims that "there are too many parallels to ignore" between the Book of Mormon and the alleged source of the plagiarized passages.

Jeff has a couple pages detailing the allegations here:


(Which is written in the form of dialogue from a play)
And there is a more apologetic point by point style here:


Many of the alleged parallels are explained by mere common themes and randomness, or constructing tenuous meaningless parallels. Jeff shows how parallels can be made between the BoM and Walt Whitman's Leaves of Grass, which was written well after the publication of the BoM.

If we are to accept the level of heuristics used in the plagiarism analysis by BoM detractors, then Whitman either plagiarized from the BoM, or JS had a very very advance copy of Leaves of Grass from when Whitman would have been 10 years old.

Logically, it is almost required that if JS were indeed a fraud, and had used _any_ of the alleged plagiarism sources, he would have had to have used all of them, because the level of heuristics used to compare various sources to the BoM is so similar.

Suppose that JS were a fraud and he copied or stole ideas from "only" one third or one half of the alleged sources. That would then mean that the parallels to the remaining half to two thirds of alleged sources were indeed randomly generated by pure coincidence/accident "even in" a fraudulent BoM.

But if there are, or would be, "even" accidental parallels between a fraudulent BoM and extant literature, that goes a long way to tear down the very reasoning or logic that detractors insist on using as "proof" of fraudulent origin in the first place.

The detractors can't have it both ways, because for every possible plagiarism source that a detractor strikes off the list, it gives credence to the pro-Mormon argument that accidental parallels can randomly exist, and that meaningless and tenuous parallels can be construed between any two works covering similar themes.

Bookslinger said...

Here's another way of stating my point, and the logic I'm trying to illustrate:

Detractors appear to claim that the more alleged sources they come up with for a fraudulent BoM, the greater the likelihood that the BoM is a fraud.

They seem to believe that additional likely plagiarism sources are "additive" to the likelihood of fraud.

but... Each additional alleged source requires that it had to have been both available and been read by Joseph or whoever authored a fraudulent BoM. Thus _increasing_ the size of the book collection or library needed by a fraudulent author.

yet, the greater the number of books required, the less likely that they _all_ were available to him, and _all_ were read by him, or whoever wrote the BoM.

Therefore _adding_ sources to the plagiarism list actually _reduces_ the probability of fraud. And that is the logic behind Jeff assembling the list of books in Joseph's alleged "vast frontier library".

Some of the alleged sources were published close to the period when the Book of Mormon was being written (or "concocted" in Joseph's mind according to the detractors), but they would have had to been transported to the frontier awfully fast and snapped up by Joseph rather quickly to make it into the BoM.

And... the greater the number of sources, the more effort and time and literary understanding would have been required on the part of a fraudulent author.

And... for every "miss", or erroneous claim of plagiarism, on the part of BoM detractors, it illustrates random parallels "even in" a so-called fraudulent work, which then discredits the very same system of analysis used on the sources that may not have totally been debunked yet (or that detractors won't admit to being debunked.)

So go ahead, and pile on more alleged plagiarism sources, because each additional allegation means it is LESS likely that Joseph (or whoever) copied or stole ideas from those sources.

James Anglin said...

I don't necessarily think that Smith plagiarized much, but let me see if I follow this logic.

If there were only one text from which Smith could have copied a given passage, then one would have to believe that his frontier library included that particular book. If the copying were not too blatant and the book were rare, it might be more plausible that the common features in the passage were coincidence than that Smith got hold of such a rare book.

Now if critics are claiming that dozens of different passages were each copied from different sources, I'd agree that this actually starts to make the plagiarism charge less plausible. If the total number of sources is far too vast for any realistic frontier library, then everybody would have to admit that a lot of the passages in question weren't copied after all, because Smith never saw the sources. And if some of the purported examples of copying have to have been coincidence, then maybe all of them could have been coincidence.

But if there someone identifies many possible sources from which one single passage could have been copied, then I'd say the likelihood that that passage was indeed copied would have to go up. The frontier library would only have to have included any one of the possible sources, and since there were many of them which could all have served, it can start to seem unlikely that Smith's library would not have had any of them. In fact if there are enough contemporary sources for a passage, one might conclude that the ideas involved were generally in the air in Smith's time and place, and he might have copied them even without any library at all.

So which argument is it that the critics are making? Many different passages, each with a separate possible source? Or many possible sources for the same passage?

Anonymous said...

In 1974 I returned to BYU as a junior after a mission, marriage, and working to earn money for school. I took this honors course that turned out to be a graduate seminar taught by Dr. King, a survey of the state of English throughout the world. It mixed in a liberal dose of linguistics, which I'd never even heard of before. "Colorless green ideas" and a lot of other stuff were WAY over my head. I struggled at time to understand a single word he was saying.

But I grew entranced with it all, and took up Linguistics, and ended up teaching ESL/EFL in several interesting locations over the world, including Utah, California, Samoa, and Saudi Arabia.

I'm still grateful to Dr. King for bursting open my mind, on language and many other topics.

Mark Steele

Jeff Lindsay said...

James, different critics lean on different purported sources to explain various aspects of a text that is becoming increasingly complex and interesting as people dig into it and analyze it. Many have plucked a few words or a single story or theme and pointed to an alleged source, but this has happened so much with no single source or small set of sources being very useful in explaining the whole text that we now really can speak of a vast frontier library that the rather unschooled farm boy Joseph must have hidden somewhere. There are so many interesting things that demand explanation if the book is a fraud, starting with the many aspects of the Arabian Penibsula accurately portrayed in First Nephi'sNephi, then building with elements such as chiasmus, Hebraisms, Hebraic word plays and plausible names like Alma, the whole concept of ancient records on gold plates,patterns of warfare, ancient covenant making, coronation ceremonies, etc. There is a lot of cool stuff in the details and some grand stuff if high literary value, and even with all the numerous volumes that could have been digested and used by an imaginary team of professional scholars in 1830, accounting for the book as a product of fraud in my biased opinion still leaves way too much to "Joseph just got lucky."

James Anglin said...

Thanks, Jeff. It sounds as though plagiarism is unlikely to be the main story about the Book of Mormon. Even without ever having checked into these purported sources, plagiarism always seemed a bit dubious to me, anyway.

Plagiarism is never really clear unless it's smoking-gun obvious. I figured that if there were any such clear-cut cases of plagiarism in the Book of Mormon (obviously not counting the Biblical quotations), then they would have been trumpeted so loudly that I would already have heard of them without having to dig. instead all I ever saw were rather vague claims that this or that author might have been a source for Smith.

Evaluating "a lot of cool stuff in the details" is also always subjective, however. It's actually another Long List argument, just on the opposite side from the critical Long List. None of these many cool things is an absolute showstopper in itself, but to a believer they may well seem compelling in aggregate. Critics on the other hand might well roll eyes and gnash teeth, because they have ready counter-explanations for every single "cool thing" in the list, but it's like fighting the sea. Those darn Mormons just calmly move on to the next item, and Long List is long.

Mormons can be serene because with such a long list of cool things that tend to support the Book of Mormon, no single item is decisively important. The possibility that they all could be wrong naturally seems too remote to take seriously. Critics are just as serene, on the other side, with their other Long List. Individuals on either side may suddenly find their world view shifting, but I doubt there's going to be any large scale way to break the stalemate. If there existed a slam dunk argument either way, we'd have heard it by now.

Unknown said...

It sounds as though plagiarism is unlikely to be the main story about the Book of Mormon.

Quite so, James. The best case against the BoM, at least regarding outside influences like View of the Hebrews, is pretty much the case laid out by B. H. Roberts: VotH and other extant works provided the basic skeleton on which Joseph Smith could hang the details of his own book. Ideas like the Israelite origin of the Native Americans; great wars between two factions, one good and the other bad, that led to the extermination of the former; the descent of the latter into savagery; etc., were all around Joseph in his day. So were the theological debates he has his characters parrot in the BoM.

What VotH shows is that many of these very ideas were in fact laid out in a book published just a short distance away from Joseph's home and just a few years before he began writing. This sort of thing is not about plagiarism, but about sources in a broader sense, as Roberts makes quite clear. But it's obviously advantageous for apologists to keep the cruder arguments front and center.

Jeff Lindsay said...

I am surprised you would feel insulted about my list of common complaints. You are the one who was previously moaned about how weak the vocabulary of the Book of Mormon is. You are the one who said there are no credible cases of lust when there is plenty, from the early Nephites and their concubines in Jacob 2 to Korihor, Corianton, Jaredite Kings and the dance of the daughter of Jared or the abduction of Lananite women or the barbaric behavior of the last Nephites..You complain that there are no women in the book, when there certainly are, though they are too often unnamed, like the great king over his son Lamoni or even the brother of Jared himself. The text is weak on names and especially women's names, but men and women with real stories are there,

Jeff Lindsay said...

Orbiting, to be fair and save you from wasting a few more minutes of your time, I should confess that my little challenge is not meant for you. It is meant for those interested in investigating the book and understanding it. Your personal mission and role, as I think you have even previously acknowledged, is to attack this religion and this book. You will gleefully insult others, the regal Arthur Henry King being a recent example, and talk down to those who find beauty in a book that you feel driven to despise. All positives will be rejected, all weaknesses amplified. For a student of the Book of Mormon, my challenge is one that should take a great deal of time and study. For you, I am greatly surprised that it should take more than a few minutes. You will find the plots too thin, the characters too wooden, the humanity erased and replaced with nothing but theological tripe. If you want a real challenge, read Ethan Smith and explain how that actually explains anything.

Baruch said...

Plagiarism is never really clear unless it's smoking-gun obvious. I figured that if there were any such clear-cut cases of plagiarism in the Book of Mormon (obviously not counting the Biblical quotations), then they would have been trumpeted so loudly that I would already have heard of them without having to dig.

Why not count the Biblical quotations? Those are smoking-gun obvious. I never really understand how that plagiarism is so easily dismissed.

Anonymous said...

Right Baruch...even the smoking gun evidence is brushed aside. People joke about Smith's "vast frontier library." Fair enough. But come on! The translation process which apologists require to prove this book as authentic is equally if not more ridiculous.

Joseph sometimes did a word-for-word, straight-off-the-stone translation. Except when he didn't. Then, he was much more loose with his interpretation. Except when he wasn't. And there was even a little bit of Early Modern English thrown in for some strange reason. And the plagiarism of the Bible isn't really plagiarism at all, but God just said, "Eh...take a break from the stone, Joe, just open up your KJV and starting copying here....."

Some passages are clever Hebraisms. But he even has Greek in there too! When there couldn't possibly have been any Greek. And don't forget about such novelties as ziff and cureloms...

It is just ridiculous. It takes far too much work to take this book seriously.

He has Christ quoting Peter paraphrasing Moses, but Christ credits Moses, rather than Peter, and rightly he should, because Christ quotes Peter's paraphrase before Peter could even have possibly said the passage in question.

And to top it all off, even Joseph himself wasn't all that happy with the outcome, because when he decided to go and "translate" the Bible, he made corrections to passages that also show up in the Book of Mormon, but in their original Biblical form!

Jeff Lindsay said...

Everything, have you ever examined the translation of a complex text? From Chinese to English, for example, it is not uncommon to find cases where the translation is raw and close to the original and places where it has been more loosely translated. Why is the possibility of variability in the looseness of translation such an issue? What is so impossible about a hypothesis, for example, of a tight translation available as some sort of foundation that the translator and editor could modify as he felt needed? His work in removing some Hebraisms and EModE expressions shows he was OK with loose editing for clarity, but things like the spelling of names and rich internal consistency points to tight control available at some foundational level, not completely unlike what I do when I translate Chinese with the help of electronic tools. We don't know how he translated, but the presence of tight and loose elements should not elicit such guffaws.

Jeff Lindsay said...

Regarding the Inspired Version of the Bible, this is an unfinished work that does not claim to be the original version of anything. The adjustments made should not be assumed to be part of any ancient text. Better to view it as commentary, clarification, harmonization with other LDS texts, and correction intended for modern readers.

Jeff Lindsay said...

Apart from the translated name & title of Jesus Christ and two other names that could have been brought by the Mulekites (see info on Timothy and Lachoneus at http://en.fairmormon.org/Book_of_Mormon/Anachronisms/Names/Timothy), is there anything else you were thinking of when mentioned alleged Greek in the text?

Jeff Lindsay said...

As for your objections about words of Peter and Moses, I believe you refer to the interesting case of Deut. 18 cited in 3 Nephi. If so, I really hope you will look into this, which may be yet another case of an apprent weakness in the text being a strength upon more careful examination. See my post on this at http://mormanity.blogspot.com/2013/06/does-3-nephi-wrongly-put-words-from.html. Let me know what you think. Was Joseph just really lucky in making an implausibly stupid blunder? There are some details there I hope you will consider.

James Anglin said...

The Biblical quotations in the Book of Mormon are presumably either ancient emigrated Hebrews copying some scriptures onto their plates, or Jesus repeating himself for a new audience.

What is a bit dubious, I'll grant, is that when Hebrew scriptures were recopied onto golden plates in reformed Egyptian by emigrants in the New World, their miraculous translation into English by the power of God led to precisely the same English text that was obtained by the scholars and poets assembled by King James. Those scholars and poets did such a good job that apparently not even God could do better.

I really can't buy that. The King James Version was a good but not perfect translation.

The only Mormon explanation I've seen for this is that when Smith recognized that he was translating Old Testament passages, he kindly saved God and himself a bit of time by just pasting in the KJV text, instead of going on with the usual tedious word-by-word-on-the-stone-in-the-hat routine. This implies a somewhat casual attitude on Smith's part to his mission of miraculous translation, even if we suppose that he believed implicitly in the inerrancy of the King James text.

James Anglin said...

I read your post on the Peter/Moses quotation issue, Jeff. The Book of Mormon quotes Deuteronomy in suspiciously anachronistic paraphrase that sounds more like the much-later phrasing of Peter.

Your argument seems to be, firstly, that the Book of Mormon actually does this in several passages that were produced over some longish span of time. So if it were just a clumsy mistake on the part of a fraudulent Joseph Smith, then it would be persistent mistake. That makes it implausible as evidence for fraud, because it's just too obvious: surely a fraudster as clever as Smith would have caught the glitch and fixed it up.

I hope you can see that this argument might seem kind of convoluted to a non-Mormon. True, the theory that Smith perpetrated the Book of Mormon as a fraud does imply that he was a sharp guy who pulled off some slick tricks. But that doesn't mean that he has to have been a perfect trickster. The flawless con is movie fiction.

Real cons are often quite flimsy and ragged. They only need to have one or two really good bits. For the rest, they rely on the marks to help in conning themselves. So I find it perfectly plausible that Smith would simply not have bothered to check up on his muffed Deuteronomy quote. A few funny Bible references in the Book of Mormon weren't going to torpedo Mormonism. I mean, they didn't, did they?

Your second argument seems to be that Peter's departure from the Masoretic text of Deuteronomy might actually have been agreement with some alternative text that was familiar to Peter's audience but that later scholars have never found. In which case, you point out, maybe Nephi's people could simply have had the same alternate Deuteronomy text that Peter's folks had. This would account for Nephi's wording, without anachronism. You also observe that it would be quite a fluke for Smith to have reproduced, by mistake, an ancient alternate text for Deuteronomy that Smith could never have seen.

I don't buy that last bit at all. Even if Peter was faithfully quoting a text that was later lost, all Smith had to do to get that text was to quote Peter's version, which he had seen. So the alternate Deuteronomy hypothesis, and the hypothesis that the Masoretic versison was the only one ever, are both equally compatible with the fraud theory.

I'll grant that the alternate Deuteronomy hypothesis does provide a possible explanation of how Nephi's parallel with Peter could happen in an authentically revealed Book of Mormon. Is this explanation plausible enough that one could say it turns a Book of Mormon weakness into a strength? I'm afraid I can't see this. As far as I know, there has never been any evidence anywhere for this alternate Deuteronomy version. Yet for Peter to have quoted it accurately on purpose, it would have had to have been fairly widespread in his time and place.

The BIble is old. Over the centuries, alternate textual versions of it could well have been lost. So the alternate Deuteronomy hypothesis is conceivably true, as far as I know. "But may there was a lost alternate version" still seems like a rather weak counter-argument to me, though.

It leaves me with the view that this Moses/Peter/Nephi problem is indeed a weakness in the Book of Mormon. Not necessarily a fatal weakness all by itself; and even a genuine ancient text would very likely have spots that seemed weak.

Perhaps to you it seems that this discussion has strengthened the case for the Book of Mormon's authenticity, at least somewhat. My impression is that the case has instead been somewhat weakened. I think this is how Long List arguments work on both sides. We both see many weights accumulating into a compelling aggregate, but our weights are accumulating on opposite sides.

Anonymous said...

Leviticus 18:29 For whosoever shall commit any of these abominations, even the souls that commit them shall be CUT OFF FROM AMONG THEIR PEOPLE.

Mix and match...mix and match.

Unknown said...

Actually, Jeff, I've got nothing against the Book of Mormon. But it is what it is. It's a fascinating expression of the optimism of this country's early national period. It's an important expression of that era's optimism and democracy, which gave us not only the BoM but also Andrew Jackson and Ralph Waldo Emerson. (Emerson's "self-reliance" strikes me as just a secular version of Joseph Smith's "exaltation." Both of these in turn express the basic liberal-democratic belief in the boundless possibilities of individual improvement in a free society.)

And, given the way the BoM integrates the United States into an expanded Christian sacred story, it's an instructive example of religio-nationalist myth-making.

These are some of the things the BoM is, and they are no mean achievements for Joseph Smith. But one of the things the BoM is not is a work of sophisticated literary art on par with the Bible.

My beef is not in any way about the BoM itself, but only with the extraordinary claims made on its behalf, namely, that it's an ancient text, that it's a history of pre-Columbian America, and that it's some kind of literary masterpiece.

Please note that my arguments about the book's literary deficiencies are not in any way arguments against Mormon religion. Correct me if I'm wrong, but AFAIK your faith need not depend in any way on the literary quality of your scripture. (If you feel that somehow it does, then I would suggest you've been poorly served by the apologists.)

Finally, please recall the phrase "not mighty in writing." On the question of literary quality, I have the BoM itself on my side.

Baruch said...

Apart from the translated name & title of Jesus Christ and two other names that could have been brought by the Mulekites..., is there anything else you were thinking of when mentioned alleged Greek in the text?

I'll add Antipas, Antipus, Archeantus, Ezias, Jonas, and Mary.

Anonymous said...

Sorry, Jeff, but the "cut off/extinguish" thing doesn't work for me.

Leviticus 18:29 uses the expression "cut off from among the people." The Hebrew word for "cut off" in this passage is וְנִכְרְת֛וּ (wə-niḵ-rə-ṯū ). It shows up in three other locations in the KJV OT, translated as "cut off" each time. The existence of this expression in a book Joseph Smith had access to, and from which he is known to have borrowed extensively shows that it is far more likely that he found "cut off" there.

Your theory to explain this problem requires some version of Deuteronomy that is currently unknown.

So fascinating! You believe in scripture that you can hold (Book of Mormon) but the ancient source (Gold Plates) of which does not exist. And you also believe in ancient scripture that has not been found (this alternative Deuteronomy text), but which is required to exist in order to explain away some of the problems that challenge the authenticity of the ancient scripture you can hold (Book of Mormon).

Jeff...you don't have to do this kind of stuff to yourself. God did not make it so hard.

Allen Ford said...

If a reasonable person examines the extensive and complex interweaving of KJB NT phrases in the text of the BofM, then they are left with the conclusion that it was impossible for Smith and scribe. Furthermore, there is zero evidence that Smith ever consulted the KJB during the dictation; that is merely assumed by those who have the wrong view about the translation of the BofM.

The text was delivered to Smith miraculously word for word. So he is only the translator in the sense of transmitter. He was the relay between the divine realm and the earthly realm. Anything that looks like a loose translation on his part is not. Christ was in charge of the translation in the divine realm. He, or those he directed, used the dominant Bible of 1820s America. He/they were responsible for any loose translation found in the BofM. He/they chose whether to use OT or NT phrasing from the KJB to render meaning indicated by the plate script.

The general plagiarism view of the BofM text fails because it requires a huge number of sources. The strong analogical view fails because all the difficult analogical connections required to formulate the syntax and lexis of the text, taken together, make the cumulative probability of Smith being able to achieve that feat exceedingly low (in today's language, one in a gazillion).

Anonymous said...

"If a reasonable person examines the extensive and complex interweaving of KJB NT phrases in the text of the BofM, then they are left with the conclusion that it was impossible for Smith and scribe."

I don't mean to sound rude, but with a statement like that, you've just lost a lot of credibility. Now, even plagiarism is proof of the Book of Mormon's authenticity?Sheesh! Someday, if we all continue on this path, we'll eventually start convicting murders because there was NO weapon or fingerprints at the scene of the crime.

My goodness! Considering how extensively the General Authorities intertwine scriptural language into their talks, I suspect you consider their words impossible for them also?

Allen Ford said...

Ethg: You haven't studied the matter thoroughly, have you? Do you know how many probable uses of NT phrasing there are in the BofM, and how they are used? I doubt it. You analogize a poorly educated 23-year-old with older, more experienced, better read, and much better educated GAs. So, what you wrote applies to yourself, not me.

You are, sadly, rather uninformed about these matters, yet you make firm judgments, leading yourself astray, and perhaps others who rely on your words. I have studied some of the pertinent details that I refer to extensively. I have also taken a look at the work of someone who has studied NT phrasing in the BofM for several years as part of a now-completed doctoral program. I make judgments on that basis.

Baruch said...

there is zero evidence that Smith ever consulted the KJB during the dictation; that is merely assumed by those who have the wrong view about the translation of the BofM.

Actually, it's a reasonable interpretation of the fact that the two books share identical passages. You would draw the same conclusion about any two books that have similar or identical passages in general. The burden of proof is on you to explain why we should treat the Book of Mormon and Bible differently than we would other books.

The text was delivered to Smith miraculously word for word. Christ was in charge of the translation in the divine realm. He, or those he directed, used the dominant Bible of 1820s America. ...He/they chose whether to use OT or NT phrasing from the KJB to render meaning indicated by the plate script.

This is a fine example of how apologists throw everyone including God under the bus to preserve the reputation of the prophet. If it looks like Joseph Smith used the Bible as source material for the Book of Mormon, that's only because God set him up.

Allen Ford said...

Baruch, I doubt you have carefully studied the matter. I know someone who has spent years studying the use of the NT in the BofM. His work shows that it is unreasonable to think that the text could have resulted from Smith simply referring to a Bible used in the dictation.

Unknown said...

The text was delivered to Smith miraculously word for word. So he is only the translator in the sense of transmitter, etc.

How much can reliably be said of a translation for which we completely lack the following:

(1) an original-language text (the golden plates);

(2) any tangible evidence that an original text ever even existed;

(3) any knowledge of the original language (Reformed Egyptian);

(4) any evidence that the original language ever existed; and

(5) any certain knowledge of where the original text, if it existed at all, was composed.

Saying that Moroni absconded with the plates, thereby placing them forever beyond inspection, was one of the smartest things Joseph Smith ever did. (Suppressing the Expositor might have been the dumbest.)

Anonymous said...

champ, this doctoral dissertation you refer to... who wrote it, where did they write it, and what was the religious affiliation of the faculty member who signed off on this?

Unknown said...

The general plagiarism view of the BofM text fails because it requires a huge number of sources.

I'm not sure what Champ means here by the "general plagiarism view," but I would say that the simplest and most persuasive case for 19th-century composition has nothing to do with plagiarism as currently understood. The argument is rather something like this:

There's nothing in the Book of Mormon that could not have been written by someone with Joseph Smith's writing abilities, and knowing what was readily knowable in Smith's time and place.

I know that Champ and others will dispute this, citing EModE or Nahom or chiasmus or whatever, and I don't want to revisit all that here. The only point I'm trying to make right now is that this "simplest and most persuasive" claim doesn't require a "huge number of sources."

It requires only that Smith have a very modest writing ability, plus knowledge of the KJV, of local conversion practices and theological disputes, of the local Indian mounds and other ruins, of the contemporary theories of Native American origins and history put forth to account for those ruins, of the trope of the U.S. as the true Zion, and a few other things. Every single thing on this rather short list was easily knowable by ordinary people in Smith's world.

Again, Champ might say that, in order to write the Book of Mormon himself, Smith also would have needed a knowledge of EModE and a few other things, but still, we're not talking about a "huge number of sources."

Because it begins with such an anachronistic understanding of plagiarism itself, the plagiarism argument against the BoM is dumb from the get-go -- so dumb that I can understand why believers are so eager to take it on. But they really ought to engage the stronger, rather than the weaker, arguments of their opponents.

James Anglin said...

It's beginning to bother me how this Early Modern English thing is taking on a life of its own. To me it still isn't at all clear that EmodE has anything to do with the Book of Mormon.

Nothing in the Book of Mormon is written in anything remotely like actual Early Modern English. There has merely been some analysis showing that the Book of Mormon's English uses some of the KJB's most old-fashioned grammar much more often than the KJB itself. In respect to the frequency of use of these constructions, the BofM English resembles Early Modern English. Only in this one narrow respect does BofM English resemble EmodE.

So in fact this whole EmodE story seems to me to boil down to this: the Book of Mormon overuses certain archaic constructions, like 'did go' instead of 'went'. That is perfectly consistent with a fraudulent composition that tried to sound Biblical by using archaic speech patterns, and (clumsily or cleverly) overdid it.

There is NO argument that Joseph Smith could not have written the Book of Mormon because to do so he would have to have known Early Modern English. Nonsense: he would merely have had to overuse archaisms, because he was over-emphasizing those features of King James English which were most distinctive in comparison with the English of his own time.

Baruch said...

I know someone who has spent years studying the use of the NT in the BofM. His work shows that it is unreasonable to think that the text could have resulted from Smith simply referring to a Bible used in the dictation.

Oh, well, I stand corrected then. Champ knows somebody who studied the matter carefully. QED.

Anonymous said...

I have found many beloved Book of Mormon/D&C/PoGP expressions in Christian writings between 1800 and 1828. Expressions such as "plain and precious truths," "...cease to be God," "after all we can do," "satisfy the demands of justice," "dwell in unholy temple," "procrastinate day of repentance," "meridian of time," "probationary state," "infinite atonement," etc. Also, an Ensign 1988 article declares that the first time the expression "The Plan of Salvation" shows up in scripture is in Jarom. Yet, the same phrase appears in Methodist writing from 1813.

The language of the scripture of the Restoration is peppered throughout the Christian discourse in the period before Smith started getting down to business.

Do a Google search for any of the expressions I list above. Your search will return a multitude of LDS sources. One would think these expressions are uniquely Mormon inventions. But they are not. They can all be found elsewhere, if you dig deep enough.

There is nothing original in Mormonism. It is a mishmash of all sorts of Christian and occultic influences.

Anonymous said...

I have also found the phrases "gross error" and "solemn mockery" used before 1828 in the context of infant baptism. Moroni also uses these same expressions in Moroni 8. Hmmmm..

And, you can find these phrases in other communion prayers before 1828: "bless and sanctify," and "to all those who partake."

"After all we can do" shows up at least four times in different writings about grace pre-1828!

Whoever wrote this book had a very intimate knowledge of the common themes in Christian discourse at the time.

Anonymous said...

I would be very interested to see those phrases. Since you've already done the legwork, would you mind pointing me in their direction?

Anonymous said...

Anonymous..I have been on the scent of this trail for a while. Had a research breakthrough last night. I don't have my materials with me right now. I'll get some sources to you when I get home tonight.

Allen Ford said...

Just so everyone is on the same page, if you are not reading and studying the Yale edition, then you have the incorrect view of what the language of the Book of Mormon is. You might want to have a short post on that, Jeff, referencing some relevant articles by Skousen.

Allen Ford said...

Orbiting: Cultural/thematic evidence is interesting but it successfully resists being conclusive. It can always be presented to support various viewpoints. Take the case of burning heretics (Mosiah 17) or hated religious adherents (Alma 14). One view will say it derives from the 16c Reformation, other views will say it derives from the American Indian Wars or rare burnings in 18c New England or the Spanish Inquisition or whatever.

Secret combinations: Guy Fawkes or masonic stuff.

Allen Ford said...

Anglin: I suggest that you read the Yale edition of the BofM and compare it to EModE (25,000 EEBO texts now publicly available). There are many interesting correspondences not found in the KJB. Ironically, critics like Pierce 1899 and Spencer 1905 (and a rather lame Wikipedia list) point to some of the matching. The sheer number means that the probability of coincidence must be considered to be very low. Note: not all of Skousen’s vocabulary items (mentioned in various articles and in the Yale ed.) are obsolete by the 1700s, but some of them are solid and are obsolete before the year 1700. Consider scatter, v. OED definition 2d(†) as used in title page (‘separate without dispersal’). Last dated ex. in dictionary is 1661 but I’ve found it in the 1700s on Google books. Still, I haven’t found it (yet) in the 1800s. So it may have fallen out of use by then. Just one of many vocabulary items. And there are many interesting syntactic matches.

Allen Ford said...

Baruch: I suggest studying the 600+ KJB NT excerpts scattered throughout the BofM. Here’s an interesting one to consider: Alma 40:14 and Hebrews 10:26-27. Check ATV (publicly available at Interpreter) for the correct BofM reading. The OED points out that “looking for” means ‘expectation’.

Allen Ford said...

Ethg: The phrasal evidence ultimately supports either your view of the book or my view.

Here are some early timestamps for the inconclusive phrasal evidence that you have proffer'd: "plain and precious truths" (1691) "cease to be God" (1561) "after all we can do" (1690) "satisfy the demands of justice" (1667) "dwell in HIS HOLY temple" (1624) "procrastinate THEIR repentance, putting it off from day to day" (1598) "meridian of HIS time" (1688) "probationary state" (1688) "infinite atonement" (1723) ["we find an Atonement infinitely sufficient to expiate the offences of the most guilty" (1679)] "Plan of Salvation" (bef. 1681; Charnock) “solemn mockerIES” (1679). I found mock used in reference to infant baptism in the 1650s. This was a much-debated topic among early reformers in the 16c and into the 17c. Some anabaptists were drowned for their beliefs against infant baptism. I found “bless and sanctify” used in conjunction with the sacrament in both 1549 and 1558.

Phrasal evidence is inherently weaker than obsolete lexical evidence (involving unpredictable semantic shifts) and obsolete syntactic structures and usage (involving largely subconscious production). It has been correctly observed that humans have an innate ability to generate novel expressions and a virtually unlimited number of phrases. Yet although we are capable of generating a vast number of expressions and phrases, it is constrained by (mentally) known meaning and grammatical usage. So while Smith could have come up with a lot of phrases on his own, he could not have employed appropriately many words/expressions with obsolete meaning. And he could not have employed felicitously the array of lost syntax found in the book. He didn't know the meanings and structures and could not have derived them all by guesswork or analogy.

Anonymous said...

The problem is Champ, it is not only phrases from the Book of Mormon, but also the D&C, such as "...true and living church..." "....cannot look upon sin with the least degree of allowance..." "new and everlasting covenant..." "...forth out of obscurity..."

I have finished posting my findings with all the sources on my blog. Click on my name above, and it will take you there.

Anonymous said...

See, there was a Great Apostasy, see...and during this time a lot of "plain and precious" truth was lost. Yet,...when God sets his hand to restore his lost truth, he does so by using the language of European/American Christian discourse during the time of the Great Apostasy? What?!

For being a bunch of apostates, those European/American Christians sure did tap into a lot of God's favorite phraseology, because even a bunch of pre-Columbian Americans were using this language in their own isolated part of the world.

This just doesn't make sense, Champ. There is a very easy explanation. The Book of Mormon isn't a Jewish Book. It is a European/American book that sounds solidly European/American, but occasionally sounds a little Jewish, too, because its author was trying to make it sound so.

Anonymous said...

Anyway, I do not believe Smith wrote it. I think the D&C is his, most of it anyway. And the Pearl of Great Price. Both books start tapping into that strange occultic-touch that shows up in Nauvoo Mormonism under Smith's direction.

The BoM...nah...too anti-Masonic. Smith clearly had nothing against the Masons. But I'll bet Rigdon did. Or Spalding. Or both.

Whoever wrote it definitely was intimately acquainted with the verbiage of Christian dialogue. Rigdon would clearly fit that bill.

Anonymous said...

champ, part of the problem is that I don't feel like I've ever really heard your thesis statement. You've provided a bunch of evidence but I don't know what you are trying to prove by presenting this evidence? What conclusion do you draw when confronted with all your research and evidence? That Joseph Smith didn't write the book?

Is that really it? But this is the same thing many critics of the Book of Mormon declare...that Joseph Smith didn't write it!

So, I am really confused.

Is your argument that the Book could only have come through divine means?

That is simply unproveable, because we have no idea what such a book would look like. There is no body of knowledge that informs us how to tell a divine book from one that isn't divine.

So, you say that Joseph Smith couldn't have written it. And your evidence points to this. But this doesn't therefore mean that God did it. You are starting very scientifically, but then taking that science and suddenly leaping out of the world of science. And I am having a hard time wrapping my mind around what it is you are really trying to say. Put it in one or two simple sentences.

"Joseph Smith nor his scribes could've written it so therefore God did."

Is that really it? Do you not realize how silly that sounds?

Part of me thinks your research sounds really fascinating. But I seriously think you are unearthing evidence that will eventually be used to destroy all truth claims. You just don't know it yet. Eventually the science and scholarship is going to bring out the smoking gun. I think you are on to something. I wish I knew what exactly, but keep it up...keep it up...

Jeff Lindsay said...

Everything, I think you are working a little too hard if you are going after potential sources for language in the Doctrine and Covenants like the phrase "least degree of allowance," for we already teach that the Doctrine and Covenants is a modern text authored by Joseph, though via inspiration and revelation, but with no general expectation of it being translated from any ancient manuscript. In expressing God's distaste for sin, there is no reason for Joseph not to have used vernacular that others would know. That usage of "allowance," "degree of allowance," or even "least degree of allowance" is not presumed to be some original, magnificent phrase and poses no trouble if it is a stock phrase from the 19th century.

Reverend John Stark Ravenscroft used that phrase in his Nov. 1830 book of sermons from North Carolina, so there's a chance that could have influenced Joseph a year later when Section 1 of the Doctrine and Covenants was written, but it's much more likely that this phrase was already in common use before then since we see it cropping it well before 1830. In fact, references from 1822 and 1830 in my search for "least degree of allowance" at Google Books shows it being used in quotation marks as if it were a stock phrase, though one of the quotations dealing with sin doesn't show up at all in prior searches so Google Books may be missing something influential. Stock or not, it's not an issue.

If you want to do much more work in this area, I'd encourage you to compare all the words of the Book of Mormon to the words of Webster's 1828 dictionary. If ever there was a smoking gun, there it is. But there's more smoke than bullet there and in the line of thought you are pursuing. EVERY English text has words and numerous phrases that can be found in previous works. You cannot separate a text from the language it is in, and you can separate the language and the way words are used from the numerous prior users speaking and writing in that language.

There is no requirement that the words or phrases of the Book of Mormon be original. In general, finding a two, three, four, or even five word parallel in a prior text does little to explain the Book of Mormon, other than identifying that yes, it is in English, and uses words in the way English words are generally used.

There are times, though, when analysis of the way words are used can point to styles and structures characteristic of particular writers, genres, and periods. Understanding the many different voices and styles in the Book of Mormon is interesting. They can also help us Mormon understand that some things might not be as novel as we thought. I'm actually surprised that someone thought no one had ever talked about a "plan of salvation" before the Book of Mormon. The idea of God having plans should not be novel, and the idea of God being concerned with our salvation should not be novel. It should be no surprise that the concept of a "plan of salvation" has been conceived by other religious writers. That doesn't mean it was "plagiarized" or even that it influenced Joseph. It may be the most reasonable translation for a simple and not-too-surprising concept that ancients may have discussed as well.

Understanding the context and origins of words can be interesting, but simple short parallels drawn from numerous sources do little to trash the Book of Mormon. You may wish to continue compiling them, though, in your own book that rehashes the basic attacks on the Book of Mormon in an effort to neuter it. May I suggest calling it the Book of Neuteronomy?

James Anglin said...

You can count and correlate and compare with other texts from any era, and it will all be very rigorous and scientific. Scholars accept these methods for analyzing ordinary texts, written in language that was ordinary for the authors. One cannot simply take these methods off the shelf and apply them to a text which, no matter which side one is on, was not written in ordinary language.

The Book of Mormon was either produced as a fraud, or else it was produced by miraculous translation from ancient records in a lost language. If the Book was a fraud, then it's very easy to account for all its stylistic peculiarities as overdone archaism that was intended to make the text seem Bible-ish to its intended audience. If the Book was a miracle, then its peculiar style may simply be a divinely deft rendering into English of the alien tone of another tongue.

To me, the Book of Mormon's style sounds like overdone archaism, and it makes me suspicious. Nothing I've heard about Early Modern English disagrees in the slightest with that impression. But I think that a convinced Mormon could simply say that the original texts were written in a formal style, for which an archaism-heavy variant of King James English is the best translation, because it not only conveys the text's basic meaning, but also captures its tone. Ordinary translations don't usually try to do that kind of thing, but the very best ones do; and it's fair to expect that God could do a very good translation.

It might make sense for Mormons to be interested in detailed analysis of how the Book of Mormon's language departs from known English dialects. The logical goal for that effort, however, would be to try to learn something about the nature of Reformed Egyptian — not to construct bogus apologetic arguments, based on straw man premises, about what Joseph Smith could not possibly have done. There is no linguistic proof of the Book of Mormon. And there is no need for a linguistic defense against disproof.

Jeff Lindsay said...

Oh, my mistake. Gilbert Scharffs said the first occurrence of "plan of salvation" in scripture was in the Book of Mormon. He wasn't saying it was the first time that phrase had been used anywhere. OK, I think he's right about that, but would not be surprised to see variations of that concept sporadically used in various languages for many decades or even centuries before the Book of Mormon was translated. Based on the phrase alone, tt's just not that strange of a concept, is it?

Jeff Lindsay said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Jeff Lindsay said...

Everything, one thing puzzles me. You expressed disbelief at the stupidity of introducing some untranslated terms like "ziff" and "cureloms" in the Book of Mormon, and then complain that there is nothing original in the book because you can find so many its terms were already known and in use. So were "ziff" and "cureloms" too original to pass your smell test, and everything else too unoriginal?

The concept of animal species that went extinct between early Jaredite and early Nephite times should not be that incredible, though we don't know what animals and our guesses usually require assuming that pockets of some species thought to have gone extinct earlier than Jaredite times persisted in some parts of Mesoamerica. Yes, it's a problem without a clear answer now.

As for ziff, and for other untranslated terms, it's far-fetched to have some terms be kept untranslated. It can happen for quite a few reasons. I see it frequently in both English and Chinese texts that originated in the other language.

Actually, one more thing puzzles me. How can you state with such certainty that the plates don't exist, when we have unimpeachable testimony from numerous people who saw and in some cases handled the plates? These witnesses never recanted their witness of the existence of the gold plates. Detailed scholarship about their lives and statements confirm time after time their persistent witness, even when they would have had good reason to back away from it or to expose Joseph Smith for fraud.

The very existence of ancient writing on gold plates was ridiculed in Joseph's day. It's much more plausible today, as is the concept of sacred objects buried in stone boxes in Mesoamerican culture (something I learned in visiting the National Anthropology Museum in Mexico City). Other details about the gold plates provide corroborating evidence that they existed and were real, physical objects. Whether or not you believe the text has any value, there's a reasonable case to be made that there were indeed plates that at least seemed like gold to multiple witnesses. And for 3 of them, something that at least seemed like an angel showing them the plates. Their story and their lifelong witness merits more than a shrug.

Allen Ford said...

Anglin: Reformed Egyptian is a script representing language. You're right, either a product of fraud or a miracle. But you're wrong in stating that "it's very easy to account for all its stylistic peculiarities as overdone archaism that was intended to make the text seem Bible-ish to its intended audience". Those who take it as fraud, for various reasons, must ignore the witnesses or imagine that they were involved in the fraud or tricked by Smith, either consciously or by his own delusion.

There are six bona fide witnesses of the original MS's production: two handwritten accounts by Joseph Knight Senior and Elizabeth Ann Whitmer Cowdery; four from interviews published within months, by David Whitmer, Emma Smith, Martin Harris, and Michael Morse (never a member of the movement).

The elaborate fraud view is difficult, if not impossible, since several of these witnesses were clearly independent-minded or naturally skeptical people who became disaffected from Smith later but never went back on their word even though it was against self-interest. The trickery view is difficult, if not impossible, because it requires an otherworldly genius in steady dictation uttering language that in many instances was unknowable to him but that is well-formed Early Modern English. He dictated often against both his own language and the biblical language he knew, to a degree.

Unknown said...

Anyone who speaks afterward of seeing something with their "spiritual eyes," or with the aid of faith, or whatever, has not given what I would call "unimpeachable testimony." Such witnesses are credible only to those who already believe in the supernatural. Testimony based on supernatural experience would get laughed out of court, for good reason.

James Anglin said...

Joseph Smith looked into his hat and called out words for a scribe to write. No testimony from the scribes, or any other witnesses, can say whether he really saw those words on his seer stone, or just made them up. The production details of the Book of Mormon seem perfectly consistent with fraud to me.

Smith could not have made up the text, because of its unusual grammar patterns? Give me a break. With a bit of practice, people can speak pig Latin for hours on end. Or Yoda-speak. Or like plenty of stand-up comedians, an overdone imitation of any dialect whatever. Maybe not everyone can, but it requires no very rare gift to deviate deliberately from one's usual dialect.

Speaking perfect Early Modern English would indeed be miraculous, but pumping up the rate of 'did go' constructions, and a few other things like that, is not a big deal.

Allen Ford said...

Orbiting: The "spiritual eyes" reference is inapplicable to the statements of eyewitnesses to the DICTATION. The six I referred to concurred generally in their testimonies of what they could see of the dictation (not what they thought that Smith saw, which of course they couldn't see). Clearly, I was not talking about the plates. You are obfuscating.
Anglin: You are out of your depth here and asserting things without knowledge. I'm sure your analytical skills are excellent.

Anonymous said...


what conclusion do you draw based upon your research? If you were in college again writing a thesis paper, what thesis statement would you put in your introductory paragraph? I find your research fascinating, but I just don't know what point you are trying to make. Is your argument that Joseph Smith couldn't have written it?

Fine, but if that is all you can state, let us know. If you conclude that the book HAS to be a divinely-inspired book based upon your research, I would like to see what evidence specifically leads you to that conclusion. I don't think there will ever be any evidence of such a thing, not because I don't believe in divine inspiration, but because I don't believe such a thing can be prove empirically.

Baruch said...

I suggest studying the 600+ KJB NT excerpts scattered throughout the BofM. Here’s an interesting one to consider: Alma 40:14 and Hebrews 10:26-27. Check ATV (publicly available at Interpreter) for the correct BofM reading. The OED points out that “looking for” means ‘expectation’.


Too many TLA's for me to understand your point, but I presume that you're pointing to some anomaly that indicates Joseph Smith needed divine help to write the Book of Mormon, If so, this amounts to gap hunting in order to make a god-of-the-gaps argument. I'm not persuaded by such arguments because it's always possible to find gaps.

Nevertheless, I'll stipulate your point, and for the sake of discussion, I'll grant that you can prove that God supervised the writing of the Book of Mormon and caused Joseph Smith to include numerous KJB verses. What does this accomplish? Now God is a plagiarist instead of Smith. But God can't plagiarize Himself, you say. The KJB verses are God's words, so it isn't plagiarism for God to put them in the Book of Mormon.

Here you have a problem. Unlike the Book of Mormon, the Bible doesn't have a single unified theology. It was written by many authors who sometimes had differing views on the divinity of Christ, for example. Some verses contradict others. They can't all be God's words unless you want to claim that God contradicts Himself.

This is what led me to question the claim that the Book of Mormon is ancient scripture, despite reading it more than 40 times since childhood and believing in it deeply. I learned how the Bible was put together, and I realized that the Book of Mormon depends too much on the Bible. It's like catching a student cheating on a test. You know he copied his answers from another student because the other student gave the same incorrect answers to the same questions. In fact, it goes beyond that. The Book of Mormon addresses questions that were raised by the Bible and answered in theological debates after the Bible was written. It contains post biblical ideas on subjects like the Fall and Eternal punishment that were shared by other Christians in Joseph Smith's day. That's suspicious by itself, but some of those views don't even agree with later Mormon doctrine. It's too much to accept.

Jeff Lindsay said...

Orbiting, I think I should call your attention to the corpus of scholarship that has been done on the Witnesses. Actually, I should remind you of some very basic issues.

You said:
Anyone who speaks afterward of seeing something with their "spiritual eyes," or with the aid of faith, or whatever, has not given what I would call "unimpeachable testimony." Such witnesses are credible only to those who already believe in the supernatural. Testimony based on supernatural experience would get laughed out of court, for good reason.

First, the Three Witnesses were all clear that they actually saw the gold plates, plain and visible. But yes, because their dramatic experienced also involved seeing an angel--obviously supernatural, miraculous, divine. So describing it in the language of scripture as something that was supernatural or spiritual is not a surprise, and in no way weakens the physical reality that they heard, saw, and experienced. Polished anti-Mormons, though, will take a few words out of content and try to make it sound like they didn't actually see anything or experience anything more than a dream or hallucination, which is clearly not consistent with their repeated and adamant statements. A few will even rely on highly questionable third-party hearsay stories from hostile sources, which completely contradict direct and repeated testimony from the Witnesses themselves. For details, see the FAIRMormon article on "spiritual eyes."

As David Whitmet explained: "Of course we were in the Spirit when we had the view, for no man can behold the face of an angel, except in a spiritual view. But we were in the body also, and everything was as natural to us, as it is at any time." So in his view, having the divine experience of seeing an angel necessitates being "in the Spirit" but there was no doubt he was also in the body and saw a physical reality with real eyes. Trying to dismiss his lifelong witness as just laughable delusion doesn't fit and doesn't explain anything. He experienced the miraculous, yes, while many others experienced the plates in a more mundane way, and from these diverse experiences comes a unified front of evidence: the plates are real.

But I can agree with you to a degree: yes, most courts would have a hard time accepting evidence, no matter how compelling and thoroughly documented, of any event involving an angel because "everyone knows" that there are no such things. It would be a big paradigm shift for a secular judge and not many people are prepared for that. Sort of like the way it took 200 years for the British Navy to finally accept the evidence that diet was related to scurvy because the courts of the learned "knew" that it was ridiculous and laughed the evidence away. A real tragedy.

Fortunately, the numerous witnesses to the reality of the gold plates mostly do not rely on "laughable" supernatural encounters with angels. The Eight Witnesses saw the plates under ordinary conditions. A number of others also provided further witness to the tangible reality of the plates. ALL of them gave consistent testimony and none later denied what they had borne witness to, even when it would have made life easier for them. This is something that theories of fraud and plagiarism cannot account for.

Jeff Lindsay said...

If you'd like to examine more of the evidence on the witnesses to the gold plates, I've got some relevant links and details on my LDSFAQ page on the Witnesses.

Anonymous said...

As far as the witnesses are concerned, I concur with Mark Twain who said, "I could not feel more satisfied and at rest if the entire Whitmer family had testified."

Unknown said...

The "spiritual eyes" reference is inapplicable to the statements of eyewitnesses to the DICTATION.

OK, fine, Champ. I'm comfortable with the the idea that there was a dictation -- as opposed, say, to a translation. A translation would require an actual original text, which we very suspiciously do not have because it was so very conveniently taken away from our eyes by an angel.

The Eight Witnesses saw the plates under ordinary conditions.... consistent testimony and none later denied what they had borne witness to, even when it would have made life easier for them. This is something that theories of fraud and plagiarism cannot account for.

Theories of fraud can easily account for this. The eight witnesses were all close associates of Smith, and they all had a magic world view. It's plausible to think they were so comfortable with supernatural forms of "vision" they saw no need for the statement they signed to distinguish between real vision and magical vision. Notice that their statement doesn't say either way.

As for the later refusal to disavow their earlier witnessing, why would someone do that who sincerely believed in their earlier experience? (Alternately, why would one admit to having been a fool?) Sincerity is no guarantee of veracity. We know a lot today about how the human mind works over memories to make them conform to emotional needs, etc. There are cases of people singing up on death row on the basis of eyewitness testimony that was sincerely offered but later objectively shown to be false.

The thing is, Jeff, that I once had a visionary experience myself. An angel showed me a documented written on what appeared to be a gold plate. The writing was in a script of curious workmanship in a language unknown to me, but a quick glance into my Colorado Rockies cap allowed me to see that it read as follows:

The Book of Mormon was composed in the 19th century.

I'd love to show this document to you, but the angel took it away from me and vanished with it.

Of course, I can't expect to be believed if I tell stories like this and then say "Hey, I know the material evidence has magically disappeared, but believe me anyway, because magic, and because testimony from my friends who believe in magic."

The Church itself has always said that belief in the BoM relies finally upon prayer, which is to say, supernatural assistance. To put this another way: even today, the Church is still saying the real evidence of the authenticity of the BoM is visible only through spiritual eyes. If you're saying otherwise, perhaps you should take it up with the Church.

Ryan said...

Though the 8 witnesses may not have specified "natural" or "spiritual" vision, they do state that they handled the leaves and hefted the plates. That sounds pretty physical to me.

Anonymous said...

Why doesn't someone just ask the Three Nephites?

James Anglin said...

How many independent descriptions of the golden plates do we have? My understanding of the witness statements printed in front of the Book of Mormon is that Joseph Smith wrote the statements and then the witnesses all signed them. That's not the same as independent testimony where people tell in their own words what they experienced.

Courts don't let council 'lead the witness' by spelling out a scenario and asking for agreement, because there's too great a tendency for uncertain witnesses, put on the spot, to accede to an articulate story rather than struggle to express their own story in public. This is an important issue even when no other relationships between witness and questioner are involved.

Did any of these witnesses describe the plates in their own words? Did they say what they looked like? Did they describe the script, the metal surface, the pages' thickness?

Apparently they 'hefted' them. Even an 18K gold wedding band is quite surprisingly heavy in the hand, though, for an object its size. Gold is one of the densest substances there is. If you lift a gold object, you'll be struck by its weight. Did any witnesses to Smith's plates remark on their density?

(If you're not emphasizing how amazingly heavy something was, then 'hefted' is actually a bit of a strange way to put it, if one has actually handled and touched something. It suggests some kind of indirect contact, as with a closed container, which is obviously suspicious.)

And then after all that there's the confusing fact that the plates seem to have been nothing but a weighty red herring. Smith didn't read the plates at all, but dictated words he saw in his hat, on a seer stone that he'd been using for years. I understand this is the officially acknowledged Mormon version of how the Book of Mormon was 'translated'. I mean, okay, God can reveal things in hats, I guess. But then why have the plates?

It's hard to understand why God would bother with having these ancient records physically preserved and rediscovered, when no-one was ever actually going to read them and they would just be taken away after producing nothing more than some disappointingly thin witness statements. As a miracle, the whole business with the golden plates is just weird. For me it does a lot more to ring warning bells than to convey the ring of truth.

Anonymous said...

It's hard to understand why God would bother with having these ancient records physically preserved and rediscovered, when no-one was ever actually going to read them and they would just be taken away after producing nothing more than some disappointingly thin witness statements.

It's also hard to understand why God would not allow the public to view the plates on the one hand but provide witnesses on the other. What's the point of having witnesses? To provide evidence! Then what's the point of not letting the public see the plates? Too much evidence!

James Anglin said...

Yes — that bothers me, too, now that you mention it.

In the gospels, Jesus often expresses aversion to performing miracles as evidence. But he's willing to heal people, or get where he has to go by walking on water, and then if people notice him doing that, oh well. So the story gets out.

But here, the golden plates seem to play no necessary role in the translation process. They seem only to be there as evidence that Joseph Smith wasn't just making stuff up.

(Even that's kind of indirect. If you believe the plates were real, still the only reason to be sure Smith wasn't making up the words he saw in his hat would seem to be a feeling that a guy who had gold plates from God sitting on his table wouldn't do that. That's a point with some weight, I admit; but it is indirect. Since the plates were neither used by Smith nor preserved for others to study, they don't directly say anything about the Book of Mormon, even if they were real.)

Anyway, it seems to me, too, that God would surely be consistent. If solid evidence is in order, then let the plates stay around. If it's all about faith, then why have them at all, when they aren't actually needed for translation? Just reveal the Book of Mormon to Smith in his hat, and demand faith from everyone.

Unknown said...

Interesting questions, James.

I wonder.... The role of the obviously fictional Golden Plates might have something to do with the tradition of bibliolatry in Protestantism. In this tradition the book itself -- not the text of the book, but the physical book itself -- has spiritual value, not just as a symbol of God's presence in our world, but as a divine presence in its own right.

(I've long suspected that such Bibles are felt to be somehow infused with the spirit in something like the way transubstantiation works during the Catholic Mass. Protestants might claim to be different than Catholics in this regard, but maybe they really aren't, having merely substituted the Bible for the wafer.)

One common physical manifestation of bibliolatry is the massive Bible you see on the pulpit in certain churches. This Bible might not actually be read during the service, but that hardly matters, just as Joseph Smith never needed to read the Gold Plates.

But who knows? I'm just speculating about why the Gold Plates, or rather the idea of them, might have been felt to be necessary for reasons having nothing to do with the text they supposedly contained.

As for the question of why we would have witnesses of a thing rather than the thing itself, I think the answer is pretty obvious.

To take this discussion a step further: Is it too much to suggest that, by using the term "witnessing" and the like to include seeing things with "spiritual eyes" or "in a vision" or with spiritual aid or whatever, certain of our churches are guilty of contributing to the corruption the English language?

By this I mean that a word that is otherwise pretty clear in its meaning now requires a significant clarification: "Wait a minute. When you say you 'saw' the plates, do you mean you saw them with spiritual aid? Or did you see them the way an unbeliever sees his hand in front of his face? Or what? Are you one of those people that use words radically differently than the rest of us?" (Ditto for the word "testimony," to which Mormons have given the bizarre meaning of "description of the way I strongly feel.")

The resulting confusion of objective and subjective could have been avoided had Smith used a phrase like "Vision of the Three Believers" rather than "Testimony of the Three Witnesses." But of course that would undermine the rhetorical purpose, which was to gussy up some highly questionable religious claims with the authority of the discourse of the courtroom.

Anyway, some important words that otherwise were clear have now become cloudy, thanks to the zealousness of our religionists, for whom the precision of our language is an acceptable price for glorifying the faith and converting the infidels.

Anonymous said...

In case anyone was wondering about the definition of testimony:


the definition on the definitively non-Mormon Merriam Webster dictionary fits squarely with what Mormons do on the first Sunday of each month.


Unknown said...

Thank you, Steve -- this is actually very helpful.*

Note that the dictionary gives these definitions (among others):

(1) proof or evidence that something exists or is true

(2) a public profession of religious experience.

One point is that the testimony of the three and eight witnesses is of type (2) above. Martin Harris, the Smiths, and the Whitmers are (at best) describing religious experience, not testifying to something as one would do in a court of law, as in (1).

And if that's the case, how can their "testimony" possibly be persuasive to those of us who don't put any faith in religious experiences?

The other point is that confusing (2) with (1) is a sly feature, not a bug, of LDS apologetics.

Which of the two definitions came first? If you follow the appropriate links, you'll see that the legal/courtroom sense was first, the term deriving "from the witness's standing by as a third party in a litigation." Only later did it acquire the quite different sense of something that could include "seeing a city through a mountain" or seeing gold plates even though they were covered a cloth.

* However, don't think I missed the convenient slippage in your statement that "THE definition on the definitively non-Mormon Merriam Webster dictionary fits squarely with what Mormons do on the first Sunday of each month."

Mormon practice does not accord with THE dictionary definition; how could it, when there are several definitions? It accords only with ONE of those definitions. But again, LDS apologetics doesn't seem particularly invested in clarity on this point.

Ryan said...

James: I don't have all the details here, so maybe someone can fill them in to some extent. But yes, the witnesses did talk on their own about what the plates looked like. The general consensus was that they weighed ~60 lbs, were 6 or 7 inches wide by 7 or 8 inches wide, and the total thickness of the volume was somewhere around 6 inches. Various witnesses characterized the individual plates as being about the thickness of sheets of tin, or the thickness of a window pane. They also describe the plates as being bound by 3 D-shaped rings. The characters are described as being "fine" and present on both sides of any given plate. That's the extent of my knowledge on the matter. Anyone care to expound?

James Anglin said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
James Anglin said...

A 6-by-8-by-6-inch block of pure gold would weigh nearly 200 pounds. A block of tin that size would be closer to 60 pounds.

I'm not an expert in aurous metallurgy, but it looks tricky to me to give the stated weight and volume a high enough gold content for the plates to be non-corroding enough to have remained legible for a thousand years.

The density of gold is hard to fake, since there are only five other substances with comparable density and they are all harder to get hold of than gold. If Smith really had a big block of very dense stuff, then maybe he had gold plates. If whatever he had was not remarkably dense, though, it was probably some kind of fake. Being made of gold was not just a luxury for plates like these. They had to be non-corroding and easy to work with primitive tools.

Jeff Lindsay said...

Orbiting, you need to hang out with more lawyers. The kind who can answer yes or no depending on how they parse the meaning of seemingly simple words like "is." Then you would be less tempted to focus on believers when it comes to the corruption of language.

Jeff Lindsay said...

James, did not have a solid block of metal. He had plates. Very thin, presumably hammered, and invariably imperfectly flat, especially after engraving. That means there's going to be substantial void space in the stack of plates.

From my LDSFAQ page on metals:

Two factors make the expected weight of the gold plates fit into the range of reported weight (those who hefted them estimated the weight between 50 and 100 lbs, with 60 seeming like a reasonable number based on the ability of Emma, Joseph's wife, to move them herself a time or two). Thin metal plates, when stacked, are not perfectly flat. There is some space in between them due to imperfections in manufacture, the effect of engraving and handling, etc. Even for carefully made sheets of thin metal, it is easy to have air space occupying 20% or more of the volume - with 50% void volume being a reasonable value. (Try this with a heavy grade of aluminum foil: even without engravings on the sheets, see if you can stack the foil sheets by hand into a stack that weighs anything close to the weight of a solid chunk of aluminum of equal thickness.) Further, the metal itself is described as gold in appearance, but is most likely to have been the Mesoamerican alloy tumbaga, which is gold alloyed with copper. It is much lighter than pure gold (about half the density). Tumbaga washed with acid (simple citric acid will do) leaches out some of the copper on the surface, making it appear much more like gold and providing a surface well suited for engraving. Using the reported dimensions of the plates (6 by 8 by 6 inches, or 0.188 cubic feet), assuming the use of tumbaga, and allowing typical air content (due to small gaps between parts of the plates) for thin metal plates, the weight estimate of 60 lbs or so is entirely reasonable. An LDS metallurgist, Reed Putnam, made this point in a paper presented to the Society for Early Historic Archaeology in 1964, reprinted in the Improvement Era, Vol. 69, pp. 788-89, 828-831, Sept. 1966 (now available online at http://www.shields-research.org/Scriptures/BoM/Tumbaga.htm). He did not know at the time that William Smith, Joseph's brother, had handled the plates and had estimated on several occasions that the weight was about 60 pounds. (William also said that the plates were a mixture of copper and gold - Saints' Herald, 31: 644, 1884.) Had it been a block of pure, solid gold, it would have weighed nearly 200 pounds (0.188 cubic feet * 1200 lbs/cubic foot = 200 pounds), which is too heavy for most people to lift.

I hope that helps. It's not as suspicious as you thought!

Jeff Lindsay said...

Orbiting, your claim that one of the witnesses (Harris) didn't actually see the plates, only as one sees a city through a mountain, is based on a second-hand tale from Stephen Burnett which appears to confuse the early experience of Martin Harris with his later experience as one of the 3 Witnesses. In his early experience, he was not allowed to see the plates and they were kept covered with cloth. But he clearly saw the uncovered plates in his experience that made him one of the Three Witnesses.

These guys saw the plates. Some touched the plates as well. Trying to obscure that reality with second-hand tales and obfuscation is pointless.

For details on what Harris said and the Stephen Burnett letter, see a relevant page at FAIRMormon.org.

And James, "hefted" is not suspicious language--it's a solid English word that means to lift. I would say it implies muscles were required.

Unknown said...

Sorry, Jeff. Joseph Smith's claims about the provenance of the Book of Mormon are extraordinary claims that require extraordinary evidence -- much stronger evidence than a couple of statements signed by interested parties who believe in folk magic, "spiritual eyes," etc. And as far as I'm concerned, the minute Smith claimed the plates had been taken away for good by the angel, he announced himself to the world as a huckster.

I mean, c'mon. He's got the gold plates, but, um, they're covered by a cloth, but hey, you can't look at them but go ahead and lift up the box and feel how heavy they are, because they're gold, see? Just show them to people! Oh, an angel said not to let people see them? How convenient.... Was it the same angel who drew a sword and compelled Smith to marry his nubile teenage housemaid? What an accommodating angel!

OK, says Smith, "You really wanna see the plates? OK, you can see the plates! No, I'm not saying you can pull of that cloth, I'm saying let's all go to the woods and pray about it for a few hours, and then maybe God will let you see the plates in a vision." Who could possibly go along with such a procedure? Who would not say, "No, Joe, let's NOT go to the woods. Either you've got gold plates or you don't. How about you either put up or shut up"?

Again, c'mon. If Smith really had the plates, he would have showed them to at least some people right away -- allowed them to see the plates, like any other object, with their natural eyes. (I can scarcely believe it's the 21st century and in a dialogue with a civilized man I have to make a distinction between these two kinds of seeing.) If he really had the plates, he would not have had to resort to all the evasive nonsense indicated by the historical record.

Note that Smith was later supposedly able to show the plates to people in a normal fashion; why not earlier? Why all the supernatural folderol? The bogosity of the first witnessing procedure -- clearly a procedure designed for the gullible -- casts a fatal shadow over the second.

Because of their evident supernaturalism and gullibility, and because of the sinuousness of their later statements, I just don't trust these people. Sorry.

James Anglin said...

Thanks for the thoughts on the metal plates, Jeff. It does seem plausible that the plates might not have been pure gold. i'm not so sure about 50% air spacing, though. That seems pretty high for a thick stack of plates, made of some alloy much denser than aluminum (since aluminum is really unusually light for a metal), and surely not rolled as thin as modern aluminum foil. (Engraving aluminum foil is pretty tricky.)

Even at that, the main point here for me is not catching Smith in an obvious lie by showing that he could not possibly have had a block of pure gold plates that size. The point is mainly that potentially strong evidence for the Book of Mormon turns out not to be present after all.

200 pounds in the stated volume would pretty much have to be pure gold, and for Smith to have that much gold would have been so close to a miracle already, that the rest of the story becomes very much harder to dismiss. Only 60 pounds, though, is well within the range of a plausible fake relic. So we're back at square one.

My concern with 'hefted' is that it conspicuously omits 'handled' or 'touched'. This suggests a lifting without direct contact, as of a closed box.

The Testimony of the Eight Witnesses mentions having seen "plates," but having handled "leaves" that Smith had translated. Whether cunningly or just unfortunately, this wording shift from "plates" to "leaves" makes it ambiguous whether the plates themselves had been handled, or only the paper "leaves" of Smith's translation.

Again, though, this is not really the main point for me. The main thing to me is that if ten different literate people had actually touched and handled gold plates delivered from an angel, then surely most if not all of them would have written detailed, independent accounts of such an amazing experience. I mean, at least a letter home: "Ma, you'll never guess what just happened!"

This wasn't first-century Palestine, after all. There were newspapers. Novel-writers got rich. It wasn't the Sorbonne, but it was a literate culture.

Wouldn't somebody have gushed a lot more in print about the feel of the leaves of gold, whether they felt cold or showed fingerprints, whether their edges were sharp? Wouldn't several people have scribbled out some of the symbols from memory? Wouldn't someone have remarked on the order in which the different witnesses handled the plates?

We have the testimonies of the three and the eight, that's true. But they're so terse, and their language seems rather guarded. My suspicions might be somewhat soothed if the two collective testimonies were absolutely unambiguous and explicit, but to find them instead to be distinctly circumspect in their wording, when already they are so much less than the ten independent effusions I'd expect, reinforces my suspicions.

I'm quite honest about finding this very suspicious. It's not just an a priori belief that the Book of Mormon is false. If Joseph Smith had simply written out the Book of Mormon and said that God had revealed it to him in a dream or trance, then I wouldn't necessarily believe that it did come from God, but I would be quite prepared to believe that the text really came to him in a trance and that he was sincere. The business about the plates just really seems bizarre at best and suspicious at worst.

James Anglin said...

As an addendum:

As I've said, if Smith really did see words from God on the stone in his hat, then I don't understand why the golden plates were even involved. I've read theories about how maybe seeing the plates gave Smith enough faith to receive the revelation via his old seer stone, or maybe boosted the faith of Smith's companions so that they could help launch the new church. Those theories seem a bit weak, to me, however. Surely God could have given faith directly, rather than via gold plates. Obviously an omnipotent God could have given gold plates, and then taken them away. It just seems as though it would have been a bit of a fluke, for God to do it that way, instead of just skipping them.

On the other hand, though, from a fraud perspective, the gold plates would be an essential feature. Anyone who does any kind of conning, even as a little kid, figures out pretty quickly that it really helps to have a gimmick. You don't hit people with your full pitch right away ("I'm a prophet"). Instead you start off with something else ("Look at these plates"), which seems at first to be much more innocuous, but which actually hides a pretty solid hook.

Again just hypothetically, a fraud that shrewdly started off with fake plates would then want to get rid of those plates after a little while, before too many people started looking at them too closely. Well, hmmm.

But even after the plates were gone, they would serve an important role. If I were to just declare that God had revealed a new scripture to me in a dream, then I'd always be vulnerable to competition from somebody else making similar claims. But what if I've gotten it accepted that new revelations ought to come with impressive relics like those plates that I had? Then any competitor has to have a relic of his own to show.

And if he does — why, I'm there on the spot now, guarding my turf as the prophet guy. I'll run right up and insist that my competitor's relic gets the kind of detailed public scrutiny that my own plates never actually had. That's a high bar to pass; smart competitors will see how the land lies, and shy off.

None of that takes marketing genius, just the kind of shrewdness that any con artist has — and there have always been plenty of shockingly young con artists.

Of course all of that is nothing but a speculative scenario, with no shred of proof or even evidence at all that Joseph Smith was actually running a scheme like that. I admit that quite explicitly — I don't know of any hard evidence that Smith was running a con.

The thing is just that IF you assume Smith was a fraud, THEN the golden plates make fine sense. If you assume he was sincere, then I at least don't understand the gold plates. It's a bit like finding a guy with an ace up his sleeve. Now, that ace just got mixed up in his laundry, or someone planted it on him as a joke. You haven't caught him using it to cheat at cards. But the only honest reasons for him to have it seem like bizarre flukes, while the reason to have it for cheating is much more obvious. He could be honest; but if we ever play cards together, I'm really going to watch that guy.

That's the sort of thing that strikes me as suspicious about these plates.

Anonymous said...

I can't remember the name. There was a woman who was complaining about the extra work she had when Smith and others were living at her home.

A man showed up and showed her the golden plates. It was believed to be Moroni who showed the plates, can't remember that part either, sorry. Another witness, female, in broad daylight, while the woman was outside doing chores.