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

Sunday, May 15, 2016

What Paper and Wood Tell Us About the Gold Plates

When Joseph Smith finally received the gold plates from the stone box that had been buried on the tiny hill we now call th Hill Cumorah, he did not bring them directly home, but hid them in a log since he did not have anything to cover them or store them in. In Chapter One of From Darkness unto Light (Provo, UT: Religious Studies Center, BYU and Salt Lake City, UT: Deseret Book, 2015), Michael H. MacKay and Gerrut J. Dirkmat describe the pains Joseph took to properly protect the plates now that he had received them. His first task, then, was to seek a wooden box to put the plates in.
Leaving the plates hidden in the woods, Joseph did not initially intend on showing them to anyone, but instead he set out to find a chest or box to keep them in.... He had apparently asked his neighbor Willard Chase, a local carpenter and joiner, twice in September to make a case for him before he retrieved the plates. Chase likely refused because he doubted that Joseph could repay him for the materials and labor. Chase remembered Joseph making plans to protect the plates, contemplating the problems that he would face once he had them and knowing that the angel had charged him to keep them hidden. The day Joseph went to the hill to obtain the plates, he was still looking for someone to make a box for the plates. Before leaving for the hill, he woke his mother and asked "if [she] had a chest with a lock and key" to store the plates once he retrieved them, but she had nothing to offer him. [From Darkness unto Light, p. 6]
She told Joseph to go to a cabinetmaker who had been making something for their oldest daughter, hoping to be able to buy it on credit because they had no money. But she was able to negotiate a deal involving paying half in produce and half with money (apparently on loan). The next day, a Mrs. Well of Macedon asked for Joseph to come help dig a well, giving him a day of paid labor that Joseph's mother felt was a blessing from God to allow them to pay their debt to the cabinet maker. [From Darkness unto Light, pp. 6-7]

The lack of a wooden cabinet tells us something about the plates. So does the lack of paper that later hindered the translation process.  In Chapter Eight of the same source, MacKay and Dirmat explain that the paper that Joseph and Oliver had received as a gift from Joseph Knight Sr. had run out, and thus the translation process faced a roadblock. Out of money and supplies, Joseph and Oliver left Harmony, PA and traveled 20 miles to reach the Knight home in Colesville, only to find that he had left on business. They returned still without paper for their work.

Joseph and Oliver had no choice but to stop the translation process to look for work in order to get funds for paper. But they were unsuccessful in finding work, and were now empty-handed and hungry. Fortunately, Joseph Knight came to the rescue, bringing generous supplies and paper, and the work continued.

As someone in the forest products industry, the role of two forest products in the Book of Mormon story intrigues me. The Book of Mormon project was hindered twice due to the lack of needed forest products. The lack of a wooden box to protect the plates (but special thanks to the tree that served as a temporary storage place!) and the lack of paper for the translation process.

Both of these issues point to the granular reality of the Book of Mormon and the impoverished state its translator. If the plates did not exist, would he be out shopping for jobs to afford to pay a carpenter for a box to store them in? And if Joseph could not even afford paper for the translation process, could he have afforded expensive tin or copper plates to make a fake set of plates to impress the witnesses? Indeed, when Martin Harris first hefted the plates, still covered in a box, he said, "I knew from the heft that they were lead or gold, and I knew that Joseph had not credit enough to buy so much lead." [Martin Harris interview in "Mormonism—No. II," Tiffany's Monthly, Joel Tiffany, ed., vol. 5, no. 4, August 1859, pp. 163–170, quotation from p. 169.] By the way, he estimated their weight at 40-50 pounds, close to the 60 pounds estimate we have from William Smith, which is an excellent fit not for a chunk of pure gold of the same size (that would be around 200 pounds), but for a stack of thin plates made from a lighter copper-gold alloy like tumbaga from Mesoamerica, with significant air space occurring between the stacked plates, based on analysis from metallurgist Reed Putnam in "Were the Golden Plates made of Tumbaga?" (Update, 5/17/16: A very useful page on this topic was just prepared at Book of Mormon Central: "What Kind of Ore did Nephi Use to Make the Plates?")

Detail after detail around the translation process supports the reality of the plates and of the oral dictation of the Book of Mormon. Joseph was not a front for a smooth, well-financed operation to deceive people. He was not working off a carefully drafted manuscript that he or someone else with plenty of paper had been crafting for years. He was not dealing with visionary, floating plates, but with real ancient plates that needed a real wooden box in which to be carried safely. Plates that could be hefted and touched. And for both the box and the paper, Joseph was willing to drop everything to go work in order to afford a simple item that he needed. This is a gritty, granular story that doesn't fit common theories of fraud.

Paper and wood tell us something about the metal plates of Joseph Smith.


Anonymous said...

"Joseph was willing to drop everything to go work in order to afford a simple item that he needed."

It's not like he had much else going on at the time. He was an unemployed twenty-something with a new wife and not much prospect. He had already been convicted in a court of law for disturbing the peace for his treasure seeking activities. To continue his "work" (whether it be translation or fraud), he needed some way to finance it.

An interesting note, much of his adult life was spent accepting financial help from others, as he did in your paper example above, versus going out and digging wells like he did in the box example.

Neal Rappleye said...

You mention Read Putnam's old articles on tumbaga. Book of Mormon Central provided an update to his work a couple of months ago:


Mormography said...

When considering Mormanity’s “reality of the plates", please consider the following. Mormanity now believes the once “real” Urim and Thummim may have actually been a “real” seer stone, which may have been nothing more than an ordinary rock used as a confidence trick to facilitate the translation of “real” metal plates, which he now admits were not used to translate.

With this in mind, detail after detail may support a rough, poorly financed operation for a poorly crafted manuscript of a decade-rehearsed story resulting in a book that put Mark Twain to sleep with filler words. A common theory fitting the blasé stories from Scientology to David Koresh.

Anonymous said...

Let us counter Mormography's speculations with the following: the U & Th have consistently, for a long time, referred to either the stones in a metal bow or the seer stone found when JS dug a well. The plates were very likely real, attested to by many witnesses. They certainly don't deserve to be referred to as "real" metal plates, because they more likely than not existed. We cannot say the plates were not used to translate, since they were always close by. Advanced technology could have been used, similar to what we are familiar with today, requiring them to be close to the human translator -- in the sense of retransmitter -- for the already-prepared English-language translation to be transmitted to Joseph Smith, who we know needed to be in an acceptable mental and spiritual state for the transfer to occur.

Mormography, like Twain before him, knows little of the actual structure of the words of the BofM, yet is perfectly content to gratuitously opine. The manuscript is anything but poorly crafted and does not merely contain filler words. Narrative connectors make up a small percentage of the 270,000 words. Mormography doesn't know the vocabulary and syntax of the book, just as Twain did not know them, but passes himself off as an authority. Very sad.

Jeff Lindsay said...

Neal, excellent resource, thanks! I'll update my post.

James Anglin said...

I'm a fan of grittiness and granularity. Mormonism has a unique opportunity to track down gritty grains of its origins, because they were so much more recent than those of other religions. And it's a sign of honest faith, to me, for Mormons to want to find those gritty grains.

If the idea is to use the details to confound critics, though, one has to be careful not to rush to judgement. One can form a satisfyingly granular picture of a poor but pious Joseph Smith trying to get a nice box to house the sacred golden plates, and then running out of paper while translating them. But one can form a picture just as granular and gritty in which Smith's problems with boxes and paper are less noble.

A con man would also have faced the practical, granular problem of finding a box to hold his fake plates. It doesn't take a genius of deception to guess that golden plates hidden in a nice box are easier to swallow than golden plates in a ragged sack. And anyone who has ever written up an idea will understand that a con man who was working from rough notes and memory might find he had underestimated the amount of paper it would take to get the stuff down in fair copied form.

James Anglin said...

After my own speculations about lead plates, I'm struck by Martin Harris's remarks about the same possibility. Apparently the option of lead instead of gold seemed consistent with the heft he felt, and indeed the weight he guessed is consistent with a block of solid lead of the stated size. (I accept that the weight could also be consistent with a stack of gold-alloy pages.)

What astounds me is Harris's reference to Smith's finances at this point: he was sure that Smith lacked the credit to have bought that much lead. What the heck? An ordinarily shrewd person whose friend had given him a heavy box to heft would surely think, "Hum, it seems friend Joe has some lead here. Perhaps he found it, or perhaps he had more money stashed away than I thought."

Instead Harris's reasoning seems literally to have been, "I am sure that my friend is not rich enough to have bought something so heavy and valuable as a hunk of lead. Therefore he must instead have a hunk of gold." Seriously, who thinks like that?

If readiness to believe is a virtue, then apparently Martin Harris was a saint. And if Joseph Smith was a true prophet, then apparently God had great mercy on Martin Harris, and graciously placed him in the company of his age's one true prophet, instead of in the company of any one of his age's millions of con men. For if Martin Harris had been the companion of any con man, he would have fallen for the fellow's scheme like a ton of bricks.

Anonymous said...

James, the reasoning is very likely different from what you have just written. Harris had been told by Smith that he'd received gold plates, probably with the understanding, either implicit or explicit, that it was an alloy. Harris knew from experience that the density corresponded to some type of metal. The cheapest, easily obtained metal of that density was lead, but Harris knew that even that would have been out of Smith's financial reach. I suppose Harris could have thought Smith had stolen some lead, but he apparently ruled that out. So he accepted Smith's claim he'd received some gold plates. That seemed more likely to Harris than thievery of lead. I don't know where the closest place was to get that amount of lead, but the larceny would have been news. Perhaps that's why H ruled it out. Someone expert in such things might know.

Brooks M. Wilson said...

I con man would make the con cheap to extract the highest reward from his mark. A con man would not work a con for years. If Joseph were a con man, he would claim that his seer stone could be used to find gold plates and then sold the stone to Harris.

James Anglin said...

Yeah, I get that Harris also had Smith's word to go on, to convince him that the stuff in the box was gold from an angel. I'm just saying that it's pretty shocking self-confidence in his knowledge of Smith's metallic capabilities, to be so sure that Smith couldn't have obtained lead, as to believe angelic gold instead. Normal people would at least have thought, "Hey, maybe I don't know as much about Joseph's access to lead as I thought."

As to con men: "either a flawless con man or a genuine prophet" is a false dichotomy. Smith could well have been an imperfect con man who faked some things well but also made some mistakes, possibly including strategic mistakes. This post is about gritty granularity; so let's take the fraud scenario seriously as a real-world event, not the plot of a caper film. Beginning con men aren't sure in advance what kinds of stuff will go over with their marks. So the ones that are at all smart probably don't cut too many corners with their most important props. Sometimes it takes money to make money. On the other hand, it's true that perfectionism isn't worth it. Good enough is good enough, and fussing too much just wastes time that is money. Overdoing it here while cutting it close there is the sort of gritty imperfection I'd expect from a real-world con man.

Long cons can certainly be good ones, though. Selling the seer stone could well have seemed like selling the goose that laid golden eggs.

Barry said...

Joseph Smith had NOT "been convicted in a court of law for disturbing the peace" etc. There was a preliminary hearing before a Justice of the Peace on a complaint brought by Peter Bridgman. It went nowhere, mainly because Josiah Stowell was perfectly happy with Joseph Smith's services. See http://en.fairmormon.org/Joseph_Smith/Legal_issues/Trials/1826_court_appearance_for_glasslooking.

It never ceases to amaze me that the enemies of Joseph Smith, living and dead, have never been content with attacking him with facts. Rather, they rely on lies and distortions.

weconvene said...

Obviously you have not prayerfully read and faithfully studied the Book of Mormon!

weconvene said...

My above comment was directed at the frivolous naysayers in this thread! Joseph Smith was a true Prophet and we shall all stand before him at the last day! I pitty they who fight against Zion!

Anonymous said...

If the box is still in existence. There are archaeological methods that could be used to shed light on the existence of the plates also there composition and possible ore body location. I've heard that the church history department has a box but i have no idea wether it is authentic or not. If i ever get to Salt Lake city it will be something I look into.

Mormography said...

@Anonymous 7:47 AM, May 17, 2016

Your spasm of frustration is the ultimate compliment.

Anonymous said...

Mormog: just keepin' it real, and informing a spastic.

Anonymous said...

If I recall correctly Barry, Bushman disagrees with your source in Rough Stone Rolling. His conclusion after reviewing the original documents was they were authentic court documents showing a conviction. I could be wrong however, as it's been a couple of years since I read it.

Brooks M. Wilson said...

I have a deep and abiding faith that God worked miracles through Joseph Smith but I am willing to consider theories of fraud or self-delusion to explain events surrounding Joseph’s life. At the same time, weak theories should be abandoned and arguing that Joseph was a con man is a weak theory. The granularity of the evidence speaks to that point. I will return to that point.

Some of your arguments are shameless. I never suggested that Joseph was a prophet based on the evidence that Lindsay presented let alone go so far as to suggested that he was either a “flawless con man or a genuine prophet.” I never suggested that a con man must be flawless to be successful I suggested no more than the granularity of the evidence suggest that he was not a con man. While a con man may be less than perfect, he must have some success to be called a con man.

As I previously noted, the setup was too expensive for a con. While props must be good, they cannot exceed the expected payoff. Marginal revenue must exceed marginal cost and it never did. That would not be a characteristic of an average con man but an historically bad one. What was the expected payoff? Groceries? Joseph let it be rumored around town for five years that he was going to get the gold plates. That is more than a long con. If a con, he acquired lead (cheaper than gold) and had them fashioned into plates. Joseph was not capable of this work so he would have had to hire it out, more people to payoff and keep quiet. He also spend considerable time and effort translating them and the story he told was substantial. An angel showed the plates to three people and Joseph showed them to another eight. Others saw, hefted and thumbed them as well. When he had the chance to get some money out of this project, he had the mark spend the money on the fabricated story.

To play the long con, you must have achieved some success at simpler games and Joseph did not. He did start a church but he did not profit from it. And so the story goes until Joseph’s death. He never made money from his endeavors, nor did his parents and siblings. Neither did his descendants. Neither did his brothers’ descendants. They all acted like what Joseph said and did was at God’s direction. As I said at the start, you can argue fraud of self-delusion but not a con. It doesn’t fit the data.

Anonymous said...


Ever hear of Christian Gerhartsreiter? He went by the name of Clark Rockefeller. He pulled a scam on some pretty rich, and pretty smart people for many years. How do you know a con man will always go for the quick score? He sure didn't.

Anonymous said...

"He did start a church but he did not profit from it."

He not only profited financially, he profited in power, prestige, and influence which, to some people, is more important than money (cough. . .Trump. . .cough).

If you look at Joseph's life and influences, I think a case can be made for evidence of fraud. He surely saw others profiting from religion in his early years at his camp revival attendance. All the Pastors had to do was convince people that theirs was the correct interpretation of the Bible (this is a recurring theme in the Joseph Smith History and the Book of Mormon). As long as they had a unique viewpoint, people would follow and contribute.

During the treasure seeking phase of his life, he had to have learned that confidence in one's own abilities to do something convinces others to believe. He also likely learned that one of the only times a fraud is truly and completely busted, is when you admit it is a fraud.

Personally, I believe Joseph was a complex individual. I don't believe he was all good, nor that he was all bad. I think he believed that what he was doing was ultimately good. I believe that he got to the point to where he believed in his own stories as much as he believed in himself. If you read his journal, you witness times of deep spiritual introspection and, yes revelation (the Kirtland temple period is extremely touching). But I see too many problems and too many inconsistencies in the Book of Mormon translation period to believe it was what it is purported to be. There are also problems in the latter history of Joseph's life that point to a highly fallible man, and not an inspired prophet.

Mormography said...

Anonymous 9:48 PM, May 17, 2016

Unfortunately, even the first time you informed us of your imaginative definitions of “real”, we gain no new information.

James Anglin said...

@Brooks M. Wilson:

I didn't mean to say that you were saying "either a flawless con man or a true prophet" — though I admit that it could have looked like that. Sorry for the implication. I did and do mean, however, to give a vivid description of a common theme in Mormon apologetics, and to point out why it's fallacious.

You're not really assuming that Smith can only have been a con man at all if he were a flawless con man. But I think you are doing something rather like this. You're implicitly assuming artificial constraints on what "con man" is allowed to mean — and thereby attacking a straw man. You seem to say that a con man can only be someone who is going for a quick score in cash, and so since Joseph Smith failed to score some quick cash, the whole theory that he was a fraud must be weak.

What's really shameless, to me, is to claim that Joseph Smith never got profit from being a prophet. Heavens. Mormons proudly (and I believe accurately) recite that Joseph Smith was a poor, uneducated nobody before he brought out the Book of Mormon. Once he gained followers as a prophet, however, his home in Nauvoo was a hotel-sized structure known as Mansion House, he commanded his own private army, he married dozens of young women, and he had thousands of people hanging on his every word.

Smith couldn't have known how far it would all go, when he first started; just as he couldn't have known, at the end, that the rule of law in which he trusted would fail, and let him be murdered by a mob. One can't really argue from his later success that he must have been a con man, just as one can't really argue from his eventual murder that he must have been a martyr. But even when Smith was just starting it would have been clear to him that a successful religious scam could have good long-term prospects. Ruling him out as a con man just because he set his sights higher than a single quick score makes no sense.

I think you're also exaggerating the scale of his preparations. I don't know exactly where he would have gotten 40 pounds of lead, but googling "price of lead in 1830" turns up English prices of around 20 pounds sterling per ton. At the contemporary exchange rate (fixed by the gold standard) that was about $100 per ton, or 5¢ a pound. So 40 pounds of lead would have been a $2 investment — not trivial, then, but not a fortune. Googling 1830s prices in New England seems to show that it might have been the price of a gallon or two of liquor. Even if Smith still couldn't have afforded that, it seems to me that $2 worth of lead is a treasure modest enough that it might have remained lost somewhere until Smith found it.

Having found it, I see no trouble in shaping it. You can easily flatten lead with a hammer — it's quite soft. The supposed stack of plates might in fact have been just a single block of lead, for that matter. You can melt lead in loaf pan on a stove — it has a low melting point.

Anonymous said...

Hi James,

I like your research. I wonder how common it was to get 50 pounds of lead, though and I would think that someone would have taken note and made the comment that Joseph or one of his associates purchased 50 pounds of lead. While the weight would have fit the descriptions of people who lifted it, it doesn't fit the description of the person (whose name escapes me now) who "rustled" the individual leaves while it was covered in cloth. Also, Joseph was a farmer and did not work in metal so I would have to assume that hammering the lead into the desired thickness and shape would be a bit troublesome. If Joseph didn't work the lead into the proper form, then who did? I would also assume that said individual would also have taken note and made a comment when the Gold Plates became known.


James Anglin said...

"Leaf rustling" would be a harder illusion to pull off than just weight; but I'd want to pin the evidence better before thinking about it. How reliable is their account of the "rustling"? What exactly did the "rustler" really do? Were they a potential confederate? How easy to deceive could they have been?

Even if one reasonable credible witness did report some kind of tactile detection of metallic pages, the fact that most people only got to heft a box is just profoundly suspicious to me. Yes, God might in principle just have told Smith to let people do no more than heft the plates in a box. But God might also in principle have told Smith to spread the gold plates out in the marketplace for all to see. A con man, in contrast, would have had to limit people's exposure to the gimmick.

So what Smith did is what a prophet might have done, but what a con man would have had to do. If I tell you "this con man pretended to have golden plates" then you can guess immediately that he would be letting people heft a heavy box without looking inside it. If I tell you "this prophet got plates from an angel" then you have no idea what he did with the plates. You'll have to wait until I tell you more. In this sense the fraud theory is not only consistent with Smith's behavior with the plates: it explains the behavior. The prophet theory, in contrast, does not explain the cagey behavior with the plates; it is only consistent with it (because God could have commanded suspicious behavior for reasons only God knows).

James Anglin said...

Hammering lead into thin pages would probably have been troublesome, yes. But far from impossible. A guy who found a whole bunch of lead might well have worked away at pounding out a thin sheet just out of curiosity, to see whether he could do it. And anyway, with just this one vague account of rustling that you mentioned, I'm far from convinced that the lead (if that was what Smith had) was anything but a solid brick. A farmer could make that with just a stove and a rectangular pan, since lead's so easy to melt.

As far as I can tell from pro-Mormon accounts, Smith's circumstances were such that his prospects for fame and power by ordinary effort were slim. If he were pursuing a religious con, he might well have considered it his one best shot at making the big time. Like the poor black kid shooting baskets until late in the night, dreaming of making the NBA, people can work pretty hard for something like that.

Maybe Smith got somebody else to shape his lead for him, instead; but I doubt it. As you point out, he would have had to trust that person pretty far. On the other hand, maybe lead in suitable shape was available commercially for innocent purposes, and if he had bought some lead sheets years before, nobody would have remembered him. For what it's worth, my own guess would be that Joseph Smith was personally in control of producing whatever gimmick he used. Any confederates he might have had seem to have been much less intelligent and energetic people than he was, so I just don't see him leaving something so important up to any of them.

James Anglin said...

The Wikipedia article on "Architectural Metals" says that "Lead has been a popular roofing material for centuries." So perhaps lead sheets were available in Smith's day. He might have found a little stack of them, or bought them.

They probably weren't on every house, of course — or all those Book of Mormon hefters would have been saying, "Hey, a stack of lead shingles" right away (and would have been saying it even if the plates were really gold).

Brooks M. Wilson said...

Anon and James,
I would like to go back to the definition of con man and yes James, I am putting constraints on the definition of what it means to be a con man. As I make this case, please recall that once in my original comment and twice in my second I readily acknowledged that the information presented in Lindsay’s post was insufficient to absolve Joseph of other types of fraud or delusion. The granularity of the historical record is simply too great to accuse Joseph of a con, short or long. I will slightly restate that assertion to possibly gain consensus. The high degree of granularity significantly reduces the probability that Joseph was a con man.

My definition of con man and confidence game come from two sources: my father, a cop who worked bunko and online definitions. Well, I have to acknowledge a third source, old episodes of Maverick. A con game is a subset of a fraud. The terms are not synonymous. From Wikipedia, “A confidence trick…is an attempt to defraud a person or group after first gaining their confidence.” Defraud refers to illegally obtaining money by deception. Power, prestige, and influence might be part of some other fraud, but not a confidence game.

Again, from Wikipedia,
“A short con or small con is a fast swindle which takes just minutes. It typically aims to rob the victim of everything in his or her wallet.
A long con or big con is a scam that unfolds over several days or weeks and involves a team of swindlers, as well as props, sets, extras, costumes, and scripted lines.”
Joseph’s activities were over too long a period of time to be considered a long con, let alone a short. If you look at a biography of Christian Gerhartsreiter, he did not really play a long con. He played a series of short cons that allowed him to achieve immediate enrichment and got lucky on the last and he stayed with it. Joseph, if trying to accomplish goals through fraud kept funneling money into more props and the props greatly exceed the cost of lead and paper. As I noted, they included the cost of transforming the lead to plates, creating the stone box from which the plates were taken (several people saw the box or at least saw a box), the wood box, the paper to translate, the translation process, the publication of the Book of Mormon all argue against a con game. Although Harris may have underestimated the Smith’s resources, he had a better sense of their resources, financial condition, and terms of credit availability than we do. It must be recalled that the problem with Harris as a mark was his reticence to part with money.

Anon, you argue that all Joseph needed was a unique view point on the Bible and money would follow. Just like any other business, most new enterprises fail. If Joseph and made your observation, he probably would have made mine. You also argue that, “the only times a fraud is truly and completely busted, is when you admit it is a fraud.” That is simply not true. Con men get out of dodge all the time because the police are on his tail, the mark figures out the game, etc.
James, you argue that Joseph could not have known the end at the beginning but you think that a young man clever enough to begin a fraud at such an early age would have figured out things were not going well at some point and I have considered the possibility that he examined his prospects forward at every point and being a con man always provided the highest expected return. That might be a fraud but it is not a con trick.

I also looked up the price of lead and estimated the cost at $8.00. Splitting the difference with your estimation, the cost is still high. As a high skilled worker of a peep stone, Joseph earned $14 per month. He gave up that line of work before he began translating. It is likely that he would have needed to give up a month’s full time pay if he could find that kind of employment, to acquire just the lead. He did need to eat, and so did his wife.

A con man scenario, using the ordinary meaning of con man, simply does not fit the evidence.

Ryan said...

I see a couple of problems with the lead theory, coming from other witness statements.
1) The published statement of the 8 witnesses specifies that the plates had "the appearance of gold," an appearance which led would not have
2) The published statement says that they handled the leaves with their hands and saw the engravings, suggesting that whatever the plates were made of, they were indeed plates rather than a solid block, and had engravings on them. So not only would Joseph have had to make plates, but he would have to engrave them
3) None of the 8 witnesses denied what they had seen, and many of them have recorded reaffirmations of their testimonies at other times:
John Whitmer gives dimensions of the plates, describes how they were joined together, and reiterates that he saw them uncovered and was allowed to "turn the leaves sufficient to satisfy [him]." He reaffirmed his testimony in other instances as well

Hiram Page made clear that what he knew to be true in 1830, he still knew to be true in 1847, long after having become estranged from Joseph. His son also made clear that his father would testify of having seen the plates as often as occasion would permit

Hyrum Smith attested to having seen and handles the plates, and of course was willing to die for that testimony

Samuel Smith reiterated that he had "handled the plates and seen the engravings thereon"

Jacob Whitmer confirmed what he had seen on his deathbed

It therefore seems to me that Joseph A) had actual metal plates that could be leaved through, B) they had engravings on them, and C) they were gold in color. Purchasing lead doesn't seem to account for all of that together.

Adam said...

People keep referring to "witnesses," except:

1. We don't actually have anything signed by the witnesses. If you have it, please share it with me. To date, no one has been able to find it.

2. Joseph was able to get 31 people to "witness" that he wasn't practicing polygamy even though he was. So, you know, he had a verifiable and documented history of getting people to witness things that we now know were not true.

3. When pressed, at least one of the "witnesses" admitted he saw the plates with his "spiritual eyes."

4. Finally, the plates the "witnesses" saw were not the primary tool used in the translation process. The seer stone was, which did not require the plates.

5. So, you have a man who has a history of getting witnesses to testify to things that are not true get witnesses testify they saw gold plates that were not actually necessary for the translation process. We also have no actual signatures to verify this and, when questioned, at least one of the witnesses changed his testimony to "spiritual eyes."

If you're based your testimony on faith, fine. If you are basing it on the "witnesses," whoo, good luck.

Anonymous said...

You are seeking to limit human behavior and criminal behavior by definitions. Though definitions are useful to describe behavior, they don't limit it. We may have shown ignorance in defining the behavior but, as James points out, the behavior itself is suspicious and can reasonably be explained by fraud.

As for religious success, clearly there is no guarantee, but then there is no guarantee for any venture. According to Bushman, Joseph had experience expounding scripture at revival meetings and was considered pretty good at it (at least he could hold his own). He likely had inklings that his ideas would resonate with people enough to prompt a following. He had already demonstrated his ability to lead his family and others close to him.

Con men are chased out of town. Joseph was chased from New York to western Illinois. If there are still people who believe in the con, it is never truly busted no matter how many people have figured it out. People who are victims of fraud are interviewed all the time and still have a hard time believing it was a scam. If the scammer showed up in front of them with a plausible explanation for the "difficulties," it's likely they could be fooled again. If the con man himself admits to it, the bubble pops immediately.

James Anglin said...


Oh, for heaven's sake. Thanks for introducing me to a narrower definition of "con man" than I have ever heard before. In future I'll bear it in mind that some people may use the term your way. In exchange I offer the at least equally useful information that many people use it more broadly.

You may now replace each of my uses of the term "con" with "fraud of arbitrary time frame". You will then notice that everything I've said still makes sense, and has identical implications for the authenticity of the Book of Mormon, only now your dictionary-based argument about the definition of "con man" is irrelevant.

Then, if you're still interested, we can get back to discussing whether Joseph Smith was a fraud. If you're disappointed with how little net effect your terminological quibble has had on the discussion, then I'm sorry to say that terminological quibbles are usually like that. It's really best to avoid them.

Brooks M. Wilson said...

I am not seeking to limit human behavior by definitions, rather I am seeking to properly limit categorization of Joseph's activities. Christopher Hitches wrote a horribly inaccurate book on religion and he profited from it. That does not make him a con man. Nor does it make him a religious leader although although many seem to worship his ideas.

Although I don't agree with the theory, there is evidence to support the idea that, through fraud, he began a new religion. There is little to no evidence that he did so to defraud members. Maybe he did so for power and prestige, but not for money.

I readily concede that evidence exists to indicate that Joseph might believe that he had a comparative advantage in religion. He may have used it to commit fraud but again, that does not make him a con man.

Con men are not the only people chased out of town. So are unpopular religious leaders. So are people who commit other types of fraud. Normally, it is the marks that would chase a con man out of town. In Joseph's case, his marks were also exiled. Joseph also had devoted, intelligent and talented friends who followed him as well as those who despised him. Again, these are characteristics of a religious leader and not a con man.

If any progress in the study of Joseph's life is to be made, some ideas need to be eliminated. The notion that he was a con man interested in a quick buck on a short or long con is one of those ideas. While I am acknowledging that there is evidence that, through fraud or delusion, he began a religion, let's also acknowledged there is a great deal of data that suggests that what Joseph said happened did happen. After all, that conclusion.

I have got to go. I will read any response you make but I will let you have the last word.

James Anglin said...

The witness statements do indeed refer to color and engravings. Lead plates in a box do not account for them. The witness statements are suspiciously vague, are collective rather than independent, and are made by Smith's family and friends. To me they simply read like witness statements for the Emperor's New Clothes.

The phrasing "as many of the leaves as the said Smith has translated we did handle with our hands" is also unfortunately (or cleverly) ambiguous. It could mean that the "leaves" that were handled were merely the paper pages of translated text. If the golden pates were only seen, perhaps from a distance, then they might also have been faked — perhaps with a few scraps of copper. And anyway, if lives were at stake I would definitely not be sure that the witnesses weren't just cajoled or bamboozled into letting their names appear under a false statement. So maybe there just never were any golden plates.

The descriptions of hefting a concealed heavy object are more detailed and independent. So maybe the hefting really happened, and was the kernel of truth beneath the husk of golden pretense. It looks as though it would have been pretty easy to fake that kind of thing with lead.

Brooks, how do you arrive at your $8 estimate for the cost in 1830 of 40 pounds of lead? My estimate was only rough, but I'm surprised at it being off by so much as a factor of four. My sources were among the top google hits for the subejcts I mentioned. You can find them, the same way I did, in just a couple of minutes.

Brooks M. Wilson said...

I got my price of lead here https://www.google.com/maps/place/Rock+Island,+IL/@41.4651113,-90.6625155,12z/data=!3m1!4b1!4m5!3m4!1s0x87e232c357044b77:0xecc19371d71475f1!8m2!3d41.5094771!4d-90.5787476
The quoted price is $.20 per lb. or $1.00 per 5 lbs. We both used the lower estimate of weight of 40 lbs. It is fro Illinois and there were lead mines in the state.

I could not find the quote that you mentioned, but at this address https://books.google.com/books?id=KmZMAAAAYAAJ&pg=PA193&lpg=PA193&dq=price+of+lead+in+1830&source=bl&ots=C9b1QqVWW-&sig=X5LpUMrii0r8tuh-WKKapbutzvk&hl=en&sa=X&ved=0ahUKEwj-0pDXueTMAhUKKiYKHS5pABEQ6AEIJjAB#v=onepage&q=price%20of%20lead%20in%201830&f=false
I found the wholesale price of lead. The St. Luis price was $2.37 per hundred lbs and the Baltimore price, $4.00 and the prices were as of 1830. The same book states that,"The prices [of lead] fluctuated with variations in production, demand and facilities for transportation." The book also lists locations of major mines. I doubt that it is a complete list but there were none in the Palmyra area. Transportation would add to the price.

I suspect that the major differences in prices you found are that I used retail price while you used wholesale and that you used British prices converted to dollars. Given that Britain was the richest country in the world at the time, it is likely that they would have enjoyed lower commodity prices.

Ryan said...

James, I understand your view that the witnesses could have either been lying or deceived. A few points to consider- the statement "as many of the leaves..." probably does not refer to English translation pages, as it is coupled with "and we also saw the engravings thereon..." which implies that the leaves, whatever they were, were engraved. So unless Joseph somehow engraved paper, I can't believe that your proposed interpretation is correct. That also seems to rule out the "seen from a distance" idea, because they say the handled whatever was engraved. So from where I stand, what we're left with is either that the witnesses did not handle any leaves at all, or they actually saw and handled metal plates of a golden color with engravings on them. In deciding between those possibilities, it comes down to how we view the remaining evidence. Obviously you find the possibility of Joseph somehow convincing the witnesses to testify of something they never saw to be the more plausible option, and I respect that. But I do think we ought to leave the notion of lead plates off the table. To me, that theory doesn't fit.

Anonymous said...

I don't think I ever insinuated that he was looking for a quick buck. I think the confusion is due to your understanding of what a con man is versus mine (and apparently James' as well).

I think Joseph's plan was evolving based on what he experienced and observed from his supporters and detractors. I think the history supports an evolving take on his part in relation to the BoM. I think he originally thought it would be a money making proposition, then changed the focus to religious conversion.

As for data suggesting that what he said happened did happen. You must realize how tenuous the Mormon position is without physical proof of the plates. I've long been of the mind that if a Joseph Smith came among the church today, with the claims he made and his insistence on faith in his words only, he would be run out even more quickly than he was from New York and Missouri.

James Anglin said...

About the price of lead: Brooks, neither of your links seems to lead me to a price of lead. Perhaps you can check them. I don't doubt that you did find lead prices, but since I can't seem to find the right links, I can't check whether you interpreted them correctly. The point that retail prices in New England might have been much higher than prices per ton in old England is, however, well taken. I still think the conclusion stands, even with a possible factor of four, that 40 pounds of lead would have been valuable but not spectacularly so.

James Anglin said...

About handling leaves in the Statement of Eight Witnesses:

The full statement is "Joseph Smith, Jun., the translator of this work, has shown unto us the plates of which hath been spoken, which have the appearance of gold; and as many of the leaves as the said Smith has translated we did handle with our hands; and we also saw the engravings thereon, all of which has the appearance of ancient work, and of curious workmanship."
There are two semicolons, so it's really not clear whether the engravings in the third clause are on the handled leaves of the second clause, or on the plates of the first clause, which may not have been handled.

It's somewhat odd how the second clause seems to go out of its way to explain that not all the plates were handled. If some of the leaves were somehow sealed or bound, so that they couldn't be handled, then "we handled all the translated ones" would seem to be an awkwardly indirect way to express this. The idea that some pages were sealed and all the unsealed ones were translated has not been explained here. I just don't see how any witnesses would naturally put things this way.

Whereas if what actually happened was that the witnesses were allowed to leaf through paper transcripts, then saw (or thought they saw or convinced themselves that they saw) some engraved golden things at a distant, a witness who remembered doing exactly that might agree to the above statement without even thinking about it, because they would immediately interpret the handling as being of the paper pages that they actually did handle. People who weren't there, on the other hand, would mostly interpret the statement as affirming that engraved golden plates were handled.

The precise phrasing of that sentence in the Statement might be just an unfortunate accidental ambiguity, in a document that wasn't written by lawyers. But I can't help wondering whether it was a clever trick done on purpose, because the interpretation of the sentence is a bit like those bistable images — you know, the one that is either two faces or a single vase, depending on how it strikes your eye. People who had handled paper pages would naturally see only the paper pages interpretation of the sentence, while people who were interested in golden plates would see only the golden plates view. So the witnesses can think they're only agreeing that they saw an appearance, but then their statement can be spun as an attestation that the plates were physically touched.

James Anglin said...

Then there's just the fact that it's "plates" in the first clause but "leaves" in the second. And then a couple of lines later the Statement again mentions "plates" that were "hefted" — an odd redundancy if the clause about handling leaves was supposed to mean that the plates had been handled.

The best honest explanation I can see for using "leaves" instead of "plates" in the second clause is a stylistic desire to avoid repeating the same word too many times. But then it seems to me that someone who was that fussy about style would also want to avoid the repetition of handling and hefting.

Ryan said...

Or maybe "plates" was meant to refer to the collective stack, while "leaves" is intended to refer to individual plates. They handled the leaves to look at them individually and heated the stack to know how heavy they were collectively. John Whitmer's interview with a reporter backs up that interpretation. Rather than true ambiguity, it sounds to me like we're merely dealing with a terminological quibble.

Ryan said...

*"Hefted," not "heated"

James Anglin said...

Ambiguity in a statement is one of the few issues for which terminological quibbles actually are the substantial point that is at stake!

Conceivably "leaves" could have meant individual plates, while "plates" referred to all of them; but this doesn't strike me as an obvious reading, or as a natural way to express the distinction between one plate and many. Anyway, though, my point isn't that you cannot read the Statement as saying that the plates were handled. It's that you don't have to read it that way. It's ambiguous. The Statement of Eight Witnesses exists to affirm the authenticity of the Book of Mormon. So it really ought to be as unambiguous as possible about the definite physical reality of the engraved golden plates.

If the engraved golden plates really were physically handled, then there would be no reason to be less than absolutely unequivocal about affirming this. The unfortunate ambiguity we have would then have to be an honest mistake on the part of whomever composed the Statement, even though they were presumably trying their very best to be clear. If I tell you that an honest person has composed a Statement affirming that some plates were handled, you aren't immediately going to be sure that they'll have screwed up the wording in such a way as to leave a loophole of uncertainty about whether the plates were handled or not. You may anticipate that something like that could have happened, but you won't strongly suspect it in advance. So the ambiguous wording of the Statement is consistent with the plates really being handled, but the theory that the plates really were handled doesn't explain the ambiguous wording of the statement.

On the other hand, if no engraved golden plates actually were handled, but a Statement has been composed to suggest that they were, then you can be pretty sure in advance that the Statement is going to be craftily ambiguous, so that the witnesses who handled paper pages can take it one way, while everyone else will take it the other way. In this sense the fraud theory is not just consistent with the ambiguous Statement we have, but actually explains it.

This is the sort of thing I mean when I say that the Book of Mormon witness statements seem to me to discredit the Book with faint support, in the sense of damning with faint praise. They just are not as strong as the could and should be, if the Book of Mormon were authentic. Instead they only seem to me to be about as strong as they could be, if the Book of Mormon were a fraud.

James Anglin said...

Let me also say that I think a Mormon could see it differently. If I'm thinking of the Book of Mormon as a fraud, then the crafty composition of its witness statements is an issue squarely in the focus of my theory. I expect a solid, data-compressing explanation of funny little details in the statement wording. For me the witness statement wording is going to be a Jupiter rather than a tornado. Flukes can't just get shrugged off.

But if a Mormon were thinking of the Book of Mormon as a real revelation, then it may be perfectly reasonable to expect that the witness statements were composed much less carefully, perhaps even thrown together hurriedly in a state of great excitement. The precise wording of the witness statements is perhaps a mere detail in the umbra of the true prophet theory; a thing like an unpredictable bit of weather, rather than a major planet.

What strikes me as a suspicious weakness may well seem like a meaningless quirk to a believing Mormon. And I'm not saying that this would be unreasonable or stupid. As long as Mormon apologists don't try to convince me that the witness statements are compelling evidence, I can agree to disagree.

The ambiguity extends to the bigger picture.

Ryan said...

Well, then I guess you and I disagree fundamentally about the ambiguity of the statement. I think you are reading in ambiguity that really isn't there. You may as well quibble about what the definition of "is" is. "Leaves" is a perfectly reasonable way to refer to the individual plates, and the fact that "leaves" is the immediate antecedent to "engravings thereon" makes it pretty clear that it is the leaves that were engraved. At any rate, SOMETHING was engraved. But if that's not good enough for you, look up John Whitmer's interview with Wilhelm Poulson, where Whitmer describes having seen engravings on both sides of individual plates (Thus Joseph could not have just shown a solid block of metal from a distance), that the plates were handed to him uncovered and he was able to turn the leaves sufficient to satisfy him (there's that word "leaves" again, in this context unambiguously referring to the plates), and describing the dimensions and other characteristics of the plates.
I also ask you to consider that if Joseph was pulling off some fraud with a block of lead, you must consider that he was trying to hoodwink the witnesses. That means they weren't in on the game. If that is the case, I have a hard time believing that flipping the pages of the "translation" would satisfy them. That suggests that if this was a fraud, either all 8 witnesses were lying, or Joseph actually somehow fabricated plates that were engraved and had the appearance of gold. There is very little room for seeing/hefting a block of lead and turning the pages of a paper book.

Brooks M. Wilson said...


You are probably correct that much of our differences on Joseph’s motives stem from our different understanding of the definition of a con man. I agree with your opinion that Joseph’s focus changed from making a buck to conversion and that it occurred during his long wait to begin translation of the Book of Mormon and its transcription. I am trying to use neutral words for what I believe to be a divine process and you not. Please forgive any inaccuracies in that description. Still, Joseph and his family acknowledge his more financial motives.

I believe that Jospeh simply wanted to sell the plates or other related artifacts. If a baser motive of deliberate fraud for financial gain existed, it must have ended around the time surrounding Alvin’s death in 1823 until he received the plates in 1827. There is no long con ala Christian Gerhartsreiter. There is no conversion of funds from the Book of Mormon project. Remember, his family was destitute during the transcription period. As the church moved west, Joseph had many opportunities to conversion of church funds into personal wealth and it did not occur. In both Kirtland and Nauvoo, and under Joseph’s direction, the church helped the poor arrive and establish themselves and built expensive temples but he never remotely became wealthy.

You wrote, “He not only profited financially, he profited in power, prestige, and influence which, to some people, is more important than money (cough. . .Trump. . .cough).” I agree with the Trump part and I agree that there is sufficient evidence to support an interpretation that Joseph was motivated by power, prestige and influence but the evidence that he was in it for financial gain is lacking and that power, prestige and influence came at a high cost. Some negative theories about Joseph must be abandoned and if there was an evolution from a deliberate financial scheme to and religious scheme, it occurred early on and it was rather honest, at least financially.

The gold plates make all positions tenuous. Traditional Mormon believers must explain their absence, not an easy task. Those believing in deliberate fraud must explain the existence of plates viewed by at least thirteen people and hefted by many others. They must be able to explain the translation process by an illiterate young man and the complexity of the Book of Mormon. Look how James has struggled to explain away some of these facts in this discussion.

I am not attempting to explain away every interpretation of the data but to repeat one last time, some theories need to be eliminated. Financial motivation died by 1827.

James Anglin said...

Ryan, I look at it this way. I imagine myself as a witness who had hefted a heavy box, seen an etched brass surface at a distance (or perhaps merely told myself I saw it with spiritual eyes), and then been handed a stack of handwritten paper pages which I was told were a translation of the ancient plates. If I were asked to sign a statement like the Statement of Eight Witnesses, I could say, "Yeah, I guess that all happened."

But now change "leaves" in the statement to "plates". Suddenly I'm going to say, "Whoa, now – no. I never handled any plates."

So the Statement as it stands has the feature that it can be signed in conscience by a guy like the one I imagined being. That's what I'm getting at. An honestly framed statement might accidentally end up with this feature, but a dishonest one would have to have this feature.

Isn't this suspicious? Honestly, I don't feel as though I'm straining this. On the contrary, I can't believe this ambiguity doesn't at least bother you guys.

I've never read this John Whitmer interview.

Ryan said...

I can't help but see that as a strain. We are agreed that the current phrasing could easily happen in the case of an honest report. I also agree that in the case of fraud, one might very well word it that way to be sneaky. What I see as a strain is the idea that all 8 witnesses would go along with that. Perhaps if the statement in the Book of Mormon were all we had, your argument would be more plausible. But subsequent statements by the witnesses tend to strike down the "Oh, I can say I handled leaves but not plates" theory. When asked by Wilhelm Poulson whether he handled the plates with his hands, John Whitmer responded "I did so!" Seems pretty unambiguous. When asked if they were covered, he said "No. He handed them uncovered into our hands, and we turned the leaves sufficient to satisfy us." Hyrum Smith said of his Liberty Jail captivity, "I felt a determination to die, rather than deny the things which my EYES HAD SEEN, which my HANDS HAD HANDLED, and which I had borne testimony to, wherever my lot had been cast (emphasis added)." Other witnesses similarly testified. That being the case, then, I think it's safe to say we could change "leaves" to "plates" and the witnesses would have agreed, because they later effectively stated as much. I have a hard time seeing any significant ambiguity in the first place, but add the later statements from the witnesses and whatever ambiguity was there vanishes. I'm left then with, as I stated before, the following scenarios:
1) The witnesses were flat-out lying. They were in on the scam. In that case Joseph wouldn't have needed any props. Yet he bought the box.
2) The witnesses handled plates that Joseph either fabricated or had fabricated by someone else. In that case, his props would have had to look like engraved plates with a golden color bound together with D-shaped rings. In that case, you have to explain how he made the plates. A block of lead doesn't cut it, nor do pre-fab lead plates.
3) The witnesses handled plates that Joseph actually found.
All the data together lead me to believe that the theory of Joseph convincing the witnesses to sign a misleading, but not downright false, statement, does not hold up.

Anonymous said...

I really think that there isn't too much of a stretch to reference the individual plates as leaves since leaf is a common term for a single side of a page in a book:


The Golden Plates were fastened together as a book. If the witnesses called the individual plates pages, would that also be troublesome? Was the terminology nailed down for records kept on metal plates?

When I was in my PhD program, I didn't get along with my advisor. A friend told me that for college professors, nothing was too small worth arguing about. ;)


bunker said...

How did he profit?

bunker said...

How did he profit?

James Anglin said...

Yeah, one might well call a plate a leaf. I'm not saying that it's a far-fetched reading of the Statement, to interpret it as saying that the plates were handled. My only concern is that it's not the only reading, and that interpreting "leaf" as "transcript page" is also natural enough that somebody who had actually handled a paper page would naturally read it that way. So it would be the kind of clever ambiguity that a good fraud would need, but that an honest statement would rather avoid if it could.

The other problems with the witness statements are also serious for me. They're vague and they're collective, which again are features that they would have to have if the Book were a fraud, but which could and should have been avoided if the Mormon story were true. They could also have come out the way they are by honest mistake, but that's explaining them as a fluke — which is to say, arguing that one should not expect to explain them.

I'm not sure how you folks are thinking about how different bits of evidence may reinforce each other. When you tell me that there were other statements by John Whitmer and Hyrum Smith, then I think, Okay, we can consider those other statements instead of the Statement of Eight Witnesses. I don't think, Goodness, perhaps the Statement of Eight is more impressive after all. Maybe the Statement of Eight can be supported by other accounts, but I don't feel as though the Statement itself is really a load-bearing wall, you know?

And now when I look at Poulson's account of his interview with Whitmer, I note that the interview took place forty years after the events, shortly before Whitmer's death at age 76, and that Poulson only submitted it for publication after Whitmer had died. So now we're trusting in the accuracy and honesty of Poulson, to transmit memories of Whitmer, which we must trust to be honest and accurate, after forty years. If John Whitmer really handled golden plates, why did that clear statement not come out until after his death, forty years later? Why is a single forty-year-removed posthumous second-hand account the only really unambiguous statement we can find for the tangible reality of the engraved golden plates? And why is that statement also so thin on details about exactly what the plates were like?

So all right, the Whitmer-Poulson account is something; it's hardly as cast-iron as one might wish, though, to convince people that an angel gave a guy golden plates. And of course Hyrum was Joseph's brother. Just because he was his brother doesn't mean he's necessarily lying; but that a man would lie for his brother seems to me like a more common occurrence than angelic plates.

So there are a bunch of different witness statements about the Book of Mormon; but all of them seem to me to have one pretty serious weakness or another. Do you feel that they all add up to something strong, because there are enough of them? Or do you feel instead as though a persistent pattern of flawed evidence for amounts to evidence against?

Ryan said...

I feel that they each individually are pretty strong. Collectively they become even stronger. You see serious flaws where I do not. If I weren't already a member, I don't claim that would convert me. The Holy Ghost should be what does that. But it would certainly give me something to think about.
Meanwhile, I am curious. Taking Steve's last comment under consideration, if you were one of the eight witnesses, how would you have phrased it, assuming the story was true?

Anonymous said...

I think i can answer both of your questions with some quotes ;-)

Kirtland: They lived with Isaac Morley's family while a house was built for them on the Morley farm

At Far West, Joseph, Emma, and their family took up temporary residence with George Washington Harris, a member of the Missouri high council, and his wife, Lucinda Morgan.[9] A short while later, the Church provided the Smith family with a modest two-room frame home.

Joseph Smith moved to the Homestead at Nauvoo, a log house on the eastern bank of the Mississippi River, after escaping from Missouri in April 1839.
The Homestead served as Church headquarters for about two years. Joseph enlarged the home in 1840.

In August 1843 the Prophet and his family moved across the street to the Mansion House.

Did Joseph buy and build these homes with money fom digging wells? Pretty sure he didn't. This is just one example of how he "propheted."

James Anglin said...

Professors believe in scale invariance. How big something is, is purely relative. But more seriously, this is a big part of what interests me. Rival theories don't usually just clash, head to head, by offering incompatible explanations for all the same things. Instead they tend to disagree on what is important, and demands explanation, versus what is insignificant, and can be considered as a product of chance. Scientific or scholarly discoveries have often come about through paying greater attention to details that were previously considered insignificant. The opposite is not so often celebrated, but I think it's also true: discoveries often come by ignoring complications that were previously considered insurmountable, and stepping back to see a forest where people only saw trees. To me the moral is not "Consider every detail" or "focus on essentials", but rather that one should periodically re-assess which things are details and which are essentials. To insist blindly on one classification of what matters and what doesn't is in practice to be very closed-minded: it's like saying that you'll play against anyone as long as they play your favorite game by your personal rules.

For me the precise wording of a witness statement demands explanation, whereas exactly where Joseph Smith might have gotten hold of 40 pounds of lead doesn't. I figure that lead just sometimes turns up, but if somebody writes a text, they have to think about it. Mormons on the other hand might well say, Man, 40 pounds of lead can't just "turn up" — it has to have come from somewhere; whereas a bunch of poorly educated farmers doing their best with an unprecedented situation may just mess up a document in any random way. To Mormons, there may be many points in fraud scenarios that demand more explanation than anyone can provide; whereas plenty of funny little details about the Book of Mormon and its provenance can be shrugged off, as things that don't require any special explanation.

James Anglin said...

Some alternatives to Ryan's three options above:

4) Some of the witnesses were in on the scam, and some were dupes brought in to make a more impressive number.
5) Some or all of the witnesses had doubts, but also desire to believe; so if enough of a show were put on for them, their desires could overcome their doubts, but they couldn't just brazenly lie without any excuse. They were like lonely single people who were more than willing to be seduced, if only a seducer would make a decent pass at them, but had too much pride to accede to a shameless demand.
6) The witnesses saw some things, hefted some others, pretended to see yet other things, and talked themselves into believing that they had seen still others. What they touched was yet again another thing.

All three of these scenarios require some effort at prop-making and manipulation, but not real golden plates.

James Anglin said...

If I really had handled ancient golden plates supplied by an angel, and really wanted to tell the world about one of the most important events in world history, I would say something like this:

On the evening of 14 May, 2016, Mary Jones came into my kitchen with a wooden box, which she opened. Inside it was a stack of about 300 thin golden plates, densely covered in this weird, jagged script. She took the plates out of the box, and let me take them from her hands. I held them myself, in my hands, standing there in my kitchen. They were insanely heavy – like maybe 40 pounds, for a thing the size of a Kleenex box. I held them up to a strong light.

I flipped through the metal pages. They were so thin that they were floppy, like foil, but each page was much heavier than a paper page. [Or else: they were stiff, being metal, not floppy like paper pages.] They were all the exact same shape and size [Or else: they were all slightly different sizes.] They were kind of blotchy, shiny gold and dull brown, in patches [Or else: they were all clean and brightly polished, as if brand new]. Some of them had these long thin, scratches. The writing went right to the edge of each page — there were no margins. The edges were straight, as if cut [Or else: wavy, as if pounded; or ragged, as if torn]. Some were thicker and some were thinner [Or else: they were remarkably uniform in thickness]. They were cold to the touch. I was frightened that I might damage them — they felt fragile [Or else: it didn't occur to me that I might damage them — they felt rugged and robust].

The detailed script on all the pages seemed different, but other than that, they all looked the same. There were no blank pages or chapter headings or illustrations. Just lines and lines of indecipherable characters. After about five minutes of awestruck handling, I gave them back to Mary. She put them back in the box and took them away. I'll never forget this, as long as I live.

Anonymous said...

On point article out today at Interpreter: “Idle and Slothful Strange Stories”: Book of Mormon Origins and the Historical Record. James, you can spend some profitable time reading the sourcing that accompanies the article.

Anonymous said...

Interesting read. Some things in it tickled my brain a bit. Rappleye points out a couple of problems of evidence in the story without really meaning to. The first is a problem many have with the testimony of the three witnesses. Based on the accounts, theirs was a spiritual witness rather than a physical one. Harris wasn't included in the initial witnessing with Smith, Cowdery, and Whitmer because he wasn't yet spiritually prepared. It wasn't until he was alone with Smith that he had his witnessing experience. This spiritual, rather than physical, witness of the plates taints the testimony with doubt.

This brings up the second problem I see, that of the witness of Mary Whitmer (surprising that this was put forth as proof). Her witness is similar to that of the three witnesses except that Joseph, the supposed on-earth, tangible steward of the plates, was not present. To me this weakens the testimony of the others as it seems anyone could be a witness if she cose to do so, with or without Joseph's permission.

Another, larger problem of the witnesses that wasn't addresses in Rappleye's article, is the fact that all witnesses were insiders. There was no outside, independent observer of the plates. All who bore witness of them were already on board with Joseph's cause. A believer can make all sorts of rationalizations and perform mental gymnastics so that their beliefs can sqare with their observations (this blog is explicit evidence of that phenomenon). For the witnesses to have held real, convincing weight, they should have included an outside observer, one who didn't have a vested interest in the outcome of the testimony. Even better would have been a skeptical outsider who was converted as a result of seeing and handling the plates.

A third problem with Rappleye's article is this quote:

"Several left the Church while continuing to bear their witness of the plates. As Richard Lloyd Anderson noted, several were strong-willed individuals who “tended to compete rather than cooperate with [Joseph Smith’s] leadership.”32 Given such circumstances, it would be impossible to keep a conspiracy under wraps, and their tendency to compete with Joseph’s leadership indicates they are not likely to be easily duped."

The problem with this statement is that many of those witnesses who competed with Joseph's leadership sought to establish their own religions (or join with others who had), likely because they saw that Joseph, could do it and saw how he did it, and thought they could replicate it. Some even returned after Joseph's death and tried to assume leadership of the church. It's possible they were less likely to be duped, but it's also possible that they had more to gain by not recanting their testimony.

James Anglin said...

I had the same reaction to Rappleye's argument about "strong-willed" people. In fact the whole argument about witnesses who left the Church but never recanted seems a bit problematic to me. It does mean that people who probably didn't like Joseph Smith didn't withdraw their testimony just to hit back at him; and that's something. But when I hear, "They all left Joseph's Church but still didn't recant," I feel like saying, "Wait, what?" at that first "They all left" part.

They saw an angel deliver golden plates to Joseph Smith. But then they left him? Or competed with him for leadership? Really? Were they hoping to find another prophet with two angels? Were they expecting to get an angel of their own? I mean, lots of Mormons stuck with Smith, without seeing any plates or angels. So why would people who had seen such tremendous proof of him not be at least as faithful as everyone else? What the heck?

Maybe Satan somehow tempted them especially hard, just because they were witnesses. But the other explanation that occurs to me is that whatever they saw or felt, or didn't, actually made them believe in Joseph Smith less, once they thought about it. And then the thought also occurs, that they might have refrained from recanting their testimonies because those testimonies were their own best claims to fame — and if they recanted, they would never be able to un-recant. Their one claim to fame would be forever gone.

This is speculation, of course. But it's speculation to try to resolve a major puzzle that is certainly there. How could people who had really been given tangible proof of Joseph Smith's revelation not remain his faithful followers for life, like all the hundreds who had never had proof?

Anonymous said...

I know, it gives one pause... Judas betrayed Jesus, Peter denied him, there are many unfortunate instances of government workers with high level clearances selling documents to the other side. History is replete with individuals making poor choices in the face of the kind of knowledge that they have. It's crazy but it happens.


Anonymous said...

On a side note that pertains to a recent post about Book of Mormon language. There were two interesting quotes in the article. It appears there is strong evidence that Harris spoke in Early Modern English:

“I do say that the angel did show me the plates containing the Book of Mormon.”

As did John Whitmer:

“I now say I handled those plates. There was fine engravings on both sides. I handled them.”

James Anglin said...

If one selected any random group of eight average early Mormons who were not blood relatives of Joseph Smith, how many of them would have left the movement within ten years? Perhaps one or two? Three or four? Yet all three of the Three Witnesses, and three of the five non-Smiths among the Eight Witnesses, were all soon excommunicated. The other two Whitmers in the Eight died soon after the Book of Mormon was published. So six out of six surviving non-Smiths among the witnesses all left the church within a few years. That must have been an especially high rate of attrition, or the Mormon movement would never have grown.

Even Jesus did have one bad apple in his dozen, though it's not clear from the gospels how many miracles Judas Iscariot had actually seen, or how much he ought to have known about what he was really doing. But the non-Smith witnesses to the Book of Mormon seem to have all been bad apples. Were all those witnesses an especially corrupt or foolish crew, traitors like Judas, who would make poor choices in the face of true knowledge?

What would it say about the Book of Mormon, if all its non-Smith witnesses were such corrupt or foolish people? Weren't the witnesses supposed to be too shrewd and strong-willed to be duped, and too honest to deny what they knew to be truth even if they had wanted to deny it?

How could such shrewd and honest people leave the prophet's church, if they had really seen convincing proofs of the divine revelation?

I'm afraid the fact that so many witnesses left the church seems to put the witness evidence for the Book of Mormon into a double bind. If the witnesses were being corrupt or foolish when they left Smith's church, then how do we know they weren't also being corrupt or foolish when they stood as witnesses for Smith's revelation? If they were wise and honest when they stood as witnesses, how do we know they weren't also being wise or honest when they left the church?

Vance said...

James: you are arguing an issue that is impossible to refute to your satisfaction. Posit: None of the witnesses left. Your argument: they were all in on the fraud.

Posit: lots of them left: They all knew it was a fraud!

Thus, you leave no room for them to, well, not be a fraud. An honest investigator would leave room for the idea that in fact they were telling the truth.

From the point of view of God, however, wouldn't it be more "powerful" as proof for these guys to have a clear beef with Joseph Smith later, leave the church, but they never denied what they saw? That's far more evidentiary powerful than the "well, of course they were faithful--they obviously were part of the fraud!" argument that is raised about people like Hyrum.

The witnesses actually have two separate purposes, thus your "Some of it was spiritual which means nonexistent and we can dismiss it!" is off base.

The 8 witnesses, among others, are there to satisfy the whole "Did Joseph have the plates or not?" Note carefully that they restrict themselves to the existence of the plates and the engravings on the plates. If all we had was the 8 witnesses, what would that show? Well, that Joseph had some plates with carvings. Nothing about whether any translation was accurate.

That's the three witnesses. We aren't expected to believe the plates existed because of the Three witnesses. As you point out, James, it was a "spiritual" witness. You dismiss their evidence because, you say, it could have been hallucinatory. Well, maybe, if they were the only ones. The Eight demonstrate the physical reality of the plates, with absolutely no supernatural flimflammery. But the Three demonstrate that the translation was true and that God approved of what Joseph was doing. The 8 show the existence, the 3 show it's approved of God. The witnesses were designed by God to demonstrate and provide evidence for two separate questions; namely whether 1) the plates existed and 2) whether God was involved in the process.

As for your "How could they possibly have fallen away?" stuff: angels and miracles do not provide lasting conversion. How many times did Moses lose people, despite all the miracles they had seen? Jesus lost Judas... but He also lost lots of people after they had seen the miracles of the loaves and fishes when He gave the "Bread of Life" sermon. As for why many if not most of the witnesses fell away; God had reasons, first of all. Second, most of them knew they were "better" than Joseph and could do a better job. When they couldn't, well, pride reared its ugly head.

James Anglin said...

I do allow some possibility, in principle, that the 8+3 witnesses might have been wise and honest when they allowed their names to be put to those statements, but then have somehow gone downhill later and fallen out with Joseph Smith. I am not claiming to present a compelling case against Mormonism.

In fact I doubt that such a logically compelling case can be made. I'm not Mormon, and don't really see how I could become one, so Mormon answers to seeming problems don't always come naturally to me; but from time to time I think I can see a consistent Mormon answer of some kind or other, and then I try to suggest it here. The particular Mormon answers that other people provide here often surprise me, but I am not surprised by the fact that answers exist. I generally assume that they do.

My point is rather negative: the witness statements are far from being compelling evidence for Mormonism. There are problems with them. They have some disquieting features, which in some ways fit well with a fraud theory.

The Statement of Eight Witnesses has some tendency to support the physical reality of the plates, and an intelligent Mormon may well believe the Statement (and believe that it means the plates were handled despite the awkward "leaves" formulation). By no means, however, does the Statement "demonstrate" the physical reality of the plates. If you think it does, I think you're kidding yourself. An intelligent and honest-minded person can absolutely read the Book of Mormon witness statements, check out all the available historical evidence, and conclude, "Nope — it was a fraud." That conclusion might not even seem like a difficult decision; but it does not require foolishness or laziness or wickedness. It's a perfectly reasonable way of looking at the evidence we have.

If you have reasons besides the Witness Statements for believing in the Book of Mormon, then I don't think any of my speculations about the witnesses should sway you from your belief. On the other hand, if you have your own doubts about the Book, but feel compelled to believe in it because of those incontrovertible Witness Statements, then I guess I am telling you that they're not really so incontrovertible. I'm sorry, but that's the truth as I see it.

Anonymous said...

God knows whether you're being a Laodicean, James. It is not for me to judge. And if you don't believe in God, then my apologies, and as my friend would say, he believes in you. Cheers.

James Anglin said...

As it happens, I believe in God. If you add up Christians, Muslims, and Hindus, a clear majority of human beings believe in God. In particular I'm a sort of Anglican-Lutheran hybrid. I don't think I'm lukewarm about my own faith. I'm just skeptical about the Mormon faith.

And I'm also skeptical about the power of reason and evidence to support religious belief. When someone points to some fact and declares, "There are no reasonable explanations for this fact except my belief," then my experience suggests that that person has simply failed to think seriously about other explanations. I respect faith, and I believe that God does, too. I'm not a fan of simply kidding oneself. And I don't think God values that, either.

Vance said...

I must confess, James, that your position seems a bit baffling. The Eight witnesses was offered as proof of the physical existence of the plates, with engravings and people turning pages. Now, you've parsed it to the point where maybe kinda if we are being technical it is possible they were pulling a fast one and meant pages of paper and so forth.... but that's incredulous. The point of the 8 Witnesses was to say, "We saw the plates." That's what until I read your statement, everyone took it to mean. Including the 8 witnesses.

To say that in reality they were stating they had seen engravings reproduced on paper and multiple objects and carefully weaved a narrative that only appears to suggest they handled the gold plates: well, what's the difference between that and they just flat out lied?

I mean, their testimony has always been pointed to as evidence of the physical existence of the plates. For you to claim that they really meant something else and were just fine with Joseph and the Mormons trumpeting this (false) interpretation of their statement really is just another "they were liars."

Your view of "Well, with the right hyper technical legal parsing, it's possible that they made an accurate statement but the plates didn't really exist!" is rather ludicrous. Everyone knew their statement was the primary evidence for the physical existence of the plates. If they were truthful, then they wouldn't have allowed this "Well, the plates didn't really exist, but we didn't lie to make that statement!" bit. They would have spoken up and said something like, "No, we really just handled the leaves of the finished book and Joseph twisted it." Or else they were not truthful, in which case why not lie about it completely? Your half version ("Well, technically speaking it's possible for this to all be true and not true!") is nonsense, James, and you know it.

Mormography said...

Vance –

If the evil conspirators existed, they would have changed the 116 pages to contradict any retranslations or new translations. Therefore, the 116 pages scenario was not just a learning experience. It also bought the three Nephites time to execute the evil conspirators so that a whole nation would not dwindle in unbelief.

James Anglin said...

I got distracted by the later threads and didn't notice this response here by Vance until now.

My position is that the Statement of Eight Witnesses is unconvincing, and even worse. It actually arouses suspicion, because it has features that could and should have been avoided if the plates were genuine, but that would be necessary features if they were a fraud.

First of all it's a vague statement that says almost nothing about the physical features of the plates. Secondly the witness names are all put to one collective statement, instead of them providing independent accounts. Thirdly the witnesses were all closely connected to Joseph Smith in personal ways. And fourthly the language is weaselly in a couple of crucial places, allowing loopholes for alternate readings that do not unequivocally endorse the physical reality of the plates.

You argument seems to be, Vance, that whatever limitations the Statement may have had, it was widely represented as an unequivocal affirmation of physical plates. If the witnesses heard their statement misrepresented (I understand you to say), they would surely have corrected the misinterpretation, and explained what they really meant.

If that's your point, I think you're projecting back too much later history to the time of the witnesses. Nowadays the physical reality of the plates is a huge sticking point, and Mormon apologists point earnestly to the witness statement in order to establish it. Was it even such a big deal, though, back then?

The casual attitude to physical detail which is displayed by the Statement itself implies a similar attitude in its intended audience. So, no, I don't think that the witnesses would have been much troubled with people over-interpreting their vague statements in more concretely literal terms than they ever intended. I doubt that the issue even came up much.

And if such a casual public attitude seems hard to swallow even for the magical worldview of old New England, then let me put it this way: it's exactly as hard to swallow as the fact that the Statement of Eight Witnesses is itself so vague about something as fundamentally important as the detailed physical characteristics of the plates. You have to swallow either both, or neither.

Morgan said...

This whole long dialogue is motivated by a desire to find the truth of the existence of the golden plates. For many, perhaps most, Mormons their participation in the church hangs on faith, meaning belief without proof, often expressed as a testimony, and the idea that the church is "true." There is another connotative meaning to the word faith, that is, when we talk of having faith in a person. The oldest meaning of faith was trust. In my 66 years of experience I have found that I can have faith in people who believe in things I don't believe. These people were trustworthy in the sense that they had good intentions and followed through with competent action. The same goes for institutions.

I grew up in the church and found it to be a safe and loving place to be as opposed to the public School in St. Louis. However, by the time I was old enough to go on a mission, I did not have a testimony. Love for the church and its people, I did have, but I really could not say it was "true." Because of the preoccupation of so many Mormons with "having a testimony," "without a shadow of doubt" I felt I couldn't be a Mormon. I left the church hoping to find some alternative community that would give me all the beauty, love, and sense of purpose the church had provided. It never happened. I visited dozens of churches and read about hundreds. My experience in other churches has been disappointing. I am reconciled to the idea that there is no "true" church.

Now, for instance, I know of Hopi Indians and people of other nations who live in two worlds . On the one hand the Hopi understand modernity and make use of it, but they prefer to live in a world of make believe. It is just more comforting for them to live among friends and relatives who like the story of how Spider Woman led the people from the previous world through the sipapu into this world and are quite willing to believe that the tiny sipapu in the kiva is an actual portal from a spirit world different in nature from the world we live in. Further, the merit of the tiny sipapu is established by the notion of the actual sipapu in the Grand Canyon.

I happen to like the stories in the Mormon scriptures and much else, like the children's song "give said the little stream" and the unique system of non-professional church governance, and the fact that the church has a rational welfare system. I like and largely trust Mormons in a way that is harder to come by among gentiles.

So, I wonder if Mormanity has room for a dialogue about being in the church and not having a testimony. I really think that Joseph Smith was a genius who was also a rube, and probably a con man, as horny as Bill Clinton, who never the less created a new kind of spiritual and social community that has evolved erratically into a grander institution than he imagined. It has been molded by experience and the hearts and minds of the likes of Lisa Roxy Snow, Brigham Young, Levi Savage, Porter Rockwell, David O. McKay and my own ancestors. Can I be a Mormon and not believe that Mormon was a real person? Is it enough that I believe in Mahonri Moriancumer the same way I believe in Santa Clause. Yes, Virginia there is a Liahona and God does live in a place called Kolab.

James Anglin said...

The best responses to Morgan will be from other Mormons, but for what it's worth I can maybe share a related perspective.

I don't believe in Santa Claus, and I don't really believe in the details of the traditional Christmas story about Jesus's birth, either. I do believe he was born, but I can't help noticing how drastically the two Biblical accounts of his birth differ from each other, and that makes me feel that I can't rely on either of them to be strictly accurate. So I'm agnostic about all the angels and shepherds and stars that are so big at Christmas. I still sing along with the carols, though, and even read out the lessons. I don't feel bad doing that, because I don't really feel that church Christmas pageants are making strong claims for literal truth of all the details. They're just performing a sort of traditional ritual whose only serious claim is that Jesus somehow arrived in the world. I do believe in that basic claim, so I'm fine with the Christmas performances.

For most of the rest of the year, though, I work at research and teaching in theoretical physics. I'm trying to understand the universe that God has made and still sustains. I believe quite seriously in a trinitarian God, and often think about how an analogous triad of background, pattern, and detail appears when human beings experience the natural world. I think I have about as simple and direct a sense of working directly with the ultimate power in which I believe as any pagan who is painting an idol.

So I'm agnostic about the beginnings of Matthew and Luke, but I take the beginning of the Gospel of John quite literally (insofar as you can call it "taking it literally" when the text is so abstract). I find no great trouble in taking some parts of traditional Christianity in a Santa-Claus-like way, but I think my life would be very different, and I think I would be a very different person, if I didn't believe in other parts of my faith in dead earnest. Among other things, I doubt I would hang around for Christmas pageants, if I really thought the whole faith was just like Santa Claus.

Morgan said...

We are not so far apart except I think you under estimate Santa Clause. Our world would be greatly impoverished without fables, myths, and other lore. Lore teaches us what science can not. Huston Smith's recent book, "Why Religion Matters" makes this case very well. It may be this distinguished scholars last and most important work. Modernity and its close cousins scientism and dialectical materialism offer meagre guidance for how we should live our lives. Your triune God is invisible through these lenses. Jeremy Bentham attempted to reduce morality into an equation and ends up with an impossible process.

A good Christmas time read is "Hogfather." Sir Terry Pratchett, the author, though an agnostic, never the less grasps the importance of fable in his hilarious book, where in Christmas is anthropomorphized as Hogfather. Anthropomorphized Death discovers that Hogfather is missing and goes on a quest to find out what has happened to him. It is an urgent mission because Death knows that if Hogfather does not show up for his annual journey the universe will cease to exist. It's absurd, I know, and yet I found the story both funny and touching. Death saves Christmas.

James Anglin said...

Scientism isn't much like science, in my experience. The real universe is a stranger and more wonderful place than any mythic realm I know; the error of the myths is not believing in magic, but just in believing that magic is simpler than it actually is. Electric motors are miracles; they require faith, but only in the sense that you need to invest time and effort to make one. Or so it seems to me.

I've never read Pratchett. A horrible admission, but there it is. If he had only written three books, I probably would have read them, but by the time I started getting the idea that I should read him, I just didn't have time to read so much. Maybe this Christmas I'll look out for Hogfather, though.

Morgan said...

What? James. You blaspheme. THE SCIENCE IS SETTLED.

Ah well, there is something good that comes from bigotry cloaked in a lab coat. It's comforting to see that other people besides Mormons can be dogmatic.

I would still like to hear from a Mormon about whether "belief" or a testimony are the only grounds for being a Mormon. I know there are cultural mormons in Utah and Idaho, but not where I live. The Roman church is interesting that way. If you want to become a Catholic you have to go through a very narrow belief gate to get in. However, people who are born Catholic frolic in a much bigger court yard. They believe in things which would make a Jesuit shriek.

Everything Before Us said...


I would be very interested in why your science background encourages you to believe seriously in a trinitarian God. Would you care to elaborate on that?


Jeff Lindsay said...

Morgan, yes, there's room for those who like the Church but don't like major factors like Joseph Smith, the Temple, the scriptures or parts thereof, etc. But once you've gone past uncertainty or doubt to feeling like you can dismiss him as rube (with such unflattering and harsh language), the distance is rather great. I'm curious about what keeps you involved and how much involvement there is? I'm also curious about your experience with the Book of Mormon? For some of us a great deal of what makes the Church meaningful and relevant is the personal, spiritual connections that come through studying the scriptures and seeking to live the precepts of the Church, which would be hard or impossible to do if we thought it was all a fake man-made organization.

Everything Before Us said...

I'm also curious about your experience with the Book of Mormon? For some of us a great deal of what makes the Church meaningful and relevant is the personal, spiritual connections that come through studying the scriptures and seeking to live the precepts of the Church, which would be hard or impossible to do if we thought it was all a fake man-made organization.

I'm not Morgan, obviously.

The precepts of the church are really not much different from the precepts of all Christians everywhere. There is certainly a debate about certain doctrines, but in terms of lifestyle, all Christians generally agree.

So, living Christian precepts as a Mormon is not much different from living Christian precepts as a Lutheran, or as a Methodist, or as a Presbyterian. The feeling of the Spirit that comes from living these precepts has nothing to do with denomination. One shouldn't assume that a spiritual red stamp on one's good Christian life is an indication that one's denomination is God's one true church.

In fact, devote Buddhists often live in what could be described as a very Christian way. Yet, Buddhism is a "man-made" organization, according to Mormons. If it isn't, then I am not sure what exactly an organization would have to look like to be labeled "man-made" by a Mormon.

That is a good question right there: From the Mormon point of view, what is a "man-made" organization? Let's have a list. Just a few. Is the Catholic Church a "man-made" organization?

If so, is it "hard or impossible" for Catholics to have personal, spiritual connections as Catholics?

See, this talk about "man-made" vs "God-made" organizations is very typical of Mormon rhetoric, but I am not sure what anyone really means by it.

Are you saying that people in "man-made" religions can only have spiritual connections if they are duped enough to believe their religion isn't man-made?

Or are you saying that spiritual connections in these kinds of organizations is literally impossible? It makes a big difference.

If you accept the former, then your own spiritual connections may actually be more a sign that you are duped than a sign that you are in the one true church.

If you believe the latter, then you have to account for all the spiritual connections people who are not Mormons have in their respective "man-made" religions.

Morgan said...

Thanks for responding. I am sorry if my blunt expression offended. I do think Joseph Smith was a rustic, that is, a person of limited education, a rube. I also said he was a genius. He learned fast and with age he became eloquent, deeply insightful about inconsistencies in the protestant churches of his day, he was both inspired and inspirational, and he ultimately martyred himself for what he believed in. On the other hand, he did some very foolish things. Marrying himself to a 16 year old servant in his own house secretly from his his wife and everyone else is hard to warrant. Wrecking the newspaper office in Nauvoo was an impulsive blunder. Yet, a close study of Calvin, Luther, George Fox and any number of Popes shows equally compromised or just odd leaders, sometimes much worse than Joseph Smith. So I don't judge religions by its founders or its leaders. I look at the character of its community and its members.

I read the BOM growing up and was serious about it. I wanted a testimony and prayed that God would "manifest the truth of it unto (me), by the power of the Holy Ghost." It didn't happen. When it was about time to get that mission call, I still had no confirmation. So instead, I joined the Army and went to Viet Nam. There my Mormonism protected me. I did not drink, or smoke, or take narcotics, thus I was alert and able to follow the training I had been given. I got no sexually transmitted disease. I was like one of Helaman's 2000 and rose quickly in the Army.

After my tour I went to BYU, still without a testimony, but Utah has perfectly good desert, so I went there to find a testimony and lost 31 pounds in 28 days in fasting and prayer and still did not get a testimony. I did have a religious experience, which happens to many, although not most people. See "The Varieties of Religious Experience: A Study in Human Nature" by William James. Those who have had such an experience can no more deny the existence of God than deny the sky is blue. Like the Brother of Jared, "I had faith no longer, but knew, nothing doubting."

Mormon doctrine claims that we are here to learn to be like God. We are here is to learn to make moral decisions and accept the consequences of making those decisions and grasp the flaws and virtues of their often mixed results. I was challenged to take responsibility for deciding what church was right, and for that matter, what was right for my whole life. God was not going to be my answer man. Prayer is helpful, but ultimately, it is our decision.

My conclusion, at this juncture, is that Joseph Smith was right that Christianity had been corrupted. There was no true church. His mistake was to create a new church that was going to be the true church, not merely a better church. There still is no true church. Whatever church Jesus may have created was flawed right outside the gate because it was made of people. It is the same with the Mormon church. The Mountain Meadows Massacre is proof of that. Parley P. Pratt getting himself shot in Arkansas while pursuing another man's wife is proof of that. The sordid doctrine that floated around when I was young about blacks and the mark of Cane is proof of that.

Which is not to say, that other churches don't have their problems. I have met people who have Catholic damage, Pentecostal damage, atheist damage, and Mormon damage. They all need a refuge from the confused and abusive people and institutions who are supposed to help them but who have hurt them.

So, what I admire about Mormonism is the character of its community, which in my experience, has been mostly wholesome most of the time. I could praise the best qualities of the church and count the flaws in the protestant churches I have attended and worked in, but I think it's best to try and compare churches by the good they do rather than their flaws.

Does that clarify things?

James Anglin said...

I'm curious about what features of Mormonism would be identified by Mormons as distinctive. Apart from the issue of whether the LDS Church is right or true: how is it simply different?

Catholics can point to a spiritual atmosphere thick as incense with the lives of all those saints, and to an ongoing personal commitment to examination of conscience and confession. Mainstream Protestants emphasize personal study of the Scriptures and a direct relationship with God. Pentecostals are big on spiritual gifts like prophecy and speaking in tongues, and on the sense that conversion to Christ really makes a huge difference in the here-and-now.

Suppose we set aside the argument about whether Mormon thought and practice must be right, whatever they are, because they are what God Restored through Joseph Smith, and instead just ask what there is in Mormon practice and thought that would be valuable or ring true in real life, no matter how they were developed. What things would one list?

I'm not asking skeptically. I expect there's a good answer. Maybe several.

Morgan said...

Distinctive Features

Terryl and Fiona Givens book, "The God Who Weeps: How Mormons Makes Sense of Life," is a comprehensive and eloquent explanation of the profound differences between Mormonism and other Christian denominations.

Here are a few points.

*An open canon

*A highly organized community but one not driven or controlled by professional clergy. There is no clergy and lay. Everybody is clergy. Thus, I tend to think of religion as work as much as worship. Other Christian denominations seem more like theatre.

*Mormons don't pass the plate. Resources are distributed world wide so that Mormons all over the world have a similar religious experience.

* A concept of preexistence of souls in which we participate in the decision to enter mortal life.

* I kind of universalism in which no one will be damned unless they damn themselves.

* A robust vision of what heaven is—being part of sublime creative community.

Everything Before Us said...

*An open canon

But it can only be filled by certain people who, since 1978, have not added one revelation or prophecy to it.

*A highly organized community but one not driven or controlled by professional clergy. There is no clergy and lay. Everybody is clergy. Thus, I tend to think of religion as work as much as worship. Other Christian denominations seem more like theatre.

It IS controlled by professional clergy. The General Authorities, where the buck stops, are all paid.

As far as everyone being clergy, at least in the Anglican tradition, all church goers have "ministry." Some have an ordained ministry (bishops, priests, deacons), and the rest have a lay ministry.

So this is not unique to Mormonism.

As far as theatre goes...I don't think you've been to the temple, where patrons indeed sit in a theatre and watch a movie. And this is said to be the highest expression of the Mormon faith.

*Mormons don't pass the plate. Resources are distributed world wide so that Mormons all over the world have a similar religious experience.

No, they don't pass the plate, but they are told that if they do not pay tithing, they will be denied the presence of their families for all eternity, that they'll burned at the last day. And there is absolutely zero accountability for where all this money goes. Zero! The Episcopal Church reveals its budget, on its website. Two clicks, and you can see all their financial info. The LDS church stopped doing this in the late 50's, at the time that it got heavily involved in investment funding under N. Eldon Tanner, who pulled the church out of a deficit of several million dollars.

* A concept of preexistence of souls in which we participate in the decision to enter mortal life.

But if we choose not to enter, we are damned. The concept of a pre-existence muddies the theological waters. It begins to open the door for the occultic doctrines of God as an exalted man, the plurality of gods, eternal progression as a state of polygamist increase, etc, etc, etc.

* I kind of universalism in which no one will be damned unless they damn themselves.

But in Mormonism, there are two definitions of damnation. 1. Outer darkness. 2. Anything except exaltation. In Mormonism, even the saved can be damned. One can be saved in a degree of glory but damned in that they are cut off from the presence of the Father, their family, and their progression.

* A robust vision of what heaven is—being part of sublime creative community.

Not too different from the rest of Christianity.

So, yes....Mormonism has some unique elements, but they all come with a catch.

Morgan said...

The differences I mentioned are sometimes different in kind and sometimes in scale. I speak with considerable familiarity with both Mormonism and Protestant culture. I did go to the temple and I had my endowment. I'm also a freemason so I'm privy to two secret/sacred "cults," as it were. At present I am the board chair for Buildings and Grounds for a Disciples of Christ church.

The very fact that the canon WAS expanded ever so little, makes the case. Those Christians who are fixed on sole scriptura can't cope with the Book of Thomas.

Sure. There is a Mormon joke.

"Do you know what the difference is between sacred and secret"?
"Sacred is what the temple ceremony is, Secret is what the church financial records are."

Never the less, the Mormon church in the less wealthy part of Indianapolis is just as nice, nearly identical, to the church in the upscale suburb. A great deal of money goes to build churches and other facilities in places that could not otherwise have it. I compare this to the church I know attend. The congregation built this beautiful building in 1950 and payed for the building for a congregation in Africa. Sixty years later, the previous paster embezzled $350,000 dollars from the church because he could. He was clever, but the congregation didn't want to do the work or assert the authority to prevent such a thing. New pastor, not likely to be an embezzler, but the same sheepish behavior by the congregation.

There is also a vast difference in scale. Yes some of the General Authorities are paid salaries or receive services in kind like housing and all the curia in the Church Offices are paid. Some General Authorities are so wealthy by the time they receive their office they are only compensated for expenses. Meanwhile the elaborate volunteer governance are not paid anything at the parish, diocese, and archdiocese level. This is a significant difference.

I was just telling you how I think Mormonism is different without considering whether you might like it or not. There are some things I find horrific in mainstream Christianity, like the notion of Christ the cosmic whipping boy who dies for our sins. From life, I don't think it works that way. When I was a military commander and had authority to discipline I never found some just punishment. The scales are never balanced, and the scales are mostly irrelevant. What I wanted from my wondering soldier was a change of heart and mind.

I don't think you have this quite right. First you need to dump the word salvation. In mainstream Christianity we start out damned and and get saved or not. Mormon's progress or don't and that is there choice. No one is being forced to progress. You go when you are ready. I got crosswise with a Mormon seminary teacher once. I asked if the three kingdoms (or the many mansions) to which we go are like different trains (Express, Passenger, Freight) running on the same track of progression. He was adamant that they were separate tracks. He was offended by the idea that someone less valiant. as they say, could ultimately be exalted just by taking longer. He was comfortable with damnation. I am not. I don't think God damns anybody. God is like the father of the prodigal son—ever ready to receive us when we mature. I offer this because, growing up, my father and the other adults would go round and round about these theological ideas. I rarely find conventional Christians engaging this way.

Yup, Mormon catches, Buddhist Catches, Evangelical catches. All three beat dialectical materialism.