Got an interesting email recently telling me that I’m completely lost for believing that there are Book of Mormon evidences. The critic also said that the Book of Mormon was obviously a fraud because Joseph Smith sent some people to Canada to sell the copyright there. That story often comes up in anti-Mormon literature and deserves a little attention (just a little). What follows is my response, which contains some text from my LDSFAQ (Mormon Answers) page on Prophets and Prophecies.
Thanks for the note. I may not be as lost as you think. Some critics has asserted that the effort to sell the copyright in Canada indicates that the Book of Mormon was obviously a fraud. If you begin with the assumption that the book is a fraud, I can understand how one could view the event in that manner. But if one takes a more open-minded approach, is it possible that an attempt to sell some rights in a small nation outside of one’s operational base could be interpreted as something other than an implicit and cynical admission of fraud? Could it have been a reasonable effort to deal with financial stress?
Here is some background from my LDSFAQ area, if you’re interested:
Here is the story as summarized by anti-Mormon Dick Baer (as cited by SHIELDS-Research.org):
Winter 1829-1830. An Address To All Believers In Christ, David Whitmer, pages 30-31. Joseph Smith sent Hiram Page and Oliver Cowdery to Toronto, Canada to sell the copyright of the Book of Mormon in response to a revelation that he claimed to have received from God.
The mission and the revelation was a total failure as recorded by David Whitmer. When Joseph Smith was asked why the revelation had failed he answered that he did not know how it was. David Whitmer records that Joseph Smith “…enquired of the Lord about it, and behold the following revelation came through the stone: ‘Some revelations are of God: some revelations are of man: and some revelations are of the devil. So we see that the revelation to go to Toronto and sell the copy-right was not of God, but was of the devil or the heart of man.”
Many people, including B.H. Roberts, have taken Whitmer’s widely-quoted account at face value, more or less. Roberts actually asked if Whitmer’s account was correct, would it still be possible to accept Joseph as a prophet? He then answered affirmatively. Some anti-Mormons, like Norman Geisler, claim that Roberts admitted to a false prophecy from Joseph. This is not the case.
David Whitmer’s account may not be reliable. He wrote it in 1887, long after the events he described and long after Joseph Smith was dead. Whitmer wrote it at a time when he was hostile toward the Church. Since the evidence for this allegedly failed prophecy is a secondary source from someone who was hostile at the time, written at a time long removed from the events reported, it cannot be given much weight.
Joseph Smith may have received permission from the Lord to cause some men to go to Canada in hopes of selling the copyright. This was a time when the Church was facing financial difficulty — perhaps selling some rights in Canada could have helped. As I understand the event, the possibility being explored was the sale of Canadian rights only, not rights in the U.S. In a time of financial distress, it may have been a reasonable possibility to consider.
I suppose that when David Whitmer heard about the trip and some prophecy associated with it, he assumed that it was necessarily a prophecy guaranteeing success, which, as we will see, was not the case at all. Years later, as a bitter ex-Mormon, having been away from the Church for 50 years, his recollection of the event may have been colored by his feelings.
Importantly, when B.H. Roberts addressed this issue, he was unaware of the most important information about the event, the personal statement of one of the participants, Hiram Page. The FAIR Wiki’s article, “Did Joseph Smith attempt to sell the Book of Mormon copyright?” explains:
Hiram Page, who was one of the individuals sent to Canada, laid out the event in a letter in 1848. Page wrote that the revelation Joseph Smith received conditioned success upon whether those individuals in Canada capable of buying the Book of Mormon copyright would have their hearts softened. When unable to sell the copyright, the four men returned to Palmyra. Hiram Page stated he for the first time understood how some revelations given to people were not necessarily for their direct benefit–in fact, Hiram Page believed that the revelation was actually fulfilled. . . .
Hiram Page’s 1848 account of the Canadian Mission trip was sent to William McLellin. Because it was private correspondence, its existence and details were unknown until the 1930’s, when the letter was donated to the RLDS Church’s archives as part of a larger collection of McLellin materials. The content of the letter was not broadly known until after the document was stolen in 1985, but a copy of the original was donated by a private collector around the year 2000 who had made a copy prior to the theft of the original.
Further details are on the FAIR Wiki site. As far as we know, none of the actual participants of the Canada expedition were troubled by Joseph’s prophecy — and at least one of them came back from the even with added respect for his role as a prophet. Hardly the fiasco that Whitmer, with no first-hand knowledge, described 50 years later, long after he had left the Church and had become upset with Joseph. Whitmer’s description of the event is also where we are introduced to the questionable statement ascribed to Joseph that allegedly served as his excuse for the failed prophecy: “Some revelations are of God: some revelations are of men: and some revelations are of the devil.” I think David’s jaded memory of events might be more responsible for this story than a prophetic fiasco from Joseph Smith.
I’m grateful that Hiram Page’s comments regarding this event were not entirely lost from the world!
As for there being no evidence in support of the Book of Mormon, for starters, shouldn’t the discovery of excellent candidates for places like Nahom, Shazer, Bountiful, the River Laman, and the Valley Lemuel count for something? Perhaps you didn’t read my page at mormonevidence.com, but there are quite a number of things which can provide a prima facie rebuttal to the claim that there isn’t a bit of evidence in favor of the Book of Mormon. Not that we can claim to prove it’s true — no, certainly not — but we can provide some answers to objections and some interesting evidence of plausibility for those interested in evaluating the book. Of course, if you start with the assumption that you know something is absolutely false, it’s hard to imagine what kind of evidence could possibly soften that position – so I’m not expecting you to say, “Oh, wow, I guess you’re right!” But I hope you will realize there is a role played by the assumptions you bring to the table when you discuss the Book of Mormon – don’t make the mistake of thinking you have an entirely objective position. The same, of course, applies to me as well.
Best wishes from Wisconsin!
OK, the Canada expedition, whatever it was, isn’t one of those highly faith-promoting stories that we might like to hear, but one of many things that just didn’t turn out well in Church history. That’s life, unfortunately, but not the thing slam-dunk cases for fraud are made of.
The Restoration of the Gospel, just like the journey of the Hebrews from bondage to the promised land or even the rise of Independence in the United States (in my biased perspective), is a long tale of disappointment, mundane drudgery, and human weakness — punctuated with a few moments of divine inspiration and glory that made all the difference. To make too much of the setbacks and signs of human weakness at the neglect of the critical moments of divine intervention and inspiration will lead to unwarranted cynicism and simply missing the real and joyous crux of the matter.