Troubled by Mormon History?

History can be troubling, for it often challenges the neat views we have of how things are. The reality is that every life is flawed and every hero except the Savior had weaknesses. The problem with history is how easily it can be manipulated. The winners of wars rewrite the history to vilify the losers. Those in power rewrite history to glorify their status and hide their faults. Whether it’s the history of mankind, the history of this nation, or the history of the Church, the are several different camps with their own agendas and their own tendency to select what events and data to focus on. All very natural. It’s important to understand that what we get from Sunday School might not reflect some of the warts and problems in our own history. But I think it’s even more important to understand that “history” in the hands of critics and cynics might completely overlook some of the most important events and data that would be important for someone wondering if there is any merit to the Church and the Restoration.

The possible failings of Joseph Smith in various stages of his life take on less significance if we can determine that he actually had ancient golden plates from an angel of God. Think about that. If the story of the divine origin of the Book of Mormon has actual support, and if the Book of Mormon did have its origins in genuine gold plates received with the help of an angel of God – now stop rolling on the floor, this is a serious question! – would that have any impact on how we should evaluate Joseph Smith in light of, say, the Kirtland Bank disaster or the problem of polygamy? I think it must dramatically affect the perspective we take on Joseph. Prophet of God with some human failings, or con man from the beginning?

A history of the Church written with the assumption that there is no such things as prophets of God will inevitably overlook important elements. A history written by someone whose goal is not to review history but to challenge faith will suffer much more serious distortions and deletions of data. There is good reason to be troubled by that kind of Mormon history.

Scott Gordon recently gave a talk (now available at that addressed the issue of people troubled by our history. He asked a few insightful questions:

For those who claim our history is a problem for the church, I have to ask what they are reading for history.

Does the history they read include the lives, histories, and testimonies of the witnesses who said over and over again that they had seen the plates and they had seen an angel?

Does it include the story of Martin Harris complaining how heavy the plates were as he held them on his lap for an hour and a half?

Does it include Martin Harris saying, “Well as sure as you see my hand so sure did I see the angel and the plates”?

Does it include Oliver Cowdery speaking of the Book of Mormon translation from his deathbed and saying, “I know that whereof I testified is true. It was no dream, no vain imagination of the mind–it was real”?

Does it include the story of Katharine, Joseph Smith’s sister hiding the plates in her bed?

Does it include the quote from John Whitmer as he says, “I handled those plates; there were fine engravings on both sides”?

Does the history include the many reports from others who also saw angels? Or the 121 independent eyewitness accounts of the mantel of Joseph Smith being passed on to Brigham Young on August 8, 1844, such as the one from nine-year-old William Van Orden who suddenly turned to his mother and said, “The Prophet [is] not dead, for I [see] him on the stand”?

An understanding of Church history demands that the witnesses of the Angel Moroni and the many more witnesses of the gold plates be accounted for. Different times, different circumstances, with no one – not single person – denying the reality of what they saw, even when some were later excommunicated or upset with Joseph. To their deathbed, they stayed true to this testimony, with no personal gain to be had.

Witnesses, a genuine primary source of information. Understanding the testimony of witnesses, especially the witnesses to the Book of Mormon, is the key to faithful, accurate history.


Author: Jeff Lindsay

117 thoughts on “Troubled by Mormon History?

  1. Hi Jeff,

    Can you imagine it if archaeologists suddenly find a Nephite/Lamanite city? If such a thing occured, can you imagine the pandemonium?! Civilisations would be rocked. Archaeology would be turned upside-down, inside out. Such a finding would certainly make people re-think about subjects like spirituality…

    Can you imagine that? Cities discovered – lost within the confines of history suddenly comes ALIVE – because of a VISION received by a mere 14 year old boy?

    Like the late Mr. Hinkley said, the Mormon faith lies at the heart of Joseph Smith’s first vision when he was 14 years old…if it is true, then…

    if it is false, then…


  2. Yawn. Nahom, Bountiful, the Valley of Lemuel, the River Laman, Shazer, the south-southeast route, the due east path from Nahom to Bountiful, the 7th century BC altar from the ancient area of Nahom/Nehem confirming the that the tribal name Nihm/NHM was present when Lehi passed through that region. All of these recent discoveries from the Arabian Peninsula – where our knowledge is much more advanced than in the New World – confirm previously implausible elements in the Book of Mormon and should cause a little of the excitement you refer to. But, yawn, the response is to look the other way, nitpick over details (Nahom vs Nehem, or, “oh, there are TWO reasonable candidates for Bountiful, eh, almost 100 miles apart? – well, clearly there is no consensus and obvious problems”), and say, “Oh yeah? Well what about polygamy?”

  3. The problem is that the evidence must be coincidental, since Joseph Smith’s claims as to how he obtained the plates are impossible on their face.

    I think if JS had made his translation in a less fantastic way and then lost the original document somehow, as this evidence of the truth of it all came out people would have been looking for the plates in earnest under the obvious assumption that there was something to them.

    But there are angels involved, you see, so it must all be coincidence.

  4. I enjoyed this post.

    The solution to being disillusioned, or even losing our testimony due to Mormon history is found in fulfilling our baptism covenant by receiving the gift of the Holy Ghost.

    It is our right and privilege to have the manifestations of the Holy Ghost to the extend that we will have a testimony that is built on the rock and not sand.

  5. “Yawn.” is right. Even if more is found than what Jeff listed, like NM stated, the world would yawn. Some might stop look and pray and gain a testimony but most would yawn. If the Shroud of Turin was proven to be true the world would yawn then go on living as they are now. Most would not want to make the changes necessary to live the gospel. Great post Jeff.

  6. If I had the time and if I didn’t fear a backlash, I have sometimes thought it would be interesting to write a book from the angle of an anti-Mormon, that documents the most reasonable explanation for Mormomism (including everything you mentioned in your article, such as the witnesses, not just cherry-picking things to argue about), and then watch it be critiqued to death by the same people who critique Joseph’s story. Such as story likely would involve secret oaths between Joseph and his associates to lie about the plates (inexplicably) until their deaths, mass hollucinations, and other such stories that are just about as incredible as Joseph’s claims.

    I agree with you, Jeff, that those who fight against Mormonism must then give a more reasonable explanation of how all this could have been so, and ultimately things like polygamy, whether right or wrong, have nothing to do with whether Joseph’s claims are true.

  7. But, yawn, the response is to look the other way, nitpick over details (Nahom vs Nehem, or, “oh, there are TWO reasonable candidates for Bountiful, eh, almost 100 miles apart? – well, clearly there is no consensus and obvious problems”), and say, “Oh yeah? Well what about polygamy?”

    Don’t be intellectually lazy with this. The fact is, you want these things to be true and this will color your perception of possible evidence. Just as it’s not fair for anti-Mormon’s to say, “Oh yeah? Well what about polygamy?” it is also unfair to assume that all of these “evidences” are actually supporting your belief when the vast majority of academics and scholars reject them. Could they be wrong? Sure! But don’t dismiss legitimate questions about these evidences as “nit-picking.” Last I checked, that’s what scientists and academics are supposed to be doing. Anything else is just lazy.

    If Joseph Smith DID have the golden plates, I think most people would be willing to overlook polygamy, as intellectually honest inquirers. Things would certainly be a lot different. Don’t assume everyone would yawn. The fact is, the “evidences” that exist now are shaky, at best, and open to wide interpretation. Plenty of witnesses believe aliens have abducted them, yet without solid evidence, most of us don’t believe them. Can you blame us?

    I feel that you often assume that all opposing theories are rooted in anti-Mormonism. This simply isn’t true. Don’t put up a straw man when dismissing claims to the contrary about your faith. Some of us seek only the truth. If we see no evidence for Joseph Smith being the Prophet, so be it. And if we do see evidence, then so be that. Some of us want nothing more than to have a truth like this realized, but we must be honest enough to admit that, as of right now, we simply do not know for sure. You’re a scientist, Jeff.

    I don’t mean to negative in this post. I do enjoy your writing, Jeff, and I can see that you are a very good person. I am not anti-Mormon, but I do have some honest and respectful disagreements. I’m interested to hear what you think (honestly, no condescension intended here – there is much truth in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints).

  8. Anon at 7:21,

    You sir, are the one raising strawmen. Jeff isn’t putting forth those evidences as proof of the Book of Mormon, but, as often stated on this blog and his web site, those are evidences of _plausibility_.

    Those are evidences that “yes, it could be true,” not “this definitely means the Book of Mormon is definitely true.”

    There is evidence, and there is interpretation of evidence. And neither of those equates to proof.

    I believe there can be no physical proof of the Book of Mormon, otherwise there would be no room for faith.

    There is no proof that Jesus of Nazareth was the begotten son of God, or that he was the Messiah, or that he was resurrected. Yet billions of people believe those things to be true.

    The Bible may be a form of evidence, but it is just words. It is just the testimony of men. The fact that those cities and men existed is not proof of the divinit of Jesus. All that’s left is testimony. And yet billions of people have believed.

    Jeff, and many other church members and leaders have explicitly said, over and over, that they don’t want people to believe the LDS gospel based on physical evidence. The church, along with Jeff and many others, asks people to seek a spiritual witness by the power of the Holy Ghost.

    You seem to be confused on the difference between evidence and proof, and what the LDS church is asking people to do, namely investigate and pray.

    The evidences that Jeff puts forth are to clear away the pseudo-scientific bull-puckey that the church’s critics put forth. For almost 200 years, detractors have been pointing to things which they say “prove” the Book of Mormon can’t be true. And little by little, the pro-LDS people put forth counter-evidence that illustrates (not proves) that the claims of the critics are false, and that indeed there is “room to believe.”

    There is indeed, among all the archealogical and historical evidence, pro and con, “room to believe.”

    I think you’re the one being a tad bit dishonest here, and attacking strawmen, not Jeff.

  9. *”Don’t be intellectually lazy with this. The fact is, you want these things to be true and this will color your perception of possible evidence.”

    You state the obvious; all people want to confirm what beliefs that they hold, however when you have a testimony it is a added bonus to have assumed evidences that give us a warm and fuzzy.

    *”Last I checked, that’s what scientists and academics are supposed to be doing. Anything else is just lazy.”

    Many years ago I found that most scientists and academics are not looking for the truth but looking to protect their funding and careers. This is not “lazy” just dishonest. So I am not impressed with the so called experts of science and academia. Are you willing to put your career on the line if you did find something that proved your point and contradicted all the other experts but really was not going to change your life or the world? (ie. Make you rich and famous?) I would say no! But if the Holy Spirit bore witness to you that something is true and you gained a testimony of the Holy Spirit they you may be willing to risk all to obtain the Perl of Great Price.
    *”Don’t assume everyone would yawn.” “If Joseph Smith DID have the golden plates…”
    No; you are right! I think they killed The Christ and Joseph Smith. Sometimes they do more than yawn.
    *”The fact is, the “evidences” that exist now are shaky, at best, and open to wide interpretation.”
    Again you state the obvious other wise we would skip the admonition to careful pondering, studying it out in your mind and heart, reading the Book of Mormon, fasting, and prayer and just jump to Jeff’s web page or some other fun stuff. As far as I know the missionary lessons don’t include studies of professors from BYU that point out possible evidences.
    *”Can you blame us?”
    I don’t blame you we just want people to learn and pray about it, keeping open mind. Most of this evidences is for our enjoyment and to not let the anti-Mormons go unanswered. But my suggestion to you is not to question us but to question God.
    *”If we see no evidence for Joseph Smith being the Prophet, so be it.”
    Most people are not “so be it” about Joseph Smith. They are looking to prove us wrong or as past history has shown to do us harm. This includes religion in general. I haven’t seen to many Darwinists being given a hard time in the halls of academia lately.
    *”I am not anti-Mormon, but I do have some honest and respectful disagreements.”
    Most Mormons like respectful. Where we have a problem is the Anti- that turns in to well you know (hate speech). Most of those that disagree with us would not dare say “there is much truth in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.” Be careful to whom you make this statement to.

  10. The posts from Bookslinger and the one following are correct. There is no known physical evidence of the Book of Mormon nor, do I think, will any ever be found at least until the time of the coming of the Savior.

    Don’t go asserting that since there is no physical or historical evidence proving the existence of the Nephite civilization, the Book of Mormon is not a true record. Where are the physical and historical evidences (outside the Bible and testimonies — there’s that word again — of the early Christians) of the existence of Jesus Christ (oh yea, Jesus is mentioned in one third party, namely Josephus which amounts to a short sentence)? As far as I know, there are none. Where (outside the Bible) are the physical and historical evidences of the Patriarchs, Moses, David, Solomon, the Israelites in Babylon (I’m going out on a limb on that one (Babylon) — if I am wrong here please just let me know and move on), and so forth? Again, there are none.

    As mentioned above, we can only show that the theories of the Bible and Book of Mormon are plausible. The rest must come from our own investigation, pondering, and deep searching. Anything else is just “easy virtue.”

  11. All of the above comments bar “7:21 PM, March 09, 2008, Anonymous” are very noble and gallant supporters of the ‘Mormon History’ but there are a number of presumptions that are being made that are left unanswered.

    1. Who can confirm any evidence that the Angel Moroni was an angel of Truth sent by errand from God ?

    In this instance of course even I could look at the witnesses, their accounts, their testimonies and their translations and agree that yes, indeed – it is too incredible for it to be untrue! Also who can provide reasons why they should not be accurately believed ?

    Except for one Bible verse that clearly gives warning about an angel of God ! 2 Cor 11:14 – “And no marvel; for Satan himself is transformed into an angel of light.”

    Would satan approach Josph Smuith and introduce himself as satan the deceiver of many and through his own choices, the enemy of God ? He is the arch-deceiver, the spinner of lies, the mixer of truth with a huge spoonful of error. One that knows the Bible inside out and back to front, but one who does not acknowledge or comprehend the Truth as it is truly represented in it’s divine Love.

    Joseph Smith indeed in his lifetime testified of a force of darkness come over him, then that was lifted and he witnessed his ‘vision’. Light masquerading over darkness ? Is God in the business of showing himself after satan has been sent packing ? Or maybe the manifestation was both dark and light from the same master of the masquerade and impersonation … ?

    2. Physical proof has been found for supporting Biblical accounts :

    a. The plight of the Israelite slaves under Egyptian rule.
    b. The Hittite civilisation.
    c. The exile of Israel in Babylon.
    d. The verification acceptance of a stone tablet bearing the inscription “House of David”.
    e. A battered limestone slab found at Caesarea is the only known inscription from his lifetime naming Pontius Pilate, the Roman governor of Judea who ordered the crucifixion of Jesus.
    f.Rylands Papyrus (about A.D. 130) A fragment of John’s Gospel, discovered in Egypt, contains verses from chapter 18. This is the earliest surviving copy of a New Testament book and is now kept in the John Rylands Library in Manchester, England.

    You see the Bible is far more than plausible – it is fully believable.

    3. In the BoM there is the account of a great and immense battle (Ether 14 & 15). If such fierce battles have taken place causing millions (note millions) to die, where are the arrowheads, the spear tips, the swords, the shields, the armour, the bone remains, the other archaelogical treasure trove that would be unanimously correlated with this account?

    You see in summary, it is not the anti’s with their spite tipped comments that you need to fear. It is not the evidence or lack of it, it is not the witnesses or their testimony. It is ultimately the true nature and identity of the angel moroni, who would have you believe that man can transfer to the angelic realm after death. When considered deeply, this concept distresses me as I have found no other ‘religio’ ideas where this concept is introduced. The nature of man is man and the nature of the angelic is angelic. there are holy angels and there are holy men. There are evil angels and there are evil men, but they are not and do not interlink in any way shape or form at any chronological time or dimension. The fear that you need to beware is in the form of your personal belief, should the moroni ‘character’ have fed the very willing Joseph Smith a huge spoonful of deceit.

  12. Bassooner,

    You said, “…we can only show that the theories of the Bible and Book of Mormon are plausible. The rest must come from our own investigation, pondering, and deep searching. Anything else is just “easy virtue.”

    Are you saying that the Bible and the Book of Mormon are on par in terms of plausibility?

    Assuming then that the Bible shared the same level of plausability as the Book of Mormon, what I was merely saying that the Book of Mormon – if found to be TRUE, ie. major cities uncovered through archaeology etc. – it would be the MOST AMAZING FIND in all of history.

    I think maybe we take for granted that the Bible speaks congruently with history. So, we know with a good amount of certainty that the Babylonians existed when Daniel was around because we can see through archaeological evidence, through traditions in modern Iraq etc. that Babylon was there.

    What we DON’T HAVE for the Book of Mormon that we do for the Bible are the small things – like musuems (and not Christian-based) which showcase archaeological artifacts to show that the life and times of ancient Egypt or Macedonia or Babylon or whatever. We even have tourist attractions (again, not Christian-based) to go and visit; places like Ephesus to see colisiums and what not…

    Apart from Mormon-based establishments, are there ANY musuems that exist to showcase a single Lamanite/Nephite artifact? I don’t know but I don’t think there are?

    Do we have any tourist boards (except Mormon-based establishments) that provide a couple with a romantic holiday for two with a hotel overlooking Zarahimla?

    Do we see degrees offered by Cambridge or Oxford University or ANY university in Ancient Lamanite Studies? Bassooner, do you see what I mean?

    Again, IF we ever find say, a CITY…it would be the most AMAZING FIND EVER. Because unlike the Bible, which takes such places for granted, we have with the Book of Mormon places which time has FORGOTTEN – except, of course, through this revelation that Mr. Smith received…

    Do you see?

  13. There are more than ample “first person” witnesses to the golden plates, and angelic visitations surrounding them, that any reasonable court of law would have to conclude that the evidence supports those they claim its veracity.

  14. …any reasonable court of law would have to conclude that the evidence supports those they claim its veracity.

    I’ve heard that statement frequently. No court would be able to conclude anything without first providing the opportunity to cross-examine any witnesses. I’d sure like a shot, but we’ll never have that opportunity. I respectfully suggest you overstate your case.

  15. Terrano,

    A couple of things.

    You seem to imply that the vision of Moroni was preceded by “a force of darkness come over him.” Joseph did not say this. In fact his vision of Moroni was strictly a manifestation of light.

    Now Joseph did indeed testify of that force of darkness but that was just preceding the “First Vision” of the Father and the Son. Now lest you say this too is “Light masquerading over darkness,” let me remind you of the occasion in which Satan appeared to Jesus and tempted him after the fasting in the wilderness. After rejecting Satan: “Then the devil leaveth him, and, behold, angels came and ministered unto him” (Matt 4:11). Is this, too, an example of “Light masquerading over darkness?”

    In you list of physical evidences: I did some inet research, though cursory, on some of them. There are some inscriptions and artwork that can be interpreted as referring to the israelites but the timing does not agree with the Bible. If the Bible is infallible then the Bible’s timing is wrong, if it is fallible (but of course it isn’t) then there is still no irrefutable (however convinving or not) physical evidenct that the Israelites were slaves in Egypt. I do not see that the existence of the Hittite civilization is relevant. I said the captivity of Judah in Babylon was going on a limb, but if what we have as the Old Testament was written after the captivity, it doesn’t prove anything. Pontius Pilates inscription does not mention Jesus, just Pilate, still no physical evidence of the existence of Christ. Anyway, all of these still are not evidence of the existence of Jesus Christ, for which you will still find none unless you want to consider the recent hoopla over the controversial ossuaries are supposedly of Jesus and his wife and children…

  16. Teranno4x4, you said there was evidence for the plight of the Israelite slaves under Egyptian rule. Could you post links to that here? I is my understanding that there is considerable debate about this, and little, if no evidence of “Joseph” bringing the Israeilites into Egypt, let alone their escape and time there…(and then there is the debate on whether or not David and Solomon existed)

    There is very little evidence of the Bible from an archaeological standpoint. Take away locations and you have very little biblical support archaeologically speaking.

    You also wrote In the BoM there is the account of a great and immense battle…causing millions (note millions) to die, where are the arrowheads, the spear tips, the swords, the shields, the armour, the bone remains, the other archaelogical treasure trove that would be unanimously correlated with this account?

    I wonder the same thing about the Battles the Anasazi supposedly went through that made them mass-migrate. No weapon remains. No evidence of climate change during the specified time period. I wonder the same thing about the Hohokam tribes where my home is. And where are the billions of bones and battle gear for them. In fact, if we accept the evolutionist theories of the day, where are the bones, etc. of the hundred billions of varying homo species that have lived, let alone the remains of 200 billion humans that have walked on the earth? I’m thinking we should be able to find such bones or remains on our right and left.

    I’m amazed at what is available as Book of Mormon “evidences,” and I’ve accepted on faith. However, at some point someone has to ask, “at what point do so many “coincidences” add up to become evidence?

  17. It’s a bit weird to talk about the Bible being more (or less) believable than the Book of Mormon. The Bible is a somewhat arbitrary collection of writings that were judged, by a group of men who lived long after the fact, to be true enough to be included. The truthfulness of any one of those writings has little to no bearing on the truthfulness of another by a different author. So no piece of evidence could ever really speak to the truth of the entire volume.

    The Book of Mormon is another matter. Since it was brought forth by a single man, it is fair to speak of the truth or falsehood of the entire work. Of course, if Joseph Smith’s claims are true, there is room to doubt the honesty of its original authors, to some extent.

  18. Let me put that another way: If the historical parts of the Bible were proven accurate, what would it tell us about the whole book? It would mean little more than the fact that the historical parts of Johnny Tremain are accurate. It is not surprising that the author(s) of each book had access to accurate historical information.

    Now, if the historical parts of the Book of Mormon were proven accurate, what would it tell us?