I don’t write a lot about why the Book of Mormon is not a historical narrative or why its clear that its characters never existed as real people. I read a lot about this, but I don’t share my thoughts or findings—for a number of reasons.
But since November, I have been struggling with my lack of speaking up about what I have learned. It has become clear to me that the Internet in many ways is not making factual information more available any more than it is making unfactual information available. I watch people around me sharing news that is blatantly untrue and is designed to propagate a manipulative message. I see scientific facts dismissed as opinion. I see people drawing conclusions that contradict or undermine the inclusive and positive messages that I do advocate for.
In short, I am dismayed at the amount of verifiably false information out there being shared and believed because it has real consequences. Take, for example, the rise in anti-vaccination. The claims made by those who don’t believe in vaccines are verifiably false. While it might seem unimportant if they believe in things that aren’t true, the number of people who believe these falsehoods has now grown to the point of threatening our herd immunity for diseases that were almost eradicated a decade ago. So believing something that isn’t true has a real affect on others—especially when they are working hard to convince others and to hide or silence opposition voices.
While I am not going to contract measles because people I know believe things about Mormonism that are verifiably false, I am still affected by those beliefs. For example, people I love judge me by the principles in the Book of Mormon or hold me accountable to things I used to believe before I became more informed about it. On a larger scale, people advocate for practices or laws that demean LGBTQ people and women based on a book that is not what it claims to be. So in the spirit of sharing verifiable information, I’m going to write about why the Book of Mormon isn’t a true history about real people.
The Book of Mormon is a product of its time
Since I was a child learning how to read, I have been reading the Book of Mormon. I still open it and read it. But I have never studied it harder than when I was a missionary in California. It was in the last 6 months of my mission that I really started to look deep at it, and when I did, I kept finding things that didn’t belong. This bothered me.
Why, for example, did Moroni spend so much time at the end of the narrative talking about infant baptism, the organizational structure of the Church, the exact words for ordination, or the specific prayer said to bless the sacrament? (Moroni 2-6) In the narrative, we have a man who is literally watching every single one of his people get slaughtered, but he is writing instead about these mundane procedural things—things that I’m sure Joseph Smith and Oliver Cowdery cared a lot about at the time these pages were translated in 1829, but not things that I would expect from a man in Moroni’s position.
Another example. There are whole chapters dedicated to proving why the book is real. Nephi exhaustively assures the reader that what is writing is true (as if he knew that the reader would have cause to doubt). He details explicitly who Joseph Smith is (and how wonderful he is), why he writes a duplicate section of the book (actually, it’s a “purpose [he] know[s] not” at the time, but it’s understood by the reader that the duplicate record covers a portion of the original manuscript that was lost and couldn’t be re-translated), and how if there are mistakes, those mistakes are from men and not God.
In my journals, I have never once tried to convince the reader that I actually exist. I just assume that 100 years from now, if someone is holding my journal, they will believe that I was a real person. Why didn’t the authors of the Book of Mormon have that same assumption when they were engraving their history onto metal plates?
My initial doubts in the book started as a missionary because I was bothered by the persistent realization that the contents of the Book of Mormon served its author, Joseph Smith, and his 19th Century audience more than they served the characters in the text.
The Book of Mormon contains 19th Century beliefs about 19th Century concerns.
You might say that the Book of Mormon wasn’t written for the ancient people who wrote it but was instead written for our day. I would correct you and say that the book was written not for our day, but for 1830.
Over the past several years I have been fascinated with Joseph Smith’s environment and have read a lot of other narratives from that era. Without exception, the Book of Mormon clearly addresses the concerns and hopes and language of the people around Joseph Smith (as written by someone mimicking the early 17th Century style of the King James Bible).
Take Nephi’s sermon in 2 Nephi 2 or King Benjamin’s address in Mosiah 2. These sermons sound exactly like the sermons coming out of the Second Great Awakening that was emerging around Joseph in upstate New York. There you had Baptists and Presbyterians (Calvinists), Methodists (Arminians), and the Universalists all preaching answers to the common questions of their day.
What is the role of sin? Do we have free agency? Can children sin? Should they be baptized? How should they be baptized? What happens to non-Christians when they die? What is the role of the atonement and who benefits from it? What is the role of the congregation in church? Is a line of priesthood authority necessary? Should priests be paid by their congregations? Was there an apostasy? What is the role of God and the Church in government? What is the nature of the spirit as it relates to the body? Was the fall necessary? Is evil a necessary opposition to good?
These are very specific 19th Century theological questions that emerged in the very specific climate of early America. The new nation, founded in part by theological outcasts from Europe, was a place of religious freedom and plurality. We take it for granted today, but this was an unprecedented period where contradicting theologies could coexist and be reasoned out not just within the same community, but within the same households. Conversations about whether or not we have free agency (one of the primary conflicts between the Baptists and the Methodists) were taking place over the dinner table. They were taking place over Joseph Smith’s dinner table.
The Book of Mormon would have us believe that the Nephites and Lamanites two thousand years ago were obsessing over the exact same questions because it answers definitely every single one. And it answers these questions using the same language that was common in Joseph’s own household.
One of the most interesting examples of this to me is the treatment of the “antichrist” Nehor. The Book of Mormon sets up Nehor with a very obvious straw-man argument for universalism—one of the biggest theologies emerging in young America. It was actually one of the most popular theologies in Vermont, and Joseph Smith’s father and grandfather practiced it there.
Universalism teaches that “All mankind should be saved at the last day, and that they need not fear nor tremble, but that they might lift up their heads and rejoice; for the Lord had created all men, and had also redeemed all men; and, in the end, all men should have eternal life.”—Which is exactly how Nehor explains it. (Alma 1:4) This idea represented a major problem for the other American churches (including later Mormonism) that taught that salvation required something specific like baptism or belief in Christ.
The Book of Mormon condemnation of the Universalists via Nehor isn’t subtle. Nehor creates a church where the priests are puffed up and rich and then he commits murder and is executed by the good guys for his crimes.
Joseph Smith didn’t completely condemn universalism, however. The Book of Mormon actually presents a very complex and clever compromise between the Methodists/Baptists/Presbyterians and the Universalists. Joseph separates eternal life (salvation with God in heaven that is predicated on man’s choices) and immortality (the resurrection that is given universally to all men). It’s a creative solution to the problem.
There are also many non-theological themes in the book that are clearly unique to early 19th Century America, including: separation of church and state, why a republic is better than a monarchy, the emergence of secret societies (Masons), slavery, freedom of religion, freedom of speech, why America is relevant to Christianity (and visa versa), the role of the Divine in the discovery of America, how to deal with savage natives, how to deal with righteous natives, where the natives came from, how to justify the European colonization of America (they deserved it because they sinned!) and its subsequent independence from Europe. The Book of Mormon answers the most pressing questions of Joseph Smith and his audience in 1830.
The Book of Mormon is missing beliefs from other centuries or cultures.
The flip side of the presences of 19th Century ideas is the absence of other century ideas, and I mean that in two ways. If the Book of Mormon was written anciently by men who saw the future in great detail and who wrote for that future day, then why were they so silent about the issues that are pressing to Mormons in the 21st Century? Why is there no talk of gay marriage? Why is there no talk of the Internet? Of pornography?
I find it odd that Nephi saw Christopher Columbus in vision and in great detail but didn’t see Charles Darwin or Albert Einstein. Similarly he saw Joseph Smith very clearly, and even Martin Harris, but he did not see Brigham Young.
The second way that the Book of Mormon omits other century ideas is in the omission of any kind of thinking that the Nephites or Lamanites might have had that would be different from 19th Century America.
The Bible is full of details and narratives that are of no interest to me. Seriously. It’s also full of details that would be of no interest to Joseph Smith. The Book of Mormon, curiously, does not. Why?
The bible was written by men over a long period of time who wrote about the things that were important to them without regard to how the world might change or how people would perceive their words thousands of years in the future. The bible contains the histories and beliefs of people from many centuries and cultures. The Book of Mormon does not. Moroni cares about the same things as his ancestor Nephi 1,000 years prior.
At first glance it might seem like it’s a good thing that the Book of Mormon, unlike the Bible, presents such a seamless doctrinal and historical narrative and doesn’t contain any major contradictions. But if the book was really written by multiple authors on two continents over thousands of years, the lack of diverse viewpoints actually points to a lack of historical plausibility.
I find the most glaring omission of material from other cultures is when Christ visits America in the pivotal chapters of the book. What is the message that Jesus brings to the ancient American Nephites? Matthew Chapters 5-7. He repeats word for word a sermon that was given in the old world, using the words that were penned of that sermon years after it was given.
While you might commend Jesus on his consistency, you can’t say that this is a message that would have been received in the same way by both audiences. Jesus’s Sermon on the Mount was very specifically targeted to his audience who were a part of the Roman empire. He uses metaphors, parables, and allusions to elements that were unique to that culture.
For example, under a Roman “Impressment” law, a soldier could conscript a Jewish local to carry his equipment one mile. Jesus says in Matthew 5:41 (and repeats in 3 Nephi 12:41), “And whosoever shall compel thee to go a mile, go with him twain.”
Why would Jesus repeat this lesson that depends on a knowledge of Roman law to a civilization that had never known Rome? More importantly, why didn’t Jesus give a message to the ancient Nephites that contained references to their own unique laws or customs?
Even after he’s done repeating his old world message to the Nephites and the narrative shifts into new territory, he doesn’t really speak to them, he speaks to the 19th Century reader of the Book of Mormon. For example, he expounds on John chapter 10, which is a passage of scripture that the Nephites never read (and which hadn’t actually been written yet), correcting an interpretation of the passage that was common in Joseph Smith’s day.
Again, everything that he does and says would be conveniently relevant to Joseph Smith and his audience. He organizes a church that is remarkably like how a church might be organized using 19th Century theology. He institutes the sacrament. He instructs on matters of baptism procedure. He talks about what will happen in the last days and what the church that Joseph Smith organizes will be like.
Mormon’s explanation that “there cannot be written in this book even a hundredth part of the things which Jesus did truly teach unto the people” just doesn’t account for why everything that was included is only pertinent to Joseph Smith and his followers. (3 Nephi 26:6)
Joseph Smith’s translations are verifiably faulty.
It is impossible to talk about the historicity of the Book of Mormon without acknowledging the way that book was produced. Joseph Smith claimed that he translated the book from “reformed Egyptian” engraved on ancient golden plates by the power of God using a seer stone. It was a process of inspiration rather than scholarship. Because we don’t have the gold plates, it is impossible to verify the translation of the book. However, Joseph Smith also translated other documents by inspiration where we do have the original manuscripts. These translations are verifiably false.
The most obvious example is the Book of Abraham. Joseph Smith translated this text from a papyrus found in a mummy that he purchased from a traveling antiquities dealer. The papyrus still exists and can now be read by Egyptologists. It’s a very common excerpt from the Book of the Dead. Joseph’s translation bears absolutely no correlation to actual translation of the papyrus. In fact, he misidentified the gender of several of the characters depicted in the facsimiles. Not only is the translation incorrect, but the papyrus was actually created more than a thousand years after Joseph’s narrative was said to take place.
Another major translation effort by inspiration is Joseph Smith’s translation of the Bible. Seeking to correct translation errors, Joseph began his own translation of the Bible by inspiration. He was right that there were many translation errors in the King James Version. We now know about these errors and now have more accurate translations from the original manuscripts. The problem is that the changes Joseph Smith made to the text don’t bring the text closer to these more accurate translations. In fact, they move the text in the opposite direction. Joseph Smith made the same mistake that earlier translators had made. He added words that weren’t found in the original. Joseph Smith believed that the translators had taken away “plain and precious” parts of the Bible, but more often than not the opposite was true. Translators, when trying to make the translated text read more naturally in English, added words to the text.
We can clearly identify phrases that were added by translators—especially in the King James Version. Not only does Joseph Smith’s translation of the Bible fail to identify and remove these added portions, but the Book of Mormon fails to omit them too! If Nephi was quoting portions of the Old Testament from the Brass Plates, a record dated around 600 BCE, then why does he include words that were added to the text in 1600 ACE?
The Book of Mormon actually makes another critical error in its quotations from the Bible. No book of the Bible is more heavily quoted in the Book of Mormon than Isaiah. The problem is that Isaiah wasn’t entirely written by Isaiah. Historians agree that Isaiah was a real person and that much of the book was actually written by him, however it is also clear that significant portions of the book were written by other author(s) several hundred years after Isaiah died. The proof is in distinct writing styles and references to words and events that took place after Isaiah died. Portions of Isaiah were clearly written after the Babylonian captivity, for example. (see also David Wright’s essay, Isaiah in the Book of Mormon, or Joseph Smith in Isaiah)
The problem with this for the Book of Mormon is that it quotes portions from both sections of Isaiah—the part written by Isaiah and the part that was clearly added to Isaiah long after Lehi would have left Jerusalem. He left because God warned him that there would be a Babylonian captivity! In other words, there is no way that Nephi would have had access to the words he quoted because they hadn’t been written yet.
So while we don’t have the gold plates to be able to compare the translation with the original language, the Book of Mormon is still demonstrably faulty as a translation.
Joseph Smith is the obvious author.
Growing up I was taught to believe that it was impossible for Joseph Smith to have written the Book of Mormon for several reasons: he was young and uneducated; he dictated the book without reviewing notes; it was written in one draft without revisions; the plot is complicated. I used to read my favorite passages and think to myself, “Wow, there is no way a simple farm boy wrote this!”
Now when I read the Book of Mormon, I think, “Wow, there is no way anyone but Joseph Smith could have written this!”
For one thing, as I stated earlier, the book answers the very questions that Joseph Smith was asking about theology. He is the biggest benefactor from the text. But more importantly, the text speaks to Joseph’s imagination, life experiences, and the very process he used to dictate the book.
Take, for example, the rambling style and repetitive prose. This is exactly what you would expect from a person who is dictating a narrative rather than writing a narrative (or reading a narrative that someone else wrote). Think of every “and it came to pass” as an “um” pause. It’s giving the author time to think about the words that come next while he is dictating. It’s a natural part of spoken word, but it’s not a natural part of writing. Writing is inherently more concise than speaking. If you were engraving a narrative onto metal plates of precious gold, would you waste time and material by writing “and it came to pass” at the beginning of every paragraph? No!
And speaking of paragraphs, when you look at the text of the Book of the Mormon today, you are looking at a book that has been broken into sentences, paragraphs, chapters, and verses. It gives the text the appearance of scripture—of complexity. How could a farm boy have created that? But look at the original manuscript of the Book of the Mormon, the document that was written by the scribes as the narrative fell from Joseph’s lips. What you will see is a rambling string of prose that doesn’t look anything like a book. It looks like a transcript of a long dictation—because that’s what it is. It looks like a story that Joseph told.
And there is no question that Joseph Smith was a storyteller. His mother recalled of the years leading up to the dictation of the Book of Mormon: “During our evening conversations, Joseph would occasionally give us some of the most amusing recitals that could be imagined. He would describe the ancient inhabitants of this continent, their dress, mode of travelings, and the animals upon which they rode; their cities, their buildings, with every particular; their mode of warfare; and also their religious worship. This he would do with as much ease, seemingly, as if he had spent his whole life among them.”
This wasn’t a first draft of a story told about the Nephites and Lamanites. Joseph had been thinking about them and telling stories about them for years. In fact, Joseph Smith said that he was visited by the angel Moroni over twenty times over the course of four years before he was even allowed to begin translating the book (more than six years before it was published). He also claimed frequent visitations during this period from other Book of Mormon characters, like Nephi. In other words, he was talking about the contents of the Book of Mormon long before he dictated its text.
When he did begin dictating the Book of Mormon, he didn’t do it all at once. It took a few years and a few scribes to accomplish it. That’s not a miracle. It’s a story that took a long time to tell. Of course it’s complicated. The first part that he dictated was actually lost, causing him to tell that part of the story again as an alleged duplicate portion of that narrative had been included. So again, it wasn’t a first draft without revision!
Perhaps most important in connecting the Book of Mormon to its author, Joseph Smith, is the autobiographical elements in the narrative. The most obvious example is Nephi, who is so similar to Joseph Smith there is a lesson dedicated to comparing the two in the Church’s Sunday School curriculum. Both of them had fathers who dreamed cryptic visions. In fact, Nephi’s father’s vision of the Tree of Life is the same vision that Joseph Smith Sr. shared with his family before Joseph Jr. produced the Book of Mormon. In what I think is actually a sweet gesture, Nephi provides an explanation of the vision’s symbolism for his father. It’s like Joseph was explaining his own dad’s vision.
The Book of Mormon simply isn’t a historical account of people who actually existed. That doesn’t mean it isn’t valuable.
I’ve presented some of the evidence that is the most compelling to me for why the Book of Mormon is not what it claims to be. There are many other reasons it isn’t. There are also some reasons on the Internet for why it is. I haven’t found a single argument for the book’s historicity that is compelling enough—factual enough—to outweigh the evidence against it.
This is when the missionary I was turns to the only proof left—that burning in the bosom that I experienced when I was younger and prayed to find out if it was true.
As I have grown older, I have experienced that feeling many times. I love that feeling. It is a wonderful feeling. It means that I like something, that I value it, that I want it to be true. Sometimes I have that feeling when something actually is true. Sometimes I have that feeling when something isn’t true. Sometimes it happens unexpectedly, and sometimes it happens because an artist, or a movie producer, or a musician, or a speaker creates something intending for me to have that feeling. Feelings and impressions in your heart and mind are wonderful, but they are not proof of historicity.
The Book of Mormon isn’t about real people. That doesn’t mean the book has no value. I still turn to it from time to time because it is valuable to me. Its stories are nostalgic, and some of them have noteworthy messages. It’s a testament to the power of imagination and how narratives inform a world view. It’s a way to stay current with religious language used and shared by my family. Others will undoubtedly have different reasons for why the book is valuable to them. Some may have reasons for why the book isn’t valuable to them at all.
My hope for the people in my life who do value the Book of Mormon is not that they will abandon it, but that they will have a more open mind about its contents. I hope that they will not expect me to live by it as if it is universal truth. I hope that they will not expect me to act like it is history, or hide the actual history that I have learned about it. My hope is that they will verify the things that they read and share with a healthy dose of critical thinking. I hope that they will be more open to other ideas from other sources—but that they will be skeptical of those sources. Because you can’t believe everything you read.