Skeptical Theories on Composition of the Book of Mormon

Continuing with Richard Bushman’s interview at Mormon Stories, in Part 4 John Dehlin (JD) asks Richard Bushman about various skeptical theories on how the Book of Mormon was composed, and Bushman addresses them.  What do you think of Bushman’s answers?

JD, “There are theories that go around that Joseph Smith was the author of the Book of Mormon or that he collaborated with others to produce the book.  You talk about in your book Rough Stone Rolling.  But just to recap, you know the typical Grant Palmer or even Fawn Brodie type of argument is that you know at least I think that Grant Palmer would say that 20% of the Book of Mormon is word for word from the King James Bible and that even we know what version of the King James Bible Joseph Smith had and that some of the errors that were in that edition of the King James Bible actually made it into the Book of Mormon, so it’s clear that to some extent he was taking from an existing Bible and putting those words in the Book of Mormon for a good chunk of it.

A lot of people like to say that Joseph’s Father had dreams just like Lehi’s dream and somehow that makes it in.  Joseph had brothers and the relationship with his brothers was a lot like Nephi and his relationship with his brothers so they kind of say that Joseph Smith family stories make up part of the Book of Mormon.  Then they talk about how some of the wars with Andrew Jackson, and I don’t know what war was going on back in the 1830s but there are people who even try to tie the battles in the Book of Mormon to actual battles and formations that happened in the early 1800s, and then there’s all the anti-masonic rhetoric that people talk about because there was some really uproar about masons and secret combinations generally and that somehow maybe that made its way into the Book of Mormon, along with–Oh!  The View of the Hebrews, that there was this book called View of the Hebrews and other books that speculated, that were written 5 to 10 years before the Book of Mormon was produced.

Even Oliver Cowdery apparently attended a congregation of the author of the book View of the Hebrews, and the book View of the Hebrews has a light race and a dark race, or a good race and a bad race, and the bad race kills off the good race and they come from Hebrew origins, etc.  People sort of, this is sort of the attempt to try and explain this marvelous and wonderful book, and on top of that a lot of people like to throw up the anachronisms that there’s steel, there shouldn’t be steel in the Book of Mormon, there shouldn’t be horses, there shouldn’t be chariots, and all these helmets and swords.  No one’s ever found one.

You know there’s a lot of people who attack the Book of Mormon from all different angles.  None of them can come up with an explanation of how it got created, but there certainly are a lot of people who feel like they can really come up with some of the puzzle pieces that start to tell that story.  So what would you give as a rebuttal to someone who is inclined to believe those things, or be concerned about them?  How could you tell them, either here’s where those things are wrong, or here’s a way to say yeah, all of those things were part of what informed Joseph Smith’s ultimate production of the book. The Lord used those to help him create the book.  How would you respond to all of that?  I know it’s a lot to respond to.”

Bushman, “It’s a huge issue and I’m not sure there is a single response where you could simply flip the switch and say no, all of this doesn’t bear.  The fact is that when I read the Book of Mormon, it just always seems to be so much larger in scope, much broader in conception, much more intricate and peculiar than any of these theories can quite account for. They are all the parts, but the parts to my way of thinking don’t add up to the whole, which is what he produced was another Bible.  He produced an apocryphal Bible of Israelites coming to the New World and living their lives here.  So I think the question you have to have to ask, why did this young person think he should write another Bible?  I suppose you could think of answers and say well it was a confusing time, he was worried about skepticism in the world and this is his way of proving there is a God.  I think Dan Vogel has some interesting ideas about his father, but they don’t from my point of view add up to the Book of Mormon that I read when I read it.  I just find intricacies and complexities and one dimension after another that are never fully accounted for.

So even if you do believe that he had all these components in his mind–which has never been demonstrated.  You can’t prove it outside of the Book of Mormon that he was thinking about the War of 1812, or thinking about freemasonry or what have you.  You just have to surmise it was in the air, so he must have breathed the air so there it is.  Still there is step beyond that in which he composes it into this really fabulous narrative that goes on one character after another, politics and the military, this measuring system, the geography, economic order and so on and so forth.  It’s still a fabulous achievement, even if you granted everything that they say, these analysts propose, you would still have to say it is a work of genius.  It is a work of genius, and we just keep finding one dimension after another in that book that you wouldn’t expect to be there.

All I would like to persuade people is that the facts don’t compel you to confess that Joseph Smith had to have made up that book simply by piecing together these little bits of a puzzle that were in his culture at the time. The facts can’t compel you. This is a decision that can go either way. You’ve got people who are well informed on both sides of the debate who see that book differently, and you are free to choose and still have a respectable view of the evidence and take all these things into account.”

JD, “So you’re saying the evidence allows for plausible deniability?

Bushman, “Yeah.”

JD, “You’re not compelled to conclude it’s true through sheer facts and evidence alone.”

Bushman, “Well, you’re not compelled to by evidence to conclude that it’s fiction.  It goes both ways.  You just can’t, there’s not enough evidence on either side.”

JD, “Yeah, you’re right.  That’s what I meant.  And I’m sure you would add the spiritual stepping out of your historian for a second, I am sure you would probably add the spiritual confirmation you’ve received is additional evidence for you in favor, right?”

Bushman, “Yeah, I would say so.  I mean it’s hard to know exactly what is spiritual confirmation, but I go along with Terryl Givens view that this becomes a moral choice.  If you want to live in a world where God speaks to a modern prophet, if you want to live in that kind of world and bear all the consequences of that, then the Book of Mormon makes sense.  If you don’t want to live in that world, if you don’t want God to be speaking to prophets and guiding them, then it doesn’t make sense to believe in the Book of Mormon, but I don’t think that the facts compel you to go down one way or the other.”

JD, “Either way?”

Bushman, “Right.”

JD, “So is it a big waste of time for FARMS [Foundation of Ancient Research and Mormon Studies] to try and prove it’s true, or for archaeologists to try and dig things up, and is it a fool’s errand for anti-Mormons to try and disprove it?  Should that whole discourse just cease in your opinion?”

Bushman, “No, I don’t.  I like anything that generates inquiry.  FARMS’s desire to prove the Book of Mormon has generated huge amounts of inquiry.  Mormons are studying things that they never in the world would learn about and they gain great skill in sort of pulling this stuff together to prove the case.  I am intrigued by it, I find it interesting, so I would say no, that’s very useful.  The anti-Mormons, I’m not quite sure what motivates some of them.  I think it’s a concern that Mormons are horribly misled, but I’m never quite sure if that’s their real desire is to straighten out Mormons, but the Mormons for Jesus do have a genuine religious urge. They think Mormons have lost the Savior and need to be brought back to him.  But I don’t know what motivates Dan Vogel or Brent Metcalf.  I think it’s more an intellectual quest than anything else.  Maybe you don’t have to find a motive for them.”

JD, “Do you think that the Book of Mormon–do you characterize it as containing the fullness of the gospel?  Because it doesn’t seem to have much of what we characterize as Joseph Smith’s full gospel when it comes to the three degrees of glory, eternal marriage, plural marriage, baptism for the dead, I mean there are all sorts of these major fundamental missions of the church type doctrines that aren’t in there, but then when he gets to Nauvoo, they’re there, and you’re kind of wondering, if it contains the fullness of the gospel, why didn’t it come with those in 1830, and why is it just a coincidence that Joseph developed those later when the book was produced before?  Or do you just redefine what fullness means to mean an incomplete fullness?”

Bushman, “Well I think that”s a very good question because sometimes we’re unwilling to admit that the gospel evolves and expands, and when it certainly did evolve and expand.  I think your second point that we have to define fullness, what is the fullness of THE gospel?  As it is defined in certain parts of the Book of Mormon, it is essentially just the atonement of Jesus Christ, so the point about what it restores that was lost from the Bible I think is an interesting one.  Part of that answer is once again Terryl Givens’ dialogic revelation.  The idea that humans actually do speak to God and He speaks back to them that’s in the Bible, but it certainly had been squeezed out by Joseph Smith’s time, so that revives a sense of God’s immediacy in human affairs.  I also think that–this is a little bit of a side point, that the Calvinist view of human nature had so taken over Protestantism that the Book of Mormon was necessary as kind of a block against that view of no human will, affecting human will in making choices that would contribute to your salvation.  So there are various parts of the gospel that did need to be restored, but it was the fullness of the Gospel, not the fullness of the doctrine.  The fullness of the doctrine kept growing and I presume could continue to grow forever and its complexity.”

JD, “Hmmm.  Ok, I’m going to ask real quick to put on your–this is probably the most important question I’ll ask today maybe, and I’m asking to take off your historian hat and definitely your official, any official hat or representation you might offer.  This is just a really personal question on behalf of people who are struggling and that’s that there are some people that say just say look.  The evidence doesn’t add up that the Book of Mormon is historical.  There’s never been a sword or a helmet found.  There’s never been a chariot, the horses just aren’t there.  There’s too much coincidence with all this stuff.  I’ll never be able to buy that the Book of Mormon, that there really was a Moroni, that there really was a brother of Jared in a barge with a cork in the top and the bottom. It just doesn’t add up.

But to say that these people have to just leave the church then because they don’t see the Book of Mormon as historical, I just see that as a disaster, because I think that’s at a minimum throwing the baby out with the bathwater, but you know there may be also very practical negative ramifications for people who make that decision with family, and socially, occupationally, etc.  So do you have any counsel just personally, for someone who is not inclined to believe the Book of Mormon is historical, but doesn’t want to then conclude as well that they have to leave the Church. Is there a middle way or a middle road for someone caught in that dilemma, or do they just have to leave by conscience alone?  They must withdraw.”

Bushman, “No, I agree with you. I think it would be a mistake to leave.  I think when you give up the Book of Mormon, you give up a lot!  I hate to see that happen, I think there are other ways of interpreting the Book of Mormon that don’t require you to give it up, but on the flavor of what you are saying is a life strategy, the fact is every Mormon in the world accepts the gospel selectively. They may say I accept all the doctrines, every detail.  But when it comes to talks to making decisions, to speaking with their friends about the Church, they always select something that is of significance to them, whether it’s the family or free-agency or Christ or whatever.  So it’s just impossible to encompass the whole gospel.  You have to say, this is what I hold on to as giving me strength and guidance.  On top of that, it would be a great mistake to give up those things that are good and rewarding just because someone has persuaded you that the Book of Mormon can’t be true.

I mean to abandon goodness in your life, that’s a bad mistake.  That’s a bad mistake morally as well as in terms of your own personal salvation.  You have to hold on to what’s good or else you’re being bullied by the world around you.  So I think that these people have to find some way to emphasize the positive as it were, and then sort of wait or just not mention or do whatever you want with the rest of the doctrines but hold on to what is good.  Otherwise you’re sort of casting off your own integrity.  You don’t want that to happen.”

JD, “Well thank you for that treatment of the Book of Mormon.”


12 comments on “Skeptical Theories on Composition of the Book of Mormon

  1. With two thirds of the plates apparently still sealed I’m not concerned if the BoM contains the fullness of the gospel or not. I can’t imagine Joseph writing the BoM on his own and I can’t imagine not finding any physical evidence of it if it were historically accurate. After praying and pondering this things for some time I received strong spiritual conformation that the BoM is the word of God by way of inspired fiction which is a better medium for teaching than fact. So that is my belief.

  2. Howard, just to be clear. Are you saying you believe the book of Mormon is inspired fiction?

  3. Yes Mh I believe the BoM is inspired fiction.

  4. Haven’t we pretty much accepted the idea that the Bible contains inspired fiction?

  5. “Inspired fiction” that claims to be true is nothing more than a lie.

  6. […] Skeptical Theories on the Composition of the Book of Mormon […]

  7. MH, what is your opinion on the matter if you would care to bare it for us?


  8. Glenn, I’ve posted a LOT about the Spaulding Theory. It holds no water for me. I haven’t looked into the “View of the Hebrews” theory very much however. It seems more plausible to me than Spaulding, but here’s what I’ve written about Spaulding.

    Looking at the Spaulding Manuscript
    Debunking the Jockers Study
    Healthy Buxom Lassies – Spaulding’s Manuscript Found Part 2
    Introduction to Spaulding’s “Manuscript Found” Part 1
    Debunking the Spaulding Manuscript Theory

  9. MH, I have read much of what you have written on the Spaulding theory. I was really asking about your own personal opinion on the Book of Mormon, i.e. is it a divinely translated, historical book of scripture, inspired fiction, or other. That is, if you would care to comment.


  10. Sorry I didn’t comment sooner, I it has been a crazy busy week. I have always been of the opinion that the book of Mormon is historical. I have posted on geography theories here quite a bit. I do find a lot of problems with American theories. It seems that all of the north, central, and south American theories don’t match the book of Mormon very well. I have posted on the Malay theory, and it does seem to hold more promise, but is a real paradigm shift for most people.

  11. For most people, that few people have studied it.

  12. Mh-thanks for this series. I’m enjoying the read.

    The Bloggernacle doesn’t draw a lot of TBM. I count myself as a TBM, but I have also studied the history and controversial stuff since 1972.

    The Book of Mormon and church leader teach that God will answer prayers and give those who diligently seek the gift of the Holy Ghost. This has been fulfilled in my life, I have the companionship of the Holy Ghost.

    I have experienced the subtle and miraculous manifestations of the Holy Ghost. This includes having prayers answered by impressions coming into my mind and heart. But this is not all, I have also experienced visions, dreams, and the ministering of angels (I haven’t seen an angel, but they have spoken to me with an audible voice).

    There are also other, very sacred experiences the Lord has given me that I won’t mention here.

    My point in saying all of this is to testify that I believe there must be many others who have had similar experiences but won’t talk about it. I wish more would.

    I’ve been writing and commenting in the Bloggernacle since July 2007. During that time I’ve learned that those who struggle or who have lost their testimony are readily accepted in the Nacle, while those who have a testimony are marginalized.

    It seems that the majority of John Dehlin’s interviews are with those who struggle or have lost their testimony. It’s refreshing when John includes those who have testimony. It just doesn’t seem as though John is doing a well balanced approach. I guess that is my design.

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