In part 1, I defined terms, and identified the essential issues that must be addressed in order to give a reasoned answer to the question “Are Mormons Christians, and should we fellowship with them?”. In part 2, I looked at the issue of the historical and archaeological accuracy of the Book of Mormon.
In part 3, I will be looking at the early history of the Mormons, both as presented by the LDS and as given by non-LDS accounts.
Why am I bothering to do this? Because if I am to believe in the validity of Mormon teachings on doctrine, then their narrative of their early history must be at least plausible and agree with non-church accounts of that history, at least in the broader narrative.
Here is a brief summary of the official accounts of the founding of the LDS:
As related, in the spring of 1820, while Joseph Smith was praying in the woods, “God and his Son, Jesus Christ, appeared to the boy and gave him instructions. He was commanded to join none of the existing churches and was told that God would restore to earth the Church originally organized by Jesus Christ, with all of its truths and priesthood authority. “
In 1823, Smith “experienced a visitation from an ancient prophet”. This ‘resurrected’ prophet named Moroni led him to metal plates buried in the ground that Smith was allowed to translate four years later into the Book of Mormon.
After a series of visions and revelations to both himself and others, Smith founded the LDS church in 1830.
I’d like to first address what the LDS terms “The First Vision”, the vision that Smith had when 14 years old. As Gordon B. Hinckley, then President of the LDS has said, “Upon that unique and wonderful experience stands the validity of this Church”. Should this vision, or the veracity of Joseph Smith be reasonably called into question, then the doctrines and teachings of the LDS must conform to Biblical doctrine or be discounted as false.
How do you fairly evaluate the validity of a vision? Obviously, a vision can’t be discounted simply because it seems strange or implausible; the subjective nature of such an event requires that it be evaluated by indirect evidence. I suggest there are two criteria by which Joseph Smith’s ‘first vision’ be evaluated:
1: Are the stories of the vision and its’ contents consistent over time?
2: Does the recipient of the vision act as if the vision were both true and of the significance related by the recipient?
Are the various accounts of the First Vision consistent? While I expect accounts of an incident to vary among multiple witnesses, I also expect a very high degree of consistency in accounts by any single witness. If the accounts of an occurrence differ significantly over multiple tellings, I will reasonably doubt the truthfulness of the witness.
There are at least nine written accounts of the First Vision. One is hand written by Joseph Smith, and the rest either transcribed by assistants or recalled by those to whom Smith recounted the vision. Here is a chart comparing the six earliest accounts. Even a quick scan of the chart shows some significant variations in Smith’s story of the First Vision, many in direct conflict with the official LDS account found in Joseph Smith’s History, chapter 1.
Differences I find significant are:
-) Smith, over a period of a mere ten or eleven years, gives his age when receiving the vision as 14, 15 and 16, and the year in which it occurred as 1820, 1821, and 1823.
-) Various locations given by Smith for where he received the vision include his bedroom, the wilderness, a grove, and the woods.
-) Depending on which account you read, he was visited by either a spirit, an angel, Jesus, many angels, or God the Father and his Son.
-) Many accounts tell of a great revival in the area that prompted Smith to pray for guidance and ultimately resulted in the vision that gave him the conviction that all denominations were apostate. However, the official LDS dating of the vision is 1820, and no account given by Smith dates the vision later than 1823. The referenced revival did not begin until 1824, and peaked in 1825.
In addition to these discrepancies, an examination of the actions of Smith do not show a man who really took such a momentous vision all that seriously.
He relates that either God Himself or an angel told him (between 1820 and 1823) that, speaking of Christian denominations, he “must join none of them, for they were all wrong; and the Personage who addressed me said that all their creeds were an abomination in his sight; that those professors were all corrupt”, yet in June of 1828 he attempted to join the Methodist church!
This vision is supposedly the single most important event in the founding of the LDS, but there is no written record of if in official Church publications until after 1840 – ten years after the founding of the church, and approximately 20 years after the vision. Smith even neglected to mention the First Vision in the first edition of the church history he wrote along with Oliver Cowdery.
According to Smith, this vision was the culmination of a search for the true Gospel and his passion for holiness. However, for years after the vision, he pursued a career as a ‘treasure seer’ (someone who supposedly could find buried treasure by using a ‘seer stone’). In fact, in 1826 (less than 7 years after the vision) Smith is tried in South Bainbridge, NY on charges of being a ‘glass looker’ and court records show that he used other rituals as well, including the sprinkling of animal blood to break enchantments. He was expelled from the county rather than serve jail time.
This and other accounts of Smith’s early life – and even accounts of the translation of the Golden Tablets show a man who rather than having a passion for truth and holiness, was a money-seeker and occultist at best and outright charlatan at worst.
Which brings us to the Golden Plates, the Book of Mormon and the translation of the Plates. A summary of the LDS teaching on this is that on the night of Sept. 21, 1823, an angel named Moroni visited Smith three times, and told him where the golden plates containing the Book of Mormon were buried and that next to the plates were the Urim and the Thummim (‘seer stones’) which were for “the purpose of translating the book”. After the required four year wait, Smith was permitted to translate the plates, and published that translation as the Book of Mormon.
There are, however, inconsistencies with the account that are only amplified by the LDS practice of rewriting the history. It has been noted by many critics of the church that Smith’s early writings have been extensively rewritten without annotation or reference to the original wording in order to remove many of these inconsistencies.
First, as late as 1842, official LDS publications as well as non-Mormon writings identify the angel as Nephi rather than Moroni. These publications include not only the 1851 edition of the Pearl of Great Price, but Joseph Smith’s handwritten original manuscript. I find it very suspicious that the name of the messenger from God changes without explanation from Nephi to Moroni.
Second, unlike the First Vision, it is held by the LDS that the appearance by the angel was a physical appearance (a visitation) rather than a vision. There is a very large problem with Smith’s account, therefore.
At the time of the visitation, Smith and his family lived in a rather small two-story house. He shared a small bedroom with five brothers, with his sisters in the adjoining room. The boy’s room had two beds, so he would have had to share a bed with at least one of his brothers. According to the first chapter of Smith’s History, the room was filled with light as bright as noonday, and that the angel conversed with him. There were three of these visitations, lasting throughout the night until dawn.
I contend that it is very unreasonable to believe that under such close quarters that not one of Smith’s family were awakened by any of these visits that include bright light and lengthy conversations, especially when there is no mention in Smith’s accounts that no supernatural methods were used to prevent the family from seeing or hearing the visitations. In fact, the accounts of the visitations Smith’s siblings are not even mentioned.
Much has been written about the translation of the plates, and I refer you to the links at the end of this article for detailed examinations of the translation process. Since this post is already much longer than I intended, I’ll briefly state a few of my concerns
-) No one but Joseph Smith has ever physically seen the plates.
-) He supposedly translated the plates from ‘reformed Egyptian’ without even having the plates with him by placing a (or possibly two) stone in a hat, peering into the hat and relating the translation.
-) Although his transcriptionists were not allowed to keep for publication anything unless confirmed by Smith to be correct, there have been thousands of rewrites to the text over the first few decades of the LDS.
-) Not a single non-LDS Egyptologist or linguist has confirmed the existence of a ‘reformed Egyptian’ writing or any reference to it outside of the LDS.
-) Other supposed Smith translations, notably the Book of Abraham and the Kinderhook plates have been proven beyond doubt to be fakes. The Book of Abraham was ‘translated’ from papyri hieroglyphic writing that proved to be a burial scroll for a priest name Hor. The Kinderhook plates were forgeries, and according to one of the makers, made for the purpose of exposing Smith as a fraud.
Based on what I’ve found, I’ve concluded that the major inconsistencies in Joseph Smith’s writings, coupled with the LDS practice of rewriting supposedly inspired and factually as well as grammatically correct documents that the Book of Mormon, The Pearl of Great Price, and the Doctrines and Covenants are not in any way on a par with the Holy Bible. Therefore, any doctrines taught by these books or the LDS that do not agree with Biblical teaching are heretical. In part four, we’ll take a look at whether what the LDS teaches is Christian or cultish in nature.
Below is a rather lengthy list of websites that are useful for further investigation into the early history of the LDS, in no particular order:
Truthnet.org article about the Mormon church contains a concise history of the LDS
Please Convince Me offers a summary of the problems with the First Vision.
This site offers source documents relating to Smith’s joining the Methodist church.
Gordon Hinckley’s speech in which he identifies the First Vision as the foundation of the LDS.
The LDS response to problems with the First Vision. I find their arguments unconvincing.
Chapter 1 of the book Mormon Claims by Marvin W. Cowan details problems with the officiall account of early history of the LDS.
Here is a very interesting article dealing with a Form Criticism analysis of Smith’s Moroni visitation.
Here are some photos of the recreation of Smith’s home, including the boy’s bedroom. Notice how small it is, especially for five boys!
An examination of the Book of Abraham by Kevin Mathie