by a Latter-day Saint Historian
Salt Lake City, Utah
Editor’s Note: This paper is provided here exactly as it appeared during first publication in 1977. Many people have speculated as to who the original author was; some have felt that it was Michael Quinn. To the best of our knowledge Mr. Quinn has not claimed responsibility for this article, nor have we seen any authoritative information that identifies him as the author. Some people think that because Michael Quinn was excommunicated from the Church 20+ years after this article was first written, and that ‘he had to be the author,’ that it somehow invalidates or lessens the value of the information presented here. Such an assertion, of course, should not be taken seriously. Instead, the value of this material should be considered based on the ideas presented and their veracity. We will leave it to the common sense and intelligence of the reader to determine whether this information has merit independent of the human frailties of its assumed–but not verified–author.
As an historian, I have been concerned that a number of faithful Latter-day Saints seem to have been troubled by reading Jerald and Sandra Tanner’s Mormonism–Shadow or Reality? After preparing the following letter for a friend, upon his recommendation I have decided to publish the letter in this form. This publication has not been copyrighted, so that it can be reproduced and distributed freely by others, if they feel that the contents have value.
I apologize for the delay in answering your letter, but I felt that your inquiry and comments deserved both research and reflection on my part. Before I go into the substance of your request, let me express myself about something you implied. You seemed almost embarrassed to admit reading a book you regard as anti-Mormon, and you seemed to feel that my first reaction to your letter would be a criticism of your paying any attention to such writings. I can speak only for myself, but I feel that your curiosity in reading Jerald and Sandra Tanner’s work Mormonism–Shadow or Reality is a legitimate part of the process of spiritual understanding and testimony Paul described when he wrote: “Prove all things; hold fast that which is good.” (I Thessalonians 5:21). With that philosophy, I began reading literature of the world’s religions, writings by noted skeptics and atheists, and anti-Mormon literature while I was in the mid-teen years. In so doing, I sought the guidance and comfort of the Holy Spirit in leading me to new discoveries, in affirming previously believed truths, and in suspending judgment about areas where I had insufficient information. It was my adolescent boast to my non-Mormon friends that Mormonism not only encouraged but demanded that we investigate conflicting claims of religious truth, and accept truth from whatever source and reject error from whatever source. Many years have passed, but that faith of my youth remains.
From your letter I cannot be sure whether you have looked at several of the Tanners’ publications, or whether the revised 1972 edition of Shadow-Reality is the only one you have read. In any event, you ask that I evaluate the accuracy of their work from my point of view as a professionally trained historian who has studied Mormon history and theology at some length. You admit that you have been “seriously disturbed” by what you have read, and you mention some general areas you want me to respond to. You are a recent convert to Mormonism, and I sense that although your experience with anti-Mormon literature of this type has jolted you, that you sincerely want to know how the information in the Tanners’ publication(s) fits within the whole framework of Mormonism.
You have not asked me to bear my religious testimony to you, but have asked me instead to be an “expert witness” about the historical truth of what you have read. Nevertheless, let me take the time here to express my feelings both about spiritual things and about the world of mind, evidence, and historical interpretation that is my chosen field. Whether speaking of God, “exact” science, or the very inexact field of human history, a person must be sincerely willing to approach the subject on its own terms and to consider all available evidence. Otherwise, we lock ourselves into a position where we will really listen only to those persons or evidences that support our preconceived conclusions: that is the path to spiritual and intellectual stagnation.
Your questions not only deal with the academic and historical character of Mormonism, but with its spiritual verification. In spiritual knowledge, I must say that my own experiences with prayer, the Spirit, and revelation are primary evidence, whereas the evidence and testimony of the Scriptures, of the prophets and other good, believing people, and of the historical record of mankind are secondary. Each person must bring both kinds of evidence to his relationship with God. Throughout the rest of this letter I will, at your request, emphasize those evidences that are the secondary part of spiritual verification and knowledge. How you relate this information to your primary experience with spiritual truth is something only you can decide, but my experience confirms a knowledge of God’s existence, a knowledge of the reality of salvation through His son Jesus Christ, a knowledge of the importance of revelation, authority, and the community of believers (“the Church”), and an appreciation of the humanity and fallibility of God’s mortal servants in ancient and modern times.
You can see already that this is going to be a long letter, but I suppose you expected it. If you have waded through Mormonism–Shadow or Reality? with its more than five hundred pages of closely written commentary and document excerpts (both of which are presented with such heavy-handed repetition that I felt I was enduring a Chinese water torture when I read the book), then you should be able to get through this letter all right. I cannot possibly take the time to discuss the Tanners’ rejection of Mormonism on a point-by-point basis, but I will make some general observations about their approach, and will spend sometime with several of the specific issues you asked me about. Because I am very aware of my own intellectual limits and enormous areas of ignorance, I will deny being an “expert” on much of anything, but will give you my historical analysis of Mormonism (and the Tanners’ approach to it) and will document statements where it seems to be necessary.
The most important comment to be made about the approach of Jerald and Sandra Tanner to Mormonism is their selective use of evidence. The Tanners have published some very useful collections of excerpts and documents that otherwise would have to be read in the library-archives where they are located. Making documents available to the reading public and analyzing a subject through those documents are central features of the practice of history. But it is perspective–being able to see an issue in its totality and presenting its component parts in their relationships to each other and to the whole–that is the purpose and goal of writing history. A non-Mormon historian who has spent many years studying Mormonism recently commented that the Tanners choose only the most negative evidence to portray the “reality” of Mormonism and its history, while ignoring evidence or entire issues that do not support their interpretations. It is fair to say also that some Mormon defenders have also done equal disservice to the LDS Church by adopting the same method in reverse: presenting carefully chosen evidence that shows only the positive side of Mormonism, while ignoring or denying the existence of contrary evidence. If Mormon defenders have on occasion been guilty of some of the polemical techniques used by the Tanners, that still does not justify or sanctify distortion.
The historian is both similar and dissimilar to the artist in the matter of perspective. The artist must study his subject carefully in order to portray it in isolation to the viewing public. If the portrayal is to be one of “reality,” the artist studies not only his subject, but its surroundings, and the technicalities of mathematics and vision in order to be true to the external appearance of his artistic subject. If the artists chooses to present a personal, subjective emphasis for effect, he may freely distort the “real” image to emphasize a selective interpretation. In the fine arts, this distortion for effect is not only legitimate but is commendable and desirable, because the artist is seeking to communicate realities that are emotional, psychological, social, religious, and often both ineffable and invisible.
In writing about the past, the historian must also select the topic as well as the available evidence that can be used to present the issue in an understandable manner. But the selective use of evidence to provide a distorted view of the historical subject is a deception, even if inadvertent or well-intentioned. It is a deception because the reading public expects the historian to digest the existing evidence of a particular issue and to present that historical event or subject “as it was.” Because the historian’s tools include diaries, letters, newspaper accounts, reminiscences, civil documents, he often has the potential of understanding an historical event or subject better than any single participant. But human lives and events are complex and historical evidence is continually being discovered, recognized, and reevaluated. Therefore, the writing of history never achieves its absolute goal describing the past “as it was,” and so each new historian and historical work tries to add to the previous efforts at achieving perspective. When persons disregard perspective in historical writing, then their works represent the lowest characteristic of polemics, forensics, and propaganda: doing whatever is necessary to win the argument.
The Tanners are guilty of such distortion as they seek to repudiate Mormonism by applying inflexible standards of criticism that they seem unwilling to apply to the rest of sacred history. For example, in the 1972 edition of Shadow-Reality(page 60), the Tanners ridicule accounts of some Mormons seeing visions while others standing nearby did not, yet as Evangelical Christians they presumably accept the experience of Christ when he heard the voice of the Father, while others thought it had merely thundered (John 12:28-29), or the fact that those with Saul on the road to Damascus did not experience the same vision and revelation he did (Acts 9:7, 22:9). Similarly, the Tanners criticize at length (pages 245-51) “secrecy” in Mormonism despite the precedents of Christ’s instructions to maintain secrecy about healings (Matthew 8:4; Mark 7:35-36; Luke 5:13-14, 8:55-56), about the fact that he was the Christ (Matthew 16:20; Mark 7:36; Luke 9:21), and about the Transfiguration (Matthew 17:9; Mark 9:9). I suspect that the Tanners would try to explain why Jesus required secrecy, but such explanation would give a biblical “problem” a perspective they deny to a similar (if not identical) issue in Mormon history.
In this same respect, the Tanners use a common polemical device to repudiate the historical validity of crucial events in Mormon history, without applying the same standard to biblical sacred history. Concerning the differing manuscript accounts of Joseph Smith’s “First Vision,” the Tanners dramatically observe (on page 148): “yet EVERY ONE OF THEM IS DIFFERENT;” (on page 150) that these differing accounts prove “that Joseph Smith made up the vision many years after it was supposed to have occurred;” and (on page 152): “How can we reconcile such discrepancies?” Are they as willing to dismiss the story of Christ’s resurrection as fabrication because His apostles disagreed as to whether there were one or two angels at the tomb (Matthew 28:5; John 20:12)? Or do they likewise claim that Luke’s report of Saul’s vision on the road to Damascus was “made up years after it was supposed to have occurred” merely because Luke could not retell the experience twice in the same letter without contradicting himself (Acts 9:7, 22:9)? The selective requirement for inflexible standards of consistency is a stock weapon in debate and the practice of law to invalidate the testimony of your opponent’s witnesses. Yet perfect consistency is as often a trait of deception as of truth, and truth is often relayed by inconsistent witnesses. The record of human experience has rarely been free of ambiguity.
A classic weapon of debate and polemics (ad hominem argument) is employed repeatedly by the Tanners to question how Mormonism could possibly be true when its leaders are guilty of sin, errors of judgment, and disagreeable personality traits. This is the direction of the Tanners’ response to Joseph Smith’s polygamy, smoking and drinking, financial failures, misjudgments of history and people, occasional temper outbursts, and a host of personality foibles. In like manner, they are deeply appalled and alienated that modern LDS apostles would, dare write letters threatening legal action for unauthorized reproduction and sale of personal diaries and sermons (pages 12-13),1 or that an apostle would warn them not to “start anything against this church” (p. 570; compare II Peter 3:12).
Before exposing the errors of LDS leaders, the Tanners could have referred to the Apostle John’s description of the universal condition of mankind (including himself as an apostle): “If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. . . . Whosoever committeth sin transgresseth the law: for sin is the transgression of the law” (I John 1:8, 3:4). The Apostle Paul, who was truly born again in Christ, publicly admitted that in spite of himself he did evil things he did not want to do and did not do good things he wanted to do (Romans 7:14-19). The New Testament informs us that only one man born of woman has been free of sin, and therefore all mankind (including all prophets and other holy, born-again persons), despite all efforts to the contrary, continue to remain in the mortal condition of committing transgressions of the laws and commandments of God.
Although the prophets and authors of ancient religious history communicated God’s condemnation against all sin, they also presented the clear understanding that God’s servants continued to sin or “make mistakes,” and were thus fully human despite a divine commission. Noah occasionally drank wine to the point of drunkenness and unconsciousness (Genesis 9:21, 23). Abraham acquiesced in his wife’s mistreatment of his second wife (Genesis 16:6). Jacob “with subtlety” and deception obtained his brother’s blessing from his blind father Isaac (Genesis 27:12, 35), and also hated his first wife Leah (Genesis 29:30-31). Moses at the least committed manslaughter prior to his call as a prophet (Exodus 2:12-14), and after that call occasionally exhibited doubt in God’s word, fierce anger, and boastful arrogance (Exodus 4:10-14, 5:22-23, 32:19; Numbers 20:10-12). The Lord had to intervene directly to prevent Samuel from choosing the wrong man as king (1 Samuel 16:6-7). Daniel sought forgiveness for his sins while prophet (Daniel 9:20). Jonah resisted the commandment of God to him (Jonah 1:2-3, 4:1) Jesus drank enough alcohol at banquets to be criticized as a “winebibber” (Matthew 11:19; Luke 7:34).2 James and John, as apostles, delighted in the thought of their opponents being destroyed (Luke 9:52-56) and pridefully sought to elevate themselves above the rest of God’s children in the eternities (Mark 10:35-38). Peter was impudent, boastful, arrogant, and cowardly as an apostle during the life of Jesus (Matthew 16:21-23, 26:69-75; John 13:8-9, 18:10-11). Despite Christ’s command to send the Gospel to all nations at His ascension (Matthew 27:19; Mark 16:15; Luke 24:47), it required another specific revelation to Peter to persuade him that the Gospel should be taken to those who were not Jews (Acts 10-11), and even years after that revelation Peter continued to demonstrate his prejudice (Galatians 2:1,9,11-14). Nor did Peter hesitate to criticize the approach of his fellow apostle Paul in teaching the Gospel (2 Peter 3:15-16); Paul likewise boasted that he had publicly condemned Peter and “withstood him to the face, because he was to be blamed” (Galatians 2:11-14). Moreover, conflicts between Barnabus and Paul resulted in the disruption of their mission (Acts 13:2, 15:36-39).
Do such evidences of humanity, error, sin, and fallibility invalidate prophetic or apostolic callings? The answer to this question is ultimately a personal one, but it is obvious that in the Hebraic view of sacred history, these signs of humanity were not regarded as a repudiation of the callings of these men. The ancient writers of sacred history seemed to feel that by showing the humanity of God’s servants, the rank-and-file of Israel and the Church would not assume that prophets and apostles were somehow otherworldly and immune from the kinds of problems plaguing the “ordinary” mortal. Ancient sacred history seemed to be telling all people: See, God chose these weak men to do great things in His service, and so each person on earth should realize that he or she can also serve God, receive revelation, and do righteousness, despite human problems and inability to live totally without sin.
In presenting the weaknesses and foibles of Joseph Smith and other Mormon leaders, the Tanners write as though these were hidden secrets that they have been able to dredge up. On the contrary, the published revelations of the Doctrine and Covenants frequently condemn Joseph Smith for lack of faith, cowardice, and other sins for which he is commanded to repent (D&C 3:6-10, 60:6-7, 90:1, 93:47, 110:5). From what hidden records did the Tanners learn that Joseph Smith continued to drink wine and beer after the Word of Wisdom was given generally “as counsel” and occasionally enforced upon the Church?–From the official “History of Joseph Smith” in the Deseret News and LDS Millennial Star (See pages 406-7 for some of the Tanners’ own quotes). Moreover, their references to Joseph Smith’s violent temper and other personality quirks come primarily from the LDS apostles who knew him and wanted (like the ancient biblical historians) to share his humanness with Mormons who did not know him personally.
While a disagreeable personality trait or action does not become commendable and less offensive when it occurs in the life of a prophet or apostle, the message of sacred history is that such flaws are inevitably part of humanity, and therefore will always be with the people of God, the Church, and its leaders.3 It is regrettable that in our urbane, twentieth century experience as a church, many of our writers (including nearly all of our apologist-defenders) have found it necessary to ignore or even deny the weaknesses, fallibility, and humanity of our prophets and apostles. This reflects a lack of confidence in the ability of LDS converts and lifetime members to accept the fact that a man is considerably less than “a little lower than the angels” when he becomes a bishop, stake president, apostle, or prophet. In the short-run, glorifying our leaders may be good public relations, but in the long-run it makes Mormons vulnerable to shallow, muckraking ad hominem attacks on their leaders.
In a related issue, however, I wish to discuss the occasions in which the Tanners (as well as others, of course) call something evil which Joseph Smith and other LDS leaders called divine. The obvious example is the practice of polygamy (or polygyny), but it extends to a number of other areas as well. In the total view of ancient and modern sacred history, the issue was best stated by Joseph Smith in a document that has been identified as written to his intended plural wife: “Whatever God requires is right, no matter what it is, although we may not see the reason thereof till long after the events transpire.”4 The classic example in the Old Testament is “Thou shalt not kill” of the Decalogue (Exodus 20:13), compared with such events as God’s command through Moses to kill three thousand of the Israelite idolaters (Exodus 32:26-28); Joshua’s order that every man, woman, and child of Jericho be killed except Rahab and her family (Joshua 6:17, 21); the Prophet Samuel’s command to King Saul to destroy all living things, including infants, of the Amalekites; and the fact that when the lone survivor was presented to Samuel, the prophet took a sword and “hewed Agag in pieces before the Lord” (I Samuel 15:2-3, 32). Moreover, the Prophet Elijah personally killed 450 pagan prophets who had been disgraced and taken captive (I Kings 18:19-40); and Ezekiel commanded that the people of Edom be destroyed “by the hand of my people Israel” (Ezekiel 25:13-14).
The Tanners would like to ignore the issue by claiming that the people of the Old Testament practiced polygamy and “many other sins which God will not allow us to commit now that Christ has revealed the perfect way” (Page 206). The Tanners fail to realize or to admit that the same God is the central authority for both Old and New Testaments (Covenants), and that the ministry of the Old Testament prophets had validity, just as the ministry of the apostles who followed them had validity. Moreover, the issue is the same within the New Testament. Jesus of Nazareth openly violated the commandments given by God to Moses, Jeremiah, and Ezekiel concerning the Sabbath and encouraged others to violate those strict laws.5 In the outward violation of the Decalogue’s injunction against theft (Exodus 20:15), Jesus instructed two of his disciples to take a colt from where it was kept by its owners and bring it to Jesus for His own use, with only a cursory explanation to the owners who inquired about the action.6 The only basis upon which one could regard Jesus as anything but a lawbreaker is by faith in His role as the Christ, the Messiah, the Son of God, who had the authority to fulfill and not to destroy the law. The overpowering message of the first chapter of Genesis is that what God does is good, and that equation is not altered when He does it through His mortal, fallible servants.
An extension of the Tanners’ selective use of evidence is the fact that they often make assertions and draw conclusions without referring to evidence that qualifies, challenges, or refutes their argument. For example, they berate the LDS Church for “Suppression of Records” (on pages 10-12 and elsewhere) because the Tanners’ requests for purchasing microfilms of manuscripts in the LDS Archives were refused. Of course, prestigious manuscript libraries throughout the world (e.g., British Museum, Huntington Library, Harvard University Libraries) have long refused permission to photocopy manuscripts, or have restricted the photocopying of manuscripts–but this is not mentioned by the Tanners. Moreover, the Tanners cast the LDS Archives in a sinister light because it was closed to the public for many decades, but fail to comment that this closed-archive practice is not only consistent with the policy of most businesses (including the richly historical Hudson’s Bay Company), but also with that of most religious and charitable organizations. The custodians of LDS manuscripts have sometimes been defensive about the documents under their control, yet this has been no less true in institutions that have lacked the LDS Church’s heritage of persecution and hostile propaganda.
The failure to cite well-known evidence that challenges their conclusions occurs repeatedly in the Tanners’ analysis of the seven- volume History of the Church. For example, it is implied (pages 134-35) that the prophecy of Joseph Smith about the Mormons moving to the Rocky Mountains (HC 5:85) was a falsification added to the history after the Mormons were actually in the Great Basin. However, in 1964 (eight years before this edition of Shadow-Reality) Stanley B. Kimball published a bibliography of sources for the Nauvoo history of Mormonism (of which the Tanners should have been aware) where he noted that the Oliver H. Olney Papers (written in 1842-43) at Yale University, “recorded the early plans of Joseph Smith to move west. . . .”7 If the Tanners did not trust that description, they or their widely scattered friends could have read the versified, anti-Mormon manuscript by Olney, dated July 2, 1842:
As a company is now a forming / In to the wilderness to go / As far west as the Rocky mountains. . . . If this was not the secret whispering / Amongst certain ones of the Church of L.D.S. / And could be easily proven If man could speak.8
The Tanners are aware that the History of the Church was compiled from a variety of sources (many of which were only loaned to Church historians, to be returned once they had extracted pertinent information), and that the exact source for the account of Joseph Smith’s prophecy of August 6, 1842 is not clear. Olney recorded the rumors about the move west in July, and someone else recorded the prophecy in August. In another section of the Tanners’ tirade about the History of the Church, they discuss a statement in the “Manuscript History of the Church” in which Joseph Smith is reported to have stated in 1832 that Brigham Young would become president of the Church. Regarding the entry as a falsification, the Tanners state “Although the Mormon Historians added the part about Brigham Young speaking in tongues, they have never dared to add the prophecy that Brigham Young was to become leader of the Church” (p. 138). In fact, the prophecy was published by “Mormon historians” in 1858, 1863, 1876, 1886, 1893, 1901, 1936, and 1968.9
Two other examples of the Tanners’ “suppression of evidence” indicate their slanted use of sources. On page 257, the Tanners quote B.H. Roberts, who was not trained in law or legal history, to support their conclusion that the suppression of the Nauvoo Expositor by orders of Joseph Smith as mayor of Nauvoo was illegal. Seven years prior to the revised edition of Shadow-Reality, Dallin H. Oaks, at that time a professor at the University of Chicago Law School, published an article in a legal journal demonstrating that the suppression (abatement) of the Nauvoo Expositor as a “public nuisance” was within the powers granted by the state of Illinois in the Nauvoo Charter, was consistent with contemporary judicial interpretations of the First Amendment, and was supported by legal precedents in support of suppression of newspapers prior to 1844.10 I find it hard to believe that the Tanners were unaware of this article, in view of the fact that they frequently cite Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought, and the Oaks article was reviewed in the Summer 1966 issue of Dialogue.11
In another example, the Tanners (on pages 204 and 208) accuse Joseph Smith of committing adultery according to the definition of Lorenzo Snow because Joseph married plural wives before the 1843 revelation on polygamy. The Tanners have failed to state the historical context in which Lorenzo Snow’s statement must be understood: First, he was being interrogated by a hostile audience; and second, the Tanners are well aware that his sister Eliza R. Snow married Joseph Smith in polygamy a year before the 1843 revelation, and he was hardly accusing her of adultery. Moreover, the attention of Lorenzo Snow’s interrogators was upon the 1843 published revelation on polygamy, but there were earlier unpublished revelations concerning polygamy as far back as 1831. In 1831 a Mormon defector wrote that Joseph Smith had given a revelation concerning polygamy, and in 1861 an early Mormon wrote a letter to Brigham Young in which he gave the text of that revelation.12 The Tanners could not have been unaware of this when they published the revised Shadow-Reality in 1972, because such a revelation was referred to in the 1834 Mormonism Unveiled (which the Tanners quote from on page 58), in Helen Mar Whitney’s 1882 Plural Marriage as Taught by the Prophet Joseph, in the 1887 Historical Record (which they quote from on page 203), in the 1922 Essentials in Church History (which they quote from on page 31), in a 1970 article on the “Manifesto” (which they quote from on page 231), and in the Journal of Discourses (virtually every volume of which is quoted by the Tanners).13 As mentioned elsewhere in this letter, Lorenzo Snow and other General Authorities may make statements about LDS history that are inaccurate or misleading when viewed in isolation, but can be understood or qualified when one is aware of larger circumstances and evidences. Jerald and Sandra Tanner have read widely enough in the sources of LDS history to provide that perspective, but they do not. Although the most conscientious and honest researcher can overlook pertinent sources of information, the repeated omissions of evidence by the Tanners suggest an intentional avoidance of sources that modify or refute their caustic interpretations of Mormon history.
In drawing conclusions from the evidence they do present, the Tanners are often guilty of the non sequitur: in other words, the conclusions arrived at are not supported by the evidence. For example, they state (on page 33) that the recently discovered bill of charges from the 1826 trial of Joseph Smith “proves that the published court record is authentic.” The published “court record” appeared in contradictory versions in 1831, 1873, 1877, and 1883, several of which allegedly quote detailed testimony from this trial. The Tanners’ statement would lead the reader to believe that the bill of charges substantiates the entire published versions of the trial (including all alleged testimony–p. 34), whereas these recent discoveries verify quite limited facts: there was a trial in 1826 in which Joseph Smith was described as “The Glass Looker” and charged with a misdemeanor, twelve witnesses were subpoenaed, a mittimus was issued, and the total court costs were $2.68. The evidence of the 1826 trial, like many other historical issues the Tanners discuss, invites something more than their uncompromising conclusions.14
A similar non sequitur occurs when the Tanners say (on page 304) that “it is logical to assume” that a letter written by an anti-Mormon at Marissa, Illinois on November 23, 1967 (with at least a two-day transit) to the Metropolitan Museum of New York was the cause of the museum’s turning over the Egyptian papyri to the LDS Church on November 27, because “neither the Church nor the Metropolitan Museum would have wanted the opponents of Mormonism to have been the first to announce the discovery.” The only logic that supports that conclusion is the Tanners’ assumption that both Mormons and non-Mormons are intimidated by anti-Mormons.
In the presentation of their argument, the Tanners are often guilty of a classic misuse of parallels in historical analysis: because Item Y resembles Item X closely and because Item Y existed in point of time after Item X, then Item Y necessarily or obviously derived from (was copied from, was influenced by, etc.) Item X. Such a line of reasoning first of all defies a frequently demonstrated principle in the history of philosophy, the natural sciences, anthropology, mathematics, literature, economics, religion, music, and other fields: that extremely similar (and sometimes nearly identical) ideas, interpretations, literatures, inventions, artistic forms, rituals, economic systems and cultural epochs have occurred closely related in time, but so far removed in geography and/or means of communication that neither similar manifestation had an influence upon the other.
A related misuse of parallels occurs once Item X can be shown to be capable in point of time and place of influencing Item Y. The conclusion is made that Item X necessarily influenced (was copied by) Item Y, without seriously considering 1) that despite the proximity, both Item X and Item Y developed independently, and 2) that an Item A, B, or C existed long prior to Item X and may have been the direct influence on both X and Y. There is a very important role of parallelism concerning the character of ancient and modern scripture, but I will defer my discussion of that topic until later in this letter, and will indicate here other examples of misuse of literary parallels by the Tanners.15
The Tanners suggest (pages 86-88) that Lehi’s “Tree of Life Dream” in the Book of Mormon was borrowed from an 1811 dream of Joseph Smith, Sr., as found in Lucy Mack Smith’s published history of her martyred son. Relating her family’s history from memory in 1845, when Lucy Mack Smith came to the early visions of her son Joseph Smith, she (or her ghost writers, Howard and Martha Coray) simply quoted from the published version in the Times and Seasons.16 When Lucy related the first visionary experiences of her husband that had occurred in 1811 (34 years prior to the time that the 69-year-old woman sought to reconstruct her life’s experiences), they appeared remarkably close to the dream related by Lehi in the Book of Mormon. The Tanners conclude that the original 1811 dream is the Item X that Joseph Smith copied into the Book of Mormon Lehi dream (Item Y). But the Tanners are confusing the elements of the textual parallel: the subject of comparison is the written description of the dreams, and if one insists on the post hoc ergo propter hoc analysis of similarities, then the Lucy Mack Smith version written in 1845 was the Item Y that was dependent on, copied from, derived from, the fifteen-year-earlier published dream in the Book of Mormon. (Item X). If one looks for an Item A, B, or C that was an antecedent for the Lehi dream in the Book of Mormon, the Tree of Life symbols and texts of the ancient world deserve a consideration which the Tanners will not give because they are already convinced that the Book of Mormon is not an ancient text.17
The Tanners’ treatment of the relationship of Mormonism and Masonry (pages 484-92) is a similar use of historical parallels. The Tanners claim that Mormon temple ordinances are the Item Y that Joseph Smith copied from the Item X of Masonry: “We feel that there is only one logical explanation for the many parallels between the temple ceremony and Masonry, and that is that Joseph Smith borrowed from the Masons” (page 490). This is the “only” logical use of analogy if Joseph Smith’s claim of revelation has already been rejected. First, the Tanners ignore the fact that five years before Joseph Smith was introduced to Masonry, two essentials of the Mormon endowment were practiced at Kirtland: the ceremonial washing (not just of feet) “from head to foot in soap and watter . . . next in perfumed spirits,” and the anointing with consecrated oil.18 This and the more complete LDS temple ceremony of baptism, washing, anointing, endowment (including symbolic remembrances of Christ’s sacrament), and sealing in marriage, bear striking resemblances to the format of salvation ordinances described in the Gospel of Philip which was discovered at Nag Hammadi, Egypt in recent decades: “For this one is no longer a Christian but a Christ. The Lord did everything in a mystery, a baptism and a chrism [anointing with consecrated oil] and a Eucharist and a redemption and a bride-chamber.”19
Joseph Smith’s initiation as a Master Mason in 1842 may indeed have acted as a catalyst for him to seek further revelation about the ceremonies that Masons claimed came from the Temple of Solomon, and (in view of what I will discuss later about scriptural phraseology) it is possible that Masonic phraseology influenced the development of the wording used to teach the sacred elements of the LDS endowment. Nevertheless, before repudiating Mormon temple ordinances by historical parallel, one should consider the ancient rites and ceremonies in Egyptian documents, Semitic manuscripts, and early Christian sources. This is a more appropriate test, since the LDS claim is that the temple ordinances existed prior to Masonry and prior to Solomon’s temple. The existence of parallels in ancient rites and LDS ordinances therefore is of at least equal importance as Masonic-LDS parallels.20
Another tool of polemics that the Tanners frequently use is the “Straw Man” approach. Briefly, this method sets up an easily refutable and non-representative argument that is supposed to represent the position of one’s opponents, and once the opponent has been set up in this manner, the polemicist proceeds to devastate the “Straw Man,”leaving the audience with the impression that the real opponent has been defeated. The common addition of the Tanners to this device is to create their Straw Man by quoting from their opponents’ own sources, in this case from the prominent advocates and defenders of Mormonism.
One use of the “Straw Man” by the Tanners involves quoting General Authorities of the Church on doctrine and history, and then showing how the doctrines in question are disputed by other General Authorities or by written scriptures, and also by showing how specific historical statements and explanations of the General Authorities are inadequate or contradicted by the historical evidences. The Tanners are aware that the official position of the LDS Church is “that a prophet was a prophet only when he was acting as such” (HC 5:265), but they also know that despite this denial of infallibility, Mormons tend to give special significance (if not outright divine status) to anything said by an LDS President or other General Authority. Therefore, the Tanners use Mormon gullibility and misplaced allegiance to priesthood authority as weapons to destroy confidence in the foundations of Mormonism. Although Brigham Young is commonly regarded as an autocrat who demanded unquestioning acceptance of his word, throughout his service as President, Brigham Young criticized the indiscriminate acceptance of the statements of prophets, seers, and revelators:
These persons do not depend upon themselves for salvation, but upon another of their poor, weak, fellow mortals…. say they, … I depend upon you brother Joseph upon you, brother Brigham, upon you, brother Heber, or upon you, brother James; I believe your judgment is superior to mine, and consequently I let you judge for me…. Now those men, or those women, who know no more about the power of God, and the influences of the Holy Spirit, than to be led entirely by another person, suspending their own understanding, and pinning their faith upon another’s sleeve, will never be capable of entering into the celestial glory, to be crowned as they anticipate…
I do not wish any Latter-day Saint in this world, nor in heaven, to be satisfied with anything I do, unless the Spirit of the Lord Jesus Christ, the spirit of revelation, makes them satisfied….
How often has it been taught that if you depend entirely upon the voice, judgment, and sagacity of those appointed to lead you, and neglect to enjoy the Spirit for yourselves, how easily you may be led into error, and finally be cast off to the left hand? ….
I am more afraid that this people have so much confidence in their leaders that they will not inquire for themselves of God whether they are led by Him. I am fearful they settle down in a state of blind self-security, trusting their eternal destiny in the hands of their leaders with a reckless confidence….
Now let me ask you, if you trust to my faith, to my words and teachings, counsel and advise, and do not seek after the Lord to have His Spirit to guide and direct you, can I not deceive you, can I not lead you into error? . . .
Now, let me ask the Latter-day Saints, you who are here in this house this day, how do you know that your humble servant is really, honestly, guiding and counseling you aright, and directing the affairs of the kingdom aright? . . . How do you know but I am teaching false doctrine? . . . live so that you can discern between the truth and error, between light and darkness, between the things of God and those not of God, for by the revelations of the Lord and these alone, can you and I understand the things of God.21
General Authorities have the limitations of all men in the matters under discussion here. They can engage in doctrinal speculation, defend valid or invalid doctrinal interpretations from a faulty understanding of written scripture, and make assertions or denials about sacred and secular history that are founded on inadequate research or misunderstanding.22 This should be no more startling than to freely admit that the biblical prophets and apostles accepted the ancient belief that the earth was a flat, rectangular surface, supported at its four corners by pillars, as indicated by the references of Isaiah, Jeremiah, and John the Revelator to the “four corners of the earth,”23 by the references of Moses, Job, David, Solomon, Isaiah, Jeremiah, Micah, Zechariah, and Paul to the “ends of the earth,”24 and by the statement in I Samuel 2:8:”for the pillars of the earth are the Lord’s, and he hath set the world upon them.” We should also remember that when Moroni wrote of the”mistakes of men” in the preface to the Book of Mormon, the men he referred to were the Nephite prophets and scribes.
Another “Straw Man” approach of the Tanners is to quote some Mormon defender about his view of what would constitute a refutation of Mormonism, and then demonstrate (or try to) that the refutation has been accomplished. The Tanners quote from two recent Mormon defenders (on pages 35-36) that if the 1826 court record as published was accurate, then (according to Francis W. Kirkham) Joseph Smith’s “believers must deny his claimed divine guidance,” and (according to Hugh Nibley) “it is the most damning evidence in existence against Joseph Smith.” Leaving aside the fact that no contemporary evidence has verified the alleged testimony in the 1826 trial (contrary to the Tanners’ effusions), I wish to comment on the approach of accepting someone’s simple standards of refutation. I cannot say whether Kirkham and Nibley actually would regard the verified 1826 trial testimony as a refutation of Mormonism (the Tanners would lead the reader to believe so), but I can state as an historian that simply verifying the 1826 testimony would not in validate Mormonism or repudiate Joseph Smith’s prophetic claims. Both Mormons and Anti-Mormons have compulsively used either-or argumentation: if such-and-such happened, the LDS Church is false or true. All possible evidence of support and refutation for any ideological or historical proposition must be put into perspective, and it is such perspective that prevents a rush to judgment. Debaters and polemicists resort to the “Straw Man” technique precisely because total refutation is not an easy achievement.25
Although the Tanners abandon all pretense of historical perspective by the other methods I have described, they further distill their distortion through their bizarre editorial style. First is their use of ellipses ( . . .). For example (on page 95) the Tanners write that “Joseph Smith certainly had the ability to make up ‘new names’,” and then quote an account of Joseph Smith’s giving a “boy the name of Mahonri Moriancumer . . .” (that is where their quote ends). By consulting the sources the Tanners cited for this quotation, however, one learns that they purposely deleted the following sentence: “When he had finished the blessing, he laid the child on the bed, and turning to Elder Cahoon he said, the name I have given your son is the name of the Brother of Jared [in the Book of Mormon]; the Lord has just shown (or revealed) it to me.” The part left out by the Tanners would require the reader to decide whether Joseph Smith could act as a divine revelator, but because the Tanners already conclude that he was a fraud, they eliminate his explanation for the unusual name. The use of ellipses is a well established tool of scholarship, but it may also be used for purposes of distortion.
Second, is the Tanners’ use of repetition. The Tanners quote and requote, in whole or part, the same documents over and over again, sometimes within a few pages of each other. They also repeat the same concluding ideas throughout each chapter (e.g., in the chapter on the Book of Abraham, nearly every page has some statement by them that Joseph Smith did not understand the Egyptian language–pages 344-61 especially). This alternately bored me and drove me to distraction, but as a methodology such repetition has a more specific function. A certain amount of re-emphasis is necessary for all communication and teaching, but incessant repetition is not designed to persuade by logic, but instead to induce the reader or listener to suspend rational thought in favor of total acceptance. The negative consequences of such a technique are obvious.
The Tanners introduce the third editorial practice with a statement on the last page of their Preface: “Capitalization and underlining are used for emphasis throughout this book.” As is true of ellipses, the occasional use of underlining or italics for emphasis is fully acceptable and even desirable. With the exception of pages 75-79,462-73, and 500-511, however, every page of Shadow-Reality is alive with underlinings and FULL CAPITAL phrases. This extensive use of emphasis in the closely spaced text of the 587-page Shadow-Reality actually discourages reading each word or even every sentence and paragraph, but instead encourages the reader’s eye to skip from emphasized words to emphasized words that are in close proximity, and to pay little attention to the tightly spaced words in between. This editorial practice enables the Tanners to quote lengthy documents “in context,” with the assurance that the reader will assimilate only the sensationalistic headlines and emphasis. For example, on page 413 the Tanners quote a long passage from a conference talk of Joseph F. Smith in which many words and sentences are emphasized, including the phrase: “. . . Z.C.M.I. KEPT LIQUORS of various kinds for medicinal purposes.” The Tanners’ editorial practices discourage the reader from noticing the connecting words and sentences that modify or alter the sensational impression of the emphasized words.
At this point I would just as soon end this letter, and let you decide how my observations apply to what you have read of the publications by Jerald and Sandra Tanner. Nevertheless, you have asked me to write you specifically about several major topics treated by the Tanners, and instead I have taken all this time to write about the general approach of the Tanners. My general observations about Shadow-Reality can be applied in various combinations to each topic they analyze, but I will spend some time with the major issues you asked about.
I have already referred briefly to what I regard as the Tanners’ selective application of criteria with reference to the First Vision, but your letter indicated that you wanted a more detailed comment from me on the historical reliability of the First Vision. The polemical attack against the historicity of the First Vision centers on the varying accounts by Joseph Smith of that experience, and on these derivative issues: the date of the experience, the evidence for a contemporary revival, the use of the term “angels” to describe the experience, the question of whether there were one or two representatives of Deity, and the question of why Joseph Smith took so long to record (and even longer to publish) an account of this experience. During their discussion of the “strange accounts,” the Tanners state (on page 155): “It is very difficult to believe in the authenticity of Joseph Smith’s First Vision when there is so much evidence against it, “yet the Tanners had already rejected the First Vision several years before the early publication of these varying accounts in 1965, for Jerald Tanner initially requested excommunication from the LDS Church in 1958 and in 1960 Sandra Tanner requested similar action for her own membership “since I no longer believed Joseph Smith to be a prophet. . . .” (Page 574). Although the Tanners have used the varying accounts of the First Vision to support their preconceived rejection of the experience, these historical documents not only allow but require a differing interpretation.
A crucial question that is the starting point for interpreting the First Vision is: What significance did this experience (as related in any and all descriptions of it by Joseph Smith) have for Mormonism as a movement and the claim of the LDS Church to be a prophet-led restoration of the ancient Church of Christ? James B. Allen, now Assistant Church Historian in the LDS Church, discussed this question in 1966, but did not state the issue as pointedly as I feel the evidence demands. The First Vision experience of Joseph Smith, Jr. had no significance for his later claims about the Book of Mormon, his prophetic calling, or the concept of a divinely restored priesthood and church. In fact, every description by Joseph Smith of this early vision indicates that he regarded it as a personal experience to be connected with Mormonism only because it had occurred to the translator of the Book of Mormon and the first president of the new church.
Nowhere in any version of the First Vision can one find that Joseph Smith was referred to as prophet or agent of restoration, or that he was to deliver any message to any one (unlike the first chapter of the writings of virtually every Old Testament prophet). Several of Joseph Smith’s accounts of this experience indicate that his primary object in prayer was to obtain forgiveness of sins and his lesser object was to know about his religious affiliation. Joseph Smith’s communion with Deity answered both concerns, and his accounts of the experience indicate that he was willing to accept it as the “Final Vision” rather than the first of many to come.
Now if we are to believe the interpretation of Fawn Brodie as distilled and refined by the Tanners (pages 152-53), Joseph Smith’s accounts of the First Vision prove that he was retroactively trying to invent a set of impressive credentials for his claim to be prophet-restorer. The evidence of the documents and the context of Mormon history, however, make such an interpretation utter nonsense. If the “First Vision” were an invention to bolster his prophetic claims, Joseph Smith failed repeatedly to include any reference to his receiving a special commission during his epiphany to do a prophetic, evangelistic, or apostolic work among the children of men.
The accounts of the First Vision consistently describe an experience that was intensely personal for Joseph Smith, rather than a revelation of significance for his followers. Joseph Smith claimed that his commission to do a prophetic work among men (the Book of Mormon) came from an angel that no one had ever heard of before. If Joseph Smith were engaging in “improvisation” or “evolutionary fantasy” to provide impressive credentials for his prophetic office, his efforts were singularly unimpressive. This is a curious conclusion to make about a young man that Brodie and the Tanners are convinced had enough sense to fictionalize a five hundred page history of ancient people as an intentional fraud.
Furthermore, the distinction between private experience and divine calling explains the contrasting publicity given to the Angel Moroni story and the story of the First Vision. The visitation of the angel was preached and published from 1829 onward, yet even though the “First Vision” experience was described in the 1832 manuscript, “A History of the Life of Joseph Smith, Jr.,” another decade passed before Joseph Smith publicly aligned his spiritual autobiography with the official history of Mormonism. It is this distinction that the Tanners gloss over in their analysis (pages 150-52) of what they call “First History” published by Oliver Cowdery in 1834, in which he failed to include the “First Vision” even though it had been recorded as early as 1832. The 1832 Manuscript version of the vision was in the handwriting of Joseph Smith (even though a scribe wrote the rest of it), and was undoubtedly known to Cowdery (who was Church Historian from 1830-31 and Church Recorder from 1835-37), yet the “First Vision” is not in Cowdery’s narrative. The reason for the omission is indicated in Cowdery’s preface to this 1834 narrative: “a full history of the rise of the church of Latter Day Saints”
The appearance of the Angel Moroni and his instructions to Joseph Smith about the Book of Mormon constituted the earliest sine qua non of Mormonism. As Cowdery defined his 1834 history it was natural to begin at that point, rather than to deal with the private experience of the First Vision that had nothing to do with the rise of Mormonism, except that it (like the bone surgery incident Joseph Smith included in one of the manuscript histories of his early life27) was one of a mass of autobiographical details that would be of interest to persons trying to understand the life of the man who brought forth the Book of Mormon and Mormonism itself. When Joseph Smith finally published an account of the First Vision, he appropriately titled it (in significant contrast to Cowdery’s 1834 narrative): “History of Joseph Smith.”28
The question of the dating of the First Vision is an issue that lends credence to Joseph Smith’s claims, rather than undermining them. In the criticism of others, it has been pointed out that Joseph Smith was not consistent in the dates he assigned to this first experience: in the 1832 document it was in his “16th year,” in the 1835 recital he was “about 14 years old,” and the 1834 version was a mass of precision and ambiguity: “in the spring of Eighteen hundred and twenty . . . in my fifteenth year . . . between fourteen and fifteen years old or thereabouts . . . a little over fourteen years of age.” If Joseph Smith had been dictating a contrived “improvisation” to the dupes who were acting as his scribes, it would have been no problem for such a charlatan to select an arbitrary date for the First Vision and then stick to it. This would especially be no problem for a young man who (according to the Tanners) had been able to dictate the convoluted narrative of the fictionalized Book of Mormon. On the contrary, the variations in dating indicate that here was a man trying to reconstruct events from his early life that he originally regarded as of significance to himself alone, but now have become of interest to people who are his followers and curious inquisitors.
In my own youth I had a religious experience (one of those primary evidences I referred to earlier) that was very compelling to me. Unlike Joseph Smith, I recorded the experience on the day it occurred, but it was about ten years before I felt sufficiently confident of myself and the integrity of others to relate the incident to a few close associates. I found that as I tried to describe the event from memory I could not remember my age at the time of the experience: over a period of time I variously told others that it had occurred when I was 15, 16, and 17 years old, and it required a re-reading of my contemporary recording of the event to verify my age. Had either Joseph Smith or I been trying to invent a youthful epiphany to validate adult pretensions, consistency would have been easy.
The question of the date of the First Vision leads directly to the issue of the Palmyra revivals, which Reverend Wesley P. Walters (The Tanners’ mainstay in their analysis of the First Vision–see pages 155-62) insists could not have occurred in 1820. Moreover, to cover what he regards as all reasonable alternatives, Walters also affirms that Palmyra had no revivals in the period 1819-23. Walters’ negative evidence seems impressive, but actually is the product of a strenuously narrowed field of investigation.
First of all, Mormon historians have made the whole issue vulnerable to attack by putting too much emphasis on the spring of 1820 as the date of the First Vision. The obvious uncertainty of the adult Joseph Smith’s memory and the ambiguity of his descriptions of age provide a possible time-frame for the First Vision that extends from the spring of 1818 prior to his fourteenth birthday (“I was about 14 years old”) to the spring of 1822 (“In the 16th year of my age”). Not only is it possible that Joseph Smith’s choice of 1820 was a compromise between the extreme dates his memory provided, but within the four-year span indicated in his efforts to reconstruct his early history the term “spring” could designate any day from an early March thaw to mid-June.
Moreover, it is difficult to be certain what year Joseph Smith actually remembered the revivals as having occurred. Aside from the fact that the chronology of the 1838 account that dates the revivals is ambiguous,29 the 1838 account also suggests that it required a lengthy period of time between the revivalistic awakening and Joseph Smith’s prayer for forgiveness and enlightenment: “In the process of time my mind became somewhat partial to the Methodist sect,” and later in the narrative: “At length I came to the conclusion that I must either remain in darkness and confusion or else I must do as James directs,that is Ask of God. I at last came to the determination to ask of God. . . .”30 Whereas the 1838 version is vague about the length of Joseph Smith’s religious pondering, the 1832 version does not mention revivals or religious excitement beyond his own, but indicates that his religious interest (which the 1838 version says was incited by the revivals) lasted for several years before he received the vision: “At about the age of twelve years my mind became seriously impressed with regard to all important concerns for the welfare of my immortal Soul . . . thus from the age of twelve years to fifteen I pondered many things in my heart.”31
The combined data from the 1838 and the 1832 accounts therefore establish the possibility that the religious revivals that impressed Joseph Smith had occurred as early as 1817-1818. Despite their insistence on the year 1820, the Tanners themselves present information that supports the above possibility: On page 65 they quote the 1887 book of M.T. Lamb that the revival occurred “sixty or seventy years ago”(1817 to 1827), and on page 156 they quote Reverend Walter’s verification that a religious revival did occur in Palmyra in 1817. Even if we accept the insistence of Walters and the Tanners that the religious excitement spoken of by Joseph Smith in the 1838 account had to occur in Palmyra (rather than in a larger surrounding area), the ambiguity of Joseph Smith’s own dating does not allow the year 1820 to be seized upon as the only date for the revival, the vision, or both.
Intertwined with the historical issue of the dating of the revivals is the question of the location of the revivals that Joseph Smith said preceded the vision. Many Mormon writers until recent years interpreted Joseph Smith’s 1838 reference to the location of the religious excitement (“. . . in the place where we lived . . . in that region of country, indeed the whole district of Country seemed affected by it. . .”) as meaning that there was a religious revival in Palmyra in 1820. Reverend Walters has demonstrated that there was no revival in Palmyra in 1820, and therefore he and the Tanners claim that they have refuted the historicity of the First Vision, when all they have done is show that Mormon writers have misinterpreted the sketchy descriptions of the First Vision.
In an article that appeared in Dialogue before the revised edition of Shadow-Reality (but which the Tanners chose not to mention in their sarcastic dismissal of any claim that Joseph referred to revivals distant from Palmyra), Peter Crawley analyzed the religious autobiography of David Marks. He was a farm boy who was born only seven weeks before Joseph Smith and who from 1815 to 1821 lived in Junius, New York, only fifteen miles from the Smith farm. In a further coincidence (possibly related to Joseph Smith’s 1832 history and Reverend Walters’ verification of an 1817 revival), Marks stated that his intense interest in religion also began in his twelfth year. From 1819 to 1821, Marks walked to numerous revivals in towns as far as a thirty-mile radius from his home in Junius, but which he described as “confined to a few towns in the vicinity of Junius.”32 If one insists on 1819-20 as the time of the pre-vision revivals Joseph Smith described (instead of a very likely 1817 revival that did occur in Palmyra and which is supported by the 1832 account), then recent research has substantiated that within a thirty-mile radius of the Smith farm a dozen communities were experiencing religious revivals in the 1819-20 period.33 The categorical rejection of these evidences by Walters and the Tanners makes good polemics but not good history.
A final issue about the revivals and the historicity of the First Vision concerns the role of Reverend Lane and the role of the revivals as catalysts for the First Vision and the Angel Moroni experience. When Oliver Cowdery presented his history of Mormonism in 1834, he stated that the religious excitement that preceded the Angel Moroni experience was represented in Palmyra by “Mr. Lane, a presiding elder of the Methodist church. . . .” Later commentators on this early history of Joseph Smith aligned the preaching of Lane with the First Vision and put both events in 1820, whereas research by Walters and others has indicated that Palmyra was not included in the ministry of Reverend George Lane until about 1824. Walters and the Tanners have used this information to affirm that there was no First Vision experience, but that Joseph Smith fabricated it as a prelude to his claims for the Angel Moroni visitation (pages 157-58).
The key to this issue may be a question that puzzled me about Joseph Smith’s early experiences long before I studied history seriously. Why was there a three-year period between the First Vision and Joseph Smith’s compelling conviction in 1823 that he was again in a condition of sin requiring earnest pleas for forgiveness? I think the answer historically has been provided by Reverend Walters: “no revival occurred between 1819 and 1823 in the Palmyra vicinity” (page 155). As was true of ninety percent of America’s population in the irreligious decades following the American Revolution, “conviction of sin” and the earnest desire to obtain salvation and forgiveness of God lay dormant and often faded until whipped into painful fury by a religious revival.34
In Joseph Smith’s early religious history, there were two distinct religious revivals, not one, that served as dramatic catalysts and compulsions for him to become “convicted of sins” and to seek God in prayer. The first revival that affected Joseph Smith so greatly occurred in 1817-18 or 1819-20 and preceded his first prayer and vision. The second revival (in which Reverend Lane appears to have played a role) occurred about three years after the First Vision and resulted in the earnestness of Joseph Smith’s second prayer that occasioned the visit of the Angel Moroni. The three-year gap in Joseph Smith’s religious earnestness has never seemed very complimentary to the future prophet, but is historically consistent with the religious situation of rural Americans at the time, with the verifiable alteration of religious indifference and dramatic revivalism in western New York, and also with the tendency of history to reveal prophets as very human and fallible persons.
I acknowledge freely the sketchy character of Joseph Smith’s accounts of his early religious experiences and that some Mormon writers have been wrong or inadequate in their use of the sources of history. But the central admission of professional historiography is that both the historical sources and historians themselves are inadequate to the task of recreating the past “as it was.” As to the historicity of the First Vision of Joseph Smith, Jr., the existing documents and evidences support the sincerity of Joseph Smith’s claims and memory, despite his obvious difficulty in remembering exact chronology. Whether one chooses to believe or disbelieve that Joseph Smith actually communed with Deity and angels is beyond the realm of history, and is a matter of faith (as is true of the revelations of biblical prophets and apostles, of Mohammed, of Jean D’Arc, of Ann Lee, of Bernadette, and numerous others in all cultures and at all times).
In final reference to the First Vision, let me discuss some of Joseph Smith’s descriptions of the experience that have been used for criticism or ridicule. One objection is that the 1832 account indicated that Joseph Smith communed with only one representative of Deity, rather than with both the Father and the Son as separate personages, as stated in the conventional 1838 account. One Mormon historian has said that the personage described in the 1832 account “was obviously the Son, for he spoke of having been crucified.”35 That is not necessarily the case: the personage who led John the Revelator through his vision spoke as if he were Jesus Christ but when John sought to worship him, the personage protested that he was an angel and one “of thy brethren the prophets” (Revelation 22:6-16). Moreover, one revelation in the Doctrine and Covenants begins with the speaker identifying Himself as Jesus Christ, only to speak a few verses later as though He were the Father of Jesus Christ (D&C 29:1, 42), and another revelation begins with the speaker identifying Himself as the Father of Jesus Christ and ends with the speaker identifying Himself as Christ (D&C 49:5, 28). Aside from quoting the words spoken in the vision, Joseph Smith’s every retelling of the experience refers only to “personages” and identifies the speaker (if at all) as “the Lord.” Moreover, in the 1835, 1843, and 1844 accounts, Joseph Smith stated that the two personages did not appear at once, but that the second personage appeared “soon” or “after a while.”
I see no problem with viewing the 1832 description as Joseph Smith’s emphasis upon only a part of an overwhelming experience, and the absence of specific reference to two personages does not prove the later accounts to be fiction. Likewise, the most dramatic evidence of Christ’s resurrection is John’s claim that the apostles touched the wounds in His side and hands (John 20:20, 25-28; cf. I John 1:1), whereas that most crucial evidence of the historicity of Christ’s resurrection is not mentioned in the earlier Gospels of Matthew and Mark, nor in the letters of Paul, Peter, James, or Jude. Even when mentioned in Luke’s Gospel (Luke 24:39-40), it could be understood that the apostles saw, but did not touch the wounds.36
In a similar light, I am unimpressed with the Tanners’ polemical distress concerning the 1835 account of the First Vision: “As if this is not bad enough, Joseph Smith states that there were ‘MANY ANGELS IN THIS VISION.’ Neither of the other versions indicate that there were ‘many angels'” (page 147). That is no more disturbing than to acknowledge that only three of the four Gospels mention that Christ was in the wilderness forty days after His baptism, and that only Matthew and Mark stated that angels ministered to Him there (Matthew 4:11;Mark 1:13; Luke 4:13). As for the outrage of the Tanners that Joseph and others sometimes referred to the First Vision as a visitation of an angel or angels (pages 154-55), the King James version of the Bible (which was the source for the religious terminology of Mormon leaders as well as for most English-speaking ecclesiastics) often used the terms “man,” “angel,” “God,” and “Lord,” interchangeably to identify the same personage in an epiphany or vision (e.g., Genesis 18:1-3, 19:1, 17-18,32:24-30; Exodus 3:2-6; Joshua 5:13, 6:1-2, including page headings).
While we are talking about various historical accounts of Mormon history, I would like to respond to the Tanners’ criticism (pages 126-42) of the manner in which the official history of the LDS Church was written. They criticize the fact that deletions and additions were introduced into the original texts without acknowledgments in the printed history, that Joseph Smith’s autobiographical “History” was written in large part after his death by clerks and “historians” who transformed third-person accounts by others than Joseph Smith into first-person autobiography of Joseph Smith, and that between the first serialized publication of the history (1840s-1860s) and the seven-volume edition of the History of the Church in the twentieth century, there have been thousands of deletions and additions not noted in the text or footnotes. This is certainly all true, and as an historian I regret the confusion that such editorial practices have caused. Nevertheless, until quite recently official LDS history was written by men (often of limited education) who were not trained in methods of editing and history.
Moreover, even highly respected American histories and published documents of the past reflect the same problems that have plagued the early writing of Mormon history. James Madison made extensive changes in his own notes of the Constitutional Convention twenty years after they were originally written, and his “contemporary” Notes were published as he had changed them rather than as he had originally written them; Josiah Gregg’s autobiographical Commerce of the Prairies and Charles A. Dana’s Recollections of the Civil War were both ghost written; Chief Justice John Marshall’s Life of George Washington (highly praised by nineteenth century historians) was almost completely plagiarized from other printed works; and Jared Sparks’ voluminous editions of the writings of George Washington and Benjamin Franklin contained as many as thirty unacknowledged deletions and additions in each document.37
Our present standards concerning plagiarizing, footnoting, and editorial adherence to the original manuscript did not begin to penetrate even professional historical writing in American until nearly fifty years after the original composition and editing of Joseph Smith’s history, and were not generally reflected in non-professional histories until long after B.H. Roberts prepared the second edition of that history in 1900. What the Tanners isolate in Mormonism as evidence of devious efforts to misrepresent and deceive was more accurately an evidence of conventional problems in history writing. Even reputable historians distorted documents to enhance the image of the protagonists, and this practice was regrettably but understandably mirrored by Mormon historians who saw themselves as defenders against anti-Mormon propaganda. Painstakingly accurate, scholarly, and non-defensive Mormon history did not appear until recent decades, but is gradually becoming the hallmark of both official and unofficial Mormon history.
At this point, I will discuss at some length the nature of written scripture. This will touch directly or indirectly on every other major issue you asked me to discuss: changes in the texts of written revelations, nearly identical historical incidents that occur in biblical and Book of Mormon narratives, the apparent quotations of the Book of Mormon, Doctrine and Covenants, and Pearl of Great Price from phrases and passages of the Bible and secular documents, the seeming misapplication of biblical prophecies to LDS history, the concept and practice of “translating” in Mormonism, and the historicity of the Book of Mormon and Book of Abraham.
In a revelation Joseph Smith dictated in 1831, it says: “these commandments are of me, and were given unto my servants in their weakness, after the manner of their language. . . .” (Doctrine and Covenants 1:24). This was stated in another way by Apostle and Church Historian George A. Smith: “When the Lord reveals anything to men He reveals it in language that accords with their own” (Journal of Discourses 12:335). In other words, a revelatory communication between God and man will be recorded in different expression and structure of language, according to the identity of the person receiving and recording the revelation. This is certainly evident when one compares the “word of the Lord” as revealed to Moses, Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, Daniel, and the lesser prophets of the Old Testament. Unless there is a conscious effort to duplicate the phrasing of a revelation given to an earlier prophet (see discussion below), the same “word of God” to two different persons will be different.
Aside from the Word of the Lord being phrased differently by individual prophets, there is a more fundamental question about the ability of language to communicate a divine revelation. Brigham Young stated the language problem in this way: “Language, to convey all the truth, does not exist. Even in the Bible, and all books that have been revealed from heaven unto man, the language fails to convey all the truth as it is.” If formulating a divine revelation into words is difficult or impossible for mortal man, then this reflects directly upon the strict word-for-word significance of any written revelation. About this problem, Brigham Young also said:
. . . I do not even believe that there is a single revelation, among the many God has given to the Church, that is perfect in its fulness. The revelations of God contain correct doctrine and principle, as far as they go; but it is impossible for the poor, weak, low, groveling, sinful inhabitants of the earth to receive a revelation from the Almighty in all its perfections. He has to speak to us in a manner to meet the extent of our capacities.39
Thus the problem of revelation is two-fold: the mortal prophet is incapable of assimilating or comprehending the completeness of divine knowledge and revelation and therefore the prophet-receptor’s own abilities, knowledge, and frame of reference are limiting factors of revelations received by him; secondly, as the prophet-receptor seeks to express the revelation of God in language, the words can only approximate the fulness of the message.
As much as we resist uncertainty by insisting on the word-for-word content of written revelations (the “jots and tittles” referred to by Christ), written revelation is an imperfect approximation of a communication between divinity and man that is ultimately ineffable. Therefore it is to be expected that as the prophet-receptor of revelation seeks to record that experience, he may experiment not only with phrasing but also with content. And as the prophet (or his successors) has further experiences of revelation that expand understanding of previous communications, those insights may simply be incorporated retroactively into the earlier texts. This later addition of new revelation into the texts of former revelation not only was done with some of Joseph Smith’s revelations, but modern scholars also suggest that this happened in the Book of Isaiah.40
Mormons of various ranks have been responsible for misconceptions about the irrevocable and immutable character of the words of revelation, but the documents of sacred history do not support such attitudes. The evidence of LDS history also does not support the Tanners’ conclusion that the changes between the 1833 Book of Commandments and the 1835 Doctrine and Covenants prove that Joseph Smith was a “deceiver”(page 28). If Joseph Smith were deceptively trying to introduce new doctrines he had failed to invent in some previous revelation, he could have simply invented a new revelation with the new information. Instead, he introduced the new material into the texts of previously published revelations. That is hardly an effort to deceive, since anyone living in 1835 (or thereafter, for that matter) could compare the two versions, but it does indicate strikingly Joseph Smith’s attitude toward the elasticity of written revelation. Thus, Apostle Orson Pratt could matter-of-factly state: “Hence, paragraphs taken from revelations of a latter date, are, in a few instances incorporated with those of an earlier date. Indeed, at the time of compilation, the Prophet was inspired in several instances to write additional sentences and paragraphs to the earlier revelations.”41 Our resistance to this concept is fundamentally a religious manifestation of our inability to accept the uncertainty of change.
The characteristic of ancient literature (including the sacred history of the Old and New Testaments) is that it cuts through the impermanence of life by presenting history, drama, and religion in repetitive patterns. One authority has written that for these societies “an object or an act becomes real only insofar as it imitates or repeats an archetype.”42 This insistence on presenting the crucial elements of life and religion in repetitive archetypes or patterns is fundamental to the literature of the Near East.43 This is why it is so laughable that the Tanners (pages 72-74) criticize the Book of Mormon for presenting incidents that occurred in very similar form in the Bible or Apocrypha. The Tanners, I trust, do not deny the historicity of the greatest event of the New Testament because of its similarity to a Sumerian myth that dating from 2000 B.C.: Inanna, the queen of heaven, desires to become mortal in order to visit the world of the dead. Her death comes as she is hung on a stake for three days and nights, after which time she is restored to life by two messengers sent from the supreme god, and after her restoration to life she brings from the spirit world all the dead. If the Book of Mormondid not contain events that were repetitive of other ancient Near Eastern literatures, that absence would be a significant internal evidence against its authenticity as an ancient text.45
This ancient insistence upon repetitive patterns and archetypes is reflected in a distaste for “originality” that pervades written scripture. The Tanners have done a commendable job of showing the passages from the Book of Mormon that are virtual quotations or paraphrases of the Bible (pages 74-79), and had they wanted to they could have quoted from studies showing similar patternism in the revelations of the Doctrine and Covenants.46 Rather than discrediting these two books as legitimate works of scripture, that characteristic of apparent borrowing is completely consistent with biblical scripture. Large revelatory passages of Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, Nahum, Obadiah, and Zephaniah are so similar as to appear to have been used interchangeably by their authors as they sought to reconstruct the “word of the Lord” to them.47 Moreover, many standard texts of the New Testament in Greek list the hundreds of quotations and paraphrases from the Old Testament and Apocrypha.48
Similar “borrowing” occurred in the New Testament. Concerning the Book of Revelation, one scholarly study states: “John was thoroughly acquainted with the Old Testament, and quotes or alludes to it throughout his book. It has been estimated that 278 verses out of a total of 404 contain references of one kind or another to the Old Testament. . . . yet in no case does he specifically mention a book of the Jewish scripture, and seldom does he quote verbatim.”49 In addition, just as Joseph Smith quoted from the familiar King James Bible in expressing the “word of the Lord” as he claimed to find it in the ancient text of the Book of Mormon, the New Testament writers consistently quoted from the Greek Septuagint version of the Old Testament, which was most used in the time of Christ, rather than going back to the earlier Hebrew texts of the Old Testament, and “Jews considered this a misuse of Holy Scripture, and they stopped using the Septuagint.”50
The Tanners also feel that they have repudiated the ancient claims of the Book of Mormon through their painstaking survey of secular literature that was available to Joseph Smith, passages of which are very similar to passages in the Book of Mormon. Before I relate this issue to ancient scripture, let me give a few examples of the Tanners’ over zealousness to prove their point in this matter. For example, the Tanners (page 68) accuse Joseph Smith of borrowing a Book of Mormonphrase (Item Y) that the Gospel ministry should be “without money and without price” from the 1827 Wayne Sentinel (Item X). A far older and better known antecedent for either or both is Isaiah 55:1. The Tanners raise the familiar objection (pages 84-85) to the Book of Mormon passage in 2 Nephi 1:14, that the description of death “from whence no traveler can return” is a plagiarism from Shakespeare’s Hamlet, Josiah Priest’s 1825 Wonders of Nature and Providence Displayed,or both. The Tanners’ criticism is not only an example of their in complete parallels but also of their suppression of evidence: In Hugh Nibley’s Approach to the Book of Mormon (which they quote from on page 101) and Since Cumorah (which they quote from on page 88), Nibley points out that the phrasing of 2 Nephi 1:14 concerning death is not only similar to a poem by the first century B.C. Roman poet Catullus, but is also very close to descriptions of death in far more ancient Middle Eastern documents.51 In other words, Josiah Priest may have been quoting Shakespeare, who was paraphrasing Catullus, who was merely stating a common ancient Near Eastern poetry about death. Since the Tanners are convinced that the Book of Mormon is nineteenth century fiction, they cease looking for analogies beyond the contemporary availability of Joseph Smith in 1829.
To return to the question of holy scripture quoting from or paraphrasing contemporary secular works, there is no difficulty at all in admitting (and even welcoming) the Tanners’ demonstration that in many passages from the Book of Mormonthis may have been true. Remember, those who commit the word of God to paper (whether of a translation or a revelation) draw upon their own language and knowledge to do so, and this is precisely what we find in the Bible. For example, there are nearly 700 passages (representing every book of the Old Testament) that are quotations, paraphrases, or allusions to earlier texts of Egyptian, Sumerian, Hittite, Akkadian, Ugaritic, Assyrian, and other Near Eastern-Mesopotamian literatures (much of it quite “pagan” in a religious sense).52 The apparent indebtedness of the Book of Genesis to earlier Mesopotamian prototypes is such that the nineteenth century Assyriologist Delitzch concluded “that the Bible was therefore guilty of crass plagiarism,” whereas a more moderate recent scholar has observed that “there is nothing surprising about the fact that early Hebrew literature is replete with Mesopotamian motifs, especially motifs relating to pre-Israelite times. It is only lack of such themes that would be grounds for suspicion.”53 Proverbs 22:17 to 24:22 was “modeled on the Egyptian Instruction of Amen-em-ope,” which in turn was probably modeled on Phoenician maxims.54 Many of the Psalms mirror Akkadian and Ugaritic poetry,55 and Psalm 29 is “a relatively little changed adaptation of a Baal hymn. . . .”56 In addition, passages in Psalms, Proverbs, Isaiah, and Habakkuk use names of the Ugaritic pagan gods for names of objects represented by these gods.57
Moreover, parallels between non-biblical literature and later biblical texts continue within the New Testament. In a very cautious presentation of the similarities between the Dead Sea Scrolls of the Qumran community (“composed at various dates between about 250 B.C. and 68 A.D.”) and the New Testament, Theodore H. Gaster lists 140 passages of the New Testament that are conceptual parallels or textual quotations from the Dead Sea Scrolls.58 The significance of these parallels is still being evaluated by scholars, but a cautious interpretation of these parallels is indicated by Pierre Benoit: “We must accept as beyond dispute that many passages in the recently discovered writings of Qumran and the New Testament exhibit contacts that are very close, even striking. While this may be the result of an immediate dependence (in which case the New Testament must be the borrower), it may also be an example in the two communities of a way of thinking and speaking common throughout Palestine at the beginning of the Christian era.”59
Many parallels, both direct and indirect, exist between the teachings of Christ in the New Testament and the Mishnah, Midrash Tannaim, and other Rabbinical writings that date either before or contemporary with the oldest New Testament texts. Some of the more obvious parallels are:
(Luke 11:2): “Thy will be done as in heaven, so in earth.” Cf. Rabbinical: “Do Thy will in the heavens above and give tranquillity of spirit to those who fear Thee on earth.”
(Matthew 6:13): “For thine is the kingdom. . . .” Cf.Rabbinical: “For Thine is the kingdom.”
(Matthew 6:14): “For if you forgive men their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you.” Cf.Rabbinical: “Whenever you have mercy on other creatures, they from heaven have mercy on you.”
(Matthew 6:26): “Behold the fowls of the air: for they sow not, neither do they reap. . . .” Cf. Rabbinical: “Did you ever in your life see an animal or a bird which had a trade? And they support themselves without trouble.”
(Matthew 7:2): “. . . and with what measure ye mete, it shall be measured to you again.” Cf. Rabbinical: “In the measure in which a man metes it is measured to him.”
(Matthew 7:7): “. . . seek, and ye shall find Cf. Rabbinical: “Seek and find.”
(Mark 2:27): “The Sabbath was made for man, and not man for the Sabbath.” Cf. Rabbinical: “The Sabbath is committed to you, and you are not committed to the Sabbath.”
(Luke 17:34): “I tell you, in that night there shall be two men in one bed: the one shall be taken, and the other shall be left.” Cf. Rabbinical: “If an Egyptian and an Israelite were lying in bed, only the Israelite was passed over.” (Ref. to last Egyptian plague in Exodus.)
Such parallels do not invalidate the originality nor the spiritual import of the teachings of Jesus, and scholars have suggested that despite the parallels, the ideas may have developed independently or have been derived from a common source. Moderate Jewish scholars have severely criticized the Jews who have used the Rabbinical-Gospel parallels as a polemical attack on Jesus.61
Nevertheless, like the many parallels cited by the Tanners, these similarities exist. After studying the relationship between Rabbinical writings and the epistles of Paul, one scholar has concluded: “The source of Pauline Christianity lies in the fact of Christ, but in wrestling to interpret the full meaning and implications of that fact Paul constantly drew upon concepts derived from Rabbinical Judaism; it was these that formed the warp and woof if not the material of his thought.”62With reference to the first chapter of John’s Gospel, the manner in which the Word (Logos) is distinctively employed is also very similar to the earlier writings of Jewish philosopher Philo (ca. 30B.C.-40 A.D.), yet a biblical commentator makes the same suggestion about this similarity that has been made by Mormon scholars like Hugh Nibley and Sidney Sperry about the parallels between Book of Mormon passages and the New Testament passages: “evidences point rather toward a common background shared by both. . .”63
Another issue central to parallelism and archetypes in ancient scripture is the question of prophecy. On pages 95-96, the Tanners dispute the use of Isaiah 29 and Ezekiel 37:16-17 as applying to the Book of Mormon (as indicated in 2 Nephi 26:15-17 and D&C 27:5), and the Tanners correctly state that Isaiah 29 was cited by New Testament writers as being fulfilled in Christ’s mission and that the context of the Ezekiel prophecy relates to the restoration of divided Israel, rather than to uniting records which the Hebrew word for “stick” in the passage did not signify. But the Mormon interpretation of these passages in Isaiah and Ezekiel presents a problem that is identical to the most famous prophecy that is cited as being fulfilled in Christ:
The quotation in Matthew 1:23 is taken from the LXX [Septuagint], not from the Hebrew, and is one of a number of such quotations used by the author of that Gospel to show that the O.T. foreshadowed the life of Jesus Christ. That he uses these without particular regard to their meaning in their original context is clear from the quotation of Hos. 11:1 in Matt. 2:15. This later “messianic interpretation” is derived from the conviction that the messianic hope had been fulfilled in Jesus. This conviction we may firmly retain, while recognizing that the N.T.’s use of Isa. 7:14 is based on an inaccurate translation of the Hebrew text, which must not prejudice our interpretation of this verse in its original setting. The word ‘almah means “a young woman of marriageable age,” possibly a virgin (cf. Gen. 24:43, Exod. 28:8 Prov. 30:19); if Isaiah had wished to make clear that he had in mind a miraculous virgin birth, he would have had to use the specific term bethulah. . . .
The traditional messianic interpretation, on the other hand, proceeds from the premise that this passage must predict the virgin birth of a Messiah because Matt. 1:23 so interprets it. . . . This method of reasoning is not convincing, if for no other reason than that a prediction of the miraculous birth of a Messiah more than seven centuries later could hardly have served as a sign to [King] Ahaz.64
Thus we find the scripture of the New Testament doing the same thing that the scripture of the Latter-day restoration does: claiming that prophecies (which in their context were fulfilled long before) have a later fulfillment.
Latter-day Saints and other Christians therefore face an identical question, the answer to which must apply equally to the New Testament as it does to Mormon claims: is it valid to regard a single divine prophecy as having application to completely different events, separated by great periods of time? I believe that such an attitude toward prophecy is valid, because biblical prophecy is presented in poetic form, the most central feature of which is parallelism. Therefore, the same elements of a prophecy may have one fulfillment that corresponds explicitly, and a separate fulfillment that is cryptic. That certainly is the implication of the New Testament affirmation that such things as the Abraham-Isaac test, the paschal lamb, and the serpent on the ensign were prophetic “types” of the sacrifice of Jesus Christ. Despite criticism by many biblical analysts of such a parallel character of prophecy, there has been a consistent tradition of regarding prophecy as parallel in fulfillment.65 This parallelism in prophecy and fulfillment gives greater meaning to Peter’s warning that “no prophecy of the scripture is of any private interpretation. For the prophecy came not in old time by the will of man: but holy men of God spake as they were moved by the Holy Ghost” (II Peter 1:20-21). Only a prophet, filled with the Holy Spirit, can understand and declare the hidden parallel fulfillment of a prophecy whose outward fulfillment has already occurred. For this reason, it would seem to me that even the most conservative and honest biblical scholar is inadequate to criticize Matthew, as are the less conservative and less honest Tanners to criticize the Book of Mormon andDoctrine and Covenants identification of parallel fulfillments.
This brings me now to the final issue I will discuss in this already long letter, the Mormon concept of “translating” scriptures and the historicity of the Book of Mormon and the Book of Abraham. I think the best detailed explanation of “translating” as applied to the Book of Mormon, Joseph Smith’s revision of the Bible, and the Book of Abraham has been given by Hugh Nibley,66 but I will suggest some bare essentials here. Despite the extravagant claims of Martin Harris, David Whitmer, William Smith, and Emma Smith (all of whom claimed that Joseph Smith was shown the exact words of the Book of Mormon by the Urim and Thummim or Seer Stone), a revelation dictated through Joseph Smith indicated that translation was no automatic process in which the “right” words appeared in English, but instead a process of thought, energy, testing, and searching for the words that would case the translator to feel the inward burning of the Spirit that he had finally arrived at an acceptable rendition (D&C 9).
The Tanners mock the assertion that Joseph Smith’s “translation” of the papyri could have been made independent of the actual text of the papyri, yet all evidence indicates that when Joseph Smith revised the Bible (which process was repeatedly called “translating”) he did not go back to the Greek and Hebrew texts available during his lifetime. Therefore, for Joseph Smith, “revelation” and “translation” were synonymous, and I have already discussed the fluid nature of any written revelation. In contrast to the pejorative comments by the Tanners, Dee Jay Nelson, and others about the insignificance of a literal translation of the Joseph Smith papyri in terms of Abrahamic religion, the work of Hugh Nibley, Michael Rhodes, and Eric Olson on the Joseph Smith papyri have indicated some valuable insights into the published Book of Abraham in particular and Mormonism in general.67
Right now I have neither the time nor the energy to dwell upon the specific issues of the literal translation of the hypocephali and papyrus texts, but I would like to mention two things that the Tanners return to repeatedly in their repudiation of the Book of Abraham: First, that there was no cryptic, hidden, second meaning to the papyri beyond the literal contents (pages 319-20), and second that the papyri are spiritually and scripturally worthless and pagan because they contain symbols of magic, names of Egyptian gods, and sexual imagery (pages 321, 341-43, 345-46). I have already referred to the fact that many Old Testament books, including the richly prophetic Isaiah, contain the names of Ugaritic gods, and by referring to Albright’s work one can find references also to magic symbols and names that are also incorporated in the Old Testament, but that are used in a religious context different from the pagan religions from which they were taken.
More to the point is the Song of Solomon in the Old Testament which has no reference whatever to any explicitly religious subject and which is filled with sexual imagery, yet which has been traditionally interpreted by the Jews as an allegory of the relationship of Yahweh and Israel, and by Christian interpreters as an allegory of Christ and the Christian church (or individual), or as an allegory of God and the Virgin Mary.68 I do not know the Tanners’ attitude toward the Song of Songs and I am not confident myself that the Song of Solomon is a religious allegory, but I am unable to deny that devout, intelligent Jews and Christians have read the exclusively sexual outward content of the Song of Songs and have found a profound religious message. I find it more plausible to believe that an ostensible Book of Breathings (that deals with life, death, resurrection, sexuality, and the gods) could have been the vehicle for cryptically expressing the ancient patterns of what the Gospel of Philip termed the “mystery,” and Mormons call “the endowment.”
Now let me go to what I must insist is the crux of the Tanners’ argument against both the Book of Mormon and the Book of Abraham: that they are works of Joseph Smith’s own active, devious imagination (pages 88 and 332). At this point I will become anecdotal: When I served a proselyting mission for the LDS Church and was far less ignorant than I am now, my companion and I presented a copy of the Book of Mormon to a woman we had met on our door-to-door visits. Our experience was that if people accepted a copy of the Book of Mormon from us they would rarely read any of it, and what little they did read was the result of frequent reminders from us. So in two days we stopped by to encourage this woman to read twenty-five pages of the book. I was thunderstruck to hear her say that she had read it completely and was half-way through a second reading in which she was doing cross-referencing. She explained that she had obtained her D.D. in ancient Semitic languages and literature, and said: “You have brought me a translation of ancient Semitic literature. Where is the original text?” She hadn’t read the prefatory material about Joseph Smith, and I must admit I squirmed a little as I told her that the original text was unavailable for examination because it had been returned to the angel who gave it to Joseph Smith. She was disappointed, but said she was very pleased to have this translation, and then began leafing through it and read to us sections she described as Semitic poetry. After a few minutes, she stopped and said: “You know, it was impossible for anyone in 1830 to make up these passages, because the original poetic forms that are apparent in this translation were not recognized by scholars at that date.”
My missionary companion and I went home that day convinced that we had a new convert to Mormonism, but we were wrong. We spent many evenings with this woman (who was a devout Protestant) and her husband (who was a physicist and an atheist), only to find that both of them were somewhat (though politely) amused at our belief in the “one” true church, and Joseph Smith’s other claims. She was convinced the Book of Mormon was authentic, but regarded the rest of Mormonism as irrelevant. I suppose that she secretly believed Joseph Smith had somehow acquired an ancient text, had it translated, and then went on to make other claims. At any rate, we stopped our visits after a few weeks, and our encounter remains one of the most frustrating and interesting of my experience. Others have had similar experiences in finding great respect for the Book of Mormon among scholars of ancient literature.69
The import of this anecdote from my own life is that both the Book of Mormon and the Book of Abraham as narratives in the English language must be consistent with the evidence of ancient Middle Eastern literatures in order for their authenticity to have any significance. Hugh Nibley has devoted several years to researching and writing about the evidences of support from documents and perceptions of ancient literature that were unavailable to Joseph Smith. His footnotes are far more extensive and erudite than anything I have presented here, and anyone who has the time and inclination can go back to the sources he cites to check his quotations and conclusions about the support for the Book of Mormon and the Book of Abraham. The evidence of my experience and of my study leads me to accept the historicity of these two works, despite problems that do exist in archeological myths by overzealous Mormons and the exact role of the papyri.
The question Jerald and Sandra Tanner ask about Mormonism in Shadow or Reality is more appropriate to be asked about their approach to analyzing Mormonism. They have not presented the reality of Mormonism, and they have not even presented the reality of what they regard as the sensationalistic, negative issues of Mormonism. The truly sad thing is that people seem to accept their presentation as honest, courageous, and significant. The Tanners proclaim themselves as crusading Christians against a monstrous anti-Christ, yet much of that which they ridicule about Mormon history and scripture is fundamental to Judeo-Christian sacred history and scripture. The Tanners’ attack on Mormonism is really a manifestation of their rejection of institutionalized religion: “God was not concerned with peoples’ church affiliations, but with a personal relationship. Christ taught a way of Love, not a religious system” (page 569). I am hardly impartial in this analysis of their work, and perhaps you should have written a non-Mormon who is divorced from or ignorant of the Judeo-Christian tradition. Nevertheless, despite my bias I have tried to present all evidence and analysis as truthfully and honestly as I can. How you respond to what I have written or how you incorporate my views into your own system of faith and evidence is up to you. I have taken the time I felt was necessary to respond to the urgency of your own request, and I hope that this letter has been of some use to you.
1The Tanners apparently have never heard of, or choose to ignore, the realities of literary rights in copyright law, rights that have not been exercised in legal action against “church censorship and suppression.” Thus, the Tanners continue to profit in finances and prestige from their publication of complete documents without permission from, nor compensation to, their proprietary owners.
2By this, I do not mean that Jesus Christ, who (as God) revealed to Moses and all other prophets every commandment (including those about drinking wine), was guilty of sin or impropriety in drinking wine at banquets. But His actions, like the occasional glass of beer and wine for Joseph Smith, was hypocritically used by His opponents as grounds for invalidating His ministry and teachings.
3A published sermon by a General Authority in support of this view is Bruce R. McConkie, Are the General Authorities Human? (Salt Lake City, 1966, and San Jose, California, 1971).
4History of the Church, 5:135. Cf. Shadow-Reality, 222-23.
5Exodus 20:10; Numbers 15:32-36; Jeremiah 17:21-22; Ezekiel 20:20-21. Compare Matthew 12:1-13; Luke 13:11-17; John 5:10-18.
6Matthew 21:1-7; Mark 11:1-7; Luke 19:28-35.
7Stanley B. Kimball, Sources of Mormon History in Illinois, 1839-48: An Annotated Catalog of the Microfilm Collection at Southern Illinois University (Carbondale-Edwardsville, Ill., 1964), 24. In the expanded edition published in 1966, this entry was on page 25.
8Oliver H. Olney Papers, Western Americana, Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, Yale University, New Haven, Conn.
9“History of Brigham Young,” Deseret News, 10 February 1858, p. 358; “History of Brigham Young,” LDS Millennial Star, 25 (11 July 1863): 439; Edward W. Tullidge, Life of Brigham Young, or Utah and Her Founders (New York, 1876), 79; Andrew Jenson, “The Twelve Apostles,” Historical Record, 5 (February 1886): 25; Edward H. Anderson, The Life of Brigham Young (Salt Lake City, 1893), 17; Andrew Jenson, Latter-day Saint Biographical Encyclopedia (Salt Lake City, 1901), 1:9; Preston Nibley, Brigham Young, the Man and His Work (Salt Lake City, 1936), 11; Elden Jay Watson, ed., Manuscript History of Brigham Young, 1801-1844 (Salt Lake City, 1968), 4.
10Dallin H. Oaks, “The Suppression of the Nauvoo Expositor,” Utah Law Review, 9 (Summer 1965): 862-903. Oaks pointed out that the city council, by legal precedent, would have been required to reimburse the editors for damage to property during the legal abatement.
11Thomas G. Alexander, “The Church and the Law,” Dialogue, 1 (Summer 1966): 123-24.
12Letter to Ezra Booth in Ohio Star, 8 December 1831, and letter of William W. Phelps to Brigham Young, 12 August 1861, Church Archives.
13E.D. Howe, Mormonism Unvailed (Painesville, Ohio, 1834), 220; Helen Mar Whitney, Plural Marriage as Taught by the Prophet Joseph (Salt Lake City, 1882), 11; Andrew Jenson, “Plural Marriage,” Historical Record, 5 (May 1887): 219, 230;Journal of Discourses, 13: 193, 20: 29; Joseph Fielding Smith, Essentials in Church History (Salt Lake City, 1922), 341 (in editions after 1966 it was page 281); and Kenneth W. Godfrey, “The Coming of the Manifesto,” Dialogue, 5 (Autumn, 1970): 12, footnote 1. In more general terms, Brigham Young stated: “the revelation was given in 1843, but the doctrine was revealed before this. . . .” (J.D. 18: 241, also 21: 9).
14An effort by an anti-Mormon to present a moderate interpretation of the significance of these trial documents is found in Wesley P. Walters, “Joseph Smith’s Bainbridge, N.Y., Court Trials,” The Westminster Theological Journal 36 (Winter 1974): 123-55. An alternative view of the 1826 trial is found in Marvin S. Hill, “Joseph Smith and the 1826 Trial: New Evidences and New Difficulties,” Brigham Young University Studies, 12 (Winter 1972): 223-33.
15As a general statement of the problem of similarity in written texts, Jewish scholar Samuel Sandmel has written: “We might for our purposes define parallelomania as that extravagance among scholars which first overdoes the supposed similarity in passages and then proceeds to describe source and derivation as if implying literary connection flowing in an inevitable or predetermined direction.” See Sandmel, “Parallelomania,” Journal of Biblical Literature, 81 (March 1962): 1.
16Lucy Smith, Biographical Sketches of Joseph Smith the Prophet and His Progenitors for many Generations (Liverpool, England, 1853), 74-81.
17Hugh Nibley, Since Cumorah: The Book of Mormon in the Modern World (Salt Lake City, 1967), 117-83. In addition: E.O. James, The Tree of Life: An Archeological Study (Leiden, Netherlands, 1966); W.G. Waddell, trans., Manetho(Cambridge, Mass., 1948), xii for Egyptian references; Ruth Smith, ed., The Tree of Life (New York, 1961), 272-74 for the reference in the Babylonian epic Gilgamesh; and John Armott MacCulloch, ed., The Mythology of All Races, 13 vols. (Boston, 1916-1932), 13: 431-34 for references to numerous ancient literatures.
18Wilford Woodruff Journal, 3-4 April 1837, quoted in Dean C. Jessee, “The Kirtland Diary of Wilford Woodruff,” Brigham Young University Studies, 12 (Summer 1972): 387-88.
19R. McL. Wilson, trans., The Gospel of Philip (New York, 1962), p. 43 (115: 26-30). Oxford English Dictionary definition of “chrism”: “1. Oil mingled with balm consecrated for use as an unguent . . . 2. A sacramental anointing; unction.”
20Hugh Nibley provides a useful summary in The Message of the Joseph Smith Papyri: An Egyptian Endowment (Salt Lake City, 1975).
21Journal of Discourses, 1:312, 3:45, 8:59; 9:150, 13:171, 14:204.
22“Though general authorities are authorities in the sense of having power to administer church affairs, they may or may not be authorities in the sense of doctrinal knowledge, the intricacies of church procedures, or the receipt of the promptings of the spirit. A call to an administrative position itself adds little knowledge or power of discernment to an individual, although every person called to a position in the Church does grow in grace, knowledge, and power by magnifying the calling given him.” Bruce R. McConkie, Mormon Doctrine (Salt Lake City, 1958), s.v. “General Authorities,” 284.
23Isaiah 11:12, Jeremiah 49:32, Revelation 7:1.
24Deuteronomy 33:17; Job 28:24, 37:3, 38:18, Psalms 22:27, 48:10, 59:13, 65:5, 67:7, 72:8, 98:3, 135:7; Proverbs 17:24, 30:4; Isaiah 26:15, 40:28, 41:5, 9, 43:6, 45:22, 52:10; Jeremiah 10:13, 16:19, 25:31, 51:16; Micah 5:4; Zechariah 9:10; Acts 13:47; Romans 10:18; I Corinthians 10:11.
25Let me acknowledge that in this response to the Tanners I do not claim that I am refuting every major and minor proposition they have made against Mormonism. I do feel, however, that Jerald and Sandra Tanner have presented an argument that is as weak as it is hypocritical. They have asked and answered wrong questions, answered the right questions by dubious methods, and yet have paraded their approach as the courageous, unflinching, “reality” of Mormonism.
26James B. Allen, “The Significance of Joseph Smith’s ‘First Vision’ in Mormon Thought,” Dialogue, I (Autumn 1966): 29-45. On page 44, Allen summarizes: “It is apparent, furthermore, that belief in the vision was not essential for conversion to the Church, for there is no evidence that the story was told to prospective converts of the early 1830s.”
27Milton V. Backman, Jr., Joseph Smith’s First Vision: The First Vision in Its Historical Context (Salt Lake City, 1971), 165.
28Times and Seasons (Nauvoo, Illinois), 3 (15 March 1842): 726-28.
29Joseph Smith stated that the revivals began “sometime in the second year after our removal to Manchester,” and that the family had moved to Manchester “about four years” after the Smith family had moved to Palmyra, which Joseph Smith implies (“in my tenth year or there-about”) and his mother stated was in 1816. That chronology would have the pre-vision religious revivals as having occurred in 1822, yet the 1838 account specifies that the vision occurred in 1820. There is abundant evidence that Joseph Smith had only the vaguest idea of the years in which these events of his youth transpired.
30Backman, Joseph Smith’s First Vision, 161, 162; Pearl of Great Price (Salt Lake City, 1975), 47.
31Backman, Joseph Smith’s First Vision, 156.
32Peter Crawley, “A Comment on Joseph Smith’s Account of His First Vision and the 1820 Revival,” Dialogue, 6 (Spring 1971): 106-7. The document being discussed was The Life of David Marks . . . Written by himself (Limerick, Maine, 1831).
33Milton V. Backman, Jr., “Awakenings in the Burned-Over District: New Light on the Historical Setting of the First Vision,” Brigham Young University Studies, 9 (Spring 1969): 312-13; Backman, Joseph Smith’s First Vision, 86-87.
34Whitney R. Cross, The Burned-Over District: The Social and Intellectual History of Enthusiastic Religion in Western New York, 1800-1850 (Ithaca, N.Y., 1950), 7-13.
35Allen, “Significance of Joseph Smith’s ‘First Vision’,” 40.
36Again the Tanners force upon the several accounts of the First Vision a requirement for consistency that they do not require of the New Testament. They write: “The only reasonable explanation for the Father not being mentioned [in the 1832 account] is that Joseph Smith did NOT see God the Father, and that he made up this part of the story after he dictated the first manuscript. This, of course, throws a shadow of doubt upon the whole story” (page 147). Like the subsequent accounts of the First Vision, the writings of John appeared after the other less detailed testimonies of Christ’s resurrection.
37Allan Nevins, The Gateway to History (Chicago, 1963), 163, 165, 167, 168, 174, 183-84. See Dean Jessee’s “The Reliability of Joseph Smith’s History,” Journal of Mormon History, 3 (1976): 23-46, for a more extensive analysis of the historical context of the editing of History of the Church.
38Journal of Discourses, 1: 117.
39Journal of Discourses, 2: 314.
40See John L. McKenzie, Second Isaiah, Anchor Bible Series (Garden City, 1968), xv-xxiii.
41Millennial Star 17 (April 25, 1857): 260. Also, Journal of Discourses, 16: 156.
42Mircea Eliade, The Myth of the Eternal Return, trans. by Willard R. Trask (New York, 1954), 34, also ix. See also Eliade’s The Sacred and the Profane: The Nature of Religion, trans. by Willard R. Trask (New York, 1959).
43Henri Frankfort, Ancient Egyptian Religion: An Interpretation (New York, 1948), esp. 49-58; Frankfort, The Problem of Similarity in Ancient Near Eastern Religions (Oxford, Eng., 1951); J. deFraine, “Les Implications du ‘patternism,'” Biblica,37 (1956), 59-73; Theodor H. Gaster, Thespis: Ritual, Myth, and Drama in the Ancient Near East (New York, 1966), especially Gilbert Murray’s introduction on pages 10-11.
44James B. Pritchard, ed., Ancient Near Eastern Texts Relating to the Old Testament, 3rd ed. (Princeton, N.J., 1974), 52ff.
45For additional patternistic elements in the Book of Mormon that correspond to ancient texts unavailable to Joseph Smith, see Hugh Nibley, Since Cumorah and An Approach to the Book of Mormon, 2nd ed. (Salt Lake City, 1964).
46Ellis T. Rasmussen, “Textual Parallels to the Doctrine and Covenants and Book of Commandments as Found in the Bible” (M.A. thesis, Brigham Young University, 1951); Lois Jean Smutz, “Textual Parallels to the Doctrine and Covenants(Section 65 to 133) As Found in the Bible” (M.R.E. thesis, Brigham Young University, 1969).
47John Bright, Jeremiah, The Anchor Bible Series (New York, 1965), LVII; Frederick Carl Eiselen, et al, eds., The Abingdon Bible Commentary (New York, 1929), 680. For a valuable analysis of Old Testament prophetic language and form, see Claus Westermann, Basic Forms of Prophetic Speech, translated by Hugh Clayton White (Philadelphia, 1967).
48Kurt Aland, et al, eds., The Greek New Testament, 2nd ed. (New York, 1966), 897-920.
49The Interpreter’s Bible, 12 vols. (New York, 1952-1957), 12: 358.
50The New Encyclopaedia Britannica, 15th ed., 30 volumes (Chicago, 1975), IX: 63.
51Nibley, An Approach to the Book of Mormon, 228-29; Nibley, Since Cumorah, 184.
52Pritchard, Ancient Near Eastern Texts, 683-86.
53E.A. Speiser, Genesis, The Anchor Bible Series (New York, 1964), LV-LVI.
54R.B.Y. Scott, Proverbs, The Anchor Bible Series (New York, 1965), XIX, XLIV-LII; William F. Albright, Yaweh and the Gods of Canaan: A Historical Analysis of Two Contrasting Faiths (Garden City, N.Y., 1968), 256-60.
55Geo Widengren, The Accadian and Hebrew Psalms of Lamentation as Religious Documents (Uppsala, Sweden, 1937); John Hastings Patton, Canaanite Parallels in the Book of Psalms (Baltimore, 1944); Frank Moore Cross, Canaanite Myth and Hebrew Epic: Essays in the History of Israel (Cambridge, Mass., 1973), 91-96; Interpreter’s Bible, 4: 14-15.
56William F. Albright, “The Psalm of Habakkuk,” in H.H. Rowley, ed., Studies in Old Testament Prophecy (New York, 1950), 6. Concerning the similarities between Psalm 104 and the Egyptian “Hymn to the Aton” (dating from 1380-1362 B.C.), one commentator has written: “Indeed, the resemblance in places is so striking that it has been argued that our psalmist must have had some knowledge of the Egyptian poem, which may have come into Palestine by way of Phoenicia.”Interpreter’s Bible, 4: 550.
57Albright, Yaweh and the Gods of canaan, 185-93.
58Theodor H. Gaster, The Dead Sea Scriptures In English Translation, rev. ed. (Garden City, N.Y., 1964), v, 412, 418-20. For Gaster’s view of the significance of Qumran-New Testament parallels, see pages 13-27.
59Pierre Benoit, “Qumran and the New Testament,” in Jerome Murphy-O’Connor, Paul and Qumran: Studies in New Testament Exegesis (Chicago, 1968), 2. See also other essays in this anthology.
60Morton Smith, Tannaitic Parallels to the Gospels, Journal of Biblical Literature Monograph Series, Volume VI (Philadelphia, 1951), esp. 136-40.
61Sandmel, “Parallelomania,” 8-10; C.G. Montefiore, Rabbinic Literature and Gospel Teachings, 2nd ed. (New York, 1970), esp. 162. Early uses of these parallels for polemical purposes are found in Gerald Friedlander, The Jewish Sources of the Sermon on the Mount (London, 1911); and Hermann Strack and Paul Billerbeck, Kommentar zum neuen Testament aus Talmud and Midrasch, 4 vols. (Munich, 1922-1928).
62W.D. Davies, Paul and Rabbinic Judaism: Some Rabbinic Elements in Pauline Theology (London, England, 1948), 323. It has also been suggested that Paul’s famous admonition: “Be not deceived: evil communications corrupt good manners” (I Corinthians 15:33) is a quote from the comedy Thais by Greek playwright Menander. Interpreter’s Bible, 7:51, 10:242.
63Raymond E. brown, The Gospel According to John (i-xii), Anchor Bible Series (New York, 1966), LVII-LVIII.
64Interpreter’s Bible, 5: 218-19. A similar effort to dispute the application of parallel prophetic fulfillments without challenging the validity of the Christian testimony is found in Harold Henry Rowley, The Re-discovery of the Old Testament(Philadelphia, 1946), 292-300; Oscar Cullmann, Christ and Time: The Primitive christian Conception of Time and History, translated by Floyd V. Filson, revised edition (Philadelphia, 1964), 135. See also essays on this criticism by Rudolf Bultmann, Friedrich Baumgartel, Claus Westermann, Hans Walter Wolff, and Walter Eichrodt in Claus Westermann, ed., Essays on Old testament Hermeneutics (Richmond, Va., 1966).
65This multiple interpretation of biblical passages was central to Medieval exegesis of the Bible. See Henri de Lubac, Exegese Medievale: Les Quatre Sens de L’Ecriture, 4 vols., (Paris, France, 1959-1964); James Samuel Preus, From Shadow to Promise: Old Testament Interpretations from Augustine to the Young Luther (Cambridge, Mass., 1969). For twentieth century affirmations of the reality of parallel fulfillments, see Milton S. Terry, Biblical Hermeneutics (New York, 1911), 402; J. Edwin Hartell, Biblical Hermeneutics (Grand Rapids, Mich., 1947), 105; J. Dwight Pentacost, Things to Come (Findlay, Ohio, 1958), 63; Oswald T. Allis, Prophecy and the Church (Philadelphia, 1964), 158; and Paul Lee Tan, The Interpretation of Prophecy (Winona Lake, Ind., 1974), 178-82.
66Nibley, Message of the Joseph Smith Papyri, 47-54.
67Ibid.; Michael Dennis Rhodes, “A Translation and Commentary of the Joseph Smith Hypocephalus,” BYU Studies 17 (Spring 1977):259-274; Eric J. Olson, “An Approach to the Book of Abraham,” a paper delivered at the 25th Annual Symposium on the Archeology of the Scriptures and Allied Fields, September 25, 1976, Brigham Young University.
68Interpreter’s Bible, 5: 92-93.
69John W. Welch, “A Book You Can Respect,” Ensign 7 (September 1977): 44-48.
70An Approach to the Book of Mormon (Salt Lake City, 1964), Since Cumorah (Salt Lake City, 1967), “A New Look at the Pearl of Great Price,” Improvement Era (1968-1970). See also Ernest C. Bramwell, “Hebrew Idioms in the Small Plates of Nephi” (M.A. Thesis, BYU, 1960); Melvin D. Pack, “Hebraisms in the Book of Mormon: The Words of Mormon to Moroni” (M.A. Thesis, BYU, 1967); John W. Welch, “A Study Relating Chiasmus in the Book of Mormon to Chiasmus in the Old Testament, Ugaritic Epics, Homer and Selected Greek and Latin Authors” (M.A. Thesis, BYU, 1970); John A. Tvedtnes, “Hebraisms in the Book of Mormon: A Preliminary Survey,” BYU Studies 11 (Autumn 1970): 50-60; John W. Welch, “Chiasmus in the Book of Mormon” BYU Studies 10 (Autumn 1969): 69-84.