The number of alternative explanations for the source of the Book of Mormon are as plentiful as anti-Mormon ministries. It becomes a literal maze of confusion, if not dealt with carefully. The critics will lead their readers and listeners to every possible path within the maze, as long as it doesn’t lead to authentication of the Book of Mormon. Regardless of the lack of plausibility, critics of the LDS faith have become all too creative in their quest to provide alternative scenarios for how the Book of Mormon came to be. From hallucinations to premeditated fraud to plagiarism, the explanations seem endless.
Those choosing to defend the Book of Mormon and The Church of Jesus Christ have patiently dealt with alternative explanations as they have surfaced, pointing to the archeological evidence here and the textual evidence there. And with the additional and constantly improving scholarship on this ancient text, the Book of Mormon is increasingly becoming the subject of extensive focus–even by non-LDS scholars. However, a current and all-inclusive evaluation of the possible Book of Mormon origins has not been available to the LDS apologists…not until Dr. Daniel Peterson decided to change that.
For most who attended the 2001 FAIR LDS Apologetic Conference, one of the most anticipated speakers was Dr. Peterson, the Chairman of FARMS, Director of ISPART and BYU Professor of Islamic and Arabic Studies. Dr. Peterson has become one of the leading scholars in the area of LDS apologetics and a favorite among FAIR members. Needless to say, we were all anxious to hear what he had to say.
Appropriately, Dr. Peterson was the concluding speaker at the 2001 conference (and is scheduled for the 2002 conference, by the way). And, I must say, with the material he presented, there were no disappointments. He chose to share with us a portion of a project he had yet to finish, a most comprehensive examination of all the possible explanations as to the origins of the Book of Mormon. In other words, Dr. Peterson decided to consider and analyze all of the possible theories of how Joseph Smith produced the Book of Mormon. No stone was left unturned.
The Book of Mormon Text Stands As a Witness
As a preface to his presentation, Dr. Petersen made clear that the “manuscripts of the Book of Mormon itself can be entered as evidence.” As most are aware, Professor Royal Skousen has spent the last 15 years primarily studying the original and the printer’s manuscripts. Professor Skousen’s conclusions are consistent with the traditional and historic view of the translation process that Joseph Smith and the scribes used. (Note: Professor Skousen is scheduled to be a speaker at the 2002 FAIR Conference, as the world’s leading expert on the Book of Mormon manuscripts.)
The evidence is completely consistent that Joseph could not have been working from any written document (book, paper, or other manuscript) in dictating the translation. Eyewitness accounts from family and others, in addition to other documented events support this conclusion. Yet, Joseph was indeed dictating from something, Professor Skousen and Dr. Peterson both conclude. What was it?
For those critics, although few, who advocate the theory that Joseph had the text “memorized” and thus was able to dictate the “nearly 5000 words daily, day after day, week after week,” Dr. Peterson leaves it up to us to consider the remote plausibility of such a theory. However, there are many other documented events that would destroy the likelihood of this scenario (words Joseph was unable to pronounce, the need for Joseph to be spiritually clean and in-tune, etc.), as if one needed to be persuaded.
Dr. Peterson concluded his introductory remarks with the following,
“Thus, we see that Joseph Smith seems to have been reading from something, but that he had no book or manuscript or paper with him. It seems to have been a text that was new and strange to him, and one that required a certain emotional or mental focus before it could be read. All of this is entirely consistent with Joseph Smith’s claim that he was deriving the text by revelation through an interpreting device, but it does not seem reconcilable with claims that he had created the text himself earlier, or even that he was reading from a purloined copy of someone else’s manuscript. In order to make the latter theory plausible, it is necessary to reject the unanimous testimony of the eyewitnesses to the process.”
Possible Sources for the Book of Mormon
The rest of Dr. Peterson’s presentation was spent listing all “basic possibilities for explaining the Book of Mormon.” These fall into three categories and just in case you are wondering, with the exception of perhaps the last two, all of these are scenarios posed by critics of the LDS faith.
Here is how the possibilities are laid out:
- Subjective (Psychological) Explanations
- Individual Hallucination (by Joseph Smith)
- Collective Hallucination (by Joseph Smith, the Witnesses, etc.)
- Objective Reality, but Fraudulent
- Individual Deceit (practiced by Joseph Smith, unaided)
- Collective Deceit (by Joseph Smith, the Witnesses, etc.)
- Collective Deceit (by Joseph Smith and some external individual or group)
- Collaboration of external group with Joseph Smith
- Exploitation of external group by Joseph Smith
- Objective Reality, with “Supernatural” Explanations
- Supernatural but demonic
- True scripture, but not ancient
- True scripture (the traditional explanation)
Dr. Peterson’s examination of each of these categories was truly fascinating.
As unlikely as the first category seems to the reasonable mind, it is indeed a possibility posed by anti-Mormons and thus dealt with by Dr. Peterson. The plausibility of an individual hallucination is put to rest when one considers all of the eyewitnesses that saw the same things, “angels, the plates, the Urim and Thummim, the sword of Laban, and all the other things.” The collective hallucination theory fails when one considers that such has never been recorded in human history, a group of people all hallucinating to see the same things. Dr. Peterson does a sufficient job at documenting psychological evidence to demonstrate this view.
Objective, Fraudulent Reality
As we move into the second category of possible hypotheses, we enter the arena of fraud and deceit claims. This is where more of the typical anti-Mormon conclusions will be found. Thus we will spend a bit more time here.
Regarding the first possibility, that of individual deceit on the part of Joseph Smith, without the assistance of others, we immediately run into problems. Dr. Peterson informs us that even if Joseph had the deceitful desire (which is difficult to demonstrate),
“Joseph Smith seems positively incapable of having pulled off such an enterprise on his own, unaided. He was, as those who best knew him readily and repeatedly noted, only marginally literate during the period of the production of the Book of Mormon. Certainly he seems an unlikely candidate to have produced a book manifesting all the apparently authentic ancient and Near Eastern characteristics that, as we have seen, the book quite arguably possesses.”
If this possibility is to be seriously considered, Dr. Peterson rehearses a few questions that must be answered. Otherwise this theory is to fall by the wayside as those discussed above. Keeping in mind Joseph Smith’s education (none), literacy (little), and knowledge of foreign cultures (none), some of the questions that must be answered are:
- Could he have written something so sophisticated and complex in so short a time?
- Could he have fabricated gold plates?
- Where did he derive the metallurgical expertise?
- Where did he get the gold?
- Where did the gold go when he was done with it? Did he just give it away? Bury it?
- How was he able to produce the breastplate and other artifacts that many saw?
- Was he really up on the Hill Cumorah cementing a box and hiding it in the earth? Why did nobody notice any of this elaborate activity?
Furthermore, one who holds to this theory must account for the numerous eyewitness accounts that have been documented along the way. Dr. Peterson shares, “It might possibly be suggested, of course, that Joseph Smith profited from the happy coincidence that his fraudulence was supported by a gang of gullible lunatics who saw visions on command and even independently, all endorsing his story. But the improbabilities seem too high.” Too high indeed. This theory has far too many holes.
On the surface, the collective deceit theory (by Joseph, the witnesses, etc.) seems to be a tinge more plausible than individual deceit, but, it “every bit as much as the idea of individual deception, collides with the evidence that I have presented respecting the character of Joseph Smith,” in addition to clashing, “directly with the evidence we have concerning the character of the Witnesses and their subsequent behavior.”
This theory goes straight to the heart of the eleven witnesses, their testimonies and their documented character, respectively. One can also research the veneration of the Book of Mormon, maintained by the witnesses to their death beds. Dr. Peterson made the point to share with us, for example, the reverence with which David Whitmer held the original Book of Mormon manuscript toward the end of his life. Dr. Peterson correctly declares, “Such attitudes are impossible to square with cynicism and conscious deception.”
When reviewing the lives of those that would have been involved in the deceitful plot (Dr. Peterson notes at least 16: the eleven witnesses, Joseph, Emma, Lucy Mack, and Mary Whitmer), one is unable to find any evidence pointing to such a conspiring plot. Nor does one find behavior that would lend any credibility to such a theory. With absolutely nothing to gain, these people risked their possessions, safety, and their own lives, which were taken from some. They enjoyed no fame or accolades for which to compensate later in life. Yet, they all held to their testimonies of the authenticity of the Book of Mormon. Strange behavior for a dishonest bunch.
Dr. Peterson includes a few documented remarks by on-lookers of this scene,
“As the lawyer James H. Moyle justly observed, ‘If there had been fraud in this matter Joseph Smith would have cultivated those men and kept them with him at any cost. The truth is that when they became unworthy they were excommunicated, even though they were witnesses to the Book of Mormon.'”
Not the type of behavior one would expect from a conspiring ringleader. And when such things happened (excommunication, etc.), one would expect, at some point, for the witnesses to own up to the dishonesty and deception of their earlier years. Such was not the case.
In a 22 September 1899 letter, David Whitmer’s grandson, George Schweich, recalled of his grandfather, “I have begged him to unfold the fraud in the case and he had all to gain and nothing to lose but to speak the word if he thought so-but he has described the scene to me many times, of his vision about noon in an open pasture-there is only one explanation barring an actual miracle and that is this-If that vision was not real it was HYPNOTISM, it was real to grandfather IN FACT.”
Moving along, Dr. Peterson finds it necessary to observe another subcategory of collective deceit theories, but by an external and perhaps hidden individual or group, unknown to the rest of the world. A group knowingly or unknowingly to “have provided Joseph Smith what he needed in order to practice his deceptions.” Dr. Peterson, quickly disposes of this theory by asking a few questions.
- Do we have any actual evidence for the existence of such a person or persons?
- Who, specifically, were they?
- What were their motives? What did they have to gain?
- Why did they remain silent?
Concluding on this particular possibility, Dr. Peterson declares the obvious, “It is difficult to disprove the existence of silent, invisible conspirators, just as it is difficult to disprove the existence of an invisible giant rabbit. But the hypothesis seems unlikely.”
Now if the external group was unaware of the use of their work by Joseph Smith, then we are posed with an entirely different situation. Of course we are talking about an author or group of authors that wrote a book or other document, that Joseph must have used as his source for the Book of Mormon.
Witnesses to the translation process provide a substantial obstacle to the acceptance of this theory. Again, Dr. Peterson reminds us that multiple witnesses have testified that Joseph had no document of any kind with him while translating the plates. Additionally, such a work (one Joseph supposedly used) would have undoubtedly been “composed in the standard literary English of the early nineteenth century,” which is not what we see in the Book of Mormon manuscript. Or perhaps Joseph or someone else to the document and “laboriously rewrote the whole thing in substandard language, perhaps in an effort to disguise its origins.”
And an acceptance of this theory would require Joseph to put on an elaborate “production of all the props and “special effects” needed to create the confirmatory aura of “supernaturalism” surrounding the emergence of the Book of Mormon.” The impossibility of this scenario is quite obvious.
Objective, Supernatural Reality
Now we move into the last category of objective reality, with supernatural explanations. The first one is a favorite of mine. (I find it amazing that anyone would subscribe to this theory.) This view accepts the Book of Mormon as supernatural, but demonic in nature, which allows one to conveniently account for all of the historically and culturally correct information contained within its pages, which could not have been known by Joseph Smith, yet “who still do not wish to take it as an authoritative spiritual guide.”
Dr. Peterson recognizes that this is a difficult position to “neutralize.” He also points out that it is at least as possible for those holding to this hypothesis to be deceived as it is for those who have a testimony of the divinity of the Book of Mormon. Additionally, there is no real basis for such an argument, other than it’s shear possibility, just as the only real basis for an invisible, giant rabbit, is that it is possible for such to exist.
So, is it fair to say that this hypothesis is possible? Yes. “But,” as Dr. Peterson points out, “it is also fair to ask whether God is the kind of Being who would allow people like the Smiths and the Whitmers and the Cowderys and Martin Harris and others, who, the historical data clearly indicate, were sincerely and prayerfully seeking Him, to be led astray to perdition. If so, how can we trust Him in anything? How can any answer to prayer or understanding of scripture be relied upon?”
While all this is “fair,” one must, however, appeal to the test given by Christ, Himself. Dr. Peterson advocates this appeal, as well. Which test is that, you ask? We’ve all heard it. Go to Matthew, Chapter 7 and read verses 15 through 20.
“Advocates of the Book of Mormon can perhaps be pardoned for maintaining that the fruit of the Book of Mormon, in changed lives, in hardships overcome, deserts tamed, and other regards, has been good, indeed remarkable. Those considering this issue will have to determine for themselves whether the doctrine, and the life led by those who accept it, tastes good,” according to Dr. Peterson.
Also considered supernatural, is the next subcategory. However, those who subscribe to this theory consider the Book of Mormon to be true scripture, yet not ancient or, in other words, not historically factual or accurate. Thus, the details of the book are only a “framework of narrative fiction.”
While this view places some value in the Book of Mormon, that, which the books claims to be, is neutralized. It is no longer “another testament of Jesus Christ,” for Christ didn’t really visit the Nephites. After consideration of this perspective, one realizes, to hold this view, one must conclude that deceit and fraud would have to be central to the development of this book and this very deceit and fraud is supported by God. Dr. Peterson shares this perspective,
“Still, the fundamental problem with this notion is that it seems to involve God in purposeless deceit. For the fabrication of the plates and the breastplate and the Urim and Thummim and the stone box seems to serve little purpose other than to witness to the existence of a real ancient civilization that really created the text and whose history is really represented in its stories. And who, on this understanding, was Moroni, really? Why masquerade as an ancient Nephite, if there were none such? Couldn’t theological truths have been revealed in some other way?”
Well, we have narrowed it down quite a bit, in attempting to determine the explanation that best fits the origin of the Book of Mormon. It was amazing to me how simple this really is, to put the possibilities to the fire and let those impure theories burn out. Thanks to Dr. Peterson, we have a more pure and accurate perspective, intellectually speaking-a perspective that has been testified of by the Holy Spirit, long before this outstanding exercise.
I close with Dr. Peterson’s conclusion and thank him for the wonderful journey through the maze of critical views of the Book of Mormon. It is always wonderful when one is assisted through the maze by those who have gone before, to obtain the light that awaits one at the journey’s end.
Dr. Peterson concludes,
“We are left with the last possibility-the one that, to nobody’s surprise, I find preferable and most likely. This is the idea that the Book of Mormon, as the traditional story has always insisted, is true scripture, and historically authentic. All of the evidence presented…is consistent with the hypothesis that the Book of Mormon is true, historically authentic scripture. Indeed, in my view, some of the evidence presented here virtually demands such a verdict.”
The Full Presentation
Dr. Peterson’s presentation at the 2001 FAIR Conference was very interesting, and a must for anyone interested in the authenticity of the Book of Mormon. If you are interested in owning a copy of the full presentation on audio CD, you can purchase it in the FAIR Store.
About Daniel Peterson
Dr. Daniel C. Peterson currently teaches at BYU, where he is an associate professor of Islamic Studies and Arabic and was just released as a member of the Jerusalem Academic Coordinating Committee, which oversees academic programs at BYU’s Jerusalem Center for Near Eastern Studies. He is the managing editor of the new Islamic Translation Series, which publishes dual-language editions of classical works of medieval Arabic and Persian philosophy. He is also the director of the Center for the Preservation of Ancient Religious Texts (CPART), which has produced a computer-digitized version of the Dead Sea Scrolls and is commencing similar projects involving ancient Greek, Syriac, Armenian, and Egyptian manuscripts. Dr. Peterson served in the Switzerland Zürich Mission, and, for approximately eight years, on the Gospel Doctrine writing committee for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. At the present time, he is a member of a BYU campus bishopric. He is chairman of the Board of Trustees of the Foundation for Ancient Research and Mormon Studies (FARMS), and edits the FARMS Review of Books. He received a bachelor’s degree in Greek and philosophy from BYU. After several years of study in Jerusalem and Cairo, he earned his Ph.D. in Near Eastern Languages and Cultures from the University of California at Los Angeles (UCLA). Dr. Peterson is married to the former Deborah Stephens, of Lakewood, Colorado, and they are the parents of three boys.