Review of No Weapon Shall Prosper: New Light on Sensitive Issues
Edited by Robert L. Millett
Published by BYU Religious Studies Center and Deseret Book, 2011
Rather than focusing primarily on the methods commonly used by critics as other recent books of this genre do (such as Michael Ash’s Shaken Faith Syndrome, which I also highly recommend), this book contains essays that address some of the most common issues that are used to attack the faith of members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. It is intended to help the reader gain a better understanding of these topics in a faith-promoting, but scholarly and honest environment, against the flood of misinformation available online today. Indeed, the editor notes that “The Internet is filled with thousands of pages of anti-Mormon polemic, and it is extremely difficult for people to receive an honest and fair appraisal of Mormonism without significant effort on their part” (page viii).
Besides those by the editor, Robert L. Millett, the book contains contributions by Daniel L. Belnap, J. Spencer Fluhman, Steven C. Harper, Brian M. Hauglid, Daniel K. Judd, Kerry Muhlestein, Ugo A. Perego, Brent L. Top, and John W. Welch. They are split into four categories: Restored Christianity, Latter-day Saint Church History, Scriptural Perspectives, and Doctrinal Teachings. The topics include what it means to be a Christian, the various accounts of the First Vision, the Smiths’ involvement in money-digging and the supernatural, the Kinderhook plates, Joseph Smith’s youngest plural wife, DNA and the Book of Mormon, the Book of Abraham, and Jesus Christ and salvation, among many others. Many of the topics are written by experts in the area – for example, a population geneticist discusses DNA and the Book of Mormon, two Egyptologists discuss the Book of Abraham, and an editor of the Joseph Smith Papers tackles the subject of multiple versions of the First Vision. I would like to concentrate on a few topics of particular interest to me in order to give an idea of the overall book.
Kent P. Jackson’s cleverly titled “Are Christians Christians?” discusses what it means to be a Christian from the point of view of mainstream Christianity and where it came from. He examines statements from the Presbyterian and Methodist churches that declare us to be unchristian. He explains why their definition is unbiblical, and happily admits that we should not be included in it. “We, of all people, should not be offended that other churches consider our baptisms invalid and do not recognize the authority of our priesthood holders to officiate in their ordinances. Since the first days of our church’s history, we have denied the validity of the authority and ordinances of all other churches (see D&C 22). We concede that we are not members of the historic Christian church that includes our Catholic, Orthodox, and Protestant brothers and sisters. But to consider us not Christians on issues of belief is another matter” (page 55). He then goes on to explain that our definition of the word Christian is scriptural (although we have no official statement of such), and that by that definition we would also include those of other faiths previously mentioned.
Steven C. Harper, an editor of the Joseph Smith Papers, wrote about the accounts of Joseph Smith’s First Vision, saying it “may be the best documented theophany (vision of God) in history.” He finds the five different known accounts in eight statements (plus contemporary hearsay) to be “rich documentation” and “a good reason to believe him” rather than being evidence of an inconsistent and evolving story as others contend. (Page 63.) He describes how Fawn Brodie and Wesley Walters shaped the criticisms that are popular today, and did not reconsider their interpretations even when new evidence against them came to light. He points out that “those who share the skeptics’ assumptions will likely arrive at the same conclusions as the skeptics. But those who are open to the possibility that Joseph told the truth can discover other meanings from the same facts” (page 71).
Ugo A. Perego, who holds a PhD in genetics and biomolecular sciences, handles the question of whether DNA proves or disproves the Book of Mormon. He goes into great detail explaining how DNA is used in research, the current theories about migrations into the Americas, and describes the various theories for and against the Book of Mormon based on available DNA evidence. He points out the problems with each of these theories (such as evidence showing up in the wrong time period, wrong assumptions being used, and misunderstandings of the limitations of DNA research) and arrives at the conclusion that DNA evidence can neither be used to prove nor disprove that the people in the Book of Mormon actually existed. (In fact, he points out that it can’t even be used to prove that Jesus existed.) He says that “I find no difficulties in reconciling my scientific passion about Native American history with my religious beliefs. I am not looking for a personal testimony of the Book of Mormon in the double helix. …Anyone using DNA to ascertain the accuracy of historical events of a religious nature – which require instead a component of faith – will be sorely disappointed” (page 208).
One of the essays on the Book of Abraham is by Kerry Muhlestein, who has a PhD in Egyptology from UCLA. He begins by explaining how he got interested in the Book of Abraham, and why Egyptologists outside the church dismiss it. He also found that many members of the church who struggle with the issues involved with the Book of Abraham aren’t looking for an excuse to leave the church, but have “encountered well-written (though not necessarily well-documented or researched) arguments…and did not know how to answer the questions posed by these arguments.” He found that those publishing critical information are generally unaware that it is “based on incorrect information and bad assumptions. They are misled by the mistakes, lies, and trash put out by a few, and they unwittingly pass the information along without really looking into their sources” (page 219).
He then goes on to debunk some of the misinformation, such as the idea that there was no human sacrifice in ancient Egypt. He also found that one of the words supposedly made up by Joseph Smith (Olishem) has been discovered in two ancient texts. He discovered that Egyptians had access to biblical stories by 200 BC (which was the right time period for the papyri), and were particularly interested in Abraham. He presented this information to a conference put on by the Russian Academy of Science and received positive reviews. He talks about evidence that what we actually have possession of today was a very small part of what Joseph had, and gives reasons why it likely was not the source of the Book of Abraham, other than Facsimile 1. He also briefly discusses the mystery of the Kirtland Egyptian Papers, which were not likely to have been used in the translation process, as some critics have claimed. Another important point he makes is that “written by his own hand, upon papyrus” does not mean that the actual papyrus we have was written by the hand of Abraham, but that it is a copy of the original that Abraham would have written on much earlier. He also devotes several pages to Facsimile 1, pointing out many evidences (and some possible theories) for the authenticity of the interpretations provided by Joseph Smith.
Overall, I thought the book was quite good, although some essays were better than others. Some of the more doctrinal ones, in particular, presented a few points as given that not all members would agree on. But such is the nature of Mormonism. The book could be used to answer questions for oneself, to help a member friend or an investigator, or for inoculation against misinformation and half-truths encountered in a hostile environment. It would be useful reading for those preparing to serve a mission, for families, and for any individual interested in learning more about these issues or defending the church.
This book is available at the FAIR bookstore here.