In the prologue of A Reason for Faith, the editor, Laura Hales, lays out the purpose of the book. Members of the church sometimes come across new information in an unfriendly setting that damages their faith. This book is a compilation of articles about many of the topics that are not often discussed in a church or family setting, and can be difficult to understand. They are laid out by scholars in an honest but faithful manner, and while they can’t possibly cover the topics completely in the amount of space given, they are meant to be a springboard for further study where necessary.
The first chapter is by Richard Bushman, on “Joseph Smith and Money Digging.” He recounts the history of scholarship in this area, where it was originally denied by those inside the church due to being based on accounts thought to be unreliable published by critics of the church. As he began his own research, he found evidence that convinced him that Joseph was indeed involved with folk magic and seer stones, and that these things were too common in the 19th century to invalidate Joseph’s prophetic claims or be scandalous. The question still remains as to the extent of his involvement in folk magic, but there is no doubt that he used seer stones. Unfortunately, this is the weakest chapter, as Bushman states that he believes this issue has faded in importance, and that it no longer tends to trip people up or be used by critics. However, I have seen that it is still a common issue and it is still used by those intending to cause doubt. Simply its inclusion in the book reflects this. Those that would seek information on this topic may be put off by Bushman moving it “to the sidelines.” (page 4)
Steven Harper wrote the second chapter, “Remembering the First Vision.” It talks about the different versions of the First Vision account, but from a different angle than has been typical. He uses the science of memory formation to show that “they reflect his growing awareness of its meaning as he transformed sensory impressions into subjective meanings” based on “Joseph’s subjective experience of the original event as well as the ongoing effects of it as manifest in subsequent memories. This approach suggests that Joseph’s first telling of his experience to a Methodist minister shaped the ways in which he told the vision shortly after the event and also over time.” (page 7) Harper goes over each account and explains the science of making memories, consolidating memories, associative retrieval, and rearrangement, and how they could explain the differing accounts. He concludes that “the accounts reveal that he consciously interpreted the experience and discovered meanings in it later that were not available to him when it occurred…. There is no way to show, nor is there necessarily reason to assume, that Joseph’s memories decrease in accuracy or increase in distortion in proportion to their historical distance from the vision itself. It seems best to regard each of them as a new memory, each a creation formed by an original connection of present cues and stored pieces of past experience.” (page 16)
In the third chapter, Brant Gardner discusses “Translating the Book of Mormon.” In doing so, he also gives a good explanation of the folk magic the Smiths and their contemporaries were involved in, and the use of seer stones in that context, much of which was missing in the first chapter. He talks about why placing a seer stone in a hat during the translation process would have made it easier to see, and tackles the criticism that the art used to teach about the translation in church doesn’t seem to be very accurate. He also addresses the issues of changes in the Book of Mormon text and the difference in the title page between the first edition (which listed Joseph Smith as the “author and proprietor”) and now (where he is listed as the translator).
Brant Gardner then addresses “Anachronisms in the Book of Mormon” in chapter 4. He explains what anachronisms are and discusses some of them. In some cases, new scientific and archaeological evidence show that what were once thought to be anachronisms may not actually be such. In many cases, the anachronism is due to the translation; a good translator will use words that are familiar to the reader. An example in the Bible is the mention of candles, which did not exist in biblical times. This also explains why Jacob used the word “adieu.”
Next, Alexander Baugh talks about “The Testimonies of the Book of Mormon Witnesses,” including the three, the eight, and additional witnesses such as Mary Whitmer and some Smith family members who handled the plates but did not see them. Critics have come up with secular explanations, such as mental delusions or even hypnosis, but Baugh points out that there is absolutely no historical evidence of such, and none of the witnesses ever claimed any kind of manipulation, even those that left the church. In fact, it is pointed out that “perhaps their later alienation makes them even more credible witnesses, for no collusion could have withstood their years of separation from the Church and from each other.” (page 55)
“The Restoration of the Priesthood” is the next chapter, written by Ronald Barney. He takes an interesting approach, pointing out that the priesthood authority was received in stages from different personages, rather than Moroni just giving it all to Joseph along with the plates. “If Joseph Smith had made up the stories of his experience with Deity and with other heavenly beings, he could have simplified his claims by reporting that Moroni not only gave him the golden plates but also authorized a church in the latter days. It would have been as believable as any other explanation.” (page 60) “Even the concept of authority, as it was initially understood and later more broadly known as priesthood, crystalized over time in the mind of Joseph Smith through revelation and visitations by angelic beings.” (page 61) The other issue discussed is the lack of publicity sought in relation to the restoration. Discretion is taught in the Book of Mormon, and Joseph himself was advised multiple times to practice it; he also tried to teach it to other church leaders.
Kent Jackson wrote about “Isaiah in the Book of Mormon.” There are multiple theories about the appearance of the King James Version of Isaiah, which some think postdate in part what would have been on the brass plates. He gives three different possibilities for why it appears to be almost a literal transcription. He then tackles the question of authorship, saying that “it must be made clear that multiple-authorship theories for the book of Isaiah have no support from any ancient manuscripts or traditions.” These theories are based on internal clues that some scholars have noticed, but Jackson points out evidences from Isaiah and the Book of Mormon that go against these theories.
Kerry Muhlestein next tackles “The Explanation-Defying Book of Abraham.” He begins with the history of the papyri and then goes on to discuss which papyri were actually translated. Since Facsimile 1 was discovered among the fragments that came to light in 1967, many assumed that the surrounding text should contain the Book of Abraham, but it turned out to translate into a common funerary text. But the Book of Abraham itself “refer[s] to the drawing as being ‘at the beginning’ of the text, which strongly suggests that it was not right next to the text…. Examining similar papyri from the same period reveals a similar pattern.” (page 82) He also points out that witnesses identified a portion of the papyri known as the long roll as the source of the Book of Abraham, which was burned in the Great Chicago Fire. He then discusses several different possibilities for how the translation process may have occurred and then talks about the documents referred to as the Grammar and Alphabet of the Egyptian Language, which does not appear to have been used for the translation process. The facsimiles are further discussed and it is pointed out that Facsimile 1 is actually not a common funerary scene as some claim, and there have been no other instances of it being found next to the Book of Breathings.
In a chapter that is very similar to Don Bradley’s 2011 FAIR conference presentation, he and Mark Ashurst-McGee discuss “Joseph Smith and the Kinderhook Plates.” Some background is given, including the fact that the plates were forgeries. If they were forgeries, and Joseph Smith is said to have translated them, then there is a problem. It is argued that a translation did not actually occur in the way that we think of Joseph translating (“through the gift and power of God”). Instead, a character was identified on the plates that is similar to a character in the Kirtland Egyptian Papers, and the definition given there matches closely with what is reported to have been said about the plates. It is concluded that “many arguments for and against Joseph Smith’s prophetic claims, upon closer examination, turn out to be much more complex than originally framed, or simply fall apart, because they are based on assumptions that turn out to be incorrect.” (page 110)
Brian and Laura Hales cover “The Practice of Polygamy,” which “Joseph Smith concluded…could be a divinely sanctioned practice in 1831, while reviewing the Old Testament accounts about patriarchs who practiced plural marriage.” He began teaching it in 1840, and by 1844 over a hundred men and women had entered into it. The only document we have to try to understand it by is Doctrine and Covenants section 132, which contains three reasons that plural marriage is sometimes sanctioned by God: to multiply and replenish the earth, to provide a trial for the Saints, and as part of the restitution of all things. These are discussed, along with a brief history of the practice from the 1840s until its complete cessation in 1904.
Next, Brian Hales talks specifically about “Joseph Smith’s Practice of Plural Marriage,” which starts off similarly to the previous chapter, stating that Joseph knew about the practice as early as 1831, but required some prodding before he was willing to start doing it. Fanny Alger, his first plural wife, is discussed, along with sealings to women that were already married to other men. He argues that the latter sealings were of two types—eternity-only (nonsexual), and time and eternity with special situations (in the case of two of them). The common concerns about how much Emma knew and approved of Joseph’s other wives are discussed, as well as Joseph’s marriages to teenagers. One of the younger teenagers, Helen Mar Kimball, was married to Joseph at the request of her parents and it was likely never consummated. Hales points out that “none of the possible thirty-five plural wives sealed to Joseph Smith ever accused him of abuse or deception—even the seven who left the Church.” (page 137)
Steven Harper then discusses “Freemasonry and the Latter-day Saint Temple Endowment Ceremony.” He tells us about the development of the endowment through the eyes of Heber C. Kimball, who, along with others in Nauvoo, was a Mason. He draws on Greg Kearney’s 2005 FAIR conference presentation that explains how Masonry may have influenced the presentation of the endowment, with the important distinction that it is separate from what is actually being taught. However there were differences, such as allowing women in, which Masonry did not. Also, “Masonic rituals use aprons, door-knockings, and unusual handshakes to foster brotherhood. Bonds are made between men, not between people and God. LDS temple ordinances endow believers with power to regain the presence of God as they make and keep covenants with him… The endowment teaches a divine plan of creation, Fall, and redemption through Christ… The endowment did not simply mimic Masonry.” (page 151)
W. Paul Reeve addresses “Race, the Priesthood, and Temples.” He begins by pointing out that blacks were not originally denied the priesthood, and that there are no known statements from Joseph Smith that would deny them the priesthood or temple blessings. He then argues that the church faced a dilemma where, although most of the members were white, society looked upon them as another race, which led to the church seeking to become more white at the expense of blacks, but then finally reversing course. A section of the chapter is devoted to trying to understand the ban: “How could race-based priesthood and temple restrictions creep into the Church and last for so long? Was Brigham Young speaking for himself in 1852 when he announced the priesthood ban… or for God? If for himself, why would God permit him to do so? If for God, why implement a restriction that violated scriptural notions of equality?” (page 172) Reeve concludes that sometimes God lets us learn from our sad experiences, using the Old Testament prophet Samuel, the lost 116 pages, and the Kirtland Safety Society as examples.
“Finding Lehi in America through DNA Analysis” is the title of a chapter by Ugo Perego. He begins by talking about the assumption many have that the Jaredites, Lehites, and Mulekites came to an empty continent, and therefore all Native Americans today should have DNA that matches that found in the Middle East. He discusses the problems with those assumptions and then talks about what DNA does tell us about Native Americans, how DNA studies are done, and the limitations of the studies. He points out that “it would be impossible to recognize [Lehi’s] DNA even if it survived evolutionary forces and cultural isolation because we don’t know what we are looking for.” (page 186) He concludes by saying that you cannot prove the Book of Mormon true or false through DNA evidence.
Next, Neylan McBaine discusses “Latter-day Saint Women in the Twenty-First Century.” She talks about gender roles and how they’ve changed over the years, yet that change does not seem to be reflected in the church. “The definition of equality recognized by earthly institutions seems not to be the same definition the Lord uses to describe the practices of his kingdom…[, but] all factors do not need to be the same in order for two things, or two people, to be considered of equal worth of value in the Lord’s eyes.” (page 195) She then argues that “men and women actually have more in common than Church rhetoric typically admits,” (page 196) and that males and females both may act with priesthood authority. She then calls for action at the local level to change the perception of the role of women in the church, which I believe goes beyond the scope of this book’s theme. She justifies this through “signs that our leadership is working out what co-leadership might look like in a functional, comprehensive way… The change in age for missionaries signaled a desire to have young women embrace their ecclesiastical authority more completely; the addition of the female general officers’ portraits in the Conference Center and the general conference Ensign suggested these women should be considered by the Church membership to be global leaders and not just figureheads. The change of the general women’s meeting to the general women’s session, now the first session of general conference, evidenced a desire to shore up the ‘equal to but different from’ model in every way, even in semantics and structure. With awareness of and willingness to support co-leadership becoming more apparent at the general church level, it is the responsibility of the membership to assume that same awareness and willingness on the local level.” (page 198) While some of this may be true, it seems to mostly be jumping to conclusions and wishful thinking. Some may end up being disappointed if these things don’t lead to the changes apparently expected.
Ty Mansfield addresses “Homosexuality and the Gospel.” He begins by talking about how complex sexuality is, and that it’s more than just one-dimensional labels. He says “there are many different kinds and qualities of attraction: sexual, romantic, aesthetic, affectional, emotional, and even spiritual… [and] some qualities of attraction are good and even godly, and we should embrace and cultivate them in our lives.” (page 204) He then goes on to say that “there are certainly qualities of attraction or desire that we need to appropriately channel, such as erotic or romantic attraction, but scripture teaches us that our aim should be to ‘bridle’ our passions – not eradicate them… and Church leaders have been more careful to nuance their teachings so members understand more clearly that to feel sexual or romantic attractions is never a sin, even toward the same sex… Only lustful thoughts or behaviors (regardless of the sex they’re directed toward) or sexual expression outside the bounds the Lord has set are considered sinful.” (page 205) He then spends the next ten pages expanding on these ideas, which unfortunately complicates the subject beyond the seeming scope of the book. However, for someone trying to reconcile such desires with living the gospel, the extended discussion may be helpful.
In the last chapter, David Bailey tackles the subject of “Science and Religion: Friends or Foes?” There is a notion that science and religion contradict each other, and a believing scientist has to compartmentalize the two. Bailey shows that such is not the case. He starts out by defining science as “The use of evidence to construct testable explanations and predictions of natural phenomenon, as well as the knowledge generated through this process.” (page 222) Since science cannot prove whether God exists, it cannot possibly conflict with religion. He points out that many misunderstandings come from a belief in biblical inerrancy, but church leaders have taught that the Bible is not meant to be a scientific textbook. He discusses biblical chronology, the age of the earth, and evolution. He then talks about the Big Bang theory and how it actually provides evidences that there is something in control of conditions that make life possible. He discusses the problems with the theory of “God of the gaps,” and that we cannot prove that God exists, and faith is still necessary. “So in the end, religious beliefs cannot be either proven or disproven by science. Individuals are still more likely to find God on their knees, in the soup kitchen, and in living a righteous, productive, and charitable life than in the scientific laboratory.” (page 236)
Overall, this is a great collection of papers covering many of the current topics that can be stumbling blocks. My initial impression was that the book is similar to another recent title from the same publisher, “No Weapon Shall Prosper: New Light on Sensitive Issues,” and there is some overlap, but overall this book is more relevant to common issues people have today. I am a little uncomfortable with the citing of certain books in the endnotes of some chapters; hopefully the references won’t be looked upon as endorsements, since those particular books could lead to further problems. But I will definitely add this to the list of books that I recommend to anyone looking for answers to their questions or concerns.