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Well that was a good introduction; I liked it. It was brief. Better than one, I think I may have mentioned this before, I had a colleague who introduced me once when I gave a lecture for the College of Humanities at BYU. It was a named lecture, the Summerhays Lecture, no, now I’ve forgotten what the name was. Anyway, it was a number of years ago, and he just made it all up. It was total nonsense. And I had faculty colleagues coming up to me for days after that saying, “Wow, I didn’t know half that stuff about you.” Well I didn’t either. I learned, for example, that I was dyslexic, but that by learning Arabic, where it goes from right to left instead of left to right, I cured my dyslexia. It was fascinating.
Anyway, one of the privileges of going last is that I can take this opportunity to angrily repudiate everything that’s been said before me, every prior speaker.
No, I think it’s been a good conference. I’m going to try to get you out of here somewhere near on time. My point that I want to make in this talk is a very simple one, really. I was confronted within the past week, about five-six days ago, I think, by a demand, and I get this all the time, you know: “All right, name your single best evidence for the Book of Mormon.” Or I think in this case it was, “Name the three absolute proofs for the Book of Mormon.”
And I don’t believe there are any such things. I think that what Latter-day Saint scholars – apologists, if you want to use that term – have thought they were doing with the Book of Mormon, what we see ourselves as doing, is constructing a cumulative case, no one element of which is definitive, no one element of which will simply force, compel unbelievers to suddenly cave in, surrender. I don’t believe that that’s the Lord’s intention. I don’t believe that there will be any such things.
I’m not even sure I can conceive of one. If we found a stela in Central America, say, that said “I, Nephi, was here,” there would still be ways of getting around that. You have arguments about the so-called minimalist position on the Old Testament where you find reference to the House of David. People have been arguing there is no House of David. The Davidic monarchy is a myth. They found a reference stone to the House of David. Well, there are people who contend it really means House of Worms. I mean, you can read it that way, if you really, really want to.
And so there are very few things out there that I can even imagine would simply compel people to believe. There are things out there, though, that can give you reason to believe, that can convince you or convince other people that it makes sense to believe.
But one of the arguments I will make, it’s the one I’m going to outline today, just very briefly – this wasn’t what I had intended to speak about this year, but then it just seemed to me that I needed to say it. Maybe there’s one person out there. The nice thing about my saying that is you can’t falsify this. There may be somebody out there, you know, who needs this. Or maybe I’m just hallucinating. I don’t know.
But one of the arguments I would make is simply that I have been unable – and I think I have tried seriously and honestly – to construct a case or construct an explanation of the Book of Mormon other than Joseph Smith’s that really accounts for all the data. I can construct a case – and other people have – that explain elements of the Book of Mormon, say, “Well this was borrowed from such and such a book.” Or, “You know, maybe this happened and this is why the witnesses thought they saw this or that.”
But it gets to be pretty complex sometimes. You need so many different explanations that it begins to look like, well – I don’t know if any of you know what these are; I mean certainly the younger generation may not – a Rube Goldberg sort of contraption where there’s just so much that’s been built into this to make the device work that it gets to be ridiculous.
I use another image for that in just a minute.
Anyway what I want to say is to me one of the arguments for the Book of Mormon is simply this, that in a sense the Book of Mormon survives after all these years when it really shouldn’t.
This is the shallow product, as some believe, of a shallow con artist on the American frontier with a couple of months of education. And yet, look at it, look at it. It’s doing pretty well. It holds up quite nicely.
But I go even further. My problem is that I see problems with all the alternative explanations, and to me they’re lethal.
Now, one way of thinking about it is the metaphor of a maze. If you’ve done a maze, mazes can be very large and complex; you might have done a simple little one in a magazine or something. One of the ways that you do them is to take your pencil or your pen and you trace different routes, and eventually you find out, woops, this one doesn’t work. You know, I can’t get to the center, to the goal this way. I have to go back, retrace my steps, and find the one that does work your way through. Now if the maze is big enough, you could conceivably be at it for a very, very long time before you find, if you ever did in this life, find the proper answer, the proper solution to the maze. You just keep taking wrong tracks. But eventually, you hit a wall, literally, in the case of one like this, you hit a hedge, you can’t go any further, and you realize you’ve taken a wrong turn. You have to go back and start over again.
My argument would be that all of the counter-explanations of the Book of Mormon that I’ve looked at – and I think I’ve looked at all of them – run into walls. You eventually run into something where, it simply can’t get you there. It can’t explain everything that needs to be explained. And so I sometimes see, well, I’ve had people tell me, “Look, I don’t owe you an explanation for the Book of Mormon. All I have to say is I don’t believe it.” Well, of course, you know, you can make your own decision, lead your life the way you want to, but it seems to me intellectually honestly that you really should try to come up with a counter-explanation. If you think Joseph Smith wrote it, how did he do it? If you think there were no plates, what’s going on there? You need to come up with another explanation.
But you need to come up with a counter-explanation, a complete, comprehensive theory, that accounts for all of the things, not just one aspect, all of the data. And that’s hard to do, and I would say so far I just don’t believe it can be done.
Again, you can explain this or that, but sometimes you have to invoke explanations that make something so complex that it gets to be ridiculous.
And again, I suggest another metaphor: The Ptolemaic model of the cosmos. Initially it seemed fairly simple. But the trouble is that it got more and more complex as people began to notice, for example, that some of the planets moved in retrograde motion from time to time. How do you explain that? There were certain curious phenomena that couldn’t be explained by the ordinary Ptolemaic system and so people kept invoking cycles, then epicycles. You know, the planet would be not just a dot going in an orbit around the earth but then there would be a center dot but the planet was orbiting that dot and going around. That would explain some things. And then it would be a little orbit going around a dot that was on a dot going around the dot going around the earth, and it got to be ridiculous.
If you look at some of the late attempts to salvage the Ptolemaic model or a modified form of the Ptolemaic model to engage in what was called then “saving the appearances,” it gets to be extraordinarily complex. The last great Ptolemaic astronomer was a truly great astronomer. You may have seen his name, Tycho Brahe. He was a Danish astronomer, the foremost, the master of all of the astronomical data of his day, right about the time of Galileo, and so he didn’t accept the Copernican model. He just kept adding epicycles.
Now if you pressed them they would tell you, “This isn’t really how it works. We don’t know how it really works. This is just a kind of a mathematical, geometric model for how it could be made to work and account for the data we’re seeing.
But he held onto it. And one of the reasons he held onto it is that actually the Copernican model didn’t account for the data fully. We look at Copernicus now and we say, “What a genius. You know, he simplified everything. He got it right.” Well if you look at his actual model, it’s concentric circles around the sun. That doesn’t work. The heliocentric model of the solar system didn’t work really until Kepler came up with elliptical orbits. That actually made it work. And then it’s elegantly simple and everything.
But Copernicus’s system was actually less adequate at representing the data that people like Tycho Brahe had gathered than that weird Copernican model that he had done. Nevertheless, people abandoned the Ptolemaic model with Copernicus because the simplicity of it appealed to them. It had just gotten so complex, it was just unbelievable that it was this complex. Now I know there are critics who say, “Those desperate Mormon apologists are constructing cycles on epicycles and so on. Well I can speak for one: That’s not how I see it. And I actually see some of the attempts to explain the Book of Mormon as being so complex and so ad hoc that they really just, they’re not satisfying. There’s a certain, in science and history and so on, there’s a certain room for aesthetics. Mathematicians talk about it a lot. That, you know, you come to a solution of a mathematical problem, and it just is beautiful. It’s elegant. It’s simple.
That’s true in physics. If you talk to really cutting-edge, theoretical physicists, they will tell you quite often that at first there may not be data there, but they just know it’s true because the mathematics is so beautiful. It’s just so good. And so they wait for the data to come along to flesh it out.
Well I want to suggest something like that in this case, that to me, the explanation of Joseph Smith is simple and elegant, and the alternative explanations just don’t work and they get more and more complex and it’s just too much for me, and so I’ve said sometimes that I simply don’t have the faith to disbelieve Joseph Smith’s story. I just can’t get there. I can’t do it. And I’ve tried. I’ve really tried to give it a serious look. I cannot put together hallucinatory explanations of the witnesses and stealing from Solomon Spaulding and stealing from Ethan Smith, and I’m just mentioning a few, and putting it all together. Joseph Smith, this incredibly learned young man who’s sitting there on the frontier.
Some of you may have seen Jeff Lindsay’s satire of this, “Joseph Smith, Translator Extraordinaire.” It’s a wonderful piece. It has Joseph Smith sitting there writing the Book of Mormon, and people are constantly bringing in sources for him: Sidney Rigdon, Oliver Cowdery, Parley Pratt. Sidney Rigdon’s bringing in wheelbarrows of stuff for him to read. And at one point he finds a line in Walt Whitman’s “Leaves of Grass” that will give Joseph a really good line for the Book of Mormon. And Joseph says, “But Sidney, this book won’t even be written for another 35 years.” In response to which, Sidney Rigdon says, “Well, you’re pretending to be a prophet, aren’t you? I mean, come on, get with the program.”
All right. So … there’s a phone going off up here. I don’t know what that’s about, but I missed the call. It’s not my phone either.
All right, so let’s get with this.
These are the logical options as I see them: That Joseph either had plates or he didn’t have plates. And then there are subdivisions that you can follow through to see possible ways in which each of these might be the case.
I remember my friend Bill Hamblin once being in communication with a one-time, fairly prominent, ex-member critic of the Church and of the Book of Mormon. And he said, “Look, let’s assume for a moment that you’re right and that Joseph Smith did not have plates. Did he know that he didn’t have plates or did he think that he had the plates? In other words, was he a conscious deceiver, or was he in some sense mad?”
To which this critic responded: “I don’t have to lower myself to your simplistic little dichotomies.”
Well, see, I think it’s intellectually incumbent upon people like that to, come on, give us an answer to this. Otherwise it’s like guerrilla warfare. You attack and attack and attack, you always withdraw, you never defend territory. You never have to stake out your own explanation, which then will be subject to criticism and attack.
Well to me, that simple-minded little dichotomy that this person refused to give an answer to. or refused to take part in, is still a really important question. If Joseph Smith didn’t have the plates, did he know that he didn’t have plates, or did he think that he did?
OK, so let’s look a little more in detail: Joseph had no plates. This is what most critics say; there were none.
All right, the first option is that he knew that he had no plates. OK. Now, this runs into a number of issues. You have to ask first of all, Was this deliberate, was it cynical or was it pious? Was he a cynical fraud, just a con-artist, 19th century con man?
I think you run into issues right there. One of the places you run into issues is with Joseph Smith’s writings, which are now being published, the personal writings of Joseph Smith, the Joseph Smith Papers. If Joseph Smith is not sincere, then I can’t judge sincerity in another human being.
This is a man who in his most personal private writings, letters to his wife, personal journal entries, they’re full of prayers. He’s praying all the time. Oh, Lord, help your servant, help me. Writing to his wife, Emma, praying, expressing prayers for her. Telling his children to be sure they say their prayers at night, this sort of thing. All the time coming across as a believer. There’s nothing, certainly there’s nothing at all in the early Joseph Smith that you could say points to someone who’s a cynical, manipulative deceiver. It’s just not there. He doesn’t let the mask fall at all. If he is one, there’s no evidence for it that I can see.
Now I know some people will come back and they will say what about plural marriage later on? Well that’s a difficult case. And we can argue that. I’m willing to argue that. I don’t want to do it here. That’s quite far afield. But I’m talking about the early Joseph Smith. I don’t think you see the cynical deceiver anywhere in Joseph’s character. But you certainly don’t see it in 1828. You don’t see it in 1830. This is a young man, I mean, you even have descriptions of him going out into the woods to pray, just as he says he did with the First Vision. This was a habit of his. He would go out into the woods to pray when he was concerned about something, when he was worried, when he was upset or indecisive and so on. There’s a continual pattern of this kind of thing. He is a believer. If you can see anything from the writings that are coming out, he really believes that he’s receiving revelations. He’s not a cynical con artist.
And there’s other evidence. Would a cynical con artist have put up with some of the stuff he endured?
Think of Liberty Jail. If you’ve ever been in Liberty Jail, you know how small that area was and how grim and dark it was. I had the occasion, the privilege a couple of years ago, I guess, to go back and speak in Liberty Jail. I never thought I would have that chance. It was for the anniversary of the building of the visitors center, I think. And I stood actually above the space in which Joseph Smith was confined. And what really worried me was I noticed they put the podium in such a place that I was standing on the trap door. And I just wondered, you know, if the talk goes on too long or they don’t like it, does it just open up, woosh, I’m down there with Joseph and Sidney.
But he was genuinely miserable. I think you have to understand that he came close to despair. You can imagine what it must have been like for him there. When he was writing this epistle, the famous epistle in Section 121: “O Lord, where art thou?”, I don’t think you should see that as just literary flourish or play acting. He really is feeling abandoned. This is a terrible time for him.
And it’s made all the more terrible by the fact that, well, I’ve got ahead of myself, by the fact that the saints are being driven out and he’s not able to do anything about it. Can you imagine? If you had any trace of human conscience at all, if you were lying, this would be almost impossible to endure. And he would have reached his absolute low point, but he comes through it faith intact, as does his brother Hyrum, one of the witnesses, so on and so forth.
Think of what else happened to the saints because of his claims. Can you imagine, again, if you were just making up a story and there were people literally dying for you, for this story you’re telling, gosh, you would have to be a sociopath to be able to put up with that, but there’s, again, no evidence that he was anything of the kind.
And then, of course, there’s his own ultimate martyrdom. He actually thought he was going to die at Liberty, but he did die just a few years later. And he pretty well knew that that was going to be the end result. Richard Anderson published an article years ago, which didn’t get wide circulation, showing Joseph’s awareness of the fact that after about 1838-1839, that he was going to die fairly shortly, that there had been a kind of divine protection over him but he sensed that that had been, or would be shortly, removed, that his work was drawing to its end.
Now it’s easy to sit here and say, well, a con artist might go through it all to the end, but not many would. Again this argues for sincerity rather than cynicism and conscious deceit. He does actually die there and he dies faithful to his testimony. So does Hyrum Smith, and that’s striking to me. That Hyrum, the elder brother, accompanies him to Carthage Jail.
And, of course, there’s also the evidence that even if you decide that Joseph is a conscious deceiver, there are other people who are seeing thing with him. Most of his revelatory experiences are shared. After the First Vision, over and over and over again there are other people there who see things, heft things with him.
So the cynical deception thing just doesn’t cut it. It doesn’t do it.
Here’s one of my favorite stories – that’s Mary Musselman Whitmer, who is one of the witnesses to the plates, the 12th or 13th witness, she’s been called. And her story is a remarkable one. We have at least two chains of accounts telling about her experience of having seen the plates, which she didn’t expect to do. And it was under very prosaic circumstances. Some people have told me, and I’ve mentioned this here before, oh yeah, the witnesses were just in some sort of religious ecstasy, right? They hallucinated this. She’s milking the cows.
And I didn’t grow up on a farm but my father did. And he told me that milking cows was not a mystical experience for him. In fact, I’ll just mention, my father was convinced – he grew up in a Lutheran family in North Dakota – he was convinced that he was going to hell because, he said, you couldn’t milk cows without swearing. Because just as you got the milk pail filled, the cow would stick its filthy hoof in the milk or the cow would hit you in the face with its filthy tail, he said. And he would spend time sometimes with his city cousins, and he said they’re going to heaven because they don’t have to milk cows, and I’m going to hell because I do. It’s not fair. It raises the problem of divine justice and the problem of evil in a really acute form, you know, if you’ve been raised on a farm and you have to put up with that.
She’s out there milking the cows and she’s not in a good mood because the menfolk are in there translating the Book of Mormon, and she’s having to do all the work and feed them. So she’s not feeling especially spiritual. That’s when the messenger comes and says, look, you’re having a hard time, right? It’s only fair that you get a special look at these plates so you will feel better about things. And she did. She felt considerably better.
But, again, how would Joseph Smith, the cynical deceiver, explain that?
Then you’ve got to bring in something else. All these people are hallucinating, right? Mary Whitmer, while milking the cows, hallucinates the plates. Oh it’s possible, but good grief, it strains credulity just a little bit.
OK, so here’s another possibility: He wasn’t a cynical fraud but he was a fraud nonetheless. He was pious fraud.
This is a little harder to deal with because the evidence for his sincerity and piety are all over the place. So, but still nevertheless, maybe he had no plates, he just somehow convinced a bunch of other people that he did. But that’s, again, really hard to trust or to take seriously, because too many other people see these things.
Now I’ve gotten lectures within the past few days on, you know, the weaknesses of eyewitness testimony. And it’s true, sometimes eyewitness testimony is weak. For example, if somebody comes to you, you open the door and the person pulls a gun on you. Later on you may not be able to remember what color his shirt was, because you’re kind of focused on the gun that’s aimed at your face.
So eyewitness testimony can be unreliable. But for things like this we have multiple people saying we saw and took considerable amount of time, in some cases, in the case of the eight, we hefted, we felt this in these plates, it seems to me you’re really, really pushing it to say, well, you know, eyewitness testimony just isn’t reliable. In fact, I offered in a discussion I had the other day, I said, look, I’m just going to come over with a sledgehammer and demolish your car. You can come out and watch. And my defense will be, eyewitness testimony is unreliable. How does he know he actually saw that? It’s notoriously unreliable. So even though I stood there for 20 minutes with a sledgehammer and pounded his car in, that doesn’t count for anything.
We take eyewitness testimony seriously all the time unless we have strong reason to reject it. My argument is, these people do have strong reason to reject it, but it’s not a good reason. They just don’t want to believe it. So these witnesses alone among witnesses who have experiences with hefty material objects and so on, they become totally unreliable, not worth taking seriously at all.
So the pious fraud thing doesn’t work. Pious he was. But the fraudulent thing – that he had no plates, and knew that he had no plates – doesn’t stand up for those reasons and others.
So, you know, you have to get in a Simpsons reference. I think my children were educated more by the Simpsons than by school. So there you have the pious fraud, or another one.
But maybe he thought he had plates. Maybe he was nuts. Maybe in some sense he was a dissociative personality, he didn’t know what was real around him and so on. Well where is the evidence for that?
Joseph seems to be pretty much in touch with reality. But even so, again, you run into problems.
Suppose you say, all right, Joseph was hallucinating the plates. What about all the other people? Did he really manage to find the eight local yokels who would also hallucinate plates just in time? I mean it’s … I don’t know how you even pull this off. You’ve got the eight witnesses, you’ve got the three, you’ve got multiple other witnesses I’ve mentioned before. Some of my favorites are the people who spend time with the plates when Joseph isn’t around – Emma and his sister Katherine feeling the plates, you know, feeling the D-shaped rings that hold them together, ruffling along the edges, you know, and having the top plate scrape across the one below. Again, you can say all you want: Joseph thought he had plates, he was just mentally ill, but then you’ve got a whole bunch of other people and they seem to be densely concentrated around the area where Joseph lives – something in the water that they all imagine plates all at the same time. It’s remarkable. That’s almost a sign of divine intervention right there, that you have such luck to find so many crazy people so densely concentrated and available to him.
All right, so the alternative is: Joseph had plates. He didn’t have no plates, he had plates. And here are the possibilities as I see them:
Maybe he made them. Well, all right, yeah, he made them.
All right, now you have to come up with evidence that Joseph was able to make plates. What evidence is there that he was a metallurgist or a blacksmith or anything of the kind that he could make plates? Well, there is no evidence and so there was a time when people were arguing that it was actually Oliver Cowdery who had blacksmithing experience. Now if you’ve read Longfellow’s old poem about the blacksmith with broad and sinewy arms, you know, his mighty massive chest and all this sort of thing, that’s not Oliver Cowdery. He was a very slight man and he died very young of something like tuberculosis. He was not a powerful, muscled guy. And there is no evidence whatsoever that he was a blacksmith.
But trying to invoke him as a blacksmith is already an admission that Joseph Smith making the plates doesn’t really work; it doesn’t really hold up.
Now there are people who have still suggested it. Dan Vogel has suggested recently or relatively recently, and a lot of people have picked up on this. There’s no evidence for it. Where do you get that much gold? Do you realize how much gold that would be? We’re talking about thousands and thousands of dollars, maybe hundreds of thousands of dollars’ worth of gold in today’s prices. I don’t know what gold is today; I haven’t looked. But the plates are generally estimated at about 60 pounds. Even if they’re gold alloy, that’s a lot of gold. How many of you have that, you know?
And then it disappears, right? The family had this enormously valuable artifact and then they lost it or something? And they continued to live in poverty? It’s really rather strange.
Where did the Smiths get the money to get that much gold? There’s a line from Martin Harris that I’ve quoted before, I really enjoy it, where at one point before he’s an official witness Martin actually sits with the little wooden box that the plates were in on his lap and he was struck by how heavy it was, because it was heavier than a rock would have been or if it had been filled with dirt. You know how gold is unusually heavy, gold and lead both. And so Martin Harris’s remark afterward is that it was heavy enough that he knew it had to be either gold or lead and he knew that Joseph had not enough credit to buy so much lead. I don’t know if he meant that to be funny or not, but I think it’s funny. Because, well, if it’s not lead then obviously Joseph went out and got the cheaper stuff, gold.
But he has a material object of considerable heft and it’s difficult to explain that and it’s difficult to imagine that he made plates that would gull the yokels. You have to imagine this. Again, I go back to Jeff Lindsay, who, I think it’s Jeff Lindsay. Or maybe I’ve written on this, I can’t remember. Maybe I’m losing my mind. But the idea that you have this sort of specialty forge to the south of Palmyra where gold is coming in pound after pound after pound and Joseph and Oliver are there pounding out these plates and creating … remember there are other artifacts – the Liahona, the breastplate, the sword of Laban, all this sort of stuff. They’re absolutely first-rate metalworkers. And nobody in Palmyra notices the smoke belching out of this place and the daily deliveries of gold ore? A little strange. There were no secrets in a place like that and so it’s hard to imagine that.
So both the cynical fraud and the pious fraud sort of go out of the way there and the evidence that he made them is nil.
So what about, he received them from somebody else? Well, two possibilities: he received them from a contemporary or from a non-contemporary.
Now, years ago I had a fellow who was arguing for a thesis of an unknown conspiracy that had created the plates … the Book of Mormon, rather, not the plates; he didn’t think there were any plates. But this group had created the Book of Mormon at some time. I asked him if he could specify the time. No he couldn’t; it could have been any time within the previous three hundred years. Was there any particular place that they had done it? No he didn’t know that. I said, well, you know, of course you don’t because there’s no evidence for this. You’re just making this up. I called them the Illuminati. Because it’s the idea that there is a conspiracy out there that is so secret that there is no evidence for it at all. We don’t who they are. We don’t know when they did it. We don’t know why they did it. We don’t know how they did it, why they chose Joseph Smith, nothing. You just assume they’re out there. This is a case of being thesis-driven to the point of absurdity, that you need somebody else to do it because you know Joseph Smith didn’t do it, so some mythical person did it, or persons. How many? He didn’t know.
Anyway, it, to me, is on the level of Harvey the invisible rabbit. Although in Harvey it turned out there was one. I’m not expecting to find the Illuminati any time soon.
So there’s no evidence for contemporaries. We just don’t have any evidence for the plates coming from anybody else.
Maybe he received them from a non-contemporary.
Well I have a candidate.
What I would argue here, see, I’m just kind of going through this very rapidly, but I would argue that I put this last because I think every other avenue has been blocked off. You can’t do it. And so it leaves you with the one explanation that’s still out there.
Now I know for some people this is impossible too. But you may remember the line from Sherlock Holmes where he explained his method of deduction. Which was simply, you have to eliminate all the things that are impossible and whatever you are left with, however improbable, must be the explanation.
Now there are people out there saying, “no, no, no, you don’t get books from angels”, to quote Sterling McMurrin. He already had a predetermined dogmatic position, so it couldn’t be that way. Or, what’s his name, Morgan, Dale Morgan, who said, look, I can accept any explanation except the one the Church gives. Well, if that’s your position, then fine. This avenue is blocked off for you too. So you have to go with another. Like the Illuminati. That will do. Because that’s more probable if you’re absolutely, resolutely opposed to the idea that an angel could have delivered the book to Joseph Smith, that’s what you’re left with.
But for those who allow for what William James called “live options,” that this could be true, then it seems to me that ultimately, in a sense, people are forced, should be forced, to this conclusion.
Now, I realize there are enough ambiguities out there, I’m oversimplifying, that not everybody will get to this position. But it’s the way I get there. It’s why I can’t take those other avenues. I’ve said, I can’t not believe, because, to me, Joseph Smith’s story is easier to credit than the explanations that have been proposed to account alternatively for what he claimed.
And there are other things, I mean, I haven’t gotten into these things, but the plausibility of Lehi’s trip down the coast of Arabia and then over from Nahom to the Indian Ocean or the Arabian Sea. These things strike me as remarkable. And they shouldn’t be there if Joseph Smith were the shallow fraud that many claim him to be.
We pointed this out before – the existence of the Nahom altar piece in exactly the right place dating to exactly the right time, indicating that name NHM was there.
There you have the Indian Ocean sea coast where you’ve got a place that actually looks, by the standards of Arabia, believe me, Bountiful. How many of you have been to Saudi Arabia? It makes the area around Las Vegas look like a tropical rainforest.
I’ve always loved the weather reports when I’m in Europe, you know, they will do worldwide weather reports and they announce the weather today in the Arabian Peninsula is hot and dry. Yeah.
There are new world correlations that to me are extraordinarily interesting. I’m just going to zip through these.
You have the testimony of people like Emma Smith about her husband’s incapacity to dictate or to write even a good letter.
You have the evidence that was alluded to already in this conference. I’m not going to propose William Tyndale as the ghost author or the head of the committee or anything like that, but you have this Early Modern English, which to me is striking because it just seems to me so unlikely that Joseph could have made that up. Now maybe that is evidence for the Illuminati. Heck, if you don’t know who they were or where they were or when they were, maybe they were Early Modern English speakers.
But it would be the only evidence that I know of. But, again, it’s a very difficult thing to explain naturalistically about the Book of Mormon, that it has this very curious language in it which doesn’t seem to be Joseph Smith’s hick upstate New York language. It doesn’t seem to be necessarily the language of the King James Bible. It seems to have another source. Well, again, that points to a non-contemporary source for the Book of Mormon.
You have chiasmus. We’ve heard that discussed here already and of course it’s one of the more famous bits of evidence for the Book of Mormon textually.
I just want to say that … yeah, I have gone overtime anyway. I was trying not to. I just want to say, to me, I’ve been very, very simple here. We could discuss this for hours; we could discuss it for days. But to me the alternative explanations, which I think I’ve summarized here, they’re the only ones that are really on offer, they simply don’t work.
Now you can say, well, Joseph’s doesn’t work either, and, OK, if your dogmatic stance is there is no supernatural, there are no such books, God doesn’t deliver books to people, there is no God, well then, yeah, I understand you have a problem with this. But then I think you should have a problem with this. That’s partly what the challenge of the Book of Mormon is. That it presents you with a hard artifact.
If it were just Joseph Smith imagining that he saw God, or something like that, that would be one thing, but in the case of the Book of Mormon, you have a tangible object. In fact, in the early 19th Century you had a very heavy tangible object – the plates – which demands an explanation. And I don’t see any good alternative explanations on display anywhere. And so if someone wanted to ask me, what are the best arguments for the Book of Mormon, I would say one of them is simply that you guys can’t come up with a good counter-explanation.
You can’t explain it. You might be able to explain hypothetically, this or that aspect of it. But you can’t explain the whole thing, and parts of it are simply beyond your power to explain. So the standard response to the witnesses is to dismiss them. The standard response now is to say, well, they never actually saw anything. But they did and, you know, I’m repeating myself because it needs to be repeated. I’m hearing more and more often people who just say, well, they never actually claimed to touch any solid object. Oh yes they did. You’re just ignoring what they say.
Richard Bushman interestingly says in the case of early Mormonism it’s the critics not the Mormons who have to dispose of the early primary sources, the historical documents. You have to just get rid of them, because you have the witnesses saying, “Look, I held them.”
And then they say, well, they never actually claimed to touch them. Yes, Hyrum Smith says, I held them with these hands. Can he be any more clear?
Well, he didn’t really see them with his real eyes. He says, I saw them with these eyes. I don’t know what else he can say.
I remember a person on my mission who demanded to know whether there was any evidence for baptism for the dead in the Bible and so we, of course, opened up to 1 Corinthians 15:29, which he said wasn’t there. I said, “read it again.” “No, it’s not talking about baptism for the dead. It doesn’t even mention baptism for the dead.” We went over this for about five minutes. I was incredulous and finally I said, look, OK, I think were done. I mean if I can’t get you to … I mean, he read it aloud. And still wouldn’t say it mentioned anything about baptism for the dead. OK, fine, but when I run into people like that I don’t know what to do.
There are people who simply will not see. If you tell them about the witnesses, the witnesses say I saw with these eyes, I hefted with these hands, I saw them, I know what I’m talking about, then they say. well, they really didn’t claim to see them.
I have no idea what to do. Just move on to the next person.
But for a person who’s open-minded, it seems to me the challenge the Book of Mormon makes is remarkable. Because it hits you right between the eyes just as, in a sense, the resurrection of Christ does. The tomb is empty, right? That would be a whole other talk. The tomb was empty. Everybody admits the tomb was empty. The Jews in Matthew admit it. The Mishnah admits it. Everybody admits it. Counter-explanation is that the disciples stole the body then hatched this amazingly brilliant plot to found a new world religion and get themselves crucified.
But everyone admits that basic fact, that a few days after the crucifixion he wasn’t there. That’s irreducible. No one really disputes it, in antiquity or, for the most part, today, I don’t know anyone does. Even critics, even atheists, say, yeah, it was empty, probably because the body had been stolen or the body had been thrown to the dogs or something like that.
But there are certain irreducible facts, and one of the irreducible facts is the Book of Mormon is real, that it exists, this early 19th Century farm boy with very little education produced this amazing book, very complex book, which we’re still talking about today. And that there were people who claimed to see objects, and not just a few, a lot of them. It’s not just the 11 witnesses; it’s several more who claim to see and heft objects connected with it, objects which can have no other explanation, it seems to me, no plausible explanation other than they were delivered to Joseph in the way he said they were. And that’s really hard.
Then I close with a comment from a good friend of mine years ago who left the church, years ago. But he said to me at one point, well, Joseph didn’t even claim necessarily to translate when the plates were there. So what’s the purpose of the plates? And I said, well, they’re an absolutely indigestible lump in the throat of people like you. That’s what they’re there for. Because you can’t explain them away. And they should give you pause. You ought to think about this and what it implies. Whatever else you may think about Mormon theology or our stance on gay marriage or the families of gays or our views of patriarchy and so on, there were plates. Where did they come from?
And an image that I’ve cited many times before and I will do it again, and then close, you have the story of Madame du Deffand in France who is taken to the site of where Saint Denis or Saint Dionysius supposedly was beheaded. And then, he had insisted he didn’t want to be buried at that spot, so after his beheading he picked up his head and walked with it about a thousand meters away and put his head down where he wanted his shrine to be. And the person who’s telling her the story says, “Isn’t that a ridiculous story, can you believe he walked a thousand meters?” And her response is, “Well, I would think if you grant the first step, the distance is just details.”
Well, to me, it’s that Book of Mormon, those plates, the testimonies of the witnesses and so on, the presence of a tangible object right at the beginning, the rest is details, in a way. If you grant that, you’re stuck. Or you can refuse to grant it. But then you may still be stuck in a more serious and eternal way.
I bear you my testimony the Book of Mormon is true, that it really is what it claims to be and the presence of that physical object in much the same way that the physical resurrection of Christ does, establishes its truth, that God actually intervened in this world, did something measurable, tangible, demonstrable and visible. We’re not left to just guess or follow Saint Thomas’s five ways to try to demonstrate that God exists. He left his fingerprint on something. He made it very clear and that is really, really important, and because of that, all that is done here at FAIR and all the work we do in the Church, all the building of temples and so on, all of this is justified, because there is a God, he cares about us, he intervenes in this world.
I bear you my testimony that’s true in the name of Jesus Christ, amen.
Thank you. I have two questions. The first is:
Question: Have you read Ann Taves’ paper on Joseph Smith and the plates?
Answer: I read one that appeared in the Mormon … what’s it called … Mormon Studies Review, that one. I used to have a connection with that.
Q: If so, can you comment on her approach?
A: She wants to have a way where there were no plates, but Joseph Smith was neither mad nor a deceiver. I can’t imagine such a way. I can say the words. I can say that there’s a 365-degree circle too, but it doesn’t mean there is one. I can talk about a 270-degree triangle or a place in which two plus two means five, but it doesn’t make any sense. It’s literally gibberish, and so I don’t know what to make of that.
Q: What evidence would you give against Oliver Cowdery helping with the creation of the Book of Mormon? Some say he had a history with Ethan Smith as his pastor.
A: We could go into this at some great length. There has been some very good stuff done on this. There’s an entire volume published on Oliver Cowdery by BYU Studies some time back that looked at this question. I think there’s essentially no evidence of a connection between Oliver Cowdery and Ethan Smith and, you know, again, Oliver Cowdery, what motive would he have? He bears his testimony to his dying day, literally, when he’s on his deathbed, the Book of Mormon is true. I just don’t see a motive for it. There’s no evidence he was there helping out. He seems to have been as surprised as Joseph was by what’s coming forth. He knows nothing about it in advance. The evidence is that it really was dictated to him, that the original manuscript – we have the premier authority [Royal Skousen] here – the original manuscript, am I right in saying that it shows all the signs of having been dictated, with the aural errors? And then the publisher’s manuscript is copied with copyist’s errors in it. So everything fits the story that Oliver tells. There’s no evidence that he just writes it out, that he and Joseph make it up. He’s receiving dictation as he said he was. He bears his testimony to his dying day, including when he knows he’s dying. I see no evidence whatever that he’s being deceptive here. He spends time out of the Church, but he remains faithful to his testimony of the Book of Mormon, when it was not a very fashionable thing to be a Mormon. And yet he does. So I’d say, What evidence would I give against Oliver Cowdery helping with the creation of the Book of Mormon? I’d ask, What evidence do you have for it? I mean, come up with the evidence, we’ll see what it is, but I see no evidence for it at all.
Thank you very much.
 Jeff Lindsay, A Day in the Life of Joseph Smith, Translator Extraordinaire (2003), available at http://www.jefflindsay.com/oneday.shtml.
 Richard Lloyd Anderson, “Joseph Smith’s Prophecies of Martyrdom,” in A Sesquicentennial Look at Church History: Sidney B. Sperry Symposium, January 26, 1980 (Religious Instruction, BYU, 1980), 1–14.
 Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, The Village Blacksmith, available at http://www.hwlongfellow.org/poems_poem.php?pid=38.
 See Mormon Studies in the Academy: A Conversation between Ann Taves and Spencer Fluhman, in Mormon Studies Review 1 (2014), available at http://www.academia.edu/10736844/Mormon_Studies_Review_1_2014_