In 2013, Smoot published an article The Imperative for a Historical Book of Mormon, in which he lays out his case for the requirement for the Book of Mormon to be ancient and historical in order for the book to be true and Joseph Smith to be prophet.
Recently, in Oct 2018, Smoot reworked and republished the article. This week, Laura Hales published a podcast episode with Stephen, and a condensed version of his article was published for a popular audience at LDS Living, 5 Reasons It’s Important to Recognize the Book of Mormon as History, Not Just a Story.
First of all, I’d like to acknowledge the progress. Stephen, thank you for the more moderate tone recently compared to the tone of the original article. The original article was full of polarizing language like “conniving charlatan”, “creative liar”, “huckster”, “psychotic delusion”, “bamboozle”, “lunatic”, “sham”. I believe in the non-historical model of the Book of Mormon, but I love that book of scripture, I love Joseph Smith, and I would never use those words to describe him. Smoot is toning down that rhetoric now, and I appreciate that. Thank you.
In this article, I will go through Smoot’s main points and give some counter logic. I feel like I represent a large block of Mormon thought on this, however it is a very controversial subject and few are willing to publicly debate this. I wish there were a better person to represent this perspective than me, but I will give it a shot.
I wish to approach this with Stephen in the spirit of brotherly love. I appreciate Stephen’s work and his self deprecating humorous style. We are both active LDS who love the Book of Mormon and view ourselves as defenders of the restored Church.
Integrity of Joseph Smith
The main point Smoot makes in all of this is that the Book of Mormon very clearly states what it is and Joseph Smith clearly stated how it came about: Angel Moroni, ancient gold plates, etc. If we consider the Book of Mormon non-historical, then we must answer why the Book of Mormon and Joseph Smith stated otherwise. We must consider Joseph Smith a fraud and a liar or crazy and deluded. All or nothing. No middle ground. If we imply he could have been lying or deluded about these angelic visits and gold plates, then his integrity is gone, and we can’t trust him for anything. He can’t be a prophet.
- No, we don’t have to answer that. There are many gospel questions we simply don’t have the answer for. It’s OK to say while I don’t believe the Book of Mormon is historical, I believe Joseph was a prophet, and I neither think he was fraudulent nor deluded, and I have no idea how or why the Book of Mormon was produced the way it was. If critics tell us, “if you believe Jesus Christ was resurrected, you have to tell me scientifically how it happened”, we can say “no idea, I just believe.” If critics demand to know the logic of why we say God answers prayers and is active in our lives yet he’s allowing children to be abused and other atrocities in the world, it’s OK for us to not have a perfect answer for that. Stephen himself says “there are very strange passages in the Book of Mormon that we can’t fully explain or account for today”. We don’t need to explain everything.
- Unfortunately, Joseph Smith’s character is not impeccable. It is a very dangerous argument to make it an all or nothing proposition, because a critic can easily turn this around on any number of issues, such as: polygamy, Book of Abraham, Kinderhook Plates, Zelph, Adam-ondi-Ahman, Kirtland Banking scandal, etc. I don’t think we want to draw a line in the sand and say “Joseph was very clear that an angel with drawn sword commanded him to take many girls in marriage, if he was lying or deluded about that, then EVERYTHING else he revealed is suspect.” “Joseph was clear that he was translating an ancient record written about Abraham. If he was lying or deluded about that, then we can’t trust ANYTHING he did.” Why would God choose Joseph Smith to be the prophet if he did xyz? Critics constantly ask that question, and the perfectly fine answer from Mormon Apologists is “prophets aren’t perfect and you can’t answer for God why he does something a certain way or who he chooses to be prophet.”
- There are some alternatives or middle ground that I think are reasonable. Maybe Joseph had a powerful spiritual experience, revelation rushing through his brain, an interaction with God, he was responsible to bring this message to the world. What a huge responsibility. Maybe God didn’t micromanage the process other than to sear in his mind the message and the responsibility. Maybe in a way scholar Ann Taves originally theorized, God transformed plates and divinely sanctioned them in a process similar to the Brother of Jared’s 16 stones. Maybe Joseph made some mistakes along the way. Only One is perfect. Our scriptures are full of stories of prophets completely mucking it up. I’m not saying Joseph did, but it would be OK if he did. There are some middle ground possibilities.
Inspired Fiction Theory
Smoot calls the theory that active LDS believers who view the Book of Mormon as non-historical scripture the Inspired Fiction Theory. He compares the spiritual value of the Book of Mormon in this to the spiritual value of the Lord of the Rings, Alma is compared to Oliver Twist, etc. I would like to request that we not use that term or those comparisons. It’s not fair to the believers that take the book as holy scripture. We don’t call the Parable of the Lost Sheep inspired fiction. We don’t compare Job or Jonah to Oliver Twist. Jesus taught nearly exclusively using parables (which you could call fictional stories) to make his doctrinal points. We don’t make fun of Christ for this method.
Impossible for a Human
We sometimes say Joseph Smith could not have brought us the beauty and spiritual value of King Benjamin’s address or Alma’s brilliant treatise on faith in Alma 32 or Jacob’s discourse on the atonement in 2 Ne 9. These are too inspiring to come from a human. They must have come from God. But wait. King Benjamin, Alma, and Jacob would be humans also. Brilliant, beautiful, inspired, genius scripture that appears to be “above human capacity” comes from humans. All through the scriptures. We don’t believe God wrote the Bible. Or the Book of Mormon. So, even if it didn’t come from Joseph, it still came from a human. That doesn’t take away the importance or the validity of the teachings. And we can still call it from God, through a human, whether it be Joseph Smith or Alma.
Belief is not a Choice
I believe the Book of Mormon is a modern work. I’m not in this essay going to provide all the evidences for why I believe that. But I can’t unbelieve that. Stephen Smoot believes the Book of Mormon is ancient. He weighs the evidence and determines that belief at a subconscious level he can’t control. He can’t suddenly choose to believe the Book of Mormon is not an ancient record. If he did change his belief on that, it would happen at a subconscious level based on new evaluations of evidence. But it would be beyond his conscious control.
Religion is about faith, which is different than belief. Faith is “acting as if one knows”. Faith is a loyalty to God and the church you believe best represents God. It is taking Alma’s experiment to live the gospel and see if it works. Faith is showing up and fulfilling our priesthood obligations, serving each other, keeping our covenants, even when belief is wavering. We shouldn’t batter each other over beliefs. Joseph Smith said:
I did not like the old man being called up for erring in doctrine. It looks too much like the Methodist, and not like the Latter-day Saints. Methodists have creeds which a man must believe or be asked out of their church. I want the liberty of thinking and believing as I please. It feels so good not to be trammelled. It does not prove that a man is not a good man because he errs in doctrine.
Smoot says over and over it would be impossible for the Book of Mormon to be scripture if it is a pious fraud. A pious fraud is when someone uses deception or fraud to do something they think is good. “No honey your butt doesn’t look big in that dress” is a pious fraud. A doctor giving a sugar pill for someone with anxiety is a pious fraud. It’s not right, but you get why they do it. In a perfect world, there would be no pious fraud. As an evolved society, we understand the dangers of that and how things backfire and trust is damaged. But this was par for the course in past times. Our scriptures are chock full of pious fraud and Stephen Smoot would agree (I think).
Deuteronomy is considered by many scholars (even faithful scholars) to be a pious fraud in that it purports to be written by Moses when it was likely written centuries later. Yet Jesus quoted Deuteronomy and even attributed authorship to Moses. He did the same for Isaiah, when scholars believe the latter chapters of Isaiah were not written by him but ascribed to him in a pious fraud. Most faithful scholars believe the historical events in the Bible portrayed prior to the Kings period are highly embellished and only loosely based on actual historical events.
Our modern morals and values have changed a bit to consider this more of a dishonest and immoral act to write scripture this way than the ancients viewed it, but for most of human history, pseudepigrapha (writing scripture and falsely ascribing it to someone else) has been a common and accepted practice.
Metaphorical scripture less valuable than literal
Laura Hales asked Stephen the question. “A critique of yours of the inspired fiction model of the Book of Mormon is that as things become hypothetical, they lose their zing.” Stephen responded by telling of the story of the Gadianton Robbers, and how they caused the downfall of the Nephites.
If there were no real Gadianton robbers, if Mormon was not a historian and prophet, if his son Moroni who also emphasized this point was likewise not an actual historical person not if none of this happened outside the fertile imagination of Joseph Smith, then I don’t see how any of it could be relevant in addressing any concerns in our current society.
This argument just doesn’t ring true to me. Jesus exclusively used parable to provide very salient and relevant insights that are just as relevant 2,000 years later. Even the Book of Mormon includes metaphor as part of its teaching, ie allegory of the Olive Tree, Alma’s experiment on the word, etc. I don’t personally hold this view, but some people believe Joseph got the idea of the Gadianton Robbers from modern day Freemasonry, which used covenants and oaths of secrecy, and had a sinister reputation among some Protestants in Joseph’s day. If this were true, then the Gadianton robbers actually would be based on real life history. But it doesn’t matter either way. Some historical events teach lessons that are relevant today. Some don’t. Some metaphors teach lessons that are relevant today. Some don’t. What sets scripture apart is that we believe it is inspired, as a church we canonize it and believe God makes it holy, and we believe that as we study it, we learn insights into improving our spiritual lives and grow closer to God. It has nothing to do with whether the events portrayed in scripture happened exactly as recorded.
Gold Plates vs Book of Mormon
One thing I appreciate Smoot for doing and Laura for prompting him to do so in the podcast interview, was to acknowledge the difference between the text of the Book of Mormon and the proposed text on the gold plates. This is a critical point to understand that faithful BYU professors Nick Frederick and Thomas Wayment, among others, have been making recently. Dr. Wayment identified 400 Book of Mormon verses that contain direct textual influence of the King James Bible, both Old and New Testament. Not just phrases but ideas and logic. They argue that we should view the King James Bible as an antecedent for the Book of Mormon.
What this means is that, for example, when in the English Book of Mormon text, Jacob in 2 Ne 9 is using logic and phraseology on the resurrection of Christ from Corinthians that we should understand that it would be impossible for that exact logic and phraseology to exist on ancient gold plates. The text on the gold plates in this case could be considered a catalyst for the modern logic and phraseology that came to Joseph Smith through revelation from God. This is an extension of the Book of Mormon Expansion Theory first postulated by LDS scholar Blake Ostler in the 1980’s.
This is an important acknowledgement, because it allows for believers of BOM historicity to also allow for some–maybe much–of the Book of Mormon text to have come through the mind of Joseph Smith in a revelatory process similar to the view many LDS scholars are coming to on the Book of Abraham. So when we make arguments like “oh he was an uneducated farm boy, how could he come up with it”, that is an accurate and reasonable defense. However, it is an argument not to prove historicity but rather to prove inspiration/revelation outside of historicity, because we do now acknowledge some (or much) of it did indeed come through Joseph external of the gold plates text.
No Middle Ground — Elder Holland Quote
Smoot quoted Elder Holland.
One has to take a do or die stand regarding the restoration of the gospel of Jesus Christ and the divine origins of the Book of Mormon. Reason and righteousness require it. Joseph Smith must be accepted either as a prophet of God or else as a charlatan. But no one should tolerate any ludicrous or even laughable middle ground about the wonderful contours of a young boy’s imagination or his remarkable facility for turning a literary phrase. That is an unacceptable position to take. Morally, literarally, historically, or theologically.
As a faithful Latter-day Saint, I sustain Elder Holland as a prophet, seer, and revelator. Though everything he says is not considered official church doctrine, I take seriously everything he says. I have a few thoughts on this quote.
- He makes no mention of historicity. I know it’s implied, but he doesn’t specifically state it. One can believe the Book of Mormon is inspired scripture, that Joseph was a prophet, that the BOM has divine origins, that it DOES NOT come as a contour of the imagination of a young boy’s mind, and firmly take a do or die stand regarding the gospel of Jesus Christ, while not believing it is historical.
- Elder Holland stated something similar regarding evolution and Adam and Eve and death before the fall. Which I assume Smoot probably disagrees with–or has a nuance for. LDS apostles speak very specifically on a number of issues, sometimes in contradiction with each other or past church leaders. We should take them seriously, and if what they say is difficult, we should struggle with what we need to understand, but we know that apostles are not infallible.
- This quote came 30 years ago, before new information that faithful LDS scholars now believe that the intertextuality of the Book of Mormon and the King James Bible is so strong that at a minimum some portions of the Book of Mormon must have its roots in modern times. So, even if an LDS scholar Apologist accepts historicity, most likely that person (like Smoot) acknowledges some content that must have originated through Joseph Smith. We no longer should eliminate Joseph Smith’s contribution to the text, even if it is deemed minor and inspired by God.
Though I spend a lot of time talking about my paradigm of the Book of Mormon and the restoration, I acknowledge to some degree it is an inferior position. It’s unorthodox compared to what is believed and taught by mainstream LDS members and leaders. Faith would come a bit easier for me if I believed in the Book of Mormon the same way I did 20 years ago. It’s easier to gain new new converts who believe the Book of Mormon literally than metaphorically. The impact of the story of the visit of the resurrected Savior to the Nephites might be more meaningful reading it as actual history than reading it as metaphor, having faith it could have happened in the same way. Maybe. I say maybe, because in some ways my faith right now exceeds the faith I had when I believed in the literal paradigm. Like Nephi and Laman and Lemuel taught us, the impact of miracles and actual events last short term, while the impact of the Holy Ghost lasts long term.
I don’t market my material intentionally to mainstream, literal believing Mormons to get them to believe metaphorically. I only do this for others who have lost belief in the literal paradigm and are looking for a different paradigm to hang onto what they believe is beautiful and true of the core message of the restored Church.
I don’t ask for equal standing from believers like Stephen Smoot. But I do ask for acceptance and a valid seat at the table.
Ultimately, I view Stephen Smoot and I on the same team. We could be sitting in the pew together on Sunday. We could be on a Friday night double date to the temple with our wives. If he could find someone to marry. We could be side by side with shovel in hands on an Elder’s quorum service project. We both feel deeply about our testimony of the restored Church. We both love the Book of Mormon and testify that it is the inspired word of God. We both get tweaked by Exmormon Reddit and defend the Church from critics. I feel this attack on the non-historical but faithful model of the BOM is an unnecessary diversion from the good work Smoot could be doing building up the kingdom of God using his talent as a scholar and persuasiveness as an LDS Apologist. My request for Smoot and others with the same perspective is to enlarge the tent of what you view as acceptable Mormon belief, avoid internal strife and boundary maintenance with other believers, and if you desire to defend the Church then to focus on defending the Church against critics who truly wish to harm the Church.
Smoot says something very important to those who are struggling with Book of Mormon historicity. He acknowledges that it’s difficult for some to believe but encourages them to work, struggle, research, be open to changing paradigms but don’t abandon historicity of the Book of Mormon. I completely agree one should work, struggle, research, and be open to changing paradigms in order to preserve testimony of the gospel of Jesus Christ and the restored Church. But part of that changing paradigm for many is to move to a non-historical model of the Book of Mormon.
I am an active faithful LDS who believes the Book of Mormon is not historical. I believe Joseph Smith was a prophet. I do not think he was lying, conniving huckster. I’m offended by that. I believe he received revelation similar to other ancient and modern prophets to bring forth the Book of Mormon as the inspired Word of God. It has transformed my life and continues to turn my heart back to my Savior, Jesus Christ.